26 April 2016

Sex With Shakespeare: Here's Much to do With Pain, but More With Love by Jillian Keenan

Summary from Goodreads:
A provocative, moving, kinky, and often absurdly funny memoir about Shakespeare, love, obsession, and spanking

When it came to understanding love, a teenage Jillian Keenan had nothing to guide her—until a production of The Tempest sent Shakespeare’s language flowing through her blood for the first time. In Sex with Shakespeare, she tells the story of how the Bard’s plays helped her embrace her unusual sexual identity and find a love story of her own.

Four hundred years after Shakespeare’s death, Keenan’s smart and passionate memoir brings new life to his work. With fourteen of his plays as a springboard, she explores the many facets of love and sexuality—from desire and communication to fetish and fantasy. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Keenan unmasks Helena as a sexual masochist—like Jillian herself. In Macbeth, she examines criminalized sexual identities and the dark side of “privacy.” The Taming of the Shrew goes inside the secret world of bondage, domination, and sadomasochism, while King Lear exposes the ill-fated king as a possible sexual predator. Moving through the canon, Keenan makes it abundantly clear that literature is a conversation. In Sex with Shakespeare, words are love.

As Keenan wanders the world in search of connection, from desert dictatorships to urban islands to disputed territories, Shakespeare goes with her —and provokes complex, surprising, and wildly important conversations about sexuality, consent, and the secrets that simmer beneath our surfaces.

So one of my little weird obsessions is that I love Shakespeare.  I watched Branagh's Henry V when I was about 10 or 11 and I was hooked.  The only literature course I took in undergrad was Shakespeare from Dr. Miriam Gilbert, which was awesome (except for that whole "act in a scene" bit, which I was not enthused about, but I did Ophelia so I could wear my bathrobe and hand out flowers like a crazy hippie) [I only needed one class because I brought credits from high school].  So would I want a memoir by a Shakespeare scholar that specifically examines non-vanilla references in Shakespeare?  Um, HELL yes.

Keenan opens the book when she's studying abroad in Oman.  She's been running from herself - she doesn't quite understand her sexual fetish or understand how it works and so has retreated to a place that she feels is deliberately repressive.  So she can hide.

And then she describes a vision in the desert where Demetrius and Helena from A Midsummer Night's Dream have their argument from Act II, Scene 1 in front of her:

I love thee not, therefore pursue me not.
Where is Lysander and fair Hermia?
The one I'll slay, the other slayeth me.
Thou told'st me they were stolen unto this wood;
And here am I, and wode within this wood,
Because I cannot meet my Hermia.
Hence, get thee gone, and follow me no more.

You draw me, you hard-hearted adamant;
But yet you draw not iron, for my heart
Is true as steel: leave you your power to draw,
And I shall have no power to follow you.

Do I entice you? do I speak you fair?
Or, rather, do I not in plainest truth
Tell you, I do not, nor I cannot love you?

And even for that do I love you the more.
I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius,
The more you beat me, I will fawn on you:
Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me,
Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave,
Unworthy as I am, to follow you.
What worser place can I beg in your love,--
And yet a place of high respect with me,--
Than to be used as you use your dog?

Tempt not too much the hatred of my spirit;
For I am sick when I do look on thee.

And I am sick when I look not on you.

You do impeach your modesty too much,
To leave the city and commit yourself
Into the hands of one that loves you not;
To trust the opportunity of night
And the ill counsel of a desert place
With the rich worth of your virginity.

Your virtue is my privilege: for that
It is not night when I do see your face,
Therefore I think I am not in the night;
Nor doth this wood lack worlds of company,
For you in my respect are all the world:
Then how can it be said I am alone,
When all the world is here to look on me?

I'll run from thee and hide me in the brakes,
And leave thee to the mercy of wild beasts.

The wildest hath not such a heart as you.
Run when you will, the story shall be changed:
Apollo flies, and Daphne holds the chase;
The dove pursues the griffin; the mild hind
Makes speed to catch the tiger; bootless speed,
When cowardice pursues and valour flies.

I will not stay thy questions; let me go:
Or, if thou follow me, do not believe
But I shall do thee mischief in the wood.

Ay, in the temple, in the town, the field,
You do me mischief. Fie, Demetrius!
Your wrongs do set a scandal on my sex:
We cannot fight for love, as men may do;
We should be wood and were not made to woo.


I'll follow thee and make a heaven of hell,
To die upon the hand I love so well.

It's this conversation that piques Keenan's interest in re-examining Shakespeare - given the specific language in this scene, what if Demetrius and Helena have a S/M or S/d relationship of a sort?  The idea turns a problematic scene where a woman is often interpreted as a nutjob into one of power dynamics where Helena comes from a place of strength (for Keenan's specific textual reasoning, you'll need to read the book).  Now, before you get all pearl-clutch-ey about Shakespeare and sexual dynamics and how BDSM is a modern thing, there are actually Elizabethan references to fetishes and S/M-like practices (again, you'll need to read the book to get the references).  [And besides, as much as the Victorians tried to scrub up Shakespeare into squeaky-clean entertainment, he is all about sex and it's good and bad manifestations because people.  See also: the Sonnets.]  From here Keenan jumps back to show us her introduction to Shakespeare and her realization that she has a spanking fetish.  Each chapter is aligned with a play - The Tempest, Taming of the Shrew, Macbeth, The Winter's Tale, Cymbeline (which is only of the only Shakespeare plays I haven't seen or read) and so on - that has textual relevancy to the chapter subject. I loved the chapter on Twelfth Night where she discusses interviews with young women at the university in Oman using the Shakespeare plays they are studying as a way to discuss love, sex, and marriage.

This book is so readable and so interesting.  The chapters describing Keenan's search to find the right words to describe her specific fetish to her fiancé, and perhaps also to herself, just had me hoping she would get her own love story. Underlying a lot of the anxiety is the utter lack of resources for young people who have non-normative/non-vanilla desires; there is a great need for safe spaces to ask questions and explore without judgement. Keenan was able to use her love for Shakespeare and her work as a Shakespeare scholar to find inspiration and guidance within the words of Shakespeare's characters.

Now, I was hoping for a wee bit more Shakespeare criticism, but that's just me.  Had this been a book where Keenan took each play and broke down all the non-hetero/vanilla codes I would have been the happiest of happy little text nerds. But this is first and foremost a memoir. Keenan has story to tell and she tells it very well.  Even if the "vision scenes" with the play characters seem a bit odd at first, they do go quite a way toward explaining a concept or feeling.  (PS: Jillian, if you ever write that textual analysis I will read the crap out of it.)

Sex With Shakespeare is out today, April 26, wherever books are sold in the US.

Dear FTC: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher.

25 April 2016

Smash Your Stack! A #readyourowndamnbooks challenge!

Holla, holla, holla, fellow book-loving readers.

Do you acquire books faster than you can read them?
Is your e-reader full to bursting with unread goodness?
Are library sales and online deals your kryptonite?
Is your to-be-read pile ready to morph into Mt. TBR?

Well, Andi and I have a challenge for you.

During the month of May, we are challenging readers to Smash Your Stack!  This reading challenge is super, duper simple.

1.  Determine what percentage of your reading in May will come from books you already own before May starts in some format.  For example, try for 50% of your books read to be ones you already own if you have a boatload of advances/reviews to finish.  Or go really hardcore and say that 100% of books you read in May and read like 20 off your stack or list.  You do you.  Any format, any genre.
2.  Make a blog or social media post about your goal percentage.
3.  Post the URL using the Mr. Linky Andi has set up.  (There might be a prize or two we'll draw for at the end of May....*grin*)
4.  Read like the wind, Bullseye!
5.  Keep track of your titles and whether you owned the book prior to May so you can make an end-of-challenge post.

And that's it!!  Get those stacks ready for May 1!  Andi and I will be joining you and Smashing Our Stacks, too.

21 April 2016

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer

Summary from Goodreads:
To save precious centuries-old Arabic texts from Al Qaeda, a band of librarians in Timbuktu pulls off a brazen heist worthy of Ocean’s Eleven.

In the 1980s, a young adventurer and collector for a government library, Abdel Kader Haidara, journeyed across the Sahara Desert and along the Niger River, tracking down and salvaging tens of thousands of ancient Islamic and secular manuscripts that had fallen into obscurity. The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu tells the incredible story of how Haidara, a mild-mannered archivist and historian from the legendary city of Timbuktu, later became one of the world’s greatest and most brazen smugglers.

In 2012, thousands of Al Qaeda militants from northwest Africa seized control of most of Mali, including Timbuktu. They imposed Sharia law, chopped off the hands of accused thieves, stoned to death unmarried couples, and threatened to destroy the great manuscripts. As the militants tightened their control over Timbuktu, Haidara organized a dangerous operation to sneak all 350,000 volumes out of the city to the safety of southern Mali.

Over the past twenty years, journalist Joshua Hammer visited Timbuktu numerous times and is uniquely qualified to tell the story of Haidara’s heroic and ultimately successful effort to outwit Al Qaeda and preserve Mali’s—and the world’s—literary patrimony. Hammer explores the city’s manuscript heritage and offers never-before-reported details about the militants’ march into northwest Africa. But above all, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is an inspiring account of the victory of art and literature over extremism.

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is a book that arrived at precisely the right time.  After watching footage of Palmyra being destroyed or reading about the looting of museums during the Iraq invasion, we needed a book about someone saving their history.  Joshua Hammer has delivered a riveting story about the massive undertaking to save more than 350,000 manuscripts in Mali spearheaded by one man: Abdel Kader Haidara.  But the eventual evacuation of the manuscripts from Al Qaeda-held Timbuktu comes late in the story - to get there we have to understand the regions history and that of Haidara himself.

Wrapped up in the story of Haidara and his race to save the manuscripts, first from the depredations of time and later from Islamic fundamentalists during the invasion of Timbuktu, is the history of the intellectual life and literary traditions of the Sahel region in Africa (and also a bit of the musical tradition, too). It is so amazing, not just in the description of the beauty of the manuscripts as physical objects but also in how readers annotated the works over hundreds of years (the little bits about marginalia are fascinating) and how families kept private libraries of thousands of works together for centuries.  Henry Louis Gates's visit to Timbuktu for his documentary series was briefly highlighted to really hammer home the point that, contrary to what we're taught in school, many parts of Africa had rich literature cultures. I thought Hammer also gave an excellent overview of the development of political and religious unrest in Western/Saharan Africa (which has received far less attention in the media than more high-profile regions) - it can't be separated from the story of the manuscripts and did help in understanding why certain events happened as they did.

Ignore the "heist worthy of Ocean's Eleven" hyperbole.  Haidara and his colleagues and family members weren't out to obtain millions of dollars for personal gain.  They protected their cultural history at the potential cost of their very lives.  Hair-raising stakes have no need of Hollywood glamour.

Dear FTC: I read a DRC of this book via Edelweiss.

18 April 2016

Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld (The Austen Project)

Summary from Goodreads:
From the “wickedly entertaining” (USA Today) Curtis Sittenfeld, New York Times bestselling author of Prep and American Wife, comes a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. A bold literary experiment, Eligible is a brilliant, playful, and delicious saga for the twenty-first century.

This version of the Bennet family—and Mr. Darcy—is one that you have and haven’t met before: Liz is a magazine writer in her late thirties who, like her yoga instructor older sister, Jane, lives in New York City. When their father has a health scare, they return to their childhood home in Cincinnati to help—and discover that the sprawling Tudor they grew up in is crumbling and the family is in disarray.

Youngest sisters Kitty and Lydia are too busy with their CrossFit workouts and Paleo diets to get jobs. Mary, the middle sister, is earning her third online master’s degree and barely leaves her room, except for those mysterious Tuesday-night outings she won’t discuss. And Mrs. Bennet has one thing on her mind: how to marry off her daughters, especially as Jane’s fortieth birthday fast approaches.

Enter Chip Bingley, a handsome new-in-town doctor who recently appeared on the juggernaut reality TV dating show Eligible. At a Fourth of July barbecue, Chip takes an immediate interest in Jane, but Chip’s friend neurosurgeon Fitzwilliam Darcy reveals himself to Liz to be much less charming. . . .

And yet, first impressions can be deceiving.

Wonderfully tender and hilariously funny, Eligible both honors and updates Austen’s beloved tale. Tackling gender, class, courtship, and family, Sittenfeld reaffirms herself as one of the most dazzling authors writing today.

I had been having trouble with The Austen Project - current bestselling authors retelling/modernizing Jane Austen's novels.  I started with high hopes for Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid (reviewed briefly on Goodreads) and really got the "mehs" with Sense & Sensibility by Johanna Trollope (review).  I didn't even try Emma by Alexander McCall Smith.  They all seemed too pat, too tightly bound to their originals.  So what made me change my mind and read Curtis Sittenfield's retelling of Pride and Prejudice (which is my favorite novel)?

She changed the title.  To Eligible.  Just that one change made me hope that she would allow her characters to function in a twenty-first century setting rather than cram them into a nineteenth-century plot.

And this worked.  Eligible was my first read of 2016 and I enjoyed it immensely.  Sittenfeld chose to make Jane and Lizzy professional women in their late thirties - Jane is a yoga instructor, making the choice to have a baby as a single woman, and Liz is a successful journalist with a long-term (read: dead-end) affair with one Wickham (who won't leave his wife, for various and sundry weaselly reasons).  When Mr. Bennet has a heart attack, the two come home for a long visit and find that Mrs. Bennet is a border-line hoarder and compulsive shopper, the family income is dwindling, the house is falling apart, and their three younger sisters are freeloading (all of whom have college degrees).  So while the two lone responsible adults try to get the house repaired, their siblings gainfully employed, and keep their parents in good health they are trotted out to meet the two new doctors in town.  Enter, ER doctor Chip Bingley (recently the weepy bachelor on a shrill reality dating TV show called "Eligible" who failed to find a mate) and haughty-as-can-be neurosurgeon Fitzwilliam Darcy, who makes the mistake of slagging off Liz's hometown of Cincinnati.

This is genius.  Sittenfeld primed her characters with the traits and skeleton plot of Austen's Pride and Prejudice and then just let them go to find a way to a happy ending.  If a plot element from the original Regency era no longer fits in the twenty-first century, it's either changed or avoided.  For instance, the "ruination" of a young woman if she elopes.  It wouldn't have worked in this setting.  So Sittenfeld did something different for that point in the plot.  She even jettisons a prominent character from the original when he has outlived his usefulness.  The only bit that felt clunky was an Epilogue, that changes point-of-view to a different character to explain a few things. It was unnecessary.  We could have done without, leaving that character more mysterious, or maybe had that character talk to Liz (who provides most of the perspective throughout the novel, there are no other obvious shifts to another character's limited perspective).

I really enjoyed how Sittenfeld stepped out and did a real modernization of Pride and Prejudice. Twenty-first century people swear, over-expose themselves, and have sex.  So do these characters, including hate sex (I loved how that came about because it was so unexpected).  They are racists and bigots and utter garbage fires on occasion.  I loved how this version of Lizzy screws up, makes assumptions and mistakes that are really uncomfortable to read, and then apologizes and tries to do better.  The transition of Mr. Bingley from rich young man with an income to celebrity who failed to find a wife on national (international?) television was a great way to shift the setting from England's landed gentry to middle-class Americans (Mrs. Bennet only thinks she's upper class).  It's different and refreshing in the way that Bridget Jones's Diary and The Lizzy Bennet Diaries are refreshing while still telling the same story.

Eligible will be out tomorrow, April 19, in the US.

Dear FTC: I read a DRC of this novel via Edelweiss.

07 April 2016

I wrote a thing! The Nest is Bleak House in Disguise

I wrote 1700 words about how Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney's debut novel The Nest is Dickens's Bleak House in disguise.  And Book Riot published it - here.  Eeep.

(PS: The Nest was a great read)

02 April 2016

Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue

Summary from Goodreads:
A daring, kaleidoscopic novel about the clash of empires and ideas in the sixteenth century that continue to reverberate throughout modernity—a story unlike anything you’ve ever read before.

Sudden Death begins with a brutal tennis match that could decide the fate of the world. The bawdy Italian painter Caravaggio and the loutish Spanish poet Quevedo battle it out before a crowd that includes Galileo, Mary Magdalene, and a generation of popes who would throw Europe into the flames. In England, Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII behead Anne Boleyn, and her crafty executioner transforms her legendary locks into the most sought-after tennis balls of the time. Across the ocean in Mexico, the last Aztec emperors play their own games, as conquistador Hernán Cortés and his Mayan translator and lover, La Malinche, scheme and conquer, fight and f**k, not knowing that their domestic comedy will change the world. And in a remote Mexican colony a bishop reads Thomas More’s Utopia and thinks that instead of a parody, it’s a manual.

In this mind-bending, prismatic novel, worlds collide, time coils, traditions break down. There are assassinations and executions, hallucinogenic mushrooms, utopias, carnal liaisons and papal dramas, artistic and religious revolutions, love stories and war stories. A dazzlingly original voice and a postmodern visionary, Álvaro Enrigue tells a grand adventure of the dawn of the modern era in this short, powerful punch of a novel. Game, set, match.

Are you looking for a meta-fictional fever dream that includes a Renaissance game of tennis, Anne Boleyn's hair, painting, and the devastation wreaked upon Mexico by Hernán Cortés?

You want Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue.

There is so much packed into this short novel.  There are emails between the author and his editor about the book, historical notes about tennis, Catholic church history, art patronage, genocide perpetrated against the native cultures of Central America, and descriptions of beautiful jewel-like feather-craft.  All this takes place between the games of a tennis match between a painter (Caravaggio) and a poet (Quevedo) which serves as a duel.  It's mind-boggling.

The writing - and here I have to shout-out Natasha Wimmer - is so vivid.  The tennis scenes where the spectators are described and the descriptions of the art of the period are breathtaking.  An absolute pleasure to read.

Dear FTC: I started reading a DRC of this book then I bought a copy.