The Book of Margery Kempe
translated by John Skinner
1999 • 343 pages • Book-of-the-Month Club
I am as frankly surprised as you are that my reading has taken on a religious bent these past two weeks. I threw The Girl of Fire and Thorns into my bag yesterday morning, and only remembered once I started it that I had wanted to read it because it was the rare fantasy novel that actively deals with faith. (Verdict so far: yes, good, continue.) I’ve suddenly become dissatisfied with everything I currently have out of the library, so we’ll see if this trend keeps up when I refresh my selections. (I imagine it won’t, because I have Kieron Gillen’s Darth Vader on hold and cannot wait to read it.)
But I originally wanted to read The Book of Margery Kempe because it’s often considered the first autobiography written in English (and by a woman!). Although, of course, autobiography wasn’t really a genre in the fifteenth century—it’s more accurately an autohagiography. Still, it offers particular insight into the life of a middle-class laywoman in medieval England, as Kempe experienced her call to Christ after the birth of her first child.
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
by Caitlin Doughty
2014 • 272 pages • W. W. Norton & Company
My entire life, I’ve had what I called “death scares”—existential panic attacks brought on by obsessively thinking about death. (Much like being queer, being what I believe is technically referred to as hellaciously anxious was blindingly obvious to everyone but me throughout my childhood.) I have a very specific memory of having one at the age of twelve, standing in the doorway of my childhood bedroom, staring out into the dark hallway, frozen in fear by the idea that it could all end. As an adult who enjoys her life, they’ve slowed down to maybe two a year (I suspect they’re much more about “WHAT IF I’M WASTING MY LIFE?!” rather than fearing the biological process of death), more if I read too many Cracked articles about unsolved murders.
(By the by, have you ever heard of the 1920s Hinterkaifeck murders? The murderer was probably living in their attic before the murders and definitely living in their house after the murders. Look, if I can’t sleep, you can’t sleep.)
When my anxiety is not in the driver’s seat, though, I have a more holistic approach towards death; after all, contemplating the ramifications of actually living forever renders me near catatonic. Death gives life meaning, to be trite (and quote Hannibal Lecter, that great humanitarian). My mother and I have had long conversations, her enthroned on the structurally compromised orange leather couch that dominates her living room and me lolling on the floor with the dog, about how it’s nothing to be scared of, because it’s a natural part of life and there’s nothing we can do about it. Fear isn’t useful when it comes to death.
Under the Banner of Heaven
by John Krakauer
2013 • 372 pages • Doubleday
To celebrate the Fourth of July this year, my local Alamo Drafthouse Cinema screened two films—Top Gun, which we’ve already been over, and a Quote-Along for Team America: World Police. Specifically, a Quote-Along for Team America: World Police’s tenth anniversary. I’ve never seen that movie, but watching the brief advertisement for the upcoming Quote-Along, I was instantly taken back to the political climate of the United States in the early aughts.
While the nostalgia wheel has turned to the nineties (which explains the amount of Sailor Moon and Xena: Warrior Princess I’ve been consuming) per its traditional twenty year delay, the aughts are finally far enough behind us to take a certain narrative shape. There’s even a new VH1 series, I Love the 2000s, to prove it. This is nothing new for history and nostalgia, but it is something new for me.
The Times of the Eighties edited by William Grimes
In 2005, MTV ran a program, undoubtedly influenced by the success of That 70s Show, called The 70s House. It was a reality competition where twelve contestants parted with the modern world, lived in a simulcrum of the seventies 24/7, and competed to see who could be “the most 70s”. I never saw it, but when I heard about it, as a tender, awful-haired fourteen-year-old, I daydreamed about the possibility of a The 80s House, which I would undoubtedly dominate. Such a show never surfaced, of course, but something like The Times of the Eighties would have been very useful to prep for my audition. When I saw it on NetGalley, I couldn’t hit the request button fast enough.
Letters from Egypt by Lady Lucie Duff-Gordon
So The Mistress of Nothing was a huge disappointment, but it did have one saving grace: introducing me to Lady Lucie Duff-Gordon. As I said in that post, “ [a] middle-aged woman moving to Luxor, Egypt, in the 1860s, traipsing around town in androgynous kit, holding salons, and generally being awesome?” Sign me up. I added it to my Kindle app as soon as I finished, but it’s taken me forever to get through Letters from Egypt, from reasons ranging from the stomach flu from hell (it killed a laptop!) to getting distracted during designated digital book reading time (when I blow-dry my hair). It feels like this is always the way with me and books in the public domain, even if it’s something I love. I gotta fix that.
Straight by Hanne Blank
The reason I picked up this book is very simple: in reading an interview with Hanne Blank (which is, by the way, one of the coolest names ever), she casually mentioned the fact that, despite scientists trying to prove the existence of a “gay” gene, there’s no such thing as a “straight” gene. Afterwards, I realized the implications this had for certain scientists’ bias, but as I read it, I was absolutely stunned by both this idea and the fact that somewhere, lurking deep within even a queer woman like me, the idea that to be queer was to be markedly different had soaked in. And that’s exactly the sort of thing Blank does in Straight; calm and logical destabilization.
The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti
I’ve been reading Feministing ever since I first ventured onto the Internet—okay, perhaps not at the exact age of nine, when I unleashed myself upon the Internet (and before the website even existed), but in late middle school and high school? Most definitely. Founder Jessica Valenti started the website in 2004 to create a space for young feminists and stepped away in 2011 because she wanted it to remain so. Part of Valenti’s activism consists of the books she writes, which include The Purity Myth. I’d been meaning to read it, but the production of a documentary based on the book made me actually pick it up.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
It took forever to read this book, because I had to read two different copies of it. Being both confident and an idiot, I picked up The Hero with a Thousand Faces during finals (as well as two other books that went straight back to the library unread). I got about a third of the way through before the end of the semester, neglected to copy down marked passages to my commonplace book, and returned it. I mention the commonplace book because that’s the reason I had to start over from the beginning, rather than having it be an open-ended loose end hanging over my head for two weeks. I even hit up the library before I even got to my house to see if they had a copy. It’s been a trial, but I now finally have the work of comparative mythology under my belt.
Non-Judeo-Christian forms of spirituality in America run the risk of being misinterpreted and commodified; I know I got weirded out in my yoga class when our teacher waxed philosophically and vaguely about Hinduism, as it reminded me that a class full of non-Hindu (or Buddhist) women taught by a non-Hindu woman were co-opting a Hindu and Buddhist meditation technique. Awkward. This dilemma fascinates me, when I’m not caught in the middle of it. To this end, today’s two books focus on commodification and representations of non-Judeo-Christian forms of spirituality in the US.
What is the first book you remember reading? What about the first that made you really love reading?
I actually wrote a Sunday Salon on this very topic last year! The first book I remember reading and the first book that made me really love reading are one and the same–The Illustrated Book of Myths: Tales & Legends of the World, as retold by Neil Philip and illustrated by Nilesh Mistry. It collected a good variety of myths from around the whole, separated out by theme–for instance, all the creation myths were at the beginning. It’s where my love for Egyptian mythology was born. I read and reread it all the time–while it is age appropriate for wee lasses, it wasn’t dumbed down by any means. The illustrations are ridiculously gorgeous and have stuck with me to this very day. Luckily, I still have it, and I look forward to sharing it with my brother’s children when the time comes.