BAD GIRLS THROUGHOUT HISTORY by Ann Shen

If I imagine my book tastes as a pie chart, “badass historical women” would be a pretty big slice (a fact that probably won’t come as a surprise to many regular readers). From the time I was a child devouring the Royal Diaries series to the undergraduate thesis I wrote on Joan of Arc, I have always been captivated by the women who have made their mark on our cultural landscape, often by defying norms and expectations placed upon them. So when I heard about this book, I knew it would be something I would like, and I was right. Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World by Ann Shen provides great introductions to some of history’s most notable rule-breakers, but of course, the fantastic illustrations that accompany the essays make the book a complete delight to look at, and the combination of these elements made for a perfect way to pass an afternoon on a porch.

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Bad Girls Throughout History takes the reader, well, throughout history, spanning centuries and cultures to highlight 100 women who, in myriad ways, left an impact on their society that resounds into our own. Shen is upfront in her introduction to the book that her list is certainly not exhaustive, but I found it to be an interesting variety. Some of the women were pioneers of science and exploration; others were groundbreaking artists. Still others were fearsome pirates and ruthless outlaws. Shen has not created a list of perfect role models, and the women found within these pages would not fit seamlessly into a Disney Princess lineup. I liked that the book included figures a little too intense for me to have learned about in school; I even read about some women that I had never heard about before. The list sometimes skews a little heavily towards entertainers, but I didn’t think this was a problem. The choices were always interesting and surprising with each turn of the page, and I really enjoyed getting a glimpse into the lives of women that I’m now excited to learn even more about (luckily, Shen included a detailed bibliography in the back of the book to encourage exactly that).

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I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the first thing that grabbed my attention about this book was the beautiful illustrations, and they are definitely as much of a draw as the essays. Shen’s art style is distinctive and pleasing, and this is a perfect book to flip through and linger over. It’s both comforting and a little sobering to thumb through the pages, to see how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go. It didn’t make me want to become a pirate, but it did make me want to work to defy expectations in my own life.

SEVEN BRIEF LESSONS ON PHYSICS by Carlo Rovelli

Between my year working at a used bookstore (with an employee discount, at that) and the bargains to be found on my eReader, I’ve noticed that the way I think about the book as a physical object has changed. I’ve devoured paperbacks with cracked spines and coffee-stained pages along with free ebook versions of classic tomes that would be a hindrance to carry around with me otherwise, and both of these types of books have valued places in my reading life. But I’m come to develop a deeper appreciation for the way a book feels in my hand, the way the cover art complements the prose inside, the way the story is bound and decorated into an art piece. The books that I buy new copies of are books that I know I’ll want to hold in my hands many times over, books that I can picture accompanying me from bookshelf to bookshelf like an heirloom. So when I took my first trip to the newly opened Gramercy Books in Bexley (review of that lovely store to come), I was looking for a new treasure. Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli proved to be the perfect answer.

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Seven Brief Lessons on Physics is exactly that: in seven short essays, Rovelli takes the reader through a foundational understanding of how our universe operates, from the scale of our smallest components to the complexity of the vast cosmos. Don’t be fooled by the brevity, though–the lessons are densely packed and almost startlingly informative–I often felt a little knocked over upon finishing a passage, and found myself wanting to reread the paragraphs to make sure I had absorbed everything within.

I don’t want to make it sound like the text was incomprehensible–just the opposite. While Rovelli doesn’t hold back on the science, he is able to convey his knowledge in a clear, even poetic way. It seems that his effort is not to obfuscate or show off, but to illuminate the inherent beauty he sees in the principles he’s illustrating. His prose is deft and adroit, and through it, Rovelli is able to bring the complex, often paradoxical concepts of physics into motion like the gears of a clock. The result is lovely, and almost meditative. I found that as I was reading, I felt grounded into the present moment and my surroundings in a way that I usually really struggle with. Reading about how intricately and perfectly the physical world around us functions helped me to sort through the seeming chaos of my day-to-day. When I started reading this book, I expected to understand the basic tenants of physics a little better. Instead, I came away feeling more connected to the world around me, appreciating the uncertainty I often feel–a rhythm that often feels like unpredictability–as instead a way of being in a world that has made sense out of chance, that has come together into something both functional and beautiful. The reality of space, both within and without us, becomes something of a communal experience in Rovelli’s hands, a way of feeling in company with the universe no matter what your religious leanings might be. As Rovelli writes:

“There is no such thing as a real void, one that is completely empty. Just as the calmest sea looked at closely sways and trembles, however slightly, so the fields that form the world are subject to minute fluctuations, and it is possible to imagine its basic particles having brief and ephemeral existences, continually created and destroyed by these movements. […]

Quantum mechanics and experiments with particles have taught us that the world is a continuous, restless swarming of things, a continuous coming to light and disappearance of ephemeral entities […] A world of happenings, not of things.”

If, like me, you often cry when reading Carl Sagan, I think you will get a lot out of this deceptively slim volume. If you’ve never really thought about what understanding physics has to do with understanding your own life, I still think you will get a lot from this book. I know it’s one I will carry from shelf to shelf, understanding a little more with each reread. The book itself may be a thing, but the experience waiting on the page is a happening, one I am eager to repeat.

 

Off-Syllabus Is Back! (Hopefully!)

Hello! If you are still reading this, THANK YOU for your endless patience. Life has been a whirlwind in the last few months. I’ve had a lot of changes in my career, some exciting and time-consuming projects, and a big move (well, a not-so-big move, but moving always feels so laborious). As such, my dearth of free reading time was devoted to the romance novels that were keeping the anxiety at bay–and I had already posted about that.

I have been thinking, also, about what this blog means to me now. When I first started it, it was a way to cope with post-college life. That may sound silly to any reader who didn’t enjoy having to spend their time annotating medieval texts and writing papers (understandable), but I had a really hard time adjusting to life outside of the classroom. I started this blog as a way to encourage myself to find the joy in being free from assignments and expectations, and in the two-ish years that I’ve been posting here, I’ve certainly done that. I’ve read genres that I had never taken seriously enough before. I’ve troubled my own understanding of the way books are categorized, and the value of those categories. I’ve rediscovered the compulsion to hide a book under the covers and keep turning the pages long into the night. And the best part is, in all of this time, I was still learning. I’ve been learning so much. I see it in the way I’m thinking about books–I even see it in my own creative writing. Don’t get me wrong: I still think there is so much value in the English classroom, and I still miss it, all the time. The wisdom from my professors and fellow classmates was invaluable. But the act of reading to learn can take so many different shapes, and will hopefully be a lifelong pursuit for me. And, I imagine if you’ve been enjoying these (admittedly, sometimes sporadic) posts, that’s true for you too.

So, I’m keeping the name Adventures Off-Syllabus, but it isn’t just about getting away from the prescribed texts of the classroom. Rather, it’s about bringing the classroom into my–and your–daily life, and shaping it to match what we need and what we can give. I would love for this blog space to become its own kind of community, and I encourage you to post comments or recommendations. I think Adventures Off-Syllabus has always really been about building my own syllabus, and I’m sure your reading life offers just as much. I certainly believe that reading diligently, thoughtfully, and with eyes focused both into the self and out towards the world, is as important now as it has ever been. So, this is all to say thank you for reading this post, and this blog. I hope it has brought meaningful books into your life, and I aim to keep doing that. Let’s keep learning and growing, and raising our hands when we have questions, and debating when we disagree. Let’s always be students and teachers. Let’s allow books to give us everything they can, and then, let’s bring what they teach us into the world. Thanks for being on this adventure with me.

(Sorry for getting super cheese-y at the end there.)

LABYRINTH LOST by Zoraida Cordova

I recently had an exchange with a friend about the feminist young adult literature we’ve come across lately (her original post extolled a book she’d just finished about lesbian pirates: “YA lit just keeps getting better and better.” Thank you for this intro, Rachael Collyer). She’s totally right. The YA lit community (at least a large part of it) seems particularly determined to defy norms, take risks, and blur boundaries, both in genre and in the lives of their characters. I have a theory about this: we currently live in a moment where YA is still often met with disrespect in some literary conversations. I think that this reality makes YA lit primed to disregard convention, to feel more comfortable messing with the status quo. If you’re a reader who still hasn’t given YA a chance, I encourage you to check out the diverse, imaginative storytelling that seems to be part of the genre’s identity, and a great example of this can be found in Zoraida Cordova’s novel, Labyrinth Lost.

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Labyrinth Lost tells the story of Alex, a teenager in Brooklyn who doesn’t feel like she fits in with the rest of her family, but not for typical reasons. Alex comes from a line of brujas–her mother and her sisters all have their own unique powers, as well as a deep-held spiritual belief in those powers and their worth. Alex isn’t as comfortable with her own identity, and has been concealing her powers from her family and her friends. When her magic is finally revealed, her sisters are excited to finally celebrate Alex’s deathday, a ceremony and party that acts as a coming-of-age celebration for a new bruja. But Alex has a plan, one that she hopes will rid her of her powers and the pain she fears they will cause. When that plan backfires, Alex must venture into a mysterious spiritual realm, and overcome the trials there, to win back the people she always wanted to protect–and she’s going to have to use her powers to do it.

Labyrinth Lost is a beautifully imagined urban fantasy, which is a genre I don’t have much exposure to. It navigates between our world and a completely imagined universe fluidly and effortlessly, and both settings feel vivid and real. I was also so impressed with the way Cordova is able to weave cultural folklore into the narrative. Her mythology is deeply based in traditions like the Day of the Dead celebration, and it was interesting to have those touches weaved into her fantasy universe–so often, fantasy stories are steeped in a Tolkein-esque generic template, and so this was a refreshing and welcome change.

Another element of the book I really enjoyed was Alex’s characterization, and in particular, her sexuality. Alex is bisexual, and the book manages to make this reality part of her character without forcing the story to be about it entirely. The story is not about Alex’s sexuality–it’s just about a bisexual teenager going on an adventure to save her family and discover herself. The relationships that are presented in the book are natural and incredibly endearing; they never feel relegated to tropes or gimmicks. I don’t want to give anything away, but the love story is handled with heart and care, and it is one of the best elements of the book.

Of course, it’s not the only good element. There are epic battles, terrifying villains, and a kick-butt hero, one who exhibits strength and courage in the face of uncertainty and insecurity–a battle that real teenage girls fight, and conquer, every day. I’m glad that there are books like Labyrinth Lost to help them along the way, and I think even if you’re not a teenage girl, you will find something in this smart, imaginative story to bring you along for the journey.

HEX by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

There’s a thing that sometimes happens in horror movies. It’s a little thing, but when it’s working I notice. It happens when a parent, upon seeing supernatural horrors in their home, makes like a tree and GETS OUT (sorry, that’s my favorite joke). It happens when a crowd of people see their first glimpse of the giant monster off in the distance and immediately take out their phones. I love it when people in these movies respond to completely outlandish circumstances exactly the way you would expect them to. This is what initially intrigued me about Hex, a novel about a cursed town with a resident ghoul–that is monitored with the use of a cell phone app.

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Hex¬†centers on Black Spring, a small town in upstate New York that has been cursed for hundreds of years, haunted by the undead Katherine van Wyler, or the Black Rock Witch. Katherine can appear anywhere in the town, at any time, but she has never posed much of a threat to the modern citizens. She can’t see or speak to them, after all–her eyes and mouth are sewn shut. As such, the townspeople have gotten as used to her presence as one could, and even have an app that tracks her current location, keeping her hidden from outsiders–and restrained from doing anything unexpected. For while nothing catastrophic has happened, the citizens of Black Spring are cursed all the same; once you become a resident, you cannot ever move away. This makes Black Spring an unusual community, one that is tightly-knit, provincially-minded, and perpetually on alert for the slightest shift in the status quo. So when a group of teenagers, dissatisfied with the insular community they’ve been imprisoned in, grows restless and begins to post about Katherine to the outside world, the slightest changes in routine become sinister portents. What has kept Katherine at bay all of these years–and what will it take to incur her wrath?

First things first: there are things about this book that are not great. The characters never feel quite whole–especially the women. And there are some odd moments of casual sexism from characters we are supposed to like (and that’s even setting aside the sometimes VERY weird treatment of Katherine). Were I reading this book over a longer period of time, these moments might have been frequent and jarring enough to make me put the book down. However, I downloaded Hex because I was in need of a book to marathon, and since the last book I read in a day was Bird Box, I figured another horror title would be a good fix. Hex was no Bird Box, but I wasn’t in it for deep character development (and if I put down every piece of entertainment that contained casual sexism, I would get to watch, like, four movies). I was in it for the spooks, and Hex definitely delivered those. The witch provides great opportunity for really unsettling surprises. It’s creepy enough when she’s operating in her usual pattern (someone with her eyes and mouth sewn shut can just be standing in the corner of any room I walk into?), but it’s when she does something out of the ordinary that she’s the most effective. As creepy as she initially is, you sort of get used to her…until suddenly, she’s doing something new, out of nowhere, in your face.

I also think there’s a metaphoric thread running through Hex. While trying not to spoil things, I think the book wants you to be horrified less by Katherine and more by the bleak, resigned, insular consciousness of the town, and the creepy paradox of having a collective consensus to prioritize saving one’s own skin above all else. It’s a point well made (certainly as relevant as ever), but I have to admit, the ending it tries to drive home falls a little flat. I’m all here for a Monsters-Are-Due-On-Maple-Street style reveal, but I think if¬†Heuvelt was trying to move in that direction, he might have made his witch too freaking creepy for the novel’s own good.

All in all, I think I would still recommend Bird Box more, and I’m getting the sense that it might stay among my favorite horror novels. But for what it’s worth, as scared as I was while I was reading Bird Box, the visceral, heart-pounding factor didn’t really stay with me while I was thinking back on it. Whereas with Hex…well, to give you an idea, as I write this, I’m alone in the house I usually share with three other people, and it’s raining, and something just thumped strangely in the other room, and I am not feeling that great about my life choices right now. I leave your own to you.

THE WALLS AROUND US by Nova Ren Suma

The Walls Around Us is yet another book that I consumed largely over the course of one day (I’ve been particularly lucky about that lately). I actually read the first chapter of this book a little while ago, and I had to put it away to wait for a time when I felt more prepared for it–the first chapter was already intense and foreboding, creating a palpable and disquieting tension. This tension never really let up once I returned (more ready to face it), but instead of repelling me, it pulled me into the mystery, the book urging me to confront it’s darkened corners and claps of thunder. The Walls Around Us was a story that kept me up at night, turning the pages under my covers, but now that I’ve finished, I don’t think it’s ready to let me sleep just yet.

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The Walls Around Us is a young adult novel that hops between the perspectives of two girls. One of them is a prisoner in a juvenile detention facility, and the other is an accomplished ballet dancer on her way to Julliard. As different as their circumstances are, they both seem to see the world through a prism of regret–or rather, a question of regret, and of debts paid and unpaid. The connection between them is in the form of another girl, one who doesn’t get to speak as a narrator but turns the plot on its axis all the same, and as the story unfolds, the reader discovers how the two disparate worlds, the ballet stage and the prison cell, become connected through her. And maybe, it would seem, this connection is becoming more than just a metaphor.

This story surprised me so much, so I don’t want to give too much of the plot away. The mystery unfolds in a unique and unsettling way, and the two narrators accomplish strong work in this story. They are unreliable, but in the way that reality can so often be. The ending of the book seems somehow both impossible and inevitable, leaving you with both a sense of completion and a lot of questions. This is an element that also exists in the characters. Nova Ren Suma has done an incredible job of blurring the lines between villains and heroes, which is especially effective given the seemingly simple juxtaposition created by the two narrators: one a criminal, the other a ballerina. Again, I don’t want to give too much away, but whatever it is you’re expecting at any point in the novel, the real answer is so much more complicated.

The Walls Around Us eschews simplicity at every turn. It’s tinged with the paranormal, but in a way that’s grounded and illuminated by real, tangible horror. It’s a mystery that unfolds in a spiral, rather than linearly. It interrogates consequences, responsibility, and justice. It is about a curse, but that curse lives as much in the realm of memory and morality as it does in the realm of the supernatural. It was brilliant. Someday please read it and email me about the ending.

My Month in Middlemarch

When I was an undergraduate, I signed up for an English course that was supposed to spend the entire semester examining only two novels: George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. I had already read and loved a couple of Dickens novels, but I had yet to read Eliot, and spending half a semester relishing every bit of her magnum opus sounded like just the nerd-fantasy I had envisioned when I pictured being an English major. Sadly, not enough of my fellow English majors agreed with me, and the course was cancelled when not enough people signed up. I was heartbroken enough to still think of it wistfully, and it put me off of reading Middlemarch for a while. It was as if knowing that I could have dissected it in a classroom setting made the thought of going it alone seem insurmountable.

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Upon acquiring an ereader, however, the door-stopping tome became more manageable, something I could carry in my purse and read in pieces during lunch breaks at work. With the physical limitations out of the way, I thought maybe I could do it at my own pace, the way I used to read classics pre-English classrooms. I read Books 1 and 2 in between reading other books, in little pockets of time, until suddenly, I wasn’t stringing the project together bit by bit anymore. Instead, I found myself wanting to stay in the book for longer periods of time. I found myself not wanting to break it up with other books or save it for bite-sized moments of my day. Middlemarch became a page-turner without my even realizing it, the way one typically thinks of genre fiction. And by the time I was done with the massive book, I found I wasn’t quite ready to leave the world and its characters behind–luckily, I had Rebecca Mead to ease my transition back into Books That Aren’t Middlemarch.

In case the above didn’t make it clear, I loved Middlemarch. I knew almost nothing about it going in, and that element was kind of fun, so I’m hesitant to try to condense its expansive landscape into a plot summary. Its full title is Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life, and that title is both completely apt and completely misleading. Middlemarch is a novel that focuses on a fictional English town in the 1830s. It follows the lives of many characters, tracing the way their stories intersect (as the lives of small-town residents so often do). It captures the personality of such a town, the way its collective consciousness can shape into stifling expectations and esoteric codes of decorum that can seem silly when penetrated by the narrator’s sharp eye. But it’s a novel full of humor and warmth for the people inside of it, and its commentary never comes off as too caustic to be heard, too judgemental to be lived in. Middlemarch shocked me with how funny it is, and it is at its funniest when it reminds me precisely of people in my life, and of home communities I have shared with them.

And that was thing that turned the novel into a page-turner, and into one of my new favorite novels of all time. It is not merely a “study” of provincial life, but the experience of that life itself. The characters in Middlemarch feel so real that you miss them when the book is over. (In fact, they often reminded me so much of people I knew that I missed those people while I was reading the book.) Eliot’s narrator is one of the most insightful and precise I’ve ever encountered: she describes human patterns, interactions, and secret habits with such authenticity that it’s both destabilizing and completely enveloping. Eliot gets you, and she gets your friends, and she gets the weirdness of crashing through life’s uncertainties with nothing but your best intentions and your worst impulses. Reading it is a marvel, and I was so genuinely sad when the last page flickered off my screen.

That’s why I was so happy to have Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch to pick up immediately after, as a way to keep conversing with these characters, to try to stay in their world a bit longer. Mead understands what it means to love this novel: she encountered it as a teenager and has revisited it throughout life. Her own book is a mix of literary criticism of the novel, biography of Eliot, travelogue about visiting the places where Eliot lived and wrote, and memoir about the times when Middlemarch helped illuminate a piece of Mead’s life, or Mead’s life took a turn that helped her appreciate a new element of the novel. For as many modes of nonfiction writing that are present in this book, the premise is fairly simple–a favorite book can be looked at through many lenses (sometimes literally, when one travels to the places the author worked and views manuscripts in museums under gloved hands). This simple premise really resonated with me, though, and definitely makes me want to do more of my own literary-tourism and read more about the lives of my favorite authors. Just as the characters in Middlemarch are often surprisingly intertwined, you never know what sort of connection you might unearth to something that’s felt so familiar for so many years.

If you’re someone who’s intimidated by books that often get characterized as “classics,” especially those the size of bricks, I encourage you to give Middlemarch a try anyway. As you settle into the language, the storytelling, and the web of connection between the narratives, you’ll feel like you’re settling into a real place–and that might be because the book is telling you more about the real community you do live in, and the people inside of it who make up your own web.