The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

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Reading outside by the river!

The Argonauts was the May book choice for Our Shared Shelf. I was very excited to read it because it was so different from my normal reading material. If I had to describe what kind of book The Argonauts is, I would say that it’s a memoir blended in with essays on love, gender studies, and family (among many other topics!). It’s Maggie Nelson’s very personal account of her relationship with her fluidly gendered partner, and the experience of going through a pregnancy.

I struggled a lot with reading this book. I think it was a combination of the format and some of the subject material. The book is not divided into chapters, or any sections really. To me it reads like a stream of consciousness, with Nelson’s thoughts and insights and memories blending with references to theorists and scholars. Because there was no break throughout the book, I found myself becoming completely absorbed in her writing because it was very intense and powerful. But after 10 pages or so I would have to stop because it was so much information to take in, and I just needed a break. Also, I had to look up many of the references that she made, which made it a little more difficult and ultimately slowed my process. Overall, I think the book is very intellectually written, and I’m just not as familiar with some of the topics and references, and needed to get myself up to speed.

I think the thing that completely amazed me was how frank and honest Nelson was about such personal details of her and her family’s life. She held nothing back in writing this, she was herself openly and completely, regardless of opinions that others might have. I thought it was a beautiful piece of writing in that regard. That level of honesty is so rare, I felt very connected to what she was saying, and the experience kind of blew me away.

The Argonauts also expanded my awareness and understanding of gender fluidity. I haven’t had any experience with gender fluidity in my life, meaning that I don’t personally know anyone that would identify in that way. To be completely honest, I found it incredibly difficult to wrap my head around. I think the concept of “male” and “female” is so ingrained in my mind that I felt like I had to unlearn something, though I’m not exactly sure what it is that I unlearned. I just found myself questioning things a lot. For example, I was confused on what pronoun to use to describe Harry (Nelson’s partner), and eventually I reached a point where I was asking myself why I had to choose, and why couldn’t I just accept Harry as Harry and leave it be? This probably isn’t a good analogy because it’s so basic, but I remember telling people in high school that “I don’t believe in labels.” At the time I was referring to the loose classifications of preps, jocks, geeks, etc. I would tell people that I didn’t believe in labels because I felt like I belonged to more than one group. Is it such a stretch to apply the same logic to gender, even though the logic is so incredibly basic? I don’t know the answers to these questions, or even if there are answers. I’m just enjoying being challenged by the reading material. This is the first book in Our Shared Shelf that I felt motivated to participate in a discussion board, so it’s clear that the book is making me think. And however confusing or challenging that is, I like it.

Maggie Nelson also spent a significant portion of the book discussing motherhood, and how being a mother relates to and impacts being a woman. I thought these parts of the book were very interesting and eye-opening because it made me think about motherhood in a new light. I’m not a mom, and I have no plans to become one anytime soon, so a lot of the theories that Nelson discussed were basically unknown to me because motherhood just isn’t on my radar right now. It made me think a lot about my own mom, and some of my friends that have recently had children, and I wonder what they would think if they read this book. In that regard, I think they would have gotten more out of the reading experience than I did. I already want to re-read The Argonauts at some point, just because it is so much to digest, but I want to make a mental note to myself to pull this out if and when I ever have children. I wonder what I would think about it then.

Reading The Argonauts was definitely an experience. It was a struggle- both in the structure of the book and the subject material. Even though it’s only about 140 pages long, I was challenged enough that it took me over a week to read. But I’m not complaining about it. It was such an eye-opening book; it was just a really good learning experience. In a weird way, I’m kind of proud of myself for completing it. If it weren’t for Our Shared Shelf, I would’ve never felt compelled to read The Argonauts. It’s something I would’ve passed over in a bookstore without a second glance. So the fact that I went outside my reading “comfort zone” and that I finished it despite the struggle… it’s just a good feeling. It serves as a reminder to me that you can always learn by reading.

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Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

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Earlier this year, on “Galentines Day,” I went to see the movie How To Be Single with my friend Elizabeth. It was a classic girls day out- we had brunch then split a bag of extra-butter popcorn at the movie theater. Now you should know that I don’t go to the movies often (one of my exes insisted on going every week, and I’ve been mildly disinterested ever since). I also don’t watch cable TV; and my Internet time is pretty much limited to reading the news, scrolling through my Facebook news feed, and updating this blog. So when I do actually go to a movie theater, I LOVE the previews. Usually the previews are the first time that I’ve ever heard of upcoming movies. So when Elizabeth and I went to see How To Be Single, one of the first previews was for Me Before You.

I have to admit, the preview made it look great. Daenerys Targaryen (aka Emilia Clarke) as the main character, an attractive (in my opinion) male lead, set in England, and an interesting plot- I mentally added it to my Movies I Might Actually Want To See list. When I went home after How To Be Single (which I highly recommend, by the way) I googled Me Before You and learned that it was based on a novel by Jojo Moyes. I added the book to my reading list right then, and I vowed to read it before the movie hit theaters. Since the movie is going to be released at the beginning of June, I included it in my May reading list so that the story would be fresh in my mind when I go see it.

I was really excited to read Me Before You. With the movie coming out, and so much hype around it, I had kind-of-high expectations. It sounded like the perfect romance novel, and I thought I was bound to like it. Unfortunately, however, it wasn’t what I thought it would be. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the book, because I did devour it over the course of 24 hours and I still plan on seeing the movie as well as reading the sequel. I just didn’t really love it. It may be because there was so much hype; maybe I was expecting it to be a lot better than it ever really was. Or maybe it’s because for the most part I dislike mainstream contemporary romance novels. (As mentioned in a previous post, I really don’t enjoy anything by Nicholas Sparks, which is what I consider the standard for modern romance). Me Before You just wasn’t what I wanted it to be, and I wanted to like it so much.

I think one of my “issues” with the novel was that if you have any basic understanding of context clues you pretty much know the major plotlines from just the book summary and the title of the sequel. The details were well written, and for the most part I liked the characters, but it felt like I already knew what would happen, which I found kind of boring. It seemed like the climax wasn’t really a climax at all, just another chapter in the novel.   Before I read this, I think in my head I was expecting it to be a bit like My Sister’s Keeper by Jodie Picoult. My Sister’s Keeper was similar in the sense that you felt like you already knew how it would end, but then it completely throws you for a loop. The plot twist in the book (not the movie, the movie was appalling in the sense that it completely changed the plot) left me reeling, and it was one of the only books that I’ve ever shed a tear over because it was just so unexpected. I think I was waiting for something monumental like that in Me Before You, but it never happened.

One of the good things about the book was the main character, Louisa. I thought she was very likeable, but also very ordinary and normal. One thing that makes me roll my eyes is when female characters are described as ordinary but in actuality they’re super smart, or incredibly beautiful, or experience an unrealistic turn of luck, or basically anything that makes them not ordinary. Characters like that give real-life ordinary girls a bad rep, and it’s not fair. But Louisa Clark wasn’t like that; she was just ordinary, and that’s why I liked her. She never really tried to be anything but herself, and I think throughout the novel you were really able to see her grow as a character. I think Jojo Moyes did a great job in the development of her character.

Long story short, I wasn’t really impressed with Me Before You. I felt it was lacking in a lot of ways, but I’m sure I’m a minority in that camp. However, I’m still interested in reading the sequel; I made the mistake of reading the first chapter that was included in my copy and now I need to know what happens. And I’m still hoping to see the movie, as long as I can secure Elizabeth for another girl date. And even though I didn’t love the book, I know that this genre isn’t one of my favorites which is probably a major reason why I wasn’t thrilled with it. It was a relatively quick read, and it kept me company on a miserable Friday night, so I can’t say that reading it was a bad experience. It just wasn’t my cup of tea, but I’m glad I gave it a try.

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

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On any given day, there are a lot of things that can go wrong. You can spill coffee on your bare foot in the morning, or you can rear-end someone on your way to work. You can give your job everything you have but be let go without warning for reasons outside your (and maybe your supervisor’s) control. You can enjoy a lovely midsummer dinner with your partner only to have your heart broken when they tell you they don’t love you anymore. A family member that has been crucial to your life since the day you were born can suddenly betray and abandon you, seemingly without a care. Your universe can completely upend on a sunny afternoon when you get the call that your mother, or brother, or best friend, or any loved one has been taken from this world. On any given day, anything and everything can go wrong; but it’s what you do with this fact that determines the course of your life.

Beryl Markham learned this at a young age. Abandoned by her mother at the age of four, then catapulted into an unhealthy marriage at sixteen, Beryl was a seemingly modern woman born well before her time and forced to grow up way too soon. Born in England, her family moved to Kenya when she was very young. After her mother fled back to England, she was raised by both her father and the natives that lived on his estate. She was an unconventional wild child, and as an adult she never really found a way to fit into the mold of society. She made mistakes and muddled through them the hard way, yet she always seemed to make it through with her head up. She was an admirable woman; she built a career as a successful horse trainer, she learned to fly, she became the first female pilot to cross the Atlantic from east to west, and most importantly, she lived and loved on her own terms, regardless of the cost.

It sort of amazes me that Beryl Markham was a real person. When I first heard of Circling the Sun, I don’t think I realized that the characters in the novel were actual people, and that they really did a lot of what was detailed in the book. Then, once I bought the book, I think I was confused at first as to how much was real and how much was fiction. But as I started reading, those questions faded away as I became wrapped up in the story. Beryl was a fascinating character, real-life or not. Once I finished the book and read the author’s note, I did a little bit of research on the real Beryl Markham, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that Circling the Sun truly mirrored her life (at least in the big ways). I was also very excited to learn that Beryl had written a memoir, and I’ve added that to my reading list along with Out of Africa, written by Beryl’s acquaintance Karen Blixen under a pen name. It might be a while before I make it to those books, but it will be worth it to read the true story of her life.

Simply put, Circling the Sun just really clicked with me. It’s got all the makings of a novel that I would enjoy: it’s historical fiction, there’s a romance plot, the main character is an admirable heroine, and there’s a solid bit of adventure. This book was right up my alley and I definitely enjoyed it. It was just so easy for me to get wrapped up in the story; I’m surprised at myself for waiting so long to read it. It’s been sitting on my bookshelf for a while; I originally bought it last fall before my trip to Munich. I planned on reading it on the flight back to the States, but I was too distracted by movies and games on the plane. Then in Newark airport I was way too annoyed about watching my final flight home being delayed every half hour to really enjoy it, so when I finally made it back to my apartment I put it on the coffee table to “read later.” When it sat there for a month it was moved to the bookshelf, and it’s been there until two weeks ago. I was very proactive in April about putting together my reading list for May, but I had a few delayed and missing packages that left me scrambling when it was time for a new book on May 1st. That day I noticed Circling the Sun on the bookshelf and figured it was time to give it another go. I think I finished it the next day, it was that good.

I’m just very fascinated about Kenya’s history and culture, particularly with how the British colonials were able to live in such a different environment than their home country. And I’m interested in the African wilderness- the geography, the animals, the climate, everything. The traveler in me is itching to go there, but realistically I know that it won’t happen anytime soon. A few years ago I read Love, Life, and Elephants, the memoir by Daphne Sheldrick. Her Kenya was a little bit later than Beryl’s, but when I finished Circling the Sun I found myself studying the pictures in Daphne’s memoir and comparing the maps in both books. It was such an interesting time and place in history, and it produced such amazing people. To me, that’s enough to justify visiting in person.

I really, truly enjoyed Circling the Sun. Considering my interests, I realize that I’m a little bit biased but the story was just so engrossing, and the fact that much of the novel was inspired by the real life of Beryl Markham makes it so much better. I’m still kind of kicking myself for letting it sit so long, but I’m happy I finally read it. The weather has been cool and rainy here, so I’m grateful that I had such a great book to curl up with and lose myself in. Now I just have to cross Beryl’s memoir off my reading list and figure out a way to make it to Africa to see her country for myself!