Liz McCausland’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Liz McCausland (@Liz_Mc2). Liz is an American living in Vancouver, BC, where she teaches college English, reads, herds cats, and ponders what’s next in her life.

Look for more reflections from a wonderful assortment of readers every day this week. Remember, you can always add your thoughts to the mix. Just let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@ds228).

Thomas Struth, Pergamon Museum IV, Berlin, 2001

In the fall of 2020, my marriage of 25 years ended—an event that for me was both unexpected and unwelcome. Slowly and with a lot of hard work, my grief and depression are lifting. But they’ve continued to impact my reading. Self-help. Memoirs about mental illness, therapy, divorce, and reinventing yourself. Many backlist mystery audiobooks from the library. [Ed. — What, no names?] And many, many books returned to the library unfinished or unopened because I didn’t have attention to give them. When Dorian asked me if I wanted to write a Year in Reading post for him, my first thought was “I‘ve forgotten most of what I read this year, and I certainly don’t have anything interesting to say about it.”

But then I remembered that one of the silver linings of this hard time has been my rediscovery of the joy to be found in reading with others: engaging in intense and wide-ranging discussion of texts to which everyone brings different experience and perspectives; having the sensation of minds meeting as steel meets flint, a spark of illumination blooming from the contact.

The first place I found this, unexpectedly, was a Bible Study group. That might not be true in every context, but we’re Anglicans and reason is one leg of our stool. I gained a lot of personal insights, but perhaps I’m most grateful for the feeling that my brain can still work after all. Do we need a book recommendation from this? I’ve always thought you could do worse on a desert island than the Bible, believer or not—it’s a big fat book with a little of everything in it.

The second was a long-running reading group I rejoined this summer after a decade or so away. The core members have been together since they read Foucault together as grad students in the 80s. Now they’re mostly retired college English instructors. They read widely and their discussions are vigorous. To keep up I’ve had to read with more focus than I’d mustered in some time. My favorite meeting so far involved lounging in a shady backyard on a hot July afternoon, nibbling potluck goodies and discussing Shirley Hazzard’s The Evening of the Holiday. My first Hazzard, but not my last! This month, sadly, we’ll be back on Zoom, but I’m looking forward to diving into Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. (Another first for me).

My third great experience reading with others was with students. I teach English at a community college, and because I increased my workload this fall I’ve been teaching literature (rather than just academic writing) for the first time in several years. I’d forgotten how fun reading with students can be. A classroom is a space full of flints and steels that strike sparks from each other. A space full of surprise insights. It’s not just that students interpret the readings in ways I didn’t anticipate, but that I surprise myself: as I bounce off their observations, or just ramble on, I find interpretations forming in the moment the words expressing them come out of my mouth, as if someone wiser than me were speaking through me. [Ed. – All true, so true!]

This year, I’m teaching Intro to Fiction sections designated for our Gender, Sexualities, and Women’s Studies program, on the theme of gender and violence (and hell yes, at some points of the semester I regretted settling on such a dark theme). Here are two of my favorite surprises from Fall:

I chose Don DeLillo’s “Baader-Meinhof” because it seemed to fit the theme. I’d never read DeLillo before, thinking of him as writing “boy books” I wouldn’t enjoy (I imagine you thinking “who let her teach gender studies?”). I just skimmed it before choosing it, being, rather behind schedule at that point (“who let her teach anything?”). [Ed. – I’m so relieved to learn I’m not the only one who does this!] In the story, an unnamed man and woman meet at an exhibition of paintings showing Baader-Meinhof gang members dead in their prison cells. The man manipulates the woman into taking him back to her apartment, where, when he can’t manipulate her into sex, he masturbates on her bed while she cowers in the bathroom. [Ed. – Well, that is just about the least appealing scenario possible…]

As I started reading the story in preparation for class, I wondered if the paintings it describes are real. They are. The basic plot was familiar to students: “Oh, he’s gaslighting her.” Something similar has happened to some of them or to someone they know. But the “real life” art exhibition setting led us to new questions about this familiar scene. Richter’s paintings are based on photographs that would have been easily recognizable to Germans, but he destabilizes that familiarity, blurring the images and sometimes painting multiple versions, each slightly different. Is this, I asked my students, part of why someone would write fiction about gender violence (or about anything, come to that)? To make us look anew at something we think we understand? “Is gender violence a form of terrorism?” we wondered. At first that seemed extreme, but then we considered the ways that women’s lives are shaped by fear of it, and how we live in a culture that has largely accepted this fact as just something we have to put up with. And what’s up with the idea of forgiveness in this story? I still don’t know what I think about that, and I’m looking forward to discussing it again and seeing if we get further.

I’m currently listening to Believing, Anita Hill’s new book on gender violence, because a review I read made me think of DeLillo’s story and the questions it raises. And the best surprise was how much I enjoyed this story. I still suspect that on the whole, DeLillo isn’t my cup of tea, but I’m going to read more before I make up my mind about that.

Candida Höfer, German Library, Leipzig VI, 1997

And then there was Katharena Vermette’s novel The Break. I wrote a review for Event, so I went into teaching it thinking “I get this.” But it unfolded new riches as we read it slowly over a couple of weeks. The more we talked about it, the more there was to say. At the center of The Break is a violent sexual assault against Emily, an Indigenous teen. The novel works as a page-turning crime story in which a young Métis police officer and his racist partner try to identify the assailant. But in tension with the forward momentum of that narrative are the stories of Emily’s extended family, mostly female, and the sexual violence they have endured. To support Emily in her healing, they have to confront their own pasts and the lingering effects of trauma.

The Break has ten narrators, and to help us keep track of who was saying what, I listed the narrators of each day’s sections on the board. Once I did, we began to see patterns in their order. Emily, for instance, has a section early on, and another at the end. For most of the novel, she is silenced by trauma, and only when she can narrate the assault does she start to heal. That’s also the first time readers see its details—this is a novel that refuses to indulge a prurient interest in them, showing us only glimpses and fragments we have to piece together.

Partway through our reading, I listened to a podcast episode on the ethics of enjoying true crime, and that fed into our discussion of how we should consume stories like Vermette’s. The Break offers us two characters as reader stand-ins: there’s Tommy, the cop, who feels a “strange excitement” as he makes headway on the puzzle of the crime. But he risks pushing Emily to tell her story before she’s ready, ignoring her trauma. There’s also Stella, who witnesses the crime and who insists in the face of police skepticism that what she saw was a rape. Stella has her own experience of trauma, and her concern for the victim might be a more ethical response than Tommy’s excitement. But that trauma paralyzes Stella when she witnesses the assault, keeping her from going out to help. Perhaps we also need Tommy’s push for answers to keep the story from being stuck in pain and trauma.

We don’t discover who the assailant is until Vermette has made us feel empathy and understanding for that character. That person’s story left us wondering whether the justice system is at all up to the task of doing justice in these circumstances. What would true justice to all parties look like?  Students enriched our discussions of these questions by bringing to it ideas from courses in psychology, criminology, and legal studies.

I loved and admired The Break even more after teaching it than before—an outcome which is by no means guaranteed. I understand Dorian is teaching it this semester, and I look forward to hearing what he and his students, in a different place and bringing different experiences, bring to it. [Ed. – I am, and I’m even more excited now than I was before: I’ll be pilfering these insights shamelessly.]

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