The Pleasures of Reading, 2015
by Veronica Schanoes
This year has been a tumultuous one for me. In June I delivered my son via C-section after a month in the hospital due to a serious placental abruption. You’d think being in the hospital for a month would mean doing nothing but reading, but I found I couldn’t focus at all there. There’re all the people coming in to check your vitals, various doctors, but mostly, it was an emotional difficulty: I just couldn’t become absorbed in anything as complicated as reading while I was so anxious. Then the baby came, and the upshot is that I’ve read and seen a lot less this year than I usually have, so this list is going to be, of necessity, shorter than I usually aim for.
The single best thing I’ve read this year is hands down, Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge. This moving book is haunting, chilling, gripping. In 1927 or so, a girl wakes up, unable to remember anything. Her parents call her “Triss,” but her little sister Pen, the agreed-upon troublemaker of the family, screams at her, insists that she’s “not real,” and runs away from her. Scissors turn on her and dolls talk when she’s near. Slowly bits and pieces of her memory come back, but mysteries remain: what happened to her the night she turned up at home soaking wet? Why is she constantly ravenous? What is Pen up to? And who is it her parents are frightened of? As Triss tries to understand what is happening to her and what she is, she has the uncomfortable feeling that time is running out….I don’t want to give anything away about this story, so all I can say is that it is about sisterhood, what it means to be a big sister, what it means to be a little sister, and what it means to have your own identity. As Triss and Pen are forced to form an alliance to save themselves and their family, they find that, as in all Hardinge novels, “good” and “bad” are not easy to differentiate and that those who seem the most helpful can turn on you in the blink of an eye…and that you may have to join forces with the person who hates you most. I admire Hardinge’s writing immeasurably and wish I could give away more about the plot so I could talk about how deftly she interweaves folklore with a kind of Gothic novel about family secrets and secret places. The relationship between the protagonist and Pen is one of the most moving I’ve read in quite some time (perhaps because my sister and I have had a rocky relationship over the years). I can’t wait to read Hardinge’s latest, The Lie Tree.
On quite a different note, I read Kenneth Kidd’s Freud in Oz: At the Intersections of Psychoanalysis and Children’s Literature at the beginning of the year. In engaging prose, Kidd writes about the ways that psychoanalysis and children’s literature, as genres, have made use of each other and influenced each other. He is at pains to emphasize the two-way nature of this relationship, and does so through chapters on fairy tales and psychoanalysis, children’s classics such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Peter Pan, and the way contemporary picture books engage with trauma. I enjoyed this and found it eminently readable, particularly for an academic book. Also, Kidd has a good sense of humor, which comes through.
On the recommendation of Debbie Reese, who runs American Indians in Children’s Literature, I read Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Jingle Dancer, a picture book with gorgeous illustrations by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu, about Jenna, a Muscogee (Creek) girl, also of Ojibway (Chippewa/Anishinabe) descent. Jenna wants to jingle dance at the upcoming powwow, but there is not enough time to make the four rows of jingles her dress would need. This is a book that affirms the strength of American Indian communities and women’s communities and affective ties, as Jenna seeks help from numerous women in her life. It also affirms the importance of orally transmitted stories and shows the people of Jenna’s community living modern lives, integrating their traditional practices and values with modern technology and commitments. It’s a beautiful book.
Finally, I read Theresa Malkiel’s 1909 tract The Diary of a Shirtwaist Striker. As am an aficionado of both labor history and the history of New York City, the 1909 shirtwaist strike, when 20 or 30 thousand shirtwaist makers, almost entirely women, mostly immigrants, walked off the job and stayed out for months, forcing many, though not all, of their employers to settle, looms large for me. The strike was an amazing achievement—demonstrating to patriarchal labor unions that women did indeed have the grit to stick out a strike, forging bonds between Jewish and Italian immigrants, and briefly winning the attention and support of upper-class women (those women were later horrified by the blatant socialism of many of the Jewish immigrants; the workers were in turn deeply irritated by the sight-seeing and tight-fistedness of the mink brigade). Malkiel published her book as if it were a diary of a striker, but it was not. Malkiel had been a factory worker for years, but married a lawyer. She was a fervent socialist and the book is as much about the protagonist’s conversion to socialism as anything else. Despite being a Jewish immigrant, Malkiel wrote in the persona of a US-born white, I suspect to make her character as “likeable” as possible to her readership, bypassing anti-semitism and anti-immigrant feeling. Mary, the protagonist, comes to the realization that socialism is the only possibly way forward, and inspires her boyfriend, previously unsupportive, to do likewise. She proclaims the brotherhood of all, Jew and Gentile, dark and light, which throws the book’s two glaring instances of overt racism into sharp relief. An interesting book, and Françoise Basch’s introduction is a great introduction to the strike and the issues surrounding it, even if I didn’t agree with her on every point.
Veronica Schanoes is a writer and assistant professor in the department of English at Queens College - CUNY. In 2014, she won a World Fantasy Award. Her work has appeared at Tor.com and in Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Strange Horizons, Interfictions, and Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 21. She lives in New York City and does not like cats. Her book of criticism, Fearless Children and Fabulous Monsters: Lewis Carroll, Angela Carter, and Beastly Girls, will be appearing in the near future. She currently lives in New York City.