by Lily King

My two favorite things about Euphoria: its great feminist heroine and its beautiful writing.

The story takes place in the Territory of New Guinea in 1933 and is a fictionalized re-imagining of the events–both personal and professional–that unfolded when Margaret Mead and her second and third husbands worked together studying the tribes along the Sepik River. As you might guess, a love triangle and academic wrangling ensued.

Nell Stone (the book’s Margaret Mead stand-in) is an accomplished anthropologist whose success overshadows her two male counterparts. But the reason she’s so successful isn’t because she’s interested in outdoing the men, it’s because of her genuine passion for her field and the fresh, relational (some might say female) perspective she brings to the work. As one of these contemporaries explains, “For so long I felt that what I’d been trained to do in academic writing was to press my nose to the ground, and here was Nell Stone with her head raised and swiveling in all directions.” This is what I think of as the Peggy Olson school of feminism: women characters interesting and strong enough to break barriers simply by being true to themselves and their interests.

But unlike dear Peggy, Nell Stone’s intellect is extremely attractive to her male counterparts. One says, “I loved the sound of our two typewriters; it felt like we were in a band, making a strange sort of music. It felt like I was a part of something, and that the work was important. She always made me feel that the work was important. And then her typewriter stopped and she was watching me. ‘Don’t stop’ I said. ‘Your typing makes my brain work better.’” Pretty hot – huh?

I’ve taken the liberty of disproportionately quoting from the book to demonstrate King’s beautiful, clean writing style. It’s a style in which every carefully chosen word evokes the story’s place and people. I find this kind of writing particularly relaxing to read, almost meditative. It’s how I feel when I read Marilynne Robinson.

Since beginning this blog, there’s been an underlying theme to most of my reading selections: the literary woman-in-a-strange-land genre. I could claim it’s something subconscious (my wanderings through Berkeley certainly constitute anthropological research into the customs of burnt-out baby boomers) but given my process for choosing what I read when, it’s safe to say that my recent reading list has been more arbitrary than one might assume.

That said, my next undertaking should be very, very different from the books I’ve written about up to this point. Coming up to bat is My Struggle, Book One by Karl Ove Knausgaard. (That’s book one of six, by the way, though fortunately for all of us he’s still writing them) Knausgaard is an extremely intense Norwegian man whose six-part “autobiographical novel” is the current Literary Big Deal. I can be a little jaded by hoopla but, of course, I’m also intrigued. I’ve heard this book referred to as both “boring” and “Catcher in the Rye for 40 year olds.” I’m banking on the later. You’ll be the first to know.


Intense Norwegian Man


IMG_0953State of Wonder
by Ann Patchett

I like Ann Patchett more with every passing interview and quote I read of hers. Check out the video post directly before this one and it won’t take long to see why I’m a big fan. (Lying on the sofa reading books? Avocado sandwiches? Hello? Can we say separated at birth?)

In the attached video, Patchett describes herself as “profoundly uninteresting,” someone who doesn’t “do” anything. And yet State of Wonder is most easily categorized as an adventure story. The novel’s protagonist, a 40-something obstetrician-turned-pharmacologist is tasked with venturing into the Amazon jungle to find a former mentor who is developing a secret new drug for their shared employer. It would be difficult to describe the very interesting and imaginative story that ensues without taking away from the fun of reading this book, which unravels as smoothly and deliberately as the coils of an anaconda. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the jungle reference) So while I can’t get into the specifics, I can promise you well-written mystery, danger and a little touch of fantasy.

But what I appreciated most about State of Wonder was that it served as my companion during my own recent adventure, in which I was forced to get up off the couch and did not have access to a single avocado, if you can imagine such a thing. No, I wasn’t traveling down the Amazon in a canoe, but as I sat in the tropics-like heat of a Yale dorm room last Thursday night sweating between two wool blankets (the only bedding available to separate me from my plastic mattress) while trucks, motorcycles and infrequent blasts of car music tumbled by outside my window, I tried to read just a few pages in a fruitless effort to fall asleep. While I attempted to strategically angle the microscopic “face fan” I’d procured earlier that day at CVS (thanks anonymous CVS shopping partner, you know who you are), it struck me that I too was taking a journey.

As a volunteer writing coach for College Summit, my journey would involve several 16-hour days working with low-income students in an intensive program that prepares them for college, all while being reintroduced to the distinct experiences of sleeping and eating in a college dorm. By the time I arrived at Yale, I’d been traveling for two weeks and I felt utterly unprepared on just about every level, be it my limited supply of remaining clean clothes, my lack of experience with this demographic of students, the unfamiliar structure I’d need to follow, not to mention the challenges an introverted person faces when told that they are expected to be “on” every waking hour of their day. It was daunting. And did I mention the unfortunate haircut I was sporting?

I’ll cut to the chase. College Summit was one of the best things I’ve ever done. There are many reasons why the experience was so positive, but I can’t underestimate the importance of having allowed myself to be uncomfortable. It’s so easy to keep our lives under tight control and feel like the world “turns on” when we charge up our computers (and thank you, by the way, for staring at yours right now as you read this). But we can’t have adventures in the familiarity of our homes. We must venture out, both physically and mentally, if we’re to grow and achieve that state of wonder.




More cheap gimmicks

The Fever
by Megan Abbott

You may remember the strange circumstances in Le Roy, New York a couple years ago when nearly twenty of the town’s teenage girls suddenly started to experience tics, tremors and other unexplained outbursts. Eventually doctors determined that the first few girls to experience these mysterious symptoms were suffering from conversion disorder, meaning that their bodies were reacting to stressors that their brains were having trouble processing. In one case, it was a parent’s illness. In others, the girls had experienced significant loss or abuse. But as the tics continued to occur in more girls, the phenomena evolved into mass psychogenic illness, a neurological condition in which people experience a physical reaction mirroring the behavior they observe in others.

I didn’t follow the story closely at the time, but what fascinated me about the circumstances was the way these girls had subconsciously become barometers of their community. Apparently the town of Le Roy had been in decline for decades and its subsequent poverty had gradually spiraled downward into a host of socio-economic troubles that were now causing severe stress in the town’s girls.

So when I heard that The Fever was inspired by the events in Le Roy and promised a noir-y, suspenseful examination of contemporary adolescence, I was intrigued enough to jump through a few logistical hurdles to get my hands on a copy as soon as it came out. And it didn’t hurt that it’s being touted as this year’s Gone Girl, a book I thoroughly enjoyed a couple years back.

The central driving question of The Fever is a good one: what is causing the mysterious tics and why are they only occurring in girls? No spoilers here but the answer is pleasingly unexpected and diverges from the real life circumstances. Unfortunately, the ending is the most satisfying part of this book and in order to reach it, I had to contend with a host of flat characters and a thudding plot.

Gone Girl had the opposite problem — its ending didn’t live up to the intensity of the rest of the book. But for me, I didn’t really care about GG’s ending because I had so much fun getting there. I spent the book wrapped up in the twisted psyches of its characters and trying to figure out where the author was taking me as she planted seed after seed on various levels: socioeconomic, interpersonal and psychological. It’s that experience of engagement that sticks with me.

I’ll be curious to see how The Fever fares after so much buildup. My reading of it was lukewarm.

Up Next: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett.