Reading List 2011 (11/276)

The last of the 2011 reading!

  • The Head of the House of Coombe, Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • Robin, Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • Marriage Shock: The Transformation of Women into Wives, Dalma Heyn
  • Wifework, Susan Maushart
  • A Lady of Quality, Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • The Duke of Osborne, Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • In Connection with the De Willoughby Claim, Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • Vicious Little Darlings, Katherine Easer
  • The Information Diet, Clay Johnson
  • The Mammoth Book of the Best of the Best New Horror, ed. Stephen Jones
  • The Shuttle, Frances Hodgson Burnett

tl;dr – Burnett continues to entertain; Maushart says brilliant things about marriage and Heyn says uneven ones; Jones collects some excellent stories, but errs toward fame; Johnson provides a thoughtful take on media consumption, and connects it directly to action.

I continue to enjoy Burnett’s adult novels, and she does some very clever things. The Duke of Osborne, for example, is the counter-text to A Lady of Quality, telling the romance from the man’s perspective instead of the woman’s. A Lady of Quality was also my favorite of this batch of Burnett. Her heroine is brilliant and iron-willed and wild; while she tames herself in order to marry, she does it to become a happier person, not because her husband asks her to be anything less than she is. It’s a shameless romance but I found myself captivated, and I really liked how unconventional some of Burnett’s choices are. I also liked The Head of the House of Coombe, which is theoretically about the life of a neglected child. I read it as the story of the titular character, though, whose pride, coldness, taste, and honor shape the lives of those around him for good and ill. Robin, the sequel, is a bit more sentimental, though I appreciated the WWI setting and was glad to see more of my favorite characters.

Wifework is the most important book you may ever read about marriage. It looks at why marriage is so much better for men than for women on almost every measurable outcome. Her conclusion? Men have wives, while women are wives. Women perform immense amounts of unseen, unpaid, unrewarded labor for the direct benefit of men, from nurturing their social lives to managing their doctor’s appointments to having sex on demand. This labor is toxic to women – and to marriages, now that women can control their reproduction and support themselves. Maushart argues that men need to do more wifework if they expect to sustain successful marriages, because the old bargains don’t make sense anymore. Read the book for more details of her argument, but be warned: it’s carefully researched, powerful, devastating, and very hard to read if you’re married or ever plan to be. Highly recommended.

Heyn makes a similar argument, but less coherently and less effectively, focusing on the self-censoring of women and their attempts to fit the role of perfect wife. Her chapter on the history of “the angel in the house” is terrific, but if you’re going to read just one book on this topic, make it Maushart.

Jones picks the best story from each of his twenty “Best Of” horror anthologies. I liked many of the stories I read, but unfortunately there were a number of rather famous ones that I’d already encountered elsewhere – some of them three or four times. Still, I discovered a few new joys. Samuels’ “White Hands” is a gothic gem that could have been written by M. R. James; “My Death,” by Tuttle, impressed me with its wit and subtlety; “The Man Who Drew Cats” made me decide I finally need to read some Smith. The only real dud in the volume was Newman’s vampire story, which I guess is part of an ongoing series? But its attempts at humor were clownish (stupid Buffy parody is stupid) and its protagonist ridiculous (an ancient vampire working as a PI). No horror here, except the horror of having to read this tripe. If you aren’t a completist like I am, just skip the damn thing. It’s terrible.

Finally, Johnson makes the case for “information veganism” – consuming information that’s relatively unprocessed, and limiting one’s information consumption more generally. He points out the psychological impacts of too much information, as well as the cognitive biases that means we don’t deal well with much of the information we get. For example, we’re all fond of hearing our existing ideas affirmed, which doesn’t do much to make us more educated or wise. Johnson makes the case for being conscious about your information consumption (always a good thing!) and proposes a balance of affirmation, “vegan” data, and social news for a healthy information diet.

The book made me wonder if I read too much fiction, though I think he may be less concerned with fiction and more with news and social media. Still, I’m not sure that I spend enough time seeking out information that actively represents other points of view, except on academic topics. Perhaps in 2012 I’ll get some book recommendations from people I can disagree with productively. If that’s you, feel free to post them here!

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