Medieval literature: English class

Our customer service expert, Lauren Michalczyk, takes us to the 12th century today with a book she read for graduate school!

Medieval literature is an unknown territory to most people unless you’re forced to read a specific text for school. Luckily, my journey through the twelfth century begins with The Life of Christina of Markyate by Anonymous. Before I dive in, I want to clarify that this biography was most likely written by multiple people as the writing style changes many times through the text. In the Introduction written by Samuel Fanous and Henrietta Leyser, both assert that Christina’s friend, Abbot Roger, employed nuns and other Godly people to write about Christina’s life.

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Born Theodora, she changes her name to Christina to fulfill her need for spiritual kinship. Christina wishes to live her life as a recluse to grow closer to God, but her parents object to this idea because they will have to support her financially. Refusing to believe that their daughter wishes to commit herself to God, Christina’s parents tell her promised husband, Beorhtred, to hide in her room and rid her of her virtue as she sleeps. Christina is too smart for these tricks and waits for Beorhtred to come to her room. When he arrives she tells him that she has married God and does not want to tarnish herself for Him when she goes to Heaven. Once Christina reaches the highest level of Heaven (due to her purity, of course) she will consummate her marriage with God. Like many of you, I was shocked by this notion, but rather than ask my professor about it I decided to let it go.

The story continues and Christina moves to Markyate where she is concealed for four years with the help Abbot Roger and her weird, lover-friend, Geoffrey. She escapes many sexual advances from the bishop and other churchmen. SPOILER ALERT: Christina keeps her virginity for the entirety of her life.

Would I read The Life of Christina of Markyate again? Absolutely not. Am I happy that I had to read it for school? Surprisingly, yes. The text itself is 80 pages so it’s a quick read. Some parts of her story are hilarious because her visions are so outrageous. She thinks she’s in a meadow and bulls (a symbol for men) are about to attack her and physically rip her apart limb from limb. It’s safe to say that The Life of Christina of Markyate is unlike anything I’ve read. If you’re looking to diversify your reading list then this book is for you!

Want to chat about it? I’d be happy to discuss it with anyone who is willing :)

 

Joan Didion, Patron Saint of the ’60s

We’re excited to announce that our YA author, Laura Hurwitz, has written a #FridayReads post this week! Be sure to check out Laura’s Tumblr

Joan Didion first entered my life when I was a college freshman. It was 1973 and the book of her collected essays on our required reading list was Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Didion got the title from the Yeats poem “The Second Coming” which you should read, if you haven’t already, because it captures the chaotic social tenor of the 1960s, which is what this particular collection of Didion’s essays encompasses.

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At the time, Didion made me feel worse than I already did about my generation, positioned as we were at the dawn of disco, which even then I perceived as the gateway culture to the ’70s Me Generation. As a young adolescent, I longed to be a hippie, to belong to a movement that was, to my mind, at least, defiant and romantic and, most of all, cohesive. I held onto this dream, which inspired and informed my YA novel, Disappear Home. Didion’s unflinching vision evoked the ’60s in a way that made me feel like a counter-culture insider, rather than a wistful wannabe.

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Didion is not just smart, but whip-smart—not simply observant, but incisively so. She is not, to quote Holden Caulfield, a phony, but the real deal. I was immediately pulled into her writerly admixture of wonder and dread, a literary vortex where things that happened mattered in a way that cut to the bone, unlike now, when it seems we just slough things off and move on. What keeps me a Didion devotee, though, is not her keen evaluative eye but the perfection of her prose.

This is “In the Islands” from her 1977 collection of essays, The White Album.

…I want you to know, as you read me, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind…You are getting a woman who somewhere along the line misplaced whatever slight faith she ever had in the social contract, in the meliorative principle, in the whole grand pattern of human endeavor.

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Even now, reading Didion keeps me on my toes. She requires me to look up things like “meliorative principle.” I am consistently mesmerized by her ability to examine life without the slightest intention of demystifying anything, but rather, to reveal its bewilderingly illogical complexity. She makes me acutely aware that every shiny surface connects to a dark underbelly, a fact not confined to a time period or a social movement, but emblematic of the human condition.

At 80, Joan Didion is still writing. In 2005, her memoir of her husband John’s death, The Year of Magical Thinking, won The National Book Award. The subject is intensely personal, but the theme of death and loss is universal, and the voice is one hundred percent Didion.

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What I would say is if you haven’t read Joan Didion, do. A good place to start is the collection of the full content of her first seven volume of non-fiction, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live (Everyman’s Library).

#Fridayreads: A photographer found

Happy Friday everyone! Our lovely publicity coordinator, Tracie Schneider, talks about a fascinating book she recently read entitled Vivian Maier: A Photographer Found.

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Vivian Maier lived a relatively quiet life working as nanny for several affluent families on the North Shore. In her spare time, she would wander the streets of Chicago and shoot on her Rolleiflex camera capturing the extraordinary in the everyday ordinary. Nearly all of the 150,000 images captured were left undeveloped and packed away in boxes collecting dust for years at a local storage locker until they were auctioned off and landed in the hands of historical preservationist, John Maloof, for under $400.

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©Vivian Maier

At first, he had absolutely no idea what to do with them. He had originally purchased the negatives for his upcoming Portage Park historical book, but nothing seemed to fit, so, her boxes remained in a closet. Vivian’s work began to soon take life years later after John revisited the boxes and began scanning her images and revealing them to photo enthusiasts on Flickr.

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©Vivian Maier

The art community finally got a glimpse into the world of Vivian Maier—the eccentric mystery woman that always hid behind the camera.

Admirers demanded more. Who was this woman? And why did she conceal her talent from the world? This book explores the oddities and quirky behavior that consumed the painfully private, Vivian Maier, that hindered her ability to become a successful street photographer while alive.

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©Vivian Maier

Even after extensive research, very little is known about her. She had no family, or close friends. She often would use fake names, and it appears she may have even pulled a Madonna by rocking a fake accent even though records indicate that she was born and raised in NYC. What we do know is that she was incredibly tall and lanky. She liked wearing men’s shoes and big, oversized coats. She enjoyed getting lost in large cities and always had a camera strapped around her neck.

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©Vivian Maier

Grown-ups didn’t quite understand her, but kids adored her for her sense of adventure and zest for life. She was the Mary Poppins of the North Shore, and she had the natural ability to freeze moments that would normally be overlooked by busy city dwellers. Here’s a link to a documentary about her: http://www.vivianmaier.com/film-finding-vivian-maier/.

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©Vivian Maier

I really enjoyed this book! Not only did it feature some of Vivian’s most praised work, but it also reminded me to slow down a bit and stop ordering grilled cheese for lunch three days a week. When life gets a little hectic, it’s so easy to get lost in our daily routine that “moments” are often overlooked. Vivian’s work encourages you to break away from autopilot mode, and wake up to the beauty surrounding us.

What “moments” have you stopped to cherish today? Let us know in the comments!

 

#FridayReads: Kristin in Austenland

It’s Friday once again!  And that means it’s time for another installment of #FridayReads, where our Associate Editor, Kristin, will take us to Austenland!

Happy first day of spring! You’ve heard of eating with the seasons—I like to apply the same concept to reading. It was an idea introduced to me when I was a college student working in my spare time at my local bookstore by one of its managers. I was having a difficult time getting into Middlemarch, which I was reading for pleasure that summer, and she explained that focusing on the great works in July is a self-defeating task. She recommended saving the epic tomes for winter and picking something more appropriate for the beach in the meantime. (Some hundreds of pages are a burden in a beach bag.) I’ve been reading with the seasons ever since.

For spring, I like to pick a transition book, something that is both literary and beachy. I cheated a little earlier this week when the city was experiencing unusually warm weather and started Austenland by Shannon Hale, author of the Newbery-honored Princess Academy. An homage to the enduring work of Jane Austen—or rather, if the main character of the novel, Jane Hayes, is being honest, an homage to the swoony movies her work inspires—it’s a romance set in an Austen-themed resort. It met both my requirements for a spring read.

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Like the start of so many rom-coms, Jane is a thirty-something single woman in love with Colin Firth and ready to swear off men…when a distant relative dies and bequeaths her a trip to the aforementioned resort. Anyone who’s ever considered a vacation to Lyme Park or Chatsworth House or even Highclere Castle can relate here! Is it a dream come true…or a confession of obsession? Jane decides to go, determined to find her happy ending there or give up her romantic hopes for good. Throw in some dashing actors pretending (…or not pretending?) to woo the resort’s guests, and hilarity ensues as Jane maneuvers the maze of her fantasies and reality.

As I’ve gotten into the book, I’ve realized it’s not the Jane Austen references that make the book literary, but the strength of Shannon Hale’s writing. The story reads like a beach read, but it’s sophisticated stuff. Hale exposes and finds the humor in the truths universally acknowledged by Jane Austen fans. The book pokes fun at romantics but sympathizes with them too. It is the Northanger Abbey of romances. Jane is a heroine more like Bridget Jones than the composed Elizabeth Bennet. She’s wholly believable and relatable and utterly charming, and that’s what makes this a terrific spring read. I can’t help but cheer—er, tally-ho—her on in her misadventures.

Will Jane find her Mr. Darcy? …Will I ever finish Middlemarch?

#Fridayreads: Kiki’s book club gives us recommendations

Let’s take a trip to Kiki’s book club! Kiki, who always has a fun story to share, is Albert Whitman’s Purchasing Assistant. Take it away, Kiki!

I’m a part of a lovely book club. We catch up, have some coffee, and discuss a variety of genres of books. I’ve been a part of it for a number of years. It’s honestly one of the best parts of my week! Below I’ve listed several titles we’ve recently read as a group, as well as some books I intend to read with the book club.

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The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo is an international bestseller with over 2 million copies sold since October 2014. I haven’t finished it quite yet, but here are some tips that especially resonated with me:

  • When you put your house in order, you put your affairs in order, too.
  • All you need to do is look at each item, one at a time, and decide whether or not to keep it and where to put it.
  • The key to success in tidying is to keep only those items that bring you joy. “Does this spark joy?”

If the answer to the above question is ‘no’ then you discard the item. I intend to employ the KonMari method during my spring clean this year. If used correctly, the KonMari method will make this my last attempt at tidying up. “By successfully concluding this once-in-a-lifetime task” all subsequent acts of tidying will only be putting items back to where they belong. She outlines a specific order to tidying and discarding. I am looking forward to my tidy house that she had me visualize in Chapter 2. Thanks Marie!

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Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill was selected as one of the New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of 2014. As a short read –less than 200 pages—it has a fragmented style that keeps the reader on her toes. It is about marriage & motherhood and the loneliness & the disappointment that comes with both. My book club had a lively discussion of this book. This is the perfect book to read twice, expect to pick up on themes and other passages not noticed the first time around.

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Yes Please by Amy Poehler was neither critically acclaimed nor on any ‘Best of’ lists. However, it had funny stories and felt, at points, real to me. A bit scattered, all in all it was a good book to escape to after a long day. The book was neither frivolous nor too serious. I definitely recommend this one.

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The books I intend to read next are: The Martian, Deep Down Dark and Girl on the Train, which are the next three book club selections. My choice for the group was Girl on the Train since it kept popping up as a recommendation time and time again. We choose these three in particular so we can read ahead or get on the looong waiting list at the Chicago Public Library (101st on the waiting list of Deep, Down Dark).

#Fridayreads: Alex takes us to English class

Happy Friday everyone! Our intern, Alex Messina-Sehultheis, takes us through her English program at DePaul:

As a student in DePaul’s English program, one must become accustomed to receiving page-long reading lists included in class syllabi. It’s standard practice to read one novel every week, and it’s inevitable some of these books will test your interest and ultimately your patience. I know this to be true as a graduate student in the department where the next “Great American Novel” is frequently included on our reading lists. It’s because of those patience testing novels, among other reasons, that I am often so glad to be interning at Albert Whitman & Co where one can easily disappear into the lives of imaginative characters (whom, incidentally, thankfully have no interest in the “Great American Novel”).

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Although these lists are sometimes filled with novels that are often made up of personal agenda and unending streams of consciousness, there comes along a book which makes one appreciate the gift of a beautiful prose. Marilynne Robinson is the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Gilead, which is the first novel in a series of three which follows the lives of several individuals in the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa. Gilead is an “intimate tale of three generations from the Civil War to the twentieth century: a story about fathers and sons and the spiritual battles that still rage at America’s heart.” The narrative is told by the ailing reverend in the town as he recounts familial stories as a recording to his young son before he passes away.

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We were asked to read both Gilead and Lila, which is the third novel in the collection. The novel is told through the reverend’s young wife (Lila’s) perspective. Both novels are an example of a seemingly effortless prose. Line after line proves the beauty of simplistic and meaningful writing. Robinson’s ability to describe the “human condition and the often unbearable beauty of an ordinary life” is unlike many novels I have been required to read for class discussions. Her novels force the reader to slow down in order to fully absorb the luminous prose. I often describe her writing in the corniest way by telling people that when I read her work, it often feels like home. Her writing is familiar in a way that is still engaging and unexplored. I would recommend this book to anyone and would love to have a discussion with them about what I believe to be the next “Great American Novel.”

What would your choice be for the next Great American Novel?

Explore a world of dinosaurs this #FridayReads!

Happy Friday, everyone.  TGIF!  Am I right? For today’s #FridayReads, Ellen Kokontis shares some of her favorite books from childhood.

It’s my birthday tomorrow, and that’s gotten me thinking about some of the best presents I ever got as a kid. My mom told me recently that for every holiday, birthday, etc., growing up, she and my dad would always get me a book. Now, I’ll be honest, I don’t actually remember what I got for Christmas in 1990 or for my fourth birthday. But it doesn’t really matter when Blueberries for Sal (Robert McCloskey), George and Martha (James Marshall), Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel (Virginia Lee Burton), or Millions of Cats (Wanda Gag) came into my life. All that matters is how they influenced me when I was still just a tiny person.

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The best book I ever got came for Christmas in 1994. InscriptionDinotopia gave me a world where dinosaurs and people coexist. I spent hours poring over these pages as a child. The story engrossing—Arthur Denison and his son, Will, find themselves shipwrecked on the island and have to start their lives over in this new, strange place.

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But what really grabbed me is the format. It follows very much in the footsteps of Rien Poortvliet’s Gnomes. Every aspect of island life is explained in detail with cutaways and labels. So while you read the story, you’re also exploring an entire world.

dinotopiaspread2dinotopiaspread3I attribute a lot of the way I am to this series of books. I love to look at small details, and I have a special zeal for complex and intricate illustrations. I love going to museums because they give me the same thrill of discovery and exploration that I got when I read these books. I also carry a fairly embarrassing obsession with dinosaurs to this day, and I get a little sad whenever I see a kid who isn’t also completely obsessed with them.

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This year, when my mom asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I said I didn’t really know. And that’s not because there aren’t little things that I want or need, but because I don’t think there’s anything out there that can change me as much or mean as much to me as these books. So thanks, mom and dad, for giving me everything that made me who I am. (Even if that includes obnoxiously correcting people’s pronunciation of quetzalcoatlus.)

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Thanks, Ellen!  And HAPPY BIRTHDAY!