reading life

A Story-Telling Fail

When I visited Phoenix over Christmas, there was only one thing my four-year-old niece wanted to do when we got in the car to go somewhere. She wanted to tell stories. Those of us in the back seat all had to take turns. A lot of what we came up featured a little princess named B—– or a little prince named J—— and were far from what the Grimms or Perrault would come up with. But I was under pressure and most of the stories I know are not appropriate for anyone under the age of, say, 18. Once I’d related the stories of how I adopted a couple of my pets, I was out.

Arthur George Walker

There are so many great story-telling traditions around the world. My people, centuries ago, were skalds. And everyone has fairy tales and folklore in there heritage. There used to be people capable of memorizing thousands of lines of text. (There still are, but there used to be a lot more than the few there are now.) If nothing else, Disney is so prevalent that we can all half-remember one of those tales. We, at least in the West, rely so much on books that it’s too easy for little stories to slip through the grey matter unless you study to be a professional spinner of tales.

Even though I’ve never trained as I story-teller and I don’t usually spend time around kids any younger than college freshmen, I could’ve kicked myself because I couldn’t come up with something I remembered from my own childhood. But then, the only stories I can really remember my parents telling me were chapter books for older children. I can’t remember any further back. Any fairy tales I’ve read since I became an adult are definitely not child-friendly. I suspect that I am so bothered by this failure is because I a) value stories so highly personally and b) really hate the feeling of blanking when someone asks me for something I know that I know. It’s like those awful moments when someone asks for a good book to read and I forget every book I’ve ever read.

All I can really do is arm myself with little stories the next time I visit Princess B—– so that I don’t embarrass myself again. I need something pocket size that I can pull out when she orders that we all take turns telling stories in the back seat.

reading life

A Reader Resolves!

Last year, I decided to skip reading resolutions. The year before, I was going through chemotherapy and had enough on my plate without adding a self-imposed book challenge. But now, at the beginning of 2019, I feel like upping the stakes a little. So, this year, I resolve to:

Stewart Carmichael
  1. Read at least one work of non-fiction every month. This is partly a continuation of a streak of great nonfiction I’ve found in the last few months and also because I suddenly gotten very curious about history lately. I want to see where my curiosity takes me this year.
  2. Read at least six collections of short stories this year. I’ve given short shrift to short stories in the past. (Hee hee.) I seem to have an aversion to stories under a certain length. Either they’re so interesting and richly constructed that I want more or I find that they’re skimpy though experiments that are too unrealistic for me. That said, I don’t think I’ve given the format a fair shot since 99% of what I’ve ever read is novels. Also, I just finished reading a collection by Elizabeth McCracken that I loved and I want more.

Do any of you readers out there have bookish resolutions? I’d love to hear them!

opinions · reading life

Uncollected Thoughts on Eleven Years of the Kindle

It’s not a special anniversary, but LitHub recently posted in one of their daily news round ups that the kindle had launched in 2007. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. In my life, I don’t know that anything else has caused as much hysteria about reading and the state of readership as the kindle has, at least in my lifetime. 

Oszkár Glatz
  1. I wish people would stop giving readers crap for reading anything other than a printed book. I can understand the attractions of a print book, but I am bothered by the way print-only readers fetishize the codex. Perhaps it’s because being a librarian has desensitized me—I see far too many old, worn out, distinctly not rare books for that—but I have long felt that the content is more important than the container. (Unless, of course, we’re talking about beautifully bound books or books with a special provenance.) And, for pity’s sake, leave the audiobook readers alone. 
  2. Although the kindle has made it easier for me personally to get my hands on books that I can’t get from my local libraries or bookstores immediately, I really wish it was easier for libraries and library patrons to easily access ebooks. There are too many hurdles—so many that I steer students at my library away from them because it’s a pain in the ass.
  3. The kindle and other ereaders don’t make it easy enough (for me at least) to do deep reading of texts. I see so many students in literature classes squinting at their phones in an effort to find passages they needed to reference, even though their professor and I have told them that it’s better to use print for this kind of reading. 
  4. I don’t blame the convenience of the kindle for no. 3. We educators just need to make a better effort at teaching students how to do different kinds of reading. The kindle is great for reading for fun. For literary criticism and textual explication? Not so much.
  5. When it comes to my reading, I really like reading on a kindle. I read so much faster with an ebook than with a print book. I joked that I was wasting a lot of time turning the pages, but maybe those seconds really do add up. Not only that, but I really like being able to instantly look things up by touching the words. This more than anything has slightly ruined me for print books. I have to look things up the old-fashioned way when I read print books. ::dramatic sigh::
  6. I’m not sure if it’s the kindle or ebooks in general or something else, but I’ve noticed a lot more typos in books in the last couple of years. At least with a print book, I’d be able to have the satisfaction of writing in a correction.
  7. I worry that I won’t be able to access my kindle library if I take my iPad to anther country and I’m not eager to test this. If I ever do travel abroad, I plan to take a nice thick print book for back up. Perhaps being stranded in a foreign country without reading material might be enough to prompt me to finish War and Peace.

Is there anything that I’ve missed? I’d love to hear others’ thoughts about the kindle and ereading in general.

reading life

Tagging Myself In: 20 Bookish Questions

Since I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to teach myself Spanish (I blame Gaston Dorren), I’ve had less time to read and think of interesting things to post on Wednesdays. So, I’m stealing using Nose Stuck in a Book’s 20 Question Book Tag as the inspiration for this post.
A recent view of Mount TBR, including the last book I DNFed.
  1. How many books are too many books in a series?
    This depends entirely on the story and the writing. As long as the author is still finding new (plausible) territory and the story feels like it’s not wearing out or straining, then there’s still life in the series. As soon as the story feels tired or repetitive, it’s time for the author to move on.
  2. How do you feel about cliffhangers?
    Loathe them so much I wrote a post about it.
  3. Hardcopy or paperback?
    I don’t really have a preference, unless it’s a really big hardcover. If the book is heavy, I prefer ebook.
  4. Favorite Book?
    The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver; Lamb, by Christopher Moore; Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett; A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra
  5. Least Favorite Book?
    It’s a tie between The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Catcher in the Rye,  by J.D. Salinger. I’d throw in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce, but I never finished them.
  6. Love triangles, yes or no?
    Only if they all end up together. Which I don’t think ever happens. Love triangles just add unearned angst.
  7. The most recent book you just couldn’t finish?
    Behind the Scenes at the Museum, by Kate Atkinson – It just wasn’t interesting enough to hook me.
  8. A book you’re currently reading?
    European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, by Theodora Goss – Metafictional fun!
  9. Last book you recommended to someone?
    The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth, by Thomas Morris
  10. The oldest book you’ve read? (Publication date)
    The Epic of Gilgamesh c. 2100 BCE
  11. The newest book you’ve read? (Publication date)
    The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth – It comes out soon.
  12. Favorite author?
    Barbara Kingsolver, Neil Gaiman, Charles Dickens, Anthony Marra, Terry Pratchett, Margaret Atwood, N.K. Jemisin…so many others.
  13. Buying books or borrowing books?
    Both! I’m insatiable.
  14. A book you dislike that everyone else seems to love?
    The Catcher in the Rye – I just don’t see the appeal. Holden Caulfield is a pretentious little brat.
  15. Bookmarks or dog-ears?
    Dogears, but only in my own books. When I borrow books from other people or the library, I use a card from my Yellowstone National Park deck.
  16. A book you can always re-read?
    Good Omens – I’ve read it so many times and it still makes me laugh.
  17. Can you read while hearing music?
    Only scholarly reading, weirdly enough. When I’m reading for fun, I tend to stop noticing the music so I just don’t turn it on.
  18. One POV or multiple POVs?
    I’m good with either as long as they’re well written. I get annoyed at multiple POV books in which the characters all sound the same and/or the transitions are abrupt and make it hard to tell who is speaking.
  19. Do you read a book in one sitting or over multiple days?
    If it’s short, interesting, and I don’t have the go to work, I can read a book in one sitting. Otherwise, it takes a day or two.
  20. Who do you tag?
    If you like these questions, feel free to tag yourself in, too!
opinions · reading life

Angry Books in an Angry Time

Like a lot of other Americans, I am angry. Like a lot of liberal Americans, I am regularly furious. I’ve gotten so angry that on bad news days, I stay away from Twitter and Facebook because I know that I risk having an aneurysm. I stay far away from political non-fiction because I know that my blood pressure can’t handle it. So why, then, do I read angry books like How to Be Safe by Tom McAllister, Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, or The Power, by Naomi Alderman? Why would I want to read something that I know will probably make me angry?

Gotthard Kühl

I suspect that I read these books because so many of them are angry about the things I’m angry about. I live in a conservative state and it’s not hard to end up on deep red internet, so sometimes it feels good to be angry with like-minded characters. They help me feel less alone that way. They let me know that I’m not the only one who has a similar perspective to me and they’re angry, too.

Reading angry books can backfire. Years ago, I read Dan Simmons’s Flashback and ended up hating it. The publisher blurbs led me to think it was an interesting alternate history novel. I liked the other books I had read by Simmons, so I snagged a copy from the bookstore. I don’t want to speculate about Simmons’ politics, but the novel struck me as something from the conservative point of view. I ended up angry at the book rather than with the book. 

There are some topics I stay away from, even if I might feel some solidarity with the angry characters. When a friend asked me to read Future Home of the Living God, by Louise Erdrich, I asked her if it would piss me off. I read the book (and liked a lot of it) because she needed someone to talk to about it. What worries me most about reading books about topics that I know will enrage me is that the book will fail to treat these topics (bodily autonomy, rape culture, etc.) with the respect and thoughtfulness they deserve. Or that they will turn out to present a conservative point of view. This is a species of confirmation bias, but I freely admit that I’ve a strong, pink-tinged liberal bias. 

How do you feel about books that wear their anger on their dust jackets?

opinions · reading life

Shut Up and Listen; Or, Having Bookish Guts

There are books that I describe as “deserve to be widely read.” I hate to do this. It just reminds me that these books will most likely be read by the people who are already kind on board with their message and ignored or denigrated by people who need to shut up and listen. That last bit of wisdom comes from a faculty member I was talking books with earlier today. This professor was talking about reading I Can’t Breathe, by Matt Taibbi, with her reading group, who focus on books about social issues.

(c) South Ayrshire Council; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
A.C.W. Duncan

I wish that my university would pick something like I Can’t Breathe as its freshman read. I think up until now, they’ve chosen books that cover important issues but that are about something that it’s possible for American readers to distance themselves from. These books, like Three Cups of Tea, end up reminding students that they’re lucky to be born in American. I would like to read gutsy books along with these students. I know it won’t be fun. It will be downright uncomfortable. We’ll get angry. We’ll get upset. But that’s what a great book about injustice should do. (And there’s a lot of injustice out there.)

I’m generally against required reading of books that aren’t enjoyable. And I understand why schools don’t pick uncomfortable. Three years ago, Duke University got in hot water when they picked Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. But I think the occasional uncomfortable, angering book is good for us. It’s even better when we have people to talk about it with. Reading books like I Can’t Breathe alone can make us feel helpless as well as angry. If we read it with a bunch of other angry people, after we all shut up and listen to people who aren’t being heard, we can make some changes. We can vote and make a difference.

And it can all start with an uncomfortable book we have to read. Someone just has to be brave enough to assign the book. After all, these books deserve it.

opinions · reading life

Diamonds in the Rough; Or, Finding Great Reads in Generic Dross

A fellow bookish blogger, Smithereens, asked me a question about whether or not sue should read a particular book in a super-saturated genre. That question got me to thinking about what does make a book a stand out from the crowd when there are a bajillion examples of the genre all over the market.

Isaac Israel

Saturated genre markets are not unusual. Someone creates a winner—Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s StoneThe Da Vinci Code; any number of supernatural romances; and, in the case of Smithereens’ question, the mind-boggling number of dystopias currently crowding bookstore shelves—and then the Big Five publishers start cranking out readalikes until people get bored of them and move on to the next big read. This isn’t to say that all the clones are not worthwhile. There are good books in any heap. The problem is that, the more books there are in a genre, the harder it is to find the really good ones. Hence my question. So, I thought of some things to look for to find the goods ones:

  1. Look for roundups of the best examples of a particular genre on the big bookish sites like Book Riot, LitHub, or other source that has similar tastes to you. I prefer sites that provide at least little blurbs to explain why the books are particularly good type specimens.
  2. Read reviews of books that catch your eye and look for hints that the book does something different from the usual fare:
    1. Look for a protagonist who does not look like the usual type.
    2. Look for language that amounts to “twist on the usual.” For me, the stand outs in any saturated genre are the ones that play around with expectations. They’ll flip genders, mash up genres, age up the protagonist, avoid the tropes, etc.
    3. Avoid any books in which the review mentions any of the specific genre’s tropes or that refer to books as undeveloped, uneven, or unexceptional.
  3. Find another reader you trust who reads a particular genre and ask.
    1. Book Riot runs a very good podcast for book recommendations called Get Booked. The women who host the show have access to the massive Book Riot contributor community for when they get stumped.
    2. Joelendil added in the comments: “in my experience blurbs that directly compare their book to the premier book that popularized the sub-genre tend to be painfully generic at best. For me, ‘Fans of LOTR will love this…’ is a big red warning flag even though LOTR is my all time favorite fiction.” Thanks for the addition!
  4. This is similar to 3, but look for authors who’ve won awards in your target genre if there is one. You can often find genre awards by googling. I know there are awards for science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, historical fiction, and romance.

Good luck out there, readers! And thanks for Smithereens for the idea.

Edited to add 3.2, courtesy of Joelendil.