What Reading Has Taught Me

I spend a good chunk of yesterday on Twitter, following the developments of the anti-refugee executive order signed by Trump—the protests, the lawyers sitting on the floor filing habeas briefs pro bono, the temporary stays ordered by Judges Donnelly and Brinkema. I retweeted news, contact numbers, recommendations to donate to groups fighting for refugees, and voicing my anger, sadness, and embarrassment at the actions of the government that claims to represent me. This is not a political blog and I’m not usually a political person. I don’t intend to turn this blog into another angry voice on the Internet. But I also don’t want my fellow readers to think that I am carrying on link normal. Though I am limited in what I can do, I am raising my voice against injustice.

From Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi

Part of this is because my parents raised me right. (Thanks, Mom and Dad!) And part of this is because I am a reader. The books I read have given me glimpses into the lives of people of color, LGBTQ people, refugees, victims of crime, heroes and heroines, immigrants, and more. These glimpses have helped me learn to see the world from more than one perspective and be empathetic.

The news just this week has been so awful and outrageous (in the sense that it outraged me) that it’s tempting to disappear into fiction. Fiction is a splendid retreat from the world. But, as Jayson Flores recommends at The Mary Sue, we should not retreat into books or movies or other distractions. Readers can’t forget about the real world when events demand loud, decisive action. The stories we’ve read about all those different kinds of people should have taught us to be better than that.

I’ve been thinking more and more about Atticus Finch lately. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus defends a black man who was accused of raping a white woman. His defense shows the case to be a racist frame up. At one point, Atticus stands outside the jailhouse to defend his client from the possibility of being lynched by the townspeople. Atticus used his privilege as a white man to do the right thing. He did not stand aside because he wasn’t black or poor or because there was a certain amount of risk in taking on the job. But he stood up for his belief in justice. His bravery made a huge impression on me when I first read To Kill a Mockingbird. I consider Mockingbird to be one of the books that helped form me as a person and a reader.

I intend to use whatever privilege I have to resist the un-American and unconstitutional actions of the current president for as long as I have to.

A reader resolves, year 4

This year’s resolutions are a mix of challenge and reward:

  1. Challenge: I will read at least one work of nonfiction each month.
  2. Reward: I will read at least one book written before 1900 each month.

I thought about adding one of the myriad reading challenges but, due to health issues, I need to take it easy on myself for at least the first six months of the year. (Mostly, I don’t want to end up with a challenge that requires me to read poetry.) I’d rather let my mood dictate what I read for the next while.

Gayle Kabaker

Nonfiction is on this year’s resolution list because I keep running across reviews for books on topics that sound utterly fascinating. John McWhorter has two new books out that I haven’t gotten to yet and someone just wrote a history of the Nazi regime on drugs. Plus, there are books that people have been talking about on the bookish internet for ages that I really want to tackle, like The Emperor of All Maladies. The only downside is for my friends and family, who will be assailed with random trivia about any number of weird events and phenomena over the next twelve months.

The classics are back on the list because I realized that I miss reading Victorian literature after a while. I love the rich language and the subtle jabs of writers like Austen and Dickens about their characters. There’s more to it, but I’m not entirely sure why I’m drawn to these books so much. Perhaps I’ll figure that out by the end of the year.

If you’ve also made reading resolutions, let me know in the comments. Happy reading, everyone!

Resolution reflections

Since I’m 200 pages into Little Dorrit (800+ pages in total) this seemed like a dandy time to see how I measured up to this year’s reading resolutions. To sum up, I had two resolutions this year. First, I would read down my to-read list. Second, I would re-read a book I own. I regret to say that I only managed to achieve one of my goals by fudging; I completely blew the second goal.

Until this year, my to-read list has hovered around 150 books. It’s been up over 200 in the past, but 150 or so usual. I would read books from the list, so it wasn’t entirely an aspirational fantasy. The problem is that I read so many book reviews to get ideas of titles to buy for my library that I would add one more titles for every one I took off. I never got ahead. So I set myself the goal of reading three books from the list each month. I’ve been pretty good about following this goal…I just still had the problem of adding more books to the list than I was reading. It didn’t look like I was making any progress. So I looked over the list a couple of times and started taking things off the list. I culled:

  1. Books that probably sounded interesting at the time but now made me wonder what I hell I was thinking.
  2. Books that were aspirational fantasies such as experimental fiction.
  3. Books that had been on the list for ages that I still hadn’t read them. I finally faced up to the fact that I just wasn’t going to read them.

The to-read list now sits at 87 titles. This is the first time since I joined Goodreads that the list has been under 100 titles.

Elena Samokysh-Sudovskaya

I completely failed at the second goal. The books I really wanted to re-read are already blogged here, so I would have had to slow down my review pacing and that turned out to be harder than I realized. Then there were a couple of months were I got bogged down with new titles that I needed to review before they were published. Once you skip a month or two, it gets very easy to keep skipping.

I haven’t entirely decided on my goals for 2017. I want to continue my good work whittling down the to-read list. I also want to return to reading classics. Several of my friends have given me crap about reading Little Dorrit (“A book about debtors in prison? How cheery!”), but I’ve missed the rich vocabulary of older literature. Other than that, I have no idea what I will challenge myself with next year.

I hate you (in fiction)

There have been a lot of interruptions in my reading lately. First, there was the sinusitis. Then, there was the election. Now, there’s Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White and a library conference. Until I finish that almost 900 page honker, I won’t be able to post reviews. In the meantime, though, I have bookish thoughts for you all. This little rant is inspired by the behemoth I am currently reading.

Joan Llimona i Bruguera

The Crimson Petal and the White begins with a literary device that I loathe: the second person perspective. The narrator plays at being Virgil, guiding “You” through the dank, insalubrious streets of 1870s London. This device is supposed to provide immediacy by trying to get readers to imagine themselves inside the story as observers, even actors in some stories. This has never worked for me. Instead of immersing me in the story, all the second person does is constantly remind me that I’m looking at letters on a page and, in the words of Katie Oldham, “vividly hallucinate” for “hours on end.”

Once I got through the first few chapters of The Crimson Petal and the White, the Virgilian narrator cooled it with the second person and I was finally able to sink into the novel. (The fact that I was on a plane for three hours also turned out to be wonderful for my concentration.) When I had some time yesterday to reflect on my dislike-then-actually-quite-enjoy reaction to this book so far, I realized that I much prefer it when I get to recreate the setting in my own head, choosing what to pay attention to or ignore myself rather than being told by a narrator. The narrator does pop up later in the book but only to deliver snarky asides that had me snorting at inappropriate moments.

The other issue I have with the second person is that, with a few exceptions like The Crimson Petal and the White, the only time I see this device cropping up is in literary fiction or in stories written by immature authors. (By immature I mean they haven’t really grown into their craft.) Second person is tough to pull off, I’m told, though I’ve yet to see it used successfully. Like purple prose, second person perspective makes me think a writer is more interested in literary pyrotechnics than in telling a good story.

Am I being too hard on second person? It’s possible I’m judging it too harshly because I much prefer to learn about a character’s psychology or a setting than be an actor in a story myself. I really don’t like literary techniques that remind me I’m reading. It always feels like I’m being evicted from a book when I run across something like the second person, narrators breaking the fourth wall (unless it’s metafiction, but then I’m prepared), or clumsy world-building. I like to be immersed in a fictional world, but only if I do the heavy mental lifting myself. That way, the story becomes uniquely mine. The second person just screws that up for me.

The DNF Doldrums

My radio silence this weekend is due to to things. First, I had a bad bout of sinusitis (which turned me into the person at the library I hate who is making awful bronchial noises). Second, I tried repeatedly to get into a book that I found intriguing but just couldn’t get into. I don’t know about the rest of you readers, but trying to get into a book when you don’t feel very well is the pits.

Alan Foster

I’ve had streaks in the past where I didn’t finish several books in a row, which throws me into a complete funk. I end up wondering if I’ll ever get back in the groove again. Nothing in my to-read pile seems to appeal. (Sometimes it gets to the point that I have to go reread Terry Pratchett or some other favorite until the doldrums dissipate.) Am I being too hard on these books because I’m not in the mood? Am I tired of a particular genre and need to read something completely different? Am I pressuring myself to read too much too fast? Am I overthinking the whole thing? (Yes.)

I think I’m over the funk now. Reading a quick juicy thriller helped a lot. Getting over the sinusitis has definitely helped; my eyes don’t burn when I try to read a page. I have no idea what I’m going to read next at this point, but I’m feeling more optimistic that I’ll be able to escape between the covers when I do find something to read.

I got the funk

I’ve been cranking out book reviews as often as I can lately, but I have to admit, a run of not-great books has put me into a bit of a funk as far as reading goes. Writing reviews for good and great reads is its own challenge; it’s hard to sound sincere when you’re gushing. Writing reviews for books I didn’t like is a snap. I just let my annoyance take over for me.

The books that fall between “didn’t like” and “okay” are a special challenge. Not only do they send me scurrying back to reread books I liked to get their mediocre taste out of my brain, but I find it hard sometimes to communicate exactly what I didn’t like. I feel like I’m being picky when I say things like the book just didn’t work for me or I didn’t see the point of it. Every book has its reader out there somewhere, after all. I’m just not it.

Normally, when I feel my bookish mojo waning, I head for my favorites—but I’m also up against a self-imposed deadline. August 31 is the end of my book year. (I started this blog in August 2005.) Because I’m competitive about my reading, I want to read more books than I did last year and I’m not sure I’m going to make it. So, no rereads of books I’ve read a bunch of times until I hit 207 books completed.

Hopefully the rest of my books in my immediate to-read pile can help me get my groove back. Thanks for listening to me whine about my self-imposed bookish problems.

Santiago Rusiñol i Prats

A Venn Diagram of Nerdiness; Or, My Cat Lady Problems Meet My Bookworm Problems

Usually, owning cats is a delight. But sometimes, cats are not conducive to the reading life. Observe:

  1. Every book I borrow ends up with cat fur in it. The longer I keep a book, the fuzzier it gets.
  2. My cats don’t understand what I’m doing when I stare at my iPad or a book. They think I’m not busy:
    1. Ari (the white and brown one) will sit in the gutter of print books.
    2. Both cats will touch or brush my iPad screen with their ears and turn the page on me.
    3. Mogwai (the tabby) like to try and curl up in my arms while I’m reading, so I end up trying to read around his fat head.
  3. A sleeping cat in your lap increases your desire to nap exponentially, thus decreasing the time available to read.
  4. Books with bookmarks sown into the binding are basically cat toys.
  5. My cats have learned that I love neat, organized shelves and that they can get my attention by knocking books off the shelf one…by…one.
  6. Just try juggling a book, a mug of tea, and a cat that wants scritches.
  7. Mogwai sometimes thinks turning pages is a game. And he wants to play, too.
  8. Both cats have a bad habit of getting lost in the cupboards just when I get to an exciting part or am ten pages from the end of a book. Sometimes I read on before I go rescue them.
  9. Scent-marking any books that comes in the house. All pets are secretly engaged in chemical warfare with each other and books are just another battlefield. It’s just weird.
  10. And for the triple crown of dorkiness: the cats will often try and climb inside my cardigan when I’m reading.

Booknip & Bookbane

The Book Rioters call it the wheelhouse. I tend to think of certain settings, plots, characters, and tropes as booknip. I cannot resist books when I run across certain things in a book review. This has gotten me into trouble a time to two, when it turns out that the booknip is the only good part of a book.

Here’s what sends me running to add a book to my to-read list:

  • Books set in places, times I’ve never read about before (unless it’s the ’50s)
  • Metafiction
  • Fantasies set in and around libraries, bookshops
  • Ethical dilemmas
  • Russia during the Revolution and Civil War
  • Picaresques with brains as well as silliness
  • Reincarnation featuring several characters who keep finding each other through the centuries (unless it’s a romance)

But if I spot these things in a book description, I will immediately stop reading the blurb:

  • Stories of dysfunctional suburban families or crumbling suburban marriages
  • “Contemporary romance”
  • Were-anything other than wolves
  • The 1950s
  • Cosy mysteries and/or mysteries that have terrible puns in their titles
  • Rich people problems/first world problems

Today I heard a poet

Natasha Trethewey
Natasha Trethewey

A few weeks ago, I was surprised thrilled to learn that I would have a chance to listen to a real-live poet laureate speak. Natasha Trethewey delivered a mixed talk and poetry reading this afternoon at a local university. She spoke about events in her life that “hurt me into poetry,” as well as historical events that feature in her work. The poems Trethewey chose for today included one palindromic poem inspired by her grief for her mother that was shatteringly moving and several elegies. She finished with a poem called “Enlightenment,” which is based on how her father spoke of race and how visitors to Monticello discuss Sally Hemings’ ancestry.

To hear a poet reading their own work adds something that is lost on paper. I don’t think about how something sounds much when I read novels. Novels are meant to be read silently. (Usually, anyway. I have my doubts that Tolkien’s books are meant to be read aloud to an audience—possibly with tankards of mead in the vicinity.) Reading poetry, rather than hearing poetry, can make me feel like there’s something lost in the translation process. As she read, Trethewey modulated her voice from speaking to reading. Her pitch rose, just a bit, and she inserted pauses after phrases to give them extra weight.

I hurt my hands clapping after Trethewey concluded; her work resonated with me in a way I rarely experience with poets. I usually avoid poetry because so much of it is so emotionally raw that I feel like an intruder. I certainly felt emotion listening to Tretheway: anger, fear, shock, grief. But the emotions were grounded by Trethewey’s references to people and events, giving my brain some context to work with. In the past, I’ve always liked poetry with strong storylines and characters and have been turned off by highly experimental work or work that tries to call emotion out of the void.

Bookish dreams

My dreams are usually inspired by whatever I’ve read or watched right before I go to sleep. Every now and then, I’ll have a week where I spend a lot of extra time at work. In those weeks, I’m almost guaranteed to have a book dream.

Here are two of the best dreams I can remember:

The Archive Dream. I don’t know how I got there, but I dreamed I was in a messy archive. Nothing was in order and nothing was stored right. I found amazing historical documents about the monarchs of England. It was up to me to fix it. I even remember that I started to wake up but fought it off so that I could stay and clean up.

The Living Library Dream. This one was so good I wrote down some notes about it in case I wanted to turn it into a Nanowrimo story. This library was old, medieval-looking, probably inspired by pictures of Oxford and Cambridge’s libraries on tumblr. The library was also clean and well-organized, but no one could find anything without a librarian’s help because the books would migrate around the stacks when no one was looking. A librarian, however, would always put their hands on just the right book for the patron.