My July reads have been shaped largely by the fact I’ve been traveling.
First, as I do every summer I can manage it, I came home to Greece. Granted, I was born and raised in the US. But both of my parents are from Greece. Whenever I return, my favorite uncle says to me, “Welcome home.” It feels like coming home. Continue reading “Reading wrap-up: July reads and purchases”
My June reads focused on my two reading projects: Ancient Greek literature and the Gilmore Girls reading challenge (which we’re doing at Books, Ink). Perhaps unsurprisingly, my library holds many of these titles already.
I apparently have a lot to say about my June reads, so we might as well jump right in:
Blue Nights and Slouching Towards Bethlehemby Joan Didion
Joan Didion is one of my favorite nonfiction writers. It was a treat to read/reread her work for the Gilmore Girls Reading Challenge. (My piece for the challenge is here.)
Blue Nights has been languishing on my bookshelf for years. Who knows why? Maybe I wanted to wait, to savor it. Maybe I was scared of how sad it would be. She wrote it after her daughter’s death, which followed shortly after her husband’s death. As you might expect, it explores grief and loss—both of others and, as we age, of the self we have known. The blue nights of the title provide an overarching metaphor for how brilliance prefigures its own end. This notion is threaded throughout this moving, poetic memoir.
Slouching Toward Bethlehem may be my favorite essay collection of all time. It’s Didion’s 1968 nonfiction writing about, among many other topics, the Haight-Ashbury, Las Vegas weddings, morality, self-respect, and writing. It’s gorgeous and awe-inspiring—a must read for nonfiction writers.
In the Preface to the collection, Didion writes that being “so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate” may invite others to overlook her, to their detriment. Because, Didion continues, “Writers are always selling somebody out” (italics in the original). It’s harsh, but possibly too often accurate. What I love so much about Didion’s nonfiction is, she never lets us forget that she’s there. She never lets us forget that what we’re seeing isn’t objective truth but what she saw and experienced. It’s a kind of integrity I aspire to, and not just in my writing.
Jason and the Argonauts by Apollonius of Rhodes (bought this year)
In this epic poem (dating to the third century BC), Pelias, the king of Iolcus, sends Jason on a quest to recover the Golden Fleece from Colchis. This is because Jason is the rightful heir to the kingdom, and Pelias wants to get rid of him. Hence the impossible quest. Jason gathers a group of heroes, and they face treacherous challenges and setbacks along the way (obvi).
I had tried to read Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights at least twice before finally getting through it in January. The novel was never assigned to me, that I can recall. But it’s one of those books so often referenced that not having read it felt like an absence. Continue reading “Wuthering Heights and the power of love”
I first read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre in graduate school.
It was during an ill-advised semester I’d registered for two courses on novels and a third on literary theory. Some weeks, my required reading hovered around 2,500 pages. I constructed elaborate reading schedules derived by dividing the week’s required pages by my average page-per-hour count. I read eight hours a day, seven days a week, curled up in a shabby but comfy forest green corduroy recliner. Continue reading “Rereading Jane Eyre: Why it’s good to read books we don’t *like*”
Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, first published in 1726, satirizes human society and the “traveler’s tales” genre popular in the pre-Google Maps era. Apparently, he wrote the book “to vex the world.” I don’t know about the rest of the world, but I felt quite vexed upon reading the last page.Continue reading “In which I read Gulliver’s Travels and am vexed”
When I call film adaptations successful, what I usually mean is, they capture the tone, mood, and spirit of what I experience reading. So what does that mean, exactly?
Reading a great book makes me think and create. It invites me to make connections and, from those connections, to make meaning. It allows for ambiguity without confusion. How can film adaptations retain the purposeful ambiguity of great books, the kind that leaves space to interpret?
I suppose if I knew the answer to that, I’d be making great films from great books instead of writing about them. However, I did see one film recently that felt like a great adaptation: Mike Newell’s 2012 Great Expectations.
I wasn’t planning to watch the film. Great Expectations is a book I love so profoundly that I didn’t want anyone else’s creative vision playing Frankenstein against my experience. But I recently watched a video about Newell’s adaptation by Lauren of Reads and Daydreams. She does a series called Page to Screen for which she reviews a range of film adaptations of classic books. Her favorable analysis piqued my interest.
How much do our expectations for a book factor into how we end up assessing it?
Most of us have some experience having expectations for books. Especially when it comes to super-hyped bestsellers. We hear a book praised from every corner of the inter webs and expect to have a transcendent experience. We read the book with those expectations at the forefront, and reality can’t compare to the grandness of what we imagined it would be. A book we might have had a great experience of ends up leaving us shrugging, “It was okay.”
This can happen with narrative structures as well. We have certain expectations for how a story should unfold: There should be a series of tightly woven events of increasing tension that lead to a dramatic climax after which there’s a period of wrapping up the story. There should be resolution at the end, but maybe not too much resolution.
Reading Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat and Other Short Stories last week made me think about these narrative expectations I carry unconsciously. It made me think about how those expectations can intrude on my experience of classic books – and any books I read outside of my time and cultural context – if I’m not aware of them.
The collection I read featured four short stories: “Old-Fashioned Farmers,” “The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarrelled with Ivan Nikiforovich,” “The Nose,” and “The Overcoat.”
I read “The Nose” first because I knew it had an element of the absurd. (I love the absurd because isn’t life just ridiculous sometimes? “Might as well laugh as cry” is generally my motto.) The story begins with a barber discovering a nose in his bread and realizing it belongs to a councillor he shaves. He freaks out and tries to get rid of the nose but is foiled by a policeman. Next, we wake up with the councillor, a vain, imperious sort, who is distraught to find himself sans nose. He goes out to look for his nose and finds it parading around town dressed up as some sort of official. He confronts the nose. It professes to know not of what the councillor speaks and rushes off. The rest of the story is basically the councillor’s various frustrations trying to recover his nose, which include many unsatisfying (for the councillor) encounters with public officials.
Most of “The Overcoat” is about a clerk’s efforts to get himself a decent overcoat so his co-workers will stop abusing him. Also, it’s winter in Saint Petersburg, and his raggedy old coat doesn’t keep him warm. The story goes into loads of detail about the coat acquisition efforts, the various humiliations the clerk suffers, and what happens after he finally gets his coat. (I’m leaving out the twist at the end so as not to be too spoiler-y.) It’s quite a heartbreaking story, really.
The first story in the collection, “Old-Fashioned Farmers,” is about an elderly couple living on their farm. It feels, essentially, like a word painting of rural 19th century Russian life.
“The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarrelled with Ivan Nikiforovich” is just what it’s called: the story of an increasingly melodramatic quarrel between neighbors, the lengths to which each goes to one up the other, the friends who try to bring them together, and the forces (human and other) that conspire to keep them apart.
Reading the stories, I experienced an underlying feeling of unease. I wondered what the stories were “doing” – what they were trying to tell me. They go into exquisite detail, but each detail, isn’t necessarily tied to what came before or what comes next. The stories are not tidy, symmetrical things. There’s a feeling of chaos almost, where it can feel as if we’re meandering from one detail to another.
If I want a story to proceed a certain way, with a degree of so-called narrative cohesion, purposeful progression, this meandering can feel frustrating. But if I approach the structure from another angle, it begins to make sense.
In different ways, each of the stories highlights human foibles – vanity, pettiness, hypocrisy, self-absorption, cruelty towards others perceived as somehow lesser in importance. I can see the social commentary underlying what can feel like chaos. I can see how the structure of the stories mimics the structure of our societies. We try to create order – through narrative in a story, through systems in cultures and civilizations – but fissures and cracks inevitably emerge, a result of our human limitations.
Reading The Overcoat and Other Short Stories reminded me, once again, of the reader I want to be: capable of seeing a story on its own terms rather than assessing it against an abstract standard of what a story *should* be or do. This doesn’t mean glossing over problematic aspects. But it does mean getting beyond like/dislike and good/bad. It means trying to find meaning in my experience of reading.
It’s not like I haven’t lectured myself about this time and again. But I sure do seem to need reminding!
I can’t remember a time I read six books in one week. I’m sure it has happened, when I was a kid and had no significant responsibilities other than homework, practicing the piano, and cleaning my room. (Though that last one was pretty serious: My mom always checked under my bed and inside my closets.)
But finishing six books isn’t why I chalk up this Bout of Books as a rousing success. I don’t want to measure success by number of books read. I happened to pick up short books this time around. I also happened to be on vacation. Both plumped up my numbers.
What feels great about this Bout of Books is I enjoyed participating in the challenges, and I read from my existing library, just like I want to do all year long. I read (according to Goodreads) 1,395 pages, and they were interesting, thought-provoking pages, for different reasons.
Even with the best organization in the world, I doubt I’ll be able to keep up these numbers every week of the year. But it was an awesome way to start 2017!
The final numbers:
Day 7: I started Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift.
Day 6: I read InterWorld by Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves.
Day 5: I read The Overcoat and Other Short Stories by Nikolai Gogol.
Day 4: I readHarry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: The Illustrated Edition by J. K. Rowling and Jim Kay.
Day 3: I readGidget by Frederick Kohner, Kathy Kohner Zuckerman.
Day 3: I readCartwheeling in Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell.
Days 1- 3: I read Maya’s Notebook by Isabel Allende.
Bout of Books Day 5:
Once, when I was a little girl, I wished I had a time machine so I could relive the week before Christmas over and over again. My plan was to start on December 19, go through to the 25th, then cycle back to the 19th, ad infinitum.
That’s how I’ve been feeling about Bout of Books this week, like the little girl enchanted by fairy lights, sparkly ornaments, and brightly dressed packages holding mystery and promise. Except this week, it’s the books that are enchanting me. And they came right out of my own library.
Currently reading:The Overcoat and Other Short Stories by Nikolai Gogol (e-book)
Read: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: The Illustrated Edition by J. K. Rowling and Jim Kay (hardcover)
Gidget by Frederick Kohner, Kathy Kohner Zuckerman (e-book)
Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell (paperback)
Maya’s Notebook by Isabel Allende (e-book)
Today’s prompt is “If You Like This, Try This”:
Since we all love recommending books, here’s your chance to share the love.
Example: If you like paranormal romance with bloodthirsty vikings, try Shelly Laurenston’s Call of Crows series.
Make sure you use the hashtags #BoBIfYouLikeThis and #boutofbooks on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, so we can see your recs.
I’m going to tie my recommendation to my current read: If you like Haruki Murakami’s fiction – the weird dreamscapes, irrational occurrences, and surrealist imagery – you might enjoy Gogol. In addition to being kooky, his stories can be quite funny as well.
Bout of Books Day 4:
Bout of Books 18 is shaping up to be my most productive readathon yet. I’m going to chalk this up to better organization and work at keeping it up!
On Wednesday, I finished another book, Gidget, the 1957 novel that spawned a franchise of surfer-girl movies, books, and television shows. I acquired the book a while back for the Gilmore Girls reading challenge we’re doing at Books, Ink. Which means…I’m three for three reading my own books this year.
The book I started is also one of my own: the illustrated edition of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It was a Christmas present in 2015. I’ve read Sorcerer’s and Philosopher’s Stone on paper. I’ve listened to the audiobook. But I’ve not yet read this illustrated edition. It’s about time!
Here’s my complete tally for the week so far:
Currently reading: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: The Illustrated Edition by J. K. Rowling and Jim Kay
Read: Gidget by Frederick Kohner, Kathy Kohner Zuckerman
Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell
Maya’s Notebook by Isabel Allende
And now for the day four prompt:
Book Spine Poetry
A perennial favorite is back! Go hunting through your books and unleash your inner poet! Use the titles of your chosen books to create a poem. Snap a picture of your creation and share it with the hashtags #BookSpinePoetryBoB and #boutofbooks.
I’m not much of a poet, but I do love arranging my books!
Bout of Books Day 3:
I did more reading than I thought I’d manage on day two. Officially, I’m off this week, but I have prep work to do for the new semester that begins Monday. I’m also aiming to get a head start on other projects. Being meticulous about scheduling blocks of time for specific tasks is working very nicely!
Have a book you think would make an excellent movie? Now’s your chance to share it! Go as big or as simple as you want. Share fanart, casting choices, or just a book or series you think would be OUTSTANDING on the big screen. Use the hashtags #BoBBookToMovie and #boutofbooks to share your picks!
I would love to see how a talented filmmaker interprets Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi for the screen. My memory of reading the book is very visual. So much so that, months after reading it, I remembered a scene thinking I’d watched it on film. The narrative’s giant leaps forward through time would also make a fascinating challenge.
Bout of Books Day 2:
Bout of Books got off to a great start for me. I began the day with Maya’s Notebook by Isabel Allende and have about 50 pages left to read. I read when I first woke up. I read for three hours on the train (to visit and from visiting my parents). And I stayed up until the wee hours with my eyes glued to the pages of this beautiful, heartrending story.
Today’s prompt is “2017 in a picture.” This photo, taken on New Year’s Day, captures what I’m shooting for this year: being more mindful and acting with intention. I mean this for both my reading life and life in general.
Doing Read My Own Damn Books in 2016 showed me that my massive, disorganized library can be a source of paralyzing overwhelm for me. I’ve found having a visual map can help, so I’m applying that concept to planning other parts of my life as well. In the past, I’ve relied more heavily on my digital calendar. This year, that will change.
The large spiral bound book is my new planner. It’s big. It’s detailed. I love it. My Nook – my faithful companion, my personal Tardis that takes me to new worlds and is bigger on the inside – is open to my brand-new bookshelves. I created nine of them with books I want to read according to genre.
Bout of Books Day 1:
Bout of Books 18 is officially underway! That’s what I can all exclamation-point-worthy statement! (I threw in another one, for good measure.) Predictably, I started with a novel that didn’t appear on my initial list. Oh well, that’s me for you.
Today’sprompt is to introduce ourselves in six words. Here goes:
Me? Reader, writer, thinker, coffee drinker.
My first read for this readathon and for 2017 is Maya’s Notebook by Isabel Allende. It has been in my Nook for…an indeterminate period of time. It’s mesmerizing writing and so tense as I wait to hear Maya’s full story to unfold.
Throughout the week, I’ll be keeping track of my reads and challenges here.
Are you participating? If so, what are you reading? What are you working on/looking forward to in 2017?