Reading Wrap-Up: March Reads

March reads

My March reads reflect my current reading phase.

In the past, my reading phases were often based on place: Russian literature, Japanese literature, memoirs by or about Middle Eastern women. Then, a few years ago, I began reading primarily contemporary literary fiction. Maybe because I was engaging with book lovers on social media, I was hearing more about contemporary books. Maybe it was just where I was in my reading interests. Continue reading “Reading Wrap-Up: March Reads”

5 bookish expressions of ardent affection, or love

Colin Firth as Darcy

On love day a few years ago, I got a hearty chuckle reading an article in which Hugh Grant pronounces the prepackaged romance of Valentine’s Day “repugnant.” I mean, that’s a bit hyperbolic, isn’t it? I would have gone with “revolting,” personally. Oh, I kid. I kid … sort of.

We have a day to celebrate our love of hamburgers, yoyos, books, and every last thing under the sun, moon, and stars. So I can’t really hate on the idea of setting aside a day to honor our capacity to love—our romantic partners, sure, but also our friends, children, neighbors, the authors we’ll probably never meet but whose books opened our worlds, our mail carrier that day she gamely trudged up our icy driveway and still delivered our package with a smile, the baker whose almond croissants make Monday mornings less Monday morning-ish, the barista who gets exactly what we mean when we ask for a dry cappuccino. Continue reading “5 bookish expressions of ardent affection, or love”

Rereading Jane Eyre: Why it’s good to read books we don’t *like*

Rereading Jane Eyre

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*”

Modern Wisdom from Classic Books: The Human Condition

Modern Wisdom Through Classic Literature: The Human Condition

Hopefully, we’ve all had at least one moment when we’ve meet someone and thought, “I can’t believe how much we have in common!” These moments can inspire feeling seen, validated, affirmed. They can make us feel less alone, more connected. Here is at least one person out of the billions on this planet who *gets* what we’re about.

What can be just as remarkable is when we feel connected despite seemingly having little in common, at least on the surface. Continue reading “Modern Wisdom from Classic Books: The Human Condition”

What makes film adaptations work?

Great books invite me think and create. How can film adaptations retain the purposeful ambiguity of great books, the kind that allows us to be co-creators?

Great books invite me think and create. How can film adaptations retain the purposeful ambiguity of great books, the kind that allows us to be co-creators?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.

I ended up loving it. Here are the three main reasons why: Continue reading “What makes film adaptations work?”

What I learned by reading Nikolai Gogol

Reading Nikolai Gogol challenge my a good way.

Reading Nikolai Gogol challenge my a good way.

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!

What books have challenged you as a reader?

Updated – Reading time: The When Are You Reading? Challenge

The When Are You Reading? Challenge invites participants to read one book in 12 time periods. Lends new meaning to the phrase reading time, doesn't it?

The When Are You Reading? Challenge invites participants to read one book in 12 time periods. Lends new meaning to the phrase reading time, doesn't it?My first year participating in the When Are You Reading? challenge hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words is officially completed. And I’m happy to report I was able to read books set in or written in each time period represented in the challenge.

When I joined it in June, I had three time periods left to cover. I had great ambitions to read books written during those times. But … for two of the three (1500-1599 and 1600-1699), I ended up reading historical fiction instead of books written at that time. For 2017, I’m aiming to read books written during each period since my goal is to read more classics this year.

My final tallies are down below. When I originally wrote this post, I included every book I’d read this year as a way to figure out what I still needed to read. I haven’t included all my 2016 titles read since then, only the ones that completed time periods. If you’re interested in more about the books I read this year, I keep monthly lists here.

If you’re interested in participating in 2017, Sam has a description and sign up here.

When, as a kid, I was in danger of taking life too seriously, my dad would invite me to reflect on my concerns by asking, “How much will this matter in 100 years?” At the time, I assumed his rhetorical question was meant to show me how our fleeting obsessions hold little consequence in the grand scheme of the universe.

But that’s not quite right, is it? Without access to knowledge of future events, we cannot possibly know whether this (whatever “this” is) will matter in 100 years. Life is made up of tens of thousands of millions of seemingly inconsequential choices whose cumulative effects can be world changing.

We study history for this reason, don’t we? To study the actions and reactions that have lead to outcomes we want either to replicate or avoid. But even that doesn’t really work. Evidence suggests we make the same mistakes over and over again; it’s the one thing about human nature and experiences that’s predictable. Conclusion: All we can do in the moment is our best.

I’ve been thinking about this over the last week after discovering a reading challenge hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. Continue reading “Updated – Reading time: The When Are You Reading? Challenge”