Blogging has impacted my reading in many ways, both the kinds of books I choose and how I interact with them. It’s that latter one I thought I’d talk about today. When I was in high school, I joined the debate team, which led me into philosophy. In my free time, I began to read various works of philosophy in a completely engaged way: notes in the margins, dialogues with the authors, rereading passages, examining word choice, etc. And while this sounds like the blandest of chores, it was in fact deeply, wonderfully fun. These books were for my mind as going on a hike through a forest is for my body: full of beautiful views and fascinating things to study, even the slogging bits were enjoyable in the larger picture, and at the end of it all I felt pleasantly tired out from a good day’s work.
Blogging has brought that same attentiveness and insight to my general reading. Of course, I still have my comfort books that allow me to simply curl up and experience the story, but during most of my reading (even those comfort books), my mind is busily examining the text, my own reaction to the text, and connections with various other books that I’ve read. But the end, I’ve usually mentally composed at a least a paragraph or two about my experience with the book. Even if I never actually blog about it (due to health or time limitations), that engagement is still with me, enriching my memory of the book as well as my actual reading time, making reading even more meaningful and fun. I love this. I love that this seemingly quirky hobby provides so much, even when it’s only happening on an imaginary level! Over six years of blogging have left me with engrained habits, ones that will ensure I have an examined reading life in the future, even if the internet vanished tomorrow.
Luckily for me, that is unlikely to happen! So here’s to many more blogs and posts and e-mails and tweets, all creating a web of readers, who in our various serious and lighthearted and obsessive and intermittent and verbose and succinct ways are examining our reading lives. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I have mixed feelings about my first audiobook of the year: A Drowned Maiden’s Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz. On the plus side: spiritualists! ghosts! the seaside! plucky orphan who loves to read! Gothic inspiration! ‘Victorian’ era historical novel set in the US! These qualities are not to be dismissed. Schlitz is wonderful at conjuring up scenes, so that I could see the story playing out, and the imagery was often remarkable (and occasionally goosebump inducing!). And Maud (the eleven-year-old orphan and our narrator)’s voice as narrator stays consistent throughout. The plot is well-paced and its liveliness will certainly engage readers.
So what’s the down side? Well, first of all sometimes it felt a bit too pat. Somehow, the inclusion of all those factors felt a tiny bit artificial rather than organic, if that makes sense. I had similar qualms about The Thirteenth Tale, which I know many of you loved unreservedly, so perhaps I’m just a bit too cynical for my own good. ;) But more importantly, at times I felt beat over the head with the book’s main themes. I understand that A Drowned Maiden’s Hair is aimed at children, but according to the publisher the intended age bracket is 10-14. At that age, I was certainly old enough to read between the lines more than Schlitz trusts her readers to do. If I had read this as a child (younger than 10, though), I probably would have loved it and just ignored the too blatant spelling out of certain things (see: my childhood love for C.S. Lewis and Frances Hodgson Burnett), but as an adult I sometimes became a bit frustrated.
So now you know why I don’t consider it a five-star read. But I still very much enjoyed my time with the novel and am glad to have read it. Let’s return to the good, shall we? In addition to all those factors that made me smile, I found the internal journey Schlitz takes Maud on quite powerful. You see, Maud is not a pretty child, not at all like the children who star in the books she loves so much. And she knows that not being pretty is part of why most adults don’t like her. She also knows her intelligence is part of the problem; I loved how self aware she was of adults’ reactions to her, because it’s true. When you’re a child, your whole life depends on the adults around you, so you’re anything but oblivious to your effect on them. At the same time, when she meets new adults, their looks affect her judgement of them too. Anyway, her black-and-white ideas of good children/adults and bad children/adults, loveable ones and unloveable, play a large part in how she filters her experiences.
This was a good book, which in my opinion had the potential to be an extraordinary one. I wish Schlitz had chosen to assume a more sophisticated audience, and I’ve read other books marketed to a similar age range that do so, so it’s not merely that. I still very much enjoyed the time I spent with Maud, and I’m indebted to the trip Schlitz took me on. In fact, I can still taste a bit of sea salt on my tongue.
I have read and loved Barbara Brown Taylor’s two wide audience books, An Altar in the World (which I read twice in two years and I’m not usually a consecutive rereader) and Leaving Church, but I wasn’t quite sure about The Preaching Life. I thought it was just a collection of sermons, and I assumed the target audience was other Episcopal priests. But I decided to give it a go anyway. And I am so glad that I did.
It’s actually a combination of memoir (the first half) and sermons (the second), with the first half focusing on Brown Taylor’s calling to the priesthood and life after ordination. While some of the same ground is covered in her later books (the ones I mentioned above), I didn’t care: her writing is so luminous the subject almost wouldn’t matter, and it’s always interesting to see the same story approached form a slightly different angle. Not to mention, most of it was new-to-me material (this book was actually published earlier). I savoured every page of it, and by the time I got to the sermons I was looking forward to seeing what they were like. It turns out, reading sermons is like reading a collection of mini-essays. Quite enjoyable, and they had the humanity, beauty, and page-turning tone of Brown Taylor’s other writing. I loved every one of them, and I find her writing such a gift.
While looking the title up on the publisher’s website to add the link to my books read page, I discovered that she’s actually published several other collections of sermons! My library doesn’t have them, but they’re available via ILL, so I’m thrilled to have even more of her writing to savour. I suspect that anyone who loves excellent writing and spiritual reflection will very much enjoy her books, including The Preaching Life. She’s a progressive Christian, so she writes about faith with an open-minded tone that I think will appeal even to non Christians (especially those fall into the “spiritual but not religious” category). And for someone like me, hesitantly getting back into organised religion (I found a progressive Episcopal church here in town) and of a definite liberal bent, her books are a Godsend. No pun intended. ;)
As I mentioned in my post on Eva Luna, I decided to reread One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in order to both extend my sojourn in magical realism land and to compare Allende and Marquez (side note: I know I should be calling him Garcia Marquez but I try to limit my typing so I’m sticking with Anglophone Marquez). I was also vaguely curious about what I’d make of it seven or eight years after my first encounter (I loved it that time). Well! I loved it just as much, if not more, this time around. Marquez immediately swept me into the story of a family whose destiny rather mirrored that of a Greek tragic hero, one of my favourite types. ;)
I was already prepared for the constant repetition of Christian names through the various generations and couldn’t help giggling every time a new Aureliano turned up. I also recollected the powerful scenes of state oppression, told in that magical realist way that manages to recollect parables, satire, and court jesters all at once. What I hadn’t expected was just how domestic One Hundred Years of Solitude is. You see, my first theory for critics talking about Marquez more than Allende was that Marquez dealt more with ‘important’ (aka traditionally male) realms like military life and earning your fortune and spreading your seed around. And there’s plenty of that (well, at least the first and third) going on. But One Hundred Years of Solitude centers around a particular family, in a particular house, and in traditional Latin American society that means one thing: the women. The women of the Buendia family, whether there by birth or by marriage, are as sharply drawn as their male counterparts. Their lives are perhaps more circumscribed, although several of them go on adventures at least once, but their passions and idiosyncrasies are given plenty of attention. Moreover, while sex plays a big part of the novel (Marquez seems to have embraced the “more is more” philosophy), the women didn’t feel particularly objectified. As characters, that is: they existed in their own right instead of merely to evoke reactions from male characters. And Marquez seems to be criticising traditional gender roles as much as he is politics. Perhaps that’s me reading things into the text, but I was honestly shocked at how well One Hundred Years lends itself to a feminist lens. I’m used to a certain amount of machismo in reading Latino authors, but I didn’t see it here.
In other words, One Hundred Years of Solitude is a rich, epic, soul-satisfying novel well deserving of its modern classic status, a book that can be read and reread and contains a vast reservoir of human experience, both male and female. Garcia Marquez surely deserved his Nobel and all the other plaudits heaped upon him. But then, I feel the same way about Eva Luna. And the two explored very similar topics and themes in a similar enough style that they could be kissing cousins (is there any other kind in Macondo?). Which brings me back to my original question: why is Marquez placed on a higher literary level than Allende (who has not received a Nobel)?
Is it simply because he’s a man? Of the 109 authors awarded Nobel prizes, 97 have been men. And the gender gap in literature is quite well documented: I remember a flurry of articles in 2011 after Vida released a gender-based analysis of books reviewed by important literary outlets in 2010. (They also reported the 2011 numbers.) So gender certainly can’t be discounted. Is it a class issue, with Allende’s more privileged background somehow affecting her status as a ‘true’ writer instead of a dabbler? I’m not sure.
Or does it have to do with a difference between their canons as a whole? I’m somewhat well acquainted with both Marquez (have read 4 of his novels and 1 of his nonfiction works) and Allende (have read 5 of her novels and 1 of her nonfiction works), but my reading has been spread out over years, so I’m certainly not in a position for an airtight comparison. That being said, I do think that Allende’s later work became more accessible, with her plots incorporating more conventional adventure or romance aspects and her writing style more straightforward than Marquez’s. I don’t subscribe to the idea that books need to be obtuse or plotless or difficult to read in order to be excellent pieces of literature, but that doesn’t mean prize committees agree with me. I’m also not completely sure why I have the impression that Marquez is considered highbrow while Allende is middlebrow. It’s a general feeling, so perhaps I just read a couple of aberrant blog posts or have seen One Hundred Years of Solitude on so many lists of modern classics I’ve internalised it’s a more essential book? Or maybe it’s because I think of Allende as a comfort author in a way I don’t think of Marquez. I don’t believe this inherently makes her any less of a good author, but the literary establishment tends to favour a certain ‘type’ of book that I would not call comforting. Do you guys have a similar impression of Marquez/Allende categorisation or do you think of them as on the same literary level?
I clearly was left with more questions than answers. But I really loved reading the books closely together and reading with larger questions in mind. And I’m thrilled by how well One Hundred Years of Solitude lived up to my memory (I disliked Autumn of the Patriarch so much it made me question my previous love for Marquez). So I still consider this a success. :D
For years now, my niece and I have been playing a game, in which we build a story with sentences that have to alternately begin with fortunately or unfortunately. I rather feel as if parts of my life have taken up such a plot, so I will describe them accordingly. Fortunately, after a two year process, the government has declared me legally disabled. Unfortunately, I am not eligible for disability pay as I haven’t worked full time long enough. Fortunately, I am eligible for a different kind of support. Unfortunately, this kind comes with different rules than the ones I thought I’d have to follow, and the new rules mean the death of some long-cherished dreams. Fortunately, I have other, smaller but still cherished, dreams. Unfortunately, it will take a lot of effort and a bit of luck to achieve them. Fortunately, I have incredible family and friends who will help me.
And that’s the end of the story so far. As you can imagine, this has been a season of changes for me. Consequently, I’ve needed a lot of quiet spaces for my mind to ponder over and my soul to reconcile with them. Instead of reading, I’ve been drawn to tasks that keep my body busy while leaving room for those inner spaces. I’ve been cooking, baking, thrifting, knitting, rearranging furniture, spring cleaning and sorting, walking, Thistle-ing, photographing, and daydreaming all the while. That’s not to say I haven’t been reading at all, simply that less of my time and energy have been devoted to books than usual. I’ve also been a bit fussy about books lately: in fact, after starting and stopping four different ones last week for various reasons, I finally gave up and turned to Jane Austen. She was just what I needed. In fact, of the three novels I’ve read this month, two have been rereads: Sense and Sensibility and Yaba Badoe’s True Murder, a wonderfully atmospheric book set in a British boarding school and featuring a Ghanaian main character. I first read it in December of last year, after buying a used copy since it hasn’t been published in the US yet (I think it cost me perhaps $4, including shipping from the UK), and I couldn’t resist revisiting it. I know I’ve said this before, but one of the greatest joys I find in rereading is that I’ve already loved the book, so I can completely relax, knowing it won’t let me down. Of course, this rule becomes less true the longer it’s been since my first read of the book, but as only a couple of months had passed I was certainly safe! Funnily enough, my current fiction read is also a reread (Women Without Men, a strange little Iranian novella I first read in 2005 or 2006 and that has stayed with me ever since). Clearly, my brain has enough to process with real-life plots and is shying away from fictional surprises!
I’m happy to read new-to-me nonfiction though, and in fact I find myself eyeing the nonfiction I have out from the library with more interest than the fiction! Two of the nonfiction books I’ve read this month were stunningly excellent, although completely different. A Good Horse Has No Color by Nancy Marie Brown is personal nonfiction, focusing on Brown’s relationship with Iceland and especially on a trip she took there with the goal of finding two Icelandic horses to bring home with her. Help Me to Find My People by Heather Andrea Williams, on the other hand, is a piece of academic nonfiction (Williams is a professor and the book was published by a university press) examining the emotional ramifications of broken slave families in the US, both pre-Civil War and post-Civil War when the newly freed people tried to find family members without any clear idea where they’d even been sold. Both were just exquisitely written, and I can’t wait to delve more into them. Sadly, Compulsive Acts by Elias Aboujaoude disappointed me: Aboujaoude is a psychiatrist specialising in obsessive behaviors (OCD, addictions, etc.), but I just didn’t care for him (as he came across in the book) or his writing style. Definitely not another Olive Sacks or Atul Gawande! Luckily, that one seems to be the exception rather than the rule for this month’s nonfiction reading, since I’m in the middle of two more wonderful books: The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James (a historical look at Haiti and its revolution first written in 1938 and recommended to me by Kinna) and Findings by Kathleen Jamie (a newly published essay collection I heard about from Litlove).
This is probably likely to continue to be a slower reading month. I find myself, well, cocooning: drawing my attention and focus more inward as I prepare to dramatically reshape. Let’s hope it’s turns out to be not quite as dramatic as what caterpillars go through!
Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries!
- Plum Bun by Jessie Fauset
- Manazuru by Hiromi Kawakami
- Findings by Kathleen Jamie
- Slavery and Social Death by Orlando Patterson
- Book was There by Andrew Piper
- Small is Beautiful by E.F. Schumaker
- Mrs. Malory Wonders Why by Hazel Holt
- The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay
- Divorce Islamic Style by Amara Lakhous
- Family Album by Penelope Lively
- The Weight of Heaven by Thrity Umrigar
- Saving the World by Julia Alvarez
- The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesy