Posted in The Bookish Life

Xanth, Sjon, Szabo and Other Names That Sound Like a Sneeze

Earlier this week I was very fortunate to be invited to a fundraiser for a local children’s charity where Elizabeth Smart was speaking.  I don’t think anyone in the audience was expecting her to dive so deeply into her traumatic experiences and to pull the audience from her lowest points through her, at times, tenuous rebound.  It made me think a great deal about how a negative experience has the potential to shape forever the whole of our person.  For good or ill, we set our purpose in defiance and sometimes shelter ourselves defensively against its repeat.

It seemed to me rather appropriate I had been carrying around Magda Szabo’s The Door that day and reading it on the train.   Emerence to me is the exact embodiment of these ideas about the self and our experiences.  She is one of the most confounding, compelling and morally complex characters I have ever read.  We discover her in tantalizing and bewildering pieces through the writer herself, who describes this true to life relationship.  Szabo is painfully honest and does not spare herself in the telling.  It is a story about finding ourselves through the eyes of others.  It is a book bound up with our private living spaces and the ways they represent our interior lives.  Szabo is the kind of writer that puts me in the uncomfortable choice between reading everything she has ever written in one weekend or doling it out like leftover Halloween candy until Christmas is here.

I was really sad this particular day because I stupidly decided to wear uncomfortable shoes to the event.  After, I couldn’t fathom the hike to my favorite little quiet pub that is ripe for continued reading and a draft in the early afternoon.  Also, my purse was getting kind of heavy since I’d gotten downtown early enough to traipse through the multi-story hodgepodge of a used bookstore.  Which kinda also meant I didn’t have beer money anymore.

I can’t really complain.  The reading has been really good this past week.  Emerence wasn’t the only intricately drawn character or intimate portrait of a troubled relationship I found.  I stumbled into my husband’s collection and stole his copy of Mildred Pierce.  Then I spent the next several days blackmailing him into reading it so we could talk about it.  Mildred and her daughter Veda will go down in my recollection as the apogee of a truly &$@!% up mom and daughter.  I was actually pretty surprised to find this from James Cain.  I’d finished The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity the previous week after I’d also filched them from hubs.  They had offered a pretty fast and tasty narrative but not much else.  So to find Mildred Pierce in all her pride and glory was wholly unexpected.  Given Cain’s reputation for stories on husband removal, I kept expecting Mildred to use her chicken skillet for other purposes every two pages.  But apart from that anxiety, I fell utterly in love with the deeply flawed Mildred and watched as her two daughters came to battle symbolically the contrasting shadows of her personality.

I even had a couple honorable mention reads this week. I found Sjon’s latest, Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was at the library.  It is only a partial departure from Sjon’s brilliant magical realism.  The story is inspired by a real person but the telling dips into those transcendental places and fever dreams where Sjon excels.  The second goes to Hye-Yung Pyun’s The Hole.  It also caught my eye at the library when a book-back recommendation compared her to my beloved Shirley Jackson.  I enjoyed the book.  I was drawn into the deeply interior life of this character and the rising anxiety from his situation.  I felt a bit disconnected from the central metaphor of The Hole.  But maybe I need to think on it some more.  And since its Coffee Day and I have been celebrating in spades, I should have plenty of time tonight to put the cap on.

I did also dip into fantasy a bit.  I don’t read a lot of fantasy.  I find endless action scenes and tedious descriptions of magical powers sort of boring.  And Piers Anthony’s Xanth series is standard fare in this regard.  So this wasn’t exactly my cuppa to begin with.  (Ooo cuppa!)  Plus it also has a lot of additional bonuses like rape jokes and an obsession with centaur boobs.  Think, Tucker Max writes a fantasy novel, heavy on the gender tropes.  Its not really for me.   But I did wonder if the people who read this series are also the same people who can’t figure out why women feel so insecure and struggle with their worth.  And maybe I would have had a better sense of humor about it.  But it all sort of came back to Elizabeth Smart again.  I kept remembering her talking about how she was raised to believe her value was tied to her chastity.  How when she was at her lowest point in the kidnapping when she was raped and thinking that her family wouldn’t want her anymore because she was no longer clean.  So maybe I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to enjoy it.  I’m okay if I never am.

 

 

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Posted in The Bookish Life

Bello, I Am a 40 Year Old With Bob The Minion Underpants

I have decided to retrace my love of reading in an attempt to renew the bonds that captivated me from an early age.  I think this journey is necessary to rebuild my trust in fictional worlds and to re-engage with the pure joy of reading.  I started to think back on the first books, the earliest memories of books.  What strikes me of these early memories is the community of reading.  Books were read aloud by parents and by myself to younger siblings.  It was an oral tradition, full of ridiculous voices and imaginary worlds.  Inevitably, one or the other of us would fall in love with a particular way of reading a certain character.  This would result in an insistence followed quickly by the snatching of books and the smacking of faces should any reader deviate from this beloved expectation.  This was the golden age of thickly bound golden books which served as formidable weapons against those who would misread them.  This insistence demonstrates the strong desire, even from an early age, to shape for ourselves these imaginary worlds.

There were always firm, standing favorites.  I remember a strong preference for rhyming verses and absolute silliness. Even to this day these holdover into my adulthood.  The drawer full of Minion underpants can attest to this fact.  For this reason Dr Seuss loomed large over my childhood.  As did such titles as Stand Back Said the Elephant, I’m Going to Sneeze.  I can distinctly remember the lines from this rhyming drama.  “I don’t suppose you could hold your nose or wait awhile asked the crocodile with a sad little smile.”  The crocodile was invariably read in a drawling sophisticated voice. Emphasis strong on the “a-hhhwile”.

I love the ambiguity in stories that allows a story to take shape in a reader’s head.  A story that hints at the details only to be colored in by or own experience and expectations.  This is a monumental task for a children’s book author since the visual experiences are largely already established.  But if there was one book that did this better than the others it is Harold and The Purple Crayon.  This was the sort of story that put the reader at the helm of the adventure, suggesting and captivating but altogether ready for reader input.  So, in sticking with the faithfulness of childhood memories, I summoned my biggest puppy dog eyes and asked my husband to buy me a copy of Harold.  My eyes were effectively puppy enough to net me an iced coffee and the Barnes and Noble special deal for a $7.99 copy of What To Do With A Problem with the purchase of any childrens’ book.

When we got home I curled up on the floor and read them both aloud.  Harold did not fail to disappoint.  And What To Do With A Problem showed me that I am doing the exact right thing by tackling my reading problem…

“When I got face to face with it, I discovered something. My problem wasn’t what I thought it was.  I discovered it had something beautiful inside.  My problem held an opportunity!  It was an opportunity for me to learn and grow.  To be brave.  To do something.”

Posted in Humanu Stuff, The Bookish Life

I Will Always Love You, But I Don’t Like That Book. Also, Its Okay You Don’t Like My Favorite Book, I Still Love You.

It’s interesting how the books we love become an extension of our personality.  The more invested our affections, the more tangible this connection.  These appendages are suddenly at risk when someone looks at us boldly and says “I don’t like that book.”  Or even worse, when they list a whole lot of reasons why they don’t.  It is as if somehow this opinion cuts with some objective reality that fits all sizes.  When it comes to taste, especially in reading, there are no objective truths.  Just ones that serve our own experience and interests.  But for a lot of people to say that you don’t like something they love is tantamount to rejection of that person.

It has taken me years to unravel myself from my own interests.  I have felt that acute sting of the furrowed brow of dislike after I have spouted off in rabid fangirl style about something beloved.  But I have come over time to see the tyranny this sort of thinking imposes on ourselves and our friends.

We pride ourselves on promoting the idea that we are all special and unique and have private gifts, unlike anyone else to offer the world.  So it becomes a sort of paradox when we presume that one thing will satisfy everyone the same way.    It would be nice if our best friend loved everything we did with exactly the same intensity that we do.  But in reality our friendships prosper under the diversity of opinion, the same way our lives flourish when they are introduced to the variety of human experience through reading.

We are all to some degree aware that people are connected to their passions.  So as a a consequence we find ourselves withholding so as not to cause hurt.  We avoid sharing our interests to avoid feeling embarrassed by someone’s disapproval.  And sometimes we even project our dislikes onto others as a retribution for others not approving of the things we love.

Its really just a projection of our own insecurities onto our relationships when we think that the books we love are an extension of ourselves and that a disinterest in those books is equivalent to disapproval of us.  Tempering our opinions and moderating our language so as not to be offensive is a reasonable way to maintain the working structure of friendships.  But pretending you like a book so as not to hurt someone’s feelings is a wedge of dishonesty that threatens to crack the whole structure.  Over time the falseness of this arrangement exposes itself when you realize you know nothing about your friends because you have boxed them into your own expectations.

I want my friends to be free to love and hate books with equal enthusiasm and know that my feelings for them will not change.  And I also would like the freedom to love and hate with abandon knowing that my candor is appreciated.  I think for this to happen we need to take our first tenuous steps into honesty and not withhold our passions for fear of rejection or embarrassment.  We have to remember that someone’s disinterest in our beloved things has no power over us.  We have to always remind people that our love is constant even though we don’t always like the same things.

That being said, you may in fact reject this whole thing and not like it one bit because you firmly believe in the rule of some objective measurement of worth.  And that this very notion of “many sizes” flies to the face of reason and is near to obscenity.  That is okay.  You can hate it.  It tells me something about who you are.  That truth is much more valuable to me than you agreeing with me.

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Posted in The Bookish Life

I Find My Lack of Faith Disturbing

I kinda broke up with fiction earlier this year.  We still had to see each other at book group and it was awkward.  The disenchantment hasn’t totally faded.  I’m trying to find a place where we can be together again.  But it isn’t so easy.

I think the whole thing was my own fault. I used to hold literary fiction up as some sort of bastion of artistic expression and intellectual experience.  For me it was something lofty and more worthy than the rest. But after enough experiences in the past few years with modern literary fiction, I’ve realized that isn’t really true.  I am seeing more that it is simply its own genre.  It is full of the same tropes and formulaic stories.  It is read not for its ingenuity and challenge, but for the very same reasons all other genres pull in their readers, pure fantastic escapism.  There are many exceptions which we could list which are truly novel experiences, challenging in every way.  But they don’t seem to be the average experience.

So if fantasy is selling new worlds, what is literary fiction selling?  I think I could say that it is selling our world. But not for all its enormous amounts of ordinary, but in its most dire extreme.

And this was the heart of my discovery that caused me so much disillusionment.  The pattern of literary fiction was not toward the expression of so much average existence, but at its most desperate.  The characters were practically torture victims, sometimes literally.  They were rolling balls of empathy that scooped up your prurient interest as it rolled from one disaster to the next.  And people gushed over these complex and interesting characters.  But really how can they be at all nuanced?  Let me explain.  If a character who has had the most terrifying and horrible experience in life chooses to pursue a path more noble, we laud their ability to rise above their circumstance.  Yet if they move in the other direction where vengeance and degeneration lie, we consider their personal experience as wholly exculpatory.  There is literally nothing this character can do that will change our affections toward them.  Amidst all this brutality there is no true conflict.

Now maybe I am reading the wrong books.  And this is all a case of pure sample bias.  I’m completely open to that idea.  So I am willing to keep trying new things.  The whole ordeal has caused me to examine the reasons why I read.  And I acknowledge that my disappointment stems primarily from the fact that I don’t always read just to be entertained.  Sometimes, but not always.  It is the same reasons I rarely watch movies.  It feels like so many empty calories.  I don’t want to stay up all night reading, I want to stay up all night thinking about what I read.

Unfortunately, this has put a big damper on my reading as I work through my problem.  My solutions have been varied.  I let myself gobble up non-fiction at my discretion.  When I read fiction, I go old or lean toward something with a reputation for being a problem child.  But the best technique so far has been putting effort into learning French.  Nothing makes Harry Potter a greater cognitive challenge than to try to read it in a language you barely know.

Have any of you had a readers block?  What was the reason and how did you overcome it?

 

Posted in The Bookish Life, Uncategorized

I Am Not A Literature

In January I did this really grown up thing…I got a job.  I wore pants and everything.  You might notice the subtle slip into past tense which implies the falling back into the world of pants-optional.  I wanted to go back to work for a lot of personal reasons.  I wanted something challenging to keep my math alive.  I wanted to be able to say I did something, contributed something.  I often did and still do feel the weight of that “So what do you do?” question that looms large at first introductions.  In January I thought I’d scored the kind of job where I could make that happen.

However, the expectation of all the delicious sort of calculus-y things I was expecting to do throughout the job application process didn’t meet the reality of the only basic arithmetic required that the job actually entailed.  I absolutely do not fault the company.  They didn’t misrepresent themselves.  They used all the right words, but our definitions didn’t sync.  Its like the first time I made tacos after my husband and I were first married.  Growing up in our house tacos consisted of unseasoned ground beef, ketchup and some various vegetative toppings.  My husband was appalled.  He was so absolutely astounded at my definition of a taco that I have never been allowed to make tacos ever since.  My definitions for all the tasks the company listed just didn’t match up with their own.

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That is the narrative that sits at the core of the job saga.  But nothing really is ever that simple.  The decisions we make are often rife with uncertainty and it isn’t until later we can untangle the pattern at the heart of it all.  We can use a broader brush to paint the story, to make clear the allies and antagonists when they never were so clear or so neat in the moment.

For these reasons, I really admire literature that can capture the confusion and turmoil at the inner life of a personal conflict.  I love a writer that doesn’t spare the the characters by parsing out their less flattering or illogical thoughts and actions.  I seek out a story that leaves you hanging in the uncertainty of a narrator whose perception is damaged by their own inadequacies and motivations they hide even from themselves.

Fortunately, you can find these sorts of characters everywhere.  Dr Zhivago and Hemmingway’s Frederic Henry seem to take decisive action in war torn times to protect the loftier ideals of their romantic attachments. But both subtly reveal the convenient escape these relationships provide for their characters to avoid the conditions in which they are trapped.  The characters skirt the lines of dereliction of duty by re-branding desertion as honor to a nobler passion.

Max Aue from Littell’s Kindly Ones, Hamsun’s Glahn, John Williams’ Stoner and my recently discovered Hermann  Broch’s von Passenow are all characters that convey to me the intensity of our thoughts at the limits of our perception.  They are minds that grow so heavy and torn by their lives that they often delve into the less tenuous waters of paranoia and psychosis.  They nearly eliminate themselves as reliable enough to carry the truth of their own stories.  They show quite clearly that …

 

Our motivations are never so pure

Our morality never so clearly defined.

Our perception never so complete.

 

Oh sweetie, you thought this was a segue into the whole seedy story of my job adventure.  Nice try, I am not a literature.  😛

Posted in The Bookish Life

Is the Goodreads Challenge Losing Its Charm? (More Data #SorryNotSorry)

Yes, I realize it is New Year’s Eve and I should likely have better, more entertaining or possibly intoxicated things to do with my time.  But here I am anyway.  In my previous post I talked about my reading accomplishments in 2016 in a very data-centric way.  I had every intention of being all mushy and romantic in this post and pine over my favorite books in the least analytical way possible.  Alas, I found more data so that is out the window.

This week I discovered that my average rating was higher in years I did not participate in the Goodreads Challenge.  It got me thinking about the success of the Goodreads challenge in general.  Goodreads provides some basic participation data on each years’ individual page.  It lists the number of participants, total books pledged, average books per challenge, total finished books and number of challenges completed.  Its only been around for a few years, so there isn’t a lot of data.  But we can get a little crunchy.

The participation in the challenge shows really impressive growth almost doubling in participants year after year.  This graph shows the total number of books pledged by participants compared to the total number of books finished for the challenge.

pledged-vs-finished

In general the rate of pledged books is increasing a lot faster than how many books were actually finished over the years.  In the first few years participants were on average finishing about 50 percent of their pledged books.  But by the last few years that percentage has dropped to about 30.  But even more interesting is that the average number of books per participant has also decreased.

avg-pledged-by-perc-compl

What does this all mean? Over the years since the inception of the Goodreads challenge we find:

Far more people are participating year after year. 

But they are pledging fewer books per year.

And they are finishing even fewer of those pledged books. 

It could mean that the Goodreads challenge is losing its efficacy over the years.  Maybe people aren’t as interested, it isn’t as much fun as it used to be or perhaps its just burn out.  But it could be simply a case of general participant interest.

Think about it.  For the early adopters of Goodreads it was a case of OMG THE THING THE INTERNET WAS MADE FOR.  They are the core, loyal users that have a greater personal interest in their reading goals.  Later recruits to adopt the technology could be more casual readers with reduced interest in the challenge in general.  Without more information its difficult to test this theory.  However, if you look at the charts there appears to be a big bump in participation around the time Amazon purchased Goodreads.  It could be this acquisition exposed Goodreads to a new population of  a different kind of reader, one who is less…hmm…tenacious about their books that the earlier folks.

It would be hard to say without more detailed data that includes how long the participant has been using Goodreads.  I naturally will not be able to sleep until I answer that question.  I put out an email to Goodreads with my request.  I have a feeling I will be sleepless for a while.  Again, it looks like I’ll get Infinite Jest under my read belt.

 Edit:

Obviously it would be in Amazon’s interest to tap into these second and third tier adopters and figure out a way to find another challenge incentive to get them to finish more books and buy the next.  I always thought it would be neat to be able to pick a small list of specific books that I wanted to read in the year.  Naturally all that user data could be exploited to pick out the most frequently chosen books and promote them with sale prices.  Just sayin’

 

Posted in The Bookish Life, Uncategorized

I Ran A Database Query To See If I Was Dead – 2016 Reading In Review

 

 

It appears that I have not died.  Even though my lack of activity here runs contrary to that fact.  Truth is, I over-extended myself on the reading goals and burned out big time.  Being in a reading slump is almost like being dead, so its an honest mistake.  Fortunately for me I had other hobbies to keep me from flat-lining.  I turned my bookstagram into an artstagram and got sucked into Inktober.  I inked my way through November and by the time December rolled around, I came to the conclusion that I’d like to get a job.  You know one of those things where you leave the house and people expect you to know what day of the week it is.  I’d have a reason to wear pants occasionally and the money extra money would be nice so we’d avoid having all our eggs in one basket.

Somewhere in all that life shifting, blogging got misplaced.  I think I even had the misguided notion that I would have to back burner writing if I wanted to go back to work.  Then this morning as I was lying under the Christmas tree because the cat had knocked it over on top of me, I decided giving up wasn’t necessary.  So after scrambling out of the branches and the obligatory troll through the job postings, I set to work on the book blogger staple…the end of year wrap-up.

Now typically when I talk about books, I try not to bash.  To one person a book may be so beloved that they chant passages from it over their morning blood sacrifice.  But for another, that same book goes first when they need something to line the bottom of the hamster cage.  Of course there are some books that are objectively good and we could argue which those are.  But for the most part people have subjective preference and so I try to not to insert my preference as objective truth.  Somewhere in here you will see a list of books I would most like to add to one of those “will it blend” videos.  It’s not that they are bad books or people are stupid for liking them, they just aren’t my preference or they have violated one of my key peeves.  Forgive me if I have pitched one of your staple goodreads into my composter.  It can still be your favorite and I will love you no less.

Lets get started..

 

As a reader with an enormous collection and limited life span I need to be on top of what is working and not working reading-wise so I can get some shit done.  I can’t be falling into one of these pits of reading despair in 2017 too.  I need some raw data to analyze my reading habits and determine which ones aren’t working.

*Number crunching sounds effects*

goodreads-2016

There are a few things you can tell right off.  I read a lot of Sci-Fi/Fantasy, but I give it much lower ratings that average Goodreads users, so I probably should develop a better sense of what type of Sci-Fi/Fantasy I like and be more discriminating.  I seem to read a lot of Literary Fiction and Non-Fiction and like them better than most Goodreads users, so I’ll keep that up.  I should probably read more classics, poetry and philosophy too for the same reason.  And it is abundantly clear that I loathe any YA I get my hands on, so I should probably ditch that pursuit altogether.

Now, let’s have a frank talk about something many book bloggers have debated…the Goodreads challenge.  I’ve been doing the challenge since 2013 with increasing goal numbers and varied success.  A quick data dump from Goodreads and a fast pivot table later and we are left with the cold, hard truth.  My average rating was higher in the years before I started doing the Goodreads challenge.  I was reading fewer books and liking them more.  Since I am reading a lot more during challenges and rating them lower it means I’m reading a lot of stuff I don’t like.  Which could explain why I get burned out.  Another quick table and I discover I tend to like longer books better.  In fact my all time favorite book of 2016 was 1,000 pages.  I’m always finding myself putting off longer books to keep up with the challenge, so there is another indication that I’m not reading what I like.

I think this means adios to the Goodreads challenge for me in 2017.  I’d much rather read quality over quantity.  I guess this is the year I’ll finally get around to Infinite Jest.

A note to my current book blogger followers.  I could be talked into crunching some of your goodreads numbers if that is something you would like.  Comment if you are interested, and we can talk data!