Friday, January 3, 2014

2013: My Year In Books

Books By the Numbers

36 complete books read (mix of lit theory, novels, plays, graphic novels, short story collections, and non-fiction)
33 authors (Salinger, Shakespeare, and Larsson appeared more than once)
14 female authors
19 male authors
14 living authors
19 dead authors
13 books were read for grad school
9 books were read for work to prep for freshmen and American lit
1 book was read because I had a super major crush on a man and it is his favorite book

1. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena: Brilliant and touching, it has been a while since I have loved a book the way I loved this book. Also, how many other novels are out there about Chechnya? 
2. Gone Girl: I recommended this book to more people than I have ever recommended any book. It is just so satisfying, and I think that 95% of people will enjoy it.
3. A Visit from the Goon Squad: Absolutely deserved the Pulitzer (although I have read neither of the finalists from 2011, so I am totally saying that based on the merit of this book alone)
4. This is How You Lose Her: I love Junot Diaz, and I loved this collection of short stories.
5. House of Mirth: So easy and satisfying! 
6. Portrait of a Lady: So difficult and satisfying!
7. Titus Andronicus: This is my new favorite Shakespeare play, and it is so over the top and so unlike other plays that I think it is absolutely worth it. Also, the movie version was top notch. 
8. Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl: I said it after I read it and I still believe it: every American needs to read this book. To that end, my American Lit students were subjected to a chapter to coincide with the chapter of Equiano that their textbook provides. 
9. Maus: Incredible graphic novel that is right up there with Persepolis in my eyes.
10. M. Butterfly: Most people don't, I think, read plays for pleasure, but I can't resist putting this on my list. I worked with this text SO much in my final grad school paper that I have SUCH a sweet spot for it. I hope that I am some day able to see the play.

Special Shout Outs to: 
The webcomics that have kept me entertained this year: Anders Loves Maria, Questionable ContentGirls with Slingshots, and Gunnerkrigg Court (links take you to the first comic).

I have never kept track of the books I've read before, so I can't say whether I read more or less or whether this was an unusual mix or not. Even if I don't always blog about my reading, I do want to start keeping a list of each year's books, just so that as I get older I can look back and remember what was going on in my life (for example, this year's list reminds me that I was taking a class on gender, that I was trying to catch up with all the contemporary books I missed, that I was changing schools and needed to catch up on some classics I had missed). 

I wish I had read more, but I have a problem balancing all my hobbies (ukulele, board games, rock climbing, writing, reading, crossfitting, cooking, travelling), and something always gets shoved to the side. This year was a lot more about crossfitting and rockclimbing than anything else. 

For 2014 I am excited to be blogging with 50 books and I have a self-imposed goal to do 50 short stories which I will still update here!

36: Swamplandia! - Karen Russell

     "'Honestly, can you imagine me without your father!' She used to say this all the time. With a sort of vacant, sticky violence, she'd kiss the forehead of whichever of her children was nearest. Even as a kid I understood that she was kissing us to answer some question that she was putting to herself. Was she happy? we wondered. Were we the right answer? My mother married the chief and gave birth to Kiwi at age nineteen; she started her career as an alligator wrestler that same year.
     'She married him too young,' Kiwi told me once in a sad, knowing voice. But when I told Mom what he'd said, she laughed herself dizzy. Then she repeated it to the Chief and they both roared.
     'Listen: your brother is an unkissed thirteen, Ava,' she told me. 'He is just a boy. His judgments are like green fruit. He doesn't have any idea about that stuff.'"

"I had thought that my brother and I were communicating from more or less the same neighborhood of feelings, but I'd been wrong." 

"He went on accumulating beginnings."

Swamplandia! is a book that has been on my radar for a while - I had heard so many great things about it an its authors other works that I've been meaning to check it out. It walked into my Savers from some nice donating soul and walked out with me. The premise of the book is incredibly compelling to me. I have been called a hipster manic pixie dream girl on more than one occasion, so the idea of Swamplandia! is exactly the one I could ironically fall in love with and take men there on first dates while they fall in love with me. It's an island in the Florida Everglades that has been turned into a theme park - if a theme park can be something that is crumbling board walks, a lame museum, a crappy diner, and one 'show' where a pretty woman jumps into a pool of alligators and maybe someone in the family wrestles a gator. Russell's depiction of Swamplandia! as a place is perfection. It is creepy, sad, pathetic, and nostalgia-inducing. Anyone who has had a home that they loved - even if it was a little shitty - will connect to the family's love of this place that is falling apart physically and financially. Swamplandia! doesn't have the same draw that it used to, and a competing theme park (World of Darkness) is taking away the rest of the customers. The family is trying to hold the park, their finances, and themselves together in the midst of all this. Ava, Ossie, and Kiwi are the homeschooled awkward and weird kids. The Chief and Hilola are their dreamer parents. Grandfather Sawtooth is the original founder of Swamplandia! Kiwi and Ava share the narrating in mostly-alternating chapters.

I finished the book a few weeks ago but have held off from writing a review because of my mixed feelings which started about halfway through the book and just haven't left me. There are many wonderful things about this book: the premise, the writing, the world building, the characters, the differing point of views, the mood. It really captures the disconnectedness of families, and how people can live their entire lives with each other without knowing each other at all, and how disconcerting it is to begin to realize that as a young teenager. However, there were some major problems I had with the book. Without giving anything away, it seemed the book had the potential to go in a genre direction that I am not at all interested in reading, and I didn't want to waste my last book of the year on this book if it was just going to be a ____ story. I actually dug around on goodreads* to spoil the book a bit, and decided to keep going through. I'm glad I finished it just because a book has to be REALLY terrible to be unfinished, and this book is not terrible, but it's also not as amazing as I thought it was going to be. Russell's short stories have had rave reviews, and I am very interested in those. A fair amount of the novel felt like short stories that just happened to have the same characters and were woven together that way. Unfortunately, the short story bits were not strong enough to stand alone, and woven together it leads to a kind of meandering plot where very few things happen. 

I would probably read her next novel in the hopes that she figures out what she didn't quite nail here for me, and I am very interested in her short stories because her writing is truly lovely. Swamplandia! just didn't give me the satisfaction that I wanted.

*Sidenote: people on goodreads can be totally evil and stuck up. I read several low-star reviews where people replied snarkily "If this is too dark for you, go back to Nicholas Sparks." Soooo...if you don't like one critically acclaimed book then you must like trash only? Also...does that mean that those readers ONLY read critically acclaimed literature and have never picked up a genre book in their entire lives? I find that attitude to be so boring, and it makes me want to internet punch them with my MA and tell them to STFU.

Monday, December 9, 2013

35: City of Bones (The Mortal Instruments Book One) - Cassandra Clare

"Is there anything I could get for you?" he asked. "Something to drink? Some tea?" 
"I don't want tea," said Clary, with muffled force. "I want to find my mother. An then I want to find out who took her in the first place, and I want to kill them." 
"Unfortunately," said Hodge, "we're all out of bitter revenge at the moment, so it's either tea or nothing."

At the start of the year I asked my students to write about what their favorite book was and why. The books that had the most votes were put on my To Read List so that I can be hip with the kids and make the connections that might make what I'm teaching them more meaningful. Based on the cover, I would never by this book. Too shiny, too shitty tribal tattooey, too shirtless. I have spent too many years poking fun at my mom's shirtless romance book covers to carry this around, except that I did. FOR THE CHILDREN!

Like all young adult books, it's an incredibly quick read. It weighs in at almost 500 pages, but I read it in a few days which were not particularly reading heavy. The book is incredibly formulaic. One girl. Two guys. Secret world that the girl (and one of the boys) is a part of, but never knew it until her true identity is revealed. Missing parent. Quest to reunite. Mentor. Danger. Romance. Torment. Etc. The secret underworld is predictable when considering what has been popular lately. There are vampires, werewolves, demons, warlocks, pixies, fae, etc. 

The twist is in the Shadow Hunters who are part human, part angel, and hunt down demons from different dimensions. Their power comes from training, education, and the magic wands (called a stele) runes that they temporarily tattoo on their body to give them different powers and protection.

It holds up well if you like your characters sarcastic, sexy, and self-absorbed (the Shadowhunters), your love life triangular, and your plot with some rather convenient timing. It made me laugh at time (see above quote), surprised me with its inclusion on topics other young adult novels sometimes leave out (a gay character, teenage drinking, lots of hints about all the sex that is happening in the background), and included some genuine plot twists that I didn't seem coming.

On the other hand, this novel has some SERIOUS problems with how it portrays character development and teenagers. Two female characters spend the entirety of the novel hating each other. A male character later correctly identifies their conflict as being based on teen girl jealousy, which is fine, but it's wrapped up when one girl tells another, "And I guess I resented you at first, but I realize now that was stupid. Just because I've never had a friend who was a girl doesn't mean I couldn't learn how to have one." The other girl replies, "Me too actually." Ummmm, no. Nope. No. No way. Not happening. I work with teenage girls for a living - that is not how they talk and that is not how they conflict solve. That conversation is how teenage girls problem solve in health class when they are forced to do conflict resolution roleplays by adults - and they are rolling their eyes the whole way through I promise.

I am sure the girls will be best best besties in the next two books (did I mention that it's a trilogy?) which I will find annoying throughout. Will I read the next two books? Sure. They're easy reads and I'm still curious about how the characters will turn out. I also have a crush on Clary's best friend who makes Star Wars references and plays D and D, so I really want to see what happens to HIM - the rest of the gang is kind of meh.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

34: This Is How You Lose Her - Junot Diaz

Editor's Note: In spite of having not read a book for 11 weeks, I am still the 3rd best read if you compare me to the Fifty Books Boys (speaking of which - why are they all boys?) I do think that with my upcoming Winter Break, my re-dedication to being good to myself before I'm good to my students, and my decision to no longer work 10 hour days, I will be able to get into second place before the year is over. Watch out!

"About a month later, she started making the sort of changes that would have alarmed a paranoid nigger. Cuts her hair, buys better makeup, rocks new clothes, goes out dancing on Friday nights with friends. When I ask her if we can chill, I'm no longer sure it's a done deal. A lot of time she Bartlebys me, says, No, I'd rather not. I ask her what the hell she thinks this is and she says, That's what I'm trying to figure out. I know what she was doing. Making me aware of my precarious position in her life. Like I was not aware."                                                                                                                                                                                                                  "You try every trick in the book to keep her. You write her letters. You drive her to work. You quote Neruda. You compose a mass e-mail disowning all your sucias. You block their e-mails. You change your phone number. You stop drinking. You stop smoking. You claim you're a sex addict and start attending meetings. You blame your father. You blame your mother. You blame the patriarchy. You blame Santo Domingo. You find a therapist. You cancel your Facebook. You give her the passwords to all your e-mail accounts. You start taking salsa classes like you always swore you would so that the two of you could dance together. You claim that you were sick, you claim that you were weak - It was the book! It was the pressure! - and every hour like clockwork you say that you're so so sorry. You try it all, but one day she will simply sit up in bed and say, 'No more,' and 'Ya,' and you will have to move from the Harlem apartment that you two have shared."

I love Junot Diaz like Oscar Wao loves cake and comic books. Love him. LOVE HIM. I saw him at a really fun event in town (take that everyone who is like "blah blab blah Las Vegas has no culture") and that allowed everything I felt for him as an author to turn into a Mega  Crush - to the point that I COULD NOT GET MY BOOK SIGNED BECAUSE I FELT TOO STUPID. Yup. My heart broke when I received a text message from a grad student colleague.
Him: You like Junot Diaz, right? 
Me: I love him. LOOOOOOVEEEE him. 
Him: I don't think you're going to love him after you read his new book. A story from it was published in the New Yorker. It's called "The Cheater's Guide to Love."

I didn't read the story right then - I didn't want to get it out of context. Surely there was a reason for this? I waited for the book to come out. Then I waited desperately for the paperback to come out because hardcovers are not in my budget, even for Mr. Diaz. 

This book is a collection of interconnected short stories about our standby Diaz character: Yunior. We are back with Yunior, and Rafa, and their crazy mom, and their shitty dad, except this time Yunior is an adult - as the reader who is growing up with him, it's nice that we are in the same place in our lives: professionally established, looking for love, ready to get serious, right in that age bracket where people are getting pregnant both on purpose and on accident. Yunior's voice is perfection, and much like Diaz's own, it is a mix of ghetto and incredibly well educated. The fact that our narrator uses 'nigger' just a breath away from a Melville allusion is completely and utterly satisfying for me. Although we never see Yunior in his campus life at Rutgers or his professional life as a university professor in Boston, these little moments reveal this complex character who obviously code switches between his two different worlds, but has developed his own perfect language in his head. As someone who drops enough F-bombs in real life that people are often incredulous that I am a teacher of children, I appreciate the depiction. I really do want to talk to Yunior about his usage of the n-word though, and after some googling to satisfy my own curiosity about Diaz's reasoning (see below), I hope that this is a conversation that Yunior has some day in some book. A man who is capable of blaming the patriarchy for his infidelity can certainly talk about his African-diaspora-Dominican-claim to the n-word, and what he is trying to establish by using it.

The stories are tied together by the common motif of infidelity, but it would be selling them short to say this is a book about cheating. This is a book about immigration, loneliness, learning patterns of behavior from your family, loving someone and completely fucking it up, and knowing you're fucking it up, and not being able to stop yourself. It's a study in the psychology of what makes a really smart, really talented, really lucky person act like a damn fool.

It's hard to describe how Yunior can be such a sympathetic character while also being such a ______ (offensive word taken out because I'm not ready to have a conversation about whether it's okay to use a super offensive Spanish word if I am half-Mexican even though I certainly did not grow up in a neighborhood or family that used that word, but I spent four years teaching kids who did?). 

Perhaps it's as simple as: the writing is beautiful and it's from him. Maybe it's because, outside of the cheating, he captures the complexity of any relationship and the mistakes that everyone makes. We take each other for granted. We don't go the extra step. We handle things without care. The second excerpt above is absolutely my favorite section of the book: the desperate ways that people try to put back together a relationship that is already too broken. It is utterly childish to think that a Neruda poem or a salsa class can save such massive betrayal - but people try those things all the time. We see it in movies and songs and TV shows and music video narratives. We want to believe that everything can be FIXED, that hurts are never so devastating that they cannot be undone with something as simple as a sonnet. 

I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.

I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way than this:
where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep. 

"Let’s talk then about the kinds of words that are okay to use and the kinds that aren’t. You use the word “nigger” a lot in this book [Oscar Wao]. Have you gotten any pushback from people about being a Latino writer and using that word?
It's one of those things, I mean -- there's a ton of child rape in this book too. Does that mean I'm a child rapist, I endorse child rape? I mean, the word nigger exists in the world. And some people aren’t okay with a Latino writer using it, and you know what? That's really cool! That's the difference that we're talking about, is it real life or is it art? When it comes right down to it, so child rape should only be represented by child rapists? Or if you represent child rape in a book, does this speak to your relationship with child rape? Or is there something far more complicated going on, with the concept of representations, or the concept of deploying "taboo" language and who deploys it? I don't ever remember Oscar calling anybody nigger, or Lola using that word – it's coming from Yunior specifically.
It's easy to assume that because there's one person in a culture or group using that word, that everyone's using it. But I find that part of what the book is about is about who uses what language and how they're using it. There is something about the way Yunior uses language that is worth really interrogating. I totally understand people's political decisions about language, vis-a-vis their decisions about their practice and their life, but I just feel like when issues of representation are up in the air, you have to use a much wider palette. We're trying to talk about the world. I guess this isn't an essay about for or against the "n word", it's sort of a larger argument about the world, so that everything in the world, positive and negative, should find its way into a book. There's something surprisingly reductive about how people are always trying to scratch books out of existence. That means we've got to get of almost everything by Mark Twain!
I mean, after all, Malcolm X is of Caribbean descent. He's not purely African American descent, if I remember correctly, part of his family is either from St Lucia or St Croix. [Editor's note: Malcolm X's mother was born in Grenada, in the southeastern Caribbean sea]. So he shouldn't use it either, right?!
What I find interesting is that I'm neither for nor against who should use certain words or not. But there's a tremendous amount at stake in trying to control how language is used."

Saturday, September 14, 2013

33: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena - Anthony Marra

"Why do they even care? What could they possibly want with a child?" "No one is off limits because there are no limits. The why and the what aren't for us to consider. Those are questions for philosophers and imams and not for people like us, whoever we are."

If you haven't heard of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, it's only a matter of time as the book just came out in May. It's being hailed by everyone as brilliant and wonderful and Foer-esque; I am completely in agreement with everything good said about this book. My only complaint is that I read it while camping and without any internet access, which made it a little difficult because if I don't know something, I want to know it. A book about Chechnya when you have never even heard of Chechnya is not a book to be tackled without the google machine.

The book has interconnected stories that span space and time which is always a quick way to my heart. It focuses on an eight-year old, Havaa, who manages to escape the Russian raid that takes her father to a torture camp. The neighbor, Akhmed, takes it upon himself to keep her safe. They journey to a hospital where Akhmed offers his medical skills (he is the worst doctor in Chechnya, but a brilliant portrait artist) in exchange for the Head Surgeon (and only doctor) Sonja to keep her safe. 

The book is a long one, and I also didn't have a pen with me to keep track of people's relationships to one another which I could have used. It's been compared to Everything Is Illuminated and the comparison is apt - we get people's back stories, it's a war torn country, incredibly terrible things happen to very good people, and everyone is just trying to get by. The writing is beautiful, the story is beautiful, and I cried several times while reading it. 

One of my Facebook book groups recently posed the question: how do you feel when an author is telling a story about a group of people that they're not a part of? (It was in reference to Lisa See who has one Chinese great-grandparent and writes novels mostly centering around China). This book is an example of me being so utterly impressed that an author is able to capture something so outside of his own personal experiences. Much of the book is written from the perspective of women - from the child, to the doctor who defies gender roles, to a woman who is forced into sexual slavery. He is not Chechan or Russian, but this area of the world is obviously his passion. Not knowing anything about Chechnya, I can't speak to his ability to capture that. He does a wonderful job capturing the female experience, so I can only hope that he does the same for this small part of the world that has not received a lot of literary treatment. 

32: Eden Close - Anita Shreve

"Jim is dead," said his father. "Eden's been shot, but she's still alive....It looks like...a man broke in while she and Jim were out...a man broke in...He was...assaulting Eden, and the man had a gun - we heard the shots...Eden somehow got in the way..."

Eden: Your father was a brave but foolish man. 

Anita Shreve is one of my guilty pleasures that I indulge in frequently because Las Vegas women love to read her and donate her to Goodwill, so I pick these up sometimes.

This one is a mysteryish returning-to-homeish romanceish type of a book. It opens on a moment back in time when our main character, Andrew, is lying awake in bed as a teenager and hears a scream, a shot, and a wail from the neighbor's house. His good friend from childhood, Eden, has been sexually assaulted, her dad, Jim, attempted to stop the assault and was shot. Eden gets caught in the scuffle and is also shot in the face, blinding her for life. Andrew hasn't seen her since she was taken out of her house in the ambulance. As an adult returning home to take care of his mother's affairs after her death he's curious about Eden, who still lives next door with her mom.

There's not much more to say without giving everything away. Is it worth reading? Meh. If you're into fluffy reading that's really heavy and depressing, sure!

31: To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee

"Before I can live with other folks I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience."

"Scout," said Atticus, "nigger-lover is just one of those terms that don't mean anything - like snot-nose. It's hard to explain - ignorant, trashy people use it when they think somebody's favoring Negroes over and above themselves. It's slipped into usage with some people like ourselves, when they want a common, ugly term to label somebody." 
"You aren't really a nigger-lover, then, are you?"
"I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody."

"I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand."

"He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives. But neighbors give in return. We never put back into the tree what we took out of it: we had given him nothing, and it made me sad."

I haven't read To Kill a Mockingbird since I was in middle school, and I was either an unevolved middle schooler or middle schoolers as a whole are just too unevolved to appreciate the book. I didn't have any particularly fond memories of the book and thus it was the last that I read on my list of books for my upcoming classes. 

I don't know what else to say besides: every moment of this book was pure magic. Scout made me laugh, the town made me cry, and Atticus Finch made me a better person. This is the kind of book that makes you a better person after you read it.

It has definitely become one of my favorite books of all time which doesn't happen very often these days. I am very much looking forward to teaching it. I'm actually looking forward to reading it again, but I know how teaching a book over and over can ruin the magic a little bit, so I am refraining as I have four freshmen classes to teach it to this year.

If you haven't read it, or haven't read it in a while, you absolutely must. It is that good. I promise.