Tag Archives: reading

The Wilder Life, by Wendy McClure

I miss Decorah. There’s a bit at the end of this book where they’re staying in Decorah (after seeing the Laura stuff at Burr Oak) and they stay at the Super 8 and go to Bookends and Beans – which isn’t named, but anyone who’s spent time in Decorah knows that’s where they went – and now I want a raspberry chai from Bookends and Beans and to wander through their carefully selected shelves where I always saw a book that I’d been craving. And then I’d take the chai and the book and go to Dunning’s Spring and read (if it were warm enough) or maybe up to campus and sit by Pioneer Memorial or up to Phelps Park or walk along the river….

Anyway.

I quite enjoyed this book. It helps that I’ve been to most of the sites myself, although a few of them I only have hazy memories of. I always enjoy books that reference places that are familiar to me, as long as they get the details right. (See also: Housewives Eating Bonbons, or whatever it’s called, also presumably set in Decorah, but an unrecognizable version of it, and if you’re going to change such an important feature of the town as the college that has been there since 1861 – just change the name of the town already.)

If you don’t know, this is a book about one woman’s journey around the Laura Ingalls Wilder sites, in an emotional search for “Laura World” – the sense of recapturing the world of the series as she experienced it when she was a child. It’s not a particularly calculated journey. She didn’t set out to write a book or a travel guide about the Laura sites. And I like that. There are plenty of books out there that serve that function. This is much more personal. It’s about the journey, the exploration, and in some ways the pilgrimage aspect. She’s trying to recapture her childhood connection with Laura and her old sense of the world Laura lived in. The book doesn’t really try to evoke that world – although there is some of that – as much as it does her reaction to that world, or what is left of it, and trying to fit Laura into her adult urban life.

And I think she’s pretty successful at it. She discovers along the way what she needs Laura to be – an example of girlhood and exploration – amd what she doesn’t – a lifestyle example to help prepare for the End Times. She meets some interesting people, in both good and bad ways, and learns how to do quite a lot – cooking some of the Little House recipes, twisting hay, surviving a Midwestern thunderstorm.

The only thing I didn’t like was a vague sense of condescension to the more rural people that she met and some of the small town things she experienced. It wasn’t really explicit, but I got a feeling that she saw small towns in the Midwest as a kind of foreign country and “oh, aren’t their customs quaint and cute!” That could just be oversensitivity on my part, though, seeing as I grew up in small Midwetern towns – large by local standards but smaller than the university where I did my MA.

The main thing that I came away from this book with was a desire to reread the entire Little House series. It’s been years since I’ve read them. I also want to give them to some young girls I know. I think they’re at the right age to start them, and one of them at least will get a kick out of the history of it all.

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Thoughts on reading and friendship

I read a lot of blogs. News blogs, celebrity blogs (for a certain definition of celebrity – mostly authors, as I look at my RSS feed), publishing blogs, a couple of cooking blogs….  Sometimes links in those blogs lead me to other blogs that I then subscribe to (although sometimes I go through a decluttering phase and the new subscriptions fall prey to my service industry, shift-based job). And sometimes things in those blogs lead me to consider things that are not the point of the blog at all.

Which is a long-winded way of leading up to this blog post, which caused me not to think about the different types of friendship, but the ancillary mentioned that “women who love books…are especially prone to close friendships with women because there is an obvious subject to talk about: books.”

I cry foul. And not just because, as Rachel points out very well, books are not the only shared interest that can lead to extended conversation and eventual friendship. I cry foul because books are not an automatic point of common interest, even when both people love books and reading.

True story: I met a new colleague one year while teaching abroad. We shared our love of reading. She asked what my favourite books were, and I listed a few of my all-time favourites (Room with a View, Rilla of Ingleside, Outlaws of Sherwood, etc.). She’d never heard of any of them. I asked hers. “The Notebook, by Nicholas Sparks,” she said. “Because it’s just so well-written.” That was my first clue that we were going to have nothing in common. (We didn’t.)

I attended a seminar during my Master’s  about writing CVs. The instructor suggested that, when describing interests, you should avoid saying things like “I like reading” and “I like music” because the categories are too broad. I don’t know how effective it is on CVs to say “I like historical biography and classical music” but at least it gives more of a sense of the applicant’s personality and tastes.

Because that’s the thing about books (and music) that is not as true about, say, knitting or even cooking. The categories are too wide to give any sense of what the person actually enjoys. Someone who reads exclusively non-fiction and someone who reads exclusively Mills and Boon (Harlequin) are not going to have a lot to talk about – even though both of them would describe themselves as readers and probably as people who love books and reading.

Friendships – any sort of relationships – have to be built on points of commonality. The two people involved don’t have to have everything in common, of course: how boring is it to have a conversation about books that goes, “I loved that book!” “Me too!” “And this one!” “Me too!” “And … now what do we talk about?” But just saying “I love books!” isn’t enough of a commonalit y to build a conversation on, much less a relationship.

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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer

I was pleasantly surprised by this book. I mean, it’s been recommended to me by a lot of people, including my best friend and my mother, both of whom have excellent taste in books, but the impression I’d always gotten from reviews and things was of a fairly light book. I knew I would like it; I wasn’t sure I was in the right mood for light.

And it is light, but it also isn’t. The style is fairly light – it’s an epistolary novel, so the tone is almost always that of friends chatting – but the subject matter isn’t always. It’s set post-WW2, so there’s all the dealing-with-that that you might imagine, and it revolves around the Channel Islands, which were occupied by the Germans. The basic idea (of the title, certainly) is that a group of islanders formed a literary society that, ultimately, saved their sanity during the Occupation.

The novel starts off with a writer on a book tour, who gets a letter from an islander telling her about their book club. She is, of course, instantly intrigued, and before long is corresponding with all of the members about their reading habits and their lives under the Occupation. Eventually she goes to visit, and learns even more about them and their lives.

The first half, where she’s on the book tour and just getting to know everyone through the letters, is much deeper than the second half, where she’s on Guernsey.  For various reasons, the first half of the book deals a lot with the power of reading, and the reasons that people – particularly these islanders – read the books that they do. I wish I’d had some post-its or something while I was reading it, because some of the phrasing is incredible.

The second half of the book is more of what I was expecting. It’s still quite good, of course, but it’s less about the power of reading and more a typical romance novel. Juliet (the writer) must decide whether to marry a rich American, stay in Guernsey, etc. Books are still an element, of course, but the overall theme is much more about Guernsey and the post-war recovery.

I don’t really know anything about the Channel Islands. I knew they’d been occupied during the war, but that’s about all I knew. I was fascinated to read about the conditions they’d been under while the Germans were there – one of the lesser known aspects of the war. I may have to learn more about them, after this book.

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The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

The goal of reading is to immerse yourself in another world. To find yourself in a place, a time, a situation that becomes so real to you that it’s a wrench when you realise that they were words on a page. I remember reading a book with a blind protagonist when I was a teenager (I think it was The Cay but I can’t be 100% sure now, after fifteen-ish years) and being surprised when I finished that I could see. Intellectually I knew that, of course I could see, I was reading, but the world the author had created was so non-visual that it was a shock to come out of it.

I read The Name of the Wind mostly in half-hour spurts, my lunch break at work. Almost every day that I read it, I was surprised by the beeping of my break timer. I finally got to the point where I couldn’t take being wrenched out of the world anymore, so I avoided any kind of social/online interaction and just finished it.

And then I came downstairs and said, “I want to be back in this world. I’m ordering the sequel.” (I did check to see if it was at the local library, but all the copies are out and I seriously don’t want to wait that long.)

It’s hard to describe this book in a way that’s not trite. It’s an epic fantasy novel, with the medieval-esque setting and the swords and sorcery aspects of that – but it keeps from becoming clichéd. It’s also the first in a series. And it’s an amazing feat of worldbuilding.

I’m not even sure how he did it. With some authors, you can see how they do the worldbuilding. It may be skilful, but you can see that this is where they’re telling about the religion and this is where they’re laying out the social structure. There’s some of that in The Name of the Wind of course, but it’s often very subtle. The storytelling structure is incredibly effective, weaving hints and foreshadowing through the “present-day” bits as well as through the story. The world that he develops and presents is so incredibly real that it is almost painful to leave it.

Favourite quotable bit: Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts. There are seven words that will make a person love you. There are ten words that will break a strong man’s will. But a word is nothing but a painting of fire. A name is the fire itself.

The whole book isn’t in that vein, of course: that passage was said by a professor at the university where the main character is studying. But it basically sums up the motivation of the main character and, presumably, the impetus for the series. Words and communication of various forms – especially music, and especially singing, the combination of music and words – are so important throughout this book. People die because they say or sing the wrong things; names – pure names, not just the words – have immeasurable power; the stories told create the event and the character.

I don’t want to say too much about the story itself, in part because it’s the first in a series. This book, while a book in itself and a story in itself, is also very much only the beginning of the story. It sets up the world and the characters and the conflict, but the conflict is not even close to being resolved, or even completely revealed.

It’s an incredible world, and I can’t wait to be in it again.

(Sidenote: This book didn’t completely register on my radar for a long time. I’d heard the name, but got it confused with The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, which I read several years ago. It wasn’t until the sequel came out a few months ago, and a lot was being written about Patrick Rothfuss, that it clicked with me that they were different books. Also, The Shadow of the Wind is very good, and also has a relatively recent sequel, which I have not yet read and still want to.)

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The Children’s Book, by A.S. Byatt – initial thoughts

I’m reading The Children’s Book right now. It’s long and thick and dense and I’m loving it so far. One of my friends who read it said that Byatt tries to do too much in it, and I can kind of see that – flipping to the last few pages, it ends just after WW1, which is indeed a dense topic that can be difficult to get right. I’m enjoying it so far, though, for the most part.

One slight problem I have is that I want to sink into it, to lose myself in it, but I keep getting distracted by things. Some of these things are external, like the adorable dogs walking by when I was reading in the park. Some of them are internal.

Byatt is the type of writer, I think, who does a lot of research on her books – this one uses fairy tales and late Victorian/Edwardian life. She also likes to display the results of her research. This has led, for me so far, to very beautifully written passages about imagination or mythology or the setting, but also 82 pages before the children’s books enter the novel, and no sense of the story yet.

It’s very atmospheric. It’s very beautifully written. It’s one of the few books where I’ve actually made notes (there are a few words that I don’t instantly know, and a few passages I’ve underlined). I’m just ready to get past the staging and to the story. I’m having problems keeping the characters separate – they’re just images right now, not individuals – and am really wondering where things are going to end up.

Two minor issues: 1. Is it mandatory for a “literary” novel to include a masturbation scene (graphic or not)? It’s a trend I don’t quite see the necessity for. 2. Can someone please explain this sentence to me without commas?

Humphry graduated in 1877, two years after the Christian Arnold Toynbee, whose devotion to the needy, and early death, were commemorated by Canon Barnett’s founding of Toynbee Hall, designed as a community of graduates, who would, themselves, live and teach amongst the poor.

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How do we read?

There was an article in the New York Times about the way people read and the way they share (or not) their reading experiences. Basically it’s an argument between “social” readers who use book clubs and social networking, and private readers, who…don’t.  The article starts with a quotation from the latest Newbery book (which I don’t know anything about, really – I am intrigued) comparing someone else reading your favourite book to an invasion of privacy, and kind of continues that line through the rest of the article.

Reading is, of course, a solitary action for most of us. There are ways, of course, to make it less solitary, by reading out loud or listening to audiobooks, but mostly reading is a solitary activity. Experiencing books, on the other hand, is not a solitary activity. Even if you don’t want to share your reading experience, you form a connection with the characters, the storylines. Even non-fiction, unless it’s an encyclopaedia, has characters and storylines that the reader forms an emotional connection with.

And the books that we love help us to form connections with other people. We feel a sense of ownership of our favourite books, sure, so I can see where they are coming from, those people who don’t want to share their favourite books.  But I also know that humans are social creatures, who wither without some point of connection with others.  You can tell a lot about people because of their reaction to books: both their favourites (and least favourites) and what they think of your favourites. I knew that one of my colleagues and I weren’t going to have a lot in common when she said that her favourite book was Nicholas Sparks’s The Notebook because it was so well-written, for example. And I became close to one of my friends in Slovakia because of our shared love of Jane Austen (and Jane Austen adaptations).

Anyway, experiencing books is not a solitary activity. Despite what the article may imply, reading has never been a purely private pursuit.  18th and 19th century novels are filled with people reading in company, or sharing books, or passing around letters. Today, there are organized ways of sharing the books – like book clubs and social networking and literature classes – and there are casual ways – like a friend recommending a book and enthusing about their favourite parts.

For me, at least, reading is – and should be – both a solitary and a social activity. I have intimate relationships with books – I defy anyone to say the contrary – but like most intimate relationships, I find it difficult to put that relationship into words. So when I talk about those books, I don’t necessarily talk about the emotions of it, except to close friends.  I talk about the comic relief, or the plot points, or the weaknesses.  Just like when I fall in love – I don’t usually talk about the depth of my feelings, except to close friends. I talk about what we do, or what is annoying me about him, or when I’m going to see him again.

And just because someone else enjoys the same books that you do, that doesn’t – or shouldn’t – diminish your own relationship with the book. It’s still yours, as much as a book belongs to any reader (which is a philosophical question in and of itself). The laws of this universe, so far as we know, mean that you will not run into people from this world in your book. You read it again, and it’s your own private place just as much as it always was.

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