Saturday, December 31, 2011

End of Year Survey

Jamie at the Perpetual Page-Turner is hosting her End of Year Book Survey and it seems like a good way to end the year. I’ll be in Dallas over the weekend watching the Boston Bruins play the Dallas Stars. We usually try to see the Penguins play, but couldn’t make it to any of their games this year so seeing Tim Thomas (hopefully!) play will have to do. I do have players on both teams on my Fantasy Hockey team so it will be fun to root for them in person.

1. Best Book You Read In 2011?

Atlas Shrugged. It was a struggle at first, but I ended up loving it.

2. Most Disappointing Book/Book You Wish You Loved More Than You Did?

I started Howl’s Moving Castle, which I think is part of a series, but I thought it was awful and didn’t finish it. I was disappointed because I’d heard so many wonderful things from bloggers I like. I just thought the writing was terrible and it was so boring – I didn’t care what happened to anyone! I also started The Magicians and was equally disappointed and didn’t finish it. Again, I thought the writing was crap and the characters and story boring. I do not understand how this is so popular!

3. Most surprising (in a good way!) book of 2011?

Atlas Shrugged

4. Book you recommended to people most in 2011?

Hmmm….I think I recommended The Night Circus to a few people, and I told my husband he should read Atlas Shrugged and the Hunger Games.

5. Best series you discovered in 2011?
I don’t think I read any new series this year, except the unfinished ones I mention in the second question.

6. Favorite new authors you discovered in 2011?

Ayn Rand, Jamie Ford, Oliver Goldsmith

7. Best book that was out of your comfort zone or was a new genre for you?

This is coming up a lot, but probably Atlas Shrugged. I like classics, but I don’t usually like twentieth-century works as much and I knew there would be so much philosophy in this I didn’t think I would like it.

8. Most thrilling, unputdownable book in 2011?

Well, I read Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier in one sitting, so technically I guess that was it! As for thrilling though, I would say Before I Got to Sleep since it was so creepy and more of an actual thriller.

9. Book you most anticipated in 2011?

Probably The Night Circus

10. Favorite cover of a book you read in 2011?

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

11. Most memorable character in 2011?

Definitely John Galt from Atlas Shrugged.

12. Most beautifully written book read in 2011?

Even though it is non-fiction, I loved the language in Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Which is good, since it’s a book on writing!

13. Book that had the greatest impact on you in 2011?

Atlas Shrugged. It made me think about my economic beliefs and fine tune some of them.

14. Book you can’t believe you waited UNTIL 2011 to finally read?

Hmm. Probably Atlas Shrugged. I think I would have loved it in college, when I was more involved in politics and would have had more people to talk about the ideas with.

15. Favorite Passage/Quote From A Book You Read In 2011?

I only recently started trying to make notes of passages and quotes, but here’s one I liked: “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
16. Book That You Read In 2011 That Would Be Most Likely To Reread In 2012?

I don’t usually read books two years in a row, so I don’t plan on rereading any of the ones I read in 2011 in 2012. I might be tempted by Atlas Shrugged because I feel like I just skimmed the surface of that one, but I know that won’t happen. I do plan on rereading Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and/or something by Jane Austen because it’s been a little while since I’ve read those and they’re some of my favorites.

17. Book That Had A Scene In It That Had You Reeling And Dying To Talk To Somebody About It? (a WTF moment, an epic revelation, a steamy kiss, etc. etc.) Be careful of spoilers!

This wasn’t really a shocking scene or plot twist, but I would have to say John Galt’s speech in Atlas Shrugged. I couldn’t wait to talk to my husband about it and work through my thoughts and reactions. That made that whole book worth it.
Looking Ahead...

1. One Book You Didn’t Get To In 2011 But Will Be Your Number 1 Priority in 2012?

I had hoped to read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte this year but didn’t get to it. I plan to read it in 2012 so I’ll have finally read something by Anne!

2. Book You Are Most Anticipating For 2012?

Probably War and Peace. I realized the version I read was actually abridged so I haven’t actually read the whole thing and want to remedy that. Plus, I have a much better translation now.

3. One Thing You Hope To Accomplish Or Do In Your Reading/Blogging In 2012?

I hope to read at least 50 books from my TBR shelves. I own an insane amount of books and there is no reason to have so many that I haven’t even read!!! As far as blogging goes, I just want to stick with it because it does add depth to my reading experience and I enjoy the interaction with other book bloggers.

Friday, December 30, 2011

TBR Challenge

One last challenge to join! I decided to go for Adam at Roof Beam Reader’s TBR Challenge. I’m already doing C.B’s TBR challenge of reading only books I own until April, but this challenge is to read 12 books in 2012 that have been on my TBR shelves for longer than a year. Sadly, this is a ton of books! I could take the easy way out and use books I’m already planning to read for other challenges, but where would the fun be in that?  Since many of the other challenges I’m participating in involve classics, I’m going to make this one more fun and focus on lighter reading. I’m also going to try to pick books that have been on shelves for many years rather than ones I just bought a little over a year ago.

Here’s my list:

1. Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson

2. Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah

3. The Queen of the Big Time by Adriana Trigiani

4. Fortune’s Rocks by Anita Shreve

5. Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwarz

6. The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton

7. Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

8. The All True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton by Jane Smiley

9. A Girl from the South by Joanna Trollope

10. Interview with a Vampire by Anne Rice

11. Icy Sparks by Gwyn Hyman Rubio

12. Gatsby’s Girl by Caroline Preston


• The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl

• A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Falling Angels

For some reason, several years ago I felt compelled to pick up several Tracy Chevalier novels at a library book sale, even though at that time I hadn’t read anything by her. Fortunately, I’ve enjoyed The Lady and the Unicorn and the movie version of The Girl with the Pearl Earring (which I watched before realizing it was based on a book). I decided to give Falling Angels a try and ended up reading it in one sitting.

Unlike the other Chevalier novels I’m familiar with, this one doesn’t focus on the story behind a piece of artwork. It takes place at the turn of the century in England. It’s about a world poised on the brink of major changes – the death of Queen Victoria, the invention of cars, wider use of electricity, women’s suffrage, breaking away from old traditions. While we today are thankful for this changes and it would have been exciting to be part of that, Chevalier shows that it would also be a time of upheaval and struggle.

If you’re a progressive woman in the early 1900s, sympathetic to the women’s rights movement, you would likely feel out of place in your home. You’d be torn between family duties and being a suffragette. Your husband likely wouldn’t want you involved, and even your daughter who you’re in part doing this for won’t understand when she’s young. You may be arrested and put in jail. You may ruin the family name simply by protesting. Chevalier shows this struggle, and also shows that sometimes even when we’re fighting for what’s right we can go too far.

There were several references to Dickens in the novel, and I couldn’t help comparing Kitty, who becomes a suffragette, to Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House. Both have good intentions, but take their focus on volunteering to such an extreme that it hurts their families. Mrs. Jellyby is so consumed with helping children in Africa that she fails to see the state her own children are in. Kitty becomes so focused on supporting women’s suffrage that she neglects her own daughter, even though she claims she’s doing these things to help her daughter, and ends up causing tremendous harm to her family and a neighboring family.

I think perhaps one of the reasons I was enchanted by this story is that when I was little I had the Samantha doll and books from American Girls, who was from the turn-of-the-century. Although Samantha was from New York, the overall setting was very similar and she even attends a women’s suffrage event in a park in one book. Reading Falling Angels felt like reading a grown-up version of the Samantha books, where the rose-colored glasses are removed and there are deaths, violence, lies, scandals, and affairs.

Also, I tend to enjoy novels that are written from various points of view, and Chevalier does that well. The voices are distinct, so you don’t have to keep reminding yourself whose section you’re reading. I love getting to see multiple sides of the same story and learning from the various perceptions. You can see how people think they’re fooling others but aren’t, or sometimes are, and how two different people view the same conversation or event. I think it adds depth to a story.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and appreciated its ability to pull me completely into the story. The one negative is that the first page makes it sound like it’s going to be about a group of swingers, which it’s not at all. Don’t let that throw you off. I think that was an odd decision to make in an otherwise wonderful read.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Why We Read

I’ve read several works lately that focus on why and how we read. The first year Ryan and I were married, I dragged him to a library book sale and he got sucked into the silent auction. We ended up coming up with a complete set of the Great Books of the Western World and the Gateways to the Great Books (meant to help you get started with short stories or shorter works by some of the authors in the Great Books set). Those were “his” books, while I bought bags full of “my” books. I’m a lucky girl.  Sadly, these great books have mostly sat unread on our shelves just looking pretty. I’ve read some of the novels in other forms – these are hard backs with tiny print – and some of the ancient Greek works. As these sets make up a good chunk of my TBR stacks, I started with the introduction to both sets.

The intro to the Great Books set is called The Great Conversation. I thought this was fitting, because while reading it I also read Reading for Pleasure in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs, which actually references the editor, Mortimer Adler, of the Great Books/The Great Conversation multiple times and basically argues with him. This made for an interesting reading experience! I really felt like I was having a conversation – I’d read some of Adler’s points and then read some of Jacob’s points and go back to Adler while agreeing with and arguing with both of them.

So, what were their points? Adler argues that everyone should read the Great Books. These are a foundation for all learning and understanding and after reading them you will be better equipped to read anything. He rants about the education system and how it’s not focused on reading whole works and we’re too distracted by TV to read anything anymore – and he’s writing in the early 60s! I hate to think what he’d be thinking now.

Jacobs, on the other hand, thinks people should read on a whim and for pleasure, not because someone told them that this or that book is one they should read. He dislikes lists like the 1,001 Books to Read Before You Die and anything that tries to say there are certain books you should read. He also doesn’t really think you can teach someone to love reading, which he admits is an odd stance for an English literature professor.

For me, there are pieces of both philosophies that I agree with. I agree with Jacobs in that I think by pushing students to believe that only reading certain works really counts and focusing on works that usually aren’t the best classics out there, we make reading feel like a chore. It’s something to do so you can be smart or well read or because you’re supposed to, not because it’s simply fun.

However, like Adler, I do think we should teach everyone to appreciate the classics. That doesn’t mean everyone will end up a life-long classics reader, but they should be exposed to Shakespeare and the ancient Greeks and many others. I disagree with him that everyone should read everything in the Great Books –even I’m not looking forward to trying several authors, such as Euclid and some of the other math and science focused authors. I think if we tried to force everyone to read those in school we’d have even more people who never read again.

I do think there are ways to use the classics to show students you can read for pleasure. I think teachers should choose books that have interesting stories instead of just works that are the ones that tend to get taught. For example, Hamlet gets taught a lot in high school, but it’s not the Shakespeare play that I think would appeal most to high school students. Why not try Othello instead? Teenagers are living with revenge and manipulation and love triangles every day – they can relate. Relating to Hamlet whining about his dead father and his uncle shacking up with his mom and possibly having killed his father? Not so much. Don’t get me wrong – I love Hamlet. However, when I read it the first time in high school even I – who enjoyed classics even then – was irritated by Hamlet and didn’t enjoy it.

I enjoyed this passage of Adler’s: “The reiteration of slogans, the distortion of the news, the great storm of propaganda that beats upon the citizen twenty-four hours a day all his life long mean either that democracy must fall prey to the loudest and most persistent propagandist or that the people must save themselves by strengthening their minds so that they can appraise the issues for themselves.”

How many problems would the world be able to solve if people read the classics to strengthen their minds, improve their logic and really learn how to think? Then again, how many people who have read the classics fall on both sides of the political aisle? And I can’t help but think about my husband, who doesn’t read that often (despite buying the Great Books set), but is the smarter person I know. Although, he did read Homer and Virgil when he was in junior high so he did still have that foundation, so Adler and Jacobs could both use him to argue their points, I think.

While Jacobs argues that reading should first and foremost be for pleasure, at the same time, he turns right around and makes some of the same arguments Adler does. He talks of the importance of the liberal arts education and teaching students how to think so that they can continue to learn throughout life. He complains that schools are set up with the assumption that students will not continue to learn once they graduate. He also talks about reading slower and more reflectively rather than rushing forward to read the next book on the list, which is actually something I think Adler would agree with.

Adler mentions that he thinks schools focus too much on socialization and the inefficiencies in the system keep kids in school longer than they should. He believes we could easily trim 2-4 years off the current system by removing busy work and not teaching to the lowest denominator, allowing students to start and finish college much earlier. I remember being so bored through most of my schooling, and definitely agree that it could have been condensed. I think this would encourage more people to go to college too, because you could take longer to finish college if you’re working and paying your own way and still be very young when you finish, or you could move through college and advanced degrees and become a doctor or Ph.D while still in your early 20s.

I seem to fall somewhere in the middle of Jacobs and Adler – I enjoy using lists such as the Great Books to guide my reading and discover new works, but they don’t rule my reading. Much of my reading is done on a whim and is purely for entertainment. I think you need a bit of both in life.

I think there’s enough in these works for several blog posts, and I may end up continuing to write about these books, but for now I’ll close with this quote Jacobs used from a graduation speech David Foster Wallace gave: “Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”

How/why do you read? Do you follow lists, read on a whim, or both?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Top 10 Tuesdays - Top Books of 2011

I decided to join in on Top 10 Tuesdays hosted by The Broke and Bookish. This week’s list is the top 10 books you enjoyed in 2011. Since I haven’t blogged for most of the year, I had trouble remembering if I’d read certain books this year or late last year and think I’ve forgotten a few library books I really enjoyed, but if I can’t remember them for sure I suppose they wouldn’t make it on to my top 10 list anyway, right? My list is heavy on English literature and history because I read a lot in anticipation of visiting London.
In no particular order:

1. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand – I was shocked when I finished this and it ended up being my favorite book of the year. I was so miserable reading it at first, but fell in love with John Galt, and Dagny carried me through the 1,000+ pages of deep philosophy.

2. The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford – Another surprise. I thought this would be fine enough, but I didn’t have high expectations. I ended up loving it and how it made me think about how we view and treat others.

3. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern – This one is ended up on a lot of both top 10 lists and overrated lists. The magic of the story made me overlook the flaws in character development and pacing and made me long to visit the Night Circus. I think this would make a great movie and theme park idea.

4. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgen Burnett – I don’t normally include rereads on lists like this, but I reread this one while flying to London for the first time and loved being able to relive the story that sparked my love affair with all things British while anticipating landing in London.

5. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe – Yet another surprise! I was afraid this would be a bit boring. How interesting can being stuck on island alone really be? Apparently very interesting! This was a fast-paced action story and I think it should be used more in junior highs to get kids interested in reading the classics.

6. The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe – I’m seeing a trend here. I think books that end up being my favorites tend to be the ones that surprise me. I read this one primarily because Austen pokes fun at it in Northanger Abbey and yet seemed to enjoy it herself. It’s so long that I thought the melodrama would be too much for me over so many pages, but it ended up being a fun, easy read.

7. The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith – One final surprise. I’m not sure why I was surprised by this one because I love 18th-century British literature, but for some reason I just thought this one would be okay. It was hilarious! It’s easy to see why it was one of the most popular novels of the time and is mentioned in many other works. There is a TON of action packed in to a slim novel, making it a quick read, unlike many doorstopper classics.

I made myself select a few non-fiction books to finish off the list:

8. The Story of Art by E.H. Gombrich – This is a great introduction to art. It starts at the very beginning of known artwork in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome and moves through to modern times (around the 1960s). It’s very readable and accessible and doesn’t feel too textbooky, even though it is commonly used as a textbook. There are hundreds of beautiful photos of the artwork, with cross references throughout the text so you can see how pieces were influenced by earlier styles. I enjoyed art before and had taken a humanities class in college that had some of the basics, but this gave me a firmer foundation and exposed me to some new pieces. I think it helped me during my trip to London get even more out of the various museums we visited and all of the amazing architecture all around.

9. Imagined London by Anna Quindlen – This was another book I read in preparation for going to London. Quindlen is one of my favorite authors and I enjoyed reading her experience visiting London’s literary places. I had many of the same feelings – what if I’ve built this up so much I can’t help but be disappointed? And, I had to remind myself many times that I would be visiting London in 2011, not in the 1850s. Fortunately, I loved the trip and can’t wait to go back someday!

10. A Brief History of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley – No trip to London would be complete without background information on all the kings and queens! This book gives an overview of all of the kings and queens of Britain in an entertaining way. It would be easy for a book like this to be very dry, but Ashley includes interesting tidbits and writes in normal English rather than scholarly or textbook language.

What were your favorite books of 2011? Link to your lists if you made one!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Gift of Christmas

During college, my university hosted a Red Dirt Book Festival featuring Oklahoma authors. While most of the students headed home for fall break, I stuck around to attend the festival, attend writing workshops and meet real authors. I learned a lot during those sessions, which were the first professional writing seminars I’d attended. However, I let myself get sucked in to a few book purchases I probably wouldn’t have made if I wasn’t talking directly to the authors during the trade show.

So. Two of those books have languished on my shelves since then. I’m pretty sure the conference was in 2002. That means they’ve been hanging around for nearly 10 years! Oops. Since one of them was a Christmas book, I figured now was a good time to give it a shot.

When I went to dig it up, I remembered why I was reluctant to read it. The author was very friendly and helpful or I would have never have bought this! It’s called The Gift of Christmas, is self-published and has a cat on the front. A cat. Don’t get me wrong – I love cats. In real life. Not so much in books. Animals on the covers of books are never a good sign. They usually die, although this being a Christmas book, I was assuming it would just be sappy instead.

While it was definitely sappy, I was pleasantly surprised that it was actually well written. Self-publishing may have become more acceptable in recent years, but it still seems like most self-published books were rejected by publishers for a reason. And, usually, these books are in desperate need of an editor. This novel was short, just around 100 pages with not a lot of copy on each page. That may have been why it wasn’t published traditionally – it’s too short to really sell well. Today, it might work well as an ebook.

The story was a bit cheesy, but it was just a nice little Christmas story. Since I’ve been a bit humbug about Christmas in recent years, irritated over the consumerism that has sucked the life and meaning out of the holiday, it was a nice reminder about the importance of spending time with your family while you can.

The main character stopped celebrating Christmas five years ago, when his brother died. His brother loved Christmas and had led the activities leading up to the big day, and he just couldn’t face the holiday without him. Through a serious of mysterious gifts related to his brother, the narrator remembers the importance of Christmas and reconnects with his remaining family members. It’s a simple story, but it was a nice reminder to cherish the time you have with loved ones and that a good way to honor them is to do things that they enjoyed in remembrance of them.

The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

This is one of those books that got some buzz when it came out and ended up on those “Buy 2 Get 1 Free” shelves at Barnes and Noble that I used to find so hard to resist. After buying it, I was afraid it would actually be a little boring or overly sweet and languished on my shelf. I’ve been enjoying World War II novels lately, so I decided to give it a shot.

Imagine my surprise when I found myself loving this book! The story zipped along but still focused primarily on characters, characters who develop and change through the course of the novel. The narrative goes back and forth in time, something I love when done correctly. The “current” part of the book takes place in 1986, with flash backs to the early 40s during the war.

While I knew the book had something to do with the Japanese during the war, I was surprised that the book’s protagonist is a Chinese American. This brought a fresh perspective to the war to me. Even before the war, Henry was torn between being an American and carrying forward the Chinese traditions of his father. By earning a scholarship to a white school, he was taunted for being too white by the Chinese kids and for being Chinese by the white kids. After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, things got even worse because people would lump him in with the Japanese. To protect him, especially once the internments started, Henry’s father makes him wear a badge that says “I am Chinese.” Henry’s best friend is a Japanese girl, a girl who doesn’t speak any Japanese and is a second-generation American, yet she is treated like a foreigner in her own country.

The relationship that forms between Henry and Keiko is beautiful and heartbreaking, as is Henry’s relationship with his son in the present day. The characters really came alive in the novel, including the secondary characters. Even the chief bully has layers. I loved the characters of Sheldon, a black man making jazz music on the streets who befriends Henry, and Mrs. Beatty, the cafeteria lady who is more than she seems.

While the novel is worth reading for the characters alone, it also makes you think. We tend to gloss over the Japanese internment camps in our history. The ones that were used in this book were real places; real people were sent there. American citizens were sent there. I think we tend to think it was people “fresh off the boat” who were sent away (not that that’s better), but families who had never even been to Japan or spoke Japanese and were far more American than Japanese were also imprisoned. Their land was sold out from under them, their possessions looted. When they left the camps, many had nothing left to return to.

An added layer to this story is that it’s told by a Chinese American whose father hates the Japanese. China and Japan were enemies fighting their own war as well. He didn’t just want Henry to avoid spending time with Keiko or other Japanese people because of WWII, but because of his own hatred toward the Japanese. We see how different Keiko’s family is, how they think of themselves as American first, with a Japanese heritage. When Keiko talked about the war, I was reminded of a quote a friend with Japanese-American and American parents wrote on Facebook about Pearl Harbor: “I’m sorry my people bombed my people.” That was what Keiko seemed to feel, and she identified more with those being bombed than with those doing the bombing, yet she was punished for being of Japanese descent.

The story made me think about how we label people. Many non-Asians lump all Asians together and don’t really make distinctions even though within Asia there are many distinct groups. With blacks, we lump them together as African-Americans, even though most of them have been here for centuries. Aren’t they just American? Whites aren’t identified by their family’s nationality/continent. When you think about it, African-American is an odd term anyway because there are many places in Africa with more people of Middle Eastern descent than are black, and then you have people who are really African-Americans like Charlize Theron because she’s from South Africa, but we’d never describe her that way. I wouldn’t want to be called European-American or British-American. I’m just plain old American, although I love my British and European heritage. I think in trying to respectfully label people we’ve actually caused more confusion and are inadvertently disrespecting people by slapping a qualifying label on them that seems to say they’re not as American as someone else is. And perhaps we worry too much about labels period, because when it comes down to it we’re all just people anyway.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Bird by Bird - Writing Advice

I recently went to a Ragan Communications/Great Place to Work conference and attended a story telling workshop while I was there. Although the conference was work focused, the speaker in this workshop had experience both in internal communications at Microsoft and as a young adult novelist, and her session focused on writing in general. It was nice to get to attend something that gave me great advice for work writing but also for novel writing, since I'm trying to finally finish writing a full novel. During her session, she mentioned a few writing books that she recommends, and one of those was Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.

I honestly think Bird by Bird is the best book on writing I've read. Too many writing books are sadly dull and boring, not exactly great selling points for the advice they're trying to give. Many of the writing books I've read tend to give an example of what another writer wrote and then they analyze it. While that can be helpful, it usually comes across as very technical and doesn't make for good writing in and of itself.

What Lamott does differently is tell stories. She sprinkles stories of her own writing experience and gives his examples of what she means through these stories. Her stories are all interesting and memorable, making them much more effective for sharing her writing advice. A lot of her advice is the same thing every writing book focuses on - write every day, just get a first draft down and then revise like crazy, have someone review your work, etc. What makes her different is that she's effective at convincing you that you do need to actually do these things. You are not the exception; you are not special. Sorry. She also provides a lot of advice about more technical aspects, such as character development and plot structure, but she shares examples of writing prompts she gives her classes and uses those to show you how to do this instead of just telling you, following the most important writing rule of all - show, don't tell.

Lamott also offers realistic advice on publishing. She talks about how in every workshop or class she teaches, everyone just wants to know about being published and thinks they will become rich and happy once they are published. She quickly dispels these beliefs. She emphasizes that you should focus on writing, not on being published, as that will make your writing better. Then, you really must get an agent. Finally, if you finally do get published, it might be for a a hill of a beans, you may have to deal with bad reviews, bad reviews in your local paper that everyone you know reads, or worse, no reviews or attention at all.

I'm not usually a big quote person, but there were many great quotes in this book. One that I particularly enjoyed was "You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do," Anne's prist friend Tom.

"Nothing is important as a likeable narrator. Nothing holds a story together better," Ethan Canin. I liked this one, partly because whether or not characters need to be likeable tends to get discussed quite a bit by book bloggers. I like this answer. Lamott explains that you don't have to want to hang out with them, but they do have to be likeable in some way.

"Characters should not, conversely, serve as pawns for some plot you've dreamed up. Any plot you impose on your characters will be onomatopoetic: PLOT." I think this is why I prefer literary fiction to genre fiction most of the time. I don't usually like it when characters exist only to carry the plot forward

"Faulkner's books work because they focus on character - they are compelling." Again, she really drives home the importance of character, and has some writing exercises to help you learn more about your characters and further develop them.

If you're looking for ways to improve your writing, I definitely recommend this one. I'm now interested in reading some of her novels, although since I don't own any of them I guess I'll be waiting until April for that, once the TBR Double Dare is finished. I'd be interested in learning the best writing advice others have ever received if anyone wants to share!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Little Dorrit

I’m afraid Bleak House may have ruined the rest of Dickens’ works for me. I adored Bleak House, and it quickly rose to take a place in my top 10 all time favorite books. (Don’t ask me to actually name the 10, but I’m sure it would make it!) While I’ve enjoyed all of Dickens’ other works, I’ve noticed that since reading BH, I seem to struggle more with any new ones.

I’ve read and loved Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol and David Copperfield. I enjoyed Nicholas Nickleby and the other Christmas stories that are often packaged with A Christmas Carol. But, since reading Bleak House, I’ve started and stopped both Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities. Oliver Twist felt too much like getting a beat over the head about poverty (all of his books have this aspect, but in this one I just wasn’t able to get past this and into the story). A Tale of Two Cities was like reading something by an entirely different author. This should show how skilled he was at writing, but it was just weird for me and wasn’t what I was expecting. I think after adjusting my expectations I should be able to go back and finish both, which is good because I plan to do so in the coming year!

With Little Dorrit, although I did finish it, nothing in the story really grabbed me. The characters didn’t seem to pop off the pages like Dickensian characters usually do. Little Dorrit should inspire more empathy than she did. Yes, I felt sorry for her and wanted her life to be better, but she was just so good it wasn’t believable or interesting. I suppose I like my characters with a bit more fire in them. And the way she worshiped her father just bugged me; he was a likeable guy despite his shortcomings but her attachment to him was borderline creepy.

Dickens isn’t known for creating well-developed female characters, which may be part of the problem with this work. It’s centered around a female, and she’s not nearly as interesting as Esther in BH and can’t carry the work alone. Also, Esther had a cast of amazing surrounding characters, people I can call to memory so clearly that it’s as if I’ve met them in person. I just finished Little Dorrit and struggled to remember some of even the major characters’ names. Most of the side stories were uninteresting and just seemed like filler, a way to get more issues published when this was published in serial form. I was glad the copy I read had a character list at the beginning because I had to keep referring to it because all the characters were so bland. BH is a sprawling novel with a large cast of characters and I never had to do that!

Perhaps it’s not fair to compare Bleak House and Little Dorrit, but Bleak House did appear first. I imagine readers in Victorian England did the same thing. Perhaps part of the problem was that although this is one of his later works, it’s like Dickens went back to his earlier writing style and was just using his characters to prop up a theme dealing with debtors’ prisons. I’m not sure if Dickens even cared for his characters, he just wanted people to see how bad the debtors’ prisons were and do something about them. While I agree with him, and I also don’t always have to care about the characters to enjoy a work, the combination of lack of character development and preaching in such a long work just makes for a less than stellar read.

If you intend to read all of Dickens works, I might recommend saving Bleak House for the end. I think I would enjoy his other works more if I wasn’t comparing them to BH. If you’re just looking to read a Dickens novel or two, then I’d recommend going with Bleak House and either Great Expectations or David Copperfield. Although you should also read A Christmas Carol at least once. It’s short! I’ll be giving Oliver Twist another shot in February in honor of the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth, so hopefully that will go better this time!

Thursday, December 15, 2011


One of the best things about book blogging again is participating in reading challenges! Here are a few I'm looking forward to. It worries me that I made lists for all of these without duplicates just from items in my TBR stacks...I clearly have a problem! I highly doubt I will finish all of these, but hopefully this will help me make a dent in my stacks!

Well, since I started blogging again in an attempt to clear of my TBR shelves, it's only fitting that I give Ready When You Are, C.B.'s TBR Double Dare a try. The goal is to read only books from your TBR stacks from Jan. 1 through April 1. I think it's fitting that this ends on April Fool's Day! I don't know if I can resist the library that long. He does offer exceptions for library books you already have checked out before Jan. 1 or have a hold for that haven't come in yet. I will not add books to my hold list like a madwoman. I will not! Hopefully.

Allie at A Literary Odyssey is hosting a Shakespeare Reading Month in January. I finally finished all of Shakespeare's plays last summer in anticipation of my trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon and London. I'd read all the sonnets in college, so I just have his longer poems left and I can then say I've read the complete works of Shakespeare! Very excited about that one.

November's Autumn is hosting A Classics Challenge where you read seven classics and then respond to a prompt on the fourth of each month you're participating in. I'm actually going to try to participate each month because I anticipate I'll be reading a lot of classics because I own a ton of them!

  • A Room with a View
  • Something by Dickens
  • The Red Badge of Courage
  • Howard's End
  • Something by Henry James
  • Something by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Far from the Madding Crowd   
Jean at Howling Frog is hosting a Greek Classics Challenge. I'm hoping this one will help me get to some of the many ancient works on my TBR list! I've read most of the Greek plays I own, so I mainly have philosophy and history works to read, which can be a little intimidating in large doses.
  • Something by Aristophanes
  • Something else by Aristophanes
  • Something by Euripides
  • Something else by Euripides :)
  • The History by Herodotus
  • The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides
  • The Republic by Plato
  • Something by Aristotle
  • Works by Hippocrates
  • Elements by Euclid
  • Works of Archimedes
  • The Amalgest by Ptolemy
Sarah Reads Too Much is hosting a Back to the Classics Challenge. I'm going to try to not double up between this and the A Classics Challenge or the Chunkster Challenge. It's a good thing I like classics since I've bought so many of them!
  • Any 19th Century Classic - Something by George Eliot
  • Any 20th Century Classic - The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  • Reread a classic of your choice - This one will be a surprise treat in the midst of all the craziness! Maybe The Great Gatsby since I'd like to reread it before the movie comes out.
  • A Classic Play - Something by Aristophanes or Euripides
  • Classic Mystery/Horror/Crime Fiction - The Complete Sherlock Holmes Volume I
  • Classic Romance - The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
  • Read a Classic that has been translated from its original language to your language - To clarify, if your native language is NOT English, you may read any classic originally written in English that has been translated into your native language. - The Stranger by Camus
  • Classic Award Winner - To clarify, the book should be a classic which has won any established literary award. - The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway
  • Read a Classic set in a Country that you (realistically speaking) will not visit during your lifetime - To Clarify, this does not have to be a country that you hope to visit either. Countries that no longer exist or have never existed count. - Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad - it's mostly in the Indian Ocean and on a fictional island based on Sumatra. Probably not traveling there!
Wendy and Vasily are hosting the Chunkster Challenge again and I'm definitely excited about participating. Again, I'm going to try not to double dip on books for my challenges, but we'll see how that goes. I'm hoping to the Mor-book-ly Obese level, although I'd like to do the Do These Books Make My Butt Look Big? level because it's a funny title. I have to read eight adult books of over 450 pages, with at least three weighing in at over 750 pages. Again, given my proclivity to buy mountains of classics, this shouldn't be hard to find in my TBR stack, although finishing all of them will be a challenge! Too bad I read so much Victorian literature before I went to London; I'd have had even more to choose from!
  • The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas - 1095 pages
  • The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand - 752 pages
  • The Decameron by Boccaccio - 807 pages
  • Don Quixote by Cervantes - 1050 pages
  • War and Peace by Tolstoy - 1296 pages
  • Great American Short Stories from Hawthorne to Hemingway - 536 pages  
  • The Idiot by Fydor Dostoevky - 564 pages  
  • Barchester Towers by Trollope - 560 pages
Finally, Amanda at Fig and Thistle is hosting a Truth in Fiction Challenge where you read and post about pairs of books - one fiction and one non-fiction - about the same topic. I tend to read this way anyway, and I think it would be fun to combine the posts. Here are my ideas for some pairings. I'll hit the PhD level if I actually finish all of these!
  • A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens and Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmond Burke
  • The Life of Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskill and Shirley by Charlotte Bronte
  •  Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe and The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass
  • Shogun and A History of Japan
  • Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton and Edith Wharton by RWB Lewis
  • North and South by John Jakes and Civil War Stories by Webb Garrison
  • Becoming Jane Austen and Jane Fairfax

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Bochus Yule

I grew with weekly visits to the library. I loved Saturday mornings, going with my mom and sometimes my little brother to the library, where I had to be dragged away with a giant stack of books. The branch I went to had a lovely indoor courtyard area with cushy chairs and I loved spending time there. After my house and my grandparents' house, it was a home away from home.

Once I got older, going to the library wasn't cool any more, or I suppose, I became more concerned about what was and what wasn't cool and stopped going. I still spent nearly all of my allowance on books and visited the library book sales and came home with a cartload of books, but I didn't check out books. It wasn't until the last two years that I've returned to the library.

The library I go to now isn't as cozy as the one I grew up near, but it's a good library, it's part of a large system that lets you reserve books online and have them sent to your branch from any of the other branches and it doesn't have that eau de homeless person smell that the library near my college did.

So, that's why I'm  participating in Clare at The Literary Omnivore's Bochus Yule. Since I've found a few books in my TBR pile that no longer interest me, I'll probably donate a few books. Also, since I won't be participating in the Friends of the Library booksale like I usually do, I'll donate some money instead. If you're interested, check out her site for more info on why she started the Bochus Yule and how you can participate!

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Handmaid and the Carpenter

I happened to see The Handmaid and the Carpenter by Elizabeth Berg on my last trip to the library and grabbed it. It looked like a good cozy story to read with the chill hitting the air and Christmas approaching. It's a retelling of the story of Mary and Joseph and the birth of Jesus.

While I think this was a clever idea for a story, and I did read it in one sitting while cozily curled up with my cats, it fell a little short for me. She worked from the story in the Bible, which is pretty short, and she seemed somewhat hesitant to add too much to the story. It does help flesh out Mary and Joseph and you see how they many have both reacted to the situation they were in, but they still lacked depth.

I think part of the story struggled from Berg's not taking a clear stance on what actually happened. You could read the story either way, which on one hand works because that's what people do with the original story, but she leaves you feeling like you can't trust the characters and aren't sure what happened. She implies that Mary could have been raped, although Mary denies it, and they are visited by people immediately after his birth who proclaim Jesus the Savior. Mary and Joseph don't start those stories and aren't seeking that attention. Berg does show a few glimpses of Jesus as a child, and how if he was the savior, he must have been a very interesting, different child. Can you imagine a child who doesn't sin? His brothers and sisters must have hated him and tried to get him in trouble. Can you imagine the lectures they would get from their parents? "Why can't you be more like your brother?" "But, mom, he's without sin! That's not fair! I don't have a chance to look good next to him!" And, when you tried to start a fight he'd just keep turning the other cheek.

So, while there are some interesting points that the book raises and makes you think about, overall I'd say this is one to skip. Viewed on its own, it's a flat story with flat characters. Berg's writing in her other stories I've read is much better and her characters are more fully developed in the few books I've read by her. I'd pick up one of her other stories or better Christmas stories such as A Christmas Carol or Little Women instead.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Atlas Shrugged

It took me forever to get going with Atlas Shrugged, but it was so worth it in the end. Rand's dense sentences pack meaning into every word, unusual for such an immense work. In the beginning, I dreaded picking it back up and had to force myself to keep reading, wondering why I was torturing myself for fun. Everything takes off in the middle though, and it now clearly takes a place in my top 10 favorite books of all time.

I'll admit, for the first 500 pages, I was irritated. It felt like slogging my way through a swamp of philosophy and I kept getting mired down trying to make sure I understood each sentence. I was shocked by the behavior of Hank Rearden and the emphasis on not giving charity and being entirely selfish. I didn't think I could get through a work that was pushing an agenda like that, and it didn't even have any interesting plot or well developed characters at that point to keep me interested.

I actually set the book aside for a few months, something I rarely do. I just recently returned, and forced myself to read a chapter a day. Fortunately, I quickly reached the page 500 mark, and somewhere around there the story took off. By this time, I had become much more connected to the characters and they seemed much rounder, more like actual people instead of stooges for an agenda. The plot also took off, although this clearly never becomes a plot-driven book. I finished the second half of the book in three days.

What happened to turn the book around for me? Two things happened - one was learning more about Dagny and her experience in the corporate world. There are few books out there that cover the corporate world at all, and seeing such an accurate presentation of some of the stuff execs pull was fascinating to read and pulled me further into the story. She's such a strong, driven, intelligent character who just tries to do what's best for her company and she has to fight stupid, lazy, corrupt people at every turn.

The second thing, the thing that made the book for me, is John Galt. The "This Is John Galt Speaking" chapter is incredible. It's a 64-page speech overflowing with philosophy and psychology and economics. Ironically, while it's a chapter focused on rational thinking, I actual teared up while reading it. And I very rarely cry. I returned back to it several times right after finishing it and reread and marked passages.

While there are many, many philosophical ideas to gleam from this section, some of which I don't agree with, some I do, and many that I don't claim to understand, I think the main point boils down to making sure you are using your mind to its fullest. It's about the value of thinking and about how true happiness comes not from escaping our thoughts but through using our mind and thinking.

It also talks about how so much of the world focuses on taking away our desire and ability to think. Too many bosses just want robots who will do exactly as they are told, despite what they may claim to the contrary about wanting "A" players. Teachers often just wants kids to shut up and memorize what's going to be on the test. Even religious leaders often focus on only relying on faith and don't focus on really examining your beliefs. Politicians of course don't want people to think, just to pass control over to them so they can think for us. Most of these people despise being questioned, and too often children are taught to stop asking "why" - either by their parents, caregivers, teachers or all of the above.

I never grew out of the stage, and it's gotten me trouble throughout my life. From second grade, where I wouldn't stop asking why I couldn't work out of the third-grade book since I'd already used the second-grade book in first grade (where my teacher saw my advanced reading schools and bumped me ahead) until finally she gave in after realizing the threat of discipline wouldn't stop my questioning, to more recently in the business world where I've questioned decisions of executives and debated with them. Sometimes this has gotten me ahead, sometimes it's gotten me in heaps of trouble.

Most of the people I've seen who question things in the business world and try to make positive change end up forced out or fired. This is a major source of frustration to me and has caused me to leave positions before as well. That's why I loved this explanation: "Any man who's afraid of hiring the best ability he can find, is a cheat who's in a business where he doesn't belong. To me - the foulest man on earth, more contemptible than a criminal, is the employer who rejects men for being too good." I can sadly name several amazing people who were fired or forced out of a company for just that. It amazes me that this happens, that execs can be so threatened by others who are smarter than them that instead of encouraging them to make advancements for the company, they'll cast them aside because they are intimidated.

John Galt emphasizes that going through life unthinking is essentially sleepwalking through life and you're not truly living. His explanation of happiness so hit home with me and made me clearly explained why I'd been so unhappy at work the last two years in a much more succinct way than I'd ever explained it before.

"Happiness is a state of non-contradictory joy - a joy without penalty of guilt, a joy that does not clash with any of your values and does not work for your own destruction, not the joy of escaping from your mind, but of using your mind's fullest power, not the joy of faking reality, but of achieving values that are real, not the joy of a drunkard, but a producer."

I was so unhappy at work for many reasons, but I think it boils down to that - I was being told not to think, I was helping people who clashed with my values and I was not producing anything of value. Atlas Shrugged reminded me of the vital importance of thinking. It's part of the reason why I wanted to start blogging again. I don't want my reading just to be for entertainment - I  want it to make me think and to challenge me. Blogging helps me think through a book and respond to it instead of rushing on to the next one. It also made me want to continue reducing the amount of TV I watch, which has gone down dramatically since I stopped watching several shows and cancelled Netflix. I'm also trying to eliminate other activities that just don't add value to my life so I have more time to focus on things that are important.

While you probably won't agree with Rand's philosophy of Objectivism and may have to force yourself to get through the first part of the book, I promise it's worth it to give Atlas Shrugged a try.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A New Beginning

I've decided to start book blogging again! I've missed tracking what I read and taking time to reflect on each book instead of rushing on to the next one. I've also missed the book blogging community. I've continued reading many book blogs, but I haven't been commenting or having conversations with people or participating in community events.

Plus, I've decided I have to stop the madness with my TBR piles. I counted the number of books I own and the total came in at a staggering 502!!! That's insane! (In case you're wondering, I own more books that I have read, although I haven't counted and inventoried them.) Why do I continue buying books and checking out massive piles of books at the library each week when I've already spent so much money on books taking up space in my house that I haven't read?

So, my focus is going to be on reading these books. I think blogging about it will help me to stay on track and get through my list, since this process will take several years. I still plan to use the library and read some books that aren't on my list, but primarily I will read from my stacks.

In addition to my gigantic TBR stacks of stuff I own, I also have a ton of books that my mom has let me borrow. We swap books back and forth, and I've held on to too many of her books and have a small bookcase full. So, I'll be reading two books each month from that stack as well.

I'm planning to start a list for my TBR books here. I've got a spreadsheet for tracking, but I'll probably add a list here in case people are curious about what's coming up. There will be some books I'll probably decide I don't want to read and will donate instead, such as some of the business books I got for free in my last job. I also have a lot of books I've gotten at library book sales dating back to high school (which was over 10 years ago!!!) and don't really fit my reading tastes any more, so some of those may go in the donation pile instead as well.

To help motivate myself, I've made a rather counter-productive seeming incentive plan. For every 50 books I read from my TBR stacks (books I don't read and just donate or non-fiction books I just skim or partially read won't count), I get to buy three books from Persephone, Virago or the Morland Dynasty series. Those books aren't readily available from my library system and are items would like to own, but outside of these incentive books, I can't buy any new books. :(  That's what the library is for!

I'm looking forward to jumping back in to the book blogging community, signing up for challenges and lots of reading!