Quiet Night

Reading challenges are a good way to expose yourself to books you might not otherwise find.  This is my fifth time through the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s annual challenge and she tends to favor books in translation.  That’s fine by me, because we could all use a bit more cross-cultural understanding.  My latest book in this challenge was my third novel by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, Hotel Silence.  Ólafsdóttir, although a professor of art history, is quite a gifted novelist and her stories probe what it is to be human, and also reflect life on a somewhat small island.  Icelanders are known for their love of reading as well as for their geothermal power.  This novel deals with darker subjects that some of Ólafsdóttir’s previous work, but one thing becomes clear—the Bible is an influence.

With a writing style that is poetic and descriptive, she acknowledges that the Good Book plays a role in forming her story here.  I don’t want to give too much away, but it swirls around the difficult topics of suicide and war, and, ultimately, a kind of redemption.  As I’ve come to expect from her writing, the characters are quirky and have foibles.  There’s a matter-of-factness to them.  They go about following singular ideas and all of her work that I’ve read is based on the concept of a journey.  Maybe that’s something of a given for those who live on an island.  Taking her characters to far lands is a way of reaching understanding, not xenophobia.  That’s one of the reasons for reading the literature of other people.

In academia I was taught that exoticizing other cultures was a kind of evil.  I can see the point in that, although, like most academic things it takes the fun out of imagining far-away places.  Human beings need sources of wonder, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to afford a trip to Iceland, so reading stories written by a native feels, well, exotic.  Academics have a point, though.  For people of an exotic locale, their life is pretty much a daily struggle just like our lives are.  The backdrop is different and the specific circumstances are unfamiliar, but at the end, people are people.  That’s why I like Ólafsdóttir’s novels.  At the end we find them facing the same kinds of problems the rest of us face.  And we come to realize that our world is an isolated place in space.  And if there are aliens out there watching us, they must think we’re fairly exotic.  Let’s hope they’ll read us in translation.  We can all use a good challenge.

Rivers and Books

“You can’t” Heraclitus said, “step into the same river twice.”  The same also applies to reviewing books on Goodreads.  I met my official pledge of 60 books “officially” a couple weeks back, but I had re-read two books already reviewed during the course of the previous month, so I’m actually up to 65 at the moment.  Not that this is a contest.  Well, it sorta is.  But the one thing that keeps coming back to me is that my reviews of the same book change after a couple of years.  In general I’m not a re-reader.  There are lots of books I want to read for the first time, and there are few, historically, that I’ve gone back and read again.  Right now, however, I’m working on a couple of books that require some going back and checking facts.  Whenever you write “X does not” you need to make sure X doesn’t.

Reading is a self-rewarding enterprise.  I’ve not stopped reading when I don’t post about books, but I’ve been reading bigger books.  Despite my academic background and current job as an editor, I’m a slow reader.  I always have been.  I set my Goodreads goal based on the fact that without commuting I hope to read five books a month.  I have to throw in some short ones to make such a goal, and I never count the children’s books (I read The Lorax several times this year) and I can’t count the books I read for work that haven’t yet been published.  Nevertheless I keep making my Goodreads pledge—it gives me a goal I can attain—and in a life where meeting goals is becoming more difficult all the time, I appreciate those I enjoy reaching.  Enjoy reading.

Goodreads is a community.  Some of my friends there comment on my blog posts, which is really neat because almost nobody comments on my blog itself.  It’s nice to have that little extra extension.  I skim through the reviews that come to my email inbox every day.  I like to know what others are reading and I get tips for future goals from the books my Goodreads’ buddies post.  And now that November looms—and over its shoulder I can see December—I think of the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge.  I generally meet that goal by about September.  Reading books is like meeting new friends.  And some of them, unlike Heraclitus’ river, you can meet twice.

Best If Used

Used bookstores are like a box of books—you never know what you’ll get.  I perhaps overindulge this particular vice, but it doesn’t feel too sinful to me.  Part of Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge for the year is three books by one author.  I decided since I’ve been on a Kurt Vonnegut kick that he would be the one.  I figured (mostly wrongly) that his books would be all over the place in used bookstores.  I always found a plentiful supply at the now mourned Boston Book Annex.  At a used shop in Easton I asked where they might put Vonnegut.  “In science fiction,” the owner promptly replied.  I don’t think of Vonnegut as a science fiction author.  Some of his work does fit, but this little exchange got me to thinking about genres again.

Writers, unless they’re strictly commercial, don’t think of genre.  We write.  The novel I’ve been trying to get published for the last decade doesn’t fit into any neat category at all, and that’s probably part of the problem.  Neither fish nor fowl—what is this thing?  I’ve noticed this with my brother-in-law’s books.  Now, I’m holding out on retirement to dig into Neal Stephenson’s books because they require more time than I have in my workaday world, but they aren’t always science fiction.  Still, that’s often where you find him in bookstores.  I was in a local shop in Bethlehem the other day and there he was, in sci fi.  Although I understand why booksellers (and critics) want to use genres, but it seems to me that they limit human creativity.

The past couple of non-fiction books I’ve written aren’t really in genres.  They’re not academic books, but academics (once guilty, always guilty) have a hard time convincing publishers they can do anything else.  Non-fiction may be a more difficult gig than fiction after all.  Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible don’t comment on horror necessarily, at least not directly.  They’re not religious books either.  When I try to explain them in one sentence, it quickly becomes run-on.  I began both the same way—I noticed something and began writing about it.  With a little structuring and a little time, you’ve got an entire book.  It may not find a publisher.  It may not fit a genre.  Nobody on Medium is going to come looking for your advice.  And if you’re lucky you’ll find yourself put on a shelf with others who don’t conform to genre expectations either.

Winter Travels

Every now and again you read a book that drops you into a world of wonder.  That’s how I’d describe Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller.  What’s it about?  It’s difficult to say.  It’s a novel about reading, and more specifically, interrupted reading.  You might call it Post-Modern, but in a good way.  I came across the book in a manner that, like the story itself, emerged from different narrative structures.  First of all a colleague sent around a quote from the book that grabbed my attention.  I decided that if I ever found a copy in a bookstore I’d buy it, based on that quote alone.  A second stream was the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge.  One of this year’s categories was a book in translation, which this is.  And yet a third factor was that I found the book on the shelf of a used book vendor in Ithaca.  And so I read.

Like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas—and having nothing to do with the fact that it was the most recent novel I’d read—If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is a nested story, a story within a story.  Breaking the “fourth wall” Calvino addresses his readers in the second person and makes them characters in the plot.  The reader buys a defectively printed book and when he tries to return it to the seller, a fantastical world opens up.  I’m not sure that there’s a particular genre here—literary fiction constitutes a genre of its own—but there are a few speculative elements that keep the story pulling you along without really giving any conclusions (that the po-mo aspect to which I referred).

Apart from being merely fun, the story is thought-provoking.  What goes on when we read?  Do we not get absorbed into the mind of the writer?  And not only of the author but also of others who’ve read the book with whom we might discuss it?  Writing is an endlessly addictive activity.  One of my observations about careers without sabbaticals is that those who wish to practice the art must carve time out from days interrupted by work to be writers.  For me that means awaking early, for this blog is only one of many writing projects I have going.  To write well, however, means reading much.  And if you’re casting about for a story that’s hard to classify and difficult to put down, I would gladly recommend If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller.

Yearn Books

While this blog ranges over an outdated map of my mind, one of the two common elements that hold it together is books.  I don’t have many bibliophile followers, but for any who happen upon my pages, welcome.  Each year at this time I look back over the year in books.  I started doing this when I joined Goodreads.  I don’t put every single book in Goodreads, but it’s a fair register of what I’ve been up to.  This year I set a reduced goal of 65 books (I knew I’d be moving and commuting less, and I do most of my reading on the bus).  Happily I ended the year with 83 officially read, but then the first five months of the year were still spent in daily commutes.

Three years ago my wife discovered the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge.  I can’t say just how much I look forward to the new year just to begin reading the books I select to meet that challenge.  The reason I do this is to force myself into reading things I might not feel like reading, or often, books I’ve been putting off for some reason or another.  It only amounts to a dozen books and if I can’t get through twelve in a year, something’s terribly wrong.  Margaret Atwood once said something like “Show me a person who’s read a thousand books and I’ll show you an interesting person.”  I didn’t really need that quote to set a goal, and I don’t think of it as bragging for readers to share their experience with books.  I started getting into books in middle school, and although I didn’t keep track in those days I likely read a thousand books before I graduated from high school.  Branches begin to bend to the light early on.

So, were there memorable books this year?  My reading, due to contractual obligations (I brought them on myself), has tended to be dark.  There were, nevertheless, spots of light.  Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and Paul Bogard’s The Ground Beneath Us were early favorites.  I managed to stop my ears enough to miss spoilers from Jeff Vandermeer’s wonderful Annihilation.  Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World was artfully done, and Gregory Alan Thornbury’s Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? was a saunter down memory lane.  Selections from my reading challenge fiction that I really enjoyed were Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, and Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves. And Lee Irby’s Unreliable.  And and Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind.  The last inspired non-fiction title I read was Susan Fair’s American Witches.  I always appreciate suggestions, just sayin’.  Reading is the balm in my personal Gilead, and I look forward to a 2019 full of books, even if I can’t keep the pace of years past.

Firestorms

Banned Book Week technically doesn’t start until the week after next, but I have a pathological fear of being late.  I don’t know why.  It could be that I’m aware time is of limited quantity and much of it is owed to the beneficent corporation that keeps you alive, so you have to trade it for food.  And books.  Not much of it is left to do what you want to do.  In any case, my last book for the 2018 Modern Mrs. Darcy Reading Challenge was in the banned book category.  Long ago I had decided it would be Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.  I’ve read it before, of course, but it had been long enough that the details had been sanded away and I could only remember parts.  One thing I’d forgotten is how much Vonnegut brings religion into the story.

Writers who avoid religion miss the motivating factor of the majority of human beings’ lives.  This has always seemed a strange denial to me.  I’m not suggesting that every novel should mention religion, but since it is concerned with ultimate interests, it is somewhat surprising that it’s so often overlooked.  Not that it plays a major role in Slaughterhouse Five, but any novel concerned with death is inherently in the realm of ultimate concerns, I should think.  Right, Dr. Tillich?  In any case, I’d forgotten that Slaughterhouse Five was such a poignant, funny, and sad novel.  Vonnegut’s experience of World War Two clearly haunted him—most writers are haunted by something—and his musings were, and often are, banned.

If there were banned books in my high school (and I grew up in a conservative area, so surely there were) I didn’t know about them.  Let’s face it, teens seldom sit around talking about significant novels.  Many, at least among my classmates, didn’t read those that were assigned in English class.  Slaughterhouse Five wasn’t one of them.  I learned about Kurt Vonnegut from a friend while in college.  This is the third of his novels that I’ve read in 2018.  The first two I’d never read before.  So it goes.  I’m keenly aware of time.  I’m also aware that those who would ban books are often those who obtain elected office.  And when you find that your own nation has turned on you, remembering the fire-bombing of Dresden is an appropriate response.  For such reasons Banned Book Week remains important.  It should be a national holiday, at least among those of us underground during the firestorm.

The Pack

Maturity, in my experience, means knowing little and assuming even less. When I was young I grew up on a diet of books that were linear—plots were easily followed and there was clear resolution at the end. Who, as a kid, thinks that such a standard is impossible? One of this year’s reading challenges was a book nominated for an award in 2018. That assures a pretty current book, and I chose Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves. Like life, it’s not linear. The narrator is unreliable. There are a lot of threads left hanging. It’s also a completely mesmerizing story. I selected it not because the content deals to a large extent with religion—I had no idea that it did when I selected the book, but, given what I do on this blog it was definitely a bonus.

I don’t want to give too many spoilers here since this is a novel well worth reading. I’ve always been impressed with writers who can convey accurately what it was like to be a teenager. A time of awkward discovery when we learn that things weren’t what we thought. Linda, the narrator, has been raised in a religious commune in the northern Minnesota woods. When a Christian Scientist couple moves into a cabin not too far away, she becomes a trusted “governess” for their young, sickly son. Unable, for religious reasons, to admit their son’s illness, they entrust him to Linda’s care. She comes to know each person in a unique way and learns that even adults don’t have the answers.

An interesting conceit for a story—one minority religion learning about another—the book ranges wide and far from that. Life as a teenager is when one typically both needs and rebels against religion. The awakening of adolescence, something our psyches aren’t equipped to comprehend much before this time, throws everything into confusion. History of Wolves won’t lead to any answers, but it is a useful discussion partner to have along the way. The Christian Scientists I’ve known have to face some of the same issues raised in this tale. Ironically, the advance of science has hit this group particularly hard. Novels such as this demonstrate that we, as a species, still turn to religion to explain our world. We’re frequently told that it’s safe to ignore—it’s from the childhood of our evolution. I wonder, however, whether Homo sapiens have just begun to reach adolescence and we are just starting to learn what it means to be adults in a world we don’t understand.