Reading in the New Year

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It has been awhile since I last wrote a post for this blog. Participating in (and winning!) my first NaNoWriMo in November used up most of my words, and, aside from a few HR articles and employee handbooks, I have been slow to get back to my writing. I suppose it is a time of year that I should be thinking about resolutions and getting to work on revising my NaNoWriMo novel, but really I am just thinking about books.

I am starting off the year with a reread of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Many people think J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is my favorite. While I do love Rowling’s books, Pullman’s trilogy has always resonated more with me. I have read and listened to the audio versions of his story of Lyra, Will and parallel universes a number of times, and it just gets better each time. With so many unread books, it is a bit weird to think about rereads, but going back to a favorite book is like a visit with an old friend.

A friend recently got Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. It is a book that I have been curious about for a while, and I look forward to diving into it later this year. I would also like to read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams—it is one of those series I really feel like I should have already read.

I always enjoy setting a goal for myself in the Goodreads reading challenge and set my goal at 30 books for this year. Book Riot has a “Read Harder Challenge” that pushes readers to read books in 24 different categories. What I like about this list is that it pushes readers to move beyond their normal fare and sets them up for a diverse reading list for 2016. I am not sure if I will complete all the categories, but it seems like a nice way to find inspiration for my next read.

May 2016 be filled with lots of books. Happy New Year!

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All Night Reads

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I was recently up late at night finishing the last few chapters of Helene Wecker’s beautifully written book, The Golem and the Jinni. When I closed the book on the final words and put it down on my nightstand, the clock showed a bright red 2:35 a.m. It was late, but not quite what I’d clocked with some other books. As I struggled to keep my eyes open the next day while I updated a sick leave policy for a client, my mind began to wander through my bookshelves. Working on HR policies has a way of making one’s mind take off and find other, more entertaining activities. I thought about those books that beg the reader to stay up all night as though the characters lives depended on it.

One of my favorite all night reads is The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman, the third book in the His Dark Materials trilogy. I have read this quite a few times, and each time finds me turning pages into the wee hours of the morning. It’s as though Will and Lyra finding their way out of hell is dependent on my reading them out of that sad, dark place. Even though I know how the story is going to end, I still find myself afraid that putting the book down in the middle of Will and Lyra’s journey through hell will result in them getting stuck there. So, I sacrifice a good night’s rest for reading. It’s the least I can do for two characters that ultimately go on to save humanity, right?

I also felt this way about The Long Walk by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman). In this book, 100 teenage boys start walking. We learn pretty quickly that stopping can have deadly consequences. True to form, King does not let you down and takes you along on a terrifying journey as you watch the long walk progress. Reading this is an intense experience, which results in feeling like you must keep reading in order to keep the walkers from stopping or falling down.

The Long Walk gave me weird dreams like I had when I read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Such is the risk when one falls asleep reading. The characters in the books have a way of jumping into our dreams as though to say, “Just to get back at you for giving up on my story so you can go to bed, I’m going to bug you while you sleep and fill your head with all kinds of crazy dreams.” When I first read The Hunger Games, I was working in a stressful HR job in a warehouse. I had a crazy dream about battling other employees in an arena that looked strangely like the warehouse. After that, I jokingly referred to that building as the Arena.

Not every all night read is an adventure story with characters that need to be read out of dangerous predicaments. There are some books made for curling up in a nest of pillows and blankets–preferably with a flashlight to illuminate the words. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is one such book. I also enjoy reading many of Kurt Vonnegut’s books this way.

I cannot end this post without mentioning some of my favorite series that are all night reads. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books were all night reads for many fans (including me). Stephen King’s Dark Tower series had me pulling similar all nighters, but fortunately all seven books were out by the time I started reading that series. It’s always tough to stay up all night reading a really good series book only to find out that the next book has not been published yet. Thanks, J.K. Rowling for making me wait so long for the fifth, sixth and seventh Potter books!

What are some of your favorite all night reads?

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Thoughts on Girlhood

“I don’t know how it is with boys. I’ve never been a boy. But girls somewhere between the ages of, say, eight and puberty, girls forget they have bodies. It’s the time she has trouble keeping herself clean, socks always drooping, knees pocked and bloody, hair crooked as a broom. She doesn’t look in mirrors. She isn’t aware of being watched. Not aware her body is causing men to look at her yet. There isn’t the sense of the female body’s volatility, its rude weight, the nuisance of dragging it about. There isn’t the world to bully you with it, bludgeon you, condemn you to a life sentence of fear. It’s the time when you look at a young girl and notice she is at her ugliest, but at the same time, at her happiest. She is a being as close to a spirit as a spirit.”

—From Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros (Pages 433-434)


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Recently Reading Rainbow Mom Jenni Buchanan blogged about “The Best Friends That Never Were: 3 Unlikely Pairings.” This got me to thinking about some dream best-friend pairings from my favorite books. Lyra from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and Scout from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird were at the top of my list. While daydreaming about other literary friendships, I started thinking about girlhood in some of my favorite books. At the beginning of their books, both Lyra and Scout embody the kind of girlhood Cisneros refers to in the passage above. Caramelo itself takes up the notion of girlhood in this passage and tells us the story of Lala.

It’s a freeing sort of idea to remember a time when things like skinned knees, messy hair and the fact that I had not showered for a couple days didn’t bother me. Reading the stories of these girls makes me nostalgic for a time when I was not worried about how others saw me.

We are constantly bombarded with messages about how a woman is supposed to look and behave and what products she needs to buy to achieve that. Every time we step out of the house, it is hard not to think about whether our appearance is acceptable. If we opt for sweat pants, it is often with an excuse about why we had to dress down that day. It is hard for women to feel free in their bodies when we are constantly aware of how others may see us and judge us. 

I am a big fan of Meg Murry from A Wrinkle in Time. Aside from awakening a lifelong interest in stories about time travel, this book gave me a main character I could identify with in her struggle to fit in—even as an adult. Meg is taking her first steps beyond the phase of girlhood Cisneros mentions. She finds her strength in realizing she has the ability within herself to save her brother. For this reason, I think it is important that we go back and revisit our favorite literary girls from time to time. Girls like Scout, Lyra, Lala and Meg show us that there are possibilities for being smart, brave, strong and free—even as we look back on girlhood and realize what it means to be women. They also remind us that deep inside us there is still the girl that Cisneros writes about.

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Click on the titles of the books mentioned in this post to be taken to Powells.com to buy a copy, or head to your local library or favorite independent bookstore.

Work Cited:

Cisneros, Sandra. Caramelo. New York: Vintage Books, 2002. Print.

A Look at Veronica Roth’s Divergent Trilogy

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Before I get too far, I want to point out that this post contains spoilers. If you plan to read the Divergent trilogy and want to be surprised, stop reading this and come back when you are finished. I’m assuming that most of you reading this will have read the books, so I will keep my plot summaries short.

Like the Hunger Games trilogy, Divergent is first person, present tense. This works well for this story in that it gives a certain urgency to the narrative. I found myself cursing Veronica Roth for keeping me up much later than I should have been with her page-turning writing style. Although the story was predictable at times, I thought it was a fun read.

While Divergent lacks the depth of YA series like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, it is still worth the read. It raises a lot of questions about what makes us who we are. In Divergent, we come to find out that people are valued based on their genetic purity. Tris, Tobias and their friends find out the truth of their existence in the third book. In the past, the government attempted to eradicate violent tendencies in the population by manipulating characteristics on a genetic level. This backfired and led to experiments being set up in cities like Chicago where people could be brought back to a more genetically pure state after several generations.

Roth sets this up in a way that makes the reader ask why we are the way we are. Is it socialization? Is it genetic? I suppose it’s the old nature vs. nurture debate. But it got me to thinking about the eugenics movement, which started in the late 19th century. The basic idea of eugenics was encouraging people with desired traits to reproduce thereby creating more people with desired traits. Conversely, this meant discouraging those seen with “less desirable” traits from reproducing. Who determines what is considered a less desirable trait? The eugenics movement considered race a trait, and this idea was used as part of the Nazi belief that Jews were inferior. You can probably see that it’s quite problematic when we start judging people in this way. Such modes of thought can be used as the basis for oppressing and even killing people.

In Roth’s world, those who are not genetically pure are seen as more expendable than those who are. Ultimately Roth’s main characters succeed in creating a world where genetics don’t determine one’s destiny. In fact, we learn that the notion of genetic purity is flawed. In Roth’s world, we see that our destiny is shaped by the choices we make about what to do and how we treat others. Teens are given limited agency in our society, yet here they are in this trilogy ripping apart the theory those in control operate under.

My biggest issue with the books is that it all wrapped up too nicely. Yes, it was a bold decision to kill of the main character at the end of the third book, but things seemed to smooth out too easily with the release of memory serum at the bureau and a rebuilt society. Tobias seems a bit unsettled at the end, but it still seems like things have calmed down with the rest of society. Unlike many readers, I liked the way Suzanne Collins ended the Hunger Games trilogy, and I guess I wanted something as unsettling as that for Roth’s books. I wanted things to still be uncertain. In Mockingjay, the third book in Collins’s trilogy, we feel like things could get messy again a few years down the road. At the end of Allegiant, it feels like the world could go on happily ever after.

Toward the end of Mockingjay, Katniss asks Plutarch, “Are you preparing for another war, Plutarch?” He responds, “Oh, not now. Now we’re in that sweet period where everyone agrees that our recent horrors should never be repeated … But collective thinking is usually short-lived. We’re fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self-destruction” (379). Although a moment later he leaves her with the idea that we could be “witnessing the evolution of the human race,” and maybe things will be better, we are still left with this idea that society could slide back into its old ways. I guess this is what I was looking for in Roth’s books. I don’t think recovery happens as easily and neatly as things end in Allegiant.

Aside from being dissatisfied with the ending, I quite enjoyed the trilogy. My only other complaint was how the third book was narrated by both Tris and Tobias. At times it was hard to differentiate between their voices because they sounded so similar. I had to keep flipping back to the start of the chapter to see who was narrating.

Even though I was disappointed in the third book, this trilogy is a good summer read and probably something you could get through in a couple weeks. I have not seen the movie yet, but I am looking forward to watching it when it comes out on DVD soon.

Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. I welcome the opportunity to discuss these books.

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If you want to read the books mentioned in this post, click on the titles to be taken to Powells.com to order them, or visit your local independent bookstore. Because I was an English major and can’t resist a good bibliography entry, here’s the one work I quoted from in this post:

Collins, Suzanne. Mockingjay. New York: Scholastic Press, 2010. Print.