Thursday, November 23, 2017

Fiction | A Villain's Side to History

| No comments:
Consider this the year of checking titles off my circa-2002 Gilmore Girls reading list. First, I conquered Proust, and now I can check off Gore Vidal, as well. Something about this year has inspired me to read more in-depth—partly, I think, because I enjoyed reading David Copperfield so much last Thanksgiving. It's one of those instances of reading the right book at the right time, being in the right mindset and such. (Plus, I've probably gotten much more out of them now than I would have in high school, anyway.) As such, these chunksters have brought me some perfectly lovely and gratifying reading experiences lately—ironically, a welcome respite from the almost-mindlessness of breezing through middle grade titles for work.

When I decided to pick up a Gore Vidal novel, I had two options from my own bookcases—Empire and Hollywood. Upon further research, however, I discovered these were just two titles in his "Narratives of Empire" series, a saga of American history spanning post-Revolution to mid-twentieth century. Obviously it wouldn't do to start in the middle, where either of these titles begins, so I decided to jump back to the first in the series, chronologically. [They can be read in either chronological or publication order.]

That brought me to the premier novel of Vidal's series, Burr, a narrative that challenges the myth of many of America's founding fathers, taking place in the early 1800s.

The premise of Burr centers around one such man with historical renown of nearly-mythological proportion, the villainous Aaron Burr—traitor, murderer of Alexander Hamilton, anti-hero of early American history. The story is narrated by the fictional Charles Schuyler, a young law clerk in Burr's law firm who has no political interest, nor connections, but dreams of becoming a writer and is hired to collect Burr's memoirs as his foray into journalism. While the present-day narrative spans just a few years in the early 1830s, time frequently jumps to Burr's past, 30-50 years prior, as the titular character recounts monumental episodes and pivotal moments in his life and that of his country.

Per the author's afterword, this story told is "history and not invention." In detailing so many conversations and interactions between these figures of American lore, Vidal says, "...the characters are in the right places, on the right dates, doing what they actually did. Obviously I have made up conversation, but whenever possible I have used actual phrases of the speaker." I find this enlightening, because to Vidal, in writing this book, there is not much difference between this, a "historical novel," and history itself. And that matters because Burr shares the conflict of character, the dark side of personalities and relationships, the nuance of politics—pieces of history that have been lost or overshadowed by their myth and legend, the story that has become unquestioned truth over the course of the past 250 years.

So in Burr we are given a front row seat to such historical events as the infamous 1804 duel with Hamilton and his trial for treason, ordered by Thomas Jefferson, involving the conquering (or liberation, depending on whose side you're on) of Mexico, as well as insight into relationships with such figures as Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, and Van Buren.

My knowledge of such figures and events doesn't span far outside what an AP US History textbook may tell me. I've never delved into biographies that share the more personal side to these people; I don't know their backgrounds, their motivations, their conflicts. And because of this, Burr read to me like a television drama in which each person has their own reasons for being and doing—again, an angle and consideration that has disappeared from the story told in textbooks. Whether entirely accurate or not, Vidal presents a much more realistic, human side to a mythic story—one in which (by using Burr's perspective for storytelling) Washington is regarded as an inept military leader; Jefferson is hypocritical and conniving, bribing his way into political power; and Hamilton is an opportunist, using others to gain power and scheming a back-stabbing case against Burr as a last plot of vengeful competition. These are figures presented with their flaws in tact, not erased by a revisionist history that remembers them only as America's greatest heroes.

Another realization I had while reading Burr is how much detail to a story is lost over the years, how history is simplified over time and there are so many pieces that, once so important, may be forgotten entirely. The political climate of Burr's years as Jefferson's Vice-President (beginning 1801) were still rife with lingering Revolutionary conflict. The Federalist Party clashed with the Democratic-Republicans, who believed Federalists too nationalistic and too sympathetic to ties with Britain. And news (though not surprising) to me, these party lines were mostly drawn between New England and the lower states, between the old guard of British-born politicians and populist figures of the new America. Did you know there was an early suggestion the newly-born US be split into two countries, with a dividing line of...the Hudson River?? Or that states maintain a Constitutional right to secede from the union as they wish? Though most likely these were huge conflicts at their time, they are details that have been lost to historical summation.

In a sense, it makes me feel better about politics today. It's not necessarily that things have gotten so utterly complex, such a multi-faceted mess, just now; there have always been fighting factions and too many sides and issues to keep straight, much less figure out how to solve. It's just that we remember history by its headlines and trends—a linear plot that we can easily follow how A led to B and to C. When you're looking back on the big picture of change, it's the cause and effect that seems to matter, not all the details of how we got there. Vidal may present a more cynical history than some care to read, but it's fascinating and enjoyable to experience such a side of the story.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

On Interconnectedness

| No comments:
This was the moment when I began to understand how unaware I'd been - not only in planning to run away, but in everything. I'd never understood how closely things are connected to one another. ... We human beings are only a part of something very much larger. When we walk along, we may crush a beetle or simply cause a change in the air so that a fly ends up where it might never have gone otherwise. And if we think of the same example but with ourselves in the roll of the insect, and the larger universe in the role we've just played, it's perfectly clear that we're affected every day by forces over which we have no more control than the poor beetle has over our gigantic foot as it descends upon it. What are we to do? We must use whatever methods we can to understand the movement of the universe around us and time our actions so that we are not fighting the currents, but moving with them.

—From Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden, p. 127

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Reading Notes: Swann's Way, Part III

| No comments:
In the final section of Swann's Way, titled "Place Names: The Name," we're thrust back into our original narrator's voice as he ruminates on the power of names, particularly their ability to trigger a memory or emotional episode from one's past. After a fair amount of lengthy prose on this phenomenon itself, he finally gets to the main point: the narrator's relationship with Swann's daughter Gilberte, of which he had spoken more briefly towards the end of Part I.

In some sense, this is where the prior two seemingly disconnected parts to the novel finally do connect. The narrator is in Paris as a child/youth [I'm a little unclear about the exact age] and while out in the Champs-Elysees he hears the name 'Gilberte,' bringing to mind the girl he met back at Combray who made an "indecent gesture" towards him. [One: I don't know what that gesture actually was. Two: See how he connects the name recollection to memory here with this personal experience; point taken.] The girl connected to the name here in Paris is, in fact, the same Gilberte, and the narrator's intrigue is quickly rekindled and strengthened, especially as he becomes a frequent playmate of Gilberte.

The intrigue quickly turns to infatuation with habits and behaviors mimicking the ones we just read about Swann; the narrator finds that Gilberte occupies his thoughts, even outside of their time together and the experiences they share. He begins to judge his own life through a lens that she colors. His governess suddenly seems less sophisticated than Gilberte's; strangers with whom she interacts suddenly have more appeal, strictly by the fact that they earned Gilberte's attention. Further, M. Swann has lost all identity to the narrator as his parents' friend, the man who came to dinner at Combray and prevented his mother from kissing him goodnight. Now, he is "Gilberte's father," and an individual whose attention the narrator desperately seeks for validation, gaining pleasure at the idea that he may occupy any place in the Swanns' thoughts.

This infatuation is called love by the narrator, juxtaposed alongside Swann's own experiences chronicled in Part II, though identified as mere innocence since he, the narrator, was only a child. It becomes clear as I read this section that Proust always intended to carry the story further, using frequent parenthetical side comments to indicate something that will be noted or seen in the future. In a way, this consideration helps make sense of the novel's disjointedness; presumably this story was always meant to be an anthology, stretched out into segments that hop back and forth in time, with a mere single volume entirely unable to tell the full story. This becomes even more apparent with the story's big twist that **SPOILER ALERT** despite Swann's insistence at the end of Part II that he is, in fact, out of love with Odette, it is she who is Gilberte's mother and Swann's wife! And more interestingly, it is simply stated as fact, without any clue as to what led here. I have to say "well done" to Proust for burying the lead; I'm only discouraged that there are six more volumes to read that may or may not, at some point, finally reveal the full story!

After dropping that bomb, Proust concludes Swann's Way with present-day reflection by the narrator as he observes the Paris of the present, finding it void of the elegance he remembers from his past. But ultimately, how accurate are these memories and recollections?

"The reality I had known no longer existed.... The places we have known do not belong solely to the world of space in which we situate them for our greater convenience. They were only a thin slice among contiguous impressions which formed our life at that time; the memory of a certain image is but regret for a certain moment [emphasis mine]; and houses, roads, avenues are as fleeting, alas, as the years."

Concluding with the idea that reminisces are not realities, that we hold our memories to a higher esteem where they take on a revered status, Proust reflects that perhaps it was never the "thing" in the first place; there's no sanctity in the objects or experiences to which we attribute such strong emotional connection, but rather it's us - our own personal moment of development, realization, experience, etc. - that creates the moment of inspiration and allows these outside "things" to hold such magic.

"But when a belief disappears, there survives it - more and more vigorous so as to mask the absence of the power we have lost to give reality to new things - a fetishistic attachment to the old things which our belief once animated, as if it were in them and not in us that the divine resided and as if our present lack of belief had a contingent cause, the death of the Gods."

And that, my friends, is my completion of Swann's Way. And having finally checked off such a daunting title that has been on my list for fifteen whole years - more of a project, really - I can say with complete confidence and acceptance that I will most likely not be reading on further into In Search of Lost Time. Sorry, Proust.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Reading Notes: Swann's Way, Part II

| No comments:
Part 2 of Swann's Way is a lengthy, 200-page section titled "Swann in Love," and it's drastically different than the book's first part. It chronicles a period of Swann's history when he was (yep, you guessed it) in love, which was a narrative briefly alluded to by our narrator in Part 1 (so brief, in fact, that I had not even remembered it). The object of Swann's affections is a woman named Odette who is described as rather unremarkable, not the most intelligent, and not at all Swann's usual type. Basically, she's a 19th-century basic bitch.

Swann meets Odette through this social circle led by M. and Mme. Verdurin. Basically, they seem to be a group of semi-social outcasts that have created their own circle of friends just to judge those that have judged them. It's an eclectic set of personalities with the most comedic member, I think, being Dr. Cottard, a man who so humorously lacks social awareness that he never forms a true opinion and always responds with an ironic smile as his safety net - if his attitude doesn't match the socially accepted one, well of course, he knew that all along and now he's simply making a joke about it! Socially, Swann is above all of these people and thus considered a catch for their little social set. Yes, he has managed to create a better social persona than they have, but he's just as shallow and eager to please the public as they are. He only sticks around so long because he falls for Odette, and the Verdurins are his gateway to her.

So about this relationship with Odette. It's funny because in the beginning Swann is described as quite the ladies' man. Upon meeting her at the Verdurins, he gets the impression that she is trying to woo him, though he doesn't find her particularly appealing; the only real attraction comes from the fact that he knows she likes him so much. In fact, he's often with other women right up until he meets her and the Verdurins! As time passes, though, that attraction he feels from her causes his own attraction towards her to grow, creating an interesting type of love affair. How genuine can it be considered if you only fall for the person because you know they have fallen for you? (A modern day quandary as well, I'm sure.)

As time passes, Swann's intrigue turns to infatuation, which turns to full-out obsession. We rarely hear Odette's side, just Swann's as he struggles with the passion, thrills, and insecurities of this relationship. They're definitely lovers by its most basic definition; they meet up regularly, sleep together, and carry on some sort of passionate relationship. Swann is left enamoured, holding on to tiny moments, actions, or words during the time they are not together. (That's the novel's theme playing out: the staying power of insignificant memories.)

After introducing this part's main players and building relationships with descriptive interactions, the relationship begins to fall apart as Swann continues to hear rumors of Odette's amorous past, feeding into a deep, unsettled insecurity. He begins to question everything she says and does, convincing himself that the times she is not with him are filled with deception. Both Odette and the Verdurins lose interest in Swann, most likely due a great amount to his obsessive behavior. Proust then uses pages and pages to convey Swann's internal self-deprecation. He's experiencing an obsession to the point where he doesn't know how to not think about it, creating stories and convincing himself of drama that may or may not exist, because it's easier than letting it all go - you're so used to the anguish that you don't know what to do without it.

As a reader, I'm thinking, "Ohmygod please don't let this go on forever," because it's exhausting and also pretty monotonous. And Proust, then, most likely agrees and brings Swann back into the society he has for so long neglected where it becomes clear how much he has detached himself because of Odette. This, I think, is one of the more realistic and universal points in this whole affair of Swann's. He has sacrificed all other aspects of his life for this tumultuous, insecure affair, and it's this break from Odette, as he is trying to "wean himself" from her, that illuminates that sacrifice. When he once again hears the phrase from the piano sonata that came to define his early passion for Odette, he realizes that passion no longer exists; it's maintained only by his memory.

So like the dunking of the madeleine and the view of the church steeples in Part 1, this musical phrase conjures more than just reminisces; it invokes overwhelming feeling linked to a particular time and place. And in this instance, it's the realization that this emotion no longer exists that helps Swann break with Odette for good.

And before Swann had time to understand, and say to himself: "It's the litte phrase from the sonata by Vinteuil; don't listen!" all his memories of the time when Odette was in love with him, which he had managed until now to keep out of sight in the deepest part of himself, deceived by this sudden beam of light from the time of love which they believed had returned, had awoken and flown swiftly back up to sing madly to him, with no pity for his present misfortune, the forgotten refrains of happiness.

The drastic difference of this section from the previous one comes from the narration. It's told in such a third-person omniscient voice that we totally forget that it's actually the voice of "Marcel," our Part 1 narrator. In fact, I don't think he uses the word 'I' until over 100 pages into this section! We very quickly forget that this whole story about Swann and Odette is, in fact, just a retelling. We're reminded that everything we're reading took place in the past, before the narrator's time, and it must have just been retold to him, perhaps by his grandfather who has been mentioned as a friend of Swann's. I was happy to see, as I predicted, that the story would end up focusing more on Swann (since his name is in the book's title and all), but this total disconnect of narrative voice has left me wondering how it all connects. What's the point in sharing this tumultuous romance of Swann's past and nearly losing track of our narrator? Perhaps Part 3 will tell...

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Fiction | Taming the Wild

| No comments:
...Youth with its insupportable sweetness,
Its fierce necessity,
Its sharp desire,
Singing and singing,
Out of the lips of silence,
Out of the earthy dusk.

My library book club just finished Willa Cather's O Pioneers!, a selection I gladly picked up since this is my summer of reading classics and heftier titles. Despite its short length, I had zero idea what this 1913 staple of American literature was actually about, beyond what you could garner from the title.

The story centers around Alexandra Bergson and family, pioneers on the Nebraska prairie in the late 1800s. John Bergson, the patriarch passes away early on, leaving the farm in the hands of his daughter Alexandra in what would have been a hugely uncommon move at the time. (A woman in charge? Heavens!) Alexandra is the eldest of four. The two middle brothers, Lou and Oscar, work the farm but are generally more lazy, self-serving, and looking for a quick buck. They lack Alexandra's deep connection with the land itself, which is most likely why John didn't leave them in charge. They are also constantly concerned with how they appear to others and frequently question Alexandra's progressive decisions; they prefer to fall in line rather than stand out. The youngest Bergson, a son named Emil, is only five when the story begins and develops into a more sensitive, adventurous young man. He's somewhat pampered by Alexandra, because she sees how different his nature is from his older brothers, and he's the only one in the family who attends university. As a result, he's not always held in the highest regard by Lou and Oscar who are probably just jealous. Strangely, the family's actual (unnamed) matriarch is the least present character in the novel. She's described as a good housewife but misses life in the old country, and her life seems one of stoic adaptation.

The communities are small and fairly new, land that has yet to be tamed by its human settlers. The Bergsons represent the thousands of families that packed up and headed west because of the free land promised through the Homestead Act, the act of government that officially opened up the western frontier (reminder: lands taken from the American Indians) to settlers. These are people that are at the beck and call of nature; success or failure is almost entirely out of their hands as an unforeseen drought or late freeze can be your downfall. Cather reminds of us of this power of nature constantly:

"The roads were but faint tracks in the grass, and the fields were scarcely noticeable. The record of the plow was insignificant, like the feeble scratches on stone left by prehistoric races, so indeterminate that they may, after all, be only the markings of glaciers, and not a record of human strivings." 
"But the great fact was the land itself, which seemed to overwhelm the little beginnings of human society that struggled in its sombre wastes. ...he felt that men were too weak to make any mark here, that the land wanted to be let alone, to preserve its own fierce strength, its peculiar, savage kind of beauty, its uninterrupted mournfulness."

There are neighbors and characters that humanize the story - Crazy Ivar, an elderly eccentric; Carl Linstrum, a neighboring young man about Alexandra's age who leaves the prairie and later returns; Marie Shabata, a vivacious young woman, the town beauty; Frank Shabata, Marie's husband, a bitter man unhappy with how his life has settled into one requiring constant hard work. These people, alongside the Bergson family, create the novel's page-to-page stories and conflicts. And those stories are nothing new. Obligation, love, jealousy, sacrifice - these are themes that fill the pages of book after book, and feel all the more powerful when set in such a stark environment such as this one.

What makes Cather's story unique, though, is that despite filling her pages with personal and family dramas, it's never a story strictly about the human condition. Alexandra is a strong, independent woman, yes, but she is so focused on the land that she sacrifices the more personal aspects of her life. She's deeply oblivious to the human passions that are playing out right in front of her because she is so self-sacrificing. Great melodramas of the 19th century - Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Wharton and Austen - speak volumes on the universality of human nature, but I believe these are never Cather's interest nor focus. Relationships and behaviors fill the pages, but Cather's main focus is always the land.

"Isn’t it queer: there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years."

I think O Pioneers! is very nearly a perfectly executed novel. Cather manages to convey complex conflicts and ideas through a simple, succinct story. It's one that is unique to her characters but potentially universal, representative of a specific time, place, or situation. Despite this praise, I have great dissatisfaction with the ending. In a nutshell, without sharing spoilers, I felt betrayed by the author who painted a final portrait of an Alexandra that felt very much opposite the one we had gotten to know for the previous 4/5ths of the book. It felt like the author asserting some moral or standard of the era rather than remaining true to the character she had created; it reeked of too much author voice instead of the character's (and story's) natural denouement. The ending notwithstanding, I found this a surprisingly deep and satisfying read.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Reading Notes: Swann's Way, Part I

| No comments:
As a 16-year-old over-achiever aiming to read all the same books as Rory Gilmore, I must've checked out Proust's Swann's Way from the library about six times without ever having actually opened it to page one. It was always just too daunting, and somehow I knew back then that it was far over my analytical ability level. When my NYC book club chose it as the long holiday selection right before I moved, I decided to buy it anyway - a new motivator to pick up this long set-aside "masterpiece."

...And so it has sat for another three-and-a-half years until my fall reading of David Copperfield inspired me to pick up some other classics for my summer break reading. Thus with 6 weeks ahead of me with ample time and freedom, I decided to finally embark on the Proust journey.

For having held a position on my "to read" shelf for so long, I have known surprisingly little about Swann's Way. My skim through translator Lydia Davis' introduction ("skim" because, wow, she gets detailed) informed me that the novel's narrator is not, in fact, this titular Swann, and whomever he is is never named (though all the internet will call him Marcel, apparently after the author, assuming this is somewhat an autobiographical voice, according to a one-lined reference in a later volume of this anthology). This, along with Davis' further discourse on Proust's run-on writing style and references to this yet-unknown-to-me famous episode with a madeleine, immediately informed me that I may be in rather over my head. Some sort of reading guide seemed necessary, and I luckily found an informal one, a seeming personal reading project and journal called 182 Days of Marcel Proust in which the blog author simply records and reflects during the reading process, about 15 pages at a time. PERFECT.

Part 1, titled "Combray," involves mostly the narrator's reflections on his childhood spent at his grandparent's house in the northern French town of Combray. It starts out as a simple memory of how he often struggled with falling asleep as a child, and then experienced that sensation when you start awake and lose track of where you are and realize you were, in fact, actually asleep, but you have to piece together your surroundings of time and place. I mean, yes, it's a very real and common phenomenon, but pretty much the entire first section of this narration reflects on this idea that stemmed from this small memory. This gives you an indication of just how Proust structures his narration. [Basically, not at all. It's a lot of meandering, stream of consciousness, one thought leads to another idea sort of thing.]

Continuing on, the narrator recalls an incident when Monsieur Swann (a neighbor and friend to his grandparents) is visiting for dinner, thus preventing the narrator's mother from kissing him goodnight, which was apparently an anxiety-inducing tragedy worth reflecting upon years later. Other memories include those with Aunt Leonie, an ailing old codger who confines herself to her bed and constantly laments her state of health, whether real or imagined. [She's just like old Mrs. Harris in the Anne of Avonlea movie.] He recalls an innocent encounter with his Uncle and a prostitute that causes such embarrassment that Uncle is never seen by Narrator again. There are pedantic acquaintances that annoy the family but introduce the Narrator to a great deal of literature and culture. And there are ordinary townsfolk, like M. Vinteuil and daughter, whose small personal dramas cause great reflection on life, love, and humanity. Oh, and Narrator also meets Swann's daughter, Gilberte, with whom he apparently is essentially obsessed. [Supposedly there's more on that later.]

As I've followed along with summaries and notes during my own reading, I was somewhat surprised to realize that I was actually following what was happening. I haven't read an observation on a detail that I couldn't recall...which is a good sign; it means I am following the narration fairly well, at least. But I still haven't felt as though I really get it, that I get what Proust is saying and why. Yes, I can follow the plot points easily, but Proust is using so many words and there's such academic intellect surrounding him; surely there must be something deeper that I am missing. I mean, he's building this story, or rather, narrative, around an individual's memories and recollections and how these affect one's view and perception of the world - something that is very personally and, well, individualistic. It's like trying to put into words a complex cognitive process that happens without awareness or consciousness.

I guess it makes sense when you consider the overarching title of Proust's 7-volume anthology (of which Swann's Way is the first): "In Search of Lost Time." The Narrator here reflects a great deal on sensory experiences (dipping the madeleine into a cup of tea, observing church steeples from a moving carriage as the sun sets) and I guess Proust's p o i n t of this all is to consider how these small, perhaps insignificant moments of "lost time" actually inspire and contribute to our personal, intellectual development and experience.

But I'm still just very taken with the minor role Monsieur Swann has actually played in this first third of the book so far. Waiting to find out when (or even if) he becomes a lead.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Fiction | Life and Breath in War

| No comments:
Susan Abulhawa's Mornings in Jenin has been on my to-read list for I don't even know how long. Like, years - most likely from the early days of my book blogging venture, that past life of New York and a desk job. I wanted to read it then because my unremembered source called it powerful, and I wanted to read a "powerful" story about an unfamiliar place and situation. When I spied it on a library shelf just as I was ruminating on my future diverse reading goals, it finally felt like time to delve in.

The story begins just after World War II in that strip of constant struggle between Israel and Palestine. A Jewish boy and Palestinian boy befriend each other at a time before this land is racked with unrelenting conflict. These simpler days are few in the scheme of our story, though, as the Abulheja family is soon forcibly removed to a refugee camp by the newly formed state of Israel. Exiled from their homeland, the Abulhejas become the personification of this struggle for land and place; four generations live and breathe the reality of war, though their story is just one of many similar.

Our ultimate protagonist is Amal, that original Palestinian boy's granddaughter, who we follow as she fights her way through a violent world from the time she's just a small girl. Her early childhood memories of quiet, cozy mornings on the roof with her father are soon usurped by ones with guns, bombs, and death - hiding out for hours in a hole under the kitchen floor, the only shelter from a raid, with no adult for comfort, holding an infant killed by shrapnel.

Amal grows up fast. Her father's disappearance and presumed death leaves her mother empty; her brother channels his anger, sadness, fear into the Palestinian cause, retreating from his remaining family. Another brother, Ishmael, exists somewhere - kidnapped as an infant and raised by an Israeli family who cannot have children of their own. For much of her life, Amal is on her own - physically, emotionally - spending most of her childhood and adolescence without a sense of safety, comfort, or support, even if only from a nurturing adult figure.

The sequential shifting of character focus by which this story is told is odd, in a way. It lacks the size and complexity of a true multi-generational epic; we get details throughout, though never, it feels, the full story or experience until we reach Amal. On the other hand, though, it always feel as though we have enough context around which to build our perception of Amal's world. We do see where she came from and what drove those people that came before her. This is why I say it felt "odd" - you feel like you know it all, but there is also so much you don't know (particularly about the men in Amal's life; you, the reader, are kept very in tune with the female figures while the men are more described than experienced first-hand).

My only other literary encounter with this time and place was a long-ago book club read, School for Love by Olivia Manning. That story, though, is an entirely different one (perhaps taking place in those "peaceful" years I mentioned that could foster a friendship between an Arab and a Jew). Mornings in Jenin, told very much from a Palestinian perspective, is gut- and heart-wrenching and probably the most difficult book I've read. It humanizes something that is otherwise so distant, little more than a headline in a paper or a blip on the news. It's overpowering with defeat and hopelessness; it's a life drowning in sadness and fear, with only blips of hope and joy, instead of other way around. What's harder to consider is that this story is not an embellishment, nor an uncommon one. It's a reality for many people around the world, one that I cannot even fathom. I am very fortunate that my life of safety and comfort is my reality; we must recognize that it's never a guarantee.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Fiction | A Classic Approach to Reading

| No comments:
I've long talked about Book Riot's Read Harder Challenge that I began back in 2015 and have been picking away at ever since.

Well guys, it's official: I finally finished the 2015 Read Harder Challenge!

My last remaining category for the challenge was "a book published before 1850," and I actually debated several options for this over the course of my participation. Originally, I had wanted to read something American from pre-1850, because I'm already familiar with (and had read) many of the infamous British authors from this era; that would be the easy-out. As time passed, though, I just increasingly felt that sticking to American works was too limiting. ZERO of the options inspired me, and I had, simultaneously, been inspired to read a Dickens classic since I'd only ever read Oliver Twist and that was back in high school. Of the date-qualified options, I chose David Copperfield and, with it being a chunkster and all, saved it for my final Read Harder Challenge project.

David Copperfield, like Dickens' other works, was originally published as a serial over the course of 19 months from 1849 to 1850. Facing its intimidating 800+ pages, I decided to plot out my reading and put myself in the mindset of its original audience; each day, I read a single part, following its original publication schedule of three chapters at a time. This was a fabulous decision, as it made the book's language and heft (daunting to my middle-grade mindset) feel much more manageable.

Largely considered an almost autobiographical work, David Copperfield follows its eponymous main character from his orphaned boyhood to adulthood, through love and loss, happiness and heartbreak, alongside a slew of characters that impact his journey.

Beyond this quick introduction, I think it impossible to outline this book in a succinct paragraph with any certitude. That's not the end goal of the story, to be able to quickly summarize for a friend an enjoyable tale you encountered. What Dickens does with David Copperfield, instead, is create an immersive world in which one character, one man, exists and comes of age. This immersion is achieved in part by its first-person narrative, told from the perspective of an older Copperfield. And it's not even told, as so common, as a reflection but more of a simple retelling with an occasional musing thrown in. Because of this, we the reader forget that we are reading events that have happened in the narrator's past; we are fully engaged in the events unfolding on the page, with the characters with which we interact.

It's a story about the world we live in, with its good and bad, without delving into the world, on a large scale, itself. Rarely do we view Copperfield's place as a citizen of a larger society; rather, his experiences are all relational. He learns of the depths of humanity from the people closest to him—the warm, gregarious Peggotty clan; the unctuous Steerforth; the foolishly optimistic Micawber; the duplicitous Uriah Heep.

On of my most telling observations on this reading experience was the contrast of perspective from that of my own. In a modern world, one in which access is available at our literal fingertips, in which we are inundated with news and opinions, it is a jolt to experience a life in which one's worldview is so strongly influenced by so few people and experiences. Consider that David Copperfield's entire sense of identity and belief was derived from what we read in these pages. It's an experience that is far more personal and intimate than that of today—smaller, perhaps, but no less significant.

Another point: this book is funny! And sentimental! And the poignancy with which Dickens describes certain experiences and emotions was incredibly surprising to me. I guess I tend to view all "classics of literature" from an intellectual frame, assuming the language is straightforward and old-fashioned, lacking expression. But this passage on Copperfield's first bout of intoxication had me laughing, and I'm sure had I not been reading "all-in," focused on the subtleties of language, I would have passed it right by.

"Somebody was smoking. We were all smoking. I was smoking, and trying to suppress a rising tendency to shudder...

Somebody was leaning out of my bed-room window, refreshing his forehead against the cool strone of the parapet, and feeling the air upon his face. It was myself. I was addressing myself as 'Copperfield,' and saying, 'Why did you try to smoke? You might have known you couldn't do it.' Now that somebody was unsteadily contemplating his features in the looking-glass. That was I too. I was very pale in the looking-glass; my eyes had a vacant appearance; and my hair - only my hair, nothing else - looked drunk...

...We went downstairs, one behind another. Near the bottom, somebody fell, and rolled down. Somebody else said it was Copperfield. I was angry at that false report, until finding myself on my back in the passage, I began to think there might be some foundation for it."

I stated in my last post that the dedication I devoted to reading David Copperfield was refreshing; I am so used to breezing through books as we breeze through everything else—news, Netflix, social media—consuming as much as possible in as little time as possible. In some regards I think we suffer from an overabundance of culture available for our consumption. When you live your life alongside the "so many books, so little time" mentality, it becomes habit to speed through one thing to move onto the other. Reading this classic reminded me that books like this were written to be savored, slowly consumed and absorbed, and perhaps that is a mentality I should adopt more often.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

2016 in Review

| No comments:
I was a voracious reader as a kid, never leaving the house without a book, coming home from the library with an immovable stack of books, dominating the Accelerated Reader game in elementary classes. When I hit middle school, my reading habits dwindled to non-existence as I got sucked into pop culture and the general interests of a 13-year-old. When I was in the 8th grade, though, my mom eventually banned me from watching any TV until I read a book, convinced this would somehow get me in the reading habit again. I still find major fault with this logic; it's never that easy!

Somehow, though, it totally worked, and I've been a consistent reader again ever since. At the start of this re-found reading craze, I began writing in a notebook a list of all the books I had read, noting the dates of completion and thus creating an easy source of data to compare my reading from one year to another. You can see through my past 16 years as handwriting evolved, pen colors went from adolescent-bright to adulthood-boring. Once I began using Goodreads around 2009, I've kept a digital record of this list, but something about the history and consistency of this same notebook endures and I keep writing it down anyway.

According to my records, my most ambitious year to date was 2012 when I read 75 books. During that year, I was in grad school, taking Children's and YA lit classes, breezing through a zillion book because I could devour them so quickly. Well, considering that's a norm of my life now, I aimed to conquer that reading record in 2016 by surpassing 75 books.

I only half failed. I met my record at 75 but didn't go any further. December always ends more hectic than anticipated, and my final book selection of the year (on my Kindle) ended up being a 570-page one, taking more time than expected.

The thing about reading so many books this year, though, is that I'm not sure I actually enjoyed it so much. I constantly feel desperate for more time to consume more pages, saddened that there's so much I want to read and so little, as they say. But for my final book of the 2015 Read Harder Challenge, I chose David Copperfield and spent the three weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas reading it. I hadn't close-read a book like that in a long time, and I was reminded of how rewarding it is to soak into a story and commit ample time and brainpower to one piece of work. Though I'd never thought it possible, I think maybe I feel a bit of book overload?? Too much, too quickly??

So for 2017, I have a couple new reading goals that have nothing to do with numbers. One, I want to invest more time in reading. I want to read classics that require a mental shift to ride the flow of language; I want to spend 800 pages with a story to feel accomplished at the end. And two, I want to read more diversely - authors, characters, places of color. I want to read stories by voices and experiences vastly different from my own. I know what it's like to be white in America; and while it certainly holds a place in my reading oeuvre, I want to work hard at reading beyond that experience. I toyed with the idea of following Book Riot's 2017 Reading Challenge since I finally finished the 2015, but I think I found a different kind of challenge in Read Diverse 2017 - a challenge with less structure but more community accountability. I'm excited to broaden my reading in a new way.


  • 75 total books
  • 41 children's/YA titles
  • 12 nonfiction
  • 5 graphic novels
  • 3 re-reads (all children's)
  • 26 published in the past two years (2015-2016)

Most engrossing: Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card (also most suprising)

Most boring: No Great Misery by Alistair McLeod

Most memorable: Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt

Most forgettable: Get in Trouble by Kelly Link

Most enjoyable: A Touch of Stardust by Kate Alcott and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child 

Most gratifying: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens and Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Most disappointing: The Future of Us by Jay Asher