10 random titles from my shelves

Hard to believe 2017 is nearly halfway over. I’ve read precisely one and a half Graham Greene novels, written about one of them, and blogged about none. While disappointed by my lack of progress on my “intellectual project,” I’m trying to show myself grace about it, both because it’s a beneficial habit to have generally and because the last few months (last year, really) have been stressful and draining. I look at people my age–many of them younger than me, actually–who have children and wonder how they manage to accomplish all that they do. I’m thirty-one and it sometimes feels like I can barely manage through a “grown-up day” of work, housekeeping and a bit of exercise, with maybe half an hour of reading or Netflix before lights out at ten.

Unfortunately, I regularly allow my tiredness to become an excuse for not writing. “I’m too tired to think straight. Anything I write will come out as a load of nonsense. Or, I don’t have enough time to devote to writing properly, so why bother starting?” The more I tell myself things like this, the easier it becomes to believe them. So, I’m trying to be more diligent about combating the stream of negativity, if only a step or two at a time.

For today’s exercise, I thought it’d be fun to try a meme I came across recently on Stuck in a Book, a book blog I began following a month or two ago.

1.) Go to your bookshelves…
2.) Close your eyes. If you’re feeling really committed, blindfold yourself.
3.) Select ten books at random. Use more than one bookcase, if you have them, or piles by the bed, or… basically, wherever you keep books.
4.) Use these books to tell us about yourself – where and when you got them, who got them for you, what the book says about you, etc. etc…..
5.) Have fun! Be imaginative. Doesn’t matter if you’ve read them or not – be creative. It might not seem easy to start off with, and the links might be a little tenuous, but I think this is a fun way to do this sort of meme.
6.) Feel free to cheat a bit, if you need to…

I found it a bit hard to truly pick at random, since our bookshelves are organized by genre and alphabetized, but I made an effort to collect a varied assortment. Without further ado, here are my ten books:

    1. The Velvet Room (1965), Zilpha Keatley Snyder
      Velvet Room
      I bought my copy of The Velvet Room a couple of years ago, but first read the book when I was in the 4th or 5th grade. I don’t remember how I came across it. Probably because I enjoyed The Egypt Game and thought I’d try something else by the same author. It was perhaps the first time when I consciously identified with the protagonist: a lonely misfit who finds solace in a secret library long since forgotten by the rest of the world. Along with A Wrinkle in TimeThe Velvet Room helped me to anticipate a phrase I wouldn’t actually hear until much later: “We read to know we’re not alone.”
    2. Lord of the Flies (1954), William Golding
      lord-of-the-flies-cover-image
      Like most people (I imagine), I was assigned Lord of the Flies in high school–12th grade AP English Lit with Ms. Cloy, to be precise. I remember being struck by how tangible and concrete the prose was–even today, I remember how at their first appearance Golding described the boys as having a “hambone frill” at the collar of their choir robes and faces with “the complexions of newly washed plums.” The fact that Golding used beautiful language to describe such horrific events made the effect all the more striking.
    3. Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico (1987), Rick Bayless
      bayless  20170613_205137.jpg
      I had to have at least one cookbook on this list, and I’m glad it turned out to be this one. It might be my only signed copy of a book. Being from Arizona, I’ve always loved Mexican food, and Rick Bayless’s show, which started on PBS when I was in high school, opened my eyes to the great variety in the cuisine of our southern neighbors. As I was trying to find my way in my 20s, I used to joke, “Maybe I’ll just move to Chicago and beg for a job in Rick Bayless’s kitchen.” Amazingly enough, I have a connection to him–my mom used to work with his sister, who was kind enough to ask him to autograph a birthday present for me.

      4. The Four Quartets (1943), T. S. Eliot
      eliot
      A brief quotation Stephen Fry recited at the end of an episode of QI sent me in search of its origin. I’ve never read much poetry, but I sat down with this slender volume and read it cover-to-cover in one setting. I don’t claim to understand it all, but it struck a chord at the core of my being.
      This is a photo of my own copy, not a stock image, as I wasn’t able to find an image of this particular cover.

      5. Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (1993), Kathleen Norris
      dakota-book
      A priest friend of mine who spent his high school years in South Dakota mentioned this book in a sermon once, and I came across it some months later in a secondhand bookshop in Connecticut. Of all the books I’ve read, I think this is the one I most wish I could’ve written myself. It deftly balances personal and spiritual reflections, grounding both in a strong sense of place.
      Fun fact: this is the book that brought me and my husband together. We met online, and in his first message, he asked me if I was familiar with this book, since it seemed like something I might like. I said yes, and the rest is history.

      6. Warlock (1958), Oakley Hall
      warlock
      I don’t recall where I first came across Warlock. Maybe it was an Amazon recommendation, or maybe the title was referenced in an article or something. Not many people have heard of it, and that’s a real shame. On the surface, it’s a retelling of the legendary shootout at Tombstone, but there’s much more to it than that. I really ought to read it again and better collect my thoughts. I do remember that immediately after I finished it, I sat on my sofa for at least half an hour, soaking in the afterglow.

      7. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007), Michael Chabon
      yiddishpoliceThis was the first novel recommended to me by my now-husband. (The first novel I had him read was Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News.) It was also one of the first audio books I listened to on my hour-long commute between the college town where I lived then and his city. The plot is engaging, and I loved the characters with all their gritty imperfections. I hope I can make it to Alaska at least once in my lifetime. Not in winter, of course.

      8. Backpacking With the Saints (2014), Beldon Lane
      backpacking
      My now-mother-in-law gave this to me at the first Christmas I spent with their family. I haven’t read it yet, but I have read another book by Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, and found it meaningful.

      9. The Overcoat and The Nose (1842 and 1836), Nikolai Gogol
      gogol
      This is another one I haven’t read. It’s actually my husband’s book, and he hasn’t read it either, though we both noticed it referenced in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake.  I think it’s probably the smallest book on our shelf: roughly 4 inches by 5 inches, and 88 pages long.

      10. In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians (2012), John Dougill
      hidden
      I found this book last summer after reading Silence, and it provided a lot of helpful historical context. The kakure kirishitan of far western Japan are all but extinct now, and I’m glad someone took the time to chronicle their story before it fades out of memory.

      Lovely books:
      20170613_205245

an arbitrary beginning is as good as any

Can you think of any authors whose entire collected works you’ve read? Or, to make it easier, any authors whose works you’ve mostly read?

Here’s my list:

  • Jane Austen (1775-1817, English)–complete.
  • Kazuo Ishiguro (b. 1954, Japanese-born British)–everything except for The Unconsoled (1995), whose sprawling, dreamlike stream of consciousness narrative perplexed and exasperated me.
  • Alistair MacLeod (1936-2014, Canadian)–complete.
  • David Mitchell (b. 1969, English)–everything except The Bone Clocks (2015), which I haven’t gotten around to yet (it’s almost  700 pages long).
  • Kathleen Norris (b. 1947, American)–all her prose, none of her poetry, which one embarrasses me a little as I think she considers herself a poet first and essayist second.
  • Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964, American)–all her stories and novels, though not most of her essays.

After typing out this list, I began looking for connections and patterns between these writers. Faith is central to Norris and O’Connor; Ishiguro was born in Japan and Mitchell spent eight years there teaching English; a strong sense of place infuses MacLeod and O’Connor’s stories; all of the authors demonstrate awareness of how class differences affect social relations.

In essence, though, my list is fairly arbitrary. Each of these authors is included either because someone I know recommended a book to me, or because I came across one of their books while looking for something else. I read it the book and liked it, and thought, I should read something else by that author sometime. My intention was not to be a completionist–I don’t even like that word, which strikes me as pretentious.

By contrast, this yearlong project of mine, to read one Graham Greene novel per month and write about it, is highly intentional. I want to immerse myself in Greene’s world because of how strongly I was affected by the first Greene novel I read, The End of the Affair (1951).

I don’t remember when I first heard of Graham Greene, but several years ago a friend suggested that I read The Power and the Glory (1940). So, I picked up a copy at a secondhand bookshop, and got one or two chapters in. I liked what I read, even recording a couple of quotes in my commonplace book, but the chaos in my life at that time forced me to set it aside. I meant to come back to it later, but haven’t as of yet.

Fast forward to March 2016. I was preparing for a business trip to China and wanted to have something to listen to, in case the movie selection on the plane sucked. I’d already learned the hard way that the reader can make or break an audio book, even if the book itself is golden, so I did a Google search for audio books with excellent narrators (or something like that). One of the first sites I came across mentioned that Colin Firth’s rendition of The End of the Affair had won an audio book of the year award in 2013. I admit, all it needed to have said was Colin Firth and I’d be sold, even without a white shirt.

A couple hours into my flight from DFW to Shanghai, I switched off the monitor in the headrest in front of me, opened the audio book app in my phone and pushed play.

The first two paragraphs:

A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which, to look ahead. I say ‘one chooses’ with the inaccurate pride of a professional writer who – when he has been seriously noted at all – has been praised for his technical ability, but do I in fact of my own will choose that black wet January night on the Common, in 1946, the sight of Henry Miles slanting across the wide river of rain, or did these images choose me? It is convenient, it is correct according to the rules of my craft to begin just there, but if I had believed then in a God, I could also have believed in a hand, plucking at my elbow, a suggestion, ‘Speak to him: he hasn’t seen you yet.’ 

For why should I have spoken to him? If hate is not too large a term to use in relation to any human being, I hated Henry – I hated his wife Sarah too. And he, I suppose, came soon after the events of that evening to hate me: as he surely at times must have hated his wife and that other, in whom in those days we were lucky enough not to believe. So this is a record of hate far more than of love, and if I come to say anything in favour of Henry and Sarah I can be trusted: I am writing against the bias because it is my professional pride to prefer the near-truth, even to the expression of my near-hate.

(Hear the beginning of Firth’s recording of The End of the Affair on Youtube, and a clip from an interview with Firth about the novel.)

I wish I had taken the time to record my impressions of the book, particularly the emotions it evoked within me. The feelings were intense, less like a punch in the stomach than an immersion–or, perhaps submersion is a better word, as I was not able to immediately identify their precise nature. I do remember being grateful that my colleagues had upgraded their plane seats to Economy Plus, so that they wouldn’t see my tears. I was overwhelmed by book’s sheer humanity–sometimes raw, sometimes petty, often relatable and always believable, even to someone like myself who has never experienced either side of an affair. And, any semblance of the fangirl aside, I quickly forgot that the narrator was Colin Firth, the actor, not Maurice Bendrix, author and adulterer. I listened to the recording for three, maybe four hours, before exhaustion overcame my engrossment, and I didn’t return to the book until after my trip was over. (Maybe one of these days I’ll learn to respect the function of airport novels.)

Later in the year, when I was browsing downloadable audio book selections available from my local library, I came across another Graham Greene novel, The Comedians (1966). Rather different in subject and tone from The End of the AffairThe Comedians is enjoyable and thought-provoking in its own right. It is set in mid-20th century Haiti, during the dictatorship of François Duvalier (a.k.a. “Papa Doc”) and his militia, the Tonton Marcoute, and follows the expriences of several expatriates visiting or living in Port au Prince. Again, I was struck by the realism of Greene’s characters–all of them flawed, some deeply so, and yet those flaws are precisely what draws us to the characters, because they are believable, because we see ourselves in them, whether or not we wish to.

It was around the same time that I began playing with the idea of devising a reading project for myself, something with clear objectives, so that I’d be more likely to complete it. Focusing on a single author seemed a sensible parameter, and the two writers who immediately sprung to mind were Greene and Shusako Endo, who wrote Silence, the other book that strongly affected me in 2016. (I will return to Endo in a later post.) Only some of Endo’s works have translated into English, and the local public library only has copies of two of them, so Greene it was.

I will read one book by Greene each month, beginning with his first, The Man Within (1929). Greene wrote a total of 26 novels during his lifetime, so I have chosen 12 that are among the better known. I will read them in chronological order, except for The End of the Affair, which I will return to in December. I’m curious to see what my perspective will be on a second read, particularly after spending a year immersed in Greene’s work.

This is, in some respects, an arbitrary project, but perhaps most projects are to some degree. Ask someone why they are passionate about a project or a subject, or why they passionately love another human being, and they will give you reasons, but I suspect even the most thoroughly considered reasons do not fully account for the source of the passion. Can reason ever fully explain the existence, development, and flourishing of love? Would we even want it to?

This is where I choose for this story to begin. I’m excited to see where it leads.

read, mark, learn and inwardly digest

I used to be one of those people who kept a list of every single book I read for pleasure. A couple of years ago, I fell out of the habit; but recently, when I had some time to kill, I decided to start again. As I wrote out all of the titles I read in 2016, I was surprised by two things: 1) I had finished at least 53 books, and 2) I wasn’t sure my list was actually complete.

It’s worth mentioning that technically I listened to rather than read more than half of those books. From August 2015 through June 2016, my daily commute was an hour each way, and audio books helped pass the time, especially when I couldn’t stomach any more election news on the radio. I borrowed books on CD and pre-loaded mp3 players from my local library, and then l I learned about an app that lets me download audio books onto my phone for two weeks at a time. (From July onwards, my audio book selections were influenced in large part by what digital downloads were currently available.)

Before, books were mostly a before bedtime pleasure, but I found I could squeeze in a few minutes with a portable audio book in all sorts of places. (The app’s convenience offsets a relatively limited selection of titles.) Before long, I was jogging with Jhumpa Lahiri‘s transnational tales in my earbuds, and listening to George Orwell’s account of life as a kitchen laborer in Parisian restaurants while washing my own dishes. I had more than a few of what NPR refers to as “driveway moments”–those times when you insist on remaining in your vehicle until the story or song you’re listening to comes to an end. Of course, when one audio book ends, that means it’s time to start a new one.

Listening to so many books read aloud in a short amount of time has given me new perspective on how the written word can have an impact on us. I intend to return to the subject of audio books in another post. The point that concerns me now, though, is not the nature of media but our–my–consumption of it. Is there such a thing as reading too much, or too quickly, when we’re speaking simply of reading for pleasure in one’s free time? (i.e. When it doesn’t interfere with one’s ability to work or perform other necessary functions of daily life.)

You could draw parallels to the “Netflix binge watching” phenomenon, which I myself have participated in, though not recently. When I watch three or four episodes of Breaking Bad in a row, I’m spurred on by a compulsion to learn “what happens next.” The more caught up in my addiction to the story, the greater the probability that I will completely miss, or fail to appreciate, the individual details that contribute to the show’s overall excellence. I could always go back and re-watch the show later, and maybe I’d pick up some of what I missed before. But in this day and age, when an entire world of media is accessible at the click of a button, who has–or takes–the time to re-watch something they’ve already consumed?

To be clear, the question I’m asking is not “is it wrong to binge consume media.” I don’t think there’s a single right answer. Rather, what I want to ask of myself is, Do I want to binge consume media, if an increase in quantity means I may be less likely to fully appreciate the qualities of each piece? Again, I have no clear answer, even for myself, because it depends on what I am consuming and why I am doing so. I no longer believe that everything I read needs to be “great literature.” Some books, like Naomi Novack’s alternate history fantasy series that places dragons in the Napoelonic era, I can enjoy for pure entertainment value. There’s a reason why romances and YA lit are consistent best-sellers in the U.S. Busy people who make time to read want to read for pleasure, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

On the other hand, I myself find a certain satisfaction from reading slowly, deeply and critically. I was going to add, “the way I used to read in college and graduate school,” but now that I think about it, I realize that isn’t true. In grad school especially, we learned to “gut” books for their content, reading just enough to grasp the essential structure of the author’s argument and to decide whether or not we agreed with it. The appreciation of elements like syntax and narrative was a luxury we couldn’t afford. Now that I’m several years out of school, one of the things I appreciate most about non-student life is having the freedom to read whatever and however I want.

In 2016, my reading was frenetic, eclectic, and broad. For the most part, I really enjoyed myself, and I think I made good progress in learning to “lighten up a little.” For 2017, I’d like to try a different approach. Each month, I intend to read a different novel by a single author–Graham Greene– and then to write a reflective piece about what I’ve read and share it on this blog. I will likely read other titles as well (selections for my book club, for instance), but my hope is that creating a project with clear objectives will help me to improve my communication and analytical skills, improve self-confidence and rediscover my love of the written word.

That last line sounds like it belongs in a cover letter for a job posting. I’d better get started with this project sooner rather than later.

Book List: 2016

(listed in roughly chronological order)

Audio books:

  1. Orphan Train – Christina Baker Kline
  2. Slade House – David Mitchell
  3. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union – Michael Chabon
  4. A Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes
  5. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran Foer
  6. The End of the Affair – Graham Greene
  7. Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe
  8. Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel
  9. Modern Romance – Aziz Ansari
  10. Bossypants – Tina Fey
  11. Yes, Please! – Amy Poehler
  12. Gumption – Nick Offerman
  13. The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey
  14. The Buried Giant – Kazuo Ishiguro
  15. On Chesil Beach – Ian McEwan
  16. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki – Haruki Murakami and Philip Gabriel
  17. Eligible – Curtis Sittenfeld
  18. The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler
  19. Eminent Hipsters – Donald Fagen
  20. The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett
  21. The Comedians – Graham Greene
  22. Mansfield Park – Jane Austen
  23. Down and Out in Paris and London – George Orwell
  24. The Namesake – Jhumpa Lahiri
  25. Furiously Happy – Jenny Lawson
  26. Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel
  27. Brooklyn – Colm Tóibín
  28. Persuasion – Jane Austen
  29. Far from the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
  30. The Never Open Desert Diner – James Anderson

 

On paper:

  1. Border Songs – Jim Lynch
  2. No Great Mischief – Alistair MacLeod
  3. Island: The Complete Stories – Alistair MacLeod
  4. The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness – Kyung-Sook Shin and Ha-Yun Jung
  5. The Sisters Brothers – Patrick deWitt
  6. A History of Modern Africa – Richard Reid
  7. Abina and the Important Men – Trevor R. Getz
  8. Girl Walks into a Bar – Rachel Dratch
  9. The Lacuna – Barbara Kingsolver
  10. Oscar and Lucinda – Peter Carey
  11. Empire of Ivory – Naomi Novik
  12. Back Story – David Mitchell
  13. Silence – Shusaku Endo
    • Read twice; 2nd time for December book club (my selection).
  14. In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians – John Dougill
  15. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet – David Mitchell
  16. At Home in Mitford – Jan Karon
    • October book club selection
  17. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – Haruki Murakami and Philip Gabriel
  18. The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
    • November book club selection.
  19. Old School – Tobias Wolfe
  20. Every Falling Star: The True Story of How I Survived and Escaped North Korea – Sung-Ju Lee and Susan Elizabeth McClelland
  21. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea – Barbara Demick
  22. The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia – Andrei Lankov
  23. Picnic at Hanging Rock – Joan Lindsay

 

In progress:

  1. Landmarks – Robert Macfarlane  (audio)
    • Fascinating facts and lush, evocative prose, but easier to appreciate in small doses.
  2. O Sing to the Lord: A History of English Church Music – Andrew Gant
    • Author’s engaging style and sense of humor does a lot to liven up what could be a dry subject. It’s a lengthy book, though, and I probably won’t be able to finish it before the loan period is up. (Interlibrary loan (ILL) books can’t be renewed, unfortunately.)
  3. Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church – Rachel Held Evans
  4. All the Pretty Ponies – Cormack McCarthy
    • January book club selection
  5. Swing Time – Zadie Smith  (audio)

 

Unfinished:

  1. Homegoing: A Novel – Yaa Gyasi
    • Technical difficulities with audio player (kept shutting off and reverting to previous position). Want to return to it at a later point.
  2. The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth about Food and Flavor – Mark Schatzker
    • Made some good points but seemed long and repetitive; put off by audio book narrator (tone seemedself-righteous).
  3. One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories – B.J. Novak
    • Listened to the audio book while on vacation; stories were fine but didn’t “grab” me.
  4. Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone – Mary Morris
    • In theory, I should’ve loved this, but I never connected emotionally the way I wanted to.
  5. Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë
    • Appreciated its strong “atmosphere” but found the plot SUPER depressing–life’s too short for such hopelessness.
  6. The Life of Graham Greene: Volume I: 1904-1939 – Norman Sherry
    • ILL–WAY too long to finish in 2 weeks.
  7. Sacred Music in Secular Society – Jonathan Arnold
    • ILL–started in early December, too busy to finish in 2 weeks.