Wildness is a necessity

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Ah, John Muir, you get me.

I’ve been out of the blogging game for.. a while. Oops. Like the rest of life there are seasons to my reading binges, and summer/fall had me out and about more than curled up on the couch reading. Changed jobs, moved literally across the country (hello, PNW! you’re beautiful, and I’d like to stay a while), and a lot of other adventures. Ready to get back into more of an equilibrium, so I finally caught up on posting what I’ve read and shortly will get up my (most likely abbreviated) reviews.

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A book you could finish in a day

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“Have been unavoidably detained by the world. Expect us when you see us.”

-Neil Gaiman, “Stardust”

Rating: 4 stars
Days to read: 4

Gaiman is one of my best friend’s favorite authors, and I have been quite a delinquent friend in not reading him sooner. When she hooked into my family’s monthly book club recently this was her first pick and it did not disappoint! Bonus points that it’s the first book everyone finished in its entirety in about two years. I’m being a bit generous with the category here because I technically did not read it in a day.. but I did read 80% of the book in 24 hours (including plowing through the last 100 pages in the hour and a half immediately before book club), so we’re going to rock letter of the law here with “could” finish in a day.

Stardust is the story of a young man named Tristan Thorn who lives in the town of Wall in Victorian England. On the edge of the town is, you guessed it.. a wall. Through a small hole in the wall is the passage to the land of Faerie. Every 9 years the villagers of Wall (and travelers near and far) are allowed to gather for a festival in the meadow just beyond the wall and purchase food and goods from the merchants of Faerie. In an effort to impress the most beautiful girl in town, Tristan offers to go to Faerie one night after the festival to bring her back a fallen star.

(In my best Stefon impression) Witches, pirate ships, ghosts.. this book has everything. It’s like the style of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy meets a fantasy world like Alice in Wonderland. The world Gaiman creates is imaginative and cheeky. I especially liked the little details, like that the conversations of the ghosts of dead brothers (who have all killed each other vying for the crown) sound like leaves rustling to the living. There’s a love story that runs throughout the book, and dare I say, it might be one of my favorite literary romances. No love at first sight, no I’m attracted to you and don’t know a damn thing about you.. rather, it’s a slow building trust and an epic adventure. As true love should be.

I tend to be attracted to books where the plot serves as a greater commentary. The first 50 pages felt slow and I found myself frustrated with the story (it’s just a weird interesting place with weird interesting people?) but I slowly came around to wanting to read every Gaiman book that exists. There is a kind of simple charm and sarcasm that I had somehow stopped pursuing in my reading habits that I was happy to re-discover with Stardust. Next on my list is Graveyard Book and probably my own Gaiman obsession will follow soon thereafter.

A book with a blue cover

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“So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”

-Anthony Doerr, “All the Light We Cannot See”

Rating: 5 stars
Days to read: 48

This was one of those books that everyone in my book club independently put on their challenge list at the beginning of the year. It’s that good. However, I’m ashamed to say this book suffered a bit from start reading, get distracted by shiny things, then pick it up again weeks later.. it is in no way a reflection of how incredible this book is. This post could consist of only, “just go read this book” and that would be everything you need to know about it.

The story is told through a series of flash forwards and flashbacks, and from multiple perspectives. Marie-Laure is a young girl in France on the verge of World War 2. Her father is a locksmith at a museum and she accompanies him every day to work, where she is treated to an infinite world of knowledge and discovery. When she is young she loses her vision but is incredibly resilient, largely due to how her father raises her. He builds Marie-Laure a model replica of the town they live in which she learns through touch. Werner is a young German boy, hundreds of miles away, growing up in an orphanage with his younger sister Jutta in a poor working class town. Years ago they lost their father to a coal mining accident, and fate seems set that in a few years Werner will have no choice but to work in the same mines that killed his father. He has a knack for electronics though and is soon fixing things through the whole town. At night, he and his sister listen to an unknown French man teach science lessons on an old beat up radio, and for those brief periods of respite, they experience the awe and wonder of the world beyond their reach. Doerr is a master at weaving through each narrative- the jumps between perspectives and time points feels fluid, never jerky.

As the war reaches them, both Marie-Laure and Werner’s worlds are shattered. When the Germans invade Paris, Marie-Laure and her father are forced to evacuate, and carry with them an important mission from the museum. Werner is recruited to a school for elite young German soldiers due to his aptitude for engineering. In very different ways they experience the cruelty of war, the tangible displacement and danger and the intangible shifts in relationships and understanding. One of the most incredible parts of the book is the way we experience the world through Marie-Laure. Despite being blind she very much sees the world around her, the way people walk when they’re scared or excited, the smell of the sea, the feeling of the wind just before it rains. I wondered if in some ways she sees the world far better than I ever have. Werner too has an incredible talent for truly seeing people, their weaknesses, fears, the quiet beauty in them that no one else seems to notice.

There’s a meditation on bravery throughout the book that Doerr explores with an incredible amount of grace. As Marie-Laure learns to navigate through the world, literally and figuratively, she does not hold back. In Saint-Malo she joins the underground resistance to the German occupation, retrieving messages concealed in bread from the bakery, to be broadcast on the illegal transmitter in the attic of her great uncle’s house. Repeatedly she’s told how brave she is, for her it is just life. She knows no other way. Werner is drilled about bravery at school but he begins to question the kind of bravery they teach. Is it brave to attack the weakest and most vulnerable around us, enemy and countryman alike? He struggles with this and is confronted with more as a young boy than most of us face in a lifetime. Through both Marie-Laure and Werner their humanity is revealed through how they traverse the inhumanity of war.

Book endings are notoriously difficult to nail, and this one was perfect. The way all the narratives come together (and those that don’t) say something about what war does to us. 500+ pages later this book sent me into the affliction known as book hangover.. curl up and set aside several hours for this one.

Readathon // April 2016 Wrap Up

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favorite reading chair, morning light, tea and a good book.. who could ask for more?

The last 6 hours of readathon went to.. sleeping. I had a modest goal of 500 pages and I’m proud that I finished with 541 (including 3 straight hours of no reading due to work). Finished A Monster Calls, started and finished Maus, a couple short stories from Cities I’ve Never Lived In and about 2/3 of The Martian. Strangely, the only book I didn’t get to was the one I was most looking forward to (Mr. Mercedes).. note to self: don’t worry about “saving” books. Just read good books, always. There are a lot of things I took away from the event, I loved the challenge (I didn’t Netflix! Not once! All day!) and my slight fear that I would spend the next few days not wanting to read at all could not be more unfounded. I woke up this morning and knocked out the last 130 pages of The Martian easily. I will probably finish off Cities I Never Lived In this afternoon. One thing I didn’t anticipate about the challenge was how much my reading pace would slow down. I tend to average 50-80 pages an hour, and for several hours at the end I was more in the 20-30 range. Thankfully, there are no rules to Readathon, and pages read are pages read.

Next Readathon is October 2016, who’s in?

Readathon // April 2016 Hours 13-18

7:40pm
Mom I’d like to renegotiate the cuddle situation that’s been going on today. I’m going to need a lot more cuddles than you’ve been giving.

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[[Hour 13: 20 pages, 412 pages total]]

[[Hour 14: 35 pages, 447 pages total]]

9:50pm
Same book, same companion, new location.

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[[Hour 15: 15 pages, 462 pages total]]

[[Hour 16: 24 pages, 486 pages total]]

[[Hour 17: 40 pages, 526 pages total]]

12:29am
Sleepy time. Aiming for a 2-3 hour nap and waking up for the last 2 hours of readathon. I’m just over 100 pages away from finishing The Martian and I think I can knock it out. Sleep tight, book worms.

[[Hour 18: 15 pages, 541 pages]]

Readathon // April 2016 Hours 7-12

1:02pm
We’re into the second quarter of Readathon! I’m a third of the way through Maus and Juli and I are about to make a change of scenery to a local coffee shop.

1:25pm
Successful relocation.
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[[Hour 7: 36 pages, 245 pages total]]

[[Hour 8: 59 pages, 304 total]]

3:08pm
And now book 3. Been looking forward to this one for a while!

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[[Hour 9: 25 pages, 329 pages total]]

[[Hour 10: 35 pages, 364 pages total]]

5:33pm
Friends that bring you snacks to nom on in the middle of Readathon are good friends.

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[[Hour 11: 18 pages, 382 pages total]]

6:37pm
Back home. Messy hair, comfy pants, can’t lose.

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Mid-Event survey:
1. What are you reading right now? The Martian by Andy Weir
2. How many books have you read so far? I’m on my third book.
3. What book are you most looking forward to for the second half of the Read-a-thon? I’ve been saving Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King for last. I think it’s up next.
4. Have you had many interruptions? How did you deal with those? A lot. Had to go to work for a few hours, changed scenery (i.e. coffee shops) a few times.. I’m trying to just view them as necessary breaks and not something to worry about 🙂
5. What surprises you most about the Read-a-thon, so far? I thought I’d be fading by now, but it’s been a really enjoyable challenge. Most weekends I read for a few hours then put on some Netflix, I’ve had fun pushing myself to power through and put a small dent in my TBR.

[[Hour 12: 10 pages, 392 pages total]]

 

Readathon // April 2016 Hours 1-6

Book friends enable you. Like when they post links to a 24-hour readathon on your Facebook wall without any comment (*ahem* Juli). And that, my friends, is the entire story behind why I’m doing Dewey’s readathon this spring. It’s a very short and wonderful story. I’ll be updating in this post throughout the day on Saturday, but here’s my tentative TBR for the day:

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books and puppies and happiness, xoxo,
Sarah

7:02am
I don’t always wake up way too early on a Saturday, but when I do it’s for Readathon. I’m starting with a book I actually picked up earlier this week, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, and couldn’t wait to begin that wasn’t on my original TBR (because decisiveness).

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Opening hour meme from Readathon:
1) What fine part of the world are you reading from today? Nashville, Tennessee
2) Which book in your stack are you most looking forward to? Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King.. I’m a huge Stephen King fan and Ihe’s coming to Nashville in June (sold out in 3 hours!). the third book in this trilogy comes with your ticket so I need to catch up!
3) Which snack are you most looking forward to? There’s a planned stop to go to a coffee shop in Nashville called Perk and Cork with the best cinnamon buns. I consider cinnamon buns to be a food group.
4) Tell us a little something about yourself! I come from a family of readers! They impress me so much with how often they’ve heard about (or read) a book long before I do.
5) If you participated in the last read-a-thon, what’s one thing you’ll do different today? If this is your first read-a-thon, what are you most looking forward to? I’m most looking forward to interacting with other book nerds and getting good book recommendations.

[[ Hour 1: 86 pages read]]

8:00am
This book is amazing. And I am one tired puppy.

8:55am
Finished A Monster Calls. I might have cried. Okay, I definitely cried, and books rarely do that to me. Moving on to the other book I’m in the middle of (and also wrecking me), Cities I’ve Never Lived In by Sara Majka. In a bit I’ll need to start getting ready for a quick stop at work (science rests for no man, or woman).

[[Hour 2: 67 pages read, 153 pages total]]

12:27pm
Back. In. The. Game. Done with work and Juli’s house, picked up Maus.

 

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oatmeal creme pies: snack of champions.

 

[[Hour 6: 56 pages read, 209 pages total]]

 

A book that is published in 2016

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“You’ve got to entrust yourself to the waves, lash yourself to the mast, pray the gods are on your side, and rely on cunning to survive the rest. The seas are full of forgotten monsters, yes, but they’re full of forgotten glories too. And people who stay at home and sit out the war never get to see them. That’s what I think, anyway.” 

-Kristopher Jansma, “Why We Came to the City”

Rating: 4.5 stars
Time to read: 21 days

When I was reading through the POPSugar list at the beginning of the year I started to research this category like a good academic. Who talks about books before they come out though? I thought. This is by no means a rare phenomenon, but this was stupid of me. There is a whole rabbit hole of blogs talking about books that are coming out over the next 6-12 months and I got happily sucked into all of it. Once I found a snippet about this book I couldn’t wait until it was published. Thank the good book overlords that I only had to wait until mid February.

Why We Came to the City is a story about 5 friends from college now in their late twenties living in New York City around the beginning of the recession in 2008. Sara is a magazine editor and type A planner, who is dating George, an astrophysics postdoc bordering on functioning alcoholic. William works in finance and is far too shy to admit he is in love with Irene, an artist. Jacob is a gay poet who has not written poetry in quite some time. I almost hesitate to call it a story because it is more a reflection about connection and humanity through a group of friends as they navigate through the world, together and alone, over the span of a couple of years with a very loose beginning, middle, and end. The first chapter itself is practically poetry that I might have read about 5 times before proceeding (“For the rest of the world, it seemed to us, had somewhat hastily concluded that it was the chief end of man to thank God it was Friday and pray that Netflix would never forsake them”).

One of my favorite threads throughout the book was the attachment that Jacob and William feel towards the classics, particularly The Iliad. Jansma uses this beautifully as a juxtaposition for the struggles of the characters. Unlike their fictional counterparts, though, they are not heroes on fantastic journeys. Their battles are not epic, nor do their misunderstandings and failures always result in lessons and greater understandings that can be dissected and analyzed. They each struggle in unique ways for connection and meaning and in earnest fail in petty ways, over and over. It is, in so many ways, painfully beautiful in its ordinariness. Far from the navel gazing that tends to characterize much ‘I’m just trying to figure out life’ writing (I’m looking at you, every “X number of things about my twenties!” Thought Catalog list), Jansma’s take is refreshing and subtle.

Although much of the book captures the singular spirit of New York City, I saw so much of myself in their story. In one of the opening scenes they drunkenly find a hot tub on the balcony of a luxury hotel in the middle of December and decide on some impromptu skinny dipping. It reminded me of a night one summer in college when we climbed to the roof of a beach house, passed around a bottle of wine, and watched a far off lightning storm in the distance for hours. There was an infinity in that moment, the kind that changes you. Now far past the limitless feeling that marked the beginning of my twenties, I suffer a lot from being restless and often I’m not content with where I am right now. I’m in a part of my career that’s jokingly (with a sick thread of truth) referred to as career purgatory. My twenties have included more than one lost love, and often feeling like I have to leave a city just when I’ve finally fought to make it feel like home. Potentially the hardest– feeling like I’m not where I should be, perhaps because there is no such thing, despite my emotional protests to the contrary. The beauty of all of this through Jansma’s lens though is that my wars (and theirs) are small but to live they need to be fought. In the struggle we find our character.

If I continue this will become a Dead Poets Society-esque monologue, but it might suffice to say that I lost myself in this story the way that only a book that articulates something about yourself that you were never able to can. I would venture to say it might do the same for you.

 

A self-improvement book

“The Net grants us instant access to a library of information unprecedented in its size and scope, and it makes it easy for us to sort through that library—to find, if not exactly what we were looking for, at least something sufficient for our immediate purposes. What the Net diminishes is Johnson’s primary kind of knowledge: the ability to know, in depth, a subject for ourselves, to construct within our own minds the rich and idiosyncratic set of connections that give rise to a singular intelligence.” 

-Nicholas Carr, “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains”

Rating: 4 stars
Days to read: 11

I have to say this category stumped me for a while, since I don’t tend to read books even remotely related to ‘self help’. I often read articles that might fall into this category (The Jesuit Post is a personal favorite), but books to me often feel indulgent, like letting yourself eat as many ice cream sandwiches as you damn well please (I have no personal knowledge of what such an evening might look like.. promise). Self improvement almost feels too serious for my precious book reading time. I’m finding lately that when I do venture into this genre it’s been well worth my time and dare I say it, incredibly enjoyable.

The thesis of The Shallows could be summarized in a phrase borrowed from Marshall McLuhan: “The medium is the message.” Essentially, the way we consume information fundamentally shapes that information. We can agree a series of Twitter posts is not the same as a printed poem written decades ago (congratulations, Einstein), but the distinction feels more difficult for content that we consume through multiple mediums. The newspaper article I read on a printed paper is no different than that same article read on a screen, right? Throughout the book Carr hammers away at a single message: no, they’re not, and that changes how we consume them. And not only does it change how we consume that individual message, but repeated patterns of experience (like the way we gather and consume information on the internet) then come to change the way we think.

I have to admit, before this book I was of the mindset that as long as I used the internet for mostly intellectual pursuits, the internet would not in turn be affecting my cognitive process and thus could be solely ‘good’. I’m an academic, so a large part of my training and livelihood is based in my capacity to think critically. By the end of the first chapter I felt incredibly naïve in my original assessment about the internet. The strength in Carr’s argument is that he does not assert that the internet/technology is inherently bad. The distribution of information on the internet has an untold number of benefits, and it would be silly to argue against them. Instead, the main premise is that what the mediums we use will always involve a fundamental tradeoff. In the case of the internet, we’ve amassed the ability to take in information at an incredible clip, quickly browsing a large number of websites and efficiently finding relevant pieces of information within a larger block of text. What we lose is the ability to dive into a text and the attention span to do so, and there’s a reasonable argument to at least re-access if many of us have fallen too deep into that kind of thinking, and ask what it has done to our personal lives and our culture.

A fascinating examination of this in the book was the example of academic citation. One might imagine that the increased availability of academic articles on the internet would widen the base of scholarship that a paper might cite as a foundation for the presented research. Counterintuitively, as more and more work is digitized and sometimes available exclusively online, we as academics are actually citing fewer papers overall and from a more limited scope. We’re so efficient at finding relevant information that we are often skipping over and failing to make connections ourselves with our field as a larger whole. In college I actually remember going to the library and skimming through hard copy journals to find the work I was interested in for a particular project or paper. Without control + F, I actually had to skim through several titles before I found what I needed. This allowed me to at least briefly be aware of what else was being currently discussed and studied in the literature, and in some ways I wonder if I was better connected to my field then than I am now.

My takeaway from The Shallows was that I came to accept the main premise of the book: the way we consume content requires that we make tradeoffs for the skills we want to strengthen and those we are okay with being weaker. By understanding what those tradeoffs are, we can in turn use that information to make strategic decisions about the mediums we choose for the messages that are important to us. For me, I’m trying to limit web time a little bit more, but I’m also viewing my reading challenge this year in a new light– if the ability to get lost in a book for a few hours is a skill I’d like to retain and strengthen, then reading the printed word (especially sans hyperlinks) regularly is important to me to balance out the time I do spend on the web. Not only do I value this skill out of a love of reading and respect for the traditional literary mind, but the last few pages of the book that touched on how empathy and other emotional skills require thoughtful, slow thinking struck a nerve with me. Quick, automatic judgements don’t just affect how I take in abstract things like scientific concepts, but also data in social situations. Going beyond a potentially flawed impression requires thoroughly examining information instead of a quick assessment and advancement to the next new incoming stimulus, which is precisely the way we surf the web.

This book got me thinking about things in a new way than I had before (I could not shut up about Carr’s ideas to many people while reading it), and for that alone The Shallows might even warrant a re-read. Another reason to re-read it is probably a case in point about how the medium affects the message: this book was only available as an audio book from the library and so that’s how I consumed it, and there are times I found myself distracted and mindlessly online while listening to a chapter about distraction. I’m curious what I’ll take in when I’m reading in print form (my preferred method anyway, I’m not a huge audio book fan) and what I might understand better in that medium. If you’ve ever joked about getting a degree from University of Google (guilty), The Shallows is fascinating, scary, but most importantly thought provoking read that I definitely recommend.

A book based on a fairy tale

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It’s important to accessorize properly while reading..

“So you would have me throw Shazi to the wolves?”
“Shazi?” Jalal’s grin widened. “Honestly, I pity the wolves.”

-Renee Ahdieh, “The Wrath and the Dawn”

Rating: 3.75 stars
Days to read: 5

I first received this book as part of my Uppercase Box subscription many months ago (hence the cute matching scarf!) but finally got around to reading it just this month.. which is a complete shame, because I’ve liked all this girl‘s picks! It was a perfect fit for this category and I already owned it, making it a win/win on my goal of getting through the year only on books I can borrow or already own.

The Wrath and the Dawn is a re-imagined One Thousand and One Nights. In Khorasan, each new bride taken by Khalid, the Caliph of Khorasan, is strangled at dawn after their wedding night. Dozens of girls have been murdered. The latest victim is Shahrzad’s best friend, and she decides to volunteer to be Khalid’s next wife with the sole plan of murdering him in revenge for killing her best friend. She does so of course without consulting anyone in her life, least of all her father (who is still grieving over his wife’s passing many years ago) or the boy she loves. This is incredibly dumb but I’m willing to suspend some disbelief for love of a best friend. She manages to survive the first night by telling an intriguing story about a thief who gets lost at sea, stopping right at a cliffhanger. Khalid is interested enough to let her live to the second night. In addition to Khalid, most of the staff at the palace seem thoroughly taken by Shazi and genuinely care for her. She has an incredible wit and a lot of tenacity. I particularly loved the back and forth with her handmaid and the unlikely friendship they forge.

Eventually Shazi begins to see a little more to Khalid than a completely evil monster, and she finds her resolve to kill him wavering. This would less infuriating if it was not so strongly tied to being incredibly attracted to Khalid as well. Girl, you have been there for less than a week and you already want a makeout sesh with the guy who murdered your best friend? Sounds like a great idea. For a character we are continually told is a complete force of nature and the definition of a strong, independent woman, this part of the plot felt lame. Meanwhile, Shazi’s father and childhood friends are running around trying to literally start a war to get her back. For someone stubborn enough to walk into a near death trap to avenge her best friend, her surrender is maddeningly premature.  The attraction precedes most of the glimpses of understanding she gets about his true character, which would have been so much more powerful the other way around. Over time though they have misunderstandings, frustrations, and moments of true friendship, which slowly redeemed the book for me.

After much prodding, Shazi finally learns the secret Khalid has been hiding from her. She sees his predicament and his guilt for what he’s done, and she comes full circle to loving him in full and all his flaws. I have mixed feelings about this because I think the ‘I’m attracted to you because you’re broken’ deal is overplayed and is often a really unhealthy foundation for a relationship in YA literature (and life). However, there are some really beautiful passages about the power of forgiveness and mercy and needing the company of others to understand yourself as a person which I really enjoyed.

The Wrath and the Dawn is part one of a duology (are single book stories outlawed in YA fantasy literature? Did I miss a memo?) but it sets up its successor quite well for some great action. With the coming war Shazi’s friends and family make an unfortunate ally out of what they think is a shared enemy. Despite my protests to some aspects of Shazi and Khalid’s relationship, the world Ahdieh sets up is beautifully described (make sure you’re well fed when you sit down to read this, the descriptions of the food alone are to die for and rival watching Food Network at midnight) and I found the tension of the brewing war and nuanced politics genuinely interesting to watch evolve. The Rose and the Dagger is due in May and I’d be lying if I said I won’t try to scoop it up soon thereafter.