Friday, February 3, 2017

Fiction | Life and Breath in War

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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

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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

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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.


THE 2016 RUNDOWN

  • 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

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The JUV FIC Corner Presents "Tom's Midnight Garden"

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Remember back when I used to do children's chapter book features called The JUV FIC Corner? Yeah, I barely do either - my last one was technically in June of 2013! I say "technically" because I think my overall reading habits have become a lot more juvenile in the past two years thanks to my job, so it's not such a rarity that I focus on children's lit anymore.

More to the point, I started doing those posts several years ago to feature some of my childhood favorites after re-reading them as an adult. It's always a lovely connection to check in with the beloved stories that were such monumental pieces of my reading history. It's difficult, as an adult, to recollect the kind of innocent wonder, intrigue, and impact that is an inherent part of childhood. Re-reading these favorite stories, I think, gives us back a piece of that feeling for just a moment.

I remember discovering Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce while lying in my grandparents' floor watching Reading Rainbow. After hearing a teaser, I just had to read it. And I must have, at the time, but that time is so long ago, probably 20 years ago at this point, that I can't actually remember much beyond that random day in front of their floor console television set. Something suddenly inspired me to find this book again, and luckily the Nashville Public Library had an original copy available in their annex.

In this lesser-known story (at least to modern American audiences), Tom is sent to spend the summer with his aunt and uncle after his brother contracts the measles. Now living in an upstairs apartment with no garden in which to run around and play, Tom immediately bemoans his lost summer of adventure with his brother Peter. One sleepless night, though, he hears the old grandfather clock downstairs strike a thirteenth hour, and when he goes to investigate, Tom discovers the backdoor now opens into a huge, beautiful garden that definitely wasn't there before... Now, every night when the clock strikes thirteen, Tom escapes to this magical Victoria-era world where he befriends a girl named Hatty who becomes his steadfast companion and playmate.

It's so different from modern stories, yet so alike many classic stories in children's literature where fantasies are actualized. A boy steps outside when the clock strikes a mysterious hour and the whole world is different. The explanation doesn't matter, not yet at least; it's the discovery and exploration that cause the mind-racing, can't sleep kind of anticipation and excitement. This must be where I first fell in love with a time travel story, because the concept is so much a part of the best imaginings - a safe kind of adventure of discovery.

And like many childhood classics, the language is complex, never simplified for an adolescent audience. Pearce jumps a scene to different time, character, or perspective without any warning, in a way that feels apt to scene cuts on film, not narrative in a novel. It's surprising, and delightful, especially to an adult reader like myself, but I wonder about its 21st-century accessibility to young readers. (Most of my technology-dependent modern preteens, sadly, would probably not appreciate the simple imagination of this story.)

To me, though, it's wonderful storytelling and perfectly magical.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Nonfiction | Striving for Success in China's Factories

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With only two (!!) categories remaining on my seemingly never-ending quest to finish the Read Harder Challenge I began in 2015, I was finally able to pull a title off my existing to-read list for the "book that takes place in Asia." Leslie T. Chang's Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China is a nonfiction exposé on the life of China's numerous (130 million, to be exact) migrant workers. The story is neither thrilling nor uncommon; instead, Chang chronicles the everyday existence of these millions of people that live a life entirely unrelatable to our Western ideals.

Set primarily in the industrial town of Dongguan, Factory Girls tells a common story - that of millions of girls who leave their rural towns for a life and job in the city. As the older generation stays planted in these small, rural towns, continuing a familial tradition of agriculture, the younger generation's future has changed due to China's modern industrialization. Children, particularly the girls, leave for the factories, becoming their families' primary breadwinners. With their migration comes a new sense of freedom and opportunity in a society where education is valued but legitimacy is not (necessarily), where success depends on street smarts, and where, it seems, anything is possible if you work hard enough and smart enough for it.

Chang is a former Wall Street Journal correspondent of Chinese descent. Unfamiliar with, and a bit wary of, her own ancestry, she explores this facet of modern Chinese society from a voyeuristic perspective through select women she follows over the course of three years. She chronicles their move from job to job, always on the lookout for something better, with little loyalty or regard to particular employers; she observes friendships and relationships that seem superficial at best, entirely artificial at worst. It's a world where better jobs often come after lying on your resume, where pyramid schemes and scams run rampant to prey on hopeful ambition, and where relationships can disappear entirely with the simple loss of a cell phone.

The strength of this book lies in Chang's straightforward way of reporting the story. It's not a dastardly tale of sweatshop work. The impression I get, in fact, is that the sweatshop horrors is the stereotype of yesteryear. Though the work is certainly more monotonous and demanding of time (6-day work weeks, for example) than we are used to, the conditions, based on Chang's telling, don't seem harsh or cruel. In this sense, it's not a story of drama and hardship; it's the story of how these migrant women are constantly working for betterment. There is no passive acceptance of life; these women strive to educate themselves for better jobs and new opportunities.

A factory run by TAL Group that makes US-brand apparel for such companies as
J. Crew and Hugo Boss; Photo via New York Times

Interspersed with the present-lives of Chang's migrant subjects is Chang's own family history as migrants to the U.S. after China's Cultural Revolution. Despite providing some context of 20th-century Chinese history, particularly in relation to Communism, this part of the narrative seemed superfluous to me; the intrigue really lies in the everyday lives of these women who have such different lifestyles and values. I am more curious about the future of these women, living in a city populated by people under 30. Do they eventually return to their rural towns? Or do they continue to live in these industrial cities, creating a new tier of the labor force, the "self-made women?" Perhaps China's industrial society still continues to evolve.

What's most remarkable about this story, as a Western reader, is our very real and legitimate connection to it. This is not a lifestyle or job contained within China's borders; rather, it's entirely a product of worldwide, and particularly U.S., demand for cheaply manufactured consumer products. These factories, and therefore these women and their choices and their lives, can attribute their very existence to our want of new iPhones. Or Nikes. Or 50" TVs. And how utterly distressing and perplexing is this?

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Fiction | A Logical Guide to Finding Love

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November's book club selection was a lighter tome—The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. I binge-read the entire book the Sunday before our meeting, and my ability to do that—the fact that it was such a light and quick read—made me question what kind of discussion we'd be able to pull out of this book!

Our main character is Don Tillman, a genetics professor with a slightly odd personality. His life is ruled by organization and structure; he follows the same routines daily and weekly, and he approaches life from an analytical, straightforward perspective. Unfortunately for his love life, this same perspective has never been very successful with women. When a departing friend leaves him a letter that contends he'd make a wonderful husband, Don decides it's time to find a partner. Why couldn't he find a wife using the same methodical approach as a research project?

Thus Don launches The Wife Project. By designing a thoroughly detailed 16-page questionnaire, Don figures he has created the perfect methodology to weed out the incompatible and find his perfect partner. It's a surprise to him, then, when one potential applicant named Rosie fails his compatibility test miserably...because she's the one that he can't seem to stop thinking about.

When, early in the story, his friend and fellow professor, Gene, has Don cover a lecture for him on the topic of Asperger's syndrome, it suddenly becomes very clear to the reader that this, essentially, is describing Don. [But whether Don picks up on these pointed similarities, we remain uncertain.] Though we, the reader, did not have much time with him prior to this revelation, establishing that Don is a narrator with a different way of thinking immediately changes our experience with his story. He's not your typical narrator; he tells his tale almost entirely devoid of emotion. It's a refreshing and entertaining perspective because it's such an uncommon one. In many instances, Don's logic does seem to make complete sense—and don't emotions tend to over-complicate most situations anyway??

This character that is so unused to emotional interactions, though, is in for a world of change as he builds a relationship with Rosie. Uncertain from the beginning of the nature of their relationship, Don distracts himself from such a looming question by delving into her own project of figuring out the identity of her real father. It's just the kind of study that absorbs Don's attention, using a standard method, substantive data, deductions and conclusions. In the meantime, though, Don's way of thinking begins to shift; he's loosening his hold on his routines, and his life is becoming increasingly unpredictable, almost without him realizing it.

Fortunately for the sake of our group discussion, we have an outgoing, agreeable group, so conversation was never an issue, despite this story being lighter fare. In the pop culture realm of stories of autism, we decided this was one told from a more comedic, character perspective as opposed to a dramatic, situational one. [We determined The Big Bang Theory employs this perspective as well.] Having established that we all enjoyed the story, our group was able to delve deeper into specific scenes that chronicle Don's story, discussing the author's storytelling choices and critique all the other pieces that make the story tick. It turned out to be a lively, engaging conversation, and though the story itself lacks any heavy, heady discussion points, it still has plenty to, enjoyably, consider.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Fiction | Falling for a Dead Man

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As I've been reading broadly for the past two years for the (2015) Book Riot Read Harder Challenge, I've had to tackle some genres that I read rarely, if ever. That is, after all, the whole point of such a challenge—to read outside your comfort zone! One of my remaining categories has been the "romance novel," not because I have anything against romance novels but rather because I had a hard time deciding which sub-genre I wanted to read. Historical? Chick-lit? Do I look for personal plot appeal or go for a true classic of the genre?

I opted for the classic—something that is, according to pop culture & literature, truly representative of the romance genre. Having shelved books for years at the public library, I'm familiar with names, so I picked one from the depths of my memory - Jude Deveraux - and consulted Goodreads for what is considered her pinnacle work.

And that's how I got to A Knight in Shining Armor, Deveraux's 1989 bestseller that tells the story of the lovelorn Dougless Montgomery.

Our heroine is vacationing in England on what was supposed to be a romantic getaway with her surgeon boyfriend, Robert. Forever failing at love, Dougless has convinced herself that he's a good catch, worthy of her love, though it is painfully clear to us, the reader, that Robert is entirely the wrong guy; he is manipulative, controlling, patronizing—so much so that the romantic vacation, during which Dougless was hoping for a marriage proposal, has unexpectedly turned into a family one that includes Robert's brat of a teenager daughter. Any sense of romance dies swiftly when, after a nonsensical argument, Robert jilts and abandons Dougless at a rural church where she's left wallowing in yet another romantic failure, praying for a knight in shining armor to save her from the despair.

Imagine the surprise when a handsome man suddenly, miraculously appears and introduces himself as Nicholas Stafford, Earl of Thornwyck, the very name on the statue against which Dougless shed her plentiful tears. (Naturally; this is a romance!)

It's questionable who is more confused in this scenario—Dougless, whose heartbreak and frustration turn her romantic sensibilities into practical ones, assuming there's a perfectly rational explanation for this strange man suddenly appearing and claiming to be an Earl who died in the 16th century; or Nicholas, a man who heard a desperate plea for help and now finds himself in an unfamiliar world that is centuries more modern than his own.

Dougless learns of Nicholas' tragic backstory—one involving betrayal, treason, and premature death—as she helps this 16th-century earl navigate the 20th-century world. Naturally, she figures out that this impossible man is exactly who she has been praying for, and the two are inexplicably drawn together by forces that defy logical explanation and are more powerful than either can comprehend. Deveraux isn't easy on either of her main characters, forcing each of them into the time period opposite their own to continue the story and learn more of the puzzle surrounding Nicholas' sudden appearance and his tragic future. This juxtaposition of time ultimately highlights the depth of these two characters—their strengths and weaknesses. At the novel's opening, I very much found Dougless to be a major pushover but with pluck hidden somewhere underneath. As the story evolves, though, so does her character as circumstance demands a more bold, independent woman. (Though, I mean, she could still use a lot of work on the feminist front.)

So what we've got here is not only a love story but a time-traveling one—and I love time travel stories! In terms of the steamy scenes, this is definitely a romance low on that spectrum, so though yes, it's totally a romance, it feels more like an adventure based around a love story. Super fun to breeze through.