Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Reading Notes: Swann's Way, Part I

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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

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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.


  • 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