My Literary Week

I have been all over the place this month in terms of my reading and I’m finally getting over a cold that has lasted forever, so this will be a smorgasbord kind of a post:

March Madness and Fickleness

The weather isn’t the only thing that’s been fickle for me this March. Despite the fact that it’s National Reading Month – and I had wanted to join the various reading versions of March Madness – I’ve been making very little progress in any actual reading. I started the month with a number of goals: Start NPR’s The Grapes of Wrath read-along; start and finish The Zookeeper’s Wife for our next Literary Wives discussion; start and finish Howard’s End for The Classics Club’s April post. Well, I started and stopped all three. I kept flitting back and forth, not sure which book to prioritize. Finally a growing desire to get back into Victorian literature took over and I began re-reading Jane Eyre, something I hadn’t planned on doing this year. And so that’s all I’ve been reading over the last week and now I am positively hooked on Jane Eyre.

Which character in literature are you?

Speaking of Jane Eyre, I found this pretty fun literary/psychological (my favorite combination!) quiz at Book Week Scotland where you can find out who “your” literary figure is. And I mention Jane Eyre because Jane Eyre is who I got (introverted, loyal once you get to know me, and self-critical)! If you’ve been spending time taking all those BuzzFeed quizzes, then you will find this one to be of higher quality. It only takes a few minutes and it asks you various questions about how you approach problems and how you prefer to interact with people (kind of like a shortened Myers Briggs test). I gave this quiz to Max (hubby) and Fred (son) as well and they got, respectively, Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird and Jean Valijean of Les Misérables.

Victorian Men Montage

I’ve never understood the fascination with YouTube but this week I couldn’t keep my eyes off of these video montages of Victorian men in literature. I like the ones with fast music, and this one in particular, set to a remake of The Weather Girls’ It’s Raining Men. Some (like my recently-turned 10-year-old) may question my tastes but I actually find the video quite erotic. I can’t imagine the sexual tension that builds up in a society where emotions are so restrained and the people so heavily clothed. Note the subtle heaving of chests, lingering glances, and gently rocking pelvic motions (horse riding scenes).

Addiction Feeding

Bless my husband’s dear heart for driving me two towns away to visit yet another library used book sale and for not questioning or judging me when I walked out with another canvas bag full of books (contents: Pride and Prejudice, Wives and Daughters, Crime and Punishment, and more). The books now sit on the floor at the foot of our bed until they find a new bookcase.

Here’s the thing: every few months I get restless, like something critical from my life is missing. No doubt my body clock has aligned with our various local libraries’ quarterly book sale schedules. I feel such joy and security just being in a room full of books and browsing through them. I have no other vices in life – I’ve even given up Doritos and beer at 10 p.m. – and I figure there are worse ways in life to be happy.

And if you, too, are addicted to acquiring books, read this post Is Owning Books as Good as Reading Them over at Book Riot. The author has 850 (!) unread books in her apartment but it is the many reader comments that are most encouraging and supportive.

What’s up in your literary life of late?

I’m a Slow Reader and Other Reading Confessions

I stumbled upon a blog post over the weekend that talked about reading speed and skill and an online reading test. This, of course, prompted me to check out my own reading level. I found this Speedreading Test Online, which times you as you read a passage and then tests you on your comprehension.

I am only slightly above average in reading speed, and good at comprehension (I slowed down my reading when I knew I was going to be tested); I’d expected or at least hoped to be good and excellent, respectively.

Of course, I took the online test with a grain of salt. It was a fun exercise to do especially when I don’t have any intention of shelling out several hundred dollars to get an actual assessment. My results were eye-opening insofar as they got me thinking back on my road to reading.

I probably started reading quite late, at least compared to the children I am seeing today. We didn’t speak English at home and I learned to read through phonics and leveled readers in my bilingual 1st grade class. We owned very few English books and I visited a library for the first time in the second grade when my school (founded in 1848) was rebuilt and with a new library. I caught up quickly because I loved reading. I had no interest in math, science, or sports but reading suited my temperament, my interest in people’s lives and in the written word, and my need for escape.

But some time in the 4th grade reading became a chore to me. We had independent math and reading times at school when we would do math problems from a set of leveled math cards and reading comprehension questions from the SRA set (does anyone remember that??). The idea was that you would keep moving up every time you finished a card. Well, at some point I found the reading passages so dense and tedious that I started to do more and more math, which really goes to show you how torturous I found those SRA cards. And that quarter was the first time I’d ever gotten a C – my only blemish in a pool of A’s. The teacher told my mother that the C was for my lack of effort in reading.

And so began my ambivalent, two-faced reading life: I was accepted into English Honors and AP classes in high school but struggled with boredom through (at least) half of the required reading; I chose English literature as a college major but always felt a league below the very top students in my department.

If you looked at my academic record over the years, or my bookshelves, you’d perhaps assume that I had been a good and dedicated reader. I’m the only one intimate with my reading deficits, of my tendency to read but not really read: seeing words but not having the patience to let them sink in deeply and to digest them. I skimmed or skipped often, particularly when I was struggling with depression, and sometimes read without deep understanding or appreciation or only as much as was necessary for exams and papers. I collected many books but read minimally during my adult years. I’d often felt like a fraud.

More than twenty years out of school now, I’m trying to start over. It’s one of the reasons I began blogging about books and re-reading the classics. I admire the many readers who can sink into 50, 100, or more books a year, the many people who don’t have a problem getting into The New York Times or Economist every day. I struggle with patience, salivating at books while simultaneously having to sometimes force myself to sit still long and often enough to make faster progress. And I struggle with mental clutter. Not infrequently my attention span competes with the many other thoughts and emotions that run through me at any given time. And yet more than art, more than sports, more than science, I love literature. I love the written word. I love reading.

Is it just me? Do other seemingly literary and intelligent people struggle with the same issues? I can only wonder. But I do take great comfort in the fact that it is never too late to build an authentic literary life.

booksale books

What has your reading experience been like? Is reading “easy” for you? Do you struggle or have you ever struggled?

On Conflicts, Children, and Relationships

Suggested House Rules [by my 9-year-old]

1. When there is a fight/argument, don’t say anything.

2. Play as much as you can.

3. HAVE FUN!! 🙂

4. Read ALOT!! 🙂

5. Keep track of Library books

6. BE HAPPY

7. Think Positive

8. Help each other

9. Be kind

10. Calm down when needed

Fred showed me this list a couple of weekends ago, after witnessing Max and I fight the night before.

“I wrote some rules for us last night, Mommy,” he said. “And I read and drew until 11:00. I also found a calm place in my room. I’ll show you.”

He led me to his room and pointed to the left corner of his packed closet.

I asked him if he was okay, and he nodded with an exaggerated smile, as if to reassure me he was really, really fine. I sighed to myself and pulled him into my arms and held him, telling him we were okay too, and that I was glad and proud that he’d found a way to make himself feel better.

It pains me to look back on that evening, remembering Fred’s shouts, “No, don’t say anything more! It’ll only make things worse!” He tried so hard to get Max and I to stop where we were, to not escalate our emotions any further.

And unlike my situation growing up, Fred doesn’t have a sibling with whom to seek comfort while his parents squabble.

But also unlike my childhood, Fred has the reassurance of experience that things do get better, if not by the next morning then by the next evening, or the day after. He knows that Mommy and Daddy love one another and that the conflicts are temporary and smaller than the relationship. It took me the perspective of adulthood to understand my parents’ love and marriage; as a child I honestly didn’t know if my parents loved one another or not, and I grew up equating conflict with detriment.

So while we haven’t been able to shield Fred from seeing our conflicts – nor do I expect that to be realistic – I hope that we have been able to show him that real and worthwhile love encompasses both unparalleled joys and surmountable difficulties. This is no small feat in the multi-generations of our family, because despite being connected by strong love, we also have a more hidden history of divorce, estrangement, and displacement.

Last year, when his class was asked to write and display a personal narrative, Fred chose to write about his relationship with his best friend of the last five years. Here is a part of it:

I was happy to find a friend. He is my first friend in kindergarten. Me and Jack are very close friends and now we are still friends. Once, maybe in first grade we were mad at each other. I forgot why we were mad at each other. I didn’t play with him for the whole recess. The next day we played with each other.

This idea that he and Jack can be angry for a whole day and sometimes say mean things to one another and still be close friends is something that has really impressed him, because it’s a story that comes up again from time to time. Yes, it is possible to be angry at someone you love, to not even want to talk for an entire day, and still be the best of friends. It’s quite something when you realize it; I certainly wish I had understood that in my friendships and even in my family growing up.

Image courtesy http://www.favim.com

Secrets, Ghosts, and Twists and Turns: The Winter People

I am going to write this review based purely on memory (I was eager to immediately lend the book to a friend) and with a bad cold, so hopefully I will do the book justice.

The Winter People is Jennifer McMahon’s latest literary thriller and ghost story.

The book starts off with words from the diary of a woman named Sara. Sara lived in a small town in Vermont at the turn of the 20th century. Through a brief reflection Sara intimates about her childhood, that her mother had died while giving birth to her and that she was raised by the family’s Native American housekeeper/nanny whom she called “Auntie.” Auntie raised Sara and her brother as her own but her fierce personality and seeming mysteriousness as a Native American renders her a suspicious figure among some in the community.

It is also in this early chapter that Sara describes her first encounter with a “sleeper,” someone who comes back from the dead, in a process that Auntie seems to know quite a bit about and will later share with Sara.

From this point on, the book alternates between Sara’s diary and the present-day story of 19-year-old Ruthie, the current resident of Sara’s home in Vermont more than a century later. Sara’s diary reveals the sudden death of her young daughter Gertie while Ruthie wakes up one day to find her mother missing. In her attempt to find possible clues about her mother’s disappearance, Ruthie finds a boarded up closet in her mother’s bedroom as well as a handgun, drivers licenses of a couple she does not recognize, and Sara’s diary. As the story moves forward, we begin to understand the connection between Sara’s diary, Ruthie’s mother’s disappearance, and the two people pictured in the drivers licenses. Ultimately, this is a story about the mother-daughter bond and about how far a mother will go to care for and protect her child.

I raced through this book. There were a number of twists and turns that made the book hard to put down and I found the ghostly element to be sufficiently creepy to enjoy a few chills but not so frightening that I couldn’t sleep. As a greater fan of realistic fiction than fantasy, I was also satisfied that some of the explanations for the mysteries in the story made sense; that is, not everything was due to supernatural forces.

The book is more plot driven than anything else, and the beginning of the climax felt a bit like a made-for-TV movie to me, but all in all I quite enjoyed the book as a fun, atmospheric, and satisfying break from the classics that I have been reading. I would be interested in checking out Jennifer McMahon’s other books.

Have you read any of Jennifer McMahon’s books? Do you read ghost stories?

Favorite Book/Movie Pairings

Did anyone watch the Academy Awards on Sunday? I’ve usually only taken a mild interest in the 4-hour Hollywood production, but because of my growing interest in stories (as well as major television deprivation) I watched almost all of it this time and even enjoyed it. I’m still hopelessly behind in my movie watching, having seen only Gravity and August: Osage County from 2013, but I was quite curious about the films that had been nominated.

Anyway, this post is not about the Oscars. Rather, I felt inspired to think about all the books I’ve read that have been turned into movies. As much as possible I always try to read the book first, in large part because the book is almost always better, and I would probably not bother with the book if I don’t like the movie. I also like being able to imagine the characters and scenes without the influence of a movie studio, and then later comparing my own visuals against those on the big screen. So below is a list of all the book and movie pairings that I can recall experiencing, in no particular order:

The DaVinci Code (Dan Brown)
I loved the book but the movie was even worse than my already low expectations. I just couldn’t see how all the details could have translated well on to the big screen.
 
The Hunger Games, Catching Fire (Suzanne Collins)
I enjoyed both, but in this case I may have actually liked the movies better because of the visual and sound effects (more entertaining than anything I could have conjured up in my head).
 
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Stieg Larsson)
I saw the US adaptation. I think the movie would have been difficult to follow if I hadn’t read the book first. I liked Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig but I’m told the Swedish version is better.
 
Eat, Pray, Love (Elizabeth Gilbert)
I fell asleep during the movie though while I was awake I did like the visuals and the scenes of Italy and all the food that Julia Roberts was eating. 
 
Gone with the Wind (Margaret Mitchell)
I loved both. I read the book after having seen the movie multiple times. Reading the book was an equally but differently satisfying experience.
 
The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini)
I have vague memories of the movie though I think I enjoyed it enough. The book was definitely more powerful.
 
The Namesake (Jhumpa Lahiri)
Same here. I read the book and then was curious to see the characters on screen. 
 
Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë)
I read and watched both so long ago that I don’t remember much about the film. But I love Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche so I am pretty sure I liked it if just for the two actors alone.
 
The Joy Luck Club (Amy Tan)
I remembered enjoying the movie better.
 
A Tale of Two Cities (Charles Dickens)
I am dating myself here but I believe it was the 1980 miniseries that I saw…and I found it gripping. I had just read the book and I was still young so it was quite something to see all of Dickens’ dense text translated into actual people and sights and sounds.
 
Moll Flanders (Daniel Defoe)
Same here. I don’t remember so much about my reading experience but I do remember the colors and sounds of the PBS miniseries. 
 
The English Patient (Michael Ondaatje)
I had a better experience with the movie as I found the book a bit challenging to read. The film was such a feast for the senses, between the beauty of Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas, the cinematography, the dialogue, and the music. 
 
Angela’s Ashes (Frank McCourt)
The book was far more intense and satisfying (of course), though it was fun to actually see the movie after reading the book.
 
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (Lisa See)
I enjoyed this historical fiction set in 19th century China but the movie adaptation was truly awful – they actually added an entirely new and modern-day storyline (to alternate with the original story) that was not part of the book.
 
The Lover (Marguerite Duras)
I only have vague memories of both…of both being slow, like the lazy humid days depicted in the movie. But I read and saw this years and years ago…I might appreciate the story better now.
 
The Ice Storm (Rick Moody)
I’m not sure how many people read this book or saw the movie, but I enjoyed both. It’s the story of two unhappy and unfulfilled suburban families in the early 1970s.

And of course, there are many books that I’ve read for which I would now like to see the movies, and vice versa (e.g., Life of Pi, The Painted Veil, Jane Eyre, A Beautiful Mind, etc.).

Otherwise, here is my partial to read and watch list:

The Remains of the Day

Never Let Me Go

Of Human Bondage

A Passage to India

The Age of Innocence

Anna Karenina (with Vivien Leigh)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

The Color Purple

The Silver Linings Playbook

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

And on and on and on…

What are some of your favorite book/movie pairings? What do you recommend?