An Evening with Khaled Hosseini

KH

I was lucky enough to get a seat at Khaled Hosseini’s recent book tour for the paperback launch of And the Mountains Echoed. I first read Khaled (I’ll take the liberty of calling him by his first name ;-)) when The Kite Runner took all the bestseller lists by storm, and it’s one of the few “hot” books that, for me, lived up to the hype. I had not read any Afghan writers nor had I read about Afghan culture before The Kite Runner and so like for many readers, I am guessing, it was an eye-opening experience to be introduced to the human faces of a country that has otherwise been portrayed so severely in the media.

Khaled did a 60 minute Q&A with the designated interviewer and with the audience. He talked about And the Mountains Echoed, a story about the ramifications of one Afghan family’s decision to sell their youngest child to another family, and he also talked about his writing process and a little about Afghanistan. Like at Junot Díaz’s talk, I struggled a bit with the note taking, this time because (1) my pen ran out of ink and (2) I accidentally deleted my notes a few minutes after I started taking them on my phone. (A post about author talk attendance do’s and don’t’s is forthcoming…) Anyway, I did my best to recoup what I heard. Here is a sampling of his quotes (paraphrased to the best of my memory) from the evening:

On the Sophie’s Choice-esque theme of And the Mountains Echoed:

Those things that are very difficult to imagine are the things I’m drawn to write.

On how to find your story:

I had an impulse in the past to write something educational, moral…to get on a soapbox, but the writing always suffered. I learned that if I feel the characters, feel their pain, their wants and needs, I will find the point in the story. Whenever I tried to build a story around a point, it always became stilted. It always flattens me when I write with an agenda.

When asked how he writes so beautifully, especially when English is not even his first language (he didn’t speak any English until he came to the States at 15!):

There’s been a voice inside my head since I was a boy – I don’t mean that I have a psychological illness [audience laughs] – and over the years I have developed a cadence that I have felt comfortable with . . . I have had this inner language with me for a long time . . . when I was younger and we would all sit around telling stories, the room would get quiet when it got to my turn…it was very powerful [laughs].

On how he could write so well from the perspectives of women characters in his second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns:

I don’t think that I have any more insight into a woman’s mind than [interviewer] or any man in this audience [audience laughs]…in the beginning I would try to find out what they [the women characters] thought, but I learned to let them come to me, to let them tell me what they feel.

On The Kite Runner:

The Kite Runner was a grenade, it was divisive…some Afghans didn’t like that I aired our dirty laundry, and said that I was selling out to make money.

He said that support among Afghan readers was about 50/50, with the older, more conservative and religious generation more upset about his work. The younger and more urban Afghan people have been very supportive.

On his work with The Khaled Hosseini Foundation, which he started to provide economic, educational, and healthcare assistance to Afghan refugees:

We often forget the human story in war. Refugees live in a suspended existence. It is my job to bring to light the human story within the narrative.

I thought he was just wonderful. I was actually surprised, and then not when I thought about it, to see him initially looking a little nervous and fidgety up on stage. It’s so easy to assume that anyone this successful and intelligent would be comfortable in the lime light. He warmed up quickly as the talk went on, and I found him soft-spoken, humble, and extremely thoughtful and articulate. He showed no airs about him, and expressed gratitude that his books were being read.

After the talk was over I got in line to get my books signed. I didn’t try to craft anything special this time, especially as I observed that he was being pretty efficient in the process (there was a good sized crowd and the independent bookstore sponsoring the event was trying to move people along). I simply thanked him for coming and he smiled and replied, “Thank you.” He was quiet during the signings but spoke if readers initiated.

I was inspired after the talk to begin And the Mountains Echoed and so far it is fantastic. It’s my highlight at the end of the day to read it and I can see why everyone used to get quiet when it was Khaled’s turn as a boy to tell stories.

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Literary Wives: The Crane Wife, and Why I Didn’t Finish It

Our book club Literary Wives’ most recent read was The Crane Wife, by Patrick Ness.

The Crane Wife is a modern spin on an ancient Japanese folktale about a wounded crane that turns into a woman. In Ness’ version, a middle-aged divorced man named George finds a gigantic, wounded crane in his backyard one night. He removes the arrow from the wing and the crane takes off. The next day, a beautiful woman named Kumiko enters his print shop and George falls in love with her. They share their art work and soon begin a relationship.

I didn’t finish the book. I got to page 99 and after a lot of debating back and forth (with myself and with my family) I decided to put it down. These are the reasons why:

1) Bad first impression

Chapter one describes George being jolted out of bed by a loud noise, and meeting the mystical crane in his garden. It starts:

What actually woke him was the unearthly sound itself – a mournful shatter of frozen midnight falling to earth to pierce his heart and lodge there forever, never to  move, never to melt – but he, being who he was, assumed it was his bladder. (page 5)

Honestly, he began to lose me at “bladder.” And I was so in love with all the words preceding that.

On the next page there is a whole paragraph about George completing the urination process, shaking the urine off his penis and drying the tip with tissue. The paragraph following that describes him dropping the tissue into the toilet bowl and flushing it. As the sole female member of my household I am no stranger to male bathroom habits or humor, but this just seemed like TMI to me and completely out of place within the more poetic language on the pages.

2) Bad second impression

The entire second chapter is dialogue with no tags. This is how it opens:

‘But this says Patty.’

‘Yes, that’s what it says here on the order form, too.’

‘Do I look like a Patty to you?’

‘I suppose they could have thought it was for your wife.’

‘My wife is called Colleen.’

‘Well then Patty would have clearly been wrong for her –

(page 19)

??? Chapter 2 is clearly not taking place in George’s bathroom or backyard. It took a little bit of effort for me to figure out who was talking and where. I’ll also admit that I tend to be more conservative when it comes to narrative styles, and by this point I was starting to grumble audibly. I felt the author was trying too hard to be clever.

3) Bad third impression

I probably didn’t go far enough in the book to give Amanda a chance, but I found this woman annoying. Amanda is George’s grown daughter and has a hard time getting along with people. At this point in the book I wasn’t sure what her role was in the story. Ness’ constant use of italics also grated on my nerves (e.g., “Because it wasn’t like that. Well, it was. But it also wasn’t.” page 54)

……..

I kept reading though my heart wasn’t in it. I didn’t hate the book and I was somewhat curious as to how George’s relationship with Kumiko would turn out. But  returning to the book each night did begin to feel more like homework, and in a sense it was homework because this was an assignment for our book club. So this is where all my debating started. If I had been reading it simply for myself, I would have put it down. Then I remembered an email conversation that we had as a group following The Zookeeper’s Wife, and someone mentioned that not finishing a book is also telling of the book. I finally decided to stop, and to expend my (limited) energy elsewhere.

Again, I didn’t hate this story. In fact, I appreciated and enjoyed Ness’ lyrical writing style. If I had picked it up at a different point in my life, I probably would have finished it. This book enjoys many superlative reviews from readers so do give it a try if it sounds like something that might be up your alley. In particular, do check out the reviews of my fellow book club members to see what they have to say about the book I couldn’t describe in full!

Ariel of One Little Library 

Carolyn O of Rosemary and Reading Glasses 

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J. 

Kay of WHATMEREAD

Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors

 Follow Literary Wives on Facebook!

 

On Loss and Hope: Drown, by Junot Díaz

.
The fact that I
am writing to you
in English
already falsifies what I
wanted to tell you.
My subject:
how to explain to you that I
don’t belong to English
though I belong nowhere else
–Gustavo Pérez Firmat

And so begins Drown, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz’s first short story collection that he jokes “no one ever reads.”

I went about this backwards, having started with This is How You Lose Her when it came out in 2012. A young man named Yunior narrates many of the stories in the two short story collections. Drown covers Yunior’s life as a child and adolescent, while This is How You Lose Her picks up where Drown leaves off.

Yunior is 9 years old in the first story “Ysrael.” He is staying with his brother Rafa and aunt and uncle in the Dominican Republic countryside one summer because his mother is working long hours at the local chocolate factory. Yunior’s father is in the U.S., supposedly working hard to one day send for the rest of his family. In “Ysrael,” guileless and eager-to-please Yunior follows his bored and brutish older brother around, listening to his tales of sexual exploits and accompanying him as he goes to torment the disfigured boy, Ysrael. Slowly, we watch Yunior lose his innocence.

Young Yunior grapples with the fear that his father will never come for them, and later, with the knowledge that he is cheating on his mother. Often it seems, Yunior is longing for either the physical or emotional presence of his father. Yunior’s mother is the anchor in his life but even she, too, eventually drifts away. There is a particularly poignant passage in the story “Aguantando,” heartbreaking in its youthful resignation. “Aguantando” is about the family’s dashed hopes following the father’s many promises to send for them, and Yunior’s mother falls into a depression, leaving her children behind to stay at her sister’s for several months. Of the aftermath Yunior writes:

She didn’t treat me badly on her return but we were no longer close; she did not call me her Prieto or bring chocolates from her work. That seemed to suit her fine. And I was young enough to grow out of her rejection. I still had baseball and my brother. I still had trees to climb and lizards to tear apart.” (page 84)

Without being sentimental or feigning a child’s voice, Díaz seems to capture well the melancholy of a child who longs for parental love while trying to accept what he cannot control. It is interesting to later read This is How You Lose Her and see how the dysfunction has impacted Yunior’s adult attempts at intimacy.

Several of the stories are told from Yunior’s viewpoint while the narrators of the others are unclear. But together the collection paints a vivid picture of the struggles, hopes, and disappointments endured by immigrant families. More specifically, the stories give voice to immigrant adolescent males struggling to love, receive love, and find purpose within the context of barrio life and a machismo culture. Díaz’s writing is spare and poignant but gritty and honest. You can read the strong language, sex, drugs, and petty crime at a superficial level, but palpable beneath all of that is the hurting of Díaz’s characters.

There is some unevenness in the stories but on the whole I was personally touched by this volume. The themes of belonging and daring to hope hit home for me as an immigrant. But I also read this book as a daughter, wife, and mother, and just as powerful for me were the themes of familial connection and sacrifice and coming of age.

A Short Literary Trip in Boston

I was back briefly in my hometown of Boston a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to call up any friends except for my 76-year-old second grade teacher. We had a small family reunion and celebrated my mother’s birthday together for the first time in maybe twenty years. Next time I hope to be in town longer to see more friends!

One thing I did manage to squeeze in, between all the “family bonding” that my mother wanted to do, were several trips to bookstores. All those years I had lived in Boston I took for granted a historical literary world that was my backyard.

My first stop was Brattle Bookshop in downtown Boston, across the street from Boston Common, the oldest public park in the United States and the camping ground for British soldiers in preparation for the American Revolutionary War. Brattle Bookshop has been around since 1825 and is one of the largest and oldest antiquarian bookshops in the country. My most memorable experience with the store was finding a copy of the biography Gable and Lombard during my Gone with the Wind obsession as a teen. Pre-internet, this was a huge feat, given that the book was out of print and I had to search two years for it.

I like the idea of their outdoor book racks, which you can see in the photo below. There are three floors of books inside the store including a floor of rare and antiquarian books. And outside they sell a diverse mix of bargain books, all priced from $1 to $5. There were a number of old editions (pre-1900 and turn of the century) as well. The only problem was that it was pretty cold that day – in the 30s/40s F – but fortunately I finished browsing as soon as I was coming near the end of my comfort zone standing in the cold for so long.

BrattleBS

Brattle Bookshop Mural

“20 Authors Upon the Wall Mural,” by local artist Jeffrey Hull

My next stop was Harvard Square. Whatever your feelings on Harvard the institution and the elitism it represents, you can’t deny the eclecticism and vibrancy of the town that was birthed by the country’s oldest university. I’d worked in the area a number of years and remember walking past the sets of The Firm (Tom Cruise movie, for those who weren’t around then) and With Honors (a forgettable Joe Pesci film) during lunch breaks. It was pretty neat, too, to see academic greats like Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Howard Gardner in and around town.

And so that brings me to this gem of an indy bookstore, Harvard Book Store, which has been around for over 80 years. The store is open until 11 pm every day except Sunday (when it closes at 10), and every time I’m in there the place is bustling. They also have author events virtually every day of the week (and sometimes multiple times a day).

This is me, just window shopping this time.

This is me, just window shopping this time.

The Harvard Coop, founded by Harvard students in 1882,  was also fun and lively with its crowded café and four floors of books connected by a winding staircase.

I found a beautiful copy of Charlotte Bronte's Villette here, that I haven't been able to find anywhere else, including amazon.

I found a beautiful copy of Charlotte Bronte’s Villette here that I haven’t been able to find anywhere else, including amazon.

When I got tired of book browsing we took a break at Café Algiers on historical Brattle Street (the street where George Washington established his first headquarters during the Revolutionary War). Café Algiers is a tranquil, grand (in my eyes), and bookish Middle Eastern coffee shop and eatery and one of the few businesses in the Square that have remained over the decades.

cafeA

CafeAbookcase

The last time I was here was to meet an old classmate. He had kissed me at our reunion, igniting all kinds of dreamy hopes in me. After avoiding me for a couple of weeks, he offered to meet at the café, where he told me painfully and uncomfortably that he was still in a relationship. The tea tasted bitter that day, but this time I was with my husband, son, and brother, and I enjoyed the best (the only) mint chocolate coffee I’ve ever had.

coffee

And then there were these shelves, the ones I spend the most time looking at whenever I am home.

Bookshelfhome

This was my bookshelf growing up, pretty much unchanged since I left home for college a whole lifetime ago. The stuffed animals are still on the very top shelf, now protected and wrapped in plastic thanks to my mom. My photos are still there, as are my trinkets from different trips, events, and friendships, costume jewelry, extra buttons that came with clothes I’ve long stopped wearing, and, of course, books. The shelves are a bit messy now as I’ve been raiding them over the years, either selling/donating or taking some books back with me. Since I left home I’ve lived in nine apartments/houses in five cities on two continents. The more my life has evolved the more meaning this bookcase holds for me, as an anchor in time, a tether to the self and life that exist now only in memories.

 

Have you been to Boston? What are your favorite literary cities? What are your favorite literary places where you live?

Madame Bovary Readalong

 

Alas, I didn’t get a chance until now to post about this Madame Bovary readalong that I’ve joined. The readalong started April 1 and it’s being hosted by CJ at ebookclassics (whom I’ve had the pleasure of “meeting” through Carolyn at Rosemary and Reading Glasses) and Juliana at Cedar Station. I’d had this book hovering near the top of my to-read list for about a year, so this readalong is perfect.

As many of you know, Madame Bovary is French writer Gustave Flaubert’s 1856 novel about a young woman seeking happiness and fulfillment in her mundane life as the wife of an ordinary and devoted husband. She ends up having a number of affairs until her various choices lead to her downfall.

A couple of things have surprised me about the book so far. One: it is extremely readable, even easy to read, and two: it feels timeless. If you disregard the various references to transportation and dress, this book can easily feel as though it was written in and about the 21st century. Here’s an excerpt:

Before her marriage she had believed herself to be in love; but since the happiness which should have resulted from this love had not come to her, she felt that she must have been mistaken. And she tried to find out exactly what was meant in life by the words “bliss,” “passion” and “rapture,” which had seemed so beautiful to her in books. (page 34)

The quote made me think of a 43-year-old woman I worked with once who had left her husband despite her own description of him as “perfect” – kind, gentle, loyal, etc. She told me she had wanted more in the way of excitement. (Yes, I can hear the sad sighs of nice guys around the world…)

If you’d like to join the readalong, please check out the master post here at ebookclassics. It lists the reading/discussion dates and you can link up there as well.

For those of you who are following, I’ve put on hold my Grapes of Wrath readalong, which I had announced last month I would be doing (face cast downward in shame…). Madame Bovary is just more fun for me right now.

 

Literary Wives: “Wife” as Depicted in The Zookeeper’s Wife

As some of you know, I’m part of an on-line book club called Literary Wives. Every two months we post a review on a designated book and April’s read is Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife (2007).

The Zookeeper’s Wife is a non-fiction account of the heroic efforts of Jan Żabiński, director of the Warsaw Zoo and his wife Antonina to save 300 Jews during WWII.

The Żabińskis were respected owners of the high-profiled and thriving zoo. In 1939, however, when Germany invaded Poland, much of the zoo was bombed, and many of the animals were killed or taken away (the rare/special animals were sent to Germany).

At this point Jan and Antonina began using the zoo and its villa to temporarily house and hide Jews. Jan became an active member of the Polish Underground and later in the Warsaw uprising near the end of the war. Antonina, in the meantime, kept the entire operation at home running; she had, in addition to those in hiding, a young son, an infant daughter, animals in and out of cages, and staff. And she did so while working desperately to keep as upbeat of an atmosphere as she could during this horrific time.

The questions we are discussing in this series are:

1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

The main story really doesn’t focus on the Żabińskis’ relationship, but I did find some striking passages. During the height of the Żabińskis’ efforts, Jan became increasingly “short-tempered and uneasy.” Antonina wrote in her diary that Jan was “cold and expected more from me than from the rest of the people in our household” and that “nothing [she] did ever seemed good enough, nothing made him proud of [her], and perpetually disappointing him felt wretched.” (page 231)

It is, of course, hard to say if these dynamics were characteristic of what it meant to be Jan’s wife. After all, they were both living under extraordinary circumstances. As Ackerman writes, “To keep their life livable, [Jan] checked and rechecked every ritual and routine, a taxing responsibility, since the tiniest chaos, neglect, or impulse could unmask them. Small wonder that he rigidified from the strain and began addressing [the house guests] as his “soldiers” and Antonina as his ‘deputy.'” (page 231)

One day, Jan suddenly praised Antonina when he heard about her success warding off German soldiers in a narrow escape. Antonina wrote in her diary: “He was talking about my talents, praising me in the presence of other people. It never happened before! . . . He was serious?! He had called me ‘silly’ so often I’d started hearing it as a second name.” (page 235)

Near the end of the book, we learn from various interview excerpts after the war that Jan had always appreciated and admired his wife’s abilities and efforts. In one interview he said, ” . . . she was terrified the Nazis would seek revenge on us and our young son, terrified of death, and yet she kept it to herself, and helped me [with my Underground activities] and never ever asked me to stop.” (page 314) There were more acknowledgements like this about various aspects of Antonina’s character and strengths.

Was Jan condescending and did he assume a superior role in the marriage because of his gender? It is possible, given the times. I also wonder, though, how much was personality. I certainly know of couples in which the woman is the one who condescends or is sparing in praise. From Jan’s detailed acknowledgements of Antonina’s contributions and rare talents, it seems clear that he knew his wife well and appreciated her, but perhaps rarely showed his feelings to her during the war.

2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

It seemed important to Antonina to win her husband’s approval. This could have been a function of her status as a wife, or it could have been a matter of personality. It seemed that Jan was rather stoic and sparing in his praise, whereas Antonina was more open with her feelings and wanted the same in return.

The above quote by Jan about how Antonina kept her fears to herself also shows Antonina’s loyalty to her husband. At the same time, I believe her willingness to put others’ needs before her fears speaks to her mindset as a rescuer. Antonina had unique strengths – an uncanny ability to relate to animals, the wherewithal to apply this ability to her interactions with enemy soldiers, and great compassion for fellow humans – and she used these as the perfect complement to Jan’s more analytical and physical work with the Polish Underground. I saw the Żabińskis’ marriage as a partnership with wife and husband sharing the same mission but offering complementary strengths.

. .  .

Overall I had mixed feelings about the book. It took me a long time to finish despite the fascinating (and important) subject matter. I think it was because the story didn’t really feel linear in a way that I wanted it to be in order to stay engaged; Ackerman interrupts Antonina’s story with lots of facts and musings about everything from Nazi ideology to animal behavior. All of it is relevant on some level I suppose, but I found myself confused a lot of the time, not able to really picture how the Żabińskis were actually hiding the Jews, for example, because the story felt so scattered. Every time a chapter went off on a tangent I found my mind wandering.

. . .

Anyway, those are just my thoughts. Please check out my fellow Literary Wives club members to read their takes on the book!

Ariel of One Little Library 

Audra of Unabridged Chick

Carolyn O of Rosemary and Reading Glasses 

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J. 

Kay of WHATMEREAD

Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors

 Follow Literary Wives on Facebook!

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?

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?