November TBR Update

Looks at calendar. Um, what? It’s the middle of November already? A little unbelievable if you ask me.

So far this month, I’ve read three books, two of which I had planned on reading and one that I kind of planned on reading, but then actually did, thanks to the library’s grab-and-go curbside service. And another shout-out to now teaching virtually again, at least for a few weeks. This means I have at least an extra hour in my day, which consequently lends itself to more coffee and reading time in the morning.

If you remember from my November TBR post a couple weeks ago, I mentioned The Dragon Waiting. I tackled that one first because next week I will be discussing it in the award-winning fantasy/sci-fi book club and I wanted to be sure I read it. This coming weekend or early next week I will probably review it a bit and write down some notes.

It was a tough but enjoyable read. The first thing I thought of when it opened to one of the main characters, Hywel, is that 1) I don’t know much about Welsh language and culture and 2) Beowulf. Since we’re discussing it in book club next week, I don’t want to say too much here. But overall I really liked the writing style and flow of the book. The dialog was tough to follow.

My second read was Season of Storms, one of the installments of the Witcher books. I loved this one. It was actually perfect coming right after a heavier, denser fantasy book. I have already had a good introduction to the world of the Witcher through first the TV show and then a few of the books. Geralt and Dandelion are true-to-form and I found myself actually laughing out loud. Mostly it felt like I was riding alongside Geralt as he went from here to there, but there were a couple plot arcs (is that a phrase?) through the book. It’s not billed as a novel, but with the way the stories resolve themselves, I would personally say that it is. Next in that series is Blood of Elves.

The book I just finished tonight was not on my original November TBR. Because the weather is getting cold here and I was already in Europe in The Dragon Waiting, it made me think of a book I loved as a tween called And Both Were Young by one of my all-time favorite authors, Madeleine L’Engle. Last year or the year before I did a re-read of some of her books – A Wrinkle in Time, Many Waters, A Wind in the Door.

And Both Were Young is a really good coming-of-age story set in a boarding school in the Swiss Mountains. There’s all the vibes of a cozy winter story – snowfall, talk of skiing, wool, fireplaces, hot cocoa. Beyond that though, I remember why I loved the story so much. The main character Philippa, or “Flip,” comes to a boarding school as a tall, gangly, slightly socially awkward girl who through about the course of a semester learns to make friends, let things go, and also creates a relationship with what I’m assuming as her first boyfriend, Paul. She’s also very introverted and contemplative, which besides being tall, I can relate to.

The book is set right after World War II, so there is a lot of discussion of other students losing parents and family members, and dealing with the after effects of war. In fact, the book discusses a lot of perspectives of grief, and it’s a way that the characters, both students and faculty, bond with each other. While it’s a very fast and digestible read, it was just as great as I remember.

Today I received on request from the library An Ember in the Ashes, which is a YA fantasy book that’s been on my TBR for quite awhile. I might go ahead and dig into that. All in all, I’d say it’s been a successful month.

What happens when you read fiction or fantasy

Like I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I haven’t always been a big reader. I’ve always aspired to be a big reader, maybe even faking it once or twice, but never like my sister. Or my mom. Or even some of the kids in my family.

Truth be told, up until a couple years ago, I never really saw the benefits of reading fiction, and definitely not fantasy. I think my exact words to my therapist were, “It’s a waste of time to read stories that aren’t real.” Well, friends, I stand corrected. And sometimes I have to teach fiction so it’s helpful to everybody for me to read all the time…. right?

One. You learn about places you’ve either been to… or places you want to go. I’m not sure who would read Outlander and then decide they don’t want to go to Scotland. That is, unless you really hate cool rainy weather, endless precipitous sea cliffs, and amazing history. Last month I read Magic Lessons, and I think I fell in love a little more with the Northeast/East Coast region where we live now. We’ve been here about five years, and when we first arrived I wasn’t thrilled, but it is home and there’s so much to love about it. While reading the book, I kept having flashbacks to my short stay in Providence, Rhode Island last year in October. Even though the story was about witches (or because it was about witches?), it gave me a warm cozy feeling. But, Elizabeth, what about places like the Shire? Or Hogwarts? Well, those places can exist in our minds and through our imagination we can have experiences there.

Two. You see real people as complex as the characters you read about. There’s a story arc, character development. Sometimes it takes characters years to develop into their final form, and even then, even after the last page of a series, there’s still a question in your mind of, What if? I think this point is super important because in our world right now, it is so easy and even encouraged to demonize others. When a member of my family was getting out of a bad situation, I kept reminding myself that no person is either 100% good or 100% bad, even the perpetrator. Call it human nature, call it whatever you want, but we are all complex and subject to the human condition, even the murderer Jack Glass. People you may meet now may seem to be two-dimensional or in a plateau of their own personal development, but you have no idea the extent of the life they lived before your life lines intersected. And even our beloved characters in books – there is obviously a story before and after the tiny part of their lives that we see as readers. We meet Harry Potter when he’s 11 and follow his story until he’s 18, but when about when he turns 21? Or 25? Or, gasp, 30? There are innumerable events and chance meetings in his life that can change him still.

Three. Your vocabulary deepens. Research shows that it takes many encounters of a word before it makes it into our vocabulary, maybe even 15-20. Despite the research surrounding literacy and language acquisition, I believe there’s a kind of alchemy that happens in our brain when we read, and eventually those words will make it into our writing, speaking, and even into our imaginations or dreams. Of course, there is vocabulary acquisition that happens during phases of listening, like with podcasts. But I think reading is starkly different from listening to a podcast in that you are the one who adds inflection, who pauses when necessary to mull over something, and you make your own context by the sections you reread.

Four. You have something interesting to talk about… all the time. Even if all you’re reading is historical romantic fantasy, there’s still lots to discuss – characters, settings, and relationships among the characters, even reading habits. If you can get past the conversation where people low-key shame you for having enough time to read a whole book and talk about how horrible they are for not reading, it can be super enlightening to have these conversations. And another perk is that often they have absolutely nothing to do with current events or politics – for once can we talk about things that are not on Facebook??

Perhaps these amorphous conversations evolve into an organized book club. Without a doubt, telling other people about what you read strengthens your own comprehension skills because you’re retelling a story you read with your audience and purpose in mind – maybe it’s being simplified for a child, or someone who’s not as into fantasy as you are. Maybe you cannot stop talking about a book you read (as I am with Court of Thorns and Roses or The Bear and the Nightingale) and you’re trying to persuade someone to read it. That right there is considering your audience and purpose.

Five. You relax your brain and your body. For me, reading can be meditative. Right now, I read when I wake up (after taking the dog and during consumption of a French press). And I let reading put me to sleep. Maybe it’s that I didn’t have bedtimes stories read to me past the age of about 5, but I love being all cozy in bed with a book. The house is quiet, the dog is snoring. It’s like Christmas Eve every night. For just a little while, I can escape.

Five. You introduce yourself to new or possibly contrary ideas from what you know, or what you subconsciously believe. This has probably been the most instrumental thing that’s happened to me as I’ve really become a reader. You’re introduced to relationships you don’t know much about (such as in LGBTQ-affirming books like I’ll Give You the Sun) and decisions made that you don’t agree with, like in Tidelands, but you also can’t fully comprehend. This point of course applies to nonfiction, and this was a big reason I read nonfiction for so long. I wanted to know more, more, more information about a topic. The difference is that I would get stuck on one idea, like when I went through my Mt. Everest phase, and then I would be reluctant to read about new ideas.

I want to conclude with a quote from On Tyranny, a cute little but powerful book I picked up from our library sale…

Staring at screens is perhaps unavoidable, but the two-dimensional world makes little sense unless we can draw upon a mental armory that we have developed somewhere else. When we repeat the same words and phrases that appear in the daily media, we accept the absence of a larger framework. To have such a framework requires more concepts, and having more concepts requires reading. So get the screens out of your room and surround yourself with books.

-Timothy Snyder in On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

November TBR

Guys, at the time I’m writing this post, I just finished my 56th book of 2020. I cannot believe it, honestly. I started reading again as a habit back in 2017, and solidified my habit through my local library’s Winter Reading challenge (5 books from December to March). I started my rekindled relationship with reading with mostly nonfiction, beginning with Endurance by Scott Kelly. Spring and summer 2019 saw me reading the Winternight Trilogy – amazing!! And from there, my love for fantasy and some scifi was born. And as an almost 35-year-old woman, I have no qualms admitting my love for young adult/new adult fantasy like Throne of Glass or A Court of Thorns and Roses… all the thanks to Sherry of Young House Love Has a Podcast for the introduction to the SJM universe(s?).

Now, it’s November 2020 and I’ve been an active member of a book club that reads award-winning fantasy and scifi. So for sure that book has to be on my monthly TBR. I also recently subscribed to Book of the Month Club, but decided to skip this month because nothing really caught my eye.

1. Drums of Autumn by Diana Gabaldon. Guys, I’m balls deep in the Outlander universe. I’m caught up with season 3 so please, don’t tell me anything! I’m not sure I will finish this one in November, as I keep my Outlander books waiting in the wings and want them to last as long as possible.

2. The Dragon Waiting by John M. Ford. Historical fantasy set in medieval Europe. Sounds perfect for fall.

3. Season of Storms by Andrzej Sapkowski (translated from Polish). One of my husband’s and my goals for 2020 was to read The Witcher books together. We found a recommended order, so we’re trying to be sure to read the short stories and anthologies before diving into the novels. I’ve never played the video games (not really a gamer) but the TV show on Netflix is so. good.

4. Destierros by Gabriela Riveros (in Spanish)

Earlier this year I worked my way through about half of The Murmur of Bees by Sofia Segovia. It moved very slow, was very descriptive, and lost my attention. It just wasn’t the right book at the right time for me. Next time I pick it up, I will read the rest in Spanish. Now that I’m back teaching high school again, I’ve been having a lot of memories of my first job teaching Spanish right out of college, where I completed a degree that should have been called “Hispanic Literature” because that’s basically what all my classes were.

Now that I’m reading again and with much more self-awareness, I thought I’d pick up some books en espaƱol. I am also on a mission to improve my Spanish proficiency, which hovers around intermediate-advanced to advanced. Anyway, Destierros was recommended by the Goodreads algorithm, so I’ll check it out.

I am teetering on the fence with how much to “study” the books I read. Obviously for the Spanish one (#4) I want to be aware of vocabulary and linguistic devices used so I can further my knowledge. For the book club book (#2), I need to remember things so I can discuss them coherently. I have a feeling the Witcher book (#3) and the next installment of Outlander (#1) will be mostly to go on an adventure.