My life is going through some big changes right now. But at least I’ve been reading. So here’s what’s been on my shelf.
As usual, I’ve been reading a mix of nonfiction, fantasy, and sci-fi. I’ve been mostly into nonfiction recently because it’s been keeping me grounded. What Happened to You? is an amazing book about trauma in the style of a conversation. It presents many of the same ideas as the seminal volume The Body Keeps the Score, but in a less clinical, more digestible way. My therapist recommended it, and I’m so glad she did.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is by far one of the best books I’ve ever read. Isabel Wilkerson’s writing style is engaging and poetic while being informative and audacious. Just wow. I learned so much about the history of slavery in this country that I had never known. I started The Warmth of Other Suns recently and look to learn about the migration of African-Americans to the North.
Assassin’s Apprentice is a book I’ve had on the shelf for a long time and finally picked it up at my husband’s suggestion. He’s told me in the past to read it “when you want to feel sad.” The main character, Fitz, sees and experiences an immense amount of pain and trauma. It’s a perfect hero’s story. There are more books in the series that I haven’t read yet.
Finally, Dark Matter is one I picked up from the library because of the cover. Yep, sometimes I do that. And it was worth it. It was smart, fast, and surprising. I will definitely read more of Blake Crouch’s work.
In January, I read A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine. I actually really enjoyed it. (In fact, my new fave fantasy/sci-fi subgenre might be space operas…) So far, the sequel in the duology, A Desolation Called Peace, has delivered. March has been a significantly slower month as far as reading goes. Something’s happening in my body – i”m coming out of hibernation, out of winter. I also have had more than a few nights where I just had to go to bed early because of fatigue or a headache, or both. Nevertheless, I persist with my reading goals and habits.
A Desolation Called Peace starts out with Ambassador Mahit Dzmare on Lsel Station. She has two imagos of Yskandr – one she was given before being assigned to the empire Teixcalaan in the first place, and one that she and her Teixcalannli companions retrieved from the body is Yskadr himself which she had implanted in her brainstem by way of shady back-alley neurosurgery. Now the Councillor wants her to download the imagos… and Mahit could be in serious trouble.
I want to extrapolate some quotes that I find particularly interesting and applicable to… well… life.
“Don’t trust anyone who makes you feel good without knowing why they want you to feel that way.” (page 41)
That is a good reminder in case you’re wondering if someone is trying to emotionally manipulate you. After working in schools for the better portion of my teaching career, I can tell you that kids see right through that shit. But unfortunately, many adults have ulterior motives for making other people feel good or wanted or accepted.
“The body didn’t care about the size of the promise, only the size of the cut.” (page 77)
I kind of interpret this to mean that we don’t quite realize the promises or oaths we swear until we’re burned by them. Sometimes you have to be “cut” or burned to learn to not make promises you can’t keep.
“What better way to draw a monstrous thing to its death than to use its functions against itself?” (page 83)
Yes, we can use our enemies’ strengths and weaknesses against them. The bigger they are, the harder they fall.
“Trust is not an endlessly renewable resource.” (page 167)
For sure. I think trust can be long-suffering, but it can be used up and unable to revive.
“Cost-benefit analysis was antithetical to sleeping.” (page 174)
Ahh yes. Make a pros and cons list they said. It will tell you what you need to do, they said. Until you get zero sleep because you’re perseverating and probably worrying.
“Imagination created biases.” (page 174)
YES. Imagination can be great, but it can lead to pie-in-the-sky expectations. And then when real life hits, all the expectations come crumbling down.
Besides these quotes, the book is just good. The plot is moving forward, there’s great character development, and, as the title claimed, there are space kittens. I’m not much of a cat person, but this excites me. I’ll be back with more about A Desolation Called Peace after I’ve finished it, hopefully soon!
The fourth book in the A Court of Thorns and Roses series was released in February, and to be honest, the books I read towards the beginning of the month were placeholders as I waited for my hardcover copy of A Court of Silver Flames. I also finished my re-read of the series – I finished a good portion of A Court of Wings and Ruin as well as the accompanying novella A Court of Frost and Starlight in one day. February was a strange month work-wise – lots of weather delays and a couple three-day weekends. Hence I feel I had more time to hunker down and read.
Emily and I will be talking about A Court of Silver Flames on our podcast later this week. I’ll give you a preview: it wasn’t my favorite! But there was amazing character development, relationship drama, and steam. Lots of steam, my friends.
Immigrants in America – Literary Fiction
This is a genre I haven’t read in a long time but have recently come back to it. The books I’ve been picking up have come highly recommended and they are relatively short: 250 pages or so. I’ve found that in order to handle these short books that pack a punch, I have to be in the right sort of headspace. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous was heartwrenching but I couldn’t stop reading. It was beautifully written as it’s written by a poet, and the audiobook is narrated by him as well. I actually found myself drawn to the audiobook more than the paper copy – many names are Vietnamese and the way his grandmother talks is better expressed via voice.
I also read an early release via Book of the Month – Infinite Country. This was also a short but emotional ride about a Colombian-American family separated by miles and citizenship status. While it was fiction, it doesn’t seem far off from events that actually occur.
Dabbling in Sci-fi
Sci-fi is a genre that’s even newer to me than fantasy. From afar, something about it seems hard, cold, science-y…? But one of the best things about being a member of a book club is testing the waters of new genres and ideas. I’m coming up on a year of being in this club that reads award-winning sci-fi and fantasy, and I’ve come away with new favorites and surprises of books I’ve actually enjoyed. In February we read The Prey of Gods, and wow, was this a wild ride. I couldn’t put it down. The author allows us to follow the lives of many characters who actually all end up connected to one another somehow. If you’ve ever seen the show Manifest, the pace and unpredictability of the book remind me of that show.
Finally, a little bibliotherapy…
I read By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept by Paulo Coehlo at the suggestion of my therapist. The plot in this book wasn’t my favorite, to be honest, but I love Coehlo’s writing style (or at least how it’s translated into English from Portuguese) and this book lets us live for a little bit in Spain and France. It’s completely relationship-driven, and those stories generally have me right from the beginning. There were many good quotes and ideas I pulled from this book and I’m excited to read more of his works.
As we near the end of 2020, this is the time I can look back and catalog in my mind my experience with reading this year. Without a doubt, a pandemic will naturally give some more time to read, and that’s what happened to me. We are not super extroverted social people in the first place, and generally do spend a lot of time at home, but a pandemic helped us solidify that more as we opted to stay inside. In addition, for the majority of the past 9.5 months, I have not had a commute, which saves not only the 50 minutes driving to and from work, but the time I spend packing a lunch, getting my bags (yes, multiple) together, et cetera.
I could have chosen to do many other things with my extra time. I could have done more yoga, gone to the gym (when it was open), I could have made lavish breakfasts, learned new makeup application techniques, spent more time in my craft room. But instead, I decided to read.
When I was younger and looked at the way other members of my family devoured books, I remember thinking about how they would just spend so much time with… themselves. In a world that may or may not really exist with a story that is not true. In my mind, that was a waste of time. Why would you keep your nose in a book so often when you could do other things?
I think some of my motivation to not read was from guilt and fear. I felt guilty, sitting on my butt reading for hours on end. Surely there were chores to do! Things to cook! And then when I became old enough for a job, there were hours I could work. So work I did, and for probably at least 8 years of my formative years, I did not spend them reading in my spare time.
I also felt fear. The good ole FOMO existed before social media, and already I had some tenuous relationships with friends. If I didn’t pounce on an invitation to hang out, would I have said friends for long? (My tenuous relationships mainly resulted from my own actions… I was part drama queen, part Stage 5 clinger).
I could go on about how these two states of being – fear and guilt – have dominated my life since I can remember.
So here we are. It’s the end of 2020 and I’m almost 35. I’ve read or DNF’d 62 books. My goal was 40. What happened, besides having more time?
I became motivated to read more because of a few things:
1. Numbers. I like crunching data and seeing progress. Goodreads provides a perfect place to track my reading and even get more recommendations. I forget things easily (maybe adult ADD? Who knows…) so Goodreads helps me remember a good book I saw or heard about.
2. Booktube. Yes, this year I finally bought a one-way ticket for a ride down the worm hole to Booktube. Some of my favorites are Peruse Project, Jen Campbell, Reading With Moe, and Elliot Brooks. One of the motivations for any activity that we humans have is community – not feeling left out. I love watching these women talk about the books they love, don’t love, and even about books they’ve written.
3. Conversations I have can have with others. I mentioned in an earlier post about how when you read, you have so much to talk about with other people! Even if you’re just talking about a genre that the other person doesn’t like, there’s bound to be something to connect about. Aaron and I have even opened up new conversations between us because now that I read fantasy, I know more of his “language” when it comes to books. Book clubs are fun, too!
4. Personal insight. Usually in every therapy session, my therapist asks what I’ve been reading. We talk about it, she gives me recommendations, and I’m left to think about a particular book’s influence on my life. Sometimes I surprise myself with the things that annoy me in a character, but then realize that those are also the same traits I dislike about myself. Or, I see a type of character in a new light, like a villain who had some sort of trauma that made them the way they are, and it sparks compassion. When we practice compassion or understanding with fictional characters, we can then transfer those attributes to real people in the real world.
5. Exposure to new ideas. A world where there is a magic system based on metals? (Allomancy in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn) A world where the guy who is hired to kill monsters is actually the most well-adjusted character? (The Witcher) A space suit made by and for humans? (Jack Glass) A memoir that discussed the possibilities of cultivating an urban garden? (Farm City) An epic love story where a woman travels through strange stones? (Outlander) These are all new ideas that are worth pondering and exploring more, at least for me. My world is expanded, even from sitting on my couch under x blankets, wishing for a pandemic to end.
I have no idea what 2021 will look like as far as reading is concerned. As demonstrated in my November reading posts, I am awful at planning what I will read besides the book club I’m in. I don’t want to the emotions of fear or guilt to spur me to read any book. I will be bringing in the new year with our local library’s winter reading challenge, which this year is accompanied by my other favorite activity – running. What’s better than that? Reading and then a run to either listen to a book or think about what I read? You decide.
In every story, there’s a baddie. A villain. And in an epic fantasy story, it’s a “dark one” or “evil one” who’s been around for a long time. They’re usually thousands of years old and have a secret to immortality.
No one thinks that the villian can ever be overthrown, or overpowered, or killed, or stopped. So society continues for hundreds, maybe even thousands of years, under this assumption and eventually becomes complacent.
And then there’s this person who comes along, the “chosen one” trope we know too well. And this person has the power somewhere deep down to overthrow the villian. We hope that they will, and we follow their epic perhaps through seven, ten, or fourteen volumes. We see their struggles, their trauma, their friendships and sometimes romances.
We see ourselves. And this is why epic fantasy is epic.
It speaks to the parts of us that have become complacent in our lives, under the “regime” of our mind. Our assumptions about ourselves. No, we aren’t enslaved by an evil dictator, at least not outwardly. But what about inwardly? Who really has control of your thoughts, feelings, and eventual actions?
I think it’s human nature to want someone else to come along as the chosen one to eradicate the bad guy. But let’s be real – it’s us that has to kill the villain.
For a book club that reads award-winning sci-fi and fantasy, I’m going to be reading Greenglass House, pictured above. It’s about an orphan who has been adopted by innkeepers and must figure out secrets of the inn. It’s set during winter, which is a perfect pick. I anticipate that it will be a fun read: it’s a seasonal one, and considered a middle grades book.
Now, about Sanderson. WOW. I finished Mistborn last night and tried to process some of it… but wow. I can’t wait to read Well of Ascension, for which I bit the bullet and ordered the hardcover. (I may or may not have already also ordered hard copies of The Final Empire and Hero of Ages.) I actually read most of this book via audiobook from my local library. I’ve been trying to get into audiobooks more. I generally was never a podcast or talk radio person, but being someone who likes to multitask (and do more crafting because of the season), I thought it was no skin off my back to listen. I also have taken to listening to books while I walk, and even while I run. The narrator of the Mistborn book, Michael Kramer, is fantastic. He does a great job of giving slightly different voices to the characters without going overboard. I usually speed it up… mostly it was at 1.25x, and last night when shit was REALLY hitting the fan, I sped it up to 1.5x.
Besides Greenglass House and the Well of Ascension, another series I want to get back into is Outlander. I’m due to read the fourth book, Drums of Autumn, which has been on my TBR for honestly months now. Part of me is terrified of the length of the book – some 900 pages – and part of me is terrified of getting my heart broken. But this is why we come back to the series we love, right? Because we have a stake in the characters’ fate. Because we see ourselves. That’s why I come back, at least.
As for the rest of my December reading, well, we’ll have to see. I have winter break at the end of the month, and obviously hope to spend much of that time reading in addition to dog cuddling, cooking, and crafting. Who knows… I may be into Stormlight Archive by 2021…
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.
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 readMagic 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.
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.
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.
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 español. 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.