bookish_musings   3

Heart Books
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Back when the book blogosphere was young, we would dream up lists of questions to ask each other, which would then do the rounds in true chain letter style. Being, as most bibliophiles are, an introspective, word-y type of person, I loved these. But there was one question that always troubled me: “What is a book that has changed your life?”

Now. Reading has certainly changed my life. Certain authors have done much to shape my beliefs. But a specific title, altering the course of my existence? I never had an answer, and I secretly worried that this lack meant something, something about whether books were truly powerful for me.

I have grown older, and more secure, since those days, and I no longer trouble myself over whether I’m a ‘real’ reader. I also now take a less literal view of that question. In spirit at least, I believe it’s asking “What is a book that has touched your soul?” And I have many such heart books, as I think of them.

Allow me to share one with you. Jane Austen’s Emma became a heart book for me in the fall of 2008, when I was twenty-two. My life, that I had so meticulously planned since I was seventeen, was beginning to derail, and I had no idea why. I burst into tears at least five times a day, and despite all of my outward signs of success and a promising future, inside I felt hopeless. So I turned to Austen, and Emma’s story suddenly became my own. Here was a young woman, just about my age, who also thought she had everything figured out, only to have her world turned upside down. The harder she tried to fix things, the more she seemed to mess things up. Emma’s fall from grace and her eventual recovery of it soothed the large part of me that was terrified I would destroy my entire future if I didn’t figure everything out right now. Austen’s gentle, loving portrayal of Emma allowed me to see myself in a kinder light. That was a profound gift, and ever since Emma has had a place in my heart.

All of this came to mind because I’m in the middle of a heart book right now: Sara Maitland’s From the Forest (also published as Gossip From the Forest). It’s a book I connected with in an instant, from a visceral place, and I now find myself reading just a chapter at a time to prolong the experience. It is teaching me truths about myself, truths I already half-knew but couldn’t quite articulate. It’s also breaking my heart, as I currently live in a forest-less land, but it’s worth it.

In the spirit of nostalgia, I’d like to ask all of you to name a heart book, either in comments here or on your own blog (do leave a link in the comments so I can come read your post). Pass it along, chain letter style, and let’s embrace those books that resonate with our truest, deepest selves. I know they can be difficult to talk about (I actually didn’t mention the one book that has most literally changed my life; perhaps in another few years I’ll be ready), because of course claiming a book as soul-touching bares at least a bit of your most vulnerable self to the world. Yet I believe that the much of magic of book blogging lies in that combination of the literary with the personal, and that we have built a community that is supportive enough for that to take place. I look forward to hearing your stories.
Bookish_Musings  GR-starred  from google
february 2013 by lacurieuse
I Read
I was reading Christina’s post on American Gods, and she shared the wonderful passage in which a character catalogues all of the things she can believe in. I adored that passage the first time I read it, when I was still in high school, copied it out in all of my journals & even had it on a wall collage (I had tiny writing back then). At one point, I suspect I had most of it memorised. And so, in a little homage to it and my teenaged self and of course to Neil Gaiman, I thought it would be fun to re-imagine the monologue as a reader instead of believer. You know what? It was even more fun that I expected. Feel free to do it yourself: I’d love to see everyone else’s take! The following is mine, although it is by no means an exhaustive list. And certainly read it with a ‘tongue in cheek’ tone in mind at certain passages, although I refrained from typing any winking smiley faces. I thought it was about time I learned to trust my readers as my favourite authors do!

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I can read fiction and nonfiction and I can read things that nobody knows if they’re fiction or not.

I can read novels and essays and short stories and factual accounts and even poetry now and again. Listen-I read plots with epic quests, plots with tragic heroes, plots that require dark family secrets to stay hidden until the final pages, predictable plots who promise me the lovers will end up together, plots revealed by clever detectives, plots so realistic they could be going on next door, fantastical plots, the magical realist kind and the traditional kind with elves or bards or made-up gods with terrible flaws and weird names, and even books with no plot at all but fascinating characters or wild theories growing with every page.

I read novels to live other lives and I read novels to learn about my own life and I read novels because they’re so damn good I don’t need a better reason. I read nonfiction because truth can be stranger than fiction, because the world is full of rich and amazing and heartbreaking things, and because someone has to bear witness.

I read popular science to learn about the wonders of the ebola virus and the origins of the universe and how to track birds flying overhead. I read history to snoop on people’s lives and I read religion to snoop on people’s beliefs and I even read neuroscience to snoop on people’s brains. I read books about books for the meta thrill of it all. I read women’s studies to discover the quiet, domestic lives history pushed to the margins and to discover powerful women who changed history but were then edited out in revenge and to discover what women are doing all over the planet today. And I read books written about men, because they’re half the world too and can get up to some interesting things.

I read Caribbean lit because it’s never let me down and Scandinavian lit because I love the cold and Indian lit because it entrances me. I read books by authors of colour because I reject the privilege that would let me ignore them and because my life is so much richer for it. I read as a political act and I read as a private pleasure and I read as a gesture of friendship and belonging; sometimes, it’s even the same book.

I read contemporary authors because they are wonderful and I read older authors because they are wonderful too. I read prose so baroque the author must have needed scaffolding, and I read sturdy prose whose charm is its simplicity, and I love it all. I read books set in the future and books set in the past and books set in the present but their present is my past, books set in my time or other people’s time or imaginary time.

I read books with pinpoint focus who delight in the tiniest detail and books who sprawlingly depict a broader canvas. I read books with so many characters they come with diagrams in the front, I read books so overflowing they need foot notes, I read books that come with maps for me to follow along with, I read books with indexes and end notes longer than the main body. I read slim books and regular books and giant books that could serve as weapons if I ever needed them to. So far I haven’t. I read books printed on paper and books encoded in data files and books read aloud by professionals in studios. I read books from the library and books I get as gifts and used books with other people’s bookmarks still inside and new books who smell fresh and whose spines are impossibly crisp.

I read books because I’ve read them before, because I love their author, because other readers love them, because they seem related to my other reading, because they’re about a favourite subject or beloved genre, because I’ve never read anything like them before, because I want to talk about them, because my library catalogue search went wrong and turned them up, because they have pretty covers or interesting titles or simply from whimsy.

I read books sitting in my giant chair and I read books lying in bed and I read books in cafes and hospital waiting rooms and airplanes and on park benches.

I read books I agree with and books I disagree with and books I think are crazy, books that give me goosebumps they touch a truth so deep within me and books that make me screech in rage. I read books with characters just like me and books with characters I wish I was like and books with characters I’d never want to be in a million years and books with characters who are clearly just mouthpieces for the authors. I read books that end just how I hoped they would and books that end just how I feared they would and books whose endings never seem to arrive.

I read books that comfort me and books that challenge me, books that entertain me and books that bore me, books that delight me and books that infuriate me, books that confound my every expectation and books that disappoint me. I read because I love to, because I need to, because reading has shaped me into a woman I am proud to be. But most of all, I read because I cannot begin to imagine a life without books. I am a reader, for good and for bad, for always.
Bookish_Musings  GR-starred  from google
january 2013 by lacurieuse
Sunday Salon: On Labelling Books
Recently, I decided it was about time I started using LibraryThing as my default to-be-read list. So I instituted a new system, in which I just bookmark any posts/websites/library catalogue records that catch my eye, popping them into a special folder. Then, when I’m in the mood for my audiobook, I’ll listen and go through the links, adding them to my LT wish list. This has worked remarkably well, and I wish I’d started it years ago! Oh well, live and learn. Anyway, this provided a catalyst for sorting out how to label my reads: on LT, although it’s slightly unwieldy, I include the author’s nationality and, if relevant, the blog I heard about it from. Other than that, I needed to decide how to distinguish the fiction and nonfiction. At first, I thought I’d get whimsically specific, including labels like ‘ghosts’ (my equivalent of Anne Fadiman’s Arctic explorers shelf) or ‘natural history.’ But then I realised how unwieldy all of those labels would eventually become, especially in my list-obsessive desire to categorise everything. So I approached it from the other side: when I’m choosing a book to read, what ‘types’ of books do I crave? That way, my wish list would actually work for me and facilitate my various reading moods.

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I ended up with five fiction categories (I just copied & pasted the descriptions from my review directories page): Fiction Written Before 1950 (essentially, classics but without the baggage that label carries for some), Suspense Fiction (a book whose plot is a major focus and/or has a frightening atmosphere, e.g. mysteries, thrillers, horror, gothic, etc.), Imaginative Fiction (a book that includes elements you don’t encounter in everyday life, e.g. high fantasy, urban fantasy, magical realism, sci-fi, etc.), Historical Fiction (a book set at least a generation earlier than the author writing it, which includes classics such as Les Miserables), and Modern Fiction (a book written in 1950 or later without any imaginative, historical, or suspenseful elements.). The latter is obviously more a catch-all tag than anything, but these broadly cover my favourite ‘styles’ of fiction.

For non-fiction, I borrowed inspiration from the way my college divided its majors (each big group had its own building) and then added one: Humanities (topics such as history, art, philosophy, religion, and literature, aka ‘books about books’), Social Sciences (topics such as international relations, anthropology, economics, and social justice), Natural Sciences (topics such as biology, astronomy, chemistry, and medicine), and Personal Nonfiction (nonfiction written primarily from the author’s subjective viewpoint, such as memoirs and travelogues). That last one is important for me; I find memoirs to be a hazy area in between fiction and nonfiction anyway.

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And then, I was so delighted with my new, svelte labelling system that I decided to bring it over to my blog! Of course, anyone subscribed via a feed reader knows that, since my changes to posts’ categories resulted in many of them being ‘published’ at once in my feed. This was embarrassing, but still worth it: every time I look at my categories list now to label a post, I smile. My old categories list arose randomly (organically would be more charitable) over time, and its lack of governing logic showed. Now, the categories reflect my actual approach to reading: sometimes I’m in the mood for a natural science book, other times I’m craving some imaginative fiction. The fiction categories specifically were inspired more by ‘feeling’ than by traditional genres, which works well for me since I find the divide between ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ fiction absurd. And it’s easy to include books in more than one category; for instance Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell would be both historical and imaginative. The point is: I feel these labels work for me and facilitate my reading without forcing any books into too-constrictive categories. And they make adding books to my wish list (currently at four hundred thirty-three titles) even more fun! And there’s still room for a whim or two; on the blog I saved my old women’s studies category, which I plan on adding to my LT system. And I’m sure a ‘ghost’ category will appear one of these days as well. ;)

Do you use categories/tags/etc. on your blog or when cataloguing your books? What approach do you take to them? What are your most-used labels?

And now on to the books I’ve read this week that I won’t be able to do full posts on…as you can see, I’m still reading up a storm!

Read Becoming a Heroine by Rachel Brownstein if…you’re interested in the relationship between woman and novels and/or you enjoy reading smart literary analyses of classics.

Read The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot if…you don’t have the time for a reread of Middlemarch, enjoy atypical Victorian heroines, are drawn towards sharp portrayals of the ills of patriarchy, and don’t mind a discordant ending.

Read Swami and Friends by R. K. Narayan if…you have a soft spot for classic coming-of-age schoolboy stories and you’re interested to see this British staple translated in one of its colonies.

Read Hijas Americanas by Rosie Molinary if…you’re a Latina living in the US and curious about your fellow Latinas and/or in need of encouragement.

Read The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters if…you’re in the mood for a rich, gothic ghost story that lends itself to multiple readings.

Read Sister Pelagia and the Black Monk by Boris Akunin if…you’re not easily offended by gender stereotypes and a ‘maybe she wants it’ attempted rape scene or if you don’t mind your murder mysteries completely muddled.

Read The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart if…you’re curious about early 20th century mysteries or have a soft spot for spinster sleuth/narrators and aren’t bothered by all the devices of a classic potboiler.

Read The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins if…you love Collins, or Victorian sensationalism, or are collecting ‘stories by Brits set in Venice’ but want a quick taste instead of an epic read (it’s only 150 pages long).

Read Inheritance by Lan Samantha Chang if…you’re curious to see how every stereotype possible of a Chinese American woman writing historical fiction set in 20th century China can fit in one story.
Book_Reviews  Bookish_Musings  Books_I_Loved  Books_I_Really_Liked  Fiction  Historical  Humanities  Non-Fiction  Social_Sciences  Suspense  Women's_Studies  Written_Before_1950  from google
june 2011 by lacurieuse

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book_reviews  books_i_loved  books_i_really_liked  fiction  gr-starred  historical  humanities  non-fiction  social_sciences  suspense  women's_studies  written_before_1950 

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