Adventures in royalty

Sassy bloggers Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan from gofugyourself.com brought us this gem of a novel. 452 pages long, this journey into what many people on Goodreads are calling “Kate Middleton fan-fiction” is well-worth the investment (although admittedly, I read it in two and a half days). I’m impressed with the amount of research it took to write this, and there were so many parts I wanted to read aloud to anyone who would listen (which is no one – I know this doesn’t work from trying to perform what I thought were hilarious read alouds of David Sedaris to uninterested, happenstance bystanders).

This novel contained far too much melodrama, and the constant roadblocks got tiresome, but I suppose it’s realistic to have these features with such an unlikely tale about a tomboy, Midwest American marrying a perfect, handsome, and gracious prince.

Podcasts be trillin

Like most of America, last fall I became helplessly addicted to Serial. Once it was over, I felt bereft and also befuddled: how did I live my life before podcasts?

As someone who uses public transportation to and from work every day, I found this new way to ingest information shockingly addictive. Thus began my journey. I’ve been able to dive deeply into various interests with podcasts about movies (Filmspotting, Grantland Pop Culture), story-telling (This American LifeSerial when Season 2 begins), pop culture and race politics (The Read), and comedy (Comedy Bang Bang, Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me, and Gilmore Guys).

I never thought I’d find decent podcasts about my primary love – reading – until I did.

  1. Dear Bitches, Smart Authors from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books is a weekly Friday release from a romance-reader community. They interview authors and also ruminate on important questions, like why do we have to use the word “strong” to describe female characters? We certainly never call a man a “strong male” character. I appreciate this brilliant, savvy community of women.
  2. Book Riot is a talk/news show about books, reading, and publishing in general. It’s been fodder for my already pretty passionate beliefs about the lack of women and people of color that get published and/or accolades. They present stories and research to back this up convincingly, and it’s refreshing to hear people not making excuses for why everyone is so obsessed with white male authors. Also, their debate on whether or not Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchmen will sell more books than E.L. James’s Beyonce-album-like release of Grey is hilarious.
  3. All The Books is a spin-off from Book Riot. It’s a 30-minute weekly show discussing that week’s book releases. This podcast has been BAD for my wallet, so I’ve put a moratorium on buying anything they discuss for at least a week or until I’ve heard about it somewhere else too.

Like any persistent ideologue, I clearly seek out things that seemingly affirm my already pretty tight-held beliefs. While none of these podcasts are on the same level of bias as some things, I recognize that it’s easy to plug into stuff that I know I’ll agree with. That being said, I try to be a healthy skeptic and also take some walks home without anything in my ears at all.

Sections in a book store

“Sections in the bookstore
– Books You Haven’t Read
– Books You Needn’t Read
– Books Made for Purposes Other Than Reading
– Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong to the Category of Books Read Before Being Written
– Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered
– Books You Mean to Read But There Are Others You Must Read First
– Books Too Expensive Now and You’ll Wait ‘Til They’re Remaindered
– Books ditto When They Come Out in Paperback
– Books You Can Borrow from Somebody
– Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too
– Books You’ve Been Planning to Read for Ages
– Books You’ve Been Hunting for Years Without Success
– Books Dealing with Something You’re Working on at the Moment
– Books You Want to Own So They’ll Be Handy Just in Case
– Books You Could Put Aside Maybe to Read This Summer
– Books You Need to Go with Other Books on Your Shelves
– Books That Fill You with Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified
– Books Read Long Ago Which It’s Now Time to Re-read
– Books You’ve Always Pretended to Have Read and Now It’s Time to Sit Down and Really Read Them”

– Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler

Community of Readers’ and Writers’ Contract

During my stint as a middle school reading and writing teacher, I began each year with an introduction to the Community of Readers’ and Writers’ Contract. Like many younger grade teachers, I took my role as a taste-maker and trend-setter very seriously. If they didn’t fall in love with books and/or writing now, when would it happen? Plus, I had most of my fun obsessing over modeling a love of books.

Seemingly simple tenets, they all come from different places–different students I taught, professional developments I attended, or adult readers I respected. It’s very surprising to me how much this Contract guides my thinking and feeling about books today.

In a community, we…

  1. Find ourselves as readers – I’m guessing you could tell people what you love… but can you? What would you say? Would you cite authors? Genres? Topics? You should know, and you should be adamant about it. I’m still figuring this out myself.
  2. Respect and encourage others for their levels and interests – Less relevant for adults, though something I often have to remind myself of just in life. Passing judgment is bad (obviously), and something I need to work on.
  3. Recommend books – I obviously have no problems doing this myself. Nothing is more gratifying than soliciting a positive review about a book you’ve recommended. On the flip side, I take earnest recommendations very seriously. If I weren’t open-minded to this, I’d have missed out on at least half of my favorites-of-all-time list.
  4. Talk about books – This is a deep-seated need for me. There have been books I’ve thought about long after I’ve finished them, and sitting alone to ponder is highly unsatisfying and yes, perhaps, a bit lonely. I like to be told I’m wrong sometimes (shocking, I know), but it is only from others that I am allowed the chance to challenge my preconceptions and assumptions and think of things in an entirely new way. I process things myself through talking, and this is almost always necessary after reading a great book.
  5. Appreciate language – Not just relevant for poetry (though maybe some think that – I certainly did at one point). Every book is not going to teem with life-changing similes and metaphors, but writers become writers for a reason. Maybe it’s to share an agenda, make you cry, make themselves money, or release their own emotions, but at the most basic level, they are putting together words you didn’t think to put together yourself. And that’s pretty awesome.
  6. Pay attention to authors, genres, and topics – A part of the Contract that mostly makes sense in conjunction with agreement #1. If you aren’t attentive to and reflective of the choices you make (and why), you will never “find yourself” as a reader.
  7. Try new things – My favorite and most frequently invoked agreement of all. I recently read ZW by Zadie Smith, an author who hovered on my radar screen since early high school. I ended up slogging through it and almost abandoning it more than once but persevered for a book club. Saying I was happy that I read it would be an overstatement, but I did glean a very profound sense of accomplishment. I will most likely never read a book by Zadie Smith again, but I tried something new and showed a certain dedication that leaves me feeling very satisfied. This book did make me think, and I’ve read several things lately that have prompted new thoughts because of ZW. This also is closely tied with #2 and #3 – if I’m respecting others for their levels and interests and taking their recommendations, I might read something completely life altering. Lastly, if I return to the same authors and the same genres, I become lost in them. I begin to lose my perspective on why I love what I love, and what I read becomes mechanical and almost rote. I lose my enthusiasm. I’m very purposeful in my balance of choosing something familiar right after having read something brand new.
  8. Lend books to each other (and respectfully borrow) – I’m lousy at this. I can count at least four books I have on my shelves that don’t belong to me. Why am I such a jerk? Better yet, I’m missing copies of two books right now that I want back from others. Damn it. This agreement needs some work.
  9. Write about what we read – This is something I haven’t done since college and am attempting to accomplish here. Whether or not others find this to be interesting is of course to be determined, but it gives me new purpose and helps me process internally in a way that is lost from just talking to someone or simply thinking alone.

The best part of being a part of a community is diversity of voices and the fact that you are not alone. If it’s a forced community – like a classroom – there are so many possibilities and challenges to making it great. If it’s a chosen community – like a book club or a group of friends – the potential satisfaction and joy is limitless.

www.goodreads.com

“You are what you read,” said somebody somewhere once.

I don’t know what I did or who I was before I started using Goodreads. When stumbling around a book store, I whip out my phone, click on the Goodreads app, choose the ‘scan’ function, and begin assaulting every bar code on any book that looks remotely worthwhile for the thrill of an instant rating aggregated from hundreds or thousands of readers around the world. Why put my phone on silent, you might ask. Well, when you use the scan feature, it makes an inordinately loud sound that penetrates the ears most unpleasantly. And some book stores ban scanning with a phone.

You see, the Amazon app has a similar scan feature, and book store owners assume you are looking that book up on Amazon so that you can order it at a cheaper price and avoid supporting that book store instead. Little do these people know that I spend more money on books than I do anything else except perhaps my rent and manicures. I’m an easy mark and guaranteed customer.

People often tease me and insinuate I am a slave to others’ opinions by putting so much stock in a Goodreads rating. Or rather, I no longer have a mind of my own and can’t decide for myself what I should choose to read. To them I want to say many things, but instead I comfort myself with the knowledge that I know no one who reads in the volumes that I do, and it pays to be discerning in what I will spend my time on.

I will read anything that comes with 1) a sincere recommendation from someone I like (often, “I read it in one sitting,” “I couldn’t put it down,” or “I still think about it today”) and 2) a rating above a 4.0 on Goodreads. My book twin friend mentioned that to me once as a make-or-break factor in book shopping, and it’s something I subscribe to today.

I have spent more time than I care to admit clicking down the rabbit hole on Goodreads. If a book is on a shelf, and you loved that book, the shelf it is on will often contain things you’ll also enjoy. Plus there is a “Readers also enjoyed” section that is uncannily accurate with its suggestions. 

I love reading books of all kinds – romance, mystery, non-fiction, young adult, children’s, philosophy, poetry, science fiction, historical fiction… well, you get it. And Goodreads has inspired me to Try New Things (one of my commandments of reading – another post, for another time) much more than I ever have before in my life.

Another function I enjoy is that if I’m interested in a book, I can see what others who I am friends with thought about it. I can see their star rating and any review they wrote. This has been hugely important due to the fact that I have some pretty smart friends who are much different from me and some who are very similar to me. Some of them have even more exposure to new books and suggestions than I do, and it informs my decision-making a great deal.

Lastly, I am able to set a yearly reading goal and track it. People who are acquainted with me are 100% sick of hearing me update them about this and/or priding myself on my progress. It has much less to do with achieving a number and is much more about reflecting on what a year brought me and how I can divide up my reading by time in life, what else it inspired me to pick up, and the sheer joy of exploring different worlds, people, and stories in a given time period. I’m going to read that much anyway, to be completely and utterly honest, and I might as well track it.

I will continue my campaign to spread Goodreads to anyone who will listen. I will continue to track – and reach – the goals I set for myself. And I will continue to surreptitiously scan like a ninja in the book stores I wander into in pursuit of the Next Great Read.

The Non-Fiction Test

“There were so many other amazing things in this world.

They opened up inside of me like a river. Like I didn’t know I could take a breath and then I breathed. I laughed with the joy of it, and the next moment I was crying my first tears on the PCT. I cried and I cried and I cried. I wasn’t crying because I was happy. I wasn’t crying because I was sad. I wasn’t crying because of my mother or my father or Paul. I was crying because I was full. Of those fifty-some hard days on the trail and of the 9,760 days that had come before them too.

I was entering. I was leaving. California streamed behind me like a long silk veil. I didn’t feel like a big fat idiot anymore. And I didn’t feel like a hard-ass motherfucking Amazonian queen. I felt fierce and humble and gathered up inside, like I was safe in this world too.” – Wild by Cheryl Strayed

wild

I feel very fortunate to have fallen in love with non-fiction-for-pleasure reading. It wasn’t until after college when I joined a book club that alternated monthly between fiction and non-fiction that I (mostly) voluntarily read non-fiction that didn’t count for anything school-related. I feel that when I meet people, they are exclusive to one or the other, and I always found myself envious of people who were so adamant about non-fiction being their go-to choice. What’s the fun in that, I thought. Where’s the magic? So, when I was forced by a group of people I liked and respected, I began my journey with this book, and what a journey it began.

I have so far learned a few lessons on my journey:

1) Memoirs are kind of like cheating on this notion of presenting fact. They have all the drama of fiction with very little research that so often accompanies non-fiction, and they allow the author the chance to be, well, creative. Just ask this guy or this guy. It takes the idea of the unreliable narrator to a whole new place – except this time, we’re supposed to mostly accept it as fact.

2) I don’t necessarily learn much more from reading non-fiction than fiction. Fiction can relay similar enduring understandings about our past, present, future – about our hearts, minds, and trends in society. This was a comforting realization, but I realize that it only underscores my bias toward fiction… so I don’t allow myself to use this to talk myself out of picking up a non-fiction book.

3) When reflecting on whether or not I like a non-fiction book, I’ve developed The Non-Fiction Test. It’s quite simple: is an entire book necessary, or could this have just made a really good article? Books that have failed this test: Moonwalking with EinsteinThe Happiness Project, and The Big Short. These are all books that contain incredible research, not cringe-worthy writing, and food for thought I still consider often today. But, I sincerely believe I could have gotten the gist with a long article. I still think Malcolm Gladwell is in this category, and in no way does this diminish his effect/influence as a writer and thinker. His books are mostly stories – couldn’t we just hear one, his thesis, and be done with it?

Books that have passed this with flying colors: Bringing up Bebe, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (my first experience reading Sedaris is a story for another time), Unbroken, and The Cuckoo’s Egg. These are books I’d even go back and re-read one day, if not for the stories then for the research and/or life lessons I still remember and draw upon very regularly.

I realize this Test is biased toward memoirs – it’s impossible to capture a life story and/or satisfying, life-changing experience in an article… but so what? This Test has helped me to reflect on my non-fiction reading in a way that makes sense to me.

All this is said to describe why I loved and would recommend with great enthusiasm the memoir by Cheryl Strayed Wild: from Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. I was hesitant to pick it up with the fear that it’d be another Eat, Pray, Love saga that would annoy me but secretly interest me and make me hate myself for it. Instead, I discovered some truly beautiful prose, heart-breaking sorrow, and great triumph unlike what any fiction writer could fabricate. Sure, she’s egotistical, kind of stupid at times, and so pretentious as to change her last name to reflect her mostly ridiculous life decisions. But, hot damn, she is good with words. I was sucked into her brain and not willing to leave it. I have other thoughts on what it means to write a memoir and how this affects people in the memoir, but that can be left for another time. I’ll leave on this note: Reese Witherspoon plays her in the film to be released in December, and count me in for opening weekend.

Paris, Je T’aime

This is a book about a young woman who gets reluctantly sent to school in Paris to finish off her high school years. She meets and falls in love with a boy named Etienne St. Claire; however, he is already in a relationship. The love triangle is the main focus here, but the images and sites of Paris consumed me in a way a book about Some Other Place hasn’t in a long, long time. I immediately picked up its sequels: Lola and the Boy Next Door and Isla and the Happily Ever After. It wasn’t until Isla that I realized how desperately I was in love – not with the writing, the characters, or the romance stories (indeed, the love triangle was re-hashed in Lola, and who really needs that melodrama) – but the setting in Paris. There were such explicit descriptions of so many landmarks, food, music, and people. The inclusion of it being in a school setting most likely enhanced my love for it. I love learning, and I love being around learning.

I had an experience in college where I heard this song drifting through my windows, and it was a moment I haven’t forgotten, even seven or eight years later. There’s something about beautiful music you haven’t purposefully chosen surrounding you that is incredibly magical. So, Isla hears this song while sitting in her dorm in much the same fashion:

 

While finding this song on Spotify and playing it – loudly – I became overwhelmed with a longing I didn’t understand. I’ve been to Paris. Twice. Which is two more times than the average person I’ve met. Don’t get me wrong; both trips were tremendous, and my trip after 8th grade is most certainly why I deeply appreciate art today. However, I never felt this kind of longing before for it. I’ve felt it for Italy, Madison, the Bay Area, and Chicago – all when I lived somewhere else.

It launched a very earnest search for French songs to listen to, more books to read set in Paris, and even inspired me to finally watch this DVD from Netflix I’d had since March.

Who knows what inspires us – what, why, and when – but I plan to play this mini obsession out for a bit longer.