mediocre reader

I read plenty.

But I’ve long come to accept that reading voluminously doesn’t necessarily make me a better reader. A quantity reader, perhaps, who has so little patience for the thought behind the words that I would read articles for class two or three times through just to understand what the conclusive points were.

I think perhaps, reading taste has trained my reading mind in certain ways that fit very well with one style of writing– action! Dialogue! Intrigue!

But books with blocks of theory and introspection require careful reading, which upsets my concentration, and sends it wandering into dreamland.

I never liked exposition much, I suppose.

This stylistic preference isn’t new to anyone who enjoys reading and also has had some kind of English class. But I’ve found myself reading and collecting more and more books– some quite serious tomes on history, philosophy, sociology because I’m an incurable nerd, but while those sit next to my bedside watching over my sleep with stern, urgent miens, I’ve spent most of my time guiltily reading through the torrid romance and action-fantasy ebooks borrowed from the library. That’s not a hundred percent true– I don’t feel guilty at all for reading them; mostly I feel guilty for not giving my unread stack of semi-academic literature equal attention, I suppose.

Even now, I sneak glances at my bedside table and swear not to start a new book until I can move one from my unread pile.

But to be perfectly honest, I’m already browsing the latest additions to the sci-fi murder mystery stuff at the library.

Oh well. Reading is reading is reading!




Into the Greeeeeeeey

I crossed another long-time to-read book off my list with Into the Grey by Celine Kiernan. I guess I stumbled onto a recommended YA list awhile back, because my to-read is currently chock full of them, easily crowding out any other genre. YA is great though. Authors who write good YA are incredible– how they pack such effective and thrilling storytelling into such complete, readable packages, I don’t know. But I hope, one day, to learn.

Into the Grey is a fast read, a punchy and eerie story about a young boy who finds himself in over his head when he and his twin brother start being haunted by a terrifying goblin-boy ghost. Of course, things aren’t always what they seem, and truth is far less scary and more heartbreakingly mournful than anything else.

Maybe since I read it as an ebook, the book felt more novella-ish. It was those sorts where there is one story to tell, in which one pivotal event takes place, and the narration flies through at a rapid pace. You are dropped in and swept along, rather than cajoled sweetly into the story, which isn’t necessarily bad. I enjoyed its briskness, which was a nice break from some of the other things I’ve been reading.

There were a few nuances I wasn’t sure I understood, and definitely a few that probably flew right over my head. It mostly has to do with the setting and characters, who are Irish? or of Irish descent? During the height of tensions between the IRA and the UK. I imagine knowing a bit more about that, and social tensions during that time may help with the subtleties.

Now, I must tackle a million more tasks– I’ve got several books to read, for pleasure, for work, for inspiration, and I also need to take out the trash. While the summer heat and humidity hasn’t made the kitchen can unbearable just yet, I’m afraid it’s creeping up on that line and about to roll right over it. Thank goodness NYC has started organic recycling; I’ve taken to keeping my organic waste bucket in the fridge, where at least, it won’t contribute to the overall fug of Hot Kitchen Sink.

frustraaaation and aaaaagony

Job hunting is a job all to itself. My nice, sunny Sunday got off to a late start after I somehow slept in until 11– has not happened in many, many months. Maybe it’s weird jet lag kicking in on the one day it could afford to? I’d hoped to get some freelance work out of the way in the morning. As it was, by the time I had fed and watered myself sufficiently, it was already early afternoon. Still, I made some time to walk down to one of the fancy nurseries in Williamsburg, and have now added purple sage and lemon verbena to my increasingly crowded little balcony herb garden. I also shook up the nearly-expired heavy cream so now I’ve got some buttermilk and butter in the fridge. Maybe tomorrow I’ll pick up some pork chops and fry up some sage in butter to go with it.

Of course, I came back and continued to agonize over cover letters and resumes and tracking down job listings. If anyone ever wants to take down someone’s ego a few notches, I suggest reading job listings out loud and pairing that with silent, skeptical smirks at appropriate intervals.

Well, in any case, one of my freelance projects involves a lot of research, so I finally dropped by the local library this week and got myself a library card. I managed to find Maggie Stiefvater’s The Dream Thieves there, and so duly tore through it like gangbusters. It probably helped me get past jet lag, since I ended up fighting off sleep for another four hours until I turned the final page. Then, in my feverish quest to track down the third book, I stumbled upon the realization that the library also has ebook downloads.

Friends, that was a terrible and thrilling discovery.

So, yes. I ripped through the third book (Blue Lily, Lily Blue) the following day as well.

Overall, I felt the second book lived up to expectations, and was far better than the first– though that’s a little unfair. Reading all three so close in time makes it quite clear that the books operate with more clarity if you pretend it’s one book, broken into four chunks (like the Game of Thrones series, I guess), rather than four separate books.

But the second book. The second book is by far my favorite so far, not because we get to know more about the snarly cuddly ragefest of Ronan Lynch and his personal issues (which, no spoilers, but I love how understated certain aspects of his life and relationships are written. Also his cavalier defenestration of a good friend.), but because of the appearance of the severely underrated Gray Man. I think reading his perspective chapters were the first time in the series that I laughed out loud. His utter pragmatism and unflappable good-naturedness in spite of everything everywhere is an absolute joy for me.

I’ve got little else to say about the series for now, since I think a lot of my final thoughts will round out only upon conclusion.

planes, trains, automobiles

There is nothing like a lot of hurry-up-and-wait that characterizes modern-day traveling to catch up on some reading. I went on vacation for a few weeks, spending fourteen days prowling the streets of Denmark, Germany, and Austria and happily taking the opportunity to play tourist and eat as much currywurst as I could possibly stand.
It was probably just as well that I headed home when I did; I think I was in very close danger to falling irredeemably head-over-heels for Germany and never wanting to leave, despite not understanding a lick of the language.
On my way to the schlosses and the burgs, the biergartens and markts, I knocked a few books off my reading list. Well, that’s stretching the truth a little– I ended up bringing books I’d broken my book-buying moratorium for, but to be fair, they’d been on my to-read list for ages.

The Bees by Laline Paull
Imagine the traditional dystopian novel, about hierarchical societies, memory, free will, creepy and all-powerful religious authorty, and uh, clones, I guess. Now imagine that everyone is bees. That’s pretty much the entire premise of Paull’s novel. And believe me, that makes all the difference between me being UTTERLY bored and UTTERLY fascinated. Because Paull’s story about a fictional beehive and the rise of a worker bee Flora is both familiar and mind-bogglingly alien. It’s the difference between reading an article about the possibility of extraterrestial life and watching E.T. And while there have always been anthropomorphized books about animals, I’d never read one quite like this. It’s not exactly charming, like A Bug’s Life or Nemo, nor cynical and satiric like Animal Farm. Rather, The Bees is an eerie, almost dreamy immersion into a meticulously articulated bee’s life and culture, carefully expressed and translated through traditional science fiction, so that the reader recognizes narrative cues, but is constantly aware that, whether as consciously as presented in the book or not, comparable events do happen in the lifespan of a bee hive. Now I’m afraid I harbor a secret desire to become a beekeeper so that I may spy on those tiny fliers and learn more about their secret lives.
I zipped through the book, which was imminently readable and finished it far more quickly than I wished. The book wraps up well, and I love that I finished the book wondering about collective memory, a hive’s life cycle, and if the book’s story was a tale of a single beehive, or of all of them. Delicious.

My second book I brought along was Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton, which I’d had my eye on for awhile. I love food literature and chef and restaurant memoirs, so when I saw it on sale at McNally Jacksons, I lunged for it, making for a particularly ugly moment in my life where I nearly booted a total stranger away and down the stairs in my haste. It’s an enjoyable read, which I wrapped up on the Eurorail. If you’ve read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, there’s no especial surprises when you read about Hamilton’s early experiences working in the food industry– it does read more individually than as a tribute to restaurant life. What really stood out for me were the writings about food and family– the first section about Hamilton’s own eclectic childhood with an artist father and French ex-ballerina mother, and the final about her in-laws were by far the most satisfying parts of the book, and I wish I’d understood how central Hamilton’s search for family and belonging was to the book before I began reading. I guess I’d been expecting a lot of recipes, with a lot of blood and bones and butter. It’s more of a story about how food can frame relationships and entire periods of someone’s life. Aside from a few stylistic quirks that had my inner editor itching for a red pen, I enjoyed it. Like any memoir of the complicated and messy human experience, there were some looses ends and plenty of bittersweet tangs, though that isn’t a bad thing. I think it made her writing and experiences easier to relate with. I hear the book’s been optioned for a movie, and I hope that they do a decent job with it.

The third and final book I had with me was The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, which I had an ebook of. As the first book in a series, it carries a lot of pressure to pitch a world and end-goal to its audience, without overexplaining, I guess. But I had to keep checking (on my spotty internet access…) whether or not I’d gotten the first book, and not the second, or third. The main character, Blue, is a good gateway character to follow as events unfold. The problem was that Stiefvater also wrote from the perspective of a few others, including the other main character, Gansey, which was where I became confused. To be fair, I don’t read as thoroughly on digital formats as I do with paperbacks– I tend to skim a little more quickly when it comes to ebooks, so the confusion is probably 70% my own fault. I just felt that while Blue was a very natural point-of-view to follow the evolution of the story, Gansey required you to be paying attention and reading in between lines and making educated guesses.
The book essentially introduces Blue, a non-psychic born into a family of psychics (an awesome quartet or quintet of lady characters, who deserve their own book or show on the Lifetime network), who is destined to kill her true love (or some combination of kissing, killing, death, love, etc. etc., I probably should have paid better attention, since it seems to be a defining characteristic) and has so far dealt with this dire prophesy by cheerfully going about her life without letting romance bother her too much. This resolution becomes challenged when she runs into a group of boys from a local private school called Aglionby, led by the charismatic Gansey, who is obsessed with some obscure bit of Celtic mythology and ley lines, and has been on a quest to find a magically preserved Welsh king, which, for highly dubious reasons, somehow wound up in rural Virginia (??). There’s murders and mysteries and random displays of obscene wealth as well as the odd bit of truly weird shit, and I guess some romantic overtures and burgeoning love triangle (quartet? Quintet?) that won’t bear fruit for another few books, which is the least interesting part of narrative anyways, so no loss there.
More interesting (and more relevant, probably) is the discussions about social inequality and wealth disparities. Which is kind of a weird thing to bring up about when talking about YA urban fantasy/paranormal romance, but as other reviewers have noted, it’s easily one of the book’s more notable qualities. Adam, the scholarship kid, is arguably more compelling a protagonist than Gansey because his own struggle, his personal quest, his motivations to succeed rise above his abusive and poor family life without relying on anyone but himself, are significantly more grounded than Gansey’s mystical near-death experience that somehow leads him on his bizarre and geographically-misplaced search for blah blah king. While Gansey only became more real to me after his own mental grappling with rich-boy guilt and privilege are shown, with real world consequences. Yeah, I know that the WHOLE POINT of this series is about Gansey’s mystical search and its consequences, but I could not care less– give me a solid brick about the shenanigans of Blue’s family of eccentric psychics and Adam’s search for independence while Gansey dives into educating himself about rich, white, male privilege, and I’ll be satisfied. I’m aware I may not have the most popular opinion here, but, eh.
As for the other two private school boys, one is the traditional bad boy (Ronan– think dead-“sexy”-but-completely-uncharming Sirius Black, brother issues and all) and Noah (the creepy shut in, who is actually far creepier than you’d even expect, and who, by the way, ended up being my favorite of the boys). I’m less convinced of the former’s attractiveness as a character, since there’s not much complexity to Ronan yet beyond implied tragic past and hints of weird magic bollocks, and I’ve long left behind the one-dimensional Byronic anti-hero phase of my life (alright, more like only a year ago, but after Tim Riggins in Friday Night Lights, there honestly will never be room for another bad-boy-w-heart-of-gold in my life). But I hear character development picks up a little more in the next few books, which is promising.
The first book was not as satisfying as it could have (should have?) been. I suppose I’m more traditional– I like books in a series that have definite beginnings and ends. Books should be able to stand on their own, so that you could pick up any book in a series and have a completely satisfactory narrative sequence, even if the details may escape you. The Raven Boys has a weak conclusion (imho), but mostly because the first book is setting everything up for the following three other books, at the detriment of some of the narrative elements of this first part. I feel like if Blue’s perspective, and her own family mystery and dealings with her shady aunt Neeve were the focus, instead of attention being split between her and the Aglionby boys, it would be a more coherent and satisfying reading experience. But I guess massive loose threads and etc. sells books– it worked on me. I headed to my local bookshop first chance upon return to scour the shelves for the sequel (I was unsuccessful! which may explain my disgruntled review, ha).

I just realized as I added tags to this post that all three books were from women writers. That just reminded me of the recent cry for publishing more women authors, and this small press’s challenge acceptance of publishing only women for a year.

(apologies for incomprehensible sentences, I’m falling asleep writing this.)

Death and politics and a lot philosophical talks

I finally finished Orhan Pamuk’s Snow  today, which is a beast of a story. Not so much in the sense of thrilling adventure or sensationalism– the actual order of events is a fairly simple progression– but just the several lines of topics and subtopics that Pamuk has his characters hashing out in pages of dialogue. It reads less like a narrative, and more like a transcribed intellectual discourse about religion, politics, social ills, and the very struggle of the Turkish identity, juxtaposed (or not) with Europe.

The premise is simple enough. Ka, a poet in exile, travels back to Turkey to go to the isolated little town of Kars, where a string of suicides by young girls who were pressured to remove their head scarves, has caught international attention. Ka’s stated purpose is to report on these suicides, but in reality, he wants to meet an old school sweetheart, Ipek, who he heard is now divorced.

But what follows is not as straightforward as such. Instead, Ka, as a neutral observer (and kind of a spineless one) finds himself privy to discussions with every type of political or social faction in Kars. He hears, sees, and discusses all sides of contemporary issues in Turkey. By the end of the book, there is no neutral ground for him left, and his own status as a disinterested observer is what leads to tragedy and disappointment.

But enough of the plot. You read Snow in order to get a sense of Turkish society. Pamuk writes with a sly humor brimming with intellect that lends his criticisms a gentleness and his frustrations sincerity. He is very much a master of ferreting out the aggravating and agonizing ways that human nature can upset or drive decision-making, the way that selfish bursts of desire– for love, for power, for fame– can overwhelm sober, clear-sightedness.

Snow is not easy reading– the story is structured around conversations that Ka has with several residents of the town, each with a unique perspective that spins Ka’s head until he barely knows what he believes anymore himself. For me, Snow is a book that warns about believing everything you read– events and motives are manipulated, yet even those manipulating truly believe in their own message, so does that not lend an aura of honesty to them? In one running joke, the local newspaper man consistently writes major headline articles a day before they ever happen. When doubts are expressed about this sort of whimsical journalism, locals just shrug and say that these pre-written articles have a way of coming true. So how much should we trust the news anyways?

Snow is very much a book that tackles the issue of Eurocentrism, and the uneasy, slippery balancing act that is the relationship between Turkey, the West, and the Islamic world. There’s a sense of wanting to appear modern and therefore “western” while resenting, at the same time, that very desire, which gives way to contempt for the West and all its trappings. And yet, and yet.

If anyone else had written this, I don’t know if I could have read it. At times, it was difficult to read simply because of the ideas being spun. But Pamuk’s writing is direct and uncomplicated, and his observations of humanity is what brings this book home for me.

Books can rarely cover as large a wedge of human complexity as pure human interaction can. But Snow gives it a good hard try, and for me at least, succeeds in conveying that sentiment.

A survey of my current reading:

Winter’s Tale. Still not done. Progress since last? Like, two pages. I’m not sure why it’s so hard to stay interested. Maybe because it’s written kind of magical-realism, fairy-tale manner, which does not intrigue me past 500 words. Or like, if the Princess Bride kept the tone, but lost its humor. Unbearable.

Snow, by Orhan Pamuk. I LOVE Pamuk, and I am very much enjoying Snow. Pamuk has a beautiful way of writing about the intimate moments of personal human introspection that you can immediately relate, bone-deep, to, without giving you second hand embarrassment. As someone with an overactive sense of empathy, I’ve got books that have utterly been ruined for me because of second hand embarrassment. Like Carson McCullers’ Heart is a Lonely Hunter? All I think about when I remember it, is that part where the sad sack remembers being blindfolded in his living room, where he farts and then realizes he’d been led into his own surprise party, and everyone laughs at him, including his wife who is holding a birthday cake. HOT ROILING SECOND HAND EMBARRASSMENT. So the fact that Pamuk can write such weird and awkward and deeply human quirks with such loveliness makes it a full pleasure. However, I’m only partly through because I was distracted by…

Five Points, by Tyler Anbinder. It was on the shelf of our work library, and since I work in Chinatown just north of 5 points, but loath Scorsese too much to sit through Gangs of New York, I figured I’d best just read a bit about it. Woo, boy, that area must have been crazy stank back in the day. There’s a lovely description of workers cleaning the streets for the first time in forever, where they have to chop through inches of basically garbage and shit, and revealing cobblestones underneath, to the shock of some septuagenarian 5 points native. My face is mostly twisted in a rictus of horror as I read about shitty tenement housing and appalling workdays. I can’t stop reading it. I hope they get into gruesome murders soon. =D

However, what I’m most excited about these days is my new attempt at gardening. Yes, I’ve bought a few basil seedlings that I hope will survive… I potted them this afternoon, and watered them, and worried they’d get cold so now they’re inside where I stare at them fixedly for a few minutes every hour or so to make sure I haven’t killed them already. I hope they survive long enough for me to eat them.

Classics on the phone

I’ve spent the last week reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on my phone instead of bringing a book along to work. It’s been something I’d been meaning to reread for a few years. I half-heartedly skimmed it in high school and promptly forgot about it to salivate over whatever new Harry Potter was debuting that year.

After college, I was a literacy tutor for an after-school program, and among one of the nicer parts of the day was reading together whatever classic we’d chosen as a class and talking about it. One week, the kids were making their slow, reluctant drag through Tom Sawyer. They were, to a one, utterly bored, overheated, and impatient with the drawling, country-humor storytelling of Mark Twain. I was just trying to keep them in line as they took turns reading. Until we reached this particular section, and I lost it:

Now he lapsed into suffering again, as the dry argument was resumed. Presently he bethought him of a treasure he had and got it out. It was a large black beetle with formidable jaws—a “pinchbug,” he called it. It was in a percussion-cap box. The first thing the beetle did was to take him by the finger. A natural fillip followed, the beetle went floundering into the aisle and lit on its back, and the hurt finger went into the boy’s mouth. The beetle lay there working its helpless legs, unable to turn over. Tom eyed it, and longed for it; but it was safe out of his reach. Other people uninterested in the sermon found relief in the beetle, and they eyed it too. Presently a vagrant poodle dog came idling along, sad at heart, lazy with the summer softness and the quiet, weary of captivity, sighing for change. He spied the beetle; the drooping tail lifted and wagged. He surveyed the prize; walked around it; smelt at it from a safe distance; walked around it again; grew bolder, and took a closer smell; then lifted his lip and made a gingerly snatch at it, just missing it; made another, and another; began to enjoy the diversion; subsided to his stomach with the beetle between his paws, and continued his experiments; grew weary at last, and then indifferent and absent-minded. His head nodded, and little by little his chin descended and touched the enemy, who seized it. There was a sharp yelp, a flirt of the poodle’s head, and the beetle fell a couple of yards away, and lit on its back once more. The neighboring spectators shook with a gentle inward joy, several faces went behind fans and hand-kerchiefs, and Tom was entirely happy. The dog looked foolish, and probably felt so; but there was resentment in his heart, too, and a craving for revenge. So he went to the beetle and began a wary attack on it again; jumping at it from every point of a circle, lighting with his fore-paws within an inch of the creature, making even closer snatches at it with his teeth, and jerking his head till his ears flapped again. But he grew tired once more, after a while; tried to amuse himself with a fly but found no relief; followed an ant around, with his nose close to the floor, and quickly wearied of that; yawned, sighed, forgot the beetle entirely, and sat down on it. Then there was a wild yelp of agony and the poodle went sailing up the aisle; the yelps continued, and so did the dog; he crossed the house in front of the altar; he flew down the other aisle; he crossed before the doors; he clamored up the home-stretch; his anguish grew with his progress, till presently he was but a woolly comet moving in its orbit with the gleam and the speed of light. At last the frantic sufferer sheered from its course, and sprang into its master’s lap; he flung it out of the window, and the voice of distress quickly thinned away and died in the distance.

By this time the whole church was red-faced and suffocating with suppressed laughter, and the sermon had come to a dead standstill. The discourse was resumed presently, but it went lame and halting, all possibility of impressiveness being at an end; for even the gravest sentiments were constantly being received with a smothered burst of unholy mirth, under cover of some remote pew-back, as if the poor parson had said a rarely facetious thing. It was a genuine relief to the whole congregation when the ordeal was over and the benediction pronounced.

Tom Sawyer went home quite cheerful, thinking to himself that there was some satisfaction about divine service when there was a bit of variety in it. He had but one marring thought; he was willing that the dog should play with his pinchbug, but he did not think it was upright in him to carry it off.

I chuckled, which drew the attentions of the students, who like sharks, demanded to know what was so funny, or more accurately, “What?” in that too-cool-for-school, just short of belligerent way of middle-school kids everywhere.

I told them that this scene was hilarious; did they not think it was funny? Except with you know, more breathless pauses while I tried to control my cackling. It’s slapstick, blasphemous, utterly gleefully irreverent, and all in that beautifully understated humor that is perfect Mark Twain.

No, those merciless kids charged. I don’t get what’s funny at all.

I tried to explain, through my tears of laughter, why it was such a funny story. I mean, a dog sits on a beetle and is tossed out the window in a panic, because for chrissakes, this all happens in church while the preacher is still preaching. The congregation shook with gentle inward joy, which, coincidentally, will be the title of my vague and theoretical great-American-novel-slash-thinly-concealed-autobiography. It’s a masterful piece of humor and just funny.

They just stared, and I was finally able to wind down and control myself. Cleared my throat. Calmly ordered the next student to keep reading.

So since then, I’d stuck rereading the Tom and Huck books on my to-read list. I finished up Tom Sawyer last year, and that church scene is still one of my favorite scenes in literature, and moved on to rereading Huck Finn, which I’d loaded onto my Kindle app. It’s been my bored-no-books alternative, and so it was a long, drawn out read. But on the other hand, I am appreciating Twain’s narrative and satirical wit a lot more than I did in high school.

Finishing these books reminded me a little of why the plots never stuck solidly with me– there really is a lot going on in that novel, lots of episodic, tangential events so that it’s a story of Huck’s moral/personal growth, by way of a million other tales. But the characters, so brilliantly and solidly realized, really do stick with you.

Now that Huck Finn has been reread, I guess I should load up the next back-up classic. I’m thinking maybe DH Lawrence’s Women in Love which I read a few chapters before putting it aside, unable to control my skepticism and bouts of inappropriate amusement. Maybe, like Huck Finn, it’ll improve upon reread?