Adventures in Reading

Half Way There!

It being July 1st, it is roughly half way through the year and I decided to spend some time looking back at my reading progress so far for 2008 and commenting on some of the more notable books I had adventures with.

I read Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad back in January and I loved it. It kicked off my experience with the Canongate Myth series, which I have been increasingly fond of with the more I read. Since reading it though, I have stumbled across a fair amount of less enthusiastic and more critical reviews. While I still find the book charming and is one of my preferred Atwood books, I do feel I must add the disclaimer that I read The Penelopiad shortly after I finished a course on “great literature” with a rather narrow-minded if not misogynistic professor.

In February I was completely enchanted and enthralled with Kelly Link’s Magic For Beginners. It was a book I picked up on a whim and ordered through Amazon before I had even finished it. This collection of short stories was located in fantasy and science fiction, but I suppose a more descriptive (and somewhat imaginary) genre would be something like contemporary surrealism. Whatever it is though, Link’s book is good and I see many a Christmas stocking in my future I will be filling with it. And, her latest collection available for free here.

In March I read some really terrific books ranging from Haruki Murakami to Terry Pratchett. But I don’t even have to twist my arm to settle on my favorite and most influential book being Words in Context (previously known as Japanese for Japanese) by Takao Suzuki. Reading the book was enjoyable though there were certainly some more grueling moments digging through this commentary on linguistics and language. However, during the past six months this has to be one of the books I refer to the most. Additionally, it gave me an entirely new and more inspiring way to look at learning languages.

I expanded my J.D. Salinger experience in April with reading his short story “A Perfect Day For Bananafish” from his Nine Stories collection. Until 2008, my experience with Salinger was limited to Catcher in the Rye, but I finally got around to reading Franny and Zooey and dug into Nine Stories for my personal short story reading challenge. It’s a brilliant short story that is… it’s just so perfect. And I got some terrific comments on other people’s experience with the story as well.

Perhaps a bit of a surprise as I read some really great books in May, but I have to say one of the best was Anisha Lakhani’s Schooled, which if not available yet will be out for public consumption over the next few weeks. I typically have a ridiculously horrible time when it comes to popular literature and picked up an ARC of Schooled at work to ease my brain. Though I had to twist my own arm into just enjoying a book for enjoyment sake, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself eagerly turning the page and getting pretty involved with the main character. It’s still the middle of summer and Schooled is an excellent book to spend some time with on a lovely day.

First Step in the New World by David Lida is a brilliant book that I read last month. An eclectic collection of essays exploring some of the many nuances of Mexico City, Lida has provided much more than a piece of travel writing with book. Lida spends time looking at the politics, socio-cultural, food, entertainment, gender studies – the book has just about anything. Whether you’re interested specifically in Mexico City, in modern architecture, or are just looking to expand your horizons Lida’s book is terrific. Perhaps my favorite part of the text is Lida’s actual voice, which makes Mexico City sound so tantalizing I want to hop on the next flight and buy Lida a beer.


Popular Literature Rambling
June 28, 2008, 12:07 pm
Filed under: thoughtful | Tags: , , , ,

Disclaimer: This was meant to be the first post in a series of rambles on popular literature. One bright, sunny morning while walking home from the library these ideas flitted into my head but perversely enough most of them had flitted out before I was anywhere near a pen and paper let alone my laptop. I suppose what follows is more an aftertaste of some of the ideas I had flitting around than anything.

Often (though I admit I can’t recall ever seeing this on the book blogs I’m linked to) I’ve read that people were disappointed with a book because they felt as if they could not identify with the characters. This always was particularly odd for me because I honestly don’t care whether or not I identify with the characters – it’s not really something I’m too concerned with. This was also one of the reasons I didn’t care so much for Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird because she says in the book (and this could simply have been a paragraph I was irritated enough by that it infiltrated the remainder of the book) that this should be the creative writer’s goal. That the creative writer should write characters the audience can identify with, which I can’t buy even if I only consider one of my favorite books is Nelson Algren’s Never Come Morning, which has a lot of despicable characters throughout it and it’s pretty damn difficult at parts not to be completely dismissive of one of the main characters.

But I wonder how much of the attraction to popular literature is a result of having characters that are easy for the general reading public (keeping in mind race, color, privilege, etc.) to identify with. So much popular literature, and I’m looking at so called “chick lit” here (a term I am frankly disgusted with because it has become such a label that is stuck to seemingly anything written or read by women), really focuses on socially accepted norms. Falling in love, getting married, having children, acquiring a job you love, of course always with a slight hiccup and many newer books seem to be going after sex and romance a bit more than the child bearing. But they are books that in many ways outline what is often the pre-conceived notion of the reading woman’s life.

Granted, I am making immense generalizations here. I have only just begun dallying in popular literature and I am sure more advanced aficionados can toss out many titles that would point out flaws in my ramblings. Also, as far as I am statistically aware a pretty huge hunk of readers seem to be statistically white, middle class, perhaps college educated but at least high school graduate, women with body issues – or at least this seems to fair relatively true in the United Sates of America.

Popular literature, and whether this is done with or without intent, targets this group. Or at least publishers do. I don’t know if authors sit down and think, “Hmm, what will sell best?” and truly I hope they don’t. But if a writer is writing of their life, and if the above paragraph pretty much describes their life, I suppose it’s somewhat inescapable. But it can be quite difficult to find characters that break out of this mold. I mean, if popular fiction does attempt to largely gratify the previously mentioned reading audience what happens when the above does not describe you?

So then I suppose much of my problem with popular literature – going with the idea that there is a need for identification – is that I don’t identify with it.

Fiction: Schooled by Anisha Lakhani, 2008
June 2, 2008, 10:08 am
Filed under: book reviews, fiction | Tags: , ,

Despite my recent and ridiculous failure with James Patterson’s Sundays at Tiffany’s, I still could not resist the temptation of an easy pleasure read in the world of popular literature. I found an advanced reading copy of Anisha Lakhani’s Schooled and decided why not? Schooled is the story of Anna Taggert a recent Columbia graduate who opts for a fulfilling career as a middle school teacher rather than pursue a less satisfying mega-money job. She lands a job at a prestigious and private school in Manhattan but quickly finds disappointment resulting from obsolete pay and pushy mothers. Soon after she begins teaching Anna finds herself invited into a world of “tutoring” where Ivy educated graduates do children’s homework and projects for some hefty financial rewards.

I admit that up through the first quarter of Schooled I found it somewhat nauseating and superfluous. The story began to read like an adult landing in the middle of the world of the Gossip Girls. I found Anna Taggert to be oblivious and shallow when it came to her surroundings and above all actually being a teacher. The book is littered with errant remarks from her paranoid, conservative and Republican parents as they criticize Anna for her decision. It is all meant to be humorous and poking fun but I had to roll my eyes.

And then the part of me that loves caramel lattes even though I know coffee isn’t really good for me and the price certainly isn’t and the part of me that drove me to watching a 48-hour marathon of The Real Housewives of the O.C. said: Get off of your high horse. And then I quickly found myself really starting to enjoy this book.

No, Lakhani is not attempting a great capital “L” Literary piece with Schooled, but she has created a charming and entertaining book about Anna Taggert’s reality shock when it comes to life after college, teaching and herself. Not that the book is all fluff, Lakhani teases about “irresistible” reasoning persuading people to act against their beliefs and how difficult it can be to instruct students in an age of increasingly hyped up technology. Much of the cushioning of Schooled is provided through Taggert’s growing attraction to fashion and what becomes a year of shopping sprees thanks to her tutoring money.

Schooled is well-written and I had fun reading it. I’m even looking forward to hearing about Lakhani’s future works.

And another review from Jenn’s Bookshelf, S. Krishna’s Books, Presenting Lenore, Book Zombie.