Sunday, December 30, 2012

New Years Reading Resolution

Are you a resolution maker? I often consider my "New Years" to be September, since I've never left the school year schedule, so to me it feels strange  to make new habits at the near-end of the first semester.  Every December, though, I reread all my blog posts of the year and make a year-in-review post and it's pretty interesting to think of the year in terms of January-December--and to consider my identity outside that as an educator.  It is fitting for me, then, that my resolution will be about books (and about starting to drink green smoothies for breakfast!).

My book club of two took a bit of a break the last six months, but we are back with a new plan for 2013.  We decided that rather than read the same books together, we should set a goal to read the books in our apartments that we have been meaning to read, but haven't for whatever reason and when we meet, we will talk about the books we've been reading separately.  We won't buy new books until we make it through our piles (though I did pick up a few titles in the last couple weeks--it is still 2012--and I got a few for Christmas).  I get easily distracted by the newest recommendations and from browsing at everything from Greenlight Books and Book Court, so this really will be a bit of a challenge for me!  

My "unread" stack has remained virtually unchanged since I moved in to this apartment two years ago. As I looked through it, I realized there were some that I didn't even want to read, so rather than have anxiety about needing to finish all of them, I decided to pick the ones I wanted to read and donate the rest--I'm all about getting rid of unnecessary clutter!  So, I intend to look at this list as a syllabus to remind me of the old English major days and get started as soon as I finish Cloud Atlas.

 Here's my list in full.  My best to you and yours in 2013!


1984 by George Orwell
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
Animal Farm by George Orwell


A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
City of Thieves by David Benioff
A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat
Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hossain

Non Fiction

Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace
No Logo by Naomi Klein

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Year In Review and Top Ten Books of 2012

This year, my reading life seemed to be anchored in studying history and looking for wonder.   It is easy to get caught up with trivialities and the day to day, and for me, that is when I begin to feel the least like myself.  Thank goodness for the books that keep my eyes open and my brain thinking--and, more importantly, for the people in my life this year who were such good reminders of truth and beauty.  

I started this blog in January 2007, so each December since I've read through all my posts of the year and done a reading "year in review" that includes my top ten.  What's different about this list and most book lists out there is that I get to maybe one newly published book a year (too expensive for this teacher and too heavy for this car-less commuter), so my choices never reflect the newly published.   Here are lists past if you feel so inclined:  20112010200920082007.  If you want a closer look at what they're about, click on the title for my original posting. 

A laugh-out-loud/don't take yourself too seriously read:  

1. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy  Kaling.  I read this book on the train home from my New Years gathering and finished it the first morning of 2012 and laughing was the best possible way to start a new year.

The best vacation reads: 

2. A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Crosse.  This is a read for book lovers that I curled up with during this year's February break.  It was thought provoking, but for me, mid-winter, it was more of an enjoyable escape during a week off work: a quest to make the perfect book store with a mystery tucked in.

3. Everything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy.  I read about this book in New York Magazine and started it during one of the first few days of my summer break.  One morning I took a roll and a coffee to Prospect Park, thinking I would spend 30 minutes or so reading.  Two hours later I got up, completely moved by the poetic characters and language.  Absolutely beautiful. 

I got pulled in by World War Two this year: 

4. Unbroken by Lauren Hillenbrand.  The true story of Louie Zamperini, an Olympic runner, Air Force Bomber and POW in the Pacific during World War Two, this book was an incredible story of the endurance of a man as well as a heart wrenching glimpse into the life of a POW both during and after imprisonment.

5. Night by Elie Wiesel.  Wiesel's memoir of his time spent in a concentration camp, I re-read this book with students in an incredibly powerful club in the spring.  I would put this book on humanity's must-read list--it is dark and difficult to swallow, but so important.

6. In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larsen.  This is the story of William Dodd, America's ambassador to Germany in the thirties, when things with Hitler were beginning to heat up.  It was a fascinating read and a great introduction to the politics leading up to World War Two.

7.  Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas.  This book is a commitment: it is over 600 pages of very small type. However, I was completely enthralled by this biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Christian theologian from the 1930s and early 40s who was a key part of the resistance to Hitler and the Valkyrie plot to assassinate him.  It was such an inspiring read of someone who refused to sit back in safety when something felt gut-wrong to him no matter what others were saying--and for that, he is a hero in my eyes.

A book that will keep you guessing long after you finish it: 

8.  Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami.  This was probably the most challenging, unique read of my year and the kind of book that as soon as I finished it left me wishing I could immediately start over and then head into a literature course to discuss it.

A classic worth re-reading: 

9. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I loved reading this book in high school (my honors English teacher even helped us organize a mock-tail party in full dress attire a la Gatsby at the end of the year).  I'm reading this book in a club with students later this year, so I reread it for the first time since graduate school and it gave me lots to think about.

My favorite book turned movie of the year: 

10. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky.  I read this years ago and enjoyed it and decided to re-read it before the movie came out.  Chbosky captures the mind and coming of age of wallflower Charlie through a series of letters.   I went to see the movie at BAM after an amazing brunch and it really turned into a perfect afternoon, because the movie version is incredible--the kind that restores one's faith in humanity incredible.  I highly recommend both, but the book first, obviously!

I'm always looking for recommendations and I love hearing about people's best reading experiences of the year! Stay tuned for my New Year's Reading Resolution and my reading plan for the early months of 2013.  

The New York Times wrote earlier this year about stories AND science: "The novel, of course, is an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life. And there is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters." So, that is your motivation for finding a new book or two to explore in the new year.  

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Still Alice.

I often use my mom's shelves as a library and picked up a book over the summer to read before Thanksgiving (the Janet Robbins library has longer borrowing periods than your neighborhood library). Her book club read Still Alice by Lisa Genova last year, a story of a Harvard psychology professor in her early 50s who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's.   I almost missed my return date, though, because I couldn't bring myself to read it, knowing that it would be a heavy and emotional read.

I didn't find the book especially well written, but I did find it to be the kind of book that gave me insight into a disease that I would never get reading an article about it.  The story is told from Alice's point of view and her frustrations become my own.

I've been thinking a lot lately about identity--and how we define ourselves and how that changes over time--but mostly in the context of the identities that we can choose for ourselves.  New ways of thinking we embrace, career moves, family life, cities we attach ourselves to.  Of course, some of the new identities are thrust upon us from life experiences we didn't plan or ask for, but over time learn to tuck into how we see ourselves and relate to the world around us.

The layer this book added to my thought life was when all the ways that Alice had defined herself began to fade--ever more intensely--as her disease progressed.  She pondered the question herself in a "last lecture" sort of scene towards the end of the book:

"I often fear tomorrow.  What if I wake up and don't know who my husband it? What if I don't know where I am or recognize myself in the mirrow? When will I no longer be me? Is the part of my brain that's responsible for my unique 'me-ness' vulnerable to this disease? Or is my identity something that transcends neurons, proteins, and defective molecules of DNA? Is my soul and spirit immune to the ravages of Alzheimer's? I believe it is."

I guess that reading this book reaffirmed my belief that identity comes from something deeper than a profession or a pastime.  I had a fleeting second of the fear of sounding trite writing that.  But it is also beautifully simple, so.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

portrait of a reader.

Winner of the National Book Award was an impulse purchase at a local bookstore a few weeks ago.  I have books in my apartment I haven't read and yet, with Thanksgiving-weekend-layover travel in my future, I decided that I needed something new and entertaining.  This was on the shelf of books recommended by book store employees and described as clever and hilarious.  So.

It takes place in Rhode Island, on a single day where the state is bracing itself for a hurricane and local librarian Dorcas Mather, who has by choice lived a life of the mind, has gone in to work to prepare the building and to batten down the hatches from there.  Abigail, her spiritual opposite-best friend-twin sister, has lived a passionate life of the flesh in every way imaginable and has recently co-written a biography about the murder of her husband--which she committed.  Each chapter is structured around Dorcas hesitantly reading an excerpt of Abigail's book (actually written by their friend Hilda, whose style reminds me of Rita Skeeter, for any Harry Potter fans out there, which in turn critiques the publishing industry a bit) and then telling her version of what happened.  I was kept laughing out loud throughout my LaGuardia and Reagan National Airport adventures.  It did get me thinking about a few things, though. 

The story's structure was about Abigail and her escapades, but the book was truly about Dorcas--as a person and as a reader.  Dorcas' story asks the reader of the book if it is enough to have a life of the mind, as she honestly paints her own portrait of the Mather family's life alongside Hilda's version. There are a few moments in the story that Dorcas herself wonders if her life choices have been enough and it is fascinating to watch her wade through her reflections, especially as a voracious reader and sometimes-homebody. 

"C.S. Lewis assured me I wasn't neurotic.  It was possible to lives an imagined life, and to live it fully.  To dwell within one's own mind and, through books, the mind of others." 

"I escape, when I feel the need, into what all you bullies insist is reality.  I study birds, library patrons, local politicians.  Sometimes I garden.  Sometimes I watch the Sox. Sometimes I drink.  I keep a neat house and I pay my taxes, all in the real world. But I don't live there." 

"I am simply an omnivorous reader, and like all good omnivores I take my pleasures where I can find them.  In my real life, my inner life, I am as great a sensualist as my sister."


I am getting ready to make my 6th Annual Year in Review, a list of my top ten books of the year which I compile while sitting at my parents' house each Christmas break, rereading each blog post I wrote during that calendar year.  It never fails to strike me that the moments I choose to write about from each book paint a picture of my own inner life throughout the year.  In Winner of the National Book Award, Dorcas kept secret records as a librarian, written in code, of the books her regulars checked out.  She didn't feel guilty about it because she knew her motives were pure--and "the privacy of my patrons' reading history is sacred."  But she realized that her index cards were "concise historical records of a perculiar sort, outlining the spiritual and intellectual course of a citizen's adult life."   

So, my challenge to you is to think about the story that your year of reading tells.  What kinds of stories were you drawn to? What kinds of things were your eyes apt to notice this year--that perhaps at another time you might have passed right by? I would love to know your best reading experiences of 2012--I am always looking for good recommendations.