Monday, January 24, 2011

A good problem to have

Last night, I experienced something that without a doubt indicates how big of a nerd I am (and my boyfriend, too, because he experienced the same problem). I had just finished the last of the Betsy-Tacy series (more on that later!), and it was that exciting moment in which I choose my next read. Except…I stood in front of my shelves, full of dozens of titles waiting to be read, and I couldn’t choose. Did I want to read something long or short, frivolous and entertaining or deep and serious, foreign or domestic, something that’d been waiting on my shelf for a long time or something brand new? Then I had to go through my mental reading schedule of things coming up—I’ll start my next book club pick, The Imperfectionists, next week; then I’ll start Wolf Hall as my England choice for the World Reading Challenge, and that’s long so maybe I should pick something short; and when am I ever going to get around to the New York epic?

It is a horrible conundrum when you can’t decide what to read next.

My biggest problem with reading is that I don’t have enough time to read all I want to read. And it’s not a bad problem to have, really. Just frustrating when I spend 8 hours a day sitting at a desk in front of a computer when I’d rather be reading (or running, or playing Mario Kart) and finally moving some of those titles from ‘to-read’ to ‘read.’

But, it made me realize that, above anything else, reading for me is fun. My mood is the biggest factor in deciding which book I pick up off that shelf, but I choose a book from the pile because I want to read it—because it can take me to a place or time I know little about, open my eyes to a different way of life, invoke a setting I want to be a part of. Sometimes I get so overwhelmed with all I want to read that I get a bit stressed, but reading should never be stressful. Forget the schedules, the blog posts, the review copies—I have to remind myself to have fun with it. Because I’ll never have the problem of what to read, only what to read next.

New on my list of exciting to-reads: Paris Was Ours, Just Kids, Stones Into Schools, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, Wishin’ and Hopin’, The Summer Book, The Swan Thieves, Fifth Avenue, 5:00 AM. (5 out of 8 are nonfiction!)

What’s running through your mind when you pick a book up off the shelf?

Friday, January 14, 2011

I can’t believe I was the only one who was bored.

You may remember me mentioning last week how I was stuck reading an obnoxiously long book for my Idlewild book club. Well, I finally finished said book and last night was our meeting.

Let me give you a quick rundown of this book. The World As I Found It by Bruce Duffy is a hefty work of fiction from the NYRB Classics catalog. Duffy chronicles the lives of three well-known philosophers of early twentieth century Europe—Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, and G. E. Moore. These three men were colleagues yet highly competitive with each other, sometimes influencing each other and at other times tearing each other apart. But here’s the thing—these people really existed but this book is fictional. And not even really fiction based completely on truth; he just made stuff up (and fully admits it). A biography of Wittgenstein wasn’t released until after Duffy wrote this.

I was bored out of my mind for 80% of this book, and with a book that is 558 pages long, 80% is a lot of pages. Wittgenstein was a tortured, seemingly miserable guy who struggled to find the greatest, highest truth. Well, like I said, philosophy bores me to death. The sections that focuses on Moore and Russell were more interesting to me because they were the ones who actually lived and did things, rather than just think about them. Especially Russell, whose storyline mostly focused on how many women he could sleep with, even up to his senior years. During our discussion, I was aghast to discover that I was the only one who was incredibly bored by this book. I got to wondering if interest in this book was directly related to the reader’s general outlook on life. I’d say from ages 13–17, I was very philosophical and analytical, but my modus operandi now is to just live rather than think about it so much. It’s why I don’t care for philosophical study.

Beyond the philosophy angle, as I listened to our book club discussion, I felt incredibly puzzled as to what I missed in this book. The sections that stuck with others were boring for me, and vice versa. I’m sure it’s just a question of reading taste, but I felt like such a simpleton because I couldn’t explain my aversion to the book beyond, “I was bored; I just didn’t care.”

I loved the concept of this book—a fictionalized account of a real person’s life. And the ending was fabulous, specifically the last twenty pages and the afterward by the author (a reflection on the book several years after writing it). Duffy ties up the end with a satisfying, “Ah, it all had a purpose,” though I question if all of the previous 500 pages were necessary to make his point. But everyone else seemed to like it a lot, so maybe I’m just the weird one with poor taste.

Most importantly, I finished this book and I am finally FREEEEEE to read something else!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Monday, January 10, 2011

What I’ve read lately…

I’ve read a few things over the last month that a) weren’t compelling enough to post about individually, or b) I am too lazy to write about individually. Ergo, compilation post.

For my December book club meeting at Idlewild, we read Carlo Collodi’s classic, Pinocchio. [Sidenote: this may be the worst NYRB cover in existence.] I was under the assumption that this book is very different from the Disney movie known by all. Well, it is somewhat different, but not in the extreme way I thought it would be. Many of the plot points were the same. However, this story is much darker—too scary for Disney audiences. The cricket’s appearance is too brief to even warrant him the name “Jiminy,” and Pinocchio is….ANNOYING. Collodi obviously wrote these stories as lessons on behavior to children, which were published as chapters in a weekly magazine. But when all the chapters are compiled into one book, the lessons get repetitive and Pinocchio becomes unlikable because he seems to never learn! [More points found here in this NYRB article that I never actually read.] It was a quick easy read, but, to be honest, I can’t even remember what we discussed about this book because I was too excited by the pita chips and wine.

In Nashville for Christmas, I read Joy in the Morning, the other well-known work by Betty Smith. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is in my top 3 books of all time, so I’d been meaning to read this for a while. It’s a lovely story of a young Brooklyn couple in the late 1920s who were just married and moved to the midwest where Carl, the husband, is a law student. Annie is immediately endearing, as she’s uneducated yet bright and eager to learn. This book should be required reading for newlyweds because it’s uplifting in a non-cheesy, unsentimental way—in a way that reminds you that things happen but you get through them. It’s a simple story but it sucks you in with likable characters while throwing some important life lessons in there about enjoying the small things and stuff like that. Not too much to say about this besides it was highly enjoyable.

The World Reading Party‘s country for the month of December was Greece. After a long search for Greek literature that turned up little more than mysteries or chick-lit or really long novels, I opted for the Greek classic, Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis. It’s the story of a traveling Englishman who meets an elderly (if 65 is “elderly” by today’s standards—my dad certainly would not like to think so) vivacious Greek man named Zorba who aims to live life to the fullest and drags our narrator out of his shell. Supposedly this is a book about the philosophy of life and contains some important message on how to live it—which may or may not be something along the lines of “live how you want.” But the only lesson I got from this was, in a nutshell, “Eat a lot, drink a lot, and sleep with a lot of women.” I’ve read comments that this book is the book for some people, but I guess I am not one of those people. It was just meh to me. I didn’t even learn that much about Greek culture, which is my aim with this reading challenge, so boo on that.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Reading Notes: A People’s History, Part V

The fifth and final section, covering the late 70s to the present (or at least to 2003 when this edition was published).

In covering the Carter-Reagan-Bush years, Zinn made one thing clear: he HATES Reagan and Bush. He’s not too impressed with Carter, either, but I get the feeling he DESPISES Reagan and Bush. Zinn describes the 80s and 90s as an era when corporations were taking control of politics and the President was losing power, despite his decisions aiming to reassert his own power rather than the represent the will of the people. The nation was also frustrated and around half the population didn’t even bother to vote in elections by 1976.

So these are some of the horrible things Zinn accuses the Reagan/Bush administrations of in this section:

  • Abolishing the “fairness doctrine” of the FCC, which required air time for dissenting views.
  • Preventing doctors in federally supported family planning clinics from giving women information on abortions
  • Ignoring environmental hazards in favor of economic gains
  • Eliminating free school lunches for more than one million poor children
  • Lowering the tax rate on the very rich from 70% to 28%
  • Unnecessarily involving America in foreign affairs and lying to the public about it (Iran-contra affair)
Plus, billions of dollars were still being spent on the military, justified by the “Soviet threat.” But when the Soviet Union collapsed and the US had the opportunity to reallocate funds to be used for constructive projects instead of arming a military against a nonexistent threat, it did not do that. Instead, it decided to start a war in the Middle East over oil, because has history has proven, combat leads people to forget their day-to-day problems…temporarily. And Bush needed this to boost his support.
Some good quotes I underlined:

“The U.S. can destroy Iraq’s highways, but not build its own; create the conditions for epidemic in Iraw, but not offer health care to millions of Americans. It can excoriate Iraqi treatment of the Kurdish minority, but not deal with domestic race relations; create homelessness abroad but not solve it here; keep a half million troops drug free as part of a war, but refuse to fund the treatment of millions of drug addicts at home…”

“One percent of the nation owns a third of the wealth. The rest of the wealth is distributed in such a way as to turn those in the 99 percent against one another: small property owners against the propertyless, black against white, native-born against foreign-born, intellectuals and professionals against the uneducated and unskilled. These groups have resented one another and warred against one another with such vehemence and violence as to obscure their common position as sharers of leftovers in a very wealthy country.”

Student speaker re: Saddam Hussein, “When he was gassing the Kurds, he was gassing them using chemical weapons that were manufactured in Rochester, New York. And when he was fighting a long and protracted war with Iran, where one million people died, it was the CIA that was funding him. It was U.S. policy that built this dictator. When they didn’t need him, they started imposing sanctions on his people. Sanctions should be directed at people’s governments, not at the people.”

Did you know: in 1990 the average of pf the CEOs of the 500 largest corporations was 84 times that of the average worker. But by 1999, it was 475 times the average worker’s pay. Blows my mind.
Chapter 23 is a good summary of Zinn’s points. I think it must’ve been the original conclusion to the book before he added sections on Clinton and Bush Jr.
Zinn’s point in these last few chapters is that its not one party’s fault or the other’s…the American political system is broken. Corporations have too much control over politics. Short-term economic gain is given more precedence than the long term effect it could have. The President serves more as a pawn in big-league politiks than as a representative of the people of this country. 
If I could sum this book up in three short points, it would be these:
  1. All wars are economic.
  2. The elite exploit the poor for their own gain.
  3. Change is never made through the ballot but through action. 
Overall, I enjoyed reading this book. For the majority of my life, I’ve been completely apathetic about politics and current events, mostly because I feel I don’t know enough information to form a solid opinion. As I mentioned in my very first post about this book, history is tricky because any one historical occurrence was inevitably seen and experienced by several different perspectives. To try and write a solid historical account that includes all the various points of views would certainly not be brief enough to fit in a single textbook. And while Zinn writes his history book from only one perspective (and yes, he does acknowledge this fact), it’s one more that can be added to my own thought processes as I try to digest American history.

Monday, January 3, 2011

2010 in Review

How I rung in the new year: on the slopes in Lake Placid

2010 was a pretty sweet year in all things non-book related—aka, “in real life.” I successfully fulfilled all of my New Year’s Resolutions, which were:

  1. Be able to run more than a mile
  2. Join an adult soccer league
  3. Go on a vacation to somewhere I’d never been
  4. Explore new restaurants in the city

In terms of reading, I’ve been in a blog funk lately and at this point I’m just aiming to write down things that I personally want to remember about what I read. I apologize for boring my few faithful readers with my mega-long Howard Zinn reading project, but it was just something I’ve wanted to do for a while. It’s one of those reading projects that make you feel so accomplished once you finish (and I will actually finish tomorrow, once I post my reading notes on the final section…only 2 weeks late).

However, I’m out of the Howard Zinn reading funk and am excited about things sitting on my shelves waiting to be read. I just have to get through this unreasonably long book about philosophy for my book club first. Why a 558 page book was chosen to read over the busy holidays, I will never know. Also philosophy totally stumps me. And by “stumps” I mean “completely bores.” I tried to read it twice in the car yesterday heading back from Lake Placid and both times I dozed off.

But as for the year in review, I read a total of 58 books this year which is two less than my personal record of 60 from 2009 (I blame Howard Zinn for slowing me down). My favorites were:

  1. When Everything Changed by Gail Collins — the first satisfying history book I’d read in quite a long time. The history of women since 1960 is definitely an interesting one and even better to discuss with my mom.
  2. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel — discovered during my brief graphic novel kick (which will start up again soon!). Great mix of plot, narration, and perfect illustrations about the author’s semi-dysfunctional childhood and adolescence. 
  3. The Betsy-Tacy series by Maude Hart Lovelace — I still have the last two books left but I sure do love some children’s fiction from simpler times of the past.
  4. Finny by Justin Kramon — I love novels that follow a likable/interesting/quirky character through different points in his/her life and this did just that.
I haven’t thought of my real life resolutions yet, but my reading resolutions are pretty much the same as always: branch out, remember more, and beat my record! (that’s the competitiveness in me.)
Happy new year!