Monday, January 30, 2012

Westward Ho!: On Little House and childhood obsessions

The kick-off novel in my Westward Ho! reading project isn’t exactly the gritty historical fiction or gripping non-fiction narrative that you may expect… Instead, it’s the memoir of one modern-day woman searching for something authentic in a fictional historical world that was based on real-life experiences. Got all that?

Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie is, at its most basic, a tribute to the life and stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder. On a deeper level, though, it is McClure’s quest to experience the world that she loved as a child—a world she knew as fiction but discovered was very much based on fact—by obsessively reading everything she can find on the topic, retracing the Ingalls’ pilgrimage West, and stocking her apartment with pioneer technologies to prove that she, a 21st-century woman, can churn butter with the best of ’em.

McClure’s quest sounds like something I would absolutely do. (My own adolescent obsession was a TV show about vampire slayers, so a little more difficult to find, but trust me, I have my own stories…) I would even enthusiastically follow McClure’s own traveling trail for the “historical scavenger hunt” (as I am terming it), but here’s the thing…I’ve never read most of the Little House books. Therefore, I think this book possessed a level of enjoyment I was capable of reaching, but I couldn’t go any further because I haven’t read all the books and couldn’t fully invest in what she was looking for. I think it was a fun read, but it would be astoundingly better for real Little House fans.

The concept of this book continues to swirl around in my head, though. My childhood and adolescence were littered with little “obsessions” that still conjure up a very special feeling in me as an adult—the feeling of which an entire moment in your life (the thoughts, emotions, experiences) are intricately linked with something so…material, sort of tangible. These feelings are harder to create as an adult (or maybe it’s just that we lack the distance we now have to childhood), and we want to keep experiencing them, experiencing that magic we felt that we link to a movie, a tv show, a book, a song.

So, McClure’s quest makes perfect sense to me, but it does come with the risk that we won’t find what we’re looking for. I marked this passage, because it perfectly identifies those fears and makes you consider if it’s worth it to search at all.

But then on page after page in the book, the girl kept discovering that all the old things weren’t quite what she expected. She was shown sadly regarding the log cabin that was smaller and emptier than she’d thought, and she warily eyed gift shop merchandise at one of the hometown museums. She stood on the asphalt in downton De Smet, South Dakota, waiting for a Fourth of July parade that never happened. She squinted in the sunlight of an open field where the Big Woods had once stood. I remembered enough about the books—just barely—to know what she’d been searching for.

It figures, I’d thought, and put the book back on the shelf.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Lessons on Reading

As a raging bookaholic, I’m constantly looking for the next book to add to my shelf. There are so many options. I want to read more; I want to read it all. As a result, I’m certain that I miss some of what is there. I often skim the surface instead of dive down deep. My analytical skills suffer. I miss the subtleties, the nuances, the hidden themes and allusions.

It’s poignant, then, that I just started Jonathan Raban’s essay collection—his diary of America—and he begins it with these words on reading:

The first lesson Empson taught was to drastically slow down; to read at the level of the word, the phrase, the line; to listen, savor, question, ponder, think… A single paragraph in Seven Types of Ambiguity was like a street closely punctuated with traffic-calming speed bumps: you had to study the relationship between one sentence and the next—and often one clause and the next—to see the logic that connected them, and if I tried to read them in my usual skimming style, I instantly lost the thread.

The second, more general lesson required one to greatly enlarge one’s understanding of what writing is and does… Empson illustrated his arguments by sentences from novels, book titles, newspaper headlines that had caught his eye, and so forth… Every piece of writing was like a pond, sunlit, overhung by willows, with clustering water lilies, and, perhaps, the rippling circle made by a fish rising to snatch a daring fly. This much could be seen and appreciated by any passing hiker. But the true life of the pond lay below the surface, in deep water where only the attentive and experience eye would detect the suspended cloud of midge larvae, the submarine shadow of the cruising pike, the exploding shoal of bug-eyed small fry. It was with the subaquatic life of literature that Empson…was concerned.

Beneath the clean line of type on the page lay the muddy depths of the living and changing language, a world of stubborn historic associations, swarming puns, suggestive likenesses and connections, meanings that were in a continuous process of education and decay, sometimes enriching the word in print, but as often subverting it…

Empson’s preternaturally sensitive ear and eye for the deep-water workings of the language enabled him to share with his readers a myriad subtleties, shades of meaning, richness, in lines they might otherwise have skated over, in ignorance of this buried treasure…

—From Driving Home: An American Journey, Jonathan Raban, pgs. 7-8

Do you meticulously savor the books you read or fly through them and move on to the next?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Reading Roundup: Books That Deserve More Than A Reading Roundup

I just embarked on this Western reading project, just got the book for my next book club meeting, and just returned from the ALA Midwinter meeting with a stack of exciting new books to add to my shelf. Coincidentally (and appropriately), I just ordered a new bookshelf for our apartment today.

Well, despite all of this, it is necessary that I tell you about these two books I read last year, but because of all the things mentioned above, it is also necessary that I do it quickly. It is unfortunate, however, because both of these books deserve more than a quick comment. But, I will do as I must before I get even further behind; this is my last week of freedom…school starts next week, which means more time to read but less time to blog!

I actually read In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard back in November, so I am sorry to say it is a bit fuzzy at this point in time. I can say, however, that I liked it! I read it off a recommendation from a former library co-worker with whom I usually share a taste in books and whose opinion I completely trust. I wouldn’t really classify In Zanesville as a coming-of-age story, per se, but it is told by an unnamed 14-year-old girl. Our narrator has the voice of a somewhat awkward teen, not fully comfortable with herself but mostly okay with that fact. She doesn’t have the confidence that some of her peers seem to have and she doesn’t really get why it’s necessary to feel and act so “grown up.” She’s got a companion in her best friend “Flea,” though, which makes life in junior high manageable until Flea seems to get caught up in the influence of their more “sophisticated” classmates and the narrator feels abandoned.

I’m just going to speak for everyone here by saying UGH, JUNIOR HIGH. This story takes place in the 1970s, but no matter the era, those years are cringe-worthy for most. Beard’s writing is simple but effective in transporting you back to those years of petty drama in day-to-day school life. It’s the feeling of constantly walking on egg shells, hoping to blend in but still attract enough attention to be deemed popular—when friendships and relationships are volatile and constantly teetering between friend and foe. I was going to compare In Zanesville to Jill McCorkle’s Ferris Beach and Margaret Sartor’s Miss American Pie, and then I saw that my former coworker did as well. Guess she was spot on with this recommendation once again.


Another good find from a trip to the library in December was Vaclav & Lena, the debut novel of author Haley Tanner. And it was especially cool that the book was set in Brooklyn and the author appeared at WORD Bookstore in Greenpoint just a couple weeks after I picked this one up (except I didn’t actually get to go…I just found it coincidental!).

Vaclav and Lena are Russian immigrants growing up in Brooklyn, sharing the shame heritage but living in completely different worlds. They quickly bonded in ESL class and spend afternoons together working on homework and practicing for the magic show they hope to perform one day at Coney Island. But one day Lena doesn’t come to school and disappears from Vaclav’s life. She doesn’t disappear from his thoughts, though. Eight years later, as a high school student who has gracefully settled into an American lifestyle, Vaclav is about to give a final farewell to his memories of Lena when his phone rings and she comes running back into his life. The two reconnect and explore the circumstances that tore them apart when they were too young to understand.

Tanner’s characters were easy to sympathize with. The story is written mostly from a Vaclav-centric perspective, and as the reader, we see how the story unfolds mostly through his eyes. However, the young Vaclav’s grasp is limited by his 9-year-old naivety, and as an adult reader, we know there must be something more—and darker—than immediately shown on paper. Nothing in the story ever feels too overwhelming, though. It has the quality of a children’s story in that the villains and horrible events are somewhat masked and we almost overlook them because we’re focusing too much on our stories’ heroes. [I mean, think about Hansel & Gretel. Do we, as kids, ever really think how horrible the concept is of a old woman luring kids with candy to then cook them?? No, we just kinda glance over it and hope they escape.]

I thought this a great debut novel, and I look forward to reading what else Tanner puts out there. Her own story is rather heartrending as well, which makes Vaclav & Lena feel all the more full of love.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Westward Ho!: A Reading Project

Several months ago, I wrote about certain topics that I’d like to explore through books. The biggest of those is a topic I’ve found to be even bigger and broader than expected, and to sum this topic up as succinctly as possible, I’d just have to call it “The West.” The topics I am using this label to cover include:

  • Westward expansion in relation to history and politics
  • Stories of people who experienced the homestead life first-hand
  • The American Indian experience, both past and present
After a recent visit to the library, during which I went a little crazy in the nonfiction section, I realized I had picked up a lot of books related to this topic, so I decided the Westward Ho reading project has officially begun! For this project, I’m planning to read a variety of books—fiction, nonfiction, modern, historical. I’d like my reading to paint a vast portrait of the “western experience” to discover the stories, the history, and the culture of life out there beyond the Mississippi River.
Last year, I read Dorothy Wickenden’s Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West, an NPR recommendation that helped with sparking an interest in this topic. So far, other titles I have on my list include:

  1. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie
  2. The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie by Wendy McClure
  3. Lions of the West: Heroes and Villains of Westward Expansion by Robert Morgan
  4. West of Here by Jonathan Evison
  5. Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinore Pruitt Stewart
In the next couple of months, I’ll be tackling this topic from as many perspectives as I can find, and I welcome your comments, discussion, and book recommendations! I’ll also later be joined by another book blogger for a cooperative effort on tackling Lions of the West so we can share and dispute our own preconceived notions and accepted histories of the characters Morgan credits with westward expansion. If you’re interested in participating, get a head start now—we won’t be starting that one for several more weeks!

Until then, share your favorite western-themed books below and pack your bags…

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Nonfiction | Southern Yankee minds think alike

A long time ago, I was taken in by a web ad and put Jane Borden’s I Totally Meant to Do That on my ‘to-read’ list, because it just sounded too perfect. Borden grew up a debutante in North Carolina and moved to New York after college, which is essentially my life, minus the extremes of debutante (I went to public school) and hipster (yeah, I live in Brooklyn, but I don’t own Oxfords).

This book is essentially my brain on paper. It’s a collection of little observations that Jane has made on the on the idiosyncrasies of city-living that only someone from the South would spend the time noticing and analyzing. To so many of her experiences, I just had to say: Yes. Been there. Experiences like:

  • Stopping a stranger after picking up something they dropped, only to realize the person was, in fact, littering, and your help is interpreted as sarcasm. My first week in New York, I stopped a woman at the bank who dropped a dollar. Her response? “Pft, it’s only a dollar.”
  • Being yelled at or called a profanity by a stranger after the smallest of encounters. Ugh, nothing starts your day off worse than being yelled at by a stranger at 8:30am on the subway for something inconsequential. And I end up crying every time. WHY SO RUDE???

And how, inevitably, New York has its own reasons for its behavior. Like how:

  • Walking the streets is an art form (one on which I pride myself for having mastered), weaving in and out of people, avoiding stationary objects. Because the key is just to watch the people around you.
  • People project no sense of privacy, because, “Wherever New Yorkers are, they feel at home. What tourists regard as exhibitionism, locals herald as the inalienable right to treat the city like a bedroom.” I think it is often gross and inappropriate. DO NOT CLIP YOUR NAILS ON THE SUBWAY.
  • There’s no rule of etiquette because “manners require social interaction while New Yorkers are bred for anonymity, naturally selected to blend in and go unnoticed. Those who accidentally stand out get mugged. Or, worse, end up on reality-TV prank shows.” No joke, this is often my worst fear. That I will end up on YouTube because of something I did and didn’t even realize I was doing.

And how New York has this constant buzz of noise that you don’t even notice until you escape it completely and you realize that actually drives you crazy. And all the stimuli bombarding you constantly becomes commonplace until one day you suddenly see it clearly and it also drives you crazy. And utterly EXHAUSTS you.

After approximately 3.25 years in the city, I even made a decision similar to Jane Borden and decided to be a Southerner living in New York rather than a New Yorker from the South. And since, I’ve done what she did, trying to “import the South” with pictures, posters, recipes, bringing back “y’all” to my lexicon, probably much to the annoyance of my friends and loved ones in New York.

I read this book when I was home for Christmas, and I think I bawled in my bed at about 1:30 in the morning as I finished it, because of the ending which was just so on point that it’s not even worth paraphrasing.

“I thought I was choosing between between two geographical locations, between two ways of life. But that’s not true. North Carolina isn’t a lifestyle; it’s my family…New Yorkers participate in one another’s most intimate moments, and I want to share in them all…But by definition, these relationships could never be more than snippets—how can I justify choosing strangers over my family?…I now have three nephews and a niece who are growing up without me, know me as the aunt who flies in and out…I have wisdom to share, and I don’t want to do so over the phone or through the mail.”

Ok, for me, it is somewhat the lifestyle of geographic locations, but for the most point, she gets me. I’m not sure people who have not made the South to North move would fully get everything Borden says (get in that “OMG, YES, SO TRUE!” kind of way), but it’s funny enough to be enjoyed nonetheless. It was just too eerily similar to my life that I absolutely loved it—similar even down to the same dive bar I live next door to in Brooklyn, and Southern women’s fear of gypsies who will enter your unlocked house while you’re outside gardening (something I was raised to fear).

Monday, January 9, 2012

Reading Roundup: A Collection of So-So Characters

In a, once again, frantic attempt to catch up on all the books I’m reading, I’m posting a reading round-up. In this case, it is especially necessary because I found all these books to be just “meh” and I don’t have too much to say about them. What made them “meh?” Their characters.

Carol Shields’ The Stone Diaries is supposedly a modern classic, winning the Pulitzer in 1995. It’s the story of Daisy Goodwill Flett, from her birth in 1905 through marriage, children, middle age, and to her death towards the end of the century. What’s so interesting about this story is the perspective. You can never really get a grasp on who is telling the story. Sometimes, it’s Daisy; sometimes friends; sometimes children; sometimes it feels like an omniscient, unknown narrator. This perspective, however many of them there are, provides a broader look at Daisy, allows the reader to approach her from different angles and see, perhaps, what tiny part of her influenced a decision or a behavior.

Well, as much as we learn about Daisy, I never really liked her. She just seemed so emotionless and indifferent. I never felt she actively participated in the life about which we were reading, which was a life full of emotional events. Never seeing her emotions led me to find her a little cold and distant and therefore unrelatable as a main character. I think this would be a good book to read with a group for a discussion but reading alone left me flat.


The Cradle by Patrick Somerville is essentially a short little book about a crazy pregnant wife sending demanding crazy things from her husband because of a pregnant whim. I’m certain the author intended a deeper message, but that’s how it appears in a nutshell to me. The pregnant Marissa sends her husband, Matthew, on a quest for a Civil War era cradle she once slept in that disappeared when Marissa’s own mother disappeared when Marissa was a teenager. Matthew’s quest takes him throughout the midwest like a scavenger hunt, meeting really weird, terrible people along the way. In another story and a decade later, a teenager boy is shipping off to Iraq, and his mother, Renee, is having a hard time facing it. Renee’s got issues of her own, though, as memories of her own tragic past are starting to surface.

Now, obviously these two stories are going to connect to create a bigger message about love, family, etc etc. I think the writing was very good, and I’m grateful that the author knew how to pace and how much to write, so the story did not unnecessarily go on for another hundred pages (as often happens). However, once again, I didn’t much care for the characters. Marissa just seemed a little crazy and demanding because Somerville didn’t throw in any redeeming qualities. I may have sympathized with her more had she been more fully fleshed out to appear a more normal person just going through a crazy hormonal time. As a result, Matthew just seemed whipped. He had issues of his own which explained much of his mentality, but there was just something missing. I didn’t dislike him, but I also didn’t overly like him. Actually, that’s pretty a pretty good summation of how I felt about all the characters.


Robert Goolrick’s A Reliable Wife has been a bestseller (so the cover says), and I think this is why: America was just turned on by it. Holy Batman, this book had a lot of sex in it. A lot of detailed sex that I was not expecting. This is the story of a man in the early 1900s who places an ad in a newspaper for a reliable wife and gets a response from a “simple, honest woman.” Now, this is a thriller, so obviously she is anything but, and his intentions weren’t so pure either. Many of you probably already know about this plot, so I won’t go into anymore depth, but unsurprisingly, the plot thickens as deceit is revealed and love becomes a game-changer.

I read the second half of this on a bus to DC, so I have to say, uninterrupted, I couldn’t put it down. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I liked it a lot. Once again, the characters were just bleh. I couldn’t really connect with them, and though I was racing through to find out how the story ends, that’s all I cared about: the end. I didn’t care how it ended, nor what happened to any of the characters. I enjoyed this one the most of these three books, but it was still a rather dark story.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Thoughts on 2011 and Looking Forward to 2012

The year is over, and I completed my goal of reading 60 books in 2011! Actually, I read 61 and beat my previous record of 60 from 2009. [Last year, you may recall, Howard Zinn slowed me down at the end and I didn’t quite make 60. Thanks, Zinn.]

Looking back on my list of reading from the past year, I’m not inspired to create a “best of” list like I’d usually do; there are not a handful of books that stand out as utterly magnificent in every way. Instead, I’m going to make a few lists. (A couple books don’t have reviews up yet…they’re coming!)

Sucked me in the most:

  1. New York: The Novel by Edward Rutherfurd
  2. Tomorrow River by Lesley Kagan
  3. Coming Home by Rosamunde Pilcher

Entertained me the most:

  1. Bossypants by Tina Fey
  2. I Am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley
  3. Anastasia Again by Lois Lowry

Pondered the most:

  1. The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamad
  2. I Totally Meant to Do That by Jane Borden
  3. Vaclav & Lena by Haley Tanner

Learned the most:

  1. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
  2. Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier
  3. The Lost City of Z by David Grann
Bored me the most:
  1. The World As I Found It by Bruce Duffy
  2. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
  3. The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick [So bored that I didn’t even bother reviewing.]
Disappointed me the most:
  1. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
  2. Life With Mr. Dangerous by Paul Hornschemeier
  3. Swamplandia! by Karen Russsell

2011 wasn’t a very profound year for reading in the sense that I wasn’t very adventurous in what I read with the exception of the World Reading Challenge, which expanded my international oeuvre. It was a fabulous way to make me read a larger variety of voices. I didn’t sign up for it again, though, because of my new reading goals…

In 2012, I want to:

  1. Read more non-fiction. I feel I’ve done pretty well with that in the past couple of years, but I think 2011 was the exception.
  2. Read what’s on my book shelf. I have a billion books to weed, but I can’t do that without first determining if they’re worth keeping or not!
  3. Pay attention to my mood when selecting a book. If I just read southern fiction, read something else next. If I want to read something light and easy, pick up that chick-lit I’ve been avoiding for months. If you read according to your mood, chances are you’ll like the book better than if in the wrong frame of mind.
  4. Don’t ever stress myself out over finishing a book on a deadline. Reading is meant to be enjoyed, and it’s not fair to the book or author if you rush through it!
I’m going to keep a reading goal of around 60 books. As busy as I am, I don’t think upping that number is very realistic!
Here’s to a great year of literature!