Saturday, May 27, 2023

Thoughts, Les Mis Part I

Quotes I liked:

“To be a saint is the exception. To be a good man is the rule.”

“Society is to blame for not giving free education. It’s responsible for the darkness it produces. In any benighted soul - that’s where sin will be committed. It’s not he who commits the sin that’s to blame but he who causes the darkness to prevail.”

“The selfhood of the infinite is God.”

“There is an inviolable horror at the portals of the enigma. Those dark openings stand there gaping, but something tells you, one of life’s passers-by, not to enter. Woe to whoever goes in there! Geniuses, in the uncharted depths of abstraction and pure speculation, placed to so speak above all doctrines, propose their ideas to God. Their prayer daringly invites discussion. Their adoration is questioning. This is direct religion, full of anxiety and responsibility for whoever attempts its challenges.”

“The mind’s eye can nowhere find more brilliant splendor and more tenebrous gloom than in man. It cannot set its gaze on anything more fearsome, more complicated, more mysterious and infinite. There is a spectacle greater than the sea: that is the sky. There is a spectacle greater than the sky: that is the inner soul.”

* * *

Les Miserables is the story of souls, of history, redemption, and grace. Of the conflict between law and order and justice. This is a big novel: my copy has over 1300 pages. Hugo is, to paraphrase the above, setting his gaze on the mysterious and infinite inner soul of man. It is striking to me, as a 21st century reader, how much time he spends discussing the moral evolution of characters and their consciences. My guess is that novel-writing changed alongside the development of science and psychoanalysis to veer away, largely and not as a rule, from souls.

It’s also apparent that in the 19th century, no one told people about that supposed ‘golden rule of writing’ (I hate it) to “Show, don’t tell.” Hugo certainly does his fair share of both. And why not? What if you have something great to tell? What is greater to tell than the reflections on the soul’s fathomless deeps, social darkness, the evolution of hatred within a man’s heart, on psychic wounds inflicted by kindness? My mind felt a sort of swirling upwards, as I was pushed into these abstractions, before coming back to earth each time as the story progressed. 

There is a lot of beauty in these pages. The book begins with the character of the Bishop of Digne, a man who in his youth was violent, who experienced loss when his wife died, and was then ordained in middle age. The Bishop of Digne was not a naturally kind man, but once he settled on the conviction to be kind, he became so “thought by thought.” In this book, we catch the Bishop of Digne sitting in his garden, thinking about the radiance of God (oh boy, there’s Victor Hugo telling us!), as well as visiting outcasts and giving his salary to the poor (oh, thank god, now he’s showing). “Love one another” is his modus operandi; he does not question his faith beyond this directive, and his kindness is what propels the redemption of the novel’s main character, Jean Valjean. Valjean, just released from prison after nineteen years served for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving children, steals silver from the bishop. Police arrest Valjean, but the bishop offers Valjean grace, giving him the silver to buy his soul for God.

Hugo describes this act of grace as an “attack” on Valjean’s soul, mired in darkness as it was, and the attack changes him into a good man, or at least, one who tries to act through kindness and conscience. Without the initial gift of grace, the rest of the novel would not happen. The good deeds Valjean does as a changed man would not happen, he would spend his life, his soul dour, his body in a prison doing no good for anyone.

I am moved that the bishop’s orientation towards kindness is not natural but one borne of practice, and one conceived in prayer. He does not know Jean Valjean personally nor does he remain in contact with Jean Valjean after he saves him. It was an unselfish act of compassion/

* * * 

I am trying to avoid summarizing too much, but this part also introduces us to Javert, a police officer who was born in prison to a gypsy mother, which is in his estimation a humiliation. This origin makes Javert eager to prove himself to people in power. He is set up as a foil to Valjean who believes that “the highest law is conscience”. Javert thinks that the law is the highest law, and that kindness creates disorder in society. Javert’s belief system consists of two truths: 1. Respect for authority and 2. Hatred of Rebellion. 

Hugo described Javert’s face: “The peasants of Asturias are convinced that in every she-wolf’s litter there is one dog, which is killed by the mother because otherwise as it grew up it would eat the rest of her young. Give this son-of-a-wolf dog a human face, and you have Javert.”

Woof. Love to hate Javert.

Also, whoever thought a readalike for Les Miserables might be Angela Y. Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete? I could not stop thinking about that book when I read Part I of this book. It’s a little depressing to consider how states (especially the United States, which I believe incarcerates 40% of all incarcerated people ON EARTH) continue to throw people away rather than examining its failings to provide for its people.

Saturday, May 20, 2023

Starting Les Miserables (again)

I have not kept up with my blog for reasons, and I do not know if this post will change that. I’ve been exorcising whatever need I have to share by using Instagram for the most part, and keeping good old fashioned notebooks for that which I do not need to share. I am beginning to read another Big Book, however, so I was reminded of the last monster I tackled and how I posted about it here.

This past February, Les Miserables was touring through Chicago, and I went to see the production for probably the sixth time ever. Yet, having seen it so many times did not prepare me for how moved I was by an early scene between the bishop and Jean Valjean. I know this musical backwards and forwards; it was the first musical I ever saw live, I knew what was going to happen, and which scenes usually get me. The emoting usually doesn’t begin until several scenes later with a main character’s death! I guess not this time. So I decided I wanted to finally read through Les Miserables to see if there was more to the theme of mercy and forgiveness, to see if there’s a reason why this particular scene reaches me now, in 2023. I will be reading it as a buddy read with @bookish_lizzi, one of the group of bookish women with whom I’m rereading Louise Erdrich’s books this year.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo was first published in 1862. I learned through a quick internet search that there have been eight translations of Les Miserables from French to English. In about 2008 or 2009 I read half of the Julie Rose translation, which was new in 2007. And actually, I tried to have a book club around it with friends, and when it came time for the meeting, 6-8 people showed up to my studio apartment to drink wine and eat crepes, cheese, and grapes. A neighbor across my courtyard took a shower without pulling down the shade so we had a bit more excitement than most book clubs boast, though no one read more than half of the book, and most read none at all. Discussion was replaced by a singalong to the musical by Boublil and Schonberg. I have no complaints about that evening, but I’ve always meant to come back to the text.

Since it’s 15 years later, I decided I would have to start over again, not necessarily choosing the Rose translation. I used this translation guide to land on a newer translation from 2013 by Christine Donougher, which is supposed to be modernized but not too modern, and with helpful notes. I am trying to fit the book in before a family vacation at the end of June, reading one part each week, but the best laid plans and all that. As with any project, if it isn’t the book for me right now, it is subject to abandonment. (Too many books, not enough time.)

Maybe I will see this blog again in the near future. If not, then not. :) 

Monday, February 28, 2022

Slava Ukraini! Glory to Ukraine!

My heart goes out to the Ukrainians who have been displaced, killed, injured, and traumatized by the invasion and who will continue to grapple with the destruction. Here is a link to a Washington Post page with ways to contribute to Ukrainians. I also feel for the Russian people who will suffer because of their leader. I wish no one ever had to face hardship and show their mettle, to have cause to become inspiration. But Ukrainians and their President have much to be proud of, in their valiant defense of their home.

Something I noticed was how Putin's disinformation narrative fell apart and the international community responded in solidarity with Ukraine. Perhaps a small part of that is because the Biden administration publicized its intelligence that Putin would invade ahead of time. It enabled the world to get ahead of Russian disinformation goons. I saw an Internet commentator say that Putin's address demonstrated a 19th century rationale for the invasion. And, understanding that Tolstoy is a 19th century Russian writing fiction based around historical events that happened before he was born, I hope to finish W&P to help fill gaps in my knowledge about 19th century Russian history. I suppose the greater goal is understanding why we are seeing what we see today. Of course, this one book is not enough, and reading is not enough. Here is a google document with vetted nonprofits benefiting Ukrainians. I find myself - again - humbled by how many books I need to read, how little I know, how huge the world is, how many people there are and how many ways to live, how much there always is to learn. 

In recent years, I have felt more and more helpless when I see anti-democratic trends in the US - the electoral college throwing the 2020 election against the will of the people, the January 6 Insurection, Mitch McConnell subverting SCOTUS nomination norms with respect to President Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland, the way the vote is being systematically denied - again - to Black Americans, the ways that laws asking neighbors to turn on each other are being passed (Texas abortion law AND the most recent trash from Texas Governor Abbott about reporting medical treatment for trans kids as 'child abuse') - alongside the impunity with which Donald Trump used this country and its resources as a cudgel FOR PUTIN against Ukraine, and in so many other ways. The temptation has been there to withdraw and just take care of myself, but the more I learn, the more I see that impulse as an abdication of responsibility and that countering that impulse is a categorical imperative. Ukrainians standing up for their people against a sociopathic bully, his tanks, and his lies is a testament to this.

Resources this last week has brought to mind:

Gaslit Nation, a podcast by two experts in authoritarian governments, Dr. Sarah Kendzior and Andrea Chalupa. They have been sounding alarm bells about Ukraine, Paul Manafort, and Trump since before the 2016 election, before his campaign removed support for Ukraine from the GOP party platform in 2016.

Mr. Jones, feature-length film directed by Agnieszka Holland, written by Andrea Chalupa (streaming on Hulu), about the Welsh journalist who tipped off the world to the Holodomor in Ukraine

Books about activism and histories of resistance:
Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit (collected works, really)
On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder
Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by adrienne maree brown
Joyful Militancy: Building Thriving Resistance in Toxic Times by carla bergman and Nick Montgomery
Fascism: A Warning by Madeleine Albright (audiobook, read by the author)

Books about modern-day Russia:
Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man's Fight for Justice by Bill Browder (I think this is great for its portrayal of post-Soviet Russia and how Putin consolidated power, though I do not necessarily think western venture capitalists' exploitation of early-'90s Russia is necessarily something to laud.)
The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen
Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire by Victor Sebestyen

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America by Sarah Kendzior
The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America by Sarah Kendzior
Surviving Autocracy by Masha Gessen

Twitter follows for expert coverage and/or commentary on Ukraine:
Sarah Kendzior  @sarahkendzior
Andrea Chalupa @AndreaChalupa
Olga Lautman @OlgaNYC1211
The Kyiv Independent (@KyivIndependent)

Links to more sources on Ukraine and/or Russia:

LitHub: Understanding the Ukrainian Crisis: A Comprehensive Reading List by Henrikas Bliudzius
JSTOR: Russia and the Soviet Union: Background Readings by the Editors

I realize there are some serious gaps in these lists. I welcome any additions. I also have not read any books specifically about Ukraine, so please send your recs along. Solidarity!

Saturday, January 29, 2022

First Impressions after reading Volume I, War and Peace

I finished the first volume of War and Peace the other day, and while it’s likely that my impressions will change as I continue through the remaining three volumes (about 1100 more pages in my edition), I thought I’d update my blog with some first impressions. I read the first volume faster than I expected, but that is most likely due to the fact that I took a ‘staycation’ this past week. I will not be able to continue apace in subsequent weeks, and so perhaps getting down some thoughts now about the earliest part will help me remember them. There will be SPOILERS in the rest of this post.

Volume One is made up of three parts, which are further divided into chapters. The first part shocked me with its accessibility. I know exactly why I was scared to start - this book’s reputation is well-known as a Big Important Book Only Read by Serious People - but after getting through the first part I had a good laugh at my own expense. Part I is all society people sitting in drawing rooms, talking about status, money, marriage, and court, like a Russian Jane Austen - but the Extended Edition, with four times the number of characters. I don’t mean to say Austen novels are not complex but just that I did not expect to be as entertained as I was by a big scary book - so, maybe it wasn’t that scary after all. 

If Stefon from SNL reviewed Vol 1, Part 1
That is not to say that part I is without difficulty. Firstly, I don’t want to rag on Tolstoy too much because I do think it’s a true testament to his commitment to realism that he has so many characters with the same first name. I was one of three Colleens from kindergarten through high school, one of five Colleens in my dorm in college, and in adult life, I have maintained best friendships with two Colleens. (I guess that’s what happens after seventeen years of Catholic school!) So, I suppose all of the other books I’ve read before Tolstoy were highly unrealistic, but I was too busy getting through them with the ease that comes with distinctive character names to notice. In War and Peace, there are a few Nikolays, at least two Annas, two Maryas (one who is sometimes called ‘Marie’), a family of Kuragins, and one single character with the last name Karagin (sheesh!). I guess I felt right at home!

Beyond the multiple characters with the same first names, Tolstoy also uses nicknames for some of them and can use titles, family names, and the patronymic forms of their names as well. I was flipping to the character page in the appendix often to ensure I kept people straight. But I have to say, like any book that takes place in a different country with names I am unused to hearing, I got used to the names eventually. Once you learn that -ovich means ‘son of’ and -ovna means ‘daughter of’ —  that’s half the battle.

In summary, the first part almost comes off like a pilot episode, where Tolstoy takes us around the cast of characters in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but also in the country estate of Prince Bolkonsky, as they confront the looming war of Russia against Napoleon’s army in 1805. 

Oddly enough, one of my favorite scenes in Part I is when Pierre Kirillovich, a bastard son to Count Bezhukov, who is good-natured but who does not understand how to behave in social situations, joins a group of young men who are out drinking, making bets, and acting recklessly. The minor character Dholokov bets an English soldier that he can sit in a windowsill and drink an entire bottle of rum without falling. I felt like I was holding my breath until he successfully completed the task. The next mention of Dholokov is that he gets demoted in the army because he and Pierre Kirillovich tied a policeman to the back of a bear. Instead of being ostracized or demoted, Pierre then inherits a lot of money and marries a beautiful society woman. There was an immediacy to the writing of the drinking scene that drew me in; and the fall-out after that with the uneven application of punishment for the bear hijinks shows how class functions in 1805 Russia.
Volume I, Part II Summary on IG
I’d like to say that the whole of Volume One was easy to read, and everyone should run out and get a copy now, but Part Two and most of Part Three conformed more or less to the idea I had of War and Peace before I started the book. Parts Two and Three focus on the ~War~ part of the book, where some of the characters introduced in Part One are now on the front, serving in the Russian army in various capacities. This part was a little more difficult for me to follow and to visualize. Luckily, my book has a map in the appendix, so I was able to flip back and forth and figure out where the armies were generally heading. And luckily, Tolstoy brings a sense of immediacy to more than just drinking scenes, as his omniscient point of view allows him access to the interiors of his characters’ minds. 

To be sure, a lot of this is a slog, though there is a point to getting through the grittiness, as characters get through the confusion and brutality of battle to experience almost a sort of ecstasy on the battle field. One in particular, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, begins his war career looking to emulate Napoleon, seeking personal glory (his own Toulon!), but he must reconcile his ideas of military grandeur with reality, as he is injured at Austerlitz after trying to recover the Russian flag. His injury seems to change his understanding of his place in the world (and to elevate the place of the ‘lofty sky’ in this schema).

Part Three mostly takes place on the front, but there are a few chapters set in Russia. One of my favorite scenes offered some comic relief after all of ‘the war stuff.’ (SPOILER ALERT) Prince Nikolay Bolkonsky, father of aforementioned Andrei, is an eccentric man, who is also abusive to his daughter Marya (who I really like as a character, who I would be if I were a character in this book, but who also shows me that it’s much better to be a woman in 21st century). When his household learns that the Kuragins, an aristocratic family, are coming to visit their country estate, the servants clear snow from the ‘avenoo’ for the guests. Bolkonsky forces them to put the snow back because no one told them to clear the snow, and because, according to the Prince, they should not clear the snow for visitors if they don’t clear the snow for people who live in the house. I read this after personally shoveling several inches of snow from around my building and around my car, so I found it particularly hilarious.

I’m excited to continue with the next volumes, though I expect the next update will be well beyond a week from now.

Friday, January 21, 2022

Starting War and Peace, or 2022: It’s Gonna Be (Russian) LIT! 🔥🔥

tl;dr: I am reading War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (“W&P”), starting today. 

Jenny of Reading Envy, which is one of my book podcasts whose Goodreads page I lurk around (true confession, I’m a great lurker), is hosting a 2022 Reading Envy Russia Challenge, in which participants read books from/about Russia, by Russian authors, or otherwise considered to be “Russian literature” (there are a lot of geopolitical questions baked into that definition!)

I love history and consider the Cold War to be one of my principal areas of interest, so a Russian reading challenge automatically had my attention. The challenge only requests that participants read two books in the first quarter, so I thought that was manageable alongside my other reading projects. I figured I would choose a short Russian novel and fit it in. I dismissed W&P as a viable option immediately - it was too long, it would require too much energy, and I have too many other books to read right now.

Of course, once I determined that I was definitely not up for it, my brain went to work, ultimately convincing me that my reason for not selecting it, because I was too busy reading other stuff, is the very reason why I should be reading it. 

How I arrived at that conclusion: 
I have two projects that I’m reading before a deadline. The first is reading through the 2022 Tournament of Books shortlist before the judging starts up in March. The shortlist is eighteen books long and is entirely comprised of books published in English in 2021. Thus far, I’ve read twelve of the eighteen. And I hate to say this, but I’m finding the list hard to enjoy, with some exceptions (Louise Erdrich, Sally Rooney). I am usually not averse to experimental fiction, concept/idea novels, books without plot or resolution, AT ALL, but this year, sadly, I found so many of the books on the list to be frustrating rather than provocative or exciting. A part of me wants to blame publishing, writers, and pandemic trends, but, as I am the common denominator, I am sure the problem is me, my attention span, and maybe (maybe?) a certain level of malaise from everyday life during these past two pandemic years. In the end, regardless of why, my reaction makes me feel incurious, and that really bums me out, as I actually consider curiosity to be one of my core values.

So, I think the remedy for this discontent must be to read a classic as a counterbalance to the new books. I want something that hopefully sheds light on universal human experience. Last summer I read Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, using the schedule provided by Emily of the Book Cougars, and I loved it. There were definitely morsels of wisdom about finding happiness and understanding the hedonic treadmill alongside the penetrating psychological depth of his characters that I wouldn’t mind finding in another Tolstoy novel.

 Also, it was probably the second time in my adult life where I deliberately spent more than a month on a book (the first time was reading Ulysses by James Joyce in 2013, which actually involved reading two other books at the same time, to help me figure out what the world was going on). Usually, I read a book in a few days’ time, at most. I have built in reading habits throughout my day and usually don’t want to put my selected books down. But for Anna K and Ulysses, I made a reading plan and generally stuck to it (until I just couldn’t help myself). By breaking the books down into manageable bites, I was able to ease into the intimidating aspects of them, perhaps getting used to the style or, in the case of Joyce, used to existing within chaos. Also, there was something rewarding about taking my time and stopping after a certain page count each day. I was forced to think about each smaller section as I continued my non-reading day, and certain scenes or lines stuck with me more than they would have, had I wolfed down the book 100 pages at a go.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized a long, slow read is what I need. It doesn’t hurt that I live in Chicago where the weather and the conditions of the pandemic are keeping me indoors and at home most of the time. Also, in normal times, an actual deterrent to reading W&P would be my inability to lug around a paper copy to and from work. I have been working remotely for almost two years now, so how could I not take advantage of this time? I do read ebooks, but I prefer codex form, any day of the week, especially for big books.

2 lbs. 8 oz.

As for my other reading project with a deadline — this would be reading through the Inspector Gamache/Three Pines series by Louise Penny. And once again, the more I thought about it the more I realized that this specific project should in no way hinder my ability to handle the Tolstoy. Again, the existence of this particular reading project is actually a reason to read W&P. As a cozy mystery series, the Gamache books are the perfect companion to a Big Important Book. I guess, if W&P is my counterbalance to the newer titles I’m having a hard time with, then Louise Penny will be a counterbalance to my counterbalance (Aside: I also have maybe 4 or 5 drafts of different Louise Penny blog posts that I have been struggling to complete; the series is about so much beyond cozy mystery. I hope to be able to properly distill it into this blog some day.). Moreover, the project’s deadline is not really a defined deadline yet, I just would like to finish the series before the Amazon Prime series is released, and so far, I do not think a release date has been set.

And thus, I convinced myself. 

But I do not think I convinced Freya.

Probably to make the decision more real, I posted about reading War and Peace in the comments on a Book Cougars’ Facebook post, and Chris, who is co-host of the Book Cougars podcast and who blogs at Stay Curious, reached out to ask if I’d do a Buddy Read. To which I gave a resounding YES. I’m so excited to read this with Chris, who had this wonderful post about it (favorite line might be about which books make it to the death bed). I also think I’ve recruited a couple coworkers and a best friend from college into reading it, though not necessarily on the same schedule.

I will be reading the Briggs translation, which I saw on a number of blogs as the most accessible to beginners. I really love the Pevear and Volokhonsky cover, and I’m certain that it would also be a rich reading experience, but I just went with the choice that is supposed to be easiest for me.

In conclusion, I really can’t not read War and Peace in 2022. If not now then when?
Now is the time. As in, right now. Bye! 

(I certainly hope to post more while reading or after having read it, but I think I’ve definitely written enough about deciding to read it at this point!)

Sunday, November 7, 2021

I'm still here! Thoughts on why this blog exists plus a preliminary Top Ten Books I Read in 2021 list

Life caught up to me these past few months, with things heating up at work at the same time as my non-reading extracurriculars (it can never be just one thing at a time, can it?), but I have been reading through it all and considering what direction I want to take this blog, if any, or if it should just be tabula rasa for me to do with it what I will.

Though I’ve not been posting, I have had some reading achievements since July: I read Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (translated by Constance Garnett), read The Odyssey by Homer (translated by Emily Wilson (so good!)), began the Louise Penny Three Pines/Inspector Gamache series, and kicked off two travel reading projects. Along the way I finished my annual Goodreads goal of finishing fifty-two books, and I made a preliminary top ten list of books read in 2021 (I will include at the bottom of this post. The final list comes out in December; I usually post this to social media).

I may be overthinking it, but sometimes I am not sure I have much to add about a subject or a book that hasn’t already been said better by someone else, so I have felt a bit tongue-tied when considering blogging in the past couple months. This is not the first time I’ve opened up this blog since my last post, but it’s the first time I eked out more than a paragraph. I am writing this because I am trying to make sure I am thoughtful about what I put out there, to make sure I know WHY I want to write a blog. Is it to build community? Is it to start a conversation with someone? Is it just to check a box in my list of things I want to do? Is it to have fun? I mean, it can be all of the above or none of the above, I’m sure. Although I think the last question has to always be answered with a “yes” for just about anything for me, or I’m not sure I’ll stay motivated to keep at it.

I’ve considered making the focus of the blog be Reading Projects. I have several ongoing projects at any one time, some that I know will never be completed (Stephen King reading project, for example, unless I dedicate a year to Stephen King books. At this point, his annual output is greater than the number of his books that I read in a year.), some that have a deadline (chiefly revolving around travel plans or book awards ceremonies), and some that are achievable in this lifetime but have no deadline (read all of the Louise Erdrich books). Right now off the top of my head, these are my active projects:

  • Stephen King Reading Project (read all books published under Stephen King’s name)
  • Louise Erdrich novels (read all books published by Louise Erdrich)
  • Quebec travel project (read 6 books either about or set in Quebec/Canada before 11/18 when I go to Quebec City, a trip booked after finishing Louise Penny’s Bury Your Dead, the sixth in the Three Pines Series) 
  • Three Pines/Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny (I’m on book 7)
  • Sister Fidelma mystery series by Peter Tremayne (I think I’m 2 books behind) 
  • The Masquerade tetralogy by Seth Dickinson (all caught up, just waiting on publication of the final installment, but waiting very patiently. These books are all Very Worth the Wait.) 

  • Greece travel project (read books on the history of Greece, travel writing in Greece, Greek novels, novels set in Greece or about people of Greek heritage, etc., deadline June 2022 or whenever my Greece trip happens) 
  • Japan travel project (read about the history of Japan,  culture of Japan, travel writing in Japan, Japanese novels, novels set in Japan or about people of Japanese heritage, etc., deadline ???? This trip keeps getting pushed back, so more time to read, I guess!)

  • Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (I will finish this book some day, I swear) 
  • Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery (2 more books to go in the series, though I really have to admit that a new understanding of the treatment of French Canadians in the series has made me put these last two off)
  • Book club reading (ongoing, neverending!)

I usually pick one or more award each year and try to read through the shortlist of finalists for that award too. One of my favorites has been the Tournament of Books put on by Morning News every year. I did read through a majority of the shortlist this year but could not get through the entire list. In 2020 and 2021, I am giving myself way more grace and leeway than before, because pandemic reading has its ups and downs. I also have read through the shortlist of the National Book Awards for Non-fiction, the shortlist for the Nebulas, and the shortlist for the Hugos, among other lists.

Project reading can be very rewarding, though sometimes I have pushed myself to read through something that wasn’t for me, just because it was on a list. Reading should always be fun to some degree. So as much as I am a completist, I have been training myself to be ok with having projects that will never be finished. I think there’s a metaphor in there for the Self, isn’t there?

Anyway, I guess I don’t know where I’m going with this blog, if anywhere. Perhaps it is still a worthwhile endeavor; perhaps I don’t need to have a destination. A life in books, from what I can tell so far, is a meandering life, but a rich one as well. I’ll have to wait and see what happens next.

As promised:

Preliminary Top Ten Books Read in 2021 (ok, some are series, but I can do what I want with my list, as of 9/14/21)

1. Still Life and A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny

2. Murderbot Diaries (#1-4) by Martha Wells

3. The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson

4. The Witness for the Dead by Katherine Addison

5. Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe

6. How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang

7. Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters

8. Red Pill by Hari Kunzru

9. Luster by Raven Leilani

10. Tender Is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica

Honorable mention: Why Won’t You Apologize? By Harriet Lerner - this was recommended at an implicit bias workshop at work during a conversation about microaggressions, but I have found it useful in so many other situations as well.

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Big Book #2: The Mirror & The Light by Hilary Mantel

For my second big book of #BigBookSummer, I read The Mirror & The Light by Hilary Mantel, the concluding volume of the Thomas Cromwell trilogy. It chronicles Cromwell’s life from the time from Anne Boleyn’s beheading to his own comeuppance. My initial feelings were not positive, but sometimes I think that a book’s membership in a series can taint my opinion of it because I’m comparing it to the other books in the series. On that level - the middle book - Bring Up the Bodies - was the best, the shortest, and most focused, as it is structured around Cromwell’s involvement in the romance and the, um, subsequent falling out (to put it lightly!) between King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. The Mirror & The Light, however, did not have the benefit of a singular salacious story to propel the reader forward. I’ve given myself a week to digest this book a bit more, and I still think it was too long and rather hard to get through. It was not for me. I remember thinking that in both of the first two volumes initially, but then the books always picked up and I couldn’t put them down. There were several passages and dialogues in this book that I loved and thought this book was picking up for me, but these glimmers would always fade away. 

I thought it was interesting to learn about the operational impact of the Reformation, specifically how the lands and wealth of abbeys and monasteries were disbursed after Henry VIII had most of them shut down. There was a silver lining after all - the historical part of the historical fiction was solid.

On to the next big book! 

It me

Thoughts, Les Mis Part I

Quotes I liked: “To be a saint is the exception. To be a good man is the rule.” “Society is to blame for not giving free education. It’s res...