Fat Books & Thin Women


Journaling Stories Short and Long

Lots of aspirational reading this week. I signed up for this great classics challenge hosted by Jillian. I use the word “challenge” about as loosely as I can here, because the whole thing strikes me more as, I don’t know, a collective effort to better our reading habits and read books we’ve meant to read for years…but haven’t. Over in the sidebar you can see a link to a list of classics I plan to…okay, will try to…read in the next five years. It recently occurred to me that these books average about 800 pages each and that I’ll be lucky to read half of them in five years, but it sure will be satisfying to knock a few of them off my Shelf of Shame, ie the collection of classics I’ve bought but never read. I’m already making great progress with this challenge – I moved my copy of Dickens’s David Copperfield to the end of my bookshelf, where I have to face down its cover dozens of times a day, from its former position wedged between my Albanian dictionary and GRE study guides.

Outside of work (more on that later), my reading lately has been focused about half on epic, immersive novels, and half on short and easily consumed essays and stories. Kit Steinkellner did a Book Riot piece a few weeks back, “Every Book I Read Needs to be at Least 50 Pages Shorter,” which makes the point that books need to be done like screenplays. The title of the piece is misleading, because Steinkellner doesn’t really say that every book needs to be fifty pages shorter (in that she does have a decent point; all I can hear right now is Kristen Wiig’s character from Knocked Up saying, “Tighten!”) but that novels shouldn’t be over 100,000 words – that there should be a clear limit for novel length just as there is a clear limit for screenplay length. It’s an interesting post (not least for the comments that follow), but also fundamentally off-the-mark. Because, hell, movies aren’t the only expression of film; you don’t even need to make an argument anymore that the best writing is in serialized TV shows because it is so obvious. Something like The Lord of the Rings (which I am still reading, and loving) or Game of Thrones or Stephen King’s Under the Dome is comparable not to the latest hour-and-a-half-long popcorn flick, but a fifty-hour TV drama. I swear, I am going to bring this all together at the end.

I’ve also been reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas for this readalong hosted by Care’s Book Club and Melissa at The Avid Reader’s Musings. I tried to read Cloud Atlas last summer and failed miserably – I started right before flying home for the first time in two years, which explains a lot – and am so, so glad I gave it another try. I’m halfway through now and am so in love with the book I don’t even know where to begin. There will be more gushing and expressions of love for David Mitchell, later this week.

My reading’s also been tending to the very short. I picked up a Kindle copy of the 2011 Best American Science and Nature Writing on sale, and have been reading essays as a sort of reward/break from my reading for work. What I like about the collection is that it’s like having a zillion Kindle Singles for the price of one. (Speaking of which, recently read Mark Bittman’s new Kindle Single, “Cooking Solves Everything,” which probably won’t tell you anything you don’t already know about cooking and eating real food, but is as much a pleasure to read as everything else that Bittman publishes.) Last week the New York Times ran a review piece on Kindle Singles, which I hope they’ll do again in the future.

Also read a couple of stories by David Gaughran (who writes the best, best blog about self-publishing – with a real focus on marketing and design and being professional; I don’t even self-publish and I can’t stop reading the thing), available as an e-book, “If You Go Into the Woods.” The two stories here are light and quick reads and – I am not quite sure how to put this – very popular-feeling. You know, these read like stories that were written for readers, not for fellow writers, and it’s a lot of fun to read a short story that doesn’t ask for five rereads in order to figure out what the hell is going on.

Anyway, reading Gaughran’s stories sucked me in in some way, so that now I can’t stop thinking of buying his most recent novel, A Storm Hits Valpariso, to read when I’m flying home. Because I am the sort of person who starts planning what she’ll read during nineteen hours of flights and layovers…over four months in advance. Make sure you look at Gaugrahn’s blog, and pick up those short stories (it looks like they’re free in the UK, 99 cents in the States).

Since I’m always mentioning reading for work, let’s explore that (slightly duller) direction, too. Last week finished Ismail Kadare’s The Accident – I’ll put up a review soon…soonish – which somehow manages to take on Balkan spy agencies, a long-running affair, and time in just a couple hundred pages. Now on Eric Hobsbawm’s Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality, which is interesting but which I have to read standing up to keep from falling asleep.

And one quick comment on non-bookish stuff. I’ve been watching Shameless lately, which is (back to that Book Riot piece!) a long and funny and sad and immersive serial that has, at least momentarily, displaced Downton Abbey in my affections. I wasn’t expecting a whole lot out of it, but it is just unbelievable in the way it faces poverty, alcoholism, and limited opportunities (there’s this one moment when Fiona, who dropped out of high school her junior year to care for her younger brothers and sisters, is serving drinks to a table of men at one of many humiliating, temporary jobs, that is just gut-wrenching) without ever diminishing the family or their stories.

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Reading Journal!

Iris wrote this great post about reading journals and using our blogs to offer something besides straight reviews of novels. I don’t usually use this blog to do much other than review and post about short stories, but lately I haven’t been so much in the mood to review. To say, many thanks to Iris for reminding me that I can use Fat Books for whatever I like.

My reading lately has been a lot of Albanian history interspersed with comfort reading. I mean the Emily Giffin kick that I was on a few weeks ago, The Two Towers (which I just started rereading), and Sue Grafton. Plenty of Sue Grafton.

When I reread The Fellowship of the Ring last year, I had a hard time thinking of it in terms of anything other than comfort reading. It was such a great book to return to when I was sick (seriously, for like a month straight – that’s what happens when you should go to the doctor but don’t) and working on a huge project (a gazillion spelling bees). The Two Towers is just about the same. Reading the first chapter, I was surprised by how clumsy Tolkien’s writing seemed, but after a couple chapters I had slipped into the rhythm of it. I’d been debating starting on the second book of the George R.R. Martin series, but I’m glad I decided to stick with The Lord of the Rings. Gives me what I wanted out of Martin – that sense of a completely imagined and endless world – but with the added benefit of familiarity. Plus, this means that when I fly home (July 31st! [for good this time!]) I can buy A Clash of Kings in paper.

Reading this article on Nancy Drew’s “father” last week, one thing O’Rourke wrote really struck me – that no reader could ever solve one of the Nancy Drew mysteries. When you hit the end of the novel you could look back and say, “okay, I guess everything fits that solution” – but as you read, there was no way you could take the “clues” Nancy found and turn them into anything meaningful. The Nancy Drew books just aren’t the type of mystery designed so the reader can attempt to solve them as he or she goes along. While I was getting close to the end of Sue Grafton’s G is for Gumshoe, with no clue of what “solution” Kinsey was close to finding, or how the hell she had gotten there, I realized that Grafton’s mysteries have the same problem. I keep reading the Kinsey Millhone books because I’m getting fond of Kinsey’s character, but I’m more passive than I was when reading, say, one of Elizabeth George’s books (as frustrating as her books have become). What “clues” Kinsey deals with aren’t clues of the type that might lead the reader anywhere; we just end up waiting for Kinsey to have a flash of inspiration and tell us how she solved the mystery, going from clueless to closing the case in the last few pages of each novel. This is, actually, kind of frustrating for a reader.

In other news, I have a box of books on Albania and stuff relating to Albania on its way to Tirana. I’ll probably post about some of these things as I read them – expect a lot on Ismail Kadare’s novels – although it occurred to me, as I was looking at the nonexistent comments for my review of Kadare’s Chronicle in Stone and this longread on Albanian blood feuds, that exactly zero people, other than myself, are interested in this stuff.

Also, my Kindle had a baby. If I can pose this question to people who own one of the newest Kindles (which is so small I find myself tempted to buy one when I get home – imagine how easy it would be to use even with just one free hand!), how are you supposed to take notes on the thing? I appreciate how much smaller the Kindle got once Amazon dumped the tiny keyboard, but if I had to laboriously select the letters on the Kindle’s on-screen “keyboard”, one by one, using the up and down button, I would never, never take a note. It seems like giving up on the story that you can mark up an ebook just as easily as a real book. You can’t, which is why I coerced my parents into spending $50 to mail a box of books to me in Albania, rather than reading them on my Kindle.

In the same ereadery vein, The New York Times today ran a piece about digital distractions on tablet devices. The piece falls into the camp of NY Times pieces telling us things we already knew, using a small subject sample, but whatever – the idea of people struggling to read novels or other books on their tablets is both painful and obvious. One of the things I like about my kindle, especially since I’m in Europe and can’t access the internet on it (old timey kindle here), is that there are no distractions. I can’t go online, I can’t learn if I have a new email; I’m just reading. A tablet seems like an appealing thing to have for a subscription to the Times, and to play Angry Birds on, but I can’t imagine reading a novel on one. You?



30 Day Book Meme, Day 19

Favorite book turned into a movie:

This isn’t even a question that needs to be asked of a twenty-something occasional fantasy fan, is it? There are books-to-movies I have to watch with my mom every year (the Colin Firth Pride & Prejudice), there are movies I have to watch because they came out while I was on my visit home (Harry Potter), there are ones so good they send me back to the book for a reread (the Coen brothers’ True Grit), but there’s no film adaptation that I thrill to quite as much as Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien wrote the fantasy that no one could follow (though many have tried), and Jackson did the adaptation and fantasy films that no one can follow. Judging by the latest Harry Potter film, it’s near impossible to do a fantasy film today without echoing some element of Jackson’s imagery.

Besides, he gave us this:

30 Day Book Meme:
Day 01 – The best book you read last year
Day 02 – A book that you’ve read more than three times
Day 03 – Your favorite series
Day 04 – Favorite book of your favorite series
Day 05 – A book that makes you happy
Day 06 – A book that makes you sad
Day 07 – Most underrated book
Day 08 – Most overrated book
Day 09 – A book you thought you wouldn’t like but ended up loving
Day 10 – Favorite classic book
Day 11 – A book you hated
Day 12 – A book you used to love but don’t anymore
Day 13 – Your favorite writer
Day 14 – Favorite book of your favorite writer
Day 15 – Favorite male character
Day 16 – Favorite female character
Day 17 – Favorite quote from your favorite book
Day 18 – A book that disappointed you
Day 19 – Favorite book turned into a movie
Day 20 – Favorite romance book
Day 21 – Favorite book from your childhood
Day 22 – Favorite book you own
Day 23 – A book you wanted to read for a long time but still haven’t
Day 24 – A book that you wish more people would’ve read
Day 25 – A character who you can relate to the most
Day 26 – A book that changed your opinion about something
Day 27 – The most surprising plot twist or ending
Day 28 – Favorite title
Day 29 – A book everyone hated but you liked
Day 30 – Your favorite book of all time

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Reread: Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring


As I’ve mentioned on here a few times – it being the only thing I have to write about, apart from how cold it is here* – I’ve been rereading The Fellowship of the Ring. This was one of those rare reads that happened not merely because I wanted to reread the book, but because it felt necessary to do so.

Believe it or not, I’m not going to write a whole post about the trials and tribulations of my life and how they drove me to what’s become a comforting book to me, but that’s pretty much what got me rereading Fellowship. That and how I was constantly humming the soundtrack to the film of The Fellowship, driving insane the volunteer who had to crash at my place for two weeks while we ran semi-final spelling bees around my town. It seemed the only way to quit humming the damn soundtrack would be to either stream the film (which would kill about a third of my December bandwidth) or reread the book, which I already had loaded on my kindle.

I didn’t stop humming the soundtrack, but I did get a few awesome dreams prominently featuring Samwise Gamgee out of it. And the big thing I was looking for, to escape from my dreary existence of running a noble Peace Corps project (and six spelling bees a day for two weeks), was there in force. What’s interesting to me now that I’ve finished the book is why I turned to Lord of the Rings in the first place for this sort of “comfort read;” because to face it, the book can be wordy and at times hopeless even though I know how things will end up. Why Lord of the Rings and not Harry Potter, if I was just looking for escapism?

It’s all in what Tolkien does so well. The book may be wordy, there may be more songs in there than I really want to read (and more songs in Elvish than I really want to skip over), the descriptions of the fellowship’s journey may at some points seem overly long for the relative lack of action, but all of these things serve in Tolkien’s world creation. What’s so comforting to me about the books is, I think, how complete the world is that Tolkien writes about. I’m hardly the first to observe this, but the depth of history and detail in his works, the sense that behind even a pair of names briefly mentioned there lies a complete history, makes the world of Middle-earth real enough that I can forget, occasionally, my own world of weekly showers and daily spelling bees.

The way the characters speak, sing, move through their world, all points to this history that Tolkien has mapped out. As when Elrond speaks of the Ring’s history at the Council of Elrond:

Of Númenor he spoke, its glory and its fall, and the return of the Kings of Men to Middle-earth out of the deeps of the Sea, borne upon the wings of storm. Then Elendil the Tall and his mighty sons, Isildur and Anárion, became great lords; and the North-realm they made in Arnor, and the South-realm in Gondor above the mouths of Anduin. But Sauron of Mordor assailed them, and they made the Last Alliance of Elves and Men, and the hosts of Gil-galad and Elendil were mustered in Arnor.

When characters begin to delve into history like this, there’s something almost biblical about the tone; the sense of a history so deep that it’s entered into myth and legend, remembered only by a few who are removed from the time of the world. Or, as Tolkien describes Galadriel, and elves:

Already she seemed to him, as by men of later days Elves still at times are seen: present and yet remote, a living vision of that which has already been left far behind by the flowing streams of Time.

It’s this tone that draws me in, my attraction to a world with a history so complete and yet so separate from our own, but also the simplicity that is at the heart of the story. There are characters who falter, who are not at all times good or pleasant: Boromir, Legolas during the early stages of the fellowship’s journey, Galadriel when she confesses how she has long thought of acquiring the Ring of Power, even Bilbo when he nearly fails to give up the Ring at book’s opening. But the story at heart is such a simple one, of the fight against a force that is undeniably bad, that it is comforting to sink into that tale of evil versus a good that is undeniably good for its opposition to Mordor.

As I wrote earlier, that I find the book so comforting is a little curious because it’s not, at heart, a comforting book. I know that Frodo will destroy the Ring with Samwise’s help, that they will return to the Shire, but there is also throughout a sense of the irreparable passing of time, of the way that things will never be the same whatever happens to the Ring, because of the Ring: that Middle-earth will be washed over by Sauron’s forces, or that the Ring will be destroyed and with it the last strength of people such as the elves of Lórien. And that, that is sad; because as we see from Frodo’s first glimpse of Lórien, the world is one that exists nowhere else, and one day soon won’t exist even in Middle-earth:

It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world. A light was upon it for which his language had no name. All that he saw was shapely, but the shapes seemed at once clear cut, as if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes, and ancient as if they had endured for ever. He saw no colour but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful. In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring. No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lórien there was no stain.

I’ll be rereading the other two books of The Lord of the Rings, of course, but I wanted to write about it because my reading of Fellowship is so linked, now, to what’s going on in my life right now – which though nothing bad, is sometimes overwhelming and exhausting.** And reading these books, even though they are (I know, I know) really one book, deserves and requires more than one post, not least because of questions like how the films influence my reading (the book is, I think, more welcoming to me because of the films; Peter Jackson did such a good job pulling lines from the book that I can see and hear Ian McKellan when I read Gandalf), how that almost biblical tone makes the book feel a part of my history, and how Tolkien’s skill at world creation makes it possible for the book to take on that tone of lasting history that I find so comforting.

And then, too, there’s how the book opens, which seems to me as perfect a way as any can: “This book is largely concerned with Hobbits…”

* By way of example: my toothpaste froze; the bananas I had sitting in my “living room” got that funny refrigerated look to them; when I go to bed I do so with my coil heater a few feet from me, a bottle of hot water under the covers, long johns, and sometimes a hat and gloves depending on the night.

** But, hey! The spelling bee final is tomorrow, the library grant is due on Monday, winter break begins in about two weeks…



Samwise Gamgee & Literary Theory

Last night I had a dream in which Samwise Gamgee explained to Frodo Baggins his thoughts on literary theory.

“Literary theory is something that, if it is four pages long, you will fall asleep six times while you’re reading it. Then you will write a paper, but will only be able to quote the one sentence you understand from those four pages.”

This dream could mean one of a number of things.

  1. I need to get more sleep.
  2. It is about time for me to wrap up these regional spelling bees I’m doing. (Eleven days of semi-finals, one day of finals. Just ten more days and I’m free.)
  3. I am still working through some mixed feelings on literary theory. (See: I don’t like things that make me feel irredeemably stupid. See also: I dragged my Norton Anthology of Literary Theory all the way to Macedonia, but have only opened it one time in the past fifteen months.
  4. I am still working through some mixed feelings on my decision to apply for graduate school after I finish with the Peace Corps.
  5. My decision to reread The Lord of the Rings was a good one.

I’ve wanted to reread The Lord of the Rings for a long time, nearly a year now, but the urge only became undeniable about a week ago, when we kicked these spelling bees into high gear. It’s a comforting book to me, and really interesting now how the characters from the films play through my mind while I’m reading. This is not least because Peter Jackson did such a fantastic job with the film and with pulling so many lines straight from the books. But funny how it’s only when work becomes stressful that I find I can’t stay away from these books. I love rereading, but it turns out that maybe there are some times in life when I don’t just want to reread, but need to.

This is by way of saying, too, that my reading time has been cut drastically by these spelling bees. I’m excited to finish and get back to my rigorous schedule of four classes a day, coffee visits, and hours in front of the coil heater with my most recent find from the Peace Corps library. Over and out!