27 March 2010

Weekly Geeks: In the Beginning

For this Weekly Geek installment, I'm asking you to think back to the moment when you realized "I am a reader!" The moment you felt that desire to read everything! The moment you knew you were different than most of those around you and that this reading thing was for real.

- Tell us what book you were reading when that moment occurred.
I've had the realization that I was a "reader" a few times in  my life - I mean, when I decided that I wanted to go to graduate school for Italian Literature, and devote my entire life to literature, I think that was a pretty good moment. But the pivotal moment in my life, when I started reading avidly, happened much earlier. You could argue it was in elementary schoool, but that's a little difficult to define. In high school, in the middle of my World Literature Junior English class, when we read Night by Elie Wiesel, I knew that something was starting to fall into place. He was the first person who, after reading the book, I was inspired to see him in person (I even took my English teacher), and I've continued to be somewhat preoccupied with the specific challenges of Holocaust Literature to this day.  However, during my Senior Year, I started really reading things that weren't just assigned. The first book in this series was The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky. 

- Review the book. (You can even re-read it if you'd like and actually have time.)

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is an entertaining, honest and insightful coming-of-age novel about a teen boy, Charlie, who is neither the complete outcast nor the most popular boy in school.  He lives a relatively typical high school lifestyle, but he also has a friend who recently committed suicide, adding to his struggles.  He survives his first year through the help of his two friends, Samantha and Patrick, and manages to make it through the year.  
I honestly don't remember too much else about the book, but I remember that I loved it and that it really made me want to read more and more.

- If you can't pin it down to one book, what other books define this moment in your life?
There was a whole string of books that I read during this time period, but I can't recall the names of most of them. I remember House of the Spirits, The Fuck-Up, A Regular Guy, Confederacy of Dunces, and Night (which I read again and again).  

- What is it about those books that caused you to feel this way?
The thing that I loved about the books was that I started to feel a connection to reading - the characters, their stories, and the effect that they could have on people. I think that it was here that I started to understand why reading is so important to history - even though none of the books I was reading were the books that would change History, they were the kinds of books that were important to personal histories.  

26 March 2010

Radio Silence

So, I realize that I've been really silent lately.  No book reviews, no updates, nothing. It's nothing personal, you two readers, I promise. I've just really been struggling with my work, so I've been less-inspired to read for pleasure, because it's all starting to blend together.  

A quick breakdown of my problem:

When we moved out to California for Sean's job, it seemed like a great situation: I was just finishing taking classes, I'm not on guarantee for teaching anymore (so my work would be semesterly with no guarantee of the next semester), I can write from anywhere, and Sean's job is a really good one, he had just finished his Master's program, and he was starting to tire of Winter.  Because we're both from California, and 100+ inches of snow is quite the adjustment.  

In reality, it's been even harder to write from home than I could have ever expected, primarily because I'm not entrenched in the university-system, I'm not surrounded by others who are also writing dissertations, and it's been really difficult to get feedback from two thousand miles and two time zones - all things that I just didn't realize were going to be such challenges for me.  I often feel trapped at home, because we only have one car and we live a mile from a road that would even have a bus stop - and public transportation in Orange County is unreliable at best.  

This might not have been such a struggle, but I also don't have a job (not that I haven't been applying and looking) and I often feel like I'm just sort of not accomplishing anything. Like I don't have anything to show for the reading that I do, or for the time that I've been out here. 

I've been in school nonstop since kindergarten, and I didn't take any time off before starting grad school, so I've never really been in such an unstructured environment. It feels like I've been running on a treadmill (with a trainer) for years - even when I'm not really in the mood the belt keeps moving under my feet so I continue to go through the motions and make progress, and there is someone constantly pushing me to keep at it - and, suddenly, I'm trying to run on the road, alone, and it's just way harder to keep running when I don't feel inspired, especially since the only person who knows when I don't pound the pavement is me, you know?  That's the best analogy I can come up with, and I think that it fits.  

Any advice on how to force myself to accomplish more? About anything, I guess, but I'm obviously looking for help in the arena of writing my dissertation proposal.

So, that's why. I'm going to try to start being more diligent. About working. Because then reading for fun becomes more natural. And I've got quite the list of "to-read" books just staring at me.

10 March 2010

Weekly Geeks: Authors We Love

This week's Weekly Geek is all about authors: 

Tell your readers what is it about "an" author that you are most passionate about, that have you coming back for more from them, following their every blog post – literally blackmailing people to read their books? 
Who are some of your all time favourite authors? 
And what is it about them that makes you keep going back for more?

Diana Gabaldon is a writer who has never let me down. Outlander was one of the books that got me excited about reading sagas - I've always been a reader but until I was in college I shied away from those books that were super long. I don't even mind waiting the two or three years between installments in the series, because since the books never disappoint I am always really excited to read them again.  Ken Follett is another epic writer, and Pillars of the Earth and World Without End are two of my all-time favorite books; I have given Pillars of the Earth as a gift many times, to men and women with the same level of enthusiasm.  I could read Pillars time and again, and it's always a book that I love to return to when I'm in a lull. I've recently discovered Frank Delaney, who is a remarkable storyteller. His characters feel alive, like I could reach out and hug them. When I finish his books, I immediately want to open them again, because they are just beautifully crafted and I'm not done with the characters.

Of course, I'm a grad student, which means that I read for a living (or whatever you want to call it), and my relationship with some authors is a bit different. I'm always intrigued by Italo Svevo, one of the quintessential Modernists in Italy, and I think that I could read La coscienza di Zeno (Zeno's Conscience) again and again - I have, in fact, read it many times for different classes and exams, and I always find something new and interesting to do with it. I always walk away with something from these neurotic, self-conscious protagonists. Working on my minor, I really and truly read James Joyce for the first time - I'd read him before but without understanding or appreciating much. He does things with literature that are so special and different, there aren't even words to describe what he did for literature; Ulysses really is at the top of the list of all-time books for a reason. 

So now I'm done with classes and I'm working on my dissertation. It's a difficult thing, deciding on who - or what - you want to work for the next few years (and to what you might possibly dedicate a significant part of your life's research). And I don't take that decision lightly, so I'm writing on Primo Levi and Italo Calvino. They were my first favorite Italian authors, and after four years of intense studying, I came back to the same two writers. Italo Calvino's Cavaliere inesistente (Nonexistent Knight) was the first book that I read in Italian, during my first Italian literature class in Italy - it was a major accomplishment for me, reading the short, fantastical story of a suit of armor that doesn't have a knight inside.  Calvino's narrator is almost always aware of his or her own role in the story being told, and he plays with the reader in unexpected ways. Primo Levi's "Canto of Ulysses," one of the chapters in Se questo รจ un uomo (Survival in Auscwitz) is beautifully written, and really highlights the power of books and language, especially for Levi.  I've read the works of these authors more than any others. I must admit, it's not just because I'm writing about them - they're just brilliant, poignant, beautiful and heartbreaking; not all of these things at once, but all of these things at different times and for different reasons. 

I'm afraid my answer might have been a bit too long. But, hey, that's what I do.

09 March 2010

Teaser Tuesday: Ireland

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme hosted by MizB of Should be Reading.
Teaser Tuesday asks you to:
--Grab your current read
--Let the book open to a random page.
--Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12.
--You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from… that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!

My teaser comes from Ireland, by Frank Delaney. I just finished this book on Friday, and it's sitting right next to me, so it was much easier to pull a teaser from this one rather than go into the next room. Plus, it's a beautiful book.

Ronan climbed the stairs, dimly aware of a rising problem. Worried that something might somehow be his fault, he curled up in bed and arranged the pillows so that the arguing voiced blurred.
His father arrived.
"Well, champion?"
Ronan said, "Wasn't it grand? D'you think he'll stay?"

From Ireland: a novel (Frank Delaney)

07 March 2010

Oscar night!

It's Oscar night, and I'm completely ready for it:

I've seen all ten of the Best Picture nominees:

Avatar: great visuals and graphics, but it's just like Dances With Wolves, only blue.
The Blind Side: an inspiring true story, told with heart.
District 9: interesting concept, and a different story from most. But weird.
An Education: coming-of-age story, which is usually predictable, but this has something to say.
The Hurt Locker: a socially-relevant, honest portrait of a difficult situation. Very intense.
Inglourious Basterds: a very Tarantino interpretation of history - magari! 
Precious: socially relevant, and full of heart. 
A Serious Man: very Coen-esque depiction of a realistic family story.
Up: heartwarming and lovely Pixar film. 
Up in the Air: an honest, poignant look at a man and a commentary on life.

When I heard that there were going to be 10 nominees, I was a bit confused - were there that many exceptional movies last year? No. There were a lot of good movies, but exceptional? Come on! Last year I would've believed it (hello, Academy, way to snub Gran Torino, which was the best film last year), but this year's nominees left me underwhelmed. But I watched them all, and here are my overall impressions.

District 9: really? I heard an interview on NPR, and they said that they chose to nominate 10 films because people are more likely to watch the Oscars if they've seen the films nominated, but why not nominate The Hangover - it was hilarious, easily one of the most entertaining movies of the year, and most people saw it. It's easy to suppose that more people saw The Hangover than saw District 9; I thought that the underlying apartheid commentary was interesting, but the movie was just kind of lacking overall.

Up: now, I loved Up. I thought it was a great movie. But it was also nominated for Best Animated Feature, and it just seems like it shouldn't be nominated twice. Maybe that's just me, but I didn't think that it was one of the best films of the year. I actually liked The Fantastic Mr. Fox a bit better, and I thought that Wes Anderson's use of the stop-animation was more inventive, but I don't think that it has a chance to beat Up, especially with two nominations. I saw four of the five Best Animated feature nominees, and it really is just a race between these two (though I really liked Coraline and thought The Princess and the Frog was a charming throwback to old-school Disney princesses).

A Serious Man: this was the last of the ten films that I saw (I finished it the morning of the Oscars). The Academy loves the Coen brothers, and I usually really enjoy their films, but I didn't think that this one was  one of the best pictures of the year. 

Okay, so in conclusion, I'm rooting for The Hurt Locker and Precious - I don't think that Avatar was one of the best films of the years, but it seems that the bells and whistles of all the special effects are allowing people to overlook the fact that the story wasn't original.  Yes, it was good, and yes the effects were awesome, but it wasn't the best picture of the year. I would also be really happy if An Education won, but that isn't likely, since it's been mostly a race between Bigelow and Cameron.  But what about Invictus? Clint Eastwood's two principal actors are nominated, but he loses out again? 

I'm still really looking forward to the Oscars. I love watching the red carpet. I think that Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin are going to be hilarious as hosts. They celebrate the films that were the best this year, for the most part; the Academy always gets some things wrong (The Reader was terrible, but they all loved it), but it still makes for an excellent and entertaining night.

06 March 2010

Ireland: a novel (#24)

Ireland is a story about Ronan, a boy who hears a traveling storyteller for three consecutive nights, and is forever changed by the experience. Ronan’s relationship with the storyteller is mysterious, sometimes frustrating (because the reader really identifies with Ronan’s journey), moving and heartwarming. It is lyrical, for the storytelling is rich with moments that make you sit back and collect yourself, because you didn’t realize that there could be something so poignant written. It is epic, for it spans centuries and millennia without missing a beat. It is transporting, for it feels like you are really there, in a living room by the fire, sharing this moment with Ronan, who is lovable from the moment he is introduced.

Ireland is also a story about stories, the lost art of the traveling storyteller and the way that myths and history are weaved together to form a blanket that encompasses all sides of history. It hearkens to the days when families spoke to each other, sharing their collective histories to pass on to successive generations. 

And, to top it all off, it’s beautifully written.  Frank Delaney’s writing warms the heart like freshly baked bread (I’m sitting next to a loaf of it right now and it smells the way that I imagine it has smelled for centuries).  Rarely have I encountered a book that takes on the whole spectrum of emotions like this book; I wanted to start reading it again the second I finished it, making the stories into part of my own personal story. 

I know this review seems like a laundry list of things that I loved about the book.  Reading over the review, I see that. The only thing that I didn’t like about the book was that it ended; I’m comforted by the fact that I will be able to read it again and again, revisit the characters in both the Storyteller’s tales Ronan’s narrative.  This kind of book does not happen everyday. 

05 March 2010

Favorite authors

I know I often say on this blog that I’ve found a new favorite book – or, that I’ve really enjoyed a particular book and now I’m hooked on a series of related stories. But it has taken a long time for me to say that I’ve found a new favorite author (it might even go back to Primo Levi, who is now the subject of my dissertation).  

I’m a graduate student. I read for a living, or at least in the hopes of reading for a living. I read fiction, nonfiction, literary theory, criticism and philosophy day in and day out. I take a lot of books out of the library.  I mark up books (not from the library, though) with notes and thoughts, usually about the ways that I can relate the books together or to note where a passage will help me make an argument. I take notes of the things that I read, so when I return to the book to write about it I will be able to find the pertinent quotes for the paper, article, etc more easily, because time is energy and sometimes I lack both.  But I can’t remember the last time that I wrote down a quote because it was beautiful, or because it made my heart swell and want to read it to someone nearby, even a stranger.  As I sat in my living room, the car, and a coffeeshop reading Frank Delaney's novel Ireland (because I did all three in as many days), I wrote down passages, even adding one to my facebook profile (which is really, immensely nerdy, but I couldn’t help myself).

As soon as I finished Ireland I walked to the bookstore and bought two more of Delaney’s books: Tipperary, which he himself told me is the next logical step (wait, I’ll get to that), and Venetia Kelly’s Traveling Show, which is his newest release (and, therefore, I can say that I have a first edition of it, even though I would just die if I stumbled across a first edition of Ireland – not literally, but you already knew that).

Oh, how did he tell me about Tipperary, you ask? Two days ago, I posted on twitter: “I’m #reading ‘Ireland’ by Frank Delaney. And it’s wonderful.” And, what happened? Frank Delaney started following me! I was shocked and really excited. I didn’t even know he was on twitter. So, I finish the book, and I want to start it again, or just let the universe out there know how much I loved it, or something, so I posted: “Just finished #reading Ireland by Frank Delaney: beautiful, epic, genuine. Thank you, @FDbytheword.” And he replied to it. It was the most awesome acknowledgment. He just, replied. Said thank you for the compliment. I about died.

So, what’s so great about Frank Delaney's writing? It’s some of the best storytelling I’ve read in ages. It's natural, the characters are likable and realistic, and there's something that makes it seem like he is there, in the room, telling the story. The language is rich, without awkwardness, and always has something to offer.  

The moment that you know you've found an author, whether it's a new author or someone who is new to you, and you've really connected with what the author is saying, is a great moment. Who are some of your favorite authors?