What I Read in March

March has been interesting. We’re deep into the show Continuum, which does take up most of my reading time (post-Harley bedtime), but I did read four books this month (or I guess three and a half, because one of them was technically a novella).

IMG_20160401_114920

The Kingdom of Gods, N.K. Jemisin. Starring the trickster god Sieh, who featured heavily in the first book of the trilogy, the conclusion of the Inheritance trilogy was twice as long as the others and twice as heavy. It took on the themes of change – big, epic, world-shaking change, change in gods, the ultimate change of death. It could not have chosen a better main character, of course. How could anyone but a trickster lead a story like this? I am very impressed by Jemisin’s ambition and execution. There have not been many stories as original and epic as this – if any – since Tolkien first wrote the Lord of the Rings.

The Awakened Kingdom, N.K. Jemisin. This was the novella. It was about a baby godling finding her true nature. That may be all I need to say, yes? Except to add that it was an enchanting read.

The War of Art, Steven Pressfield. I’ve been told to read this by approximately one billion of the seven billion on the planet, so I did. Pressfield frames difficulties and obstacles in writing – psychological, primarily, really any obstacle – as “Resistance,” which is the enemy. The cure? “Turning pro,” as he calls it. Working through it. Sitting down and creating, even when the artist feels no inspiration. I do agree with that perspective, even if I still struggle with it myself. I do try to write every day, even though most of it never will see the light of day. And I think everyone has some kind of creativity that they need to serve – it’s just part of our humanity that we need to honor in order to be whole.

Siblings Without Rivalry, Elaine Mazlish and Adele Faber. The authors of How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk felt that the interactions between siblings merit a separate book, and I agree. I LOVE How to Talk, and the lessons I took from it probably could be the subject of another entire post (acknowledging rather than dismissing feelings is my favorite, probably because it’s the least intuitive to me). Siblings applied the same concepts of their first book to the fraught topic of brother and sister interactions, which we are fast approaching, with Harley’s brother on his way in just a few short weeks. I appreciated the book a ton, but I also found that most of the things in there were familiar – mostly because my own parents used many of the same principles when I was growing up. But one that was interesting and challenging to me was that of avoiding roles. The idea is not to cast your kids into roles, especially in contrast to their siblings, because it can be limiting, to try to give them opportunities to act outside the “role” they might tend to acquire, whether because of birth order or temperament. So this is a bit difficult, because I do think it’s important, and by my reading, Faber and Mazlish agree, to appreciate each child for their uniqueness. But what is the line between appreciating that uniqueness and casting the child into a “role”? I’ll give myself as an example, and my sister, who hopefully will not mind. As a child, I was the quiet, sensitive, smart one. My sister was outgoing, energetic, socially adept. I suppose the authors would say that for two girls like that, develop the social skills of the quiet one, affirm her ability to connect with people, and for the outgoing one, develop her learning abilities and affirm her intelligence. But appreciate the strengths. Still, seems like a tricky line to walk. I suppose that is the benefit of not having to treat kids exactly the same, which is another major point of the books. Give each kid what they need, the authors argue. Don’t try to make things “equal” – mostly because it’s impossible! I think that is the approach that my parents took, which hopefully will make it easier for me to do the same thing.

What I Read in February

Not quite as much, this month.

IMG_20160307_115816
Yes, that’s a blurb from Naomi Novik on the Jemisin book. What can I say? When I like an author, I trust her!

I read four books, all by women, two by a woman of color. It wasn’t really on purpose, those were just the books I wanted to read, but I want to keep track of the voices I’m amplifying in my life. One thing I’ve decided to do this year is to honor my curiosity – I will pursue any inquiry, book, or skill that interests me. I got into the show Continuum this month as well, which ate up my reading time a little bit, since I tend to read from 8-10 after Harley goes to bed. I also just got really tired in general. So, to the inventory.

Tongues of Serpents, Naomi Novik. Sixth book in the Temeraire cycle, which is an alternate history featuring the Napoleonic Wars WITH DRAGONS! (Sounds like a movie, doesn’t it? Peter Jackson thought so too. He optioned the story a few years ago, though I’m not sure what he’s going to actually make with it, or when.) This one took place in colonial Australia, as the main characters were transported to the penal colony for their actions in the last book. I did enjoy Novik’s use of the narrative and character arcs within the story to present the impacts of imperialism and mercantilism on the entire world, from Europe itself to Africa, Asia (China in particular), and Australia. She seems to have been very thorough in her research, and although I am unfamiliar with the history of Australia and can’t testify to its specific accuracy, I can say that the Napoleonic Wars themselves read very well. It’s amusing to read her take on how the military tacticians on both sides might have incorporated dragons into the supply chain logistics and battle tactics of the time.

A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan. Won the Pulitzer in 2011 for fiction, apparently. This one was pretty dark – and unlike the rest of the books I read this month, not fantasy, although it did include some speculative elements – but Egan punctuated the sad mess of her characters’ lives with enough humor to keep from totally dragging me down. I probably am not a sophisticated enough reader to fully appreciate everything she did with it, but I did enjoy her writing and the book’s structure, which stretched quite masterfully across time, cycling through the points of view of characters in a music-centered social circle in New York with sometimes-tenuous personal connections. This book really seemed to focus on how people struggle with their own identity and how that struggle impacts their relationships with others, sometimes violently. It was quite sad but ended on a relatively hopeful note, and Egan found a way to humanize her characters, even when they were guilty of serious crimes (whether legal or relational), without condoning or trying to justify them.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N.K. Jemisin. Really stunning and original epic fantasy, first of the Inheritance Trilogy. Also very dark. Jemisin completely tosses the Tolkienian swords-and-sorcery framework out the window, which is great, because I think the best authors have done what they can with that particular genre. This world bears no resemblance to Middle Earth, and its gods and godlings are very present and not like any of the traditional gods of fantasy. Jemisin portrays the political and social structure, while steeped in magic and authoritarianism and intrigue and unlike any in our world’s history, with a ring of brutal truth. One god, who is worshiped fanatically and exclusively, has essentially enslaved all the others in mortal form, subordinating them to his chosen ruling family, the Arameri. The amount of power inherent in this arrangement predictably leads to the Arameris’ absolute corruption. This slice of a truly millenia-spanning story is an epic chapter, focusing on Yeine, a warrior, leader, and daughter of an Arameri heiress who relinquished her claim to the throne and eloped from the Arameri seat of Sky to her husband’s land, and Yeine’s journey from that land in the outskirts of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms to treacherous Sky after her mother’s suspicious death.

The Broken Kingdoms, N.K. Jemisin. This is not precisely a sequel to the first story, although it does come after the first. It is its own chapter, maybe a bit less epic in scope, but I enjoyed it. Its storyline follows Oree, a blind street artist with the ability to see magic, and her encounters with the gods. I did enjoy it, but it didn’t have some of the characters I really enjoyed from the first book.

Took a break from reading in the last week of February, but I’m now halfway into the last book of the trilogy. Its main character is one of my favorites from the first book: Sieh the Trickster. After this, I’m ready for some nonfiction, and my to-read pile is totally stacked.

What I read in January: More than I thought I could.

January 2016 books

I read eight books in January, totaling a little over 4,000 pages. No one is more surprised than I am, believe me. That’s very likely more than I read for the entirety of last year, not that I was keeping track. I used to read a lot as a kid, probably right up until I left home for college. But ever since then, I’ve avoided it a little. Not that I haven’t read at all – I did read for school, and I would pick up a book here or there that caught my fancy. But not like this. Not like I used to.

I think part of it was that I felt like I had so much to learn that I couldn’t get from a book. Properly directing my attention, which has always been prodigious, is an ongoing struggle for me. I paid endless attention to books, as a child. I could read for unbroken hours, a whole day even. I used to finish my schoolwork as flawlessly and quickly as I could with the express purpose of getting back to the book I’d hidden in my desk without hearing reproach from my teachers. It was hard for them to complain, since I did so well in school, probably in no small part due to my endless and avid reading. But I did miss out on the things you learn outside of books: how to be a friend. How to make new friends. Social rules. Small talk. How to make a joke. How to take a joke. When to break the rules. Who I am outside of a book. What I could make and do. I had decided, at some point during my then-brief and intensely focused life, that those things didn’t matter. How that came to be is another story, perhaps. But of course they do matter, as I know now, and I was forced to spend most of my late teens and early twenties learning them, making up for lost time. So I turned my attention to them and away from reading.

Finally, this fall, after struggling for the past two years with the stunted attention span that comes from the sleep deprivation and constant multitasking required by new parenthood, I decided it was time to come back. I decided I would stop scanning Facebook at night before bed and instead pick up a book. I would read books on airplanes instead of magazines. I would get my attention span back on track, dammit. And I would start with a fantasy book recommended by my cousin: The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss. I knew I could get into that.

My decision kicked off a month of mindless, voracious consumption. Doesn’t sound very romantic or intellectual, does it? It wasn’t. I immensely enjoyed the time I spent this month reading. But it was all done very much in the spirit of binge-watching every existing episode of Battlestar Galactica. I finished The Name of the Wind and its follow up, The Wise Man’s Fear, about a musician-warrior named Kvothe, in quick succession, and was dismayed to find that the third book of the trilogy hasn’t been published yet. I found the second book of the series orders of magnitude better than the first, and I felt it provided depth that enriched what I’d read in the first book, although I did enjoy both. (As a result, I might have unrealistic expectations of the third.) I turned to historical fiction with Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, which managed to be a book about both the development of the theory of evolution as well as spiritual growth. It was a very good read. I picked up Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey, a book I’ve been meaning to read about the infamous eco-anarchist’s first season in Arches National Park as a park ranger. I was simultaneously captivated and appalled by this book, which about a quarter of the way through I naturally began to read in the voice of Ron Swanson from Parks and Rec. I am quite sure I have another post coming about that one. (Update: Here is that review.) I wanted more nature stories after that, so I read A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson. I love Bill Bryson – he’s funny and smart and always puts in the legwork whenever there is relevant history or science to be mined for interestingness – but this book was not my favorite of his. So I returned to fantasy with Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and its sequel, Hollow City. These were YA books, come to find out, and very quick reads. I enjoyed them very much for what they were. I think there is one more out there, but I had some dragon-themed 19th century alternate history to catch up on, so I switched to Victory of Eagles, the fifth in the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik featuring a very fun twist on the Battle of Waterloo, and finished it up yesterday.

I stacked up the books and surveyed them. This, I suppose, is what I read when I’m grabbing any interesting-looking paperback within reach – mostly fantasy, with a touch of history and a sprinkling of wilderness-related narrative nonfiction. Coward that I am, I avoided setting a Goodreads annual reading goal until I’d finished this month and set my goal to put me well ahead of the curve for my goal (50 books this year). With my son due at the end of April, however, I will never keep up this pace. I’ll end up falling asleep in books again come May, with newsprint letters impressed on my cheek and forehead where I fall, losing track of my place and which book I’m reading, anyway, and where I’ve left the damn thing. I’ll be lucky to get through one or two per month, then. But for now, heavy and round as I am and cold and windy as it is outside, there’s not much better for me to do, to be quite honest.

I didn’t consciously plan out my reading list or set any expectations. So far, the pool of authorship is rather lacking in diversity – all American, all white, mostly men. I managed only two books of eight by women. I don’t regret any of the reading I did, to be clear – it was all time well spent, and I think if you have an interest in the genres in question, you may enjoy these. But I do want to be more intentional about my choices in the future, both in topic and in authorship, because I strongly value getting as many perspectives as possible, from people who are as different from me as possible. I think we all need more of that.

I learned that I’m not interested in giving books stars or ratings. I have tried, in the past, but it just frustrates me. I don’t think the value you get from a book can be quantified so neatly. Desert Solitaire probably drove that point home more than any other book this month, for me. I both loved it and hated it. I argued out loud, rolled my eyes, laughed in amusement and horror, underlined both profoundly insightful and unbelievably delusional paragraphs, and sympathized with the author even as I was irritated with him. There is no way to assign a number from one to five to that feeling. I could give it each of those ratings, and more besides. In every case, it feels presumptuous, reductive, and disrespectful to authors, whose work we readers summarily rank and dismiss as though their books were particularly troublesome brands of pens on Amazon. I didn’t like that he killed that poor rabbit: one star. I, too, hate civilization: five stars. It generally has very little thought or engagement with the content of the book and more often than not misses the point entirely. Imagine contemporaries ranking classical paintings! Why is the nose on the side of his face? This Picasso guy is a hack. One star. That nude lady is hot, thanks, Rubens! Five stars.

Overall, this month was encouraging. I was gratified to see how my attention span had recovered – with a newborn, infant, or toddler, it can feel very much as though it might never come back – and very heartened to realize how much time I was able to find to read (although it admittedly does not say much good about how I was managing it previously). I’m on a bit of a roll with Temeraire, so I’ll probably start there. I’ve decided to make these “What I Read” updates monthly and regular. I’ll let you know in March how February goes.