What do you require in a book?

heartThis week I started reading Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan. While I haven’t made enough headway to fully recommend the book, I came across something I quite liked early on  when the protagonist, Serena Frome, describes her reading tastes.

My needs were simple. I didn’t bother much with themes or felicitous phrases and skipped fine descriptions of weather, landscapes and interiors. I wanted characters I could believe in, and I wanted to be made curious about what was to happen to them. Generally, I preferred people to be falling in and out of love, but I didn’t mind so much if they tried their hand at something else. It was vulgar to want it, but I liked someone to say ‘Marry me’ by the end. Novels without female characters were a lifeless desert. Conrad was beyond my consideration, as were most stories by Kipling and Hemingway. Nor was I impressed by reputations. I read anything I saw lying around. Pulp fiction, great literature and anything in between—I gave them all the same rough treatment.

For the most part, I share these preferences.  I have mentioned before, I think, that duty rarely factors into my reading choices.  Like Serena, I care little for names or reputations. I read across genres; want genuine, relatable characters; and I wholeheartedly agree that books/movies without women/girls (of which there are far too many, in my opinion) are “lifeless deserts.”  I am also admittedly if embarrassingly romantic.  I like a love story, and I rarely read (or write) anything without one.

While I do read very fast and skim unnecessary descriptions, I can appreciate “themes” on occasion if they don’t overshadow plot too much.  I also can set aside other preferences if the writing is particularly beautiful, or there are symbols to decode.  Otherwise, her statement could just as well be mine.  Can you relate to this as well?  What are your reading preferences?

Quote of the Week

35042415_sThis week’s quote comes from a book called Wonder by R.J. Palacio.  My nine-year-old suggested (read:commanded) that I read this, and it sparked a number of discussions between the two of us about school, bullying, feeling different, and especially being kind.   It is a story about a boy with a facial deformity who leaves the comfort of his safe, home-schooled life to attend middle school for the first time, but also extends outward to include the thoughts and feelings of those who surround and are influenced by him.  It is a great reminder that even though some challenges may be more visible than others, everyone struggles with something…and that we could all afford to be gentler with each other. The book is sometimes painful, but ultimately uplifting and motivating. The quote is part of a speech given by the school’s principal at a year-end graduation ceremony.

“In the future you make for yourselves, anything is possible.  If every single person in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary–the world really would be a better place.  And if you do this, if you act just a little kinder than is necessary, someone else, somewhere, someday, may recognize in you, in every single one of you, the face of God.”

Quote of the Week

FuzzyMy quote this week comes from a book I recently started called Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede–a favorite author of mine in my younger days.  This is a fun story about an impressionable young girl and her family set in a kind of magical alternate version of the American West.  The quote is an exchange that happens when the local teacher meets her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Rothmer, and a portion of their fourteen children for the first time.

“Pleased to meet you,” Miss Ochiba said.  She and Mama looked at each other long and hard, and then they each gave a little nod, as if they’d had a whole conversation and both had come away satisfied. “These will be your children,” Miss Ochiba went on as if there’d been no slightest pause. “They’ve been saying you have a good-sized family.”

“Any size that’s wanted is good,” Mama said, and then told her our names.”

This is a pretty simple quote, but stood out to me for a few reasons.  One is–I can’t help but gush–we had our third child, a baby girl (pictured) a couple months ago!  She came seven weeks early, but is doing really well, and we are very pleased with her.  Because she spent a couple weeks in the hospital, I spent a certain amount of time talking about her and our family to others, and fielded a lot of questions about why her brothers are so much older than she is (six and eight).  The questions were kindly meant, and sometimes I gave short answers, and other times explained that she was born after a series of losses for our family.

Either way, it has occurred to me over the years that there just isn’t one perfect mold–one exact formula for what makes a good family.  Good is, as Mrs. Rothmer points out, entirely a matter of choice, and, I would add, situation.

I also like this quote, and this book in general, because it deals with the varied effects of what “they’ve been saying,” or the words and opinions, often unwanted and unsolicited, of others. The main character, Eff, spends her life dealing with and being affected by what others say and how they treat her because of what they believe it means to be a thirteenth child.  Her experiences seem to negate the old adage about sticks and stones, and affirm that words can indeed hurt.

Coming from a social media world, where opinions are readily expressed and spread, I liked this reminder that no matter how many children you have, whether or not you have any, or are even married, or whether or not your family fits the “mold.” What you’ve got can still be good–and the only opinions on the subject that really matter are your own.

Quote of the Week

12984340_sToday my quote comes from a YA fantasy I’m reading called The Kiss of Deception.  It is the first in a new series by Mary E. Pearson, and while I admit it was a little slow-going for me at first, this book has a lot to offer in the way of excellent characters, and some compelling twists and turns.   The magic here is subtle which, in this case, grounds and makes it more plausible.  My quote today is taken from a part in the story where Lia, the main character, is learning more about her possible “gift” from a wise new acquaintance.

 “The truths of the world wish to be known, but they won’t force themselves upon you the way lies will.  They’ll court you, whisper to you, play behind your eyelids, slip inside and warm your blood, dance along your spine and caress your neck until your flesh rises in bumps…

And sometimes it prowls here, heavy in your gut…that is the truth wishing to be known.”

Isn’t this a nice piece of writing? I feel I agree.  It seems to me that any new truth I come across rarely announces itself…but more gradually, steadily makes itself known.

Quote of the Week: A Crack in Everything

10097511_sI came across a biography for Leonard Cohen recently, and since he was already on the brain (thanks to another great internet celebrity death hoax) I picked it up and started reading.

Only in recent years have I begun a tentative toe-dipping back into the waters of the biography after becoming mostly disillusioned with the genre during my school days.  Back then, any assignment to research some figure of choice  became a quest, in my mind, to find a hero–someone I could hold up as a standard, whose life philosophy I could adopt and whose picture I could hang on my wall.

Inevitably, I came up disappointed– Shakespeare was likely an adulterer with questionable authorship, Beethoven a moody, unfaithful misanthrope, and even the seemingly flawless Audrey Hepburn was sometimes troubled and possibly anorexic.  I became frustrated with what I deemed the disparity between the lives and the work of my favorite artists, and in the long run, decided I’d just rather not know their life details–instead remaining happily naive of the flaws and challenges of such persons of note.

It is only lately that I have returned to the genre–with a rather altered view. Therefore, picking up Leonard Cohen’s biography the other day had little to do with any quest for a hero.  In fact, I can safely say that not only am I no Cohen expert, but anyone would be hard-pressed to even call me much of a fan.  I am only vaguely familiar with his songs, and know next to nothing of him and his career as a singer/songwriter/author.  My interest in the man lies in the fact that he was responsible for penning, in a few lines of song lyrics, words that have not only been immensely significant to me, but have become a sort of life philosophy.  These are from his song, “Anthem.”

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

These lyrics express why my philosophy toward biography has changed over years.  I used to believe that the value in any life existed solely in its merits–its smooth, unblemished surfaces.  However, as Cohen so accurately suggests–there is no such thing as “unblemished” in ordinary humanity: “There is” rather, “a crack in everything.  And, not only are the cracks, the flaws, the mistakes inevitable, but they are necessary.  They are “how the light gets in,” the light of experience, wisdom, humility, redemption, and hope.

So, perhaps it is the pain of error, the carrying of personal shortcomings, the long weary wading through the muddy paths of life that allowed these people to create art–to forget their own impossible “perfect offering” and in pressing forward in a flawed, human way, to make room for something divine.

Quotes of the Week

This morning I started reading the new Chief Inspector Gamache Novel, The Long Way Home by Louise Penny.  Have I mentioned that I love these books?  They are beautifully written, engaging mysteries which also manage to be adept looks at the inner workings of the human soul.  Already in the first five pages I found two quotes I liked:

“But he’d come to agree with Sister Prejean that no one was as bad as the worst thing they’d done.  Armand Gamache had seen the worst. But he’d also seen the best.  Often in the same person.”

I think it is easy to feel we can really know people “by their fruits” so to speak, when in actuality what we see in people–how they appear or what they do in a moment will never give us the full measure of who they are.  I don’t think we can really presume to judge anyone else solely based on our own observations, and at the same time find comfort in the thought that I, personally, am not solely defined the worst things I have done.

Here’s the other quote I liked:

“Turmoil shook loose all sorts of unpleasant truths.  But it took peace to examine them.”

I thought this was an insightful reminder that trying to make sense of the chaos in our lives while in the midst of it is rarely productive.  Sometimes understanding takes time and distance.

Good thoughts for me today.  I can’t promise there won’t be more from this book when I’ve read the other 370 pages… Til next week!

Quote of the Week

10019950_sThis week I began the memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, about a devoted teacher in Iran who began teaching a small group of female students once a week for two years to read and discuss a variety forbidden Western classics.  This particular passage, a mantra Nafisi drilled into her students, stood out:

do not, under any circumstances, belittle a work of fiction by trying to turn it into a carbon copy of real life; what we search for in fiction is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth.”

This injunction verbalizes, for me, the essence of an argument I have engaged in several times over the years about the purpose of fiction, and I appreciate the way Nafisi has distilled my thoughts so eloquently.

I agree that it would be impossible to put life on the page…and not only impossible, but rather tedious, if you think about it.  I can’t help but think that in order for a work of fiction to be of worth, it does not need to be entirely actual (as is evidenced by my writing of fantasy) in order to be honest.  Fiction can put a microscope on life and humanity by sharpening, emphasizing, and turning reality on its side, to bring truth to a head. I have found “epiphanies” of resonance in a variety of fictitious places, characters, and situations not because the writing looked exactly like real life, but because it pulled truth out of engaging, if sometimes unlikely places.

Quote of the Week

So, here’s a passage I read this week that made me smile.  It is from The Double Comfort Safari Club by Alexander McCall Smith:

“No, he mused: there is no such thing as a perfect car, and if every car had its good and bad points, it was the same with people.  Just as every person had his or her little ways–habits that niggled or irritated others, annoying mannerisms, vices and failings, moments of selfishness–so too did they have their good points: a winning smile, an infectious sense of humor, the ability to cook a favourite dish just the way you wanted it.

That was the way the world was; it was composed of a few almost perfect people (ourselves); then there were a good many people who generally did their best but were not all that perfect (our friends and colleagues); and finally, there were a few rather nasty ones (our enemies and opponents).  Most people fell into that middle group–those who did their best–and the last group was, thankfully, very small and not much in evidence in places like Botswana where he was fortunate enough to live.”

This is the kind of delightfully simple, endearing, and human dialogue that comes out of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency Series.  Have you read any?  I love them for a quick, uplifting read with some substance.

This quote especially caught my attention because much as I would hate to admit it…it is likely that often my view of others doesn’t stray far from Mr. JLB Matekoni’s thoughts here. 🙂

Feel free to share any good bits you have come across, as well.

Back again!

Well,  it has been way too long since I have posted anything.  I have had a fairly eventful few months–including family trips across country, new jobs, and moving (isn’t moving the worst thing ever!)– but I think I am starting to get settled and back into my groove here.

One thing I always manage to find a little time for is reading, so I was thinking it might be fun to post a weekly quote or excerpt from something I have read and liked, and would encourage anyone who is interested in sharing to post their finds as well.

Here’s a favorite of mine from Ann Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist:

“By their very nature, he told her in his letters, photos lied. They showed what a person looked like over a fraction of a second–not over long, slow minutes, which was what you’d take to study someone in real life.”

I think there are a number of reasons I like this quote–the most obvious one being that I am, unfortunately, undeniably un-photogenic and like to think that the photos taken of me are an inaccurate portrayal of how I look and who I am.

At the same time, I think my long-standing…distaste for pictures goes beyond that.  Admittedly photos have their place.  Part of our recent unpacking process involved sorting through old photos, and I can’t deny I derived a great amount of joy at being able to look back at these little glimpses into the past–especially where my children are concerned.

Merely, I become bothered with the implication that photos in any way capture life.  In fact, even in my much younger days I became annoyed with the time spent documenting special occasions (like school dances) through photographs–rather than enjoying and experiencing them. And as time has passed and technology has made pictures more widely accessible, I feel it becomes very easy to live life for the photo, or facebook post, or blog article rather than being in the moment itself.

So, I suppose I am willing and happy to accept the photo for the photo’s sake, as an art form, a portrayal or interpretation–I am just not willing to give photos credit for being or capturing life–especially when it comes at the expense of living it.

Anyway, feel free to share your favorites in the comment section. Happy reading!