Still catching up a bit on my monthly reads posts; expect the December Reads post in a few days! For now, November.
Here are the books I read in November:
Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert (2010)
You might recognize Elizabeth Gilbert as the author of Eat, Pray, Love, which I read in August of 2011. This memoir is basically the sequel: Gilbert continues her relationship from the “Love” section of the previous book, while attempting to come to terms with her impending marriage and the institution of marriage itself.
I have mixed feelings about the book. On one hand, I really like Gilbert’s voice. I love her sense of humor and her general outlook on life, which, minus a willingness to get introspective about feelings and a incessant need to travel, is very close to my own. I admire her as a female writer. She writes about women’s issues but transcends the “chick lit” genre, though her books are very much marketed that way (which annoys me).
On the other hand, the book is kind of a mess. It attempts to connect anecdotes from the women in her life, research about marriage, and her own personal marriage story, but the flow of those three things doesn’t always work. It’s a jumble. I found I liked the book more if I thought of it less as a memoir and more as a personal blog printed out. I enjoyed the content, so I tried to ignore the pacing problems.
I was also pretty annoyed by Gilbert’s presentation of statistics. Though she did try to explain the “correlation is not causation” concept, her analysis of the statistics on marriage success variables was horrible. If I would have turned it into an essay in any of my sociology courses in college, I would have gotten a C. That probably won’t bother any of you; it annoys me when practically anyone starts talking about statistics, because they’re usually using them to lie, whether or not it’s intentional.
This sounds like a bad review, but that’s only because I find writing criticisms easier than writing praise. The book contains some gems, some thoughtful connections, and some great relationship advice. I recommend it, even with all its flaws, just for the chance to open up a dialoge with yourself on your assumptions and beliefs about marriage. In fact, I might even read portions of it to Jake on our drive to Denver in a few months.
The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling (2012)
Casual Vacancy, Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling’s first book for adults, shows that Rowling understands the real world even better than her fantastic magical universe. The book takes place in a picturesque small town, but underneath the perfect facade a war is brewing: a war between family members, between the young and the old, between the rich and the poor, and between insiders and outsiders. The death of a prominent member of the community serves as a catalyst which brings these conflicts to light.
Rowling’s writing really shines in her character development. As in the Harry Potter series, Rowling created a cast of interesting and diverse characters who spring to life from the pages. Unlike the Potter series, the book is written in the third person limited from multiple character points of view. I enjoyed seeing inside the minds of the many characters, and this narrative choice enriched the novel greatly, but it also created a few problems. The introduction to the novel took up much too large of a portion, in order to allow all of the many characters to be introduced before the main action of the story began. This means that the beginning of the book could be seen as rather dull, though I liked it.
Another problem with the multiple points of view was the mechanics of it: the POV switches were done in a sloppy way, as the alternating person view point sometimes changed in the span of a single paragraph without benefit of a line break or chapter change. In one chapter, the character POV switched every paragraph or two. Usually markers gave away the narration point of view quickly, but there were a few times I had to go back and re-read a paragraph because I couldn’t tell if the POV had changed. This is confusing for the average reader, and is generally considered bad form in writing, unless you are an awesome crazy experimental writer, which Rowling is not.
The only other technical criticism I have is relating to Rowling’s overuse of parentheticals. I don’t have a problem with parentheticals themselves. In fact, I use a lot of parenthesis on this blog, because they can help create a casual, conversational tone. In creative writing, punctuation is a tool and there are no real rules (Hello, Cormac McCarthy!), but when Rowling started throwing parentheticals in that were a PAGE AND A HALF LONG, my skin started to itch.
Those things aside, I thought that the novel was amazing. The plot was complex and, once the introductions were finally through, completely captivating. She wrote about transgressive issues like cutting, drugs, social inequality, and sexual violence in such a way that even the staunchest anti-socialist reader must have been moved to empathy. It also made me laugh and cry–a lot– and it is still haunting me. I can’t ask for more than that.
If you’d like to hear more about the book from Rowling herself, I recommend watching this clip of Rowling on the Daily Show.
Also, it’s a big deal that I bought this as soon as it came out. I almost always buy books at used bookstores or thrift stores or (only if I can’t find it locally) Amazon. I bought this at a local bookstore, it was the most expensive non-textbook book I’ve ever purchased, and I bought it as soon as it came out. Jake and Eliza held it hostage until I completed a list of tasks, as the book was a sort of bribe / reward. And it took me over a month to finish everything on that list!
The Toughest Indian in the World by Sherman Alexie (2000)
Sherman Alexie is one of my favorite contemporary authors, and The Toughest Indian in the World is definitely my favorite of his short story collections so far. Alexie’s humor is sharp and crisp, but there’s a deep sadness to his writing as well.
The connecting thread through these stories is a theme of assimilation, the disconnect and loneliness resulting from it, and its effect on relationships. Though messy relationships tend to be the main plot point for the tales, these are fighting stories. They illustrate perfectly Alexie’s amazing perspective on life, his calm sensibility, and his anger at social inequalities. For example, in the story “Saint Junior”, Roman, a Spokane Indian living on a reservation, scores perfectly on college entry tests, is accused of cheating because he’s “too good”, but perseveres and gets into college, where everyone asks him if he got in based on affirmative action. His white roommate’s place at the college is not questioned, though he got in for being a legacy. I love that Alexie’s views on race, gender, and class are powerfully at the forefront of his work, but the focus is still on characterization and emotional development.
Project Dig Deep by Kam Altar, Megan Anderson, Melanie Britt, Elise Blaha Cripe, Annette Haring, Amy T. Schubert, and Jessica Turner. Forward by Becky Higgins. Ed. Angie Lucas. (2012)
I love the ebook Project Dig Deep, and not just because I’m in it. I can’t tell you how exciting it was to see all of these amazing ladies’ take on using the Project Life format to expand their stories. I was so inspired by everyone’s different styles and tips! It was amazing to finally get to see the finished product in November, and I’m still referring back to it now.
You can find a preview of the ebook here.
Stories from Edgar Allan Poe: Selected Works, Deluxe Edition by Edgar Allan Poe
Here are the stories I read from Poe for this month:
The Literary Life of Thingum Bob, Esq. (1844)
The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scherherazade (1845)
Some Words with a Mummy (1845)
The Power of Words (1845)
The Imp of Perverse (1845)
…and I’m at the point where I’m reading these to read them and not for enjoyment. Some of these were good, most were not, and I’m excited to wrap up the short stories and get to Poe’s one novel and his poetry. I’ll be more wordy through the next Poe update, but for now I’m just feeling glad to be through with these stories.
Plays from The Complete Works of William Shakespeare by William Shakespeare
Here are the plays I read in November:
Troilus and Cressida (1602) — I had no idea that this play was about the Trojan War until I started reading it! It’s a sleeping-with-the-enemy war story and is pretty darn awesome.
Timon of Athens (1607) is about a rich dude that gives freely, but his friends ignore him when he falls to financial ruin. He lives in a cave, goes crazy, and starts to hate everyone. It’s a storyline I’d expect more from Dickens than Shakespeare, but I liked it all the same.
I also started reading Coriolanus (1605-1608).
You can see all of my other reads posts here.
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Have you read any of these? What did you think? What are you reading lately?