The My Life Our Books Reading Challenge

Summer is, for me, a time full of reading challenges. I’ve got more time to read in the summer, and library summer reading programs challenge you to read more books than that one retired couple who always claim the biggest prizes at the end of the summer award ceremony. Curse you, pensioners with all your free time! Some reading challenges, though, last longer than just the summer and can be found online too. I myself am nearly finished with POPSUGAR’s reading challenge, which I started at the beginning of the year.

Trying to tick off all the boxes in POPSUGAR’s reading challenge has been a really enlightening adventure. It showed me what I do and do not read, not just my obvious likes and dislikes I mean, but what books I could pick up in the first place. For example, I had to work really hard to find a book by or about a person with a disability, but found yet another WWII era mystery/adventure and checked off that “set during wartime” box pretty easily. I learned partially about my own reading habits, yes, but even more about what books are or are not readily available to me and other readers.

To encourage this kind of exploration, I’ve decided to invent my own reading challenge right now, something to round out the rest of my summer and widen the scope of books I keep an eye out for. Hopefully you might join my too. With this list, I tried to make sure the books could still be fun, enjoyable reads while also showing how difficult, and therefore arguably more important it can be to find books created by and for voices outside your specific circle.

So, without further ado, I present:

The My Life Our Books Reading Challenge Book List:

  1. A book of poetry by someone from a different country than you
  2. A book someone has been recommending to you for ages that you just haven’t gotten around to yet, shame on you!
  3. A non-superhero comic book or graphic novel
  4. A dog book where the dog does not die in the end. (Good luck even finding that one.)
  5. A book with a woman of color as the protagonist.
  6. A book you found at your local library.
  7. A book featuring a healthy and well-developed same-sex relationship. (no burying of any gays!)
  8. A book exploring political views different from your own.
  9. A bestselling poetry book by a poet you’ve never read before.
  10. A book set during a war other than WWII (That cuts out like, over half the war books  ever written, I’m pretty sure.)
  11. A book about and/or set in a time and place you know little about
  12. Your mom or dad’s favorite book. (or whoever raised you.)
  13. A book set in Central and/or South America.
  14. A book by a “famous” person whom you’ve never heard of. (I’m looking at you, guy from the cast of Glee who apparently writes children’s books now.)
  15. A book that made you cry as a kid, or at least made you notably sad, if you were too stone cold for tears as a young’un.
  16. A book translated from another language.
  17. A book about or set in a place you want to visit one day.
  18. A book either featuring a religion different from your own. (Let’s say atheism and agnosticism count as religions.)
  19. A bestselling children’s picture book
  20. Your old favorite. See, I can end on an easy one.

I hope this list gave you some ideas about books you should try, even if you don’t feel like taking a reading challenge. Challenging yourself to read even a few books you never would’ve thought to try before is, to me, the most valuable thing you can take away from a reading challenge.

If your interest is piqued, here’s a great article with a list of even more reading challenges to try. Let me know in the comments if you’ve tried anything like this before, or want to.

Choosing Books for Dad on Father’s Day

So this is a good heads up to get out of the way: Father’s Day is this Sunday. You ready? Did you get him a card? A gift? Anything? Well, you might want to take care of that now. don’t worry though, there are plenty of stores and companies out there willing to tell you exactly what to get with their fancy little “For Dad” display sections, which used to be the “For Mom” sections for Mother’s Day until that holiday passed and they needed a new market to corner.

I’ve noticed some pretty constant and slightly annoying trends in bookstores as far as what they’re promoting as “dad” books. Wherever I go, it looks like the store just scooped most of the car books, some science/tech minded titles, sport bios and some books about beer and cocktails accompanied by fancy whiskey stones together onto a table. Yup, cars, sports, science and a drinking problem. That should cover all dads everywhere. Good to go. Now let’s go pick out a card with a fart joke in it so your manly dad doesn’t need to feel you’re trying to connect with him on a genuine emotional level.

I noticed a similar pattern of strange cliches for Mother’s Day too, of course. I remember finding a book about baby penguins on the “For Mom” table. My guess is they figured “Moms, babies, cute things!” and slapped some baby animal books on the table, except my mother is decidedly indifferent towards penguins. You know who loves penguins? My dad! He’d probably appreciate that baby penguin book a whole lot more than a lamborghini model catalog. Fancy, not-compensating-for-anything-no-sir cars don’t hold much interest for him. A book about penguins, however, and the father penguins that brave the coldest parts of the Antarctic winter without food or shelter to see their little eggs hatch? That might make for a better Father’s Day story.

What about dads that love music (no, don’t just point me at that one Bruce Springsteen memoir and album, of course they already have it,) or dads that like to cook stuff beyond a nice meat chunk on the manly barbecue? What about dads who don’t drink, or dads whoread poetry, literature, or anything in the humanities?

The more I see stores try to make things “easy” for us simple customers, the more I’m convinced that these “For Dad” book displays are exactly what a holiday like this does not need. Sure, I could probably find a Football or Basketball star biography my dad might like on that display. These tables probably have something your dad wouldn’t mind reading, but is “tolerably decent” or “yeah it was pretty good” really the level you want to reach with a Father’s day present?

Maybe I’m sentimental, but I feel like Father’s Day is the sort of occasion you should put a whole lot of heart into. Yes, that might even mean going into the stacks at your local bookstore and exploring sections you know your father might actually enjoy. I’d tell you what I eventually picked out for my dad as an example here, but he’s very likely reading this post himself, and I’m not spoiling the surprise here. Relax dad. I didn’t get you whiskey stones.

How to Celebrate National Poetry Month

Hey everybody, happy April! As you may or may not know, April is National Poetry month, a month to celebrate an art that is far to invisible in this modern world, if you ask me. Naturally, then, I’m a huge fan of April, not just for the weather that’s finally turning decent, but for the valid excuse to encourage everyone to read more poetry, discover more poets (ones who haven’t been dead for centuries would be best,) and maybe even help you find a new favorite in this underappreciated genre.

National Poetry Month isn’t like Hanukkah or Christmas though; there’s no set of traditions that we all know and love to properly celebrate this sort of season. People who aren’t that familiar with poetry might not even know where to start. That’s why I’ve picked a couple good ways to start out your Poetry Month celebration.

Pick a Poet Who’s Still Alive and Read Their Stuff

One major problem with how a great deal of people understand poetry comes from where they might’ve last read it; school. Beyond the occasional Hallmark card, most people rarely read any poetry outside of what they were forced to read in school. I feel that academic resentment, but just leaving behind a genre after high school means you miss out on a medium that’s evolved immensely since the centuries old Whitman or Byron you read in Honors  English.

Sometimes I even see aspiring poets, (myself included at one point) make the mistake of assuming everything about poetry froze in the 19th century, because educational coverage of poetry after that is spotty at best. Sure, poetry was generally overtaken by the novel in that century, but poetry has also quietly grown and changed with the rest of the world as well. Our educational system just doesn’t like to to honor poets that haven’t been dead for a few centuries. Use this month of increased visibility for poetry to check out some contemporary poets, who have voices you’ll have a much better time reading and relating to, as they’re written in your own language and dialect.

I’ll be writing more about my favorite poets this month, but to start you off, some cool contemporary poets who were still alive last time I checked include Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, Rupi Kaur, and Lang Leav.

Look for Poetry Resources Online

I follow the Poetry Foundation online. They’re a pretty old and venerable organization that publishes a well known poetry journal. Online, they do a lot to reach out to people. You could check out their podcasts, or subscribe to get a newsletter and a poem a day in your email, which is a cut above the spam that normally gets blasted into my  inbox by other organizations. If you live in or near Chicago, their headquarters, you can use the newsletter to learn about events they are holding and attend them.

You also have sites like Poetry Out Loud, which focuses on poetry that’s recited or performed. It’s got a good mixture of old and new works on display, and tips for people reciting poetry themselves. This showcases the dynamic community that’s formed around making poetry live by performing it. They also have teaching resources and information about their poetry performance contests as well.

There are also sites like poets.org or poemhunter.com, which help you find any specific poem you might be looking for. poetry.org is great for looking up poetry by the poet, while poemhunter.com allows you to explore poems according to themes or forms. Each one is dedicated to sharing poetry in it’s own special way.

Poem in Your Pocket Day

This is where we start to get Inception like, with a holiday within a holiday. On April 27th, choose a poem to carry around on a piece of paper folded up inside your pocket, taking it out and sharing it with people whenever you can. It’s a cute idea of a holiday created by the Academy of American Poets to increase awareness of National Poetry Month. There’s a number of posts and sites dedicated to creating cute little templates and layouts. With all the poets and poems you found thanks to the previous two steps, you should have no problem finding a poem to share.

Those are just a few ideas that will hopefully help you start your National Poetry Month off right. I hope you will use this April as an excuse to explore poetry, find new things you like, and share them with people that could use a little poetry in their lives. You’ll be hearing more from me about poetry this month, so keep an eye out for more poetry recommendations and reviews.

How to Do Book Club Right

Bookworms are generally a reclusive lot, and so they often don’t get too many chances for comfortable socialization. The idea of book clubs was created so that book nerds could mingle and socialize, safe in the familiar waters of their favorite thing that they can finally share with someone. This is not to say book clubs are a perfect utopia. Far from it. When any group awkward people comes together, even with the best intentions, things can get weird and silly and strange really quickly, especially if you’re old enough for your book club to involve going through several bottles of wine per session, the really fun stuff. You can still have a great book club if you just remember these pointers.

(Note: All situations and rants in this piece are purely hypothetical and are definitely not based on real people, living or dead, or dead to me. Definitely not.)

On Picking a Book: If you are the one who has the power to pick a book for the group, wield it carefully. Come up with a list of books you’d be interested in beforehand and, if at all possible, run them by your fellow book club buddies before you pick something. Make sure you can actually get the book you end up choosing. Libraries or bookstores can help you get multiple copies of the book you need, but you’ll probably have to wait for enough copies to be delivered to your location, so don’t go out and try to grab all the books the morning of your first club meeting.

If you don’t have the power to pick out a book, hopefully they’ll ask you what the book they want to choose is. Ideally, you’re with a group of friends and this is all done very democratically or you all have the same taste so it would’ve gone well anyway. That doesn’t always happen, but the best you can do in these situations is let yourself try something you normally wouldn’t.

On Planning Meetings: There is, of course, the important business of planning so that everyone can make it; the right time, the right place. What’s slightly trickier though, and definitely just as important, is planning how much reading will be expected between the meetings. You have to remember not just how busy everyone is, but what everyone’s average reading speed is, and maybe also how long you can keep these books if they are on loan. Also, if you really care about your club buddies, you will not make them stop reading on a crazy cliffhanger or otherwise intense part. Why would you hurt your friends in such a way? Why? Why?????

On Reading: Two things really need to be said on reading, one for each type of person who comes to a book club; the ones that do the reading, and the ones that don’t.

First, don’t be afraid if you didn’t have time to do all the reading. This is supposed to be a fun time. We all have busy lives and understand. The more important thing here is making and being with friends. Of course, I’m assuming here that you genuinely tried to do the reading. If you’re one of those people that take the book club book, laugh, then use it to prop up a wobbly end table, know that you are not my favorite type of person but I suppose we can all make our own choices, and I’ll just choose to remind you that discussion will be generally enriched if more people do the reading, and you presumably signed up for a book club to do some reading. You can choose to call me a nag or a mom friend and I will choose to glare at you from across the room stonily for the rest of the meeting.

Second, please don’t get mad at people who don’t do the reading. We all live busy lives, understand?  Maybe they’re here more for the company and good time. There’s no reason you can’t enjoy a discussion about the text even when one person has more good will than book knowledge. Unless everyone in your club except you hasn’t done the reading. This happens. If it does, just drown your rage in this week’s bottle of Riesling.

On Extras: So all you nominally need is a book, some friends and a place to meet for book club, but sometimes it’s really fun to sometimes do something extra, whether it’s a craft or a game, maybe watch the movie adaptation of the book so you can tear into it and throw things at your TV. Finding some activity that relates to your book can be really fun. People who think a craft or game sounds childish just have not had enough joy or glitter glue in their life lately. Making them participate in these extras will give them both. Do it!

On Snacks: Maybe you thought snacks would be categorized under fun, extra bits for your book club. You were wrong. Tasty, delicious snacks and beverages, especially adult beverages, are essential for the success of a book club. Really, they are essential for anything and everything in life.

There you go, all you need to have a great book club. What are you waiting for, ya little book-scamp you? Go out there and get some friends. Reduce your crippling social anxiety. Go, go!

Welcome NaNoWriMo!

I know this blog is usually more about reading books than about writing them, but this first week of November heralds the beginning of NaNoWriMo, a truly momentous endeavor that I simply have to acknowledge. NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, happens every November. Writers interested in participating have one month to write a whole novel. That’s a minimum of 50,000 words. It’s essentially a marathon for writers, but without the physical activity part, which is probably for the best, thinking of some of the writers I know, (myself definitely included.)

This isn’t just an insane exercise that turns out half-formed rush jobs though. You’d be surprised by some of the books that originally came out of NaNoWriMo. There are several lists all over the internet for you to look at, but three of the most recognizable titles include Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, and each of the Lunar Chronicles books, a YA series by Marissa Meyer. Not all of these writers actually finished their entire book in one November. Morgenstern, for example, needed two NaNoWriMo’s to finish Night Circus. Still, these incredible books were all spurred on into existence by one very special organization.

You see, NaNoWriMo isn’t only the name of the event, it’s the name of the organization that promotes the month of writing and acts as a support network for people in a number of ways. Writers who sign up for NaNoWriMo online get help creating a writing schedule and connections to other writers in the NaNoWriMo community. Famous writers such as Maggie Stiefvater or  Alexander Chee from last year will write pep talks that are released throughout November. Writers in the same area often organize write-ins, meetings where all nearby writers get together and just work on their books. Seeing as you have to write over 1,600 words a day to reach 50,000 by the end of the month, authors definitely need all the help they can get.

The sheer numbers can be intimidating, and sure, NaNoWriMo can’t be attempted by everyone every year, but many people praise the month long event for giving them the motivation to write with a focus and intensity they never knew, to start that one story they never thought they could put down to paper. It’s the community and network that really pulls people through.

We’re only four days into November, so if you’re really into the idea, there’s still time to sign up. This November also happens to be when I have finals, so I won’t be able to join you, unfortunately. The 50,000+ words I’ll be writing this month will all be for term papers and exams, and trust me it’s much less readable and enjoyable than Water for Elephants.

If you’re still intrigued by NaNoWriMo but feel left out because you can’t write, maybe you’d like to hear about the organization’s charity work and see how you could support it. They’ve got writing camps for young people, initiatives to build spaces for writing in libraries and the like, and school programs to develop writing skills and creative expression. They have a shop for merchandise and donations on their site.

I realize now this is starting to sound like sponsored content but I swear it isn’t. This whole concept, from the idea to the organization, just appeals to me so much as a reader and writer. Hopefully I’ve intrigued you too. Whether you decide to participate in NaNoWriMo, check out their organization, or even just chase down some famous NaNoWriMo books and read them, I hope you’ll find a way to celebrate National Novel Writing Month.

shield-nano-side-blue-brown-rgb-hires

image courtesy of nanowrimo.org

Celebrating Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is already out as a well acclaimed play in London. It’s doing well enough that I kind of wish I hadn’t used my budgeted theater ticket black magic summoning to get Hamilton tickets. I mean, I would technically have to summon both plane tickets to London and a ticket to see the play, and that is really out of my black magic budget. Instead, I’ve been gazing from afar with the internet, looking at every article and collection of photographs I can find. It’s a rather sad and lonely way to celebrate something I love so much.

Luckily for me and everyone else unable to see the play in London, there’s another way to celebrate. Once again, books come to the rescue. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child‘s script will be published and released as what you could technically call the 8th Harry Potter book. I never thought this was a chance I’d get to see again, a chance to celebrate another Harry Potter book. I was pretty young when most of the other books came out, so going to midnight release parties or planning elaborate celebrations was pretty much out of the question. This is a new chance for me.

At the same time, we are celebrating the release of a script here, not a traditional novel, so in some ways, this could make for a different experience when  compared to Potter parties past. With a play script, I thought maybe a dramatic table read, (costumes/wardrobes optional,) would be an interesting twist to the celebrations, but really I know we’d all be too busy balling our eyes out to get through reading the script out loud, based on what reviewers say. We might just need some quiet time to read the script through teary eyes before doing any table read parties.

There’s still plenty of other ways you could celebrate Cursed Child though. You could break out the Butter Beer, Bertie Bott’s beans and other magical sweet treats. I always appreciate an excuse for that. You could try out a number of different Harry Potter crafts you’ve been eyeing on Pinterest or Buzzfeed. I’ve got a few favorites, including a DIY wand craft that gave me a pretty convincing wand with just some hot glue, a chopstick and some paint. There are some pretty cool bookmark designs I’m interested in trying out too.

If you’re too lazy to plan out and organize your own party, that’s okay. There’s more than enough celebrations you can attend. I’m mainly thinking of bookstores here. Many of them are doing midnight release parties. I found myself a list of bookstores celebrating the occasion in the Chicago area. My beloved Anderson’s Books was on the list, of course.

Really, there are just so many ways I could celebrate Harry Potter and the Cursed Child that I don’t think I can fit all of it into just one day. I may just have to let myself have a multi-day Potter festival. Even then, I’ll probably have enough passion left over that I may have to just wait and hope for another Harry Potter book to come out. Sigh. The life of a book nerd is a harrowing one indeed. Still, I’ll definitely be enjoying my Harry Potter festival while it’s here. I hope you get the chance to do the same and celebrate yet another chance to step into Rowling’s wizarding world.

Reading for a Blackout

So the other night the weather just wanted to remind me and everyone within the general area I call home that the apocalypse could come at any moment by unleashing thunder, lightening, tornadoes, flooding and all that good stuff in the greater Chicago area. Apparently, it was big enough news that concerned family in Canada found out about the weather somehow and phoned us.

My neighborhood got off pretty easy on the apocalypse scale, but there was still a pretty bad storm, and that bad storm lead to a blackout. It’s really the sort of thing we should’ve seen coming on my street, but I had just sat down to watch TV when the power cut out. For a few seconds, I had no idea what had just happened, and for the next few, I had no idea what to do, despite the fact that I grew up on this same block with terribly faulty power.  Once the flashlights were grabbed and the normally ornamental candles lit, though, I still wasn’t sure what to do with the rest of my evening, which suddenly freed up.

Well, I’m an idiot. Obviously, as soon as the visibility issue is solved you’re supposed to read books, duh. I figured that one out before too long, but what do you read during a blackout? And how?

I had one or two books on electronic devices that I thought about going to, but had to cross those out immediately. One was on my phone, which was pretty well charged but you look at battery life a whole lot more warily when trapped in possibly unending night. I figured that I might as well stick to the paper books I had in my to-read pile. You gotta conserve battery power when you can in emergency situations, just a generally good rule of thumb. As much as I love reading, I don’t want to explain how I couldn’t call a friend, family member, or 911 because I just had to finish my e-book.

That’s all fine though. I have plenty of good ol’ analogue books to read, but which ones do I read in a blackout? Not the scary ones, that’s for sure. Maybe if I’d just then had a bunch of girlfriends over and we were planning on scaring each other’s pants off for a slumber party anyway, but I’m not twelve years old so I was pretty much alone and not up for books on death and ghosts, monsters, and/or psychopathic humans. Blackout darkness is true, horror movie darkness, so you have to be careful of what you choose to read. I sometimes find poetry rather soothing, and easier to read in poor light because there’s fewer words on the page to piece out, same thing with comics. If you feel like you have something to prove, go ahead and read a tiny print sized horror novel during your next power outage. I generally prefer lighter, calmer fair. The longer a power outage goes on, the more I start to worry about apocalypse prepping and get myself plenty worked up without help from my reading selections.

With my pile of books selected, I sat down to read them with a flashlight. It was a nice way to relive my most rebellious moments in middle school. One time, I read all the way through New Moon by staying up past midnight. There was nothing my parents could do to stop me. Whoa! I lived through puberty right on the edge, man. Recalling these pleasant memories made going to bed with no power slightly less terrifying. Would wild thirteen-year-old me be scared of a silly little power outage? Probably, but that was back when I decided showing any emotion that wasn’t angsty sarcasm was a stupid weakness that must be suppressed, so I would’ve seemed totally fine to an observer.

Don’t worry though, our power turned back on eventually. I woke up in the middle of the night to find the lights on and the TV blaring, announcing the return of civilization. The pile of books I’d read during the blackout were still sitting next to my favorite chair, having never left me in the first place.

Don’t Get Your Grad Oh the Places You’ll Go

So I’m graduating in a couple of weeks, as are a lot of my friends. Not to mention, many of my friends and family members have already graduated, from high school and college. Tis the season of Graduation parties, which means graduation presents, which means each graduate can count on receiving a copy of Dr. Seuss’s Oh the Places You’ll Go, maybe even more than one. You know this, I know this, and the bookstores know this too, as this book is most often taken out from the toddler picture book section and moved front and center with a bunch of other sentimental, sappy books pitched as graduation gifts. I’ve even seen the OTPYG books or otpigs for short, released as special graduation edition books, with spaces in the back to write down the year you graduated, and what school you graduated from. There’s also spots for photos and signatures from friends, like it’s a yearbook or something now. I’m normally all for giving books as gifts, but this is getting out of hand.

2016-05-26 21.50.59

No! Stop it!

Otpigs may have been a cute, nostalgic, original gift once upon a time, but now it’s the equivalent of a birthday card you didn’t even sign. You can put more effort into a gift than that, and you know it. I’m pretty sure I might even have my old otpig from childhood, and one from when I graduated from high school, of course. I don’t need another. It’s not even my favorite Dr. Seuss book. I remember being creeped out by a picture in it with some creepy shadow lumps with angry eyes when I was little. My favorite Dr. Seuss story was probably the one about the Sneetches, those bird-like thingies that discriminated against each other based on whether they had a star on their bellies or not. Don’t tell me that doesn’t have helpful life advice. Plenty of his books do! If you have to, get one of those. It will be far more original.

Most other books to get graduates aren’t much better. Either they are equally sappy memento-like books with cute little bites of wisdom, or supposedly “practical” books about how to be an adult and/or college student.  These gems are also full of unhelpful advice, but it goes more like “Do your taxes. Spend money carefully.” Or, for the college bound kids, “Study and be nice to your roommate!” Maybe some of these are specific enough to be helpful, but I’ve been looking all throughout these graduate advice books, and not found a single book that gives me in depth advice on how to feed myself on a budget, with only one sauce pan and two different types of spoons to cook with in my kitchen. Otpig will only help me there if someone ties it to a skillet pan and a spatula, or a can opener even.

Maybe you shouldn’t even get your grad a book. Maybe you can buy one back from them. They now have loads of textbooks they often  had to pay a hundred plus dollars for that are of no use to them anymore. If you have the money, give them a full refund and then you get to walk away from the whole thing with a memento of your own, surprise twist! Sure, there are some websites and places that students can sell their textbooks on, but you usually can’t sell it back for full price. Depending on the numbers some of those sites name and how they deal with packaging and delivery costs, it could still be a net loss. Be the cool uncle or aunt that has a hundred or so to spare and pick up this now useless, out-of-date textbook on Adobe Illustrator or Eastern Philosophy. If it were me, I’d be happy to have some of my shelf space back, and have some can opener and non-plastic silverware money too.

Really though, I think one of the best book-gifts you could give a graduate is a book with nothing in it, a journal I mean. Instead of patronizing your graduate by giving them a bunch of advice and sermons or lectures about life success or whatever, advice that you didn’t even write, recognize that this is a time for beginning a new story of their own. Maybe they might have their own sage words to write down. They made it through high school and/or college somehow. They have stories. Maybe you don’t think  your grad is a writer, and so this gift won’t be useful or appreciated. Well, they almost certainly aren’t still avid Dr. Seuss fans, and that wasn’t going to stop you from getting the a wretched otpig, was it ? There’s way more potential use for a journal notebook than an old children’s book that may or may not have terrified them as a child. I mean, it was just that one page, but c’mon guys, those eyes.

Maybe a nice but empty diary or journal really isn’t your grad’s speed. There are specialized journals with prompts and pages where you only write one line a day for five years or so. I have one I got from graduating high school, and its kind of fun to look back at how college freshman me answered the prompts senior me is now answering. I know they even have some themed around graduating and stuff. I think I may have even seen one inspired by Oh the Places You’ll Go. Maybe don’t get them that one. Other than that, there’s a wide variety of useful journals, diaries, or even sketchbooks. Finding one for your graduate that actually seems like it means something should be easy. With this gift, they’ll be able to tell people there own story, a new and never before heard one, not one Barnes and Noble is rolling out to sell by the crate-full this time of year.

Getting All the Death Books

Well, not to brag or anything, but last weekend at BookCon went pretty nicely. Allow me to show off my stack o’ books I compiled by the time I finished taking that convention floor by storm.

20160514_223427

Yes, those are Choose Your Own Adventure books on top. You Jealous?

It was only part way through BookCon that an interaction made me notice a trend in the books I was picking, not one I’d been consciously fostering, but definitely something apparent enough that I creeped my mother out a bit when I told her about it. I think she figured I was going through the goth/emo phase she thought she lucked out of once I got past the really broody parts of puberty with buying any black lipstick.

Turns out I bought a surprising number of books about death,well four books anyway. A smallish portion of my overall haul, but still. The fact that it was a mostly unintentional trend kind of weirded me out more than anything. I’d bought one book that promised a good time, some necromancy, fantasy, and some laughs, and then found a table of the author Mary Roach.

She was one of those authors that, when I said I’d never heard about her before and asked about her work, people could only say, “Oh my God she is amazing though! You have to read everything she’s ever done!” She’s written two books that are about death in one way or the other, and both are nonfiction, like the rest of her work. One, Spook, talks about scientists investigating the afterlife. The other, Stiff, talks about the whole “death industry” and how people deal with dead bodies. I guess I can blame Roach for this, because I apparently had to read all the books she’d ever written and here were two books to start that seemed like the perfect buddies.

Then, the sales rep for that publishing company saw the two books I’d picked out, and said, “Oh, well then you’ve got to read Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory, If you’re getting all the death books.” And I did buy it, of course, and I’m reading it now. The anecdotes are charming and funny and the author, Caitlin Doughty, is very frank about what she does and what place she feels it has and should have in the world.

I shopped around plenty after that, very consciously choosing books that looked like they did not mention death in the least, except for maybe in an action oriented “Will they escape the danger?!” type of way, which is really more about survival than death anyhow. As much as those books I’d picked up looked interesting, I felt weird being the one a salesperson would see and go, “Oh, we got a morbid one here folks. Get all the books fixating on our fragile state of mortality and insurmountable demise likely leading to an endless abyss!” Is that supposed to be me now?

I suppose I have just as many questions about death as anyone, maybe even more, speaking as a college student with loads of existential questions shoved into my head and a firmly held personal belief system of “WTF? IDK.”

Death is just one of those black holes of a subject, the dark kind that draw you in. It compels authors to write about it and readers to read about it. From what I’ve read of the books so far, it’s all quality stuff, and some of it even is shaping the way I think about death, for the better. The nonfiction books  I picked poke fun at death, ask questions we probably should be asking about it, and try to provide answers.

Basically, I felt a bit weird getting pinned as someone interested in nonfiction accounts of a darker subject, but came out feeling it’s worth the stigma to pick up odd, dark, books, if they are drawing your attention. Maybe deep down you are asking questions abut this sort of stuff, and there are too many books out there with intriguing answers to feel shy about asking for them.

Learning to Love (Some Books) Again

Sometimes, I develop an unsavory connection with certain books through no fault of the book itself. I’m talking mainly about books that have been forced down my throat by teachers until my gag reflex activated, metaphorically. That’s a pretty hard thing to pull off with a book lover like me. Still, there are some books I refuse to speak to after a bad experience like that. Some, though, I’ve learned to love again. I’ll share a couple of those titles with you so you can learn from my harrowing journey from hate to love, or at least tolerance, in the world of required texts.

The Scarlet Letter

Everyone gets forced to read this for American lit in high school, and I’ve never heard one person say they were happy about it. Your English teacher just shoves this pilgrim book down your throat because they want to pretend there were real American authors before Mark Twain, (not that I know lots of high school kids who loved Mark Twain either.)

For me, it was especially bad, because I had that book taught to me by one of the most wretched and foul English teachers I’d ever had in my life. I remember one day, when she was absent and we had a sub, I happily doodled her flying around a village like an evil specter, sucking the souls out of virgins to stay young, which is what I imagined she was doing with her day off.

Really, though, when I don’t have an evil demon teaching it to me, I can say Nathaniel Hawthorne isn’t a bad writer. I later had to read a short story by him, Young Goodman Brown, and I felt his work really gave deep emotional insight into the lives of our weird and almost kinkily prudish ancestors. Yeah, you wear that red letter. You’ve been a bad girl, haven’t you, you dirty puritan you. I heard you showed someone your ankles in the woods last night, you slut! We Americans need to remember our very sexually confused and repressed roots.

Beowulf:

The first time I read this long-ass poem, (what the ancients called an “epic,” I believe,) I had no problem with it. I mean, there’s some cultural and historical divides you have to work through when reading the oldest know English language text known to man, but it was nothing I wasn’t up for, especially when the protagonist gets to fight weird troll monsters and dragons.

Then, I had to read it again, and again, and again. I think, all told, I’ve had four different teachers assign and teach Beowulf to me, in high school and college. I guess being the first known written story in the English language, (not that you could recognize it as English; it’s so flipping old,) makes it important, but come on. Four freaking times?

The more I read it, the more I felt sorry for the first bad guy Beowulf kills, Grendel. It says right in the text itself that Grendel just didn’t like how much noise the crazy partying Danish guys were making in their new Hall, partying like some Skyrim frat pledges. “Hey guys, could you keep it down? It’s after quiet hours” was basically my catchphrase during my freshman year of college. I like it quiet. Granted, I’ve yet to go on a murder spree to quiet dastardly partying college students, but until I go through my last midterm and finals week, I’m not ruling anything out.

Neil Gaiman saved me from hating this admittedly thrilling poem forever with his short story, The Monarch of the Glen. It was a really good, slightly skewed retelling of Beowulf, because retelling classic legends on, but telling them slant, is what God put Gaiman’s beautifully messy head on this green earth to do.

Pride and Prejudice:

This one I haven’t even ever had to read for a class. Maybe if I was British I would have, but I guess Scarlet Letter or Catcher in the Rye got shoved in its place instead. No, it wasn’t a teacher that ruined it, it was the people who presented the book to me.

I’m still pretty convinced that, if they find out you are a female English major who hasn’t read and looooooooved Pride and Prejudice, they will put you to death. Don’t ask me who, just, they. The judgers, the same ones who will only give me another year or so before they put me down for not reading Ulysses.

That, plus the way girls like to geek out over Austen books nauseates me sometimes.

Specifically, I’m talking about a very specific form 0f Austen geek out that always reminded me too strongly of my Twilight phase. Basically, how some women idolize the romantic interest and giggle while buying up all the “Team Darcy” paraphernalia always made me want to gag. I knew, realistically, a book that had been read for hundreds of years would have more going for it than a lead man who simply must be portrayed by Colin Firth, from now and forever unto the end of time, but I just really didn’t want to read a book it seemed most people only liked for the totes dreamy lead, especially after I realized how truly infantile Twilight was. That association just left a bad taste in my mouth, especially when they did that weird thing when the reprinted classic romances, like P&P, Jane Eyre, and even Romeo and Juliet, to have Twilight-like covers, with same font and everything. That made me feel like I was watching a parent trying to feed their kid broccoli and spinach chopped up into brownies.

Then, I made myself actually read the book, and found out it was, in fact, a better love story than Twilight, and not just  in the sad and pathetic meme way that phrase implies. There are some genuinely well rounded characters, and relationships that explore issues of willful ignorance put up in a person’s head by the two title elements. I guess “Team Darcy” fits better on a t-shirt better than “Team in-depth exploration of willful biases involving, gender, class, and other preconceived notions about a person.” You’d use up all your rhinestones trying to bedazzle that.

 

Hopefully these three success stories will help you learn to love some classics you’ve been to hard on, especially the ones you haven’t spoken to since high school. Go on, try them again with an open mind and heart. You might be glad you did.