Reading Challenge Accepted

I’ve spent the last two and a half years reading books for a book challenge my best friend and I decided to take on. She’s a much faster reader than I am and finished in about a year. It was the first time I’d ever done a reading challenge, as before I chose my books by whatever was at the front of my shelf and I hadn’t read yet (or wanted to reread). It only took up over 2 years, and yet, now that I no longer have that reading challenge, at the end of it, I found myself feeling a bit lost.

I looked at my bookshelf and suddenly felt overwhelmed with just how many reads I had ahead of me. How can I ever make it through that jungle? I needed a break from reading goals, if only for a day or two. Instead of trying to figure out what the next challenge would be or how to go about choosing my next read, I settled back in with a book I’ve had ongoing for as long as that last reading challenge, Leyenda. This one’s been a slow go because it’s my first time reading an entire book in Spanish. Yes, I’ve been reaching out of my comfort zones for reading for over two years only, but already I feel like I can’t go back to the way I used to choose material.

I can’t just blindly pick something up without considering what kind of writers and stories I’m supporting. Taking on that book challenge I think has made me a more conscientious reader. Like my TV-watching habits, I’ve learned to recognize what is worth my time and what should be let go.

I looked at my shelves a few days ago and thought, “What can I get rid of? What doesn’t need to be read or reread?” I still haven’t gotten around to clearing out my book case, simply because I haven’t had the time, but once my vacation comes around I’d like to dedicate a day to truly weighing my options and getting books off the shelf that really don’t need to be there. I did a mini version of this a few months ago, but then I was just trying to make space for new books I’d purchased. This time, I want to go into it with a real critical eye, so that I can continue to challenge myself with what I read.

I’m not saying I’m giving up YA or sci-fi/fantasy books completely, but I am attempting to be more aware of what I pick up off my shelf. Taking on that reading challenge for two and half years made me realize that I need to expand my horizons, so I’m including more diverse reads, whether it’s by authors of color, women, queer writers, or some combination thereof.

After three days of taking a breather with my Spanish-language book, I decided on Roxane Gay’s Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. Books like this one are difficult but necessary if I’m going to become not only a better reader and writer, but a better person. Reading challenge accepted.

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Another Post About That Anne-Girl

It took me a little over two years, but I finally finished the 26 book reading challenge! I ended the two-year endeavor with the category “a book you love, read it again,” with Anne of Green Gables. I read this book so many times between 4th and 6th grade that I lost count of how many rereads I’d gone through. For some reason though, after 12-years-old, I stopped going back to Anne’s adventures on Prince Edward Island. Maybe I felt too grown up for such childish dreams, or maybe I simply didn’t have time with all the books in the world to read. Whatever the reason, after nearly 15 years, I decided with this reading challenge it was time to go back to Avonlea.

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From the moment I opened to the first page and read the familiar lines a smile spread over my face and a warmth spread through me, like the feeling I get when I’m reunited with old friends who make me feel like I’m home. Even after 15 years, I still knew the words by heart, like my favorite song that I sing along to on the radio every time it comes on. My reintroduction to Anne Shirley at 26-years-old was as magical as that first time at 9-years-old. Just like when I was a child, I devoured the poetic language of the hopeful protagonist who chose to see the beauty around her despite having been through ugly situations her entire life. Those negative aspects of Anne’s life became more poignant to me now, especially after having watched the Netflix series Anne with an E, and I realized just how tumultuous her early years really were.

I still laughed at all the scrapes Anne got herself into, from flying off the handle at Mrs. Rachel Lynde to accidentally getting Diana drunk off wine she thought was raspberry cordial. What struck me most though, was how little I remembered of Anne’s later years, when she starts studying for the Queen’s entrance exams, goes on to win the Avery scholarship and dealing with the grief of losing Matthew. I guess I hadn’t paid much attention to “grownup” Anne when I was a kid because I just couldn’t relate to such things. Now though, reading about her anxieties with school and her ambitions, I see myself in Anne more than ever. Descriptions of how she felt being away from home, learning to cope with homesickness and eventually falling into a routine and comfort of studying, with less frequent visits home, brought back the memories of my undergrad years when I’d first graduated high school and went to college, living on my own for the first time.

The chapter of Matthew’s death struck me harder than I ever remember it from my childhood. Again, at the time, I hadn’t seen as much death as I have now, so it never hit that close to home. Having watched my friends’ and family’s loved ones pass away though over the last four years alone, Matthew Cuthbert’s death on the page hurt twice as much as it had when I was a kid reading the book. Moreover, Anne’s grieving process of delayed tears made so much more sense to me now than it did when I was a child.

I’m so glad I reread Anne of Green Gables during this particular time in my adult life. It felt like I was growing up with her all over again. Hopefully my next read won’t be so many years apart, but no matter what, I know I will always come home to Green Gables when the time is right, just like Anne.

What are your favorite childhood books and how have you felt about them when rereading as an adult?

Meagan Reads Sci-Fi: The Martian by Andy Weir

I feel like it’s been a while since I picked up a book that made me really excited and breeze through it so fast, even with a full-time job and part-time grad school. Andy Weir’s The Martian did that for me. I read it as my 24th book for my 26 book reading challenge (almost done!) for the category “a book with a great opening line.” If memory serves me right, the opening line of this book was, “Well, I’m pretty much fucked.” That’s a really strong start in my opinion. It immediately sets the character’s voice as someone who has a sense of humor in the face of overwhelming odds, and that’s who Mark Watney, the main character, is. Throughout all the terrible things that happen to him, he never loses that smart ass attitude. I genuinely found myself laughing out loud several times while reading, and that is not something that happens often when I read a book.

I admit, I watched the movie first. Listen, I’m an adult now, so I can’t pull that, “I’ll only watch the movie/TV show after I’ve read the book,” crap anymore. There’s just not enough hours in the day. There’s something to be said for watching the movie first in this case. Personally, it helped me wrap my mind around all the science and technology described in the book. Weir’s writing is heavy with specific jargon and tremendous scientific detail. It was written in a way that did not overwhelm me though or make me feel lost, but I do think having the movie in the back of my mind helped with that interpretation of what was happening on the page. The story truly is an adventurous space romp with the added legitimacy of attention to detail about what is real science. At least it sounded like real science to me, so good enough.

Now, truth be told, the writing itself is nothing spectacular. It relies on some pretty shallow character development and the pacing could use improvement. Sentence structure is also lacking, as most of the book is written in frustratingly short, clipped statements. However, even with the lower quality writing style, the narrative itself never really suffers. It maintains its entertainment quality and at the end of the day, in my book, that’s what counts. Sometimes, it’s fun just to have fun with reading.

I’d like to end this post with a note about Mark Watney’s character that I noticed immediately. He reminded me so much of another fictional person that I adore from a show called Killjoys on SyFy: Johnny Jaqobi. So if you’re a fan of that show and that character, then I think you’ll like this book.

Have any of you read The Martian? What are your thoughts on the story and characters?

The Comic Book Kid

I was not, in fact, a comic book kid. They just weren’t something on my radar as a child reader. I had a subscription to a Barbie book club. I frequented the library and eventually as I got older, Borders Bookstore. But comics were just never introduced to me. There was never any negative attitude about them, like saying they weren’t real reading or anything like that. No, comic books just never appeared in my household and I never looked for them, frankly, because I didn’t know they existed to look for.

Then, a few years ago in my early twenties, the guitarist from my favorite band announced he was releasing a comic book series. Naturally, being obsessed with Good Charlotte, I absolutely had to pick up Billy Martin’s Vitriol series. This was my first dive into the comic book world. I had no clue what to expect. As far as I knew, comic books were basically big kid picture books. But oh, dear reader, they are so much more than that. Yes of course, the artwork plays a vital role in the consumption of this media, but to say, “They’re just picture books,” a) demeans the value of picture books and how they impact children’s reading and b) underestimates the true craft that goes into combining appropriate images with a storyline.

See, until I delved into the Vitriol series, I hadn’t realized that comic books had to work double time, with the artist making a conscious choice in structure and style that adhered to the voice and tone of the story being told through dialogue, onomatopoeia and narrative boxes (I don’t know the official industry term for the formatting, that’s just what I call them). In a novel, where the author would describe the movement, emotion, and noises of the protagonist as he bled out from a bullet wound, the comic book artist must use color, shading, and lines to portray the hero as he cringed in pain and indicated wracking coughs with the subtlest of dashes near the drawing’s mouth. Complex, right?

Now, I admit that before Martin’s work was announced, I’d been toying with the idea of picking up comic books because I was so invested in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Where was I supposed to start, though, with superheroes who had a 50+ year history? Starting with a publication that didn’t come from one of the big two in the industry turned out to be the perfect introduction to comic books. I found myself going back and rereading books to catch every inch of color and artwork that I may have missed while reading the words on the page, as my eyes had been so vigorously trained to do for so many years.

After that, I felt brave enough to try my hand at Marvel with the Axis series. Let me tell you, reading that storyline was a bonkers experience. It was confusing and chaotic, but still, I felt better prepared for it having accustomed myself to the format with the previous comic books. I may have been 22 when I picked up my first series, but now I truly feel like a comic book kid.

Book Club Medley

After several years of liking one another’s Goodreads and Facebook statuses, my cousins and I finally had the brilliant idea to start a family book club. Virtual, of course, as we are spread around South and Central Florida, Virginia, and New Jersey. The only problem is, with such varied schedules and reading speeds, picking one book to share proved to be difficult. So, what’s the solution? For our first month’s meeting, we agreed to each read our own book and bring it with us to the Google Hangouts session. Things were off to a rough start as no one made it to the originally agreed upon date. If we couldn’t manage to set time aside to do a video chat together, how would we ever read a book together?

The experiment turned out to be a success though. After a couple of days of flopping around, trying to make our schedules jive, we finally started our video chat and exchanged our thoughts on our individual books. We asked each other questions and discussed new perspectives, and all without having read the same book. There was a medley of genres, with one cousin bringing literary fiction and a fairy tale retelling, another cousin bringing a murder mystery and a true crime book, and still another cousin bringing comic books into the mix, while I myself brought a classic satire and work in translation.

It didn’t turn into a confusing and disorganized stew as I’d originally feared it might. Instead, we got a taste of different works and thoughtful discussion, like going to a buffet and trying a little bit of everything. I’ve never done a book club before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but our modified version turned into a fun and exciting adventure that left us wanting more. We agreed to do the same thing again for the next month and then try a joint book venture the month after, with a graphic novel or comic book series so that those of us with less time on our hands or shorter attention spans could still keep up with the reading schedule.

For any book clubbers out there, I highly recommend giving our cousins’ book club experiment a spin and instead of everyone reading the same book, read different books and start a conversation. It was such a fascinating result that made me excited to be a part of the reading community.

The Bookshelf Purge

As I go accumulating more and more books, I have less space available on my bookshelf, naturally. This has made me reevaluate what I allow space on my shelves, so I recently did a bit of a purge. I had kept so many books for so long that I’d never read because I kept telling myself, “Someday.” I think it’s time I stop deluding myself. There’s no way I can ever get through ALL THE BOOKS before my life is over, especially since I’m a responsible adult with a life. What did that mean for some of my old second-hand purchases? It was time to let go of the notion that I’d eventually get around to them.

The deciding factor though for purging some books off my shelves was the diversity. I admit, I’ve been guilty of not reading diversely, but I’d like to change that. Making room physically for such books is a start. I didn’t just get rid of all white and/or male authors from my shelves, because I’d essentially be getting rid of my entire collection altogether, and I’m not that evolved of a human being yet. I did, however, rid myself of copies of the remainder of Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas series and Michael Connelly novels. At this point, in my attempts to be a more conscious reader, I’ve come to realize the problematic characterization that can occur with such writers.

It’s not just the way certain characters are written that prompted me to purge these books from my shelves, although that aspect definitely made me feel less guilty about getting rid of books I hadn’t read yet. With the above two mentioned authors, I’ve already read enough of their canon to feel satisfied with having experienced those worlds and characters. Yes, Odd Thomas is a cool series, but having already read the first three books, I think I get it. He’s a ghost-seeing fry cook that it reticent to get into the action but does so anyway because that’s what protagonists do. Yes, Connelly’s Detective Bosch is a fun, cranky officer of the law with a gritty personality and serious machismo faults, but I’ve read enough of his adventures to know he’s always gonna catch the bad guy and be a terrible romantic interest.

With a significant chunk of books gone with getting rid of those two authors alone, I’ve made room for Roxane Gay, Zoraida Cordova, and Isabelle Allende. I know I should probably get rid of some more books from my shelf, but I’m still working on letting go of my material possessions. I have, however, extended my white and/or male author purge to my Goodreads TBR list and gotten rid of the last book in Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, the remaining Percy Jackson series books, and others. It felt like a breath of fresh air to see a good number of books get off my shelves and lists, taunting me with guilt for not having read them after all these years. From now on, I’m going to read what I want and not what I feel obligated to read (sans school textbooks).

Romance and War

I recently started thinking about the books my parents gravitate towards and found it interesting how such opposite concepts can manage to come together. My mom is an avid romance reader, which means she looks for that HEA (Happily Ever After). My dad is fascinated by stories of war, the tragedy that comes with a life of strife. Romance and war don’t belong together. And yet…

Don’t all the best war stories include tales of love? A soldier leaving behind the girl he loves, promising to come back, even though he knows that’s not a promise he should make. Two best friends on the front lines together, for better or for worse, taking on the fire for one another. A father leaving his children in the care of the mother or trusted relative, never knowing if he’ll see them again, but assuring them it will all be alright in the end. How can such a seemingly hateful event be filled with stories of love and romance?

What is it that makes that HEA worthwhile in a romance novel? Is it the rosy good times of significant others spending hours walking hand in hand and making lovely, laughing memories together? No, it’s the strife. It’s the fight. It’s the war that comes with battling to hold onto something that makes the darkness tolerable. Sometimes love and romance can be hell. I’m not talking about toxic, unhealthy relationships where all the two people ever do is hurt each other and call it love. I’m talking about the genuine mistakes made in the process of learning to share yourself with another person, and that can hurt and feel like a fight, but it’s not futile.

So, romance and war. My mom and dad. Two types that are so different and yet somehow work together to create a story that’s full of multiple HEA’s after multiple battles to learn how to get to the end of the book together.