Saturday, May 29, 2010

Unread Book Challenge: Second BTRN Poll

After the wild success of the first Book To Read Next (BTRN) poll, I am ready to begin the second reader's choice poll; again, there are four book choices, and all four are provided below with pictures of the book covers and links to the Amazon pages for the books (in case you need a summary or want to read reviews for the books). This time around, I'm focusing on books written for younger readers (YA/Middle Grade).

Here are the four choices:

Inkdeath by Cornelia Funke

Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

These are all books I have on my bookshelves, waiting to be read. Help me decide which one to read next by voting on your favorite of these choices. Voting is open from today until June 19 (that is three weeks for voting, in case you're wondering), and the poll is located in the left-hand sidebar.

In the meantime, I've started reading Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason by Helen Fielding. I think I'm staying on target for my challenge, as I've read 9 books in a little under two months. So far, so good!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Unread Book Challenge: PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

First, I'd like to give a hearty thank you to my readers who voted on the "What book should I read next?" poll. Your votes pushed me to read Pride and Prejudice, and it is with great joy that I can now write I have finished the book. And much to my own surprise, I enjoyed it.

When I first put that book in the poll, I hoped that another book would get chosen, but my rationale for including it in the first poll I made was that if it got selected, at least I would get it out of the way early on in my Unread Books Challenge. In that way, I am rather like Elizabeth Bennett--my first prejudices against the book were proven unfounded, and now I know that the book deserves all the attention it has garnered over the years.

I had tried to read Pride and Prejudice about five years ago but gave up after the first 60 pages because I couldn't get into the language usage, the fact that everyone "cried" in the book (nearly all the beginning quotations are marked with a "cried he" or "cried she" phrase), and the number of characters introduced all at once without a great differentiation among the voices of the characters. I found that if I didn't pay attention as I read, I lost the storyline altogether.

This time around, I pushed past the opening chapters, and, having seen the movie, I was able to keep up with the character introductions. I found myself losing the language barrier and getting attached to the characters and their story. Even though the story has its archaicisms (e.g., the Bennett family is in an uproar because their youngest daughter ran away with a man and didn't immediately marry him), the story is remarkably progressive for having been written over a century ago. For instance, when two characters are discussing marriage, one says this: is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life. (24)

The entire conversation is comical and makes some good points about marriage and its supposed blissful existence. That a woman would understand that marriage may not be the "be all to the end all" in an era where marriage was treated as the highest accomplishment a woman could achieve is progressive, to say the least.

Another good aspect of the book is that it is full of honesty. The characters are (in some respect) hopelessly flawed, and I appreciate that Jane Austen wrote her characters imperfectly, which she, as the narrator, acknowledges in writing:

There is, I believe, in every disposition a tendency to some particular evil, a natural defect, which not even the best education can overcome. (58)
But we are none of us consistent. (82)

The book is also full of little insights that had me underlining quite a bit as I read. I can't put all the underlined portions in this post, or you'd be reading a good portion of the book, but here are some of my favorites (this is by no means a comprehensive list of my favorite quotations from the book):

Nothing is more deceitful... than the appearance of humility. It is often only carelessness of opinion, and sometimes an indirect boast. (48)
The power of doing any thing with quickness is always much prized by the possessor, and often without any attention to the imperfection of the performance. (49)
Her impatience ... was as well rewarded as impatience generally is. (146)
It is such a spur to one's genius, such an opening for wit, to have a dislike of that kind. One may be continually abusive without saying any thing just; but one cannot be always laughing at a man without now and then stumbling on something witty. (221) 

I think most avid readers have a book (or two) that, as we read it, we had to re-evaluate our thoughts about the book. What book was your Pride and Prejudice?

Happy reading!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Childhood Challenge: THE WESTING GAME

This month, I chose to re-read The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin for my monthly Childhood Challenge read.

In the sixth grade, my reading class was split into “lit groups”, and each group was assigned a different book to read. This was a pretty normal practice, one I had gone through since the fourth grade. But in the fall of my sixth grade year, I had an experience I wasn’t used to: My lit group had gotten a book that I had no interest in reading. As an avid reader at a young age, I tended to get excited about reading any new book. But that fall, I fell a little on the inside when I watched as my teacher pulled out the stack of books for my group, and I read the title displayed on the covers of those books: A Day No Pigs Would Die. I thought the title sounded horrifying, and as I read the back of the book, I prepared myself for the worst reading experience I could imagine.

As I sat with my head lowered, wishing I had been put in any other group besides the one I was stuck in, my teacher graced me with a way out when she announced, “The book A Day No Pigs Would Die has cuss words in it. If you’re offended by bad language, you may request to be put with another group.” My inner me shouted, “Hallelujah!” After class, I discreetly pulled my teacher aside and informed her that I felt strongly about bad language and couldn’t bring myself to read a book with such language in it. In reality, I just didn’t want to read a book whose opening chapters were about a pig being slaughtered.

My teacher trusted me (possibly a little too much), and so she gave me an even bigger gift than simply getting out of reading a book I didn’t want: She let me choose any of the other four books that had been assigned to lit groups. After looking through the titles, I settled on a book called The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin.

(Disclaimer: As an adult, I read A Day No Pigs Would Die. While I agree it is a memorable book for more than just its pig-slaughtering scenes, the sixth-grade me would not have appreciated the book.)

For the first assigned reading, I needed to read the first three chapters. I went home, opened the book and started reading, fully intending to stop at the beginning of the fourth chapter. But I got so engrossed in the story that I didn’t even notice the fourth chapter as it came and went. I read and read … and read. I finished the first 13 chapters before getting too tired to continue reading. The next day, I finished the book and then promptly went back to page 1 and started over again. I remember thinking, “This is my new favorite book!” I liked it so much I went out and got my own copy.

I used to regularly re-read The Westing Game—so much so that edges of the pages got softened by the number of times I turned those pages. But I hadn’t picked up the book in nearly a decade when I reached for it the other night and pulled it down from my shelves. I started reading, only thinking I would read a few chapters at a time, and found myself re-drawn into the story all over again. I couldn’t put it down, and once again, I finished the book wanting to turn back to page 1 and start it again. For me, The Westing Game is like a favorite song—I can listen to the same song on repeat ten times in a row and still want to hear it again. I can read The Westing Game over and over again and still want to read it again.

When I was younger, I think the thought of living in an apartment building appealed to me, so the setting was exotic for me even though it was set in Wisconsin. The characters are also real, yet fascinating in their realness. I think everyone, at one time or another, has a little of each character in them. I especially liked the Wexler family: Grace, who thought too much of what society said/thought about her; Turtle, who so badly wanted to get attention that she lashed out and became the shin-kicking brat; Angela, the saintly daughter who wanted to find out how much of her was just listening to her mother and how much of her was really her; Jake, who couldn’t seem to figure out where he belonged. My favorite character was Turtle, and although I never adopted her methods of kicking shins, I wanted to be like her.

Re-reading it for the umpteenth time didn’t disappoint—the characters were waiting for me like old friends who never tire of my reading company, and the story read like a familiar yet captivating tale. A couple of my favorite quotes that show Ellen Raskin's lighthearted and quippy writing style throughout the book are these:

Sydelle Pulaski’s eyes popped open in surprise. Quickly she sqeezed them shut and uttered another loud snore. Well, what do you know? Her sweet, saintly partner was the bomber. Good for her! (100)

All of a sudden he was leaving Sunset Towers, pushed by his limping partner. Maybe Doctor Deere is not who and what he says he is. Maybe he is being kidnapped for ransom. Maybe he’s being held hostage. Oh boy, he hasn’t had so much fun in years. (113)

Of all the books I’ve read in my reading career, this one stands out as the most special because it set the feeling inside me that I would soon begin to recognize as my own ‘joie de lire.’ I highly recommend it for readers of all ages.

What books give you that feeling of 'joie de lire'?

Happy reading!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Unread Book Challenge: Voter's Choice

The voting ended last week for the book I would read after I finished The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly (which I adored), and the winning book was . . . Pride and Prejudice.

I bought Pride and Prejudice about five years ago and had started reading it, but I put it down after the first 60 pages because I just couldn't get into it. I didn't get rid of the book, though, and I was determined that someday I would read it. I Netflixed the Keira Knightley version of Pride and Prejudice last summer and enjoyed it so much that it renewed my determination to read the book. This challenge provided just what I needed to force myself to pick it up and try again. I'm currently about 100 pages into the novel and, despite my typically modern tastes in books, am enjoying it.

So a big thank you is due to the readers who voted for Pride and Prejudice and gave me reason to sit down and try reading a classic. :)

Happy reading!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Who Says America Isn't Reading?

I hear complaints all the time that Americans are no longer reading, yet reading trends have swept the country. First it was Harry Potter, and now it is Twilight. Evidence of our country's love for Twilight came in the form of a list of the most popular names for babies in 2009 (the link here is to the article on MSNBC). The top two names in our country are Isabella and Jacob. While Edward didn't make the top list, a surprising leap of the name Cullen came from 2008 to 2009. I wonder why Harry, Ron, and Hermione didn't top the lists of the preceding years...

The Twilight phenomenon fascinates me. I am one of the many readers in our country (and beyond) who gulped the books down when they came out, but now looking back on the series, I get bugged by themes presented in the books. I get mad that Bella is such a wishy-washy character, and I feel that the love presented in the books is an idealized, yet archaic form of what love could be. It's funny how angry I get, but I can't deny the addictive nature of the books. I know that if I were to pick up Twilight right now, I would read all four books without stopping all over again. Just like I know I can't pick up the first Harry Potter without continuing on to read all seven books in the series. (As a side note, I do not think Twilight holds a candle to the Harry Potter series. I'm simply using it as a comparison.)

Do you have any books like that in your life? Ones that if you take the time to think about them, you wouldn't want to read them, yet you still love them?

Voting for the book I'll be reading once I finish my current one is still going on in the left-hand sidebar. Please make your way over there to cast your vote so you can have a say in what book I'll read next.

Happy reading!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Better Blogger

My sister shared an article with me the other day on called "Lighten Up On Yourself" by Elizabeth Gilbert. The article is specifically aimed at women, but I think it could apply to anyone (guys, you'll have to back me up on that).

The article's title sums up Gilbert's primary point: We need to lighten up and not dwell on mistakes we've made or compare ourselves to anyone else. While the point is a good one (and I highly suggest you read the original), you may be wondering what all that has to do with a blog dedicated to the 'joie de lire.'

So I can't finish reading a book because I've lost interest in it. Why should I beat myself up about that? The book wasn't required reading, and the reading I do for fun should be just that--fun. I don't need to lose any sleep at night wondering what happened in the last 400 pages of a book whose first 300 pages weren't what I needed to hold my interest.

I subscribe to some pretty amazing book blogs. When I read other bloggers' posts, I have moments of blog envy, followed directly by thoughts like "Why can't I be more like that blogger?" I get down on myself for not blogging more frequently and being able to offer regular features because my frequency is so erratic. I get down on myself for not having as many followers as other blogs or not having as many hits per week as other blogs. Instead of making those comparisons, though, I should be focusing on the fact that I have an outlet for my thoughts on reading and that there are other people out there willing to take time out of their busy days to read through those thoughts. If only one person reads my posts and gets something out of them (every once in a while), I've made a difference.

I need to accept the fact that I will most likely never be able to stick to a blogging schedule--much like I've never been able to stick to any strict schedule for sustained lengths of time (which is why being a professor and having a semester-by-semester schedule works great for me). I would love to be a blogger who posts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday by 8:00 a.m., but I know that while I could (and did) do that for a while, I will invariably come across a rough patch where all my energy is directed at another project. Because for me, I know I work in cycles: I read 5 books in a week and then don't pick up another book for a month; I write blog posts every day for two weeks and then don't have time to look at my blog for a week; I get massive amount of research completed in a week and then don't spare another thought to the topic for months; I grade stacks of papers in three hours and then ignore grading for a week. Is it the best way to work? Probably not. But it's me.

And as Gilbert says, I need to "map [my] own life." I may not be the picture of perfection, but I love what I do, and I love that other people are willing to go on my reading journey with me. Even when my blog only reflects that journey at irregular intervals...

Happy reading!