Saturday, August 25, 2012

Quiet by Susan Cain

I realize it's not true that I'm no longer shy; I've just learned to talk myself down from the ledge.  By now I do it so automatically that I'm hardly aware it's happening.  When I talk with a stranger or a group of people, my smile is bright and my manner direct, but there's a split second that feels like I'm stepping onto a high wire.

Boy can I identify with that statement.  I wasn't always shy: until I was 6 or 7 years old I remember being joyful and outgoing—part of the crowd.  By the time I entered 2nd grade, however, I'd had too many embarrassing situations (by my own unknowingly-introverted estimation) and found it was much safer to be quiet, to retreat from large social groups and unfamiliar situations (in fact, the thing I remember most about 2nd grade is the classroom's windows.)

I had a few years where I was painfully shy (to the point of having a difficult time talking to my parents) but I've grown out of most of that.  Though I scored 20/20 on the introvert/extrovert quiz (see the bottom of this article) I don't experience the agonizing guilt and shame that I used to feel regularly in social situations.  That doesn't mean that I like them necessarily, but I've become adept at "talking myself down from the ledge."

Although it may be impossible to read this book and not compare the experiences to your own, there really is more to this book than commiseration and self-justification.  It would be a valuable read for introverts and extroverts alike.  My favorite part was the first section, which addressed the history of how we came to value personality over character, as well as what constitutes quality leadership, and how modern Christianity has been shaped by the extrovert ideal.  I love learning about social history, and how so many things are interconnected.  

Did you know that public speaking is the number one fear in America?  Or that the number of Americans who considered themselves shy increased from 40% in the 1970s to 50% in the 1990s, (probably because we measured ourselves against ever higher standards of fearless self-presentation.)  Did you know that some parts of the world are overall more extroverted than others (would it surprise you that America is an extroverted extremist?)

As the book progressed it began to feel more anecdotal and self-help-ish to me and didn't have as much interesting information [in my opinion]. Still, worth reading.  I'm glad to see a book that provides this much-needed perspective hitting wide release; it's nice to have the vocabulary and background information to better negotiate our differences.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

My Favorite Classic

I've been pondering the monthly prompt from The Classics Club, waiting to see if any other classic could top the one that instantly claimed first place.  That hasn't happened.  In fact, the more I think about it the more sure I am.  There are many classics that I adore, and fewer that I'm passionate about; but there's only one that I could reread yearly and still be in love:  Jane Austen's Persuasion.


What makes this book so incredibly dear to me?  It's a combination of things, of course, but it boils down to how understood it makes me feel.  I am not alone when I read this book.  It's how Austen expresses the balance between passion and duty, it's the emphasis on the value of deep feeling and true friendship, it's the desire to be interesting and special & fearing you are not, it's the gift of hope when all hope is gone.  So many observations and commiserations seen through Austen's characteristic wit make this book a perennial reread.

This is one of those books whose worth, for me, is greater than the sum of its parts.  When I take apart the story individually, I don't find elements ensuring a perfect fit.  There's the love story, which I think is a rather good and true one, especially considering the times, but outside my choice of genres all the same.  There's the bit of intrigue with her cousin that wasn't fully developed, and there's the classic Austen abrupt ending, (which worked for me okay here, but didn't so much in her other books.) But it has that spark of literary magic - of human understanding - that speaks to me whenever I read it, and that's what it's all about.

Another classic that affects me the same way is Willa Cather's Song of the Lark.  It is so much more than just a story to me.  No matter how much I adore Tolstoy's philosophy or Wilde's humor, it's those deep, personal connections that make a book come out on top.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Appalachian Stories - Recommendations Wanted!

I recently read another book by Silas House which reminded me of how much I connect with his settings.  Eli the Good wasn't quite as Appalachian as his others, but Nature still weighs heavily in the story.

In addition to being his first foray into young adult literature, this book also happens to be great Independence Day reading.  It takes place in 1976, and follows 10-year-old Eli through the course of one summer.

Although the setting felt thoroughly American, the themes are universal.  What defines family?  Why is honesty a vital component of communication?  How do we show—or feel—love and concern?

Absolutely recommended, (although the epilogue didn't quite feel organic to the story,) especially for those who enjoy the coming-of-age aspect.  My enjoyment of the story ended up leading me to a book of short stories that has been on my shelf since August 2004. (Crazy, that.)  Chris Holbrook's Hell and Ohio: originally acquired because I'd enjoyed Silas House's other books.  At that time, newly entrenched in caring for a new infant (for the 4th time, hello) and therefore lacking in extra brain cells, I read only the first story and felt that it was a little slow.  Nothing special.  Reading it again 8 years later, I am entranced.  (I'm guessing that at least part of the reason is that I've taken measures to appreciate short stories, so I simply have more familiarity with the form.)

In the nine stories, coal mining (land development/destruction) is a common theme, as are manners, alcohol, religion. All themes that rang true to me...perhaps because I grew up in a small mountain town (admittedly it was in Northern California's Sierra Nevadas as opposed to the Appalachians, but the lumber mill and logging industry had a similar heavy presence in some respects to the coal mines).  I grew to enjoy feeling "a little closed in by all the trees and mountains on every side."

All the stories are wonderful, skillful, and worth reading.

(As a side note - I had the most visceral reaction (to The Lost Dog) I've ever had to a written work.  My first thought after reading the story was that it didn't say anything, but then immediately I was flooded with memories from my childhood that mirrored the story, and began to get choked up (something I don't often do, especially to the extreme I did) thinking about the fact that somebody else understood, perfectly, those feelings. I just had to stop and cope for a few minutes, I couldn't think about or look at anything else until I'd taken a few deep breaths. Pretty crazy experience!)

Recommendations?
I'd like to put a few books on my wishlist that would be good places to go from here.  Any suggestions?  I think I might have a copy of River of Earth by James Still from back in 2004 when I was on the hunt for Appalachian stories.  I enjoyed Lee Smith's Fair and Tender Ladies a couple years back...that's all I've got.  What've you got?  Recommend me!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

One of Ours by Willa Cather

Life was so short that it meant nothing at all unless it were continually reinforced by something that endured; unless the shadows of individual existence came and went against a background that held together.

Willa Cather's novels are my definition of literary comfort food.  Having been a while since I'd read one of her novels for the first time, (the last few have been rereads,) I'd forgotten what a wonderful experience it is.  True to form, the characters and setting were vivid and the writing easy to appreciate.  In each book of Cather's that I've read, she uses character sketches as a tool to help the reader get a wonderful sense of the nuances in each personality.  She's so adept at this that it never gets old.  In just a few sentences, we learn an incredible amount about four different people.

Claude knew, and everybody else knew, seemingly, that there was something wrong with him.  He had been unable to conceal his discontent.  Mr. Wheeler was afraid he was one of those visionary fellows who make unnecessary difficulties for themselves and other people.  Mrs. Wheeler thought the trouble with her son was that he had not yet found his Saviour.  Bayliss was convinced that his brother was a moral rebel, that behind his reticence and his guarded manner he concealed the most dangerous opinions.

If there is such a thing as a peaceful book about war, One of Ours is it exactly.  Published in 1922, only a few years after the Great War ended, this book seems to put the senseless loss into perspective in some ways.  The story follows the life of Claude, an idealistic young man, and shows how he found purpose in his life.  In a time when so many things were changing, (the book also addresses Prohibition, woman's role in society, transportation, and the Spanish Influenza to name a few,) such a massive loss of youth must have been impossible to understand.  Claude's story seeks to bring healing and soothe the heart.  It isn't a perfect novel—it's a bit too sentimental for that—but it's easy for me to see why it won the Pulitzer when it did.

She told off on her fingers the many ingredients, but he believed there were things she did not name: the fragrance of old friendships, the glow of early memories, belief in wonder-working rhymes and songs.  Surely these were fine things to put into little cakes!

Coincidentally, I picked this book up with perfect timing.  I'd just finished reading about Prohibition, and was longing for some prose about WWI, so it was a perfect tie-in.  This was the 5th book of Willa Cather's that I've read this year—marking completion of my 2012 goal in that regard—but I certainly haven't tired of her yet.  I've now read the first 8 of her 19 published works, and I'm greatly looking forward to the stories to come.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Sunday Salon: Packing Up Books

How disheartening.

Books are my friends—we've been places together, they've helped me grow.  Books I haven't yet read represent new adventures, new insight.  I get all mushy and sentimental when I have to put them away into boxes.

We're moving in a few weeks' time.  Boxing up books for a simple move is one thing—there's the anticipation of setting them up again, organizing them in any fashion that appeals to you—but my impending move is not a simple one.  We are vacating our home for a year or so while it gets some major cosmetic work done, and will be living in a smaller place in the meantime.  This means that many of my books are facing a dismal prospect: storage.  [cue pouting face]

Filling up the file boxes...
The books that have won the privilege of sleeping indoors are mostly those that I haven't read yet.  All others have to wait patiently until the new library is revealed.

Have you had any experience with storing books?  Any suggestions or precautions?  I'd really hate to incur any damage.  We do live in Southern California, so many weather/critter related issues aren't quite as concerning as they'd be elsewhere.

Any ideas on how to refrain from going on multiple book-buying-binges to compensate my relative lack of bookish surroundings?

Thursday, August 9, 2012

And the Pulitzer for Adapted Novel Goes To...

Is it just me [all irritated because the Pulitzer board didn't do their job this year] or shouldn't the fiction award go to a completely original work?  Maybe that's just my interpretation of "For distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life." (emphasis mine)

ANYhow, my book club just finished reading a Pulitzer (A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley - 1992) and my reading-enjoyment kept being compromised by the thought that the storyline wasn't completely original.  It's based (heavily) on Shakespeare's King Lear, (who, in the event you have forgotten, is not American,) both in characters and plot.  Not being all too familiar with King Lear, much of the book (section divisions, character development, plot points, etc.) felt jumpy and forced to me.  As a new perspective on a classic, I'm sure there is much to appreciate, but as a piece of "distinguished fiction by an American author" there was much to be desired.

Despite the oddities present due to the close parallel, the premise was interesting, the writing was easy to digest, and it kept me turning pages.  I had hope at the beginning, when the writing was crisp and unique, that Jane Smiley was a new favorite author.  But I ended up noting only the one passage:
We might as well have had a catechism:
What is a farmer?
A farmer is a man who feeds the world.
What is a farmer's first duty?
To grow more food.
What is a farmer's second duty?
To buy more land.
What are the signs of a good farm?
Clean field, neatly painted buildings, breakfast at six, no debts, no standing water.
How will you know a good farmer when you meet him?
He will not ask you for any favors.
That fun bit aside, this was the least poetic Pulitzer I've ever read.  It was, admittedly, a brilliant look at American farming in the late 1970s, but I was ultimately disappointed.  I would have liked it much more if I wasn't hoping for the quality I've found in other Pulitzer Prize winners.  You've been warned!

Good idea: reading A Thousand Acres as a comparison to King Lear.
Bad idea: reading A Thousand Acres as a comparison to other Pulitzers.

Friday, August 3, 2012

For the Record: July 2012

It's all Northern California
themed with the wine, the
poppy, the gold...and a
little bookishness for
good measure.
Vacation? What vacation? It's true that I was away from the [slave-driver that is my] house—for two whole weeks—but that has no relation to the amount of relaxing (or accomplishment of relaxing pursuits) I experienced.

The first week I could have [theoretically] blown through an audio book or two while I was assembling wedding reception favors (...my brother teaches in Seoul, where he met and married an Australian girl, and they came to California for some sightseeing and a reception...) but I opted to screen a handful of documentaries in preparation for home-schooling an 11th grader this year instead.  It was very productive, which perhaps made up for not being relaxing.  Perhaps.

The second week of vacation I was treated to  visits from friends and family that I don't see often enough.  Two parents, two brothers, two sisters-in-law, two nieces; the house was full of wonderfulness.

And now we're in August.  So quickly does time pass!  On my plate this month: a lot of work for our home remodel, including making a final decision on a contractor, moving completely out of the house, and amping up the design decisions; a lot of school prep, both for the two I'll be home-schooling and for the two in middle school; amping up for a Christian music festival that we put on over Labor Day weekend, (not my style of music, but I love that it reaches teens and others that don't feel they belong anywhere,) though thankfully this requires less of my work now than it did before; also, I'm hoping, some reading along the way.  Here's what I read in July:

9 Books Read in July: (75 year-to-date)
2 for Book Club:
  - How Green Was My Valley, Richard Llewellyn (4.5) [A lovely reread from highschool.]
  - Maisie Dobbs, Jacqueline Winspear (4) [A wonderful series, reviewed here]

4 for Fun/Challenges:
  - The Age of Miracles, Karen Thompson Walker (3) [From Indiespensable, reviewed here]
  - Last Call, Daniel Okrent (5) [wonderful non-fiction, reviewed here]
  - Eli the Good, Silas House (4) [let's read more Silas House!  ...not yet reviewed]
  - On the Road, Jack Kerouac (3.5) [read-along, reviewed here]
  - She Who Remembers, Linda Lay Shuler (3) [I've been promising to read this for decades!  I finally did it, but I really would have enjoyed it much more back when my friend first told me to read it.  Too many "man parts" for this reader's enjoyment.]

2 Pre-Reads for home-school: [both reviewed here]
  - Lizard, Banana Yoshimoto (4)
  - Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, Kevin Wilson (4)

                

Challenges:
This month I read 2 books of 51 (26 year-to-date) for my various year-long challenges.
   - Short Stories: Lizard (done!)
   - Wishlist: Maisie Dobbs (7 more to go)

And a CHALLENGE UPDATE:
Because of the ensuing craziness in life, I've decided to let go of my Art of the Novella Challenge for August, and instead just try to get those novellas read when possible, continuing in chronological order. The second half of the year always has me feeling like I'm running out of time, so unfortunately this one is getting the axe.

2 Current Reads:
  - Different Seasons, Stephen King.  I'm pre-reading this for my son's Lit class.  I'm only in the first of the 4 stories (Rita Hayworth & the Shawshank Redemption) but am enjoying it.
  - A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley.  I have to get this read by Monday night for Book Club.  Yikes!  The good news is that I work well with deadlines, and this one has the added bonus of being a Pulitzer (I love crossing things off my list!)  The bad news is that I'm a terrific procrastinator.

 

On My Nightstand:
  - I still have some books to pre-read for my son's Lit class, notably the nonfiction (Booker T. Washington, David Foster Wallace).
  - A Long Long Way, Sebastian Barry.  I've been aching to re-read this one, probably because I want to combat my busy schedule by soaking in some poetry, but if I don't get to it soon the timing will pass me by.

  
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