Booklion Birthday Awards: Year 7

Time amasses. We make choices about what to do when we’re young, and if they stick, all of a sudden we’ve been doing them for 1/4, 1/3, 1/2 of our lives. Seven years ago, I started writing about the books I read. I remember thinking ‘it’d be neat if I could keep this up for a year or two’ – I envied blogs that had been around that long; that had the authority of time behind them. I never thought that blogging would become a habit so deeply ingrained that nothing, not having a kid, not moving three times in a year, not going to school or working full-time would shake.

I don’t even like the word ‘blog’; it feels old, diary-esque, has-been. It reminds me of myspace and Livejournal and did you know that Dr. Seuss draws a undulating monster called a Blogg in the shape of me and other stuff? Blog sounds a fitting name for a funny-looking thing. Yet, here I am, loving this blog, loving the work that has gone into it, planning on going for another seven years, then another seven after that. Perhaps the medium will change, I might migrate to another format in 2030 (hopefully one with a more elegant name), but I will still be reading, and still be writing about what I’ve read: of that, I am certain.

So, without further ado, here are the mostly meaningless, yet still fun, year 7 Book Lion awards:

Best Book: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Most Bookmarked: Big Magic

Weirdest: Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Funniest: The Sellout

Most Anticipated: Harry Potter 8


The Sellout

“How come they never describe the white characters in relation to foodstuffs and hot liquids? Why aren’t there any yogurt-colored, egg-shell-toned, string-cheese-skinned, low-fat-milk white protagonists in these racist, no-third-act-having books?” (The Sellout by Paul Beatty)

The Sellout coverSome books are best read indoors. You don’t want to be caught smiling while reading Lolita within 50 feet of a playground, for example. Likewise, you can’t help but wonder if you have permission to laugh aloud at a book about a man on trial for owning a slave and re-segregating a community. The premise is shockingly absurd and the layers – which include finding the lost ghetto of Dickens, growing a satsuma tree, and celebrating a childhood celebrity of a racist TV show – vacillate between pithy, hilarious, and cringe-inducing.

This book is a perfectly executed example of the old writer’s adage: be specific. Everything here – from the characters to the cultural references – is tip-of-the-needle precise. The characters are so idiosyncratic that you have to wonder if anyone so unusual and non-conforming could actually exist, and an unknown piece of slang or pop culture could get a reader lost for paragraphs as Beatty riffs on it ad infinitum. Though the overarching plot gets a bit messy with all of these details floating around (Beaty’s talent is drilling down, not pulling together), you won’t mind the loss of cohesiveness as you revel in the writing.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 304
Ending: hopefuls
Incidental Learning: California, growing marijuana and satsumas, racism
Further Reading: Goes pretty well with other books about race I’ve read lately, Americanah or Things Fall ApartThe excellent writing + messy plotting combination almost reminds me of Where’d you go Bernadettewhich would be a strange follow-up to this book…

Jane Eyre

“A new chapter in a novel is something like a new scene in a play; and when I draw up the curtain this time, reader – you must fancy you see a room…” (Jane Eyre by Charlote Brontë)

Jane Eyre coverWhen I think of this book, I visualize two separate, distinct pieces of fabric loosely knit together by a few threads. There’s the first book, a love story/gothic mystery, and the second book, a pious, studious affair. Brontë attempts to create conflict by placing two options before of her heroine – earthly love or divine love – but in this day and age, the urgency and suspense of the struggle falls flat: we all know which we would pick. Perhaps the book might once have seemed cohesive, when readers were more likely to think of a religious life as a real choice, but to the modern reader, the book reads like a romance with a strange, lengthy, and meandering bit about religion wedged in.

Though I have expressed this wish many times, it remains particularly true in the case of Jane Eyre: I wish that the basic plots of classic books weren’t so commonly known. Having survived this long without having read this Brontë work, the ‘wife in the attic’ should have been a compelling mystery, pulling me along the standard love story plot line. Yet, having absorbed the basics of most classics through some sort of cultural osmosis, the thrill of unraveling the mystery was closed off to me since I had anticipated the revelation from the title page. Whatever facts I absorbed didn’t set any expectations for the tone, and I was delighted by its intimacy and modernity. Brontë addresses the reader as Trollope does, but her use of a first person narrator makes the reader feel as though they’re perusing a diary filled with Jane’s thoughts and feelings instead of reading an objective, narrator based Victorian novel.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 448
Ending: Summarizes events ten years later
Incidental Learning: Life of Governesses, England during George III
Further Reading: I’d recommend Trollope next, for the similarity of narrative voice.

The Forty Rules of Love

“Although I was eager to listen to the sermon and dying to meet Rumi, I wanted to spend some time in the city first and learn…” (The Forty Rules of Love by Shafak)

A 3rd-person narrative encapsulates a book-within-a-book, told in 1st person from multiple characters’ perspectives. Point of view characters range from a modern housewife to historical figures living in 13th century Turkey.

The above description of Forty Rules of Love alone is enough to make a careful reader suspicious. After all, how many writers have the capacity to properly enter the minds of so many different people? A handful a generation? Whether you pay attention to the dizzying narrative layers or not, it only takes a few chapters to see that all of the perspectives – famous 13th century scholars to nameless 13th century lepers – sound like contemporary housewives. Mystics young and old use modern colloquialisms like ‘dying to’, ‘cry my heart out’ and ‘bright eyed and bushy tailed’. Not only do all the characters, regardless of their time period, sound alike, but they also think alike. All take stock of their lives in the same way, look towards the future in the same way, vow to be better people in the same way.

I have an image in my mind about how this book could have been: every character having their own voice and manner of thinking – a book where enlightened poets and religious heretics didn’t have such a modern sense of quantifying themselves, their lives, and everyone around them. A book where Rumi’s words and Shams’ rules were allowed to play out through characterization instead of listed and enumerated. That’s the book I want to read.

That being said, I can easily see how this book could be an inspiration to many people. If you aren’t looking for literature, if you’re looking for a straightforward way to learn more about Sufism, then this could still be an excellent read for you. Shafak’s even pacing and foreshadowing move the reader effortlessly through the chapters, and it may even inspire you to go back and read the original materials for further information.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow Sometime Avoid
Length: 350
Ending: as foreshadowed
Incidental Learning: Sufism, 13th century Turkey, Rumi, Shams
Further Reading: The Essential Rumi

When Breath Becomes Air

“I had attained the heights of the neurosurgical trainee, set to become not only a neurosurgeon but a surgeon-scientist. Every trainee aspires to this goal; almost none make it” (When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi)

The forward claims that Kalanithi will show incredible honesty, the post-script says he provides insights into death, and reviews laud it for its intimacy, but when reading the book, the only thing the reader can think is: unfair! Unfair that this near-perfect man had to die! He would have advanced neurosurgery, been a beautiful husband and father, and, if I had ever needed brain surgery in the San Francisco area, he would have been the man to do it. You clench your fists, you cry a little bit, and you become one with the millions of people who have read this book and would agree that this man should have had more time on the earth.

Yet, the disconnect between the actual reading experience and the commentary about the experience is jarring. On the one hand, the book itself reaches out to you as a dying man’s plea to be remembered for his best qualities, and on the other hand, everyone else insists that the book is truthful, insightful, and intimate. If the author had included one flaw without defending it or turning it into a learning experience, it might have been truthful. If he had confessed to anything shameful or raw, it might have been intimate. Instead, the book reads as a compendium of perfection, the author underscoring his triumphs and name-dropping prestigious institutions at the expense of focusing deeply into an experience.

I’m glad that he wrote it, glad to have read it, but I can’t see why everyone else insists on pretending it’s something it’s not.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 256
Ending: Posthumous post-script
Incidental Learning: Neurosurgery, neuroscience, Stanford, cancer

Big Magic

“Perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat” (Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert)

big magic coverI was a bit snooty about this book at first. Too many exclamation points, I thought, too casual, too new age-y, too many parenthetical asides. I confess to also having a slight prejudice against huge best sellers like ‘eat, pray, love’.  Yet, I dog-eared, underlined, and bookmarked more passages in this book than any other I’ve read since college. It reminded me of panning for gold or shelling peas; you have to dig through a lot of filler to get to her points, but they’re well worth the effort once you find them.

Of her many randomly assorted ideas on creativity, I keep thinking about her comments on perfectionism; namely, that it has no place in an artist’s toolkit. She claims that something done is, without exception, better than something left unfinished, even if it’s imperfect. A born perfectionist, I tend to fiddle and nit-pick my sentences to death, sometimes leaving posts (and other creative projects) to languish for weeks or months until I can get one word or phrase correct. Gilbert proudly proclaims that Big Magic is an imperfect, leaning tower of a work, and she’s right. I can list many of its faults, but it is undoubtedly better than some idealized, perfect work languishing unfinished in her drawer. And in spite of, or perhaps because of, its faults, I loved it.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 304
Ending: hopeful; encouraging
Incidental Learning: interviews with various creative people
Further Reading: reminds me of other writing books, like Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott

Things Fall Apart

“Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate that the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself.” (Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe)

I have a list of books I’m working through. They’re books one would expect a reader to have read by this point in their lives. The Big Ones; books referenced casually by other books, always with the expectation that you’ve waded through them yourself at one point. I’ve put off reading many of them because I always think I can guess what they contain. Oh, Things Fall Apart, that’ll be about the plight of indigenous peoples, I thought, it’ll pull my heartstrings and make me feel terribly.

Yet, unexpectedly, Achebe doesn’t put the reader in a place where it’s easy to empathize with the Igbo people he describes. If sympathy were his goal, he could have made his main character more likable, fleshed out some of the tertiary characters, or glossed over their infanticide, wife-beating, and casual murders. Instead, you leave the book half on the tribe’s side, half on the missionary’s side. Achebe doesn’t try to sway the reader, he doesn’t use overly emotive writing for the benefit of either, he tells the tale unadulterated and leaves us with our reason intact, perfectly capable of contemplating the rights and the wrongs ourselves.

So, wrong again; and I’ll probably be wrong many more times before the list is through.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 209
Ending: thought provoking
Incidental Learning: Ibo tribe; Africa
Further Reading: This felt like an oral story written down; I’d go with other oral histories, like Homer perhaps, as follow ups.