Day 30: How to Get in the Reading Habit

This is a bit supplemental, but along with my book list and thoughts on lit from yesterday, important.

I read a lotThis year I decided to track how many new books I read in a year. I set a goal of 175, to read before Jan. 1, 2013.

I hit that goal last week.

That’s a LOT of books. (No, to my father, who reads this: I did not BUY all of those 175 books!)

So, people always ask: “How do you read that many books?” or, its companion, “I never have time to read.”

Part of it is reading is in my DNA. I can’t imagine not having a book with me wherever I go. I might forget my wallet or my cellphone, but a book? Never. I read in the tub, for pete’s sake.

Where I’d spend most of my time, if I could.

Second, I’m usually reading several books at one time. This is carryover from college. Two liberal arts majors means a lot of reading, so I had to be able to juggle books for Brit Lit Survey with 19th Century American Lit, and foreign policy. Again, habit.  But this also means I can finish books faster, because if one book is lagging, or is dense (like Catherine the Great, which I’m reading now–it’s dense. Good, but dense), I can switch to something a bit faster or lighter. That’s an important thing to remember–not all books are “equal” in the time it takes them to read. I can polish off the new Alexander McCall Smith novel in an hour or so. Wolf Hall took me a lot longer, partially because I was enjoying the writing, and partially because there’s a lot going on there.

(This doesn’t mean I don’t love AMcS–I do. He’s in my top five contemporary authors. I just mean his books read very easily.)

One of my many bookshelves

Third, I like a wide variety of books. I will read just about anything. I love kid lit (I’m a huge fan of Rick Riordan’s mythology series–Percy Jackson, Heroes of Olympus, and the Kane Chronicles), but I also will read books on creativity or science or schizophrenia. (Yes. For fun. I’m weird.)

Fourth, I have friends who like to read, so we’re constantly swapping recommendations.

If you want to get into the reading habit, like anything else, it takes practice. But my first suggestion is to find what you like, and then go for it! I love discovering new authors just for this purpose, because there’s a whole new bunch of books to start reading. They don’t have to be classics (although I’d prefer if you didn’t read Dan Brown. Please? Plleeeeeeease?).  They don’t have to be big or impressive.

As a kid, I would go into the school library and just grab books that looked good, and then check them out. I suggest this as a way to start, if you’re really lost. Or check out those books you “should have” read, but never got around to (see my book list!). I did this post-college with the Russian authors. My focus was British Literature in school, so post-school, I did a “Big Russian Novel” for a few summers. That way I plowed through Anna Karenina, The Idiot, and The Brothers Karamazov. I have War and Peace, but that might just never happen. This summer, I read A Farewell To Arms, and Steinbeck, a few years back: East of Eden. Other books I read this way: almost all of Thomas Hardy and Edith Wharton (I’m still working on both of them); Dante’s Divine ComedyMadame Bovary; Notre-Dame de Paris; Charlotte Bronte’s Villette (ring a bell?), Frankenstein; Dracula; Middlemarch, and essentially all of Dickens, except for Hard Times, which I read in college (and didn’t really like). A Tale of Two Cities is one of my all-time favorites. Now, these might all sound like hard, school-y books. Here’s a recommendation: watch the BBC versions (the recent ones, like Bleak House with Gillian Andersen, or Little Dorrit ) and then go read the books. This works especially well with Dickens, because his later books (like the two I just mentioned) are so dense.

Biographies are also a good place to start, or history. I love British, French and Russian history. Colonial history is my favorite part of American history, so I’ve read John Adams and 1776.  Pick a part of history you like and go for it. Kids books are actually a great place to start here. My love of royal history started with the Dear America diary series!

The point is, to read. Keep books around, dip into them at your leisure. It’s not school. There will be no test, no quizzes, no “which characters were in Starbuck’s boat in chapter whatever of Moby-Dick” (yes, that was a question on a pop quiz in my 19th Century American Lit class. This could be why I am so averse to Melville…)?

Part of the Jane collection, top shelf; autobiographies and memoir, second shelf.

Even when I’ve been able to do very little else–when sitting up was hard–I could always read. Granted, it might not make a lot of sense, but I did it! (I read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in the CICU post-transplant. Let me tell you, I had some plot twists in there that JK Rowling never thought of…) You don’t need a Nook, although I have one, and it makes sharing fun. Reading can be free!

What’s your favorite type of book to read? Do you branch out in your reading, or do you stick to one subject?

Day 29: The universal power of literature

Today we’re going back in time, to my Brit Lit I Survey Class at Capital University, fall of 2001.

Yes, that was a Big Fall for a lot of us. (9/11, me-almost-dying-and-spending-two-plus-weeks-in-the-ICU-scaring-everyone-to-death)

But before–and during, and after–that, there were classes.

My Brit Lit survey class was taught by my favorite English professor, Dr. Summers, and had one of my best friends in it. It was a full class–we had about 25, 30 kids–and we were reading literature from Beowulf to Shakespeare/the Restoration. (Brit Lit Survey II started with the Romantic poets and went to the end of the 20th century.) Not only was the reading great, but the discussions were awesome. There were a lot of smart, engaged kids in that class. We met every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 11 a.m., so when class was over, Richelle and I would walk to the Main Dining Room and have lunch. It was pretty perfect.

The “quad” at Capital University, my alma mater

One of the things we talked about was the idea of universal experiences. Do universal experiences exist? Some students argued no; our lives are too different. What does my life and the life of someone in, say, Bangladesh have in common?

I argued that we do have a lot in common with each other: for starters, birth, death, and love. Each of us will be born. Each of us will die. Each of us will experience love–either receiving it, giving it, sharing it, falling in it, knowing the lack of it…in some way, love will touch everyone’s lives. It’s inescapable. Everything else may be negotiable, but not these three things.

Literature brings everyone closer. C.S. Lewis said, “we read to know we’re not alone.” Great books leave time behind and immerse us in the world of the novel, the poem, the play. We feel Cordelia’s despair when she cannot “heave [her] heart into her mouth.” We cringe with Elizabeth Bennet when her mother makes a fool of herself at the Netherfield Ball. We love Tiny Tim and rejoice in Scrooge’s change of heart. Voldermort’s death is celebrated, Dorothy gets to go home, and Scarlett reminds us that tomorrow is another day. We climb the turrets of Notre Dame with Quasimodo, and are swept into Russia by Dostoevksy’s incomparable epics. I’ve never been to Greece, but when I read The Odyssey, I can imagine dawn’s rosy fingers rising over the wine-dark sea. I’ve never been in jail, but I can understand and know the despair and the pain from reading Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol.

Books grow and change with us. I own a lot of books, and sometimes, when people come to my house and see all the books everywhere, they ask why. Why read a book more than once? You know the ending.

The book doesn’t change. change. Although a good book is always good (C.S. Lewis again–a children’s book is only good if it speaks to adults and children alike), what I get out of it can change wildly. I hated Wuthering Heights the first time I read it. I thought the characters were awful. No one acts like that! But when I read it just a few years later, having been in that kind of passionate love, I liked it much better. I’ll never go out onto the moors and night and yell “Cathy!” while banging my head against a tree, but I can understand what drives Heathcliff to do it.

Words and stories can unite us and show what we have in common, which is so much more than what divides us. All cultures share stories, whether by mouth or by papers passed down through generations. Fairy tales are a great example of that–there’s a Cinderella, a Red Riding Hood, a Snow White almost everywhere in the world. The defeat of evil and the triumph of good are universally desired.

When we think of all the things that make us different–let’s look at the things that are the same. Literature is a great place to start.

Once upon a time…

Day 28: A book list

We’re winding down here in the 31 Days, and we’ve covered a lot! But now we’re getting into the randoms. I still hope, however, that you’ll find good things here.

I love a good book list, and since we’re getting into winter and staying indoors, it might be time to investigate some new reads. Along with the books we’ve discussed here, this is a list of books I wrote a few years ago that I consider must-reads. Give it a glance and add some of them to your reading list!


Day 27: Fairy Tale Poll!

OK, so now that we’ve discussed these tales, included how they’ve been changed, what version is your favorite?

Let’s have a poll!

Feel free to explain your answer  in the comments!

Day 25: What’s the difference between fairy tale and fantasy?

(NOTE: These are mostly my ideas, cribbed from my reading. I am definitely open to discussion on this!)

Fantasy grew out of fairy tales sometime during the Victorian period to become its own genre, although elements of fantasy have been around as long as there have been stories. Something like The Odyssey has very strong fantasy elements: monsters, witches, etc. 

Wendy trying to reattach Peter’s shadow

Here’s the defintion of Fantasy and its traits from Wikipedia:

is a genre of fiction that commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary element of plottheme, or setting. Many works within the genre take place in imaginary worlds where magic is common. Fantasy is generally distinguished from the genre ofscience fiction by the expectation that it steers clear of scientific themes, though there is a great deal of overlap between the two, both of which are subgenres of speculative fiction

The identifying traits of fantasy are the inclusion of fantastic elements in a self-coherent (internally consistent) setting, where inspiration from mythology and folklore remains a consistent theme.[2] Within such a structure, any location of the fantastical element is possible: it may be hidden in, or leak into the apparently real world setting, it may draw the characters into a world with such elements, or it may occur entirely in a fantasy world setting, where such elements are part of the world.[3] Essentially, fantasy follows rules of its own making, allowing magic and other fantastic devices to be used and still be internally cohesive.[4]

So fantasy usually takes place in some sort of “other world”, that is not our own. Fairy tales exist in a world that we know, but a long time ago, when magic was still possible, fairies existed, etc.

Tolkein and C.S. Lewis’ works are fantasy, not fairy tale, and could even been considered allegorical. The Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia follow their own internal rules, landscapes, and societies. Lewis does give us a bit of the “real world”–the London of World War II–but Narnia is completely separate from any sense of being “real world”–as in, existing with London. It’s a parallel universe. Neverland is like that as well, and so is Oz. The places that Dorothy, Wendy, Michael and John go to are real , but they don’t exist in what could be considered “our” world.

Lucy, Susan, Peter and Edmund Pevensie in Narnia

Also, these people tend to be people like us. Dorothy is just a little girl from Kansas. Wendy is a girl from London. The Pevensie children aren’t royalty or “special” in any sense of the word. Frodo is definitely quite a normal little Hobbit until Fellowship begins. As we’ve seen, in Fairy Tales, the characters are usually royal or peasants or something fantastic.

Day 24: Beauty and the Beast

We’re nearing the end of our fairy tales, and we still haven’t covered Beauty and the Beast! Why not?

Beauty the Beast, Scott Gustafson

Because it’s sort of an outlier. It’s not from any of the “big three” writers that we’ve talked about; in fact, it was written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, and published in 1740. The best known version of her work is an abridgment written by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont, published in 1756, with an English translation appearing in 1757.

The plot is, once again, a bit different than the Disney version we’re familiar with:

  • Belle is the youngest of three daughters, not an only child. Her two older sisters are wicked and selfish.
  • Belle is 14 when the story opens.
  • Her father isn’t an inventor; he’s a middle-class merchant. When his business fails, he and his family lose all their money and move to a small village in the countryside, where they can rebuild their fortunes.
  • After living in their new home for awhile, news reaches the merchant that some of his fortune may be recoverable. He therefore prepares for a journey to the city to investigate. Before he leaves, he asks his daughters if there is anything they would like from town: the older girls ask for jewelry and and fine dresses, while Belle asks only for some rose seeds.
  • To the merchant’s chagrin, the money recovered is only enough to repay their debts, with nothing left over for the girls’ gifts.  Heavy-hearted, he begins the journey back to his daughters, only to become lost in the woods. He eventually finds a castle in the forest and is given accommodations for the evening there, although he sees no one in the great house; he is served invisibly.
  • The next morning, the merchant prepares to leave the castle and resume his journey. On his way through the palace grounds, he discovers a rose garden, and, remembering Belle’s request, stops to pick a rose for her.
  • As soon as he plucks the loveliest rose, a horrible Beast accosts him and says he will die for his treachery in defiling his garden. The merchant tries to explain that he only wants the rose for his youngest daughter. The Beast agrees to let him go, only if he, or his daughter, will return to the castle.
  • The merchant is obviously distraught at this, but he agrees. The beast fills the merchant’s saddlebags with jewels, gowns, and money for his daughters.
  • Upon arriving home, the merchant tells his daughters of the bargain he has struck, and Belle agrees to go to the Beast’s castle.
  • When she arrives, the Beast informs her that every night at 7:00, he will ask for her hand in marriage. He also tells Belle that she is mistress of the castle, not his servant. They have long conversations together every night, and Belle is given fine clothes, a sumptuous bedroom, and other gifts.
  • Every night, the beast asks Belle to marry him, and every night, she refuses. However, after each refusal she dreams of a handsome prince who once lived in the palace, and becomes convinced that the beast is holding the prince captive somewhere in the castle. Belle searches for him, and while she discovers many enchanted rooms, she does not find the Prince.
  • For several months, Belle and the beast continue to live as friends in the palace. But eventually Belle becomes homesick and asks the Beast if she may visit her family. He agrees, but tells her she must return exactly a week later, and gives her a magic mirror and a ring. The mirror allows her to see what is going on back at the castle (so Disney did use this, to some degree), and the ring will allow her to return to the castle in an instant after she has turned it three times around her finger.
  • Belle returns home, and her sisters are jealous of the life she leads and her beautiful gowns. They plot to make her stay beyond the allotted time, thinking the beast will kill Belle if she breaks her promise. To do this, they manipulate Belle with fake tears and entreat her to stay longer with them.
  • Moved by her sisters’ (false) emotion, Belle agrees. But she begins to feel guilty about not returning and looks in the magic mirror to see how the Beast is faring. She is shocked to see that he is dying. Immediately she turns the ring three times and returns to the castle.
  • Upon returning, she finds the Beast nearly dead in the rose garden, near the bush where her father picked her rose. She tells him that she loves him, and begins to cry. When her tears hit his body, he is turned into the hansdome prince from Belle’s dreams. The prince tells her that he was enchanted by a fairy when he refused to let her in during a rain storm, and that by finding true love, despite his ugliness, the curse would be broken.

The Beast becomes the Prince

  • In the original story, the servants are invisible, unlike Disney’s anthropomorphic clocks, candlelabras, wardrobes, feather duster, stoves, teapots, and teacups.
  • Another difference: A Gaston counter-part doesn’t exist, and the townspeople don’t play a role in the story, which means there is no climactic, Macbeth-quoting charge in the last part of the story.

The urban setting for this fairy tale is unique, and may be indicative of the changing social class structure of the time. Belle and her family are not peasants, nor are they royalty; they are middle class.

There have been, of course, multiple re-tellings of this tale, but my favorite is Beauty , by Robin McKinley. In this version, there are no jealous, money-obsessed sisters. Belle/Beauty is the youngest of three girls: Grace, Hope, and Honour (Beauty’s given name). As a child, Honour declared she would rather be called “Beauty”, and the name stuck. Unfortunately, she is not beautiful, especially in comparison to her older sisters. In their new home, she does much of the heavy, outdoor work, while her sisters take care of the household.

A major theme of McKinley’s work is the blindness with which Beauty sees herself–she only sees herself as good for heavy work, and thinks she will never be even attractive, let alone pretty. She is bookish and not good with romance. The Beast also is a bit of a sorcerer, sending dreams to Belle’s family reassuring them of her health and safety. There is also much more detail about Beauty’s early life.

Day 16: Towers, Thorns, and Twins

also known as: Rapunzel.

Yes. It’s a far cry from the story we all (think) we knew, or that was presented in TangledSince Rapunzel is my gravatar, you can assume I liked that movie. I did, certainly.

I will smack you with my frying pan!

But the real story of Rapunzel is… disturbing.

A man and woman lived next door to a witch. The woman was pregnant, and had an incredible craving for the rapunzel plant (Or rampion, in some versions of the story) that grew in the witch’s garden. Her husband, being a dutiful husband, went over the wall separating the gardens and picked some for his wife.

This did not make the witch happy. For payment, she demanded that the couple give her the child once it was born, in exchange for sparing the man’s life. The witch’s name is Mother Gothel (so Disney did retain this).

Every day, the witch asks Rapunzel to “let down her hair” so she could “climb the golden stair” to the tower to visit her.

One day, a prince rides by and hears Rapunzel’s voice. He comes to visit the area every day and discovers it’s a maiden in a tower. He observes Mother Gothel’s method for entrance, and when the witch has left, he tries it himself. Rapunzel throws down her hair and the prince can enter. He repeats his visits, eventually asking Rapunzel to marry him. She agrees.

Rapunzel and the prince plot her escape: Rapunzel will weave a ladder of silk to facilitate her descent, using the scraps the witch brings her daily.

Then Rapunzel spills the beans.

One day, while the witch is visiting, Rapunzel mentions that her dress is becoming too tight around her stomach, not knowing what this means. The witch does, though: Rapunzel is pregnant. Gothel cuts off Rapunzel’s hair and casts her off into the wilderness, where she bears her children–twins (one boy, one girl)–alone.

The prince, not knowing this development, comes to the tower as usual. Gothel tosses down the severed braid and pulls him up. Shocked at seeing the witch, and not Rapunzel, the witch tells him he will never see Rapunzel again.

This becomes literally true: the prince, in horror, throws himself off the tower, landing in the thorn bushes below, and is blinded.

Months later, wandering in the wilderness, the prince again hears Rapunzel’s voice, and they find each other. When she sees he is blind, she weeps, and the tears heal his eyes. With his sight restored, the prince leads his wife and children to his kingdom, where they live happily ever after.

So, you see, not a very kid-friendly story, huh? Although I’m sure it deterred girls from allowing strange boys into their rooms–at least for awhile.

Yet another Grimm Tale from those Brothers Grimm. German folktale definitely has a dark side.