Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Because why wouldn't you want to read a book about Woodstock?

"What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000!"
-Wavy Gravy

I feel like my life goes in cycles in which I obsess over things for as long as the ride lasts (take Lost for example. If you have talked to me in the past 2 months, you know about my Lost obsession. It's taken over my life.) and I feel like my reading habits are absolutely subject to this. When I was a kid, I LOVED series books--particularly Sweet Valley Twins and Babysitters Club--and my mom always tried to steer me away from them and make me branch out (probably so as not to become one of those girls who you see today who "reads" but only Twilight). There is nothing wrong with series books because they do have the wonderful potential to open your eyes to something else that you might enjoy. Series tend to be so engrossing and fulfilling that a person is probably more likely to understand why they like the series as opposed to trying to express why they like a certain book.

While this may be interesting, it's actually strayed a bit from the purpose of this post (shocking, I know). Recently, I've been in a non-fiction phase which is pretty rare for me, honestly. I don't know if I miss taking classes where reading non-fiction is required (like my Africana classes) or if I'm just becoming more and more aware of what I don't know, but more non-fiction books are catching my eye. The first book that I read this year was The Girls of Room 28: Friendship, Hope, and Survival in Theresienstadt by Hannelore Brenner. The book documents the lives of the girls who lived in Room 28 in this internment camp near Prague during Hitler's reign. Brenner focuses on a few girls using journal entries and interviews to get a sense of the hope, despair, and humanity that emanated from the women who were forced to act as a family toward each other in a time of utter tragedy. Brenner does a wonderful job of helping the reader understand the purpose of Theresienstadt (which was basically a cover--the Nazi's treated the Jews in this camp "well" so they could show them off to the world and prove that there was nothing wrong with Hitler's reign. In fact, they allowed the Jews in Theresienstadt to put on shows and go to school, thus helping the false image of "good treatment" be perpetuated.) However, as a reader who attaches to character more than plot, I found myself disappointed in Brenner's use of the women themselves--the organization of the book did not allow for me to remember vividly more than one girl. Although what she lacks in specific characterization, she makes up for in helping us to understand the humanity of the Holocaust--she does not paint these women as perfect or above greed or guile. Although they were in a terrible situation, these girls were still girls who did not always get along or like each other--so many different kinds of people were thrown together and it would be impossible to expect them all to get along. For me, the telling of this story was so that I felt more for the people in Theresienstadt because they were people not some idealized people. They were amazing and resilient, but they were still people. The women who were not sent to the death camps and survived the diseased conditions of the camp get together to this day (most of them now in their late 80's) and the fact that their story gets told is amazing and really opened my eyes to a different side of the Holocaust that does not always get pulled out. In reading The Girls of Room 28 I learned a lot about the Holocaust that I did not know, and to further my knowledge, when I finished the book, I visited the Holocaust Museum in DC and it really came to life more then. Which is to say, if you have not been to the Holocaust Museum, you should pay a visit. Put it on your bucket-list. It is one of the best museums I've ever been to, and every time I've been has really been a powerful visit.

After a book whose subject matter was a little depressing, I wanted to switch to something a little more light-hearted, and stumbled upon a new memoir about Woodstock written by Michael Lang called The Road to Woodstock. Lang was the man behind the organizing of the infamous 1969 music festival and uses interviews, photographs, and his own memory to recapture the planning and implementation of Woodstock. Although I have always been completely fascinated by Woodstock, I knew little about it besides the music, and there was so much more behind it than just the music. The way that Lang describes it (as many others have), makes Woodstock out to be a turning point for American culture and society as well as a completely religious experience. Lang relates his troubles with finding a place to actually have Woodstock, the weather and building issues, and some anecdotes about some of the performers including Janis Joplin and Sly and the Family Stone. Right after reading the book, I downloaded the Greatest Hits albums of The Band and Creedence Clearwater Revival and just played them on a loop for days because the ways that Lang describes the festival made you wish you had been there. Yes, of course, there were drugs and all that, but Woodstock seems to have been about a lot more than just that--it was about coming together to just be and appreciate music and feel part of something. I think the fact that 400,000 people trekked to Yasgur's farm to hear music and camp in the mud says something about the state of mind of the young people of America in 1969, and Lang gets into this aspect a lot in the book. It is definitely a great read both to increase your knowledge level, but also to get a cool perspective on what Woodstock really was.

I've got some other non-fiction books lined up, but I'm not sure what I'm reading next... too many choices!

As always, feel free to comment, become a follower, or ask questions! :)

I hope that your reading adventures are taking you fun places!

PS... To end on the subject of series reading, if you haven't read Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, do it. I know that they are for kids, but they are hilarious on an adult level and pretty smart! And since they are kid's books, they don't take long! It's always a good thing to read a children's book every once in a while! :)

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

My Top 10--Because I Love Lists...

For most people, the end of a year is usually a time to look back at where we were, where we are and where we're going. Oftentimes, our contemplations on a year compels us to make resolutions--vows to change what we saw in the past that we didn't like in ourselves. It's a very human quality, but one that I usually don't invest much energy in for a few reasons: 1) The fact that it's a "new year" doesn't ever really make me want to change something about myself. If I'm going to make a resolution, it's because I want to, not because there is a good starting point at January 1. 2) I try to look at myself and where I was/am/will be more often than just once a year so that I can try to better understand myself. 3) A year is too long, and with my terrible memory of things, it's hard for me to just randomly look back.

But, there is one thing that I do every year that replaces the resolution-making and the hoopla of looking back randomly at my year. Since the year 2000, I have kept handwritten lists of everything I've read (both for school and for fun) from January 1 to December 31, and every year, I look it over, tally up the number of books, fold it into it's well-worn creases and rubber band it in with the past years' lists. It's no secret that I believe that reading tells a lot about a person and that it helps to change us, even in the smallest ways, and so looking at a year's list helps be to better understand where I was and where I'm going. We choose the things that we read because it may be something that interests us or because we think it has something to teach us, and so looking at what we have read in a year can show us how we have grown or changed and it can help us to remember periods of our lives. I'm sure that not everyone makes this kind of correlation, but I can usually remember where I was when I was reading a book, too.

So, in looking at my list, I have compiled a "Top 10" list of things that I have read this year. This is not a list that is exclusively for things published in 2009, but comes from the list of things that I got around to reading this year... some as far back as 1920. Also, know that this list contains personal favorites of mine--that doesn't mean that they are necessarily high-brow quality, but rather that I enjoyed reading them and would recommend them to others. This kind of list is part of the reason that I started this blog in the first place--I love making lists, and I love books, so I guess it only goes to fit, huh? So here it is!

Stephanie's Top 10 Books of 2009:

1) The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski: This should come as no surprise to you if you and I have talked about books at all this year. This is not only the best book I've read all year but the best I've read in probably 5 years. The story is about a boy born mute who lives on a farm with his parents who raise dogs who through training gain a kind of human-list intelligence. The boy has to overcome his own disability and deal with family issues such as the death of his father and the replacement of his father with his uncle. Most of you know that I hate dogs and generally anything to do with them, so I was wary about this book. But honestly, it is beautiful. Not only is the prose wonderful and oftentimes breathtaking, but the story and plot itself is riveting (and actually mimics Hamlet a little if you catch it). It amazes me that this is Wroblewski's first novel, and I cannot wait to see what else he writes. It's a bit longer (something like 500 pages) but I could not put it down and finished it quickly. (Also, just some trivia, I heard that Oprah is making a movie out of this soon...and I feel like Tom Hanks is in on it too, so that could be interesting).

2) The Help by Kathryn Stockett: Again, this should be no surprise. This is a story about the 1960s in Mississippi that centers around 3 characters--2 black maids and a privaleged white girl who wants to write about their lives. The book is separated into chapters by each character's point of view, and through them, you learn about black life in the deep south at the time of the Civil Rights struggle for equality. The black women are hired to raise these white babies and then when the babies are older, they are supposed to scorn these women. The story is not just about civil rights but also about family, memory, and community. There are also characters that you love to hate, and it is quite well written. Another book that is longer, but will be one that you stay up at night to finish.

3)The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen: This is a pleasant and unexpected surprise to the list, but a great one. One of my roommates got this book for me for my birthday in December, and it ended up being the last book that I read in 2009. I tend to love books that are about kids who are different, and T.S. is certainly different. He is a 12 year old genius cartographer from no-where Montana whose work is sent to the Smithsonian for a fellowship without him knowing (and the Smithsonian doesn't know that T.S. is only 12). When he finds out that he got the fellowship, he "hobos" on a train from Montana to DC and his journey is really fascinating. Not only is the plot good, but the format of the book is really what makes it worth it--the novel is supplemented with maps and drawings on each page which help tell the story and get into T.S.'s head. I thought that these maps would be too distracting, but they are so well done that they truly add to the book. The only thing that I didn't like was the ending--I thought that Larsen could have developed it more, but it is only his first novel, and I think that the rest of the book made up for it.

4) Hold Love Strong by Matthew Aaron Goodman: This was the first book that I read after I graduated in May, and because of that, I knew I was going to have a good summer of reading. Hold Love Strong follows a boy names Abraham who is born to a teenaged, impoverished mother in the projects of New York. Abraham can see what is wrong with his life but because of the vicious cycle of poverty and the existence of the projects finds little hope in getting out. His story is really tragic, but can definitely make you appreciate your own life and get a new perspective on hope and possibility. It really does break your heart because his hopes are so often dashed, so if you read it be prepared--it's not really a heartwarmer.

5) My Life in France by Julia Child: I know that it's kind of cliche that I read this book this year--but I really enjoyed Julie and Julia and frankly just wanted to know more about this fascinating woman. This book chronicles Julia's love affair with France and all things French. You really get a sense of who Julia Child was through her own words and her life is just so full and rich that reading this book is like licking the frosting off of a spoon. It's very accessible and she really shows herself as a human rather than the epic figure that she is made out to be. For a nice, smooth read that really makes you want to go to France (or anywhere, really) and eat and just enjoy life, this is a good pick. (Also see my post on this book for more info).

6) Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela: This has been on my to-read list for a really long time, and with the movie Invictus coming out, I thought that this winter was the perfect time to read it (well, that and I was missing reading stuff about Africa) and it certainly was. Nelson Mandela is truly an amazing human being who went through 30 years of wrongful imprisonment on Robben Island for standing up for what he believed is right. What I really loved about Mandela was that he understands what he did right, but he also understands his shortcomings, making his life story accessible and triumphant. The nice thing about this is that you don’t have to know a whole lot about the struggle against apartheid in South Africa to understand it, although if you do, it does make it more meaningful I think. This is another long book that did take me a while, but it was worth it for a true story about pride, truth, and overcoming adversity.

7) Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving: I went to see John Irving speak at the National Book Festival, and he said that he writes the last sentence of his novels before the first one. I think this is a really cool idea, and it made me want to read more of him for some reason. I read The World According to Garp a while ago, and I liked it, but I read Twisted River and loved it. I feel like some Irving novels are a little too dense, but not so in this case. The story follows a father and son on the run from a sheriff after the son accidentally kills someone. The relationship between the father and son and the best friend of the father is complicated and beautiful and Irving does a great job of trying to capture family dynamics, endurance, and the harm of secrets. I will say that you should read this book when you have the time to sit and read so that everything can really sink in.

8)The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff: I know practically nothing about the Mormons or Brigham Young, so I don’t know how historically accurate this book is, but I think that Ebershoff did his research. The book tells two stories of polygamy—the first is about Brigham Young’s actual nineteenth wife Ann Eliza Young and the son of a woman who is in a polygamous marriage the husband of which is found dead. This book fulfills a lot of things that people look for in books—suspense, mystery, history, and intrigue. The story is really interesting in how the stories of Ann Eliza and the young man intertwine and resolve in the end. The stories kept me reading and wanting to know more not only about the characters but about the true history behind Brigham Young and Mormon life in Utah.

9)The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd: I know I’m about 4 years behind everyone on this, but I loved this book. If you don’t know, the story is about a girl who accidentally shot her mother when she was just a baby and has had to grow up with that knowledge and with her father who obviously resents her for it. She runs away to find out about her mother and finds a group of women who take her in and help her to better understand herself and the world around her. The story chronicles the tragedy, hope, beauty, and sorrow that comes with growing up and trying to understand the world.

10) On the Road by Jack Kerouac and Why Kerouac Matters by John Leland: So, this is kind of cheating, but it’s my list, my rules. I read On the Road for my class on the Beat Generation this past year and loved it just as much if not more than the first time I read it. The jazzy, crazy, beautiful story of the ultimate road trip can be looked at in so many ways, but reading Why Kerouac Matters really puts it in perspective. Leland delves into specific scenes and themes in On the Road and pulls out Kerouac’s brilliance that might allude you if you don’t have a chance to read it for a class or discuss it with others. I loved this book and even if you aren’t an English major and enjoy literary criticism, Leland is able to put what could be difficult into laymans terms.

Do you agree? Disagree? Want to tell me the best book you read this year? Make sure to comment

Here’s a list of everything that I’ve read this year in chronological order. Feel free to ask me about any of the things I’ve read! Honorable mentions go to the starred ones!
The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry
Home by Marilynne Robinson
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
*King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild
Minor Characters by Joyce Glassman
Everything is Illuminated by Jonathon Safran Foer
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
*Once Again to Zelda by Marlene Wagman-Geller
Surviving in Biafra by Alfred ObioraUzokwe
Respectability and Resistance by David Goodhew
How to Live by Henry Alford
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski
A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah
Gone With the Twilight by Don Mattera
*The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
Blame Me on History by Bloke Modisane
Machete Season by Jean Hatzfeld
Darfur Diaries by Jen Marlowe
Why Kerouac Matters by John Leland
A Little Bit Wicked by Kristin Chenoweth
Hold Love Strong by Matthew Aaron Goodman
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
My Judy Garland Life by Susie Boyt
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Africa by Richard Dowden
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
How to Buy a Love of Reading by Tanya Egan Gibson
Light in August by William Faulkner
*Julie and Julia by Julie Powell
The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff
*Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathon Safran Foer
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
The Last Song by Nicholas Sparks
The Four Corners of the Sky by Michael Malone
The Freedom Writers Diary by Erin Gruwell
*Other People’s Love Letters ed. by Bill Shapiro
*Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
A Country Called Home by Kim Barnes
That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo
Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris
*Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
What Else But Home by Michael Rosen
My Life in France by Julia Child
Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving
*Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
*Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Wishin’ and Hopin’ by Wally Lamb
The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen

I hope that this post finds you enjoying your new year, reading wonderful books, and adhering to your resolutions!

Happy Reading,