Literature of war

I’m not going to bore anybody with excuses here. I just didn’t feel like writing blog posts while I was writing papers my final two semesters of college, but now I’ve graduated and I’m unemployed, so I have lots of time! I’m going to set a modest goal of one post every two weeks (since I do hope to be employed sooner rather than later), but that means the content will be more worthwhile and less rambling!  Onward!

So, even though I was not making time for blog posts this past year, I was learning some pretty cool stuff. I had an English minor, so this last semester was packed full of English courses and the lone math class I put off as long as possible. The math class was not cool, but one of the English classes was Soldiers, Trauma, and Identity in American Literature, and it was fascinating. I’m really interested in writing about war and masculinity, and even though my take on those subjects tends toward sci-fi or fantasy rather than realism, it was an excellent introduction to the war literature tradition. Of course, the reading was intense; there’s really no comic relief in stories about people (or entire cultures) who have been irrevocably damaged by war, but it was worthwhile, powerful stuff. The literature was complemented by some theory pieces, and I certainly would never be so brazen as to think I’m now perfectly equipped to write soldiers or veterans, it gave me a good idea of what I’d be taking on if I were to pursue that subject seriously.

We read eight books over the course of the semester, but my favorites were Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko, and Phantom Noise by Brian Turner. Every book we read for the course was important in its own right, but these were the ones I found really compelling. Billy Lynn is good in a way you can’t miss; it kind of slaps you in the face with its brilliance. Ceremony is just as good but really difficult and complex, and, as a book of poetry, Phantom Noise is no easy read but it is marvelous.

How about you? Have you ever taken a class or read a book (or group of books) that dealt with war? What about other difficult subjects?



You can take that Kindle and shove it up your Nook

I hate e-readers. I hate them with a fiery, socially unacceptable hatred. I hate the silent, uninspiring compliance of their screens and I hate their stupid little highlighting and page-marking functions. Given the chance, I would throw every Kindle and Nook in the world into an active volcano and then go back to my cave with my stone spear heads and my woolly mammoth friends.

This concludes this week’s Confessional Thursday.

In all honesty, I try not to rant about it too much. With all the big problems in the world, it’s just not fashionable to fight with people over their preferred reading conduit. I don’t accost e-reading strangers and demand they get their Kindle out of my sight before I actually start a fire with it. I don’t send emails to Barnes and Noble complaining about offensive Nook ads. I may have called my best friend a heathen for considering one, but I swear that was just once.

I love my books, okay? I would spend hours in bookstores if I could, but my friends get bored and the paranoia of looking like a book thief makes me all jumpy. I love bringing a new book home and losing myself for hours in the clean, crisp pages with their new-book smell. I love dog-earing a page or highlighting a line for the first time.

I went through a phase when I tried to keep my books in pristine condition. I didn’t eat or drink while I was reading. I used a bookmark religiously. I didn’t dog-ear pages or underline anything. I got all nervous if anyone else handled my books, like Bilbo Baggins and his plates.

Now that that obnoxious, obsessive phase is over, I don’t mind marking up my books a little. They’re mine, so why shouldn’t they have a little personality? Like Andy writing his name on the bottom of Woody’s boot, it shows somebody cares about them. Somebody spent some time with them.

I didn’t value books quite so much when I was young. I’ve already said I loved to read, but the book as a physical object wasn’t all that important to me. Some of the books from my childhood are missing half their covers or are wrinkled and water-stained from first page to last. Unfortunately, some of the books I man-handled weren’t even mine.

One of my most vivid early memories is my dad reading this copy of The Hobbit to me and my sister. He turned us into fellow Tolkien fans at an early age, and when I was old enough to read I tackled The Hobbit on my own. I don’t remember exactly what I did to it, but from the looks of things, I made reading a not-so-sedentary activity. I don’t know, maybe I literally tackled it? It had a glossy, illustrated dust jacket but I destroyed that beyond all hope of repair as well (I think part of the reason I dislike children so much is because I was such a wretched one myself).

I’ve offered to buy my dad a new copy several times, but he always says no. I’ve never asked why; I just assumed it had sentimental value and I felt even worse for ruining it. The more I think about it, though, the more I wonder if the split binding and broken cover is part of the value.

I feel incredibly self-centered suggesting this, but I wonder if the memory of reading to me and my sister is what makes it special to Dad. I may be way off the mark and it’s special because was a nice gift that he managed to keep in good condition until his wrecking ball of a daughter came along, but I know whenever I look at it I remember being snuggled in his lap and looking at the gorgeous illustrations while he put on a full cast of voices.

How the hell can an e-reader compare to that?

Sure, parents can still read to their kids with a Nook, but no one can tell me it’s the same. You can’t tell me having the physical proof isn’t worth something. You can’t tell me a Kindle, with all its functions and uses, can serve as a tactile, concrete memory trigger with any kind of specificity. Nobody looks at their TV screen and says, “Ah, yes. I remember watching Pocahontas and Homeward Bound on this.” The memories are in the VHS tapes with their bulky plastic covers.

Beyond that emotional appeal to parents, current or future, my reasons hating e-reader aren’t all that substantial. I just don’t understand how the reading experience can carry the same weight without the physical sensation of pages. I don’t see how downloading a 99¢ file can be as special as picking out a book and making it your own. I entertain fantasies of publishing only hard copies of my own books because damn it, I want my words to occupy their own space and exist as their own physical object with its own colors and smells and weight.

“Oh, but they’re so convenient.” WHATEVER.

And yeah, not every book is going to change your life. I own my share of cheap, forgettable stories; reading them on an e-reader probably wouldn’t make them more or less memorable. But most of the time, when I pick up a book, I’m looking for an experience rather than information alone. I’m expecting it to be significant enough to deserve its own space in my house. I really do try not to be cantankerous about it, but it gets under my skin. I don’t like to see books and the people who wrote them lose their value.

Now that I’ve ranted and raved and probably scared off a few readers, I have a question. Since my dad doesn’t want a new copy of The Hobbit, I would like to get the old one repaired. I want to keep the original cover so the memories can live on in the battle scars, but it needs some help. I would like it to hold together without tape, and whether that means it needs to be rebound or resewn or reincarnated, I don’t know. I’ve never had a book repaired or restored and I don’t know where to start beyond Googling “book fixers.” Do any of you have experience with book repair, either as the customer or the repairer? Any advice as to where to send it or where not to send it? I’d really appreciate any suggestions you have!

Will work for books

You know, there are tons of books. Sometimes I get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of books—no, even just novels—there are to read. My Twitter feed is full of aspiring authors, most of whom I would love to support by buying a book and giving it a thoughtful review. My Goodreads “to-read” shelf is longer than my “read” shelf. My mental list of books to buy is separated into three categories: “desperately and wildly need,” “want,” and “don’t really want but ought to read.” There are at least five in each category.

As if these lists were not long enough with only previously existing books, people keep writing more. And a lot of these—too many, in fact—are worth reading. On top of this, I a) want to buy books, not borrow them and b) currently have less money in my bank account than my 15-year-old brother does in his pocket. While I haven’t figured out the financial dilemma, I’ve picked five newly released or yet-to-be released books from my “desperately and wildly need” category to share with you.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

Truth be told, I have never read anything by Neil Gaiman. I KNOW. Don’t make me feel WORSE. To be perfectly honest, he wasn’t even on my radar until I started following bookish people on Twitter and realized not having read Neil Gaiman was not something to admit to anyone, especially not on your blog where anyone in the world can read it. Anyway, back to the book.

This is one I would pick up for title and cover alone, but the early reviews tell me it’s as gorgeous on the inside as the outside. Kirkus Reviews calls it “poignant and heartbreaking, eloquent and frightening, impeccably rendered,” and Publishers Weekly says it’s a “splendid and subtle modern myth.” June 18 can’t get here soon enough.

Raven Girl by Audrey Niffenegger

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

Unlike the previous author, I have read two books by Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry). I loved both, and I can’t wait to have a few dollars to buy Raven Girl. This is another cover that would prompt me to buy the book, but if that’s not good enough for you, Booklist says “Niffenegger weds the fabulous with the deeply human in this concentrated, suspenseful fable of unlikely love, a struggle for selfhood, and a dramatic metamorphosis.”

The Blue Blazes by Chuck Wendig

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

I know, I talk about Chuck Wendig a lot. However, I haven’t read any of his books. I want to read all of them, but here we are again at my empty bank account. Really, though, they all look brilliant and get great reviews; The Blue Blazes just happens to be his most recent. Since his is one of the few blogs I actually read and love on a regular basis, I can only assume I’ll enjoy his books just as thoroughly. Also, as you might’ve guessed from the title of this blog, I’m all about the nitty-gritty, and the nitty-gritty seems to be his specialty.

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

I’ve read both The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns and they are beautiful, heartbreaking stories that stayed with me for days. This latest novel came out May 21 and it has a million billion trillion glowing reviews. I can’t imagine it will be anything less than exquisite.

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

I don’t watch scary movies and I don’t read scary stories, but man, this sounds fantastic. I hate jump-scares and I’m not into the repulsive-creepy-disgusting, but from the reviews I’ve read, this seems like something I could sink my teeth into. Of course, it might require keeping my night-light on for a while (yeah, I really have one) but I think it will be worth it.

Well, there they are, five books I desperately and wildly need and will buy as soon as I have money or borrow as soon as my podunk library gets them in. Which happens first is anyone’s guess. What are some books you’re dying to read? Have you read any of these on my list? Would anyone like to berate me for not having read anything by Neil Gaiman and having the audacity to admit it? Talk to me, people! I love hearing from you.

I’m a judgmental judge-y judge of book covers

Yeah, yeah. I’m not supposed to, but I do. I judge—and buy—books by their covers. If I had inherited my mother’s shopping savvy, I’d go for the bargain bin of paperbacks and read all the blurbs on the backs (she doesn’t do this with books but does the equivalent with clothes). Instead, I head straight for the shelf of shiny new hardcovers, find the prettiest one, and work out how many nights I’ll have to eat noodles if I buy one.

Okay, that’s not how I do it all the time. I’m often working through my “must-buy” books, but if I’m straying from that list I look at the cover first and read the blurb after. However, if Maureen Johnson’s fantastic Coverflip experiment proved one thing (it proved more than one thing, but whatever), it’s that I’m certainly not the only one who will pass over or pick up a book based on its appearance.

I’m not going to delve into the mire of gendered covers, genre covers, or even bed covers today (maybe later). Instead, here are five books I picked up purely because they appealed to my haphazard, dramatic sense of aesthetics.

 Finding Camlann by Sean Pidgeon

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

Because I love the colors and I have a thing for ravens, I was drawn to this book like an ant colony to that one speck of spilled juice the mop missed. I didn’t have any interest in Arthurian legends or the research and linguistics surrounding them so I knew I should just put it down and back away slowly. I bought it anyway, thoroughly enjoyed it, and was able to share it with my dad as well. It also sparked an obsession with the history of Britain and Wales, which in turn was one of the driving forces behind a main character in my current project.

 The Alchemist’s Daughter by Katharine McMahon

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

I may have mixed feelings about the story but I think the cover is absolutely stunning. If I ever get anything published, I can only hope the cover art will be half as elegant. Unfortunately, all the roses and gold leaf in the world can’t make up for a naïve, emotional protagonist and just enough womanly coming-of-age stuff to make the sixth-grade boy in me cover his ears and run away screaming, “LALALA I CAN’T HEAR YOU.” I know, that’s really immature. I don’t care.

 The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

This one doesn’t really belong here because I wanted to read it before I ever saw the cover. However, this cover, with all its 3D paper-cutout contrast sparkly swirly-ness, almost made me forget about the rest of my Christmas gifts. The story is even more beautiful than the cover art and everyone in the whole world should read it. Everyone I know is sick and tired of me talking about and recommending this book, so I’ve started trying to find new people to talk to just to tell them about The Night Circus.

 The Thirteen Hallows by Michael Scott and Colette Freedman

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

The ultra-logical reasoning behind this pick? It’s blue and shiny. It may look pretty basic and unexciting, but let me tell you, it jumps out on a shelf full of campy, long-bearded wizards and quasi-gothic vampire girls. The story is a rather disjointed mishmash of gore, Celtic mythology, gore, sex, and gore, but I didn’t dislike it. I might even read the sequels, assuming they actually happen.

 When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

I love The Scarlet Letter, so I was really interested to read something labeled “a powerful reimagining” of the same book, especially when it had such an attention-grabbing cover. While it wasn’t a bad read, the shadow of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s original proved far too long for When She Woke. Many of the same themes—religion, society, private versus public self, etc.—were present, but were used in a heavy-handed, juvenile way. Jordan also positioned Hawthorne’s recognizable images—like the rosebush—in blatantly obvious but contextually meaningless places. This would’ve worked as a stand-alone look at American society, but the invitation to compare it to such a significant classic made it hollow and pretentious.

As you can see, I’ve had mixed success picking books by their covers. Do I have any other cover-buyers here? I’d love to see some covers that grabbed your eye!

On reading and rereading the classics

I have mixed feelings about “the classics.” I love some of them, hate others. A few of them (Hemingway, I’m looking at you) I’ve put down and realized I had no idea what they were really about. I profess to love books, so I feel somewhat obligated to not only read but remember classic books clearly enough to bring them up in conversation and thus contribute to the impression that I am well-read. That’s why people read classics, right? Oh. We’re not supposed to say that out loud?

When I was a kid (I am now an old woman at 22), all I did was read. I plowed through the Redwall books faster than Brian Jacques could publish them. I devoured more than 50 of the Thoroughbred series. The Boxcar Children, Pony Pals, and the Saddle Club were no match for my voracious reading appetite. I read a lot, but the closest I came to a classic was Black Beauty. I like animals, okay?

It wasn’t until high school that I realized the value of a book was judged by something other than whether or not I personally liked it. Even though I had put the Pony Pals behind me, I never picked up something like Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca until it was part of my ninth grade curriculum. I had never analyzed a book or considered what it made me feel or why; I just put it down and moved on to the next one. I did the same thing with the first couple in high school but, after a few classes spent pulling and picking and dissecting, I realized that these books had a lot written between the lines. I realized that my way of reading—wolfing down pages like this was some kind of pie-eating contest—wasn’t doing me any favors.

I read my fair share of the usual suspects for class; Animal Farm, A Farewell to Arms, To Kill a Mockingbird, so on and so forth. However, as I developed a reputation for being something of a writer, something of an English person, I became uncomfortably aware of the holes in my reading experience. I started to cringe whenever anyone asked “Have you read…?” because what if I hadn’t and what if I should have?

With my newly-acquired identity as an English person at stake, I went to the musty section of the library and tried to pick out the classiest classical classics. I read Anna Karenina, The Sun Also Rises, Jane Eyre, The Age of Innocence, and Beowulf on my own. As I’ve already implied, I was way out of my depth.

Without my teachers and their worksheets and pointed questions, I couldn’t grasp what I was reading. I couldn’t pick out the themes or recognize the character arcs or do any of the other things we English people ought to be able to do. I couldn’t read between the lines by myself.

I like to think I’ve made some progress in that area. I’m pretty sure I can get a handle on what most authors are trying to say. I can pick up some bits and pieces between the lines on my own, so I’ve been thinking I should revisit some of those classy classical classics. But I’m a little nervous. What if The Sun Also Rises still seems to be about drinking, smoking, watching bullfights and very little else? What if Anna Karenina is still the inexplicable combination of farming methods and affairs that don’t seem to include sex? Is there something wrong with me? Am I not literary enough? Am I a fraud?

This has not been the case with all classics. The Scarlet Letter was an experience that helped make me the person I am, that shaped my beliefs and the way I see the world. The themes of Lord of the Flies are present in my own work, albeit in trace amounts. I’ve taken ideas and styles from others even if I didn’t appreciate them as a whole.

So, what’s the verdict? What has been your experience with the classics? Did you love them? Did you hate them? Have you turned out all right without them? Am I just too dumb to “get” them?