There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
~ Emily Dickinson

Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness. ~ Helen Keller

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Six Standouts from Six Months

I'm probably the last blogger posting a 2012 reading wrap-up post, but I felt the need to post something. Actually, this isn't a wrap-up for the whole year. Since I posted Monthly Reading Roundup reviews for the first half of the year, these are some standouts from the last six months when I wasn't blogging.

Best Reread of an Old Favorite
Jane Eyre, of course. I've reread it every year since first discovering it at age 14, but rereading it at age 18 - the age Jane is through most of the novel - was a special experience. I filled up my copy (the one above, with the beautiful Millais painting, edited by Stevie Davies) with dozens of post-it-notes. I'm sure I'll do the same next year too; each rereading opens to me new themes, new lessons to be learned, new complexities to be explored. 

Best Feminist Work
Perhaps I should list Wide Sargasso Sea, but it really wasn't my thing. Instead I'll go with a book from an Adventist press (i.e., something less worrisome to my mom than dangerous worldly novels) 
She Said No by Kay D. Rizzo

This book illustrates the important point that “nice guys” rape. Even “good guys” - like the ministerial student in this story - can commit rape when they think a woman owes them something. No matter what a woman has done - with that man or any other - the moment she says No and he continues, it is rape. But the hard thing about acknowledging this fact is accepting that, while rape is a crime of violence that tragically effects the victim and their loved ones for the rest of their lives, rape is not so different a sin from the ones we all commit regularly. Any man (and, yes, women rape, but on a significantly smaller scale) who allows himself to listen to the dominant rape culture - which tells him women owe him something or that a woman's “slutty” behavior entitles him to a "sample" - may commit rape. This realization leads to some disturbing questions: Can we ever fully trust any man? Should we extend the same Christian grace to former rapists as to those who have committed other sins? 
Christians cannot afford to accept the excuses for rape offered us by rape culture. But does the Christian message of forgiveness of the vilest sins mean we should forget and accept unconditionally? I don't think so, but where do you think the line is drawn? 

Book Which Evoked Most Audible Exclaimations
The Price of Freedom by Simon Ivascu & Wesley Pop (CoAuthor: Bev Ellen Clarke) 
The true story of two young men who escaped communist Romania in a shipping container, in order to remain true to their faith. It made me exclaim aloud frequently for several reasons. 1. It was just that dramatic and harrowing. I kept saying, "They are going to die. They just couldn't have survived, even though their pictures are on the back cover!" 2. My exclamations made my best friend attempt to steal the book from me, provoking "World War III". 3. The co-author is a distant relative of my family, but her use (or misuse) of em-dashes and italics left my editor's soul thoroughly frustrated.

Best Play

Richard II by William Shakespeare. Frankly, my obsession with this play (and indeed, the whole Henriad) is due more to the recent BBC "Hollow Crown" production, than just to reading. However, my feelings for "poor Richard" himself align with my frequent sympathy for anti-heroes, or failed characters. Although Richard starts out as an unsympathetic character, I confess that I identify with him. Like myself, he's good at words, not actions and decisions. Politically and personally he's a tragedy, poetically he's unrivaled.  (Except by Henry V, who is annoyingly good at all aspects of kingship, if one can put aside our modern peevishness at massacre and autos da fe in a "glorious" cause.) Basically, I tend to think "Richard II c'est moi"; that is not a very cheerful view of myself, but is in itself rather Richard-like, isn't it?

 Best General Fiction
One Day by David Nicholls

An almost perfect book, in its sphere. Because it is set in just one day (St Swithin's Day) of each year of an almost-twenty year relationship, there are “scenes” missing, questions left unanswered. But in leading us on a journey through two lives it is utterly real and fully engaging. Maybe more so because much of the time "hero" Dexter is bordering on despicable, and even generally-likeable "heroine" Emma descends below pathetic. But somehow, without obviously showing it, Nicholls makes them both redeemable. For me it's the moment Dexter is at his lowest, crying to an indifferent stripper. And as the final pang comes the revelation that when he drunkenly thought her bowed head indicated she was praying for him, in reality “while he has been talking about Emma, she has had her mobile phone in her lap and is writing a text.”

What makes Dex and Em's friendship beautiful and bigger than their romance is that for some reason she was the one person who loved him unconditionally.
Strangely, though written by Nicholls himself, the movie lacks the emotional engagement of the film. It's not just the destined-to-failure task of condensing each day into a couple minutes. It's also the removal of the complicated and ugly things about the characters. (Like Emma's affair with the married headmaster of the school where she teaches. Or the beautiful not-quite-love-letter that Dexter writes but never sends.)

P.S. The film also made me more afraid to start riding my bike in town. Ugh.

 Best Memoir
Ten Thousand Sorrows by Elizabeth Kim

Watching her mother hung by her relatives for having a child with an American soldier was just the beginning of this Korean war orphan's "ten thousand sorrows". Adopted by a fundamentalist evangelical couple, she was abused and stifled, finding her only comfort in the discovery that "literature could connect [her] with something larger than [her] own life..." With its connection to literature, its brutal honesty, and its ultimate recognition of the ten thousand joys that also enter every life, this is... it would be vulgar to say a "favorite" book of the year... rather it was a heart-wrenching unfolding of the paradoxical delicacy and resiliency of the human spirit.

Book I Fell Madly In Love With, Without Actually Reading This Year

Middlemarch  by George Eliot. The last time I read it through was the end of 2011. But it's a book I slowly fall more and more deeply in love with each time I revisit even a few sentences. If Jane Eyre is the emotional love of my life, then Middlemarch is the intellectual and moral one. I've started a George Eliot Tumblr, but it's on my own personal tumblr that I rant about my feelings for my "hometown"

I'm hoping in 2013 to read more, and allow myself to be distracted by internet reading - even book blogs - less. I probably won't sign up for any challenges, since I don't seem to stick to them anyways. I do have self-set goals to read Dorothy Sayers mysteries, C.S. Lewis' works on Christianity, more George Eliot, and try to keep up with the bloggers reading through the novel list in The Well Educated Mind.

"Being a reader is sort of like being president, except reading involves fewer state dinners, usually. You have this agenda you want to get through, but you get distracted by life events, e.g., books arriving in the mail/World War III, and you are temporarily deflected from your chosen path." 
-- Nick Hornby


  1. Better late than never! Thanks for sharing. I'm not familiar with most of those on your list and always appreciate good recommendations. Hope you've had happy holidays!

    1. I'll enjoy hearing your thoughts if you read any of them, Samantha!

  2. Ooh, I love the world of George Eliot - you know, the cosy, Victorian, tea-drinking of close community sort of thing. Just like Mrs Gaskell or Charlotte Bronte's Shirley (unusually community-like for a Bronte novel). I've actually got the same copy of Jane Eyre, bought for A-Levels. Ugh, one thing I hate about today's culture is that men think they have a right to sexually abuse women. It's like they take advantage of a sexually permissive society to accuse women of tempting them.

    Look forward to reading your thoughts of CS Lewis. I never got round to reading the Narnia series (I prefer longer novels) and somehow got distracted by other things.

    1. Caroline, you're so good at getting me thinking... and ranting. This time about how we perceive community in Victorian novels, which I think I'll add to the (monster!) letter. (I got really sick after Christmas, and am trying to catch up on everything. Otherwise I would've replied by now.)

      Yes, of course as a Christian I come from a culture that condemns the "sexually permissive society" that you mentioned. But that's no excuse for a man to take advantage of any woman... no matter what her reputation, or how she was dressed or behaving.

      Actually, I'm not planning to read the Narnia series this year. I don't know all that much about it, so don't have much to build my curiosity on. It's Lewis' Christian apologetic works and spiritual biography ("Surprised by Joy")that interest me most. I have a cousin who loves "Mere Christianity" and I read some of it with her during the summer; it had a very Austenesque sensibility which appealed to me. Naturally. ;)

  3. I love meeting fellow women who cite Jane Eyre as the emotional love of their life. You are so correct... every time I read it, I discover something new and eye-opening. I discovered Jane when I was 11 and have read it at least 10 times in the last 14 years. I also collect copies, though I do not have the one you mention. I've written a lot about Jane on my blog... and just finished an exceptional biography on Charlotte Bronte that revealed so much more about the novel and her writings. I MUST read Middlemarch.. it's been on my to-do list for a long time. Sounds like you had some good reading experiences!

    1. So glad to have you comment, Jillian. I've read your (excellent!) blog posts on Jane Eyre and I too appreciate knowing a kindred spirit in the love of Jane Eyre! I understand you're also a Christian. JE is special to me because of its intelligent Christian perspective, which I've written a bit about on this blog.

      I see on your blog that the bio of Charlotte Bronte was by Lyndall Gordon. Another friend has recommended that one to me too, so I'll definitely be reading it (soonish). Shortly after I first discovered JE I read Rebecca Fraser's bio, which I remember as quite absorbing.

      Oh, yes, everyone should read Middlemarch. It's long, but so rewarding when you immerse yourself in its world.

  4. Speaking of Jane Austen have you tried reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke? It's set in an alternate Regency era and the language is superb and convincing (but I haven't got through far). Lord Byron and the Duke of Wellington feature in it too. Recently they announced the BBC is going to adapt the book into a miniseries. Can't wait to watch it!

    1. Haven't heard of it, but it sounds good. I'll add it to my TBR. Are you going to review it on your blog?

    2. Not in the near future, I think. I have got the book but I didn't get beyond a few chapters, because to my horror I discovered that some concepts I'd written in my own story a year ago before I'd even read the book were strikingly similar to what Susanna Clarke had written, and I didn't want to unconsciously plagiarise her. The concepts I made up were actually adapted from Diana Wynne Jones' books, so I wonder if Susanna Clarke was influenced by Diana Wynne Jones as well? She uses Regency spelling and phrases - it seems she's an Austen fan. Which is why I'm focusing less on epic magic in my story and more on character development. But once I come up with a coherent theme, I might go back to Susanna Clarke.

    3. I would second the recommendation for JS&MN. I recently reread it, so I should probably write a review (the most I managed after my reread was incoherent raving about how powerful it is).

    4. If both you and Caroline recommend it, then it goes higher up on my TBR. Luckily my library has a copy, since I've been buying way too many books lately.