English degree & reading fiction

I went down (what I think of as) the typical path of an “avid” reader starting a university degree in English/American literature.
I read a lot before starting the degree, three or four times the amount of books I am probably going to read this year (=hopefully 50). Once I started studying English (and a bunch of other things), I still read a lot, but 80% of the books were comfort reads: books I have read before, books without complicated narrative structure, fast-paced books, and ultimately books which allowed me to shut out the reality for a couple of hours.
A few semesters into the degree, throw in some massive anxiety show-downs about the future career (now that I had run away from the “secure” law degree), linguistic melt-down due to my omnivorous appetite for learning languages, and a major identity crisis on cultural/linguistic basis, and you have a former reader who doesn’t read much.

In the past 15 months, I’ve read 35 books that were not assigned reading.
In the past three years, I’ve read 23 full-length novels and plays, dozens of short stories, a handful of poems, and countless academic articles for classes (which really isn’t a lot, for three literature degrees combined). Among them, there were famous books, best-selling books, thought-books and problematic ones, but none of them allowed me to sink into their world and just absorb, which was how I used to read.

I suppose my reasons for reading have changed after three years of analytic approach to narratives. I used to read for the immersive experience that let me become somebody else, for the surge of emotions hitherto unknown to me, for the fictitiousness of it all. I used to decide on my favorite books mostly based on feelings: the ones evoking the strongest emotions in me were my favorites. In hindsight, what a romantic approach to reading it was!
Strangely, however, the books from past few years that are lingering the most on my mind are books I had a lukewarm attitude toward while reading, books that were confusing and not exciting, books whose fictitious reality faded away the moment I put them down. Among them I count Come to Me by Amy Bloom, Our Town by Thornton Wilder, Dance of the Happy Shade by Alice Munro, The Love Object by Edna O’Brien, I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou and Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones.

Why do we read?

I think it’s an important question a reader should ask themself more often. I’ve been thinking lately that I want to read and re-read good books. Now, “good” is a totally anti-academic description that has no place in a term paper, but my personal requirements for “good” books are that they are written beautifully or extraordinarily (in literal sense), that they do not have a simple message of “this is good, that is bad”, that they teach me new things, and that they linger.

After three years of reading while looking out for narrative techniques, metaphors, character inconsistencies and so on, I have become unable to “simply read”. My reading pace has slowed down considerably and I have stopped accepting the finished book as the god/dess beyond reproach.
I used to resist every step of this change in my reading behavior, and – ironically enough – almost at the end of my university career, I have finally arrived at a place where I can live with this new version of reader and can even think of some perks this might bring into my life.

To be honest, though, this is rather an inevitable legacy of a literature degree and not the most profound discovery I have made in the last three years.
I still believe that I have run away from law degree three years ago. But at the same time, studying Humanities has allowed me the time, room and tools to deal with my anxiety, to get to know my bad habits better, to be wary of everything, to realize how intolerant, stubborn and hypocritical I am, and, most preciously, to recover my Korean roots and to stop running away from the task of digging up past memories and acquiring new knowledge about my and my family’s country.
Since I am such a scaredy cat, I didn’t make full use of everything my university has to offer, but in the past few semesters I was fortunate enough to (re)discover my interest in acting and theater, in translation, in creative writing, in editing texts, in anime, in Japanese, Dutch and Russian.

One more week of the summer semester to push through! (Followed by an intense semester break in which I have to write numerous term papers, again.) I suppose I’ll go read some good books now.

Advertisements

독서일기

내가 어제 읽기 시작한 책은 비행기에서 읽기 시작해서 단숨에 절반 이상을 집어 삼키고 갑자기 내려놓은 이토 케이카쿠의 「학살기관」이 아니라 현재 의사이자 작가로서 활동하고 있는 나츠카와 소스케 (夏川草介, 가명)의 신작 「책을 지키려는 고양이 (本を守ろうとする猫の話)」다. 책을 좋아하는 고등학생, 곧 폐점 위기에 놓인 고서점, 말을 하는 고양이. 책에 대한 책을 좋아하는 나로서 이보다 더 매력스러운 컨셉이 있을까.

「책을 지키려는 고양이」는 개개인의 우리가, 그리고 사회로서의 우리가 책과 독서에 대해 가진 태도를 짚어주고 간다고 볼 수 있다. 책을 아예 읽지 않는 사람이라면 몰라도 자신의 취미로 ‘독서’를 꼽을 만한 사람이라면 뜨끔, 하고 다가오는 구절이 몇 개 있지 않을까 싶다. 그렇지만 (아직) 기대했던 것 만큼 많은 감명을 받진 못했다. 이 책이 다루는 문제는 다 다른 데서 접해 보거나 스스로 생각해 본 적이 많은 것들이고 린타로가 내린 답들도 그다지 새롭지 않다. 나를 생각하게 만들고 혼란의 바다로 던져놓기에는 너무 안정되었다. 그게 나쁜 건 아니지만.

처음 이 책의 줄거리를 대충 보고 ‘읽기 쉬운 책’일거라고 생각했었다. 무조건 어려운 책이 더 쓸모 있거나 아름답거나 독자를 더 박식하게 만들어주는 게 아닌 것처럼 읽기 쉬운 책이라고 해서 한번 대충 읽고 처박아 버려도 되는 책만 있는 게 아니다. 그렇지만, 역시 읽기 쉬운 책이다. 시원시원한 문체에 세계관 보다는 분위기를 그려가는 듯한 느낌. 문장 하나 하나 사이에 무언가를 숨겨 놓기 보다는 (제임스 조이스가 생각난다) 독자를 책 안의 세계로 서서히 끌어 당기고 싶은 것같다는 인상을 받았다. 물론 눈에 거슬리는 부분도 몇 개 있다. 주인공 린타로의 동급생 사요의 말투가 시원시원하다는 걸 도대체 몇 번이야 반복해야 만족하는 걸까.

주인공 린타로에 대해서 말해 보자면 그가 상대의 페이스에 말려들지 않고 침착하게 자신만의 답을 찾거나 내릴 때의 모습이 좋다. 아직 고등학생인데 벌써 니체 전집을 읽었다는 게 안 믿기지만 (대학생이 돼서도 아직 니체를 한 권도 안 읽어본 사람으로서 할 말이 없다 – 심지어 원어로 읽을 수 있으면서도!) 자기 주장을 또렷이 할 수 있는 모습은 더 신기하다. 한동안 나에게는 내가 읽은 책에 대한 나의 의견을 내놓지 못 할 때가 있었다. 내 세계관이나 가치관이 아직 희끄무레 했을 때, 책을 읽으면 읽을 수록 내 자아가 더 희미해 지는 것 같았을 때, 나는 책을 읽고 나서도 내가 그 책에 대해 무슨 생각을 하는 지 스스로도 몰랐었다. 그건 타인이 내 의견을 비웃을 까봐, 나 조차 확신이 안 가는 생각이었으니까 뭐 자신 있게 내놓을 만한 말이 없었다.

미국에서 지난 일년에 읽은 책이 한 권도 없다는 어른이 1000명 중 20%나 된다는 기사들이 쏟아져 나오는 현재 시대에 각자 곰곰히 생각해 봐야 할 것이다. 물론 독서와 연관되는 장점은 수두룩하지만 운동도 마찬가진데도 불구하고 미국에서 운동을 안하는 어른은 20%가 넘지 않을까 하는 생각도 든다 (고등학교 졸업 후 한 4년간 운동과 담을 쌓고 지냈던 사람으로서 할 말이 없다. 그렇지만 해보니까 좋더라.). 한창 독서에 빠져있던 고등학교 땐 1년에 200권 씩 읽기도 했었고, 그렇게 읽은 책들은 ‘쉽게 읽을 수 있는’책이었다. 지금 와서 다시 읽겠냐고 묻는다면 사양할 만한 청소년문학이 대부분이었지만 그 때는 나름대로 도움이 됐었던 책들이었다. 그런 방식으로 어휘를 많이 늘린 것도 사실이고. 만약 진짜 ‘쓸모 없는’ 책 종류를 꼽으라고 하면 99.99%의 로맨스 소설이랄까나. 현실성도 신빙성도 떨어지고 오히려 독자한테 ‘사랑’에 관한 불건강한 망상만 심어 주는 것 같기 때문이다 (이건 한때 내가 꽤 많이 읽었던 장르라서 할 수 있는 말이다). 그렇지만 잘 팔리는 이유 또한 불안하고 힘들 때 많은 현실과는 많이 다른 세상을 보여주기 때문인 것 아닌가 싶다.

인간은 때때로 (?) 무의식적으로 자신이 접하는 것 – 책, 영화, 노래, 광고, 수업, 등등 – 을 받아들이고 흡수하기 때문에 어느 정도 골라가며 살 필요가 있다. 일종의 건강한 식단을 따라 밥을 먹는 것이 쌓이면 몸에 더 좋은 것 처럼. 물론 종종 케이크의 유혹에 넘어간다 하더라도.

18.03.29 B.

P.S.: 다 읽었다! 뭐랄까, 마지막에 한 방 먹은 느낌이다. 이 책은 책한테 절대적 가치를 부여하지도, 지나치게 이상적인 말만 늘어 놓지도, 결론적으로 애매모호한 메세지를 던져 놓지도 않는다. 책과 책에 대해서 이야기를 나눈 느낌. 책을 사랑하면서도 도구로서 사용할 수도 있다는 느낌. 한가지 아이러니한건 이 책도 현재 베스트셀러인데다가 쉽게 읽힌다는 점일까나.

독서감상: 고두 (叩頭)

2017년 젊은작가상 수상작품집에 실린 대상 수상작품, 임현 작가의 ‘고두 (叩頭)’를 읽었다. 영문권에서 나온 단편에 익숙해진 나한테는 아주 생소롭게 서술자가 마치 독자한테는 보이지 않는 누군가한테 이야기를 하는 듯한 문체로 서술되는 단편이었다. 한국어에선 첫문장부터 그런 식의 문체가 들어난다는 점을 참 좋아한다. 읽으면서 여러번 ‘아, 이 문장은 어떻게 번역할 수 있을까’라는 생각을 했다.

솔직히 단편은 호불호가 좀 더 명확하게 갈리는 장르같다. 그리고 예를 들면 판타지 소설을 좋아한다고 해서 출판되는 판타지 소설을 몽땅 다 읽는 것도 아닌 것처럼 단편애호가라고 해서 접하는 단편소설마다 감동에 빠지거나 하지도 않는다. 무엇보다 단편은 중편이나 장편소설보다 훨씬 더 짧은 시간내에 독자를 사로잡아야하기 때문에 도입부부터 지루하면 강한 인상을 남기기 힘들다.
그런 의미에서 ‘고두 (叩頭)’는 처음부터 내 관심을 끄는데 성공했다. 도입부에 아버지 이야기가 나오길레 또 부자지간의 갈등에 대한 이야긴가 했는데 오히려 예상치 못한 방향으로 나아갔고, 딱히 내용보다는 서술형, 그리고 서술자의 (직업이 선생님이다) 인간사상과 전혀 미안해 보이진 않지만 그래도 사죄받고 싶은 마음, 이 모든 것이 모순적으로 뒤엉켜 읽으면 읽을수록 이런저런 생각이 많아졌고 결과적으로는 이 단편 전체가 서술자의 인간사상의 교과서적인 예라는 결론에 다다랐다.
서술자의 인간사상은 대충 이렇다. 인간은 본질적으로 이기적이다, 다 각자 자기가 원하는데로 세상을 바라보고 있으면서 자기 시선이 기울어진 건 인정하려고도 안한다, 자기는 늘 옳다고 생각하면서 남을 다그친다, 남을 위해 봉사하는 것도, 사죄하는 것도, 이 세상의 불공평함에 열을 내는 것도 실은 다 자기 기분 좋으라고 하는 거면서 자신은 정의의 수호천사라도 된 듯한 기분을 만끽한다. 그러니까 이런 점들을 윤리적인 삶에서 제일 경계해야 한다.
객관적으로 봤을 때 나는 이 사상에 일리가 있다고 생각한다. 앞으로의 문제는 여기서 체념하고 그냥 마음대로 살 것 인가, 아니면 이 딜레마 앞에서 자기만의 길을 찾으려 노력할 것 인가, 타협을 할 것인가, 자책을 할 것인가, 즉 이 문제에 대한 태도를 정하는 것 아닌가 싶다.
나에게 있어 ‘고두 (叩頭)’의 매력은 서술자가 자신도 인간이다, 그러므로 이기적이다,라는 변호를 들이대며 하는 행동이 결국은 자기가 윤리선생으로서 경계하라고 했던 그 짓을 그대로 하는 것이다. 서술자가 자신의 이야기를 풀어 놓으며 원하는 건 자신이 홀가분해지기 위해 용서를 비는 거 였으니까. ‘고두 (叩頭)’를 통해 임현 작가가 인간의 이러한 모순적인 가치관을, 사상과 실행이 늘 따로 노는 우리 인간들의 심리를 훈계적보다는 옆에서 자그시 꼬집어 주었다고 생각한다.

재밌는 점 두가지만 더. 이 단편에 나오는 이름은 딱 하나 밖에 없다. 연주. 이 이야기의 또다른 주인공이라 하기엔 그녀의 삶과 성격이 얼마나 서술자에 의해서 뒤틀어졌는지 알 수 없는 등장인물. 어째서 연주만 이름을 갖고 있는 걸까. 그리고 보아하니 연주는 이름이지 성이 없는데 왜 이 단편에서 유일하게 성이 알려진 사람이 서술자일까 (이름은 나오지 않는다. 동료가 ‘김 선생’이라고 하는 것만 알려져 있으니까.). 두 사람이 얽혀서 생긴 이야기니까? 그러기엔 비중분배가 잘못되지 않았나?
마지막으로 한 번 짚어가고 싶은 것은 이 단편의 제목. ‘고두 (叩頭)’는 물론 서술자가 가르쳤던 ‘사죄포즈’. 연주가 자신의 가르침을 너무 훌륭하게 연기하는 바람에 자신의 삶이 일그러지기 시작했다고 서술자는 이야기한다. 겉으로 보기엔 나무랄데 없는 경례의 표시. 그렇지만 인간이 하는 행동이 다 그렇 듯 겉과 속은 자주 따로 논다. 21세기에서는 오히려 그 과장된 면이 속으로 상대방을 놀리고 있는 거라고도 해석할 수 있는 ‘고두 (叩頭)’는 격식 없이 자연스럽게 이야기 하는 것 같은 서술체와 대조가 되기도 한다.

에쿠니 가오리

에쿠니 가오리(江國 香織) 의 책을 읽으면 과연 이 작가 책을 서양 언어로 번역 했을 때 잘 팔릴까, 하는 생각이 든다. 특히 지금 읽고 있는 책 (장미 비파 레몬 薔薇の木 枇杷の木 檸檬の木), 딱히 줄거리라고 할 수 있는 건 없고 오히려 십여명의 등장인물의 성격과 라이프스타일을 천천히 알아가는 듯한 느낌이 든다. 물론 영국이나 미국 시장에도 (다른 나라는 잘 몰라서 뭐라고 말을 못 하겠다) 그런식의 소설 – ‘literary fiction’ – 이 있지만 에쿠니 가오리의 ‘장미 비파 레몬’과는 달리 집중과 끈기를 요구한다.

역시 동양에서 자란 사람이라 어쩔 수 없는걸까.

아니면 에쿠니 가오리의 소설은 캐릭터의 속 깊이 안 들어가는걸까? 그렇지만 또 꼭 그런 것도 아니다. 물론 지금 동양국가에 사는 게 아니라서 잘은 모르지만, 그래도 지금 읽고 있는 책의 주인공들을 보면 2000년대 한국 사회에 (16년 만에 얼마나 많이 바뀌었는지!) 충분히 있을만한 사람들이라고 생각이 된다. 정은 있되 사랑 없는 부부생활과 어느 나라던 존제하는 짝사랑과 불륜, 아주 독립적인 여자와 연상의 보호와 애정을 바라는 여자까지, 실제로의 삶은 책이 그려낸 것 보다 물론 더 복잡하겠지만 (특히 시집 갈등이 없는 게 신기하다 – 일본은 좀 다른 문화인가?).

그런걸 다 떠나서 나는 책에서 우려나오는 그 편안함이 좋다. 영어의 ‘cozy’라는 표현에 그나마 제일 잘 어울리는 것 같은 그 포근함은 어쩔 수 없이 현실에 존제하지 않기 때문에 더 좋은 것 이다. 나는 성격이 워낙 전전긍긍하는 성격이라서 그런지, 혼자 할 일 없이 한 오후를 보내라고 하면 오히려 스트레스만 만땅 받을 사람이다. 오후에 개와 산책을 하면서 가끔 꽃을 사서 들어가는 도우코나 이혼할 생각이면서 아무렇지도 않게 꽃집을 운영하고 남편을 위해 요리하는 에미코의 삶은 내 불확신하고 1년 앞이 안 보이는 삶에 비해 더 안정적이게 느껴진다. 그리고 그렇기 때문에 위안의 환상을 안겨준다.

도우코나 에미코 같은 사람들도 자기만의 전투가 분명히 있을텐데, 괴로워하고 절망하는 면이 있을 텐데, ‘장미 비파 레몬’에서 에쿠니 가오리는 그런 모습을 보여주지 않는다 (적어도 아직 까지는 – 아직 다 읽지 않았으니까). 나는 나의 삶의 절반 이상을 그렇게 나 나름대로 힘들어 하면서 보냈기 때문에 (솔직히 요즘 시대에 그렇게 안 사는 사람이 어딨나) 내가 만약 글을 쓴다면 그런 모습을 담고 싶지만, 가끔은 이렇게 편안한 책을 읽으면서 영혼을 쉬게 해주고 싶다. 그렇지만 진정한 평화는 도피를 통해서 얻을 수 있는게 아니라고 생각한다. 개인의 전쟁을 치르지 않으면 안되는 것 이다. 그런 의미에서, 오늘은 여기까지.

Review: grl2grl

grl2grl by Julie Anne Peters

This is a collection of 10 short stories. Some short, some long. Some make me feel like I’m standing on top of a mountain just breathing in the sharp, pure air until my lungs burst. Some cause my heart to beat just a little faster as it grows with pride and joy. Some are broken pieces wrapped in warm, cocooned prose – it’s deceptive! – that are too real to be described “sad”; sad is too plain a word. It’s carefully neutral. Try trapped, smothered, banked until only a thin strand of smoke is all that’s left.

These stories are all about teenage girls except for Vince from “Boi”. They are – except for Vince – gay (Vince is, in case you haven’t guessed from the title, FTM). They are confident, confused, cautious, hurting. Each story is different from the other. None of them is: girl meets girl, insta love, then HEA. Most stories left me with “Oh nooooooo” or “Shiiit”. Very quick read, never boring, never repetitive.

The thing is, Julie Anne Peters’ prose is not sensationalistic. She’s not out to twist you up inside. grl2grl didn’t make my heart bleed or my eyes fall out. Instead, it’s a quick, bloodless swipe, and it’s only after you’ve put down the book that you know the stories are going to circle around your mind over and over.

reading: another year of retrospection

To give a brief summary of my reading history: I started devouring books on October 4th 2009, when I first picked up Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones. I haven’t stopped since.

I’ve come to realize and accept that different books have different functions, and they can be both meaningful.

Books With Impact
I read quite a few books that shifted the way I view things, even if it’s just a little.

Eating AnimalsThe Circle WithinDaring GreatlyCreative VisualizationThe Soul of Money
These books helped me to question what I thought was the “norm” – things that I thought I couldn’t change because that’s how things are, right? Eating Animals basically gave me the final push to become vegetarian. The Circle Within made me question my own set of values and whether I am living up to them; it also gave me food for thought about my religious views. Daring Greatly connects me with people by showing the universal struggle to be vulnerable and the crucial importance of vulnerability. It helps me in my effort to be authentic every day. Creative Visualization, despite its suggestive title, is not just a how-to book. The author also talks about her own philosophy of life. The Soul of Money is a mixture of psychological myth-debunking, promoting fund-raising, and spirituality (that blind leap of faith). It does not have a particularly smooth style, but its messages were very important in me re-setting my own values.

On the Shortness of Life A Day in the Life of a MinimalistA Story of Debt
These three books are more centered around minimalism and living simply, but these two ideas are really tools for living intentionally, or living with awareness. What I really liked about On the Shortness of Life, A Day in the Life of a Minimalist and A Story of Debt were the authors’ personal stories. They are not just sprouting off their personal philosophy like Ralph Waldo Emerson in “Self-Reliance”. Seneca, Joshua Field Millburn and Ashley Riordan write about their philosophies in application, which makes them so much more relatable. (I’m not dissing Emerson – I agree with a lot of what he says, but his writings remain very abstract.)

A Room of One's OwnBad FeministCome As You AreWe Should All Be Feminists
Great books on feminism and female sexuality. I am ashamed to admit that it’s only recently that I’ve come to realize the crippling effects our gendered society has on women and men, and I really, truly appreciate #HeForShe (although I still think it should be WeForUs – like he for he, he for she, she for he, she for she, and it would include genderfluid and agender people as well; but I admit it wouldn’t be as catchy or as thought-provokingly different as in unusual). However, gender inequality on the economic front, double standard, sexism, violence against women because of their gender – all these still exist, and they should be acknowledged and fought against.

Books With Comfort
Regardless of my name (it means ‘contemplating about truth’), I don’t want to be in an existential crisis 24/7. I fell in love with books because they provided me with fun and comfort, because they offered me a temporary escape, and because I could relate to fictional characters in such a way that it lessened my loneliness. All of this still holds true, and here are two series that were my main companions throughout the year.
1. Alice series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Its ordinariness is the extraordinary in this series. Humorous, heart-warming, critical without judging, and absolutely relatable.
2. In Death series by J. D. Robb
The only Nora Roberts/J. D. Robb series I still follow. Having finished Obsession in Death today, I am now caught up with all 40 paperback releases and limited to two new releases per year! I steampowered through this series this year (re-read #13 – 18, then read #19 – 40 for the first time). It’s a murder mystery series, of course, but it’s actually the futuristic world and the characters that have their hold on my soft spot.

My 2016 TBR

Looking back on my reading log, it was kind of funny to notice that I didn’t finish any book for one month. I was so busy reading for school and writing essays and learning vocabulary that I didn’t have the time (or the inclination) to read for pleasure. I did read a chapter here and 20 pages there, but I certainly wasn’t reading two or three books a week. I actually can’t remember the last time I didn’t finish any book for one whole month… not in the past six years.

I read lots of non-fiction compared to previous years, and many of those made my top-2015-reads list. I also read a lot of escapism literature, and while I did gain value from them, they aren’t as memorable. However, one genre is missing from my 2015 reading log, and that’s LGBTQIA+. I can’t explain why. I only know that I want to read more books about LGBTQIA+ and also about gender and feminism.

In short, here are 12 books I want to read in 2016.

The Handmaid's TaleLolitaOranges Are Not The Only FruitWhy Be Happy When You Could Be NormalGender OutlawsThe Age of Innocence800 Years of Women's LettersOliver TwistCarolOrlandoZamiUndoing GenderDelusions of Gender

Yes, there are 13 covers on display. That’s because I have already started reading Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit and if I manage to finish it within this year, I want to read Jeanette Winterson’s memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
Lolita – Vladimir Nabakov
Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit / Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? – Jeanette Winterson
Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation – various authors
The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton
800 Years of Women’s Letters
Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
Carol – Patricia Highsmith
Orlando – Virginia Woolf
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name – Audre Lorde
Undoing Gender – Judith Butler
Delusions of Gender – Cordelia Fine

Of course I want to read more books than these 13, but I want them to be the heart of my reading next year. Honorable mentions go to Girls Will Be Girls by Emer O’Toole, Bone Black by bell hooks, and The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr.

Classics Club Challenge #10: The Merry Wives of Windsor

The Merry Wives of WindsorThe Merry Wives of Windsor
by William Shakespeare

first published around 1597 – 1598first read September 15th – 16th 2015

A destitute, fat and old knight (who, by the way, also appears in Shakespeare’s historical plays such as Henry IV) – Sir John Falstaff be thy name – arrives in Windsor and hatches a scheme to woo a married woman so he can gain access to her husband’s fortune. Wait, why not kill two birds with one stone? Let’s seduce two married women, at the same time! The two women, who also happen to be friends/neighbors, are smart and prudent enough to see right through his smarmy letters and vow to have their revenge. Speaking of which, it seems the town of Windsor is full of people who must avenge themselves on someone for something. Falstaff’s servants have some grudge against him, so they seek to ruin his plot. The local parson and doctor want to get back to a tavern host because he prevented them from duelling each other (really, too much goodwill, sir!). And so on.Anyway, with all these vengeful souls going ’round, one would think The Merry Wives of Windsor would be anything but merry. But merry it is, indeed! The revenges are not the blood-thirsty kinds à la Hamlet. They are petty and humorous – and just, in case of the Mistresses Page and Ford (they are the two women Falstaff sets out to woo).

I did not ever expect to really enjoy a Shakespeare play just by reading it. Admire it, yes. Feel intimidated by it, maybe. Confused by it, heaps! But The Merry Wives of Windsor had me cackling away from the beginning. The funniest thing, for me, was all the mispronounced words – ‘abused, hacked, frittered English’ – by the ‘foreigners’, that is, the local parson Sir Hugh Evans and the French doctor Dr. Caius. Especially the latter’s exclamations “By gar!” got really hilarious! Then there’s Mistress Quickly, who looks after Dr. Caius, and she bungles the words so often and in so wrong a context! Slender, the nephew of the country justice of peace, is so dense that whatever comes out of his mouth is bound to have a comic effect on the reader. The two women’s revenge is risky and a great fun, and funnier still is Falstaff’s reaction to those revenges.

I read The Merry Wives in preparation for the FutureLearn course ‘Shakespeare and his World‘ starting on October 5th. I still have Henry V, The Merchant of Venice, Macbeth, Othello, Antony and Cleopatra and The Tempest to go through, so enjoying The Merry Wives as heartily as I did sets up a good precedent, I suppose!
My edition of the text contributed a good deal towards the merriment. It is the Penguin Shakespeare series and all of them has a short General Introduction and a longer Introduction about the specific play. The Introduction points out the main themes of the play, so if you’d rather not spoil yourself, better skip it. I understand the importance of a first impression free of any expectation but since I tend to take every written word so damningly seriously, it helps me to understand the general plot and characters before I read the play. This way, I know who’s being sarcastic, dumb or earnest. This edition also has an extensive commentary as a crutch to muddle through the Shakespearean language.

I will leave it to you to find out about the ‘merry, and yet honest’ wives and their revenge! (Note: ‘honest’ here means ‘chaste’.)

August Wrap-Up

I read 11 books in the month of August 2015. The funny thing is that I read five of them in the last three days of the month. Anyway, here’s an overview:

August 2015 wrap-up(You can’t see Haunting Violet because I read it on my tablet.)

The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien
Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski
The Bad Queen by Carolyn Meyer
Bloom by Elizabeth Scott
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
Sea Swept by Nora Roberts
Rising Tides by Nora Roberts
Inner Harbor by Nora Roberts
The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side by Agatha Christie
A Little History of Literature by John Sutherland

 

A Little History of Literature1. A Little History of Literature by John Sutherland
From Ancient Greeks to E. L. James, John Sutherland guides the readers through the history of literature, starting from myths, touching on epic poems, plays, the King James Bible, poetry, novels and e-books. There are also chapters that are book-related but that do not focus on a certain literary period, genre or author; such as the rise of the printing culture and censorship. Although the title does not specify the literature as the English literature, it pretty much remains within its geographical boundaries as far as the authors go (some authors do go outside of the Great Britain, which becomes relevant in topics such as colonialism), although Sutherland ventures to other European or sub-Saharan or formerly colonized countries. One chapter is devoted to the American literature and some references to it made afterwards in other chapters.
The only consistent feature in the structure of this book is that it is roughly chronological. Some periods are explained through one defining work; others through famous authors during those times; and yet others through literary movements (e.g. modernism). There are chapters devoted to literary periods that were created through external (i.e. (trans)national politics, economy and wars) circumstances. These bite-sized chapters are of course too short to fully satisfy the readers’ curiosity; but it does a great job at whetting their appetite and gives an overview.
I personally learned a great deal about the (past) English culture and biographical details about certain authors. All these information become very useful when I read books from that period or by those writers. For example, why those men were rehearsing a play in the beginning of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or what I should look out for when I read The Fearie Queene, or why Thomas Hardy’s books are so pessimistic. Some chapters, I found, skimmed only the surface – like Jane Austen and the Brontës chapters. But for the most of the time, I was like a child visiting a bookshop for the first time. Fascination, curiosity, and a whole lot of fun! Now, the 20th century generally doesn’t hold my interest (I’m not sure why), so the chapters on modernism, Plath and Kafka were kind of lost on me. But there’s no guarantee how my taste will change.
I wouldn’t recommend A Little History of Literature to be your very first foray into the subject because the book mentions about a hundred different titles and authors, many of them only fleetingly. So unless you already have heard about the majority of them, all the name-dropping might get frustrating. However, if you already have a vague outline of the English literary periods in your head along with their major writers/poets, then I enthusiastically encourage you to pick up this book.

Come As You Are2. Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski
Provocative title, tagline and cover aside (love ’em, though!) Come As You Are offers a detailed, scientific yet easy-to-understand guide to understand your sexuality and to improve your sex lives (if you are so inclined, of course). My apologies to transgendered readers as I have no idea how useful this book will be to you. Come As You Are is primarily targeted at cisgender females but I’d recommend this book to everyone even if they are not a woman or dating a woman.
While reading the book, I felt like as if Emily Nagoski had figuratively taken my hand and led me through the topics of her book, all the while being warm, open, funny and insightful. Indeed she tries to establish a writer-reader connection by telling us about her personal life, addressing us directly and telling us we can contact her about questions or our own experiences.
Come As You Are guides us through: 1. the female anatomy; 2. the dual control model (this also applies to males) – we have both sexual excitation system and sexual inhibition system that can be differently sensitive -; 3. the importance of context in regards to emotional context and cultural context (this can be applied to anything that our culture “teaches” us); 4. what arousal is (especially important: nonconcordance!); 5. what desire is (= arousal in the right context); 6. the orgasm; and 7. the meta-emotions (how we feel about how we feel).
Read this book if you feel more or less ready to learn more about your body, embrace your body and be open and honest about your body.

Sea SweptRising TidesInner Harbor3. Sea Swept, Rising Tides and Inner Harbor by Nora Roberts
I had arrogantly forgotten how much it hurts on the first day when you have your wisdom teeth pulled out. I had all four of them removed in the month of August, one side at one time and the other side at the second time. I weathered the first time better than the second because I was braced for something much more horrifying but the recovery turned out to be pretty smooth (smoother than I expected, anyway). So by the second time, I was more relaxed… and underestimated the discomfort of the first few days. To distract myself, I dove into the world of Nora Roberts’ Quinn brothers.
In Sea Swept, we have open, honest and force-of-nature Anna Spinelli and hot-headed and protective Cameron. Rising Tides centers around the quiet and thoughtful Ethan who is the master of hiding his past pains, and the level-headed and loving Grace Monroe with her toddler Aubrey (so cute <3). Emotionally more intense than the two previous books is Inner Harbor, in which we meet observe-rather-than-participate Sybill Griffin and Phillip – whose sophisticated and at-ease exterior hides a violent and tumultuous source of emotions deeply buried inside. A lost boy, Seth DeLauter, brings all these people together; the three brothers Cam, Ethan and Phillip, who promised their dying father to look after Seth. They themselves had been runaways and lost boys when Ray and Stella Quinn had saved them and given them a family.
The Chesapeake Bay quartet is about family, friendship, and love. The Quinn family is quite a special kind of family – open, loving, openly loving, loud and crowded and sometimes pushy. But they always have each other’s back and their love for each other makes them who they are. It is also about the small community in St. Christopher, Maryland, and the lives of people who make their living from the Bay.
I used to be a huge Nora Roberts fan for years until I realized that I wasn’t anymore and got rid of the most of my collection. I kept only the books that have a special place in my heart (mostly her trilogies and quartets), and the Chesapeake Bay series is one of those. It was a re-read for me this time and Inner Harbor is still my favorite. There is of course the fourth book, Chesapeake Blue, a Seth story after he has grown up (I think he is in his late 20s or early 30s) but I didn’t re-read it this time.

Quiet4. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
Another non-fiction and another re-read undertaken by me in August was Susan Cain’s Quiet. The first time I read it, about two years ago, I wrote this quite angry post about my experience of being an introvert. I initially took the book as an excuse to be on my own and to avoid parties. I still prefer a night in with me curled up with a book than a night out partying. But for a long time after reading Quiet, I still lived under the Extrovert Ideal mantra. I still felt like I was inadequate and criticized myself for not being as out-going as I “should” be. So I stayed in, citing introversion as my (silent) excuse, but I still wasn’t happy. When I re-read it after two years, I was ready to accept myself for the way I am. In the end I have the impression I learned more about myself and how I operate, and how I can stretch my boundaries when I need to. But most importantly, I know now that there is nothing wrong with me.
I wish more extroverted people read this book so that they can understand. There is also a chapter of this book about the communication between introverts and extroverts that I found helpful.

 

The Mirror Crack'd From Side to Side5. The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side by Agatha Christie
I’m going through Miss Marple books in the recommended reading order this year, and The Mirror Crack’d was next up! Incidentally, this is the first ever Agatha Christie book that I read (or was read to) two years ago. I knew who the killer was, of course; but that’s not why I re-read Miss Marple’s stories. I read them for the pure coziness it radiates – it’s the little details of Miss Marple’s breakfast, Mrs Bantry and her garden and the walking through The Development, and so on. The investigation itself wasn’t as dull as I’d remembered, either. It really makes a difference whether you read it yourself or whether you were read to. It seems I’m too impatient for audio books!
The thing that left me curious and dissatisfied at the end of 4:50 From Paddington has been answered in The Mirror Crack’d! It turns out Chief-Inspector Craddock is still single (p. 147, or Chapter 10)!
Anyway, in regards to the Miss Marple books: Miss Marple does appear in The Moving Finger, A Murder Is Announced and A Pocket Full of Rye but her appearances are short and towards the end. Just a warning not to get your hopes up! My favorite Miss Marple books (so far) are The Murder at the Vicarage, 4:50 From Paddington and The Mirror Crack’d.
Just a brief excursion to Monsieur Poirot while we are at Agatha Christie: I’m going through the Poirot books chronologically and so far I really enjoyed them all! And I’ve become quite fond of the small detective with huge ego <3 Next Poirot for me is The Mystery of the Blue Train.

Haunting Violet6. Haunting Violet by Alyxandra Harvey
As I mentioned above, I read this as an e-book. I got this a long time ago and it was a spur of the moment decision to read it, a I-need-a-book-to-read-for-half-an-hour-before-I-go-to-sleep kind. Well, any book that keeps me up until 3 in the morning gets a nod of acknowledgment from me. They also tend to stick in my memory.
Haunting Violet is set in the Victorian era England, and I mostly read for the historical setting of the story than the plot, actually. Violet’s mother runs a con as a medium – a trick that has been kept secret for some time and has allowed her to rise to a semi-fame. She has recruited two other then-children, Colin and Marjorie, and along with her daughter Violet, they have been helping her run the con. Now they are all invited to Lord Jasper’s manor so that he can entertain his guests with the medium. What none of them factors in is that Violet is a real medium… and her powers awaken just before they arrive in the manor. Confused and disoriented, Violet learns that a tragic accident had happened a few years ago near Lord Jasper’s manor. A tragedy that Violet now knows to be a murder.
Haunting Violet could have been another mediocre YA novel with a love interest thrown in and a half-hearted attempt at investigation – and a dramatic revelation. What I really like about this book is that the story is actually a blend of creepy and normal historical fiction. I also love Violet’s friendship with Elizabeth, her cautious respect for Lord Jasper and her situation of being courted by a rich tradesman’s son and not being sure whether she likes it! Even her dysfunctional relationship with her mother was quite interesting. Oh, and she loves books. Really, a girl after my own heart! The only thing predictable about Haunting Violet is the choice, or opportunity, offered to them at the very end. I would have preferred sheep-keeping.

Bloom7. Bloom by Elizabeth Scott
Another re-read! I had fully intended to give this one away and I thought to myself ‘I’ll just leaf through it before I do’ and ended up reading it cover to cover. Bloom is, in a way, a classic study of the high school structure and the arbitrary rules of “popularity” and the self-esteem that goes with it (for many students anyway). Lauren is the narrator of the book and she’s the girlfriend of the most popular guy in the school – a guy who is smart, caring, rather quiet and nice. Lauren is honest about how she feels about Dave: “grateful” that he chose her, wondering what he sees in her, enjoying the fringe benefit of being the “average” girlfriend of the most popular guy, and all the while knowing that she won’t be broken-hearted if he breaks up with her. She likes Dave, and she feels safe with him. And feeling “safe” is very important to Lauren. Of course there’s another love interest that causes her to feel all the feels.
What makes Bloom better, in my opinion, than other YA books with similar topics (and believe me I read a lot of them over the past six years) are Lauren’s difficult relationships with her father and her “best friend”. She loves her father and knows he loves her, but at the same time she’s very careful not to let him affect her too much. She tries very hard not to be like her parents (her mother left them when she was five or so, and her dad has become a serial dater ever since), as if separating her identity from theirs will prevent her from making the same mistakes. Lauren’s “best friend” is Katie and here is how Lauren describes their friendship in chapter 1: “When we first met we used to talk endlessly about how we’d get boyfriends and what we’d do when we had them, and it was only when we actually got boyfriends that I realized without the acquiring of them to talk about, we had absolutely nothing in common. And that sucks, because [she’s] my best friend.” This dynamic changes a bit throughout the novel but nevertheless there is no Big Realization Moment in which Lauren realizes that she can actually have deep, soul-searching conversations with Katie and she’d been just prejudiced and now they’ll be BFF forever ever.
Lauren’s life, in a way, is rather average. And that’s what makes it so relatable. Most of us don’t have a soul-sister or soul-brother as a best friend in high school. We don’t usually meet our life’s companion in the concrete box of education, either. (Although it could be argued that is exactly what the ending of the book implies.)
Oh, and Lauren plays the clarinet. I am, for unknown reasons, fond of characters who play an instrument.

The Bad Queen8. The Bad Queen: Rules and Instructions for Marie-Antoinette by Carolyn Meyer
The sixth book in the Young Royals series (although they don’t have to be read in order!) takes us to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and to the young Antonia just as her betrothal to the French dauphin (later Louis XVI) is being considered. We see the willful and rather awkward 13-year-old girl undergo a painful physical transformation and instructions in French and the French etiquettes. We see her marriage to the dauphin Louis-Auguste and how she learns to tread the treacherous water of the French court. (We also see her unable to manage the inaction in the bedroom with her husband.) Death of Louis XV, becoming the queen, one expensive project after another (Petit Trianon, Le Hameau, the theater, etc.), Axel von Fersen, becoming a mother, scandal and gossip (always scandals and gossips), rising unrest, July 14th 1789, death by guillotine.
Going against the title of the series (Young Royals), Carolyn Meyer accompanies Marie-Antoinette until her death. She did the same thing with Anne Boleyn in Doomed Queen Anne, and Duchessina wasn’t young either when Duchessina ended, but the sheer length of this volume (414 pages compared to 228 and 258 pages, respectively) still stood out.
I usually read historical fiction to get acquainted with that particular period in the particular country. It often piques my interest in the era and country, and I find myself looking up additional information afterwards. Historical accuracy isn’t my main motivation although I haven’t found Carolyn Meyer to be an exaggerating type (aside from some romantic sidelines). Her other books in the series include Bloody Mary, Elizabeth I, Anne Boleyn, Catherine of Aragon and Catherine de’ Medici. Some of these women have gained notoriety in their later life. The author’s aim, I understand, is to explore the difficult and often life-threatning childhoods of these young royals and how they might have shaped their adult lives. I found I could empathize with these teenage girls in all cases except one (I just don’t like Anne Boleyn) – and now Marie-Antoinette. I have no sympathy for her disinterest and ignorance in the public life, and that clockmaker husband of hers is no better. Did she deserve to die? No. Was I moved by her ordeal of dealing with the court fashion, distrustful French people, pouring heaps of money on renovating buildings, enjoying card games and theaters? Nope. The author’s ability to create details and atmosphere, however, was impeccable as usual.

 

Classics Club Challenge #9: The Fellowship of the Ring

The Fellowship of the RingThe Lord of the Rings Part I: The Fellowship of the Ring
by J. R. R. Tolkien
first published in 1954
first read March 8th 2015 – August 6th 2015

I am a hopeless book-vs-adaptation-comparer. As such, thoughts of “whoa, this did not happen in the movie/book” and “they are taking their sweet time in the book” and “it’s certainly less gory” were running rampant while reading The Fellowship of the Ring. Movies and books, different mediums and all that. So while the screen adaptation focused more on the plot and expanded on each and every fighting scene, the book is more content to create an… atmosphere.

You know that Tolkien created this huge universe of Middle-earth, complete with thousands of years’ worth of history. Kingdoms in the various corners have been founded, battled over, lost and re-built. There were other great battles before the War of the Ring, and there probably will be more after it. The Third Age is coming to an end as we pick up The Lord of the Rings.
With the help of his omniscient narrative, Tolkien describes events from the recent and not-so-recent past, as if giving a lesson here and there on the history of Middle-earth. The characters also mention in their “speeches” names that are long forgotten and places that do not exist anymore, and so on. There are different dialects of the Elven tongue and dwarf words and names that I have no clue how to pronounce. You have to be prepared to flip to the back of the book for the five-page map to follow the hobbits’ and later the Company’s journey.
All of this can be annoying, or maybe boring or plain confusing. Oddly enough, I just found The Fellowship of the Ring cozy. It’s certainly not a happy story full of sunshine and dancing under the moon. Yet the relaxed pace, the descriptions of all the forests and rivers and lands they cross and the uncorrupted hearts of the fellowship were strangely comforting. Because the characters talk and think and prioritize in a way that is so different from ours, it was easy not to get attached to any of them and just to simply follow their journey.
If there is one thing that makes my hackles rise, it’s the absence of any female characters who talk more than three sentences – save Galadriel. But even the powerful elven queen does not entirely escape the traditional roles imposed on women: she and her ladies spin and make the cloaks for the Company, which is a great “honour”. Arwen – the love of Aragorn’s life and all that – sits demurely at her father’s home and hardly speaks a word while her brothers ride out to scout for the enemies. The whole saving-Frodo-and-drowning-the-Ringwraiths episode? Uh-uh, not in the book. Oh, and when Aragorn dies of old age in the Fourth Age (after ruling as a wise king for many many decades), his body is set up for respectable viewing and mourning. What does Arwen do afterwards? Says good-bye to her children, goes into some woods and dies quietly, and NO ONE EVEN KNOWS WHERE HER CORPSE IS. Undómiel, Evenstar of her people, and all praise that follows – and she slips off to the woods to die because her husband of a hundred years or so has died? And apparently no one cares? Ugh.

Despite this huge oversight of the half of the populations of his creatures, Tolkien’s writings make me more and more curious about the Middle-earth and all that has happened on it. Reading The Lord of the Rings without looking up a name, a place or an object is akin to walking in the dim light with your arms outstretched. You miss the many little details that can be patched up together to make a whole picture.