Thursday, June 19, 2014

Intellectual Reads

So I tossed around the idea of reviewing some of the books I was assigned to read this past semester in grad school, but I'd already written enough about all of them elsewhere to not really want to rehash it here on the blog, and I kind of figured that none of my readers would be really interested in full length reviews of Romantic poetry anthologies, so I've been waffling on whether to review anything or not. I mean, is anyone really interested in pleasure reading more academic stuff?

Then, I saw Modern Mrs. Darcy's post on her Summer Syllabus, the idea being she wants to read something that makes her a little bit smarter this summer, and I thought, you know what? I read some really interesting stuff this semester, and I bet maybe someone out there would be interested in reading these things too. But, for your sake, I've paired it down to the five most interesting (at least to me) books I read last semester, and the ones I feel the most confident in recommending for general (albeit, intellectual) consumption.

What I think is most funny about this list is that they all come from one course I took called The History of Narrative. I actually hated this class (the professor was terrible, and the class took place in a restaurant, which you might think sounds awesome but I was first trimester pregnant and they served seafood and I associate all memories of class discussions with intense nausea and the desire to die), but the reading list was incredible. So, without further ado, here are my current recommendations for some intellectual reads:

1. On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction by Brian Boyd. Okay, the concept with this one is that the human fascination with stories (and in particular, fiction stories) is the product of evolutionary adaptation, and that stories actually serve a biological function in giving us an advantage over other species. I mean, how fascinating an idea is that? We are biologically programmed to need stories? That's an idea I can totally get behind.

But as interesting as I found this one, I also struggled with it quite a bit. As a literature person, I've never studied evolution much beyond the basics, and I must admit that Brian Boyd's whole approach-- that pretty much the entire branch of Humanities (including religion) evolved as a biological adaptation-- felt a bit soulless to me. I definitely don't agree with 100% of what he argues in this book, but I still found the science and the concepts fascinating. This one made me stretch and grapple and think about really big ideas, and I appreciate it for that.

2. Journey of the Universe by Brian Thomas Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker. This book is a quite a bit shorter than any other on this list, and was actually written for a lay audience. Let's see, how to describe this one? This book is a good follow-up to the Origin of Stories because this is where the Humanities comes back into science. Or something. It's a bit weird, and I might even say mystical. It's kind of the history of the universe and lightly covers everything from the Big Bang to star formation and galaxies and atoms and life and all of that, but with this grand idea of making human existence meaningful (instead of soulless and accidental). So, it's kind of like the religion of science without a God. Being a religious person who believes in God (and science, the two are not mutually exclusive), I thought some of this was downright ridiculous, but as far as a synopsis of the history of the universe and a little light physics, it was quite interesting. Worth a read at least.

3. The Divine Comedy: Inferno by Dante Alighieri. For those of you who aren't very familiar with The Divine Comedy, this masterwork is actually divided into three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. We had to read the whole thing for class, and it's really quite epic and brilliant and all of that. But I will say, Inferno is by far the most interesting of the three. Let's just face it, it's more fun to read about the sinners in hell than to read about the holy angels who do nothing but sing in heaven (seriously, Dante's version of Paradise sounds downright catatonic to me). So, if you feel the need to cross this classic piece of literature off your life bucket list, take it from me and stick to the Inferno.

4. Parallel Myths by J. F. Bierlein. I've always enjoyed mythology and those types of ancient stories, and before taking this class I had a vague notion that there were certain themes or tropes that show up in a lot of mythology from different cultures, but this book! I had no idea how many similar stories there were across cultures. It was fascinating, in almost an eerie kind of way. Bierlein goes through by category (creation stories, flood stories, end-of-time stories, etc.) and retells myths from cultures all over the world, and then offers a fascinating discussion about why so many cultures share such parallel myths. There are all sorts of theories, ranging from some sort of shared human conscious (that's Freud for you) to dispersion (although that one's kind of been disproved) to simple mystery. If you are even a little bit interested in mythology, this one is a great collection, with a fascinating discussion to boot.

5. Ramayana by Valmiki, translated by William Buck. Supposedly, this translation of the Ramayana is more accessible and reader friendly than other translations. I haven't read other translations, but I thought I'd let you know in case you pick up a different version and wonder why in the world I would ever recommend this one.

So, what I knew about this epic Hindu religious poem before taking this class consisted of the excerpts from A Little Princess and what I gleaned from a funny cultural experience on my first date with my husband (that's a story for another day). I didn't know that this was probably the most popular and influential story of all time, having been told and retold for centuries across the entire southern continent of Asia. In fact, it's considered one of the few "living" epics today, as this story is still being told in traditional and modern formats (apparently there's a TV miniseries that nearly shut down the subcontinent of India when it first aired). At it's core, it's an epic love story between a husband and wife, and while it doesn't necessarily have the happiest of endings, it is a great story. If you have any interest in expanding your cultural horizons and learning more about Indian culture, this is a great place to start.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A Few Bookish Tidbits

You guys, June is killing me. I mean, how are we over half way through this month? Where is my lazy summer going? (Oh yeah, I might be sleeping it away).

Anyway, here are a few bookish things from the internet I've been reading/pondering/interested in recently.

1. This article from Slate made the rounds on my Facebook feeds a couple of weeks ago, and I can't stop thinking about it because it made me so angry. Adults should be ashamed to read YA literature!? Obviously, this sad author has lost touch with her childhood, her innocence, and any sense of decency, and I feel bad for her. It's not that I love The Fault in Our Stars so much (I don't), but I will stand up unequivocally for the value of young adult and children's literature. Take, for instance, this paragraph:

Most importantly, these books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction. These endings are for readers who prefer things to be wrapped up neatly, our heroes married or dead or happily grasping hands, looking to the future. But wanting endings like this is no more ambitious than only wanting to read books with “likable” protagonists.
How sad! How sad indeed that adults are only allowed "emotional and moral ambiguity" and we should feel ashamed to believe that stories actually should have endings. Excuse me if I believe in happy endings.

2. This little list from NPR last week made me super happy. I can't say I remember the show Gullah Gullah Island, but Reading Rainbow? Wishbone? These were the shows that defined my childhood! There are so many books today that I can't look at without remembering that little dog costumed as the main character. Also, my husband can still sing the entire theme song to Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. Yep, we had some quality public programming in those days.

3. You guys, I need my favorite bookish bloggers to stop posting summer reading guides, because my to-read list has exploded recently, even as my time devoted to actual reading has plummeted. It's a conundrum for sure. Nevertheless, if you find yourself looking for that next great read this summer, my two favorite guides so far have been this one by Janssen at Everyday Reading and this one by Modern Mrs. Darcy.

4. Okay, so I was totally late to the Lizzie Bennett Diaries bandwagon, but after finally stumbling across it I binge watched all 100 episodes over two days (each episode is only five to ten minutes). It was a fantastic web-video-blog (whatever the word is) adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and I loved it, so I was delighted to discover Emma Approved last month (still late to the game, but only half-way through this time), which is obviously an adaptation of Emma. I think this new series is a bit less charming (it took me a lot of episodes to warm up to Emma), but I still highly recommend it to all those Austen-obsessed fans out there. However, they're only on episode 53 right now, so you might want to wait until all the episodes have been released and binge watch it all at once (a highly satisfying, if time consuming experience). Either way, it's a fun way to experience Austen.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Summer Reading Wish-List

I'm not calling them goals, because, well, the likelihood of me getting through this list is pretty slim.

This whole year has been one struggle after another when it comes to reading for pleasure. First, it was all that assigned reading during the semester. But now that school's over and I'm clawing out of the brain fog that is a first trimester of pregnancy, I've found I have a new impediment to pleasure reading: my two-year old.

You see, just back a few months ago, he was a pretty quiet kid. I mean, his vocabulary and language skills were fine and average and nothing to worry about, he was just more of the strong (re: extremely chubby) silent type. He was pretty good at self-play and entertaining himself for little stretches of time, so I could listen to audio books while cleaning the bathroom or making dinner.

But here we are at nearly two-and-a-half years, and I find I have a little chatter box on my hands. Somewhere in the past few months, his language ability just exploded, and he has found the need to exercise his newly developed skill by talking. All day long. To me. Because there is no one else around. I'm not complaining here. His little chatter is completely adorable most of the time (even if it is a bit repetitive), and I'm thrilled to have this little human being actually communicate with me, but... I've found that he actually expects me to listen. And talk back to him. All day long. And this has really cut in to my ability to listen to audio books.

I'll be tidying up the bathroom and hear from the other side of the house, "Doing, Mama?" and if I don't shout back, "I'm cleaning the bathroom" that little kid will hunt me down and repeat his question endlessly until I finally pull out an ear-bud and talk to him. And this happens about every five minutes all day long. Most of the time, he doesn't ask questions, he just expects me to repeat back to him whatever he's just said simply to make sure I'm paying attention.

Ah, the price of being a responsible, involved parent. Can't just ignore my kid because I'm in the middle of a good book.

Also, I used to get a lot of good reading in during nap times and in the evenings. But I'm pregnant now. When my toddler sleeps, I sleep. So like I said, finding time to read has been a real challenge.

But! This new impediment has not stopped me from adding multiple books to my to-read list on the daily, and putting multiple holds request in at my local library. I've got high hopes for summer reading, even if my showing in May was abysmal. So, here's the dream list for those precious few moments when I actually have enough energy to sit down and read without falling asleep.

Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

I've mentioned before how both my husband and I are huge nerdy Brandon Sanderson fans. Well, this second book in his super-long high fantasy series came out in March, and you better believe we had it on pre-order. My husband devoured it in a matter of days, but I waited patiently until the end of the semester (how responsible of me). I'm actually already mostly through with it, but... the thing is a beast. 1,200 pages, almost. It's taking me a lot longer than it should (see all the reasons listed above), but I will finish the thing. Even if it kills me.

John Adams by David McCullough

If you remember, I started this one last year, and made it my New Year's Reading Goal to finish it by July. Which is now a month away. Gulp.
Cress by Marissa Meyer

Did this one really come out at the beginning of February? And I haven't read it yet? If you remember, I fell in love with this series last fall, and I've been dying to read this book since finishing up Scarlet, so if I don't get around to it soon I just might have to take some drastic measures. Like ship my kid off to the grandparents for a week or something.

The Gift of Giving Life by multiple authors

Yep, another pregnancy book. And there will probably be more before the summer's through. A friend lent this one to me and I'm kind of excited about it. From what I understand, it's a collection of essays on pregnancy and birth from an LDS perspective, and I've heard good things so I'm pretty interested.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

I've heard a lot of people recommend Kate Morton over the years, but I have yet to read anything by her. This is partially due to the fact that my local library seems to have a pretty pathetic selection of her stuff available for electronic download, so I finally bit the bullet and put the hard copy of this one on hold. We'll see if I find time for it, but I'm certainly interested.

Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley

I can't remember where I first heard about this one, but after reading the summary I just knew this was right up my alley. A traveling bookstore historical fiction novel? Sounds perfect. I really hope I get around to this one.

There are more, so many more on that darn to-read list of mine. Hopefully I will get through more than just what I've listed here this summer, but honestly, at my current rate of a book a month, it will be a miracle. Still, it's nice to have a list to motivate me.

What are you planning to read this summer?