Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Recently Read

I've set myself a pretty lofty goal this year—reading a book a week! Adolescent-aged me would probably roll my eyes at this...growing up I'd read as many as a dozen books over a few weeks, but I'll admit their substance has grown and my free time for reading has shrank immensely. If you're curious how I made it through that many books in just a few weeks growing up, I'll let you in on a secret—I was kind of  an awful student in that I could frequently be found reading under the table instead of paying attention. I thought I was pretty sneaky about it, but my teachers apparently always told my mom during conferences. 

Anyway, more on my current goal. I read less during college and the few years following, making it through a book or two a month, sometimes more in the summer, but my priorities were changing (think classes, work, nights out with friends). Living in Iowa meant a lot of time spent driving to and from places, and when I first moved to NYC I didn't get much of a schedule down in terms of "me" time and time for other things—I was too busy exploring the city and, okay, having quite a few late nights...and early mornings. Now, I always keep a book tucked in my bag and I've set a bit of a schedule—my commute is about 40 minutes each day (provided the MTA isn't trying to f*ck me over), so I sip coffee and read the news on my phone on my way in. On my way home, I settle in to my current book and aim to get through at least 20 pages, sometimes more, sometimes less, depending how dense the book is, before reaching my stop. If I've a quiet night I might read a little more when I get home, and I'll usually make it through another 100 pages each weekend. Thanks to recently tackling Orwell's Collection of Essays, I'm currently a little behind on my goal...we're about 27% of the way through the year, and Goodreads tells me I'm only 19% finished with 52 books for the year! (10 books, if you're still in need of coffee to get your math skills going today.) 

If you want to follow my progress and see what's on my reading list, add me over on Goodreads! I'll be posting updates on some of my favorites throughout the year, too. 

This one was a recent book club pick—my pick, to be exact. I first spotted it at a bookstore in Brooklyn last summer after a friend's book reading, and the cover grabbed my attention. I snapped a picture (how I catalog books I want to read but haven't bought yet when I'm at the bookstore) and read the book jacket, but didn't pick it up again for a while. Then, last fall, it started showing up everywhere. Magazines, friends, other blogs were all talking about it. A quick backstory on the premise: a deadly flu wipes out (a presumed) 99.9% of the world's population and the survivors are left to rebuild. Sounds familiar, right? The author puts a special twist on the story thanks to a troupe that travels what's left of civilization 20 years later performing Shakespeare, but what's haunted me most since finishing it is how humanized and downright realistic this kind of apocalypse is. The relationships people lost and the new ones they form are relatable even now. While I hope an epidemic like this never happens, it wouldn't be entirely unheard of in today's age of air travel and antibiotic-resistant infections. It'll definitely make you think twice about being near anyone coughing on public transit for a while.

I've read one other James Salter novel before, a more recent release called All That Is. I'd seen A Sport and a Pastime at the bookstore before and opted to pick it up recently. If you're not familiar with his work, I'm not sure I'd recommend this as the first book—it was originally published in the 1960's, and the style isn't like that of contemporary novels. That being said, however, Salter is an incredibly gifted writer. Each sentence on its own may not feel remarkable, or even entirely make sense, but combined they weave an intricate, beautiful web of language that completely surrounds you as you read. The plot revolves around a young couple, the boy an ex-pat of sorts from the US, the girl from a small town in Southern France, set nearby. Fair warning, this novel is a little, ahem, x-rated in some ways. I'll also admit one thing that really did bother me was the sexist sort of way that Salter describes the girl, but not the boy. Content aside, though, the writing is some of the most beautiful I've read in a long time.

This was my second Neil Gaiman book. I first read American Gods a few years back, intrigued by the storyline but not the usual audience for sci-fi and similar genres (side note: if you haven't read this, I highly recommend it, especially if you're into ancient mythology and cultures). Gaiman, though, is a master at blending real life with something more than just sci-fi, a sort of old-world mysticism and mythology. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is another great example of this, although it's really more of a novella than full-fledged novel; I think I read it in about two days. Set in England, a man returns to where he grew up for a funeral (though who for is not made entirely clear) and finds himself wandering a route he once walked as a child, drawn back into a memory he can't quite remember is real or not. For me to say much more would probably get confusing as I'm sure I'd mess up the narrative somehow. 

A conversation with a friend late last fall about favorite authors and books reminded me that I'm not as versed in classic literature as I probably should be, so I've been making a point to mix some in as I go. I'd read precious little Orwell before this conversation took place, and since it's my friend's favorite author I thought I'd give some more a go. I started with Down and Out in Paris and London around the holidays and sped through it. These essays, on the other hand, were another story. The material is dense and at times focused on things I'm not as familiar with (Dickens and Rudyard Kipling come to mind), but other essays really hit home on some thoughts of my own and things I've tried to write about or study, so I found myself bookmarking a lot of pages that I have a feeling I'll be coming back to. 

I picked this up at a bookstore a few weeks ago when a friend and I stopped in to use the restroom after drinking too much coffee at brunch (whoops), and then we ended up browsing for nearly an hour after that. The only Didion I'd read before was a handful of essays (I'm pretty sure Goodbye to All That is a prerequisite for any 20-something who's live in NYC more than six months) and some journalism pieces. In hindsight, I probably should have picked something more uplifting after the Orwell essays—the memoir focuses specifically on the grief she felt after losing her husband somewhat suddenly, while her daughter was ill in the hospital to boot. Powerful grief is something I can relate to, having been affected pretty deeply by the loss of my grandpa exactly two years ago today. If you've ever lost a loved one, particularly a spouse or close family member, I think you'll relate and maybe find Didion's memoir somewhat comforting in its own way. 

Next up—I'm currently working my way through Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (picked up at the same time as the Didion), and my book club picked The Girl on the Train for our next read! I'd love to hear your thoughts if you've ready any of these, or suggestions for what I should try to fit in this year...I don't have a plan mapped out, I'm just winging it as I go!