Reading Now …

So when I said in my last post that I was playing a game of readaholic catch-up, I wasn’t exaggerating. I’ve become of those people who gets jittery and feels like there’s something missing when I haven’t got a book on the go, even if I’m only progressing at a snail’s pace of a page or two a day.

I think one reason I enjoy reading so much is because I’m a worrier. (What a shocking statement; I bet you didn’t see that one coming 😉 ).

So yes, I worry about a ton of stuff, most of which is completely, unequivocally, 100% out of my control; in other words, all my worrying is time well spent.

(Yes, that last bit is sarcasm, which probably required no clarification; I don’t think I have any readers from Betelgeuse?)*

Anyway … diving headlong into a book is the one sure way to get me out of my head and to quiet those worrying thoughts.

The second reason I’ve become such a reader is because people’s lives — the intricate details, the nitty gritty hows and whys — provide an endless source of fascination to me. And while yes, I do know, thank you very much, that characters in a book aren’t *actually* real, to me … well … they really kind of are. So sitting amongst them and immersing myself in their lives, while curled up in a comfortable chair with a cup of tea, is my idea of one of the coziest, most gezellig, ways to spend an evening.

I seem to go on reading jags. I went through a Margaret Atwood phase, and then a prolonged jog through medieval English historical fiction. There was a longish smattering of bestsellerish stuff (John Irving and Jean M. Auel and Diana Gabaldon). There were the books I read alongside my husband (Douglas Adams, Alexandre Dumas and George Orwell). There are the classics, a seemingly endless list that I’ve been dipping into and out of ever since our daughter was born 19 years ago: Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, E.M. Forster, Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy… There’s been a lot of non-fiction, of the environmental and nutritional variety. And then there’s the children’s and the YA I’ve read, not aloud, but alongside our kids, after or before they’d read the book, so I’d be able to have discussions with them. (And quite often, truth be told, the children’s and YA have not only not been read aloud, they’ve not even been read alongside … but simply just because).

Currently, I’m on a World War II historical fiction jag, and the reason I find this narrow genre so interesting is two-fold:

First, it makes me enormously grateful to be living in a time and place where there’s peace and good government, as well as sufficient food, clothing and shelter. It also hits me at a very personal level, because both my mother and father, as well as my father-in-law, were children in Europe during the war.

My mother is from a small town in The Netherlands, just outside Rotterdam, and she was eight years old when the war began in 1939. She huddled under desks and church pews during bombings; she had to try to sleep in dank, over-crowded cellars; she felt the fear engendered by the German soldiers occupying the community centre directly next door; she went hungry in the latter years of the war when much of the Dutch population faced starvation.

My father, on the other hand, was only two years old when the war began. His German family was living on a farm in Prussia (an area which today is encompassed by both Germany and Poland), and he had older siblings who were part of the Hitler Youth. When the tide of the war turned, his family didn’t heed the warnings to leave; their farm was overrun by Polish soldiers who rounded them up and transported them to a work camp. My father-in-law’s war story is eerily similar to my father’s: he was the same age as my father, also living on a farm in Prussia, and with an older brother in the Hitler Youth, but when the warnings came to his widowed mother to skedaddle, they did. He was seven years old when he and his brother and mother made their way — by foot, by Red Cross train, by hitching rides with anyone who would take them — to relatives in Austria.

Experiences such as these can’t help but colour a person for the rest of their lives, and reading accounts that resemble the conditions in which my parents found themselves as children allows me to understand them more fully, and has helped me come to terms with events that occurred in my own childhood.

The second reason historical books of this vintage fascinate me is because I’m keenly interested in knowing how people used to live. I’m not so naïve as to wish to go back in time and live in a different era (I’m rather fond of medical advances such as antibiotics and such), and while I do have a soft spot for ALL historical fiction, I do feel there could be something to be learned from this relatively recent history. You know, before we embarked upon this age of consumerism and globalization, before plastics and convenience and disposability became so ubiquitous and so pervasive that no one can seem to fathom how to hold a school dance without supplying flats of bottled water and dollar store trinkets…

(Whoops … I guess that’s a mini-rant; my apologies).

So … the books I’ve been reading:

  • Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson. I loved this book, not just for the historical details, but also for the back and forth, “what if you could re-live your life” aspect, which was a fascinating concept for me.
  • The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. I read this alongside our daughter; we both loved it, although it is a very sad read.
  • Sarah’s Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay. This seems to be one of those must-reads that people either love or hate. I hated it.
  • The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje. I wanted to love this book, but I couldn’t quite get there. It’s definitely not a hate, but is somewhat of a meh.
  • Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut. Our 16 year-old son read this for English last year, so I read it after he did. While I didn’t love it, it was a very compelling read, and the time travel made it very interesting.
  • All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. What can I say? I absolutely loved this book. The gorgeous writing, the back and forth in time, the separate stories that came together in the end, the mystery of the gemstone …
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. This one had me with the title alone; I loved this post-war story, which is told solely through correspondence between the characters.
  • The Occupied Garden, by Kristen den Hartog and Tracy Kasaboski. I happened across this book while buying stroopwafels with our youngest ( 🙂 ) at a small Dutch deli. It’s a memoir of a market gardener and his wife and family, set in The Netherlands during the war, and ohmygosh hello?! … my own Dutch grandfather was a market gardener who had an orchard and a large vegetable garden behind his house. So, even though I’ve been trying to limit my book purchases and use the library more often, this was one I had to buy. I’m only halfway through, but I’m enjoying it immensely.

I’d love to know what you’re reading now, or, conversely, if you’re not reading, I’d love to hear about that, too. There was a point, when the kids were young, that I hit a wall; it felt almost as though I was reading my life away. It may not look like it (from the list above), but I don’t read ALL the time. On that note, I’m thinking my next post will be about knitting … because that’s gezellig too.


* Shameless literary reference: Betelgeuse is a planet in Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; they don’t have sarcasm there. I feel immensely sorry for them and can’t quite fathom how they manage 😉

 

16 thoughts on “Reading Now …

  1. Thank you so much for this list! I just finished All the Light We Cannot See and I’m in that lost/bereft place I’m always in when I’ve just finished a book that built a whole new world for me to live in. I think I’ll try Life After Life next.

    I’m currently in a phase where most contemporary fiction doesn’t interest me at all. Maybe because I don’t want to spend much time in today’s world? I think I prefer my fiction to be a little old-fashioned, in terms of writing style. I was listening to a Famous Author on NPR recently reading an excerpt from his latest work, and I just thought blah, blah, blah who cares about your character and the navel into which he is gazing? He was just so consumed with…nothing that really matters much. Maybe I like WWII fiction because it reminds me of how good I’ve got it? (I also LOVED The Book Thief!) Reading AtLWCS, I couldn’t stop thinking of how soft my life has been in many respects, how little fear and suffering I’ve known. So many people in this world (today, and always) have experienced such horrors. For some reason, that’s what I am drawn to these days. Other seasons of my life have been much different.

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    1. I too, felt bereft after finishing All the Light; I feel that way after nearly every really good book I read. It’s sort of a good kind of sadness though, don’t you think? I always feel like my own life has been made richer by a good story, so it’s kind of like the proverb, “it’s better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all”.

      I have no interest either, in reading contemporary fiction. It’s either got to be historical, or conversely, it’s got to be futuristic (but not pure sci fi, Douglas Adams excluded). I’m a sucker for a good dystopian novel that makes me think what if

      I seem to be drawn to the bleak stuff as well. Thomas Hardy is one of my favourite authors, even though his characters all seem to lead very tough lives. I’ve been sitting here for 15 minutes, trying to figure out why I would want to read sad, bleak books, ones that don’t all have happy endings (although some of the books on the above list certainly do, and I confess I got teary-eyed when things turned out all right in the end). But I’m kind of stumped. It feels like there should be another reason, beyond gratitude at the comparison, but I can’t quite work out what it might be…

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      1. So I think I may have come up with a reason, slightly different than gratitude, for my propensity for choosing bleak books. I think it has to do with grounding my expectations. Bleak historical books make me realize that although we (middle class first worlders) have been led to hold huge expectations from life (we’ll find our one true love, a great job, have perfect kids, a beautiful home, travel the world, eat a rich diet, have the medicine to cure all our ills; in other words, we can have it ALL … ), the possibility that all that wonderful perfection could actually happen (and I’m sure it does for some people) is quite a recent phenomenon. Now, I’m not saying a dark book would make me put up with abuse, or turn me into a doormat, simply because once-upon-a-time women had absolutely no recourse for abuse or I’m-going-to-treat-you-like-a-doormat type-behaviour, BUT I think there is something to be said for acknowledging the fact that for most of humankind’s existence, for most people, life was a hard, unhappy, scrabbling, downright sh*@$y type of existence. I think I lean toward bleak books because they’re my antidote to all the apparent “you-can-have-it-all” perfection I see on the internet and elsewhere. Maybe this means I would rather feel sad than jealous….

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      2. Yes. To everything you’ve said here. I don’t find those books sad so much as grounding. They ground me not just in gratitude; as you say, there’s more to it than that. More to my place in history, in the world. I am a small speck. We all are. These other kinds of stories help me keep my own existence in perspective, and I appreciate that. It sounds depressing, but it tends to be the opposite for me.

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  2. So many good ones! I loved the first half of Sarah’s Key (though it left me gutted) but hated a good chunk of it.

    I read “A Man Called Ove” last weekend and it was a very sweet book. I tend to steer away from the darker books these days (or at least try) because I think they tend to make me more angsty and anxious.

    YA/children’s lit is a staple of my book diet. I have a whole bookcase devoted to it for my children when they are ready, but also because I’ve found that some of the best writing and definitely some of the best themes are found in titles like “The Chosen” or “Where the Red Fern Grows” or the Harry Potter’s.

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    1. Oh, this was what I was hoping for with this post…some titles to add to my list! Thanks for sharing what you’ve just read, Kate 🙂

      With regards to Sarah’s Key, I should maybe clarify: I thought the story of Sarah was well-done — to a point: I thought it was an important bit of history to bring to light, but I almost felt manipulated by the ending, kind of like I was reading Jodi Picoult. (I read My Sister’s Keeper when it first came out, alongside our daughter, and it felt like I was being yanked around emotionally; that was my one and only Jodi Picoult 😉 ). So there was that aspect, but in addition, I absolutely couldn’t stand the parallel modern day story and the character of Julia, so that really wrecked the book for me.

      I think I may have hit upon the reason for choosing sad, bleak books — I’ll reply to myself above, hopefully tonight…

      And … totally agree with you about the children’s and YA literature!

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  3. Ha, well, The English Patient is among my top 3-5 favorite books of all time, so maybe you don’t want book recommendations from me!

    However, for WWII literature I can’t help mentioning Atonement, by Ian McEwan, which I also love unrestrainedly. It’s bleak, to be sure, but IMO certain aspects of the book are ambiguous enough to throw into relief just how desperately we humans crave redemption, which is really interesting. (And also, redemption through storytelling.)

    I love reading, but I’ve read precious few books since my daughter was born. I do try to keep up with The New Yorker. But, I recently subscribed just to the digital edition (because, environmentalism) and I find that it is harder for me to focus when I’m reading on my iPad — to easy to check Facebook, click on that email that just came in, etc. So, some cognitive retraining is in order.

    I’m looking forward to your knitting post!

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    1. Atonement is now on the list — thank you, Sarah 🙂

      I think my problem with The English Patient stemmed largely from overly-high expectations; my copy has “One of the finest Canadian novels ever written” (Maclean’s) on the back cover. While there were parts of the novel I found beautiful, there were other parts which left me confused, and frankly, feeling as though I wasn’t quite smart enough to be reading it. When I got to the end, I felt rather ambiguous, and as though I should perhaps read it again, immediately, in order to be able to “see” what everyone else saw. But the problem with playing catch-up is that there’s a sense of what feels almost like urgency: there are so many books I haven’t yet read, so I’d better just move along…

      In a way, this sense of urgency was heightened by the birth of our kids, and I seemed to go the opposite way you went when your daughter was born. Perhaps this is because I was reaching for intellectual stimulation as a SAHM, but it’s probably more to do with the fact that once I stopped working as a pharmacist (and felt the relief of leaving a profession I didn’t enjoy) I decided I could at least try to approximate a rectification of a wrong-turning, career-wise. I couldn’t go back to school to earn an English degree, but I could read the books I might have had I done that (hence the classics jag right after our daughter was born). I’ve told myself that all my reading was important because I was “doing research”; don’t “they” all say that if you haven’t read you’re unlikely to be able to write? (But hmmm … I wonder when it is that I’ll think I’ve done sufficient research? 😉 ).

      I imagine it takes a fair amount of time to keep up with The New Yorker. My husband reads The Economist and finds that between work and family, it’s all he can do to keep up with that, never mind an actual book as well. And for what it’s worth, you’re not alone in finding it harder to focus on reading when on the iPad, versus a book. I’ve tried downloading e-books from the library, but I too, am far too easily distracted by all the other stuff I can check that will “only take a minute” … half an hour to an hour and a rabbit hole later, I might finally emerge and get back to the reading!

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      1. When my kids were born, I couldn’t read anything that required any kind of sustained concentration. I was dismayed! I was just too, too wrecked (physically and emotionally) from carrying, birthing, and keeping alive two premature beings. And then continuing to work 6 months later. In fact, it’s only in the last few years that I feel able to go back to doing the kind of reading I did before becoming a mother. Seasons for everything, right? 🙂

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      2. I’ve always been absolutely awed by women who had to somehow manage twins (or, the unthinkable, triplets). And for your babies to be premature as well … ! I did a pharmacy practicum in the NICU and saw how absolutely raw and heart-wrenching the experience was for parents; my heart goes out to you for having gone through something like that, Rita. Seasons for everything, absolutely, and sometimes the only thing we can do is to keep breathing …

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    2. I second Sarah’s recommendation of Atonement. I love Ian McEwan (which does kind of contradict my whole I tend to steer away from the the dark books but it’s only in the last two years that I’ve found myself needing lighter reading. As Rita comments, seasons).

      Also, for above I just wanted to say YES! You pin point exactly how I feel about Sarah’s Key. I loved young Sarah’s story, but hated the current day storyline. And absolutely felt manipulated. Sometimes I can handle that but when it seem so blatant, I find it frustrating. I felt that with the Time Traveler’s Wife. I really loved the story and all the interesting ways their lives intersected but there were parts that felt almost as if the author was saying “and now you need to feel this now” and I hate that.

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      1. So I have to admit I’m glad you felt exactly the same way about Sarah’s Key — whenever I read something I’m “supposed” to love, and DON’T, I nearly always end up wondering “what the heck is wrong with me, that I didn’t like a book that EVERYONE liked” (which is a really silly way to think; of course different people are going to have different takes on books! It probably means I still need to work on growing a backbone 😉 ). I’m glad to be steered away from The Time Traveler’s Wife. That one — because I’m rather fond of the whole idea of time travel — was one I probably would have picked up eventually. Now I know it would probably just irritate me …

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  4. I’m currently reading At Home by Bill Bryson, a long and chatty hodgepodge history of how modern ways of living and housekeeping came about, filled with very interesting anecdotes.

    Something about pregnancy and breastfeeding makes me want to read things I’ve never read before. It’s been especially pronounced with my second child; at least 75% of books I’ve read since she was conceived were new to me, and she’s 16 months old now. But I did recently reread Shake Hands Forever by Ruth Rendell, which I’d read for the first time just over a year ago, because when I reviewed 28 new-to-me books last December I found that I couldn’t remember that one beyond the opening scene! I think it’s because I was reading it mostly in the middle of the night at the stage when I still had to sit up and have a light on to nurse the baby. I thoroughly enjoyed it the second time–very twisty plot! Is 1960s England non-contemporary enough for you? 🙂

    You could link this post to the “What I’ve been reading” linkup at modernmrsdarcy.com tomorrow and probably get a few new readers–as well as read other people’s posts and get new ideas for what to read!

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    1. Too funny — a good friend of mine is also reading At Home and is loving it 🙂 . Definitely putting that one on the list! Have you read Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything? Both my husband and I read it — and loved it — several years ago, and our daughter read it this summer and found it fascinating too.

      I seem to have a soft spot for anything English, so even if I considered 1960 to be too modern (and I don’t think I do; I don’t really have a line drawn in the sand) I would probably make an exception for a good English novel 😉

      Thanks for the info on the modern mrs. darcy website; it looks like it’s got all sorts of interesting lists and recommendations!

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