Expand Your Horizons: Final Thoughts

Expand Your Horizons

I created my own reading challenge, and I stuck to it. Near as I can tell, nobody else did–I publicized it some in the first few months of the year, but I never found anyone using the hashtag. Which is fine! But slightly disappointing.

I set out to read one book a month from four categories: Classics, Nonfiction, Banned Books, and #ownvoices. And I did, so the challenge was a success in that way. But how did making an effort to read outside my comfort zone really go?

Classics

  1. Moby Dick – DNF, 1/5 stars
  2. A Room of One’s Own, 4 stars
  3. Frankenstein, 3/5 stars
  4. The Awakening, 1/5 stars
  5. The Aeneid, DNF, 1/5 stars
  6. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, 4/5 stars
  7. My Ántonia, 5/5 stars
  8. The Once and Future King, 3/5 stars
  9. The Trial, 1/5 stars
  10. Dracula, 2/5 stars
  11. 2001: A Space Odyssey, 5/5 stars
  12. The Maltese Falcon, 5/5 stars

Didn’t finish two, rated 1/4 of them at 5 stars but 1/3 of them at 1 star. Mixed bag, those classics.

Nonfiction

  1. The Art of Language Invention, 5/5 stars
  2. Your Inner Fish, 3/5 stars
  3. Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, DNF, 1/5 stars
  4. Steering the Craft, 5/5 stars
  5. The Island at the Center of the World, 3/5 stars
  6. Medieval Lives, 2/5 stars
  7. The Sixth Extinction, 5/5 stars
  8. News of a Kidnapping, DNF, unrated
  9. The Professor and the Madman, 3/5 stars
  10. The Bookseller of Kabul, 2/5 stars
  11. Under the Banner of Heaven, 2/5 stars
  12. The Snow Leopard, 1/5 stars

Didn’t finish two, didn’t rate one because I was clearly not the target audience and couldn’t bring myself to rate it poorly. Only two of them got a single star, while three got the full five, but lots of them didn’t live up to my expectations based on my interest in their subject matter.

Banned Books

  1. Fahrenheit 451, 1/5 stars
  2. The Color Purple, 4/5 stars
  3. The Giver, 5/5 stars
  4. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, DNF, 2/5 stars
  5. Women in Love, DNF, 2/5 stars
  6. Big Breasts & Wide Hips, DNF, 1/5 stars
  7. Speak, 5/5 stars
  8. The Golden Compass, 3/5 stars
  9. The Dead Zone, 2/5 stars
  10. Grendel, 2/5 stars
  11. The Lightning Thief, 4/5 stars
  12. One Hundred Years of Solitude, DNF, 1/5 stars

Didn’t finish four, a big jump from the first two categories. Lots of 1’s and 2’s, only two rated at 5 stars. Disappointing overall.

#ownvoices

  1. Three Strong Women, DNF, 1/5 stars
  2. How Stella Got Her Groove Back, 2/5 stars
  3. The Hate U Give, 3/5 stars
  4. The House on Mango Street, 2/5 stars
  5. Women of the Silk, 3/5 stars
  6. The Death of Vishnu, 2/5 stars
  7. Daughter of Fortune, 3/5 stars
  8. The Gift of Rain, DNF, 2/5 stars
  9. Saving Fish From Drowning, 2/5 stars
  10. A Day Late and a Dollar Short, DNF, 1/5 stars
  11. A Free Life, DNF, 1/5 stars
  12. The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, 2/5 stars

The theme for these was definitely different cultures–I’ve got a mix of black, Hispanic, and Asian authors, plus one each from India and Afghanistan. What I’m sorely lacking is queer voices, though I did read some queer lit not for this challenge; also books by/about neurodivergent or disabled people. Massive oversight, though every single one of these came from my previously-owned collection (because of Mount TBR) so if I’d been choosing from books I didn’t own, my selections might have been broader. I didn’t rate any of these particularly highly, though my quibbles mostly tended to be with the quality of the writing rather than the story or message presented. Still, I could have done better, and though I don’t intend to do this challenge again formally, I am still going to make an effort to seek out quality #ownvoices works from a wider range of authors.

Overall? I’m glad I pushed myself this way, but it was a hefty challenge and I’m looking forward to a lighter 2019 without this.

This Week, I Read… (2018 #48)

171 - The Pearl that Broke its Shell

#171 – The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, by Nadia Hashimi

A potentially interesting story that got bogged down under its own weight.

The structure of two intertwined narratives is a good one for the aim of this book, but both the present and the past are treated with equal weight, though the past narrative is supposed to be an inspirational story influencing the present protagonist; it could have been shorter.

In fact, they both could have been shorter, because most pages seemed filled to the brim with dialogue that was often repetitive, either one character restating what another had said, or the protagonist in the present narrative vocalizing her internal monologue. At nearly 500 pages, this simply went on too long to really captivate me. At 2/3 of that, or maybe even 3/4, it would have been a much stronger story.

As for the tale itself? Misery piled upon misery, with our plucky heroines finding the strength to do something about it. The characterization is strong, but the plot is meandering and often predictable, at least if you’ve read any Afghani fiction before.

172 - Saga Vol. 1

#172 – Saga, Vol. 1, by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples

[Challenge note: Now that I’ve read this, I’m not sure it’s much like the “cyberpunk” I’m familiar with; I got it from a suggested list, because I’ve already read most of the genre’s classics. That being said, I’m glad I did read it even if it didn’t quite fit the task, because…]

I loved everything about this, the writing, the weirdness, the art style, the color palette. I binged it in a single sitting and I’m overjoyed that my library has all of it.

Do I have any criticisms? Not really. I have a lot of unanswered questions, but that’s the trouble sometimes with reviewing pieces of a sequential work–I can’t say much about this as a finished object, because it’s not. However, I do think it serves as a solid introduction to what I assume the story is going to be–it’s full of action and tender moments both; it’s weird as all get out but in a way I groove with; the “adult” content is present but not gratuitous or merely for shock/titillation value; and it tells the story of the birth of little Hazel, overlaid with her narration, in a way that screams both “nostalgia” and “fascinating protagonist to come.”

The rest of the series is going on my TBR immediately.

Expand Your Horizons: December TBR

Expand Your Horizons

It’s the final month! If you’ve just joined me recently, I’ve committed to reading one book each, every month in 2018, from Nonfiction, Banned Books, Classics, and #ownvoices.

Here’s my December TBR:

Horizons TBR December

  • Nonfiction: The Snow Leopard, by Peter Matthiessen
  • Banned Books: One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez
  • Classics: The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett
  • #ownvoices: The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, by Nadia Hashimi

If you’re curious about the challenge, you can find all the details here, and be sure to use the #horizonsreadingchallenge tag on your social media so everyone can see what you’re reading!

This Week, I Read… (2018 #46)

160 - The Telling

#160 – The Telling, by Ursula K. Le Guin

  • Read: 11/13/18 – 11/17/18
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

A beautiful story about storytelling as a way of life, a religion, a suppressed cultural tradition.

When I started the book, I was not aware that it was inspired by Taoism and the Chinese oppression and attempted erasure of Tibetan culture. I realized about halfway through; the message is hard to miss.

But before I was hit with the real-world symbolism, I fell in love with the Telling as it’s depicted. A religion that is not a religion in any sense of the word I understand; one that does not hold sacred any kind of deity, one that does not focus on past lives or future reward and punishment, one that reveres stories and knowledge as sacred, in as much as “sacred” is even a concept to its practitioners. While I believe an individual’s spirituality is their own business and would never interfere, I can’t help but feel that organized religion, both now and throughout history, is more often a driving force for turmoil than it is for good; Le Guin seems to share that belief with me, at least in part, because she gives future Terra a deeply tumultuous history with religion, where Unism takes over and bans science on a worldwide level, instituting a theocracy and persecuting all nonbelievers, whether they are “followers” of science, or simply devotees of another religion.

I don’t find this the least bit unbelievable, since America can’t even get its act together after more than 200 years about the separation of church and state. I don’t want religion in my government at all, no matter which religion it is.

On Aka, though, the Corporation controls society, a pro-science and -technology government that has banned not only the Telling, but all of its own culture’s history, as a way of promoting forward progress and not being held back by “superstition” and “useless tradition.” Even basic social niceties went to the chopping block; there’s no more “please” and “thank you” allowed.

Both extremes are bad, and Le Guin doesn’t mince words about it.

This book is definitely about the society more than the characters, an anthropological work that does, in many ways, remind me of the earlier great The Left Hand of Darkness. But that’s where this falls flat, comparatively; TLHoD had compelling characters AND a great society.

If I had been reading a similar story from a few of my other favorite authors, I actually would have expected a romance between Sutty and the Monitor; two people from strikingly different backgrounds coming to love/accept/understand each other. TLHoD did that too, even if it went unrequited. And while I didn’t truly expect that–their interactions of that nature were too brief and too near the end to have adequate time for a romance–the actual ending was something I didn’t expect, though perhaps I should have. That’s why I dinged the fifth star off this; after all the beauty of the story and all of my emotional investment in the world, everything just kind of …ended. Abruptly. And with only a sliver of hope that things would get better.

161 - A Free Life

#161 – A Free Life, by Ha Jin

DNF @ page 101.

This narrative has no subtlety, no room for reader interpretation. Everything is a series of recited events, occasionally with named emotions attached. “This thing happened; then that thing; Nan felt angry about it. Then his wife said something; he wondered why he married her if he didn’t love her. Then he remembered how heartbroken he was over a past lover. Then he remembered he married his wife out of convenience and hope that he could forget his past lover. Then he was angry about his job again.”

I wanted to read this because it was about an immigrant man from China struggling with how to cut ties with his past and his country of origin, how to become American, how to balance pursuit of his interest (writing poetry) with the need to bring in a salary and support his family; all in all, an experience of an immigrant’s American Dream. I thought that would be a valuable story for me to read.

However, Nan is cynical about the Dream most of the time, bent under the realities of earning a paycheck, envious of those around him doing better than he is by exploiting typical capitalist behaviors. And the story is pretty critical of capitalism, which is worth examining; America is not perfect and it is not depicted as such.

But it’s just such a trial to read, because I’m being spoon-fed everything I’m supposed to think. There is no subtlety, no room for reader interpretation; there is only one way, the author’s way, to read this. If that’s somehow a metacritical comment on Chinese government and society, well, sir, bravo; but that makes the book awfully boring to read.

162 - 2001 A Space Odyssey

#162 – 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke

I went into this more than a little worried I wouldn’t like it, compared with the movie, but boy, was I wrong.

Now, reading a fifty-year-old sci-fi novel, science and technology have moved so far beyond what they dreamed possible back then it’s amusing. The first part of the book I found almost quaint in its old-fashioned view of what the future looked like. I don’t hold that against Clarke, and it didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the book as a whole.

I have seen the movie several times, though it’s been many years since the last time. What struck me as I was finishing this, was that the book did best what the movie did worst, and vice versa. HAL in the movie was disturbingly menacing and dominated the tone of the movie; in the book, I found him far less creepy, and though his actions are still wrong, the insight we gain into his functioning (and his malfunctioning) means I see him now as a victim of mental illness far more than an evil AI gone rogue. And I actually like that better, because that makes this story less about the perils of AI and more about the journey beyond the stars, what the “odyssey” is supposed to be about.

The big plus of the book in my personal book v. movie debate is that the entire ending makes so much more sense. Kubrick’s directorial vision gave us a trippy and memorable epilogue of cosmic weirdness that I never liked. Clarke’s novelization of the screenplay gives me, instead, a clear view of the intent of Bowman’s final journey beyond space-time, beyond human consciousness, and into/beyond the stars. The final epiphany, and Bowman/Star-Child’s status as a protector of Earth, is just so much more moving when I can understand it, you know?

163 - African Nights

#163 – African Nights, by Kuki Gallmann

Boring, clumsily written, and full of exoticism. DNF @ 15%.

These aren’t even stories, they’re hardly vignettes. Two or three pages will focus on one person, spending half a page describing how strange, short, tall, thin, naked, gaunt, or simple they are. Then there will be some brief action and a revelation or epiphany about them, then the story is over.

Gallman makes constant comparisons between her beloved “Africans” and animals. While some of them, strictly speaking, seem to be complimentary, most read as demeaning and racist.

Then there’s the fact that she frequently includes “African” words without explaining their meaning or even identifying which “African” language they’re from. Yes, after looked in the back of the book, there’s a glossary, but who wants to be checking that all the time, interrupting the flow of their reading? It should be there for reference if the reader forgets what a previously-explained word means, not the sole provider of those explanations.

The fact that her experiences in Kenya and the Kenyan people she’s talking about are all disguised as “African” strikes me as an attempt to romanticize and make “mysterious” the whole continent, adding some more of that “exotic” appeal to her narrative, but it’s another sign of racism. She does mention the tribal identity of some individuals, when it’s important to their story, but other than that everything and everyone is just “African.”

Also, Gallman makes reference by name to her family members without identifying them, either, at first; how am I supposed to know who they are? I managed to infer after a few mentions that Paolo was her husband (or at least partner, because I never saw it explicitly mentioned they were married) but I had to wait quite a while before she finally outright said her children were her children. It does’t seem like that knowledge was deliberately obscured for any reason, so why not just say it outright? Because I’m not psychic, I don’t just know the names of her family.

 

Expand Your Horizons: November TBR

Expand Your Horizons

Ten months done, two to go! If you’ve just joined me recently, I’ve committed to reading one book each, every month in 2018, from Nonfiction, Banned Books, Classics, and #ownvoices.

Here’s my November TBR:

Horizons TBR November

  • Nonfiction: Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer
  • Banned Books: The Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan
  • Classics: 2001, by Arthur C. Clarke
  • #ownvoices: A Free Life, by Ha Jin

If you’re curious about the challenge, you can find all the details here, and be sure to use the #horizonsreadingchallenge tag on your social media so everyone can see what you’re reading!

This Week, I Read… (2018 #40)

139 - Dracula

#139 – Dracula, by Bram Stoker

This was a slog, and I didn’t really enjoy it. While I recognize some admirable things about the writing, the pacing is so slow that it goes beyond “creeping dread” straight into “I should be scared but I’m actually falling asleep.”

What I liked best was the strong distinction between character voices. In an epistolary novel, it’s even more critical that your various characters’ writing/speaking styles don’t sound too homogeneous, otherwise it would be easy to forget just who was the central character of any given passage.

But I lacked the revelation of story that I got from reading the other huge horror classic, Frankenstein. I don’t really feel that reading this has given me anything I hadn’t already absorbed from popular culture, especially since I’ve seen the 1992 movie adaptation twice, which is the most faithful to the original work of any version I’ve watched.

140 - The Voyage of the Narwhal

#140 – The Voyage of the Narwhal, by Andrea Barrett

I’ve always been interested both in science and in the history of science, so a book following the voyage of an arctic expedition in the 1850’s, even if it’s fictional? Yes, please.

And while I was captivated by the details of survival in the arctic, by the forming friendships and rivalries of the crew, and the constant troubles that assaulted them on the journey, then the journey was over–halfway through the book.

The entire middle section was a directionless morass of personal misery for the (arguably) main character Erasmus, and only when the assumed-dead Zeke returned home with two of the natives who saved him (a mother and her son) to tell a fantastic story of his survival, did the story pick up any speed again.

Then it’s a parable of racism, when the only way Zeke has to make any money from the badly botched journey is to put on a traveling show exhibiting the natives, and everyone else in his family is basically horrified by it (though his wife is more jealous of the time they take up than horrified by his treatment of them.) Erasmus, with a little help from the few friends he still has, rescues the boy after his mother dies of fever, and returns him home, because while they may be white Americans in the 1850’s and casually racist about a lot of stuff (and they are!) even they know what Zeke is doing is cruel and wrong.

And then it’s over.

I enjoyed the writing style, I enjoyed the science, I enjoyed the characters for the most part. I’m a little mystified by the plotting and pacing, because everything really does fall apart in the middle. Even if Erasmus is depressed and directionless, it didn’t mean the arc of the narrative had to be.

Expand Your Horizons: October TBR

Expand Your Horizons

Nine months done, three to go! If you’ve just joined me recently, I’ve committed to reading one book each, every month in 2018, from Nonfiction, Banned Books, Classics, and #ownvoices.

Here’s my October TBR:

Horizons TBR October

  • Nonfiction: The Bookseller of Kabul, by Åsne Seierstad
  • Banned Books: Grendel, by John Gardner
  • Classics: Dracula, by Bram Stoker
  • #ownvoices: A Day Late and a Dollar Short, by Terry McMillan

If you’re curious about the challenge, you can find all the details here, and be sure to use the #horizonsreadingchallenge tag on your social media so everyone can see what you’re reading!