Where in the World Wednesday

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Baggins Book Bazaar, Rochester, England; April 2, 2017

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Year in Review: What I Read and What I Hope to Read

Books! I want to read them all the time, I always have at least one on the go, and yet despite all that and my two months of unemployment at the end of the year, I still barely made it to 52 books read in 2016. I suppose the rest of life holds a lot of distractions. Anyway, I read several excellent books last year, several good ones, and a few duds. I made a concerted effort to read mostly books by women.

Let’s break it down.

Books read: 52

Books by women: 46

YA fiction: 12

Non-fiction: 8

Adult fiction: 32

Series read or completed: 3

Books read because I wanted to evoke a certain time and mood while I was in a certain place: 2 (The Paris Wife and A Moveable Feast)

My favorite fiction titles: The Interestings, A God in Ruins, How to Be Both, My Brilliant Friend, All Our Pretty Songs, The Girl with All the Gifts, Texts From Jane Eyre

My least favorite fiction titles: The Quick, Burial Rites, The Heart Goes Last, My Life Before Me, Innocent

My favorite non-fiction titles: H is for Hawk, Notorious RBG

Non-fiction titles that surprised me by being disappointing, given how much I like the authors’ other work: Bad Feminist, Scandals of Hollywood

Hard copies read: 5

E-books owned: 3

So… e-books borrowed from the library: 44!

Books written before 1900: 1

Books written 1900-2000: 13

Books written 2000-2010: 1

Books written after 2010: 37

And with an eye to the future…

For 2017, I’m hoping to read:

  • 60 books
  • at least half by authors of color
  • at least half written before 2000
  • at least a third from cultures other than the US/UK

How about you? Any books coming out this year that you can’t wait to read, or authors who you’re hoping will do a Beyonce-like surprise release?

I keep track of the books I read on Goodreads, and I also write mini-reviews of nearly every book I read on there. If you’re on Goodreads, or if you’re looking for a way to keep track of what you read/what you want to read/what your friends recommend you read, feel free to add/follow me on there. There’s a link and a list of what I’m currently reading to the left on this blog’s main page, or down at the very bottom if you’re reading on a mobile.

The Bookshelf Challenge

At the beginning of 2012 I realized I had quite a few novels on my bookshelf that I hadn’t ever read. This seemed silly, to own books that just sat there without being enjoyed. So I endeavored to read through as many of them as I could before leaving on my trip in September 2012. I have about 45 unread, and I’m hoping to read 20 or even 25 by Labor Day.

Here’s what I’ve read so far:

Kindred — Octavia E. Butler
American Salvage — Bonnie Jo Campbell
The Love Wife — Gish Jen
O Pioneers! — Willa Cather
Father Brown Stories — G.K. Chesterton
A Tramp Abroad — Mark Twain
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings — Maya Angelou
Dangerous Laughter — Steven Millhauser
Go Tell It on the Mountain — James Baldwin
The Sound and the Fury — William Faulkner
The Glass Castle — Jeannette Walls
All the Pretty Horses — Cormac McCarthy
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek — Annie Dillard
A Field Guide to Getting Lost — Rebecca Solnit

UPDATED AUGUST 4:

Okay, so I read 14 books off that shelf and a few from the library or borrowed from friends. Not my goal, but not bad. I’m packing all my books away this weekend, so that’s the end of the Bookshelf Challenge for 2012. I might revisit it when I move back to the States — whenever and wherever that might be!

Here’s a photo of the shelf post-challenge (the books on their sides are the unread ones).

Book Progress

Sometimes all it takes to do something you’d been meaning to do for awhile is to say out loud that you’re going to do it. I’ve seen my bookshelf for years and thought, “I really need to read everything I own, and not just let them sit there as decoration,” but it wasn’t til I changed the appearance of the shelf that I saw just how many books I own but have never read. I wrote last month that I was going to change that, and whaddya know, it worked.

The Before Picture

Since then, I’ve read four of the novels/short story collections on that shelf, and a Christmas present and borrowed book besides. It feels good! I’m not sure you can see my Goodreads reviews unless you have an account, but here’s a link to my Goodreads list in case you’re interested in what I thought of them.

How’s your 2012 reading list coming along?

New Year, New Books

Happy New Year! I hope this finds you all well and rested after the holiday festivities. It finds me recovering from a cold and nursing a minor head wound sustained from extreme clumsiness, but I’m still riding high on a happy Christmastime, so I’ll take what I can get.

Books are the MAP to my heart. Ba dum bum.

This year, I asked my family to not get me too many new things because I’m trying to focus on only obtaining material items that will be specifically useful on my trip, which as you all know starts in September. So rather than the usual books and CDs, I received some wonderful items off my REI wishlist, and a few fun surprises.

But normally, Christmas is a time for exchanging books and stocking up on new reads for the new year. Is this true for you? What new books have you acquired that you can’t wait to read? Is anyone switched over completely to e-readers and squirreling new books away there?

Only a few of my unread books are as old as these. Defoe, I shall tangle with you yet!

This year, I’ve made a change to my fiction bookshelf (there’s also a nonfiction/politics shelf, a plays/poetry shelf, and a YA shelf). I’ve found all the novels I own but haven’t read yet, and I’ve turned the books down so their tops stick out rather than their spines. Over the course of the next eight months, I’m going to read through as many of those as I can. I love using my local library, and I certainly love buying new books, but I think it makes sense to at least get through what I already own before acquiring more. Looks like about 45 titles — maybe I’ll make finishing half of those my goal?

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ACAM: The Time Warp Effect of Travelogues

I’ve just finished Hard Travel to Sacred Places by Rudolph Wurlitzer, and I was struck by how of its time it is. Published in 1994 (written in ’93), it’s about Wurlitzer and his wife traveling to sacred sites in Thailand, Burma, and Cambodia as they grieve the sudden death of their son. They’re American Buddhists looking for some measure of peace at various temples and shrines, and the book is full of quotes from various Buddhist texts and religious thinkers.

book cover of Hard Travel to Sacred Places by Rudy Wurlitzer

travelogue/time machine

The jacket copy on the book mentions the word “classic” more than once, and certainly Wurlitzer’s meditations on grief and loss are moving and timeless. How do we cope with the death of a child? How do we hold that unspeakably personal sadness and also hold the tragedies of deaths on a massive scale in various parts of the world? How does the death of a loved one force us to face our own mortality? Wurlitzer’s prose is simple and swift as he grapples with these questions, and I appreciated his insight even while I, as someone who doesn’t practice a religion, couldn’t quite grasp the religious framework he’s working with.

So that part was, despite the personal nature of his grief, universal and timeless. But the rest of it was so specific to 1993! He’s horrified by the commercialization of Thailand, specifically the Coke-drinking, sex trade-working, neon-lit city of Bangkok. Now, of course, the seediness and Westernization of Bangkok is well-known and few travelers are surprised by it when they visit.

In Burma–wait, he visits Burma (Myanmar). That, right there, is different from now. According to Wikipedia, about 800,000 people visited the country in 2010, compared to 1.13 million overseas tourists visiting Chicago alone in 2009. When Wurlitzer visited, Aung San Suu Kyi had only been under house arrest for a few years, after the 1990 elections that saw her party overwhelmingly elected were disregarded and the military junta decided to stop having them for awhile. Wurlitzer talks about an antiquated country, one with very little new industry or commerce since the outside world isn’t dealing with the junta (his descriptions sound like descriptions I’ve read of Cuba), and while he wonders at the brutality of the junta, he sounds relieved to be in a calm, quiet country after the electric buzz of Thailand. Nowadays, some groups advocate tourism to Burma to bring money to the local people and help them keep in contact with the outside world, but most activist groups discourage it, since the junta has forced labor in tourist destinations and the industry mostly supports the junta and not the people. A far cry from the sleepy country Wurlitzer visited almost 20 years ago.

In Cambodia in 1993, the Khmer Rouge were still a major threat; Wurlitzer heard gunfire and saw holy sculptures vandalized by people taking parts of them over the border into Thailand to sell on the black market. He describes a country in chaos, with elections right around the corner, but no one sure of who will win or who ought to win. Today, Cambodia has finally prosecuted some Khmer Rouge as war criminals, and humanitarian groups have sprung up all over the place, but its prime minister, Hun Sen, has kept in power through some very shady means, and the country is still one of the poorest in the world. The biggest change on the ground is the lack of Khmer Rouge with guns around every corner, although the mines from the civil war that could blow up at any time in 1993 can still blow up on any unlucky pedestrian today.

I enjoyed reading Hard Travel to Sacred Places both for Wurlitzer’s thoughts on death and grieving, and also for the time warp experience. It’s fascinating to read a contemporary travelogue alongside a history textbook and see how personal experience intersects with facts.

Image from here.

Stowaway Featured on International Business Times Site!

I hope you enjoyed yesterday’s post, dearest fellow travelers. If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, you can check it out at the International Business Times website! That’s right, yesterday’s post, “How Reading Disturbing YA Books Made Me a Better Person,” was selected to be featured on the Books section of the prestigious IBT website here: http://www.ibtimes.com/articles/163335/20110615/disturbing-ya-books-meghan-cox-gurdon-sherman-alexie.htm. They’re building up a neat little corner of discussion on books over there, so be sure to take a look around.

Tell all your friends and link them here so we can keep the momentum going on making Stowaway a regular destination for people interested in reading and talking about travel, literature, and social justice. As ever, thanks for reading.

How Reading Disturbing YA Books Made Me a Better Person

The lit and library corner of the Internet was all aflutter last week over a Wall Street Journal article written by Meghan Cox Gurdon on the depravity of young adult (YA) literature today, and Sherman Alexie‘s response to that article. Gurdon tries to preempt those who would contradict her by saying they’re too interested in free speech and not interested enough in the well-being of teenagers who read books about truly horrible things like rape, abduction, drug use, and child abuse. She wants to protect young readers from being exposed to the horrors of the world, and I can understand a parent’s impulse to shelter children from bad things.

Lock up the children! It's a fantastic, truth-tellin' book!

Image from http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780316013697

But as Alexie points out in his response, it’s too late for too many young readers to be sheltered from those same horrors, because they’re experiencing them themselves. He lists several examples of teens who connected with characters in his books, who saw themselves and their dark secrets in the lives of his characters, and who found hope and redemption in the pages of those books. The people who wring their hands over the lost innocence of teens who read about tough realities are the same people who can’t or won’t acknowledge how rampant those problems are in the real world, and don’t help the teenagers who are living those tough realities every day. As Alexie says, “they are simply trying to protect their privileged notions of what literature is and should be. They are trying to protect privileged children.”

I was one of those privileged children, and I will say that some of the books I read as an adolescent were utterly surprising and terrifying to me. Books about war, and child abuse, and the sudden and inexplicable death of a friend scared and confused me. I’d never had to think about these things before, because I was fortunate enough to grow up in a family and an environment that had succeeded in protecting me from experiencing or even knowing about them. I had little in my life to compare to the lives of the characters in these books, except for that reliable adolescent feeling of isolation and fretful yearning that the best YA books capture so well.

The power of books, of course, is that we don’t have to be anything like the characters to relate to them, or to care about what happens them. Books are the purest gateway to new perspectives, and an ideal way to nurture empathy. The hope is that when those of us who were lucky enough to escape trauma in our young years encounter it later in life (and we all will, since that’s the nature of things), we will have a stronger sense of commonality gleaned from the pages of those disturbing, almost always redemptive novels of our youth.

I am positive that I am a better person for having read a wide range of books when I was growing up — from L.M. Montgomery to Cynthia Voigt, from Chris Crutcher to Lloyd Alexander. I wouldn’t want to read only books about depressing topics, but nor would I want to read only books about fairytale lives and happy endings. I found Dicey in Alanna, and Will Beech in Peter, and any number of characters and themes in various books, until I had a much more complete picture of the world than my own happy upbringing had given me (and let’s be clear, I am thrilled my childhood was so happy, and I don’t think my parents should have sat me down to tell me about bad things in the world in some big speech; reading them on my own allowed me to discover them at my own pace and ask questions as I needed). Reading was sometimes overwhelming in the new worlds it opened up, but I was never sorry that I’d learned more or considered a new point of view or felt closer to my fellow teens. It only made me determined to help end the bad things I could, and to endure those that I couldn’t.

“Books written in blood,” as Alexie puts it, are necessary for all adolescents; they’re lifesavers for those already bearing the scars of experience and for those whose wounds will come later, for those needing a guide out of a dark tunnel and for those who walk with them.

Three Pro Tips on Writing

#1: Author Joanna Russ died on April 29th. She wrote science fiction and literary criticism, and I have The Female Man waiting in my Goodreads queue. Another one of her books had the best book cover:

It's sad and funny 'cause it's true

#2: Zadie Smith has shared the shortest, most to to the point, list of ten rules for writers at the Guardian:

1 When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.

2 When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.

3 Don’t romanticise your “vocation”. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no “writer’s lifestyle”. All that matters is what you leave on the page.

So far I have #1 down! Excellent. (Read the rest here.)

#3: The Rejectionist has a delightful (as usual) post on using female characters’ deaths as plot devices:

Racking up the (hot, slutty, dismembered) Lady Character body count to prove just how Depraved your serial killer is: NOT APPROPRIATE

The Lady Character randomly kills herself/is murdered solely to add Dramatic Interest to a Conflict between two Gentlemen Characters (aka the “Christopher Nolan”): NOT APPROPRIATE

I love that she named that last one. (Read the rest here.)