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The 50 Book Project In Review and Reading Harder in 2015

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I meant to get to this sooner. I had the flu, so I didn’t. It was awful. I don’t recommend the flu. If you need to take a few days off from work, I highly recommend pretty much anything aside from the flu. Not ebola, though. I don’t recommend that. The flu is pretty bad, but ebola would definitely have been worse.

But I’m back! And I promised a reflection on my 2014 50 Book Project, so that is what you’re going to get. And I’m going to do it in the form of an interview, a self-interview, because that’s the sort of woman I am. Here goes.

So Rachael, what exactly was the 50 book project? Well, I would say that’s fairly obvious, isn’t it? It was a project where I would read (and blog about) at least 50 books over the course of 2014. I really didn’t want to do a whole lot more than 50, either, because I feel like if I’m averaging lots more than one book per week, I’m not challenging myself intellectually at all, and that’s not a good thing.

So was that what this was about? Challenging yourself intellectually? No, definitely not. I mean, it was in the back of my mind—I didn’t want to read fifty pulpy romances or something, you know? I wanted some balance. Some light silly stuff, sure, but I’m a Ravenclaw. I like to think. And I think you need to go back and forth. Read something heavy, or a few heavy things, and then read something lighter for a bit. Literary cleansing, we call it. Read The Diamond Age, a heavy, thought-provoking piece of science fiction, yes—but then pick up The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic. Read 1Q84, but take a break halfway through to read The Office of Mercy.

You’re mentioning a lot of titles. What did you read this year? Oh, a list? I can do a list! I mean, it’ll be long, but I can do a list! I draw the line at linking to every post, though. That would be ridiculous.
1. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? By Philip K. Dick
2. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
3. Runaway by Alice Munro
4. This Immortal by Roger Zelazny
5. Paper Towns by John Green
6. The Giver by Lois Lowry
7. 1Q84 vol. 1 by Haruki Murakami
8. 1Q84 vol. 2 by Haruki Murakami
9. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
10. The Office of Mercy by Ariel Djanikian
11. 1Q84 vol. 3 by Haruki Murakami
12. Railsea by China Mieville
13. The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian
14. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
15. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
16. The Round House by Louise Erdrich
17. Warriors: Into the Wild by Erin Hunter
18. Unsouled by Neal Shusterman
19. Skin Game by Jim Butcher
20. Lexicon by Max Barry
21. London Falling by Paul Cornell
22. Neuromancer by William Gibson
23. Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau
24. The Cuckoo’s Calling by “Robert Galbraith” (a.k.a. J. K. Rowling)
25. Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan
26. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
27. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
28. Deus Irae by Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny
29. The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
30. The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker
31. The Alchemyst by Michael Scott
32. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
33. The Magician by Michael Scott
34. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
35. The Sorceress by Michael Scott
36. MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood
37. The Necromancer by Michael Scott
38. Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante
39. A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami
40. A Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias
41. Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
42. The Warlock by Michael Scott
43. Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett
44. Bathing the Lion by Johnathan Carroll
45. The Enchantress by Michael Scott
46. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
47. Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross
48. The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan
49. Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
50. Dawn by Octavia Butler
51. The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami
52. The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

What exactly was the goal of the project, would you say? You know, I didn’t actually go into the year with a goal. It wasn’t a project I thought about a whole lot—I just decided to do it on the spur of the moment; there wasn’t a lot of time to come up with goals. Mostly, I wanted to remember what I read at the end of the year, because at the end of 2013 I really didn’t.

Did you do anything specific to help you remember your reading better? Blogging would be the obvious answer, but you can see I was kind of abysmal at that. I took notes. For the first time ever, for an entire year, I kept a notebook as I read. If I came across something that struck me, I’d write down my thought. If there was an absolutely wonderful quotation that I just had to remember later on, I wrote it down. If I had a question, or a prediction, or a bit of confusion, or if I finally figured out something—I wrote it all down. That started just as a way of helping me with blogging, but it was so much more valuable than that. Most of the stuff I wrote down didn’t get into the post, but flipping through my notebook, I can say, oh yeah, I loved that moment, that was on this page. Or, you know, I never did get an answer to that question! But I think just as big as the taking notes was how I was reading. For a few years, I’d been reading nearly exclusively on an e-reader (a nook). I really liked it, but it was amazing how mindless it was compared to actually holding a book. It’s like an entirely different activity. On an e-reader, your eyes don’t work the same way—even the e-ink kind, because that’s what I had. And there’s science backing me up now, which is wonderful. The full-body experience of reading an actual, paper book does a lot of good that no sort of device can do. You remember what you read better. Six minutes a day reduces stress by a whole lot and decreases the risk of Alzheimer’s, but not on an e-reader because your brain processes that differently. I started the slow switch back at some point in 2013 and this year I think I only read two e-books, and that was because they were parts of series that I had there and didn’t feel like entirely replacing. But when the next iteration comes out, I’ll just go to the library. Because even when I didn’t take notes when I was reading—when I got to the end of the book and realized I’d forgotten, usually because I was so wrapped up in whatever was going on in the story—I still could write down what I’d been thinking and feeling at different points in the book. When I got the end of something I read on my nook, I was kind of like, wait, what? It was like something that happened to me, or near me, rather than something that I consciously did and participated in. It was like the difference between freshly-ground pepper from a pepper mill and that pre-ground stuff they give you little packets of when you get fast food. All reading is not created equal.

That got, uh, pretty off-topic. Yeah, it did. I’m not sorry.

Getting back to things then. Even if you didn’t go in with a goal in mind, what were the outcomes of your project? I certainly chose my books differently. I think part of that is, again, part of the switch back to paper books (yes, I’ll shut up about it now), but also the public aspect. I was always a little shocked when I got an email saying that someone started following my blog. I certainly never intended for this to be read by anyone else. I just figured, a record would be nice, and why not make it public? But I think that may have pushed me to choose different books that I otherwise would have. Nothing too over the top, but I had this thing in the back of my mind, like, well I don’t want to have twelve posts in a row of the same author, that would get really boring if anyone’s reading it. Things like that. So I read more diversely in that sense. When I loved Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, I could easily have run to the bookstore and bought everything Philip K. Dick ever wrote. In the past, I might have. But I didn’t. Keeping a record also helped with diversity in other ways. When it got to December, I looked at the list of everything I’d read so far, and while it wasn’t 100% white men, there were a lot of them. So I dedicated most of the month (aside from book club books) to reading books not by white men. I finally picked up The Valley of Amazement, which I’d been meaning to read for ages. I read Alif the Unseen, which was by a Muslim-American woman. I finally got around to reading Octavia Butler, and oh my god I was missing out. But normally at the end of a year, I don’t have the opportunity to look back and say, wow, lots of white dudes here, let’s get some variety in.

What was your favorite book this year? Ahhhh, favorite? Don’t make me choose! (I think Neil Gaiman said it best: “Picking five favorite books is like picking the five body parts you’d most like not to lose.”) I think the best book I read this year was Bathing the Lion. There were other books that made me look at my rating system and say, huh, maybe I should add an extra star. But that’s the one that made me add the damn star. Despite that, I don’t know that it was my favorite. The top tier, though, would be that, 1Q84, A Wild Sheep Chase, the MaddAddam series, The Golem and the Jinni, The Round House, The Diamond Age, Alif the Unseen, Dawn, and Lexicon. And even now I’m super paranoid that I’m leaving something out. I couldn’t even narrow it down to ten.

Six stars, so…the winner, I think?

That’s ridiculous. How about your least favorite? NEUROMANCER. Fuck that book.

Wow. Okay. So. Moving on. Were there any unexpected outcomes? I didn’t re-read anything all year! That was weird for me. When I originally made the rules, I built in stipulations for re-reading, because I just assumed I would. But it felt like cheating, so I never did. Of course, as soon as it was January 1st, 2015, I picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and read the entire Harry Potter series in 11 days. It had been a few years, and I missed my Hogwarts friends.

Were there any downsides to your project? Yes! Yes, absolutely. Overall, it was an overwhelmingly positive experience, but nothing is all good. The biggest downside was the number, just the fact of there being a number, and how that affected my choices. After I read 1Q84, and that took so long, and I counted it as three books—I mean, I think it was part two that took me over two weeks to get through. Like, it took me over a month to read that book. Those three books. However we’re talking about it. So after that, I was hesitant to take on another really big book. I’d keep walking by The Infinite Jest at work and think, I’d love to read that someday but if I take that on now I’ll never get to 50. And without the number there, maybe I would have picked it up and maybe I wouldn’t have, who knows? It’s on my ‘books I’d like to read someday’ list, but I don’t know if it ever would have gotten to the ‘book I’m going to read next’ point in the last year. Or if it ever will. I mean, I know I won’t read all I’d like to in my life. Some books will just stay on that ‘someday’ list forever. But I wasn’t going to start anything huge in 2014 when I had a goal.

So you won’t be doing a project like this again? I don’t think I’ll be doing this specific project again, but I did like having a project. It introduced a level of mindfulness into my reading habits that wasn’t there before, and I don’t want to lose that. But I don’t think it’ll just be number goals in the future. I’m really excited for what I’m doing this year, in fact.

And what’s that? Yes! Time for the Reveal! In 2015, I’m participating in the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge. It’s 24 categories and you’ve got to read one book from each over the course of the year. Or you could allow some overlap, cross out a few categories with one book—listen to a young adult audiobook by a Native American author who’s the opposite gender as you and you’ve got four down at once. I’m really only planning on counting one category for each book, though.

What are the categories? Well, you can read all about it over on Book Riot, but here they are:
1. A book written by someone when they were under the age of 25.
2. A book written by someone when they were over the age of 65.
3. A collection of short stories (either by one person or an anthology by many people).
4. A book published by an indie press.
5. A book by or about someone that identifies as LGBTQ.
6. A book by a person whose gender is different from your own.
7. A book that takes place in Asia.
8. A book by an author from Africa.
9. A book that is by or about someone from an indigenous culture (Native Americans, Aboriginals, etc.).
10. A microhistory.
11. A YA novel.
12. A sci-fi novel.
13. A romance novel.
14. A National Book Award, Man Booker Prize, or Pulitzer Prize winner from the last decade.
15. A book that is a retelling of a classic story (fairy tale, Shakespearian play, classic novel, etc.).
16. An audiobook.
17. A collection of poetry.
18. A book that someone else has recommended to you.
19. A book that was originally published in another language.
20. A graphic novel, a graphic memoir, or a collection of comics of any kind.
21. A book you would consider a guilty pleasure (Read, and then realize that good entertainment is nothing to feel guilty over).
22. A book published before 1850.
23. A book published this year.
24. A self-improvement book (can be traditionally or non-traditionally considered “self-improvement”).
That’s them, copied directly from Book Riot’s site. It’s an exciting challenge, and one that I think will push me in ways that my 50 Book Project didn’t, while also giving me a lot of leeway both in the categories and to read my own stuff on the side.

What are you most looking forward to in this challenge? Both Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett have short story collections coming out this year. I can’t wait for those. Really, at least half the categories will be covered by stuff I would have read anyway, so I’m looking forward to getting to each category and looking around my shelves and my TBR list and seeing what’s there that fits.

What do you expect to be the most difficult? 1. A romance novel, because I have this preconceived idea of what romance novels are and fully expect to absolutely hate it. I’m all for love stories happening in books, but I like them to be side plots. I’m just not a very romantic person. 2. A self-improvement book. I mean, how could I possibly improve on this? (*Indicates all of self.*) But in all seriousness, I’m sure there are some great ones out there, but I know there’s also a whole lot of crap and I have no idea how to go about wading through that crap to find something worth reading. 3. An audiobook. I don’t like noise! I’m going to have to develop a strategy for this one, because it’s really the exact type of noise that I most dislike. I don’t like when I can hear a voice but can’t see someone. I feel like I’m missing key details. Facial expressions, body language. I’m sure it’ll be different listening to a book—there’ll be description when it’s important. But I don’t like disembodied voices. I don’t like the phone, I don’t like talk radio, and I have a hard time imagining that audiobooks will be any different. I’m also not great at listening to someone talk while I do something, so I don’t think I’ll be able to get away with multitasking. We’ll see.

Will you be blogging this project? Hah. Yes. I’m not good at the blogging part, but I like it. I won’t be blogging everything I read this year, but I do plan to blog the Read Harder challenge. 24 posts seems manageable.

So one last question, then: What are you tackling first? I already tackled it! That’s how bad at blogging I am. I just finished #18, a book recommended by someone else: eaarth by Bill McKibben, recommended and given to me by my dad. (And yes, I started with #18. I’m not going in order. They aren’t actually numbered on the Book Riot site, so I think that’s fine.)

Okay, that’s all for this post. Which is good, because this is literally on the sixth page in the Word document I’m writing it in. Sorry. I’ll be back soon to talk about eaarth. Hopefully soon. You know. Soon-ish.

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Middles, and Book 9: 1Q84 vol. 2

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I finished book 10, so I suppose I should get around to my book 9 write-up, huh? I must say, I’m really glad I got pretty ahead in January! 1Q84 definitely takes up a lot of time.

So, here’s the problem, and the reason I haven’t gotten this post up sooner: I cannot for the life of me figure out how to write a review of the middle third of a book.

As I mentioned in my previous 1Q84 post, though it looks like a trilogy if you’re not paying attention, it is most definitely one book published as three volumes, presumably to make it seem a little less intimidating, though if a big book is going to intimidate you then you may not be the target audience for this book.

Middles are awkward to begin with. You’ve got middle school (ugh!). Midlife crisis. Middle child. Middle management. Middle-of-the-road. None of these stand out as even remotely good (at best, they’re kind of…middling). Even the middle book of a series usually isn’t the best. I mean, who didn’t want to pry their eyes out with a spork during the Entmoot in The Two Towers? Did anyone else roll their eyes when, in Catching Fire, Katniss and Peeta go to the Hunger Games… again? Or get just a teensy bit fed up with Harry’s whining in Goblet of Fire? Hell, even Jingo, the fourth and middle book in Terry Pratchett’s City Watch subseries (in the Discworld series) is my least favorite of those, though it does have some great moments. (At least, it’s currently the middle. I doubt he has plans to publish more of those, though; Snuff seemed to tie everything up nicely.)

Despite what you learn in middle school, plots look nothing like this:

I mean, why would they? If they did, then once you’ve gotten to the middle, you’d know it was only going to get less exciting from there and you’d probably stop reading, or at least be bored. Really, plots look like this:

I chose this one because (a) it’s accurate, and (b) the blogger who made it then used it as a template to draw a Plot Dinosaur. Click the picture to go to her post.

So when you’re in the middle of the book, you get neither the potentially deadly tip of the tail nor the super exciting top of the head. You just get a couple of the defensive spikes/plates along the back.

Middles: They’re the worst. Spread the word.

 

All that being said, volume 2 of 1Q84 was actually very exciting. Things start to take shape. On page 561, I felt that the story actually, really started, for serious this time, and everything I’d read so far was absolutely necessary information for me to understand the story. Over 500 pages of backstory. Brilliantly written, fascinating, awesome backstory, but backstory.

So, despite my professed hatred for middles, volume 2 was better than volume 1. And I can’t wait for volume 3! I’ll be starting that today. I had to take a little time off, otherwise I would have begun to forget what was the real world and what was the book (I have a weird habit of confusing reality with speculative fiction).

I need to share this quote. I loved this quote. I loved it so much I wrote it down at like 2am, despite being almost falling asleep:

“If a certain belief–call it ‘Belief A’– makes the life of that man or this woman appear to be something of deep meaning, then for them Belief A is the truth. If Belief B makes their lives appear to be powerless and puny, then Belief B turns out to be a falsehood. […] It means nothing to them that Belief B might be logical or provable.”

The character who’s speaking is talking about religion, if that’s not obvious, but I can’t help but feel that it applies equally to art and stories. I think, if a story is really, truly loved, it’s because there’s an element of belief there between reader, viewer, listener, or what have you, and story. That story gets at an important emotional truth for its consumer. It’s why, if you’re a Doctor Who fan and you hear the TARDIS, you start looking around, because you just can’t turn off that little thing in your head that says the Doctor is real, because the Doctor would believe absolutely and 100% that you matter, that you are important, and you need that to be true. (I’d apologize for making this post about Doctor Who, but I’m not sorry. It’s my blog and I needed an example.)

Anyway, the problem with middles isn’t necessarily that they’re bad. It’s just that they’re hard to talk about out of context. And I don’t have the context to talk much more about this without just summarizing what happened (boring), so I’ll be back with more about 1Q84 later on.

But first! Book 10! I’ll get Book 10’s post up as soon as I can–hopefully within the next couple of days. I read The Office of Mercy by Ariel Djanikian.

Do you have any examples of stories that hold emotional truth for you? What are they? Share in the comments!

Cheating, and Book 7: 1Q84 vol. 1

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I’m feeling conflicted about how I’m categorizing 1Q84 for this project.

When I started reading it, I was not yet entirely sure what I was getting myself into. Mostly, I was unsure whether I was about to start reading one book or three books. See, it comes in this fancy little three volume boxed set, and prior to starting it, I had heard it referred to as both a book and a series. The word “volume” made me think single book, but then I remembered that I’ve definitely read or heard of other series that referred to each book as a volume, particularly comic books/graphic novels, particularly magna. (Of course, I could be mixing this up a bit, since I’m not really familiar with magna, but I seem to remember seeing “volume 1” on the sides of them in the comic book store instead of “book 1.”) So basically, that thought process led me to figure that the words “book” and “volume” in the way I’m using them here might be translated from the same word or something, and it’s a series. But then I thought, Wouldn’t each book at least have its own title? Like, each book in the Lord of the Rings series has its own title. Same with literally any other series. But of course, while that’s almost always true with books, it’s not with everything–Iron Man 1, 2, and 3 are all individual, stand-alone movies that happen to work well in a series. Maybe it’s like that.

Well, now that I’ve finished volume 1, I can definitively tell you: It’s not like that. Volume 2 doesn’t even start on page 1; it picks up right at page 391. Which means I’m definitely cheating by counting it as its own book.

Now, if this were like the Hunger Games series, and I read the entire three “books” in one weekend, I wouldn’t cheat. I’d suck it up and call it one book, because that’s what it is. But given that volume 1 took me two weeks to read–I finished it on Thursday–I’m going to go with an “It’s not really cheating since I made the rules to begin with” cop-out here. Volume 2 is slightly shorter; volume 3 is slightly longer. Even counting each as an individual book, I’m glad I have a few YA books on my to read list so I can catch up after finishing 1Q84.

So now, I’m at this awkward place where I’d love to write a review of 1Q84 volume 1, but how does one write a review of the first third of a book? I’m still not even sure what’s happening!

Here’s what I’ll tell you. I’m really, really enjoying 1Q84. It’s fascinating, and that’s why it’s taking me so long. I’ve read so many books in my life that, as soon as I pick them up, I am unable to put them down, and I fly through them and love every second. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. There is also absolutely nothing wrong with how 1Q84 is working for me, which is the complete opposite–I am unable to not put it down. It’s completely messing with my reading habits. For example, usually, I will read on my lunch break. I’ll heat up my food or go get my food and spend the rest of the break reading and eating. Now, though, I heat up or go get my food, sit down with it, start eating, read a few pages, and spend the rest of the break staring into space thinking. This happens almost any time I pick it up when I’m not about to go to bed. I read a little bit, then I stop and think and process and wonder. I’m thinking about the book, about what’s happening and what’s going to happen and how everything is going to end up being connected. I’m looking at the real world, thinking about this book as a mirror of the real world, wondering how accurate it is, wondering how I would behave in the same situations as the characters. I’m sitting on my couch imagining what it would be like to look in the sky and see two moons.

I’m also thinking a lot about culture and cultural differences. It’s hard to place exactly what in the book that I’m seeing as different is a difference in culture and what is just a difference in writer, translator, or character. For example, the language in 1Q84 is incredibly precise. This was the first thing I noticed when I started reading it. Is that the author’s style? Or the translator’s? Or is Japanese just a much more precise language than English, and that carries over in the translation? Then, I’ve noticed that both of the main characters seem much more aware of their flaws and willing to discuss them openly and matter-of-factly with others than most people I know. If it were just one of them, I would think, oh, that’s just something this character does. But since it’s both, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a cultural difference that I’m not aware of, or, again, whether it’s the author.

So far, I am completely in love with this book. It is so different from anything I have ever read before. I’m completely wrapped up in its world, and I’m glad there’s a lot more to go–though I am slightly worried that, by the end, I’ll be unable to distinguish reality from 1Q84.

And now, Book 8 of the 50 Book Project will be….

…Um…

…I don’t actually know. I mean, obviously I’ve already picked up Volume 2 of 1Q84 and I’m working my way through that, but I also have to read The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers for my book club meeting at the beginning of March, which means I’m going to be reading two books simultaneously. I don’t know which I’ll finish first, so I don’t know what my next post will be.