Reading 2015

Last year, I set a reading goal for myself of 100 books and read 101. That was above and beyond the goal, but in reality, I barely made it, squeezing in a volume of manga and You Have to F**king Eat on December 31. This year, I want to feel less pressure to meet a quota, so I’ve dropped the goal to 80 books. I’m hoping I’ll be more inclined to read thicker books if I don’t have to push myself as hard.

But that’s the future. This is a post that looks back on the recent past and what I thought were the most memorable of those 101 books. Same old, same old, as far as the kinds of books go. Fantasy remains my favorite fiction genre, and over in nonfiction, I read plenty of writing, astrology, and divination books. I may be in a rut, but I like my rut, thank you.

And with that, the list:

  • Unequal Affections: A Pride and Prejudice Retelling by Lara S. Ormiston (9/10; finished 2/11/2015): Nothing deep and profound here, just an interesting alternative plot: what if Elizabeth accepted Darcy’s original proposal of marriage in order to secure her family’s financial future?
  • The Just City by Jo Walton (9/10; finished 2/20/2015):  Greek gods! Philosophy! Worked together into an interesting story! What’s not to love? The goddess Pallas Athene decides to create Plato’s Republic, populating it with people drawn from different cultures and different centuries. For reasons of his own, Apollo decides to live anonymously as a mortal in the Just City. And then Socrates himself is brought to the City… Followed by The Philosopher Kings, which I also enjoyed. The trilogy concludes with Necessity in 2016. Yes, I’ve already pre-ordered it. Why do you ask?
  • Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton (8/10; finished 2/27/2015): In which I finally got an an explanation as to why bashing the poor has become socially acceptable. Actually, as this is the world I grew up in, it’s more that I learned that it wasn’t always acceptable to dis them.

2015-1

  • Holistic Tarot: An Integrative Approach to Using Tarot for Personal Growth by Benebell Wen (9/10; finished 3/13/2015): The thickest book I read in 2015, coming in at 896 pages. It covers practically every aspect of tarot, with stuff for all levels of experience. Really needed a more durable binding, though.
  • The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction: Your Blueprint for Building a Solid Story by C. S. Lakin (8/10; finished 7/13/2015): This book and I got off to a bad start. The architecture analogy went on and on, and I got tired of the author’s efforts to sell me on her book when I’d already bought it. But then we finally got to those twelve pillars and it turned out she’d come up with some excellent questions to test the strength of your story against.
  • The Dark of the Soul: Psychopathology in the Horoscope by Liz Greene (9/10; finished 9/11/2015): Should anyone say that astrology is all newspaper predictions, vague personality descriptions, and matchmaking advice, I’m going to mention this book. Three seminars on psychopaths and genocidal national leaders. There’s nothing like analyzing the astrological chart of a serial killer to put a sparkle in your day.

2015-2

  • Do What You Love and Other Lies About Success and Happiness by Miya Tokumitsu (8/10; finished 9/29/2015): My tendency to read sobering, often gloomy, books in the fall continues. Admittedly, I don’t usually wander into the economics section to find them. Tokumitsu argues that the “do what you love” mantra encourages people to willingly work for less money and pressures them to be constantly passionate about their jobs, while unpaid internships multiply, formerly professional positions are “de-skilled,” and a two-tiered system of those who have desirable jobs and those who support them develops.
  • The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo (8/10; finished 10/18/2015): Given how much discussion of this there is in the world, this would probably be one of the most memorable books I encountered in 2015 even if I hadn’t read it.
  • Classical Philosophy: A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Volume 1 by Peter Adamson (9/10; finished 11/17/2015): Transcriptions of podcasts, episodic, but well-connected. The book is a lot more readable than the title might lead you to believe, assuming you had any interest in the subject to begin with. I’m finally getting the hang of Socrates and Plato. And volume 2, Philosophy in the Hellenistic & Roman Worlds, awaits me on my bookshelf.

2015-3

 

 

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NaNoWriMo: made it!

NaNWriMo 2015 Winner BannerAnd lo, 50,000 words hath come from my fingers into the keyboard. I reached the goal and validated on November 29, but I squeezed in a little more writing and ended the month with a final word count of 51,007. This doesn’t mean I’m done writing this first draft, alas. I’m guessing I’m about two-thirds of the way through my story, suggesting that the final word count will be closer to 75,000 words. I have written a little bit on the draft each day in December, although my daily word counts have been closer to 20 than to 1,667. (Hey, that’s still progress!)

It was an educational experience, as you might expect. I had thought that I would manage to do the most writing first thing in the morning. Maybe I should have done so, but I ended up writing in the last couple of hours that I was awake each day. I think that was probably because I told myself I could always stay up just a little longer to get a few last words in. I’m just not good at making myself write anything if I know I’m going to have to get up in a few minutes and do something else like go to work.

Planning the whole thing out ahead of time saved me. By getting myself and the story organized to the point that I had a scene list, I basically made myself a novel’s worth of writing prompts. If the story wasn’t flowing on its own—and most of the time it wasn’t—I’d go to the scene list, choose one, and just write words on it until nothing more came out. As I worked my way through the scene list, the story began to wander away from the plan. Generally, this wasn’t a problem. If I was desperate for words, I just wrote on a scene even if it no longer fit the story as a whole, knowing that I could throw it out later. And I added several scenes that I’d never thought of when all this began. It’ll be interesting to pull this all together at some point and see where the story wants to go now.

Next time—if there’s a next time, which I’m not promising—I will make a list ahead of time of all the meals I can make without much effort or attention. Why waste precious time trying to remember which cookbooks those recipes are in? I suppose if I were truly dedicated, I’d spend part of October making up meals ahead of time and freezing them, but I don’t think I have enough room in my freezer. Speaking of meals, how does anyone do NaNoWriMo and deal with Thanksgiving? I got around it by spending the day quietly at home, but if I’d had to travel anywhere for the weekend, I’m not sure I would have ever been able to make the writing up in time.

It’s been almost a week, and I’m still having trouble believing that A) it’s over and B) I managed to do it. Now that it’s over with, I’m delighted that I did it. It does feel good to be 51,007 words closer to getting this book out of my head. Now to get that draft done before revision starts in January!

 

NaNoWriMo: the first week

In a surprise move (well, it surprised me), I’m participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this year. The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. That’s on the short end of novels, but let me assure you that’s still a lot of words when you’re trying to come up with them in a mere 30 days. The saving grace is that you’re not expected to write a good novel in one month. It’s mainly just to get a first draft out of your head and onto paper/into your computer.

NaNoWriMo 2015 participant banner

And why am I putting myself through this? Because there’s a Sailor Moon fanfic that has been bouncing around in my head for over two years now. I’ve played with it, plotted it, planned it…but have never gotten around to writing it. See, I’m one of those people who works best to a deadline. NaNoWriMo has provided me with that deadline.

Things I have learned in the first week:

  • I thought getting ahead on my word count would take some pressure off. Nope. I just obsess over maintaining my lead instead.
  • Having “writing buddies,” as they’re called, helps. The same competitive streak that nudges me into entering things in the state fair also pushes me to keep my word count up around everyone else’s. Plus, it’s nice to be able to occasionally rant to someone who’s going through the same hell you are.
  • It’s fun not only to not pay attention to all the rules of good writing, but to be able to deliberately break them as needed. You know how you’re supposed to eliminate as many adverbs as possible? Forget that. Adverbs are words, you need words: put as many adverbs in as you can stand. I’m also indulging in giant expository lumps as well as a lot of “As you know, Bob…”-style dialogue. Whee!
  • I’m going to develop a taste for Baroque music at this rate. Everything else I’ve tried has proven to be way too distracting, but dead silence is distracting in its own way.
  • I was five days in before I remembered that I’ve had good results in the past by using the Pomodoro Technique for staying focused. It’s working for me for this as well. That’s probably because it creates micro-deadlines. Me and deadlines: we’re an item. ❤
  • Anyone who does this by jumping in with nothing more than a story idea has my profoundest admiration. The first week alone has confirmed my suspicions that if I don’t map this sort of thing out ahead of time, I’m doomed.
  • This is cutting into my knitting time. I miss knitting. 😦
  • This has also eliminated my TV-watching time, and it took me the better part of the week to notice. This undoubtedly says something about the importance of TV in my life.
  • I won’t be reading fiction until December 1. I can’t afford to get lost in someone else’s fantasy world when I’m trying to put mine together. Luckily I have plenty of nonfiction on my to-be-read list.

And…back to the ever-growing draft. Still another 1,200 words or so before I sleep!

One book, different cultures

I’ve finally gotten around to reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo. Until recently, I was only familiar with the U.S./Canadian edition. But in updating my entry for it on LibraryThing, I happened to see the cover of the German edition. Yes, these really are the same book.

English and German covers of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

The covers in question. Unanswered mysteries include why is “Japanese” capitalized on the U.S./Canadian cover when nothing else is, and why does the German edition have an English title?

The North American cover emphasizes the book’s gentler, more “woo” features. The soft colors in an abstract, watercolor-like design say you’ll be reading a book with more of a psychological, even spiritual, focus. The words are in black and red, but the all-lower-case serif font softens the impact. This is a cover that goes with Kondo’s advice to to thank your possessions for the service they’ve done you, to greet your house when you come home, to give your handbags and socks a rest. What it doesn’t prepare you for is the author’s uncompromising attitude towards clearing stuff out of your house. That’s not a secret: every book review focuses on it. But those first readers might have been a bit surprised to run into it.

In contrast, whoever designed the German cover focused on that aspect of Kondo’s book. Presumably this is what the German publisher figured would attract potential readers. Black, red, and pure white dominate, with just a touch of green from the only organic element: the little plant at the center. The sans-serif font is all-caps: you will declutter your house! There’s no misty watercolor effect here, just clean, straight lines and defined curves. How well did Kondo’s assertion that “your possessions want to help you” go over with her German audience?

Whether or not you can judge a book by its cover, it seems you can guess what its readers like. Or at least what its publisher thinks they do.

Judging a cover by its book

Earlier this year, I started reading Jeffe Kennedy’s Twelve Kingdoms trilogy. Each book is narrated by one of three sisters. I enjoyed The Mark of the Tala and The Tears of the Rose, and I finally have time to read The Talon of the Hawk, told by oldest sister Ursula. Seen through the eyes of her sisters, Princess Ursula has become my favorite character, so I’ve been looking forward to reading “her” book. Ursula is 30 years old, and in addition to being a mature adult, she’s not model-pretty either:

  • “I suppose I’m lucky not to be the oldest and least beautiful. Ursula, however, is our father’s heir and couldn’t care a whit for things such as prettiness.” (Andi, The Mark of the Tala, p.1)
  • “Ursula looked fine, too—make no mistake. Her ladies wouldn’t allow otherwise. She cleaned up well when she went to the trouble. But Ursula’s beauty is in the clear, firm lines of her jaw, the sharp eyes that miss nothing, her incisive intelligence.” (The Mark of the Tala, p.3)
  • “The eldest and heir to the High Throne of the Twelve Kingdoms, she looked more gaunt than ever. In the past, some might have called her passably attractive, in her hard-edged way, but not at this moment.” (Amelia, The Tears of the Rose, p.2)

Until I’ve read the book, I won’t know how Ursula describes herself, but according to the plot summary, Ursula is “a girl grudgingly honed to leadership, not beauty, to bear the sword and honor of the king.” After two books and that plot summary, I picture Ursula as a woman in her early thirties, thin but muscular, fairly ordinary overall in attractiveness, with a few strong features such as her eyes and her jawline, and who’s not inclined to fuss over her appearance unless her ladies (or her father) demand it.

Then I saw the cover:

Book cover: The Talon of the Hawk

I’m annoyed at myself for not hating it. If I’d seen this before reading the first two novels, I’d be interested in at least reading the plot summary to this one, which is what cover art is for. My reaction is exactly why publishers design covers like this. But this Ursula doesn’t look like someone who appears at formal court functions wearing her sword over her dress so that her men will see her as a soldier before they see her as a woman.

Now when the protagonist really is beautiful, I have no arguments with a cover that reflects that. Consider Ursula’s sister Amelia:

“The youngest, breathtakingly beautiful. They called her Glorianna’s avatar when she was born and started composing sonnets to her by the time she turned twelve. Hair the color of sunrise, eyes like twilight, skin like moonbeams.” (The Mark of the Tala, p.2)

And here’s what the publisher came up with:

Book cover: The Tears of the Rose

In The Tears of the Rose, Amelia is 20 years old. Her youth (really, her immaturity) and beauty are an important part of her story, and the cover art for The Tears of the Rose works well with that. But the cover art on The Talon of the Hawk makes it so that Amelia and Ursula look equally gorgeous and close in age, not ten years apart.

This is giving me cognitive dissonance. It’s like the author is saying Here’s my story about a woman who’s a competent, average-looking adult while the cover is saying Buy this book about a young, beautiful, sexy warrior princess. I’m not great at visualizing, and now when I read the book, no matter how many times Kennedy describes Ursula as average-looking and probably wearing something practical for battle, the image of a pretty woman in a studded tube top is what’s going to pop into my head. Come on, even Amelia’s gown has spaghetti straps!

This is a fairly dismal trend in publishing. Jane Ellsworth’s major problem in Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal is that although she’s intelligent and magically gifted, she’s considered too plain to attract a husband. The cover depicts an ethereal young woman who would probably have no trouble getting married in Kowal’s alternative England. The original American cover for Justine Larbalestier’s Liar, a book about an African-American girl, featured a photo of a white girl. (After protest, the cover was changed.) But it’s demoralizing to realize that fantasy fiction about women older than 25 is deemed unlikely to sell unless it’s disguised. Being well over 25 myself, I’ve been looking for books with older heroines. Perhaps I could find them in general fiction or women’s fiction, but my favorite genre is fantasy. I had been thinking that maybe they just didn’t exist. Now I’m wondering if those books are out there—good!—but hidden behind deceptive covers. And how will I find them if that’s the case?

The nonlinear reader

We generally consider reading books to be a linear activity: begin at the beginning and read one chapter after another until you reach the end. Me, I’m more of a nonlinear reader. It took a while for me to notice this about myself because I don’t go to the extreme of turning every book I read into a Choose Your Own Adventure book (turn to page 40! now turn to page 27! now go to page 189!), but maintain a general forward momentum and the illusion of linearity while in reality my reading goes off on all sorts of tangents.

Early on in my reading life, I was seduced by peeking. I’d start off reading a book the normal way and make it through a few chapters. But if I reached the end of a chapter a few minutes before I needed to do something else, I was stuck. I didn’t want to stop reading but I also didn’t want to stop partway through the next chapter. So I’d jump ahead a bit randomly and read a scene. Not too close to the end, but further ahead. And the next time I did it, I could be in a completely different part of the book. After a while, I’d have an assortment of unconnected scenes floating around in my head: nonlinear reading that gave me the impression of a book, but not the story as the author intended it. But not being completely nonlinear, I’d also continue to read the book front to back as I had time, slotting each disjointed scene into its proper place in my memory as I came to it.

17208721416_9bd13ab869_nOnce, just to see how nonlinear I’d gotten, I put a rubber band on the unread pages of a novel. This drove home the point of how often I peeked because I was wrenched back into awareness every time I tried to skip ahead and couldn’t. (Also, having to slip each fresh page out from under a rubber band is a really annoying way to read a book. I finally freed up a chapter at a time for reading comfort.) What hit the hardest, though, was feeling blindsided when a major character was killed. Apparently I’d been getting more warning from my peeks than I’d realized, and in other books, I’d braced myself emotionally for plot turns like this. With that book, I’d had no warning and I was probably as shocked as the author hoped I’d be.

Enter e-readers, and suddenly nonlinear reading got a lot harder, for the same reason I don’t like using e-book editions of reference books: it’s blasted difficult to skip around with an e-reader. You have to get out of the text, pull up whatever feature lets you move to another section, and decide how far to move. It’s a far more calculated set of actions than just letting a chunk of paper pages slip by and reading wherever you’ve cracked the book open again. Indeed it’s enough of an effort that basically, I don’t bother.

So for the past four years (wow, I’ve been reading e-books that long?), I’ve been reading novels the way authors have expected me to. I don’t need to skip ahead to figure out obvious plot twists, but now the clever, devious ones really do come as a surprise and without the annoyance of having to wrestle a rubber band. This hasn’t broken me of the peeking habit. I’m reading a print book right now, and this afternoon I finished a chapter four blocks from my bus stop and peeked for the next two blocks. But most novels I read now are e-books, and I think overall, the linearity has been a good thing. Even if it’s conventional. And hard on the nerves when favorite characters are in danger. 😉

So am I the only nonlinear reader out there? And if you read e-books, have they changed how you read books in any noticeable way?

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photo credit: Bookmark via photopin (license)