Mount TBR 2016 – Recap

For this recap, something a little different.  I was mighty pleased with the little mountain of to-be-reads I climbed, so everyone’s a winner – and they all get awards!  Thanks to Bev for hosting this challenge!

*** The Unexpected New Favorite Award ***
 An Artist of the Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro
This was a thrift store find I bought on a whim.  I was greatly moved by this fictional historical memoir, written by Ishiguro (of The Remains of the Day fame).  An aging Japanese man realizes his past is not creating the bright legacy he had envisioned.  Subtly written, yet incredible.
*** The Finally, Finally Read It Award ***
The Red Badge of Courage – Stephen Crane
I liked the beginning of this book a lot.  That made the ending somewhat disappointing.  However, I had to admit it is a worthy American classic, with good writing and thought-provoking scenes.
*** The History Is Disturbing Award ***
Evita: The Real Life of Eva Peron – Nicholas Fraser, Marysa Navarro
This is supposedly the best, most judicial biography of Eva Peron out there.  After that masterful T. E. Lawrence biography by John Mack, I was underwhelmed by Fraser and Navarro’s sources; this book read more like magazine articles than a scholarly paper.  More than once, there was a statement that was an opinion, and there was no easy way for me to tell from whence the opinion originated.  Writing aside, the topic matter was chilling.  Eva, Juan, the political situation in Argentina at the time – all of it was very depressing.  An interesting read nonetheless.  Especially pertinent was reading how the Perons controlled the media and depictions of themselves.
*** The Polar History Is More My Thing Award ***
In the Land of White Death – Valerian Albanov
This little book deserves all the glowing reviews it has.  If you’re looking for an introduction to polar literature, I highly recommend the Russian navigator Albanov’s account of his survival trek through the Arctic.  The human element comes through strongly in his narrative; it’s great that he did not edit out the personal side to his story.
*** The I Need to Read More Hoffmann Award ***
Nutcracker and Mouse King and The Tale of the Nutcracker – E.T.A. Hoffmann, Alexandre Dumas
(Side note: E.T.A. is such a great set of initials.)
I let myself forget the Nutcracker I knew before, and I really, really loved the Hoffmann original.  Dumas’s version is also great, but more polished.  Read them both!  What better month to do so?

*** The Unexpectedly Disappointing Award ***
Tales of Unrest – Joseph Conrad
I’ve come to the conclusion that Conrad wrote in two ways: sheer genius, and not.  This series of depressing (unrestful) tales is not genius.  It’s not great, unfortunately.  I didn’t like any of them.
*** The Terrifying, Also Would Not Recommend Award ***
Dracula’s Guest – Bram Stoker
Friends, when a Goodreads reviewer advises you to skip a story, do not try to be a completionist.  Heed their advice.  They know what they’re talking about.  You don’t need to read all the creepy stories.  You really don’t.
*** The Beautifully Written, Tough to Understand Award ***
Memories of the Future – Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
This author was new to me; I read the book because he’s supposed to be similar to Kafka.  Even in translation, Krzhizhanovsky is a lovely writer; his analogies and word choices seem so fresh, even original, compared to other writers.  The trouble is, I was confused most of the time.  I did like the last story, “Memories of the Future,” but it’s very similar to The Time Machine.  Would read more by him in the future (ha. ha.).
*** The Better Than the Movie Award ***
Pinocchio – Carlo Collodi
I’m not big on this fairytale, but it was certainly entertaining.  Pinocchio is such a bad son to Geppetto, and still I felt sorry for him.  Like most fairytales, the amount of exaggeration makes it hard to believe at times (I really think Pinocchio would have learned his lesson faster than he does!).  I’ll probably keep this one, though; it’s definitely a classic.
*** The Childhood Heroine Award ***
Joan of Arc: In Her Own Words
Joan of Arc has always been an inspiration to me.  This books is a compilation of quotes by her, which forms something of an autobiography.  It’s sobering to realize that the main reason we have these quotes is because she was captured and spoke the majority of these statements at her trial.  I really recommend this to anyone who wants to learn more about her.  Reading what she did and said 600 years ago makes you feel both how long ago and recent it was.
*** The Childhood Memory Award ***
The Silent World – Jacques Cousteau
I have a vague memory of watching a Jacques Cousteau film as a child.  He is probably one of the many reasons I grew up with a fascination for all things to do with the ocean.  This memoir talks about Cousteau’s early diving career, his various diving projects, and general opinions on topics related to diving.  It wasn’t gripping, but I learned quite a few things, historical and scientific, and the writing style is accessible.  A good read to learn more about him.
*** The Changed My Life Award ***
Works of Love – Søren Kierkegaard 
I left the sticky notes in this book – and not just the few that are pictured.  It’s difficult to describe a book like this without feeling vulnerable, because I can’t adequately summarize it, and I can’t say I agree with him 100%, and I can’t tell you it’s a must read.  I have no idea how Works of Love affects one reader from the next.  Yes, it changed my life; it made me look at something familiar in a new way.

I think of Kierkegaard as this lonely person who is thinking through everything out loud, and some of it is confusion, and some of it is inspired, and he offers it all up to the reader without apology, because he is only human and never expected to think “perfect” thoughts, only to strive for truth.  I don’t know if that’s Kierkegaard, or me projecting myself onto the impression of him.  I think he was born to write this book, in any case.

Whatever the world takes away from you, thought it be most cherished, whatever happens to you in life, however you may have to suffer because of your striving, for the good, if you please, if men turn indifferent from you or as enemies against you…if even your best friend should deny you – if nevertheless in any of your strivings, in any of your actions, in any of your words you truly have consciously had love along: then take comfort, for love abides. (p. 279)

Reading England 2016 – Recap

When I joined this challenge a year ago, I had every intention of branching out and reading books from multiple counties.  As it turns out, I stayed in familiar territory and read London for all three books (Level 1).

Lawrence of Arabia Brough Superior gif

The Mint was a fitting sequel to Seven Pillars of Wisdom.  For some reason I went into it expecting a novel, but it’s actually a journal-like memoir of T. E. Lawrence’s peacetime experiences in the military.  After his campaigns as “Lawrence of Arabia” – and, as importantly, after his attempts to deal with politicians – T.E. was sick of being a leader and wanted to disappear from the public eye.  He joined the service under an assumed name, and that is where he found a place of security and camaraderie, the R.A.F.  The Mint is a coarse novel, written in a modern voice (for the times) and full of all the profanities and vulgarity that Lawrence encountered around him.  I found myself unable to rate the book, because it came across as an honest, unidealized portrait of reality – and how can you rate that?  Read the last chapter, if nothing else.  I feel like it is the real ending to Seven Pillars.

Counties: London (RAF Uxbridge), and bonus: Lincolnshire (RAF Cranwell)

Lamppost-Istana-Singapore-20060207
 A lamppost at the Istana in Singapore by Finn Perez
[CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I read The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare to my brother this year.  It was a first read for him and a reread for me – we both heartily enjoyed it!  G. K. Chesterton is one of those authors that is deceptively simple in his style.  The first time I read it, I wasn’t so sure about the bizarre ending.  This time, however, something clicked…I think I finally got what he was getting at.  (I still can’t explain it off the top of my head, but it made sense, I promise.)  The story is, artistically speaking, literary gold: a policeman on an Alice-in-Wonderland-type adventure in Sherlock Holmes’s London, with moments of hilarity and deep thought alike.  After this reread, I give it 5 out of 5 stars.

Counties:  A rather whimsical London.

Lippincott doriangray

A number of books this year were favorable surprises – The Picture of Dorian Gray being one of the most surprising.  I didn’t know, for example, that this novel was written for the same magazine as Conan Doyle’s The Sign of the Four.  A comparison of the two stories would be interesting in itself.  I noticed that drugs feature heavily in both plots and, sadly, for both protagonists.

I went into this book with a couple of misconceptions, one of which was that Dorian Gray wants always to look young.  This is only half of it, however.  He also wants to look innocent“He had always the look of one who had kept himself unspotted from the world.”

At the Anglican church I attend, the priest gives you a blessing on your birthday.  These are the words, from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer (quoting, for that line, James 1:27):

Watch over thy child, O Lord, as his days increase; bless and guide him wherever he may be, keeping him unspotted from the world. Strengthen him when he stands; comfort him when discouraged or sorrowful; raise him up if he fall; and in his heart may thy peace which passeth understanding abide all the days of his life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Wilde’s first readers would have instantly caught this reference, and I can tell you, this line makes it all the more tragic to read what happens to Dorian, or rather, what he does to himself.  It goes both ways.  He is preyed upon – emotionally and probably physically – by an older, cynical man, and he embraces it.  He reads a book that he knows is a negative influence on him, and he doesn’t stop. 

For years, Dorian Gray could not free himself from the influence of this book. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he never sought to free himself from it.

I didn’t love The Picture of Dorian Gray.  It is too relateable to be comfortable.  I can’t say I haven’t been selfish, hurting someone in the process.  I know I’ve read a book, or watched a movie, or listened to a song that left me worse off than before.  And only recently, I’ve looked at pictures of myself from a few years back and felt disappointed by the changes.  I was half-expecting this novel to be some kind of subtle glorification of youth; it’s anything but that.    

Though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this novel to everyone, it was a worthwhile read for me, particularly at this time.  (For the topic, it was more poignant than Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.)  4 out of 5 stars.

Counties: London

Lawrence’s London is something of a sprawling, safe haven, where he can dissolve back into humanity and still, sometimes, see glimmers of his illustrious yet painful past.  Chesterton’s London is the London of Americans’ dream –  a romantically gloomy, lamppost-lit cityscape where a savvy, well-dressed gentleman is on a mission probably involving hansom cabs.  Wilde’s London is a grim facade where something hideous is lurking behind an elegant society.  It’s fascinating how one location can look so different from the viewpoint of different novels. 

Thanks, o, for hosting this challenge!