2011: A Year in Review

Well! I have tended to appreciate other bloggers’ wrap-up posts, so I thought I’d join in. This was my first full calendar year of blogging (I began in October 2010) and I definitely read more books this year than I have in a number of years, maybe ever. Although I’ve always been a big reader, this year was exceptional for several reasons: working in a library filled with tempting books; blogging about them; discovering audiobooks for my commute; and taking on a book review gig with Shelf Awareness, to name a few. (See some of my SA book reviews here.) I read 139 books this year.

Here are a few statistics…

  • 17% were nonfiction
  • 46% were by female authors
  • a whopping 63 of the 115 novels I read were mysteries; 10 were historical fiction and 11 were classics, the rest a smattering of short stories, drama, poetry, romance, fantasy, and “other.”
  • 38 were 100-300 pages; 80 were 300-500; 15 were over 500 pages, and 6 were under 100. Husband asked how many pages I read this year, so for his sake we’ll estimate, using the midpoint of the ranges (which may throw us way off but what the heck), and say I “read” some 50,580 pages this year! (keeping in mind that some were listened to and not read…)
  • 31 books, or 22%, were audiobooks – look what good use I made of my commute/driving/gym time!
  • 60% of the books I read came from the library! the vast majority came from the library where I work, with just a few coming from the Houston Public Library. another 24% came from publishers for review, leaving only a combined 22 books that came from my personal collection, books I was loaned, books I purchased, or (those treasured few) books I was given as gifts.

What fun.

Of these, I did of course have favorites… you can refer back to my premature Best of 2011 post of December 1, to which I’ve since added 11/22/63 and The Home-Maker, for an unwieldy list of 22 (!) books I loved this year. What can I say, I’m full of gushings. In honor of this Year in Review post, I have culled it down (painfully) to my Favorite 11 Books of 2011 (thanks Thomas for the idea, and for sending me two (!) of the books on the list*):

Whew! That’s a year! I see other bloggers discussing reading goals for 2012, and I don’t really have any to contribute… I think I’m going to pass on reading challenges this year. (You may recall that of the three I signed up for in 2011, I completed two and quit the third. I also participated in several readalongs: the Maisie Dobbs series, Gone With the Wind, and Their Eyes Were Watching God.) If anything, I’m most tempted by the TBR Double Dare (to read only books already on my TBR shelves from now til April 1…!), because my house is so full of books I want to read that I feel like I’ll never get to them all! But even if I didn’t encounter new books through my job that I want to read and probably should so I can talk with patrons about them, there’s my book review gig, which I love. So. No challenges. If anything, I’d like to make a dent in my TBR shelves at home; and part of that dent-making may come in the form of giving books away unread. Sigh.

My real reading goal in 2012 is to continue to read a diverse selection of new and old books; to continue blogging; and most importantly of all, to continue enjoying it. The day that reading feels like work will be a sad day, and the day I need to take a break; here’s to not finding that day in 2012!

Do you have reading goals this year? What challenges have you signed up for? (Don’t twist my arm…!) Did you do a year-end post that I may have missed? Please do share!

Final Update: Classics Challenge

I DID complete my intended bachelor’s level (10 book) participation in the Classics Challenge presented by Stiletto Storytime. I read the following:

  1. Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
  2. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
  3. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  4. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  5. Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein
  6. Don Quixote by Cervantes (just part one for now, but the rest is to come, I promise)
  7. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
  8. The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare
  9. Othello by William Shakespeare
  10. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (just parts one and two so far, the rest to come by mid-October)
  11. Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence
  12. The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
  13. Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

Winesburg, Ohio is a collection of short stories that is more than the sum of its parts; the short stories are connected, all being set in the fictional town of Winesburg and concerning overlapping characters. We are most interested in George Willard, a town native who we most often see as a young man working as a reporter at the town paper (or, “the” reporter). Several of the stories give us Willard’s experiences (always in third person), but a number of them concern other inhabitants of the town. These men and women usually have some small personal tragedy that has thrown off the rhythm or intentions of their lives.

The work as a whole has a very quiet, contemplative tone and mood. Very little of great import goes on; but simple, sad lives are carried out, and hearts are broken quietly. It is moving. Anderson excels at bringing a character to life for a brief moment; and then he moves on.

I came to this book through Hemingway’s recommendation (and was finally motivated to get it off the bookshelf for the Where Are You Reading? Challenge‘s Ohio requirement). It has been a little while since I’ve read a biography of Hemingway so I’m a little rusty on the details, but I recall that Anderson played a role in his early writing career – encouraged him to write, gave him tips, maybe recommended him for publication. I think he pushed Hem to move to Paris as a youngster, which he did with his first wife Hadley, with results that I think we can safely say influenced his career as a writer. Anderson definitely influenced his style; I got this out of Malcolm Cowley’s excellent introduction, but it’s readily evident even without that clue. The same short, simple sentences that say so much with so few words are recognizable in Anderson’s stories; see my book beginnings post, or:

The Presbyterian Church held itself somewhat aloof from the other churches of Winesburg. It was larger and more imposing and its minister was better paid. He even had a carriage of his own and on summer evenings sometimes drove about town with his wife. Through Main Street and up and down Buckeye Street he went, bowing gravely to the people, while his wife, afire with secret pride, looked at him out of the corners of her eyes and worried lest the horse become frightened and run away.

This quotation comes from “The Strength of God,” one of my favorite stories.

As character sketches, these short stories are outstanding. As a whole, though, this book failed to grasp me the way I’d hoped – certainly it failed to grasp me the way Hemingway does. While I saw Papa on these pages, unmistakably, I was also constantly reminded of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, another quiet, subdued story about everyday, small-town life and its quiet tragedies. Perhaps it is the repetition of that phrase, “Main Street,” that got me, but I kept seeing Lewis’s work in this one, and frankly Main Street is a more memorable book. Like happens to me sometime when I fail to deeply appreciate one of the “classics” (ahem The Picture of Dorian Gray), I worry that it’s me, not the book, that I’ve missed something beautiful that would be obvious to someone with just a little higher IQ. I have to shrug this off, though. This collection does have value; I don’t want to give an impression otherwise, it just might not be *my* ideal cup. Almost every story builds a character who is real and often sympathetic. The tone is unique and if nothing else, the view into small-town life of a certain era is fairly unique. We can’t all love the same books, and life is more colorful for it.

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

I came into this book with a vague notion that it is a classic that was taught in schools more commonly before my day, and that it was popular with boy-children, also mostly before my time. It is a Civil War story. “The youth,” as we mostly know him, Henry Fleming, signs up against his mother’s wishes to go fight for the Union, and the book follows his war experience.

The bulk of this story is taken up not with events but with the turmoil inside Henry’s head. He is fascinated by war and wants to participate; it takes a certain amount of internal argument before he signs up, and then he thinks he’ll make his mother proud. Then after much waiting in camp, when it appears that he might actually see battle, he becomes petrified with the fear that he’ll run. He meets battle, stands and fights at first, wondering at his nonchalant courage; and then turns and runs. While a fugitive deserter in the woods on his own, he convinces himself that running was in fact the wise and respectable decision; then upon encountering the army again he comes filled with self-loathing. He watches a friend die. He rejoins his regiment with an excuse for his absence and becomes confident again. And on and on – you get the idea. It’s the story of a young boy’s difficulty with the concept of fighting and, most centrally (as in the title), the concept of courage. I’m not sure we ever learn the age of “the youth,” which I regret; I kept wondering how old he was, but maybe the point was that we’re unclear on that question. There is more fighting; our youth stays and fights; there is a victory. (Perhaps it is The Victory; I’m not sure.) At the end of the story, Henry has found a peace and a confidence in himself; the war seems to have helped him grow up.

I kept track, off and on, of the uses of the color red in this book. Aside from the obvious red of blood, war is repeatedly characterized as a red animal, and the flag is a red and white woman who demands and inspires Henry’s courage. And red is not the only color to receive repetitive attention. Yellow is cowardice and men’s pale, sickly, frightened or wounded faces. (Henry’s mother threw a yellow light on the color of Henry’s ambition, by opposing his wish to join the army.) Purple is twilight; blue is the Union uniform as well as the sky, and rage is variously red, black, and purple.

I like this passage; note all the colors used:

He was being looked at by a dead man who was seated with his back against a columnlike tree. The corpse was dressed in a uniform that had once been blue, but was now faded to a melancholy shade of green. The eyes, staring at the youth, had changed to the dull hue to be seen on the side of a dead fish. The mouth was open. Its red had changed to an appalling yellow. Over the gray skin of the face ran little ants. One was trundling some sort of bundle along the upper lip.

Honestly, though, I was not particularly taken with The Red Badge of Courage. It had its moments of colorful imagery that I found charming; and at times Henry’s turmoil felt very human and sympathetic. But for the most part I was a little bit bored. Relatively little action takes place; mostly we hear about Henry’s anguish. I hate to be callous about his struggles – this is war, he is but a “youth,” war is terrible – but it felt to me like rather much circling around the same emotions. It wasn’t as evocative, at least for me, as it could have been. Books about the war experience should twist the knife deeper than this one did.

I also found a few aspects of Crane’s treatment of war a little surprising. For one thing, we almost never heard about the enemy; aside from being dressed in gray and being the antagonist of the battle scenes, the Confederates aren’t developed at all. Many war stories, and especially Civil War stories, paint the opposing army as tragically familiar, thus illustrating the futility and ultimate tragedy of war. This book seemed to take a pass on any such message, which left me feeling a little hollow.

As I sum up my experience reading this book, I have to say I didn’t find it very moving. I would love to hear from someone else who did, though. Any fans of The Red Badge of Courage out there?

Gone with the Wind part 5 (ch. 48-63)

Follow the Great Gone with the Wind Readalong at The Heroine’s Bookshelf. Today we discuss part 5.

So first off, head’s up: this post contains spoilers. I imagine there are still folks out there who have never read OR seen Gone With the Wind (I hadn’t!) and if that’s you, I recommend you go away (she says very sweetly) so that you can enjoy the surprises that I enjoyed as I discovered this book for the first time. Fellow discussers and readers-along, welcome.

Oh, Scarlett. Sigh. This was a painful section to read because of all the missed opportunities for happiness that she and Rhett bungled in their respective pride. It was clear to me throughout that they had tender feelings for one another, but they’re both so proud, and Scarlett is so thick, that they don’t get it together in time. For me, that was the tragedy of part 5 – yes, eclipsing even deaths.

So in this section, Scarlett and Rhett are married, and Scarlett achieves relative contentment; she finally has money and security, and has some fun with her new unscrupulous friends. Her relationship with Rhett is only partially stable, and she’s bothered by his odd attitude and the fact that she has still failed to control him, but she pushes these thoughts away. Melanie continues to be a rock, several times solidifying her role as supporter and true friend to Scarlett, who learns to grudgingly appreciate her, at least most of the time. Scarlett’s lust for Ashley seems to cool, but she’s so accustomed to pining for him that she continues to do so even as his polish fades. The birth of Bonnie sets Rhett off in a whole new direction in life; it’s odd to see him so doting and blind to the spoiled child he’s creating, but of course it’s also endearing to see his love for his daughter.

What did you think of Melanie not believing in Scarlett and Ashley’s unfaithfulness? Is she showing again her admirable strength, or is she a fool for her naivete and blindness? I do feel a hint of the latter; but on the whole I agree with Rhett and (as far as I can tell) Mitchell, that she behaves heroically. Once she decides that a person is her beloved friend and deserving of her support, this woman holds on, doesn’t she? I think Scarlett respects her, too, somewhere deep down. I really liked the maturity that finally came out as a result of the “hair shirt of shame”:

With one of the few adult emotions Scarlett had ever had, she realized that to unburden her own tortured heart would be the purest selfishness. She would be ridding herself of her burden and laying it on the heart of an innocent and trusting person. She owed Melanie a debt for her championship and that debt could only be paid with silence.

Finally, here’s Scarlett showing some personal growth! And no great surprise that it comes through Melanie.

I marveled a bit at a society so deeply concerned with gossip that apparently no one thought to say… “Look, Melanie, I don’t care if Ashley boinked Scarlett or not. I like you and I like India and I’m just going to be neutral on the bedroom concerns; is that okay?” I feel like Melanie might have been open to that kind of frank dismissal of her private business; really that might be her first preference: to have people consider her marriage a private matter and butt out. This is a modern angle, I guess, but as a modern woman it’s the first reaction that comes to my mind, if I were an outer-circle acquaintance of the parties involved.

The end-of-book tragedies that destroy Scarlett’s world all over again fell a little short for me. Bonnie was gorgeously cute, but also spoiled and obnoxious. She wasn’t developed much beyond her role as Rhett’s plaything, his doll, and at best, his new lease on life; I was excited for him in that last aspect, but as a character Bonnie didn’t hold great value for me. I think I felt her death coming on, and when it happened it didn’t move me as deeply as I think it was supposed to. Scarlett grieves, but again not profoundly; she’s never cared that much for her children, and if Bonnie was her most loved, that still wasn’t saying much. Her love was heavily tainted with jealousy, too. I felt that Bonnie’s death was a plot device: things had to fall apart again, and she was the object on which all of Rhett’s energies had focused, and around which Scarlett’s world had begun to revolve, so she fell. But it struck me as a clinical move made by Mitchell, rather than the wrenching death of a child that might have twisted my heart. It fell flat.

Melanie’s death, now, got to me much more – Melanie having been such a strong character who I’d come to love and admire. Although she had her flaws right til the end, too: a blind love for Ashley in all his flaws and a refusal to see Scarlett’s duplicity, which was part of her virtue but also earns some disrespect. It was heart-wrenching that she died, yes. But Scarlett immediately then began her triple revelations, and I lost patience. She loves Melanie! Melanie was a real friend! Ashley is boring! Rhett is a) wonderful, b) just like Scarlett, c) loves her and d) gasp, she loves him too! The reader, of course, knew all these things 100’s of pages ago, so her dramatic realizations and emotional flailings just exasperated me. It’s a shame, really, because this book had me firmly in its grasp for the bulk of it. But in the end I think I lost patience.

I spent the book rooting for Scarlett. I identified with her in her worst moments, and refused to pass judgment. But she let me down by not meeting reality when she most needed to, and for coming around when it was just too late, and then for being so dramatic about it at the end. Rhett became more and more sympathetic, admirable, and crush-worthy as the book went on; but he, too, failed to step up when it most mattered. While I accept his argument that Scarlett valued what she didn’t have, I think he was a bit late in letting her see his love; I think he might have won her with a little tenderness. But maybe he was right and her “love” for Ashley needed to run its course. The ending was certainly tragic – two people destined to be together missing one another like ships in the night. But it may have gone on just a bit too long to hold my interest.

On another note – what do you make of that night that Scarlett and Rhett shared in chapter 54? I know that it is understood as a rape scene by some, but I’m not sure I buy it, for this reason: she enjoyed it, and women don’t enjoy being raped. Clearly it was rough and passionate and she wasn’t sure what to make of it; but she enjoyed it, both in the moment and in thinking about it again the next morning. She blushes, thinking that a “lady” doesn’t enjoy such things (i.e. rough sex). But I think rape is a stretch. What do you think? It seemed like the stark honesty of that night, if nothing else, offered the couple one of those chances to share their feelings for one another and seek happiness, but of course they missed the chance when he dashed off the next morning.

So to wrap up here: I loved this book very much. It’s a page-turner. It has heroes, villains, real human characters, war, love, death, and perseverance. It had me completely wrapped up in its pages – I sat by the pool in Key West and trembled with Scarlett and Melanie on that bumpy ride out of Atlanta with the world burning around us. A hell of a great book, although with some real issues regarding racial sensitivity. But the ending fell a little short for me; the tragedies felt a little manufactured, Scarlett’s pain was a little protracted and tiresome, and I was disappointed that her tortured romance with Rhett didn’t have the least final redemption. I thought we’d earned some, but clearly I was wrong. On the other hand, I did appreciate the note of hope or at least the note of uncertainty it ends with. Where is Scarlett headed next?

Finally, thank you so much Erin for finally getting me to open these pages. It was well worth it. Thanks also to my fellow readers-along; it’s been fun to have someone to share with and to see our different reactions. I’m betting some of you found the ending much more satisfying than I did, and I look forward to hearing your reasons.

Great Gone With the Wind Readalong, part 4

Just a reminder, folks: today Part 4 of our Readalong is up for discussion at The Heroine’s Bookshelf. Please do stop by!

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence
I went into this one largely blind. I knew it was a classic, and I knew that its contemporary public found it obscene, even pornographic. But I didn’t know what to expect in the way of style or plot content.

So I’ll begin as if you’re in that same boat. Lady Chatterley’s Lover is set in England, in the years immediately following World War I. (I have found myself reading quite a few books, fiction and non, set in interwar Britain this year; I’m becoming pretty comfortable with this setting.) Our protagonist is a girl named Constance, who has a love affair as a teen while touring in France, but is called home when the war begins. She marries a young man named Clifford Chatterley while he’s on leave; the marriage does not appear to be particularly well thought through. Thus Connie becomes Lady Chatterley. When Clifford returns from the war, he first has to convalesce, and then they move together into his family seat, called Wragby – with Clifford paralyzed from the waist down, impotent, and wheelchair-bound.

To begin with, Connie had a larger, stronger personality than his. Now especially she is tied down, and in the dismal, closed-in environment that is Wragby, bordered by coal mines and their socially inferior, dirty, mean inhabitants. Clifford was arguably never fit to satisfy her, sexually, intellectually, or emotionally; his handicap now finishes that question.

In her malaise and misery, Connie takes a lover, briefly: Michaelis is a playwright, not really socially acceptable but moneyed, and therefore made semi-welcome at Wragby. This affair is not entirely satisfying, though, and following a particular sexual faux pas, Connie cuts him off.

For some time, then, she drags around Wragby, at first caring for Clifford dutifully, but eventually tiring and beginning to like him less. The main action of the book I shall try not to spoil for you, if you have managed to not know for this long. (I didn’t know, and had the pleasure of learning as I read.) But I will tell you that Clifford encourages Connie to get pregnant if she can, and assures her that he’ll acknowledge her child.

I found this book engrossing, after I got used to the style. Lawrence uses colons in odd ways, and with gusto, sprinkling them liberally. It took me a little while to get used to, and I continued to note his colons with amusement. More than punctuation, though, there is a sort of rolling rhythm to the narrative that I had to adjust to; it was lovely once I got going, but just different enough from what I’ve been reading lately to cause a change in pace. I wish I knew better how to Talk Lit and explain what I mean; I’m assuming there’s a term for the style; all I can say is, many classics or older novels have a style and a rhythm that I recognized here and that is different from modern releases.

The voice is third-person but shifts perspectives so that we see out from inside the heads of Connie and of her eponymous lover. There is dialect! I do like dialects, if I can understand them at all, and what they reflect; here, the dialects of various characters reflect social class, which is an important element of the book. One of the ongoing conflicts that Connie and Clifford experience is over social class; Clifford is accustomed to being one of the ruling class and assumes that that is as it should be, while Connie is a little more open-minded. There is discussion of socialism.

The larger theme, however, is a body-vs-mind question. In her youth, Connie and her sister Hilda were stimulated by the intellect of the young men they loved, and Connie continues to share activities of the mind with Clifford at least through the first half of the book. He becomes a fairly successful author, and she assists him in writing stories that make money but are not “important.” Clifford has several old friends – “the cronies” – who come by and have discussions, occasionally including Connie. As the story goes on, though, she finds that stimulating her mind is not enough; she needs to live a physical life, too, and Clifford could never offer her that.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover reminded me very much of Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. All three describe industry and its workings as if they are characters, animate. In this case, the local coal mines, which Clifford owns and becomes increasingly interested and involved in managing, are a force almost of nature. Their dirt and noise dominate Wragby and depress Connie; work in the coal mines defines several generations of men, and the threat that the mines will close is part of the terror and change of the new post-war England.

This was a beautiful book and I enjoyed it. Connie’s uncomfortable, unfulfilled position and struggle to find herself reminded me, in turn, of Katie Chopin’s The Awakening. It’s an important story to tell, and to read. It’s beautifully written.

But, you ask, what about the SEX?! Okay, I’ll tell you. First of all, the “obscene” and “pornographic” nature of this book is said to have diminished over time, but I still raised my eyebrows several times. There is very frank discussion of body parts, orgasms, and the various ways of achieving them; characters name their genitalia and call them by various terms not considered polite. Despite our new and jaded comfort with sex this is not a PG-rated book. But I thought it was well-done and fairly realistic, and I found several scenes of sexual frankness between lovers who really didn’t know each other very well, that suggest an openness we still haven’t entirely achieved.

Perhaps more shocking to me than the sex talk was the talk of affairs and illegitimate children. Not only Clifford, but Connie’s father, and various well-meaning bystanders comment on Connie not looking very healthy or happy, and recommend that she take a lover, even have a child by another man – they suggest this to her, even occasionally to him. It is taken fairly matter-of-factly. This, to me, was more outlandish than the sex. It’s not hard to see why the 1920’s world rejected this book as inappropriate; it’s still being challenged today all over the country. But as usual in dealing with banned books, I say let the individual decide. If you don’t like reading about body parts, steer clear. But this is a fine book, and you’d be missing something.

%d bloggers like this: