A Return to a Bad Reading Habit: Anxiety and Comfort in the Known

I have struggled long and hard to come up with a post topic for today. It’s too late the night before and I’m just beginning to type. This is why I don’t last minute things. I finally thought of a topic, and as I mulled it over in my mind it seemed familiar. I flipped through my old posts and what do you know, I’ve tackled it before.

That’s never a good sign.

Specifically, I wanted to talk about getting stuck in books you know. While rereading my post, A Bad Reading Habit: Anxiety and Comfort in the Known, I had to cringe. Why? One, I’ve fallen off the wagon yet again and keep picking up books I know off the shelf instead of getting new ones finished. Two, months ago I started doing the same thing with my regular TV shows. This particular habit I hadn’t realized until last week when my mom tried to turn on a season premiere and I tensed from head to toe and nearly starting yelling at her. Can you say over-reaction? I was floored.

The good news, if there is any, is that compared to when I wrote the first post, my social life has improved. Actually, my social life has exploded. The day job life has semi-imploded. I’m not sleeping well. My exercise routines are constantly interrupted. And I am struggling to balance coursework with writing and the day job.

I’ve been making a lot of big changes in my personal life recently and making big plans. Obviously, these things are major sources of anxiety for me. I’m not dealing with them properly because they’re bleeding over into other facets of my life in strange ways. Who has a panic attack over TV?

Granted, the world around us is not helping me feel better. Yesterday (as I type this) over 50 people were killed at a concert. Two young women were stabbed to death. And a cop was struck by a car and stabbed by a perpetrator who then ran a truck into pedestrians on a sidewalk. That last one was very close to home. I won’t even get into climate change and starving animals being destroyed or anything else.

It’s difficult to feel hopeful in these times. It’s difficult to motivate myself to look forward and work towards the future. I find I’m very emotional lately and dealing with even fictional surprises seems to be more than I can handle on a regular basis.

That’s the end of my whining. I guess I’m sad today. I’m going to give myself a break and allow myself to revel in the safe and familiar when things get bad. But I’m not allowed to hide there.

Update On: A New Way of Keeping Tabs, Reader Edition

Can you believe it’s nearly the end of September already? My August dragged its feet, but right now it feels like I blinked and the solstice has hurried itself closer. Sunday night I submitted my final exam for my current course, so right now I am exhilarating in the warm swell of post-exam lassitude. I’m also fighting a bug; I apologize for any apparent lack of coherency today.

Since we’re three-fourths-and-a-bit of the way through the year, I thought it was about time I wrote an update on my previous post, A New Way of Keeping Tabs: Things in My Face, Reader Edition. To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure my wall tracker is helping me accomplish my reading goal.

When it comes to writing, my tracker is more about helping me stay on top of my volume goal. When I use it—by which I mean when I don’t fall behind with the actual tracking—I never miss a week of getting my words in. I’m not finding a similar sense of accomplishment carrying over to my reading.

For instance, I just finished my 27th book of the year. In the grand scheme of things, that’s a decent amount read. In my little world, that’s pathetic. The main issue keeping me from getting more read completed is my lack of making it a priority. I don’t make time to read, plain and simple. I squeeze it in when I can, which isn’t enough. The exact same issue is tied to my writing; however, because I have deadlines, I get more writing done.

Yes, I’m terribly hard on myself. And I have a lot on my plate right now. But I have so many unread books—all of which are sitting directly behind me, accusingly—and I want to read all of them because they’re going to be amazing. I’m annoyed with myself because I can’t seem to make reading important. I live to read, so what is my problem?

I don’t have an answer, but I do know beating myself up about it is probably not going to help in the long run. Still. The numbers sitting on my tracker disappoint me; perhaps I need to channel that disappointment into action instead of letting it get me down. I have three and half-ish months to catch up. Let’s see if I can do it.

Have you challenged yourself to read more this year? How are you doing?

Historical Fiction

Guess who forgot August 1st was the first Tuesday of the month? Then just lost her mind in regards to posting this? Yes, that’s me waving! I’m just diving in.

A few weeks ago, my Teenreads newsletter hit my inbox and I carefully perused the latest YA titles that’ll be hitting shelves soon. I love the Teenreads’ breakdown because they don’t simply list all of their titles, they also provide genre labels.

I happened to see “historical fiction” so I stopped to read the book’s synopsis. I was shocked to learn that the book in question was set in the 1990s. I’m a ’90s baby. And I am not old—I’m not even 30! As far as I’m concerned the ’90s are not historical fiction. It might have gotten my back up.

Later, while I was trying to sleep, I couldn’t help but wonder what I do consider historical fiction. Stories set in the ’70s? ’60s? ’50s? I couldn’t decide. So I decided to look into it.

This speech by Sarah Johnson of the Historical Novel Society turned out to be an excellent resource. Two parts jumped out at me while reading.

First, her definition of Historical Fiction: “My journal, the Historical Novels Review, has a working definition, which we use for consistency purposes in deciding which books to review. To us, a ‘historical novel’ is a novel which is set fifty or more years in the past, and one in which the author is writing from research rather than personal experience.”

Second, this statement that I feel explains how the label became affixed to the novel that sparked this post in the first place: “I’d say that books are called historical fiction by the publishing world only when no other words could possibly be used to describe them.”

Now I have to backtrack a bit because my research has led me to discover that not everyone knows, or can decide on, what historical fiction actually is.

I came across this site in my travels that I completely disagree with for a number of reasons. The main one is applicable to this post: Despite what the writer says, alternate history is not historical fiction—it’s fantasy. Maybe general fiction depending on what happens and to whom.

For me, historical fiction does it’s best to portray history as close to the facts as possible. Depending on the author, they may have to change a few or many things to make the story work. Compare these prime examples: Diana Gabaldon and Philippa Gregory. Over two lengthy series, Gabaldon has made the conscious choice to change two—yes two—historical events in all of her books to make the story work. She stays true to history to a near fanatical degree. Gregory, on the other hand, has always played it a bit fast and loose with her characters, but she stays true to the major historical points and (in)famous people she depicts.

It all comes down to two things: one, historical fiction depicts the true past; and, two, the writer has done their research, not written a memoir or used their own memories to create the setting. If you’re interested, this thread on Library Thing covers a lot of what I, and Sarah Johnson, believe about historical fiction.

What are your thoughts on historical fiction? I didn’t know I had such strong feelings.

A Book with Something to Say: The House of the Scorpion

Recently I’ve been reading a lot of joyless books. They’ve been excellent, thought provoking reads, but they’ve left me a bit saddened and appalled over what humans can do to other humans. Not to mention what humans can do to everything else. I’m not sure how this trend came about, but after my current read I am picking up something fluffy. Very fluffy.

In the midst of these reads, I happened to finish Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own; therein, she mentions that women writers, since that is the focus of the essay, should not strive to write a book that speaks to those who criticise women writers. On page 73 of my version*, and in other parts, Woolf notes that the stories that speak to something more than the story the writer is trying to tell are not nearly as grand as “pure” novels. When writers try to write about something specific, like the treatment of women by men, they lose the art of storytelling.

My Woolf comments may seem like a random aside, but I’ve encountered these thoughts in recent years. On the one side, there are writers who refuse to admit that they have a social responsibility when it comes to their work. On the other side, there are readers who think books about social issues are boring. There’s even an entirely different set of people who think fiction can’t teach them anything.

I call bull on all of them. There are numerous writers who handle major issues adeptly and integrate them into their stories so that some readers don’t even know they’re being educated.

This brings me to Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion. This is a book geared towards the 9-12 crowd. It’s a coming of age story about Matteo Alacrán who we meet when he’s three years old and leave when he’s fifteen. It’s a futuristic, science fiction tale. It’s a horrific depiction of human selfishness and cruelty. And it also happens to be a book about sociopolitical, ethical, and scientific issues that were in serious debate at the time of its writing (2002), specifically cloning, pollution, immigration, and the treatment of migrant workers.

Compared to other books that try to teach, which can be extremely heavy handed, Farmer weaves these issues into her story seamlessly. I recently finished Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, which concerns itself in large part with the issue of global warming. However, the problem came up so often in such a not-so-subtle fashion that I couldn’t help rolling my eyes towards the end. For me, the difference was learning about these sociopolitical issues through Matt’s eyes and ignorance versus having a narrator say it to me repeatedly.

The fact that Farmer writes for kids likely influenced her treatment of the lessons she was trying to impart. There’s a reason people told kids fairy tales to keep them safe. Kids are much better at intuiting the lessons of a story that entertains them than listening to repeated lectures.

As someone interested in science, I usually enjoy stories about cloning. It hit me reading The House of the Scorpion that every book, regardless of genre, that I’ve read that contains clones sees them treated horribly by the rest of humanity. I was young when Dolly the sheep hit the scene and I have no idea what the general response to her existence was. Personally, I have a pretty strong grasp of science, especially genetics, so the idea of cloning doesn’t bother me one bit. I might be an oddity.

In regards to immigration and the treatment of migrant workers, it saddens me that the future Farmer depicts is extremely relevant now fifteen years after her story was published. Anyone who does not believe slave labour exists in this world, or even on our continent, is grossly mistaken.

Overall, as a reader, Farmer’s novel has given me a new appreciation for books that say something. As a writer, I feel educated about dealing with heavy topics now that I’ve read books that handle it well and not-so-well. I highly recommend The House of the Scorpion, but fair warning: It is a difficult read. The pages fly by, but the horror depicted is hard to digest in big chunks.

What’s the last book about a serious topic you enjoyed or felt changed your outlook on something?

 

*Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Annotated by Susan Gubar. Harcourt: NY, 2005.

A Year of Reading Women

I want to start my post today by apologizing for missing the first Tuesday of this month and not writing until now. The shift from April to May caught me a bit off guard and I did not manage my time well. Life got a little bit hectic and I couldn’t seem to get it done.

As I type, I realize we’re already in the 20th week of 2017. Is there a better time to initiate a reading challenge? Probably, but I’m doing it anyway! I would love for people to join me, yet I also want to see if I can personally do it. From my title, you have likely figured out that I want to read books written exclusively by female authors this year.

Honestly, barring book club picks by other members and assigned reading for my courses, I don’t think this will be a difficult challenge. I read stories written mostly by women anyway; looking at my bookshelves it’s an easy 3:1 ratio. However, with recent events around the world concerning women and those who identify as female, I want to make a point of it.

And I won’t be reading just fiction because obviously women write much more than that. I’ll be adding poetry, drama, essays, memoirs, and all the other good stuff out there. Too readily, certain governments and individuals with power are trying to silence the women who don’t agree with them. I might not be anyone important, but this shall be one of my means of resistance.

I was reluctant for all of a minute to take up this challenge. The only reason: one of my favourite authors, Guy Gavriel Kay, will be a guest of honour at When Words Collide this year and I had wanted to read all of his books I currently own. At this point, all I can do is shrug –they’ve sat there for years and a few more months won’t hurt them, or me.

So, as I look above my laptop screen at my calendar called “Women Reading,” I shall admire the artwork then shove my nose in a few more books. I hope you join me!