World Map of Literature

I do love seeing those lists of books that all sorts of publications put out:

They’re fun to browse and generally make me feel all snooty and superior either because I’ve read a lot or because I disagree with the selection. They tend to be heavily weighted towards western white male authors, with maybe a noticeable minority of western white female authors.

That tendency makes Literature of the World all the more awesome, because this one Reddit user, Backforward24, literally goes over a world map and identifies a piece of literature from each country that you should read:

Literature of the World

And the joys of social media crossover means that I actually discovered this Map via Tumblr, because I don’t generally browse Reddit. That’s where I went to copy down the list of books* that I am including below the tag for length purposes:

* note: I have read 7 of the 145 books.

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The Bible: Psalms

I had actually been really looking forward to Psalms because I thought there would be some good poetry here. I’m not a big poetry reader, not because I dislike it but because I am incredibly picky about it. But I like John Donne’s poetry, and Rita Dove’s poetry, and Ramprasad Sen’s poetry, and I’ve been getting a kick out of the “I lik the bred” poetry meme. As it turns out, I’m not a big fan of King David’s, King Solomon’s, or various other poets’ poetry that wound up in Psalms.

The introduction on the audio book version also raised expectations because apparently a lot of these are lyrics, intended to be set to music, and the original text includes instructions on the music. Cool!* If nothing else, I was going to amuse myself by trying to find Christian rock bands who had put the Psalms to music in a modern fashion. But the results are pretty rough. I mean, the music is fine, less rock and more spiritual/celtic maybe, which is disappointing, but the lyrics…

Just, wow, the Pslams are whiney. Either whiney or really blatantly hypocritical. Often, they’re both whiney and hypocritical. Just oof. I was disappointed. There’s just a lot of “these people are being mean to me, you need to beat them up” along with “you hate people who do violent things but love people who obey you, so let’s all do violent things to the people who don’t obey you.”

So just, nope.

Now, keep in mind that Psalms is broken into 5 sections and 150 poems, from a variety of poets discussing a variety of issues, so while I didn’t like the vast majority of it, that isn’t to say there aren’t a few exceptions.

There are some individual verses that ring out with power and touch the heart… but there’s always another verse that pretty much delivers the opposite message.

A couple of verses that spoke to me particularly strongly given the current political situation in the US are:

Psalm 94:20-21:

But you are opposed to dishonest lawmakers
Who gang up to murder innocent victims

Psalm 101:6-7 (by King David):

I will find trustworthy people to serve as my advisors
And only an honest person will serve as an official
No one who cheats or lies
Will have a position in my royal court

So, for a moment, it was a salve to my soul, a bit like watching West Wing.

But then there’s Psalm 106:34-35:

Our Lord, they disobeyed you
By refusing to destroy the nations.
Instead they were friendly
With those foreigners and followed their customers

So there really is something for everyone in these psalms, including the pro-genocide bigots. That is not a good thing.

But if you ever want to have a bible verse to support your position on any given issue, Psalms probably has you covered. You just have to decide to ignore all the context and hypocrisy.

Summary: A book of poetry that varies between emo whining and questionable historical accounts.

Moral: If you alternate between flattering and whining to a powerful being, they might be willing to act on your behalf.

* Especially cool since I have recently run across a lot of interesting discussions of how versatile hip-hop is, and how versatile Shakespeare is in much the same vein as hip-hop, and I just had high expectations.

Next Up: Proverbs

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

61unm4weinl-_aa300_Between the World and Me
by Ta-Nehisi Coates
2015

So 2016 proved to be a bit of a wake-up call for me in terms of politics and social justice. We have some serious problems in the US, regarding unjust inequality of human respect and public safety in addition to inequalities of income, access to education, access to healthcare, and access to overall opportunities.

I’ve come to the realization that it’s a sign of just how sheltered I’ve been that 2016 was a wake-up call rather than just another demonstration of what the world can be like. It was time and past for me to expand my horizons and get out of my comfort zone.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is only a couple of years older than me and this book is about his experience with being black in a white society. I’m white in a white society and thus a lot of racial issues are nearly invisible to me. I am not at all the intended audience for this book: he writes it as a black man to his black son about his experience with the way their blackness is seen by society. It is beautifully written and it’s an honor to be be allowed to read this somewhat intimate letter from a father to his son about his fears and hurts and anger.

It reminded me of Why Are They Angry With Us?, another book I highly recommend, but while that book was academic and intended for a general audience, Between the World and Me is very personal and intended for a specific audience of one, possibly expanded to include all young black men.

I’m glad I listened to it as an audio book rather than trying to read it as text. Coates reads it himself, which I always appreciate in audio books. But the real benefit of audio books is that they don’t stop unless you actively push the pause button. I found it a difficult book to hear but that very difficulty is what makes it all the more important that I listen.

 

The Best of 2016

2016 was rough, I think we’ve established that. But now as we move forward into 2017, I’ve been trying to make myself remember some of the good things that did happen last year–I refuse to let an entire year go down because of a few (key, admittedly very) bad things. I’ve spent the past few months re-reading romance novels, but before that period of re-reading began, I found some great new books. Most of them I’ve already talked about here on the blog–Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, How to Build a Girl, and Bone Gap–but there were a few others I wanted to mention.

  1. Pointe by Brandy Colbert is a YA book about a ballet dancer, but it also involves a kidnapping and a teenage victim who comes back after years away. It’s a dark, sad book, maybe not for younger teens, but I found it really compelling. I especially enjoyed watching, over the course of the book, as the female protagonist worked out just how much agency she had and how she was going to use it.
  2. I’ve already raved about the memoir Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe, one of my favorites books of recent years, but I was a little worried that I might not feel the same way about the author’s fiction. And while nothing could quite match my original love, Paradise Lodge was a really charming story about a British teenager in 1970s who takes a job in a nursing home. Stibbe has this very specific voice that comes across in both her fiction and non-fiction, in which even when she’s talking about some sort of crisis or disaster, everything seems like it will all work out fine. I found this very calming.
  3. If you know who I am talking about when I say “Dave Holmes, MTV VJ,” I suspect you will like his book. Party of One is a memoir, structured around music, and maybe it’s just that he and I are about the same age, but this book felt like it came directly from my subconscious.
  4. Way back in 2012 I wrote about how much I love Sharon Shinn, and I recommended a new book of hers called Troubled Waters and said I hoped was the start of a new series. And it was! There are now four books in the Elemental Blessings series, and I have enjoyed all of them. If you would like to read a fantasy romance novel with a kick-ass female main characters, these are a great option. I would recommend reading them in order, but I think my favorite was the third book, Jewelled Fire.

And with that, I am quite happy to close the book (so to speak) on 2016. I’m already starting 2017 out well, reading-wise, with my continued journey through the Lord Peter Wimsy books, and a lovely, poem-like book called The Lesser Bohemians. I have a lot of hopes and goals for 2017, and continuing to discover great new things to read and writing about them here is definitely something I plan to continue.

Books for the New America

So, 2016, huh? It’s been quite a year. I feel like I’ve been just barely hanging on since the election. But while I needed some recovery time to mourn and come to terms with what had happened, it’s time to look up and move forward. (Although holidays cards have been a challenge, since I couldn’t find any that said “Merry Christmas, but I’m still really mad.” I should have waited to make my card purchase, since the genius Swistle just got on zazzle.com and made a bunch of cards with pretty lights and trees on the front that say things like, “Wishing you whatever scraps of peace and joy you can find this holiday season.”) Since this site is all about dealing with everything thought books, I thought I would offer two different kinds of book options for anyone else out there who might be desperately looking for their scraps of peace and joy.

Comfort Books

I spent a lot of the last month reading things that allowed me to slide into a calmer, more peaceful world. The best of them included:

  • L.M. Montgomery stand-alone books. As much as I love Anne of Green Gables, once I start rereading that I have to go through the whole series, which is a big time commitment. Plus, Rilla of Ingleside, the last book in the series, has too much heart-breaking World War I plot for me to handle right now. But some of Montgomery’s one-off books are completely charming. My favorites are Jane of Lantern Hill, about a little girl who gets to set up house with her father on Prince Edward Island, and the much more grown-up romance The Blue Castle.
  • Dorothy Sayers mystery novels. How did I miss Dorothy Sayers all my life? Somehow how I did, which is actually great, because now I have a whole series of arch British 20th century mysteries to catch up on. Whose Body? is the first in her series featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, but Gaudy Night has been my favorite so far.
  • Books about makeup. The actual thing that has been soothing me to sleep each night? Pretty Iconic by Sali Hughes, her latest detailed hardback book about classic makeup/hair care/beauty items. Just page after page of gorgeous photos of a lipstick or a shampoo bottle, next to a little essay about each item. Even opening the book lowers my blood pressure.

I have also heard from friends that vampire books and Connie Willis comedies have been working for them, so this is clearly a category that expands to fit the needs of the individual.

Discomfort Books

But makeup and historical mysteries will only get us so far, and we also need to be prepared for the fight ahead. Since I assume that everyone has already been taking notes from The Handmaid’s Tale, here are a few other books to keep you sharp.

  • The Small Change series by Jo Walton. These are also British mystery novels, but they are worlds away from Dorothy Sayers. In this trilogy, which starts with Farthing, English elites overthrew Churchill and ceded Europe to Hitler, and fascism and intolerance are creeping over the island. While each book features a mystery and a principled Scotland Yard investigator, the power of the books in the chilling way they show what happens to regular people trying to live regular lives as their country slowly crushes them.
  • Anything by Octavia Butler. The Parable of the Sower is a completely amazing book that terrified me to the point where I can never read it again. As I recall, it was about a teenage girl living with her family in a California where law and order and government and society and general had broken down. Also, I think she was starting a new religion? But any Octavia Butler is going to provide a swift reminder about the oppression some Americans have experienced from the moment this country began and kind of how terrible humans can be, in general.
  • Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich. The author of this, I’m going to call it a literary oral history, won the Nobel prize in literature in 2015. This book is an amazing, enormous telling of the crumbling of the Soviet Union and the emergence of today’s Russia through a zillion individual stories. What came through most clearly to me was how many of the people she spoke with felt like not only their country, but the people that lived within it, became unrecognizable in the blink of an eye.

 

Zoella’s Book Club

Recently I’ve been telling people that I should give Twitter 101 courses, because I love Twitter and I do a good job of explaining what it is and how to use it to people who are baffled by the very concept. But YouTube is like a 200-level course–I just barely understand it myself, I’m not sure I could explain a thing about it to anyone else. I’m not talking instructional videos or Carpool Karaoke, I mean vloggers and YouTube celebrities. It is a weird concept–people, just, like, talk about their lives? Online? And millions of people watch them do it? I have just started poking around the edge of YouTube, but I can see why people get hooked on watching these vlogs. One of the most famous YouTubers out there is Zoella, a twenty-something British girl who is known for make-up videos but whose empire has spread to novels, bath products, home goods, etc. I think Zoella’s adorable–her life might be a million miles apart from mine in every way, but I find her videos super entertaining and I actually find her makeup recommendations very helpful. And lots of other people do to, since more than TEN MILLION people subscribe to her YouTube channel.

What does this have to do with books? WH Smith, a British bookstore, decided to capitalize on Zoella’s popularity by having her select some books for an online book club that launched a couple of weeks ago. And the plan is clearly working–apparently sales of some of these books increased more than 1000% after they received her seal of approval. Zoella’s audience is heavily weighted towards teenaged girls, so when I checked out the book club selections I was expecting to see a pile of cheesy YA books. And they are mostly YA romance books, but they’re good ones! And the list includes a remarkable number of things that we’ve also reviewed here. Zoella’s eight books included Fangirl, All the Bright Places, and Everything, Everything Also included in the list was We Were Liars, which I never wrote about here but thought was really interesting. So, apparently our taste aligns very closely with hip young vloggers!

After seeing how many of the books on this list I loved, I tracked down The Sky Is Everywhere and I’ve got the rest of the books on my library list. If you’re interested in some sweet, sad, modern teen romance, Zoella’s list is pretty solid. Plus she does a really solid makeup tutorial.

 

 

Eligible

As I’ve said more than once before, Pride and Prejudice is my favorite book of all time and I keep a close eye on adaptations. I may not like every version of the story people cook up, but I love weighing them against each other and seeing what tiny improvements each version can make. Just recently I rewatched the Keira Knightley movie, and while I find almost everything in that version to be not quite as good as the 1995 BBC mini-series, I was reminded that the movie does a GREAT job of using clothes and houses to really play up the class differences between the Bennets and the Bingley/Darcy crowd.

Anyway, when I saw that Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest book Eligible was a modern version of Pride and Prejudice, I was very interested. Sittenfeld is probably best known for her first novel Prep, about a girl at a New England boarding school. I actually thought Prep was incredibly grim and unpleasant to read, but I quite liked American Wife, which was an imagined, fictional version of Laura Bush’s journey to become a somewhat unwilling First Lady. So I went into Eligible fairly ambivalent about Sittenfeld and I’m still not sure how I feel, although   did enjoy the book.

There’s no point summarizing the plot–this is a very loyal retelling of Jane Austen’s classic story about the Bennet sisters, moved forward in time to modern-day Cincinnati. To be completely honest, I went into the book thinking that there was no way anything could live up the Lizzie Bennet Diaries–I LOVED that video adaptation of the story and I couldn’t imagine another modern telling matching up. But Eligible did win me over, at least a bit, as it went along.

There were a few things I thought it did really well:

  1. Sittenfeld really hit it dead on with loads of her cultural references as she moved the characters to the present day. For example, Jane is a yoga teacher, Darcy is a surgeon, and Kitty and Lydia are totally into CrossFit. Over and over again she would introduce a character with his or her modern identity and I would say, “Oh, of course! That makes total sense.”
  2. In the books, the Bennet sisters are in the 15-21 age range and most modern updates up that a bit to make everyone legal, but even my beloved Lizzie Bennet Diaries only puts the older girls in their late twenties. In Eligible, Jane is turning 40 and Lizzie is right behind her. Which is perfect! A huge part of the original story is the pressure the girls feel to get married, and that panic rings so much more true in the modern story when Jane and Lizzie are both approaching 40. To me, this was the one thing that Eligible has really added to the Pride and Prejudice oeuvre.
  3. Darcy and Lizzie came off pretty hot, actually, which doesn’t always happen.

But I have to admit that there were a few things that didn’t quite work for me:

  1. This is often a problem with Pride and Prejudice adaptations, but it takes the book a while to get going. If you’re Jane Austen, I’m happy to read a third of the book where people futz around before the love story kicks in. For other mere mortals, it means that I spend quite a few chapters being like, “Come on, come on . . . “
  2. I would say that 90% of the characters, plot, and structure of the book are straight from the source material. The characters have the same names, the chapters are structured the same ways, etc. So when she does make a change, it must mean something, right? There were two major places where Eligible diverged from the original and I am still not quite sure why. First, Wickham is split into two characters, which gives a whole new spin to a couple of key plot points and I can only assume that this is because we all have larger social networks today? Hmm. And second, this book proceeds a bit past where the original ends and . . .  again, I’m not sure I see the point.
  3. Lydia. Oooh, Lydia is problematic. In order for the plot to move along, Lydia has to do some fairly outrageous things. Jane Austen’s take seems to be that Lydia was, if not evil, certainly dumb and thoughtless; by the end of the book (200-year-old spoilers), Austen seems to have decided that Lydia has made her bed and now she can lie in it. In our previous discussions of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, we all talked about how much we liked their take on Lydia, which made her much more sympathetic and made her actions more understandable. Sittenfeld’s Lydia is pretty much in the dumb and thoughtless mold, but the way Wickham is now handled makes the end of her story feel quite different. I don’t feel like Lydia has to be sympathetic–a big message in the story is about family loyalty, even when you might not like that family–but it was a significant enough change that it felt like Sittenfeld was trying to make a statement. And I think that statement was, even if you’re dumb and mean things might work out if you have a responsible older sister? I don’t know.

Overall, I thought Eligible was snappy and fun to read and if you’re a Jane Austen completist like I am, you’ll enjoy it. But if I am going to recommend Pride and Prejudice-inspired material to someone, this ones falls down on the list under the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Bride and PrejudiceLongbourn and even Bridget Jones’s Diary.