Spring 2014 Reading Challenge

Everyone loves a challenge. Because when you meet that challenge, or at least attempt to meet it, you often end up with a feeling of accomplishment. You also almost always end up learning something in the end.

Reading challenges are very popular. Facebook, Buzzfeed, and the internet as a whole are filled with them. Most of them are just lists asking “how many of these 100 or 1000 books have you read?” But, that can get kind of boring. I’ve read a lot of those books — the classics — and I’ve enjoyed some and hated others. Half the time, though, I think some of the fun gets taken out of the challenge because they’re telling you exactly what to read. There isn’t a lot of choice. So, my reading challenge to you incorporates choice.

 

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The 2014 Spring Reading Challenge:

Between now and the first day of Summer (Saturday, June 21) challenge yourself to read at least 8 books. The books don’t have to be read in any particular order. 

1. Re-read a book that you were assigned to read in high school or college and that you thought was boring. If it’s still so boring that you can’t get into it or through it, try another. 

If you read the book on the first attempt: 20 points.

If you quit the first book and successfully read the second: 15 points.

If you attempt both books but finish neither: 10 points.

If you only attempt one book: 5 points.

2. Read one book exclusively on an electronic device or on your computer. (Most local libraries have e-book catalogs, so don’t buy an e-book unnecessarily.)

If you successfully read the entire book on the e-device: 15 points.

3. Read a book that you swore you would never, ever read. 

If you successfully finish the book: 15 points.

If you read part of it and realize there was a reason you swore you’d never read it: 5 points.

4. Re-read one of your favorite books from when you were young. Condition: The book must be more than 100 pages.

If you successfully read the book: 10 points.

5. Read a book, either fiction or non-fiction that is about events or people at least 100 years in the past.

If you read a fictional book: 20 points.

If you read a non-fiction book: 30 points.

6. Read a book that is at least 500 pages in length.

If you successfully read the book: 20 points.

7. Read a book that belongs to a series of at least 3 books. 

If you read the book: 20 points.

If you end up reading all the books in the series in a row: 35 points. Add another 10 points if there’s more than 4 books in the series.

8. Read one book within the same 24 hour period. The book must be at least 200 pages. 

If you read the book: 40 points.

 

Maximum Score: 170.

 

Think you’re up for the challenge?

 

Let me know what you read and how you’re doing! 

 

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Why Imperfection and Silliness Are Valuable or What I Learned from Reading Fifty Shades of Grey

I’ve noticed a trend in my reading life. There are all these books that I discount when I first hear about them, thinking that I have no interest in reading them and that I never will. Often, this rule of thumb remains true. But, every once in a while, I break this rule and decide suddenly to give into the reading trend and read the popular book(s) that I initially thought I wouldn’t like.

This happened with The Hunger Games, and anyone who has read my previous posts knows I am now a big fan of that series. So, when I saw that my local library had a new, shiny, brilliant e-media catalog, I wanted to try it out.

So, this week I read the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. All 1,800 pages of it. In four days.

Why, you ask?

Because I could.

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Now, let me just say before you start yelling and laughing that this post is not about how amazing the Fifty Shades of Grey books are. It’s not. Because, the books are not “amazing.”

As a discerning reader, the books have a lot of issues. If I had to read about main character Anastasia Steele’s personified subconscious and inner goddess one more time I might have screamed. I also often found myself wanting to slap some god-forsaken sense into Christian Grey’s skull. But, I have to admit — the books were entertaining, and whole hell of a lot of other things too (If you’ve read them, you’ll know what I mean).

But they weren’t literary gold.

And that’s okay. They don’t have to be

But that’s just the point that I want to make.

We live in a world that is often obsessed with merits. We are a population of critics. Movies and TV shows bomb because they aren’t “critically acclaimed.” Books and their authors are lambasted for bad writing, predictable plots, and unrealistic depictions. We constantly criticize ourselves and judge others for not fitting into a pre-determined mold.

The Fifty Shades of Grey books and their author, E L James are no stranger to this idea. Fifty Shades has been a phenomenon. Started as a Twilight-centric fan fiction homage and then reworked and self published in print, the trilogy gained immense attention. That attention and popularity grew so great that the trilogy was picked up by Vintage Books and published professionally. According to Amazon UK, the trilogy’s first book has outsold the combined sales of the Harry Potter series on their website.

So what’s my point?

The Fifty Shades of Grey series, regardless of how you feel about it, is an important of example of how perfection and value are not the same thing.

Level of success does not always correspond with level of talent.

Value is everywhere. You just have to drown out the critics to find it.

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Do What You Want

Life is short. Do what you want to do. Don’t worry about what others think or whether you think they’ll judge you. Embrace this idea in your everyday life, but also embrace it in your passions, in your dreams, and in your goals.

Want to travel the world? Make it happen. Want to be the next E L James and write steamy, NC-17 novels? Go right ahead. Want to be a book critic that points out all of the trilogy’s flaws? Do that instead.

I am a strong proponent of the idea that everything is a learning experience. Every single thing you do teaches you something, even if the lesson is to never do it again. When it comes to books, for example, no one has ever become stupider by ingesting information. The more you know, the more nuanced your perspective.

What you do has value. Whether it is silly, intellectual, crazy, world-changing, fun, or intensely creative. Value exists in all things.

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Never Underestimate Your Ability, Never Discount That Others May Admire It

Everyone is talented. We may not see immediately recognize our own talents, but they are there. Think about it. Do you waste time drawing instead of taking notes? Do you love to cook, but could care less about proper business accounting procedures? Your talent resides in what you inherently love. It lies in how you waste your time.

Tap into that. It could be a goldmine (and I don’t just mean monetarily).

E L James’ Fifty Shades of Grey series may have many flaws, but it is still entertaining. Those flaws and issues do not render its value moot. Even some of the most critically panned things are still feats of creativity in their own way. While James may have not suceeded in creating the perfect novel, she did create something that kept people (including myself) turning pages. And this did not only involve the books’ extremely naughty natures.

Don’t think that you are talentless. Don’t worry that because what you do is not the “absolute best” that it is worthless. Perfection isn’t a guarantee of anything. Think I’m kidding? Ask the Admissions offices of Harvard and Yale how many applicants with perfect SAT or ACT scores are NOT accepted every year.

Don’t think that something you create, something you enjoy has no value. Others may see immense value where you perceive none.

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So What If It’s A Silly Idea, Who Cares?

When I downloaded Fifty Shades of Grey earlier in the week, I said to myself, “This is so stupid. I really can’t believe I’m reading this.” But then, another part of me said, “So what? Read the damn book. If you don’t like it, quit. If you do like it, finish it.” So I did. And I did enjoy the book. I enjoyed all three of them. And yes, they are kind of silly, and a little weird, and definitely have A LOT more sex and profanity than I have ever encountered in reading material. But, so what?

Reading Fifty Shades of Grey may have been silly, but it got me thinking. It made me think about the how flaws do not negate value. It made me think enough to write this post.

The bottom line is that you never know what will make you think. The silliest, craziest, most random things can change your perspective or give new life to your thoughts. Never underestimate the value of doing something for fun.

Look at the Dames Who Dish blog. It wouldn’t be here if us four girls hadn’t decided to do something that we originally perceived as silly, and a little bit crazy, and a whole lot of fun.

So…

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On Reading “The River of No Return” by Bee Ridgway

Some of my friends and family make fun of me for having a Twitter account. “What do you tweet about?,” they ask. Or they might say, “I tried Twitter, I thought it was stupid.”

If you really stop and think about it, Twitter is kind of odd. You follow all these people, most of whom you don’t know, and you correspond with each other and the entire world in short messages of 140 characters. But, Twitter does have its uses and its perks.

Generally, I use Twitter to satisfy my inner nerd and my inner fan girl. I follow the news sites, politicians, entertainers, as well as follow my friends who have accounts. I also, though, follow as many of the publishing companies as I can. It’s no secret that I love books and sometimes I feel that for as much as I read, I never have a good handle on when new and amazing books are coming out.

For the most part, following publishers on Twitter only serves to give me information on new books, etc. But, publishers also do free book giveaways through Twitter which is really cool for a bibliophile like me — especially if the giveaway is for an Advanced Reader Copy of a book that is not yet out.

Several weeks ago, I was lucky enough to win an Advance Reader Copy of The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway from Dutton Books (an imprint of Penguin). Here’s my review of this lovely book:

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DISCLAIMER: I chose to write this review. I was in no way compensated by Dutton to do so. All rights for The River of No Return are reserved to its author and publisher.

The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway

In her debut novel, Bee Ridgway — a professor of American literature at Bryn Mawr College — weaves an intricate and nuanced tale of time travel, power, knowledge, and romance. On the surface, The River of No Return is an invigorating and page-turning time travel thriller that places its main characters in a battle against time itself and with those who wish to control it. Underneath, however, is a historical, cultural, and social commentary that takes the science fiction based subject of time travel and turns it on its head, rooting the concept in the power of human emotion and memory. Ridgway’s debut is far more than an adventure story — it is a thought provoking read that incites you to question all what you know about the world around you and what you consider to be the place of the concept of time in our lives.

In 1812, Lord Nicholas Falcott, a member of the British peerage and a soldier in the Napoleonic Wars, suddenly disappears from the battlefield at Salamanca as a French soldier prepares to kill him in combat. Against all apparent laws of time and space, he is transported to 2003 London where wakes up in a hospital and is informed that he is now a member of the Guild, a time and government transcending organization that controls time travel and its participants, and that “There is no return” to his previous life. Quickly, Lord Falcott becomes Nick Davenant and is instructed by the Guild in modern life. The Guild, however, is not simply a kindly guiding organization. It is powerful and wealthy, keeping close tabs on its members and gifting each with an annual multi-million dollar stipend. By 2013, Nick Davenant has adjusted to 21st century life, but deep down he has never left his 19th century origins behind. Haunted by homesickness and dreams of his battlefield experiences, Nick uses memories of a young woman he left behind to ease the panic that accompanies the fact that no amount of money can change his place out of time. Soon, however, Nick is summoned by the Guild and ordered to break its cardinal rule: travel back from when he came to help prevent the unraveling of time itself. Attempting to come to terms with the fact that what the Guild preaches as truth is not all that is seems, Nick travels to 1815 and comes face to face with his old life and the woman who has kept him grounded in another century for the last decade.

In 1815, as Nick tries to accomplish what the Guild has asked of him, Julia Percy mourns the death of her beloved grandfather and guards the secret he tasked her to protect on his deathbed: his ability to manipulate time. As her cousin Eamon arrives to take possession of the family home and her fate, Julia quickly recognizes that there is more than one secret pervading her life, and that those secrets are desired by many and have further reach than she can fully comprehend. While Eamon manically scours the house and Julia’s memory for something called the “Talisman,” she observes that her mysteriously returned from the dead and greatly changed neighbor Lord Falcott may be her only solution to the increasing danger in which she finds herself.

First separately and then together, Nick and Julia discover the extent to which the river of time effects them all and how far the Guild will go to control the future and everyone’s fates.

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The River of No Return is one of the best books I have read recently, and I unabashedly place it on my list of favorites. Ridgway writes beautifully and evocatively, injecting a complexity into her storytelling that rivals the best puzzle masters. While some compare her debut and its time traveling components to The Time Traveler’s Wife, I would compare it instead to Katherine Neville’s masterpiece The Eight. Filled with clues along the way and peppered with references to historical figures, places, and movements, Ridgway’s first novel is a stimulating and entertaining read.

From the time I began reading, I couldn’t put the book down. It truly is a page turner and will leave you zealous to find out what happens next. In addition to its entertainment value, The River of No Return‘s most valuable facet may reside in its subtle observations of time itself. This is especially interesting to me as someone who has studied history in-depth. Throughout, Ridgway deftly conveys that, at its core, time and age is a construction. We are all victims of our time — something that has nothing to do with our abilities. We are products of both nature and nurture. When we are born and the circumstances of that time — its technology, customs, etc. — have much to do with what we become. Our capacity, however, is unaffected by time.

The River of No Return is available for purchase on April 23, 2013.

Growing Up at the End of the World: Karen Thompson Walker’s “The Age of Miracles”

Note: This post is a review of Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles and contains plot spoilers.

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Life is hard, there’s no doubt about it. But, most of us are able, at least to some extent, put life’s difficulties behind us and move on. We keep going, because the world stops for no one. We don’t ignore those difficulties, but instead compartmentalize them and leave them behind in a different time. We gain perspective. In retrospect, things don’t seem so bad. They were learning experiences, something everyone goes through — something to accept, not to dwell on and be ashamed of.

Every age has its challenges. As babies, we learn to walk and talk. We fall down, we speak gibberish. As children, we learn to read, go to school, make our first friends. We stumble over words, we get the answer wrong, we don’t quite fit in. As adolescents, we are more aware of the world around us and how it works, we develop real relationships with others, we have a crush, an inseparable best friend. Reality can be serious and not always happy, those relationships are tested, feelings are rejected, we’re not always the most popular person.

The list goes on and on. And life doesn’t stop while the list continues.

Even if the world does stop turning.

Source/Disclaimer: theageofmiraclesbook.com. Image is strictly property of Karen Thompson Walker and Random House.

What would happen to an ordinary 11-year old girl if the world did indeed stop turning? This is the story that Karen Thompson Walker presents in her debut novel, The Age of Miracles.

Julia is like any other 11 year old California girl when her life, and the lives of every other person on Earth, changes forever. She has a seemingly normal home life as the only child of a former actress and a physician. Life is predictable, her best friend Hanna spends the night, a new school year has begun, her parents sit at the kitchen table reading the newspaper.

It’s a Saturday morning in October. That newspaper is full of the stories of the day, all the things we’re afraid of. War, disease, terrorism, extreme weather, disaster. Those things we can name, things that have faces, causes, effects. Things that bring fear.

But, as Julia so appropriately observes, “it never is what you worry over that comes to pass in the end. The real catastrophes are always different — unimagined, unprepared for, unknown” (Thompson Walker, 27).

Out of nowhere, the news breaks that the rotation of the Earth has slowed. 56 minutes have been added to the length of one Earth day overnight. There is no explanation. Called “The Slowing,” this phenomenon continues. One day goes from 24 hours to 32, then to 40, 48, 54, 60….

In the first days, life seems to literally stop and then stretch as people try to find things to fill the extra hours of light and darkness in their day. But soon, normal life intrudes. The governments of the world insist on sticking to the 24 hour clock, even if the hours between one sunrise and the next continues to grow. There is hope that answers can be found, that a solution can be reached.

In the meantime, life goes on. The Slowing consumes everyone, but a new normal is reached. Even as day and night become detached from sunshine and darkness, Julia goes to school, attends piano lessons, and plays soccer. Her parents go to work, the babies her father delivers continue to be born. She worries about her lack of a training bra, crushes on neighborhood boy Seth Moreno, is saddened by her best friend Hanna’s abandonment, anticipates seeing Seth at piano lessons, struggles with unpopularity in school, and worries over the increasing cracks in her parents’ marriage.

Like the difficulties of our own childhoods and adolescences, Julia’s are no less important to her than ours were to us. The end of the world does not magically end the growing up process. Life is not stopped cold.

Everyday life endures as the days continue to grow, as new problems arise, as the Earth ceases to turn.

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At first glance, this is not a book I would normally read. While I am a guilty-pleasure fan of some disaster movies like Twister, Day After Tomorrow, and 2012, I don’t really like “sad” stories. Especially those which are character driven. But, something about The Age of Miracles sucked me in, and I’m so glad I read it.

Source/Disclaimer: theageofmiraclesbook.com. Image is strictly property of Karen Thompson Walker and Random House.

Karen Thompson Walker is an excellent writer and her prose is both beautiful and engaging. Overall, I really enjoyed reading The Age of Miracles, even though the book’s plot device (the end of the world) can be unsettling.

Julia’s narration made me reflect on my own childhood/adolescence and on the things that seemingly made it “tough” — things that don’t seem so bad now. It was a nice chance to reminisce.

The book is excellently formulated and Walker does a great job of describing the effects that The Slowing has on the Earth and its occupants. While some of her descriptions aren’t completely original — mainly due to the amount of “end of the world scenarios” various forms of media has presented over the years — none of it seems trite or lame.

I only had one real issue with the book while I was reading, and that was trying to wrap my head around what was actually happening to the Earth. I had to figure that out and make myself at peace with the logic of it before I could move on and read the book.

Let me explain: I had to establish in my head that the spinning of the Earth on its axis had slowed, thereby making the amount of time from one sunrise to the next stretch. This, however, did not effect the time it took the Earth to orbit around the sun. So, really, as the length of one “day” lengthened, the number of “days” it takes the Earth to travel completely around the Sun decreased.

The Age of Miracles is a quick read, coming in at 225 pages. It is fast moving and well-paced and is not meant to be a story of how the world ends. Instead, it is a snapshot of events and emotions during that time.

The Age of Miracles is truly a wonderful, thoughtful, and thought-provoking read. It is not a book about a disaster. It is a story of what happens to our lives and relationships in the midst of the most Earth-shattering disaster. It is a testament that even as life ends, it continues to go on.

“Learning Not to Hope For What I Can’t Control”: Some Novel Melodrama

Jeannette’s most recent post is very fitting for my own life right now. The calm that came after graduation quickly devolved into a kind of chaos that is coming from all directions and exists at the middle of feelings of great happiness and great sadness. Happy or sad, life throws us for a loop sometimes and we end up scrambling to keep our feet planted firmly on the ground and keep our minds level. The bottom line is that when you’re stressed, or things aren’t going your way, or you are upset over something, you need to remember what is truly important and how to prioritize. You also need to put your problems into perspective.

There’s a quote floating around on Pinterest about the problems we all have:

Sometimes, our problems seem insurmountable. And sometimes they are almost more than we can bear. But humans are amazingly resilient and strong — we are capable of great things and can overcome that which seems to be impossible. Difficulties are often not as bad as they originally seem, because once we move away from our singular and narrow perspectives, we often see that our problems are not as bad when compared to those faced by others. Placing our problems in perspective doesn’t solve them, but it makes them easier to deal with.

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Hopefully, in reading my blog posts, you’ve learned some things about me. One of the things that I think carries through my musings is that I have a great appreciation for the world around me and everything it can teach me. I take great inspiration from the movies I watch, the music I listen to, the trips I take, the speakers I hear, the photos I view, and most importantly, the books I read.

I’m a book lover, but not what I would call a book snob. I see the value in every book, whether it is a profoundly moving or groundbreaking classic or a fun, easy read. Books convey human emotions and interactions to us, and even if the story itself isn’t the most original or creative, we can still learn things from them. Books are also cathartic and, sometimes, the simple act of reading a story can allow us to center our own thoughts and feelings on an issue going on in our own lives.

I recently read a novel published a few years ago that was just this kind of book. I purchased it last year when Borders was going out of business and thought it would be a simple, quick read. And it was, but at the same time it wasn’t. The events and relationships within gave me great pause, and made me very glad for the life that I have — even if it is sometimes boring, frustrating, or not exactly as I want it to be.

“Roses” by Leila Meachem is billed as a modern “Gone With the Wind, ” tracing the triumphs and tragedies of a wealthy Texas family over the course of the twentieth century. It is a love story, but not just one between two characters. In this case, it is also a love story between families, and between people and their heritage. “Roses,” however, is also a story of hate, jealousy, and stubbornness — and what can happen when those feelings define relationships and family structures.

“Roses” is a frame story, beginning in the present and repeatedly reflecting on past events. The novel revolves around the character of Mary Toliver who, at more than 80 years old is re-evaluating her life and choices. Widowed and with no children, Mary is herself facing the end of her life. With little time left, she wants to correct the mistakes she feels she has made and she sets out to do so, changing her will to reflect her new interpretation of the past. Since childhood, Mary’s life has been completely invested in her family’s 100 year old cotton plantation, Somerset. She has sacrificed over and over for Somerset’s success, which has paid off as Somerset proper is now only one small part of a larger corporation, Toliver Farms.

Without warning, Mary abruptly decides to sell Toliver Farms and Somerset instead of leaving the company and plantation under the care of her niece Rachel, who has been learning the family business since childhood. Before Mary can explain her reasoning, however, something occurs that throws everything  into a state of chaos that leaves all who know Mary confused and shocked.

It quickly becomes apparent that the story of Mary Toliver is not solely her own. It is also the story of Mary’s oldest friend Percy Warwick, the story of her late husband Ollie Du Mont, and the story of her brother Miles Toliver (Rachel’s grandfather). It is the story of another will and its consequences, the story of curses and superstitions, the story of how our choices can affect everything.

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I really enjoyed “Roses.” But it is not for the faint of heart. It is a roller coaster ride of human emotion that will simultaneously make you want to stay up all night reading and make you want to throw the book across the room. It’s happy in its own way, but it is not a happily ever after kind of happy.

I makes you think about what is really important in life, about how life is different today than it was 75 – 100 years. It also horrified me in terms of how some people treated each other, and made me feel very lucky that my family is not that way.

Have you ever read a book that made you think this way? What are you planning on reading this summer?

Let me know, and, happy reading!