2015 Reading Challenge: “A book you were supposed to read but didn’t”—A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore

Okay, I confess — I never read A Gate at the Stairs, which I was supposed to before arriving on campus at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York freshman year. It was required reading for all first-years, for the purpose of discussion during our freshman seminar courses. The author, Lorrie Moore, was from Glens Falls, New York, just a stone’s throw away.

My freshman seminar of choice, Virtual Republic, was fascinating and taught by one of the kindest professors I ever had, Ron Seyb (picture Stephen Colbert, but sweeter and nerdier, in the best way). Still, I was not inspired to read the book. I have a hunch that not many classmates in my seminar did either, nor most of the kids in the Class of 2015. I knew for sure neither of my roommates did.

It didn’t really matter then, though, because our syllabus was over-scheduled even without a discussion of Moore’s most recent novel. I’m pretty sure many of the other courses’ were as well (they had titles like Heretics & Visionaries, The Federal Reserve: More Money, More Problems, Care of the Heart, Human Dilemmas, What is Noir? and Can Literature Save the Environment? to name a few and to give you an idea of what being a Skidmore first-year is like).

I digress.

About the book: wow. I haven’t been struck so hard by a novel since I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. None of the punishments in this book seemed to fit the crimes. Is redemption disallowed? Is no one spared? I identified with the protagonist, Tassie, so strongly that I surprised myself — except in a very barebones way (Tassie and I both came of age and attended college in a post-9/11 America), we really have little in common.

This book is about growing up in that for the first time, and that I was familiar with. The narrator experiences so many firsts over the course of the story: she is forced to confront race, religion, self-identity, love, sex, terrorism, war, family issues and loss (and all in just 336 pages, the poor girl). She dates a man who is not who he seems. Her brother ships off to join the military after graduating from high school (Class of 2002). Tassie takes a job as a nanny for a family, and these people become the fabric of her life, until the fabric starts to fray and suddenly all that’s left is a pile of string. All the while, she’s still a college student, and has no choice but to soldier on.

It’s wonderful and heartbreaking all at once and I’m glad I delved back into it after letting it fall by the wayside in 2011. Thanks, Skidmore.

51tUOuEjULL
Fulfilled “A book you were supposed to read but didn’t” on my 2015 Reading Challenge checklist

336 pages
Vintage Contemporaries
Published: 2009

Up next? “A book you own but never read” — Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut

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Reading Challenge: ‘A book with nonhuman characters’ — Watership Down by Richard Adams

It would be an understatement to say Watership Down took me way longer to finish than anticipated. If you couldn’t tell from my recent lack of blog posts, I had a hard time getting through this particular part of my reading challenge.

The book was actually quite a delightful read — it just wasn’t a page turner. It’s an adventure novel about a few members of a community who sense an inevitable upheaval, and to avoid it, go out on their own. There was action, but it wasn’t the kind that makes it hard to put the book down. I can see why this novel was a classic when it was first published in 1972. It was groundbreaking, and even today the idea of an action novel starring not just animals, but rabbits seems sort of strange (oh, yeah — the characters are bunnies. They also don’t speak English: they speak Lapine). Another obstacle of this novel is that a lot of the words need translation (there’s a glossary at the back for major terms, lest you forget the definition of a Lapine word from when you read its footnote). “Hrududu” is anything with a motor. “Elil” is any enemy of the rabbits, i.e. a stoat, fox or badger. “Frith” is the sun, and also the rabbits’ God. It seems confusing, but Adams does a good job smoothly injecting these words into the prose. The use of this made-up language isn’t overwhelming, but it’s present enough that it might deter some readers.

I really just loved the characters and their self-awareness. Perhaps because, as the author explains, rabbits rely so heavily on their natural instincts to survive, each character knows his or her strengths and weaknesses and adjusts accordingly to be an asset to the “warren” (their community). Hazel, the protagonist, is a natural-born leader. Fiver can sense danger before anyone else. Bigwig is the strongest and largest and is the best fighter. Blackberry is the cleverest (and so on and so forth). They work together to achieve their goals and combat enemies that threaten their progress. It’s a very through-provoking read, but it takes commitment.

I’d recommend this book to someone looking for a leisurely read or hoping to dive into a classic they may have overlooked. This was one of my dad’s favorites after he read it in the ’70s and while I enjoyed it a lot, I wouldn’t put it in my top ten.

watership downFulfilled “A book with nonhuman characters” on my 2015 Reading Challenge checklist

474 pages
Scribner
Published: 2005

Up next? “A book you were supposed to read but didn’t” — A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore

Reading Challenge: ‘A memoir’ — The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion

I opened this book with only the faintest idea of its contents. Joan Didion, an author whose work I greatly admire and enjoy, wrote The Year of Magical Thinking in 2004. She began shortly after her husband’s sudden death. This much I knew from the summary on the back and what I have heard from folks I know who have read it. I had no idea how Didion would approach this subject — as a journalist, digging into the facts of what killed a man? As a heartbroken widow in shock, trying to understand what had happened by writing words on a page? As a storyteller determined to weave the events together into something somehow palatable? Turns out, Didion did all three.

I enjoyed this memoir because the author perfectly balanced the scientific perspective of loss with its human aspect. She makes textbook language seem interesting, and she spills her heart without laying it on too thick — she’ll occasionally quote a poem or a book to illustrate how she feels, but manages to keep it simple. Didion also develops the key players’ personalities using anecdotes, illuminating stories and little details without exhausting description.

If you’re familiar with Didion’s work, you’ll know what I mean when I say she knows how to put you there. She is a journalist, and as such she knows how to paint a picture for the reader. It’s as if she’s letting you in on a secret with every sentence — one that you are dying to know. Even when she’s describing something as mundane as her driving route to the UCLA Medical Center, you’re hooked. You’re in the car with her as she weaves through Westwood.

Didion takes you with her on her healing journey in the wake of the death of her husband — her best friend, her confidante, her editor — and you feel like you’re healing along with her. It truly was a thoughtful and well-written take on loss and how hard it can be to try to move on. I’d highly recommend this book whether or not you know what it’s like to lose someone close to you.

TheYearOfMagicalThinking

Fulfilled “A memoir” on my 2015 Reading Challenge checklist

227 pages
Knopf
Published: 2005

Up next? “A book with nonhuman characters” — Watership Down, by Richard Adams

Reading Challenge: ‘A funny book’ — Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe

Back to Blood, by Tom Wolfe

For me, Back to Blood was a bit of a slow burn. It took up until about page 350 for me to feel genuinely hooked. While this is generally inexcusable for a novel – considering most aren’t even that long to begin with – Wolfe kept me interested with his usual wit and his strength of characterization. The protagonist, Nestor Camacho, is unique and endearing in a way that most protagonists aren’t. He’s simple and unsophisticated but he’s self-aware and sweet at the same time, which makes him pretty damn lovable despite some shortcomings. Plus, he’s at the epicenter of every story line (and there are many), which never hurts.

I also liked this book for its social commentary, a classic Wolfe theme. In Back to Blood, he takes on race relations in Miami, a Herculean task for even the most accomplished authors. He handles it well, I think, (even as an old white guy) by tackling it just like he would any other issue. Mostly, the characters – from all different walks of life – do the talking (whether in English, Creole, Spanish or French).

As a journalism major, I also loved the role that John Smith, a heroic “Americano” newspaper reporter, and the Miami Herald played in the story. It was fun to see how the notion of libel and the fear of the publisher getting sued played out in the plot (I won’t say more for fear of spoiling anything).

All in all, I’d recommend this read to anyone with both an interest in Miami and a lot of time on their hands. Some knowledge of journalism and contemporary art wouldn’t hurt either, as both are a common topic of conversation throughout the story. Pretty interesting stuff.

BackToBlood

Fulfilled “A funny book” on my 2015 Reading Challenge checklist

704 pages
Little, Brown and Company
Published: 2012

Up next? “A memoir” — The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion

My 2015-16 reading list

Hi everyone, welcome to my journey to complete the 2015 Reading Challenge.

This year, in an effort to read more now that I’m out of school, I’ve decided to make a reading list and stick to it. I realize I’ve entered the game a little late — blame it on senior year, graduation, travel and the beginning of my first job! — so I’m giving myself until Sept. 2016 to get this all done. There’s quite a haul here, including a few 500+ pagers, but I think I’m ready for it. I have loved to read since I was four years old and I’m excited to really dip into some great books this upcoming year.

Since it is quite a lot, and I know that sometimes life gets in the way, I’ve used a few books for two different categories (the ones marked with asterisks, i.e. Go Set a Watchman, Little Women and The Magician’s Nephew). I tried to avoid it when I could but nobody’s perfect right?

I’ve tried to get a mix of classics, culturally relevant books and titles I’ve been meaning to pick up but have never been able to find the time. I also picked books by professors at my alma mater, Boston University (Faith Ed and 13 Hours), and books my parents love (Stoner and Watership Down, to name a couple).

How do I pick an order? I leave it up to chance. I just assigned each book a number based on their order in the table below (Helter Skelter is 1, Wuthering Heights is 2, and so on). Then, I put the numbers into a random number generator and let that do the work.

Here’s to reading!

Side note: my friend Emilie and I are doing this together (some of our picks overlap but most are different), and we changed one or two categories (reading a book by an author with your same initials comes to mind; we couldn’t find any titles that worked for us).

Now reading:

  • A funny book — Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe

Next up:

  • A memoir — The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

My list (subject to change, as always… But I hope it stays pretty much the same):

Category Margaret’s pick
A book with more than 500 pages Helter Skelter
A classic romance Wuthering Heights
A book that became a movie The Maltese Falcon
A book published this year Go Set a Watchman*
A book with a number in the title 13 Hours
A book written by someone under 30 The Bell Jar
A book with nonhuman characters Watership Down
A funny book Back to Blood
A book by a female author Little Women*
A mystery or thriller The Big Sleep
A book with a one-word title Stoner
A book of short stories Vampires in the Lemon Grove
A book set in a different country Into Thin Air
A nonfiction book Faith Ed
A popular author’s first book The Sun Also Rises
A book from a fav. author that you haven’t read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
A book a friend recommended The Glass Castle
A Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Executioner’s Song
A book based on a true story Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
A book at the bottom of your to-read list The Awakening
A book your mom loves A Prayer for Owen Meany
A book that scares you The Devil in the White City
A book more than 100 years old The Three Musketeers
A book based entirely on its cover Would You Please Be Quiet, Please
A book you were supposed to read but didn’t A Gate at the Stairs
A memoir The Year of Magical Thinking
A book you can finish in a day Dark Places
A book with antonyms in the title Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
A book set somewhere you want to visit Picnic in Provence
A book that came out the year you were born Trainspotting
A book with bad reviews Go Set a Watchman*
A trilogy The Knife of Never Letting Go
A book you’ve been meaning to re-read Black Mass
A book from your childhood The Magician’s Nephew*
A book with a love triangle Pride and Prejudice
A book set in the future Farenheit 451
A book set in high school Carrie
A book with a color in the title A Clockwork Orange
A book with magic The Magician’s Nephew*
A book your dad loves The Floating Opera
A book by an author you’ve never read before One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
A book you own but never read Cat’s Cradle
A book that takes place in your hometown Little Women*
A book that was orig. in a different language The Unbearable Lightness of Being
A book set during Christmas A Christmas Carol
A book considered an American classic On the Road
A play 12 Angry Men
A banned book July’s People
A book based on or turned into a TV Show House of Cards
A book you started but never finished The Human Comedy