Tuesday, August 1, 2017

What I'm reading this week (7/31/17)

What I finished last week:

Well, it's going to be another one of those agonizingly hard reviews to write: a review for a book I loved. They are so much harder to write. I'll try to make this sound intelligent, but you guys, I loved West with the Night. This is ironic because when I put it down last June, I had no intention of picking it back up. I seem to remember reading in the intro that the memoir was based on actual events. And if there's one thing I hate, it's a memoir based on fact. If you're going to fictionalize your memoirs, just write a novel instead. Oddly, I didn't hear that line when I listened to it this month. The story swept me up right away, and I loved every minute of the book. It was read by Julie Harris (there are other editions with other narrators), and I'm sure I've listened to something by her before. It was a great book to listen to on audio, though I wished several times I could mark down a passage, so I imagine I'll be re-reading this someday. I did expect this to be a more traditional memoir that covers Markham's life from birth to old age, but it was more a series of stories of the high points of her life in Africa, her adventures on safaris, and her work in aviation. I did feel like I missed some things along the way, like what happened to her mother--she was not mentioned once, and how did she and her father come to live in Africa? It is so intelligently written, it's almost dense in parts, but it's so evocative. I couldn't get over how beautiful the writing was. The African adventures were so vivid. The stories just washed over me, and I could not wait to get to the next installment. I would definitely recommend the audio version, but I don't think you could go wrong with the book. This is a modern classic, originally published in 1942, that is well worth the read. If you like adventure and stories about other cultures, you'll love this. My rating: 4.5 stars.

I just read my 1800th poem this year, and I do believe I'm hitting a bit of a poetry-reading wall. I felt like I was slogging through Poems to Read. It wasn't a bad collection, but it definitely wasn't as good as Pinsky and Dietz's first collection, Americans' Favorite Poems. I think this book felt a little forced, a little too "handled." I've never been a fan of Robert Pinsky's poetry, finding it too dense, too pretentious, and just plain difficult. And as an editor, he seems to be drawn to the same kind of poem. Much of this collection is poems introduced by a "regular person" (usually teen-age students--can you say "my teacher offered me extra credit to submit my favorite poem"?), but the rest is either introduced by Pinsky or Dietz or has no introduction (therefore, also chosen by Pinsky or Dietz). You'll find some familiar poems here, and most of the poets are English class standbys. I did find a few jems, but I felt like I shifted through a lot of ho-hum poems to find them. My rating: 3 stars.

It's been awhile since I've had an English class. Like, a long while. So I was interested to take a little refresher course by reading Thomas C. Foster's How to Read Literature Like a Professor. What did I learn? Basically that everything is a symbol. Except if it's an allegory. Foster is also convinced that the authors intentionally used those symbols and intended for their readers to notice and understand them. I resisted this at first, but Foster argues that the masters writing in the 19th century, say, were very much clued into the imagery and symbolism of what came before. What kind of symbols are we talking about here? All kinds of things from Greek mythology to the Christ figure, from geography to seasons, from sex to food. Did I buy it? Mostly, I did. Books like this can go a number of ways; either you buy what he's saying because "he's the expert" or you don't buy a word of it for the same reason. I went into his discussion with an open mind, but ready to discount his theories if they seemed ridiculous. They weren't ridiculous. For the most part, I think he was right on track--in a college professor sort of way. Will it change the way I read literature? Perhaps. I'm listening to The Poisonwood Bible right now, and I'm trying to pick out the Biblical symbols that I'm sure Kingsolver used. I doubt if I'll always look at novels for their symbols and allusions, though, because that can really destroy the experience sometimes. I realized when finishing the book, that most of what Foster talked about here was something I already did subconsciously. Many of the symbols of a book are things we automatically decode. Take rain for instance. If you encounter rain or clouds in a book, story, or poem, you think of despair, grief, negative thoughts, foreshadowing of events. You don't think about those things consciously; they just seem to be encoded. Foster does talk about a number of novels, plays, and myths while applying his theories, but he doesn't spoil the plots or tell you what you must think. I don't know about you, but I could have used a couple more professors who didn't do the last one. So, in all I was satisfied with this book. I didn't feel like it was pedantic or inaccessible, so even if you've never had a college English lit course, you'll be fine with it. His approach is light (even humorous in spots) while still discussing things in an intelligent way. I would advise you that this book may not be best read in 50-page chunks like I did. I got burned-out with all the talk after awhile. It would likely be better as a pick-up-put-down book, depending on your stamina. My rating: 4 stars.  
This week I'll be reading:

I'm 350 pages into The Spirit of St. Louis. Lindbergh is well on his way to Paris.

My current audiobook:

This is one of the rare times you'll hear this on my blog, but my brother was right! He's been telling me to pick up The Poisonwood Bible for years, and I've finally taken his advice. This book has been engaging from the first word.

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