Nonfiction

A lot of times people are surprised by the amount of nonfiction I enjoy, because I mostly discuss my love of fiction. The truth is I usually have one work of fiction, one work related piece, and one piece of nonfiction going all at the same time. I’ve also been adding some Zen Buddhist philosophy to mix to help me counteract some of the uglier aspects of my job.

When I started to consider my favorite pieces of non fiction, I realized that I needed to separate out my favorites in two categories: Books that made me smarter and books that I read for pure pleasure. There are a few nonfiction riders that I count among my favorites – Bill Bryson especially deserves his own post from me. Some of these books such as Demon Haunted World and Knowledge society I read over twenty years ago, but I imagine they still hold true.

Books that Made me Smarter or at Least Gave Me a Lot to Consider:

  1. A Demon Haunted World, Carl Sagan – this helped me – a Catholic school girl with a scientific mind – make sense of the world me
  2. Knowledge Society, Peter Drucker – this ended up predicting our economy that we live in now.
  3. The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf – this helped name and parse out the bullshit I was experiencing as a young woman in our society.
  4. Guns, Germs, and Steel – really explains why some societies are more affluent than others. Fascinating.
  5. A Brief History in Time, Hawking – this made me love the universe
  6. Collapse: How societies fail or choose to succeed – Again, another take for why some cultures die out.
  7. A Grief Considered, C.S. Lewis – I read a lot of Lewis concurrent with Sagan. It was an interesting time.
  8. Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin – This gave me insight into how there are different Americas depending on your race.
  9. The Last Days of Hitler, Trevor-Roper –
  10. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, Frederick Douglas
  11. The Fourth Turning – this is about how generations operate on a pattern. Very interesting theory.

Nonfiction that I absolutely loved:

  1. In Cold Blood, Capote
  2. Cleopatra, Stacy Shiff
  3. The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Allison Weir
  4. Home, Bill Bryson
  5. The Things They Carried, O’Brien
  6. I know why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou

Fun Diversions:

  1. Turn Right at Machu Picchu, Adams
  2. A Walk in the Woods, Bryson

Books that are on my desk, but I haven’t had time to read yet:

  1. Hotel Scarface, Farzad – I met the author and this is about the rise of the cocaine trade in Miami in the 80s.
  2. Between the World and Me – Ta’neshi Coates

 

 

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Author Study: Jorge Luis Borges

Borges is often referred to as the father of magical realism; while the genre owes an enormous debt to the author, magical realism can be found in the writings of Kafka and Tolstoy – from the 1800’s and a whole other continent. That said, one cannot begin a serious study of magical realism without appreciating Borges’ genius.

He has many tells as an author, and one quality that stands out above others, is that the majority of his stories are a puzzle. They are not easy, and often take many re-readings to appreciate the magnitude of his themes. Favorite motifs include labyrinths (Garden of the Forking Paths), an invisible creator (Library of Babel), libraries, dreams, existentialism, philosophy and questioning who is really running the show (Lottery of Babylon). He loves to incorporate myth and legend, and to make up his own mythology and histories, to the point of inserting meta-commentary from imagined third parties. To be blunt, Borges is wholly unique, and deciphering his symbolism is no easy feat. In fact, Borges himself said, “I have felt my stories so deeply that I have told them . . . using strange symbols so that people might not find out that they were all more or less autobiographical.”*

Who is Borges, exactly? On the surface, we know that he lived with his mother for most of her ninety nine years, and in fact did not bother to marry until she passed away, and only weeks before he died himself. He studied the history of his country, Argentina ardently, and fell unto depression with the Peron’s rise to power. It is not accident that The Lottery of Babylon a thinly veiled warning against giving your power away to “the company” coincided with the Peron’s regime. He worked as a translator and librarian and ultimately, went blind. Although for many years Borges loathed to discuss politics, his attitudes towards fascism, Nazism and the Perons was well known. At a time when Argentina became sympathetic to the Nazis, Borges was vocal. Some insinuated that he was Jewish; in a move that I find admirable, he published an essay titled “Yo, Judio.” Borges was not Jewish, but artfully pointed out that he would be proud to be one.

Some argue that he is more of a surrealist, and there is definitely merit to that category. However, if you operate from Faris’ concept of magical realism, Borges definitely fits into that genre, as well – he incorporates myth and legend, often has doubles/mirror characters, distorts time, and most importantly, combines the mundane with the fantastical. When you consider this definition, Borges definitely meets the requirements of a magical realist.

Where to begin on your Borges journey? This is tricky because his stories really fall into several categories – sometimes fantastical, sometimes false histories, sometimes puzzles or mysteries. I believe this is a good starter list, but in order to truly to him justice, I intend to do a post with stories organized according to theme/motifs on a later date.

Disclaimer: There is absolutely no shame doing a little research on each story before hand, as it may help you “see” the details more clearly, and appreciate the effort he puts into each tale. The stories are deceptively simplistic, and seeing the details can be tricky.

  1. The Library of Babel – a universal library with all of the knowledge possible. This one has many layers to peel back. Somebody actually made a website to mimic the library – you can find it here
  2. The Book of Sand – read this after the Library of Babel, and then reread this one until you can draw the connection. This makes me wonder how much the other stories in Borges’ universe lines up. It also has connections to another one of his stories, The Zahir. Someone made an interactive website based on the book here
  3. The Garden of Forking Paths – where you learn that there are multiple streams of time possible.
  4. The Lottery of Babylon – who is the company? Why were they so quick to give their power away?
  5. The Zahir– this is about an object that creates obsession.
  6. The Aleph – anyone who gazes into the Aleph can see everything in the universe.
  7. The Dead Man – This is one of his gaucho stories, but introduces you to the idea of the metaphorical labyrinth. Everything is inevitable…

*http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4331/jorge-luis-borges-the-art-of-fiction-no-39-jorge-luis-borges

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My favorites: Fiction

I initially conceived this as a top-ten list, but as I took an inventory of books that I read and loved that clearly became impossible. What follows are books that have either influenced me greatly, or ones that I return to over and over again. This is by no means the books I read and simply liked; rather, these are books I am tied to deeply for one reason or another. I do not know if they have affected you the same way, but I know that I am a different person for having read them. They may not even be the best representation of an author’s abilities, but these are the ones that I love.

Always.

Some are from my childhood. The Velveteen Rabbit remains the book that I loved the most as a little girl, followed by The House at Pooh Corner and The Secret Garden. The Wrinkle in Time series came to me at a very important time in my life, when like Meg, I was awkward and mistrustful of the world around me. The Count of Monte Cristo remains one of my favorite plots of all time – how to get revenge when you have been greatly wronged. I am not a fan of the writing now, but that story was one of my absolute favorites as a kid, and I have to be loyal to the plot, itself. It fired my imagination, and I loved the idea of treasure, gypsies, mystery, and revenge.

Jitterbug Perfume showed me possibility and absurdity, and led me to Cat’s Cradle by Vonnegut. The Hitchhiker’s Guide was part of this time in my life, and I once got in trouble for laughing in math class, as I secretly read the paperback in my textbook.

As a woman, The Poisonwood Bible, Handmaid’s Tale, and The Red Tent helped shape me and gave me much to consider. I am so appreciative to have access to such incredible writing.

Some books are just beautiful to read: All the Light We Cannot See and Like Water for Chocolate, for example. 1000 Splendid Suns broke my heart, and made me cry, but it also opened my mind to another life and perspective.

I first picked up Leaves of Grass in high school- I opened up the page to “When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer” and felt like Whitman was speaking directly to me, across time and space. The Wasteland remains my favorite poem of all time, and I know that I have yet to appreciate all that Eliot packed into that piece because he wrote on so many levels.

I have returned to Stephen King’s short stories, over and over through my life – he was my mom’s favorite and his books were always laying around. His style is like an old familiar friend to me at this point, a comfort. Now, I tend to pick up Gaiman stories for pure pleasure and they are a comfort, as well – they inspire me to write, and give me a lot of joy when reading them.

Most of you know, I have a deep appreciation for Magical Realism,  hence the Garcia Marquez, Borges, Allende, Murakami and Okri among others. It is the genre that resonates most with me.

Some of these are old familiars from my high school teaching days – Sherlock Holmes, Macbeth, Beowulf and the Importance of Being Earnest – books that I truly enjoyed sharing, teaching, and revisiting over the years. I love that they gave so much to my students, and they still contact me years later to let me know they saw the play or to let me know those books remain among their favorites, too. That is the best feeling as an educator – that students grew to love and appreciate the pieces of literature you introduced to them.

Let me know your thoughts on these. I would love to know if you feel the same, or if there are others that inspire you:)

  1. 100 Hundred years of solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  2.  The Lord of the Rings trilogy & The Hobbit, Tolkien
  3. The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver
  4. The Red Tent, Diamont
  5. All the Light We Cannot See, Doerr
  6. The Shadow of the Wind series, Zafon
  7. Midnight’s Children, Rushdie
  8. 1000 Splendid Suns & The Kite Runner, Hosseini
  9. A Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood
  10. Catcher in the Rye, Salinger
  11. Frankenstein, Shelley
  12. Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut
  13. The Mists of Avalon, Zimmer-Bradley
  14. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Giamon (Also, his short stories)
  15. The Stand, The Shining, and The Dead Zone, King (Also, his short stories)
  16. The Strange Library & 1Q84, Murakami (Also, his short stories)
  17. Ficciones, Borges
  18. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway
  19. Jitterbug Perfume, Robbins
  20. Leaves of Grass, Whitman
  21. Wasteland, Eliot
  22. The Count of Monte Cristo, Dumas
  23. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Adams
  24. The Velveteen Rabbit, Williams
  25. House of Spirits, Allende
  26. Like Water for Chocolate
  27. Macbeth, Shakespeare
  28. The Odyssey, Homer
  29. The Age of Magic, Okri
  30. Moby Dick, Melville
  31. The Alchemist, Coehlo
  32. The Things They Carried, O’Brien (this is fictionalized nonfiction)
  33. Game of Thrones series, Martin
  34. Wrinkle in Time series, L’engle
  35. The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde
  36. Sherlock Holmes stories, Doyle
  37. Murder on the Orient Express, Christie
  38. The Bluest Eye, Morrison
  39. Harry Potter Series, Rowling
  40. House at Pooh Corner, Milne
  41. To the Lighthouse, Wolfe
  42. The Secret Garden, Burnett.
  43. Beowulf, unknown
  44. Metamorphosis, Kafka
  45. To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee
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Revisiting Old Books with New Understanding

One interesting facet about reading books to me is that a book can be a completely different experience when you reread it years later. I remember I first realized this with the book Great Expectations. I distinctly remember reading it in the 9th grade, and identifying with Pip. Years later, when I read it in college, I remember thinking “Pip is a bit of an asshole,” and being far more fascinated by Magwitch and Joe, as an adult. I had a very similar experience with my favorite book in high school – Catcher in the Rye.

Because I taught high school, I had the opportunity to reread and revisit many novels, but this didn’t always guarantee insight. I still think Hawthorne spends way too much time on the rose bush in A Scarlet Letter. But there are two books I approached with dread when I was younger, that I now count among my favorites.

Frankenstein is an incredibly deep novel – every time I revisit it, I find a new meaning or insight. Of course, when I was younger I thought it was just about science gone wrong. When you consider Mary Shelley’s age at the time she wrote the novel, her genius is undeniable. I used to warn my students about her level of language, but always the discussions that we could generate from the book were so worth it. Unfortunately, her status as a wife and mother prevented her from being very prolific – I could only imagine what she would have to tell us if she had lived beyond her fifties. It really is an unfortunate loss.  Frankenstein is a book that I still like to pick up, even though I don’t teach high school anymore. I count it among my favorites.

Moby Dick is another book that I did not appreciate until decades later. First of all, it is massive, and Melville goes off on more tangents than can be believed. You could create one hell of a drinking game off of this. But there are some gorgeous lines, and actually, he is quite funny in the beginning. Rereading it was a completely different experience in my 40’s and I am so glad I gave it another try.

Hemingway used to annoy me. I remember being assigned The Sun Also Rises, and skimming it my freshman year in college. I mistook the simplicity for ease, but now feel like a lot of what Hemingway wrote was between the lines, and not on the page. Now when I look at his simple lines, I see that the whole book’s structure indicates a desire for a simpler time – when we could drink some wine with a friend in the sunshine, or drop a line in the river for a fish. War, adulthood, and suffering fractured everything for his generation.

The Great Gatsby? The first time around, I dismissed this book as a morality tale of partying gone wrong because that’s how many people approach it. Now, I really admire Fitzgerald’s craft. Every single word was chosen with care – economical, even. You are left wanting to know more about Meyer Wolfsheim and Gatsby – this takes great skill, in my opinion. It is a truly beautiful book, and his Tender is the Night is equally gorgeous. I actually prefer it over Gatsby.

Sometimes another book can help illuminate another. For example, I used to love Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea when I was in middle school, but as an adult I dismissed it as a kid’s book. When I read All the Light We Cannot See, which uses Twenty Thousand Leagues as a metaphor, I saw how beautiful and creative the original was. I found new appreciation and both books were the better for it.

Classics to Reread

If you are looking to analyze a story in a million different ways:

Frankenstein – make sure to look up different themes and interpretations as a companion.

Make sure to slow down and appreciate every sentence

  1. The Sun Also Rises – “I can’t stand it to think my life is going so fast and I’m not really living it.”
  2. For Whom the Bell Tolls – “There is no one thing that is true. It is all true.”
  3. Tender is the Night – “He was so terrible that he was no longer terrible, only dehumanized.”
  4. The Great Gatsby- “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Read These Together – You won’t regret it

All the Light You Cannot See & Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

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My 2017 Reads

I am a bit late to the game (it’s early March) but I have been a little busy. I decided to start a Ph.D program, work, and take care of three kids. No problem, right? Just to make things interesting, they moved my husband to nights in October which resulted in total chaos, and not much time for reading.

With all of that, though, reading became more important than ever – it was my refuge, and my escape. I was a bit scattered in my choices – sometimes I wanted the escape of a thriller, and sometimes I needed to flex my mind with the likes of Okri or Borges.

Recommendations- Thrillers

In a Dark, Dark Wood

The Historian, Kostova

Hilarious

Born a Crime, Trevor Noah

Imaginative

The Buried Giant, Ishiguro

The Rules of Magic, Hoffman

Philosophical

The Age of Magic, Ben Okri

Interesting Nonfiction

Everyone Behaves Badly, Dearborn – about Hemingway’s rise to notoriety

Max Perkins, Editor of Genius – about the famous Scribner’s editor of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe

My 2017 Reading List

  1. The Passenger, Lutz
  2. Prince Lestat & the Realms of Atlantis, Rice
  3. Island Beneath the Sea, Allende
  4. In a Dark, Dark Wood
  5. The Ice Queen, Hoffman
  6. Born a Crime, Noah
  7. The Sleepwalkers, Bohjahlian
  8. A Long Way Gone, Beau
  9. The Japanese Lover, Allende
  10. The Buried Giant, Ishiguro
  11. The Graveyard Apartment, Koike
  12. Max Perkins, Editor of Genius, Berg
  13. The Historian, Kostova
  14. The Dark Tower, King
  15. The Age of Magic, Okri
  16. Ficciones, Borges
  17. There is No Me Without you, Greene
  18. The Rules of Magic, Hoffman
  19. Everyone Behaves Badly, Dearborn
  20. The Vanishing Season

I left off my school reading for which you can thank me later! Borges, Okri, and Allende are part of a deeper project I have been working on in terms of Magical Realism. Others were simply pure pleasure – reading Anne Rice was nostalgia:)

Happy 2018!

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Author Study

As some of you know, one of my favorite jobs is teaching a magical realism and writing class. 

One of my professional goals is to delve more deeply into the genre itself, as well as some renowned authors of magical realism.

The first author I plan to study in depth is Borges (The father of magical realism). Others authors I am looking at more closely is Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabella Allende, and Haruki Murakami. I’m not sure how long this journey will take me but I am also open to other offers as they present themselves. For example, I found a first edition David Mitchell and a secondhand store for seven dollars.

One of my favorite concepts or motifs in magical realism is the idea of a labyrinth – physical or metaphorical. The General in his Labryinth seems to be the natural beginning to this particular journey. 

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Beach Reads

I’m getting ready to do a little traveling, and to have some necessary beach time. I love to read on the beach, but hate to drag hard covers and library books out onto the sand.

At this point, I usually head to a secondhand store and find some paperbacks that can take a beating. I also like to do this for traveling on airplanes, because I travel very light. When I’m done with the book, I can leave it behind, give it away, or tuck it in a side pocket for later. This is especially useful for cheap flights, as they don’t have any entertainment. I know at this point, some of you are asking why I don’t just use a Kindle or an Ereader. My answer is, I just love the feel of a real book in my hand. That simple action and the weight, relax me before I’ve even begun to read a single sentence.

This summer I’m immersing myself in some of my favorite magical realism authors, in the hopes of improving and enriching my magical realism class. I’m also going to read The Dark Tower series- despite having read 80% of Stephen King’s work,  I never begin the series until now. I’m not sure about the Allende novels – sometimes I absolutely love her storytelling, and sometimes I feel indifferent. I am most excited about Love in the Time of Cholera. Garcia Marquez is a personal favorite, and I have been meaning to re-read 100 Years of Solitude this year-so this feels like a warm-up. 

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