Friday, December 28, 2012

Influential Reads of 2012

This seems to be required in the literary end of the blogosphere. So here are my year-end reflections on the best of my reading for the year: how I decided what to read, why I liked it, and what I took away.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo: 
I started out the year finishing this book which I’d gotten half-way through the previous summer, then put on hold until Christmas break when school started. Finished it on into February. Lesson 1: It’s okay to take a long time to read a book. 

Part of the engine that drives my reading habits is a subtle inferiority complex plus competitive streak. This makes me 
    • feel deficient in my knowledge of the classics and 
    • determine to actually read the things that I hear/read people quote/allude to/refer to on a regular basis. 
I think it all started when a college English professor made a statement about “of course you all have read...” and I hadn’t. Later I quoted C.S. Lewis to another professor who asked if I’d read the book that it came from, and I had to admit I hadn’t--I read some of his books, but this particular quote had come from a “collected quotes” book. 

Why this particular “important work”? As a teacher of world lit, I’m especially interested in non-US/British works. As a Christian, I’m especially interested in balancing the curriculum and my knowledge with significant world literature that shares my world view. I’ve read many references to Les Miserables, a student a couple of years ago wrote the song lyrics poetry analysis paper for my class on a number from the musical, and one or two students a year read the “condensed for modern readers” version in the school library. Plus I’d picked up a used paperback copy. I generally pick one paperback tome to carry with me on summer holiday (easier than a stack of YA novels)--I’ve read Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamatzov this way. I’ve also failed several attempts at War and Peace

Several things I learned: 
  1. Victor Hugo’s social concerns were amazingly modern...and the problems amazingly recurrent--children’s right to education, women’s right to dignity, men’s right to work that will sustain their family.
  2. It’s okay to skim--if I don’t care about the Battle of Waterloo, I can skim those 50 pages as long as I catch the one paragraph that introduces a significant character.
  3. It’s also okay to read heavier fiction during vacations and put it aside when I’m spending the whole working day engaged with difficult text--more of the same in the evening puts my right to sleep.
  4. Those old books with their discursive editorializing have some beautiful lines--like about the soul expanding in sorrow to find God the way Jean Valjean’s pupils expanded in the darkness of the sewers under Paris to discern shapes.
  5. When tempted to despair at all the violence in nations in political turmoil today, I’m reminded that western nations did not become democratic overnight and without violence. 

I enjoyed the book, I’m glad I read it, and I don’t feel a strong need to see the movie. I thought I would, but I don’t. Maybe it’s backlash to all the conversations I’ve heard about The Hobbit movie vs. book. A movie isn’t a book. If you loved the book, you’re likely to take issue with the movie because the medium does different things in different ways. I’m fine waiting for it to come out in DVD.  

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami: 
As a teacher of world lit living in Japan, I’m always on the prowl for Japanese authors I can enjoy. The search was mostly a failure until I discovered Murakami, and even him I didn’t like immediately. I first met him on front tables at US bookstores--not reading, just becoming aware. Finally checked one out of the public library on my mom’s card during a visit: Kafka on the Shore. It was...odd...but intriguing...but odd. 

Then After Dark was selected as a Sakura Reading Program book. (The Sakura Reading Program is an annual list of quality works by international authors published within the last 2 years selected by librarians from international schools in Japan.) I read it and thought, “Odd...but I think if I read it again I might really like it.” So when the English translation of 1Q84 came in October 2011 and some bookstores opened at midnight, Harry Potter style, while critics hailed Murakami as the first Japanese author to cross over from a literary “author-in-translation” to just “an author,” I decided to offer After Dark as second semester extra credit reading for my class. I re-read it, and true to my prediction, loved it, and determined to read all of Murakami’s works. 

I love his protagonists for being thoughtful odd-balls who have struggled through some difficulty to become people who contemplate the meaning of life and take the time to really see other people even who have no connection with them. His novels also usually address at least tangentially some social problem. 

And while they aren’t classic comedies, there is some hope, some connection made. Murakami does not write from a Christian perspective, but he writes from a thoughtful one, and I think any Christian who enjoys literature and interacts with Japanese people should read these books. They could be the basis for many fascinating conversations. And they are wildly popular here--as well as in the US. Front shelves in Tokyo book stores still display 1Q84 (in 3 separate books, in Japanese--Americans have a penchant for needing everything bound together). Students often tell me one parent has all of Murakami's books. And last spring in a US airport book store I browsed, Haruki Murakami was the author with the most dedicated shelf space.

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi: 
My favorite of the high school Sakura Books for last year. I resisted picking it up at first--just another futuristic YA dystopian novel. But when several students had recommended it, I did. The difference I found is how eerily it is rooted in current issues--from climate change to wealth disparity to resource use to employment practices.

The Hawk and the Dove Trilogy (and then books 4, 5, and 6 as well) by Penelope Wilcock:
This was recommended by a friend and immediately became an absolute, all-time favorite. I sent it to my mom for her birthday, passed it on to friends, and am now reading the 3rd book to my 22-year-old daughter. (My children somehow never outgrew bedtime stories. Though over Christmas vacation, with my younger daughter home from college, we're taking a break from Father Peregrine to read our traditional Christmas favorites. Right now we're in the midst of Holly and Ivy.) The setting is a medieval monastery, but it’s difficult to do justice with any sort of explanation. The characters deal with ordinary temptations with living faith and make good seem both real and attractive.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel: 
I finished the year with a book I’ve looked at over the last 4 years every time I’ve walked into an English-language bookstore here in Japan--usually in a display of Man Booker Prize winners. But the length was a little off-putting, and I didn’t know if I really wanted to read another Henry the VIII period historical fiction. This Thanksgiving vacation I was in one of those bookstores and saw the same book advertised again as “by the author of the 2012 Man Booker Prize winner.” Any author who could win 2 of those prizes is worth a shot. Besides, I was in the mood for a vacation splurge. 

I fell in love with the protagonist--a smart, thoughtful, up-by-his-bootstraps kind of guy--reading all the latest books including the banned ones of Luther and Wycliffe which cause him to wonder whether his loved ones who have died of the plague are in Purgatory as the Church says or Heaven as the gospels say--an abused child who takes great delight in providing for his own and others’ children--and a man who fell into a convenient marriage which grew into love.  

And finally, a couple of nonfiction works:

Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler: 
My school’s headmaster offered to buy this book for any department chair who wanted it, and I was never one to turn down a free book. As I read, I could identify the principles in conversations I have had or need to have with colleagues, students, children, husband--in just about any setting. The principles are memorable and practical--like when conversations turn crucial, people go to either silence or violence. That’s memorable. What do you do? Notice, and create safety (people go to silence or violence when they feel threatened). That’s practical. 

I found it so important I joined a discussion group to go through it again. In addition, many of the principles have a sound biblical basis--Chapter 2 “Start with Heart” is really about checking the plank in your own eye before worrying about the speck in anyone else’s eye. 

A weekly email communication from a professional organization (NCLE or NCTE) alerted me to this book, and I immediately knew I wanted to read it. I blogged on it during the summer, so I won’t go into content again, but I’m putting it on this list now because I’m going to lead a discussion of it starting the end of January. I think it could be a significant turning point for our loose association of department chairs and principals to become more of what our name claims, a Learning Team. 

My biggest takeaways as I look over what I’ve written? My best books come from recommendations--by reputation, a friend, a colleague, a student, a professional publication, or a prize. And when I really love a book, I have to share it with others--students, colleagues, or the internet world--via assignments, book discussions (formal or informal), or this blog.

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