Evolving Opinions on Literature

Is a love of books innate or cultivated? Can it be nurtured given the right set of conditions? Can it be groomed, guided and trained? Can it be pruned? Should it be pruned? Can it be destroyed?

I came of age in a reading household. Romance novels everywhere. John Grisham and James Patterson were staples (confession: I found them hopelessly boring). To this day my mother will probably still swoon over a good Ken Follett novel. My aunt, despite health challenges, will still use her limited energy to stay up late reading her latest acquisition (Michelle Obama’s Becoming). Even my father had a stash of Clive Cussler books and Marvel comics, in a society where reading was frowned upon as ‘unmanly’.

Nature or nurture?

My primary school evenings were spent hunting down old newsprint children’s books on dusty classroom shelves. Stories that were ubiquitous to public schools in Jamaica, with morals like ‘shortcut draw blood’ and tales that encouraged us to respect our elders and love our neighbours.

In high school, I was forbidden to read romance novels, so naturally I hid and read them any way. I started speed reading out of necessity so I could finish a borrowed bodice-ripper before the last school bell rang at 2:20. The ones I took home stayed hidden among school things, retrieved on lengthy trips to the bathroom. My parents always wondered what on earth I could be doing for so long. I was encouraged to eat more vegetables.

My high school library was under-served, but came with unexpected classics like a collection of Isaac Asimov stories that I discovered shortly after the release of I-Robot, and which piqued my interest in science fiction.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered, ten years after leaving high school, a worn and faded copy of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. A novel which, according to the Well-Read Black Girl anthology, sparked the genius of several literary leading ladies. I can’t remember ever seeing it during my tenure, but I’m sure the tepid cover wouldn’t have caught my attention anyway, focused as I was on colour and excitement. Interpret that how you will.

Aside from romance novels, paranormal romance novels, historical fiction romance novels and comedic romance novels (are you sensing a trend here?) my appetite extended to comedies, autobiographies, science fiction, young adult and contemporary novels. All illegally downloaded because books are expensive and the esoteric ones (in Jamaica, this means anything that isn’t of the Mills & Boon variety) are hard to come by. My collection included books by Jenny Lawson, Neil Gaiman, Christine Feehan, Michael Crichton, Roxanne Gay, Cheryl Strayed and Eoin Colfer.

Why did I gravitate toward these authors? Was it some combination of genetics, escapism, and excellent taste? The answer to that is about as complicated as the answer to why some people love Nutella (spoiler alert: it’s disgusting).

My literary interests grew like weeds, unfettered and sprawling. True, there was the semblance of a pattern, but it only noticeable in the negative spaces, in what was missing. After reading A Child Called It (Dave Pelzer) in third form, I knew I never wanted to read another story of abuse ever again. And after valiantly finishing The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger) I knew for sure first person stream of consciousness and the bildungsroman were not for me. Though I did enjoy A Separate Peace in literature class (I am nothing if not inconsistent).

Still my choice of books could never be described as ‘cultivated’, more like a potpourri of covers, quotes and authors that caught my fancy.

I was perfectly happy to dabble in this hodgepodge of literary entertainment until about my 4th year of medical school, when I decided I wanted to be a writing intern for an online magazine. I showed up for the interview, excited to finally take a step into the real life world of books, and my future editor asked what kinds of books I liked to read. I shared a few samples from the list above (to my credit, neglecting to mention the hundreds of romance novels) but I was wholly unprepared for her next question.

“Do you read any literary fiction?”

I’ll spare you the painfully embarrassing details of me asking what the hell literary fiction was and then struggling to remember the last ‘serious’ book I had read (Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, if you were wondering).

Now I know there are readers who are capable of excelling in medical school full time while maintaining a steady 5-6 books per month batting average, but I am not one of them. After labouring through eight hours of mind-numbing Physiology lectures, deciphering delicate metaphors in a stream of consciousness narrative is not my idea of a fun time.

That encounter in 4th year shifted my reading trajectory entirely. Before, I would devour four or five romantic or otherwise light-hearted novels per month. After, I put myself on a strict literary diet: romance novels were the fast food of the reading world and if I wanted to cultivate a healthy literary appetite I needed to stick to the ‘serious stories’.

I refused to read anything that couldn’t be described as ‘literary’, and ironically I spent a lot of that time re-reading my Jane Austen novels. I love Austen but her books are by no means ‘literary’, just old. I spiraled all the way down to four maybe five books a year, and started to feel guilty every time I saw my blog title.

That editor wasn’t to blame for my literary anorexia, at least not entirely. But there was an unspoken cultural rule that I was slowly becoming aware of, one that dictated which books were worth reading, and segregated readers in caste-like fashion based on the types of books they enjoyed.

This rule revolved around literary awards and the strict boundaries of genre. Much like a social hierarchy, the genre of a book determined the limits of its audience and in turn its perceived quality. Books and the people who loved them were snipped and cookie-cuttered into neat little labels, easy for publishers to target, but overall stifling the sprawling love of literature to which I had grown accustomed.

We readers of fantasy and YA novels can face disparagement for not being ‘serious readers’ and this pushes us to the margins of literary circles. Truth, I felt like an outsider during university when I attended functions in the Dept of Literature, though there was no real discrimination. Teens who spend hours poring over comic books and graphic novels instead of dense volumes of glorified classics get criticized for ‘wasting time’ instead of being encouraged to keep reading.

The delicate sprouts of curious literary leaves are easily crushed by censure. If society claims to value people who read, then why does it matter what they read, as long as they’re expanding their imaginations and honing their critical thinking?

Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man

Damn straight, Sir Francis Bacon

And I’m not drawing any lines in the sand either. All forms of writing are useful in this regard: Shakepeare, Sandra Brown, badly written Supernatural fanfiction. When people are discouraged from reading what they like, they’re just discouraged from reading. Pruning practices that ought to be prohibited is literally a quote from a Harry Potter villain.

On the flip side, if you’re concerned that your ten year old has a morbid fascination with Stephen King you may want to suggest something you’d find a little more age appropriate and save the Master of Horror until the teenage years (or, you know, never). It’s like training pets, instead of punishing the unwanted behaviour, distract and replace it with something more desirable.

At the end of the day, reading should be encouraged full stop. The ridiculous competition of ‘literary’ vs ‘genre’ fiction is best left to snobby book critics and publishers with a cranio-rectal inversion. Everyone else should just be glad your child/loved one/own damn self who reads has a way more useful hobby than policing other people’s bookshelves.

Advertisements

Book Clubs and Bozos

Rebel Women Lit (Jamaica-based book club) finally has a Mobay chapter and I was all over the first meeting.

There were three of us. And despite the book on the table – Marlon James’s Black Leopard Red Wolf – the meeting was delightful.

Well, except for the gatecrasher who wouldn’t stop offering unsolicited opinions on a variety of topics not related to the book at hand. Gems included:

“The Bible is a great book – you should read it”

Also,

“I really think you’d like Cowboy Bebop”

and not to be outdone,

“Don’t you think people are too sensitive about everything these days? It’s like you can’t even make a joke without someone taking offense”

I am not making these up, you guys. They’re actual quotes from an actual stranger who sat down with a group of women discussing a book and felt that was the best moment to go full Kanye West.

And if you guessed that he was a man, you’d be right.

Specifically of the cisgender heteronormative variety. (You know, those people).

When I reflect on the experience I think the universe was just trying to give us the pinnacle of feminist experiences. I mean, he was only the biggest stereotype ever to walk into a cafe. We couldn’t have planned that if we tried.

In the moment though, we were all paralyzed by politeness into exchanging glances that said “Can you believe this guy?” for TWO WHOLE HOURS.

(We could not, in fact, believe him.)

Despite the interloper, we enjoyed ourselves. I have some strong opinions on the book – we agreed it was a polarizing story – even though I didn’t make it past the first twenty pages. Some other time I’ll write about why we all need to stop reading books just because they’re popular (life is too short to read shit that doesn’t spark joy).

For now I’m glad my social calendar is evolving. And if this first meeting is any indication, I may not always be on board with the book picks but I’ll always show up for a bookish conversation.

And coffee. Coffee is non-negotiable.

Starting Fires

While I was at home in Montego Bay the Riverton dump in Kingston started burning and continued to burn for more than a week. Social media grabbed the disaster and ran through the streets with it, even as print media dragged their feet on the reporting. Fingers were pointed, no one was punished and the annual nine-day-wonder fire was swept under the carpet along with issues like political corruption and the human rights debate. People don’t stay angry for very long, it seems.

Catching Fire is the second book in Suzanne Collins’s wildly popular YA series, about the start of a revolution and the fire that was starting to rage in hearts across Panem. It was a book about social and political change, and the kind of rebellion that one girl in a really fabulous dress can inspire. The oppressed in fiction get angry and stay angry. (And then they kill people).

Jamaica needs radical change, some kind of blazing revolution that razes everything in its path and leaves the land empty. Not barren, but fertile. Waiting for some clean, new, un-corrupted, pure of heart phoenix to spring from the ashes. But this is an ideal.

Our reality is slogging away at back-breaking jobs for bank-breaking pay all the while cussing this government and that government and hiding our faces in embarrassment at our leaders, and hoping someone else will be the change we want to see.

I’m guilty. There’s no excuse for not standing up and pushing back against the undesirable reality. There are start-up ideas and innovations everywhere, little inspiring stories about changing things one life at a time. People bounce back from tragedy with overwhelming determination; people triumph in big and little ways.

But what to do with the pervasive feeling that if you don’t go big, go home? That my small change won’t make any real difference? How to coalesce all the small changes into some grand overarching movement toward a better Jamaica? How to reach the whole country instead of just one small part?

We would need to have small changes everywhere, instead of concentrating them in our urban centres. The disparity between urban centres and rural communities is discouraging, the lack of resources is debilitating and (personally) my capacity for hope and faith is insufficient to sustain the grassroots efforts that we would need to experience change in a major way.

And there needs to be a deep affinity for the cause you’re getting behind in Jamaica, because it takes everything you have. Fighting battles on the fronts of gender equality, human rights, even education is an exhausting process. Carla Moore after discussing gender issues with two male friends commented that “Doing gender-based interventions as a woman is a form of abuse”.

I want to do something but I’m terrified – of failing, of being targeted, of not having the resources, of not caring enough, of caring too much, of burning out, of becoming bitter. I shy away from advocacy and cheer them on from the sidelines when I know I should do more, do something. But what can I do, what can I do?

Sometimes this question plagues me, chases me down the street and demands money. I falter, dig around in my mind for a response, dig through my chest for a semblance of emotion to spur me forward, to start a fire. But I’m not a fire-starting kind of girl.

When I was at community college, I started a Book Club which I ran for one year as President before graduating. We would meet once a week and talk about whatever short story or poem I had printed out and I like to think I was encouraging an appreciation of literature but truthfully I have no idea why people continued to show up week after week (but I was  grateful that they did).

When I left, the club continued. Only now, they had branched into outreach and were delivering books to basic schools and orphanages. Is this an example of my humble literary efforts catching fire?

From reading flash fiction to sharing the gift of literature – if one little effort can evolve like that, what more can my love of books accomplish? If I can’t start a fire, can I at least fan some flames? I believe the right book can change a life, can rewrite generations of hardwiring, can catalyse personal and national revolution. And that sounds like a cause I can get behind.

**

My friend Tricia (Tricia T Allen) and I are planning to start a writer’s club in Montego Bay as soon as I move back home, and we’re looking for dedicated writers to come and join in. If you’re from the Western end of the island and you have a fondness for words, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us! More details will be posted as soon as we hash them out. 

Romance novels, Dieting, and Unlikely Teachers

I sometimes think that my relationship with books is a lot like the relationship between a drug addict and his substance. I overdose on them and get hang overs; I go without them too long and start feeling antsy; I read a good one and I am on a high. There are different highs for different books.

Like Really Good Books. Really Good Books are like uppers: crack cocaine, methamphetamines. Great, soaring highs that make you think you’ve got it all figured out if only the world would just listen to you. RGBs make me almost manic in my excitement; I feel on top of the world.

Whereas romance novels are a lot more like downers: alcohol, benzodiazepines. A nice romance novel will make me feel like marijuana smokers: mellow, irie, in tune with the harmony of the universe. They are my rose-coloured (smoke-covered) lenses. I feel good.

But romance novels are also the junk food of the literary world. They’re a dime a dozen, they have very little substance and they tend to detract from rather than add to your critical thinking skills. At least that’s what I used to think. So I went on a diet: no romance novels whatsoever for twelve months. A solid year. Considering those books are my go to comfort read (what ice cream and chocolate are for other girls), this was a huge step. But I wanted to cleanse my literary palate, so to speak.

But in the eleven months that I lasted on my second attempt I shifted my thinking (amidst dealing with all my emotional breakdowns without my go-to respite) from “romance novels are bad.” to “maybe romance novels are good in moderation. Like wine. Or live viruses.” And I only lasted eleven months.

Diets are like that. I couldn’t go a year without pizza or popcorn even if I tried (especially not if I tried. Maybe if I did it without realizing it, sure) so why should I expect to go a year without reading a Harlequin?

Because those things aren’t all bad (unlike crack cocaine. Crack is whack, kids). And it’s not just the Really Good Books that can teach you truths about life and people and love. Okay, romance novels are crap at teaching you anything about love except that “it conquers all”. Which it doesn’t. But there are a surprising number of aha moments hidden in the shallows of their unrealism.

Any book can teach you something, if you let it.

I have a fetish. It’s called bibliophilia.

When I have just read a good book, I feel incredibly infinite and alive. I wish I could take this feeling everywhere, carry it in my pocket and put it on when I feel battered and bruised by life.

The novel responsible for my feelings right now is John Greene’s The Fault in Our Stars. It is a cancer book that is not a cancer book, a love story without a happy ending, and a great big existential question. In short, it is exactly the kind of book that has been calculated to step on all my tenderest buttons of emotion and pretty much dissolve me into a puddle of tears. It is a book that makes me live.

Not that living is only achieved by puddles of tears, but puddles are pretty lively things to begin with.

I digress.

When I have read a book like this (and the last was Confessions of a Wallflower) I simultaneously want to tell the whole world about it, and keep it all to myself. This sentiment is shared by the protagonist. When I have read a book I connect with so intimately I get a weird kind of impulse for both PDA and secret kisses.

I will settle for telling the world that it must always, always try to feel like ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ and precious few other books have made me feel after reading them. It must be the purpose of human life to achieve this feeling: a curious mix of certainty and wonder that has been previously been described as serenity. Probably. Serenity may not mean the same thing for you as it does for me.

All I know is my fingers are trembling from a heat in my heart that refuses to be put into words, I feel a reassuring connection to the rest of the universe, and, despite having spent the last hour crying my eyes out, I am the happiest I have been in a long, long time.

moodybooks

This would be me. If I was old. And British. And a man.

Neil Gaiman’s vision: ‘I wanted to get across what it’s like to be a kid in a strange world’ – Culture & Entertainment News | The Irish Times – Sat, Jun 08, 2013.

An interview with Neil Gaiman on his first adult novel in 8 years (The Ocean at the End of the Lane). It’s about how much of himself he put into the story as a small boy who grew up getting his ideas of the world from books.

There is so much of him in me.

But not in that way. :P

Hungry? Fire + bird = Suzanne Collins having the odds in her favour

I read The Hunger Games trilogy, you guys.

What took me so long? I really don’t know. Ever since the movie was released, I’ve been meaning to read the books (because everyone knowns you can’t watch the movie without having read the book. This is a universal truth for all Harry Potter fans out there) but I just couldn’t get around to it. One of the many downsides to medical school is having little to no time to read outside of school. But my recent two-week break gave me the time I needed to obsessively leisurely read Suzanne Collins’ work.

And it was worth every late/sleepless night.

You know the premise: post-apocalyptic America tries to stand on its feet by creating a new system of government where 12 districts are ruled almost dictatorially by a central Capitol. Following an uprising against the Capitol some 74 years ago, they enforced a tradition of sacrificing two tributes per district to fight to the death until one victor remained. This trilogy is the story of Panem, its tributes, its victors and the evil Capitol overlord President Snow. But it’s mostly about Katniss Everdeen, her hopeless love life and her unwitting role in a rebel uprising.

Did I mention this would have spoilers?

And, clearly, I have a thing for post-apocalyptic melodramatic love-stories.

There are several things to love about the story. I empathize with Katniss’s emotional incompetence in a way that I have not empathized with a character in a long time. Her total inexperience in dealing with relationships – friendships and romantic relationships – makes me feel less lonely. It’s also a true-blue young adult novel, with the main character being only 16 at the beginning of the story and ageing maybe two years by the end of it, which makes it incredibly appealing to the generation that was a bit too young to fall in love with Harry Potter.

Part of this appeal is, of course, the exciting new world that Collins creates. Depressing would probably be a better word for District 13 and the whole dictatorship of Panem. But she creates a thrilling drama with intense conflict in multiple arenas. Her characters are also realistic and believable. Katniss isn’t the only person I ended up feeling for: Peeta and Gale (okay, maybe not Gale so much) and Cinna (oh Cinna) and her mother and sister all evoked waves of empathy and sympathy and at one point plain old tears as I devoured the pages.

Part of the beauty of the characters is their mystery. I love iceberg characters; you only see a glimpse of who they are above the surface when they interact with the main character but you know there is so much more going on beneath. This is probably the fanfiction writer in me, but those characters are the most intriguing: the ones that leave you wondering what on earth goes on in their heads. Collins’ trilogy is sprinkled liberally with these gems.

This was a hard won point, because I love happy-endings where everybody lives and gets married and has babies in the epilogue (I read to escape the harshness of reality, people), but I actually like how unafraid Collins is to kill characters. She has no qualms about tugging on your heartstrings (mine were completely avulsed) for the sake of a good story. I appreciate authors who don’t sacrifice the integrity of their work just so sappy romantics like myself can feel warm and fuzzy at night.

But while there were definite high points, the Hunger Games was not without its share of lows.

The ending, for example, was rather predictable and unsatisfying. Even with an epilogue, and I love epilogues. It just didn’t suit Katniss. It was not the happy ending I would have imagined for her, and I feel like Collins cheated her own character by forcing her into borrowed robes. I mean, when you consider that this girl spent almost the entire last book being out of her mind (another iffy plot move), you really don’t see her settling down to the two-and-a-half-kids-white-picket-fence kind of life.

Another issue I found is that Collins doesn’t bring anything new to the love triangle arc that Stephenie Meyer certainly didn’t start but perhaps gave the most fame to. I will admit to being shamelessly caught up in Katniss Everdeen’s love life (just like most of Panem) but I will also be the first to admit that it is kind of shallow and played out. On one hand you’ve got the rough and tough edgy badboy with a chip on his shoulder the size of boulder; on the other hand, you’ve got the softer, sweeter yet completely charming and powerful in his own right young man who the lead character doesn’t feel she deserves yet invariably ends up with.

(Author’s Note: OMG, I am just realizing the depth of the similarity while typing this. WTF, YA authors, get some new ideas).

But it could just be that this is what the market wants, and this is what you have to write to be read. I would, however, like to thank J. K. Rowling for being the first to start this two guys-one girl power trio concept (not in that way, you pervs).

Lastly, I think she could have done more with the supporting characters (like Cinna). Collins’s hands were probably tied with the first person narrative, but more interaction would have been much appreciated (with Cinna). It’s not like she was hardpressed to condense the story – I don’t think any of the books is 800 pages – so there was room for more character development (of Cinna).

But overall it was a good read, and quite entertaining. It’s not hard-hitting literature, but I think it hits hard enough to leave its own mark on YA fiction.

credit: tamsin silver on blogspot
Mockingjay review. 100% accurate.

_________________________________________________________________________________________

Read.Robin is an unrealistically optimistic reviewer of books. She counts Neil Gaiman and J. K. Rowling as her literary gods, and finds it impossible to say a harsh word about anybody.