Friday, April 28, 2017

X is for “Xenophobia (And Books To Combat It)”

Welcome to the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. Every day in April (except Sundays), I’ll be sharing a short bookish memory with you. 

X? What am I supposed to do with X? Normal English words don’t start with X. X is for weird, pretentious, hard-to-pronounce words.

I had nothing for X. Luckily, way back in the planning stages of this challenge, Elliptical Man suggested “Xenophobia.” So, let’s do it. Books to combat xenophobia.

Xenophobia is kind of a huge topic. It’s hard to break it down into something blog-post-sized. I decided to focus on fear of refugees because that’s what I’m seeing in the US right now. In my opinion, education is the best way to combat fear, so I’m going to show you two books about refugees I’ve read and four books on my to-be-read list.

Books I’ve Read

What is the What – Dave Eggers

In a heartrending and astonishing novel, Eggers illuminates the history of the civil war in Sudan through the eyes of Valentino Achak Deng, a refugee now living in the United States. We follow his life as he's driven from his home as a boy and walks, with thousands of orphans, to Ethiopia, where he finds safety—for a time. Valentino's travels, truly Biblical in scope, bring him in contact with government soldiers, janjaweed-like militias, liberation rebels, hyenas and lions, disease and starvation—and a string of unexpected romances. 
Ultimately, Valentino finds safety in Kenya and, just after the millennium, is finally resettled in the United States, from where this novel is narrated. In this book, written with expansive humanity and surprising humor, we come to understand the nature of the conflicts in Sudan, the refugee experience in America, the dreams of the Dinka people, and the challenge one indomitable man faces in a world collapsing around him.

This is a must-read if you want to understand what happened in Sudan, but it’s not an easy read. Parts of it are brutal. Other parts are slow and dense. Also, it’s only a semi-biography, so the author fictionalizes parts of Valentino Achak Deng’s life. The publisher classifies the book as a novel. I didn’t love What is the What, but I’ll always remember it. I’ve recommended it to a lot of people who are interested in the refugee crisis.

The Optician of Lampedusa – Emma-Jane Kirby

The only optician on the island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean is an ordinary man in his fifties, who used to be indifferent to the fate of the thousands of refugees landing on the coast of the Italian island. One day in the fall of 2013, the unimaginable scale of the tragedy became clear to him, and it changed him forever: as he was out boating with some friends, he encountered hundreds of men, women and children drowning in the aftermath of a shipwreck. The Optician and his seven friends managed to save 47 people (his boat was designed to hold ten people). All the others died. This is a poignant and unforgettable account about the awakening of conscience: more than that, it brings home the reality of an ongoing refugee crisis that has resulted in one of the most massive migrations in human history.

This is one of the most enlightening books I’ve read in 2017. The author is a journalist who interviewed the optician. The book is short (under 200 pages), but it packs a punch. The story shows that we have a tendency to ignore the world’s problems until they show up on our doorstep. By that time, it might be too late to solve the problem. 

Books On My To-Be-Read List

Crossing the Sea: With Syrians on the Exodus to Europe – Wolfgang Bauer

Award-winning journalist Wolfgang Bauer and photographer Stanislav Krupaƙ were the first undercover reporters to document the journey of Syrian refugees from Egypt to Europe. Posing as English teachers in 2014, they were direct witnesses to the brutality of smuggler gangs, the processes of detainment and deportation, the dangers of sea-crossing on rickety boats, and the final furtive journey through Europe. Combining their own travels with other eyewitness accounts in the first book of reportage of its kind, Crossing the Sea brings to life both the systemic problems and the individual faces behind the crisis, and is a passionate appeal for more humanitarian refugee policies.

The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria – Janine di Giovanni

In May of 2012, Janine di Giovanni traveled to Syria. It would mark the beginning of a long relationship with the country, starting with her coverage of the peaceful uprising and continuing as the situation quickly turned into one of the most brutal internecine conflicts in recent history. Drawn to the stories of the ordinary people caught up in the conflict, Syria came to consume her every moment, her every emotion. Speaking to those directly involved in the war, di Giovanni relays here the personal stories of rebel fighters thrown in jail at the least provocation, of children and families forced to watch loved ones taken and killed by regime forces with dubious justifications, and the stories of the elite holding pool parties in Damascus hotels trying to deny the human consequences of the nearby shelling. Delivered with passion, fearlessness, and sensitivity, The Morning They Came For Us is an unflinching account of a nation on the brink of disintegration, charting an apocalyptic but at times tender story of life in a jihadist war and an unforgettable testament to human resilience in the face of devastating, unimaginable horrors.

The Raqqa Diaries: Escape From Islamic State – Samer

The Raqqa Diaries began as a series of short broadcasts on Radio 4’s 'Today' Programme. Now one of the most isolated and fear ridden cities on earth, no-one is allowed to speak to western journalists or leave Raqqa, without IS’s permission. Those caught breaking the rules face death by beheading. 
Despite this, Mike Thomson, with the help of BBC’s Arabic Service, found a young man who is willing to risk his life to tell the world what is happening in his city. Part of a small anti-IS activist group, the diaries were written, encrypted and sent to a third country before being translated. 
The diarist’s father is killed and mother badly injured during an air strike, he is sentenced to 40 lashes for speaking out against a beheading, he sees a woman stoned to death. They show how every aspect of life is impacted – from the spiralling costs of food to dictating the acceptable length of trousers. 
At one point, the sale of televisions is banned. As Samer says, 'it seems it’s not enough to stop us talking to the outside world, now we can’t even look at it.’ Having seen friends and relatives butchered, his community’s life shattered and the local economy ruined by these hate-fuelled extremists, Samer believes he’s fighting back by telling the world what is happening to his beloved city.

The Refugees – Viet Thanh Nguyen

In The Refugees, Viet Thanh Nguyen gives voice to lives led between two worlds, the adopted homeland and the country of birth. From a young Vietnamese refugee who suffers profound culture shock when he comes to live with two gay men in San Francisco, to a woman whose husband is suffering from dementia and starts to confuse her for a former lover, to a girl living in Ho Chi Minh City whose older half-sister comes back from America having seemingly accomplished everything she never will, the stories are a captivating testament to the dreams and hardships of immigration. 

Do you know any books about refugees that I should add to my list? I’m especially interested in books written by the refugees themselves. Most of the refugee books on my to-be-read list are written by journalists.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

W is for “What Happened To Lani Garver”

Welcome to the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. Every day in April (except Sundays), I’ll be sharing a short bookish memory with you.

Have you ever seen strange parallels between a fictional story and your real life? Like, the story’s author somehow took parts of your life and put them in a book? This has happened to me before. The most recent time it happened was when I read All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven. The first time I saw major parallels between my life and fiction was when I read What Happened to Lani Garver by Carol Plum-Ucci.

What Happened to Lani Garver – Carol Plum-Ucci

The close-knit residents of Hackett Island have never seen anyone quite like Lani Garver. Everything about this new kid is a mystery: Where does Lani come from? How old is Lani? And most disturbing of all, is Lani a boy or a girl? 
Claire McKenzie isn't up to tormenting Lani with the rest of the high school elite. Instead, she befriends the intriguing outcast. But within days of Lani's arrival, tragedy strikes and Claire must deal with shattered friendships and personal demons—and the possibility that angels may exist on earth.

This book was first published in 2002. I was in high school when I read it. By today’s standards, it’s probably dated and problematic, but at the time, it made me think about the world in a slightly different way. I’d never read a book about a character who didn’t identify as male or female. I knew that transgender people existed, but at that point in my life, I’d never given much thought to gender. All the people I knew were either boys or girls. Reading this book forced teenage-me to think seriously about gender issues. What happens if someone isn’t a boy or a girl?

As a teen, I was sheltered. If I had to put a label on the town where I grew up, I’d probably label it “Guns and God.” People went to church on Sundays and spent weekends hunting or off-roading in their trucks. There's nothing wrong with those activities, but there wasn’t much diversity in the town. Almost everyone was white, conservative, semi-rural, Christian, and middle class.

The edge of a neighborhood in the town where I grew up.

Shortly after I finished the Lani Garver book, my best friend decided to tell everyone that he’s gay. Honestly, I wasn’t surprised when he told me. We’d been friends for so long that I'd pretty much figured it out on my own. Like with gender issues, I hadn’t given much thought to sexuality issues. I was straight; my friend was gay. That’s just how life was. We could talk about dudes together. Our sexualities didn’t bother me, so I didn’t think about them.

Unfortunately, my friend’s sexuality bothered other people. Some of our mutual friends were surprised when he told them. Kids who’d always been nice suddenly turned vicious and said that being gay was “against their beliefs.” I don’t want to go into detail about the bullying my friend endured because I don’t talk about my friends’ personal lives on the Internet. (Also, this blog is all about me, remember?) I’ll just say that the bullying got scary. I was legitimately worried that someone would use Christianity as an excuse to physically harm my friend.

I spent a lot of time thinking about the Lani Garver book during this part of my life. In the book, the fictional bullies are annoying at first, but then their behavior slowly escalates until it becomes potentially deadly. I was watching the same thing happen in my real life. It was terrifying.

Luckily, no one hurt my friend like Lani was hurt in the book. We graduated, moved on to college, and everything was mostly fine. Our story had a much happier ending than the story in the novel.

Still, the parallels between What Happened to Lani Garver and my real life were unnerving. I guess fiction can be a little too real sometimes.

Have you ever read a story that was eerily similar to your real life?

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

V is for “Vacation”

Welcome to the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. Every day in April (except Sundays), I’ll be sharing a short bookish memory with you.

We’re getting near the end of this challenge, and I’m running out of bookish memories. I’ve pretty much told you my entire life story, people! So, we’re going to talk about the future today.

One of the best things about books is that they let you experience the world. You can step out of your own life and into someone else’s for a few hours. Books can also teach you about places you’ve never been.

I love to travel. I have a huge list of places that I want to visit. Let's look at some bookish spots that are at the top of my must-see list:

As a kid and teen, I read a lot of nonfiction about Arctic exploration. These books inspired me to take trips to Alaska, British Columbia, and Alberta in my teens. I’d show you photos of my trips, but they were on a computer that crashed, so they don’t exist anymore. You’ll just have to trust me. My travel wish list includes a few other snowy places. I’d love to see Antarctica, Iceland, and Scandinavia.

In my textbook for German History class in high school, I saw photos of King Ludwig II’s Neuschwanstein Castle. This castle was the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. Seeing photos of it in a book made me put Bavaria on my travel list.

Has everyone seen The Lord of the Rings movies? I’ve never been able to get through The Lord of the Rings books, but the movies are beautiful. They were filmed in New Zealand, which is definitely on my must-visit list.

My undergraduate degree is in English literature. This means that I took lots, and lots, and lots of Brit Lit classes. You can’t spend years reading about the UK and Ireland and not want to go there. I especially want to see London, Edinburgh, and Dublin. Those are all very “literary” cities that have inspired hundreds of books. (Many of which I was forced to read in college.)

 Paris, France is on everybody’s travel list, right? It’s on mine. Oscar Wilde’s tomb is there. The world-famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore is there, too.

Speaking of bookstores, I’d love to see some of the biggest English language bookstores in the world. There’s Powell’s in Oregon, The Strand in New York, and Waterstones Piccadilly in London.

If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

U is for “Uncertainty”

Welcome to the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. Every day in April (except Sundays), I’ll be sharing a short bookish memory with you. 

Conversations I had with myself while writing posts for the Blogging from A to Z Challenge:

No one wants to read this. Why are you even trying? You should’ve stuck to book reviews.
Wow, that’s self-obsessed.
You’ve already said that three times. Do you really need to bring it up again?
Now you’re whining about first-world problems?
You’ve spent hours on this post. Admit that it’s not going to work.
Delete it. Start over.
There are better uses of your time.
Children were gassed to death today in Syria. You’re sitting on your fat ass and writing about random number generators? *Slow clap.*

One of the things I struggle with is the value of blogging. Why do I do it? I’ve said before that running this blog requires huge amounts of time and mental energy. I don’t get paid to do it. All of my content is free, and there are no ads. This project is a labor of love. Since I put so much of myself into Read All The Things!, I’d like to believe that it has value. I want to think that I’m doing something good with this blog, but I don’t always feel like I am.

Sometimes I delude myself into thinking I’m using the blog to help authors’ careers. I always see authors on Twitter asking people to write reviews. I post a lot of reviews, but realistically, I don’t think I’m doing much to help anybody’s career. This blog has around 1,500 followers. My reviews are seen by maybe 50-80 of those people. My platform isn’t big enough to make a difference in any author's life.

I also don’t post anything particularly helpful on the blog. I don’t educate people. I don’t use the blog to bring attention to important causes. I mostly make jokes and yammer about books. At times, this whole blogging thing feels uncomfortably narcissistic.

Does all that joking and yammering have value? After giving the question way too much thought, I’m going to answer with a hesitant “Yes.” I think that fun, fluffy entertainment has value. If people were serious all the time, we’d probably be miserable. (Or, more miserable than we already are.) Reading and writing blog posts allows me to mentally escape from the world for a few hours a day. It helps preserve what little sanity I have. I think that’s valuable.

I hope my blog has brought you a few minutes of mental escape.

If you’re a blogger, do you believe that your blog has value? Do you ever feel uncomfortable and narcissistic when you talk about yourself in posts?  

Monday, April 24, 2017

T is for “Tommyknockers & Terabithia”

Welcome to the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. Every day in April (except Sundays), I’ll be sharing a short bookish memory with you.

In my last Blogging from A to Z challenge post, I talked about how I was a reluctant reader until I discovered that some books don’t suck. Conveniently for this challenge, two of those non-sucky books start with T.

As an elementary school student, my parents and teachers forced me to read every day, and by the time I got to fifth grade, I was bored with children’s books. I wanted to read an adult book. So, I snuck one out of my parents’ dresser drawer. The book turned out to be Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers. I managed to read the majority of it before my parents discovered I had it and took it away. This book got me hooked on horror. After my Tommyknockers experience, I wanted to read more scary books.

The Tommyknockers – Stephen King

Something was happening in Bobbi Anderson's idyllic small town of Haven, Maine. Something that gave every man, woman, and child in town powers far beyond ordinary mortals. Something that turned the town into a death trap for all outsiders. Something that came from a metal object, buried for millennia, that Bobbi accidentally stumbled across. 
It wasn't that Bobbi and the other good folks of Haven had sold their souls to reap the rewards of the most deadly evil this side of hell. It was more like a diabolical takeover . . . an invasion of body and soul—and mind.

The second book that helped turn me into a bookworm was Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. This one was a Christmas gift from my parents. It was more age-appropriate than my stolen Stephen King book. Terabithia had everything I didn’t know I wanted in a novel. It has a rural setting, a little bit of magic, and some serious topics. Even as a kid, I hated reading fluff. I read this book so many times that I had parts of it memorized.

Bridge to Terabithia – Katherine Paterson

Jess Aarons' greatest ambition is to be the fastest runner in his grade. He's been practicing all summer and can't wait to see his classmates' faces when he beats them all. But on the first day of school, a new girl boldly crosses over to the boys' side and outruns everyone. 
That's not a very promising beginning for a friendship, but Jess and Leslie Burke become inseparable. Together they create Terabithia, a magical kingdom in the woods where the two of them reign as king and queen, and their imaginations set the only limits.

It’s slightly strange that I connected with both of these books. They don’t have much in common. But, if I hadn’t read them, I probably wouldn’t be running a book blog right now. These were the stories that helped me realize that books could be entertaining.

What’s the first book that you remember loving?

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Sunday Post #94

The Sunday Post is hosted by The Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to recap the past week, talk about next week, and share news. It’s Monday, What Are You Reading? is hosted by Book Date. I get to tell you what I’ve read recently.

Blogging From A To Z

Things around here are a little different this month. I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z challenge. Every day in April (except Sundays), I’m going to write a short post about how books and book blogging have impacted my life. Brace yourself. Posts are coming.

Dewey’s 24 Hour Read-a-thon

Dewey’s 24 Hour Read-a-Thon starts on April 29! This is my first time participating. I’m going to be posting my updates on Twitter, so follow me there if you want to see them.

On The Blog Last Week

Coming Up On The Blog

I won’t be posting a Sunday Post next Sunday. Here’s what’s coming up in the next two weeks:

  • T is for “Tommyknockers & Terabithia”
  • U is for “Uncertainty”
  • V is for “Vacation”
  • W is for “What Happened to Lani Garver”
  • X is for “Xenophobia (and Books to Combat It)”
  • Y is for “You’ll Rot Your Brain”
  • Z is for “Zzzzz (Books That Kept Me Up Past Bedtime)”
  • Review of American Housewife: Stories by Helen Ellis
  • Covers I Love
  • Review of The Sound of Gravel: A Memoir by Ruth Wariner
  • April Wrap-Up
  • Massive Spring Book Haul (Part 1)

In My Reading Life

Last week, I finished Smoke by Dan Vyleta and Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Then I read Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin. Right now, I’m reading A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin and Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters.

In The Rest Of My Life

Five things that made me happy last week:

  1. Easter with my family.
  2. So much chocolate.
  3. My cousin discovered that we’re distantly related to the actress Courteney Cox. I wish I’d inherited her acting talent. Or her looks. Or her ability to make money.
  4. The sunflowers I’m growing in the basement are getting big. I had to put them in new pots.
  5. Stanley Cup playoffs. I was a rabid hockey fan as a child/teen, but I gave it up several years ago to make more time for reading. Lately, I’ve been blogging like a machine, so I’ve been listening to games while I type.

Take care of yourselves and be kind to each other! See you around the blogosphere!

Saturday, April 22, 2017

S is for “Special Ed.”

Welcome to the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. Every day in April (except Sundays), I’ll be sharing a short bookish memory with you.

I was definitely not born a bookworm. When I was a kid, I did everything in my power not to read.

As a child, I was . . . um . . . special. School was not my thing. In school, I was so anxious that I twitched uncontrollably or so depressed that my teachers would have had better luck teaching a bowl of lime Jell-O how to read. I was a profoundly slow learner who couldn’t handle unpredictability or changes to my routine. I hated crowds and couldn’t focus in the classroom. I was also a control freak with zero social skills. Basically, little-me was a hot mess in a fancy dress.

From first to sixth grade, I took classes for “Special” kids. For most of the day, I was in class with the “regular” kids, but before school and during lunch and recess, I had extra lessons. I was in “special” math, reading, and writing classes. I spent hours sitting in hallways, working one-on-one with a teacher’s aide. I’m surprised that I don’t have permanent nerve damage in my ass from doing so much of my schoolwork on hard floors. (I don’t know the current status of the aide’s ass. Maybe she got nerve damage from sitting with me? Would the school have to pay her medical bills? I need to Google these things.)

Anyway, being “special” isn’t great for a twitchy kid’s self-esteem. Adults were always trying to figure out what was wrong with me. Nobody knew why I was such a failure at life. I felt like there was enormous pressure on me to catch up to the other kids and stop being special. But, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t catch up. The self-loathing was intense. I was terrified of making mistakes because mistakes just reconfirmed my “special” status.

Then, there were the bullies. Kids look cute on the outside, but they can be vicious little demons. They called me “Special Ed,” “Ed,” “Retard,” and “Fucktard.” For anyone who hasn’t been initiated into an elementary school clique, Fucktard is a clever amalgamation of the words “Fucking retard.” The bullying got so bad that I started getting physically sick whenever the teacher’s aide walked into the classroom. I knew she was there for me, and I knew the other kids would give me crap for needing her help.

Since I didn’t get along with other kids, I was sent to special friendship classes. For Friendship Class, the school counselors rounded up all the “Eds” in school and put us in a windowless room roughly the size of a walk-in closet. Then, they had us make art. This often ended in disaster.

(Oh, I just reminded myself of a random tangent. Funny story about Friendship Class: Once upon a time in Friendship Class, one of my fellow Eds had a meltdown. He started flinging buckets of crayons around our classroom. Since I was an anxious Ed, I immediately lost interest in coloring my Friendship Turtle and panicked. One of the counselors said, “Don’t worry, that boy has ADHD.” I have no idea if she was talking to the other counselor or to me, but nobody bothered to explain what “ADHD” meant. For all I knew, it was a secret code word for We’re about to get stabbed to death with the sharp end of a broken crayon, but don’t panic, the school district will give our corpses proper Christian burials. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Friendship Class.)

Okay, back to books. How did I transform from an Ed who couldn’t read to a bookworm? Honestly, I’m not entirely sure. There was no magic Helen-Keller-type moment where someone shoved my hand under a water pump and everything suddenly made sense. Becoming a bookworm happened slowly. My parents and teachers were very persistent. They made me read Every. Single. Day. When I complained, fought, and feigned deadly illnesses, they still made me read.

During forced reading time in fifth grade, I accidentally stumbled across a few books that I didn’t hate. These books showed me that not all books suck. Once I knew my own reading tastes, I was able to hunt down more books that didn’t suck. I eventually discovered that I (gasp!) enjoyed reading. By the time I got to seventh grade, I was reading for fun every night. I was also put in normal classes in seventh grade. I was still weird, but I was no longer “special.”

So, if you have “Eds” in your life, don’t give up on them. I can’t tell you how my fellow Eds turned out, but this Ed read 108 books last year.

Are you a bookworm? Were you born that way, or did you develop your book love later in life?