Thursday, January 31, 2008

Challenge Yourself to Read More This Year

Some of you may be wondering what the challenges are all about in the left-hand column. I tried to link to the challenge pages using the blogger template, but for some reason it won't allow it. So instead I'm going to explain it here.

In addition to my personal goal of reading 52 books this year (or one book a week), I also joined two challenges I found on the internet. The first is the TBR (to be read) Challenge, which encourages participants to finally read the books that have been lingering unread on their shelves for far too long. Any book that you've been planning on reading for more than one year can be added to your challenge list, which is 12 books long (one for each month of the year).

The second challenge I joined is the Chunkster Challenge. In this challenge participants choose four books (one for each quarter of the year) that are 450 pages in length or longer.

I only chose to do these two challenges because I'm going to have less time this year with going to grad school, moving back to California and looking for work. However, if you are interested in participating in a challenge, and neither of these suits you, I've provided links to a number of other challenges you may find interesting. Many of you have expressed a desire to read more, but haven't found the inspiration or motivation to really do it. Perhaps one of these challenges will be just the motivation you need...

The Graphic Novel ChallengeEncourages readers to read six graphic novels by the end of 2008. Also provides a list of award-winning graphic novels in case you're just getting started in the graphic novel genre.

The What's In a Name Challenge: The mediator of this challenge gives a subject, say animals, and you have to pick a book that has that subject in the title (To Kill A Mockingbird would work for the animals subjet). This looks like a fun one because you can be creative in what you choose.

The 19th Century Women Writers Challenge:If you're a big fan of Jane Austen and her kind, this might be the challenge for you (Ahem, Steph, Ahem). The blogger also has a link to a list of books in case you're coming up blank. For this challenge you are only required to read six books. Not bad, I'd say.

The First in a Series Challenge: I think the title of this one says it all, as many of them do. This challenge requires 12 books by the end of 2008.

The Year of Reading Dangerously Challenge: This one encourages readers to read books from genres that intimidate them. There is a suggested reading list, or you can choose your own. Again, 12 books, one per month.

Feel free to look for other challenges and join at will. I hope this gets some of you reading a bit more this year. Also, you may consider reading some of the books from The 100 Best Books of 2007 list. There are quite a few on my TBR list already.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Isn’t the story the important thing?

After reading Ishmael Beah’s account of his time in Sierra Leone, A Long Way Gone: The true story of a child soldier, I began looking through the internet for more information about him and where he is now. In this search I came upon this article (oh, and here's another one) in The Australian, calling Beah out for mistakes in his book. I also found this blog, which questioned Beah’s use of quotations and dialogue within the book. And it got me to thinking: How accurate does a memoir really need to be?

A memoir, as its name denotes, is based on memory, therefore I don’t think an author is expected to get every date and age correct. I think this is especially true when the author is displaced from his homeland and has lost every record of who he was before writing the book. If the only record he has to go off is his memory then I can see how some mistakes could have been made. For instance, him writing that he was 13 when he joined the Sierra Leonean army, when The Australian would put his age more around 15, does not surprise me. I make similar mistakes all the time when I’m thinking back on things, and can only get it correct when I actually get out my old journals or look through back entries in my blog, then do the math. I fully believe Beah would have used those tools to double-check his age as well, had he had them available to him. Although I haven’t talked to the author directly, I’m pretty certain he did not have a journal with him as he was walking around killing RUF soldiers.

I think it’s interesting that this is coming into question, when I have read a number of other memoirs that have glaring errors. A specific author that comes to mind is Augusten Burroughs, who gives two different ages for his first sexual interaction in two different books. In Running With Scissors, I believe he put his age around 12, while in Dry the age is significantly lowered to age 8 (I don’t have the books with me so I can’t verify these ages, but I remember specifically that it bothered me at the time I read them). Perhaps the media didn’t notice these mistakes because they didn’t read the books in direct succession as I did, but the mistakes were there. And Burroughs claims to have journal records dating back to his early childhood so surely he should have gotten this correct?

As for the quotes brought into question by One-Minute Book Reviews, I have often asked myself about quotes in memoirs. I have also had a number of discussions with other journalists on what type of creative license is allowed for quoting in novels, memoirs, etc. The thing is, it’s not an autobiography. Very few people, especially your normal everyday person, has enough newspaper print spent on them that they can actually quote what other people have said and done regarding them. Their lives are not lived out in the newspapers and tabloids, despite what the media would have us believe. Yes, Beah could have easily left out the dialogue in his book, but then how exciting would that have been to read? This is his account of what happened to him and what the war was like in Sierra Leone. I have no doubt in my mind that he witnessed the atrocities he wrote about in this book and I will give him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to giving an account of those things from memory.

What I think is important to remember here is that it’s the story that matters. No, I don’t think authors should go around writing fiction and try passing it off as a memoir (Ahem), but I think we should allow a little leeway when it comes to writing something from memory. For me, getting this story out and making a difference in Sierra Leone is more important than Beah not releasing the book because he wasn’t sure if his family was killed when he was 13 or 15 years old. And, in the book itself, Beah notes that he wasn’t sure of the amount of time that had passed, nor about his exact location on many occasions he speaks about in the book.

What do you think? When it comes to memoirs, how important is it to get every detail correct?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

It’s a strange time to be a Jew

Michael Chabon has created another masterpiece with “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” his most recent novel. While his other books were beautifully written, I found some of them difficult to get through. That was not the case with this book, which moves more quickly than Kavalier and Clay, and kept me interested throughout.

With this book Chabon creates a world in which Roosevelt’s suggestion to move displaced Jews to Alaska after World War II has been put in place. The only problem is Roosevelt included a move-out date for the Jews in order to get the legislation through, and that date is quickly approaching. While the other Jews in Sitka are preparing their paperwork to move abroad, or are applying for visas to stay within the United States, Meyer Landsman is busy trying to beat the clock on a murder that took place in the hotel where he lives.

In addition to the murder case, Landsman is haunted by a number of other ghosts, including the suicide death of his father, an unborn child, a possibly murdered pilot sister and the memory of his failed marriage. He spends much of the novel battling a drinking problem, which gets him into some interesting, if not painful, predicaments. His counterpart in the book is his partner and cousin, Berko Shemets, a half-Jew, half-Tlingit bear of a man.

Shemets plays the part of the level-headed friend in the book. He is also envied by Landsman for his ever-growing family. Shemets is dealing with his own battles throughout the book, while trying to keep Landsman from being kicked off the police force. He ends up being one of my favorite characters, with Landsman’s ex-wife (and boss) being one of the other great characters of the book. The relationships between the characters makes the book an enjoyable, and sometimes uncomfortable, read.

The book has plenty of twists and turns, including a weird chess obsession, and kept me guessing until the end. Perhaps if I knew more about Jewish culture I would have figured it out before the end. But lacking that, this was the first mystery book I’ve read that I wasn’t able to figure out before the punchline.

This book was also reviewed on:
Living To Read