Tag Archives: short stories

Reading Challenges and Why I Love Them

I have just recently gotten excited about reading challenges.  To be perfectly honest with you, I had no idea such a thing even existed until a few years ago.  But now that I know about them, it’s hard for me to stop doing them.

You may ask- why would you do that to yourself?

I have always been someone who likes a challenge and wants to test my abilities.  About 2 + years ago I was doing fine with my reading.  I was keeping my Goodreads list going by documenting when I was done with a book and rating it.  I was reading an ok amount, but all of it was fairly rote and automatic.  There wasn’t a lot of forethought or planning involved in what I was doing.  And I think because of that, I didn’t enjoy my reading to the extent that I do now.

My favorite moment of the reading process is the one after I finished something I enjoyed reading, basking in its afterglow (hopefully) when I realize that there is another book out there that could hold an equal or better treasure.  In cruder terms, you could say that I chase the reading high, like an addict.  Being a mood reader, I want to be really present in that moment and pick something that will appeal to the feeling I am having.  Most often times it is a reaction to what I just finished.  If it was something really heavy, I may want a “palate cleanser” of a read that will help me transition out of that world and into something else. If it was a fluffy or light-hearted book, I may look for something with a bit more substance.  But all this bouncing around was random.  I wanted a bit more form to what I was doing.

Enter the reading challenge

The first one I heard about grabbed me instantaneously.  It was the Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge for 2015.  The way it works is that they have chosen 24 categories or tasks.  That equates to about 2 books a month.  I knew I could do that, without a problem.  They keep the categories (as they call tasks) broad enough for readers to research and interpret the task as they want.  There isn’t really any rules other than that.

Here was their list of tasks for the Read Harder Challenge 2015:

I loved almost every second of this process, even when the books I chose may have missed the mark with my personal tastes.  I loved doing the research to discover what I could like that would fit into these categories.  I enjoyed being pushed to think more diversely and in interesting ways about how I read without any guardrails.  I discovered new areas that I ended up loving.  And some things that I thought would be very easy for me, turned out to be surprisingly hard.

The good-

Through this process, I found that I really like science fiction. !!!  (I know– it was a surprise for me, too!)  My previous experience with sci-fi was Dune by Frank Herbert and not much else.  I often felt unmoored by some of the sci-fi stories I had read and was not comfortable just “going with the flow” in an unfamiliar world.  I was kind of uptight about it, I admit.  I spent a lot of time trying to find the perfect fit for me.  I scoured some of the suggestions people on Goodreads were throwing out there.  I asked friends, and I kept an ear out for new releases that might fit the bill.  I landed on Moxyland by Lauren Beukes.  It featured a female heroine, set in the future in Cape Town, with a technology/pharmaceutical backdrop.  It was edgy and fast paced and very exciting.  I really liked it.

Dune by Frank Herbert
Dune by Frank Herbert
Moxyland by Lauren Beukes
I will admit to being intrigued by this great cover for Moxyland by Lauren Beukes

For the book published before 1850, I was stumped for something that I wanted to read.  I landed upon Middlemarch by George Elliot.  I was really happy with this pick because a list had just been published about the top English novels ever written and of all the books out there, Middlemarch was considered the number 1 book.  Again- who knew?  I was a little intimidated by it, and afraid that I was going to end up getting bogged down in it, but I found it so readable and I really felt something for these characters.  It was such a nice surprise for me that I went ahead and bought one of the lovely hardcover editions for my personal collection.

Look at this lovely clothboundPenguin Classics hardcover edition of Middlemarch by George Elliot.
Look at this lovely clothboundPenguin Classics hardcover edition of Middlemarch by George Elliot.

 

I also discovered how vast and exciting the Young Adult (YA) side of publishing was.  It has really expanded into a massive genre of potential gems.  I am probably aging myself but the only things I had that could be considered YA when I was growing up was Sweet Valley High and a few other things like that.  Nothing with the breadth and depth of topics and content that exists now.  I enjoyed what I read, but it was in the research that I discovered many books that I ended up reading this year.

The bad-

I was disappointed with the book I picked for the task of a book written by someone under the age of 25 years old.  I chose Shoplifting from American Apparel by Tao Lin and it just didn’t work for me.  The voice, tone, and content were not good fits for what I was looking for or what I tend to enjoy.  It could be just a generational thing.  I finished it because of the challenge, otherwise, I would have put it down and moved on.

Shoplifting From American Apparel by Tao Lin
Shoplifting From American Apparel by Tao Lin

The Ugly-

As I entered into December of 2015, I had 2 tasks not yet done and it was stressing me out.  The Poetry and the Short Story tasks were so frustrating me to no end.  I went through SO MANY books, looking for a fit.  To be perfectly candid, I don’t really like poetry.  Now I can appreciate a poem, but an entire book of poetry was really a stretch for me.  I will admit to taking a bit of a short cut on this task and pulling out one collection I have that I know I like- The Portable Dorothy Parker.  She has been a voice that I have turned to through many a broken heart, so I could heal through sarcasm, snark, and witty barbs.

The Portable Dorothy Parker
The inestimable Dorothy Parker, in a collected form.

I was absolutely shocked at how hard it was for me to find a short story collection for my tastes.  I mean, I found a ton of short story collections, but I learned a lot about the genre through this process.  One of the things I learned is that a lot of the stories that win awards and people seem to love are strange, awkward or have a dramatic twist.  The Lottery by Shirley Jackson is a perfect example.  As with poetry, I might like a single short story that has those elements, but I don’t particularly care for an entire collection of that type of work.  I tried the Miranda July work, No One Belongs Here More Than You.  I couldn’t finish it.  It was making me feel so bleak and hollow like I was falling into a depression.  I was told that most people will use the collection as I do with palate cleanser novels- to transition from one book to another.  But since I didn’t have enough time to do that, I shelved it and started the search again.  And I am so glad that I did because I found a beautiful gem of a book- The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri.  From the first few paragraphs, I knew this was the right book for me.  The writing was lush and evocative.  I was pulled in immediately.  I loved it so much.  I am on the hunt for a first edition hardcover copy of it, so I can keep it near me always.

No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July
I wasn’t feeling this book- No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July.
The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
A lush and lovely book- The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

 

The results-

The year that I spent really thinking about what to read and searching for which books would be in that Venn Diagram of what I love and what the task required was wonderful.  I read so many books that I would never have even thought to look at the covers, let along crack them open and read them.  And it is only because of the challenge.

What’s on deck for 2016?

Well, since the Read Harder Challenge was such much fun for me last year, I jumped on it for this year as well. Here are the tasks for this year, in a handy PDF that you can print and fill out as you go through the year:

ReadHarderChallenge2016_checklist_web

I have also participated in a Readathon where a person designates a fixed amount of time- 24 hours, 48 hours, a week, etc. to try to read as many books as possible.  It sounds a little insane, but it is very fun to completely devote yourself to only reading.  Many times there are communities on Twitter, Goodreads, Instagram or Youtube that promote a readathon and readers will plan together, share progress, cheer each other on, and generally offer breaks to each other during that time period.  Some tips that I have heard and would like to share for how to survive a readathon would be to pick your books wisely, even if there is a theme to the readathon.  For example, your goal is to read a lot, so you may want to find shorter books that aren’t dense from a subject matter perspective, so you can feel the success of plowing through them and upping your numbers.  Readers are always talking about all the finger food they have available to nosh on so they don’t get distracted by having to stop and make dinner.  (It also seems like a really fun time to break any diets or rules you have and just indulge as you turn the pages as often as you can.)  I enjoyed myself immensely during that time so I will look for more opportunities to do that in the future, and will make a note of them here.  Maybe we can do one together!

There are other types of challenges.  I will investigate and bring some others to the blog.  But I am curious- do any of you participate in reader challenges? Why or why not?   Please leave us the answers in the comments.

My Reading Wheelhouse: the books that give me the vapors

 

Cat leaping toward books in a bookshop
My spirit animal in action

 

Being such an avid reader, I have grown to understand those types of books which make me weak in the knees, give me the vapors, and generally have me leaping in the air to grab any book that fits my specific loves.

In no particular order, I love the following categories.  I included some examples of how I describe them.  These books may not have all been 5 stars but they fit this concept, in my mind at least.

 

What I want to attempt to read more of in the future:

  • Short stories– What I tend to find is that many short stories pack a punch with strange twists or awkward interactions at the center.  I don’t generally enjoy those as they leave me a bit sad and cold.  I like more emotive than plot based short stories. I read The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpha Lahiri and it was a bullseye for everything I was looking for in a short story collection.  It was evocative, thoughtful, poignant and very beautifully written.  I fell in love with the cover of the Clarice Lispector work of Complete Stories and so when I read some fantastic reviews of it, I went out and bought a copy. I anticipate that the hunt for more lovely short stories collections will be something that I continue in 2016.
  • Non-fiction tales about death and dying– Not really the party pleaser of topics, but recently I have been drawn to a more nuanced understanding of death, dying, grief, and all the things that go with it.  Not for any specific reason, but I think reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara last year opened this door on the nature of suffering and questions of the inevitability of death.  I have a few books waiting in the wings for when I feel able to devote the mental and emotional space to reading them.  They are: Being Mortal by Atul Gawande and an ARC of the  newly released When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.
    • Science Fiction– I am late to this party.  There have been a few scifi books that made indelible impressions upon me (I’m talking about you, Dune !) but it isn’t a genre that I felt confident in exploring.  But last year’s Read Harder Challenge had a science fiction book as one of the tasks and in researching it, I found a treasure trove of material.  I was swept away by Moxyland by Lauren Beukes.  It was fun, sporadic, modern and filled with action.  I also read The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell which blew my mind with the plot complexity, the rich characters and the depths of the themes explored.  This year I have ventured a little deeper into the genre with N.K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon.  That book came from a discussion of The Sparrow I had at a party and it was suggested that I look into her work.  What a revelation!  It hit so many of my most loved categories- lush writing, a swashbuckling tale, with political intrigue thrown in. I am looking forward to the second book in that series.  And then I just read an amazing book, which is probably no surprise to anyone else in the reading world… Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. What a stunning read!  And in all fairness, it isn’t a straight genre read or a straight literary fiction book, but something in between.  But that in between was magical.

Any suggestions along the themes I listed above?