Category Archives: Books

The Night Circus and My Insomnia

As of the beginning of September, for absolutely no apparent reason, I have developed horribly severe insomnia. I’m not exaggerating. I didn’t sleep for three nights straight and that was WITH sleep aids. Since then, I have gotten some nights where I sleep a few hours here or there, but the insomnia has never really gone away. I’ve tried all types of over the counter medications… Niquil, ZZzzquil (which I gather is kind of the same thing), Melatonin, Unisom, and Sleepytime Tea. I tried going without any screen time at night. No lights, no phone, no TV, no Kindle. I’ve meditated, listened to Podcasts and light classical music, exercised everyday until my body became exhausted, and still have gotten nowhere.

So I did what any avid reader who can’t sleep would do. I picked up “The Night Circus,” by Erin Morgenstern. No, it didn’t cure my insomnia, but I felt like it would be a good read since it falls into the theme of my life right now: dark, sleepless, and mysterious (the mystery in my life being… why the hell can’t I sleep right now?)

The Night Circus is about a circus that is only active at night, much like my brain these days. When it was published in 2011, it gained a lot of hype and is still very popular with readers 8 years later.

Although it’s often categorized as a fantasy/romance, I figured I’d give it a try despite not being a fan of either one of those genres. Currently, I’m about 300+ pages into this and I would personally say it’s more fantasy than anything else. There’s a little bit of romance, which I can only assume escalates further along in the book, but it’s not what drives the plot.

Speaking of the plot: it’s slow. Lots of things happen, but I’m not seeing a lot of movement. I’m guessing these plot points get tied up at the end, but I can’t say until I actually finish the book. I still have a good 150 pages or so to go. Yeah, it’s long. My paperback edition is over 500 pages.

The main story line follows two magicians, Celia and Marco, who are competing against each other in a mysterious battle, much of which is not known to the reader. Despite this rivalry, the pair fall in love.

I found some of the minor characters to be far more interesting than Celia and Marco. There’s Widget and Poppet, a pair of red-haired twins who possess magical powers; the German clock-maker, who creates clocks that are more like pieces of artwork; and Prospero the Enchanter, Celia’s father, who is also a magician. These are just a few, but each of the characters in The Night Circus has something interesting to add to the story. It seems like nobody is just plain ordinary.

The thing I love about this book is the descriptions of all things strange and bizarre. Morgenstern has an amazing imagination and her attention to detail really brings the magical scenes to life.

I felt like this was a good book to pair with my insomnia. It’s strangely comforting to read in the late hours when I can’t sleep. And even though I’m not dreaming, my mind is travelling into a new fantasy world that is stranger than any dream I could ever imagine.

Literary Fiction or Genre Fiction?

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Do you prefer to read literary fiction or genre fiction? Up until I was in college, I didn’t realize there was much of a difference. Isn’t literary fiction the same as genre fiction? Apparently not.

In publishing, literary fiction is considered “high brow” literature with more “merit.” Whereas genre fiction is more commercialized. Something like “Severance,” by Ling Ma, would be severanceconsidered literary fiction. It has more to do with character development than plot. But a book like “The Da Vinci Code,” by Dan Brown would be more like genre fiction. It has a set plot and the reader eagerly flies through each page to find out what happens at the end.

I was thinking about the two different forms of fiction and asked myself whether I had a clear preference. To answer this question, I went on my Goodreads page and started browsing the list of books I’ve read over the years. It seems like I mostly prefer genre fiction with a scattering of literary fiction thrown in here and there. If I’m being honest, I do prefer a book that forces me to ask “what’s going to happen next?” At the same time, some of my more favorite titles have fallen into the MyYearofRestcategory of literary fiction. For example, one of my favorite books is “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” by Ottessa Moshfegh. It’s about a woman who is independently wealthy and lives in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Her goal is to hibernate and alienate herself from the world with the use of some heavy drugs. As you can imagine, not a whole lot happens with the plot of this book. Yet, I still found it to be an engrossing novel.

The irony of the two different forms of literature is that even though literary fiction is considered “high brow” and its books are often short/long listed for some notable literary prizes (think Booker Prize, Orange Prize, etc), they don’t sell as well as genre fiction. As much as I loved “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” very few people have actually heard of it, or even heard of Ottessa Moshfegh for that matter. Yet, everyone has heard of Dan Brown. And everyone has heard of Nicholas Sparks, Nora Ephron, Lee Child, John Grisham, etc. But those aren’t the writers who win the greatest awards in literature. Even so, they still earn the most money.

It’s not just the publishing industry that is like this. Movies are similar. Whenever I watch the Oscars, I noticed that many of the movies nominated are movies that I’ve never seen or heard of. Most of the movies that were my favorites are often not nominated at all. Many of the movies I like go on to make millions at the box office, but it’s the lesser known movies that get the awards. In that regard, books and movies are similar.

Even so, probably the majority of my reading is still going to be from “commercialized” books. What can I say? They’re entertaining. And sometimes it doesn’t matter that something carries more merit in our society. At the end of the day, we read what we want to read. And even though I consider myself to be a “serious” reader, today I may just read “Crazy Rich Asians,” and escape from my own reality.

The Girls at 17 Swann Street, by Yara Zgheib

The Girls at 17 Swann Street

Synopsis (taken from Goodreads):

Anna Roux was a professional dancer who followed the man of her dreams from Paris to Missouri. There, alone with her biggest fears – imperfection, failure, loneliness – she spirals down anorexia and depression till she weighs a mere eighty-eight pounds. Forced to seek treatment, she is admitted as a patient at 17 Swann Street, a peach pink house where pale, fragile women with life-threatening eating disorders live. Women like Emm, the veteran; quiet Valerie; Julia, always hungry. Together, they must fight their diseases and face six meals a day.

Favorite Quote:

“I am not anorexic. I am out of control. I know it but I cannot stop. I am a child in a body that grew up too soon, found adulthood and real life a scam, and now is trying to lose enough weight to lift off the ground, fly away.”

Overall Thoughts:

“The Girls at 17 Swann Street,” reads like a memoir and it’s hard to believe that this is a work of fiction. Zgheib’s writing really shows the reader what it’s like inside the mind of someone who is struggling with this awful disorder. Anna’s thoughts are so raw and powerful. At times, they are difficult to read.

“I understand her anorexia more than she knows, wings banging on the inside of a cage. But I say nothing; she does not want my understanding. She wants quiet and to grieve.”

When I was in high school, I remember learning about anorexia as well as other eating disorders. There seemed to be a lot of misinformation going around. It was often assumed that people who had anorexia were just superficial girls (mostly) who only wanted to be skinny so that they could be more attractive. But I learned that it was never that simple. I remember reading about other people who were battling the disorder, how they had a desire for control over their lives. How food was the only way they could gain back that control.

“You can’t control your life, love, future, past, but you can choose what you put, or not, in your mouth.”

Anna’s disorder is complicated and clearly is a result of a traumatic past that she is reluctant to acknowledge. Each day is a struggle that Anna must force herself to get through. While living in the home at 17 Swann Street, she is forced to eat three meals a day with snacks in between, which is a huge challenge for her. For someone like Anna, eating is not a pleasant experience. It is a battle against the voices in her head that tell her that she shouldn’t be eating these things. To eat the foods that she is being forced to eat is like dismantling the only control she has in her life.

This book is by far one of my favorites that I’ve read this year. Although it is a short book and is relatively easy to read, it’s emotionally difficult. I found myself tearing up throughout most of its short chapters as I was becoming more and more attached to Anna’s character.

Overall Rating:

5stars

How can I give this book anything but 5 stars? This book is beautiful and heartbreaking. I felt so connected to Anna through the author’s powerful writing. “The Girls at 17 Swann Street” is an excellent read, but be sure to have the tissues handy!

 

 

What I’m Reading Now (May 18, 2019)

The Buried: An Archeology of The Egyptian Revolution, by Peter HesslerTheBuried

This was one of the May selections from Book of the Month Club. I chose it because it is about an American’s personal experience living in Egypt. I’ve always had a fascination with Egypt because… well… I am Egyptian, sort of.

Okay, well actually, my father’s from Egypt. I’ve never been. In fact, I never grew up with the culture. I don’t speak Arabic, I never saw the pyramids; you get the picture. So Hessler’s book intrigued me. My hope was that it would tell me what it was really like to live in today’s Egypt. So far, it doesn’t disappoint.

Peter Hessler, who is a staff writer for The New Yorker and a contributing writer for National Geographic, moved to Egypt at the start of the Egyptian Arab Spring. As an American, he had a big learning curve when it came to living in Cairo. Luckily, he met many people who were willing to help him along the way.

Throughout the book, Hessler explores not only the recent Egyptian revolution, but he also discusses the ancient culture. Yet, my favorite part of this book is Hessler’s personal encounters with the everyday people of Egypt. Through these people’s stories, the reader learns about what it’s like to live in modern Egypt.

 

Clock Dance, by Anne Tyler

ClockDance

I’m actually listening to this one on audio. The only downside to that is that I usually only listen to audio books on my commute to and from work and unfortunately, my commute is very short. I’m on my third week listening to this book and I still have 3 hours left until the end. That doesn’t seem like it is very long, but it’ll take me a few more days to get through it.

Here’s the Goodreads synopsis:

Willa Drake can count on one hand the defining moments of her life: when she was 11 and her mother disappeared, being proposed to at 21, the accident that would make her a widow at 41. At each of these moments, Willa ended up on a path laid out for her by others.

So when she receives a phone call telling her that her son’s ex-girlfriend has been shot and needs her help, she drops everything and flies across the country. The spur-of-the moment decision to look after this woman – and her nine-year-old daughter, and her dog — will lead Willa into uncharted territory. Surrounded by new and surprising neighbours, she is plunged into the rituals that make a community, and takes pleasure in the most unexpected things.

This is my first time reading anything from Anne Tyler. It’s a relatively fun book with quirky characters. So far, there’s nothing too crazy going on with the plot. It’s just a nice story about an older woman and her everyday experiences.

I will say that the most interesting part of the story is Willa’s relationship with the male characters. To put it bluntly, they are awful! I feel like Willa is constantly disrespected by these men. And the most frustrating part is that (so far in the book) she really hasn’t stood up to them. Her second husband refers to her as “little one,” and he says it in such a demeaning and patronizing way.

Again, I have 3 more hours left in this audio book. My prediction is that Willa will eventually speak up for herself a little more and she will follow her own path in life.

The Book of Essie, by Meghan MacLean Weir

I had never heard of “The Book of Essie,” by Meghan MacLean Weir until I happened to find it through the Book of the Month website. There was nothing about it through my Instagram feed, my book podcasts, book blogs, etc. I just read the book description through the site and thought it might be a fun read. I was pleased to discover that this book ended up being one of my favorite reads of the year (so far)!

BookofEssie

Synopsis:

The story follows Essie Ann Hicks, the youngest child from the devout Christian family featured in the reality show “Six for Hicks.” Her parents are more fundamentalist Christians than traditional. From a very young age, Essie has been brought up in the spotlight and has been demonized and idolized by the public. When Essie’s mother discovers Essie is pregnant, a plan is made to try and avoid any controversy. This plan includes Roarke, a classmate who has his own secrets, and Liberty Bell, a conservative reporter who gets exclusive interviews on Essie’s story.

Throughout the book we learn a little bit more about Essie, Roarke and Libby. Weir keeps things interesting by leaving the reader wanting more at the end of each chapter. What is Esssie’s real plan? What secret is Roarke hiding? What happened to Essie’s sister and why is she estranged?

Favorite Quote from this book:

“It’s men who trust they will suffer no consequences for their actions, while women suffer no matter what they do.”

Overall Thoughts: 

This is a book that will keep you interested from the beginning to the end.  Each of the characters have something important to add to the story and I really enjoyed getting to know them. They each struggle with their own separate issues, but the one common element for the three main characters, Essie, Roarke, and Libby, is that of taking control over their own lives. We see how each of them decides for themselves how to stand up for what they want. This is something that many people can relate to, especially those of us who had to deal with controlling parents.

The one thing I will mention is that the author does bring up many hot button issues packed into just one book. Themes such as abuse, homosexuality, rape, religion, racism, and abortion are scattered throughout the story. I think the author would have done a better job if she had maybe cut out some of these and just focused on one or two of the main themes in the book. I loved all of the characters’ stories but felt like I wanted just a little bit more, but there was no room.

Nevertheless, I really enjoyed the book overall.  The author is clearly a talented writer and she has a knack for keeping her readers interested. I was surprised by many of the twists in the story that I didn’t see coming. This is the type of book that you read at night, try to put down, but then say to yourself, “maybe just one more chapter…”

My Rating:

5stars

Since this book kept me entertained for every chapter, I have to give it 5 out of 5 stars.