I Don’t Make New Year’s Resolutions

Books

Never have. But there is a certain goal that I have for the near future – let’s say 2013. You see, it’s been a while since I’ve lived in a novel. I’m talking about the kind of book that won’t let me go. The kind of book that I can’t set down if I walk from the couch to the kitchen. The kind of book that makes me forget to eat, that makes me stay up past my bedtime. I read several earlier this year, starting with Suzanne Collins‘s The Hunger Games trilogy. Not only did I let those three books consume me, but I made them consume my family as well. I waited with foot-tapping impatience for first my husband and then my parents to read them. I felt like I was betraying those books when I moved on to a completely different series, starting with Diana Gabaldan’s Outlander. And at first, I wasn’t excited, but I’d promised a friend I would read it. It was jarring to move from dystopian young adult lit to a very adult time travel-slash-love story, but I eventually got into it and had the same can’t-put-it-down kind of experience. I could not wait to get my hands on the next book, Dragonfly in Amber.

The problem was that, after I finished Outlander, my life changed in many ways. My elder son graduated from a two-day preschool to preschool five days a week. My infant son became mobile, and the more he moved around, the less freedom (and free time) I had. I rejoined the staff of the University of North Florida’s literary journal Fiction Fix after more than four years off. My responsibilities are lighter than when I left—reading submissions, commenting on them, and voting—but with seven submissions every week (and no guarantee that any of them will be short), I read a lot of fiction that I might not otherwise choose. Within a month of getting back on board with Fiction Fix, I started this blog. Then I took on a book review project for a publishing company. I thought I would have time to read those books alongside my own for-fun reading, but I eventually took my fiction in sips to meet the review deadline. A couple weeks later, I started a four-year Education for Ministry program through Sewanee’s School of Theology. Finally, I decided to try my hand at e-publication, which required much research, even more reading, and, of course, writing (check out my story “Stranded” at Smashwords.com).

And it wasn’t as if I was sitting around, wondering what to do before. I had a day job and a twenty-one mile, one-way commute; I volunteered at my church and my son’s school; I sang in a volunteer community chorus that rehearsed once a week. Oh, and the freelance writing thing. Can’t forget that. I didn’t stop doing any of those things. I just piled on the fun.

I choose how full my life is, and I love all its varied facets. Things could be easier if I lived a little closer to the action, but everything else is pretty much a constant. And my kids aren’t even into sports or other extracurricular activities yet. I can only imagine how much busier it will be then. Kiss sleep (what’s left of it) good-bye. But not my books—never that! I have to consciously choose not to make a book stretch over two (or more) months. So here I am, trying to make myself accountable.

With Fiction Fix, at least I read a constant stream of fiction. If nothing else, I’m aware of how I don’t want to write by reading an unfortunate number of bad submissions. But I really want to read things that inspire me. In fact, that’s a requirement for writing. I want–need–to read something that hurts to put down, something that makes me want to pick up my own pen (or laptop) and write.

In May 1996, I first heard about schools requiring students to read twenty-five books per year, so I decided to create a list of the books I read to see how I measured up. I’ve kept up with it in the sixteen-plus years since. Fiction to non-fiction, novella to super novel, self-help to founding documents of the United States—if it’s too long to be in a magazine, and it’s complete, I count it. Some years, I barely read more than twenty-five, while several others, I’ve read over one hundred. I squeaked by with thirty from May of 2011 to this past May. I’m already at sixteen for this twelve-month period, so I feel pretty good about reading another nine in the next five months. But I don’t just want to pick up nine quick reads to make my goal. There are books I own that I’ve wanted to read for more than a year, and you now know why I haven’t been able to so much as open them.

When I was pregnant in 2007, my goal was to read every book in the house, 1) because I didn’t need to spend money on new books when I already owned so many that I hadn’t read, and 2) because I didn’t know if I would ever have time to read again after having my baby. I finished all the books I had, then read all of my husband’s. If I did it then, I will find a way to do it now, and I’m even giving myself an extra three months to do so (although I hope I can read much more during that time).

Below is my list, including two books that people lent to me, so I need to read and return them in a timely manner. You can follow my progress on Goodreads (at the sidebar on the left), and get on my case if I’m not reading quickly enough. And if you have any recommendations, why not send them my way? I love a challenge.

Voyager (Outlander) and Drums of Autumn (Outlander) by Diana Gabaldon

11/22/63: A Novel and The Wind Through the Keyhole (Dark Tower Novels) by Stephen King

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation by Noah Lukeman

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Inheritance (The Inheritance Cycle) by Christopher Paolini (which basically means I need to re-read the preceding three books in the series, too)

The Lost Hero (Heroes of Olympus, Book 1), The Son of Neptune (Heroes of Olympus, Book 2), and The Mark of Athena (Heroes of Olympus, Book 3) by Rick Riordan

The Help Deluxe Edition by Kathryn Stockett

Why Can’t All Stories Be Happy?

“True art has a mythic quality in that it speaks of
that which was true, is true, and will be true.”
Madeleine L’Engle

I read all kinds of fiction. As soon as I say that I don’t like something—romance, for instance—I find myself halfway through Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander and loving every page. There is one genre, however, that I just cannot stomach, that of the no-conflict, unrealistically sticky-sweet happy-ending romance. People explain it away, saying, “There’s so much sadness in real life; I like reading something where I know there will be a happy ending.” Well, what’s wrong with that? I mean, I would like for my ending to be happy, so why do I keep reading the stuff that has unhappy endings (not to mention beginnings and middles)?

In my fiction workshop days, we sometimes discussed truth in fiction. Fiction is story, through which authors convey truth. Take allegories like Aesop’s Fables. What about Jesus’ parables? Nuggets or even great chunks of truth can be mined or chiseled out of stories. And what is more true than a life full of bumps and potholes?

If fiction at all resembles real life, then endings can’t all be “happily ever after.” Sorry. Think about your favorite books and movies. How many of them include elements of tragedy? There is nothing like following the story of someone who goes through adversity and triumphs in the end. Often, however, that “in the end” might not happen until years after the protagonist has died—or it could be a sacrifice on his or her part that brings about the triumphal ending. (Can you imagine a Harry Potter in which his parents don’t die? Yeah, it’d be a lot happier, but then it wouldn’t be a story. Once upon a time there was a baby named Harry Potter. He grew up with his parents. He was a trouble-maker at school like his dad, but he got the girl in the end. Anyone could have written that, and it would have sold zero copies and movie rights.)

There are those out there on the opposite end of the spectrum who like to write sad endings simply to go against the happy-ending grain. For instance, I could rewrite Cinderella so that instead of riding off with the prince after trying on her glass slipper, she gets trampled by the horses pulling the transformed pumpkin carriage. This kind of writing only works in satire. If it’s written as a romance, and that’s the end, a lot of people will be banging on the bookstore’s door, demanding a refund. It’s a slap in the face and just as pointless, to me, as writing a happy ending for happy ending’s sake.

There is a happy medium, and I promise these books are worth reading, even if you have to go through some pain to get there. One of my favorite series of books is the Anne of Green Gables series, by L.M. Montgomery. If you’ve read the first three, you know that many of the “tragedies” in Anne’s life are simply the mishaps of a young mischief-magnet. She grows up, matures, and gets her prince charming, right? Well. . . If you read the whole series (and there are eight books, ending when her children are adults), you get sucked into World War I. And although there is a new romance between Anne’s youngest daughter and a friend-turned-soldier, there is tragedy as well. I won’t spoil it; please read the books yourselves. But to people actually living through World War I, don’t you think they appreciated reading something in which the young heroine-turned-mother suffered, grieved, yet survived like the rest of the world? Yes, it would have been much happier if her family had escaped the horrors of war, but I know I would not have been so moved, so drawn back to them again and again, if that tragic element had not been there.

To boil it all down, it’s fine if the princess gets her prince charming, but I won’t complain—actually, I’ll keep turning the pages hours after I should have gone to sleep—if she has to go through hell to get him.