MIRACLE AND OTHER CHRISTMAS STORIES by Connie Willis

Readers who remember my Halloween-themed posts from past Octobers know that I love to match my reading to the season. As much as I love Halloween, I love Christmas even more, but for whatever reason, I’ve always had more trouble finding Christmas books than Halloween books. I think it’s a matter of the genres I’ve traditionally steered toward: while ghost stories and fantastical horrors have been part of my reading life since I was a child, the types of stories one typically associates with Christmas have not really been something I’ve explored (I’ve only recently begun reading romance, for example, a genre that is FILLED with Christmas stories).

Another part of my problem, I think, has been striking the right balance to match my own feelings about Christmas. I love Christmas fervently and without irony. I’ve always believed in its example, seeing it as the apogee of the year that can and should encourage the best from all of us. And also, of course, I love the aesthetic of Christmas, the carols and the decorations and some of the best episodes of my favorite television shows (you’ve seen the stop-motion Christmas episode of Community, right?). And yet, like many people, I think the point of Christmas, a season that celebrates compassion and charity, needs restating often, especially once we’ve become so bogged down in to-do lists and credit card charges that we start snapping at strangers on the street. “It’s Christmas, everyone’s miserable” is a fairly bleak but accepted assumption sometimes.

But I do still love it, and yet, despite this (and my burgeoning love of the romance genre), I don’t tend to go for overly sentimental writing; on the other end of the spectrum, though, I don’t want too much cynical, “real-world” darkness infused in my Christmas stories, not when I can’t bring myself to roll my eyes at it yet. In terms of finding something to read, it leaves one a bit stuck.

That’s why I was so excited when I learned about Connie Willis’s collection Miracle and Other Christmas Stories. Willis is a science fiction writer, and she has given Christmas a unique genre treatment in this completely charming book. I knew that I was in good hands as soon as I read her opening essay, in which she speaks to her own love of Christmas and what it means to her. (She also thinks Miracle on 34th Street is better than It’s A Wonderful Life, and agrees with me that the Muppets put out one of the most faithful adaptations of A Christmas Carol. It’s so nice finding a kindred spirit in an author!) Willis approaches the holiday with the perfect balance of sentiment and sharpness, and the resulting collection provides almost a prism of new ways to think about the season, with many different angles given to both genre and Christmas staples.

I was expecting most of the stories to have a strong science fiction bend, but actually, the stories represent a variety of speculative genre subcategories. Some of the stories are more genre-specific–including, as I recall, one horror story and one mystery–while others are Christmas stories with hints of fantastical elements. This could have been a risky move, because it means while there is something for everyone, there is likely also something that isn’t as much of someone’s cup of tea in there. (For me, that came in the form of the more straightforward mystery, the genre that remains my least-explored; if you love mystery stories and have suggestions for me, leave them in the comments!). However, I think the diversity of these stories pays off. It makes the collection fresh and engaging all the way through, and even though I liked some of the stories more than others, it was nice to not have an entire collection of the same thing. Not to mention that Willis’s skill makes each of the stories enjoyable–even the ones I worried I would struggle to get through on the first page had me turning them eagerly before long.

This breadth carries over into the kinds of Christmases depicted in the stories, as well, which was also something I really liked. A couple of the stories work with the religious origins of the holiday, featuring biblical mythology in really inventive ways (that readers of any amount of religiosity could enjoy). Other stories take a more contemporary approach, often drawing from the pop-culture staples that have become their own part of the modern Christmas mythos. One story even took on the classic archetypes from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, managing to carry over the themes and characters of a tale that is pretty much acknowledged to be the best Christmas story in the western canon and, consequentially, pretty much done to death. And yet, this story ended up being my favorite for its originality, as well as its perfect balance of earnest sweetness and honest reflection of the way we treat each other, especially around the holidays.

As broad as the collection is, the stories do have some common threads. They all have a good sense of humor, as well as a rich grounding in literary and folkloric tradition. They are also bubbling over with Christmas atmosphere. All of these things combined made this the perfect collection to kick off a month of holiday reads. And good news: the book has just been re-released this year as an updated collection called A Lot Like Christmas, with new stories added to these originals. It would make a great gift for anyone who loves Christmas, but is looking for something a little different than the traditional Hallmark-channel fare (no shade intended–the world can and should have both!). It’s hard to imagine I’ll find a new Christmas read to top this one, but luckily for me, Willis provided a reading list at the end of her book, so I know I have a trustworthy place to start.

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TALKING AS FAST AS I CAN by Lauren Graham (and also some thoughts on audiobooks)

As I so often have to say, I want to apologize for the radio silence. I’ve been going through a bit of a challenging time, and a side effect has been that it has been difficult to read for fun. I’ve so missed being able to settle into a good book, and I needed to figure out a way to get back into what I love.

Recently, I downloaded a new app called Libby. Libby connects to your local library through your library card, giving you access to ebooks and audiobooks. I’ve been using it to check out ebooks for my kindle, but I’ve never really gotten into audiobooks. I tried to listen to a novel once, but I found it difficult to keep track of the story and characters that way. I’ve heard from other book bloggers, including the lovely folks over at Book Riot (you might recognize them from my recent conversion to romance novels–they haven’t steered me wrong yet) that it’s easier to start with nonfiction audiobooks. This made sense to me, especially as a fan of podcasts; it seemed to align with the way I already consume a lot of the true stories I encounter. Returning to some of my favorite podcasts has come to feel like keeping company with friends, which has been so comforting lately.

So, I was approaching my audiobook search with this idea in mind; I was looking for a book that would make a good companion, and allow me to ease back into reading. One of the books that’s been on my to-read list for a while seemed suddenly like the most obvious choice, a great way to be in conversation with someone from a world that has so often served as a refuge for me. Lauren Graham’s (or Lorelai Gilmore, of my favorite TV show) memoir Talking as Fast as I Can proved to be as delightful as I expected.

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Anyone who knows me knows how devoted I am to the show Gilmore Girls. In high school I had every season on DVD, and I became a sort of library for all of my friends who were trying to catch up in syndication (I could easily identify where they were in the series from a quick description). I watched it first with my mother, loving how much I saw our closeness and friendship reflected in the compassion and wit that threads through the show, and came to bond with many friends (and my delightfully feminist younger brother) in subsequent viewings. In my many re-watches of the series, some of the jokes and lines don’t age super well, and there’s an unfortunate lack of diversity (especially troubling given that the show is not THAT old, and that some of the humor-missteps carried over even into the 2016 revival). I certainly acknowledge that it’s not a perfect show, but I have to admit, it’s always been the one closest to my heart. When the revival season aired on Netflix last year, it was a bigger deal for me than I ever would have expected a television show could be. And so even though I don’t usually read a lot of celebrity memoirs (no judgment, just not my thing), I figured that this would be an interesting way to get to do what I’ve so often done: return to Stars Hollow when I need it the most.

It’s certainly worth noting that Lauren Graham is not Lorelai Gilmore. As the subtitle highlights, Talking as Fast as I Can details moments from Graham’s life “From Gilmore Girls to Gilmore Girls (and Everything In Between),” encompassing more than just Graham’s time playing Lorelai. The book doesn’t follow a linear path through Graham’s life, but is instead a collection of essays that include snapshots of her wisdom (and humor) that mostly focuses on her career, from her most memorable milestones as a young actor to her more recent navigation through some of the absurdities of Hollywood life. Throughout, Graham is quick to offer direct advice, often turning her own anecdotes into encouragements and lessons for others who might be pursuing a challenging dream. I especially enjoyed the moments that focused on her pursuit of a writing career, and found her advice about developing a system for committing to write to be direct and illuminating.

Of course, some of the most captivating moments for me were her recollections of working on Gilmore Girls. Graham seems aware throughout the book that this part of her career is the most likely access point most of her readers have, and she doesn’t seem to mind. Where some actors might want to step away from such a strong connection to a character, Graham is refreshingly ebullient as she talks about her love for Lorelai, and her gratitude and joy at getting to return to the character. It makes sense; I could hear Lorelai in Graham’s own sense of humor and voice, although I could also hear their differences. I expected this to be jarring, but if anything, it made it impossible not to be immediately at ease with Graham as a narrator. It was like having coffee with a more down-to-earth version of a character I’ve known for years, someone not bizarrely ripped from my television set but still familiar and comforting.

As an early foray into audiobooks, Talking as Fast as I Can had pros and cons. There were a handful of photographs in the book, it turns out, and I only got to experience them through Graham’s brief descriptions. However, the trade-off is getting to have Graham’s voice tell the story directly, which goes really well with the friend-sharing-anecdotes-and-giving-advice tone that the book takes. It was exactly what I needed to get me through a couple of hard days, and I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who, despite the unexpected surprise of a ten-years-later revival (and FINALLY getting to hear those last four words!), isn’t quite ready to leave the world of Gilmore Girls behind yet. It isn’t just that Graham is a window back into Lorelai’s world; getting to know her as her own person adds even more depth to the experience of watching the character, and almost becomes another way that the show has become a vehicle for me to bond with a new friend. Graham seems to want to be that friend for her readers (and listeners!), and it’s a joy to invite her in.

Books and Action: THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET by Sandra Cisneros

So much has happened, I don’t even know where to begin. From the president equivocating about people who brandish Nazi and KKK slogans and imagery, to the devastating hurricanes, to the cruel and heedless move to end DACA, a program which protects 800,000 people who were brought here illegally as children, these past couple of months have been bewildering, infuriating, and terrifying. It’s hard to know what to do day-to-day; as those that follow this blog have probably noticed, I’ve even had trouble reading anything beyond the frantic, awful headlines.

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For those who have been protected by DACA, America is the country where they have grown up, and is often the only home they have ever known. For so many people, “home” is a concept that is layered, contradictory, and sometimes fraught. When I was thinking about this, I was reminded of a book I haven’t read in years, and I decided to revisit it. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros is a book that explores these contradictions of “home.” The titular house where the narrator, Esperanza, lives with her family doesn’t live up to her dreams of a physical space that could meet what “home” means to her at the beginning of the novel: not just a space to live, but a space to identify with, a space to claim and be claimed by. Esperanza talks to neighbors who remember the country they came from, and sometimes discuss plans of returning to; to Esperanza, these faraway places seem like “home” for these neighbors in a way that she doesn’t think of Mexico, where her parents came from. While these homes are a place that live in the past for her neighbors, Esperanza’s imagining of home is a place of security that she aspires to, attached to her hopes of adulthood rather than her memories.

At the same time, Esperanza is building her own childhood memories on Mango Street, a place that feels temporary for so many on it, but that becomes the center of Esperanza’s coming of age. And just as Mango Street isn’t “home” the way that those faraway countries are for her neighbors, it also seems to Esperanza to be separate from America in some crucial ways. As Esperanza notes, “Those who don’t know any better come into our neighborhood scared. They think we’re dangerous. They think we will attack them with shiny knives.” Upon moving in, Esperanza meets a young white girl who agrees to be her friend, but, as Esperanza recalls the conversation, “only till next Tuesday. That’s when we move away. Got to. Then as if she forgot I just moved in, she says the neighborhood is getting bad.”

The stories that Esperanza weaves, the pieces of home and not-quite-home that come from her neighbors, parents, and friends, were inspired by Cisneros’ work with college students who came from a variety of backgrounds. As she writes of the woman she was when she began Mango Street in the introduction of the 25th anniversary edition, “She learns from her students that they have more difficult lives than her storyteller’s imagination can invent […] I write about my students because I don’t know what else to do with their stories. Writing them down allows me to sleep.” For so many in this country, building a life–building a home–in America is complex and challenging, but there are no alternatives, no place to “go back” to, no choice but to move forward.

While Trump has started to walk back his initial rhetoric, its hard to know what will happen, especially with so many of his supporters still clinging to the aggressive anti-immigrant sentiments of his campaign. Fortunately, there are many ways to help, and this article by Jessicah Lahitou provides some great suggestions. Call your representatives to let them know that you believe the DREAMers deserve a path to legal citizenship. There are also many groups that advocate for the rights and protection of immigrants, and they can use whatever financial support you can offer. And, as this post hopes to encourage, seek to learn more about the experiences of immigrants. You’ll be surprised to learn how different the place you’ve thought of as home can look to someone else; hopefully, like Esperanza, it will make you want to work for the kind of home we should all be aspiring to create, together.

TEN WAYS TO BE ADORED WHEN LANDING A LORD by Sarah MacLean

Despite writing an entire post about the fact that there should be no shame in enjoying romance novels, I’ve still been hesitant to blog about the books that I’ve been reading the most in the last couple of months (internalized misogyny runs deep, y’all). But I started this blog to share the books I’ve been reading, and if you’ve been experiencing a similar period of significant life changes that’s been making you anxious, maybe these are exactly the kinds of books you need, too. I have been devouring Sarah MacLean’s oeuvre, and I wanted to tell you about my favorite so far.

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The heroine of Ten Ways to Be Adored When Landing a Lord is Isabel (because the female-protagonists of romance novels are called heroines–isn’t that fantastic?). Her father, a reckless gambler who’s been absent for most of Isabel’s life, has just died, leaving Isabel and her younger brother, a future duke, penniless and even more alone than they were when he was alive. But Isabel has always been resourceful; in fact, her home has become a refuge for many other women, as well. Some of them have escaped abusive marriages, cruel families, or even their own mistakes, and have found community and purpose in Isabel’s manor, dubbed the Minerva House. But with Isabel’s sudden impoverishment, she’s not sure if she can take care of everyone anymore–until Nicholas, a London aristocrat known for his knowledge of antiquities, comes into town. Isabel’s most precious possessions are her collection of marbles, but the residents of the Minerva House are more important to her, and she enlists Nicholas’s help in appraising the last things of value she owns in order to sell them. What she doesn’t expect is that Nicholas has come to her town for another purpose, one that might jeopardize Minerva House–and what Nicholas doesn’t expect is, well, Isabel.

I think what makes this book my favorite of MacLean’s novels is Isabel. She is headstrong, stubborn, and proud of her ability to solve her own problems. But she is also constantly afraid of disappointing those around her, taking on the burden of caring for everyone until it becomes her own hamartia. Her character feels real and familiar to me, making it all the more rewarding to watch her overcome her obstacles. This book also has an interesting reversal of a common trope. Usually in mainstream romantic stories, it is the man who is scared of vulnerability, too guarded to express his feelings and ask for what he wants. In this book, the reverse is true. Nicholas is a really sweet hero, and a nice change of pace from the kind of tortured anti-hero we’ve come to expect in our dramas. He’s open about his feelings, and trusting with his heart–it’s Isabel who is stubbornly resistant to what’s in front of her. In a genre of satisfying happily-ever-afters, this one had me cheering on the most.

Luckily for me, Sarah MacLean just released a new book, but once I’m finished with that, I will have read all of her romance novels. But here’s the best thing about discovering a genre: I have so much catching up to do, so many characters, settings, sub-genres, and happy endings left to explore. Expect to see romance reviews become a regular part of this blog; I’m excited to find (and share with you) more of the smart, feminist, charming, fun books this genre has to offer.

BAD GIRLS THROUGHOUT HISTORY by Ann Shen

If I imagine my book tastes as a pie chart, “badass historical women” would be a pretty big slice (a fact that probably won’t come as a surprise to many regular readers). From the time I was a child devouring the Royal Diaries series to the undergraduate thesis I wrote on Joan of Arc, I have always been captivated by the women who have made their mark on our cultural landscape, often by defying norms and expectations placed upon them. So when I heard about this book, I knew it would be something I would like, and I was right. Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World by Ann Shen provides great introductions to some of history’s most notable rule-breakers, but of course, the fantastic illustrations that accompany the essays make the book a complete delight to look at, and the combination of these elements made for a perfect way to pass an afternoon on a porch.

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Bad Girls Throughout History takes the reader, well, throughout history, spanning centuries and cultures to highlight 100 women who, in myriad ways, left an impact on their society that resounds into our own. Shen is upfront in her introduction to the book that her list is certainly not exhaustive, but I found it to be an interesting variety. Some of the women were pioneers of science and exploration; others were groundbreaking artists. Still others were fearsome pirates and ruthless outlaws. Shen has not created a list of perfect role models, and the women found within these pages would not fit seamlessly into a Disney Princess lineup. I liked that the book included figures a little too intense for me to have learned about in school; I even read about some women that I had never heard about before. The list sometimes skews a little heavily towards entertainers, but I didn’t think this was a problem. The choices were always interesting and surprising with each turn of the page, and I really enjoyed getting a glimpse into the lives of women that I’m now excited to learn even more about (luckily, Shen included a detailed bibliography in the back of the book to encourage exactly that).

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I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the first thing that grabbed my attention about this book was the beautiful illustrations, and they are definitely as much of a draw as the essays. Shen’s art style is distinctive and pleasing, and this is a perfect book to flip through and linger over. It’s both comforting and a little sobering to thumb through the pages, to see how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go. It didn’t make me want to become a pirate, but it did make me want to work to defy expectations in my own life.

SEVEN BRIEF LESSONS ON PHYSICS by Carlo Rovelli

Between my year working at a used bookstore (with an employee discount, at that) and the bargains to be found on my eReader, I’ve noticed that the way I think about the book as a physical object has changed. I’ve devoured paperbacks with cracked spines and coffee-stained pages along with free ebook versions of classic tomes that would be a hindrance to carry around with me otherwise, and both of these types of books have valued places in my reading life. But I’m come to develop a deeper appreciation for the way a book feels in my hand, the way the cover art complements the prose inside, the way the story is bound and decorated into an art piece. The books that I buy new copies of are books that I know I’ll want to hold in my hands many times over, books that I can picture accompanying me from bookshelf to bookshelf like an heirloom. So when I took my first trip to the newly opened Gramercy Books in Bexley (review of that lovely store to come), I was looking for a new treasure. Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli proved to be the perfect answer.

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Seven Brief Lessons on Physics is exactly that: in seven short essays, Rovelli takes the reader through a foundational understanding of how our universe operates, from the scale of our smallest components to the complexity of the vast cosmos. Don’t be fooled by the brevity, though–the lessons are densely packed and almost startlingly informative–I often felt a little knocked over upon finishing a passage, and found myself wanting to reread the paragraphs to make sure I had absorbed everything within.

I don’t want to make it sound like the text was incomprehensible–just the opposite. While Rovelli doesn’t hold back on the science, he is able to convey his knowledge in a clear, even poetic way. It seems that his effort is not to obfuscate or show off, but to illuminate the inherent beauty he sees in the principles he’s illustrating. His prose is deft and adroit, and through it, Rovelli is able to bring the complex, often paradoxical concepts of physics into motion like the gears of a clock. The result is lovely, and almost meditative. I found that as I was reading, I felt grounded into the present moment and my surroundings in a way that I usually really struggle with. Reading about how intricately and perfectly the physical world around us functions helped me to sort through the seeming chaos of my day-to-day. When I started reading this book, I expected to understand the basic tenants of physics a little better. Instead, I came away feeling more connected to the world around me, appreciating the uncertainty I often feel–a rhythm that often feels like unpredictability–as instead a way of being in a world that has made sense out of chance, that has come together into something both functional and beautiful. The reality of space, both within and without us, becomes something of a communal experience in Rovelli’s hands, a way of feeling in company with the universe no matter what your religious leanings might be. As Rovelli writes:

“There is no such thing as a real void, one that is completely empty. Just as the calmest sea looked at closely sways and trembles, however slightly, so the fields that form the world are subject to minute fluctuations, and it is possible to imagine its basic particles having brief and ephemeral existences, continually created and destroyed by these movements. […]

Quantum mechanics and experiments with particles have taught us that the world is a continuous, restless swarming of things, a continuous coming to light and disappearance of ephemeral entities […] A world of happenings, not of things.”

If, like me, you often cry when reading Carl Sagan, I think you will get a lot out of this deceptively slim volume. If you’ve never really thought about what understanding physics has to do with understanding your own life, I still think you will get a lot from this book. I know it’s one I will carry from shelf to shelf, understanding a little more with each reread. The book itself may be a thing, but the experience waiting on the page is a happening, one I am eager to repeat.

 

Off-Syllabus Is Back! (Hopefully!)

Hello! If you are still reading this, THANK YOU for your endless patience. Life has been a whirlwind in the last few months. I’ve had a lot of changes in my career, some exciting and time-consuming projects, and a big move (well, a not-so-big move, but moving always feels so laborious). As such, my dearth of free reading time was devoted to the romance novels that were keeping the anxiety at bay–and I had already posted about that.

I have been thinking, also, about what this blog means to me now. When I first started it, it was a way to cope with post-college life. That may sound silly to any reader who didn’t enjoy having to spend their time annotating medieval texts and writing papers (understandable), but I had a really hard time adjusting to life outside of the classroom. I started this blog as a way to encourage myself to find the joy in being free from assignments and expectations, and in the two-ish years that I’ve been posting here, I’ve certainly done that. I’ve read genres that I had never taken seriously enough before. I’ve troubled my own understanding of the way books are categorized, and the value of those categories. I’ve rediscovered the compulsion to hide a book under the covers and keep turning the pages long into the night. And the best part is, in all of this time, I was still learning. I’ve been learning so much. I see it in the way I’m thinking about books–I even see it in my own creative writing. Don’t get me wrong: I still think there is so much value in the English classroom, and I still miss it, all the time. The wisdom from my professors and fellow classmates was invaluable. But the act of reading to learn can take so many different shapes, and will hopefully be a lifelong pursuit for me. And, I imagine if you’ve been enjoying these (admittedly, sometimes sporadic) posts, that’s true for you too.

So, I’m keeping the name Adventures Off-Syllabus, but it isn’t just about getting away from the prescribed texts of the classroom. Rather, it’s about bringing the classroom into my–and your–daily life, and shaping it to match what we need and what we can give. I would love for this blog space to become its own kind of community, and I encourage you to post comments or recommendations. I think Adventures Off-Syllabus has always really been about building my own syllabus, and I’m sure your reading life offers just as much. I certainly believe that reading diligently, thoughtfully, and with eyes focused both into the self and out towards the world, is as important now as it has ever been. So, this is all to say thank you for reading this post, and this blog. I hope it has brought meaningful books into your life, and I aim to keep doing that. Let’s keep learning and growing, and raising our hands when we have questions, and debating when we disagree. Let’s always be students and teachers. Let’s allow books to give us everything they can, and then, let’s bring what they teach us into the world. Thanks for being on this adventure with me.

(Sorry for getting super cheese-y at the end there.)