Looking Back on November: A Month of Reading

Books I’ve Read this Month
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
The month of November is not the happiest of months to begin with; let’s get that right out there in the open. We’re coming off the candy, costume, come-as-you-aren’t high of Halloween and looking at the busy and expensive winter holidays ahead. The sky is getting darker; the weather is getting gloomy and cold. April is the cruelest month? Move over T.S. Eliot, here comes November!
Looking back over my list of books I realize that although I was picking books without any particular agenda, most of those I read during this past month fit right in with the dark and desolate mood. Frazier’s Cold Mountain is dark and heavy and fraught with danger. Byatt’s Ragnarok makes no apology for the dark demise of the entire Norse world at the end. Collins’ The Hunger Games takes place in a (you guessed it) dark dystopian future. As for the 84th issue of The Believer, well the editors of The Believer always have a somewhat dark sense of humor, but I suspect that’s what I love about them.

 

Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain is the kind of book that deserves to be read all at once, immersing yourself in the time, place, and story that Frazier has so beautifully crafted—but the world is almost too well crafted, and the disintegrating South of the civil war is a stressful, frightening, exhausting place to be. I had to stop reading every few chapters just to recover from the anxiety and concern building up with each page I read. I had a November deadline for this book, however, so I finally had to stop being a baby and read it all the way through. What I discovered was that this really would have been the best strategy to take from the beginning. 
Frazier’s prose is beautiful; his descriptions of the natural world—while somewhat lengthy at times—will take your breath away.  The stories of the three main characters are woven together beautifully, chapter by chapter, until you feel as invested in their futures as you are in your own. The book itself, because it is set against the backdrop of a desperate and terrible war, is fraught with danger. A feeling of vulnerability imbues each and every page of the novel; and when it comes down to it this is an important part of the reading experience. So learn from my mistakes—get Cold Mountain and a large bottle of corn whiskey, and don’t stop reading until you’ve finished them both.
After being almost completely psychologically devastated by reading a brilliant novel set in a war-torn country, I decided that the best road to recovery would be… to read another brilliant novel set in a war-torn country. Reading A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarok was a little like walking through an old and beautiful minefield, waiting for a mine to go off with every step, and getting through to the other side with nary even a pop; the result of which is that everything is fine and beautiful, but it still feels like you’ve been through hell. I came into the book expecting it to be primarily the story of a child’s experiences during WWII, and how these experiences were parallel to Ragnarök, the story of how the great Norse gods met their end. I didn’t exactly want to, but I expected to find some horror in a story about the infamously cold and war-loving Norse gods mingled with the infamously cruel and soulless nature of the Second World War. What I found instead was an intelligent and entertaining retelling of the Norse myths, vaguely framed by the story of a young girl romping about the English countryside. Not at all bad, but not what I expected.
Of course there is much more to it than this. The little girl is romping about because she and her mother have been evacuated from London during the air raids. It is very disconcerting that this little girl never gets a name and that these long-dead gods are much more vibrant and real than the world around her. As the Norse myths are revealed we begin to notice eerie (and not always flattering) parallels between the fall of the gods and the slow deterioration of our own modern society. Byatt is never heavy-handed though; her language is almost lyrical and the retelling of the myth is insightful. But reading this book was an exercise in patience for me. I kept wondering when the real story would begin. Byatt writes towards the end of the book that “Myths are often unsatisfactory, even tormenting. They puzzle and haunt the mind that encounters them. They shape different parts of the world inside our heads, and they shape them not as pleasures, but as encounters with the inapprehensible.” I would say that this is a wonderful description of the effect Ragnarok had on me.
As long as we’re on the subject of haunting and tormenting, let’s talk about The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. This is the story of a young girl chosen through lottery to represent her district in the eponymous and deadly games. As a young adult novel The Hunger Games may have been a much quicker read than the previous two books I’ve mentioned here, but it was no less emotionally draining. After all, who among us can read without emotion a story about good people being exploited by the very government that is supposed to protect them? Or about a society so hopeless and downtrodden that it watches the televised violence and murder of its own citizens and calls it entertainment? Or about the safety and well-being of innocent children being sacrificed for profit? Or… Wait a second… are we sure this is fiction? It’s starting to sound disturbingly familiar…
Perhaps it was the fault of the dark and emotional nature of November (although it’s more likely that Suzanne Collins has simply spun an affecting and ensnaring tale) but The Hunger Games stuck with me long after I finished reading the relatively short book. As engaging as the story is, there is very little to be hopeful about in the world of Katniss and Peeta, and I wanted to be able to scorn and forget the book after I finished. But the story is too raw and emotionally honest, and the characters are utterly human in their vulnerability and imperfections to be cast aside so easily. I haven’t yet decided if I will finish the trilogy, but I certainly won’t forget the first book.
After all this dark and serious reading material, I was so glad to have an issue of The Believer to lighten the mood! I can always count on The Believer for some witty and irreverent writing and I was not disappointed. This particular issue, however, I have chosen to call “the mind-blowing issue” because every article in here blew my mind in some way. Most notably: “Postmodernism as Liberty Valance” was so damn smart it blew my mind; “How to Explore Like a Real Victorian Adventurer” was so fun and insightful it blew my mind; and “Meat and Light” was so weird and confusing that it exploded my mind right out of my head (to be fair, I think the weirdness and confusion probably came from the author if the book(s) being discussed, and not from the author of the article itself, which was very clear and clever.)
All in all, the general malaise and heavy reading material of November has conspired to completely drain and exhaust me. I’m ready to take December off, curl into a fetal position on the floor, surrounded by cheery and hopeful books such as A Christmas Carol, Calvin and Hobbes, and Pollyanna, sucking down egg-nog and spiced cider with a straw until I recover. If you have any suggestions for warm and happy books OR beverages, please let me know.
* My apologies to the amazing Nick Hornby, whose column “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” in The Believer magazine was the inspiration for this post format. I’m terribly sorry for stealing the idea. I can only hope I can do it justice, and that if Mr. Hornby should ever to find himself reading this post he will resist the urge to take legal action. (Although if legal action meant I got to meet Nick Hornby in person it might almost be worth it.)
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5 thoughts on “Looking Back on November: A Month of Reading

  1. Beautiful Jenni, I'm so glad to connect with you through books and your fantastic blog! This was a great post and reminds me of the time my book club read several deep, heavy, and tough books in a row. I believe they included: Water for Elephants, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and Infidel, along with a few in the same vein. Beautifully written fiction, thought-provoking non-fiction, but they all wore on my soul so that at the end, I felt as you did…like a dry husk in a fetal position. Thankfully, this season of light is a good antidote, as is the tenor of books that take place in December. But before I give a recommendation or two, here's a quote my boss sent us to celebrate November:"Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off–then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. " — Ishmail. Opening lines of Melville's Moby DickYes, November is, frankly, a bummer! Possible books to lift your spirits:The Little PrincessThe Secret GardenMandy by Julie EdwardsMaeve Binchy's books are honest, but truly heartwarming. I especially think you'd like Nights of Rain and Stars, Heart and Soul, and The Scarlet FeatherFrindle by Andrew ClementsAny of the "Nancy Clue" books (a spoof on Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and Cherry Ames that's hilarious!)Any of the Sweet Potato Queen BooksThe Velveteen RabbitAnything by Roald DahlEloise booksThe Phantom Tollbooth

  2. Laurie, I love that quote from Melville. I feel better knowing I'm not the only one who has trouble with November. And I love your list of suggestions! Thank you! Your two Frances Hodgson Burnett suggestions are two of my childhood favorites, and perfect spirit-lifting books. I do have some Maeve Binchy, but I haven't read the ones you mention here. So many choices! I think I'll have to close my eyes and choose randomly from your list. :)I'm already reading "Heart of Darkness" for my Rediscovering the Classics December pick, which I know is still in the heavy and dark vein, but other than that I have some nice, lighthearted reads for the holidays. I'm looking forward to a happy, festive December. I hope you are too!

  3. Is "Postmodernism as Liberty Valance" a reference to the movie "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," which happens to be one of my favorite Jimmy Stewart movies and the screenplay for which was based on a 1949 short story of the same name by American fiction writer Dorothy M. Johnson?

  4. Thank you for the link. I don't know if I'd qualify as an "insider." I have seen the movie, though it has been quite a while, but I have yet to read the short story. The one hitch for me: I know next to nothing about postmodernism. But perhaps the article will enlighten me. If I have anything remotely interesting to say after reading the article, I'll let you know. 😉

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