Ciao from Rome! I’ve been in Italy for about three months now, and seeing Kristen’s post last week about children’s literature got me thinking about how much the books I read growing up have embellished my study abroad experience.
I, too, was one of those middle schoolers who spent her summer days surrounded by piles of books at the library, devouring as many novels as I possibly could. High school summers were spent the same way - though then it was usually reading in front of the pool instead of the library - and though I no longer have time to be the voracious reader I once was, I still try to spend my winter breaks curled up with good books as much as I can. I read so much because I love it, but I never could have imagined how much those books I read for fun would contribute to my travels abroad.
I’ve found that in Europe, where the history is so prevalent and so engrained in each city, you really are at a disadvantage if you aren’t already well-versed in a city’s culture when you travel there. More and more I find myself hearkening back to books I read to help me recall the history; interestingly enough, some of the novels that have provided me with the most background when I’ve been traveling are just random historical fiction books I read as a middle schooler.
In Berlin, Escape to West Berlin, a novel I read back in 4th grade, was my first ever introduction to the tragedy surrounding the Berlin Wall, and I recounted many of the scenes in the book as we walked through Checkpoint Charlie, East Side Gallery, and the Topography of Terror on the trip. Copenhagen has me recounting Number the Stars, a book I read over and over in 3rd grade, which opened my eyes to the Nazi regime and, on a lighter note, gave me an overwhelming desire to visit the Tivoli Gardens one day. Reading The Diary of Anne Frank at a young age, also in 3rd grade, made my walk through the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam incredibly moving. The classic fantasy novel The Thief Lord has made me all the more excited to walk through the magical canals on my upcoming trip to Venice.
There are so many books I’ve read later in life - adult historical fiction or non-fiction books - that have also made a significant contribution to my understanding of the history in each new city to which I travel, but for some reason those children’s novels are so ingrained in my mind that it is those books that truly make my sightseeing all the more rewarding. Thus, I highly encourage anyone traveling or studying abroad to revisit those historical fiction books you loved as a child before you go! You can read all the guide books in the world, but I can say from experience that nothing beats the excitement of visiting a country or a tourist spot you’ve been reading about since you were a child.
Written by Bailey T.
Over Spring Break, my friend and I set ourselves a reading challenge: to complete all 1,079 pages of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest within the 10 days of academic rest. She finished it all in a week and I just finished it three days ago. Regardless of my technical failure, finishing the book at all felt like a win, and I would highly recommend it.
The book is a collection of vignettes concerning an interconnected group of Bostonians in an alternative near-future, in which the U.S., Canada, and Mexico have joined to become the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.). The novel is in part narrated by Hal Incandenza, a 17 year-old tennis prodigy and student. His sections expose the intense pressure of the competitive tennis environment and reveal the peculiarities of the Incandenza family. Other sections of the book focus on various characters in recovery at a nearby halfway house. There is also a persistent subplot concerning a group of Canadian separatists who carry out their terror plots using wheelchairs. Part family drama, part dystopian fiction, and part absurdity, Infinite Jest is entirely unique. It is deeply complex, but wholly entertaining.
A benefit of the book’s length and complexity is that just by sheer probability, it is likely to hit on something that appeals to you. Topics that are covered range from depression, to tennis, to addiction, to U.S.-Canada relations. There will be sections that you will think are just plain weird, but there will be other sections that will really speak to you. There’s really something in here for everybody.
However, as a person who likes to “get” books, this one was a real challenge. It is not the kind of book that allows you to read it once and put it away. It’s impossible to catch everything on the first read.
Falling down some Google rabbit holes helped clarify things a little. There are dedicated groups of “Jesters” who have invested a lot of time into trying to make sense of it. Some people publish different theories about the implications of the book’s ending. Other people have tried to categorize the information in the book to try to find patterns. There are maps marking the different locations in the book, and glossaries that list every appearance of every character and image. People have written graduate theses on this novel. If anyone tells you they totally understand this book, they’re probably lying to you.
On a personal note, this self-imposed challenge really reminded me of why I started to love books. I missed the feeling of reading like a kid, reading late at night under the covers, the way that books created entire worlds in my head. I even missed the way that reading took work because I might not know what some of the words meant. I didn’t understand everything, and there was no pressure to understand anything. I just read, and I liked the characters that I liked, and certain things appealed to me, and occasionally I stumbled on a sentence, but I really loved it.
I think a lot of times reading critically becomes a single-minded search for the correct, smart take-away. You need to finish the book, only to turn around and reduce the experience to its agreed-upon themes. Postmodern novels are great because no one fully understands them. Criticism has not yet condensed into the kind of neatly-packaged bullet points that suit a high school English class. There is no “right” thing to take away from the book. If you take away anything at all, you’ve succeeded. And believe me, you will take something away from this one.
I would highly recommend the book if you're looking to read something really different or looking for something to push your limits. You don't have to read the whole thing in a week (although it is humanly possible, if that appeals to you). And when you finish, regardless of when that is, I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Written by Megan G.
In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Ezra Pound, 1885 - 1972
Fall semester of my freshman year, I decided to get my feet wet in the English department by taking and introductory course on the rise of Modernism. One day we spent the better part of fifty minutes discussing Ezra Pound's In A Station of the Metro, shown above.
After class, I met my mom for lunch. She saw my print-out of the poem, a page on which the tiny body of the piece itself was dwarfed by my notes and scribbles, and she was curious. I recited the poem for her and she became confused.
“That’s it?” She asked, disliking it immediately, “The whole thing?”
I said yes and she could hardly believe it. She had many questions. Did we really spend the whole class discussing the poem? Was there something wrong with the poet? Why would anyone care so much about something so small? We spent the entire lunch talking about those three lines and what they might mean. I could hash out all the arguments I had to offer about the weight the poem’s diminished length, about Modernism and Pound’s role in establishing the school of Imagism, but none of those things could bring my mom to peace with it.
It might be worth mentioning that my mother is a petroleum engineer who loves romance novels but has never developed a fondness for poetry. She didn’t care about the historical significance of the piece and I didn’t try to justify it. Our joint analysis of the poem isn’t something I would want to put in an essay for any of my English classes, and yet every time someone asks me why I care so much about what I study here, I want to point them towards Pound and In a Station of the Metro.
This life is full of moments that linger and echo in strange ways. The conceptual entanglement of perception and meaning suggested by twenty words written a century ago can resonate throughout the narrative of your life indefinitely without resolution, or pass through you in an instant. My mom and I spent that afternoon going back and forth about the poem, and she took great pleasure in going home and sharing it with the rest of the family, most of whom are fellow poetry skeptics. She brought it up for weeks after our lunch, and still mentions it often when I visit home. I credit Pound with igniting a contrary passion for poetry in her that I doubt any other piece could have sparked. And after all this time and discussion, I still don't know if I like the poem itself, and neither does she. But my mother called me a few days ago and asked if I remembered the name of ‘that crazy little poem’, and I knew I wanted to write about it, to express a little gratitude and appreciation for the bizarre and beautiful literary forms that make my life stranger, richer, and better by existing in it.
So if any of you have stubborn mothers or relatives who claim to dislike poetry, maybe have them read In a Station of the Metro. See what they have to say.
Written by Cara B.
If you ever experience the frustrating mindset that is writer’s block, you know how tough it is to get your fingers typing again. Here are a few of my favorite ways to break through the wall, and finish the paper.
Written by Emma E.
To be entirely honest, this is an authorial recommendation, and an obligation to yourself: One Must Read something by Haruki Murakami in their lifetime. His writing is the type that stays with you days afterward, reminding you of that one really vivid image or strange character or confusing plot point you think might just be allegorical. While I was in Germany this summer, I spent a non-negligible amount of time in English bookstores looking for cheap copies of Murakami. I finally picked up a copy of Kafka on the Shore for about 6 Euros. I could tell by the back cover and the weight of the book in my hand that this was something I wanted to get something out of - and I did. It took me the entirety of fall semester to get through this book, but I was rewarded for my time.
There are a few reasons why I want to push Murakami's books into your life. His work is decked out in both Western and Eastern philosophy, playing out in symbols and conceits that double as rich allusions and explanations of thought. There are so many thoughts from so many reference points that the result is immensely complex and beautiful: see a scene in Kafka on the Shore when a man dressed as Colonel Sanders brings a character to a traditional shrine, quotes some Hegel, and bamfs out. This sort of scene brings me to my second point: Murakami's work is magical realism, and everybody needs to experience some magical realism. Maybe it won’t be your thing; at first, the book wasn’t my thing, either. I wasn’t sure what I understood and what I didn’t, what I was supposed to be confused about and what the semester’s stress was keeping me from getting. About halfway through the book, though, I accepted the absurd happenings of the story; there are fluid and rigid rules to the universe that Murakami plays with, and it’s effective in creating a vivid world ripe with otherworldliness and distance. He manages to keep the reader in his characters heads, exploring the uneven world through their eyes. I really valued the way the story threads started out incredibly separated from one another and then blended together – even the blending is somewhat unexpected.
Long story short, there’s a reason that Murakami is widely regarded for being incredible. His work – even in the translation we English-speakers get – is captivatingly beautiful, sensual, and musical. It’s worth reading. Even if magical realism, converging pairs of strange characters, and layered allusions aren’t your thing, I still recommend stepping into the confused existences that Murakami manages to paint in Kafka on the Shore. Hopefully, you’ll be swept away into the world that isn’t so different from our own, but is just a version painted by brushstrokes of a vitally other existence.
Written by Erika S.
Brazos Bookstore, an independent bookstore located conveniently at the edge of Rice Village, has become my new happy place. From the outside, it looks nondescript, its darkened windows blending seamlessly into the beige strip mall walls. It could be a nail parlor, or a dry cleaner, or a secondhand grocery store. Opening the door, however, you are greeted with bright shelves piled high with books.
Just the aesthetic appeal of a sunlit room wallpapered with colorful book sides is enough to make my day, but Brazos has much more. It’s a small bookstore, only a single room, but it makes the most out of the space, keeping few duplicates on hand and cramming every surface with more books. The wide selection is supplemented by the handwritten staff recommendation cards dotting the walls. I can enter the store with no sense of direction, read a few blurbs, and come away with a new stack of books I want to read. The staff members themselves are some of the greatest resources Brazos has to offer. They are well read and extremely helpful. Each writes articles for the bookstore’s website, populating it with reviews and interviews. The Brazos Bookstore staff also host events for fellow literature lovers, from book clubs to signings to readings, including their upcoming hosting of Zadie Smith.
Overall, Brazos Bookstore is more than a store. It’s a place where a small community of Houston readers can gather to celebrate books, and I highly recommend making the trek out to Bissonnet Street to experience it.
Written by Emma E.
For more information on Brazos, visit their website: http://www.brazosbookstore.com/ or go visit them!
Another year and another semester have begun, bringing with them the usual battery of stress, mayhem, and occasional delight as we all transition into 2017. I personally believe that the best way to cushion such transitions is with a great book, and to that end I’d like to tell you guys about The Paper Menagerie.
Published in 2011 by author Ken Liu, this book generated a veritable storm of critical praise. It won two of the biggest awards in Science Fiction, the Hugo and the Nebula. I picked it up on a whim at my local bookstore this holiday (why is it that all of the really Earth-shattering books come to us by chance?) and it completely consumed my life in the best possible way.
The Paper Menagerie is a collection of fifteen short stories about life, science, and human connection. Like many great works of speculative fiction, it strikes out to the boundary dividing science and technology from spirituality and fantasy, blurring the distinctions to render a reality that is gritty, charming, often strange, and resoundingly human. Regardless of whether or not you consider yourself a Sci-Fi fan, I can confidently say that there is something in these stories for you.
Although the collection as a whole is basically flawless, I had some stand-out favorites. There is pure hard-boiled goodness with a sharp techno-thriller twist in “The Regular”, which chronicles the efforts of a world-weary private investigator with a haunted past who will stop at nothing to bring justice to the victim of a brutal but publicly ignored murder. “State Change” switches gears to magic realism, portraying a society in which human beings carry their souls with them through life as physical objects that must be guarded and protected; in this harrowing world, a timid young woman seeks out warmth and companionship while straining to preserve her ice-cube soul. And in “The Waves," the ultimate fate of the human race is laid out poetically in an epic saga of deep-space exploration that challenges the meaning of human identity and love in the face of cosmic eternity.
It’s a truly beautiful collection that celebrates culture, history, science, and pretty much everything that makes life meaningful. If you do decide to pick up a copy of this wonderful book (I would offer up mine, but it’s already out on loan) feel free to hunt me down and tell me your favorites, too.
Written by Cara B.
Whenever we have that rare and indescribably wonderful experience of indulging ourselves in a phenomenal book, nothing can compare to that consuming feeling of obsessively flipping through the pages, hooked to the characters and imagining oneself interacting with them, overcome with a strange sensation upon finishing the read and attempting to visualize how the storyline might have continued after the final words.
Many books have given me that experience, yet what I find upon finishing them is that certain lines stand out to me and remain imbedded my mind for days on end. They’re insightful lines that cause me to rethink certain aspects of my life and of the world. They’re lines that I recall when I’m in a difficult situation, lines that somehow soothe me and allow me to regain a sense of composure. Although it was difficult to choose, here are what I find to be ten incredibly powerful quotes that perhaps you too will remember in tough times and help you stay strong:
Written by Sarah S.
Rice's classes end today, so this is our last blog post of the semester. From all of us on the R2 staff, have a great holiday season!
I came across the poets Nesbit and Gibley (who describe themselves as “two old men who write poetry, short stories and other things”) while scrolling through my WordPress Recommendations. One of their poems, titled We Are Fragile Things, had gone viral. Intrigued, I explored the rest of their site. The poems below are just a few examples of the poignant poetry the pair have written (check out https://nesbitandgibley.com/ for more).
Poem #1: We Are Fragile Things
We Are Fragile Things acknowledges the great achievements of humans (“They’ve explored the deepest trenches, / Climbed the highest mountains, / Even travelled to the moon and back”) but notes that “we can be fragile things.” The use of “we” implicates us, as readers, as the humans the poem is talking about. We struggle with “death and accident,” but “we can be mended, / Healed by truth and trust.”
The last sentence of the poem is: “We are fragile things / Broken by loss and fixed with love.” The change from “we can be fragile things” to “we are fragile things” demonstrates that we cannot escape the struggles that life presents to us. We can, however, be “fixed with love” and the companionship of those around us.
We Are Fragile Things – https://nesbitandgibley.com/2016/09/23/we-are-fragile-things/
Poem #2: To Lighten The Load of Her Heavy Mind
The poem introduces a girl’s mental turmoil with the quote: “‘It’s not the world I endure, but myself.’” We quickly learn that her greatest enemy is herself; the girl struggles “to venture out for the newspaper” because even simple acts like that one apply “gravity / and pressure” to the girl’s “shoulders, / [and] to her beautiful mind.” The italicizing of “pressure” emphasizes the persistent burden to appear normal for other people, a new kind of struggle that the girl is “not quite used to.” Nevertheless, the poem reassures her—and us—that having a bad day is “not the end of the world.” In fact, it is perfectly normal.
To Lighten The Load of Her Heavy Mind – https://nesbitandgibley.com/2016/11/08/to-lighten-the-load-of-her-heavy-mind/
Poem #3: Wireless
Many of us are glued to our phones and our laptops. But the poem reminds us that we can—if we wanted to—leave “the mean glare of a white screen” and “fully embrace the magnificence of being human.” As humans, “we’re wonderfully wireless,” able to forge meaningful relationships without the use of man-made gadgets.
Wireless – https://nesbitandgibley.com/2016/11/01/wireless/
Poem #4: Milk
What happens when someone constant in your life passes away?
This poem brings an unexpected twist to that question by detailing the impact of a community milkman’s death on the residents, despite them “not knowing his name.” The loss of the milkman’s presence is seen in the doorsteps that remain “empty bottled,” but as the same time, life continues to go on. The repetition of “will” in the subsequent lines (“The trees will shed their leaves,” “the traffic lights will blink,” and “the sun will rise at dawn again”) also suggest that there is a constancy to look forward to. The poem ends on a hopeful note, saying that “tomorrow, there’ll be milk on our doorstep.”
Milk – https://nesbitandgibley.com/2016/11/11/milk/
Poem #5: We’ve Only Fleeting Minutes
The length of the poem (it’s only 6 lines) reflects its message—that we should live in the moment. Confronted with our fast-paced lives, we may think of pictures as the only way to “capture the moment before it ends.” But, as the speaker of the poem points out, we should let the moment end, for “that’s the beauty” of it all.
We’ve Only Fleeting Minutes – https://nesbitandgibley.com/2016/11/03/weve-only-fleeting-minutes/
Written by Evelyn Syau (’20)
For the entirety of this semester, I have been trying to read one book (an ambitious goal for an English undergrad, I know). The book sits on my desk with a bookmark a laughable third of the way through. While I’ve finished more books this semester than I ever have, I can’t get through this one. The wrinkles around the crushed base of its spine look like a furrowed brow.
The book is House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. I honestly can’t really offer a good summary (the Wikipedia page makes a good effort: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_of_Leaves), but the bare bones of the story involve a mysterious death, Russian-nesting-doll-like layers of stories and their narrators, a lost documentary about a hallway, and a house that defies the laws of physics.
It belongs to a class of books termed “ergodic literature”. This format requires extra work on the part of the reader. You have to search through the piece to read it properly, perhaps skipping forward or backward, or turning the book around to see the words. In House of Leaves, this ergodic element comes in the form of misplaced text and footnotes. So many footnotes. Sideways footnotes, hidden footnotes, footnotes in different languages. Footnotes with their own footnotes, footnotes left by different narrators. Footnotes that spiral outwards from the center of the page, footnotes that are poems and pictures, footnotes that cite books that don’t exist.
That is what’s amazing about this book: it can’t be reduced. It is dependent on the format that it takes. The experience of reading it is so integral to what the book actually is that you can’t separate the two. It defies Cliffs Notes and eBook format. In an age that prizes convenience and digital, there is something so fascinating about forcibly returning to the analog. It feels like a new genre, yet it takes an almost old-fashioned approach.
I’m wading through the book at a snail’s pace. The plot and the format require it. It’s confusing and challenging and convoluted, but incredibly immersive. It makes me think about the physicality of reading. Searching through the footnotes makes me feel like part of the story. I am confused along with the characters. I explore the mystery with them. When they do research in the story, I do research, too. The confusing layers of narrators couple with this ergodic effect to blur the lines between the reader and the story to create something that’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
Reading in small chunks is new for me. I’m a self-professed speed reader. I can honestly say that I have never been so defeated by a book. But I really, really have enjoyed it. While reading slowly originated in my frustration, it has morphed into a kind of purposeful rationing. I like this story and I don’t want it to be over. I’m saving it, savoring it.
Reading in a new way and challenging myself has made me fall more in love with books all over again. A lot of times, I think we tend to limit ourselves when it comes to literature. We say “I like this kind of book” or “I read in this way” and then self-confirm by seeking out only what we know. But the experience of reading outside of your comfort zone is too good to pass up.
So if you feel stuck in a rut with your reading or writing, try something different! Try a new format. Read a different genre, or read in a different way. Think about the process and purpose of reading in a new way. And if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, pick up an ergodic novel. You won’t regret it.
Written by Megan G.
R2: The Rice Review
Rice University's undergraduate literary magazine. Here you can find event updates, monthly writing contest winners, and opinions by the R2 staff on what's new, interesting, or subject to discussion in the literary and arts world.