“To some extent, we are our own text, which is why my mission would be important–erroneous signs confer their blemishes on their very owners” (pp. 12-13).
André Aciman’s Alibis is a collection of essays that digs into the ways in which his experiences throughout various countries have changed him, have shaped him. Each essay is centered on its own theme, yet when collected they all speak to human nature and the ways in which experiences are anticipated, lived, and remembered.
Cover and Title: The cover of this book is beautiful. Done in neutrals (Sepia? I’m no art expert.), it focuses on the many intersecting lines of its featured architecture. This reflects the actual content of the book, which is full of parallel and perpendicular ideas that continually push and pull human emotion and experience. Aciman speaks to temporizing, reflecting, traveling, remembering, and other activities that require people to encounter and revisit life experience that, much like these lines, are interconnected by ideas, people, and places.
Pace: As a collection of essays, Alibis is well-paced. The essays range in length, but none are so long that they seem to drag. Likewise, none are so short that they seems as though Aciman is glossing over details. In fact, the detail that he provides is what makes this collection so engaging, as he offers just enough to let readers into his mind without inundating them with too many ideas (which could be easy to fall into with a book of this nature).
Writing: Aciman’s prose is fresh without seeming forced; his writing is introspective without folding in on itself too completely. He begins the collection with the sentence, “Life begins somewhere with the scent of lavender,” which aptly sets the tone for the wonder yet practicality presented throughout the rest of the book.
Ideas: This is a book that I look forward to revisiting in a few years, as I am sure that it will impact me differently after I experience more that life has to offer. This isn’t to say that it didn’t bring great perspective to me now, though. On the contrary: this is a book that readers of all ages will appreciate. Aciman puts forth thought-provoking ideas on both living life and processing the experience of doing so. I was astonished and delighted to find that some of my own mental quirks (such as living a certain moment as if I am already looking back on it) were discussed. As such, this essay collection has done what any great literary work does–it allowed me to see myself more clearly.
I would highly recommend Alibis to anyone who is interested in essays or who simply enjoys thinking about identity and the quest to understand the experiences that life provides.
I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.
“With all my meat and blood and breath, I am rooting for the success of the magician’s trick. But the noise of hope is not a racket in my heart” (p. 296).
It’s a simple question, really. Why do we read? More specifically, why do you read? Why do I read? As simple as these questions are, the truth is that their answers are pretty complicated–and can force us to take a look at ourselves from a new perspective. I’ve recently battled a quarter life crisis of sorts and have faced the fact that, while reading is a great hobby, it’s one that can be just as destructive as it can be beneficial.
Reading is a gateway to experiences that we could never have in our own lives but that we can learn from through stories. William Styron writes in Conversations with William Styron:
“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.”
Still more quotes showcase the importance of reading as a means of experiencing life:
“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.” — Charles William Eliot
“Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live.” — Gustave Flaubert
“Man reading should be man intensely alive. The book should be a ball of light in one’s hand.” — Ezra Pound
But at what point do we block out our own experiences while enjoying those of the characters of our books, of the subjects of our non-fiction? I have found, and I’m quite certain that I’m not the only one, that reading can become a way to not only experience the emotions of others but a way to block out those aspects of our own lives that we are afraid to confront.
Books will never leave you.
Books will never say you aren’t good enough.
Books will never turn away without explanation or cause.
Books can become a crutch, a way to block out emotions when we don’t want to deal with them by immersing ourselves in the experiences that authors share. I can distinctly remember, when in college, picking up a book in the middle of a fight with an ex-boyfriend because I just didn’t want to–and, at the time, couldn’t–deal with the emotional issues that were wreaking havoc on my relationship. Instead of confronting my problems and allowing myself to experience the things that were happening in my life I retreated into my books, into the one thing that would never make me feel as though I didn’t meet whatever standard I was being held to.
This same pattern emerged with the next relationship I had, except the issue was that he and I were living two separate lives despite inhabiting the same house. I passed the time he didn’t want to spend together with my books. Though I eventually realized just how far we had drifted apart, I wonder how much sooner I would have noticed had I not turned to books as an emotional support–as a substitute for real-world experience.
During the aforementioned existential crisis I confronted these issues and have, since, come to appreciate the importance of experience–both that gained through books and that gained through personal life events. I’ve since decided that I can only bring meaning to my life by these experiences and that, ultimately, I need to focus more on the real world side of things. Does this mean I will give up reading? Not a chance. But I have become more aware of the fact that I need to become a better rounded person, and I have been working on this for the past few weeks.
So to all of my fellow readers, I implore you to think about why you read and what reading means to you. To me, reading is a way to experience things I never could in my own life while learning about human nature, history, and the myriad other subjects upon which books speak. Reading is an activity I love, but it is one that I cannot let overrun my life. So here’s to maintaining a healthy reading habit and to soaking up all of the experiences–good and bad–that life has to offer.
Today I’m leading the discussion of Crime and Punishment over at Unputdownables!
“This is my superhero alter ego. I go around the world finding people who commit social injustices and I attack them with copies of literary classics to teach them a lesson. The kid who is suspended for racial slurs? I break into his bedroom in the middle of the night, knock out a few of his teeth, and leave him with a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. The parents who get arrested because they let their twelve-year-old throw a party without their supervision and the kids break into the liquor cabinet? I visit the parents in their holding cell to drop off two copies of Lord of the Flies. Before the next presidential election I’ll skip around the country like Santa Claus, delivering 1984 to all eligible and literate voters” (pp. 188-189).
Some books shove the reader outside of their comfort zone, demanding that they look at not only life and ideas from a new perspective but that they approach the narrative form itself from a different angle. In Mr. Fox, Helen Oyeyemi creates a love triangle that spans numerous independent stories, all spun by St. John Fox (a writer who continually kills women in his stories and is inspired by Bluebeard), Mary Foxe (the so-called “muse” that Mr. Fox has conjured–although she plays a much larger part than inspiration by creating her own stories and blurring the line between real and imaginary), and Daphne Fox (Mr. Fox’s wife). Each of the stories focuses on relationships and how difficult it is for people to connect in a meaningful way. At first, Mary starts interfering with Mr. Fox’s stories because she is outraged by his tendency to kill his female characters, but as the novel goes on these stories become increasingly complex and emotionally charged.
Cover and Formatting: First and foremost, I have to say that this is a beautiful book in terms of the cover and formatting. This is certainly a volume that I enjoy having on my shelf. Helen Yentus and Jason Booher, the jacket designers, did a wonderful job creating an interesting cover that is both understated and engaging–much like the novel itself.
Plot: This book challenged me in terms of following the plot. Oyeyemi has created a structure that requires readers to work in order to get the most out of it. I realized, in reading this book, that I may have become a bit lazy in my reading habits and am glad to have come up against an author who doesn’t underestimate the intelligence of her readers by spelling everything out for them (not that the other authors I’ve read recently have done so). By creating multiple stories within the novel, Oyeyemi is able to shed light on different aspects of love and loss. But because she tells most of these stories using the same characters, as if she is putting Mr. Fox, Mary, and Daphne into a room of mirrors that reflect at all angles, the reader has a sense of continuity. This, I believe, is why the more experimental structure works.
Characterization: Oyeyemi has created three characters that anchor the novel, but these characters take on varying roles throughout the stories that they present. As such, there is no real character development; the book focuses, instead, on the nature of relationships. Seeing these characters in different situations, leading different lives, allows readers to focus on their relationships instead of on who they are. In this way, a lack of characterization (or, rather, the establishment of multiple characters that call upon the same fundamental qualities as their original form yet differ in each story) lends to the success of the novel as a whole.
Writing Style: Oyeyemi’s writing is vibrant and jarring, yet at the same time subtle (as is the novel itself). She has a talent for presenting complex ideas in simple ways without taking away from their weight.
Ideas: This novel left me feeling bittersweet, as many of the stories show relationships that, no matter how hard the characters try, just do not work; however, as someone who enjoys poignant stories of this nature, I found this to be incredibly insightful. Love is, itself, a simple idea; the way in which love functions in the world can become complex. But the idea that I got out of the novel is that, no matter how broken people are, or how their story ends, the relationships that they build are worthwhile.
Mr. Fox is one of those books that will elicit various responses from readers depending upon their past and the ways in which they relate to the stories and characters that it presents–which is one of the reasons why I believe it is such a good novel. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in creative writing structures and diving deeper into the ways in which people connect with one another and, ultimately, love.
I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.
“How can you say that you’ve taken any trouble to live when you won’t even dance?” (p.88)
I am one of those readers who highlights. I highlight passages I like, most often those that I want to feature as quotes here on Trees and Ink, as well as anything that I feel is important to the story (this is particularly true for books I read for the read-a-longs over at Unputdownables, as marking these passages makes it easier to add to the discussion each week). So of course I have gone through my share of highlighters. As I consider myself a bit of a connoisseur, here are a couple of things I’ve learned over the course of what I have dubbed The Great Highlighter Crusade.
- Yellow highlighters are the worst. These are wonderful at first, as they mark passages without obscuring the words; however, they fade over time. First it becomes difficult to see the highlights in certain lighting. Then, a few months later, the marks are completely gone and who knows what you found important about the story! Using yellow highlighters can, in this way, result in adding a few rereads to your TBR shelf. You’ve been warned.
- Dark highlighters (purple, blue, orange) ruin books. These highlighters cover the text instead of gently calling your attention to it–and they often bleed through the page and cause a lot of confusion when you are trying to remember which passage you actually wanted to mark (especially if you are revisiting the book awhile after first reading it). While this isn’t as bad as the fading away of yellow highlighters, it’s certainly a headache.
- Green highlighters are the best. Hands down. Now, I’m a bit biased because green is my favorite color. But this favoritism aside, there are several reasons why a great green highlighter is a reader’s best friend. First and foremost, the color is just dark enough not to fade yet not so dark as to cover the words you want to one day revisit. Additionally, the green isn’t going to bleed through the paper and it’s easy to detect when flipping through the pages of the book looking for noted passages. So do yourself a favor and stock up on these, as I’ve found that they are more difficult to come by than any of the other colors (on second thought, maybe I shouldn’t share this…).
- If green highlighters are completely out of stock and you can’t wait, a pink highlighter is the next best thing.
- Highlighter packages are worthless because they only come in yellow or multicolor packs. As we have established the futility of using a yellow highlighter, that option is out. Why don’t companies package single colors in bulk (i.e. four green highlighters)? The only option left to the discerning consumer is to buy these tools individually, and of course Staples and Office Max are slow to restock their individual highlighter inventory (trust me, I’ve already depleted Staples’ supply).
So there you have it, the results of The Great Highlighter Crusade. All joking aside, though, I think it’s important to highlight meaningful passages for the purpose of revisiting these ideas later. How can you do that if your highlights disappear over time or bleed onto other pages? What about you all–how do you keep up with important quotes?
“No one can truly escape her or his subjectivity. There is always an I or we hiding somewhere in a text, even when it does not appear as a pronoun” (p. xi).