a year in reading 2018

A year in reading 2018

Happy New Year everyone! Following the tradition, here we go!

Books read 2018: 70

Trends:

  • Number of books is increasing (67 in 2017, 56 in 2016, 55 in 2015)
  • I am ‘reading’ more audio books
  • I am also reading far more e-books than paper
  • This year I included (for the first time) in my list novel-length works of fan fiction (but not in my summary here).

Ratio:

49 fiction/21 non-fiction

37 e-kindle/11 audio/22 paper print

Longest paper book:

The Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss

Shortest paper book:

The Importance of being Ernest – Oscar Wilde

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Thinking fiction Why we like socially disadvantaged characters

Thinking fiction: Why we like socially disadvantaged characters…

I’m forever on a quest to discover why I like what I like. Join me on a foray into ‘types’ of fictional characters and why we as readers like them.

Who or what are socially disadvantaged characters?

Socially disadvantaged characters are those who are oppressed by their society. They have little power to change the (sometimes horrific) world they live in. They are often children, poor, slaves or people of a marginalised race.

For all this, these socially disadvantaged are often the heroes of their tales. In ‘rags-to-riches’ narratives the reason for this is obvious, but there are many other stories where they play central parts – so why are they so popular?

Examples of socially disadvantaged characters

Oliver – Oliver Twist

Black Beauty – Black Beauty

Buck – Call of the Wild

Diamond – At the back of the North Wind

Collin – Sparrows in the Scullery

Tom, Topsy, all the slaves – Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Dickie – Harding’s Luck

Sam, all the main characters – The adventures of Sam

Remus Lupin, Dobby – Harry Potter

Katniss, Cinna, anyone in the games – Hunger Games

Note: The reason I have not included every character in every dystopia, because they only fit this ‘trope’ if they are disadvantaged to a greater extent than the others in their (already disadvantaged) society.

Thinking fiction_ Why we like socially disadvantaged characters

Socially disadvantaged characters written well

When written well these socially disadvantaged characters:

  • Are brave examples of what it looks like to live in a fractured society
  • Demonstrate how to proceed in the face of injustice
  • Bring us hope that things can ‘get better’
  • Remind us that the world is not always a very nice place to live in
  • Spark our own ambition by showing us someone with (often) greater trials
  • Make us feel as though we are not alone in our own areas of powerlessness
  • Explore the depths of man’s cruelty and the heights of his courage
  • Spur us to leave behind cowardice

Socially disadvantaged characters written poorly

  • Are portrayed as door-mats, good because they acquiesce to evil for no reason other than evil is the greater force
  • Have little personality beside their ‘powerlessness’
  • Have to be dragged through the plot because they never develop any agency
  • Are surrounded with other characters who dote upon them and sympathise to the extent that the reader is no longer required to do so
  • Are written as ‘holy’ or good for no other reason than that they suffer
  • Are innately ‘good’ in an evil world, becoming predictable and repetitive in their choices

Why is this character type popular?

The reaction to these disadvantaged and often abused characters is intriguing, and differs depending on the age of the reader.

Older readers

I have found that middle-aged and older readers often react with indignation and some scepticism. ‘How terrible!’ or ‘Surely it really wasn’t as bad as that?’ They are also more likely to feel the need (vicarious or otherwise) to ‘rescue’ the characters from their fates or their world.

From observation, readers in this age bracket are often quick to identify a character’s life as ‘unfair’ or a system as ‘unjust’. In this manner they are slightly removed from the action, presiding in judgement as well as empathy.

Nevertheless, middle-aged readers often enjoy these characters, simply because they come with so many obstacles to overcome. The ambition of a disadvantaged character is much more complex and terse than the ambition of a multi-million dollar CEO.

Young readers

In comparison, children or young adult readers seem much more willing to accept the suffering of a disadvantaged character. They appear to dwell less on the fact that ‘this is wrong’ and more on ‘how will the character remain human in this situation?’

There is an acceptance of powerlessness and abuse, and a sense of greater affinity with stories with characters like these. There is empathy based on experience – because all children, however loved and protected, know that some people have power (adults) and others do not (minors). They know personally that oppression exists, even if it is only ‘perceived’ oppression, such as ‘you must eat your vegies’.

In this sense every book with a younger protagonist could be said to be a book with a socially disadvantaged protagonist.

This in turn breeds a prurient curiosity in young readers. If powerlessness exists – and they already know it does – what forms can it take? How far does it extend? In other words, what dangers are out there in the world? Could someone take everything from me? And how do I live when it is?

What about you?

Do you enjoy reading about these types of characters? If so, is it for the reasons above? I’d love to hear from you!

Image courtesy of harrypotter.wikia.com

Thinking fiction Why we like socially disadvantaged characters

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (BBC)

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (BBC mini-series 2015; Netflix; my local library) is a regency era alternative history detailing the attempt of two “practical” magicians to bring magic back to England.

“We have channelled all of English magic into a butler and then we have shot him!”

Magic was common place in Britain during the era of the mysterious Raven King but for the last 300 years it has been confined to theoretical study only. The fussy, book-loving Mr. Norrell joins forces with the flamboyant, reckless Jonathan Strange to make English magic “Respectable” once more.

Mr. Norrell is aided, cajoled and protected by his mysterious man-servant Childermass, a former pick-pocket who is looking forward to the return of the Raven King.

#Childermass Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell Raven King

Jonathon Strange is determined to make his wife Arabella proud of him, but is hindered by Mr. Norrell’s refusal to dabble in anything too outlandish.

Power hungry politicians, the Faerie realm, and the death of Strange’s wife tear the two apart. As they travel from France to Vienna and from Yorkshire to London in order to undo  As magic returns and the ancient roads of the Raven King are re-opened the two must decide what is most important, and whether they really will sacrifice everything for a future they may never see.

Mr. Norrell: A party? I wish to go home and read a book.

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Review: The Children Act (2017)

Based on the eponymous novel by Ian McEwan. 

As the High Court Children’s Judge, Justice Maye (Emma Thompson) must decide whether to give a Jehovah ’s Witness boy a blood transfusion against his wishes.

I entered the cinema expecting a clear-cut film condemning religion and extolling the power of ‘free choice.’ Instead I watched a gripping drama filled with flawed characters grappling with what it looks like to love their neighbour.

After visiting the precocious teen in hospital, Justice Maye rules according to the court precedent (“life over dignity”) and chooses to save his physical body, sparing little thought for his soul.

Yet when the disillusioned young man adopts her as his spiritual mentor and her own marriage begins to crumble, Justice May must confront questions such as:

How far should you be expected to go to save a child who is not your own?

Is it always right to separate your professional and personal lives?

What does it take to save a marriage when both individuals have committed betrayal?

This film explores the beauty of life, but also asks: what does it take to sustain it? Are we as Christians willing to give it?

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Sherlock Holmes vs. Shakespeare

“Here, though the world explode, these two survive.”

(Vincent Starlett, “221B”)

Sherlock Holmes vs. Shakespeare: which will last the ages?

If you’re at all familiar with the ‘English speak’ of High school English classes, you’ll know that a common phrase is “enduring appeal”. Shakespeare always has it. It grants the text an ability to transcend time and culture. It means that a story can still entertain an audience and challenge critics hundreds of years after it was first written.

Such is the case with Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet – they were enjoyed, are being enjoyed, and doubtless with continue to be enjoyed in the future.

I’d like to argue that the Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories have this sort of enduring appeal. No other literary character has been so consistently appropriated, updated and represented. The collection of tales reluctantly written by a struggling medical doctor have spawned numerous books, poems, films and screen-plays – not to mention museums, monuments and societies.

The brilliant but eccentric detective and his humble but loyal biographer have permeated their way into popular culture, and demonstrate no sign of leaving anytime soon.

Why? What is it about this cannon of works that has generated such enduring appeal?

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I want a funeral like hers…

I was too young to remember the funerals of my biological Omas, but today I attended the funeral of my Oma-Friend (as she would sign off her letters), and I want to talk about it.

Not because I enjoy morbid topics, or because her life changed the world (although it did change mine, and for the better), or even because I am one of the few people who get the precious chance of a third Oma, but because I want a funeral like hers.

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The Problem with Redeeming Severus Snape

I love amateur literary analysis. Love reading it, love writing it. Here’s some pondering on a very well known character of an extraordinarily well known series.

Severus Snape is a complicated character

Severus Snape, of Harry Potter fame, has gained many followers.

I understand why.

He’s a complicated character and there’s much to explore and much subtext to read. He joined the Dark side in his youth, returned to the Light after he realised the love of his life (married to someone else) was in danger. After her death he swore to protect her only son, who was the spitting image of his childhood nemesis. He worked as a double, triple agent, ultimately on the Light side, yet spending much of his time working with the Dark. He was anti-social, unpleasant and held tightly to the grudges of his youth, killed the ‘greatest wizard of all time’ and the only one who knew his secret, yet died himself before he could see his side win.

He was the only character who didn’t receive his just deserts. He didn’t receive acknowledgement for the work he did. Many characters died, but he was the only one who perished without everyone knowing who and what he died for.

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The Lays of Ancient Rome

I’ve always been interested in how literature reflects and affects society. Perhaps that’s why I am fascinated by the Lays of Ancient Rome. On the other hand, it could just be because they sound cool.

The Lays are a collection of poems by Thomas Babington Macaulay. They are Roman ballads, set in Ancient Rome about Roman heroes, yet were written in 1842 by a Victorian gentleman.

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I idolize Bravery – a realisation and defence

“Bravery is by far the kindest word for stupidity.” (Sherlock BBC)

I am attracted to bravery

I have often wondered what it is that causes me to dub some fictional characters as ‘my favourite’ even if I do not necessarily admire their inherent goodness.

Recently I have come to a conclusion, which is to be my working hypothesis until disproven: I admire brave characters.

I have long known that bravery is one of the traits I admire the most. It is the reason I feel drawn to the “Invictus” poem even though I disagree with its theology.

It’s the reason I was obsessed with the television series Merlin as a teenager even as I rolled my eyes at the suspension of disbelief required, read the ‘Pagan’ chronicles under my bedsheets even though I flinched at the anti-Christian elements, and the reason I find myself at the age of 23 coupling drawings of Severus Snape with suitable quotes to post on DeviantArt.

I am invariably attracted to bravery.

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A Year in Reading 2017

Following the tradition, I thought I’d share the books I enjoyed reading this year – my tiny contribution to the online world of books and reading, of which I am mostly a silent consumer (but pay my dues once a year in the form of a blog post!)

Books read 2017: 67 (my goal was 57, so this was exciting)

Ratio:

48 Fiction/18 Non-fiction

21 audio books/38 paper print/8 kindle digital

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