Guest Post Review: “Whispers Through A Megaphone” by Rachel Elliott

Whispers Through A Megaphone

Hey guys! I have swamped with a lot of work these days, so I decided to bring my oldest friend, partner-in-crime and fellow book nerd, Lubna Amir, to do a guest post. I hope you enjoy her insights as much as I do!

When Aishwarya asked me to review a book for her, I was thrilled. Since childhood, she has been the source of new books for me. From contemporary romance to teenage fiction, thrillers to sci-fi, my book journey would be incomplete without her.

Coming to Whispers through a Megaphone. Nominated for the Bailey Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2016 (which is a great way to discover books by the way), Ms. Eliot’s book is rich in both character and humor. A psychotherapist herself, her book showcases a depth and quirkiness that not many possess. Both Miriam and Ralph are battling their own issues, and Ms. Eliot takes what could be a dark and twisty book and makes it wonderfully humorous.

Miriam hasn’t left her house in 3 years, is immensely socially awkward, literally talks in whispers, and has suffered childhood trauma at the hands of a crazy and mostly absent mother (she was once found sweeping the corridors of Miriam’s school, naked). Being told to stay quiet all the time, Miriam has grown into an adult who whispers. She, however, does have some connection to the outside world through her friend, Fenella. The narrative truly begins when Miriam decides she wants to reenter the normal world and do things like shopping and Zumba.

Ralph is the father of 16-year-old twins and is unhappily married to Sadie, a closeted lesbian. When one day he opens the doors of the closet, literally, and discovers that his wife never loved him, that he cannot relate to his sons, and that his life is a mess, Ralph packs his bags and moves to a shack in the woods with a cat called Treacle. A chance meeting with Miriam leads to the start of an unlikely friendship, and the story of when Miriam met Ralph.

What I really loved about the book was the switch in perspectives – maintaining this shift without a narrational break is a difficult task, but Ms. Eliot manages it quite well. This is also where her background as a psychotherapist comes in play. Whispers through a Megaphone is written in a way which makes the reader delve into the psyche and the quirks of the human mind – and realize that at the end of the day, we all are a little dysfunctional.

It’s a great debut novel, and Ms. Eliot’s books (I’m hoping for more!) are going to be a regular feature on my bookshelf from now on. From the whimsical to the crazy, with a little bit of childhood abuse thrown in, Whispers through a Megaphone is a good read!

Review: “Speed of Life” by Carol Weston

Speed of Life

Fourteen-year-old Sofia Wolfe is still reeling from the sudden death of her beloved mother almost a year ago when her best friend takes her to a talk by an advice columnist called “Dear Kate”. Despite her initial misgivings, a grieving Sofia writes to Kate to fill the absence of a mother figure. Kate is pretty cool for an agony aunt and understands that not all families have two parents. This encourages Sofia to send her father to another Dear Kate talk. Soon, Sofia is regularly corresponding with Kate about grief, puberty, boys and growing pains.

A year after Sofia’s mother’s death, she realizes her father has started seeing someone. On the one hand, she dearly loves her father and wants to see him happy. On the other hand, she feels it’s too soon and Sofia doesn’t want her mother to be replaced. Imagine her surprise when Dad’s new girlfriend turns out to be none other than “Dear Kate”.

Embarrassed beyond belief, Sofia doesn’t know how to tell Kate that she has been corresponding with her for months beforehand. To compound the problem, Kate has a teenage daughter, Alexa, who is not pleased with the sudden onslaught of strangers in her mother’s life, especially seemingly perfect Sofia. Sofia and her father need to vacate the apartment, which leads them to move in with Kate and Alexa. And, at her new school, Sofia falls for a boy who has a complicated history with Alexa. How ever will she survive this year?

Even though the story is geared at children and young adults, Ms Weston has done a marvelous job of describing Sofia’s grief. Devastated by her loss, it is heartbreaking to see Sofia not understand the normal mother-teenage daughter tension between Kate and Alexa. Narrated over the course of a year, it’s heartening to see Sofia stop grieving and accept that the presence of another woman in her father’s life and her family does not mean that her mother won’t always be with her in spirit. Living with “Dear Kate” also makes her see the flawed woman behind the advice columnist persona.

While the story centers around Sofia, Ms. Weston pays a generous amount of attention to the secondary characters. The arc that Sofia’s relationship takes with Alexa was one of my favourites. The narration from Sofia’s point of view lends the story a poignant and simple tone. It is lovely to see her blossom into a happy young woman with a new “family”. Kudos to Ms. Weston for turning the Cinderella trope on its head and writing a heartwarming and touching story about grief, moving on and growing up.

Review: “The Singles Game” by Lauren Weisberger

singles-game

In the latest from The Devil Wears Prada author Lauren Weisberger, professional tennis player Charlie Silver plays by the rules. She’s polite, congenial—and ranked 23rd in the world, disappointing early predictions she’d take her love of the game to the top. After her good-girl game stops her from asserting herself at a disastrous moment, nearly ending her career, she’s ready to take risks—but is she ready for the consequences?

Charlie hires a hotshot coach who decides her image needs a little more intimidation factor. Dressed in black and nudged from flirtation to a full-on celebrity relationship, Charlie is told that her team is just changing her persona, not her personality. But as her ranking—and her profile—climbs, she starts to lose track of the line between the two.

The Singles Game highlights Weisberger’s familiar theme of a woman finding the balance between letting the world talk her out of a dream, and letting the world seduce her into sacrificing more than she should to achieve it.

Some of the best points of this book include backstage access to the wild world of elite tennis—as wild as top athletes who barely touch alcohol and prioritise a good night’s sleep can be, anyway. Casual tennis fans and gossip aficionados alike will enjoy the product of Weisberger’s research behind the scenes of world tennis, which included extensive access at tournaments like Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, an interview with Serena Williams’ hitting partner, and more.

One of the strongest aspects of the picture Weisberger paints is a sense of being inside a world usually glimpsed only in TV clips and magazine articles. The reader gets the juicy feeling of knowing the real story behind the gossip even before it hits Page Six—but feels the ordinary loneliness of a workaholic, too.

The fast-paced summer read lacks the gripping tension of Weisberger’s best-known hit, and Charlie’s moments of crisis fall a little flat. But the glamour tantalises and doesn’t take over the story, and while a little two-dimensional, Charlie feels relatable even as she trots red carpets (in customised Louboutins, naturally) and wears a literal (if tiny) crown.

It might just inspire readers to get in shape—or else just sit back, turn on a tennis match, eat something delicious and enjoy the freedom of not having to live like an elite athlete.

Review: “Tender” by Belinda McKeon

Tender

Disclaimer: This super-duper long entry was supposed to be posted exactly a month ago to mark a very special occasion. Well, better late than never. This one’s for you, D. I am certain you would have roared and called me Cathy after reading this. 🙂

What happens in the heart simply happens.” So writes Ted Hughes in his collection Birthday Letters, a series of poems addressed to his late wife Sylvia Plath. Of course, Hughes’ use of “simple” here is misleading–the relationship between the two poets was famously volatile. Belinda McKeon’s second novel, Tender, which features Hughes’ line, also devotes itself to a volatile relationship. And though Hughes seems to insist that matters of the heart “simply happen”, McKeon reminds us that these affairs are never, in fact, simple in the slightest.

The protagonist of Tender is a young woman named Catherine Reilly, who has left the parochial confines of County Longford to study English and art history at Trinity College, Dublin. Up in the capital, she rents a room in a flat with two girls. The room was previously occupied by the girls’ school friend, James, who has since moved to Berlin to work as a photographer’s assistant. However, James is now back from Germany, and Catherine is intrigued to finally encounter the enigmatic character about whom she has heard so much.

That was another thing Amy and Lorraine had said about him: that he talked. Talked and talked; there was nobody else like him for that, Amy had said, meaning it as a good thing, and Catherine had found herself quite looking forward to meeting him, then, this talkative James. To see what that looked like: a boy who could talk.

This anticipation is infectious, building in the reader as well as Catherine, while another, darker emotion also mounts. Catherine admits to a certain sense of anxiety: she is “[w]ary not so much of him, but of herself–how would she handle this? What account would she give of herself? What would he think of her, when she was forced to actually talk to him?” This wariness, of course, is entirely justified.

The pair seems to hit it off right from the start. As expected, there is a lot of talking — much like Hughes in Birthday Letters, McKeon explores love through its relationship to language. Catherine and James form an instant intimacy that is rooted in banter and quotations and codes of speech: “Already they had their own way of talking, their private phrases, their language.” Catherine is both delighted and confused by this intimacy, struggling to understand what exactly is blooming between them, but James puts any romantic intentions to rest when he tells her that he is gay. This revelation brings relief, as well as a complex range of other emotions, from “inadequacy” and “childishness,” to “gratitude,” “gladness,” and even “pride.” Matters of the heart may just happen, but once again, they are far from simple.

With the terms of their relationship clarified, the pair’s friendship blossoms, particularly in the linguistic realm. While James is back in Germany, they write letters almost every day. When he returns, James serves as an interlocutor through which Catherine can articulate her impressions of the world around her. She even frames her inner thoughts and perceptions just as she would their correspondence: “it was James she was addressing,” she realises. “James to whom she was writing an imaginary, long juicy letter.”

McKeon’s ability to capture the intricacies of this relationship is startling. She carefully portrays every nuance of their platonic but “rich, layered affection.” The power dynamic shifts back and forth, but the sheer energy of the bond never wavers: Catherine’s life is now a “teeming, booming, multiplying thing.” Eventually, however, the intensity starts to become too much, laced more and more with traces of obsession and deceit. Even Catherine struggles to find the right words–the right talk to articulate exactly how their bond is spiralling out of control:

What was this? What was this feeling? What were these feelings, because there was more than one of them: there were several of them, and it was by them, now, that she was crowded; it was by them, now, that she was feeling cornered, feeling overwhelmed.

She begins to experience a kind of “madness” as their pair careers towards very dangerous emotional territory.

I first read McKeon in 2011 when her debut novel, Solace, was published to a host of awards. The protagonist that time around was a Mark Casey, who also leaves the confines of parochial Longford behind to pursue his studies in Trinity College, Dublin. Here, Mark negotiates the progress between tradition and progress, between staying loyal to his rural family and engaging with his urban academic life, as signs of a changing Ireland unfold all around him. In Tender, Catherine undergoes a similar coming of age and experiences a similar tension between the familiar and the new.

The specific context of Catherine’s story is all the more pertinent given that James comes out only four years after the decriminalization of homosexuality in Ireland. Even then, Catherine admits to never having actually met someone who is openly gay: “Nobody real. Nobody Irish, really other than David Norris, the senator who had fought for the law to be changed, and it was not as if Catherine actually knew him.” So she admits to the “novelty”  of the fact and the sense of being a “tourist” in James’s presence, yet another emotion to add to the list. That said, she isn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that, legal or otherwise, James’s news still presents great difficulty. Despite his family being, in Catherine’s eyes, very “modern,” they react poorly to his coming out, while her own parents try to forbid her from cavorting with such company. It is significant that it wasn’t until 2015, the year Tender was published in Ireland, that same-sex marriage was finally legalised there,  revealing the ongoing challenges inherent in being gay in a predominantly Catholic country.

Despite its portrait of coming of age in a changing Ireland and its juxtaposition of urban and rural life, Tender is, in fact, a very different book from its predecessor. Solace was a beautiful, delicate novel in which much was left unsaid. Mark and his father only communicated in “an established rhythm” where “[t]here were set subjects, set responses; a set way to move your head, to shrug your shoulders, to turn slowly towards the door and keep an eye on whoever was coming in.” Outside of this routine, “[t]here were things that seemed unsayable; things that seemed impossible to push over the surface of thought.” Indeed, so much of the novel’s power lay in the charged silence, which permeated every page. In many ways, this felt like the continuation of a certain Irish literary tradition–a more “established rhythm,” to put it in McKeon’s terms. In the last 50 years, Ireland has produced a long list of novelists who are masters of stillness and restraint, from John McGahern to Sebastian Barry to McKeon’s own mentor, the wonderful Colm Tóibín.

Tender, however, is a much louder novel, allowing us to be almost entirely privy to the unsayable. For one, James’s bluntness captivates Catherine from the start, as she marvels at “[t]he directness. The openness” of his personality: “He was saying aloud the stuff that , Catherine now realised,  she had always thought you were meant to keep silent.” Even beyond what is said aloud, we spend the majority of the novel deep inside Catherine’s head, where her emotions and neuroses breed and multiply. Just as she “actually squirmed, listening to [James],” so we become increasingly uncomfortable in the presence of her manic energy, her insecurities, her melodramatic trains of thought. Even though Catherine does her best to present a calm and collected outward persona, inwardly her obsession is taking over, as we witness the full extent of her troubled and twisted mind.

This tension between the outward and inward versions of the self is also explored in James’s photography. Early on, he admires the mug shot photographs on the Trinity students’ ID cards, praising “[t]he way people are caught in them. Before they have a chance to arrange their expressions the way people always want to when you photograph them.” This “truthful” appearance is something he later strives to capture in his own work, creating images which are “stark and strange and disorienting […] people being caught in their unguarded moments, accessed in the pureness and vulnerability of who they really were.” These portraits resonate with McKeon’s portrait of Catherine, which may not be particularly flattering, but is certainly unflinching in its attempt to capture the “pureness and vulnerability” of her character.

This attempt not only challenges the boundaries of how deeply a reader may be invited to immerse themselves in a character’s head, but it also pushes formal boundaries. The novel’s third section, ironically titled “ROMANCE,” is composed of a series of brief and breathless one-line paragraphs, a textual reenactment of Catherine’s frantic headspace. These paragraphs range from depressed truisms–“Nothing that was not him was anything she could see“–to unanswered questions–“what, though, was actually wrong with her?” Elsewhere they embed themselves in parentheses, adding another layer of consciousness to the cacophony inside Catherine’s head: “(She could not work out anything about how things were meant to be.)” We also find extracts from the corny horoscopes Catherine writes as part of her summer job, as well as a number of lines of Hughes’s poetry: “I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.

These poems hail from the aforementioned Birthday Letters, which James buys for Catherine early on in the novel to help her write an essay about Plath. The epistolary form of Hughes’s book also recalls the letters which James and Catherine exchange—both of the real and the imagined variety. Furthermore, while Hughes’s writing is variously described by McKeon’s characters as “melodramatic,” “insane,” and “intense,” so too is McKeon’s own writing, particularly in the “ROMANCE” section. The text itself is unabashed in the discomfort it causes, as we watch Catherine’s anxiety manically escalate.

This inclusion of a particularly resonant literary figure is a trope McKeon has used before. In Solace, Mark is writing a PhD dissertation on the 19th century author Maria Edgeworth, whose Longford home was mere moments from his own. Edgeworth’s dedication to education, as well as her interest in the tension between the local and the cosmopolitan, echo the novel’s broader themes, even if Mark cannot seem to figure out what critical angle he plans to take. What he does seem sure of is that he wants to research Edgeworth’s “self-reflexivity and autobiographical interpolation, and about how she used these things to play with what people expected fiction to be.”

This idea of “self-reflexivity and autobiographical interpolation” is crucial in both of McKeon’s novels. Not only does she draw on the works and lives of canonic literary figures, but she also draws on her own life. Catherine’s journey from Longford to Trinity; her journalism work at Trinity News; her interviews with authors and increasing involvement in the Dublin literary scene are all taken directly from McKeon’s experience. Indeed, in a recent interview McKeon termed the novel “autobiographical at its core.” And yet, she insists she is not interested in any explicit linking of her life and that of her characters. Fiction isn’t so straightforward. “There are different layers of the autobiographical and the imagined,” she says. “The boundary between what really happens in a life and what you imagine is much more fluid than I used to think — and I’ve become much more interested in writing which explores that.” It is no wonder that Catherine tells us she wants to write her Hughes essay about something to do with “autobiography, and how it never showed itself in the work in the lazy way that readers expected it to.”

McKeon obviously has fun with this blurring of fiction and reality, not least since Catherine—not Belinda—is in fact McKeon’s own given name. And yet, even in the novel this has different layers of its own. Catherine is alternately known as “Reilly,” “Citóg,” “Poetess,” and “Muriel”; she routinely switches between personas, depending on the person she is with. Once she even thinks of doing something, only to remember “she was not that version of herself.” But we, the reader, are privy to all of the versions—the real and the imagined, the internal and the external. McKeon paints a rich and painfully honest portrait, so bursting with life and intelligence that it reverberates in the mind long after the novel has come to a heartbreaking end.

Review: “Modern Lovers” by Emma Straub

Modern Lovers

When do the wheels come off the wagon?  In your 20s, after a short-lived stint in a rock band? In your 30s, after your kids have sucked the life out of you? In your 40s, after you acquire grey hair and a real estate licence? How about when your almost-adult child starts having sex with your best friend’s almost-adult child? Or maybe it’s when you, nearing 50, find a guru? And the guru turns out to be a con artist?

Sigh. It’s all of the above in Emma Straub’s witty third novel Modern Lovers. Elizabeth and Andrew are a married couple in their late 40s living in Brooklyn, a few doors down from their former college band mate, Zoe, and her wife, Jane. Along with their college friend Lydia, their band, Kitty’s Mustache (a nod to Tolstoy’s heroine), first sang what later became a monster hit called ‘Mistress of Myself’ (Sense and Sensibility FTW), one of those anthemic, eternally meaningful songs whose lyrics people tattoo on their inner arms.

Lydia died glamorously of a drug overdose at 27, leaving the remaining three band members to round the corner on hipster senescence without her. There’s a saying about beautiful women and champion athletes dying two deaths. To that, I might add this: To be once young and briefly famous and painfully of-the-­moment and then morph into ­regular-people middle age is rather more insulting, as if your whole life is the worst Instagram fail.

And this is where we find the novel’s 40-something friends, past millennial hipness and on into hot flashes. Zoe and Jane own a restaurant; their daughter, Ruby, is sullen, sexual and terribly chic. Their marriage has traveled into the chill zone of lesbian bed death. Meantime, Elizabeth, a rebellious rocker in college, has traded her guitar for a career selling real estate in Ditmas Park, in one of those ­enclaves where you brew your own kombucha or risk the neighbors’ disdain. Her husband, Andrew, an aimless trustafarian, perceives himself as a brave escapee from the limestone canyons of Park Avenue. In reality, he’s a dilettante who meanders from career to career, working vaguely at a lifestyle magazine for Brooklyn fathers and seeking fulfillment through cinematography classes and carpentry. At one point, his guru—Dave, distinctive mainly for his large, shiny teeth—remarks on the artful imperfection of the shelf Andrew is fabricating: “This is beautiful, man. Wabi-­sabi, right?” It is, in fact, not an example of wabi-sabi, the Japanese term for artful imperfection and decay. It’s just sloppy woodwork.

The teenage children begin an affair. Zoe and Jane’s restaurant burns down suspiciously. (But their marriage is simultaneously and magically rekindled, apparently, by a good Chinese meal.) Elizabeth, succumbing to the entreaties of a stealthy Hollywood producer, signs away her and Andrew’s rights to a movie in the works about the mythic Lydia. (The producer describes it as “ ‘Ray’ meets ‘Sid and Nancy’ minus the Sid, meets ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter,’ only the coal miner is an orthopedic surgeon from Scarsdale.’ ”) Elizabeth learns that Andrew may have had sex with Lydia when they were all in college, a discovery that sends their marriage into some sort of cliff-of-divorce drama that I can’t really fathom. Why the huge sense of betrayal? It wasn’t last week, after all. Does anyone remember who anyone slept with in college? (And if you do, don’t email me and burst my bubble.)

Perhaps these Brooklyn couples in their postmodern Peyton Place—one with nutritional yeast and cosmic trance nights and talk of ayahuasca retreats—are more sensitive than, say, most of the married couples in Tolstoy, Updike, Henry James, D.H. Lawrence or Jackie Collins. Or even, I would venture to say, Dr. Seuss.

Modern Lovers hurries to tie up its loose ends, and the interwoven climaxes seem sludgy. The final chapter employs a lazy literary device, a series of announcements (a notice in the New York Times weddings section, trivia from one character’s IMDB page, a précis of a thesis proposal, postings from foodie websites) that would seem more at home in the closing credits of Animal House. (Bluto becomes a United States senator!) But up until then, Modern Lovers is a wise, sophisticated romp through the pampered middle-aged neuroses of urban softies.

Review: “The Paying Guests” by Sarah Waters

payingguest_dfinalonline

The Paying Guests opens in 1922, in a genteel suburb of London called Champion Hill. The 26-year old Frances and her mother, Mrs Wray, have suffered grievous losses during World War I. All the men of the family are dead–two sons in battle, a feckless, irresponsible father from a stroke, leaving them in debt. The gracious Edwardian life the women had known is finished.

Frances, once a frequenter of political meetings with an interesting female lover, is now forced by circumstances to engage with tiny economies and household dirt, leaving no time for an intellectual or personal life. She resents the “dishonesty” of the house that imprisoned her–“the scuffs and tears she had patched and disguised; the gap where the long-case clock had stood…the dinner gong, bright with polish, that hadn’t been rung in years“–but nevertheless washes the hall floor with vinegar, rakes out the ashes of the stove, struggles to render breast of lamb edible, dusts the “barley twist curves of wonky table legs and the scrolls and lozenges of rough-hewn lawn chairs“–all the useless, pretentious furniture that belonged to the lost family life. Frances would happily have the damn things carted away, but her mother–an excellent study of a distressed gentlewoman–can not let go of the past.

To make ends meet, mother and daughter decide to take in lodgers or, as the contemporary euphemism has it, “paying guests“. Enter the jaunty aspirational clerk Leonard Barber and his short-skirted, lipsticked wife, Lillian, bringing bric-a-brac and gin into the upstanding Wray home. From the moment the colourful, curvaceous Lillian Barber enters the house it’s obvious which way things will go. She slips off her shoes, not wanting to mark the floor so energetically polished by Frances, and her sweet little feet in their fancy stockings leave “small damp prints on the wax“. The very next day she takes an extravagant and semi-public morning bath. Mrs Wray is scandalised by the timing and the cost, but Frances pictures “that round flesh, crimsoning in the heat“. The passionate love affair that ensues between landlady and lodger turns both lives inside out. The sex is blazingly descriptive, rarely found in literary fiction.

Set during the last years that gay marriage was illegal in Britain, The Paying Guests offers a window into a period when marriage between women seemed unthinkable to most and yet tantalisingly possible to a few: Chrissie, the girl Frances left in order to take care of her mother, now shares a flat with Stevie, a new female lover, and supports herself as a typist. Can Frances leave her mother for paid work and a shot at Chrissie and Stevie’s happiness? Can Lillian leave her husband for Francis? This question torments their affair from its first moments, when, just after they’ve made love, Lillian sets down her left hand “to steady herself against Frances’ embrace, and there was the muted tap of her wedding band, a small, chill sound in the darkness.” And it’s central to the rollercoaster plunge the book takes next when the only straight character to whom Frances and Lillian declare their love for each other dies.

Will the lovers’ dream of marriage (or its approximation) end in accusations of murder, trials and hangings? Maintaining uncertainty with a virtuosity that makes a short read of a long novel, The Paying Guests frequently references Anna Karenina, casting Frances and Lillian alternatively as Kitty and Levin, openly skating their way to domestic bliss, and as Anna and Vronsky, doomed to play out a secret passion that can end only in death.

Waters holds a doctorate in English literature, and she brings a cultural historian’s gift for research to her work. Sometimes, it’s easy to fault Waters’s scholarly background for the all-too-realistic pace of the police investigation and courtroom drama that take up the last third of the novel. But the grinding wheels of justice serve to refocus our attention onto Frances and Lillian themselves, resulting in a third act no less gripping than the first. Will the lovers, separated by Lillian’s family and subjected to the uncertainty of a long trial, crack? In The Paying Guests, Waters tilts a mirror towards the decades of gay and lesbian struggle that preceded 2014’s landmark decision to legalise same-sex marriage in England. Still, at the novel’s end, after its dramatic plot resolution, Waters allows us the faintest hope that a changing world filled with social upheaval may have a tiny corner for Frances after all.

My New Year Reading Resolution

Many of us readers like to think of ourselves as unlike everyone else. We’re not macho or ego-driven, but retiring, introspective, and thoughtful, right? But anyone who’s spent time around bookworms knows we can be deeply competitive, whether we’re airily noting the time we read War and Peace in seventh grade or offhandedly mentioning that we read 200 books a year, no big deal. These two forms of literary competition tend to belong to warring factions, the snobs and the every-reader. The snob turns up her nose at the idea that reading 15 Y.A. books means anything at all, as she prefers to read Dostoevsky; the every-reader reviles snobs who “tell people how to read,” but often loves to humblebrag about how many books (Y.A. or non-) he plowed through last week. Regardless, we’re almost all competing, on some level, to be the best, most readery reader we know.

Increasingly, with literary snobbishness on its heels (after all, it’s hard to love a snob), the every-reader seems to be dictating the rules, and the rules of the game are: read more books and win. New Year’s is a particularly competitive season, as we tot up our year’s worth of books and set more ambitious goals for next year. People write articles or tweets about their own reading resolutions, and suddenly even our ambitious goals seem pathetic, and must be augmented again. A friend felt the need to assure me that though she’s not taking the Goodreads Reading Challenge in 2015, she’ll probably still read 100 books this year — yes, even when we’re not competing, we’re competing.

Admittedly, it’s hard to resist a little competition. For those of us who loved reading as kids, we quickly learned to associate reading massive piles of books with having long “book-worms” on the classroom wall or scoring brownie points with our Lit teachers, and it’s hard to let go of that feeling of urgency even when we supposedly mature. A guy I used to date had gotten into it by proxy. Once, he mentioned that a friend had told him that his girlfriend reads 10 books a month. In a somewhat smug tone, he added, “I bet you read more than that, though, right?” Yep, just two bros, arguing over whose significant other reads more books every 30 days. I felt a petty urge to say “Yeah, of course,” but I knew I couldn’t — and what’s more, I suddenly hated the part of myself that cared about “winning.”

There’s a quote I often see on literary Pinterests and Facebook walls, usually Photoshopped onto an image of dusty bookshelves: “In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.” This quote, attributed to Mortimer J. Adler, the author of How to Read a Book, espouses an easy-to-love sentiment: It’s not about winning, but about having a rich experience. Yet how many of us self-identified bookworms love to casually drop into conversation that we read a book a day, or avidly update our Goodreads pages to ensure everyone knows we’ve read yet another book?

Last year, my New Year’s resolution was to become a better reader, and it led to a blissful year of reading. Instead of spending my evenings watching pirated TV shows, I spent them with novels — usually — and I turned off all my football match notifications so I could read without finding myself checking my phone every 20 seconds for a yellow card or a substitution. After starting my own book blog and working for Publisher’s Weekly, things have only gotten better. A friend asked me the other day if reading for work makes it less fun, and I honestly answered no; reading is a skill that grows more pleasurable and fulfilling the more we practice it, and being pushed to read more only enhances my joy in it.

That said, I shy away from setting resolutions to read a certain number of books next year. Pushing myself to read more and more books can lead to undesirable consequences — dismissing longer or more difficult books as too much of a time investment, racing through books that would yield more if I read them more slowly. I don’t just want to become a more prolific reader, but a better reader, and, in the words of Mortimer Adler, “You must tackle books that are beyond you … unless you stretch, you will not learn.” Active, difficult reading takes time away from speeding through a checklist, but the rewards are far greater.

There’s a small, competitive voice in my head urging me to make 2015 the year I read more books than ever, but my New Year’s resolution is to ignore that voice. I’m not even going to resolve to read the “impressive” books I shamefully long to be able to drop into party conversation, like Ulysses or Infinite Jest, though I plan to read them someday (apparently they’re pretty good). Instead, I’m just resolving to use my reading time more meaningfully, not getting through books but letting them get through to me. I want to take more notes, maybe even annotate my pristine pages, and invest my time in fully exploring those books that offer the most to me as a reader.

I want 2015 to be the year that I don’t pick up the 170-page book solely because the 600-page one would prevent me from carving new notches on my bookcase. After all, my favourite book this year demanded great commitment and many hours from me — far more than most I read — and it was worth every second. I want to read complex, stylized books slowly, deliberately, examining the artistic choices and subtleties of meaning, not hastily, with a buzz in the back of my head reminding me of all the other books I need to get to next.

This year, I am resolving to apply that philosophy more mindfully to my own reading practices. Here’s hoping that we’ll all stop feeling like we have to read at the speed of light — and make sure everyone knows — in the new year.