Tag Archives: reading

Summer Reading 2015 Edition

Now that we’re more than a whole week into fall, I thought it might be time to talk about my summer reading [insert eye roll at myself]. It was another busy summer — but whose wasn’t? I managed to uncover a few gems in spite of that, and even, which I’m frankly quite proud of, read a non-narrative nonfiction book!! Why don’t we begin there?

gut_coverGut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ, by Giulia Enders. I’m honestly still a little surprised by the fact that I managed to read all the way through a non-narrative nonfiction book and — even more surprising — wave it enthusiastically in the faces of other people because I enjoyed it so much. I give all the credit to the author’s clear enthusiasm for her topic, which comes right off the page. For a piece of non-narrative nonfiction to hold my interest longer than an average essay or news article is saying something. And while I suppose that my enjoyment could just be indicative of my own navel-gazing tendencies, I still found this discussion of the digestive tract both engaging and fascinating.

 

pigeon_english_coverPigeon English, by Stephen Kelman. I confess I picked this book for its awesome cover. Based on the true story of the murder of Damilola Taylor, Pigeon English is told through the voice of Harrison Opoku, a Ghanian immigrant in London with his mother and older sister. When a boy who lives on their council estate is murdered, Harri decides to investigate, enlisting the help of his friend Dean, whose expertise comes from watching the American television show CSI. Kelman created such a delightful voice for Harri! It was impossible not to love him. This book is a portrait of innocence in a gritty urban environment where children lose their innocence quickly; it broke my heart a little. Harri’s voice, and his sense of wonder and joy, were a delight, which is why I hate to talk about nits with this book. But in the interest of full and fair disclosure, Kelman includes occasional snippets told in the voice of a certain pigeon that Harri has befriended, and I truly think the book would have been better without these. It’s a small part of the book, though.

wrath_dawn_coverThe Wrath and the Dawn, by Renée Ahdieh. This is a re-imagining of the legend of Scheherazade, the storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights. As in the legend, the caliph of Khorasan takes a new wife each night, only to have her executed the next morning. When this fate befalls her best friend, Shahrzad volunteers to marry the caliph, secretly vowing revenge, only to encounter in the caliph something completely unexpected. When I was investigating the book before reading it, I saw a bunch of gushing reviews from very young-looking girls on Goodreads, and I admit I was leery about the book because of this. May this not be the last time I prove the fangirls correct: this is young adult romance done right, and love is not too strong a word to describe my feelings for this book. In what I think is the first time ever in my reading career, I pre-ordered the second book before even finishing the first.

What about you? What were your standout reads of the summer?

How I Decided to Give Hardy Another Try

“It was like Middlemarch with LESS JOY,” I found myself saying to my sister the other day. She had asked me about Thomas Hardy, who I was supposed to read in a Victorian Lit class I took.

You’ll notice the “supposed to read” there. I never actually finished the book that was assigned (Jude the Obscure). (I didn’t do very well in that class.)

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Penguin classic, cover illustration by Coralie Bickford-Smith / image via Goodreads

She was asking, not, as I thought, because of references to Hardy in another book the both of us had just read (Love, Nina — which was a delight and you should probably go read it immediately), but because there is a new adaptation of one of Hardy’s novels coming out as a movie: Far From the Madding Crowd. Notably not Jude the Obscure. There also hasn’t yet been a Penguin clothbound classic with a cover illustrated by Coralie Bickford-Smith for Jude the Obscure. If there were, the illustration could easily be teardrops (as emblematic of poor decisions) falling from clock faces. (Seriously, go check out the plot summary!)

Anyway — so my sister is currently reading Far From the Madding Crowd, which apparently is described by someone, somewhere as the “happy Hardy”. And this of the author about whom The Guardian has a guide-to-grimness infographic: Bleakness Is My Weakness! I thought to myself, why not?

I’ve also been in a period of wordlessness — blame the thousand extraneous circumstances conspiring to bring one down (bleakness is also my weakness?) — and sometimes what it takes for me to get out of that funk is a book that makes me think about the language, in the context of its usage (to understand as I read) but also on a larger scale, to lament its loss in phrases like “point of espial”.

So here we are. Far From the Madding Crowd. Time alone will tell if this will become my next Middlemarch. Happily, it’s not as long.

Notable Reads of 2014

I decided I had to call this post “notable reads” of the year because I so rarely catch a book on the year it’s released, and “best of 2014” seemed to have a different connotation in my head. Without further ado, here are my standout reads of 2014.

076Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein. I loved this book. And I really wasn’t sure when I started it that I would! By the end, it had pulled me in, heart and soul. It made a big splash the year it was published (2012), and Nancy Pearl recommended it as a best-of-the-year that year, so in all likelihood you’ve already heard about it, so I’ll be brief. It’s the story of an English spy captured by the Nazis in World War II — but really it’s a story about friendship, love and friendship. I cried so hard as I finished reading it that my pajama sleeves no longer sufficed as stand-ins for kleenex and I had to get out of bed (twice) for the real thing to mop up all my tears. (I can be real here about crying while reading in bed and the lengths to which I will go not to leave the warm cocoon, right?) It was the sort of book that, immediately upon finishing, I wanted to call a friend and cry about together.

The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak. I’ll be honest: unlike the rest of the world, I did not love this book. So why is it in my notable reads of 2014?  It was a great story — it was a fresh perspective on World War II (told from a non-Nazi perspective inside Germany) — I’m not likely to forget it in a hurry.

A FUNNY STORY ABOUT MY READING OF THE BOOK THIEF:

  • I started it in January.
  • This summer I begged a friend “JUST TELL ME WHO DIES! I KNOW SOMEONE MUST DIE!”
  • She told me who died.
  • When I picked the book up again, quite literally the next page held the same information (who was going to die).
  • I finished it on New Year’s Eve, shut in the bathroom at my parents’ house, holding tissues to my eyes.

So, yes, this book essentially took me all year to read, off and on. My biggest objections were the writing style and the really heavy-handed foreshadowing (which somehow still didn’t prepare me for the ending — which was likely the author’s intent). More than anything else, the constant narratorial interjection of bullet lists (I tried to be clever and imitate it above) felt very “interrupted” and choppy. By the end, I’d decided it was its own kind of lyricism, but perhaps not exactly to my taste and better suited to an oratory style of storytelling than a written one. In spite of those small issues I had with the book: such a beautiful, sad story.

thewheelspinsThe Wheel Spins, by Ethel Lina White. Did you catch The Lady Vanishes on PBS a while back? This is the book that movie was based on, and it was every bit as stylish, and had every ounce of the period glamour and romance, and — what’s more — stronger characterization and excellent writing. I have great admiration for authors who can give a complete sense of character with just a few lines, like this: “Their formal bow, when Iris squeezed by them, was conditional recognition before the final fade-out. ‘We’ll speak to you during the journey,’ it seemed to say, ‘but at Victoria we become strangers.'” In case you aren’t familiar with the TV movie, this psychological thriller follows Iris, a young socialite, as she travels home from Europe to England on the train. She is helped by a kind stranger who suddenly disappears, leaving no trace and whom everyone denies having seen.

Also on my list of notable reads for 2014 are Never Have I Ever, by Katie Heaney, and The Rook, by Daniel O’Malley. I’ve already talked about both of them, but they’re definitely worth checking out if they pique your interest.

And now it’s your turn! What stands out from your 2014 reading? Please share! I’m always looking for books to add to my To-Be-Read pile!

Ffffffffebruary

Winter came early where I live. I marked the descent of this most frigid season to our clime around mid-November last year, and it’s hung around with its usual persistence. The thing is, before Christmas, I don’t mind at all. I expect and might even occasionally delight in snow before Christmas. No, the worst thing about winter is how much of it is left to go after Christmas passes (essentially, all of it).

009The area I live in hasn’t even been hit as hard as other areas, like New York. We’ve had temperatures in the single digits, snow, and wind chills below zero, but it never makes national news. Maybe because I live in the Pacific Northwest, which everyone just expects to have grim, interminable winters.

You try to find ways to make winter bearable. Like telling yourself that these snow-covered trees might be something like what Lucy saw when she emerged from the other side of the wardrobe into Narnia. Or, on a particularly grim-weathered evening, as freezing rain edges into snow, one might imagine oneself inside that Howard Nemerov poem, just watching for the moment when the falling things fly instead of fall.

In post-Christmas winter, it can be hard work to find beautiful, magical things, and most of my coping mechanisms, for better or worse, involve my inserting myself into stories and poems. It’s a reason to read, after all, not that I needed one.

I mostly spent February watching the Olympics (yay Charlie and Meryl!) and cooking. I toyed mercilessly with three different blog posts for you all month long, trying to find fewer, better words. My reading last month was frenetic at best: I tried to read about four different books, but the only one I managed to finish, I essentially hate-read: by which I mean I hated nearly everything about the book but continued to read, bitterly, out of spite and a vague notion that Winter Is For Suffering.

At one point in this book I hated, the “heroine” (it pains me to apply that term to her) burns her winter coat because it got blood on it (don’t ask), but she throws it, whole, onto the fire. WHICH WOULD SMOTHER THE FIRE. BUT IT DOESN’T. LIKE EVERYTHING ELSE IN THIS BOOK OF GIANT GAPS OF PLOT LOGIC, IT MADE NO SENSE. She says she’ll make some excuse and get a new winter coat (implying she has no secondary backup coats), but the very next day she’s pulling on a new one with no explanation of how she got it.

But this raises a question I’ve been struggling with for a while: how do you talk about books you hated? I shy away from being super-negative here on my blog because I don’t want to invite negativity here, but sometimes a book just doesn’t work for me and I’d like to talk about it. If you have any ideas, please share!

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with these links: the stages of winter rage (thank you, NPR!), and 5 Reading Rules for Books Lovers of All Ages, from Reading Rainbow. We can do it, guys. The first day of spring is technically two weeks away, so we’re almost there.

Reading Resolutions Revisited

Happy New Year! The time when so many of us resolve anew to Do Better in whatever ways we feel we need to! While I’m always hesitant to set goals like “lose 10 pounds!” (losing weight is really, really hard!), I do try to make the New Year mark a return to reformed eating. The holiday season (which I define as the week of Thanksgiving through New Year’s Eve) is a time of guiltless indulgence on my part, in which I eat sugar and other things that are not necessarily good for me with some degree of abandon and almost zero feelings of guilt.

So today at work I brought one of my typical “reformed eating” lunches: Greek yogurt, grapes, and a portion of crackers. I am a very picky eater: the only brand of Greek yogurt I can stomach is Liberté, and if I’m eating yogurt for lunch I prefer Greek because it’s more filling than other types of yogurt. As it happened, when I was at the grocery store, the only Liberté yogurt they had was labeled “Méditerranée”. “How different could it be,” I thought to myself, and put two in my cart without further review.

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Look at my grown up lunch!

Today, I walked back from the fridge to my desk feeling so proud of my responsible and adult-y ways, with my baggy of grapes and container of yogurt. Running high on not having to do the Dance of the Microwaves with all the other people crowded into the tiny kitchen on our floor, I admittedly thought things like “Maybe I will lose five pounds without even trying!”

I popped out to the Liberté web site as I stirred my yogurt to find out the difference between Méditerranée and Greek yogurt. Whereupon I discovered that my “healthy” yogurt lunch was actually made with whole milk (gag) and contained 37% (probably more) of my daily allotment of saturated fat. So, in other words, pretty different from their fat-free Greek yogurt (which also has about half as many calories as this Méditerranée stuff).

As my mother and her mother would remind me, “Pride goeth before a fall.”

On the other hand, the Liberté Méditerranée lime yogurt was absolutely delicious.

The same optimism which inspired me to try the Mediterranean yogurt leads me to make my 2014 reading resolutions, in spite of the fact that I only achieved approximately half of 2013’s resolutions. Which half, you wonder?

I read some nonfiction last year, but nothing that jumped out to me as something my brother-in-law might enjoy. (In the spirit of New Year’s optimism, I award myself partial credit for this one.) I finished Middlemarch in literally the final moments before my thirtieth birthday. (Double points, because it’s Middlemarch.) I read one book originally written in a language other than English (Danish), translated into English (it wasn’t quite blog-worthy; still, full credit awarded). And if my grand plans for a long-distance book club never got off the ground, well, I think maybe that’s on Life, and not on me, so I awarded myself partial credit for this one too (I came up with a list of books we ought to read).

Starting fresh for 2014…should I bite off another classic to try my patience (and yours)? Should I resolve to finally commit to reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell?

According to my Goodreads profile, I read approximately 30 books in 2013, which frankly seems low. I feel as though I must have read more than 30 and simply failed to log them, but in reality, that’s probably true. I certainly started more than 30 books in 2013. So, in 2014, I’m going to try to finish more than 30 books. I’ve certainly got enough material: my electronic stack of books to be read (these are books I’ve already purchased) is nearly forty titles long, and that doesn’t even touch on the list of books I want to read (100+) or the physical books at my bedside, which stare in judgy disappointment at me whenever I choose to re-read Mary Stewart or Georgette Heyer on a quiet evening rather than try something new. Like Nick Hornby once said in the delightful column he wrote for The Believer about the books he bought and the books he actually read in a month, my book-buying policy is almost always “ludicrously optimistic”. So let’s shoot for 40 books read in 2014: at least two originally written in a language other than English and one straight up nonfiction non-memoir book.

I’m also planning to train for (and run in) a half marathon in 2014. And generally to Do Better, which is really more of a daily resolution for me, but it bears repeating.

Here’s to ludicrous optimism! Happy 2014!

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