Reading Round-Up: March 2019

In February, I was busy and stressed, and so I only read two books. In March, I was busier and more stressed, so my switch flipped to compulsive escape reading. Here’s the list:

  1. To Say Nothing of the Dog (Connie Willis)
  2. The Street Lawyer (John Grisham)
  3. The King of Torts (John Grisham)
  4. Gray Mountain (John Grisham)
  5. The Associate (John Grisham)
  6. The Elephant in the Room (Tommy Tomlinson)
  7. The Alphabet of Grace (Frederick Buechner)
  8. The Final Beast (Frederick Buechner)
  9. Rogue Lawyer (John Grisham)
  10. Remember Me? (Sophie Kinsella)
  11. My (Not So) Perfect Life (Sophie Kinsella)
  12. Shopaholic and Sister (Sophie Kinsella)
  13. False Colours (Georgette Heyer)

You know what I love about John Grisham? No matter how much you read, there’s always more John Grisham. His back-catalogue is something like thirty titles. All of these were easy-reading page-turners, which was perfect for last month (and especially for some long car trips). Of the five I read in March I would call Gray Mountain the best of the lot; I note also that The Street Lawyer made me bawl at one point. The King of Torts seems to have disappeared from my memory entirely.

Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog is a long-time favourite that I go back to every couple of years (last read sometime in 2016 I think). In this alternate universe, time travel exists, but its only real value is in academic historical study. In TSNotD, Oxford historian Ned Henry is sent to the Victorian era in a bid to find out what happened to the “Bishop’s bird stump,” needed for a replica of Coventry Cathedral (destroyed in the Blitz, a hundred years in the past from Ned’s native time). It’s a slightly madcap comedy of manners, plus time travel and chaos theory, plus a satisfying romance and homage to a lot of British literature and culture from the Victorian era through WWII. Oh, and it’s very, very funny.

The Elephant in the Room is about weight loss. Kind of. Saying that a book is “about” weight loss makes it sound like a diet book, or some other sort of gimmicky who-knows-what. It’s not; this is Tommy Tomlinson’s beautiful memoir about journalism, marriage, life in the American South, and his own struggles as a morbidly obese man in a rapidly fattening nation. His quest to lose weight is central to the book, but he also uses it as a jumping-off point to explore his past and present. A big strength of the book is his willingness to explore why he got as big as he did: not the too-many-calories bit (which is just math) but the personal reasons behind his overeating. I’m glad to have read this one.

It was interesting to notice some strong and similar themes in the three Sophie Kinsella books I read, most notably that of (attempted) self-reinvention. In MNSPL, farm girl Katie tries to remake herself for the sake of her hip branding job in London; in RM? Lexi is trying to understand the ways she has apparently changed after she wakes up in the hospital with no memory of the past three years; in S&S, Becky tries to change her money habits for the sake of her new husband, Luke. All of these were ultimately unsuccessful; Kinsella’s conclusion seems to be that reinvention is perhaps ultimately impossible, and not worth the damage it does to your authentic self (even when your “authentic self” is an insufferable twit, ahem, looking at you, Becky). Of the three, I think MNSPL was by far the strongest offering; it’s funny and charming.

The central idea of Remember Me? is a compelling one, but certain aspects of its execution left a bad taste in my mouth (spoilers upcoming). In the weeks following her discharge from the hospital, Lexi is horrified to realise that she has been having an adulterous affair with a man named Jon, one of her husband’s employees. She views herself as a fundamentally faithful person and can’t imagine how or why she would have changed so much in three years as to see that as acceptable. As the narrative progresses we find out that her marriage is an uncomfortable one (her husband is kind of weird and doesn’t particularly understand her); Lexi eventually leaves him and resumes her relationship with Jon, upending her pre-amnesiac convictions that cheating on her husband is morally wrong. Perhaps the marriage did need to end — but that was because of the damage done to it by Lexi, not her husband. The novel’s other subplots were engaging enough, but I found the romantic storyline troublesome and deeply unsatisfying.

Speaking of affairs, that’s what the whole town assumes is going on between a widowed young pastor and his pretty redheaded parishioner when they both disappear at the same time in Buechner’s 1965 novel The Final Beast. What’s actually going on is, of course, a lot more complicated than that. I think I liked this book (?) but it’s already mostly slipped out of my memory — that’s the trouble with escape reading, it often escapes you as well. Same thing with The Alphabet of Grace as well (I found that one a little difficult to read; Buechner’s prose is not always the clearest).

Last but not least, I finished off the month with Georgette’s Heyer’s Regency-era romance False Colours, which was a delightful romp centered on a twins-changing-places plot. Great fun.

Reading Round-Up: February 2019

Short month, short list. Here are my books for February:

  1. Golden Hill (Francis Spufford)
  2. Vanity Fair (William Makepeace Thackeray)

Some months are just like that, you know? We’re preparing for a new job (my husband’s) and a big move (all of us), and there are a lot of balls in the air right now. Plus, we traveled; actually, we are just back, and as I type the children are playing hard, happy to be back in our apartment and released from their car seats after about an eleven-hour drive. A lot of nights I was too tired to read, or to read much, and that’s okay.

(One of the difficulties of tracking my reading like I do is that I can get in my head a little bit about the numbers. Sometimes I need to remind myself that it’s fine for my numbers to be down, and that usually that portents something relatively exciting happening in our regular life. I read very little during the months Anselm and Perpetua were newborns, and the months around our move to what was then the new-job-new-home and will shortly be the old-job-old-home. My life was full! That’s okay — better than okay! It’s just something to remind myself of now and again. )

Anyway, I did read some things. Golden Hill was described on its jacket as something like “the best eighteenth-century novel since the eighteenth century” and that feels about right to me. As the book opens, handsome young Mr. Smith steps off a boat and into pre-revolutionary New York City, with a bank draft for a thousand pounds in his pocket and tight lips about his purpose in visiting the colonies with such an enormous sum of money. As he integrates into New York society — well, sort of — Spufford prods at issues of race and class (and love, and lack thereof) in a novel that was seriously engrossing. There are, I would say, three major twists, one in the middle and two at the end; I only guessed one. The others make me keen to re-read Golden Hill in a year or two, to see how my impressions of its action are shaped by those latter revelations.

And what to say about Vanity Fair? I read it for the first time in university, so this was my second go at it — I remembered a very vague outline of the plot, but not so much to spoil my enjoyment. In some respects Vanity Fair was the perfect choice for this month, because it is many hundreds of pages long, and extremely funny, but the chapters are so episodic that just getting through one or two enough was satisfying. There are times in my life when all I need is a nice fat Victorian novel in which to lose myself for a bit, and this was just the ticket.

Reading Round-Up: January 2019

Twenty full days into the next month is probably the latest I’ve ever left a round-up post. Here at Chez Pennylegion we’re mired in moving logistics at the moment, which seem to be taking most of my mental energy; I had been delaying this post because I really wanted to write about one book on its own, Neil Postman’s Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. I’ve started that post three or four times now — I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon. It’s time to set it aside; for the moment, suffice to say that you should consider giving it a read. As to the rest, here’s January’s list:

  1. The Mysterious Benedict Society (Trenton Lee Stewart)
  2. The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoners Dilemma (Trenton Lee Stewart)
  3. Tending the Heart of Virtue (Vigen Guroian)
  4. The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion (Fannie Flagg)
  5. An Acceptable Time (Madeleine L’Engle)
  6. A War of Loves (David Bennett)
  7. Little Fires Everywhere (Celeste Ng)
  8. The Lost Tools of Learning (Dorothy L. Sayers)
  9. Over Sea, Under Stone (Susan Cooper)
  10. The Dark is Rising (Susan Cooper)
  11. Greenwitch (Susan Cooper)
  12. The Grey King (Susan Cooper)
  13. Silver on the Tree (Susan Cooper)
  14. Annabel Scheme (Robin Sloan)
  15. Technopoly (Neil Postman)
  16. The Little Mermaid and Other Fairy Tales (Hans Christian Andersen)

This was one of those heavy-on-the-fiction months, and included reading/completing two series… serieses… groups of related books. The Mysterious Benedict Society and [Ditto] and the Prisoners Dilemma capped off my re-read of Trenton Lee Stewart’s delightful middle-grade puzzle books (completely out of order, mind you). And I (re)read through Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence while barely pausing to breathe between each installment. It’s an interesting series, with that very British mix of Christian and Pagan symbols and forces — plus some ethical dilemmas worth pondering. At the end of the last book, a secondary character finds that his wife has been in league with the Dark — that his entire marriage has been built around a lie. She is destroyed; he has the choice put before him to either remember all that has truly happened (including the great grief of her betrayal) or to remember only that she has died (but no details of her misalliance with the Dark or the truth of their union). The choice, in a way, is between grief and grief: but is it better to grieve the truth or the lie?

I picked up Fannie Flagg’s The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion after enjoying Friend Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe in December. It’s a fun read, moving between present-day Alabama, where middle-aged Sookie Earle finds out something shocking about her past, and WW2-era Wisconsin, where a group of Polish-American sisters run their family’s filling station before enlisting and flying with the WASP. The family-drama side of the narrative is heartfelt, and I learned a lot about an area of the war effort I had never heard much about.

An Acceptable Time is one of those Madeleine L’Engle novels I’ve had kicking around my shelves approximately forever but hadn’t actually read. I liked it; much food for thought as always and a fun time travel element. I think this is one of the middle books of a series, though, and it probably would have been a better read if it had been slotted into its proper place.

Little Fires Everywhere was probably the best of the fiction I read last month; indeed, I still think about it from time to time. Ng’s story is set in a Cleveland suburb in the late 1990s — my uncle’s garage makes an appearance, which was a bit surreal — and the plot circles around motherhood in all of its many complicated forms. I think she hits it all: miscarriage and infant loss, adoption (from bio-and adoptive-parent perspectives), surrogacy, abortion, wanted and unwanted motherhood, good relationships between mothers and children, bad relationships between mothers and children… you name it, Ng invites us to ponder it. The greatest strength of this novel is that she manages to make all of her characters sympathetic; our expectations about their motivations are constantly getting overturned, which makes the book’s moral/ethical explorations all the more poignant. I’ll be reading this one again.

If I hadn’t read Little Fires Everywhere, I probably would have pegged Annabel Scheme as the best in January — it’s a strange, compelling little novella from the wonderfully weird brain of Robin Sloan (author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and Sourdough). And you can download it for free in several formats here!

Last but not least on the fiction side of things, I read the collected fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen — in an absolutely gorgeous edition put forth by MinaLima, the design firm behind the Harry Potter movie aesthetics. I hadn’t read most of the stories for decades, probably. Since the MinaLima edition is a thing of beauty and a joy forever, it’s gone onto my to-buy list, along with the other books in the series (The Jungle Book, The Beauty and the Beast, The Secret Garden, and Peter Pan).

Phew! On to the non-fiction!

Tending the Heart of Virtue was briefly treated in this post.

Dorothy L. Sayers’s The Lost Tools of Learning is really just a long essay I happen to own in book form. You can read it for free here (go on, it’ll just take a few minutes). This is one of the resources that is helping to shape my thinking as we consider school options for Anselm and Perpetua.

A War of Loves: The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus recounts David Bennett’s surprising conversion to Christ; one of its major strengths is how gracious and even-handed Bennett is towards those on all sides of this particular culture war. Everyone we meet in A War of Loves is a human being — something all to easy to forget.

Finally: Technopoly. I have a blog post in my drafts folder that’s just long excerpts of Technopoly that I just want everybody to read — and I hope they’ll see the light of day. In the mean time, the Cliff’s Notes version: Neil Postman published Technopoly in 1992, looking at the intersection of culture and technology. He uses a historical approach in discussion how technological innovation changes culture (the printing press being the obvious example) and then traces the roots of what he sees as a particularly American obsession with technological progress as a marker of human progress. Postman was writing at what we might think of as the dawn of the computer age; his remarks are eerily prescient and, although social media, “smart” technologies, and the like did not exist at the time of his writing, it’s pretty easy to extrapolate his points. America, Postman argues, is a “techonopoly” (as opposed to a “tool-using culture” or a “technocracy”); that is, a culture which sees technological innovation as its highest cultural good and in which technological innovation is chiefly seen as only ever good. Postman invites us to interrogate those claims. He is no Luddite; Postman doesn’t see technological advances as bad things per se — but argues that every major technological change is a mixed blessing, creating cultural winners and cultural losers.

There is a lot more that I would say about Technopoly if I could drag my grey matter into line to do so right now. But instead, let me close with Postman’s recipe for how to become “a loving resistance fighter” against the forces of cultural technopoly:

… if there is an awareness of and resistance to the dangers of Technopoly, there is reason to hope that the United States may yet survive its Ozymandias-like hubris and technological promiscuity. Which brings me to the “resistance fighter” part of my principle. Those who resist the American Technopoly are people

who pay no attention to a poll unless they know what questions were asked, and why;

who refuse to accept efficiency as the pre-eminent goal of human relations;

who have freed themselves from the belief in the magical powers of numbers, do not regard calculation as an adequate substitute for judgment, or precision as a synonym for truth;

who refuse to allow psychology or any “social science” to pre-empt the language and thought of common sense;

who are, at least, suspicious of the idea of progress, and who do not confuse information with understanding;

who do not regard the aged as irrelevant;

who take seriously the meaning of family loyalty and honor, and who, when they “reach out and touch someone,” expect that person to be in the same room;

who take the great narratives of religion seriously and who do not believe that science is the only system of thought capable of producing truth;

who know the difference between the sacred and the profane, and who do not wink at tradition for modernity’s sake;

who admire technological ingenuity but do not think it represents the highest possible form of human achievement.

A resistance fighter understands that technology must never be accepted as part of the natural order of things, that every technology — from an IQ test to an automobile to a television set to a computer — is a product of a particular economic and political context and carries with it a program, an agenda, and a philosophy that may or may not be life-enhancing and that therefore requires scrutiny, criticism, and control. In short, a technological resistance fighter maintains an epistemological and psychic distance from any technology, so that it always appears somewhat strange, never inevitable, never natural. — Neil Postman, Technopoly, 183-5

Indeed. Tune in this time next month when I tell you about the two whole books it looks like I’m going to get through in February.

Reading Round-Up: 2018 Books

It’s the start of a new year and my blog reader is filling up with people’s lists of what they read in 2018 — sometimes everything they read, sometimes just the highlights. I like to recap my reading every month, but just like I did for 2017, I’ve compiled a master list of every book I finished last year.

Here are my stats:

  • Total books read: 132
  • Monthly average: 11
  • Fiction: 71.5 (53%)
  • Non-fiction: 60.5 (46%)
  • New reads: 111 (84%)
  • Re-reads: 21 (15%)

The “.5” in both fiction and non-fiction — I know that looks weird — is because of C. S. Lewis’s Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories which, as the title implies, is half essays and half short stories. As far as the rest of my stats go, I note that I pounded my previous record for non-fiction (29%) with a balance approaching 50/50 on the F/NF split. I wasn’t shooting for this, really: the big difference this year, I think, was discovering how much I love reading memoirs. People are endlessly fascinating, and so between memoir and poetry, I got in a lot more non-fiction than I usually do. This year also had an unusually high proportion of new reads vs. re-reads. Again, this wasn’t deliberate — just the way things shook out. I’m certainly getting my money’s worth out of our library system!

There were a few themes that emerged in my reading this year. I continued my personal, informal “Race in America: Seriously, What the Heck?” study series with new-to-me authors like Gail Lukasik, Julie Lythcott-Haims, D. Watkins, and others. As previously mentioned, I read a lot of memoir this year: Tara Westover’s Educated, Lynn K. Wilder’s Unveiled Grace, and Jennifer Fulweiler’s One Beautiful Dream stood out to me as particularly fine examples, along with both of Sara Hagerty’s books.

I read a number of books on technology and social media — Manoush Zomorodi’s Bored and Brilliant, Antonio García Martínez’s Chaos Monkeys, Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock, and Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now — which collectively led me to delete my Facebook account once and for all. You can read about that here (scroll to the bottom to read it in chronological order). It’s been about half a year since I made that change; no regrets so far.

Other highlights include reading through Winston Graham’s Poldark series (a mere twelve books!), Naomi Novik’s new fairy-tale novels, reading the Divine Comedy in its entirely for the first time, and Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit. All in all it was a very pleasant reading year for me; I think I learned a lot along the way (some lessons; bees are great but I don’t want to keep bees; it’s ok to purge your children’s toys with impunity; Fredrik Backman is even better than I remembered).

Click through if you want to see the whole list; the asterisks denote new reads and the months link to their respective round-up posts if you would like further thoughts on any of the lists.

Continue reading

Reading Round-Up: December 2018

Happy New Year! We celebrated by going to bed at 10 pm as per usual, and changing the calendar in the morning. Whee. Here’s what I read last month:

  1. That Hideous Strength (C. S. Lewis)
  2. A Season of Little Sacraments: Christmas Commotion, Advent Grace (Susan H. Swetnam)
  3. The Figure of Beatrice: A Study in Dante (Charles Williams)
  4. The Man Born to be King (Dorothy L. Sayers)
  5. The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place (Alan Bradley)
  6. Juniper: The Girl Who Was Born Too Soon (Kelley and Tom French)
  7. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (tr. Simon Armitage)
  8. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (Fannie Flagg)

A few of these I’ve already touched on in prior posts: Season of Little Sacraments and The Man Born to be King here, and The Figure of Beatrice here. I hadn’t finished either of the Sayers or the Williams when I wrote their respective posts — suffice it to say that they each continued excellent to the end, and are well worth your time (particularly the Sayers play cycle).

That Hideous Strength is the final book in C. S. Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy, the first two installments of which I read in November. It’s funny… the first time I read this trilogy, about 10-15 years ago, I thought that This Hideous Strength was the weakest of the three. I am convinced, now, that it’s the strongest. It’s true that it doesn’t have as many fantastical elements as Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra — taking place, as it does, entirely on earth — but I found on this read-through that the stakes and the drama are much higher than in the first two books, and that Lewis speaks very presciently to many aspects of our life today.

I’ve been reading Alan Bradley’s Flavia De Luce series since it came out — The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place is the ninth of them, and I am sad to say that it will probably be the last… for me. What can I say? Some of Flavia’s charm has worn off. The internal chronology of the series is stretched beyond belief; this book had a subplot about a blackmail situation that was just dropped instead of resolved; the final straw, for me, was when Flavia bent a crochet hook into an L-shape to pick a lock. Dude. Crochet hooks are 1) too big for that, and 2) made of steel. Probably Bradley was thinking of tatting hooks, which are teeny-weeny because they’re used to make lace… but the mistake certainly killed what was left of my suspended disbelief. Sorry, Flavia. Sorry, Alan. It was a good ride while it lasted.

Juniper: The Girl Who Was Born Too Soon is the story of Juniper French, a micro-preemie born at 23 weeks 6 days gestation. Her parents are both investigative journalists, and they tell the story together, alternating chapters. If you want the Cliffs notes, I linked to the three-part series that was the genesis of the book in my last edition of Weekend Reading. Kelley Benham French won a Pulitzer for that series, so if you enjoyed it, be sure to pick up the book and get the expanded story as well.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was a delightful surprise to me this month. It’s a long poem — about 2300 lines and change — and one of the earliest examples of English epic poetry after Beowulf, most likely written sometime around the year 1400. This edition is a new verse translation by Simon Armitage, and it’s fantastic. He sticks to the alliterative scheme of the original, and the whole thing just rollicks along. It’s also an interlinear text, with the Middle English on the left-hand pages and the translation on the right-, so you can go back and forth between them looking at some of his specific translations choices. You know, if you’re into that sort of thing. Which I am.

And my last book of the year: Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, which I finished last night with a few hours to spare. I’d already seen the movie, but enough years ago that I had only a few particular images/scenes left in my mind. This one was great fun, and surprisingly poignant. There was a lot of time-jumping between chapters; I remember that the movie did a certain amount of that as well; I will have to watch it again to properly compare, though.

And that’s it! Stay tuned for my big post about everything I read this year — I hope to have it up sometime in the next few days. Happy new year and happy new reading!

Reading Round-Up: November 2018

November was a pretty good reading month for me — not as many books as I’ve hit on other occasions, but all high-caliber.

  1. The Best American Poetry 2018 (ed. Dana Gioia)
  2. Rules of Civility (Amor Towles)
  3. Southern Discomfort (Tena Clark)
  4. The Best American Poetry 2017 (ed. Natasha Tretheway)
  5. Possession (A. S. Byatt)
  6. The Reckoning (John Grisham)
  7. Stress Family Robinson (Adrian Plass)
  8. Out of the Silent Planet (C. S. Lewis)
  9. Perelandra (C. S. Lewis)

This is the time of year when my reading list starts getting a little repetitive; I have a few books that I read yearly, and generally in the colder months. In November I read A. S. Byatt’s Possession, which remains a top favourite and in which I am always finding new things at which to marvel. I wrote about it at a bit more length last year. This year, I found myself focusing most on the poetry that serves as epigraph for nearly every chapter; all of it is pertinent and it was interesting to go back and read after finishing each chapter, to better see the themes highlighted by each poem or snippet of poetry.

And speaking of poetry, I read two collections this past month, namely the two latest editions of The Best American Poetry. It was enjoyably different to read a few anthologies, as most of the poetry I’ve read in this past year has been collections by single authors. These two books had a tremendous amount of breadth in terms of style and subject, all the more so because they are picked and organized on a very simple principle: new poetry that best catches the eye of each edition’s guest editor. I slightly preferred, overall, 2018 to 2017 as a collection, but in each I found many wonderful things.

The only other non-fiction I read in November was Tena Clark’s memoir, Southern Discomfort, her account of growing up gay in the American South in the 1960s. Oh, and growing up white while being raised by the black women who worked for her family. And dealing with an alcoholic mother, and a bully of a father who essentially owned their town, and her own burning desires to a) play the drums and b) escape. (There’s a lot going on in this book.) It’s a heart-wrenching, tender, and engrossing read with a few major surprises along the way. Great stuff.

I put Rules of Civility — Amor Towles’s debut novel — on my library list after devouring his magnificent A Gentleman in Moscow (review). Rules of Civility is set in the glitzy inter-war period in New York City, following Katey Kontent, her roommate Eve, and roguish banker Tinker Grey in a novel about social climbing, aspirations and assumptions, truth and transformation.

My last post reviewed Grisham’s The Reckoning (major spoilers). And since that was such a downer, I turned to one of my pick-me-up standbys, Adrian Plass. Stress Family Robinson is a portrait of the chaotic and charming Robinson family (Mike and Kathy, teenage sons Jack and Mark, and six-year-old Felicity) as seen through the eyes of their dear friend Elizabeth ‘Dip’ Reynolds. As always, Plass is laugh-out-loud funny, with a generous dose of wisdom thrown in. I note that there’s a sequel, which I will have to look up one of these days.

Lastly, I started reading C. S. Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy, finishing Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra in November (I just finished That Hideous Strength but that will have to wait for December’s round-up post). Technically this is a re-read for me — I read the whole trilogy perhaps ten years ago, and Perelandra for a class in grad school — but it had been so long since I encountered Out of the Silent Planet it was like reading it for the first time. I found myself completely entranced by Lewis’s cosmology. While it’s not exactly medieval it carries the same sort of flavour — it felt a bit like reading Dante — only with spaceships and things thrown in, of course! These are really fine examples of classic science fiction, in the imaginative mode that perhaps was more possible before we actually got to the moon. This series may have to find its own spot on my annual read list.

Reading Round-Up: October 2018

As it’s November 15th, this post is pretty belated compared to usual — nevertheless, here’s a look at what I read in October:

  1. Small Animals: Parenting in the Age of Fear (Kim Brooks)
  2. Spinning Silver (Naomi Novik)
  3. Mandy (Julie Andrews Edwards)
  4. Step Aside, Pops! (Kate Beaton)
  5. Anatomy of the Soul: Surprising Connections between Neuroscience and Spiritual Practices that can Transform Your Life and Relationships (Curt Thompson)
  6. The Fourth Bear (Jasper Fforde)
  7. The Last Light of the Sun (Guy Gavriel Kay)
  8. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain)

Small Animals was already treated in its own post.

My only other nonfiction read last month was Dr. Curt Thompson’s Anatomy of the Soul, which took me most of the month to get through, reading it piecemeal in between other things. I will be the first to admit that the title makes it sound like total New Age woo-woo, but the opposite, in fact, is true. This book is a fascinating peek into developments in neuroscience related to the brain’s relative plasticity (or ability to change over time, something that was once thought impossible), attachment theory, and their intersection with traditional Christian spiritual disciplines/practices. Thompson talks a lot about how the way that things functioned in our families of origin can follow through our lives — unhealthy relationship patterns, modes of (non)communication, etc. — and how we can actually re-wire our brains with an understanding of how they work and the help of the Holy Spirit. He includes many exercises which one can complete singly in small groups. I think it’s a tremendously useful book for anyone who feels stuck in old patterns; it is helpful and hope-full. Even with that title.

For the rest of October, I glutted myself on fiction. Hey, sometimes a girl just needs to read about some fantasy Vikings, you know? In no particular order:

Mandy is another children’s novel by Julie Andrews Edwards, which I grabbed from the library after re-reading her The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles back in late September. It’s a sweet tale of an orphan girl named Mandy, who discovers a cottage on the estate abutting her orphanage. She determines to fix it up herself as a secret place, but trouble starts when her best friend wants to know where she goes by herself. There is a lot of good reflection on friendship, truth-telling, and similar moral lessons without ever being heavy-handed about it. And of course, the requisite happy ending!

I picked up a copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at a thrift store, in part because I already own The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and thought I might as well make it a set, and in part because I hadn’t read it since grade nine or so and wanted to give it another go. This is a controversial novel, not least because of its copious use of the n-word to describe Jim and the other slaves who appear in its page. Does having racist characters  make it a racist book? I don’t know. Certainly the reader is brought on a journey with Huck as his eyes are opened to Jim’s fundamental humanity and they embark on what I do think is a real friendship. Twain shows us a lot of racial ugliness, but I don’t think he condones it. It’s a funny book, and a profoundly sad one in many ways as well. I had forgotten, however, that Tom Sawyer is an insufferable twit — I’m glad that he was only present in the last few chapters.

Guy Gavriel Kay is a Canadian fantasy writer whose work I have read and admired for many years; The Last Light of the Sun takes place among the aforementioned fantasy Vikings, as well as the Celts. And the Britons. And fairies. And lots, lots of bloody swordfighting. The Last Light of the Sun is set in the same world as The Lions of al-Rassan (one of Kay’s absolute best, for my money) and the duology of Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors.

Step Aside, Pops! is a collection of Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant comics, which have stopped running but are still accessible on her website. It’s mostly historical and literary silliness; here’s Charlie and the Marvelous Turnip Factory, and some Canadian stereotypes.

Jasper Fforde writes some wonderful books — I first found him through the (incredible) Thursday Next series, which starts with The Eyre Affair and goes on for… another five? or six? I’ve lost count. Anyway, he has also written a spin-off series of Nursery Crime novels, featuring detective Jack Spratt and a zany crew of literary costars, including an incredibly dull alien named Ashley (aliens have come to earth and it turns out that they are boring). The Fourth Bear involves a missing journalist known as Goldilocks, human/bear political machinations, a giant homicidal gingerbread-man, and nuclear cucumbers. It’s a fun ride.

Last, but certainly not least, we come to Spinning Silver, the latest of Naomi Novik’s fairy-tale-esque books. I read her Uprooted a few months ago, and promptly put Spinning Silver onto my library holds list. It’s a broad retelling/resetting of the Rumpelstiltskin story, with ice fairies and fire demons and it was so immersive that I read it in a day, and probably would have read it in one sitting if I hadn’t had to keep stopping to do things like feed my children. As one does. Spinning Silver was perhaps even better than Uprooted — and that, I think, is saying something.

Reading Round-Up: September 2018

Happy October! This is one of my favourite times of year — when it finally really starts to feel like fall. The weather is cooler, the leaves are starting to turn, we’ve got a string of family birthdays coming up… it’s a good time of year! I’m looking forward to some good reading this month — but first, here’s what I got to in September:

  1. Educated (Tara Westover)
  2. The Whistler (John Grisham)
  3. How to Think (Alan Jacobs)
  4. A Gentleman in Moscow (Amor Towles)
  5. From A to Bee (James Dearsley)
  6. Why Not Me? (Mindy Kaling)
  7. The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir (D. Watkins)
  8. China Dolls (Lisa See)
  9. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (Frederick Douglass)
  10. The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles (Julie Andrews Edwards)
  11. The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America (D. Watkins)
  12. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (Robin Sloan)
  13. Sourdough (Robin Sloan)

This month was pretty heavy on memoir; it’s a genre I’ve really been enjoying these days. Human beings are endlessly fascinating! Now, some of these books were pretty heavy, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend reading them as closely-spaced as I did; I found my mood plummeting after reading The Cook Up, and then China Dolls (not memoir, but saddish fiction), and then Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass all in a row. It was, how you say, a bummer. Worth reading… but not exactly uplifting.

Previous posts have touched on The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, A Gentleman in Moscow, and Narrative of the Life and The Beast Side.

Educated is Tara Westover’s memoir of growing up with survivalist, “sovereign citizen”-esque, anti-government Mormon parents in the Idaho mountains. She and her brothers were kept home from school, not vaccinated, and spent most of their time either working their father’s junkyard business or prepping for a government assault and/or the end of the world. She didn’t even get a birth certificate until she was nine years old. It’s really crazy stuff. But with the help of one of her older brothers, Tara made it out — she got accepted (by the skin of her teeth) to BYU, and later went on to complete a doctorate at Cambridge. It’s a powerful story, and I appreciate that she didn’t try to tie a neat bow on everything at the end. She is estranged from half her family; things are unresolved; it’s clear that her story has not ended.

Two memoirs on the fun side of things were James Dearsley’s From A to Bee and Mindy Kalings Why Not Me? Dearsley’s book is his account of his first year as a beekeeper; it’s clearly just a blog shoved between two covers, but it’s an interesting read and made me consider beekeeping as a possible future endeavour. (That lasted about fifteen minutes.) Why Not Me? is Mindy Kaling’s second book; this one is more personal, I think, than Is Everyone Hanging Out with Me? (And Other Concerns), looking at career and personal turning points in her early thirties. It’s a fun read. Oh, and she meets Bradley Cooper.

D. Watkins’s memoir The Cook Up was an incredible read, although not for the faint of heart: it opens with his brother Bip’s murder, and the going doesn’t get easier from there. The Cook Up is ultimately a story of redemption, of Watkins’s journey from a life of crime on the streets of East Baltimore to his current position as a college professor. I would recommend this book over The Beast Side if you want to start with Watkins; because the latter is a collection of essays it reads as fairly disjointed. The Cook Up shows Watkins’s skill as a storyteller; I’m sure this will not be his last book.

Alan Jacobs’s How to Think was the only other nonfiction I read this month. It’s a quick and insightful read. What I remember best is Jacobs’s point that thinking doesn’t happen in a vacuum; when we learn to think differently of something it’s usually because we are learning to think with different people. Similarly, when we say that someone has is “finally thinking for themselves” what we usually mean is that they’re “finally thinking like me.” He ends the book with what he calls “The Thinking Person’s Checklist”, which I abbreviate for you here as a useful resource:

  1. When faced with provocation to respond to what someone has said, give it five minutes.
  2. Value learning over debating.
  3. As best you can […] avoid the people who fan flames.
  4. Remember you don’t have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness.
  5. If you do have to […] realize that it’s not a community but an Inner Ring.
  6. Gravitate … toward people who seem to value genuine community and can handle disagreement with equanimity.
  7. Seek out the best and fairest-minded of people whose views you disagree with.
  8. […] assess your repugnances.
  9. Sometimes the “ick factor” is telling; sometimes it’s a distraction from what matters.
  10. Be ware of metaphors and myths that do too much heavy cognitive lifting…
  11. Try to describe others’ positions in the language that they use…
  12. Be brave.

On to fiction! First on the list was The Whistler by John Grisham, which was pretty mediocre. I like Grisham, but this wasn’t anywhere near one of his stronger efforts. I’d give it a pass.

After reading The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane I knew I would want to read more from Lisa See, and so China Dolls was my second venture with her. The novel tells the story of three young Oriental women (as they were then called) working in San Francisco’s Chinese nightclubs in the years surrounding the Second World War. It’s a fascinating look at a world I never knew existed, exploring some big questions about friendship, race and nationalism, and loyalty.

Finally, we come to Robin Sloan. I had read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore some years ago — long enough to just remember the broadest of outlines — and decided to re-read it after stumbling across something or other online that reminded me of his books. Mr. Penumbra’s is a super fun read about books and technology and secret societies and the quest for unending life. There are puzzles galore and his characters are satisfyingly quirky without going overboard. Sourdough is his second novel, following Lois Clary as she moves from to Michigan to California for a programming career, only to find her life turned upside down when she is gifted a (sentient?) sourdough starter and is drawn into the weird world of California food culture. There’s a lot about humanity vs. technology, what makes a culture, and microbiology (really). It’s super strange and super interesting, and I’ll definitely be reading it again one day.

Reading Round-Up: August 2018

Happy almost-September! I usually wait until after the end of the month to do these round-up posts, but since I just started my latest book last night, I know I’m not going to finish it before we’re into September. And while I guess September technically isn’t the fall, and it certainly shows no signs of cooling down where we live, it still always feels like a new beginning to me — that’s what all those years of school will do to you, I guess. And so I bid a cheerful adieu to summer with a look at my last summer books:

  1. Present Shock (Douglas Rushkoff)
  2. The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football (John J. Miller)
  3. The Quiet American (Graham Greene)
  4. Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self (Manoush Zomorodi)
  5. Decline and Fall (Evelyn Waugh)
  6. Every Bitter Thing is Sweet (Sara Hagerty)
  7. Golden Age and Other Stories (Naomi Novik)
  8. Open Mic Night in Moscow: And Other Stories from My Search for Black Markets, Soviet Architecture, and Emotionally Unavailable Russian Men (Audrey Murray)
  9. Uprooted (Naomi Novik)
  10. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane (Lisa See)
  11. Seabiscuit: An American Legend (Laura Hillenbrand)
  12. The Wife (Meg Wolitzer)

This was probably my most balanced month in a while in terms of fiction and non-fiction reads: if not in number of books, then probably in terms of rough page count. I think I would like to fall into a pattern of where I’m reading at something like a 1:2 ratio of non-fiction to fiction. I get itchy when I read too much of the one or the other in a row — alternating a little more deliberately gives me a constant, rotating mental palate-cleanse which I find refreshing.

Bored and Brilliant and Uprooted have already been touched-on in their own posts.

I’m afraid I don’t have much to say about Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock — I enjoyed it while I was reading it, but at this point its contents seem to have slipped completely out of my head. Except one thing, which is when he points out how weird it is to have Facebook flatten all of the relationships we have gathered over the years into an eternal present where we’re interacting with current coworkers and friends from grade school and everything in between. Yes; that is weird. But that’s all I remember. Sorry, Mr. Rushkoff. Maybe I can’t remember this book because I am suffering from a case of present shock.

The Big Scrum was a fun read. I care very little for sports in terms of sitting down and watching them, but I love sports writing and I love a good sports story. This is a fascinating account of how football came to occupy the place it does in American culture, and taught me basically everything I know about Teddy Roosevelt (not hard to do when you’re starting from zero!).

And speaking of sports writing, man oh man: Seabiscuit. It’s no surprise to me that Seabiscuit was a best-seller; it was easily the most engrossing thing I read this month. Laura Hillenbrand is an impeccable historian and a fantastic storyteller — at one point I found myself actually getting breathless as I read the account of one of Seabiscuit’s races. And sure, that race happened eighty years ago, but Hillenbrand made it come alive. The best part is that because the story takes place in the 1930s, you can find newsreel footage of at least some of the events covered in the book. Here is Seabiscuit’s 1938 match race against his half-uncle, War Admiral, which is widely hailed as one of the best horse races of all time:

Last month I read Sara Hagerty’s Unseen, which is her second book; this month I read her first book second, Every Bitter Thing is Sweet. The title is an allusion to Proverbs 27:7, “One who is full loathes honey, but to one who is hungry everything bitter is sweet.” This book is more of a memoir than Unseen, going into a lot of detail about things that were only referenced in the second book: the deep struggles in the early years of her marriage, the pain of a decade-plus of infertility, the trauma lurking behind her children’s adoptions. These are all bitter things — but, she writes, can be sweet to us when we let them feed our hunger for God.

The last non-fiction I tackled this month was Audrey Murray’s Open Mic Night in Moscow, which slots nicely into one of my favourite genres: amusing travelogues. The book follows Murray as she travels through the former Soviet states over the course of about a year. It’s surprisingly vulnerable at times, and sneakily educational — but most of all it’s very, very funny.

As far as fiction goes, this month was a pretty good mix of serious and silly. I very much enjoyed The Quiet American, and it will go back into my pile one day; I have a feeling it’s one of those books that gets better with subsequent readings. Decline and Fall will doubtless be another one to revisit in a year or two; it’s satirical and preposterous and thoroughly enjoyable. And if I read it enough I may finally be able to keep Evelyn Waugh and Edith Wharton straight in my mind. Those E.W.s are confusing.

I’m a huge fan of Naomi Novik’s nine-volume Temeraire series, which is probably easiest to explain thus: the Napoleonic wars, but with dragon-based aerial support. Golden Age and Other Stories is a collection of short stories set in the same world, each one inspired by a piece of fan art (pictures included, of course!). That’s a neat way for an author to interact with her fandom — I’d love to see more of that kind of collaboration.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane was the first selection of a new book club I’ve been invited to join. Except then it was un-selected in favour of something else, but since I already had a copy from the library I read it anyway. This novel is set (mostly) in China from the late 1980s through the present day and touches on a lot of themes: education, international adoption, the interaction between Chinese and Western culture, the relationship between majority and minority ethnicities in China, and woven throughout, a whole lot of the history and production of pu’er tea. It’s tremendously sad — I cried a bit — but the ending is perfect. And I now have another Lisa See book waiting for me on my to-read pile.

Last but not least was Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife, which I (and everybody else, judging by the library holds list) read because it’s been recently made into a movie. I guessed half of the surprise ending when I was about halfway through, but didn’t see the other part coming at all. It’s a quick, engaging read with lots of stuff to chew on.

Reading Round-Up: July 2018

One of the things about July being a long month (and feeling like a longer one, since we had some travel and suchlike in it) is that I can barely remember what I read just a few weeks ago. Oh well, that’s why I write things down! Here’s the list for last month:

  1. Come Rain or Come Shine (Jan Karon)
  2. To Be Where You Are (Jan Karon)
  3. Pilgrimmage: The Book of the People (Zenna Henderson)
  4. The House on the Strand (Daphne duMaurier)
  5. Something Other Than God: How I Passionately Sought Happiness and Accidentally Found It (Jennifer Fulweiler)
  6. Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley (Antonio García Martínez)
  7. Kindest Regards: Collected Poems (Ted Kooser)
  8. Beartown (Fredrik Backman)
  9. Us Against You (Fredrik Backman)
  10. Unseen: The Gift of Being Hidden in a World That Loves to be Noticed (Sara Hagerty)
  11. The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict (Trenton Lee Stewart)
  12. Farenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury)
  13. And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer (Fredrik Backman)
  14. The Art of Stillness (Pico Iyer)
  15. The Deal of a Lifetime (Fredrik Backman)

Two of those have their own posts up: Chaos Monkeys and Unseen.

Unlike June, July was pretty heavy on the fiction — I seem to get into waves that way. So let’s tackle the nonfiction first:

Something Other Than God is Jennifer Fulweiler’s first book, which I read second (I wrote up her second book, which I read first, here). This is the testimony of her conversion from a rationalist atheism to Roman Catholicism, a lovely and moving story. I found One Beautiful Dream a little more engaging — perhaps because it was dealing with a lot of the sort of questions I’ve been asking myself lately — but this was an enjoyable read.

I started reading Kindest Regards in June, and then put it down to read other things because I wasn’t enjoying it very much. But then when I picked it up again, I enjoyed it greatly — which just goes to show that sometimes it isn’t the book, it’s just the timing or your mindset. What I love about Ted Kooser’s poetry is how tight his imagery is: not a single word is wasted.

The only other nonfiction I read this month, besides the two that got their own posts, was Pico Iyer‘s The Art of Stillness. He has a TED Talk of the same name if you want the Cliff’s Notes version (though The Art of Stillness is so slim a volume that hardly seems necessary). Pico Iyer thinks that we should all slow down and practice stillness, in meditation or sabbath-keeping or various other forms, and he’s doubtless right. But the book didn’t really grab me and I can barely recall anything in it. Sorry, Pico.

On to the fiction: last month began with the final two installments of Jan Karon’s sprawling Mitford series. Come Rain or Come Shine is about the wedding of Dooley Kavanagh, Father Tim’s adopted son (well, the wedding and the preparation thereof). In To Be Where You Are, Father Tim is wrestling with his sense of purpose after retiring from the parish he pastored for many years. Like the others, they are sweet books; although they often deal with heavy themes, Karon handles them in a gentle and good-hearted manner. A+ comfort reading.

Zenna Henderson‘s Pilgrimmage: The Book of the People was a blast from the past for me; I read the copy that resides at my parents’ house which I probably hadn’t touched since high school or so. This is one of her books concerning “The People”, a group of extraterrestrials stranded on earth after the break-up of their home planet. The People look human, but they have powers — telekenesis, some telepathy, things like that — and a lot of her themes concern the tension between blending in and staying true to your self/heritage/home. They’re very thoughtful books.

Also in the fantasy realm, I loved Daphne duMaurier’s The House on the Strand. I hadn’t picked it up previously, despite owning it for ages, because the cover of my copy makes it look very blah. I know, I know, don’t judge a book by its yadda yadda whatever. But it’s actually tremendously exciting, with drug-induced time travel and family unravellings and all sorts of delicious medieval drama. I’ll read this one again.

The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict is fourth in Trenton Lee Stewart’s Mysterious Benedict Society series, which I have been reading all out of order. That doesn’t matter a whit in this case, as it’s a prequel, about the childhood about the aforementioned mysterious (Mr./Nicholas) Benedict. Orphans! Mysteries! Adventures! And also some salient questions about the kind of people we choose to be, and how we make those choices. It’s good stuff.

Farenheit 451 was also a re-read for me, although it’s been so long since I read it (circa age fifteen) that I didn’t remember anything about it except that I hadn’t liked it very much. It definitely reads very differently in my thirties than it did in my teens! I was struck by Bradbury’s prescience in predicting not the precise political and technological details of our age, but its spirit: where we are quickly forgetting how to think in a pervading ethos of soundbites and entertainment over all. We don’t need to install parlour-sized TVs for this, of course; we carry our distractions around in our pockets.

Last, but certainly not least, we come to Fredrik Backman: two novels (Beartown and Us Against You) and two novellas (And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer and The Deal of a Lifetime). Fredrik Backman, Fredrik Backman… Fredrik Backman will break your heart every time. Beartown and Us Against You are hockey novels (although they are so much more than that), set in a depressed town in the heart of the forest in Northern (I assume Northern) Sweden, where the only thing the town has going for it is that its Junior Hockey Team has a chance at the playoffs for the first time in twenty years. But then the team captain rapes the GM’s daughter at a party and everything unravels. I won’t spoil either book for you — but they’re fantastic. You know, in a heartbreaking way.

And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer is a poignant and touching story about a grandson and his grandfather, whose brain is giving up before his body — about memory and what happens when we don’t remember anymore. It’s beautiful and sad, and all the more so for me as we have an elderly family member who is now in the first stages of Alzheimer’s disease. The Deal of a Lifetime is a letter written from a father to his grown son, about the choices he’s made in the past, his triumphs and (mostly) his regrets, as he contemplates one last choice that will change everything. I thought it was the weaker of the two novellas, but I’m still glad to have read it.

And that’s my month in books. I hope yours was enjoyable as well!