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!

Reading Round-Up: June 2018

June was a good reading month for me, unusually heavy on the non-fiction. I found that once I finally made my way through the massive … And Ladies of the Club, I was ready for a significant palate cleanse (although I did dip into fiction again towards the end of the month). I read a lot of poetry, and a fair amount of memoir, and it was deeply satisfying.

Here’s the final list:

  1. … And Ladies of the Club (Helen Hooven Santyer)
  2. Felicity (Mary Oliver)
  3. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Natalie Goldberg)
  4. Upstream: Selected Essays (Mary Oliver)
  5. Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World (Tracy Kidder)
  6. Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home (Natalie Goldberg)
  7. The Secret Keepers (Trenton Lee Stewart)
  8. A Phone Call to the Future (Mary Jo Salter)
  9. Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (Jaron Lanier)
  10. Aimless Love (Billy Collins)
  11. One Beautiful Dream: The Rollicking Tale of Family Chaos, Personal Passions, and Saying Yes to Them Both (Jennifer Fulweiler)
  12. The Rooster Bar (John Grisham)
  13. Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good (Jan Karon)

A handful of these were already featured in their own posts: … And Ladies of the ClubWriting Down the Bones, One Beautiful Dream, and Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. And I’ll take the rest on by genre this month:

Poetry: This month I greatly enjoyed reading a few new-to-me poets, Mary Oliver (Felicity; the other book by her was essays) and Mary Jo Salter, and also re-acquainting myself with the inimitable Billy Collins. I like all three of these poets very much, and I think there are a couple things they have in common: they write a lot about day-to-day living, they are very grounded in natural surroundings, and while their poetry is of an informal, contemporary style, it still has recognisable structure: stanzas, rhythm, occasional rhyme. Above all their work is clear: I don’t mind working at poetry a bit, but I dislike poetry that reads as if it’s obscure for obscurity’s sake. But Oliver, Salter, and Collins are all masters of clarity and I adore them for it.

Memoir: I read several books of memoir this month. Mountains Beyond Mountains is not quite memoir, I guess, because it’s biographical about Dr. Paul Farmer — but on the other hand, it’s also Tracy Kidder’s account of meeting Farmer, and so it’s memoir-ish as well. I accidentally read the dumbed-down-for-middle-schoolers version of the book, but it was still a fascinating account of Farmer’s work among the poor, chiefly in Haiti, focusing on infectious diseases such as TB. It’s an inspiring read — I don’t like using that word because it’s become such a cliché, but sometimes that’s all you can do — and a good spur to remind us that for Christians, caring for the poor is not an optional item.

On a very different note, Let the Whole World Come Thundering Home is a slim little book by Natalie Goldberg, remembering the year (or so?) when she and her partner were both diagnosed with cancer. When I flicked through it at the library I wasn’t sure that I would enjoy it, but it is a deep and tenderly-wrought book and I am glad to have read it.

Finally, Mary Oliver’s Upstream is also on the kinda-sorta memoir scale; it has some personal essays, but also some literary criticism and other things. I was particularly struck by Oliver’s accounts of how she came to treasure the natural world, and her take on Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which is very influential on her own writing.

Fiction: It was mid-month before I cracked any fiction, but Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Secret Keepers was a great place to begin. I had previously read a few books in his Mysterious Benedict Society series; The Secret Keepers is a stand-alone novel that encompasses all of the same charm, following eleven-year-old Reuben after he discovers a powerful artifact that must, at all costs, be kept out of the hands of the sinister ruler of his city, known only as The Smoke. It’s great fun.

Striking a very different tone, I read The Rooster Bar, which is John Grisham’s latest-but-one, published in 2017. Although it tackles some compelling issues in America these days — including crushing student debt, for-profit law schools, and family deportation — I had a hard time rooting for the protagonists, who got away with what they were trying to do in the end (well, sort of) but made some bad mistakes that harmed people along the way. It felt as if the ends were meant to justify the means, but I’m not sure that they did.

And last in the fiction department as well as in the month, I picked up Jan Karon’s latest three Mitford novels, and finished Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good right at the tail-end of June. This is a long-running series following Fr. Tim Kavanagh, an evangelical Episcopalian priest serving in the small town of Mitford, North Carolina. They’re sweet books, funny but above all warm-hearted. Some people feel as if they have to apologize for liking the Mitford books because they’re not, you know, high literature — but I don’t. They’re some of my best go-to comfort reading and I love them.

And that was my month of reading! I hope that yours was equally satisfying.

 

Reading Round-Up: May 2018

Usually I wait until after the end of the month to post these, just in case I can squeeze one last book in under the line. There’s no way that’s happening this time; I’ve been making my way through Helen Hooven Santmyer‘s massive … And Ladies of the Club in the latter half of May (and yes, the ellipses are part of the title; I wasn’t just trying to build anticipation there) and I am nowhere close to finishing. And I do mean massive: I’m just over 900 pages in — but that still means another ~500 to go. Clocking in at 600,000 words, this beast of a novel is longer than The Lord of the Rings.

Anyway, besides the big slowdown for … And Ladies of the Club, this was a bit of a bumper month for me. We went away for a week and so I got some beach reading in (ok, well, beach house reading, anyway), and I haven’t been crocheting much lately which has freed up my eyes and hands for other things. Here’s what I read:

  1. The Client (John Grisham)
  2. Sestets: Poems (Charles Wright)
  3. So You Want to Talk About Race (Ijeoma Oluo)
  4. The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey (Trenton Lee Stewart)
  5. Revival (Stephen King)
  6. The Stone Diaries (Carol Shields)
  7. The Partner (John Grisham)
  8. Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult (Bruce Handy)
  9. Jesus Feminist (Sarah Bessey)
  10. Little Bee (Chris Cleave)
  11. Henry Huggins (Beverly Cleary)
  12. Unveiling Grace: The Story of How We Left the Mormon Church (Lynn K. Wilder)
  13. A Little Princess (Frances Hodgson Burnett)

For the most part, this was an enjoyable month. There were two big disappointments: Sestets: Poems by Charles Wright, and Stephen King’s Revival. As far as the Wright is concerned, I found the poems very dull on the whole, and often obscure in that way that feels like obscurity for obscurity’s sake. I don’t mind reading obscure poetry — I don’t always know what Seamus Heaney is talking about, but I love Seamus Heaney — but it has to have some other attractive quality. This didn’t. The other big disappointment was Revival. I tend to enjoy Stephen King, and Revival sucked me right in — I couldn’t figure out where it was going. And then I got the end and found out: it was going somewhere dumb. The ride along the way was great, but the ending was completely preposterous. I ended up leaving that one at the beach house since I’ll never bother reading it again.

The big highlight for me this month was Bruce Handy’s Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult, which I picked up on impulse while looking for something else in the 800 section. What an informative, amusing, and deeply appreciative book! I love children’s literature, and Wild Things was a joy and a pleasure to read. Best of all, it spurred me to read a couple of kids’ books that had been languishing on my shelves: The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey, by Trenton Lee Stewart (an excellent sequel to The Mysterious Benedict Society); Henry Huggins, the story of a boy, his friends, and his dog, by the inimitable Beverly Cleary; and the classic A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

On the adult fiction side of things, The Client and The Partner were two solid offerings by John Grisham; I’ve read a few clunkers of his (The Litigators comes to mind — I couldn’t even finish that one), but the ones that are good are really good and these two were no exception. For me, Grisham is perfect summer reading.

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields was an impulse read; I realised that I hadn’t brought quite enough books to the beach house with me, and so chose it from one of the shelves there. I’m pretty sure I’ve read Shields before, in a CanLit class in university, but hadn’t encountered this particular novel. It follows the life of Daisy Goodwill Flett, from her birth on the Canadian prairie to her death as an old woman in Florida. I found it very moving and it made me want to do a lot better at keeping up with my own journaling.

Little Bee was the other novel I read in May. I won’t say much about it — indeed, its cover copy enjoins me not to ruin the surprise. But it was an engrossing, beautifully crafted, gutting read — you’ll just have to find out why for yourselves. (Seriously. This is one to pick up.) I’ll be reading more Chris Cleave books in the future.

Finally, two books of memoir/theology, the first of which was Sarah Bessey‘s Jesus Feminist. I actually had picked up Jesus Feminist back in March or April — I forget which — but ended up putting it down so that I could finish Winston Graham’s Poldark series (sorry, Sarah). I think it must have been April. So my reading of Jesus Feminist was a little scattered and I had some trouble picking up the threads when I determined to get it out of my to-read pile this month. But I liked it; I don’t agree with all of her theological positions (or resonate with a lot of her experiences) but it was a thoughtful and well-written book that I can see being pretty helpful to people, especially women who have been wounded by the church (in ways that I personally haven’t been, but others certainly have). Don’t let the F word in the title throw you off too much.

Finally we come to Lynn K. Wilder‘s Unveiling Grace: The Story of How We Left the Mormon Church. I’ve recently started to get to know a Mormon mom in my neighbourhood — we meet up at the playground from time to time — and I wanted to learn more about the LDS Church. This was a great resource and a compelling read. I’ve also picked up her slimmer Seven Reasons We Left Mormonism which is more theological and less memoir-y — that one will have to wait until June, though.

So You Want to Talk About Race was already treated in its own post.

And that’s it for May! Tune in next month to see if I manage to finish … And Ladies of the Club in anything approaching a reasonable amount of time!

Reading Round-Up: April 2018

Happy May! It’s a glorious spring here where we are; the trees are blossoming, the sun is out, and the books are good. Here’s what I read in April:

  1. The Stranger from the Sea (Winston Graham)
  2. The Miller’s Dance (Winston Graham)
  3. The Loving Cup (Winston Graham)
  4. The Twisted Sword (Winston Graham)
  5. Bella Poldark (Winston Graham)
  6. Mennonite in a Little Black Dress (Rhoda Janzen)
  7. Mennonite Meets Mr. Right (Rhoda Janzen)
  8. Simplicity Parenting (Kim John Payne with Lisa M. Ross)
  9. The Year of Less (Cait Flanders)
  10. Human Chain (Seamus Heaney)

This will be a shorter wrap-up post, because I’ve already treated three of these in their own posts: the two books by Rhoda Janzen and Simplicity Parenting .

The month began with the final five books of Winston Graham’s Poldark series — I touched on that a bit in last month’s round-up, so I will just add that the series ended as well (or better!) than it began and had me its pages eagerly until I finally reached the last. It’s a great series; I highly recommend it.

When I started reading The Year of Less, it took me a few chapters to figure out why it felt so familiar: I used to read Cait Flanders’s blog a few years ago, back when she was just known as “Blonde on a Budget.” This book isn’t just recycled blog posts, but it does retell a lot off her same story, of the year she decided to enact a personal shopping ban: for one year she would buy nothing but consumables (groceries, gas, toiletries) or items on her brief “allowed purchases” list (travel expenses, a few other things). During the year of the shopping ban she also decluttered an impressive 70% of her belongings. It was an interesting read and Flanders certainly learned a lot about her own consumption habits and shopping triggers, but it wasn’t until I was finishing up the last chapter or two that I was able to put my finger on what was bothering me about it all: the narrative and the project are both entirely self-centered. I mean that in the strictest descriptive sense: everything was about what Cait was saving for, what Cait was spending on, what Cait’s money could do for Cait. The idea of living on less so that we can share with or bless others never entered the picture, and by the end it seemed a pretty glaring omission.

I first read Seamus Heaney back in December and have been meaning to pick him up again — so I did. I will be the first to admit that I sometimes find Heaney obscure. Perhaps if I knew more about Ireland it would be different — or could translate the Irish into which he occasionally slips. Nevertheless I find his poetry highly evocative and it often gives me “the flash” even though (or perhaps because) it often speaks of something that I cannot quite grasp. I will be coming back to Heaney, I am sure.

And that was all she  ̶w̶r̶o̶t̶e̶  read! On to May…

Reading Round-Up: March 2018

I have been putting off and putting off writing this post, because I keep thinking that I need to write a proper full post for Culture Making before writing the round-up. But given that it’s mid-April… I think I need to accept that it’s not going to happen. So without further delay, here’s what I read last month:

  1. Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Andy Crouch)
  2. Ross Poldark (Winston Graham)
  3. Demelza (Winston Graham)
  4. Jeremy Poldark (Winston Graham)
  5. Warleggan (Winston Graham)
  6. The Black Moon (Winston Graham)
  7. The Four Swans (Winston Graham)
  8. The Angry Tide (Winston Graham)
  9. Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America (Barbara Ehrenreich)
  10. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (Malcolm Gladwell)
  11. Meet the Frugalwoods (Elizabeth Willard Thames)

First: let’s talk Poldark! Some months ago our choir director played us a clip from some show I had never heard of (the music ends around the 1:12 mark):

That short minute or so of singing was enough for me to go hunting to find out what this “Poldark” thing was: a BBC/PBS production based on Winston Graham’s twelve-volume series of novels, set in Cornwall in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. My husband and I love watching period dramas together and so we devoured Poldark seasons 1 and 2 before I decided to see if our library system had the books. And they did, and then I was off to the races! I finished the first seven in March, before taking a small non-fiction break as a bit of a palate cleanser. Now, I think that Poldark is fantastic TV. We have really enjoyed watching it and are looking forward to season 4 which is supposed to air sometime this year. That being said: the books totally blow it out of the water. They are phenomenal. At the moment of writing this post I am about a hundred pages into Bella Poldark (book 12 of 12) and Graham has commanded my attention the whole way through. They are absolutely engrossing reading and I would highly recommend the series to anyone who enjoys historical fiction.

As to March’s non-fiction reads —

Like I mentioned above, Culture Making really deserves its own post (that, at this point, it’s not likely to get). Andy Crouch devotes the first part of the book to looking at what “culture” is and isn’t, and detailing four of the Christian world’s typical responses to secular culture: to condemn, to critique, to copy, and to consume. As an alternative, he offers us two paths: that of the gardener (cultural cultivation) and the artist (cultural creation). For me, the most insightful/inspirational part of the book was in the latter half when he looks at the idea of cultural continuance in the New Heavens and New Earth (looking through the lens of both Revelation and some of the Old Testament prophets):

But just as we hope and expect to be bodily present, in bodies we cannot now imagine yet that we believe will be recognizably our own — just as the disciples met Jesus in a resurrected body that had unimaginable capabilities yet was recognizably his own — it seems clear from Isaiah 60 and from Revelation 21 that we will find the new creation furnished with culture. Cultural goods too will be transformed and redeemed, yet the will be recognizably what they were in the old creation — or perhaps more accurately, they will be what they always could have been. The new Jerusalem will be truly a city: a place suffused with culture, a place where culture has reached its full flourishing. It will be the place where God’s instruction to the first human beings is fulfilled, where all the latent potentialities of the world will be discovered and released by creative, cultivating people. (169)

and

We should ask the same question about our own cultural creativity and cultivating. Are we creating and cultivating things that have a chance of furnishing the new Jerusalem? Will the cultural goods we devote our lives to — the food we cook and consume, the music we purchase and practice, the movies we watch and make, the enterprises we earn our paychecks from and invest our wealth in — be identified as the glory and honor of our cultural traditions? Or will they be remembered as mediocrities at best, dead ends at worst? This is not the same as asking whether we are making “Christian” culture. “Christian” cultural artifacts will surely go through the same winnowing and judgment as “non-Christian” artifacts. Nor is this entirely a matter of who is responsible for the cultural artifacts and where their faith is placed, especially since every cultural good is a collective effort. Clearly some of the cultural goods found in the new Jerusalem will have been created and cultivated by people who may well not accept the Lamb’s invitation to substitute his righteousness for their sin. Yet the best of their work may survive. Can that be said of the goods that we are devoting our lives to? (171)

There is, of course, much more to the book than I can do justice to here — it’s well worth reading.

Speaking of cultural critique, I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s most famous book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America a year or so ago and promptly filled up my library list with her other titles. Bright-Sided looks at the “relentless promotion of positive thinking” as it impacts various facets of American life — most interesting to me were her takes on how enforced positive thinking has become part of our anti-disease regimen, particularly in regards to cancer, and her take on the prosperity gospel put forward in many American churches — especially mega-churches like that of Joel Osteen. It’s an insightful book, although longer on descriptions of the problem than on solutions — those have largely been left as an exercise for the reader.

And finally, Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. I’ve read The Tipping Point and I think Blink was much better. It deals with “the power of thinking without thinking”, or intuition / gut reactions as we might be more used to naming them. A glance at its wiki page reveals that its reception has been fairly mixed, but it’s excellent food for thought. Blink is at its most powerful when discussing implicit biases; as an example, he looks at how the proportion of women playing in professional orchestras soared (from virtually none to near 50%) once screened auditions (where the player is hidden behind a screen so that the music is the only identifying aspect presented) became popular. For those willing to confront their own implicit biases in action, Gladwell mentions the online tests at Harvard’s Project Implicit. Those tests may not provide comfortable results — but Gladwell assures us that our biases can be challenged once we are aware of them. In this case, knowing is definitely more than half the battle.

Meet the Frugalwoods has already been reviewed in its own post.

Reading Round-Up: February 2018

Oh, right, it’s March. Here’s what I read last month:

  1. And Life Comes Back (Tricia Lott Williford)
  2. The Four Tendencies (Gretchen Rubin)
  3. The Divine Comedy III: Paradise (Dante, tr. Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds)
  4. Follow My Leader (James B. Garfield)
  5. One Step at a Time (Deborah Kent)
  6. Real American (Julie Lythcott-Haims)
  7. Persuasion (Jane Austen)
  8. Camino Island (John Grisham)

February was a bit of a lighter month for me — both fewer books read, and a number of them on the shorter side as well. It’s not so surprising; I watched a lot of Olympics. Coupled with the nasty stomach bug that took each of us out in turn, and our three-season marathon through Poldark, small wonder that the book pile sank quite slowly in February. No matter.

Somehow I came out of my childhood owning two young adult novels about losing sight. In Follow My Leader, eleven-year-old Jimmy Carter (really) is blinded suddenly after an accident with a firecracker, and has to learn to navigate his new life, first with a cane and then with his guide dog, Leader. In One Step at a Time, thirteen-year-old Tracy Newberry finds that she has to cope not only with entering high school thoroughly in her older sister’s shadow, but with the terrifying suspicion that she is slowly losing her sight. The two books offer some interesting contrasts when read in conjunction with each other: younger boy vs. older girl, grade school vs. high school, 1950s vs. 1980s, sudden affliction vs. an inescapable decline. I’ll be keeping these two around for the kids.

And Life Comes Back is Tricia Lott Williford’s first memoir — I read her second, Let’s Pretend We’re Normal, back in December I believe. And Life Comes Back tells the story of her sudden widowhood (in her early thirties, with two preschool-aged children) and her slow reemergence into life afterwards. It is sad, but lovely.

In the “and now for something completely different” department, I finished February with some back-to-back Jane Austen and John Grisham. As one does. I enjoyed Persuasion, although I would probably not count it as my favourite Austen (that crown belongs, always and forever, to Pride and Prejudice). But Anne Elliot is a most sympathetic heroine, and I’m sure I will re-read her story in a year or two with equal pleasure. Camino Island is Grisham’s latest-but-one, a novel that opens with a bold heist of several original F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts from the Princeton library, and centres around a group of writers, book collectors, and blackmarketeers in Florida. It’s a fun read.

The Four TendenciesParadise, and Real American have already been treated in their own respective posts.

 

Reading Round-Up: January 2018

And just like that, we’ve made it through January — the month seemed to drag on longer than usual this year (perhaps because of the five Mondays?) but, as usual, not long enough for me to get used to writing the correct year on things. It was a good reading month for me, though. Here’s what I read:

  1. The Return of the King (J. R. R. Tolkien)
  2. Let’s Pretend We’re Normal (Tricia Lott Williford)
  3. White Like Her: My Family’s Story of Race and Racial Passing (Gail Lukasik)
  4. A Tangled Web (Lucy Maud Montgomery)
  5. Write the Perfect Book Proposal (Jeff Hermann and Deborah Levine Hermann)
  6. Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories (C. S. Lewis)
  7. The Wind Through the Keyhole (Stephen King)
  8. The Narnian (Alan Jacobs)
  9. The Divine Comedy I: Hell (Dante, tr. Dorothy L. Sayers)
  10. The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass on Tour (Adrian Plass)
  11. The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass Aged 62 3/4: Adrian Plass and the Church Weekend (Adrian Plass)
  12. The Divine Comedy II: Purgatory (Dante, tr. Dorothy L. Sayers)

I’ve been having a lot of trouble writing this post, in part because most of these were such interesting reads that I’m hard-pressed on how to structure it. I can’t really pick a top read — there were so many good ones, and all so very different from each other. And because January felt so long, it feels like ages and ages ago that I read some of the first books on the list, instead of just a few weeks. Perhaps we’ll just go (mostly) in order.

To get these out of the way first, here are the three books that already have their own posts: The Divine Comedy 1: Hell, The Divine Comedy 2: Purgatory, and White Like Her.

The Return of the King was part of my annual re-read of The Lord of the Rings, which I always start in December (though, as you see, I don’t always finish it then!). Tip-top as usual, of course — I haven’t been reading these books for fifteen years because I don’t like them — but I especially enjoyed the added insights gleaned from Fleming Rutledge’s The Battle for Middle-earth, which I read in December.

I’ve been reading Tricia Lott Williford’s blog for a number of years. She’s a single mom (well, now remarried) who was suddenly widowed in her early thirties, leaving her with two preschool-aged sons to care for on her own. Let’s Pretend We’re Normal is her second memoir, focused on the challenges and graces of living as a single-parent family after bereavement. Her writing is charming and thoughtful, witty and honest. I loved it.

Some of you may remember my Lucy Maud Montgomery reading project (find the first entry on my post series page), initiated this past summer. I was thrilled to get A Tangled Web for Christmas; it was the last of her novels that I hadn’t read. A batty old Aunt of a large and tangled extended family writes a will that the recipient of the family heirloom jug will only be revealed a year after her death — and that the recipient could change according to the family’s behaviour as judged by her executor. Hijinks, of course, ensue. It was a very funny and occasionally touching novel, and would have been one of my favourite Montgomery books if not for one thing: it ends, in the very last paragraph, with a completely gratuitous and offensive racist joke (with bonus use of the n-word). It’s totally out of left field and quite spoiled the rest of the book for me. That was a real disappointment.

On a very different topic, I heartily enjoyed Alan Jacobs’s warm-hearted biography of C. S. Lewis, The Narnian. His approach was a bit unusual; instead of the strict chronology that most biographies use, Jacobs looked at Lewis’s life through the lens of his imaginative framework. Lewis is one of those writers that everyone knows a lot about without actually necessarily knowing a lot about — if you follow me — and I was surprised, well, by how much surprised me. And my reading jived nicely with Of Other Worlds, a collection of essays about fantasy and science fiction mostly, with a few finished and half-finished stories appended. I’d read Lewis’s space trilogy, but hadn’t encountered any of his shorter magazine pieces.

I’ve been reading Adrian Plass books since I was a wee lass, when friends of my parents would get them for us whenever they went back home to England for visits. Now Amazon and abebooks.com mean that I can get my very own copies, of course! These two are the last two installments (so far) of a very funny, very thoughtful, very touching, very silly series of books based around Plass’s fictional alter-ego (also called Adrian Plass) and his family and church. They’re just lovely.

And of course, there’s Stephen King. Sometimes I’m surprised how much I like Stephen King books, because I’m not into horror at all — but I love his Dark Tower series, among others, and was pleased to get to The Wind Through the Keyhole, which is essentially book 4.5 of the seven. Er, eight. Seven and a half? Whatever; it was a late release that happens in the middle of the series. The Wind Through the Keyhole doesn’t advance the main plot of The Dark Tower (indeed, how could it?) but it gives us another long glimpse into Roland Deschain’s backstory in Gilead-that-was. It’s a rollicking good story (within a story, within a story) and I’m glad to have encountered it.