Reading Round-Up: June 2019

June was a good month for Canadiana this year, with a full 60% Canadian authorship-rate on my list. Not that I planned it that way — these things tend to happen on their own as I get onto reading jags — but it seems appropriate given that I’m writing this round-up post on Canada Day. (Happy Canada Day.) Here’s the breakdown:

  1. Further Chronicles of Avonlea (Lucy Maud Montgomery)
  2. Against the Odds (Lucy Maud Montgomery)
  3. A Streetcar Named Desire (Tennessee Williams)
  4. Frost & Fire (Roger Zelazny)
  5. I Work at a Public Library (Gina Sheridan)
  6. Boy (Roald Dahl)
  7. The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls (Anissa Gray)
  8. The Story Girl (Lucy Maud Montgomery)
  9. The Blythes are Quoted (Lucy Maud Montgomery)
  10. Vinyl Cafe Turns the Page (Stuart McLean)
  11. Time Now for the Vinyl Cafe Story Exchange (ed. Stuart McLean)
  12. Spirit of Place: Lucy Maud Montgomery and Prince Edward Island (Francis W. P. Bolga, Wayne Barrett, and Anne MacKay)
  13. The Vinyl Cafe Notebooks (Stuart Mclean)
  14. The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Brian Selznick)
  15. The Value of Simple: A Practical Guide to Taking the Complexity Out of Investing (John Robertson)

Lucy Maud Montgomery

… gets her own section this month, with four books by her and one about her. The latter was not, unfortunately, especially interesting. Spirit of Place is a photo book of PEI scenes interspersed with random quotations from LMM’s diaries or letters. I liked most of the pictures — Prince Edward Island certainly lives up to its picturesque reputation — but the quotations seemed chosen at random, the photos didn’t have any discernible order to them, and the whole project seemed rather haphazard. It’s too bad.

The Story Girl is the only novel among the pack, centering around a group of cousins and friends who live in a rural PEI enclave and have adventures etc. The “Story Girl” is really named Sara Stanley, and she has a reputation as a gifted storyteller with an unearthly and charming voice, powerful beyond what her youth would suggest. There is a lot of overblown description of the Story Girl, passages like these:

The Story Girl was barefooted and barearmed, having rolled the sleeves of her pink gingham up to her shoulders. Around her waist was twisted a girdle of the blood-red roses that bloomed in Aunt Olivia’s garden; on her sleek curls she wore a chaplet of them; and her hands were full of them. She paused under the outmost tree, in a golden-green gloom, and laughed at us over a big branch. Her wild, subtle, nameless charm clothed her as with a garment. We always remembered the picture she made there; and in later days when we read Tennyson’s poems at a college desk, we knew exactly how an oread, peering through the green leaves on some haunted knoll of many fountained Ida, must look. (Chapter 18)

The Story Girl leaned that brown head of hers against the fir trunk behind her, and looked up at the apple-green sky through the dark boughs above us. She wore, I remember, a dress of warm crimson, and she had wound around her head a string of waxberries, that looked like a fillet of pearls. Her cheeks were still flushed with the excitement of the evening. In the dim light she was beautiful, with a wild, mystic loveliness, a compelling charm that would not be denied. (Chapter 27)

But when the Story Girl wreathed her nut brown tresses with crimson leaves it seemed, as Peter said, that they grew on her–as if the gold and flame of her spirit had broken out in a coronal, as much a part of her as the pale halo seems a part of the Madonna it encircles. (Chapter 28)

Those were just chosen by paging through at random. There is a lot more of that kind of thing, all terribly saccharine. The Story Girl has a sequel, The Golden Road, but I’m not sure that I’ll bother reading it. I’ve had rather enough of Sara Stanley for a while.

When I checked Further Chronicles of Avonlea out, the librarian laughed at the melodramatic pose on its cover, quipping that it doesn’t really seem very Montgomery-ish. And probably that’s true if you’ve only read Anne of Green Gables, because LMM’s writing on the whole is much darker and more dramatic than her current reputation admits. Anne, after all, was not considered a children’s book when it was first published, and LMM chafed through her life against her growing reputation as someone who wrote for children, not adults. (For further reading see Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings by Mary Henley Rubio.)

Further Chronicles of Avonlea, Against the Odds, an1d The Blythes are Quoted are short story collections, none of which shy away from the dramatic: their narratives deal with poverty, revenge, adultery, illegitimacy, and murder, along with gentler aspects. The Blythes are Quoted is especially interesting in this regard. It is a departure in form from many of her other works, consisting of short stories interspersed by a framing device of poetry by Anne and Walter Blythe, as well as the Blythe family’s spoken and unspoken ruminations on their contents. It is also the last book that Montgomery wrote, delivered to her publisher by an unknown person on the very day she died of suicide via barbiturate overdose. Is The Blythes are Quoted, if not exactly a suicide note, at least a kind of final statement? In some ways it reads as one, as her characters wrestle with the lead-up and aftermath of World War One, particularly (in the latter half of the book) as the dawn of the Second World War called into question all the sacrifices of the First. This was a preoccupation of LMM herself, as well as of her husband, the Rev. Ewen Macdonald, who became convinced late in life that he was predestined to hell for encouraging young men to sign up to fight in WWI. (Seriously: read the Rubio biography.) It’s a dark read, in many ways — but it’s dark in the ways that Montgomery has been all along, if we’ve had the eyes to see it.

Everyone else:

End of essay. Here are the other books I tackled in June, in no particular order:

Zelazny’s Frost & Fire is a collection of sci-fi short stories that I enjoyed very much. I have read other Zelazny before — most notably his sprawling ten-volume Chronicles of Amber series — but not, I think, any short stories. These were clever and strange and very entertaining. Man, I should totally reread the Amber books.

If I Work in a Public Library sounds like the title of a blog, that’s because it is. This is a short, amusing blog-to-book publication that takes about six minutes to read.

We were at the library last week at The Invention of Huge Cabret grabbed my attention — I remember my roommate telling me about how obsessed all of her young piano students were with the movie version when it came out in 2011. It’s a very thick book, but most of it is pictures. I think I would have liked the movie better.

A Streetcar Named Desire is one of those cultural touchstones that you probably know some lines from (STELLLLLLLLLLAAAAAAAA) without necessarily knowing that this is where they’re from. Well, now I’ve read it, and now I know. I’m pretty sure I own at least one or two other plays by Tennessee Williams — definitely A Doll’s House, anyway — and perhaps I will read them soon.

The Value of Simple is a guide for Canadian investors, looking at how to set up index-fund investing (and why you would want to, of course). There is a big friendly “don’t panic” at the beginning, à la Douglas Adams, and the entire thing was easy to read and to understand. And look, now we know some stocks. Wheeeeeeee. (NB: Robertson maintains an errata page where he posts updated information as some options have changed since the book’s publication.)

Over the past few years I have enjoyed diving into memoir as a genre, and Roald Dahl’s account of his boyhood did not disappoint. In many respects his childhood was not an easy one; it was interesting, however, to see the genesis of many of the repeated themes that come out in his novels.

And last, but certainly not least, we come to the late, great Stuart McLean. Last month I read a Vinyl Cafe story collection, which gave me a hankering for more. Each of these is a little different: Vinyl Cafe Turns the Page is a collection of Dave and Morley stories, Time Now for the Vinyl Cafe Story Exchange is an anthology of short (true) stories sent in to the Vinyl Cafe radio show by listeners, and The Vinyl Cafe Notebooks is a collection of thematically-grouped personal essays. All of these were wonderful, and I was happy to round out my mental McLean catalogue.

Post-publication edit: I forgot about The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray, which first caught my eye in the library simply because it has a beautiful cover. It’s a tightly-woven family drama that reminds me somewhat of Anne Tyler’s novels — except instead of everyone being white Marylanders they are black Michiganites. Michigonians. Michiganis. They live in Michigan. Lots of reckoning with the past and future, emotional revelations, and etc. It was very good, in a fraught sort of way.

Reading Round-Up: May 2019

Here’s what I read in May:

  1. I’ve Got Your Number (Sophie Kinsella)
  2. Early Riser (Jasper Fforde)
  3. Surprise the World: The Five Habits of Highly Missional People (Michael Frost)
  4. The End of Education (Neil Postman)
  5. Trust Exercise (Susan Choi)
  6. The Wealthy Barber Returns (Dave Chilton)
  7. Christmas at the Vinyl Cafe (Stuart McLean)
  8. Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (Gregory Maguire)
  9. Kilmeny of the Orchard (Lucy Maud Montgomery)
  10. The Year of Magical Thinking (Joan Didion)
  11. After Many Days (Lucy Maud Montgomery)
  12. I Owe You One (Sophie Kinsella)
  13. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (John M. Gottman and Nan Silver)

The book that has most stuck with me is probably Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise. It is set at a competitive arts high school in the 1980s, following a class of drama students as they form and lose romances, friendships, and alliances under the supervision of their brilliant and demanding drama teacher, Mr. Kingsley. The brilliance of Trust Exercise is in the way it works to reshape our understanding of the truth or falsity of its depicted events. The narrative is divided into three sections. there is a major shift (in perspective, in understanding) about halfway through the novel that asks us to re-evaluate what came before, and yet another in the short third section that in turn reframes the contents of both the first and second sections. I coudn’t stop thinking about it after I finished. I’m still thinking about it.

The other novel that especially stood out to me from May’s reading is Jasper Fforde’s Early Riser. Jasper Fforde writes weird, fascinating novels set in alternate-universe earths. Early Riser is set on an earth — in Wales, to be precise — where humans hibernate through the winter, humanity is facing a global cooling crisis, and under-population is a constant threat. Also there are viral dreams that may or may not be becoming real. And zombies. It’s all completely bonkers and you should read it.

I also made some progress on the resumption of my Lucy Maud Montgomery reading project. Kilmeny of the Orchard had its own post here. After Many Days is a collection of rediscovered short stories, collated and edited by Rea Wilmshurst. There are a few of these collections now, all arranged thematically. The stories in After Many Days all had to do with the resolution of things long put on hold: long-lost lovers finally reuniting, family reconciliations, chances for a long-anticipated revenge, someone returning in the nick of time and un-mortgaging the family farm, and so on and so forth — happy endings all round, of course. I enjoyed them.

Besides After Many Days, I read one other collection of short stories: Christmas at the Vinyl Cafe. The Vinyl Cafe was a long-running CBC radio show, hosted by the late Stuart McLean. It featured music and essays, but the heart of the show was its stories, especially the “Dave and Morley” stories about a middle-aged Toronto couple and their family, friends, and neighbours. I grew up listening to The Vinyl Cafe on Sunday afternoons, and I either own or have read most of the story collections. (It may or may not be possible to listen to some of them on youtube, possibly including my personal favourite, Polly Anderson’s Christmas Party. Shhhh.)

Gregory Maguire’s Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister was a fairly enjoyable read, setting the Cinderella story in Haarlem (Netherlands) during the Tulip mania years. The title doesn’t match the tone especially well.

Last, but not least, on the fiction list for May: two novels by Sophie Kinsella. In I’ve Got Your Number, Poppy Wyatt loses her engagement ring — a heirloom! — and her cell phone in a hotel fire-drill mishap; luckily, she finds a cell phone someone left in the trash and can leave its number with the hotel in case her ring turns up. But the cell phone belongs to someone — the ex-assistant of Sam Roxton, high-powered businessman, who wants his company phone back. This one was genuinely funny, and very of-the-moment with a lot of text messages breaking up the narrative. In I Owe You One, “Fixie” Farr saves a stranger’s laptop from water damage at a coffee shop, setting off a chain of I-owe-yous between her and Seb, the laptop’s owner, while she tries to juggle running her family’s shop and the reappearance of Ryan, and old crush, in her life. It was definitely not as strong as I’ve Got Your Number.

I’ve already forgotten what the Five Habits of Highly Missional People are. Um… eating together is one. Honestly, I’m drawing a complete blank. I suppose I could always read it again since it’s a teeny, tiny, seriously short book.

Neil Postman’s The End of Education was a helpful read for me as I think about the kids’ educational choices. If education is a means to an end, Postman asks, then what precisely is that end? And, if we have determined what the end of education is, how does the means of education — here he is chiefly considering the public school system, but the question applies more broadly — serve that end? Or does it serve it at all? And if the means don’t serve the end, what must change?

I tried to read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking some years ago, and couldn’t get past the first few pages; the book begins with the account of her husband’s sudden death, and I don’t know what it was — it was just too sad for me, at least then, and I couldn’t go on. But I went on this time. It’s a sensitively written and beautiful little book, but yes, sad, especially at its end, where it concludes on rather a hopeless note.

My husband and I both read The Wealthy Barber Returns last month, mostly on the recommendation of r/personalfinancecanada. It’s a funny, easy read, and gave us a lot of good discussion points now that we’re finally done with school and paying for school, and thinking about things like investments and retirement and university costs for the children and all that good stuff. It’s a good overview, I think, and we may go back to it in the future.

Finally, the Gottman book. A few years ago I read a profile of John Gottman’s work in The Atlantic that was making the social media rounds: The Secret to Love is Just Kindness. It stuck with me, and The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work is a great introduction to his research — which includes longitudinal studies on thousands of couples over multiple decades — and, I think, very practical and wise. If you’re married this one is probably a must-read.

Phew! I think half the “writing” time for these posts is spent doing things like googling character names I can no longer remember… I need to start making notes as I go.

Reading Round-Up: April 2019

Back in the reading saddle! But not in the blogging saddle, apparently, so here is April’s book list, better late than never. April was our transition month; we began it in one country and ended it in another, with a lot of packing, unpacking, cleaning, arranging, and etc. in between. Here’s what I read:

  1. The Complete Stories (Dorothy L. Sayers)
  2. Charity Girl (Georgette Heyer)
  3. Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven (Fannie Flagg)
  4. The Appeal (John Grisham)
  5. The Whole Town’s Talking (Fannie Flagg)
  6. Holly Farb and the Princess of the Galaxy (Gareth Wronski)
  7. As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto: Food, Friendship, and the Making of a Masterpiece (ed. Joan Reardon)
  8. Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
  9. The Green and the Gray (Timothy Zahn)

As Always, Julia was featured in its own post.

Dorothy Sayers’s The Complete Stories was what I read over the actual week of our move, and it was probably the perfect choice; the book is seven hundred pages or so, so I wasn’t going to run out of material quickly, but the short length of the stories and the fact that they were not especially interconnected meant that it was easy for me to put it down and pick it up without having to keep track of very many threads. Or any, really. There was enough to keep track of already!

Pride and Prejudice — a perennial favourite of mine — was also a mid-move read, despite its position a little further down the list. I listened over the course of a few weeks to about the first forty chapters via a LibriVox recording, and then finished the rest in paperback form while I was waiting in all those places you need to wait after a move: government service centres, the auto shop for our provincial safety inspection, etc. This was the first audiobook I was able to stand listening to (ever), although it did take a few chapters to get the narrators’ voices out of my head once I did start reading the book myself. I’ll try LibriVox again.

I don’t have much to say about Charity Girl — I really read it back in March, mostly, but it was due back to the library at our old place right before we moved, and I didn’t get a chance to finish it then. So then after we moved I was able to get a copy from the new library, and finished the last couple of chapters… but so much had happened both in reading life and real life since then I had completely lost track of what was going on. I know I enjoyed what I read in March — I do like Georgette Heyer very much — but I will have to read it again sometime to be able to do it justice.

Speaking of the public library, I was tickled pink to find a copy of Holly Farb and the Princess of the Galaxy on display there on one of our first visits. I’d been hoping/meaning to to read it for a while; this is the debut novel of a former classmate of mine. Gareth and I had several classes together over the first two years of undergrad and so I was pretty excited, after losing touch for the better part of a decade, to see his name on the cover of a book. (Gareth, are you reading this? Hello!) This is a super-fun middle-grade space romp, narrated by a sarcastic storytelling robot who refers to the readers as sacks of meat… on page one. Also there are pirates. It was marvelous.

Also marvelous: Timothy Zahn’s The Green and the Gray. Zahn is a sci-fi writer I first encountered through the Star Wars extended universe novelizations. He writes a lot more than that, though! In The Green and the Gray, married couple Roger and Caroline are suddenly thrust into the middle of an ethnic war between two alien tribes who had (separately) fled to New York City — neither group knowing the other was there until a chance encounter awoke all the tensions they thought they had left behind. I nearly read this one through in a sitting; it’s that compelling a story-line.

I’m not sure what to say about The Appeal besides that John Grisham is John Grisham and the book ticked all of the expected boxes. Not super memorable, but good brain candy in the moment.

Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven and The Whole Town’s Talking are two loosely related novels — I wouldn’t quite characterize them as a series although they are thematically linked and share a number of characters — both set in the small town of Elmwood Springs, Missouri. Both are concerned with the question of what happens to us after we die. In Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven, senior citizen Elner Shimfissle falls out of a tree and is pronounced dead at the hospital — the book deals with the aftermath of her death among the residents of Elmwood Springs, alternating with Elner’s after-death experiences which include meeting her hero (Thomas Edison) and God (who takes the form of a married couple who used to be her neighbours). It’s a strange book, and sweet. The Whole Town’s Talking reaches back to Elmwood’s Springs’s founding, and tells the stories of its prominent inhabitants reaching forward to the present day. Most of the book is set in the town cemetery, where it appears that “resting” place is a bit of a misnomer as the plot concerns the dead as much as the living.

And that was it for April!

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: 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.

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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…