Mid-January Reading Review

I have completed five very different books so far this year, including one audio book:

Here are my impressions:

Library of Souls

Library of Souls is the third book in the Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children series. Ransom Riggs weaves a fascinating tale of a world beyond our world where human beings with “peculiar” characteristics live in time loops. Jacob Portman discovers these peculiars, their mentors and his own peculiarity in the first book of the series, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. There are evil forces at work and the children fight them in the second and third books. The books are illustrated with antique photographs that Riggs has borrowed or collected. Story and photos intertwine in interesting ways and I found myself wondering about the writing process. Did Riggs look for the next photo or write the next section and then look for a photo that added interest?

I was a little taken aback by the violence: evil is really evil here, chasing the peculiars to drain their souls, and there are scenes of torture. The good guys use one of the bad guys in a similar way and Jacob sees the fear in the creature’s eyes. It lives but only just and Jacob understands that even this horrible beast who would eat him if it got the chance has a bit of its own spark of life and humanity. This is a young adult novel and I think this particular point would be an important one to explore if you are reading the books with young people.

Crossing to Safety

Crossing to Safety is a story of friendship and marriage. Four people, two couples, who connect across their lifetimes as they find their passions, even as they encounter their own limitations. Larry Morgan, who with Sally makes up one couple, narrates the story, focusing his attention on a few seminal events that define the relationships among the four and often help illuminate the marriage of Sid and Charity, their larger than life friends who pull Larry and Sally into their orbit when they meet in Madison in the years before WW II. I found the narrative quietly compelling. The drama has a cerebral quality as Larry examines the relationships and his own trajectory as a writer. We see how money and family affect the group as well as their aspirations for their respective spouses. Stegner is a master of setting and allows it to play a large, sometimes active role, in the story.

Bitter Seeds

I found Bitter Seeds in my Audible feed so downloaded it for a recent road trip. I’m honestly not sure when I bought it or what attracted me to it. I am familiar with the theory of alternate history but haven’t read much and don’t think I realized that was the genre. It was not what I was expecting at all: a dark fantasy set during World War II. I found it fascinating even if it was sometimes a bit too violent for my tastes. There was also a psychologically disturbing edge to the narrative: children raised in a purely evil environment, taught to fear failure, trained only to kill.

I’m not sure I’ll read the next two books in the series or not. It reminds me a bit of Steig Larsson’s books: an evil, cynical world that repels and yet attracts as the author weaves a compelling story amongst the evil. This isn’t gratuitous violence but a narrative of good and evil where neither side really wins. I listened to all three of Larsson’s books and was fascinated by them.

A Spool of Blue Thread

A Spool of Blue Thread is a story of a house and the four generations of the Whitshank famly who live there. It’s a house born of obsession with perfection that houses a sour marriage at the start and then later a large typical family with love and petty jealousies and memories. Each character brings a bit of a surprise and we can find something to like in each one so ultimately this is a story of redemption. It was an enjoyable if not riveting read and as I headed to the last page, I felt like I wanted more answers. But, it occurred to me that the answers simply weren’t there: the characters didn’t know then and so we couldn’t either.

Venetian Betrayal

I discovered Steve Berry last year when I found The Charlemagne Pursuit on my shelf. In the tradition of The DaVinci Code, Berry writes historical thrillers that play on ancient conspiracies brought into the modern world. Venetian Betrayal did not disappoint although I’m starting to grow weary of some recurring devices including supposedly dead people who turn up alive just when you need them. And this book seemed even more violent with the evil dictator seeming to just shoot everyone who angered her and finding other creative ways to kill those who oppose her. The bodies really piled up. Despite its length, I read it in a day, skimming through some of the sometimes complicated history related to the conspiracies.

On a personal note, I checked this out of the library: these kinds of quick reads don’t need to be on my shelf OR my Kindle!



Library Resolution Revisited

I did a quick search on library on this website and discovered two January entries (2011 and 2012) that resolved to use the public library more. Clearly, it was not a resolution last year since, when I logged in the other day to reserve a book, I discovered that my card had expired in 2014.

But, I’m back at it again this year: as I’ve gotten more involved in the reading groups sponsored by LibraryThing, I am discovering lots of books that aren’t on the shelf. Some may have free versions through Amazon but, mostly, I would have to pay for the digital versions. These are generally books that I won’t reread so the library seems like quite an economy. My library has a savings calculator that gives an estimate of the cost of the services you use. I think it’s a monthly calculation (I was a little confused by the number to be entered so counted each book as a “service” that I used). Including two books, a magazine (the librarian showed me the online magazine access they offered) and one interlibrary loan, my cost was $76.00. I may be able to cancel at least one magazine subscription.

Last year, I made reading my ROOTS (my own tomes) a priority and managed to read 45 books I already owned, 10 more than the goal I set at the beginning of the year. It doesn’t look like LibraryThing has a group for setting a library book goal but it doesn’t mean I can’t set my own. I’m going to start with 30 as a goal.  I checked out three today, two Anne Tylers for a book challenge and the next Steve Berry Cotton Malone mystery. I know I’ll continue borrowing Berry from the library. The books are good but I really don’t need digital copies.

Here’s the ticker:


Five Favorite Books from 2015

In the spirit of LibraryThing’s Top Five Books for 2015, here are mine:

  1. A Man Called Ove: I just finished this in preparation for a book club I’m attending next week. What a wonderful uplifting read! At its heart, it is about how doing the right thing can bring joy and love when you are least expecting it. And, I want my epitaph to read, “You are not a complete idiot!” Read this book now…easy storytelling style that masks profound ideas about life. I’m still thinking about it, laughing a bit but also musing on its lessons.
  2. As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto: I LOVED this collection of long, newsy, thoughtful letters exchanged over the course of a decades long friendship. There is lots of talk of food and cooking but also comments about movies and books, political diatribes, and personal insights into the lives of these two fascinating women.
  3. American Gods: Gaiman combines storytelling and mythology to create a tightly woven tale that sprawls across America. His control of language provides a fluid foundation for an intriguing, innovative story. I read several of Gaiman’s books this year. Neverwere was another wonderfully magical story. Anansi Boys is on my to read list for early 2016.
  4. Two Years Before the Mast: Who knew? This has been sitting on my shelf for awhile, purchased during a time when I felt like I needed to read some classics. I avoided it but once I dug in found it a thrilling memoir of life at sea. Dana moves between gritty details and high minded musings as he narrates his coming of age story.
  5. A Confederacy of Dunces: This is another book that has been on the shelf for awhile. I just adored this crazy story, often laughing out loud! Toole uses New Orleans the way Gaiman used America: an active participant in the story, landscape grown large.

I had a great reading year: my goal was 75 books and I ended at 97. I think you can view the list here. Almost a third were books that have been knocking around for awhile and some of them went into the donation box.  I reconnected with audio books, working my way through Rhys Bowen’s Molly Murphy mystery series. I’m going to join the 75 books challenge again this year but add some more professional reading into the usual mix of history and fiction. I just started Passionate Learners: How to Engage and Empower Your Students by Pernille Ripp and am joining the online book club. And I am finishing up Library of Souls, the third book in the Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children series. It feels weightier than the previous two: more serious but also denser in the prose.

I’m planning on a weekly blog post on this blog: reading reviews mostly, maybe some music and travelogues as well. Happy New Year and may 2016 be your best year ever.

A Little Suspense At the End of the Year

I joined the 75 book challenge at LibraryThing and made it to my goal by mid-October. About half were my “own tomes,” that is books I have owned for some time. Most of those ended up on the give away pile to open some shelf space for more books. The suspense mentioned in the post title is whether or not I can get to 100 by December 31. I am currently at 93 so, with lots of free time over the long holiday break, it is possible: I am in the midst of three books right now: Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, the audio version of Angela’s Ashes, and Angela Thirkell’s High Rising. That leaves me just four to go, and I have a list started:

  • Last Bus to Wisdom, Ivan Doig’s last book before his death earlier this year
  • Armada by Ernest Cline (I LOVED Ready Player One and this promises the same thrilling narrative)
  • Either Brooklyn or Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín
  • A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, the book club selection for a book group I’ll join during a visit to a friend in early January
  • Shadow Scale, Rachel Hartman’s sequel to Seraphina, which I read earlier this year
  • Library of Souls, the third book in Ransom Riggs’ series of Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children

None of these are lengthy and all promise to be good reads. To be honest, I probably won’t finish Thomas Hardy. It’s been languishing for awhile and it isn’t necessarily figured into the total.

Or…I could just keep reading Steve Berry’s Cotton Malone series. I had The Charlemagne Pursuit on my shelf for a long while and it is one of those historical thrillers that I just couldn’t put down. I’ve now moved pretty quickly through The Templar Legacy and The Alexandria Link. But, I think these may the kinds of books that could quickly get old so I think I’ll work on the list above and tuck in another Berry now and then through 2016.


Slow Reading

I completed my 75 books challenge in mid-October. I think you can see the list here. Some good reading…some fluffy reading…mostly fairly non-demanding reading. So, I’m struggling a little bit with my current read. Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land is a dense story of a man facing the “Permanent Period” of his life as he struggles with relationships, health problems and a general sense of things breaking apart. There are moments of insight but there are also moments when I just want to shake Frank Bascombe, the main character. Indeed, The New York Times called the book “lethargic” and that’s an apt description. Long chapters, long internal musings. In a way I don’t want to abandon it because there must be some climax, a reckoning, at least a satisfying personal experience as a reward for living in this man’s head for so many pages. So, I think I need a different strategy for reading it.

It occurred to me that it is so different from the other books I’ve read this year. They emphasized the story and included multiple interesting characters interacting with each other. Frank is really the only character here: we see everyone else through his eyes. I think it’s a book that requires slow reading, almost like reading someone’s journal: less story and more reflection, so a few pages here and there are enough. After all, there isn’t any real plot to remember.

I wasn’t aware it was the third book in a trilogy. Evidently, at the Times thinks the two other books were better, but I’m not sure I want to go back. Will I like Frank any better as a young man?

Oh no! The Game is Down!

One of my big goals this year is to eat better and exercise more, making the kinds of lifestyle changes that, I hope, will help me feel stronger and more energetic. More vegies, less sitting, that kind of thing.

A couple days ago, I logged back into Jane McGonigal’s Super Better health game where you identify your epic win and then work towards it one activity, power up, and quest at a time. McGonigal has partnered with other organizations so some of the content comes from third parties. For instance, those interested in weight loss are connected to the free resources provided by the Full Plate diet. I took the time to set up my account and started logging some points and achievements. It was fun to drink a glass of water and then, rather than just recording it in a database, being rewarded with a few points. For 48 hours, I felt successful and was having fun making changes that had been real challenges for many years.

Here’s Jane talking about the genesis of the game in her own illness:

Then, the game went down. I couldn’t get in on my iPad and the website wouldn’t load on the laptop. WHAT? I had completed at least a few things that would get me some points. I wanted to remind myself what else I should be doing. Mostly, I just needed those few minutes of game play to focus my attention on my goal. And I wasn’t sure I could really do this without the game; goodness knows I had tried often enough. The game was going to be the edge that helped me succeed this time. Nothing in the game is a surprise: eat better, move around, think positive thoughts. It’s just that the game both reminded me and made it fun to do those things. Now, it was gone.

I’m happy to say it wasn’t gone for long, but I was a little surprised at my visceral reaction when it didn’t load, as though I had lost a really valuable tool!

The ephemeral nature of the web can be frustrating. This week, as I proofread a colleague’s dissertation, I longed for the return of CiteRefs, an online tool that checked citations and references for both format and correctness. It’s painful to do it manually, and CiteRefs was an elegant solution. I used it extensively in my own doctoral work. It has, sadly, disappeared, perhaps killed off by support costs, changing software or just time.


The Messiness of Contemporary Media

A fancy title for something that I suspect has been going on for awhile but only really hit home with me today.

I get an email from the Chester County Book Company about books and today’s edition included a link to this amazing book trailer for Mosquitoland:

The description shows the blending of words, music and images: “Book and music written and produced by David Arnold.” No longer does a writer just put words on a page; he is able to create his own imagery as well. I was struck by the power of the video to make me want to read the book. I suspect it would be even more powerful for the young adult audience for which this book is really written.

Video book trailers is not a new idea for educators: they’ve been making them with kids since video became readily accessible. But they seem to have also found their way into mainstream in a pervasive way.

And, for me, it is a reminder of one of the ways I tend to seem old in this very new world. In the old world, books were books, movies were movies, created by different people and often not the same story in the end. What happens when authors “produce” the whole range of their work from written word to soundtrack to video. In this short clip, we get a visual of the main character, something we would normally have to create on our own out of the words themselves. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

I am also reminded of the wealth of media resources out there around books from interviews to recitations. This review of Kazuo Ishiguro’s new book is a great example as it mixes words, images, audio and video into one page. Wonderful and yet, again, I’m not sure how I feel about it. I want to engage with the author at the level of the work he has created. I don’t want to hear too many interviews that ask him to explain it or too many reviews that try to explain it. I’ll check all this out afterwards, but for now, I just want to sit with the book itself.

Labor Organizing Now and Then

I’m reading Sweet Thunder by Ivan Doig, the third is his Morrie Morgan series. Morgan returns to Butte, Montana, in the early 20s and writes commentary for the pro-union newspaper. Doig does a great job of showing how the company-run newspaper answers Morgan’s arguments for better wages and safe working conditions. Ultimately, we are encouraged to support the union as Doig describes the unnecessary deaths in the mines and the violent suppression tactics of the company.

It is tempting to believe that these arguments ended with the success of labor unions. But a headline in Salon caught my eye this morning: The One Thing That Can Save America. Thomas Geoghegan, a labor lawyer in Chicago, describes a country very different from the one in which Morgan lives and works where more and more companies are using “non-employees” to do their work, thus freeing them from any responsibility for health care and retirement. He wonders labor unions need to change to help support these new kinds of workers.

There is still a role for traditional unions, too. I follow a local school division on Facebook and the teachers are fighting for better wages and working conditions. It’s a tough fight in a state that doesn’t include collective bargaining. One poster indicated that she would no longer sponsor clubs or grade papers on her own time. These kinds of work stoppages harken back to the kinds of union actions described in Doig’s book.

Vocabulary Lesson: Tsundoku

It turns out there is a word for my habit of buying books that I don’t read: tsundoku.

I have made the no new books pledge in the past only to break it pretty quickly.

This year, I am  making the same promise although I’m already thinking about a trip to Chester County Book Company next week when I make a trek to Pennsylvania to visit old friends. I love their newsletter and really think I should support indie book stores, right?

I joined two LibraryThing groups for the new year: the 75 Book Challenge and the ROOTS 2015 (Reading Our Own Tomes). The latter is just for people like me who have lots of books on the shelf that they haven’t read. I started 2015 with The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro as part of British authors reading challenge. It’s been on the shelf since April 2012.

I managed to get in 71 books in 2014: here’s the list.