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.

Baking and Books

I’ve been reading…I’ll get to 70 for this year.

And, I’ve been baking: whole wheat bread in various forms, cornbread with cheese and jalapenos, and, tonight, Gingerbread Cupcakes with Cinnamon Icing from King Arthur. They showed it with a ginger cookies and I substituted shortbread. These are ready for the wonderful staff at our local Farm Credit office. They financed us when the regular banks said no.

Gingerbread cupcakes with cinnamon icing and a shortbread cookie