New Year, New Books, New Pictures

It’s January 1st, otherwise known as Resolution Day. According to every show I’ve seen, we put too much pressure on ourselves at the beginning of the year so maybe we should rename it Guidelines Day. In general, what would you like to accomplish this year in general and then more specifically without turning it into the pressure of the every day? I’m using this profundity to justify not joining groups this year.

I am going to continue to post pictures to flickr from both the past and the present, but without the pressure of having to take a new picture every day.

As for books, I made it to 72 this year. That includes analog, digital and audible. And, with the snow, I finally dove into John Adams, the book that I had planned to read first last year.

What I haven’t counted are the number of books I purchased this year. I do hope it wasn’t 72 ūüėČ I do want to try to avoid buying books this year. Learn to love the library and just plow through all the books I own but haven’t read. Catalog the ones I already have as I pack them for the move to their new home: a REAL library room in a 19th century farm house. I really can’t wait to have them displayed and be able to browse. I know there are books I have completely forgotten as well as plenty just begging to be read.

Then there’s blogging: for once in my life, I am free to write about what I would like. The trick is to find the discipline when there are no deadlines other than those that are self imposed. I suppose that’s what the daily challenges are all about. We tend to work better when there are expectations and deadlines. Is it possible to just weave these things in our lives without having to make them a daily regimen. I’m going to experiment with that idea as the new year begins.


It’s just a few days until Christmas and then we hurtle towards to the new year. I set two “digital” goals this year: a picture a day at flickr and the librarything 75-book challenge. I gave up the first one in July and I’m pretty confident that I won’t finish seven more books between now and the end of the year. Oh, so close.

But, in January, when I began these leisure time challenges, I had no idea what the year held for me. A new “part-time” job that began in July added to my other projects quickly overwhelmed any leisure time I had. I did keep reading but just couldn’t keep up the pace needed to reach the magic 75. By the end, I took the route of all potential losers and questioned the whole goal: maybe reading more isn’t necessarily better? At least once or twice this year, I picked a book because it seemed like a shorter, easier read. Poor John Adams is still languishing on the shelf and Churchill‘s history of the second world war has joined it.

Mostly, I’m finding that my concentration has gotten increasingly fragmented. I have memories of spending whole days readings books, and now after 15 minutes, I’m sure there must be something else I should do. Today I managed an hour in a sitting.

I am enjoying Shannon by Frank Delaney. He has hit a certain satisfying balance between history and fiction. And my reading friend sent me a wonderful Christmas gift that I opened the moment UPS left it on the porch. It included the Colonial Williamsburg triology by MG McManus. I’m imagining practicing my reading concentration skills on them during the holiday week.

I think I will take up the camera again in 2011. I took some pretty good pictures during the first half of 2010 and would like to try again. For now, I’m working on the 1998 pictures from our Lewis & Clark trip. I dug out the trip journal to check on some dates. And, I learned that the Camp Wood Monument near St. Louis was now under water! I wonder how much else has changed in the past 15 years.

Don’t Read This Book

…if you’re a reader, that is!¬†¬† Pat Conroy, author of books such as The Water is Wide and The Prince of Tides, has written a nonfiction account of his lifelong love affair with books titled My Reading Life.¬† I chose an audio version of the book, read by the author himself, and enjoyed hours of Conroy’s gruff voice, the lover caressing his own words as he moves from descriptions of¬† Gone With the Wind to War and Peace and the role each novel played in his life.¬† It is a great book.¬† So, why shouldn’t you read it?¬† Because my reading list just got longer and so will yours.¬† You can check out the book list on Conroy’s website.

Also, Conroy has really made me rethink the 75-book challenge.¬† I really haven’t had too¬† much trouble reading a book and a half a week but I wonder if I would have taken a bit more time to absorb and appreciate them without the deadline.¬† In addition, as I look over my list for the year, I wonder how many had the kind of impact that Conroy describes.¬† I read and listened to some great books this year but were they life changing?¬† And, if I had read some of them more slowly, would they have had a bigger effect on my life?¬† Maybe I should abandon the number of books and focus on Conroy’s goal: 200 pages a day!

How would I fit them in?¬† By finally giving up television, something I’m seriously considering since I heard the advertisement yesterday for a new “reality” show called Bridalplasty.¬† I guess I missed the earlier iterations of this plot line: brides to be move into a mansion and compete for plastic surgery and a fabulous wedding. This seems like an obscene example of our superficial society and the fact that these kinds of shows are considered reality really makes me worry about the future.¬† This certainly doesn’t reflect the reality of my life or those of my friends and colleagues.

Reading Around

Another two months have past…I haven’t been writing but I have been reading.¬† With six weeks left in the year, I only have nine books to go to complete the 75 book challenge, which won’t be a problem since almost everything that has been keeping me busy for the past three months will be over.¬† Who knows…maybe I’ll dive into John Adams or the History of London.

So, what have I been reading?¬† Oh, all sorts of stuff and I’ll do the speed dating version of reviews.¬† For tonight, we’ll do the fiction:

Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver: Took awhile to get going but was fascinating with its portraits of Trotsky, Diego Rivera, and Frida Kahlo

Dune Road, Jane Green: Older chick lit, only a little bit predictable

Winter Garden, Kristin Hannah: Older chick lit as well but the backdrop of the Seige of Leningrad raised it up a notch and the ending was a pleasant surprise

Girls in Trucks, Katie Crouch: Funny, a little heartbreaking, maybe a little cliche, but a good read

Guardian of the Horizon, Elizabeth Peters:¬† I almost never read these.¬† Barbara Rosenblatt does the audio versions and she’s terrific.¬† But I’ve listened to enough of them that I could imagine Rosenblatt’s voice while I read the words.¬† I love it; a mystery series that has yet to get stale for me.

Serena, Ron Rash: I just don’t know what to think: a powerful novel, great writing, but the violence overwhelmed me.¬† I was interested in the historical aspects of the founding of the Great Smokies National Park and was fascinated by the story, but the female protagonist seemed somewhat flat in her single minded devotion.¬† I know, not a ringing recommendation, but I think I would recommend it.

Elements of Style, Wendy Wasserstein:¬† I wrote a short review on LibraryThing but after a few days, I realize I mostly just couldn’t sympathize with these selfish people.¬† Is this really what New York was like circa 9/11 even with the expected exaggeration?

Self-Storage: A Novel, Gayle Brandeis: The main character was disarming in her honesty and full on approach to life.

Sitting With the Hummers

As you can see, dear readers, I have taken something of a hiatus from this blog and from my online life in general including nings and twitter and facebook. ¬†A new “part-time” job began in July but June was filled with preparations and travel. ¬†My first month on the job included lots of travel as well and I was just getting caught up when August, with its double whammy of beginning-of-school-year training and beginning-of-college-year, took arrived, something that always seems to catch me off guard. ¬†Suddenly, it’s the second week of September. ¬†And, there’s some light…literally, it’s early evening and I’m enjoying my little courtyard where the hummingbirds dodge and parry as they grudgingly share a feeder. ¬†After months of seemingly non-stop work, I’ve got some breathing room, some precious minutes between moving away from work and starting dinner, and in an effort to revive these ailing pages, I’ve decided to post a blog entry. ¬†Oh, Joy!

N.B. In the interest of transparency, that paragraph and many of the following ones were written four days ago. ¬†I am just getting back to this draft now so I’m still kind of looking for that breathing room. ¬†Next week holds some promise. ¬†I am, however, sitting in the same courtyard sitting on the Adirondack chair that I managed to finish painting, listening to the fountain with no real sign of the hummingbirds yet.

Three days agao…Meanwhile, despite all, I have been reading. ¬†Well, most of July was spent listening to other people read, but I’m counting it. ¬†I made it through all three of the Stieg Larsson books that way. ¬†The narrator, Simon Vance, was great; the Swedish place names tumbled off his lips and I was glad to hear them rather than having to figure them out on my own from text. I found this Google Map of the various locations though and that helped with my non-existent knowledge of Swedish geography.

They were a bit difficult to listen to in terms of content but I got used to it and a friend remarked that Larsson was really a feminist, and I believe that’s true in the most fundamental way. ¬†Even the main male character, the journalist Mikael Blomkvist, doesn’t necessarily treat women all that well at least outside of the bedroom but I suppose he would think of himself as a feminist by allowing women to be free. But maybe that was just an excuse for his own philandering. ¬†Hmmm…

I was fascinated with the real main character, Lisbeth Salander, and her head-on approach to life. I couldn’t help but bristle at the all-too-real depiction of public education painted by Larsson. ¬†Her unusual gifts and unwillingness to compromise her values put her at odds with the very people who could have protected her. ¬†As the school year begins, she is a reminder to all of us that we owe every kid our attention and non-judgmental support. And, who knows, maybe her fascination with Fermat’s last theorem will help make math cool.

The books kept me going as the miles of road stretched ahead of me and for that I’m grateful. ¬†I also listened to Star Island, the new book by Carl Hiassen, a perennial favorite, and just finished House Rules by Jodi Picoult. ¬†Both were excellent in their own ways. ¬†Hiassen is wickedly funny with his portrait of young idols gone bad and the system that supports them. ¬†I laughed out loud a lot at this one. ¬†Picoult was very different. ¬†A mystery in its own right as well as a thoughtful portrait of Aspberger’s syndrome. ¬†It was read ¬†by the Audible Books ensemble so rather than one reader providing multiple voices, various voices took over for Picoult’s sections which were each narrated by one of five characters. ¬†It worked as it made these sections quite distinct, and highlighted the distinct perspectives of each character.

I have also been doing “real” reading, by which I mean holding an analog book (and I’d even include my Kindle here since I’m holding it and reading text). ¬†I’ve read everything from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, which I’m not completely sure I understand, to British mysteries (mostly Martha Grimes and P.D. James) more than I’ve read all my life, and, in light of the controversy over the Koran burning, a very interesting piece of non-fiction called The Faith Club. ¬†It features three women–a Christian, Jew, and Muslim–who come together to write a children’s book about religion and find it much more difficult than it seems, forcing them to examine their own beliefs and prejudices. ¬†Highly recommended!

Here’s the whole list for 2010. ¬†I’m up to 52 and easily on track to finish 75 books by the end of the year. ¬†I haven’t tackled the big boys yet–McCullough’s¬†John Adams and Inwood’s¬†A History of London. ¬†I need a read-all-day kind of vacation but I don’t see it happening any time soon. ¬†So, maybe I’ll make them the first two books of 2011 when the colleges are on break. ¬†In the short term, my book group is reading The Sparrow. ¬†I went ahead and added the second book, Children of God, to my Kindle as well. ¬†So, the minute I finish Anne Perry’s No Graves As Yet, I’ll start reading.

The photo a day plan has failed. ¬†I made it until June and then things just fell apart. ¬†Now, I can’t even locate my camera! ¬†But, in looking for early photos of our beloved black lab Ivy who we lost this summer (16 years and several months…she had a GREAT life!), I’ve gotten access to the digital photo archives for the Richardsons that started with our Sony Mavica some time in 1996 or 97. ¬†It will include our Lewis and Clark photos, only a very small few of which are on the web. ¬†I’ll save the stories of that trip for another post but let’s just say that Kinko’s was pretty much the only Internet access in those days and they charged $12 an hour! I’m hoping to find some time soon to start going through them and may start my own “picture a day” project that pulls things from the archives. ¬†There’s also a drawer full of digital video tapes that could yield some gems.

I’ll keep you posted. ¬†And, I’ll go ahead and post this so I don’t go another four days!

And Now For Something Completely Different

I finished up the Abigail Adams mystery and enjoyed it, although the nature of the crime seemed somewhat 21st century to me despite the author’s best effort to show it in an 18th century light. I figured it out along with Abigail and, as I mentioned earlier, found the depiction of Boston and its daily life to be the most interesting.

An aside on the nature of the Internet and multitasking…I began to write this post while I was rendering video.¬† As I wrote the post, I thought I would check to see if there were plans for another mystery in the series.¬† I discovered that Barbara Hamilton is actually a pseudonym of Barbara Hambly, a mostly fantasy and science fiction writer. I spent a little bit of time trying to confirm this but Wikipedia was no help at all.¬† Nor the Fiction Database.¬† There is a brief mention in a comment on Good Reads and an online bookstore lists both names as the author.¬† But, she has an interview with Barbara Hamilton on her website that makes it pretty clear. I’m wondering if I should update the Wikipedia entry?¬† I feel like I need a definitive source.¬† I did find the answer to my original question: There are at least two more books in the works in the series and maybe a fourth that will involve Martha Washington.

Now, I’m back from that bit of birdwalking…I edited the video and it’s rendering some more while I write.¬† Yesterday, I wasn’t sure what I was going to read and spent some time in the afternoon looking at the pile of books in the bedroom that were supposed to be the ones I was reading in 2010.¬† I have gotten through very few of them as I’ve either read new books or books from other shelves.¬† (The biographies, all hard backs, cleaned off half a shelf in the office.)¬† I was thinking about more bios: John Adams, Marie Curie, Margaret Mead, or doing a Jasper Fforde weekend with the two new ones I have, or immersing myself in English history with Sharon Kay Penman, Alison Weir, and Antonia Fraser.¬† But then…at the bottom of the pile in the back, there were three library books.¬† (As a prof at WM, I get to keep books for a year.)¬† They were from Bernard Cornwell’s Civil War series, The Starbuck Chronicles. I have the first three and it turns out there are five of them.¬† The first one–Rebel–opens in Richmond, the day after Fort Sumter and after spending some time with it this morning, that’s what I’ll be reading for the next few days.¬†¬† Aah, I am relieved that I have made that decision since I’m going to sit out in the sun this afternoon and I’ll need a book in hand.

I managed to get through most of the books I had been reading since at one point I had about four going at the same time, not something I usually do, but I still haven’t finished Bound for Glory.¬† It’s on the Kindle but I don’t know if that’s the problem or not.

Meanwhile, the video is rendered and it’s time to move on…

Historical Fiction Mysteries

Well, the sick husband passed the cold along to me so I’ve spent a lot of time in bed for the past 72 hours.¬† I finished the Wyeth biography (really terrific read) and then puttered over the books to decide what to read next.¬† I found two mysteries that seemed like perfect sick bed reading: The Apostate’s Tale by Margaret Frazer and The Ninth Daughter by Barbara Hamilton, which features Abigail Adams.¬† I’ve finished the former and am half way through the latter.

Dame Frevisse is the sleuth in The Apostate’s Tale, the 18th book in the Sister Frevisse series.¬† She’s a nun at the priory of St. Frideswide.¬† The portrait of life in a 15th century priory was well drawn, and her characters were compelling.¬† She let us into the thoughts of both Dame Frevisse and the apostate nun who returns to the priory, dragging the outside world with her.¬† The side tale of a young woman considering becoming a nun is interesting in its portrait of life choices for women in that time.

The main problem I had with the book was that I had solved the mystery long before she did.¬† There was lots of internal questioning that seemed tedious and repetitive and you wondered that she hadn’t put it all together since the path seemed pretty clear.¬† But I’m willing to forgive that since the prose was good and I read these more the historical views rather than the mystery.

The Abigail Adams mystery is promising.  Whereas the Frevisse mystery did not refer to politics at all, this story is completely tied up in politics, set as it is in 1773 Massachusetts.  The Boston Tea Party looms on the horizon.  Both real and fictional characters include British army officers, Sons of Liberty, wealthy merchants and slaves.  Of course, Abigail is the sleuth and she manages to charm merchant and Army officer alike.  The author depicts daily life with careful detail and is particularly insightful about the relationships of owners and masters and their slaves and servants.

I have not had any luck figuring out the mystery.  There are lots of players and it can be a bit complicated with family connections.

Not sure what’s next after this one…I haven’t made much of a dent in the pile that I assembled in December.¬† John Adams still sits there.¬† Maybe that’s the natural follow up, a nice blending of my two latest themes: biographies and mysteries.¬† It’s just so imposing.¬† Similarly, I’m interested in the history of London that’s on the pile, but it just seems like too¬† much of a commitment.¬† I wonder if you tend to read shorter books in a year when you’re doing something like the 75-book challenge?¬† I do take that a bit into consideration.

Sunday Morning Reading Round Up

Stayed home from church and with a sick husband sleeping on the couch, I did one of my favorite things: escaped back to bed with a big mug of coffee and a book.¬† In my younger days, there was nothing more wonderful than a morning spent in bed with coffee and books.¬† This morning, it was Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life, Merryman’s biography of this iconic Pennsylvania painter.¬† I feel a connection with the Wyeths as I lived in Chester County and frequented the Brandywine River Museum.¬† This past December, my parents and I headed down and were treated to a tour of the Wyeth gallery with Victoria Wyeth, Andrew’s grand daughter.¬† She was charming, funny, and incredibly knowledgeable.¬† I’m enjoying the biography and after reading four of them so far this month, I can say that I prefer the “illustrated” style where pictures are included throughout the text rather than the more typical practice of dumping them together in one central location, like a scrapbook within the textbook.

Now a moment of honesty:¬† I really struggled with that last sentence as I wonder if a real book reviewer would use the word “enjoy” or worry about how the pictures are handled?¬† And, why do I care what a real book reviewer would do?¬† Well, yesterday I made a point of watching a panel on book reviewing that had been conducted during the Virginia Festival of the Book that centered on the business of book reviews.¬† The main theme was that book reviewing was never a lucrative profession and it was becoming less so with the move towards the Internet, neither of which were a surprise.¬† What did surprise me and made me nervous about that sentence was their negative reaction towards all the amateur book reviewers out there.¬† Katherine Weber, in particular, seemed to feel like amateurs were more about commerce than good reviewing.¬† I’m not completely sure I got her point but decided that I needed to read more “real” book reviews (as opposed to my fellow bibliophiles at LibraryThing) to see if I can determine for myself what makes a worthwhile, non-commercial review.¬† I’ll spend some time today with the New York Times Review of Books.¬† Meanwhile, I’m going to plug along with my pedestrian ways.¬† I have found that knowing that I’m going to be writing about the books makes me read a bit more seriously, something else the reviewers talked about.

Of course, there is the possibility that they simply feel a little threatened by all the book reviewers out there.  They did agree that there were some very well written amateur reviews but that it was often difficult to find them among the growing dross.  I was reminded of the commercial for a job site where the tennis court is overwhelmed by everyone and the professional player was lost amongst the crowd.  But the beauty of book reviews on the Internet is that you are not restricted to the few people that the newspaper or magazine decided was a good reviewer.  It takes longer to explore on your own, but the journey takes you some interesting places and, in the end, you get to choose the people you want to read.

I’ve been reading away…since my last post, I finished Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and Zen Effects: The Life of Alan Watts.¬† I also had several road trips and listened to The Weed That Strings The Hangman’s Bag, an absolutely marvelously presented audio book, written by Alan Bradley and read by Jayne Entwhistle.¬† I got online this morning to download the other one in the series, The Sweetness At The Bottom of the Pie, and am wondering if I have time to get in a walk before book group.

I’ve completed 18 books so far…right on track for the 75 book challenge!

Audio Biography

I’m half way through my pile of biographies that I’m reading in March so I’m really right on track for the 75 book challenge.¬† (Sneaking in the third book in the Knit series helped since it was a very quick read.)¬† When I got in the car for a five-hour drive to visit family, I plugged in the iPod and was pleasantly surprised to be reminded that my audio book was a biography of a sort as well.¬† I hadn’t listened to it for awhile…no long driving and lousy weather for walking.

So, I had sort of forgotten that I was listening to Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon–and the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller.¬† I had seen the book in the Philadelphia train station but had Audible credits so went for the audio version.¬† I liked the narrator, Susan Ericksen, although she had odd cadences sometimes.¬† And, it was long for an audio book, more than 20 hours.¬† But then, it spanned over 5 decades in the lives and times of these women.¬† And the content was engaging, telling the story of a generation through the lens of three extraordinary women who both reveled in and pushed back against their roles in that generation.¬† Their stories begin separately but then weave together through music and musicians–Jame Taylor is a shared experience with Carly Simon taking him through his years as an addict.

I was most interested in Carole King partially because I knew so little about her and partially because she seemed to make the biggest transformation, from native New York songwriter to rustic Idaho rancher.  She achieved fame early and seemingly quickly and then spent the rest of her life trying to live up to her work in Tapestry.

That need to meet others’ expectations was a theme for Joni and Carly, too.¬† Joni’s confessional poetic songs touched other women and when she tried to move away, into jazz, they struggled to follow her.¬† Carly’s early work was more popular than that of her husband, James Taylor, but she suffered from anxiety attacks that eventually put an end to most of her public performances.

This book helped make my biography reading a little more diverse…the books on the pile are all white guys and my inner feminist was feeling a little left out.

An Environmental Pioneer

I started to read Bound for Glory AND the biography of Aldo Leopold. I’m about half way through the former but have finished Aldo Leopold: A Fierce Green Fire by Marybeth Lorbiecki. It was short and I sometimes missed having greater detail about the life of this extraordinary man but I liked the illustrations and feel like I have a good understanding of both his life and times.

I think Leopold’s greatest lesson for us is how he merged his personal and professional lives into a spiritual whole that benefited the world. His early passion for the outdoors as both a watcher and a hunter forged a strong foundation of knowledge, skills and dispositions that made his path seem preordained. Professionally, he helped shape the Forest Service and national wildlife management practices. Personally, his love for the Shack was his personal chance to put his beliefs into practice in a very real way.

Also, the biography shows how Leopold himself learned about living with wilderness. While his path may have been preordained, he did not come into the world knowing the answers. Instead, he used his knowledge and skills to both investigate and learn. For instance, I was surprised at his attitude towards predators like wolves described early in the book. Certainly an environmentalist must understand their role in the natural world. But, I’m writing from a 21st century perspective. Leopold’s early attitude was part of the culture of the first half of the 20th century so it took him some time to break free. Leopold’s editor, Albert Hochbaum, described this learning process:

Albert dashed off one more letter on the subject: Aldo’s unique gift was not that he was “an inspired genius,” he said, but that we was like “any other ordinary fellow trying to put two and two together.” The Professor simply “added up his sums better than most.” Wrong trails taken were as important as right one (p. 167).

The title of the book comes from Leopold’s own description of the moment when he realized he was on the wrong trail when it came to predators as he described fierce green fire in the eyes of¬† the mother wolf he had shot:

I was young then, and full of trigger-itch. I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view (p. 167).

Leopold was pragmatic about other people’s commitment to wildlife preservation.¬† When he was accused of only wanting to preserve wildlife so it could be hunted, he suggested that hunters and conservationists needed to work together.¬† He was also was also honest about his own impact on the world and described a middle way:

I realize, that every time I turn on an electric light…I am ‘selling out’ to the enemies of conservation. When I submit these thoughts to a printing press, I am helping to cut down the woods. When I pour cream in my coffee, I am helping to drain a marsh for cows to graze, and to exterminate the birds of Brazil…What to do? I see only two courses open to the likes of us. One is to go live on locusts in the wilderness, if there is any wilderness left (p. 144).

Lorbiecki goes on to describe Leopold’s other course: “The other, he explained, is to help businesses and consumers become conservation-minded so they find ways to enjoy some comforts of modern life without ruining the land (p. 114).

Like Woody Guthrie, Leopold was a prolific writer.  He had things to tell the world and no matter what else was going on in his life, he wrote and published.  He had good advice for his students who often had to go through multiple drafts before Leopold approved:

Think of it this way. In spite of all the advances of modern science, it still takes seven waters to clean spinach for the pot…And for all my writings to this day, it still takes seven editings, sometimes seventeen, before I let it go off to press.

I wonder what Leopold would think about the more spontaneous nature of much blog writing?

I enjoyed the book, wanted more and have now moved on to Leopold’s own work: A Sound County Almanac.¬† I’m reading the edition from the 60s that combined his original work with other writing.