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.

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!

March is Biography Month

Here’s the bad news: I have fallen behind on the 75 book challenge by about two books.  I’m up to 10 but it seemed to take a long time to get through Spirituality for Our Global Community, a choice for my book group.

The prose was oddly stilted and while I’m not sure I didn’t agree with much of what he had to say, the book just didn’t inspire me to action.  He suggested a particular theological base for global community but didn’t offer much in the way of how we might actually get there beyond a vague idea that it involved getting rid of most contemporary religions, or at least all their metaphysical aspects.  Religion would become more cultural with no insistence on truth.   He was a little too rational for me and seemed to dismiss mystical experiences as simply figments of the imagination.  I just had this vision of a secular humanist world, stripped of culture diversity.

In addition, he seemed to paint the world in broad, black and white strokes with many unsubstantiated facts about how the world is going to hell in a hand basket, encouraged along by organized religion.   But I quickly tired of being referred to as “dear reader” when he told me how, “everyone knows” and “it’s a fact ” when indeed I wasn’t sure that was so.  In addition, he suggests that while he encourages you to think about what he says, if you ultimately don’t agree you are a naysayer and a relativist who doesn’t recognize truth when you see it staring you in the face.

I found it hard to read but I finished it and now need to get caught up.  I have an ambitious reading list for March.  All biographies and all for my book group which meets at the end of the month.

Our group has been together for some time and we’re exploring new ways for choosing books.  So, for next month, we’ve agreed to read a biography that focused on spirituality, peace or social justice.  I am taking a broad view of that and in the interest of getting more serious about my reading, I pulled five biographies off the shelf:

I’m going to start with the Guthrie biography.  Spirituality and social justice expressed through music.  I think it fits.  If I could read all five in March, I would still be a bit behind on the challenge but I would feel very good about chipping a hole in my to be read pile while following through on a serious theme.  Then, I could spend April reading quick fiction and get caught up.

But how to do this?  I need to commit to at least an hour of reading every day, probably two.  And, the older I get, the earlier those hours need to be or I end up sound asleep, book falling from my hands.  So, first thing in the morning seems like the way to go.  I’ve been trying to regulate my work hours–when you work from home, you can work all the time–so I generally don’t settle in for the first email until about 8:30 AM.  With a 30 second commute, I could easily find an hour to read before heading to the office.  A latte, my leather chair, and a good book.  Sounds like a great way to start the week!

There’s No Accounting For Taste

I just finished my first Early Reviewer book for LibraryThing: The Cart Before the Corpse by Carolyn McSparren.  A mystery set in Appalachian Georgia with a backdrop of carriage racing.  I enjoyed it…not great literature but in the same tradition as Janet Evanovich and Diane Mott Davison.  You can read my review at LT.  Here’s the funny part: I was all excited about my review so once it was posted, I went to the page and read the other review.  That reviewer HATED the book!  Thought it was boring, figured out the murdered right away, etc. etc. etc.  Oh well, as my father says, the world would be very dull if we all thought alike.  I did find myself second guessing my review but I really did enjoy the book.

The mystery was my first book of 2010.  I joined the LibraryThing 75 book challenge so I’ve got just 74 to go.  I better pick up the pace a bit.  I’m still working on Scandalmonger by William Safire and hope to find time to finish it tomorrow.

Project 365 Update: So far, I’ve kept up with taking a picture each day rather than drawing on already posted picture.  You can view my pictures here.

A Reading Week in Review

With my book group’s next meeting looming on Sunday, I finally picked up Switching to Goddess by Jeri Studebaker.  I found myself alternating between being irritated by her somewhat flippant, often silly-sounding tone and being impressed by the way she was really saying that the Emperor (that is contemporary religions) really don’t have any clothes.  I really got tired of the references to “snooty snobby bully boys” to refer to the gods of contemporary religions.  But her tone allowed her to attack prevailing ideas without sounding too shrill and much of what she had to say about the negative influences of religions rang true to me.  She was making a well-reasoned and researched argument which I think suffered in its message because of her tone.  And, while I agree that we need to move away from the more war-like focus on religions and I really agree with much of what she has to say about living in small, sustainable communities, but I’m not sure her notions of getting these religions to “switch” to the Goddess is realistic in light of research into adopting innovations.  I think she would probably argue that this isn’t an innovation since we are actually re-adopting something that we carry with us from our ancestors.

Would I recommend the book?  Sure…her introduction to the history of Goddess worship and her overview of various peaceful communities was as lively as any I’ve read.  Much of the other well-known books about the Goddess are older, written during more angry feminist era.  Studebaker is firmly placed in the 21st century and her comments about global warming and climate change touch the contemporary world in a way that other books I’ve read have not.  For Studebaker, there is a feminist element but her larger concerns are with the world.  She also directly addresses the recent flurry of books calling for the end of religion in general (ie, Sam Harris and Richards Dawkins), suggesting that it would be easier to get people to switch religions rather than abandon it altogether.

And now for something completely different…my sister recommended Jonathan Stroud’s The Amulet of Samarkand, the first book in the Bartimaeus Trilogy.  I listened to it and absolutely loved it!  Simon Jones, the narrator, was properly snarky as Bartimaeus the djinni and alternately scared, proud, and confident as Nathaniel.  It’s officially a kids’ book but I think younger readers would miss the ironic voice and sly political commentary of the setting in a world where all the major leaders are powerful magicians.  I’m eager to get started on Book 2, The Golem’s Eye.

Now, it’s back to The Hemingses of Monticello.  I’m enjoying the book but had to take a break so I could be prepared for book group…

No Place Is Safe

I learned two things yesterday:
1. My husband doesn’t read this blog.
2. Even the linen closet isn’t safe.

I learned these at the same time when, sparring a bit over books, he told me he had discovered the books in the linen closet. I replied that I had wondered if he read my blog. He looked a little confused. No, he said, I needed toilet paper.

So, I had to explain that I had overflowed all the available spaces and had moved on to the linen closet in the hopes that he would not look there and that I was sorry I was hogging the toilet paper.

But the up side is that we are in the midst of planning a new home and I’m going to get a library complete with a wall of books to which I can attach a rolling ladder like this one. It’s like the one in Becoming Jane that I just saw in Pennsylvania. If I didn’t already have books to read, I’d add rereading Austen to the list.

I finished Dee Brown’s The Fetterman Massacre in a day or so. Amazing detail of the months leading up to the event itself and lots of heavy foreshadowing about who would die. It is really a snapshot of life on the edge of civilization and I just can’t believe that women and children went along! I’m not sure I would be willing in endure that hardship for sort of murky reasons. They had a much greater faith in themselves and their country than we do now. It was a dangerous faith that led to the destruction of the Native Americans whose own faith in their culture also contributed to the downfall. Two conflicting world views clashed in those lonely places. In a way, it reminded me of Hadrian’s Wall, by William Deitrich, which described a similar moment in a far distant continent.

And now, it is back to The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon. Jefferson is in Paris and sending for his youngest daughter who will arrive with Sally Hemings. When I taught middle school, we read a book about a supposed child of the two named Harriet. It was called Wolf By the Ears by Ann Rinaldi. It filled in, at least fictionally, some of the things that Gordon can’t tell us: what it was like to be owned by a blood relative and how it felt to have to decide between the two races.

What Pledge?

Some women sneak clothes into the house. I sneak books. Remember that pledge I made just three weeks ago not to buy any more books? Well, that was the day before Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol got automatically delivered to my Kindle. But maybe the Kindle doesn’t count as the book doesn’t take up any space. And space really is the problem.

Unfortunately, not everything I want to read or think I want to read is available on the Kindle. Plus, I harbor a real love for books themselves and the bookstores where they live. I love browsing bookstores, particularly ones with overflowing shelves and hand written reviews. The bricks and mortar experience is just different from buying online, which for me is a much more directive process. I go to Amazon to buy a particular book that I want to read. Thus, the pre-order for The Lost Symbol. And, I appreciate Amazon’s suggestions based on my buying habits.

But, in book stores, I encounter books that aren’t part of an algorithm. Books I didn’t think about looking for because I didn’t know they existed or, if I did, hadn’t thought about reading. Books that Amazon would have never suggested because they don’t make any kind of digital sense. Books in book stores are in their native environment, pushing up against each other, organized in a haphazard analog way that can never be as neat and tidy as an online database and thus opens immense possibilities.

I knew I would probably have to avoid bookstores if I was going to keep my pledge. And, I have plenty of books to read before the end of the year anyway and the beginning of the pile in the bedroom so I figured I was going to be OK. I am reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, which I purchased before the pledge. I have a book to read for book group at the end of the month called Switching to Goddess by Jeri Lyn Studebaker that I had also purchased before the pledge. (Did I mention it was a feminist book group?) I also sort of accidentally bought Olive Kitteredge as I showed off my Kindle to someone. (“That’s what you get for showing off,” I can hear my mother say.) And, a friend recommended The Hemingses of Monticello, which I also bought on Kindle. So, plenty of books already in my possession and no book stores on the horizon.

All seemed well. Until last Friday afternoon. I spent this past weekend at my parents’ retirement community. They were having their fall festival and I was going up to help out with several events. Here’s what I didn’t know: as part of the fall festival, they have a huge used book sale. Boxes and boxes of used hard backs and paper backs that were only vaguely organized. A book browser’s dream. I must admit that I only thought about my pledge for about 30 seconds. OK, maybe not even that. All of a sudden, there was a book in my hand: National Geographic’s The Age of Chivalry. I don’t remember the second one or the third. And, while I believe there was an individual price for the books, I opted for the bag of books for five dollars scheme. I even had my own bag…at least for the first go round. It seems that the book sale opens the day before the actual festival, on Friday afternoon. So, I got an early look and pulled in some treasures including another National Geographic on the Renaissance. It made sense to have the set, right? I managed to get about eight books in my bag, I think.

On Saturday, I was determined to avoid the book sale, but it turns out that breakfast was served directly behind the sale and I had to walk past the long tables with their inviting cardboard boxes to get my croissant and coffee (which to my horror was decaf…that’s all they serve in retirement communities, it seems). My shift didn’t start until 9 AM so I found myself with an hour to kill and my undercaffeinated senses made me more vulnerable than usual, I think…well, I think you know the rest. Another 8 or 9 books found their way into a bag. I vowed that I was done buying books. But, then my sister arrived. We hit up the used clothes and then, just to be sociable, I accompanied her to the book sale. And, of course, I didn’t want her to feel bad about buying books so I bought a few more. Anything for my sister.

All in all I bought 30 books in those three trips! Mostly hard backs and ranging from And the Band Played On, Randy Shilts’ early history of AIDS to Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, which I don’t think I’ve ever read. There are two PD James mysteries from two different series. Two last minute purchases included a paperback collection of Winston Churchill’s history of World War II and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy.

Here’s the problem. I simply don’t have any more shelf space. The 50 books for next year are stacked precariously in the bed room. The other shelves that line several walls in two rooms already have two layers of books. What to do? Aaah…a place my husband never ventures: the linen closet in my bathroom. I live in a tiny house that, miraculously, has two full baths, which means I get a closet all to myself. Some quick rearranging of sheets and towels, and most of the books disappeared without a trace. I put Churchill and Pullman on the shelf on the back of the bed since most of the books that had been there are on project pile. It occurred to me that I was well on my way into 2011 with these new additions. And, as I drove along the turnpike on my way home, I passed several bulletin boards warning about 2012. The pressure is on: which books do I want to read before the world ends? Reading time suddenly takes on a very serious edge, doesn’t it?

Living on the New Earth

I bought the audio version of Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth some time ago but only listened to it over the past few days when I drove to Pennsylvania for a long weekend.  It was just what I needed to hear!  Tolle even suggests that that is the case: you read the book when you are ready for it.  And Tolle narrated the audio version so as I navigated the car through the horrible traffic around DC, I felt like I was in a one-on-one seminar with him, listening closely, occasionally rewinding, trying to be intensely present to what he was saying.

I have had the glimmers that Tolle talks about.  For instance, I find myself hurrying to finish folding the laundry and I think, “Why am I hurrying?” I slow down and just try to be there as I fold the laundry.  Or, I find myself annoyed over some silly thing with my husband and I find this voice saying, “Why are you annoyed?”  I have a wonderful husband who seems to already understand the notion of just being present in all you do.  He works hard to grow our food and create a peaceful life for us.  These glimmers, I realize, are the moments when I was most conscious.

My main issue in terms of the ego is worry: Am I working hard enough so I will be successful?  What will I do for money now that the grant is over? What SHOULD I be doing right now?  And, as part of that glimmer, I’ve found that if I just stop worrying and do, I get a lot done.

Right now, I am experiencing an odd sort of stress.  After many years of working very hard with very little free time, I have lots of free time.  Sure, I have a to do list but nothing that must be accomplished even in the next two weeks.  So, I am struggling inside with this.  It’s Thursday and my next job is to scrub my kitchen floor.  But other people are at work, earning paychecks.  Well, I did that for a long time and right now, I’m not doing that.  So, that means that if I look at my schedule and upcoming events and I have time and enthusiasm for scrubbing the kitchen floor, I should do it.  I don’t dwell on the past as much as I worry about the future, but for today, I am just going to try to be present in my life.