Sunday, December 30, 2012

Our books for 2013

It's our 3rd year of committing to reading books from our To Be Read (TBR) pile! (Here are our lists from 2011 and 2012 for the wildly curious.)

Jenny's Books
Here is a screen cap of the books Jenny has chosen:

(click to see that bigger)

In alphabetical order, they are:
  1. The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta (completed 1.9.2013)
  2. Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon (completed 5.7.2013)
  3. Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder (completed 10.13.13)
  4. Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko
  5. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (completed 6.23.2013)
  6. The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1944-1945 by Ian Kershaw (completed 12.24)
  7. Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for his Assassin by Hampton Sides (completed 8.20.2013)
  8. Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips (completed 11.26.2013)
  9. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (completed 3.23.2013)
  10. The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes (completed 5.12.13)
  11. Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  12. Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich (completed 7.13)
  13. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt (completed 2.9.2013)
  14. 36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Rebecca Goldstein

Kelly's Books
Here is a screen cap of the books Kelly has chosen:

(click to see that bigger)

In alphabetical order, they are:
  1. 13, rue Thérèse by Elena Mauli Shapiro (Completed 02.04.13)
  2. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (Completed 07.28.13)
  3. Don't Know Much About History by Kenneth C. Davis
  4. Florence Broadhurst: Her Secret & Extraordinary Lives by Helen O'Neill (Completed 12.28.13)
  5. Grand River and Joy by Susan Messer (Completed 04.16.13)
  6. The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo 
  7. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (Completed 01.22.13)
  8. Little, Big by John Crowley (Completed 11.16.13)
  9. Michigan: A History of the Great Lakes State by Bruce A. Rubenstein (Completed 11.18.13)
  10. Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson (Completed 12.10.13)
  11. The Professor and The Madman by Simon Winchester (Completed 06.07.13)
  12. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (Completed 05.22.13)
  13. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield (Completed 08.15.13)
  14. Why I'm Like This by Cynthia Kaplan (Completed 03.24.13)
We each have 14 books on our shelves -- 12 months, plus two alternatives, just in case we cannot bear to get through a couple of them. We will then write about them on this blog (and we're terrible about spoilers, so be warned), crossing 'em off on this list and linking to our reviews.

This is part of the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge at Roof Beam Reader -- the site that originally lit the fires under our butts to get us delving into our TBR piles in 2011 (Thanks, Adam!) And now we're hooked on it.

2012: The Year in Reading


This was a weird year for me as a reader. First of all, now that I keep lists, I noticed that I read less this year than I did in 2011. According to my lists, I read 46 new books in 2012, compared to 63 in 2011. (I'd be curious to compare that by page numbers, but man does that seem overwhelming!) Honestly, it took me a while to figure it why that number is so much lower, but it's obvious that I can lay all the blame on the election. In the few months before the election, I barely read any books. I just read about politics on the internet....and all I have to show for it was a near heart attack. Just kidding, but I'm glad that's over.

Looking back, I'd say the 2 books I most enjoyed this year were Where'd You Go, Bernadette? and HHhH. Interestingly, both of them will be in the 2013 TOB. We all know how much I love to hate on Seattle, so WYGB was so perfect for me, it was as if the author pried open my brain and used it as source material.

A similar thing happened with HHhH, which was wonderful---not an adjective used to describe books about Nazis. The novel is about Reinhard Heydrich, the Butcher of Prague. He's the guy who designs and implements the Final Solution. When my students read Anne Frank, we watch part of movie called Conspiracy, which is all about Heydrich and the Wannsee Conference. It's there that the Nazis discussed and rubber stamped the Final Solution as presented by Heydrich. This novel is *totally* in my wheelhouse. Not only is it a retelling of a historical character and time that I find quite fascinating, but the author himself is a character, discussing what it's like to try and tell the story. He ruminates on the meaning of historical fiction, and why we feel driven to create dialogue and facts that are unknowable. This is pretty closely tied to my memoir problem, which I know I prattle on about endlessly, so the whole book was just excellent. I LOVED IT.

Looking forward to next year, I'm excited for the upcoming TOB and will be reading more of those books. I also did a much better job, I think, with my TBR list. There's less non-fiction, only 5 titles, and I'm hoping I'll read 4 of those. I'll admit I also did a page count, hoping to avoid last year's list of big books. This year, most of the books come in between the 275-400 page mark. There's one honking, big book in there: The Making of the Atomic Bomb weights in around 800 pages, but I can handle one super long book if other choices are more manageable.

Looking forward to 2013!

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Completed: Nox

Dear Jenny,

As you predicted, this book was a very quick read. In fact, it's difficult to call it a "read" as much as it is a "study" or... a "perusal," perhaps better found on my TBP list (I plan to re-visit that list this year, btw.)

But, of course, it was an absolutely perfect choice for me to skid into then end of 2012 with, which is pretty much why I had it on my list in the first place... I knew in January that this year would be hectic, although I didn't know then exactly how tough it would be. All this to say that Nox was the just what I needed right now. (I took the photo above as I read it over coffee this morning -- note our snow-covered back yard.)

Nox is a reproduction of a "book" (or art piece, or illustrated poem, or collage, or... something) that the author created when her brother died unexpectedly in 2000. She did not know him very well, as he had run away from home in 1978 and, as she says, "he phoned me maybe 5 times in 22 years" [8.1]. The entire work is a single sheet of paper, folded accordion style, tucked into a sturdy box. It's really lovely to hold and look at; the poetry and narrative are sparse and touching; and the lexicon excerpts, snippets of poetry, family photos, and personal artifacts all make for a very moving piece.

Overall, I enjoyed it. I did wish that the quality of the paper was better, as I wanted to see the photos and some of the collages more clearly. I am spoiled by Nick Bantock's art books (like The Venetian's Wife, read earlier this year) so I probably am looking for that, although with the box that Nox came in and the accordion style construction, I realize it would become prohibitively expensive to produce.

I don't really have that much more to say about it -- I think it might be something that really needs to be experienced to appreciate. I've experienced it now and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys art and poetry and language.

And with that... I have finished my TBR list for 2012! Whew!


Completed: Wonder Woman: The Complete History

Dear Jenny,

Well, this was a fun read. Especially since I got snowed in and basically read it in one day. There were, of course, a ton of photos (and even several pages of excerpts from old WW comics) but also a lot of interesting info.

I bought this book years (and years!) (seriously -- the copyright is 2000) ago on a whim: I like Wonder Woman and here's a book about Wonder Woman. Awesome. Done! And then... it sat on my shelf. Until now. (Thank you, Adam, for the motivation I finally needed.)

I must admit that when I think of Wonder Woman, it's mostly of Lynda Carter in her kick-ass 70s getup (seen at right). I loved that show and have fond memories of watching it after school when I was a kid. But Wonder Woman has a much longer history in the comics and part of her awesomeness is that she's one of the Superhero Big 3: Superman, Batman, and her. Her comic has been going strong for over 70 years. You go, girl!

I liked the organization of the book, which was divided into five chapters:
  1. The Doctor (the creator of WW)
  2. The Amazon (origin stories)
  3. The Princess (her time in our world)
  4. The Woman (the Lynda years)
  5. The Icon (the general cultural phenomenon that is WW, including some the awesome merchandise pictured in this write up).
I learned a LOT about Wonder Woman reading this book. Her story got kind of convoluted over the past 70+ years, was reset in the 80s and, according to wikipedia, again in 2011. It was interesting to read how different writers and illustrators tell different stories about our Amazon princess, including changing her origin story about a dozen times.

Truthfully, I probably would have been entertained by a book devoted exclusively to photos of crazy crap like these scissors. (OMG. These scissors. I guess the saving grace is that they didn't have her vag cutting the paper, but... ack. Still so weird.)

The caption is great: "They may have cut paper correctly, but there's something disturbing about the design of these six inch scissors from Dyno Merchandise." [151] (Ya think?)

However, I did enjoy reading more about her. The only real hassle I had with the book was that a lot of times the narrative was interrupted with either photos,  call-out blurbs, or pages of comics. That was kind of distracting. I guess that's the nature of a book like this, with so many illustrations, but I'd like to think that some careful editing would prevent readers from holding their place in the middle of a sentence while flipping through 4 or 5 pages of material that they also want to go back check out. But I'm not a book editor, so what do I know?

My only content gripe is that quite a bit of the book was dedicated to her creator, who was a bit of a weirdo... he invented the lie detector test and then proceeded to use it for all kinds of weird-ass experiments, dating compatibility tests, and commercials; even though it has been repeatedly proven to be unreliable (same test as the one they use today -- and still just as unreliable).

He was a shrink and he had some, um... interesting ideas about the relationships between men and women, including the basic premise that women... want to be tied up? Or... that men want women to be tied up? Or that women demonstrate dominance by being submissive?  I don't know. There was a lot of bondage crap and I kind of skimmed over it, although they make a pretty good point that Wonder Woman both gets tied up a lot and ties other people up a lot (the Lasso of Truth!) His sort of "defense" of this is that he wanted WW to be less violent than other comics, so if you take away guns and knives, how do you get villains to submit? Ya tie 'em up. I'll take that, except... you have got to check out this next image. What the hell is that?!

I'm sorry. I know you can't unsee that. It's just... I had to share. I spared you from meat lap earlier this year, so thank me for that (remind me to show it to you this week, if you still want to be scarred with that image, btw.)

I just read some reviews of this book (I was looking to see if there was an updated version. There was a re-print in 2004, but I don't know if anything was added.) and one person commented that the author clearly did not like Wonder Woman, and I gotta say that I agree. A lot of focus on her weirdo creator, then a sort of zooming through most of her history and a mocking of the time in the 70s when she renounced her powers (!!!) to "live with man." I actually read a lot more about that in the wikipedia entry and that time is way more interesting than this book makes it out to be -- she learns martial arts and becomes an ass-kicker on her own with zero Amazonian powers. She really IS a Wonder Woman!

This book was published in 2000 and there's more to her story -- as I mentioned, there was some kind of total revamp in 2011, with a new origin story and everything. At this point, I am feeling a bit like a Wonder Woman nerd, but I am interested reading more, particularly this one: Wonder Woman: Amazon. Hero. Icon (I will admit, however, that the Wonder Woman Encyclopedia scares me -- that is a lot of information about Wonder Woman!)

In addition to the clips from the comics and some of the crazy WW tchotchkes, there was a lot of great WW art in this book, including one of my favorites -- Wonder Woman: Day at the Fair by Steve Rude (WW and kittens? Yes, please!) There was also an uncredited piece that I adored and just found using Google reverse image lookup (Have you ever used that? I'd heard about it, but this is the first time I've tried it -- totally awesome.) It's this image by Brian Bolland -- I love that pissed off look on her face! (It turned out to be the cover of Vol 2 #81). Another of my favorites is far more recent, so not in the book, but you gotta check out this priceless look on her face as envisioned by one of my favorite contemporary artists, Lora Zombie.

And just to end on a bit of hilarity, check out these two "unauthorized" Wonder Woman products... hahahaha:
(That babe on the left is totally killing me.)

All right. That's Wonder Woman for ya. Up next... Nox!


Friday, December 28, 2012

Completed: At Home

Dear Jenny,

You gave me this book a few years back and I'm glad I finally made time to read it — it was really great!

As you know, this books takes a journey around the house (specifically, the author's house, an old English parsonage), exploring the history of things throughout — rooms, fixtures, the objects within... and beyond.

Bryson is a curious guy, so he goes on some pretty epic Curiosity Journeys throughout this book, taking the reader along for the ride. In the process, we learn fascinating stuff about the origins of things we use every day, the evolution of commonplace items, and quite a lot about US and English history.

I especially enjoyed the blueprints of the home discussed throughout the book used as the endpapers — it was neat to look at them as I was reading and they show how the rooms were originally designed vs. how they were actually built, which is fascinating stuff on its own. And the Index makes me super happy — easy reference for when I remember reading something about a certain topic covered, but I can't remember what it was!

Overall, I loved this book — Bryson is an engaging author and held my interest as he started in each room, explored the annals of history, got into little details and derailments, and brought it all back again to the room where he started. The only problem I had was with the order of the book — because it covered topics room-by-room, historical information ended up out of chronological order. There were many times when he would remind the reader of previously mentioned historical characters ("Remember when we met so-and-so in the drawing room? This was his brother!") but for a person like me, with a very loose grasp on historical events and in what order they happened, that was a little hard to follow.

Oh, yeah... and the part about all of the bugs could go. I had to skip it when he started getting into how many insects and other critters we're all living with on a daily basis, or I wouldn't be able to sleep at night. It was only a few pages, but I didn't need it.

Still, it was still an excellent read -- I'm going to give it to my mom next, as I think she'll really enjoy it (I might warn her about the bugs, though...) This is one of those books that one feels compelled to share (as you did with me), which is great.


PS - This review sort of ends up reading like, "Great book, thanks!" Maybe for two reasons: 1. I'm not going to start listing all of Bryson's fascinating facts and 2. I'm on a deadline. I've got two more books to cover in the next two days. Sorry -- the good news is that you've read it yourself, so you know! :)

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Completed: The Art of Happiness

Dear Jenny,

I finished this book a few weeks ago, but, for the second time in 2012, got waylaid by moving. (Moving twice in one year? Not recommended.) It was not nearly as "medicinal" as I had feared -- a pretty quick read, in fact, although I think it could have been a bit shorter. (More on that in a bit.)

Since I don't have a lot of time as the year wraps up to delve into every nuance of this book, I'm going to just fire off my general thoughts that I scratched down as I was burning through it. So this is kind of random -- sorry.

Everyone is good. (Everyone?)
According to the Dalai Lama, everyone is basically "good." I'm not sure if I agree and it's something that's been sticking in my mind since I read this. I mean, I want to believe that every baby is born good, but... I just don't know. I feel like there are truly some "bad seeds" born into this world -- people who were bad from the start. Maybe it's simply a matter of not having the right nurturing available to them to overcome this badness, but I do wonder if some people really are wired wrong. On the other hand, any time you hear about someone doing truly awful things, it never seems to be a result of an awesome stable family life. Sooo.... maybe the DL is right. Regardless, it's something to think about -- honestly, it helps me to be more compassionate towards others if I'm at least thinking about this (which was the DL's point, anyway, soo... good job, His Holiness!)

Pleasure vs. happiness
This observation might be the best thing I got out of this book -- the difference between pleasure and happiness. Eating a doughnut brings me pleasure but does not make me happy. Thinking about this makes me more thoughtful in my actions: "Does this thing make me happy or does it simply bring me pleasure?" Not that it's always wrong to do something purely for the sake of pleasure, but in the doughnut example, being overweight makes me unhappy, so what is pleasurable for a moment results in unhappiness later. So, you know... don't do that thing. Got it. (Thanks again, DL!)

On religion
I was actually surprised when religion came up in the book, as I figured the DL would be selling Buddhism. But he's all for everyone doing what works for them, which I thought was great. He writes:
"In this world, there are so many different people, so many different dispositions. There are five billion human beings and in a certain way I think we need five billion different religions, because there is such a large variety of dispositions. I believe that each individual should embark upon a spiritual path that is best suited to his or her mental disposition, natural inclination, temperament, belief, family, and cultural background." [294] 
"People need and appreciate diversity in their food because there are so many different tastes. In the same way, religions are meant to nourish the human spirit. And I think we can learn to celebrate that diversity in religions and develop a deep appreciation of the variety of religions." [295]
I found those comments to be really inspiring, especially coming from a religious world leader. This dude's got it going on.

Preaching to the choir
While reading this book, I just kept feeling like, "Sure. Of course. Right." and I also felt like... anyone who could really benefit from this information probably isn't reading this book. For instance, dealing with anger and hatred through compassion. If you're an angry, hateful person, are you reading The Art of Happiness? I mean, I guess maybe if you get it assigned to you in therapy or something, but... I don't know. Are you going to think, "What this situation needs is a little more compassion?" It does, but I'm not sure how many people who are not already there are thinking of this.

This line is perfect example: "If there is a solution to the problem, there is no need to worry. If there is no solution, there is no sense in worrying, either." [272] That is 100% absolutely true. But... when a person is worried about a problem, do you think they can embrace that idea? Personally, I really believe (and usually embrace) this thinking, but I think if you're a worrier... this is not going to help you much.

A little too convenient
The book was actually written by a psychiatrist who traveled with and interviewed the DL for several years, wrote down what he said, and backed it all up with "real life" stories. This felt a little contrived to me. Especially since he writes, "Not long after we had this conversation..." and tell some story of a patient that perfectly illustrated the DL's point. I'm thinking, "Really? Right after you talked to the DL, you found some magical supporting story?" I guess it helps "illustrate" the DL's points, but really... I felt like the DL's wisdom stood on its own. Especially since the DL usually had a little example parable himself. Maybe for certain people this is going to bring home the point better, but it was unnecessary for me.

Could have been a pamphlet
While I agree with almost all of what the DL has to say in this book (my only real hiccup being that whole "everyone is good" thing) I just felt like, "You know, this would make a great cheat sheet." For anyone not surprised by the information in this book (which, as I said, I think is the majority of people who pick up this book in the first place) I think a handy little reference sheet to hang on our bathroom mirrors reminding us to be tolerant and kind and keep perspective would be the perfect way to ingest this book. In fact, I just checked the wikipedia entry for this book and the summary is not bad -- it's just about the length that I think would be a manageable delivery tool for this information.

As I read the book, I just kept having moments of "Good point!" followed by "Oh, really? Another story to illustrate the point I already got when the DL said it?" It's logical stuff -- it all makes sense to me. Maybe I'm just not the right audience. This book did not change my life, but it did give me pause to entertain healthy thoughts that I have already had... which isn't a bad thing -- again, just not "life-changing" or anything.

Okay. That was all over the map -- just a kind of brain dump after reading this book. That's probably totally disrespectful (as is, perhaps, calling the Dalai Lama "the DL" but he seems to have a pretty good sense of humor) but... it's done. And, overall, I'm glad I read it. Three to go in as many days. Wheee!


Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Final Countdown

Dear Jenny,

I still plan to finish this up as we skid into the end of 2012. Here's my plan:

Wednesday, Dec 26 (today):
  • Write up The Art of Happiness (Finished a couple of weeks ago.)
  • Read 50 pages of Wonder Woman (It's 200 pages long. I'm on page 44.)

Thursday, Dec 27: 
  • Write up At Home (Finished two days ago.)
  • Read 50 pages of Wonder Woman.

Friday, Dec 28: Finish Wonder Woman.

Saturday, Dec 29: 
  • Write up Wonder Woman.
  • Read Nox (I trust you that this will be a quick read!)

Sunday, Dec 30: 
  • Write up Nox.
  • Publish our 2013 TBR Lists and sign up at Roof Beam Reader (and while I'm there, add my "I'm done!" comment on the big list!)

Monday, Dec 31: Drink some champagne. :)

Whew! And, in the midst of all of this, I need to unpack this house (oh, yeah, and dig up my TBR books for next year... I did mark the box "TBR" though -- priorities!)


Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Completed: Embracing Defeat


Allow me to start, if you will, with a digression. In the last few months of college, part of the process for completing my senior thesis was participation is a symposium-type event. Every senior working toward an honors thesis had to give a brief overview of their proposal and the research they had completed thus far. I vividly remember this event for several reasons.

Interestingly, I don't have any real memory of my own presentation. However, it was the first time in the year-long process that I had any suspicion that some kids weren't going to be able to complete a thesis. I remember one guy in particular had some half-assed, partially-articulated idea about the mob in New Jersey (this predated the arrival of The Sopranos by several years, of course). As I sat there listening to him, I realized that he hadn't done what he needed to do to finish. It was clear that he was floundering.

On the other hand, my friend Anne Marie presented her work about World War II Japan. The only particular part of her research I remember that she discussed how the top-down industrialization of early 20th Century Japan led to the mindset for total war in the 1930s.* Either way, her presentation was forceful and polished, and it was the first time in my life I remember being interested in World War II. I remember thinking to myself, I should learn more about that.

(I digress from my digression to also tell you that looking back, it was a probably one of my first teacher-y moments. There was something about that day that made me realize just how accurately I could judge the preparation and production of my fellow students.)

In the intervening years between Anne Marie's presentation, I've learned a lot about World War II. Some of it was just reading (A particularly good overview recommended to me by my brother, Erik, is Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945. It's part of the Oxford History of America series, and all the ones I've read have been fabulous.) and watching movies. But in the last 5 or 6 years, much of my World War II reading has been driven by my teaching of The Diary of Anne Frank.

Historical memory is an interesting thing, especially when it comes to middle schoolers. As far as they know The Holocaust IS World War II. They literally know nothing else.

This is a problem.

To compensate, I spend some time contextualizing World War II for them, but I'm an English teacher not a history teacher. Therefore, although I explain the Allies and the Axis, and although we briefly discuss Pearl Harbor and the role of Japan in the war, we do, out of necessity, spend most of our time on the war in Europe. But as the years have passed, I still had that inkling in my head, dating to Anne Marie's presentation, that I would like to know more about the history of Japan.

One of the best online resources I've discovered, although I've never used it with kids, is out of MIT. The project, called Visualizing Cultures, focuses on China and Japan and the connection between images and history. A series of lessons called Throwing Off Asia described the westernization and industrialization of Japan. It was fascinating and I see that they are adding new content all the time. It was through that website that I somehow ended up hearing about the book Embracing Defeat.

The book Embracing Defeat describes how the Japanese people reacted to their loss and surrender in World War II. The book extensively describes life in Japan after the war. Parts of the book were fascinating to me. The book starts by describing the epic destruction of Japan, and the increasingly dire food shortages that affected the Japanese people in the years after the war.

I had no idea that General MacArthur and the American military essentially controlled Japan after the war. The irony of the "democratic" victors ruling Japan with an authoritarian fist provides much of the tension between victor and vanquished. Also, because hardly any of the Americans spoke the language or knew anything of the culture, they relied heavily on the extant governmental structures and agencies. MacArthur and his men had no interesting in having Japanese experts on their staff. The Americans initiated and instituted laws without worrying or caring about the culture. Women's suffrage: done! There's a great story how one Japanese bureaucrat pushed through a progressive series of Labor Laws by convincing everyone that the Americans had demanded them.

I found the book most interesting when they described the human cost on individuals and families. For example, the Japanese government sets up brothels all over Japan for the US servicemen that arrived in the country. There were even different prostitutes for the white soldiers than there were for the black soldiers.

This is an engaging work of history, but I lacked some of the background knowledge to have it all make sense. There were extensive discussions of military, government, society, etc...and sometimes I just felt a little lost. I read through that pretty quickly, slowing down at the more personal stories that he used as examples.

Honestly, my primary problem with this book is that it just wasn't the book I wanted to read. At one point, the author tells the story of three men who were considered enemies of the state during the war, but afterwards became heroes for their objections to the war. The author observes, "They were all principled individuals who embodied qualities of independent thought and personal autonomy rare and admirable in a country where most people had caved in completely, in many cases enthusiastically, to the authoritarian state" (191). And I realized that what I was curious about was what happened before the war. How do you get people to knuckle under so completely? This is a question I find utterly fascinating. How do the Nazis get the German people to comply so completely with the Final Solution? How and why do everyday people become agents of genocide, as in Rwanda? What does it take to make this happen? What does it take to make it stop?

The book I want to read is the one that describes what my friend Anne Marie discussed all those years ago...and this book talks about its aftermath. This is not the book's fault, of course, but it led to a feeling of disappointment nevertheless. I suppose I will spend more time than I usually do combing through the endnotes, looking for references to books about Japan before the war.

Now, on to the extremely pleasant task of looking for next year's 12 books. We have until December 31st to get our lists together and linked up to Roof Beam Reader.


*I'm Facebook friends with Anne Marie even though I haven't seen her in almost 20 years. I posted my blog entry to her page. I anticipate that I probably got all the details wrong, so I'm semi-curious to see if my memory was at all accurate. I'm sure going to be mortified if her thesis was really about something completely different!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Gearing Up for the 2013 Tournament of Books


This is exciting! Yesterday, they announced the finalists for the 2012 Tournament of Books. Usually, they release a "long list" sometime late in December, and the 16 finalists in January. This year, they just released the finalists right away! Coming the day before a 2 week Christmas break with plenty of reading time? Hallelujah!

Looks like they are up to some interesting shenanigans this year. This year, there 18 books total on the list. 15 already in for sure, and 3 vying for a "play-in" spot in the opening round. Those 3 are similar in theme, books about the Iraq war. It's a clever way of picking one to advance. Tricky, tricky, TOB planners!

Sweet! I've already read these:
Arcadia by Lauren Groff
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple

Awesome! I already own these:
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
The Round House by Louise Erdrich

Bring it on!
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
Building Stories by Chris Ware***
Fobbit by David Abrams
HHhH by Laurent Binet
How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti
Ivyland by Miles Klee
May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

Meh. I'll admit to being ambivalent about these:

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Dear Life by Alice Munro

By the way, Building Stories by Chris Ware was what I wanted to get you for Christmas, except that it was sold out everywhere. That's why I got you the Dracula earrings instead. They actually are printing more and they won't be available until mid-January. Have you heard about this? It seems incredibly cool. I'm sort of excited to have a reason to get this for myself. Heh.

As for the two that I'm ambivalent about: I've just heard mediocre things about The Song of Achilles. And I've never been a huge fan of Alice Munro, but then again, I've never given her much of a shot either. I think I read a story I didn't like in college and that was it. It's probably a good thing I'll have to give her another chance.

I'm super excited about this year's TOB list, and I've been thinking about my TBR list for next year. We're signing up again next year, right? I'm reading away at my last book for 2012 and will definitely get it finished before the end of the year.


Friday, December 14, 2012

Bookish Stuff That's Not Books

Dear Jenny,

I got the awesome Gatsby t-shirt you sent me! Love! It!

It made me realize I've seen lots of fun literary items lately. How about a little round up? Probably too late for Christmas gift-giving, but hey -- it's always a good time to buy literary goods!

Stuff to Wear and Carry

T-shirts: As you already discovered, awesome T shirts at Novel-T (clever name). Since they're numbered, I love the idea of starting a sports team and having everyone wearing their favorite novelist. Of course, I don't really do sports (they don't have hockey jerseys) -- maybe a very nerdy bowling league?

Ts and Totes: Etsy seller Riverwest Concern has a lot of different pop culture t-shirts, tote bags, and prints, but several have a literary bent. This Walt Whitman tote bag makes me giggle.

Jewlery: In fact, Etsy is, not surprisingly, a treasure trove of literary awesomeness. The jewelry Jezebel Charms sells is great -- I don't wear cuffs, but these are pretty fabulous. And I'm loving the Dracula earrings (complete with blood!)

Stuff to Use

Misc: Penguin Classics totally rocks the bookish goods (20% off and free shipping right now, to boot!) with posters, mugs, thermoses, etc.  (And, of course, the postcards I gave you last year) (was that just last year?!) The "I'd Rather Be Reading" tote bag is pretty great.

Mugs: These Literary Transport mugs are pretty clever -- locations in the books make up a fictional "bus line" documented on the side of the mug. And here's a mug with the Greatest First Lines of Literature (so they say -- I don't know who made the call...)

Stuff for the Walls

Illustrated quotes: Artist Evan Robertson illustrates quotes from various works of literature using punctuation marks as part of the illustration. Check out his Etsy shop, Obvious State. (Got some Prufrock there for ya.)

Gatsby: It's been a Gatsby-riffic year -- possibly because of the upcoming movie? (Which I cannot wait to see! Baz Luhrmann? Yes, please!) The Heads of State makes awesome graphic posters, including this one, depicting imagined business cards from all of the characters in the book. (Non-literary note: their travel ones are also great. I especially love SF and Chicago.)

Book pages as media: Wall Envy Art is an Etsy shop with as much pop culture as bookish reference, but I really like their book-y offerings of screen prints over torn out book pages. I particularly like this Shakespeare quote. (In fact, that may be my favorite thing of all of these...)

Great print: Oh, Etsy -- you've got so much to offer! This print from Visual Philosophy is sweet -- even though that Dr. Seuss quote might be a bit overused, I love that clean, graphic design.


Several illustrators are making posters using all of the text in the book to make the illustration itself -- I keep seeing these everywhere, and now I know why: Tons of people are doing it! :) Here are my three favorites:
  • Litographs: I find these to be the most artistic of the choices. Several different artists work on these and I love the images. Also, they come in color or black and white. Particularly lovely are the graphics for The Jungle Book and Gulliver's Travels. I'll bet The Importance of Being Earnest is hard to read, but it looks cool.
  • Spineless Classics: Their site is difficult to navigate and I'm not sure if it's a good idea to call your business "spineless" (I get the joke, but come on...), but some of the posters are fun. The text is in columns, with a silhouette of the image cut out and the title and author featured prominently. I especially like Harry Potter.
  • Poster text:  Like Spineless, the text is in columns with the image silhouetted within. No author/title, though. They have my favorite Gatsby -- love the green light.
Believe it or not, there are others out there -- these are just the ones I've seen the most. I think those might be nice for new parents. Up all night with the baby? At least you can read snippets of a novel on the wall above the crib. Of course, this would have to be a book you're already very familiar with...

How about you? Seen any other good lit stuff lately?


PS -- I have finished The Art of Happiness and just need to write about it. I have already started At Home (and am loving it!) Talk about squeeeaking in by the deadline!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Completed: Cutting for Stone


This is one of those books that *everyone* was recommending to me 12 or 18 months ago. Seriously, I feel like I had a million people tell me how much they loved it. The copy I have was given to me by the mother of a student.

Cutting for Stone is an epic tome of a novel, weighing it at almost 700 pages! It's the story of Marion Stone, one of twin boys born in Ethiopia to a nun. The first third of the book tells the story of Marion & Shiva's birth (they are identical twins) and the tragic death of their mother in labor. The middle third tells of their childhood and adolescence in Addis Ababa and unrest in Ethiopia at that time. The last third describes Marion's life as a surgical resident in America.

Honestly, if it wasn't for the fact that I went in with such high expectations, I probably would have liked it better. It's a nice novel, but I have to say, I don't quite get why everyone else just LOVED it. As it was, I'd call this a solid novel that could have used a good, thorough editing.

The Good
It's pretty fast-paced with lots of action. The writing is decent, both competently written with the occasional turn of the phrase that made me appreciate the author's craft. The characters are interesting and I came to care about them, wondering what would happen and wanting them to be happy. Marion is good-hearted but ultimately unable to let go of the suffering caused by some tragic events in his teenage years. He is forced to flee to America, and leaving his family behind leaves him unable to come to terms with his role in past events. It's almost like he's "stuck" because he must leave the situation behind rather than being forced to deal with it. He can't forgive others and move on, not until they are eventually reunited by a medical emergency.

The Bad
This book contained many long and detailed descriptions of surgical procedures and illnesses. Since the sight of my own blood makes me queasy, this was brutal. I ended up just skimming most of those passages. More damning, I felt the author relied too heavily on deux ex machina to move the plot forward---lots of small, convenient twists that didn't feel truly organic to the plot.

The Embarrassing
I'm going to admit to something AWFUL right here: when I was reading this book, I managed to accidentally skip about 100 pages** of the middle section of the book. I think that the previous reader had dog-eared a page, and I picked it up and thought it was my page. KELLY, THIS WAS NOT SOMETHING I NOTICED UNTIL 200 PAGES LATER. So when I say it needed a good editing, I'm serious. What I ended up skipping was some political events happening in Ethiopia during the 70s. It wasn't until the end of the book, when Marion runs into someone who reminisces about a shared incident from their past that I realized I had forgotten something. I went skimming back, looking to jog my memory, and discovered a section I didn't really remember. I started to read it, and eventually realized just how much I had missed...and just how little it mattered to the overall thrust of the narrative. Oops.

Thinking about how that possibly could have happened, I think the problem is that the book is mainly about the personal, emotional connections between characters. However, the section I ended up skipping was more about the outside world. The political climate is why Marion must leave, and so maybe the author wanted to give fuller background...but it's just too long. My new theory is that 700 page novels are like 3 hour movies: someone should just tell the author/director to get over themselves and cut that down to manageable size.

I liked it, and was at times moved to tears. Had this book been 400 pages, it would have been brilliant. I think the author's intention was to make his novel epic in scope, but ultimately I feel like it was just too long. I'd say that I recommend it with reservations.


**I just looked back at the book to make sure I had these numbers right. I read the first 275 pages, skipped about 120 pages, and so started reading again about 395. It was around 580 that the scene appeared that made me go back to refresh my memory. The novel then ends on 658.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Kelly's Book 9.12: The Art of Happiness

Dear Jenny,

This book feels like it going to be more of a "medicine" book than a good read -- something I take because I have to and I'll probably be better for having read it, but I'm not going to enjoy the taste of it.

What a totally immature thing to say about a book written by the Dalai Lama, right? Oh, well. I yam what I yam.


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

2012: What a Year!

Dear Jenny,

I just took a few minutes to poke around our little site here and am shocked to find that books that I read earlier this year seem like I read them years ago! I am usually surprised by how time flies, but this has been a verrrry long year for me. I'll be glad to be done with it.

Read any good "year in review" booklists lately? I was thrilled to see Audible's Best of 2012 list come out (just as I finished listening to the #1 pick: Beautiful Ruins) and I'm sure you're finding plenty yourself -- so what are the experts saying was good this year? I feel absolutely certain I missed a lot.


PS -- Have you read Gone Girl? Everyone keeps raving about it and it keeps showing up in my Audible recommendations, but when I read the plot, it just seems awful. I don't want to succumb to Marriage Plot-style hype again.

Completed: Four Spirits

Dear Jenny,

This book was my "8.12" -- I  was burning through books last month, so I didn't take time to write my introductory post, which would have said:

This book was  given to me several years ago by my mother-in-law, who heard the author speak at some sort of "Meet the Author" lecture series. It says "To Kelly" inside and is signed, which is kind of neat. Other than that, I know nothing about it.

So it's a book I knew absolutely nothing about, given to me by a reader whose opinion I respect. And now I'm done with it, so here's my review/re-cap/whatever these jottings are...

I enjoyed this book, but I think it could have lost about 1/3 of the story and have been a better book, which is something I rarely think about when reading -- I generally trust authors and editors to their work, but this book had me paying a lot of attention to the form.

Set in 1963 in Birmingham, AL, this book is about what you would expect it to be about for that time and that place: civil rights, racism, peaceful protests, violent backlashes, the personal stories of people figuring out how to make it all work. It interweaves the stories of several different characters, both black and white, and it hits the mark beautifully sometimes, but other times are a giant miss.

The best story, by far, was about a white girl (Woman? She's in her early 20s. I guess she starts out as a "girl" and ends up as a "woman" by the end of the book) (Ooh! Go me with the insight!) who goes with her friend out to a school to teach adult (well, post high-school -- late teens, early 20s) black students to get their GEDs. The relationships that develop between her and the students, the other teachers, all of the people in her life -- this story was rich and moving. She takes a journey and I found myself drawn into her story more than any other in the novel.

As it turns out, that character is modeled directly on the author's own experiences. Of course -- that is why they were the most vivid! It was she who had taken the teaching position with her friend, had gone out to the school, had weathered the bomb threats, had experienced the emotional hardships and triumphs, and had forged the unexpected friendships. Honestly, I think she could have just written her own story and had a fine piece of writing. But she had to add more.

The other characters are what you would expect: blacks and whites on either side of the segregation fence, some of them desiring change and some of them clinging to their beliefs. There was this one asshole that ends up getting killed by his wife (he's a real peach -- white supremacist, abusive spouse, rapist, etc. etc) and, while her revenge is satisfying and I was glad that this MF'er got what he deserved, I just thought, "What did that really add to the plot?" It just seemed like low-hanging fruit -- the story of the asshole klansman is the obvious one. I preferred the more nuanced stories in the book: more conflict, more revelation, some kind of growth. His story also ends a little mysteriously -- his wife blew up their house with him in it and there is some allusion that she saw their son running back into the house right before the blast! But that is never confirmed or denied. Ugh! Cliffhanger! Again, I find myself thinking: What exactly did that add to this story?

Other than the author's character, the other strong character in the book was a black woman who also taught at the school. In some ways, she was well-drawn (perhaps based on someone the author actually knew) -- she was reluctant to get to know this white woman, but they came together in the end, united against something bigger than the two of them, as they held hands together in a lunch counter sit-in that starts peacefully and ends in bloodshed. But in other ways, her story really lacked. Perhaps in comparison to the richness of the author's own story? Maybe because we can never truly know what another person in a totally different set of circumstances goes through?  I guess it's the job of a good fiction writer to be able to put themselves inside of the character, but perhaps this story was too close to home for this author. And, sometimes, authors just fall flat -- for instance, I can think of several horribly drawn female characters written by men.

The "Four Spirits" were a strange plot device -- these were the spirits of the four girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and they appeared to an old black lady who lived in a cabin in the woods. We see her at the beginning of the book and at the end of the book and her life is connected to a white man that she was a nanny to when he was a boy. Later in the novel, I think his daughter becomes one of the supporting characters that interacts with the main ones. I say "think" because there were a lot of characters in this book and it was hard to keep them all straight. In fact, the more I think about this book, the more I find myself thinking, "Oh, yeah -- that guy! Oh, yeah -- that woman!" And then, "What the heck happened to them...?" which isn't great. I would have liked to have all of these different characters "come together" more. And, if that's not possible, let's just eliminate them.

I understand the reference to the bombing -- the book contained many historical facts (the murders of both MLK Jr. and JFK are covered, as well as the story of Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth) -- but bringing ghosts in was just a little weird and felt like it was the original seed for the story that probably should have gotten tossed when it was outgrown.

I think if the author had pared this story down to the two main women in the book, she probably could have addressed the other  character's stories peripherally, without actually "seeing" things their eyes. And the story could have been a lot stronger.

One interesting note -- when the author originally goes to teach out at the school, she goes with a childhood friend. This friend was wheelchair bound and went on to become an advocate for people with disabilities in real life. I thought this part was especially poignant, as it is her indignation at racial prejudices that leads her to realize: "Hey! Why am I, a disabled person, not allowed the same rights as able-bodied people?" Oh, yeah -- we all deserve equal treatment! (Goooooo, Civil Rights!)

I feel like all I've done is bag on this book, but some of the stories really were moving. In a nutshell: It was a good, quick read that tells about a tumultuous time in our country's history through personal stories, but I think it could have been even better with a little more focus on fewer characters.


Monday, December 3, 2012

Completed: Double Fold

Dear Jenny,

Ack! Until a couple of weeks ago, I had been sticking to my 20-pages-per-day goal and have finished three more books! But I still need to write about them and, of course, I still have three to go and now only have 28 days left. Gah! Well, let's get to it...
This book was exactly what I was expecting: Nicholson Baker delivering a very long and well written shit-fit about the fact that our nation's libraries have been scanning all of our newspapers (and a lot of books too!) to microfilm and then... discarding the originals.

While I was reading the book, I must admit I kept thinking: "Who cares?" Or, more accurately: "Wow. I cannot believe Nicholson Baker cares so much about this issue." I mean, everyone cares about something, so I should not judge him for this, but... he just cares so much about something that... well, so very few other people seem to care about.

By the end, I will admit that I did feel a sense of "Yeah! Let's do something about this!" but... it quickly faded. Everyone has their pet cause. Baker's is antique newspaper and book destruction, mine is plastic bags. Other people? Literacy, breast cancer awareness, water conservation, etc. We can't all care about everything and sometimes things speak to us more than others. 

I am going to shamelessly grab the description of this book from Amazon:
The ostensible purpose of a library is to preserve the printed word. But for fifty years our country’s libraries–including the Library of Congress–have been doing just the opposite, destroying hundreds of thousands of historic newspapers and replacing them with microfilm copies that are difficult to read, lack all the color and quality of the original paper and illustrations, and deteriorate with age.
With meticulous detective work and Baker’s well-known explanatory power, Double Fold reveals a secret history of microfilm lobbyists, former CIA agents, and warehouses where priceless archives are destroyed with a machine called a guillotine. Baker argues passionately for preservation, even cashing in his own retirement account to save one important archive–all twenty tons of it.
So there you have it. Libraries are destroying newspapers and books after scanning them to microfilm. In many cases, the material needs to be destroyed in *order* to microfilm it -- it gets "disbound" (also gruesomely called "guillotined") to scan and rebinding is, well, yeah. Not easy.

There are several illustrations in the book that compare the clarity of the original work to the hideous reproductions via microfilm. If you remember using that crap when we were kids, you know he's got a point. Microfilm sucks. Also, it deteriorates. Also, many mistakes were made when the books and newspapers were originally scanned. So they're incomplete. Again, he's right: It's bad news. But when he gets into the "secret history" described above, the book kind of goes off the rails for me. It's probably interesting to other conspiracy theorists -- I just don't really have that bent.

The Double Fold Test
The name of the book comes from a completely terrible method that libraries use to test the "brittleness" of a book. They fold a corner of the page back and forth several times until it breaks. If it breaks right away, the book is "brittle" and is therefore going to "fall apart soon!!" (said in Chicken Little's best Voice of Panic there).

Of course, pages and books are not actually handled that way -- who's bending the pages back and forth when they read? (I mean, except as a book-destroying way to bookmark a page.) (I am totally guilty of this.) (But only on paperbacks and only books that I own myself!) Baker describes his revised idea for a test:
     Late one night, after the children were in bed, I began some random experimentation at the household bookshelves. My wife asked me what I was up to.
     "I'm --- performing the fold test," I said.
     "Please stop breaking the corners off our books," my wife said. "It can't be doing them any good."
[he goes on here to expound on the fact that this book has actually failed the Double Fold test -- one bend and a corner breaks off -- but it's long, so I've cut it out... ]
     This was the sort of book over which preservation people shake their heads and say, "it's got one read left in it." Or, in a sad but firm voice, "We've got just one change to turn these pages, and it better be when they're under the camera." [more expounding...]
   And yet this was clearly a usable book: I was using it, and not gently, either. I don't cover books with plastic sleeves; I pile them on the floor around my chair, and sometime the piles topple. Any manual procedure that woudl conclude that my book was "unusable" or "unserviceable" was a flawed procedure. [159]
He then develops a new "procedure" that night -- one where he simply turns the pages of the book -- you know, like you do when you are, say... reading it? And he stops after 400 turns back and forth. Of the same page. And that page has not broken off, disintegrated, turned to dust, etc.  -- all of the claims that the "Double Fold test" would have supported. So, you know... he's right. But, of course, this fact doesn't really get him anywhere. The Double Fold test continues on.

The Durability of the 100+ Year Old Page: I've Seen It!
Coincidentally, I can tell you from personal experience that Baker is totally right that it is pure and utter bullshit that paper will not last for over 100 years. Several months ago, I had the pleasure of reading some 100+ year old letters written by my great-grandmother (seriously!)

We held them with our bare hands and no one in the family had every "preserved" them -- they were still in perfect condition. This was before I had read Baker's book, and we were all remarking on how fresh and new the paper still seemed and how surprised we were by that. So I guess the Chicken Little propaganda is working -- we assumed those pages would be disintegrating, but nope.

And Now? What's Going on Today?
At the end of the book, Baker ends up cashing out a good portion of his retirement to buy a bunch of full newspaper runs that were being sold off post-microfilm. He kept them in a warehouse and allowed people to come and use them. In poking around the Internet, I have just discovered that Baker has donated that collection to Duke University who, of course, has agreed to never destroy the original media.

The reason I was poking around in the first place is because I was looking for some sort of followup to this epic journey. This book was originally published in 2001 and a shit-load of technological advances have been made since that time! Surely there are super-awesome-fantastic scanners that exist now that can scan/photograph books and newspapers and still allow them to be preserved in their original form, right?

Unfortunately, I couldn't really find any followup information about this story. Apparently, Baker is the only one interested in bringing this topic to the mainstream (I'm sure it's discussed behind closed library doors every day) and he has since shelved it. (Har har.) I did find many, many librarians who still hate him for this book because he holds librarians accountable for standing by while the travesty happens (in fact, there is a library association that has an entire page on its site devoted to rebutting this book. I'm not linking, as they kind of scare me.) He wrote, "The library has gone astray partly because we trusted the librarians so completely" [104] which, I'm guessing, kind of pissed 'em off.

But other than the Angry Librarians and reviews from when the book came out, I cannot really find much new information. It just seems like... 11 years later, it's time for Baker to re-address the issue that he had so much passion about then. What is happening now? Are all of the materials destroyed, as predicted? Is there a new solution to the problem? The new panic in the book world seems to be "eBooks are going to put pBooks out of business!" so perhaps that's where all the outrage now lies? I don't know.  Just felt like I wanted an update/epilogue/follow-up, etc. which I couldn't seem to find anywhere.

Holy crap, I wrote a really long re-cap of this book.  And I didn't even scratch the surface!The premise was so basic, but Nicholson Baker (and now I) had a lot to write about it. Whew!


PS -- One absolutely fantastic thing about this book? It had over 60 pages of endnotes that Baker does not reference within the text at all. Meaning that I could happily burn through this book without being distracted by all of the tiny numbers and the flipping to the back of that book! Thank you, Nicholson Baker, for sparing me the flipping!