Monday, December 30, 2013

Our Books for 2014

Believe it or not, this is our fourth year of committing to reading books from our To Be Read (TBR) piles and reporting on them on this here blog! (Our lists from 2011-2013 can be found over in the sidebar for anyone interested in delving deeper.)

Without further ado, here are our planned books to read in 2014...

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. All the Names by Jose Saramago (12.25.14)
  2. American Gods by Neil Gaiman (6.23.14)
  3. Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (6.8.14)
  4. How Fiction Works by James Wood (5.4.14)
  5. Life with my Sister Madonna by Christopher Ciccone (8.29.14)
  6. Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin (11.1)
  7. The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (8.22.14)
  8. Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 by Tony Judt
  9. A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power (3.15.14)
  10. Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (1.25.14)
  11. Snow by Orhan Pamuk
  12. Solar by Ian McEwan (9.20.14)
  13. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (12.20.14)
  14. The Widow's War by Sally Gunning (8.5.14)
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. Arc of Justice by Kevin Boyle (12.01.14)
  2. Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton (05.15.14)
  3. Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis by Mark Binellimk (06.13.14)
  4. Digressions on Some Poems By Frank O'Hara: A Memoir by Joe LeSueur (08.12.14)
  5. Don't Know Much About History by Kenneth C. Davis 
  6. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo (08.21.14)
  7. On Being Brown: What It Means to Be a Cleveland Browns Fan by Scott Huler (08.15.14)
  8. On Writing by Stephen King (01.20.14)
  9. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (09.22.14)
  10. Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow (04.16.14)
  11. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (11.21.14)
  12. The Size of Thoughts by Nicholson Baker (12.29.14)
  13. Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi 
  14. Tim Gunn's Fashion Bible: The Fascinating History of Everything in Your Closet by Tim Gunn (1.03.15 <-- Yes. Three days late.)
We each have 14 books on our lists -- 12 for 12 months, plus two alternates, just in case we cannot stand a couple of them. We will then write about them on this blog (Be forewarned: we are full of spoilers) and then we will cross 'em off on this list by linking to our reviews/reports.

This is part of the 2014 TBR Pile Challenge at Roof Beam Reader -- the site that originally lit the fires under our butts to get us working on our TBR piles in 2011. (Once again, thank you, Adam!) And now? We're clearly hooked.

    Completed: Florence Broadhurst: Her Secret and Extraordinary Lives

    Dear Jenny,

    Yup -- I'm skidding into the end of the year once again, but hey -- I got 'em done.

    This book was an awesome finish. Not only was it full of beautiful pictures (side benefit: this hastened the reading) but the story was also totally interesting. I was worried that the subtitle was setting me up for disappointment, but Florence Broadhurst had lives that were both secret and extraordinary!

    So crazy, but I love it.

    I don't know where I first came across this book, although I do read a lot of design blogs, so I'm guessing it was one of those. I'm glad I did -- the tale is interesting and the book is visually stunning. Win-win.

    Design: Monsterio.
    One of my faves -- I love the checkerboard in the flowers.

    Florence Broadhurst was born at the turn of the 20th century in Australia. Some say she was a businesswoman and some say she was a scam artist -- I think she was a successful combination of both.

    In her youth, she traveled through Asia and Europe singing and dancing with various performing troupes under an assumed name. When that dried up, she opened a school for dance and music in Shanghai under yet another name. And when that went south, she went back to Australia and became a landscape painter. Aaaand... after that, she decided to get into the handprinted wallpaper design business, for which she is best known today. So, you know, she did a lot of stuff.

    Florence in her 70s. Awesome flamboyance!

    She had a couple of husbands (one whom she wasn't actually married to, although they claimed they were) (scandalous!) and also had a son, who is interviewed extensively in this book. Shockingly, she was brutally murdered in her studio in 1977 and her killer was never found, although she had an acquantance who turned out to be a serial killer so it might have been him. But they never found out for sure, and he ended up committing suicide in prison. So that's all kinds of crazy.

    Design: Circles and Squares.
    This shows up in many different color combos in the book.
    I love it.

    While her entire life story is interesting, it's really the wallpaper design that ends up being the star of this book and, really, her life story. Her style was widely various, which has led to much speculation on whether or not she actually designed all of these wallpapers herself (over 500 different designs and she didn't start doing this until the last 20 years of her life!)

    Left: Horses Stampede. Right: Spotted Floral.
    One example of two very different designs.

    But this seems kind of crazy to me, as she had an army of people working for her, so if she wasn't doing the work, one of them would come have forward in the nearly 40 years since her death and admitted it, right? Members of her staff were interviewed for this book and, if anything, it sounds like a lot of her "designing" was more "direction" -- she had an idea and directed an artist working for her to create the design as she gave input. But I think that's a pretty common way for designers to design.

    Design: Summer Garden
    I love this treatment -- same wallpaper in both rooms,
    but grey in the bedroom and green in the bathroom. Lovely!

    The book itself had a pretty great layout -- obviously, a ton of photos between the text, but the writing was also very engaging. The chapters were sort of labeled as "acts" ("Backstage: the Broadhurst Factory" and "Curtain Call" are two) and there was a lot of interesting information about how handprinted wallpapers are actually made, including the incredible technical precision required (wallpaper seams that don't quite meet up are pretty darned obvious, right?)

    Design: Japanese Fans
    I'd love this in a fabric.

    Florence was a demanding boss, but obviously well loved and respected. I think the picture painted of the woman herself was respectful while still letting the reader know that this lady was a bit of a kook (and I mean that in the best way possible.)

    Design: Brushed Trellis
    Ok, this one is so dated -- it kind of cracks me up.

    One thing that's interesting about this story is that it's still evolving. After Florence was murdered, her son ran the family business for a couple of years, but then sold it to a big wallpaper conglomerate. They let the screens languish in a back room for years until someone finally came along and said, "Whoa. We could make some money off of these designs!" And now they're re-releasing them with great success.

    Design: Cockatoos
    Amazing art using Broadhurst's paper --
    body painting by artist Emma Hack.

    This book and a documentary in 2006 (I'd love to see that, but it seems rather difficult to find...) have also heightened awareness of these designs, fueling the Florence Love. There's a good Afterword in the book covering the topic, as the book was originally published in 2006, but my edition is from 2011.

    Very cool visual index of all patterns featured in the book.
    After all of the wallpaper removal we did in our last house, I never thought I would even consider hanging wallpaper in my home, but some of these photos are really inspirational. Maybe some accent walls? (Versus an entire room.)

    Design: Daisy Scatter
    Of course, this one made me think of you. ;)
    I really want to snap a bunch more photos to share with you, but I also need to get this review done. You can check out most of the designs from the book here (that's the company that is re-releasing the original designs).

    And with that, I have finished by TBR books for 2013! Now, to publish our 2014 lists. Wheee!


    PS -- This book was almost on the the TBP list because of the images, but it really was over 50% text, so I left it on this list as a book to be read. Also... what's going on with that TBP list anyway, right? Stay tuned -- I've got more to say about that soon!

    Sunday, December 29, 2013

    Completed: Notes from a Small Island

    Dear Jenny,

    This is my second repeat author in our TBR journey (I read At Home in 2012) and it was pretty great -- Bill Bryson has a terrific voice and, for part of this read, I actually got to hear his voice, as I also listened to some of the aBook, which is narrated by Bryson himself.

    I bought this book the first time I went to England, which was in 2001. I don't know why I haven't read it before now... guess that's just what happens to TBR books, right?

    Bryson wrote this as he was preparing to leave Britain after living there for 20 years. I, myself, have often dreamed of moving to England (the distance from loved ones has held me back -- California was far, but England is really far!) so it was great to read/hear his reminiscences of his time there.

    Also, Bill Bryson is hilarious.

    Here is my favorite passage -- this made me laugh out loud when I heard it the first time and I just laughed again, re-reading it:
    Because time was getting on, I decided to take a shortcut through the hilly woods, but I neglected to note that I was at the uppermost of a very tight band of contour lines. In consequence, I found myself a moment later descending a more or less perpendicular hill in an entirely involuntary fashion, bounding through the woods with great leaps and outflung arms in a manner oddly reminiscent of George Chakiris in West Side Story, except of course that this was Wales and George Chakiris didn't shit himself with terror, before eventually, after several bouncing somersaults and an epochal eighty-yard slide on my stomach, ending up on the very lip of a giddy precipice, with a goggle-eyed view of the glittery Wye a hundred feet below. I cast my gaze back along my suddenly motionless body to find that my left foot had fortuitously snagged on a sapling. Had the sapling not been there, I would not be here. [128]
    Other than that, I don't have too much to say about this book. It was a quick read and listen, Bryson's voice (written and spoken) is great, and I really felt like I was with him as he reflected on his adopted land while he planned to return to his homeland. He has an amazing skill of writing fondly about a place while also mocking it soundly.

    And despite that passage above... England is a good country for walkers. Just another damned enticement for me to move there.


    Completed: Michigan: A History of the Great Lakes State

    Dear Jenny,

    Well, I think we have exhaustively examined the issue of "Great Lakes State" (plural) vs. "Great Lake State" (singular) in this post (our comments make for a funny re-read there, by the way). This book never addresses the issue so I still feel totally unresolved about it.

    For the most part, I enjoyed this read even though I have a few content problems (which you'll see in my blathering review) but I learned a lot. I have so many bookmarks/flags that a stranger on a plane remarked on the extensive marking up I had done. I'm have done my best to keep it to a few of the more interesting topics but... you know I'm not the best editor of my own writing. So grab a cup of coffee and get ready for a long one...

    Michiganian or Michigander?

    In addition to the Lake/Lakes issue, this book never addresses its own use of the term "Michiganian" to describe residents of Michigan, when I have always heard the term "Michigander" (note: spell check squawks at the former but accepts the latter). So I looked it up (of course). The Michigan website is totally wishy-washy on the subject:
    Michiganian or Michigander?
    Michiganian has a long history. It is the term used for the state's citizens in The Collections of the Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society since the 1870s . But people who call Michigan their home use the word they like best. There is no "official" term.
    From the wikipedia:
    A 2011 poll indicated 58% of Michigan residents preferred Michigander, compared to 12% for Michiganian, with 12% having no preference, and 11% not liking either term
    (I love that the high percentage of people having no preference or not liking either term. I can't explain exactly, but that is so Michigan to me!)

    Cobbled together from many sources: "Michiganian" dates back to the 1870s, but "Michigander" was a term of mockery from Abraham Lincoln, who was making fun of a Michigan politician running for president in 1848 -- he wanted to say this guy (Lewis Cass, then governor of Michigan) was a silly goose and therefore called him a "Michigander." HA! So even history is not terribly clear -- what were residents of Michigan called before this put-down?

    Grammatically speaking, "Michigander" doesn't have much support (other states ending in "n" are Oregon [Oregonian], Washington [Washingtonian], and Wisconsin [Wisconsinite]). But many of the people polled said they prefer "Michigander" because "it's fun to say" (which I love). On the anti-Michigander front, some people have called it "sexist" (because a gander is a male goose). (Insert eye roll here.) Growing up, I'd always heard "Michigander," so I'm sticking with that. (Plus, it's fun to say!)

    I also think it's hilarious that the residents of Michigan have taken up a nickname originally intended as a put-down as the primary name for ourselves. "Go ahead and mock us, bitches -- we'll adopt that shit like it's our own!"

    Toledo: We Won't Let it Go

    Oh, Toledo. Michigan wants you baaaad.

    Soooo... Ohio and Michigan were fighting for Toledo when they both became states, because it's situated on the mouth of the Maumee River. Although the federal government surveyed the land and stated that it should go to Michigan, Ohio became a state first and basically won the argument because states had more power than territories (there was some politics involved too, but that bores me, as I will get to in a minute). In exchange for Ohio getting Toledo, Michigan was given the western 2/3 of the Upper Peninsula (thereby ending up with all of it). (And, as a result of that, we now have your favorite term for residents -- Yoopers!)

    So Ohio got Toledo but Michigan has been fighting for it on and off ever since. And when I say "ever since" I'm not kidding -- the last time that Michigan went to the government to fight for Toledo was as recently as 1966. (Seriously!) This battle is not ancient history by any means -- there's apparently some contingency here still biding their time to make that land grab! [68]

    Another hilarious thing that came out of this battle is the nickname of "Wolverines" for Michiganders. I had never really thought much about it, but the animal itself is extremely rare in Michigan -- their habitat is much further north (Alaska, Yukon, etc). Sooo... how did Michigan come to be known as "The Wolverine State?" Well, I'll tell ya! During one fight for Toledo, the Ohioans dubbed Michiganders "Wolverines," likening them to "that 'vicious, smelly, ugly northwoods animal.'" [66] So again Michigan takes someone else's putdown and says, "Sure. We'll take that! And use it!"

    Politics? Yawn. Cars? Bring it On!

    This is really more a commentary on me as a reader than the book itself -- there were many long sections covering the political goings on in Michigan and I found myself skimming during those parts. I just don't care that much about it. But the parts about the history of the automobile? Fascinating!

    For instance, I did not know that Oldsmobiles were the first commercially successful mass-produced cars [191] and were in continuous production for 103 years (GM ended production in 2000) [193]. There are a lot of other tidbits like that in the automobile chapter and I really enjoyed all of that.

    Oddly, the assembly line is not really covered, except for this one line: "By perfecting Olds' assembly-line technique Ford managed to increase production while reducing costs." [195] I think this topic is really interesting and integral to the success of the automobile industry in Michigan, so I found it strange that it wasn't really addressed.

    Also omitted is the fact that the first paved mile of road was in Michigan, as a result of the birth (and boom) of the automotive industry here. The road system in Michigan is fairly unusual (a huge grid of 4-6 lane roads [some are darned near freeways -- with a 55 mph speed limit!] every mile on the mile, extending far out into the burbs) and I was expecting that to be covered... but no dice.

    Do You Put That on a Resume?

    I marked this passage to share with you specifically because it has to do with education and it made me chuckle. In the late 19th century:
    Each school district set it's own hiring standards and, in many instances, the only requirements were that the teacher be able to read, write, do arithmetic, and be able to defeat the strongest boy in school in a fistfight. [159]
    It's not really "funny," per se (ugh -- what a life!) but I just didn't expect it as I was reading along.

    Chronology Problems

    I don't read a lot of non-fiction, so maybe this just happens a lot in history books, but it felt so many times like I would be cruising along reading about stuff happening, and then the authors would refer to something that pre-dated the story that was just going on.

    For instance, in that chapter about education, they talk about violence in the classrooms during the "1870s and 1880s" but the very next paragraph says, "Despite their lack of professional competence, in 1852 Michigan teachers formed a union." [160] I feel like.... waaaait a minute. Shouldn't that have come before talking about stuff that happened in the 1870s and 1880s? So that was disconcerting.

    Updates Needed

    This book was originally published in 1981, then periodically re-published through 2008. But, as far as I can tell, absolutely none of the sections marked "For Further Reading" have been updated since the original publication in 1981. So, you know... want to read more about Henry Ford? Check out this book from the 1950s! I realize that history is history, so much of that is still accurate but I also know that history books are being written and published (and updated) all of the time and the bibliographies in this book could also stand to be updated.

    Likewise, the last 30 years are basically crammed into the last 25 pages of the book, in haphazardly thrown together unrelated snippets. Over the course of seven pages (297-304), we cover the following topics, in the following order:

    • The opening of the Women's Hall of Fame in 1987 (one paragraph)
    • The 1990 Election (one page)
    • Michigan's horrific economic downturn (two pages)
    • Recent progress made solving the mystery of the Edmund Fitzgerald (one page)
    • Dr. Kevorkian (one page)
    • The 1994 Election (two pages)
    Um... maybe lump the political stuff together? And the people stuff? And... spend waaaaaay more time on the economic situation because that's super important in Michigan these days? It's like they just started to slap some tweets on the end of this book in the order that things happened, which is a bummer.

    In Conclusion... I am Concluding

    I actually had a ton more interesting facts, figures, and thoughts to share, but this post has gone on too long already and I have two more to write before this year is over. The reality is that this stuff is probably only super interesting to Michiganders. All of the other midwesterners who come here to vacation really only care about the sunsets on Lake Michigan. Heh.

    On to the final two!


    Tuesday, December 24, 2013

    Completed: The End


    Woo hoo! I'm finished with a cool 7 days left in 2013! Now on the the super-fun task of picking out next year's 14 books.

    I am pleased to say that The End was a lot better than it seemed to be in that first hundred pages, in fact, for non-fiction, it was fast paced and interesting once I got into the rhythm of it.

    The premise of The End is an exploration of why the Nazis held out without surrendering for the last ten months of the war, roughly dating from an assassination attempt on Hitler in the summer of 1944. At first, I was annoyed that the book was so overwhelmingly military in its bent. But as the book went on, there were more chapters about the state of mind of not only the Nazi high command, but also of German citizens, soldiers, and regional directors.

    I've been thinking a lot about my initial disappointment, and I think it's a function of the type of historical reading I tend to do. Because I feel so woefully uneducated in all things historical, I tend to gravitate to big, survey-like texts. I like the "single volume history of X event" because I like getting the big picture. This book is really a very specific look at the state of Germany, and for a very short time. It's not my typical historical read, and that might have been why I was initially disappointed. But once I got into the swing of it, I ended up appreciating it. I don't want to say "enjoy" because of the subject matter, but it was a good read.

    I won't go into too many details, because it's honestly all overwhelming. But I'll leave you with my three major take-aways.

    1) Hitler, man. He was completely, totally, and categorically opposed to surrender. And he's not *just* the dictator of Nazi Germany. He's the head of state, the commander-in-chief of all the armed forces, and the head of the Party. This dude had it *all* locked down. No one could make any moves against him. And he just would lose his mind if anyone suggested they should capitulate. At some point, he started planning the destruction of basically everything left in Germany, which would have eventually killed millions of his own citizens---no food, no electricity, no fresh water, etc. He basically didn't care even about his own people. As far as he was concerned, the German people didn't deserve him, they'd let him down, and therefore, he didn't care to do anything to possibly save them. What a douchebag.

    As an aside, the book also spends some time at the end talking about Hitler's replacement. His name was Karl Donitz, and he held power from Hitler's suicide on April 30, 1945 - May 15, 1945, when the Allies relieved him of command. I mention this only because it seems like a total Jeopardy question. I mean, have you ever thought for a second before about the fact that someone replaced Hitler? Yeah, me neither.

    2) I always knew there was a Western front an Eastern front, but this book describes just how different those fronts were. On the Western front, you have the advancing American and British troops. For the most part, everyday Germans on that side had nothing to fear from those troops. They came to your town, fought, and took over. The most harrowing part of life of the Western front was the incessant air raids by American and British bombers. They bombed the fuck out of Germany, and people lived in fear of American bombers, but those bombers were still far better than what was going on in the Eastern front.

    The Eastern Front was basically hell on Earth. You may remember from my review of Bloodlands that the Germans invaded Russia and planned to basically empty it out by killing everyone, and then moving Germans in. Well, the Red Army was pushing back into Germany, and there was hell to pay. The Red Army looted, raped, and pillaged its way through Eastern Germany. The Red Army, from commanders to infantry, was determined to extract vengeance on the Germans for their invasion of Russia. The book makes the point, and I remember reading about this in Bloodlands, too, that these dirt poor Red Army soldiers were astounded at the wealth of Germany, and were totally pissed. Even the poorest German farmers enjoyed a standard of living so much higher than that of your average Russian peasant.

    The Germans on the Eastern front were terrified of the approaching Red Army. The Nazi leadership knew they had to surrender unconditionally, meaning give it up on both the Western and Eastern fronts, and there was just no way that was going to happen. NO ONE wanted to just give up and give in to the Soviets; they knew they would pay a terrible price.

    3) The German people were assholes, too. The supported Hitler, turned a blind eye to what their country was up to, and then boo-hooed about how they were victimized by the Red Army at the end. The whole country was just filled to the brim with crazy ideas. For example, much of the Nazi party  were convinced that they could *flip* the Americans to their side, and that the Americans and Germans would fight off the Red Army together, thereby preserving the German state. I mean, what?

    It is *tremendously* difficult to read about the mindset of the Germans, whether they are about regular German people or soldiers. Even when reading the Red Army laying waste to villages, it's hard not to feel like the Germans deserved it. The German people started what amounts to a massive land grab, and 6 years later, 80 million people are dead. This is a book that challenged my sense of empathy. It was just hard for me to feel sorry for any Germans. I can't say I'm proud of that feeling, but that's how I felt.

    And I guess that's the biggest take-away of all. Read as a cautionary tale about the dangers of Nationalism and blind support for your government, this books is harrowing in every single possible way.

    And with that, I'm calling it a wrap on 2013's TBR list!

    Sunday, December 22, 2013

    Rounding the Corner on 2013


    1) A few things in my next to last post of the year. (I'm actually making good progress on The End and will finish it in a few days! It got better, luckily, so I'm going to be happy to finish the last TBR book of the year!) We should really finish up this year. So far only 5 people have finished, so our odds for winning might be pretty good (even though we won last year!). I know you've read a ton this year, but are you going to make it through your TBR books?

    2) have you seen this? The NPR Book Concierge! It seems dangerous...

    3) are we TBRing in 2014? I hope so! I'm already starting to think about which books I might choose, which is always a super fun task.


    Sunday, December 1, 2013

    Completed: Little, Big

    Dear Jenny,

    I finished this book a few weeks ago and I don't really know what to say about it. It was strange, which can be okay, but just kind of missed the mark for me this time. I thought a bit of distance would give me some clarity, but what was already a sort of murky reading has become murkier with time.

    Here is the synopsis of this book from Wikipedia (because I can't really come up with one myself):
    Little, Big is the epic story of the Drinkwater family and their relationship with the mostly obscured world of Fairy. It is set in and around their eccentric country house, called Edgewood, somewhere north of "the City" (implied to be New York). The story is dreamlike, quiet, and meandering, spanning a hundred years of the intertwined family trees of the Drinkwaters and their relations—from the turn of the twentieth century to a sparsely-described dystopian future America ruled by a sinister despot. The magical elements are subtle rather than overt, with only occasional glimpses of the fairies themselves, although their presence is felt throughout.
    I guess that covers it. Oddly enough, this description really does help me put some of my thoughts into words. It's the "mostly obscured world" and the "subtle rather than overt" parts of this book that really turned me off. I found myself constantly re-reading passages to figure out what the hell just happened which, for me, is a tiring way to read a book.

    The house (Edgewood) is awesome and some of the characters are interesting and genuinely likable, but the inscrutable aspect was a slog. And even when I *thought* I was figuring stuff out, I'm still not 100% sure that I did, which isn't very satisfying. I actually wrote pretty lengthy plot summary notes for myself after every section of this book, which is something I never do. For these TBR books, I use post-its for stuff I want to tell you later and some pencil markings, but 5 pages of notes? Um, no. And even reading them over right now, I feel like, "Waaait... is that what happened?"

    But here is one of the "notes" that I took in the book -- it cracks me up every time I see it:

    Curious about the passage referred to there? Here it is:
    The athenor of the alchemists, for instance, the Philosopher's Egg within which the transformation from base to gold took place -- was it not a microcosm, a small world? When the black-books said that the Work was to be begun in the sign of Aquarius and completed in Scorpio, they meant not those signs as they occurred in the heavens, but as they occured in the universe of the world-shaped, world-containing Egg itself. The Work was not other than Genesis; the Red Man and the White Lady, when they appeared, microscopic in the Egg, were the soul of the Philosopher himself, as an object of the Philosopher's thought, itself a product of his soul, and so on, regressus ad infinitum, and in both directions too. [250]

    That's exhausting, right? Other than dialog scenes (which were so refreshing!) this was the entire book.

    Also... there was one character who took photos of his sisters in the woods naked (And... kissing each other? Not sure. Glossed over it.), a weirdly veiled probable rape of a sleeping teenage girl by her cousin aaaaand... some guy might have had sex with his own estranged daughter (he suspected she might be his daughter, and he didn't care. She might have known too. Unclear.).  These were areas that I actually didn't look too carefully at to figure out what the hell was going on, as I'm sure you can understand. So that was all creepyville.

    Finally, I think the book was building to some sort of epic battle and, for the life of me, I cannot remember how it ended, although I do remember having a more interested feeling as we headed toward the finish, like, "What's going to happen next?!" Buuut... I guess that didn't pay off.

    So yeah. Little, Big. Not for me.


    PS -- In related news...  2014 is going to be my year for abandoning books. You read it here first: I vow to give up on books that don't interest me. The entire time I was reading this book, Bill kept saying, "Is that the book you should have stopped reading weeks ago?" Yes. Yes it was. Onwards!

    Tuesday, November 26, 2013

    Completed: Lark & Termite


    Sorry I never wrote the preview post on this one. The truth is, I didn't remember much about buying it! I thought for sure I bought it at the Borders bender, but I cataloged those books, and it wasn't there. Until I got to the back of the book and found the receipt! A ha! As it turns out, the Borders Bender was an ongoing event lasting several weeks. Looks like I picked up Lark & Termite along with 3 other books at a table of books marked $4 each. Score!

    When buying books at a sale table, my move is to look for books that had good reviews. It's all about what you find, since you'll almost never find what you're looking for. And since I read lots of book reviews, I have lots of titles floating around in my head as possibilities---and I mean lots of book reviews: The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, the Chicago Tribune Printers Row...and that's just the good ones. I even read the book reviews in Entertainment Weekly! And, of course, let's not forget word of mouth. Some of my favorite books come recommended by others. I keep all that stuff stored up in my brain for book sales! (I try to stay away from bookstores if I can, but the major danger I face now is in used book sales. There are lots of those around here that benefit local charities. I try to only *give* books away rather than buying books at them, but it's hard. The one at the Newberry Library is a freaking zoo, but it's also very well organized and most books are only a few bucks. On the other hand, the one in the neighborhood is just a mess and therefore easier to avoid. I won't let myself go into used book stores. Too dangerous.)

    In the case of Lark & Termite, I had just heard good things. It was a National Book Award finalist and I must have read a few good reviews. Also, and this is a weird one, there was something about the author's name that just seemed familiar and pleasing. I kept thinking that I must have read something by her before, but what? Well, a quick google search revealed what I probably had been thinking: there's a romance author named Jayne Ann Krentz. Not exactly the same, but there you go. Hahah!

    Anyway, Lark & Termite is a story with dual story lines. The first is of 2 siblings: 17 year old Lark and her half brother, the 9 year old Termite. (This naming protocol was a little too precious for me, but whatever.) They are living with their Aunt in West Virginia from July 26-31, 1959, and the whereabouts of their mother, Lola, is a mystery. The other story is about Termite's father, Robert Leavitt, a soldier in Korea on those same July days, but in 1950.

    I would call this book...just okay. Actually, it would probably make a decent aBook. It has long, lyrical passage that are lovely to read. But I think Phillips didn't really know what she wanted to do, here. I think the timing (the same days in July!) of the dual plots is supposed to lend some mystical quality to the story, but it really doesn't work. The Leavitt plot is too thin to hold up its end of the pairing. He is leading a stream of Korean refugees somewhere when they are attacked in a round of friendly fire. He then hangs on for the next two that in nine years, when a story unfolds for his son in West Virginia, the timing will be similar? Um, okay. He's a sympathetic but flat character, and I started to wonder why the author kept him alive in a sort of Dick Clark-like stasis.

    The interesting character is Lark, who's funny and fierce and independent. Their Aunt Nonie is the one officially in charge of Termite, but he's really Lark's baby. Even though he's 9 to her 17, his profound medical challenges, and his physical and mental handicaps, make him little more than a child. But even that's a problem, as there are several times that Termite narrates, and it just strained my credulity to the breaking point. Nonie gets a few turns at narrating, too, and she's a totally interesting character. The story of how she came to be caring for her sister's kids was compelling and interesting.

    The plot picks up in the last third as a massive rainstorm raises the river through town to flood stage. Lark and Termite are alone in their house, and the story of Lark going down into the flooded house to find Termite's lucky moon charm and his wagon is a visceral and haunting scene. There's some good here, but it just felt like too little too late. I guess I'd say the structure of the novel seemed forced, and that got in my way of enjoying the story. There was also a weird mystical figure who appears to bring Termite a new wheelchair. Umm...sure. I guess as a mystical item, a wheelchair would count. But in this novel, it was a strange addition that didn't really work. At all.

    Also, there's enough creepy sexual action between Lola and a bunch of the men in town, and then one of those old men later putting the moves on Lark that I felt a little grossed out. Lark has a precociously early sexual relationship with the boy next door that was also a little disturbing. I won't go into the details, but at one point, I thought, Was that really necessary?! 

    Anyway. It was okay. It ended up better than I expected, and I always like that feeling. On to what's next. Only one more book for me this year!


    Kelly's Book 10.13: Michigan: A History of the Great Lakes State

    Dear Jenny,

    I have finally finished Little, Big but... yeah. It was such a slog to get through, it's even more of a slog to write about. Maybe this weekend? We'll see. 

    In the meantime, I am on a mission to finish and I have 3 books to go, so I have started Michigan: A History of the Great Lakes State.

    From the start, I will tell you I have a problem with the very name of this book, although... further research indicates that I need to let this problem go because I am apparently the only one having this problem?

    Ugh. Let me explain...

    I have always thought that the nickname for Michigan was "The Great Lakes State." You know, cause it's made of two peninsulas that are created by... The Great Lakes! (Fun fact: if you are in Michigan, you cannot be more than 85 miles from a Great Lake.) 

    A few months ago, I saw a dishtowel identifying Michigan as "The Great Lake State." Notice: "Lake" is singular right there. I was all "Ooops! That's not right!" Or... is it? So I looked into it. Omigod! It's not at all clear! says "Great Lake State" and so do old license plates. AND a quick Google search finds 1.2 million hits for "Great Lake State" and only about half a million for the plural.

    So that's it, right? It's singular and these authors have their heads up their butts and I cannot possibly trust anything that they write!

    BUT WAIT! The plot thickens! The state quarter for Michigan says "Great Lakes State." WHAAAA---? Aaaand... most Michiganders (and that nickname is a whole other topic, believe it or not) have said "Of course it's Great Lakes State" (plural) when I have asked (including, clearly, the authors of this book).

    Sooo... what the what, Michigan? I mean...

    More importantly than any of this, there seems to be zero discussion/debate about this on the Internet anywhere! In a world where the abbreviation "Gd" for "Grand" (still bizarre!) gets thoroughly examined... where are the nerds speculating about plural vs. singular "Lake" in our state nickname?

    All this to say... I hope the authors address this question in the book and give a very good and clear reason for going with the plural in the book title.

    Also... yes, yes. I have thought about this way too much, including spending valuable reading time creating that stupid graphic.


    Wednesday, October 30, 2013

    Completed: 36 Arguments for the Existence of God


    So. There's this problem that crops up for teachers of literature, especially if there's any expectation that their texts will tie in to content from another class. For example, let's say that my students are learning about China in their history class, and I'd like them to read a book set in China to compliment their learning. In those cases, what can happen is that the need to have the book cover a certain concept, or be set in a certain place, or have a character of a certain gender TRUMPS the literary merit of said novel. At some point, this is why we uncoupled a "humanities" course in the high school, turning in back into a history course and an English course: if content drives the book selection, the literary quality of the selected novels is likely (not always, but usually) to suffer.

    That brings me to this book, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, which seems to be a novel driven by AN IDEA the author wanted to explore, and A POINT the author wanted to make, rather than a compelling character or conflict. It's hard to put my finger on it, but the closest I can come is that the author was looking to explain the phenomenon of the intellectual celebrity, the mystery of how humans can both feel part of and divorced from their communities of origin, and our modern dilemma of how to understand religion in the face of modern scientific knowledge----but rather than writing a few New Yorker articles, she thought it would be cute to put it all in a novel. You know, serve up the tough ideas with a thin veneer of plot, and it'll wash right down!

    Not so much.

    The novel itself centers around scholar Cass Seltzer, who's recent work on religious faith has won him quite a bit of media-attention. He's known everywhere as "the atheist with a soul." As it turns out, Cass's mother and family are part of a community of Hasidic Jews, in particular one of the most isolated and insular religious communities in the country. The novel starts with Cass looking out over the Charles River, considering a job offer from Harvard. They want to scoop him up from a second-tier university that's also in Boston. This leads Cass to ruminate on how his girlfriend, Lucinda, will react. But he doesn't want to tell her until he can do it in person, and she's away on a business trip. This is the A plot, moving forward in time. An old girlfriend of Cass's, Roz, appears to surprise him, some 20 years after their break-up as graduate students.

    Roz's arrival sets into motion the backwards-moving B plot. This traces Cass's development as a graduate student, and his involvement with 2 extraordinary men: a young Hasidic boy, Azarya, from his hometown who is a definite genius, and Cass's mentor and PhD thesis advisor, Klapper.

    The problem, and it's a big one, is that these stories never come together in any sort of satisfying way. All the characters are clearly being put into play to show the push/pull between faith and reason. For a guy as smart as Cass, it's sort of pathetic to see how unprepared he is for Lucinda's freak-out after he tells her about Harvard. Did any reader really think that Azyrya would leave his community behind for MIT? Most annoyingly, the B plot spends a lot of time setting up the disunion of Klapper and his graduate students, including Cass, but then never actually talks to much about the final rift. The entire B plot is ostensibly to reveal what happened between Cass and Klapper...and it's like crickets. I literally thought to myself, I must have missed something, I've done it before.

    Instead of revealing the demise of Cass's relationship with Klapper, he rises from the dead to write a NYTimes article on the day that Cass is going to debate the existence of God with a Nobel prize winner. I mean, honestly, the whole thing is sort of ridiculous. As a novel, it's not satisfying because there's all these dropped characters and plot lines; as an exploration of faith and reason, it's unsatisfying because it's cluttered up with all these stupid characters.

    The book ends with an appendix, 36 arguments for the existence of God along with a way to logically refute them. It's sort of interesting reading, but it's also weird. In the novel, Cass is famous for his 30 arguments, and he's widely regarded as brilliant for his work. Needless to say, it's a little awkward to read the author describing her own work as being brilliant. The whole thing was just a little too Jonathan Franzen, to be honest. 

    It wasn't terrible for what it was, which was a thinly veiled exploration of the modern science of belief, but it just wasn't a very good novel. 


    Saturday, October 26, 2013

    Wherein I Change My Mind


    In your comment the other day, you said something about tackling Don't Know Much About History on chapter at a time. I think that's what I might have to do with The End. It's boring. I'm not in the mood. I'll finish it this year, but it might be interspersed with other books.

    To that end, I've been reading another book on the list, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. I was sure I picked it up at the Borders Bender, but it appears that must have been at another trip. (Meanwhile, of those books, I've only read 4! Perhaps one or two will make it on to next year's list?) Anyways, I've started it and will finish it soon. It's a novel about an academic who suddenly becomes famous, and his back story and assorted conflicts due to his sudden fame. The book also does contain 36 arguments for why God exists in the back, along with how they can be logically refuted.

    So far, I'm off to a good start. I think I will finish it this week!

    Sunday, October 20, 2013

    Kelly's Final Countdown

    Dear Jenny,

    Okay! The end of year is closing in. Let's see what I have to do to complete my TBR pile this year...

    Like last year, I have done the math -- I need to read 17 pages per day for the rest of the year to finish my list successfully, which seems doable (I'm in slightly better shape than last year -- that post was made in September and I had more books and a 20p/day goal.)

    I am about halfway through Little, Big (going more slowly than I would have anticipated... kind of hard to get into that book.) My game plan is to read Michigan next, since I think I will struggle with that. (Generally speaking, I *am* interested in the topic of Michigan, but this book is actually used as a textbook, so I am afraid of a "medicine" feeling to it.) Then I'll hit that Bill Bryson (usually an easy read -- also, of note, my 2nd author repeat in our TBR challenges) and finish with Florence Broadhurst (just flipped through that today and there are photos, so, you know... 17 pages a day is a bit of a cheat with that one...)

    As for the TBP... sigh. I totally floundered with that. I read one that was *so* great that I wanted to share a bunch of photos with you. So then the post got really overwhelming because midway through writing it, I got a new computer and have not fully transferred photos from one to another (first world problem, I know!) sooo... I totally stalled out with it. I'm not giving up on that list entirely... maybe I should move on to another book and leave that picture-heavy one for when I have the time to devote to it? Bottom line: I am not going to hit 12 this year -- that's for sure! Oh, well... I'll take another whack at it again next year.

    Speaking of next year... have you started making your 2014 TBR list? I do find myself looking at my bookshelves with 2014 in mind, gotta say.


    Friday, October 18, 2013

    Jenny's End of Year Reading Plan


     In a fit of masochism, I've decided to go right into another World War II book. It's called The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1944-1945 by Ian Kershaw.

    I bought this a few years ago after reading a review of it in the New York Times. I'm generally interested in World War II, of course, but I'm also coming up on the Anne Frank unit. So it's a good time to get that knowledge into my head. Also, Kershaw is a renown WWII scholar, and he wrote the definitive biography of Hitler. One appeal of this book was being able to read Kershaw's work without having to read a thousand pages about Hitler.

    Can we both agree that life's too short to read a thousand pages about Hitler? 

    I'm a little afraid I won't find it as compelling as I'd like. The premise of The End is that it explores why the Nazis didn't surrender, and instead fought through the last year of the war, knowing full well they couldn't win. I think I was interested in that idea from a psychological perspective, what was it about the German people that kept them fighting? However, I'm about 90 or so pages in, and it seems to be more from a military perspective. So, honestly, I'm not enjoying it too much so far. 

    That leaves me with four novels, of which I need to choose two to get through the challenge. I have a feeling I'll read Purple Hibiscus, which is by the author of Americanah. It's her first novel, a coming of age story. I've heard good things about it. My guess is I'll choose Lark and Termite as the other. Ceremony just seems daunting in its language at this point, but maybe I'll be wrong. Either way, I feel like I can make it.


    Sunday, October 13, 2013

    Completed: Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin


    I've read some depressing books. Even some very depressing books. But I don't think there's anything I can do describe just how bleak of a read Bloodlands is...but I'm going to try. (I don't mean to laugh, but apparently my go to adjective for depressing is "brutally." For this book, I'm going to need new adjectives.)

    That dark line on the map is the Molotov-Ribbentrop line through Poland.

    I guess the reason this book garnered so much attention is that it did something most other books didn't: it looks at where Stalin and Hitler's spheres of influence overlapped, and talked about the effect it had on the region, which the author describes as the Bloodlands. Most books talk about either Hitler or Stalin. Snyder's argument is that the policies of each dictator enabled and allowed the work of the other. Rather than just doubling the pain and agony of the people in the Bloodlands, they created something of a multiplier effect.

    The Bloodlands is roughly comprised of Eastern Poland and what was then Western Soviet Union: Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, and Latvia. In the 12 years from 1933-1945, Stalin and Hitler were responsible for the deaths of 14 million civilians in the Bloodlands. Again...civilians. This number is not counting ANY military casualties. We're strictly talking about unarmed men, women, and children. FOURTEEN MILLION PEOPLE, KELLY. FOURTEEN. MILLION. This book describes the "deliberate killing policies" put into place by Stalin and Hitler that caused those deaths. As Snyder says, "German and Soviet occupation together was worse than German occupation alone. The populations east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, subject to one German and two Soviet occupations, suffered more than any other region of Europe" (344).

    The reason the people in the Bloodlands were hit so hard was because they were essentially "invaded" three separate times. First, in the 1930s, Stalin pushed westward, gobbling up the Baltic States. Eventually, he and Hitler formed a secret pact that eliminated Poland as an independent country,  and they split down the middle with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Line. Up through World War II, Stalin controlled the area to the East of the line, while Hitler controlled the West. But in 1941, Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa, pushing across the Molotov-Ribbentrop line and occupying the Bloodlands. Finally, in 1945, Hitler was defeated, and Stalin once again reclaimed the area as Soviet territory.

    Basically, there were a couple major ways these mass killings were implemented in the Bloodlands. The first was starvation. In 1933, Stalin collectivized the farms of the Ukraine, which is apparently the California of Europe. Everything grows there and it is the breadbasket of the continent. Stalin took the grain from the peasants who grew it, sending it to cities or exporting it for profit. That winter, at least 3.3 million Ukrainians were deliberately starved by the government.  As you can imagine, this was a harrowing part of the book. Because Stalin had such absolute control over the entire State, he was able to keep peasants from stealing grain to eat. Imagine exporting the grain that could save starving people in your own country.

    When Hitler invaded Russia in 1941, he envisioned a quick lightning strike that would net an easy victory. He wanted the plentiful farm lands of western Russia for German settlers, but knew he would have to get rid of all the people there. There was an actual starvation plan in place, and in the end 4.2 million Soviet citizens were starved out by the Germans between 1941 and 1945.

    The second major strategy was shooting. In the Bloodlands, Stalin had at least 700,000 of his own citizens shot in the Great Terror of 1937-38. The Germans shot at least another 200,000 Poles in occupied Poland between 1939-1941. Another 700,000 civilians from Belarus and Warsaw were shot between 1941-1944. There's some awful stories of how it was done that I will spare you from. But apparently there was no shortage of bullets in the Bloodlands.

    Finally, of course, there were the gas chambers of the Germans. Once Hitler realized that he would not win in Russia, he implemented the Final Solution, which started out as a plan for mass deportation, and instead become one of mass killing. 5.4 million Jews were gassed or shot in the Holocaust, along with other ethnic groups depending on the location of the killing camps.

    Again, and for the sake of empahsis: although the author briefly touches on military casualties,  especially the appalling treatment in Nazi and Soviet prisoner of war camps, all of these deaths were strictly civilian. (Current estimates for TOTAL worldwide deaths as a result of WWII are as high as 60-80 million.)

    In lieu of more summarizing, I'll now share some quotes with you that I marked in the book. It's just so powerful, and I know I cannot do it justice. I'll start with some mind blowing ways of looking at the numbers. I don't have much to add, which is sort of lazy, but it's just astounding to see the way these millions of people suffered.

    The twenty-second of June 1941 is one of the most significant days in the history of Europe. The German invasion of the Soviet Union that began that day was much more than a surprise attack, a shift of alliances, or a new stage of the war. It was the beginning of a calamity that defies description. The engagement of the Wehrmacht with the Red Army killed more than ten million soldiers... the Germans also deliberately murdered some ten million people, including more than five million Jews and three million prisoners of war (155).

    Ruthlessness is not the same as efficiency, and German planning was too bloodthirsty to be really practical...The problem for the Germans was rather that the systematic starvation of a large civilian population is an inherently difficult undertaking, it is much easier to conquer territory than to redistribute calories" (168).

    As many Soviet prisoners of war died on a single given day in autumn 1941 as did British and American prisoners of war over the course of the entire Second World War (182).

    Traditional empires had never done anything like this to Jews. On any given day in the second half of 1941, the Germans shot more Jews than had been killed in pogroms in the entire history of the Russian Empire (227).

    By the end of the War, some eight million foreigners from the East, most of them Slavs, were working in the Reich. It was a rather perverse result, even by the standards of Nazi racism: German men went abroad and killed millions of "subhumans," only to import millions of other "subhumans" to do the work in Germany that the German men would have been doing themselves---had they not been abroad killing "subhumans" (246).

    By the end of the war, half the population of Belarus had either been killed or moved. This cannot be said of any other European country" (251).

    One of the major themes of the book is that the true extent of mass killings in the Bloodlands was hidden from history because the major killing fields were behind the Iron Curtain. All of the major death sites, POW camps, concentration camps, etc, were controlled by the Red Army. The American and British forces were on the Western Front and approaching Germany, but the major killing was done on the Eastern front. Snyder writes, "When an international collective memory of the Holocaust emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, it rested on the experiences of German and west European Jews, minor groups of victims, and on Auschwitz, where only about one in six of the total number of murdered Jews died...nearly five million Jews were killed east of Auschwitz, [along with] nearly five million non-Jews" (377). He continues later to explain that "in a matter of a given few days in the second half of 1941, the Germans shot more Jews in the east than they had inmates in all of their concentration camps" (382). In this way, the history was astounding to me. The gas chambers that we so strongly associate with the Holocaust were a second act, a follow-up to the main event, which was mass shootings. There were other death camps of the Nazi regime, Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek. At these death camps, there were literally no survivors. Blezec and Sobibor had mortality rates of 99.99%. If you got sent there, you were killed. No one survived, and only due to Nazi record keeping do we know the numbers killed there.  We know about Auschwitz because it was a hybrid camp, with both gas chambers and workers. People **survived** Auschwitz and lived to tell about it. But by the time the gas chambers opened at Auschwitz in 1943, "the tremendous majority of all the people who would be killed by the Soviet and Nazi regimes, well over 90%, has already been killed" (383).

    I feel I have run out of steam on this review. It was a great book, but not an easy one.


    Wednesday, October 9, 2013

    Kelly's Book 9.13: Little, Big

    Dear Jenny,

    Over the past several months, we have stopped writing "preview" posts of the books we are about to embark upon and I, for one, kind of miss it. So I'm writing one for this book.

    Even though... I know practically nothing about it except that it is one of the favorite books of my very favorite craft blogger, Alicia Paulson of Posie Gets Cozy. Is that a totally weird reason to read a book? Oh, well.

    I read her description/review of this book back in 2005 (and it's been on my TBR pile ever since! Gah!) Re-reading that post now, I notice she also refers to her friend who lives in Hyde Park. So, you know... it's meant to be, right?

    Even after reading the back of this book, I still feel like I know nothing about it. Here is what it says:
    John Crowley's masterful Little, Big is the epic story of Smoky Barnable, an anonymous young man who travels by foot from the City to a place called Edgewood—not found on any map—to marry Daily Alice Drinkawater, as was prophesied. It is the story of four generations of a singular family, living in a house that is many houses on the magical border of an otherworld. It is a story of fantastic love and heartrending loss; of impossible things and unshakable destinies; and of the great Tale that envelops us all. It is a wonder.
    Sounds vague but intriguing. But I trust Alicia -- she makes beautiful things, takes beautiful photos, and writes beautiful posts. So I think she's got a pretty keen sense for beautiful things. We shall see!


    Tuesday, October 8, 2013

    Completed: The Thirteenth Tale

    Dear Jenny,

    Ugh. This was almost a success story -- I started this post just a few days after finishing this novel! But then... I abandoned it a couple of paragraphs in and I am just now getting back to it. Sigh. (Finished in August... it is now October.)

    Here is what I wrote in August (after the above congratulatory paragraph which I have since modified):

    With all of the "catch up" posts this year, I have missed our little "preview" posts (you know -- where we talk about the book before we read it...) If I had written one for this book, it would have said something like, "I have no idea where I got this book, but I wish I knew, because I would love to thank that person for giving/recommending it to me." Now that I have written that, I am thinking... it was either my mom or my MIL. Had to be, because I don't recall picking this book up on my very own, out of the blue. I'll have to ask them both now... and whoever didn't give/recommend this book to me, I will pass it on to them!

    All this to say, I loved this book.

    Aaand... that's it. Today, almost halfway through October, I can't remember what I was going to say next! Perhaps I have left myself some notes in the text. Let's see...

    Okay. There are a few notes up front, and then I remember just burning through the story. It was a good read. For one, it's an open love letter to books and readers -- the main character, Margaret, is a true book lover -- she grew up working in her father's rare book shop, loves to read, her world revolves around books, she grows up to be a writer, etc. -- so that's pretty great. Here's an awesome passage about reading that occurs early on:
    Still in my coat and hat, I sank onto the stair to read the letter. (I never read without making sure I am in a secure position. I have been like this ever since the age of seven when, sitting on a high wall and reading The Water Babies, I was so seduced by the descriptions of underwater life that I unconsciously relaxed my muscles. Instead of being held buoyant by the water that so vividly surrounded me in my mind, I plummeted to the ground and knocked myself out. I can still feel the scar under my fringe now. Reading can be dangerous.) [4]
    And a few pages later...
    How long did I sit on the stairs after reading the letter? I don't know. For I was spellbound. There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. [8] 
    I know that you know that "taken prisoner" experience -- when you have to stay up all night to finish a book? In a lovely way, this book ended up having that thrall over me. How meta!

    As for the story itself, I guess it's technically a mystery -- Margaret is called to the house of a famous (and mysterious) writer, Vida Winter, at the end of Vida's life to write her biography. But it's not that straightforward, and you are taken along on the journey as our protagonist unravels the story for herself, thread by thread. She's also kind of racing the clock, as Vida is dying, so if Margaret doesn't figure it out now, she never will.

    The title of the book refers to one of Vida's books called Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation which only had 12 tales and was immediately re-published with the word "Thirteen" removed. But enough people followed her to wonder, "What was the 13th tale?" (A question frequently asked of our intrepid protagonist throughout the book.) As you read this book, you realize, of course, that you are holding the "Thirteenth Tale" in your very hands. Again... so meta! (It sounds pretty cheesy as I write it here, but it was really well done.)

    The characters are nicely drawn and the story-within-a-story-within-*another*-story really works as Vida recounts her life while Margaret goes sniffing around on her own. Throughout the book, we are sometimes in the past, sometimes in the present, and sometimes in the present but either recalling, or purely speculating upon, the past. It all comes together in a pretty satisfying conclusion -- I don't know if I can really say more without giving away the end (which I know we don't care about too much, but... it's a mystery! Perhaps just this one time, I won't spoiler the hell out of this thing.)

    I'll leave you with one more bookish quote:
    Whether by luck or accident, I cannot say, but I found my way to the library a full twenty minutes earlier than I had been commanded to attend. It was not a problem. What better place to kill time than a library? [41]
    All in all, this is a book I can see lending or recommending to other readers and feeling confident that they will enjoy it. It's not an epic life-changer, but it's a great yarn. (Any interest in reading it yourself? I can send it along!)


    Wednesday, October 2, 2013

    Random Book Talk

    Dear Jenny,

    Here are some random book-ish thoughts I have had lately, in no particularly order (although, for whatever reason, I have chosen to number them...)

    1. Thanks for recommending Americanah to me -- I'm listening to the aBook right now. The story is great and the narrator is fantastic. Win! (BTW, that's a Goodreads link and the reviews are an interesting mix. This 1 star review at the very top right now is especially fascinating. I see her point, but I totally don't feel that way when reading the book at all.)

    2. Big news: I recently abandoned a book! I was listening to it, it wasn't that interesting, my loan was expiring and... I let it go. I am so proud of myself -- this is my first ever intentionally abandoned book. Aaaand... I have abandoned it so successfully, I cannot even remember what it was! (And I'm not going to try... go away!) Aren't you proud of me?

     3. I'm curious... how do you and/or other middle school teachers feel about this latest shocker-book, Tampa? I feel like I am seeing it everywhere and it just sounds revolting. The topic could be interesting but the over-the-top graphic sex descriptions sound atrocious. Have you read it? Know anyone who has? (And, when I heard about this book, I thought, "Please, please, please do not be in the Tournament of Books this year...") Bonus (semi-related) question: Have you ever read Lolita? And bonus (totally related) news topic... a teacher near Tampa was recently found guilty of similar actions. (Ugh.)

     4. Speaking of the ToB... as the year comes to a close, I feel more and more like, "Eep! I should be figuring out what might be in the ToB this year! Eep!" Last year, I happened to have read several of the books before it came around (seriously -- a coincidence). But if I have not pre-loaded for it, I won't be able to keep pace like I did last year... I've been following the talk on the Rooster! Goodreads group, but that hasn't been all that helpful... seems like most people are talking up books they've liked, but there are a lot of books getting thrown out there. I know there are big prizes coming up which should help pare down the list, but the outliers... oof. I am nervous.

     5. Also ToB related... every time I hear the name "David Foster Wallace," I think, "Drink!" That's a powerful Pavlovian response there. ;)

     6. I completely spaced on reading my TBR book for September (!!!) and now my final list of books are all long ones... I have a feeling it's going to be page-count-for-the-rest-of-the-year for me. (Ha -- looking back on that post, it was just about 1 year ago [Sept 21, 2012] and I had far more books/pages to read to complete the year. Sooo... I'm still ahead of where I was last year at this time!)

    7. I have just realized I never posted my completed review of my August book. Crap. Okay. Gotta finish that too. Sooo... how are you doing on your TBR list?


    Sunday, August 25, 2013

    Completed: 1Q84

    Dear Jenny,

    Whew! Finally closing in on it with July's book (And it's only August!)

    True confession: I ended up listening to this one mostly via aBook because I knew I was never going to make the time to sit down and finish slogging through it. I am not a fan of this book, which is ironic because I may own more versions of it than any other book in my library. Wonder how? Let's break it down...
    1. Our first reference to reading this book together (via Subtext) was back in March 2012. Subtext required that the book be a Google Book, so I bought that version. I then discovered (as I was *boarding a flight*) that Google Books cannot be read offline (Is that still true?! Did I miss something and just failed to understand how to download the damned thing?!) so...
    2. I impulse-bought the Kindle version to read on the long flight. Didn't make it through it that time (of course) so...
    3. When I went to start it again for this TBR, I realized I could get a discount on the aBook because I had bought the Kindle eBook (which is actually kind of cool -- it tracks where you are, regardless of media, and picks up where you left off!) So I was able to listen to this during the day and read it in bed at night. Still... it's a 47 hour long aBook. I spent a *lot* of time with this book. 
    This book is also notable because it is the first author re-visit I have done since we started the TBR in 2011. That year, I read The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, also by Murakami. My "review" was totally lame, except that ... I loved that book, and it shows in that write-up. I probably should have just quit then. You know, while I was ahead. Because this book? Not so much with the love.

    And now... for my "review" of 1Q84. Which I may or may not (but actually totally do) refer to as "Boobs and Pubes" in my head.

    The Good:
    At the heart of it, it's a good story. It's a love story -- it's a little bit wacky, but overall, it's a good story about two kids who meet briefly in childhood and then spend of the rest of their lives trying to find one another again, each in their own way. There are some twists and turns along the way (including an alternate universe... interesting! Good!) and that -- the heart of this story, I really did like. However...

    The Bad:
    This book was originally released as three separate installments, and you can tell -- it could have used a serious re-edit once it was published as a single volume. There is a lot of re-visiting previous ground (which is great when you haven't read the preceding book in awhile, but not so great when you're reading it all in one go) and, in general, the story could just stand to be tightened up. So that was problematic. But... able to be handled. However. There was also...

    The Ugly:
    Boobs and Pubes. UGH! Why there was so much reference to breasts and pubic hair in this book, I have no frigging idea. It was a g-d obsession. Quick little searchy-search here finds...
    • Breasts: 77 results 
    • Nipples: 21 results 
    • Pubic hair: 21 results 
    That is one boob mention per 9 pages and a pube reference every 44 pages. That's... A LOT.

    There was hardly a mention of our heroine without a reference to the fact that she had small breasts and that one was slightly larger than the other. Jenny, I finished this book weeks ago and I still retain this information ... in my mind. You know how my mind is a sieve when it comes to books... and yet this I retain. Ugh!

    Here is a small sampling of notes I made in this book:
    "More unnecesary boob talk" on page 373. (At that point, I still had no idea how bad this was going to get!) 
    "W.T.F." In response to this quote: "It was like her pubic hair was a part of her thinking process." [692] (Seriously. W. T. Everloving. F.) 
    "Come ON." In response to the main female character (Aomame) reflecting on her two closest friends' deaths: "It saddened her to think that these women were forever gone from the world. And she mourned their lovely breasts -- breasts that had vanished without a trace." [916] 
    I just... don't... I can't. It's just... weird. And such a bummer -- the story is interesting and bizarre and great on its own. But all of this gratuitous boob and pube talk left a bad taste in my mouth.

    In the end, I would not recommend this book, but I stand by my love for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Don't waste your time with 1Q84 -- awkward to say the title out loud and super awkward to read, in any form.


    Thursday, August 22, 2013

    Completed: The Professor and the Madman

    Dear Jenny,

    I read this book in June, so I'm still catching up here. I love the subtitle of this book: "A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary." Kind of a big tease, isn't it? And yet... that is, in fact, what this book is about. (Side note -- as I was writing this, you published this writeup, also talking about crazy subtitles in non-fiction books. Heh.)

    One notable part of this book is that I found it one of the most "readable" works of non-fiction I have ever read. It made me wonder about what makes a book/story more readable (or less). I don't know the answer to that, but I do know that I enjoyed this book.

    Of course, only two months later, I can barely remember it (le sigh) -- let's see what the synopsis says on the back of the book:
    Masterfully researched and eloquently written, is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary -- and literary history. The compilation of the OED began in 1857, it was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, discovered that one man, Dr. W. C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand. When the committee insisted on honoring him, a shocking truth came to light: Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.

    That about sums it up. I did mark a few pages, so let's flip through it and see what notes Past Kelly has left for Present Kelly...

    Oh, yeah! Every chapter begins with a word and a definition from the OED that pertains so that topic. There were a lot of fun ones, my favorite being:  Sesquipedalian -- a very long and polysyllabic word. Also: "A person or thing that is a foot and a half in height or length." [75] Ha! Next time I need to say something is 18 inches long, I may need to say that it's "sesquipedalian." (Thereby also using a sesquipedalian word -- so meta!)

    The perspective of what the world was like before we had the first complete dictionary is absolutely fascinating to me. You know what a research junkie I am -- imagining this world is like trying to think about a time when we believed the world to be flat -- whaaa---? Check it:
    Shakespeare was not even able to perform a function that we consider today as perfectly normal and ordinary a function as reading itself. He could not, as the saying goes, "look something up." Indeed the very phrase -- when it is used in the sense of "searching for something in a dictionary or encyclopaedia or other book of reference" -- simply did not exist." [80]
    I often struggle to remember what the world was like before in Internet, but the idea of a world with no dictionary?! Oh, I need to sit down. Where are the smelling salts?

    In fact, perhaps that is part of why this book was so interesting to me -- I have long been in love with the dictionary. In 1987, Random House released its expanded 2nd edition of the "Unabridged Dictionary" (OMG! Like the one at the library!) It was the only thing I asked for for Christmas that year. My grandfather bought it for me and I still have it. In fact, here's the inscription:
    (Hilarious that he wrote "Granpaw" here -- surprisingly, he was a goofball!)

    I was going to take a photo of the dictionary itself, but I'll do one better... here is a photograph [of a photograph] that I took in 1996 that I still carry around in my wallet, 17 years later (!!) It's Kaesea, sitting on my dictionary:

    Ignore the glowing eyes -- check those darling white paws! And that SUPER fluffy tail! 
    Someone saw this photo once and said, "Wow - small cat!" I said, "Nope. Big book." (Kaesea was probably about 11 pounds when this photo was taken.) Heh.

    (BTW, I keep a very clean wallet --  this photo is the only frivolous item in there. So you know -- My cat and my dictionary: a couple of true loves.) (Note the Chronicles of Narnia also making an appearance there, as well as this book that you bought me years ago that did, I must report, eventually get replaced by the Internet.)

    I still love that dictionary, although it's more sentimental than practical at this point. If I'm looking up words, I'm using some sort of eDictionary. But pre-Internet?! This thing got a ton of use... in fact, it's pretty ratty now but I can't see ever getting rid of it (it's been with me in 4 different states!) I used to want a full-on library stand for it, but never had the room... maybe I should look into that again now that we've got a big house... hrm.

    But I digress.

    Back on this whole The Pre-dictionary World mind-blowing concept. I underlined this passage: "The English language was spoken and written -- but at the time of Shakespeare it was not defined, not fixed." [83] Again -- where are my smelling salts? This is just too lawless for me to even imagine.

    Of course, when it came to laying down the law, plenty of people had to pipe up and take it to extremes, right? Here we go: "[Jonathan] Swift was the fiercest advocate of all. He wrote to the earl of Oxford to express his outrage that words like bamboozle, uppish, and -- of all things -- couldn't were appearing in print." [91] So here's someone who wanted not only rules to govern the usage of words, but to also outlaw words he deemed "unacceptable." Which was not at all the goal of the OED -- it was simply to document all of the words in use, regardless of how they felt about them.
    And so the thinking of great literary men went -- if longitude was important, if the defining of color, length, mass, and sound was vital -- why was the same import not given to the national tongue. As one pamphleteer wailed, appropriately: "We have neither Grammar nor Dictionary, neither Chart nor Compass, to guide us through the wide sea of Words." [92]
    This book gets into the nitty-gritty of how words were researched, documented, and, in the end, actually defined. And I ate it up. When I started writing this post, I thought, "Wait... what happened in this book?" Now that I'm flipping through and looking at my notes, I remember it all -- and part of the reason that I cannot remember this book is that I burned through it. I guess part of it is the writer's style, but, based on the above photos, it's also probably about my extreme interest in dictionaries.

    It took decades to write the OED and the process by which it happened (tons of people researching, filling out scraps of paper, organizing those scraps, etc.) (All done via the postal service!) was absolutely fascinating to me. The titillating subtitle of this book refers to the state of mind of one of the biggest contributors and that story was somewhat interesting, but it wasn't what I really found engrossing about this book -- it was the dictionary stuff that really got me.

    So, there ya go: Read about what interests you. (Um... duh, Kelly.)