Catching up: Midsummer edition

Well, well, well. Summer school has started and is now halfway over, so that’s why there’s been a drop in posts the last fortnight or so. It’s very fun to teach but I must admit that it definitely eats into my day, what with grading, prepping PPTs, and general admin, so reading seems to have fallen off the last few days. It’ll pick up in two weeks (when summer school’s over). Phew. 

Thought that this would be a good time to catch up with some of the more notable summer reading titles that I haven’t yet blogged about, so here you go. These haven’t been the only books I’ve read, but they are the books that have left an impression on me over the last few weeks or so. 

I am becoming pretty interested in autobios and biographies, so as I was strolling through the library shelves, I was drawn to a short biography of children’s author, Richard Scarry. My twin was very interested in Scarry’s books when we were growing up and so I picked this version up. It wasn’t a heavy-duty serious solid biography, but more of a conversation or dialogue with some of the people who knew him so it ended up a pretty lightweight read which was fine, since I was a bit brain-dead at the end of the semester when I read it. 

Then, I wanted to read from my TBR pile, so pulled a fairly recent buy for me called The Thrill of It All by Joseph O’Connor, mainly because of two things: it was about a (fictional) music group from the eighties and the book was party set in Luton, which is a fairly nondescript quite industrial town near to where I grew up. It’s not a town that leaps to mind for many authors and so when I saw that O’Connor had chosen it, it immediately went on to the list. 

It was a fun read that I gobbled down in just a few days and covers the life and evolution of a small group of friends who make up a band in their teenaged years and what happens to it (the band) and them as it evolves over time. Sad, funny – lots of great pop culture refs for those of us who came of age in that decade PLUS it kept mentioning landmarks that I had heard of. Well written story which kept me turning the pages. I’m on the lookout for more O’Connor (who’s actually a big Irish author so not sure why the attraction to Luton!) 

That was followed with a rather ponderous effort at reading Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers on my kindle. I’m about halfway through it right now, but it’s been put down for a week or two so I’m hoping that I haven’t lost the impetus to finish that title before I forget all the characters and what they’re doing!

Since it was summer and my brain was on holiday for a bit, I wanted a quick read that was also well written, so picked up Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley Underground which was an enjoyable romp and also gave me lots of examples of good grammar examples to show in class. (I know. Strange but true.) Features more of Tom Ripley’s adventures and was just a good read overall.

Then I soldiered through a nonfiction by Jonathon Raban called Hunting for Mister Heartbreak. I’d really appreciated one of Raban’s other reads (called Badlands [no blog post] about North Dakota, I think), so was rather hoping to replicate that level of read. I’d also enjoyed a book by Raban called Coasting (when he sails in a small boat around the coast of UK)…

Hunting for Mister Heartbreak was set to be a good read, going by the narrative arc: English man travels around America trying to find the essence of American-ness is various places, from the Florida Keys to the Deep South and in between. 

This book didn’t reach the same level of greatness that Badlands and Coasting did, though. I’m not sure why. Maybe this was an earlier volume and he hadn’t got his swing yet? There was quite a lot of him philosophizing about things in a rather superior way, and I think I just got tired of him judging the places and people who surrounded him. It just didn’t really come together and seemed more of a patchwork quilt just thrown together to create a bigger work. So-so, if you ask me, but another off the TBR pile, so that’s good. (I might be done with Raban now though.) 

Then summer school prep and the semester actually beginning which has meant more time prepping for class and grading work. I have a really good bunch of students this semester – summer school students seem to be a different breed than the long-semester ones and I’m enjoying the experience – but it’s definitely crazy-fast-paced for us to fit all the material in. Then, when summer school finishes in a couple of weeks, I get another couple of weeks off to recover and plan for the fall semester and then the school year begins again. I just adore teaching! (I hope the students enjoy it as well. :-}

Parable of the Sower – Octavia E. Butler (1993)

Image of book cover for Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower.

Following on with the POC reading theme and wanting some dystopian world to read about, I picked up Parable of the Sower (no “The”?) by Octavia E. Butler. Written as the first of a two-book series, this sci fi novel was published in 1993, and received a lot of critical acclaim including being selected as the 1994 NYT Notable Book of the Year (along with other lit awards). 

So – all signs pointed to a good read (as was an earlier of another Butler book) and I’m happy to report it was – enough so that now I’m searching for the second title (Parable of the Talents). (My library doesn’t seem to have that title but I’m probably going to have to take advantage of their great interlibrary loan program since I haven’t seen it on the shelves yet.)

(Random aside: In fact, there was also supposed to be a third title to make it in a trilogy, but it seems that Butler had serious writer’s block about this, and although she started this third novel a few times, it never materialized into a finished product. (However, I totally get and respect the writer’s block problem. No problem with that. 🙂 ))

The plot for this particular spec fic/sci fi read revolves around a young woman (variously called “girl” and “woman”) called Lauren Oya Olamina, who lives in the U.S. (or what used to be that nation) during the 2020s.

(This is not so far into the future as to be unbelievable and was one of the many points that really sold the novel to me. I love it when people invent worlds just a squidge off-center from real life as it is right now. Plus – I love that Butler is sensitive to the vocabulary she uses to describe her characters.)

Back to the book: Lauren has been living with her mum and dad and sibling in a small community, gated and walled to protect them from the marauding aggressive outsiders who surround them, trying to survive in the external extremely dog-eat-dog world caused by governmental collapse and all other economic and societal systems. 

As the troubles start to move closer to her small community, Lauren starts to seriously plan to move north to keep in front of these dangerous gangs. But how to do that?

Another new wrinkle has the introduction of new street drug called “pyro.” Pyro had the effect of making the act of setting a fire akin to the experience of really good s*x for its users, and so, of course, to “chase the dragon,” lots of these outside marauders end up being quickly addicted to it, making life difficult and challenging for everyone else. 

Along with this increasingly unpredictable situation is the fact that Lauren also possesses hyper-empathy, a human condition thought up by Butler which gives the individual the ability to feel the pain (and other sensations) from people she witnesses. Thus, if someone close to her vicinity gets hurt, both that person and Lauren experience the same amount of pain even if Lauren was only a spectator at the incident…

This can make it tricky for Lauren to be really effective when someone is very hurt as both she and the patient may be incapacitated at the same time – another complication to consider for both her and any future travelers in the group on her already-precarious northward journey.

Fully aware that the future task (and all its dangers) will be easier if she can get a small group together, she invites the brother of a neighbor along to add power in numbers. Planning continues apace, but when the pyro vandals burn down her own home (and others) which ends up killing most of her family (and that of her friend) one night, the goal to migrate north to safety gets moved up sooner than originally planned. It’s too dangerous to stay where she is right now…

Another great twist for this fast-moving plot is that there is also a vast shortage of water, so it’s an expensive but necessary product and has to be used carefully. This situation doesn’t help the pyro problem (not enough water to put out the frequent fires, people dealing with scarcity and all its related issues), and so the whole situation starts to get a little incendiary for all. (See what I did there? 🙂 )

With nothing for which to stay, the small group starts to journey north to reach Washington or Oregon where it rains more, pyro is not yet a “thing”, and life is (hopefully) not quite so difficult.

The plot then follows the ragged group as it gains members (and loses some) and treads along the miles of abandoned highways in their efforts to reach their own promised land up north. And how does it end…? You’ll need to read it to see! 🙂

(You know, this novel reminded me in some ways of the poor old Joads in Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” (1939) which describes a similar quest to reach the promised lands of California. I’ve read Grapes quite a few times, but it was mostly during grad school and that was a LONG time ago. Maybe I should refresh my memory to see if there are more overlapping homages to Grapes or other books in this Butler title…)

An excellent read, whether you dig sci fi or not… This might also be a really good book for someone not familiar with spec fiction in which to dip. There’s no robots, no Star Wars, no dragons. Just a good solid narrative arc that really made me care about the characters and pulled me in as a reader for a couple of days. Recommend this.

For another Octavia E. Butler read, try Kindred (review).

New (to me) books…

There happened to be a FoL library book sale at the start of last month, and who am I to turn down that deliciousness? So, of course, I went. “Just to see…” 🙂

So, here are the titles that I carried home with me (from top to bottom):

  • Germinal – Emile Zola
  • The House of the Four Winds – John Buchan
  • Shopping, Seduction and Mr. Selfridge – Lindy Woodhead
  • Fodor’s Vancouver and Victoria guide book
  • The Trumpet of the Swan – E.B. White
  • Stuart Little – E.B. White
  • The Great Typo Hunt – Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson
  • Death in the Summer – William Trevor

Nearly all fiction titles (which is not my usual MO), but this was probably influenced by my glancing at my already-existing TBR NF shelves and realizing that I already have enough on those!

(Plus this pile did give me the impetus to go through my TBR and whittle down its numbers quite a bit. (Two large grocery bags of books to the FoL!)

Plus, I finally bit the bullet and gave away my large pile of dark-green Virago titles.

I know – sacrilege, but I realized that if I haven’t read these titles over the past 20 years, I probably don’t really want to read them at all. Now they are available to more appreciative readers!)

Now, I just have to read them! Hahahahahahaha.

Indulging in some E.B. White…

Going to a couple of thrift shops, I had found a boxed set of E.B. White’s trilogy including Charlotte’s Web* (1952), Stuart Little (1945) and The Trumpet of the Swan (1970). I’d already read Charlotte’s story, but the other two were new to me… It was a hot day, I was tired from all the de-stoning of the flower beds (see previous entry), so I sat down to engage in some sweet reading.

Both were adorable reads (just as Charlotte’s Web was), and if you haven’t read them, I recommend them for an adorable hour or so of beautiful writing and lovely stories. (Plus – some more of artist Garth Williams’ perfect pics.)

Stuart Little is a smart little mouse who was born (in mouse form) to human parents, but who lives his life as a human would (just a very small human). Anyways, it’s so sweet (although not saccharine) to follow Stuart’s adventures and I loved this little jaunt with this rodent.

Then, I moved on to a read of The Trumpet of the Swan which follows the adventures of a young trumpeter swan who has no voice (and thus, can’t trumpet). Undeterred, he enrolls in school, and then falls in love with another swan. However, with no voice, how can he tell her of his deep love for her? Just adorbs.

(I’m very puzzled about how I missed these when I was a young reader who adored animals… Maybe it was an American book? Or I was too deeply attached to Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain?)

(I was obsessed with this book when I was little…)

(Interestingly, Garth Williams (the artist who had illustrated Charlotte’s Web only illustrated Stuart Little. Another artist ended up illustrating The Trumpet…, so I missed Williams’ style. Still lovely stories though.)

After reading some more of White’s work, I was curious about his life so toddled off to the library to see if I could track down a biography about him. I found one by Michael Sims: The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E.B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic (2011). Cool. I was psyched to learn more about the lovely Mr. White…

However, it was not to be. The author had completely butchered this biography, and to be honest, I’m not sure how this version made it through an editor. Not to be mean, but from a professional editor’s viewpoint, it was so sophomoric and read like a student’s early draft of a basic research essay. (Sorry. But it’s true.)

The author had included every single little fact that he had dug up about White, and then had just mushed it all together in a vague order, but goodness gracious. It was painful to read, and I didn’t want to sully White’s image in my head with this writing, so stopped after a hundred pages of so. Grr.

There are, however, other biographies of White out there to read, so I’ll try one of those. This title is off the list though. 🙂

Then to recover from that disappointment, I did a jigsaw puzzle… 🙂

  • If you google Charlotte’s Web, curiously enough, the first item that pops up on the search list is of the weed type that’s called that same name. Aaah. A sign of the times. 🙂

Summer Catch-Up: Flower beds and books (of course!)

So I’m at the beginning of summer break (woohoo) which is a great gift for faculty. All the graduates have gone off to explore their worlds and I have a space until the beginning of July to hang out and do stuff (or not, as the case may be). I wish I could share this with you all though.

So, what exactly have I been doing? Well. Let’s see…

I have redone the two flower beds in front of the house. This included removing every single river stone from each bed, planting some annuals in front and filling some gaps in the boxhedge, and then I’m now putting each of those river stones back in place. (Phew. A huge job for me, but it will look good when it’s done. See photos below for updates on progress.)

Flower bed #1 (after all stones pulled out). Ready for planting annuals and putting stones back.
Flower bed #2: halfway through the process (now completed).

I’ve also been reading, naturally, so seeing as it’s summer (and the living is easy :-)), I thought I’d just do some reviewlettes to keep caught up with the titles.

I had a fun read of R.C. Sheriff’s Greengates (1936), a domestic mid-century novel about an English couple who have to (re-) find themselves after the husband retires. Nothing too deep and meaningful, but just a good solid read. Just right after the end of the semester…  

I had a lovely peruse through a coffee table book on modern interior design and yearned for some of these rooms. (Unfortunately, I don’t happen to have one zillion dollars at the moment, but when I do… Yes.)

Called Interiors: Inside the American Home and edited by Marc Kristal (I think), these were not your average American home. No sirree bob. It was more along the level of perhaps the Kardashians, but it was still enjoyable to look at how the designs were for the rooms, and learn more about my own style. I can still pull the pieces of design that I really like and integrate it into my own home, yes?  

In the mood for short stories, preferably speculative fiction and by a POC, I went looking for some more Nalo Hopkinson and came from with the library edition of Mojo: Conjure Stories, an anthology edited by Hopkinson. This is a collection of short stories written by a variety of authors across the globe, but all POC and written through the lens of Caribbean and AfAm magic. (Magic is a little bit of a stretch for me to read, but the majority of these stories were fine… Only a few didn’t make the cut, in my opinion, but that’s to be expected with an anthology.)

Overall, this was a fun read so I’m open to reading more along those lines in the future.

And now I’m choosing my next read. Which one, which one… ? (Plus – finishing the flower beds!)

Oh, and plus this: I’m off to Canada in a couple of weeks for a conference, so been reading about Vancouver (where I’ll be)… Cool beans.

The New Moon’s Arms – Nalo Hopkinson (2007)

Image result for the new moon's arms

Having frequently heard of Nalo Hopkinson as a sci fi/speculative fiction author, and since I was in the mood for that sort of read, I checked out this title from the library. (I’d also been looking for a good fiction read by a POC author as well, so this ticked that box very nicely as well.)

So, not quite sure what to expect since Hopkinson was a completely new author to me, the first chapter got off to rather a rough start. OMG. It was so confusing – people change names for no apparent reason, there’s magical realism (which I wasn’t expecting), and there are animals who might (or might not) be mermaids/merpeople in disguise. 

So, taking a deep breath and really liking how Hopkinson writes, I soldiered on and interestingly it all got sorted out by the end of the second chapter. So – heed this warning. That first chapter is worth sticking with as the plot sorts itself out in the end. (And I must admit – the fault may have been mine, but just in case…) 

To the book itself: The narrative arc follows a redemption story, really, with a pretty unlikable and prickly character (she who changes names in the first chapter) and what happens when she takes in a child she finds on the beach of her Caribbean (or similar) island. 

Image result for nalo hopkinson
Nalo Hopkinson. (Picture credit.)

Calamity (also called Chastity at certain parts) is dealing with two big situations at the moment. One is the death of her father (from whom she’s been estranged since her teenaged years) and the other is that whenever she has a hot flash due to menopause, her finger tips tingle and her long-lost childhood ability of finding lost things comes alive. The things found range from a blue and white plate from her childhood to an entire grove of cashew trees that materializes one day outside her house to the mysterious beach child with sea shells in his/her hair… 

At the same time as all this is going on, Chastity/Calamity’s also becoming more involved with the issue of the group of particular rare seals who live on one corner of her island home. She makes friends with a seal researcher and so throughout this narrative, there’s this collision (of sorts) between the roles and importance of science and myth, of magical realism and reality, of things unexplained by rational logic. 

Interestingly, there are collisions of other sorts as well: the protagonist has ongoing tussles with her relatives over various points; the arrival of the beach child causes concern for all when Calamity/Chastity decides to look after him/her; there’s discord between the protagonist and her father; there is the struggle at that point where the sea overlaps with the land, with science and magic… This turned out to be such a thoughtful read for me, so it was much than “just” magical realism/spec fiction. 

I’m not typically that huge a fan of magical realism, but this is mostly a straightforward drama with sprinkles of magic through in along the way, so I found it more palatable than I thought it was going to be. (I had it categorized as a broccoli book, but it was actually much better than that perception.)

In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed this read and thought that this was really a well-written book. One of the Goodread reviewers described the writing as almost liquid in a way, and that’s exactly how I viewed it. It’s a smooth read, like a stream running through rocks and roots – there are obstacles to face, but how they are handled by the characters runs really fluidly. 

This turned out to be really good read and I ended up completing it in two days (which is fast for me). I’m also convinced enough to look around and see what other library titles by Hopkinson are available. She’s that good. 

If you’re not familiar with Hopkinson, I recommend taking her work for a spin. It’s a deceptively easy read that will leave you with lots to think about. 

The Thorn Birds – Colleen McCullough (1977)

Chatting with a friend about books (of course), she happened to mention the title of this 1977 best-selling multi-generational Australian novel that tracks the Cleary family as their lives play out at a fictional sheep station in the Outback and one that I had somehow missed during my teenaged years.

At this point (close to the end of the semester), I’m more or less brain-dead so I was looking for a non-complicated fairly straight-forward knife-through-butter read, and thus: The Thorn Birds was selected.

And, despite my rather low expectations for the quality of this read, it ended up being a very enjoyable multi-generational romp across this family’s history in Australia. (And if I’m honest, it was actually MUCH better than I had anticipated, so that’ll teach me to judge a book by its cover.)

Spanning the years 1915-1969 and crossing the world in its narrative arc, McCullough masterfully keeps control of the huge number of characters and events that make up this plot, and it’s written in such a way that despite this huge spread of variables, it wasn’t confusing at all. So – kudos should go to the author for that.

And even though the book is a complete and total beach read, it also happens to be very well written (apart from the odd printing typo here and there) and so that added to the overall experience as well. Oh, and it was nearly unputdownable at the same time. Really – the whole thing took me by surprise.

So briefly, the narrative follows the lives and times of Paddy Clearly, a new Irish immigrant who’s landed in Australia as a farm worker. It’s Paddy and his (many) descendants who form the core of the character line-up in the story, and although I was a bit concerned about keeping everybody straight at the beginning, there was very little confusion as to who was doing what when to whom, a fact that really impressed me as I turned the last page.

So, if you’re in the market for a good old-fashioned straight-forward and compelling beach read this summer, this title would be a good choice for you. It’s easily available (thus cheap and easy to get a copy), it’s well written, and if you’re like me, you’ll gradually become more and more invested in how the lives of several generations of the Cleary family turn out.

This was a fun read, completely outside my usual selection but good nevertheless. Perfect for the almost-summer-vacation brain that I have at the moment. 🙂

April 2019 – Reading Review

The reads for April 2019 included:

So — to the numbers:

  • Total number of books read in April 20195.
  • Total number of pages read 1,599 pages (av. 319). 
  • Fiction/Non-Fictionfiction / non-fiction.
  • DiversityPOC. 2+ books by women. (The + is because I read a couple of anthology-type books which included both male and female authors.) 
  • Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): library books, owned books and e-books.

Plans for May include continuing the POC author/topic focus and my focus on my own TBR.  And summer break! 🙂

New arrivals at JOMP

I’ve had a few new titles turn up on the doorstep at Chez JOMP, so thought I’d let you see what they were. (I always try to be a good host. 🙂 )

(Note: Each description has been lifted from the Amazon page for each title.) 

Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and their Surprising Rise to Power – Anna Merlan. (NF)

A riveting tour through the landscape and meaning of modern conspiracy theories, exploring the causes and tenacity of this American malady, from Birthers to Pizzagate and beyond. (Hat tip to What’s Nonfiction? for bringing this title to the top for me.)

The Thrill of It All – Joseph O’Connor (F)

At college in 1980s Luton, Robbie Goulding, an Irish-born teenager, meets elusive Fran Mulvey, an orphaned Vietnamese refugee. Together they form a band. Joined by a cellist and her twin brother on drums, The Ships in the Nightset out to chase fame. But the story of this makeshift family is haunted by ghosts from the past. (Interestingly (for me), I happened to grow up pretty close to Luton and I must admit – there are not that many books written about this place. So I’m curious to read it and see what he has to say about it.)

The Secret Life of Cows – Rosamund Young (NF)

At her famous Kite’s Nest Farm in Worcestershire, England, the cows (as well as sheep, hens, and pigs) all roam free. They make their own choices about rearing, grazing, and housing. Left to be themselves, the cows exhibit temperaments and interests as diverse as our own. “Fat Hat” prefers men to women; “Chippy Minton” refuses to sleep with muddy legs and always reports to the barn for grooming before bed; “Jake” has a thing for sniffing the carbon monoxide fumes of the Land Rover exhaust pipe, and “Gemima” greets all humans with an angry shake of the head and is fiercely independent.

Perfect English Grammar – Grant Barrett (NF)

Language learners of all levels can turn to this easy-to-navigate grammar guide again and again for quick and authoritative information. From conjugating verbs to crafting sentences to developing your own style, Grant Barrett provides you with the tools and motivation to improve the way you communicate.

Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy (F)

At its simplest, Anna Karenina is a love story. It is a portrait of a beautiful and intelligent woman whose passionate love for a handsome officer sweeps aside all other ties – to her marriage and to the network of relationships and moral values that bind the society around her. The love affair of Anna and Vronsky is played out alongside the developing romance of Kitty and Levin, and in the character of Levin, closely based on Tolstoy himself, the search for happiness takes on a deeper philosophical significance. (Thought this would be a good summer project.) 

Milkman – Anna Burns (F)

In an unnamed city, middle sister stands out for the wrong reasons. She reads while walking, for one. And she has been taking French night classes downtown. So when a local paramilitary known as the milkman begins pursuing her, she suddenly becomes “interesting,” the last thing she ever wanted to be. Despite middle sister’s attempts to avoid him―and to keep her mother from finding out about her maybe-boyfriend―rumors spread and the threat of violence lingers. Milkman is a story of the way inaction can have enormous repercussions, in a time when the wrong flag, wrong religion, or even a sunset can be subversive. Told with ferocious energy and sly, wicked humor, Milkman establishes Anna Burns as one of the most consequential voices of our day.

Inside the Kingdom – Robert Lacey (NF about Saudi Arabia)

Assesses the paradoxical nature of modern Saudi Arabia to explain the clash between contemporary technology and a powerful religious establishment grounded in thousand-year-old traditions, exploring events in recent history that have brought about current conflicts.

Plus – the annual summer read of the AP Style Manual. 🙂


There, There – Tommy Orange (2018)

Wow. Just wow. This was a novel that makes you say just that word when you finally turn its last page. It’s that good. 

There, There, written as a first novel by Tommy Orange, a Cheyenne and Arapaho author, is a muscular narrative that weaves together the disparate stories of a large group of Native Americans (First Peoples) who all live in the same city of Oakland, CA. They don’t all know each other, but as the plot progresses, their lives overlap as they each plan to attend the annual pow wow in their community. 

(This is a read that sucks you in and won’t release you until the end of the narrative when you finally emerge, slightly battered and with the air sucked right out of you.)

It’s an “easy” read (in terms of the experience reading as smoothly as “a hot knife through butter” type of thing), but the story is high impact in terms of that it doesn’t shy away from the tough issues of life: depression, alcoholism, unemployment, fetal alcohol syndrome, hopelessness, not to mention life in poverty and as a marginalized indigenous person. 

You’re from a people who took and took and took and took. And from a people taken. You’re both and neither. In the bath, you’d stare at your brown arms against your white legs in the water and wonder what they were doing together on the same body, in the same bathtub.

So it sounds like a dreadfully depressing read, and although it addresses these issues, the plot introduces you to each of the characters one by one. You get to know these individuals as humans with lives and hopes of their own, and it’s easy enough to keep each character straight.

(That’s what I meant when I said you got sucked in to the book. I really felt as though I knew these people and cared how things worked out for them. I might not have agreed with some of their life choices, but I can’t deny that I would have chosen anything different than they did if I had been in their situations.) 

So, this book follows a group of characters, all individual but inter-related (at least by the end of the book) and who all decide to attend this community pow wow, an event where life undergoes a sudden and significant change for all. 

A seriously great read which will take your breath away. It’s not an easy read, but it is a good read.

(Plus it’s been recognized with a bunch of literary awards, so it’s not just me feeling the love for this one.)