January 2021 Reading Review

The reads for January 2021 included:

  • The Borden Tragedy – Rick Geary (NF/graphic)
  • Daytripper – Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba (NF/graphic)
  • Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood (reread – F/spec fiction)
  • Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk – Katherine Rooney (F)
  • The Best American Travel Writing 2019 – Alexandra Fuller (ed.) (NF travel)
  • The Closed Circle – Jonathan Coe (F)
  • News of the World – Paulette Giles (F)
  • A Town Called Alice – Neville Shute (classic – F)
  • Misery – Stephen King (F)

So to the numbers:

  • Total number of books read in January 20219
  • Total number of pages read 2.739 pages (av. 304). 
  • Fiction/Non-Fictionfiction / non-fiction.
  • Diversity 1 BIPOC. books by women.
  • Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): library books, owned books and e-books. One borrowed book.

Plans for February 2021 include picking up a classic or two (but which one? That’s the question. I’m thinking either Dickens or Zola but I’ll see what jumps out.) I also want to include more POC writing. Continue this pace of reading and perhaps read more from my own TBR as opposed to those titles from the library.

Library Loot: February 01 2021

I’ve been reading and I’m working on a general catch-up post about this but in the meantime, I thought I would do a Library Loot post. I did, actually, have a few more than this pile of titles but I think it was a case of the old “eyes bigger than your stomach” so about half of them were taken back last week. :-}

This pile includes:

Educated – Tara Westover (NF)

The Seven Dials – Agatha Christie (F/mystery)

Misery – Stephen King (F) – just finished this so post to come. (OMG. It was so good.)

My Cousin Rachel – Daphne du Maurier (F) – reread

Plans for reading this week include choosing a classic (I have a hankering for one of those), write up a couple of posts about some recent reads I’ve completed, and then get back into the swing of things.

Looking forward to February!

News of the World – Paulette Jiles (2016)

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

Life continues with university classes now back in session – the first class is today so I’ve been busy prepping for that and doing general office-y things that have cropped up. I hadn’t been in the office (officially) since last July (due to all the medical stuff) so there has been quite a bit of catch-up although I have been doing the odd thing here and there during the interim. It’s good to be back as I really enjoy my job and I am fortunate to have really good co-workers and boss. 

Wanting to try something new, I rather rashly signed up DH and me for the local chorale group. (What could go wrong with that?!) 

Turned out that, despite having slogged through years of piano and (briefly violin) lessons, I couldn’t actually remember how to read music or sing, so that activity has been crossed off the list now. I was so out of my depth. I think I had thought that this would be more of a casual sing-along when, in fact, it’s a VERY SERIOUS group full of professional singers. They were friendly-ish, but DH and I decided that we’d rather watch the latest episode of the remake of “The Karate Kid” than pretend to know which page of music we were on.  All is well. Just not what I had anticipated. 😉

Reading-wise: While I have neglected my book-reading, I’ve been tempted (and typically have succumbed) to the lure of trawling on the internet, traveling from various blogs scattered here and there, so I haven’t actually done that much actual reading of books per se. (Must. Break. That. Habit of web surfing.) I place most of the blame on people such as yourself for writing such interesting blogs! 😉 (What a good problem to have!) 

I did just finish a read of News of the World by Paulette Jiles (2016). This is fiction set in 1870 Texas and follows the lives of Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd and Johanna, a young orphan being accompanied to her relatives in San Antonio after having been kidnapped by a band of Kiowa raiders. Johanna only knows life as a Kiowa tribal member which means that she is surrounded by things that she doesn’t understand or know about — a very fish-out-of-water type of situation. The same can be said for Kidd, an elderly man whose livelihood consists of traveling across Texas giving readings of the latest news to isolated communities. 

And, if you think about it, the state of Texas could also be viewed as being inexperienced, since the book is set around a time when Texas’ own statehood is still quite new… 

This was a good read. Initially, I had been concerned that it would be more of a typical “old people/child relationship” type of story, but it’s much more than that, which was very appreciated by this reader. There was definitely a generational influence in the overall narrative, but I liked how Jiles took that idea and applied it to a larger context. 

Really strong descriptions of Texas and its inhabitants along with some excellent writing, this was a fast and enjoyable read last weekend. Plus – the actual book itself has some lovely production values: deckled pages, French flaps (in a soft covered book) and in a good font. 

I enjoyed it. 

In brief…

Although I have been somewhat absent from the blog (sorry), I have been busy doing other things. I’ve also been reading (albeit somewhat slower than normal) and I thought I would just do some short reviews about those titles:

Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood (2003)

An excellent read from Atwood, part one in the (sci-fi-ish) MaddAdam trilogy, and now I’m psyched to track down the next installment. I went to the library but someone else has the same idea and had checked out the one copy so, frustratingly, I have to wait. Waah. But at least I have about five quillion other titles from which to choose my next read whilst I cool my heels. 

Then I whipped through a quick and fluffy read of Katherine Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk. It was ok but rather a forgettable read. My friend loved it, though, so perhaps take my experience with a grain of salt. It might have been me…. 😉

Now, I’m immersed in some excellent NF: America’s Best Travel Writing 2019 (Alexandra Fuller, ed.) and so since we can’t travel right now, this is the next best thing (since we can travel via the written word). A longer review to follow…

And then – guess what? It snowed seven inches last night and so we’ve been snuggled up inside when we haven’t been outside goofing around with Nova Dog (who ADORES snow). 

Plus – a jigsaw puzzle. Wow. I just love these things. 🙂

Catching up…

So, as mentioned in the previous post (re: me not being up to reading actual books), since I’m now feeling a lot better, I am now actually picking up books and having a lot of fun doing so. 

In the spirit of brevity, I thought I’d just do a quick review round-up of the titles I’ve finished up – a mix of both library books and my own TBR. To the reviews:

Cider with Rosie– Laurie Lee (1959). A reread but still very enjoyable. Absolutely delicious descriptions of England in the 1930s: the countryside, the food, the perspective of life as seen by a young happy boy… All good things. If you haven’t ever read this title (or perhaps it’s time for a reread?), then you wouldn’t go far wrong if you added this to your TBR pile. (TBR title).

The Best American Travel Writing 2019– Alexandra Fuller (ed.); Jason Wilson (series ed.). This is one of the NFs I have going on right now so review to come. (TBR title.)

Oryx and Crake– Margaret Atwood (2003) – This is one of the F I have going on right now so review to come with the end goal of me reading the whole trilogy. (Library copy.)

All Things Bright and Beautiful– James Herriott (1974). I was looking for some comfort reading at the start of December and then remembered how sweet the Herriott books can be. So, off the shelf with this one. And – it was a super read. (TBR title.)

A forgettable collection of essays by Nick Hornby (Housekeeping vs. the Dirt) along with an actual DNF of another essay collection, this time by David Sedaris (2020). I’ve read other work by Sedaris and have found it to be a little patchy in quality, and this was the case with this selection of his work. (Library book.) 

Had the annual read of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol– just love Dickens’ writing and this story was an excellent start to the holiday season (library copy). Other seasonal reads included: Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales (TBR copy), Tolkein’s Letters from Father Christmas (sobs but in a good way) (TBR copy). Carol Ann Duffy, England’s poet laureate (still?), had a short stocking=stuffer kind of read with Another Night Before Christmas (TBR copy) and then David Sedaris’ collection of holiday-related essays called A Christmas on Ice (TBR copy). (This book is pretty funny unlike his book mentioned above.)

John Steinbeck.

By then, I had had enough Christmas reading and started to move on to different titles on the TBR pile. I started with a John Steinbeck title, America and Americans, which collected together his thoughts on America (the country) and the people who live in it. Travel writing sort of thing and very good. 

Pulled a few graphic novel-type books for an afternoon of a different kind of reading. The best was the Get Fuzzy cartoon collection, but Honorable Mention should go to The Borden Tragedy by Rick Geary, a graphic novel that details the Lizzy Borden murder case back in history. Really interesting, btw. (Library.) 

I whipped through a few books by English H.E. Bates: The Darling Buds of May, A Breath of Fresh Air, and When the Green Woods Laugh– a good selection of some strong English countryside writing. I enjoyed it at the time but I must admit it was more of a palate cleanser than an epic read. So, three more off the TBR. 

And then rounding out the holidays was a reread of Emile Zola’s The Ladies Paradise. This one I loved (see an earlier review of this read here) and after researching Zola a little more, realized that he has masses of other work out there so I’m excited to see what other titles I can find on the stacks. ETA: Just checked out Germinal by Zola, so we’ll see!

As the new year beckons, I raise a glass of champers to you and yours for a peaceful, productive and fun 2021. Happy reading ahead!

My year of reading…

New Year's Eve | CDC

Similar to others in the book blogosphere, I rather enjoy being quite nerdy and reviewing how my reading patterns went over the past year, although I had thought I had read more than this. However, no worries. It’s not a race so all is fine. Just interesting. 

So, to the numbers:

TOTAL books read in 2019 – 48. (Average: 4 books/mo.) This is waaaay down from a typical reading year, but then this wasn’t a typical year! I’m ok with that.

Biggest monthly totals in the summer months (when school is out). Smallest total was in January. 

This was composed of a focus on NF. (Actual numbers were 23 F and 52 NF. Of the NF, the majority were bio/autobio, similar to last year’s total.)

Authors:  25 M and 23 F. I’m happy with this split…

Authors of color (AOC)/Topics related to POC21 (44%. That’s pretty good, I think.)

Where were these books from? I’m pleased with this one: 69 percent were from my own TBR. (Progress of sorts.)

Publication details:

Number of pages: 13,961.

Year range of publication date: 1843 (A Christmas Carol/Dickens) to 2020 (various). 1996 average.

Shortest book length: 98 pp (When the Green Woods Laugh/H. E. Bates). Longest: 581 pp (Invisible Man/Ellison). 298 pp. average.

Overall, this was a fun reading year and I really enjoyed my focus on increasing the number of BIPOC authors in the list (42 percent of the reads were by BIPOC authors). Definitely going to continue with that campaign.

Another focus: reading more from my TBR. (Insert hollow laugh right here.) 😉

Additionally, I had two really good solid reads of the AP Style Book (for professional development), so it was a good mix of work/play. I had an enjoyable year. 

Goals for 2020? None really (apart from the yearly read of the AP Style Book :-] ). Just more of the same, so long as it’s fun. 

June 2020 Reading Review

The reads for June 2020 included:

So to the numbers:

  • Total number of books read in June 20207
  • Total number of pages read 2181 pages (av. 321). 
  • Fiction/Non-Fictionfiction / non-fiction.
  • Diversity 5 BIPOC. books by women.
  • Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): library books, owned books and 0 e-books.

Plans for July 2020 include a month of teaching online Summer School at the university, prepping their lectures and grading work… Apart from that, lots of reading, jigsaw puzzles and hanging out. Temperatures are very hot outside for the most part, so it’s a pretty indoor life right now. 😉

Our city has a few lakes and flooded canyons. Here is one of them on a lovely weekend morning walk the other day.

The Mothers – Brit Bennett (2016)

After reading Petry’s excellent work, I wanted to read a more modern Black author so I tracked down Brit Bennett’s “The Mothers” (2016). After having seen all the recent exposure for her most recent release, “The Vanishing Half” (2020), I was curious about all the hoopla so nipped down to the library to see what I could find. “The Mothers” was what I left with. 

The plot revolves around an African-American community who are linked with a Black church called the Upper Room. The main protagonist, Nadia, is still reeling from her mother’s unexplained suicide and, along with her surviving father, Nadia spends with and is supported by the Church Mothers, a tightly-knit group of women who are deeply involved with this religious organization. Along the way, Nadia also hangs out with young Luke, the son of the pastor, and ends up getting pregnant with Luke’s child. But what to do, what to do…

This was a very quick read – Bennett rightly has a lot of traction in the publishing world right now and the narrative flows well and is well-written. So I’m quite puzzled why I wasn’t as positively taken with this title as many other readers have been. It wasn’t a bad read, by any means, but it wasn’t as supercalifragilistically fantastic as I had expected it to be. 

As I think about this, this was a pretty “issues-y” novel – unmarried/unplanned pregnancy, a parent who has killed herself (but why? It’s never explained…), a lonely young woman trying to sort out her life with a fairly-distant father who doesn’t help her… It seemed to me as though Bennett had thought of some issues mostly likely to attract her readers and then plugged them in to the plot as she wrote.

You know – it reminded me of the 1980s/1990s Oprah Books where they were designed to trigger long meaningful interactions about knotty social issues that tend to happen to “other people”.

I’m glad I read it – I don’t regret the time I spent with this book at all but to put it into perspective for you, my favorite thing about the edition that I read was the artwork on the cover. (Really nice.) So – perhaps this is more of a beach read than a substantial work on social issues. It was fun to read. It was well-written, but it was a pretty superficial approach to some weighty issues. 

(It’s also possible that I could be the only person in the world who doesn’t gush over Bennett’s work, so you might take this with a grain of salt. It just suffered in contrast after reading the excellence of Petry’s book immediately before it. If you’re looking for a solid read this summer, the Petry is the one I’d recommend.) 

Slow summer days and Petry’s “The Street” (1946)

Ahh. I really appreciate the fact that I am privileged enough to get to experience and enjoy a faculty summer at a large state university. After having worked year-round as a full-time staffer on campus for 20+ years, the fact that I officially get to have the ENTIRE summer off is, frankly, almost unbelievable. (Well, I am teaching summer school but I chose to do that.) 

So – what have I been doing with these long languid days? Have I been using them wisely to contribute to the world around me during these times of COVID and civil unrest? Ummmm. :-}

Right when the semester officially ended in mid-May, I finished up all my grades and then worked hard on the front garden flower beds (new shrubs, tidy-up etc.). After that burst of focus though, I picked up in the world of jigsaw puzzles (OMG – the time-suck but OH SO FUN!). I finished up a couple and bought a new one (which I am looking forward to completing) so that’s been interesting. 

Reading-wise, I’ve renewed my focus on Black writers and their work, starting with the 1946 fiction called “The Street” by Ann Petry, an amazing first novel by a Black female author and which was the also the first title to sell more than a million copies in print. 

Set mostly in WWII-era neighborhood in Harlem, the plot focuses on Lutie Johnson, a single Black mother who is confronted daily by the serious issues of racism, sexism and classism. It’s a political novel, in terms of dealing with society ills and making a point, rather along the same lines as Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath”, published in 1939. 

(And – if you haven’t ever got around to reading “Grapes…”, take thee to a book provider and read it. It’s. Oh. So. Good.) 

Ann Petry.

Back to “The Street”: Lutie is a really hard-working woman who is doing her best to give her young son, Bub, a better life and she really truly believes that if she just works hard enough and saves enough, she will be able to give Bub that gift for his future. However, it’s the mid-1940s in New York City so the reader just knows what is in store for this small family. 

Lutie also believes in Benjamin Franklin and his ideas of working hard and being frugal to get ahead, and Petry even names one of the other main characters Junto, after the name of Franklin’s true secret organization of the same name. It’s totally heartbreaking because you just know that, historically, no matter how hard Lutie Johnson works and scrimps and saves, her life (and that of young Bub) is not going to improve that much. She’s stuck in the poverty trap and despite her goals of moving out of this dark and ugly tenement building, the odds are way against her. 

This is a gritty novel in a gritty neighborhood in a gritty city, and it was hard for me to read how much hope Lutie had for improving her life and that of Bub. Almost everything in her life is against her and yet she gets up every day to keep working towards that goal of a better life. She works a crappily-paid job doing crappy work, she lives in a crappy cramped and dark apartment, her choices are few and far between, and yet she continues to believe that things will get better (if not for her, at least for little Bub). What’s even more difficult is that I know that things haven’t necessarily improved for families in poverty in the U.S. living lives that follow a similar pattern. 

Lutie gets involved with Junto, who runs a steadily-employed nightclub band, and by dangling her dreams of a better life in front of her, Junto ultimately leads Lutie to commit a serious crime from which there is no escape. 

(It’s interesting to think how awful this Junto character is in this read when you consider that Benjamin Franklin’s secret club of the same name (and also called the Leather Apron Club) was focused on mutual self-improvement. It consisted of twelve men, of course, all white, of course, and started in 1727 in Philadelphia.

In contrast, this novel’s Junto character here has absolutely no interest in anyone except himself (and Lutie, sexually-speaking). He’s such a selfish character that you can just see Petry’s opinion of him through her giving him this name. Clever of her to pick this name and use it in this manner.) 

It’s a heart-breaking story but it’s so exceptionally well-written that you bear the harshness of Lutie’s life alongside her, hoping against hope that her dreams might even slightly come true. 

It’s pretty interesting to search online to see what else was happening in the U.S. in 1946. WWII has been over since 1945 (so not that long ago and, of course, the lingering social effects were still in existence), there were civil rights riots in Chicago, there was the last recorded lynching in Georgia (crikey)*, atomic bombs were being developed, Truman was starting the first group that would turn into the CIA, and the Russians were viewed as significant threats to world peace. 

Realizing that, you can see how “The Street” fits into the cultural milieu of the times. This is a fascinating read on a hundred different levels, but even if you’re not interested in the backstory, this is one heckuva read. I loved it!

*And holy cow: Wikipedia reports that the state of Georgia didn’t officially acknowledge any of its lynchings and its role in them until 1999 when a state highway marker was placed at the site of the original attack. What took them so long??

Summer mini-reviews

Summer is now here and for me, life has slowed down (but just until I start teaching Summer School). In the meantime, I’ve been focused on learning about racial and social issues and how I can impact those. 

My first step in that plan is to be quiet, listen and to learn, so I’ve been doing a lot of that. On a more practical level, I’m also planning on working some voter registration drives – a cause that I believe will be critically important this autumn. I am cautiously optimistic that perhaps this country’s (and the world’s) social unrest will be the catalyst for some long-overdue societal changes but again – that leads back to the upcoming U.S. election. 

I’d like to really encourage you to take some action in your own community, however you’d like to do that. If you’re interested in registering more voters, then you might follow up with your local League of Women Voters (LWV), a non-partisan non-profit focused on getting voters (of any stripe) signed up ready to do their civic duties. If you happen to live in a mid-sized (or up) city (or near one), I bet there is a chapter near you. Pretty fun and important to do at the same time. 

A tricky (and miniature) jigsaw puzzle completed the other day. 🙂

Moving on, I’ve been reading some books, working on a jigsaw puzzle or two, and messing around in the garden a bit. Just bibbling around really, but it’s been fun and relaxing. Our local gym opened up the other day – thank goodness! – and so we’ve been spending time there, trying to catch up for the previous slacker COVID months when nothing was open. 

I went through a patch when I had a reading block, but that seems to have lifted now, so let me give you a brief taste of some of the titles I’ve finished recently:

Wallis in Love – Andrew Morton. Let me save you some time here. Interesting story but it’s Andrew Morton. He writes for drivel such as the English red-top newspapers so it’s pretty hard to take him seriously, but as a gossipy frothy look at Wallis Simpson and her influence on the British monarchy, it was ok. No one was portrayed well throughout this recounting of this story, but at least the book was grammatically correct. 😉 

Offramp – Hank Stuever. NF travel essays by Stuever who writes a little aimlessly about his journeys to the smaller towns and communities just off the larger highways that crisscross America. I had quite high hopes for this, but it was not to be. Although fairly well written, the essay collection was only tangentially related to the overall theme of road travel and was more of a lame excuse to lump these texts together. Not bad, not great. Just ok. 

Mr. Loverman – Bernadine Evaristo. Fiction. Truly excellent. Will definitely make my Top Ten Books of 2020. See my review here and then go and read this book. You’ll love it (but let me know what you think about that last chapter!) 

The graphic novel version of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Loved this, although it was a necessarily shortened recounting of the novel’s more-involved plot. Still, a good reminder of Atwood’s plotting excellence and gave me impetus to check out the third volume in the MaddAdam trilogy. 

My Sister, the Serial Killer – Oyinkan Braithwaite. A satirical take on what might happen if your actual sister was a real serial killer and you were involved each time with the clean-up and cover-up of the victims. Well written Nigerian title. Good descriptions of life in this modern African country. 

Tomboy – Liz Prince. An autobiographical graphic novel which looks at the role of gender and how its then-limited definitions impacted the childhood life of the author. This might be a helpful read for middle-school-and-up readers who are struggling to fit in with their peers without giving up their own individuality. Good artwork along with the evergreen message of staying true to yourself.

After this string of OK reads, I’m also relieved to report that I’m now thoroughly immersed in the 1946 novel, “The Street”, by Ann Petry, a Black* writer. An early literary thriller and a huge bestseller, this title is notable for being one of the first bestselling novels to be published by a Black female writer. 

Black writing had been published before this, naturally, but the general term of “Black lit” typically referred to only male writing. This was a woman writer who had centered her story in Harlem and featured the hard scrabble side of life. It covers serious issues such as sexism, racism, poverty, and unemployment, but at the same time, the story has a seam of hopefulness and almost optimism throughout the plot. Really good read so far. More deets later.

*Note: I am using the term “Black” in favor of “African-American” since that is the recommendation from the National Association of Black Journalists and the Associated Press. See here for more details.