September 2019 Reading Review

A rather good reading month, as it turned out (despite the initial craziness of back-to-school). I’m having (and enjoying) a big focus on the TBR pile right now (hopefully, this will continue until the end of the year), and also an ongoing craze on NF… I’m loving it all. 

  • Total books read:        12 (including 2 x halfway-through-DNFs)
  • Total pages read:        2,886 (av. 240)
  • NF: 9 (75% of total)      
  • F: 3 (25% of total)
  • TBR: 9.
  • Total % TBR for year to date: 54%. <takes a bow>
  • Library: 3 (including 1x ILL).  
  • POC author/topic(s): 1. (Oh dear.)   
  • Male to Female: 5 males + 5 females + 2 of mixed genders.
  • DNFs (new for this month): 2. (I’m getting better at this.) 
  • Oldest title: 1951. 
  • Longest title (re: page count): 340pp.
  • Shortest title (re: page count) (excluding DNFs): 122pp.

Here’s what I read in September:

Now that October is here (and September, to me, has to have been the longest month in the entire year), I’m looking forward to some gradually cooling temperatures, slightly fewer daylight hours, and the steady routine of the university semester. 

Plus – I have this horde of books from the recent FoL Book Sale. <rubs hands with glee>

Sweetness and Light: The Mysterious History of the Honeybee – Hattie Ellis (2004)

We have chosen to fill our hives with honey and wax; thus furnishing mankind with the two noblest of things, which are sweetness and light. Jonathon Swift (1667-1745)

Shuffling along the animal shelves at the library and searching for something rather fun to read to recover from some recent not-so-great book experiences, this title, with its promise Sweetness and Light and honeybees, jumped into my little mitts. What’s not to love about the humble bumble bee? (Actually, serious question: are honey bees the same as bumble bees? Actually, there is quite a lot of difference, I learned.*)

This was a curious read for me. The author writes well, so that was lovely, but there was a general feeling when I finished it, that she may have been a little thin on material and so there was quite a mishmash of info in this volume. Its subtitle focuses on the “mysterious history” of the honeybee, and although bees have been around for hundreds of years, no one really knows how they evolved (if they have evolved even) so the starting chapters on the early history of these insects were rather speculative in nature. (But then anyone’s writing would be on this topic, since no one really knows for sure.)

I definitely think the strongest part of the read was in the middle section when Ellis is focusing on the true hard facts of honey life and culture: how the queen bees live, the roles of the worker and the drone bees etc. And, in fact, that is more along the lines of what I was really looking for when I chose this book: more of a biography than a history, really.

Despite this, I learned a ton more about bees in general: that their houses are called skeps, that they are dying off from different causes (including epidemics of mites), that different honeys have different flavors depending on the flora the bees found… I loved learning these facts and even (superficially) deliberated on whether the hubby would go for a beehive in the garden. (Not too enthusiastic about that idea.)

So, for a random pick off the shelves, this turned out to be a fast and interesting read about some creatures who play an important but usually unheralded role in the world around us. I’m still dreaming of having a beehive, but in reality, I’m a complete woose when it comes to the world of insects landing on me. But it’s good to dream…

And is there honey still for tea?” (from poem, The Old Vicarage, Grantchester by Rupert Brookes – 1912.

*Bumblebees are rounder, “large in girth”, more hairy and colored with yellow, orange and black. Bumblebees can sting multiple times. Generally, honeybees are more slender, less hairy and have a pointy stomach. Honeybees can only sting once. I’m still going to run screaming from bees though, so not certain that I’ll have the peace of mind to check about the shape of their tummies. 🙂

The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival – John Vaillant (2010)

This was, unusually for a reread, another great all-encompassing reading experience which managed to allow me to travel to the far eastern reaches of Siberia to follow the events that happened in a small struggling village deep in the forest. It’s what happens when humans and predators (of the animal sort) have to overlap due to reduced natural environment and resources, and it’s what can go extraordinarily wrong when this situation occurs. 

Vaillant is a well-respected journalist with work printed in prestigious outlets such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic, and his writing demonstrates his skill in how he handles the text. He was born in the U.S., but has lived in Vancouver for some time now, and most of his books cover current topics with a focus towards the natural environment. 

As mentioned, I’d read “The Tiger” before (preblog), and, being a little fed up with the never-ending sun and heat of the West Texas summer, I was searching for a read that would take me to a cooler location, even if it was only in my head.  Combine excellent writing and wordsmithing with an amazing true story, and you’ve got me. 

John Vaillant

The narration is mostly placed in eastern Siberia, in the area known mostly for logging. It’s sparsely inhabited (with ref to humans) and is a very harsh environment with temperatures regularly falling deep below freezing for weeks and months at a time. Only the hardy survive. 

Logging has been significantly reducing the forest (called the taiga) and there is widespread poverty amongst those who live there. Limited resources make people and animals desperate and the shrinking wild land makes it much more likely that human activity will necessarily overlap with natural boundaries already well established. 

It’s because of this growing overlap that Vaillant can write this riveting story. Amur tigers used to be quite a frequent sight in this region, but their numbers had been falling over the years. Already a predator, one of the local tigers had attacked and killed one of the villagers. But why? After decades of living quite peacefully together, each in their own world, what happened for the tiger to attack the man? And why did the tiger not only kill the man, but rip him to shreds, much more than would be necessary just to make sure he died? Absolute shreds.

When another villager has a similar hair-raising encounter (but this time he survives), the local nature reservation agents become alarmed. When the tiger starts behaving as though he (or she) has a personal vendetta against particular villagers, the occasion starts to take on a new level of importance. The villagers live deep in the forest and they would have little chance of staying alive without venturing into the surrounding forest for food and fuel… And why was the tiger suddenly paying attention to them? 

The book covers quite a short space of time, calendar-wise – perhaps one month or so – and through Vaillant’s careful and descriptive reporting style, you as the reader are taken along on the journey as local experts try to combine modern-day science with years-old traditional folklore to try to understand why the intricate balance has been thrown off between these two otherwise fairly symbiotic parties. 

By the time that I turned that last page, I was full of admiration for everyone involved: the tiger himself (who was only doing what years of evolution has taught him to do – plus a little personal vendetta-ing combined), the villagers (again, desperate straits) and the nature agents who were brought in to solve the conundrum. It was an extremely fraught situation but with climate change continuing to worsen at this point, I would bet that these sort of natural world overlaps will become more and more common as resources shrink. 

Quite an amazing story – even for a reread! Now, I’m adding Vaillant’s other work to my other TBR… 

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. 🙂

General Catch-Up…

With the arrival of December comes the end-of-the-semester projects such as grading and finishing up some work writing and looking forward (very looking forward) to the holiday break.

I’ve been so lucky this semester in terms of having some really hard-working students who are willing to learn what I’m trying to teach, so I think it’s safe to say that I’ve learned as much from them as they have from me. I’m only in my second year of college teaching, and I want them to have the best college writing experience that I can possibly give them, so I’m always reading how to improve my teaching, both in and out of the classroom.

Finals Week starts this Friday, so that means that classes are all wrapped up for the most part now. No more power-points (which has been the name of the game this semester); now, I just need to get them organized in files on my computer ready for next semester, finish up the grades, and hopefully, have a much more relaxed schedule.

Plans over Christmas mean not much, really. Superhero and I have quite a few days off work, so we’ll be putting up the decorations (nothing too crazy but it’s fun), and then just hanging out until the new year. May be some small travel, but it’s up in the air right now, but if we stay or if we go, it’s fine either way.

This last time last year I was about to have surgery on my ankle which rather put a damper on things, so no surgery this year means a much more relaxing time off (for both me and for the Superhero – he won’t have to drive me around everywhere!)

I’ve been reading, and so here’s a couple of reviews of two titles that didn’t make it on to the blog proper just yet. They’re both good reads – just haven’t had the time/energy to compile a proper review. (I must admit that I had a better read of one more than other.)

Quiet Girl in a Noisy World by Debbie Tung. Just like it says on the tin, this is a graphic novel about a young woman coming to realize (and accept) her introvert tendencies. It’s like a more personal Quiet (Susan Cain), but with lots of pictures. I’m torn about these “quiet books”.

Yes, I might be more of a quiet person than other people, but I don’t consider it to be a pathological weakness (which is sometimes the feeling that I get from some authors about the topic). I’m not weird (others may disagree!), I think that there are plenty of people like me, and luckily, I think the world is becoming a lot more accepting of us non-noisy folks.

I do admit that I may feel like this perhaps because (a) I’m old enough to not be that concerned about what other people think about me, and (b) the world knows more about how different people view the environment and the people who surround them. When Cain’s book first came out, was she the first author to really focus on this aspect of people? I seem to remember there being quite a kerfuffle about her non-fiction book at the time.

The second title that I’ve finished was a charming nature-focused book by Sy Montgomery called How to be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals. This was a shorter read, wherein Montgomery recalls thirteen animals with whom she’s had friendships of one sort or another. What was really good about this read were the lithographic illustrations by Rebecca Green. Just a sweet book to read, really.

I’ve also just finished a great non-fiction read about Joseph Lister and his impact on Victorian surgery, which was great. However, I’m going to put together a longer review about that…

Speaking of longer, I’m currently reading Alex Haley’s Roots, which is close to 1,000 pages. For some reason, I’m not hyperventilating about the length of this book, but I must admit that it would probably be easier to read on a Kindle. 🙂

November 2018 reading review

It’s the beginning of a new month and it’s close to the end of the college semester, so let’s check in with how my reading is doing (just out of interest). I’ve been reading, but not quite with the same speed as I usually do. My eyes is tired at the end of the day, sometimes!

The reads for November included:

So to the numbers:

Total number of books read in November4 (and a half)

Total number of pages read 1,818 pages (av. 303). (This is exactly the same number of pages that I read last month. Weird.) 

Fiction/Non-Fictionfiction / 4 non-fiction.

Diversity0 POC. 2 books by women.

Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): library books, owned book and e-book.

Future plans include reading more of the printed word and my students’ writing. 🙂 

The Weekend in Review…

autumn_tree

(Above) – The tree under which I was reading. If you look closely, you might be able to see some dry brown seed pods amongst the leaves. When there is a gentle breeze, these pods rustle with the leaves, and makes a really relaxing sound. Hooray for Sundays!

It was a fun weekend. I’m not sure it could be said that we did a whole lot, but that was also one of the reasons why it was so lovely. The weather has suddenly become autumnal here on the South Plains, and so the light has become crisper and the colors are finally becoming reds, oranges, and brown (although not, perhaps, in the pic above!). I do love autumn in a million different ways, so it’s definitely my favorite season.

I spent yesterday sitting outside in an open space on campus right by the library. Just reading away whilst a nice breeze brought the temps down from 87 degrees (on the thermometer) to something much cooler than that. I’m really lucky to have such pleasant places to go to outside. It’s quiet (generally). No traffic. Not much foot traffic, and under a huge blue sky. Lovely way to spend some time.

I’d been feeling that I hadn’t been reading that much lately, so made a concerted effort to make that part of the weekend. I hadn’t realized how much I had missed doing that. I think I’d just got busy and tired, and went for the activity of least resistance: Narcos TV show on Netflix. Wow. Pablo Escobar was (is?) a ruthless man. I’m wondering how true it is.

narcos

Speaking of versions of “true”, I’m interested in watching the biopic about Dr. Dre. I’m not really a huge hip-hop kinda person, but ever since watching Straight Outta Compton, I’ve become pretty interested in the culture and major players. It’s a very different world than the one in which I live, so I’m inquisitive about that. It’s very far removed from my everyday life!

Back to books: Had great fun reading. I’m trying to read more of my own books (HA!) and was doing really well until the library called this morning with an ILL. I did it to myself though, and if it’s an ILL it means that the title is going to be a good one, so I’m looking forward to it. I’ll let you know what it is when I pick it up, mainly because I can’t remember what I ordered so it’ll be a surprise for all of us!

I’m not sure that I’m going to get a blog post up about the Kennedy book that I read the other day (The Ladies of Lyndon). It was good, but not notable really (and I say that as I can only remember very vague things about the plot).

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I did read a cheap print of a graphic novel of Dracula by Bram Stoker. It was one of those cheapo Barnes and Noble books, and at first, I wasn’t sure that I could keep reading it. The art wasn’t that great, and I kept thinking I’d rather go back and read the original. (It’s one of my fav books.) But then something clicked, and the book and I got on really well from then on. I do have to admit that the graphic novel was more scary than the actual book. Maybe I’m a visual person in how I read as I don’t remember being so scared at the novel itself. Whatever triggered that reaction, I was glad that I was reading it out in the open under a sunny sky when I was reading it. Some of those comic panels were actually rather frightening – more so than the book. Weird how that can be, huh?

(For a more substantive review of the original Dracula, I have a post here.)

stepfordwivesposter

Original movie poster from 1975.

Finished up a quick re-read of The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin. An old book from 1972 (nicely filling a spot on my Century of Books project), I thoroughly enjoyed this read although I did have to jump over the truly sexist comments that mark the second third of the story. If you haven’t read this, it’s a spec fiction (perhaps) about a family who move into the community of Stepford. The mother in this family is proud to be a Women’s Lib supporter and is rather horrified when all the wives around her were only focused on domestic duties and being subordinate to their husbands in obvious ways. Why was this? Was she the only one? Then she meets a friend, similar to her, and wonders if she too will change… Does she? You’ll have to find out. It was a spooky read with lots to think about so expect a chatty blog post about that soon. (As an aside, check out this slightly strange website. I have to hope it’s a joke.)

I’m not 100% sure what the next title will be, but it may well be straight non-fiction. I’ve only read fiction this month (which is strange for me). It’s been great fun though, so perhaps I’ll keep on that streak. Who knows? I won’t until I browse my TBR shelves and also find out about that ILL. The suspense, my friends… I’ll let you know.

The Shell Collector – Anthony Doerr (2002)

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This was a collection of short stories that was pure joy to read. (I know! Short stories and I don’t usually get on very well.) Author Anthony Doerr is a well-established fiction writer and has been widely published, and from this offering, it’s absolutely clear why he is. He is a sickenly perfect writer in every stretch of the imagination, and I just thoroughly enjoyed every story and every page.

My experience with short stories is mostly composed of reading short stories that end too soon with reference to their endings or sometimes don’t even finish. Sometimes I feel that the typical short story only tells half a story (and that authors use Po-Mo as an excuse to explain that) or it feels unfinished in some way. But that was not this experience at all.

Doerr’s stories are perfect in every way. (I know – high praise.)  As in any collection, there are some pieces that are stronger than others, but even the weaker ones were great. (It was a question of tiny degrees, I think.)

Look at this writing:

“[The young girl] trembles at the idea of ocean nearing. Fidgets in her seat. The energy of a fourteen-year old piling up like marbles on a dinner plate…”

And this description of a fair ground:

“At the fairgrounds, we saw them in the parking lot inhaling the effluvium of carnival, the smells of fried dough, caramel and cinnamon, the flap-flapping of tents, a carousel plinking out music-box songs, voluptuous sounds bouncing down tent ropes and along the dust of the midway. Wind-curled handbills staple-gunned to telephone poles, the hum of gas-powered generators and the gyro truck, the lemonade truck, pretzels and popcorn, baked potatoes, the American flag, the rumblings of rides and the disconnected screams of riders – all of it shimmered before them like a mirage, something not quite real…” (p. 97, “For a Long Time This was Griselda’s Story”)

Just look at the lusciousness of some of those phrases: “effluvium of carnival”, the “plinking” of the carousel, the curled staple-gunned handbills, the “disconnected screams” of the riders. Swoon. It’s not often that you get to enjoy this high quality of writing…

The stories are diverse, but seem to have a common theme of living with the natural world: a man who lives on an island studying shells who becomes a reluctant healer, a lady who had an experience in her younger life and becomes a spirit healer of sorts, a group of US fishermen compete in an international fishing competition… There was also an ongoing theme of water (sea, lake, snow, river) and the creatures who live in it. Each story was down-to-earth and each story was so exquisitely written that it was a joy to read.

I don’t mean to sound hyperbolic, but this really was a great collection to read. I highly recommend this title if you’re looking for fantastic fiction writing with good plots. Stories were as long as they needed to be and the plots were compelling. This was great.

The Edwardian Lady – Ina Taylor (1977)

Happened to be browsing my TBR shelves, and was reminded about a biography that Mum had given me a while back about Edith Holden, who was the author of the much acclaimed “The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady”  written in 1906 and published in 1983.

Although her life story is not actually that notable, it’s a pleasant journey and author/biographer Ina Taylor has done her best to fill in the gaps using sources such as Holden’s many letters and postcards.  She led such a quiet life (as perhaps a lot of Edwardian and Victorian ladies did), and this seems idyllic in some ways (compared with today’s manic lifestyle). And yet, at the same time, it must have seemed like a gilded cage in other ways. This quiet life with few distractions must have only emphasized the difficulties that came with the financial troubles of her father’s business (which affected the entire family) plus the familial disputes as to how to handle the failing business plus the frequent upheavals of moving house, and all this combined must have been very stressful.

Holden was an artistic child in a well-read and non-conformist family with six other brothers and sisters. Her mother had previously worked as a governess before getting married, and taught all her daughters at home, three of whom went on to Art School for formal training. (Two other sisters had to stay at home – one younger and one older.) The brothers were taught the business from an early age with an expectation to enter the family organization, and there is no mention of them having any artistic tendencies.

The mother was fragile in health (and no wonder if she had seven pregnancies in ten years) and frequently tired, so oldest daughter ran the house. (Not a shock as we know how helpful those Victorian husbands and brothers were around housework. Ha.) The mother eventually died much older of cancer. I wonder if her early fatigue was linked with that?

The Holden family believed that if you were artistic, then it automatically gave you a free pass for a sensitive nature which required special treatment, although this didn’t apply to Edith as she often went on healthy long walks and bike rides collecting her nature specimens. (Ironic as what kept her healthy also ended up killing her in the end. She drowned trying to reach a branch with some buds on it that she wanted to draw.)

She had trained as a serious artist, and spent her whole life doing paintings and drawings, mainly of animals and natural subjects (and thus, the nature notes of her famous journal). Taylor, the biographer, mentions that it was not unusual for any well-bred Victorian or Edwardian lady to keep a common-place book with nature illustrations matched with appropriate literary comments. The difference was that this one was so well done, and was also released to the public at a time when nostalgia was high for those historical times. I know that I hadn’t seen anything like it before, but then I was really quite young when it came out.

Edith’s family was quite something: her father was a radical non-conformist, one of her father’s cousins was Elizabeth Blackwell who was the first woman in the US to qualify as a doctor, another cousin once removed was very instrumental in the women’s US suffrage movement, and so this was a family of action. Her father was very involved with literary and philosophic societies, and so all the family were frequently surrounded by liberal thinkers, intellectuals, and artists. Despite the initial success of the father’s business, it eventually sank lower and lower which meant the family had to go into increasingly smaller houses as time moved on and money dwindled. This must have been annoying for the family if moving was the hassle then as it is now. 🙂

With the Holden family being free thinkers, it’s not surprising that they were Nonconformists in regard to religion, preferring to join the Unitarian Church. This fact interweaves rather well with my reading from the other week about the history of London’s graveyards. It was a long time before Non-Conformists, dissenters, suicides and other outcasts of the time were allowed to be buried in the typical Christian graveyards, and even then they were shuttled to a special isolated area on the sidelines. Suicides, for example, were originally buried at the cross of a crossroads (stuck as people believed in purgatory and unable to enter either heaven or hell). They also had a stake jammed through their hearts to make sure that they couldn’t come back and haunt anyone. Brutal.

Good book. Somewhat superficial, but I think the author did the best that she could do with the not-very exciting life of her subject.