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>

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).

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.

See Now Then – Jamaica Kincaid (2013)

Going along my TBR shelves and looking for my next read, I came across “See Now Then” by Jamaica Kincaid, which was her seventh novel. I’d not heard of the title, but have had some good reading from two of her other novels (see Annie John [1985]) and Lucy [1990]), and was hoping for a similar experience with this novel.

WARNING: Slightly grumpy review ahead. You may want to avert your eyes.

I do have to say that this was not the easiest read in the world. It did have all the other ideal characteristics checked off for a reader like me: good quality paper, nicely sized font, and a novel from the experience of a POC author. However, what made it seem rather hard for me to follow was how the book was written: it’s in a solid stream-of-consciousness with never-ending sentences making few paragraphs so the reader is faced with large blocks of text (even if it is in a nice font on lovely paper). Plus, when you add to that the fact that the whole book is focused on Time (with a capital T), and you have one rather confused reader.

(In fact, Kincaid admitted in one of the interviews, “The one thing the book is, is difficult and I meant it to be.” The NYT review described it as “not an easy book to stomach” and “the kind of lumpy exorcism that many writers would have composed and then allowed to remain unpublished…It asks little of us, and gives little in return.” Ouch. )

The basic plot revolves around a family with the last name of Sweet  (husband, wife, two adolescent kids), but the surname doesn’t fit: it’s a family rife with problems. The husband hates the wife, the wife knows this but doesn’t seem willing or able to address it, and so most of the novel is written via the thoughts of the unhappy couple. (It’s not a cheerful novel, to say the least.) 

And the couple is really unhappy all the time, judging from the continuous stream of thoughts that is reported. It’s rather a grinding experience, really, and although it’s a pretty short read, it’s not an easy read due to this incessant negativity stemming from both people. (The kids aren’t that happy either.)

I’m not even sure why I kept reading it because it was a solid broccoli book – even worse, it was a solid raw broccoli book. There was no joy anywhere in the novel (apart from my own when I turned the last page). Most reviewers seem to believe that the plot is strongly autobiographical along with being quite an angry read, but Kincaid has denied that charge. (Still, quite a bit of the narrative plot does seem to track along with her own personal experiences though.)

Grumpy review finishes here. 🙂

So – quite a bitter read that was challenging at the same time. Phew. I’m glad I read it, but I’m even more glad that it’s over. I’m pretty sure that I’m over Kincaid’s writing now, but there are lots of other great POC authors ahead. Onward and upward to the next book.

If you’re interested in a couple of other Kinkaid reads for which I felt more positive, you might want to try Lucy (2002) or Annie John (1983).

This is part of JOMP’s celebration of Black History Month (in the U.S.)

The End of Year “Best of …” Lists

end-of-the-year-reflection

So, in the manner of a lot of book bloggers, I have compiled a list of my “Best of…” titles that I’ve read this year for both fiction and for non-fiction. In the same vein, titles on these lists are not necessarily published in 2016 – this is just when they made their wending way into my grubby little mitts and off the TBR pile (for some of them)…

To the lists:

Fiction Top Five:

Non-Fiction Top Five:

Just adored this photographically heavy book, and actually read this twice B2B as I enjoyed this read so much. As close to a perfect read at the perfect time as I’ve ever had. Squee.

Not an easy read, but this was a heart-rending experience of Auschwitz and its aftermath by one of its most eloquent survivors. Amazing read.

A more academic read than the usual NF and about the history of the American contemporary frontier. Really an in-depth exploration of an influential part of America’s history and would be interesting for anyone curious about the early days of U.S. history.

Usually listed in the Top 100 Adventure Books, last year I had read and loved Volume I of this heart-racing non-fiction account of an Edwardian Antarctic expedition which went hideously wrong. This volume covers the second half of the journey which went even more wrong than the first bit (if that’s even possible), but it’s written by someone so charming that you forgive them for their unwitting errors rightaway.

The story of African-American pioneers who move north after the Emancipation Proclamation, and a more forgotten side of early American life on the plains of Kansas. This sent me down a whole other world of rabbit trails learning more about these families who worked so hard to get a better life for them and for their families.

General numbers:

  • Total books read: 56. (Woah. Low for me, but no biggie. Had an interesting year, shall we say.)
  • Total number of Fiction: 25
  • Plays: 2
  • Short stories: 1
  • Non-fiction: 28
  • Books written by POC: 30% (17)
  • Books Owned (%): 40% (rounded up)
  • Total pages: 13, 659

So, overall a good reading year (despite the low-ish total). I think that most of what I’ve read has been really good, with only a couple of stinkers, and I’ve read pretty widely as well. More NF than F which is interesting to me.

In the new year, more of the same! Happy reading!