Bookends: December 2019 – February 2020

Mid-December through mid-January were weeks spent coming down with, fighting, or recovering from various colds and flus (or maybe just one month-long ebbing-and-flowing virus). I did a lot more reading in bed than I usually do, and because I’ve built up some impressive whining skills in my 43 years, my family gave me more space than they usually do. Not all bad, but I’d prefer to be well.

These past few months saw a lot of books, both fiction and nonfiction, about violence (war, murder, sexual assault), suicide, mental illness, and adoption. I tend to gravitate towards darker books, so part of this is my doing, but several came to me from the list of National Book Award finalists, which was a pretty bleak collection, subject-wise, this year. Made for some interesting reviews for my Christmas reading challenges.

But now spring is almost upon us and there’s nothing but puppies and picnics in the park and sunshine and rainbows on the horizon (provided I don’t look at the news).

Visual interest:

 

IMG_20200215_100628

Finished in December (8):

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss (audio)

Death Is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa

The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich (audio)

Women Talking by Miriam Toews

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson (audio)

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

The Existentialist’s Survival Guide by Gordon Marino

Finished in January (8):

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell (audio)

Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood by Lisa Damour

Heretics Anonymous by Katie Henry

Differentiating Instruction with Menus: Literature (Grades 6-8) by Laurie E. Westphal (ARC)

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

The Art of War by Sun Tzu (Cavalcade of Classics)

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Finished in February (7):

Scythe by Neal Shusterman

Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery (audio, re-read)

The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa

The Wild Robot by Peter Brown (twice, once on my own and once aloud to my kids)

Sabrina & Corina: Stories by Kali Fajardo-Anstine

The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell (audio)

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (audio)

DNFs (4):

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn

A Short History of a Small Place by T. R. Pearson

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

Currently Reading:

Crossing by Pajtim Statovci

Shylock is My Name by Howard Jacobson (audio)

Napoleon’s Buttons by Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson (R.A. with my son)

Periodic Tales by Hugh Aldersley-Williams (R.A. with my son)

To-Read for March:

In addition to the books I’m currently reading, I also have out from the library:

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All by Laura Ruby

Ten Years in the Tub by Nick Hornby

And two titles from my physical TBR to read for #bookspin and #doublespin on Litsy:

The Overstory by Richard Powers

The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys

What’s on your nightstand this month?

Are you on Litsy? So am I! Come visit! @ImperfectCJ

Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell

wp-1579981352326.jpgHelen Moran is in her shared studio apartment in Manhattan accepting delivery of her roommate’s new IKEA sofa when she gets the call telling her that her brother is dead. She packs a few things and flies home to Milwaukee to try to make sense of his suicide. “It’s just the three of us now,” her parents say, as they each try to interpret the shifting constellation of their relationship.

Helen is difficult to be around, trapped inside her own mind, alternately highly empathetic and completely clueless about other people’s perspectives, but I like her. I don’t know that I’d want to hang out with her, but I admire that she’s found a way to (mostly) get by in her world.

Being inside Helen’s head is similar to being inside Eleanor Oliphant’s head. Each has her own logic and mechanisms to cope with reality, and each is challenged to realign and reevaluate when reality no longer lines up with her understanding of it. But I like Helen more than I like Eleanor. There’s no miraculous recovery for Helen, no key to unlock her difficulties with life and free her from herself. She doesn’t find sanity and equanimity after three visits to a therapist. Helen’s adjustment to her world is more nuanced, more flawed, and more realistic than Eleanor’s. Her demons are still there, she just finds a new perspective from which to confront them.

This novel feels like a truthful portrayal of the experience of living with mental illness, including psychosis, which continues to be something of a third rail in discussions around mental illness even as it’s becoming more acceptable (bordering on trendy) to be open about depression and anxiety. Even aside from issues of mental illness, this novel illustrates well the ways in which we each live within our own heads and according to our own logical framework and how difficult it is to reach across the divide between our reality and someone else’s.

One of my favorite quotes from the novel, albeit one that doesn’t have much bearing on the plot, is this one about Helen’s experience living in New York City:

“Someone will pay me one day to divulge how I lived so frugally, elegantly, and sanely in that glittering, amorally rich, and enormous hellhole.”

Side note: Somehow, I’m reading three books at the same time that deal with adoption and mental illness: a memoir (Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson), a middle-grade novel (Ghosts of Greenglass House by Kate Milford), and this novel. It’s an odd coincidence, but one that I’m enjoying.

 

The Art of War by Sun-Tzu

The Art of War is the first of the titles on my Cavalcade of Classics, Round 2 list that I’ve finished this year. Making progress!

Filled with guidance about war strategy that is surprisingly detailed, this book is more practical and less philosophical than I expected it to be. It provides interesting insights into warfare in China during the Warring States period, but I would hesitate to use it as a business or personal guidebook as some have suggested in recent years.

Some quotes/passages that were particularly interesting to me…

This one reminds me of the adage about putting one’s own house in order instead of worrying about someone else’s:

The Skillful Warrior

Can achieve

His own

Invulnerability;

But he can never bring about

The enemy’s

Vulnerability.

And this one sounded to me like a list of New Year’s Resolutions for an aspiring bad-ass:

wp-1578623562337.jpg

Bookends: November 2019

Our November was filled with mad science, unexpected reunions with family, and more rain than we usually see around these parts. With all of that going on, December snuck up on me, but there’s still time for a November Bookends post!

Visual interest: Stop chasing the birds!

IMG_20191114_150833.jpg

 

Finished in November (11):

The Girl in Red by Christina Henry

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle (audiobook)

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

A Nearly Normal Family by M.T. Edvardsson (audiobook)

A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay (audiobook)

The Other Americans by Laila Lalami (DNF)

The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay (audiobook)

The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson (DNF)

Recursion by Blake Crouch

The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson (audiobook)

Currently Reading:

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Black Ships Before Troy by Rosemary Sutcliffe (I was reading this aloud with my son but he finished it on his own one afternoon. Now I need to finish it and give him some language arts assignments about it.)

To-Read for December:

All of my library holds came in at the same time, so here’s what I’ve got to read this month, not counting the ebook and audiobook holds but including a grapefruit:

image.jpg

And I have some middle-grade novels I’d like to work on. And my spouse is getting me a stack of library books for birthday/Christmas. I appear to have my work cut out for me this month.

What’s on your nightstand this month?

Are you on Litsy? So am I! Come visit! @ImperfectCJ

Bookends: October 2019

Ah, October! Santa Ana winds, a three-day jaunt to the desert (the “real” desert, not the coastal Southern California desert), taking my kids to the thrift store to buy costume components…and reading a few books, including a decent stab at the October Dewey’s Readathon. I posted on Litsy during the Readathon. That’s where you can find most of my updates between Bookends posts these days, if you’d like more of that kind of thing.

A little visual interest before the book lists. This is The World Famous Crochet Museum in a converted drive-thru photo developing place in Joshua Tree, California:

IMG_20191030_095204

Finished in October (12):

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

Chime by Franny Billingsley

24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Weekby Tiffany Shlain

The Farm by Joanne Ramos

Ohio by Stephen Markley (audio)

The Changeling by Victor LaValle (audio)

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

The Odyssey by Homer (Emily Wilson translation, read-aloud with my children)

Less by Andrew Sean Greer (audio)

Uprooted by Naomi Novik (audio)

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty (audio)

Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

 

Currently Reading:

The Girl in Red by Christina Henry

The Existentialist’s Survival Guide by Gordon Marino

Black Ships Before Troy by Rosemary Sutcliffe (read-aloud with my son, who will still snuggle with me on the couch if I read to him)

To-Read for November:

Subject to change, as always, but here are some I particularly want to hit:

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Overstory by Richard Powers

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

And I have some middle-grade novels I’d like to work on.

What’s on your nightstand this month?

Bookends: September 2019

This month’s book totals are a little inflated due to the picture books and early readers I read for the Birth and Beyond Reading Challenge (#BBRC) on Litsy.

Still, even counting only the “grown-up” books, this month was pretty solid. I credit staying up past midnight, adding caffeine back into my diet, and ignoring the housework.

Kids’ Books (12):

Rude Cakes by Rowboat Watkins

Chase’s Space Case by Nickelodeon Publishing

The Case of the Scaredy Cats by Crosby Bonsall

Jump by David McPhail

Golden Retriever by Charlie George

Saturday Belongs to Sara by Cathy Warren

Fast Food by Saxton Freymann

The Egyptian Cinderella by Shirley Climo

You Silly Goose by Ellen Stoll Walsh

Victor Vito and Freddie Vasco by Laurie Berkner

Up and Down (The Boy, #4) by Oliver Jeffers

Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold

Grown-up Books (10):

Inland by Téa Obreht

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide by Kay Redfield Jamison

The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can: Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer by Gretchen Reynolds

Moody Bitches: The Truth About the Drugs You’re Taking, The Sleep You’re Missing, The Sex You’re Not Having, and What’s Really Making You Crazy by Julie Holland

Oksana, Behave! by Maria Kuznetsova (audio)

The Perfect Nanny by Leïla Slimani (audio)

The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America by Timothy Snyder

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal

Currently Reading:

Chime by Franny Billingsley

24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week by Tiffany Schlain

And I’m still working on Emily Wilson’s Translation of Homer’s The Odyssey.

To-Read for October:

October is a bit up in the air. I have a couple of books out from the library that I’ll probably start on:

The Farm by Joanne Ramos

Ohio by Stephen Markley (on audio)

I’m due for another Libro.fm credit, so I plan to get another audiobook after 2pm on October 5.

I hope to be seasonal and pick up some scary reads. I prefer literary, psychological, bizarre/unsettling and/or gothic horror/suspense to blood-and-guts, straight-up genre stuff. Authors like Daphne duMaurier (The Birds), Shirley Jackson (The Haunting of Hill House), Lauren Beukes (Broken Monsters), Kelly Link (Get in Trouble), Gin Phillips (Fierce Kingdom), Sarah Waters (The Little Stranger).

Any suggestions?

What’s on your nightstand this month?

Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates

Plot summary, gleaned from the book jacket flap:

“A recklessly idealistic girl dares to test the perimeters of her tightly controlled (future) world and is punished by being sent back in time to a region of North America—‘Wainscotia, Wisconsin’—that existed eighty years before. Cast adrift in time in this idyllic midwestern town, she is set upon a course of ‘rehabilitation’—but cannot resist falling in love with a fellow exile and questioning the constraints of the Wainscotia world with results that are both devastating and liberating.”

I don’t quite get what Oates is trying to do with this novel. Every time she provides something, some question or scene that leaves the narrator confused but that has significance to me as a reader, she has another character provide the analysis. She doesn’t let me fill in the blanks, and that’s profoundly frustrating to me. For example, our narrator, Adriane/Mary Ellen, recalls something she’d witnessed on a television monitor as proof for the way she understands the world. “Hadn’t I witnessed?” she asks. “Hadn’t I seen?” I read this on a day rife with news about deepfake videos, and I thought, “Aha! This is what Oates means! In the world of her novel, people can’t trust their senses, just like in our reality!” I was just getting excited about this when another character fills in that blank: “There is absolutely no way for an ordinary citizen to distinguish a ‘virtual’ staging from an ‘actual’ event.” (219-220)

Interesting point, but it would have been even more interesting if I’d had the chance to get there on my own.

Oates is saying something very important about conditioning and learned helplessness and how we willingly keep ourselves contained in imaginary cages, how difficult it is even to determine whether the cage is real or imaginary, but she doesn’t let this just happen. She gives our narrator a psychology class and an interest in reading about B.F. Skinner beyond the curriculum, thereby spoon-feeding the reader the significant points. She also has the turning point in the development of the dystopian future/present be 09/11/2001 and the passage of the Patriot Act, and while the quick acceptance by the voting public and elected officials on both sides of the aisle of the curtailment of civil liberties in the wake of those terrorist attacks was alarming and probably symptomatic of an inclination of the public to accept a consolidation of power contrary to The Constitution if it’s framed as a paternalistic effort to “protect” us, drawing a direct line between that event and Oates’s future feels too simplistic.

One thing that intrigues me in the novel, however, is what Oates thinks of protests. She’s set up the place of exile as a mundane location, a place that celebrates mediocrity, a place where people with ambition spin their wheels without any hope of accomplishing anything of importance. The people who are content here include mediocre poets, professors who are uninterested in exploring beyond their own ideas, artists who accept limitations on their art because they want/need to receive commissions, and activists who engage in protests on the campus of small liberal arts colleges in the Midwest. Lumping all of these things together suggests that each is equally futile. As someone who attempted to engage in activism on the campus of a small liberal arts college in the Midwest, this seems an accurate assessment of the effectiveness of such activism.

What isn’t futile in Oates’s world? Is there an actual cage, or is it only imagined?

Good, interesting questions, but the novel fell short of being interesting in itself.

I’ve been attempting to read novels with an eye for how they might help me build my own character. This one’s a tough one, but I think the lessons are fairly basic: When I feel constrained, are the barriers real or am I imagining them? When I feel content and free, is this freedom real or am I imagining it? And the more dangerous question, the one that easily leads to an existential abyss: Are the things I’m doing of lasting significance? It’s a good question, but one that I’ll approach with caution.

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

Usually, I like reading books quickly. I like immersing myself in the world, a quick dive to the bottom of the pool and then back up again for a deep breath and the return of the pull of gravity on my limbs. If I take a long time reading a book, it’s because it’s difficult to read somehow, wordy in a nineteenth-century way or full of page-long sentences like those written by the literary Wunderkinder of the early twenty-first century or populated with a cast of thousands that I need notecards to keep track of.

This novel I read slowly for none of these reasons. History of Wolves drew me into the depths, past the hovering walleye, to a murky, beautiful place full of muffled sounds and a stinging cold from which I was in no rush to return.

Every word of this novel reaches deep. Fridlund wastes nothing. Linda’s memories of belonging and joy are so closely tied to memories of betrayal and pain that she can’t look at either directly. As we read, she circles around and around, getting close to the story and then drawing back, touching back on memories that take on one meaning in the first telling and another in the next. Fridlund puts the reader directly into Linda’s mind, and while it’s not always a comfortable place to be, it’s painfully real. This novel demands a slow read to savor each morsel, to roll each word over the tongue like a pebble.

A friend and I were talking about the difference between a novel about a young adult and a YA novel, and while there are perhaps some generalizations to be made about purpose and literary merit, at the root the difference seems to be one of subtlety. Most YA novels I’ve read at one point or another explain the conflicts of the characters directly, telling the reader explicitly that the main character feels alienated because despite some specific difference—poverty or learning disability or supernatural ability—she’s trying to be accepted by her peer group while remaining an individual. Linda feels the loneliness of a teenager trying to determine her place in the world, trying to feel accepted without blending in, but Fridlund shows all of this indirectly and more clearly and honestly than if she’d just written it outright.

I love this novel. I love the flawed, horrible, beautiful people. I love following Linda through the lakes and the woods, the slush and the mud, and the smell of pine sap and wet dog. I love seeing her poor decisions and her good decisions and the blurred dividing line between the two.

I’ve been reading novels lately with an eye for how they might help me improve my own character, and I can see two lessons that this book offers me on this front.

First is the reminder to experience everything. Hear each bird, smell each pinecone, taste each tropical Skittle, and note our relationship to these things because the same thing can seem different depending on the circumstances.

The second is to question my assumptions. Are the conclusions I’m drawing about the way the world works or about how the people around me act based on a sound premise? Am I leaving something out or missing a piece of the story that would allow me to understand a situation better? Are my assumptions blinding me to situations or evidence that might challenge my understanding of the world and of myself?

I have no memory of how this novel ended up on my to-read list, but I am so glad it was there and that it was on the shelves at my local library when I was looking for something to read.

24in48 January 2019 Wrap-up

Well. I’m done.

Working breakfast on Sunday

Actually, I’ve been done since 9:00 last night when I finished All Quiet on the Western Front just before my alarm went off signalling the end of the readathon, but I decided to sleep before posting my wrap-up.

I estimate that I got in about sixteen hours of reading, which is well short of 24 hours, but not bad overall.

I finished a total of three books.

Two of these—Winter by Ali Smith and All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque—I started before the readathon.

The third—Sleep No More by Aprilynne Pike—I read start to finish on Saturday.

I’ve participated in enough readathons now to have developed some guidelines for making them work for me:

Unwritten rule: schedule in breaks to play board games with my family to distract them from the fact that I’m not cooking all weekend.
  1. Choose a TBR that’s smaller than I’d like. This is not the time to be super-ambitious. Pick three or four books that really interest me and maybe one or two alternates.
  2. Include at least one YA or graphic novel in my TBR. YA and graphic novels go quick and give a sense of satisfaction when I see the whole book lying there in my “finished” pile.
  3. Include at least one audiobook. This rule is more important for me during 24-hour readathons. During the 24in48, I have enough leeway to get up and move that I don’t have to be reading the entire time. For example, this time, I went with my family on Sunday morning to play some basketball, but during Dewey’s, I choose to go for a long, long walk and listen to audiobooks to get my reading in while I move around.
  4. Scope out a reading nook or three. This is has been a problem for me in our new house. It’s got an open floorplan and not only is there literally nowhere to go that isn’t noisy when my family are home, I’ve had a lot of trouble figuring out a good place to put the furniture for a solid reading spot. It’s not perfect, but I have a little nook in our front room that works okay. I need to scope out a place away from the house, though.
  5. Be prudent about social media. It’s easy for me to get sucked into social media for an hour or more, so I need to be careful to limit myself. I only post on Instagram every six hours or so and on my blog for kickoff, half-time, and wrap-up. I miss out on some of the “community” aspects of the readathon, but it keeps me reading for more of the time.

And that’s pretty much it. I would love to develop some guidelines around snacks—like not buying a huge bag of salt and vinegar kettle chips at Costco at the beginning of the readathon—but that will have to wait for the next readathon, which might not be until October. The next 24in48 is July 20-21, and the next Dewey’s is April 6, but I’ve got family responsibilities during both of those. *sigh*

24in48 Halftime Report

Twenty-four hours into the January 2019 24in48 readathon, and I’m still in the game.

A hand holding a book in front of a bookshelf. The cover of the book has a black-and-white image of a woman's face overlaid with the title Sleep No More and the words Forget the Past, Change the Present, Fight the Future. Aprilynne Pike is printed across the bottom of the book cover.

I finished Ali Smith’s Winter (which I was already halfway through at the start of the event) and read all of Sleep No More by Aprilynne Pike.

That was a very strange sequence of books, but it seems to have worked alright.

Snack-wise, I made some similarly incongruous choices. Half-caff coffee then fruit-infused water. Three bowls of salt and vinegar chips and three bowls of bell pepper slices. Popcorn with homemade vegan nacho seasoning and an apple. Scrambled eggs and dark chocolate (consecutively, not mixed together).

Apple slices on a wooden cutting board.

The chips were probably the snack I most enjoyed and the snack that I most regret.

I estimate that I read for roughly 10 of those first 24 hours. A decent showing. With several things on my schedule for tomorrow, I’m not sure I’ll be able to make the full 24, but I can give it a try.

For now, though: bedtime.

Feet clad in gray slippers crossed and propped on a brown chair on a sunny patio. The legs are in blue jeans and a Kindle Paperwhite is resting on them..
One of my reading spaces today. I couldn’t be bothered to fill the fountain.