Category: Reading habits

Some Accidental Thematic Overlaps in My Recent Reading

Five of the books I’ve read recently (most of them while traveling to and from the States) have shared an overarching theme of loss, with mental illness, alcoholism, suicide, and dogs as subsidiary topics running through two or more of them. I hadn’t deliberately chosen these books for their commonalities, so it was uncanny to see the same elements keep popping up. I wanted to come up with some kind of impressively complex Venn diagram to show off these unexpected connections but couldn’t quite manage it, so you’ll have to imagine it instead.


Mental Illness

 

The Archivist by Martha Cooley

Matthias Lane is the archivist of the Mason Room, a university collection of rare books and literary papers. One of its treasures is a set of letters that passed between T.S. Eliot and his friend Emily Hale (held at Princeton in real life). Matt is haunted by memories of his late wife, Judith, a poet incarcerated in a mental hospital for over five years. A reckoning comes for Matt when he’s approached by Roberta Spire, a graduate student determined to view the Eliot–Hale letters even though they’re legally sealed until 2020. The more time Matt spends with Roberta, the more similarities start to arise between her and Judith; and between his situation and Eliot’s when the latter also put his wife away in a mental hospital. The novel asks what we owe the dead: whether we conform to their wishes or make our own decisions. 

 

The Summer without Men by Siri Hustvedt

Thirty years on, poet Mia Fredricksen’s husband Boris asks her for a pause in their marriage so he can explore his feelings for his young French lab assistant. First things first: Mia goes crazy and ends up in a mental hospital for a short time. But then she sucks it up and goes back to her Minnesota hometown to teach poetry writing to teen girls for a summer, getting sucked into a bullying drama. This is a capable if not groundbreaking story of the shifts that occur in a long marriage and the strange things we all do as we face down the possibility of death. There are also wry comments about the unappreciated talents of the female artist. However, compared to the other two novels I’ve read from Hustvedt, this seemed feeble. Still, a quick and enjoyable enough read. 

 

The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst

A delicious debut novel intellectual enough to bypass labels like ‘women’s fiction’ and ‘mystery’. One thing that sets it apart is how successfully Parkhurst writes from the perspective of a male narrator, Paul Iverson, who’s been knocked for six by the sudden death of his wife Lexy, a mask designer. While he was at the university where he teaches linguistics, she climbed to the top of the apple tree in their backyard and – what? fell? or jumped? The only ‘witness’ was their Rhodesian Ridgeback, Lorelei; in his grief Paul uses his sabbatical to research efforts to teach dogs to communicate, hoping one day Lorelei might tell all. Woven through are scenes from Paul and Lexy’s courtship and marriage; though Lexy occasionally struggled with her mental health, their dialogue is fun and zippy, like you might hear on The Gilmore Girls.

 


Suicide

The Archivist by Martha Cooley & The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst


Alcoholism

 

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller

A classic memoir that conjures up all the sights, sounds, smells and feelings of Africa on the cusp of a colonial to postcolonial transition. Fuller’s family were struggling tobacco and cattle farmers in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Malawi and Zambia. She had absorbed the notion that white people were there to benevolently shepherd the natives, but came to question it when she met Africans for herself. While giving a sense of the continent’s political shifts, she mostly focuses on her own family: the four-person circus that was Bobo (that’s her), Van (older sister Vanessa), Dad, and Mum (an occasionally hospitalized manic-depressive alcoholic who lost three children) – not to mention an ever-changing menagerie of horses, dogs and other pets. This really takes you away to another place and time, as the best memoirs do, and the plentiful black-and-white photos are a great addition. 

 

Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell

If you loved Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, pick this up immediately. It’s a similar story of best friends: one who dies and one who survives. Caldwell’s best friend was Caroline Knapp (author of Drinking: A Love Story, among other nonfiction), whom she met via puppy ownership in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They were both single and childless, full-time authors with a history of alcoholism. Besides long walks with their dogs, they loved swimming and rowing together. In 2002 Caroline was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer, inoperable and already metastasized. Despite all their proactive optimism, she was dead a matter of weeks later. In this moving and accessible short memoir, Caldwell drifts through her past, their friendship, Caroline’s illness, and the years of grief that followed the loss of Caroline and then her beloved Samoyed, Clementine, sharing what she learned about bereavement. 

 


Dogs

The Dogs of Babel, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight & Let’s Take the Long Way Home

Do you ever find coincidental thematic connections in your reading?

Culling My Goodreads TBR

You could say my Goodreads to-read shelf has gotten out of hand. As of July 17th it was at 7190 titles. That includes pretty much every book I’ve ever heard about and thought “yeah, maybe I’ll read that someday.” Inspired by Eleanor’s “Down the TBR Hole” posts, I decided something needed to be done – but not just 5–10 titles at a time or I’d be at this forever. So in the last couple weeks I’ve looked through a few hundred or so entries on my TBR each day, starting with the ones that were added longest ago.

My culling strategies were as follows:

 

Remove:

  • Any duplicates – it’s possible to add multiple editions of a book (especially print vs. Kindle) without realizing it.
  • Anything I don’t recognize in the slightest, even after a brief refresher on the blurb.
  • Anything that doesn’t look like something I would read; yes, I’m afraid this involves judging the book by its cover.
  • Anything labeled #1, or that I know is a sequel – I don’t generally read series.
  • Most of what came up in searches for “murder,” “kill,” “detect,” “body,” “blood” or “mystery” – just facing facts here: I don’t ever read crime fiction. If a murder is incidental to a plot, fine, but I don’t search out mysteries.
  • Any book I already own in print or e-format; the book itself serves as the reminder that I intend to read it. [Exception: I maintain “Kindle priority” and “priority advanced 2017 read” shelves.]

Get down to just one to-find-next title for each author. I already know I’ll read anything by Wendell Berry or Margaret Atwood, so I don’t need 10 titles on my TBR; I’ll keep the one I’m most keen on at the moment. Likewise, I discovered three titles each by Ivan Doig, Helen Garner and Tom Drury on the TBR but can’t remember how I even heard of these authors; I cut down to one title apiece. [Exceptions:

  • If an author has written in very different genres, I’ll retain two books to showcase the diversity, perhaps one fiction and one nonfiction.
  • If it’s an author I know I want to read everything by and there’s just a handful more books that I need to find to complete the set (e.g. Carol Shields and Marcus Borg), I’ll keep them all on the list so I know to look out for them.]

Transfer some reference-type books (e.g. philosophy/ethics books, essay collections, anthologies and cookbooks) to my “to skim only” shelf.

Say goodbye to an author who’s disappointed me in the past (Marina Endicott), who I’ve decided I might not be interested in after all (Russell Banks), or whom I’ve gone off (Howard Jacobson).

Scan through for notably low average ratings.

  • For any book where this is below, say, 3.4, I’ll look back at the blurb and scan through the reviews, especially those by friends, and decide on a case-by-case basis whether I want to keep it on the list.
  • Any book with a rating significantly below 3.0 gets deleted as a matter of course. There is the potential here for deleting some books that are polarizing and I might just love, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take; if I’m meant to read a book in my lifetime, it’ll happen somehow. [At one point, to hurry things along, I organized the to-read shelf by ascending average rating and (after getting past a bunch of 0.00 ratings for pre-release or unrated books) managed to cull a good number of books with a 2.-something average.]

This has turned out to be a much more laborious process than I’d hoped, mostly because you can only delete one title at a time and always have to click “OK” to verify. It would go so much faster if I could select 10 or 20 titles to delete at once. Yet it’s ended up being a rewarding undertaking because I’ve rediscovered many books I’d completely forgotten about. Along the way I’m adding loads to my thematic shelves and have updated my “priority to find” list. I’ve also created various new shelves like “parenting,” “dementia” and “Nancy Pearl recommendation”.

After working on this off and on for two weeks – keeping a Goodreads window open all day while doing other computer work – I managed to get the TBR down to 5498 titles. So I’ve cut the original list down by about 23.5%. However, I still have 91 pages of results to sift through. It’s a bit depressing that after all the effort I’ve put in I still have so much to do when I get back from America. At the same time, it’s quite the addictive little task. The idea is that ultimately the TBR will be significantly shorter and more targeted to my tastes.

I shall report back when I’m finally finished!


How do you keep your (virtual or physical) TBR shelf under control?

Library Checkout: July 2017

I’m flying out to America later today on a short trip for my sister’s wedding, so I’ve been focusing on finishing most of the books I have out from the library, including some that have hung around for a number of months already. I’ll have just one or two awaiting me on my return.

(Ratings and links to any books that I haven’t already featured here in some way or don’t plan to soon.)

 

LIBRARY BOOKS READ

  • Hidden Nature: A Voyage of Discovery by Alys Fowler 
  • Bee Quest: In Search of Rare Bees by Dave Goulson 
  • A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman 
  • Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss 

LIBRARY BOOKS SKIMMED

  • The Power by Naomi Alderman

CURRENTLY READING

  • The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson – I’ll either take this with me or put it on hold until I come back; I haven’t decided as of the time of scheduling this post. In any case, it’s the sort of fragmentary narrative that doesn’t have to be read all at once.

CHECKED OUT, TO BE READ

  • White Tears by Hari Kunzru

RETURNED UNFINISHED

  • Human Acts by Han Kang – I read the first 115 pages and then set this aside, not because it was too harrowing or challenging, but simply because I’d been bored for at least 45 pages and didn’t have the patience to see how the various chapters, each from a different perspective (2nd person, then 1st, then 3rd) might fit together.

RETURNED UNREAD

  • Tiny Giants by Nate Powell – I glanced at the first few pages of this graphic novel but didn’t like the drawing style or the narration.


(Hosted by Charleen of It’s a Portable Magic.)

Have you been taking advantage of your local libraries? What appeals from my lists?

Bloggers’ Opinions Must Not Be Bought: A Cautionary Tale

I’m leery of accepting self-published work for review. If this is prejudice on my part, it’s not unjustified: I’ve reviewed hundreds of self-published books during my four years of freelance work for Kirkus, Foreword, BlueInk, Publishers Weekly, and The Bookbag, and although I do find the very occasional gem that could hold its own in a traditional market, the overall quality is poor. When self-published authors get in touch via my blog, I usually delete their enquiries immediately. But for some reason I decided to give a second look to a request I received through Goodreads earlier this year. (All identifying details have been removed.)

I’ll admit it: the flattery probably helped:

This was for a historical novel that had 4-star reviews from two Goodreads friends whose judgment I trust, so I agreed to have the author send a copy to my parents’ house in the States so that it would be waiting for me there when I arrived for my recent trip. When I opened the box, two alarm bells rang at once. First there was this. Uh oh.

Second of all: the author had taken the trouble of looking up restaurants in my parents’ area and ordered a $60 gift card from one of them to send along with the book parcel. Double uh oh.

I spent weeks wondering what in the world I was going to do about this ethical quandary. I even contacted a Goodreads friend who’d reviewed the book and asked what their experience with the author had been like. The reply was very telling:

I still feel unsettled over my interaction with [name redacted]. I’ve always made it a point not to review unsolicited books. But over a period of several weeks, [they] sent me a number of emails that ranged from flattering to fawning – and always polite and charming. Eventually, I, too, received a $60 gift card to a favorite restaurant that was within blocks of my home. I ended up, I believe, 4 starring [the] book, although the truth is that it was more of a 3-star read. Since reviewing, I have valued my independence – and honesty – and since then, have had the uncomfortable feeling of being “bought”, and for a low price at that.

I cannot tell you what to do. Obviously, I feel as if my own values were compromised. For me, it wasn’t worth what I still believe is a blot on my integrity. If you do decide to review, I’d simply encourage you to be honest because (I learned the hard way) the aftermath isn’t a good feeling.

Well, I’d promised to review the book, so I forced myself to open it, pencil in hand. After I’d corrected 10 problems of punctuation and grammar within the first six pages, I commenced skimming. There were some decent folksy metaphors and a not-half-bad dual narrative of a young woman’s odyssey and a small town’s feuds. But there were also dreadful sex scenes, melodramatic plot turns, and dialogue and slang that didn’t ring true for the time period. If I squinted pretty darn hard, I could see my way to likening the novel to the works of Ron Rash and Daniel Woodrell. But it wasn’t by any means a book I could genuinely recommend.

So when the author checked up a couple of months later to see whether I had gotten the book and what I thought of it, here’s what I replied:

I received the following abject apology, but no helpful information.

To my brief follow-up –

– I received this:

Note the phrase “self-promoted” and the meaningless repetition of “couldn’t put it down!”

And then they went on to disparage me for my age?!

I don’t believe for a minute that this person was ignorant of what they were doing in sending the gift cards. What’s saddest to me is that they have zero interest in getting an honest opinion of the work or hearing constructive criticism that could help them improve. They clearly don’t respect professionals’ estimation, either, or they’d be brave enough to pay for a review from Kirkus or another independent body. Instead, they’ve presumably been ‘paying’ $60 a pop to get fawning but utterly false 5-star reviews. Just imagine how much money they’ve spent on shipping and ‘thank-you gifts’ – easily many thousands of dollars.

And could I really have been the first in 180+ people to express misgivings about what was going on here? How worrying.

I was tempted to be generous and give the novel the briefest of 3-star reviews, perhaps as an addendum to another review on my blog, just so that I could feel justified in keeping the gift card and not have to face a confrontation with the author. But it didn’t feel right. If I want my reviews to have integrity, they have to reflect my honest opinions. As it stands, I have the gift card in an envelope, ready to be returned to the author when I’m in the States for my sister’s wedding next month; the book will most likely get dropped off at a Little Free Library.

If I was a vindictive person, I’d be going on Goodreads and Amazon and giving the book a 1-star review: as a necessary corrective to the bogus 5-star ones, and as a way of exposing this dodgy self-promotional activity. But that would in turn expose all of this person’s readers, including a valued Goodreads friend. And who knows how the author would try to retaliate.

So there you have it. My cautionary tale of a self-published author trying to buy my good opinion. What have I learned? Mostly to be even more wary of self-published work; possibly not to make any promises to review a book until I’ve seen a sample of it. But also to listen to my conscience and, when something is wrong, have the courage to speak out right away.


I’m curious: what would you have done?

Library Checkout: June 2017

I’ve mostly been reading my own books, review books, and stuff on Kindle during and since my America trip, so I haven’t actually completed any library books in June. However, I have several on the go at the moment, so next month should look a bit more impressive!


CURRENTLY READING

  • Hidden Nature: A Voyage of Discovery by Alys Fowler
  • Bee Quest: In Search of Rare Bees by Dave Goulson
  • A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman

CHECKED OUT, TO BE READ

  • Human Acts by Han Kang
  • White Tears by Hari Kunzru
  • Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss

RETURNED UNFINISHED

  • Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates [AMERICA]

RETURNED UNREAD

Requested by someone else:

  • Island Home: A Landscape Memoir by Tim Winton

Lost interest:

  • Multitudes: Eleven Stories by Lucy Caldwell
  • What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell
  • Gerontius by James Hamilton-Paterson
  • Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed [AMERICA]

(Hosted by Charleen of It’s a Portable Magic.)

Have you been taking advantage of your local libraries? What appeals from my lists?

America Reading & Book Haul, Etc.

On Wednesday we got back from two weeks in the States. We were so busy catching up with family and friends we hadn’t seen in a year and a half or more that my reading really slowed down: aside from the three books I took on the plane and finished within my first week, I only read another two books (not counting two during the trip back). Alas, I seem to be in a bit of a rut: everything I read was 3 stars. I haven’t finished anything I’d rate higher than that since late May. I do hope I can break that pattern before June ends!

 

What I Read:

In Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles, Bennie Ford writes an extended letter during an unexpected overnight layover in Chicago, ostensibly to demand his $392.68 back, but really to tell his life story. His daughter is getting married in California tomorrow; it’s Bennie’s chance to make things right after years of estrangement. Will he make it to the wedding or not? The structure of the book means it doesn’t particularly matter, and I stopped caring a little bit as it went on. The sections of a novel Bennie is translating from the Polish felt irrelevant to me. Still, amusing, and a good one to read in the airport and on a plane.

Gone: A Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung by Min Kym: I’m completely unmusical, so I enjoyed learning about what it’s like to be a violin virtuoso and a child prodigy, and what it means to fall in love with an instrument. Kym also puts things into the context of being a Korean immigrant to London. The central event of the book is having her Stradivarius, worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, stolen from a train station café in late 2010. It’s a brief and fairly immersive story, but the style is melodramatic and choppy at times.

Back When We Were Grown-ups was my fifth Anne Tyler novel. Rebecca is in her fifties and the pillar of the large Davitch family, even though she only married into it six years before her husband’s sudden death. The Davitches are always renting out their home for their party business, and Rebecca has over the years developed a joyous persona that she’s not sure is really her true self. What would life have been like if she hadn’t become a stepmother to Joe’s three girls but instead married her college sweetheart, Will? While this is funny and warm, and a cozy read in the best possible way, it didn’t really stand out for me.

Three Singles to Adventure by Gerald Durrell, first published in 1954, tells of his animal collecting in Guiana, South America. The highlight is pipa toad reproduction and birth.

Grief Cottage by Gail Godwin is a very atmospheric read, set on a South Carolina island with a haunted cottage where a family was swept away by a hurricane. However, I thought the rhythm of the young narrator’s languid summer days caring for his great-aunt became tedious, and I struggled to buy how self-aware he was meant to be of his fragile mental state at the age of 11. It’s reminiscent of John Irving (quirky secondary characters and so on) but without the same spark. I was sent a review copy for BookBrowse but found I couldn’t recommend it with 4 stars or higher.

To my surprise, I completely went off Kindle reading on this trip until the flight back, when I raced through Salmon Doubts by Adam Sacks, a sweet but inconsequential graphic novel about the salmon’s life cycle. I also started the poetry collection Fast by Jorie Graham but left it unfinished.

Two more DNFs from the trip were The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I may try again with both in the future. Alas, library reading was a total wash: Hourglass by Dani Shapiro didn’t arrive in time, I abandoned the Coates, and I didn’t feel in the mood for advice letters so ended up not even starting Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed.

My enjoyable read on the long journey back was Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen. Janzen gave the Mennonite tradition she’d forsaken a second look after her life fell apart in her early forties: her husband left her for Bob, whom he met on a gay dating site; and she was in a serious car accident. It’s more in the form of linked autobiographical essays than a straight memoir, so she keeps cycling round to some of the same themes, and it gets less laugh-out-loud funny as it goes on. Still, I was impressed by how the author has managed to pull what’s good from experiences most would consider disastrous. (I also read the first third of Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner.)

Now that I’m home I’ve started a huge pile of review books and library books and instead of the 1–3 books at a time I was reading while we were away I’m back up to my more usual 14.

 

What I Bought:

Day 2: A stop at my parents’ local Dollar Tree to stock up on greetings cards for the year’s events (2 for $1!) also brought some unexpectedly good book finds. [Not pictured: a paperback of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, our favorite of his novels.] Total spend: $3.18.

Day 4: The obligatory visit to Wonder Book & Video in Frederick, Maryland, one of my happy places.

Day 5: A trip to bookstore chain 2nd & Charles in Hagerstown, MD. Total spend (minus my trade-in of various books and CDs): $5.19.

Day 6: A book of Mary Oliver poems from the Goodwill store in Westminster, MD.

Day 14: Some bargains from a thrift store in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, where we met up with my friend and her family while they were on holiday. Total spend: $4.50.

 

What I Otherwise Acquired:

A few review books / gifts were waiting for me when I arrived, plus I managed to snag a couple of Crown ARCs that are not out until October.

 

The state of my closet back in the States (most of those boxes contain books):

 

Other Bookish Sightings:

 A Little Free Library at my parents’ local organic supermarket. I dropped off a few proof copies before I left.

The Peabody Library of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

A trip to Mermaid Books in Williamsburg, Virginia (overpriced – no purchases), where I spotted an amusing cover on Anne Tyler’s first novel – she still has the same haircut!

Ephemera in two of my purchases.

 

Other highlights of the trip:

  • Meeting my sister’s fiancé (!) and his kids.
  • Going to an alpaca farm with my sister and nephews.
  • Surprising my mom with her early 70th birthday gift: a mother–daughters trip to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. for dinner and a showing of Shear Madness, a long-running improvisational murder mystery with audience participation.
  • Exploring Williamsburg (and Jamestown Island) for the first time since I was a kid.
  • A day trip to Cape May, New Jersey – a place to go back to, methinks.
  • Plus all our meet-ups, however brief, with friends.
  • Not forgetting the total of seven cats and two dogs we got to spend time with.
  • Two weeks of doing absolutely no work. I didn’t miss it for a second.

One last book haul photo: These were the review copies (top two) and giveaway books awaiting me when I got back to the UK. (I won the Schaub from Liz’s blog; I’m on a great run with Goodreads giveaways at the moment: along with these Sedaris and Whittal titles, I have new books by Cathy Rentzenbrink and Anne de Courcy on the way.)


How has your summer reading been going?

Library Checkout: May 2017

We fly to America tomorrow morning, but, as you can see, despite my best efforts I’ve managed to leave behind a sizeable pile of library books for when I get back.

And that’s not to mention this gorgeous set of review copies awaiting my return!

I’ve added in ratings and links to any reviews of books I haven’t already featured here in some way.


LIBRARY BOOKS READ

SKIMMED ONLY

  • A Smell of Burning: The Story of Epilepsy by Colin Grant 
  • Sculptor’s Daughter: A Childhood Memoir by Tove Jansson 
  • In the Bonesetter’s Waiting-Room: Travels through Indian Medicine by Aarathi Prasad
  • Where Poppies Blow: The British Soldier, Nature, the Great War by John Lewis-Stempel 

CHECKED OUT, TO BE READ

  • Multitudes: Eleven Stories by Lucy Caldwell
  • Hidden Nature: A Voyage of Discovery by Alys Fowler
  • Bee Quest: In Search of Rare Bees by Dave Goulson
  • What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell
  • A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman
  • Gerontius by James Hamilton-Paterson
  • Human Acts by Han Kang
  • White Tears by Hari Kunzru
  • Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss
  • Island Home: A Landscape Memoir by Tim Winton


As to America: I hope you would agree I have been very restrained in only requesting three books to borrow from my parents’ local public library. The Coates and Shapiro are extremely short memoirs I should have no trouble getting through, and the Strayed, a collection of advice columns, is the kind of book that I can dip in and out of. My Kindle and my personal library will more than make up for any further shortfall in reading material.

ON HOLD, TO BE CHECKED OUT

  • Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed

IN THE RESERVATION QUEUE

  • Hourglass, Dani Shapiro

(Hosted by Charleen of It’s a Portable Magic.)

Have you been taking advantage of your local libraries? What appeals from my lists?