Category: Reading habits

Today Is World Read Aloud Day

An unprecedented second post in one day for me. I recently learned from Ron Charles’s article in the Washington Post that today, February 1st, is World Read Aloud Day, an annual celebration hosted by LitWorld to draw attention to ongoing literacy challenges. I mentioned in my write-up of my bibliotherapy experience that one recommendation I was given was to try reading aloud with my husband. To that end, I got hold of the three suggested books below and we’ve dipped into all of them on recent evenings. At the moment we’re managing to do a bit of reading aloud every few days, which isn’t so bad for a start.

Dimitri’s book includes extracts by everyone from Neil Gaiman to Robert Macfarlane, all arranged under thematic headings. A special index at the back of the book orders the pieces according to how long they are estimated to take to read, ranging from three minutes to more like 15. So far we’ve tackled a handful of the shorter pieces; any of the longer ones we’ll probably split and each take half.

David Eagleman’s flash fiction collection is billed as being about the afterlife. The first story was a laugh-out-loud inventory of all the time the average human spends on different activities. Thirty-three hours sleeping versus 14 minutes experiencing pure joy. That kind of thing. I look forward to the rest.

Ella Berthoud particularly recommended Saki’s short story “Tobermory” since it’s about a talking cat (but is rather dark!), so we started with that one. Many of the others are only a couple of small-print pages. Have you read any Saki? What can you recommend?

Apart from classroom experiences, the last time I remember doing concerted reading aloud was with my mother when I was in my early teens. After I got home from school in the afternoons we’d convene on her bed to read Mark Twain short stories like “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”

 

Have you done any reading aloud lately?

Advertisements

Library Checkout: January 2018

Here’s what’s changed since last month:

 

LIBRARY BOOKS READ

  • The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
  • Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig
Two absolutely knock-out doorstoppers!

CURRENTLY READING

  • Herzog by Saul Bellow
  • This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Gretel Ehrlich
  • Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry
  • On Balance by Sinéad Morrissey [poetry – shortlisted for Costa Prize]
  • The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks
  • Spirals in Time: The Secret Life and Curious Afterlife of Seashells by Helen Scales

Then you’ll recognize a lot of the same titles hanging over from last month. The lack of a firm due date for the university library books (they can be renewed pretty much indefinitely) makes me put them off in favor of other, seemingly more timely, reads.

 

CHECKED OUT, TO BE READ

Public library:

  • Harmless like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan
  • Inside the Wave by Helen Dunmore [poetry – winner of Costa Prize]
  • Useful Verses by Richard Osmond [poetry – shortlisted for Costa Prize]

University library:

  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
  • To the Is-land: An Autobiography by Janet Frame
  • Vita Nova by Louise Glück [poetry]
  • On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  • The Cabaret of Plants: Botany and the Imagination by Richard Mabey
  • There Is an Anger that Moves by Kei Miller [poetry]
  • And When Did You Last See Your Father? by Blake Morrison
  • The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  • The Magnificent Spinster by May Sarton

RETURNED UNREAD

  • Ghosts of Christmas Past, a story collection edited by Tim Martin – The only one I read was Neil Gaiman’s dark 100-word tale, “Nicholas Was.” When it came down to it, I realized I wasn’t actually that interested in holiday ghost stories.
  • The High Places by Fiona McFarlane – Once again I borrow a short story collection with the best of intentions but return it unread. Sigh!
  • NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman – Alas, this was requested back from the uni library by another user. I’ll have to get it out again another time.
  • Bellwether by Connie Willis – My husband read it and enjoyed it well enough, but from his description it sounds silly to me. I’ll try to find another of her books to be the right follow-up to last year’s read of To Say Nothing of the Dog.


What have you been reading from your local libraries? Does anything appeal from my stacks?

My Bibliotherapy Appointment at the School of Life

I’ve been interested in bibliotherapy for years, and I love The Novel Cure (see my review), the learned and playful advice book from Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, two of the bibliotherapists at Alain de Botton’s London School of Life. Earlier this month I had the tremendous opportunity to have a personalized bibliotherapy appointment with Ella Berthoud at the School of Life. She’d put out a call on Twitter for volunteers to come for a free session (usually £100) to be observed by a journalist from La Repubblica writing about bibliotherapy – the translation of The Novel Cure has sold remarkably well in Italy. The feature will be part of a special color supplement in February, and I look forward to seeing if my story makes the cut! That is, if I can decipher any of the Italian.

Now, you might not think I’m the kind of person who needs a bibliotherapy assessment since I already find 300+ books per year I want to read; I worried that too, and felt a little bit guilty, but in the end I couldn’t pass up the chance, and Ella was happy to have me.

I took my copy of The Novel Cure along for Ella to sign.

Before my appointment I’d been asked to complete a two-page questionnaire about my reading habits and likes/dislikes, along with what’s going on in my life in general (the ‘therapy’ aspect is real). Once we were set up in the basement therapy room with hot drinks, Ella asked me more about how I read. I’d told her my reading was about two-thirds print books and one-third e-books. Had I ever tried audiobooks or reading aloud, she asked? The answer to both of those is no, I’m afraid. There’s no obvious place for audiobooks in my life because I work from home. However, as I’d mentioned I haven’t been able to get through a Dickens novel in five years, Ella suggested I try listening to one – abridged, it can be more like eight hours long instead of 42, and you still get a terrific story. She also highly recommended New Yorker and Guardian podcasts based around short stories and discussion.

For reading aloud with my husband, Ella prescribed one short story per evening sitting – a way for me to get through short story collections, which I sometimes struggle to finish, and a different way to engage with books. We also talked about the value of rereading childhood favorites such as Watership Down and Little Women, which I haven’t gone back to since I was nine and 12, respectively. In this anniversary year, Little Women would be the ideal book to reread (and the new television adaptation is pretty good too, Ella thinks).

One other reading habit Ella is adamant about is keeping a physical reading journal in which you record the title of each book you read, where you read it, and about a paragraph of thoughts about it. It’s not meant to be a comprehensive response to every book; more like an aide-mémoire that you can get off the shelf in years to come to remind yourself of what you thought about a book. Specifically, Ella thinks writing down the location of your reading (e.g., on a train to Scotland) allows you to put yourself back in the moment. I tend to note where I bought a book, but not necessarily where I read it – for that, I would probably have to cross-reference my annual book list against a calendar. Since 2010 I’ve kept my book lists and responses in computer files, and I also keep full records via Goodreads, but I can see why having a physical journal would be a good back-up as well as a more pleasant representation of my reading. I’ll think about starting one.

Various books came up over the course of our conversation: Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone [appearance in The Novel Cure: The Ten Best Novels to Cure the Xenophobic, but Ella brought it up because of the medical theme], Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume [cure: ageing, horror of], and Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, a nonfiction guide to thinking creatively about your life, chiefly through 20-minute automatic writing exercises every morning. We agreed that it’s impossible to dismiss a whole genre, even if I do find myself weary of certain trends, like dystopian fiction (I introduced Ella to Claire Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus, one of my favorite recent examples).

I came away with two instant prescriptions: Heligoland by Shena Mackay [cure: moving house], about a shell-shaped island house that used to be the headquarters of a cult. It’s a perfect short book, Ella tells me, and will help dose my feelings of rootlessness after moving more than 10 times in the last 10 years. She also prescribed Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry [cure: ageing parents] and an eventual reread of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. As we discussed various other issues, such as my uncertainty about having children, Ella said she could think of 20 or more books to recommend me. “That’s a good thing, right?!” I asked.

Before I left, I asked Ella if she would ever prescribe nonfiction. She said they have been known to do so, usually if it’s written in a literary style (e.g. Robert Macfarlane and Alain de Botton). We chatted about medical memoirs and reading with the seasons for a little while, and then I thanked her and headed on my way. I walked around the corner to Skoob Books but, alas, didn’t find any of the books Ella had mentioned during our session. On the way back to the Tube station, though, I stopped at Judd Books and bought several secondhand and remaindered goodies, including these two:

(Imagine my surprise when I spotted The Year of the Hare in The Novel Cure under midlife crisis! Age seemed to be the theme of the day.)

As soon as I got back from London I ordered secondhand copies of Heligoland, Jitterbug Perfume and The Artist’s Way, and borrowed Family Matters from the public library the next day. Within a few days four further book prescriptions arrived for me by e-mail. Ella did say that her job is made harder when her clients read a lot, so kudos to her for prescribing books I’d not read – with the one exception of Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, which I love.

I’ve put in another order for Maggie and Me, the memoir by Damian Barr, plus (for reading aloud) Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman and the collected short stories of Saki. I’m also keen to find The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski, Ella’s final prescription, but as the Persephone Books reprint is pricey at the moment I may hold off and hope to chance upon a secondhand copy later in the year. Ella has been very generous with her recommendations, especially considering that I didn’t pay a penny. I certainly have plenty to be getting on with for now! I’ll report back later on in the year when I’ve had the chance to read some of these prescriptions.

The prescribed books I have gotten hold of so far.

Final 2017 Statistics and 2018 Goals

It’s possible that I might finish another book tomorrow, but as we now have house guests here through the 2nd, it’s probably for the best if I consider the reading year done. I even surpassed 2016’s reading total, making this my most prolific year ever:

The breakdown:

 

Fiction: 49.3%

Nonfiction: 40.7%

Poetry: 10%

(Very similar to last year.)

 

Male author: 38.4%

Female author: 61.6%

(Roughly the same thing happened last year, which I find interesting because I have never consciously set out to read more books by women.)

 

E-books: 25.2%

Print books: 74.8%

(This really surprised me. Last year I was at one-third e-books / two-thirds print books, but this year the print books have dominated even more. I think this might be because I’m more likely to read lots of books on Kindle when traveling and we’ve done less travel overall; I’ve also scaled back on some of the reviewing gigs that only send me e-books.)

 

Works in translation: 8%

(I thought I’d done better than last year, but I actually read a bit less in translation. Sigh.)

 

Where my books came from for the whole year:

  • Free print or e-copy from publisher: 28%
  • Downloaded from NetGalley or Edelweiss: 22.2%
  • Secondhand purchase: 18.5%
  • Public library: 16.7%
  • Free from giveaways (or Book Thing of Baltimore): 6.5%
  • Gifts: 6.2%
  • University library: 1.9%

 


Some interesting additional statistics courtesy of Goodreads:

2018 Goals

Looking back at the reading goals I set for 2017, I’m pleased to see that I did indeed get involved with blog tours and prize shadow panels: I participated in eight blog tours and two shadow panels (the Wellcome Book Prize and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award – highlights of my bookish year; I’ll probably do the Wellcome again next year). I was pretty consistent about featuring at least one classic and a doorstopper per month. I doubt I’ll keep those challenges up on a monthly basis in 2018, but I might do them occasionally.

 

Specifically, in the next year I’d like to focus on:

  • Travel classics

  • Biographies, some of which will happen to top out at 500 pages or more.

  • Literature in translation (I’d like to increase the past year’s percentage.)
  • The books I own – I went around and counted 327 unread books in the house, which is more than a year’s reading. (This is opposed to 221 at this time last year; I blame a trip to Hay-on-Wye, multiple visits to Book Cycle in Exeter, free books acquired from the swap shop, and a 3-for-95 pence deal one of our local charity shops used to have.) In addition, I have nearly 350 books on my Kindle: again, over a year’s reading. To keep chipping away at the books I already own, I need to scale back on purchases and on requests from publishers (print or e-) and try to make the books from my own shelves account for at least a quarter – better, a third – of my reading in 2018.
  • Unrelated to books … I got a vintage accordion for Christmas and need to learn a) how to read music and b) how to play an accordion. It should be a fun project!

 

I’ll be back at some point next week – once I’ve had time to wade through all the upcoming 2018 releases I’ve heard about via Goodreads, NetGalley, Edelweiss, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Twitter, Instagram, other bloggers, etc. – to preview the 25–30 coming out in the first half of the year that I’m most excited about.

 

Happy New Year, everyone! Thanks for your support of my blog through another year.

 


How did 2017 turn out for you reading-wise? What are some of your goals for 2018?

Library Checkout: December 2017

Posting early this month so that I’m not a nuisance on Christmas Day…

Most of the usual suspects from last month are still hanging around waiting to be read, though I also got (small!) fresh stacks out from both the public library and the university library.


LIBRARY BOOKS READ

CURRENTLY READING

  • Herzog by Saul Bellow
  • The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
  • The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks
  • Spirals in Time: The Secret Life and Curious Afterlife of Seashells by Helen Scales

CHECKED OUT, TO BE READ

Public library
University library

Still out from the university library:

  • This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Gretel Ehrlich
  • To the Is-land: An Autobiography by Janet Frame
  • Vita Nova [poetry] by Louise Glück
  • The Cabaret of Plants: Botany and the Imagination by Richard Mabey
  • There Is an Anger that Moves [poetry] by Kei Miller
  • And When Did You Last See Your Father? by Blake Morrison
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  • The Magnificent Spinster by May Sarton

RETURNED UNFINISHED

  • The Cat Who Stayed for Christmas by Cleveland Amory
  • Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg

RETURNED UNREAD

  • Fresh Complaint: Stories by Jeffrey Eugenides – I’ve read all of his novels, so felt that I should at least try his short stories, but a glance at the table of contents made my heart sink. All of the stories are at least 20 pages long, and one is titled “The Oracular Vulva” (?!). I still have this on my Kindle, so perhaps I’ll try it another time.


What have you been reading from your local libraries? Does anything appeal from my stacks?

Merry Christmas to all!

The Rest of the Books I Abandoned in 2017, and the Year’s Disappointments

My abandoned books posts are always perversely popular, garnering nearly twice as many views as many of my reviews. This seems to be because fellow readers are secretly (and a bit guiltily) looking for permission to give up on the books they’re not enjoying. I hereby grant you my blessing! If after 25 pages or so a book is not grabbing you – even if it’s a bestseller, or a book all the critics or bloggers are raving about – have no shame about putting it down. You can always change your mind and try it another time, but ultimately you are the arbiter of your own internal library, and only you can say whether a book is for you or not.

That said, here are all the rest of the books I’ve abandoned since May’s post (not mentioning again any that might have come up through my Library Checkout or monthly preview posts). I don’t write full reviews for DNFs, just a sentence or two to remind myself of why I gave up on a book. (In chronological order of my reading.)

 

Dear Mr M by Herman Koch: I didn’t even make it past the first few pages. I wasn’t at all engaged, and I couldn’t now tell you a single thing about the book.

 

Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo: I started this for a potential BookBrowse review and it felt derivative of every other African-set book I’ve ever read. It was difficult to see what made it original enough to be on the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. (DNF @ 15%)

 

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor: I feel bad about this one because so many discerning readers admire it. I thought I knew what to expect – lovely writing, much of it descriptions of the natural world and the daily life of a small community – but I guess I hadn’t fully heeded the warning that nothing happens. You hear a lot about Hardyesque locals you can’t keep straight (because what do they matter?) but never anything about what happened to the missing girl. Couldn’t hold my interest, but I won’t rule out trying it again in the future. (DNF @ 15%)

 

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent: I’d heard amazing things about this debut novel and was indeed impressed by the descriptive language and characterization. But if you know one thing about this book, it’s that it’s full of horrifically matter-of-fact scenes of sexual abuse. When I reached the first of these I couldn’t go on, even though I was supposed to review this for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Luckily my editor was very understanding. (DNF @ 6%)

 

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich: I’d heard a lot of pre-publication buzz about this book, which came out in January, and always meant to get around to it. The problem is likely down to expectations and a surfeit of information. Had I come to this knowing little to nothing about it, perhaps I would have been drawn into the subtle mystery. (DNF @ 7%)

 

The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet [trans. from the French by Sam Taylor]: HHhH was brilliant, but this one’s cleverness passed me by. I could probably sustain my interest in a playful mystery about linguistics and ‘the death of the author’ for the length of a short story, but not for nearly 400 pages. (DNF after 40 pages)

 

Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich: This starts out feeling like the simple story of Cedar meeting her biological Native American parents and coming to terms with her out-of-wedlock pregnancy. It takes a long time to start resembling the dystopian novel it’s supposed to be, and the signs that something is awry seem too little and come too late to produce even mild alarm. I’d try something else by Erdrich, but I didn’t find her take on this genre worthwhile.(DNF @ 32%)

 

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde: I think the central problem here was that I’d seen a theatre adaptation of the novel less than a month before and the story was too fresh in my mind; there were no plot surprises awaiting me, and the scenes involving the painting itself, which I was most interested in reading for myself, felt ever so melodramatic. (DNF after 70 pages)

 

The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart by Emily Nunn: After a dear brother’s suicide, a breakup from her fiancé, and a couple of spells in rehab to kick the alcohol habit that runs in her family, Nunn set off on a quest for what people across the country consider to be comfort food. She starts with a visit to a cousin in the South and some indulgence in ham biscuits and peanut brittle. Like Life from Scratch by Sasha Martin, this is too heavy on the sad backstory and not quite enough about food. (DNF @ 25%)

 

The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen [trans. from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw]: A subtle story of a fishing/farming family carving out a life on a bleak Norwegian island and dreaming of a larger life beyond. I can’t think of anything particularly negative to say about this; it just failed to hold my interest. I read over a third while on holiday in Amsterdam – reading it by the coast at Marken felt particularly appropriate – but once we got back I got caught up in other review books and couldn’t get back into it. (DNF @ 41%)

Favorite lines: “Nobody can leave an island. An island is a cosmos in a nutshell, where the stars slumber in the grass beneath the snow. But occasionally someone tries.”

 

The Woman on the Stairs by Bernhard Schlink [trans. from the German by Joyce Hackett and Bradley Schmidt]: I planned to review this for German Literature Month back in November. To start with it was vaguely reminiscent of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos and Me and Kaminski, with an artist trying to micromanage the afterlife of his painting and keep hold of the wife he stole off its owner, but it quickly tailed off. The narrator, who is the lawyer representing the painter, soon declares himself in love with the portrait subject – a sudden disclosure I couldn’t quite believe. (DNF @ 23%)

 

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado: I read 4 out of 8 stories. Machado writes bizarre, sex-saturated mash-ups of fairy tales and urban legends. My favorite was “Mothers,” about queer family-making and the abuse lurking under the surface of so many relationships. This author is absurdly good at lists, all through “Inventory” and in the shrine to queer icons in “Mothers.” But all the stories go on too long (especially the Law and Order, SVU one, which felt to me like pure filler) and would no doubt be punchier if shorter. Not a book for me, but one I’d recommend to others who’d appreciate the edgy feminist bent.

 

The Cat Who Stayed for Christmas by Cleveland Amory: A pointless sequel to what was already a rather lackluster story. I read the first chapter and gave the rest a quick skim. It feels like it’s been spun out of a real dearth of material for the sake of prolonging 15 minutes of fame. A whole chapter on how Polar Bear the cat doesn’t really like the trappings of celebrity? Yawn. I’m usually a cat book person, but not in Amory’s case.

 

Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems, by Allen Ginsberg: I was most interested in reading “Howl,” having seen the wonderful James Franco movie a few years ago and then encountered Ginsberg earlier this year as a minor character in The Nix. I read up through Part I of “Kaddish” and that felt like enough. These are such strange poems, full of startling body and food imagery and alliteration, that they made me laugh out loud in astonishment. They’re awesome in their own way, but also so unsettling I didn’t want to read too much at once.

 


And a few books I was really looking forward to this year but ended up disappointed with:

 

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan: Egan focuses on interesting historical side notes such as a woman working as a diver at Brooklyn Navy Yard during WWII, but in general her insertion of period detail is not very natural. I couldn’t help but compare this with her previous novel, the highly original A Visit from the Goon Squad. By comparison, Manhattan Beach is merely serviceable historical fiction and lost my interest as it went into flashbacks or veered away to spend time with other characters. My interest was only ever in Anna. Overall not a stand-out work. (Reviewed for The Bookbag.)

 

Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss: Impressive in scope and structure, but rather frustrating. If you’re hoping for another History of Love, you’re likely to come away disappointed: while that book touched the heart; this one is mostly cerebral. Metafiction, the Kabbalah, and some alternative history featuring Kafka are a few of the major elements, so think about whether those topics attract or repel you. Looking a bit deeper, this is a book about Jewish self-invention and reinvention. All told, there’s a lot to think about here: more questions than answers, really. Interesting, for sure, but not the return to form I’d hoped for.

 

George and Lizzie by Nancy Pearl: There are some endearing characters and enjoyable scenes in this tale of an odd couple’s marriage, but in a desperate wish to avoid being boring, Pearl has too often chosen to be edgy rather than sweet, and experimental rather than thorough. I think she intended to tell an empowering parable that counters slut-shaming, but it’s so hard to like Lizzie. The writing is notably poor in the earliest sections, where the attempt at a breathless, chatty style is a distraction. Dutiful research into football hardly helps, instead making this seem like a weak imitation of John Irving.

 

Dunbar by Edward St. Aubyn: An underwhelming King Lear adaptation. (Didn’t Jane Smiley already give us a less caustic version of this daughters-fighting-over-the-family-business scenario?) It is Dunbar and his emotional awakening and reconciliation with Florence (Cordelia) that power the book. The other two sadistic, nymphomaniac daughters and their henchmen are too thinly drawn and purposelessly evil to be believed.

 


What books disappointed you this year? Were there any you just couldn’t finish?

How I Fared with My Most Anticipated Reads of 2017

This time last year I highlighted 30 of the 2017 releases I was most excited to read. In July I followed that up with another 25 titles coming out in the latter half of the year that I was looking forward to. So, out of those 55 books, how many did I read, and were they worth it?

 

Read: 32 [Disappointments: 6]

Currently reading: 1 (John Bateson’s The Education of a Coroner)

Abandoned partway through: 5

Lost interest in reading: 6

Haven’t managed to find yet: 4 (Most keen to get hold of: Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am – it’s on my Christmas wish list, so fingers crossed!)

Languishing on my Kindle; I still have vague intentions to read: 7

 

That means I’ve managed to read 60% of the books I previewed for the year. Not a bad effort. The problem, of course, is that as a year goes on I inevitably find out about loads more books that had somehow escaped my attention earlier, or a book that I didn’t think I was interested in might start to gain momentum through rave reviews from other bloggers and Goodreads friends and I’ll change my mind about reading it.

A number of my most anticipated reads will show up on my Best of 2017 lists anon, while some – alas – will feature in Friday’s post on all the rest of the books I abandoned this year and the books that most disappointed me (11 out of 55 = a rather dismal 20%).

If there’s a lesson here, it’s to not trust the publisher blurbs but wait for some ordinary reader reviews to come through so I can get a better sense of whether a book is really for me.

 

How did you fare with your most anticipated reads for 2017?