Thursday, October 30, 2014


I am deep in the thick of reading Hannah Pittard's Reunion, and hopefully I'll get a review up this weekend.

I've been sidetracked a bit by Halloween -- in particular, I've been sidetracked by tween costume indecision. Today I spent my day making a last minute Black Knight helmet from Monty Python out of foam. This was tricky because of the problem that glue doesn't seem to work well on foam, and also because of the problem that I don't do crafts. Next year, I plan to give the kids a copy of this book from 1950:

In honor of Halloween, I'd like to leave you with a couple of booky links from the internets:

From Flavorwire, Famous Last Words: 15 Authors' Epitaphs

From, 15 Awesome Bookish Jack O'Lanterns

Again from, Bring Out Your Dead: 7 Nonfiction Books About the Science of Dead Bodies

And yet again from (last year's), 15 Adorably Bookish Pet Costumes (Because, awwww....I am so loving Scarlett O'Hara)

Blog poll: What is the best candy to eat while reading? Leave your vote in the comments section below.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Review of Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

This Booker Prize-nominated novel is a meditation on grief. The title character is a recent widow in late-1960s/early-1970s small town Ireland.  The reader spends time with her as she loses herself and then finds herself, retreats and then asserts herself, and isolates herself from her children and then reaches for them. This is a story of small, incremental changes in a shattered life.

There is very little plot -- tea gets poured, dinner gets served, a record player is purchased. But each tiny moment is another layer of grieving.

The mastery of this novel is the way that you come to care about a not-always-likable woman. You see her alienate others. You see her make bad decisions about her children. But she is somehow deeply endearing. You root for her.

The shattering of this small life is the big event, but it occurs under the umbrella of the shattering politics of Ireland during this time. It would help to read up a bit about the history of Ireland and, in particular, the Troubles of the late 20th century. I happen to have travelled to Ireland last summer, so I read this book with that background at hand. It turns out that I actually went to Enniscorthy – the little town in the book.

Here is a interesting article from the Guardian where the author discusses the autobiographical dimensions of the novel. In particular, he talks about how he couldn't put words to his own grief about the death of his father, so the main character became a fictionalized version of his mother. 

This is a terrific book if you are looking for a slow, meditative, character-driven story. 24 hours after finishing this book, I am still lost in Nora Webster’s world.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Weekend Update

It’s been a sleepy reading week for me after my quick 24 hour digestion of Jar City. I’m about half of the way through Booker Prize-nominated Nora Webster. So far, so good – but it’s a slow one for me. Hopefully I’ll get a review up in a couple of days.

I did go on a road trip this weekend to my favorite reading place on earth -- Powell's Books in Portland, OR .

Little did I know how difficult it would be to navigate Portland this weekend – I found out later that it was the weekend of the World Beard and Mustache Championships. 

This event, it appears, was “just for men,” which is sexist but somehow reassuring.

While there, I decided that I was going to challenge myself to my own lazy version of  Nonfiction November.  Just so I don’t get too overwhelmed by ambition, my personal adaptation of this challenge will be easy. I plan to read two nonfiction titles in November to stretch myself beyond my usual fiction genres. I have already chosen the two books:

Radical Equations is from my TBR pile. I bought it on a Powell's road trip three years ago, and it has sat, lonely, on my shelf since that time.

I bought The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace today after reading about it on the Powell’s blog.

Look forward to some thoughts about urban studies and education and violence next month (and, I’m guessing that part of the conversation will be about authorship. Whose stories are being told? Who should be writing them?)

(The doughnuts in the picture above are already gone, by the way. New snacks are needed.)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Joy of Reading

My book club is meeting tonight. We are discussing To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris. I will admit to quitting after 100 pages of this one, for the simple reason that it did not give me any joy. I can often find joy in an unpleasant book, especially if I’m going to get the opportunity to whine about it in community. But the labor of getting through this one was greater than the thrill I’d get from dissecting it later.

Joy is really at the heart of it for me. I felt joy as a kid when my mother read to me at night. I feel joy when I find an un-put-downable book. I feel joy when I read something outside of my usual zone and find that it's amazing. I feel joy when a favorite author comes out with a new title. If I didn’t feel joy when I read, I probably wouldn’t do it.

That brings me to an ongoing concern: I worry that my kids, or any kids, will not find that kind of joy. In particular, I worry that school might rip the joyful potential of reading right out of them.

I’m sure I’ll be writing more about this topic as the months go on, but I thought I’d share a story about my kids’ experience in middle school Language Arts. Last year my boys were in sixth grade and encountered the Common Core for the first time. As you probably have heard, the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts bring an increasing emphasis on nonfiction reading as well as on real-world literacy skills.  One of these real-world skills, it turns out, is book clubbing! Woo! Well, more specifically, the skill is “engaging effectively in a range of collaborative discussions with diverse partners on grade level topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing your own clearly.”

The class activity to address this standard was participating in a “Nonfiction Book Club.” The only requirement was that the book be rooted in truth and that all members had to agree on the selection. One of my kids was in a group of four boys, and they chose a book on explosions. I’m not sure, but I think the title was simply Explosions! (with exclamation point).  It concerned things that explode, the processes of explosions, and the noises that explosions make (Kaboom!).  So the group was successful at finding a mutually satisfying “informational text” to anchor the conversation.

But wait, this is school, and everything must be assessed. And I’m a little bit of a perfectionist, so the first question in my mind was, “How do you get an "A" in book club?”

I got my answer:

The column in the middle indicates the characteristics of a book club discussion that would yield its members a grade of “meeting standard.” To you and me, that means the student would get a "B." The column on the right indicates the characteristics of a book club discussion that would yield its members a grade of “exceeding standard.” And that, my friends, means “A.”

Since getting an A required using 2 of 3 of the “listening strategies” on the list, the boys decided to focus on “courteous attention” and “pausing for at least five seconds” between comments. Here’s how the conversation went:

Boy #1: I really liked it when that building exploded.

(Boys #2, #3, and #4 staring, immobile, with eyes open wide to maintain eye contact and stillness)

Boy #2 (counting): One, two, three, four, five.

Boy #3: Yeah. Me, too.

Boy #2 (counting): One, two, three, four, five

Boy #4: Dude, that must have been amazing.

Boy #2 (counting): One, two, three, four, five.

Boy #3: Dude, yeah.

Boy  #2 (counting): One, two, three, four, five.

Boy #1: My eyes hurt. Can I blink now?

 The good news is that my kid got a shiny "A" in nonfiction book club. He promised to work on “asking meaningful questions” at the next opportunity in order to further develop his skills (e.g. Are explosions still cool if people get hurt?).  I’m not so sure he experienced the joy of reading, but I’m pretty sure he racked up more evidence that adults and their expectations are ridiculous.

I, meanwhile, will be practicing “pausing for five seconds” tonight at my own book club. That will probably happen as I’m stuffing food in my face, joyfully. I’ll let you know if I meet standard.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Review of Jar City by Arnaldur Indridason

This was an interesting book to follow Tana French's The Secret Place, as both novels start with a victim getting conked on the head with a strange implement (a hoe in French’s novel; an ash tray here). Jar City also gives me food for thought in my quest to figure out what characterizes a “literary thriller.”

Jar City is a police procedural mystery/thriller from Iceland, and it is the first of this author’s books to be translated into English (a film version was also made in 2006). The story starts when an older man is found dead in his basement apartment along with a strange note. The main detective, Erlendur, and his team must decide if this was a random robbery-gone-wrong or if the victim knew his killer. To that end, the detectives set out to figure out the victim’s backstory, and they are surprised at what they find.

Hint: the title here is important. What is a “jar city?”

I am a fan of police procedurals, and this one has many of the key components of the genre: a not-always-lovable main detective with bad habits and a good heart; short chapters with suspenseful endings that keep you turning the pages; and pacing that ramps up toward a “thrilling” finale. However, unlike most procedurals I have read, this one is not explicitly gruesome (the crime(s) are terrible, but much of the detail is left to your imagination). I could read this one at night and not have problems falling asleep.

I do wish that there were more Iceland in the writing – I want to see this country through the book. The story seems to be coated in a heavy film of rain, with a lot of damp atmosphere but not much detail.

So why is The Secret Place a “literary thriller,” while Jar City is shelved in the mystery section of the bookstore? They do have many elements in common. But, ultimately, I think that Tana French is trying to grapple with Big Ideas (in the Secret Place, she wants to explore girls’ loyalty and the limits of friendship), and the detective story just helps her get there. Jar City and others like it are mostly about finding out who-dunnit. It would still be worth considering why Robert Galbraith/Rowling’s Cormoran Strike novels get pegged as “literary.” Is it all name-recognition and marketing? Or is there something else that distinguishes her mysteries from genre series?

Monday, October 20, 2014

Personal Backlist

Book bloggers often refer to their growing TBR (To Be Read) list, which is a physical pile or virtual list of books that they’d like to read someday.

I actually have two such lists. I have my “hold” list at the public library. This list is mostly made up of new hardcover books that I request months before they actually come out (and inevitably each of these books will become available on exactly the same day, so I’ll have a library pile of 20 books that will be impossible to tackle in the allotted three week period).

But I also love to go to bookstores and book sales and online sites and find “deals.” What happens is that I start accumulating books that always play second fiddle to library loans that beckon with due date urgency.

The stack above is just part of my own TBR pile. In honor of my birthday, which is TODAY, I decided to pull out and actually read the book that has been in the pile the longest. Think of it as giving attention to a title that is still vibrant in its middle age. Ahem.

So over the next couple of days, I will finish this novel from Iceland and let you know what I think of it:

The receipt stuck between its pages indicates that I purchased it in 2006.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Thoughts on Numerical Ratings

Those of you who are my friends on Goodreads know about the issues I have with the number rating system. Goodreads asks you to rate a book on a five star scale: five is “it was amazing;” four is “I really liked it;” three is “I liked it;” two is “it was ok;” and one is “I didn’t like it.”

Recently I have received some criticism for not rating books highly enough. I give mostly fours, and only rarely do I give a book a five. I do this because I want to be able to really distinguish a book that rocked my world from all the other books I have enjoyed.  The criticism seems to come from the perception that getting 4 stars is like getting a B in school.

So part of my struggle involves determining how many stars to give a book, but I also struggle with the very idea of numerically measuring a book based on how much I “like” it. The truth is that I look for different kind of reading experiences at different moments for different reasons. I can “not like” a book because it’s the wrong book for my mood, or because there’s something unsatisfying about it, or because it’s not my cup of tea. How can you tell the difference between all of those reasons for “not liking” something?

Here’s an example: sometimes I am in the mood for a quick treat of a book – something easy and simple --  like a thriller or a book about four old friends connecting at a beach house. The point of reading that book at a particular moment is to relax. I read it because it’s perfect for that occasion.

Sometimes, however, I am in the mood for a complex piece of literature – something that makes me think deeply or feel deeply or see the world in a new way. This book might be difficult or challenging or uncomfortable.

If I read either book at the wrong moment, I might not “like” it.  So how do I rate a “wrong book at the wrong time?” Similarly, if I read each book at the right moment, are they both five stars? Does a deep, complex, moving piece of literature get rated the same as an easy, breezy, formulaic read that hits the spot?

I won’t be giving number ratings here, because they just don’t work for me. But what do YOU think? Does rating a book numerically help you? What kind of information do those ratings give you?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Review of A Secret Place by Tana French

The Secret Place is the fourth book in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series. Each book in the series involves a police investigation of a crime, but the storyline sits atop a larger portrait of a changing Irish context (e.g. transportation and sprawl; suburbanization; class conflict, etc.).

The Secret Place involves a year-old murder at boarding school for girls.  A boy was found murdered on the grounds (whacked to death with a garden tool). The case remains unsolved until a new piece of evidence surfaces, and a pair of detectives return to the scene of the crime to get to the bottom of it.

Ultimately, this is a story about loyalty and alliances. There are alliances between girls, and there are alliances between detectives. And underneath it all, there is a worm of a theme about alliances among social classes (the boarding school is a bastion of privilege; but there is a separation between day and boarding students; between affluent and less affluent students; between the detectives (less affluent) and everyone at the school…etc.)

I hate to say this, but this one is my least favorite book of the series.  There are two big reasons. The first is that the whole Mean Girls aspect of the novel is overdone. The girls are too clichéd, too mean, too excessively and unrealistically teenagery (The dialogue! Gah!). Also, this dark portrayal of girls’ culture has been done better elsewhere (I’m thinking Abbott’s Dare Me and Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, off the top of my head), so it felt like a re-tread here.

The second reason this was my least favorite of the series was that I thought it was less of a “literary suspense” novel and more of an Agatha Christie-type mystery (Who killed the butler with a candlestick?). All of the suspects are corralled in a large room and interviewed one-by-one as lights flicker and a crabby schoolmarm scowls.  This made the book seem like Ice Milk from the 1980s – do you remember this? It was a low-fat alternative to ice cream. It looked like ice cream, and you ate it for dessert. But it WASN’T ice cream – it was thinner, runnier, and less satisfying. Ultimately, I was looking for something richer than what I found in this novel.

This gets me to a larger question/issue: What makes something a “literary mystery” or a “literary thriller?” One of the reasons the author has such a following is the “literary” label.  So what do you think, readers? What are the characteristics “literary” suspense?

A New Thing

I read a lot of things, and I would like to read more. Most of the time, I post little reviews on Goodreads. I think there are about 10 of you who read those. I thought I'd try out this new format for my bookish thoughts.

Sometimes I'll post my reviews here. Sometimes I'll link to articles I've found interesting. Sometimes I'll just complain.

Right now I have zero readers, so I can say anything. Anything. If you do end up reading my blog, it would be great if you left me a comment and let me know. Otherwise, it's just me writing to myself, like I did in my middle school diary.

I did find out today that if I click on my own blog over and over, it looks like I am very popular.