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Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

Reading Report: Books and Me in 2011

In Book Reviews, Culture, Reading, Writers, Writing on October 11, 2011 at 3:23 pm

My goal for this year was to read 80 books. I didn’t have a list of which ones; I learned my lesson a couple of years ago: I don’t stick to lists. I’m too ADD. I hear of a book that sounds interesting and I immediately get it out of the library, just so I have it at hand. I currently have approximately 75 books out of the two libraries I go to. (My husband works at one of them, so I can get out as many as I want on his card.)

I’m actually three ahead of where I need to be to finish 80 books by the end of the year. I’ve read 65 and those are just the ones that I actually finished. There are at least a dozen more that I got halfway through before I decided that they weren’t worth my time to finish them. They weren’t necessarily bad books; I just didn’t care for them or couldn’t get into them for some reason. And of course there’s always another book or more that’s tantalizing me from my bookshelf.

Recently I’ve been on a Scandinavian kick. Ever since I read Smilla’s Sense of Snow years ago, I’ve been fascinated with the Scandinavian novel. There’s something about their atmosphere that draws me to them. And then of course there was Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who…  series which I finally read this year. From there I jumped to Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbo and just the other day I got two books by an Icelandic author named Arnaldur Indridason that are supposed to be good. (Jar City and Silence of the Grave.)

I also continued my love affair with Philip Kerr‘s novels, particularly the Bernard Gunther detective series (which are set in Germany) and started a new one with Val McDermid. Kerr and McDermid both happen to be Scottish. Another Scottish writer I like is Ian Rankin. All of the above are mystery writers.

I have a theory about the mystery genre. Some people consider any genre writing to be commercial or even junk. While that may be true of some of it (James Patterson’s later novels come to mind), it is a gross misrepresentation of the better examples. I get a lot of flack for being a devourer of mysteries. Reading mysteries is considered to be like eating popcorn or penny candy, while literary fiction is likened to a gourmet meal.

I don’t buy that. I see literary novels as an acquired taste, like eating caviar. You’re not sure what you’ve gotten into and you may never be sure if it was worth the bother (and the cost, in time).  But with genre fiction, you know what to expect. The worst examples are the ones that are so formulaic all you have to do is insert new names and settings and you’ve got a new book. But the best … oh, the best are the ones that surprise you. You start out thinking that you’re going to read a mystery and you end up feeling like you’ve been given so much more.

Val McDermid does it with the character Tony Hill, a neurotic psychologist who aids the police in their investigations. Ian Rankin does it with the gritty pictures he draws of life in Edinburgh. Philip Kerr does it with his “inside look” at Germany before, during and after the Second World War. And the Scandinavian authors do it with a sense of place that lends itself to a particular life philosophy.

Mysteries provide us with a view of human nature at its worst and its best.  The criminals might be bad, but sometimes the heroes aren’t much better. And, like puzzles, they stimulate our intellect. Mystery readers are not typically passive readers. They become involved. Mysteries bring out the participant in us. In that sense, they are like movies of the mind. It’s no accident that mystery novels are made into movies more than any other kind of literary genre.

Every novel should have suspense in it, because that’s the way we live life. We never know what’s going to happen next. That’s why I like writing with surprises. It doesn’t have to be a mystery, or even fiction. Some of the nonfiction books I read this year earn high marks for bringing new insights and information into my life. I loved The Poisoner’s Handbook and The Midnight Disease, for instance.

2009 Book List Progress Report

In Book Reviews, Opinion, Reading, Religion, Self Improvement, Writers on November 11, 2009 at 10:54 am

These are the books I have left on my 2009 Book List (out of 30):

  1. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
  2. The Gathering, Anne Enright
  3. The Night Watch, Sara Waters
  4. Waiting, Ha Jin
  5. Against Interpretation, and other essays, Susan Sontag (nonfiction)
  6. The Given Day, Dennis Lehane
  7. A Beautiful Place to Die, Malla Nunn
  8. Fever 1793, Laurie Halse Anderson (Young Adult)
  9. Water For Elephants, Sara Gruen
  10. The Hour I First Believed, Wally Lamb
  11. Eclipse, Richard North Patterson
  12. House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski
  13. The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd
  14. The Book Thief, Markus Zusak (Young Adult)
  15. The Road, Cormac McCarthy
  16. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer

I made it about half-way through my reading list and then got bogged down. I didn’t slack off, though: I read a whole lot of books besides these. I just can’t believe that it’s been a year since I made this list. (See my original post.) Right now I have #1 and #6 in my possession. I started #6, but it’s not a typical Dennis Lehane book (it’s a historical novel) and I had trouble getting into it, even though I normally like historical novels.

What have I been reading instead? For one thing I got off on a tangent about Islam (and if you’ve been reading this blog, you know that I recently became a convert, which takes care of one of the items on my 2009 Project List as well). But I’ve also been reading anything and everything that comes to my attention that sounds interesting. I’ve been keeping track of them in Goodreads, so if you want to see what I’ve read, check there.

These are the books I read on my original list:

  1. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, Ann Fadiman (nonfiction)
  2. Rereadings, edited by Ann Fadiman (nonfiction)
  3. Never Let Me Go, Katzuo Ishiguro
  4. The Crooked Inheritance, Marge Piercy (poems)
  5. Summit Avenue, Mary Sharratt
  6. The Terror, Dan Simmons
  7. In the Land of Invisible Women, Qanta Ahmed (nonfiction)
  8. A Life of One’s Own: A Guide to Better Living Through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf, Ilana Simons (nonfiction)
  9. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, Elizabeth McCracken  (literary nonfiction)
  10. The Paper Anniversary, Joan Wickersham
  11. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, David Wroblewski
  12. The Tin Roof Blowdown, James Lee Burke
  13. Sloppy Firsts, Megan McCafferty
  14. Paris Trout, Pete Dexter

I really liked 1, 2, 3, 6, and 9.  I’m glad I read 12 and 14. I didn’t finish 4, 10 and 13. 7 is part of what encouraged me to look more into Islam. I would have liked 8 if I had been more familiar with Virginia Woolf’s work.

Not bad for a list of 14.

I won’t get 16 read by the end of the year. Particularly because I already have a stack of books on my shelf that I want to read first. They are:

  1. Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew B. Crawford (nonfiction)
  2. A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore
  3. Crow Planet, Lyanda Lynn Haupt (nonfiction)
  4. Big Machine, Victor LaValle
  5. Homer & Langley, E. L. Doctorow
  6. The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam From the Extremists, Khaled Abou El Fadl (nonfiction)

And those are just the ones I can see from the couch! I chose 1 and 4 because they’re on Publisher’s Weekly list of the ten best books of 2009. I intend to read as many of those ten books as I can and also focus more on contemporary female authors because there was such much controversy about the fact that there were none on the ten best list. I don’t read that many contemporary books–I have a tendency to not think of reading a book until it’s been around for a couple of years at least.

One thing I’m looking forward to is seeing the movie they made out of The Time Traveler’s Wife which I read last year. I heard it wasn’t that good, so I’ll probably wait until I can get it from the library. But I still want to see how well they transferred the book to the screen. It’s a complicated book; they had their work cut out for them. What made them pick this book to make a movie out of? I suspect it had something to do with the success of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which I didn’t really care for (the movie, not the book/story).

I feel that I accomplished my goal of reading more intentionally and not reading as much “junk.” I want to continue to work on that by finding out more about the authors I read and their other work, if any. I want to work on remembering what I read. What good is it to read if you don’t remember it? That’s like eating with no sense of taste. I’d like to put my reading in perspective with my life.

Where I’d Like to Live

In Culture, International, Opinion, Reading, Travel on September 8, 2009 at 7:45 am

One of my daughters asked me the other day where I would live if I could live anywhere I wanted to. I had a hard time answering that question. I haven’t been to all that many places and I almost always find something to love in every one of them.

If I could live anywhere, regardless of cost or opportunity, it wouldn’t be in the United States. I love the States and I’m proud to be an American, but I would love to live in Europe, preferably in Germany where I sort of know the language and have in-laws.  The problem with living in Europe is that I’d be so far away from my children and grandchild. Ideally I would live in Germany half the year and the States the other half. And when I was in Germany, they could always come and visit. (Remember, I said regardless of cost.)

I was in Germany when 9/11 occurred and the sympathy and outrage the German people expressed was moving. It made me realize that we’re all in this together on this planet. If I’d been in the States when it happened I think I would have experienced it much differently. More parochially.

I loved being in Europe because it’s so communal. Whether they like it or not, all these countries are within hours of each other. In the time it would take to drive from the East coast to the West coast in the U.S., you could travel all around Europe and still have time left over. That’s an exciting concept. I still remember how thrilling it was to me as a child whenever we visited Canada. The differences were obvious as soon as we crossed the border, let alone when we drove 300 miles north of Toronto. Even something as small as the lack of trash blowing around the streets and highways made me realize that we were in a different land.

I don’t necessarily have to move somewhere to add it to my life experience. Once I’ve traveled to a place, and particularly if I spend some time there, I can imagine living there even if I never go there again. That’s why travel is so important. The next most important activity you can engage in is reading. Not your average travelogue, but a novel perhaps. For example, I once read a novel set in Papua New Guinea (I wish I could remember the name) and now I feel like I’ve been there more than I think I would if I’d just watched a video. Being put in the place of the narrator will do that for–and to–you.  A couple years later I chose Papua New Guinea as a country to study in an agricultural economics course and found that many of my assumptions about life there were true. It was a rewarding experience.

So until I have enough money to travel more, I’ll keep on reading. And imagining.

Book Review: Reading Lolita in Tehran

In Book Reviews, Culture, International, Reading on July 8, 2009 at 3:18 pm

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi


My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
A wonderful mix of literary criticism and political history, this is the author’s recounting of the years she spent in her native country, Iran. She lived there during the Revolution and her description of what happened then is harrowing, but oddly fatalistic. She writes about friends being executed, of the morality police making surprise home inspections (looking for satellite dishes), of the oppression of women with as much (or less) passion than she writes about Nabakov, Jane Austen and others. A great look into one person’s everyday life while her world is falling apart around her.

View all my reviews.

Things I Can’t Give Up

In Health, Reading, Self Improvement on April 3, 2009 at 5:14 pm

I’m going to jot down a few things that are going on with me today. I suppose I should be doing this on Facebook, but frankly, I get a little bored reading other people’s comments and figure no one wants to read mine. At least if I put them all here, they can be ignored all at one time.

I’m supposedly getting ready for our trip to Orlando, but in reality, I’m sitting here writing this post and futzing around on the Internet. Rebecca Traister of Salon.com just wrote a post about some new software called “Freedom” because it prevents you from spending too much time on the Internet and thus frees up your time for other things. I also read a two-year-old post of hers about what has happened to her body since she stopped smoking.

My reaction to both posts was much the same. I rebel against the implication that I should quit smoking or surfing the Net just because she did. I happen to like both activities and usually pair them together. This reminds me of the time I worked through Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way (web site here), and she prescribed a week of not reading in order to free up your brain or something like that. I just couldn’t do it. I can’t even imagine not reading for a day, let alone a week.

I can go without cigarettes or the Internet much more easily–and have. But I keep coming back to them. I like the way they make me think. Smoking can be a meditative act; if it weren’t for the fact that it’s bad for you, it might even take off as a meditative tool. And the Internet aids my thinking process. When I get on the Net, I can snatch some of the crazy things that swirl around in my brain and bring them down to earth by looking up information or opinions about what I’ve been thinking about. That often helps me to lay some of my ruminations to rest. Or gives me an idea for my writing. Or even leads me to some kind of action.

I have to read something as soon as I get out of bed. It almost doesn’t matter what it is: the paper, a magazine, a book I’ve just picked up and read only a few pages of.  I read with my breakfast, my coffee, in between my spells on the Internet. my lunch, my afternoon coffee. I know I should take some of the time I spend reading to do other, more productive things, like exercise. But I need to keep my brain busy. If I don’t, I get bored and/or anxious. I have considered getting books on tape to listen to while I exercise, but I doubt I’d exercise long enough to get through much of the book. Besides, the books on tape go too slowly. I tend to read pretty quickly–I do a lot of skimming–and the pace of a recorded book drives me nuts.

Here’s an idea: why not make exercise tapes or DVDs where poetry or prose is being read along with all the exercising? I mean, they do it to music; why not to words? Okay, I know that the beat is the thing, but there’s a rhythm to reading, too. You just have to find it.

Maybe when they find ways for me to surf the Net, check my email, read, write and smoke, I’ll be able to stick with exercising. For now, it’s one of the things that I can easily give up.

The Islamist

In Book Reviews, Reading, Religion on March 19, 2009 at 11:43 am

The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left by Ed Husain

My review


rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is an excellent book for anyone confused about the rise of Islamism, or radical Islam. As we follow the journey taken by the author from moderate but uninvolved Muslim to Muslim anarchist to thoughtful Muslim in a post-9/11 world, we see some of the different threads of political and religious beliefs that have led to the various factions in the Arab world today. This is not an exhaustive study by any means, but it comes across as well-informed and heartfelt.

The author, Ed Husain, is a British Muslim and he has a lot to say about the Islamic community in Britain and how it has evolved into the forms that it takes today. He also describes his experiences in Syria and Saudi Arabia where he went to learn Arabic and to teach English through the British Council. He writes about the concept of “jihad”: its original significance and its distortion among modern Islamic fanatics. And he shares his personal faith-walk.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the history and the modern face of Islam.

View all my reviews.

The End of Reading and Writing?

In Reading, Time, Writing on March 16, 2009 at 7:23 pm

Michael Ridley, Chief Information Officer (CIO) and Chief Librarian at the University of Guelph (Guelph, Ontario, Canada) believes that literacy will eventually go the way of the oral tradition.  For the past three years he has taught a course called “Beyond Literacy: Are Reading and Writing Doomed?” in which he tries to get his students to imagine a world in which most of our communication takes place without the use of the tools of reading and writing. It will take a while for the transformation to take place, just like it took a long time for the oral tradition to lose its importance as a tool of communication.  Some would argue that the process has already begun.

On his web site, Post Literacy, Ridley writes:

Just as the powerful capabilities of literacy effectively displaced primary orality, so too is it not only likely but inevitable (?!) that literacy will be displaced by a more powerful tool, capability or capacity.

“Post Literacy” is the phrase used to capture the possibility of rich human communication that exceeds (and hence replaces) visible language (writing and reading) as the dominant means of the understanding and exchange of ideas.

Post Literacy, as explored here, is not a decline from literacy into some new dark age but rather the beginning of a transformational capacity as yet unimagined.

And, yes, the irony of having to use visible language to explore all this is not lost on me!

It’s not entirely clear what the new tools of communication will be. In his slide presentation, Ridley speculates about things like telepathy and genetic memory. We’re obviously not talking about changes that will occur in our lifetimes. But I can see signs of post-literacy even in my own life–and I’m a writer and avid reader. I can’t imagine doing without the printed word. And yet I have seen a subtle shift in my dependence on the written word. Writing posts for my blogs is an ephemeral activity: the words are “out there” somewhere on the Internet, but if the host I use shuts down, my words are lost forever. (Except that I’ve been having them sent to me–by using Feed My Inbox–and saving them in an email folder. Someday I will get around to saving them on a CD, but who’s to say that CDs will continue to be readable by  future technologies?) Even in my journal writing: I used to write my journals exclusively by hand, now I rarely do. They used to be on floppy disks but now I no longer use those and just write directly on my computer. If my computer crashes or I switch to a new one, I can easily lose what I’ve written. And yet I find that it doesn’t matter to me like it used to that I save every word that rolls off my fingers.

I find that what I am drawn to these days is what happens in interactions between individuals. The words we speak carry as much, if not more, weight that those we read or write.  I may write a brilliant essay (I wish), but if what I write about isn’t a part of me that lies outside the pages of my text, what does it really matter? Perhaps a post-literate society will be based more on human  interactions and less on words that are stored somewhere in libraries and computer files. There may be something to be said for not hoarding our words and instead flinging them to the skies.

My Book Project: Progress Report

In Book Reviews, Reading on February 27, 2009 at 2:17 pm
  1. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, Ann Fadiman (nonfiction)
  2. Rereadings, edited by Ann Fadiman (nonfiction)
  3. Never Let Me Go, Katzuo Ishiguro
  4. The Crooked Inheritance, Marge Piercy (poems)
  5. Summit Avenue, Mary Sharratt
  6. The Terror, Dan Simmons
  7. In the Land of Invisible Women, Qanta Ahmed (nonfiction)
  8. A Life of One’s Own: A Guide to Better Living Through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf, Ilana Simons (nonfiction)

I’ve read the above books from my New Year Book List, but I’ve also read thirteen others besides:

  1. Islam: the Religion and the People, Bernard Lewis
  2. The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging, editors of Huffington Post
  3. Mallory’s Oracle, Carol O’Connell
  4. As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning, Richard John Neuhaus
  5. The Memorist, M.J. Rose
  6. Being Catholic Now: Prominent Americans Talk About Change in the Church and the Quest for Meaning, Kerry Kennedy
  7. A Test of Wills, Charles Todd
  8. Belong to Me, Marisa de los Santos
  9. After Hours: Conversations With Lawrence Block, Lawrence Block
  10. All the Way Home: Building a Family in a Falling-Down House, David Giffels
  11. Sinner’s Guide to the Evangelical Right, Robert Lanham
  12. A Broom of One’s Own: Words on Writing, Housecleaning, and Life, Nancy Peacock
  13. Judas Child, Carol O’Connell

Follow-up On “The Future of Newspapers”

In Reading on February 18, 2009 at 12:08 am

I have two predictions:

  1. Newspapers will become extinct. I don’t know when, but I think the writing is on the wall (so to speak). As computer usage goes up–and it has been, at a phenomenal rate–more and more people will take the easy way out and get their news and opinion from the Internet. Millions of people are already doing so. I still get a newspaper, and several magazines as well, but I also find myself on the Internet for at least an hour a day following my interests around the various web-sites and blogs till I’m satisfied that I’ve gotten all I want for the day. (Unfortunately, I’m never really satisfied–there’s just so much to know!)
  2. Online content will stop being completely free. In the same way that we pay for iTunes, we will pay for news, articles and editorials. People will protest at first, but when the choice is online content or nothing, they will start to pay.  Many academic sites already require paid subscriptions in order to access scholarly articles (like Jstor). And many newspapers charge–too much–in order to view articles from their archives. I would rather pay pennies a page for all the news than $6.95 an article for older news.

Paying for online content would most likely be done through micropayments, which is where you charge Web users tiny amounts of money for single pieces of online content. The biggest deterrent to that happening now is finding out a way to facilitate the payments. In this article from the August 27, 2007 issue of the New York Times, Dan Mitchell discusses micropayments and their future. Might as well start getting used to them. Their day is coming.

Book Review: In the Land of Invisible Women

In Book Reviews, Reading, Religion on February 15, 2009 at 10:16 am

A Female Doctor's Journey in the Saudi Kingdom In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom by Qanta A. Ahmed

My review


rating: 4 of 5 stars
A fascinating look at Saudi Arabia and its brand of Islam. The author was born a Muslim but never lived in a Muslim country until she took a job as a doctor in Saudi Arabia. To say that she experiences culture shock is an understatement. But she also finds herself as a Muslim. I thought this was this was a very evenhanded, realistic account of what it was like to be a woman in a legalistic Islamic society.

View all my reviews.