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Posts Tagged ‘Books’

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.

My New View of God

In Culture, International, Opinion, Religion on June 6, 2009 at 11:42 am

After reading A History of God by Karen Armstrong (most of which was beyond me, I admit) I have come to the conclusion that it is sacriligeous for any of us to say that we have the last word on God. Why? Because God, by His very nature, is beyond our comprehension. It’s even sacriligeous for us to call Him “Him.” That’s one reason why I always capitalize pronouns that refer to God, to differentiate between Him and a human man. I would call Him “She” except that would be perpetuating the same misconception. And since I can’t quite handle calling God “It,” I use the male pronouns.

But the probable truth is, God is “It.” The “It.” Like most “its,” He is subject to misunderstandings and met with confusion. And humans don’t like to be in the dark about their gods. Any of our gods. We want to have total grasp of any and all subjects: biology, psychology, chemistry, physics, theology–the list is legion. And when we don’t–or can’t–have total understanding, we make things up to make ourselves feel better.

I wouldn’t say that I have lost my faith, because I still believe in God. I just think it is limiting to latch onto one interpretation of His nature, whether that be Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hindu, Druidism or whatever. I think some explanations have more merit than others, but it is hard for me to say–at this point in my life–that any one explanation is the only true or full explanation. How can God be captured like that?

If we were to be totally honest, isn’t it more accurate to say that “this is the way I experience God”? And since we are all products of our upbringing, history, culture and psychology, doesn’t it make sense that we are going to have different experiences? I believe that God exists, but I also think that people try to make Him fit into their version of reality. People who need a great deal of structure in their life are going to be more likely to identify with a specific set of doctrines, for instance. Or people who see God as an agent in history (or rather, the Agent in history) are going to experience Him in the context of their history.

Thus the Jews hold onto their conception of the Creator God and themselves as His chosen people. Christians have shaped their religion around the philosophies of the church fathers and have identified with a Triune God.  And Muslims see God as the last word in faith and history (according to Mohammad). Obviously I am oversimplifying here. And I’m leaving out the other belief and thought systems. But these are just examples.

I was raised as a Christian. Not only that, but as a Lutheran. I learned to identify with Martin Luther, the apostle Paul and Jesus Christ. (Not necessarily in that order.) It all made perfect sense to me. I was never beset with doubts about the Trinity or the resurrection of the body.  When I became an adult, I joined the Methodist church where I learned about John Wesley and the doctrine of works, not just faith, and the second blessing. Not long after that, I became a born-again Christian. I remained in the Methodist church, but identified with non-denominationals, probably because I felt constricted by the Methodist–and Lutheran–doctrines. I sensed that denominational differences had more to do with historical events and persons than with revelation.

Lately, I have been learning more about Islam and I realize that it, too, fits the culture out of which it grew. I don’t come out of that culture; hence, it seems foreign to me. At the same time, I recognize that Allah is as valid a concept as the God of Israel or the Triune God.  What, other than my background, keeps me from “trying on” another belief system? If I try to use reason and base my choice on comparisons among religions, I come away with the realization that they all have something to recommend them. But they also all have things that don’t make sense to me, or I don’t agree with, or I can’t see making such a big deal about. And I have to take that all into account. I can’t experience God without being who I am.

My Book Store

In Book Reviews, Uncategorized, Writers on February 22, 2009 at 1:40 pm

One of my interests is feminism, or more holistically, the experience of women. I have a blog called Femagination to which I’ve just added a book store. I’ve been spending the past two days searching for books and DVDs about a whole range of topics of interest to women (not just to feminists). These include:

  • Finances
  • First Wave Literature
  • Memoirs
  • Motherhood
  • Multicultural Feminism
  • Politics
  • Reproductive Rights
  • Second Wave Literature
  • Sexuality
  • Spirituality
  • Third Wave Literature
  • Women Writers
  • Women’s History
  • The Workplace

I intend to expand my inventory periodically and would appreciate any suggestions from readers for additional books and topics. Please vist my store and tell me what you think of it!

New Year Book List

In Book Reviews, Writers on January 9, 2009 at 3:51 pm

Books I’d like to read in 2009:

  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
  15. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
  16. The Gathering, Anne Enright
  17. The Night Watch, Sara Waters
  18. Waiting, Ha Jin
  19. Against Interpretation, and other essays, Susan Sontag (nonfiction)
  20. The Given Day, Dennis Lehane
  21. A Beautiful Place to Die, Malla Nunn
  22. Fever 1793, Laurie Halse Anderson (Young Adult)
  23. Water For Elephants, Sara Gruen
  24. The Hour I First Believed, Wally Lamb
  25. Eclipse, Richard North Patterson
  26. House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski
  27. The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd
  28. The Book Thief, Markus Zusak (Young Adult)
  29. The Road, Cormac McCarthy
  30. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer

That ought to get me started! If you’ve read one of these, let me know what you thought of it.