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Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby. I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book. Here are my reads for June, 2018…

The Explosive Child, by Dr. Ross Greene – Always looking to add to my arsenal of parenting knowledge.  I took a long break from parenting books, though, because at best I found most of them unhelpful (with the exception of The Happiest Baby on the Block, which is a miracle) and at worst they made me feel like a rotten mother.  This one was decidedly meh – I didn’t throw it across the room – but I also didn’t take much from it in the way of practical tips.  The book sets forth a method for dealing with “chronically inflexible, easily frustrated children” – well, I have one of those, but I didn’t learn much about how to relate to this particular kid, at least, not in a way that I think would be effective.  So all in all, not much help.

Slightly Foxed No. 4: Now We’re Shut In For The Night, ed. Gail Pirkis – No issue of Slightly Foxed ever disappoints!  I’m gradually (but enthusiastically) working my way through the back issues of the quarterly, while keeping up with the current issues as well, and it’s almost hard to find anything new to say because they’re so consistently delightful.  Even when I’m not inclined to rush out and buy a copy of the book that a particular essayist is profiling, the writing in the essays is invariably delightful and I can just sink into one happily.  It really is a perfect literary magazine.

Scenes of Clerical Life, by George Eliot – I’ve read Middlemarch twice, but had never read anything else by Eliot, so I decided it was time to change that.  To be honest, the cover attracted me to this one (this is the edition I have) and I also can’t resist a Victorian clergy novel.  Kryptonite, I tell ya.  Anyway, this is actually a collection of three novellas featuring clergymen and their families.  I enjoyed the second – The Love-Story of Mr Gilfil – most, but all three were good reads.  (And on more than one occasion I found myself in tears over a character and a bit befuddled by that, because I didn’t realize I cared that much!  George Eliot, you sly minx.)

Anatomy of a Miracle, by Jonathan Miles – I think I noticed this one in the Shelf Awareness newsletter, or else on some other new release list.  The premise is: Cameron Harris, Iraq vet, has been paralyzed and wheelchair-bound since coming home from the war – until one day when, in the parking lot of a convenience store, he stands up and walks.  Cameron’s seemingly impossible recovery becomes big news and soon the Vatican investigator descends, followed in short order by a reality television crew.  So – I enjoyed this, but I bogged down in it a little bit, which was probably a function of reading it against a library deadline and not because it was what I was really craving at the moment.  It was good, but also reminded me a lot of The Jesus Cow, which I liked better.

Quite a light month in June.  One literary journal, one classic, one new release and one parenting book.  It was a doozy of a month – busy at work, slammed with personal worries and projects, two family emergencies and one death in the family.  There was a lot of worrying and tears, and not a lot of reading or fun.  Midway through July, my attention is still just shot, so expect another short list in a few weeks.  Here’s hoping for things to look up from here.

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Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby.  I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book.  Here are my reads for May, 2018

The Untelling, by Tayari Jones – While I wait (and wait, and wait) for my library hold to come in on An American Marriage, Jones’ new release, I picked up The Untelling from her backlist.  The Untelling is the story of Aria, a young woman whose family was torn apart when her father and baby sister died in a car accident when Aria was a young girl.  Aria, her mother and her sister survived the accident.  Now in her twenties and working as a literacy instructor, Aria believes she has put the past behind her and found a way to uneasily coexist with her remaining family members.  But when she discovers that she may be pregnant, wheels are set in motion that will eventually bring a reckoning for everyone.  Well – The Untelling was beautifully written, but left me a bit cold.  It may be library deadline reading, which is never a great way to read.  But I felt that the plot was a bit contrived – the only way to have a book was to have Aria make a long string of terrible and illogical decisions, and it began to feel farfetched.  I mean, no one makes that many insane choices.

Second Class Citizen, by Buchi Emecheta – I’ve been trying to read more classic African writers, and I’d never read anything by Emecheta – plus this immigrant narrative looked really interesting.  The story focuses on Adah, a resourceful young Nigerian woman who is driven by a dream to live in England.  Adah will do anything to make her dream come true – even marry a gigantic jerk.  She does make it to England and, of course, finds that the immigrant life is much harder than she expected.  Adah is strong and could probably have thrived even in the very foreign London of the 1960s, had she a partner who was deserving of her.  But her husband Francis is a cruel and lazy man, who insists on Adah single-handedly supporting the family even as she has baby after baby.  Spoiler alert, and warning: don’t read this if you need a tidy ending.  By the end of the story I was very invested in Adah getting away from Francis and becoming her own woman, and the end was singularly unsatisfying.

Sailing Alone Around The Room: Collected Poems, by Billy Collins – I’ve been reading this collection in snatches (on my phone) for a couple of months now, and meh.  I didn’t really like it.  Some of the poems were quite lovely and thoughtful, but a lot more were just Collins drinking orange juice, listening to records and thinking about naked ladies.  I know that he has quite the fan base and was the poet laureate of the United States, but Collins just didn’t do it for me.  I like my poetry touched with the sublime, and this collection was just too mundane for my taste.  I have heard that it’s not his best, and that there are better examples of Collins’ writing out there.  Maybe at some point I will seek one out, but I don’t see that happening soon.  I’m more content to wander hedgerows with Betjeman or charge through Camelot with Tennyson.

The Last Watchman of Old Cairo, by Michael David Lukas – Finally, four books in, I hit on a May read that I just loved.  This was totally expected, because I adored Lukas’ first novel, The Oracle of Stamboul, but I’d have been crushed if The Last Watchman of Old Cairo was disappointing.  Happily for me, it was even better than its predecessor.  Lukas can spin a tale, no doubt, and he does so here – following three sets of characters through three time periods – Ali al Raqb, the first watchman of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Old Cairo in 1300 AD; two sisters from Cambridge who travel to Cairo to save priceless documents that are being looted from the synagogue’s geniza in 1875; and Yusuf al Raqb, the son of the last watchman of the synagogue, who has just passed away and left his son with a mysterious scrap of paper and a lot of grieving to reconcile.  I loved every second of this gorgeous story and have been telling everyone I meet to go read it immediately.  So I will tell you: GO READ IT.  IMMEDIATELY.

Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward – I’d been waiting months to get the latest from Ward; the library holds list was a mile long.  (I live in a city of readers, which I love, even if it does mean that I sometimes have to wait for the anticipated new release.)  Ward tells the story of Jojo, a young boy on the cusp of manhood; Leonie, Jojo’s tormented mother; and Richie, a ghost.  When Leonie learns that Jojo’s father is about to be released from prison, she packs up Jojo and his sister and drives with a friend up to collect him.  Perspectives switch back and forth between Jojo and Leonie, and eventually Richie, in a sad and spellbinding story.  So – this was not a comfortable reading experience, especially the Richie parts.  My aunt picked it up after she asked me what I was reading and I told her and she texted me a few chapters in: “Is it this depressing the whole time?”  The answer is yes, but it’s also beautiful.

To Die But Once (Maisie Dobbs #14), by Jacqueline Winspear – World War II has officially begun, but when the latest installment in the Maisie Dobbs series opens, London is in the throes of “the Bore War” – the early days, before the Blitz, when most of England just baked in the sun and stewed with apprehension, wondering when something (anything!) would happen.  (Eventually, something does: the Dunkirk evacuation, which catches a few of the characters up in it.)  Maisie and Billy are investigating the disappearance of a neighbor’s son who was apprenticed to a painting company working with untested flame-retardant paint in a top secret location.  Meanwhile, Maisie is working on formally adopting her orphaned refugee, Anna, and trying to be present for Billy and Priscilla as they worry about their sons, who are old enough to go to war.  The Maisie novels keep getting better, and I tore through this one as usual.

Brensham Village (Brensham Trilogy #2), by John Moore – The second installment in the Brensham Trilogy (of lightly fictionalized memoirs about the market town where Moore grew up and the constellation of villages and hamlets that surrounded it) was a dream to read.  I loved Portrait of Elmbury, and Brensham Village was, if anything, even better.  The book opens with Moore and his three friends (“the young varmints”) discovering Brensham Hill, which rises above its namesake village about four miles outside of Elmbury (where Moore lives).  There is a folly on top of the hill, complete with hermit, and there are “lolloping” hares and a mad Lord (who was one of my favorites amongst Moore’s cast of delightful characters).  Having conquered Brensham Hill, Moore looks down over the thatched rooftops of the village and dreams of being part of the life there – and as a young man, he fulfills that dream by joining the cricket team and being informally adopted as one of Brensham’s own.  He trades jokes with the landlords of the Adam and Eve and the Horse Narrow pubs; plays darts and scampers over the outlying areas in search of insects with his old Latin teacher, Mr Chorlton (a beloved character from Portrait of Elmbury), mourns with the villagers when a freak frost destroys their fruit crops, and shudders at the shady Syndicate that is quietly buying up land around the village.  Brensham isn’t a real place – it’s an amalgamation of villages around Tewkesbury – but in Moore’s hands, it breathes and teems with life.

Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon, by Robert Kurson – There are a few books that I just can’t resist, and “dad books” about the golden age of space travel are in that category.  In Rocket Men, Kurson covers Apollo 8 with aplomb.  I thought I knew pretty much what there was to be known about Apollo 8 after reading Lost Moon (which was retitled Apollo 13 after the movie came out) but there was a lot more to tell, it seems.  Kurson digs up every interesting, funny, hair-raising or disgusting anecdote he can find (and I kept stopping Steve in whatever he was doing so I could read them aloud).  My favorite was definitely the anecdote about Bill Anders flipping the bird at a Soviet flight while stationed in Iceland, and the Soviets’ months-delayed response.  This was a lot of fun, and I enjoyed every minute.  (It would also make a great Father’s Day gift for the nonfiction-inclined dads out there.)

Pretty good May in books, if I do say so myself!  There were some excellent highlights – The Last Watchman of Old Cairo, the new Maisie, Brensham Village and Rocket Men all come to mind.  I had a couple fall a bit flat, but them’s the breaks, sometimes.  Looking ahead, I have a few books on the go already now, at the start of June, and I think it’s going to be another good reading month.  Tootle pip!

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Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby.  I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book.  Here are my reads for April, 2018

Behind the Lines, by A. A. Milne – I have only ever read Milne’s children’s work – Winnie-the-Pooh and progeny – but have been wanting to read some of his writing for adults for a very long time.  When I saw (on a book blog, and I can never remember which) this book of poems about Milne’s experience on the home front during the first nine months of World War II, I snapped it up.  All the quintessential Milne whimsy is present, but the themes are all grown up.  (For a sample, look no further than one of my poetry Friday posts – here.)

Consider the Years, by Virginia Graham – Looks like I started April on a WWII poetry kick.  Consider the Years arrived, wrapped in brown paper, straight from Persephone Books in London and just in time for National Poetry Month.  I loved Graham’s lyrical writing and evocative choice of subjects – so much that I chose one of the poems in the collection, Evening, to feature as part of my tribute to National Poetry Month (read it here).  Graham herself was a fascinating woman, as described in the introduction, and her poetry was a delight; I ripped through the collection whilst berating myself to slow down and savor.

84, Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff – People have been telling me to read this book for literally years, and I am so very glad that I finally picked it up.  I had a pretty red edition from Slightly Foxed, which enhanced the reading experience – but really, no enhancement is needed, because the book is enchanting.  Hanff’s decades-long correspondence with all the staff of a London used bookshop is just a delight to read (and inspired me to get out my pen and writing paper – Katie, a letter is coming your way).

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, by Helene Hanff – 84, Charing Cross Road is a touch bittersweet, because a recurring theme is Hanff’s desire to travel to London (she lives in New York) to meet her friends, but her continuing financial straits make her unable to do so before Frank, her primary correspondent, passes away.  The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street is Hanff’s journal from her decades-in-the-making trip to London (for the launch of 84) and it’s delightful, naturally, but with an undercurrent of sadness as she never was able to meet Frank in person.

It’s Hard to be Hip Over Thirty, and Other Tragedies of Married Life, by Judith Viorst – Another Persephone poetry pick for April!  I liked this, although not as much as Consider the Years.  Viorst is funny, punchy, and a bit sour – and while many of her poems about marriage are a bit rooted in the 1950s and ’60s, they’re still plenty of fun.  There’s an element of discontent that runs though the collection, though, and at the end I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about it.  Still enjoyed the reading experience, and I’m sure I’ll come back to it – but yes, a bit sour from time to time.

Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente – I’d been looking forward to this one for months; pre-ordered it and was delighted to find it on my doorstep on release day.  “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy meets Eurovision” was the tagline and – do you really need to know any more than that?  If so, know this – it was glam, glittery, weird, hilarious, kooky, heartfelt, sad, sweet, absurd, and there is lipstick and a dirt bar and a “sexy C-3PO costume,” so you’ll probably just want to go read this one.  Also, if you do, let me know, because WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT CHAPTER 29.

My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues, by Pamela Paul – First off, if you’re less astute than I am and you’re wondering who Bob is, Bob is literally the author’s “Book of Books.”  Get it?  So, I heard about this on the Tea Reads podcast episode about bibliomemoirs and the title alone was enough for me to reserve a copy at the library.  The title is, however, just the beginning of the charm.  Paul is a delightful and funny “flawed heroine” and while our reading tastes do occasionally diverge, she’s a charming writer who has had several people’s share of adventure – always with a book in her bag.

Slightly Foxed No. 57: A Crowning Achievement, ed. Gail Pirkis – It’s always a cause for great glee and rejoicing when the current issue of Slightly Foxed arrives in my mailbox.  I’m also slowly reading my way through the back issues, but this was the spring 2018 issue and it was a good ‘un.  Highlights were Laura Freeman on A. A. Milne’s memoir It’s Too Late Now (which sounds both charming and heartbreaking) and Roger Hudson on the letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (sadly out of print, but I’m hunting for a reasonably priced secondhand copy – so far, no joy).  No matter what, a new Slightly Foxed is always a treat.

Life in the Garden, by Penelope Lively – I have Slightly Foxed to thank for this one, too – I’d seen the book pop up here and there on Instagram but thought it looked like a novelty book and didn’t give it much attention until the Foxes profiled it alongside A Late Beginner (which I own and for which Lively contributed the introduction).  That was enough to induce me to research and I discovered that it was a literary and historical exploration of gardens in culture, with the author’s memories of the gardens she has known woven in.  Sold.  Plus – just look how gorgeous.  Clearly, I needed this on my shelf, and it was a lovely and ruminative spring read.

Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen – I read this for my book club; it was my choice and I’m a little nervous about how it will be received (but I’ll find out when we meet tonight).  But for me at least, Northanger Abbey will always be a favorite – I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read it; it’s my second most-beloved of Austen’s novels (nothing can touch Pride and Prejudice, but Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney hold a cherished place in my heart).  I love the story of Catherine’s overactive imagination and her fighting off frenemies and toxic males to find real sympathy in the Tilney siblings.

Clearly, my goal to read fewer books continues to go just swimmingly – ha.  It’s fine, though.  I’m delighted with everything I read this month – there was poetry, there was an issue of Slightly Foxed, there was gardening and classic lit and electric guitars in space.  I can’t really see that anything is missing, can you?  I have some fun spring reads planned for May, so check back in with me.

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Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby.  I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book.  Here are my reads for March, 2018

Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, by Kathleen Collins – I’m not sure how I happened upon this slim volume of short stories, but I’m glad I did.  Collins was an African-American playwright and filmmaker, apparently quite widely known, and very well-regarded, in the world of drama, theatre and film.  Since that is decidedly not my world, I’d never heard of her until I learned of this book, published posthumously.  In it, Collins writes of people like herself – artists, living in New York City, making their way through relationships and ambition and the social scene.  The writing is luminous and the characters are fully realized, which is a hard thing to do in the short story format.  Short stories are, as you all know, not my favorite – but I really enjoyed this.

Winter in Thrush Green (Thrush Green #2), by Miss Read – There is really nothing I like better than a big cup of tea and a meander through one of Miss Read’s beautifully drawn English villages.  In this installment of the Thrush Green series, the reader is taken through a change of seasons in the village, and with it, some changes in the faces from the last book.  As autumn settles in, Ben and Molly Curdle are married but gone, off traveling with Curdle’s Fair.  Dr. Lovell has taken over the medical practice, married Ruth, and the two are expecting their first baby.  There’s drama – a new neighbor and a possible romance for the vicar, plus someone has bashed the schoolteacher over the head and stolen her jewelry box; Paul Young suspects Sam Curdle.  There’s joy in the Lovells’ new little one and in love for the widowed vicar at last.  And once winter settles in, there’s snow and a daring rescue of Dotty Harmer from her cottage.  In short, everything you could want.

This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America, by Morgan Jerkins – Hmmmm.  What to say about this book?  I had heard wonderful things and it mostly lived up to the hype.  I like the personal essay as a literary genre, and I am particularly interested in reading about the experiences of women of color.  There’s no doubt that Jerkins is an incredibly talented writer, and I found most of the essays in this collection informative and moving.  I thought that her essays about race were the best; the female and feminism-focused essays were not quite as strong, in my opinion.  I did try to keep in mind that I was reading about someone else’s experience, and that her reactions to certain things (like breakups) were different from what mine would be because she was coming to them with a different set of life experiences.  There was one essay, though – about a medical procedure, and you’ll know what I’m referring to if you’ve read the book – that I cannot un-read.  And I really wish I could.

Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, by Michael Wolff – So, I just had to read this because everyone in D.C. is talking about it.  I’m not sure what to say about it here, though – seems to me that everything has been said.  I’ll just note that while certain details in the book (i.e. confusing Mike Berman and Mark Berman in the Four Seasons breakfast scene, and misidentifying Wilbur Ross as the nominee to head DOL, when in fact he was nominated for Commerce) are incorrect – likely a function of rushing the book to publication – if even a third of what Wolff writes is true, dayum.  And not in a good way.  I really wish I hadn’t had occasion to read Fire and Fury.  I wish I worked in a Washington, D.C. that was going about its regular business under President Hillary Clinton.  I wish my friends who are career government employees (and I know a lot of them – thanks to law school and my own stint at DOL I have friends or acquaintances at DOL, Commerce, Justice, Education, State, GSA and quite a few of the smaller agencies) weren’t so downtrodden and depressed, and that the rest of us weren’t constantly reevaluating our emergency plans.  But I wasn’t not going to read this book.

Young Jane Young, by Gabrielle Zevin – I was heartily sick of politics by the time I finished Fire and Fury, but library deadlines dictated that I had to tackle Young Jane Young next.  Fortunately, it was a fast and fun read and it only took me a day.  Jane Young wasn’t always Jane Young.  Years ago, she was Aviva Grossman, a Congressional intern who had an affair with her married boss.  The affair came to light, of course, as they so often do, and Aviva took the fall while the Congressman emerged unscathed.  Finding herself unemployable, Aviva changed her name, moved to Maine and became a wedding planner.  But now she has decided to run for Mayor of her small town – against a notorious local jerk – and the truth is bound to come out.  So, I found Young Jane Young engaging but the central plot was kind of unbelievable.  Not the affair part – see above, I live in D.C., I can totally believe that everyone in Congress is having affairs – but I just couldn’t believe that Jane ran for public office.  I get that she loved politics and that the other guy would’ve been a nightmare, but she spent eighteen years keeping her head down and her identity a secret, and then threw it away?  Does not compute.

Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, by Carl Safina – This one had been on my list for a long time.  Safina is a conservationist writer who is clearly passionate about what he does and has some serious writing skill, too.  Beyond Words is organized into four sections: there are sections on elephants, wolves, and killer whales, and somewhat confusingly a section on Safina’s dogs and the sea birds near his home (interesting, but could have been condensed into an introduction or epilogue; jammed in the middle as it was, it kind of broke up the rhythm).  Safina analyzes animal social behaviors and spends considerable time interviewing experts to conclude that these animals are “who” animals – they have their own family lives, means of communicating (killer whales have distinct language that varies by group, which is a documented fact), and emotions.  I thought Beyond Words was beautiful, moving, sad and inspiring.

African Short Stories, ed. Chinua Achebe – I have been meaning to read Achebe’s classic, Things Fall Apart, but I thought this collection of short stories, collected and edited by him and to which he contributed one story, would be a good place to start.  I liked, but didn’t love it.  The main weakness of the collection is that the quality of the stories is extremely uneven.  There are some – such as Achebe’s offering, and one by Jomo Kenyatta – that are really breathtaking and outstanding.  There are others that are sort of middling, and a few that are just really, really bad and one that was completely unreadable – as if the idea was to go for a Ulysses-style effect, but without the skill or panache of James Joyce (and I am not a Bloomfan).  It’s a short book, so not a huge time commitment, but I have to think there are better collections featuring African writers.

Slightly Foxed, Volume 3: Sharks, Otters and Fast Cars, ed. Gail Pikris – My slow read-through of all the back issues of Slightly Foxed continues.  To be honest, I don’t remember much about this one, beyond the titular essay on a biography of Gavin Maxwell, who sounds like a real character.  (It didn’t make me want to seek out the biography, but I did note that the Folio Society publishes Maxwell’s A Ring of Bright Water and Slightly Foxed has his memoir.)  The other essays were a little less memorable – I think the magazine is still hitting its stride in issue 3, and clearly it has done so, as issue 57 just arrived on my doorstep not long ago.  But Slightly Foxed does offer reliably excellent writing, and each issue contributes a few more titles to my inflated TBR.

Love, Hate and Other Filters, by Samir Ahmed – I came to this one hoping it would be 2018’s answer to The Hate U Give.  I’m not sure it’s quite in those heights, but it was still excellent.  Maya Aziz is a high school senior who loves filmmaking, dreams of studying at NYU, and is crushing on the captain of the football team (of course).  But she’s also Indian, and she’s not sure how to tell her strict parents that she doesn’t want to go to college close to home and become a lawyer.  (Don’t be a lawyer, Maya!)  And she’s Muslim, and finds herself and her family in danger when a terrorist attack a few hundreds of miles away brings out the latent hate in her own community.  So – I liked this, but as I said, it wasn’t quite at the level of The Hate U Give.  There was a tiny bit too much romance – I counted three possible love interests for Maya – and it distracted from the more important issues that Maya was dealing with.  Still a great read, and I blew through it in 24 hours.

1066 and All That: A Memorable History of England, by W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman – I had kind of a rough week at the end of the month – nothing serious, just a couple of disappointments – and needed some levity, and 1066 and All That fit the bill perfectly.  Sellar and Yeatman present a madcap journey through British history, from the Romans to World War II.  Along the way we learn about the Magna Charter (a Good Thing), efforts to amuse Queen Victoria (a Good Queen), Mary Queen of Hearts (a Romantic Queen), Anne of Cloves, and more.  There were also “test papers” after each chapter, asking questions like “What convinced you that Henry VIII had VIII wives?  Was it worth it?”  It was a lot of fun, and I giggled throughout.

In looking these over, I had a busy March in books – and I spent more than a week on Beyond Words, because it’s long and complex and happened to hit during a particularly busy week at work.  Looking back, I think Beyond Words was also the highlight of the month, although I also really enjoyed the time I spent with Love, Hate and Other Filters and 1066 and All That, and no hours with the Slightly Foxed quarterly are ever wasted hours.  On deck, I have some excellent stuff to share.  April is National Poetry Month, and I’m on a major poetry kick at the moment, and have read some really lovely volumes already this month.  More to come!

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Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby.  I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book.  Here are my reads for February, 2018

Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward – Esch lives with her brothers on a hardscrabble patch of land called the Pit.  Life is tough.  Esch’s mother died in childbirth and her father is usually drunk and mostly absent.  Salvage the Bones tells the story of approximately two weeks leading up to, and encompassing, Hurricane Katrina.  Esch is fourteen and newly pregnant, her father has snapped out of a fog and is obsessively preparing for the hurricane – which doesn’t really concern any of the kids – Esch’s brother Skeet is worrying over his pitbull’s new puppies and her other brothers are trying to carve out a place for themselves.  Salvage the Bones was a gritty book – grittier than I usually read.  There was a dogfighting scene which I knew was coming and was able to avoid, but the rest of the book was nearly as brutal.  It was well-written but hard to read.

Thrush Green (Thrush Green #1), by Miss Read – There’s nothing like Miss Read to counteract the effects of a particularly tough book.  Thrush Green is the first in a series of the same name, and introduces the reader to the village of Thrush Green and its inhabitants, and those of a larger market town, Lulling, nearby.  All the events of the book take place on a single day – May 1, when Curdle’s Fair visits and sets up on the village green.  Through the day, we meet many of the characters who will recur throughout the Thrush Green series – sweet, sad Ruth, gentle Dr. Lovell, mischievous Paul, bustling Dimity, blustering Ella, kind Dr. and Mrs. Bailey… and we see the town through the eyes of Mrs. Curdle, the fair’s proprietress, and her grandson and heir apparent, Ben, who is in love with a Thrush Green girl.  Not to prattle on, but it was such a delight.  A re-read for me, I loved reacquainting myself with Thrush Green and its environs – like an English spring day, it’s pure refreshment.

I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban, by Malala Yousafzai – This one had been on my list for a very long time, and I finally got around to checking it out from the library.  It was a powerful story, indeed.  I was already acquainted with Malala’s story, in general, as most are – she is now, after all, a global celebrity.  But I really wanted to read her story in her own words.  So, I thought that I Am Malala was wonderful, but with one reservation.  The book was co-written, naturally, and I felt that the word choices sometimes strayed too far into the territory of making the voice sound like a young girl’s.  I found myself wondering how much was authentically Malala, and how much was the co-writer imposing what she thought should be Malala’s style.  That said, I wouldn’t have missed this for the world, and especially once Malala starts her activism, the narrative takes off and becomes absolutely riveting.  It’s an important read and well worth picking up.

Portrait of Elmbury (Brensham Trilogy #1), by John Moore – I’ve collected the first two volumes of the Brensham Trilogy from Slightly Foxed (the third is due to be released this summer) and have been so excited to dig in.  In this first volume, Moore captures the heart and spirit of an English market town from the late Edwardian period through to World War II.  Occasionally gritty, occasionally sentimental, most often real, Moore presents “Elmbury” (the thin disguise he gives his actual hometown of Tewkesbury) warts and all.  He starts the book by rhapsodically describing the high street outside the window of “Tudor House” (the splendid home where he grew up) then pivots directly into a down-and-dirty portrayal of the domestic squabbles of the residents of the hardscrabble alley across the street.  But even while being unabashedly real and portraying country town life in all its darknesses and difficulties, you can sense a real affection behind Moore’s portrayal of the town and its inhabitants.  I loved it.  (Word of caution: as with so many books of the period, there are a few sentences that are extremely jarring and offensive to the modern reader.  At some point, I am contemplating a post about babies and bathwater.  For now, reader be forewarned.  This one, I think, is worth the comparatively little problem language.)

Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimanda Ngozi Adichie – In my quest to read through Adichie’s backlist, Half of a Yellow Sun was next up.  This is Adichie’s book about the Biafran War, a subject which seems to be close to her heart (I did some research into Adichie and she hails from the section of Nigeria which was once Biafra).  The narrative follows three main characters – Ugwu, a houseboy; Olanna, the wealthy lover of Ugwu’s master; and Richard, an expat who becomes friends with Olanna and her lover, Odenigbo.  Olanna and her twin sister, Kainene – Richard’s lover – are the daughters of a rich and important chief, and all of the characters (Ugwu, perhaps, excepted) begin the novel in great domestic comfort and end it barely surviving (or maybe not surviving – it’s not entirely clear, in one case) the horrors and privations of the Biafran War.  This is a period in history, and a region, that I am sorry to say I know very little about, and I was shocked and heartbroken at Adichie’s portrayal of the suffering that attended Biafra’s three-year secession from Nigeria.  Adichie, as always, writes extremely powerfully and beautifully, and while there are some hard passages, Half of a Yellow Sun was an astonishing read.

Well, a bit of a light February in books.  It was to be expected, since it’s a short month and I was (and still am) absolutely crazed at work.  Everything I read was good, so that is comforting.  Portrait of Elmbury had to be the highlight – I love a good descriptive book (fiction or non-) about rural England, and that was right in my wheelhouse.  On to March – a longer month, maybe a slightly less busy one (we can hope) and I am excited about my to-read pile.  For #femmemarch, I plan to read only women – shouldn’t be hard; most of my books are by women – and I’m excited to dig into some of my library acquisitions and to browse my own shelves a bit more.

What was the best thing you read in February?

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Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby.  I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book.  Here are my reads for January, 2018

Origin (Robert Langdon #5), by Dan Brown – Always fun to see what the first read of the year is going to be.  Brown’s latest is a romp through Spain, focused on the theme of science, religion, and the battle over who gets to definitively answer humanity’s biggest questions: Where do we come from?  Where are we going?  Brown delivers all the expected tangents into architecture, art history, literature, science history and anything else that happens to interest him (so that’s everything) but I was a little bummed there weren’t more references to the Mickey Mouse watch and Langdon’s swimming hobby.

 

Period Piece: The Cambridge Childhood of Darwin’s Granddaughter, by Gwen Raverat – I just recently became aware of Raverat, and she is a really fascinating character.  As the subtitle confirms, she is the granddaughter of Charles Darwin, and she grew up in Victorian-era Cambridge.  She was also a pioneering woodcut artist whose book illustrations carried a distinctive style, and she was one of the few women to become a successful artist in her own right.  Period Piece is illustrated with Raverat’s own wood engravings, which add great life and levity to the text, and she’s also a charming and engaging writer who looks back at her childhood with humor and fun.  I would normally hesitate to make predictions in early January – but I think Period Piece is going to be in my top ten books for 2018.  Just watch.

Letters to a Young Muslim, by Omar Saif Ghobash – Ghobash is (was?) the UAE’s Ambassador to Russia, and Letters to a Young Muslim is comprised of letters to his son Saif about everything from the roles of men and women in Islam and society, to extremism, to making up your own mind about matters of faith instead of placing blind trust in authorities who may deceive.  It was a beautiful and thoughtful book that reminded me a bit of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (also letters, or one long letter, from a father to his young son).

 

Slightly Foxed No. 2, ed. Gail Pikris – I’m on a mission to read my way through the back issues of Slightly Foxed.  This is going to take some time, since they’re currently on issue 56.  But I’m loving the quest, because each journal is such a treasure.  Issue number 2 wasn’t my favorite – the heady novelty of issue number 1 has worn off but I didn’t think the journal had quite hit its stride yet, and the last piece, “A Subscriber in California Writes,” rubbed me the wrong way.  But it’s always a treat to spend time curled up on the couch with Slightly Foxed‘s lovely cream pages.

 

Cranford, by Elizabeth Gaskell – As I mentioned, I’m on a mission to read more classic novels this year, since they’re on my shelves and I’m craving their comfort.  I decided to start with a visit to Gaskell’s Cranford, a relatively short but lovely volume about the residents of an English village in the Victorian era.  The narrator, Mary Smith, is something of an outsider – more financially privileged than most of the residents of Cranford, but loving, protective and affectionate towards them – while never condescending.  Cranford is mostly a series of vignettes or interludes in the life of the village, as either observed by or told to Mary.  Aside from the fact that an alarming number of people die, it’s quite warm and fuzzy.  I’ve actually tried to read Cranford before and couldn’t get into it, and I’m not sure why – perhaps the time wasn’t quite right?  This time, I couldn’t put it down, loved every moment spent with Mary, Miss Matty, Miss Pole, Lady Glenmire and all the rest, and was genuinely sad when it ended.

The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books, by Azar Nafisi – I think this is Nafisi’s latest (right?) and it’s basically the same format as Reading Lolita in Tehran, but focusing specifically on American literature and Nafisi’s immigrant experience.  Nafisi discusses three novels she considers as representative of the American experience – The Adventures of Huckleberry FinnBabbit, and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter – and devotes an epilogue to James Baldwin.  I enjoyed The Republic of Imagination, but didn’t love it.  I didn’t agree with Nafisi’s choices of the three books representing America – which is fine; as the writer, it’s her prerogative to choose, of course – and I found the narrative a bit disjointed and some of the connections she was drawing to be a bit tenuous.  A fun read, but if you’re looking to read Nafisi’s work – no question she writes gorgeously – go for Reading Lolita in Tehran instead.

Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – I just loved this short but sweet collection of “suggestions” Adichie put together in response to a friend’s question about how to raise her newborn daughter as a feminist.  Adichie opens by wryly noting how easy it is to dispense parenting advice when you don’t have children of your own (she has since welcomed a baby daughter) and then goes on to deliver 63 pages of absolute gold.  My favorite piece of advice was to encourage her to love books, because of course!  Books!

 

Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid – I was prompted to pick this one up despite all the hype, when I saw that President Obama had included it on his list of the best books he read in 2017.  I’m always a little nervous about hype, and generally magical realism doesn’t speak to me, but if President Obama says it’s good I’m willing to trust him.  Of course he was quite right – Exit West was enthralling and felt very relevant to today’s world, as it spoke to the global refugee crisis to which we are currently bearing witness.  I flew through it and just loved both of the main characters – fierce Nadia and sensitive Saeed – and their journey, which binds them together even as they are emotionally drawing apart.  Lovely and luminous.

 

The Witches of New York, by Ami McKay – Read on my BFF’s recommendation, The Witches of New York was definitely more successful than the last book she recommended to me (which I hated so much I actually found myself folding laundry in order to avoid reading, which NEVER happens).  Anyway, I really enjoyed this one.  You’re Beatrice Dunn.  You’re a witch, and you’re not to be trifled with.  This is the advice given to young Beatrice, shopgirl and communer-with-spirits, by her very slightly older witchy mentors, Eleanor St. Clair and Adelaide Thom.  Eleanor and Adelaide are the proprietresses of “Tea and Sympathy,” a small tea shop specializing in herbal remedies and palmistry in Gilded Age New York.  But as charming as the shop is, there is evil afoot and it is targeting their new employee.  So – this was the perfect combination of Rebecca’s and my reading tastes, because she can’t resist witches and I can’t resist Gilded Age New York.  It was a little slow in parts, there was some brutality just for shock value (not my cup of tea) and not every plot point was tied up as neatly as I’d have liked, but I did enjoy it very much.

Amina’s Voice, by Hena Khan – Amina Khokar has just started middle school and she has a lot on her plate.  Painfully shy, Amina clings to her best friend Soojin, but Soojin seems to be pulling away – about to become a U.S. citizen, she’s considering changing her name to Melanie, and she’s hanging around with Emily, a popular girl who made both Amina and Soojin’s life miserable in elementary school.  Life at home isn’t much calmer.  Amina’s brother Mustafa is on a collision course with their parents over basketball, and then her father’s much-older brother arrives from Pakistan for an extended visit to the family.  Amina’s parents are stressed out by the effort to impress their visitor, and Amina is worried about the Q’uran reciting competition that her dad signed her up for in order to show her uncle what good young Muslims he is raising.  But all of her worries seem small when her mosque is vandalized, which devastates Amina, Mustafa and the whole community.  Amina will learn who her real friends are as she and her faith community work to put the pieces back together.  This was a lovely story – luminous and sweet.  I wanted to gather Amina, Soojin and Emily up and give them all huge hugs.  But the biggest hug for Amina.

Jane Austen, the Secret Radical, by Helena Kelly – I had this one out from the library and was looking forward to reading it, when my friend Susan started it too – and suddenly a book I wanted to read just because became a fun topic for discussion and debate.  Susan and I could talk Austen for hours, and we narrowly avoided just plopping down at a table in the office café and bantering about Darcy, Knightley and everyone else for all of last Friday.  Kelly’s premise is fascinating: she says that far from being prim comedies of manners, Austen’s books are actually cleverly disguised political propaganda about the hot-button issues of her day: slavery, enclosure, aristocratic morals, the misadventures of the British East India Company, and more.  Some of her theories were fascinating (Persuasion as a metaphor for imperial fall, and also dinosaurs!) but others seemed completely bonkers (I’m sorry, but Harriet Smith is not Jane Fairfax’s illegitimate half-sister.  NO.).  My one complaint was the imaginative introductions at the beginning of the book and of each chapter, which were completely unnecessary, and I skipped over most of them.  The more academic parts, though, were well worth reading – even the kooky ones.

Salt Houses, by Hala Alyan – Salt Houses explores the life, movements, dramas and loves of a Palestinian family starting in 1965, with the wedding of their patriarch and matriarch, and extending to 2014.  Along the way, the reader lives through wars, displacements, and the smaller – almost petty – tribulations of family life in the latter half of the twentieth century.  It’s a beautifully written book, with luminous prose… but… it didn’t really speak to me.  This is entirely ME, and not the book.  Family sagas are not my thing, and vignettes are also not my thing, and a family saga written entirely in vignettes (a scene in 1965, then we jump ahead for one scene in 1967, and then one scene in 1977, etc.) is pretty much a guaranteed miss as far as I’m concerned.  I’ve heard wonderful things about the book and I can see why people loved it, but it wasn’t for me.  If you like linked short stories (which this really was), multi-generational family sagas, or both, Salt Houses will appeal.  If you don’t, you may want to look for something else.

Twelve books in January!  As you can see, my resolution to read fewer books in 2018 – aiming for a pace of one a week – is… not going well.  But I can’t complain, because what a month of reading.  50% of my books this month were by people of color, and I love to see a good percentage like that.  There were also some highlights.  Exit West was really wonderful.  I liked it while I was reading (blowing through) it, but it stayed with me quite a long while afterward and I didn’t realize until it was back at the library how much it had moved me.  Cranford was a delight, and so was Period Piece.  If every month of 2018 is as good (for reading, anyway) as January was, I will have very little to complain about, even if I don’t meet my goals of slower, more deliberative reading and more classics.

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Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby.  I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book.  Here are my reads for December, 2017

What Happened, by Hillary Rodham Clinton – I knew immediately that I was going to want to read this.  While I still feel raw sadness over the election, I also believe that the first-person narrative by the first woman ever to be nominated for President by a major political party is an important historical document and a story that needed telling.  I also think that those who want Hillary to “be quiet” and “go away” are indulging in short-sighted misogyny.  (Does the same angry dismissiveness dog Mitt Romney and John McCain whenever they speak out about politics?  Of course not.)  What Happened was wrenching, but it was thoughtful, meticulously crafted, and quietly brilliant – in short, it was very Hillary.  It made me cry, but I loved it.

Rich People Problems (Crazy Rich Asians #3), by Kevin Kwan – Needing something light and frothy in the extreme after the sobfest gut-punch that was What Happened, I turned to the final chapter in the saga of Nick Young, Rachel Chu, Astrid Leong and the whole gang.  Nick and Astrid’s beloved grandmother, Shang Su Yi, is on her deathbed and the entire family has come out of the woodwork to jockey for position in case she changes her will at the last minute.  Nick doesn’t care about his inheritance, but he travels to Singapore at Rachel’s urging so that his grandmother doesn’t pass away before they have healed their rift, only to find when he gets there that his grasping cousin, Eddie – hoping to inherit the estate in Nick’s place – has barred him from the house.  Rich People Problems is as full of twists, drama and designer label name-dropping as its predecessors, and it was so much fun.

Slightly Foxed No. 56: Making the Best of Ited. Gail Pikris – I have been a Slightly Foxed subscriber for a little over a year now, but somehow I just discovered that when you sit down and read an issue cover to cover, it counts as a book on Goodreads.  (Who knew?)  I figure if it counts there, it should count here, too – and a 96-page volume of personal essays about books (which is what every Slightly Foxed issue is) should be considered a book in any event.  So – the latest issue!  I read a few essays at a time and loved them all, as usual, but my favorite was the essay about the Chalet School books, which I am planning to read – at least some – in 2018.

The Shell Seekers, by Rosamunde Pilcher – My mom couldn’t believe I hadn’t read this before, because my grandmama had a copy and had loved Pilcher.  It took awhile – other library deadlines kept interfering in November – but I very much enjoyed the story of Penelope Keeling and her useless children.  (The kids really were the worst, which diminished Rebecca’s enjoyment of the book after I recommended it to her, I am sorry to report.)  I just adored it for its atmospheric setting and lush writing.  No detail was spared – and I didn’t want any details spared.  I wanted to know absolutely everything about what Penelope made Danus for lunch and how the wine was when she and Richard went on their date and what she grows in her garden and how she decorates her kitchen and solarium and, I mean, tell me all of the things.  I am only sorry that it had to end.

Slightly Foxed No. 1: Kindred Spirits, ed. Gail Pikris – I’m on a roll!  I’d been wanting to go back and read through the back issues (which I have been collecting, little by little, for the past two years) and I really enjoyed this first issue of the journal.  The essay Ex Libris starts the volume off strong, and I loved the short bits describing woodcut bookplates (since wood-cutting is one of my favorite art forms).

Christmas at Thrush Green, by Miss Read – There is a 2018 #MissReadalong going on over on Instagram, and they actually began in 2017 with Christmas at Thrush Green.  I don’t know that it was the best place to begin, because it was assumed that the reader knew most of the characters and was familiar with their stories and how they met their spouses, and for the most part, I wasn’t.  (I read Thrush Green, the first in the series, a couple of years ago but don’t remember much about it.)  But it was a quiet, comforting, warm and cozy way to spend a few evenings reading by the light of my Christmas tree, and for that, totally worth it.  I’ll probably revisit it next December and I’ll bet I enjoy it even more then, after I’ve read through the series as I am planning to do.

London War Notes, by Mollie Panter-Downes – This collection of Panter-Downes’ “Letters from London” to The New Yorker between 1939 and 1945 had been lingering on my “currently-reading” shelf for way too long, thanks to intervening library deadlines.  It’s no reflection on the book, which is heart-rending and utterly captivating.  Panter-Downes writes with equal parts pathos and humor about the experiences of living through the Blitz, rationing, and long periods of waiting with bated breath for news of an ally or updates from the front.  She, and her fellow Londoners, are stoic and determined, but also set on finding enjoyment and laughter where they can.  If nonfiction about World War II can be delightful, this is.

Christmas at High Rising, by Angela Thirkell – A quick collection of short stories featuring the Morlands and their friends at High Rising, this was the work of an evening and was delightful.  Tony Morland goes ice-skating and falls in and out of a crush on a French girl, everyone goes to the pantomime, Tony rides a horse – in short, it’s all the High Rising drama you could wish.  My only complaint was that despite the title, there was nothing particularly Christmassy about it.  There is a story that focuses on Valentine’s Day, a story about Tony’s summer holidays, but only one Christmas story that was not even set in Barsetshire.  I think I’d read that somewhere but forgotten.  Calling the book Holidays in High Rising would have been more accurate and I’d have been less disappointed then.

Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, by Agatha Christie – Here’s a book that is definitely about Christmas!  Poirot is called in to investigate a murder that takes place on Christmas Eve in an old English manor house.  Yes, please!  The victim, Simeon Lee, is the much-hated squire of the county.  He’s a well-known womanizer who delights in setting his children against one another, and – as always – there are no shortage of possible killers with both motive and opportunity.  (I love the cozy mysteries where the victim is so vile that you need not feel guilty for enjoying the story.)  Naturally, Poirot unravels the mystery, and the solution is quite surprising.  I enjoyed myself immensely in reading this on Christmas itself and for a couple of days after.

Future Home of the Living God, by Louise Erdrich – Having loved Erdrich’s Birchbark House series for children, I wanted to try one of her adult novels and figured I’d start with her new release.  She is clearly a breathtaking writer, but Future Home of the Living God fell flat for me (which from what I hear was a common experience).  The story focuses on a pregnant woman who is on the run after evolution mysteriously stops and the government begins seizing all pregnant women and, later, women of childbearing age.  It’s an interesting premise, but I felt like I was reading The Handmaid’s Tale again (with a couple of slight differences) and was also frustrated that there wasn’t more exposition of the apocalyptic event.  I’m perfectly willing to suspend disbelief while reading – especially dystopias and fantasies – but you need to tell me what I am suspending disbelief about, or at least give me a hint.  I’m going to try one of Edrich’s really highly acclaimed novels, like The Round House and LaRose, and I suspect I’ll like those better.

That does it for me for 2017!  Ten books (including two Slightly Foxed quarterlies) in December – a respectable finish to the year, I think.  I finished a couple that had been lingering on the shelf, and ended up enjoying both (The Shell Seekers and London War Notes) probably the most of anything I read this month.  The Christmas books were a highlight of the month, naturally, and What Happened was hard to read but so worth it.  And that’s the end of a year in reading!  I think I’m going to come in somewhere around 101 books for the year, but I haven’t done my official count yet – soon.  It’s been a good year and I’m excited to see what 2018 has in store.

What was the best book you read in December?

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