Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Top Ten Bookish Things I've Quit (or Should Quit)

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted over at The Broke and the Bookish. This week's list contains books or book-related things that I've quit, or should quit.

1. Sticking with a book that I don't like. It was hard to learn this, because I always held out hope that a book would get better or that I'd learn something important from it even if I disliked what I had already read. No more. Now I'll put a book down if it doesn't grab me right away, unless it's required reading for a book group.

2. Falling for a book just because it's popular. I'll never forget when I first became a librarian and was suddenly exposed bestseller lists, something I had never paid attention to before. A really popular book at the time was Suzanne's Diary for Nicholas by James Patterson, which I unwittingly tried. This is how I learned that really crappy books become popular. (It's also how I learned to put a book down when I don't like it.) 

3. Dog-earing pages. This is something I just started doing recently, but I think I've already broke myself of the habit (at least when it comes to library books.) Bad, bad librarian.

4. My TBR list. I have documented my struggle with my To Read list here, and I'm happy to say I've stuck with my new list-free life. I don't promise it will last forever though, I'm just hoping I can keep it under control in the future (says the addict. Just one drink, JUST ONE.)

5. The Girl on the Train by Paul Hawkins. I know everyone says it's amazing and reminds them of Gone Girl, but I just couldn't get into it.

6. Assigning myself more reading. I'm in two book groups (one at work and one in real life), on the Community Read committee at work, and I really like to join book challenges. I want to find a way to do all these things and still be able to read stuff I want to read. My current book challenge is the TBR Pile Challenge which *should* help combat that, but the fact is that I've lost interest in some of the books on my list. I'm trying to convince myself to just not bother with those books. Reading what I want is more important than completing a challenge.

7. Finding new genres that I like. As a librarian, I think it's important to read widely in order to be better at readers advisory questions. On the other hand, it just ends up with me having more things to read. I've begun reading romance in the last couple of years and unfortunately I like it. I still don't read romance novels often, but at any given time I have a few on deck that I'm interested in.

8. Being judgey about what other people read. One of our mantras at the library is "We don't judge," but sometimes we do. It's not that we think people who read James Patterson are bad people, we just think they have bad reading taste. (And by "we" I mean "me." I won't actually incriminate my co-workers here, but you know who you are.) I try really hard not to judge people at all for anything, but sometimes I slip. I'm only human.

9. Feeling like I *should* read certain things. There are books that are pretty ingrained in our culture and referenced a lot, and I really want to be more educated about why that is. I've made my peace with disliking Shakespeare, but others are less easy to ignore. Moby-Dick for instance. Shouldn't I read that? And then there are more contemporary books that seem very important. I tried reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, but it's just a really really long essay and I couldn't get into it. I feel bad about that.

10. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. Everyone loved this book. Everyone. There was apparently criticism about some passages in Spanish, and various people have ridiculed the people who were put off by the Spanish as being uneducated and anti-immigrant. Well, I am as left-wing as anyone in Massachusetts, but I don't speak or understand Spanish and I was put off by those passages because I was missing parts of the book. It was too many words to be able to figure out based on context. As an added bonus, I didn't care about the characters. I think I stopped after 50 pages or so.

Ok, my dirty laundry is aired. What are some books or bookish things that you've quit, or want to quit? Tell me in the comments!

Monday, October 5, 2015

The World Without Us

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman (2007)

What would happen if humans suddenly disappeared from the Earth? How long would it take our buildings and bridges to break down, our farmland to revert to the wild, endangered species to increase their populations? These are the questions that Alan Weisman sets out to answer in his comprehension examination of the ways in which humans have affected our environment and which of those changes might have permanent effects.

This was a tough book for me to read. There isn't a story or characters, and I'm still unsure how exactly the chapters are organized. I'm not sure I would have made it through if it wasn't required reading for our Community Read list of nominees, but I'm glad that I did because I think it's an important book.

Many of us have some idea about how we have impacted our environment, but I learned so much about our basic infrastructure. For instance, there is rising water underneath the New York subway that we are constantly fighting against, the huge network of petroleum refineries in Texas need to be attended to around the clock, and our nuclear power plants produce waste that we just keep burying underground in hopes that it will never be unearthed. If people were to suddenly disappear, there could be dire (and explosive!) consequences.

But the chapter I found most disturbing is entitled "Polymers are Forever" and details just how insidious is our ubiquitous use of plastic. It will never go away, it's damaging to wildlife, and we just keep making more. The worst part is that so much of what we buy isn't designed to last in terms of usefulness, but once it inevitably breaks the parts will live on forever. How can we be so short-sighted?

But Weisman's book is not without hope or perspective. In some ways, the world will bounce back - coral reefs, for instance, can come alive again. But we're also reminded that humans, like every other species, will go extinct eventually, and in around 5 billion years the sun will expand into a red giant and destroy the Earth anyhow. Which I realize doesn't sound terribly positive, but I think it's important to remember that our Earth-based catastrophes happening right now or in the near future are just a blip in the vastness of time and space.

A lot is touched on here in under 300 pages: areas such as history, engineering, wildlife, and manufacturing. Of course it doesn't delve too deeply into any one subject and someone well-versed in science might not find much new here. But for a layperson it's a great overview of our world and how we've affected it.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Invention of Wings

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd (2014)

For her eleventh birthday, Sarah Grimke was given a slave of her own. She befriends her slave, Handful, and promises herself that she will not only realize her own dreams of becoming a lawyer, but will also free her slave. The narrative switches back and forth between Sarah and Handful throughout this novel about abolition, women's rights, religion and family.

I'll admit right off the bat that I did not go into this book with a very positive attitude. It's on our shortlist for the Community Read, or else I wouldn't have even picked it up. It sounded like many other books, and I wasn't sold by the protagonist with seemingly-modern sensibilities, the white author writing about slaves, or the Oprah Book Club sticker on the front. Throughout the early part of the book my feelings didn't change. I felt like Sarah was a little too modern, and most of the characters too easily sorted in categories of good guys and bad guys. It was an issue book and I felt sort of indulged by the character of Sarah, the crusading abolitionist.

But then it all turned around for me. As Sarah and Handful got older, their beliefs and personalities solidified. When Sarah returns to the family home after an absence, Handful remarks on her character, saying "She'd been boiled down to a good, strong broth." The people and issues began to all come together to form a more realistically complex tapestry. Sarah was forced to face her own prejudices, her potential love interest was revealed to be less perfect and supportive than he seemed (without being made into an oversimplified jerk), and the issues started feeling much more like real life than moral lessons.

My favorite thing about this book is the way it examines the relationship between civil rights and women's issues. The movements seem so similar, yet just as some people worked towards both ends, the movements were sometimes at odds with each other. This became apparent in this story as Sarah and her sister Angelina began speaking out against slavery and faced criticism and ostracism for their outspokenness. Sarah even had to choose between her goal of becoming a Quaker minister and hopes of getting married, and her abolitionist work.

Sarah was a better character for her imperfections. Progressive though she was, she still had blind spots. When he father tells her she will never actually be able to study law, she laments: "My aspiration to become a jurist had been laid to rest in the Graveyard of Failed Hopes, an all-female establishment." Yet down the hall are slaves who are forbidden to even learn to read. Does she not recognize their hopes also buried in that graveyard? Like many of us, Sarah also did not know when to keep her mouth shut. Late in the book she is trying to convince her mother to do something and almost gets her on board, but gives in to her emotions and begins lecturing her. Had she just pulled back a bit, she would have gotten what she wanted, but instead she went just a step too far and ruined her chances of making a deal.

Despite my initial misgivings, I ended up liking this much more than I expected to. It got a little slow in the middle, and I was always more interested in Sarah's story than Handful's for some reason, but overall it gave me a lot of food for thought. I read this for both book group and the community read committee (two birds, one stone!) and it's definitely a great discussion book. I've got a couple more books to read for the community read nominees so I don't know which one I'll vote for, but I can definitely see great programming potential with this one. If you're interested in abolition and early feminism, or just enjoy a story of complicated family relationships, I'd highly recommend picking this up.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Sunday Knitting

I recently finished a baby sweater for a coworker. There was only a small window of time between finishing and wrapping it, and the light was pretty bad during that time, so I apologize for the photo quality. The color is rather washed out, but at least you can get the idea.

I used a pattern called Korrigan, which was originally written in French, but has an English translation. It used some language that was shall we say, non-standard, but I managed to figure it out. I'd caution less-experienced knitters against using this pattern (unless you have someone to help you) because it could lead to frustration and errors.

It's a pretty adorable sweater though, isn't it? The yarn is Breathless from Shalimar Yarns, and it's a blend of merino, silk, and cashmere. The color is just beautiful, and I really do adore the cabling around the yoke of this sweater. It's hand-dyed so it pooled a bit, but I sort of like the effect. I found these plain little white buttons at home, which was lucky, though it took me at least a week to drudge up the wherewithal to sew them on.

If we're lucky, maybe I'll be able to post a modeled photo sometime after the baby arrives.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Mountain Story

The Mountain Story by Lori Lansens (2015)

The version I read
When Wolf went up the mountain on his eighteenth birthday, it was with the intention to commit suicide. But he stumbled into being a guide for three women, and the four became lost and desperate in the rugged wilderness. For five days they stuck together and fought to survive without food, water, or shelter.

The novel opens and closes with a letter Wolf is writing to his son, with whom he is finally sharing this story. When these events took place, Wolf was still trying to deal with his best friend's tragic accident. He had moved to California from Michigan with his father, Frankie, and Byrd was the first friendly person he met. His life with Frankie was rough, and even worse now that they were living in a trailer with his aunt and her numerous filthy children. But Byrd was a great friend, and got him out of the house and into the woods, teaching him everything he knew about the mountain. When he became lost, he was able to use his knowledge, and through his experience discovered reason to live.

The Mountain Story packs some emotional punches, primarily late in the book, but even before then Wolf's pain was apparent. This kid had dealt with his mother's premature death, constantly sought affection and approval from a distant, alcoholic father, and then felt responsible for losing his best friend. Lost on the mountain, he bonded with the three Devine women - Nola, who had come to scatter her husband's ashes in their special anniversary spot; her daughter Bridget, self-absorbed and training for a triathalon; and teenage Vonn, who came only reluctantly but was perhaps the strongest woman in her family.

I love the Canadian cover so much more
As I mentioned, this novel was in the form of a letter from Wolf to his son, revealing for the first time his complete story. Sometimes when I read a book like this, I get past the initial introductory part like this letter, get into the story and totally forget that it's supposed to be a story within a story because it's so unnecessary. Here we get also another bit at the end, because there were things revealed in the story that Wolf knew would affect his son. Still, I thought the story would have held on its own. Is this just a way to make it ok to write in the first person?

It doesn't matter though. I got so into this story of wilderness survival, I don't care what the outer frame is all about. I loved Wolf. He was so sensitive, but also strong. Nola was so well-drawn she seemed like someone I knew. Bridget was irritating, but in that way of someone you put up with anyhow because they're important to you. Vonn was sort of an enigma, but I really enjoyed getting to know her. Caring so much about these characters made me anxious for their survival, and the result was a very suspenseful story. I spent a few days getting halfway through and then read the remaining 150 pages in one evening on a weekday after work. That doesn't happen often!

Lori Lansens isn't an especially well-known or popular author, but I have really enjoyed the three of her four books that I've read. Her first novel, The Girls, is about a set of conjoined twins, which is what reeled me in but I was hooked by her complicated and well-crafted characters. I also really enjoyed The Wife's Tale, in which a morbidly obese woman is abandoned by her husband and it snaps her out of a life of inertia. I still haven't read Rush Home Road, though it's actually the most highly-rated of her books on Goodreads. I hope that more people discover Lori Lansens, because her books deserve more attention. If you like character-driven novels with unusual story lines, I highly recommend trying her books.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Top Ten Books On My Fall TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted at The Broke and the Bookish.

I still don't have an actual TBR list, but that doesn't mean I don't have plans, stacks of books, and wild hopes. Here's what I want to read this fall:

1. The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. I have to read this for my library's Community Read committee.

2. Kindred by Octavia Butler. Ditto.

3. The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. On my TBR Pile Challenge, as are the next two.

4. A Separate Peace by John Knowles. Which is so short - why is this so hard?

5. The Woman in Black by Susan Hill. Should be great Halloween-ish reading!

6. Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard. This is for my Not-So-Young Adult book group at work.

7. The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins.  I've heard such good things about it!

8. Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon. I also keep hearing how great this book is, and since it's a teen book it should be quite manageable.

9. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. Over 700 pages, but apparently amazing.

10. American Housewife by Helen Ellis. I've been looking forward to reading this galley of short stories since I heard about it on the Books on the Nightstand podcast.

It was hard picking a top 10. This list doesn't even include two of my TBR Pile Challenge books, or the re-read of Americanah I'm hoping for before our Community Read vote, or my galley of the forthcoming Chris Bohjalian novel. Even so, it's an ambitious list for fall (which always seems brutally short) especially considering the length of A Little Life.

What are your fall reading plans?

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Scorpion Rules

The Scorpion Rules (Prisoners of Peace #1) by Erin Bow

More than 400 years in the future, humans have shown that they can't manage to stay out of war, so artificial intelligence has taken over. Here is the system: each world leader must send a child to live at a Precepture with the other Children of Peace. They go to school, they work on a farm, and if their country goes to war, they die. The man who invented the atom bomb said that keeping
peace through deterrence was like putting two scorpions in a jar: they can't sting without getting stung, but it still doesn't stop them.

One of the Children of Peace is Greta Gustafsen Stuart, Duchess of Halifax and Crown Princess of the Pan Polar Confederacy. Like the others, she knows that at any moment she could be taken to the grey room to die. Like the others, she has been prepared for this all her life. But she's in more danger than the Children who come from more peaceful nations, and when a new boy named Elian arrives, her death suddenly seems more imminent.

This book arrived mysteriously on my doorstep in some rather elaborate packaging. It was inside a box, packed in black crinkle-paper, and then encased in a larger box. I have a lot to read right now (well, when don't I?) so I am not easily swayed by a random unsolicited galley, but as soon as I read the description I was sold. You'd think I'd be tired
Exciting and threatening at the same time!
of YA dystopias by now, or that they'd all seem the same, but nope.

Bow has managed to create a dystopian world quite different from the others, though bits of it reminded me of The Selection and The Hunger Games. These kids are royalty, but they also could die. Plus, it's a futuristic world that contains new technology like robots, but also basic old-timey agriculture. (I will never again be able to hear the worlds "apple press" without shuddering a bit.) It's a scary world filled with mean people, and also robots, some of whom used to be people. Also, it takes place in Saskatchewan, which I think is kind of cool.

The kids are great too! They are a diverse cast of friends including Greta, who is essentially Canadian, her Asian roommate Li Da-Xia, and the new kid Elian, who is from a new state called the Cumberland Alliance which is part of what is currently the U.S. Others are from Africa and Europe, but of course the political geography is all very different than now. Their friendships are both strong and tenuous - any of them could die, but at the same time all they have is each other. I think my one criticism of the story is that I couldn't tell if this group of friends were the only kids at the Precepture or just the ones we focused on. There didn't seem to be any extras in the background, but late in the book it seemed like there were actually more kids there than I thought.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the Abbott, the robot who was basically headmaster of the school, or Talis, who is essentially the supreme ruler and whose "Utterances" are quoted as though they're the Bible. In addition to these human-like robots, there are all of these little spider-like robots that follow the kids around and shock them when they behave badly. They are constantly watched by something called the Panopticon also, so basically they are hardly ever alone and have developed ways of speaking in code to each other. It's so incredibly strict.

I didn't know that this was going to be first in a series (though I should have guessed it), but the ending doesn't leave you hanging. In fact, I thought it might be a stand-alone until I checked Goodreads for more information. Although the novel left me satisfied, I'm also curious about this world Bow has created. In this book we just saw one Precepture, but I bet the rest of the world is pretty different. There's definitely potential for more story, and I may keep my eye out for the next part. If you like YA dystopias, this is essential reading!

The Scorpion Rules will be available on September 22. I received my copy courtesy of the publisher. I was not compensated for this review.