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Archive for March, 2009

In February 2008, I began tracking my reading at Goodreads. As of today, I’ve added 106 books to my lists there. Four of those are on my “currently reading” shelf. I’ve read 102 books in the past 13 months, which may explain why I am often sleep deprived.

Goodreads is a social networking site for readers. You can keep track of what you’ve read, see what friends are reading, and read reviews of books. It’s a helpful tool for me, but I have to admit I haven’t done much social networking with it. I’m a little shy about sending my friends invitations to join stuff online. But I do use Goodreads to help me write each month’s musings here at bookconscious.

Last month I mentioned that I’m reading The Artist’s Way, a twelve week program to revitalize creativity.  Last week the exercise I was supposed to do was give up reading for the whole week.  It was one of those weeks where a lot of things went wrong (sick kids, worn out tires, broken stove, gray skies), so I wasn’t in the mood to have a book tell me to quit reading, but I also just can’t conceive of such a thing.

My Goodreads list breaks down to an average of 8 books a month in the last year. I also try to read the numerous magazines that pass through the bookconscious household (many due to airline mile subscriptions). At one time or another over the last year that’s included New Yorker, Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, Newsweek, Wired, Time, The Economist, National Geographic, and Science News;  also Cooking Light, Bon Apetit, Episcopal Life, and a number of nonprofits’ publications, like Nature Conservancy Magazine); writing and literary journals (The Writer, Poets & Writers, Frogpond, bottle rockets, Modern Haiku, Isotope, Envoi, the Poet’s Touchstone); a local daily newspaper, and a few New York Times articles a day.

Maybe I am addicted to reading. Maybe, as the author of The Artists’s Way suggests, reading is blocking me from accomplishing my life’s work. But I’m more of a “glass half full” kind of gal, so I have another thought: maybe reading is my life’s work. It seems to me that reading informs not just my writing, but my life. I am what I read.

Reading has been important to me for as long as I can remember. Even as a kid, I loved getting a new issue of a magazine in the mail, loved checking out a stack of library books, loved curling up with a book at my grandmother’s house that she’d left on the bed for me. Reading is why one of my favorite places at college was my study carrel at Julia Rogers Library, why I went to graduate school to become a librarian, why I love helping a friend or a child find something good to read, why I tend to chat with fellow library patrons and bookstore goers.

So, for now, the “reading fast” is not happening.  I understand the point — take a break from reading and see what else happens if your life — but I’m not really looking for a reading replacement, because I see reading as a source of creativity, not a distraction. As a guest blogger for NHPR’s Word of Mouth, I find ideas by reading widely. A number of my poems have grown out of something that struck me in a magazine or a book I’ve read. Reading feeds me.

I told the computer scientist I thought it would be more relevant to find out what would happen in my life if I gave up cleaning the house. Or falling down the Internet rabbit hole when I check email. So instead of cutting back on reading, I’m cutting back on chores.

I’m only going to dust, vacuum, and mop every other week, and I’ve vowed to let it go if the kids forget to clean their rooms or the family room (instead of doing it myself — they either do it or they live with dust). I’ve also unsubscribed from a number of email lists that were sapping more energy than they were creating. I’m anticipating creative sparks and more reading time

With that I am going to get on with telling you what the bookconscious household has been reading.

The computer scientist finished a book he got for Christmas, Stephen King‘s Just After Sunset. He’s a huge King fan, and he says this collection includes “classic Stephen King” stories and “re-readers” — one thing I’ve noticed is that I can tell if something’s bothering my better half or if he’s getting sick, because out come the old reliable Stephen King books. In fact, he re-reads The Stand during every major illness. I’m not going to try and analyze that, but it’s a good way to tell if he’s really feeling poorly.

He also just finished Dennis Lehane‘s The Given Day, which his mother recommended. He said it was enjoyable. It’s a popular book at the library with a long reserve list, so while he was waiting, he tried Lehane’s collection of short stories, Coronado. On his Goodreads review he says the “character relationships were excellently developed and thoroughly believable.”

We’re reading The Great Gatsby in our lit crit circle with the teenager. I told my grandmother, a former teacher who still discusses books with me at 95, that although I’m pretty sure I read Gatsby in high school, I don’t remember the beautiful language.  She chuckled and said that getting her students to read Gatsby was like pulling teeth, and assured me it’s perfectly normal that the teenager isn’t enjoying it as much as his parents are.

The computer scientist and I both noted this passage: “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” The teenager admitted this was very nice, but was aggravated that each of the first three chapters of Gatsby seems to introduce a different story, and said it’s hard for him to be excited about the selfish people doing boring things in this book. But he’s hanging in there to see what happens.

More to the teenager’s taste lately was The Ultimate Hitchiker’s Guide to the Universe, which he called “weird,” but which held his attention for over 800 pages. He also finished Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby‘s memoir about football fandom in the UK and Hornby’s own passion for Arsenal. The teenager’s first real jersey was from Arsenal, and he once asked, when he was going through puberty and was having one of those alter-ego fits of angst, why we couldn’t have raised him in England so he could be steeped in real football from infancy.  He says Fever Pitch is “eye opening” and that it describes what it really means to be a fan.

Europe is on his mind right now, because he’s going to Freiburg, Germany this summer (on a soccer exchange, to train with the youth team of a semi-pro club). He  just started Europe Between the Oceans: 9000 BC-AD 1000, which he asked for after reading a review in Atlantic Monthly. The teenager is a big history fan, and he’s also enjoying The Scientists: A History of Science Told Through the Lives of Its Greatest Inventors. He finds the story of science very interesting, and says he likes that it’s not quite as political as other aspects of history.

If all that seems a bit heavy, don’t worry. He’s also reading Bill Bryson‘s Neither Here Nor There, because it’s about Bryson’s travels in Europe, and because as far as either of my children is concerned Bill Bryson is the wittiest man on the planet. In fact, we can drive for hours in complete peace and tranquility, with no sound save spontaneous outbursts of laughter, if we’ve got a Bryson audio book playing. My daughter has entire passages of I’m a Stranger Here Myself memorized.

She read a couple of Fairy Chronicles this month and started Carl Hiassen‘s latest children’s book, Scat. This wise child is the person who taught me to put down a book if I’m not feeling excited to get to the end, and that’s how she felt about this one.

On her brother’s recommendation, she’s reading The Amulet of Samarkand, which is book one in the Bartimaeus Trilogy. She says she enjoys the “remarks” Bartimaeus makes, because he’s funny. She is also a huge comics fan, and has been enjoying a couple of Foxtrot compendiums (quick aside — comic strips have taught my kids everything from history to vocabulary, algebra to physics, and usually without their feeling “taught to”).

Maybe because so much of the news is unpleasant, I’ve been seeking humor in my reading as well. Like the kids, I enjoy subtle wit as much as laugh out loud hilarity.  The Uncommon Reader is a delightfully witty novella which opens with Queen Elizabeth II discovering that a mobile library visits Buckingham Palace every week. She begins to read and to discuss books with the young man she meets in the bookmobile, who she promotes from working in the palace kitchens. Author Alan Bennett imagines what the reading life might do for the Queen, and if you love books and reading, you’ll find his ideas both reasonable and fun. And you may occasionally disturb your partner’s sleep by laughing out loud; I did.

Less humorous, but more helpful for burrowing through some of the impenetrably illogical nonsense that sometimes passes for news, is Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking. This handy little book is a short introduction to argumentation, and I enjoyed it so much, and found the explanations so clear, that I’ve ordered it in paperback to have around the house. If more people learned to argue logically, rather that shout soundbites or quarrel, our society might be more civil. As my grandmother has always said, “you can’t change everything, but you can do your best.” So I’m making good thinking a goal and I’m going to encourage it in my family!

Both Being Logical and The Uncommon Reader are books that were on my “to read” list. But I also sometimes peruse the new book shelves, particularly at Ohrstrom Library at Saint Paul’s School, where I worked last summer.  I found two great reads there recently.

Early in the month I picked up What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami. This short memoir has a unique focus — the author’s life as a runner, and how running and writing intersect in his life. I am not a runner and have no desire to be, but I loved the book, in part because of its novelty; reading a book from another culture is a vicarious vacation from one’s status quo.

But cultural appeal aside, I also liked Murakami’s perceptions, and the fact that he’s a life learner. You get the sense that he’s always trying to improve, which I can identify with. He pursues his interests passionately, and he seems to embrace his own curiosity. And he writes about his sense of human interconnectedness, which is something I like to think about, too.

I was so intrigued by the memoir that I went back and checked out the first of his novels that appeared in English: The Wild Sheep Chase. It’s so unlike anything else I’ve read recently, or maybe ever, that I am not sure how to even do it justice here. The story is mysterious and its conclusion blew me away.

And yet it’s not just a mystery. I’d say there’s a philosophical slant to it, a love story, and an examination of friendship, loyalty, and even patriotism. The computer scientist has been to Japan several times, and he says it’s a mind blowing experience, because absolutely everything is overwhelmingly foreign to a non-native.  The Wild Sheep Chase felt that way. I’ve checked out another of Murakami’s books which I am going to start tonight.

Also on Ohrstrom’s new book shelves, I found P.F. Kluge‘s Gone Tomorrow. This one is also a mystery of sorts, but instead of a missing body, the protagonist is looking for a missing manuscript. He finds himself named literary executor to a famous author he’s met only a few times on the campus of the small college where they both teach.

He comes across one manuscript, which turns out to be a memoir of the author’s final year at the college. But despite multiple references to “The Beast” — the novel this author has allegedly been working on for decades — no one knows where the great man’s great work is, or if it even exists.

My only beef is that the women in Gone Tomorrow seem like stock characters. But if you’re looking for a unique page turner, check it out. Both Kluge and Murakami are authors who draw you in with local color, interesting characters who are not perfect people, and intriguing possibilities. Both Gone Tomorrow and The Wild Sheep Chase keep readers guessing without screaming “mystery.” I really enjoyed both authors and I plan to work my way through the rest of their books.

But first, I wanted to read the March selection for Gibson’s book discussion group: The Syringa Tree, by Pamela Gien. It’s unusual in that Gien wrote it as a play first, before turning it into a novel. In fact she also performed it as a one woman show.

Set in South Africa around the time that Nelson Mandela is beginning to rile authorities, it’s the story of a girl growing up with a mentally ill mother and a doctor father who is a very good man, but frequently absent. One of the constants in the girl’s life is her nanny, Salamina. The Syringa Tree is a dramatic story set in a dramatic time, and a book I stayed up late trying to finish because I was anxious to know how things would turn out.

Gien wrote the play after a story telling exercise in an acting workshop. A couple of The Syringa Tree‘s key events, which really happened in Gien’s childhood, came back to her in the workshop. As a writer, I find that trigger both inspiring and a little awesome — what might I remember that could feed me this way? I don’t think anything in my childhood was as dramatic as Gien’s experiences, but it’s helpful to hear, as I plug away at my narrative time line, about another author’s experience mining memory.

My poetry reading this month was inspired by a workshop I took at St. Paul’s School in late January with Joseph Millar. I read both of his books, Overtime and Fortune, so I’d have an idea of where he might be coming from. I’d describe his poetry as masculine, gritty, but in many ways also delicately crafted. I picked up some interesting ideas in his workshop, such as looking at a draft and assuming the first line isn’t really at the literal first line you’ve written, but deeper in the poem somewhere.

After the workshop I read poems by Philip Levine, Robert Lowell, and Jack Gilbert, all of whom Millar recommended. He used Levine’s “Grandmother In Heaven” as an example of a poetic character sketch, and he referred to Lowell and Gilbert as other examples of poets whose characters stand out.  I read Lowell’s Life Studies and Gilbert’s Refusing Heaven, and also read poems online. The poetry tool is a great place to find biographical information as well as poems.

I’ve got a few poetry journals on my reading pile, as well as Haruki Murakami’s The Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. After reading The Syringa Tree I dug out Power Lines: Two Years on South Africa’s Borders by Jason Carter, who is President Carter’s grandson. It’s a book I bought at a library sale some time ago, and it’s about the author’s stint in the Peace Corps, which began just as Nelson Mandela finished his term as president  of South Africa. I’ve only read the beginning but so far it’s fascinating.

And isn’t that why we read? Fascinating nonfiction, page-turning fiction, poetic prose and poems that feature well crafted characters — there’s so much to learn, so much to absorb, and so much to discuss or write about, so many reasons to stay up late, laughing and crying. One man who thought kids’ books ought to be all of that instead of boring and didactic, who helped change children’s literature forever, was Dr. Seuss.

It’s his birthday today, and the kids and I learned that addition to enlivening “beginning readers,”  Dr. Seuss sent his friend Art Buchwald a special version of Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now!, which Buchwald ran in his column on July 30, 1974.Take a look and you’ll see it’s a piece of Americana. Nixon resigned on August 8th. I wonder if he read the column?

My daughter and I chatted about Dr. Suess’s stories this afternoon, and the way they are incredibly fun but also often include a philosophy to live by, like caring for the earth (The Lorax), being truthful (And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street), and caring about each other rather than about how much stuff we have (How the Grinch Stole Christmas). Obviously he’s fairly heavy handed about the “message,” but for some reason the stories are incredibly appealing nonetheless. My daughter is usually quick to put down “preachy” books, but she said she likes Suess.

So we hung out by the fire on a snowy March day, and I read aloud, both the historical version of Marvin K. Mooney and, by request, The Lorax. Even the teenager listened with amusement. You’re never too old to for Dr. Suess. And I can’t change everything, but I can do my best. Books will guide my way.

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