Monday, March 2, 2020

What I read in February

Well, another month and no weekly posts. I have every intention of getting back to that format, but it just didn't happen this month. I am, however, enjoying reading more than I have for the last few months, so maybe the unintended hiatus has worked for me. I feel like I'm reading more books that deeply satisfy me. It's wonderful.

I finished 13 books in February, and I'll give full reviews to the four that I enjoyed most. I'll review the others with shorter reviews. If I don't do this, I just won't catch up.

I was interested in reading American Dirt when I read about it on Christmas break back in December--long before all the controversy erupted. I have to say I don't really understand the controversy other than that it's identity politics at work, and that almost never makes sense. To weigh in, I don't believe the publishing industry is deliberately trying to squash brown voices by not publishing their books. The publishing industry exists at least as much to make money as it does to produce quality literature (and the cynic in me would say "more so"). It's a business, and if folks are clambering for something, they'll publish it. I also don't think Oprah, the author, nor anyone who reads the book is a racist. For goodness sake, let's spread love and make the positive argument for our fellow human beings. I believe what the author writes in the back of her book, that she spent five years researching and writing this book, and although she did not make the journey to America via the Beast, she is compassionate toward those who do. Also, there is the obvious statement that must be made: if we only published and read books by people who experienced everything in them firsthand, we'd have no Steinbeck, Hemingway, or even Austen. That's a ridiculous criteria. All of that said, I liked the book. It was a gripping depiction of a mother and her young son's journey to America, outrunning a drug lord who has murdered 16 members of their family and wants to murder them too. There was not much brutality, if that was a concern of yours. The author did a pretty good job of hiding her pro-illegal immigration bias, at least giving passing acknowledgement to the fact that what they were about to do was illegal. I found the characters very believable. I finished the book with a more compassionate view of those who have to make this difficult journey and the difficult choice to live a life of subterfuge in a country not their own. It did not change my firmly held beliefs about illegal immigration, however. This one is well worth your time. It was written in a tone I can only call "immediate" which nailed the frantic mood of the mother and son as they make their way to "El Norte." My rating: 4 stars.

While making my way through 1,000 Books to Read before You Die (I'm up to the Ms now), I came upon an entry for Shirley Jackson's Life among the Savages, which will likely be one of my favorites of the year. Jackson is best known for her dark stories, but this is a fictionalized memoir of her life with her husband and four young children (two are born in the course of the book) in a full, rambling house in the 1940s or so. It's very, very funny and full of charm. The children really come to life on the page, and Jackson has a way of writing about seemingly insignificant domesticities in a smart and engaging way. I enjoyed this book so much. I have a feeling 1,000 Books to Read... is just full of these gems--books you've never heard of that are just wonderful. I highly recommend this one. Also, when I went back to re-read the entry for the book in 1,000 Books to Read..., I discovered that Jackson penned a sequel. I ask you, is there anything more satisfying than finding out a book you love has a sequel? My rating: 5 stars.

Messenger of Truth is the fourth in Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs mystery series. In the series, which begins in post-Great War Britain, Maisie Dobbs runs a private investigation agency and solves murder cases. But Maisie is no ordinary British detective. She is trained in psychology and uses what she learned to get closer to the truth than the blokes at Scotland Yard can with their traditional methods. These books are smart, and they read more like literature with a mystery thrown in than a plain mystery story. I love how they're written and I love how we get to know the main characters (Maisie; her assistant, Billy; and her father, especially) throughout the series but also really get to know and understand the principal characters in the mystery plot as well. These are slowly plotted, and the attention and time paid to details and setup is thorough. And...this was my favorite in the series yet. I loved this book so much. In it, Maisie is asked to determine whether the artist Nick Bassington-Hope's fall to his death from scaffolding he was using to hang his latest, and secret, exhibit was an accident, or whether he was pushed to his death. Nick's work is a brazen, searing look at the brutality of World War I, and it upsets as well as compels people. Secondary plots include a smuggling ring, the heartrending sickness of Billy's young daughter, as well as frank discussion of the haves and the have nots during Great Britain's Depression, contemporaneous with America's. Also, Maisie is living on her own for the first time, and we see her curled up in her chilly apartment, eating tinned soup and reading novels in the evenings. I found this one so satisfying. It was cozy and exciting and had a depth of feeling for large topics that was very meaningful to me. It also feels as though Maisie is at a personal crossroads of sorts, and I can't wait for the next book in the series. My rating: 5 stars.

Three years ago, I read Bret Baier's Three Days in January: Dwight Eisenhower's Final Mission (my review here), and I was disappointed by it. It didn't grab me, and I found it dry and uninteresting. Because of that, I skipped the second book in the series, Three Days in Moscow: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of the Soviet Empire, though I'm a big fan of President Reagan and this point in history. But something made me try the third in the series, Three Days at the Brink, FDR's Daring Gamble to Win World War II. In this one, we learn about the three days in November 1943 in which allies Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin secretly met for the first time to discuss a strategy for winning World War II. Called the Tehran Conference, it's where Operation Overlord was discussed, including the storming of the beaches of Normandy. This was a fantastic book. I listened to it on audio, narrated by the author, whose voice I've long enjoyed on television. I knew much of the facts of the book by heart from the numerous other history books I've read about FDR and World War II, and there wasn't a lot here that was new to me, but there is something to be said for the comforting feeling of an old story you know well being retold. FDR and World War II stories are as familiar to me as scripture, and it often felt that way listening to the story unfold. My mind could automatically fill in the next part. It was oddly comforting. Not everyone, I know, will have this personal reaction to the book, but I don't think it will catch many as staid or boring. Baier paints good portraits of the three principal players: FDR's charm and charisma, Churchill's gruffness and warmth, and Salin's distrustful, circumspect demeanor. He examines how Roosevelt often sides with Stalin to garner good faith, alienating Churchill in the process; Stalin's landgrab at the end of the war and the Cold War that followed; and Roosevelt's death. It's all here in a very readable and sometimes colorful retelling. I really liked this one, and if you're looking for a good, concise explanation of this time in history, I can't recommend it enough. My rating: 5 stars.

This month I also read:

During CYBILs judging last fall, I discovered Rachel Poliquin's Moles (my review here) which I just loved. That made me want to read all of Poliquin's Superpower Field Guides, which led me to Beavers. This was just as wonderful as Moles, and I learned a lot about the little chainsaws of the forest. Specifically, I learned that beavers' front teeth are orange. How could I have never learned this wonderful fact? I wondered it they were maybe orange-ish until I was making my way through our local antique shop which is home to lots of taxidermy pieces, and I found myself face-to-face with a stuffed beaver's incisors. Their color? A definite orange. My rating: 4 stars.

I love memoirs by people who are masters at what they do. Trailblazers, geniuses, experts, prodigies, I love learning about what makes them tick. I've always thought Elton John was a musical master. He wrote and recorded a slew of wonderful songs, and I'd always respected him. After reading (listening, actually) his memoir, Me, however, I have less respect for the man. Like a lot of artists of his era, there was a lot of drug use going on, and we learn every nasty detail of it. We also learn every nasty detail of his homosexual sex life and his drama queen (he'd call himself that; it's not my term) hysteria. He seems a man who took a long time to grow up, if indeed, he has, but the book was very honest, which I respect. It was also well written as far as celebrity memoirs go. But, if you don't want all the details, it might be best to skip it. If you do decide to tackle it, though, do it on audio. The audio performance, and there's no other word for it, was magnificent. It should win an award. My rating: 3 stars.

I'm not sure how Beneath the Tamarind Tree came to my attention, but I admit the cover really caught my eye. This is the story of the 276 girls abducted by Boko Haram in Chibok, Nigeria in 2014. I'm sure you remember the story from that time, and the #BringBackOurGirls movement it ignited, but like me perhaps you wondered whatever became of the girls. This is the rest of the story, or what can be told of it. Some of the girls, I believe, never came home. The author, Isha Sesay, is a CNN reporter who followed this story, and when some of the girls came home, she was there to tell the world their story. But by that point no one was interested anymore. I had trouble with this book. First, it was not at all clear to me why the girls were stolen. We heard reports of them being sold into sex slavery, but that doesn't seem to be the case overall. Also, I'm not clear on the fact that any abuse took place. Of course, stealing a young woman away from her home is criminal, it would seem the darker crimes we all assumed happened (rape, torture, death) perhaps didn't. It seemed the worst that happened were they were moved a lot, pressured to become Muslims, and were malnourished. So what was the point of taking them then? My main issue with the book was the judgmental attitude of the author about the world's response. Assertions were made over and over that if these girls were white the world would care and they'd be rescued. It there were rich..., if they were American.... Yes, had they been American, they would have been rescued, because America has the might and priorities to do so. But to assert that it's America's or Britain's or France's responsibility to rescue Nigerian girls when their own government repeatedly lied about the situation and did almost nothing to find the girls, and then castigate those countries because they didn't, is grossly unfair. So, what you have here is another good story made political by the journalist reporting it. It's a pity, because we were all wondering what became of the girls. My rating: 3 stars.

I remember enjoying the movie Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House staring Cary Grant and Myrna Loy. The book had an entry in 1,000 Books to Read before You Die so I thought I'd give it a try. (First of all, a shout out to my university library that is slow to weed its collection. Because of that, many of these old gems are readily available--and no wait lists.) This one, however entertaining, didn't do it for me. This is the story of Mr. Blandings and his wife who decide to buy a country home, but end up tearing down the home they buy to build a new one. It details the ups and downs (mostly downs) of every facet of the building process including procuring financing, digging a well, having plans drawn, and choosing paint colors. It's farcical, and yet, very true to life from what we see on HGTV these days. What didn't work for me about this one is the negative tone. I have a good sense of humor, and I like dry humor, but this was just too adverse and discouraging for my taste. Mr. and Mrs. Blandings don't get along well, and they go after each other, and Mr. Blandings picks fights with everyone, though we're meant to think of his as the downtrodden victim. All in all, had Mr. Blandings been a more pitiable character, this would have worked much better. My rating: 3 stars.

The Postal Confessions is Max Garland's first book of poetry and one of my favorites to return to. As Max was my college poetry workshop professor, and was the poet laurate of Wisconsin, I'm biased. This book is full of charming, approachable, nostalgic poems with a little humor thrown in. A true treasure. My rating: 4 stars.

I did not know when I bought The Guest Book nor when I committed to listening to it months later that I was about to read a story of white privilege. Had I known, I would not had started it per my 2020 reading goal to avoid books about outrage. It's a shame, too, because it is beautifully written and the characters are fleshed. It took a long time to get preachy, but when it did, I felt duped and betrayed. With a subtler hand, it could have been great. A note on the audio: it's pretty terrible, likely the muddiest audiobook I've ever listened to, so you might want to read this in paper. My rating: 3 stars.
I was looking forward to reading Africa, Amazing Africa ridiculously much. To learn a little bit about each African country sounded right up my alley. Unfortunately, this one didn't work for me for exactly that reason: there wasn't room enough to write more than a little about each country, just one page each, and most of that was artwork. Also, there was something that bothered me that's hard to put into words, so I'll try to illustrate it. When I say Rwanda what do you think of? What about Somalia? What about Sudan? Genocide, pirates, war. But the book talked about things such as how much people in this country like soccer. Fine, I guess, for kids, but it seemed, and I struggle for the word...disingenuous? whitewashed? It made me uncomfortable. I know there would be a general reluctance to discuss genocide in a children's book, but I know plenty that do discuss such topics, and don't we need to? Those do forget the past are doomed to repeat it. I don't know, but I was dissatisfied. My rating: 2 stars. 

I just don't know what to say about A Passage to India at all. It's something I'd been meaning to read for a long time, so finally picked up the audio version, which was good. But what did I think of it? I really don't know. What was it about? I don't really know that either. I think it's meant to be a portrait of India in the 1920s, several decades before they gain their independence from England. It's also meant to be, I think, an exploration of the Indian and British cultures and people and where they clash and the misunderstandings that come about. Beyond this, I don't really know what to tell you. I'd like to discuss this one with others who have read it to determine if it really is a meandering story of confused cultures or something deeper. Perhaps, being 100 years old, it's lost a bit of its potency. I really don't know. I think I could come to really like the book, though, if I knew. My rating: 3 stars.  

Erick Larson's work is a bit hit or miss with me. I loved The Devil in the White City (my review here), but Dead Wake, which everyone seems to love, left me cold. Thunderstuck has been waiting for me on my bookshelf for a long time, and this month when I was looking for some good nonfiction on audio, I decided to try it. It was quite wonderful, definitely more on a par with The Devil in the White City than Dead Wake, in fact, very similar in tone, writing, and plot. This is the simultaneous stories of Marconi developing his radio telegraph system and the death of opera hopeful Charlotte Bell. It was fast-paced and interesting, but I didn't feel the two stories came together in a perfectly satisfying way. Still, if you liked The Devil..., do give this one a read. My rating: 4 stars.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Catching up - What I read in January 2020

Let's try something a little different. I'm over a month behind in my reviewing, and in order to catch up, I'm going to post full reviews for the books I can't stop thinking about, and teeny-tiny reviews for the rest.

January sort of took a bite out of me. I wasn't feeling well for much of it, and my reading was still suffering from malaise. I hope things pick up soon. I don't like feeling like I don't know what to read.

Last month I finished 12 books, seven of them on audio. There were a few stellar books, and a lot of very average fare. I think this will improve, though, as I allow myself to chip away at that wonderous TBR I built over the first part of the winter.

My favorite books of January

I wish I would have written this review while The Dutch House was still fresh in my mind, because it deserves better than a review written after the magnificence of the book has faded and plot has become hazy. If you haven't read this one yet, one-click it or get on your library hold list (I can assure you there's still a hold list for this one) right now. It's hard to distill the plot of this book, because the plot isn't nearly as important as the characters you'll meet and the experience you'll have reading it. I found the book so beautifully and smartly written. A skinny plot summary: the Conroy family owns the grand and gaudy Dutch house, so named because the family that built the house, whose portraits still hang in it, were Dutch. Mrs. Conroy never had any good feelings toward the house, and she left it, her husband, and her children Maeve and Danny, while the children are quite young. Mr. Conroy remarries, and events end up so that Maeve and Danny find themselves, quite literally, on the outside looking in, for the next several decades. That plot doesn't sound very exciting, does it? But trust me, the novel really carries you along in such a satisfying way. Before this I'd looked into several of Ann Patchett's novels, but the plots never interested me enough to try. After reading The Dutch House, though, I plan to pick up another of her books to see if the writing is as wonderful as it is here. Don't miss this wonderful read. My rating: 5 stars.

For years I've circled Watership Down, wanting to read it but never actually picking it up. Anthropomorphized animal stories (and movies, especially) do me in. And if one of the animals dies? Oh heavens. But, I read James Mustich's wonderful summary of the book in his 1,000 Books to Read before You Die, and I knew I had to take the plunge, tears be darned. Mustich indicated that the audio book was exceptional, so that's the route I went, and I have to say he was 100% correct. Though I can't place the narrator, if you're an avid listener of audiobooks, I'm sure you'll recognize the voice, too. My two great concerns about this book were violence toward the rabbits and that it was a thinly guised treatise on manmade environmental peril. Mustich sort of hinted at the latter, but in the author's introduction, Richard Adams assured his readers that the book was not an allegory, and I was comforted. Sometimes you just want a story of rabbits to be a story about rabbits. If you're unfamiliar with this tale, the plot is this: Timid little Fiver feels in his bones that the warren he lives in is in peril. He tells his brother that they must leave. They take the premonition to the chief elder, but he dismisses it. Regardless, the brothers and a handful of others set out to found their own warren to escape what is surely coming. They have many harrowing adventures along the way, get into some bloody scrapes (ha, no pun!), and learn a lot about the world around them. I found this book equally charming and deep, and superbly well-written. It is a tale well told. The author started telling the story to his daughters on a long car trip, and he continued telling it after their return. One of his daughters encouraged him to put it on paper and publish it. It was rejected again and again in England. Editors thought it was too adult for the juvenile audience and too juvenile for the adult audience. He finally found a small publisher and had modest success. Then it was imported to America, where readers fell all over it, and it wasn't until its import back into the UK that it became a hit. You're welcome, Mr. Adams. Glad we Yanks could help. Seriously, if you've been circling this book for years like I have, please consider it. It's one of the best written books I've ever had the pleasure of listening to. I think you'll love it. My rating: 5 stars.

You know by now I love a good presidential memoir, and I especially love the Bush family, so shortly after President George H. W. Bush's passing, I committed to reading his book of letters and other writings, All the Best, George Bush. And then I kind of put it off, because it's a monster of a book, clock in at 700 pages (without back matter). But I was in the mood for something long and slow and life-affirming last month, and this one fit the bill. This is a collection of President Bush's correspondence, journal entries, and other notes penned over his 70-plus years serving his country. The first letters were written when we was a young (the youngest, I've read) Navy fighter pilot, and the letters take you through his distinguished career including his time in Congress, his U.N. ambassadorship, his work as envoy to China, his time as CIA director and Republican National Committee chair (while Watergate was exploding around him), and his three terms as vice president and president of the United States. Also covered are his years pre-Washington as a Texan oilman and his years post-presidency. I loved this reading experience. It was dry in a few places, but being letters, I never felt tied to one place or idea for long. I never knew what was coming next: a dry letter regarding international diplomacy might be followed by a heartfelt letter to one of his children or grandchildren, or a hilarious letter to the chairman of the Roach Bowl, in which roaches were entered on the president's behalf. Some of my favorite stories are included, like when he had Dana Carvey address his staff as the president on his way out of office, the emotional tug-of-war he felt when sons George won his Texas governorship and Jeb lost his on the same night, the story of his plane jumping as an elderly man, as well as the story of his plane being shot down in World War II, killing his crewmates, an experience that haunted him for the rest of his life. Also, I was glad to read again the letter he wrote to his mother about his home's need for a little girl to balance out the four rowdy boys he and Barbara had, written, of course, in reference to losing his three-year-old daughter to leukemia. (They did have a daughter, Doro, after those four boys.) The entries I found the best were the charming ones he penned after leaving office, about babysitting his grandchildren and the like. I just loved the experience of reading through a great man's life in his own words, but not with the intention of ever being read by anyone but the recipient. It gives a full picture of a wonderful man, kind, tough, traditional, emotional, heroic, and funny. I highly recommend it. My rating: 5 stars.

In January I also read:

The third in the Vanderbeekers series, The Vanderbeekers to the Rescue, was as good as the first two. In this installment, the five Vanderbeeker kids and their friends had to find a way to save their mother's baking business while also solving the mystery of who keeps dropping orphaned animals on their front stoop. My rating: 3 stars.

This book of poetry truly exhausted me. I picked up Arias with apprehension because Sharon Old's last book of poems was so nasty I wasn't sure I'd ever pick up another book by her. This one wasn't bad, but it really felt repetitive. So many of the poems were about her mother beating her with a hairbrush years ago. She's obviously trying to work through some things, but it was emotionally exhausting. My rating: 2 stars.

I finally got around to Eric Metaxas's Bonhoeffer this year. I listened to it on CD, and I'm glad I did. I would have abandoned it in print form. It is a very thorough biography of German Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his death at the hands of the Nazis. It's obvious that Metaxas idolizes the man, but I just don't have a lot of time for theology. Theology is man studying God, and it always ends up being completely material, not spiritual. I didn't care much for the book, though it was well-written. My rating: 3 stars.

I picked up Richard Russo's memoir, Elsewhere, on audio in December and abandoned it. But when my January audio holds didn't come in, I was forced to finish it. This is Russo's (he wrote Empire Falls) memoir about growing up with his mother, who seems to have mental health issues. I didn't care for this book very much for the sole reason that it seemed Russo was capitalizing on his mother's mental problems for his gain. It felt exploitative and unloving. My rating: 3 stars.

Oh my goodness, would someone please stop me from buying any more Rachel Hollis books? Please? I read her Girl, Wash Your Face last year, and I didn't care much for it. (Can't explain why my rating was so high.) I even put it on my Stinkers list. But then I went right back out and bought her next book, Girl, Stop Apologizing. Hollis and I have nothing in common, and regardless of what she thinks, I do not want to be her. One thing pretty much sums up Hollis and her priorities: she has a tattoo of the word "mogul" on her person. While she has some good advice, I just cannot deal with her. My rating: 3 stars.

Jacqueline Woodson's Red at the Bone, was a short, good read. I listened on audio, which was a fabulous performance. Someday I might like to read the book, though, because I feel that I missed something hearing it so fast. It's the story of three generations of black family and explores teenage pregnancy, motherhood, what it means to be a woman/man/family. I didn't care much for the lesbian plot plunked in; it seemed careless and out of place, pandering. This is a book I could see being discussed in literature classes. Woodson is very good at what she does. My rating: 4 stars.

I finished listening to The Night Diary for the same reason I finished Elsewhere, I didn't have any other audiobooks at home. This is a children's book about the years when India breaks from British rule and splits into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. Twelve-year-old Nisha is half-Muslim, half-Hindu, and the adults won't tell her why she must move to Pakistan. There seems to be a lot of danger, but I couldn't figure out why. Perhaps I missed something. The book is written as Nisha's letters to her deceased mother, and it's well written. It's the kind of book honor committees love (it won the 2019 Newbery Honor), but I'm not sure it would have a whole lot of appeal to most children. My rating: 3 stars.

I've always liked Nikki Haley. She came on the scene as the tough and sometimes outspoken governor of South Carolina and went on to become US ambassador to the United Nations for the Trump administration. Her book about those years in office, With All Due Respect, takes its title from a statement she made to FNC's Dana Perino when someone in the Trump administration threw her under the political bus calling her confused. She told Perino that all she had to say on that matter was: With all due respect, I don't get confused. I enjoyed this book, but it wasn't quite as good as I was hoping. She sounded too much like a politician when she talked about the issues she faced such as removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse grounds. I did find the look at how the UN works (or doesn't work, as the case may be) fascinating. My rating: 3 stars.


If you've read Sally Bedell Smith's wonderful biography of the Queen, Elizabeth the Queen, there may be no need to read Kate William's Young Elizabeth, as there isn't much here that wasn't covered in detail in the Smith book, but I still have to recommend this one. It's a very enjoyable read. It might be a tough fawning, but I really didn't mind. It was just a good, readable biography that I enjoyed very much. My rating: 4 stars.

I didn't finish Kevin Wilson's Nothing to See Here. In fact, I jumped ship pretty quickly after starting it. This just isn't a book for me, too much drama, and way too much swearing covering up for lazy character development.

Whew! I did it. And I kind of liked this format. Who knows, maybe I'll continue with it. Less time reviewing means more time reading!

Monday, February 3, 2020

2020 goals

Most years I don't make a list of goals, but I always have a list in my head. This year, it seemed important to commit them to paper, so I guess I'll also commit them to the internet. These are simple, measurable goals that I think will enrich my life in some way, but they're all things that I've struggled with completing in the past. I hope they'll bring clarity to the days of 2020.

Pray for myself daily.
This is my most important goal of the year. All the other goals, all the reading goals, none of it matters like this one. There are a number of healings I have been working toward for years, and this year I plan to spend concentrated effort on these demonstrations.

Write to Tomoe.
My only college friend who keeps in touch with me, Tomoe, always writes to me at Christmas, though she hasn't heard from me for years. I feel tremendous guilt every time her wonderful card and letter comes from Japan. This year, I WILL WRITE BACK.

Visit Mom.
My mother has made not-so-subtle requests that my husband and I visit her more. She comes to our house several times per year to visit, but we only find our way to her house on holidays. We only live an hour away, so there's no reason not to make the effort. This year, we will.

Start a commonplace book.
I've started and abandoned more journals in my life than I can count. I am just not cut out for daily journaling. But I've long loved the idea of an inspiration journal or a place to collect random thoughts, quotes, questions I'm working my way through, and things I don't want to forget. Little did I know there's a term for such a journal: a commonplace book. I want to start one this year and add to it at whim instead of on a schedule.

Complete "Grandma's Room."
When we moved into our house in 2011, one of the spare bedrooms became my library/study. When my little grandson was helping us move in, we were directing him to the rooms by calling that room "Grandma's room" and the name stuck. This is where I keep all of my books, my antique photo collection, and all of my favorite paintings. It's a very, very full room, and because I'm not in there every day, it becomes a dumping ground for piles. This year it's getting cleaned up, re-organized, redecorated--whatever it takes to make it cozy, usable, and beautiful. I'd love to get a new rug and light fixture, but I don't know if we'll go that far. I'd be happy just to have all the clutter tamed.

Read family history binders.
My lovely Aunt Carol has spent the last several years compiling family history binders for each of her siblings and for me. These are amazing works of love, and I'm way behind in reading and enjoying them.

Turn off the news when it devolves into something other than news.
This will be especially helpful later this year when the presidential election heats up. I detest political bickering. And in our house we make conscious effort to shut out prophesying. We're gonna wear out that mute button this year.

Make a conscious effort to discern what's not working for me and change or eliminate it.
This is so important, and I think I was too busy reading last year to do much of it. But I can think of a couple of examples. I finally admitted I liked gardening as long as I didn't have to do it. I dug up all of my flowers and gave the plants to work friends. Now there are no guilty projects waiting for me outside other than trimming bushes every spring which I don't really mind. It's very freeing. I also reorganized my unmentionables drawer to get everything in one place, and it has made me very happy. I want to tackle more of these projects this year. Maybe I'll begin with my linens drawer or decluttering my kitchen countertop. These have been driving me nuts.

Monday, January 27, 2020

What I read over Christmas break

I took almost three weeks off in December, giving myself lots of time to read, wrap presents, work jigsaw puzzles, and watch it snow. Unfortunately, once I finally had the time to read as much as I wanted to, I had a hard time settling into a book--like, a HARD time. I never have this problem. But I did find a couple of things that kept me going.

The Giver of Stars is a book I picked up off our library's new book shelf. I've never read a Jojo Moyes book, and I'm not sure if this book is representative of her work, but I was impressed by it. While a little fluffy and a little overly dramatic, it was much better written than I expected. This is the story of a small group of American women who set up a mobile library, delivering books on horseback to folks who live in the mountains. The characters are interesting and easy to root for, and there is good resolution, which I sort of demand in a story. There was also a strong sense of setting, which I enjoy. All in all, I liked this one quite a bit, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone looking for something a little lighter (actually, the story isn't light, but the reading is). My rating: 4.5 stars.

Okay, can I just admit something? I was never a fan of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. The man creeped me out as a child, and frankly, still does as an adult. And those puppets, especially, creeped me out. But there's been a huge resurgence of Mr. Rogers; tons of books for adult and children have been published in the last couple of years, and of course the new movie with Tom Hanks, so I decided to give The Good Neighbor a listen while I worked on jigsaw puzzles. Read by LaVar Burton, I enjoyed this on audio. The book itself was a bit fawning, but not badly, and my only real disappointment was that Fred Rogers' faith and religious training was somewhat glossed over, or at least, I would have preferred more discussion of that. While my feelings for Rogers haven't really changed, this book did make me examine why I felt that way as a little kid, and why I feel that way still. I was a shy, sensitive child, and his ultra-gentle manner should have been reassuring and a respite from a loud, demanding world. But it wasn't. Perhaps it was that Mr. Rogers was so unlike every adult male in my life, so my little mind decided he was too different for comfort. At any rate, I enjoyed this biography, especially the audio version. My rating: 4 stars.

I just love a Pioneer Woman cookbook, and I'm so glad they come out every other year. I keep fearing Ree will run out of recipes and have to go weird, but I hasn't happened yet. In her newest cookbook, The Pioneer Woman Cooks: The New Frontier, she does include several low-carb recipes as well as numerous instant pot recipes. I found several things I'd like to try, though I can't really remember any right now other than the overnight peaches and cream oatmeal. The book, too, has a fresher look than her previous books, and I have to admit I kind of miss the visual overload of riotous color and collage art of the older books. It was still a pretty book, but it's much more average. Her picture-for-each-step technique and her funny introductions to each recipe haven't gone anywhere, though, and I'm glad of that. This book was every bit as good as her other books. My rating: 4.5 stars.

I have only one more book to read in the Flavia de Luce series before I'm caught up, and I don't like that one bit. With the most recent book, the tenth in the series, Alan Bradley said he was going to evaluate whether Flavia was done giving him stories. I sure hope she sets him straight that she has LOTS more to tell and many more mysteries to solve. In the ninth book of the series, The Grave's a Fine and Private Place, Flavia, her sisters, and Dogger go on a little boat ride to shake the gloom after the death that happened at the end of the eighth book, and as Flavia trails her fingers in the water, she hooks them into a dead man's mouth. And we're off and running. This wasn't one of my favorite plots of the series, but the murder and mystery as always less important to me than Flavia's wit and brilliance anyway. And Flavia was every bit herself in this one. My rating: 4 stars.

Nicole Chung's All You Can Ever Know has been on my TBR for ages. I love books about Asian culture, and I have a soft spot for adoption stories, so I was interested in this one from the beginning. Every time I tried to read it, however, I could not get into it. I finally decided to try it on audio, but in the end I decided it's not the format, it's the book that I don't like. I don't really know how to say what I want to about this one, and I don't want to disparage anyone's adoption journey or feelings of being caught between cultures. And yet, this book annoyed and troubled me. There was a constant feeling that Chung was trying to drive her story after it happened, trying to make it bigger than it really was. Frankly, her feelings of being different and feeling alienated were no different from most kids' childhood experiences. I think her feelings had less to do with race differences than they do with personal differences. I kept feeling like she was looking back and injecting what she feels about her race as an adult into her childhood . It did not ring true for me at all. It felt fake and contrived and manufactured. I smelled it a mile away, and I really should have stopped listening. Had she taken a gentler approach and tried less to ram race (and her hatred of her birth mother) down her readers' throats, had she trusted her readers (even if some of them are white!) to understand how hard it must be to be the only Asian American girl at school (because we were all the "only" something in school), it could have been a transforming experience for her and her readers. As it was, she bludgeoned her story and her readers, and I just felt bad about all of the negativity in the book after it ended. I'll continue my search for a more nuanced story of intercultural adoption. My rating: 2.5 stars.

There, now that I'm finally done with my December 2019 reviews, I can catch up on my January reviews. I feel so far behind, but it will feel good to be caught up...eventually.


Thursday, January 23, 2020

2019 Wrap-up and 2020 Reading Goals

It's time for a 2019 wrap-up and a look at 2020!

Last year was a banner year for me as far as reading numbers--and it wasn't that shabby for reading quality, either, but more on that later. I finished a total of 200 books, broken down as follows:

73 fiction
108 nonfiction
19 poetry

Of these, 32 were children's books (not including picture books) and 32 were re-reads. I also read 152 picture books.

My high numbers were due in part to Cybils children's book judging--I finished 139 books for first round judging, which includes picture books and middle-grade books--and in part to my push to reach 200.

The months I read the most were October (23 books) and November (20 books), due largely to Cybils books. My lowest month (not just this year, but for years) was December when I only read nine books.

I finished the year with a bad case of readerly unrest, and I couldn't settle into a book for love or money, which was especially unfortunate because I was off for nearly three weeks around Christmas, and I hoped to read, read, read. I was especially looking forward to reading adult books again after all that children's nonfiction. This condition persists in the new year.

For the most part, I was happy with everything about my reading year except for the pace. There were days I "had" to read instead of "wanted" to read. Still, I'm proud of myself for accomplishing this goal, though I don't think 200 is a goal I'll ever set again.
This year, my goal is to read less, to open up more time for spiritual study, prayer, and daydreaming, things I had trouble fitting in last year. My theme is CLARITY (2020, 20/20 vision, clarity...), and I've made my reading goals accordingly. I've put much less emphasis on numbers and much more on higher ideals. I'd intended not to create reading goals for this year after my break-neck reading of 2019, but they kind of made themselves. What can I say, some folks are just goal and rule people.

My 2020 Reading Goals

1. Read less.
I plan to read only 12-13 books per month, for a total of 150 books for the year. Still a lot, but a much more comfortable goal that won't require a lot of angst and will still leave time for readerly exploration. Fast experience has shown me that this is a rather natural pace for me.

2. Read according to my values.
I'm done with reading things because I should. I'm done with pushing myself to read things I disagree with. Unless there is something I feel I need clarity on, I'm putting this kind of reading behind me. I naturally read all kinds of things by all kinds of writers, and I don't need some book lister to tell me what will expand my vision of the world. I do that organically, and I need to trust myself. Books that promote identity politics, us vs. them attitudes, and hateful rhetoric are gone. I don't have time for them. Also out are thrillers and any book that manipulates to get its message across. I've read enough by those who disagree with my spiritual, religious, political, and moral values. This year I plan to seek out authors whom I agree with and books that edify my values.

3. Read well-reviewed books.
The number one reason I read is to read good writing, and I want to better learn to trust my instincts with books that everyone is rating highly but just don't seem like something I'd enjoy.

4. Buy books with intention.
It's too easy for me to enter a used bookstore and leave with a bag of books that I genuinely want to read, but I won't be reading soon, just because they're available. I want to be more honest about books that I likely won't need to own or re-read after I read them once.

5. Read lots of nonfiction, especially children's.
Even though I read a lot of nonfiction last year, I still ended up feeling like I missed it. Good nonfiction can be hard to find, and it's often long and takes me longer to read, but I still want to tackle more of it. Also, last year I found that I adore children's nonfiction, and I want more, more, more of it in 2020.

6. Read books published in 2019 and 2020.
I've made this goal for the last several years, and I've really enjoyed it. It's easy, for one, but it also keeps me reading books while they're current.

7. Do some re-reading.
I loved all the re-reading I did last year, and I want to continue with it this year.

8. Re-read Persuasion.
Each year I re-read a Jane Austen book, and this year I'm so excited for Persuasion.

9. Read (or re-read) a classic or (super) large book.
I've been meaning to re-read Wuthering Heights for a couple of years now. And I've also wanted to read George H. W. Bush's letters (he wrote no memoir), and I hope to get to both of these this year. Also, for years I've been kicking around the idea of reading Lonesome Dove, Team of Rivals, and Truman. Will this be the year for any of them?

10. Finish 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die.
At the end of 2019 when I couldn't seem to settle into any book, I picked up 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die, and I was quickly hooked. This 900-page monster is arranged alphabetically by author, and I've just finished the Ds.

11. Read a book by or about Mary Baker Eddy.
I plan to have only one poetry book and one nightly read going each month, to open up time to read 1,000 Books... and a biography of Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer and founder of Christian Science.

12. No half-star reviews. Give more 1- and 2-star reviews.
If I had my druthers, I'd probably change the way I rate books on my blog to a 3-star scale instead of the current 5-star, but it's too late now. The least I can do is get rid of 3 1/2- and 4 1/2-star reviews. Also, I generally don't give anything lower than a 3-star review, which is ridiculous if you're using a 5-point scale. I never want to hurt anyone's feelings, but some books just deserve less than average scores, and I need to deal with that.

Some books I'm excited to read this year: