25 October 2014

My travels in outer space


This is my favorite Sesame Street song of all time. I could not get enough of it when I was a kid. Susan gives a lot soul to the thought that kids will one day live in space. Somewhat apropos for this review.


   
I think the fact that the first couple of chapters in The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell take place in Italy and Puerto Rico made it easier to get into this science fiction tale. True, the action is set in 2059 and 2019 respectively, but the familiar setting made it all feel quite 'normal' at first. The basic plot is this: After radio transmissions are discovered to be emanating from the Alpha Centauri star system, a group of Jesuit priests convince their hierarchy to fund an exploratory trip to find the sentient beings sending the signals. I'm no expert on Jesuit exploration throughout history, but if I believe this text, their intent seems to be more about seeking knowledge then it is about converting anyone--anything--to Christianity.

While the rest of the world loses interest in the alien radio signals and/or takes years debating what to do with the knowledge, the Jesuits use their vast financial and intellectual resources to to mount a secret trip of their own.  But wait how is that possible? Well, the novel, which was published in 1996 posits that in the year 2019 there will be a whole lot of technology that makes such a trip possible. The main thing being that asteroids which had been mined for various natural resources could be used like a spaceship to fly the couple of light years it takes to get to the source of the signal.

Like all good expedition stories, and I guess all good expeditions, this one has a cast of characters who have a complementary set of skills and make a fairly well-rounded team. They have a linguist, a medical doctor, scientists, a musicologist, and they are all smart as whips and can do just about anything. About 4 or 5 of them are priests with two women and additional two men.

On many levels I liked this book a lot. As someone who mainly reads things based in facts as we know them today, I enjoyed letting myself into other times and other worlds. I enjoyed the optimism of a future that may have included the reintroduction of indentured servitude but didn't seem to have anything to say about the doom and gloom of global warming (the number one angst-inducing, underlying current in my psyche). I also enjoyed reading about likable characters who use their abilities to get something done. I love it when people use their talents to achieve things, whether it is baking a pie, organizing a drawer, or travelling through space.

It was also fun to read about the world they encountered when they make it to Rakhat. Ah yes, Rakhat--thankfully the book is relatively low on made up words and language. Didn't make my eyes cross.

And that is where I will end the recap. Enough to give you a flavor without giving away too much or taxing my limited abilities to describe plots.  But, I do have plenty more to say about the book. There was so much to stimulate thought and conversation. Here are some of my hot button topics:

  • It is amazing that in 1996 an author thought that indentured servitude would make a comeback so that it would be old hat by 2019. Ditto for asteroid mining. I wonder what I would think 23 years into the future could be like?
  • It was nice to see the part of the Catholic church that is interested in expanding, rather than closing, minds. On the other hand, I found all of the 'God's will' stuff to be a little tedious at times. It's not entirely heavy handed in that regard, but it does seem to be wanting to work out theological issues about belief about which I am pretty apathetic.
  • Not that I have read much sci-fi, but it would be nice for someone to come up with a future or alien world that doesn't cleave so much to our understanding of gender roles. The aliens in this book kind of challenge it but the human characters don't so much, and the way the author explains the alien gender issues seems so rooted in the past--as in our present. Why do the child-bearing aliens have to be considered the females? It is interesting how our imaginations can turn asteroids into spaceships but can't comprehend a future that is more fundamentally different.
  • Kudos to Russell for understanding the importance and prevalence of electronic tablets. I know other science fictions, like Star Trek, have also predicted this as well. It was also kind of interesting to see how she wrote about the Web from her 1996-vantage point. She definitely sees it as a useful tool, but one doesn't get the feeling she entirely understood how important the web would become. And I think it is accurate to say that she didn't realize that all those tablets would use the Web as their content server.
  • I had a few quibbles with the plausibility of certain situations, but nothing that I can even remember and nothing that detracted from the overall enjoyment of the book.

I really liked the characters, but I would have liked to have seen them encounter more things and do more things on Rakhat, and maybe see a bit more about how the rest of humanity responded to their expedition. But it didn't seem incomplete, just kind of left me wishing for more.

The next, and final statement is kind of spoilery, so caveat lector...

As much as I wanted them to explore more, I liked the fact that the author wasn't afraid to kill most of the human explorers off. Just think of all the explorers throughout history who have died mid-exploration. Their discoveries, and those of explorers after them, eventually fill in the blanks for us looking back at the past--or indeed form part of our overall frame of reference and how we understand the world, but if we break down those discoveries into their component parts, we come to individual humans who die in the middle of what they were doing. Their stories interrupted.  You see what I mean about this book being a good conversation starter?


, but was also gratified that the author wasn't afraid to, well this really is going to be spoiler-y, kill so many of them off.

12 October 2014

Bits and Bobs (the question mark edition)

 

Could Science Fiction be not as bad as I thought?
For those who listen to The Readers, you will know that Simon accepted a challenge when he recorded a special episode with Michael and Ann from Books on the Nightstand. They decided that the four of us would read each others' favorite books. Ann's choice was The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. I groaned when I heard that it was science fiction. Despite my absolute love of Atwood's "speculative fiction" MaddAddam trilogy, I can't say that the genre interests me much. I (most certainly wrongly) equate it with all kinds of too colorful covers, made up facts, unpronounceable names, and pimply, greasy-haired teens with "Why be Normal" buttons pinned to the lapel of the vintage overcoat they picked up at Ragstock for $5.

Much to my surprise I ended up liking The Sparrow quite a lot. It hooked me quickly. I founded it compelling enough that it pushed aside about four other books I was reading at the time. I was going to write a quick paragraph about it in this post, but then I realized I actually want to write a real review of it. There were so many things about the book and my experience reading it that I feel the need to talk about it. No doubt I will have a chance to do that on The Readers but I don't think we are going to have that discussion until 2015. It's one of those books you want to talk about. Even absent knowing anyone in real life who has read it, or who would read it, I started talking about it with friends. That conversation didn't go very far.

So I figure it this way, any book that I find so compelling to both read and talk about can't be too bad right? I know there are large swaths of sci-fi that I would not find compelling at all, but it made me think there might be more opportunities for me to enjoy the genre than I previously thought.

Why don't I have a favorite book?
Choosing my book for the above mentioned favorite book challenge on The Readers and Books on the Nightstand was not easy for me. I just don't have a favorite book. I know that many real readers (like some of you all) are capable of coming up with one book about which you don't mind saying "this is my favorite book". Even though you have ten other books that are closely jockeying for the top spot, you still feel okay, perhaps even good, choosing just one. I just can't. I have had favorite books at different times in my life, but to look at all of them and say "this is the one" seems like a ridiculous and ultimately unfulfilling activity. Heck, even if I segment it into periods of my life I can't narrow it down to a single book.

Grade School: Harriet the Spy (Fitzhugh) and The Ark (Benary-Isbert)
Junior High: I read a lot, but no real recollection of a favorite.
High School: Narcissus and Goldmund (Hesse) and On the Beach (Nevil Shute)
College: The Edible Woman (Atwood), Where Angels Fear to Tread (Forster), and The Carnivorous Lamb (Gomez-Arcos)

And then, after that it degenerates into a mass of really good books that I really liked and sometimes loved, but nothing that comes close to being able to beat out all the others that I also really love. In the end, for the challenge on the podcast I made my choice not just by choosing a well loved book by one of my favorite authors, I also kept in mind what I thought others might enjoy and what I thought deserved a broader audience. A book that I knew that bookish people would love if they knew it existed. That's how I came up with my choice of Swann by Carol Shields. But even with that, I haven't read it in years. Will it still be a favorite?

Anyone else annoyed by Goodreads' iPad update?
I've never been much of a fan of Goodreads' iPad app. Compared to the webpage interface, I always found it a bit clumsy and lacking in easy functionality. I tended only to use it for viewing information. For any sort of input I would go to the web version. Well they updated the app and I must say I find it even worse than it was before. Has anyone else been similarly annoyed? I thought since the deathstar purchased Goodreads and began scooping up NSA-level data on our habits the product would get better. Then again, I also expected all sorts of aggressive advertising, and pay-walls for certain features. Of course that might be still to come. Still, don't you hate it when something new turns out to be something worse?

The good old days before they made an okay thing worse.


How is it possible I didn't enjoy a book sale?
My new job is walking distance to the Arlington County Central Library which has a big, blowout book sale each year. When I showed up with my empty book bags two weeks ago, it was a week too early. My disappointment was palatable. So when I got there on the right day this past Friday I was loaded for a good time. The fact that I was able to go during a week day rather than on the crazy, busy weekend also had me quite excited. But when I got there I was almost immediately disappointed. As I looked at the first shelf I thought "you didn't like this book sale last year". Then I tried to figure out why.   One of the big reasons is that it takes place in a parking garage and I think the light levels are a little too low for good book hunting. Unlike many other big book sales this one has most of its offerings on shelves rather than tables. This makes it much hard to comb through the stock. They also have the fiction broken down in a way that isn't very helpful. Mass market classics, trade paper, hardcovers that seem to also have mystery and sci-fi mixed in, a section called literature, and then one simply called "old books". And aside from the rather dusty, not very interesting old books, most of the stock seemed to consist of lots of recent titles. I tried my best to focus but realized this sale, as big as it is, just isn't for me. Still I did manage to buy three. But none really made me jump up and down.



Are we really here for the books?
I know we all found each other over our love of books and reading (two different things in my estimation), and I know I couldn't turn this blog into just a big dump about the ups and downs of my life and have you all still show up from time to time. But it is amazing to me (in a good way) how posts about more than just books always do better in both page views and comments than the ones solely focused on books. I know other bloggers have found this as well. Is this the online equivalent of the book club that is really a wine drinking in the presence of books club? Even if that is so, I don't think it matters. If book are the very pleasant excuse for humans to interact with each other, why not?

05 October 2014

My new reality - the end of my blogging days?


Continuing the chronicle of my re-employment, it seems appropriate that I examine the future of my blogging life. Having a job that has me writing eight hours a day, do I really have the mental energy to come home and write a blog?

I know some of you love a naval gazing blog post, and others loathe them. I'm kind of in the middle, I kind of like them but I also feel like some bloggers take it all way too seriously. If you aren't having fun, pack it in. No one is paying you (and, I hate to break it to you, probably never will).

Rather than blather, I can sum it up it up pretty quickly: I am not going to stop blogging. I like the social network blogging provides too much to let it go. Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads and The Readers podcast just aren't enough.

So you are stuck with me. And, since I have a pile of books that I really need to say something about, I am going to say something about them.

The Bookstore by Deborah Meyler
British woman moves to New York to get a Ph.D at Columbia. Gets job in used bookstore. Gets pregnant. A somewhat mediocre but also somewhat enjoyable read. I found myself having to suspend my disbelief a bit too much for such a non-fantastical, everyday sort of story.

contrary to this cover, I didn't listen to this book
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
I was forced to read this by Simon Savidge and his Booktopia-induced peer pressure. I didn't hate it but would have put it down at 20 pages had it not been for the aforementioned peer pressure. I'm not sure I can describe what I didn't like about the writing, it felt a little too something. Clever isn't the right word. Forced. I think forced is the word. Flynn had a great idea and honestly comes up with twists and turns that are fascinating and compelling, and perfectly anxiety inducing. But it felt kind of forced. No interest in seeing the film at all.

The Bookseller by Mark Pryor
I enjoyed this book-based mystery way more than I thought I would. I'm not much of a mystery person. I hate murder mysteries. They are too often too pat and more disturbingly, I don't like the casual way they treat murder. This one was low on violence and high on book-related intrigue in Paris. The first of the Hugo Marston mysteries. I wonder if I would like any of the others?

An Untamed State by Roxanne Gay
I chose this one so I could participate in Aarti's A More Diverse Universe event she hosted on her blog Book Lust. My reading tends to be pretty white and Anglo-American so I welcomed the chance to branch out a bit more. Plus I had read two Adichie novels this year and loved them so I was interested in reading more great fiction by authors of color. Unfortunately my new job kind made it somewhat difficult for me to get my stuff together in time to participate. I did, however, really like An Untamed State. The story of a Haitian woman, married to an American and living in the US who gets kidnapped while visiting her wealthy parents in Haiti. She suffers unspeakable acts for 13 days while her father tries to out macho the kidnappers. Then the novel follows her trying to come to grips with her life once she is free and back in the US. Pretty compelling reading and Gay's writing has me wanting to keep my eye out for future novels.

I had two other books I was reading for this challenge. One was a graphic novel written by a Chinese woman which I found tedious and didn't finish. And one is a slightly boring story of an Indian chef during the time of partition. That one I still intend to finish. I guess when all was said and done Aarti's event was good for me. Got me to expand my horizons a bit and remind to continue to make a bit of an effort to be more diverse going forward.


The Shadows of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Another bookish mystery, but much more complex than the Mark Pryor mystery. This one has a bit of everything. Lots of old books, secret libraries, a fire-damaged villain, a masochistic policeman, connections that will make your head spin, and all set in Franco-era Barcelona. I really enjoyed this book. It was like Alexandre Dumas meets Wilkie Collins meets someone a little more modern.

Sarah Morris Remembers by D.E. Stevenson
This may fall in the bottom third of all the Stevenson novels I have read. But I still loved it. It was the perfect comfort read as I started my new job and needed something to unwind with. I won't bother with any plot description. If know me and my blog, you know the general gist of her work. If you don't just use the search window to see what else I have written about her.

My Wish List by Gregoire Delacourt
Story of a provincial French woman who wins the lottery and keeps it secret until she figures out what to do about it. In some ways I loved this book. It had a touch of Mrs Harris Goes to Paris about it, but deeper and more thought provoking than that. And the overall message of the book I found interesting and comforting. But there was a twist, that really annoyed me. I didn't want it to be that book. Now that I know that twist, I think I would enjoy the subtleties of the story more than I did the first time around.

27 September 2014

My new reality - catching up on the world of reading

 
I've been back to work for two full weeks now. It is amazing how good it feels to be busy all day. The second day of getting up at 6:30 in the morning I thought "oh god no". But then I reminded myself how billions of other people have to get up every morning as well. I was just part of that club again. Believe it or not, that actually worked. The other thing that propels me out of bed in the morning is looking forward to my 30 minutes of audio book listening on my commute.

Audio Books
Yes, after all your suggestions, I did indeed download an audio book for my commute. Most of you know I don't think that audio book listening is reading and I have had a bit of an attitude about them as a result. But, I must say I love listening and it really makes the time fly. It even keeps me calmer in traffic. A few things have made it work for me. One, I chose a book I have already read, Nevil Shute's In the Wet. I have been wanting to reread it for some time now. This gives me the perfect opportunity to visit the story again. Two, I chose a book with a really straightforward narrative. My mind wanders too easily. I need something that keeps moving forward. Three, the audio book app has a feature where with one tap you can go back 30 seconds. This has proven very helpful when I tune out momentarily to switch lanes or something similarly captivating.

I can't believe how much I love audio books. What a revelation.

Revisiting a corny, elitist, and utter delightful dystopian screed
As I mentioned, the book I am listening to is Nevil Shute's In the Wet. As a piece of literature it is so problematic and certainly not Shute's tightest work. When the exact same information gets repeated about 20 minutes after the first time you hear it, you know there was a sleeping editor somewhere. Then again it was the 1950s, maybe he was drunk after a long Mad Men style lunch.

Shute, unhappy with the direction the UK was headed after WWII emigrated to Australia. And this book is his 'Fuck You' to dear old England. The novel centers around an opium-induced hallucinogenic flash to the future of the 1980s. Shute imagines an England where the socialist governments have turned everything the country into a sad, joyless, drab, corrupt, shameful, decaying mess. A million people a year emigrating to other parts of the Commonwealth. Rationing (forty years after the war) so bad that people haven't seen pineapples or hams for years. And the Royal family more or less gets run out of town, at least temporarily. On the other hand, Australia is everything England isn't. Prosperous and plenteous and run by fine men--not the idiotic, illiterate union bosses running and ruining England.

Oh, and toss in the repeated, casual use of one of the most reprehensible words in the English language and you have yourself a book. Shute was clearly a racist, but not in the KKK kind of way, but in the highly paternalistic, everyone know your place, isn't he articulate, kind of way. We could discuss how much difference there truly is between these two types, but I will defend Shute a tiny bit on this aspect of his character. At least against the virulent and violent types.

Anyhoo, one of the things I had forgotten about was how Shute imagines a voting system that was adopted in in Australia in the 1960s where one person can have up to seven votes in electing the government. The ways one can obtain those seven votes really sums up Shute's elitist outlook. I may have the exact order slightly wrong...

First vote: Everyone 21 or older gets at least one vote

Second vote: Education. A college degree or becoming a commissioned officer in the military gets you a second vote.

Third vote: Foreign travel. Making your living for two years abroad gives you another vote. Many who fought in WWII got this one.

Fourth vote: Family. Raising two children to the age of 14 without divorcing gets you a fourth vote. I guess after 14 divorce isn't traumatic or disruptive. And what about single people? Nope.

Fifth vote: Achievement. This translates to money. If you make at least 5,000 pounds a year you get another vote.

Sixth vote: Religion. For religious officials, vicars, or anyone who does a "real" job for a "Christian" church.

Seventh vote: Given purely at the pleasure of the monarch.

Can. You. IMAGINE. such a system? Would it be better or worse than the unelected oligarchs who currently buy our politicians?

At any rate I am only about a third of the way through the book. The narrator is quite slow and just about as corny as Shute's writing. But still quite enjoyable. Listening to the book I was reminded of how I skimmed the beginning of the book when I read it. It really just sets up a vehicle for the hallucination, but it takes Shute so long to do it. After not skimming through this part in the audio version, I can guarantee you that you could easily skip it and get to the interesting bits and not miss a thing.

And I haven't even gotten to the part where our protagonist flies HM and the Duke from one Commonwealth country to another when it is deemed too dangerous for them to stay in the UK. That part of the story dovetails nicely with Shute's fascination for aeroplanes and engineering in general. How can you not love a book that uses the word aerodrome?

I played a bit of the book for John and he, who already had a dubious opinion of much of my reading material, was a bit nonplussed at how ridiculous and mundane it is. I guess he just didn't really get the significance of the pineapple scene. And I get John's criticisms. But I still love this book. A fascinating story but so ridiculous in so many ways and I love it. I want to make it into a film. Most of you would hate this book. But some of you would love it.

I can't wait for my Monday commute so I can continue the story.

Books at lunch
We've had some nice weather so I didn't fully grasp that my new work situation doesn't really offer much in the way of locations for lunch time reading. Hmm. But then I noticed that I am only about five blocks from the central library for Arlington County. Cool. A sandwich at my desk, a seven-minute walk, and then 45 minutes at the library. Could be a whole lot worse.

Catching up
Having a job that is writing intensive makes blogging, and social media, and reading blogs, and replying to email, and just about everything else that's not TV a little more difficult to get to. No doubt I will find a pattern. And hopefully sometime soon I will have a chance to recap what I have been reading (and not listening to) lately.


21 September 2014

My new reality - shaking off the doom

  
I've been a little shy about writing about my period of "not working" on My Porch and Facebook for a whole host of reasons. First, I didn't want to get the stench of failure all over me. Employers can smell that. Friends start to feel pity. Small children stop and point before they burst into tears. Second, well, there really isn't a second. It really just boils down to the fact that I didn't want to become that guy. You know, the one who can't get a job.  I was also very aware that I am very lucky to have a partner whose hard work can carry us both if necessary. I truly don't know how the long-term unemployed survive. Any complaints I might have made would've seemed whiny at best. Let me repeat this point. I was EXTREMELY lucky to not be unemployed and destitute. I am thankful for that every day. But that doesn't mean long-term unemployment doesn't suck.

Without going into some long explanation of how my fields of expertise (urban planning and historic preservation) are fairly narrow, and how federal austerity has impacted employment in the DC area, and how it is almost impossible to get an employer to give you the time of day when you are over qualified, let me just say there came a tipping point where being unemployed really started to get me down. That moment when wide stretches of day that held so much promise started to turn into something out of a Brookner novel where the protagonists just seem to be biding their time until, well, in the case of Brookner they all seem to be waiting to die--that certainly wasn't me, but there were days when I just wanted the work day to be over so John would come home and we could have a routine evening like we did when I was working.

In the early days there were lots of house guests, and travel. The first couple of months just sailed by. Then there was so much to do for our house project, packing up the house, moving, designs, contracts, meetings, financing, etc. And the holidays, then they rolled around. Then the house project really got into full swing and we were in our rental apartment.

Then a long planned vacation then, then, then, it started to get dicey.

One of the big issues round about this time was that the apartment building we are staying in had about four major renovation projects going on at once. It is a huge building and these projects involved jackhammer noises that I could literally feel in my internal organs. Just as one project would begin to wrap up they would start another one with slightly diminished noise but still enough that it was unbearable. The kind of unbearable where you feel like, and sometimes do, scream at the unseeable noise making machines to shut the hell up. I used to plan my day so that I would be home from 11:30 to noon because that was when the workers took their lunch break. It was the only time of the day I could even make a phone call.

Layer on top of that a job search that seemed to be going nowhere. The one-year anniversary of being out of a job. Linked-in notices about how everyone else I knew was celebrating work anniversaries and new jobs, and promotions. A "network" that wasn't particularly helpful--despite all the good networking karma I have put out over the decades--I have never not helped someone with their networking requests. I even actually found a job for someone once. The realization that changing careers in your 40s isn't as cute as doing it in your 30s. The direct and indirect comments from some in my personal life about my lack of job. The realization that my lack of paycheck was negatively impacting our house project and our retirement outlook. A spouse who never once complained about my work status but who works so hard himself that it was hard not to feel guilty.


When I was able to tamp down all of the guilt and anxiety I certainly did have many moments of pleasure. Who wouldn't want to spend all day with Lucy? And we had such a wonderful summer here in DC that most days would find us sitting in the park for hours while I read and Lucy watched bunnies.

I didn't blog very much while I wasn't working. You would think I would have gone gangbusters. But an odd sort of paralysis set in that made a lot of formerly pleasurable things seem like insurmountable chores.

I got to the point when every post on Facebook or Twitter about people hating their jobs, or their co-workers, or the time they had to get up every morning, made me want to chime in with comments about gratitude for what they had that I didn't have. But I really didn't want to be that guy.

And then, in a blink it was all over. Realizing that I was going to have to come up with some new search terms if I was ever going to find a job, I plugged in "writing" into a job search engine. And up popped a job for which I was totally qualified. And with a company that had been working on the St. Es project for as long as I had and whose owner I knew on a first name basis. Instead of the never ending, byzantine, federal job search process where agencies regularly take three to six months just to call you for an interview, within a week I knew I had a job. And another week later I was sitting at my new desk.

Part of me thought I should take two weeks before starting back in. But that thought lasted for about five seconds. If I hadn't finished something in 15 months, it was never going to get finished. So now I have a cube, and a computer, and a company mug. And I couldn't be happier. No doubt the shine will wear off at some point. But when it does I will remind myself of the pitfalls of my extended vacation, wrap myself in my paystubs, and go back to work.

Do an image search on "unemployed" so many things to choose from. It was hard to narrow it down to just four images.


 
 

20 September 2014

My new reality - not reading on trains


On my first day back to work week a really terrible thing happened. I was sitting on Metro all happy to be hunkered down with a good book, when suddenly, without any warning whatsoever, I got nauseated from the motion of the train. I know, with that build up you were expecting something way worse. But really, for a reader facing a half an hour on an underground train, this ranks up there.


Even worse, on the way home that first day, after trying and failing again to read on the train, I got to Metro Center to transfer to the Red Line only to be faced with a really crowded platform due to delayed trains. I fought my way to the end of the platform to find relief only to find no relief. And the people kept coming and coming. After waiting about five minutes and looking at my watch I began to wonder if I would make it to Lucy's doggy daycare before the 7:00 pm cut off time. I only had about 40 minutes. The nearest train was still 10 minutes away but there was no way I was going to be able to squeeze onto that one, the next one was 24 minutes away, then the journey time and walk to Happy Paws. I would never make it on time. So I went up to the street (ah, fresh air) and walked about 10 blocks to get as far out of the vehicle congestion as possible before I hailed a cab.

Through this process I began to think the unthinkable: what if I drove to work instead? I haven't car commuted in over 14 years. Even when my schedule is compatible with John's I prefer not join him on his car commute. I take Metro so I can read.

Until now.

I was truly looking forward to about 40 minutes of reading each way. And traffic in and out of DC can be truly horrific. And what can be less green than a car with a single occupant? Still, I wasn't happy with the idea of all that travel time (plus at least another 40 minutes each way in walking time to drop Lucy off, walk to Metro, walk to work and then reverse it all at the end of the day. An hour and twenty minutes each way. Two hours and forty minutes out my day with nothing but the possibility of audio books and podcasts (and who listens to podcasts?).

Could this be me? No. He is clearly on a motorway and driving on the left. Plus my commute is never really slow enough to encourage this kind of dangerous behavior.
So when I got home that night I took a good look at Google maps wondering how painful a car commute might be. Turns out, not so painful after all. I found a route to my job that is, dare I say, almost pleasant. It stays well north of the city center, it keeps me off all freeways or even highways, it is a reverse commute so all the rush hour traffic is going the other direction, and the blinding morning and evening the sun is at my back. There is even a moment on Chain Bridge where I can look down at one of the more scenic and rocky stretches of the Potomac. 

My drive averaged from 25 to 35 minutes each way. And the nature of the commute doesn't induce the normal commuting stress. I may indeed have to download an audiobook or two, but so far I have been content with loudish classical music and the occasional dip into the news.

The bottom line is, no matter how pleasant my commute, it means I won't be getting the extra reading time I predicted. At least I still have my lunch hour. Time to be anti-social.

Could this be me? No. I don't have to wear a suit or tie, I don't drink coffee, and my iPhone stays in my messenger bag while I drive.


07 September 2014

My slow reading year?

 

About ten years ago there was a book published in which the author decided to read 52 books in one year. I remember at the time thinking "That's nothing, I read more than 52 books in a year." Then I went to my 'books read' list and realized that the most I had ever read in one year was 37. So beginning in 2004, I decided I would shoot for reading at least 52 books a year. It wasn't too difficult to achieve that year and to continue to achieve over the years.

Just as my perception in 2004 that I read way more than 52 books a year was grossly incorrect, my current perception that I am one of those people who reads at least 100 books a year is somewhat faulty as well. I just crunched the numbers and it turns out that I have only broken 100 books for the year twice. Once in 2009 and again last year in 2013.

I guess I think a lot of myself.

When I first started this post this morning I was intent on writing about how it had been a slow reading year for me having just finished my 51st book for the year. Shouldn't that milestone been passed sometime back in July? But after crunching the numbers and comparing to previous years, my total so far for 2014 really isn't too bad. Over 18 years I have broken 50 ten times. But in only five of those years have I broken 65--and I will easily get to 65 this year.

Here is what my reading totals look like since 1995, the first full year after I began keeping a reading log.

I have a new job now that will have me commuting again on Metro so my reading output is likely to improve as a result. I could drive to my new job, but who needs that hassle, especially when the alternative is to be reading?

So I guess 2014 won't end up being such a bad year after all.

31 August 2014

How do books end up in your house?

  
I tweeted this morning that during the five days that Simon Savidge (@SavidgeReads) stayed with me here in Washington, DC, thirty-one books managed to find their way into my apartment. Borrowed, bought, given, and free, I somehow managed to acquire thirty-one books in five days. Sue Parmett (@SueParmet) wanted a list of the titles. That is just the kind of pesky question I would ask and it seemed liked a great topic for a blog post.

So here are the many ways that these 31 books found their way in.

Borrowed
In the lounge of the enormous apartment building we are currently living in there is a nice little lending library. When we walked by it one night, Simon and I went in and had a look. We ended up taking six books back to my apartment. Three of those were Simon's picks. I am not sure how he thought he would read three books in fewer than five days, but who am I to judge.  And I guess the nice thing about these six, is I can return them any time I want and they cost nothing.


I picked up The Bookseller by Mark Pryor because of the title and because Susan in TX (@readinginTX)  had mentioned the Hugo Marsten books recently. I'm 58 pages in and liking it. The Ambler I picked up because I can't get enough of him these days. The Carlos Ruiz Zafon was recommended by Simon. We will see how that turns out. The other three were Simon's picks. He read a bit of the one of the Vargas titles and found it wasn't to his taste.
Bought
Not surprisingly Simon and I spent a bit of time in a book store or two. Since he was worried about space in his luggage, he ended up buying next to nothing. I, on the other hand went a little bonkers, partially due to his urging. I was glad for the peer pressure as I have been trying to inject more contemporary novels into my reading.

Our first stop was the fantastic independent bookstore in my neighborhood (and the best one in the city), Politics & Prose. Two problems with this visit. 1) Too many people at Booktopia in Asheville has hyped it up to Simon so he was expecting something more than just a good indie store. 2) There was an employee who was downright and too audibly rude to a customer on the phone. Granted, it sounded like a really annoying, probably even someone with dementia, kind of customer, but it was really off putting. But, it didn't stop me from picking up a few things.


The top one is a about a Frenchwoman living in a small town working in a fabric shop when she wins the lottery. Plus the colorful cover was quite alluring. The Kerry Hudson book was a Simon, you must own this, pick. It has a hilarious, curse-filled opening line. The Lerner I bought because I am trying to learn Spanish and am looking for lit that has Spanish speaking settings. The Carol Shields is one of her earliest (maybe her first?), and to my mind one of her best. And it is perfect for those of us who like a literary romp. Largely overlooked, it is now back in print thanks to Open Road Media. The Koch sounds very interesting and was also a Simon, I've heard lots of good things about this one, kind of book.
The fantastic Capitol Hill Books, where you swear some of the book stacks are structural and holding up the Victorian townhouse. This place is chock full of reading copies, but frankly I think their prices are a bit high for such battered up stock. Linda W (@GrnArrowFanGirl) Tweeted that she thought she would go a little bonkers in this store because of everything there is to look at. I totally agree with her and when we first got there I kind of plopped on the floor and just stared at what was in front of me. It worked pretty well, that is how I found the three Monica Dickens you can see below.

I never pass up an Ambler I haven't read. Monica Dickens has never steered me wrong. I loved Jenn Ashworth's A Kind of Intimacy so when Simon pointed this one out, I had to have it. The Chesnutt was published in 1900 and is about a light-skin African-American couple who decide to live as whites. The bottom one with part of the spine missing can be seen below.

No idea about this novel or the author, but with a cover like this, I couldn't pass it up.
 
One of the things I have been keeping my eye out for is books by people of color for Aarti's A More Diverse Universe reading week beginning on September 14th. I was ready to read a third Adichie for the year--and I am still planning on doing that--but I thought I should mix it up with some other titles. I managed to pick up three or four books that will fit the bill and that I think I can get to in time. In addition to the Chesnutt listed above, I also bought a couple at Busboys and Poets bookstore/café, and then picked up a free book, shown further down the page, that will fit the bill.

These are all from Busboys and Poets. The Gay and the Singh are for A More Diverse Universe. The top book is a Simon-encouraged choice about a young gay man in South Africa.

Given
Simon brought be two gift books from England that he has talked about on The Readers. One book that he won in a Yankee Swap at Booktopia in Asheville. And then a little New York guide that he didn't mean to leave behind.

Can you believe Simon got me to read Gone Girl? I can't. It was kind of clever and interesting but I have some reservations about it that I can't quite put my finger on.

Free
I've written before about the little libraries that have popped up in my neighborhood which are always a good source for free books, but I also found some at a café and in a box sitting on the street near Dupont Circle.

This one I picked up for free at Baked and Wired in Georgetown. They had a take one, leave one shelf. It is a graphic novel that I wouldn't have probably picked up but Simon kind of foisted it on me. Then I thought it might be good for A More Diverse Universe.

I've never read any DLS and this was in one of the Little Libraries in my 'hood, as was the E.H.Young, and I never pass up a Virago I don't have. The bottom three were all taken from a box of free books in front of a brownstone near Dupont Circle. Alice James was Henry James' sister. Again, I never pass up a Virago. And the bottom one appears to be a Portuguese version of Under the Tuscan Sun.

The whole pile

   

18 August 2014

The danger of waiting too long

 

Six Days of the Condor by James Grady
Loved, loved, loved, loved this CIA novel. Earlier this ear I watched the 1975 film Three Days of the Condor starring Robert Redford and loved it. When I saw the book Six Days of the Condor at a charity shop for $1, I thought it might be fun to compare. What I didn't expect was to be totally drawn into the book. I loved every minute of it. Couldn't put it down. This is the kind of spy thriller I like. Fits well into my recent fascination with Eric Ambler. I am going to have to see if I find Grady's other books as interesting.

Now that I have finished the book (in record time) I need to go back and watch the film again. I know for sure there are a few things that are different. I think the film may have taken place in New York. The book takes place in DC and is full of familiar locations without seeming name-droppy.

The Good House by Ann Leary
I've seen some lukewarm reviews for this book since it was published in 2012. I liked it way more than lukewarm. Story of a real estate agent in a small community on the Massachusetts coast. I almost thought I wasn't going to like the book. Her life is kind of unravelling. Business isn't doing so well, she had been to rehab but was backsliding. As I do, I wanted her to be getting her crap together and being successful. But I am glad I got over that because I really enjoy the story, the characters, the setting. It felt a bit like Marge Piercy meets Claire Messud.


Oh dear. I may have waited too long to write about some of these books. And I rarely keep notes. You know what that means? Bullet point reviews.

According to Mark by Penelope Lively
  • Biographer Mark gets involved with granddaughter of the (dead) subject of his latest project.
  • He's married already.
  • I love a Lively and I found I loved this Lively more than usual.
  • There were moments when I felt the book was very much akin with Barbara Pym's novels.

Hotel of the Saints by Ursula Hegi
  • A collection of short stories that was much better than my bad memory would have you believe. (I think.)
  • I liked the various settings (Europe, Mexico, the United States)
  • One or two stories were quite moving.

The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones
  • Given to me by Frances at Nonsuch Book.
  • Down on their luck but genteel family in 1912 England waits for house guests arrive for the weekend.
  • Then some other guests arrive.
  • I found the book pretty enjoyable, but I think it would have been more effective without the metaphysical aspect. (Big surprise for me, I know.)
  • I'm interested to read the other Sadie Jones novel Frances gave me.
Scarred by Monica Dickens
  • A Monica Dickens published in the 1990s thankfully feels a little old fashioned.
  • About a brilliant and caring plastic surgeon who is stalked by an unbalanced patient.
  • The patness of the story line has a bit of a Nevil Shute or DE Stevenson quality to it. But the tragic bits don't.




13 August 2014

Picture of the Week

 
I don't actually do a "Picture of the Week" feature, but I couldn't resist when I came across this photo. It shows a sadly decaying house in Detroit made over into to something fabulous by Tyree Guyton. The picture is taken from a great feature on best places for creative types in their 20s and 30s to live that aren't NYC and LA. As with all lists I don't agree with everything but it does make me want to be in my 20s and creative...


07 August 2014

A few moments in time

 
Bucks County, Pennsylvania (more pictures below)

We have been unlucky in the fact that our temporary apartment building is undergoing countless  different loud construction projects. Rather ironic that the place we are renting while our own home is under renovation should be almost uninhabitable during work hours. There have been moments when I have been at the end of my rope and have uselessly screamed at the top of my lungs for the noise to stop. My temporary insanity is known only to myself because the noise is so loud no one can hear me scream.

We have been extremely lucky in the fact that we have good friends who have a lovely farm house in rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Lucy gets to run around, chase cats, stare at bunnies, and chickens and horses. John gets to talk gardening and sit by the pool with a glass of cold rosé. I get to chat, and eat and read. And believe it or not, I get to help mow the lawn. I love to mow lawn. We play bocce, watch birds, try to figure out the species of all the trees.

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This summer has been wonderfully mild. I've lost count of the number of nights, and even many days, that we have been able to turn off the air conditioning and open the windows. For DC in the summer this is unusual indeed. Even as the temperature has climbed occasionally into the 90s and the humidity ticked up a bit, we have yet to have a typical DC summer day. The kind that leave you sweating like a pig at 7:00 AM on your walk to the Metro.

On these cool evenings, with lovely breezes making Lucy's last walk of the night feel like a childhood summer idyll, it is hard not to feel a bit cozy. As I contemplated what to read on one of these nights, I trundled down the hall to the closet that is serving as my main book storage while we are displaced from our home. When I opened the doors it was like the smell of a hundred used bookstores had been concentrated into that 4' x 4' space. If it wasn't for the rather precarious stacks of books I would have crawled inside with a blanket and pillow and taken a little snooze.

A blurry picture of one of my temporary book closets.

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One of the books I am reading at the moment is Gladys Taber's My Own Cape Cod. It's been a few summers since we have been to Maine, and while I know that Massachusetts and Maine are not the same place, there are enough similarities that I'm letting the two places mix in my mind. Published in 1971, the memoir of Taber's life on the Cape reminds me a bit of some of May Sarton's journals. The book is arranged by season. I've gotten through spring and started summer. I love the way the book chronicles every day life and shows how the year unfolds through flora and fauna and weather. I've often wanted to keep that kind of journal. Taber seems a little obsessed with Vietnam and the arms race, but those are only minor, if frequent blips in the otherwise cozy and look at a seemingly simpler, quieter, less plugged-in time.





Lucy wants to help me mow the paddock.

Bocce ball


 












27 July 2014

Stephen Colbert told me to read this book

  
Such a cool cover.
I know most of you in the book reading world are aware of Amazon's crappy treatment of Hachette's imprints recently. They just happen to publish Stephen Colbert's books, so he decided to make Amazon's dickishness the subject of an on-air rant. He picked California, a first novel by Edan Lepucki as an example of who Amazon was really hurting and he encouraged his viewers to go to Powells.com and pre-order Lepucki's books since Amazon wasn't allowing people to preorder it. Within a week about 6,400 people had pre-ordered the book from Powells so Colbert decided he wanted to make it a NYT bestseller and encouraged us to order from an indie bookstore and listed some on the screen including Ann Patchett's Parnassus books in Memphis and my very own neighborhood Politics and Prose. So I dutifully went into PandP the next day and ordered my copy. Last time I looked the book was number three on the NYT list.

I probably never would have even heard of this book, let alone order it, let alone read it. But I am so glad I did. I loved it. Story of Cal and Frida, a husband and wife living on their own in the middle of nowhere after economic conditions and weather calamities have turned most of the country into a kid of Mad Max scenario. Then they become pregnant and the decide to try and live among others. This has shades of MaddAddam to it but it isn't half as futuristic and has nothing, sentient or otherwise, that doesn't already exist today. I could quibble with a few little details or plot points, but overall the writing is good enough and the story is good enough that those things are easily set aside. Although those who read a lot of speculative fiction might disagree with me (as well as any number of professional reviewers).

A real page turner and definitely worth picking up. Not only did Lepucki get lucky that Colbert chose her book to champion but we got lucky that California is such a good read.

22 July 2014

Wreview Wrap-up (Review Rap-up?)

  
The Levanter by Eric Ambler
My love affair with suspense writer Ambler continues apace. I wasn't sure I would like this one as much because it was written in 1970 and wouldn't have any of that pre-war patina. But I was wrong. Being born in 1969, 1970 feels a bit historic these days so I still enjoyed the period drama aspect of this novel. Syria, Palestine, Israel, bombs, espionage, it all seems a little too current. Loved it.

They Knew Mr. Knight by Dorothy Whipple
I love me some Dorothy Whipple. I particularly like The Priory and her book of short stories. But this one I thought was only so-so. I liked it plenty, but it left me somewhat ambivalent.  One of my issues was that Whipple's early foreshadowing of the crises to come was a little ham-handed and unnecessary. I could see the train wreck coming about 300 pages before it finally showed up. Another issue is that none of the characters was particularly sympathetic. I thought I loved Celia until she acted a bit uncharacteristically shallow when they moved into Field House. Still, worth your time if you like you some Whipple.

Photo Credit
A Man and Two Women by Doris Lessing
I started reading this collection of short stories way back in May. I really liked the first story--although even after going back and reading bits of it, I have no recollection what it was about--and I really liked the last story. But all of the others in between didn't thrill me too much. I may have tried to read them too fast. For well over a month the book sat almost forgotten in my nightstand with all but the final story read. And I wasn't really looking forward to finishing it. But since I only had one story to go, when I did pick it up, my mind was pretty focused and I loved it. And if you think abut it, my mind was pretty focused when I read the first story as well and I liked that one. It may be that I would like more of the middle stories if I read them again without feeling the pressure to read fast. The stories are largely relationship based and definitely fit into what you would expect for late 1950s early 1960s Britain. Think Iris Murdoch.

Fin and Lady by Cathleen Schine
Nancy Pearl told me to read Cathleen Schine. Nancy Pearl has never steered me wrong. (Repeat as necessary.) This is perfect summer reading and there were things about it that I kind of enjoyed, but I got pretty bored pretty early. Young boy goes to live with his largely unknown half sister in Greenwich Village after his mother dies. His sister, Lady, is about 24 and is intent on finding a husband but she also doesn't want to be tied down. Nobody puts Lady in a corner. A big fat so what from me.

Charlotte Fairlie by D.E Stevenson
Another chaste Scottish romance where everything turns out great. Stevenson clearly likes Scotland, well-behaved children, tidy houses, and God. But don't let any of that turn you off. I really enjoyed the first part of this book which takes place at a girls school where our heroine, Charlotte Fairlie, one of the schools "old girls", is the young, new headmistress. Not surprisingly there is an evil, petty, maths instructor who was passed over for the top job. Miss Pinkerton is right out of central casting for the mean school marm. I kept picturing the woman who played the awful Miss Treadwell in a few episodes of the original Upstairs, Downstairs. For me the book faltered when the action moved up to Scotland. Too much focus on the children and all their wide-eyed adventures. I found the main child character, Tessa, to be a precocious brat. See what Cath from Read Warbler has to say about it here.

Days From Seventy-Five to Ninety by Edward R. Hewitt
A slim memoir of a rather industrious, farmer/engineer/chemist, grandson of Peter Cooper who founded Cooper Union in New York, and son of Abram Hewitt "New York's notable reform mayor". Published in 1957 when Hewitt was 90 years old, I loved Part I which focused on his daily life including a list of all the magazines he reads on a regular basis (he never looks at TV). In Part II he opines on everything from hay yield to book mending to Japanese Saki deer. It would be interesting to see how much of his health/wellness related musings in Part III stack up to current scientific knowledge. Part IV is Hewitt's view of modern economics and his philosophy of life. Somewhere in one of these parts he writes about being invited by General Franco to improve something in Spain, but now I don't remember what. Was it hay yield? In any event he seems to think Franco is the bee's knees and just what Spain needs. (Later in the book he denounces Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini, apparently Franco is the softer side of fascism.)  Part I is probably the only bit I found truly worth reading, but I think I will keep this book because I like the time capsule quality of it.