Monday, January 15, 2018

Quick Lit January 2018

Linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy for quick reviews of current reading.

I finished up my first year of reading intentionally since giving up my job teaching literature (which consumed most of my reading time), and also the first year of logging the books I read (I can't believe I've never tried this before). Since you asked, I read 27 books, 14 of which were non-fiction. This surprised me, because I would have said I was a fiction reader. However, I noticed that I began mostly with non-fiction, and got heavily into fiction in the second half of the year. My self analysis is that I had to get my toe back into the water, and it's easier to guess which non fiction will appeal than to risk time on a novel that might disappoint.

So, a pat on the back to myself, and launching into this past month...

George Saunders - Lincoln in the Bardo
Many years back, I began a tradition of giving my children a gift on Epiphany to mark the last day of Christmas, and it soon morphed into a book-giving occasion. I bought this for my elder daughter, but read it before handing it on. The story takes place during one night, in a graveyard peopled by ghosts who for one reason or another cannot pass to the next life. Enter the ghost of Willie Lincoln, the young son of President Abraham Lincoln, who is held back by his distraught father's inability to accept his death. In a chorus of voices that reminded me of a Greek play, Abraham Lincoln's night of personal and political crisis, and the battle for Willie's soul, is woven into the story of Americans across time, class and race. If you like an experimental read now and again (or more often), you might well enjoy it. I confess to being surprised that it was so spiritual and uplifting, because somehow I expected nihilism or solipsism from a prize-winning novel (it got the Man Booker this year).

Rod Dreher - How Dante Can Save Your Life
American Conservative editor Dreher tells the story of how his failed return home led into a spiral of depression and debilitating auto-immune disease - and how The Divine Comedy became one of the counsellors who helped him back on the path to health and sanity. I started off feeling that this was a light read (despite the subject matter), but by the end I found myself quite uncomfortable as I applied Dante's vision to my own life (even though I had read the Comedy before). Inconsequentially, this was the first ebook I read on my new, larger phone, which I chose with reading in mind - and it was a much better experience.

Courtney Carver - Soulful Simplicity: How living with less can lead to so much more
I don't often buy a first book by an author - I'm pretty cautious in my reading choices (see above!) - but I've been reading Courtney's blog, Be More With Less, for some time now. This is much more than the how-to book I expected, though she does offer many practical suggestions for simplifying your life. Instead, she mainly tells her story from her heart and encourages you to use her story as a guide to examine your own life. A gentler take on minimalism.

Since January Quick Lit covers most of Advent and Christmas for us, my little guy and I have been soaking up a book that's been on our shelf for years: Jan Brett's Christmas Treasury. This contains seven of her best winter/ Christmas stories. It includes traditional tales such as The Night before Christmas and The Twelve Day of Christmas, retellings of folk tales such as The Mitten (get ready to make a big bear sneeze) and original stories with a folk feel, such as The Trouble with Trolls. The stories are intended for children a little older than my toddler, but most were accessible to him this year. It's a huge book to hold on your lap, but the Scandinavian-inspired illustrations are gorgeous, and most stories have a sub plot going on in the marginal illustrations. It's a perfect Christmas coffee table book, too.

Julia Donaldson - Room on the Broom
This was my two-year old's Epiphany book. I snatched up this board book version at a second hand book store while in Texas for Thanksgiving. Another winner from the creator of the Gruffalo. A witch flies through a gathering storm, losing her belongings left and right. She has room on the broom for every creature who comes to her aid, and friendship pays off when a hungry dragon flies onto the scene...
Pet peeve time: the original UK version has been changed in places. It always annoys me that publishers think that children can't cope with a word or two from another English-speaking country. Most would just think something like, "'Plait' is another word for 'braid'. Okay. Next page." Stop dumbing down toddler literature, I say!

The bravest literary thing I did this month was to choose an Epiphany book for my teenager without consulting her - she's going through a phase where apparently my taste is nothing but bad. I bought the new John Green YA novel, Turtles All the Way Down, because I know she's read more than one of his books and I thought she'd identity with one of the main characters. I spotted evidence that she started reading it, but I'm afraid to ask her opinion yet.

Hope the new year is going well for all. I'm going to try the Modern Mrs Darcy 2018 Reading Challenge to keep me reading during what is going to be a full year (we're moving - maybe more on that in the blog another time). Stay cosy and enjoy reading!

Friday, December 15, 2017

Quick Lit December 2017

Linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy for short reviews of our current reading.

It must be the stress of Thanksgiving and Christmas creeping up on me (and other little things, like mice falling from my ceiling) that drove me to comfort reading this month.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo
I dip in and out of this book frequently. Those who describe Kondo as some sort of decluttering nazi probably haven't read her book. Yes, I like it for the reassuring message that I can get my life into some sort of order, but I'm also enthralled by the peek into Japanese culture, and by the memoir of an introvert woven into its pages, lit by little sparks of understated humour. I would have re-read her other book, Spark Joy, but, after searching for a while, I remembered I'd let my husband send it off to Decluttr [sic] in a tidying fit. Queue irony.

Miss Marple: The Complete  Short Stories by Agatha Christie
Christie is in the limelight again, with a lavish remake of the Murder on the Orient Express moviewhich reminded me that I've only read one Christie novel in my life, and it was so long ago, I can't even remember what it was. A short story collection worked well for Thanksgiving travels. These are mostly literal armchair mysteries, where guests share crime stories that are solved by - well, you know who.

Mr Rochester by Sarah Shoemaker
After the emotional trauma of reading The Buried Giant, I needed a story with a guaranteed happy ending, and the ebook price overcame my resolve to avoid buying new books. Modelled on the structure of Charlotte Bronte's novel, this tells the life story of Edward Fairfax Rochester. And yes, you get that famous four-word sentence at the end! I've had a literary crush on Mr. Rochester since I was fourteen, and this novel did not disappoint.

Mr. Putter and Tabby Pour the Tea by Cynthia Rylant
Even my toddler got the comfort treatment this month. The Mr. Putter books, if you don't already know, are sweet stories about an old man and his pet cat. They are intended as beginning chapter books, but the simple sentences and repetition make them lovely read-alouds for toddlers as well.

And since we're part way through Advent:

Advent and Christmas Wisdom from G.K. Chesterton
I've used this book for many years and am still not tired of it. Ligouri Press publishes several books in this series, for both Advent/Christmas and Lent/Easter. Each focuses on a well-known Christian writer, and the daily readings consist of a quote, related Scripture, prayer and suggested action. Everything you need for observance and reflection on the season(s) in one little book. I'm on board with the call to canonize Chesterton - Battersea needs its own saint.

We Were There by Eve Bunting
It's the eve of the Nativity, and nature's unloved creatures - the scorpion, toad, spider, cockroach, snake and rat, obey the pull to traverse the desert to that stable. Brings a lump to my throat almost every time.

Merry Christmas, Yule, Saturnalia, Hanukkah, or whatever you celebrate this time of year, and may 2018 be full of good books.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Quick Lit November 2017

Linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy for quick reviews of books we've read over the past month.

Untangled by Lisa Damour
You know an author is on your side when she jokes about your teenage daughter straining her eye-rolling muscles. Untangled is a mix of psychotherapy, scientific findings and practical advice to help you help your daughter negotiate the often choppy, sometimes stormy, seas of the teen years. I appreciated that the gist of the book was that yes, your daughter is being normal when she acts like a little witch, but yes, she still needs you to insist on models of decent behaviour. A recommendation from Modern Mrs Darcy.

Everything that Remains by Joshua Fields Milburn, with interruptions by Ryan Nicodemus
I was out of luck trying to get this via interlibrary loan (or I was away for the summer when it came in), so when I saw that The Minimalists were offering this and one of their other books as a free PDF download via Gumroad, I took the chance. If prose can be purple and spare at the same time, this book is it. The writing is a little offbeat (after all, they did co-found Asymmetrical Press), but if you are already familiar with The Minimalists, you might enjoy this more in-depth memoir, or narrative non-fiction as Josh calls it. For a how-to on minimalism, try the other free download, Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life.

The Buried Giant by Kazuro Ishiguro
My first spontaneous reading choice in a looong time! The first two books on my list were missing from the library shelves, so I thought, OK, I need to finally tackle The Remains of the Day - but Ishiguro has just won the Nobel prize for literature, so all his books were on display and that was gone. With a toddler rapidly losing patience, I grabbed this. The story is set in post-Arthurian Britain, where people seem to have lost the capacity to hang onto memories. An old couple, Axl and Beatrice, feel the pull to leave their settlement in search of the son they can't fully remember and haven't seen for years for reasons they can't recall - and whose whereabouts they are not certain of. Along the way, they gather unlikely companions and a wider quest emerges, with themes of memory, justice and mercy. I haven't read Ishiguro before, so I wasn't ready for the slap in the face that is characteristic of his work. I found the novel intellectually satisfying but morally unsettling.

Frog went A-Courtin', retold by John Langstaff
This is the Caldecott Medal version of the ancient folk song, where the author weaves together various versions of the song to form a story with a happy ending. My toddler's summary of the story of Frog's courtship of Miss Mouse? "The frog had a sword and horse and went to fight." Ahem...

Happy Thanksgiving to those stateside. Hope you get some time to escape the crowds and read!

Friday, October 27, 2017

7 Quick Takes 59: Vintage Mother 2.5

1. Wow, two and a half years already. Being geriatric parents, we have a variation on, "Where did I put my car keys?": we glance at our toddler and think, "Hey, there's a small child in our house. Where'd he come from?"

2. Trying to be responsible and teaching your child the proper word for everything leads to interesting conversations at the breakfast table. As in, when he looks across at our (neutered) cat and asks, "Where's Odie's scrotum?" Son, I think Odie's been wondering that, too.

3. I'm fond of remarking that, with a toddler and teen in the house, I daily feel caught between Scylla and Charybdis - and sharing that thought certainly got my teen exercising her eye-rolling muscles. And now I've learned that toddler and teen brains are indeed developing in the same way, with the emotional part growing way faster than the logical part. I feel totally vindicated in my suffering.

Looking vintage in his sister's 18 year-old pyjamas

4. Talking of facts, I've also confirmed that yes, running around after a toddler was what was knackering me. He's in nursery school three mornings a week now, and I spend the time sitting on my backside freelance editing, and I no longer have days when I'm exhausted for hours.

5. Sometimes, when I'm clearing out the bathroom cupboard, I look at those two boxes of hair dye I bought when pregnant, nigh on three years ago. Part of me wants to throw them out and admit I'm just going to be grey. Part says, go on, try it, you might look younger. The other part is afraid I'll just be an old mother with a bad dye job.

6. Being the oldest mother in my toddler's nursery class, I have to take my joy where I can. Last week, I was talking with another mother about upcoming class pictures. "I can't decide what she should wear," she said.
"I have a photo of his sister in that same class, " I quipped. "Eighteen years ago." Moment of silence.
"Oh my," was all she could manage, presumably while wondering if her doctor's number was on speed dial so she could book her sterilization NOW.

7. I've also got enough experience under my belt to realise that children do not freak out over things we think are traumatizing. Seasonal case in point: we were in the local costume shop with my daughter and her friend, when Alcuin came across a rooster costume with a photo like this:

He stared at it for a short while, and announced, "I fink de rooster has eaten de man."

On that note, enjoy whatever you call the end of October, and totter on over to This Ain't the Lyceum for more Quick Takes.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Quick Lit: October 2017

Modern Mrs Darcy seems to have skipped October's Quick Lit, but I'd already written the linkup post, so here it is:

This year, having given up my job teaching literature, and thus not having to spend all my reading time on what I was teaching, I decided to put more serious effort into rebooting my personal reading life. I was really chuffed when I reviewed my list about mid year and realised I'm averaging two books a month. Some Modern Mrs Darcy Readers may get through 200 books a year, but I'll be celebrating if I make it to a dozen!

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susannah Clarke
It's the early nineteenth century, and no practical magic has been performed in England for several centuries. A pair of enthusiastic theoretical magicians uncover a practical magician, Mr Norrell, living in seclusion and persuade him into the public eye. Eventually, he takes on a pupil, Jonathan Strange, whose talents quickly match his own. But while Norrell's mission is to re-envision magic for the Age of Reason, devoid of dangerous faery influences, Strange becomes obsessed with England's magical past and the father of English magic, the Raven King, whose realm once included the north of England. If you like fantasy, magic, historical fiction, alternative history, Jane Austen, and/or regency novels - all wrapped up in a long read (this is over 750 pages), then this may be for you. I finished it in two weeks - my husband said he felt like a widower.

Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm
What? By whom? That was my reaction too. My husband bought this Edwardian tragicomic novel for our collection of Folio Society books as the heroine has his family name. But he's never read it, so I thought I should give it a go, for my "off my shelf" reads. Zuleika Dobson has risen from penury to riches by dint of a mediocre conjuring talent and an bewitching beauty that literally has men swooning three deep at her feet. When she arrives at that bastion of male bastions, Oxford University, to visit her grandfather, Warden of Judas College, the doom is set for all the young men who live under the shadow of the dreaming spires. I pretty much smiled all through the novel. This novel is in the vein of the better-known Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, so if you liked that, or enjoy Victorian/Edwardian novels, or were a Downton Abbey fan, you might appreciate this send-up of the British upper class. But keep a dictionary at hand - this is a vocabulary workout too :)

A bonus book this month - I found a copy of Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rys on the freebie table at our library. It's been on my mental to-read list for decades. I only wish I'd got to it sooner. Set in Rys's native Carribbean,Wide Sargasso Sea tells the story of Bertha Mason, Mr Rochester's mad wife, mainly from her point of view. It's a fast, intense read, having the emotional force of Jane Eyre without aping it. Definitely recommended for fans of Charlotte Bronte's novel.

A Flower Fairy Treasury by Cecily Mary Barker
We pulled my daughters' Flower Fairy books off the shelf for my toddler son. Cecily Mary Barker  lived in Croydon, where I went to school (it had an, ahem, more genteel reputation in her day). You could pretend you're teaching your toddler fine art, botany, folk lore, poetry, and vocabulary building all in one. Or you could just admit you read them 'to your child' so you can look at the pretty fairy pictures.

How do Dinosaurs Say I Love You by Jane Yolen
Dinosaurs and fairies - why not? Most "I love you" books are a little too cutesy for me, but this is truly funny - dinosaurs who act just like toddlers, and have human parents. You and your little velociraptor will appreciate it!

Still almost hitting 90 degrees here, but I hope it's actually autumnal where you are - happy October reading!

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Quick Lit: September 2017

Joining up with Modern Mrs Darcy once more for quick reviews of what we've been reading around here.

Like most bibliophiles, I've got a stack of unread books on my shelf (let's not even mention e-readers), you know, the books you really, truly are going to read some day, or for some reason have only half read (like that page turner the Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People). In the past couple of years, I've been challenging myself to read these books, and only keeping them if they are really worth it. Which is my introduction to the two odd choices for this month:

J.R.R. Tolkien: The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun
This is a posthumously published work, and consists of two poems in Norse style which bring together the surviving fragments of poems and prose on the legend of Sigurd and his wife Gudrun, fleshed out with notes and commentary from Tolkein's own writings, plus the editing of his son Christopher, his father's literary executor. If you're a Middle Earth fan, a lover of myth and legend or all things Norse, and/ or have a degree in literature, you may love this. Otherwise, it may well seem dry. It took me a while to warm up to the English rendering of Norse style, but I was really into the second poem. This one stays. I would have gone back to re-read the first, but wanted to get through my next choice...


The Complete Kama Sutra trans. Alain Danielou
I bought this years ago because it was on sale and it seemed like an essential part of a book snob's world literature collection. SPOILER ALERT: most of it isn't a sex manual :)  It's actually a treatise on Indian sexuality within the wider context of Hindu culture ( manners, employment, eating betel - lots about eating betel). This version has all the classic commentary and is over 500 pages - and it gets the rare accolade of being one of the few books I gave up on (around page 330). Honestly, it was just... boring. Out the door it goes. I should have given up earlier and re-read Sigurd and Gudrun.

Beatrix Potter: The Tale of Peter Rabbit
This is the first longer book all my children have learned to sit through. Those who think Beatrix Potter twee have probably just looked at her pictures and not actually read her Tales. What is cute about "Don't go into Mr McGregor's garden. Your father had an accident there: he was put in a pie by Mrs MacGregor"? What is cute, though, is hearing my two year old quote large chunks of Victorian English, and hiding his face every time Peter walks round the end of the cucumber frame and comes face to face with Mr McGregor.

Friday, September 1, 2017

7 Quick Takes 58: Where's the Gallows?

1. Gallows humour (n): Humour that makes light of serious, unpleasant, or painful circumstances;
Why I haven't been posting Seven Quick Takes.

At least, that's one reason for my lack of blogging fervour after the summer break. I've remarked before that poking fun at myself and my life is my antidepressant - but the fact is that life has been going pretty well lately, making blogging fodder pretty thin.

2. Our middle child has been thrown into the MMA cage that is public high school - the best of several less-than-perfect options for 9th grade. It's brought back all my husband's not-so-fond memories of being a wimpy geek in a small town southern school. Especially coaches as teachers. The coach who is her science teacher docked her grade for missing school to go Tennessee to witness the total eclipse. Ninety-Eight percent of the emails and voice mails I receive concern football. On a positive note, she sussed out the way high school works in a couple of days, she's taking honors classes, and she even talks to people (this is a big deal for someone who wears her weird introvert badge with pride).

3. Talking of tough cookies, our toddler started nursery school three mornings a week. Nervous does not describe my feelings at leaving a child who screams if I dare walk out of the room. But he loves it. The first day, he barely whimpered. The second day, I carried him into the classroom, and he began to struggle. I thought he was trying to flee - but he wanted down so he could go wash his hands and get on with snacks and playing. These people are miracle workers.

4. And what am I doing with my child-free time? Working out, getting manicures, reading the complete works of Saint Augustine? Actually, I'm working as a freelance editor. I got offered a job just as I was gearing up to conquer my own introvertedness and tout for business. So I get to spend time alone in the house, exercising my brain. Heaven.

5. Even the weather hasn't been cooperating. After last year's brutal, never-ending summer that dragged on into September, we've had surprisingly cool(er) days, where the thermometer doesn't even hit 90. Some early mornings have almost felt like autumn was in the air.

6. The cats, on the other hand, continue their catch-and-release programme to plague us. The rodent migration problem got pretty bad while we were away and not available to patrol our border (aka the cat door). A peculiar smell that arose when we baked led to pulling out the oven drawer and finding that some creature had dragged a large quantity of bedding under the stove and set up house. I swear I could hear squeaking as I vacuumed and sprayed air freshener liberally under the counters. Maybe it was saying thank you.

But that wasn't the worst for me. I pulled a box of photos from the shelf in my daughter's closet and opened it to discover a partly nibbled chocolate. Not just any chocolate: a handmade arbequina and sea salt chocolate from Chococo, our favourite chocolatier in the world (and I don't say that lightly).

Me to daughter: Didn't you notice a chocolate went missing?
Daughter: Yes, but the box was still closed, so I thought I was imagining it.

Yes, the mouse moved the chocolate from one closed box to another.

Husband to me: You thought about eating it, didn't you?
Yes. Yes, I did.

7. And there's always the mosquitoes to save the day. After two mild winters, they're like herds of winged bison on the old American plains. We can't step out of the door without drenching ourselves in deet. I'm surprised a gang of them hasn't tried to fly off with the toddler.

For more quick takes (which I can't promise will be full of black humour), climb the scaffold to Kelly's This Ain't the Lyceum.