Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Racking Up — and Rating — Books Read in 2013 (With Last-Minute Addition)

I read a lot this year, more than I realized: nearly six dozen tomes in all. Now, to be fair, a few were books for younger readers — but that means they were shorter, or more carefully illustrated, as opposed to being less robust and complex. 

Good authors write to the story and trust their audience. Good readers read the story and trust their authors. That perfect match makes for heavenly reading, and I made quite a few good matches this calendar year.

What was my favorite book? As if I could choose one! Well, here are a few (in no particular order) that stayed with me long after I turned the last page:
  • Life After Life — what if you could take nearly every path life could offer? (review)
  • Dr. Sleep — Finished it in the waning hours of 2013, so right now all I can say is, "Wow." If I can manage more of a response than that, there may be a review.
  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers — examine Indian "slums" and poverty through the eyes of the residents of Annawadi (review)
  • Tiny Beautiful Things — like a hug from a special friend (review)
  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane childhood in all its terrifying complexity (review)
  • Salt Sugar Fat — it's no accident that you love a particular processed food, and this fascinating tome takes a look at how processed foods evolved in America
  • Let the Great World Spin — the intersection of lives in the shadow of Philippe Petit's daring tightrope walk between the Twin Towers
  • The Dinner — think you know where the story's going? Think again. (review)
  • The Creeps — Return to Biddlecombe at Christmas to see how Samuel Johnson, Boswell, Nurd and a few other familiar characters battle the forces of evil (and a few scary elves)
  • The Winter Sea and The Firebird (in that order) — fall in love with history, fiction and one or two independent spirits via these compelling tales 

I made a few bad matches, too. One that comes to mind is A Visit from the Goon Squad: I can't understand why it won so many awards when it could not make me care about the characters and tales. Another was Southern Gods, which despite its fascinating concept was way too gory for me. (That means it will be perfect for my husband, David, whose criteria for a good movie is, "Does anybody die?") I wasn't keen on Caleb's Crossing, but its sin was the wrong narrator who couldn't give me the intricacies of the story I really came to the novel to read. (It was as much about the narrator as it was the subject, a sort of bait-and-switch.)

I took a few detours down "juvenile fiction" lane. I'm a huge fan of Cynthia Rylant's Mr. Putter and Tabby series, who join Mrs. Teaberry and Zeke in more than their share of adventures. Neil Gaiman provided more than a few graphic novels or heavily illustrated stories, and I will forever love the father who good-naturedly traveled around town until his son retrieved him. The experiences of Miss Finch creeped me out, and I was able to re-read a few of my favorite animal tales recreated as graphic novels.

After disliking an iconic novel by Ursula K. LeGuin, we both were redeemed by her Catwing series.

My reading took me me to India, North Korea, Ireland, Scotland, England, Russia, Africa, the Netherlands and Hell. I've lived a different life every day, and lived multiple lives in time. I've been to hell, I've been dead, I've been nearly dead and I've known the right neighbors.

I made a summer reading list and promptly abandoned it. I haven't come to terms with the fact that I will not read everything, and maybe not even everything I want to read, but I'll keep trying. Just tonight I found three more books to read. I'll figure it out. Really.

Here is this year's reading list (probably not totally complete, considering I deleted the list by accident in September and had to recreate it from memory). Did you read any on this list? What are some of your year's reads you'd recommend? Tell me!

2013 Reading List
  1. Dr. Sleep
  2. Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins
  3. Caleb's Crossing
  4. Mr. Putter and Tabby Clear the Decks
  5. Mr. Putter and Tabby Stir the Soup 
  6. The Poisonwood Bible
  7. Mr. Putter and Tabby Make a Wish
  8. Mr. Putter and Tabby Dance the Dance
  9. Mr. Putter and Tabby Ring the Bell
  10. Creatures of the Night
  11. Crazy Hair
  12. The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish
  13. The Arrival
  14. Stitches
  15. Selected Stories/Open Secrets — Alice Munro
  16. The Bookman's Promise
  17. Cat Versus Human
  18. The Dinner
  19. The Creeps 
  20. The Vagina Monologues
  21. The Seventeen Traditions
  22. Humans of New York
  23. Bossypants
  24. The Winter Sea
  25. Sh*t My Dad Says
  26. Illusions
  27. Ella Minnow Pea
  28. Under New York  
  29. The Firebird 
  30. Catwings 
  31. Catwings Return
  32. Wonderful Alexander and the Catwings
  33. Jane on Her Own: A Catwings Tale
  34. Southern Gods
  35. Unnatural Creatures
  36. Dreamfever
  37. Poe's Children
  38. The Tarantula in My Purse and 172 Other Wild Pets
  39. Salt Sugar Fat
  40. The New Yorker Book of Cat Cartoons
  41. The Charles Addams Mother Goose
  42. If I Stay
  43. Inferno
  44. The Ocean at the End of the Lane
  45. Let the Great World Spin
  46. Smut
  47. Next
  48. Every Day
  49. Life After Life
  50. Up the Down Staircase
  51. Will Write for Food
  52. Social Media Marketing
  53. Wishes Fulfilled
  54. The Tao of Womanhood
  55. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Taoism
  56. The Winds of Marble Arch
  57. An Outrageous Affair
  58. The facts in the case of the departure of Miss Finch 
  59.  The Dangerous Alphabet
  60. Blueberry Girl
  61. Notorious Nineteen
  62. The Twelve Terrors of Christmas
  63.  Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich
  64.  M is for Magic
  65.  Tiny Beautiful Things
  66.  Hello, Goodbye, Hello
  67.  The Round House
  68.  A Visit from the Goon Squad
  69.  The Lucky Gourd Shop
  70.  Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Monday, December 30, 2013

Caleb's Crossing, Without Much of Caleb

Caleb's Crossing has been on my bookshelf for years. My friend Carole and I purchased it in 2011 as soon as we saw it for sale. Both she and I enjoyed Geraldine Brooks' books in the past. We have seen met her on previous book signing tours and enjoyed her other books.

And yet this one languished on our shelves for years.

After reading it, I can see why: it was not her best.

The story is of Caleb, a Native American Indian who lived on the island now known as Martha's Vineyard, who was the first of his tribe to graduate from Harvard University in 1665.

Well, not exactly. It's as much about the narrator, Bethia Mayfield, as the character named in the title. Bethia  is a teenage English girl who, remarkably, is a feminist of her age. She was smarter than her older brother, who was being educated to follow his father into the ministry, but was denied an education because of her sex. She chafed against her society's boundaries. One of her society's boundaries was a relationship with any American Indian on the island, with whom her settlement had an uneasy truce. She chose a relationship with a young male of the tribe, an added taboo.

Alas, Caleb's world was described by an outsider with no intimate knowledge of his culture. Indeed, she harbored many of the biases against Caleb's people as her own society did. The second-hand information, filtered through Bethia's eyes, dampened my enthusiasm for the novel. Never did we get Caleb's perspective, and Caleb's words were shared through Bethia, who was not a reliable narrator.

The novel is written as a personal journal kept by Bethia — often written days, months, even years after an event. Her details are complete, rich and full,  not at all like journal entries one would expect so long after the fact, and another reason for me to mistrust her as a narrator. References to historical events and characters were carefully shared to create a sense of connection to this colonial period. If you like colonial history, this might be a good book for you.

Bethia's character was a 21st century woman who every once in a while flashed a colonial, meeker face. The constant interjection of her religious beliefs in her writing and the use of colonial-period language didn't change that fact: she was not a girl of that age.

Finally, there was little urgency in the tale. Only once or twice did I rush through the story to discover the resolution of a situation.

I'm sorry to say I wouldn't recommend this book.

I can, however, recommend every other tome in Brooks' collection. Consider that, then read Caleb's Crossing, and tell me if you agree with my assessment.

Friday, December 20, 2013

On the Horizon: Miss Peregrine's Sequel

I'd ask if you remembered Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, but that's a silly question. Heaven knows I couldn't forget it.

So imagine my delight when I saw this book trailer:

The sequel! Be still my heart!

Oh, don't worry: I pre-ordered it months ago. And I've checked my order twice, just to make sure.

Are you excited, too? What are you reading to get ready? And will you re-read the original in anticipation?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Poetry Wednesday: Feline Night Before Christmas

Thanks to Miss Liberty for this Christmas poem, in the spirit of Clement Clark3 Moore, that cat people can truly understand. 

Although I am featuring my ever-delightful Miss Ginger Galore, please visit  Miss Liberty's website to see her fun photo and read her poem in its natural habitat!

Twas the Night Before Christmas

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
The felines were chasing a toy catnip mouse.
The stalking began in the hall and from there
They managed to corner it under a chair.

I attempted to nestle all snug in my bed
But the kitties decided to dance on my head.
An idea it hit me, it came like a clap
And I sent them off chasing a Poland Springs cap.

When out in the kitchen there arose such a clatter
I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.
Away down the hall I flew like a witch
I entered the kitchen and groped for the switch.

The moon on the breast of the white kitchen tile
Gave the luster of mid-day to the cats' chew toy pile.
When what to my wondering eyes did I see?
The remains of my poster of Angelina Jolie.

Without giving much thought or having to check
I knew in a moment it must be Steinbeck.
More rapid than eagles, his paws were such trouble
Adept at turning possessions into piles of rubble.

"You bastard! You monster! You rotten little cat!
I'll skin you alive and make you into a hat!"
To the top of the fridge! To the top of the desk!
The kitties took flight, away from the mess.

As dry leaves before the wild hurricane fly
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky.
So out to the bedroom the felines they flew
"I'll get you, Millay, and your little son, too."

And then, in a twinkling, I heard in the hall,
The batting and pawing of each toy cat ball.
As I raged in my head, and was turning around,
Down the hallway the fur-beasts then came with a bound.

They were dressed all in fur, from their heads to their feet,
And they yelled out they still needed something to eat.
But a bowl full of food still sat on the floor
As I'd fed the two monsters a mere hour before.

Their eyes - they were wild! Their tails, how they twitched!
As they rubbed on my ankles and they moaned and they bitched.
Millay's droll little mouth was open like Jaws
And Steinbeck kept batting my knees with his paws.

They wouldn't listen as I explained I'd fed them before
Continuing to howl and to writhe on the floor.
So I got out the Friskies, and I got out the cup,
And gave them more food so they'd shut the f**k up.

Steinbeck mewed not a sound, but went straight to work
At filling his belly — the little fur-jerk.
Millay sniffed at the bowl, then with nose in the air,
Pretended no interest in what she found there.

"Eat the damn food, you rotten little cow!
I hope that you're happy — I'm wide awake now."
The clock, it read four — I thought I would weep.
I turned toward the bedroom, hoping for sleep.

"Merry Christmas, you monsters, with your cold little hearts.
I'm taking a nap - then I'll sell you for parts."
And I heard them exclaim as the two of them fled,
"Merry Christmas, dear human - your gift's under the bed."

—Poem by Miss Liberty

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Mr. Putter and Tabby: They're Up to Something!

The other day, I wondered about some old friends — so I let the library help me reconnect with them.

These friends are Mr. Putter and Tabby, an adventuresome elderly gentleman and his older, charming cat. Author Cynthia Rylant teams up with illustrator Arthur Howard to share his unusual adventures with juvenile readers like me.

This couple of characters live next door to Mrs. Teaberry, the more adventurous of the two, and her good dog, Zeke. Usually it's Mrs. Teaberry who has the idea to try something different, and Mr. Putter is always in. However, when Mr. Putter has the idea — well, watch out!

I stumbled across these characters a few years ago, just by chance. Having a few tabbies in my life made me feel kin to Mr. Putter, and growing up with dogs made me appreciate Mrs. Teaberry. I had to find out what they could get up to in their silver years.

Plus, on a purely academic level, it's nice to remind children that older people aren't all dinosaurs — and that older pets can be good companions.

And the illustrations — well, see for yourself.

So, last night, Ginger and I read a few adventures. We have a few more waiting for us (thank you, Library!). It's always nice to see what these four can get up to, and they have yet to disappoint. Something as tame as tea can become a crazy day for them!

If ever you want a laugh, turn to Mr. Putter, Tabby, Mrs. Teaberry and Zeke.

Who are your favorite characters? What do you think of illustrated books?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Poetry Wednesday: Happy Birthday, Emily Dickinson

"Arcturus" is his other name

"Arcturus" is his other name—
I'd rather call him "Star."
It's very mean of Science
To go and interfere!

I slew a worm the other day—
A "Savant" passing by
Murmured "Resurgam"—"Centipede"!
"Oh Lord—how frail are we"!

I pull a flower from the woods—
A monster with a glass
Computes the stamens in a breath—
And has her in a "class"!

Whereas I took the Butterfly
Aforetime in my hat—
He sits erect in "Cabinets"—
The Clover bells forgot.

What once was "Heaven"
Is "Zenith" now—
Where I proposed to go
When Time's brief masquerade was done
Is mapped and charted too.

What if the poles should frisk about
And stand upon their heads!
I hope I'm ready for "the worst"—
Whatever prank betides!

Perhaps the "Kingdom of Heaven's" changed—
I hope the "Children" there Won't be "new fashioned" when I come—
And laugh at me—and stare—

I hope the Father in the skies
Will lift his little girl—
Old fashioned—naught—everything—
Over the stile of "Pearl."

— Emily Dickinson
Courtesy Poem Hunter

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Christmas Reading: What's on Your List?

Readers are a sentimental lot who re-read when appropriate. I'm not a frequent re-reader, but I do have a few favorites I pull out at about this time of year. I also throw a few new ones into the mix every year, and sometimes they join the usual holiday suspects the next year.

First, my husband David and I re-read A Christmas Carol. We have a lovely reprint of the original, complete with drawings, that we read aloud (hopefully before Christmas Day). It was so important to us that we — okay, I — bought a second copy before the library was set up in our current home. If you've never read it, please pick it up today and read a few pages aloud. It's how Charles Dickens intended it to be experienced, and it sounds glorious.

Another favorite is Connie Willis' Miracle and Other Christmas Stories, which has an excellent mix of classic sci-fi and mystery — with a couple of surprises.

A new read I plan to pick up this season is Holidays on Ice. I want to see how David Sedaris views Christmas.

Enhance your joy of the season with The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror by Christopher Moore. It will quickly become a holiday favorite. Imagine angels, death, confused boys, a former movie queen a la Xena, Warrior Princess and a dog experiencing Christmas in Pine Cove. Honestly, it's a hoot.

Consider a few other Christmas classics, like The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, which I picked up from the library for this very reason. 

Remember, books don't have to be long to be good: consider A Visit from St. Nicholas — known best by its first line, "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," which I read to my nieces and nephews when we were together for Christmas.  

How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a great tale to share with folks of all ages. (Please don't mention the live-action movie. Ever.)  

The Polar Express and A Child's Christmas in Wales also are great options.

There's Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory, a poignant memory that will stay with readers for long after the story ends.  

Skipping Christmas and Visions of Sugar Plums will transport you to unique ideas of the holidays and what the season really may mean. 

Learn more about Kris Kringle in The Autobiography of Santa Claus and take a trip back to another time.

Stop by your local library and let your librarian guide you through other interesting options. There's a lot of material out there about a fascinating, emotion-filled holiday.

What are you reading this season?

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Poetry Wednesday: Thanksgiving

Later, after dinner, we examine your uncle’s photos
of trees, flowers, waterfalls, birds
until I just can’t stand it another second.
I am not at one with nature.  Never was.
Some of the people can be fooled all of the time,
even when you yawn right in their faces.

Guests, or ghosts, have taken over the house,
lounging in the living room, watching t.v.
Ugly images of war and politics are all I see.
Cancel the rest of the holidays, please, until this
knot can be untied and our hearts released.

-- Terence Winch

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Dinner: The Minion Said It All

I remember the initial clamor over The Dinner. Radio hosts were gasping, "It's an incredible book!" So I picked it up — and found it tedious.

Then I did the only thing I could do: I gave it to my friend Carole, my Other Reading Self, to help me see if it was me or the book. When she handed it back, she said, "You have to give it another try."

Then I mentioned on Twitter that I was giving The Dinner another shot, Random House Canada told me this.

Now I tell you:

Paul and Claire meet Serge and Babette for dinner. What happens next: well, the minion said it all.

Books in translation often display a clumsy gait to me, especially books originally written in German or Germanic languages. (The Reader failed this reader before I even got to the pedophilia.) However, This translation was very smooth, allowing the undercurrent of the narrator's apparent awkwardness to knock the reader off-kilter.

And don't get sidetracked by the narrator's tangents. Don't try to make these threads weave into a familiar pattern. My mistake was that I thought the narrator was drawing me a road map. What I needed, instead, was to sit back and let the story do the driving.

Let me know when you read it. You'll need to talk. I'll be here.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Poetry Wednesday: The German Ward

The German Ward

When the years of strife are over and my
recollection fades
Of the wards wherein I worked the weeks
I shall still see, as a visions rising 'mid the War-
time shades,
The ward in France where German wounded

I shall see the pallid faces and the half-sus-
picious eyes,
I shall hear the bitter groans and laboured
And recall the loud complaining and the weary
tedious cries,
And the sights and smells of blood and wounds
and death.

I shall see the convoy cases, blanket-covered
on the floor,
And watch the heavy stretcher-work begin,
And the gleam of knives and bottles through
the open theatre door,
And the operation patients carried in.

I shall see the Sister standing, with her form
of youthful grace,
And the humour and the wisdom of her
And the tale of three years' warfare on her thin
expressive face-
The weariness of many a toil-filled while.

I shall think of how I worked for her with
nerve and heart and mind,
And marvelled at her courage and her skill,
And how the dying enemy her tenderness
would find
Beneath her scornful energy of will.

And I learnt that human mercy turns alike to
friend or foe
When the darkest hour of all is creeping
And those who slew our dearest, when their
lamps were burning low,
Found help and pity ere they came to die.

So, though much will be forgotton when the
sound of War's alarms
And the days of death and strife have passed
I shall always see the vision of Love working
amidst arms
In the ward wherein the wounded prisoners

— Vera Brittain

courtesy First World War Poetry Digital Archive

Monday, November 11, 2013

Always Remember on Veterans Day

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
      Between the crosses, row on row,
   That mark our place; and in the sky
   The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
   Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
         In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
   The torch; be yours to hold it high.
   If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
         In Flanders fields.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Tina Fey's Bossypants is Safe, But Still Enjoyable

I wasn't sure what to expect from comedienne Tina Fey's memoir, Bossypants. She is so young, yet iconic and very successful. I wasn't completely disappointed with the memoir, but I also wasn't completely satisfied.
I thought she wrote some funny stuff in her book and I laughed out loud quite often. I like funny. But I've read consistently funnier memoirs by people who aren't "professionally" funny. (Caitlin Moran, anyone? Jenny Lawson?) I know, the curse of the comedienne is that she's always expected to be hilarious, which isn't fair — but only when you bump into her at the grocery store.

May I also ads: I have read more honest and revealing memoirs. At times she skated across the top, rather safely. That was disappointing.

I was a little surprised by what she chose to include in her memoir: some of it was a little out of left field (climbing a mountain at night) and some of it was unexpectedly personal and rather un-funny (wanting a second child). What she revealed about Saturday Night Live, one of her best-known gigs, was guarded. She definitely had a handle on what she wanted to reveal.

Having said that, there were some nice surprises. I liked meeting her father. (What a stylin' badass!) I liked the readers' guide at the end, which gently poked fun at readers' guides and social media. I liked the description of her "30 Rock" staff because she gives props to the people who help her be in the position to write a memoir people want to read. I liked the part about her Palin impersonation; it was kind to the people usually criticized or vilified by those on the "other side of the aisle." I kind of liked the whole Christmas trip chapter.

I liked her "girl power" moment, when she told us how Amy Pohler shut up Jimmy Fallon about what was funny. Personally, I have fond humor long controlled by men who write about what they think is funny and make women the butt of many jokes, or assign them certain roles to support their jokes. I also think women writing for current cinema too often have turned themselves into men to try to be funny to everyone. ("Bridesmaids," anyone?)  Tina didn't do that with her first feature film, "Mean Girls." She looked at how women act and found the humor in it, and it told a great story. I would have liked a little more insight into how she creates and judges "funny."
In the end, I didn't think there wasn't enough Tina in the memoir. I don't think I know her any better now than I did before reading the book. I didn't expect deep, dark secrets — which, don't get me wrong, I'm not sad she doesn't seem to have — but I expected more "her."

I liked her writing, though, and I will continue to watch and read her work.

Have you read Bossypants? What did you think? Tell us in the comments below, or drop me a line.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Poetry Wednesday: Te Deum

Te Deum

Not because of victories
I sing,
having none,
but for the common sunshine,
the breeze,
the largess of the spring.

Not for victory
but for the day's work done
as well as I was able;
not for a seat upon the dais
but at the common table.

by Charles Reznikoff
Courtesy poets.org

Monday, November 4, 2013

Satire That Causes Offense, or, Facebook as a Mirror Rather Than a Bulletin Board

I'm not a dedicated American football fan, really. I can't get away from it in autumn, and I certainly can't get away from the crimson and gold (or whatever the Official Colors are) of the Washington Professional Football Team. I can't call them by their moniker anymore. I agree with the naysayers: it's a racial slur.

Having said that, I'm not actively campaigning for the name change. (See "American football fan, not" reference above.) Plus, if I was to be a fan for any team, I would choose the one named after a poem. (Go ahead, search your mem— yeah, that one!). Plus, I like purple.

As I perused my Facebook news feed recently, I saw a friend had posted an Onion article about the issue. The author supposed that Washington team owner Dan Snyder was Jewish and used hair-raising racial slurs associated with Judaism to describe him while printing Snyder's defense of this team's name. It was rich, ironic and biting. I posted it.

A few minutes later, my phone rang. It was my brother-in-law. That article on my wall, he said, was offensive.

He was absolutely right. It was offensive. The Onion made the perfect argument that racial slurs are indefensible.

"Yeah, it is. You've heard of The Onion, right? The satirical newspaper?" I asked.

"It's offensive," he repeated.

"Yes, I can see why you say that."

That was pretty much our exchange. He didn't ask me why I posted it, or what I thought of it, or even to delete it. He just expressed his offense.

I understand the power of words. In the recent past, I found myself reminding people from whence the verbs "gyp" and "jew" came so they truly understand what they're saying. I've asked people to not "skin a cat" or "beat a dead horse" in conversation with me. I get it: language matters, words matter. (So does punctuation, but that's another issue altogether.)

However,  I try to not take Facebook personally any more than I take bumper stickers and t-shirts personally. It's not easy: I see one particular bumper sticker on my running route that makes my blood boil. (For the record, it shows disrespect to the office of the President of the United States of America.) Deep down, I know that no one puts on a t-shirt with the intent to "piss off Chris." (Trust me, I don't have that power or influence.) It has nothing to do with me.

It has everything to do with them. People want to see themselves reflected on Facebook. When they don't, they feel the need to fix that, and that never results in an exchange of differing opinions, just an announcement that the other person is wrong. We've personalized our computing devices to the point that we think they should only show us things that we want. I suppose that's next in the social media world; let's give Google a few more years.

In the meantime, it's back to cute, innocuous photos for me — until someone needs to express her or his offense because of their allergy to bees, or cats, or cooks, or Heaven knows what. Perhaps I should unplug before I cause more offense, but I truly believe the Internet needs more Ginger. I suppose only time will tell. Happy Facebook, y'all.