Thursday, August 7, 2014

For the Record: July 2014

July was a better month than I expected it to be...although some of that was probably at the expense of my husband (sorry hunny).  You see, my summers usually go like this: I'm excited to finally have time to organize my house and finish up projects around the house, and Chris is excited to finally have a school schedule that permits taking vacations.  This year, however, he has an inordinate amount of things he is juggling so we've been at home more than usual.

We got word from our landlord that he wants to put the house we are renting on the market on September 15.  Hopefully it won't sell right away, because the house we are remodeling still has a bit of work to be done on it before we can move back.  Either way, it definitely complicates the remaining months of the year!  Thank goodness I've gotten pretty good at just taking things as they come.

7 Books Read in July: (41 year-to-date)

1 Nonfiction:
  - Seven: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess, Jen Hatmaker (3.5) This was an impulse buy at Barnes & Noble.  We ran in to pick up the next couple books in my daughter's Warriors series and this one had such a cute cover. (Plus, I'd heard a friend talking about it, but still...the cover.) Since I've been in the mode of de-cluttering and simplifying, this book's topic suit me perfectly.  I appreciated the chapter about food the most - especially in light of the large homeless population in SoCal - we are truly so abundantly blessed that it is almost hard to fathom.  The rest of the book felt a little repetitive to me, though still easy and enjoyable to read due to the author's conversational blog-like tone.

1 Read Aloud to my 10yo:
  - James and the Giant Peach, Roald Dahl (3) I had remarkably little Roald Dahl in my childhood.  Like, maybe watching Charlie and the Chocolate Factory once.  So I've tried to make up for that with my kids, working through his books little by little.  This one, I have to say, has been my least favorite so far.  I liked the characters well enough, but felt that the story arc was weak.

2 AudioBooks:
  - We Were Liars, E. Lockhart (2.5) All the hype about this book combined with some long plane rides at the beginning of the month made me decide to give the audio version a try.  It was short (nice) but struck me as somewhat dramatic and predictable.  Note to self: resist the hype.
  - The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Gabrielle Zevin (4) What a sweet story! Sort of a vanity read due to the wonderful amount of bookish discussion: the authors, the titles, the community. I had to go buy a hard copy so that I could reread it and loan it out.

3 "Obligation" Reads:
  - The Road From Gap Creek, Robert Morgan (4.5) Sent to me from the publisher via LibraryThing...I remembered enjoying Gap Creek back in the day but wasn't sure how that would translate to my current tastes.  I'm happy to say that it solidified my appreciation for Morgan's prose (poetic and contemplative but not overly so).  It took place in the Appalachian mountains (a setting which never fails to remind me of the Sierra Nevada mountains I grew up in) in the midst of the Great Depression and WWII. It meanders through the past the way your memory does: without regard to keeping a strict timeline.  I get it, I appreciate it, but was still confused a few times. Still, it reminded me of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in its coming-of-age, reminiscent tone.
  - King Dork, Frank Portman (2.5) My latest book club pick...It isn't hard for me to imagine that many people would like this book more than I did.  There was much about it that was good - funny, deep, etc. I just couldn't get over two things: first, I really don't think I'd like the author himself (he seemed self-absorbed and I'm just not into that); second, I couldn't figure out when it took place and that bugged me more and more as the book progressed. Everything about it felt mid-1980s: the style, the music, the microfilm.  And yet at one point there was mention of a plaque in the high school from the class of 1994.  And that's not to mention the amount of hooking up this kid did, even though he was apparently the dorkiest kid in the class.  It didn't work for me.
  - The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street, Susan Jane Gilman (3.5) Sent to me from the publisher via LibraryThing...On one hand, this book was fun to read.  It had the whole immigrant pre-WWI thing happening, it had history and culture, good stuff.  On the other hand, the main character was so annoying (SO annoying) that I was glad to be done with her.  She was self-centered and ungrateful throughout the entire book.  I felt sorry for her husband, poor guy.  What some people call spunky, I call selfish.

            


1 DNF:
  - Big Mouth & Ugly Girl, Joyce Carol Oates. I was reading this with my 13yo daughter but she felt it was completely implausible and I felt the characters were not up to par with Oates' typical fare. So we stopped.



5 Current Reads:
  - Loving Our Kids on Purpose, Danny Silk. Reading on recommendation from a friend.  It's something I would have enjoyed more...18 years ago? But there isn't anything that strikes me as revolutionary at this point in my parenting career.
  - MFA vs. NYC, edited by Chad Harbach. Still working on this bit by bit. Still enjoying it.
  - The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown. My new book club pick. I'm actually barely into this one but I think it's going to be a good one.
  - The Best of McSweeney's, edited by Dave Eggars. I've picked this up again in an effort to wrap it up.  I had to skip the David Foster Wallace story - I had stalled out on it, just couldn't get through it, and now I'm trucking along again.
  - West of Here, Jonathan Evison. Current audio book. I actually have the physical copy, but was starting to think I'd never read it so I opted for the audio version instead. It's okay so far. The narrator is great, but the writing itself makes for a somewhat detached, disjointed story.

        

On My Nightstand:
Honestly? Nothing. After I get through the five books I'm currently in, who knows what I'll read? Something quick and easy maybe. All I know is that once September hits, life is going to be crazy.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

All the Light We Cannot See

Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.

I'm stingy with my 5-star ratings.  Sometimes I regret that and try to change, but then a book like All the Light We Cannot See comes along and simply deserves to stand above the rest.  If I weren't stingy with my 5, I'd have to break the rules and give this a 6 or 10 or 100 and that's a spiral I'm not ready to slide down.

Doerr's new book came to me in a Powell's Indiespensable shipment.  I didn't know much about it, except that it told the story of a blind French girl and an orphaned German boy as their lives converged during World War II. (And that it has short chapters.  I love short chapters.  Makes me feel so accomplished.)

From the start, the mood is magic.  Doerr illuminates the small thoughts and actions that create how a person or a place feels. It was familiar, and yet completely new.  The settings were vivid, and the characters were whole, genuine people. Themes run through the book so seamlessly that you can give them as little or as much attention as you want.  The writing is poetic but not heavy (nor too sparse). There is family and love, action and mystery, good and evil. There is literature, science, art, history and technology. The story switched back and forth between different times, yet remained organized and easy to follow.

It seems big enough to contain everything anyone could ever feel.

Looking back at World War II, it is easy to wonder how it was possible.  How did the Germans go along with this plan? How did people let this happen? Why didn't people stand up and object? When this question is taken out of the philosophical, however, it is easy to see how human nature compartmentalizes actions and events in order to cope with reality. From the way Marie-Laure adjusts to being blind in a city the size of Paris with only her father to help her, to Werner's ambitions to escape the fate of the coal mines that claimed his father's life, we see very real examples of how difficult it is to accurately assess the big picture and apply it to your life.

I recommend this book heartily! It's been a long time since I've read a novel as complete and filling as this.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

For the Record: June 2014

Turns out, a proper vacation is just what I needed to get my reading life moving along.  Isn't it always? Being halfway through the year, I can see that I am quite a bit under my target number (of books to read each year) but wonderfully enough, I'm totally fine with that.  I've enjoyed the reading I have done, so nothing else really matters much.

6 Books Read in June: (34 year-to-date)

1 Nonfiction:
  - Devil in the White City, Erik Larson (4.5) Incredible nonfiction here!  I had to keep reminding myself that this story was for realz. I enjoyed reading Thunderstruck, but was blown away by Devil in the White City.  That is not to say that it was perfect...I think that Larson tends to include too many names in his narrative instead of finding other ways to include those extra fascinating details...but it still doesn't get much better than this. I listened to this on audio, and thought the narrator did a fabulous job.  If you haven't read this, put it on your list.

1 From my Shelf:
  - Cloudsplitter, Russell Banks (4) This book was 758 pages.  That's one important thing about it. Other than that significant fact (which kept it on my shelf for over a decade before I was finally guilted into reading it) it's a pretty great read.  It almost felt like a real account from pre-Civil War America at times, I was so thoroughly immersed in the story.  This was the story of John Brown (of Harpers Ferry fame) and his fanatical abolitionist actions, this was a wonderful perspective on the Civil War.

4 Vacation Reads:
  - Please Ignore Vera Dietz, A.S. King (3) Sent in the Book Riot Quarterly box as an exemplary example of Young Adult Fiction, this troubled-teen-story didn't knock my socks off.  It was an interesting story, but didn't seem deeply felt.  The characters were a little thin, the edgy content didn't feel entirely genuine, and overall wasn't very compelling.  Maybe I'm just super picky, but it wasn't very memorable. My socks were still all the way on.
  - The Sisters Mortland, Sally Beauman (4) Surprisingly enjoyable story in the same vein as The Thirteenth Tale.  Some mystery and intrigue, a touch of the unreliable narrator, and a lovely British setting had me turning the pages quickly.  Being stuck in bed with a sprained ankle turned it into a mini read-a-thon, and reading it quickly probably improved my opinion of it in general. Still, if you liked The Thirteenth Tale or have enjoyed any of Kate Morton's book, this one may please as well.
  - Flora, Gail Goodwin (3.5) I loved the setting in this book: a small mountain town in the American South at the end of WWII. The mood reminded me somewhat of To Kill a Mockingbird.  There were some POV/timeline issues for me, that ended up pulling me out of the story and meant I wasn't very invested in the ending.  Still, solid and enjoyable.
  - Longbourn, Jo Baker (3) I wasn't going to read this one, but the cover art is so gorgeous and everyone was talking about how good it was.  So I read it, and concurrently discovered that I am a Jane Austen Purist.  I was entranced by the idea of hearing from the servants' perspective, but that's about where the fascination ended.  The story didn't stand on its own, which compounded the feeling that the details were all gratuitous.  It might as well have been a behind-the-scenes-of-the-Keira-Knightly-version of Pride and Prejudice.  And there...when I heard myself think that, I knew I was a purist. Sorry, turns out I've got a bit of a snob in me after all.  It wasn't bad, but it wasn't as good as the cover art.

          


5 Current Reads:
  - King Dork, Frank Portman.  My current book club book, I'm hoping to tear through it this weekend.
  - The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Gabrielle Zevin.  I just started this audio book and I'm already hooked.  Fun stuff!
  - James and the Giant Peach, Roald Dahl. Reading aloud to my 10yo daughter.
  - Big Mouth & Ugly Girl, Joyce Carol Oates. Reading with my 13yo daughter.
  - MFA vs. NYC, edited by Chad Harbach. This was brought to my attention by Carrie (NomadReader).  It's a collection of essays about current American fiction.  I'm really enjoying it as a way to widen my view on how things are working in publishing.

        

On My Nightstand:
Even though there's a ton of work left on my house project, I've started to think in terms of what books I'll read before I move back into my home.  It's kind of a weird feeling, since that might be close to the end of the year, but I'm just so excited at the thought of nearing the end of this phase of my life. Somehow, this makes me want to read some of the books that have been on my shelf for quite a while, but who knows if I will?  I don't have anything lined up right now, except for perhaps All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.  That's been calling my name. Have you read it?

Saturday, July 5, 2014

L.A. to New York, Iceland to Spain, and Back Again

Vacation is over. In many ways it was exhausting, as active holidays often are, but I think I ultimately succeeded in unwinding.  I came back home eager and ready to finish designing our house project, instead of trying to avoid it, and that's saying something!

We were gone for two weeks, with our first mini-stop in New York City.  Instead of spending our nine hour layover sitting in the airport, we decided to head into the city and squeeze in some extra sightseeing. We ate at Mario Batali's restaurant, Del Posto, in Manhattan and absolutely fell in love with the Chelsea area.

There are few cities I've visited that I felt like I could live in,  (Dublin.  That's probably it.) and I honestly wasn't prepared to like NYC (I thought I'd be claustrophobic and on edge. I'm used to spread-out-California.) so it surprised me.  I loved the style, the literature, the music, the pace, the people.  I want to go back!

After that brief excursion, our first main stop was Iceland.  We've long been intrigued by Iceland (the music scene, the remoteness) and finally decided to go. We aren't big hikers or backpackers, so we were rather oddball tourists there...when we travel we really love to see the architecture and history, and experience the people, food, and culture.  Iceland offered plenty of those things, so we didn't feel like we were missing out by not being super outdoorsy.

We inadvertently visited during summer solstice, so it never really got dark the entire time we were there.  The sun officially set around midnight and rose around 3am, but the sky never actually gets past dusk.  The landscape is so interesting in Iceland—very volcanic with moss and some wildflowers, but very few trees outside the city.

Apart from Reykjavik, we visited the Blue Lagoon: geothermal hot springs with natural salinity and silica clay that give the water its signature color.  The weather was actually quite temperate, considering how far north the island is.  All the people we met were friendly, and the food was good (though there were a surprising number of hot dog and hamburger joints).  They love skateboarding, and I was thrilled that we happened across a small competition on one of the days we were there...I missed my kiddos.

The Blue Lagoon.
Midnight sunset in Reykjavik.
The Laundromat Cafe...that's my kind of decorating!

Art in Barcelona.  :)

After Iceland, we traveled to warmer climates.  We spent a few days in Barcelona, and then met up with my brother-in-law in Ibiza and Mallorca. I sprained my ankle in Barcelona, so we didn't get to do as much exploring as we wanted to, but it all ended up working out.  We became soccer converts (that's a big deal for us non-sports people) and watched many a World Cup match in one of the local cafes. We also went to the Picasso Museum strolled through the Gothic Quarter.

The islands were beautiful...especially seeing them from the water.  I'm not a big boat person, but  Ibiza wouldn't have been nearly as wonderful if only seen by land.  It was worth the rocking and rolling, the perpetual equilibrium distortion, and the challenge of getting on and off a boat with a sprained ankle.  We didn't go to any clubs, though that seems to be what Ibiza is known for (thank goodness because that really isn't my scene) but had plenty of good people watching.





Seeing the progress on our house when we arrived back home was another treat.  The walls have been insulated, and the finish work is progressing.  It's starting to come together!  I can't wait for the day when my time can be used for reading and writing instead of house design and decisions.

I did get some good reading time in while I was away, but that'll have to wait for the next post.  For now, happy summer and happy reading.

Cedar siding in the master bedroom.  So pretty!

Sunday, June 8, 2014

For the Record: May 2014

The speed with which the last month has evaporated is truly astonishing. I wrote a wonderful post about getting out of reading slumps, but Blogger dumped it into oblivion and I didn't have the motivation to recreate it.  Basically, I've been having a hard time with long or slow books, but have been pushing myself through anyhow.

We are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel with our house project, and are hoping to be able to move back this autumn. We've passed our rough inspections and are getting ready to start insulating and installing floors, drywall and tile. I am more than ready for it to be done, and I can't wait to get my books back on their shelves!

3 Books Read in May: (28 year-to-date)

1 Nonfiction/Classic/Book Club:
  - 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northup (4.5) I recently watched the film, and then had the pleasure to read it for book club.  The movie followed the book remarkably well.  Such an incredible first hand account of American slavery.

1 Read Aloud to my kiddos:
  - Folk of the Faraway Tree, Enid Blyton (4) The end of the trilogy - these will go down as some of my daughter's favorite childhood books for sure.

1 Other:
  - I Shall Be Near to You, Erin Lindsay McCabe (4.5) An impulse buy at my local book shop and SO worth it.  I was sobbing in bed at midnight because it was just that kind of book.  Based on true accounts of women who followed their husbands in to the American Civil War, it is necessarily both touching and (when the time comes) harrowing.

    


2 Current Reads:
  - Cloudsplitter, Russell Banks.  I'm still reading this. It has been very good, just Long.  On page 500 of 750+ so I'm finally getting there.
  - Devil in the White City, Erik Larson.  I'm still listening to this. Also very good, just haven't had much time for audio lately.  I'm over halfway though.

      

On My Nightstand:
I have a 2 week vacation approaching (celebrating my 20th anniversary!) so I'm beginning to decide what to take along with me. My goal is to have finished Cloudsplitter and be able to move onto other things. What those will be, I'm not quite sure. Perhaps I'll finally finish Les Miserables!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

On Creativity

When life gets too crazy or stressful to allow for my usual creative outlets, the pressure builds.  All the creativity that typically gets unleashed while pondering the latest book I've read is left to erupt in bursts of imagination at odd intervals throughout the day and night.  I'll have full stories bloom in thin air: dreams that wake me up laughing, characters that start telling me their stories as I drive kids home from school.  Each stranger I see (and there are a lot in SoCal) inspires an elaborate story.  I'm not crazy, honest, I'm just a creative soul without an outlet.

This state cannot continue for long.  It's my brain's way of cluing me in that something has got to change.  The default accompaniment is a driving desire to get out of the city as soon as may be—also a signal that I need to slow down.  A change of pace is in order. Regardless of all the things that need doing, I need to make time for the basics.


Last weekend we finally got ourselves over to the Getty Museum.  It was a perfect day (other than the traffic on the 405 which is always horrid): blue skies, cool breeze, no crowds.  One of the feature exhibits right now is Jackson Pollack's Mural.  I've been wanting to see a Pollack painting in person for quite a while; I'd long ago decided this was the only way to have a proper opinion on his work.  Would it feel chaotic? elementary? inspired?

My 13yo daughter (the artist) and I walked into the room where it was hung and our breath was taken away.  Inspired.  No doubt about it. There is so much life in that painting that it kind of made me want to cry.  That is art.  That is the reaction I hope to find when I open a book.  It really doesn't look like much on screen, but when you get a little closer it is pretty incredible.

(want to know more about this painting? click here)
Also, I must say that the staff here was amazing.  They were always ready to smile and help, even approaching to compliment and engage in conversation with my kiddos. When my 13yo daughter asked one of them what it's like to stand in the same room all day, we ended up with an entertaining and informative lesson on tapestries, history, art, and people.  When we left, the lady at the exit saw my daughter and exclaimed, "Oh, I remember your beautiful blue eyes!" (Living in L.A. is often more isolated than life in a small town, and these personal interactions are not necessarily the norm. My daughter has a way of asking people questions that get them laughing and talking, but this was more than usual. Definitely a treat!)


So, I haven't been doing too much reading lately, and I've desperately wanted to escape to my beloved NorCal mountains, but I'm finding my way through.  I've been forcing myself to sleep more and reminding myself that school is almost out for summer break.  Before long, the craziness of rebuilding a huge house will be winding down, and I'll be able to breathe, to read, to write.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

For the Record: April 2014

I didn't read much this month, which surprised me since it didn't feel that way.  I suppose I was busy (our house rebuild still absorbs tons of time) and the month just disappeared. Plus, Willa Cather had me procrastinating.  There were no huge standouts, though Under the Overpass has stuck with me the longest.

4 Books Read in April: (25 year-to-date)

1 Classic:
  - Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather (3) It makes me sad to have to give three stars to a book by Willa Cather! But, as I said in my review, this was really much too slow and meandering for my taste.  It was more successful at filling in a gap in my history reading than being an enjoyable novel. This was the twelfth book of hers I've read (of twenty published works) and unfortunately, the least enjoyable so far.

1 for Book Club:
  - Me Before You, Jojo Moyes (3) Coming on the heels of such popular successes as The Rosie Project and Eleanor & Park in my recent reading, and being generally just as adored, I had high expectations for this book and ended up being majorly let down.  The characters were rather stereotypical, the plot rather predictable, and the writing and construction very unrefined.  It was enjoyable, but in an empty sort of way.  I won't be surprised, however, if I'm alone in that opinion at my book club meeting tomorrow.  For some reason it seems to be a tear-jerker for most girls, but not even close for me.

1 Nonfiction:
  - Under the Overpass, Mike Yankoski (3.5) This was loaned to me by a book club friend.  Homelessness is an obvious issue where I live, and I've always struggled with wanting to help without enabling.  This book really allowed me to give the issue some serious thought, and has stayed in my head...pops back in every day when I'm confronted with the homeless around me.

1 Other:
  - The Position, Meg Wolitzer (3.5) The Position had many similarities in style, though I didn't love it quite as much as the Interestings. I love Woltzer's talent for writing about mundane life in a way that is anything but boring.  She is also amazing at the pacing and structure of her storytelling.  She'll be an author I return to.

      


2 Current Reads:
  - Cloudsplitter, Russell Banks.  My 15yo son was horrified when he found out that this book had been a gift from my husband almost fifteen years ago, and yet still sat unread on my shelf.  Horrified.  All those years of rejection: he couldn't even fathom the depths of injustice I'd inflicted upon the earth.  He made me promise I would rectify the situation immediately.  (He has a very strong sense of justice.)  I'm at page 139 of 759 total, and thoroughly enjoying it so far.
  - Devil in the White City, Erik Larson.  I haven't had much available audiobook time lately, but I'm about a quarter through and it is wonderfully fascinating.  I wish I didn't have to concentrate so much when I'm homeschooling or house-designing...I want to listen to my book!

      

On My Nightstand:
There is so much I want to read, and I honestly don't know what will be next.  These are the two that I keep looking at on my nightstand:

  - Longbourn, Jo Baker (sounds like my kind of light reading!)
  - With or Without You, Domenica Ruta (a former Indiespensable pick that I'd like to move off the shelf.)

  

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather

Looks like I've found my least favorite Willa Cather novel.  So far. (I still have three other novels on my journey to read her published works chronologically.)  This pretty much stinks, both because many people adore this one (my husband says I'm a literature rebel) and because I've adored everything else of hers.  I didn't hate it, it isn't terrible, it was just really boring for me.  Like Gilead. (So chances are, if you loved that one, you'll love this one too.)

It felt so much slower than her other books, with less focus on the characters.  True, the landscape in this book (New Mexico) isn't much my thing.  Nor is the period in history (1850s acquisition of new territories) one that is currently entrancing me.  Nor is the subject matter (the Catholic church) one that holds my interest.  So if you are interested in those things I imagine you would have much better luck.

It spurred surging desires to jump into a bookstore and buy new books, which (I'm proud to say) I channeled into a more productive action: barreling through the last hundred pages so I could move on to one of the other lovelies on my shelf. The writing was breathtaking at times (as to be expected from Willa Cather) so I had to share a quote.  Maybe someday I'll be moving at a slower pace and will be better equipped to enjoy stories such as this, but for now I'm just glad I'm done!

"...you should not be discouraged; one does not die of a cold." 
The old man smiled.  "I shall not die of a cold, my son, I shall die of having lived."

Pass it on!