Category Archives: books

Getting My Reading Mojo Back

Dailyish blog writing went to weeklyish blog writing as I headed into fall: I took one last trip to Pennsylvania, mourned my boy Spot, finished teaching a summer course, and got two fall courses up and running.

With that initial busyness behind me, I am facing a fall with more free time than I have had for decades. Seriously, decades. And I want to make sure I am finding the balance of chilling out and stepping up. One thing I am doing is learning to relish my reading life again.

A painting of a woman reading a book outside by Camille Corot
A Woman Reading, Camille Corot

A long time ago, before you were born*, when I was still single, and life was great (it’s a song reference..google it), I used to get up on Saturday mornings, pour fresh-brewed coffee into the thermal pot, add it to a tray with mug, cream and something sweet to eat, and retire to bed for the morning with a book and a cuppa. These were my hours to read and sip and rest after a long week of work before whatever chores and activities the weekend held. Depending on the book and the weekend, morning might stretch into afternoon, and I would find myself sprawled on the sofa at sunset, probably with a glass of wine, mourning the end of yet another book. I know I had responsibilities but somehow they had not come to weigh on me. The *shoulds* had yet to take control. (As in, you should do laundry. You should clean the bathroom. You should call my your mother.)

Somewhere along the line, I lost that reading mojo, as a friend of mine on LibraryThing calls it. That ability to just sink into words, to lose track of everything except the book, to be able to ignore the voices, including your own, that suggest you should be doing something more productive than “just reading.” Was it some combination of graduate school, tl;dr social media syndrome, and life in general that made it a challenge for me to do more than a chapter or two of even the best book?

If you look at my statistics for the years, numbers wise, I read and listened to a lot of books. But, distraction definitely kept me from sinking into a book the way I once could, and I read in bits and pieces except over the summer when I escaped to the pool and floated and read, no devices allowed.

Lately, I have found myself working at getting that focus back. For instance, I take only the book or device from which I am reading to the porch or bedroom recliner, two of my reading retreats when the pool is closed for the season. As for choice of device, I am inclined to take the old school Kindle with me as it offers little in the way of entertainment. It is solely an e-reader, and sometimes a single use device isn’t a bad thing.

I have also disrupted my morning routine, because I have found that early mornings are still a favorite time to brew a latte and slip back in bed with a book. I do love reading at night with just the book light for illumination but, sadly, one of the perils of getting old is falling asleep easily and I wake with the impression of book and light on my cheek. Enjoy those late night reading binges while you can, my younger friends. Now, it takes quite a book to keep me up.

*Seriously, I know how old some of you are, and it was before you were born.

What Are You Reading?

Painting by Gary Melchers of  a woman sitting in a chair reading by an open window that looks out to a flower garden where another person is standingI am fortunate to have lots of bookish friends who share their reading on social media. One is an honest to goodness bookstagrammer. While I don’t have that kind of energy, I am committed to writing more about my reading. Currently, I share my reading with a small group via the LibraryThing 75 Books a Year group. I have belonged for 8 years and gotten increasingly involved over time, which mostly means writing, reading and responding to other people’s posts. The groups use an old-fashioned discussion forum that predates Good Reads by some years and the larger website is wiki-based. I have developed friendships with several people and met three of them face to face when we did a meetup in Colorado. The others, including a retired British coal miner who I also follow on Twitter, are virtual friends only. We use the platform to share our reading and through those conversations, we share our lives as well. It has become my community of choice as I spend less and less time on other social media platforms, especially Facebook.

So, what am I reading? Short answer: anything I want.

The longer answer is that I make an effort to read a wide variety of writing. One way I do that is by participating in LibraryThing challenges, especially the annual Bingo card. At the beginning of the year, a group of volunteers with input from the community come up with a list of 25 reading topics that are then programmed onto a Bingo card. You can see a screenshot of mine below:

a bingo card with topics for reading

Here are a couple Bingo card books that I enjoyed and might not have discovered if it weren’t for the challenge:

When You Get the Chance by Tom Ryan and Robin Stevenson tells the story of cousins who take the road trip of their lives to the Toronto Pride celebration. Mark and Talia, cousins who haven’t seen each other for a long time due to a rift between their sibling parents, reunite at the family cabin for the summer. They are mostly there to clean it out to sell it. They are both in same-sex relationships with Talia’s partner identifying as non-binary, using “they” as a pronoun. Both of them want to get to Toronto for the Pride festival even as they try to figure out the mystery of why their parents don’t get along. The book was written with an eye to educating the reader but the story was fun and upbeat as well. I particularly liked the depictions of older gay couples who tell their stories and also offer support for the next generation.

Zahrah the Windseeker is the first book by Nigerian American writer Nnedi Okorafor. Wikipedia classifies it as young adult book, but I think it would be fine for an older elementary audience as well. Okorafor tells the story of Zahrah, who lives with her family in the Ooni Kingdom on the edge of the Forbidden Forest where no one who ventures returns. Thirteen-year-old Zahrah was born dada,  meaning she has vines growing out her hair, an unusual phenomenon and one the community regards with suspicion, believing such people to possess magic. Their suspicions are correct because as the novel opens, Zahrah is just discovering her powers. She and her best friend decide to explore the forest and quickly encounter almost deadly danger. In order to save her friend, Zahrah must return to the forest. I loved the book: the forest is filled with fantastical creatures that set the imagination alive. But, the characters are very real human beings living in this world and we get to know them and love them even as Zahrah learns to love herself.
And just to show you the range of reading I do, the last Bingo card book is April Lady by Georgette Heyer. I generally don’t read romances but have heard Heyer mentioned by readers I respect. She did not disappoint as she crafted her tale of the Cardross’s: Gile with the fortune who married for love despite his family’s disapproval, and Helen, who also married for love, but seems to be more interested in the money as she amasses a pile of bills. The book is a romp through the Regency world as Helen tries to hide her spending from her husband through silly and ultimately unsuccessful schemes. Fun and frivolous with a little history to give it some redeeming value, I suppose.

Historical Hypocrisy

Some American history writers seem unwilling to take on the racist, violent events and attitudes of our shared past. Unless the topic directly relates to the atrocities and the people impacted by them, the writers either ignore them or pay some kind of lip service. I think we can celebrate ingenuity and innovation without sacrificing the often pretty terrible truth about how America became and continues to become the country it is.

Philbrick takes time out from recounting the first battles of the Revolutionary War to point out the essential hypocrisy and single minded fanaticism of the colonists. Long after the war was over, one of the militiamen stated his reason for fighting very simply: “We always had been free, and we meant to be free always” (p. 121). Philbrick does not let that statement simply go by without comment:

But to say that a love of democratic ideals had inspired these country people to take up arms against the regular is to misrepresent the reality of the revolutionary movement. Freedom was for these militiamen a very relative term. As for their Puritan ancestors, it applied only to those who were just like them. Enslaved African Americans, Indians, women, Catholics, and especially British loyalists were not worthy of the same freedoms they enjoyed. It did not seem a contradiction to these men that standing among them that night was the thirty-four-year-old enslaved African American Prince Estabrook, owned by town selectman and justice of the peace Benjamin Estabrook (p. 121).

He goes on to describe the sometimes brutal suppression of loyalists in Massachusetts. Tar and feathering was a popular punishment, and early in the book, Philbrick describes one such attack with excruciating detail so we understand the horror. Later, he only has to mention that it was administered to make my skin crawl.

I remember when, during her husband’s first Presidential campaign, Michelle Obama made a comment about being really proud of her country for the first time. Not surprisingly, she was widely criticized. But from its beginnings, the country that emphasized freedom for all not only left lots of people out, but did so in horrible, dehumanizing ways.

It is not without a touch of irony that Philbrick ends the section about the small battle in Lexington in which Prince Estabrook took part by describing the aftermath:

Besides Pitcairn’s twice-wounded horse and two soldiers who had received minor injuries, all the casualties had been sufferwd by the provincials, with eight dead and ten wounded, included Prince Estabrook, who became the first African American casualty of the Revo;ution since the death of the black sailor Crispus Attacks at the Boston Massacre (p. 128).

 

A Continuum of Practice in Reading and Crocheting

I have been reading and crocheting so naturally at some point my reading connects to my crocheting.

As I mentioned in this post, I had started working on my first “real” piece of crocheted clothing: a sweater vest for my dad. It was classified as an Intermediate, level 3 on a five level scale.

Crocheted Sweater VestI have made lots of hats and scarves but they are forgiving, mostly one size fits all. The vest had different directions for different sizes and included ribbing and arm and neck openings. It also had a special pattern in front that was a little tricky. All in all, a challenging pattern for me. I am happy to say, I completed it, and it fits! (It wasn’t quite done when I saw my dad but he was able to try it on. I finished up the borders and put it in the mail yesterday.)

Once I finished the vest, I wanted something easy, almost mindless as one friend suggested. It is hard to be completely mindless with crochet as there is usually some counting involved but there are certainly plenty of patterns that are much more mindless than the sweater vest. I chose to make a corner to corner shawl using beautiful self-striping yarn. Once you get the simple pattern going, it is easy to continue and the yarn does all the work. And, in the end, you get a lovely shawl in much less time than the sweater vest.Easy Shawl

Is one bit of crocheting better than another because it is harder? I certainly learned more about my craft from making the vest. But there was a bit more stress for something I am doing to relax.

I was reminded of this question as I read David Denby’s Lit Up, his study of high school English students, their teachers, and the texts they shared. He focused on several innovative, committed teachers who challenged their students with classics but also found ways to connect them to contemporary lives and concerns. The students of one teacher read assigned texts as well as their own choices and, at the end of the year, made a hierarchy of the books from hardest to easiest and then thought about why they were hard and how difficulty impacted quality. It was, for the teacher, a way of helping them understand the difference between an easy beach read and something else.

Their end of the year project required them to combine Shakespearean soliloquy with their own reading. Denby identifies something more about the relationship of the classics and the contemporary: “Some books, they knew, were better than others, but there were strengths in merely good books as well as in a masterpiece, and those qualities could be made to play upon each other. Part of the connection of the classic texts and contemporary books was that they intermingled in the reader’s mind, working on each other–usually in mysterious ways, this time in explicit ways” (p. 182).

The obvious similarity here between my crocheting and the students’ reading is the laddering, starting with easier projects that built foundational skills for the more challenging project.  And that project has built my confidence for even more difficult projects. But what about the other direction? How has my successful challenge changed my attitude or approach to the simpler stuff?  Just like I refuse to label some reading as a guilty pleasure, so I don’t think the easy things are a waste of time. They are a chance to just enjoy crocheting but perhaps, as a more experienced crafter, these simpler projects are better, made with more precision, a higher quality than before.

January Reading Statistics and Reviews

Here’s a snapshot of my reading in January. It was largely white and Western with a 50/50 split between female and male authors. Since I plan ahead, I know the list gets more diverse in coming months. But tracking reading this way can help make sure I don’t just read cozy mysteries by nice white ladies.

The full list is at the bottom along with links to reviews. My goal is to review every book I read this year. I’ll post all of them to the book’s page at LibraryThing along with my thread there. Some I’ll post here as well, either through reflective essays or reading roundups.

Number of Books: 10
Number of Pages: 3,183

Genres:

  • Fiction: 4
  • Travel Memoir: 2
  • History: 1
  • True Crime: 1
  • Historical Fiction:1
  • Mystery: 1

Gender:

  • Male: 5
  • Female: 5

Country:

  • US: 8
  • UK: 2

Race/Ethnicity:

  • White: 9
  • Black: 1

Origin:

  • My Library: 9
  • Public Library: 1

Format:

  • Kindle: 4
  • Softcover: 3
  • Hardcover: 3

Publication Date:

  • 21st Century: 9
  • 20th Century: 1

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman
Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King
Nightwoods by Charles Frazier
One Good Deed by David Baldacci
Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya by Jamaica Kincaid

I reviewed the first five books here.

The Big Burn by Timothy Egan
Midnight in Siberia by David Greene (Review)
The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett
The Women of the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell (Review)
Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie

I also read Book 1 of John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World and reviewed it here.