Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Monday, February 3, 2020

"Ulysses" by James Joyce

I did it. I'm done with Ulysses. It's been a long, long journey. Hundreds of miles, uphill in the snow in the dead of night. And now that I'm at the end, I'm wondering . . . did I really go anywhere at all?

My journey with Ulysses was a winding one. I don't remember when I started reading it, but it was literally years ago. Nearly ten, I would guess. When I first started, about once a week I would pick it up and read a few pages. (Well, it was on my Kindle, so there was that annoying thing where I really didn't know how many pages I'd read since it measures percent read rather than showing page numbers.) After two months I'd read about 20% of it, which was maybe 100 pages.

One hundred pages and most of it made no sense to me. Every now and then a beautiful moment of clarity would break through, but that didn't happen anywhere near often enough. Half of me was thinking maybe I needed some kind of guidebook, and the other half of me was thinking . . . if I can't read a book on its own then what good is it?

And then my Kindle broke. I have a feeling one of my many children stepped on it. My fault, of course, for leaving it in a step-on-able place. This was my second broken Kindle, and (unlike the first time) my luck (and my warranty) had run out, and I decided not to replace it. Despite the free-ness of all books in the public domain, I think I'll just never love electronic reading the way I love real paper books--maybe that's another blog post for another time. For now, back to Ulysses.

Newly Kindle-less, I did not want to give up on Ulysses, so I decided to continue reading it using the Kindle app on my phone. But, curses! The app did not know where I had stopped reading, and neither did I. (I actually tried to find my place! But failed miserably. It all seemed like unfamiliar territory!) So I did the only thing there was to do, and started over again at the beginning.

I tried to be smarter about it this time. I tried to actually follow what I was reading, and I even took some notes which I will reproduce for you here:

  1. Some guys who live in a tower by the Irish seaside eat breakfast.
  2. They swim.
  3. One of them (Stephen Dedalus) teaches schoolboys. He helps one of the more stupid ones with his sums, then talks with an older professor who hates Jews and who wants to make known a cure for hoof and mouth disease. 
  4. A bunch of gobbledygook nonsense, then Dedalus visits his uncle, then more nonsense.
  5. Did someone just pull a dead body from the sea? The possibility has been mentioned a few times before, but maybe now it's actually happening. I'm not sure, though.
  6. Some lady is in bed. Someone is going to Patrick Dignam's funeral but first cooks a kidney and then takes a crap. He is Flower or Bloom. Leopold Bloom? He snitched a letter from the lady because she was hiding it from him.
  7. Nope, he was hiding it from her. It was from his lover. He buys her a bar of soap and puts it in his pocket.
  8. Several men take a carriage to the funeral. It's possible that Dignam was the body from #5.
  9. "Far away a donkey brayed." Ha! Usually it's a dog barking in the distance.
  10. Someone (Dedalus Bloom? Is that even a character's name or am I mixing two of them up?) takes out an ad in the paper.
  11. A whole conversation at or about the newspaper just went right over my head.
  12. Did I just read a bunch of pages in which a handful of men sat around in a pub and had a conversation that made no sense to me? I'm not quite sure.
  13. Father Conmee leaves the pub (maybe?) and asks some boys to post a letter for him.
  14. Now it's skipping around to all these people I've never heard of before. 
  15. Some sort of Alice in Wonderland trial.
  16. A woman speaks for pages and pages without once pausing. This must be a record for the longest sentence ever written. (Yep, it is. I checked.)
  17. The end. 

I really have no idea whether I am pointing out the emperor's lack of clothing, or if I am just a plebeian swine, but I did not find this book worth reading. Though I'm not sure I can actually truly say I read it. Did I look at every single word in sequential order? Yes. Did it make sense to me? No. Am I glad I did it? Yes, but only because it was a challenge and I have accomplished what I set out to do.

I am sure there are people in the world who love this book (though that number of people is probably quite a bit smaller than the number of people who merely *say* they love this book). I am sure there are people in the world who are smarter than I am, who were able to read this book and make sense of it. I am sure there are people in the world who have devoted their whole lives to reading Joyce's works, as the author himself apparently once demanded. I am not one of those people. I'm just the person who thinks . . . it took seven years to write this book???

This may be the only book that takes longer to read than it took to write. And I'm not sure whether that says more about the writer or the reader.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

"Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng

It's been a long time since I read a good story! I started off really enjoying this one . . . and then suddenly on Friday evening I realized this book was making me grumpy. I no longer sympathized with a single character. Weirdly, the things that made the characters unsympathetic were exactly the things that made them realistic and complex, which I would normally love. Not this time, though. I left the book alone for a little while after this epiphany. But tonight (since obviously I would rather read than watch football) I relented and we made up.

Little Fires Everywhere is a story of families and of mother-child relationships and of restriction and freedom and honesty and secrets and art and change. The conventional Richardsons are the central family, in the sense that every thread comes back to them, but Pearl and her mother Mia are truly the the ones the book revolves around. The storyline is complicated enough that I feel daunted by the thought of summarizing it, but at least I can say that the lives of these two families become so entwined that, by the end of the book, few are unaffected. 

However, if that's all I say, I'll be disappointed when my literary amnesia takes over and I want to return to this post to refresh my memory on the plot. So I will add that Mia is a free-spirited and semi-nomadic photographer who has rented a house from small-town journalist Elena Richardson, mother to four Shaker Heights high-schoolers, each of whom forms their own unique bond with Mia or Pearl (or both).

I was surprised to realize after reading that setting of Shaker Heights (which was almost like a character in the book) is a real live town in Ohio--where the author grew up! That little tidbit almost made the book feel like historical fiction.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

"Cut Flower Garden" by Erin Benzakein

Here's a beautiful book that I spent a long time reading, just briefly dipping in on occasion. It's the sort of book that would look great on the coffee table and wouldn't even necessitate a cover-to-cover read, but that's not why I wanted it. I'd been hoping it would inspire me to grow more cutting flowers by filling me with the knowledge to be masterful at it. Instead, it filled me with the knowledge that I would need to do far more hard work than I am willing to do, and spend far more time than I have, in order to enhance the rooms of my house with home-grown blooms throughout the year (or even just throughout the summer). Especially considering that most of my yard is in shade, and the sunny parts are too far away from the reach of a convenient water hose. So I decided I would just have to be satisfied with living vicariously through this book.

Which was still quite satisfying! The photos are really gorgeous and it was a pleasure to read through this book.

Friday, January 10, 2020

"Salt Fat Acid Heat" by Samin Nosrat

I gave this book to Sam for Christmas and ended up reading it myself before he'd really even opened it. Yes, it's basically a cookbook . . .  I don't often read straight through cookbooks, but this one isn't just recipe after recipe. It's almost more of a cooking philosophy book (though it does include quite a few recipes as well--which, I must admit, I just skimmed over, figuring I would read them in greater detail if, at some point in the future, I decide to actually make any of the meals they describe).

I found this to be an interesting read (as cookbooks go) and I enjoyed the whimsical illustrations. However, I'm not sure how well it fits into our family. It's basically a learn-how-to-improvise-in-cooking book. Sam doesn't need it (he already makes up amazing meals) and I'm afraid I don't want it. I don't hate to cook, and I'm not absolutely terrible at it, but recipes are my security blanket. I neither can nor want to let go of them. I think theoretically I should be able to use the information in this book to make improvements on the recipes I follow . . . but I fear I'll just end up ruining a bunch of food instead.

Maybe if I actually learned the principles in this book well, it might help? As I read, I found myself wishing I'd taken notes, but by the time I'd realized that, it was too late. (I'd already missed too many note-taking opportunities and had no interest in starting over again.) BUT! Apparently there is a 4-part Netflix series based on this book! I'm planning to watch that, and hoping both that it will be like CliffsNotes (a quicker summary than rereading) and that it will help the main points to stick in my mind.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

"The Toy Makers" by Robert Dinsdale

This is a really magical book and I'm kind of disappointed that I can't see it as a movie. I imagine it would be like Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium (which, actually, I've never seen) but with more depth and conflict.

This is the story of an amazing toy store that opens every year with the first frost in London, and closes when the snowdrops bloom. It is run by Papa Jack Godman and his sons, Kaspar and Emil, who spend the rest of each year creating the toys that most children only dream of.

If that were all there was to the story, it would be a sweet book and a fun read, but it's more profound than that--mainly thanks to intense sibling rivalry and World War I. The magic of the toy store is described in delectable detail, but the candy coating is well balanced by the tangy, peppery relationship between Kaspar and Emil. 

Sunday, December 29, 2019

"The Crown" by Robert Lacey

My sweet husband gave this book to me for Christmas after we binge-watched all three seasons of the Netflix series. He intended for me to take my time reading it in brief bursts, but instead I ended up binge-reading it. I'd been afraid it might be a bit dry, but it was quite engaging instead. I learned a few interesting tidbits ("Porchey" owned Highclere, where Downton Abbey was filmed! Helena Bonham Carter's grandmother was a politician who was friends with Winston Churchill!) and enjoyed it as I went.

My expectation of the book was a separation of fact and fiction (or at least a statement of fact that would allow me to do my own separation from the fiction in the show). I did often wonder as we watched the show: how much of this is real and how much is made up? The book helped me wade through some of that, but I still haven't come away with very specific knowledge about how much was reality; I just assume the broad strokes are historical and the details are imagined.

I hear they're planning seven more seasons of the show (and, as this book is marked Volume 1, each season will likely have its own Official Companion). Honestly, I only watched the entirety of season three out of a sense of duty and completism; it was partly the change of cast and partly the themes of the season, but I found every character much less sympathetic and much less interesting than they had seemed in the previous seasons. I suppose I'll probably watch future seasons as well, but only with a vague curiosity rather than any sort of real absorption.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

"Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age" by Sherry Turkle

 I came across this book in Modern General in Santa Fe, where I have found (in all two of my visits there) a very small but eclectic and thoughtfully chosen selection of books for sale. I was immediately drawn to this one in hopes that it would be a sort of guidebook or manual on becoming a great conversationalist. It turned out not to be that, but I enjoyed reading it anyway.

The basic premise of the book is that the rise of the smartphone has resulted in the decline of true human interaction. Turkle is kind and realistic in saying that we don't have to give up our phones completely, but she makes it clear that we need to use them more deliberately, and sometimes we need to take a break.

Turkle details what we can learn from conversation (of which the most important and oft-mentioned benefit is empathy) and what we learn from social media (lessons which, while not necessarily apocalyptic, are not especially enviable or helpful). Introspection and discussion allow you to measure your choices against a personal standard; social media drives you to gauge your worth by what your "followers" think of you, and whether you have what they have.

Some clear guidelines are suggested by the book: no phones at meals, pay attention to the people who are present instead of to your phone (because where you put your attention is how you show what you value), and be aware of good and bad phone habits and train yourself towards the good; make social media a jumping-off point for deeper conversations rather than allowing the contact to remain superficial. Turkle also discourages referring to one's connection with one's phone as an "addiction," which makes people feel helpless, as if they are facing something against which resistance is futile. Instead, we need to consciously and intentionally resist phone use for periods of productivity.

An interesting point raised in the book: the author recommends that we don't interrupt conversations to do online searches for information, even when we're searching for information directly related to the conversation. We think we are enriching the discussion, but it is perceived as turning away from the person you are conversing with.

I'm not sure how much I will actually change as a result of reading this book, although it has certainly made me more aware of my smartphone habits. The only problem is, it has also made me more aware of everyone else's smartphone habits . . .

Monday, September 23, 2019

"The Den" by Abi Maxwell

This was another good one! It's one of those books that tells two stories from different times, linked only by their setting. The Den of story one is the old stone foundation of a ruined house where the main character from story two used to live.

Story one is about two sisters, one twelve and one fifteen, and it's kind of a suspenseful coming-of-age story. They've heard the legends about the family who used to live in The Den--and how on one bitterly cold day, all five of them disappeared and were replaced by five coyotes. Each story has its own mysteries.

I'm glad I picked this book up despite its terrible title font. I don't feel like the cover photo really matches the story; it makes it look like a ghost story (which was a draw for me), though it turned out it wasn't one. The synopsis intrigued me, and my random dip into the book revealed writing that did not suck, so it met my qualifications.

Shout out to Half Price Books, where I bought The Den. I've been to two of their Dallas locations and they're great. Bursting to the seams with treasures . . . that are half price!!

Monday, September 2, 2019

"The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle" by Stuart Turton

 I enjoyed reading this book. It's like a really messy puzzle. I'm not sure all the pieces actually fit (they probably do, but it would be far too much effort to confirm this) but it was lots of fun to put it together.

This is a murder mystery with a magical twist. The main character wakes up with no memory other than the name Anna. He's a guest at Blackheath, a large English manor past its prime, and finds he has eight days--actually the same day eight times--to solve a murder that won't look like a murder.

It's not really a book that makes you think about anything beyond the plot, but that's fine. The plot is complex enough that there really isn't time for deep contemplation. And strangely enough, I was able to get my bearings every time I picked it up, which enhanced my reading experience. In fact, I didn't want the book to end--not because it was one of those I wanted to keep reading forever, but because it fit into my life so well and there's no guarantee my next book will . . .

Monday, August 5, 2019

"The Versions of Us" by Laura Barnett

This is a heartbreak story, and a life story, and a love story. It's about Jim Taylor and Eva Edelstein and the three different routes their lives might have taken from the day they met onward.

I took notes on this book from the beginning: not because it contained profound thoughts that I wanted to remember, but because Sam read it before I did, and he warned me that it could be tricky keeping the three different versions straight. (He was right. And this is by no means evidence that either of us is remotely stupid.) However, after a while (and with my notes to refer to) it became somewhat easier to keep the threads untangled. Though I still found I frequently had to stop reading and look at the top of the page and remind myself of the current story.

As the years went by, it got to a point where there were just too many marriages, too many deaths, too many affairs, too many children. Though I was able to keep the right ones matched up with the right stories, it was all just too much. My last note reads "P 181: I am getting bored, and it's only halfway over," if that tells you anything. And it was too depressing! Not in the sob-inducing cathartic way, but in the mildly annoying way. One or another of the characters was always mucking everything up, making choices that prevented Jim and Eva from being together, and I kind of reached a point where I figured, you know what? Maybe they're not meant to be together. Rooting for them felt like too much effort.

Remember, though, reading love stories is generally not my thing. Obviously this book was not the one to change my mind.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

"Kafka on the Shore" by Haruki Murakami

Notice the location of the photo? 
I can sum up this book in one quote: "I never get bored when I'm with you. All kinds of off-the-wall things happen, but that much I can say for sure--being with you's never boring."

This was my first Murakami book, which for some reason I expected to be a difficult slog, but it was nothing of the sort. As Sam says, reading Murakami is like eating candy--easy and enjoyable. There's always something happening to keep your interest.

This is the story of the toughest fifteen-year-old in the world who runs away from home and ends up working in a small library. It's also the story of a simple-minded man who can talk to cats. And there's a cameo by Johnny Walker, and Colonel Sanders, and women who may or may not be the mother or sister of the runaway. It's on the bizarre side, but in a good way.

I think between Sam's take and my experience I have come to the conclusion that reading Murakami can be as difficult as you make it. I probably should have thought about this book more deeply than I did; I'm sure there are all kinds of layers I could have peeled back, because it's full of metaphors and symbolism. But it's not a reading requirement, and I was on vacation, so I took the easy route.

Sam (who has read at least three of them) thinks it's really only necessary to read one Murakami book. Agree or disagree?


"Imposture" by Benjamin Markovits

I broke my rule and read two more books before I blogged about this one and now I'm struggling to think what I might have said about it when it was fresh on my mind. I know that I enjoyed reading this book, with its old-fashioned writing and good story, but if there was anything profound on my mind after reading it, it's gone now.

This is a story about Doctor John Polidori, who was a personal physician to Lord Byron for about three years, and who wrote the short work of fiction The Vampyre as a result of the same challenge that produced Frankenstein. I liked it and you should read it.

Man, short blog post.