12 Books, 12 Months: Final Round-Up

A month has passed since this challenge ended, and I’m just now getting around to finishing the round up.  Oops.  First of all, congratulations to everyone who picked up a book, read it, and posted a review in the last 12 months.  I’m willing to bet that if you finished even one book in that time frame, you’re ahead of many Americans.  So pat yourself on the back – you deserve it.

Several of our members didn’t finish the challenge, but wrote thoughtful posts summarizing their reading and their experience.  Anj finished 8 of her 13, but read an astonishing 96 books totalMark finished 10 of 13, with 33 read in the last year.  And I finished 4 books and 2 half books.

Amber finished 6 of 12 books, including her last read, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which recounts Didion’s experience in the first year after losing her husband.  Amber, totally in love with HER husband, found it honest and challenging, and said that while she enjoyed it, she doesn’t recommend reading it while one’s husband is out of town.  [review] Edit: Amber reports that she also finished A Scanner Darkly, which was “pretty good and a little trippy.”

Although Jill didn’t finish all 12 of her books, she did read One Day and enjoyed the device of a story told in one day increments over several years.  At the same time, she found aspects of the story problematic, especially the use of maudlin tropes.  She wrote that “it’s gotten to the point where if I see a character has a bicycle in a book or movie, I wince b/c I know something bad is going to happen” and goes on to observe that all too often, women have to die to make a point in romantic fiction.  “Women write these types of stories, but they have happy endings and are called romance novels. Men write these types of stories and the woman always ends up dead or horribly unhappy and they’re called ‘love stories.’ It’s not a complaint, just an observation.” [review]

Meghan really didn’t like her last book,  The Hypochondriacs: Nine Tormented Lives.  Her Goodreads review is brief and pointed enough that I’ll quote it in its entirety: “The author tried to link these historical figures together through their shared symptoms of hypochondria, but then chose to focus and explain every symptom of psychological disorder except for hypochondria. The book was instead a showcase for depression and anxiety.”

Shane finished two books, one in the first month, and one in the last.  I can attest to the fact that he spent most of the last year working on The Corrections , which, despite receiving all kinds of accolades has remained a fairly polarizing book.  Shane suggests that this is because “it’s too damn real.”  The characters and their relationships are unpleasant, and Franzen is unflinching in his portrayal of these awful people.  At the same time, the book “does everything fiction is supposed to do. It is frequently amusing, brutally honest, deeply insightful, and ultimately discouraging. It is expertly and cleverly written. It’s captivating and emotionally moving. It’s, objectively, a Great Work. ”  Just one that perhaps cuts a bit too close to home. [review]

But to end on a pleasant note – Angel succeeded in finishing the challenge!  Since we last rounded up, he read six books:

  • The Surrogates, a graphic novel featuring “a nice blend of a police procedural/mystery and science fiction,” portrays a world where humans can opt to live their lives through mechanical surrogates, but where a terrorist is killing off these surrogates in an attempt to force the world back to real life.  [review]
  • Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: Seeking History and Hidden Gems in Flea-Market America explores the world of antique dealers and flea markets and dispels the myth that anything old is valuable – while also discussing why we have the urge to collect. [review]
  • The Lost World and Other Stories, which he recalled liking when he read as a teenager, though it didn’t seem as satisfying a read as an adult.  The book collects the Professor Challenger stories into an enjoyable volume of  adventures and “science romance.”  [review]
  • The series authors and artists may be changing in Conan Volume 4: The Halls of the Dead and Other Stories, but volume 4 still represents “a good place to look and get a feel for the real character” of Conan before watching the movies. [review]
  • The Compleat Boucher: the Complete Short Science Fiction and Fantasy of Anthony Boucher felt like “reading science fiction as it was written when it was in the heyday of the mid-20th century.”  He particularly enjoyed “The Compleat Werewolf,” the story of “a professor with a bit of a lycanthropy problem and a femme fatale more than willing to exploit that little problem.” [review]
  • The Ultramarines Omnibus is well-written “all out escapist military science fiction.”  It made up Angel’s bedtime reading for several months, and seems like it was both engaging and worth savoring.  [review]

Thanks, friends, for an interesting year of reading!

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12 Books, 12 Months: FAIL

What can I say?  I fell behind as a reader and a convener.  Out of my list of 12, I finished 3 books, 2 half books, and 1 book that I swapped in for a book I found I didn’t own.  41% completion rate ain’t bad, right?  Right?

No, actually, it is kind of bad.  Especially since it was my challenge, my rules, my project.  Oh well.  It’s not like I haven’t had anything else to do this year: teaching and course prep took the place of the hours spent knitting and watching TV.  A new commitment to running and fitness took the place of evenings spent in the tub with a book.  I started a new and demanding job, and found myself with little energy to do anything besides crossword puzzles by the end of the day.  I also joined a book club, and given the choice between finishing a book I have to post about and finishing a book I’ll discuss over snacks with my friends, I’ve chosen the latter.

And I have been reading – books from my shelf, books on the Kindle, and the interminable pile of magazines from the nightstand and the bathroom basket.  I’ve been shedding books through GoodReads and the occasional shipment to Powell’s.  So that’s something.  Thanks to those of you who have played along for the last year – I’ll be writing the roundup soon.  It’s been a fun year, and, paradoxically, I’m newly excited about reading now that I’m not committed to a list.

12 Books, 12 Months: Month 9 & 10 Round Up

The theme of this round up is rounding UP.  It seems like May and June were good months for getting caught up on reading and posting, though I can’t say I did much of either.  Since April, I’ve been working on Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age. I have read other things, but nothing from my list, and that’s a dang shame, especially since I have some F A T books to get through between now and September.

Anj read Clara’s Grand Tour: Travels with a Rhinoceros in Eighteenth-Century Europe, which follows the adventures of the titular rhinoceros around Europe in an age characterized by curiosity. And what could be more curious than a rhinoceros on parade! [review]

Eva got caught up on her previous few books all in one post. She read:

  • January: Gilbert & Sullivan Set Me Free, which she described as “Think Chicago – women’s prison, big crimes, mysterious pasts and an actual musical.”
  • February: An Ensuing Evil and others. The best thing she had to say was that she read it!
  • March: Gluten-free Girl and The Chef, which she found joyful and delicious, though it has yet to become a kitchen staple.
  • April: A Sense of Where You Are – a book about sports! which is basically the last thing I’d imagine from her, though it was by one of her most favorite authors – John McPhee. The book focuses on a young Bill Bradley before fame and the NBA.

Heidi read Snow Falling on Cedars, which she concisely described as “fine”, though the movie was awful.  Short and to the point.  I love it [review].  I also apparently missed her reviews for a few previous months. In November, she read Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure. She wasn’t an Auster fan before, and this book didn’t win her over, despite her attempts to relate on behalf of her “starving artsy fartsy friends” [review]. And then in March, The American Way of Death Revisited – an expose of the sleazy American funeral industry. She especially enjoyed the quotes from industry-trade publications, and was curious about how much her edition differed from the original, published in the 1960s [review].

Jill read Dead Until Dark and Murder at Hazelmoor [review].  She speculated that she lacks the genetic material necessary to enjoy vampire novels after reading several “meh” ones – and Dead Until Dark was no exception [review].

Lanea listened to and then read Wild Decembers in May, which she seems to have loved, calling it “heart-breaking and beautiful and true” with gorgeous language describing “rural Ireland and feuding families and the strictures on women.” Irish writers are important to Lanea, and this was a welcome read as a result [review]. In June, while dealing with bad news, she read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and then found it difficult to review the book as it skirts things she was also trying to write about: “cancer and caretaking and the responsibilities kids are burdened with before they can handle them” [review].

Mark read The Mill on the Floss in the context of his Victorian Lit class – bonus! He referred to the book as a tragedy, qualifying the statement with: “It may not be epic, nor a study of grand personages, but as a tragedy of the everyday it is superb” [review].

I owe Mike an apology, as I’ve been checking his blog for reviews but missing the ones he’s posted on Goodreads over the last few months. That said, Goodreads tells me that he read but didn’t review Native Speaker, The Other Side of Desire: Four Journeys into the Far Realms of Lust and Longing, and Tropic of Cancer.  Nonetheless, he did review The Rings of Saturn, which was impressive, “sobering and dispiriting as Sebald catalogues centuries of cruelty, warfare, and decay, failed schemes and deferred dreams.”

Vanessa read Maus, and her review reminded me of the things I appreciated about it: honest and frank treatment of the Holocaust and the lasting effects on its survivors – as well as “the hefty amount of emotion the son has enmeshed into the telling of his father’s story.”

Two months to go, guys! Get reading!

12 Books, 12 Months: Month 8 Round Up

It’s that time of year – taxes, finals, grades, a change in the weather.  All good reasons to fall behind in your reading, or at least that’s what I’m telling myself.  This month only two of our intrepid readers finished their books: J Harker, who read Lolita, and Lanea, who read The Song of the Lark.

While J Harker acknowledged that Lolita was “superbly written and a phenomenal example of the ‘untrustworthy narrator'”, his opinion of the book was irreparably colored by his visceral reaction to “the tone, the constant and growing sense of unease” and the sense of “be[ing] inside a pedophile’s head, listening to his logic, his justifications, his schemes and plots and dream.” [review]

It seems like Lanea enjoyed her book a bit more, though it didn’t hold up to the others she’s read by Willa Cather.  She appreciated Cather’s ability to write strong female characters and to portray the world as it is, warts and all, though she was “uncomfortable about some of the racial and ethnic language and questions in the book.”  Cather’s total avoidance of romance, sex, or sexuality also didn’t ring true in a story that otherwise seems to have been about a young woman’s coming of age.  A good book, but not a perfect one. [review]

Me? I’m still working my way through two previous months’ book, as well as Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age.  You know what’s weird?  Reading a book about social networks and networking that was researched, written, and published before Facebook.

12 Books, 12 Months: Month 6&7 Round Up

Here we go – two months’ worth of reviews all in one round-up – and just in time for May!

Amber read Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! on her physicist husband’s recommendation – and saw much of her husband in Feynman’s funny, thoughtful, and fascinating autobiography [review].

Angel read Los Cuadernos De Don Rigoberto, the last Spanish language book from his list.  Vargas Llosa’s prose was alternately lyrical and boring, making for a frustrating read, but Angel isn’t ready to write off Vargas Llosa yet – especially not now that he’s won the Nobel Prize [review].

Anj listened to Unaccustomed Earth, and enjoyed the 8 vignettes enough to read the book, finding in each short story “a small facet to the complexities of our lives” [review].  She also read The Art of Racing in the Rain, the story of a family whose “life goes to the darkest places and struggles to come out the other side” – all told through the eyes of the family dog.  While it was heavy with metaphor, Anj found it to be a delightfully cathartic reading [review]

I was desperate for escape this winter, and so read Reflections on a Marine Venus, a luxurious sort-of memoir of Lawrence Durrell’s days on Rhodes after World War II.  I came away with more impressions of ancient sea battles and wine-drenched afternoons than hard facts – just what I needed [review].  I also read Love in the Time of Cholera – the April pick for my in person book club – and while I had problems with many aspects of the novel, I really enjoyed the depiction of old love and of the compromises and joys of half a century of marriage [review].

Grace read The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic, a “collection of small, heart-breaking stories” about the patients institutionalized at Willard State Hospital.  It was a difficult, moving read with a strong anti-psychology bent.  Her review reminded me of my experience reading The Girls Who Went Away – similarly challenging and compelling.

Jill read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and realized that perhaps she does like epistolary novels after all.  “The Guernsey Literary Blah Blah” was an enjoyable – if slight – novel about the Nazi occupation of Guernsey, which featured a sweet love story between two refreshingly ordinary people [review]. It sounds like this was a much more enjoyable read than I’m Sorry You Feel That Way: The Astonishing but True Story of a Daughter, Sister, Slut, Wife, Mother, and Friend to Man and Dog, a collection of humorous autobiographical essays in the style of David Sedaris. Unfortunately, “she’s no David Sedaris”, and many of the stories are more painful than humorous [review].

Meghan read The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution of ‘Proper’ English, from Shakespeare to South Park, “an entertaining introduction to the history of the ‘rules’ of English language and those that attempted to develop those rules.”  Meghan appreciated that the author brings a complicated “linguistic argument down from the often unavailable rhetoric of academics and into the hands of those who use the language every day” [review].

Mel read The Happiness Project, which rekindled her interest in writing fiction, and made her think about the nature of happiness – specifically that “Happiness doesn’t always make you feel happy.”  The author came to this conclusion after systematically implementing a series of resolutions intended to improve her outlook on life.  Mel felt the concept was a bit tired, but found herself feeling happier after reading it [review].  She also read How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which she appreciated but didn’t enjoy.  The novel wasn’t truly science fiction – “the ‘science fictional’ concepts…are strictly a metaphor” in a story starring a time machine repairman in an incomplete universe [review].

Rebekah gave up on Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell after 8 hours of the audiobook and at least the “eleventy-seventh” John.  She enjoyed the author’s voice, but found the complexity of the book poorly suited to the audiobook format [review].  Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated was a great deal more fun, though it dealt with difficult material from the author’s life.  Rebekah admired [the author’s] “ability to say ‘I will share this with you, stranger, and give you the summary. But keep your pity out of my way.'” which was “good for the sake of her mostly comic memoir” [review].

12 Books #6: Love in the Time of Cholera

To some extent, I want to wait to post about Love in the Time of Cholera until after tonight’s discussion with my other book club – but at the same time, I want to capture the things that I felt about it before they are tainted by my friends’ reactions, positive or negative.

Love in the Time of Cholera has been on my to read list for several years, since the magical vacation when I read 100 Years of Solitude and was utterly transfixed by Gabriel García Márquez’s prose. 100 Years of Solitude is a remarkable book, and from the first few paragraphs I felt myself transported to another time and place, immersed in one family’s epic, complicated tale. I had hoped for the same experience with Love in the Time of Cholera, and when my first attempt to read it failed to produce that feeling after 46 pages, I shelved it.

I’m thankful, then, for another attempt and greater incentive to finish – both for 12 Books and for my local librarian-type book club. Love in the Time of Cholera was my pick for March, and I finished it last night, just in time for tonight’s discussion. And by ‘finished it last night’, I mean that I sat on the porch until the sun went down, then sat in various places inside with Mina while pushing through about 250 pages in a couple of hours. Part of that pushing through was in order to meet the deadline – but it really didn’t feel like hours and hours because I was enjoying the book.

The parts of the story that resonated the most with me were the depictions of old love. Perhaps this is because I’ve often commented to Shane that I can’t wait to be old together – or perhaps because I recognize my loved ones in the compromises and commitments of Dr. Juvenal Urbino and Fermina Daza, whose greatest fight resulted not from an affair or in-laws or the many trials of half a century together, but over a forgotten bar of soap. Their love isn’t idealized – or ideal. In fact, it doesn’t start out as love, and frequently barely resembles love. However, their love is more real than the fire in the heart of Florentino Ariza, who whiles away fifty years in the arms of other women while hoping against hope that his one true love, Fermina Daza, will be widowed so that they can at last be together, rekindling the flames of a childhood passion which one never truly felt but the other can never truly relinquish.

As with 100 Years of Solitude, the non-linear narrative makes it hard at times to know how you feel or what you think about a particular character, action, or event. I’m left unsettled by the ending, not because it’s particularly good or bad, but because it doesn’t make sense to me. It isn’t consistent with the Fermina Daza the reader has come to know, and the final turn of evenings are a little too convenient for Florentino Ariza. Which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t read it – just that I don’t know how I feel just yet. Maybe I’ll write another post after tonight’s discussion.

12 Books, 12 Months: Month OOPS

So hey, it’s almost the end of March and I have yet to post the February round up.  Sorry about that.  I’m going to just lump February and March together into one giant megapost, which I swear to Pete will be out the door by the end of next week.  Maybe that will give Shane enough time to finish his second book!  :grins:

12 Books #5: Reflections on a Marine Venus

As always, Lawrence Durrell is transfixing.  I actually parts of Reflection on a Marine Venus out loud to myself because it intensified my enjoyment of the prose.  I could tell you what I’ve learned about Rhodes from Durrell’s account – part memoir, part fiction in the sense that all memoir is part fiction – of his time there as a press officer after World War II, but I came away with more impressions of ancient sea battles and wine-drenched afternoons than hard facts.  As such, I’ll let the prose stand for itself:

“You arrive in the centre of the ancient town almost before you know it; it is as sudden as a descent from a balloon.  The whole thing assembles itself before your eyes like a picture thrown upon a cinema-screen.  It lies there in the honey-gold afternoon light listening to the melodious ringing of water in its own cisterns, and the faint whipping of wind in the noble pins which crown the amphitheatre.  The light here has a peculiar density as if the blue of the sea had stained it with some of its own troubled dyes.  The long sloping main-street is littered with chipped inscriptions.  One can make out the names of city fathers long since dead, of priests and suppliants; they rise in a long progress up the chalky pathways of the town to the red earth beyond which the archaeologist has not trespassed, to the rather over-poetic votive column which, one can guess without being told, is pat of the most recent Italian restoration work.  Nevertheless Camerius is beautiful in a way that persuades mere ugliness to conform to its grace of air and situation; even the curator’s Nissen hut, now crammed with verminous filth, smashed bottles, shed equipment, and bandages – even this cannot intrude upon the singing beauty of this ancient town uncovered by the spade of the archaeologist.”

12 Books, 12 Months: Month 5 Round Up

Several of us traveled to other places, times, or possible lives in our reading this month. Amber read The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich, and while she isn’t going to quit her job tomorrow, it did inspire her to reexamine aspects of her lifestyle and career [review].  Meghan read The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity, perhaps an interesting counterpoint to The 4-Hour Workweek.  The author envisions a future of “high speed rail, walkable communities, less reliance on cars and highways and smaller housing,” but “can’t quite bring himself to admit that ‘the evidence for [being frugal] is “more like wishful thinking”‘” [review].  Grace read Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life, which didn’t provide new perspectives on “the mommy wars and the second shift” which seems to exist in most industries but did spark discussion with her partner, an academic, about the unfortunate fact that his colleague, an accomplished scientist and mother of two, is something of an anomaly in their field [review].

I read – and admittedly didn’t finish – Blue Highways: A Journey into America, a rambling road narrative that dipped into many hidden corners of our country.  I look forward to finishing one of these days, taking the book at the same pace as William Least Heat-Moon took his road trip [review].  Out of Yarn read My Land and My People: The Original Autobiography of His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet – a totally different kind of journey, compelling and restrained, of a stranger in a strange land longing to return home [review].

Mike read The Sheltering Sky, and described the author’s style as feeling “as arid as the desert landscape he’s writing about.”  While Mike was undecided about the book itself, he was drawn in by biographic information about the author, Paul Bowles, who had, by all accounts, an amazing life [review].  In the same part of the fictional world, Rebekah read The Alchemist and, upon finishing, wished that she hadn’t, as she found the spiritual and moralizing aspects grating. Coelho’s writing, which she has enjoyed elsewhere, was “simple and elegant in its way, but more irritating than compelling” [review].

I haven’t read much science fiction, so I apologize if I do these stories a disservice in my summary.  Angel reread Dune, one of the most seminal of the genre, full of “suspense…political intrigue, adventure, and coming of age, all in an epic science fiction tale.” His review ends with a strong exhortation that “if you consider yourself a science fiction reader, and you have not read Dune, go read it.”  J Harker took advantage of a rare opportunity for pleasure reading and read not one but two sci-fi novels: Citizen of the Galaxy [review] and Snow Crash [review], both of which imagine other lives in other worlds, though not entirely convincingly.  The former, written in the 50s, explores slavery and race relations in a far distant future; the latter hearkens back to strange fads of bygone days, somehow making what sounds like a plodding story fun and engrossing for 470 pages.  Now THAT is good writing.  Or bad writing.  Or something.  Also points to J Harker for the reference to Hackers, which I also cited in my class Tuesday night.  On a slightly different but related note, Sara read Haroun and the Sea of Stories, written by Salman Rushdie  “just after the fatwa against his life was announced, wondering each day if he would see his son again.”  As a result, the book – written for children but enjoyed by adults – is an allegory packed with the sort of characters Rushdie was encountering in his real life. [review]

One of the things I love hearing about are the fortuitous ways we come to read the things we do.  Anj picked up People of the Book for her aunt’s bookclub last year, zipped through 180 pages, and was happy to return to it this month.  The book centers around a conservator who protected the Sarajavo Haggadah– a book about a book, with stories building upon stories. [review]  Eva, laid up after emergency surgery, read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo after myriad recommendations, and found to be “suspenseful and action-packed”, “just different enough from [her] usual mystery choices that it felt exotic and new” [review] – a nice change from her last read, Gourmet Rhapsody, which “left an unpleasant aftertaste”, especially in comparison to the author’s “completely savorable” other work [review].

Lanea read The Good Brother, a gorgeous example of Appalachian fiction that explores “the concept of manhood and its attendant responsibilities and pitfalls” while expressing a surprising and subtle clarity in his interpretation of “race and difference in Appalachia”   [review].  Vanessa felt like she barely scratched the surface of For Whom the Bell Tolls – darkly dramatic, poignant, intense, and poetic as only Hemingway can be.  A quote from the man himself opens and summarizes her review: “All good books have one thing in common – they are truer than if they had really happened.”  Vanessa also read A Reliable Wife, a swift and elegantly-written book “set in the middle of a Wisconsin winter”, fraught with “violence, loneliness, and a hum of insanity.”  That description rings true in the depths of a Michigan winter as well, making me all the more curious to check out the book and the author’s other work [review].

Finally, Jill read Rock, Paper, Scissors: Game Theory in Everyday Life, her first non-fiction read in this challenge.  She hoped to learn more about game theory than she actually did, partially due to the way concepts were explained in adjacent text.  Most interesting to me from her review was that she learned that herrings fart, which, as she says, “you never know when you might find that useful”.  Mark posted twice about Peak Learning, one review mostly positive, the other taking back his earlier review.  While some of the exercises had potential for the adult learner who wants to focus his/her continuing education, at least 80% of the book is “fluff/extraneous babbling”, and a large portion of the remainder is woefully out of date.  Mark also read The Social Life of Information, and has me intensely curious about his “slowly awakening thesis that ‘information’ as a foundational concept for libraries and librarians is a dangerous one,” which seems to have been fostered by the authors’ exploration of the information/IT binary [review].

Thanks for another great month of reads and reviews, you guys!  Fingers crossed that spring break allows me some time to get caught up on my own reading – and to get the monthly round-up out in a somewhat more timely manner.

12 Books #4: Blue Highways

Blue Highways

I’ll freely admit that I didn’t finish my January book for 12 Books, 12 Months. And you know what? That’s OK. I read – am reading –Blue Highways, by William Least Heat-Moon.  Out of a relationship and out of a job, the author sets off in his mostly-trusty van to travel the country on the “blue highways” or back roads.  Rather than a clichéd “finding yourself on the road” story, Blue Highways has been – at least thus far – a rambling love song to forgotten and wonderful pockets of our country.  I look forward to finishing it at my leisure, which I think is totally appropriate given the subject matter.