Monthly Archives: August 2012

Maternity Reading

This post is not primarily about books on pregnancy, childbirth, and child care; I have read only one book on pregnancy (The Girlfriend’s Guide to Pregnancy, which was pretty good) and no books so far on child care and development, although that may change. I have read a lot online, however, and that strikes me as a pretty good way to get information (from reputable sites, of course). The thing is, I much prefer to learn information and gather ideas as I need them, rather than trying to take in a lot of information all at once. Reading pregnancy and parenting books cover to cover doesn’t make as much sense to me as dipping into books or websites (primarily websites) now and then when I need them. It seems like a good way to avoid becoming completely overwhelmed. Also, I feel resentful and anxious about our culture of uptight parenting and want to participate in it as little as possible. So I’m not reading everything I can get my hands on and making plans and crafting parenting philosophies, etc., etc. I want to be as laid-back about this whole thing as possible (ha, ha — I know! it’s impossible! but let me live in my fantasy world while I can).

What I do want to think about, though, is the kinds of reading I might do after the baby is born, when I’m not getting much sleep and don’t have the ability to concentrate on anything serious. When I buy books, I tend to have my best reading self in mind, and I pick out ones that are fairly serious. It’s not that I don’t read lighter things, but I’m not as good at collecting them or planning for what I might want when I’m in the mood for it. So I’m wondering what books people would recommend as good to read after the baby is here. What do you turn to in those times when you aren’t concentrating well, have limited time and face frequent interruptions? Obviously, it doesn’t take a parent to answer this question, just a sense of what is good for the general situation. Any thoughts?

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Updates: 8/26/2012

I am feeling so out of it right now. I rode my bike for two hours this morning, and then volunteered at the town library book sale for 2.5 hours this afternoon and was on my feet the whole time, and while that’s probably not a whole lot, it’s all this pregnant lady can handle. I came home and before I knew it I was sleeping deeply. Thank God for naps.

Of course, volunteering is not the only thing I did at the book sale this week; yesterday, Hobgoblin and I checked it out to see what books we wanted for ourselves, and I came home with three: Tinkers, by Paul Harding, The Man of My Dreams, by Curtis Sittenfeld, and The Master Bedroom, by Tessa Hadley. The Harding I can’t tell you anything about except I’ve heard good things about it. The Sittenfeld is one whose title would normally keep me from buying it, but I’ve found I like Sittenfeld very much, so I’ll read anything of hers. And the Hadley I know nothing about, but she’s someone I’ve been meaning to read for a while. We’ll see how they go.

As for reading this week, I finished two books. One was The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, which I liked a whole lot. It’s more plotty than The Summer Book, for those of you who have read it, although still not very plot-driven. But there is a definite story that keeps you wanting to read further, a story that involves the relationship between a 25-year-old woman, Katri, and an older woman, Anna, both of whom are eccentric, isolated, and set in their ways. Katri, however, wants to make a change — she wants to worm her way into Anna’s life for the financial benefit of her younger brother. How she does this and what the consequences are make up the rest of the story. What makes it so great, though, is the quality of the writing, which is simple and straightforward, while at the same time managing to communicate a lot of depth. As I said last week, I very much like the neutral, non-judgmental narrator who tells us the story while leaving us to draw our own conclusions. Sometimes, it’s necessary to work a little bit to draw those conclusions, with the effect that you’re caught up in the relationship between Katri and Anna, wondering who’s going to do what next. And you’re also left wondering what it means to be a “true deceiver” — what the truth is, exactly, and who is being true to whom.

The other book I finished is a short story collection by George Saunders, The Tenth of December. The book isn’t due out until January 2013, but I won a copy on LibraryThing. I read Saunders’s first story collection CivilWarLand in Bad Decline a long time ago and liked it very much, and I was surprised to see that the first few stories are in a different vein than those in the first book: they are straightforwardly realistic, whereas his stories are typically absurd, wacky, often futuristic in a Brave New World kind of way. About halfway through the collection, though, the stories switched into his typical non-realistic mode, and I felt I was back in familiar territory. I liked the stories, whether realistic or not. They sometimes got a little too close to false sentimentality, but most of the time, Saunders gives you characters in trouble, pathetic, difficult people, and he makes you care about them. The stories are often about difficult family relationships: parents who mess up their kids, messed up kids dealing with dealing with their messed up parents. Husband/wife relationships gone bad. Sometimes they are about exploitive work situations that force people to make impossible choices. They are all about people in deep trouble, trying to figure out who they are and clinging to some vestige of their humanity.

Oh, if you like essay collections, I highly, highly recommend George Saunders’s The Braindead Megaphone. It’s excellent.

Just last night I started reading Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes in the Museum and am only a few pages in. I didn’t love her book Case Histories, but I’ve heard enough good things about her non-Jackson Brodie books that I wanted to give her another try.

Finally, here’s the latest pregnant belly photo, at 17 weeks (there are always books and a bike in the background of these things, aren’t there!):

This week is the beginning of the semester — not of classes, but of the meetings that lead up to classes. So my life will soon get much busier. Sigh.

Have a great week everyone!

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Updates: 8/20/2012

I got back yesterday from my mystery book group meeting in Vermont, and it was a lovely time. Hobgoblin and I arrived on Friday afternoon and had some time to hang out, rest, and chat with our hosts (I guzzled limeade while the others drank martinis — I will certainly enjoy getting back to my moderate social drinking when this pregnancy is over!). Saturday involved a trip to the local farmer’s market in the morning, complete with bluegrass music, and a group excursion to Northshire Bookstore in the afternoon. We all brought home something; in my case, I found a used copy of Mark Doty’s memoir Heaven’s Coast, which I was thrilled to find after falling in love with his book Dog Years. We also bought our first children’s book, Tales from Old Ireland. The first of many more to come, I’m sure!

The book discussion Saturday evening was good, as it always is. Feelings were mixed about Sara Paretsky’s novel Hard Time, some really liking it and others finding it difficult to get through. Many people felt that Paretsky’s depiction of the prison system was the most powerful part of the book and the place where her writing really took off. It was clear that she has a passion for social justice, and when this passion lets loose, the writing gets stronger. The plot felt contrived, though, and we spent a lot of time talking about various plot points that seemed absurd. The mystery itself didn’t seem to work very well.

We also spent a lot of time talking about the news that John Banville/Benjamin Black will write a new Philip Marlowe book. Opinion here is very mixed as well, largely because many, although not all of us, strongly disliked Black’s novel Christine Falls and got the feeling that Black doesn’t have a whole lot of respect for the mystery genre. It’s my feeling that I might like John Banville’s version of Marlowe better than Benjamin Black’s, but we’ll see what happens.

And then Sunday morning we all headed home and back to regular life, which for me includes finalizing my classes for this fall. I will spend some time today thinking about how I will teach E.M. Forster’s Passage to India in my new online class.

As for other reading from the past week, I finished Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and liked it very much. I don’t want to say very much about it, as it’s a book that should be read with no preconceptions, but it was extremely absorbing, entertaining, and satisfying. I liked that it had a focus on writing and how writing shapes our identity and how other people think about us (and on how crime cases are solved). It’s a book that gets you to think about narration and how much to trust what you are told. The book reminded me a bit of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley in the sense that it left me with a vague sense of dread and anxiety the entire time I was reading it — a feeling that sounds bad, but isn’t entirely. It’s a sign of a powerful book, I suppose, that it can grip the reader so tightly.

I also began reading Tove Jansson’s novel The True Deceiver and am about a third of the way through it. It’s similar to The Summer Book (which I loved) in its simple, pared-down writing style that is also very beautiful, although in other ways it’s an entirely different story. It’s set in a small Scandinavian village (I’m not sure if it’s in Sweden or Finland) and is about a young woman at odds with her fellow villagers, trying to take care of her younger brother, and developing a sketchy plan that involves a vulnerable older woman. I’m enjoying the writing, and also the detached, non-judgmental tone with which Jansson tells the story. She simply lets it unfold and allows you to draw your own conclusions.

That’s it for me for now — have a great week everyone!

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Updates: 8/12/2012

Most of my reading time this week has gone into my mystery book group selection, which is Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski novel Hard Time. We are doing something different for this meeting, which will be next weekend: we are gathering for the weekend in Vermont, where one couple in the group has a second home up in the mountains. I’m very excited about this, as I love their Vermont place, and it will be a lot of fun to extend our usual evening together into an entire weekend. I’m imagining there will be no end to the book talk that goes on.

As for the book itself, I enjoyed it, with some reservations. I’ve listened to two or three Paretsky books on audio, and once again I’m finding it to be the case that I generally like books more when I listen to them than when I read them on paper. I’m probably a less critical reader when I’m listening, and more inclined to get caught up in the story. I did enjoy the experience of reading the novel: I like the Warshawski character and found the story was absorbing and the novel was well-paced. I also like how overtly political a writer Paretsky is. Each of her books takes on some aspect of political or social trends going on at the time of writing, often ones that are directly related to her Chicago setting, and it’s satisfying to feel Warshawski’s frustration and anger at some of the things that outrage me too. But large chunks of the plot felt implausible to me. I won’t go into details, but I wondered how realistic her depiction of journalism and the criminal justice system was. I was pulled out of the story now and then as I shook my head, wondering if this could ever really happen. Some of the characters were too close to caricatures, which also bothered me. They were sometimes so extreme as to be unbelievable, and some could have been better developed. They are victims of Paretsky’s political mindset, I suppose; as much as I like the political element, it surely tempts a writer to turn characters into arguments.

Once I finished Hard Time, I was fortunate to get an email from my library telling me that a copy of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl was available, which I’ve been waiting for for the last month or two. I started it today, and 70 pages in, I’m enjoying it very much.

The other book I spend a significant amount of time with last week was Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative, which I’m teaching in an online class this fall. I needed to write up a couple lectures on it and prepare discussion questions. It’s a book I know well from grad school days, but it had been a number of years since I last read it. It’s a fascinating book bringing together a number of genres: it’s a slave autobiography, a travel adventure story (similar in this part to Robinson Crusoe, which we are also reading in this class), a spiritual autobiography, a political argument, an economic tract, and probably other things as well. There should be a lot there to discuss.

I’m making slow but steady progress in my Virginia Woolf books as well, the Lee biography and the second volume of her diaries. The Lee biography continues to impress me; about four chapters in, I’m admiring how she combines ideas and arguments with factual information. As someone with a bad memory for facts, I hesitate to pick up long, fact-filled nonfiction, but Lee has started every chapter with analysis and interpretation, something I have a better memory for, getting in the facts along the way. I like this focus very much. As for the diaries, Woolf is in 1920, getting starting on Jacob’s Room and writing about her response to reviews of Night and Day, which was published in 1919. It is clear she knows she is doing something new with Jacob’s Room, taking her writing in a new direction.

On a more personal note, Hobgoblin and I celebrated our 14th wedding anniversary this past week. 14! We celebrated by going hiking with Muttboy on a stretch of the Appalachian Trail that we have hiked many times together, the three of us. Then Hobgoblin and I went out for a fancy-schmancy dinner that ended with the chocolate sampler for dessert. Yum. Who could resist a chocolate sampler?

Finally, here is my first pregnant belly picture, taken at 15 weeks.

As you see, I’m in the awkward stage where I sort of look pregnant, but also look as though I’ve just had a very good summer eating-wise (which I have). People who know I’m pregnant say I’m showing, but I’m not sure anyone else would would venture to ask. I’ve noticed one questioning, uncertain look so far, but that person wasn’t going to risk getting it wrong.

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Essay Collections

It’s been a pretty good year for essay collections for me. I’ve read seven so far. I didn’t love all of them, but some will stand out as being really great. There were two collections about the essay as a genre, including Carl Klaus’s book Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time, which included excerpts of pieces that try to define the genre or sum up its value and its history. It’s a great book if you want to get a better sense of what exactly an essay is. Not that anyone really agrees on the definition, but there are a lot of definitions on offer here. Then there was David Lazar’s edited collection Truth in Nonfiction: Essays, which takes up the question of what truth in nonfiction writing means — a vexed question that many people have been asking lately. Again, there are a variety of answers on offer here, or, more accurately, there are often no answers, just more complicated questions, which is as it should be. The essays are often from a personal perspective, which makes them entertaining reading, as well as being philosophically interesting. I’ll admit that I skipped a few essays toward the end of the book because they were more straightforward essays rather than meditations on truth in nonfiction, and I wasn’t in the mood for them. This is probably a collection that’s better to read around in rather than plow straight through.

But one can only do so much reading about a genre before it becomes high time to read the genre itself, and by far the best collection of essays I’ve read this year is Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind, which was captivating the whole way through, no matter what Smith’s subject was. The next two collections, ranked in terms of how much I liked them, were John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead and Tom Bissell’s Magic Hours. If the mark of a truly great essayist is that she or he makes any subject interesting, no matter what it is, then these two writers aren’t quite up to the level of Smith, but are still pretty solid. They both have interesting, engaging essayistic voices, and both have good things to say about literature and culture. I found Sullivan more consistently enjoyable than Bissell, but both have some great moments. The pieces in Bissell were just a little more disjointed, a little less universally interesting. Still, an essayist to watch.

I also read the 2011 Best American Essays collection, which was mixed, as it always is, but with plenty of good essays. Favorites were by Victor LaValle (on obesity), Charlie DeDuff (on Detroit), and Bridget Potter (on getting an abortion in 1962). You never know what you’re going to find in these collections, and it’s fun to be surprised. The last collection I read this year was The Professor, by Terry Castle, which certainly had some essays I liked, but for the most part, I didn’t care much for her voice. There was something harsh about it that didn’t appeal to me.

That’s not a bad record for a year that’s not over. Anybody have any recommendations of collections I should turn to next?

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Updates: 8/5/2012

Hobgoblin and I had plans to buy books today, and although the exact nature of those plans shifted somewhat, that’s what we ended up doing. We decided to head down to Manhattan to visit the mystery bookshop Partners and Crime, which, very sadly, is closing soon. It’s a place we visited often. It turns out that their selection is already thinned out, so I didn’t find what I wanted there, but I was glad to be able to visit one more time. We stopped at a couple other stores as well, including the Strand and Three Lives.

Let me just say that if you like literary nonfiction, the Strand is the place for you. Down in the basement you can find aisle upon aisle of literary criticism, essays, memoirs, biographies, autobiographies, and other kinds of unclassifiable nonfiction. It’s amazing, and I always head pretty much straight down there whenever I visit. Today I came home with Hermione Lee’s biography of Edith Wharton, which I couldn’t resist after beginning Lee’s Woolf biography and seeing that I’m going to like it very much. Lee is a great biographer, and Wharton is a great subject, so there you go. I also found Milan Kundera’s Art of the Novel, which a friend highly recommended to me, and Katie Roiphe’s book Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages, which comes highly recommended by several bloggers.

At Three Lives, I could have come home with a dozen books with no trouble at all (the store is very small, but the selection is fabulous). I chose Tim Parks’s Teach Us to Sit Still: A Skeptic’s Search for Health and Healing, influenced partly by bloggers and partly by this article at the Guardian, and also John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. I guess it was a good day for nonfiction, and particularly for books on writing.

As for what I’m reading, I’m nearing the end of the Tom Bissell essay collection, which has a lot of good stuff in it, but is kind of uneven. Not all the subjects interest me; it takes a special talent to make essays on films and TV shows that I haven’t watched engaging — something which Zadie Smith managed to do, but I’m not feeling it quite as much here. But still, Bissell is an entertaining, talented writer, and I’m happy to continue following his career.

I began the Woolf biography, and the first chapter won me over. It was about biography and autobiography as genres and then shifted to a discussion of Woolf’s own views on biography and her (auto)biographical writings, and was really excellent. It looks like the book is going to be more thematic than chronological, as the second chapter is on houses and describes the locations Woolf spent her childhood years, instead of turning to the story of her ancestry, her parents’ lives, her birth, etc. I’m guessing it won’t lose sight of chronology entirely, but won’t move straightforwardly through time either.

I also began my next mystery book group book, which is Sara Paretsky’s Hard Time. I’m only 70 pages into it, and while I sometimes am bothered by the writing quality, I’m absorbed in the story and enjoying it.

Before I go, I want to mention another endeavor of mine, which I haven’t posted about here yet because I wasn’t sure how seriously I would take it. I started a Tumblr to keep track of quotations I like, with a photograph or two thrown in occasionally. I wasn’t sure at first how much I would post on it, but I’m enjoying having the space. It turns out that I mostly quote from and link to essays online rather than from the books I’m reading, for the simple reason that I rarely bring my book into the room where my computer is to retype the quotation, whereas it’s easy to cut and paste an online article using my phone. Anyway, if you are interested, you can find it here.

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Catching Up

Actually, this post won’t do a whole lot of catching up, as I have at least two months of reading that has gone undocumented here. It will have to stay undocumented, mostly. But I was thinking that I might try to do a once-weekly (or so — don’t want to get too specific) overview of what’s going on with my reading, as a way of keeping up with the blog without writing the long reviews I’m not feeling much like writing these days. We’ll see how that goes.

But first, I do want to say that Mark Doty’s Dog Years is unmissable if you like nonfiction and like dogs — and it’s unmissable even if you don’t like those things, although I won’t insist on that quite so loudly. But seriously, it’s not a book just for dog-lovers. It’s about Doty’s experiences with his two dogs, no surprise, but it’s really a book about loss, life, and death more generally, and it’s beautiful and profound. It’s so warm and human and moving, and it’s the best attempt to understand the mind of a dog I’ve ever read, while at the same time being very careful to acknowledge that dogs are not humans and we can’t ever really understand their mysteries. I think what works so well is that he shows such great respect for dogs, for their individuality and dignity, and he makes an important case for why loving animals matters and is not merely a waste of time and energy that could be devoted to other things.

Okay, now for more recent reading. I picked up Mrs. Dalloway the other day as part of my most likely decades-long attempt to read and reread Woolf’s major works. It’s been a while since my last Woolf book, The Common Reader. I’m not sure if this is my second or third reading of the novel, although I would guess it’s my third. I do know I read it in 1998, since I wrote that on the inside cover of my copy. It’s such a joy to return to, and I love the way the book makes me slow down to read it carefully. I don’t want to miss an idea or an image.

I’m enjoying the novel so much, I decided to pick up the second volume of her diary, which will take me through the four years up to the publication of Mrs. Dalloway. I’m thinking of keeping the diary on my nightstand and reading it before bed, which will mean I’ll probably be reading it for the next year or so, but that’s okay. I’ve also been tempted to pick up Hermione Lee’s biography of Woolf, and I still might do it, but I’m worried that I’ll feel bogged down by its length, slow reader that I am.

I’m also in the middle of Tom Bissell’s new essay collection Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation. I really liked the first four essays, three of which are on literary topics and one of which is about film. The essay “Writing about Writing about Writing” is a very fun overview of how-to-write books, and there’s another great one on the Underground Literary Alliance and insiders and outsiders in the literary/publishing world. The next two essays haven’t been up to the quality of the first four, and I particularly disliked one in which he attacked the political writer Robert Kaplan. He may well need attacking, but the tone was unpleasant to read. But the essays are now taking a more literary turn, and I have hopes I will like the remaining ones.

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