The Year in Books

DSC_0543My makeshift stand-up desk for sustained reading

It was a year of Will and Winston. A year of drama, poetry, and history. A year of reading from my shelves, a year of reading aloud until I was hoarse, a year of reading with friends. A year of book podcasts. It was a good year for books.

Disclosure: I turned sixty (the letters aren’t as neon as the numbers). How did that happen? I’m happy to be old, really. But I push myself to get all I can from my remaining years. If I live four more years, I and my siblings will have outlived my folks. (My sister died at 67.) It would be helpful (so I imagine) to know how much time I have left. When will closure come?

How does this affect my reading? I toggle between two options.

1) Reading books to release them from my shelf. These are bookshelves groaning with books I own but haven’t yet read. Not many are books I need to keep. But I can’t let them go unread. I don’t want my books to be a burden on those who survive me.

2) Reading the most excellent books I can in the time I have left. Hence: Shakespeare, Lewis, Chesterton, Burroughs, Trollope, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Undset, Wodehouse. I find that having a big goal prevents me from being sucked into books from Kindle First or Free Kindle books or any vehicle that feeds me mediocre reading.

Back to 2017.

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The Literary Study Bible was my edition this year. Single columns, few cross-references made it a good one for reading.

I joined a group on Facebook group that read all of Shakespeare this year. I listened to Arkangel Audio productions as I read along. I treated this as if I were taking a class, planning three-five hours a week for unapologetic reading time. Daytime reading.  I discovered plays I’d never heard of (Coriolanus) and some I wish I’d never heard of (Titus Andronicus).  Marjorie Garber was a helpful guide. Overall it was a fantastic experience.


I’ve been trying to read from my shelf without being so squirrely that I make a silly vow to not buy a book this year. (ha ha!) One of my first rules for living is: Friends buy friend’s books.

I joined a Seasonal Reading Challenge. Each participant sculpts a list for intentional reading the next three months. In truth, this challenge usually adds more books to my TBR (to be read) list because I get so many enticing recommendations from friends.

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See all those Hank the Cowdog books? I’m reading Harry (Potter) and Hank (the cowdog) and passing them off to eager grandsons.

The other piece is audio books. I looked for audio productions of books I owned but hadn’t read. I discovered the Last Lion trilogy on audio and my husband and I listened together. Fascinating stuff! Then, it turns out that in 2017 three full-length movies were released about Winston. Win!

                   

As to podcasts, my affections have cooled for Modern Mrs. Darcy’s What Should I Read Next? Primarily because her recommendations don’t closely enough match my likes. There were a few episodes I loved. But, honestly, I’m tired of her pitching her own book.

I discovered Circe Institute’s podcast Close Reads where I have found my tribe. I started at the beginning and have listened to David, Tim, and Angelina discuss Flannery O’Connor, Wendell Berry, Wodehouse, Kenneth Grahame, Austen, Marilynne Robinson, and Agatha Christie. I’ll be caught up soon; we start reading Howard’s End in January.

For the two people still reading this crazy long post, here is a link to my Goodreads list which includes fabulous food writing, new fiction, mystery, memoirs, and books on architecture, cultural studies, sailing, shepherding, and art.

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Of Forest Fires and Hurricanes

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So began a life with “less schedule than a forest fire and less peace than a hurricane.” — Walter Thompson, Churchill’s bodyguard, quoted by Sonia Purnell in Clementine.

It tickles my fancy when details in what I’m reading correspond with my current situation. For instance, reading about the events on March 23, 1877 on March 23rd. Or reading about the view from an airplane while looking out an airplane window.

Forest fires and hurricanes are not at all delightful, but I found it noteworthy to come across this unusual pairing during the first week of September 2017, when Irma was approaching Florida and fires were consuming Montana, Idaho, Washington, and our beloved Columbia River Gorge in Oregon.

Had I read this sentence in July, it would have glanced off me without notice. But reading it in September gave the description rich resonance.

Have you experienced such an intersection between your reading and your living?

Deep Reading (All the Books)

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There is a moment when you’re charmed / challenged / bedazzled by the writing and you resolve to read every book this author has written.

(Sometimes, though, in the middle of the fourth book by that beloved author, one recants! Alas, true story.)

My reading life began with Laura Ingalls Wilder. Twice a year — on my birthday and on Christmas — my dad and mom gave me a brand new hardback, the next Little House in the series. Oh how rich I felt, how lovingly I smoothed the dustjackets, how often I re-read those early books.

Wilder was the first author who inspired me to ‘read the canon’ (not to be confused with reading the cannon!) even though I didn’t know the word canon. As long as we’re talking about obscure words, I like oeuvre. (←three vowels in a row!!!)

In my early twenties I embarked on reading James Michener — always skipping the first boring chapter — immersing myself in family sagas set in Hawaii, Israel, South Africa and the Chesapeake Bay. At some point I forgot what I loved about them and moved on. I have his book, Poland, unread on my shelf, curious what I will think of it after all these years.

Somewhere in my thirties I read Jane. Dear, dear Jane. There is only one Jane whose whispered name thrills the soul. Jane Austen. Seven books that I’ve enjoyed multiple times. My beloved Latin teacher would say, “I was reading Mansfield Park, and came across the ethical dative.” There is more than one reason to read Jane.

Fast forward to 2012. I fell victim to a Kindle Daily Deal and bought all of L.M. Montgomery’s books for $2.99. More astonishingly, I read them all! I had known and loved Anne-with-an-e, but I never knew Emily! A few got a ‘meh’ response, but I enjoyed almost all.

I began to compile a list of authors. David McCullough. Anthony Trollope. (Same beloved Latin teacher remarked, If you like Jane Austen, you should read Trollope.) Jan Karon. Wendell Berry. Miss Read. Marilynne Robinson. Colin Thubron.

[Wait for it! Here come the initials!] A.A. Milne. C.S. Lewis. J.R.R. Tolkien (I can’t. I’m flawed. Because The Silmarillion.) P.G. Wodehouse. G.K. Chesterton. N.D. Wilson.  P.D. James. D.E. Stevenson.

A few authors I vowed to read all and then recanted: Mark Helprin. Alexander McCall Smith. Bill Bryson.

This year I succumbed to Shakespeare. I joined a Facebook group that is reading All of Shakespeare in 2017.  While I don’t love all of the bard, each play or poem rewards the discipline of reading it. It feels like being back in school, with a schedule pressing. I copied a friend’s idea to document the quest.

A friend calls this deep reading. I like that.

Next year I’m thinking of reading all of C.S. Lewis. It will require diligence and discipline. But why wait to read some of the best writing on the planet? Harper One has reissued Lewis’ books in gorgeous paperbacks with deckle edges. (Go ahead and click on the link just to see the covers.) Here is an even better glimpse. Even though I own almost all of CSL in various and sundry editions, I’m jonesing (← am I allowed to use the word jonesing with Lewis?) for this collection. I’ve already mentioned it to my husband. Birthday with a zero this year, dear. This is what I want. I dearly love matched collections.

Last month two young friends invited us to join them for lunch. As I passed through a bedroom (the only route to the only bathroom) I noticed her shelves full of Louis L’Amour paperbacks. What fun! She has her own quest, yes?!

How Can I Keep from Reading? Pt 2

 

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My nightstand in 2011

Why I Read, Part 2

The second answer is short: because I’m hungry.

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I could respond to the Why do you read? question with Why do you eat?

I’m hungry to know, hungry to discover, hungry to learn. Hungry for story, hungry for wordsmithery, hungry for surprise. I’m hungry to see, hungry to really see my world, your world, their world over there. I thirst for books that establish my roots and for books that bend my thoughts. I don’t mind books that give me a needed smack-down. I want to laugh, I want my throat to constrict, I want to gasp, to nod, to stop reading and ponder. I want to recognize, to reform, and I dearly want to remember.

In my mind, I often classify my current read by a food equivalent. This is butternut soup: light, but nourishing. This is chocolate torte: rich and sweetThis is steel cut oats: not very exciting, but it gets the job done. This is burnt garlic: yuck! This is a cup of tea and a sit-down. This is an omelet: satisfying protein. This is flour and water: half-baked! This is a glorious main-dish salad: it took some time and effort, but so worth it.

A confession: I love cotton candy. It’s pure sugar, I know, but those yummy sticky pink wisps whisper joy, joy, joy…—until they are suddenly thoroughly revolting. Shoved in the garbage. You know that kind of book? Mediocre writing, but a catchy storyline. If you finish, you feel filmy and regret the hours you just wasted. I don’t like retching; better to avoid wretched things, even when they appear so seductively lovely.

There is a time for easy reading (fast food), reading magazines or online articles (snacks), and escape reading (ice cam from the carton). I have a few favorite comfort books, all British, which I admit are in the suburbs of sentimental. Excellent books for children are my first choice when fatigue and grief confound me.

 

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A page from my commonplace (quote-collecting) book.

 

 

 

Quotes I Copied in 2016

From this year’s journal, for the patient and curious reader:

GPS sets us in the center of the map and then makes the world circulate around us. In this miniature parody of the pre-Copernican universe…  —The Glass Cage

If your husband knows you love and want him, you empower him in every other area. —For the Love

We’re headed for Lost Wages —Southwest flight attendant

Grief is a strange thing. —A Man Called Ove

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What I always say is, God sends the weather and it’s not for us to grumble. —Shoulder the Sky

Without habit, the beauty of the world would overwhelm us. We’d pass out every time we saw—actually saw—a flower. —Four Seasons in Rome

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Alex now saw that his relationship with his father was the taproot of his character and temperament. —The Father’s Tale

Life is like a bog. If you stand still too long your feet begin to sink into the mud. —Anna and Her Daughters

I was learning that when you’re with someone who is dying, you may need to celebrate the past, live the present, and mourn the future all at the same time. —End of Your Life Book Club

Cilantro, Satan’s own herb (I disagree, but I laughed!) —The Pat Conroy Cookbook

There are no billboards in Iceland. — Iceland: Land of the Sagas

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In teaching your child, do not forget that suffering is good too. — A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

The disappearance of tools from our common education is the first step toward a wider ignorance of the world of artifacts we inhabit. — Shop Class as Soulcraft

…the small morsel of beard which he wore upon his chin … — The Golden Lion of Granpère

A French study released in 2013 even found a solid link between continued work and avoidance of dementia. — Get What’s Yours (Maxing out Social Security)

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…ecologies of attention… — The World Beyond Your Head

Today, a whole generation has grown up as a take-out culture. The food is convenient, and some of it is even good, but it has none of the ring of the familiar; it can never be personal enough to become part of our past. — Christopher Kimball

Talkers never write. They go on talking. — Parnassus on Wheels

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For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes, indeed. — A Poetry Handbook

MARTIAL is an anagram for MARITAL. — The Spectator Bird

I’ve seen far too many people awash in genuine desire to change only to lose their mettle when they realized just how difficult change actually is. — Hillbilly Elegy

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Wisdom is long, violence is short. —  Benjamin Franklin

Time used to tumble for me. Time was narrow, then, and very fast. Now time has widened. — Letters from the Land of Cancer

Manage time less and pay attention more. — The Rest of God

Everything she did and loved, everything she was, required language. — Still Alice

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Lila

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Wow. The audio edition read by Maggie Hoffman enshrouded me, made this not merely listening to a book, but an experience. I listened while driving, but when I was home, I found it difficult to do anything beyond listening. Setting the iron upright, drying my hands, leaving clean clothes in the basket, I basked in the cadences.


The writing is spare, the words short. This is a story of abandonment, of survival, of transience. Provision and grace make spattered appearances, but they are layered and torn and patched. Lila finds herself alone but she steadfastly refuses to consider herself needy. The story pivots when she steps into a church on a rainstorm.

Quotes that captured me:

I got shame like a habit, the only thing I feel except when I’m alone.

There was no way to abandon guilt, no decent way to disown it. All the tangles and knots of bitterness and desperation and fear had to be pitied. No, better, grace had to fall over them.

Most of the time she thought she understood things better when she didn’t try. Things happen the way they do. Why was a foolish question. In a song a note follows the one before because it is that song and not another one.

If I were leading a discussion of this book, we would talk about the knife; geraniums; gardens; charity; baptism; adoption; King James language; Psalm 22. And Ezekiel.

I was unmoved when I first read Gilead. What changed my response was hearing the audio. I can still remember what I was doing when I listened perhaps five years ago, it made so deep an impression. Now I want to return to the print book and read it with Lila still fresh in my mind.