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I'm lisapeet, real name Lisa Peet—I have a very public-facing job and don't see much need for pseudonymity, though for years on a long-ago literary forum called Readerville I went by Oblivia, and still have friends from there who call me 'Bliv. I live at the very top of New York—the north Bronx—and work at the bottom of Manhattan. Not quite a born-and-bred New Yorker, but I've lived in various spots around the city since the ink on my high school diploma was dry, and I'm in my mid-50s now.
I'm an editor and journalist, covering news about libraries—public, academic, and special (but not K-12). It's as cool a job as it sounds, and also super immersive and I tend to bring work home out of love as well as duty. That added to a long commute, an hour+ each way—plus a ramshackle house with rental property and overgrown garden, a weekly trip to see mom in the nursing home 40 miles away, a houseful of senior pets, and backing up my husband through a cancer year all last year—means I don't have much in the way free time. But that long weekday commute is on public transportation, which means I do have a lot of time to read.
I like literary fiction (including short fiction and work in translation), nonfiction of most kinds (esp. science, history, nature, culture), good historical fiction, some poetry, memoir and biography, essays, literary criticism, graphic novels and collections. I don't read much in the way of genre but do like to go outside my zone and enjoy well-written mysteries, thrillers, etc. YA rarely, but not ruled out.
I'm the senior writer for a website that my friend Sonya started 5-1/2 years back called Bloom, which focuses on writers (and others) who first published after age 40, or who radically changed genres. I had a literary blog for a long time called Like Fire, which I abandoned a couple of years ago—just too many other things on my plate, and the next stop for me as far as a personal website will probably be be some form of lisapeet.com. I've reviewed here and there around the web and a fair amount for Library Journal, and would like to get back into reviewing again at some point but again, that time thing.
Read in 2018
America's Greatest Library: An Illustrated History of the Library of Congress by John Y. Cole
Fasting and Feasting: The Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray by Adam Federman
Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard
What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky: Stories by Lesley Nneka Arimah
Improvement: A Novel by Joan Silber
The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story by Edwidge Danticat
Elmet by Fiona Mozley
The Game of Kings (Lymond Chronicles, 1) by Dorothy Dunnett
To Throw Away Unopened: A Memoir by Viv Albertine
Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit
Brass: A Novel by Xhenet Aliu
Mr. Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense by Jenny Uglow
Promise by Minrose Gwin
Mean by Myriam Gurba
Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover
This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America by Morgan Jerkins
Neon in Daylight by Hermione Hoby
Something Light: A Novel by Margery Sharp
Burning Down the Haus: Punk Rock, Revolution, and the Fall of the Berlin Wall by Tim Mohr
What the Eyes Don't See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City by Mona Hanna-Attisha
The Library Book by Susan Orlean
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou
Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist by Eli Saslow
Invitation to a Bonfire by Adrienne Celt
Old In Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over by Nell Painter
There There by Tommy Orange
From Rockaway by Jill Eisenstadt
Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg
The Dry by Jane Harper
Still Life with Monkey by Katharine Weber
Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett
Tiny Crimes: Very Short Tales of Mystery and Murder ed. Lincoln Michel & Nadxieli Nieto
Heartbreaker by Claudia Dey
The All of It by Jeanette Haien
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez
The Age of Perpetual Light by Josh Weil
Collaborative Library Design: From Planning to Impact by Peter Gisolfi
Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjie-Brenyah
Fierce: Essays By and About Dauntless Women ed. Karyn Kloumann
The Story Prize: 15 Years of Great Short Fiction ed. Larry Dark
French Exit by Patrick deWitt
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk Wallace Johnson
Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution by Menno Schilthuizen
The Boatbuilder by Daniel Gumbiner
Circe by Madeline Miller
The Selected Poems of Donald Hall
Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News by Kevin Young
Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov
I took a brief detour from my other books in progress because my library hold on Something Light, by Margery Sharp, came in. She wrote The Rescuers series and a lot of other children's books, but also adult work as well. Something Light was exactly that—a frothy and agreeable tale of a 1950s British woman tired of scrambling to make ends meet who decides what she needs is a husband. Of course you know that after several disastrous forays she'll end up with someone who's lurking in plain sight—I don't even think that counts as a spoiler in this kind of novel—and the question, of course, is who? And how will the scales fall from here eyes, etc.
This kind of snappy little British tale of love and woe isn't my usual fare, but a few of my dear book friends were reading it/had read it and were talking it up, plus the cover they posted was just marvelous (it's the one I used here, even though the cover of my ebook was different... but it's an ebook, so I can pretend it has whatever cover I want, dammit. It was fun, and I was won over by the fact that Louisa's a dog photographer. What a perfect profession for a struggling career woman in mid-century England! I couldn't help hoping she sticks with it even after her successful nuptial campaign.
I've got a super busy reading month—at the end of May I'm moderating a panel for Library Journal's Day of Dialog, which is an all-day conference where publishers and writers sit on panels for a crowd of librarians. The LJ Reviews editor asked me if I'd do this one—it's on writers reporting—and I'm totally stoked. The authors/books are:
John Carreyrou, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup
Tim Mohr, Burning Down the Haus: Punk Rock, Revolution, and the Fall of the Berlin Wall
Eli Saslow, Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist
Susan Orlean, The Library Book (about the 1986 fire that burnt down the LA Public Library, which I already had on my list plus I'm a total fan of hers)
Mona Hanna-Attisha, What the Eyes Don't See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City—she's the pediatrician who broke the story of the water crisis in Flint, and has won a bunch of humanitarian awards, and I'm SUCH A FANGIRL.
This is going to be fun, but boy do I have my reading cut out for me. I've started with Burning Down the Haus, which is terrific so far—I know a solid lot about the early punk scene in the U.S., having been active in it in my teens and early 20s, and a fair amount about its beginnings in the UK, but nothing about the origins of punk in East Germany. Unsurprisingly, the movement and music were born of serious political issues, but the progression is fascinating—people, largely teenagers at first, getting jailed for dressing punk, gathering at clubs, playing in bands. The musicians wouldn't write down their lyrics in case the Stasi searched their bedrooms (often thanks to mom and dad), because those were evidence for jailable offenses against the state.
I was looking at my reading list for the year and realized that this is the first book by a man I've read all year. Nothing I set out to do on purpose—it just shook out that way. Guess I'm more interested in what the ladies are writing these days.
But yeah, right now taking a detour into nonfiction land for the month of May. I'm entertained by the looks I get while reading Burning Down the Haus on the train—the cover is an attention-grabber. I had one older guy go off on a total monologue about all the old punk bands—and while I'm complimented in a weird way that he assumed I was part of that whole scene, going to hear the music (I was), I kinda wasn't in the mood for a pogo down memory lane with some stranger. No offense, stranger. I did agree with him that Iggy Pop put on a hell of a show, but otherwise it was a lot of nodding and "uh huh"ing for a long 15 minutes.
Is your library gig connected to Book Expo, by chance? I toyed with the idea of going this year, but too much is going on.
I'm not connected to BookExpo--I'm the news editor for Library Journal. But I'll probably be going to BookExpo, just as press. Probably not more than part of one day, though, because I've got too much else to do around that time, but I really like seeing all my publisher friends and schmoozing and trying (only somewhat successfully) not to take galleys and tote bags.
The Day of Dialog panel is set up to coincide with BookExpo, the 30th I think. So that's one of the reasons I'll be busy. I wish I were a faster reader--I know I'm going to end up skimming the last couple-few books of that lineup.
As someone who was involved in the downtown NYC punk scene starting in roughly 1981, I was fascinated by the contrast. Note that I ID what I was part of as a scene, rather than a movement—it may have stemmed from adolescent (and post-adolescent) rebellion and a dislike of conformity on my end, but it didn't carry the same kind of life-and-death charter—no one I knew was going to jail for their beliefs (other than for public intoxication, maybe), or having to dodge police to make the music they wanted to make or attend concerts or marches. So even though I know my history and have read a fair amount about the end of the DDR and the Communist regime at the time, this was an interesting filter to drive home the import of what a lot of young people were dealing with there and then.
It also sparked a wave of nostalgia, and I stayed up too late last night Googling photos of punks in the early 80s East Village and falling down a few where-are-they-now rabbit holes.
Finished What the Eyes Don't See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City, which was thoroughly well-done account of how Hanna-Attisha broke the Flint water crisis, taking on the indifference (and mendacity) of city, state, and federal agencies to advocate for the city's children. She frames her story well, moving between the context of her family story—activist Iraqis for generations, and immigrant parents who caught the tail end of the American Dream but made sure their children knew of the world's injustices—her own environmental activism as a teen and college student, her life as a pediatrician in an already economically-troubled city, and, front and center, the very dramatic story of her discovery of, and battle against, the urgent crisis of lead-contaminated water that affected the city's already disadvantaged residents. (Was that sentence long enough?)
Her recounting of her fight against the powers that be—all against the ticking clock of children's lead exposure—was well written, with plenty of suspense even though anyone who follows the news knows what happened, and her sense of urgency comes through clearly. It's a gripping story, and an important one. I hope this book gets a lot of play, if only to inspire future resisters and activists to stand up for what's right.
I was impressed by Hanna-Attisha just from reading the news coverage of the Flint crisis, but after getting the whole story in her voice I just think she's awesome. I'm so, so looking forward to doing this panel that she's a part of, just to get to meet her. And Susan Orlean! I'm usually not much of a fan-girl, but those two are totally going to make me go eeeeeee. (Not really—I'll be professional as hell. But inside, yeah.)
I thought I would finish it this weekend but driving and sleeping and guacamole-making took up all my time somehow. Oh and kitten-adopting-out--we've gotten rid of all but two of our litter of five, and another friend said she'd take the fantastically chilled out baby daddy cat. All of them are living in my son's room, and since he's coming for the long weekend I'm very interested in homing them all by Friday, in time to scrub and fumigate. It's an interesting life I lead.
I did come up with my questions for the panel and ran them by the editor who organized it, and she was happy with them—which was a load off my mind, since this is my first author panel. I need to write them up in coherent form and she'll send them along to the authors in advance. I'm really looking forward to this!
I also picked up two new books there, even though I had sworn up and down that I wouldn't (but OK let's get real): The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry and a new novel by Nick Arvin, Mad Boy.
I came home with a few galleys—a lot of what I want I have already in e-galley form, which is so much easier on my shelves. Really I shouldn't take any, but I'm a sucker for a hand-sell, and there were a couple I just wanted to have in hand because... because I'm greedy.
John Woman by Walter Mosley
The Downtown Pop Underground by Kembrew McLeod (I interviewed him for an article I wrote a while back on the grant money he got to write it through NEH's Public Scholar Program, and I've been waiting to read it ever since)
Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays) by Rebecca Solnit
Every Body Has a Story by Beverly Gologorsky (I know nothing about this one—it was pressed into my hot little hands and I never say no when a publicist I like does that)
I finished reading Susan Orlean's The Library Book, and it was just lovely. It's is a history of the L.A. Public Library, particularly the 1986 fire that devastated it—and it makes you wish that every library system was fortunate enough to have a biographer, because Orlean pulls out the most marvelous, evocative details about it from its founding to the present day—but it's also a love letter to libraries in general, which is just a wonderful thing. Of course I love it, given how I feel about libraries. But it's also really accessible and warm, and I just want everyone to read it so they can feel that love too.
I'm writing a real review for LJ shortly, but that's my very subjective and mushy version. Plus Orlean, who was on my author panel last week, was just lovely—she's obviously very good at people, and I had a nice time talking to her.
Now I'm onto Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, another book by an author on the panel, which I had to stop reading halfway through because I ran out of time. Fascinating train wreck of a story.
I'm working my way through all the books from my panel that I didn't read in depth—I ran out of time toward the end and had to skim a bit, skip around, and read the end, which is something I never do. But all of them were good enough to warrant thorough reads. I just finished Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, which I really enjoyed. This account of a Silicon Valley med tech startup that attracted high-profile investors, supporters, and press without ever coming close to delivering on its promise—largely due to the charismatic young woman at its helm—and its takedown by a Wall Street Journal reporter is riveting and fun. All the more so because it wasn't a book I'd have picked up ordinarily if I hadn't been asked to moderate the panel, but I'm greatly glad I did. This is great book-length investigative reporting, but never felt needlessly padded out. Rather, it had all the elements of a good thriller, including hubris, whistleblowers, big venture cap money, patients in potential peril, and a truly byzantine antiheroine.
Carreyrou is in the story, and he mentions some of the investigative work he does, but what he never touches on—probably wisely, given the book's tone and scope—is how incredibly exciting, and probably often terrifying, bringing this story to light must have been. I'm very glad he turned it into a book, though, and recommend it all around.
I finished the last of the books from my book-length reporting panel, Eli Saslow's Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist. Really interesting story of Derek Black, a young man who was raised to be the successor to the White Nationalist movement, and how he turned away from that world once he went off to college, was befriended by a diverse (and idealistic) group of people, and eventually opened his eyes to how misguided and destructive those beliefs were. Which sounds incredibly simplistic, but to Saslow's credit the book is never melodramatic, didactic, or dumbed down—nor is it sensationalistic, even when laying out the foundations of the White Nationalists and how they spin their particular brand of nastiness. The story takes place at a very human level, and what actually drives Black's transformation is the compassion, and persistence, of his peers. Which sounds almost too good to be true but a) Saslow is a good reporter who obviously had full cooperation from his sources, and I believe him and b) Black was such a star of the White Nationalist movement because of the family he was born into, but also because he was very smart, very inquisitive, something of a polymath. Whatever other enormous ideological flaws his parents had, they apparently raised him to seek out the answers to his own questions, and he did.
It's actually pretty encouraging for these dark times—that such great personal change can come out of simple actions: kindness, patience, the exchange of ideas. I know, crazy talk, right? But if you can't believe in that you may as well give up now. This is a good read—straightforward, but also just a little hopeful.
Now for something completely different, I'm reading Invitation to a Bonfire on a friend's recommendation. Boarding school, post-Revolutionary Russians, a Vladimir Nabokov-based character (and his wife—nothing not to like here, and so far it's fun.
Based on my interests, the Reviews editors often ask me if I want to do particular books—I get a lot of the meta library-centric books, soft sciences such as animal behavior, books about Charles Darwin (I worked on the Darwin Manuscripts Project while I was in library school a few years back, which is a whole nother story), 1980s music (particularly punk rock), and graphic art. Sometimes I'll request something I'm dying to read/write about, like Mr. Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense, which turned out to be 600 pages... oy. These reviews don't pay, btw—I just do 'em for the fun of it.
So I'll be reviewing the Orlean book even though I'm already on record about liking it, and have interacted with her on my panel. But I checked and that doesn't qualify as a conflict of interest, since we're not actually friends. I wonder where that line is, come to think of it... obviously our pleasant chat before and after the panel and at the book signing doesn't count, nor my giving her a cough drop, heh. But what would count? If we went out for coffee? I think it's like pornography, I know when I see it.
I'm headed off to the American Library Association (ALA) annual conference next week, which is a big venue for publishers. It'll be interesting to see how attendance stacks up against BookExpo, which has traditionally been such a big industry blowout... but the industry is changing, for sure.
Invitation to a Bonfire was total fun—thanks so much for the rec, Lauren! 1930s, boarding school, Russian émigrés including Vladimir and Vera Nabokov stand-ins, literature (including a mysterious missing manuscript), the politics of entitlement vs. deprivation, murder plots, and some really enjoyable writing... as Lauren said elsewhere, a very Readerville book.
And just for the hell of it, I pulled Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading off my shelf, because a home library is the best thing ever when it actually replicates the kind of free association you'd use a real library for. I may give it a try as my bedside book, because I'm also back to Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over, which I began before my big nonfiction read in May.
And I just may have pulled There There up on my iPad, but I think I'll hold off until I've finished one of the above. I'm not enough of a multitasker to read three books at a time (plus the ever-present New Yorker).
I said I was going to report back on the exhibit floor, and this time around the I thought the booth layout was great. Usually the smaller publishers get balkanized and stuck at the end of aisles, or in spots that don't get much traffic, because they're no doubt cheaper. And as I mentioned above, at BookExpo many of them were lumped together in the bigger distributers' areas and got lost. At ALA there was a whole section for the small presses and it really put them all on display nicely, I thought, and the big distributors like Ingram and IPG and Consortium were nearby, so it all felt kind of logical. The (sort of) downside was that it was like running some kind of marvelous book gauntlet for me, and I picked up an armload in about 20 minutes. And then I swear I thought I was done but omigod there's a new Elizabeth McCracken, so far in the future it didn't even have a cover image, just type. Fortunately they were asking people to check their bags at the airline gate to make room because it was a packed flight—so I got out of having to lift that sucker over my head, which most certainly would have done terrible things to my back.
I didn't get to enjoy New Orleans as much as I would have liked, because I was working pretty much the whole time. But I got to eat a nice dish of crawfish étouffée at Bon Ton, and one of the conference spinoff areas (that had nothing to do with ALA and almost got shut down by them) was in this wonderful funky space, and they had a happy hour with a fabulous local brass band, The Stooges, who had everyone up and dancing. I don't drink often anymore, but I definitely had a little bourbon there and danced with a mixed crowd of library folks and old Mardi Gras queens and who knows who else. Slunk back to my hotel, cleaned my sweaty self up a bit, and then went to a far more formal literary awards presentation (the Carnegie medals—Jennifer Egan won for Manhattan Beach).
Also got to see Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress, interview Michelle Obama, which was a whole nother thing—I'll post my article once it's up.
Up at 4 the morning I flew in (the flight selection sucked), and up at 6 both mornings I was there for mandatory stuff, and my flight home was delayed so I got home after midnight. I'm whupped. But it was fun and productive, and I got to work from home today so I was a bit of a slacker... which I will regret, I'm sure, but hey, I worked all weekend.
Still reading Old in Art School, which I'm enjoying but she's really nonlinear. It's interesting stuff she has to say about art world politics and art school politics as well as the nature of art, of being an outsider in several ways (chiefly being black, female, older than her fellow students, and a professional in another field), and some cool stuff about art itself, but it's not propulsive. She also has an oddball voice that's refreshing, but again pushes back as much as it pulls you in. So I find myself reading a bit, drifting away, reading a bit more, etc. Maybe that's just the way it needs to be consumed, which is fine. There's still something very intrinsically likeable about it.
Also reading Invitation to a Beheading in tiny bursts before bed... once I get horizontal I tend to pass out pretty quickly, but this is another one that might be really good in short doses.
Here's my report on Michelle Obama's conversation with Carla Hayden, if anyone's interested: Michelle Obama Talks Books, Values, and Doing Pushups with Bishop Tutu at ALA18. You can tell I was running on fumes when I wrote that headline, since it could leave a little confusion in the mind of a reader as to whether she was talking with Bishop Tutu at ALA, or doing pushups with him there (neither of which was the case). But hey, maybe that'll work as clickbait. Anyway, she was lovely, and Carla Hayden is one of my very favorite people in the library world.
Finished Old in Art School, which I ended up liking very much. Painter’s voice is a surprise at first, but it’s as unique as her art, and communicates her heart and mind as effectively. I enjoyed being along on that journey with her, from eager artist to disillusioned graduate student dealing with a multitude of outsider statuses—female, black, over 60, out of sync with art world hip (marked, among other things, by a love of incorporating history and text into her work), with a firmly established non-art career already under her belt (Painter was a tenured, well-published professor of history at Princeton), and the caretaker of elderly parents—to a truly adventurous artist who believes in her own voice, her own hand, and her own old self. If my description of it sounds sunshiney, the book is decidedly not. But it’s affirming, maybe especially for those of us who aspire to make art in the face of the rest of life, or just to give fewer fucks. There’s a lot of incidentally good art history slipped in, and some good description of techniques, as well. This is a genuinely outside-the-lines memoir, and I’m so pleased it is.
Now on to the book of the moment among my own little reading squad, Tommy Orange's There There.
Finished There There, which is a great debut novel—an abundance of outstanding writing, and I think Orange paints his overall picture of 21st century Indian life in Oakland really skillfully. Because there are so many characters to care about, I found myself more invested in some than others, as I guess is to be expected—I agree with a friend that an Opal and Jacquie book would be excellent, and I also wanted to hear more from Orvil and Thomas Frank. Also agree that the ending—another friend termed it a vortex, which is a good word—feels a bit inevitable by the end, with all the machinations to bring everyone there. But I can also imagine Orange wanting to end all that careful plotting super decisively, and it was definitely that. Also I enjoyed seeing his treatment of current technology as both plot points and wallpaper. Anyway, very good stuff and I very much look forward to whatever he might do next.
And now for something completely different, super summery and one from the TBR (a book trading friend sent it to me last fall), I'm reading Jill Eisenstadt's From Rockaway.
I finished From Rockaway, but it didn't quite do it for me—a near miss—which I think was all for stylistic reasons. The combination of flat affect and post-adolescent angst kept the book at arm's length for me. And the casual racism/homophobia/sexism from characters who are otherwise sympathetic—I know it's a product of its time and place, but it was a bit too deadpan. And
On to Confessions of the Fox, the many blurbs for which completely entranced me. I hate reading e-galleys with footnotes, but I'll make an exception for this because it's fun.
Loafed around in the heat all day yesterday and finished Confessions of the Fox, which was a wonderfully out-there debut novel—ambitious as hell, smart, and fun. At its surface level the book is a twinned narrative involving a discovered manuscript and a contemporary academic who annotates it heavily (and personally) as he transcribes it. But there's a whole lot more going on, particularly in the manuscript, which is ostensibly a biography of the early 18th-century English folk hero Jack Sheppard—who was the model for Macheath in John Gay's The Beggar's Opera and later Brecht and Weill's Threepenny Opera—and his prostitute/moll Edgworth Bess. But aside from being a rollicking retelling, it's also a queering of the legend: in Jordy Rosenberg's retelling Sheppard is a trans man (as is his modern-day professor Voth), Bess is Southeast Asian, and one of the main characters is a gay black man. But beyond even that set of identity politics, which would be innovative and entertainingly loaded on its own (Rosenberg is a trans man as well), there is a lot of really interesting subtext—on colonialism, big pharma, academia, archival authority, racial and gender identity and rights, industrialism, commodification, medical ethics, slavery, and I'm sure I'm missing something else. You get the idea, though.
For the most part Rosenberg pulls off this hyper-intersectionality, and mainly he keeps the energy rolling along. Voth's personal footnoted drama can wears a little thin at parts, although I'm sure it was written to, and there is some overly neat—and slightly wtf-inducing—consummation of Voth's intellectual odyssey toward the very end. But this is a fun, thoughtful, prickly read. Rosenberg absolutely goes big here, and it's worth your time if you're up for it. (This is not, obviously, a beach read, unless this sounds like your idea of a beach read—it is mine, or would be if I ever got within ten miles of a beach—in which case, have at it.)
Now on to some slightly more straightforward fare, because everyone seems to love it (and it's super gulp-worthy so far), Jane Harper's The Dry.
The Dry was a good, serviceable thriller with a solid surprise ending that kept me engaged the whole way through. The characterizations weren't always subtle—the obviously bad guys were bumbling drunken oafs and the good women were always lovely, of course, as opposed to one lady whom we're meant to know is unpleasant even before she opens her mouth because she's red-faced, with dull hair in a limp ponytail, squashy with a muffin top, and smokes. But I'm not going to take points away from the book for not trying to be what it isn't, and what it is is very entertaining.
Next up is a book by a friend so I'm not announcing the fact that I'm reading it just yet. If I decide it's an unqualified rave, or close enough, then I'll out myself. Otherwise it may be better to play this particular hand close to the vest.
Last week I dove into my galley of a friend's book, Katharine Weber's upcoming Still Life with Monkey, and it didn't disappoint. This story of a couple—Duncan and Laura Wheeler, an architect paralyzed in an accident and his wife—is funny and smart and sad in equal measures. Weber gets at the shifts and dynamics between the two, the ill and the healthy spouse with an entire marriage's complications already packed into their otherwise comfortable lives, and paints a sympathetic but not sentimental portrait, sometimes harsh but always believable. Good, subtle, smart stuff.
Now I'm back to nonfiction, reading Kevin Young's Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News.
"Writing is the broad research and the winnowing of broad research into narrower channels and tangents; the notes scribbled in reporting; the random quotes encountered in poetry or everyday life; the highlighting and mapping and organizing; then, finally, the actual word-by-word construction of sentences into story, which is more akin to building a nest from a thousand disparate twigs than conjuring a vision straight from one’s genius literary brain. It is all, in summary, much more humbling than it seemed at the outset."
—Sarah Menkedick, "Behind The Writing: On Interviewing"
"I am now of the mind that every serious writer needs to experience translation — and by that I don’t necessarily mean that one has to learn a language and translate a text, although I would recommend that, but that a writer needs to deeply explore languages and cultures that are not her own, immerse herself in the unknowability of another language — and that can be any other language, for example, a dialect, music, cosmology, shoemaking, anything that has a lexicon of its own that needs to be translated so that everyone can have a better understanding of that world’s soul. It is my deep belief that all writing — and translation is a very obvious example — is palimpsest, a perpetual layering of language and meaning, a conversation among writers, readers, and translators across time, present, past, and future and I am deeply grateful to be part of that conversation."
—Jenny McPhee in "A Perpetual Layering of Language and Meaning: An Interview with Writer and Translator Jenny McPhee"
After lingering over the eight zillionth instance of Adam Haslett's Imagine Me Gone showing up in my ebook sale newsletters for $1.99, I just got the damn thing out of the library to save time on future should I/shouldn't I mental conversations. It was a good, low-key read—a highly sympathetic take on mental illness and families: the glue that holds them together, the stories they tell each other over the years and how those morph, the roles people take on. I found it to be an essentially kind book, not earth-shaking but a good place to visit.
Still reading Donald Hall's very Robert-Louis-Stevensonish poems. Not challenging, but lots of snow imagery that's nice on a 90˚ subway.
And hey, it could happen. She was very happy with the Bloom piece (which is here if anyone's interested)—as was the publicist. Not that I write these things for their approval, but it's always nice to get such positive feedback from subjects and book teams.
Speaking of publicists, I'm trying to make a point of reading more books that people give me personally—either hand-sells from publishing people because they think I'll like a book, friends who are offloading things from their collections that they think I'll like, or outright gifts. So my current read is Tiny Crimes: Very Short Tales of Mystery and Murder, ed. Nadxieli Nieto and Lincoln Michel, which an editor at Counterpoint gave me and which is just what it sounds like: micro-noir. I just started, but it's fun.
Enjoyed reading your article and I can understand why Nell Irvin Painter approved. It must have been a privilege to meet such an interesting person. Great stuff.
>56 LadyoftheLodge: It was published in June, I think.
>59 kidzdoc: I know, right? I was going to offer to FedEx you a few, but the mama cat has taken them somewhere else—she did that with her last litter for a couple of weeks before bringing them back to our basement. Possibly because I started handling them, in an effort to socialize them a bit so they won't be totally feral when we find homes for them, but also possibly because they're starting to roam out of their nest and there have probably been raccoons hanging around too, and she likes them even less than she likes us. If her pattern is the same, she'll bring them back when they start to wean and she can't keep up with their appetites, because we put out food. Or not. I'm not too attached to this batch, adorable as they are—we wanted to get her fixed but she's wild and wily, and ran off and got knocked up before we could trap her. Ah well, hopefully after this brood is weaned and sent off to homes.
Re Tiny Crimes: Very Short Tales of Mystery and Murder—it's a great idea, but I'm thinking flash is just not my thing. I'm of the opinion that flash is really, really hard to do well. And especially given the challenge of setting up a little thriller or crime story in a couple of pages... Some of these get it, but I feel like a lot are near misses. It also doesn't help that because the physical book got lost in my office, I'm reading an e-galley and the formatting kind of sucks—too much electronic page flipping to get through a single story, with these weird graphic things in between. But it goes quickly and I'm almost done, and I have to say I think it's a cool idea, even if the execution fell a little short for me.
Finished Tiny Crimes and yeah, not really my thing. But I love the idea and who knows, maybe I'll try my hand at writing my own. That would be a good outcome.
Not sure what's up next. I'm going to catch up on some New Yorkers, anyway. I'm eternally three months behind.
I seem to gravitate to the mean and suspicious ones. Not sure what that says about me. :-)
I quite liked Claudia Dey's Heartbreaker. It was quirky, but quirky in the good way that knocks you out of your usual ruts of signs, signifiers, and shortcuts to emotion to get at some good truths. And despite its odd premise, including an anachronistic cult complete with strange customs and ritualistic nicknames, the book gets less and less odd as it goes along, and resolves in a real and satisfying fashion. Because it's about basic stuff, really—love, deceit, loneliness, family, and a missing mother. And very much about innocence, helped along by the quirky but reasonable narrative setup: the first chapter from the POV of a tough-but-innocent 15-year-old girl, the second from a sweetly dispassionate-but-loyal old dog, and the third from a not-quite-tough-enough-but-wise 19-year-old young man. But hey, enough with the hyphens—it's good, odd, and sweet, and that's plenty.
Now reading Jeanette Haien's The All of It: A Novel because it was on some lit list of great short novels and I did the impulse library click and here it is.
Click here for intense kitten cuteness (my beloved is the one that falls off the step in the first few seconds).
Madeline Miller is one of the authors (supposedly) making an appearance at the Brooklyn Book Festival (Sept. 10-17), assuming they ever get around to announcing the events.
I just read a bit of an obscure one, The All of It, which was recommended by somebody or other as a great short novel alongside a few others I've really loved like William Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow. And it didn't disappoint! Lovely story with all the best ingredients: mid-'80s Ireland, a priest and a funeral, complicated love, rainy weather, and fishing—which all come together in a deeply satisfying tale about the forms unexpected good fortune can take. Some really beautiful writing, as well. Recommended to anyone with a soft spot for any of the above; you know who you are.
Now I think I'll read Sigrid Nunez's The Friend, which I keep opening on my iPad and not reading. I've heard mixed reviews, but it's got a big dog in it and I feel like one of those today.
I found The Friend to be really cool to the touch in a way that didn't quite do justice to its subjects—grief, literature, male-female friendship, and the love of a good dog. It seemed more like an exercise than a novel, and all the literary references felt distancing, more like name-dropping, than contextual—I think because there were just too many. This was a good book at heart that tried to be too many things, and they were all important enough things to merit their own focus. There were parts that had some teeth, though I wonder how much of that is personal—Nunez's musings on what an old dog in pain might feel and how much they might communicate that hit hard because I have an old dog whom I know to be in some degree of pain. But ultimately it was a bit dissatisfying, and touched me less than I would have imagined. Still, no regrets for having read it, and I did appreciate sentiments like this:
Your whole house smells of dog, says someone who comes to visit. I say I'll take care of it. Which I do by never inviting that person to visit again.
I think also it's just a matter of the Renate Adleresque tone not doing it for me. It doesn't when Renate Adler does, either.
Now on to Patrick deWitt's newest (yay!), French Exit, and Collaborative Library Design: From Planning to Impact, which I'm reviewing for LJ (and moderating a panel on at our Design Institute in Minneapolis later this month, so I might as well learn something about it).
The All of It has appeal, and your comments remind me I should also finally read William Maxwell.
Here's an interesting quandary: I'm reading for an award, Library Journal's Best Books of 2018, and I'm not sure how much I should really share here. I'm on the short stories team, and am reading some great stuff... but I may have to go dark this fall when it comes to writing about Best Books finalists. Which is kind of aggravating, but on the other hand it's a pretty great aggravating situation to be in. I first turned to literary social media in 2003 when I was an office manager dreaming of a career that involved books, writing, libraries. And really, social media made it happen (with a little boost from getting an MLS)—it taught me how to talk about books, taught me at least some of what I know about reading critically and reviewing (supplemented by print media and working for a journal that ran reviews, so I got to watch the editorial process), and enlarged my literary community enormously. And this is the end result. But at least it's temporary, and I'll have lots to write about once the reading and voting periods are over.
So if you see a little less activity from me here, rest assured I'm reading like a fiend, but playing my cards (pages) a little closer to the vest than usual.
I'm into my third book of stories for Best Books—there's a really cool range, and reading with no other plan than taking the top off the pile (or the virtual pile) makes for some interesting contrast. I'm not reading all the way through for now, but rather the first five or so from each collection, and then I can go back and look at the rest of the ones that feel like they're knocking it out of the park for me. I think I need to step up my pace a bit... problem with reading on the train during my commute, which should allow for ample time, is that if I get a seat I tend to nod off. I keep pretty perilous hours...
I saw what would become the lead story in Josh Weil's The Age of Perpetual Light in One Story a couple of years ago and fell in love, and have been waiting for this collection to come out. And I'm still in love with it—"No Flies, No Folly" is gorgeous and haunting—and I think a bunch of others were very strong as well. Weill's range is impressive, from the dawn of the 20th century to a speculative story set in the nearish future, each one loosely structured around the theme of light. And while I didn't think every one was a mad hit like the first, it was a good collection and definitely worth reading.
Finally finished up my Best Books judging, so I can go back to reading like a normal person. But I'm going to finish up most of the 21 contenders, because I liked almost all of them at least enough to read all the way through. That was a cool project, looking at short fiction collections as whole entities rather than just thinking about which stories I liked—thinking in terms of LPs rather than 45s, if you will. Plus it's neat that this is part of my working life.
First thing I did, though, was finish up Collaborative Library Design: From Planning to Impact for an overdue review. And what a page turner! Well... not exactly, but it was a nice library architecture book, an overview of what it looks like when collaborative design works and why you want to make that happen. Not in my usual wheelhouse, though I do some work in and around library design and architecture awards for work—my trip to Minneapolis was for one of our Design Institute, which was all architects talking about projects and challenges and such. It was a good palate cleanser, though.
Now on to an anthology I'm blurbing for a friend, Fierce: Essays By and About Dauntless Women, which is both timely and really different from a lot of what I've seen lately.
“And what a page turner! Well... not exactly” - made me smile. Curious about the essays too. You have a lot going on...
Anyway, the next step with the award is that the LJ Reviews editor I worked with to choose the books and I will split our ten choices and write blurbs for five each, which will appear in the Best Books feature in our December (I think) issue. Unless she's totally overwhelmed, since in addition to short fiction there were categories for nonfiction, literary and pop fiction, mysteries, horror/sf, art books, and no doubt more, and she's been overseeing the whole shebang. In which case I'll end up writing all the best short fiction blurbs. But fortunately having spent a number of years here and on Goodreads I'm pretty good at little capsule reviews, and I took a lot of notes while reading them. So it won't be hugely labor intensive—just time-consuming. As is, lord knows, everything. Still, the entire feature should be a lot of fun in finished form, and hopefully we'll be giving librarians across the country some good inspiration for what they should be buying across all kinds of genres.
This collection I'm reading, Fierce, is fun—a collection of essays on lesser-known pioneering women throughout history that each blend the biographical account with the essay writers' own histories. And while I'm really played to death on the personal essay format, a lot of these make it work. One thing I need to tactfully broach with my friend, who edited and runs the small press that published it, is whether there's going to be another editorial pass. Because I'm finding a lot of small errors, mostly punctuation and a few word usage/grammar. It's a slippery slope because while I'd like nothing more than to do line edits for the entire book for her—I'm a good editor, and I would punch up the quality a lot—that would be a lot of intensive work and I'd have to charge, since the book is about 350 pages. If she doesn't have another editing pass set up and doesn't offer to retain me for a full read-through, I can point out a few really glaring things, like em-dashes used instead of hyphens in one essay, but I'm going to have to refrain from pointing out everything I think should be addressed. Which is... frustrating. It's hard to read something without my editing hat on, even more so when it's the project of someone I like and want to succeed. I'll check in with her and see where the book stands.
But in the meantime, today I'm doing a few phone interviews and transcribing audio for three articles I'm working on: an indigenous art collective collaborating with the Seattle Public Library, an initiative to make small/rural New Mexico libraries into entrepreneurship hubs, and a collaboration between MIT Press and the MIT Media Lab on a couple of cool new platforms for scholarly publishing. I'm working from home today, which means I didn't have to get up at 5:30 (I have a long commute to my office), so that's a win right there.
And, I’ll have to figure out a way to get that December issue of LJ.
At some point the Best Books coverage will be online, though I'm not sure if it'll be subscriber-only and if so for how long. Though I bet your local library will have a copy!
You can always find the regular old library news here (and now I'll quit shilling for my workplace).
Maybe I just miss having the free time necessary to participate. Not mourn it, exactly—it led directly to the work I'm doing now—but those were fun days.
Thanks for taking a look, Dan. Hopefully you'll find some interesting library news there to make it worth your while.
Today is a rare un-busy day, although we did spend the morning picking five of our six foster kittens up from the spay/neuter van. I finally connected with someone who does official cat rescue, who was able to get me those five slots, and she can also hopefully get whatever kittens we don't adopt out into Bide-a-Wee, one of the most desirable no-kill shelters in NYC. It's funny, this cat rescue world—very mobbed up, and you have to know someone or someone who knows someone to get kitties in the right pipeline. But we got all five neutered, tested (all healthy), and vaxxed for $35 a head, so you can't beat that. And the woman helping me gave me de-fleaing and de-worming meds for all six. She'll also help me trap and spay the mama cat who's been popping out all these babies.
And what of number six, you may ask? Well, I think the term is "failed foster." She's been really bonded to me since she was three or four weeks old, always jumping in my lap and wanting to get loved on, and I just can't see giving her away right now. My husband worked from home yesterday, when her five litter mates were all off getting fixed, and over the course of the day he went to "Well, if you really want to keep her" to "This is the best kitten ever." She's incredibly affectionate, very calm for a kitten with a low startle, and just really into human company. We don't need any more animals, but then again with our house full of seniors it would be fun to have a kitten. So I'll probably send her off to our vet to get fixed and vaxxed—on the pricey side, but since the others were so cheap it'll come out in the wash. It's probably a bad idea to adopt yet another cat, but oh well.
Speaking of seniors, today is the 13th anniversary of adopting our very good dog, Dorrie. She was five months old and painfully cute when we brought her home on Halloween weekend in 2005, and she's a lovely old girl now. She's been a wonderful companion—slowing down some, but still full of joy and good cheer.
Oh right, books.
Recently finished Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah's Friday Black, which I thought was terrific. In troubled times it seems like there's always a directive for creative types—writers, artists, filmmakers, poets—to turn their anger, fear, frustration into meaningful statements. And yeah, easier said than done—particularly, done well. But Friday Black is very much that sort of work for these times, and a really good, unconventional read. Adjei-Brenyah's stories are smart, sharp, often harrowing; about anger, race and racism, consumerism, guilt, culpability, violence and its seductions, and the fierce pull of human decency against all of the dark matter. His voice and style are highly original—nothing here is in any way predictable. And while no catharsis is handed to the reader, there's still a sense of release to reading them, which maybe lies in his intelligent handling of all that complexity. Plus it's just good—rough around the edges in a few places, but a terrific debut, and highly recommended.
Standout stories are "The Finkelstein 5," "Zimmer Land," "Light Spitter," and "Through the Flash," none of them for the faint of heart (but who can afford to be faint of heart these days anyway?). And "The Hospital Where" is a wonderful writer's origin story.
Also Fierce: Essays By and About Dauntless Women, an anthology that a friend of mine who runs a small press put together. These are interesting—a very mixed bag, but a great idea to highlight some of history's unsung game-changing women, and I enjoyed it.
Now reading The Story Prize: 15 Years of Great Short Fiction for review, since apparently I'm not actually done with short stories just yet—or they aren't done with me.
The Story Prize: 15 Years of Great Short Fiction was a neat trip through some great short fiction of the century. So many of the short stories I've been reading lately have been focused on subject matter as much as style, but this is a greatest hits collection that's all about craft, and it was a pleasure to amble through with that in mind. Many of the stories I'd read and was glad to have a chance to revisit and really focus on, like Rick Bass's "How She Remembers It," Adam Johnson's "Nirvana," and Elizabeth McCracken's "Something Amazing," to name three standouts. And some were the first time around for me, and exciting in that sense. Particularly the knockout story, in my opinion (and also I think the longest), Anthony Doerr's "The Memory Wall." That one was a killer—so well plotted, beautifully written, strange and full of wonder.
Official LJ review on deck.
Also finally finished French Exit after a brief but necessary hiatus, and it was wonderful. You need to push the thought that this is a Wes Anderson film in the making right out of your head because there's really a lot more going on, and a lot of it is very lovely and funny, often at the same time. He has a way of getting to his characters by skating over them, then stopping and looking straight down with this simultaneously loving and unpitying eye. Every single inner child here is extremely needy, most likely because every single actual child was extremely neglected, and deWitt gives you the chance to care about that without sentimentalizing any of them. And the ending is marvelous. I will always have an eye peeled for Little Frank now, even if he was last seen in Paris. He's one of my favorite cat characters ever.
Enjoyed your four reviews here which I'm just catching. The Story Prize has a lot of appeal for me. And great little review on French Exit. I'm interested now.
We had a nice 20 hours with our friends, and Dorrie (our dog) had a happy reunion with their dog, who she obviously remembered from five years back, when they lived around the corner. The kittens were doing well when we left, and have since been successfully introduced to their adult cat. So all is good. Now I have two handsome boys that need homes, and we'll keep the little girl we love so much. Which makes five cats for us, but... oh well.
Anyone in the NYC area want two excellent boy kittens? They’re 20 weeks, neutered, vaxxed, FIV/FeLV-, wormed, de-flead, friendly, affectionate, playful, like big dogs, lots of fun. And bored stiff in my spare room. I can deliver within reason. I'd like to adopt them out together if possible, but will consider individual placement too.
Read Warlight last week, which lost significant steam for me partway through, after a major shift in the action. Which is shallow of me, in a way, because the first half is all good drama and dodgy characters, so what's not to like? Whereas the second edges more into think-piece territory, musing on the nature of secrecy and how it frays relationships over time, and what makes a family (with a big overlap between the two). There are some memorable characters, great settings, and beautiful language. But the final effect was one of a vaguely cerebral coolness overlaying everything—which I know is Ondaatje's style, so I don't fault him for that. But it dampened the grit and passion that propelled the story to begin with, and my enthusiasm along with it. Still, a nicely crafted story with some wonderful imagery that will stick in my head.
You are definitely the go-to girl for lots of great new fiction - enjoying your reviews.
Speaking of which, here's that LJ Best Books feature that I helped work on. Click on "Short Stories" for my contribution, but they're all really interesting.
Right now I'm reading two verrry different books: November Road, a fun noir crime thriller that I literally picked up because it was within reach and I had three kittens sitting on me (and also because it happened to be around the anniversary of JFK's assassination, which is the big plot hinge for the book), and The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century because my library hold came in—lots of solid background about naturalists and wildlife preservation so far; the heist of the century presumably to come.
I did find a home for those two handsome boy kittens—they're going up to my friend's sister in Maine, but not until mid-December when he heads up there. So I let them out of their little quarantine room today, in hopes that they won't clash too badly with our four cranky seniors. So far so good—some growling and hissing, but this is a big house and the babies retreated to the upstairs, where they're stretching their legs and having a fine old time. The boys were a bit shy, but the girl, Alice, who we're keeping, strutted around like she owned the place. Which, I guess, she does now.
And then she was very, very tired.
Very cute kitty. I remember when mine was at that cute kitten stage. But then I also remember how she practically ruined my living room pulling her claws up every time she ran over the couch, and I get a little less kitten broody....!
Finished November Road, which was a solidly entertaining noir crime thriller set in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, in a series of easy gulps. Not particularly deep, but a good ride (though I could have done without the epilogue).
I took a trip to San Diego last week, 11 or so hours in the air to read nominations and back issues of the New Yorker and finish The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century, which was a solidly enjoyable piece of narrative nonfiction. To say that it has all the requisite elements sounds like faint praise, but I appreciate when an author does the necessary research to set the scene—especially if there are several topics that converge, as in this one—and then uses just enough of it to scaffold a good story. The fact that Johnson's obsession with solving the last pieces of the crime is never realized is both a little unsatisfying and humanizing; the book may be subtitled "the Natural History Heist of the Century," but this isn't a whodunnit that ties up all the loose ends before the last page, nor does it dig too deeply into the strange subculture of fly-tying. Rather, it's an entertaining yarn—the real fun is in the telling, as I realized when I had a second good time recounting the basic plot points to a friend a few days after reading it.
And that was actually part of a fun component of the trip. After the conference that I was there for, LJ's Directors' Summit, which I helped put together and worked good and hard on while it was going on for two days, my high school best friend who lives out there came and collected me from my hotel. We got grilled fish and shrimp tacos from a Mexican food truck and went to the beach, ate them on a lifeguard stand, took off our shoes and walked in the sand and surf for hours and caught up (we don't see each other near enough, living on opposite coasts) and watched a bunch of HAPPY dogs running in the waves. It was just the nicest afternoon, and a much-needed unwinding—both after the conference and because I need unwinding on a regular basis anyway (and rarely get it). I spent the night at her place, hung out with her and her husband and her two neurotic dogs and bratty parrot, and just had a fine time before shuffling onto the plane yesterday and getting home late last night.
Came home to find our old dog having trouble with the back steps, sigh. There are only five and she can go up them, just not down. And she's bounced back from not being able to do the steps before, so I hold out some hope... but she's also 13-1/2, so it's only some hope. She's had a wonderful long life but she's my darling darling girl and I can't begin to imagine that spark going out. Also: carrying a 55-lb. dog down the stairs is no fun and I'm worried about throwing my back out.
Oh and thanks for saying nice things about the Best Books feature. I still have yet to realize my bucket list goal of having a paid book review in a major outlet, but that's inching closer.
Nominations are. Hope your pup recovers and interesting about The Feathered Thief. I have an attraction to narrative nonfiction (especially on audio) so noting
My library hold on Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution just came in so I guess I'm going to continue this reading theme of natural history nonfiction. This one checks off a lot of my boxes, primarily urban nature and wildlife, plus Darwin/evolution.
The library world's year is going out on a good note, though—some good legislation passed, and a less good bill hasn't made it through the Senate and will probably have to begin its process again with a Democrat-controlled House. The House also just passed the OPEN Government Data Act—actually part of a bigger omnibus bill from that smarmy little shit Paul Ryan, but it's another library win and I'm glad to see it prevail. There hasn't been much on the Hill for this lefty library wonk to rejoice in, but this lame duck Congress has frantically been pushing all sorts of stuff through, some of which makes me happy.
Sorry, that was super wonky. In more user-friendly news, our new little kitten, Alice, is turning out to be a total delight and has us both smitten. Good thing, since she's cat #5. The other night my husband taught her to fetch in about five minutes—she's wicked smart—and while he's gone I'm tasked with making sure she doesn't forget. It's actually a really good thing, because her two brothers went off to their forever home last Monday and she has no one her own age, with her own energy levels, to play with. Nothing like fetching across the large living room 100 times to wear a kitten out, thank goodness.
Can't embed cute kitten video, but here's the link
Finished Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution, a good popular science book that walks the fine line between being extremely accessible but not dumbing down the thesis or the science supporting it. Schilthuizen presents an interesting overview of urban evolution—how plants, insects, birds, and animals have adapted to manmade/urban environments—in an extremely digestible way that doesn't skirt the fact that this is serious business. The tone tends to default a little onto the side of breeziness, focusing on urban fauna and flora's successful adaptations to issues like noise, light, and chemical pollution and the compartmentalization of cities' green areas without digging into the more disastrous and deleterious effects. Then again, this is not that book, of which there are already many. This is, rather, an optimistic—but no less rigorous for that—look at the ways nature (both what we think of as "nature" and the kind touched by human beings) prevails.
Schilthuizen's style is conversational and often very funny, keeping the array of information moving along: why mice in urban pocket parks have developed different DNA; moths whose wing colors changed to provide camouflage on the soot-covered tree trunks of industrial-age England; plants that filter heavy metals; the difference between rural and urban blackbirds, who do in fact sing in the dead of night (to avoid daytime city noises—and that's not the only sly Paul McCartney reference Schilthuizen works in); and the ultimate irony—how the post-Darwin transformation of the Galápagos capital of Santa Cruz into a tourist destination has resulted in enough urban homogenization to slowly reverse the differentiated effects on the bills of "Darwin's" finches, which are what led to its fame to begin with.
Lots to learn here, and it both goes down easily and sticks in the brain—the author presents his information well and usably. Recommended for anyone curious about the subject—and Schilthuizen loves him some citizen scientists, so the book may well achieve his goal of encouraging more folks with general interests to get involved in helping track urban evolution as it marches on.
Now reading Daniel Gumbinder's The Boatbuilder, another library ebook hold that snuck up on me. After this, my goal for my time off is to read something in hardcover that I wouldn't necessarily want to haul around on my daily commute, much of which I stand up for and have to read one-handed. I'm thinking Circe, but we'll see.
I didn't find Schilthuizen's upbeat attitude took too much away from the book—more that it placed the science he was talking about in a particular camp, and you had to be OK with that as a reader (he also acknowledged that he was doing so, so it didn't read like any kind of willful oblivion on his part). And his science was solid, understandable, and interesting.
Ahhhh, my reading vacation has begun and I made quick work of The Boatbuilder—it's a sweet, good-natured novel in which nothing much happens, but I enjoyed the ride very much. It follows a year or so in the life of a feckless but decent young man grappling with an opioid habit and figuring out what his next steps in life are. The protagonist, Berg, is a bit lost, but he's also a good guy whom you sense will be OK, and when his instincts lead him to boat-building and a tight little community as a way to keep himself afloat (zero pun intended, honestly) you can't help but root for him. Ultimately the book is a gentle tribute to the qualities of working with one's hands, learning a craft, talking to your neighbors, and taking your time with what you do. And you can't really argue with that, especially when a book is as nicely written and affable as this one.
Wishing you a healthy, happy, and peaceful new year.
I finished Madeline Miller's Circe in one big gulp yesterday—that'll probably be my last book read of 2018—and it was outstanding. Miller has worked her way inside the Greek myths and legends to flesh out their gods, Titans, mortals, and monsters with not only backstories but motivations, conflicts, inconsistencies, entanglements, nuances, and scars. That's surely the point for anyone who studies classics, but she's done the writer's work as well to give it all a solid armature of plot and narrative arc that's not always there when you get them piecemeal, as most of us have done. And the result is thrilling, honestly. Miller is a strong writer, and—just as important when working with this kind of deep historical material—she has an excellent ear, so not a word rings false. From the book's opening pages the witch Circe is a character to wonder and care about—a believable and fascinating anti/heroine. I loved every word.
There are also some interesting meditations here on mortality and fate, both of which are often on my mind these days. The last page and a half was as moving as anything I've read in a long time.
Also in awe of the book's insane crossover power. Circe is for lovers of literary fiction and historical fiction, book clubs, scholars, your aunt, your teenager, your best friend. This was a great book to wind up a good reading year.
(There are some neat images of Circe on Miller's blog.)
Feeling like an atmospherically wintery book for these last few days of the year, even though we've been spared any snow that stuck so far, so I'm reading Ways to Hide in Winter. No particular plans for New Year's Eve, since my husband is on his way out to Albuquerque to see his sister and nephews and great-niece (and someone's gotta stay with the old dog—plus I'm headed back to work on Wednesday), so I figure that'll be a good time to catch up on a little letter-writing and read: finishing up as I intend to go on.
Happy New Year, everyone! May this one be good, fun, joyful, satisfying, adventurous, or restful in whatever proportions works for you.
I also hope the weather doesn't interfere with the arrival of my own copy of Circe, which was one of my Christmas presents to myself this year. :)
>118 bragan: Yep, he says it's snowing like crazy and the streets are all icy and they're totally unprepared for it. He doesn't leave until Thursday, so hopefully it'll be cleared up by then. Meanwhile, today was practically balmy in New York, in the 50s until the sun went down.
>119 dchaikin: >120 tonikat: I honestly can't think of anyone I know whom I wouldn't recommend this book to. It's not challenging, or experimental, or super esoteric, but you can see that Miller did a lot of intellectual work behind it to make it so smooth and smart. I haven't shelved it yet, as I usually do with books I've finished, because I keep rereading the last part, in a sort of meditative way... something in there really resonates for me and my attempts to find more equilibrium when everything feels like it's on fire.
Anyway, goodbye and good riddance to 2018—although thinking that makes me superstitiously nervous... 2019 could turn out to be a lot worse. But for now I'm going to just sail forth. Although I have a cold or something—I never get sick—just in time to go back to work after a much-needed week and a half off, so that won't be much fun. Drinking lots of water, popping zinc, and I'm going to be in bed by 9:30.
I'll open up a new thread for 2019 as soon as I have something to post. It was a good reading year. I don't like keeping count—reading for numbers feels like notches on a bedpost to me—but I feel like it was pretty wide-ranging and interesting. In 2019 I'd like to read more books in translation and more backlist stuff that has been sitting on my shelf, but otherwise I intend to go on basically as I have.
Happy New Year to you all! It's been fun getting to know you, and I look forward to more reading.