2018 Classics Challenge, What Shannon Read

my fave books of 2018, plus geeky stats

Happy New Year! May 2019 bring you lots of fun and good books.

1I finished 2018 strong with 58 books total. The year started off with some heavy Tolkein as I re-read The Lord of the Rings, which was a really fun project to kick off the year. We usually watch the movies around the holidays, probably because we’re trained from their original debuts around Christmas time in the early aughts. So, I of course wanted to follow up with a re-read of the books.

After that, the classics challenge hit me hard (see below), I delved into myriad memoirs, and the year of reading kind of sped by. Below is a recap of all the fun, including geeky stats, which I thoroughly enjoyed writing up.

2018 Book Stats

spending-money-on-books1Female authors: 39
Male authors: 16
Author totals do not add up to the total number of books read as I read more than one book by some authors.
Fiction: 25
Non-fiction: 
33
Non-white authors: 4
Ick. I need to work on that in 2019.
E-books: 14
Made great use of my kindle this year and the hits to my debit card showed it. I spent $285.87 on ebooks. Most were not available at my library and some I just wanted to own. I didn’t finish or read them all, which is why the dollar amount is high but the # read is only 14. In addition, I downloaded several free classics.
Audio books: 5
I don’t have a long commute anymore, so my numbers in this category dwindled, but I particularly enjoyed Paris in Love by Eloisa James; Recovery: Freedom from Our Addictions by Russell Brand; and The Clothes Make the Girl (Look Fat)? Adventures and Agonies in Fashion by Brittany Gibbons.
Re-reads: 6

Top categories:

12 memoirs

memoirsI guess I just can’t get enough memoirs. From the time I started reading them in college more than 15 years ago, I’ve found memoirs to be one of the best ways to peek into the lives, thoughts, and motivations of other people. I am clearly inherently nosy. Here are the memoirs I read this year:
The Only Girl in the World by Maude Julien
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanthi
The Year of Less: How I Stopped Shopping, Gave Away My Belongings, and Discovered Life Is Worth More Than Anything You Can Buy in a Store by Cait Flanders
Giving Up the Ghost: A Story About Friendship, 80s Rock, a Lost Scrap of Paper, and What It Means to Be Haunted by Eric Nuzum
Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things that Matter by Diana Athill
Paris in Love by Eloisa James
Yoga Bitch: One Woman’s Quest to Conquer Skepticism, Cynicism, and Cigarettes on the Path to Enlightenment by Suzanne Morrison (a re-read)
Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed (another re-read)
Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs
Ruthless River: Love and Survival by Raft on the Amazon’s Relentless Madre de Dios by Holly Conklin FitzGerald
The Clothes Make the Girl (Look Fat)?: Adventures and Agonies in Fashion by Brittany Gibbons

6 classics

The best laid plans…I started off strong with the 2018 classics challenge and, sadly, did not complete it. But I’m not fussed. I mean, I read Middlemarch, for goodness’ sake. That was a big deal. Did I read a book in each category of the challenge? No. I’ve been trying to finish Madame Bovary since, like, July. Did I read more classics than I otherwise would have? Absolutely. And I really enjoyed those I did read. So I’ll probably sign up for the 2019 challenge with hopes of the same.

Classics read included:
The Lord of the Rings series
Middlemarch by George Eliot
Evelina: Or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World by Frances Burney
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

6 fell into the category of social issues

Just Like Family: Inside the Lives of Nannies, the Parents They Work for, and the Children They Love
All You Need to Be Impossibly French: A Witty Investigation into the Lives, Lusts, and Little Secrets of French Women
How to Be Parisian Wherever You Are: Love, Style, and Bad Habits by Anne Berest
Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx by Adrian nicole LeBlanc
This was one of my favorite reads of the year.
Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America
The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence by Gavin de Becker
Another favorite which both creeped me out and was incredibly informative.

5 books of essays

I balked at the idea of reading more essays when one of my fave bloggers started an essay project for the year, but this category turned up some of my favorite reads of the year! They include The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby, In Praise of Messy Lives by Katie Roiphe, Walking by Henry David Thoreau, and Upstream by Mary Oliver.

4 each of historical fiction, self-help, mystery/thrillers

I meant to read more historical fiction this year and kind of failed. Maybe in 2019. My favorite was I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé.

Other Categories

Shortest book read: Walking by Henry David Thoreau

Longest book read: Middlemarch

Re-reads: 6
That is more than I usually re-read in a year. But I gave myself permission to just delve into whatever I wanted and it turns out I wanted to re-read the following:
The Lord of the Rings series
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Attachments by Rainbow Rowell
Yoga Bitch by Suzanne Morrison
Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Favorite Books of the Year

There are a lot, which is a good sign. Looking over my spreadsheet and recalling all my favorites was so fun (yeah, I have a spreadsheet; get on my level).

The Lord of the Rings series
Bad Marie by Marcy Demansky
Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin (I read this and then watched the movie – so fun!)
The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimano
Just Like Family: Inside the Lives of Nannies, the Parents They Work for, and the Children They Love by Tasha Blaine
Sweet Lamb of Heaven by Lydia Millet
The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons
All the essays mentioned above
Paris in Love by Eloisa James
Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
Pleasures of the Cottage Garden by Rand B. Lee
The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Beck
Recovery: Freedom from Our Addictions by Russell Brand (I recommend listening to the audio book; it’s a delight!)
How to Read a Dress: A guide to Changing Fashion from the 16th Century to the 20th Century

My Least Favorite Books of the Year

Given my policy on not finishing books I don’t like, I was surprised that I stuck with a few duds this year:
Giving Up the Ghost: A Story About Friendship, 80s Rock, a Lost Scrap of Paper, and What It Means to Be Haunted by Eric Nuzum
The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey
The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molloy

My opinions only, obviously. This isn’t a comment on the quality of the work.

Books that fell in the middle somewhere

Heather, the Totality by Matthew Weiner
The Grip of It by Jac Jemc
The BTK Murders: Inside the “Bind Torture Kill” Case that Terrified America’s Heartland by Carlton Smith
Yellow Crocus by Laila Ibrahim
Masters of the Planet: The Search for our Human Origins by Ian Tattersall
The Wife by Meg Wolitzer
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

2019 Goals

15 books by people of color because 4 in 2018 is just abysmal
2019 Classics Challenge
Find a series I like

So, what’s your first book of 2019? I’m kicking off with a Mary Kubica thrillery thing and some decorating books because why not.

Would love to see what you’re reading!

Standard
Fiction, What Shannon Read

The Wife

3942551I must say, I thoroughly enjoyed The Wife by Meg Wolitzer. If you are a wife or, more likely, if you were a wife and are now divorced, I imagine there are some themes here that will pique your interest. 

The novel’s narrator Joan Castleman is the wife of a literary giant, Joe Castleman. The couple’s lives revolve around Joe’s incredibly successful writing career and, as the book starts, they’re on their way to Helsinki so he can receive one of the world’s most prestigious awards for literature. 

Joan spends some time in the present, using the couple’s trip as a springboard for flashbacks on their history. She tells us how they fell in love in the first place (he was married, she was his student), about Joe’s struggles to become the preeminent novelist he is today, and about the experience of raising their three children. 

Along the way, we see how their relationship became what it is. We get all the resentments and struggles, which may sound tedious as I’m describing them, but I thought the book moved along at a great pace. I didn’t get bored with the background story as I often do. The story itself is interesting and Joan has a great dry tone that made me like her immediately. 

What fascinates me most about Joan is that she makes a big choice as a young woman that sets the stage for the rest of her life. We see her at that crossroads. She’s running away with her married professor and commits, with only slight hesitation, to being his wife, yes, but also his secretary, his sounding board, his bosom companion, and his number one supporter. She lives for him, essentially making his literary career possible. 

Also, the writing is fantastic. 

“Everyone needs a wife; even wives need wives. Wives tend, they hover. Their ears are twin sensitive instruments, satellites picking up the slightest scrape of dissatisfaction. Wives bring broth, we bring paper clips, we bring ourselves and our pliant, warm bodies. We know just what to say to the men who for some reason have a great deal of trouble taking consistent care of themselves or anyone else. ‘Listen,’ we say. ‘Everything will be okay.’ And then, as if our lives depend on it, we make sure it is.”

All this builds up to a big reveal, which you may have guessed by now. And then, there is a very final ending, which I thought was rather uninteresting, just too easy an out. You’ll know what I mean if you read it.   

A warning: If you have any overarching anger surrounding men in high places, this novel could fuel your fire. But I recommend it anyway. 

Standard
Fiction, What Shannon Read

The Perfect Mother was meh

35887193I finished The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molloy last week. I love a good kidnapping (not in real life, you know what I mean) and enjoy well-written thrillers, so this seemed like a good fit. I found Molloy to be a competent writer, but otherwise wasn’t too enamored.

The story centers on the May Mothers, a group of women living in NYC who gave birth in the same month and joined an online forum. They meet up in person to, you know, trade mom secrets and stories and try to one up each other as is usual in mom groups (I’ve found).

That’s one of the things that drew me to the book. I love the cattiness of the typical mom group. And I knew there’d be some in a thriller that focuses on motherhood.

One member of the group is a gorgeous woman, Winnie, the only single mother in the group. Because she seems to be suffering from the baby blues, the May Mothers organize a moms night out, providing Winnie with a babysitter, and meet up at a local bar for some fun.

Except that Winnie spends most of the evening looking at the baby monitor app on her phone. Her friend Nell surreptitiously deletes it in order to encourage Winnie to let go. Drinks are had. And, inevitably, the night ends in disaster when Winnie goes home to discover her baby is missing.

Here’s how Goodreads describes the rest of the book:

Though none of the other members in the group are close to the reserved Winnie, three of them will go to increasingly risky lengths to help her find her son. And as the police bungle the investigation and the media begin to scrutinize the mothers in the days that follow, damaging secrets are exposed, marriages are tested, and friendships are formed and fractured. 

Sounds juicy, right? But I found the book to be completely disjointed as it switches from mother to mother, changing perspective, revealing some complicated drama in each mother’s home life, but never giving a thorough examination of any.

SPOILER ALERT

The baby is found and it turns out it’s one of the May Mothers, Scarlett, who we don’t really get much background on until the end. So it feels a bit untidy as an ending.

In my opinion, this wasn’t much of a thriller. The best parts of the book, for me, were the glimpses into early motherhood and how the four or so main characters were handling it. I’d honestly read a book like that without the thriller elements and be OK with it.

Standard
Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Upstream by Mary Oliver

UpstreamWhat would we do without Mary Oliver? Honestly. Her words, whether prose or poetry, speak to me, like, on a deep level, man.

And that’s how poetic I’m feeling today. 😉 I know she’s one of the more accessible poets out there right now and so some feel her poetry isn’t, I don’t know, as high-brow as some others’. But who the hell cares?

Anyway, I picked up her recent collection of essays, Upstream, from the library and was totally delighted, though not surprised, to find myself at turns reading at break-neck pace, then turning back to previous pages to re-read, then slapping the book down on the mattress to repose in some combination of awe and I don’t know what else… Mary Oliver does this to me. I’m sure you have writers that get you straight in the feels too. I’m struck. I read a passage like the one below and I feel stricken. With, I guess, awe and some feeling of being heard, or included, or just the feeling that the words on the page somehow reflect me or understand me…

“Sometimes the desire to be lost again, as long ago, comes over me like a vapor. With growth into adulthood, responsibilities claimed me, so many heavy coats. I didn’t choose them, I don’t fault them, but it took time to reject them. Now in the spring I kneel, I put my face into the packets of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness. Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity. May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful. May I stay forever in the stream. May I look down upon the windflower and the bull thistle and the coreopsis with the greatest respect.”

IMG_20180822_172539708_HDR

Just a recent view of the river on my walk home from work. You’d never know that this is one of the most urban sections of my walk.

I ask you.

The book is heavy with imagery, especially in the beginning, where each paragraph almost seemed to me like its own poem. Like so:

Sometimes the desire to be lost again, as long ago, comes over me like a vapor. With growth into adulthood, responsibilities claimed me, so many heavy coats. I didn’t choose them, I don’t fault them, but it took time to reject them. Now in the spring I kneel, I put my face into the packets of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness. Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity. May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful. May I stay forever in the stream. May I look down upon the windflower and the bull thistle and the coreopsis with the greatest respect.

I generally prefer a quick pace when I’m reading but Mary Oliver is one of the few writers whose work demands that I slow down, dammit. This book definitely follows my current theme—I’ve been reading so many things lately that remind me to pay attention.  I’m doing my best to answer the call.

There are also sections of the book that are guided by narrative, including a tale about happening upon the breeding ground of snapping turtles, the ending of which totally surprised me. I won’t say any more.

Oliver also includes several reflections on those she calls “mentors,” writers who’ve gone before, who’ve paved the way. They include Emerson, Whitman, and Poe, all of whom get a brief bio and so  I learned something new about literary titans I’ve not paid much attention to as they’re not required reading for adults – did you know there’s no required reading for adults? You can, like, read whatever you want whenever you want. Honestly, that’s one of the great joys of my grown-ass life.

This was a long, meandering post, but I think Oliver would be OK with that. I’ll leave you with this gut punch about poetry:

“But first and foremost, I learned from Whitman that the poem is a temple—or a green field—a place to enter, and in which to feel. Only in a secondary way is it an intellectual thing—an artifact, a moment of seemly and robust wordiness—wonderful as that part of it is. I learned that the poem was made not just to exist, but to speak—to be company.”

Standard
Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Big Surprise: Steve Jobs was a Jerk to His Daughter

39218044In case you were wondering whether Steve Jobs was a jerk to the people in his family as well as his colleagues, um, yes. The answer is yes.

I have no real interest in Jobs himself or the tech industry as a whole, honestly, but I do love a good memoir and this one, Small Fry, was written by Jobs’ daughter Lisa Brennan-Jobs and gives us a window into the infamous personality of Steve Jobs.

I am personally having feelings about people in positions of power (whether they’re the heads of companies or, you know, countries) who are jerks:
-Why do we put jerks in charge? (Even jerks who are super smart…)
-Why do we let some people act like jerks and not others?
-Why must we suffer the terrible personalities of some people in charge when we could put other, more capable, and more thoughtful people in charge?

I guess I’m a bit world-weary right now. But all that is to say that I really wanted the dirt on Jobs and his personal interactions. I mean, we’ve heard he was a jerk to people he worked with, but what about his family?

A capable writer, Brennan-Jobs details her early life with her mother, artist Chrisann Brennan, and father Steve. She mostly lives with her mother, growing up in the Bay area in and around Silicon Valley, and paints a picture of a young girl very much relying on her parents to tell her who she is, if that makes sense, in the way that we all do. Except that her father is somewhat famous. Certainly everyone knows him in Silicon Valley. So, much of the story is centered on whether Jobs was, at any given moment, acknowledging her as his daughter.

And, all in all, I got the sense that he was kind of a tyrant. Mercurial, irrational, needy, overly generous one moment and painfully withholding the next. A narcissist with boundary issues. Unfortunately, he was most miserly with his love. Brennan-Jobs’ portrayal reminded me of all the books I’ve read about Henry VIII.

Back to my above questions: why do we let some people act the way they do? If it’s because we think we have to let geniuses act like jerks in order to be geniuses, well, that’s a bummer.  And I’m not implying that Lisa could have ousted her father in some way. She was just a child. But I am really just interested in the power dynamics at play in her life. Her mother often depends on him for financial support. Jobs’ wife (Lisa’s step mother) certainly depends on him and she and his other love interests enable his bad behavior in order to curry favor on their own behalf. But what if we stopped catering to jerks? What if these women had stood up to him more often? What if Lisa’s mom had sued for child support (before the state did that on her behalf)?

Of course, maybe that’s un-feminist of me. Maybe these women didn’t feel like they could stand up for themselves?

This is the passage that most explains what I’m driving at:

“When people speak and write about my father’s meanness, they sometimes assume that meanness is linked to genius. That to have one is to get closer to the other. But the way I saw him create was the best part of him: sensitive, collaborative, fun. The friends he worked with got to see this more than I did. Maybe the meanness protected the part that created—so that acting mean to approximate genius is as foolish as trying to be successful by copying his lisp or his walk or the way he turned around and wagged his hands around his back and moaned to pretend he was making out.”

So, I guess, anyone out there acting like a tyrant and posturing that they are, let’s say, a very stable genius, come off it. I have much more respect for people who are confident, kind, self-aware leaders. And I love it when narcissistic jerks get put in their place. We need to do more of that.

This post got messy, but hopefully something about my point came across. Anyway, if you just like reading well-written memoirs and don’t give a fig for Steve Jobs, I’d still recommend this one. Lisa Brennan-Jobs is a talented writer.

 

Standard
Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Walking

Walking_ThoreauLet’s get real for a minute.

Lately I find I’m reading books that give me permission to be the person I want to be.

Does that make sense?

For example, Diana Athill’s Alive, Alive Oh!, which reassured me that looking was a thing. Yes, of course! Looking. I do this all the time. I cherish the experience. But I needed Athill to name it for me and therefore grant me permission to spend time on it. Isn’t it wonderful when someone reassures you that spending time doing things that achieve nothing is OK? I need that, like, all the time.

Last week, it was Walking by Henry David Thoreau, a pre-Walden lecture he once delivered, which was then published in the Atlantic (you can read the whole thing here).

In it Thoreau lauds the virtues of setting one’s feet out the door and discovering new places, while also giving curmudgeonly voice to his concern at the disappearance of wild territory. Meaning, if we’re not good stewards, there won’t be anything wild left to discover.

River

Some wildflowers along the shore of the river. I couldn’t ask for a prettier commute.

On a personal level, I empathized with his need to get out into the natural world. Being in nature affects me on all levels of my being. Even something so simple as a walk through the woods seems to change my brain chemistry for the better. I’m sure there’s some science behind that, but I also just feel it to be true, so that’s enough for me.

Now that it’s not such a swamp in Northern Indiana, I’ve been walking home from work more often and it’s such a joy. I get to totally decompress. I listen to audiobooks. And I just go as slowly as I please and notice all the trees and gardens in people’s yards on the way. It’s cultivated land (which Thoreau does not approve of) and I cross over a polluted river, but you know, I’ll take what I can get on a weeknight.

So, looking and walking. Two simple pleasures that make a world of difference in my point of view and mental state. Thanks, books.

Standard
Fiction, What Shannon Read

In which I am annoyed by a book review

MyYearofRestandRelaxationWelp, after a four-month hiatus, here I am again. If anyone is reading, sorry about that.

And sorry for being sorry. Any time I visit a blog I haven’t read before and see that the most recent post contains an apology for lack of posts, I judge the writer as unreliable and pretty much never visit their blog again.

I truly hope there are more forgiving people out there than me.

Anywho, I’m back to say that I was appalled to read a NYRB book reivew by none other than the famous Joyce Carol Oates that was LARGELY SUMMARY. Well, summary supported by quotes.

Aren’t we all taught in third grade that in a book report you do not just summarize? No, nine-year-olds of America are required by their teachers to express original (if not unique or interesting) thoughts on what they have read.

JCO’s book review didn’t cut the mustard for either a book report or a review and I think I’m mostly annoyed because I just finished and loved the book she reviewed: My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh.

The title of the book, while not entirely misleading, somewhat belies the drama and struggle within. In fact, when I heard that the author of the disturbing Eileen had a new book out, I was interested, but then I saw the title and passed it up. My thinking was, if the main character is resting and relaxing, where’s the drama? What’s in it for me as a reader?

Turns out, plenty. In truth, the unnamed narrator’s year of rest and relaxation is a drug-fueled attempt at blotting out her own consciousness. Which she seeks to escape for a number of reasons, including a pervading/overwhelming ennui that I can honestly really empathize with. Other issues in her life include the recent deaths of her parents and a shitty on-and-off boyfriend, Trevor. The plot line I most enjoyed is her antagonistic relationship with her so-called best friend Reva. There’re a lot of sardonic moments like this one:

“I took a Polaroid of [Reva] one night and stuck it into the frame of the mirror in the living room. Reva thought it was a loving gesture, but the photo was really meant as a reminder of how little I enjoyed her company if I felt like calling her later while I was under the influence.”

LOL. That’s cold.

Several of the reviews of MYoRaR on Goodreads talk about how much the reviewer disliked the main character and how selfish she is. But I liked her. I got her ennui. I got that she was tired of the world such as it is. I could see why she was acting selfishly and I could even appreciate the dynamics in her relationship with Reva that led her to be straight up mean to her best friend. (I should add that there are redeeming moments for her, including attending Reva’s mother’s funeral because Reva wants her there.)

The narrator is a little bit spoiled brat and a little bit truth-teller. She’s honest enough to say what she wants and be who she wants and deal with her shit the way she feels best, even if that is via narcotic-induced stupor.

Also, in addition to empathizing with her feelings about life/the world, I think I’m less hard on her than the Goodreads reviewers because, in the end, she ventures back into the world. She doesn’t give up completely. She simply needed time to press the reset button. I can understand that. Though, does that say something about how I am willing to overlook misbehavior as long as one doesn’t give up on becoming a functional member of society? If she had, say, committed suicide in the end, would I have been less understanding and harder on her for giving up? I have a feeling that I would have been disappointed.

And speaking of being less judgmental, I’ll give Joyce Carol Oates a break here too. I can understand that JCO was probably on deadline with the Review and is probably also working on her next novel and probably also editing like 20 new short story compendiums. Sometimes, one only has the brain space for summary. Ask my third grade teacher.

Standard