I Finished A Few Books

Since I last wrote I made a bit of progress on my yearly reading challenge and finished a few titles. One by a new favorite author, one I picked up on a whim and one for book club. As the summer wears on (and on and on…) I am getting back into a reading routine and have created time for myself in the evenings to sit down with a book and not feel guilty for taking the time to indulge in my favorite occupation. I think my new job helps. Looking at oodles and oodles of forthcoming titles every day definitely stokes my interest in reading!

Foster by Claire Keegan – Last year I read Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan and, along with many other readers, loved it. (It was my last 5 star read on Goodreads.) I have a great admiration for writers who can tell a complex story using spare prose. It takes such skill to do it well and Keegan does. In Foster, we follow a young, poor girl as she is sent out to live with a distant relation over the summer. The differences between her household and her temporary home are subtly portrayed and the love and care her foster parents provide is transformative. A somewhat ambiguous ending gives it a hazy quality that I liked.

Vladimir by Julia May Jonas – I’d heard a lot about this book when it released in the spring but wasn’t too keen on reading it – until I was desperate one night and it was available for me to download immediately from our digital library. A middle-aged English professor at a small college in upstate New York becomes obsessed with a young, sexy novelist at the same time her fellow professor husband is suspended for having relationships with students. Timely, bitchy, with lots of black humor I really enjoyed this though it has a bizarre conclusion.

The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller – I am still hosting a virtual book club for the library and The Paper Palace was our July title up for discussion. A hugely popular best seller last summer, I was looking forward to reading something beachy, light and easy to fly through. I was sadly disappointed! This is one heavy beach read. Parental neglect, child abuse and rape, incest, a dreary love triangle and justified illegal acts – it’s all here and it is tough going. Cowley Heller is a good writer, her dialogue is snappy and funny and I really liked the structure of the book, however it was quite hard to read at times. It’s a very different type of book, but it did remind me of Where the Crawdads Sing all through my reading – lots of the same themes but also that mystique that makes some books compellingly readable despite the subject matter.

Currently : I started a galley of The Marriage Portrait, the new novel by Maggie O’Farrell. I am sad to say that it has been a slog for me. I really liked Hamnet but this new one doesn’t hold up as well and needs to move a bit faster. I’ll probably return to it, but setting aside for now while I read….

The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg

The Whalebone Theatre by Joanna Quinn

The Palace Papers by Tina Brown

I’m also going to resurrect the ABC Reading Project I developed last year so look for future posts featuring books from my own shelves.

How is your week going? Reading anything good?

Where Has the Time Gone?

Apple blossom in Cheshire

It’s been nearly a year since I last posted and I feel like nothing has changed yet so much has changed. Days after that post in August a building next door to my library exploded (due to a gas leak) and damaged the foundation, roof and walls of the library. We closed to the public for the next six months and I was sent to work at our main branch – to where I was permanently reassigned so I never returned to my old library. And now I’m working on the collection development team, selecting most of our new print and digital items. It’s a wonderful change and I love what I’m doing, but it hasn’t been without stress, conflict and sadness.

The past six months have also brought the death of two friends from cancer, one of whom I was visiting in Manchester when she went into the hospital. I’m so incredibly grateful that I was able to spend a couple of good weeks with her before she became so ill, but I’m devastated by her death and will miss her terribly.

Reading has not been a priority lately and I’ve read less in the first half of this year than in probably my entire adult life. I have the desire, I just do not have the concentration. I’m hopeful the next six months will see a return to my usual joyful reading life but I’m taking it slowly and am not forcing it.

Hoping anyone reading this is having a better book journey than I am this year and that this finds you healthy, happy and flourishing.

The ABC Reading Project

Last month one of my library book clubs read The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald and it went over really well. We had a very fulfilling discussion and all the members expressed interest in reading more of Fitzgerald’s work. When I mentioned to the group that the library only owned one other of her novels (Offshore) but that I owned them all and they were welcome to borrow them, they asked which was my favorite. I said, “Well, I’ve only read The Bookshop so far.” They got puzzled looks on their faces and there was silence. Then one of the members asked, “Why do you own books that you haven’t read?” Good question!

They would probably be appalled to learn just how many books I have that are unread, that have been sitting on the shelves for years, trapping desert dust and cat hair between the pages.

That evening when I got home I walked in the door with new eyes – noticing the untidy, neglected book shelves and the piles and piles of books scattered around the house. Books I hardly ever think about or consider cracking open. I thought of the money spent on items that are really not serving me well while they remain unread. Of course, like all bookish people I do enjoy collecting books for the sake of collecting – I love pretty spines lined up on my shelves and vintage covers displayed face out. But it is getting to the point where I need to purge and I need to let titles go if I’m not going to read them, not only for space considerations but for my peace of mind as well.

So, over the weekend I devised a plan. I think it would be fun to read my books in alphabetical order by title. I will go through the alphabet reading one book from each letter until I get to Z – and then I will start all over again. I have already put all my shelves, fiction and nonfiction, in alphabetical order and am ready to begin. How is this going to help me? If I start a book and don’t like it I will need to make a decision – keep for another time (sometimes we’re just not in the mood for a particular book) or donate. I don’t want to keep things on my shelves that I will never, ever read. That is silly. And when I finish a book I will also need to decide – keep or donate? I have also decided not to purchase any books until December. My shelves – and my wallet- need a bit of a break!

I’m really feeling excitement over this new project! I’ll still read contemporary fiction from the library, but I am going to make a true effort to read more from my own shelves. I hope you will follow along and see what I read, what I keep and what I donate.

Do you also have a habit of collecting books you don’t read?

Happy All the Time by Laurie Colwin

I have heard people talk of Laurie Colwin for years, but mostly about her food writing. Her book of food essays, Home Cooking, is a beloved title among many foodies and readers (Nigella Lawson is a fan). I was vaguely aware that she wrote novels, too, and when I saw this book at a second-hand bookshop in Texas last October I added it to the stack and resolved to try her writing. And I’m so glad I did! I really enjoyed this very quirky, funny novel about two cousins, Guido and Vincent, and their search for love and contentment. Both their characters are very well-drawn as are those of the women they end up marrying. The writing, the plot and the characters are all just delightful, charming and, yes, cozy. I have not read anyone quite like Colwin before, but I think if you like Barbara Pym you would probably like the understated humor here and the true pleasure she takes in writing about domestic affairs. I am looking forward to reading more of her books soon and was really pleased to see that they will all be re-issued this year.

In other news, my garden has not quite lived up to my expectations! Nearly all my sweet peas died except for one pot that is still thriving (though I’m not sure for how long as it has suddenly become very hot here). I do have some sunflowers sprouting and I know they usually can survive our hellish summers so I have lots of hope for them. I am also planning to sow zinnias and cosmos which can sometimes survive the heat. If anything exciting happens (such as actually getting blossoms) I will be sure to share.

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Last Spring when everything closed down and we were all staying home I jumped on the Middlemarch bandwagon and started reading along with thousands of other people. I made good progress through April and May, but when my library reopened in mid-May I didn’t have as much time to read and stopped for a bit. Then we closed again in July and I was able to read big chunks of this Victorian classic while sitting at the curbside pickup desk waiting for patrons to pick up their holds. But as summer progressed I lost my momentum, though I only had 200 pages to go. I so much wanted to finish before the year ended but it didn’t happen. So, last weekend when I was feeling a bit under the weather I decided to complete the last 200 pages and finally check Middlemarch off my 15 year long “want to read” list.

And did I like it? Yes, very much! Like many readers, I felt an instant kinship with Dorothea Brooke and was most interested in her storyline. Yet, I did find the story of Lydgate and Rosamond to be such a fascinating insight into an incompatible and unsuccessful marriage. And, of course, I wanted to find out if Fred Vincy and Mary Garth would end up together. I love how all of their paths cross as they are engaged in their own pursuits – as they would in a real town.

I don’t have much to say beyond how much I enjoyed it because I think it is a book that is so full of wisdom and layers of meaning that I would need a re-read to absorb it all. But I will not be re-reading it soon! I am just so very happy to have crossed it off my list, though that is an unsatisfactory way of describing how I felt when I turned the last page. It is a simply wonderful book and one that will stay with me throughout my life.

Have you read Middlemarch? Is there another book you were so happy to have finally read?

Reading Goals for 2021

Hi everyone! How has 2021 shaped up for you so far? It seems much like a repeat of 2020, but there are definitely positive signs that our future is looking more hopeful, don’t you think?

I ended December not completely satisfied with my reading year. There were a lot months where not much reading was done. Or where I read books that didn’t really align with my mood and whim. But I think many of us felt out of sorts last year (understandably!) so I have decided to shake it off and try for something more fulfilling in 2021.

At the beginning of January, I pondered exactly what I would like out of my reading life in the new year. Ideally, I would love to read whatever I feel like reading and read entirely by whim, but I don’t think that will happen until I retire from librarianship. However, I have never been able to create a comfortable balance between reading for my job and reading for my life. For some librarians, they are one and the same. But it’s never been the case for me because I do prefer reading classics more than I do contemporary books and I also enjoy reading British authors who don’t have much of an audience in a suburban Arizona library.

So, what to do, what to do? I have ultimately decided that life is short and I want to read my favorite things now – not wait until I don’t have work obligations any longer. Over the past 4 years I have had a series of health troubles that seem to be continuing this year and who knows what the future will bring. At the end of the day I would rather have been loyal to my own passions and pleasures than to my job. And, really, I can be a good librarian without personally reading all of the hot, buzzy titles that seem to come and go with every new season. Also, just to be clear, I am the only one putting this pressure on myself – my boss and colleagues don’t think I am shirking my duties by not reading every single trendy book out there. It is purely self-generated guilt and obligation.

Those of you who have been reading here for a while now (if anyone is still out there!) know this conflict has been a theme for me for many years. But I am finally ready to let it go and lose all the guilt about reading what I want to read. So here are my goals for 2021:

  1. Read what I want
  2. Read from my own shelves
  3. Don’t read as many galleys (mainly because I love books in print format so much better than digital books)
  4. No guilt, no guilt, no guilt
  5. Read some (not all) of the popular fiction in my library
  6. Be happy with my reading life and my choices

I know I might struggle for a while ( I already have) with the thought that I need to read every book that receives a starred review in the professional journals, but my aim is to let that all go this year. I need to read for me.

Did you set any reading goals for the year?

Also – I do want to blog more often this year (something you’ve also heard before, haha) and share some of my gardening successes with you all. If I have any. I am learning just how difficult it is to grow things in pots in the desert!

Happy 2021!

Help the Bronte Parsonage

Like many museums and cultural centers, the Bronte Parsonage Museum has taken a financial hit while closed due to covid. There is some fear that they will not be able to continue operating beyond this year. That would be such a tragedy. I really enjoyed my visit to the museum in May 2019 – it was a highlight of my trip to England. Being in the very place where the Bronte sisters wrote and lived was inspiring and illuminating (who knew it was so small!) and I would have visited again in April if my trip hadn’t been cancelled.

In an effort to raise funds the museum is currently taking donations, which you can read about here. A group of scholars have also organized a one day virtual event called Bronte2020 which will have some fabulous Zoom talks and panels, including a conversation with Sally Wainwright, creator of the excellent Bronte biopic To Walk Invisible. All proceeds from registrations will go directly to the museum.

The event is this Friday, September 4, and you can register at the Bronte Parsonage Museum site. I have taken the day off from work and plan to attend as many of the events as I can, though they start at 1:45 am Arizona time!

Please consider donating to the museum or registering for the Bronte2020 event. Let’s keep the Bronte Parsonage Museum open!

Do You Reread?

Hello everyone! I hope you’ve been well during this unsettling and strangely consistent madness. I’ve been hit with low-grade loneliness and boredom, but am otherwise fine. I am still working at the library. We did shut down for two months back in the spring, but we have been open in some form since mid May. Currently, we are open for hold pickups and 45 minute appointment blocks for patrons who need to use the computers, fax, scan or study at a table. This set up is working quite well and I’ve heard it might continue through September, but we never know for sure (which has been one of the hardest parts of working through a pandemic).

Has your reading been affected by Covid? Mine certainly has. I have read more than I thought I would, but not as much as I could have. As we enter into our sixth month of the pandemic I am really craving good books and that has meant returning to reads I have already visited – and know I am guaranteed to like. I recently reread Excellent Women by Barbara Pym. Pure delight and enjoyment. And now I am rereading Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple. Yes, it is a sad and devastating look at infidelity and betrayal. But it is so good on the dynamics of families and women’s sacrifices. It is so well written. After I finish the Whipple I think I will move on to One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes, a novel I absolutely adored when I read it about 6 years ago. I am pretty sure I will still adore it and am going to savor my reread. After that? I might revisit a Marghanita Laski or return to At Mrs. Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor. We shall see.

Have you reread anything in the last few months?

Recent Reading Roundup

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I’ve read a few books lately, but haven’t had time to do individual posts on each one so I’m just sharing my brief thoughts on them here:

The Good People by Hannah Kent – I read this for one of my library’s book clubs and though I found it riveting, it didn’t inspire a very good discussion. And I’m not sure why. It takes as its subject the conflict between folk superstition and Catholicism in a rural village in Ireland during the early nineteenth century. The writing flows really well, the historical details are rich and descriptive and the central conflict is truly complex. But the book club members didn’t have much to say about it. This might have colored my enjoyment a bit, but it is well worth a read.

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson – This is another library book club choice (I now lead two book discussions a month at my library) and was one of the most praised books of last year. Alas, I didn’t care for it very much. The writing is poetic and the story is told in vignettes, which I quite like, but the characters were almost solely depicted in terms of their sexuality and physical desires and that put me off. Not the descriptions of sex, but the fact that the characters aren’t defined by much else.

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel – Like many readers I loved Station Eleven by this author and was so excited when I saw that a new title by her was to be published this year. I was fortunate to get a review copy and spent a lovely few days savoring it. This book is not a disappointment at all but it is a very different sort of book from Station Eleven. It centers on the fall-out from a Ponzi scheme collapse and how it affects different people who’ve invested in the scheme and who’ve been involved in it. I loved the interconnectedness of their stories and St. John Mandel’s quiet writing style. It really is a book to linger over.

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell – This is one of the “hot” books of spring and is another review copy I gobbled up. But not comfortably.  It depicts the abuse of a fifteen year old girl by her forty-something teacher. And it is very hard to read at times. It is very nuanced and the author does an admirable job of making us see how sick these attachments are. They are not love stories. They are full of manipulation, gaslighting and abuse of authority. A very unsettling yet timely novel.

On Wednesday I am going to Nashville for the Public Library Association conference and am really excited to get lots of review copies from all the major publishers who will be there. I’ll share what I am able to snag next week!

Expiation by Elizabeth Von Arnim

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Expiation is the seventh title by Elizabeth Von Arnim that I’ve read. Published in 1929, it is written with Von Arnim’s typical humor and sharp observations of human nature. It begins with the death of Milly’s husband in a street car accident. A fairly well-off man, it comes as quite a shock when he leaves only 1,000 pounds to his beloved wife and the rest of his wealth to a home for wayward women. But it is not a shock to Milly. For she has “sinned” and she now knows that her husband was aware of it and has decided to punish her for it. His tight-knit family, the Botts, now have to decide how to think of this strange decision: think the worst of Milly (which most of the women do) or think the worst of her husband (which most of the men do). Unfortunately, their thoughts mean everything as Milly is now not only poor but homeless. It is up to the Botts to absorb her into their lives but how do they do this and maintain their standing in society? Milly does try to find her own way, to break from the Botts and make it on her terms but they ultimately hold her fate in their hands.

This book is an interesting exploration of polite society and how any deviation from the code of polite society causes turmoil and insecurity among its members. The Bott family nearly implodes with speculation and exaggerated fear of Milly and what they think she has done. Von Arnim is definitely damning this attitude, but attempts to do it with a light touch. However, though this novel is very funny in places, I felt a mournfulness to it that was quite heavy. I think it is sad on many levels. Sad for Milly, for her lack of choice, sad for the Bott women who can’t accept Milly out of fear, sad for the Bott men who want to help Milly but can’t risk being charitable to a sinner, sad for women in general for their lives being so strictly prescribed. Does Milly receive expiation? Is it something that is even possible or necessary? I will leave that for you to discover, but I will say that I left this novel with such relief.

Though not my favorite of Von Arnim’s books, Expiation is a novel that has left me thinking and has made me see that her books are so much more political and concerned with social justice (especially for women) then I have realized.

I read Expiation as part of the Mini Persephone Readathon a couple of weekends ago. I intended to also finish Young Anne by Dorothy Whipple that weekend, but I am a slow reader and it didn’t happen. Young Anne will have to wait for another day.