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Friday Reads

Okay, it’s not Friday, sure. But it’s my Friday, sort of, because my week ends today (after starting on Sunday).

Here in Baltimore Friday is promising to be pretty nice, and T is off as well, so we’ll probably do some delightful homeowner stuff, like yardwork. After some thought we’re taking down some pokeweed growing around the house – the possibility of attracting birds didn’t end up outweighing the possibility of future pets/children getting sick. T has also been meticulously weeding between the paving stones on the front walk, which is exhausting but satisfying.

Saturday, however! Saturday T is working and the weather may be icky, so I will be doing some reading. I’ve been lugging Thomas Piketty’s Capital around for a good while now, so it’s time to make some progress on that. I also managed to get my hands on a copy of Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad so I’m looking forward to digging into that.

I’ll be sure to report back!

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YouTube

Last week I started on a new endeavor – really an experiment – in reviewing books on YouTube. My first video was predictably pretty terrible, with a lot of “umm”s and some very poor eye contact, but you never know if you don’t try. I had fun making it, which is enough for me for now. I like writing brief reviews on my GoodReads account, but I tend to express myself better verbally, so I’m hoping this will be another fun way for me to participate in book culture.

This first video focuses on books that have made me a better person. There were really only three titles, which is maybe not a great sign? It’s hard to know if that mean I have a loooong ways to go, or had a good start. [If you’re not a YouTube aficionado, I’m posting some brief reviews below for you to peruse.] One of the things that appealed to me about this tag was the amount of self-reflection it provoked. I’m used to evaluating books on their merits or weaknesses and trying to tease out the elements that make me like or dislike a book (or, since I’m a librarian, might make another person like or dislike a book). I don’t tend to think about how books impact me beyond making me happy/sad, or having more knowledge at the end than the beginning. Finding books that might have made me a better person was an interesting and challenging experience.

My first selection was To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I barely remember my first experience with this book, which would have been in 5th grade. I wasn’t assigned it for school, but I think I recall reading it with my mom, or at least discussing it – I was cast as Scout in a local theater production of the play, and trying to “prepare” for that was what prompted reading the book. This is not a happy book, for the most part, as Scout struggles with growing up, with realizing racial inequities, learning to be kind and to think about other people, and to struggle to understand injustices out of your control. Atticus is a much-admired character for his attempts to do the right thing even when it’s hard, and my eventual takeaway from his character was that sometimes action is the most you can do. That’s awkwardly phrased, but as somebody who has often put a lot of emphasis on being “right” and “successful”, the idea of doing something because it’s a good thing to do, even if it’s a struggle or a disappointment, was a big revelation.

My second selection was ‘Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?’: and Other Conversations on Race by Beverly Daniel Tatum. I read this book the summer before my freshman year of college – the author was the dean of students at my college at this time, and incoming students got copies of the book to read. There are elements of this book I still think about almost every day – it was probably my first exposure to the idea of racism as a system rather than a personal failing, one of the first discussions of white privilege I experienced, and I think it laid a groundwork that’s been extremely valuable as I’ve gone on to read more about race, culture, and so on. It gave me language and a telescope for examining those issues in my daily life.

My final selection was Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin. I grew up in a pretty stereotypical suburban household: my family was educated and affluent, and most people around us lived fairly conventional lives of two-kid families and white-collar or professional jobs. For me, it was a great way to grow up, but I didn’t see a ton of other “lifestyles”, in the sense I very much considered my family and upbringing normal and didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about other options. My parents had the first three Tales of the City books, and I took an interest in them at some point, and eventually finagled my way into reading them (did I talk my mom into it? just take them? hard to say). And she was right – there was a lot in there I wasn’t really ready for … but I was so not ready that it more piqued my curiosity than alarming me. I don’t recall when I read these books, but I knew very little about the world of San Francisco in the 70s – clubs! drugs and drinking! sex! gay people! people who would not live in the suburbs! people who moved across the country to start over! I don’t think at the time the book made a huge impact on me, but it’s hung around in the back of my consciousness enough that I think it helped open my mind to the myriad ways there are to be a person.

… But it has introduced a lot of alarming possibilities about my parents’ lives in late 60s/early 70s San Francisco that I’d prefer remain un-examined. Part of being young is never having to explain it to your children, right?

Christmas Tales, Part 2

Just as some movies “feel” like Christmas even when they’re not necessarily “about” Christmas, the same can be true for books. There are books I always feel like reading this time of year, and not just because it’s winter and all I want to do is read or bake. (And not just “The Hunger Games”, either, which I would re-read anytime.)

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper: A winter tale of a battle between good and evil, centered around a boy on the cusp of his 11th birthday. Part of a series, but the action of this particular title all takes place around Christmas.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – C.S. Lewis: The cover on the edition I have is a faun in the snow, with an armful of packages. The wintery nature of the tale feels very Christmas-y, and they do talk about Narnia being a land where it’s always winter but never Christmas.

If you have time, and  you haven’t already, I’d suggest curling up with these good books over the holidays!

May Books

I’m not sure if it’s just me, or if May seems to be a great month for books this year? I realize the last few years I’ve been in grad school and haven’t done as much pleasure reading as I like to do, and that late summer is traditionally a good time for beachy blockbusters to be released. Still, it seems like May is chock full of books I’ve been dying to get my hands on!

Blackout, by Mira Grant: The first two books in the Newsflesh trilogy (Feed and Deadline) got 4-star Goodreads reviews from me. I’ve read them two or three times since I got them last summer, and I thought they were fast-paced and character-driven nail biters. Certainly many of the characters make poor decisions, and I know some friends who haven’t enjoyed the series as much, but I think they’re wrong. I’ve already pre-ordered my copy from Amazon.

Bitterblue, by Kristin Cashore: Another loose trilogy whose first two sections got four-star reviews, the Graceling books are mature YA fantasy novels. Not mature in the sense of “adult content”, necessarily, though I think Cashore does a great job of addressing sex and sexuality. But mature in the sense of addressing real issues people face head-on, treating the readers like adults. I think I liked Graceling a little better than Fire, but I’m really excited to read Bitterblue.

Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel: I tore through the first book in this projected trilogy on the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell. I was home for Christmas vacation when my mom got the first book, Wolf Hall, as a Christmas present, and she generously let me borrow it to read before I returned to DC. I basically couldn’t put it down or pay attention to anything else. It’s the best kind of historical fiction, blending facts and period details to create a really rich background for extremely compelling and well-realized characters. A coworker and I have been anxiously tracking the progress of this book through our cataloging process; it may come to blows when the book is available.

Deadlocked, by Charlaine Harris: I don’t often read series with 10+ installations, or at least I tend not to stick with those series that long. For some reason, I still want to read these books. Partially to know what happens, partially for their trashy escapist fun, partially because I thinks the book are improving (after a dip a few books ago). I believe the series is winding down, so extraneous plots are being wrapped up, and Harris’ writing has gotten stronger and her characters more complex as the series progresses.

What else am I reading? I finally picked up the new Charles Mann book, 1493, the follow-up to his unexpectedly page-turning 1491, a history of life in the Americas before Columbus. I also grabbed The Cellist of Sarajevo, which was recently announced as the 2012 One Maryland, One Book read. I hadn’t heard of it before the announcement, but I’m really interested to read it. I’m spending some time on audiobooks this month, between various road trips I’m taking, and am looking forward to listening to Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One as read by Wil Wheaton.

ETA: And there are some exciting books coming out in early summer as well, including the new Kate Summerscale (genius of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher fame) and the new Deborah Harkness (I didn’t love the first book, frankly, but she’s a Mount Holyoke alumna so I will read the series anyway).

You can always find me on Goodreads to see more! What are you excited to read this summer?

World Book Night 2012

Copies of Friday Night Lights for World Book Night 2012
Copies of Friday Night Lights for World Book Night 2012

Yesterday I participated in the first-annual World Book Night here in the United States. There’s more information at the website, but to summarize: the idea is to get books into the hands of non-readers or infrequent readers by “hand-selling” 20 free copies of a book of your choice. I applied and was selected as a book giver for my second-choice book, H. G. Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, and elected to pick the books up at my local independent (also: amazing) bookstore, Atomic Books. Myself and two other givers were featured on their Tumblr account, discussing our books and our giveaway strategies: http://atomicbooks.tumblr.com/post/21439572738/world-book-night-givers.

My first hesitation in participation was the practicality of identifying low- or non-readers. Asking somebody straight out seemed accusatory and confrontational, but I wasn’t interested in making awkward assumptions about who was or wasn’t a reader based on outward appearances. Luckily, my book provided me with a perceived “in” – all I had to do was ask passers-by if they were Ravens fans, and if so, were they interested in a free book on football to celebrate World Book Night? I was sure I’d find 20 such persons in short order, and decided to stand on a busy street corner in downtown Hampden, near a bus stop, ATMs, popular restaurants and shops, and a convenience store.

My results were … mixed. First, carrying 20 copes of a book is a heavy proposition (thanks to T for doing most of the heavy lifting). Secondly, a few factors (to be discussed later) made the time/spot of my choosing less than ideal. Finally, I think people were suspicious of “free” handouts on the streets for unclear reasons.

To be clear, the people who were interested in the books were sincerely excited, grateful, and enthusiastic almost to the point of dumbfoundedness. I got many a wide-eyed stare from people who couldn’t seem to believe their luck. I did have a few people who declined my offer because they already owned or had read the book, or were with friends/significant others and didn’t seem to want to be greedy by snagging multiple copies. But for every “yes”, I probably got 3 “nos”, and in the end, I wasn’t able to donate all my books on the designated evening. Some pedestrians obviously thought there was a catch or a gimmick, and seemed worried that the book had invisible strings attached. Many people were harried, carrying children or groceries or bank deposits, and didn’t want to stop for a strange woman in the street with a sack o’ books. A few people were in a digital world (on phones, earbuds in, etc.) and I was reluctant to be rude.

A few things might have conspired to make my World Book Night an incomplete success. The weather in Baltimore was iffy (unseasonably cold and sporadically rainy) and traffic was unusually bad due to construction on a main highway. I also realized, after the fact, that many of the restaurants and shops in Hampden are closed for business on Mondays. Considering all these factors, the foot traffic was lighter than other nights, and most people who were out and about were not inclined to linger. There’s also the fact that this event is new to the United States, and perhaps not widely understood, so there wasn’t a sense of inclusion to persuade people to take books. A few friends I spoke with about their experiences similarly had a difficult time unloading all 20 of their books, and most of them were left with a handful of unclaimed copies.

All things considered, would I do it again? Absolutely! Most of the book recipients were very sincere and enthusiastic, and even those who declined were polite and straightforward about it. It was a good experience, and reminded me a little bit of my Girl Scout cookie booth sales. Next year, I might try a few things differently – maybe give out books downtown, where there’s more activity, or with other people, to limit the “weird lady on a street corner” element. A sign, a bookmark, or another type of identification beyond a thumb-sized button might help with this, too. I’m glad I participated, and am looking forward to World Book Night 2013!

If you’re curious, the books my friends and I weren’t able to donate are going to a local prison via a professional connection, so they won’t be wasted by any measure. I’m glad they’ll be getting some love somewhere!

Keeping busy

Work’s been busy the past few weeks. Getting ready for classes to start again, and all the tasks that come with that, has been eating up a lot of my time at work. I subscribe to or follow a number of professionally-adjacent library-y blogs, newsletters, Twitter feeds, and whatnot, but in the last two weeks I haven’t had a lot of time to do more than casually browse.

What’s really been helpful in times like these has traditionally been bookmarking, but I’ve also been using my Instapaper account really heavily (a service I’ve mentioned before). I splurge-purchased the app for my iPod Touch, and have an online account with a bookmarklet as well. Basically what Instapaper does is save the text of articles to read later, so that I can access them even if I’m not online. There’s a nifty feature, too, for exporting the articles to various formats, including a Kindle compatible format.

When I encounter long-form essays that I don’t have the time to or can’t read at work, I’ll hit the “Read Later” button. If article pile up, I can sort them into folders (like ‘Libraries’ or ‘Reviews’), download a batch to my Kindle, and read them right before bed, or on my lunch break, or anytime I don’t want my laptop (or even my Touch) around.

I’m pleased to report that I’ve finally had some success with audiobooks on a recent road trip! I listened too, and very much enjoyed, the audio versions of both Mindy Kaling and Tina Fey’s recent books. Both were read by their respective authors, and I’d read the books before, so I had an idea of what was coming. Even having read the print books, I really liked hearing the authors’ voices, whether they were telling a story or representing a person featured in the book. It made a long drive seem much shorter, and I definitely laughed out loud.

Solo

I live with a roommate and her two cats, but for most purposes I live alone. She and I get along fine, and share our space and pantry amicably, but I end up cooking for myself a lot. Cooking for one can be rewarding and frustrating – halving or quartering recipes can be tricky, trying to figure out if extras will freeze so I’m not eating the same soup for ten straight meals, doing all the shopping and chopping and carrying gallons of milk to my third floor apartment. I was grateful for Thanksgiving with family  in no small part because all I have to bring is cheesecake, but I’m still getting a belly full of delicious food that I didn’t have to make for myself (and in no way resembles a recent night’s “feast” of a box of Stouffer’s frozen mac & cheese and two servings of tater tots).

Most days I do pretty well. I try to stock up on frozen veggies when there’s a sale to I have healthy options most nights, I’ve mastered about a dozen yummy egg dishes, and I can be pretty happy with a baked potato or spaghetti-butter-cheese on nights when dirtying multiple pans seems exhausting. And yet, there are definitely days when I want something more interesting but am completely lacking in inspiration.

Into the breach steps Judith Jones’ “The Pleasures of Cooking for One.” Most famous as the publisher responsible for Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” Jones is an accomplished food writer in her own right. After her husband passed away in 1996, she’s been cooking for herself, and this book shows she hasn’t lost an iota of her taste. She scales down “real” recipes, for meals like stew and souffle, so they can be enjoyed once or twice without leaving the chef with a week’s worth of leftovers. Lighter, quick meals are also suggested, along the lines of traditional salads or omelettes. She provides strings of recipes featuring the same ingredient, so cooks can take advantage of sales or bargains without eating the same food for an entire week.

I read a small pile of cookbooks for one person recently, and this was definitely my favorite – the most practical but also the best looking recipes. Recommended!

The Travel Bug

I love to travel, but I love to plan travel almost as much. I love reading about places I’m going, arranging destinations by location and daily budget, making a packing list, buying stamps, sorting pictures afterwards, all that jazz. Each destination requires a different type of planning, and I consider anything eligible for planning; if I leave the ten mile radius around my apartment, you can bet I’ve got a plan. (Sometimes even within ten miles. It’s a problem.) Familiar locations, like Boston or Chicago, require frequent weather checks (one never knows) and a long list of favorites I can’t miss, whether those be people, activities, or restaurants. If I’m headed to my aunt and uncle’s beach house, I check the stock online at the local yarn shop, plan my reading list carefully, and polish off the binoculars (and life list, which is an actual thing I own).

It’s been a while since I’ve been anywhere new, though, and I’m starting to get antsy. However slowly my vacation days seem to be accruing, I am already planning on how to spend them. I was considering somewhere warm and sunny to counteract the Mid-Atlantic winter – Greece was at the top of my list, until the economy started to collapse in on itself (and the rest of Europe). Cambodia’s been in the back of my mind for a while, since a friend recently threatened almost had the opportunity to move there, but that’s a hike, and not a cheap one. I also have to leave some vacation days in the kitty for my cousin’s wedding this summer.

While I consider, I’ve been checking piles of travel books out of the library to browse, and I have some recommendations. Like planning, the kind of travel guide you need varies considerably with your travel style (are you backpacking, or is somebody else paying?), the type and number of destinations (a city, a scenic farm or seaside resort, or a grand tour?), your familiarity with the destination (the area of the world, the frequency of visitors to the destination, whether you’ve ever been before and speaking the language), and other factors specific to the traveler’s preference (if you prefer adventure travel or spas, museums or birding or both; if you’re traveling alone, with a partner or friend, or a family; and so on). Caveat: I am not a widely experienced traveler, so I am FAR from an expert; these reviews come from my limited but direct personal experience.

Touring a country? I was enamored with the colorful Lonely Planet “Discover” series upon first finding them, and I think they’re great for armchair travel. They’re glossy and thick, with opinionated lists from staffers and guides, and they’re trying to be one-stop shopping by providing translation and currency information on the inside covers. They’re so big and so full of editorial information, however, that they’re not great for most travel, more suited to preparation than toting around in your day bag. If you want a picture-heavy guide, go for DK Eyewitness Travel guides, especially in Europe and the Americas. They’re lighter and have more factual information. My go-to guides are typically from the Rough Guide series, which I’ve found to give really helpful and practical planning advice, details on local culture (festivals, markets, etc.) and have information on adventure travel that’s at my level – which is, I like some outdoorsy stuff, but I’m no backpacker or snowboarder. I think Lonely Planet goes into more depth on museums and theater, but since most travel guides cover these topics and it’s the sort of research I do before leaving, I don’t find this to be critically missing from Rough Guides.

Visiting a city? I love the Frommer’s “Day-by-Day” guides, mostly serving major European and North American cities, which lay out basic 1/2/3 day itineraries, special interest tours, and include glossy city maps. I like these because the pocket sized guides are light and portable, I find the organization of the guides pretty intuitive, and they include a lot of information for outdoor activities, including walking tours. Walking in a city is one of my favorite things to do – you get, I think, a better feel of the city if you can walk around and see not only the highlights but everything else. Their Amsterdam guide had a great walking tour of the Jordaan and waterbike tour of the canals, and their Chicago guide has a good architecture walk of the Gold Coast.

On a budget? If you’re on a strict budget, or trying to pull of a complicated itinerary of hitting a lot of places on one journey, Let’s Go can be perfect. They focus on student travelers and cater to that budget, but I’ve pulled some fabulous restaurant suggestions out of Let’s Go guides, including an amazing basement Thai restaurant in London.

New traveler? If you’re going to Europe, Rick Steves is the name you’re looking for. He produces volumes of travel information – guides and public television specials especially – including a “Europe through the backdoor” guide for beginners. If you’re not going to Europe, I am lame and cannot assist.

Rick Steves is also good, in my parent’s opinion, for family travel and European tours (road tripping through Andalucia, or rail travel in Benelux, as examples). If you’re traveling solo and enjoy outdoorsy activities, Moon Guides are excellent, but I suggest supplementing them with another guide book as they don’t seem to be published/updated as thoroughly. (That being said, if you’re interesting in improvising and don’t care much about background information, Moon Guides may be the way to go.)

Road tripping? I’ve had great success with the “AAA+” method of travel when hitting the road, and not just because the stops mentioned offer discounts to members. Factors like traffic and weather can really influence car travel, and it’s good to have a vetted list of reasonable hotels and restaurants if you can’t rely on making reservations well in advance. What’s the plus in AAA+ travel? If you’re taking a destination road trip, get a guide specific to the destination to enhance AAA‘s dry, factual approach to travel. I’ve used this method for lots of road trips from Chicago – a AAA guide to get to Mammoth Cave, Cooperstown or Duluth, and then a specific guide to the destination maximizes your enjoyment of the whole travel experience. Don’t get stuck on a parkway in Connecticut looking for a hotel. Trust me.

Overall, I’ve found most public libraries have a great if not perfectly updated collection of travel guides. Check out a few guides on the same region and find your preference – you may decide you have a Frommer’s budget for hotels after all, want a Michelin guide to splurge on restaurants, or want to supplement a glossy Cagodan country guide with a Lonely Planet Encounter city series. Once you’ve figured out how you want to travel, the right books will basically pick you.

Perils of sequels

Fall is pretty officially here in the mid-Atlantic region, perhaps damper than I’m used to, but fall nevertheless. This means I’m spending a good portion of my time curled up in my Poang chair with a pot of hot tea, a (hopefully) good book, and more often than not a cat in my lap. For inquiring minds, my current tea of choice is a cream Earl Gray lavender from a local tea shop. After long walks with T, this is one of my favorite ways to spend weekend day in the fall. Unfortunately, I haven’t had a ton of luck with my book selections lately.

A while back a friend alerted me to the existence of two sequel/companion books to The Giver by Lois Lowry, a favorite of my youth, though I was always vaguely discontented with the ending. Two things drive me crazy in novels – unreliable narrators and unclear endings. For the former, I often end up feeling cheated or tricked out of a “real” reading experience, a frustration that dates back to reading The Things They Carried in high school, weeping over the water buffalo story, and then finding out it was fiction later. It’s totally silly, but I can’t seem to help it much. I also find vague endings unsatisfactory, especially since I can be pessimistic about fiction and imagine the Worst Possible Scenario as the ending.

These two “sequels” to The Giver, Gathering Blue and The Messenger, are set in the same universe, though the second book doesn’t feature characters from the first, instead detailing a society where the powers that be often intentionally orphan-ing children who have skills that might be useful, and attempting to keep the population fearful and submissive by spreading stories about “beasts” in the forests. During the course of the story of Gathering Blue, Kira, the main character, begins to see cracks in the facade of these screens. Without giving the plot away, the story is well-paced, with the right amount of tension to keep readers engaged. As with The Giver, the world is carefully drawn, with the sort of thoughtful details (age is indicated by number of syllables in a name, for example) that make the universe seem vibrant and real. The reader discovers many of the chilling details of the society along with Kira and the other main characters, and the foreshadowing and subtext are handled very well for the intended middle-school audience.

The final book, The Messenger, was a pretty frustrating reading experience. It felt slightly like a tacked-on epilogue intended to wrap up the story rather than add to it, and though there were as many carefully drawn world-building details as the first two books, the plot is much less satisfactory. It’s hard to describe the plot without totally ruining the first two books, but suffice it to say that many of the main characters were previously featured in The Giver and Gathering Blue. While the Village in The Messenger is experiencing social problems, including a sudden aversion to those deemed outsiders, characters discuss the improvements to the towns featured in the first two books, but fail to discuss how these changes happened. Although books aimed at this age group might not be a good forum for discussing political processes, I think readers of this age are sophisticated enough to endure discussions of how and why social structures change, rather than being presented with improvements with a flair of ‘fait accompli’. The ending to The Messenger reflects this disinclination to engage with the issues the characters are facing by solving all the problems faced by the book’s characters with a magical sacrifice on the part of a single individual. It feels abrupt, and to me a bit like cheating – can’t deal with a challenge? Fix your problems by sacrificing a community member, and you won’t have to change a thing! Ta-da!

I enjoyed Gathering Blue, but not so much The Messenger. If you read and loved The Giver, I’d suggest thinking twice before grabbing these.

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