Tuesday, August 29, 2017

2017 Reading Challenge - How Am I Doing?

According to goodreads.com, I've read 27 out of the 36 books that I hope to finish this year. They include one book that I dropped (Kazunomiya: Prisoner of Heaven, Japan, 1858) and they've doubled counted After You by Jojo Moyes. So, 25 out of 36 books. And I'm in the middle of reading two more, Beloved by Toni Morrison and Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist.

How am I doing with this 2017 Reading Challenge that I found online? Pretty well. Although I'm using several titles several times... which I'm sure isn't the intent of the challenge creator.

  • A book I read in school - A Wrinkle in Time
  • A book from my childhood - The Hobbit
    It was published in 1937 so I could have read it in my childhood had I wanted to!
  • A book published over 100 years ago -   Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson 
  • A book published in the last year - Hum If You Don't Know the Words
  • A non-fiction book - Hillbilly Elegy
  • A book written by a male author - My Reading Life
  • A book written by a female author - 1929
  • A book by someone who isn't a writer - When Breath Becomes Air
  • A book that became a film - A Wrinkle in Time
  • A book published in the 20th century - Everything that Rises Must Converge
  • A book set in my hometown/region - Best. State. Ever.
  • A book with someone's name in the title - LaRose
  • A book with a number in the title - nine, ten: A September 11 Story
  • A book someone else recommended to me - Lilac Girls
  • A book with over 500 pages - Barkskins
  • A book I can finish in a day - nine, ten: A September 11 Story; Golf Chronicles; Hum If You Don't Know the Words; Best. State. Ever.
  • A book with a one word title - 1929   That counts, right?
  • A memoir or journal - The Watchmaker's Daughter
  • A book written by someone younger than me - Commonwealth
  • A book set somewhere I'll be visiting this year - nine, ten: A September 11 Story
  • An award-winning book - The Girl Who Drank the Moon
  • A self-published book - Golf Chronicles
In order to truly, legitimately complete this challenge, I need to find - and read - the following books. I'm looking for suggestions.
  • A book that became a film
  • A book with a character with my first name
  • A book I can finish in a day
  • A previously banned book - I've got that one covered as I'm reading Beloved for banned books month at Books & Beer Club
  • A book translated from another language
  • A book that will improve a specific area of my life
  • A book set somewhere I'll be visiting this year
  • An award winning book
  • A self-published book      
Thanks in advance for your suggestions. 

Update: I probably should have taken the time yesterday to check and see which of the books I've read have won awards. Not surprisingly, there were several. With many more being nominees. Here is a list of the award winning books that I've read and what awards each one won.

The Girl Who Drank the Moon - Newberry Medal (2017)
An Echo in the Bone - WABWAHA Romance Tournament for Best Novel with Romantic Elements/Crossover (2010)
The Hobbit - Keith Barker Millennium Book Award (1997); Books I Loved Best Yearly Awards for Older Readers (1997); Mythopoeic Scholarship Award for Inklings Studies (1990)
After You - Woman & Home Reader's Choice Award for Book that Made Me Cry (2016)
LaRose - National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction (2016)
Hood - Stonewall Book Award for Literature (1997)
Everything that Rises Must Converge - National Book Award Finalist for Fiction (1966)

I really wondered about the Woman & Home Reader's Choice Award for Book that Made Me Cry as cited on goodreads.com, especially since the apostrophe in "reader's" seemed to be in the wrong place. Shouldn't it be readers'? I looked it up and it is, indeed, an award given out by a magazine based in the United Kingdom. FYI, on their  website, they don't use any apostrophe. Of my award-winning books, I most liked The Girl Who Drank the Moon which made me happy since when I was teaching I tried to keep up with all the latest Newberry Medal winners.


Saturday, August 26, 2017

When Breath Becomes Air

I was about one third of the way into Paul Kalanithi's end-of-life memoir When Breath Becomes Air: What Makes Life Worth Living in the Face of Death when my husband and I learned about another death in our family. Another death of someone that we didn't consider old. A sudden death of a contemporary. When I picked up the book, I figured it would be a difficult read. Full of suffering and end-of life decisions. I didn't think we'd be facing the end-of-life of a person very dear to our family.

Thankfully, the memoir wasn't like that much at all. I pushed myself to finish it more quickly than I might ordinarily. Because I wanted to be done with death for now. I pushed myself so that I'd be able to pick up something lighter to read.

The book is broken into three parts. Kalanithi starts by telling us a little bit his upbringing and his windy path to becoming a neurosurgeon/neuroscientist. He was always a thoughtful guy. He was an English lit major in college and went on to get a masters in English literature as well.  He was philosophical and got a second masters in the history and philosophy of science and medicine. So even before he had his own life in the balance, he was thinking about the questions of life - mind and body.

The second section of the book is about his life after his diagnosis of lung cancer. Lots of it was technical medical talk so not particularly gut wrenching. Here is where we learn about his decision to go ahead and have a baby with his wife, Lucy. He reflects on giving up operating, giving up on his medical career, on the importance of getting something written before he dies. It includes some end-of-life issues but it was all pretty matter-of-fact. I don't think that I've become so hardened experiencing all the deaths in my own life in the past few years. And I made no comparisons to the end-of-life conversations I had with my cousin once she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma. That wouldn't have made sense. In retrospect, I'm very glad that what seemed to be Kalanithi's biggest issue was, within the context of his own illness, when was it time to move from being doctor to doctor/patient to patient/doctor to simply patient. I wasn't able to personally connect with that and in that way the book was easier for me to get through than I thought it would be.

My favorite passage in the memoir was:
The tricky part of illness is that, as you go through it, your values are constantly changing. You try to figure out what matters to you, and then you keep figuring it out. It felt like someone had taken away my credit card and I was having to learn how to budget. You may decide you want to spend your time working as a neurosurgeon, but two months later, you may feel differently. Two months after that, you may want to learn to playthe saxophone or devote yourself to the church. Death may be a one-time event, but living with a terminal illness is a process.
The book ends with an Epilogue by Lucy Kalanithi, the wife that he met and married in medical school. Her writing gave me a better sense of Kalanithi than his writing gave me of himself. That makes me wonder if others are able to view us more deeply than we can view ourselves? I don't think it was a case of him holding back. I just don't know.

When Breath Becomes Air is the October title for my community book club. I think the discussion of the book should be interesting even though I didn't love the book.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Everything That Rises Must Converge - short stories

Oh my! That's my first impression and last impression about this collection of short stories written by Flannery O'Connor at the end of her life. Oh my!

In Everything That Rises Must Converge, O'Connor deals with dysfunctional parent-child relationships, race and bigotry, faith and lack of faith, class standings, prejudice, differences between the north and the south. I can't wait to discuss this one with my book club.

I was unable to find this book in the library, but I did find a book called O'Connor: Collected Works. The cover listed Everything that Rises Must Converge so I took the book out of the library, figuring I could at least read the title story. Perhaps Collected Words would include several of the stories. It included the whole book of 9 stories.

I read the first (title) story - which ended tragically - and incorrectly assumed that the book was going to be strictly about race relationships. Or parent-child relationships. After finishing the second story, that ended equally tragically, I felt I needed to prepare myself for what was to come. Because O'Connor's characters seem so real, the language is so true, and the emotions clearly represented on the page, these stories that end dismally don't make this a difficult book to read.

There are no happy endings, no likeable characters, yet these stories will stick with me for a long time. I don't have to return my book to the library for a few more days so I plan to read some of the letters from Ms. O'Connor to others just to get a better sense of this author.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Kitchen renovation

In my dream, this is what my kitchen looks like! In reality, my kitchen consists of 3 empty blank walls. A hollow space. It sure does make the kitchen look larger than it looked with the old cabinets and appliances in place.

Dust is everywhere. I wake up early to let the contractors into the house and after the massive task of cleaning up after dinner (dishes and utensils in the sewing room, paper goods in the living room, utility sink in the laundry room, and trash in either the garage or the office, there's not a whole lot of time left for reading.

And yet I'm juggling three books at the moment.

I'm nearly finished with Everything That Rises Must Converge. What a crazy collection of short stories by Southern writer, Flannery O'Connor. I really look forward to finishing that one up and writing my review of it. That's the August title for Books & Beer Club. (What I'm really looking forward to about Books & Beer Club this month is having my 28-year old daughter, the one who gives me book recommendations, there with me at the meeting.)

I'm really struggling with Toni Morrison's Beloved. I've read novels and memoirs about slavery. For some reason, this novel is much more gut wrenching and it's a good thing that I'm reading in short spurts because that's all I can really handle of that book at a time. (At the moment it's expired off my iPad and I'm waiting to be able to download it again.) Beloved is the September Books & Beer Club title.

Finally, I just started reading When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalinithi. I'm at the very beginning and Kalinithi's writing style is very easy to engage with. Just praying that reading about someone dying of cancer doesn't become too difficult for me as I watched several of my most dear relatives lose their fights with cancer all too recently. My community book club will be discussing When Breath Becomes Air in October. In September we'll be discussing Barkskins by Annie Proulx. I'm really looking forward to that discussion.

7:30 will come around awfully quickly tomorrow morning. If I get to bed now, maybe I can read 15 minutes of something before my eyes can no longer stay open.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Let's talk about A Spool of Blue Thread

Just as I suspected, while A Spool of Blue Thread was just an okay book, the book club discussion was so much better. It was a great book to discuss.

A dozen members of my community book club met to chat about Anne Tyler’s latest novel, “A Spool of Blue Thread”.  Anne Tyler is famous for writing about family relationships. Over time, “the essential concern for family remains the same.” The facilitator of the discussion came prepared with lots of background information about Tyler. In addition to talking about the book, many aspects of the author’s life were discussed as well. One member of our group is a huge fan of Tyler’s and has read all twenty of her novels at least once. I think I've only read 3 or 4. Or maybe 5. After our discussion, I might want to check if I've read "The Accidental Tourist" or not. That sounds like a book I might enjoy, if I haven't enjoyed it already.

“A Spool of Blue Thread” is the story about a house. It’s also about the Whitshank family living in the house. The house was very much a character of the novel. And the story of how the house came to the family was quite compelling. One of the reviews shared said that Tyler’s characters are frequently described as “sweet, sentimental and cozy.” The book club disagreed with this account. They felt that most of Tyler’s characters are quirky and unpredictable. The quirkiness of the characters was a big appeal to many in the group. 

No one in attendance at the meeting disliked the book although some felt it was one of Tyler’s weakest books. Whether we loved the book or felt it was mediocre, there was so much to talk about. Big families have lots of drama. They also have interesting stories. The way the elder Whitshanks came to get married. The way the second generation Whitshanks came to get married. The way that Abby Whitshank picked up strays wherever she went, unless it was to the beach on family vacations. The way the Whitshank family considered themselves “special.” What does it mean to consider yourself part of a “special” family? That debate could have gone on for a good long time. One woman hated the word special. Another woman and I felt that being special wasn't always a good thing... but that's what made our family our own.
Aging was a theme of the novel. Some wondered aloud whether Anne Tyler’s own aging contributed to some parts of the story not quite jiving. There were some missing threads (pun intended). There were some stories that didn't quite seem necessary. Many felt that the ending seemed rushed. It also gave ample opportunities for the group to discuss related experiences. After the death of Abby, Red is very willing to move out of the house. How realistic is that? Why and how would he realize that staying in the beloved family home was no longer the correct choice? How does an older person know when it’s time to give up a house? We also talked about Denny being the prodigal son and about the roles that each of the adult children had within the family. Abby always wanted her children to be friends for life. Is that what we want for our children? I'm happy to report that my three adult children are very close and while I don't take credit for that, it makes me very happy and proud. What expectations do have parents have for their children as adults? What do we want most for our children?

“A Spool of Blue Thread” might or might not be Tyler’s final book. Rumor had it that she was never going to finish this one. But she did. And while there are no plans to publish a next work, she’s still writing.

Friday, August 4, 2017


My community book club decided to read Barkskins, Annie Proulx's latest novel, based on the recommendations of readers that several members respected. And given the choice of many selections to vote on, this book was chosen. At the time of the vote, I didn't vote for Barkskins simply because I found another Proulx novel, The Shipping News, one of the most tedious books I'd ever read. In fact, I think that The Shipping News was the first book I ever deliberately dropped. Just couldn't get through the first 100 pages. The group had spoken, however, and I was going to read what the group picked. If I hated it 100 pages in, I'd drop it and go to the meeting explaining why I hated it. (I didn't hate it - and more about that in another few sentences.)

In June, I'd sent out an email to the book club asking if anyone had a copy of the book we were reading for July (Commonwealth) that I could borrow. I waited too long to request it from the library and I was something like #134. One of the emails I received in return was from a woman who didn't have a copy of Commonwealth but did have a recommendation for me. Barkskins is our September title. She let me know that it was a really long book, took her a long time to read, so I might want to request that ASAP. Thanks to her advice, it's over a month prior to our September meeting and I've finished the book.

If I had to give this book a thumb's up, a thumb's down or a sideways thumb, no doubt this would be a sideways thumb. It was an epic saga, spanning over 300 years. That, for me, is a plus. The big idea of the plot was about deforestation, something I'm interested in. Another plus. Often I'd find myself needing to discuss parts of the book with my husband, the non-reader. Yesterday he responded with, "You're still reading that book?" Um yes. It was slow reading.

I was surprised that I didn't find it tedious the way I'd found The Shipping News. Once I realized that the main character of the novel was the forest, I realized I didn't have to figure out and/or pay attention to the exact characters whose small storylines were being told at any given moment. It just didn't matter. I felt like the only differentiation I needed to make was whether the story was about the "European" branch of the family or the Native American branch of the family. Towards the end, even that didn't really matter.

The premise of the book is that two French men come to the New World as indentured servants. One is hardworking and tows the line and eventually his line merges with the Native Americans that live in the area where he has settled. His primary job at first is chopping down trees. Tree after tree after tree. Through the years, his family mostly supports themselves by chopping down trees or making axes. The hard, manual labor end of the timber industry. The other fellow becomes dissatisfied with his lot in life as soon as he realizes what life as an indentured servant is going to be like. He runs away, Americanizes his name and uses what he's learned about chopping down trees to try to become a wealthy man. He succeeds in building a major timber business that spans the centuries.

It was fascinating to read the thoughts that different groups had at different times during the history of our nation regarding the chopping down of trees and the denuding of the forests. It was also interesting to have my thoughts about the differences between what Europeans and Native Americans believed with regard to property ownership confirmed. Because this is a novel, near the end, each family had someone in the current generation feel like he or she had to make up for the disregard prior generations of his or her family had towards the land.

As much as I thought the novel really dragged on in parts, it wrapped up way too quickly. Way too quickly. And I didn't get the resolution that I sort of expected, that I really hoped I'd get. But that's okay. Five and a half weeks was more than enough time to devote to a novel that I didn't love.

Maybe this shows what a lightweight reader I truly am but the thing I liked least about Barkskins was the lofty language that Proulx uses. When I first complained to a friend about this, she commented on the fact that Proulx used language appropriate to the time period. I expected as the book fast-forwarded to the present, the language wouldn't cause such a deceleration in my reading speed. That turned out not to be the case. Did people ever speak using the language that Proulx uses? And does she use super big words that most people won't understand when she's speaking with her friends?

I gave this book 3-stars on goodreads. I'm thinking that if others in my book club feel the way I do, a discussion of the book could lift it up to 4-stars. Barkskins is really the type of book that needs to be discussed as evidenced by the fact that I kept wanting to discuss this with my non-reader husband.

If you want a book with a message, a book that will remind you why it's important to protect the earth, Barkskins might be the book for you. If you have a book club to discuss it with, that much better!