Showing posts with label Nonfiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Nonfiction. Show all posts

Monday, June 15, 2015

Scout, Atticus, and Boo by Mary McDonagh Murphy

This ended up being such a lovely book.  I was a little afraid that it would be a gimmicky way for a writer to make money off of another wildly successful author, but it ended up being a wonderful idea.

This book (the full title is Scout, Atticus, and Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird) is a compilation of various famous people, mainly authors, writing about their experiences and memories of To Kill a Mockingbird.  Everybody from singer Roseanne Cash to Mary Badham (the actress who played Scout), to Jon Meacham was interviewed in this book.  There were moving stories and anecdotes, reflections from people who knew Harper Lee, and thoughts on why To Kill a Mockingbird has been such an influential, lasting book in so many people's lives.

Mary McDonagh Murphy, a director and writer, was heavily influenced by To Kill a Mockingbird and decided that having lots of people's reflections on what this book meant to them would be a good way to honor and celebrate this book. I think that she was successful.  

I read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time when I was 12.  I don't remember how I got my hands on a copy, but I can still see the beaten up cover of that book from the library.  I remember that feeling of being absolutely sucked in and absorbed, so absorbed that I couldn't possibly go on living my normal life.  I did nothing but read that book.  I remember it was summer, which meant garden season, when I read it and, like it was yesterday, I remember carrying that book down to the garden to read while I weeded.  Once I came up for breath, I remember that empty feeling of realizing that I had just finished one of the best books I would ever read.  I couldn't bear to completely leave Scout and Atticus and Maycomb quite yet and so I just left the book out to thumb through it every once in a while and remember that glorious experience.

Since that day, I don't think I've ever read anything quite so enthralling.  Of course I went on to read many wonderful books that meant a lot to me and were very interesting, but nothing ever took the place of To Kill a Mockingbird.

I think that Scout, Atticus, and Boo succeeded in what its goal-to celebrate a wonderful book, while not stealing its thunder, to inspire people to think about their own experiences with this book.  This is definitely a book to seek out, if only to skim.  I read it cover to cover, however, and found it perfectly delightful.  

What are your memories of To Kill a Mockingbird?  Was it an influential book for you, or did it not make a big impact?  

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writer's Guide

I think this book might win my award as the most influential book this year.  It made me think about reading, writing, ethics, human communication, and politics in new ways and inspired me to keep up my own writing.

Telling True stories, edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call, is a compilation of writings from award winning journalists and nonfiction writers about the work of writing truly good narrative nonfiction.  (Narrative nonfiction is simply nonfiction that is story-like in tone and styles as opposed to bare-bones reporting on the facts.)  These writings are gathered from Harvard's Nieman Conference, in which journalists and nonfiction writers get together to discuss writing and give advice.  This book compiles some of the best of these.   The book is directed mainly at journalists and secondarily at other nonfiction writers, but I really do think that any person interested in reading and writing would enjoy this book.  

Here are a few of the quotes that I wrote down and loved:

"If you give your readers characters who are as complex and flawed as they truly are, your readers are more likely to trust you on matters more important than character..."-Katherine Boo

"A place defines itself by its stories."-Jay Allison

"...we create stories by imposing narrative on the events that happen around us."-Nora Ephron

And, my very favorite quote that I have to keep forcing myself to remember is:

"No one, not even the greatest writers, creates good first drafts."-Mark Kramer and Wendy Call

In fact, this last quote addresses one of the challenges of blogging.  Much of what I put out on this blog is a first draft that I have just carefully edited for grammar and spelling mistakes or some awkward phrase or sentence.  I almost never completely rewrite a blog post.  Which makes me wonder, should I write multiple drafts of blog posts?  Or is the very nature of blogs such that this isn't something expected?

I had this many questions and thoughts and more with each essay I read.  Each one was perfectly written, with a distinctive voice and flawless imagery, smooth sentences and gripping passages.  The essays were diverse and full of wonderful advice and stories from the field, from a piece about writing investigative history to a fascinating essay about the ethics of writing about immigration and the fine line of when it is acceptable to step in and help one's subject and when this will simply mess with the story.  The book is divided into the following categories: Finding, Researching, and Reporting Topics; Name Your Subgenre; Constructing a Structure; Building Quality Into the Work; Ethics (my favorite set of essays); Editing; Narrative in the News Organization; Building a Career in Magazines and Books.  Each category was started with an introduction by the editors and then ten to fifteen essays written by writers and journalists, both practical advice and stories about working in the narrative nonfiction field.  

I took a long time getting through this book.  I'd read just a few pages every night, savoring the words and enjoying the process of thinking hard and analyzing each paragraph.  It was a long and lovely process.  Because I read so much fiction, I'm used to reading much faster.  Fiction does not require a very slow pace and so I can whizz through without necessarily having read every single word.  Nonfiction, particularly good nonfiction such as this, requires that you stop and truly read every word to fully understand the writer's point.  It was a good and refreshing exercise for me.  

I highly recommend this book.  It was influential and fascinating and wonderful, wonderful writing.  It made me realize that  I want to read more truly great writing as opposed to the mediocre fiction I come across so often in the library.  This is a book that you should definitely get your hands on, even if you are not a writer.  

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

A Library Haul

(Linking up with The Captive Reader's Library Loot event.)

I got a fantastic haul at the library!  This morning I decided I was going to the library and not leaving until I found at least a few books that I would actually read and enjoy.  After sulking through the fiction section and feeling sorry for myself because I couldn't find anything, I went to the nonfiction section on a whim, namely, the literature section.  And that was where I fell upon short stories and a bunch of other fascinating stuff.

I have always blown off short stories for some strange reason, but I have remedied that now.  Here's my list from this week:

1.) Scout, Atticus, and Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird, Compiled by Mary McDonagh Murphy

2.) The Best American Essays from 2011, edited by Edwidge Danticat

3.) The Oxford book of American Short Stories, edited by Joyce Carol Oates

4.) The Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories from 2012, edited by Laura Furman

5.) The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, compiled by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland-Just looked fascinating

6.) The Best American Humorous Short Stories, edited by Alexander Jessup

7.) 1491: New Revelations of the Americans Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann-Just a book that looked fascinating.

Whew!  So this month is officially short story month for me.  I'll be posting reviews of some favorite specific short stories, as well as the books that they come from throughout the month of June.  I'm really looking forward to it!


Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Recent Book Duds

As I was reading thorough my archives, I realized that I don't write about the book disappointments very much.  Often, I have nothing more to say then, "Meh.  It was fine."  Or else, "Ugh.  An awful book."  In the case of the latter, there are only so many things you can say about a bad book.  But I was thinking, isn't this kind of like the bloggers who only write about the great things and only post pretty pictures of their lives?  Every book blogger will tell you that she has had her fair share of bad, nay, awful books.  In this post, I'm going to tip you off to a few books that I have read recently and was not a fan of.

1. Does My Head Look Big In This? by Randa Abdel Fattah-This book was sitting on a table at the library and I idly glanced at it and thought it looked good enough to take home.  It's a YA book about a Muslim girl in Australia, dealing with cultural identity and discrimination in an immediately post-9/11 world.  I thought it sounded like a fascinating read.  I think the premise would have been fascinating as adult-level fiction, but, written for YA, it was too annoying.  Our heroine whined far too much, complained about school for probably a combined total of 50 pages, and had a mortifying crush that went on for too long without resolution.  In other words, the book was a stereotypical YA book, with the exception that there was some interesting commentary from the author on race and culture in our world today.  I will say, the book was very funny at parts. Still, not worth reading unless you love YA.

2. The Look of Love by Sarah Jio-Another idly-grabbed-off-the-bookshelf read.  I thought this one had potential.  Sarah Jio is a New York Times bestselling author with a lot of critical acclaim and I've heard good things about her books.  But this one….ooof.  This heroine was far too pathetic and I kept wanting to reach into the book and smack her.  Her sad, lonely, woe-is-me life just irritated me instead of making me feel any kind of sympathy.  That said, the premise of the story-a young woman who has the ability to see love is given the task of identifying the six types of love before the full moon after her 30th birthday; then, of course, falls in love-sounded kind of fun to read.  I'm going to keep pressing on, because, who knows, maybe I will be surprised.  If I end up liking the book, I'll let you know.

3. Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson-Now this was actually a great book.  At least, theoretically, I know that.  For whatever reason, it just didn't click with me.  I'd read a couple of pages, then wander over to a bookshelf or the library book box to see what else I had to read.  That said, I know that this is a good book and, when my mood is right, I'll pick it up again.  Still, I'm counting it as a dud because I can't review it if I haven't made myself read it.

That's not a terribly long list of duds.  But these are all books read (or started) just throughout the month of May.  I do think that I go on cycles of getting heaps of great books and then dry spells where I can't find anything to read.  Discouraging, but the good cycles where I have lots of books do make up for the times when I don't.  Tell me, readers, does this happen to anybody else?

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Good Housekeeping Housekeeping Book

It's been stickily hot all day today, so, after a morning spent painting trim (I'm about halfway through with the dining room!), I retreated to the couch with a sweating glass of iced tea and a fascinating book I found in my collection.  I have no recollection of where it came from, but it's a very fascinating read!

Published in 1947, this book really should be used as a historical primary source.  It's such a glimpse into the world of post-war American homemakers.  With more clothes and re-modeled/new houses and that fancy new washing machine comes a lot more housekeeping.  And so the editors of Good Housekeeping decided to put together a definitive book full of advice on keeping a house spic-and-span.

There's a chapter on moving day made easier, removal of household pests (we're entering the era of liberally poisoning every living creature in sight...there actually is a section on obtaining the right kind of DDT), how to care for books properly, doing laundry, must-have cleaning utensils for the new housewife, and how to thoroughly clean every room in a house (let me just say that the editors of Good Housekeeping would have a heart attack if they walked into my house).

The house cleaning chapter particularly fascinated me and, after much musing, I've decided to follow their housekeeping calendar for a week and see if it's actually feasible today or whether I will end up rolling my eyes over the amount of time those women spent making sure that their houses were immaculate.  I suspect that I will find the latter true (really, who cleans their kitchens three times a day?), but maybe I will surprise myself.

As I write this, I realize this isn't so much a book review as a reflection on an era.  I find this book so fascinating because, with the vantage point that I have, I can see how these new standards are going to lead insane standards of domestic perfection and, ultimately, boredom for women everywhere.  Because this kind of housecleaning is not true homemaking, but just keeping a house clean.  The kind of homemaking that people like the editors of Good Housekeeping were rejecting-doing good, creative, challenging work in the home-got shuffled aside in favor of shiny houses and ridiculous levels of perfection.

When I look at this book, I get chills thinking of the women that, in just a short ten years will finally start speaking up about the intense loneliness and meaninglessness that was a part of their lives as they followed the strict rules of the likes of Good Housekeeping.  I want to go back to these editors and shriek, "No!  No!  Stop right this instant.  These standards and rules are going to take you nowhere good."

No history textbook can paint a picture quite as well as a book written at that period of history can.  And that is how, on a hot Monday afternoon, I found myself taking a history lesson.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Searching For Sunday by Rachel Held Evans

Last week, I went to hear Rachel Held Evans speak.  I had barely heard her name and knew her only as some kind of "theology-ish" person.  However, her topic-The church and its young people-sounded very interesting.  Still, I didn't have very high hopes.  I thought it might be kind of dumb, actually.  I feel very strongly that the church is far too obsessed with "getting young people" and that the current gimmicky trends are ridiculous.  I expected Evans's talk to be more of the frantic hand wringing, but I went anyway.  I am so thankful that I ended up going!  Sure, what she said was preaching to the choir, but it was still fascinating and inspiring and generally wonderful.  In addition to a wonderful talk, all the people in attendance were given signed copies of her new book.

I hurried home and stayed up till one in the morning ploughing through this book, thoroughly enjoying and agreeing all the way.  (Warning: In this post will be a lot of Christianese and pretty divisive topics currently in the church and I'm going to spout opinions left and right.  If this sounds boring to you, I understand.  You may leave now.  Okay, let's continue.)  Evans grew up in what she calls, "the buckle of the Bible belt", namely, Dayton Tennessee.  Dayton is also home to the famous Scope's Monkey Trial and hundreds up churches.  You can read all about her church-going story in her book, but, she grew up in a typically fundamentalist evangelical Christian home and church, only to realize that she was having all these doubts and questions, doubts that her church was unwilling to let her have.

After years of struggling to regain her faith, Evans now writes and talks about what the church is doing wrong-and right-particularly in regards to the Millennial generation.  It is no secret that many people under 35 aren't coming to church.  In response to this, churches wring their hands and get a praise band and a coffee shop in a frantic effort to become relevant.  Evans, in response to this, is writing about what the church really needs to do.  I fall in the Millennial generation myself and I did resonate so much with a lot of what she said.  She argues that the church needs to lose the fog machines and the coffee shops (if you've ever been to a church-wide convention, you know exactly what she's talking about) and regain its weird. Go back to doing the strange and the uncomfortable.  The foot washing and the confessions.  The communion and taking care of the sick and wounded.

She writes that Millennials are sick of having to choose between science and faith or feminism and faith, sick of people stirring politics into religion, the culture wars, rampant exclusivity.  Tired of having church be a place that prefers the pretty, everything-put-together people over the dirty, sick, lonely, wounded people, the very people that Jesus first called to follow him.  And, as encouragement, there are many examples throughout the book of churches that have taken this radical approach to their community.

The book is arranged around the seven sacraments, as named by traditional high churches-baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing of the sick, and marriage.  There are stories Evans's journey towards reconciliation with the church, stories from other people, and beautiful, poignant reflections.  In addition to be a brilliant writer, though, Evans is hilarious.  I haven't laughed so hard in I don't know how long.  The topic is serious and there are heartbreaking stories, but through it all, Evans manages to maintain her humor.  And you all know how much I appreciate a funny writer.

There were so many other wonderful points made in this book, but I don't want to give the whole book away.  It's really something that I think every Christian needs to read.  Evans is unapologetically progressive (which I appreciated), but she is also a serious Christian.  She isn't the type of Christian progressive who breaks out in hives at the mere mention of the words "confession" or "sin".  Her fresh insight into our broken, but beautiful, church inspired me in so many ways-and made me want to have all kinds of discussions.

I can't even begin to recommend this book enough.  Heck, even if you're not a Christian, I think this book might be interesting (and definitely amusing).  Also, the book, while it talks about Millennials quite a bit, is definitely geared to anybody who has left the church, was annoyed by the church, or is just interested in somebody's thoughts on how our church needs to change.  Really, go read this.


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

TBR Tag

(Lory just joined in the TBR tag and invited her readers to join in as well)
I thought this would be an excellent tag, seeing as my TBR pile is always overflowing (A TBR pile is, for the non-book-bloggers, a To Be Read pile).  So here goes!

1. How do you keep track of your TBR pile?
The short answer?  I don't.  But that's not entirely true.  The whole contents of my TBR pile reside in my head.  However, the things that are on my "reading soon" TBR pile are in little piles all over the house.  By the sofa, the stove, on a kitchen window sill, in the summer, on the front porch or the picnic table.

2. Are your TRs mostly print or e-book?
Now this is an interesting topic!  And one that I don't think I have addressed before.  I am not an e-reader.  The few times I've tried, I get annoyed at the lack of physical book presence, the flick of pages, that old book smell.  So My TRs are all print.

3. How do you determine which book from your TBR pile to read?
I wouldn't say that I have any kind of method.  Often the pretty, fresh books get bumped to the top of the pile, meaning that there is quite a collection of sad, neglected books sitting way down at the bottom.

4. A book that's been on your TBR pile the longest?
Okay, let me go dig through the recesses of my brain and try to remember a very old TBR.  Oh!  Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens.  It was very enthusiastically recommended to me and I have been meaning and meaning and meaning to read that book and then it just slips from my mind.  This one is so old, I don't even remember when I put it on my TBR list.

5. A book you recently added to your TBR pile?
Well, any of my classics club list would fall under this heading.  But the thing that is the absolute newest is How to Be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman.

6. A TBR on your list strictly because of its beautiful cover?
I don't have anything currently on my TBR list, but about a year back, I read Dragonwyck by Anya Seton.  I got it because it was cheap and the cover, while not beautiful, amused me endlessly.  It was a melodramatic Victorian cover drawn in the 50s.  But the book was truly awful.  A Jane Eyre knockoff so bad it made me laugh.

7. A book on your TBR that you never plan on reading?
What?! This category confused me.  I am far too pragmatic to put something that I'm not going to read on my TBR list.

8. An unpublished book on your TBR that you're excited about?
The next Flavia de Luce, obviously!

9. A book on your TBR that basically everyone has read but you?
Gone with the Wind.  I know, I know.  I haven't read Gone with the Wind.  I don't even want to read this book, but I feel like everybody needs to read Gone with the Wind at least once in their lives.

10. A book on your TBR list that everyone recommends to you?
Hm...probably some kind of famous biography like I am Malala.  Oh!  The Princess Bride!  This could go under the "basically everyone has read but you," heading, too.

11. A book on your TBR that you're dying to read?
Actually, that How to Be a Victorian book!  The only thing keeping me back is all the current reads I have right now.  I will get to it, though!

12. How many books are on your TBR shelf at Goodreads?
Now I'm going to admit something.  Up until about 5 minutes ago, I didn't have Goodreads. I'm not quite sure why.  For some reason I was holding out.  But, inspired by this, I joined and started adding books like crazy.  Currently, there are 25 books on my TBR shelf.


Monday, April 13, 2015

Yes Please by Amy Poehler

Amy Poehler has to be one of my favorite actresses.  I have loved everything she has been in (at least that I have seen).  Parks and Recreation kept me from my huge reading stack more than once this past winter.  So when I saw a woman taking Yes Please from the new book shelf, I instantly wanted to get my hands on a copy.  After a couple of weeks of waiting on the hold list, I finally got a copy.

The book is arranged under the categories: Say Whatever You Want, Do Whatever You Like, and Be Whoever You Are.  Then under each category are a number of essays, not really in chronological order, but all more or less relating to the category.  I think I would say that I mildly enjoyed the book. I laughed out loud maybe four times and smiled maybe ten times. I'm afraid Amy just needs to stick to comedy through film and television.  I had pretty high hopes because, when I read Bossypants last year, I was impressed by Tina Fey and her writing skill and I expected that Poehler, with her similar style of humor would be able to pull of a book.

The writing was kind of awkward and just a little stilted.  I think Poehler tried to imitate her  (extremely talented and funny) voice on paper and was not successful.  There were some good moments.  Some important points made, the occasional good life advice, even some humor.  But I still expected more and ended up being pretty disappointed.

I have discussed the concept of an autobiography several times on this blog, but I never cease being struck by it.  In my mind, there are three kinds of autobiographies-The ones written by amazing people did fascinating things in their lives or had a very unique life experience (eg. Anne Frank, Benjamin Franklin).  Then there are the autobiographies written by people who haven't had the world's most interesting life, but are very talented writers and know how to make something ordinary interesting (these are the writers that I most admire).  Finally, there are the celebrity autobiographies.  These books aren't well written (since most of them aren't written by, you know, writers) and they aren't interesting because, honestly, celebrities actually aren't very interesting people for the most part.  These books get published because the people are famous.  Sadly, Yes Please fell in the final category.  

While I was thinking about this post, I also started writing a rant in my head.  Why, my brain fumed, does every Tom, Dick, and Harry/Harriet think he/she can write?  Nobody would for a minute consider giving an hour long piano performance if they'd had 2 years of piano lessons.  So why do so many people attempt (and, unfortunately, succeed in) publishing and writing a book?  Keeping a journal for future generations?  Of course!  Writing a blog?  Yes!  I'm all for it.  But why is book writing something that we, as a society, have decided anybody can do?  

But, my brain argued back, think of all the undiscovered talent that wouldn't be found if book writing was something that was only done by people with extensive training. I really am in favor of do-it-yourself in so many other areas of life, so why not extend that to the area of book writing? I'd love to hear what you think.  Is book writing something that should be attempted by anybody, or is that disrespectful to the professional writers out there?  Does it cheapen book writing, or enrich it?  

But back to Yes Please.  If you've barely heard of Amy Poehler, then I probably wouldn't bother reading Yes Please.  However, if you are a staunch Amy Poehler fan, I wouldn't turn you away from reading this book.  You might be nothing like me and really enjoy the book!  What about you, readers?   Did any of you read Yes Please?  Did you like it?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Slices of Life: A Food Writer Cooks Through Many a Conundrum by Leah Eskin

I've mentioned a time or two how much I love reading about cooking and food.  I read cookbooks for fun, devour cooking memoirs, articles in magazines by chefs...I love pretty much any food writing I can get my hands on.  I spied this book on the new book shelf at the library and eagerly snagged it because, hey, it was a nice, thick, fun-looking book all about food.  I started it last night and sped through the rest of it this morning.  Overall, I really enjoyed the book.

Leah Eskin is a food writer for a variety of pretty big papers (Chicago Tribune, to name one).  She's also appeared in Saveur (one of the world's loveliest food magazines, I am convinced), Elle, Salon, and handful of other big-name magazines and newspapers.  She writes about food, but, particularly, cooking for her family.  Each article is an essay accompanied by a delicious-looking recipe.

I admit to being just a little underwhelmed by the writing.  The writing was, for the most part, good, but Eskin's writing tone and style wasn't my favorite.  She repeatedly used a present simple tense in the second person (yes, I did have to look that up), which I didn't love.  I think some of that is just my own stylistic taste, but I do think that the writing ended up coming out just a little bit awkward.  The tense and style changed with each article, but the majority were written as described above.

But, sometimes Eskin's writing would suddenly blossom, painting a perfect word image, or elegantly describing a scene.  For instance, when talking about decluttering for moving, she writes, "Gamely, you straighten up.  You square heaps of mail into stacks.  You crack apart the forty-eight pieces of Our Solar System and cram the universe into the black hole of the puzzle cupboard."  See?  Comparing the puzzle cupboard to a black hole?  Smart.  And funny.

Now, let's talk about the amazing food in this book.  I finished this book up this morning and I am convinced that I left several drool marks.  Delicious pasta dishes and salted caramel, brisket and pot roast, greens and beans and pistachio ice cream sandwiches, mushroom broth and walnut pesto crostini.  Oh dear, now I am so hungry.  Leah Eskin is obviously a very good cook, capable of dreaming up some delicious food.  In fact, this book made me want to go hunt down her kitchen and follow her around for a day.  But it also made me want to work in my own kitchen.  Try some of her recipes and maybe even dream up one of my own.  And isn't that the ultimate goal of all good food writers?  To inspire people to get into their own kitchens and create beautiful, delicious food.

So I would definitely pick up this book if you are a food reader like me.  Eskin's recipes all look delicious and her stories about her family are fun to read.  I don't think I would ever buy the book, but as a library read?  It was definitely worth it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Thatched Roof by Beverley Nichols

Beverley Nichols is an author much beloved by both my grandmother and my mother.  Many times over the years, I have been discussing books with them and they stop to gush a little over how witty and sharp and generally great Beverley Nichols is.  I would always smile and nod, but, for whatever reason, never followed through and read something.  The other day, I finally borrowed a Thatched Roof and commenced reading.

I wasn't surprised that I enjoyed the book.  I love to read about people's decorating and gardening adventures and so Nichols's books really are right up my alley.  The gist of this gardening/home improvement autobiography is this: In the 1920s, Nichols buys a completely run-down little cottage with great potential and makes it over, with plenty of advice and opinions from the quirky locals.  In addition to this, it has a lovely garden, which he also fixes up, written about in another book.

There is, of course, much drama involving the whole house being turned into a "ye olde" cottage, filled with fake Tudor pillows and fake Tudor walls, and, well, fake Tudor everything.  I laughed out loud so many times at Nichols's wrath.  There are adventures and problems galore and the descriptions of the house make it sound perfectly lovely once Nichols finishes it.

Another thing that completely impressed me in reading this book was how Nichols made the house really come alive.  I could imagine every room of the house, every color scheme, every bookshelf, every open window.  Often home decorating writers have a hard time trying to describe their project.  In an era before beautiful home improvement books full of more shiny, artistic photographs than text, a book had to rely on the writer's skill as opposed to the crutch of photographs, a refreshing change.

Now, there were some lovely, lovely illustrations done by Rex Whistler did bring the personality of both the house and the book to life.  I appreciated how the illustrations were an aid to the writing, yet did not take the place of the writing.  I've included a sample illustration below:
Credit: Found off of Pinterest.  Not very credible, I know, I know...
The book is also laugh-out-loud hilarious at many parts.  All of the adventures were just plain hilarious, from the trials Nichols underwent, getting a housekeeper, to the descriptions of the nosy neighbors, judging him on the previous owner's choice of lawn statuary.

That said, Nichols got on my nerves by the end of the book.  He strikes me as a waspish little man, never pleased with anything and constantly critical of everybody around him, as well as being a completely priss about his house.  This is funny for awhile, but I couldn't read that indefinitely.  Oh and his blatant dislike for every. single. female who crosses his path?  Also quite annoying.

So those are my thoughts on A Thatched Roof.  Would I read something else by Nichols?  Maybe.  I loved, loved, loved this book, but I think, at least for me, his writing can only be taken in very small doses.  Maybe in a year, when I'm feeling inspired about gardening next March, I'll pull out another of his books about his beautiful garden and have another go.

Friday, February 13, 2015

3 Quick Book Reviews and an Update

Hello, dear readers.  I am still here, lest you thought I was frozen into the side a snowbank, never to appear again.

In spite of my lack of blog activity, I have been up to a lot of things, some reading related.  I have 3 books on the reading pile, two of which I have finished.

1. Don Quixote-
My latest Classics Club read.  It's funny and enjoyable and the translation done by Edith Grossman is great.  I've been enjoying just a few chapters every evening by the fire with hot Earl Grey tea, my new favorite.  I usually make the tea into a London Fog-with lots of steamy hot milk.
But back to the book, there is something so eerily amazing about reading a book that is so old.  I'm quite enjoying it and there will be a full-fledged review, once I've finished it.

2. Small Victories by Anne Lamott-
I love Anne Lamott's writing and this is her latest book.  I have about 5 pages in the book and I can't wait to get a review up about it.  Lamott has had a strange, at times pretty rackety life, but the thing that strikes me reading her books is her incredible grace and wisdom through all kinds of scenarios that I am not entirely sure how I would handle.  If you haven't read anything by Lamott, this is definitely a must-read.

3. The Nutmeg Tree by Margery Sharp-
This is a re-read, but I do love Sharp's incredible sly wit.  The Nutmeg Tree is about a young, irrepressible widow who is left in the early days of WWI with a baby.  After a dreadfully boring stint as a respectable young widow, she leaves the baby with her kindly in-laws and heads to the city. Susan, the baby, grows up dull and respectable, until she falls in love with an unscrupulous man and Julia has to help her get out of the mess.  It's really funny and was a very quick read.

In addition to all of this reading, I'm working and doing as little outside as I possibly can (which usually means just the once-a-day trudge to do the animal chores and then scurrying inside as quickly as possible).  I'm also dreaming of summer through a big stack of summer clothes that I have waiting at the sewing machine.  So see?  I haven't turned into a frozen brick of ice.

Friday, January 30, 2015

How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren

At the beginning of January, I decided that I was going to read a serious book.  A book that would stretch me and make me work on stretching my mind just a little.  I picked up How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren.  It was the beginning of January and I was fresh off of making a good resolutions list and it felt so pleasantly stark and stiff for a gray January.  I finally finished it and I confess to almost dropping the book a few times.  However, I'm glad I stuck with it and I think that I will definitely be glad of a few tips and tricks that I picked up.

How to Read a Book was written in the 40s and was a call to arms for people to return to the serious reading of their forefathers.  This meant intelligent reading, rather than mindless reading, and also reading difficult books, rather than light novels.  In the back is a 30 page reading list of every classic that Messrs. Adler and van Doren believed to be important for the Western reader.

The book reminded me in many ways of The Well Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer.  It had similar themes and, while Bauer's writing style was much more accessible, both Adler/van Doren and Bauer were/are greatly influenced by the Great Books movement.

Not there weren't some problems with the book.  The book recommendations were extremely dated.  Now, before you say, but of course they were dated, we're talking about classics here!  The notion that Classics (with a capital C) are all written by dead, white men is a bit dated and one that I do take offense to.  And it's one of the things that I appreciated about Susan Wise Bauer's book.  She was happy to include Toni Morrison along with Charles Dickens.  Adler and van Doren's list was so skewed that Emily Bronte didn't make it onto the list.

Adler starts with the premise that there are 3 levels of reading and that we need to be fully using every level or else we will not be getting every bit we can out of the book.  First is elementary reading, which is simply the act of reading that we all learn in elementary school.  Next comes inspection reading, where you systematically skim first of all and then carefully analyze all parts of the book to gain a better understanding of it.  Finally comes analytical reading, the process of which takes up the second third of the book.  It includes pigeonholing the book, x-raying the book, coming to terms with the author, determining the authors message, criticizing the book fairly, agree or disagreeing with the author and then aids to reading are discussed.

Part 3 deals with specific instructions on how to deal with every genre of writing, from practical books to philosophy.  The last part discusses the ultimate goals of reading and ends by summarizing why we should all be reading in this way.

The section on inspectional reading was what fascinated me the most.  I had been taught to scorn the practice of skim reading, but Adler's words completely changed my mind.  He writes,

"Let us assume two further elements in the situation, elements that are quite common.  First, you do not know whether you want to read a book.  You do not know whether it deserves an analytical reading.  But you suspect that it does, or at least that it contains both information and insights that would be valuable to you if you dig them out.  Second, let us assume-and this is very often the case-taut you only have a limited time in which to find all this out.  In this case, what you must do is skim the book, or as some prefer to say, pre-read it."

Now, to be fair, the kind of skimming I scorn is not what Adler and van Doren were referring to and, if the reader determines that the book is worth his or her while, then of course, they will not stop there, but go on to read the book again.

The book really inspired me.  In fact, this book is a large part of the reason why I decided to join Classics Club.  I was so spurred on after reading this interesting book that I wanted to start in on a whole stack of classics!  However, while Adler and van Doren were thinking about classics and meaty books when they were writing this, I don't think that's any reason to not apply these tips to my everyday reading.  After all, don't I do a sped-up version of inspectional reading when I decide whether I want to read a book that looks interesting at the library?  And I'm already starting to apply little bits and pieces of the analytical reading step to my reading-asking myself what the author's message is or what the tone of the piece is.  And I like to imagine that it's helped me become a better, more thoughtful reader.

I really recommend this book and, while the book is thick and pretty tome-like, the writing is not at all difficult and I gleaned so many interesting tips that I think plowing through the book was worth it.


Thursday, January 15, 2015

Family Circle's Complete Book of Beauty and Charm

Yep.  That's the title.  Wanna guess the publish date? 1951.  Knowing my inordinate love of all things vintage, my dear mother got me this book for Christmas.  I saved it for my Sunday afternoon reading and I just finished it this past Sunday afternoon.  And now I'm going to show it to you.

First of all, I took pictures of the inside of the book, so you get an idea of what it's like:


See?  The book tells you comfortingly that glasses can, too, be attractive, if you carefully
read their chart.

This caption says, "Even housewives need to take care of their hands!"

Properly applying foundation.
Necklines depending on your face shape.

I love books like these-books that are simply for the purpose of providing a window into another time, the purpose of inspiration.  This kind of reading is what I call Sunday Afternoon Reading, also known as inspiration reading.  Sunday Afternoon Reading is generally nonfiction, usually filled with pictures, always chock full of inspiration for the coming week.  I don't normally read for the sole purpose of getting good ideas or just for enjoying something for its prettiness.  Books normally have to hold something more for me, but not on Sunday afternoons.  That is when I pick up books just because they're pretty and inspiring and fun.  And while I wouldn't love to read like that all the time, it's actually very lovely to have that one day a week set aside where I do read like that.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

One of my goals for this year was to read some nonfiction and branch out a little from my usual staid fiction reading.  I started with this book because it looked funny, was interesting, I really do love science, and I owned it (fulfilling my requirement for a library-free January).  What better book to start out my January?

What If? is written by Randall Munroe, the writer of the website XKCD, a website where people post absolutely absurd what if? questions.  Some of the questions reminded me of the questions that toddlers ask repeated all day every day.  Except these are, presumably, written by grown people.  IF

Here are some of the examples:

If everyone on the planet stayed away from each other for a couple of weeks, wouldn't the common cold be wiped out?

What would happen if a hair dryer with continuous power were turned on and put in an airtight 1x1x1-meter box?

If every person on Earth aimed a laster pointer at the Moon at the same time, would it change color?

How quickly would the oceans drain  if a circular portal 10 meters in radius leading into space were created at the bottom of Challenger Deep, the deepest spot in the ocean?  How would the Earth change as the water was being drained?

Randall Munroe is a former NASA roboticist, but he's also a comic writer.  He brilliantly combines both his humorous comics with truly fascinating science.

Like I said, nonfiction is not something that I normally read, but this actually made me change my mind.  The book was funny and actually held my attention.  I wasn't reading as some sort of discipline  or goal to read something nonfiction.  I was just reading for the pure fun of it, which is something that I don't frequently do with nonfiction.

So I really enjoyed this book.  If you're looking for a place to dip your toes into nonfiction writing or just are looking for an informative, yet funny book, this is a great place to start.  I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

What I Read in 2014

I read a lot this year.  I think I read so much because I had this blog that was quietly tapping me on the shoulder, reminding me to take the time to read and write on my blog.  Yes, there was my (brief) hiatus from blogging, back in the fall, but I could never completely leave this blog and, so, I'm committing to a brisker blog schedule and even more reading this year!  I thought I would compile a list of what I read this year.  I was so pleased, readers!  The list starts in March because that was when I started blogging and, honestly, I have absolutely no memory of what I read before that.

March

The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery (And my first blog post!)
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (Still one of my favorite works of fiction)
The Penderwicks Books by Jeanne Birdsall
Two Sherlock Holmes Books
Canterbury Tales
Kilmeny of the Orchard by L.M. Montgomery
Hotel Paradise by Martha Grimes
Don't Look Now by Daphne DuMaurier (NOT a hit!)
The Beginning of Flavia de Luce
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays
The Life of Pi

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Gardening Reading

It's been so drearily bleak around here, but not cold.  It's my least favorite weather conditions-50 degrees and gray.  So, to distract myself from the less-than-ideal weather, I've come up with a nice big stack of gardening reading materials.  I'm already getting excited for the seed catalogues and gardening charts!

Here's my list:


  • Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver-I think this is my third time reading through this and I love it more each time I read it.  This does deserve its own review, so when I get around to it, I'll definitely write one.

  • How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jevons-Good, so far, although the man does seem to have a mad gleam in his eye.  I can't imagine doing all of the hoopla required for this kind of intensive gardening.  Interesting, though.

  • The New Kitchen Garden by Anna Pavord-A lovely, lovely book.  Not terribly informational, but full of gorgeous pictures and ideas for making beautiful little kitchen gardens with just a little bit of space.

  • The 12 Month Gardener by Jeff Ashton-A really great book all about gardening year round in a temperate climate.  Useful, interesting, and inspiring.
Now aren't you refreshed just looking at all those bright green books with the word "garden" in their titles?  I'm sure there will be more books like these as spring draws closer.  I'll be sure to keep you updated on what I'm reading.


Sunday, December 21, 2014

Bossypants by Tina Fey

I am most definitely not a nonfiction reader and I'm not an autobiography reader.  Autobiographies so often feel stuck-up and like the author either has an extremely inflated sense of self and is flaunting flaunting his/her fabulousness faaaaar too much.  They're either, a.) Famous personages who became train wrecks and went on to write about it, b.) Famous personages who did not become train wrecks and are quite proud of it, or, c.) People who are not famous, but think that everybody wants to hear what they are up to (which, now that I think of it, is also the definition of a blogger)

I actually read this book about a month ago and loved it.  I read it cover to cover in a little under 24 hours, then stuck the first two sentences of this post in drafts and forgot about it.  I had stopped at the autobiography section at the library to pick up a James Herriot book because I was going through a dry-spell where nothing at the library looked any good and I stopped and picked this book up.  I read the front cover and laughed out loud until the bored looking man writing a paper at the next table over glowered and I snapped the book up.

Most of you probably know of Tina Fey.  She's a fairly famous comedian in the US, most well-known for her Sarah Palin sketches in the 2008 election, but she's been in a variety of other films and television shows.

The book is very informally written as a collection of essays, written roughly in chronological order, starting with the story of her birth and going on from there.  I laughed and laughed as I read Fey's observations about life; both hers and the lives of the people around her.

But the book wasn't just funny.  It was a thoughtful look at being a comedian, a woman with a successful career, a person in a complicated world.

Here's the thing-I wasn't expecting to like this book.  I mean, come on, it's a famous actress talking about her successful life.  The book was just begging to become a pretentious monologue navel-gazing session.   And, amazingly, it didn't!  The book was just funny and fresh and would be interesting to anybody, not just Fey's devoted fans.  That was the thing that impressed me. The book is of general interest to the general public.  And how often does that happen in a celebrity's autobiography?

The Good Reads reviews, however, whined quite a bit about the book.  Sure, it was not the world's most wonderfully edited piece of writing.  Actually, it was kind of bad at parts.  However, maybe because I was in such a spot of dry reading, I wasn't offended in the least by the content itself.  Could the presentation have been better?  Sure.

So if you are interested in autobiographies, pick this one up.  It's funny and smart and a quick read.  I really enjoyed it.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Mama Makes Up Her Mind

I loved, loved, loved this spunky, funny, classically southern book so much.  I really do love Southern books and this one, a memoir by Bailey White, a self-proclaimed spinster and her opinionated mother's adventures in northern Florida was priceless.

Bailey White came to public attention through NPR some time in the early 2000s.  I had heard her books recommended and widely praised for years and I finally decided that I needed to do something about the fact that I had never read anything by her.

This memoir is just collections of short stories loosely divided into categories.  The stories are funny and well-written and I felt that they were worth every minute of my time that reading them took up.  Bailey White still lives with her mother in the home where she was born.  Since writing this book, she has abandoned her job as an elementary school teacher to work on her writing.  This book is just stories of daily life that manage to be both hilarious and very commonplace at the same time.

I started the book somewhere public (can't remember where) and remember working very hard to keep from laughing out loud every 5 seconds.  You know that awkward sensation of realizing that pretty much everybody's eyes are on you as you sit grinning from ear to ear and chuckling to yourself?  Well, I had that sensation for pretty much the whole book.

The stories are varied-about White's old car that refuses to break down, about Mama, who finds a tick in her pantyhose on the way to a wedding and spends the whole drive there fussing about it, about the taxidermist next door who can't cook, so takes lessons from Mama.  Each of the stories are just a few pages, but this is not one of those books that you are going to read 5 pages of every day until it's finished.  Oh, no.  Be prepared to spend a large portion of your waking hours behind the covers of this book.

I think the best thing about this book is Bailey White's voice.  It is this voice that shines through in each story and it's the thing that draws all the stories together under a common theme.  It takes a lot of skill to develop a good writer's voice and I was impressed by how clear and likable White's was.

My favorite section was the category about White's teaching adventures.  I loved the story about teaching all of her students to read completely based on the story of the titanic.  Bailey White doesn't teach first grade anymore and I am sure that the loss of her presence at that school is felt.  I would have liked to see her in action, because, the way she talks, you can tell that she was truly devoted to her students and her job.

Southern books and southern writing is pretty prolific in the US.  There are always new southern novels and southern memoirs and southern cookbooks and southern...., but this one really does stand out.  I liked that the south was celebrated without being taken advantage or made fun of.  I think that Bailey White did a good job of this in large part because she lives there, she is an insider and, as such, knows all of the faults and gifts of the south.  It kind of drives me crazy when "outsiders" try to write Southern fiction.  It doesn't work and ends up either being condescending or just weirdly awkward.

If you like to laugh out loud and if you like good writing, then I urge you to please go and hunt this book out. I am only sorry that I am just now finding out about this wonderful writer.  I'm off to read Quite a Year for Plums, a work of fiction that Bailey White wrote.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Language of God by Francis S. Collins

I read a really interesting nonfiction book recently.  I'm discovering something interesting about myself. My whole life, I've never really felt the need to read nonfiction.  Nonfiction just never spoke to my reading self.  However, recently, my reading tastes have broadened.  I am enjoying pretty much any nonfiction book.  In fact, my nonfiction reading tastes are much broader than my fiction reading tastes.  I credit my inner sociologist.  I have always been fascinated by people and why people do what they do and what they think and how they behave.  Nonfiction accounts of people's thoughts and inner workings perfectly feed that inner sociologist.

So anyway, my latest nonfiction book was The Language of God by Francis S. Collins.  It was recommended to me some time ago and I picked it up at the library the other week.  This book is written by the head of the Human Genome Project.  He also happens to be a devout Christian who was deeply inspired by C.S. Lewis's writings.  In fact, Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis was what brought him to Christianity.

In this book, Collins argues that Christianity and science are actually compatible, that the two do not need to have the discordant relationship that they have historically had, particularly in regards to evolution.  He starts the book by giving his personal journey of faith.  He grew up with two hippie, back-to-the-land, adamantly atheist parents who homeschooled him and his brothers.  He went to college and studied physics, before eventually meandering over to the field of medicine.  After talking to a dying patient who asked him about what he believed, he began to rethink everything he'd ever been taught, culminating in his reading of Mere Christianity.

Collins goes on to talk about the arguments that scientists/atheists pose against Christianity, from the argument that so much wrong has been done in the name of Christianity, to the argument that Christianity is not "smart" or "logical".  All of the common arguments were addressed very well.

Next, he talks about the warring viewpoints- creationism, atheism/agnosticism, intelligent design, and his own viewpoint, which he calls biologos, or theistic evolution.  I think that this was probably my favorite section.

I'll leave the rest of the book for you to explore, though.  You really must read it for yourself to get a true idea of what this book is about.

I think that Collins's most powerful argument is that we weaken God when we argue that God would not be real to us if the earth was not created in a literal 7 days, etc.  He talks about how we place this ridiculously human limitations on God.  Collins makes the point that God can, indeed be the master over all areas of science, that science is yet another language of God.  I found this to be a beautiful and poignant message.

This is probably the most controversial book that I've ever reviewed and it feels a little funny writing about something that is a rather tense issue right now.  But, I enjoyed this book and found it to be a thought provoking piece of writing.   If you're interested in this, Collins has also headed up a whole organization/website called BioLogos, or faith and science in harmony.   Here's the link:
http://biologos.org.

This book is for anybody who has ever thought about the rather fraught with tension issue of science and faith.  I think that this book perfectly addressed this issue, if only as a presentation of another position.  I highly recommend it.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Library Loot- 9/12/14

I'm participating in Library Loot from The Captive Reader this week!
"Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries."

I haven't done a Library Loot post in a long time, but, unlike my recent library trips, I actually got a good pile of loot.  Yippee!

1. Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams At Home- This cookbook is one that I have heard rave reviews of and I think I'm going to love it.

2.  Adventures in Yarn Farming- Just a pretty book about raising sheep for wool.  Since we do this, this book holds a special interest.

3.  Longbourn by Jo Baker- A book about life downstairs of Longbourn, the fictional house of Jane Austen's Bennet family.

4.  Crossing on the Paris by Dana Gynther- The story of three women on board a ship in 1921.

5.  The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin- A woman's yearlong journey of returning home to create a warm, happy life with her family.

6.  The Language of God by Francis S. Collins- I think this book is going to be fascinating.  It's written by a scientist who's head of the Human Genome project.  He's also a serious Christian.  It's his defense of why Christianity and science need to have a harmonious relationship, and how they can go about that.

7. Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid- I have this on interlibrary loan right now, so I'm waiting for it to come to my library.  I'm including this, though, because it's practically on my library loot pile!  This book is part of a new project called The Austen Project.



What's on your library loot pile?