Tag Archives: Reading

Big book of advice makes great good nights

After I glance at the front page of the newspaper every morning, I turn to the advice columns.

(My newspaper nowadays is electronic, and I read it on my iPad. I feel strongly I get the least biased news reports from newspaper; it’s still biased, but less so. If you’re getting all your news on Facebook or 24-hour news networks, please reconsider your sources.)

Beyond the news, I’m addicted to Ask Amy and Carolyn Hax and Dear Abby. But the woman who started it all (or, at least, made it famous) was Ann Landers, otherwise known as Esther Pauline “Eppie” Lederer (she took over the “Ask Ann Landers” column in 1955 a few months before her sister began offering advice under the pen name Abigail Van Buren).

It’s the letters that are so fascinating (though I like comparing my own advice to the column authors’). Truth is stranger than fiction, and people are weird. I suppose the true confession is that the columns made me feel morally superior. “At least I’m not that stupid or crazy.”

In an effort to escape violent television shows and the bombastic talking heads on 24-hour news networks at the end of the day, I recently picked up Ann Landers’ Wake Up and Smell the Coffee! Advice, Wisdom, and Uncommon Good Sense, a whole book of advice columns! It was published in 1996 and a little bit quaint but still compelling. I read a chapter or so of letters and answers before drifting off to sleep, and it was mindlessly satisfying.

Since I love true stories anyway, this was a good way to enjoy true stories without getting wrapped up in a memoir about sorrow, sickness or psychos. The advice guru covers relationships, sex, work, aging, disease and death, all with wit, insight and humor. Ann Landers was a gem, and her book will remind you of it (or introduce you, if you’re a younger type of reader).

Sweet dreams.

Saturday afternoon to-do list

The best use of a Saturday afternoon is reading a book, preferably as the sun streams through a nearby window or better yet, brightly overhead.

luxury reading

Woman Reading by Robert James Gordon

My appointment calendar for 2016 is The Reading Woman, filled with pictures of great works of art of women reading. (Yes, I still use a printed calendar because I’m a paperphile and digital schedules don’t have pretty pictures.) I’d like to think I look like Gordon’s woman when I’m reading, all dressed up and bejeweled, wearing a jaunty hat.

But most Saturdays, I’m more like this woman of a Mentha painting …


Maid Reading in a Library by Edouard John Mentha

I’m immersed in frilly description and ponderous plot. But I should be cleaning.

These eyes couldn’t stay open for Amber Eyes

Raise your hand if you’re the sort to quit reading a book if it’s not so interesting to you.

There are a fair share of you out there, as evidenced by the way Amazon pays authors of Kindle Direct Publishing (quick summary: authors only get paid by the number of pages read in a book, not by the number of books downloaded; apparently a lot of readers download books they never read).

I am not one of those people. Almost always, I subscribe to the Clean Your Plate Club in books as well as, well, plates. Even when I get a box for my leftovers, I almost always eat the leftovers.

The last book I couldn’t stomach finishing was The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, and that was three years ago. March must be the month for unfinishing because I read three chapters last week of The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal before returning it to the lending library.

HareIt was exactly the sort of book I should have enjoyed. It’s non-fiction, it’s about a family’s history told through a collection of Japanese netsuke ornaments they collected, and it’s filled with beautiful descriptions. It came highly recommended by a librarian I once met when I asked her, “Read any good books lately?”

But after yet another description of a building, or world history at the time of one of the long ago character’s lives, I couldn’t take it anymore. The poor man couldn’t find enough actually stories about his ancestors, so he wrote about their homes, their belongings, their context. Too many times in the first 50 pages, I had to return to the beginning of a paragraph to figure out what I was reading about because I had gotten lost in the individual words.

Also, I could tell where the story was going: The Jewish family lost their riches in the war. Except the beautiful netsuke collection. Which included a rabbit with yellow eyes( I guess. I didn’t get that far). Tragic, yes, and poignant, but I wasn’t up to reading about poignant tragedy.

It’s a well-reviewed book (just as The Art of Fielding was), but it’s not for me. As I maintain a to-read list on Goodreads that is more than 200 books long, I am realizing all the more that I won’t be able to read all the books I want to read in my lifetime. There are just too many good books. So why slog through the not-so-good books just to finish them?

It’s obviously a fact a lot of other readers have already figured out.

Finishing this book releases me from the Bondage of an unfinished assignment

Thirty years ago, my Thematic Writing teacher — Mr. Mickelson, I think, but it might have been Miss Sharp — assigned me to read Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham.

I’m happy to report I’ve completed my assignment. On my Kindle, no less!

Of Human BondageAs part of my PopSugar 2015 Reading Challenge, one of the books I was to read was “a book you were supposed to read in school but didn’t.” I know I didn’t read Of Human Bondage because I dutifully reported it in my diary as “a book I was supposed to read for Thematic Writing.”

It’s the coming of age story of Philip Carey from the time of his birth the late 19th century in England until about age 30. An orphan with a club foot, he is brought up by his strict and religious aunt and uncle who hope he enters into a pastoral profession, but he yearns to travel the world freely.

Philip ends up studying in Germany, painting in Paris, hating accounting in London and, finally, taking up medicine. In the meantime, he meets all sorts of people who Maugham generally describes as homely and disgusting in some way. Most horrifying is Mildred, a bitchy waitress (and later, hooker) who repeatedly takes advantage of Philip’s adoration and kindness.

This book is written in formal English (no Valley Girl speak here) and it’s interminable. I can see why I didn’t finish it (or even bother to start it) 30 years ago. But it kind of grew on me. I didn’t care for the way Maugham chose to make his protagonist so indecisive: “He was afraid that Sally by speaking would break the spell, but she said never a word, and he wanted to hear the sound of her voice.” Did Philip want her to speak or not? And I absolutely hated Mildred and longed for Philip to hate her, too, but alas, it was not to be. But Maugham covers a lot of philosophical ground about faith, art, beauty, money and the meaning of life, so this book is a thinker (and believe me, only thinkers are the type to tackle a 30-year-old English assignment). And, I’m happy to report (because I actually got to the end), it has a happy ending (surprise!).

Remarkably, one of the characters commits suicide and twice, Philip seriously considers taking his own life. Also, there’s Mildred as a painted lady and brief references to venereal disease and teenage pregnancy. This is a book assigned to high schoolers to read? I mean, I would let my teenager read it (how impressive would that be!), but I can imagine some parents freaking out.

With Of Human Bondage, I’ve read 38 books this year, which puts me squarely nine books behind schedule to accomplish my goal of 63 books. With three months left in the year, it’s not looking good. But hey, I finished one of my high school reading assignments today, so I’m feeling totally, like, rad, um, ya know?

What a beach read represents

Copacetic is a great word. It means in excellent order. I use it when the boat of life is even keel. No waves. No storms. No holes in the hull.

Things are copacetic right now. The boat is floating along the river, and I’m admiring the view. Or trying to.

My Type A personality doesn’t always jibe with copacetic. I used to work in a newspaper newsroom where half the people were yelling into the phone and the other half were on deadline. And sometimes both. Constant crisis. I enjoyed it. I’m able to focus better and remain calm when craziness reigns. Time flies when work is like that.

But when I dream of time off, I dream of afternoon coffees and books. Lots of books. And reading a book is most enjoyable when there are no waves or deadlines. It’s summertime, my goodness, when the living is easy! Why do book lovers talk about beach reads? There are waves, yes, but no deadlines on the beach. Ah, relax.

A trip is coming up, and I dug up eight — yes, eight! — books I need to take with me (shh, don’t tell my Beloved —  he says my books add unnecessary weight to the camper). Life is copacetic, and I’m going to enjoy reading some books.

An argument for summer reading

I’m way behind on my reading goal for the year (63 books, remember?!) so instead of writing a proper post, I’m going to go read and leave you with this quote:

“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.”

~ Oscar Wilde

If depressing subject matter is up your alley, read this book

Well, reading the book gives me the opportunity to check off “a book with antonyms in the title” from my 2015 PopSugar Reading Challenge, but that’s the best I can say about Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo.

As my mother recently remarked about my blog, “What I like about what you write is that we are never left wondering what you really think about a subject!”

beautiful foreversI hated this book. I spent money and time on it only so I could contribute to the conversation about it in book club. I wish I could forget the smell of trash and sewage, the images of death and the intractability of the problems exposed in this story. To be fair, many readers in my book club gave the book a 5 out of 5 rating for its investigative journalism and educational value.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is the story of Abdul (and about a hundred other residents — try keeping all of them straight) and his life in Annawadi, an illegal slum of trash, sewage and corruption outside the Mumbai airport. Author Katherine Boo, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, writes poetically and politically about the horrors of poverty in India; she thoroughly covers “life” and “death” but I found zero “hope” in the narrative.

It’s a true story, I found out at the end in reading the author’s note. I wish it would have been placed at the beginning of the book. Though thoroughly documented (she goes to great pains to point out), I found Boo’s pitying, judging perspective to be overwhelming.

This is one of those books that gets good reviews because the author suffered so much in getting the story (oh, and she’s from New York, at least part of the time; everything that comes out of the New York literary scene is wonderful). It uses a lot of big words  — wow, I’m so impressed with your command of the English language (thank goodness I read it on Kindle with its click-to-define dictionary). This work is not for anyone who prizes a logical plot and compelling distraction.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is daring, I’ll give it that, and dark. Proceed at your own risk.

Beautiful Girl’s story teetered on the edge of a little too unbelievable

Book clubs come in all kinds of flavors.

Some book clubs are really just a social hour.

There are the ones that meet only as an excuse to drink wine.

A few book clubs — my dream book clubs, especially if they’re designed around memoirs — have themes and decorations and food to match the chosen book.

Some book clubs actually discuss the book!

Sometimes, members of book clubs dwell on the story. Some discuss in detail the writing, reading their favorite lines. Some follow the reading club questions to the letter, some ignore them entirely. Some wish others wouldn’t spoil the story by revealing the ending (I hate those members — it’s a book club! Read the book!).

I found a local book club, just by chance. The flyer posted in the laundry room listed this week’s book, The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon.

(At first I assumed there was a missing article — “a” or “the.” Nope. Beautiful Girl is a character.)

On a quest to read 63 books this year, I took up the challenge of reading the book in time for this morning’s meeting. I downloaded it Saturday and polished it off at 11 p.m. last night (I violated one of my resolutions this year to quit looking at lighted screens after 9 p.m., but I made an exception in this case because I hate it when book club members don’t. Read. The book.)

I’m counting it as “a book by an author you’ve never read before” (PopSugar 2015 Reading Challenge). Apparently Simon wrote a memoir about her developmentally disabled sister (Riding the Bus with My Sister) but I haven’t read it.

beautiful girlSimilarly, The Story of Beautiful Girl is about a developmentally challenged young woman, only this woman is entirely fictional. She gets pregnant, gives up her baby and loses her true love, a black deaf-mute man named Homan.

Beginning in 1968, the story is about Beautiful Girl, but it’s also about those horrible state institutions where people like Beautiful Girl and Homan were relegated.

Let’s just say, I liked the book club more than I liked the book.

First of all, everyone read the book (except one lady, who hadn’t quite finished yet, but wasn’t one of those overbearing “don’t reveal the ending” types).

We talked more about the story and the setting than the writing, but I picked up a lot of local gossip and neighborhood tips.

Honestly, I didn’t care for Simon’s writing. A lot more “tell” than “show”: “Julia bounded ahead, her green dress, white suede jacket, and patent-leather Mary Janes making her more stylish than most people on the Cape, who preferred blue jeans and light jackets.” No. Please stop. If the patent-leather Mary Janes don’t play a role in the story, I don’t care.

And, like so much fiction I don’t care for, the story was just a little too neat. It reminded me of Forrest Gump — an amazing story, sure, but everything just falls into place a little too perfectly.

Simon, however, does an excellent job of creating suspense, and I was hooked after Chapter 1, even though I quibbled with some of the plot points.

The book has appeal for reader who might know developmentally disabled people because Simon does a decent job of portraying the world from their perspective, but if that’s your interest, I’d recommend John Elder Robison’s memoir Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s, which I appreciated more.

On the other hand, if you’re reading it for a book club, it’s worth finishing!

Taking on a reading challenge, with a few twists

With a vague resolution like “reading paper books,” I tightened it up a bit (a lot) with my Goodreads 2015 Reading Challenge: Read 63 books.

Why 63? It has to do with math. And percentages. And weird stuff people who like to read (instead of do accounting) wouldn’t really appreciate. But 63, it is.

When I ran across this cool way at PopSugar to add structure to my goal, I was enamored. Thanks to Rhonda at My Story Saved for sharing it.


I have completed my first book of the year, The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball, which I’m going to categorize as “a book your mother loves” because my mother lent it to me and all the description of farming reminds me a little bit of my mother’s father, my grandfather. (I’ll review this book, a memoir, on my author blog soon.)

I’m not sure what I’m going to do about “a graphic novel” — that will be an entirely new experience for me. And “a book that takes place in your hometown” might be tricky; I’m the only person I know who’s written about Wadena, Minn. But in these cases and others, maybe I’ll discover wonderful books I might not have otherwise.

My Top 5 best books I read in 2014

It’s the time of year to assess one’s accomplishments and progress in the past 12 months, and today I’m sorry to admit I’ve read only 21 books in 2014.

I’m a writer after all, and good writers read. My goal was to read 57 books so I didn’t achieve even half my aspiration. I know this thanks to the Goodreads Reading Challenge which tracks my reading achievements meticulously. I also know I have 138 books marked “to read,” which symbolizes nearly seven years of reading at the rate I’m going.

So I need to step it up in 2015.

While I set some new goals, I’m sharing my favorite books from the past year so if you’re interested in adding to your already long reading list, here are some good ones.

I’m giving Honorable Mentions to two fiction books and one memoir:

“Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn lives up to the hype. Reading the book is an experience. I saw the movie, too, and I have to appreciate Ben Affleck’s portrayal of a thoroughly unlikable guy, but the book is even better. Read with popcorn if necessary.

“The Middle Place” by Kelly Corrigan was the second-best memoir I read this year. Corrigan writes about cancer with humor, and I loved her nonlinear storytelling.

I chose only one fiction book and one memoir as my Best In Show reads this year, so “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt has to settle for an Honorable Mention, but I love this book so much I’m still carrying it around (and I mean that literally). The writing is descriptive in fresh ways, and the story is so satisfying. The only thing wrong with this book is the length, and that’s only a problem if you’re trying to read 57 books in a year. I still savored every word.

My Best In Show award for fiction goes to a fine book recommended by many friends who got to it sooner than I did: “The Poisonwood Bible” by Barbara Kingsolver has been around a while, but it’s still a marvelous read that raises real and important questions about the world while telling a compelling story. I’m reminded to read more Barbara Kingsolver.

Interestingly, like “The Poisonwood Bible” is set in the Congo, my Best In Show memoir is also set in an exotic locale: “A Fort of Nine Towers: An Afghan Family Story” tells the story of Afghanistan’s recent history while telling the personal story of memorist Qais Akbar Omar. I met him when he spoke at this year’s Association of Personal Historians annual conference, and the only thing better than his book is hearing him share his humor and earnestness in person.

In my review of “A Fort of Nine Towers” from my blog on memoirs and writing, I called it “a piece of literature, an enlightening historical and cultural document and a beautifully told story.” Even two months after finishing it, I remember how I wept when I closed the last page, so sorry the story had ended but relieved knowing Qais Akbar Omar was still living and creating more if his story. That’s a sign of a great memoir and book.

Have you read something amazing in 2014? I’m making my list for 2015, and I’d love to hear recommendations. Here’s to more good reads in the coming year.