The Library by Stuart Kells + current reading

The LIbrary Stuart Kells coverStuart Kells’s The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders was a quick, fun, quirky look at libraries. At 220 or so pages, it’s not comprehensive by any means, but it’s packed with interesting information. It has a loosely historical structure, but it mostly proceeds thematically and skips around in time to make interesting connections among libraries and librarians throughout history. Its chapters are short and focus on topics like library disasters, rapacious book collectors, libraries in fiction, changes over time in how books are stored and displayed, and a lot more. It has chapters on the Morgan library and the Folger library, on the development of the codex and how the printing press changed libraries. In between each main chapter is a short piece telling a story or exploring a topic about books or reading (for example, “Books in Bed” and “Library Fauna.”) This isn’t the book for you if you want an in-depth look at the subject, but it’s perfect for those of us who love libraries and want an entertaining introduction to libraries past and present. The book is great as a celebration of the importance of libraries and all the good stories associated with them.

Now I’m in the middle of two books, first, LaBrava by Elmore Leonard for my mystery book group, and second, Leslie Jamison’s book about addiction, The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath. The Leonard is fast-paced and kind of fun but not really my thing. The second IS my thing, and I’m enjoying it very much. It’s a mix of Jamison’s own experience with addiction and a cultural and sociological look at the subject. It’s a longish book, but thoroughly absorbing.

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There There by Tommy Orange

There There Tommy Orange coverI finished There There by Tommy Orange last night and what a great book it is! It tells the story of a group of Native Americans living in or heading to Oakland, California. You hear early on about a big Oakland Powwow that’s going to happen soon, and the novel moves steadily toward that event. Along the way we meet a range of people: 12 characters of various ages and experiences, each of whom takes a turn being the focus of the story. There are children trying to figure out what it means to be Native, grown-ups dealing with alcoholism and destructive marriages, parents and grandparents worried about or estranged from their children and grandchildren, young people trying to pull their lives together, or feeling pressure from their parents to do so.

I found each of these stories compelling, and as I figured out what was likely to happen at the Powwow, the book became hard to put down. I cared about every one of Orange’s characters. So many of them were struggling with what it means to be Native American — some are mixed race and are uncertain how they feel about being a mix of white and Native. Some don’t know much about their heritage, don’t know what tribe they are from, for example, and some feel awkward claiming Native heritage, particularly if they look “white.” One character learns Native dances by watching YouTube. We see these characters struggle with uncertainty about identity but also how that identity has shaped their lives in profound ways. It’s very moving.

This book is getting a lot of attention right now, and I can see why. I hope it continues to do well and that we get many more novels from Tommy Orange.

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Jane and Dorothy

Jane and Dorothy coverJane and Dorothy: A True Tale of Sense and Sensibility: The Lives of Jane Austen and Dorothy Wordsworth by Marian Veveers was an interesting and enjoyable read. I think it’s best meant for casual fans of Austen and/or Dorothy Wordsworth (probably the former?) rather than for experts or those who have read in-depth biographies of these figures before. But, then, I’ve read biographies of both these writers and I still enjoyed this book, even though it didn’t have information I hadn’t read elsewhere. It’s relatively short for a biography of two writers — just over 300 pages, so for me, it was a quick review of these writers’ lives, plus some compelling points about how the two lives illuminate each other.

As you can tell from the title, Veveers works with the sense and sensibility opposition, in this case Austen being the one more reliant on sense and Wordsworth the one full of sensibility. Veveers complicates this opposition nicely, showing the moments Austen was driven by sensibility and Wordsworth ruled by sense, and she situates the ideas about logic and emotion briefly but effectively in the context of the beginnings of romanticism.

I particularly liked how Veveers uses these two women’s lives to show what life was like for women of their class in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: they both came from privileged but precarious backgrounds and both struggled with money and status their whole lives, even though they reacted to the situation differently, Dorothy choosing to live unconventionally with mixed results and Jane dutifully but often unhappily following family members from house to house as was expected of her. Neither woman married, of course, and Veveers explains well what this meant: they were dependent on family members and not considered high priority enough for anyone to send much money or educational opportunity their way. Both women struggled to find time and solitude enough to devote to their writing.

After reading this and Sharp by Michelle Dean, I’ve decided I like group biographies and also biographies that aren’t particularly thorough, as these two aren’t. I don’t need to know — and will certainly forget — all the details that go into more comprehensive works.

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We Begin Our Ascent, by Joe Mungo Reed

We Begin Our Ascent coverI enjoyed this book so much! It’s perfect for me: a smart, thoughtful, well-written novel about cycling. I’m not sure what non-cycling readers will make of it: I can’t tell because an important part of the experience for me was reading great writing about what it’s like to ride and race, but my guess is they will find much to like in it too.

The novel (to be published on June 19th) tells the story of Sol, a rider in the Tour de France. It takes place over the course of a few days, with flashbacks to how he met his wife Liz, the birth of his infant son, the story of how he got into cycling, and what his years of training were like. Liz is a scientist trying to get some good results in the lab, and one thing I particularly liked about this book is how Reed makes connections between their two careers, both of them involving long hours of tedious work for an uncertain payoff. In both cases, people outside their respective fields don’t understand what they do. Nobody understands why Sol doesn’t try to win stages of the Tour — that’s not his job, which is to help their star climber win — and nobody really gets why Liz puts in such long hours for results that probably won’t revolutionize anything. Reed gets deeply into the nature of work, its meaning, its frustrations, its rituals and intricacies.

Reed’s descriptions of racing are fabulous. Of course, I have no idea what it’s like to ride in the Tour, but I’ve raced and ridden in a pack (the peloton, or the main group of riders), and he captures what it’s like to work together with your competitors, to navigate the elaborate etiquette of cycling: when you should help others (because that means you will be helped too) and when you should break from the pack and try to make a go of it by yourself, when it’s your turn to win the race and when you need to blow yourself up early so a stronger teammate can save crucial energy until the very end. I particularly loved how Reed uses the plural “we” to describe riding in the pack , as though it were a creature of its own, taking on different shapes as the race proceeds. The racing sequences got my heart rate up with the suspense, and I could feel the riders’ exhaustion as they pedaled toward the finish line with nothing left to give.

The novel is also about family life and what it’s like to be a professional couple with a brand new baby. I had to laugh at Sol and Liz’s confidence before the baby was born that they knew how their new life was going to be. The novel takes them in places they never expected to go, both personally and professionally.

Every cyclist who likes to read should pick this book up for sure, but it has a lot to offer for anyone interested in work, family, competition, and ambition, and for anyone who wants an absorbing, thought-provoking, exciting read.

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Sharp, by Michelle Dean

Michelle Dean Sharp coverMichelle Dean’s Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion seems like the perfect book for me — I like reading about women’s history, women writers, literary history, and criticism, and I’m a fan of many of the writers she discusses. Her ten main subjects are Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler, and Janet Malcolm. Dean’s writing is lively and interesting, and she manages to be satisfyingly thorough in a relatively short book by focusing on the women’s writing careers rather than telling their whole biography, although you do get a sense of the shape of their lives. She points out connections among the women — similarities among their lives and the ways they knew each other — and although I found these less compelling than I expected, it didn’t matter because their stories as individuals were enough.

I kept thinking as I read about the fact that all Dean’s examples are white women. She does discuss Zora Neale Hurston briefly, but she’s not one of her featured subjects. She addresses the whiteness of the book briefly in her introduction, saying that because of racism women of color weren’t able to achieve the public status as critics that her chosen white women did. Her project is to look at women with successful careers as critics, and during her time period (basically the entire 20th century), whiteness was a requirement.

This argument makes a certain amount of sense, and I don’t believe it’s helpful to say that authors should have taken on different projects than they did, but, but, but … I would have liked to see more discussion of the racism that made this situation possible, and whether this changed at all as the century went on, at the very least. But even more so I wonder whether taking on a project that focuses on white people only is really a good idea. I can see shifting the terms of the project slightly to include Hurston (and maybe someone like Audre Lorde?) or perhaps extending it further into the 21st century to include Roxane Gay, for example. It’s easy for me to say, as someone who did not write this book, that her project should have been broader, but, as a reader, I can say that I felt the near-total exclusion of voices of color to be unsettling.

So I guess it’s not the perfect book for me, in the end, but I did love reading about Mary McCarthy, Joan Didion, and Janet Malcolm, and seeing them in a different context than I’d seen them in before. And I liked learning more about the other writers whom I’m not so familiar with. I learned a lot about what it was like to be a critic in the 20th century and how tough it was to be an ambitious woman with talent. Things have changed for sure in the early part of the 21st century, but they have not changed nearly enough.

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Recent Reading: 5/1/2018

I’m in the middle of three books, all very different. The first is Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion by Michelle Dean. It’s a look at 10 mid-twentieth-century women critics, including Dorothy Parker, Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, Rebecca West, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler, and Janet Malcolm. I’m loving it so far, about a third of the way in, especially the section on Mary McCarthy. The focus is biographical, with particular attention to how these women’s careers and reputations as critics fared throughout their lives, and also the ways they were in contact with each other and in some cases, friends.

Next is The Leper of St. Giles by Ellis Peters for my mystery book group. This group has been going for ten years now! That’s pretty excellent for a book group, I think. I’ve never read Ellis Peters (I didn’t even realize she was a woman), and about halfway through I’m enjoying it very much. It’s fun to read about medieval England, even though I understand it may not be very historically accurate, and I like Brother Cadfael as a character. The story is fairly slow-moving in a way I like — it takes awhile for a murder to happen, but you have just the right amount of time to get absorbed into the world and the characters.

Finally, I’m listening on audio to Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, about her experiences growing up trans, figuring out her gender identity slowly over time, figuring out how to tell her family about that identity, and figuring out how to make her way in the world. It’s also about growing up poor, in a family that couldn’t always take care of her well, in Hawaii, mostly, and also California and Texas. It’s an interesting story, and the audio is particularly good, read by Mock herself. I’m trying to listen to more audiobooks; I spend a lot of my listening time with podcasts, but want to add more books to the mix.

Book Stack 5.1.2018

And then there’s this stack of books on the table next to my writing space. I’m not sure what I’ll read next, but possibly one of these. The stack includes gifts, books I’ve bought at my local indie, books I got from publishers, books I bought online (because my local store isn’t likely to carry them). Or quite possibly I will read none of these at all! I’m running out of book space and need to do some weeding, ASAP. Story of my life (and probably yours).

What are you reading these days?

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Chemistry, by Weike Wang

Chemistry Weike Wang coverI recently finished the novel Chemistry by Weike Wang, and I liked it so much! It tells the story of a 20-something woman in a chemistry graduate program who is deeply unhappy and figuring out what to do about it. She’s frustrated by her research and her unsupportive advisors. She also doesn’t know what to do about her boyfriend’s marriage proposal. She has been happy with him, more or less, but the idea of marriage really freaks her out, not least because her parents’ marriage was so deeply unhappy. She is also worried about how she will feel if she follows her more-successful boyfriend/husband so he can pursue his career, while her own languishes. Will she end up made miserable by that decision?

The novel is in first person, and I liked the narrator’s voice — it’s thoughtful and quirky, smart and panicked. She brings in scientific concepts to help explain her feelings in a way that’s apt and funny. She’s struggling and only sometimes fully self-aware, and I rooted for her as she took risks and tried out new things, and I admired her stubborn refusal to make decisions when she’s not ready to.

The book gradually reveals what it is in the narrator’s past that makes her so afraid of marriage, and that part is moving, as are her descriptions of what it’s like to be the child of immigrants, trying to make her own way forward while dealing with the weight of her parents’ hopes and expectations.

This is the kind of book where not a whole lot happens, but the interest and enjoyment come from characterization and voice — one of my favorite kinds of fiction.

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