Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Creeping Shadow

The Creeping Shadow (Lockwood & Co. #4), by Jonathan Stroud

I really enjoy these Lockwood & Co. books.  They are just so much fun, and they keep moving; the series isn't getting stale.

In this fourth installment, Lucy has been on her own for some months; she's lonely, but she doesn't have time to do anything but work and sleep.  Lockwood offers her a commission for a particularly tricky job, and then a little kid shows up asking for help for his village, which is coming under massive attack.  What is causing this sudden and deadly outbreak in a remote village?

In every book, we (and the characters) find out a little more about the world and how the Problem works.  They tackle different things every time and find out more.

Lucy, the narrator, is a great character; she's smart and practical, and very matter-of-fact about her work.  She's never clearly described, but she's messy and bedraggled and impatient with anyone who isn't fine with that.  She doesn't have time for it, and she's no good at it anyway.  Still, it makes her nervous, which makes her angry, and she works through her difficulties without ever discussing them outright.

Fun middle-grade ghost stories.  I love 'em.

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Secret River

The Secret River, by Kate Grenville

I scootched in just before the deadline!  I wanted to participate in Brona's AusReading Month, so I picked out a book that's been on my mental (not literal) TBR pile for a few years--Kate Grenville's The Secret River, which (in case you care) won the Commonwealth Prize and was in the finals for the Man Booker Prize.  I got kind of bogged down when it became obvious that really unhappy things were going to take place, but then I gathered up my courage and read the second half in a day.

William Thornhill is a London waterman who--like most laborers--steals here and there to get by.  When he's caught, he's sentenced to death, but gains a merciful sentence of transportation, together with his beloved wife Sal and their baby.  He lands in Sydney in 1806, and after years of labor, gains his own ship and a route carrying goods between tiny farms and the town.  Will's dream is to own some land himself, but eventually he has to deal with the people who already live there.

Grenville's writing is lovely, and it's easy to be drawn into Will and Sal's lives.  We actually get Will's entire life story, and honestly I enjoyed that part most.  None of Will's life is fun or anything, but the London part is easier to read.   But, while I liked Sal a lot, I do not love Will.  He seems...wishy-washy to me; he often doesn't so much make decisions as just float along, even when he knows he's following men who aren't worth a thing.  Although Will is the one whose head we live in, I understand Sal a lot better.

A very good novel, but no light or enjoyable read, or one that I will return to with fond memories.  Hard stuff.

The Importance of Being Little

The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownups, by Erika Christakis

I'd heard great things about this book!  It's been widely praised, and also Erika Christakis is interesting anyway, because if you recall the Yale kerfuffle of Halloween 2015, she was the person who wrote the email suggesting that college students are adults who can choose and police their own costumes.  (I think her email was too long and diffuse, which made it easy to lose the core message.  But anyway.)  Christakis has since left Yale, which, judging by this fantastic book, is their loss.

Preschool.  Some parents see it as the beginning of the road to Harvard; others are skeptical but worried.  Important people in Washington say it's the key to better equality and the US should have universal preschool.  On the ground, actual preschool teachers are frequently pressured to do things that they know are not best for their little charges, and they don't get any respect to speak of.  What do preschoolers need, how do we give it to them, and are worksheets the answer?

Christakis talks about what it is like to be a small child in a world designed for grownups, and what small children need.  She talks about how brilliant little children are, how to support their learning, and how to find space for them.  She knows that many hard-working parents need preschool and daycare, and that a good preschool can be wonderful, while a school with inappropriate demands and overwhelmed, undertrained teachers can be damaging.  Christakis explains that preschool teacher quality (and freedom) is worth investing in, and why.

Do little children need a lot of schooling?  They benefit from appropriate teaching, but that never means that worksheets, sitting still for long periods, or trying to teach school skills too early is a good idea.  It is strange that we know how important unstructured play is, and that worksheets are bad for small children, and yet we keep making the official standards less and less appropriate, and taking away important physical challenges in the name of safety.

Since Christakis' opinions are much the same as mine, I spent a good deal of this book feeling ever so slightly smug and vindicated.  But I also learned a lot of new stuff, which was great!  Not quite as great was the three days I spent with "Willoughby Wallaby Wee" playing in my head.  I never liked that song, but her point in quoting it--that nursery rhymes and songs are important elements in learning phonemic awareness, which in turn is essential for reading later on--is bang on.

I liked this bit, and I marked it, so I'll quote it here:
My children outsmarted me from infancy. [Examples of children's cleverness] I assumed I could be forgiven for thinking my kids were--well, if not geniuses, at least a little special.  Then I started teaching preschool and realized not only that there was nothing virtuoso about my children but that, on the contrary, their stunts were completely bog standard.
This is a pretty great book that I enjoyed a lot and hardly put down until I finished it.  Christakis is not only and intelligent expert in her field; she's also an engaging writer with lots to say.  If you have small children--if your children are still under the age of ten, in fact--I think you should consider this required reading.  Even if you don't, education is a big topic and it doesn't hurt to know something about it.  Besides, it's always a good idea to know more about the people around you, even if they are less than three feet tall.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Mount TBR Challenge 2017

My word, it's already time to start signing up for next year's reading challenges, can you believe it?  I'm not quite ready to really get going on that, but I do know a few I'll be signing up for, so I might as well get started.  And if you know of any cool challenges, let me know!  I'm on the lookout for a good medieval lit one, and I wouldn't say no to a Russian lit challenge.  But for now, let's talk TBR piles!  Mine is bigger now than it was this time last year...

(Personal update: I have lots of great books to tell you about!  I'm also currently run off my feet.  My kids have no school this week, and I thought we'd relax a bit, though I'm still working.  Ha ha ha.  I've barely been home, and I'm so tired I can hardly think straight.  I'm longing to write some good long booky posts, and also to work on my current fabulous quilt project which is very close to being ready to put together...I'll post pictures when the top is done.)

Bev at My Reader's Block is hosting her traditional Mount TBR Challenge again, which is very good news for me.  My personal TBR mountain gets bigger all the time, and in fact this time I'm going to have to start off committing to the 24-book level instead of the 12, like I usually do.  The rules:

Challenge Levels:

Pike's Peak: Read 12 books from your TBR pile/s

Mount Blanc: Read 24 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Vancouver: Read 36 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Ararat: Read 48 books from your TBR piles/s
Mt. Kilimanjaro: Read 60 books from your TBR pile/s
El Toro: Read 75 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Everest: Read 100 books from your TBR pile/s

Mount Olympus (Mars): Read 150+ books from your TBR pile/s

And the rules:
*Once you choose your challenge level, you are locked in for at least that many books. If you find that you're on a mountain-climbing roll and want to tackle a taller mountain, then you are certainly welcome to upgrade.  All books counted for lower mountains carry over towards the new peak.

*Challenge runs from January 1 to December 31, 2017.

*You may sign up anytime from now until November 1st, 2017.

*Books must be owned by you prior to January 1, 2017. No library books. 

Check out Bev's post for the rest of the rules; she has lots of explanations for what to do in special cases and so on, which is handy.  That 'no library books' rule is getting to be tricky for me now--I have a pile of library books from work (which means I can keep them for extra time as long as nobody else wants them) that is sort of a 'library TBR' too!  Somebody oughta host a special challenge for out-of-control librarians.

So here I am, signing up for the Mount Blanc level of 24 books.  And I'd better hope that I do better than that!

I hope you all have a lovely, peaceful Thanksgiving and/or weekend.  May there be lots of pie, whether you are American or not. :)

Monday, November 21, 2016

9 Rabbits

Mystery cover explained below
Nine Rabbits, by Virginia Zaharieva

Waaaaay back in the spring, Thomas at My Two Stotinki hosted a giveaway of two Bulgarian novels.  To my delight, I won this copy of 9 Rabbits, and he sent it off.  It showed up at my house about four months later, having been through a postal odyssey, and I had about given up hope--but it did arrive!  And so I read it.

I honestly can't quite tell whether this is a novel, a memoir, or--I'm pretty sure--a mix of both.  It reads like a memoir, sort of, and quite a bit of it seems to be from Zaharieva's own life.  It's all in little vignette chapters.

The first part of the book is about childhood; little Manda lives with her grandmother, in the country, and every so often her grandfather or her mother shows up.  There are cousins and uncles, adventures on the shore, and a lot of gardening.  Grandmother is no kindly nurturer.  She's an unstable despot most of the time, angry at the world and her family.

Manda then jumps into adulthood, 30+ years later, a modern Bulgarian woman with an endless appetite for life.  The vignettes become an avalanche of feeling and activity as she figures out who she is.
How I would love to be able to simply flip over and fall cosily back to sleep, snuggle up to Christos with his scent of cookies in the obliging darkness, the result of three thick curtains.  But for two years now, someone has been waking up inside me.  Some woman?  She wants to get up early; she doesn't care about my exhaustion and imposes all sorts of activities on me IMMEDIATELY!  Thousands of thoughts rush into my head about everything done and not done, who said what yesterday -- shards of dreams go flying and I have to hastily leave the bed so as not to go mad.  I open my eyes, and if it's a bright sunny day outside, I wrap my head up so as not to see the light, the dawning day and all that impendingness.  The horror that yet another day is opening up and I don't know why I'm living it.
I didn't really find it very easy to read; it was kind of overwhelming, having all this stuff poured out of the book.  I therefore read it at a fairly slow pace.  I'll have to read it again someday and absorb it better.

I really appreciate Thomas sending me this book so I can learn some more about modern Bulgarian literature! 


It took me well over a week to figure out that the cover image is a very, very close-up photo of a large tomato with a little split at the bottom.  There is a cookbook included along with the novel and it has a photo of the same tomato at regular size.  The recipes are all taken straight from the book, so they aren't any different, but it's quite handy to have them in a place of their own so I can try them out.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Great Speeches of Frederick Douglass

Great Speeches by Frederick Douglass, ed. by James Haley

This is one of the younger books on my TBR pile; I traded my friend James my copy of The Souls of Black Folk for this and Up From Slavery.  I've read Douglass' Life and Narrative a couple of times, and sometime soon I'd like to read his other writings as well. 

This is a small selection of speeches; Frederick Douglass must have given many, many more during his long public career.  They span over fifty years, from 1841 to 1894, which in itself is pretty awe-inspiring.

Early speeches are hard-hitting pieces about the evils of slavery and then one just after the Civil War about what to do next.  Douglass must have been amazing to listen to; these talks are so eloquent and heart-piercing to read, and they were meant to be spoken.  Later talks are narrower in subject; there's an oration in memory of Lincoln, a very long piece on John Brown (I was surprised to learn that Douglass and Brown were acquainted with each other), and one on 'self-made men.'

Douglass served as the ambassador to Haiti in the late 19th century, and a long lecture on that country is included here.  He extols the beautiful, lush countryside, describes exports and imports, and says that Haiti can be a really prosperous place if they can just stop having coup attempts all the time.  It's sad to read about so much hope and possibility for a place that I know to be very different 100 years later.

These are well worth reading.  Inspiring, heart-breaking, and insightful.

Monday, November 14, 2016

I can't hide forever, but I can hide for a week.

I have been unable to think of anything to say since the election.  Sure, I have plenty of thoughts, but I can't seem to put them into coherent paragraphs that say what I want to say (and probably nobody is too worried about my opinion anyway).  I'm certainly having a hard time facing the thought of the next four years, and while my natural bent is to be an optimist and give things a chance to work out, it's not looking great so far.

I'll come back to posting about books soon.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

How to Manage Your Home Without Losing Your Mind

How to Manage Your Home Without Losing Your Mind, by Dana K. White

Note:  I'm posting this a couple of days before the release date on Tuesday, because there are a couple of little bonuses if you pre-order and I would be sad if you wanted to get them and couldn't, because I waited too long and you didn't see it in time.

Dana White runs a blog and podcast for people who struggle with housekeeping (like me!).  I've been reading A Slob Comes Clean for about a year now, and it's the chronicle of Dana's own struggles and hard-earned lessons on how to really, actually keep your house reasonably clean.  She calls it Reality-Based Cleaning. 

Now, if you are a person who doesn't have too hard a time with this stuff, this book is not for you.  It's written for those of us with Slob Vision -- the inability to really see a mess or a pile until it smacks us in the face.  It's for those of us capable of being completely surprised to find a sink overflowing with dirty dishes when we didn't do the dishes the night before.

Dana understands, and has figured out a few ways to cope, which she now shares, including:
  • the few basic habits that really will make a big difference if you make sure to do them every day
  • letting go of project-based or perfectionist thinking 
  • pre-made decisions!
  • developing days for jobs 
  • the truly revolutionary realization about containers   (this is a big one for me!)
  • the two decluttering questions, which are pretty genius honestly
I've been working on these habits myself, and I am actually seeing real improvement in my life.  So I'm here to tell you that Dana has been the most helpful to me of any cleaning/organization writer I've read--and I have read a lot of them.  I am much, much better at reading about housekeeping than I am at actually doing it; heck, I enjoy reading housekeeping books regardless of their applicability to my life!  But this has been the most applicable and encouraging book so far.

This is not to say that my life is just like hers, or that every single thing matches up.  Laundry may be the only thing that I am really pretty good at, while Dana considers it one of her biggest challenges.  But the key is to adapt and tweak things to our own lives.

Dana is also a talented writer with a great sense of fun.  The book is just a kick to read. 

 ...the five­ minute pickup is the perfect habit to turn into a family task. 
But, again, don’t judge this family habit on the first day. The first day won’t be pretty. I don’t recommend making your first day their first day. Let them see you setting the timer and working for five minutes. Be the example of how this works, the proof that we’re really only talking about five minutes and not the frantic whole­-house­-clean­-up­-before­-Grandma­-arrives that they’re used to. 
But even if they’ve seen (and actually noticed) you doing daily five­ minute pickups, that first time as a family will be rough and not the least bit fun. Your otherwise intelligent children may claim to have never known where scissors or glue or toothpaste go. They will suddenly feel exhausted and suffer headaches and leg pain, and they may stare blankly past your shoulder in confusion when you remind them where you’ve kept the laundry hamper for all the days of their lives. 
The first day will be horrible. Working together, you’ll get significantly less done than if you had done it by yourself. You’ll spend the entire time directing and reminding and threatening motivating.
This is one of my favorite passages, about how she would kill herself cleaning and organizing, only to find herself back where she started:
After all that work, all that sweat and stress and angst, I’d swear I was going to keep my home this way. This time. 
Three days later, I looked around and gasped. My home was worse than it was before I started cleaning for the party. Clutter had reappeared, dishes were piled in the sink, and the floor was scattered with dirty socks. 
All that work, and I had been betrayed. My project energy was gone, and my heart was broken once again by my cruelly messy house. With each failure, my cynicism increased. I accepted the hopelessness of my situation a little more. 
The problem? Those three days between Party Ready and Disaster Status. They were a black hole in my Slob Brain. I honestly didn’t understand what had happened during those three days.
 "My cruelly messy house" perfectly describes how I feel sometimes.

I also got a copy of a short bonus book called 14 Days to Opening Your Front Door to Guests.  This  is a single-purpose book; it's only about what to do if your house is a disaster and you're having guests over (for whatever reason, it doesn't have to be Thanksgiving).  It's also possibly the single most useful book on the subject I've ever read; it's got laser focus and pulls no punches about the goal.  If you pre-order the book, you get this little book as a bonus.

Conclusion: if you're a messy person with housekeeping problems, you need this book.  Plus it's really fun to read.

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Something Wicked This Way Comes

Never actually seen this movie
Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury

Witch Week culminates in our readalong of what might be the quintessential American fantasy novel about Halloween.  I first read Something Wicked This Way Comes about 25 years ago as a teen in Denmark, when I found the small English-language section of the local library and read my way through most of it.  I was nowhere close to being able to read well in Danish yet, and I was dying for books!  Something Wicked This Way Comes was the first one I read, and I only remember one other book from that section (Evil Under the Sun, by Agatha Christie--I'd never really read Christie before).  Anyway, I loved it.  I'd always liked Bradbury's short stories, but I think this was the first time I read one of his novels.

Is there anyone who writes like Bradbury?  I don't think so.  In my opinion he's pretty amazing.  That's not to say that his exuberant, sensory-overload style doesn't get a little tiring in large doses--maybe that's why he mostly wrote short stories, and his novels aren't all that long.

Will and Jim, neighbors and best friends, do everything together.  When a carnival comes to town in October, they sneak out to watch it setting up, but this is not your average carnival; there is something very wrong with Cooger & Dark's show.  They offer entertainment and magic, but in fact they'll consume your soul and crunch your bones, and the boys are not at all sure how they will escape.

Something Wicked This Way Comes is, most of all, a paean to American boyhood--to the joys of running, swiping peaches, and lazy days in the grass, and to the difficult parts too.  It's odd to read now, though, because that kind of boyhood has vanished, never to return. 

It's a wonderful, beautiful, spooky and shivery novel, and I'm glad to have had the chance to re-read it.  It's lodged in my mind for years, even though I'd only read it once and I'd forgotten all but a few phrases and the feeling. 

*It's probably silly that this  book is the main reason that I have never read The Night Circus; I can't help thinking that it will be a pale imitation.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Nonfiction November I

Well, I'm already late to the party, but why not participate anyway?  This week's question, hosted by Kate of Doing Dewey is:

Your Year in Nonfiction: Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What is one topic or type of nonfiction you haven’t read enough of yet? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

 First I had to look back and see what nonfiction I've read this year.  I thought it wasn't very much and that I'd been doing a lot of fiction.  While I think I really have read less nonfiction this year, there has still been plenty.  I read travel, history, art, language, home organization, and literary criticism, and right now I'm reading about the needs of preschoolers.  So I've got plenty to talk about!

Favorite nonfiction read of the year: This is a very tough question.  I adored The Art of Dress; it pushed every happy button I've got.  History!  Fabric!  So did Home Fires, about the Women's Institute in WWII.  I love those topics.  But Up From Slavery was truly inspiring, and so was Man's Search for Meaning

Nonfiction book I have recommended the most: That would be either The Art of Dress again or The Broken Road, the third in a travel trilogy. 

A topic I haven't read enough about yet: history!  I have several massive history tomes on my shelf, including The Cold War and Gulag, that I haven't yet gotten to.  This has been a very Russia/Cold War year for me; I've read two Gorky memoirs, Escape From the Soviets, and Revolutionary Days, among others.

What do I want out of this event: Inspiration to read more, and recommendations (since my TBR isn't huge enough, ha).

The Two Bouquets

The Two Bouquets, by Eleanor Farjeon

This is a sweet little novelette based on an operetta (!) by Eleanor and her brother, Herbert.  The musical ran in London for 9 months in 1936, and for six weeks on Broadway.  It was revived in 1952 and has probably never been seen since, but it is a fun, fluffy little story and I'd love to see it performed; I bet it's very enjoyable.  The music is all Victorian songs, because the story is set in 1876.

Kate and Laura are cousins, and each is in love with a young man.  Both fellows are coming to the ball that Kate's mother is hosting tonight, but they're a bit worried about how their suits will be received, and so they each buy a bouquet that will do the talking for them.  But Kate's brother has been up to a few shenanigans of his own, and he mixes up the bouquets, with interesting results.  Everyone is at cross purposes, which get crosser and crosser until Regatta Day is rained out.

A Bollywood director could profitably steal this plot and tweak it to suit.  It would make a great Bollywood movie!  Deepika Padukone as Laura, Shahid Kapoor could be Julian...yeah.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Glass Menagerie

The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams

It's my second Tennessee Williams play!  Next thing you know, I'll be reading Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

This is an intense family play that makes you feel shut in.  It has only four characters and takes place entirely in the family apartment, and is narrated by the brother Tom from years later.  Amanda, the mother, is a former belle who loves to reminisce about her beaus, because now she works hard to make ends meet and worries all the time about what will become of her children.  Tom, an aspiring poet, works in a warehouse to support the family but is dying to get out and get free.  He spends all his time out 'at the movies.'  Laura is very fragile and cripplingly shy; she dropped out of high school and then secretarial school, hardly ever goes out, and spends much of her time polishing her collection of glass animals.

Amanda hounds Tom into bringing home a coworker, Jim, in hopes that Laura will find a beau or two.  Jim happens to be the popular high-school boy she had a crush on, and she panics, but then they have a nice conversation alone.  Jim encourages Laura to think more of herself, and she lights up; he even kisses her.  But then he mentions his engagement, and she is--quietly--crushed.  Tom, meanwhile, is preparing his getaway, and leaves his mother and sister to fend for themselves, never to return.

Amanda reminds me of Mrs. Bennett.  She is so afraid--with good reason--of what will happen to her children that she hectors them constantly and makes herself a blight upon their lives.  I have a hard time liking Tom; it's easy to sympathize with his frustration, less so with his willingness to leave Laura on her own.

Glass Menagerie is Williams' first big play, the one that gave him fame.  It's also semi-autobiographical, with the characters based on his own family--he is Tom.  Williams' mother was inclined to intensity and his sister, whom he was quite close to, was mentally fragile.  Tragically, she was subjected to a lobotomy (which horrified Williams, who was not informed) and spent the rest of her life in institutions, with part of Williams' fortunes going to support her care.

The play opened in 1945 and was soon a hit.  The actress who played Amanda, Laurette Taylor, was so well regarded that very few Amandas since have been able to measure up.  It's interesting to see who has played in various revivals or films of the play; most recently, Zachary Quinto played Tom a few years ago.

I'm glad I'm finally getting around to reading some of these classic American plays that I've never read before.  My American literature really is awful and it's good to work on it.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

In Search of Ireland

In Search of Ireland, by H. V. Morton

I love reading H. V. Morton's travel books!  If you're not familiar with the name, he was a journalist who got lucky--he broke the story of the opening of King Tutankhamen's tomb in 1922.  After that he did a lot of travel writing, about the British Isles, parts of Europe, and the Holy Land. 

In Search of Ireland is the chronicle of a trip made in about 1929, so Eire is newly independent, and that made it really exciting to read.  Morton starts in Dublin and talks a lot about the heroes of the Irish independence movement, as well as the current political climate.  He has a lot of sympathy for the Irish point of view and wishes several times for the Irish equivalent of Sir Walter Scott, pointing out that Irish history is an enormous trove of dashing, romantic stories that would make wonderful novels.  (Morton is writing so early that he's beforehand on the massive wave of Irish travel, memoir, and romance that has been written since, although I don't know of a Walter Scott counterpart--anyone?)

From Dublin, Morton goes south and eventually makes a circuit around the whole island that mostly sticks to the edges; he never gets further inland than Armagh.  In every location, he describes the landscape, some history, and the current people.  He meets cottage dwellers, sailors, and townsfolk, stays at a monastery, describes a curragh, and most everything else you could wish for.  He mourns the constant loss of younger people to America and describes how many Irish people feel closer to New York than to London because they have siblings there and often plan to go themselves. 

He describes the Book of Kells and adds detail I wasn't aware of, which helped me make more sense of a lovely animated film we have enjoyed several times, The Secret of Kells.  (If you've never seen it, watch it--it's on Netflix).

Morton also crosses the new border into Northern Ireland and travels around there, making sure to stop at the Giant's Causeway, a spot that I would certainly love to visit (along with all of Ireland!).  He spends a good amount of time in Armagh and eventually winds up closing the circle. 

He goes into absolute raptures over quite a lot of the landscape, wondering why no one has yet done literary justice to Killarney or any other beautiful spot he comes across.  Of course, nowadays it's been done many times over!

It's a lovely travel book in its own right, but the fact that it was written in about 1930, so soon after independence and before many others had yet gotten to writing about Ireland, gives it a good deal of added interest.  If you're interested in Irish travel or history, it should be required reading.