Sunday, April 28, 2013

Book Speed-Dating Report

Last Sunday, I took a picture of all the books I had on hand from the first/earliest page of my GoodReads To-Read list.  I pledged to speed-date all of them before May 1 and report back.  I sat and read 30-50 pages of each one* and I'm ready to delete a few from my to-read list!

First of all, the date that surprised me the most - The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing.  I have had a copy of this for at least four years, probably longer, and kept not even trying it because of its heft.  The 50 pages went quickly and I actually hated to stop reading - the female characters are strong and pass the Bechdel Test (I know that's a film concept, but it stuck out enough to me even in a novel to make note of it).  They talk to each other in a similar way to how I talk to my friends.  I immediately told a few of them to find a copy so we could read it together.  This book is definitely the equivalent to a girls night out, at least so far.  And when a man comes along, there isn't any moving over or backing down.  Consider this retort, which has a lot of retaliation embedded in it:
"Or perhaps what it is you don't like is that I do know what I want, have always been prepared to experiment, never pretend to myself the second rate is more than it is, and know when to refuse. Hmmmm?"  
Haha, this will be a fun read.  I will definitely be calling this one back.

Other good dates included Matrimony by Joshua Henkin, which looks to be an easy read; Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, and Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks.  Oliver Sacks is like the lonely guy who hasn't had anyone to talk to for a while, but has a lot of trivia to entertain his dates with, and hey, I'll bite.  Loving Frank is a compelling mixture of historical figure and fictional memoir that is easy to read.  I feel like I'll finish it feeling I learned something about Frank Lloyd Wright while simultaneously questioning everything I've learned, and that it will make me want to read even more about him.

I did have a few books I will not be calling back.  I feel the need to say that this is not exactly a judgment on the book, but that it is not a match for me.  Some reader out there will be much happier with it, and I release it back into the dating *cough* reading pool. 

My only other qualm is that the majority of what I'm rejecting is all books of short stories, and perhaps I'm just not in the mood for short stories.  Maybe I will be someday! Maybe I should hold on to - NO.  The entire point is to clean out the list.  So the books I'm rejecting completely are only three out of the fourteen.  Not the best odds if my only goal was to delete a book from the list, but not too shabby when you consider their careful consideration.  Those books include The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits by Emma Donoghue - this is the second book I've tried from Donoghue's earlier period, and it just goes soundly under the category of "not my thing."  The time period feels too forced to me, and I don't like lengthy descriptions of ribbons.  The subject matter of the first story didn't settle very well with me either, so it was an easy one to put aside.  I'm also rejecting Mothers and Sons by Colm Toibin because I didn't connect with it, and Rabbit, Run by John Updike because I KNOW THIS IS A CLASSIC BUT I JUST CAN'T MAKE MYSELF READ IT.  Feel free to try to talk me down.  This is the second time I've tried this book, basically I told him to go home and shower and get a haircut, and tried a trade paperback as an upgrade from my previous mass market paperback.  It didn't help. I can't stand the main character, ugh.

The rest of the books from the previous pile, I'm going to keep reading.*  I might postpone Children of God for a bit because it was too intense for where I am at the moment.

*Okay one book I cancelled the date with.  I have read the first few pages before, I remember a tennis match, but I just wasn't in the right frame of mind to see him again so soon.  So his mother continues to guilt trip me when he sees me at the laundromat.  "We're perfect for each other," she insists. 

Maybe someday.

The End of the Affair

Stories Read:
"The End of the Affair" by Graham Greene

This one is on my novella list. It pushes the definition of "novella", for certain. The Penguin edition softcover I have runs 191 pages, and the audio version I have was 6.5 hours long.

That audio version, by the way, was as good as it gets. I was reading it in print, but had a two hour drive ahead of me. I was engrossed and didn't want to stop reading, so I looked it up on Audible. I am so glad I did that! They have a version of it in their A-List collection, read by Colin Firth. It's been a long while since I was this enthralled with an audiobook. The narrative style is perfect for reading aloud, and Colin Firth was an inspired choice to narrate. I did not pick up the print version again. 5 stars!

There was a lot of Catholic stuff in this short novel, which interested me greatly. Wikipedia says: "The End of the Affair is the fourth and last of Greene's explicitly Catholic novels." It doesn't list the other three, but I'll seek them out when I'm finished reading this list of novellas.

There are also two film versions of the book, and I know I contradict myself when I say that I'd like to see them, especially the 1999 film with Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore. I'm not sure what to expect from these versions. I suppose the story could easily be bent to be a defense of the affair, as if we are all just helpless victims of the strong tides of our desires. The story is deeply reflective and extremely well-written. I can't imagine how those things would come across in film, and I wonder if the filmmakers succeeded.

My interest in the book was the characters, and their mindsets. How they justify things, how they know it must end, how their knowledge of the wrongness affects them, even as they try to convince themselves that it's right. How they think about God was especially intriguing. I was immersed from the first scene, which was a chance meeting between a man who had been having an affair with his mistress's husband, who suspects a thing or two.

I know next to nothing about Graham Greene, which is part of the fun of reading lists. I liked this quite a bit.

Next on the novella list is "The Alchemist" by Paolo Coelho. On the short story list, I have Vance, Wolfe, and Hamilton!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Bookfessions: The To-Read List

I have a confession to make.  I have somehow become a book hoarder.  I didn't set out to add this to my list of qualities, but I have an entire room full of books, most I've never read, a bin downstairs full of books I've never read, and a to-do list that has been over 1k for at least a year.

I decided to take action.  Okay, it's a slow action, and will only address thirteen of the books on my to-read list, but it is a start.  If I can do this more regularly, I might actually tackle the list instead of just adding to it.

When I log into Goodreads and look at my to-read shelf, the same twenty books stare me in the face until I search or sort them - the earliest twenty that I added as "to-read" and haven't switched over to "read" or "abandoned" yet. 

I had nine of them on hand already, and requested another six from  If the math seems wonky to make 13, well, I made the mistake of knowing I needed to read Mothers and Sons by Colm Tóibín but not realizing I already had a copy, so now I have two.  I also have another from that first page on its way to me via media mail, but didn't want to wait to take the picture.

Here's why: by the end of April, in nine days, I will have read at least the first chapter of every book you see in this pile.  I will decide at that point whether the book will be removed from my to-read list and traded off to someone else, or if I do indeed wish to read it.  Nancy Pearl says to give a book 50 pages, so if I'm feeling guilty I may go that far, but I have other books I want to get through this month.

Preliminary thoughts? I had planned to read Loving Frank for my Illinois pick this year, and doubt I'll decide not to continue.  Musicophilia was always a well-intentioned music/neuroscience read, but I don't tend to choose non-fiction when confronted with a stack.  The Hunting and Gathering book has no remembered pre-conceived notions, nor does Mothers and Sons, The Indian Clerk, or The Secret of Lost Things.  These I'm likely to easily discard if they don't grab me, because at this point I no longer remember why I wanted them in the first place.

Infinite Jest and Rabbit, Run are on my shoulds list so it will be harder to talk myself out of those, as well as The Golden Notebook.  Still, that doesn't mean I'll return to them right away.  I've already read the first chapter in Infinite Jest at least twice, and always end up deciding I'll wait until I have more time.  I never do.  I need to buck up and read it!  I think I've started The Little Stranger before too, and it was slow, but man is it on a lot of lists.  Perhaps people who have read farther know something I don't.

Beggars in Spain should be interesting.  I read the novella and liked it and then had a discussion-gone-wrong about it.  This might make reading it a bit cringe-worthy.  I haven't read Children of God yet because I loved The Sparrow so much, too much, and don't want to be done with that experience.  Silly reason not to read a book, liking something too much!

I am pledging to you to report back before I leave for Nashville on March 1!  Check back to see which of these books get second dates and which I don't return their phone calls....

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Death. On the Nile and Elsewhere.

Stories Read:
"Death on the Nile" by Connie Willis
"The Music of Erich Zann" by H.P. Lovecraft
"The Toy Theater" by Gene Wolfe

No novella this week, since I spent most of my reading time finishing Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko. I enjoyed it! Will talk about it on the Good Story podcast this week.

I did read three more short stories from The List, though, and here they are:

First was "Death on the Nile" by Connie Willis, a Hugo Award winner (1994) for Best Short Story. And it's a good one, if you like Connie Willis' style. Two married couples are on a plane headed to Cairo for a sight-seeing trip. One of the wives spends the ride quoting facts about pyramids and such from tourist guidebooks, while the other was reading Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie. At some point in the story, one of the men was struck with the idea that maybe they are dead, and we (the reader and characters) wonder till the end if it's true.

I found the story in one of the Isaac Asimov Science Fiction Magazine themed anthologies - this one called Isaac Asimov's Ghosts. Edited by Williams and Dozois.

Second is the horrific "The Music of Erich Zann" by H.P. Lovecraft. It's been reprinted a bunch of times since its original appearance in the May 1925 Weird Tales magazine. I read it in the Del Rey The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre. I believe this is the first time I've read this. I think I'd have remembered it, because... yeah. Spooky.

Poor Erich Zann. He's not doing all that well when we first meet him, up on the 5th floor of an apartment building, playing loud and chaotic music on his violin. The main character finds the music intriguing until events cause him to run away screaming.

Last is a Gene Wolfe story called "The Toy Theater". I put most of the stories in The Best of Gene Wolfe on the list because I think Wolfe writes brilliant short stories, and I've been meaning to read this book for a while. Unfortunately, this particular one is so brilliant that I'm not sure I understand it. Ha. A guy flies from our solar system to another to meet the greatest puppeteer alive. The great puppeteer gives the guy a demonstration during which he handles five marionettes at once, at one point voicing all three of a trio singing a song. And then Wolfe doesn't quite explain it. Or maybe he does.

The next story up is "Turjan of Miir" by Jack Vance, which is great because Vance is such a clear influence on Gene Wolfe. A couple more Wolfe stories coming right up, too… but not before I read "The Toy Theater" again. If there's anything I've learned about Wolfe, it's that he rewards scrutiny.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Lists and Changes

Stories Read:
"Watching Trees Grow" by Peter F. Hamilton
"Semley's Necklace" by Ursula K. Le Guin

I want to be more eclectic in my reading, so I'm making a change. I created a list of 100 Novellas that I'd like to read, and want to work that in to this weekly post. Or should those novellas be in separate posts? I'll think about that, but include the first one here. You can find that list of 100 Novellas |HERE|. In there are all the novellas (and then some) that were in my original short fiction list, so I edited that to remove all those novellas. The result is |HERE|. Aren't lists fun? Yes, yes they are.

So, first up this week is a novella by Peter F. Hamilton called "Watching Trees Grow". It's the first story in his Manhattan in Reverse collection.

It opens in Oxford, England, in 1832. The Roman Empire never fell, there are Borgias in the Vatican, and technology is progressing at a quick rate. In 1832 there are electric cars and telephones, and a murder which is surprising because that kind of thing just doesn't happen any more. Edward, the main character, is dispatched to solve the crime. The murder is going to take over a hundred years to solve, but Edward is one of the upper class and can live virtually forever, so he's got plenty of time. Chapter Two of the novella takes place in 1853, and Chapter Three in 1920. With each chapter Hamilton describes technological and societal changes, and Edward continues his search for the murderer. There's some thought here about the effects of virtual immortality on people, especially while AI's and other technology are doing much of the work.

In the year 1920 (in orbit around Jupiter), a character says:
"If we have a purpose, it is to think and create; that's our uniqueness. Any nonsentient animal can build a nest and gather food."

And after 80 more years of change, Edward notes:
"I believe it was our greatest defeat that so many of us were unable to adjust naturally to our new circumstances, where every thought is a treasure to be incubated."

I think of a person who was born in the early 1900's and made it to the year 2000. What change that person witnessed! Imagine if that person lived to see 2100. Or 2200. A thought-provoking novella. I really liked it.

I find that I don't have a lot to say about the next story, an early one from Ursula K. Le Guin. In her introduction she says that it was written in 1963 and published as "Dowry of the Angyar", then in 1964 it was included as the Prologue of her first novel Rocannon's World. The story flips between Rocannon and an alien woman whose tale she is trying to understand. Rocannon says that she feels sometimes as if she "blundered through the corner of a legend, or a tragic myth" which she doesn't understand. Some interesting world (or myth) building.

Also interesting in her intro to this story is that she's put the stories in this collection (The Wind's Twelve Quarters) in publication order so that we can see her progress as a writer from "candor and simplicity" to "something harder, stronger, and more complex". Most writers are just repeating what others have done. A small percentage of authors take what's come before and actually build on it in a way that's superior and unique. Ursula K. Le Guin is one of that small percentage. She's always worth reading.

My hope from here forward is to get through one novella a week, and as many short stories as I can manage. So next up on the novella list is "The End of the Affair" by Graham Greene. On the short story list, I need to get a copy of "Death on the Nile" by Connie Willis. After that is "The Music of Erich Zann" by good old H.P. Lovecraft.