2020 Reading Goal Check In

Let me start this post by paraphrasing something I saw and loved on Instagram this week. You’re not required to be productive in a FREAKING PANDEMIC. Full stop. Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk 2020 reading goals. It’s almost the end of March, which means that the year is almost 1/4 through!

My four reading goals for this year are:

  1. Read 20 nonfiction titles
  2. Reread four favorite books.
  3. Read 12 titles from my Classics Club list.
  4. Read more authors of color (higher than last year’s pitiful 18%.)

I’m psyched to say that so far I’m on track with all of my goals. I’ve read eight nonfiction titles, and reread one book (Sylvia Boorstein’s It’s Easier Than You Think.) I’ve read three Classics Club books, and so far my authors of color is at a better 24%.

I’m toying with rereading a Jane Austen novel soon, as they are the ultimate in comfort reading for me. And this lady needs some comfort reading! I haven’t read Persuasion in a long time so that might be the one.

What’s my favorite read so far this year? Ugh, it’s tough. It’s either Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha or Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. Or The Singer’s Gun by Emily St. John Mandel. OR Christy Harrison’s Anti-Diet. Too hard!

One thing I’ve loved so far this year are the great books my son and I have been reading together. So far my favorites are Fudge-a-Mania by Judy Blume and Mac Cracks the Code by Mac Barnett.

I hope you all are staying safe and healthy, able to take walks outside or do yoga or something else to clear your mind, and able to pry yourselves away from the news. It’s hard for me but I’ve been a bit better about not constantly checking news or Twitter. I’ll leave you with something hilarious I found on a friend’s Instagram story. It’s a Choose Your Recluse chart using famous movie characters. I think I’m a cross between Boss Lady and Sloppy Wizard. Which recluse are you?

Still Gray But More Blooms

Hi friends. Well, the good news is that my library system closed on Friday, which was absolutely the right thing to do for the safety of staff and patrons. So I am home for now, other than walks in the neighborhood and occasionally grocery shopping. What a relief. I hated looking at my lovely library patrons and trying to assess if they were unknowing vectors of disease, you know? Not a good feeling for someone who prides herself on excellent customer service!

Still not able to read for long stretches at a time but I am still reading. On page 77 of Milkman by Anna Burns. (For Reading Ireland Month, Cathy!) What a quirky, interesting book, I’m not sure how I feel about it really but I think I like it. It’s rather unlike my usual reading fare and I think I like it for that reason. Very long paragraphs and few chapter breaks. I’m intrigued and saddened by all the ways in which their society is hemmed in by layers of rules… what to say, what to do, how to relate to other people. Also I’m thoroughly creeped out by the milkman.

My other book is a reread: Sylvia Boorstein’s It’s Easier Than You Think: The Buddhist Way to Happiness. This will be one of my four rereads towards my reading goal. It’s a book that gives comfort, in which Boorstein illuminates Buddhist teachings through personal anecdotes. Her tone is remarkably warm and gentle. For instance, this passage on fearfulness:

Fearfulness is a mind habit. Some people have it more than others. It is always extra. Being trapped by fear is a form of delusion. Either I can do something or I can’t. If I truly can’t – I am mechanically inept, so piloting a plane would be unwise – I don’t do it. If I truly can, and it would be a wholesome thingy do, I push myself. I figured out one day that fear is a series of neuronal discharges in the brain, and I resented feeling I was being held captive by cerebral squiggles.

Grandmothers often have the role of spiritual teacher. My grandmother was my first teacher, and I hope I am carrying on in her tradition. The lesson I learned best from her was fortitude in the face of disagreeable situations. “Where is it written,” she would ask, “that you are supposed to be happy all the time?”

She then talks about her own grandson, Collin, and how he once didn’t want to climb a very long set of stairs to visit a friend of hers living in a convent. He was very reluctant to climb the stairs. He said, “I really don’t like these steps, Grandma.” She replied, “You don’t have to like them, Collin. You just have to go up them. Hold my hand and we’ll do it together.”

If someone holds our hand, “frightened ” changes to “interested,” and “interested ” is one of the Factors of Enlightenment.”

Anyway, I was thinking that we don’t have to like what’s going on in the world right now, but if we can hold one another’s hand, and go through it together, then we will get through it. How wonderful that we have each other across the miles, brought together by our love of books!

I’ll end with some more pictures of my neighborhood. A pink clover patch in my front yard (I didn’t plant it, they just came up a few years ago,) yellow forsythia starting to bloom, the new boardwalk around the neighborhood duck pond, and finally, a dogwood tree about to blossom. Stay well, friends!

Friday Reading Roundup

Another Friday is upon us. Another day closer to Christmas! I hope that you’re not stressed out by holiday plans, shopping, and preparation. What better way to escape the hustle and bustle than to dive into some good books, eh? I’m not yet ready to reveal my Top Ten books of the year (that will be next Friday) or to tally up stats for the reading year (the last Friday!) So today it’s a quick review of what I’ve been reading lately and what’s on my nightstand to pick up next.

Finished lately:

The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters by Balli Kaur Jaswal

I really enjoyed this. Picked it off the NEW BOOKS SHELF at work (win!) Contemporary fiction. Three sisters, raised in England by their immigrant Indian parents, travel to India at the behest of their dying mother’s last wish. She has devised an itinerary for them, in the hopes that they will learn more about India, strengthen their bonds, and scatter her ashes there. There are lots of secrets that the sisters are keeping from one another, and they’ve all got some serious issues of their own that their not dealing with very well. Though I could see how things were going to work out, I didn’t mind it at all. I felt like these characters were well developed and believable, and the setting as they travel to the Golden Temple in Amritsar was superb. I’ll definitely try Jaswal’s first book, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, which was a Reese Witherspoon book club pick. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Currently Reading:

Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore

I’m enjoying the heck out of this! Another off-the-New-Shelf pick. Historical romance. A18h+5O2G3LLately I just want to read fluff. I’m not ashamed to admit it! I think it’s the holidays. I just need something soothing while my mind is pulled in many different directions trying to get stuff done. The premise is classic: 1870’s England, a poor well-read, smart, and beautiful woman (verging on Old Maid at 25), relying on the kindness of her lame cousin for her upkeep – she convinces him to let her take classes at Oxford, which had recently decided to let women take classes off campus. While there she meets other like-minded feminist women and in the course of advocating for changing the women’s property laws, literally runs into the MOST HANDSOME, well-connected, filthy rich Duke. Said Duke of course can’t take his eyes off our heroine either, but definitely disapproves of her ideas and pluck. Very cute stuff follows. Haven’t gotten to the sexy times yet.

Ghosts of Christmas Past edited by Tim Martin

I wanted something Christmas-y, and spooky ghost stories appealed. I found this in a recent BookRiot article (check it out here.) So far it’s uneven, as most short story41V3UJFvzmL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_ collections are. My favorite story so far is by Muriel Spark, called “The Leaf-Sweeper.” Other contributors include Neil Gaiman, E. Nesbit, and Kelly Link.

What’s next?

I’ve got the next one in the Ruth Galloway mystery series, The Ghost Fields, and my last poetry collection for the year, Kevin Young’s Brown. After that, whatever strikes my fancy.

Do you find yourself reading lighter books during the holidays? Are you a fan of Christmas ghost stories?

The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym (Classics Club)

“You make me sound hardly human, like a kind of fossil,” Leonora protested.

“I didn’t mean that – it’s just that I never think of you as being ruffled or upset by anything. Not like me- that awful night when I burst in on you, whatever must you have thought!”

“People react in different ways. One may not show emotion, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that one doesn’t feel it.”

Barbara Pym is one of my favorites authors, but I’ve been saving some of her books I’ve not yet read. Not sure what I’m exactly saving them for, but I haven’t wanted to rush through all of them. I owned a copy of The Sweet Dove Died, purchased for $1.00 (!) at a local used bookstore, and decided this was the time to cross another Classics Club choice off the list. It’s short (just 208 pages) and typically charming and amusing – but for me it won’t jump to the top of her works.

19523620Written in 1978 (one of her later novels – she died in 1980,) the book’s main character is Leonora, an elegant woman of some means who’s in her early 50’s (I think, although it’s not exactly clear.) She meets twenty-four year old James and his uncle Henry, an antique dealer, at a book auction and immediately the three hit it off. Henry is taken with Leonora and she in turn has her heart set on James. But precisely what sort of relationship she wants with James is rather vague – she seems to just want his companionship and devotion, but not really anything physical.

Leonora liked to think of her life as calm of mind, all passion spent, or, more rarely, as emotion recollected in tranquility. But had there ever really been passion, or even emotion? One of two tearful scenes in bed – for she had never enjoyed that kind of thing – and now it was such a relief that one didn’t have to worry anymore. Her men friends were mostly elderly cultured people, who admired her elegance and asked no more than the pleasure of her company. Men not unlike a Henry Boyce, indeed.

As in many of Pym’s novels, not much happens, but simultaneously everything happens. James and Leonora grow closer, and then not one, but two people come into James’s life and threaten Leonora’s relationship with him. Meanwhile Henry is the odd person out.

I didn’t particularly like any of the characters, which is unusual for the Pym novels I’ve read – usually there’s at least one sympathetic character. Leonora is rather selfish and cold. But I was entertained and amused – Pym is always wryly funny and observant of human nature, even in an obtuse character. And as the novel went on I felt a little sympathy for her as she tried to hold on to her youth. I was also surprised by how modern the relationships felt, in that one of James’s paramours is a man. And it’s not something anyone in the novel bats their eyelashes at.

All in all, a gentle, intelligent, somewhat melancholy comedy of manners, full of repressed emotions and characters who aren’t terribly self aware. If you’ve never tried Barbara Pym I wouldn’t start with the one, but it makes for an entertaining and fast read if you’ve enjoyed her other books. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

(This is the 17th work read out of 51 classics on my Classics Club list.)

Five Sentence Reviews: Dear Mrs. Bird, Anne Lamott, and Romance!

I’ve been on a month-long yoga journey with the amazing Adriene Mishler of Yoga With Adriene. I’ve practiced EVERY NIGHT. This is kind of a big deal because I’m famous for starting things and not finishing them. There are three practices left in the sequence (I started a day late.) I’m telling you this because the nightly yoga, while amazing for my soul, posture, and core, is not conducive to blog posting. I’ve been reading, though, so I’m (as usual) a bit behind on reviews. Here are some five-sentence reviews to clear the decks. All of these were four-star reads. In fact, in January I’ve had ALL four-star reads. Still waiting for the first five-star of 2019!

81w5wudgvllDear Mrs. Bird by A.J. Pearce. A charming historical fiction novel set in London during World War II. Emmy Lake is an irresistibly plucky heroine. She takes a job that she thinks is going to be a junior reporter for a newspaper but turns out to be a typist for an advice columnist at a floundering women’s magazine. Mrs. Bird, the advice columnist, is prudish and severe, so Emmy decides to secretly help the young women who need friendly advice in a scary time. This was an enjoyable yet moving look at lives in England during the Blitz.

After a big raid it was always sad to see flattened buildings and burnt-out churches which had stood for hundreds of years, but there was something rather triumphant about the monuments and statues, even the parks and big department stores that were still there, getting on with things. The Luftwaffe may have been  trying to blast us to pieces, but everyone just kept getting back up.

Almost Everything: Notes on Hope by Anne Lamott. I love Anne Lamott. I listened to 39203790the audiobook, read by the author, and it was wonderful. If you’ve never read her before, she’s like a kindly, slightly kooky neighbor or aunt who tells you hard truths about life but also gives you M&Ms and hugs. She is consistently hopeful yet aware of the pain of the world and unfairness of life. Reading her makes me feel better, stronger, less crazy, and this was one of her better recent books.

It’s okay to stop hitting the snooze button and to wake up and pay attention to what makes you feel okay about yourself, one meal at a time. Unfortunately, it’s yet another inside job. If you are not okay with yourself at 185 pounds, you may not be okay at 150, or even 135. The self-respect and peace of mind you long for is not in your weight. It’s within you. I resent that more than I can say. But it’s true. Finding a way to have a relatively healthy and safe relationship with food is hard, and it involves being one’s very own dearest person. This will not cause chaos or death, as you were surely taught, but rather an environment where you can drown out the many mean and mistaken voices.

51flpz8fm5lA Princess in Theory by Alyssa Cole (Reluctant Royals #1.) A fun, smart, sexy page-turner. This contemporary romance features a guarded, independent STEM-based grad student heroine, Naledi, and an actual prince from the fictional African country of Thesolo, Thabiso, who comes to New York to track down his long-lost betrothed. A case of mistaken identity brings to two together, where they experience undeniable chemistry. The storyline was so well-crafted I kind of skimmed over the sexy parts, to be honest. These characters were fully realized and incredibly likeable; I can’t wait to read more of this series (the next focuses on Naledi’s best friend Portia.)

“Um,” she said. Her general reaction to men she met in her daily life was indifference or tolerance, at best, but something about this man sent her thoughts spinning far, far away from lab work or serving or studying. The only data she was currently interested in collecting was the exact tensile pressure of his beard against her inner thigh, and the shift in mass of his body on top of hers.

Have you read any of these? Have you had a five-star read yet in 2019?

 

 

 

 

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (Classics Club #4)

She wanted to ask her if she had seen the advertisement. She did not know why she wanted to ask her this, but she wanted to. How stupid not to be able to speak to her. She looked so kind. She looked so unhappy. Why couldn’t two unhappy people refresh each other on their way through this dusty business of life by a little talk – real, natural talk, about what they felt, what they would have liked, what they still tried to hope? And she could not help thinking that Mrs. Arbuthnot, too, was reading that very same advertisement. Her eyes were on the very part of the paper. Was she, too, picturing what it would be like, – the colour, the fragrance, the light, the soft lapping pf the seam among little hot rocks? Colour, fragrance, light, sea; instead of Shaftesbury Avenue, and the wet omnibuses, and the fish department at Shoolbread’s, and the Tube to Hampstead, and dinner, tomorrow the same and the day after the same, and always the same…

9780143107736I thoroughly enjoyed my fourth read for The Classics Club, Elizabeth von Arnim’s 1922 novel The Enchanted April. I read it back in June so forgive me if my impressions are a bit foggy. But I want to write a little bit about it before any more time passes.

Lotty Wilkins, Rose Arbuthnot, Mrs. Fisher, and Lady Caroline Dester are strangers to one another when Lotty first sees the advertisement in the paper while at her ladies’ club on a dreary day:

To those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine. Small mediaeval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be let Furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. Z, Box 1000, The Times.

Lotty and Rose go to church together and belong to the same club, and when Lotty sees Rose reading the same page of the newspaper and staring dreamily into the distance, she seizes the moment to ask if she’d like to go in together on renting the castle. After persuading husbands and putting their own advertisement in the paper for two more ladies (the young and beautiful Lady Caroline Dester and the elderly widow Mrs. Fisher) to join them and share the rent, they make their way to Italy.

What I loved about the book was that each lady underwent a transformation of sorts – they all had things they wanted to escape from back in England, or maybe things they weren’t even aware they were escaping from until they actually left. Feeling underappreciated and overworked, awkward and painful emotional distance between a wife and a husband, feeling unloved, or being loved and desired for the wrong reasons… each woman gained clarity and insight through distance and fresh surroundings. Old wounds were healed, new friendships were cemented, and the beauty of Italy was the catalyst for everything.ae60b4438cb7eaa661c82c38e568b553-w204@1x

She stared. Such beauty; and she there to see it. Such beauty; and she alive to feel it. Her face was bathed in light. Lovely scents came up to the window and caressed her. A tiny breeze gently lifted her hair. Far out in the bay a cluster of almost motionless fishing boats hovered like a flock of white birds on the tranquil sea. How beautiful, how beautiful. Not to have died before this… to have been allowed to see, breathe, feel this… She stared, lips parted. Happy? Poor, ordinary, everyday word. But what could one say, how could one describe it? It was as though she could hardly stay inside herself, it was as though she were too small to hold so much of joy, it was as though she were washed through with light. 

What a delight! There is a freshness and a sense of humor to the writing that makes this classic novel feel much more modern. This is my first book by von Arnim and I am curious about the rest of her works. I can definitely see myself reading this one again when I want a comfort read. I watched the movie (1991) and it was a faithful adaptation – solid performances, beautiful scenery, makes for a pleasant evening’s entertainment. But if you need a breath of fresh air in your reading life and want to take a trip to Italy, I highly recommend reading The Enchanted April.

(This is the 4th book reviewed from my Classics Club list and the 9th book reviewed from my 20 Books of Summer list.)

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

Frank could not play music, he could not read a score, he had no practical knowledge whatsoever, but when he sat in front of a customer and truly listened, he heard a kind of song. He wasn’t talking a full-blown symphony. I would be a few notes; at the most, a strain. And it didn’t happen all the time, only when he let go of being Frank and inhabited a space that was more in the middle. It had been this way ever since he could remember.

34203744My first Rachel Joyce novel was a home run! The Music Shop is a page-turning, earnest, feel-good novel, something I’d say we all could use more of these days. It helps if you’re a music lover, but even if you aren’t this novel has plenty to offer. In fact I could see myself someday reading this again for comfort in a time of stress.

Most of the book takes place in 1988, around a struggling record shop that’s on a shabby, quiet street in a nondescript (I think unnamed?) British suburb. It’s owned by Frank, a man who has an uncanny knack for finding just the right album to shake up a person’s life in the way that they need. As good as he is as connecting people with the right music, he is a failure in the love department, not letting anyone get too close to him emotionally. We get hints of past trauma in his upbringing but it’s not until later in the book that the mystery of his past is revealed. Meanwhile, the CD age is upon him, and his record vendors are pressing him to stock CDs in his shop. He refuses, affronted by their lack of character.

But CD sound was clean, the reps argued. It had no surface noise. To which Frank replied, “Clean? What’s music got to do with clean? Where is the humanity in clean? Life has surface noise! Do you want to listen to furniture polish?”

Add a cast of quirky, mostly sweet fellow Unity Street shopkeepers and a bumbling, adorable shop assistant named Kit, and you have a winning atmosphere for the action of our story. A beautiful woman named Ilse Brauchmann faints outside Frank’s shop one day, and his life is never the same. Unable to face what he really feels for Ilse, he starts giving her “music lessons” at a nearby cafe, bringing her albums to listen to with accompanying listening notes. Frank’s shop business is not so good, as people start to want CDs and the city falls on hard times in general. People just aren’t shopping on their little street like they used to. As we watch Frank try to find ways to save his shop, and as he gets closer to Ilse, we also get glimpses of his past in chapters that depict his unusual upbringing by his less-than-maternal mother, Peg. She is the one who makes music so important in his life, but she also does a lot of emotional damage to young Frank with her parental shortcomings. And we come to find that the mysterious Ilse Brauchmann has some secrets of her own.

I just loved this book! I was occasionally frustrated with Frank, for being too guarded and obtuse, but I forgave him when I found out what had scarred him from wanting to love again. The novel had a cinematic feel to it, sort of like a combination of “High Fidelity” and a good rom-com like “You’ve Got Mail” or Notting Hill.” A couple of scenes made me laugh out loud. And the writing is really lovely, not overly descriptive but evocative all the same.

The water was blue-gray with the day’s reflection and trees, and dimpled as far as they could see with the falling rain. They sat for a long time, just watching the rain and smiling, her with one oar, him with the other. By now their hair was so wet it stuck to their heads, and the shoulders of her coat were more black than green, but they stayed out there in the middle of the lake, until the cloud shifted and the evening sun came out, and everything around them, every leaf, every blade of grass, every rooftop in the distance, shone like a piece of jewelry. 

This is the kind of book that made me want to sit down and listen to music the way I used to listen to it in high school. I’d sit on my bedroom floor and do nothing else but let the music wash over me, playing my favorite songs over and over, for hours. I’ve never had a record player of my own, I came along too late for that; my first music was cassette tapes and then the first ones I bought on my own were CDs. And now almost all of my new music purchases are from iTunes. But record albums are making a big comeback, and I’m actually considering getting a record player for the first time.

In any case, whether you’re a music lover or not, this is a heartwarming book that celebrates community and friendship, and taking the risks necessary to live a full life filled with love and relationships. If you’re searching for a lighter contemporary read, one with heart and wit, look no further than The Music Shop.