Love the book, not the number


I hate reading goals.

I don’t believe in them. I think their purpose is often grossly misguided. “How many books have you read?” is often given more importance than “What books have you read?” Really, the most important question is, “Do you like to read?”

A few years ago when my daughter Claudia was still in elementary school (I call her Claudia here, in an effort of anonymity, after the girl in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler), she had to earn a certain number of Accelerated Reader (AR) points each 9 weeks. Each book on the AR list is assigned a point value based on its arbitrarily-assigned reading level, and then a multiple-choice comprehension test determines how many of the assigned points are earned.

For most of the kids I talked to, books were chosen based on point value. I heard, “Nah, I’m not going to read that one. It’s only a 7-pointer,” or, even more disheartening, “Nah, I’m not going to read that one. It’s not worth any points.” What happened to teaching kids to love reading for the sake of reading? This AR system only taught kids to read because they had to. The plot of the book wasn’t important, the desire to read the book had no relevance. Only the point value mattered. Plow through it, take the test, get your points. Did you like the book? Who cares. I understand that kids will still have to read the required reading crap, like Beowulf and The Heart of Darkness, but do we have to hijack their pleasure reading too?

I recommended a book to a friend’s daughter, but she said she wouldn’t read it because it wasn’t on the AR list, and therefore she wouldn’t earn points for it. If she can’t get points, then it’s not worth reading.

My niece, who reads so much she’s made a Youtube channel about it, didn’t get on the AR Honor Roll list (for those with the MOST POINTS) because she also recognized that this AR thing is absolute bunk. Her friends looked at her in wide-eyed disbelief when her name wasn’t called on awards day for reading AR books. Her mom asked her why she didn’t make the list at awards day at her school, and she told her that she didn’t want to be told what to read. “Too many books I want to read aren’t on the list,” she shrugged.

So, for the kids who already love to read, AR is stifling. For the kids who hate to read, it reinforces their hatred of reading. Fortunately, at my son’s school, they’ve recently ditched AR in favor of “just record how many minutes you read every night.” It’s working better. I still get the “How many more minnnnuttttes?” whine, but at least he gets to pick the book he’s interested in. And it doesn’t matter if he reads two books or 200 books. He’s reading, and that’s the point. And there’s no will-this-be-on-the-test anxiety associated with it.
Goodreads has an adultified system of annual goal-setting for number of books read per year for their patrons. “What’s your reading goal?!” they yell on their Web site. “See what your friends have listed as their goal! How many books do YOU want to read in 2016?” My answer: all of them. I want to read all of them. Every single book. I wish I could pop them in my mouth and gobble them up, Cookie Monster style.

I never set a goal. Why? Because, honestly, I don’t care how many I read every year. Sure, I fall prey to the stats on Goodreads and am interested in how many and what exactly I read over the past year. Not to sound clichéd and snobbish, but I savor quality over quantity. I’d rather read five 600-page tomes of literary nirvana than ten 300-page pieces of “meh.” If I want to read it, I read it. If I don’t, I don’t. This year I read a translated French novella, Beside the Sea, that clocked in at around 80 pages, and I also read the much over-hyped A Little Life (don’t get me stahted) that was 850 pages. Well, 150 pages of actual story and 650 of nauseous repetition. They count for the same thing on a “reading goal” list, but in my heart they carry much different weight.

And I don’t want to be like my friend’s kid who will say, “Well, I’d like to read that book, but it’s 600 pages long, and I’m trying to meet my reading goal for the year . . . and, well, that’ll just put me behind. So, never mind. I’m so sorry, Mr. Best Book Ever That I Missed Out On. You’re just too long to bother.”

Never mind, indeed. Read what you want, when you want, as much as you want. What’s MY goal? To enjoy my books.

The North Water – Ian McGuire


WOW, what a story. It’s like a punch in the solar plexus.

The North Water follows Irish surgeon Patrick Sumner on board an ill-fated whaler outfitted with murderers and corruptibles in 1857. Sumner himself has a tormented past and is using The Voyager to flee from his sins. Little does he know that worse things are aboard the ship than he could have ever faced on land. When all other whalers are heading south to chase their quarry, The Voyager heads farther north, into pack ice and madness.

There are no bonny, sea-weathered blokes having a gam in this book. This story is all murderous plotting and barbarism. Based on the true accounts I’ve read from actual whalers, McGuire’s fiction isn’t far off the mark.

At less than 300 pages, The North Water is a quick read, but the pacing is, at times, too inconsistent. In some parts I was just starting to feel the desperation, the isolation, the grueling, unfathomable cold, and McGuire moved on. I wanted more story with Sumner’s bear hunt and more time with the Yaks, but I was also content that McGuire didn’t linger too long.  I’m not one to advocate filler, so I appreciate that McGuire kept the story moving. The descriptions of the grime, the tortuous ship, the starvation and deprivation are impressive. The environment on The Voyager is all viscera, excreta, and blood.  This may sound gruesome, but it couldn’t have been better. His word choice is enviable. I found myself highlighting single words in order to later applaud their specificity. I think my vocabulary increased seven-fold.

The North Water is gory, bloody, corporeal. If you’re at all squeamish, as in “can’t handle Tarantino films,” then this is not for you. Unlike some readers, I didn’t find the brutality and violence overbearing at all. This book requires it, or it wouldn’t work. A story set in the 19th century about a psychologically-tormented, drug-addicted surgeon  aboard a cursed ship full of pedophillic murders and mutinous traitors isn’t going to be full of cupcakes and rainbows. I for, one, enjoyed it enormously. If you have the stomach for it, dive in. You won’t regret it.

Many thanks to NetGalley and Henry Holt & Co. for this advance copy.

The Phoenix of Downton Abbey



Rising from the ashes of the final episode of the beloved “Downton Abbey,” Julian Fellowes, marketing genius  creator of Downton, Gosford Park, and just about all much-adored historical soap operas, has a new project! I, for one, am still in mourning over the end of Downton, daydreaming about the end of all the characters on the show, such as the name of “Anner” and Mr. Bates’ baby and whether or not Molesly and Baxter finally hook up.

But fear not, fellow mourners! Belgravia has appeared, and it’s a SERIAL. Fellowes has designed a literary serial online, set in 1815 on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo. From the description on the Web site, there is much betrayal, gossip, affairs won and lost — all the dramatic frenzy one should expect from Julian Fellowes.  The novel will be released as eleven “episodes,” sent straight to your favorite device. The first episode, the one that most likely will hook you like crack, is free. Move over, Chuck Dickens, it’s time to party like it’s 1861.

To add to the temptation, there is an app, some online maps, and a family tree (which only fills in as you meet the characters, so no spoilers given). I’m hoping Belgravia may be the light at the Downton terminus. I imagine Fellowes whispering, “Shhh, do not weep. There is more to come.”

I’m on board. I’ve subscribed to read the first episode, but haven’t fully committed to the $14 for all eleven. I’m reservedly optimistic. Great expectations, indeed.

Check it out here





Lily and the Octopus – Steven Rowley

Before I cracked the cover, I really wasn’t all the way on board with this. Another dog book? Another book with that annoying “all the feels” phrase attached to it on Goodreads reviews? I’m not a sucker. I don’t fall in for maudlin claptrap.

But something about that title. There’s an octopus in there. I thought, I may have to investigate this after all.

Find it on Goodreads

And I’m so glad I did. I LOVED IT.

This book actually made me laugh out loud, and then, later, much to my embarrassment, cry out loud. I want to hug Steven Rowley and let the hug linger just a little bit too long. I hated that my life was getting in the way of my reading this book. “I can’t go to work today! I need to know how Lily’s doing! How can I possibly leave the house when that damn octopus is still there?!”

It’s part semi-memoir and part magical realism, or, more accurately, part denial and part unconscious acceptance, which is something we can all relate to. This is a step-by-step to letting go. And Lily’s voice just made me smile the entire time. There are many fantastical elements: Lily converses, the octopus glares and growls, and there’s even a glorious battle at sea.

Just a warning: don’t read this book in public. At one point, I looked up (just so I could get a grip and breathe) and people are staring at me with concerned looks on their faces, wondering if they should intervene or at least offer me a Kleenex. I just smiled sheepishly. “Allergies. They get me every spring! What can you do, ya know?” I blew my nose and pretended nonchalance, while inside me my heart was being wrenched into Lily-sized pieces.

Rowley’s writing is original. This story doesn’t ride the crest of accepted tropes. There’s an adventure here, one that you’ll want to take. I fell in love with Lily and you will too, even if you go into this thinking you won’t. You’ll love this. Guaranteed. Go home, read it, and scritch your dog behind the ears. You know she loves that.

Many thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for this advance copy.


Gushing over LAB GIRL

Where have I been?

Well, I applied to be a contributor to BookRiot, so I’m waiting to hear back to see if I’ve been accepted. Considering that their acceptance rate is about 20 out of the 1600 or so applications they receive, my chances are about as good as getting into Harvard Law. Worse, actually.

So, rather than leave you all in nail-biting anticipation of when I may post again, I’ve decided to gush about a book I’m super excited about that came out yesterday:  Lab Girl by Hope Jahren.

lab girl
Find it on Goodreads

Part non-fiction science book about plants, trees, flowers, and soil, and part memoir, Lab Girl entails Dr. Jahren’s coming of age as a geobiologist. From the reviews I’ve read online, this book is perfect for scientists and non-scientists alike, especially those who like a little humor and human interest thrown in to their educational reading.


Currently a professor at the University of Hawaii, Jahran includes the stories of her lab work, relevant plant information that will interest even the passive naturalist (as I am), her upbringing in Minnesota, her marriage, and her symbiotic relationship and scientific capers with her lab manager, Bill Hagopian. Most importantly, Jahren addresses her struggle with manic-depression and how she manages to pursue her scientific passions without losing sight of her priorities. I haven’t read her book yet and I already think I want to be BFFs.

As a former lab girl myself, I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy.

I applied to NetGalley to be a reviewer for this book, but, alas, the publisher turned me down. NetGalley so placatingly suggested that this may be because I’m American and am therefore “outside the UK publisher’s territories” (translation: a dumb colonial). Heads up, UK publisher: Americans read books, even books from the UK. This is probably not the reason for the stiff-upper-lip UK “territorial” refusal of Little, Brown, considering the US book edition that just came out is published by Knopf (last I checked, Broadway NYC  is not in the UK), but thanks, NetGalley, for the tea and sympathy. I’m still going to read the book. In the meantime, until I hear from BookRiot, I will keep hurling my bookish thoughts into the ether à la Carl Sagan’s Voyager Golden Record. Perhaps if I also include “hello” in 55 human languages more people may read my blog. Just an idea.

Other books you might want to check out if Lab Girl interests you:

Wild – Cheryl Strayed      Find it on Goodreads


A Garden of Marvels: How We Discovered that Plants Have Sex, Leaves Eat Air, and Other Secrets of Plants – Ruth Kassinger      Find it on Goodreads




The Blue Bath – Mary Waters-Sayer

bluebathThanks to NetGalley, Mary Waters-Sayer, and St. Martin’s Press for the opportunity to read this book in advance and provide an honest review.

The Blue Bath is an absorbing, tumultuous read from debut author Mary Waters-Sayer. The story centers around Kat Lind, a middle-aged, married mom recently returned to London after the death of her mother. Her days are filled with the mundane: renovating her newly-acquired aging English mansion, taking care of her son, Will, and occasionally speaking on the phone to her businessman husband calling from Hong Kong. Kat’s life is up-ended when her former lover, Daniel Blake, shows up in London to display his new paintings at a show at the prestigious Mayfair Gallery. Kat surreptitiously attends the show, hoping to catch a glimpse of Daniel from afar. She is astounded to discover that all the paintings are of her, young and beautiful, from their long-ago love affair in Paris. The affair ended abruptly, but apparently never really died.

Water-Sayers’ writing is exceptional. There are some philosophical passages in this book with thought-provoking ideas. I also got a striking sense of place in her descriptions of both London and Paris, which became characters unto themselves.  She focused on small wonders: the morphing shadows on the wall, the strength of a tendon in a wrist, the delicateness of light. I appreciated the attention to detail, and how these small details add up to a whole picture.

The story goes back and forth between Kat’s present life in London and her short time in Paris when she was 19 and lived with Daniel. The book is never explicit; sex is implied, or begun and then skipped over. This approach actually enhanced the romance of the story, as Kat and Daniel’s relationship was more about the beauty they saw in one another. Water-Sayers doesn’t dwell on plot points, but often just hints at backstory and lets the reader fill in the details.

The only complaint I have about this book is that Daniel was not fully fleshed out. I needed more from him, more about him, more dialog from him. When he first meets Kat, there is instant attraction, though he only speaks in practiced phrases or profound statements. There is little motivation for their initial relationship, other than this undeniable, inexplicable force of attraction. They have no conflict, just dreamy Paris days spent languishing in bed together, surviving on minimal food and charcoal sketches. We never get any normal, everyday talk from Daniel. He’s too far above, too mysterious and deep, which is unbelievable for a love affair that would last more than 24 hours. But it still made for an enjoyable story.

Kat wants to hide her identity as the girl in the paintings, especially when Daniel begins painting her as she is 20 years later. If she’s discovered, she could lose everything, but being truly “seen” by Daniel is the purest form of love she’s ever known. Can she give that up?

Water-Sayers deftly weaves in recurring themes into this book: outsiders can never understand the nature of a relationship, what others see in you may not be what you see, the core of your beauty is what is seen when someone loves you.

If you love Paris, London, art, or first loves, this is the book you should pick up next. This is not some sappy romance. The Blue Bath is best for experienced readers who have had a relationship or two, readers who will appreciate the conflict between the pull of the comfort of security and the lure of nostalgia. I look forward to reading Water-Sayers’s next book!




Gimme Gimme Gimme some gimmicky books

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Dorst and Abram’s Ship of Theseus atop my personal notes from the book. Newcastle Brown Ale for encouragement.

I love me some gimmicks with my books! Gimme a secret message! Gimme backward pages! Gimme a decoder ring! Wait – Doug Dorst and J. J. Abrams (my favorite living genius, besides Neil Degrasse Tyson) did give me a decoder ring of sorts in Ship of Theseus, and I was thrilled. I was excited like Ralphie in A Christmas Story, hiding behind a locked door frantically deciphering the secret message. Ship of Theseus came with postcards, marginalia (in several different colors!), newspaper clippings inserted betwixt the pages! So much fun!

Ship of Theseus is a meta-book within a book within a book. It comes looking like some 1940s library discard, complete with library sticker and Dewey Decimal code. To explain the plot and book-within-a-book may cause me to spin around and fall down. Suffice it to say, the book is a whole world, and two grad students are along for the ride with you, and their commentary is written in the margins with different colors for different readings. According to the online experts, you’re supposed to read the story (an adventure tale replete with mystery), then read the comments in order of color as you go along. Some people do this chapter by chapter, others read the book four or five times to get the different comments. Different items are also inserted into the book in between specific pages: a postcard, a photograph, a decoder wheel (splee!).

The only hiccup . . . a minor glitch . . . a slight bump in the road . . . was my overzealousness. I treated Ship of Theseus like a dissertation. I began to drown in my own notes. I started carrying a briefcase with me everywhere I went so I could have the book, my notebooks about the book, others’ notes about the book, in case epiphany struck. Eventually, like my attempts at sewing and learning how to play the theremin, I put it down and haven’t picked it back up again. Still, just looking at it on my bookshelf fills me with an over-eager sense of adventure, not unlike an 11-year-old boy playing Dungeons and Dragons.

But the gimmicks are so enjoyable. Poo-poo on other onliners who decry such approaches with their snobbery and holier-than-thou attitudes. Gimmicks, for lack of a better term, can create a reading experience. There’s the book, oh yes, but there’s so much more.

Night Film by Marisha Pessl came with an app. An app! Enhancement for scariness! The book was a frightening mental trip. Loved it. Ate it up. Especially the “extras” you get with the app: short “movie trailers” relevant to the plot. After a while you wonder, is this real? It sure seems real . . .

Another gimmicky approach is in The Crystal Eaters by Shane Jones. The story follows a young girl in a world where every person is born with 100 crystals in their body that slowly deplete. People lose crystals through injury, accidents, sickness … and at zero crystals, death. The pages of the book count down instead of up, and you realize as you read that your time is drawing to a close.

Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, perhaps the most terrifying book I’ve ever read, manipulates the reader mercilessly. I knew I was being manipulated, and I didn’t care. The pages are sometimes printed in a spiral and you have to keep turning the book in your hands, or the words are backwards, or there is only one word per page and this makes you flip them maniacally as your heart is racing during something horrifying. During one crucial plot point Danielewski inserted one stanza of music. I ran to the piano, plucked out “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” and freaked out. This book made me afraid of my own bathroom.


House of Leaves. Mess you up!

The “gimmicks” are not gimmicks. The author is putting you in the story, even more so than just by reading words on a page. It’s The Neverending Story come to life. And I love it. Gimme more.