Books about Books

IMG_7967What’s better than reading a book?

How about reading a book about books?

Woo hoo! I love books about books about books. There’s something about being accepted as a pathological bibliomaniac that warms the foxed pages of my heart.

In the interest of full disclosure, this list is neither long nor comprehensive because I feel squeamish about including books that I haven’t read. So, all those listed here are tried and true, by yours truly. Here are a few of my favorite books about books:

When Books Went to War – Molly Guptill Manning

The true story about America’s effort to bring books to soldiers during WWII. Encouraged to fight the censorship and book-burning of the Nazis, our country wanted to bring stories to our troops to help ease the strife of convalescing in hospitals, offer a distraction to those on the front lines, and ease the boredom that often overtook many soldiers’ days. There were successful book drives, and eventually the War Department took over the massive undertaking of printing paperbacks and getting them to our men and women overseas.

bookswar
Find it on Goodreads


I learned about ASEs (Armed Services Editions) of popular best-sellers, and well as the existence of the oft-sought-after
Forever Amber, which was apparently quite a scandalous read at the time. I highly recommend this book; more than just the interesting explanations of how the book printing and distribution operated, Manning also includes personal stories of soldiers’ reactions to books they might have never otherwise encountered. Most importantly, this book shows us how comforting and necessary the written word can be.

 

 

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler – Italo Calvino

This is the most meta of all books about books. First translated from the Italian in 1981, I am in awe that this book was in existence for almost my entire life, waiting, silently, for me.

if on a winter's night
Find it on Goodreads 

The frame story is of a reader who goes to a bookstore to buy a book called If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, but the copy he buys is incomplete due to some kind of publishing mistake. When he attempts to buy a new copy, that one is also incorrect, and his third attempt is the wrong book all together, and so on, but he keeps on reading the copies. He ends up reading ten beginnings of ten different books, all of which tie up at the end. And the ending is delightful!

You, as the reader, are also included in the story with second person POV. So, along with the story of this reader buying and reading the beginning of the books, you’re also presented with ten opening book chapters, which are mostly like short stories and are fascinating unto themselves.

Calvino weaves in philosophical discussion about books, about loving the beginnings of books in particular. The beginnings of books are full of potential, and that expectant adventure is what Calvino hones in on. There were so many epiphanies in this book, so many times I wanted to shout “Eureka! He’s done it!” or, in more keeping with my personality, “Dude. Just wow.” It’s original, captivating, definitive, joyful.

IMG_7962 (2)

To paraphrase Clifford Geertz and Bertrand Russell, it’s just novels all the way down.

History of the Rain – Niall Williams

One of my Favorite Books of All Time (and that’s a very exclusive distinction). I want to clasp Williams’s hands in mine and thank him for capturing the words that knock about in my bookish soul.

history of rain
Find it on Goodreads

Ruth Swain lives in the attic loft of what is essentially a ramshackle castle, surrounded by 3,000 of her deceased father’s books. While she’s convalescing/dying of some unnamed cancerous illness, she decides to get to know her father better by reading his library. The language beautifully captures the human condition, especially as it relates to the love of literature. I couldn’t stop highlighting passages, such as “ . . . went down among the shelves and felt company, not only the company of the writers, but the readers, too, because they had lifted and opened and read these books.”

Highly recommended for romantic bibliophiles.

 

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

I passed over this epistolary novel numerous times because of the title. It gave me an “old lady lit” impression that I am chagrined to admit. It sounded like ice cream socials, and gosh-darn-its, and “something so funny happened at church on Sunday when a bee flew into the sanctuary.” I could not have been more wrong.

guernsey
Find it on Goodreads

Set in 1946, the story revolves around Juliet, a London writer who begins corresponding with a group of people who claim to be a literary society in Guernsey. This society was formed as a ruse to fool the German occupiers. There is a much deeper story than Juliet first encounters, and she becomes absorbed with this group of friends and their tales of the occupation.

Please don’t succumb to my initial prejudice. This is the kind of book that when you pass a copy in the used book store you have to reach out and run your finger on the spine and smile.

 

 

Howard’s End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading From Home – Susan Hill

Aaaand, here I am feeling squeamish, because I haven’t read this book. I just discovered its existence and read some reviews online, and it seems like my cuppa. 

howardsendlanding
Find it on Goodreads

The author had a realization that she owned too many books (I don’t understand this “too many” she’s talking about) and decided to devote a year of her reading life to only reading what is in her home library. I’m not sure if this might fall into the self-indulgent side of many of these types of year-long experiments, but I still hold out hope for introspection without overflowing self-absorption. Many reviewers have admonished the author for name-dropping and limiting herself to British authors, but I’m still interested. If anyone has any experience with this one, please let me know in the comments.

 

 

And, just in case you think I’m done here, no sir! More to come. There are many books about books that are worth reading, so PART TWO will be on its way soon. What are your favorite books about books? Recommendations welcome!

Love the book, not the number

red-love-heart-typography.jpg

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

northwater

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

belgravia

 

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.

lilyandtheoctopus
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

wild

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

marvels

 

 

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!