a random reading weekend

Ouch! I knew it had been awhile since I’d posted, but I didn’t realize it had been a month. I wrote a review for BookBrowse, and I went on vacation, and apparently did everything but hang out here for the last month. But I certainly did a lot of reading.

But today… I want to talk about random reading.

Sometimes you pick up a great book, and you can’t put it down. You read it every second you can – sitting at stop lights, while the guy pumps your gas (yay, Oregon!), waiting for your song to download. You stay up until 4am – with your eyes crossing and the words blurring on the page – even though you have a 9am meeting in which you must be dazzling. I love those books.

But sometimes – and not necessarily because the book isn’t fabulous – you don’t hunker down like that. For example, my random reading this weekend.

I am reading The Lonely Polygamist by Barry Udall. I’m also reading The Child That Books Built by Francis Spufford (which I’d left at home while on vacation). In addition, I’ve started Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky (purchased in N Hampshire and started on the plane home). And I started A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes, but I’m not sure I’m going to finish. I think those are the only books I’m currently reading.

Now, I often have a non-fiction book (or in this case, two) that I’m reading that doesn’t fulfill my need for narrative, so I have a fiction book I’m reading at the same time. I rarely have two novels I’m reading at the same time – in this case,  Jamaica wasn’t holding my attention, so I picked up Polygamist, which is a great book so far (halfway).

However, the internet has added a whole new dimension to my random reading. And twitter really feeds my desire for interesting things to read. Neil Gaiman, William Gibson, Amanda F. Palmer and Bitch magazine all post links to interesting things to read that I most likely would never have seen. Gaiman & Palmer have fascinating blogs, as does Lisa Snellings (fantastic artist), Michael Perry, Judy Krueger (about books), and the writers at The Box Car Kids (a laid-off mother of four, blogging to keep her sanity), Feministing (check the awesome logo) and Bitch Ph.D. (no relation).

As a result, my Sunday looked something like this:

sleep in
make tea
read Polygamist for 45 minutes (outside in the sun)
get hot & hungry, make lunch
check facebook/twitter while waiting for lunch to cook
find interesting link on twitter, click and read (stuff about library love, and Gaiman winning the Carnegie Award for The Graveyard Book)
wander over to page w/Gaiman’s blog (always open) and read another month’s worth of posts (currently in 2005 somewhere)
write in journal
pick up Polygamist again, read for 1.5 hours
vacuum, wash dishes and prep produce before it goes bad
twitter again w/cool links (watched a video with Katie Couric interviewing Gloria Steinem)
more Gaiman blog
watch movie (was going to watch The Lives of Other, ended up with Iron Man)
read Child That Books Built for 1.5 hours before bed

Some days, that kind of jumping around would make me crazy. But this weekend it was just what the doctor ordered (if there was a doctor smart enough to prescribe fiction and blogs).  I was happy all day long.

Even with the vacuuming.

(now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go catch up at Bitch Ph.D…)

What I read in April

The River Where Blood is Born by Sandra Jackson-Opoku – this is a multi-generational book, complete with gods and tricksters looking on. Much like some of my favorite Alice Walker (yes, this one starts in Africa as well). This will get a full review soon.

Best European Ficition 2010, which I reviewed for BookBrowse.com (I did like it, despite my avoidance maneuvers).

The Final Solution by Michael Chabon– this book was recently returned to me from a friend who had borrowed it. A novella of Sherlock Holmes’s final investigation. Chabon never disappoints, and I don’t even like Sherlock Holmes.

Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean – the story of a woman who survived some of WWII by living (with the rest of the employees & their families) in a museum in the USSR. The story bounces back and forth between her current life in the U.S. Pacific NW – while she is suffering from Alzheimer’s – and her memories of that war-torn winter in… Leningrad, naturally. Lots of interesting questions about memory and what is real, and the power of the human spirit to survive just about anything, and the way myth and art assist in that survival.

My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme– I read this because I loved the Julia Child portions of the Julie & Julia film, and this book did not disappoint. The film clearly captured her exuberance and passion for food, France and her husband that shines through this book. Takes us from their arrival in France through the second edition of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and the creation of her television show. Co-written by Child and her grand-nephew.

Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong– which I reviewed here.

A Disobedient Girl by Ru Freeman. This is the story of an Indian girl…. that I didn’t finish. I got through maybe two chapters, and it just wasn’t working for me. I don’t entirely blame the book – the character was mildly interesting up to the point where I stopped reading. But it was not capturing my interests enough to hang onto it (this was about the time I started reading Neil Gaiman’s blog, so I blame him at least partially for my distraction).  It was a library book, so I returned it without finishing it.

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman.  This is the book I read instead of A Disobedient Girl. Neil was blogging about the audio book or something, so I had to go re-read my copy. Pratchett is a witty, fantastically funny author, and I’ve already told you how much I adore Gaiman. I remember finding this book and being thrilled – I’d only read Neverwhere by Gaiman at that point, but I’d read at least half dozen Pratchett Discworld books (Small Gods was my favorite at that point, and still in the top three) and was excited to see the two of them together. My only complaint in this otherwise hilarious comic romp through the apocalypse is the rather anticlimactic ending. Funny, funny, funny book. I can remember feeling compelled to read parts of it to friends because I needed them to know that I wasn’t imagining things, it really was that crazy.


Looks like I only finished seven books in April.  Seems like a slow month (especially since I’ve already read eight in May, and it’s only the 19th). What was I doing? Oh right, I was avoiding Best European Fiction 2010. Also, I read a year’s worth of Neil Gaiman’s blog. I’m not proud of it, but it does indicate how much free time I had on my hands.

A book & a film by a Frenchman

I don’t remember where I heard about Brodeck by Philippe Claudel.  It might have been BookBrowse.com, but could have been Powell’s.  I do remember that I was broke and out of books to read, so I hit the library after work (I also remember that it was raining, and I was rushing to get there before they closed, but you probably don’t need to know that, right?). I had the name of the book in my head, and it happened to be on the New Book shelf at the Hillsdale branch, so I brought it home (with several others, I’ve never gotten out of a library with only one item. Ever.).  It got great reviews, and when I went looking around the interwebs, I discovered he writes screenplays and directs films as well.

Brodeck was one of those books I really should have written about when it was still fresh in my mind. I’m sure I read this book in 2009, so it’s been several months. I remember it being really good, and melancholy without being sad, exactly. I remember being impressed with his first-person narrative (a difficult style to do well, in my opinion) and how strongly the emotional character of Brodeck was portrayed. But all of the other terribly learned and intelligent things I’m sure I meant to say about it completely escape me at this point. I know that I voted for it as ‘best book of the year’ on some poll, based on the fact that it was the best of the books on the list they had (that I had read).

The story is set in post-WWII Europe (somewhere around the Poland/Germany border, the story is deliberately vague on this point). A stranger comes to town and is so curious and strange and inquisitive and happy, that this beaten-down little hamlet is completely defensive and immediately suspicious of him. They end up killing him out of fear and guilt.  It is a great story about how guilt can eat you alive, and how painful it can be to face your own conscience. It’s also a great story about ‘the truth’ and how hard it can be to tell it, or recognize it.

The book is supposed to be a ‘report’ the town leaders have asked Brodeck to write to explain what they did to some nebulous government authority in the distance, in case there are any questions.  But of course, writing this is dangerous – look what happened to the last guy! – and so Brodeck ends up writing two versions, one for the town elders and one for himself – and us. The layers of story and viewpoint are impressive and well-executed.

I picked up a film at the video store a few weeks ago (was in the foreign film $1 section, had Kristin Scott Thomas on it) and it was one of his (at this point, having totally forgotten that he did films), so I rented it (I’ve Loved You So Long) and it was great as well. Also sad, about how loss can make you do crazy things, and how love really can heal you, even if it can also destroy you.

So there ya go – a book and a movie recommendation.  Next time you’re looking for pathos and enlightenment, Philippe Claudel is your guy. Tell him you heard it here first.

(only one more book on the ugly list – yay!)

something to look forward to…

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn are Pulitzer-prize winning authors who appear to have dedicated their lives to investigating injustice and trying to get the world to pay attention. In Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, they’ve written a guide for those who want to help, and examined programs that worked and those that didn’t – and why. If you are at all interested in this topic, this would be a great place to start. I read Half the Sky for bookbrowse.com about four (four!?) months ago.

The most surprising fact was this:

There are more women trafficked to brothels every year – right now, today – than the number of slaves transported annually at the peak of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Does this shock you? I hope so. It surely shocked me when I read it. This is happening right now, and right here. These women are brought to the U.S. and all over the world so that they can be forced to have sex with men who pay money to someone who keeps these women as livestock.  It is disgusting and unbelievable and ubiquitous. And makes my heart hurt.

I was impressed that the book didn’t sensationalize the good or the bad but treated this subject with the seriousness it deserved, and critiqued the results of aid programs, not just the intentions behind them.

The fact that we need books like this makes me sad. I’m glad that someone is writing them, but hoping for the day when the need for them becomes history.

On a lighter note – Kristof was speaking at the Public Library Association’s biennial conference here in Portland in March. I was working the exhibit floor for BookBrowse.com (with the fabulous Davina) so I probably could have gone to hear him talk 1) if I’d really wanted to, and 2) if I’d known about it beforehand. (Mary Roach was there as well, also didn’t find out about that one until it was too late – that one I would have attended for sure!). Kristof also writes a twice-weekly editorial column for the New York Times.

travel/love/life envy

I woke up worrying about how to pay the rent when I’m going to be gone (and therefore miss out on my primary job) for most of the pay period before July’s rent paycheck shows up.  But then my phone rang – before I was even out of bed – with someone saying they’d basically volunteered me for a part-time gig and did I want it before she committed me irrevocably? Sometimes I forget – The Universe provides.

I’ve been reading a lot of things lately that feature people traveling and doing the thing that they love.  People that get to travel because of the thing that they love.  People that found the thing they love by traveling, or found that they love to travel because of the thing they love. And they found the person that they love because of the thing they love, or vice versa. Or something like that. Sometimes they get a bit jumbled up in my head – so Julia is speaking in a gothic English accent about the proper way to bake French bread while driving an old pickup full of manure. Oh yeah, and they’re all writers – though writing is far from the only thing they do.

I want a life like that. To do the thing(s) that I love, and have that become the center of my life, and to find someone to love who wants to inhabit my life filled with that thing that I love and traveling.

I am only nominally making money by writing right now, but I do have a bit of a chaotic work existence, with a bunch of small avenues where revenue comes in the way that these (lucky!) folks have – in form, though definitely not in scale.  It’s not perfect, but it’s a start.

Step 2: more writing.