Archives for category: Reading

It has been a goal of mine for years to spend less time on the Internet and more time reading books, and this is the year I started to get somewhat close to where I want to be. Overall, I’m thrilled, but an unfortunate side-effect is that less time on the Internet means less time talking about what I am reading, and some wonderful books failed to get a signal boost this year.

So, to make up for lost time and in no particular order, here is my Top 10. (Well, 9 and a series, but who’s counting?)

Glamourist Histories, Mary Robinette Kowal

The Glamourist Histories are what might have happened if Jane Austen’s novels took place in an alternate Regency in which illusion magic (“glamour”) was one of the accomplishments of talented young women alongside dancing and embroidery.

By all rights, I shouldn’t have been this series’ target audience. I’m not a big romance fan, and I’ve been picking up and putting down Pride and Prejudice (and Sense and Sensibility and Emma) for over ten years. Yet… I loved these books. It helped that the protagonist is whip-smart and proud of her accomplishments in magic, and her intelligence and artistic talent are seen as assets by her suitors rather than consolation prizes.

Who should read it? Fantasy fans who would appreciate a magical system in which the ability to create things of beauty is the measure of skill rather than the power to destroy.

Pair with… Earl Grey tea and scones—on the good dishes.

Heated Leather Lover, Annabeth Leong

After adding this book to my list, I considered revising my position on romance, but I decided against it because Heated Leather Lover is erotic romance (which is something else, dah-ling) and as different from the Glamourist Histories as a motorcycle ride is from high tea.

Heated Leather Lover is about being brave in the face of personal demons so entrenched they practically have a mother in-law apartment with its own entrance. Which doesn’t sound like the kind of book you’d want to bring to bed. Yet…somehow…the heavy themes don’t make the story any less hot.

There are books that are notable in themselves, and there are books that challenge the limits of a whole genre. When I put down Heated Leather Lover, all I could think was, “That’s what erotica can do.”

Who should read it? Who’s to say? YKINMKBYKIOK

Pair with… Plum nail polish and/or a leather jacket.

The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of All Things is not an easy book, and it’s not an easy book to talk about. At over 500 pages, it’s a commitment, and even those familiar with Elizabeth Gilbert’s literary precursors to Eat, Pray, Love will probably find it challenging. It certainly asks readers to persevere in ways most books would never dare.

And yet. And yet…

This book changed how I think about time. Time in narrative, yes, but that’s boring. I mean actual time. It was the first time I’d considered that individuals can exist on different time scales the way rocks and cornstalks do, and not just in a “damn kids and their twitters” kind of way.

Who should read it? Renaissance folks and anyone who has ever dreamed of traveling by whaling ship.

Pair with… A long vacation. Preferably off the grid.

I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith

I probably wouldn’t have picked this book up if it hadn’t been for the endorsement by J.K. Rowling on the cover. As it was, the book sat for months on the shelf because I couldn’t believe that a diary of a teenage girl living in a ruined old castle in the 1930s could be interesting (or anything but depressing).

How wrong I was. Cassandra is another smart protagonist, and while the scope of her observations extends only to bits of London and a small English village, the depth of her insight into the characters around her more than makes up for it. The book was written by an English author living in the United States, and it is full of the loving detail that you would expect from someone writing about home from a distance.

Who should read it? Writers, people who are close to (and irritated with) writers, and those who like snooping in other people’s diaries.

Pair with… Nothing. You’ll feel guilty pairing it with anything else.

The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame

How did it take me until I was almost thirty to read The Wind in the Willows? I have no idea, but I’m glad that I was finally able to put things right.

In case I’m not the last person in the world to read The Wind in the Willows: The book is about talking animals who wear clothes and paddle around in boats and have picnics and drive way too fast and end up in jail and escape from jail and fly south for the winter. I should probably put a spoiler warning before this paragraph because I pretty much just gave you the plot of the book, but if you’re reading The Wind in the Willows for plot, you’ve, well, lost the plot.

The Wind in the Willows is an experience in the way that the original Winnie the Pooh stories are an experience, which is why you can forgive Kenneth Grahame for taking way too long to describe everything. Did I say “forgive”? I meant to say “thank” because every minute spent in the book is a minute spent in a fairy ring: If you can ever manage to escape the only thing you can really say is, “What was that all about?*

Who should read it? You. And you. And you can come, too, lead foot.

Pair with… Your most comfortable pajamas and/or a country picnic.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Ransom Riggs

It’s difficult to say anything about this book without giving spoilers, so I will only say what would be immediately obvious if you had the book in your hands: This is a beautiful book full of pictures of spooky children doing odd things.

Miss Peregrine’s is as dark as you would expect from a story in which one of the major characters fights monsters and Nazis, but what sets it apart from other dystopian YA is a terrible beauty, as if the spirit of the island permeated the book itself.

Best of all, though, are the characters. It would have been easy in a book like this to assign powers and stop character building there, but everyone in the book is memorable for their personality as much as for what they can do. I read it twice and actually found it more enjoyable the second time.

Who should read it? History buffs, Emerson fans, and flea market junkies.

Pair with… Cotton candy and old love letters.

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, MR James

This was the year I discovered MR James. Like many I found him through his literary child HP Lovecraft. James was an academic. In fact, he was so successful as an academic his obituary didn’t even mention his ghost stories, but we have him to thank for the idea that the creepiest stories involve people like us in places that we are familiar with instead of rich people in gothic castles. Since he was such a fan of keeping his demons close to home, his stories involve inscrutable documents and old libraries and university faculty. While that doesn’t really describe my life anymore (sniffle), I found Ghost Stories of an Antiquary scary as hell.

Who should read it? Lovecraft fans and Oxbridge dons.

Pair with… Modern Alchemy Ex Libris candle…and a flashlight, just in case.

Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires, Michael E. Bell

I grew up about an hour from where most of the stories in this book are told, yet I had no idea until I found this book on a library shelf in Oregon that there is a vampire tradition in New England folklore.

Readers hoping for Dracula-style (or, help us, sparkly) vampires will be disappointed. The “monsters” that appear in these legends are more like forces of nature than personalities. But it is hard to argue that an unseen corpse that sucks the life force out of members of their family one at a time isn’t creepier than…well…just about anything else.

Who should read it? Lovecraft and Poe fans and anyone who thinks vampire lore is getting a bit stale.

Pair with… A road trip to look for New England burial grounds that ends with dinner at a colonial inn.

The Gift of Good Land, Wendell Berry

The Gift of Good Land is a collection of 24 essays that follows Wendell Berry “through the highlands of Peru, the deserts of southern Arizona, and Amish country as he studies traditional agricultural practices” (goodreads).

It is rare to find a book of essays over thirty years old that isn’t dated, especially when you consider that a thirty year difference in agricultural technology means there are essays in here that ask questions like, “Should I bother switching from a scythe to a weed whacker?” But the readability of The Gift of Good Earth is extraordinary. It helps that the book isn’t really about farming issues in the 1970s but about technology as-such and Berry’s attempts to figure out his place in it.

Who should read it? Technologists, ethnographers, and people who like words like “mindfulness” and “sustainability.” Writers and artists should keep an eye out for interesting connections between sustainable agriculture and a healthy creative process.

Pair with… Waxy heirloom potatoes with flaky salt.

My Life in France, Julia Child

Every few years I go through a Julia Child phase and binge watch every episode of The French Chef I can get my hands on, but I avoided reading My Life in France for years because I couldn’t imagine the things I loved about the show translating into a book. In a way, those fears weren’t unfounded. The book is like a prequel to *The French Chef.” But when I read it, the story of how a bored newlywed in her thirties who couldn’t make a béchamel became a not chicken dropping French cooking force of nature was exactly what I needed.

Who should read it? Late bloomers, armchair travelers, and people who like food.

Pair with… Sole mueniere and a skinny baguette.

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I’ve been carrying around this idea for a long time–maybe you have, too–that there is a right way to read poetry. The right way to read poetry is very serious and very slow. You are supposed to read each word one at a time and each line two or three times, and then you are supposed to ponder the meaning of each word and the rhythm of every line, and if you are very good you will write little dashes and lines to mark the tempo and look for patterns, or maybe you’re into imagery and circle all of the similes and metaphors.

When I was in school, I read poetry like this. The other day I stumbled on my marked-up copy of Mark Doty’s Atlantis, a book that was assigned during my first semester of grad school. Reading the marginalia just before I erased it–Thank God, I wrote in pencil–was like reading one of those classics books that they give children that have footnotes defining all of the hard words. It was useful, probably, when I was writing that paper on allusions, but I don’t read poetry like that anymore.

Lately, for me, reading poetry is like striking a tuning fork. I feel something, something I can’t articulate or name, and I pick up a book that feels like it might be vaguely in the right key. If I’m feeling a little bit moody, geeky, and very sentimental, I’ll pick up Come on All You Ghosts by Matthew Zapruder, and I’ll skim the pages very fast until something resonates. ZING! I’ve found the note: “which is why I am standing / here exactly, covered in shame and lightning” (Schwinn). Then I’ll read the words or line or (rarely) whole poem over and over again, tuning my heart to that one clear note, feeling that feeling through the words as loud as I can until the feeling is satisfied that it’s been heard.

The problem with this method is that it assumes not only the knowledge that something like this is possible but also access to a large and diverse poetry library and enough knowledge of poetry to navigate it. If I’m feeling the anger of injustice, I might need Adrienne Rich or Muriel Rukeyser. A poem about the Hadron Collider (“Screaming Skull,” Zapruder) isn’t going to help me, and if I’m not familiar with Zapruder’s work, I won’t know that until I’ve read the poem. On the other hand, if I know enough about poetry to reach for Pablo Naruda when I’m in love, ending up with a collection of his political work because that’s all they stock at the library isn’t going to help me, either.

Of course, many people process their emotions with music or visual art or yoga, and it’s relatively easy to stumble onto these things–even if it’s just through musak, paintings at the doctor’s office, or the odd yoga reference on TV. And this raises the question, of course, of how necessary developing this kind of knowledge of poetry is for most people. I process my emotions best with words taken in through my eyes, but it’s possible that I’m just odd. (Okay, maybe a little more than possible.) Still, short of taking classes and picking the brains of booksellers (who may or may not know enough to help), poetry that resonates is hard to find by accident.

This fact has been making me wish for something like a wine guide to poetry, a resource that would make it possible for a reader to say, “I need a gay romance with volcanoes, photography, and an essay on the history of adjectives in poetry,” and end up with a recommendation for The Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson.

It would, of course, be a massive undertaking and not one I’m willing to spearhead. (Though, I would be willing to help, if someone took the idea and ran with it.) But I wonder if there’s something that people who do have some knowledge of poetry can do so that people who would benefit from the tuning fork method of reading poetry have a chance of finding what they need–short of tweeting links to Byron during National Poetry Month because clearly that hasn’t been working.

A few weeks ago, after misreading the hours on the website, the Hacker and I found ourselves at an aquarium less than an hour before closing time. The woman behind the counter felt bad for us and let us in for half price, but I felt bad taking money from a nonprofit even if we didn’t get a chance to see everything, so I decided to check out the gift shop on our way out to see if I could make up for it a little.

If I hadn’t felt guilty, I probably wouldn’t have picked up Cod, but when I saw that it was by Mark Kurlansky, the writer who had miraculously made Salt interesting, I was intrigued. Since a book (even a potentially boring one) felt more practical than a stuffed shark, I decided to buy it.

Fortunately for me, it was not boring, which was unfortunate for the Hacker who was forced to listen to a steady stream of cod factoids for the next three days.

Cod fed the Age of Exploration…

Because cod is almost entirely protein, dried salt cod has 1/5th the weight of fresh cod and can keep for as long as ten years as a “durable woodlike plank.” In the days before freezers, cod’s keeping qualities enabled ships to head out into the unknown without worrying about resupplying. Every major European exploratory voyage from the Vikings to John Cabot used salt cod as its primary food source.

And it fed Caribbean sugar plantations.

In the 17th century, slaves working Caribbean sugar plantations needed food rich in salt and protein in order to survive the grueling work. Plantation owners didn’t want to waste any land on growing food for the workers, so they imported salted beef from England. That is, until the New England colonies saw an opportunity to offload badly cured salt cod that would have otherwise been discarded on a low-end market. Preparing cod for the Caribbean became so profitable that salt cod producers in New England struggled to produce high quality fish when slavery was abolished.

Catching a cod is easy…

Aside from cod’s exceptional durability, one of the main reasons cod was so popular was that it was easy to catch even in the days of line fishing when fishermen were only allowed one hook per line. Once a cod was on the line, and the hook was firmly set in its mouth, a cod didn’t struggle like swordfish do. All a fisherman had to do was pull up the line. That is until trawlers that ran nets along the ocean floor were invented, exploiting the cod’s natural tendency to go to the bottom when it is a afraid.

But being a cod fisherman is exceptionally hard.

Fishermen have traditionally operated on very little sleep, so the rate of accidents is extremely high. Any accident is compounded by the fact that cod is fished out of water that is between 34 and 50 degrees, and until recently the only thing to protect fishermen from freezing wet hands were rubber gloves lined with cotton. Since fishermen who have lost too many fingers from frost bite or accidents with machinery are forced into retirement, few fishermen are able to work past fifty.

Cod fishing inspired American capitalism.

In the early days of the United States, the cod was so revered that a life-sized wooden codfish was displayed in the Old State House in Massachusetts that was so revered that it inspired a standing ovation when it was moved to the new legislature. Silly as all that was, New England owed its existence to the cod, which provided early settlers a steady livelihood and familiar food when they were at risk of starving.

Later, on the eve of the American Revolution, when Massachusetts radicals thought of freedom, they thought of the cod industry where “men of no particular skill, with very little capital, had made fortunes.” To this day, American capitalism assumes that if you’re willing to work long hours, go without sleep, and put up with unpleasant working conditions like a cod fisherman, supporting a middle class lifestyle requires no particular luck or skill.

John Dee was born in London during the reign of Henry VIII and somehow managed to survive five years into the reign of James I even though he was a scientist and mathematician in a time when everyone knew that “mathematics” was just another word for conjuring. In Tudor/Stuart England, magic was a serious business, if a secretive one. Dee was Elizabeth I’s court astrologer, and alchemists and astrologers like him made incredible discoveries that would inform the future scientific fields of chemistry and astronomy in a time when a change in religious opinion at court could be deadly, and England changed monarchs and state religions with astonishing speed.

Dee denied publicly that he practiced magic, but he secretly believed that “when God created the Universe…he let loose a divine force that causes the planets to turn, the sun to rise, the moon to wax and wane. Magic…is the human ability to tap this force. The better our understanding of the way it drives the universe, the more powerful the magic. In other words, magic is technology.”

Dee’s interest swung freely between what we would see as pure science (such as when a new star appeared in the night sky, and Dee was so obsessed with studying it that he quit the Tudor equivalent of a startup that probably would have paid out a thousand acres of land in Maine, if he hadn’t given up his share) and pure magic (such as his attempts to summon angels).

It’s tempting to see Dee as a misunderstood scientist stumbling through a fog of magic toward the light of pure science. And sure, there are instances when better “magic” would have made Dee a better scientist. When King Edward was dying, for instance, John Dee ran the king’s horoscope before calling for a medical doctor, and the results of the reading informed the decision to essentially put the king into hospice. (Fortunately, Edward had tuberculosis and probably would have died, anyway.) More often than not, magic and science were essential parts of the same process. When he engaged in court-sponsored cryptography research he was also on a quest for the language God used to create the universe, and his interest in code and desire for mystical knowledge fueled each other and inspired him to do better work.

One of the most poignant interpretations of The Odyssey I’ve ever encountered is that it is a story in objects: “A throne of polished stone, white and gleaming as though with oil,” “horn in a pure foil beaten out of the gold that Nestor gave him,” “clear lustral water in a bowl quivering with fresh-cut flowers, a basket of barley,” “five-tined forks,” “golden wine cup,” “painted car.” Written at the end of a golden age, the epic poem is rich in detail inspired by longing for an abundance the poet believes will never return.

I like to imagine Homer with his eyes closed meditating, tongue pressed between his lips, nursing a dull hope that if he can only just recall the exact arrangement of the flowers, the taste of the wine, and catalog it all he might call it back.

At the end of Sena Jeter Naslund’s Abundance, A Novel of Marie Antoinette, I was left with a similar impression.

The reign of Louis XVI is synonymous with the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, but most of the novel takes place before all of that in the court of Louis and Marie Antoinette at Versailles. Since the book is told from Marie Antoinette’s perspective, the extreme poverty of France at the dawn of the revolution is mostly invisible, appearing only occasionally like the child in rags who sneaks into the castle and hides behind the velvet curtains.

Instead of empty bellies and disease the novel begins filled with “all the jewels appropriate to attendance at the opera glinting around us like fairy lights” and “tulips and narcissus, pussy willow, and forsythia bending in a yellow arc–blossoms and fronds beautifully arranged wherever one looks.” As the monarchy in France declines, the lushness also declines until Marie Antoinette is alone in a small cell with a bed, a table, two chairs, and a stool. In the end, even the stool is taken away.

The book ends with an epilogue that describes the fates of the characters that were still alive at the time of Marie Antoinette’s death. My knowledge of French history is patchy between Napoleon I and the beginning of World War I, so I was intrigued to learn that Louis XVI’s two younger brothers both served as French monarchs after the revolution. I wondered how a country that eliminated its monarchy so violently could return to it in a single generation. Or, for that matter, why anyone would want to be king after seeing what happened to the last royal family.

My historical curiosity was quickly replaced by portraiture. Moving from monarch to monarch forward in time there was a diminishing. Democracy rose. Monarchy fell, and the fur and jewels in the costumes fell away into blue military starkness.

Abundance was published in 2006, the same year that Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette was released. Both the book and the film drew on Antonia Fraser’s Marie Antoinette: The Journey as a major source, and they were similarly controversial. Marie Antoinette won an Academy Award for Best Costume Design, but critics complained that the novel and the film chose style over substance.

Most of the reviews of Abundance end in 2007, just as the recession was beginning. I wonder if these works were released now what the reception would have been. Like the Google buses in San Francisco or would reading about Marie Antoinette’s gardens in winter inspire a longing for spring?

Photo Credit: Jenny Downing