The 2019 Reading Review

My Reading Year in Review

It’s safe to say that most book lovers hope to read more books in the new year, whether they have a specific goal in mind or long for more time to engage in this favored pastime. But reading isn’t about quantity, as readers who suffer book hangovers can attest. Certain books draw us in, make us wish to live longer within their pages. Some books entertain, while others make our hearts hurt. Some dazzle us with the beauty, the lyricism of their phrasing, while others stun us with their twists.

Whatever the case may be, reading is a powerful act, one that lets us live other lives, builds our empathy, and deepens our understanding. And while reading is often perceived as solitary, we do read books aloud or in parallel (as I did with my kiddo this year[†]), allowing this experience to become a communal one. So, yes, readers want to read more each year but not because they wish to beat some goal. It’s to experience more.

For what it’s worth, I did exceed my reading goals this year,[‡] I also read most (thought not all) of the books I planned to read. I even completed the 2019 Reading Women Challenge (more on that later!). But the true triumph was that I read stories that enriched my world, making me glad I spent time in immersed in someone else’s words. Below, I’ve listed a few books that I found particularly memorable as well as a few books I hope to read in 2020. Regardless of how many books we read, I hope this year is filled with meaningful books for all.

2019 Reading Recommendations

Older Women with Character

If eccentric but difficult elderly women amuse you, then consider reading both An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good by Helene Tursten (trans. Marlaine Dalargy) and My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman (trans. Henning Koch). Unwilling to be sweet, these women will make you see older women less as “old dears” and more as the complicated human beings they are. An honorable mention in this category is Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (trans. Ginny Tapley Takemori). While protagonist Keiko is younger woman than the women in the aforementioned novels, she, very much like them, chooses to follow her own nontraditional path–much to the dismay of her family and friends.

The Twist of the Tale

In Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson, only Claudia seems disturbed by her best friend’s disappearance.

The book I read this year with the best twist was Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson. In this wrenching story of a young woman trying to determine why her best friend disappeared, the reader might work up a few good guesses as to what happened to Monday. Yet, though there were a few odd moments in the story, I don’t think much alerted me to its twist. Second place belongs to The Wife Between Us, a thriller by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen. This book advertised its twist in a “you’ll never see it coming way!”, which led me scrutinize the text quite closely for clues. And, sure enough, I picked up on a few details that partially (but not completely) revealed the twist. Nonetheless, I think the authors still surprised me in many places and I was on edge for much of the novel. As a minor aside, there was one final twist that felt a bit unnecessary. In my opinion, it gilded the lily but by no means ruined the book or its overall impact.

Brilliant Nonfiction

Science Asides: Black Faces, White Spaces—Structural Racism & Environmental Inequity. Review text by Rita E. Gould.
Black Faces, White Spaces, which I reviewed early this year, discusses how systemic racism bars African Americans from enjoying the Great Outdoors and, more importantly, the people working to change this.

This year, I read several works of nonfiction that opened my eyes to the past, often exposing past or ongoing social ills (Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans with the Great Outdoors by Carolyn Finney, Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore, Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech by Sara Wachter-Boettcher). Two other notable reads focused on a devastating library fire (The Library Book by Susan Orlean) and a rare books thief (The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett), with both sharing a thread of loss and longing. Since some of these books will feature in upcoming reviews (or already were reviewed), I won’t go into detail here. But keep these in mind if you’re interested in social justice or some fascinating tales focused on the book world.

2020 Reading List
That Summer in Puglia by Valeria Vescina*
A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecroft *
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien *
Behind the Mask: the Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott by Louisa May Alcott
A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict
To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey
The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu (trans. Royall Tyler)  
*I attempted these last year but was interrupted, necessitating a fresh start.

I’m looking forward to (hopefully!) reading these books and more! Happy new year and happy reading to you!

NOTES


[†] Indeed, my reading list received a hefty boost from reading Rick Riordan’s books about Percy Jackson and the Olympians.

[‡] I aimed to read 48 books and read 64.

Writing Inspiration: a NaNoWriMo Prompt

Meeting another Rita, let alone another bookish one, is a rare pleasure for me.

My friends and I went to the Baltimore Book Festival last Sunday (November 3rd). While there, I met another Rita. Meeting another Rita, let alone another bookish one, is a rare pleasure for me. As is often the case, though, the other Rita happened to be older than me by several years. One of my friends joked that it was future me (I apparently shrunk several inches). As we walked to a restaurant later in the afternoon, we happened to be discussing writing prompts, which led my suggestion we should all write about how we meet our future selves. I’ve decided to use this prompt for the NaNoWriMo story I’m composing today. In the spirit of sharing with the writing community and inspiring folks to get words on the page, here’s the full (expanded) prompt.

TL;DR: I met another Rita, which inspired the “write about meeting your future self” prompt.

Prompt

How does current day you meet your future self? What have they (you) been doing before they traveled back in time? Will your older self reveal that they’re you? Whether or not they identify, what words of wisdom do they share? Finally, do they live out their life in the past or do they, having completed some arbitrary goal, return to their lives?

What I Wrote for Summer Vacation

When it comes to writing, word count isn’t everything.

Some weeks ago, I felt a sense of dismay growing as I finalized my family’s remaining summer plans and back-to-school preparations.[*] Amid juggling tasks, I began worrying about whether I had written enough this summer—and I was certain I “ought” to have written more. Fortunately for my peace of mind, I made a few realizations that made me more comfortable with my summer word count.

“Not Writing” Time

The first discovery that helped me worry less about word count stemmed from learning that some writers set time aside when they will not be writing. Admittedly, this information seems to be more aligned with common sense than profundity. After all, we can’t always write. But the critical distinction here is one of choice, the significant difference between “can’t” and “won’t”. I can’t write while I drive, because it’s dangerous (and probably illegal),[†] but I “won’t” write while on vacations when I need to relax. If I’m being honest, I don’t accomplish much writing when I’m mentally drained. It’s better to give myself permission to “not write” and allow myself the space to recharge my creativity than to spend that time feeling like I failed to write.

From Slump to Inspiration

The second realization occurred when I re-read my post about summer writing from last year. At the time, I thought that my writing schedule needed a tune up. But while that may (still) be the case, I needed to reconsider whether it was just a summertime slump in my motivation or if there were more factors involved. While my word counts tend to stagnate while I’m at the shore, it’s also important to consider how such distractions benefit my writing. Our experiences inform our writing. It’s difficult to dredge up inspiration from places we haven’t seen or things we’ve not done. And my imagination needs the occasional bit of kindling. This summer, I spent some time reading while poolside, a necessary fuel for writing. I also went to new places, some which already wish to be painted into the background of my next story.

Plans in Motion

Finally, though, there was one last observation that reassured me that my summer writing was successful and that came when I checked my writing goals. As part of my ongoing project to build better writing habits, I committed to writing for July’s Camp NaNoWriMo. And although I wrote fewer words than I thought I would, I’m now several hundred words into my short story and I know how it begins and end. But, most importantly, I made a plan to write and did so—and that’s progress by any measure.


NOTES:

[*]This year, all our family travel overlapped some other event, the most stressful being the first week of school. I doubt my child missed much, but I spent several hours confirming that would be the case.

[†]Technically, I suppose driving and writing could be done at the same time, but in the interest of public safety (and less time spent revising), I don’t recommend it.

The Other Side of the Circulation Desk

For me, volunteering at my child’s school library felt like coming full circle.

When my child returned to elementary school this past year, so did I.

Quite literally.

However, I stopped just short of joining the third grade with him and instead popped into the library, ready to begin my stint as a volunteer there.

Full Circle

For me, volunteering at my child’s school library felt like coming full circle. My mother brought me along when she volunteered at the parochial school where my older siblings attended.[*] Already a reader, I loved the library, its scent of books, the vast shelves of stories.[†] I remember the school librarian being a kind woman who drew the difficult number eights my hands couldn’t yet manage. Becoming a librarian’s assistant in turn seemed like an ideal way to pay forward the generosity I received at the many libraries I visited in my youth.

Tricky Customers

It also proved to be an eye-opening experience. I knew beforehand that my duties would include shelving, locating, and checking out books, not to mention helping the younger students select what they wanted to read. But I forgot about the crushing indecision children suffer when given so many choices, regardless of whether they wanted to read more books than allotted[‡] or whether they didn’t know what they wanted to read at all. Keeping in mind popular choices for their age levels, their specific reading levels, and age-appropriate material while trying to guess their interests made me long for telepathy. But every child we helped left with a book.

There’s More to Libraries than Books

Makerspace also surprised me. Alternating with “book week”, makerspace ranges from puzzle solving with plastic cups to stop-motion animation with leaves. My son previously mentioned some projects he worked on, but his limited explanation failed to convey their interdisciplinary nature or the labor behind their success. Even at the elementary school level, librarians’ responsibilities extend far beyond their being benevolent bestowers of books (see “Read More”).[§] But, it paid off. While I handed out supplies in the background so that the librarian could instruct the students, the kids learned how to do an impressive array of activities, like program robots wearing costumes the kids created. I often left amazed (if tired) at what the kids could do with some direction and patience. Well, a lot of patience and glue. And wouldn’t you know, some kids were inspired to read more about the projects they worked on the previous week.

After my year at the library, I realized I had even more reasons to appreciate my son’s librarians as well as the ones who shaped my own childhood. And I’m looking forward to discovering more next year.

READ MORE

Curious about what librarians do besides hoarding books? Check out these articles to learn more:

What Librarians Really Do All Day at Work by Romeo Rosales

What Exactly Does a Librarian Do? Everything by Kristin Arnett

5 Things That People Don’t Realize their Librarians Do by Rebecca Tischler

NOTES:


[*]And where I went to school…a few years later.

[†]From my then tiny perspective. Like most things that loomed larger than life in my memory, they seem shrunk now that I’m grown.

[‡]These kids are my people. When I take my child to the public library, he’s allowed to take out as many books as he can carry.

[§]For example, I learned about the schwa when school librarian discussed how to use the dictionary, instead of in a Reading or English class.

Black Faces, White Faces: Structural Racism


Science Asides: Black Faces, White Spaces—Structural Racism & Environmental Inequity. Review text by Rita E. Gould.

In Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, cultural geographer Dr. Carolyn Finney painstakingly investigates why African Americans are underrepresented when it comes to enjoying “the Great Outdoors” and environmentalism. Finney draws on a blend of scholarly works, close study of popular media,[*] field research, and personal experiences[†] to provide a thoughtful and thought-provoking examination of how the natural world has different, racialized contexts for black people and white people. Aimed at both experts and “just folks”, this scholarly book dispels the assumption of African Americans disinterest and reveals how underlying structural racism bears the responsibility for this disparity.

Dr. Finney, conscious to emphasize the diversity of African American culture, background, and experiences,[‡] nonetheless discusses several pervasive barriers to black people’s meaningful engagement with nature, among them (I’ll discuss three briefly) the painful legacies of slavery and segregation that continue to negatively shape attitudes toward natures. Far from seeing forests as a source of spiritual connection as white people might, African Americans may instead view such places as sites of violence (eg, lynching). When early white conservationists (several of whom promoted eugenics ideology) campaigned to protect natural places, they also deliberately barred non-white persons from these places. Unsurprisingly, this exclusion creates the impression that nature is for white people, causing many African Americans to avoid unwelcoming areas that may prove dangerous for them. Representation, too, plays an important role. Finney demonstrates that there is a dearth of black faces in media representation, whether it is an advertisement featuring only white people performing outdoor activities or a magazine that fails to include African American activists and leaders in a green issue. These instances are examples of missed opportunities to inspire black people to use the National Parks or join green organizations—something which also preserves the status quo. And it cannot be emphasized enough that the lack of diversity in these organizations contributes to instances where black individuals and communities are forgotten or ignored on environmental issues.

While much of Black Faces, White Spaces examines these barriers and many others, it is not a grim treatise but a hopeful one. Finney’s work looks to understand such barriers so that they can be effectively dismantled. In addition, she often highlights African Americans who are currently working on creating a more inclusive experience in natural areas (eg, when the National Park Systems included slave narratives in plantation tours) or forming their own environmental action groups to ensure issues important to black communities get the representation they deserve. Black Spaces, White Faces significantly contributes to the ongoing conversation about making the Great Outdoors and the environmental movement more equitable.

Further Reading

Part of what we can do to change our perception about the issues that Dr. Finney outlines is to educate ourselves. In this spirit, I am providing a short list of articles (by no means complete or exhaustive) that highlight the black (mostly, African American) environmentalists making a difference.

8 Black Environmentalists You Need To Know by Alice Kurima Newberry

6 Black Environmental Activists Who Changed History by Lara Brenner

5 Black Environmentalists Worth Celebrating On Earth Day by Jessica Dickerson


NOTES:

[*]In the New Book Networks: African American studies podcast, Finney explains that she chose to include these non-academic sources, because African Americans often are excluded and underrepresented in scholarly works. Popular media, however, often conveys messages about dominant cultural narratives as well as their underlying intentions. Since popular media can be accessed by all people, Finney also could address a wider audience than just her fellow academics.

[†]Finney includes her own family’s experiences, as they served as the caretakers of an estate in upstate New York for 50 years. When this estate (where they no longer lived) was donated for preservation, the white owners—not the Finney family—were praised for their stewardship.

[‡]Finney takes great care in being clear that she does not speak for all African Americans or for other non-white groups who may share similar experiences of exclusion from natural areas and the environmental discourse.

Greetings from Camp NaNoWriMo

Meet NaNoWriMo’s low-key Spring and Summer virtual writing retreats.

Last year (as you may already know), I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo. Of course, I knew a fair bit about the month-long event in which one attempts to write a novel (or, at least 50,000 words towards one) in November. But there were several things I didn’t know beforehand,[*] among them that the NaNoWriMo team also hosted additional events in April and July[†] called Camp NaNoWriMo. Since my November was packed long before I agreed this ambitious writing goal, I skipped clicking onto that link. And by the time NaNoWriMo finished, I exhaustedly signed off my account and decided I’d investigate it later.

Much later, as it happened.

Somewhere around early to mid-March, I started receiving a few gentle emails about upcoming April session. Soon after, my spouse mentioned it. Taking the hint at last, I decided to look into Camp NaNoWriMo. Similar to NaNoWriMo, it features word sprints, write-ins, daily inspirations, word prompts, and more. Unlike its well-known counterpart, participants have the option to be sorted into cabins (thus creating a small writing community) and, more importantly, set their own writing goals. And that can be word counts, chapters, consecutive writing days, or revision/editing. Or, in my case, 3500 new words for my novel. Billed as “an idyllic writers retreat smack-dab in the middle of your crazy life”, Camp NaNoWriMo aims to help writers complete smaller, focused writing tasks.

While NaNoWriMo excels at getting writers working on their novels, the quick pace leaves little room for refinement. During Camp NaNoWriMo thus far, I’ve had time to tweak what I’ve already written, and a stronger narrative is slowly emerging as I add new material. While my progress is slower, my novel reads better—making Camp NaNoWriMo an ideal follow-up to its November predecessor. For those who declined writing for NaNoWriMo because of its intense deadline but wished they could participate in its associated activities, Camp NaNoWriMo provides a good blend of self-determined writing, support, and challenges to motivate writers through small projects that just might inspire them to give the main event a whirl. Or to keep on camping!

TLDR:[‡] Camp NaNoWriMo provides the best of NaNoWriMo’s events (writing sprints/marathons, prompts, and daily inspirations) with the added bonuses of allowing participants to set their own writing goals and, should they so desire, connect with fellow writers.

NOTES:


[*]Namely, how I would manage writing roughly 1666 words. (Hint, it’s sleep deprivation at the month’s end!)

[†]Which means if you’re running too late for April, you can instead plan for July. And I’m seriously thinking about signing up then, too.

[‡]I rolled out a new feature in my last post, which appears here again. TL;DR (better known as “too long; didn’t read) is a quick summary guide that will feature in most-to-all of my upcoming posts for people who want to get right to point.)

Review of The Backstreets of Purgatory: Delusion and Dark Humor in Glasgow

…the only way to honour her [Finn’s Italian paternal grandmother] as she deserved to be honoured, was to completely piss off his social-climbing mother, subvert his turgid middle-class upbringing — and commit entirely to the role of misunderstood artist. Which he’d done with fervor until the pretence and reality had become inseparable.

The fact was his tutor didn’t know one end of the paintbrush from another. He didn’t need permission from an uptight spinster to paint what he wanted to paint….The picture was clear….He should be out there with the people…not hanging around here, being misunderstood and dragged down by these pretentious losers.

from The Backstreets of Purgatory by Helen Taylor

From the outset, The Backstreets of Purgatory promises its readers “art, insanity, and Irn-Bru”. The Glasgow-based novel, which follows the tribulations of its protagonist (Finn Garvie) and those of his overlapping social circles, initially might come across as the latest entry in the familiar tale of the tortured artist. However, it’s soon apparent that author Helen Taylor intends to take this story in a rather (darkly humorous) different direction. Early on, Taylor presents the ironic situation in which Finn, having devoted a considerable portion of his life to playing the “misunderstood artist”, decides to decamp from his art school before earning his coveted Master’s degree on grounds that he was “being misunderstood”.* And given that Finn is funded (perhaps reluctantly) by his middle-class parents, he isn’t exactly the sort one pictures when imagining an impoverished but gifted artist descending into madness. But that’s rather the point here. The relationship between suffering and great art is at best a murky one, and it’s clear that The Backstreets of Purgatory intends to challenge what readers “know” about art and mental health.

As a character-driven novel, The Backstreets of Purgtory delivers with its lovingly drawn if all-too human ensemble. Taylor’s empathetic narration (split among four narrators) provides a multifaceted portraiture of the core characters that is nonetheless a very much warts-and-all approach (not unlike Carvaggio’s style of realistic painting). As a result, we might see a character valorized in one chapter (eg, Finn rescues an inebriated Maurice from sleeping rough) but later witness their more ignominious side (in Lizzi’s case, when she forgets her professional ethics in a misguided effort to protect Finn). The three other narrators (intriguingly, all female) also provide alternative (and arguably, corrective) perspectives to Finn’s narrative—and sometimes, to each other’s viewpoints. Since their relationships with Finn range from intimate to indirect connection, we get a sense of how Finn affects not only him, but people close to him but also their larger community, a refreshing change from the tendency to observe mental illness as though it occurs within a vacuum.

For Finn, the appearance of Purgatory parolee, Carvaggio (his artistic hero and alleged ancestor) seems to be an answer to his artistic conundrum. Coupled with the inspiration provided by Kassia (an au pair from Poland), Finn is hopeful that he’ll finally paint something meaningful. However, Carvaggio’s arrival instead marks a period of crisis for Finn and company, attributable to misleading appearances, hasty assumptions, miscommunication, and, often, Finn himself. As Finn and his friendships deteriorate, Finn also finds that both muse and mentor are less helpful than hoped, with Carvaggio living up to his hellraiser reputation. Nonetheless, the shocking conclusion, complete with its untidy (though very realistic) resolution, will leave readers unsettled as they ponder the underlying issues that contribute to troubled persons’ faltering sanity or sobriety long after they finish reading this novel.

Summary (TL;DR): The Backstreets of Purgatory is both a profane and darkly humorous novel that examines several weighty issues, ranging from mental illness, substance abuse, and gender inequality.§ An immersive read with well-drawn characters that builds to a devastating finale, the reader will feel this book’s impact long after they finish it.

NOTES:


*Arguably, Finn hasn’t been misunderstood but understood all too well. Finn’s reaction—one of outright rejection of criticism from a more learned woman coupled with expecting to be top of his class—is a neat mixture of fragile ego, entitlement, and underlying misogyny suggestive of toxic masculinity.

While this novel includes discussion of a famous artist and his body of work, it’s not necessary to be well versed in Carvaggio’s oeuvre, as the novel provides sufficient background information. For those interested in his biography or the artworks whose names are used as chapter titles in The Backstreets of Purgatory, I recommended checking here.

Described in visceral detail that brings the city to life, Glasgow (particularly its West End) seems to function much like a village in that everyone either knows each other or knows a friend of a friend, giving it an atmosphere that ranges from close-knit to claustrophobic. It’s partly due to this cozy sense of community that Taylor succeeds in making it plausible that many of the major characters, regardless of their divergent backgrounds, meet and interact.

§Throughout the novel, several incidents demonstrate how women (regardless of class, race, or finances) receive unequal treatment ranging catcalling (street harassment) to increased domestic workload. For example, Dr. Esme Blythe’s relative security (in terms of finance and family) does not prevent her from being among the many working women who complete the majority of household and child-rearing tasks while her spouse idles on his phone (a fact made more heinous since he’s content to let her do the washing up despite her severe eczema).