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
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.
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!
[†] Indeed, my reading list received a hefty boost from reading Rick Riordan’s books about Percy Jackson and the Olympians.
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.
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
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.
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.
Curious about what librarians do besides hoarding books? Check
out these articles to learn more:
This year’s review features books I didn’t choose but read anyway, procrastination, and, as always, the new year’s reading list.
At this time of year, I normally like to compile a list of notable books that I’ve read over the past year as well as create a reading list for the year ahead. However, there’s been a change in plans this year, because I have already shared my shortlist of notable books from 2018 elsewhere. As you may know, I belong to the Women Writers Network, which is a volunteer group running a Twitter account that focuses on supporting and promoting women writers. Helen Taylor (one of the founder members and author of The Backstreets of Purgatory) compiled our favorite reads of 2018. Since my top six books of 2018 appear on this list (you can find the list at Helen’s web site), I thought I’d focus on some very different reading highlights from the past year before presenting my to-be-read list, which I eternally hope to complete by the year’s end regardless of how faithless I was to the previous year’s list. But I digress. Let’s get back to last year’s reading adventures.
The Alternative Reading Highlights of 2018
Over the past few years, I’ve participated in both reading and book photo challenges (you can view my entries to the Reading Women Month book photo challenge and Bookriot’s #Riotgrams here). Although I’ve never per se “won” a challenge by completing all the categories, it’s fun to see what fellow book lovers share. Generally, the highlight of my reading challenges is that they inspire me to stretch outside my reading comfort zone or discover more diverse perspectives. However, this year’s Reading Women Challenge inspired me to stop procrastinating and finish the book that’s lingered the longest on my reading list. I’m pleased to announce I finally read Woman in the Nineteenth Century by Margaret Fuller. Despite it being a more challenging read, this fascinating early feminist tract makes a strong religious argument for woman’s self-sufficiency and expanded rights. Partly inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Fuller’s work in turn spurred suffragists in the United States to demand the vote.
Most Unlikely to Be Read
Book challenges influence my reading greatly, as do Twitter chat suggestions and personal recommendation. One of the more whimsical books I read this year is one I wouldn’t have chosen for myself, even had any of these sources suggested it. Though a difficult to categorize book, Hannah Hart’s My Drunk Kitchen: a Guide to Eating, Drinking and Going with Your Gut proved to an enjoyable read. Part sentimental, part hilarious, part memoir, and part cookbook, it left me bemused but feeling upbeat. While I’m not sure I’d attempt some of the recipes, I’d definitely read it again.
Most Unexpected Source of Reading Recommendations
Speaking of books I wouldn’t have selected without an outside influence, I curiously have Netflix to thank for my discovering the Phryne Fisher mystery novels by Kerry Greenwood. Halfway through the first episode, I already suspected it was based on a book (Cocaine Blues), and the credits proved me right. My thoughtful spouse picked up the first three books for me, which I then read in short order. Reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s work (roughly the same period, different country, very different detective), these flapper detective novels were a great change from stuffy male detectives. Since the television series diverged a fair bit in places from their source material, I’m glad I saw it before I read it—I happen to be one of those people who usually takes a strong dislike to films/television shows when I read the book first. Either way, I intend to check out the credits in the future, in case they point me to a good book or two.
Hopefully, you’ve found some reading inspiration here, regardless of the source. Here’s to the new year and happy reading!
2019’s Reading List
That Summer in Puglia by Valeria Vescina Life of Pi by Yann Martel Black Faces, White Spaces by Carolyn Finney Barracoon: the Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecroft Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori) Claudine at School In: Colette: The Complete Claudine by Colette (Translated by Antonia White) Migratory Animals by Mary Helen Specht Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett Take Off Your Pants! Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing by Libbie Hawkes Pachinko by Min Jin Lee Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto (Translated by David Brookshaw) Waymaking: an Anthology of Women’s Adventure Writing, Poetry and Art (Edited by Helen Mort, Claire Carter, Heather Dawe, and Camilla Barnard)
 My review of The Backstreets of Purgatory is here now available here! (Updated: 10 March 2019.)
 Remarkably, I only missed four, one of which was a planned re-read. For the curious, these books are Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman, Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto (Translated by David Brookshaw), Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock, and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Little Women was my re-read, because I wanted to see if I still enjoyed it as an adult.
 In itself, a great way to get reading recommendations.
 These reading challenges include the Black History Month Reading Challenge (two books), Women in Translation Month (2 books during that month, 3 more later), and roughly half (around 13) of the Reading Women Challenge. I’m still working on making my reading more diverse.
 This book was a gift from my oldest brother who chose it because it reminded him of my food-based coffee table books (ie, The Amazing Mackerel Pudding Plan: Classic Diet Recipe Cards from the 1970s by Wendy McClure and The Gallery of Regrettable Food by James Lileks). Thanks, Jon!
Since I committed to participating in #NaNoWriMo 2018 (and potentially talked others into doing so as well), I’ve had no choice but to sit myself down and get writing.
Since I committed to participating in #NaNoWriMo 2018 (and potentially talked others into doing so as well), I’ve had no choice but to sit myself down and get writing. Signing up on the NaNoWriMo web site, finding writing buddies, and announcing one’s intentions on social media near-legally obliges one to take part, regardless of how many demands already exist on one’s time. But when is there ever a good time to squeeze more of any activity into any schedule? If I want to prioritize my writing more—specifically, time spent writing fiction—I need to find opportunities to write more. What better way to do so than taking on such a demanding schedule for a month? I imagine finding writing time will seem much easier after NaNoWriMo. So, with some trepidation, I began to write this November. For your amusement, I kept a few notes on my first few days to let you know how it went.
Prologue: 31 October, Halloween
I’ve managed, overnight it seems, to irritate several muscle groups in my back, which does not bode well for spending long periods sitting in my office chair as I type what I hope will morph into a novel. I spend the day engaged in Halloween events (ie, the school parade and classroom party). Following an appointment after school and an early dinner, my son and spouse head off to trick-or-treat, while I vainly keep an eye on our door in the unlikely event the doorbell rings.1 After they return and my son heads to bed, I decline my spouse’s suggestion that we start writing at 12 AM, knowing that I’m already overtired from Halloween activities and sorting out the upcoming birthday details that were my responsibility. Tomorrow afternoon will have to be my starting point. My spouse, determined to write as much as possible during the first week to build up a surplus should he miss a day, decides to start at midnight anyway. Overachiever.
Highlights: We got one trick-or-treater this year!
Word count: No need to worry about that yet.
Day 1: NaNoWriMo Begins
Despite (or possibly because of) a successful Halloween haul, I now have an overexcited nearly 9-year-old child to ship off to school. Today, I join him there, since I volunteer at the school library on Thursday mornings. Which means I won’t be doing any writing until after 12 PM, when I’m done with my shift. On returning home, I field several phone calls related to said child’s upcoming birthday party that results in making post-party dinner plans on the fly. Once I’m finished, I wolf down my late lunch in time to fetch child from school. I attempt to combine writing with monitoring his homework session and end up failing at the former, once I manage to dump roughly 8 oz. (~237 mL) of water into an open desk drawer.2 After dinner and bedtime (9 PM), I race to my now drier desk and make my second start at writing. It’s probably the worst prose I’ve written in ages. And yes, my back ends up hurting more than it did before I started. After indulging in some speculation regarding how our household will manage with both adults participating in NaNoWriMo, I call it a night.
Highlights: horrific prose, dumping water in my desk drawer. Oh, and back pain.
Word count: 1730
Day 2: Finances and Broken (Insincere) Resolutions
It’s Friday morning, and I need to sort out the finances (it’s payday). I also get phone calls at odd intervals about various things I need to address, ranging from flight details for my brother to confirming various appointments. It ends up being one of those days where I spend time running errands and feeling as though I accomplished little. Unexpectedly, my parents decide to visit. They were in the area,3 so they dropped off their updated address book so that I can print out labels for their Christmas cards That wasn’t on my agenda but it is now. After the youngster’s bedtime, I power through roughly 1700 words as midnight approaches again. Being a night owl, I don’t mind the late-night writing jams. It’s the 7 AM wake-up call that I find difficult. Nonetheless, I feel better about what I’ve written today, particularly since I also fixed up a few areas of the previous day’s poor writing. So much for not editing until later, right?
Highlights: Surprise visits, lessening back pain, and somewhat better writing. Honestly, though, I was going to edit as I write.
Word count: 1771
Day 3: Birthday Party
Today, I anticipate writing nothing. Between my brother’s imminent arrival from Texas and readying ourselves for the party (we didn’t put together the treat bags until that morning), I assume correctly that I will have enough to keep me busy. The party proves to be quite successful. Afterwards, we eat dinner at a local restaurant—no cooking or dinner dishes for us! My expectations of writing nothing is met, as I start falling asleep by 10 pm. On the bright side, my back pain seems to be resolving and I fall asleep at a reasonable time. Although my spouse is an early bird, he chooses to stay up late once more so that he can meet his daily word count. Apparently, he’s worried about losing steam halfway through NaNoWriMo and suffering from the“Muddy Mid-Month”. It seems that the Ides of November (that’s a thing, right?) are known for slowing one’s writing. I rechristen it the Mid-Month Slump, but he’s not into it. Either way, I’m in bed before midnight.
Highlights: Party is successful, so now I only need to get through the child’s actual birthday in a few days. Writing does not happen.
Word count: 0
Day 4: Lazy Sunday
Daylight savings time means I slept (or at least was in bed) for roughly nine hours, which feels like a victory after a long day of socializing. We enjoy a lazy morning with my brother before taking him to the airport. During the morning, my spouse’s distressing plotter tendencies manifest further, as he’s created something like a personal Wikipedia for his story world that includes the maps he created for his world prior to November 1st. I spend the afternoon sorting out laundry and other household chores, while the spouse goes grocery shopping. We both settle down to more writing after the kid goes to bed.
Highlights: Family time and a clean(er) house.
Word count: 1671
Day 5: Birthdays Redux
After I fall asleep near midnight on the 4th, I awaken a few hours later. Not feeling sleepy, I decide to read a few chapters of The Backstreets of Purgatory. Perhaps this is not the best choice, as I’m approaching the ending and the novel is clearly ratcheting the tension up towards some big finish. Of course, I can’t put it down, and I end up staying up far later than I planned—and it’s completely worth the sleep deprivation combined with a rambunctious birthday boy. At breakfast, I insist that my spouse must read this book, too. Despite the rain and the ongoing birthday fun, I get my son to school on time and dry, with birthday treats for his class in tow.
Mondays, as a rule, tend to be the most difficult for writing. Among other things, there are after school activities and appointments. If I can snatch moment, I write little notes about my WIP or current blog. Today, I jot down some notes about what I think needs to be added to make my WIP more complete. At present, my scene lacks description that would be helpful for immersing the readers into the situations and visualizing the characters. With that completed, the youngster is retrieved from school. We get several calls from well-wishers, and he open his presents from us. In the evening, after sending the tired birthday tyke to bed, I do the bulk of my writing for the day.
Highlights: Birthday presents and books, plus casual plotting on the fly.
Word count: 1673
Day 6: Election Day
Tuesday is the mid-term elections. Since school is closed, we’re planning to visit a museum or two in Philadelphia in the afternoon. For the morning, though, we’re meeting up my parents at a book store, where they’ll be sending the kiddo off on a birthday book buying spree. Despite the torrential downpours, we return home with a stack of books and I vote before we get to Philly. After a few hours marveling at dinosaurs and brains, we return home, and I start writing earlier this evening. Even better? I hit a good stop pointing well before midnight!
Highlights: Dinosaurs, the human brain, and more books. Steady writing progress.
Word count: 1813
Day 7: Wednesday Walks
After dropping the kiddo off at school, I manage to take a walk around my neighborhood, which is glorious in its fall colors. Feeling refreshed, I spend some time thinking about where my book is headed as I tidy up the dishes. So far, there’s a lot of conversations and a few arguments; I suspect that most of it will end up cut when I add more action. For now, it’s helping me establish the voices of some of the characters, their relationships, and background. I also come up with surnames and, in a few cases, first names for parents/grandparents. I’m committing to setting the timeline to Philadelphia and its suburbs in the early 2000s, which means I’m going to need to do some research at a later point to make sure my writing matches the reality for that times (namely, salaries and rent from that era). I even manage to do some writing before school pick up.
After an afternoon appointment, it’s a long slog through homework time as there is a time-consuming assignment that requires more than the usual parental oversight and support. Exhausted, I send my child to bed (late) and take a half-hour nap before writing. Here’s to exceeding that word count before midnight!
Highlights: Enjoying a sunny afternoon and meeting writing goals!
Word count: 1846
And there you have it. Word counts were (mostly) met! Now, all I have to do is catch up a bit on both sleep and the word quota for that one day. And do it every day until November ends. No problem, right? In my text post, I’ll pop in to discuss making it to the midway point and beyond.
Over the years, we’ve realized that trick-or-treaters skip our street for a reason. Where our street joins the main road, there is a poorly lit stand of mature trees on one side that extends to a curve in the road where you can just see the first house but none of the others. On the opposite side of the street, there is a large property on the corner with a deep backyard lined with more tall, mature trees. From the street, it once again looks like there’s only the corner house followed by a dark stand of trees. Can’t imagine why the kids don’t want to go past, dark spooky trees to see if we’ve got candy! ↩
I have a history of watering my office. Having once dumped a water bottle on my laptop whilst completing a freelance gig, I subsequently moved all beverages in my drawer. Since then, I’ve had no problems—until I bought a personal humidifier. It, regrettably, is not clumsy proof. Despite my best efforts to secure it, it’s tipped over in my drawer twice now. I’m beginning to think the universe wants me to dehydrate. ↩
Since my parents live an hour’s drive away, I never expect them to drop by house without warning. Luckily for them, I was home. ↩
And the reason I purchased this book had less to with it being a well-regarded translated novel and more to do with it being a book everyone seemed to love…that just happened to be translated from another language.
I think the first translated book I consciously chose to buy, a book I knew beforehand was translated, was Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate (translated by Thomas Christensen and Carol Christensen). It was by no means the first text (either prose or poetry) I’d read in translation, of course. As a young child, I read Pippi Longstocking, likely unaware that Astrid Lindgren wrote it in Swedish.1 As a tween (or thereabouts), I understood the classic tales I read in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology were written in Greek or Latin originally, though I didn’t appreciate what translation entailed. Through my studies, my awareness of translated works grew and I gained insight into how translation might affect a text’s meaning and the reliability of interpreting it.2 And of course, that also meant I bought many translated works as a student. What differentiated Esquivel’s novel from these other works, however, was that it was (then) a contemporary novel I selected for leisure reading. It had not been assigned reading, as both Wislawa Symborzka’s poems and a heavily abridged version of Les Misérables initially had been. It was not yet a “classic” work that significantly influenced/shaped literature or even a book that a sibling discarded.3 And the reason I purchased this book had less to with it being a well-regarded translated novel and more to do with it being a book everyone seemed to love…that just happened to be translated from another language. It’s this latter distinction that strikes me as important.
I’ve made a point to include translated novels in my reading recently, because (as I observed last year) I realized that I typically overlooked such books in the past. Expanding my reading horizons remains important to me, but I’d be mistaken in not acknowledging that most translated novels generally tend to be well written. For publishers to undertake the risk associated with printing a translated novel, that novel must achieve a certain level of acclaim or popularity for people to champion its translation. My experience of attending a twitter chat focused on reading women in translation was enlightening: so many people passionately recommended novels they’d read, attesting to how great, insightful, or thought provoking these books were.4 And I think it’s this promise of remarkable writing that compelled me to read more women’s writing in translation. Two (very different) favorites emerged from those recommendations: The Vegetarian by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith) and Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto (translated by Megan Backus). While I can’t claim to deeply love every translated work I’ve read since (personal tastes vary, after all), I generally found reading them all rewarding.
But there is one remaining thought that haunts me when I consider reading women in translation, works that one day may be hailed as classics. As I’ve selected books to read or discuss during Women in Translation Month, I found myself thinking about what my intellectual life would be without the many translated works I’ve read. Losing The Odyssey alone would leave a huge literary crater: Neither The Aeneid nor The Penelopiad would exist without it. Translated works shape how we think and how we in turn write just as much as works written in our native language(s) do. I cannot help but wonder what deeper insights we might be missing when we bypass these works. And given how infrequently women’s writing is translated, I suspect that difference here could be significant. It’s among the reasons I intend to continue reading women in translation year-round as well as rate, recommend, and (when I can) review translated works written by women so that I can help publishers and fellow readers see what they’re missing. And the more often we all do so, the more available these excellent works will become to everyone.
At that rather young age, I treated title pages, the locations where both authors and translators get mentioned, as filler to be skipped past quickly. ↩
One of the advantages of older siblings is that their discarded books become your books years before anyone would think to hand you a copy. Mythology was over my head in some places, but I love and appreciate it more and more every time I read it. ↩
In this case, the 2016 Women Writers Network twitter chat for #witmonth. ↩
The Chicken Soup Murder, Maria Donovan’s debut novel, is a moving story about loss and justice. It focuses on a close-knit band of neighbors whose lives are upended by the young deaths of two of their own: first, Janey’s father to cancer and then Irma to “natural causes”. But was Irma’s unexpected death a murder? Michael, her 11-year-old neighbor and the story’s narrator, is stubbornly convinced that Irma’s boyfriend—a police constable, no less—murdered her. No one else, even his Nan, Zene—who worried about Irma after previous electrical mishap occurred following her boyfriend’s DIY project—shares Michael’s suspicions. Although Michael argues she “can’t just have died”, it can happen as his Nan and others point out. Donovan neatly balances Michael’s certainty with adult doubts about his reliability in a manner that leaves readers nonetheless sympathetic to Michael.1
But the heart of Donovan’s novel isn’t its mysteries, but in how it truly inhabits the world of the grieving and how it traces the aftermath of these deaths. Irma and Zene’s decision to live life more fully2 following the loss of Janey’s dad leads Irma to Shawn Bull and his son, George. The perhaps too-aptly-named Bulls become entrenched in Irma’s life, damaging her friendships with her neighbors as she adopts Shawn’s rather less empathetic views. Michael and Janey are instantly recognizable as youths on the cusp of maturity, a triumph on Donovan’s part (her careful characterization even shows how Janey’s year ahead in school makes her less naïve than Michael). Both are caught in this tide of grief even as their lives go ever onward, the seasons marked by sports and school. Michael is perhaps literally haunted by Irma’s loss and is pained that his grief is unacknowledged by the greater community that doesn’t understand he had a closer relationship with Irma than George did. Janey struggles to cope with her dad’s loss and her mother’s resulting deep depression, alternates between parenting her mother and being infuriated with her—and occasionally, Michael as she worries that he’s forgotten her father (he hasn’t). Among the more poignant moments stem from Zene’s counsel to Janey “The league tables of grief. But it’s not a competition, Janey. Nobody wins.”3 Indeed.
Michael is a remarkable character, a generally sensitive boy whose love for Irma propels him into the awkward role of avenger. But it’s his determination to do right by Irma that raises questions about the lengths to which it’s appropriate to pursue truth or protect loved ones. The degrees in which the novel explores right and wrong here, range from childhood misdemeanors to adults behaving badly, with shades of grey in between. Michael, once bullied by George, in turns is accused of (and occasionally does) torment George. Shawn isn’t above threatening Michael or Zene to protect his son, even after Michael rescues George from certain death. Zene’s decision to keep mum about Michael’s parents and their incarceration (“Best left alone”4) proves to be problematic in several ways. Without giving too much away, her decision to do what she “thought was best” leaves her in a vulnerable position because she has kept secrets from her grandson.
The Chicken Soup Murder lets us coexist in the sometimes messy lives of the bereaved and wronged. Satisfyingly, it doesn’t have easy resolutions or simple fixes for strained relations. Nonetheless, the novel ends on a hopeful note that things will at least be addressed and may change for the better.
Summary:The Chicken Soup Murder is an engrossing, well-paced novel. An unconventional mystery, it features believable characters whose heartbreak is palpable and who occasionally infuriate us with their choices. Narrator Michael is an engaging and often funny, particularly when he doesn’t get adult references. Much like life, there are no easy fixes but hope persists.
The adults in the novel lean towards dismissing Michael’s views—partly because he’s made up stories in the past and partly because he doesn’t get disclose all he observed immediately after Irma died. Since the readers know more, it would be difficult for them to so casually dismiss Michael’s concerns. ↩
Ironically, this seems to have indirectly led to Irma’s death. ↩
For the non-sporty/confused fellow Americans, league tables refers to football (soccer) stats. Football is very much present in this chapter, so it’s an apt metaphor. ↩
This point is particularly infuriating when Zene points out Michael never asked about his parents, as though her earlier discouragement might not have played a role! ↩
As it happens, I haven’t read, shall we say, exclusively from said to-read list.
Checking on my reading goals1 seems to be a new habit of mine, one perhaps inspired by my discovery that I have a tendency to plan my reading and then read something different. But this year, I felt that I needed to whittle down my to-read booklist by focusing on books I already own. This decision, fueled by receiving several books as presents for my birthday and Christmas last year,2 became more urgent when I realized how long one book had been on my to-be read list.3 And it’s not the only book I’ve had for a few years but haven’t started/finished. It made sense, therefore, to put a moratorium on book buying, library loans (barring a few pre-approved exceptions), and other acquisitions until I made a good dent in my pile at home. With that in mind, I finished and returned my library books and picked the first books off the stack: Bird Girl and the Man Who Followed the Sun by Velma Wallis. Off to a good start in January!
If you’re suspicious that my resolve might be weak, you’d be correct. As it happens, I haven’t read, shall we say, exclusively from said to-read list. Apparently, the long list of books that I want to read continues to beckon and distract me from my reading goals. Fortunately, I have eight legitimate reasons (excuses) for breaking my resolve:
(1) My spouse. (No, really!) He found a book about bees at the Philadelphia Flower Show, one that supported bee researchers (we came this close to getting a beehive). Since it was practically the environmentally responsible thing to do and would make such a great coffee table book (a known weakness of mine), I went and bought it.
(2) Christmas gift card. I received a gift card for a bookstore, and it’d be rude to not use it, especially since one of the book I purchase was written by a fellow Women’s Writer Network member (The Chicken Soup Murder by Maria Donovan). It’d be ever ruder not to support a fellow woman writer, right?
(3) Used bookstore credit. After replacing several volumes of Agatha Christie short stories featuring Miss Marple and Hercules Poirot with two volumes that contained all their stories,4 I took the books I no longer needed to resell them at my local used bookshop. It turns out I had some store credit already, and I left with three books (sorry not sorry). So far, I’ve only read one!
(3a) Book replacement? So, I replaced books I owned for omnibus versions containing the same titles. To be honest, this strikes me as being an even exchange. You know what, I’m not counting this one, even if I re-read a few stories.
(4) Crowdfunded books I supported. Technically, I supported Helen Taylor’s debut novel, The Backstreets of Purgatory, roughly a year before I made any promises regarding reading only books I already owned. Although I already bought it, it only arrived a few days ago (and I will begin reading it as soon as I finish the two books I’ve already started). More sketchily, I also supported the Waymaking anthology. However, it has yet to arrive, so it surely doesn’t count until it’s in my possession, right?
(5) Reading for a Twitter chat. As part of my reading for the Women Writers Network Twitter chat on Women Writers and the Environment, I wanted to read a few books on the topic, one of which was on my pre-approved book to borrow list (Silent Spring by Rachael Carson). The other one (Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail by Cheryl Strayed) wasn’t, but researching is important the way I see it.
(6) Kindle reader. I borrowed my spouse’s old Kindle reader to read library books that were on my approved exceptions list (eg, Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring), because I keep accruing library fines when I miss returning them by their due date.5 Then, I promptly borrowed a few additional books for the aforementioned Twitter chat (research!), a book on my to-be read list from 2016 that I don’t own, and a few titles for the #readingwomenmonth challenge. Who knew the hold list would be fulfilled so quickly?
(7) Book giveaways. I signed up for a book giveaway (see here) for #readingwomenmonth and won! Does it count if I didn’t buy it? Probably, but I’m not feeling repentant.
(8) Book sale. I suppose that’s not a good reason, but it was a book that piqued my curiosity and was under five dollars.
I suppose it’s good to have goals, even you don’t strictly adhere to them. With that said, I have read eight of the sixteen books I resolved to read back in January so far (my total list, not counting re-reads, contains 22 books). It’s entirely possible that I’ll make it through my list and make a considerable dent in all the books (new and old) I have in stock. While my book buying/borrowing ban may not have entirely succeeded, but it seems to help me stay on a track and read several great books I intended to read for some time.
For the curious, I generally switch between reading and writing topics, with a few interesting science books and reviews thrown in. In the spirit of Reading Women Month, my June posts will focus on reading topics, which will include books written about and by women. ↩
Considering that these events are but a month apart, I had a small shelving crisis—but, being a bookworm, it’s the kind of problem I like having. ↩
I’ve finally started Margaret Fuller’s Women in the Nineteenth Century. The first few pages were slow going, but it’s picking up. ↩
You wouldn’t believe how time consuming it is to find a story among four or five books, some of which duplicate certain tales. ↩
Summer seems to finally be here, and it looks promising for reading more works written by women writers.
Summer seems to finally be here, and it looks promising for reading more works written by women writers. Recently, the Women’s Writer Network held their second Twitter chat of 2018 on June 5th. This time, our discussion focused on women writing the city, and we had an engaging conversation about how the urban landscape appears in writing. You can check out the highlights here and find our reading recommendations lists here.1 These chats tend to be inspiring, both for generating ideas about and for writing as well as providing opportunities for discovering (or rediscovering) authors. I’ll be sure to announce the next Twitter chat (planning already underway!) when details become available.
Additionally, Reading Women is celebrating their second year podcasting. As I discussed last year, Reading Women, dedicated to reclaiming half the bookshelf, focus on works written by and about women. In additional to the #readingwomenmonth photo challenge (I’m participating again this year), they are debuting a Mrs. Dalloway read along (incidentally, one of the books mentioned during Women Writer’s Network Twitter Chat) as well as other events described here.2
Finally, another opportunity to read more women writers will be in August, which is Women in Translation month. Founded by Meytal Radzinski in 2014, this event seems to grow every year. In addition to Meytal’s 2018 #witmonth resources page, you can check out the Translationista blog run by Susan Bernofsky and the Women in Translation blog (run by women translators) for more ideas and information. I’ll be discussing more about #witmonth when we get closer to August.
The Recs Lists
If you need additional suggestions for your reading list, I’m recommending several books I’ve read. Links will takes you to post I’ve written focusing on the books or their writing approaches.
Plath dispels the notion that people with mental illnesses are monstrous (think Bertha from Jane Eyre). She also demonstrates that psychological distress can occur even in fortunate circumstances.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise involved with properly reading Sylvia Plath’s novel,1The Bell Jar, is discovering how a coming-of-age story set in the summer of 1953 manages to seem contemporary even as it remains so firmly rooted in its own period.2 Undoubtedly, there are timeless aspects to story arcs that move characters from innocence to experience, just as we find that the issues women grapple with in this book (the double standard, for one) are all too familiar. But what makes The Bell Jar so relatable is its captivating protagonist, Esther Greenwood. Esther is witty, sensitive, occasionally angry, often funny—and not at all what a reader expects to discover in a novel renowned for its suicidal heroine.3 But as The Bell Jar often proves, our assumptions don’t always match our expectations.
“There is nothing like puking with somebody to make you into old friends.”
The Grim and the Glamorous
From the outset, the sharply observant Esther is aware of how appearances might mislead. Plath’s narrator, an older Esther, describes the morbid thoughts she had about executions and cadavers when she spent part of her summer in New York City at age 19. But from the outside, Esther’s life seems to have all the hallmarks of an American success story: Hailing from an impoverished middle-class background, she’s a “scholarship girl” who wins a position as a summer intern at women’s magazine—an incredible opportunity for someone with writing aspirations—where she attends parties and receives gifts. As she explains, anyone would assume she was “having the time of [her] life” when she instead struggles to get “[her]self to react”. Just as Esther wryly undercuts the image of the glamorous party the interns attend by pointing out the male guests were hired for the photo shoot, Plath exposes the invisible illness haunting a smart young woman’s New York adventure. Plath’s handling here is sure: stereotypical portrayals of mental illness4 are eschewed by showing Esther as nearly indistinguishable from the other smiling interns (significantly, they’re dressed alike) in the magazine spread. In doing so, Plath dispels the notion that people with mental illnesses are monstrous (think Bertha from Jane Eyre). She also demonstrates that psychological distress can occur even in fortunate circumstances.
“So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about as numb as a slave in a totalitarian state.”
Psyche Under Pressure
Having stripped away Esther’s smiling veneer, Plath better acquaints the reader with Esther’s background and aspirations. Esther, as magazine editor Jay Cee quips, “wants to be everything”: writer, academic, editor, traveler, lover, wife and mother. And while they are the most socially acceptable choices, Esther feels most ambivalent towards marriage and motherhood. Raised by a widowed working mother, Esther sees the pitfalls of marriage (financial vulnerability, drudgery) more clearly than fellow intern, Betsy, a naïve Midwesterner who wants a traditional marriage. Doreen, in contrast, rebels against deadlines and social mores alike in her quest for adventure in New York. While Esther shares Doreen’s cynicism and humor, she finds Doreen’s seemingly violent sexual encounters repellent and untenable given her limited means. Esther is left with uncertainty, as neither model suits her.
This pattern holds true when Esther examines her options for the future, since her unconventional ambitions don’t mesh well with social expectations for women in the sexist 1950s. Evoking the image of a fig tree with diverging branches, Esther sees her choices as being mutually exclusive. Certainly, the various people attempting to influence her future path imply as much: instructors indicate family must be sacrificed for career, her mother pressures her to learn a marketable skill (dictation) instead of gambling on a writing career, society and family insists her proper role is that of wife, and chauvinist Buddy Willard, the boy she’s dating, insinuates a few kids might cure that urge to write poems.5 Coupled with her ongoing pressure to excel academically,6 Esther appears to experience herself almost as two fragments: the outwardly cheerful achiever and the angry hidden self who chafes against her limitations. Approaching her final year of school, she finds herself filled with crippling indecision and feels that her successes thus far are meaningless outside college.7 While there’s no definitive explanation as to what precipitates depression, Plath could be arguing that society is what ails Esther.
“I hated the very idea of the eighteenth century, with all those smug men writing tight little couplets and being so dead keen on reason.”
The Bell Jar Descends and Lifts
It is, however, apparent that an attempted rape rapidly followed by a serious academic disappointment serve as the triggering events for Esther’s mental health crisis. Although Esther’s breakdown is foreshadowed, the change it brings in her startles: she stops bathing, sleeps poorly, and, alarmingly, cannot write. Plath spends the latter half of the novel exploring misconceptions and stigmas surrounding mental health issues as well as critiquing how this illness is treated. Mrs. Greenwood, for example, fails to understand that Esther’s condition is not a choice and believes Esther could get better if she just tried or instead helped out others suffering greater misfortunes. As a layperson, her erroneous views are understandable, whereas Dr. Gordon (her first psychiatrist) disinterest in discussing her issues almost seems negligent, particularly after her prescribed shock therapy is administered incorrectly. Esther, desperate to avoid another traumatic shock session and convinced that her case is impossible, attempts suicide. Still alive and agitated, Esther is placed in a series of asylums. As it becomes clear to Esther once her scholarship sponsor pays for her to move to a better institution, money determines the quality of the patient’s care.
Not long after Esther settles into the new asylum, Esther meets Joan Gilling. Not only do they share the same hometown, church, and acquaintances, but they’ve both dated Buddy (neither are fans) and attempted suicide. While foils Betsy and Doreen represent extremes of sexual values, Joan serves as a near double to Esther since her journey through mental illness darkly mirrors Esther’s own until Joan succeeds in killing herself. While it’s never clear why one lives and the other does not, Joan’s death reminds readers and Esther’s alike that might also have been Esther’s fate. Esther, however, continues improving. And though some remain wary of her or wish to move on as though nothing happened (her mother in particular), Esther accepts that her illness is an important part of her history that she cannot ignore as there’s no guarantee that the bell jar wont’ descend again. It’s with this sobering, but clear-eyed acceptance that Esther moves toward whatever her future holds.
Unlike the first time I picked it up and partially skimmed it during a busy term (I was studying abroad), which really didn’t do it justice. ↩
And that includes the period’s casual racism and homophobia. Significantly, Esther kicks the only non-white character, a black worker at a mental institute, with little provocation. While her disturbed mindset plays a role in her aggression, she nonetheless appears to have at least some latent prejudices regarding race and sexual orientation. ↩
While The Bell Jar is Plath’s roman à clef, I won’t be discussing making any comparisons with Plath’s life (something which has been done extensively anyway) as it tends to divert attention from discussing the book. ↩
Plath makes this point repeatedly, particularly after Esther is institutionalized, that the mentally ill do not appear different from saner individuals. ↩
So much is wrong with Buddy. Presented to Esther as a desirable marital prospect, he acts like the spiritual heir to the physician doctor from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” when Buddy tells Esther that her stuffed nose is psychosomatic and claims she’s neurotic. More reprehensibly, this “fine and clean” young man who focuses so much on Esther’s minimal sexual experience happens to be a hypocrite since he’s actually had a sexual affair. Although Buddy’s hypocrisy incenses Esther, it’s his paramour who is described as “some slutty waitress”, a detail suggesting Esther’s internalized misogyny. ↩
Fearing that she will fail a chemistry course, Esther manipulates her image as a good student to escape taking this course and earns accolades for her intellectual maturity, something which she later feels crushing guilt for doing. ↩
Esther potentially suffers from impostor syndrome: she describes an incident in which Jay Cee questions her focus and career plans as unmasking her. ↩
23. The book that has been on your TBR list the longest
Immediately, I felt guilty when I thought of the dusty shelf or two that holds the books I plan to get to…eventually. While my to-read list might include books I need to buy or borrow, most that linger on my list are ones I already own. And my longest unread book has been on said shelf for quite some time. Clearly, I’m not the only bookworm with a stack(s) of books-not-yet-read. But it begs the question: why do we commit to reading a book only to cast it aside?
The Reading Runaround
Most of us, I’m sure, will point to an abundance of optimism when it comes to our reading time (so many books, so little time). On occasion, we forget some of the books on our reading queues merely because our lists are long. Naturally, we’re more likely to read books we own versus ones we don’t have.2 But time management, access, and poor memory aren’t the only contributing factors. For every book we truly wanted to read but couldn’t squeeze into our schedule, we also skipped several books in favor of reading something else. Whether it’s flagging attention or lacking commitment to the read, I took an honest look at the other reasons that keeps books on the to–be read list.
Difficult Times: Challenging Books and Environmental Hazards
Among the reasons why a book might become stranded on the to-read shelf is the quality of the time we have to read. Not every reading session occurs in a quiet space: many of us read at moments we snatch while we’re exercising at the gym, sitting in waiting rooms, or commuting, often with televisions blaring in the background. We might, therefore, forgo the books that we perceive as being difficult reads, ones with harrowing accounts, difficult syntax, or complex arguments. While my reading environment affects new book selection, I’m unlikely to abandon a book in progress. It’s not to say environment doesn’t matter: I might occasionally postpone my reading until I’m somewhere quieter. The critical factor here is that I know I won’t choose to begin reading a book that requires deep concentration when that’s not an option. In a busy life, however, that type of book might be placed on hold indefinitely.
Why It’s Difficult to Stay Committed: Waning Attention and Weak Interest
Picking up a book and reading well past bedtime is a common event for bookworms, but we’re also familiar with the reverse problem: when the book either fails to engage or hold our attention. When I’m not “hooked” into the book,3 I find myself skimming ahead to determine whether it improves. If I’m still plodding through it, I put it aside—the same applies for books that I feel don’t maintain my interest despite an intriguing opening.4 In other cases, some books don’t match our expectations for it. When this is problematic, I find my interest in the book declines and it gets shelved. And to be perfectly truthful, sometimes the more complex books out there require more effort to read than we want to make at that moment. Reading through extended passages of dialect, for example, can become tiresome. Even sufficient time and a quiet space for reading combined can’t make tedious reading fun. And if it’s not fun, both attention and commitment to reading have a way of waning.
What I’ve also observed about books that don’t initially capture my attention is that many belong to the “you ought to read this” category. These recommendations come from various lists (“Best Books”, reading assignments, literary classics, etc.) and suggestions (solicited or otherwise) from fellow readers. The difficulty here is that we seem to add “ought-to” books to our reading lists out of obligation more than excitement. There’s an almost medicinal quality to this approach: it’s good for us to expand our reading interests, but will it be to our taste? While people discover new favorites from stretching outside their preferred genres regularly, they also stumble over books that don’t intrigue them. I personally think we should expand our reading horizons, read diversely, and embrace challenging books. But vetting “ought-to” books—skimming a few pages or reading reviews—could be helpful for making more suitable selections.
Reading and Revising
Having promised myself to mostly read books that I owned this year, the Reading Women’s 2018 challenge is a helpful push toward meeting this goal. And taking an honest look at why some books remain on my own to-read list has inspired me to make time for those books I genuinely want to read, however much of a challenge they present. More importantly, it’s made me reconsider whether every book should remain on my list. If I’ve tried reading something on multiple occasions, it may well be time to pass it along to someone else who will enjoy it. After all, there’s so many books and so little time.
The other half is because I like reading. But you knew that. ↩
The term narrative hook describes the the technique by which the opening (typically, the first line but can be paragraphs or pages) of a story is designed to grab the reader’s attention. A good hook goes a long way towards securing the reader’s interest. ↩
For the record, this doesn’t mean the book is boring by any means. I’ve returned to books, read them through, and rather enjoyed them, which is why some books linger long so long on my reading list. For the other books, they’re usually just not my cup of tea. ↩