Saturday, July 21, 2012

Starting a new blog

I hope you will follow me in a new blog focusing on reading -- but not one book per week!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

A Year of Reading

It is always a good feeling when you set a goal and then meet it. For example, my first goal of every morning is to actually get out of bed, and I'm usually successful. See, I start the day off by meeting a goal! The lesson in that, of course, is to aim low.

Reading a book a week is not aiming low for me. For my oldest, it would be backtracking. For book reviewers, tantamount to vacation. For me? Tough work! Not that I have not always been a reader. I love books. I like the way they look and feel (sorry Mr. Kindle), I like how they look on shelves, and clearly I like what they offer. Books (to borrow a cliche) take me to another world or help me understand my current world better. They bring new light to relationships, challenge conventional world views, and even strengthen my faith (and I'm not just talking books with a spiritual leaning).

So why was this a challenge? Having reached the ripe old age of 46 (now 47) I decided I was not reading as much as I wanted to, but the question was why not? I have four children, and even though two are now recent college grads, all together they take time. I have a lovely wife who cannot and should not be ignored. I work a full time job which calls for night hours on a regular basis, am involved with two non-profit boards, volunteer on the occasional community committee, and like to spend time collecting stamps and listening to accordion music (which would be a funny line if it was not true -- thus, it is just sad). Mix in watching my beloved Redwings whenever I can (and there are 82 games before post-season start), the occasional help I give around the house, and the carting of a 10-year-old to his plethora of extracurricular activities, the problem was clear -- lack of time. I'm a productivity kind of guy (ask my office mates and listen for the groan) so I knew I was making effective use of my time. The only solution? Make it a goal, thus making it a priority, and get reading.

My original idea was to reread a number of classics and dive into a few books I've been putting off too long. But life does not always go as planned, and that is usually a good thing. I started with a book I was reading out of self interest (Blink) and then jumped into a classic (Zorba), but before long I was all over the place. I found that by posting reviews on Blogcritics I could get free books (yes!) so I started requesting books which looked interesting and posting reviews. Needless to say, I was reading a range of books by authors I've never heard of, perhaps because for several it was a first novel. I also found myself reading a lot more non-fiction than I expected and on a range of topics I would not normally consider (e.g. surgery, eco-terroism). Friends and family recommended books, I found a great community of book bloggers who offered and inspired even more ideas, and I even moved into the social media world to share and learn more.

Being a data person, I thought I should figure out just what I read. Although the goal was a book a week, I actually managed to knock off 63 books in the 52 weeks. Here is a breakdown.

Books by men: 41 (65%)
Books by women: 22 (35%)

Fiction: 43 (68%)
Non-fiction: 17 (27%)
Poetry: 3 (5%)

U.S./British Writers: 52 (of minority background: 10) (83% -- 16% of total books by American minorities)
Other countries: 11 (17%)

Not surprising that most of the writers were from the U.S./Britain, although I was pleased that by adding American minorities and foreign writers I found that 43% of writers were non-white. Nothing against white people (I happen to be one), but I like to get other views on life and reading books by people who have had different experiences helps. I was surprised that the number of women was not higher since it felt like I was reading a lot of women writers, but the data does not lie. I think it was more the odds of what I was grabbing then anything since most of my favorite writers are women: e.g Jane Austen, Willa Cather, Danielle Steele (okay, I'm completely lying on this last one).

Only three books of poetry? Actually, that is less than I usually read. I felt a bit guilty reading poetry since it is "easy" to get through a book, so I found myself reading less this year. As a fan of poetry, this is disappointing, but I know that will increase now that the pressure to read certain books is off.

A few people have asked me what my favorite book is of the year. No answer. Jose Saramago completely caught me off guard and I loved both the novels I read. Cormac McCarthy's The Road is outstanding. And I reread Pride and Prejudice which is about as perfect as a book can get (although I'm currently rereading Sense and Sensibility and finding it even better than I have before). Jack Ridl's Losing Season was excellent and is the way to get non-poetry folks into poetry. I've also been asked about the worst book: Good Fairies of New York. Hey, I was stretching out on this one and I'm fairly sure I pulled some muscle in the process. Just not my style. And a collection of Walter Mosley short stories clumsily tied together in a novel was not pleasing either, and I really like Mosley.

So there is the data, a short analysis, and the rationale. But was it hard to accomplish? The fact that I finished 63 books in the year would clearly indicate it was not. Sure, there were a few tough weeks due to time, but no matter how busy, I found myself looking forward to and carving out time for reading. Even since I've finished my goal I'm still looking forward to reading, and now I can read some of the longer works I've had to avoid. Not that I read short books, but I do not like to be rushed with great writing. When work was stressful or too much was going on in the family, my book time was the balm I needed. I've rediscovered the pure joy of reading (and yes I know how that sounds). Just as important, I've also rediscovered the wide range of reading out there for me. Given my limited reading time in the past I was too selective, and as a result missed some great writing. So yes, I met my goal. I read my book a week. But I also met my unrealized goal of reintroducing the wealth of books back into my daily life.

Many of you have read my blog, commented on my Amazon or Blogcritic reviews, made comments in passing, or have simply given me encouragement. Thank you! It was much easier knowing many people were interested in my experiment.

I'll still be writing on my reading, but in different ways. I would love to hear comments so visit me at:
1) Amazon Reviews (and give me positive votes!)

...and now my blog is finished.

Happy reading!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Book Fifty-Two: The Secret Lives of People in Love by Simon Van Booy (and 52B: The Sign of Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

Week 52! Victory is mine! One year ago I began my quest to read one book per week for one year, a task I have now completed. True, for some people one book a week is not a big deal, but it was my attempt to get more reading back into my busy life. Have I succeeded? Suffice it to say that I look forward to my reading time nearly every day and my list of what I plan to read grows exponentially. But I'll comment on that next week in my final blog post in the project. I intend to reflect on how a year of reading has impacted me, look at what types of book I have read, and perhaps sketch out some future guidelines.

But first, the final book. Hey what happened to Jane Austen? Well, I did get a good start on Sense and Sensibility, but I realized I would need to read very fast to get the book finished. Then I realized I need to read another book for a session I'm leading next week, so I was forced to abandon Jane for now. I simply cannot read any of Austen' works quickly. I know all the plots and characters, so when I read now I do it for the exquisite writing style and to pick up all the nuances I have missed before. So I turned my attention elsewhere.

I was so taken by Simon Van Booy's Love Begins in Winter that I decided to go to his first collection of stories, The Secret Lives of People in Love. As you can see, Van Booy likes love, which says quite a bit in today's world. This collection garnered praise and gathered fans, but it lacks the consistent strength of Winter.  Many of these stories sound like an MFA student getting their bearings straight, and indeed Van Booy says that is when he wrote many of these (and won some awards). Some sound like typical slice-of-life scenarios looking for a big ending, and at times they work -- I'm just not too fond of this type of work.

Where Van Booy creates a unique voice is in his longer works. Winter really contains a couple of novellas, and in Secret Lives his slightly longer works offer more substance. "Where They Hide Is A Mystery" explores the life of a young boy whose mother dies and whose father grows more distant as a result. The somewhat stereotypic "wise Indian" character could be rewritten, but the story ends with a sense of hope which I like in Van Booy's work. So few writers today see any hope that it seems they are disconnected from the daily lives of most readers (and perhaps themselves). Van Booy sees potential in life.

One of the short stories that also accomplishes this is "Save as Many as You Ruin," which is one of the better titles I've seen in some time. Here we see someone quickly open himself to the possibility of happiness despite the tragedies he has experienced. That openness to happiness is a quality too few writers and people in general are open to.

Van Booy is apparently publishing his first novel in 2011 and I'm anxious to read it. The novel length will let him leisurely develop his characters and plot, which is where he seems at this best. In the meantime he is putting out three different works of philosophy which he has edited (and he has a children's book). To learn more visit his website.

The Sign of Four
My revisiting of the Sherlock Holmes opus continues with the second novel featuring the great detective. Here Holmes is caught up in a mystery which combines horror with crime, and where we meet Mary Morstan whom Watson is engaged to by the end of the story. (For those who saw the recent blockbuster Holmes film, that is the name of Watson's fiancĂ©e of the film). The story moves quickly and even includes a "high speed" boat chase -- as high speed as coal-burning boats get. Holmes' deduction powers get the full treatment, although they do include some racist stereotypes of aborigines which reflect the author and time more than intelligence. The story drags at the end as a flashback explains the backstory, but there is less patience since we know ending already. In the short stories Doyle manages to avoid this clumsy technique in most cases, or at least keeps them shorter. Still, all in all this is another fine read.

Up Next
I'm finishing up Sense and Sensibility and then I have a range of books to read. But next week will be my last blog post trying to sum up the year of reading.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Book Fifty-One: Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman (and 51B: A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conon Doyle)

Einstein is often described as much as an artist as he is a scientist. His picture adorns the walls of many college students, quotes show up in a range of contexts, and most people seem to know some unusual fact about this unique and brilliant man. But what drives his work, especially as it relates to time?

Physicist Alan Lightman plays with this question in Einstein's Dreams, his 1992 "novel" centered around Einstein's dreams as he works on his theory of time. Of course, we do not know what Einstein dreams, so Lightman imagines the different scenarios we can play out with the concept of time.

The book is split into 30 short chapters each exploring a different concept of time (see below for the full listing). They are tied loosely together by "Interludes" where Einstein interacts with Michele Besso, a real life friend of Einstein. I put "novel" in quotation marks since this book raises the issues of what constitutes a novel, although I'm not going to explore that at this time. While the general concept ties this book together, this is more a collection of short explorations on time and its possibilities. 

Many of these are interesting, but Lightman stops at raising ideas without exploring the outcome. Where this book could work best is for aspiring writers who want an idea to build on. For example, in "20 May 1905" he envisions a world without memory. People create life books in order to write down what happens so they can "remember" the next day. On the one hand there is the challenge of remembering what address you live at (and thus they write it down), yet you also get to experience your first encounter with your husband or wife as new every night. Lightman does this throughout, showing how time does impact our existence in every way.

In "11 June 1905" he explores what is in some ways the opposite, a life in which people cannot conceive of a future. From the simplicity of a man watching a storm approaching, but cannot fathom that it will rain (since that is the future), to a scene of two men embracing goodbye over and over since they cannot imagine seeing one another again. Lightman raises the issue of how does what we think about the future impact the present.

Apparently this book is popular in universities, and it is easy to see why. The book raises questions which lead to discussion, although he himself fails to explore the issues. If you want a classic "dorm room midnight discussion," just grab this book and read a quick chapter aloud. Professors can sit back and let students discuss the possibilities in class with little more direction -- that is where the book succeeds.

But on its own the book does not offer enough. Lightman could have made this book stronger by covering less, but in more detail. Borges and Saramago take similar themes and give them more consideration, and as a result offer more to the reader. But if you wish to have questions to ponder and need something to start the thinking, Lightman's book is the answer.

Lightman himself sounds like an interesting person. He is a novelist, essayist, physicist, and educator. In addition to his writing, he is the Adjunct Professor of Humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has written nearly 18 books, and they split between literature (fiction/poetry), science, and essays. Einstein's Dreams was his first novel and it received a great deal of praise, despite my somewhat tempered reaction. It would be interesting to see where his later work has led him.

You can read more about him at his website.

Here is a snyposis of all the chapters as explained on an academic website:
See full information here

14 April 1905 (8)

Time is a circle; individual experience endlessly repeats itself

16 April 1905 (13)
Time is like a flow of water, sometimes moving backward

19 April 1905 (18)
Time has three dimensions; each act has three possible outcomes

24 April 1905 (23)
There are two times, mechanical and body

26 April 1905 (28)
Time flows more slowly the farther one is from the center of the earth

28 April 1905 (33)
Time is absolute, an infinite ruler

3 May 1905 (38)
Cause and effect are erratic; at times effect precedes cause

4 May 1905 (43)
Time passes, but little happens

8 May 1905 (55)
Time is captured in its last moments, the end of the world

10 May 1905 (61)
Those trapped in time are alone, and no one is happy

11 May 1905 (66)
The passage of time brings increasing order

14 May 1905 (70)
Time stands still

15 May 1905 (75)
There is no time; there are only images

20 May 1905 (80)
People have no memories

22 May 1905 (85)
The world is a world of changed plans, leaving many things incomplete

29 May 1905 (90)
Time passes slowly for people in motion, thus everything moves

2 June 1905 (102)
Time flows backward

3 June 1905 (107)
People live just one day, but that day may be an eternity

5 June 1905 (112)
Time is a sense like taste

9 June 1905 (117)
People live forever, dividing into two populations: Laters and Nows

10 June 1905 (123)
Time cannot be measured; it is a quality

11 June 1905 (128)
There is no future; time is a line that terminates at the present

15 June 1905 (133)
Time is visible; one can step into the future or remain in the present

17 June 1905 (138)
Time is discontinuous, containing gaps and pauses

18 June 1905 (148)
There is a Great Clock in the Temple of Time

20 June 1905 (153)
Time is local; clocks separated by distance tick at different rates

22 June 1905 (159)
Time is rigid; every action and thought is determined

25 June 1905 (163)
Time and event may be copied infinitely with different futures

27 June 1905 (167)
In a world of shifting pasts, the past may be firm or forgotten

28 June 1905 (172)
Time is a nightingale, fluttering and flying, pursued by those who would stop time in a bell jar.

A Study In Scarlet
My revisiting of the Sherlock Holmes canon goes to the beginning with A Study in Scarlet, which features the immortal greeting of Holmes to Watson ("You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive") and the beginning of a long relationship between two friends. It is interesting to note that the 1887 appearance of this short novel did not exactly capture the public's attention. The next novel, which I'm about to start, is The Sign of Four and that one did not do much better. The interest arose with the short stories, of which the initial ones were later pulled together in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which I reviewed last week.

A Study in Scarlet is interesting on many levels. The most striking part of it is the fact nearly a third of the book does not involve Holmes or Watson, instead focusing on a father and his adopted daughter who meet up with Brigham Young and the Mormons in the American West. An entire story builds in this section which includes Doyle's somewhat patronizing and stereotypic portrayal of American Indians, and the Mormons take a strong beating (in fact, quite literally). When I was younger and reading these stories all the time I began skipping that section, but this time I really paid attention and it shows that Doyle can create a suspenseful plot line, which he often fails to do in some of the stories. The dialogue is at times contrived and sentimental, but considering the time it was written this is not shocking.

Holmes comes off how I best like him: intelligent, self-absorbed, egotistical, and rude. Okay, not a recipe for a friend, but what excels here is his honesty. His is smarter than most so why not say it? I'm sure some Sherlockian literature in the recent past has tied his behavior to Asperger's Syndrome, and that would be interesting to read. He seems to clearly deal with Aspergers; it is what also allows him to focus so completely on a matter at hand.

What surprised me a few times was the mention of him being young. Watson is by now a doctor with time in Afghanistan and is likely around 30, so Holmes may be in his late 20s. Of course, reading this as a child I would see that as ancient, but as an old man now I see his youth for being just that -- youth. As the stories grow so does his age, and there is a maturing of the young, brash detective in the later works.

Next Up
The final week approaches and I end my project with Jane Austen's first novel, Sense and Sensibility.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Book Fifty: Celestial Navigation by Anne Tyler (and 50B: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

I finally make it to Anne Tyler, one of my favorite writers who does not get the critical support she deserves. Okay, so she has a Pulitzer and National Book Critics Award for The Accidental Tourist (an excellent book), but she has many other novels which deserve attention. 

Tyler's most recognizable feature is her unique characters. To say many of her characters are off center is being polite. Many are just plain strange, but almost always in an appealing way. Tyler loves people, especially those who choose to approach life with their own unique view despite what society tells them. She is not naive about people, and the eternally unhappy person usually makes an appearance, but it is the strange and wonderful which capture her attention.

Celestial Navigation is Tyler's 5th novel, published in 1974 -- long before praise started coming her way. It focuses on Jeremy, a 38-year-old bachelor who has lived with his mother while rarely leaving their house. At the outset we find the mother has died and Jeremy's sisters enter the picture. The mother had turned their house into a boarding house, so Jeremy has company, but over the years he strays less and less from home until he is nearly confined inside. He is an artist with a studio on the top floor, and although at times he is a teacher to some budding artist, his detached and strange ways usually finds them leaving.

In the midst of all the changes comes Mary. She has left her husband and moved to Baltimore with her daughter to be with her new lover, but that eventually ends. Jeremy, much to his surprise, falls in love. Despite his strange ways and unattractive appearance (and Tyler excels in this description), she falls for him as well. In one of my favorite lines, after she tells him no to his marriage proposal, he shocks with the casual line: "What hope do you have for a better life, if you keep on saying no to everything new?"

They have a brood of children and Jeremy begins to make small excursions out and becomes successful as an artist. But now that he has Mary and all he wants, he finds himself drifting once again. The title refers to how Jeremy gets through life, by following his path in the heavens. He steers by a force unseen by others and unknown to him, but it is a path nonetheless.

Tyler writes the book from the perspectives of many characters. Only when doing it from Jeremy's perspective do we get more of a 3rd person narrative. This inconsistency would get Tyler bad marks in a creative writing program, but it works because Jeremy lacks the self consciousness of other people. Tyler takes us through 13 years of his life and we see people sail in and out of his life, but he continues on as before. Characters like Jeremy serve well to make us reexamine our own choices, but Tyler does not use them as foils for our own self interest. Her unique people are to be accepted and even treasured for who they are individually. 

Where Tyler is sometimes criticized is for romanticizing characters and lives (okay, she is also criticized for not having much in the way of sex in her books, but I always thought that was a stupid thing to say about anyone). But Tyler is not romantic about her characters, as this novel will show you, although she is hopeful for them. If that constitutes a weak writer, I hope she continues losing strength!

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

This is a great collection of stories which I've read many times since I discovered Sherlock Holmes in 5th grade. I actually read another collection first, but this is the first collection of short stories and one most people are familiar with. I've not read all of them together in quite some time and I certainly have a new eye. At times I was frustrated by Doyle's failure to bring clear closure to a story, and some hardly seemed mysteries at all. However, Holmes is as difficult as ever as a person, which makes him all the more interesting. He does some things for show early on, but his love of deduction is what really drives him. These are well worth the read.

Just for my own fun here is my ranking of the stories (Holmes fans are always ranking stories!).

1)"The Adventure of the Speckled Band"
2)"The Adventure of the Red-Headed League"
3)"A Scandal in Bohemia"
4)"The Boscombe Valley Mystery"
5)"The Five Orange Pips"
6)"The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet"
7)"The Man with the Twisted Lip" 
8)"A Case of Identity"
9)"The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle"
10)"The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb"
11)"The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor"
12)"The Adventure of the Copper Beeches"

This will probably change next time. Usually Red-Headed League tops the list.

Up Next 
So close! Just two more weeks to reach my goal. As I said before, Jane Austen gets the final week. But for next week, my busiest week of the year in which I dare not fail in my goal when so close to the end. A friend of mine (who recommended an earlier book) suggested Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams as a short, but not light book. My eldest also warned me that it is not a quick read, but I take heart that I'll manage.