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January 30, 2022
Full disclosure: As much as I enjoy seeing what other people are reading via social media, I hate the Bookstagram trend of monthly wrap ups that includes a not so humble brag regarding the number of books read that month or a self deprecating “I didn’t reach my reading goal” post.
Even as a kid who loved reading, the Pizza Hut reading challenge was not my thing. I never enjoyed competition in reading.
And yes, I know, I am saying this as we roll out our reading challenge making me sound like a sell out or hypocrite.
But hear me out.
Our challenge is not about racking up large numbers of books. It is about trying new things in reading and those things that enhance reading enjoyment, like abandoning a book you are not enjoying (see September’s challenge).
Reading can be about challenging yourself, but in my opinion, it is about challenging yourself to be more open minded, more adventurous, more creative, more introspective, more relaxed, more social (yes, reading can be social too!) and more of whatever you want.
Even as a reading teacher, I never wanted my students to read MORE books; I wanted them to read more. True, eventually that would turn into more books, but the goal was to make reading a part of life. I never focused on reading more books.
There is a good chance all these feelings come from my own reading struggles. As a child, I was pulled out of reading classes to get more direct instruction. As a middle school student, I never did well on comprehension tests even though I felt like I understood the book. And now as an adult, I read slower than most people I know and less than all of the women in my book club. But I love reading. It enriches my life in so many ways.
Thank you for coming to my Ted Talk (lol).
And here is the link to learn more about our reading challenge.
January 15, 2022
Kate and I got to read lots of books together in 2021! In addition to our Book Club reads, we also chose to read a few buddy reads. Kate and I have pretty similar opinions on books, with varying degrees of like and dislike.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Kate called this her favorite book of the year. It was a pretty close second for me. Bennett’s storytelling was slightly reminiscent of Toni Morrison. I always enjoy stories where paths cross in natural and realistic ways. Highly recommend this one.
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
We picked this book because in years past we have explored the gothic genre with Rebecca by du Maurier and The Haunting of Hill House by Jackson. If you are not a fan of the gothic tradition, I do not recommend Mexican Gothic, but Moreno-Garcia did an amazing job paying homage to the genre while adding some contemporary elements and themes as well. It is creepy, but in the vein of the genre it is a slow build with an understated climax.
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
This was my favorite book of the year. Eugenides, the author of The Virgin Suicides, weaves a fascinating book whose genre is simply literary fiction even though you could call it: a family drama or a historical fiction or a coming-of-age story. The narration is funny and unique in the way that the narrator is telling the story of his grandparent’s childhood in the present tense, as if he was there.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
This was a fun read, but I think we were all hoping for a little more than fun. Even after our book club meeting, none of us could really tell you what this book was about. It has a unique story structure and it kept all of us guessing as to what was really going on, but the ending left us wanting. Wanting what? I am not sure. I would still recommend it because it is likely that you have never read anything like this.
Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo
Kate and I both really enjoyed this book. It was exciting and beautiful. It explores old customs, issues around colonization and class as well as family dynamics (always one of my favorite motifs).
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
I wrote an entire blog on this book. You can read it here. Basically, it was too long and not the caliber of book I expect to win the Booker Award. The more I talked and wrote about it the more I liked it, which is a sign of a good book in my opinion.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelly
While reading Frankenstein, we both thought the same thing while reading Dracula – WOW– I know so little about this book, and it is way better than I expected. Again though, if you do not like the gothic genre, a slow build with an understated climax, this may not be for you.
Get a copy here!
No One Goes Alone by Erik Larson
This book is unique for a few reasons. First, it is the first work of fiction by Erik Larson, famed for The Devil in White City and In the Garden of the Beasts. Second, it was available only in audiobook form. And keeping in our 2021 tradition that we were not aware of until we started writing this blog, it is a gothic tale. It is short; the plot is slow and you find yourself waiting and waiting for something crazy to happen, but it never really does or if it does, it all unravels very slowly. We both enjoyed it. It was filled with some historical facts (you know Larson couldn't resist).
Those were our book club reads.
Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi
We started off very ambitious with this one. Meeting twice a week. We made charts and timelines and note cards. It is a heavy read especially if your history is not up to snuff. It was enlightening and a must read for your anti-racism journey.
Beneath A Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan
Eh. Save it for the beach. It is a historical fiction novel, not super well written, but with interesting characters and plot, but nothing that you likely have not already read about World War II spies.
Matrix by Laura Groff
This is the fourth book by Groff we have read, and the first I did not finish it. Kate finished it, and basically told me when I was a little more than halfway through that there really was no reason to finish. Groff’s writing is amazing. She is so talented and creative. And I respect what she was trying to do–create a female-only world. And I thought the setting was wonderful, a 1400s abbey. But there was no plot and no character development. If you have not read Groff, try Arcadia, Fates and Furies, or Monsters of Templeton. All so different than the others which makes me respect her so much.
The Dutch House by Anne Patchett
I listened to this one. It was read by Tom Hanks. The story is amazing–again a family saga following the characters over generations, but Tom Hanks reading it is just the best thing ever, possibly.
Overall, 2021 was a good reading year. Leave us a comment if you read any!
December 11, 2021
Full disclosure: I am a huge Paul Simon fan. Huge. There is a good chance I teared up the first time I saw him live. Love him.
But I do not think you need to feel this way to enjoy Malcolm Gladwell’s new audio (only) book Miracle and Wonder. You definitely need to be able to tolerate Simon’s songs; bits of his songs are played throughout, sometimes live and sometimes the recorded tracks.
Gladwell starts the book off by informing his listeners- this is not an autobiography of Paul Simon, rather this is a look at his music and what makes him a great songwriter. This book will not talk about Simon’s falling out with Garfunkel, his marriage to Edie Brickell or his childhood. Though each is mentioned, it is only in service to understanding Simon as a musician.
What makes this book so fun, so interesting, is Gladwell’s storytelling. Another disclosure, more of a confession: I have never finished a Gladwell book. I typically make it halfway through and then feel like I got his message. I am sure this is untrue; I am just not a non-fiction lover. But despite having never finished a book of his, I have always marveled at his extensive research, how he does not only research the topic, but topics adjacent to his topic. How he weaves all this research together into a fascinating narrative to prove a point. He is a fantastic writer.
And Miracle and Wonder is no different. Gladwell, in his journey to discover the birth of Simon’s greatness, references greats of other disciplines, including LeBron James. This part of Gladwell's writing reminds me of Krakauer’s Into the Wild. As a way to understand why Chris McCandless gave up everything and went into the wilderness, Krakauer looks through history to find others who did the same or similar things. Gladwell does this as well.
But it is not only the research that makes the book great. Paul Simon is there with him for the whole book, so we hear snippets of their conversation. This creates a very intimate experience for the reader, not just with Paul Simon, but also with Gladwell because we get to see him in action. There are times when after hearing Paul Simon discuss a song or a memory, Gladwell analyzes those words, tying them back to what Simon has said previously. We really get to see Gladwell’s process and how he comes to his conclusion about Simon’s greatness.
You do not have to love Paul Simon to enjoy this book. Music lovers, Gladwell readers, authors and anyone looking to be inspired can find enjoyment within this book. And no matter who you are, you will likely come out on the other side of this book with a greater appreciation for Paul Simon, and Gladwell.
We have so many wonderful musician memoirs. If you'd like to make a subscription out of them, click here.
October 19, 2021
The Booker Prize is considered the leading literary award of the English-speaking world. As a book lover, you have likely heard of it or seen it stamped on one of your favorite books.
Until I read Milkman by Anna Burns, I did not pay much attention to the yearly lists released by the Booker Prize. Each year they highlight the “longlist,” the “shortlist” and the winner. When I read Milkman, I was in awe. I immediately suggested it to my book lover friends, and the second I finished it, I declared it one of my top five favorite books. It was outstanding.
When I realized it was the 2018 winner, I began looking at the lists of books considered for the Booker Prize, and would often pick from them. None of them hit me like Milkman, some of them I did not even like, but I could understand why all of them were being acknowledged.
Until I read Shuggie Bain, the 2020 winner (enter here a joke about 2020). Shuggie Bain is not a bad book, but I just cannot understand why it won the Booker Award. Sure, it is a book about addiction and poverty, two wildly powerful presences in anyone’s life. The title character is a young boy with an alcoholic mother. His family lives in devastating poverty in 1980’s Glasgow. And to top it off Shuggie is considered by everyone around him to be “no right” (conjure the Scottish accent). The writing is vivid. The emotions are raw. In fact, the author, Douglas Stuart, does an amazing job at writing characters who experience sexual abuse and rape, and physical and emotional violence. Like many victims of these crimes, the characters in Stuart’s novel just keep moving, never telling another about their attacks and never fully acknowledging it to themselves. It is heart-wrenching, but like the character, the reader does not have much time to consider these incidents because something else always happens.
The book is good, maybe a bit too long, but just not as good or as unique as other Booker Prize winners.
I think I wish the book had more of Shuggie’s voice. Kate and I joked as we read it, “this book should be called Agnes Bain.” Agnes is the alcoholic mother at the center of the narrative.
But maybe this is the genius of the book; Shuggie’s voice is not heard. And that is the truth of it: a small child living in a world that does not accept him and openly harasses him while he is also experiencing sexual abuse, an alcoholic mother, an absent father, poverty, and loneliness does not have a voice.
August 13, 2021
Not to brag, but our book club has been together since 2014. It started with this email from Kate and me:
"Kate and Angela want to start a book club and would love if you joined. Here are our thoughts:
1. We will drink while discussing books
2. Drinking while reading is your choice but strongly encouraged
3. No shitty books shall be chosen. While shitty is a subjective term, it shall be defined here as cliché, trite and trashy. While not all New York Times Bestsellers qualify as such, most do.
4. Despite the sound of number three, we will not be douchy or lit snob about this. Just don't want to read stupid shit.
5. We will meet twice/ month at a house or bar and chat about the book over food and booze.
6. How will we choose books? On the first meeting, proposed date Dec 3, we will each write the names of 2 books we would like to read and put them in a hat. Each time we choose a book, one member will pull two titles out of the hat and decide between the 2. A majority vote can veto the choice."
We may have mentioned this before: we think we are hilarious.
As it stands now, we have only followed rule number 1. But it definitely has worked out for the best.
Many of the people who joined that first year only stopped in once. There are 4 of us left from that first meeting. And we have added 3 more over the years.
There are 2 ways.
1. At the end of a meeting, everyone goes through their TBR list and throws out a few they want to read. They may describe it or read something from Good Reads to inform the rest of us. Then we basically vote.
2. If we're pressed for time, we all submit titles to someone who has offered to create a survey, and we vote electronically.
Since we have been together so long, we are great friends. So most of the book club meetings are not about the book. We catch up on each other's lives and current events. We eat and drink, but we DEFINITELY talk about the book.
One thing we added a few years ago was book projects. That's right, we do book reports (4 of us are teachers). Obviously, reports is not exactly an accurate description of what we create. It is much more open than that. In last month's blog, we highlighted one of the projects - a children's book. But we have had food and drink presentations, games, dioramas, recitations and homemade book inspired gifts!
One year, I did a March Madness Bracket with all of the books we had read up until that point. I was incredibly satisfied when Margaret Atwood's Blind Assassin won. Now to be fair, books were matched arbitrarily. The first round was done by the year and in a random order and we just voted on our favorite of that match and moved it to the next round. I am sure there are many better ways to structure that.
At our most recent book club meeting, one of the original members created a trophy! At each meeting, we will now vote for a "book club winner." How do you win book club, you ask? We vote.
Of course, at that book club the woman who made the trophy won book club. I mean...that is the greatest idea ever. However, she declined the award because she wanted someone else to take home the trophy because each time someone takes it home, they get to add a piece to the trophy. I was the default winner because I had made a game for my project that we all played during book club. The game was Rummy-esque and required members to explain why they chose to lay down their cards. It fostered good conversation.
So based on the longevity of our book club and the super creative humans in it, we declare our book club is the best.
We'd love to hear about your book club!
July 23, 2021
It is unreasonable to expect a reader to answer the question: what's your favorite book?
Their response is likely, "in what genre? or for what age? a funny one or a serious one? by which author" and then they will just look at you with disgust.
Recently, I have decided to create my top tier of books. Before I add a book to that tier, I have to sit with it and roll it around in my head for a while.
Currently, the books in that tier are:
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
The Milkman by Anna Burns
The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien
Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides
Dracula by Bram Stoker
Our book club read Piranesi by Susanna Clarke last month, and after sitting with it for about a month, I have decided not to add it to my top tier. However, it is a great book, and a great book for a book club to read. Our book club had a rich discussion with some debate and each member enjoyed the book.
This is a fantasy novel. Fantasy is not one of my favorite genres, at all, but I do not think that is what kept me from proclaiming it to be one of the best books I have ever read.
In the novel, Piranesi is the main character and protagonist. The setting is the House, a place of innumerable halls and rooms, with statues, floods and fish. To Piranesi, this is the world and it is a kind world.
There is one other person there. Piranesi calls him The Other. He is wise, and he sends Piranesi on various excursions and academic adventures. Piranesi is fond of him.
During much of the book, Piranesi walks around the House and details what he sees and finds. He makes assumptions about his about this world and notes them as truths.
Eventually, Piranesi begins to question of beliefs he has held and searches for the answers. Slowly those truths are revealed to the reader.
Clarke's imagery, allusions and foreshadowing are beautiful entwined into the plot, and the reading experience is engaging and unique.
However, what I found missing was a point or a deeper look at the human experience. And maybe that is part of the fantasy genre (I really have never read anything fantasy, I do suppose). So that is why it did not make it to my top tier, but I have many tiers and this book is up there and I do suggest you read it.
Our Book Club is Cool
This is true for many reasons, but why I bring it up now is to share this. In preparation for each meeting, we each (well usually only a few each time) do a project. (yes, that is correct, there are more than a few teachers in this book club).
But I think we all agree the projects are really good and help the book club discussion along quite a bit.
Sometimes projects are research projects, or poems, or dioramas or games or food or painted pictures... you get the picture. We do whatever moves us and sometimes only one of us shows up with a project.
But whether we have 1 project or 7, they always help moved the discussion and add a ton of fun to our meeting.
For Piranesi, only one member created a project, and it was amazing, so we want to give her props here. Piranesi slowly reveals a little bit of the reality to the reader, and as does Cat's book she made. The pictures here are not related to the book. She was inspired by the slow reveal. We each got to look at it independently and it was so fun to watch everyone's face when they hit the last page. The title is pretty amazing too.
You can check out Cat's artwork on IG and Tik Tok @cateynell or on her website.
June 16, 2021
May 11, 2021
This May we are reading Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides...