A New Year

In some ways I can’t believe it’s a new year already. Then in other moments, I look back at what I read or did in 2020 and the beginning of the year feels so far away–was it really just a year (or less) ago that….?

I suppose a lot of us are feeling that way this year. 2020 was a strange year, with much sadness or anxiety or anger. It seems odd to me that the pandemic turned it into a year in which such a large portion of the planet felt that the next year couldn’t come soon enough. And yet, I was thinking about it–there are probably people for whom 2020 was a good year, or at least had some really good moments–new family, new jobs, new experiences. And for other people, their situations were probably already so bad, that 2020 was nothing different, other than in the specifics.

One thing that was not really changed for me by 2020 was my reading. Although I did have slump towards the beginning of the pandemic when everything was much more uncertain, and a family friend was very, very ill, as spring turned to summer I found my way back, and ended the year with an average of over 5.6 hours of reading per week, better than my goal from the start of the year to read an average of 5 hours each week. This 5.6 hours translated into a total of 35 books plus the Sherlock Holmes short story “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” which is the best I’ve done since I started keeping track eleven years ago.

It was good reading, too. I started the year with Agatha Christie (of course!) and Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd. This second book really set the tone for the year–not only was it an excellent read, but I set out to read it in a specific time frame, and when I actually met my weekly goals, it was the spark that really allowed me to aim high with long or difficult books this year: just keep reading. It’s hard to pick highlights this year; I enjoyed so many of them and I don’t think there was a book I disliked this year. However, ranked from favorite to most favorite (ha):

10. Rereads (The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) – it almost doesn’t seem fair to include these, as if your rereading something, it’s a safe assumption that you probably liked it. But all are loved, and sometimes you just need something “comfortable.”

9. Agatha Christie (The Secret Adversary through The Murder of Roger Ackroyd) – So much fun. The perfect light reading in between heavier or more serious novels. I also generally thought Roger Ackroyd (post forthcoming) very good.

8. Piranesi (Susanna Clarke) – the newest book I read in 2020 (published in September), but I was completely immersed in the fantasy world.

7. The Decameron (Giovanni Boccaccio) – inspired by a postponed readalong, I finally read the entire collection, and while I sometimes found it a bit redundant (and some stories are just problematic by 21st century standards, but that’s a different issue), it felt a real accomplishment to finish. And it was fun!

6. Far From the Madding Crowd (Thomas Hardy) – although Hardy is not known for “happy” stories, this is not as dark as some, and I loved following the changing seasons over the course of the novel. And the sheep.

5. Readalongs. The books I read this year for readalongs (The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe and Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara) weren’t my favorite in and of themselves, but the camaraderie of reading with others, and the benefit of reading others takes/points of view, means readalongs are always a highlight.

4. Cranford (Elizabeth Gaskell) – Gaskell is one of my favorite authors, and while the episodic format and small-town charm of Cranford is quite unlike the others of hers I’ve read, it is an absolute delight.

3. The Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame) – Another episodic novel, and one that also has a strong connection to the seasons. It’s a book I’d consider a seasonal read for any season and full of charm and adventure and nature.

2. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Mark Twain) – I can’t believe I’d never read this before, but it was an absolute delight.

1. Ficciones (Jorge Luis Borges) – so glad I finally read this! A collection of short stories that are not quite fantasy, but definitely fantastic. On the reread list, as well as further Borges and the Argentine epic Martin Fierro.

As far as general statistics, it looks like I read books or stories by 24 different authors (lots of repeat authors this year!), of which 11 were/are women and 17 men, with one unknown but likely male (the author of The Nibelungenlied). Most of these were, as usual for me, originally written in English, but five were translated from Spanish, Italian, French, and German. Seven different countries are represented. (I think–some of these may depend on how you count, as borders do like to change…) Seven were rereads and eight were non-fiction. The age of the books ranged from really old (c. 1200) to new (2020), with most of the books published prior to 1970, but 14 since 2000. So an interesting mix.

As I’m looking forward to my 2021 reading, I’m hoping for more of the same, generally. Maybe some more translations, likely some more contemporary commercial fiction (I have some books that I just need to read already…). More Agatha Christie, more from my Classics Club list (I did poorly here in 2020–I read lots of classics, just not from my actual list). Generally…more. After the success of last year, I’m aiming a bit higher: can I make 40 books? I’d like to average 6 hours of reading a week, ideally more consistently than last year. It should be doable, I just have to act on it. Always pushing myself to do a little better, read a little deeper, think a little more clearly. It’s had to know for sure–as 2020 showed us only too clearly–what a new year will hold in store, but I always look forward to the open possibilities.

Back to the Classics 2021

Button: Back to the Classics Challenge 2021

Although I have some semi-ambitious goals for how much I will read in 2021, I don’t feel compelled to attach myself to any particular challenges–except for Karen’s Back to the Classics challenge! This one is always fun, and after finally reading all 12 categories last year, I want to see if I can do it again. I’m also hoping to improve on 2020 in one way: reading more books that are actually on my Classics Club list. Of course, the way these things go, some shiny classic will probably pop onto my radar and distract me from my good intentions, but as long as I’m reading, it’s good!

This year’s categories:

  1. A 19th century classic.
  2. A 20th century classic. and posthumously published.
  3. A classic by a woman author.
  4. A classic in translation.
  5. A classic by BIPOC author; that is, a non-white author.
  6. A classic by a new-to-you author, i.e., an author whose work you have never read.
  7. New-to-you classic by a favorite author — a new book by an author whose works you have already read.
  8. A classic about an animal, or with an animal in the title.
  9. A children’s classic.
  10. A humorous or satirical classic.
  11. A travel or adventure classic (fiction or non-fiction).
  12. A classic play.

I don’t have any specific plans at this point – there’s so many possibilities!

If I’m to stick to my Classics Club list, the play would likely be from Anne Carson’s translation An Oresteia, which I was supposed to read for a Classics Club spin in September, but didn’t get to. I don’t think I have anything humorous or satirical on my list, but I do have several P.G. Wodehouse on my shelves, so that’s a good possibility. Several people have listed The Leopard as their likely classic about an animal or with an animal in the title, and it’s on my Club list, so possible.

The category that’s a new-to-you classic by a favorite author is interesting. I still have several unread Elizabeth Gaskell I could read, or, there’s The Sound and the Fury, which I think I’ve pledged to read the last two years. Maybe this will be the year?

More likely than not, the 2021 challenge reading will be like 2020: I’ll end up reading books that strike my interest and slotting them in where they fit. And hopefully that only means one or two books to deliberately seek out at the end of the year.

Looking forward to a new year of classic reading!

Farewell Summer, Welcome Autumn

It’s hard to believe we’re already through the first week of September. I know that time has passed slowly for some, with all the various upheavals of 2020, but it seems to have flown by for me just as much as ever—and in spite of the extra 1.75 hours or so in my working days, thanks to work-from-home. I guess I’m just good at always finding ways to fill it.

Reading was one of those ways, and while I didn’t quite make my goal of 10 books for the 20 Books of Summer challenge, I’m mostly happy with the outcome: 9 1/2 books completed in the three month time-span, of which one was the very dense The Mysteries of Udolpho and two nonfiction books that, while informative, were slow.

My Completed Books:

  1. 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence – Howard Means
  2. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain
  3. So Good They Can’t Ignore You  – Cal Newport
  4. The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien
  5. The Color of Law – Richard Rothstein
  6. The Mysteries of Udolpho – Ann Radcliffe
  7. The New Jim Crow – Michelle Alexander
  8. The Secret of Chimneys – Agatha Christie
  9. The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame

Started but not yet finished:

  1. Wheeshet – Kate Davies
  2. The Fellowship of the Ring – J.R.R. Tolkien
  3. Shop Class as Soul Craft -Matthew B. Crawford

I’m a bit disappointed not to have made it further in The Lord of the Rings, but it has the disadvantage of being a set of owned books that aren’t subject to the whims of library renewals (and other’s hold patterns). Needless to say, I hope to finish it and the other incomplete books soon.

However, now as the weather starts to turn cooler, the birds start their migrations south, and the colors begin to turn autumnal, I start to think of more seasonal reading. I’d love to participate in the fifteenth edition of R.I.P., and I do have a mystery on hold at the library (fingers crossed it arrives in time), but now I’m wishing I’d had the foresight to wait until September to read The Secret of Chimneys! If I have time, I have a Poe collection I’d love to finally read, or maybe some other Christie or one of the many Victorian thrillers I have on my to-be-read. Maybe…

Because first, in addition to some non-renewable library books (currently reading The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins, though of course that reads quickly), there’s the current Classics Club spin, for which I’m supposed to read An Oresteia (Agamemnon by Aiskhylos; Elektra by Sophokles; Orestes by Euripides ) by the end of the month. And which I haven’t started yet. (Ahem.)

I’ve also signed up for the Appointment in Samarra readalong hosted by Meredith at Dolce Bellezza and Tom at Wuthering Expectations are hosting a An Appointment in Samara readalong. I’m actually nearly a 1/3 of the way through and it’s going well, so that’s the book I’m most optimistic on finishing ‘on time.’

And finally, Cleo at Classical Corousel is hosting an informal Decameron readalong from now until the end of the year. That will have to wait on the other books, though! (I’ve read selections in the past and if memory serves me well, they read quickly, so fingers crossed.)

What are your autumnal reading plans?

Classics Spin #24

Question Mark - cover place holder

I don’t really have time for this. I have so many books already planned for the next few months, especially library books either to finish or already on hold, as well as a couple possible readalongs. I don’t have time to be adding any more books to my ‘immediate plans’ list. Nope, really should skip this one…so here’s the list. 🙂

  1. Gaskell, Elizabeth: Wives and Daughters (England, 1865)
  2. Poe, Edgar Allan: Tales of Mystery and Imagination (U.S., 1830s-40s)
  3. Dickens, Charles: Bleak House (England, 1853)
  4. Hemingway, Ernest: For Whom the Bell Tolls (U.S., 1940)
  5. Huxley, Aldous: Brave New World (England, 1932)
  6. Morrison, Toni: Beloved (U.S., 1987)
  7. Lawrence, D.H.: Sons and Lovers (England, 1913)
  8. James, Henry: The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Fiction (U.S., 1878-1908)
  9. Ellison, Ralph: Invisible Man (U.S., 1952)
  10. Camões, Luís Vaz de: The Lusiad (Portugal, 1572)
  11. Homer: The Odyssey (Greece, c. 8th century BCE)*
  12. Anonymous: Beowulf (Anglo-Saxon, between 8th-11th centuries)*
  13. Trollope, Anthony: Barchester Towers (England, 1857)
  14. Virgil: The Aeneid [Aeneis] (Rome, 29-19 BCE)
  15. Cather, Willa: Death Comes for the Archbishop (U.S., 1927)
  16. Bolaño, Roberto: 2666 (Chile, 2004)
  17. Faulkner, William: The Sound and the Fury (U.S., 1929)
  18. Carson, Anne, translator: An Oresteia (Greece, 5th century BCE)
  19. Bromfield, Louis: The Farm (U.S.-Ohio, 1933)
  20. Tolstoy, Leo: The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories (Russia, 1886-1912)

A randomized list of my remaining classics club books I already have or are readily available from the library. Titles with an * are rereads.

Looking over the list, I’m reminded why I want to participate in the spin: I can’t decide which of these I want to read first! Even the long titles are appealing (I’m kind of hoping for 2666, actually, and I’m sure I don’t have time to read that, even with a September 30 deadline.)

Here’s to a good spin!

A Summer Check-In

It is raining today. The slow, steady, chill gray rain I associate with spring—or November. But we need it; July is usually our wettest month, but the thunderstorms stayed away this year and the fields are dry and the gardens thirsty.

It is a good sort of day for reading.

Purple Coneflower
The purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) don’t seem to mind that it hasn’t rained.

I’ve been reading a decent amount this summer, for me at least. Not all of it has followed the plans I outlined back in May. There were holds I’d forgotten about, books I’d been meaning to read and finally decided to pick up. And of course, I’m always subject to reading whims, no matter how carefully I make a list.

Although we are roughly two-thirds through the 20 Books of Summer Challenge, and I’ve only finished five (of a realistic goal of 10), I do feel confident at finishing out the summer strong. I’m midway through several books and have a few children’s classics planned for August.

It’s been a less good summer for writing—for me at least. The weather has been miserable more days than I’d like (I don’t deal well with heat and humidity), and my brain turns to mush. So, rather than writing up full posts for everything I’ve read/am reading, I thought I’d just share some brief notes here.

67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence (Howard Means, US, 2016)

I’ve long been interested in the history and aftermath of the May 4, 1970 Kent State shootings, since a high school government class session on the topic around the time of the 30th anniversary. Attending Kent and walking past the location of the protests and shootings nearly every day (the then-architecture building overlooked the site) only increased my interest, and this is the third book I’ve read on the topic. (Previous reads are 13 Seconds and Above the Shots.) While it might seem that three books on a single topic might become a bit redundant (and it can be at times), something that I have learned is that multiple sources can each bring something different to the table. 13 Seconds was published within a year of the event, and so brought with it the contemporary perspective. Above the Shots and 67 Shots were both published within the last 5 years, and have a longer perspective on events, the aftermath, the legacy, and even the discovery of possible new evidence in 2007. Above the Shots was also an oral history, the first oral history on any topic I’ve read, and as such brought a wealth of viewpoints, from student protestors, student observers, student conservatives, townspeople, national guards. It was the first time I really began to understand the context of the real fear on the part of the town and larger “silent majority.” But I will never understand the impulse to wish violence on another.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Mark Twain, US, 1876)

I have the start of a longer post on this one drafted but suffice it to say I can’t believe it took me this long to read this entertaining adventure story!

The Hobbit (J.R.R. Tolkien, England, 1937)

I decided this spring that this year demanded the comfort read of returning to Middle Earth. Either that or I was looking for an excuse… 😊 Regardless, it was fun to return to Bilbo’s adventures with the dwarves: avoiding trolls, goblins, and giant spiders; tricking elves and dragons; even attempting his hand at mediation. The Hobbit has a completely different feel from The Lord of the Rings; it strikes me always as closer to a children’s book than the later adventure, and perhaps more importantly, as if the mythology is less finished. Not, that is, that the underlying history of Middle Earth is lacking here—throughout references to Tolkien’s other stories and poems abound, though they may only be apparent to readers of his posthumously published work. But instead of orcs we have goblins, instead of Sauron we have references to a shadowy Necromancer. And of course, we know that the first edition of The Hobbit has a slightly different story of Bilbo’s obtaining of the one ring than later versions—Tolkien had not yet decided on its importance to the next story in the sequence, or the role of Gollum. Regardless, it is a story I am always charmed by.

So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love (Cal Newport, 2012)

This was not on my original 20 Books of Summer list; I had quite forgotten it was on the holds list from the library until it came in, months after placed on hold. I guess the pithiest description is “career advice.” Newport takes issue with the very common contemporary advice to “follow your passion,” not because he thinks that this will only work for a few (i.e., you may be passionate about basketball, but not have the skill and size to make the NBA), but because he believes that passion is a result of being “so good they can’t ignore you” rather than what will lead to THE job you’ll love. While I don’t exactly disagree with him, it does seem that there are some careers (architecture school, I’m looking at you) in which a certain level of passion may get you through the tough times to come out the other side. But his advice about focusing on and earning “career capital” – that is, skills that are valuable, but not necessarily common – is invaluable. Building up such capital will give you ever-increasing amounts of control over your career, and control over our time or life direction is often what truly will give us career contentment. If you need or want to make a career change, he advises that the best way is to build on the skills you already have rather than taking a complete 180, which will only set your career capital back to zero.

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (Richard Rothstein, 2018)

Another deviation from my original 20 Books of Summer plans, I first heard about The Color of Law, as one of a number of titles recommended earlier this summer as protests over the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor led to a broader discussion of racism in the US. Rothstein’s premise is to argue that housing segregation in the US—that continues to this day thanks largely to income disparities between Blacks and whites, plus zoning designed to maintain property values*—is not solely the result of de facto segregation (that is, social and cultural reasons), but was de jure (that is, government-created).  It is not perhaps the most exciting of the titles recommended (it’s not difficult writing, yet dry enough I could only read it in short bites), but it is very illuminating as to the history of segregation in the US, specifically how government policies created or encouraged it, even outside the Southern states. I read it with a mixture of anger (the very racism/prejudice underlying neighborhood segregation is abhorrent to me) and resignation (from my awareness of the explicitly racist times and system in which the politicians and policy makers were operating). But it is important to know the history to make good decisions moving forward.

*It’s hard to argue against wanting to maintain property values. It’s also hard to separate out how much zoning designations were designed based purely on racism vs. economic classism. But there is no question that zoning regulations often deliberately permitted industry or other unpleasant activity adjacent to existing Black neighborhoods (but not near existing white neighborhoods). Nor is there any question that one of the factors behind the US’s current affordable housing crisis is zoning regulations designed to maintain property values that prevent development of multi-family or even densely developed single-family housing in many parts of the country, thus helping maintain a shortage of housing and pushing prices up ridiculously. My jaw dropped to learn that an “unimproved,” i.e., 2-bed, 1-bath Levittown house might go for $350,000 in 2018 (vs. the $8,000 it originally sold for, equivalent to ~ $75,000 c.2018).

A brief stroll in the shade of a local park.

As for books I am currently reading, I’m about one-quarter through a collection of essays on creativity, Wheesht, by knitwear designer Kate Davies. I’ll probably write more about it when finished, as her perspectives often goes against the current perceived “wisdom” about creativity and making. I’m ahead of schedule for the Mysteries of Udolpho readalong and hoping to finish early. It’s not quite what I expected—I’d say more romance and less terror! (Catherine Moreland and Isabel Thorpe, you misled me [Northanger Abbey])—but it started rolling along nicely in the second volume.

I’ve also just started The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, another deviation from my 20 books list (why do I even try with lists?). Only a few pages in, but I’ll have to hustle – there’s a deep hold list behind me, so no renewals on this one!

Then of course, where The Hobbit leads, The Fellowship of the Ring must follow. A reread, but it is so enjoyable to dip back into Middle Earth. Even if I know there are dark, dark times ahead. I’m hoping (though this seems unlikely) to have the trilogy finished by Labor Day. I’m also planning to start my reread of The Wind in the Willows this weekend. It feels like it should be an August book, so I’m determined to make it an August read.

If I finish all those, I’ll make my ten. Perhaps a bit of a challenge, but I’m cautiously optimistic. After all, the forecast is for more humidity, so there’s not much else to do but read!