Sunday, April 27, 2008

Feed Reader My Enemy, Feed Reader My Friend

So, I was poking around all the feeds I subscribe to on Bloglines today. But this is not a post about Bloglines, it is a post about unfounded guilt. This morning my 109 feeds had gathered an impressive (but not an all time high of behindness for me) 423 posts by my blogging friends and a bunch of bloggers who don't know me from a hole in the ground.

I get behind, you know. During the week and much of weekend I like to do...stuff. I work, I clean, I run errands, I play with the dog, I pet the cat, I sleep, I eat, I go for walks, I shop, I request ARCs of books I don't have time to read, I dig skeletons out of my internet closet, I watch TV, I peruse periodicals, and on occasion I actually even read books. For some reason that is far beyond me, doing all this stuff doesn't seem to allow me to keep up with a mere (?) 109 feeds. I love my feedreader - everything everybody's writing right there all in one place for me to see at my convenience (or when the guilt of neglecting it begins to overwhelm me), but when I wake up in the morning to 423 posts from a week or two of choosing reading a book (or choosing any of the above listed activities) over reading a blog, something just has to give.

Now that I'm thinking about it, the same obsessive character trait that caused me to accumulate this massive book collection of mine and yet continues to press me onward to accumulate yet more books which I have no space and essentially no time for is the same trait that causes me to overwhelm myself with RSS feeds. I guess if there's anything good out there, anything worth reading, be it on a blog, in a magazine, or in a book - I want to read it...I want to have read it.

But alas, there comes a day in everyone's life when you have to admit defeat (if only a small and momentary one) - when you have to throw out some magazines unread, when you have to comb through those book piles and determine which ones you're really going to read and which ones are just taking up space and encouraging the fanciful thought that you may be able to get to reading all these books in your lifetime while continuing to accumulate them at an unfathomable rate, and when you have to mark all those feeds as read and start anew. The former two I've yet to concede defeat to, but the latter has been done today. So, to all of you people who probably don't even know that I'm reading your blog - accept my sincere guilt and apologies for missing many of your thoughtful posts. I'll do better this week, I promise - but in a few weeks, I'll probably do this again. But I'm trying. And I want to read every excellent looking blog I come across. And I'll probably contintue to overwhelm myself by feeding even more blogs because I just wouldn't be me if I didn't. Being in over my head is as much a part of me as say, my right foot. Because I can't help but believe that if I'm all caught up with everything then it stands to reason that I must not be doing quite enough. Less isn't more, more is more........right?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Booking Through Spring

Do your reading habits change in the Spring? Do you read gardening books? Even if you don’t have a garden? More light fiction than during the Winter? Less? Travel books? Light paperbacks you can stick in a knapsack?

Or do you pretty much read the same kinds of things in the Spring as you do the rest of the year?

I have to say, I read pretty much the same stuff, but I read it sitting in different places - like out on the front porch with a glass of iced tea, sprawled out on my bed with the breeze coming through my window (my bedroom gains a lot of charm in the spring, what can I say?), at the cabin in the woods, or by the river while my dad is fishing. Weirdly, in the spring - especially this spring - I like to read more because I can read in these lovely places with this warm comfy atmosphere. My house is not especially conducive to reading in the winter - my room is too cold and the rest of the house is wide open so it's hard to grab a spot that's peaceful enough for good reading. So, I guess I read more in general in the spring but the same sort of stuff that I would read the rest of the year. Spring and summer used to be when I would tackle huge books because there was no required reading for school which gave me lots of time for more massive undertakings but now that I'm out of school, I can't even say that.

Look - there - I posted on my blog! Jeez, what do the rest of you book blogger sorts post when you're not posting book reviews? I really need to work on this lull between finishing books thing. But it'll have to wait, because I'm about to finish a book - so soon there will be a review! And uh, Grey's Anatomy is new tonight, which means more TV that I simply must watch which is another hour of my free time sucked into the abyss...but I'm sure I'll at least finish the book before that comes on!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

A Laurie Halse Anderson 2-fer-1

In the span of one week, I've gone from being a total Laurie Halse Anderson newbie to being a big fan. As usual, I'm doing a fine job of reading a variety of different types of books, right? Well, lucky for me, despite their being by the same author and featuring female narrators coming of age under difficult circumstances, the similarities between Speak and Fever 1793 end there. Now, because I'm so good at being concise (I'll give you a few minutes to get all the laughter out of your system now), I'm going to attempt two brief(er?) reviews of two excellent YA books. Since I may be among the last five people on the earth that proclaims to read YA books and hasn't read anything by Laurie Halse Anderson, maybe I'll be able to kill the whole summary thing and get right to the good stuff. Maybe.

Speak is the story of Melinda Sordino who is starting her first year of high school as a total outcast after having called the cops from an end of summer party. It's obvious that Melinda has a dark secret from that night, but Halse Anderson takes her time in revealing it. In the meantime, Melinda offers up a scathingly realistic and wryly humorous look at high school. For readers still in high school, I would think they could easily I identify with many of the ridiculous events that Melinda describes. It definitely rang true for my high school experience and brought back a lot memories. Melinda is a realistic and engaging narrator starting her year scared and insecure and slowly growing up through the course of the year. For a "troubled" teen, she is surprisingly lovable, and it's a breath of fresh air when she finally begins to share the secret she's been holding on to. This is a great story of a girl coming through something terrible that has happened to her and learning what she's made of in the process. Definitely one of my favorites of this year so far.

Read other reviews at Dog Ear Diary and An Adventure in Reading.

Fever 1793 features another girl, Matilda Cook, who is about the same age as Melinda but in vastly different circumstances. The setting for this novel is Philadelphia in (you guessed it) 1793. Mattie's widowed mother owns and runs the Cook Coffeehouse where important men of the city come to talk politics and enjoy coffee and the fare prepared by Eliza, a free black and friend of the family. At the beginning, Mattie is a typical young girl - more eager to have fun and disobey her mother than to pull her weight at the coffeehouse. As summer is very slowly drawing to a close, disaster strikes as a deadly yellow fever epidemic sweeps the city. The city devolves into chaos and Mattie's life is torn asunder when her mother takes ill. The epidemic forces Mattie to grow up fast as she is left almost alone in a city that seems to be slowly dying. As the first frost comes, effectively ending the fever, and Mattie has still not heard from her mother, Mattie is forced to make some difficult decisions about her future and the future of the coffeehouse.

Mattie is an engaging narrator as well. It's easy to relate to her desire to leave behind the backbreaking work of the coffeehouse and enjoy her life. Halse Anderson does a fine job of portraying how Mattie changes during the epidemic and gains a new inner strength that she is able to draw upon to pick up her life once the epidemic has ended. Philadelphia in 1793 is realistically portrayed both in health and in sickness. Halse Anderson has obviously gone to great pains to maintain the historical accuracy of her story and succeeds admirably. Included at the end is a very interesting appendix that elaborates on the factual elements of the story. Fever 1793 is another great story of a girl transcending her very dire circumstances and finding out who she is in the process.

Both of these books get two thumbs way up from me. At first, I worried that I would find Mattie lacking after Melinda, but once the epidemic came to town, Mattie's narration really found its stride, and I can report that both books were excellent and well worth reading for both teens and adults.

Hey, that was pretty concise...well, for me, that was pretty concise. That's two more down for the Spring Reading Thing, too. In other news, I'm probably not going to make my Spring Reading Thing goal anyhow as my three Elle jury books just arrived this week and demand to be read. They're all travel writing and I am way excited to read them, but yeah, it's kind of a big detour from my challenge goal - but alas I must do my best and be grateful that the challenge has indeed been encouraging me to read more this spring, which I suppose, is the point of it all anyway!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

On Oprah's Book Club

So, I was blog-hopping a bit this morning, and I didn't hop far before I came upon litchick's post about how we choose what to read. She mentioned Oprah's book club and it made me think again about what role Oprah and her book club played in shaping the reader I am today.

When I first found out about Oprah's book club (it could have been started at this time, too, I don't recall), I was in high school. I've always been a reader, and I'd welcomed the chance to make the jump from kids books to "adult" books. I've since made the jump back to young adult books, but that's a story for another day. As an "adult" reader, I was...a uh...popular fiction hound. I liked what everybody liked. Put me in a room with Stephen King's or John Grisham's latest, and I was a happy camper. To some extent, I still can be. Sometimes it's refreshing to read a book that you can quickly and mindlessly finish in a day.

The thing is, now that I'm older, I wonder if I wouldn't still be reading only those same things if it weren't for Oprah and subsequently my mother's phase of passionately loving all things Oprah. Of course, I couldn't be left out of this bookish trend in my own house, so I cast aside the latest Stephen King/Dean Koontz/John Grisham/Danielle Steel, and I started picking up some of these depressing contemporary fiction pretty trade paperback books and trying them on for size. To this day, I'm a shameless lover of contemporary fiction/literature. At this point in my life, I can safely say that not one of my Oprah reads ranks among my favorites, though I haven't read all that many of her picks. However, I did come to love the feel of a trade paperback in my hand, love the sensation of reading a book that I had to think about because the story had characters that were real multi-dimensional people and the plot had a few layers of meaning instead of just a slow build to a cheap thrill, and love to having my emotions tied up in the outcome of the book. So, at the end of the day, I have to give Oprah some credit. She had a hand in opening my eyes to a type of book that at that point, I had no idea existed. A type of book that I spend most of my time with today, and a type of book which many of my favorites are now. I still read some of that old stuff and I still find it satisfying to devour a horror novel or a thriller in a day (and I'll even go on the record to say that I think that Stephen King is a great writer - not just a great "genre" writer, but great writer in general - again this is a story for another day), but I have to say that Oprah helped at least a little bit in shaping my tastes and making me into the reader I am today.

How about you? Do you ever think about what has influenced your reading through the years? What makes you read what you read?

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Beet Queen by Louise Erdrich

The Beet Queen is a story about love. But not necessarily good love. It's about needing to be needed. It's about flawed characters loving each other in flawed ways.

The story begins with Mary and Karl Adare, whose mother quite literally got in a plane and flew away for good, reaching Argus, South Dakota by train during the Great Depression. Mary arrives with a fierce need for a survival and a willingness to make herself absolutely indispensible to her aunt and uncle to achieve that end. Within a few moments of their arriving in Argus, Karl is frightened by a barking dog and flees back to the train. From there, Mary and Karl's lives proceed in vastly different directions but ones that also bind them together for life. Mary inserts herself into life in Argus with an overbearing force that will define her entire life. Karl's life is marked by a rootlessness that sees him becoming a traveling salesman later in life.

Various characters play a significant part in the story including Mary's ambitious and eventually unhinged cousin Sita; Celestine, the best friend that Mary steals from Sita; and Wallace Pfef, a pillar of the Argus community who is unwittingly drawn into Mary, Celestine, and Karl's very unusual "family." What little that can be considered plot in this book revolves around Celestine and Karl's daughter, Wallacette nicknamed Dot, who was born on Wallace Pfef's couch during a fierce winter blizzard. Each of the characters tries misguidedly to give Dot the love that was missing from each of their lives - Mary by giving in to her every whim and being her confidant, Karl by sending oddball gifts from whereever he happens to be selling something at the time, and Wallace by attempting to win Dot's love through the staging of parties and events that should be the stuff of dreams but turn into the stuff of nightmares. Each character reveals his or her own selfishness through the love they shower on Dot eventually bequeathing her their own worst character traits and making Dot into a completely insufferable person. Erdrich reveals each one's desires, failings, and in essence, their humanity in their relations to Dot. While these characters aren't all that lovable, it's not difficult to see how grounded in reality they are.

For as I am standing there I look closer into the grandstand and see that there is someone waiting. It is my mother, and all at once I cannot stop seeing her. Her skin is rough. Her whole face seems magnetized, like ore. Her deep brown eyes are circled with dark skin, but full of eagerness. In her eyes I see the force of her love. It is bulky and hard to carry, like a package that keeps untying. It is like this dress that no excuse accounts for. It is embarrassing. I walk to her, drawn by her, unable to help myself.

This book is primarily about its characters. If you're looking for a quick moving plot or even a linear one, this book is not for you. The book is more of a "slice" of these characters lives, opening windows to the most vital parts. The bouncing between narrators and events gives the feeling of interconnected short stories instead of an entire cohesive novel. The individual stories are absorbing, but I couldn't help feeling that I was missing something. I kept waiting for everything to come together in the end, for some of the several narrative threads to resolve themselves but found myself dissatisfied. I enjoyed the writing but by the end had a feeling like that of going to the store, coming back with a lot of stuff, but not what I'd gone for in the first place. The writing is captivating. The characters come to life. The theme is valid. In the end, though, it still feels like there's something missing.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

This post has no unifying theme...

...but what else is new?

Nobody's here and it's kind of quiet and peaceful, so I figured it would be a good time to check in with the old blog. That's not to say that I have anything of import to share. My blog is so on again off again - you can definitely tell the weeks that I finish books from the weeks that I don't. Next week should be a good week. This week I'm struggling for some interesting stuff to say.

I'm in the middle of two books right now. One is Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. I picked it up and am pacing myself through it so I can read it with Becky. I've never been in any sort of real life book discussion group so I thought it would be fun, especially since I've got this one on my Spring Reading Thing list and so need to read it anyway. So far, I'm loving it. The narrator is oppressed but humorous as she enters high school. It's all very absorbing and I'm sure if I weren't slowing myself down to keep pace with discussion I could easily have read it in a day or two.

The other is The Beet Queen by Louise Erdrich. I loved her Master Butcher's Singing Club so I've sought out a few more titles by her. This book puzzles me in several ways. The first is, it's "literary" fiction in a mass market paperback format and it has the tiniest font I've ever seen in a book that isn't considered a great classic of literature. It also has no discernible plot. It is what I suppose you would call a character driven novel. The characters are very interesting and I find that I'm very engrossed by the book - even on my lunch break when I need to focus over the dull roar of a few hundred lunching hospital employees. Erdrich's definite talent is in her ability to create whole families and even whole interwoven communities of well-drawn and believable (if not always likeable) characters. I'm interested to see how it all wraps up.

This week also marks just about the first time I was ever in a line and popped a book out of my bag to read while waiting. Usually I'm kicking myself for not having a book when I'm in a long line, but yesterday, for once, I did. So I grabbed it out of my bag and actually read and was absorbed entirely unselfconsciously in my book for several of the many minutes I had to wait in line for hoagies behind about 6 irritating sorority girls and a guy that only wanted to order a pizza and couldn't seem to make himself stand still.

So how about all these BAFAB week festivities? I've entered a few drawings, but feel weirdly guilty about not getting around to hosting one myself. I'm not sure why I feel guilty as now that I've got a decent job and some free time just about every book I read is exiting my house and finding a home with somebody new. I just do it at random...not in any way that is especially organized and drawing-ish. I kind of get a kick out of the whole surprise aspect. Like, "Oh, you think this sounds good? Well, do ya want it?" as opposed to "Here, let's have a drawing." Both definitely have their merits, like hey I bet more people come to your blog if you're giving stuff away on it, so I'll have to get around to the latter at some point here. Until then, the "I have no more room for books I've already read in my house nor do I have any time to stage a blogly drawing event. What, it sounds good to you? Good, I like you, so please do me a favor and take it off my hands!" tactic.

Speaking of drawings, I won one for Forgive Me by Amanda Eyre Ward over at A Garden Carried in the Pocket where I occasionally lurk via feed reader. I read two of this author's books last year and look forward to reading this one as well. So, there's one I can take off the old monstrous wish list of mine. Thanks Jenclair!

In other book news, I literally can't bring myself to turn down free books. Every month when the new list of books for Library Thing early review becomes available, I think, I really shouldn't this month, I'm in over my head already - and then request a few anyway. Likewise with Harper Collins First Look where I think, "Hey, they'll never actually pick usual" except for when they do. So when Rachel from Elle e-mailed me about doing another jury, did I say no? Well, of course not. I knew that I should say no. But I didn't. The only logical reason for this kind of behavior is that I simply can't. I can't look a free book or eight in the face and just say "no, thanks" even thought I've got more books in my house than I have a prayer of reading in the next ten years especially at the rate that my flea-like attention span has confined me to thus far this year. And library book sale season is coming and really cheap books are almost as hard to refuse as really free books. And those Amazon and Barnes and Noble gift certificates have been sitting around unused for months now because I have actually been trying to restrain myself from this madness before the floors collapse under the weight of a thousand unread books, restraint which people like Eva try to sabotage by writing blog posts about juicy bargain books on sale at Barnes and Noble whose low prices scream that they want to come to my house.

What am I even doing here at the computer? Shouldn't I be reading?