Escapist Summer Reading

Last night a friend texted me, asking for some book titles for escapist summer reading, and if there were any I might lend. He cited the current news and politics, and sees hope swirling down the drain.

I asked for a bit of time to think on it. Think I did (and also scanned some bookshelves), and here is the list I came up with. It would be a different list for a different friend, but nonetheless, this is not a bad start for some escapist summer reading. Here is my emailed response, with just a few edits for privacy (I did think of deleting all the borrowing/lending notes, but thought that it might lead to an interesting comment or two on the lending and sharing of books).

Dear George,

Since you’re looking for escapist, I started with fiction, and specifically fantasy which I know you enjoy. Here are my suggestions:

(Note: All links are to Amazon, not because I like Amazon, but because you can usually click on the book and see what it looks like inside, which is a feature I really like, along with skimming the reviews.)

The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde. This is probably my #1 escapist fantasy recommendation. They are set in the literary world, Thursday Next is the main character (a literary detective) and the books (there are several more) are a romp. You are welcome to borrow this (if I can find it—it isn’t where I thought it was).

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin. This is new (to me) and first in a trilogy. I have all three books (I finished the second one recently) but have not yet started the third. You are welcome to borrow the first if the series appeals to you. I can’t overly vouch for it because I haven’t finished it yet, but it has won several fantasy awards and she is a rising star.

The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman. This is a YA, but it is quite brilliant and second only to Lord of the Rings, my favorite fantasy trilogy. I have this and you are welcome to borrow it. This is also highly escapist and it might actually vie with The Eyre Affair as my #1 recommend.

A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness. I read this several years ago when it first came out in paperback and absolutely loved it. But I didn’t want to buy the sequel in hardcover, and by the time it came out in paperback I lost track of it. But then I found book 2 and recently book 3 in the dollar bin, so I am interested in getting back to it. Yes, another trilogy. Obviously, I can’t vouch for the entire trilogy, but I loved the first book, which you are welcome to borrow.

Other Fiction:

Still Life, by Louise Penny. This is my favorite mystery series. It is wonderful, engaging, thoughtful, has an engaging cast of characters (including two artists, a cranky poet, a bookstore owner, and a gay couple who run a B&B), and perhaps best of all, it’s set in Canada, so it’s especially escapist. You may have read this already (but the cover of my book is different and looks like this).

The Sun Is Also a Star, by Nicole Yoon. This is the best book I have read in years. And it’s YA. But it packs a major punch and I totally loved it. I also read it in one day (even though it’s nearly 400 pages), so it would not be a book that would get you through much of the summer, but I just can’t say enough positive things about this book. Unfortunately, I cannot loan it to you because I borrowed it from the library.

And while I started with fiction, nonfiction can also be escapist (or, in some cases, soothing), and I know you read a lot of nonfiction. Here are some recommendations:

Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. This is a book I am currently reading (subtitled “Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants) and it is beautiful. A lot of native stories, a lot of wisdom, a lot about nature, and some about history. I am only to about page 50 but am learning so much! The writing transports you into another world, and it’s starting to make me look at the world a little differently. More reverently. The author is both a Native American and a scientist, and it’s also a book about having your feet in two worlds. You can’t borrow this because I’m currently reading it (at a snail’s pace, because I like to read it in tiny segments). I would call this a highly spiritual book, but not in any sort of Christian sense of the word.

Grace (Eventually), by Anne Lamott. Anne Lamott is one of my favorite spiritual writers. Christian, yes, but also progressive and kind of cranky. I have learned quite a bit from her. Her short books are good, too. I’ve read two of them but passed both of them on because they just seemed they needed to be shared. I have not been at all impressed with her fiction, and she also has some books about being a mother that I haven’t read. But her spiritual writing is spot on (for me). I have two more of her books on my to-read shelf that I’m planning to read in the next few months. She is very good for these times.

The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben. What, trees? This is another book I am currently reading and I am LOVING it. It is wild! Did you know trees communicate? By smell, and by roots touching, and by electromagnetic energy (conveyed through fungus!). This book is a total escape into a different and fascinating world. And sorry this is also unavailable as it is in my current reading pile.

Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly. This is the book on which the movie was based. Quite different (not so humorous, more factual, more science, and a broader swath of characters) but equally interesting to the movie, which I loved. If you loved the movie, I think you will really like this book. If you haven’t seen the movie, I highly recommend it (available at the library). I am pretty sure I still have my copy of this if you want to borrow it (the book, not the movie).

And these two because I think they might appeal to your interest in art and artists:

Hold Still, by Sally Mann. This is a memoir that I haven’t read yet, but just look inside the book at the link, and you’ll see why I think it might be captivating. You can’t borrow this because I haven’t read it yet and I don’t lend out books I haven’t read because I’m selfish that way. The moment it has left the house I want to read it.

Just Kids, by Patti Smith. This is a memoir of Patti Smith’s relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe (much at the Chelsea Hotel). I’m not sure if you’re into this era or not, but I thought I’d include these last two kind of as wild cards. You can’t borrow this because it’s on someone else’s reading pile. It will be available somewhere down the road, but probably not before the next (presidential) election.

Whew! Hope you find something in here that appeals.

Happy Reading!

Liz

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Black History Month Reading: Day 1

No, I’m not going to do a daily report (I don’t read—or write—fast enough to make a daily report interesting) but I hope to provide several updates throughout the month.

A few days ago I started Phoebe Robinson’s You Can’t Touch My Hair and Other Things I Still Have to Explain. I’m about a quarter of the way through and loving it. At least three times I’ve almost gotten up from the table to email Ms. Robinson and tell her how much I am loving her book, but coffee and inertia win out. There’s a good chance I’ll still write her. From my chair, the first two chapters of the book alone were worth the price. Already I respect black women more (yes, this is how much I don’t know). The power of hair.

To leaven the pot a little bit, tonight I read the preface of Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly (on which the movie—which I loved—was based) and I got teary-eyed just with the preface. This is some fine history of the key role that black women played in the NASA space program. (If you haven’t seen the movie—oh my. I will only say I loved it. I’m sure not everyone should love it just because I loved it, but really, in this case, maybe yes. Excellent story, excellent acting. And you can get it from the library.)

I was a little surprised/disappointed that I didn’t have any African American poetry on my to-read shelf (I found several on my poetry-to-keep-forever shelf, but I find I want to go beyond what I have already read). I requested several books from the library in late January, as soon as I discovered my in-house dearth. The next day, five were already in transit. Yes! I checked online this morning, and still none had arrived. But this afternoon I took a chance and stopped by the library. You never know when the books might arrive. I headed right to the reserve books, and boo, none had arrived. So I hunted up poetry (buried in nonfiction, which surprised me, and all mixed up with essays and children’s books—I need to ask my librarian friend about this; it feels like Dewey Decimal run amok). That was fruitless, but the 10 minutes I stood trying to make sense of the shelves made a difference. I stopped by the reserve shelves on my way out, and yes! There they were, 3 (of 10) that I requested: On the Bus with Rosa Parks, by Rita Dove; and Morning Haiku and Under a Soprano Sky, both by Sonia Sanchez.

And while logic would have it that I start with Sonia Sanchez so that I could then read Dove and not get all samey-samey, I purely could not stop myself from starting with the Rita Dove book. I have read only the first bit, but I am happy with my choice. I love Rita Dove (2 books on the keep-forever shelf) and this is a most excellent start to the month.

I’m not new to black literature, but this immersion experience is new. I know I will learn a lot. I wonder if it will change me. It well might. This is the power of books.

I’ll keep you in the loop.

July Reading Theme: Proper Nouns

One-third of the way through July, and I have barely made a dent in the stack of proper noun books I’ve been so excited to read. I have mostly focused on geographic proper nouns (Istanbul, Aberdeen County, California, Sicily, etc.) though a few names that I couldn’t resist have crept in (Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, for example; also Mrs. Dalloway’s Party, and Casanova Was a Book Lover).

But mostly I am focusing on proper nouns in terms of location. High Tide in Tucson. RFD Vermont (bonus points since I’m visiting Vermont this fall). My favorite potential theme read is Greene on Capri (being a double theme read, for Greene and Capri)—a memoir by Shirley Hazzard, which also seems like bonus points since I’ve not read her but have wanted to for years.

And while I have all these really good books just waiting for me, I have hit the reading slump of the decade. Okay, perhaps an overstatement. Everything I’m reading suddenly seems to be a slog. A chapter in Oliver Sacks (An Anthropologist on Mars—I so want to skip ahead to the last chapter, which is focused on Temple Grandin—but I tried, and I just couldn’t do it); Naomi Klein’s new book; two poetry books that I have going, and the recent fiction book I finished.

The one thing that has totally captured me is Anya’s Ghost, a graphic novel which I finished today.

The dog days of summer. I’m not sure if it’s the heat or just other stuff going on, but I seem to find myself drawn to graphic novels, comics, mysteries, and memoir. My usual heavy fare of politics, economics, and science feels a burden. For the nonce.

(A summer interlude of Lumberjanes, Ms. Marvel, Xena: Warrior Princess, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Red Sonja does have a high appeal. I think I will give in.)

The June theme of celestial objects didn’t cover as much space as I expected. I encountered the moon (3 times), a galaxy, a world, Earth, the universe (twice), the sun, a star, and a satellite. Mars is so intense that it is hanging on into July. My favorite theme read was The Universe Versus Alex Woods, a novel that I read compulsively, and it so captured me that I regretted that it was from the library because I wanted to underline several bits.

Dog days. Sometimes the reading is iffy. Give yourself wiggle room. Sink into a genre. Read a few comic books. Reread a childhood favorite.

Oh dear. I’ve just thought of a childhood favorite that I haven’t read yet (but happens to be sitting on my shelf): Anne of Green Gables. Another double theme read. Hmmm.

The dog days are starting to get a lot more interesting!

February Reprise

snowFebruary was about books, cooking, and a bit of music. February was not about winter, as Minneapolis has had little snow to speak of this year. Many places have had more than their fair share of snow this year. I wish we could take some of it off their hands!

AckermanI read 19 books in February, almost evenly divided between poetry (7), fiction (6), and nonfiction (6). The standout book for the month was One Hundred Names for Love, by Diane Ackerman. It’s a memoir recounting the years following her partner’s (author Paul West) stroke—the slow but steady improvement; the challenges in being a caretaker (on many levels); and also the everyday joys and frustrations encountered when you find yourself all of a sudden in a completely different life. I learned so much about strokes and the potential for regaining lost skills and language from this book that I would recommend it to anyone who knows anyone that’s had a stroke. It is also a love story in the finest and truest sense.

Appropriately enough, the reading theme for February was love. It was a fine theme (particularly for fiction) and I found plenty of books on my shelves that fit the bill. The biggest reading disappointment of the month was Haruki Murakami’s The Strange strangeLibrary. I generally love Murakami’s fiction and was totally looking forward to this short, illustrated book. The anticipation was the best part. The book itself was done in 30 minutes (my reading of it, not the writing of it!) which is not a problem, except that my reflection upon completing the book was something along the lines of “well that’s 30 minutes that I’ll never get back.” In contrast, when I finished The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I wanted to turn back time so that I could read it all over again for the first time. Rereads are nice, but there’s nothing like reading a book that you truly love for the first time.

But by all means, give The Strange Library a go. (I wouldn’t start here if you’ve never read Murakami though.) I’d love to hear from someone who read it and loved it!

I did a ton of cooking in February and learned a lot about braising. So far I’ve done a beef brisket (good), Boston butt (pork shoulder, very good), and next up are turkey legs. There was a recent article in the Star Tribune about braising vegetables, so I might try that after the turkey. I am starting to have Dutch oven greed. I want to have two Dutch ovens so that I can braise two things at once!

I did a goodly bit of playing my clarinet in February too. After figuring out that I simply couldn’t remember all the notes, I realized I could check out instruction books from the library, so I’m working my way through Level 1. It’s a lot of fun, and I’ve learned enough notes that I can play several (short) songs now. Mostly they are silly songs and a large number of Christmas songs, but I’ve found a couple that I will continue to work on to improve my technique.

I’m having trouble with the fingering on the highest and lowest notes. I can’t figure out if I’m reading the chart wrong or if I’m just doing it wrong, or if there’s something wrong with my clarinet. I wish my memory would jog a little bit!

I’ve also continued with the haiku project which has now been running for well over a year. Here are a couple of my favorites from February:

sun shining on snowcardinals
eight cardinals in the dogwoods
winter sentinels
(2-3-15)

everything’s slippery
you are wet like a woman
such a naughty pear
(2-18-15)

And of course President Obama continues to receive his weekly missives—I sent him postcard #35 last week.

One other thing: We discovered a new television series (new to us) and have become rather obsessed with it: Last Tango in Halifax. I got the first two seasons from the library, and we stayed up until 3:00 in the morning watching episode after episode. They are currently filming Season 4 in England, but we’re still waiting on Season 3 here in the States. Anticipation!

Double Feature

Shall we DanceA couple of weeks ago I was searching the library database for the movie, Shall We Dance. There are two versions, the Japanese version from 1996 (the one I was primarily looking for) and a U.S. version from 2004 (which I was willing to settle for). The library had neither of those, but did have a completely different Shall We Dance, with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Why not, I figured? I do love a good dance, after all.

For a movie called Shall We Dance, it did not have so very much dancing in it, and in my opinion, not nearly enough! Only towards the end was there a lot of dancing. And yes, it was worth the wait. All I have to say in addition is that Fred Astaire looks much better with Ginger Rogers than without her.

For those of you wondering, the Japanese Shall We Dance got the highest Rotten Tomatoes Rating (91% approval), followed by Fred and Ginger (86% approval rating), and the U.S. version (46% approval rating, in spite of Susan Sarandon).

Strictly ballroomIn my search for Shall We Dance, I also ran across Strictly Ballroom. Not exactly the same thing, but sometimes things get tough when you rely on the library, and you settle. But I remembered liking this when I watched it years ago (it came out in 1992), and it got a 95% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes.

It was as good as I remembered (though I had forgotten it’s Australian). Lots of dancing (and some really excellent dancing at that). Lots of tango. But what I liked most about it was the message: A life lived in fear is a life half lived. Since I don’t want to give anything away, I will merely say it’s an absolutely lovely romantic comedy with all the good things—I laughed, clapped, and cried. Did I mention that the dancing is exceptional? A totally fun movie.SB dancing

Spellbound: A Tale of Two Movies

hitchcockFor the last several months, we’ve been slowly moving our way through the Alfred Hitchcock oeuvre (so far we’ve seen 10, a small dent). We’ve been doing this primarily through the library, and it’s slick as can be: You go online, look for the movie you want, and the library system searches all the libraries in the county and has it delivered to your library of choice. Seriously. Is this not almost like magic?

Most recently I ordered Spellbound. I was running errands with a friend, so grabbed the movie, checked it out, ran back out to the car and tossed it on the floor as we continued errands. But it was a new Hitchcock movie, which neither Hal nor I had seen and we were both looking forward to, so I kept glancing down at it on the floor. And I kept seeing children. Children do not feature heavily in most Hitchcock films. I felt a tinge of concern. I picked it up off the floor. No mention of Hitchcock. Oh, 2002. Was Hitchcock still even alive in 2002? He was old when I was little. (No. He died in 1980.) I look closer. This is about a spelling bee. Eighth graders. A documentary. Words.

Oh, bummer! (Not that I don’t love words, I do. Or documentaries, I do. It’s the expectation thing. I was so looking forward to Hitchcock, and I got a spelling bee.) I called spouse to relate the bad news. Horrible disappointment, and then he suggested I look it up on Rotten Tomatoes just in case it’s really good. I checked, and this spelling bee got stellar ratings (98% positive). Since this was the bird that we had in the hand, we decided to watch it.

They were right! It was quite good. We both enjoyed it (not surprising since we both love words)spelling bee movie 2
and it was fascinating to get a look inside the world of the national spelling bee. They follow eight kids, and they all approach it differently and have different levels of support (and interest) from their families. As to the words: I consider myself to have a fairly decent and even above-average vocabulary. But the words in this bee? I had never heard of many of them. Not all, of course, but a lot more than I would have expected. Embarrassing. Humbling. And again, fascinating.

The same day I got home with the spelling bee Spellbound, I went back online and reordered Spellbound, this time making sure I had the Hitchcock version. It arrived, like magic, a few days later. Is it possible to go wrong with Ingrid Bergman? I don’t think so. We both loved it.

Ingrid BergmanHere are the other nine we’ve seen: The 39 Steps (1935); Rebecca (1940); Notorious (1946); Stage Fright (1950); To Catch a Thief (1954); The Trouble With Harry (1956); North by Northwest (1959);  Torn Curtain (1966); Frenzy (1972).

Most I’ve gotten from the library, but I’ve been surprised at how many of the Hitchcock films the library doesn’t have. I may have to cast a wider net. But for now, I haven’t exhausted the supply. Next up: Family Plot.

The Lure of the Library

Library cardI recently had lunch with my sister-in-law (who was also my best friend in high school) and I told her (rather proudly) that I had gotten my library card renewed. She looked at me somewhat aghast. She knows I love books and could hardly believe I had let my library card get out of date.

And three days later I had lunch with my friend Kathleen, and when I told her I renewed my library card, she looked at me in shock and said, “You’re going to get books from the library? Really? Wow. You? You’re going to the library?”

I am a reader. I love libraries—the look of them, the feel of them, the smell of them. And of course I love books. I often possess my books: I underline, star, bracket, argue, and write my thoughts in the margins. And some books that I think I will refer back to frequently, I index.

All of this possession is not acceptable in library books. (People still do, but not often. I did appreciate that someone corrected a word in a recipe in a memoir I read recently.) But yet and still, I will occasionally circle the typo that I run across (lightly, and in pencil). Why? Because I value accuracy and I value proofreaders. And if someone else chances on this text and notices the error, they might notice the ever-so-light indication that someone else has visited this space and noticed the same indiscretion.

library

But I have renewed my library card, and I am using it! First for Kitchen Congregationa book recommended by a friend that I was having a hard time finding; and then for an herb book I wanted to check out before buying.

MaupinAnd then I found out Armistead Maupin has a new book out (The Days of Anna Madrigal). I love this series and have read the first six books at least three times, and have loved the additions over the years. But I’m pulling in my spending horns and this is only out in hardcover. As a book lover on a budget, I decided to get it from the library (I am currently #54 so I will maybe get it in a week or two) and then buy it when it comes out in paperback. A bonus is that the paperback will match the rest of my Tales of the City books. (Well, it won’t match exactly, because I have some of the earliest versions of the books, but it will be in the spirit.)

And yet another book, The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can Eat, caught my attention when it was published in hardcover. I decided to wait and buy it in paperback (because I always bought my books). And now it is out in paperback, and I am thinking I’ve never read this author (Edward Kelsey Moore) and so maybe I should get this book from the library too. And it is now in transit.

And I’ve remembered I can get videos, so now I’m on the waiting list for the first season of Sherlock. I can see going on rolls of Katherine Hepburn or Nicole Kidman or Alfred Hitchcock down the road.

I’ve found a lot more than books since I got reacquainted with my library—including tax forms (federal and state and the most common schedules). And I’ve hardly explored it at all!

I will probably continue to buy nonfiction books that I want to argue with, underline, and index. But I’m pretty sure the library is back in my life to stay, and I won’t be a bit surprised if it starts making inroads in my nonfiction reading as well.