Monday, April 30, 2012

April Reading Goals: Fail!

At the beginning of the month, I made a list of books I wanted to finish and posted them here, ten in all.  It's the last day of April and in retrospect, what was I thinking?   Seriously, the ten books total almost 4,000 pages!!  Honestly!

However, I did finish five of the books on the list:

Plus one that wasn't on the list:

and I started a sixth:

Altogether, I read about 2,000 pages, which is pretty good, an average of 500 pages a week.  

I also listened to an excellent audio book, beautifully narrated by Joanna David:

It's one of my favorite books and I never get tired of it.  

Finally, I've started this audiobook, which will probably take up all of May as well:

Note that this one contains 28 discs, compared to the mere six of the previous one.  I'm on disc 7 and it's just wonderful.  I think it will be one of my favorite Dickens novels, nearly as good as Bleak House

So, reading-wise, a good month.  I've learned my lesson and I'm not going to plan out any of my May reading, other than books for my reading groups.  Two of them were on the list for April, but I realized I didn't want to read them too early, since I tend to forget details when it comes time for the discussion (and I rarely take notes).  That's my story, and I'm sticking to it!

Bloggers, do you plan ahead or just choose books on a whim?  Or a combination of the two? 

Friday, April 27, 2012

Zeitoun and a Book Group Update

I am miserably behind on book reviews, but this is a combination review and update about the library book group I started a few months ago -- the one that nearly disintegrated after the second month.

Last week we had our fourth meeting, to discuss the nonfiction book Zeitoun by Dave Eggers.   At the time I chose the book, I'd had a meeting where no one showed up, so I had absolutely no input from anyone when I had to choose the book so it could be included in the library's monthly newsletter.  I'd heard great things about it, and nonfiction always tends to lend itself to good discussions.  Plus it's not terribly long.

If you are not familiar with the book, here's the basic setup:  In this true story, Abdulrahmin Zeitoun is a Syrian immigrant living in New Orleans in 2005, on the eve of Hurricane Katrina.  He and his wife Kathy (an American who had previously converted to Islam before they met) have five children and are running a successful contracting business in New Orleans.  As it becomes apparent that this is no ordinary storm, Kathy takes the kids and the dog north to stay with family, while Zeitoun stays behind to help clients prepare, and to keep an eye on their rental properties.  He rides out the storm successfully, but after the levees break, he paddles around the city in an old canoe and ends up helping a lot of stranded people -- until he is arrested on suspicion of terrorism, and kept in horrible conditions in a makeshift jail without a phone call or legal representation.

I really liked the writing in this book, and the story is both fascinating and horrific (plus a very quick read).  The amount of research and detail is absolutely wonderful, and it was a great book for discussion because there were so many issues, including the treatment of Muslims in America, racial profiling, the family dynamic, and so on.

Before the meeting, I was a little concerned that the discussion itself might become heated or uncomfortable.  I knew a few of the people that would show up, but I had no idea how the rest would react or if arguments about religion and politics would break out.  We ended up with ten people at the discussion, which apparently is the largest book group meeting at this library branch in a long time!   But everyone got along very well, for which I was grateful.

My one problem, however, is that one of the group members seemed to have a very different idea of what the book discussion should entail.  I got the distinct impression that she thought I should be doing much more research and giving deep background about the book, rather than just being prepared to lead a discussion.  This book group member also seems extremely opinionated and vocal about a lot of things, especially about the selection of future book selections.

Has anyone else had to deal with difficult people in book discussion groups?  How did you handle it?  And how much research and preparation do you do when you're leading a book discussion?  I'd be grateful for any suggestions.

Monday, April 23, 2012

World Book Night

So, tonight was World Book Night!  I was lucky enough to be selected to be one of the givers, and it was fun, but it was actually tougher than I thought.  (I was also fortunate to get my first choice of book, The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak.)   I'm not done with my book giveaway -- I still have about six copies of my book left -- so if anyone has any suggestions, I'd love to hear them.

I probably should have done more research first, I think my biggest problem was my choice of location.  I live in San Antonio, not too far from a nice outdoor shopping area which has a movie theater, Starbucks, and a now-defunct Borders bookstore.  I thought this would be a GREAT place to hand out free books, since there's no bookstore anymore!   I was wrong.

First of all, it never occurred to me that people at the mall might not want free things -- and that there would be bureaucracy to deal with.  Apparently, to pass out something on the mall property, I needed to fill out paperwork and get permission, which I should have done weeks ago.  What was I thinking?  One retailer did suggest I ask at the Starbucks, which was a great suggestion -- the manager was really nice and said that Starbucks was very accommodating for things like that, and I'd have no trouble at any of the locations.  So, Starbucks was my first choice, and I decided hitting up several coffeehouses would be a great way to do this.  There are four Starbucks within a five-mile radius.  I also took my kids -- when in doubt, ask a cute ten-year-old girl to do your bidding (with supervision, of course!)

At the first Starbucks, we struck out completely -- there were only three people deep in conversation, who did not seem receptive or friendly.  We went to a second location, and gave out a bunch of books, including one to an employee who said he was actually dyslexic.

I ran into problems at the third Starbucks -- everyone seemed hard at work and engrossed in their laptops, and everyone I talked to loved to read!  I started to feel really self-conscious and got discouraged, and decided I might be better off giving them away at the library where I work tomorrow.  On the way home, my girls wanted to do a little shopping, so we stopped in at one last store before we left.  I started chatting with some of the employees, and one lady said that she really liked to read, but that she had another job at a Wal-Mart, and hardly any of her co-workers read books, and she'd definitely give copies to them, so I gave her a couple of books.  Hopefully, it isn't bad to enlist other people to spread the joy of reading.

Officially, World Book Night is today, April 23rd, but I guess it's all right to keep passing books out the rest of the week.  Did anyone else sign up this year?  Any suggestions about good locations?  How did you approach strangers?

Friday, April 20, 2012

Classics Challenge: April Prompt

This month the April prompt for the Classics Challenge is to discuss book covers of classic novels.  Cover art is always fun, especially since there are so many editions of classic novels available.  I'm actually sort of in between classics at the moment -- I've just started reading Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens, just about 20 pages in, so I can't say for sure yet whether the book accurately reflects the story or the characters.

Anyhow, there's quite a few choices available.  First, here's the edition I'm currently reading:

It doesn't tell us much about the story, but the pile of coins is intriguing -- it's about greed and inheritance, so it does tie in nicely with the book's themes.  I know a lot of people swear by Penguins but I'm very fond of Modern Library.  The print isn't too tiny and the pages are really nice and smooth, plus they're not enormously fat. The endnotes are usually good too.  I bought my copy at Borders a couple of years ago, before they went belly-up.

And here's the always-reliable Penguin classic edition:

The book starts out with a Thames boatman finding a body.  The moonlight and the eerie purple light make me think there's something creepy going on here, but doesn't give away too much.  Nice.

Lately I've been reading more Oxford World's Classics.  Their Zola editions are especially good, but I haven't read any of their Dickens editions.  Here's their edition of OMF:

It doesn't really tell me a lot -- I assume she's the standard Dickens ingenue, angelic, one-dimensional, and boring, though she does look a little worried.  She's pretty well dressed, so maybe she's in love with the financially struggling hero (I'm just assuming since I haven't discovered who the hero is yet, but the ingenue is nearly always in love with a guy who's having money problems.)

But this one by Wordsworth Classics is worse:

Who is this girl?  Is she the mutual friend of the title?  And what is she wearing?  Pretty sexy for a Victorian heroine with the bare shoulders -- doesn't strike me as the least bit accurate.  And the grey background is weird.  I've read a few Wordsworth Classics, they're not my favorite.

But finally, here's something much nicer by Vintage:

Vintage has come out with some really nice book covers for classics the last few years.  I especially like their editions of books by Elizabeth Gaskell.  This doesn't really give us much about the story but it's a really nice photo.  If I saw this in the store I would definitely pick it up and read the back cover, but sadly, that's unlikely since there's only one major bookstore in my town these days, and Our Mutual Friend is too obscure for them to carry on the shelves without a special order.  If I wanted this edition I'd have to order it online.  Of course, if I was shopping online, I might buy this copy just because the cover is so nice.  I don't think Vintage has endnotes or any introductions, however.  But if I was purchasing solely because of the cover image, this might be the winner.

Any other great covers I've missed?  What's your favorite classic book cover?  Not just Dickens, but any classic?

Friday, April 13, 2012

South Riding by Winifred Holtby

Last spring, I was lucky enough to score a lovely new copy of South Riding from Virago (the U.K. edition!) during the Virago Reading Week hosted by Thomas at My Porch.  That was last April!  It hasn't been on my shelves long enough to qualify for TBR Shelf Challenge, but I've been wanting to read it for awhile. This is another of those between the wars, British/Virago/Persephone books that has been on my to-read list for what seems like forever (well, it's actually a year, since January 2011 according to my Goodreads list).  But the BBC adaptation has been on my DVR since it aired last May, since I stubbornly refused to watch it until I read the book.

So.  South Riding is the story of a fictional town in Yorkshire.  It starts during the Depression, in 1933. Most of the story is centered around two characters:  Robert Carne, the local squire, a conservative farmer who married the daughter of an aristocrat and has fallen on hard times.  His wife has spent years in mental institutions, which is draining his finances, so he's struggling to keep the family estate, Maythorpe, afloat.  He has a teenaged daughter Midge who is quirky and antisocial.

The other main character is Sarah Barton, the new headmistress of the local girls' school.  She grew up poor in the area, and has returned back to her roots as a successful career woman, hoping to make a difference to the community.  She's fairly radical and of course she locks horns with the local gentry, i.e., Robert Carne.  The story takes place over a year or two in South Riding and the surrounding area.  The story includes births and deaths and heartbreak,  how one person's life can impact a whole community.

It's a fairly long book, more than 500 pages, and begins with an enormous list of characters which I promptly ignored, for fear of spoilers.  South Riding reminded me a bit of Middlemarch or a novel by Trollope, because it has multiple intertwining storylines and characters, centered around a fairly small country town.  What I really liked was that the characters are from all different backgrounds and situations -- it's not just the local gentry, but the small business owners, the local families living from hand to mouth, and even the crooked politicians who are manipulating public works for their own benefit.  (Actually, the political part of the story was my least favorite, and I honestly skimmed over some of those bits).

Winifred Holtby created some wonderful, strong characters, who are both flawed and interesting.  None of them are perfect, most of them mean well, and some of them are really tragic.  They all seemed very real and I can absolutely understand why the BBC adapted it into a TV series, though I've heard fans of the book have been somewhat disappointed.   Now that I've finished it, I should probably watch it and clear it off the DVR queue -- but in a way I don't want to because I enjoyed the book so much.  I don't want it to change how I imagine the book and the way all the characters look.  Does anyone else have this problem?  If I watch a movie adaptation of a book before reading it, I always imagine the characters to look like the actors; if I read the book first, I'm usually disappointed.

I do have two other books by Winifred Holtby on my TBR shelves, Poor Caroline which is an older Virago edition; and The Crowded Street which is a lovely Persephone.  I know there are lovely new Viragos of her other books covers similar to my copy, which I think is my favorite of the books I've read so far this year.  I love that it's a reproduction of a vintage travel poster for Yorkshire -- so much nicer than the TV tie-in edition.  I'm tempted to buy the others just because they're so attractive:

Has anyone read these?  Are they as good as South Riding?

This is my 29th book of the year, and nearly half have been books from my own shelves, so that's a pretty good ratio.  It's also one of my 75 Classics in 5 Years.  Three down, 72 to go!

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West

I'm very happy to have finished this book.  Not only is it a book off my own TBR shelves, it's also an NYRB Classic (of which I have a healthy stack, all unread) but I've seen it all around the blogosphere and it seems to be universally liked.  I did like it but it really wasn't what I expected at all.

The Fountain Overflows was described by someone as Jane Austen-ish, but I personally wouldn't make that comparison at all.  In a nutshell, it's the story of the Aubreys, a family living in genteel poverty in London around the turn of the century, told in the first person by Rose, one of the four children.  Their father, Mr. Piers Aubrey, is a brilliant writer, but he has trouble holding down jobs and managing the family's money; specifically, he has a weakness for the stock market and the family is forced to make a lot of sacrifices.  Their mother was once a brilliant pianist who gave up her career when she got married, and she's doing her best to train her children to be musicians as well.  Unfortunately only two of her children seem to have inherited her musical ability and the necessary discipline.  The oldest daughter, Cordelia, is convinced she's a talented violinist, but the rest of the family believe she's really a hack with no artistry, and they're always sneering at her.

There's really no plot to speak of in this book, it's basically the story of Rose's childhood, told in little vignettes about various incidents in her life.  Some of them are kind of mysterious or a little creepy -- there are a poltergeist, a possibly abusive husband, an accused murderess in the supporting cast -- but most of it is a little sad.  Their mother is obsessed with making them into good musicians, their father is brilliant but hopelessly irresponsible.  It's sort of like I Capture the Castle, which I love, and like the father in that book, I just want to shake him and tell him to snap out of it and take care of his family.

It is an entertaining story, though I did find it a rather dense read.  It's about 400 pages, yet in my edition, an NYRB classic, the margins are very narrow and the print is fairly small.  It's 17 chapters but they took awhile.  It was published in 1956, but the style of writing made it seem older, and I guess that made it a slower read as well.  It seemed to have been written around the turn of the century, not just set in that era.  I guess this would be a good candidate for the Slow Books Manifesto.

Anyway, here's a sample:

"Papa was always happy when he was engaged in certain activities.  Of these the one which gave him greatest pleasure was his lifelong wrestling match with money.  He was infatuated with it though he could not get on good terms with it.  He felt towards is as a man of his type might have felt towards a gipsy mistress, he loved it and hated it, he wanted hugely to possess it and then drove it away, so that he nearly perished of his need for it.  But he knew almost as great joy if he were conducting a campaign  against some social injustice, particularly if it were the rights of property that had been dealt with unjustly."

Maybe it's just me, but that seems much more like a Victorian novel or maybe Edwardian.  The writing was very good and I liked the characters, but it isn't a book I could rush through.  But I'm happy to have read it and look forward to reading West's The Return of the Soldier, which is another of my Classics Club selections.  This book also counts toward my TBR Pile Challenge, so I'm happy about that too.  

Sunday, April 1, 2012

April Reading List

Inspired by Amanda at Fig and Thistle, I've decided to plan out my reading this month.  I've never done it quite like this before, so we'll see how it works.  I know which books I'll have to read for various book groups and challenges, and which ones I went to knock off the TBR list.  I read eight books in March so I'm going to be ambitious and shoot for ten in April.  Hence, this month's tentative reading:

First, my current read:

The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West (also for the TBR challenge)

A couple of books for my library book groups:

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Sing

Pavilion of Women by Pearl S. Buck (also for my 75 Classics Challenge)

Some YA lit, also work-related:

Ship Breaker by Paolo Balcigalupi

Ruby Red by Kerstin Geir

Some more books for my 2012 Challenges:

Don't Tell Alfred by Nancy Mitford

South Riding by Winifred Holtby

A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin

And just for fun, a couple of books to fuel my obsession for Downton Abbey:

Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor by Rosina Harrison

The Shooting Party by Isabel Colgate

That's ten books, and exactly half of them are from my own shelves, so that's a pretty good ratio.  Some are short, but there are a couple of whoppers which I'm hoping will be fast reads.  I may also try to squeeze in a classic, especially if I can get it on audio.  What do you think, bloggers?  Any standouts?  Anything you hated?