Saturday, January 28, 2023

A lot of re-reading

Twice a month, the Smart Bitches Trashy Books website posts a prompt: what are you reading?  I always enjoy seeing what other people are reading, and the responses usually add books to my own lists. Today I found that I am not the only person whose 2023 reading has pretty much been re-reading so far. Despite weekly visits to the library, and the TBR stacks around me, I have read only one new book, The Candid Life of Meena Dave (from the library). Otherwise, it's been diving back into books, some of which I haven't taken off the shelves in ten years or more.

Two of those were sudden impulses. I fell into a rabbit-hole of watching on YouTube the Turner Classic Movie annual tributes to the stars lost each year. (On a side note, I will never understand why TCM doesn't offer a streaming service, for those of us who don't have cable packages.) That led me to pick up We Followed Our Hearts to Hollywood, by Emily Kimbrough, which I first read and reviewed back in 2011. I don't know what reminded me of Eva Ibbotson's Madensky Square, my favorite of her books, but I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting Vienna in 1911. I think I'm due to revisit some of her other books as well now.

I've also been working my way back through a couple of science fiction/fantasy series. I've written before about my love of Martha Wells' Raksura series, and I just finished re-reading the two volumes of short stories. I would still love to see more stories set in this world, though I was also happy to see the announcement this week of a new Murderbot novel coming this year, as well as a stand-alone book, Witch King (I've reserved space for both on the 52 book list). And I've been slowly reading my way through Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkoskigan saga - slowly, because she does love to put her characters (and her readers) through the proverbial wringer. I finished one of my favorites, Memory, last night. I was going to take a break before starting the next one, Komarr, because it has a toxic and abusive marriage at the center of the story. I had thought instead to read one of LMB's "Five Gods" books. It's been so long since I read Komarr that I couldn't remember how the story started, so this morning I took it off the shelf just to look at the first chapter. Now I'm half-way through.

I don't know if this will be a year of re-reading, or it's just my reading mood for now. I never do quite know where my reading will take me.

Two recent posts on caught my eye. The first was "Learning to Love Paper Books Again." I've never stopped of course, and I am still reading (re-reading) in paper. I just can't focus on ebooks right now and I'm not sure why. I'm sure the right book will come along at some point and lure me back (maybe a new Bujold, since she is publishing first in ebook now).

The second was "Admiring Five of Fantasy's Best Cats." I've written before about my love of fictional cats, not just in fantasy. I was happy to recognize some of the cats in the comments, including one from the Vorkosigan saga!

Sunday, January 22, 2023

The Candid Life of Meena Dave

The Candid Life of Meena Dave, by Namrata Patel

As I've said elsewhere, I have re-read so many books this month that it feels like an accomplishment to have finished a new-to-me book. I came across this on the "new books" cart at the library, and the cover caught my attention.

The title character is a photojournalist with a career that takes her around the world. As the story opens, she is sitting in a lawyer's office in Boston, trying to understand how she has inherited an apartment in the city's Bay Bay neighborhood from a woman named Neha Patel, whom she has never heard of. She is also grappling with conditions on the bequest: she cannot sell the apartment for a year, and she can only sell to one of the four other owners in the condo. Meena has no interest in the apartment or in Boston.

What Meena finds in the building is history, both her own and her community, and mystery. She is the adopted child of white parents, and she knows nothing about Indian identity beyond what she has experienced in her travels. She knows nothing about her own heritage, or her own history. Her parents were killed in a explosion at their home when she was 16, and Meena (who was at school at the time) lost everything but her backpack. She has made her own way since, never putting down roots and never making connections with anyone besides her college friend Zoe. Renting a bedroom in Zoe's London flat is the closest thing Meena has to a home base.

In the building, she finds a community of Indian Americans, descended from students who came to study at MIT in the late 1940s, so that they could return to help India transition out of colonialism. Namrata Patel explains in an author's note that in writing this story she drew on the experiences of the real-life students. She notes that growing up, she did not know much about the history of Indian immigration to the United States, which dates back to the colonial era (via the East India Company). Like her, I thought Indian immigration dated from the 1960s, when restrictive laws that had blocked most immigration from Asian countries were repealed.

Meena quickly meets the three women who own the other apartments, which are entailed to descendants of the students, along with a lone male owner named Sam. The building is a warm community led by "the aunties." They try to welcome Meena into that community with food and chai and chat, but she resists, because she isn't staying. Sam, who works in film and has an adorable puppy named Wally, is harder to resist.

As Meena reluctantly spends time in the apartment, trying to figure out what to do, she finds notes that Neha has hidden all over the place. The notes are cryptic, but Neha clearly knows who Meena is, and more importantly, who her birth parents are. The notes disturb Meena, but they also demand her attention. At the same time, the aunties are giving her a crash course in culture, food, language, holidays, and even how to wear a sari.

There is so much going on in this story, almost too much at times. Meena carries a heavy burden of grief and anger at the loss of her parents, and the game that Neha is playing with her notes adds a lot of stress. She keeps trying to escape, from the apartment and from any relationship with Sam. She wants to know about her birth parents, and she doesn't want to know. The story felt a bit repetitive sometimes, as this cycle kept playing out. I found myself thinking that Meena could really use a therapist (she did have help after her parents' death). When the mystery is finally solved, she has to find a way to make peace with her past and figure out her future, starting with whether she will keep the apartment.

Meena also spends time exploring Boston. The author herself lives in Boston, and the story is very firmly rooted in the city. At times it reads a bit like a travelogue, but it did remind me of my years living in western Massachusetts, when a trip to Boston was a great treat. Meena's adoptive parents lived in Northampton in the western part of the state, and she finally takes a long-overdue trip back to her former home (or the site of it at least).

Saturday, January 21, 2023

"Every Book in Its Right Time"

 Molly Templeton wrote a post on, "Every Book in Its Right Time," which resonated so strongly with me. It's about how books find us, or we find books, or sometimes books pass us by, only to catch up later. 

"How does this happen? How is it that sometimes, a book that’s clearly meant for a reader takes so long to find them?

There is no answer to this question, of course. Books come to us when they come, and it’s either their time or it’s not. It’s very hard to manifest the precisely perfect moment in which to read a given book, though every so often, it can be done. You can pick just the right book for a trip, for a vacation, for a long weekend of doing little else..."


It is such a wonderful feeling, when I open the a book and it's the right book at the right time. There's a feeling of satisfaction, of something clicking into place, of recognition: this is the story that I need right now. 

I have been thinking about this quite a bit lately, because I keep picking up the wrong books. I don't know quite what I want to read, though I have a better idea of what I don't want to read. It's the same feeling I get driving home after work, trying to decide what to cook for dinner. I am spoiled for choice, but I can't decide. Unlike cooking, I don't have to commit to a recipe and ingredients. And I've learned it's better to stay out of bookstores in this mood, because it leads to impulse buying (and not necessarily to reading). I did stop at the library one evening this week and browsed the science fiction/fantasy section, bringing home five books that I've been meaning to read (and may even have checked out before).


 "I know that not everyone thinks constantly about what they’re reading when, and how it fits into the grand scheme of their reading life, or into the lineup of everything else they’ve ever read. But those patterns are there, all the same; those books we skip or linger over, the ones that come back, years later, looking shiny in a whole new way."

One of the joys of blogging was finding other readers who do think about what they're reading, and talk about their own books and other people's books, who notice patterns and make reading plans around them. I've missed that.


Monday, January 16, 2023

Changes in reading

I've been considering lately my reading tastes and habits: what has changed, what has stayed the same, over the years since I started this blog, over the years where it was on hold, and especially in the last couple of COVID years, with more time at home.

 What hasn't changed:

I still read a lot of history, primarily U.S. and British 19th and early 20th century. In the last couple of years I've become interested in the history of medicine, and of women's struggles to study and practice medicine.

I still buy a lot of books, and I still check out more library books that I can read. I am very susceptible to the enthusiastic reviews of other readers.

I am still primarily a "one book at a time reader."

I read by whim, by what catches my eye and interest, so I'm still a very bad book club member. I have also given up requesting review copies (not that I ever got many of those).

What has changed:

I read far fewer mysteries, primarily classic/Golden Age now, or historical mysteries like Ovidia Yu's Crown Colony series. I have lost any taste I had for gore, and so many present-day stories still seem to feature serial killers. I find cosy mysteries too cosy, or they take murder too lightly, and I can usually spot the future victim the first time they appear. I have favorite contemporary authors like Deborah Crombie and Margaret Maron, whose books I re-read with the pleasure of meeting old friends, and I do read their new books (Deborah Crombie may have one coming this year, which will be cause for rejoicing). I have donated so many mysteries to the library sale shelves though.

I read more fantasy, both urban fantasy and what I think of as traditional or high fantasy, and also romantic fantasy. I think I needed worlds away from our own, especially in the last two years. I always enjoyed fantasy and science fiction, but I have found so many new and diverse authors to read: T. Kingfisher, Becky Chambers, Nghi Vo, Leslye Penelope. Just in the past year I became slightly obsessed with Victoria Goddard's books, starting with all 600 pages of The Hands of the Emperor, as well as Katherine Addison's Goblin Emperor and Audrey Faye's Ghost Mountain pack of shifters. Faye's books are absolute comfort reading for me.

I haven't read a good Victorian doorstopper in ages. I haven't been reading the Virago and Persephone authors I collected so carefully - except that over Christmas I picked up Margery Sharp's Summer Visits (from Jane of Beyond Eden Rock's Goodreads recommendation). Losing myself in the story reminded me that it's not just fantasy that can take me to other worlds. I ended up looking to see which of her books I am still missing, so now The Faithful Servants has replaced it on the TBR stacks - and I finally ordered a copy of The Rescuers (I nobly resisted permanently "borrowing" a copy on a visit to my brother's family).

I think I am quicker to decide a book isn't working for me. Library books go back with no guilt. Thankfully my library started accepting donations again for their book sale shelves. There are still books I set aside for now, to try again (also known as "allowing a book to ripen").

I would have said I don't re-read as much, but looking back over last year's reading log, I see quite a bit. That has become my top question in deciding whether to keep a book: will I want to re-read this? It's interesting how often the answer is no.

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Reading plans and goals

I miss having my own place to talk about books. And I miss hearing about other people's reading. I'm on LibraryThing and GoodReads, and I'm always happy to find new people and their books to follow. I also spend a lot of time over at Smart Bitches Trashy Books, where the reviews and discussions have enriched my reading (and added to the TBR stacks). 

With the new year turning, I was thinking about reading resolutions, plans or goals. I weeded a fair number of physical books off my shelves last year, but I didn't manage to read all the books I bought. Over the past year I followed Simon of Stuck in a Book's Project 24, where he bought 24 books - my fingers automatically typed "only 24," because I can't imagine buying just 24 books over an entire year. (For the record, I bought 98 physical books last year; I've given up trying to track how many ebooks I buy or own.) 

After thinking it over, I decided my project goal for 2023 would be to buy no more than 52 books, one book a week (or for each week). I decided it would apply only to physical books. (I still read much more in paper, especially lately when I struggle to focus on ebooks.) And I think it's only fair to have an exception for my birthday week. But I also realized that the concern for me still isn't the number of books I own, it's the number of unread books. So if I read a book I borrowed, and it's one I want to keep on my shelves, that book wouldn't count against the 52 books.

This, I thought, is a reasonable goal and a plan I feel really comfortable with. I have a list of upcoming books by favorite authors, and intriguing ones from new-to-me authors, which I know I will be buying. Scheduling a list of books to pre-order has been a wonderful distraction and comfort over the last two difficult years, giving me something to look forward to each month. First up for this year is Femina, by Janina Ramirez (she was a guest on the BBC History Magazine podcast, also a rich source of book recommendations over the past couple of years). And there's still room for the lagniappe books.

However, this week highlighted the main weakness of my goal - and really, what got me to the TBR shelves and this blog in the first place: impulse buying. On Monday I read a glowing review of Heather Fawcett's Emily Wilde's Encyclopaedia of Faeries, and rather than waiting for my library hold to come in, I headed over to Barnes & Noble and bought a copy. When I went after work to pick it up from the store, I told myself I wouldn't look at other books, I would just go to the counter and get that one. But I couldn't resist browsing, and then I found Talia Hibbert's Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute. It had a "Buy 1, Get 1 50% off" sticker, so of course I had to find another book to get the discount <insert eyeroll emoji>. Sure enough, I found Ms. Demeanor by Elinor Lipman (also already on my library list).

So here I am, two weeks into 2023, and three books down. Hopefully tracking my 52 books here will help me focus. I'd like to meet this goal, while still working to reduce the number of unread books, and also to weed my shelves of books that I don't need to keep.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

An English Governess in the Great War, the diaries of Mary Thorp

I came across this book while looking for more accounts of nursing in the Great War. The subtitle caught my eye: "The Secret Brussels Diary of Mary Thorp." As the introduction explains, it was secret because anonymous, and because keeping a diary in occupied Belgium during the Great War was dangerous. In her first entry, in September 1916, Mary Thorp writes
Several times, in the beginning of the war, I wanted to start a diary, but was dissuaded from doing so, because it was considered dangerous; a Jesuit father was shot during the tragic Louvain days of August 1914, for having written a few impressions.
A footnote explains, "MT refers to the well-known fate of Eugène Dupiéreux, a young Jesuit student executed during the invasion of Louvain for keeping a diary of the 'atrocities.'"

What I have read on the Great War has focused mainly on the war itself, the experiences of soldiers and nurses. With the Second World War, I have read more about life on the home front, both in the United States and Britain, and under Nazi occupation in Europe. It was through Dorothy Canfield's short stories that I first saw the European home front in the Great War, written of course from an American perspective and focused on France and Belgium.

Mary Thorp lived most of her life in Belgium. Her parents moved there from England when she was nine, in part because of family conflict over their illegal marriage (her father married his deceased wife's sister, and only four months before Mary's birth at that). Mary took her first position as a governess in a Belgian family at age 24. The editors note that she was well-educated, speaking and writing French superbly. She had also converted to Catholicism at some point, which was an asset for an English governess. "By 1910, she was working for one of the wealthiest families in Belgium, the Wittoucks." Paul Wittouck owned one of the largest sugar refineries in Europe. Catherine de Medem Wittouck was a Russian aristocrat who "propelled the household to the center of Brussels social life..." Thorp had charge of their three sons, Pavel, Micha, and Serge. The family moved between their townhouse in Brussels and their summer residence, La Fougeraie, which Paul Wittouck had remodeled in the style of a Louis XIV chateau.

Mary Thorp's life with the Wittoucks was a comfortable one, and it certainly cushioned her against the worst effects of the German occupation of Belgium. She was very aware of her privilege. She volunteered with two organizations, the Assistance Discrète and the Union Patriotique des Femmes Belges, that provided food and other assistance to the needy. She visited clients, bringing them food and clothing, helping them with appeals to the German authorities, trying to find work for them. One 1917 diary entry records, "Mr. W. gave everyone in the house 5 kilos of delicious sugar," a very expensive gift at a time when sugar was heavily rationed. Thorp goes on to say "I have made 20 1/2 lb packets to give to the needy..." She could presumably do so because the Wittoucks' house was stocked with sugar, but I was still struck with her immediate generosity.

Mary Thorp kept her diaries in small notebooks. The editors, Sophie De Schaepdrijver and Tammy M. Proctor, have kept the divisions between the notebooks, with short introductions to each new volume that provide context both to Thorp's life at the time and the larger situation with the war. They also include a very helpful discussion at the start of the book on "Life in an Occupied City: Brussels," as well as many explanatory footnotes. I learned so much from this book, which gave me a completely new perspective on the war. It was sometimes difficult to read, as the war dragged endlessly on. The winter months were particularly hard, because the German authorities commandeered food to be shipped to back to Germany while also cutting fuel rations, to the point that civilians were dying of hunger and cold. There were also massive drafts of forced labor sent to Germany, devastating families. Again, Thorp was cushioned against these dangers, but she saw and recorded them among her friends and her voluntary work.

Mary Thorp remained with the Wittouck family after the war, eventually retiring with a pension to a home they provided. She lived through World War II in Belgium, dying in December of 1945. If she kept any diary of those years, it hasn't been found. I can only imagine what she felt in September of 1939.

The superb interlibrary loan services in our Harris County libraries found me a copy of this at Arkansas Tech University. However, they want it back, so I have found my own copy to add to my small but growing collection on the Great War.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin

I have written before about Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books, which are deep in my literary DNA. I read others of her books as I came across them, never seeking them out or adding them to my shelves. I think I was comparing them all to Earthsea, and found them wanting.

As I've been reading more science fiction and fantasy, I've come to understand better Ursula Le Guin's place in the canon. I've also learned that some of the books I read along the way are part of her "Hainish Cycle." I decided that this was the year I would read the Cycle (it's not a series, as I understand it, more a loosely-connected cycle of stories). Her Hainish books have just been republished in two fat Library of America volumes. I was tempted by them, because they include stories and articles as well as introductory materials, but I find those kinds of heavy compendiums hard to read. That's true, but it was also an excuse to start collecting the individual books, which has substantially increased my TBR stacks and decimated my book buying budget.

I decided to start with The Left Hand of Darkness, first published in 1969, purely because I came across it first in a bookstore. I read an article that Charlie Jane Anders wrote about it for the Paris Review, as well as a post she wrote about the Cycle on the Tor website. The articles convinced I'd made a good choice, but also suggested I'd been too quick to dismiss those other books of hers (and added more books to my shelves).

I have been slowly reading The Left Hand of Darkness over the past week, stretching it out, both because it is such an amazing book, and because I didn't want it to end. It is the story of two men. Genly Ai has been sent as the First Envoy from the Ekumen to the world of Gethen. The Ekumen are something like Star Trek's Federation (and written years before the TV show) or the United Nations, a collection of planets bound together by treaty, to share knowledge. They seek other inhabited planets to join them, but again like Star Trek they only invite and offer - they have their own Prime Directive. Ai has spent two years in Karhide, one of Gethen's established countries, unable to make much progress despite the support of the prime minister Therem rem ir Estraven. Estraven has tried to help Ai understand both the local politics and the fraught situation with the neighboring country of Orgoreyn. It is collectively governed, unlike Karhide with its monarchy. If Karhide is not interested in an alliance with the Ekumen, perhaps Orgoreyn will be.

The narration of the story alternates between Ai and Estraven. There are also interspersed short chapters of Gethen stories, history, myths, even a section from the first Ekumen Observer to Gethen. This is to me one of Le Guin's greatest strengths as a storyteller: she creates worlds with the weight of history, tradition, language, which feel real and three-dimensional. They have a past as well as a present. She never overwhelms the reader with information, we discover it - and she trusts us enough not to explain everything. Here Ai is learning about Karhide, and then Orgoreyn. But he is human, he judges things and people through his own perceptions. I appreciated that Le Guin made him fallible, imperfect. There are fundamental misunderstandings, on both sides, which cause enormous problems for both Ai and Estaven. It takes Ai much longer to realize his own mistakes.

The Left Hand of Darkness won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and I can absolutely see why. So did one of the later books in the series, The Dispossessed. I think there are some stories that return to Gethen, but I am looking forward to discovering the other worlds that Ursula Le Guin created for the Ekumen.