Sunday, November 25, 2018

Favorite Reads of 2018

The lovely thing about doing a "favorite reads of 20__" post is that you're only expected to post once per year. Though I could see this slipping to "favorite reads of the past decade," given enough time.

[Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash]

If you're going book-shopping for loved ones and don't want to give them just the latest bestseller, this list is for you because (1) I never seem to have read the latest bestsellers; and (2) you never know if your recipients have already read the latest bestsellers.

I do apologize that I don't have any YA this year. I did read some YA, but they were all ones you've heard of (or else I didn't like them). But a couple of the books would be appropriate for teenage readers, if only because you aren't assaulted by constant sex scenes. I also apologize for odd formatting and font changes in this post. Odd things happen when you cut and paste in Blogger, things that aren't worth fussing about and fixing.


Kindred by Octavia E. Butler mysteriously gets classified sometimes as sci-fi because Butler went on to write typically sci-fi sci-fi, but this is really fiction with some time travel. And, because it takes place in both the 1970s and pre-Civil-War, it's more like historical fiction. The African-American protagonist is connected mystically in time to one of her white(!), slave-owning(!) forbears and keeps getting sucked back to his time, with heavy consequences to herself.

If you or your loved one prefer dress-up historical fiction, with Colin-Firth-like gentlemen and nice costumes, this is not the book to buy. But if you like an unputdownable story with complex characters and gray situations and a heavy dose of reality, don't miss this one.

And now for something completely different. A girl's beloved uncle dies of AIDS, back when no one was certain how AIDS was contracted, and plenty of fear and stigma was attached. She deals with grief, love, sibling warfare, distant parents, and that painful transition to wisdom. I loved this book. Some readers were freaked out by the absent parents, but, being a latch-key kid myself, let's just say it was way easier to have an exciting life back when all the adults weren't helicoptering around.

Okay, I know I said I wouldn't include bestsellers, and this one was a bestseller, but it wasn't like every book club in America took this one on. Madeline Miller loves her Homer. The Song of Achilles made me attempt (unsuccessfully) to read The Iliad, and now her Circe made me at least consider for half an hour re-reading The Odyssey. A beautiful, lyrical read.


Confession: not my favorite genre. But I did really enjoy this one this year:

This meta-mystery was brilliant and fun. In the frame story, an editor gets the latest manuscript from the agency's star mystery writer and spends the weekend reading it. Along with her, we get sucked into an Agatha-Christie-esque story about a couple murders in a country village and the many suspects who all had motives. Just when you've forgotten the frame story, back it comes, and thereafter the frame and the novel-within-a-novel begin to dovetail. I was totally sucked in and enjoyed every minute.

I was sorry to discover that this same author had written spy novels for middle-grade boys because, if I suggested them now to my 17YO, he would just roll his eyes, but I bet he would have loved them years ago.


Supposing you're looking for something lighter. These were fun.

Super fun read about a childhood arranged marriage gone sideways and a Bollywood-director younger brother who dispatches himself to clean up the mess. It was half-madcap, half-somewhat-serious (some child abuse and abandonment), with a dash of immigrant loneliness and a couple sex scenes, one kinda cheesy. I really enjoyed the freshness of the opening setting in India and its contrast with Yspilanti, Michigan, of all places. And the Bollywood stuff was pure froth. The definition of a beach read.

Then there was this one from Eva Ibbotson, which sometimes gets classified as YA because, I suppose, the one sex scene isn't full of technical detail. (Am I the only one who likes the subtlety of a fade-out, rather than the author going to the thesaurus for new ways to say "his manhood" and such?) Anywho, this one is set before and during WWII, and involves a British naturalist professor rescuing an Austrian somewhat-Jewish girl through a marriage of convenience. The romance is there, but so is a host of wonderful and sometimes hilarious supporting characters. Eva Ibbotson is always good for a few snorts of laughter and plenty of smiles as you read. And I encouraged my fifteen-year-old daughter to read it, since we'd both loved Ibbotson's middle-grade Journey to the River Sea.


For those who love history of science and/or history of technology, this is a fascinating one by Simon Winchester:
I originally read it to see if my son would like it. He never got around to reading it, but I loved it. How did the perfecting of precision change the world? Winchester traces the history of precision engineering from the rise of the industrial age to the present, from the inside of a cannon to outer space. You'll want a Seiko watch and a Rolls-Royce after you read this book.

For history buffs, give this one a go:
I really enjoyed and learned from this fascinating and global and surprisingly amusing history of the physical walls we humans have built over the millenia, right up to the present time. First there were nomads and barbarians to keep out, lest they rape and pillage repeatedly, as they were wont to do. (The Mongols get a long treatment, deservedly. ) Then there were ideological walls between political systems. And now we build them worldwide to keep out folks we don't want. They may not rape and pillage anymore, but they do often drain the social services or increase threats of terrorism in some countries. I had no idea of all the walls that have gone up along borders all around the world! Clinton, the Bushes, Obama, and Trump were actually late to the wall-building party, with the American border wall, though they've ALL built and maintained it.

And then there was this well-written, page-turning read about deep-sea divers who visit shipwrecks and one day get the coordinates of a WWII German U-boat that no seems able to account for. Not only were the diving perils thrilling, but also the gradual solving of the mystery and piecing together of history. It even contains a satisfying bromance!

(If you want to avoid spoilers, don't look at the photos until the end because they give away almost every plot twist.)


Two clear winners this year:

A truly excellent book. Well-told, well-researched, comprehensive, and satisfying. I've read several books about the Indianapolis (all of them wonderful, really) and its sinking by torpedo at the end of the war, after which the survivors drifted in the ocean for four days before anyone happened upon them. But I'd forgotten or never known that the ship and crew had just finished delivering The Bombs that brought about the Japanese surrender, and I didn't know either about the nice occupatio of how the man who captained a navy sub, named for the Indianapolis, helped bring about the exoneration of Captain McVay. The ending passages, about the shipwreck's discovery, were perfect.

And, if shipwreck isn't your thing, I also loved

This was a good one for mountaineering-disaster fans. It was great to read one that talked about the ethnic groups in Nepal, Tibet, and Pakistan, and the impact of all those comparatively wealthy western climbers who feel the need to climb the world's tallest mountains.


If you love books that you worry/hope you'll never finish, and you've already read Doris Kearns Goodwin's and David McCullough's history books, Lin-Manuel Miranda wasn't the only one who loves Ron Chernow biographies. The latest, about Ulysses S. Grant, is no exception to Chernow's thorough excellence.

Through Appomattox this was hard for this Civil-War buff to put down, and even after the end of the war I learned tons about Grant's presidencies and Reconstruction, having had no idea of his battle against the KKK and the southern Democrats who murdered and terrorized blacks to keep them from the polls. Grant certainly deserves this revival of interest in him for his work toward peace and civil rights.

If your loved one prefers lighter fare and sunbonnets, how about

A well-researched must-read for LIW fans, which is just about every girl on earth. When the author covers the years also covered in the books, there isn't a lot to learn, but the books are so beloved that you hardly mind. Actually, for hardcore fans, a LOT is familiar, except for discovering Rose was even more of a hot mess than you'd ever imagined. I wish there were some illustrations, but these are quibbles. Though I've only ever visited Plum Creek, Walnut Grove, and the outside of one of Rose's places in SF, I was happy to learn LIW eventually got to see and go other places I've been. The family ends sadly, and saddest of all is how LIW didn't see Ma before she died or even at all, the decades (!) after Pa died.


Just one for ya, but it sure was thrilling, if you like biology.

A lot has changed since I took AP Biology in 1985-6! Back then it was classic Darwin and prokaryotes and eukaryotes, and the reason some bacteria were antibiotic-resistant was because they were descended from the few survivors with some random mutation that gave them resistance. ALL WRONG. ALL CHANGED.

This book was absolutely fascinating (if you like history of science) and biology and thinking about how we come to be where we are, biologically speaking. If you've never heard of molecular phylogeny or horizontal gene transfer, as I hadn't, the book provides clear and compelling explanations. I did ask my 17YO son if he'd been taught these things last year in his own AP Bio class, and I'm happy to report he was. Knowledge marches onward, though author Quammen is very clear that science is a messy, egotistical business, as are all endeavors involving human beings.

And there you have it. The best of 2018 in a nutshell. Hope you find something in this list for your own to-read pile or for someone else!

Friday, December 1, 2017

Favorite Books Read in 2017

So I missed Black Friday and Small Business Saturday (my favorite local small bookstore closed anyhow), but I was just enjoying John Medina's Brain Rules for Aging Well, and thought, "I love this book! Everyone should read this book!" Which leads me to my yearly list of possible gift inspiration for ya.

What the inside of my Kindle secretly looks like. [Photo by Glen Noble on Unsplash]

According to Goodreads, I read 129 books January-November, but I didn't finish six of them, and there were maybe another four that I started and so disliked that I just deleted them from Goodreads. So let's say 123 books. Anywho, some of them were marvelous! Anything I mention here I gave 5 stars.

1 star = I probably just deleted it. Unless the author is dead and won't have his/her feelings hurt by a 1-star review. (Sanctuary by William Faulkner fit this category. I read it for the Bestseller Puzzle Reading Challenge and absolutely loathed it.)

2 stars = also rare. I've pretty much stopped reviewing these books too, for reason above.

3 stars = I liked the book enough to finish it.

4 stars = I really liked the book and was spellbound by at least parts of it.

5 stars = I loved it and tore through it.

Let's start with fiction.

Favorite Recent Books:
If you love old Hollywood movies and Sunset Boulevard and stories with precocious kids, this was great fun.

This fictionalized version of his grandfather's life was funny and moving and beautifully written. The only problem is that your recipient may already have read it.

Also great fun. My teenage son read it, too. Just know ahead of time that the teenage boys are trying to steal a copy of the Vanna White Playboy issue, so if that's a problem for you, you've been warned.

And, if you yourself are looking for a good read (i.e., free from the library because it's old), my favorite older fiction books were The Godfather by Mario Puzo and Roots by Alex Haley.

Hmm... I seem to have read a lot of nonfiction this year.

For the true-crime lover:
Baseball lovers might recognize that name from the famed founder of Sabermetrics. James applies his love of research and statistics to solving a serial killer mystery and does so in (I think) convincing fashion. If you don't like to read about axe murderers, obviously this isn't the book for you.

For those dealing with fading brains in themselves or loved ones:
A rather hopeful book of various treatments and terribly interesting. As was

I love brain books. This one has hope for just about every brain condition. Exciting!

For WWII lovers:
It's not Unbroken, but it's a compelling story in itself and likely to appeal to those who enjoy that era and genre. Probably my stepfather will be getting this one.

For American history lovers:
Speaking of my stepfather, I already foisted this one on him, and he found it just as exciting as I did. It's got Comanches, mutual scalpings, kidnapped folks, horse tricks--what more could you ask for?

And because I always throw in adventure/survival...

I have no desire to be uncomfortable or climb even the nearest hill, but I sure like to read about it. Danger, freezing to death, crevasses, explorers...wonderful!

Oh, and I should mention that I got my fourteen-year-old daughter to read Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters finally, and of course she enjoyed it. And my teenage son and I both liked this one:

Materials science at its most anecdotal and interesting.

Hope this helps!

Friday, June 23, 2017

Books for a Warm Weekend

For those keeping track, I'm 3/4 done with the Bestseller Puzzle Reading Challenge and have four more mini-reviews for you. I just kept forgetting to post them until my 14YO got out the puzzle and put it together again.

There's good news and bad news, and since we always lead with the bad...

Woo, mama, I hated this book. See that jigsaw line cut right under Temple Drake's nose? That should've been my first clue that this book was a stinker. Awful characters behaving awfully, and the whole thing compounded by Faulkner's penchant for hiding the ball. That is, his tendency to disguise what is actually going on by making the prose difficult to plow through. It's totally worth the effort in As I Lay Dying (still my favorite Faulkner book, though, to be sure, I haven't encountered much competition in the four books total I've read of his), but in Sanctuary, though he dials it back, it's just annoying. Let me read an online plot summary, just to make sure the icky thing I thought happened actually happened. Yeah, it did.

Basically, Temple Drake and drunken boyfriend end up crashing their car by a bootlegger's place, and things actually go downhill from there. Amazing.

At least the cover made me feel better about my daughter's prom dress. Hoochy koochy dresses have always been in style. Let's just hope my girl doesn't go off the rails as badly as Temple Drake when she goes to college in a few months.

Okay, that's it for the bad news. The next is really just mediocre news.

I had high hopes for this one. Having really enjoyed the original Tarzan, I thought this would be more of the same--super-fun pulp fiction. And this was fun at times, but the rest of the time you spent thinking what morons the other characters were for not figuring out the face behind the mask. After all, hadn't they read The Scarlet Pimpernel? Didn't they know the mystery macho man surely had to be the most effete guy in the room to throw them off the scent??? Nevertheless, three stars for swashbuckling and a mildly interesting heroine.

On to the good news.

Yes, I'd read some Sherlock Holmes before, and I skipped the stories in the collection which I'd read, but I was surprised to find how some details from the stories I hadn't yet read were used in the Robert-Downey-Jr-Jude-Law Holmes adaptations. We could get into a Cumberbatch-vs.-Downey-Jr argument here, but I actually like both versions. Any way you slice it, Sherlock Holmes tends to be insufferable. Robert Downey Jr. plays him as endearingly so, and Benedict Cumberbatch as cold-but-hot. Judging by the book cover above, he looks cold-and-cold. Nice receding hairline, which explains the trademark hat he often wears in early adaptations. Fun. Four stars.

Also fun and a quick read would be:

Mr. Gardner wrote gazillion Perry Mason stories and I'd read exactly zero. Nor do I think I'd pick more up, since this isn't really my genre, but it was fun while it lasted. Perry was clever; Della Street was capable; the femme fatale was present and accounted for. Four stars.

Just a few more books to go before I complete the challenge, and I hope to get to them shortly. In the meantime, here are a couple recent favorite detours from my required list:

Nonfiction for fans of Unbroken and WWII. That is, everyone.

Read this one instead of Sanctuary. Elliptical prose with a structural purpose. Much more compelling story. Ex-slave is haunted by her past. Literally. And this one will be featured in Literary Night 2017! (More on that later.)

And, because sometimes you just want to scalp people:

Don't pick up this book if you recoil from gory details. I'm warning you.

Until we meet again, happy reading!

Thursday, March 16, 2017

An Offer I Can't Refuse

Oh my gosh. If it seems like I forgot all about the Bestseller Puzzle Reading Challenge, I did. The blogging bit, I mean. I've been reading steadily, and have gone from one-third-complete to one-half. All in five little books!

Let's start on a high note: Mario Puzo's The Godfather is an entertaining book. Every bit as good as the movie, and reading it makes me want to pop the DVD in the player. Between The Godfather and Elf, James Caan really doesn't need to make another movie to ensure immortality.

This book has aged well and unapologetically. Women are "broads" and almost irrelevant; racial slurs get thrown around; there's lots of sex and alcohol and violence. Five stars. I liked knowing more of the thoughts going on in people's heads, and there are a couple sub-plotty moments left out of the movie that are worth hearing about.

The Godfather is the only one of the books covered today that gets its very own allusion in the animated film Zootopia, so how's that for an homage?

Moving down the line, I also liked my second H. G. Wells foray:

This was a fun and suspenseful novella. Wells does such a good job of making the science plausible and thinking through the what-ifs. To become invisible seals Griffin's fate as an isolated individual, out of touch with the world. Wells does pacing, well, well. 4 solid stars.

Then there was the three-star bucket, of which I probably liked The Color Purple the best.

"So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see." - from THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD by Zora Neale Hurston

Alice Walker, of course, had a lot to do with Hurston's resurrection as an author, and this quote has a lot to do with THE COLOR PURPLE. Walker's main character Celie spends much of her life as her father's mule, husband's mule, stepchildren's mule, only to find love and self-worth as she grows older.

I loved the parts of the story told from Celie's perspective, as well as the characters' development and the author's sympathy for even the most ill-behaved of them. The timeline confused me a little, once Nettie's letters were interspersed, and the missionaries-to-Africa bit interested me less, but all in all a good read. 

One imponderable: were there really Chinese restaurants in the rural south around WWII, and could the fortune cookie possibly have been a common sight then???

And, finally, a tie between Return to Peyton Place and Catch-22. I'd say Catch-22 was the more interesting, more ambitious novel, and parts of it were clever and funny, but it was way too long, and I couldn't help thinking, as some of Yossarian's "superiors" did that, if everyone felt about WWII the way Yossarian did, we'd all be speaking German or Japanese now, and there wouldn't be a single Jewish person left on earth. Yes, war is horrible and absurd and even insane, but as long as folks are folks there will be war in the world. And thank you to those WWII veterans who fought in it! (Note: the rape and underage sex jokes in the book have not aged well. Unlike in The Godfather, there is no moral tsk-tsking over them, making them just icky.)

Did I say the last two books tied? Actually I've changed my mind. My hands-down least-favorite this go-round was Return to Peyton Place. Seriously it was just trashy. If not for the Bestseller Puzzle Reading Challenge and my commitment to read this book, I would have abandoned it because I remembered not being crazy about the original PEYTON PLACE when my book club read it.

Don't let the demure cover fool you

In fact, that was one of only two things I recalled about the original PEYTON PLACE:

1. That the teenagers played Spin the Bottle; and
2. That is was soap-opera-y and trashy and I didn't like it.

RETURN TO PEYTON PLACE picks up where the original left off, and I had to read a plot summary to remind me of the characters and their over-the-top situations. Yes, I know the first book blew the lid off small New England town life when it was published, much in the way the town gets turned upside down in THE HELP (another non-favorite of mine), but I can't help thinking Metalious kept a paper bag full of Horrible Things People Do or Have Done to Them beside her typewriter, and she would just reach in when inspiration was required. RETURN has the added detraction of having character Alison become, like Metalious herself, a successful bestselling author whose book causes a stir and gets made into a movie. Which means we have to trek through all the behind-the-scenes of the publishing biz and Hollywood and the author's disillusionment. Might have been interesting to readers in the '50s, but pretty cliche now, down to Alison's tiresome love affairs. Bleh. And if you like '50s witty repartee, prepare yourself for a healthy dose. All the "smart" characters speak it like a regional dialect. Double bleh.

On the plus side, Metalious is lovely with the setting and seasons of her sorta-fictional town, and I enjoyed those bits. If only the town had been unpopulated!

Whew! We're up to date now. Nine books to go, and I'm tramping through one of the Sherlock Holmes books. Join me?

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Delights of Escaping Your Genre Ruts

I'd have to say, the best thing about the Bestseller Puzzle Reading Challenge is the fun I'm having, getting out of my usual reading ruts. Ordinarily, I love 19th-century British fiction (Austen to Hardy), popular science, adventure/survival nonfiction, and history. I'm not a big fan of sci-fi/fantasy, mystery, or historical fiction. And, having three teenagers at home, I haven't been able to read YA with much enjoyment for a while now.

But the BPRC has been getting me out and about, literarily. I've hit the 33% complete milestone:

And, in this update, I've ventured in 19th-century American lit, early-20th-century Scottish fiction, early sci-fi, and pulp fiction! If we're not Goodreads buddies, here were my thoughts...

Uncle Tom's Cabin (3 stars). A 19th century bestseller with such historical impact is certainly worth reading, if for its place in history, if not for its literary merits. My first encounter with UNCLE TOM'S CABIN came from the 1956 movie THE KING AND I with Yul Brynner, where they do a ballet version of the story, so wide-reaching was the book's influence.

Stowe's writing share all the worst characteristics of the 19th century. There's piety thicker than custard, heavy-handed addresses to the reader (she actually ends the book with a full-on sermon directed at us), generalizations about the African race which are embarrassing even when meant to be sympathetic, and lengthy descriptions. Remember that dreadful scene in A TALE OF TWO CITIES where Lucy Manet blubbers over her imprisoned father's fate, crying repeatedly, "Weep for it! Weep for it!"? If you cringed your way through that passage, you'll find a lot of that sentimental business going on in UNCLE TOM'S CABIN. Stowe makes Dickens appear restrained.

Eliza's escape makes for the most interesting part of the book, but it alternates with Tom getting sold South and not appearing, frankly, to miss his family much because he's so busy with his Bible and the angelic Little Eva, whose goodness will cause your eyes to roll so many times you risk permanent damage. And then Tom's Christ-figure-ness even tops Little Eva's in unbelievability.

It was also funny to me how, unlike any people I know nowadays, who won't bring up politics or religion lest they offend, Stowe's characters immediately go for the jugular whenever they meet each other, talking nonstop about weighty issues and pronouncing judgments, even if the other person is a stranger! What can I say? Behavior and manners must have changed greatly in the last 150 years...

On a side note, this is the second book Alexa read me in her mechanical tones. I learned that every semicolon gets read aloud as the word "semicolon," and every "think on't" gets read as "think on T," and every "ha ha ha" becomes "Ha. Ha. Ha." Enough to make you laugh along with the characters.

I'm glad I read (or listened to) this, but I can safely promise it won't be on the re-read list.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (3 stars)This was an odd and original book about a private-girls-school teacher in the 1930s who grooms six students of her preteen class into "her set," the "Brodie set." And I do mean grooms. Miss Jean Brodie has no interest in teaching Sandy, Jenny, Rose, Eunice, etc. the standard curriculum; instead she tells them stories of her travels, her love life, her opinions on fascism, and so on. As the girls grow, they go from idolizing Miss Brodie to finding ways to distance themselves or to resent her influence.

There are some funny bits, like Sandy's description of Calvinism: "God had planned for practically everybody before they were born a nasty surprise when they died...he having made it [His] pleasure to implant in certain people an erroneous sense of joy and salvation, so that their surprise at the end might be the nastier."

Miss Brodie is melodramatic and somewhat tiresome, but having had a fourth grade teacher who was colorful and volatile and dramatic and charismatic, I thought Muriel Spark captured the situation exactly.

The War of the Worlds (4 stars)My first H.G. Wells book! I'm eager to read more from him because this book was well-paced, imaginative and yet very real in its characterization. I can see why it became a classic and inspired so many adaptations. I also enjoyed getting on Google Maps and watching the progress of the main characters and the Martians, since Wells grounded his story in the very place he lived.

Hoping I can get my 15YO son to read it. It's rather gory for 1897 (or so), but nothing we aren't used to seeing/hearing about in books today.

I'd say this and Tarzan were my favorites from this batch of BPRC books.

Speaking of which, 

Tarzan of the Apes (4 stars)This book was great fun! Pulp fiction at its most entertaining, and it made me realize it has never actually been adopted faithfully. For one thing, Tarzan reads and writes English but can't speak it, and when he finally is taught to speak, it's firstly in French! Shouldn't he be saying, "Moi, Tarzan--toi, Jane" in the movies?

The 75% of the book set in West Africa is much better than Tarzan in Paris and Wisconsin(!!!). In fact, the bit in Wisconsin is flat-out ridiculous. Imagine him swinging through Laura Ingalls Wilder's Big Woods... 

I can see why Burroughs wrote a sequel--this one ends abruptly with him not yet having gone to England and with Jane set to marry another. I immediately downloaded TARZAN RETURNS, only to find he's already making eyes at some other woman and somehow maintaining his godlike muscle tone after years out of the jungle. Pass.

If you decide to read this book, here are some things to ignore, to maximize your enjoyment:

1. Ignore the racial attitudes of 1912. If you like a politically correct Tarzan, watch the latest movie adaptation, which is so racially we-are-the-world that it makes NO sense for the time in which it was set. Even Harriet Beecher Stowe, who deeply, deeply believed in equality of the races, fell into lots of embarrassing moments in UNCLE TOM'S CABIN because she was a product of her time.

2. Along those lines, ignore the character of Esmeralda. Embarrassing! She gets the racial comic relief role.

3. The youth Tarzan kills arch-enemy lion Sabor, but then Sabor shows up later attacking Jane??? I don't know what happened here. I even went back and checked if the problem was with my brain. It could also possibly be with the free Kindle edition. In TARZAN RETURNS, the lion gets called Numa when he remembers killing it. So confusing.

4. Tarzan finds the cabin his parents built before they died, but it takes him a long time to figure out there's a door and a way in because he thinks the door is part of the wall. Later, the lion sees the same closed door and instantly knows it's a way in. Of course, Tarzan could be a dummy because he spends tons of time exploring the cabin and spending time there, and he STILL finds stuff he didn't notice before, years later.

5. People sleep on the jungle floor and hang out in the trees all the time and never get a single bug bite. Amazing.

Fast-paced, thrilling, and Jane only faints a couple times. Enjoy this one.

Next up on my list is Return to Peyton Place, which I confess I do not have high expectations of...

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Four Book Reviews from the Bestseller Puzzle Reading Challenge

Has anyone gotten under way yet with the Bestseller Puzzle Reading Challenge? It's the best kind of reading challenge because you're probably 1/3 of the way done right from the get-go. So far the highest opening score I've heard is 40 out of the possible 53. That's 75% complete, folks.

Well, I got cracking and even made a spreadsheet to track my progress because I love to cross things out. Here's a link to it, if you'd like to make edits and use it yourself.

There's even a count function at the bottom, so you can see that solid integer, and a percentage-complete calculation. Yes!

My spreadsheet will not nag you, however, like the Goodreads Challenge, to tell you you're falling behind. That's a feature, to my mind, but you can add that if you operate better under pressure and guilt.

Since the BPRC began, I've completed four books from the list and thought I'd share my Goodreads reviews with you, in case we're not Goodreads friends. If you've read any of these ones, I'd love to hear your opinion on them in the comments!

Originally published in 1952

Great to kick off the New Year with such an excellent book. It's leisurely to start, recounting pampered Princeton boy Willie Keith's entrance into the Navy during WWII, after dinking in piano bars and getting casually involved with a girl out of his class and milieu. But once Willie is on board the Caine, things get rolling, and the development of Capt Queeg's behavior, the "mutiny" and the court-martial are riveting. 
I appreciated how the book didn't take the easy way out and make things black and white. There are things no one can know until they're alone in the hot seat--before that happens, IF that even happens, everyone's a critic. Wouk recognizes this and writes a richer book for it.

Published in 1970

Well, it's a quick read with some snappy dialogue and some father-son rapprochement by the end, which I appreciated. In fact, I found the father-son business moving and the tragic love story not very compelling. Since this book came out in 1970 and was made into a movie, I hope I'm not spoiling anything to say that Erich Segal goes Nicholas-Sparksy and writes what is basically a romance and then kills someone at the end so it isn't dismissed as a "girl" romance. 
I'm glad I read it as part of the Bestseller Puzzle Reading Challenge in 2017, but I have to say, if you want to read about young lovers getting married over parental opposition and figuring things out while the fella goes to law school, Betty Smith's JOY IN THE MORNING is head-and-shoulders a better book. It's even got the wisecracking young gal and earnest young guy. No hockey, though.

Published in 2002
This beautiful collection of classic fairy tales would be enjoyed by any (adult) reader for its all-in-one-placeness and its full-color illustrations by various artists. I'd never read Puss in Boots before, nor Tom Thumb nor several lesser-known tales which have generally been left out for a reason. When you read fairy tales back to back to back, you quickly pick up on some themes, like the youngest daughter is always the most beautiful and charming, stepmothers and stepsisters suck, and ogres seem to marry normal women.
The annotations ranged from helpful: "Legend has it that storks were once men and that they returned to their human state in Egypt during the winter" to dumb and academic: "Susan M. Gilbert and Sandra Gubar try to move against the grain of conventional interpretations, which focus on the queen [in Snow White] as the source of evil. They view the queen as the consummate 'plotter, a plot-maker, a schemer, a witch, an artist" and as a woman who is "witty, wily, and self-absorbed as all artists traditionally are.'" Sigh.
I wish the illustrations within the text were bigger because the full-size pictures before and after the tales are lovely.

Published in 1944

Having never been assigned this book in middle or high school, all I can say is Wow! Orwell's allegory of communism remains pertinent, clever, occasionally funny, and even prophetic. Pick a communist government--any communist government--and you'll find parallels, though the book was written in 1944. When Napoleon the pig gives himself fancy titles and the other animals are trained to bless his name and say how much he loves them and they him, we could be in North Korea or China under Mao. Sure, everyone (but the pigs) works like a slave and has to look over his shoulder lest he be denounced, but it's still better than when it was under that human farmer, isn't it?
The other "farms" don't get off scot-free, of course, and I appreciate Orwell's point that, in any form of government, someone is in power and someone has the money. Which group that is may change, but somebody's got the goods. To believe otherwise is to have an overly idealistic concept of human nature. Folks are folks.
Note: This is the first book I had Amazon's Alexa read aloud to me, and I think I was a greater fan of it than she was. Not only did she read mechanically, with odd emphases, but every 15-30 minutes she'd just stop altogether and switch to THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA.
 That's the update! Next on the BPRC list is Uncle Tom's Cabin. Alexa may be struggling through that for the next six months...

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Bestseller Puzzle Reading Challenge

You've heard of the Goodreads Challenge. I participate every year (but this may only be my third year--can't recall), but I do wish Goodreads tracked a category for books readers attempted but abandoned. You can only delete them or mark them as "read." The former might lead to you trying the same lousy book again, as middle-aged forgetfulness creeps up on you, and the latter just isn't true. All of which to say is, I "read" 125+ books last year, completing my challenge, but at least five of those were dumped books, and by "dumped" I mean I gave up usually before I hit the 5% mark.

Anyhow, I signed up for the Goodreads Challenge again in 2017 but thought I'd add my own variation to it and invite any of you to come along.

Welcome to....the Bestseller Puzzle Reading Challenge!!!

This Christmas I gave my youngest a puzzle, which we worked on together.

Very fun puzzle, and fascinating to see how many bestsellers I'd never read. Historically speaking, not every bestseller turns into a classic, but seeing which stand the test of time is too tempting to resist.

If you're a reading addict like me, this challenge won't be too daunting because you've probably already knocked off many of the titles. Which are (if you can't see them in the little picture):

  1. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. (Done. Read it a couple years ago.)
  2. The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss. (I should get credit for reading this about 800 times because I have three children.)
  3. Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare. (Done in high school and again in grad school. Plus, I've seen it in movies and live several times--NOT THAT THAT COUNTS IN THIS CHALLENGE.)
  4. Return to Peyton Place by Grace Metallious. (My book club read the original Peyton Place, and it was not high literature by any means. I may not get to this one for a while.)
  5. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. (Another new one! I saw five minutes of the Maggie Smith movie, but again THAT COUNTS FOR NOTHING IN THIS CHALLENGE.)
  6. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. (I've only read a couple of these. Should be fun and annoying because Holmes is fun and annoying.)
  7. Sanctuary by William Faulkner. (I have a love/hate relationship with Faulkner. I love As I Lay Dying and I've abandoned his incomprehensible The Sound and the Fury.)
  8. To Kill a Mockingbird by the non-senile Harper Lee. (I think we can all safely cross this one off.)
  9. The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales edited by Maria Tatar. (Ooh! I put the library edition on hold for this one, since it's illustrated.)
  10. Moby Dick by Herman Melville. (Read this in grad school. Once is enough.)
  11. Bare Fists by Marshall R. Hall. (This one may actually be the last to be completed. The story was published in a pulp magazine, and I bet I'll have to visit a library collection to see it.)
  12. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery. (Check.)
  13. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. (Check check.)
  14. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. (Check. Thanks, book club!)
  15. The Case of the Lucky Loser by Erle Stanley Gardner. (Boom! The library has it. Thanks, KCLS.)
  16. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. (Check. Great book, apart from Lucy Manet's ditherings.)
  17. The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk. (Just read it and it was fabulous!)
  18. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. (Looking forward to it.)
  19. Animal Farm by George Orwell. (Somehow, growing up in California, neither Orwell book got assigned in high school. Now's my chance to correct that deficiency.)
  20. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. (Check.)
  21. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee. (Read the play in college, saw the Liz Taylor version, bought the t-shirt. Done.)
  22. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. (If you look carefully at the picture, you'll see Black Beauty somehow made it into the puzzle twice. What the heck? Does that mean I have to read it twice? I'm pretty sure I already have. I even remember my older sister crying over it.)
  23. Stuart Little by E. B. White. (Check.)
  24. Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. (I'm guessing the dumb-show version in The King and I doesn't count.)
  25. The Little Red Hen by ??? (The name is blocked out, but I've read all about this little red hen and understand her ungenerous mindset after years of slaving away for my ungrateful children.)
  26. The Godfather by Mario Puzo. (Could it be anywhere as good as the movie?)
  27. Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs. (I have high hopes the book will be so awful it's wonderful. Rather like the movie version.)
  28. War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. (Sci-fi is a genre I am discovering in my middle age, and this one's so famous it's a shame I haven't yet read it.)
  29. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. (This whole book challenge is so phony.)
  30. Jaws by Peter Benchley. (Great fun.)
  31. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. (East of Eden is still my favorite of his.)
  32. Love Story by Erich Segal. (Yay! Can't wait!)
  33. The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells. (Which explains why Ralph Ellison called his novel Invisible Man, with no definite article.)
  34. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. (Why did Peter get to bring his cat???)
  35. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. (Just read it a few months ago, to see if my teenage son might like it. Uh...doubtful.)
  36. The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. (H. G.! Stop spinning out the bestsellers! Give someone else a chance!)
  37. The Color Purple by Alice Walker. (It's hard to read books after you've seen an adaptation with Whoopie Goldberg, but I'll give it a shot.)
  38. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter. (All it takes is one year of gardening and a rabbit eating your sugar snap peas, and you will be firmly in Mr. MacGregor's camp.)
  39. The Pocket Book of Baby and Child Care by Benjamin Spock. (Ooh! A period piece!)
  40. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. (Check.)
  41. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. (Check. Good book.)
  42. Charlotte's Web by E. B. White. (Check.)
  43. The Mark of Zorro by Johnston McCulley. (Who knew it was a book?)
  44. Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. (Very dated, but we listened to the audio book and cringed our way through.)
  45. 1984 by George Orwell. (See #19 comment.)
  46. Heidi by Johanna Spyri. (I used to think the midday snack Heidi and Peter shared was the tastiest thing imaginable.)
  47. The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. (The rare case where it takes less time to read the book than to watch the movie(s)!)
  48. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. (You can tell it's written by a man because no woman on the planet would breastfeed a grown man, even for the literary symbolism of it all.)
  49. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. (A wonderful book that has never had justice done to it in film.)
  50. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. (Ditto.)
  51. Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. (Strangely, a follow-up book to #6, but with a shorter title that makes you think the other one should be the follow-up.)
  52. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, because, at this stage in the game, you need a freebie, and you already read this one at #22.
  53. The Secret Garden by Francis Hodgson Burnett. (Loved this. Loved her A Little Princess more, but this one was right up there.)
So there you have it! How many can you cross off, right off the bat? I've got 32 of 53 out of the way, which is the ideal way to start off a reading challenge, and the next BPRC book loaded on my Kindle is Erich Segal's Love Story. Whee!

Happy New Year to all.