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The Joyce of Choice

January 14, 2012

James JoyceOnce again I’ve decided to splurge on a trip to the annual BookCrossing convention. This year it’s in Dublin, and in anticipation I’d like to read at least one book by James Joyce. I haven’t read any of his works before, so I’m at a loss over where to start.

That got me thinking that I should consult you, dear readers. Please vote in the poll below and leave a comment about what you like most about your choicest Joyce. No spoilers, please 😉

What’s That Sound?

January 8, 2012

You may have noticed a chirping emanating from the right pane of this page that wasn’t there before. No it’s not The Sound and the Fury or the tolling of Hemingway’s bell. Rather, it my brand new Twitter feed. Some of you already follow me as @Steph_Spencer21, and by all means please do so if you want to receive my musings about the awesomeness of ukulele, tango lessons, dodgy travel advice, Doctor Who and other random nonsense. However, if you want a steady stream of tweets about nothing but books and reading, please follow @1000_Novels.

The latest tweets will also be visible on this blog, and it will be a good way to keep up with my reading progress. I tend to let blog posts percolate in my mind for a while and seldom write about a book at the time I’ve read it. If you follow my tweets you’ll have up-to-the minute updates on what I’m reading and some of the insights (be they humourous, profound, idiotic or otherwise) that spring to mind spontaneously.

Happy New Year, Have a Graph!

January 1, 2012

Novels Read Graph

I bet you were expecting a  “the year in review” post, or maybe a manifesto about “how I will be a better book blogger in 2012.” Surprise! I got you a graph instead!

This shows the progress I have made in the nearly three years that I have been pecking away at the 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read list. Several of you have written to ask about this very topic, so here it is. Despite life getting in the way sometimes and my inability to comply with the plans I set for myself, overall my reading pace has been fairly steady when plotted over the long term.

I also got you some other goodies. Don’t worry, they’re sugar-free and won’t undermine your diet. Widgets! In the right pane I’m now displaying a running total of the number of novels I’ve read from the list, and a Currently Reading section to display the book I’m reading now. I wish they were jazzier, but it’s the thought that counts, right? In those lonely intervals when I don’t write, or call, or send smoke signals, these will at least let you know that I’m still alive and reading.

Happy New Year!

Thanksgiving

October 10, 2011

It’s Thanksgiving in Canada. I’m thankful for the ability to read what I please.

Reading has always been big in our family, and something we’ve never taken for granted. Mom grew up in a household where reading was not just discouraged, but forbidden. Her stepfather was illiterate and banned reading in the house. In her early teens she had to leave home to be able to continue her schooling. So we were brought up to cherish reading and take advantage of every opportunity to do so. Perhaps this why I am so adamantly opposed to censorship today and thankful for the existence of organizations like Freedom to Read and the fact that I live in a society where ideas are free to flourish and evolve unimpeded (most of the time.)

As much as I have always been fueled by the fervent desire to read, we didn’t have the means to buy many books growing up, so I am eternally grateful for libraries. There was no public library in the very rural area where we lived, but the school library felt like a treasure trove and broadened my horizons immeasurably. In high school the library was my refuge from bullies and my passport to other worlds as I devoured the volumes at my disposal. Today I can afford to own books, and I do buy lots of them, but I still love borrowing books from the library, and especially browsing the stacks and discovering new authors and subjects that fire my imagination.

I’m especially grateful to have a supportive community of readers and booklovers who share my passion and fuel the fire.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Playing Hooky

September 25, 2011

As I do most weekends, I had planned to write a new blog post. However, instead of writing about Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Blindness, Pnin or any of the dozen other ideas for posts that flit about in my mind, I played hooky and went out and had fun.

Instead of the fun and frolic of a book review, you get to look at some pictures that I took while goofing off.

county fair

county fair

books are incredible!

Neil Pasricha

Not Everything is Illuminated

September 6, 2011

Hello. It’s a bit soon for another post. Just popping in to share a quick anecdote that you bookworms might enjoy.

The bulb in my bedside lamp has burned out. It’s a fiddly size of CFL that’s not easily replaced (a trip to the dreaded IKEA might even be required) so the last couple of nights I have been holed up under the covers with my trusty purple maglite reading A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court before going to sleep. Okay, maybe not a knee-slapper of an anecdote, but I certainly feel ridiculous.

Vacation Reading

September 4, 2011

Mr. ToadA big thanks to everyone who participated in the poll from my last post. It was entertaining to watch the books seemingly compete with one another as the results changed over time. Thanks to your input my dilemma was solved without further angst.  In addition to the book I had in progress, packed A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court The Woman in White, and Master and Commander. The forecast called for rain, so I threw in Decline and Fall as well, since it’s a relatively slim volume.

See, here’s the thing. I’m feeling rather sheepish as I write this because, after all my neurotic analysis of what to take on vacation, the entire time I was away I didn’t even get through the book I already had in progress when I left. I was about a quarter of the way through The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay upon departure, and although I was reading it fairly steadily, I still had a few pages to go when I got home. I was enjoying it too much to set it aside, even temporarily, in favour of any of the books from the poll. It’s an engrossing book which I plan to post a review about fairly soon.

The poll has also helped me feel better about not being terribly eager to read Lake Wobegon Days. I have a ragged copy that I picked up at the library’s book sale months ago, and have started to read it on several occasions but thus far it hasn’t grabbed me. It met my vacation book criteria from the standpoint of being a book I wouldn’t care much if one of the clumsy calamities I’m prone to happened to befall it, and thematically it was a perfect fit for the kind of holiday we took, but I’m just not that into it. Thank you for saving me from my own good intentions, as I was planning to take it because I seemed like something I should read at that juncture, rather than a book I wanted to read.

family vacation on Georgian BayThis trip, the main objective was to spend time with my family, especially my nieces and nephews who are getting to an age when they will soon have lives of their own and probably won’t have much time to spend with their goofy old aunt anymore. We got a lot of visiting in. My nieces had great fun braiding my hair in many imaginative ways, I suitably impressed everyone with my prowess at trivia games, tried our hand at ukulele and salsa dancing lessons, and we took several outings. I went to the beach for the first time in years (decades even) and actually enjoyed it (being able to read at the beach probably helped.)

I didn’t get tons of reading time on vacation, but a decent amount. There was more reading toward the end of the week as we began to run out of things to say to each other, and some of us grew a bit tired and in need of relaxation. As the week wound down there were several long stretches when a few of us made ourselves comfortable on the chalet’s couches and read silently in each other’s presence. I was engrossed in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, while Dad had his nose in Grisham’s The Appeal, and my brother was ploughing through a Jeffrey Archer novel before having to give it back to Mom.

This brings me to today’s topic for discussion: Do you consider time spent reading with someone to be quality time together?

My Latest Dilemma

August 16, 2011

reading at the cottageSome people tie themselves in knots about what clothes to pack when they go on vacation. Others debate what gear and equipment they will need. Me, I fret over what books to take with me!

In the near future we will be going away to a chalet in cottage country for a week with my extended family. We’ve never taken a family vacation together before, and I anticipate that there might be some moments when quiet, solitary contemplation will be needed. Therefore, some reading material will be required.

As I have mentioned before, I don’t usually plan my reading in advance. I prefer to go with the flow and pick up whatever I’m moved to read at the time. Nevertheless, I have a feeling I might want to read something light and fun.  That rules out The Bell Jar, and The Jungle among others on Mt.  TBR. I’ve been keen to read The Information and The Long Goodbye, but the copies I have are really nice and I don’t want to wreck them by dropping them in the lake or getting them covered with molten marshmallow debris. That rationale also rules out library books despite having The Uncommon Reader on hold.

After some hand-wringing I have narrowed it down to a short list. For kicks, let’s make it into a poll. Please vote for the book you think I should take on vacation:

Everything Is Illuminated

August 7, 2011

There’s an awkward fact that I feel I must finally acknowledge two years into this reading challenge – Some of the books on the 1,000 Novels Everyone Must Read list are lame. Some are mildly lame, while others (e.g. The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom by Tobias Smollett) are mind-bogglingly, I’d-rather-wear-a-hairshirt-than-read-any-more-of-this-thing lame. (I bet you can’t wait for that review!)

I half expected Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer to be lame. I wasn’t exactly looking forward to reading it, but the copy I have is a BookCrossing book and I picked it to read so that I could move the book along on its journey.

Red flags of potential lameness:

  • Blurbs on steroids – The largest and loudest signal of potential lameness was the blurbs on the cover tripping over themselHuge Red Flagves in effusive praise, declaring the book “Brilliant!” and “a book that transcends genre to become experience.” This was troubling because I find that reviewers sometimes mistake impenetrability, and even incoherence, for brilliance. It’s as though they can’t be seen to admit that they didn’t understand a work, so they declare it brilliant to save face and seem cool.
  • Kind of a big deal –Perhaps I’m just a stubborn contrarian, but I am automatically somewhat suspicious of things that receive a lot of hype and are very popular. There’s nothing wrong with being popular, but I’ve often been disappointed by many books that people told me were amazing.
  • We have issuesEverything is Illuminated purports to be about a young traveller who sets out to find a women from a photograph who may or may not have saved his grandfather from the Holocaust. It seemed to me that there was a great deal of potential for the work to have an agenda and/or be incredibly depressing. Neither of these are marks of lameness. I like it when people have something to say, and some of the most moving books are depressing, but if not handled skilfully by the author, the potential for lameness is huge.
  • It’s my first time – It’s the debut novel by a young author, prominently featuring a very heavy subject in an edgy style. Look at the author picture – Foer makes baby-faced Mark Zuckerberg look like an aged sage. Looking at that photo, I knew that the book would either be a work of genius or utter crap.
  • WTF kind of language is that? – The novel begins in the voice of one of the main characters, a grossly under-qualified Ukrainian “translator” whose English is so full of malapropisms it’s as though it were run back and forth through a digital thesaurus or translation program several times. Playing the Telephone Game with my elderly, hearing-impaired, slightly inebriated aunties doesn’t even come close to yielding phrases this messed up.  I really wondered what I was getting myself into.

Now that I have discussed my apprehensions ad nauseam, let’s see what I thought once I actually read it.

Why Everything is Illuminated is not lame:

  • Jack WebbJust the fiction, Ma’am –To me, the best thing about this novel is that it’s concise. It would have been easy for the author to get carried away with the imaginative flights of fancy that he takes, with different subplots meandering through various periods in history – but he either has amazing instincts, or an awesome editor (or both) because there is nothing in it that doesn’t need to be.
  • Weird, in a good way – There are certain kinds of contemporary fiction that get on my nerves. I don’t know that there is a particular genre to label it with, but the characteristic that stands out for me is that they try very hard to be original, novel, and clever. Painfully clever. Impenetrably clever. Convolutedly clever. Pointlessly clever. I feared that Everything Is Illuminated would fall into this category, that it would be full of gimmicks and novelty for novelty’s sake –especially when it begins with the bizarre version of English that Alex speaks. I was pleasantly surprised.  Foer uses some very unconventional ways and interesting devices to tell the story, but that’s the thing – they serve the story, rather than the story becoming a platform for showcasing how clever and original the author is.
  • LMAO – I never expected a book about the Holocaust to be this funny. Then again, Everything Is Illuminated isn’t really about the Holocaust, despite what the jacket description led me to believe. It’s about a lot of things, some of which are tragic, but many of which are downright knee-slappingly hilarious. Most amusing to me is how he satirizes the process through which traditions and folklore form and morph over time. It takes a lot of skill to deftly mix humour with tragedy and contentious subjects, but he nailed it.

So this has been a rather long-winded way of saying that I didn’t expect to like Everything is Illuminated, but I did. A lot.

Why I’ve Never Read Harry Potter

July 15, 2011
Mom as Dementor from Harry Potter

The past couple of days I have been reminded that I just might be the only person left in the western world who has not read any of the Harry Potter novels.

Last night I went to a BookCrossing Toronto gathering, where the new Harry Potter movie was the primary topic of conversation. The group is full of very passionate HP fans so that was not a surprise –and despite this shocking lacuna in my reading career, I am at least somewhat conversant in the Potterverse.

Riding the subway on the way home at nearly midnight, I was in a car with two young women in their late teens or early twenties dressed in school uniforms. It occurred to me that it was rather late in both the evening and the year for school uniforms, and I thought it a bit peculiar that they were wearing different uniforms despite obviously being together. Then it dawned on me that they were wearing Hogwarts uniforms and each girl was showing her affinity for a different house (sorry, I cannot yet tell my Gryffindors from my Hufflepuffs by sight.)

Even my seventy-year-old mother dresses up in Potter garb occasionally, and ravenously read each book as they were released. So how has it come to pass that, as a person whose enthusiasm for books and reading is a defining attribute, I have not read the most talked-about books of the last century?

It’s not as though I’m staging a Harry Potter boycott.  I almost wish I had some kind of dramatic reason for not having read the books so that I could manufacture an entertaining retort to use when people express their bafflement at this fact.

As is nearly always the case, the truth is much more mundane. Here are the totally underwhelming reasons I haven’t read the Harry Potter books yet:

  • At first it was because they are kids’ books and I was unsure whether I would enjoy them
  • Then I saw the first movie and I agonized over whether to read the first book or start with the second, and I couldn’t reach a decision so I forgot about it
  • Then I saw the second movie which caused further hand-wringing
  • Then I found out that the last books would be divided into two parts, and I dislike cliffhangers so I decided to wait until all of the parts were published and read them all straight through
  • Then started my business and didn’t have time for such things
  • And the biggest, yet pathetically dull, reason I have not read any Harry Potter books is – I haven’t got around to it yet

Somewhere in this book-infested house I possess a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I’m coming to the realization that it’s about time I read it — not just to impress my Quidditch-playing friends, or to appease my butter-beer-loving mother, but because I want to.

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