TBR Challenge 2017 Update #2

Man, why do I even bother with challenges when I can’t seem to keep from constantly cheating and finding loopholes to make them easier?!

This week’s cheat: if I can’t find a book readily through the interlibrary loan system, and it’s been on my to-read list for years, I’m not going to bother.  If I was that interested in a title I’d have bought, borrowed, or begged it by now.

Here’s my second TBR Challenge Update!

Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore.  A poor girl makes a rich friend, and they spend the summer together at the rich family’s summer estate.  It turns out this rich family is pretty twisted and has lots of secrets, but that doesn’t stop the poor girl (with secrets of her own) for wanting to be one of them.  A good summertime read–I thought the best writing was the depiction of this lavish estate.

This House is Haunted by John Boyne.  Old-fashioned creepiness which I’ll elaborate on this Horror Month!  Loved this one!

The Keep by Jennifer Egan.  Smart, spooky, and really well-constructed (one narrative is about two cousins renovating an old castle in Europe, the other about the prisoner in a writing class telling their story).  I got to my page 100 benchmark, though, and then just skimmed.  Something about this just didn’t gel for me, but it might for you!

The Transcriptionist by Amy Rowland.   Another one I could not get into.  Just the wrong time for me, I think. The set-up is interesting: the main character, Lena, is a transcriptionist at a city newspaper, a lonely, kind of faceless job.  There’s a stark quality to the writing that suits the character and setting.  But just not for me at this moment in time.  After I set this down I had a hankering to read Patricia Highsmith.  Unsure why.

Dark Echo by F.G. Cottam.  It’s about a haunted boat.  A haunted boat named the Dark Echo, built by a WWI vet and imbued with some nasty history.  I was not immediately sold, but I gave it a chance because I really loved House of Lost Souls.  The book is a nice mix of atmospheric horror and a mystery,  but I just didn’t respond to this the way I did to Cottam’s other book.  Classic case of the problem being me, not the book.

So there’s where she stands.  At least I’m still knocking them off the list at a steady clip.

As I look at the to-read list I put together on Goodreads over the years, I can chart my reading interests over time–historical mysteries giving way to the domestic suspense of the 1950’s and 1960’s, my period of obsession with American culinary history, the coming of age stories set in rural America, and on into horror stories and natural history.  It’s fun to see how reading changes and evolves over time.

Perhaps I’ve just outgrown a lot of the ones from further down the list.  Which of course doesn’t indicate any problems with the books themselves.  I’ve simply moved on.

Next will be She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth and The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland.

For the numerically inclined: we’re at 832 books to-be-read.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries” by Kory Stamper

WordByWord_BSRbooks_040417Absolutely hilarious and endlessly informative, Word by Word is a pleasure to read–particularly if you love words!

Stamper, a lexicographer who works at Merriam Webster, talks about the nature of her job, the history and usage of dictionaries, and shares great anecdotes.  It’s witty, nerdy fun, and written with a whole lot of passion for words and language.  The behind-the-scenes tour of a dictionary definition is a fun peep behind the curtain of dictionary-making.

What I especially love about this book is how Stamper emphasizes that the role of the dictionary is to show us how language is actually used (with citations to prove it!).  The dictionary is always evolving and being updated, reflecting the culture and the actual usage of phrases and words out in the world.

And English is a super-unruly language to wrangle with, as Stamper notes.  The image of the English language as an incorrigible kid toddling home wearing someone else’s socks and its undies on its head is the best example of her vivid imagery, by the by.

On a personal level it was fun to see how many similarities there are between what a lexicographer does and what a library cataloger does.  This quote, from the epilogue, really spoke to me:

Lexicography is as much a creative process as a scientific one, which means that good lexicography relies on the craft of the drudges at their desks.  Lexicographers will frame their work as “an art and a science,” though we only throw that tired old coat over the bones of our work because it’s recognizable shorthand for saying that this thing–the act of creating a definition, sifting through pronunciations, conjuring Proto-Indo-European roots, ferreting out dates of first written use, rassling with language–isn’t just a matter of following a set of rules.

Stamper goes on to note that writing a dictionary entry is invisible work.  No one ever considers that a person, an educated, experienced person, must sit down and craft a dictionary definition.  She might as well be talking about a library catalog record. Or perhaps I flatter myself.

If you enjoy A.J. Jacobs’ books, you will probably find a lot to like in Stamper’s work.  Her style is accessible yet deeply intelligent, and her love for her work comes through on every page.  Language is a living, breathing, ever evolving thing, and lexicographers are there to keep track of it.

–Marie

P.S.
This is dumb, but I’m scared that Stamper will find this post and will judge my style and usage and word choice. 😦

 

 

Marie’s Reading: “A Simple Favor” by Darcey Bell

simple favorHere’s a novel that actually lives up to the “next Gone Girl” hype: A Simple Favor by Darcey Bell.  Twisted people doing twisted things to each other and a few people wind up dead.  It’s like a disturbing soap opera.  A few criticisms of the book I’ve read suggest that it might be a touch too twisted for some.  The characters in particular.  However, I thought it was a perfectly enjoyable thriller with a very nice open ending.

The basic plot is this: Stephanie, who runs a mom-blog, is left picking up the pieces after her best friend Emily simply disappears.  But soon it becomes clear Emily’s disappearance is anything but simple.  Alternating narrative voices between Stephanie, entries from Stephanie’s blog, Emily, and Emily’s husband Sean, we begin to realize that none of these people are entirely what they seem.

A Simple Favor has all the elements of Gone Girl  (the dastardly plan, the bizarre marriage dynamic, the one character who is seriously nuts), but somehow it all plays out in a less threatening and disturbing way than that book did.  Don’t get me wrong, this is a disturbing cat-and-mouse kind of thriller, and it’s got suitably disturbed characters, and it is certainly evocatively written with great idiosyncratic voices.  Yet there’s something about these characters, and about the game they’re playing, that really feels like a soap.   I say that just to give you an idea of the tone, not as a criticism (like I said, I enjoyed this very much!).  Also, there’s more than a dash of VC Andrews in with the Patricia Highsmith.  If you get my drift.

A Simple Favor does me the favor of offering up its own perfect readalikes in-text.  If you enjoy this book, or Gone Girl, or books like it, definitely try Patricia Highsmith if you haven’t already.  Strangers on a Train would be good.   For a watch-alike, go classic with a Hitchcock movie.

–Marie

TBR Challenge 2017 Update #1

For those just arriving: I’ve decided to participate in the TBR Challenge this year.  The object is to read as many books as you can that you’ve had on your “to-be-read” pile by the end of the year.

Also, I’ve made a decision about this challenge.  If I’m not into something on my TBR list, I’m not going to finish it.  Too many books, too little time.  I will, however, give each book 100 pages before I give up.

Here’s how it’s going so far…

The Man in the Picture:  A Ghost Story by Susan Hill: Stay tuned for more, Horror Month 2017!

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.  I’m sorry, I just couldn’t get into this.  I’d certainly suggest it to readers who enjoyed The Golem and the Jinni or Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, though!  It’s got incredible atmosphere, nice historical sense of place, and the style is really evocative.  Not my (book)bag, but it might be yours!

The Father of the Rain by Lily King.  I was absorbed in this one from the first chapter.  It’s an engaging, nuanced story of a complicated father/daughter relationship, spanning many years.

The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt.  I was a couple pages into this novel when I realized that I’d begun it before.  Would you believe I’ve never read anything by Byatt before?  Language to savor and beautiful period detail.  Sweeping and engrossing.  But, alas, not one that grabbed me personally.  And I felt really guilty about that, because it’s a gorgeous book.

The Ghost Orchid by Carol Goodman.  I’ve read a couple of Goodman’s books, and I enjoy her brand of psychological suspense.  This one, set at a writer’s retreat in upstate New York, is a great Gothic tale and period piece as well as a suspense story.  It reminded me a lot of Kate Morton’s work (The Forgotten Garden in particular).  I got halfway through and then flipped to the end.  For some reason (perhaps the alternating chapters?), the tension just never took for me.

Well.  A bit disappointing.  But I guess this is why some of these books have sat on my To-Read shelf for five years.

Also, I keep adding new stuff to my TBR list, so now I’ve got 842 items on it.  I began with 831.  And have read or tried to read five.

I’m thinking I won’t see much of a net gain from this project.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “On Turpentine Lane” by Elinor Lipman

turpentine laneThe perfect novel to snap you out of any hold-over winter blues.  On Turpentine Lane by Elinor Lipman is  funny, snappy, and charming, and has enough pep to keep it from being cutesy or dull.

Faith Frankel has just bought a run-down bungalow on Turpentine Lane, in the town where she grew up.  She’s got a job at the local private school, where she writes thank-you letters to donors.  Soon, her life becomes one long comedy of errors, everything from a separation from her fiance to her father discovering his artistic side to the possibility that there might have been murders committed in her house.

I know that all sounds heavy, but in Lipman’s hands, it all comes across as hilarious, farcical, totally screwball comedy.  On top of that there’s a wonderfully old-fashioned feel to the book.  There aren’t any curveballs, each obstacle is overcome, and the ending is happy.  There are sweet moments, funny moments, poignant moments, a dash of mystery, a bit of intrigue.

In all, a delightful read filled with great characters and crackling dialogue, and a bit of romance at the center to boot.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “All Grown Up” by Jami Attenberg

all grown upIn a series of connected vignettes, All Grown Up shares Andrea’s ongoing struggles with getting her life together and overcoming her childhood. It’s funny (often darkly so) and observant.  It’s sharp, too, and there’s a strain of melancholy and dissatisfaction that runs through it.  While everyone else seems to be moving forward with traditional life milestones, Andrea is 39 and the same person in the same place as she’s always been.

And is that really a problem?

I suppose you could call Andrea unlikeable, given how she can drive you a bit nuts with her selfishness and lack of motivation, but I liked her.  Andrea is funny and has rough edges. She comes across as a real human being with issues and flaws, but also with insight and desires and a sense of humor.  I like that she does what she wants, even if she regrets it or the situation turns out badly.  I can also identify with her sensualist tendencies (there are some great passages about food and the eating thereof in this book).

How does one measure success at being a “grown-up”?  How do you know when you are one?   Do those traditional milestones (marriage, home ownership, car ownership, boat ownership) really matter at all?  Maybe you know you’re a grown-up when you reach the point where you can be there for others even when it’s hard, create connections that matter to you, and when you can hold a sick baby’s hand.

I’m excited to read more of Attenberg’s work.  She’s witty and insightful and creates emotional  and truthful moments that pack a punch for how unexpectedly they creep up on you.

–Marie

Marie’s Currently Reading: Blizzard Edition II

Ugh.  Last time I could make jokes but this time digging out our driveway took three hours and I don’t want to talk about it except to say:

598480

 

On the plus side, I did spend the not-shoveling part of the snowstorm with some great books!

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan.  This book about the women who worked at Oak Ridge during World War II reads like a novel.  Since this is still within living memory, the author was able to interview lots of people, and to focus on a few individual stories.  The first-person accounts really add an immersive layer to the history.  In alternate chapters, the history and science behind the atomic bomb is explored.  A nice introduction to the making of the atomic bomb, and also a great exploration of the women who had a hand in making it happen.

The Widow’s House by Carol Goodman.  Very much my usual, and Goodman is very much in her wheelhouse with a novel about two writers who go back to their college town in upstate New York to work as caretakers for a former teacher.  The teacher’s house has a tragic past, and lots of family secrets and maybe a ghost.  Entertaining and enjoyable, and I’m just getting into the meat of it now.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.  This book was all the rage when it was first published.  Everyone was reading it and talking about it.  It’s been on my TBR pile for years, and I just started it the other night.  The first chapter was a promising, atmospheric, and mysterious beginning to a story about rival magicians in the late 19th century.

Ghost Road Blues by Jonathan Maberry.  Yet another novel I’m reading in preparation for Horror month!  I’ve loved all the short stories I’ve read by Maberry, so I decided to give this title a try.  It’s about an ancient evil in a small town.  If it spooks me, you’ll see it in October!

That was all I had time for before the shoveling began.  And the watching of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, which is awesome and you should stop reading this right now and go watch it.  Maybe this weekend I’ll have time for more books and Gently.  After shoveling.

–Marie