January 2010 Books

Aaaaaaages ago I decided to track what I read every month, kind of just for fun. I did it for a year, during which I read something like a hundred and eleven books, and then when I started backpacking in 2006 I was all “I have no time to record my reading! I am living the nomadic lifestyle!” and I stopped. I’ve thought about starting up again several times but, you know, it made sense to do so at the beginning of the year and it was never the beginning of the year, and also when I was intensively traveling I wouldn’t have my laptop with me and it seemed strange to keep a list on paper of what I was reading instead of just, like, reading the books and getting on with my life.

But, happily for me, today is the last day of January and this time around I was sort of ready for it. I say ‘sort of’ because I think my relationship with reading and with books has changed a little since 2005. It’s my ever-increasing internet addiction, of course—I mean in 2005 we couldn’t update Facebook and Twitter fifteen times a day—and also because books are very very very expensive in New Zealand, like thirty-five or forty bucks for a new release paperback. I can’t spend that kind of cash on everything I want to read, can you? No. I did get three big glorious hardbacks from my mom for Christmas that I enjoyed thoroughly, although much to my sadness I won’t be telling you about them here since I read them in December and now it’s January and those are the rules even if one of those books was The Year Of The Flood by Margaret Atwood, about which I have quite a lot to say. Maybe I will get off on a technicality and re-read it in April or something, you don’t know. Anyway, because they’re so expensive I don’t get to read much new fiction anymore, and my reading habits have become a lot more haphazard.

I used to be a member of the excellent Seattle Public Library and I used to have a hold list that was like fifty books long and I used to read the Powell’s Books newsletter and I used to have a regularly-updated Amazon wish list and I used to be in a book club with a fantastic woman who would bring six totebags of brand new books every month that her job gave her for free. I had stacks of books everywhere, and also a forty-minute-each-way bus commute, which, no lie, is excellent reading time. I have none of those things now: Wellington libraries are very good of course—I got a library card when I was still living at the Maple Lodge but they charge to put something on your hold list, for a start, as well as to borrow new bestsellers, and I suspect they also just have a smaller circulation than that in which I once gloried. (Their music selection is better though, and the branch in town has a café, and their magazine stacks are to die for, so you know, pros and cons).

When I was traveling in 2008 I lived in constant fear that I would run out of things to read on those long bus journeys so I was constantly scouring all the hostel book-trade shelves, hoping against hope that I would find something that would take me through a bus ride from Te Anau to Queenstown or wherever. In fact one of the secret nice things about my Australian trip was that for some reasons all the hostels had all these Booker Prize-winners on their shelves, and you best believe I scooped those up and carried them around with me in case of emergency, extra weight be damned.

Anyway, I used to be a lot more considered with what I read, even just on the level of someone recommending a book to me and I’d put it on my hold list or maybe even buy it, and that would be that. Sometimes now I’ll have an author in mind when I make my weekly trip to the library but mostly what I do is just sort of wander around the various stacks and displays and pick things up and put them down again until I find something that sounds good. I often rely on jacket covers to tell me if I will like something, and I can’t even explain how I pick and choose, really—it feels very random. I just pick things up and put them down, borrow from friends, occasionally get something from Arty Bee’s or the bargain bin at
< "http://www.unitybooks.co.nz/">Unity Books.

Anyway, I still like to read. I don’t read as much or as often as I did in the heady days of my youth, with as much forethought, but I still like to read. Do you? Do you at least like reading about reading? If so, you are in luck for the rest of the year.

January 3 2010
New Zealand Book Month Six Pack 2 and 3

This is the second and third in a series; every year during New Zealand Book Month a set of six short stories by New Zealand writers, for six dollars, comes out. I have all three of the set and remain a huge giant fan of the short story. I especially like it when I get some little detail in these stories, like I recognize a Maori word or a reference to a historical event or something. I read these during the long weekend back from my trip to Golden Bay, laying on the couch drinking tea and eating biscuits while it poured down rain outside, which is an activity I can highly recommend.


January 5, 2010
The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

This was one of three big juicy hardback books my mom sent me for Christmas–I brought this with me on holiday but didn’t finish it until the aforementioned rainy weekend. Now, I’ve been reading Barbara Kingsolver for a long time, starting with The Bean Trees on my high school sophomore summer reading list. I know she’s one of those authors who is pretty easy to dismiss in some circles—like, yeah, she’s on high school summer reading lists, and I’ve heard criticism of her being heavy-handed with her political values (which are aligned very closely to my own, so I don’t mind it because I always appreciate a little confirmation bias). This is set in Mexico, with some bits in North Carolina, and has to do with Mexican communism and Frida Kahlo and flappers and the Cold War and art and suppressed homosexuality. I liked all the details of 20s and 30s Mexico City, and I loved the descriptions of the food Soli makes in the kitchens of Frida and Diego’s house, but I had a hard-ish time getting into the story. I think I was really conscious I was reading a story, you know, like it was a Story with a Message and a Point, and there was a part of me that wanted to relax and get to know the characters better. I’ve done that before with her other books, most notably The Poisonwood Bible, which happened to be laying around in the house in the Coromandel and which I re-read for probably the tenth or eleventh time all in one very deliciously lazy day. So yeah, cool book, but a little stiff for me.

January 11, 2010
Jerk, California by Jonathan Friesen

Oh heavens, this book. Lord have mercy. I was wandering around the YA section and was intrigued by the dust jacket’s claim that this was about a kid with Tourette’s Syndrome, told from his perspective. A long time ago I worked with several kids with Tourette’s but hadn’t known much about it at the time and never got to talk to the kids themselves about it, so I was like, hey cool, I will now check this book out from the library and expand my horizons or whatever the hell. This was…well, there’s no other word for it than tawdry, I think. So there’s this kid, and he has Tourette’s, which makes him twitch and jump and say things he can’t control, and the whole school hates him and no one understands him, except for this beautiful girl who just moved to town who thinks he’s totally sweet and totally doesn’t care about the twitches because she’s not shallow unlike some people, and he has this awful stepfather who makes him do all the farm chores but won’t let him drive the snowmobile because what if he twitches and then drives it into a snowbank, and also has suppressed all knowledge of his real father, who died trying to get medicine for the kid when the kid was a sick baby, up to and including changing his actual name and everyone talks very stiff and unconvincing down-home-on-the-farm talk, like “Mornin’, Jim. Best see to them cows now in the west pasture,” then the kid starts working for this old coot who says things like “I’ll allow how flowers are some of the purtiest things God ever created,” and then the old coot dies, and he leaves the kid his, like, vast palatial estate forever and ever and it turns out that not only did the old coot know the kid’s real dad! he’s ALSO the grandfather! Of the amazingly beautiful girl! Who is now pregnant by her track coach and that’s totally going to impinge on her going to Harvard to fulfill her uncaring mother’s dreams of success! And THEN they have to go on some sort of spiritual journey road trip, where, like, they have to go see all these people who knew the kid’s real dad, and also the real dad built all these windmills, and then he and the girl fall in love because she screams and runs away a lot and steals his car but then she kisses his cheek and he’s like OMG SHE LOVES ME EVEN THOUGH I TWITCH A LOT and then, creepily, he names the zygote in her womb and then tells her this information, and then they meet all these down-homey Amish people who have beards and dispense down-homey wisdom about how the kids has to make a choice and be a man and do right by his lady (hi, they’re EIGHTEEN although to be fair the kid does randomly own a vast palatial estate, so, you know, he’s got that going for him), and then they meet a wise old lady who’s all spiritual, of course, and of course is dressed all in white and is all “OMG children are the blessing of the Lord and you totally should not go to Harvard you should let this young man love you the way God intended” and then they find this mega-awesome windmill that the kid’s dad made for him before he was born (this is after they have randomly been given a mint-condition ’57 Chevy, as in putrid 80’s pop songs) and OMG there are totally all these tapes that the dad made before he totally died when the kid was a baby, and the tapes say things like “Son, there are some things a man just has to know, and I reckon I’m the man to tell you,” and then the kid and the beautiful pregnant not-gonna-go-to-Harvard-now decide to get married at age eighteen and live in the palatial estate and start up a gardening business because the kid thinks that working with green and growing things, you know, with your hands in the earth as the Lord intended is good for his Tourette’s. Also this beautiful girl and the embryo with a name is also good for his Tourette’s, so everyone wins! The end!

January 14, 2010
The Push by an Australian author whose name, regrettably, I forgot to jot down because it’s been a while since I’ve paid attention to recording what I’ve read and I forgot the rules of how to do it.

Well after that mess I was pretty glad to get onto something else, about a girl in 1950s Sydney who falls in with these “Libertarians,” who are, like, all into free love and squatting in falling-down buildings and going to the races and also smoking a lot, much to the dismay of her stoutly proletarian mother who takes in washing and wants her to get married, or something. We know this because this girl and her free-spirited friend that she works in the office with have exchanges like:

PROTAGONIST: I think I love that beautiful blond boy with the sardonic smile and the improbable name of Johnno. We totally had sex and everything, and also I had a couple of cigarettes.

FREE-SPIRITED FRIEND: Oh, Protagonist! Johnno will never love you! He will never commit to you! You see, he doesn’t believe in love, because love is merely a shackle that serves to mask the greedy individual-property-based aspirations of the bourgeousie! You can’t tame him! He has to BE FREE.

PROTAGONIST: Wait, what?

And then someone has a back-alley abortion. My favorite part was when the protagonist and her stoutly proletarian mom go over to her square boyfriend’s house (this is before she dumps him for the dude she eventually has sex with, sorry, spoiler) and the mom gives this horrible cheap wine to the snobby boyfriend’s mom and the snobby boyfriend’s mom totally looks down her nose at it and is like, “Well who wants a sherry?”

January 20, 2010
Delizia!: The Epic History Of The Italians And Their Food by John Dickie

After some rough forays into fiction I was ready to cleanse my palate, oh ho HO, and so I got right into this. I wasn’t exactly sure if there was a thesis, really: there seemed to be several, like Italian Food Is Urban Food, Contrary To The Myths Of Rural Tradition, and Globalisation Is Kind Of A Big Deal and also Things Sure Have Changed A Lot Since Ancient Times. Whatever. I just went along for the ride and didn’t care too much about the organization of the book, since I was sort of dipping in and out of it anyway, so I enjoyed learning about what to serve at a papal banquet and about how peasant food is different to rich people food (there was quite a lot to do with polenta vs. pasta—I thought it was pretty funny how polenta totally used to be poverty food for many Italians and pasta was the awesome rich food, and now a hundred years later in various countries pasta is the poor-student food and polenta is all fancy and everything) and about various famous Italian cookbooks. There were several long asides into the First World War, the method for choosing a new pope during the Renaissance, the part Futurism and Fascism played in Italian gastronomy, and the influence of regionalism and unification in Italy, so a little something for everyone, I guess.

January 23, 2010
Self Help and Birds Of America by Lorrie Moore

This was one of those times that I specifically sought out an author because I have heard all these things re: Lorrie Moore and her amazingness and how the whole world has been waiting to read The Gate At The Stairs. Anyway I found a couple of her books at the library, not the one I was looking for, but a couple of her early short fiction, which, for the purpose of this paragraph I am treating as basically one long set of weird and unsettling and completely addictive stories. One of the rules about keeping track of what I read is that as soon as I finish a book I have to write about it immediately or I’ll forget what I liked and didn’t like about it, which I neglected to do with these, so I’m actually writing this right before I hit Publish instead of in real time like I did with the others—all I can say, therefore, is that I see what all the fuss is about, and that I love how her mind works, and I now want to read everything she’s ever written, and I think that’s going to be somewhat of a challenge but I don’t care, I’m totally up for it.

January 30, 2010
Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link

Oh man. Well, after I read this set of short stories that are sort of about kids but not necessarily for kids—unless they’re for a certain type of kid, and you know who you are, or who you were: slightly misfitty, slightly dreamy, slightly believing that the world would be so much better if it were more like the world in your head—I immediately re-read one of them, “The Library,” while I was waiting for the bus. Like, finished the last story, ate a mint that I had in my bag, and flipped through it to read that story again. It’s gorgeous, that story. Kelly Link’s writing is gorgeous and twisty-turny, and sleek and sly and backwards-forwards and round again, and I liked quite a few of her characters very much indeed. This was a random grab in the YA section and a couple of times while I was reading it I sort of had to hug myself with glee because I just so glad to be reading this book. I love it when that happens.

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7 comments

  1. Delurking to say… this entry made me so so happy because a) I love reading about what other people are reading and b) you haven’t read Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners yet, and it makes me insanely happy to think about you discovering that book, because, oh my god. You are in for such a treat.

  2. Three things:

    1. Thank you for reading Jerk, California so I don’t have to. Not only did reading your summary take less time than reading the book, I’m pretty sure it was also exponentially more entertaining.

    2. On polenta vs pasta and “foods of the poor”, see also: lobster. Things like that crack me up.

    3. You should check out goodreads.com

  3. I love to hear what people are reading, so yippee! This year I am bound and determined to keep track of the books I read, and get a complete list for the year.

    Bean Trees is one of my favorite books, I love Kingsolver’s earlier stuff-Pigs In Heaven was also a fave. I don’t know why, but starting with Poisonwood Bible, I just haven’t enjoyed her books as much.

  4. Seconding Dawn’s recommendation of Goodreads. Also, I hadn’t realized, until I started keeping track last year, exactly how much my knitting habit has cut into my reading habit. I’m only getting through two or three books a month now, and it makes me sad, because there are so many-many-many good books out there that I’m never going to get to…

  5. Aw, I’m a “fantastic woman”! Thanks!

  6. It may have changed a bit in the (omg how did this happen?) decade since I’ve been gone, but I believe Wellington Library does have free copies of new bestsellers, it’s just that MOST of the copies are pay-to-borrow.

    All, Wellington Library. Back in the day you could borrow vinyl records there (bien sur), and they gave you a special cardboard carrying sleeve for them, with a note printed on it saying Don’t Leave This In Your Car, and then posted all around the music department were the crinkled corpses of records that had been left in cars. Wait, what were we talking about again?

  7. Congrazzles on completing your book report for Jan ’10, Chiara! I actually drifted away from your blog when I stopped daylaboring at a compooper in a cubicle, and had a wee one demanding more of my precious interweb time, but I thought recently about this very expressed book reportage you used to do on a monthly basis, and how it filled me with inspiration and awe that you were so committed to the reading life, and I try to come close now to finishing a book in a month and think about what I would report on it….but it just happened that today was a day I returned to your blog and lo! the book report had also returned. Love the serendip here!