Sunday, January 15, 2017

Year of Reading Scandi-lously

Hope Jahren's Lab Girl was a surprisingly apt follow-up read to Helen Russell's The Year of Living Danishly. Not only did I stick with the nonfiction female memoir trend, but the mood stayed Scandinavian (or 'Scandi' as Russell frequently abbreviates in what I'm not sure is magazine-speak, Brit-speak, or her own argot).

Jahren describes her Minnesota childhood and immediately evokes the type of winter that Russell observes, except without the cozy sense of hygge. As Jahren puts it, she traded the icy exterior for a different type of iciness when she entered her home. The writing in Jahren's memoir has a strong sense of place, grounded literally by her interpolated chapters on plant life. It reminds me of the best attributes of scientific writing--the ability to say a lot in a short space and to be precise where it matters. Jahren's goal also exemplifies the truest goal of scientific writing today, to inspire research, by way of grants.

As she states in her first chapter, "If you're reading this, and you wish to to support us, please give me a call. It would be insane of me not to include that sentence. " Her book therefore has a compelling purpose--to raise funds. Although it's an inspiring and gripping and fascinating story, that purpose never wavers. Though the prose naturally focuses on herself as the titular character, the real intended stars of the book are the plants that she researches and her lab partner, Bill. Jahren believes that plants shape their environments (as opposed to vice versa) and that they have, in their own way, lives, memories, thoughts of their own. She wants to build on her research to support this overarching theory, and she wants Bill's wages to be paid. Lab Girl is her long love letter to those ends.

The partnership between Jahren and Bill has been described by many as the core of the book, and I think that's indisputable. However, since so many people have focused on that, I don't need to say much about it except that it's worth reading about. What I will address is what is and isn't in the book. First, I read a comment on Amazon that accused Jahren and Bill of hazing their graduate students as an example of a larger culture of that in the sciences. I can't speak to the larger culture, but the comment cites literally the only example of this in the book (they ask students to label beakers for a project, then throw them out in front of the student), and it's in a very specific context of a similar incident happening to them. Now, I don't necessarily think that's a great idea, but I don't think it's quite evidence of hazing, and more of their own idiosyncratic training methods. Jahren acknowledges that they can be mean gossips, but that reads like self-criticism, and she also mentions how she and Bill support students. Second, with a title like Lab Girl and the buzz the book was getting before it was published, one might expect it to focus more on Jahren's experience as a woman in a man's world. While that does come up, it feels like more of a "hook" she used to entice readers, effectively so.

Instead, Lab Girl is much more than its title would imply. This isn't another tired exploration of women's difficulties vis-a-vis the patriarchy in the sciences (and I'm not trying to downplay that, I just think we can transcend it), but a stunning tour-de-force of one woman's absolutely unique passion for plants. And as weird and quirky as that sounds, we need more of that if women's, and ahem, all scientists' work is going to be valued as it should.

So, I'm not sure if I'm going to continue reading "Scandi-lously" or not this year. Up on the docket next I've got Karen Armstrong's The Case for God and I just finished the audiobook I've been listening to since December, The Accidental Empress by Alison Pataki (my only fiction so far this year!). Also, I've been watching The Magicians, so I'm thinking about listening to that trilogy on audiobook next.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

New Year's Reading

I've started off my new year's reading very similar to what became my go-to books last year: nonfiction memoirs by female authors. The last book I read last year (November and December reading will be up, er, soon-ish), was Such a Pretty Fat by Jen Lancaster, and the first book I read this year was--dum dum dum--Jeneration X by Jen Lancaster. But seriously. My fiance doesn't even know her name, but he's like "Oh no, are you reading that person who makes you laugh all the time again!?"

My second book this year was The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell. I'm interested (me and the rest of the world) in the Danish concept of hygge (I first saw it on the Konmari Instagram feed). It fits since winter is my least favorite season, and I'm sick of being somewhat sad for 4-5 months of the year. This winter has been mild, although there's currently an inch of snow and it's well below freezing. Still, the concept of making winter a "cozy" time to enjoy family, candles, blankets, and books appeals more than my previous strategy of telling myself that at least each day after Dec. 21st is longer!

I also received another hygge book (and a couple more are in the mail, ahem), The Art of Hygge by Elias Larsen and Jonny Jackson. It was mostly a how-to hygge guide with lots of hygge imagery: I'm looking forward to indulgent hot chocolate, decorative jars, and briefly considered making tea cozies out of old socks. Russell's book, however, was much more than just hygge, although it does provide a context for the concept. Russell, a British journalist, moves to Denmark when her husband gets a year-long job at Lego. She decides to spend the year investigating why Danes are reportedly the happiest people in the world.

One of the reasons I like Russell's memoir so much is because it isn't as memoir-y as others I've read. Don't get me wrong; I've started to become obsessed with the minutiae of other grown-up women's lives, but I also like to learn about things other than adulting.
Russell covers her daily life in Denmark month-by-month, but she incorporates a lot of research, primarily conversations with experts. I feel like I learned a lot about Danish society, and not just the shiny bits. She discusses gender (in) equality, domestic violence, and (copious) alcohol consumption. After a year, of course, she doesn't know everything, and much of her conversation is reflective of her UK nationality, as well as a clear bias toward a UK and US audience. As a US reader, I couldn't tell if a lot of her slang was just British or idiosyncratic to her; I'm considering reading it again just for that. I also found it interesting that she emphasized dollars and US comparisons so much. I wonder if she ever lived in the US or worked assignments there. Or maybe it was just the publisher's appeal to the US audience.

I've still got that new year's rush of feeling excited about reading, and now I'm also excited for a cozy winter ahead. Next up: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren.

Monday, January 2, 2017

2016 Reading Statistics

Borrowed from Boston Bibliophile.

How many books read in 2016?
65 (not including rereads or work reads)
How many fiction and non fiction? 42 fiction and 19 nonfiction (2 short story collections, 1 book of poetry)
Male/Female author ratio? 48 written by women to 15 written by men. I didnt  read intentionally in this regard this year, but I did notice I was tending more towards books by women. 

Favorite book of 2016?  Bitter is the New Black by Jen Lancaster. Also, The Yiddish Policemens Union by Michael Chabon, Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Better Than Before and Happiness Project books by Gretchen Rubin, and Mans Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.
Least favorite? Paper Towns by John Green or A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
Any that you simply couldn’t finish and why? I DNFd Empress of the Night by Eva Stachniak. I disliked all of the switching back and forth in time.
Oldest book read? I think The Haunted Bookshop, published in 1919.
Newest? The Circuit: Earthfall, published in Dec. 2016
Longest and shortest book titles? 
Shortest title: Out of Oz by Gregory Maguire
Longest title: The History of an Obsession: German Judeophobia and the Holocaust, by Klaus P. Fischer
Longest and shortest books?
Longest:  The History of an Obsession, at 544 pages.
Shortest: An Abundance of Katherines, at 272 pages.
How many books from the library?
32. I did very well on getting library books this year. It helped that I got all my audiobooks  (12) from the library. I also read 8 books found at my local Little Free Library.
Any translated books?
I read 3 translated books this year, 2 from Italian and 1 from German.
Which countries did you go to through the page in your year of reading?
I travelled to Tudor England, 19th century England, 20th century England, throughout the United States in the past few decades, and to a few different dystopias, futures, and fantasy lands, including twice to Oz.
Most read author of the year, and how many books by that author? 
Jen Lancaster, Gretchen Rubin, J.K. Rowling, and Rae Carson are tied at three books each.
Any re-reads?
I read Bitter is the New Black by Jen Lancaster and Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin twice each.  
Favorite character of the year? 
Jen Lancaster!
Which book wouldn’t you have read without someone’s specific recommendation?
I didnt read a lot of recommendations this year, it was mostly finds from the library and Little Free Library.
Which author was new to you in 2016 that you now want to read the entire works of?
Jen Lancaster
Which books are you annoyed you didn't read? Im not really annoyed about anything I didnt get to this year. Either I got to what I wanted, or I realized it wasnt that important.
Did you read any books you have always been meaning to read?
I mostly read in the moment this year, so although I read some books that happened to be on my TBR, I didn’t intentionally do so. 

How many books did you read on your ereader?: 7, and honestly, I thought it was going to be fewer than that. I’ll see how I do with that going forward.
How many SFF books did you read? 12, including the entire Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy and the last two books of the Circuit trilogy. 

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Books Finished in November

55. Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule by Jennifer Chiaverini (audiobook)

The story ostensibly focuses on the relationship between Julia Dent Grant and her childhood slave, Jule. Julia, who grew up on a plantation near St. Louis, Missouri, married Ulysses S. Grant, who later led the Union army to victory. During the war, Jule, as well as eventually the Dents' other slaves, escaped, and she later became a hairdresser of some repute in Washington D.C. and New York City, overlapping respectively with her former mistress' time in those two cities. However, although an intriguing concept, the story actually centers on the love story between Julia and Ulysses Grant, and defending the pair from every allegation made over the course of his career (he wasn't drunk, he had headaches!; he didn't know his officials were corrupt!). Jule was frankly the most interesting character, but the main character least deployed.

Overall, this is an obviously well researched historical romance, but it falls short of a balanced reflection on the characters of Julia and Ulysses Grant, and largely fails to tell the promised story of the relationship between the two women.

56. Old Friend From Far Away by Natalie Goldberg (audiobook)

An extremely short audiobook (just two discs!) whets the appetite to get started on writing a memoir. It's narrated by Natalie Goldberg herself, and it sounds just like she is talking to you. It's well planned as an audiobook and even has transitional music between vignettes. I'm not planning on writing a memoir anytime soon, but this one caught my eye in the bookstore, and the library had the audiobook. Last year, I enjoyed reading about writing while I did NaNoWriMo, and I found it helpful this year too. As always, Natalie Goldberg is a font of wisdom, and what I took out of this one was: don't call it a big red flower in the window: call it a geranium.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Top Ten Books I Wouldn't Mind for Hanukkah

Happy Top Ten Tuesday over at the Broke and the Bookish!

Top Ten Books I Wouldn't Mind for Hanukkah

1. Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

I've already read it, but I want to re-read it and I feel like it's a book I will enjoy referring back to.

2. Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin

I have it out of the library right now, and I've already read and renewed it twice.

3. The 8th Habit by Stephen R. Covey

I have it out of the library right now, but I feel like to really use it right I have to own it...

4. Anything by Jen Lancaster

She makes me laugh out loud so much. I got Bitter is the New Black from the little Free Library and I'm not giving it back anytime soon. I also have The Tao of Martha out from the library right now, but she has a ton more books that I'm sure I'll enjoy just as much.

5. Marriage; A History by Stephanie Coontz

I've wanted to read this forever, but flip-flopped on buying nonfiction I haven't already read. However, it's feeling rather pertinent right now and the library doesn't have it.

6. The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick

I just heard of this one from Modern Mrs. Darcy, but it sounds interesting and I'm always intrigued by books with characters named Miriam.

7. Starflight and Starfall by Melissa Landers

These  both sounds like really fun space fantasies.

8. Talking as Fast as I Can by Lauren Graham

I love Gilmore Girls (#thebooknotthemovie) and I'm really into memoirs right now, so this is perfect.

9. Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Very much one of the 'it' books this year, and as a memoir about a woman in the sciences, it sounds up my alley.

10. The Cozy Life by Pia Edberg, The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell, How to Hygge by Signe Johansen or any other book about hygge

Right on trend, I'm fascinated with the Danish concept of hygge and kind of want to read all the new books about it, especially for winter.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Book Review: The Circuit: Earthfall by Rhett C. Bruno

The Circuit: Earthfall by Rhett C. Bruno

*Published Dec. 13, 2016*

Earthfall is the incredibly satisfying conclusion to Rhett C. Bruno's The Circuit trilogy. Although I wouldn't recommend reading it without having read the other two first, I thought it was the best of all three books in terms of pacing, writing, and character development. The plot has a clear arc from the outset, and develops naturally from there. It never slows down too much, but nor does it feel convoluted. And most importantly to me, although it wasn't exactly what I would have hoped for, there's an ending that feels appropriate for each beloved character.

The concept of the Circuit is what drew me in, but it's the characters that kept me reading. What I love about the Circuit is that it's not dystopian, but it's far from the pie in the sky, colonize the stars dream of 1950s and '60s scifi. Humanity managed to escape Earth's demise, but society is stagnant, caught just existing in our original solar system, dependent on the element Gravitum, mined from the remains of Earth. It's in some ways a more potent mirror for today than fiction that reflects our deepest fears, like The Hunger Games or The Walking Dead. The worst hasn't yet happened, in fact, humanity largely weathered the apocalypse, civil society intact (more or less), BUT...our dreams are on hold.

These elements of the society in which they exist are evident in Bruno's protagonists. Most of all, Cassius, the villain with a conscience, is determined to break society's dependence on Gravitum and ensure the fated return to the stars. Bruno takes a nuanced look in asking us to examine Cassius' lofty goal, and as it turns out, noble intentions and all-too-human emotions, against the destruction his actions wreak. Whether or not Cassius is a redeemable character depends very much on the reader, and I like that invitation to think on a human scale. Personally, I lean towards no...but I'm not entirely sure.

The more obviously redeemable protagonists, Talon and Sage, still have their dark sides, of which Bruno is careful to remind in the final volume. Both have committed crimes for others in their past, and while it's arguable that those actions were necessary to support the societies in which they believe, it's also taken a toll on them. Especially Talon and Sage, but all of the protagonists, including Cassius and his robot "son" ADIM, find some redemption in the book's opening rescue of Talon's daughter Elisha. Following these characters' journeys and choices are what kept me tied to the screen of my ereader, and I was rewarded with the explosion of ADIM's ticking time bomb, which I mention in my review of the second book. However, Bruno did make some moves that surprised me, and the mix of an expected and unexpected ending was highly pleasurable.

For an interesting take on a post-apocalyptic human society in space, nuanced and compelling characters, and strong writing, I recommend the Circuit trilogy, especially to science fiction fans, but also fans of political and/or character-driven fiction.

Received for review from the author.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Thoughts on NaNoWriMo 2016

Yesterday was the last day of NaNoWriMo 2016.

I hit over 25,000 words.

That was not my original goal for the month: I was aiming for the traditional NaNo goal of 50,000 words in 30 days.

However, a little bit more than halfway through, I evaluated my progress and decided to change my goal to 25k.

I'm proud of reaching my secondary goal, and I think I did a good job, considering. However, I'm still a little bummed that I didn't hit 50k like I did last year, and I want to figure out why.

First, I've had less time to devote to it this year since my work schedule is different.

Second, I wrote historical instead of contemporary fiction, and did less research instead of more, due to the aforementioned different work schedule.

Third, though, it wasn't my first rodeo. Last year, I was motivated to win my first NaNoWriMo. I followed my scheduled writing plan exactly, and I got a huge head start, finishing 4k in the first day alone.

I've been reading Gretchen Rubin's Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives,and, although, as usual, I don't agree with her entirely, she suggests that the first time one does something, one is more likely to succeed, i.e. first marathon, first diet attempt, but it's harder to keep up the effort after that. Interesting phenomenon, and I wonder if some of it is at work here.

Anyway, I've got a new goal. 75,000 words by January 30.