Looking for a Good Book?

WordSisters is adding a new feature—a completely idiosyncratic mini book review/recommendation that will appear every now and then.

The bookThere Your Heart Lies by Mary Gordon

What attracted me? I’ve read several of Mary Gordon’s novels (The Company of Women, Final Payments) and think she’s a good writer, but I haven’t read anything of hers lately, so I was curious. Also I was pretty sure that Mary Gordon wouldn’t have written a romance novel, which is sort of what the title sounds like—a bit of misdirection.

The premise – When Marian, a woman in her nineties, is diagnosed with cancer, she shares her secret past with her granddaughter, Amelia. Marian is closer to Amelia than any of her other relatives, and Amelia is caring for Marian while she sorts out her life after college.

Amelia envisions that the secret past she is about to discover will be quaint and charming, perhaps involving flapper dresses and smoking. Instead, she learns her grandmother volunteered as an ambulance driver and nurse during the Spanish Civil War along with her idealistic Communist Party friends. Marian’s time in Spain has far-reaching consequences, which affect Amelia.

What appealed to me – Marian and Amelia are likable characters, and I liked the idea of their close connection. Marian’s story dominates the book and her reactions are often surprising, which made her more interesting. Amelia is less well developed but still a believable character (Gordon could have done more with her), has her own coming-of-age moment.

The plot takes some unexpected turns (that’s good), and I learned a lot about the history and politics in Spain that resulted in the atrocities perpetrated by Franco’s fascist forces as well as those committed by the resistance fighters. Aside from Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, I knew very little about the Spanish Civil War, so Gordon’s novel illuminated that time for me.

What books do YOU recommend?

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Keep a Book Journal? Um, Not So Much

I have loved to read since I was in grade school—more than 50 years ago. In the intervening time I’ve gobbled up a lot books. I slowed down while my sons were growing up, but now I can read as much as I like. So much so, that I consciously limit my book intake so I can fit in all of the other things I want to do. Nonetheless, I average about four books per month. Until recently, I never kept a book journal or list of what I’ve read.

Why not? Laziness, mostly. Making a list or creating a system of tracking what I read seemed like homework. Besides, aside from me, who cares what I read? If anything, keeping a list might make me feel vaguely guilty about all that reading . . . when I could be doing something more virtuous and less fun like training for a marathon (oh wait, I’m not a runner).

Learning that Star Tribune books editor Laurie Hertzel never caught on to using Goodreads made me feel better. I’m a Goodreads dropout too (my apologies to the dozen people who follow me).

Her article about book journals describes the various ways avid readers approach book journals. Some people record the title, author, and date the book was read to keep from accidentally repeating a book or for a sense of accomplishment. Others rate the books. The article also mentioned that a few particularly organized readers develop Excel spreadsheets—that’s so not me!

That’s why I’m surprised that in the last two years, I’ve begun making a few notes about my reading. It began as a list of books I want to read, culled from book reviews and book blogs. I’d jot my list in Notes on my phone. But after I read the book, I didn’t always delete the title (re: laziness) so the list began to grow.

My process is still hit or miss, but sometimes I add a gold star next to titles I loved in case anyone wants a recommendation. I’ll put a + next to pretty good books, +~ next to books that were good but didn’t quite work, and a ~ for so-so books. Books that I actively disliked or abandoned get a NOT symbol or a minus (these days, I’ll desert a book if I don’t love it after 50-75 pages—life’s too short). When I’m underwhelmed by a book, I occasionally jot a brief note about it, especially if I’m trying to understand why I didn’t like something that was critically acclaimed.

 

Book notes

Reading is the real pleasure. Some people enjoy making scrapbooks of their experiences or photo albums of their travels. The process enhances their enjoyment. I don’t do either one. For me, the fun is stepping into another world, a different time, or an unfamiliar culture. Getting caught up in a story. Unlike real life, I have no responsibility for the characters and no ability to intervene in their dramas. I’m just along for the ride. The experience is enough.

However, if you ever want a recommendation or my opinion, just ask—I might have a note!

Will Our Grandchildren Even Need Bookcases?

How much longer will bookcases be prized as places where knowledge and inspiration reside? For hundreds of years people have built everything from simple pine shelves to the finest mahogany and oak bookcases to house their treasured books. But ebooks are replacing paper books. Instead of paging through a book, more of us turn to the Internet for information and open iPads or Kindles for the stories we love. I began pondering this cultural shift when I emptied my bookcases before moving to a smaller home last year.

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Deciding what to discard was difficult. I love my books. No, really. I love my books. When I picked up each one, I felt a tug of recognition and pleasure that quickly turned into a pang of sadness. As the afternoon wore on, I was knee-deep in books and accumulated nostalgia.

My books represented my intellectual history, and therefore, my own history. The philosophy textbooks and literary classics came from my undergraduate days. During graduate school I added feminist poetry, stories, essays, and novels. Because they were scarce in the late 1970s, my friends and I shared them like contraband. The ideas I found in those pages challenged me to reconsider many of my beliefs.

Some of my books are novels by authors I just love (Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Tim O’Brien, Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, Simon Mawer, Aravind Adiga—I could go on and on). Their stories transported me to other times and cultures and enriched me with insights that I wouldn’t have had any other way. How could I let go of these old friends?

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At least a dozen of the books are by authors I know personally. Pamela Gemin. Cynthia Kraack. George Rabasa. Sherry Roberts. The anthologies that published my essays are also stored there.

Essay collections by Marion Winik, Ellen Goodman, Barbara Kingsolver, Bailey White and others mark my ongoing effort to learn the craft of writing personal essays.

I have shelves of books on writing—from the grammar handbook I used in my first teaching job to books about the craft of writing memoir. I have books about how to get published and how to promote a book. P1040205

After a while, discarding the physical books became easier. I thought about how long it had been since I opened some of them and realized they meant something once, but no longer. I reminded myself that if I needed to reread a certain Wilfred Owen poem, I could find it online.

I needed to let go of the intellectual fantasy that one day a visiting friend would look at my books and say, “So what do you think of Kant’s The Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics?” or ask “How has Adrienne Rich’s On Lies, Secrets and Silence? influenced you?” When friends visit, we hang out in the kitchen—no one but family ever sees my office. And really? I know who I am and what ideas formed me—without these emblems to remind me.

Besides, there are plenty of books that I love but don’t own. Long ago I realized that I couldn’t possibly own every book I wanted to read. Many of my favorite books belong to the public library or to friends.

These days, I keep many of my books on my iPad—my own personal and very portable bookcase. So many books in such a small space! I can take them anywhere. I never have to be without a good book.

At Christmas, when I received hardcover books from my sons I was surprised—I assumed they would give me e-books. I’m delighted with their gifts, but I was startled to realize that my paradigm has shifted.

Today, I have one foot in the paper world and one foot in the digital world. I’ve pared down my collection of books, and it makes me happy to think of someone else enjoying the ones I gave away. There still are plenty of books I’m not prepared to part with. But going forward, I will have fewer paper books. My future grandchildren may view paper books and wooden bookcases as quaint artifacts and that’s OK.

I’ve come to realize that what I really love are stories and ideas. They can reside on the page or on the screen.

The Little Free Library Saved My Camping Trip

At 11 p.m., the tent, sleeping bags, lantern, bin of dry food, and bug spray were in the car. Early the next morning, we were driving to northern Wisconsin for a four-day tent camping trip. But wait! What was I going to read? All of my books were on my iPad and it would be pretty hard to recharge it while camping.

As a reading addict, I get panicky at the thought not having at least three books to read when I go on a trip. Barnes & Noble wouldn’t be open before we left. Amazon couldn’t help me.

For many people, being without books during a camping trip is no problem. There’s hiking. Swimming. Sitting by the fire. Eating s’mores. Stargazing. And we do all of that.

Lack of old-fashioned paper books would really put a damper on the trip.

I love losing myself in a story and there are lots of opportunities to read during a leisurely trip like camping. When the birds wake up the campground at 5:30 a.m., I like to burrow into my sleeping bag and read for a while before wrestling into clothes and walking down the road to heed nature’s call. For me, swimming really means reading on the beach and jumping into the lake occasionally to cool off. In the late afternoon, it’s nice to have a beer and read before we make dinner. After the dishes are done and we’ve gathered kindling for the fire, I’ll read a little more before the light fades.

If we delayed the trip for several hours until the bookstore opened, we would arrive too late to have lunch with a friend who lives near the campground.

Inspiration struck—I could borrow books from the Little Free Library!

IMG_1344The libraries dot my Minneapolis neighborhood. A Little Free Library steward makes or buys a house-shaped box, stocks it with books, and erects it in the yard. Patrons can take book or leave a book anytime. If the steward registers the library, it will appear on the world map the Little Free Library organization maintains on its website.

Little Free Library is a grassroots movement begun in 2009 by Todd Bol of nearby Hudson, Wisconsin. He and Rick Brooks, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, saw the opportunity to build community and share a love of reading. Initially, they and other volunteers donated time and materials and the movement grew within the region. Word-of-mouth, as well as regional and national media, helped spread the idea, and by the end 2011, there were nearly 400 Little Free Libraries across the U.S. In 2012, the Little Free Library became a nonprofit corporation. In early 2015, nearly 25,000 Little Free Libraries were registered across the world.

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Within blocks of my house, there are eight Little Free Libraries. I visited two and came away with three books to devour on my camping trip: a bestselling mystery, an historical novel, and a memoir I’d read but enjoyed enough to reread. Crisis averted!

After we returned, I put the books back in circulation and added several more from home. It’s inspiring to see how a grassroots organization can do so much to support a love of reading and foster a sense of community.

Bookstores Beat Amazon for Browsing

I love that I can zero in on several pairs of cool shoes on Zappos that will fit my hard-to-fit feet. Yippee! The Internet brings me things I can’t find locally. Problem solved! I have happily spent time searching for deals in the clearance sections on Banana Republic, JJill and Macy’s websites (usually when I should have been doing something else). Score—70% off! But I do not love browsing on Amazon to find books I might enjoy. For that, nothing replaces the sense of discovery and delight I experience in brick and mortar bookstores like Magers & Quinn, Common Good Books, or Subtext.

Amazon’s “Recommended for You” algorithm is too simplistic. Just because I recently read a book about the Holocaust doesn’t mean I want to read three more books on that subject. At least not right now.

The trouble is—I don’t always know what I want to read. Until I picked up Praying Drunk, a collection of short stories by Kyle Minor and One of Us, a novel by Tawni O’Dell that’s set in Kentucky coal country, I didn’t know I would enjoy them.

Magers & Quinn

Magers & Quinn

Browsing in a bookstore is almost meditative. I give my mind and feet permission to wander and I open myself to discovering what’s there. When I find a good book that wasn’t on anybody’s bestseller list, it’s a pleasure. The title or cover lures me. After reading a few pages, there’s a moment of victory, “Yes! This one will be good.” I feel inordinately lucky. It isn’t just a book. It’s a good read—sometimes a journey to an interesting place. Other times it’s a respite from a bad week.

If I find a book, I buy it, but often I am torn. I also love to read ebooks. I can read in bed without turning on a light and bothering my husband. I can carry 10 pounds of books in a 1-pound device when I’m traveling. Unfortunately, ebooks lead me to Amazon. Buying there just hastens the demise of all those independent bookstores that I love. If independent bookstores could offer books in either paper or digital form, I’d gladly buy my ebooks from them. They’ve earned the sale by giving me a great experience. Amazon is procurement, not browsing. Visiting a bookstore is an adventure.