Hello Again

After an embarrassing year and a half hiatus from book blogging (and a 10 month hiatus from blogging in general), I’m baaaack. As much work as reading, reviewing and updating a blog was, I really miss recording my thoughts and using TNATR as a pinboard for all my favorite book related things as well as the fun feeling of spreading the news about good books with my friends.

So. I’m back. Hopefully I can create and stick to a somewhat regular writing schedule. And even more importantly, READING schedule.

Which brings me to the topic of today’s post, which feels especially timely as this year winds to a close: Reading Challenges. Not “I tackled a challenging book”, but more along the lines of the yearly Goodreads Reading Challenges. Do you do them? I’ve kept and recorded all the books I read in a year informally since I graduated college and every year it’s fascinating to see the depth and breadth of books I’ve devoured in the past year. I always like to look at which months I read the most, how many non-fiction vs fiction books I read (spoiler alert, I BARELY read non-fiction) and how many of these books are graphic novels or comics.

Some years are better than others and this year was probably my worst in my 8 year history of record keeping. Right now I’ve read a total of 40 books. And if I was going to be really, BRUTALLY honest, I only finished half of 3 of those books before giving up but I wanted them off my “currently reading queue” so desperately that I just marked them as read and moved on. Those books are: Lonely Jim by Amis Kingsley (oh god, this was NOT as amusing as advertised), NW by Zadie Smith (I wanted to love it, I really did, but the characters were so one dimensional and boring) and What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander (a good short story collection that I stalled out on because I hit a dull story and then the library book became due and I never renewed it. Embarassing.)

This year was such a whirlwind that reading fell by the wayside most of the year. When I got my new job in April, I was busy working hard and re-adjusting to what it meant to have a full time job again (meaning I had to wear REAL clothes during the day (!) and couldn’t spend all day reading in between applying for jobs). I also realized how difficult it is to balance work and life while training for triathlons and a marathon, which meant my free time to read completely disappeared in an effort to just function as a human being.

Now that I’m engaged and taking on the daunting and overwhelming task of planning a wedding without the luxury of an unlimited budget, I’m not really sure I’ll have any MORE time in the coming year unless I quit running completely (more realistically I may take a year off running marathons to keep my sanity), but I need to make a much more concerted effort to read. I realize that when I don’t read, something very fundamental about myself feels off and I slide into a weird quasi-depression without realizing what’s wrong. Inevitably it’s that I just haven’t had enough time to sit down with a good book and just READ. Does that happen to anyone? I know there are usually peaks and valleys with reading, but when your whole year is mostly a valley of crappy reality TV and falling asleep at 9:30pm, well, something is off.

Anyway, I’ll wait to post the finally book tally and statistics until the close of the year because I’m anticipating a small rally to push up my numbers a bit, but until then, how are the rest of you doing with your year-end book reading goals? Are you going to hit your number? Do you not care at all? Already thinking about your book goals for next year? Share!

Bloomsday Challenge!

Lately I’ve been setting ambitious goals for myself: Move to Philadelphia. Find a New Job. Run a Marathon. Adding to my list of ambitious goals is my recent obsession with actually reading Ulysses all the way through. It’s one of those intimidating books that is on my “things I want to do before I die” checklist and is something akin to the holy grail of Literature. I decided recently that this year is as good as any to cross this life goal off my list and I’ve decided that after I finish The Pale King and perhaps another quick book, I’m going to plunge right into Ulysses.

Pushing me to finish this book is the fact that Bloomsday is June 16th and this year I’m dying to take part in the festivities in Philadelphia. What’s Bloomsday, you ask? Bloomsday started on June 16th, 1954, on the 50th anniversary of the original day in which Ulysses takes place and is called Bloomsday after the protagonist of Ulysses: Leopold Bloom. The event is celebrated not just in Dublin but in many cities around the world and the day serves as an homage to both James Joyce as well as his influential and controversial novel.

In Philadelphia, Bloomsday is a popular event and with good reason. In 1924, Dr. A. S. W. Rosenbach bought James Joyce’s original handwritten manuscript of Ulysses at an auction for $1,975. The reasons for this purchase remain murky, since Dr. Rosenbach was not professionally involved in publishing or literature, however the novel must have had special personal meaning to him because it was never put back up for sale, even when James Joyce himself inquired about the possibility of buying back the manuscript.

Because of this rare cultural legacy, the Rosenbach Museum and Library leads the Bloomsday festivities in Philadelphia every year, featuring an all day reading Ulysses in its entirety by prominent Philadelphians and an exhibition of rare 1st edition copies of Ulysses and other Joyce novels, photographs, letters and memorabilia. Combine this with pub crawls and people dressed up in period costumes and this is my idea of a fantastically nerdy time.

As of last Saturday, I have two months to finish a 700ish page book, which theoretically shouldn’t be a problem if I can stick with it. I do, however, envision lots of frustrated cursing in my future. Anyone else interested in doing the Bloomsday Challenge with me? Or if you've read Ulysses, any advice or resources you'd recommend?

And in the event you're interested:
Ulysses by James Joyce on Amazon

Review: Townie, by Andre Dubus III

I started TOWNIE by Andre Dubus III with lots of high hopes; while I wasn’t really a fan of his fiction, I like memoirs and I’ve been especially drawn to stories about rough-and-tumble Massachusetts (The Town and The Fighter, anyone?).  Also, I think his father is a short story-writing genius and was interested to read more about their relationship and learn some background on the family that would give his short stories more context.

Dubus spends most of the memoir focused on his childhood; specifically from when he was around 12 to when he was 22 (the author is now 52).  After a poor but idyllic childhood, Dubus’s father leaves his young mother and three other children for another woman, marking the beginning of his strained relationship with Andre Sr. and the end of his sheltered life.  As his mother moves the family from apartment to apartment around poor mill towns in Massachusetts, Dubus and his brother and sisters are forced to fend for themselves, often being left at home late into the night. During his preteen years, Dubus dabbles in drinking and drugs and describes evenings spent breaking into lumber yards and becoming a petty theif. After witnessing and sometimes being the target of violence administered by stronger and tougher neighborhood boys, Dubus decides to never be one of the weak ones again.

He then spends the next 200 pages or so describing his efforts to become a serious body builder and all of the minor, petty fistfights he gets into, sometimes described in such magnified detail that you wonder if he ran home afterwards and recorded them in a notebook.  Because the book is so heavily focused on this span of these 10 years, many of the stories become very repetitive and I kept wondering how many more fights he could possibly get into.  This part of the book, while the most violent, was the least interesting to me.  Many of the fights started to blur together, not adding much to his narrative except perhaps trying to prove to his readers how tough he was or to emphasize his fatal flaw of violence. Though most of the fights sounded minor, it was obvious that Dubus was proud of every one.  Later in the book Dubus seems to have moments of self-reflection, realizing that many of the fights were self-serving rather than righteous, and that instead of being a hero who protected the weak, he often sought out fights for pure blood lust.

Dubus and his father. photo: The Boston Phoenix
The book becomes infinitely more interesting when he describes his relationship with his father.  As Dubus gets older, he begins to see his father more regularly; although their relationship is more like that of drinking buddies than father and son. Andre Sr. is still a womanizer, and on his second and third marriage.  They often hit the local bars together, his father drunkenly encouraging him to start fights. At some point, Dubus decides to finish college and heads out west to Texas for his last two years of school.  In Austin, he starts to feel guilty about fighting and tries to quell his violent urges. He eventually returns to the east coast where he does carpentry with his brother Jeb, continues to body build and go out to the local dive bars with his father and friends, becoming a townie all over again.  At this point Dubus discovers a need to write and spends mornings writing short stories and constructing novels. As the memoir speeds to its end, Dubus mentions many important life events (including one particularly disturbing tragedy) but for the most part they are glossed over, without much analysis. The end of the book is far more engaging than the beginning but the quick wrap-up leaves the reader rather stunned and wishing for more.

Overall I just couldn’t get into the book. I realize that Dubus probably intended to focus more on his punch-throwing youth, but those parts of the memoir could have benefitted from a little editing because I don’t think the reader wants or needs the intimate details of  every single scuffle.  The most enjoyable parts of the book are where he describes his complicated relationships with his family and step-family.  These sections are filled with honest, raw emotions and really give the book a more three-dimensional feel after the long, testosterone filled passages describing bloody fights.  Reading this book at least fulfilled one of my hopes: I learned a tremendous amount about who Andre Sr. was, at least through his son’s eyes. I can see lots of allusions to his personal life in Andre Sr.’s short stories now and it’s interesting to see how his interpretations of events differ from those of his abandoned son. I would recommend reading this book if you are a fan of either Andre Sr. or Andre Jr.’s fiction and want to read about events that inspired their writing. However, you can probably skim most of the middle 200 pages, as you won't learn much about Dubus from his fights.

The Death of Lendle

News hit yesterday about Amazon revoking Lendle’s (and apparently other eBook lending sites) API access, effectively shutting them down. They received an email from a no-reply Amazon address stating that Lendle did not “…serve the principal purpose of driving sales of products and services on the Amazon site.”

The shut down highlights yet another debate in eBook world, reminding me of the recent announcement by Harper Collins to limit the circulation of new titles they’ve licensed to libraries before the license expires. Lendle had only been in operation for around 6 weeks now and many of my friends had signed up and started sharing based on Lendle’s philosophy of “You can’t borrow if you don’t lend, and you can’t lend if you don’t buy.” In their open letter, they emphasized their commitment to supporting the purchase of eBooks by only allowing people on the site to borrow books once they’ve purchased other lendable books and shared them. While I mostly fall on the side of Lendle, this situation reminds me of peer-to-peer file sharing sites, which haven’t been so successful when trying to argue legality. While I can definitely understand a publisher or author’s concern of mass illegal sharing and downloading of “bootleg” books, sites like Lendle seem to only be facilitating what Amazon themselves now allow kindle users to do on a larger scale. Is that illegal?

This whole eBook lending situation brings up an interesting question I get asked a lot. People always want to know if I have a Kindle (yes) and if I love it (not really). I get a lot of confused looks at this point, because why wouldn’t a person who never leaves the house without at least 2 books in her purse not be totally in love with a device that can hold around 1500 books? Well, call me old-fashioned, but I really love the feel and smell of real books. I go to bookstores sometimes just feather out different books' pages to sniff them. Also, if you haven’t noticed, I’m a little obsessed with book design. Books themselves can be little works of art. A gorgeous cover, beautiful binding, the choice and weight of paper, it’s all part of the experience. When explaining, I always try to make the analogy to audiophiles; I consume music by downloading songs from iTunes and listening to them on my iPod at work. I’m not concerned about cover art or sound quality; I just want to listen to the song. But there are also the music geeks who will scour record stores and flea markets for rare or beautiful vinyl, because part of the experience of listening to music is the visual design of the cover, maybe the tactile feel of holding the album and the kind of sound the music has when played on a record player with good audio equipment. This isn’t to say that people who use kindles don’t appreciate these things or have bad taste in books, because hey, I do read books on my kindle now and then for the convenience. But for me, I usually need the whole thing. I’ve even noticed that I read a lot faster with real books than eBooks because I can see the progress I’m making every time I pick up the book and there is just something so satisfying for me psychologically when I physically turn a page.

Added to the whatever psychological and physical personal preferences I have is the whole Lendle issue. Basically, when you buy an eBook, you’re committing to the specific device only format, and by limiting your ability to lend/give away/re-sell the eBook, effectively, you don’t really “own” it. I can’t resell at a used book store if I hated it, I can’t give it to a friend after I’m done, and I can only lend it for a few weeks at a time.

One big thing I’d love to see is some kind of price break for people who want to bundle an eBook with a regular physical book purchase. I will never stop buying real books, but I would love to use my e-reader more. I usually want to buy the physical book to have for my book shelf (book trophies!) but if I’m going on a trip or the book is really long, I’d love to get an eBook version of it but I can stomach the idea of paying $11.50 for a real book on Amazon, and $9.99 for the eBook as well. I wish there was some kind of price break I could get when purchasing both books, because I’d gladly pay $11.50 for the real book and an extra $2 for an eBook version (kind of like how a lot of bands will include a free MP3 download of an album if you purchase the vinyl). However, not knowing the business model and costs and drawbacks behind the pricing decisions made by publishers and big booksellers like Amazon, I have no idea if that’s realistic.

I’d really like to hear everyone else’s thoughts on the Lendle situation, since I’m no legal expert. I know a lot of you are die hard Kindle/Nook fans (and let me repeat, there’s bupkiss wrong with that) and I’m curious to know if you have any concerns about this, or how often you buy regular books now that you have your e-reader. Also, I know a few of my friends are in publishing and I’d really love to know the decisions and realities that drive pricing and restriction policies because I can only see this from my own personal consumer perspective. Thoughts?

Southern Gothic

The other day I was chatting with my boyfriend about Flannery O’Connor and though he’ll probably be embarrassed I’m mentioning it here, he admitted that he didn’t know much about her or her writing. I was shocked (SHOCKED!) because she’s one of my absolute favorite authors and a huge influence in one of my favorite literary genres. Sometimes I feel like I must have spent a former life somewhere in Savannah or Louisiana because Southern Gothic just feels so comfortable. Decaying houses, hot sticky country towns, sinister and grotesque characters, these are a few of my favorite things. Not to mention the wider underlying themes of social class conflict, racism, and the flawed human condition.

To celebrate my love of Southern Gothic and Flannery O’Connor, here is a selection of some of my all time favorite book covers, all illustrated by Canadian artist Roxanna Bickadoroff. She did a great little interview with The Caustic Cover Critic a few years ago that explains the inspiration behind her book covers and thoughts on being an illustrator. Also check out a free online copy of O’Connor’s most famous short story A Good Man is Hard to Find.

If you’re looking for more Southern Gothic, I highly recommend these books as a good jumping off point, some of which you’ve probably read or seen the movie for (dueling banjos anyway?)

As I Lay Dying: The Corrected Text (Modern Library) by William Faulkner
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (Oprah's Book Club) by Carson McCullers
Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy
Deliverance by James Dickey
The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor
The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty by Eudora Welty
The Long Home by William Gay

St. Patrick's Day Special: Top 10 Irish Fiction Books

While doing everything in my power to avoid St. Patrick’s Day today (amateur hour, hello!), I was, naturally, bombarded with all things Irish while trying to push my way through the throngs of people downtown waiting for the parade.  While trying not to get run over by strollers, I noticed that the interblogonetasphere is busy recommending various best of the Irish lists today, so not to be left out, I decided to make my own top 10 list!

10. Patrick McCabe – Breakfast on Pluto: A Novel

I actually bought this book years ago when I was living in France on a study abroad and desperate for any and every English language book I could find. I was in Dublin for New Years and honestly spent most of my time there haunting the bookshops. I picked this crazy book up on a whim and I’m really glad I did.  How could a book about the adventures of a transsexual woman named Pussy who moves from Ireland to London and becomes a prostitute and then a suspect in an IRA bombing NOT be awesome?  In addition, it was also short-listed for the 1998 Booker Prize and was made into a movie a few years ago starring Cillian Murphy.

Now before I get too carried away, I want to keep this short and sweet because we've all obviously got some Irish whiskey to drink. So, without further ado, my completely unqualified and unexplained list:

Book Cover Porn

Confession: I totally judge books by their cover. In fact, sometimes the only reason I buy a book is because it’s pretty. Good book design will definitely turn my head and make me pick up a book, even if it’s not something I’d normally be interested in. I even fantasize about becoming a book designer (totally disregarding the fact that I can barely use a computer and I wouldn’t know how to design my way out of a paper bag).

I know I’ve ranted before about how poorly US covers stack up to UK covers on the whole, but this year the US might actually give the Brits a run for their money. I’ve seen some really fantastic book covers so far this year and I’m looking forward to what the second half of the year has in store! Without further ado, here are my top 20 favorite book covers so far this year:

20. Molotov’s Magic Lantern: Travels in Russian History by Rachel Polonsky (Released 1/4/11) 

19. Separate Beds by Elizabeth Buchan (Released 1/20/11) 

18. Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton (released 3/1/11)  

The rest of the list after the break!