With The Dinner and Long Division, the streak I kicked off with A Tale for the Time Being continues. Which is to say that I keep finding myself knee deep in books about which I have practically no opinion. It’s like they’re bouncing off me, like I’m made of reading impervious Teflon or something. I though that this was perhaps the unfortunate consequence that tends to arise when I let the ToB brackets guide my reading selections (as whenever I’ve tried to read the entire list of contenders in the past, I’ve generally wound up being unimpressed by more titles than not), but I’ve swapped in a non-ToB title (about which, more in a later post) as well, and it didn’t fare much better. So I’m beginning to wonder whether it’s not these books, but something wrong with me instead.
Still, even though neither of these books provoked any great reaction in me and I feel like I don’t have tons to say about either, I want to write down some of my thoughts on them. For posterity or vanity… you be the judge. I normally don’t do mini reviews like this, but I’d rather write something than nothing, so reviewlets it shall be!
Is there anything worse than a book you expected to love but didn’t? Since setting out to travel the world, the frequent discrepancy between reality and one’s lofty expectations is something I’ve become accustomed to, but I still think I am most disappointed when I’m prepared for a book to sweep me off my feet only for it to leave me rather cold instead.
That’s pretty much what happened with this book: I wanted to love it, and by all accounts, I should have loved it, but I didn’t. It has many of the literary elements and quirks that are like cat nip to me such as discussions of quantum physics and parallel universes (I’ve never met a book that grapples with these ideas that I’ve been able to resist; see: my love affair with Scarlett Thomas, for starters), while also delving into a topic that has become near and dear to my heart over the past few years—meditation and the struggle to live in the present moment. Truthfully, I didn’t even know the book dealt with any of this before I picked it up, so all of these things should have been a delightful surprise. They were, and yet, they still couldn’t tip me over into unabashedly loving this book.
I never expected that traveling would change my reading tastes. All my life I’ve been a devoted reader of fiction and not really much else, and that’s honestly suited me fine. Don’t believe me? Of the 300+ posts that I’ve written about books on this site, less than 10 of them feature non-fiction titles. I’m all for reading broadly and diversifying one’s tastes, but I clearly also know what works for me and don’t stray too far from my literary predilections very frequently.
And yet, ever since we’ve been traveling, I’ve found I have the attention span of a gnat, which not only makes it difficult to coherently synthesize and discuss the books that I do read after the fact, but it’s made focusing on my reading material a lot more challenging too. Part of why I failed to read very much last year is because I frequently found my attention waning and shifting whenever I picked up a book, except in the rarest of occasions, and I found that most novels simply did not capture or engage me in any real way. I’d put down books for days at a time without picking them up again, only to find that when I did, the story had pretty much fallen completely out of my brain. I couldn’t just peck at books sporadically, and my memory didn’t seem to have the capacity to retain enough plot to allow me to follow any novel in a lucid manner, and so I’d abandon one book after the next as I hunted (mostly futiley) for things that I could focus on.
During this time, I discovered that I often had an easier time with memoirs, as they tended to pull me into their stories quickly and I could dip in and out of them over the course of several weeks and their coherency never suffered despite my haphazard reading schedule. I’d hate to cast aspersions on the memoir genre as a whole having, admittedly, not read much from it, but I think in part, the writing in the average memoir tends to have a lower difficulty threshold, so the cognitive demands placed upon the reader are perhaps less and the barrier to reader engagement is reduced. Or maybe there’s something about the conversational approach that memoirs tend to take, so that you actually feel like the author is speaking directly to you, like a friend would, and you’re just sitting down to a (somewhat) one-sided conversation and can enjoy the ride. (more…)
This book is a great example of why I probably shouldn’t let other people’s reviews have too much sway when it comes to choosing my next read. Truthfully, despite having heard a fair amount about this book when it was first released, I never had any interest in it, and I’m not afraid to say that this decision was based entirely on the stupid spelling of the title alone. That may be superficial, but I feel ok about it because, come on. I’m one of those people who uses full words and sentences (with punctuation, even!) when I text or tweet, so there was no way I was ever going to get behind a book named “NOS4A2″ on my own.
So you can imagine my surprise when, reading through end of year best of lists on GoodReads, this book kept popping up again and again. Even more shocking, it had garnered a 4+ star rating on the site, and most reviewers were positively slavering over it. The near unanimous praise to high heavens piqued my interest and I assumed that the book must be much cleverer than its dopey title implied. (Also, there was some speculation in the Tournament of Books forum prior to the actual roster being released that this book might make the final cut.)
Well, non-sports fans, it’s that time of year again: the time when The Morning News releases the titles that will be competing in this year’s Tournament of Books. For people like me who can tell a basketball from a baseball but don’t particularly care to do so, this is the one sports adjacent piece of pop culture worth actually getting excited about.
I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the tourney ever since I discovered it back in 2008. Wanting to be able to participate in an informed way, I tried to read all of the finalists… and failed miserably. I couldn’t get my hands on a large portion of them, and what’s worse, many of the ones I did manage to read I wound up really disliking (see my review of A Partisan’s Daughter, for an example of what I’m talking about). Ever since that first experience, I’ve approached subsequent ToB throwdowns with excitement but tempered expectations and under no circumstances do I vow to read all the contestants.
One of the biggest delights about the ToB is that even for avid bibliophiles, the men behind the curtain in charge of selecting the books always manage to sneak in a few titles you’ve never heard of never mind read. Many hardcore ToB fans spend a lot of time trying to guess what books will make the cut and even try to strategically plan their reading around what they think might be deemed worthy. Given how out of touch I was with the book world last year, I didn’t have high hopes that when the list was released this year that I’d recognize many titles and I’d have to be pretty lucky to have read any of them.
Well, yesterday the list was revealed, and I have to say, I was surprised.
Given that the site is newly raised from the dead, it somehow seems fitting that my first review is of Case Histories by Kate Atkinson. Not only is the book about a series of decades-old cold cases, it’s also a book I read many moons ago, well before this site ever existed and was one I had long left for dead. As a re-read rearing its zombie head, I probably couldn’t have picked a better book for a reboot if I had been trying.
Case Histories is the first in Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series, which, to date, consists of four books. I am previously on the record as having a big girl crush on Atkinson and loving her non-mystery fiction, and being far more ambivalent (though that might be putting it nicely) about her forays into whodunit fiction. Because I first read this book before I started writing reviews here, I don’t have any in-depth analysis or record of my thoughts on the book then, but I do remember that I was wildly underwhelmed by it and might even go so far as to say I did not like it very much at all.
So why read it again if I found it so dull the first time round? Mostly because although I’ve been living under a literary rock for the past 16 months, I still keep up-to-date with some of the book world’s news and I’ve been reading a lot of buzz about my girl Kate’s latest book, Life After Life. I didn’t have a copy of that on hand, but I was able to get access to this and decided to test the waters to see if it was as disappointing as I remembered.
Well, there’s no way around it. This blog has been on life support for so long that it was time to make a choice: either zap it and see if I could kick start its heart once more, or pull the plug.
After some soul-searching and late night tossing & turning, I’ve come to a decision…
Well, I still do that from time to time, though I’ve been very bad about keeping S&TI! readers up-to-date on that front. I full-on admit that the past two months have not been as relaxing and full of reading as I would have liked (rather, they have been filled with stressful moves and mad-dash planning as we prepare to head off for Japan… just 1.5 weeks to go at this point!), but I have managed to keep up a steady stream of reviews for BookPage (and plan to continue to review for them while we are on our big trip… though I will be taking the month of August from professional reviewing as I adjust to life on the road in Asia!). As we finish up the tail end of our time here in North America, I am hoping to rediscover the joys of personal pleasure reading (need to get back into the swing of it before our 12 hour flight to Tokyo on Aug 8…), but for now, I’ll bring you up to speed with my BP reviews for the months of June & July.
Maybe it’s a hold over from the days when I had summer holidays, but for me, the summer is the perfect time to indulge in books that are unadulterated fun to read. We all know I have the tendency to gravitate towards highbrow literature, but sometimes you just want a book that will entertain and thrill you. If you find yourself on holiday this summer and need a book that you can read for hours by the pool and late into the night, then I highly recommend that you check out my review of debut author, Elizabeth Haynes’ novel Into the Darkest Corner. It is the ultimate “relationship gone wrong” story, and despite its length, this was a book I stayed up reading even when it was far past my bedtime. I particularly enjoyed the attention Haynes paid to the psychological trauma that can result following an abusive relationship, which I personally felt helped set this book apart from your standard run of the mill thrillers. Terrifying and utterly absorbing, this is a book that will hold you rapt from beginning to end.
If massive doorstops are your preferred beach reading material, then you could do no better than the second installment in Deborah Harkness’s wildly popular “All Souls Trilogy”, Shadow of Night. This book hardly needs a review given that it is the hotly anticipated sequel to A Discovery of Witches, which readers have been breathlessly waiting for since 2011, myself being no exception! Shadow of Night sees Diana & Matthew traveling back to the 1590s in order to give Diana a chance to master her burgeoning magical powers and also give our favorite vampire-witch duo the opportunity to intercept the elusive Ashmole 782 before it is enchanted. Fans of the first book will know that Harkness is not afraid to tell her story on an epic scale, and Shadow of Night is no different. Even the most voracious readers will likely need a few days to fully digest this massive story, which manages to address many of the pressing questions that were left dangling at the end of the first volume while still setting up a set of new questions for the final book in the series. I’m not normally a fan of historical fiction, but this book is just so much fun! You can read my full review here.
I also had the extreme pleasure of reviewing a stunning debut novel, Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. I have no idea why this book is not getting more buzz, because quite honestly, it had me in tears within the first 10 pages. I was not exaggerating in my review when I said that “Tell the Wolves I’m Home is not only one of the best debuts of 2012, it’s one of the best books of the year, plain and simple.” It really, truly is. It manages to be moving without being maudlin, not an easy feat when you’ve got a teenager as your narrator, and was just such a lovely, heartbreaking novel. One of those books you hardly want to write about because you feel your own words can’t do it justice. As much as all of these books I’ve reviewed are fantastic, if I could only pick one of them to read again, it would easily be Tell the Wolves I’m Home. Do not miss this book, or you will feel like a complete fool!
Finally, although the August issue of BookPage isn’t out for a few more days, I figured my loyal readers deserved a treat for bearing with me over these past few months, so here is a sneak peak of my review of Tana French’s latest Murder Squad novel, Broken Harbor. Like many fans of the series, I was dubious about Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy taking the reins in this book, but: OH. MY. GOD. So deliciously creepy and twisted. This may be French’s best book yet: Kennedy winds up being a wonderfully nuanced character (hardly surprising given her track record) and his fate at the novel’s end is honestly like a swift kick to the gut. Perhaps the most compelling thing about the book is how terrifically atmospheric it was, the ghostly tendrils of the Brianstown housing estate deftly entangled themselves around my brainstem. This novel haunted me both during and after reading it, so make sure to clear your reading schedule to make room for this one!
So although 2012 continues to be something of a reading drought for me, I can’t complain about the quality of the books I’ve been reading thus far. All of these books would likely make it onto my “best books of the year” list, even if I were plowing through double the number of books, so they’re definitely well worth your while!
But, please tell me: what book(s) have you read in the past 2 -3 months that you think is absolutely unmissable? I’m definitely looking for something to kick-start my personal reading engine and need suggestions! I feel like all of my trip planning has thrown me squarely out of the book blogging loop!
I want to write a nice long post about how on Friday, I defended my dissertation, first by giving a talk, then by answering questions posed to me by my committee. But really, what I want most of all, is just to enjoy doing absolutely nothing for a little while, as well as starting to reclaim those things that make my life so wonderful, but which I’ve had to put on the backburners lately as I focused in on getting through this last graduate school hurdle. The good news, is that it was all worth it, because I PASSED! I know, many of you will say you didn’t doubt it for a moment, and truth be told, when the day came, I felt really calm and prepared. In many ways it was a very surreal day, because seven years is a very long time, and there were definitely some significant potholes along the way. I have seen defense day (or D-Day, as it is referred to around these parts) come and go for a lot of friends at this point, but part of me just stopped expecting that it would also happen for me. I either thought I would somehow be a graduate student forever, or I would leave without my doctorate (believe me, this came very close to happening several times). There are still times where I can’t believe that I managed to write an ENTIRE dissertation, and that I got to a point where I was confident in my abilities, and knew that I knew my topic very well. I fully expected to be a prickly bundle of nerves come D-Day, but in the end, I was very zen, and I actually found this final committee meeting to be the one I had the most fun at, and also the most laid-back of all my experiences during my time in graduate school. I felt in control and like I knew my future, like more than anything, the people who have watched me grow as a researcher and a scientist these past seven years were just happy to be there to celebrate and mark this final rite of passage.
So, yes, I passed, and am now officially Dr. Steph! Thank you to all of you for your supportive comments cheering me on these past few months, even as I let this blog go into hibernation mode. I’ve heard people say that following their dissertation, they were mentally useless for a week or two, but I kind of feel the opposite! I want to relax, and enjoy the weird reality of not waking up in the morning with a tight not of panic already hard in my chest, and that if I want to lie on the couch and watch an entire season of The Vampire Diaries or play a video game, I can! I can start working out again, without worrying that half hour would be better spent revising or making tributes to the gods of academia. Best yet, I love knowing that all these mental resources in my brain are now freed up for some serious (or light-hearted!) fiction reading! I can’t say that I have missed reading these past few months, simply because I’ve been so burned out that I just haven’t had the energy or interest to read, but now I look at all the wonderful books that are waiting for me, and I am excited to learn their secrets. But I’m also excited to learn the secrets that the future holds, because for the first time in a very long time, I no longer have a five-year plan, or an obvious “next step” on a traditional career trajectory. It’s time to spend some time rediscovering the joys of a life unplanned, and I look forward to taking some time to think about my passions (and maybe discover some new ones!), and think about what I want the next phase of my life to be.
I should be done making plans at this point, but I doubt I’ll ever fully tame the Type-A planner inside me, so hopefully, starting next week, I’ll finally have some new bookish content for this blog. My life is my own once again, and I’m so excited to channel this renewed energy and enthusiasm into the things that make my heart soar. Right now, that means, jumping back into bed, and cuddling with Tony and the dogs, and then possibly lounging by the pool on this long-weekend Sunday and cracking the spine (only figuratively though!) of a new book. To those who have read this far, I hope your Memorial Day weekend is just as lovely! Doctor’s orders!
Hallelujah! Months of programming experiments, running experiments, analyzing data, reading papers, writing and re-wring have finally paid off. On Thursday morning, I did one last proof read through my dissertation and then I attached a PDF version of it to an email and sent it off to my committee! (For those interested, the final page count was 102 pages). In two weeks, I’ll give a public presentation of my dissertation experiments, and then I’ll undergo my final graduate school oral defense, and I will finally be Dr. Steph! It’s hard to believe that after years of ups and downs, that my time as a student is finally drawing to a close. I haven’t quite parsed the enormity of that just yet, but I’ve found through this whole process that I’m best off just focusing on getting through one day at a time, so that’s what I’ll keep doing.
Of course, immediately after submitting my dissertation, I began to show signs of a horrible cold. I have felt awful for the past two days, and while I am definitely on the mend now, I am still not back in full fighting form. But I am well enough that I can finally write my monthly BookPage post, where I tell you about what I’ve reviewed in the latest issue. In the May issue of BookPage, I had the great good fortune to review Toni Morrison’s latest masterpiece, Home. I’m a huge Morrison fan, so it was a huge honor to review one of her books in a professional capacity. It also didn’t hurt that Home is her shortest book to date; in a time when my pleasure reading time has been severely limited (and I’ve had essentially no attention span), it was nice to have a book that needed my attention but didn’t need a huge time investment. If, like me, you’ve been eagerly awaiting Morrison’s latest slice of literary greatness, you can read my full review here.
Obviously, I’ll still have dissertation brain for the next few weeks, but despite being super ill, I’ve felt a lightness come over me this past week that has long been absent, and I’m optimistic that I’ll soon recapture my full book-blogging mojo. In truth, writing this dissertation hasn’t been nearly as awful as I thought it would be (though I’m totally fine with never doing this ever again), but I am still so looking forward to reclaiming my life. For at least a month, that is, since Tony and I are officially leaving Nashville at the end of June. We’ll be moving up to Toronto for a couple of weeks to get our dogs settled in with my parents, and then we’ll be heading off on our big world tour! (Don’t worry though, we’re bringing our e-readers so we’ll have plenty to read on the myriad planes, trains, and buses we’ll be taking!) So life will be busy for the foreseeable future, but with one of the biggest stressors finally stripped away, I am looking forward to refocusing on those things that enrich me and nourish my spirit.