Books

12th May
2012
written by Steph
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.

Home by Toni Morrison

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.
1st May
2012
written by Steph

The Good Girl's Guide to Getting Lost by Rachel Friedman

[Note: this review is also posted at travel blog, Twenty Years Hence. Sorry for the cross-post for those of you who are subscribed to both (but thanks for supporting all our endeavors!).]
For me, the very best books, regardless of genre, are the ones that whisk me away from my own life and allow me to see and understand the world in a way I hadn’t before. If there’s one type of book with an innate affinity to do this very thing, surely it is the travel memoir! The very best of their kind aren’t just about traveling around in strange lands, encountering odd social customs and nibbling on questionable foods—though those anecdotes are fascinating in their own ways)—but are about the personal transformation that occurs when we venture out of our homes and leave the safety and security of the familiar behind.
As my own big trip looms larger with each passing day, it’s no surprise that I’ve been increasingly drawn to travel writing these past few months. Maybe I’m hoping to pick up tips and tricks along the way to ensure my trip is more successful, or maybe I’m hoping for inspiration… deep down, I think I just want reassurance that Tony and I aren’t alone in this dream and that leaving our current life to travel will turn out ok. I know that even in the pages of books, happy endings aren’t guaranteed, but I still can’t help but search for them nevertheless. To this end, I’ve been really gratified to find that the Nashville Public Library system has an awesome digitial travel collection, the irony being that now I can travel the world without even leaving the comfort of my home, not even to get a book! If that’s not the best of both worlds, then I don’t know what is. Anyway, NPL has a pretty bitchin’ selection of titles, ranging from actual travel guides to help you plan your stay, to memoirs and pieces of writing to inspire you to get off your lazy butt and actually go somewhere. This is how I stumbled across The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost (known as TGGG henceforth). (more…)
14th April
2012
written by Steph
Guys! The dissertation! It is killing me! BUT. It is also kind of almost done! I don't want to jinx myself (despite being a scientist, sometimes I am oddly superstitious), but I now have about 75% of my thesis written! While there will surely be plenty of edits to occupy me, the bulk of the writing that remains at this juncture is the intro and discussion for my final experimental chapter, and then my final, general discussion chapter. That's it! Somedays I wake up thinking I am never going to slay this beast (it's like the Hydra... I never seem to have a chapter completely finished and put to bed), but I know I've been working hard and so long as I keep putting one foot in front of the other (or I guess, one word in front of the other), I'll eventually win out. I've read somewhere that writing a dissertation is largely an exercise is perseverance rather than brilliance, so luckily I have stubbornness in spades. Right now I'm hoping/planning/fearing defending sometime mid-May, and once I have, then I'll finally be freeeeeeee! And I can fling myself black into blogging's sweet sweet embrace. So yes, I'm sorry that I pretty much only update once per month around these parts when I have a new review up at BookPage, but if ya'll can give me just another month, hopefully my rag-tag blogging will be at an end as I'll have the mental real estate to properly devote to this space. Tony and I have also been making some headway on planning our big trip, and I keep saying, "Oh, I should write about this! This would be helpful/useful." And then I don't. But again, once I'm no longer writing a 100+ page document that culminates my academic career, I will also be more revealing on the trip front as well. Mostly, I want to thank all of you who commented with words of support and offered up ideas and suggestions. Right now we're just taking things one day at a time, but the earliest we'd be setting out is late August, so there's still plenty of time to get all the tips and low-downs before we head out to parts unknown!

What are these "books" of which you speak?

Anyway, back to books (like back to basics, but better). In the April issue of BookPage (which has been out for TWO weeks now... April, why you gotta go so quickly?!), I review Kiwi author Alex Adam's first installment in a post-apocalyptic thriller, White Horse. Fiction editor (and good friend), Trisha, was really surprised that this is what I chose to go with, but y'all know I need at least one dystopian fic per year. Plus, when you're writing your thesis up, it feels like the end of the world, so apocalypse lit just seemed right. I'm no stranger to "the world is dying but I must sally forth in order to survive" type novels, and to some extent, this is well trod ground, but Adams manages to make it all fresh. It was incredibly harrowing to read, and the writing was rather sublime in parts, so if you've got a hard-as-nails  constitution that can stand books that get rather explicit in their gore, then I recommend it. Check out my full review here and let me know what you think!
1st March
2012
written by Steph
By now apologies about sporadic postings here seem to be rule rather than the exception, which I truly am sorry about. It was really exciting to hear from so many of you regarding my last post where I outlined our plans for our RTW trip (and I promise I will respond to all of your comments and will certainly be emailing some of you too!), so even though reading has been somewhat sketchy around these parts of late, I am definitely hoping to cobble together some more pre-trip posts where I go into more detail about the various countries we plan hope to visit, as well as keep you all abreast of the less theoretical/research-based elements of trip planning as well. But of course, I know all of your are book-lovers at heart, so when I do have bookish content to post, I certainly will do that too! Now, is one such instance, because even though I have hardly read anything in the past three months, my gig reviewing things over at BookPage has made it so that I still read at least one book a month. In the case of March's issue, two books were simply irresistible to me, so I pulled double duty and covered something for both the fiction and the non-fiction section (a first for me!).

Look! A book! And I read it!

On the fiction front, I read and wrote about Heidi Julavits' trippy new novel called The Vanishers, which you can read here. This was my first Julavits novel, and boy was it weird! Given that I knew it revolved around psychics and astral adventures, I don't know why I ever would have thought otherwise, but this book really did surprise me at every turn. I think I really hit the proverbial nail on its head when I compared this book to the films of David Lynch, so if unusual, mindbending stories that question the limits of reality are your thing, this is the book for you.

I read this one too!

The Vanishers was a very good book, but my other read, I absolutely loved. I absolutely use nepotism to my advantage and put in a personal plea to the non-fiction editor to let me cover Jeanette Winterson's memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? and I have absolutely no regrets on that front. At a time where reading has often felt like a chore, this is a book I could not stop reading. Even though I was reading a completely unfancy galley copy of this book, I would cradle it like it was the most precious thing whenever I picked it up because there were times when I felt like I was staring into the very contents of someone's soul (perhaps my own?) as I read it. I seriously cannot say enough positive things about this book (if I could have its babies, I would!), but if you want to read some of my adulatory thoughts on it, you can check those out here. Ultimately, I may not read very many books this year, but I kind of think 2012 will be known as the year I read this book no matter how many other books I wind up finishing, so there is that. Hurrah for books! I'm desperately trying out many different books on a daily basis hoping to find one that sticks, so fingers crossed that one of these days you see me posting about something that I read for personal, not professional, reasons!
25th January
2012
written by Steph
So, I've been dragging my feet something fierce when it comes to finally wrapping up 2011 with charts and graphs and whatnot. Not to get all spoiler-y on you, but as we will see, the end of 2011 was marked by a dramatic plummet in my reading–I think the technical term for it is "reading slump"–which also accompanied a blogging slump. Alas, a new calendar year has not managed to allay my reading burnout (I've only read two books thus far, and those were both in an official reviewing capacity. If not for that, I would probably have nothing really read by now.), so perhaps that's why I've been in no rush to write this post. Once it's done, I got nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Bupkus. A few years back, a friend of mine was finishing up her dissertation and she would often lament about how the whole process sapped her of all her reading mojo and pretty much the only thing she could read for months was Middlemarch. No, that isn't a typo, and no I don't understand it. Slowly but surely I am dragging myself to the finish line of my own doctorate degree so who knows what bemoth will be my salvation through this all. Moby Dick? A Suitable Boy? Shataram? I suppose only time will tell... Tony is actually out of town the next few days so perhaps without my favorite distraction close at hand I'll finally remember what it is to look at words on a page again. Fingers crossed. Anyway, let us finally tour the wreckage that was my reading in 2011, shall we? (more…)
9th January
2012
written by Steph
Excuse the cliché, but for me, 2011 expired with a whimper rather than roaring to its close with a triumphant bang. The year ended filled with a lot of stress and mental exhaustion due to school, and I spent the last week or two doing some heavy thinking about where I would like 2012 to take me. Because my brain was preoccupied with so many other tasks, my reading slowed down a lot—I read just one book in December, and that was at the very beginning of the month— and I was just so tired that for the first time in four years, I entered books into my spreadsheet and didn’t bother to write anything about them. And the thing is, the last three books of 2011 were ones that I would normally have tons to say about, but my brain was stubbornly moving towards hibernation mode and the thought of generating words just seemed far beyond my grasp, so I gave myself a reprieve and simply logged them and left them. I do still want to mention my last three reads of the year so that I have a clean slate delving into 2012, so I’m going to do a mega-post here and talk about THREE books instead of devoting one post to each book. Without notes, I probably don't have enough to eloquently say about each one to justify unique posts (remember, I have a notoriously bad memory regarding books anyway, and when I’m stressed, my memory gets even worse), so while I almost never do this, here I go. (more…)
5th January
2012
written by Steph
So, first question: how can a book about SEX be so, well, boring? I mean, the word “sex” alone is so incendiary, that not only am I sure that seeing it boldly placed there in that first sentence immediately grabbed your attention, but I can also only imagine the deluge of weirdo spam this post is going to incur. So you’d think that a book that essentially revolves entirely around sex (even when people aren’t having sex, it’s still all about sex) would be cause sweaty palms and racing pules, or at the very least an occasional cocked eyebrow and maybe a knowing smirk, right? And yet, no! In spite of a rather inspired premise, this book can best be described as “MEHsmerizing”, that is a book the inspires intense feelings of apathy and disinterest in its reader despite ostensibly scintillating subject matter. [And yes, I just coined that term, but I think it’s going to take off in a big way…] And just what is this neat-o premise of which I speak? Essentially, it is this: an enigmatic drama teacher moves to a small suburban town and decides that the local high school will put on a production of the classic Greek comedy Lysistrata – a play in which all the women of Greece decide to abstain from sex until their men agree to end the Peloponnesian War. In an uncanny twist of events, as production on the play advances the women of the town are slowly overtaken by an enchantment that also causes them to spurn the advances of their husbands, lovers, and boyfriends. As sex lives become a thing of the past, tensions rise and soon the whole town is thrown into upheaval. It’s only a matter of time before someone reaches their breaking point, and when they do, things are going to get ugly… (more…)
4th January
2012
written by Steph
What is it that they say about the best laid plans? Something about how they never work out? That sounds about right... Despite my intentions to catch up on blogging while Tony and I were up in Canada, I wound up not even bringing my laptop and was hardly online at all. Instead I slept in late every day, played tons of Mario Super Sluggers on the Wii, tried my hand at NHL 2012 on the PS3 (never making it past the rookies), played some non-video game bowling (and finally broke triple digits!) and watched lots and lots of Mantracker (everyone outside of Canada is missing out, because Mantracker is possibly the best reality show ever made). I managed to read the bulk of one book (but not finish it) while we were away, so I was only marginally better at reading than I was at blogging. I feel slightly guilty about this, but mostly I'm just happy I got some time to completely relax and hibernate. I'm still not feeling entirely recharged, but I'm feeling quite a bit calmer than I did before the holidays. Given that I wrote not a single thing while I was away, I still have four books that I read last year that I still need to write about. AND I need to write one of those fun summary posts in which I recap 2011. Already I am behind the times! Before I do any of that, however, I am instead going to direct your attention to the January 2012 issue of BookPage, in which I reviewed Penelope Lively's newest novel, How It All Began. I did actually read this book a few months ago, so while it's a 2012 book for most, it was actually a 2011 book for me. I've only ever read one other Lively novel, Moon Tiger, but she made a wonderful first impression on me and I'd been wanting to read more of her works ever since. Despite being published 25 years after Moon Tiger, How It All Began is still clearly a Penelope Lively novel. It is perhaps less experimental than MT, as it does largely focus on telling a briskly paced story filled with a dynamic cast of characters, but it still has a soupçon of metafiction, which I really love. The thing about Lively's fiction that always seems to resonate with me is that she unabashedly loves stories and actively uses her work as a means of promoting the idea that we as humans are drawn to storytelling and the written word because of the closure and permanence they provide. Anyone who loves books like I do can't help but feel that one has found a kindred spirit in an author who so unabashedly espouses this view in her books. Fellow readers will also get a kick out of the main character, Charlotte, as she herself is an ardent bookworm (and adult literacy teacher) and large swaths of her storyline are devoted to musings on how reading enriches one's life. The novel as a whole is incredibly engrossing and touching, but that thread in particular really spoke to me. Rather than read my inelegant ramblings here, check out my review at BookPage for the full scoop. In the interim, I'll get to work on putting the rest of 2011 to bed!
19th December
2011
written by Steph

Hot on the heels of my dance with Dame Christie, I decided my lust for murder mysteries hadn’t been slaked, so I decided to take a turn with another queen of crime. Not only is Cover Her Face the first published P.D. James mystery, but it was actually my first dalliance with James’s writing at all. After my disastrous first date with Dorothy L. Sayers stemming from my reading Gaudy Night before picking up any of her other books, I have become a rather staunch adherent to reading serial fiction in chronological order, even when others claim it is not necessary, so for those of you who feel similarly and have yet to become acquainted with Detective Adam Dalgliesh, this is the place to start. The following theory is just based on wild conjecture on my part, but I think that readers may be the most idiosyncratic when it comes to their taste in mystery novels. Little old grannies may suddenly profess a penchant for dark Scandinavian noir, and ostensibly there is even a market for readers who prefer crimes that are cracked by animal sleuths (Wikipedia tells me that Lillian Jackson Braun’s “The Cat Who…” mystery series, numbered 29 titles!). Personally, I’m a “Golden Age” mystery fan, loving my crimes to be relatively bloodless, to take place between 1910 – 1950, and to be situated in England if at all possible. I have no idea why that trifecta is pretty much the holy trinity when it comes to mystery novels, but there you have it. To me, these types of novels are pretty much the ultimate in comfort reading, and rarely do they fail to delight me. And of course there are exceptions to this rule (as my love of Tana French, clearly displays), but this is why it’s a rule and not a law. (more…)
14th December
2011
written by Steph

Guys, I am in the thick of it, dissertation-wise. I have been told on multiple occasions that the homestretch of one’s thesis is not for the faint-hearted, and I must agree one thousand percent. I keep trying to buoy my spirits by telling myself that everyone who gets a doctorate has to go through this fire walk at some point and that if it were easy, everyone would choose this path. I just have to keep getting up in the morning and pushing forward until finally this thing caves because I will not let this dissertation beat me. I don’t proudly proclaim the fact that I’ve actually been a grad student for seven years now, but given that that is the case, I certainly can’t back down now. I’ve invested too much of myself to let another six months of mind-breaking work conquer me, so come hell or high water, I will finish. And when I do, I shall rename this site “Dr. Steph & (Not Dr.) Tony Investigate!” OK, not really… Anyway, this is all to let you loyal readers know that I haven’t forgotten you even though this space has been dormant for quite a while now. I’ve just been so mentally taxed of late that it’s left me little breathing room for fun. I’m still reading, albeit less than I normally do, but the thought of writing about any of the books I’ve finished has seemed impossible. Until now. Rather than mope about and give in to my exhaustion, I’m going to push through the waves of fatigue so that I can share some of the books I’ve been reading, because really, don’t books make everything just a little bit better? (more…)
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