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It’s that time of year to make lists.  With this list I will cover two memes at once – my Two Thirds Book Challenge update, and my contribution to the #libfavs2011 tag (librarians listing their favorite 11 books read in 2011).  So in no particular order …

(1) The Sparrow and (2) Children of God by Mary Doria Russell

Early in 2011 I read two books recommended by one of our English professors at my university.  I’m surprised I had never heard of them before.  They were (1) The Sparrow and (2) Children of God by Mary Doria Russell.  Basically, the books are about a team of Jesuits (yes, Jesuits) who become the first humans to visit Alpha Centauri after catching snippets of song on a SETI satellite.  Imagine the stories of the Spanish missionaries and treasure hunters who came to the New World in the 1400’s and later, retold as a sci-fi alien contact parable.  These were books that stayed with me for a long, long, long time.  I still think about things from these books and it’s been almost ten months since I read them!  The characters, the cultures, even the details for the logistics of the trip itself are laid out in details.  I will warn you, though, that the second book – Children of God – can be a harrowing book in some parts.  It’s when everything breaks down, just as things inevitably did when our Old World met New World.  Highly recommended.

(3) An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin

I enjoyed reading Steve Martin’s Shopgirl a few years ago, and I want to know more about the art world someday so this little book seemed like a good choice for me.  Overall, it was just okay, but I’m including it on this list because of the way he wove the artwork and the experiences of seeing the artwork into the story.  In the edition I had from the library, there were even color images of the paintings in question sprinkled throughout the book.  But for anyone who thinks ebooks can’t improve on their paper counterparts, this would be an example against that claim.  I would much prefer to have read this as an ebook on the iPad with hi-res images for the paintings that I could make full-screen and really absorb.  The little bitty images in the paper book did not do justice.

(4) Among Others by Jo Walton

I read this book on the heels of other similar stories about awkward kids discovering some unknown ability or world and battling their own monsters, imagined or otherwise.  The other books included Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses and Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.  I chose Among Others for my list because I think it was the best written and the characters stayed with me far longer.  Most importantly, the protagonist had a deep and abiding love of books that delighted me.  Seeing the way the character thought about books, people, and places felt like stepping into someone else’s life.  This one of the few books written as a diary that actually felt like reading a diary.

(5) The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I’ve seen wildly different reviews for this book – seems to be a love it or hate it item.  I myself absolutely loved it and can’t wait to own a beautiful hardcover mint condition copy of my own.  I think the “hate it” crowd wanted stronger characters or plot or something, though I didn’t see much lacking in those departments for what it is — a fantasy/magic realism fiction.  I think those same critics are pleased as punch with writers like China Mieville – who I also enjoyed this year, with his book Embassytown.  But here’s the thing that a writer like Morgenstern has, that a writer like Mieville does not:  Style.  Mieville’s prose is clumsy and choppy.  The words trip over themselves, the dialogue is stilted. But his story ideas are fantastically brilliant and original.  Morgenstern, on the other hand, writes beautiful prose with gorgeous descriptions.  She sets a scene and you can practically walk in it.  You can smell the circus food, you can hear the gravel crunching, you can feel that breeze go by.  I only wish her circus had more amazing tents so I could read her descriptions of them.

(6) The Late American Novel, edited by Jeff Martin

Now we get into my Two Thirds Book Challenge books.  Though, of course, I am reading themes not books.  This one comes from my Writing theme and it was an excellent choice.  Dozens of writers of various genres put in their two cents about the future of writing, reading and books.  The reactions are all over the place, the styles vary dramatically, and the different voices are very strong.  Out of all these essays, there were only a couple I found myself skimming through rather than reading carefully and soaking up.  I took many notes and in some places laughed out loud.  Ironically, I read the book in the Kindle app on my iPad.  I would love to get a paper copy and read it again in a year to see how the predictions are faring.  Highly recommended for personal collections and gift giving.

(7) The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

One of the motivations of using themes in my Two Thirds Book Challenge was to broaden my reading palette, but so far I’m still stuck in fiction, which is the theme of my next couple books on this list.  Gaiman was one of those authors that seemed to be too hyped to me, so I avoided his books for a while.  Then a year or so ago I read Good Omens by Gaiman and Terry Pratchett — lots of fun.  After that the Twitter book club 1 Book 140 picked Gaiman’s American Gods and I read along.  Enjoyed that, too.  All sorts of mythology and legends being pulled together and brought into a modern age that doesn’t know what to make of mythology or legends. The Graveyard Book is no exception to that trend — Gaiman takes Kipling’s classic The Jungle Book and changes the setting to a graveyard.  He pulls it off in a wonderful way, and without a tacky ending.  I would love to see more stories with these characters.

(8) The Magicians and (9) The Magician King by Lev Grossman

When Magician King came out, I saw all sorts of interviews and reviews on book blogs discussing the allusions and references to writers like C. S. Lewis, J. K. Rowling, J. R. R. Tolkien, Neal Stephenson, and many others.  Just like my fascination with retold myths, I was intrigued by this series that admitted to so many influences.  It took me a couple times to start The Magicians — Quentin is not the most sympathetic character, after all.  But once I pushed through the first few chapters, the book really took off for me and the second book was even better.  Now I’m contemplating a return to the Narnia books that I haven’t read in … 25 years??  Though seeing them through the jaded, skeptic eyes of Grossman’s characters makes me hesitate, too.

(10) and (11) … ??

I’m not going to pick these yet because I still have ten days in the year left – ten days that include quite a few hours in airports, airplanes, and away from work.  Who knows what I might read next?  Maybe even (gasp) a nonfiction book!

Over a month ago, Mark came up with a new book challenge for the year he called The Two-Thirds Book Challenge.

Right away I made my own list for the challenge but didn’t take the time to post it anywhere.  I could cheat, use the same list, and declare myself halfway done … or I could revise the list and still give myself a decent challenge.

The original list:

Of those books, I have since finished The Late American Novel (excellent!), more than three fiction books by new-to-me authors, I’m halfway through the Technology Training book, and I dismissed the project management book I had in mind because it turned out to be awful.  Also, I am going to be honest with myself and admit that I will probably not read any of the Lectures books until possibly late December.

I’m also learning something about myself over the past year of trying to read various “lists” of books — I don’t really do specifics.  As in, within six weeks of listing a specific title, I probably won’t want to read it anymore if I haven’t read it already.  But I do follow themes.  Themes and general topics with plenty of room for options works very well for me.  Therefore my Two-Thirds Book list will not be a list of titles, but of themes that I want to pursue, with some potential titles as examples.  If I can read from two-thirds of these themes over the next twelve months, I will be very happy indeed.

With all that in mind, here is my new list, with links to the respective GoodReads shelf I’ve created for each:

One of the benefits of looking at my books in themes and then setting myself the challenge of reading from at least two-thirds of the themes is the opportunity to get more diverse reading in.  I’ve been a glutton for fiction lately, and my GoodReads list shows that — 34 books to read in fiction!  No other “theme” gets even close to that.  The next highest is a shelf called “Books on Books” with 18 titles, some of which overlap with the “Erudition” shelf listed above.

If you’d like to participate in the challenge, create a list of books (or themes) somewhere and put the link in a comment on Mark’s blog.  Happy reading!

 

Doctor Who, Delicious, and the Commonplace Book

Once again, all my worlds colliding in interesting ways this week.  For starters, I got Mark watching Doctor Who — he’s working his way through Season 4 with Doctor David Tennant on Netflix Streaming, and whenever the red envelopes show up, we slowly work our way through Season 5 with Doctor Matt Smith.

What the heck could this possibly have to do with Delicious.com and Commonplace Books, you ask?  Excellent question. Here goes…

In the Season 5 episode “The Time of Angels” River Song reappears with her intriguing blue TARDIS book, which basically serves as her commonplace book of all things Doctor-related.  But I didn’t think of it as her commonplace book till I saw some tweets coming out of THATcamp about digitizing them, plus Amanda Watson’s Ngram comparing commonplace books to scrapbooks. On top of all this, I’m reading Steven Johnson’s new book Where Good Ideas Come From (*highly* recommended) and I just came to the part in chapter 3 where he talks about the magic of commonplace books, particularly in regards to Darwin, who wrote copious notes and re-read them later to compare with other notes.

So with my brain churning around questions about commonplace books, a seemingly unrelated event happens — rumors spin out of control about my beloved bookmarking site Delicious.com riding off into the dot.com horizon, and suddenly I (and thousands of other people) start really thinking about where to keep our treasure troves of both useful and forgotten links (I’m toying with both Diigo and Pinboard, for what it’s worth…).

But then tonight I came back to Steven Johnson, where I’m still in the middle of musings about commonplace books – especially John Locke’s system of indexing his books and the Enlightenment habit of treating text as a wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey, here-and-there kind of thing.  And I realized that these commonplace books proved invaluable to their writer-owners because they held everything … reading notes, letter drafts, observations, recipes … sound familiar?  How many times have you tried to devise a Thing To Hold All Thoughts for yourself?  Be it a filing system, a gadget, a piece of software, or a website — many of us are constantly waging this battle to reinvent the commonplace book in a digital age.

I realized that I don’t need a Delicious replacement.  I need a whole bloody completely different way of doing things.  What can serve as my commonplace book?  My home laptop…? My Evernote account …?  Do I go back to paper journals…?  Right now I have ideas and snippets and quotes scattered across all of these places, which means I have a hard time finding that one recipe I’m thinking of or that one short story I have another idea for. So the good news for me is – Delicious and Yahoo aren’t the problems at all. The bad news is – I need to think about a much bigger picture and do my future self a favor by making up my mind and condensing my workflows.

Speaking of the future … a bit ironic that River Song is still using good old paper as her commonplace book centuries from now, isn’t it? *

 

*Yes, I know it’s fiction, silly.  But I also know the writers can dream up things like sonic screwdrivers and time-eating stone angels, yet they still trust memories to paper.  I find that very, very interesting.

 

It’s that frantic time of year between Black Friday and Christmas morning, when the overwhelming question coming out of our media boxes seems to be “What are you going to buy?” with the very clear assumption that you must buy SOMEthing.

I have a long-standing love/hate relationship with Christmas.  I prefer to celebrate the Winter Solstice instead and I wish I could ignore the whole gift-obsessed culture of the holiday season all together.  At the same time, I end up getting a new holiday CD every year, I love it when people wear Christmas hats to work, and I think decorating for the season is way super fun.

Over the past few years I’ve been struggling to come up with my own holiday customs and rituals.  This is the first year Mark and I will spend the holidays together as a married couple and now I feel the setting of traditions to be even more important.

Recently I met someone who gave me a wonderful idea.  A retired schoolteacher is meeting with Mark once a week for a writing group.  She’s an incredible, sharp-as-a-tack woman.  The writing she brings each week is short stories — often true stories from her own experiences.  Some of these she hopes to develop into a children’s book, others are simply stories to pass down to her grown kids and their kids.

Think about that.  Stories to pass down.  Real life, this-happened-to-me stories.  Do you know how your parents met?  Do you know how your mom/dad broke a leg at 10 years old?  Do you remember when you first learned the truth about Santa?

We lose so many stories, and yet there is such a wealth of incredible, personal stories out there in our families, among our own friends. How awesome would it be if we exchanged short stories this year in lieu of store-bought gifts?  I would be THRILLED if someone gave me a story.  It’s a beautifully satisfying gift on all kinds of levels — the obsessive collector, the curious busy body, the affectionate relative, or the estranged long-distance friend.

In a way, that’s what people were doing with the old custom of holiday family newsletters.  A friend of mine used to write us all a poem at the end of each year that summed up her adventures for the past 12 months … and it usually rhymed!  I’ve already asked my parents to just give me a story – any story – for Christmas this year.

Sure, writing a story is harder than just picking up something at a store … or is it?  I don’t know about you, but I would much prefer to sit at home, looking out the window, composing a little memory on my computer than go outside in the cold, drive through slushy crazy traffic to a crowded store or mall, and figure out which knick-knack will not be completely useless to the gift recipient.

My only regret is that I didn’t start asking for stories sooner.

I find it helpful when other bloggers write a “things I’ve been reading” post — these summaries often put other posts from the same blog in context, or serve as timely little bibliographies of a meme flying across the web.

One of my favorite side effects of reading many different things in a relatively short amount of time is the serendipity of themes running across all the readings. I hope I can get organized enough to start making a habit of collecting these little patterns and connections and summarizing them every couple weeks here on my blog.

First, I have to give a shout-out here to the Sioux City Pubic Library.  Although the website is abominable to use, their service is exceptional.  I requested a couple brand new books, thinking I might get an interlibrary loan if I was lucky, but instead they bought the books for the library and had them ready for me in less than 2 weeks from my original request.  I was mighty impressed.

So, this week’s readings.  The book I am reading right now – only about fifty pages into it, in fact – seems to be magically pulling together pieces from other texts and quotes I’ve been exposed to recently.  The book is Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas. I haven’t read anything else by this author.  I heard about this book in particular from Amazon’s Best Books of September 2010 newsletter, which made the book sound completely insane.  This appealed to me.

Page 19 –  seemed to directly refer to the young adult book I breezed through just a couple days ago – Restoring Harmony by Joelle Anthony.  From my GoodReads review: “I loved this book for setting the scene of a post-oil-collapse America. The author included wonderful credible details of such a future world, including a thriving black market, barter system, unreliable solar energy, backyard vegetable gardens, deserted cities, and a return to craftsmanship that makes sense. Even though nothing scary or disturbing happens in this book, the possibility of everything she describes coming true is scary enough in itself that I feel even more rushed to get that piece of land with an off-the-grid house and veggie garden. The author generously gives us until 2031 before it all goes bad, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens much sooner.”  In Our Tragic Universe, a character talks about “cultural premonition” – when people write and paint about a disaster before it actually happens.  The examples used in the book had to do with the Titanic. I’m sure there are plenty of other post-oil dystopia stories coming out soon or already available. I’m not going to look for them right now because the subject is freaky enough in my imagination as is.

Page 53 – “… a key feature of storylessness: all structures must contain the possibility of their own non-existence…”  This reminded me of a TED Talk from Andrew Bird that Mark and I had just watched, in which Andrew describes a song he hasn’t finished yet, a song about “self-destructive feedback loops” and a person who avoids heartbreak so well they end up causing it themselves, or an eye straining to see itself.

Most of Our Tragic Universe so far has been conversations between friends.  These conversations meander in remarkable ways, comparing Neitzsche to knitting, for example. These tangled threads reminded me of another TED Talk watched this weekend. This one from Steven B. Johnson, a technopundit with a background in semiotics and English literature, which makes for a very interesting mix of metaphors and examples in his writing. His most recent TED Talk is basically a plug for his latest book Where Good Ideas Come From: the natural history of innovation – which I also have checked out from the library but haven’t started reading yet.  To see a really fun, quick summary of some ideas from the book, check out this 4-minute video.

I finished an older book by Johnson last week called Interface Culture: how new technology trasforms the way we create and communicate from 1997.  The things that stuck with me were the brief histories of visual and architectural metaphors used in the graphical design of modern interfaces — from small details like “trash cans” or “recycle bins” to structural concepts like “folders” and “desktops”.   Some of his hopes and predictions for future interfaces had me wondering which of our contemporary tools might fit into his 1997 descriptions.  I had to give myself a quick refresher on historical internet landmarks in order to put Interface Culture in context.  For example:  the domain google.com was registered in September 1997, “weblog” was supposedly coined in December 1997, Yahoo Mail started in October 1997, RSS wouldn’t be around until 1999, the iPod – 2001, Delicious.com – 2003, Facebook – 2004, Twitter – 2006, and the iPhone – 2007.  As I was reading the book, it was amazing to realize how much had changed in thirteen years and how much had not.  Some questions still nagging me:  what is the iPad’s interface metaphor?  Can we still talk about iOS having “windows” or has it done away with that old standby?  What is our mental concept map for navigating through apps on an iPad or iPhone?  How much longer will we continue to use paperbook metaphors in ebook interfaces?

 

 

… like the others.

The context: Christmas songs.

The exceptions: Songs that mention a winter holiday but are not in spirit, sound or otherwise, holiday music.  Some of these songs are downright beautiful and I have to stop in my tracks whenever I hear them (Hallelujah, River) but they certainly do not put me in a festive or celebratory mood.  In fact, they can be  downright depressing.  Yet they are included in “holiday” compilations and played in stores with the usual holiday music.

Do we have here a case of subject / keyword confusion?  You decide:

“Hallelujah” written by Leonard Cohen (my favorite renditions are by k.d. lang and Allison Crowe)

One of sexiest and saddest songs ever written, but this “hallelujah” is not the Christmas-Baby-Jesus kind of hallelujah:

well, maybe there’s a god above
but all i’ve ever learned from love
was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you
it’s not a cry that you hear at night
it’s not somebody who’s seen the light
it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah

“River” written by Joni Mitchell

She just went through a break up.  She’s thinking of running away.  Not holiday music:

I’m so hard to handle
I’m selfish and Im sad
Now Ive gone and lost the best baby
That I ever had
Oh I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
I wish I had a river so long
I would teach my feet to fly
Oh I wish I had a river
I made my baby say goodbye

“New Year’s Day”  written by U2

Okay, maybe this one is just me, but every time I hear this song I think it’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and that doesn’t put me in a holiday mood either, as much as I adore U2:

And so we’re told this is the golden age
And gold is the reason for the wars we wage
Though I want to be with you
Be with you night and day
Nothing changes
On New Year’s Day

xx

book cover

book cover

Three books have been spinning in my head for a little while now — especially since last Friday, when I bought a copy of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being in an airport bookshop on my way home.  I thought I had read it a few years ago, but it was not the same book. I was confusing it with Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer, which – strangely enough – takes its title from a line in the Milan Kundera book I bought.

But at the same time, I kept mixing these titles around in my mind with A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, which – as far as I can tell from the jacket summary – has nothing in common whatsoever with the Foer or Kunera books.

Why?

That is what I aim to find out.  So I’ve been reading Kundera all week, almost done.  Perhaps I was confusing this book with the one by Dave Eggers because this book by Kundera is, in fact, heartbreaking and has many moments of genius.   The way he plays with language, the reality he gives his characters. It’s Prague in the 1960s but it might as well be today, you and me.

[ spoiler alert! ]

Vicky Christina Barcelona poster

Vicky Christina Barcelona poster

But for the purposes of this blog post, let’s pretend the story can be summed up thus:

Love triangle
wife is a photographer
mistress is a painter
mistress coaches wife on her art

Compare that to the very simple summary of another story this week, from Woody Allen’s newest movie (go see it) Vicky Christina Barcelona:

Love triangle
ex-wife is a painter
mistress is a photographer
ex-wife coaches mistress on her art

A lot of reviews for the Woody Allen movie said it was about love and sex.  I didn’t see that.  And I don’t see it in Kundera’s novel either.  I see in both Allen’s film and Kundera’s novel a struggle for expression.  Personal expression. Creative expression.  What have you.  The characters are all struggling to figure out how to SHOW something, anything to other people and be understood.  Love conveniently figures into the stories because it is one of the most misunderstood expressions humans deal with on a regular basis.  But to confine the tension of these stories to love is to be too simplistic.  In Kundera’s case, especially, there are themes of stifled expression explored on numerous fronts: sexual, sensual, political, familial, artistic and patriotic.

Am I projecting?  Well, sure, I’m the reader.  That’s what I get to do.  It’s my role as the reader to project myself onto the characters and into the story.  None of us know how to read any other way.

Expression, as I was saying, is the crux.   At one point in Vicky Christina Barcelona, Scarlett Johannson’s character blurts out that she has no talent.  That she has ideas, she has feelings she wants to express, but she can’t because she has no talent. The film’s tagline:  “Life is the ultimate work of art.”  The Unbearable Lightness of Being has so many examples, I don’t know where to start, but I’ll give you one of my favorites:  Tereza, the wife in the fore-mentioned love triangle, has a habit from childhood of staring at herself in the mirror, willing her soul to show itself in her face, searching for some sign of the soul in the body.  The only time she is truly happy is when she takes photos of the Russian tanks invading Prague.

Both stories end without conclusion.  No one ever really gets what they want because they never actually know what they want.  In order to express something sufficiently, wouldn’t you have to already know what you want to express?  Kundera’s answer:

“We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.”

and

“Einmal ist keinmal … what happens but once might as well not have happened at all.”

lyrics to Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire” … wordled by yours truly

I was looking for a good dose of humor this morning, so I turned right away to Piled Higher and Deeper.  I found two comics that really express everything I could want to say about…

1. Life

Your Life

and 2. Politics

I knew it

For once, I’m satisfied with a silly online test score:

Your Score: the Wit

(57% dark, 23% spontaneous, 21% vulgar)

your humor style:
CLEAN | COMPLEX | DARK – You like things edgy, subtle, and smart. I guess that means you’re probably an intellectual, but don’t take that to mean pretentious. You realize ‘dumb’ can be witty–after all isn’t that the Simpsons’ philosophy?–but rudeness for its own sake, ‘gross-out’ humor and most other things found in a fraternity leave you totally flat.

I guess you just have a more cerebral approach than most. You have the perfect mindset for a joke writer or staff writer.

Your sense of humor takes the most thought to appreciate, but it’s also the best, in my opinion.

PEOPLE LIKE YOU: Jon Stewart – Woody Allen – Ricky Gervais

The 3-Variable Funny Test!

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