Ramblings and Recommendations

Hello all!

I love to read.  And, I find myself often talking about reading and books and making recommendations to my friends and neighbors (both solicited and unsolicited).  I also enjoy writing, but mostly of the stream-of-conscience brand.  So, here are my ramblings about books and reading and my recommendations.  I hope you enjoy.

My Adventures with God – Stephen Tobolowsky

I first encountered Stephen Tobolowsky, the writer, with his collection The Dangerous Animals Club. When I picked up that collection of personal essays that focuses on his childhood, I thought that his name and picture sounded familiar. With a quick Google search I realized that he’s “that actor in that show”. Seriously. He’s a character actor with an IMDB listing as long as Shaq’s arm. The Dangerous Animals Club was absolutely hilarious and the title essay reminded me simultaneously of Stephen King’s The Body (the story that inspired Stand by Me) and David Sedaris. It is a must read.

The next time I ran into Tobolowsky (the writer – I can’t keep track of how often I see Tobolowsky, the actor), I was browsing iTunes for podcasts to listen to and there it was: The Tobolowsky Files! Sweet. Sign me up. After I had taken in just a couple of episodes, there he was again, with a new essay collection called My Adventures with God.

Tobolowsky’s latest essay collection, hot off the presses this week, turns away from his childhood and focuses on moments of his life dealing (however obliquely) with religion and spirituality. Never fear, the essays still have a great deal of humor and charm. But they are also tender and raw and deeply contemplative. He shares not only his own stories, but those of other people in his life and his ear for storytelling is impeccable. While this collection has themes of religion and spirituality, it is non-judgmental and widely accessible. I highly recommend everything I’ve heard and read so far and am looking forward to anything he may publish next.

 

I received an advanced copy of this book from the publisher via netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks!

Spring Cleaning my To-Be-Read Pile

One of my biggest book-lover dilemmas is that I cannot read my books as fast as I can add them (to my wish lists, to my kindle, to my shelf). Wanting to clear some space mentally and physically, I did a little Spring cleaning of my TBR pile.

For me, my TBR pile is more than just the books on my shelf, it’s also the overstuffed kindle, the library hold list, the Litsy (and LibraryThing and Goodreads) TBR list and the physical notes that I’ve made when someone has recommended a book. As a bit of a minimalist by nature, I find clutter of all kinds to be distracting and stressful. As a bookworm, I find a growing TBR pile to be inevitable.

Step One: Consolidate

Consolidating seemed like an easy first step, but proved to be remarkably complicated. So, I had to break this down into smaller steps.

First, I needed to get all the books in one place. I moved all the physical books I owned into a single room. My Kindle books were easier: I keep all my unread books on the device and delete them as I read, so that was already done. Finally, the wish lists, notes and tags. Here’s where things got a little crazy. I have electronic lists everywhere! On amazon I keep a wish list, I keep a TBR list on Litsy, my library’s website, on Audible and LibraryThing. Oh, and I have notes of books friends recommend. Notes. Plural. With the help of several open windows on my mac, I was ready for action.

Next, I got rid of all the duplicates. This alone took about 50 books off my lists. It was a bit laborious because, honestly, I never really found an efficient way to do it.

Step Two: Getting Real About my TBR

Even after dumping duplicates, I had over 300 books still on my TBR.   Time to get real about which books in these piles I actually want to keep.   I started with my wish list. I figured this would be the easy part, since I hadn’t actually bought the books, yet and might be less inclined to hold on to them for that reason. But, in reality, this was the largest trove. At first, I looked at every book and read the description and wondered why I had it on the list, and so on. Pretty quickly, I realized that this was going to get me absolutely nowhere fast. So, I reached way down and grabbed hold of my inner Marie Kondo. (She wrote The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, for those of you who haven’t heard of her. Her book is based on her Japanese heritage and encourages courageous decluttering keeping only those things that are in good repair and that bring you joy. Her principals about books are very close to the idea that if you are not reading the book at this very moment and enjoying it, it goes in the rubbish pile. Well, not quite – but close.) Here was my rule: does this book appeal to me RIGHT NOW? If not, just delete. My thinking is this: if it’s a great book for me to read, I’ll come across it again and read it when it is more appealing. For now, let’s just lighten the load.

Next stop: my kindle. I found that I could apply the same rule to these and delete those that are not currently appealing from my devise. This was the easiest group to cull, because, if I ever change my mind, –no worries — the book lives on the cloud in my collection. Onward and upward.

Finally, I got to my physical books. These were a little tougher for me. I do have some issues with the idea of sunk costs. Intellectually, I understand that the price of these books have already been paid, therefore it doesn’t actually cost me anything more to pass them along. But, practically, I have a bit of trouble with passing along books that I have bought but not read. There are some books on this stack that I’ve never read but continue to pass on every time I’m looking for something to read. So, away they went, most of them to the little free libraries in the neighborhood.

What was I left with? Along with a pretty darn good feeling of accomplishment, my TBR pile was now down to a total of 185 books! And, by looking through what I own, I know I’m excited about reading all of them.

Step Three: Making New Habits

As I was cleaning up my TBR I realized that I would have to make some changes moving forward in order to keep things organized and under control. Primarily, I needed three things: a better system for keeping track of books I may want to read; some book acquisition strategies; and motivation for reading down my newly trimmed TBR pile.

I have many bookish peeps who keep track of all of their books on the Goodreads app. Honestly, I’m not sure that it really matters which system is used, the important thing is that ONLY ONE is being used (lets just say I was using significantly more than one). Ultimately, I decided to keep things on an Amazon wish list to keep track for these reasons:

(1) Electronic lists are the way to go since they are easily accessible at home or on the go. Goodbye, paper lists.

(2) Amazon is a quick and easy reference to the publisher blurbs.

(3) Amazon’s wish list has a comment section which I can use to remind me who recommended a book or why; if my library has a copy that I can put on hold; or if I want to listen to the book on audio instead of reading a physical copy.

(4) Some of my recommendations come from online sources, that often link directly to the Amazon entry for a book, so all I have to do is hit a single button to add it once I read the description.

(5) And, I save the kindle edition of the book to my wish list, so that I can scroll through from time to time and can easily see if something I want to read is on sale!

Next, I needed to figure out how to decrease the number of books that I was purchasing but not immediately reading. Here are a few guidelines I’ve come up with for myself:

(1) Beware of one-click buying. I’m a sucker for the kindle deals that come out. And can easily fall prey to the one-click buying.  So, I’m trying very hard not to check the daily deals. Instead, I can check my wish list and see if any of the books there are on sale. And, if a book is available at my library (even if there is a long hold list), I don’t buy it. Period. Finally, when I slip and get a little too excited about what seems like a great deal, I take advantage of Amazon’s return policy. Just bought three new under $4 books and regret it the next day? Return them. You have 7 days for late night click remorse.

(2) Use the Library! To keep my physical pile down to something manageable (and to make sure I actually want to read a book that I order or buy on a whim, I use the library. My new rule is that I will get a library book rather than purchase whenever possible. Especially for new books. And a correlated thing: if I don’t read the book when it comes in for me, I don’t add it back to any list. Again, it’ll come around later if it’s meant to be. It’s so much easier for me to bail on a library book that’s not really working or return one early that now that it’s in my hot little hands doesn’t quite feel as appealing as something else on my shelf.

(3) Buy locally! I read that local bookstores can stay in business if their customers buy 12 books per year. So, in my mind, I have 12 books to buy locally at full price each year and if I’m in a bookstore and want to buy one, I’ll do it!! I love these stores and when I’m paying full price, I’m not tempted to buy a book just because it’s a deal. Win-win all around.

Now that things are down to a manageable level, I’m excited to read the books I have. I enjoy having books in progress in lots of different formats (kindle, physical book, audiobook) and I’m making a more concerted effort to made sure that at least one or two books that I have going at any time are coming from Mount TBR. I’ve also set a goal for myself to read through 85 of these books this year. That may be a little ambitious considering my love for the latest thing on the shelf, but I can already (after just a few weeks) see that some of my strategies are working and I’m passing on some of the new, shiny books for the time being in favor of some of the great titles I have in my pile.

Version Control – Dexter Palmer

Dexter Palmer has created a mind warping sci-fi / mystery in Version Control. This novel takes place in the near future where scientists are working on a Casuality Violation Device (please don’t call it a time machine). And, the time travel in this novel is more about discussing theory and ethics of time travel than jumping in a Delorian and messing up your parent’s high school love life.

The novel does have a bit of a slow start and contains some longer, slightly preachy segments. However, good bits of humor and some cutting satire (especially about online dating services) balance out the political bits.

Overall, a good mystery with sci-fi twists and turns that has some important things to say about modern technology, ethics, grief and relationships.

The Best We Can Do – Thi Bui

Graphic memoirs are quickly becoming a favorite genre for me. This beautifully drawn volume is one of the reasons why. Thi Bui tells her immigration story along with her family’s backstory of a life in Vietnam during the last century and the civil war and it’s resolution in that country. The story is not sugar coated, but tinged with an honest portrayal of how parents communicate (or don’t) with their children. This memoir is personal and intimate, but manages to impart a great deal of history about Vietnam. That alone makes this a necessary and worthwhile read. But the element of this book that makes it an absolute must read for me is the author’s telling each of her parent’s stories separately. Illustrating as well as her artwork that we each have our own stories, even if they sometimes overlap with someone else’s. Highly recommended.

I received an advanced copy of this book from the publisher via netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks!

American Housewife – Helen Ellis

Helen Ellis is disturbed in all the best ways. This story collection captures the unique details of real lives of American Housewives then twists everything about 270 degrees to a wickedly dark and funny place. From a well considered list of “What I do All Day”; to how to handle an uninvited dinner guest with precision and panache; to a book club with a bizarre baby bent, every story in this collection is deliciously warped.

The tone is set from the first line: “Inspired by Beyonce, I stallion-walk to the toaster.” And, things only get better from there. Perfectly conveys the judgmental biting undertone of ladies with manners, much in the same way that you know to perk up your ears after you hear, “bless her heart”, knowing that the really good stuff is coming. The humor here is spot on and comes with just the right amount of sympathy and sweetness to save it from being just plain mean.

Listened on audio and loved the full cast treatment. The narrators were spot-on.

This book will be a particular hit with fans of Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

3 to Get Reading: Children’s Books that Adults Will Enjoy

Many adults have embraced Young Adult books and often read books in that genre. But there are also many great middle grade books out there that are great to read with your children or discuss with them after independent reading. And, even if you don’t have kids or relatives to serve as your excuse, there is lots of great reading out there with a high entertainment factor that manages educate as well for readers of all ages. Here are a few recent releases to check out:

March – John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

This graphic trilogy tells the story of the Civil Rights movement over three volumes. The story is framed by the 2008 inauguration of Barack Obama, which helps put the timeline of the story in understandable terms for young readers. The story is told with raw honesty and contains some images and events that are shocking and unsettling, but also necessary and true.   Therefore, parents may wish to read along with their younger readers. It’s a beautiful portrayal in black and white illustrations and gives a succinct primer of the non-violence movement and Lewis’s early career to readers of all ages.

The Inquisitor’s Tale – Adam Gidwitz (illuminated by Hatem Aly)

This beautifully illuminated novel takes place in medieval France. Three children come together in the countryside and their adventures are passed along in the oral tradition by their acquaintances. The story revolves around a young girl, Jeanne – a Christian peasant girl whose visions are prophetic; a bi-racial boy, William, a Muslim who has the power of super human strength; and Jacob, a Jewish boy who has the power to heal. These children, alongside their magical dog, find adventures that initially seem simple and formulaic but which become more complex as their tale unfolds.   The moral of the fable is that people of all genders, races and religions are equal and valuable, but the conclusion is implied more than foisted upon young readers and, as in all things, the journey itself is the gem of this tale.

Phoebe and Her Unicorn – Dana Simspon

If you loved Calvin and Hobbes comic strips when you were young, you will want to meet Phoebe. She and her unicorn, Marigold Heavenly Nostrils, discover adventures in the middle of middle-class American life. This comic takes place in a decidedly modern setting. Marigold, who is more than a little self-involved, loves to take selfies. Technology is embraced and lampooned in equal measure! There are currently five books in the series (the fifth, Unicorn Crossing, will be released tomorrow, March 28, 2017). The stories are told in comic strip sized bites, but the books follow a loose narrative thread. Phoebe is a fourth grader, and the books are written for children around that grade level (and they have glossaries for the more advanced words), but children of all ages can appreciate the friendship of Phoebe and Marigold.

 

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane – Lisa See

HOT OFF THE PRESS – OUT THIS WEEK!

Lisa See’s latest novel explores the fates of a young Chinese mother and her daughter who was adopted and raised in the United States. This book explores the culture of a Chinese minority, the Akha. Li-Yan was raised in the mountains, but through education, is able to explore life outside the Akha. Her daughter, raised in America, but longing to find a place of belonging. This lyrical novel deeply explores the traditions of Chinese tea and the effects of modernization on ancient rituals and traditions. Although this is a contemporary story, I highly recommend to readers who enjoy historical fiction for the exploration of traditional Chinese tea manufacturing and ceremony.

 

I received an advanced copy of this novel from the publisher via netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks!