Reading about reading

I love books about books, and The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Sharedhad been sitting on my TBR pile for a very long time. I have a passing acquaintance with the author’s mother, and I had held off reading this for some time due to her discomfort with some of the material included. However, in the end I couldn’t resist, as a love of books is one of the traits which most defines me, and I find it irresistible when others write about the same love.

When she was nine years old, the author, “Alice Ozma” and her father began a streak of reading aloud every single day which went on to last for thirteen years. This book isn’t so much about the books they shared as is it about the relationship between the two of them and I found it touching and genuine to see the struggles of this single father raising his daughter through the tricky pre-teen and teen years. Through it all, a shared love of books bonded them together and gave them a focus that kept them going.

The writing often seems like it’s in a young teenage voice, but the author wasn’t too many years past that when she published this memoir. Some embarrassing editing mistakes marred my enjoyment at times but overall I really enjoyed this book. 3.5 stars.

This will count toward my Read Harder Challenge as a book written by someone under the age of 25.

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Cryptonomicon

I have been fascinated with codes for as long as I can remember. My brother and I used to make up symbols and hand each other notes written in code. When I was seven or eight I read Cheaper by the Dozenand the part I remember most vividly — apart from the humor — is that one or more of the children learned Morse code in order to communicate under the radar, so to speak. I immediately set about learning Morse code, though I never put it to any practical use. Later on, when I wanted to be able to journal during class without having anyone read off my paper, I developed a cursive alphabet to replace our standard one. I could write at regular speed and no one was the wiser. [I also found this handy when I was lucky enough to go on a European study tour after my sophomore year of college. One of the requirements in order to get the college credit was keeping a detailed travel journal. There were times when I wanted to make observations of a personal nature which I didn’t feel the tour leader needed to read, so I put them in my own alphabet.] Suffice it to say that when I came across the description for CryptonomiconI was intrigued, and not a bit put off by its 1,168 pages.

This book alternates between those in the cryptography business during World War II and modern-day programmers with a keen need for secure communications. Throw in some standard thriller ingredients like a vast amount of gold bullion and both wartime and corporate adversaries, and both storylines zip right along. I loved the mathematical and scientific themes, and found myself drawn in to each of the personal stories. By the end, everything converges into one big race to the conclusion. I really enjoyed this book. Four stars.


Three more reads last week

i followed up my trail adventure with three more books last week, beginning with the reliably pleasant The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Caféfrom the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith. Precious Ramotswe always uses her common sense to sort out whatever challenge is put before her, and her considerable tact with both employees and clients. This is the first time in several books (for the series) that I have read rather than listened to the story. Because the author has the characters speaking slowly and repetitively, using my eyes allowed me to speed through passages that would have taken much longer if I had listened to them. That was a good choice. I am counting this one in my Read Harder challenge as a book written by an African author. McCall Smith was born in what is now called Zimbabwe. 3.5 stars.

Next I finished a classic play, A Doll’s Houseby Henrik Ibsen. I don’t know why I don’t read more plays; it works quite well on the page. I enjoyed this one all the more because Nora’s dilemma was on the leading edge of beginning awareness of women’s rights. She rebels against the completely fake role which she is expected to carry out, and by the end of this short read she has decided to figure out who she is and what she wants to do, regardless of society’s expectations. Good for her. I’m counting this on toward my Back to the Classics challenge, for which one requirement was to read a play. I enjoyed it so much I will seek out more to read in the future. 4 stars.

And finally, I finished off a real guilty pleasure, Home of the Braised by Julie Hyzy. This series of mysteries centered around the White House chef don’t rely on plausibility to hold a reader’s interest. However, I love reading about how kitchens are run, and at least some idea of how the white house meal prep is done. Ollie Paras is a likable character, whether or not I believe the story arcs concerning her.  3.5 stars.


Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

I love travel and adventure memoirs and knew I was going to enjoy this book (Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail). I have no idea why it took me so long to get around to reading it, as I’ve owned it since November of 2013. The recent release of the movie spurred me on, along with the fact that I chose this book as part of my TBR Challenge.

Cheryl Strayed was a mess when she decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, and she knew that the rigors would help her to redefine her life and begin again. Her recent divorce was amicable but painful, and she’d fallen into heavy drug use and other self-destructive behaviors. The downturn had been triggered by her mother’s early death, but clearly Cheryl wasn’t handling things well at all. Her troubles were largely self-inflicted, but she decided to put everything on hold and go for a hike. She tried to prepare for the trail by sending ahead supplies and small amounts of cash to various planned stops, and loaded herself down with a huge variety of supplies from REI that were nearly too much for her to carry. But she fought through the hardships and found a certain beauty in the daily pain and work of hiking the trail, through desert and mountains and snow and withering heat. The solitude interspersed with the encounters she had with various other backpackers on the trail made for interesting reading, though I cringe with pain at the thought of what her feet went through.

She did indeed find herself and make peace with her life during the months of her hike, and writes ably of the transformation. I’m not sure what she could write next, but I will definitely pick it up when she does release another title. This was very enjoyable.


The Girl on the Train

I had heard plenty of hype over the past few months about the release of Paula Hawkins’ debut novel, The Girl on the Train, a psychological thriller. The premise sounded interesting: a woman on a commuter train sees something through the window as she passes that becomes very important when the woman she saw suddenly disappears. Muddling things considerably is the witness’ tendency to binge drink, and the effect that has on her memory and therefore her reliability as a witness. Her life has been sliding downhill rapidly and while she very much wants to help make sure the guilty are charged and (just as importantly to her) that the innocent are not. But the police can’t rely on her, and she can’t retrieve cohesive memories either.

I felt frustrated with Rachel as she goes on repeating the same mistakes over and over, and her life continues to unravel. The premise made the psychological side of things spin out slowly and effectively, but ultimately I didn’t love the book. I did not feel it had the same impact as Gone Girlthough clearly it was aiming at the same audience.

When the answers come, there is an effective and mostly satisfying resolution. I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from reading this; indeed, I’m glad I read it. But I will be surprised if I find it on any of my “best of 2015” lists in a few months.


Two more January reads

Following the recommendations of several friends, I chose to read Winter Garden, by Kristin Hannah, which spoke to the privations and hardships of Leningrad during World War II in the historical fiction portion of its storyline. I’ll admit I’m a huge WW2 junkie, particularly in fiction, and have read more about Western Europe than about Russia during those years, so I appreciated the chance to explore more in this area. Unlike several of my friends, I didn’t feel a huge disconnect between the modern-day portions of the story and the older ones, nor did I greatly prefer the historical portions. In fact, I thought the author effectively handled the results of life-changing events on a person’s psyche. In this case, that meant that the mother (who lived through the Leningrad siege) was unable to give her daughters any form of motherly love as they were growing up. It was painful reading about that, and yet it all knit together very well by the end. Where I took a  bit away from my final rating was the  excessive melodrama. The story itself was serious enough; the author didn’t have to tweak it so hard to make sure we got the point. I’ll try and avoid spoilers, so let’s just say that I took points off in two areas: the implausible ending, and the fact that this was written as a romance, where each person had to have a happy ending. Then again, I’m not a reader of romances…

The second book that I just finished was an always enjoyable romp with Flavia de Luce in As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust  as she is involved in yet another murder case, at the tender age of what? 12? This wasn’t my favorite  book in the series so far, though there were many delightful scenes and quotes.

These two books will knock off two more categories in the “Read Harder” challenge that I’ve committed to. The first book was recommended to me by several friends, and the second was written by someone past the age of 65. Now I think I should spend some time with classics. However, I’ve gotten myself involved in two books that are definitively not, so we shall see…


Pure Comfort Food in a book

“Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

I no longer make a point of reading The Lord of the Ringsevery year, but I’m never too many years between visits to Middle Earth. I lost a week of college (or at least all free time that week) to my first reading of it, but it’s the subsequent times through that carry the most memories. The read-alouds with my young daughter, the time we had a map printed on a large foam board and then traced the progress of the storylines with dry erase markers, the time I had a long and detailed discussion of it with a group of online friends… So I won’t make a critique or synopsis here. Suffice it to say that this is like macaroni and cheese for the reading soul: pure comfort food. It’s not fluff and there are endless layers of depth to tease apart, but it’s familiar and beautiful and a delight every time.

I chose to read it this month because of one of the reading challenges in which I’m participating, where I commit to reading one book each month that was written by someone born during that month. JRR Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892 and the world is a better place because of it.