In which Middlemarch amazes me

Middlemarch by George Eliot

3 words: lyrical, character-focused, absorbing

Middlemarch. I still can’t believe how much I love this book. And as the weeks go by, I continue to ponder it and feel enriched by having read it.

Part of me wishes I’d read it earlier in life, because one of the things I hear over and over is that readers who return to this book find themselves observing the characters differently as their own circumstances and life experiences change. I love that this book is bountiful enough to offer that kind of reading. I’ll have to begin my re-reading experience closer to midlife… and I’m OK with that. But it would’ve been more rewarding to have had a younger person’s take on it.

Here are the aspects I loved most…

The characters

While Dorothea Brooke could be considered the main character, the other characters — so beautifully drawn, so complex and vivid, so imperfectly human — are vitally important to every aspect of the story.

Eliot lovingly crafted not only a rich and nuanced story, but also a cast of individuals who are realistic enough that I feel like I could carry on a conversation with them. I feel like we go way back.

And the characters and the situations they face are real and painful and joyful and strange and uncomfortable and comforting and loving and harsh.

There are young people doing foolish things, and older people, too. And young couples figuring out the world and older couples who are happy. And others who are not. And the small details of their interactions make them abundantly real. I feel like this book could be read as profiles of four married couples. I didn’t expect the wisdom that emerges from the way the people of this book relate to one another. But it’s the greatest gift this book gave me.

The narrator

Another surprise: the narrative voice was fascinating. An omniscient narrator comments on the actions and secret motivations of the characters, and the warm wisdom of that voice was comforting and delightful and unexpected. It seemed a very modern way of telling the story.

The language

Classics can kinda scare me, because dense prose can be tiresome. But this book wasn’t scary and wasn’t hard to read. It wasn’t dense or burdensome. While Eliot is fond of the Very Long Sentence (some of them went on for a full paragraph), she knows how to string together words in a very pleasing way. I found that I needed to slow down my reading a bit and just enjoy the words. The reading wasn’t difficult, but it wasn’t fast. It felt like a comfortable stroll through a beautiful garden — not hurried, and so much to claim one’s attention and to delight.

Now I want more

I found myself wanting to talk with readers who are set just like me, and ask them to give me another classic that’s this wise and warm and absorbing and delightful.

Give this book a whirl if you like… a big, absorbing story; classics; reading about a village; nuanced character portraits so detailed you’d recognize the characters if you met them; fiction that inspires the reader to examine her own life


So, my fellow readers… what classic novel is your favorite, and why should it be my next big read?

What I’ve Been Reading: February 2019

February was a wonderful reading month — with plenty of snowstorms and polar vortex action and gusting winds to make it extra cozy.

My reading this month was a mix of book club assignments, recommendations from other readers, an Audie Award nominee, and the long overdue reading of a classic. We have a fine blend of nonfiction and various fiction genres to tempt any appetite…

Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon by Robert Kurson

3 words: lively, heroic, crisp

Give this book a whirl if you like… space; tales of heroic daring; the behind-the-scenes story; the full team (including wives and families) that made Apollo 8 possible, getting to know the people behind the myth

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

3 words: profound, measured, philosophical

Give this book a whirl if you like… memoirs of survivors, the power of the mind, Holocaust narratives, encouragement through difficult times

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

3 words: cheeky, inventive, suspenseful

Give this book a whirl if you like…  a mix of suspense, family drama, and grim humor; a highly responsible character trapped in terrible circumstances by the acts of a loved one; tension between integrity and family loyalty

Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

3 words: creative, poignant, whimsical

Give this book a whirl if you like… inventive style, quirky bite-sized anecdotes, delight in daily life, clever writing

The Greatest Love Story Ever Told: An Oral History by Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman

3 words: irreverent, conversational, humorous

Give this book a whirl if you like…TV stars being real people, humorous memoirs, stories of couples, celebrity memoirs

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou

3 words: gripping, disturbing, journalistic

Give this book a whirl if you like… true stories of audacious deception, How’d she get away with it?, true stories that seem too strange to be real, reading about white collar crime, Silicon Valley start-ups, being infuriated

Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken

3 words: lyrical, multi-generational, quirky

Give this book a whirl if you like… quirky historical fiction, a big cast of eccentric but believable characters, bowling, independent women, family sagas, a wee touch of magic, a big story to fall into

Good Riddance by Elinor Lipman

3 words: warm, charming, offbeat

Give this book a whirl if you like… the revelation of family secrets; smart romantic comedies; unusual but believable characters; unintended consequences

And that was my February.

What were your favorite reads of the past month?

Books I Can’t Wait to Read: Early 2019

Anyone else haunt their library holds list?

I revisit mine like a kid looking through the Christmas toy catalog (they don’t print those anymore, do they?) to eye all the lovely things she craves.

Though, admittedly, by the time I was in 3rd grade, all I craved were books.

Here are the highlights on my library holds list at the moment…

What books are you aching to read this spring?

2018: Year in Review

2018… you’ve been completely exhilarating. And completely exhausting.

While my 2018 reading stats are none too impressive, I accomplished all of my 18 for 2018 goals.

And I’m feeling good about that, especially since we accomplished so many other big things that weren’t on the list.

We did some big vacation-y things with our sisters in the first half of the year.

Then there was some mildly unpleasant medical stuff (not part of the plan), which resolved itself well — but still, not fun.

And then we threw ourselves into the search for a home.

And preparing two houses for sale.

And the selling of two houses.

And the setting up of a household together.

And ten zillion little things, like replacing the food processor after both of ours broke at the same time. (For real.)

When I look at the to-do lists we conquered, I’m stunned that we’re still standing. It’s exhausting just to contemplate.

What I learned re-learned: one step at a time. Just focus on the next small act. It’s all we can handle, and it eventually gets the job done. So simple, so comforting, so true.

And now… here we are, and we have a harmonious household and a house we’d choose again & again & again. It’s a good place to sit and contemplate all we’ve managed to accomplish in the past six months. (Though it’s best not to contemplate it too much, cuz we both end up with stunned looks on our faces merely recalling all the work that went into it.)

And now we’ve decorated our new house for the holidays, and it’s so lovely I can hardly stand it. This place is some serious cozy. And we get to live in here. It’s good, my friends.

I wish you all a very happy New Year!

Shelfies: Children’s Literature

Today we conclude our tour of the Unruly Library with the little bookcase from my childhood nursery.

My mom must’ve known she had a little reader on the way, because she made sure there was a bookcase by my bed from the very beginning. (And she read aloud to me in the womb, which we both have always believed contributed enormously to how I turned out.)

Because it feels right, my children’s books—the ones that have survived year after year of librarian-like weeding cycles—are shelved in my childhood bookcase.

Here’s a list of the authors who dominate my childhood bookshelves, listed in the order in which I read them…

  • Beverly Cleary
  • Lois Lowry
  • Louise Fitzhugh
  • Madeleine L’Engle
  • Gordon Korman
  • Paula Danziger
  • Jean Webster

And then we have a handful of mass market paperbacks from my high school years, when I read everything by Richard Bach and Catherine Marshall.

But my favorite book on the shelf is the most re-read book of my entire life: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. I finally bought a hardcover, because my paperback literally fell apart.

This bookcase just makes me happy.

What are the most-loved books of your childhood?

Nonfiction Shelfies: Women’s Lives and Self-Improvement and Civil War and the Titanic

Today’s home library tour brings us to the reading room… which houses the lovely barrister bookcase.

I super-duper despise dusting, and besides looking all serious and historical and quaint, this puppy keeps the books from getting dusty.

The only thing I don’t adore is that each shelf is a different height, which leads to some very un-librarian-like blending of genres based solely on the size of the books. I get a little twitchy if I think about it too long. (There’s fiction on these shelves, people! Interspersed with nonfiction! Chaos reigns!!)

Despite the weirdness of the blend, there are four distinct collections on this bookcase. Let’s have a look.

Women’s Lives

I seriously adore a good autobiography or memoir by a woman who’s done remarkable things. And biographies of these women — they’re right up there, too. And sometimes I favor a perfectly told tale of everyday life. Here’s where the books about suffragists and spies and princesses are shelved.

Self-Improvement

We already know I can’t resist a solid self-improvement book. And here we have so many of my favorites…

Civil War

When I was in college and library school, my pleasure reading consisted of epic biographies of Civil War generals and lengthy, in-depth books about a single day of a single battle. I was truly a barrel of laughs. (My mom wanted to buy me clothes for Christmas, but I was committed to keeping that Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain biography at the top of my wish list. Best mom ever? I’m quite sure: Yes.) Since that phase of my reading life preceded the blog years, there’s little evidence of it here. But it’s part of me.

The Titanic

This one goes all the way back to high school, when I first read A Night to Remember by Walter Lord. And then I was down that rabbit hole for years. During my Titanic reading phase, I lived in a 1903 house, and it delighted my mind (and haunted my nighttime thoughts) that people living in my house would’ve read about the event in the newspaper. In my current 1871 house, same thing. (Life goal: always live in a place that was built before the sinking of the Titanic)

 

Next week: we head into my reading past… Children’s books are up next.

So readers… What were the topics of reading phases you remember fondly?

18 for 2018 update

Mid-year approaches, and it’s time for a check-in on the 18 for 2018.

Since the last update, I’ve knocked off a few more items.

Here’s photographic evidence of the latest conquests…

 

Go on northern vacation with the Dear Man and Older Sister

The Dear Man, his sister and her husband, and I trekked to Minnesota and Canada to visit my dad. And it was a spectacular trip. Here’s some scenery and a photo at Betty’s Pies…

 

Begin meditating

Just this morning, I was listening to episode 49 of the Typology podcast, in which Julianne Cusick (a fellow Enneagram One) spoke about how horribly difficult it is for Ones to be still.

Truth, sister!

I’ve been meandering my way through the delightful book Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, resisting every step of the way.

Despite being certain that I’d have a mediation habit firmly established by now, I will report that I’ve meditated exactly twice. For one minute each time.

And I intend to try it again at least weekly for the rest of the year. I’m saying this counts.

 

Visit 3 history geek places

The Dear Man and I recently hit about 6 historically geeky sites in one day. I really should’ve raised the bar on this one. During our recent canoe trip in Ohio, we saw the airplane that served as Air Force 1 for JFK and LBJ — the one that carried Kennedy’s body home from Texas, Simon Kenton’s grave, the site of four forts, Wright Brothers historic sites, and the birthplace of Tecumseh. Not to mention Erma Bombeck’s grave (literary! I loved dipping into her books from my mom’s bookshelf when I was growing up.)

Verklempt!

 

Remind myself to slow down once per day

I set up a Google Calendar alert that pops up on my phone and buzzes on my Fitbit, and invariably it happens at a moment when I’m whirling around like a pint-sized tornado. Then I take a deep breath. A really deep breath. And I actually slow down. For just a moment.

 

And I’ve made a mid-year substitution to the list, after hearing on the Happier podcast that this is permissible. (Dear heaven. I needed permission from a podcast to change one of my goals. Such a One.)

Off the list: Paddle board a second time.

While I really liked paddle boarding in Costa Rica, I seriously don’t feel like trying to wedge it into this summer’s activities. It was stressing me out. So off it goes.

New on the list: Do a deep decluttering of my house

Just when I thought I’d KonMari’d to my full potential, I realized I’d barely scratched the surface. During my most recent Goodwill delivery, the trunk and back seat of my car were packed to the gills. And it feels so good I can hardly believe it. My new sport is entering a room of my house, looking around, spotting the next thing to go, and tossing it into the Goodwill pile. Not to brag, but I’m pretty sure I’ve reached Olympic qualifying status.

 

And there are several projects in progress… calling old friends, following flower-arranging hashtags on Instagram, and roasting vegetables. And my reading challenge progress is respectable.

So… based on what remains on the list, the second half of the year is going to be domestic in the extreme. Here goes…

Here’s the full list… Items in italics are Done!

  • Call old friends on a regular basis
  • Buy typewriter key jewelry
  • Go on southern vacation with the Dear Man and Younger Sister
  • Go on northern vacation with the Dear Man and Older Sister
  • Roast vegetables once a month
  • Burn a candle when writing
  • Buy fresh flowers & watch a YouTube video to figure out how to arrange them
  • Invite friends for dinner
  • Begin meditating
  • Memorize 5 quotes
  • Visit 3 history geek places
  • Bake 2 family recipes
  • Replace long wool coat
  • Buy warm winter coat & boots
  • Remind myself to slow down once per day
  • Complete 2 of the 3: Book Bingo, Read Harder, and Modern Mrs Darcy reading challenges
  • Zipline
  • Do a deep decluttering of my house

 

So, my fellow list makers… What’s on your list of goals for the year?

Best books of 2016

 
It’s time for #libfaves16 on Twitter, my friends, and that means making some hard choices.
 
 
 
The idea is to list your top 10 favorite books that were published in 2016.
 
 
 
And then rank them.
 
 
 
This is difficult.
 
 
 
So I basically went with my gut.
 
 
A Gentleman in Moscow was this year’s clear winner, but the other rankings could shuffle around if you asked me on a different day. But the top 5 would remain the top 5.
 
 
Here goes…
 
 
Gracious, engaging, triumphant

 

 
Personal, informative, domestic

 

Introspective, unflinching, surprising
 
 
Lyrical, brutal, magical realism
 

 

Exuberant, collaborative, insider info
 
 
 
 
Unflinching, personal, troubling

 

7. The Clancys of Queens by Tara Clancy
Sharp, conversational, unexpected
 

 

Rollicking, informative, conversational

 

Lyrical, poignant, personal
 

 

10. The Murder of Mary Russell by Laurie R. King
Layered, innovative, historical

Her hard-working honor

My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor

3 words: smart, introspective, revealing

I’m in serious audiobook withdrawal these days. I just finished listening to Sonia Sotomayor’s marvelous memoir, and I completely fell into it.

Way back in my pre-blogging days, I read Lazy B: Growing up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest by Sandra Day O’Connor and H. Alan Day, and it had a similar effect. Though, as I recall that book, it focused primarily on Sandra Day O’Connor’s youth.

Sotomayor’s book covers her childhood, but it also brings her story into her middle adult years, concluding shortly after she became a judge. And, as in Jill Ker Conway’s first two books (The Road from Coorain and True North), I loved reading about the arc of her life and education. I’m a total sucker for that kind of story.

But the thing I loved most about Sotomayor’s memoir was her honesty. And also her humanity.

Here she is, having risen from a childhood in the projects to a seat on the high court, and she’s comfortable enough with herself to reveal the self-doubt she feels whenever she tackles something new. It makes her so relatable, even though her extraordinary work ethic makes her seem super-human.

And she describes how those two things go hand in hand: her insecurity about her ability to perform well drives her to work even harder to make sure she’s prepared.

It’s a heck of an effective formula.

When I read reviews of this book earlier, I focused on the hard parts: her alcoholic father’s death when she was young, her childhood diagnosis of diabetes, and her family’s financial hardship. And I thought: sad.

And she’s candid about all of these things, but people, she turns them into a triumph.

And she’s so darn likeable while she’s doing so. Oh my gosh.

Thank you — very much! — to JoAnn of Lakeside Musing for recommending this book in her Nonfiction November Supreme Court reading list. Your suggestion spurred me to read this book, and I am seriously hugely grateful.

So my friends… What’s the most inspiring true story you’ve read this year?

Eleanor and Park

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

3 words: poignant, romantic, painfully humorous

You know how we all want to forget those painfully awkward teenage years? (At least I sure do.)
Well, this book puts you right back into that frame of mind, but in the best way possible.
Rainbow Rowell is seriously skilled at making a reader care about her characters, and she’s also really good at remembering and evoking the feelings of being a teenager. And she’s smart and funny, and so are her characters.

The only thing that almost made me want to stop reading this book is that Eleanor’s home life is so freakin’ horrible, I almost couldn’t stand it. But I wanted so much to stay with her through her story that I stuck it out, and later I couldn’t believe I almost had to quit reading.

(But truly: her home life is horrible.

And I was reading this book at the same time as Hillbilly Elegy. And there were times when I had to remind myself which person’s horrible home life–with a mom making terrible life choices that had severe consequences for her children–was which.)

Eleanor and Park is a love story, but a quirky one. Both Eleanor and Park feel like misfits, and when they’re thrown together as seatmates on the school bus, they don’t like each other at first. But then they bond over graphic novels and music, and they gradually become friends and then they realize they love each other.

So yes, this is a book a about teen romance, but it’s smarter and sharper and savvier than you’d expect.

I found myself recommending this book to lots of friends — to anyone who even might consider reading a YA book, and to some who aren’t usually so inclined.

What’s the best YA book you’ve read lately?