Sunday, July 31, 2011

July statistics

My highest personal [reading] achievement came earlier this month when I (finally) finished reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. I have been reading this book intermittently since the day it was published back in January. The lack of proper, manageable chapters was really frustrating, especially since I never had long chunks of time to devote to the long sections that formed the only natural break in the narrative. Ten years ago, I was a champion for The Corrections (I proudly own a pre-Oprah book club 1st edition). When a follow-up was announced, I could hardly wait for the pub date. When I bought Freedom, I was stoked to learn that it was set in St. Paul, involving a somewhat stereotypical couple that was a gigantic composite of nearly every St. Paul couple I know. Ultimately, the main characters were colossally ugly and while they each find their redemption at the novel’s conclusion, by that point, I so didn’t care what happened to them. Franzen’s dripping hostility was uncomfortably present in every sentence. Seriously, dude, if that’s your “voice,” then I am so over you.

Midnight Riot provided a wonderful antidote to the bad taste that Freedom left. The author, Ben Aaronovitch (who was a writer for classic Dr. Who), has written a mystery replete with well-developed characters, impeccable pacing, and an excellent setting (London). Peter Grant is a Probationary Constable (police officer) who dreams of being a detective. While investigating a crime scene, Grant encounters an unusual witness to the crime—a ghost. Quickly, Grant is taken under the tutelage of Chief Inspector Nightingale for wizard training. If you find yourself above reading the Twilight series or any of the myriad vampire/werewolf/whatever books, you might find Aaronovitch’s series smart and funny.

Over the course of two long car trips, I read Born to Run aloud to John and the boys. My book group had chosen it to discuss last September (2010), but I was unable to attend that meeting and, as often happens, I didn’t read the book. But, I hung onto it with every intention of diving in at some point because I love this type of nonfiction, which, in this book is a pleasing combination of sport, culture, and travel. Also, I knew John, a former cross-country runner, would be interested. I wasn’t wrong. Author Christopher explores the Tarahumara tribe, which dwells in Mexico’s Copper Canyons. The Tarahumara run barefoot over long distances. Born to Run culminates with an epic long-distance run involving the Tarahumara and some of the U.S.’s best extreme athletes.

City of Spies: This charming graphic novel features a young girl who is abandoned by her father to live with her Bohemian but rich aunt in NYC city for the summer. To cope, Evelyn draws a superhero comic and casts herself as the sidekick. On the side, she hunts for spies with her real-life sidekick, Tony, the super’s son. I loved the illustrations for their bright, vintage feel, as well as Evelyn’s sense of adventure, which makes this graphic novel perfect for fans of Tintin and Nancy Drew.

Monday, July 25, 2011

currently reading

Cruising through Ann Patchett's State of Wonder, which has a rich setting (the Amazon), well-drawn characters, and a pleasantly complex but not dense plot. Perfect summer read for fans of Bel Canto.

Also started reading Unfamiliar Fishes, which is Sarah Vowell's latest book. I've never read Vowell (her radio voice and smugness annoy me), but I find the subjects she tackles to be interesting. This book is about Hawaii. I like the history interspersed with personal stories and laced with humor.

I'm about to add Ben Aaronovitch's Moon over Soho to the mix. This is his follow up to Midnight Riot, which I found such a treat.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

summer reading program

When I was a kid, the best thing about summer was participating in the summer reading program at the local Carnegie library. As with most of these programs, you were required to read a minimal number of books to earn a prize. My library asked for a short oral report, to be given to a librarian, which was fine. I never minded talking about the books I was reading. I remember the librarian filling an index card with the titles I read. It would be fun to have those cards now.

My childhood library is pictured above. It's one of my favorite places in the world. I learned to love books here. The stacks and every volume they offered were such comfort to me. The entry is new. I think its really attractive and welcoming. The clerestory windows undoubtedly provide a clean, well-lit place, which seems oh so fitting.

The prize each summer was a bus trip. Most of the destinations were frontier-oriented, but I’m fairly sure that’s what you get in eastern SoDak. One year we visited Ft. Sisseton, which was a defense for the eastern Dakota Territory. Another year we traveled to Prairie Village, a living museum near Madison. And, for this prairie girl and #1 Laura Ingalls Wilder fan, the piece de resistance was a visit to the Ingalls Homestead in DeSmet. Regardless of destination, the trips were fantastic opportunities to run around without parental supervision and to see cool corners of the state. I feel super fortunate that my mother enrolled me and that she allowed me to take the end-of-summer trip.

For the past few summers, I have been participating in a reading challenge that is part of my favorite online community. I set my own goal. It’s always the same—20 books. I have only hit this goal once, and to do it, I read three books over Labor Day weekend. That was fun. The summer is just past the halfway point between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and I have read twelve books. Currently, I’m looking for a few good, quick reads to get me closer to my goal. Of course there is great satisfaction in reaching 20, but perhaps I should treat myself to a Minnesota literary road trip—Sauk Center (Sinclair Lewis), Walnut Grove (LIW), Mankato (Maud Hart Lovelace), or here in St. Paul (F. Scott Fitzgerald).

Monday, July 11, 2011

books on display

Earlier this year, I read about Thatcher Wine in the New York Times. His business, Juniper Books, embraces two of my favorite pursuits: books and design. Wine specializes in creating libraries for customers, often covering books to emphasize a theme or a color. From a reader's point of view, the books aren't necessarily pick-up-able, but from a design perspective, the effect is crisp and organized and very appealing. I find his work very inspiring.

Books were wrapped in orange paper, then stamped with letters that define the theme. Imagine cookbooks or travel books or mysteries done this way.

Books wrapped in complementary colors could enliven a shelf.

The potential for themes is endless. Here is a sports car; below is wine.

Friday, July 08, 2011

currently reading

Finally, I have finished Freedom, Jonathan Franzen's overly long novel of an epically dysfunctional family. I am relieved to have that monkey off my back. I started reading Freedom on the September day it was published, and I paid full price. For the most part, I found the characters ugly and nearly nonredeemable. I was never sure where the story was going, and yet found myself blown away that Franzen could pull off nearly 600 pages of dense writing, moving his novel along at a snail's pace and that it would be a bestseller and critically acclaimed. Baffling. BTW, I adored The Corrections.

Still working on Ben Aaronovitch's
Midnight Riot, which is the first mystery in a funny supernatural series. I haven't read much in this subgenre, so I may not be the best judge, but I do think it's super fun and has been the perfect anecdote to bloated literary fiction.

We took another trip to SoDak over the July 4th weekend and so had another opportunity for a read-aloud--
Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, the story of ultra-marathon runners and the Tarahumara, a super secret Mexican tribe of ultrarunners. We're enjoying the book. The author is a sports journalist and the writing is easy-going.