How I Did

December 31, 2008 at 5:05 pm | Posted in Book Blather | 10 Comments

Okay, okay, I didn’t really read 400 books this year.

It was 409!  Actually it was more than that because I didn’t count at least half a dozen children’s books.  Plus I hope to finish Northanger Abbey tonight, unless Rocket Scientist puts his foot down.

I read a lot of different stuff, without much rhyme or reason, partly because when I started out in January I had zero exposure to the book blogging community.  I knew nothing about challenges other than the ones I set myself, and in years past I’d simply made a resolution to read what I called a Big Fat Book every year.  (War and Peace, Middlemarch…)

I did manage to read some memorable things, though, and even better, I discovered a number of lists I want to work my way through.  That’s my focus for next year – quality over quantity.  Anyway:

Pulitzer Prize: 2

Booker Prize: 1, 5 short list, 4 long list

National Book Award: 1, 1 short list

1001 Books to Read Before You Die: 7

New York Times Notable Books: 16 Significant Seven: 70

You can see by that last statistic where my focus was this year.  It’s strange that when I go into a bookstore and look at the tables of new books, I recognize so many from my own reading stack.  For the first time, I feel like I’m “current” (whatever that means) and that I’ve at least heard of the most promising recent books.  I think of it, though, as a sort of film of ice over a lake – looks solid, but nothing much underneath it!  That’s why I’m going to make an effort in 2009 to read more classics and award winners.  I think it’s more important to read the good stuff than the new stuff, fun as it is.

To support this, I’m making a list of books I hope to read in 2009, and then crossing them out as I complete them.  I’m only shooting for 150, though, so I can sneak in some nonfiction here and there.  My other goal is not to read more than 350 books!

Books I Liked in 2008

December 30, 2008 at 5:12 pm | Posted in Book Blather | 5 Comments

I went over my reading list for this year, determined to make out a list of my top 10 books.  Dang, was that hard.  I wanted to say I wasn’t able to get the list lower than 50 and just give up.  But I persisted, and here’s what I’ve come up with.  Note that not all were published this year – 2008 is just when I happened to read them.  Also, the books are ranked roughly in the order I read them, not by merit, because I just hate doing that and I find it specious.


In the Woods and The Likeness – Tana French – these count as one book, because I said so.

Darkmans – Nicola Barker

Then We Came to the End – Joshua Ferris

The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

Downtown Owl – Chuck Klosterman


Traffic – Tom Vanderbilt

The Not So Big Life – Sarah Susanka

Gang Leader for a Day – Sudhir Venkatesh

The Nine – Jeffrey Toobin

The Solitary Vice: Against Reading – Mikita Brottman

Honorable Mentions:

Best Humor: I Love You, Beth Cooper – Larry Doyle

Best Horror: A Good and Happy Child – Justin Evans

Best Crime: Lush Life – Richard Price

Best Series: Spellman books – Lisa Lutz (next year I’ll probably say Stieg Larsson, but so far only one of his books has been published).

Most Underappreciated: An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England – Brock Clarke

Book I Wish Everyone Would Read: Put Your Life on a Diet – Gregory Paul Johnson

My Dream about Joe Hill

December 29, 2008 at 6:01 pm | Posted in Book Dreams | 5 Comments

I probably shouldn’t even post this.  I have absolutely no idea why I’ve had two Naughty Dreams about authors in the last couple of months, and even less idea why they should both be about horror writers.  Maybe I don’t even want to know.

I suppose I should qualify this somewhat by saying that every time I’ve ever had a Naughty Dream, it’s been a) not titillating in the slightest, b) unsettling, and c) about someone I don’t particularly find physically compelling.  So the only thing that makes it Naughty is that Certain Deeds transpired as part of the plot of the dream.

So anyway.  I dreamed that I had an Encounter with the horror writer Joe Hill, whose books I much admire, though otherwise I know nothing about him.  In the dream, we, um, took a shower together.  Then we… *ahem* … and the interesting thing is that the whole time, he was scribbling frantically in a spiral notebook he had next to my pillow.  I think he was writing a book as opposed to, say, note-taking about the proceedings.

I just wanted to share this because I thought it was hysterically funny.

When I Retire

December 29, 2008 at 5:26 pm | Posted in Book Blather | 3 Comments

When I retire, I’m going to start getting really serious about books.

Ha ha, you think, how could someone be more serious than to read 400 books in one year?  Well, just imagine how much I could read if I didn’t have to work 40 hours a week!  Imagine being able to read something without those lingering work-related thoughts continually pinging in the back of your mind.  I look forward to years of blessed concentration.

There’s actually something else I have in mind.  It’s my fantasy job of shelving books at the library.  I’ve tried to cut back on my browsing, because I have a bad habit of getting swept away relocating books that have wandered from their correct Dewey decimal sytem placement.  Fiction is worse, because so many authors have the same last names that all their collective works will be jumbled together any which way.  I can lose 20 minutes at that stuff.  Just imagine if I could do this in an official role… I’d finally break down and buy an iPod so I could block out the sounds of the obstreperous patrons, their shrieking children, and their ring tones, and I’d just wander around, listening to audio books and shelving.  I’d run across all sorts of interesting things.  What bliss!

Everyone has a secret fantasy job, usually something that someone else does and hates.  I like asking people about this.  When my nephews were smaller, they shouted out “Pizza Man!”  (Not Delivery Guy, but Pizza Man, “because you get to cook the pizza!”)  A former coworker raved about the joys of riding a lawn mower around rich people’s lawns.  (I told him, “Honey, you could go do that now,” and he looked at me, said “You’re crazy,” and stomped out of the room).  One of my current colleagues wants to deliver flowers – another job that he could do today – and another wants to work in a boutique.  Probably the reason none of us are working these dream jobs is because they don’t pay as well as what we do now.  (Except for my man Rocket Scientist, who wants to design bionic limbs).  So that’s why we want to wait until we retire.  Maybe it’s also why so many people keep working past the traditional retirement age – we all really like working, we’d just rather pick something else.

There are probably some hidden gems out there that allow people to read on the clock, though again, they most likely don’t pay vast sums.  My dad, for instance, is an airplane mechanic, and when he has enough slack time to sit by his toolbox and read a novel, his supervisor gives him a thumbs-up.  Their airline has never had a crash in its entire history.  When all the preventive maintenance is done correctly, there’s not always much to do but sit, wait, and pray nothing malfunctions – but there’s still a need to have the crew standing by.  The same, perhaps, goes for other jobs as well.  I had a gal pal who worked as a parking lot attendant on the night shift, and she said she had maybe three patrons a night, who scarcely interrupted her novelizing.   The ultimate would be reading books on tape, though I’m quite sure nobody could bear to listen to my squeaky little voice for 12 hours, no matter what I was reading.

Alas, for the next two or three decades I’ll most likely continue to do what I do now, which is to work in a non-literary field, with those 40 hours a week isolated from reading.  After my retirement party, I’ll put on my coat and head directly through the library doors.

Stumbling On Happiness

December 24, 2008 at 12:44 am | Posted in Book Blather | 1 Comment

Things happen sometimes.  I understand that the folks who work at the library work very hard and for far less appreciation than they deserve.  Still, it sticks in my craw when they tell me I haven’t turned in a book and I know I have.  This happened last winter with Absalom, Absalom! – I turned it in, it wasn’t shown as returned, so I went and found it on the shelf, brought it to the front counter, and explained the situation.  For some reason, the result of this was that the book showed on my record as renewed.  I found it on the shelf again the next week, took it, and turned it in for the third time.  Finally, it worked.  So, when I turned in Stumbling On Happiness and it still showed I had it checked out, I thought it would be just that easy.

It wasn’t, though, as the book didn’t appear on the shelf.  I even looked for it in more than one branch.  My patron record showed “Claimed Returned,” a courtesy that meant at least I didn’t have to pay to replace it.  Still, all year long, every time I looked at my record, there it was.  “Claimed Returned.”  The mark of the disorganized, the penurious, the scoffers.  Several times various librarians mentioned it to me.  It felt like the Mark of Cain.

Then, suddenly, the note just disappeared.  I looked at the record for Stumbling On Happiness, and every copy was accounted for.  Where was the book all that time?  Who knows?  But I felt a little sunbeam pierce the clouds.  The irony of the title was not lost on me.  I had stumbled on happiness and all was right in my world once more.

I’ve been on the other end of this on at least two occasions.  Once it was The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (which I remember because I wound up turning it in unread and reading it later as an e-book).  The librarian will look surprised, and then say that the book was missing and that “somebody will be relieved.”  It just happens sometimes.  I do wish, though, that someone had thought to send me a little alert of some kind.

When I retire, the first thing I’m going to do is to go down to the library and volunteer to shelve books.  It’s always been a fantasy of mine.  Maybe I’ll be able to turn up more of these Claimed Returned books and send out a few sunbeams of my own.


December 23, 2008 at 6:56 pm | Posted in Book Blather | 4 Comments

I read 400 books this year!  Ha ha, suckers!  Gloat gloat gloat.

Actually, it’s not that big a deal – for the most part, the books I read weren’t terribly significant, and my average page count per book was only 281.  It’s just kind of cool to be able to say, “Yeah, I read 400 books in a year,” since I’ve never heard of anyone else doing it.  The main point is, as people keep asking me, how did I read so much?

I won’t say I didn’t watch TV.  This year I watched the entire first season of 24 and I’m almost caught up with the current season of Desperate Housewives.  But the way I watch TV is probably different than for most people.  I don’t have one in my house.  I watched 24 on DVD as a way to socialize with a friend, and I worked on my knitting while we did it.  I watch DH on my boyfriend’s DVR, and he’s programmed the A button on his remote to skip forward in 30-second increments so I can blast through commercials.  I’m watching TV, but I’m scheduling it, I’m setting strict limits on how much time I sit there, and I’m multi-tasking while I do it.

I won’t claim I read 400 books while keeping a perfect house and serving gourmet meals.  But, I do have a system for staying on top of everything.  I’m pretty minimalist, so I don’t have to clean around a lot of clutter.  I set aside two laundry days a week.  While the laundry is going (and sometimes when I’m on the phone), I clean the bathroom, do the floors, do the mending, and/or clean up after my (quite messy) parrot.  Done!  I’m quite capable of doing my grocery shopping for the week in 15 minutes.  As for entertaining, my friends and I meet regularly but we rotate hostessing duties.  I’ve only had company about half a dozen times all year.

I won’t claim I’ve maintained the world’s most astounding fitness level while reading 400 books.  But again, I do have a system.  I take the bus about half of the way to work, so I walk at least two miles a day during the week.  (I’m a rabid bicycling enthusiast, but I decided to switch to the bus for part of this year so I could meet my reading goal).  (I have read while riding my bike, but I don’t recommend it!)  I’m within the healthy weight range for my age and height.  I certainly read while I eat meals, but otherwise I don’t snack while reading.  It’s best not to associate two sedentary habits with each other.

All right, you say, I’m not Martha Stewart either, but I didn’t read 400 books.  You still haven’t said how you did it!

The main secret is that I spent about six hours a day reading, and significantly more most weekends.  You’d be amazed what a person can do in over 2000 hours.  (Now I’m asking myself why I didn’t write a book).  I read between 6 PM and 11 PM at home (minus housework and talking to Rocket Scientist on the phone), and during my lunch hour at work.  The other hour was picked up between my two 15-minute bus rides, standing in line here and there, using my electric toothbrush, etc.

Now, it’s possible I also read faster than the average person.  I think I read faster now than I did at the beginning of the year.  I average 50 pages an hour for most books, 30 pages an hour for heavy material and up to 100 pages an hour for humor or young adult fiction.  There are two tricks behind that.  One is to perpetually challenge your literacy skills and learn as much vocabulary as possible.  The other – and this is weird – is that I learned to blink at punctuation marks.  I read about it in Reader’s Digest when I was about 10 years old.  Supposedly, blinking regularly helps your brain remember and retain information in “chunks,” and breaking up what you read at the punctuation marks makes more sense.  It’s true, I have an eidetic memory – I can usually tell you whether I read something on the left-hand or right-hand page in a book and whether it had an illustration.  Maybe I’m a freak of nature, or maybe that Reader’s Digest trick really works – hard to say since I’ve been doing it for nearly 25 years.

Don’t read 400 books.  It’s silly to spend every single day sitting in one spot reading, especially if you’re doing it just to say you’ve done it.  Next year my goal is to read a large number of classic books that I’ve Always Wanted to Read.  Those are the only reasons to read:  because you love it and because you want to be a more well-rounded person.  Take it from me.


December 22, 2008 at 11:58 pm | Posted in Book Blather | 3 Comments

Guess what, you guys?  I’m reading #400!  I’ve got over a week to go and I’m… almost… there already!

Technically speaking I’ve already passed 400, as I’ve read a stack of children’s books to the little peeps in my life.  I decided not to include those in my count, though, because they pull down my average page count too much.

Holiday Book Challenge

December 22, 2008 at 7:57 pm | Posted in Challenges | 1 Comment

I saw a month or so ago that somebody was doing a holiday book-buying challenge.  For the life of me, I can’t figure out who it was.  (Can you tell me?)  Anyway, I did it – I bought books for everyone on my list.  The point of this is to keep the publishing industry alive through these tough economic times, and also to encourage the love of literature.  Reading is about the only holiday activity I can think of that won’t make you fat or broke, unlike chain-sucking candy canes like I’ve been doing lately.

Let me just say, also, that I use the generic term ‘holiday’ when I refer to ‘the holidays’ in my personal life.  I tend to want to celebrate every holiday I hear about, regardless of where it originated.  But if you’re shopping for anyone who celebrates Diwali, Eid al Adha, Yule, or Hanukkah, you’re late!  (Well, I guess you could still get away with Hanukkah gifts for a few more days…)  All that’s left are Festivus, Christmas, and Kwanzaa.  Oh, and New Year’s, when my man Rocket Scientist and I have decided to exchange our personal gifts.

Anyway, here are some of the books I bought, without ascribing names in case anyone from my family stumbles across this:

Fancy Nancy – Jane O’connor

The Invention of Hugo Cabret – Brian Selznick

The Sky Village – Monk Ashland

Conversations with God, vol. 3 – Neale Donald Walsch

2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl – Daniel Pinchbeck

Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell

Grandma’s Dead: Breaking Bad News with Baby Animals – Amanda McCall

Not everyone is passionate about books – I know!  I couldn’t believe it either! – so it can be especially challenging to choose something for these philistines people.  In these cases I have decided that anything with covers and pages that is not demonstrably a magazine counts as a book.  So cookbooks, comics, and even blank books are fair game.  I like to believe that choosing just the right book you know someone will enjoy is one of the most personal of all gifts.

“Waiter Rant”

December 19, 2008 at 5:56 pm | Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction | 3 Comments

Waiter Rant is a work memoir by a man who initially kept his identity secret – Steve Dublanica.  He was eventually outed, as was the restaurant where he worked, which he called “The Bistro.”  Why all the secrecy?  Because there are some scandalous things in this book.  That was enough to pique my interest right there.

Waiter Rant is more than just a scandalous work memoir, though.  Sure, you’ll laugh hysterically, you’ll be grossed out occasionally, and I’m guessing you won’t be able to put it down either.  But there’s a certain substance to this book that is not so common.  Dublanica attended seminary for a time, and so the book is full of meditations on life and work, sin and redemption, the corrupt and the humane.  It’s quite brilliant.  Dublanica writes well, and I think he has a novelist’s sensibility.  While he is working on another book now, it’s nonfiction, so only time will tell if he eventually turns his skills to fiction.

There were two sticking points for me, though, that are really trivial but that I feel like mentioning anyway.  They have to do with misuse of language.  On page 47, Dublanica says he is “…especially attenuated to what’s going on around me,” in the context of noticing what his patrons are doing and saying even when his attention is on something else.  Well, ‘attenuated’ means stretched out or reduced in strength or efficacy, as in a medication or radio signal.  It means the opposite of what he meant, and I think the word he was looking for was ‘attuned.’  The other instance was at the end, when he used the phrase ‘shine off’ instead of ‘shine on,’ as in to blow someone off.  Oh, and then he misspelled Aleve and Vicodin in the same sentence.  I know many of these types of errors must be due to the absolute decline in copyediting we have seen in the last decade, but still!  I hope somebody cares about purity of language.

Anyway.  Waiter Rant is one of the all time great compulsively readable books; the sort of book that will forever change the way you regard something you may have taken for granted in the past, in this case the act of dining out.  Read, enjoy, but don’t read it while eating in a restaurant.


December 18, 2008 at 5:25 pm | Posted in Book Blather | 2 Comments

I ran across this semi-acronym a while ago and thought it was a typo.  Then I saw it again and realized it was just another new term I hadn’t picked up yet.  I think it’s a sign of aging when you find yourself having to use an online dictionary to learn new slang, because nobody in your social circle is using it.  Anyway, if you didn’t already know, tl;dr means “too long; didn’t read.”

I find this ironic for a couple of reasons.  First, it’s funny that someone who thought something was too long to read would think that typing four words was also too long, necessitating the introduction of a five-character acronym.  Wouldn’t it have been faster to just use an existing word like ‘skip’ or ‘not’?  Or maybe just the character K.  (Since X is taken and K could be short for “…’kay, whatever.”)  I dunno.  The other irony about tl;dr is that it was invented by a generation that is willing to read mammoth books like Harry Potter and Twilight.  I also appreciate that tl;dr is meant to be an insult, though it seems to me that simply ignoring something you didn’t like would both save time and perhaps be more painful to the entity on the receiving end of the insult.

Musing on the concept of tl;dr got me to thinking more about my TBR list.  Funny, I thought, tl;dr even sounds a bit like TBR.  Indeed, my list is too long; therefore I haven’t read these books yet.  I’d already broken the ice by cutting out about 200 books I felt fairly sure I would never read.  I decided to get serious and try to bust it down below 1000.  (And I did it!  I’m below 900 right now).

One of the ruthless measures I took was to look at (*gasp*) the page count of the books on my list.  I decided that anything over 350 pages was going to have to prove its relevance, either by winning a major literary award or receiving a rating from reviewers over four stars.  A year ago I would never have considered something so crass.  After reading 394 books in a year, though, I’m finally ready to be a bit more mercenary.

Let’s say I managed to sustain a pace of reading 150 books a year – my average rate before 2008, the Year of Madness.  Now let’s say that I run across maybe one book a week that’s published in the current year that I wish to read.  That leaves me reading roughly 100 books a year from my existing list, which means it would take me ten years to catch up.  There are only three ways around this:  Keep reading at a less sane rate, stop being interested in new books, or give up on some of those aspirational titles.

Now I’m working on convincing myself that there’s no real reason to try to catch up on the last ten years of titles from Oprah’s book club.

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