The reading/reviewing/ranking rat race

This is a navel-gazing post so feel free to skip if the subject isn’t of interest. I’ll have a review for Wendy’s TBR Challenge up tomorrow.

I’ve been spending most of my discretionary time this winter reading and writing. I haven’t been blogging here for the same reasons a lot of people don’t blog much anymore. I really liked Brie’s post about starting up again; it encapsulates a lot of the reasons I resurrected the blog. But like her, I’m not blogging as much as I’d hoped to. It’s hard to blog into a void, especially when there aren’t many other people blogging regularly. I don’t mean that to be a whine, just an observation. I put a lot of book blogs back in my RSS feed reader but most of them rarely have new posts (Cathy at 746 Books is an exception, and Kay/Miss Bates posts pretty regularly as well). Despite being an academic and working on my own a lot, it turns out that like many other humans I like the validation of feedback and seeing other people devoting time to things I’m doing and care about. Quelle surprise.

Even if I haven’t been blogging much here, I have been reading. So I wind up at Goodreads a lot. I’m still at LibraryThing as well, but I’m way behind cataloguing my reading there because, again, no feedback. So I post my reading status at GR, write up reviews, and comment in various threads in groups I belong to. They’re mostly groups that follow major book awards and the Tournament of Books. Generally I enjoy these groups and I look forward to hearing readers’ reactions to books I’ve read or am planning to read or am happy to learn about. They spur me to read more and to try novels I might not otherwise know much about.

BUT. There’s always a but, right? After a couple of years of lurking at and then commenting in these groups, following members’ reviews and participating in mostly interesting discussions, I’m discovering that our interests are more divergent than I at first realized (or realized but didn’t want to acknowledge). If you’re organizing reading around book awards, then obviously there’s going to be a horse-race aspect to the reading and ranking process. But I guess I didn’t foresee how much it would start to bother me. Books are compared to each other because they’re on a list together (which makes sense), they’re evaluated as to whether they belong on a particular list, and they can be championed or denigrated to a degree I find both unexpected and off-putting.

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Productivity 2019

For a number of years I was in the habit of writing posts on my productivity tools and habits every January, but then I fell off the wagon and missed a few years. This year I decided to write one again, but it’s taken me until March to put fingers to keyboard. Part of the reason is probably that I haven’t changed many things over the last couple of years. I bought one medium-priced and one inexpensive fountain pen in 2017/18, I’m using the same planner I have for the last three years, I use the same color scheme in my planner to make looking at teaching-related stuff easier, and I’ve generally been happy with my tools. My issue is not the tools but making sure I use them.

Nevertheless, it’s worthwhile having a record. I do go back and read previous years’ posts, marveling at how many different things I tried and how much seems to remain the same across time. So many notebooks! A range of planners! Pens, pens, pens. And of course computers and files and all the odds and ends that go in an everyday carry bag. I’ll do a “what’s in my bag” post at some point, but here I’ll talk about the actual tools and what I do with them.

Planners

I’m still using the Hobonichi Techo planner (the English-language version). It’s worked well for me over the last few years and I love having the full day-per-page format and the thin but fountain-pen friendly Tomoe River Paper. I’m also still using the compact leather cover I picked up a couple of years ago. I couldn’t resist the Alaska cover in this year’s collection, but I switch back and forth between the two. My pen is a Sailor Profit fountain pen with a 14k EF nib. It’s perfect for the Hobo because it lays down a smooth line and dries quickly. I also keep a small notebook in the inside back of the cover, and it stores my IDs and a couple of credit cards so I don’t have to carry a separate wallet.

This year I also started using the Hobonichi 5-year planner in the A6 size. I looked at it last year but didn’t get one. But it’s nice to be able to see past years’ activities quickly, or it will be after the first year. We do a lot of the same travelling every year, and I wind up digging out the previous years’ planners to remember where we went, what route we took, restaurants, etc.

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SuperWendy’s TBR Challenge for February: Moonlight Over Manhattan

February’s challenge is to read a book that is part of a series. Given my Harlequin backlog, that’s got to be half of them. This doesn’t double-count for my Harlequin TBR Challenge, those, because I didn’t buy it from the Harlequin site. It’s one of my many other Harlequins!

This novel is the third installment of the From Manhattan With Love series, featuring Daniel and Fliss’s sister, Harriet. Harriet is the shy one who prefers dogs to people and who would love to have a home and family but doesn’t think she’ll ever get there. She has a hard time dating because her anxiety goes into overdrive. She tells herself that she’s happy with her dogs, her friends, and her family, but now that Fliss and Daniel have found the loves of their lives, she’s not just alone but lonely.

Enter Ethan Black, an ER physician Harriet encounters first when she injures her ankle extricating herself from a bad date and then again when Ethan is required to take care of his sister’s dog and Harriet is drafted from dog walking to dog sitting. Ethan is very much not a dog person, but he loves his sister and has a strong sense of responsibility, so there he is, saddled with a spaniel and Harriet.

Harriet is hesitant and nervous about dealing with Ethan, which brings out her long-buried stammer and makes her even more anxious. But she is determined to make sure Madi the dog is treated well, so she whips both Ethan and Madi into line.As they get to know each other she relaxes and Ethan discovers that there are women who will cook and make a home for themselves, not just to land a Hot Doctor.

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January reading

I had fits and starts of reading last month, with book-filled plane flights on the one hand and meetings-filled days on the other. But I managed to read six books, which isn’t too bad. And they were mostly good! They were all challenge books, so there was a bit of randomness, but it’s a good feeling to dip into the TBR. Even if every book isn’t a winner, it’s one more for the Done pile.

offshore cover

I started strongly, with Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald. It was my first Fitzgerald and I loved it. I have at least two more in the print and ebook TBRs, and there are even more available from the library. Fitzgerald’s books are short, extremely well written, and mostly different from each other. It feels a bit like reading Muriel Spark, but gentler or at least kinder. My full review is here.

My second read was Jeannie Lin’s short story, The Taming of Mei Lin. I have all or almost all of Lin’s Harlequin releases in my collection, but a number of her early books are still in the TBR. This short story is a prequel to Butterfly Swords, which I finally read and really enjoyed last year. I picked this story because it fit the January prompt of Wendy’s TBR challenge (shorts). And it is indeed short, but fun and satisfying. My review is here.

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Recent Reading: Minds of Winter by Ed O’Loughlin

I had planned on posting much more frequently starting January 2019, since I’m not teaching this semester. Hah. Oh well, at least I’ve been reading.

I finally finished Minds of Winter, which I bought when it was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2017. I restarted it several times because I’d pick it up and put it down and then not remember what I’d read. It’s a big, sprawling book, covering many characters, time periods, and even continents, so it helps to read it steadily. But it’s too big (500 pages) to read all at once!

I finally acknowledged that if I didn’t make it a reading project I wasn’t ever going to finish it. And I did want to. So I skimmed the first 100 pages (again) and then settled in. Readers, the journey was well worth the effort.

There are two storylines. One is made up of various polar explorations, starting with Sir John Franklin’s efforts to find the Northwest Passage in the 1840s and the disappearance of his crew and ship. Somewhat confusingly, the historical storyline starts in Van Dieman’s Land (now Tasmania), where Franklin was Lieutenant-Governor before his last voyage. Eventually that authorial decision makes sense to the reader, because other important characters are introduced. This storyline moves on to cover the expeditions in search of Franklin’s ship as well as other polar explorations. It’s very wide-ranging and often confusing to those of us who aren’t steeped in Shackleton, Franklin, and Arctic/Antarctic lore. But hang in there because it really does come together in the end in a way that is more than the sum of the parts.

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SuperWendy’s TBR Challenge for January (and Harlequin TBR #513): The Taming of Mei Lin

I decided to join Wendy the SuperLibrarian’s TBR Challenge this year, since reading from the TBR is my main 2019 reading goal. And I do have my towering TBR of Harlequins to get through. January is always short reads, to ease us into the year. I knew I had books in Harlequin’s various short-story and novella lines, and I found a Jeannie Lin short from the Historical Undone line. It is the prequel to her debut novel for Harlequin, Butterfly Swords. I finally read that last year, so The Taming of Mei Lin sounded like a perfect follow-up.

This story is about 40 pages, more of an amuse-bouche than anything, but it packs a nice romance into its brief wordcount, complete with some sexy romantic scenes as well. Mei Lin is the grandmother of Ai Li, the heroine of Butterfly Swords, and her romance with the stranger who comes to town, Shen Leung, provides the ancestral backstory for the novel.

Mei Lin is an orphan who lives with her uncle, aunt, and cousin. She has resisted being married off as the third wife to the local magistrate, Zhou, which displeases both her uncle and Zhou. Mei Lin is adept in the use of butterfly swords and has decreed that she will only marry someone who can best her in a swordfight. Zhou can’t, and the emissaries he sends can’t either. But then Shen arrives. They are a well-matched pair in every way, and Mei Lin thinks this is a best deal she can probably get, but Shen doesn’t seem to want to claim his prize.

Their battle of swords turns into a battle of something more, as Mei Lin continues to fight Zhou’s thugs and Shen tries to stick to his plan to continue his solitary life. The attraction between them is convincing and well depicted, and the sex is integral to the story (as is always the case with Lin’s fiction, in my opinion).

As I said, this is a very quick read but a rewarding one. The cultural milieu is established well despite the word count constraints. If you haven’t read Butterfly Swords, start with this prequel, and if you have, read this for the backstory.

Snowmaggedon 2019: Adventures in driving

We spent the holidays in mostly sunny Northern California, but we knew our drive back to the Midwest could be … unpredictable? Fraught? All of the above? Our drive out was blissfully weather-free, but that’s just a gift. We’ve done the December/January drive a few times over the last few years, and our experiences have ranged from one kind of memorable (discovering the best Hatch chile-infused enchiladas in New Mexico) to other kinds of memorable (needing six hours to drive 80 miles down the western slope of the Sierra and scoring a Motel 6 room in Auburn only because we were at the beginning of the convoy). The blizzard in Wyoming that closed I-80 behind us as we drove may not even make the Top 2.

But anyway, let me tell you about this year! Grab a cup of coffee and get comfortable, because this is going to be LONG.

TheHusband always pays attention to the weather forecasts so that we can leave earlier or later based on what we’re likely to face. On Monday we started hearing about an impending Weather Event at the end of the week, in which St. Louis was prominently featured. It was supposed to peak Friday night, which was awkward because we planned to arrive early afternoon Saturday, and we know how St. Louis snow clearance (doesn’t) work. But, as the weather people are quick to remind us, early models have a lot of uncertainty, which may be worse right now because of the shutdown and the lack of support at NOAA.

We decided our best response was to assume there would be Weather, but not change too much since we didn’t know what would happen. It would be be difficult to leave Tuesday, but we would leave early Wednesday morning for sure, so that we could compress the travel frame a bit and get in on Friday night if we had to. We had already decided to take the southern route (I-40 to I-44) because the conditions in the Sierra and the Rockies were too unpredictable.

We set off right after rush hour on Wednesday and made excellent time. That evening we heard that the snow would start falling heavily Friday evening, around rush hour. So we drove 750 miles on Thursday and arrived in Amarillo, TX that night. It still sounded like the storm would arrive late afternoon Friday in St. Louis, and the snow line was pretty far up our route, so with luck we would have rain until the last couple of hours.

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Recent Reading: Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

My first book of 2019 is from my regular TBR, an ebook I probably bought because it was on sale. I own three books by Fitzgerald but I’ve never read any of other work despite being a fan of mid-century UK women authors. I picked this one because people were discussing it as part of a Booker-themed reading project at The Mookes and the Gripes GR group. Readers, I loved it.

Offshore 2014 cover

The story is set among barge-dwellers on the Battersea Reach of the Thames River in the early 1960s. Nella is a wife and mother of two daughters who is separated from her husband. She still seems to love him very much but he won’t live on the boat with her and she refuses to talk to him or visit him in north London, so they are at an impasse. Nella’s river community includes Richard, whose boat is shipshape and whose wife hates living in it; Maurice, a rent-boy who befriends Nella and her daughters and in whom Nella confides; Willis, an aging artist whose boat is barely staying above waterline; and Woodie, who lives half the year alone on his well-maintained boat and half the year on land with his wife. Nella’s children, the frighteningly adult and clear-eyed Martha and the born-to-water Tilda, move among the boats and people constantly and avoid attending their convent school as much as possible.

This is a world of liminality. Everyone is in an in-between state of one kind or another, and while it seems as if nothing is going on, lives are moving and changing, almost imperceptibly. Willis is getting ready to sell his boat, which sets off a chain of related and seemingly unrelated events. Richard’s wife reaches the end of her tether, which changes Richard and Nella’s relationship and brings buried feelings to the surface. Nella’s sister, who lives in Canada and who hovers in the background for much of the story, sending visitors who never arrive, shows up in London at the same time that one of her promised visitors actually arrives at Nella’s barge. The dangers of the rent-boy life finally catch up with Maurice and those around him. After three-quarters of a novel in which things barely seem to happen, everything comes to a melodramatic head.

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2018: The reading year in numbers

For the last few years I’ve maintained a file of spreadsheets that track my reading challenges and overall reading for the year, categorizing books by obvious and maybe not so obvious characteristics.

Total books read: 120. This is the most I’ve read since … well, at least since I was mainlining Betty Neels, Mary Burchell, and other Harlequins quite a while ago.

Total books written by women: 60/120. Reading half women pleased me because I was afraid that reading more lit fic would mean reading far fewer women. Obviously it’s fewer than when I read primarily romance, but it’s still a good number. My non-romance TBR is probably skewed toward men, but my romance TBR is overwhelmingly by women, so this proportion shouldn’t change much in 2019.

Total books written by new-to-me authors: 74/120. This is more than I expected. It’s probably a consequence of reading awards longlists and also “it” books, since they’re often by authors I’ve heard of but not read. I’m glad to have found a lot of new authors, and my TBR has grown as a result (of course!).

Own voices authors: 30/120. This is OK but not great. I struggled with this category in terms of how to define it. Last year I used AOC, but I wanted to capture how many authors I read who were writing about their own cultures and experiences. I only had a handful of non-white authors writing about non-white cultures that were not their own, and I didn’t include those; it would have raised the number by a few but not significantly. I also had a handful (more than a handful, maybe?) of white authors writing POC, and breaking out own voices allowed me to get a better handle on that distinction.

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2018: An overview of my year in reading

It is almost time to see the back of 2018 and the end cannot come too soon. If only I could have faith that 2019 will be better, but at long as it’s not worse I suppose we’re ahead of the game. Maybe.

The political year may have been full of not-great things, but my reading year was very rewarding. I read more books than I have in a very long time and I enjoyed a lot of them.

Challenges

I completed all my set challenges: PopSugar, Bookriot’s Read Harder, and Mt. TBR at the 24-book level. I enjoyed them for the most part. I was surprised at how few TBR books I read organically, since the only social media I participate in now for book talk is Goodreads, and I’m not nearly as active there as I used to be on blogs and Twitter. But I guess even a little bit of social reading is enough to get me to pick up plenty of shiny new books. On the plus side, that participation made fulfilling the non-TBR challenges easier. I had them both basically done by August.

Awards reading

I did a ton of longlist and shortlist reading this year, more than ever before. I read a number of books off the Tournament of Books longlist and shortlist in the winter. Then, in the summer I tackled the Booker Prize longlist, reading 12 of 13 despite having to order some of them from overseas. I really enjoyed reading them one after the other; unlike previous years I didn’t find it a burden as I went along. By the time the shortlist came out I only had a couple of them to go, which meant that the beginning of the school year didn’t derail me the way it often does.

I also read all the books on the Goldsmiths shortlist. That continues to be my favorite award and the one where I am most likely to find novels that are personally rewarding. There are also always new-to-me authors, and this year I discovered and loved Gabriel Josipovici and Will Eaves.

I read a handful of the Giller Prize longlist, with some of the books making it to the shortlist. As usual, I found a buried treasure: Our Homesick Songs, which didn’t make the shortlist but which was a lovely story about a fading culture in eastern Canada and how its inhabitants cope with the changes. I still have a couple of books in the TBR and look forward to reading them in 2019.

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