Category: personal

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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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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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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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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2018 Reading Challenges

Stack of books and ereader

The year isn’t quite over, but I’m done with all my reading challenges except one, so I might as well report the results. I took on three challenges this year. I did the PopSugar and Mt. TBR challenges for the third year in a row and the Bookriot Read Harder challenge for the first time. In addition, I’ve kept a spreadsheet of all my reading for the year. 

2018 PopSugar Challenge

I did the main and the “advanced” challenges for a total of 50 books. I completed all but one of the categories by August, and I only sort-of cheated on one to get there: “A book that was being read by a stranger in a public place.” Readers, I looked and looked, on planes, trains, buses, park benches, you name it. But either I couldn’t see the book title or it was a book that I would rather stab myself with a fork than read. (No, I am not going to read The Shack.) I turned in despair to the Goodreads group and found that people were fulfilling the prompt via photos of people reading books. Success! 

My only unfinished prompt was “A microhistory.” As a social scientist who does a lot of historical work, I’m familiar with this term. However, the way reading challenges define microhistory is weird and inaccurate. Both Bookriot and PopSugar consider books like Mark Kurlansky’s Cod, i.e., books about a single commodity, to be microhistories. They aren’t. A microhistory is a study of a person, event, or locality that is not “important” but which sheds light on larger processes and trends. In other words, it’s anti-famous-person, anti-global, anti-sweeping. But don’t tell the PopSugar and Bookriot people that. As far as they’re concerned, Empire of Cotton fits the category despite having “empire” and “global” in the title. 

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Spring (ha!) update

Spring is supposedly here, but there is snow on the ground and the temperature is below freezing. In April! This is so, so wrong.

It’s been ages since I posted here. Work has been very busy, and whatever writing I’ve accomplished has been in other venues, mostly work-related. I’ve been reading a lot, though, which has been greatly facilitated by staying off the internet in general and social media in particular.

My January plans included multiple reading challenges, Muriel Spark readalongs, autobuy romance authors, and manga. How am I doing?

Reading challenges: These are going well. I followed the Tournament of Books again this year, reading more than half the shortlist. I was happy to see Fever Dream take it all, especially since it beat Lincoln in the Bardo in the finals, but a lot of other books I thought were excellent were taken down, sometimes in early rounds with judgments I totally disagreed with. Which is par for the course, honestly: the TOB longlist is one I always look forward to, but the shortlist and tournament decisions are rarely in sync with my preferences. I did read some very good books I probably wouldn’t have otherwise, though, and I think everyone should read White Tears and Sing, Unburied, Sing.

My Muriel Spark readalong started well but then got overtaken by TOB reading and library-hold books. I really enjoyed what I did read, though, so I plan to get back to her novels. Mid-century women authors deserve a lot more attention than they get. The intelligence, insight, and acerbity they provide are hard to find elsewhere in one package.

I haven’t been reading romance much. Mysteries have filled in the comfort-read slot for the moment. I’ve reread a few  early John Le Carré novels, as planned, a Dick Francis, the first Martin Beck mystery, and the first in Mick Herron’s Slough House series. Hard as it is to admit, I think I’m just burned out on the romance genre. The new books and authors aren’t working for me (I’ve DNF’d quite a few highly regarded romances across different subgenres) and even my beloved autobuys aren’t doing the trick. It’s OK, it’s happened before when the zeitgeist and I were on non-overlapping tracks. I’ll come back. In the meantime, though, I don’t have much to say in or about Romanceland.

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