2013 To Be Read (TBR) Challenge

book pileWell, I performed rather abysmally with last year’s challenge. I read and reviewed 6 of 12 books. I did read, but not review one other: Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I just didn’t get into last year’s list that much. Guess that’s why the books had sat in the pile for so long already.

The time has come (arguably, the time has passed) to make my 2013 list. I am late putting it together, so not officially registering the list with Roof Beam Reader’s blog to be eligible for prizes. Just making the list for my own purposes.

Remember the details. The goal is to finally read 12 books from my “to be read” pile, within the next 12 months. Each of the 12 books must have been on my bookshelf or “To Be Read” list for at least one full year. This means the book cannot have a publication date of 1/1/2012 or later. Two (2) alternates are allowed, just in case one or two of the books end up in the “can’t get through” pile. And so.

My Twelve Chosen:

  1. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  2. Annabel by Kathleen Winter
  3. Dubliners by James Joyce
  4. A Short History of Progress by Ronald B. Wright
  5. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  6. A Fair Country by John Ralston Saul
  7. The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud

  8. Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
  9. Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood
  10. The Navigator of New York by Wayne Johnson
  11. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
  12. Robert The Bruce: Steps to the Empty Throne by Nigel Tranter

Two Alternates:

  1. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
  2. Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe

In addition, I also pleadge to read at least 40 books this year. Do you have a reading challenge for 2013? What’s on your list?

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The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold

Helen Knightly is less shocked that she killed her mother than she is shocked to be calling her ex-husband to help her cover it up. Oh, it wasn’t planned, but it was done, so she calmly cleans her, strips her, and places her in the freezer  to “keep” while she seduces her best friend’s 30-year old son. And that’s all before you hit the 100 page mark, ladies and gentlemen.

You know, sometimes you read a book that presents the darkness within people in a realistic way, whether teaching an outright moral lesson or merely giving insight into why good people may sometimes do bad things? This is not one of those books. This is just all darkness.

I bought my copy years ago, shortly after it was published, having enjoyed The Lovely Bones very much (see: a dark story, but with some lightness to balance and make it palatable). Since then, it has sat on my shelf unread and ignored as school work, book club books and trendy reads were always picked first. I had not read a single review or talked to anyone else who had read it. I had no idea what I was getting into.

This should have been a better book. There was so much potential in the story. I read it in just two sittings because there was so much I wanted to know, and I was so sure it was in there somewhere. It was not. I am beyond disappointed.

There were beautiful lines and insights:

“She looked up at me and smiled. ‘Bitch,’ she said. The thing about dementia is that sometimes you feel like the afflicted person has a trip wire to the truth, as if they can see beneath the skin you hide in.”

And then there was absolute crap:

“This was not the first time I had been face-to-face with my mother’s genitalia.”

(WTF? IT has a face?)

We never understand Helen’s motivation. As the story unravels, rather than empathize, I found myself liking her less and less. Even sympathizing with the batty mother from time to time. (She was obviously mentally ill. Have you considered not hiding her from the world and maybe getting her some help?)

Best I can say about this one: I’m glad I finally read it.

Hardcover: 352 pages

Publisher: Picador  (October 16th 2007)

ISBN-10: 0330451324

ISBN-13:  9780330451321

Note: I don’t typically write negative reviews. They just don’t interest me. This book however was on my 2011 TBR Challenge list, and as such I had committed to reviewing it.


The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards

A rare Kentucky snowstorm in early 1964 strands Dr. David Henry and his wife Norah at his clinic, where he delivers his twins with the sole assistance of a devoted nurse. His son Paul is born strong and healthy, but an unexpected daughter Phoebe follows and he quickly recognizes the signs of Down’s Syndrome. Presuming she will never be accepted in society and will likely suffer numerous health complications, the doctor decided to “spare his wife the pain” and tell her her daughter died.

Dr. Henry sends Caroline, the nurse, to deliver the child to an institution, changing all their lives forever — and so begins The Memory Keeper’s Daughter. Caroline cannot leave the child behind, so runs away to raise her as her own daughter. David never shakes the guilt of his lie, withdraws from his marriage and never fully enjoys his son as he should. Norah struggles to deal with her daughter’s death and her husband’s emotional distance.

While certainly an interesting read, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I expected to. It quickly set up as a morality tale. David’s poor decision meant he and everyone connected to him would suffer forever. Caroline’s selfless choice blessed her with luck: finding the perfect job, inheriting a house and stumbling into a loving and devoted husband. I’ve never been a fan of morality tales. Life is not that clear-cut.

Yes, what the doctor did was deplorable. I don’t have trouble believing that such a decision would haunt him forever. I do find it a stretch that it would ruin the lives of everyone around him. So many times I put the book down in frustration wishing the characters would just move on and get out of their own way. Or in Caroline’s case, just once if something didn’t work out sunshine-y. (The baby was not hers. Yes, there was the convenient incomplete birth certificate, but how did no one ever question this!)

That said, the story and characters are interesting and the premise is unique. In fact, if the novel had ended a few chapters earlier I might have liked it much more. I simply grew tired of the same lesson repeated over and over.

Paperback: 448 pages

Publisher: Penguin; Reprint edition (July 1 2006)

ISBN-10: 0143037145

ISBN-13: 978-0143037149

 


Moby Dick by Herman Melville

“There she blows!–there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby Dick!”

When I added Moby Dick to my 2011 reading list, I had no idea just how much work it would be to read. And it really did feel like work. While a fascinating book, it is not an easy read. The language is heavy. The imagery is layered. The detail and description lead to information overload.

But it is a beautiful novel. And that is despite the fact that the whole goal of the main characters is to hunt down and kill a whale, which is not exactly endearing.

Moby Dick is narrated by the sailor Ishmael, on his first whaling voyage. He sails aboard the Pequod, commanded by Captain Ahab. It quickly becomes clear that there is something not altogether right about Ahab. He is scarcely seen by the crew, and not at all before they leave port. He is gruff and reclusive. He wears an ivory leg to replace the limb that was bitten off when he was attacked by the ferocious white sperm whale, Moby Dick. Ahab’s voyage is funded under the pretence of being a whaling voyage, but he soon reveals his real plan: to hunt down and kill Moby Dick, and have his revenge.

But if this was really just a book about killing a whale, I would never have read it. It was so much more. In writing Moby Dick, Melville uses an odd mix of  metaphor, symbolism, stage directions, soliloquies and more to tell the story, while examining concepts of good and evil, class, social status, race and sexuality (among other references I probably missed). This was a book you had to read slowly to really see what he was trying to say, and you would have to read it numerous times to get all that you could out of it. I am not sure I have that in me.

Favourite chapters/moments include: Ishmael meeting and sharing a bed with Queequeg; Ahab making the sailors swear an oath to kill the whale; the soliloquies of Ahab, Starbuck and Stubb, following the oath; “The Whiteness of the Whale” – beautiful yet ominous; the personal stories of the carpenter and the blackmith; and of course the dramatic ending.

Moby Dick was an amazing read, and an intense and thrilling story. Well worth the investment of time if you are feeling ambitious.

The novel is full of famous and not so famous quotes, many of which honestly left me breathless. I would love to list them all here for you, but will leave you with one:

“Yea, foolish mortals, Noah’s flood is not yet subsided; two thirds of the fair world it yet covers.”

Paperback: 656 pages

Publisher: Oxford University Press

First Published: 1851, Harper & Brothers Publishers, London

ISBN-10: 9780199535729

ISBN-13: 978-0199535729


Comfort Reading: An unplanned review

So much for one book per week. My ambitious new year’s resolution hadn’t counted on the combination of a stomach flu + packing up my entire house + another bleepin’ stomach flu. I stressed over missing the first week, then just decided to let go. I will make up for it with a few double-review weeks. I promise. (not to mention the fact that two of my previous reviews have been for trilogies. I knew I should have banked those reviews for unexpected downtime!)

But let’s move on, to a review of a trilogy of books I did not expect to include here. Part of the stress involved in not feeling well while trying to coordinate a move and a major renovation meant that even when I did have downtime, I did not want to read. Correction: I didn’t want to read anything in my current to-be-read pile. I am halfway through Moby Dick, and Alexander MacLeod’s “Light Lifting.” But couldn’t pick up either.

Saturday night, exhausted and cranky, I decided it was time for a comfort read, and I took myself to the top shelf of the bookcase in the spare room, where I keep all the books I like to go back to in times of stress. My choice that night: Emily of New Moon – which of course led to reading Emily Climbs, and Emily’s Quest.

Author: L.M. Montgomery
Publisher: McClelland & Stewart
Date: 1923/1925/1927
ISBN-10: 0770427715
ISBN-13: 978-0770427719

Now, if you aren’t an L.M. Montgomery fan, based solely on an overexposure to Anne Shirley (who I adore, but I can still understand the sentiment) don’t be quick to judge Emily. Any fan of Montgomery’s work I talk to will eventually admit that Emily is her most interesting heroine, and I would argue that this trilogy is her most well-written series.

Emily is an orphan, living a beautiful PEI farmhouse house with two older women (and an elder cousin as well). She longs to be a famous writer. But her similarity to Anne ends there. Emily is so much more real. She knows herself better. She knows her heart better.  She does not compromise. She makes some very bad choices and actually has to live with the consequences (everything in the Anne books just turns out so peachy-keen all the time).

And the secondary characters are fantastic. Mr. Carpenter, the alcoholic schoolteacher, prone to abusive tirades but loved nonetheless. Dean Priest, lame, hunchbacked and bitter – borderline pedophilic (is that a word?). There are references and descriptions of death and scandal that would never have been touched in Avonlea – even a shocking reference to domestic violence that I had never picked up on until this most recent read-through.

“People were never right in saying I was Anne. But in some respects, they will be right if they write me down as Emily.” ~ L.M. Montgomery

The Emily books will take you away to the magical innocent world that only Montgomery can create, but then shake you up every now and then, as if to remind you that Montgomery’s life was no picnic. Montgomery was copying her early journals while writing Emily, and the events of her own life strongly influenced the plot.

In summary – completely worth reading, even if you aren’t an Anne Shirley fan. There’s a definite touch of that style, but a far more readable series.

Note: There is an Emily of New Moon TV series. I am not a fan.


Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Paperback: 406 pages

Publisher: Scribner; Reprint edition (September 29, 2010)

ISBN-10: 1439169012

ISBN-13: 978-1439169018

I might as well admit before I start that I have a bit of a thing for cemeteries. If that makes me weird, well it isn’t the only thing that does. There was a small cemetery just around the bend from the house I grew up in, and as a child I would often wander over to look around, read the headstones, and wonder about the people lying below while I munched on the blueberries growing above. I wasn’t living in Halifax long before I discovered the magic that is the Old Burying Ground, and have spent many an afternoon strolling through.

As such, it should be no surprise that I was so taken in by a book that centres in and near London’s famous Highgate Cemetery. (Side note: This past fall my aunt Alice loaned me the non-fiction book  Necropolis: London and Its Dead and thus I was  primed on the history and significance of London’s burial grounds. You never know when such knowledge might come in handy.)

Her Fearful Symmetry begins with the death of Elspeth Noblin. Elspeth has been estranged from her twin sister Edie for more than 20 years, and has no other family living. She leaves her flat (with its view of and back entrance to Highgate Cemetery), her money and all of her belongings to the twin daughters of her twin sister – with one caveat: they must live in the flat together for one year before they can inherit it, and their parents may not set foot in the flat during this time.

The 21-year-old but maddeningly infantile twins, Julie and Valentina, move from Chicago to London to take over the flat, and while there meet and befriend their aunt’s former lover and downstairs neighbour, Robert and their  obsessive-compulsive, agoraphobic upstairs neighbour Martin. Oh, and Aunt Elspeth, who though dead is still inhabiting her old flat.

A bit nutty? Perhaps. But fascinating. The twins interactions with the new city, their new friends, their aunt and each other reveal much about themselves, their upbringing and the trouble between their mother and her sister. In fact, it was the relationship between both sets of sisters that most fascinated me. There was co-dependence and manipulation, but also a deep attachment, love and life-long connection.

I don’t have a twin, but I do have a sister only a year older than me, who I went through twelve years of school with, shared a room, shared the same group of friends, shared apartments till I was twenty (and still share my house whenever D is away, which is often). We share a name for Pete’s sake – same name, two different languages. On top of this, I have a younger sister, my mom had NINE sisters and my dad has six.  So needless to say, the interaction of sisters in fiction and film is of great interest to me, and I get very annoyed when it is done poorly. This was done well. Which is not to say they belong in an after-school special, or were at all like Tash & I. They were rather awful really. But it was still so believable.

If there was anything about the novel I didn’t like it was the development Elspeth’s character. Or the lack of development. By the end of the book you come to realize she is cruel and manipulating, but there is no gradual revelation of this. She is presented as quiet and studious in the beginning, and then with one comment, Robert mentions her controlling nature, and it seems everything she does from that point onward is from a completely different character.

Still, I really enjoyed the novel. It gave me chills. It made me sad. It made me angry. It flirted with cliché a few times, but always pulled up in time. The characters were hopelessly and endearingly flawed, each in their own way. It played with the paranormal and our belief of how death works – but only a little. And perhaps the best part: it was completely different from her last novel, which I also loved, The Time Traveller’s Wife. I want to recommend it to everyone – well I do recommend it to everyone – but I feel I need to tell you that no one else I have talked to who read it or tried to read it has enjoyed it. Might just be more evidence for my strange literary tastes.


52 book reviews in 52 weeks

I’ve never been big on new year’s resolutions. Until last year. On January 1, 2010 I resolved to get my finances in order, save a minimum of $5000, take a leave of absence from work, and volunteer my time & talents in Africa. I did it. I blogged about it, if you would like to know more.

So following that success, I have decided resolutions are good things. This year I made a few more. I wanted at least one to involve writing. I enjoyed blogging from Africa. I intended to continue blogging regularly, but once home, the posting slowed considerably. See, I never was much for journaling. Even in junior high, when pretty much all girls keep a diary, I tried, but found it more of a chore than a release. It’s not the kind of writing I enjoy. I want a project, and a deadline.

Another thing about me: I love to read. I’m rather obsessive about it. I read quickly. Very quickly. I can easily read a book in a day, provided I am interested enough. Sometimes, even if I am not. I just need to be bored in that case. I wrote a few book reviews in university, when I worked for the student newspaper, and always enjoyed the process.

And so, this blog is my new year’s resolution for 2011. I will read more. I will write more. Once a week, I will post a book review, for your reading pleasure, and my personal development. Breaking this down further, I will be posting reviews of books I read in the past, but I also resolve to read at least half the books I review this calendar year. So 26 books. At least two per month. Some of these have been pre-determined for me, as my book club meets monthly, and we selected a year’s worth of books in advance at our October meeting (allows time to add them to our Christmas wish lists). So you can look forward to reviews of the following:

  • Kiss the Joy as it Flies, Sheree Fitch
  • The Bishop’s Man, by Linden McIntyre
  • The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
  • Light Lifting by Alexander McLeod
  • Drive-by Saviours by Chris Benjamin
  • Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill
  • What is Left The Daughter by Howard Norman
  • Still Alice by Lisa Genova
  • The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
  • Good to a Fault by Merina Endicott
  • The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
  • Room by Emma Donoghue

Also, I want to start reading new books. Within a month or two of release. While the book club habit of pre-selecting books in great for budgeting and book sharing, it means I am busy reading other things and keep adding new books to the bottom of the priority list, not getting to them till the buzz has died down, or worse, until someone has already ruined them for me. This year I will stay on top of new releases, and try to post one “new” review each month.

Have suggestions for what I should read and review? Please send them my way. I’ll be looking for ideas.