Reflecting on reading

Over the past day, I’ve found myself thinking about my relationship with books. There’s a give and take implicit in choosing the word relationship. Books give me windows into other ways of thinking from cyborg Cinderella to a natural history of earthworms through a social history of the Memphis civil rights movement. Those are the books I’ve read parts of today (Cinder, The Earth Moved, and An Unseen Light if you’re interested). My interests are wide ranging; my pace is a frequent cause for comment. In return, I give books an audience. When I choose them, I give their authors’ words life. Without readers, books are bound paper. With readers, they contain multitudes.

Lately, I’ve been on a reading jag. Part of it is because I’m anxious about things that are coming up and reading is a way to occupy the parts of my brain that would otherwise go spinning off in less pleasant directions. Part of it is because I started listening to audiobooks on dog walks. We walk 5 times a week; that’s a lot of time to listen. I also find pleasure in books in a way that I don’t find in my phone. I’d rather read for an hour before bed than spend it on the internet. I sleep better that way.

I read once the kids have gone to bed. I read at work. I read in snatched moments when the kids want to be left alone to devise their own worlds without mommy’s adult brain interfering. I close the book when they ask me to play too. I strive for balance. I never want my drive to read to overwhelm my urge to actively live. I also don’t see those desires as being in conflict.

50 books have come through my life this year. They cross genres and lengths and styles. They’ve brought with them multitudes.

It’s been a minute.

It’s been a year since I posted here. Despite starting a writing group (that has morphed into the lowest obligation book club imaginable), I haven’t done much writing at all. What I have been doing is reading, which has been even more reckless than usual–jumping from sociological studies of how race and class influence southern identity to YA novels that take 18 hours to finish to fiction by my personal literary heroes (Lauren Groff, I’m looking at you).

There are so many things that are about to happen. Which, as those of you with chronic anxiety know, is one of the worst states of being. That which is about to occur is so much scarier than that which is occurring. All these projects and deadlines and life events converge in September and October. I can do so little about them now, except prepare by making lists and DIYing a pickle barrel (for work–seriously). What I can do is read and sink into vast oceans of words that take the other thoughts away.

2016 in Books, February

I’m beginning the draft of this post on February 22 with the hope that I will not be pregnant much longer. My girl is full term, and I would really like to bring her into this world sooner rather than later. I’m occupying some of my waiting time with reading, but mostly I spend spare moments sleeping. I wish I could bank these naps, but instead I’ll settle for getting them where I can. [UPDATE: Nope, it’s Leap Day, and I’m still pregnant. So very pregnant.]

  • Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History by David Christian
    • So I heard this story on NPR in January about Dr. Christian, big history and education. My first thought was, “Wow, that’s exactly how our story line for the new permanent exhibits are organized.” I told my boss, and what has followed has been two months of reading, talking, philosophizing and writing about how this well-articulated paradigm melds with what we were already planning. In general terms, this method examines how natural and human history are intertwined into one larger narrative. Big history is also about asking questions along the story line and being upfront about the tentative nature of some answers. Taking a long view of the past also makes it possible to confront questions of race, gender and class within the development of larger systems. It was a geeky discovery that got us re-fired up about a project many years in the making.
  • The Farm on the Roof: What the Brooklyn Grange Taught Us about Entrepreneurship, Community, and Growing a Sustainable Business by Anastasia Cole Plakias
    • I read this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program. Plakias takes her readers on an enlightening tour of what it takes to start a profitable business in an unlikely location. While the story line of the book clearly focuses on urban farming, she also lays out practical advice on beginning any type of small business. I especially appreciated that she addressed how Brooklyn Grange has changed to accommodate economic realities without losing its focus on being a 3P (people, planet and profit) enterprise deeply rooted in their local community.
  • 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino
    • A book about jazz and difficult people and unfortunate situations. Also about family and the past and how we move forward. It was a good read.
  • The Outside World by Tova Mirvis
    • I loved Mirvis’ first book–The Ladies Auxiliary–so I jumped at a chance to buy this one at a book sale. Like her debut novel, The Outside World deals with questions of identity and religion. What I enjoyed most about this book is the complexity she gave her characters. She allowed everyone who was willing to change to do so. Some of them grew towards each other, others moved away. Mirvis may have set her novel within an insular Orthodox Jewish world, but her characters and their desires struck me as intrinsically true regardless of the outside worlds they inhabited.
  • Rethinking the Museum and Other Meditations by Stephen Weil
    • This book is a solid 26 years old and features several essays about different aspects of museum work. I read it because I use some of Weil’s pieces when I teach museum studies and I wanted to see if there were any in this book that would be good for undergraduates. It was also an exercise in historiography and being a well-read professional.

2016 in books, January

For all but the last weekend of this month, it was too cold to be outside. However, it was perfect to lay my hugely pregnant self down on a couch, cover up with a blanket and escape into books.

  • Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders
    • My LibraryThing secret Santa sent me this book, which arrived on Christmas Eve. I have done SantaThing twice, and each time my Santa has picked out a book that I never would have found on my own but that I truly enjoyed. Saunders is a phenomenal writer, and his short stories feel complete regardless of their page length. The characters are complex and have to ask and answer hard questions, frequently in disturbing circumstances.
  • The Animal Kingdom: A Very Short Introduction by Peter Holland
    • We’re working on a new permanent exhibit about evolution, the tree of life and phylogenetics. It’s complicated and fascinating. My boss is the one doing the hard research, and I read this book so that I will be able to be a good editor as the drafting begins. Incidentally, the fact that I get to read books about evolutionary biology makes my job even better.
  • Run by Ann Patchett
    • Run is a novel about adoption and family secrets. I usually love Patchett’s books, but I had a difficult time getting invested in this story.
  • Every Last One by Anna Quindlen
    • This book was my first time reading Anna Quindlen, and I anticipate that there will be more of her books in my future. The first half of the book struck me as a cozy story about a likeable family–one that shared many similarities to my own. The second half hit me like a punch in the gut, and I stayed up way too late to see how it would end.
  • Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
    • My friend Rachel loans me young adult novels after she reads them. While I’m a fan of YA fiction, I also need to intersperse it with other genres. Rachel makes sure that the best ones she reads make their way onto my radar. The format of this novel was unusual. A teenager receives thirteen audio cassettes recorded by a classmate who recently committed suicide. The narration alternates between her voice on the tapes and his thoughts about what he is hearing. It is fantastic.
  • ContamiNation: My Quest to Survive in a Toxic World by McKay Jenkins
    • I received a copy of this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program. McKay Jenkins offers us a frankly horrifying look at the toxins that surround us daily. Jenkins demonstrates through exhaustive research that chemicals are an ever-present reality in our homes, offices, cleaning supplies, toys, lawns and drinking water. While the author does an exemplary job showing how the problem developed and the havoc that it can wreak on human health, there is a dearth of practical solutions to limit personal chemical exposure. He does make some suggestions, but, ultimately, the reader is left with the understanding that while there is clearly a problem, a solution is far from certain. It did make me think about where the things I buy come from and to look for product that are phthalate- and paraben-free.
  • Imagined London: A Tour of the World’s Greatest Fictional City by Anna Quindlen
    • The travel literature sub-genre makes me happy so when I found this book in my neighborhood Little Free Library, I grabbed it. Unfortunately, it was not a particularly interesting read. I am not as well read as the author so a lot of her observations about locations featured in English literature did not resonate with me. Except for 221B Baker Street. That one I got.
  • The Circle by Dave Eggers
    • I could not stop reading this book, and since I finished it, I have not been able to stop thinking about it. If you’re familiar with Dave Eggers, you know that he is an author who makes you think about the larger implications of his stories. In The Circle, a woman begins working for a social networking company (like a mixture of Facebook and Google on crack) that is steadily taking over how people worldwide communicate, purchase goods and think. As I read, it struck me how bizarre it was that characters were giving over so much of their autonomy and sense of self to a company. Then it struck me that while the conditions Eggers established were far-fetched, the implications of where social media is taking us were not. It raises questions about privacy and memory that I believe are far from settled in our current digital age.
  • Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang by Chelsea Handler
    • I found this one in my neighborhood Little Free Library. Frankly, I’m not ever sure of what to make of Chelsea Handler. Sometimes her material makes me laugh out loud; other times her jokes fall incredibly flat. This book was what I expected–frequently funny, always irreverent.

2015 in Books, December

In an unsurprising (to me) turn of events, I’m not reading as much these days. I’m in my third trimester, and everything, including reading, takes more effort. Any moment when I’m not building block towers, at the museum, supervising crayon time or cooking meals, I try to sleep. My girl is growing fast, making her momma (more) ungainly in the process.

  • The Empire of Tea by Alan Macfarlane and Iris Macfarlane
    • I love drinking tea. It makes cold nights more comfortable and grading papers manageable. I found this book on a discount rack and decided that it fit in well with my desire for tea, history and cheap books. Alan Macfarlane is an anthropologist and his mother Iris is a retired tea plantation manager’s wife, which gives them unique perspectives on the topic. Their story of tea blends together science, history and anthropology while focusing mainly on the Assam region of India. I like reading about the British Raj, but I do wish they would have spent more pages talking about the role of tea in other parts of Asia.
  • Crusades for Freedom: Memphis and the Political Transformation of the American South by G. Wayne Dowdy
    • I’m rounding out the year with another book from work. As a general rule, I do not seek out political history books because I find them dull. However, another of my general operating procedures is to read as much as possible about the period I am researching. This book deals with the years 1948-1968, which falls squarely within the scope of the exhibits I am writing. Dowdy compiled good information that adds complexity to my understanding of the city during these decades. Frankly, reading this book makes Memphis’ current political climate seem downright tame.

A year’s worth of books

By my rough count, I’ve read 63 books this year, not including the countless number of kids books I read aloud. It’s a respectable number–nowhere near my peak, but not too shabby when I take into account everything else that happened in 2015, which notably includes raising a toddler and growing a baby.

Part of the reason that I make it a point to read often is so that my son, and soon my daughter, can see me enjoying books. I want to raise readers. Readers can be entertained anywhere, they can explore new ideas and test theories, and I have found that they are generally interesting people who are capable of having great conversations. The best advice I have ever been given is to develop the ability to speak genuinely and intelligently with anybody about a topic that interests them. Sometimes that means knowing a lot about a subject and sometimes it just means knowing how to ask thoughtful questions. I took that advice seriously and realized that being broad in my reading choices is the best way to develop those skills. This year’s books included history, science, literary fiction, young adult novels, architecture, material culture, food, mystery, essays and memoirs. I loved some of them, worked my way through others and stopped reading a few that I just did not enjoy.

I believe that reading makes me a more interesting person. The mental space to encounter new ideas and explore old ideas in unique ways makes me a more thoughtful person. The ability to do something for myself definitely makes me a better mother.

There are a few things that I know for sure about what 2016 will bring. Our family will gain a new member and many sleepless nights. The toddler will grow faster than I realize and learn new things constantly. My children and I will read together. And I will read alone to keep a sense of myself. Because in my continually changing reality, books will remain a constant.

2015 in Books, November

  • Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
    • Fantastically good writing. Honestly, when I read the blurb on the back of the book I wondered how anyone could write a novel based on a man walking between the World Trade Centers on a tightrope. The plot was not what I was expecting, but it was expertly executed.
  • How Buildings Learn: What Happens after They’re Built by Stewart Brand
    • This architecture book was one I read for work. Part of the big idea of the new exhibits I am working on is that the use of the mansion building has evolved over time to fit the needs of its users. My research is leading me to the conclusion that this is true both architecturally and philosophically. Brand made me think about buildings in a whole new way, which had the added benefit of making me love my old house even more.
  • Queen of the Turtle Derby and Other Southern Phenomena by Julia Reed
    • As a general rule, I will read any book that promises humorous essays about the region that I love. Some of Reed’s essays fit the bill and others were not quite my style. It was also odd to read stories written about New Orleans pre-Katrina. I have gotten so used to post-Katrina NOLA discussions, that it was hard to get into a pre-flood mindset.
  • Landline by Rainbow Rowell
    • As with the other Rainbow Rowell books I have read recently, this one made me happy. It’s a fast book, and a reminder to not take people we love for granted.
  • Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook by Dana Gunders
    • I won a copy of this book from The Penny Hoarder, which I was super pumped about. While I already do a lot of the things that Gunders suggests in her handbook–like utilizing the freezer, canning, composting, and making stock from food scraps, I found some good information. For example, her explanation of food expiration and best by dates made me rethink my approach to some of my kitchen staples. I also appreciated the reminder to think about food as precious and something that should be used to its fullest capacity. It’s easy to forget that mindset when living in the land of 24-hour grocery stores. We have a food-secure household, and for that I am very grateful.
  • Elite Women and the Reform Impulse in Memphis, 1875-1915 by Marsha Wedell
    • Background research for a project at the museum. We recently reframed the concept of a gallery that we are redesigning to include a panel about the suffrage movement in Memphis. Wedell’s book does not deal exclusively with the suffrage movement, and it comes before the time period the exhibit will cover; however, I believe in casting a wide net. She gave me background information about the women who were active in the community in a well-researched format.
  • Broken Harbor: A Novel by Tana French
    • Tana French is the reason why I do not read other mystery novels. She sets the bar so high that I have a difficult time finding other authors who can entertain me as well as she does. This is the fourth book of hers that I have read, and, like the others, she kept me guessing and twisting with the lead detective until the end. If you like psychological mysteries, you should definitely give her a read.

2015 in Books, October

I love October. It’s the perfect month for getting cozy under a blanket with a book while drinking a hot mug of tea. Heavenly, actually.

  • Specials by Scott Westerfeld
    • Specials is the third book in Westerfeld’s Uglies series. My best friends and I have a thing for young adult dystopian literature, and we pass series among ourselves as we discover them. It’s our thing, and the fact that we are squarely in the realm of “adults” now does little to dissuade us. I enjoyed reading the rest of Tally’s story, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy the fourth book just as much.
  • A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot that Shook the Nation One Year after the Civil War by Stephen V. Ash
    • And here we have another book that I read at the museum. One of the gallery redesigns that I am working on is about Memphis street life from 1915-1930. The background for this period is squarely found in the Memphis race riots of May 1866 and the Radical Reconstruction decade that followed (as well as the yellow fever epidemic). I knew the riots happened and that they were important in the city’s history, but I didn’t realize how much the issue of whiteness–who was and wasn’t white–came into play. Several members of the mob who attacked the black population were Irish, and Ash does an excellent job teasing out why that matters. If you like local history or are interested in Reconstruction, this book is an excellent addition to the historiography.
  • Seriously, You Have to Eat by Adam Mansbach
    • I received this children’s book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program. Mansbach writes what many parents find themselves saying on a daily basis. The humorous take on a regular frustration was welcome, and my toddler enjoyed hearing the book read. Some of the rhymes are forced, but I enjoyed the spirit of the book nonetheless.
  • Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman
    • I found this short collection of essays in my neighborhood Little Free Library. The one I liked the most was about “compulsive proofreading,” which I am guilty of doing. It’s partially an occupational hazard and mostly because I like catching written mistakes. Her reflections on books and reading also reminded me of the importance of being unashamed of your literary choices. Eclectic reading habits make for interesting readers.
  • Architecture: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Ballantyne
    • Another read for the museum. I’m working on panels about the mansion’s architecture and found myself in need of a very short primer.
  • A Widow for One Year by John Irving
    • John Irving is an interesting writer. I always know that a twist is coming, but his genius lies in not letting you know when it is going to happen or how completely you will have been misled.
  • Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
    • Rowell is the author I am most excited to have found this year. Her stories are fun and well written without trying to hard. This book was about wizards and gave me some Hogwarts nostalgia while being completely its own universe and story. What’s not to like?

2015 in Books, September

  • The Art of Museum Exhibitions: How Story and Imagination Create Aesthetic Experiences by Leslie Bedford
    • We somewhat jokingly have “Theory Thursday” in my department when my boss and I have our philosophical discussions about museum theory. I also try to read a couple of museum books a year both to stay current in my field and also to pull new ideas into my Introduction to Museum Studies class. I had a hard time getting interested in Bedford’s book, but the last chapter made the philosophical underpinnings of the other chapters worthwhile. Basically she suggests that exhibitions are both education and art, and visitors will re-imagine the story line in a way that resonates with them. Therefore, using exhibitions as aesthetic experiences is not about being didactic, it is about facilitating.
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
    • This behemoth of a novel is about the long tradition of English magic, the Napoleonic Wars, personality clashes and a really misguided and vindictive fairy. It took me about a hundred pages to get into the story because Clarke had to lay a lot of groundwork for her alternative history/fantasy to work. Once I made it that far in, though, I was thoroughly hooked. I highly recommend this novel to anyone who is a fan of thoughtful fantasy.
  • Walking on Air: The Aerial Adventures of Phoebe Omlie by Janann Sherman
    • Dr. Sherman’s work on Phoebe Omlie, an aviation pioneer and adoptive Memphian, is astounding. In her afterword, Dr. Sherman lays out just how much investigative research went into piecing together Phoebe’s remarkable life. I would guess that almost everyone knows about Amelia Earhart while very few remember her contemporary female fliers. I happened upon a newspaper article from 1936 that said Phoebe helped organize an exhibit at the Pink Palace about herself and her late husband Vernon, which is what got me down the path of learning more about her and figuring out how we can include part of her story in our new exhibits. This book is a well-researched biography that places Phoebe Omlie and the history of female aviators in a national context.
  • Pretties by Scott Westerfield
    • Pretties is the sequel to Uglies, the YA dystopian novel I read last month. It was an equally entertaining and fast read.
  • Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
    • Rainbow Rowell has the wonderful ability to capture what a period of growing up feels like in a way that makes me remember being there myself. I am a giant nerd who found my people, and I know the relief that comes from knowing that you can be exactly who you are and be loved for that. This novel is a quick read that made me momentarily nostalgic for Harry Potter book release parties.

2015 in Books, August

  • A God in the Ruins by Kate Atkinson
    • Kate Atkinson is one of my favorite contemporary authors. This book is a companion novel to Life After Life, a work I keep mentally revisiting because of the way Atkinson treats time. A God in the Ruins follows Teddy, the brother of the main character in Life After Life. This novel also plays with time, treating it as a fluid that can flow in more than one direction. So while it is not completely accurate to say that it is set during World War II, a lot of the defining moments are. I cried at the end, and not just because I’m pregnant. If you like well-written books that play with literary conventions, read Atkinson. You won’t be disappointed.
  • Summer Sisters by Judy Blume
    • I had never read Judy Blume before this book, which just seems wrong. I wanted to read some good fiction as a break from some dense non-fiction, and I figured it was as good a time as any to see what all the fuss is about. Summer Sisters was the only one of her books that was available on the library’s e-book lending site. It was fun and fast. I’m looking forward to reading more of her oeuvre.
  • The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo
    • A couple of bloggers whom I follow talked glowingly about Kondo’s book. I’ve tried for a few years now to live a consciously well-edited life. My basic philosophy is to get rid of things that I don’t need and think hard about what I buy. Kondo reinforced some of my habits and provided some good tools for organizing what I chose to keep. I like her idea of deciding to keep things that spark joy and let the rest go. However, I don’t share her Shinto beliefs so the parts about animism didn’t resonate.
  • The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory
    • Some good historical fiction about the backstabbing, self-serving Plantagenets and the War of the Roses.
  • Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
    • It was nice to read a dystopian young adult novel that isn’t cut from the same cloth as Hunger Games (because it was written earlier). In this version of the future everybody is made “pretty” when they turn 16, which comes with consequences that they don’t realize. It had everything I like in my young adult fantasy novels–likable characters, a strong female lead, logical consequences and a premise that I am willing to suspend my disbelief for. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series when it’s my turn at the library.