2009: A Reading Year in Review

It's time to sum up the year, which was a good one!  I just love doing my year-end stats; it's fun to look back on the year that was and see what's been accomplished (or not!).  In 2009, I read 80 books, totaling 24,535 pages.  Two-thirds of my reads were written by women.  In a typical month I read 6-7 books of roughly 200-400 pages, and my average rating was 3.5 on a scale of 1 to 5.  The pace and quality have been pretty consistent since I began keeping track in 2007.  Here's a graphical view of my 2009 reading:

My reading is pretty goal-oriented, with a number of targets and perpetual challenges.  I'm reasonably happy with my progress:
  • Complete Booker:  achieved my goal of reading 12 winners
  • Orange Prize Project: achieved my goal to complete the winners list (8 books), and also read 2 shortlisted works
  • Pulitzer Project:  achieved my goal of reading 6 winners
  • Virago Modern Classics:  achieved my goal (10 books) ... enough to justify my obsessive collecting, I think!
  • Reading Across Borders :  I lost steam on this one.  I intended to "visit" 10 new countries during the year.  I read books from 6 new countries, and as I began finding it more difficult to locate books that interested me, I set this goal aside.  But I have a plan to revive my global reading in 2010!
  • Just for fun:  this was a great new category for me.  In previous years I had become so locked into challenges that my reading was planned months in advance.  I had no flexibility!  So for 2009, I vowed to read at least 20 books that I would choose on the spur of the moment, not related to any other challenge.  I actually read 30 books "just for fun," and loved it.  I cleared a few things off my TBR pile, joined some group reads on LibraryThing, and read books that others had recommended highly.
I signed up for fewer time-based challenges in 2009, but still completed four:
I participated in two other challenges, and failed .... awww!  I'm OK with it though, really, I am ;-)  My "failures" were:
  • Lost in Translation Challenge, a full-year challenge to read 6 books in translation.  I read 4. 
  • Support your Local Library Challenge, another full-year challenge where I committed to read 50 books from my local library.  This was twice the amount of 2008 library reads, so I knew achieving this was both ambitious and unlikely.  I'm satisified that I improved on 2008, reading 32 books (40%) from my local library.
So now it's time for my Top 5 list.  Choosing my Top 5 wasn't as difficult as I expected; only 7 books received the "coveted" 5-star rating.  So without further ado, the best of the best were:
  • Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner (review)
  • The Snow Geese, by William Fiennes (review)
  • Home, by Marilynne Robinson (review)
  • Sorry, by Gail Jones (review)
  • The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro (review)
And with that, another great reading year draws to a close.  It's been fabulous and fun, and there's no end in sight -- my 2010 reading plans are shaping up to be just as interesting, thanks to all the great literature out there, and thanks to all my reading friends who keep recommending wonderful books. 

P.S.  Beginning January 1, you can find me at my new blog home on Wordpress.  See you there!

No Fond Return of Love

No Fond Return of Love
Barbara Pym
261 pages

There are various ways of mending a broken heart, but perhaps going to a learned conference is one of the more unusual. (p. 1)

How can you not love a book that opens with a sentence like that? Dulcie Mainwaring works as an "indexer," preparing indices for scholarly texts. After her fiance breaks off their engagement, she attends a weekend conference for those in similar professions. There she meets Viola Dace, an older single woman like Dulcie. Viola has done indexing work for conference lecturer Aylwin Forbes, an association with romantic overtones that may or may not have been a catalyst for the recent breakup of Aylwin's marriage. Dulcie develops a bit of a crush on Aylwin, although he is barely aware of her existence. After the conference she keeps in touch with Viola, who later moves in with Dulcie after difficulties with her landlord. Their shared fascination with Aylwin, and the love of facts and detail that make them good indexers, lead them to investigate details of Aylwin's life and even spy on him a little bit. They discover he has a brother who's a vicar, and attend services at the brother's church. Dulcie visits Aylwin's neighborhood and finds herself at a jumble sale hosted by Aylwin's wife and mother-in-law. It sounds psychopathic, but it's actually a brilliant comedy of manners at which Barbara Pym excels.

Pym is also masterful at combining humor, irony, and pathos. Here, Dulcie observes her sister Charlotte, who is living vicariously through her 18-year-old daughter Laurel's independent life in London:
It was rather sad, Dulcie thought, that an apparently happily married woman should confess to a secret hankering for such a life. And yet, stealing a glance at her brother-in-law, at that moment preoccupied with classifying a pile of Masai warriors' spears and shields left to the local museum by a retired colonial servant, she could appreciate that perhaps a desire for escape was not so surprising. (p. 112)

Pym's characters are often middle-aged single women who, while not feminists, are competent and sensible. The women are usually in control of their own lives and events -- no helpless doormats here -- and things usually work out well in the end. As No Fond Return of Love progresses, the lives of Dulcie, Viola, Aylwin and other characters intertwine in delightful ways and the ending is most satisfying. Barbara Pym's books are excellent comfort reads best taken curled up in a blanket with a nice cup of tea. ( )

The Sunday Salon: Final Salon of 2009

Welcome to this final Sunday of 2009.  I hope that all those who celebrated Christmas had a wonderful holiday.  Thanks to last week's snowfall, we had a white Christmas for the first time in I don't know how long.  And then on Christmas night it began to rain, washing all of the snow away overnight.  Continued rain on Saturday made it a "nice day for ducks," and it's been very wet indeed.  Great reading weather, but I actually spent the time doing odd jobs around the house.  Believe it or not, I have felt in need of a slight reading break!

What's the reason for this insanity you ask?  Regular readers will recall my decision to dedicate December to "comfort reads".  This has been largely successful and I've been moving through these books at a pretty fast clip.  Here's what I've read this month:
The last three books were read over four days, much faster than my normal pace and helped, at least in part, by being off work since December 18.  When I finished Eats, Shoots & Leaves on December 23, I realized if I continued at the same pace I could read as many as 5 or 6 books before the year ended.  But I also felt a bit "over-read," which was an odd feeling.  So I pulled two books off my shelves and have resolved to slowly read each of them for the rest of the month.  One of the two books is A People's History of the United States, a nonfiction book I began months and months ago and set aside for the better part of this year.  It's such an interesting, alternative view of American history and I'm finding each chapter quite enlightening.  The second book is a true comfort read: No Fond Return of Love, by Barbara Pym.  I love Pym's writing and characterizations, and this one is true to form -- I was taken with it from the very first sentence.  And it's nice to take this book at a slower pace.  I do expect to finish it this month, and it will be a very pleasant way to conclude my year of reading.

Did anyone receive books as gifts this holiday season?   My book gifts all came from a Secret Santa that I posted about last week.  I was OK with that; I really have plenty to read on my shelves. But I was still a bit naughty on Boxing Day.  I visited a new-to-me online source, Awesomebooks, and picked up a couple of Virago Modern Classics which can be a bit difficult to find in the US.  And then I started thinking about my Booker Prize reading.  I am a mere 10 books away from reading the entire list of winners, and expect to find most of those 10 at my local library.  But there are three Booker Prize winners my library doesn't have:  Holiday, by Stanley Middleton; The Elected Member, by Bernice Rubens; and Something to Answer For, by P.H. Newby.  Two book-collecting friends have come to my aid, offering to lend me the Middleton and the Rubens.  I've seen Newby's book on Amazon.com at ridiculously high prices, but found it yesterday at The Book Depository for a "mere" $25.  That's way more than I normally spend on a single paperback book, but considering I won't have to buy the other two, I feel like I've come out ahead.  Is that a giant rationalization, or what?  I knew you'd understand ... :)

Normally I would do a "month in review" post right about now; today's post will have to suffice.  I have a year-in-review planned for December 31 which will have lots of fun statistics, and even graphs!  And next Sunday I'll be blogging about my 2010 reading goals from my new address.  So for now I will sign off, and wish everyone the best of all things for the rest of 2009!

Read more from The Sunday Salon here.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves

Eats, Shoots & Leaves
Lynne Truss
204 pages

I admit to being a bit fixated on grammar and punctuation. During boring meetings at work, one of my favorite activities is spotting grammatical errors on the speaker's charts. And I'm continually amazed by the ways in which the English language can be butchered. I don't claim to be perfect in this area, but I definitely make an effort to write correctly. So, this book resonated with me. In it, Lynne Truss outlines the basic rules governing usage of common punctuation like the apostrophe, comma, semicolon, colon, and quotation marks. She describes the changes in usage over time, and the differences between American and British conventions. And she does it all in a very accessible and humorous fashion. For example, consider The Law of Conservation of Apostrophes, described thus:
...this law states that a balance exists in nature: "For every apostrophe omitted from an it's, there is an extra one put into an its." Thus the number of apostrophes in circulation remains constant, even if this means we have double the reason to go and bang our heads against a wall. (p. 63)

Truss also considers how language will evolve as the written word shifts from a predominantly printed form to electronic media. She notes that our current punctuation system -- which was produced first for reading aloud, and later for print -- will undoubtedly undergo significant change, and that early signs of this can be seen in today's use of emoticons. She's actually quite positive about the inclusive nature of the internet, and encourages sticklers everywhere to embrace change and welcome new usage conventions that are sure to emerge. I'm OK with that -- as long as we don't start using apostrophes to indicate plurals. :-P ( )

The Hiding Place

The Hiding Place
Corrie ten Boom
219 pages

Corrie ten Boom and her family operated an underground movement in Holland during World War II, providing safe passage to Jews during the German occupation. Corrie's father owned a watch repair business; Corrie and her older sister Betsie remained unmarried and assisted their father in the shop. They were well-known for their kindness and hospitality, so it was natural for neighbors to turn to them for help. As they developed connections with others involved in the movement, their operation increased in scope and required both more sophisticated methods and more caution. A secret room was built in the house to hide the occupants in case of a raid. A buzzer system was installed to alert occupants to a raid or other emergency, and drills were held to ensure people could hide without leaving evidence. Signals were arranged to communicate when it was safe to enter the house.

The ten Boom family performed an important ministry during the war, but eventually the authorities became aware of their work and the family was arrested and taken to a political prisoner camp. Corrie and Betsie ten Boom spent nearly a year in a series of prison camps, under appalling conditions. Their deep Christian faith was key to survival. After the war, Corrie set up rehabilitation centers in the Netherlands, lectured about her experience, and taught others based on the Christian Gospels and themes of forgiveness. Corrie ten Boom's faith and ability to forgive are an inspiration; it takes an extraordinary person to survive such a harrowing experience and be able to forgive your persecutors.

The Hiding Place was an interesting memoir from a dark time in the history of humankind. ( )

A Room with a View

A Room with a View
E. M. Forster
246 pages

Well, let me begin by saying I love the 1985 Merchant Ivory film adaptation of this book, and have seen it more times than I can count. And because of that, it was next to impossible to read this book without humming Puccini's O Mio Babbino Caro, and imagining the characters exactly as portrayed by the excellent cast.

Lucy Honeychurch is a young Victorian woman who travels to Florence, Italy with her cousin Charlotte as chaperon. There they meet a host of English people also on holiday, including the Reverend Beebe who has just taken up a position in Lucy's home village, a flamboyant woman novelist named Eleanor Lavish, and the Emersons, a father and son. On arrival at their pension, Lucy and Charlotte find their rooms are not what had been promised. Most importantly, there is no view. The Emersons offer to exchange rooms, creating a comedy of manners as Charlotte abhors feeling obligated to anyone, not the least people like George and his father, whom she judges to be "common." However, there is an attraction between Lucy and George, which Lucy tries to deny. On returning home she is courted by the arrogant and class-conscious Cecil Vyse, and agrees to marry him as a way of putting her attraction for George out of her mind. But of course that's not the end of the story, and when George and his father appear on the scene in England, Lucy has to come to terms with her own feelings and the importance of making choices guided by one's own sense of right and wrong.

I tried to consider this book on its own merits: does Forster's novel stand on its own? I simply couldn't do it. The film is so true to the book; much of the dialogue went directly into the script. I can't quite say why, but I am fairly certain that if I hadn't seen the film I would not have enjoyed this book as much as I did. So I am left giving this book a respectable rating, while urging anyone who has not seen the film to do so ... you will not be disappointed. ( )

The Sunday Salon: "Blizzard of 2009" Edition

The Sunday Salon.com

The view from my rear windows, early Saturday morning

I haven't seen this much snow in years.  When I woke up early Saturday morning, there was only about an inch on the ground (measured by the tried and true "dog paw print depth method").  But the snow came fast & furious all day.  I shoveled the walk and the deck about 10:00am, and again around 1:30, clearing about 4-6" of snow each time.  By 3:30, there was no evidence of shoveling, and it was still snowing.  My Labrador retrievers were romping in snow up to their bellies (and loving it).  A flock of grackles had taken up permanent residence at the bird feeders; apparently their normal food supply had been buried in snow.  Things slowed down overnight, and there's at least a foot of snow on the ground today.  It's all quite beautiful, really, especially since I don't have to travel in this weather.  And it's a perfect time to curl up with a good book.  I didn't do as much reading yesterday as expected, instead spending my time on chores, cookie-baking, letting the dogs in & out & in ..., and drying the kids' wet clothes. 

One of the high points of my weekend has been a Secret Santa with the Virago Modern Classics group on LibraryThing.  We had 34 participants from all over the world:  US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Philippines, etc.  We've been chatting about it on our talk threads since mid-November, and December 19 was designated as the start of the gift opening period.  We set up a thread just to record all of the "oohs and aahs" from delighted group members.  The first to open her gift lives in the Philippines, so she posted when it was still Friday evening in my part of the world.  I waited until Saturday breakfast: after the first cup of coffee, but before shoveling snow!  My Secret Santa lives in Texas and is someone who has come to know me fairly well over the past couple of years.  She also has impeccable taste in books, and chose very well for me.  Every single book is right on target, many fit with 2010 challenges or reading goals, and I can't wait to dive into these:

From left to right:  The Republic of Dreams, by Nelida Pinon; The Man who Loved Children, by Christina Stead; The Ant Heap, by Margit Kaffka; The Post Office Girl, by Stephan Zweig; Morte d'Urban, by J.F. Powers; Two Days in Aragon, by Molly Keane (VMC); At the Still Point, by Mary Benson (VMC)

This lovely collection includes two Virago Modern Classics, two books in translation, one from the "1001" list, and one National Book Award winner.  Oh, and the Santa pictured is by Eldreth Pottery, a local artisan I've recently discovered.

While I didn't do a lot of reading during the blizzard I still managed to finish my second book of the week:  The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.  This book gets rave reviews from the YA crowd, including my younger daughter who has been pushing it on me for a while.  I'd also read several positive reviews from book bloggers, and was intrigued.  It did not disappoint.  As a work of dystopian fiction, Collins does a nice job developing the post-apocalyptic North America where the story takes place.  Yet the characters are very familiar, and much like people readers would know today.  They deal with typical teen concerns like appearance and relationships, but are also fighting for survival.  The book is a real page-turner and, since my daughter now has a copy of the sequel (Catching Fire), I suspect I'll read it one of these days.  Click here for more of my thoughts on The Hunger Games.

Also this week I read a wonderful Virago Modern Classic, Crossriggs.  This was a delightful story of two sisters:  one a helpless widow, the other a strong, independent single woman, each making their way in Victorian Scotland.  I liked the strong character best (no surprise, and I believe that's what the authors intended).  I read this book for the Women Unbound challenge, because it explores some issues we still face to some degree today.  As I wrote in my review:

What is more important: money, or loving relationships? Why do women feel they have to marry in order to be safe and secure? Can a woman have a career? Why is it so difficult for a woman to live independently in society? And even though women have made incredible strides since the publication of Crossriggs in 1908, we still don't have good answers to those questions.

Today I hope to spend more time with a book than I did yesterday.  And I've decided to lose myself in sunny Italy through E.M. Forster's A Room with a View.  Forster is the December focus of LibraryThing's Monthly Author Reads group.  Initially I didn't think I'd have time to participate, but I've been moving quickly through my December reads that I decided to squeeze it in.  I've seen the 1985 Merchant Ivory film about a million times; it was superbly cast and received an Oscar nomination for cinematography.  So it's impossible to read without imagining Helena Bonham-Carter as Lucy, or Maggie Smith as Charlotte.  And it's easy to visualize scenic Florence and the English countryside.  So I intend to really key in on the language and look for nuances that may not have been apparent to me on film. 

I've just started A Room with a View, but after that I'll be reading The Hiding Place, by Corrie ten Boom.  I'm on vacation from work for the rest of the year, so I may need one more book to take me through the rest of 2009.  Looking over my stacks yesterday, I zeroed in on Barbara Pym as an author who would suit my winter reading mood, and the "comfort reads" theme I declared for December.  I've really enjoyed three of her books (Excellent Women, Quartet in Autumn, and Jane & Prudence).  Her portraits of English village life & manners are brilliant, sometimes comic and sometimes poignant.  I have three of Pym's books on my shelves that I haven't read yet:  An Unsuitable Attachment, No Fond Return of Love, and Less than Angels.  Have you read any of these?  Which one would you recommend?  Leave a comment and help me choose!

Read more from The Sunday Salon here.

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games
Suzanne Collins
374 pages

Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12 of Panem, a post-apocalyptic North America divided into 12 districts. District 12 is a poor district with coal mining as its primary industry. Since her father's death in the mines, Katniss has served as head of her family, which includes her mother and younger sister, Prim. Katniss hunts in the woods with her friend Gale, and trades some of the meat in the market in order to meet most of the family's needs. Katniss is a tough cookie, having had to grow up far too soon. She resents her mother, who fell into deep depression when her husband died. But she adores Prim and would do anything for her.

In this dystopian world there is an annual tournament, known as The Hunger Games, in which two youths from each district compete. There's just one thing: the winner of the competition is the one who survives. The children are chosen by lottery -- one boy and one girl from each district -- and are then whisked away to the Capitol to prepare for the games. When Prim's name is drawn, Katniss instantly steps in to take her place. She is accompanied by Peeta, a boy she barely knows, but who has apparently had eyes for Katniss for a very long time. Katniss' feelings are conflicted: on the one hand, she feels quite vulnerable and needs a friend; on the other, she knows they will soon be fighting against each other for their lives. When they arrive at the Capitol they go through training programs, make public appearances, and develop their strategy with help from District 12 mentors.

And then the games begin, and my plot summary ends. The story is filled with suspense, and even though I had a suspicion that things would turn out OK, at no time was I certain. The premise is frightening and yet, in my bleaker moments, I can almost envision a world that puts their children at risk in this way. The contestants are faced with a myriad of moral dilemmas that could be thought-provoking for the reader -- especially the young adults for whom this book is written. There's now a sequel to The Hunger Games, and I liked this first book well enough to be interested in a second helping. ( )


Jane and Mary Findlater
380 pages

Alexandra Hope is a 30-ish unmarried woman living with her father in the village of Crossriggs, near Edinburgh. When her older sister Matilda is widowed, she and her 5 children return to Crossriggs to live at home. The two sisters are close, but couldn't be more different. Matilda is a bit of a doormat, and rarely expresses her own thoughts. In fact, Matilda generally agreed with everyone about everything, even if she happened to hold another opinion... (p. 35). Alex is strong and independent, and has rejected proposals rather than using marriage to achieve financial security. Recognizing that the new arrivals will stretch the family's ability to make ends meet, she finds employment in daily "read aloud" sessions with a Admiral Cassilis, an elderly, wealthy blind man.

Supporting the two sisters are a strong cast of village locals, many of whom are quite amusing. For example, Alex and Matilda's father is a vegetarian, which from the tone of the novel, must have been quite unusual in Victorian England. And Mr. Hope (known to many as "Old Hopeless") takes it a step further by declaring himself a "fruitarian" and living off garden apples past their prime. He engages in humorous attempts to educate house guests by subjecting them to his favorite foods. And then there is Miss Bessie Reid, a spinster of a certain age:

Miss Bessie Reid -- good woman! -- was skilled in all the little arts that make home hideous. There was a specimen of her handiwork at every turn -- a painted tambourine here, a stark water-colour there, whilst miniature animals in crockery seemed to crawl on every ledge. ... Taste, I suppose, is only a constant delicate expression of opinion, and Miss Bessie's opinions -- poor dear! -- must have been singularly confused. (p. 141)

On her first visit to the Admiral, Alex meets his grandson Van, who is new to Crossriggs. Van is several years younger than Alex, but he is immediately attracted to her. She is oblivious to his attentions, first because of the age difference, and second because Alex herself has strong affections for Robert Maitland. Maitland is a long-standing family friend and the attraction is mutual. He is, however, married. Both Maitland and Alex take great pains to conceal their affections, even from each other. And yet Alex is both sufficiently devoted and independent to rebuff Van's advances. As the family's fortunes ebb and flow, Alex finds additional opportunities to earn income through public readings, and teaching in town. Being the breadwinner for such a large family begins to take its toll. And even as Alex shows clear signs of stress and fatigue, the annoyingly helpless Matilda just "tut tuts" and lectures Alex, while doing absolutely nothing to help provide for the family.

On the surface, this novel appears to be focused on Alex's love interests: will she and Maitland find a way to get together? Will she choose Van? But by the end of this book, it's clear the Findlater sisters were exploring much more important points. What is more important: money, or loving relationships? Why do women feel they have to marry in order to be safe and secure? Can a woman have a career? Why is it so difficult for a woman to live independently in society? And even though women have made incredible strides since the publication of Crossriggs in 1908, we still don't have good answers to those questions. ( )