2012: In Review, Or, Statistics Reveal My True Nerdiness

In which I reveal my true nerd cred by not only poring over the numbers and data points in my reading-tracking spreadsheet, but then develop my own infographic based on the numbers:

2013 Tournament of Books: Finalists and Judges Announced!

It's here! It's here! Well, ok, it's actually four months away, but this year, the Tournament of Books announced the finalists early to give us all a chance to catch up on some great reads we may have missed in 2012. I definitely missed a lot of them, sad to say, so I have my reading cut out for me...
PLUS: A Pre-Tournament Playoff Round
Of these, I've read Gone Girl, and I own The Yellow Birds. I've never heard of HHhH, How Should a Person Be? or Ivyland. The only one I'm not particularly interested in picking up is May We Be Forgiven, but that's mostly just because I heard some booksellers at a store I love and respect discussing it and it did not sound promising, so maybe I need to keep a more open mind, yes?

A Thank You to My Teachers

One of the items on my 26 by 26 list (for which I have less than a year to complete, as of this writing) is to write thank-yous to my teachers. None ever hid me in a closet and told a crazed gunman I'd gone to the gym, and none used her body to block bullets from hitting us as they whirled through the most unexpected of rooms, the classroom, for which I am eternally grateful, but they are still heroes in their own way, each teaching me to learn, to question, to invent, to write, and to read--and for that, I thank them.

Thank you to the pre-school teacher who let us spend December 6th shoeless, with our tiny sneakers lined up outside the classroom door to receive candy from St. Nick.

Thank you to the Kindergarten teacher who encouraged me to read Hop on Pop to the class, even though it was longer than everyone else's selected books. I've had a thing for thick tomes ever since.

Thank you to the fourth-grade teacher who showed me that it is ok to want to learn more than what is being offered up in class, and that extra math homework is not always a bad thing.

Thank you to the fifth-grade teacher who taught us about attitude, and how to have it, and how it's not ok for kids to have it when speaking to adults.

Thank you to the sixth-grade English teacher who assigned The Golden Compass, even though, let's face it, she must have known some parents were going to take issue with that.

Thank you to the seventh-grade Geography teacher who made us memorize all of the countries of Europe, Africa, and Asia--and their capitals. I only wish we'd had to learn the United States, too.

Thank you to the eighth-grade English teacher who first assigned me Shakespeare, and helped me appreciate all the humor and wit and amazement that Shakespeare's works contain.

Thank you to the ninth-grade Latin teacher who clarified verb conjugations for me, along with the declination of nouns. I went on to read The Aeneid and Harry Potter in Latin, and though I couldn't do it now if I tried, that Latin knowledge has shaped my understanding of English vocabulary and grammar more than I could say.

Thank you to the junior-year English teacher who said, and I quote, "But in French, 'tu' is the personal form of you," when reading Julius Caesar, teaching me that not all teachers are infallible, after all.

Thank you to the senior-year English teacher who required that we underline at least one sentence per page when reading, which sparked in me a life-long love of marginalia.

Thank you to the senior-year Calc teacher who told me to stop asking why, because some things like trignometric theorems are best taken at face value.

Thank you to the French teacher I had during my semester in Paris, who helped me learn a language I needed more than I could understand. Thank you to the Irish teacher I had in college, because he taught me to love a language as much as one does a culture and a place.

Thank you to my elementary school gym teacher for teaching me the Electric Slide. Thank you to the Headmaster at my high school for offering his support in college applications, even if I was too proud to accept it. Thank you to my middle school music teacher for putting me on stage the first time, and for my high school drama teacher for putting me on stage for four years after that. Thank you to my school librarian, who pronounced the "h" in "who" and "what" and "where" and probably knew more than I ever gave her credit for, and for all the teachers who had lives outside of school that I could never see and knowledge I could never reach.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Audiobook Review: The Last Werewolf, by Glen Duncan

My, but Glen Duncan can write. The Last Werewolf is a testament to that skill, with sentences that dazzle and a storyline that captivates and just enough imagination to make us stop and reconsider if certain things--like werewolves--are really so impossible, after all.

The novel, narrated on audio by Robin Sachs, centers on Jacob Marlowe, who learns early in the book that after centuries of flight from those hunting him and his kind, he is, in fact, the last remaining werewolf. Unfortunately, his pursuers realize it as well--and also realize that they have worked themselves out of a job in the most fundamental way possible. Without werewolves, there can be no werewolf hunters.

From this foundation emerges a complex, gruesome tale of loneliness and death and killing and independence, as we dive into Jacob Marlowe's past and present and longed-for future. Marlowe is not exactly a sympathetic character, but Duncan's storytelling is so complete that the novel works even if we aren't exactly rooting for the protagonist. Or quite against him either.

All sounds good, right?

Wrong. Unfortunately, Duncan seems to know that he can write (see opening sentence), and as a result, often gets in the way of his own story. Constant contrasts between Marlowe's tale and what would happen in the Hollywood version are witty at first, but begin to dull after overuse. A few coincidences early on we can forgive, because, after all, this is a novel about werewolves walking around in modern-day London, but when the entire story seems to rest on unbelievable turns of events, we start to lose faith in the concept as well as the plot.

And the sex. Oh my. I don't mind a little hanky panky in my novels, no sir, but after a while the graphic and often violent sex scenes served little purpose other than to shock, and after that, just felt gratuitous.

And so, on a scale of one to five:

5 stars for imagination, wit, humor, and a well-conceived story idea.
3 stars for too many coincidences and unbelievable plot points.
1 star for the overuse of the word "anus".

Summation: I'm not good at math, but somewhere around 3 stars, I think. A good choice on audio, as Robin Sachs embodies Jacob Marlowe's first-person narration near perfectly; his crooning British accent doesn't hurt either (plus it's fun to hear him speak "American" for certain characters, when required).


The Last Werewolf | Glen Duncan, nar. Robin Sachs | Audio CD | July 2011 | Buy from an independent near you

Thoughts: Emma, by Jane Austen, and A Jane Austen Education, by William Deresiewicz

I'm ready to duck from flying tomatoes after this next sentence, but I have to be honest. I've never liked Jane Austen. Granted, until recently I'd only read Pride and Prejudice (once in high school as required reading, and once again after graduating college as pleasure reading, because I don't believe in forming final opinions of a book assigned to me). I didn't like it either time.

Sure, I appreciate Austen's wit, and her humour (so much so that I was inclined to spell the word the British way when typing, and don't intend to change it), and her intelligence. But appreciating and enjoying are two very different adjectives, aren't they?

Emma was my attempt at keeping an open mind, trying a second Austen novel--and one praised as one of her finest, no less. Sadly, it met the same fate as Pride and Prejudice. I finished it, but I never liked it.

But then, maybe Emma is not a book that Austen actually intended us to like. Emma herself is a perfectly disagreeable character, and most of the people around her are trivial and insipid and shallow and vain, and nothing particularly interesting happens to any of the characters until the story is wrapped up in a neat little package with a cherry on top. William Deresiewicz argues in his essay on Emma in his recent book, A Jane Austen Education, that is precisely the beauty of Emma--the simple, dull, and the mundane are, in fact, what real lives are made up of; to spend an entire novel--or, if you will, an entire life--waiting for something riveting to happen, you miss out on what is actually happening in front of you.

Deresiewicz's essay is what I wish introductions to classics could always be: insightful and informative without ever spoiling the story to come. He reveals enough detail to lay forth his argument without assuming the reader is familiar with the novel being discussed, setting us up for a richer, more refined reading of the book whether a first or twelfth or twenty-fifth read. 

I'm glad I read Emma, glad I gave Austen a second chance (though I haven't truly changed my opinion), and glad I started this read with Deresiewicz's essay (even if I can't pronounce his name). It's one of those must-reads I firmly believe should remain a must-read, though maybe not a must-like; A Jane Austen Education, too, is a must-read for anyone setting out to read an Austen novel (or, for those unlike myself, anyone already well-versed in the author's major works).


Emma | Jane Austen | Penguin Threads Edition, Paperback | 400 pages | Buy from an independent near you

A Jane Austen Education | William Deresiewicz | Hardcover | 272 pages | Buy from an independent near you

Bond. James Bond.

This post originally ran in the Tuesday, November 13th issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. There's also an interview with Sir Roger Moore in that issue...

Nearly 60 years after the publication of Ian Fleming's first Bond novel, Casino Royale, James Bond has become the epitome of the secret agent. Featured on the big screen in 23 movies, the Bond film franchise is one of the longest-running in Hollywood history--as well as one of the most profitable--from the original 1962 adaptation of Dr. No, featuring Sean Connery as Bond, to the release last week of Skyfall, with Daniel Craig as the most recent Bond actor.

In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of this epic film series, DK Publishing has published a collection of the Bond movie art: James Bond: 50 Years of Movie Posters. This book is a film-by-film guide to the artwork and photography surrounding the series, and includes several rare posters, a collection of unused concept artwork, and teasers and lobby cards from Bond movie screenings around the world.

In The Music of James Bond (Oxford University Press), author Jon Burlingame looks at the sounds of James Bond, from the last-minute creation of the now-famous "James Bond Theme" in Dr. No to the trend-setting music found in later films. Burlingame devotes a chapter to each of the movies, exploring how modern technology influenced the scores; the decades-long controversy over the authorship of the original Bond theme; and how Amy Winehouse nearly co-wrote and sang the theme for Quantam of Solace.

For an even deeper dive into the Bond movies, go to The James Bond Archives (Taschen). Eon Productions (the production company behind all 23 movies) opened its archives of photos, designs, storyboards and production materials to editor Paul Duncan, who has compiled this wealth of primary research into an account of the making of the series, including the spoofs of Casino Royale (1967) and Never Say Never Again (1983). With stunning imagery accompanied by oral histories collected from more than 150 cast and crew members, The James Bond Archives is a comprehensive tribute to the legendary superspy of the British Secret Service.


James Bond: 50 Years in Movie Posters | DK Publishing | Hardcover | 304 pages | Buy from an independent near you

The Music of James Bond | Jon Burlingame | Oxford University Press | Hardcover | 293 pages | Buy from an independent near you

The James Bond Archives | Paul Duncan, ed. | Taschen | Hardcover | 592 pages | Buy from an independent near you

Childish Reading

I was a nervous kid. I was scared of pretty much everything, when I think back on it, especially anything that involved dangerous behavior or breaking the rules. I was actually convinced, at one point, that my parents would go to jail for getting a parking ticket. I clearly didn't understand the gradients of rulebreaking and adventure-making; it was all terrifying to me. 

This fear stretched over into my reading life, where I made all kinds of rules about what I could and could not read. No books with thunderstorms. No books with swords on the cover. And so on.

Which, let me tell you, ruled out a lot of books--especially those my dad really wanted to read to me. He made it all of a paragraph into Treasure Island before I made him stop; that clunking peg-leg spoke of danger and I'd have none of it.

Looking back, I don't remember too much of what I read during that period, though one book stands out: the little-remembered but incredibly beautiful Baby, by Patricia MacLachlan. It was a simple story of a local family living on an island popular with vacationers; when the last ferry of the season left and took with it the screaming children and sunburned noses and folding chairs of summer, a child was left behind with a note asking the family to care for her. Sophia. 

Baby was--still is, I suppose, as it does not appear to be out of print--a story of elegance and beauty, a slow-paced but enthralling tale of family and the power of love and a lot of things that, in hindsight, were way over my eight-year-old head. 

Looking back, I'm convinced that this one book that stands out so vividly among so many others (I had a lot of reading rules but that never stopped me from reading--a lot) formed my adult reading self. Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, and its partner novel, Home, are similar to Baby in their simple beauty and their dealing with the grief and love and happiness of everyday things; they also happen to be among my favorite contemporary novels, heartbreaking and hopeful all wrapped into one. I can't help but think back on Baby as I work my way through The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (which I'm currently adoring).

I eventually learned to break my own reading rules (a habit I try to continue in my current reading adventures), but those early years never quite left me. I don't believe I'm reading childishly, but I do maintain that my childish reading has never truly left me.

Do you find that you are still drawn to the same types of books--if for a different age group--as you were as a kid? Or have you departed completely?


Baby | Patricia MacLachlan | Yearling | 1995 | 160 pages | Buy from an independent near you