If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler Readalong Wrap-Up

Saturday, November 30, 2013

This book is like a bibliophile’s acid trip or maybe their worst nightmare, but in a completely enchanting way. A reader picks up a book and just when it gets good the book ends. No matter what they do they can’t find a complete copy of the text and so they can’t finish the book. Instead they are led to begin reading one new book after another, each one ending before they can finish the text. At one point Calvino is blaming one of his characters for leaving a text unfinished and he says,

“Ermes Marana appears to you as a serpent who injects his malice into the paradise of reading.”

That’s exactly what Calvino was doing and it was hilarious that he was poking fun at himself through the text. At first I wondered if the stories would wrap up in the second half of the book à la Cloud Atlas, but soon I realized that wasn’t the point. The book is an exploration of reading, not of one specific story.

The thing I truly loved was Calvino’s language. He has a way of creating beautiful images, particularly whenever he was talking about the act of reading.

“To fly is the opposite of traveling: you cross a gap in space, you vanish into the void, you accept not bring in any place for a duration that is itself a kind of void in time; then you reappear, in a place and in a moment with no relation to the where and the when in which you vanished. Meanwhile, what do you do? How do you occupy this absence of yourself from the world and of the world from you? You read; you do not raise your eyes from the book between one airport and the other.”

Even the lines of each title are beautiful. They read like a poem, which we find out at the end is, of course, intentional.

In a network of lines that intersect
On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon
Around an empty grave
What story down there awaits its end?

The introduction and the ending chapter were my two favorite parts. Calvino’s love of reading and his descriptions of it are just breathtaking. While some of the other chapters ran together a bit for me, those sections so perfectly captured the magic of being a reader.

I hope you all had fun with this one. It’s a completely unique book and one that I’m glad I finally read. It’s certainly experimental, but I think Calvino’s talent as a writer rises above any tricks he pulls.

What did you like about the book?

What didn’t work for you?

Was it what you expected?

You can check out Care's mid-way post here and mine is here.

2013 TBR Pile Challenge Wrap-Up

Friday, November 29, 2013

One of my favorite challenges has quickly become Roofbeam Reader’s annual TBR Pile Challenge. The whole point is to finally read books that have been sitting on your “To Be Read” shelf for a long time. I am so bad at letting the books I want to read stack up and then neglecting them.

For the second year in a row I’ve completed the challenge. Even if I don’t end up loving every book on my list it’s always such a satisfying feeling to finally get to them.

Here my list of books that I finished this year. There was only one from my list that I bumped and use an alternate for and that’s Dickens. I’m hoping to get to that next year. I am already working on my list for 2014!

1) Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (finished March 2013)
2) An Abundance of Katherines by John Green (finished January 2013)
3) Birdsong by Sebastian C. Faulks (finished April 2013)
4) One of our Thursdays is Missing by Jasper Fforde (finished May 2013)
5) Heart and Soul by Maeve Binchy (finished September 2013)
6) Summerland by Michael Chabon (finished May 2013)
7) About a Boy by Nick Hornby (finished July 2013)
8) Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens
9) 1776 by David McCullough (finished March 2013)
10) The Magician's Assistant by Ann Patchett (finished January 2013)
11) Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut (finished September 2013)
12) The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen (finished October 2013)

1) Among Schoolchildren by Tracy Kidder (finished October 2013)
2) Nobody's Fool by Richard Russo

Photo by moi and from Adam's blog

Wordless Wednesday: Thankful

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Feeling so thankful for my boys this week. 
Happy Thanksgiving guys (those of you in the states)!

I hope you all have a wonderful day tomorrow.
I'll be back on Friday.  

More Wordless Wednesday here.

Photo by moi.

Top Ten Things I Am Thankful For

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

I have so many things in my life to be thankful for this year. I’m glad that this week's Top Ten from The Broke and the Bookish asks us to name a few. I’m going to list 5 general things and then 5 bookish things.

1) This summer my Dad’s cancer (Lymphoma) came back and this month he finished his last chemo treatment! I’m so grateful that it went well and hopefully kicked the cancer’s butt. My father-in-law had a pacemaker put in this summer and the surgery and recovery has gone really well. So much to be thankful for!

2) The Huz and I re-roofed our house this summer. It was brutal, but I’m so grateful for the family and friends who jumped in to help and make that job possible. We felt very loved by all the people who sweated it out in the July heat with us.

3) As we watched friends struggle with being laid off or let go this year I’ve been so grateful that both the Huz and I have full-time jobs that we enjoy. Even when I’m not having the best day at work, I’m so glad I have great co-workers and a laid back work environment that doesn’t require heels!

4) We welcomed a new niece into the world in October and I’m so grateful for all of my happy and healthy nieces and nephews. I love getting to know each one of them and seeing the people they are becoming.

5) I’m so grateful that even when our budget is tight or we are saving for a big home improvement project we still make it a priority to take a vacation. I know that we might not always be able to, but travel is so important to me and I love that we take little road trips to random places every year.


6) I’ve already finished all three of the 2013 Reading Challenges I tackled this year, so I’m thankful December will be “read whatever I want” month!

7) The Classics Club has become really successful. I’ve loved adding new members and reviews every week. It’s a lot of work, but I’m thrilled that people have embraced it.

8) I finally read the first Game of Thrones book and I LOVED it! Now I have lots of GOT reading to look forward to. There’s nothing quite like discovering a new series you love.

9) The library, I am so happy to have access to a huge library. I go through so many audiobooks and I would never be able to afford that without my brilliant library.

10) I’m grateful for this blog and the community that I’m part of because of it. I finally purchased the domain avidreader25.com and I’m currently working on a blog redesign with a professional. I’m grateful to be making this blog better in 2014!

WordPlay Shakespeare

Monday, November 25, 2013

Anyone who reads this blog probably knows I’m a huge fan of Shakespeare. So when I heard about “Half the Page Is a Stage” I was beyond intrigued. The idea is a great one, take Shakespeare original text and pair it with filmed performances of that play. The result is a new resource that could make Shakespeare’s work more accessible to those who are often intimidated by him.

So far Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are the two plays that WordPlay Shakespeare has made available. Using an iPad readers can now watch a complete performance of the play they are reading right alongside the text.

The one issue I’ve always had with reading Shakespeare is that it’s meant to be seen and not read. If you only read the text and you aren’t accustomed to the language, it’s sometimes difficult to get the humor and the heart of the work. This new twist breathes new life into the work. I can’t imagine reading Macbeth for the first time while seeing it performed on the same screen. What a fantastic way to introduce people to Shakespeare! I think this would work particularly well for high school students.

If you’re interested in checking out the book/play you can do so here. I love it when technology is used to encourage reading instead of the opposite. 

Photos of text and live performances by moi. 

The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.
by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a pivotal player in the fight for Civil Rights. This autobiography includes the story of his life written in his own words and pieces of his speeches.  

I read the audiobook version which is read by LeVar Burton and includes audio clips of King giving some of his famous speeches. It was powerful to hear the words from his own mouth, but sometimes those segments were harder to understand because of the quality of the recording and the clapping and cheering of the crowds.

It was heartbreaking to hear about King’s struggle with the continuous threats against himself and his family. Living in fear of imminent death affected his decisions. He writes about the bus strike, his time in jail, the march to Washington D.C. and more. I liked learning about his father and his wife’s role in the Civil Rights fight as well. Both played important roles in helping MLKJ become the man he needed to be to take on this fight.

One of the hardest parts of the Civil Rights movement was finding a balance between the goals of all the different groups involved. He was asked to support so many different causes and politicians and it was difficult to decide which ones to back. He also advocated nonviolence in a time when violence seemed to be the only answer. His courage was infectious and deciding not to fight gave others the guts to do the same.

BOTTOM LINE: I loved learning about King’s life and work, but the format made the book difficult. It switches back and forth between his biography and his speeches. Also, the audio version switches between LeVar Burton’s narration and MLKJ’s actual speeches, this is powerful but it changes the flow of the book significantly. A good read, but it’s not a true autobiography.

**During a recent trip to Atlanta the Huz and I visited The King Center, which includes his childhood home and church. The photos throughout this post were taken at the center.

Photos by moi. 

True Grit

Thursday, November 21, 2013

True Grit
by Charles Portis

I can’t believe I put this one off for so long. When I finally picked it up I didn’t put it down until I was done. I’m not a fan of westerns, but this is another one of those genre defying books that defies categorization. It is part thriller, part coming-of-age, and part western. It has a quick moving plot and fantastic characters.

I’ve never read anything quite like the voice of Mattie Ross. At only 14 years of age she decides to avenge her father’s murder. But instead of heading off to the city with a gun and a fiery temper she methodically arranges to have his body sent home, collects his belongs, barters with a horse seller and hires a US Marshall to help her track his murderer. She is just fantastic.

The US Marshal is another great character. Rooster Cogburn operates by his own morality code. It might not make sense to others, but it’s certainly there. One of my favorite parts of the book is seeing how Mattie turned out as an adult. She’s telling the story about when she was 14, but she’s already an older woman at the beginning of the novel.

BOTTOM LINE: A classic and one I’ll reread in the future. It’s a rare treat to find a character like Mattie Ross.  

“You must pay for everything in the world one way or another. There is nothing free except the Grace of God. You cannot earn that or deserve it.”

** I saw the Coen brothers’ film version and it is just excellent. Make sure you check it out if you read the book!

Wordless Wednesday: Tree Sculpture

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Metal tree sculpture in Washington D.C. 

More Wordless Wednesday here.

Photo by moi.

Pairing Books with Movies: Among Schoolchildren

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Among Schoolchildren
by Tracy Kidder

This is the nonfiction account of one year in a fifth grade classroom. The author chronicles Chris Zajac’s classroom from the beginning of the fall term until the end of the school year the following summer. Kidder writes of the problem children, those who rise above, those with difficult parents, etc.

Chris Zajac is a dedicated educator, a disciplinarian, a dream maker and a frustrated employee. She is not a miracle worker, but she is devoted to her students. The troubled students make it hard on everyone in the whole class and their presence is so draining on the teacher. Zajac and the other teachers in the school struggle between trying to reach those students and knowing that they are making it harder for the other students to learn.

One thing I really learned from this book is that being a teacher is a hard and thankless job. There are too many students, not enough teachers, not enough time in the day, etc. A teacher’s job is never really done. At the end of the say they still have to grade papers and work on lesson plans. Even when that’s done, good teachers are often still worrying about their students. I don’t have the patience for such a difficult job, but I have endless admiration for those who do.

BOTTOM LINE: If you’ve ever wondered what the life of a teacher might be like, this is the perfect way to find out. It’s a hard life, one that’s not often rewarding in the short term. Kidder’s profile is well done and I will definitely be checking out more of his work.

“She couldn't sort out her thoughts until she had turned them loose into the air.”

“You got to be realistic. If you want to dream, okay. If it comes true, it comes true. Beautiful. But tomorrow you got to go to work. That’s reality.”

“Some kids don’t know they want to learn until you put it in their heads that they do.”

“Many people find it easy to imagine unseen webs of malevolent conspiracy in the world, and they are not always wrong. But there is also an innocence that conspires to hold humanity together, and it is made of people who can never fully know the good that they have done.”

Pair with a viewing of  “Won’t Back Down” and “Waiting for Superman.” The first is a movie starring Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal and tells the story of two parents who strive to fix the broken school system where their kids attend school. The second is a 2010 documentary chronicling the flaws in America’s education system.

The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet
by Reif Larsen

T.S. Spivet is a 12-year-old genius with a gift for cartography. He lives in Montana and spends his time on a ranch creating maps of everything around him; facial expressions, diagrams of insects, water drainage, etc. A misunderstandings leads to an open invitation to visit the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. and he decides to embark on a cross-country journey by himself.

The book is almost impossible to categorize. It’s technically a graphic novel and the margins are filled with maps and notes. But it also includes much more text than many GNs and feels more like a novel. It’s a coming-of-age story and feels a bit like a young adult novel, but there is definitely some serious subject matter. I’m not a reader that needs everything I read to have a label, but when you’re trying to describe a book you realize that labels can be helpful.

T.S. has a hard time connecting with his rancher father and his scientist mother. They both love him, but don’t show affection in traditional ways. There is a side plot involving one of Spivet’s ancestors that I really loved. T.S. is reading about a fellow scientist in his family while traveling to D.C. and learning from the choices she made.

If graphic novels are already not your favorite thing I’m not sure this would be a good fit. The side notes and drawings can feel tedious at times. They were an interesting element, but were also a bit distracting sometimes.

Something happens about ¾ of the way through the book which changed things drastically for me. I felt like I lost some of my connection to the story and I began to doubt what was happening. I think I would have enjoyed it more if I just ignored the unbelievable elements and just went with it out.

BOTTOM LINE: A completely unique book, which is rare. Interesting characters and storytelling technique and in the end I was really glad I read it.

“A map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning; it forms bridges between here and there, between disparate ideas that we did not know were previously connected.”

“Shelving is an intimate thing, like the fingerprint of a room.”

“How many snapshots in the world were actually just-after shots, the moment that elicited the shooter to press the button never captured; instead, the detritus just following, the laughter, the reaction, the ripples.”

p.s. I had no idea they made a movie of the book! It looks fantastic. You can check out the trailer here.  

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler Readalong Mid-way Point

Friday, November 15, 2013

Care is hosting our mid-way check in at her blog, so make sure you stop by and see what everyone else is saying. The first half flew by for me and I’m looking forward to the rest. 

Stop back by here for the final wrap up post on November 30th. 

I’m having serious Cloud Atlas flashbacks with this book. Not only does it have a similar structure (Cloud Atlas was apparently partially inspired by this book) but it has an equally gorgeous writing style.

The book opens with one of my new favorite intros. The author goes through a whole spiel about settling in before you start the book. Get comfortable, let the world around you fade and then dive in. From there we begin the novel “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler” set in a train station. Soon we are back to the reader’s point of view as the story breaks off.  

From there it’s a wild goose chase to find the rest of the book. Instead of finishing “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler” our reader (as well as the actual readers) are introduced to one new story after another and we also meet the "other reader" who trying to track down the same book. 

First Outside the Town of Malbork, then “Leaning from the Steep Slope” featuring Miss Zwida and a prison break. I particularly loved this section. Then we are introduced to “Without Fear of Wind or Vertigo,” followed by a Parisian murder and Ruedi the Swiss in “Looks Down in the Gathering Shadow.”

It’s like a rabbit hole for bibliophiles. It's a book about the magical experience of reading a book for the first time; not knowing where it will tale you, but blindly following where the author leads. 

So far the stories seem unconnected except for a few elements, but I’m hoping it all comes together in the second half. 

“There are plenty, younger than you or less young, who live in the expectation of extraordinary experience: from books, from people, from journeys, from events, from what tomorrow has in store.” 

“Reading is going toward something that is about to be, and no one yet knows what it will be…”


Thursday, November 14, 2013

by Sinclair Lewis

Martin Arrowsmith is a medical student at the beginning of the 20th century. The Pulitzer-prize-winning novel follows his journal through school, two engagements, marriage, a job as a small town doctor and his pursuit to research cures for different strains of bacteria. Lewis has a distinct skill for writing about the inner workings of a small town life and the inherent pressures that go hand-in-hand with it. He was from a small Midwestern town and so he understood how they worked.

The frustration that many students feel when they take a job straight out of school is the same now as it was 100 years ago. They are idealistic and believe they will change the world, and then they are confronted with the unavoidable mundane aspects of the “real world.” They must deal with people they dislike and they have to face the prospect of doing the same thing every single day. Everyone reacts differently to this prospect, but most people have a hard time letting a few of their dreams go in order to make a difference on a smaller scale.

There is a lot of humor in the book. The scenes with Pickerbaugh, a local doctor who Martin works with, are particularly hilarious. He has a huge family and is obsessed with spreading information about personal health care. Martin quickly realizes he can’t stand him and he’s terrified he’ll become like him if he stays in that job.

As Martin vacillates between the pull of a steady job and income and the desire to pursue his research dream he is tempted by many things. A young woman named Orchid catches his eye, and then the possibility of a higher rank and power at his institution attracts him. Lewis did a great job laying out many of life’s temptations and chronicling Arrowsmith’s battle against them.

The book is truly about one man’s journey to find himself and his purpose in the world of medical research, but the heart of the book is Leora. She keeps him grounded, she gives him purpose. I do think she’s a man’s version of a perfect woman rather than a realized ad fleshed out character, but she is still interesting. Her relationship with Martin was the most interesting aspect of the book for me. There are moments when I just want to smack Martin for the way he treats her and takes her for granted. Her endless support is what keeps him going and yet he seldom acknowledges that. Martin’s other grounding force is his old professor, Max Gottlieb. He has always admired him and he aspires to become a researcher like him, but Martin puts Max on a pedestal and doesn’t try to connect with him as a real man.

The ending stumbled and faltered for me. It was almost as if Lewis was writing and writing and then realized at some point he would have to wrap things up and end the book. It didn’t mesh with the rest of the story and just felt contrived.

BOTTOM LINE: A long-winded look at one man’s struggle between his idealistic goals and the reality of being forced to conform to society’s standards. The plot loses its focused a couple times and that becomes tiresome. The main point is there, but at times it gets lost in the meandering observations of the writer.

“As he had never taught them to love him and follow him as a leader, they questioned, they argued long and easily on doorsteps, they cackled that he was drunk.”

Wordless Wednesday: Harry Potter World

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Hogwarts Castle

In September the Huz and I visited Harry Potter World in Orlando. 
It was incredible! The attention to detail was so impressive. 
I felt like a little kid as we wandered around.
If you get the chance you should definitely go! 

Hogwarts Express and the portrait gallery inside the castle.

Honeydukes sweets shop and my chocolate frog

Hog's Head Tavern: outside and inside

The Three Broomsticks and the talking portraits of all 4 Hogwarts founders

Hogsmeade village and the tracker of house points in the castle

Shops in Hogsmeade and the pensive in Dumbledore's office 

More Wordless Wednesday here.

Photos by moi.

November Classic Club Meme Question

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

This month the Classics Club asks us to pick a classic someone else in the club has read from the big review list. What about their post makes you excited to read that classic in particular?

For years I’ve been meaning to read something by Emilé Zola and Germinal is one that is frequently recommended to me. When I read Riv’s review of it at Bookish Realm I knew I needed to bump it up the TBR list. The final line of her review is what really did it…

“I want more Zola in my life.”

I’ve felt that way about authors before and I understand the sentiment. Then I read Adam’s review of the same book at Roof Beam Reader and a line in his review stood out to me. He is talking about Zola’s writing style:

“It is simultaneously beautiful, self-reflective, and transporting.”

I think that between those reviews I have very little excuse for not making this book a priority.

Join in the fun here

Journey to the Centre of the Earth

Monday, November 11, 2013

Journey to the Centre of the Earth
by Jules Verne

A young man, Axel, and his German uncle, Professor Von Hardwigg, undertake an incredible journey based on some notes from an explorer. They attempt to travel to the center of the earth, a daunting and terrifying trip. Their guide Hans is a loyal man and agrees to travel with them.

I can’t imagine the power of reading this book when it was first published in 1864. It would have seemed truly mind-blowing to imagine the fantastical world they encountered, but reading it in the 21st century makes for a much dryer experience. It’s harder to be swept away in the adventure when we have a better idea of what is and isn’t possible in exploration.

I was surprised by how much of the book is just building up to their journey. The first half of the novel is about deciphering a code and then traveling to the starting point of the descent into the earth. We’re halfway through the novel before they actually reach their destination. 

The characters are not easy to like. Hans is kind and saves the Professor and Axel during a storm, but the rest of the time he feels very two-dimensional. The Professor is cold and calculating. He’s more concerned with scientific discovery than with the safety of his traveling companions.

When they finally reach their destination they see some incredible things. They go fishing and catch creatures that they’ve only ever seen as fossils. They see Pterodactyl flying through the sky. In one scene they float through an ancient ocean on a raft and the see a sea battle between two gigantic monsters, an Ichthyosaurus and a Plesiosaurus. The terrifying fight takes place not far from their small vessel. They’ve stumbled upon a prehistoric world where dinosaurs still exists.

There’s one section that has particularly stayed with me since I finished the book. Our narrator, Axel, is separated from his uncle in the cave system. He is completely lost and the darkness is all encompassing. It’s terrifying to think of being lost and alone and knowing you will almost certainly die.

BOTTOM LINE: The story swings between exciting moments and dull descriptions. Worth a read if you’re interested, but not a must if you aren’t enthralled by Verne’s work.

“On earth during the most profound and comparatively complete darkness, light never allows a complete destruction and extinction of its power. Light is so diffuse, so subtle, that it permeates everywhere, and whatever little may remain, the retina of the eye will succeed in finding it. In this place nothing--the absolute obscurity made me blind in every sense.”

Nonfiction November: Favorites

Friday, November 8, 2013

Regular Rumination is hosting a month-long celebration of nonfiction and for the first week she asked "What is your favorite piece of nonfiction?" I just had to jump in with my two cents. I love nonfiction, which was a big surprise to me as a reader.

If you’re firmly in the “I hate nonfiction” camp I’d encourage you to try one nonfiction book that sounds interesting and see if you still feel that way when you finish it. Nonfiction really does deserve a better reputation that the dry and boring one it currently has.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was the first book that taught me nonfiction could be just as creative and enthralling as fiction. Since reading that in high school I have fallen in love with dozens of travel memoirs, biographies, history books, etc. I couldn’t pick just one favorite (though if I had to it would probably be Midnight) so I made a list of a few favorites depending on your taste.

Favorite Book on War: 
Brave Men by Ernie Pyle 
In Harm’s Way by Doug Stanton 
April 1865 by Jay Winik

Favorite Auto/Biography:
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Thomas Jefferson by Jon Meacham
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

Favorite Travel Memoir:
Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck
In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson (funny)
Long Way Round by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman (serious)
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

Favorite Childhood Memoir:
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt (sad)
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris (hilarious)  

Favorite Book about a Random Topic:
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin

Favorite Historical Event:
Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson
The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger
Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

Favorite Book about Writing/Reading:
On Writing by Stephen King
84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

Favorite Love Letter to a City:
Here is New York by E.B. White
Imagined London by Anna Quindlen

Favorite Book of Grief:
The Longest Goodbye by Meghan O'Rourke

Favorite Social Commentary:
A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut

Also, here’s a link to my complete list and ratings of nonfiction books I’ve read if you want more options.