I had somewhat fallen out of the habit of reading books in recent years. OK, that is not entirely true. I have always read a lot, but I’d say that 90 percent of the books I was consuming were either those I was assigned to review, those by authors I was interviewing, or books by friends. Magazines filled the bulk of my recreational reading time. In 2017, I wanted to expand my recreational reading time and fill it with things that would stretch my horizons a bit.
I am happy to report that I’ve done just that! February was a doozy. As part of holding myself accountable, I will write up short notes on each book read each month, and post them here.
My Antonia, by Willa Cather
Cather is one of the great American novelists of the early 20th century, and My Antonia is famous not just for its strong heroine, but for being about a place. The Nebraska prairie is as much a character in this book as the prairie woman herself. The prose is evocative, and from a writing perspective, it was interesting to see how Cather adopted the voice of a male narrator, I think convincingly. Since plenty of men have presumed to know how women think, it is interesting to see a woman writer turn the script around.
Worth It, by Amanda Steinberg
The founder of Daily Worth and Worth FM offers guidance for how to think about money. Know and own your money story, and know what motivates you, and you can achieve more financially, for yourself, your future, and those you care about. My favorite part of this book was Amanda’s personal stories. She saw her mom get divorced and then reinvent herself as a breadwinner in her 40s. Amanda weathered a divorce and some steep financial losses too in the course of building a business. I am watching with great interest to see how the DailyWorth/WorthFM story plays out.
A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf
Despite being a Virginia Woolf junkie (I’ve actually read The Waves, and not because I was assigned it in a literature program!) I had never read her essay on what women need to write fiction. Her voice is so funny and light, which is especially poignant given the despair and lifelong mental illness that led her to end her own life. This short book gave me much to think about. I do have some passive income and a room of my own. I should get to work.
The Little Book of Hygge, by Meik Wiking
Of the books I read in February, this came closest to approximating my old magazine habit. You can see my write-up here. I am fascinated by hygge, and koselig, as concepts and I would like to read a deeper philosophical look at the Danish/Scandinavian mindset and how it relates to happiness.
The Little Paris Bookshop, by Nina George
Bookseller Jean Perdu prescribes literature to soothe people’s woes. Alas, he is unable to soothe his own sadness over the loss of the love of his life two decades before. Then the chance discovery of a note from his long-deceased lover sends him on a journey through France to figure out what really happened to her. Lots of quirky characters populate Perdu’s book barge and the stops along the way. Short chapters and sprightly dialogue make this novel highly readable, though some of the plot twists fall flat, and the occasional attempts at erotic writing just made me cringe. Maybe it loses something in translation (from German, if you can believe that).
Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse
One reviewer noted that this is the sort of book that seems profound when you’re assigned to read it in high school. I was indeed assigned to read it in high school, though I don’t recall finding it quite so exciting as some other people did. In any case, Siddhartha searches for truth, in the process becoming an ascetic monk, trying to follow the Buddha, living a life of over-the-top hedonism, and trying to raise his son. None of it really works, though ultimately he reaches some semblance of peace as a simple ferry man bringing passengers over a river. We all have to reach enlightenment as we can. I think I read this one because Hesse was mentioned in George’s book, and I thought I’d give him a try again. Still pondering if I want to go for Steppenwolf.
Savoring: A New Model of Positive Experience, by Fred B. Bryant and Joseph Veroff
I read this on the suggestion of Leah Weiss (see my Heleo chat with her here). She thought it would be helpful for the chapter of Off the Clock I was writing on how to “linger” in the present. Psychologists have long noted that some resilient individuals seem capable of coping with bad events quite well. What’s less well studied is how some individuals manage to stretch the pleasure of good events. Savoring looks at the mechanisms people use to do just that. This is very much an academic book (sample section title: “Optimal-Level Theory as a Heuristic for Understanding Ongoing Savoring Processes”). But I wound up taking a lot from Bryant and Veroff’s research, and have begun to observe some of the techniques in action.
Drop the Ball, by Tiffany Dufu
Are you a woman who feels that the division of labor at home is unequal? You could get your husband to do more. Or you could try doing less. One of these is a lot easier to pull off. Dufu argues for professional women to let go of a lot of domestic perfection and use the freed up mental space to deepen relationships at work, and invest in self-care as well. You can read my longer write-up here.
The Bookshop on the Corner, by Jenny Colgan
I had read The Little Beach Street Bakery about a year ago. This is pretty much the exact same plot, only set in rural Scotland with a bookshop, instead of the Cornish coast with a bakery. In Colgan’s universe, there are a shocking number of HOT LOCAL MEN in these middle-of-nowhere settings, and our plucky heroine turns out to be quite the entrepreneur, somehow dreaming up the exact business the locals (including all the HOT LOCAL MEN) need. I’m making fun of it, but these are charming books nonetheless. So much so that I ordered one of her other books for a palate cleanser in between some meatier stuff. There seems to be a sweet shop in some small town a ways outside London. It’s just a hunch, but I bet this town has some hunks too.
Picnic at Hanging Rock, by Joan Lindsay
I read this book at the suggestion of Modern Mrs. Darcy (a good source of book recommendations in general! She also touted A Clearing in the Distance, below). It was a fast read and really, really creepy. Set around the turn of the last century in an Australian boarding school for girls, located in the forbidding outback, this book centers around a mystery: a school picnic turns to disaster when 3 girls and a teacher go missing. One of the girls is found 8 days later, alive, but with no recollection of events. The circle of the mystery enlarges, and slowly starts to lead just about everyone involved to their doom.
Under the Tuscan Sun, by Frances Mayes
After her divorce, Mayes and her new partner Ed decide to buy a run-down Tuscan farmhouse as a summer get-away. They plan to restore it to its original grandeur. The work is long, and hard, and Italian contractors are like American contractors cranked up to 11, but the gorgeous, historic scenery and the food make it all worthwhile. This is a pleasant read, though there’s no real plot to speak of, other than their remodeling woes. Though as I went for a run this morning with a friend who just bought a house that needs a LOT of work, I started to realize why this was such a bestseller. We managed to talk for 40 minutes straight about remodeling woes. Maybe reading about them is cathartic? In any case, reading Under the Tuscan Sun definitely makes one want to book a vacation in Italy (and possibly redo the kitchen too).
A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century, by Witold Rybczynski
I just squeaked under the wire on this one, finishing it before bed on the 28th. Frederick Law Olmsted is best known for designing Central Park, but he was a man of incredibly varied interests and achievements, at a time in American history when people dabbled in all sorts of things, and dreamed big while doing so. He wrote a journalistic account of the south before the Civil War, and led a private “Sanitary Commission” that brought modern management to the treatment of wounded soldiers. He tried farming. He was a founding editor of the Nation. He ran a gold mine for a while (after he’d designed Central Park!). Eventually he wound his way back to landscape architecture — though that turned out to be a maddening career, given that he was often working with city governments on parks. Municipal authorities share some characteristics with Italian contractors (see above). While this is a biography of Olmsted, it’s also a great window into what American life was like at the time. People had grand ambitions, and yet the technology of the time was so limited. Imagine having a business in San Francisco and New York, and yet needing to communicate almost entirely by letters that took months to arrive. This book is hefty, but quite readable. You can read an article I wrote about Central Park (and other New York parks) here.
In other news: I welcome reading suggestions for March and beyond! One future entry: I’m looking forward to the release, later this month, of Bianca Bosker’s Cork Dork, a behind-the-scenes look at the wine world. Bosker just had a fascinating piece at the Atlantic about the Barefoot Blonde and her Instagram empire. For fun, read the comments. A few dozen in, Amber Fillerup Clark herself actually leaped into the fray. Oh my.
Photo: Piles and piles of books…