Another month, another round-up of books read! A lot of my non-fiction selections this month were advance copies or galleys, so they aren’t available for purchase yet. I’ll put in publication dates for people who’d like to keep an eye out for them.
Ulysses, by James Joyce
Joyce’s epic, modernist novel follows Leopold Bloom, a modern day Odysseus, as he travels around Dublin. I read Ulysses in college, and I remember thinking it was interesting, partly since I read most of it as I was traveling around Tasmania. My own wanderings, as it were. However, when you are reading something for class, you read differently than you do when reading for pleasure. I’m glad I gave this doorstopper of a book (almost 800 pages!) a second look at this juncture of my life when I have proven my ability to make it through other epics. Joyce does a lot of cool stuff with plot and language. He also does ambitious but nonsensical stuff that is only understandable by reading the commentary (I had the Wikipedia entry open much of the time). And then there is stuff that one gets away with when one is considered a genius (The Penelope section … Molly’s stream of consciousness … I don’t think Joyce has accurately portrayed much about a female mindset.) If you’re looking for a James Joyce novel to pick up, definitely start with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Ulysses is great. It is a worthy challenge if you’re looking for one, but it is a lot less readable than, say, War and Peace. I’m pretty sure it’s still around because it gets assigned in college literature classes. There is a lot to unpack!
How to Be a Happier Parent, by KJ Dell’Antonia
Dell’Antonia, the former Motherlode columnist for the New York Times, understands that parenthood can be meaningful in the abstract, and often soul-crushing in daily experience. Her tips on forcing the kids to do more chores, and letting stuff go, are meant to improve life in the here and now. As a fellow mother of four, I enjoyed reading about her own trials and discoveries. This book will be out on August 21.
Sort and Succeed, by Darla DeMorrow
DeMorrow runs a professional organizing firm that operates in my neighborhood. I enjoyed her realism (nope, you can’t declutter once and hope to stay that way forever, as Marie Kondo promises) and her quirkiness (she does a money dance every time she finds cash in someone’s clutter, which happens a lot!)
Kew Gardens, by Virginia Woolf
This is technically a short story, but since my mother sent me a version that is an actual bound book — albeit with few pages, and many illustrations — I am going to count it as a title read in April. A handful of people (and critters) walk through Kew, the famed London public garden, in the dazzling July sun. The narrative follows each of them for a bit as they try to understand each other and life. I actually managed to read through this twice in the boarding area when my plane was delayed the other day.
Hyperfocus, by Chris Bailey
Another advance copy, with a publication date of August 28. Many readers of this blog are likely familiar with Bailey, author of The Productivity Project. In his new book, he discusses how to carve out time and attention for focused work, and also how to purposefully let your mind wander (“scatterfocus”) in order to piece together concepts and create new ideas. Earnest and fun like his previous title, and a good motivator for taking a hard look at one’s schedule.
Ambition Redefined, by Kathryn Sollmann
This one won’t be out until October 9! Sollmann carefully avoids all mommy war cliches in this thought-provoking book. I did not agree with everything. I think “big jobs” are often more compatible with family life than people think, but I know that Sollmann is approaching this topic from a different angle through her work with caregivers returning to the workforce, and I appreciated what she is trying to do. She argues that the vast majority of women have no interest in becoming the CEO of a major corporation (probably not all that many men are interested either!) but — and this is the real radical notion — she also argues that women need to redefine service to their families as including some form of paid work. Failing to do some sort of paid work, even through caregiving years (children and parents!), puts the majority of families at great financial risk. It is ironic, Sollmann notes, that women risk becoming a burden to their adult children because of something they thought was helping them as little kids. She spends the latter half of the book outlining various ways to work flexibly and remotely in the modern economy, arguing that if people think it’s impossible to combine caregiving with earning, they’re not looking very hard.
The Spectator Bird, by Wallace Stegner
This is one of Stegner’s shorter books, at a mere 200 pages, and yet like Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter, it shows what a good writer can pack in with years of practice at craft. An aging Joe Allston, living with his wife Ruth in California, receives a postcard from a woman they both met on the trip they took to Denmark years prior. This Danish countess lived a rough life — creatively rough as only Stegner could possibly dream up — and the action travels back and forth from Allston reading his diaries to his wife, to the scenes in the diaries, as the couple tries to understand the Countess’s secret. This was a particularly interesting book for me to read right now as the novel I’ve been sketching out also features an email from a woman in Scandinavia (Norway, in my case) that triggers memories of the main character’s trip there. In fact, some of the main action in mine occurs on the summer solstice too. I’d never head of the plot of The Spectator Bird before I picked it up, but there you go — maybe everyone drinks from the same well. If I could achieve anything close to Stegner, I’d be happy.
Goodbye Vitamin, by Rachel Khong
Also a quick, poignant read that packs a lot in. 30-year-old Ruth (another Ruth!), recovering from a broken engagement, moves back in with her parents to help care for her father, an involuntarily-retired professor in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. The family’s various dysfunctions and strengths quickly come back as she tries to deal with the absurdity of this caregiving year, recounted in diary form.
Now I’m working on Stegner’s Angle of Repose which, at more than 600 pages, is going to take a bit to get through. Though probably not quite as long as Ulysses!
What are you reading these days?
In other news: Do you enjoy reading book reviews here? Have you ever picked up a title — or not picked up a title and saved yourself some time! — based on a review? Please consider supporting this ad-free, no-affiliate-links blog by pre-ordering my next book, Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done (May 29). In it, I explore why some people with a lot going on seem rushed, while others act like they have all the time in the world. You’ll discover strategies for doing more of what matters, and feeling better about it too. Thanks for reading!
Photo: Modernist writings, thick and thin