Thursday, December 27, 2007

87-91, plus the new goal

I have really fallen behind here!

87. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I am not sure how I missed this book before now. This was incredibly well-written, and the topics that it covers, class divides and class mobility, are some in which I am particularly interested. I liked the detached narrator who frames the story. Gatsby, of course, was a very flawed person, but his flaws were much more appealling that Daisy's and Tom's flaws. His flaws stemmed from a yearning to improve his life, and be with someone that he loves, whereas Daisy and Tom only care about their own comfort and feelings. This was a very thought-provoking book.

88. Original Sin by P.D. James

This one made me cry. The story was absolutely tragic, and it very, very sad. James really works at her craft, exploring interesting questions, and transcending the mystery genre. Her characters are fully realized people, not stock characters that just move the puzzle along.

89. A Certain Justice by P.D. James

I enjoyed this one, as I do all of James' books, but I am not sure it was as good as Original Sin. Still, the story was intriguing, and the characters were fascinating, as always.

90. Have You Found Her by Janice Erlbaum

This was an Early Reviewer's book.

This was a fantastic book, for many reasons. First, Erlbaum is a great storyteller, keeping me turning pages all the way through. She is also very honest. As she describes her efforts to help Sam, a homeless junkie, and other girls at the same homeless shelter that she used when she was a teenage runaway, she reveals a lot about her own personality and life, not all of it flattering. Since she describes her behavior with a great deal of insight, she clearly learned a lot and grew as a person due to the experience, but it still must have been difficult to describe herself, flaws and all, so candidly. At times I wanted to shake her--how could she not realize that these girls were so damaged? Sure, she had gone through a similar experience and emerged successful and relatively stable, but she must have known many other street kids who did not have such good outcomes. When she describes her friends and family, none of them seem to have pasts that encompass street living. Yet, she seems to think that a little bit of care and listening from her will turn these kids around.

To be fair, she really does do a lot to help these girls, especially Sam, and she obviously does really care for them and want them to have better lives, from the very beginning. Also, she learns a lot from her experiences, obviously becoming a stronger person and more clear-headed about this all as the story progresses.

Most people who want to help those less fortunate themselves have this idealistic view of what helping others means. Even with a background that should help them to know better, they think they can just give a little and make a big difference. It also seems easy to compartmentalize this kind of giving—it’s something that a person does at certain specific times, and it doesn’t encroach on normal life, except for short anecdotes at parties to show how caring and noble the volunteer is. But when you work with damaged people, it isn’t that simple. These people have enormous needs that can’t be covered from 6:00 until 9:00 on Wednesday evenings, and they demand more than a casual volunteer with a life elsewhere is comfortable giving. Erlbaum does a great job of describing how she struggled with the desire to do more, help more, and still live her hard-won normal life.

91. Solar Lottery by Philip K. Dick

Even in a world that seems to be governed by totally random forces, people struggle to impose meaning and control on their lives. Or, some people do, at least. This was a short book that managed to get in some very interesting discussions about the nature of free will and the laws that govern our universe.


So, what kind of goal am I going to do for next year? I am thinking about aiming for 100--I don't know if I will make it, but it seems like a good goal. It wouldn't even get through my tbr list, and you KNOW I am going to buy even more books. I just got 5 or 6 books yesterday with the gift card my brother gave me for Christmas (he was going to get me these cool shelves from Ikea, but they wouldn't accept a different ship to address than the billing address :-(), although one of them was cookbook, so I don't need to add it to the list. I am thinking that aiming to read more is a really good idea, because, as always, there is so much out there that I want to read! 100 it is.

I don't think I am done with this year, yet, though. There are still 4 whole days this year, plus tonight, and the kids are at their dad's until 12/31. I am sure I will get at least one more book on the list.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The To-Be-Read List

At the beginning of November, I made a vow that I would not buy any more books until I made a dent in my TBR list. I have made this particular vow many times before, so I did not hold out a lot of hope that I would succeed, but I did have good intentions.

The first thing I did to try to keep my vow was to cheat. I bought two Bibles. These books would not be added to my TBR list, so they didn't count. I used the same technique recently, when I purchased The New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge at Costco.

I also tried staying out of the bookstore. This was, obviously, a much more successful (and ethical!) technique. The entire time I stayed out of bookstores, I managed to not buy any books! Unfortunately, this was not a technique I could sustain indefinitely. On Black Friday, after a marathon morning of shopping with my mother and aunt, I ended up meeting my friend Mandy and taking the kids to the mall for dinner. I was too tired to cook. But, the mall is dangerous, because there is a Waldenbooks there. Of course, Mandy* wanted to go to the bookstore. Of course, I agreed, but I told myself I wouldn't buy anything. Ha! I did manage to make it out of there with only one book, though (The Truth (with jokes), by Al Franken; it was on the bargain table, I had to buy it!).

So, I was not terribly successful, but still, I was feeling pretty good about this. I finished 7 books in November, and I only added 1 book to the list. It seems like I added a lot more, because I made a real effort to go through my LibraryThing catalog and mark everything unread, so I could get an idea of what I was working with, but I already had all those books, so they don't count.

This past Monday, though, I found myself with an hour to kill while my daughter went to basketball practice. And do you know what is less than a half a mile from the community center where basketball practice takes place? A Barnes & Noble store, that's what. And I had been wanting to read The Great Gatsby for some time. And, I was finished with all the PD James books I owned. And, what else would conveniently fill that hour of time? (Don't mention working out, I know that would have been the wise choice. But, I didn't feel all that well on Monday. And, I am good at rationalization.)

The boy and I dropped the girl off at practice and we were off to the bookstore! First, I have to say that I told the boy, who is only 5, that he would have to wait until I picked out my books before we headed to the children's section, and he was very good about it. He did ask me a few times if I was done yet, but he stayed by me and did not yell or run around, so I was thrilled. Of course, when we did make it back to the children's section, he was much more interested in all the toys they have back there than the books, but still.

I ended up with 4 books for me, 2 P.D. James, Atonement, by Ian McEwan, and the aforementioned The Great Gatsby, plus How the Grinch Stole Christmas for the boy, and The Giver for the new read-aloud with the girl. She was so excited, too, yelling and actually jumping up and down. Apparently Mrs. H, her teacher, had recommended the book, which is the highest accolade a book can get in S's opinion.

By my count, that is 6 books that I added to my TBR list** since the beginning of November, but if I add the 4 books I have already completed in December to my 7 from November, 11 books to take off the list, putting me 5 books ahead. If I didn't manage to actually refrain from buying books while making a dent in the list, at least I was able to buy less than I was reading.

* Poor Mandy gets blamed for this a lot. She really does entice me to go to the bookstore a lot, but I do the same to her. We are probably equally to blame here, but it is more fun to blame it all on her. She doesn't read my blog anyway.

** According to my LibraryThing tags, my I have 104 unread books, but I need to do some updating with that. First, I have not completely catalogued my list, although I think I do have most of the unreads in there. Secondly, I need to make sure I have distinguished between reference books that I do not really intend to read cover to cover and books that really should be on the TBR list. This is one of those projects for a block of time on some weekend when I am not trying to run around and get ready for the holidays.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Paradox of Choice

86. The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by Barry Schwartz

This was a very interesting look at how, while no choice is definitely bad, too much choice can almost as detrimental to our psychological well-being. Schwartz examines the differences between maximizers, who attempt to get the absolute best of everything, and satisficers, who are willing to settle for good enough. Good enough could very well be high quality, but satisficers are all right with the idea that there may still be something out there that is even better. Maximizers are bothered by this, and have difficulty making choices, since there are always more options available that might be better.

I tend to fall on the satificer end of the scale for most things, but there are some exceptions. I have a hard time picking a meal in a restaurant, for instance, because I can't decide which one will be the best experience. This book was an interesting look at how unlimited choice can make us less happy with what we have, and I picked up some good tips for being satisfied with my life, even though the tips themselves weren't anything I hadn't heard before. Having more of an explanation behind them makes it easier to apply these ideas to my life.

Interestingly enough, one place where I notice a tendency to maximize is choosing a book to read. Sometimes I go right from one book to the next, but I often find myself, at the end of one book, staring at my bookshelves, trying to pick the perfect book that I will enjoy the most at that particular time. Usually, if I just can't choose, I decide it is a sign that I am simply ready for a break from reading (!), but more often I have to remind myself that I bought these books because they looked good to me, and force myself to take the leap into one of those books. And, when I do, it usually turns out well--I may buy a lot of books, but I am fairly discerning. It's not my fault that there are so many good books out there!

Sunday, December 02, 2007

84, 85

84. Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

This was an odd book. Blue, the main character, is a very gifted girl with an interesting past that involves much travelling around with her Dad. The mystery of her life, and her Dad, is at once more thrilling and more mundane than she expects. At first, she seemed overly melodramatic to me, but after a while, I realized that it was just the way she spoke; she actually had a fairly realistic view of what was happening to her. I really enjoyed this book, but I understand why I have seen people both praise it and pan it. It can be a bit difficult to access.

85. Post Secret by Frank Warren

Warren asked people to send him secrets via postcard, to participate in a public art project. The only requirements were that they be true, and something the sender had never told anyone else. Also, they were told to send the secrets anonymously. Apparently he did exhibit many of these secrets, and I think he still is, but he also has a series of books. I think I will buy more--it is fascinating to see what people send. Some of the secrets are truly horrible, some are the kind of thing you recognize.