Reading in the New Year

My 2012 reading log is weird.

2012 books

For reasons I can and can’t identify, I just wasn’t up to my usual level of readerliness last year. But I am ready for a new year – two books knocked out this past week.

Wednesday night I finished Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. This is our first book club book of the new year, and one that I have wanted to read for some time. What you get with this book is about 600 pages of English history with some pretty despicable characters. I am in awe of Mantel’s knowledge of the time and she sure got a bunch of it in there. I am not sure that the book wouldn’t have been better, however, if some of that was left out in order to let the story itself speak more. The book centers on Thomas Cromwell who becomes the intimate advisor to King Henry VIII. The big goings on in this installment of a series that Mantel is publishing, is Henry trying to divorce Kathryn of Aragon so he can marry Anne Boleyn. This is no easy feat and there is much bad behavior. Interestingly, Dan is listening to this book on audio and I heard a part of it the other day when he drove me to work. I think I enjoyed hearing it more than I enjoyed reading it. The reader adds much of the pomposity that I think is true to the characters. It enlivens what can be a pretty gruelingly paced novel. This is one that I am glad to have read, I learned more about an era, but it didn’t reach the level of love that I thought it would.


Then I read John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. Much love here. I got an email from Sam at the end of December telling me that he finished this and I should put it on my list. In his email, he said “It’s so much more clever and ahead of itself than it needs to be. And it’s a killer first love book that is unexpected in every right way and it is truly in love with literature.”  When you get an email like that, the only thing you can do is buy it immediately. There is a part in this book where the main character recites The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock to the boy she will love. He has asked her to read to him, but she doesn’t have a book. He asks for a memorized poem. She starts, “Let us go then you and I / When the evening is spread out against the sky / like a patient etherized upon a table.” He tells her to go slower. She continues with it. It is breathlessly beautiful. I very much like Prufrock, but there was something about this scene that brought the poem more life than it ever has had for me. The whole book is like that, scenes illuminated with grace; conversations of almost unbearable poignancy.

This is categorized as Young Adult, but it brings it for anyone lucky enough to pick it up. The story is brutal. Two teenagers who meet in a cancer support group. Hazel Grace and Augustus. I don’t want to write too much about the story because it needs to be read fresh.

Next up, Imagination Illustrated: The Jim Henson Journal.

History of a Book Club

Next week Ali will turn twenty-five, which means that our book club will also reach that milestone fairly soon. I think I still remember the conversation that Dan and I had when we hatched the idea of a book club. We lived in our duplex then. Our two babies shared a room. Most nights included a few visits to that room to calm a crying baby or get one up for a meal. Having two children in nineteen months was a great idea, but it was not conducive to sleep or adult time. Added to that, with me not working, we did not have extra money to get babysitters. Our home time was pretty child focused.

I think we started talking about how we just didn’t read anymore. What we did read ran more along the lines of The Monster at the End of the Book, and I Can Do it Myself.For a couple who always counted books among their most prized possessions, we were losing ground. That’s when we decided that we would make a book club. If we had an assignment to read a book, that would drive us to get back into the reading routine. It would also beef up our social life.

Somehow, we picked a first book. We chose a book called Emperor of the Air by Ethan Canin. This was the author’s first book and it was a collection of short stories that were written when he was a medical student. I guess we picked it because we had read one of his short stories somewhere else. The book notes that some of the stories appeared first in The Atlantic and The Best American Short Stories of 1985. Whatever the reason was, it turned out to be a great read, and now that I have it off of the shelf, I want to read it again.


Finding people to invite was the next issue. We wanted it to be men and women, couples, singles, different ages, different occupations. I think for that first gathering we had a few lawyers and a few stay at home moms. Not much variety, but we started with what we knew.

We met at 8:00 after we had gotten the kids to bed. One thing about Sam and Ali was that once they got to sleep, those first hours were major zzz time. They did not care about noise. They were sleeping.

We sat in our living room, drank some beers, talked about the book, talked about other books, talked about life, and decided that we liked having a book club. We picked our next book, and set a date to do it again.

That was almost 200 books ago. For a long time, I kept the list of books that we read on a stack of 3×5 index cards. Since then, I have moved it to an electronic document kept on my laptop. There are books on there that are among my favorite books of all time. There are some real stinkers that I had to struggle to get through. Because I am the way I am, though, I finished each one.

Now we have added some variety into our schedule. Once a year (usually during April), we have poetry month where we all bring poems to read aloud. In December, we read a food book that becomes the focus of a pot luck. In the summer we meet on a friend’s deck for fajitas. While we usually meet at our house, we travel more now.

The attendees have evolved quite a bit since that first meeting. At one point, we noted ourselves to have medical people equalling our legal people. We still have a good male/female presence. We have ages that have spanned from 20s to 70s. Members have left and returned. Marriages have brought new members. Babies have been that are now in college! Friends of friends join and become our friends.

I love books, but no book is as memorable or special as the club itself.

P.S. I would be happy to share our list if you are interested.

Newbery Challenge

One aspect of parenting that I have the fondest memories of, is reading books to the kids. When I was pregnant with Ali, Sam and I would spend hours on the couch reading certain books over and over again. I’m looking at you, Ernie…

When Sam reached a certain age, though, we decided that our reading would focus on Newbery award winners. We made a valiant effort, including the very first winner:

When Mr. Van Loon sat down to write his story, he meant business. Published in 1921, he detailed life from the caveman to the very modern man of his present. Coming in at close to 500 pages, that book was our mantle of success. After soldiering through that one, we seemed invincible.

But there were still decades worth of winners ahead of us if we were to conquer that list before our read-aloud days were over. It didn’t happen. Somewhere between The Giver and Walk Two Moons, I think, our nighttime ritual gave way to homework and other vestiges of growing up. Books continued to be a huge part of our family’s life, but sitting on the edge of a child’s bed reading a story became a fond memory.

But I am returning to the challenge. I am committing to a return to the list and making my way through the remaining winners. I am eager to share my progress here!