2021 Year in review

Clausen, George; Reading by Lamplight (Twilight: Interior); Leeds Museums and Galleries; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/reading-by-lamplight-twilight-interior-38362

Remember last year, when I lamented reading “only” 44 books, but chalked it up to the pandemic? Well I’ve done it again! Exactly 44 books read.

At the end of 2020, despite being in the thick of the second wave, I was making plans. Not just for reading/blogging, but in general. After all, vaccines were coming and all would be well. A few waves and variants later, and recently reeling from another round of school closures, I’m wary to say the least.

This article about new year’s resolutions and perhaps choosing something you like doing but don’t always make time for resonates with my early 2022 mood. Forget reading; I might resolve to watch more movies, something I rarely make time for. I have Rachel’s recommendations to guide me, and my kids are old enough that I can sometimes watch something decent with them, too. I got to watch Dune in theatre with the 12 year old, before Omicron took hold.

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The Franzen Project: Tier ranking all of Jonathan Franzen’s books

I first tried to read all of Jonathan Franzen’s books as a project in 2017 and failed. I did, however, have a few runs of Franzen in February, and wrote some highly entertaining (IMO) posts.

It wasn’t the pandemic that pushed me to finally bring this one home in 2021. It was a combo of the Mr. Difficult podcast, a fellow Franzen enthusiast I met on Twitter, and good timing. Having got my greedy hands on a Crossroads ARC (thanks Jenn!), I realized that the ranks of true Franzen completists, already fairly small, would contract again as people catch up on this latest novel.

I was going to do a full ranking, but, despite what you may have heard, his works are pretty diverse, and a meaningful ranking would be difficult. Plus, ranking more than 5-10 items is not good practice (trust me, I write surveys for a living). Then I remembered a modified ranking methodology I learned from my kids, in a video about ranking doors. Yeah:

Further research reveals that “tier ranking” is a Thing in the gaming world, typically used to rank playable characters or levels, and you know what, I like it! Behold:

Books by Jonathan Franzen Tier Ranking

A+ Tier

  • Crossroads (2021): Elite Franzen. Have you all noticed the usual haters have been awfully quiet this time around? Yeah.

A Tier

  • The Corrections (2001): Could move to A+ upon reread. Dysfunctional family coming together at Christmas time is his forte. Does get a little “quirky” at times but if you are into his quirks it’s all good.
  • Freedom (2010): We all need to talk about Patty. And birds.
  • The Discomfort Zone (2006): Essential (well, only) memoir.
  • How to be Alone (2002): Essential essays, mostly written before he was a Great American Novelist.

B Tier

  • Purity (2015): Enjoyed it while reading, but unmemorable.
  • Farther Away (2012): Uneven, great on personal subjects (parents, DFW) but a bit boring on others (birds)

C Tier

  • Strong Motion (1992): Interesting because there are early iterations of some of his favourite themes, but a big old mess.
  • The Twenty-Seventh City (1988): Apart from a memorable scene of existential dread set in a mall, a slog.
  • The End of the End of the Earth (2018): Maybe because I’d read most of them before? Didn’t make an impression.

D Tier

  • The Kraus Project (2013): There are actually several things I appreciate in this hybrid translation, cultural commentary, and memoir, but unless you are a BIG Franzen fan, and/or have a DEEP interest in early 20th century German literature and thought, I would stay far, far away.
  • Spring Awakening (2007): Franzen’s translation of a early 20th century German play, so see above: unless you are a TRUE completist, and/or have a real interest in this kind of thing, I would not recommend. At least it’s short!

You can make your own Franzen tier ranking here, check out other book-related rankings, or, create your own template! I would love to see more literary rankings, as the existing ones are pretty much all YA/MG in nature…

And please argue with me below if you would do this ranking differently!

Novellas in November: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

As always, I encourage you to read Cathy’s and Rebecca’s reviews. I’m down to the wire here so this will be a short comment on a short book that needs no introduction. This is the fourth and final #NovNov buddy read, and I’d like to thank hosts Cathy and Rebecca for doing a bang up job. The buddy reads were a great idea! Check out all the posts linked here.

Ethan Frome is sometimes seen as a departure from Wharton’s other works, though in the Everyman’s Library edition I read, Hermonie Lee makes a case for linking Ethan Frome, Summer, and Bunner Sisters in one volume, and not just because they’re short. They’re also about working-class heros and heroines. There’s none of the social climbing (and falling) that mark The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth, and The Custom of the Country. Unrelenting poverty is the driving force of this story. Zeena and Mattie end up at the farm because they are both poor relations with nowhere else to go, and Ethan can’t leave even if he wanted to (and he sure does by the end) because he’s running the farm into the ground and couldn’t raise $50 if he tried (and he sure does try.)

It’s also about isolation and revenge. I was struck by the parallels between it and my all-time favourite book, Wuthering Heights. The framing device, the stark landscapes, the isolated house, the use of dialect, and most of all, the people, tied forever to the land and to a never-ending cycle of blame and regret.

The last line even echoes Wuthering Height’s iconic ending. I have a personal aversion to quoting last lines, but these are both so good, and I’m hardly spoiling anything. Feel free to stop here if you haven’t read one or both.

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Nonfiction November Week 5: New to my TBR

The final #NonFicNov prompt is hosted by Jaymi at The OC Book Girl. Despite some early efforts, I did not keep up with her daily Instagram challenge. For me, Instagram isn’t a place to post, it’s a place to see what my Millennial and Gen Z cousins are up to, and to indulge in hyper-local memes and cringe TikToks. Anyways, Jaymi encouraged us to keep track of the nonfiction books added to our TBRs in preparation for this week, which I did, until the 15th. So this will lean heavily on the first two weeks of the event. My new additions:

And that’s it! I didn’t do much reading (concentrated my efforts on novellas, the other perennial November book blog event) by enjoyed posting and reading. A huge thanks to all the hosts and participants.

Novellas in November: Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima, translated by Geraldine Harcourt

I expected this novella to land as lightly as the cover treatment – like diffuse and gentle morning light. It hit me more like a bright midday sun beam.

It’s a rare book that conveys the frustration, boredom, and drudgery of early motherhood without veering into gross-out humour or sentimentality. I don’t relate to any of the particulars of this story – I became a mother in another millennium, on another continent, and by the time my oldest was turning three, I already had another baby – but the parent-toddler struggles, at the park, at a festival, at daycare drop off, during middle of the night wake ups, are instantly recognizable.

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Nonfiction November Week 4: Stranger than fiction

This week’s prompt is hosted by Christopher of Plucked From the Stacks, and I had a hard time with this one! We are to highlight “great nonfiction books that almost don’t seem real” and I wasn’t sure where to take it – nonfiction that in fact turned out not to be real (A Million Little Pieces) or at least disputed, or nonfiction that presents itself as fiction (thinking of genre benders like The Order of the Day by Éric Vuillard and Flights by Olga Tokarczuk), or to stop overthinking it and say Bad Blood.

And I will say Bad Blood by John Carreyrou, for all the reasons everyone else is saying it. How this woman scammed everyone around her for so many years is, indeed, stranger than fiction. For extra surrealness, I’m following her trial on Twitter. Another book along these lines (though in a very different setting) that I’d love to read is My Friend Anna: The True Story of a Fake Heiress by Rachel DeLoache Williams, though I get the sense that most of the best details are in the author’s original article. And finally, I eagerly await Bitcoin Widow by Jennifer Robertson, the wife of deceased (maybe) bitcoin mogul and pyramid schemer Gerald Cotton. I hope that there are some jaw dropping revelations, though I won’t hold my breath; if she really helped him fake his death, she’s certainly not going to spill in a book.

And I’ll leave it there. I’m off to read other entries. Start with this week’s host, he’s got some doozies, including the book that inspired the prompt, The Great Beanie Baby Bubble: Mass Delusion and the Dark Side of Cute by Zac Bissonnette. What a title!

Novellas in November: The Story of My Life by Helen Keller

The Story of My Life is the short nonfiction pick for Novellas in November. As always, please refer to Cathy and Rebecca for more thorough reviews.

I was briefly obsessed with Helen Keller as a child. Is this still a phase girls go through in elementary school? There was one book in particular that I read over and over, maybe in grade three or four. I don’t know which book it was (plenty to choose from), but it wasn’t this one.

I was taken with Helen’s childhood: the illness that left her blind and deaf, the wild tantrums of her early years, and her sudden awakening to the world on the arrival of her teacher, Anne Sullivan. So taken that I “borrowed” a few phrases from whatever book I was reading and used them in an assignment, and got called out by my teacher. My memory is not as good as Helen’s, so I couldn’t tell you all the particulars, but I remember the phrase I used was something that ended in “she bolted from the room”. My teacher said it sounded like I copied it, which I did, but I was very indignant; isn’t it okay to learn a new way to say something, and use it somewhere else? I remember the feeling to this day.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that Helen Keller was also called out by a teacher for plagiarizing, and that it was a pivotal moment in her life.

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Nonfiction November Week 3: Be the expert on tech pessimism

This week’s #NonFicNov prompt is hosted by Veronica, who has given us a few options: you can be the expert, ask the expert, or become the expert on a topic of your choosing. I informally put out a “ask the expert” call in my previous post, and it was answered! If you also want to learn more about Iceland, look no further. This week, I’m going to be the expert on tech pessimism, or to be more precise, on the many, many ways in which social media is harmful.

I’m not really a tech pessimist, or if I am, I’m deeply in denial, seeing as I tweet an average of 250-300 times per month. And yet I’m drawn to these books. I read them, agree with them, vow to change my ways, take week or month-long social media breaks, and then go right back to where I started. I see my Twitter addiction like my (long dormant, but never really gone) smoking addiction; the only way to beat it is to go cold turkey and to never give it an inroad. But unlike smoking, I can’t fully give up social media and neither can you, probably.

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Nonfiction November Week 2: Book Pairings

This week’s #NonFicNov prompt is hosted by Katie at Doing Dewey,  and she challenges us to pair a nonfiction book with a novel. She suggests a historical novel paired with the real history, which is the best place for me to start. In the run up to publication of The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel, third and final book in the Wolf Hall series, I took in a pre-Broadway run of Six in late 2019, and reread the first two books in early 2020. I was so ready. Unfortunately, my reading experience ended up being seriously dampened by early pandemic anxiety. A reread will be in order. But to make myself feel better, I indulged in a couple of Tudor nonfiction titles.

So if you liked the Wolf Hall series, you should check out:

  • Young and Damned and Fair: The Life of Catherine Howard, Fifth Wife of Henry VIII by Gareth Russell. Juicy and scandalous, but scholarly enough to bring some real insight into what the Tudor court was like for an eligible young woman.
  • The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn by Eric Ives is a little drier at times (he has a lot to say about her possessions, textiles and drinking vessels and prayer books and whatnot), but not without controversy, as theories abound about who Anne really was and how much agency she really had. But this does seem to be the authoritative account, and has been since 1986.

And speaking of royals, fans of Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle, or specifically the first book, Quicksilver, which is all I read, should check out the real life story of a minor character in Anna Keay’s The Last Royal Rebel: The Life and Death of James, Duke of Monmouth. He is portrayed as a lecherous rake in Quicksilver, and well, he basically comes across as the same in Keay’s history, but with some nuance. Great fun, and illuminating, if you read historical fiction set in this time.

Reading history (and not just royal history) to clarify and illuminate novels would be a fun project! It’s got me thinking about the world literature I’ve loved this year, like Independent People (20th century Iceland) and Demons (19th century Russia), and how they could probably be appreciated better with more background knowledge. I have a bit of a TBR going for Russian nonfiction, but wouldn’t know where to begin with Iceland.

I hope others are able to go beyond Katie’s suggestion of historical fictions/history, but I’m drawing a blank! I thought about suggesting various anti-social media books to go with Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts, but I’m going to save that for next week’s prompt…

Novellas in November: Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

Open Water is the contemporary novellas pick for Novellas in November. Please read Cathy’s review, which I largely concur with, and Rebecca’s review, in which she suggests Normal People as a “readalike” (I can’t comment… yet). Liz also wrote an insightful review earlier this year. All four of us are a little uncertain about this very Millennial (or possibly Gen Z!) novel…

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