State of the Blog: September 2014

State of the blogIt’s been a crazy summer, and I’m glad it’s almost over. Work has been crazy, home life has been crazy, everything has been crazy. We had an actual cold snap recently, and it’s getting me excited for fall and winter — more time to cozy up with a book.

The basics

  • Books read since July 1: 11
  • Pages read: 3,232
  • Books reviewed: 10
  • Books not enjoyed: 0
  • Books not finished: 0
  • Library books: 0
  • Audio books: 0
  • Re-reads: 1

Genre breakdown

  • Fiction: 5
  • Non-fiction: 6
  • Fantasy: 1
  • History: 3
  • Memoir: 2
  • Mystery/Thriller: 1
  • Young adult literature: 1
  • Children’s literature: 1
  • Gender: 1
  • Essays: 2
  • Humor: 2

Reading challenges

  • The Mount TBR Challenge: 4/12
  • Reading Outside the Box: 2/4

No progress on either of my 2014 challenges. Check out books and reviews here.

Some thoughts

Another slow reading quarter. Last time it was due to binge-watching Lie to Me and Bones; this time it’s because of an insane work schedule and binge-watching The West Wing. It may also be because I’ve been playing Diablo III with Best Friend.

On one hand I feel bad that my reading has slowed, but on the other…I kinda don’t. Work is unavoidable, but I’ve deliberately chosen to watch a television show I love, play a silly game with the man I love, and work on a new cross-stitch. What’s to be upset about?

Looking ahead

  • I need to kick my reading challenges back into gear. I’m relying on the library for most of those books, and haven’t spent any time coordinating inter-library loans.
  • I’ve read all but three of my birthday books. I’m looking forward to getting to Essentialism, The Copper Sign, and S.
  • Stay tuned for a review of an advance copy of Ed Gorman’s Riders on the Storm!
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Sitting on My Nightstand

I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump recently. There’s lots of reasons why, but it all falls under the “needing to get out of my head” category. I want to go to the movies and binge-watch Netflix, play video games with Best Friend, and maybe invite a few friends over; for me this is positively extroverted behavior.

And while I’m out being “social” there are several books sitting on my nightstand waiting to be read.

I don’t think I’ll pick any of them up in the next week or so, but it’s nice to know they’re waiting patiently for my return, calling quietly to me without judging me for not spending time with them. Books are good friends that way.

Books on my nightstand

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Review: The Midwife’s Tale

The Midwife's Tale, Sam ThomasIt is 1644 in York, England; while most of the town’s citizens think the greatest danger sits encamped outside the city, midwife Lady Bridget Hodgson and her assistant Martha know better. Esther Cooper stands accused of poisoning her husband, and Bridget and Martha have just a few days to save their friend from her demise at the stake.

What starts out as an attempt to clear her friend’s name soon turns into a deadly game of cat and mouse for Bridget, with every investigation turning up more questions. Was Stephen Cooper really the man he claimed to be? Is Esther truly innocent? Who profits the most from keeping Stephen’s murder unsolved?

The Midwife’s Tale is a commentary on the nature of treason and the servant-master relationship, as well as a pretty good murder mystery.

An exciting read

Strong female characters are my favorite, and this book has two. Bridget is a twice-widowed heiress who spends her time delivering babies to wealthy and poor women alike and chooses to investigate a man’s death in order to prove her friend’s innocence; Martha is a servant girl turned thief to escape a horrifying life.

The Midwife’s Tale was nicely paced, with several well-done red herrings and twists that had me holding my breath. Bridget and Martha are likeable, flawed characters for whom I couldn’t help rooting.

But it could have been better

As much as I enjoyed The Midwife’s Tale, it simply can’t hold a candle to Arianna Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death series. Bridget and Martha were great characters, but they didn’t feel complete — the dozen or so other characters around the periphery even less so.

This is partly explained by the fact that the book is the first in author Sam Thomas’ Midwife Mysteries series — there’s a lot of exposition and backstory that has to happen. But I don’t recall getting that same feeling from Franklin’s series. Just because it’s a first book doesn’t mean the author should skimp on details.

More than a dose of social commentary

In many ways I feel like the author really wanted to write about the esoteric aspects of treason and explore the historical servant-master relationship, but his publisher convinced him it wouldn’t sell unless he wrapped a mystery around it — just like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, but with far better success.

It’s positively miserable reading about the way that many of the characters treat their servants, or are treated by their masters.

Masters had power over their servants’ bodies, and short of murdering them (usually) could do whatever they wanted. This was considered by the courts and contemporary culture as the way it should be, with masters having near-divine power over their servants. A servant’s disturbing that belief — through running away or attacking or killing a master — was seen as the worst kind of treason: a betrayal of God’s plan and word.

In the end I found the mystery side of The Midwife’s Tale entertaining, but it’s Thomas’ commentary on contemporary culture that stuck with me. I hope he keeps writing — especially if his next book is non-fiction.

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“If you take a book with you on a journey…an odd thing happens.”

d50a67c9e2e5cc0c385084f5ad0fbdb7I’ve kept a commonplace book for over a decade, occasionally adding in snippets, quotes, or sayings that appeal to me. After adding a fresh piece of advice the other day (“Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.”) I glanced back through other recent entries and landed on this one from author Cornelia Funke:

If you take a book with you on a journey…an odd thing happens. The book begins collecting your memories. And forever after you have only to open that book to be back where you first read it. It will all come to your mind with the very first words: the sights you saw in that place, what it smelled like, the ice cream you ate while you were reading it…yes, books are like flypaper — memories cling to the printed page better than anything else.

I find this to be the most true — at least for me — when re-reading books I first read as a child: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series and Bread and Jam for Frances. I thumb through these books and I am a child again.

When I start thinking about travel and reading, though, the books that come to mind are the ones I’ve read in adulthood.

I read Under the Tuscan Sun while on a month-long sojourn in Prague, Czech Republic, and Maid to Match on an even more recent trip to Asheville, North Carolina.

This makes me long to travel more, to take in more sights and feelings that will then become inextricably linked with the stories I read. What a marvelous thing.

Is there a book you associate with specific travels or memories?

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Review: Sorry! The English and Their Manners

Sorry! The English and Their Manners, Henry HitchingsMost of us grew up hearing, “What do you say to the nice lady?” and “Don’t put your feet on the coffee table.” Having good manners was important, and we could almost always tell when someone hadn’t been brought up to have them.

But where exactly do manners come from, and who decides when they should change? Why do things like keeping your elbows off the table and sending thank-you notes matter so much to us?

In Sorry! The English and Their Manners, author Henry Hitchings examines the history of manners in England — and the peculiarities of the English character. A blend of history, anthropology, and personal anecdotes, Hitchings’ book is an in-depth (if occasionally dry) look at manners and what they say about those who practice them.

Still on the fence

Go with me on this: Sorry! was a lot like a fruit-filled danish.

I got some great mouthfuls of delicious humor and interesting factoids, but had to muscle through a lot of dry, flaky bits first.

Much of the history was…well, dull. Which is not something I say lightly. History is important, but at 320+ pages I found myself wishing for a little less of it.

Like every other American, I think the world revolves around me; it could be that Hitchings’ focus on English manners made it less interesting. It was harder for me to point to a particular manner and feel empathy, a “Hey, we do do that!” moment.

There are some standout moments, though, like this 1558 advice from Giovanni della Casa:

Nor should you look in your handkerchief after blowing your nose, ‘as if pearls or rubies might have descended from your brain.’

In the end, Hitchings boils down the purpose of manners into a desire to make others comfortable (or avoid making them uncomfortable):

…the ability to evaluate and regulate the effects we have on other people is a part of a fine awareness of ourselves.

So in other words, having good manners is just good manners.

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