Wednesday, December 28, 2011

These Were My Storytellers: A Year of Books

So I've been hearing print books referred to as "dead tree" books. I'm not sure if that's to prey on ecological minded people like myself who would save so much paper if only they became "modern" and got one of those fancy eReaders. One of the things I value about myself is that I care and think often about the environment, but I still like a print copy of The New York Times, and I am not giving up my print books. I also deeply care about bookstores. I don't want to those disappearing. They are valuable on our too quickly eroding main streets. No eReader for me, give me my "dead tree" books. But,

These trees are not dead. They have been repurposed, reinvisioned, and made into storytellers. They transport me to prairies of the West in the 1800s, onto a life boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with members of the Greatest Generation, inspire me to stop buying so much convenience food and start cooking. They may have once provided shade, but now offer escape from boredom, provoke and stimulate the human mind and provide nourishment to the soul. These pages are not dead. They are alive and filled with life and I turn back to them to remember the words. Other than for shelter, one of life's true "needs" I think of no greater end for a tree than to be made into a book. There is something in the human spirit from the beginning of time that draws us to tell stories, and to seek them out. Look at ancient writings on the walls. Pictures told their stories for the ages. We advanced to words and the printing press brought writing, books and information to the masses. Who doesn't love to hear, "I'm going to tell you a story about..."

I think of how often I turn to the books I read for reflection and to inspire my own writing. Take a favorite passage from Paula McLain's The Paris Wife when a woman is devastated her best friend Hadley is marrying the man she secretly loves, Ernest Hemingway. It's very much about how we can drown in our own misery of the present when things are down or not how we hoped they'd turn out, failing to realize the possibilities the future holds,

"Her eyes brimmed with tears. If we had only known that eight years ahead of us, in a Paris we hadn't begun to imagine, John Dos Passos would fall victim to Kate's sparkle. And pursue her with force until she agreed to marry him. That Dos was figure nearly as dashing and important to American letters as Ernest was would have softened the moment ever so much - but we never know what awaits us, good or bad. The future stayed behind its veil as Kate gave me a wan smile and paddled away..."

Leisure time is valuable and hard earned by those who came before us. I hope the beauty of words from books touch your life.

Cate from Liberal Simplicity has been a big reading inspiration. I love that she compiles lists of what she reads as well as what she reads with her daughter, Simone. In her spirit, I'm compiling a list of what I've read this year, and where I obtained them. Many are through thrift, and I love how I find books, but they also find me. My mom, friends and I also share books with one another. I've put asterisks next to my most favorites.

The Paris Wife , Paula McLain. The book club at work was supposed to read this, but never met formally.
The Sweet Life in Paris, David Lebovitz. I just love his blog. I laughed out loud many times during this book.
Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann. A suggestion from Cate, who also recommended John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany, the main character of which will always stay with me. The book's characters live in dark worlds which are hard to enter. It gives you much pause on people's lots in life, and what role they play in their own destinies.
*The Wilder Life, My Adventures into the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie, Wendy McClure. I saw this in the shop of my local bookstore but got it from the library. I am so grateful McClure penned this book about her trips to the Little House sites and more. I don't think I would have started reading the books, which I'm trying to savor.
Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter, Randy Schmidt. I read this because my former neighbor was reading it on the porch. I really like the Carpenters but I'm not that serious a fan, although I did find out about their stunning cover of the Rainbow Connection and some interesting stories behind their hits. "We've Only Just Begun" - a bank jingle to get new couples to open accounts.

Our Thrift Shop, Westwood, NJ:
In the Shadow of Gotham, Stefanie Pintoff, 25 cents. Engaging historical murder mystery set in New York City. I have another of her books from the thrift shop on my "to read" list.
Marrying Mozart, Stephanie Cowell, 25 cents. A great wintry read that makes you want to learn more about classical musical (I'm embarrassingly ignorant on the matter), and drink great wine and eat chocolate.

Shaw's Book Shop, Westwood, NJ: Hardcovers books have a 20 percent discount, so I paid about $20-$25.
Centuries of June, Keith Donohue. A man awakes in the middle of a June night with a hole in his head, but keeps getting interrupted by six women telling stories of American myth and history over the centuries. I tend to be seasonal with my reading, so this is more a summer read, which is when I read it. I did like it but my favorite of his is Angels of Destruction, which I recommend for winter, followed by The Stolen Child. Donohue is a great storyteller of fairy tales for adults. I'll read any book he puts out.
*Unbroken, Laura Hillendbrand. My book club read this because a colleague's young daughter ordered it by accident on her phone, my coworker started reading it and recommended it to the organizer, and we all started reading it. I keep expecting to hear this story of a World War II veteran's saga was fraud since it's so unbelievable, but they do say the truth is stranger than fiction. It saddens me just that much more that any holiday honoring veterans is turned into just another sale day.

CATS Resale Shop, Westwood, NJ
The White, Deborah Larsen, 50 cents. A poetic, short tale about a young girl who lives among the Indians after her family is killed by them.
*These is My Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, Nancy E. Turner, 50 cents. While I found the love story between the main character and Captain Jack Elliot a little over-the-top sickly sweet toward the end, I finished this book wanting to look up Geronimo and some books that she mentioned, and felt truly swept away to the Arizona territories of the 1800s.

Housing Works, New York City:
*Little House in the Big Woods, Laura Ingalls Wilder, 50 cents.
Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder, 50 cents.
Farmer Boy, Laura Ingalls Wilder, 50 cents. Anyone who has read this blog lately knows how much I love these books (grain of historical salt needed)!
Julie and Julia, Julie Powell, $3. Again, I laughed out loud many times during this book and think Powell can be a great writer at times, but there's way too much information about the bedroom escapades of her friends. I wanted to learn more about Julia Child and her cooking experiences, not how her friend always dates guys named "David" and was supposed to keep picking up a couch. She gets defensive about her cursing (sailor's mouth, well, she's not a sailor) that really takes away from the writing. I agree with an reviewer that as a writer it's lazy to use foul language so much, and she goes overboard Republican bashing. But if Powell hadn't written this, we would have never seen Meryl Streep as Julia Child, and as much as Child didn't like her, Powell really did start of the chain of events to get Mastering the Art of French Cooking on the best seller lists again.

Library Book Sales:
*Witch Child, 25 cents and the sequel, *Sorceress, Celia Rees, 50 cents. The story of young Mary starts with an ocean passage to the New World where charges of witchcraft come. Technically "young adult" books, these are well worth a read for all ages.
*The Diary of Mattie Spenser, Sandra Dallas, 25 cents. New bride Mattie's adventures with Luke in the Colorado frontier. I hope to read more from this author. Do you ever finish a book and keep comparing every book after to that one - "but it's not as good as the last one!" My mom and I did this with this book and Raven's End.
The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho, 25 cents. An enchanting fable about a young shepherd boy from Spain in search of riches in Egypt. So different than anything I'd read all year.

*Raven's End, Ben Gadd, purchased from the author and autographed, $30. I found this book after seeing A Life Ascending at the BANFF Film Festival, which features films about mountain and other outdoor culture. I will never look at ravens the same.
*Death and the Dream, J.J. Brown, free, gift from my friend who is also the author. I am not drawn to short stories as a reader, but I loved these haunting stories and finished the book in record time. She reminds me a bit of Neil Gaiman and infuses her stories with science. Her new book, Vector: A Modern Love Story, is on my to-read list. The author is one of those people I feel my life is exponentially better because I know them.

I hope to double my reading list for the new year. I'm not one of those people who can read 3 books in a week and don't think I ever will be. Books can be very all-consuming for me and my spirit needs a rest. I also just don't want to rush through them and can't absorb the content so quickly, and have other interests.

What are the best books you've read this year? Are you in the print book camp? I do think eReaders are good if they help someone read more, but let's try and co-exist peacefully and keep bookstores alive. Above all else, support authors and books. Happy reading.


  1. I am definitely a reader of paper books. I don't have an e-reader, but think they have their place. I can see their use especially if one is traveling and wishing to take several books along. Your mention of "Witch Child" (which I have not read) brings to mind a wonderful juvenile book I've read a couple of times: Wise Child by Monica Furlong. It also has two sequels. Two of my favorite reads this year, both from the library:
    The Forgotten Garden by Kate Merton
    The Sandalwood Tree by Elle Newmark
    These were serendipitous readings that I adored. A friend recommended the Sandalwood Tree, and I had read about the Forgotten Garden elsewhere and it happened to become available at the library just on the heels of my finishing the other one. And so they both came to me in different ways but were remarkably similar in their basic nature. They are both the unfolding of mysteries of different generations and how the characters from the past intertwine and effect the stories main characters. Very different stories, but strangely similar.

  2. I'm a reader of print books by habit. Raven's End was also one of my favorite books this year, borrowed from you Catherine! Thanks for sharing your book list here and for inspiring me to keep writing. I also read Alice Munro short stories and Neil Gaiman short stories for the first time this year, treasures of a sort. The stories prompt reflection, good this time of year. Happy New Year! Many a good book share to come.

  3. Hi Amy. I've never heard of those authors, thanks for sharing them. I love your use of the words, "serendipitous readings." Isn't it interesting how we are fated to read certain books and we carry their stories with us?

    It's curious how adults are drawn to certain young adult/juvenile series like Harry Potter, which I loved, and the Twilight books, which I haven't read, but most of us wouldn't go browsing for books in those sections intentionally. I wonder what other great stories await there.

    Hi Jennifer. How funny you mention Munro. I picked up one of her books when the CATS Resale Shop had a $2 bag of books sale but haven't gotten to it. I hope to get to one you recommended, "Black Elk Speaks," which I also acquired used. I still remember Neil Gaiman's book Coraline when the young girl returns from a harrowing experience and sees the world with new eyes. "The sky had never seemed so sky; the world had never seemed so world." I would certainly recall the Western skies thinking of that line now. And what good advice Bod Owens got in the Graveyard Book, "If you dare nothing, then when the day is over, nothing is all you will have gained." Gaiman's American Gods – another to read. Oh so many stories await! I shall never be bored with a book.

  4. What a great post! I'm a paper book reader as well and keep track of the books I read and get most of them from the library. I give each of them a little "grade." ha!

    I would really need to look over my list, which I think I'll do and create me own blog post!

  5. Thanks and so great, I'd love to see your list. I'm one of those people always curious about what the person on the line for the bus is reading. I love spreading the word about authors and hearing about them.

    Aside from the entertainment value, reading really is also about continuing education for me. I can't wait to see what road books will take me on in 2012.

  6. "Dead tree books," oh my! I have nothing personally against e-readers (actually bought my husband a Nook for Christmas!) but somehow the desire for one has escaped me completely. I can appreciate the convenience of e-readers, but for myself, I love the look and feel of "dead tree books." And though my local library has recently started lending ebooks, the selection of print books is so much wider.

    I also think it's important to remember that while, yes, books use trees, trees can be replanted. And it's much easier to borrow a print book than it is to borrow an ebook. Additionally, e-readers (like other electronics) use metals and minerals that aren't necessarily renewable. So, it's not as though e-readers are the perfect, virtuous choice in comparison to print books.

    I felt the same way about Julie and Julia; it was perfectly entertaining, but even as someone who curses a lot, I thought her overwhelming use of profanity was just lazy.

    And, aw. I'm glad I'm a reading inspiration for you. :-)

  7. Hi Cate. Good point about the non-renewable resources. For me, I have enough foreign-made devices in my life. I also couldn't picture myself under a blanket with my latest read on a gadget scrolling down a screen.

    Change seems to be so fast-sweeping. The death of Borders was bad for publishers, authors and readers, and I think eReaders take some of the blame. There's a community spirit of book stores that isn't the same online.

    I know some writers who say they curse in their personal life, but not in their writing. It just puts so many people off. I said to a writer friend it's worth reading things you don't like too to know the type of writer you want to be (or not be!)

    Thanks again for the inspiration. I spent my first morning of 2012 curled up with a good book. :-) Vector: A Modern Love Story, by J.J. Brown. Happy New Year!

  8. An admirable list Catherine!
    HAve you ever thought of leaving reviews on Amazon?
    I really should start listing what I read...I go thru a lot of books, many work-related (art books)
    I'm toying with finally getting a Kindle - that would help me read somewhere besides on the subway.

  9. Thanks Carol! I just recently started reviewing on Amazon. I'd like to do this more to support up and coming authors. Someone also recommended which I've browsed on but haven't signed up for. I plan on talking about books much more on my blog this year.

    Reading more has so enhanced my life.