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Category: reading

20 Books of Summer

It’s June 1 and time for Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, one that I never manage to finish but enjoy putting together and working on. Despite giving up all reading challenges, and despite having read far fewer books at this point in the year than usual, I’m making a list.

I consulted my list from last year’s challenge, which I failed dismally, but one of the nice things about this challenge is Cathy’s emphasis that it doesn’t matter how you do it or whether you succeed, just have fun with it. I did manage to read 10 of the 20 from last year, but as Barb remarked, it was an ambitious list, and it turned out to be too ambitious. But here we go again. I’m picking a bunch of books that are half-finished (or less), some of which I’ll probably have to start over because it’s been so long; different books by authors whose books I didn’t finish last summer; and entirely new books.

Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett. I read half of this a couple of summers ago and loved it but somehow didn’t manage to finish this and am not really sure why.

Street of Thieves by Mathias Énard. I failed to read Compass last year, so I’m picking a shorter, less demanding book of his from the TBR.

In the Night of Time by Antonio Muñoz Molina. Yep, this was on the list last year. Let’s give it another go.

Occupied City by David Peace. A different Peace book than last year. This is #2 in his series of postwar Tokyo crime novels. I read the first one and thought it was brilliant (like all his books) and this has been staring at me from the bookshelf. I picked GB84 last year and failed to read it, but I can’t face that one this summer.

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Reading Notes: Genre edition

I read a bunch of books! I’m not sure how I managed that, since I’ve been grading and DUS-ing. But I discovered I’d finished three books in about a week: two mysteries and a romance/WF.

First up was The Janus Stone, the second installment in the Ruth Galloway series by Elly Griffiths. Ruth and Nelson go to Norwich, where bones have been discovered in the foundation of a large Victorian house that was most recently a children’s home. The property is now being turned into tiny but luxurious and expensive flats. The novel is set shortly after the previous one, and Ruth is experiencing the joys of first-trimester pregnancy, complete with morning sickness. Her born-again Christian parents are very upset that she is pregnant and refuses to name the father. At first she can hide her pregnancy but as the story progresses and time elapses that becomes more difficult.

I had mixed feelings about the pregnancy storyline at the end of the last book, but it is a good way of keeping Ruth and Nelson connected without turning them into an insta-couple. Nelson loves his wife and has no intention of breaking up his family, and Ruth doesn’t want him to. Nelson’s wife Michelle is an appealing character, and I’m not sure how this triangle is going to be resolved (by which I mean, Michelle is going to have to know at some point and what’s that going to do to their marriage and family?) but so far Griffiths has written it in a way that earns my trust.

As for the mystery itself, the bones turn out to be that of a child from decades ago rather than centuries. Are they those of the little girl who vanished from the home, or are they someone else’s? The story widens to include the former priest and nuns who ran the home, the past owners of the house, and others. Cathbad returns, and Ruth is in jeopardy once again. I didn’t see many of the twists although by the end the villain was fairly obvious. It took a while, though. And the Norfolk countryside was as well portrayed as before.

Next up was Death in Devon, the second installment of Ian Sansom’s County Guides mysteries. These are only nominally mysteries and mostly about Morley, Sefton, Miriam, and the people they encounter as they travel around England for Morley’s project. I found Miriam just as annoying as in the first book and unfortunately she’s around more, but Morley is definitely growing on me. The story is set at a minor public boys’ school in Devon, where Morley’s old friend is headmaster and has asked him to come and give a keynote address. A smashed car is found on the beach below the cliffs and solving this mystery (suicide or not) leads them to other weird happenings. There are plenty of characters and at times there is an air of real menace. And there are caves.

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Reading Notes

I know, I can’t believe it either. It’s not a virus post! But as we talked about last post, the days are merging into weeks and I’m managing to read a bit, so let’s talk about that for a change.

I finished The Fellowship of the Ring, which I enjoyed immensely even though I kept seeing the movie actors instead of my own imagined characters. This was fine in some cases (Viggo as Aragorn, Ian McKellen as Gandalf) and not so fine in others (I’ve had enough Sean Astin as Sam to last me several trilogies, and ditto for Elijah Wood as Frodo). But that’s a small complaint. Finally I get to see why TheH always remembers and references Tom Bombadil and I can join him in lamenting Tom’s absence from the films. So far, I find the film’s changes to the books to be not horrible and even understandable, and I’m usually a curmudgeon when it comes to adaptations. Overall I prefer the book characters to the movie characters; they’re less pretty, more complex, and in the case of Merry and Pippin, less ditzy-annoying. But I can understand the changes and they’re not nearly as bad as they could have been.

fellowship 2011 cover

I’ve also been struck by the extent to which the film tracks with the books scenes and language. There are so many verbatim sections of dialogue and Jackson and his team did an amazing job of recreating some of the physical settings. New Zealand feels (and is) much bigger than Tolkien’s world, but it’s like looking at New England mountains and valleys and then the Rockies; they’re different in scale but somehow still part of the same continent.

But what about the book, you’re probably asking? What about my actual read of the actual novel? It was great. Just what I needed. In fact, it was so much more satisfying than I expected it to be. Maybe that’s why it’s a classic and beloved by millions? Heh. But yeah, I was totally swept up into it. I really appreciated that even in this, the more adult story (compared to The Hobbit), the violence is present but the worst bits are played down or fully off-page. It makes me realize how much of the films were devoted to grisly scenes, which when you read the source material you can see were pretty unnecessary from a storytelling point of view. Tolkien’s approach is a reminder that graphic and explicit aren’t necessary to communicate emotional and intellectual material.

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LFH: I’m losing count of the days

I’ve been neglecting my blog lately, and don’t ask me how many days it’s been since we went into isolation. 40? Something like that. We landed in STL on March 13th, came straight home and the great sequestering began. So that was 41 days ago. Tomorrow will complete six weeks. It feels much longer in some ways and shorter in others. Mostly longer, though.

Yesterday I taught my last two Zoom sessions. It was bittersweet. I’ll miss my students and I’ll miss the structure that teaching twice a week provided, but I won’t miss the exhaustion, stress dreams, and wakefulness in the middle of the night. I read that everyone is sleeping badly now and having bizarre dreams when they do sleep. There are reasons for this, but no remedies. But last night we both slept reasonably well, and I’m sure it’s because we aren’t mentally preparing for the next onslaught of Zoom sessions. The cognitive drain of Zoom is so much greater than face-to-face teaching, or any other kind of meeting, really.

On the happy side of Zoom, though, I had my first two Zoom Happy Hours. One was a replacement for our semi-annual conference dinners (one of the conferences would have taken place this past weekend) and the other was a Blast From the Past get-together with regular drinking buddies from my NYC days (only one of us still lives there now). It was terrific to catch up, even though in both cases the conversations had their depressing phases. Higher education institutions are not in good places now and things are only going to get worse. And we (the Zoom Happy Hour people) are the lucky ones. We’ll still have our jobs in four months.

My university furloughed 1300 people this week, mostly from the medical side, but the Arts & Sciences furloughs are coming. Budgets are being reworked. And so on. There is just so much uncertainty. It seems highly likely that we’ll be teaching at least part of the fall semester online, but no announcements have been made. The possibilities include starting online and finishing face to face, starting the semester later, and probably other options I haven’t heard about.

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LFH: Days 22-28

Another work week, another set of fires to put out. But I think they are mostly quashed and just smoldering at this point. It’s better to have something to do than the reverse, though. The College fielded a survey of the undergraduates and it reinforced my anecdata that they like having synchronous classes to show up to. It structures their days and gives them a little bit of near-normalcy. Unfortunately, most of their professors seem to have landed on the same approach to moving online, which is to give them more written work. And we thought we were being so original!

I went into Canvas, a course organization platform I do not like at all but which is now my most visited site, and checked to see if any of my students had disappeared. But all of them are at least checking the material, so that was a relief. Not everyone is “engaging” at the same rate, but I don’t think anyone is so far behind they can’t catch up. I’ll know better in a couple of days after I go through all of the students’ materials one by one and see where they are. I should have done this a week ago but my “spare” work time was taken up with all the other admin. Now that is mostly wrapped up and I can put some extra time into course maintenance.

I decreased the effort level needed for the final assignment of the class. Usually the students do a group project followed by a short paper. The group project went out the window as soon as we were back from break, and I replaced that and the short paper with a research paper or take-home exam. But after seeing the results of the survey and hearing anecdotally from my students that they were feeling overburdened by the overall changes to their classes, I revised yet again. They can write shorter papers with less research (plenty of thinking but not as much digging for material) or there is a second option where they have to write short reviews and reflections on each of the assigned readings. They had to do some of the latter anyway, so this involves doing it for all of the readings, not just some. I also left the take-home exam option because some students want that.

I wish there was more I could do. I want them to come out of the class knowing the material and having expertise in the subjects, but the usual assessment techniques seem unhelpful in this environment. I know they’re showing up because I can see what they’re doing. Some of my students have family members with the virus. Some have underlying conditions which put them in the risk category. Some are in hotspots and can’t go out and don’t have congenial workspaces at home. Some are cooped up with a bunch of family members. And yet they are there, reading the material and doing the worksheets and coming to the Zoom classes.

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