I know. I know. Every December I sign up for a bunch of challenges, and then life happens, and they fall by the wayside. And then it’s December again, and I sign up for another bunch of challenges.
Well, I just can’t help myself.
My 2021 Reading Challenges:
Read Harder 2021: From the folks at Book Riot, this challenge (now in its 7th year) is “designed to help you break out of your reading bubble and expand your worldview through books.” I managed 19/24 tasks in 2020.
2021 Netgalley and Edelweiss Reading Challenge: I joined NetGalley in 2011, so I’ve requested a lot of books over the years. NetGalley recommends a feedback ratio of 80%, and mine is (at the end of 2020) a dismal 6%. I would have to give feedback on over 500 books to hit 80% right now, and that’s obviously not going to happen, but I’d like to get to, say, 10%. So, I’ll be aiming for the Silver level (25 books). Wish me luck.
On May 30th, 1887, Julian West closes himself in his sleeping chamber, a hermetically sealed, asbestos-coated underground vault. He has such difficulty sleeping that even in this dark and quiet space, on occasion, he calls in a hypnotist to put him into a trance, with the expectation that in the morning, his servant will bring him back to full consciousness.
This time, that doesn’t happen. Instead, Julian West is woken up by strangers. They inform him that is now September of 2000, and the world is a very, very different place from the one he knew. All industry is run by the government, which pays every worker conscripted into its industrial army at a set rate. Goods for purchase, too, are standardized, distributed across the country to stores where citizens use a “credit card” instead of cash.
It’s an interesting vision of a possible world, rooted in Bellamy’s own philosophical convictions about “Nationalism” (read: socialism) as the way for society to move forward.
There are plenty of flaws in this “utopian” world, most of which are immediately glaringly obvious to anyone who isn’t an able-bodied white Christian male, but I was struck not only by how different our current 21st-century America is from Bellamy’s construction, but more so by how familiar Julian West’s description of nineteenth-century America is:
By way of attempting to give the reader some general impression of the way people lived together in those days, and especially of the relations of the rich and poor to one another, perhaps I cannot do better than to compare society as it then was to a prodigious coach which the masses of humanity were harnessed to and dragged toilsomely along a very hilly and sandy road. The driver was hunger, and permitted no lagging, though the pace was necessarily very slow. Despite the difficulty of drawing the coach at all along so hard a road, the top was covered with passengers who never got down, even at the steepest ascents These seats on top were very breezy and comfortable. Well up out of the dust, their occupants could enjoy the scenery at their leisure, or critically discuss the merits of the straining team. Naturally such places were in great demand and the competition for them was keen, every one seeking as the first end in life to secure a seat on the coach for himself and to leave it to his child after him. By the rule of the coach a man could leave his seat to whom he wished, but on the other hand there were so many accidents by which it might at any time be wholly lost. For all that they were so easy, the seats were very insecure, and at every sudden jolt of the coach persons were slipping out of them and falling to the ground, where they were instantly compelled to take hold of the rope and help to drag the coach on which they had before ridden so pleasantly. It was naturally regarded as a terrible misfortune to lose one’s seat, and the apprehension that this might happen to them or their friends was a constant cloud upon the happiness of those who rode.
That comes near the beginning of Julian West’s narrative, which is presented as being a book about the past America that the advanced 21st-century industrial army folk have difficulty believing was real. He imagines them asking if his fellows had no compassion and says:
Oh, yes, commiseration was frequently expressed by those who rode for those who had to pull the coach, especially when the vehicle came to a bad place in the road, as it was constantly doing, or to a particularly steep hill. At such times, the desperate straining of the team, their agonized leaping and plunging under the pitiless lashing of hunger, the many who fainted at the rope and were trampled in the mire, made a very distressing spectacle, which often called forth highly creditable displays of feeling on the top of the coach. At such times the passengers would call down encouragingly to the toilers of the rope, exhorting them to patience and holding out hopes of possible compensation in another world for the hardness of their lot, while others contributed to buy salves and liniments for the crippled and injured. […] It must in truth be admitted that the main effect of the spectacle of misery of the toilers at the rope was to enhance the passengers’ sense of the value of their seats upon the coach, and to cause them to hold on to them more desperately than before.
The metaphor is still depressingly applicable these hundred-plus years later.
I read the novel back in September as my Classics Club Lucky Spin. I then went back to read Dr. Cecelia Tichi’s introductory essay, which takes a look at Bellamy’s life and philosophy, and how those are reflected in his writing. (And now I’ve gone and added Dr. Tichi’s Civic Passions: Seven Who Launched Progressive America (and What They Teach Us) to the TBR, because I’m interested in seeing what she has to say about some other figures of the time who got brief mentions in relation to Bellamy.)
I’m almost certain I read the book once before. I took a class on Utopian Thought in college, in 19-mumble-mumble. I really wish I had a copy of the reading list from that class. Not least because there was another book we read that I remember a fragment of, and not knowing what it’s from is really annoying. But all that stuff is long gone, and I don’t even remember what my 22-year-old self thought about this book, if it happened to be on the syllabus. Which is probably for the best, really.
I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s time again to take a peek at the TBR and a few books I’m especially excited about in the next month. Publication dates are as listed in December 2020 and are subject to change.
In 1910, Captain Robert Scott prepared his crew for a trip that no one had ever completed: a journey to the South Pole. He vowed to get there any way he could, even if it meant looking death in the eye. Then, not long before he set out, another intrepid explorer, Roald Amundsen, set his sights on the same goal. Suddenly two teams were vying to be the first to make history—what was to be an expedition had become a perilous race.
In 2018, Captain Louis Rudd readied himself for a similarly grueling task: the first unaided, unsupported solo crossing of treacherous Antarctica. But little did he know that athlete Colin O’Brady was training for the same trek—and he was determined to beat Louis to the finish line. For fans of Michael Tougias’ The Finest Hours, this gripping account of two history-making moments of exploration and competition is perfect for budding scientists, survivalists, and thrill seekers.
Twelve-year old Leah Nevins is NOT a fan of change.
So when her parents start whispering about sending her beloved great-grandpa Zaide to an assisted living facility (hospital jail!), she is very resistant. Zaide’s house, where her family gathers on Saturday afternoons, is the only place where Leah feels like she truly belongs. Sending Zaide away would change everything.
Luckily, Leah remembers a story Zaide once told her about building a golem–a creature from Jewish mythology made out of clay–to protect their family from the Nazis in Poland. So, of course, Leah decides to make a golem of her own to look after Zaide. The directions he gave her were pretty easy to follow, but there is one thing he never told her: what to do when a golem turns against its creator.
For centuries, accomplished women–of all races–have fallen out of the historical records. The same is true for gifted, prolific, women poets of the Harlem Renaissance who are little known, especially as compared to their male counterparts.
In this poetry collection, bestselling author Nikki Grimes uses “The Golden Shovel” poetic method to create wholly original poems based on the works of these groundbreaking women-and to introduce readers to their work.
His name is synonymous with high-stakes wilderness survival stories. Now, author Gary Paulsen portrays a series of life-altering moments from his turbulent childhood as his own original survival story. If not for his summer escape from a shockingly neglectful Chicago upbringing to a North Woods homestead at age five, there never would have been a Hatchet. Without the encouragement of the librarian who handed him his first book at age thirteen, he may never have become a reader. And without his desperate teenage enlistment in the Army, he would not have discovered his true calling as a storyteller.
Mountweazel n. the phenomenon of false entries within dictionaries and works of reference. Often used as a safeguard against copyright infringement.
Peter Winceworth, Victorian lexicographer, is toiling away at the letter ‘S’ for Swansby’s multi-volume Encyclopaedic Dictionary. His disaffection compels him to insert unauthorised fictitious entries into the dictionary in an attempt to assert some sense of individual purpose and artistic freedom.
In the present day, Mallory, a young intern employed by the publisher, is tasked with uncovering these mountweazels before the work is digitised. She also has to contend with threatening phone calls from an anonymous caller. Is the change in the definition of ‘marriage’ really that upsetting? And does the caller really intend for the Swansby’s staff to ‘burn in hell’?
Seventeen-year-old Lily Hu can’t remember exactly when the question took root, but the answer was in full bloom the moment she and Kathleen Miller walked under the flashing neon sign of a lesbian bar called the Telegraph Club.
America in 1954 is not a safe place for two girls to fall in love, especially not in Chinatown. Red-Scare paranoia threatens everyone, including Chinese Americans like Lily. With deportation looming over her father—despite his hard-won citizenship—Lily and Kath risk everything to let their love see the light of day.
The day Fatima forgot her name, Death paid a visit. From hereon in she would be known as Sankofa–a name that meant nothing to anyone but her, the only tie to her family and her past.
Her touch is death, and with a glance a town can fall. And she walks–alone, except for her fox companion–searching for the object that came from the sky and gave itself to her when the meteors fell and when she was yet unchanged; searching for answers.
But is there a greater purpose for Sankofa, now that Death is her constant companion?
Eleven-year-old Rigel Harman loves her life in off-the-grid Alaska. She hunts rabbits, takes correspondence classes through the mail, and plays dominoes with her family in their two-room cabin. She doesn’t mind not having electricity or running water—instead, she’s got tall trees, fresh streams, and endless sky. But then her parents divorce, and Rigel and her sisters have to move with their mom to the Connecticut suburbs to live with a grandmother they’ve never met. Rigel hates it in Connecticut. It’s noisy, and crowded, and there’s no real nature. Her only hope is a secret pact that she made with her father: If she can stick it out in Connecticut for one year, he’ll bring her back home. At first, surviving the year feels impossible. Middle school is nothing like the wilderness, and she doesn’t connect with anyone . . . until she befriends a crow living behind her school. And if this wild creature has made a life for itself in the suburbs, then, just maybe, Rigel can too.
Quinton Peters was the golden boy of the Rosewood low-income housing projects, receiving full scholarship offers to two different Ivy League schools. When he mysteriously goes missing, his little sister, 13-year-old Amari Peters, can’t understand why it’s not a bigger deal. Why isn’t his story all over the news? And why do the police automatically assume he was into something illegal?
Then Amari discovers a ticking briefcase in her brother’s old closet. A briefcase meant for her eyes only. There was far more to Quinton, it seems, than she ever knew. He’s left her a nomination for a summer tryout at the secretive Bureau of Supernatural Affairs. Amari is certain the answer to finding out what happened to him lies somewhere inside, if only she can get her head around the idea of mermaids, dwarves, yetis and magicians all being real things, something she has to instantly confront when she is given a weredragon as a roommate.
In the Garden of Spite by Camilla Bruce (January 19)
They whisper about her in Chicago. Men come to her with their hopes, their dreams–their fortunes. But no one sees them leave. No one sees them at all after they come to call on the Widow of La Porte. The good people of Indiana may have their suspicions, but if those fools knew what she’d given up, what was taken from her, how she’d suffered, surely they’d understand. Belle Gunness learned a long time ago that a woman has to make her own way in this world. That’s all it is. A bloody means to an end. A glorious enterprise meant to raise her from the bleak, colorless drudgery of her childhood to the life she deserves. After all, vermin always survive.
Emma Reed left her finance career in London to open a tea shop in a lovely Cornish village. Things get off to a bad start when her Corgi, Oliver, races into a neighbor’s garden. A neighbor who really loves her garden and really doesn’t like dogs. And who happens to own the building Emma is hoping to rent for her tea shop.
When Emma tries to patch things up with a friendly visit and some fresh-baked scones, she finds her grumpy neighbor dead, the victim of what Oliver says is some very wrong-smelling tea.
Oh, yes, Oliver talks. Only to Emma, though, which makes for some awkward moments around other people.
Emma and Oliver set out to find the murderer and uncover some long-held village secrets along the way.
Sometimes, what you need is a good old-fashioned cozy mystery, complete with idyllic small-town setting, an amateur sleuth, and a talking animal.
It was definitely what I needed, and this book delivered. Oliver, the noble warrior Corgi, and Emma are absolutely charming. The murder victim is the classic cozy victim: someone who, when you ask, “Who would kill this person?”, the answer is along the lines of, “Almost anyone who ever met them, maybe?” Except, of course, the person is more complicated than that.
This is just the start of a new series, and I’m already looking forward to future sleuthing with Emma and Oliver.
E-ARC from NetGalley – thank you to Berkley Publishing Group for making it available!
Reading Women #22: A Book by Either a Favorite or a New-to-You Publisher
“I am not sure what the appropriate gesture is to make toward the family of the woman who bit off your ear, but if you felt absolutely compelled, I certainly wouldn’t take food.”
Grace Cavanaugh to Patricia Campbell, p. 62
It’s the early 90s in South Carolina, and Patricia Campbell is a housewife with two kids in a nice neighborhood. Along with a number of other local ladies, she is a member of a book club that meets monthly. Their husbands think it’s a Bible Study group. Really, they read a lot of true crime. And if there’s one thing those books have taught her, it’s that you probably shouldn’t trust the good-looking man who comes to town in a tinted-window van and ever-shifting accounts of his past. Especially if he claims to have a health condition that means he absolutely can’t go out in the sun, so you only ever see him after nightfall. And really, really especially if children start disappearing.
No one’s going to believe a bunch of book club ladies who say a vampire has moved in down the street. They’re going to have to take care of this themselves.
The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires is a thriller with a core of steel magnolia feminism and 90s nostalgia. It was the perfect Halloween read for me, particularly since I recently finished a re-read of Dracula (by way of the Audible version with Simon Vance, Alan Cumming, and Tim Curry). There was at least one oh-I-see-what-you-did-there moment for me before the Big Reveal.
I used to be a big horror reader as a teen, then became the wimpiest wimp to ever wimp as an adult. Even I couldn’t resist this book, and I’m so glad I didn’t.
Content warnings for racism (both the racism and the classism of the time and place figure in the book, not uncritically), harm to children, harm to animals, and violence of a variety of kinds.
Source: Checked out from my public library – I downloaded a NetGalley copy months ago but didn’t get around to reading it until the book hit the shelves in print.
It is the year 2000-and full employment, material abundance and social harmony can be found everywhere. This is the America to which Julian West, a young Bostonian, awakens after more than a century of sleep. West’s initial sense of wonder, his gradual acceptance of the new order and a new love, and Bellamy’s wonderful prophetic inventions – electric lighting, shopping malls, credit cards, electronic broadcasting – ensured the mass popularity of this 1888 novel. But however rich in fantasy and romance, Looking Backward is a passionate attack on the social ills of nineteenth-century industrialism and a plea for social reform and moral renewal.
I may have read this book in college, when it was still the 1990s, but the year 2000 was coming up fast. I took a class on Utopian Literature, and I’m pretty sure this was on the syllabus. We read some interesting work for that class, and I wish I still had the reading list, but since there’ve been 25 years and a 2,000-mile move between then and now, it’s not surprising that I don’t have it anymore.
If we did read it, I don’t think I remember anything about it. It’s always possible, though, that one of the “I know I read that somewhere” fragments in my brain will be found inside.
The Classics Club have issued their latest challenge for another Classics Club Spin! Did I complete my challenge for the last spin? No, I did not. Am I going to try again? Yes, I am. Am I using the same list as last time except for the book that I was supposed to read for June? Again, yes, I am.
The idea is for members to select 20 books from their list of 50 classics which they have challenged themselves to read within five years, then read the selected book before 30 September 2020.
My Spin list:
Iliad by Homer, translated by Caroline Alexander
Odyssey by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson
Aenid by Virgil, translated by Sarah Ruden
Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, translated by Dorothy Sayers
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft
Tales from Shakespeare by Charles & Mary Lamb
The Swiss Family Robinson by Johnn D. Wyss
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas De Quincey
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Devil’s Pool by George Sand
Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Villette by Charlotte Brontë
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy
The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard
Sadie Donovan struggles with the legacy of her grandmother, the famous essayist Laura Lyons, especially after she’s wrangled her dream job as a curator at the New York Public Library. But the job quickly becomes a nightmare when rare manuscripts, notes, and books for the exhibit Sadie’s running begin disappearing from the library’s famous Berg Collection. Determined to save both the exhibit and her career, the typically risk-adverse Sadie teams up with a private security expert to uncover the culprit. However, things unexpectedly become personal when the investigation leads Sadie to some unwelcome truths about her own family heritage–truths that shed new light on the biggest tragedy in the library’s history.
Sophie seems to have everything—a wonderful daughter, a successful husband and a rewarding career. Yet underneath that perfection lies an explosive secret. She still yearns for Nora—her best friend and first love—despite all the years between them. Keeping her true self hidden hasn’t been easy, but it’s been necessary. So when Sophie finds out that Nora has returned, she hopes Nora’s stay is short. The life she has built depends on it.
But they both find that first love doesn’t fade easily. Memories come to light, passion ignites and old feelings resurface. As the forces of family and intolerance that once tore them apart begin to reemerge, they realize some things may never change—unless they demand it.
Humans from the earliest civilizations were spellbound by the night sky-craning their necks each night, they used the stars to orient themselves in the large, strange world around them. Stargazing is a pursuit that continues to fascinate us: from Copernicus to Carl Sagan, astronomers throughout history have spent their lives trying to answer the biggest questions in the universe. Now, award-winning astronomer Emily Levesque shares the stories of modern-day stargazers, the people willing to adventure across high mountaintops and to some of the most remote corners of the planet, all in the name of science.
From the lonely quiet of midnight stargazing to tall tales of wild bears loose in the observatory, The Last Stargazers is a love letter to astronomy and an affirmation of the crucial role that humans can and must play in the future of scientific discovery.
From its start in 1921 as an Atlantic City tourist draw to its current incarnation as a scholarship competition, the pageant has indexed women’s status during periods of social change―the post-suffrage 1920s, the Eisenhower 1950s, the #MeToo era. This ever-changing institution has been shaped by war, evangelism, the rise of television and reality TV, and, significantly, by contestants who confounded expectations.
Beyond race, class, or other factors, there is a powerful caste system that influences people’s lives and behavior and the nation’s fate. Linking the caste systems of America, India, and Nazi Germany, Wilkerson explores eight pillars that underlie caste systems across civilizations, including divine will, bloodlines, stigma, and more. Using riveting stories about people—including Martin Luther King, Jr., baseball’s Satchel Paige, a single father and his toddler son, Wilkerson herself, and many others—she shows the ways that the insidious undertow of caste is experienced every day. She documents how the Nazis studied the racial systems in America to plan their out-cast of the Jews; she discusses why the cruel logic of caste requires that there be a bottom rung for those in the middle to measure themselves against; she writes about the surprising health costs of caste, in depression and life expectancy, and the effects of this hierarchy on our culture and politics. Finally, she points forward to ways America can move beyond the artificial and destructive separations of human divisions, toward hope in our common humanity.
Sixth-graders Sara and Elizabeth could not be more different. Sara is at a new school that is huge and completely unlike the small Islamic school she used to attend. Elizabeth has her own problems: her British mum has been struggling with depression. The girls meet in an after-school South Asian cooking class, which Elizabeth takes because her mom has stopped cooking, and which Sara, who hates to cook, is forced to attend because her mother is the teacher. The girls form a shaky alliance that gradually deepens, and they make plans to create the most amazing, mouth-watering cross-cultural dish together and win a spot on a local food show. They make good cooking partners … but can they learn to trust each other enough to become true friends?
Nestled in the historic waterfront town of Beaufort, North Carolina, Chapters Bed-and-Breakfast is a reader’s paradise. Built in 1770, the newly renovated inn hosts a roster of special events celebrating books, genres, and authors. It’s the perfect literary retreat–until a rare book dealer turns up dead in the carriage house during a celebration of Golden Age mystery author Josephine Tey.
The victim’s daughter points the finger at forty-two-year-old widow and former schoolteacher Charlotte Reed, who inherited the B&B from her great-aunt Isabella. Charlotte is shocked to discover that the book dealer suspected Isabella of being a thief who founded Chapters on her ill-gotten gains. Charlotte has successfully learned the B&B business in a year, but nothing has prepared her to handle a death on the premises.
In 1968, Bruce Tucker, a black man, went into Virginia’s top research hospital with a head injury, only to have his heart taken out of his body and put into the chest of a white businessman. Now, in The Organ Thieves, Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist Chip Jones exposes the horrifying inequality surrounding Tucker’s death and how he was used as a human guinea pig without his family’s permission or knowledge. The circumstances surrounding his death reflect the long legacy of mistreating African Americans that began more than a century before with cadaver harvesting and worse. It culminated in efforts to win the heart transplant race in the late 1960s.
Nnamdi’s father was a good chief of police, perhaps the best Kalaria had ever had. He was determined to root out the criminals that had invaded the town. But then he was murdered, and most people believed the Chief of Chiefs, most powerful of the criminals, was responsible. Nnamdi has vowed to avenge his father, but he wonders what a twelve-year-old boy can do. Until a mysterious nighttime meeting, the gift of a magical object that enables super powers, and a charge to use those powers for good changes his life forever. How can he fulfill his mission? How will he learn to control his newfound powers?
For decades the suburbs have been where art happens despite: despite the conformity, the emptiness, the sameness. Time and again, the story is one of gems formed under pressure and that resentment of the suburbs is the key ingredient for creative transcendence. But what if, contrary to that, the suburb has actually been an incubator for distinctly American art, as positively and as surely as in any other cultural hothouse? Mixing personal experience, cultural reportage, and history while rejecting clichés and pieties and these essays stretch across the country in an effort to show that this uniquely American milieu deserves another look.
Annie has come to understand the erratic ways of the insane — the crying fits, incoherent babblings, violent flinging of hands and feet. There is, after days and weeks and years, a kind of comforting rhythm to them. But no, she is not one of them. Of that she is certain.
In 1916, Annie Hebbley leaves Morninggate Asylum to join her friend Violet as a nurse on HMHS Britannic. She is uncertain of herself, her memories of her life before the asylum hazy. One thing she does know is that four years earlier, she and Violet worked together on another ship, the RMS Titanic. As the Britannic begins its voyage, Annie begins to remember exactly what happened aboard its doomed sister ship. There was something very wrong, something haunting the Titanic from the moment it set sail.
The Deep is a dual narrative, alternating between 1916 and 1912. It primarily follows Annie, but the perspective shifts among a few other characters as events unfold. Those events are mysterious and creepy, with a constant sensation of something lurking just out of sight, something terrible. The reader already knows what is about to happen to the ship, adding to the pressure while the time ticks away to April 14th.
Katsu fits her characters among some of the famous figures aboard the ship: Annie’s friend Violet is real-life survivor of both the Titanic and the Britannic disasters Violet Jessop. Period details melded with supernatural aspects create a gripping, atmospheric read.
I’ve seen this tagged as a horror novel, but it feels more like a historical mystery. A paranormal mystery centered on one of the most famous shipwrecks in the world.
Source: Started reading as an e-ARC from NetGalley, then checked the finished book out of the library.