2015 reading roundup

2015 reading roundup

2014 reading roundup

2013 reading roundup

I started this year with two pretty lofty reading goals: 1) to read 100 books, and 2) to simultaneously complete a reading challenge. I eventually dropped out of the reading challenge, but I did pretty spectacularly well on the 100 books part. This was the third year in a row that I set myself that goal, but the first year I reached it. In 2014 I read 89 books and in 2013 I read 85, but this year I read 112!

For the long, long list of what I finished, didn’t finish, and also the cookbooks I drooled over, click the read more link below.

Continue reading


Two-book review: A couple of farming memoirs to skip


I started reading Acres and Pains by S. J. Perelman this morning after breakfast.

Yay! I thought, another funny city-person-buys-a-farm-and-hilarity-ensues memoir! And so short, too. I can finish before dinner!

Fifty-some pages later though I had given up on it. The writing style (non-stop high-octane early 20th-century hyperbole) is grating after the first few chapters. The joke about giving his wife a shiner was hard to get past. But when he put the same battered spouse in blackface? I was done.

I was reminded of another poor excuse for a funny farm memoir that disappointed me: The Egg and I.


This one was fatally riddled with unchecked hatred for Native peoples.

Skip these both. There are dozens of actually funny, inoffensive books out there in this particular line of memoir. A tiny selection that I have read and enjoyed:

The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball

Growing a Farmer: How I Learned to Live Off the Land by Kurt Timmermeister

Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter

Hit by a Farm: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Barn by Catherine Friend

Made from Scratch: Discovering the Pleasures of a Handmade Life by Jenna Woginrich

— Amanda


Is this just one of those weird ‘me’ things or do all readers do this?

Margin notes – mostly definitions – in my 1955 edition of Lolita.

Margin notes – mostly definitions – in my 1955 edition of Lolita.

The average person knows 20,000 – 35,000 words in their native language. (I took the test at TestYourVocab and got an estimate of 32,800.) Given that ginormous number it seems amazing to me that I can clearly remember where and when I learned some of these words.

When I started reading “hard” stuff, in middle school, (chiefly the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and departing from a habit of just reading whatever my fantasy-obsessed best friend threw at me), I began using a full-size sheet of paper, folded in half, (hamburger-style, as we said in school) as my bookmark. Every time I encountered a word I wasn’t 100% certain I could define I jotted it down and looked it up later. (In a paper dictionary, Jesus I’m old!) Sadly, I didn’t keep any of these pages. I continued to use this kind of bookmark right up until a few months ago when I started using a combination of a paperclip (so that I don’t reread a whole page before coming back to the actual spot where I’ve left off) and, for note-taking, a library hold slip. (I have an envelope an inch these with these slips of thermal-printer paper, cut to perfect bookmark size, and have finally taken to pulling them out of my hold books and sticking them in the recycling bin before I leave the library so that I don’t eventually suffocate in them in my tiny house.) I still jot down the words I am unsure of or have never encountered before – but now I look them up online and post the definitions on my Tumblr. (Check out the “vocabulary” tag.) I tag the posts with the name of the book I found the word in, too.

But there are some words that, for some reason, I clearly remember encountering for the first time. Curiously, I learned none of these memorable words in school. And I didn’t even get them all from books. Here are a few I have been able to verify (there were two I was sure I had read in such-and-such a place that were shockingly absent when I went to check on them!):

Immolate: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. I learned a lot of words from this book. I can hear you laughing but no, they weren’t smutty. In fact there’s nary a smutty word in this contentious tome. Most of what I had to look up in this book I looked up in my French dictionary. I read this way too young but at least I was also learning French at the time, so while the theme may have blown past me for a good twenty years, at least I comprehended the copious French words and phrases.

Charwoman: “The Naval Treaty” (a Sherlock Holmes story) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Not a word I have ever used in speech or writing prior to this moment, so I have no idea why it stuck so firmly in my head.

Screed: Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. What a handy word! What a great word! This is probably my favorite new vocabulary addition of my adult life. The best word I have learned since diatribe. I like it so much I made it a category on this blog.

Grandeur: Star Wars Episode V:The Empire Strikes Back. Ah, Han Solo. Though I am, and always will be a die-hard Trekkie (didja see what I did there?), Star Wars will always have a special place in my heart thanks to Han Solo. Mostly because of his butt. Can any of us use this word in a non-architectural sense without using the complete phrase “delusions of grandeur”? No. Thank you, Han.

Moot: Rage. This was a werewolf-themed card-based RPG à la Magic, that the aforementioned fantasy-obsessed best friend played. I had to play it with her because, like me, she had no other friends. I was not interested in A) werewolves, B) card games, C) roleplaying, so it was a labor of love. She was just as irritated by my questions about the meaning of the word “moot” every time we played. “I don’t know what it means. It doesn’t matter – those cards aren’t worth any points anyway. Just play.”

And the best of all, the most memorable vocabulary-building moment of my life:

Blow job: It by Stephen King. I remember this so clearly. We were visiting my second-oldest brother at the first house where he and his wife lived, an adorable (but tiny) little cottage he later sold to my third-oldest brother. I was sitting on the couch in the living room with the window behind me and I had raided the cute little arch-topped built-in bookcase so that I didn’t have to engage on conversation with adults. (Ugh. But still a solid strategy I use to this day, at age 35.) I had selected It because the aforementioned only-friend didn’t have great supervision and we had watched the movie recently. (I never have managed to watch it again – and I consider myself a horror movie connoisseur.) My mom walked by as I was reading and I asked her – with the utter casualness of someone who is 100% innocent of the meaning of their own words – “Hey, Mom. What does ‘blow job’ mean?” She was startled, and understandably wanted to know what the hell I was reading. I told her, and she rolled her eyes. To her credit, she didn’t take the book away from me until I explained (already keenly aware of the importance of context) that a bum had just offered one of those to some little boys for a dime. And given that context, I was much more shocked to learn the word’s meaning that I would have been if I had been reading, say, Tropic of Cancer.

Is this one of those weird things I’m alone in, or do any of you have strong memories of learning words?

— Amanda

P.S. For the record, the two I couldn’t verify were: scrim, which I was just sure I got from an Annie Dillard book, and gimlet (in the sense of ‘gimlet eye’, not as in ‘pointy little awl’), which I thought for certain I had picked up from a Sherlock Holmes story.

Book review: Little, Big by John Crowley

little big

I read this when I was still participating in the 2015 Popsugar Reading Challenge.

I found this book exceptionally hard to follow. Circuitous, convoluted sentences, laden with purple words wend in and out of metaphors that get dragged on for page-long paragraphs. I was perpetually confused as to whether or not what I had read was metaphor or simile or real action or someone’s dream. I felt less like I was reading and more like I was analyzing a highly layered but poorly stratified core sample from an unknown source, and without a microscope.

In high contrast to the incomprehensible nature of most of the “action” and relationships were the embarrassing and obvious tropes in the latter half: the oversexed Latina, POC described as food-colored, the manic pixie girl who teaches the young man to live by leaving him.

Had this book not perfectly fit the requirements of the reading challenge I was doing I would never have read past the first part.

— Amanda

Reading challenges: Yay or nay?

I’m on the fence. On Tuesday I gave up on one of the two reading challenges I was doing. For one challenge, the Goodreads yearly reading challenge that lets you set your own goal and read whatever you want to achieve it, I set myself the goal of 100 books. Despite never having broken the mid to high 80s before (89 in 2014 and 85 in 2013) I seem to be well on my way to smashing my goal this year.

My progress towards my goal of 100 books as of 08/25/15.

My progress towards my goal of 100 books as of 08/25/15.

I was also doing the Popsugar 2015 Reading Challenge, in which you read 52 books that conform to set criteria, such as “A book your mom loves,” or “A book you were supposed to read in school.” For a while I enjoyed the, well, challenge, of it, but as I got closer to the end of the list I enjoyed it less and less until it became a giant drag. In the last few weeks I have found myself groaning more and more while reading books for this challenge. It began to feel like homework. Or, in the case of some books, punishment.

I can't figure out why that says April when I took this screenshot on Tuesday just before leaving the group.

I can’t figure out why that says April 27 when I took this screenshot on Tuesday just before leaving the group.

Though there may be someone out there judging me, there isn’t anyone grading me and there’s no consequences to my quitting this challenge. So I did.

I have challenged myself to read 100 books a year since 2013 but it’s only since joining Goodreads that I have had such success. I know I haven’t actually met my goal yet but it’s late August now and I’ve read as many books as I normally would have by Late October. Barring an accident or illness that results in the loss of both my sight and hearing (I love me a good audiobook) I am confident that I am going to meet my goal this year.

I know many of you are thinking “But what about the books you enjoyed that you otherwise wouldn’t have read?” To be honest, I only read one book for the Popsugar challenge that wasn’t already on my TBR list. Some books were pretty far down the list and got promoted to the top, but with the exception of that one book of Christmas stories I didn’t read anything for the Popsugar challenge that I wouldn’t have gotten around to eventually anyway. So, yes, I’m glad that I finally tried Louis de Bernières’ bizarre Latin American trilogy and that I fi-hi-hi-nally read some Toni Morrison, but I really and truly would have read them eventually. Rather than read books I wouldn’t otherwise have read I read what I was going to read anyway and shoehorned them into whatever categories remained open when my library holds arrived.

By the time I left the group the challenge had started to feel like a bad job. I didn’t want to check in. I didn’t want to do my work. I wanted to do pretty much anything else. Now that I’ve quit I can read whatever the hell I want! I can enjoy reading again!

But I want to know what all of you think. What experiences have you had in the past with reading challenges? Were they motivating or drudgery? What books did you discover and love? What books did you despise?

— Amanda

(Very short) Book Review: All The Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld

Image from Goodreads

Nothing in the back cover blurbs or the synopsis inside the front gave me any indication that this book was going to be gritty and harsh. It’s beautifully told, though without a single unnecessary word, and yet very dark. There was a momentum that was more than just suspenseful which compelled me to drag the book around the house with me to read while I cooked and waited for websites to load because I simply couldn’t stay away from the story even though I feared it would turn on me at any moment.

I don’t think I could handle re-reading this book but I’d do some despicable things to be able to write like this!

— Amanda

[NOTE: This review originally appeared on Goodreads.com. Click through image to view the book’s page on Goodreads.]

Book review: Down a Dark Hall by Lois Duncan

The new cover (L) and the cover I remember from 1993 (R).

The new cover (L) and the cover I remember from 1993 (R).

Here and there, when I have the courage, I have been rereading books I loved when I was a kid.  I reread The Secret Garden (which I might actually love even more now than when I was 8), The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (still great), and Haunted (which was worth the effort to track down). I still have a small to-be-read list. But I also reread Down a Dark Hall, which I checked out from the middle school library about a dozen times in my early teens.

I wasn’t sure whether or not to expect this book to be spooky, since I didn’t remember being at all frightened by it when I first read it in the 6th grade. (Honestly, all I remembered was the headmistress’s “dreamy” son, Jules.) On second reading, more than 20 years later, it is not spooky at all. (Nor is it terribly engaging. All the characters are pretty two-dimensional.)

But I was terribly distracted by the “modernizations.” When my copy came from the library the back warned of “modernized text” and I wondered what that could possibly mean. This book was originally published in 1974. Though that was a little before my time, we spoke modern English then, I’ve heard.

The “modernizations” are revised descriptions of clothing (the bellbottoms I distinctly remember Jules wearing when I was in the 6th grade are now “fitted jeans”) and repetitive mentions of widescreen TVs, cell phones, and internet. Perhaps it would not seem so to a first time reader, but to me these additions seemed to be shoehorned in just as ineffectively as the CGI extras that were inserted into the original Star Wars movies.

My teenaged nieces can navigate Dickens, Hemingway, and Salinger without difficulty, but the publisher thinks they’ll balk at the lack of technology in the 1970s?

— Amanda