Saturday, May 26, 2012

Reading List

When I was a kid, I used to read multiple books at a time, especially during long, dull summer vacations. I kept a book by my bed and at least one more in the living room. One would come with me for lounging under the cherry tree in our backyard, and another might be parked on the kitchen table for solitary breakfasts and lunches. I kept the town library in business, and I'd check out my favorites over and over. When I was about 11, my mother bought me my own set of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books when they were reissued in a paperback boxed set — she was tired of seeing me lug home the same books again and again.

In college, we were usually expected to polish off several hundred pages a week as class assignments, which prevented me from reading for entertainment. During semester breaks, I was often busy finishing term papers; I would request, and receive, extensions of up to several weeks for some ambitious topic in psychology, anthropology or art history. My ridiculously late papers netted me good grades but also a lot less vacation time. But finally I'd have time for something fluffy by Rona Jaffe, Tolkien, or Taylor Caldwell. After all that heavy reading, such novels were like sweet dessert.

After college, I seldom read more than one book at a time. For one thing, I decided I had to pace myself. For example, it was years before I read the complete works of Jane Austen — I'd decided to save a couple of her titles for my old age, in case I ran out of wonderful books to discover by then. Eventually I caved: I have the gift of a terrible memory, so rereading my favorite books is often like discovering them anew.

These days I have plenty of time to read, and I'm dipping in and out of multiple books once again during this long, dull period of unemployment. While I have hundreds crammed onto shelves, tables, and windowsills (and my husband has thousands more), including dozens that I've never read and many more that have vanished from my memory, I find I'm most eager to read the titles I check out from  the Boston Public Library. Whenever I hear someone's enthusiastic recommendation, I reserve the book online; it's often available for pick-up in a couple of days.

Possum enjoyed reading The World of Downton Abbey with me.
Often he curls up between my head and my book, which gets complicated.

I just finished the newest of Donna Leon's "Guido Brunetti" crime stories, Beastly Things, featuring a Venetian police commissioner. While the plots are often topical and the criminals aren't always brought to justice (life is very complicated for Italians), I read them mainly to revisit the canals and beauties of Venice. Leon's stories are filled with details about daily life there (and glorious food) along with Italian political insights, environmental concerns, and mobs of tourists. There are more than two dozen novels in this series and I try to reserve each one as it comes out. But I was #82 in line for this one; it was worth the wait.

I'm slowly reading Betsy Lerner's The Forest for the Trees. As an editor and literary agent — and an elegant writer — she offers guidance to aspiring writers on how and what to write, and describes the publishing process from the inside. I find it eye-opening; I'm continually tempted to write fiction but have no idea how to begin and no desire to join a writers' group or take a class. This book might help.

My husband and I have been toying with the idea of playing our guitars again. We were both skilled enough to perform in our teens and 20s, but neither of us has played much since (and we've never played together). So I checked out Guitar Zero, by Gary Marcus, an unmusical cognitive psychologist who decided to learn his first instrument at 39. He explores the scientific literature about how our brains and fingers learn music differently as children and as adults and applies it to his own experience. The book came due before I finished it, so I've reserved it again. In the meantime, I might get new strings, trim my fingernails, and see what I remember.

I'm not one of those voracious mystery-readers, but I love Lisa Lutz's Spellman Family novels, narrated by Isabel, a prickly 20-something with a dissolute past. She and her precocious kid sister Rae work for their parents, who are private investigators in San Francisco. These two often perpetrate minor criminal activities themselves, and most of the characters have testy relationships with each other, so arguing, negotiation, double-crossing, threats, and retaliation are typical daily family dynamics. The newest "document," Trail of the Spellmans, is on the coffee table, to be devoured immediately after this post.

Last and least, I'm browsing Crazy Sexy Diet, by Kris Carr, a vegan nutrition book. Apparently I am the last person to know about her, since I rarely watch TV or follow Oprah. We eat very little meat but this book is too much. I take much of what she says with a grain of salt (more often a cookie or two). I can't take anyone seriously who refers to cheese and other dairy products as "mucus" and assures me that enemas can be enjoyable. On the other hand, her writing style is so annoyingly perky, playful, and profane that it may have changed my life. Let's hope I'm cured of perkiness and playfulness forever, which would be better than owning a juicer. (Profanity is sometimes necessary.) It's best to skim this one over a tall glass of chocolate milk and a grilled-cheese sandwich.

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