Saturday, February 27, 2010

Do I read too much?

The other night I attended a wonderful presentation at my favorite bookstore, Read Between the Lynes about books ideal for book group discussions. Part of the presentation was some giveaways, and for one of them the person who had read the most books year to date in 2010 would receive the prize; I won the giveaway because I said that I had read 15 books so far this year, and some people were shocked that I had read so many.
When I got home I looked at my 2010-reads list I set up on Goodreads, and found out that actually I have read 21 books so far.
I feel almost embarassed about this now. I know that I read more than most people, but not as much as some. I'm making a more conscious effort to read for quality over quantity, and I feel that most of the books I've read so far this year have been thought-provoking and caused me to slow down and appreciate them. Yet I have so many books on my to-read piles and on my to-read list that if I don't read as much as I do (at my lunch-break at work, in the evening instead of watching tv most nights), I will never get through them all in this lifetime.

Does anyone else feel self-conscious about their reading output?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Caught up with Olympic fever

I have been waving the Canadian flag this last week cheering on the homeland's Olympic curling and hockey teams, and if I was creative enough to tie in that with reading I would have posted earlier (though if reading was in the Olympics we'd all be medal contenders, no?)
I just finished reading The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters last night, a novel about an apparently haunted house. I don't usually go in for stories like this, and I wasn't really impressed with Waters' novel The Night Watch, but I had heard good things about it, especially biblioaddict's review, so when I saw the book on the shelf in the library I picked it up. It was a pretty creepy story with a fair amount of suspense, and at the end the direct cause of all the happenings is not explicitly stated, which I think makes things even creepier because once I closed the book I continued to think about the possibilities and had some very weird dreams once I went to sleep.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Home to Harlem

Welcome to today's stop in the Harlem Renaissance Circuit!

Home To Harlem (Northeastern Library of Black Literature)

Home to Harlem by Claude McKay, originally published in 1928, was the first novel written by an African-American to become a best-seller. That is a somewhat (pleasant) surprise, not because of the quality of the book, but because of the fact that for it to have become a best-seller I’m sure a fair number of white people would have had to buy it.

The novel does not have a plot to speak of, but its central character is Jake, a man just returning from Europe after serving in World War I. Upset that he wasn’t able to see real “action”, he deserted his unit, travelled through France and up to England where he found work and settled into the East End of London. However once the Armistice ended the war and life returned to some semblance of normal, Jake became homesick for Harlem and headed back:

“Take me home to Harlem, Mister Ship! Take me home to the brown gals waiting for the brown boys that done show their mettle over there. Take me home Mister Ship.”

Once back in Harlem, Jake heads to a bar and meets a cabaret singer, who disappears after their one-night stand. Other lovers come and go, but throughout the book Jake is constantly searching for his “heart-breaking brown of the Baltimore”.

McKay’s description of Harlem is not pretty, perhaps offensive, but it is realistic. Men and women drink too much, fall in with the wrong sorts of people, spend money frivolously, fight – but they seem to be happy. They are where they feel comfortable. It was a shock to see words that I view with an extremely negative connotation being thrown about almost as terms of endearment, but thinking about it a bit more I wonder if this combined with the classification of fellow blacks by their shade of blackness is a feeling of inferiority that has been rooted in their minds after so many years of oppression.

Reading this novel over eighty years after its publication, I received a glimpse into a society unfamiliar to me. This was a novel definitely outside of my comfort zone, and perhaps that was McKay's aim: to make readers uncomfortable with a depiction of how life really was for black people in urban America during that period.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Avid readers who follow book websites, blogs, and other sources have no doubt heard about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. I heard about it on Books on the Nightstand's weekly podcast and immediately put it on hold at my local library; within a few days of the book's release I was able to pick it up and dive right in.

Ladies and gentlemen, this book is worth all of the buzz it is receiving and then some.

Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman living in the Baltimore area in the late 1940s. She was married and had five children; after the birth of her fifth child she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. At the hospital (Johns Hopkins, at that time one of the few hospitals in the area who would treat "colored" patients), her cancerous tumor was removed and the cells sent to a laboratory at the hospital.

Unfortunately, Henrietta's cancer rapidly spread throughout her body and she died in 1951. However the cells taken from her tumor grew in culture in the lab, becoming the first human cells to do so. These cells - known as HeLa - are still alive today and have been instrumental in many medical advances (the polio vaccine, for example) and in other scientific research.
Henrietta's family, however, knew nothing about their mother's contributions to science, and while biochemical companies and medical researchers were achieving fame and fortune thanks to the HeLa cells, Henrietta's husband, children, and grandchildren were struggling to afford medical insurance.

The injustice of this story is apparent, but it is not the focus of the book. We get to know the Lacks family - especially her daughter Deborah and son Zakariyya, the youngest of Henrietta's children who were very young when she died. What struck me most about the family is that after the anger and desire to sue those involved had subsided (I don't know that it would ever go away) they are simply proud of what their mother has contributed and want her to receive the recognition they feel she deserves.

I can't do justice to this book in a blog post. It is a story that will make you angry, sad, yet encouraged by the spirit of this family.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Reading Week in Review

Newsflash -- I only bought ONE book this week - Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. This book is about the historic 2008 U.S. Presidential Election race - the first in which I was eliglible to vote as a new American citizen - and I've heard good things about it. I'm trying to become more politically aware and informed and I think this book will provide interesting insights into the way politics and politicians operate.

I only finished two books this week: Home to Harlem by Claude McKay (I will be posting about this on Friday February 12 as part of the Harlem Renaissance Classics Circuit), and The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman for an upcoming book group discussion.

This week I have to turn on the reading jets as I have to finish The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde for my classics book group discussion the following week and I also must start two books by Georgette Heyer that I am reading for the Classics Circuit in March. I also have one book I picked up from the library today that I am dying to read as it is an astonishing subject and it is receiving all kinds of buzz - The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot; if it is as good as everyone says it is you will be hearing more about this book in this space!

Happy reading everyone.

Monday, February 1, 2010

On re-reading

I have so many books on my to-read pile and on my list of what I want to read that I do not normally go back and re-read anything, however one of my book groups will be seeing the movie version of The Lovely Bones this week and then discussing the book afterwards. I read this book several years ago – possibly when it first came out – and I remember liking it, but since it has been a while a thought I’d re-read it so that I can better compare the two versions and intelligently participate in our discussion.

I was blown away.

Of course the story told in this novel is wonderful, but the writing! How could I have forgotten how beautiful it is? This time around, I became involved in the story, to the point of literally not putting it down all day until the last page, and just felt for most of the characters in a way that I don’t remember feeling the last time I read it.

So I began to wonder why I had such a change in perception. I suppose that because I am older now with young nieces and nephews I was more affected by this particular story and how I want to keep them as safe as possible; I have to think that certain books would have different meanings to people depending on what stage of life they are in when they read them. Also, I believe that I read this time around with more focus, paying attention to what was happening rather than quickly reading it to get on to the next book; I did read it fairly quickly this time, too, but I seemed to get so much more out of it because I was thinking about what I read as I was reading it.

It would be so interesting to re-visit some other books I’ve read in the past to see how I feel about them now, but alas, there are just not enough hours in the day.

Have you re-read any books that you enjoyed the second time around? Have there been any re-reads you disliked?