My Out of Control Reading Life

Remember how I posted last time about Warren Buffet reading 500 pages a day and that switching off from social media and devoting that time to reading would allow the average person to read 200 books a year?  Well, I seem to have taken these concepts and morphed my reading habits into something kinda chaotic – I’m thinking this is NOT how Warren Buffet would apply his time!

Firstly, I should say I haven’t switched off social media completely and I never intended to go that far.  But I have made a point of turning to reading at times when I might otherwise waste half an hour scrolling Facebook or Litsy (about which my next post will focus).  Now I give myself 20 minutes in the morning to briefly scan the news, get my fix of Trump-mania (scary and yet unbelievable all rolled into one, a car crash I can’t turn away from) and scan for any interesting book reviews etc.  I give myself another half hour in the evening pretty mush solely devoted to Litsy and that’s about it.  I can tell I’ve cut down a lot because my phone is never on Low Battery mode anymore – with the exception of days I’ve done a lot of listening to audiobooks, like yesterday.  And because I’ve had very few days of work recently (emergency teaching is very inconsistent) there’s been a lot of middle of the day book reading.

This is a good thing (except the lack of work isn’t great for the wallet), but I have somehow managed to have FIVE books on the go at once.  This is most unlike me, is completely unintentional and I’m finding it difficult to get my head around it all.  So how did this happen?  I usually only have two in-progress books at once – one audiobook and one physical book or e-book.  And I do have those two.  But then I started reading all sorts of books about writing.  These are usually ones I dip in and out of, but the current one is really appealing to me so I’ve pretty much read it cover to almost cover.  I do a chapter each morning and then some of the writing exercises.  With the three books I was fine, it worked well.  But then I went to the library and saw a YA book I half read last year and was loving, until I left the school and had to return it unfinished.  So naturally I borrowed it and then inexplicably started it again that very afternoon.  Making it book number 4.  And then I got a text from the library saying the hold I have been waiting months for was finally in, but it’s a short borrowing period only book and I can’t renew it.  I also found myself in the doctor’s waiting room just after I’d picked it up so I just had to start it.  And there you have it, five books and my brain is swimming.

Let’s hope I can get a least a couple of these finished soon so I can relax again – reading is not supposed to be this complicated I’m sure.

What I’m Currently Reading:

Audiobook: Heartbreak Hotel by Deborah Moggach
E-Book: The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch (also for Bookclub)
Writing Book: Leaving a Trace: The Art of Transforming Life into Stories by Alexandra Johnson
Others: The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness
Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

So readers, tell me about your reading habits.  Are you a one at a time reader or do you find the multi-book approach works for you?  And most importantly, what are you reading now?

Barbara

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Stealing the Moment

As I was scrolling through Facebook last night I came across an article posted by The Book Club (ABC).  The heading was simple – Warren Buffet reads 500 pages a day AND if you spent as long reading as the average person does on social media you could read 200 books a year!  So I clicked and read and then pondered.  I’m a pretty average person, no Warren Buffet, but hey if I read 500 pages a day maybe I could be.

The pondering from this article was centred on two fundemental elements.  Firstly, why do I spend so much time on social media?  What’s the point?  I should say here that I think I might actually be a bit below average, but it’s still a lot of wasted time and on days where I’m not working it can really be a lot!  According to the article the average person (American I’m assuming) spends over 600 hours a year on social media.  You only need a little over 400 to read those 200 books.  For me, I really only use Facebook.  I’ve toyed with Twitter but find it overwhelming and frighteningly abusive at times so generally speaking I steer clear.  I’ve also had a poke around Instagram but find it often vacuous and materialistic so again it’s not for me.  Facebook is good for keeping up with friends and family I don’t hear from often and following blogs, news sites and so on, but on the other hand, it’s full of advertising, fake news and click bait.  It’s probably time I detoxed from that too.  My new weakness is Litsy.  I love Litsy!  It’s an app/social media site for book lovers to share bookish things.  It’s almost entirely positive, no trolling and full of open-minded, intelligent readers.  But sometimes I find myself spending so much time reading reviews and looking a gorgeous ‘shelfies’ that I forget to actually read.

The other big issue with my use of social media is that I often do it while trying to pay attention to something else.  Mostly, the something else is not my kids or other people  but a TV show or an audiobook.  Sitting down to watch a TV show is one of the few things Mr Good and I do together these days.  It’s only a couple of times a week and we’re pretty selective about what we watch.  It might be the latest series of House of Cards (so good!) or Sense8 (how could Netflix cancel this one?) or finally getting to season 1 of Fargo.  There’s a lot of interesting, really well made TV around right now.  But inevitably I find myself reaching for my iphone during a slow bit, scrolling through Facebook or Litsy and the BAM! I’ve missed the vital detail.  It happens all the time.  Why do I do it?

The second path my pondering took was why I would WANT to spend time in that world of social media (Litsy excluded).  Just this week there has been a sh*tstorm over Carrie Bickmore’s timing for the launch of her Beanies for Brain Cancer drive and another over the, granted incredibly insensitive and thoughtless, comments Mia Freedman made in a podcast introduction for an interview with Roxane Gay.  The comments section on any article written about these two women were horrendous.  And this happens ALL THE TIME.  There’s been much written about the way individuals, and especially women, are treated on social media and on why other individuals feel that they have the right to abuse and attack people who have stuck their heads above the parapet for a second which I won’t go into here, I’m no expert after all.  Needless to say though, social media can be a hotbed of horribleness.  I wouldn’t choose to associate with people who spoke such vile things, why would I want to spend time with them online?

I’ve also seen how destructive social media is for kids and not only because it is a minefield of bullying, shaming and humiliation, but also because they are so distracted by it that it’s stealing their moments too.  As an emergency teacher, getting kids to put their phones or ipads away and get on with their work, or listen to instructions or show respect for the fellow classmates is what I do ALL day.  It’s the first thing I say to a class (“Put your devices away and look this way please”), it’s what I repeat ad nauseum during every class.  It got to the point that I was so concerned about use of device in class that I started doing a bit of reading up.  And the research isn’t good.  In one study, in the US, two classes in the same school were compared.  In one class students were allowed to have their phones with them but were only supposed to use them for academic purposes and with permission (but of course this is rarely what happens).  The other class had their devices removed at the start of all classes.  By the end of the year the results showed a significantly higher GPA  for those without devices.  Now this study is not perfect and the results are not definitive – other factors could have been at play – but the results are supported by other research.  It frightens me that social media could be stealing the opportunities and potential for some students.  It also makes me remember, with fondness, the start of my teaching career, where there was no such thing as internet connected phones.  I didn’t not appreciate that time enough!  In the past I have championed the use of technology in the classroom and I have worked in one to one ipad programs with some success, but I do wonder and worry about the overall cost to schools and teenagers especially, of this constant connection to the internet and thus social media.

And so with all this in mind I’m going to attempt to withdraw myself from the field in some ways.  Firstly, I’m going to pick up a book instead of my phone when I want to kill some time (I do this reasonably frequently already), I’m going to put my phone in another room in the evenings so I don’t get distracted by it when watching something with Mr Good and I’m not going to use my phone at all in front of the kids.  I’d like to show them that you can be just as ‘connected’ in life without an iphone in your hand and hope that it rubs off just a little on them as they get older.  I’m going to try to take back the moments that I lose, distracted in a world I don’t even like.  And perhaps I’ll read 200 books in a year?

I’ll keep you posted.

Barbara.

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Book Review – The Muse by Jessie Burton

The Muse by Jessie Burton is the second novel by this young Australian author and going by my opinion of both, I’ll be sure to pick up whatever she writes next.  Over the last couple of years I have become increasingly addicted to listening to audiobooks and that’s how I consumed this particular story.  I got through the entire novel in one drive from Eden in NSW to Ballarat in Victoria, that’s seven hours plus stops!  The girls and I had left Mr Good at home to work and taken out regular summer holiday without him, instead enjoying the company of my brother, sister-in-law and their two children.  It was a fabulous holiday but I was dreading the solo drive home.  Seven hours, no change in driver, two kids in the back.  In reality I had nothing to fear.  The girls slept, listened to music or audiobooks of their own and ate lots of snacks.  They were brilliant and as a result I got to dive down into The Muse and not come up again until it was done – fabulous!

I think if I were to look back over the books that I most enjoy, I would find a lot of them have either a non-linear structure or alternating perspectives.  I’m drawn to these styles.  The Must fits into the latter category.  Half of the story takes place in London in the 1960s following the life of Odelle Bastien, a recent immigrant from Trinidad who finds a job as a typist in a gallery working under the mysterious and glamorous, Marjorie Quick.  Marjorie immediately sees potential in Odelle and a relationship that goes beyond the offices unfolds for them both.

The other half of the story is set in Spain in the late 1930s, where the prominent-in-the-art-world Schloss family have just moved.  Against the backdrop of civil unrest and imminent war, the Schloss’ embark on a journey of discovery and recovery, fostering the artistic ambitions of a young local man, but ignorant of the talent within their own family, in daughter Olive Schloss.  This part of the story is full of danger, complicated relationships, deceit and betrayal.

Tying the two time periods, characters and plots together is the art, art as it’s being created and then later art is it is valued and appreciated in the decades since.  The stories mingle and overlap in a complicated web, leaving the reader never quite sure of the facts and how they might, eventually, all piece together.

Burton’s writing is clever, clear and precise.  Her characters feel well loved and well worn, like friendly neighbours.  Despite the distant (for me) settings, they are familiar, and I found myself drawn to the inner workings of the minds of Odelle and Olive’equally.  There was no weaker link in this two-perspective tale, I enjoyed my time in each location and with each set of characters, which is telling of the strength of Burton’s writing.

I think if you are particularly interested in the world of art, this is a must read.  And tales from the world of art seems to be my theme this year, having just finished The Stray’s and about the start the Museum of Modern Love.  What other arty recommendations do you suggest, Readers?

Til next time,

Barbara.

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Book Review – Life after Life & A God in Ruins

Each Christmas The Wine and Ugg Book Society (aka my book club) gather for a suitably bookish festive season celebration.  This involves lots of good food, an ample supply of wine (or cocktails!) and, of course, a book swap.  The idea is that you select a book that you think others will like, wrap it up and then on the night they all go into the middle of the table.  We randomly select a book from the table (or steal from someone else if they’ve opened something you can’t wait to get you hands on).  It’s a lot of fun and we get a new book to add to the collection, often one we might not have picked up otherwise.

It was through this book swap that happened across Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life and subsequently, the companion novel A God in Ruins.  And I’m looking forward to making my way through her entire collection.  She is a spectacularly good writer and offers one of those reading journeys that leaves you somewhat breathless and certainly not wanting to leave the world she has created.  These are two pretty long novels and yet I still wanted more – that rarely happens to me!

The premise of Life after Life is this: Ursula Todd is born one blisteringly cold night in the middle of a blizzard.  The doctor can’t get through, the newborn dies.  Except that she doesn’t, or rather she dies many times over in many different ways.  With each new version of Ursula’s life previous mistakes are righted and sometimes new ones are made, for Ursula is important and history will not see her written off before her eventual fate is met.

Atkinson’s plot structure is unique and innovative, she plays with time and history and weaves a coherent narrative into this meandering maze of a plot.  What at first seems to make no sense, very quickly becomes clear and easy to follow.  Character relationships, are slowly built up, each return to the past adding layers of depth and complexity to both Ursula and those she is surrounded by.

Much of the novel is set against the backdrop of WWII and the bombing of London, but this is no war book of the common variety and even those averse to reading war stories are encouraged to pick this one up.  The story plays with themes like gender roles, degrees of personal responsibility, morality and intimacy.

It’s companion novel, A God in Ruins, focuses not on Ursula, but her most beloved brother Teddy.  He is a bomber pilot in the WWII, flying daringly over Germany, dropping bombs and then turning tail and heading home, repeatedly.  Bomber pilots have among the worst survival rates of the entire fighting forces of the war and Teddy doesn’t expect to live…. and yet he does.  Learning to live with himself and in this unexpectedly long life is a challenge Teddy struggles with at every point, from marriage, to children and grandchildren.  Nothing quite turns out as expected.

Again Atkinson brings her lyrical prose and unique form and structure to A God in Ruins.  She is both darkly comic and bleak in the her characters and plot.  I found myself in tears several times, especially with regard to Teddy’s horribly neglected grandson.  Thankfully the story is also incredibly compassionate and redeeming.

I really can’t put adequately into words how much I enjoyed these two novels, how swept up in the grandness of the plot(s) I became or how fondly I took the characters into my heart (Ursula’s Aunt is someone I wish I really knew instead of just in my own head).  I would love to hear your thoughts on these, if you’ve read them, or another novel that has truly transported you to another time and place.

Til next time,

Barbara.

 

 

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Podcast: S – Town

Some time either last year or the year before I began dabbling in the world of podcasts.  As with many online phenomenon, I was a little overwhelmed at first and it took me until recently to really start exploring all that there was on offer.  What prompted my initial exploration of podcasting was reading a review on the first season of Serial.  This was a 12 part audio documentary of a murder case in which there guilt of the accused (currently serving a long sentence for the crime) was questionable.  It was incredibly compelling and I found myself listening to episode after episode as I cooked dinner, did house work or gardened.  It was fabulous, so good that you’d have thought I would be a total podcast convert.  But I wasn’t.  By the time I finished this series, season two had been released.  Two episodes in and I just wasn’t feeling it, didn’t care about the case being investigated and I never ended up finished the series.  And so ended my adventure with podcasts.

Then, last year I found Litsy, an online app for book lovers which is possibly the most brilliant online space there is (it’s so good I’ll devote a whole post on it soon) and yet again podcasts came up.  I asked for some recommendations and BAM, I was hooked.  I had found podcasts on books, history, science, current events, politics, culture and fictionalized worlds.  And most recently, S-Town, which is made by the same guys as Serial and also This American Life (another great podcast).  S-Town is a seven part series which I have binged over the last two days, it is absolutely incredible story-telling and it left me reeling, lying on the rug in the fetal position kind of reeling.

The Premise: John B. wrote to a journalist at This American Life asking him to investigate some strange goings-on in his small, Alabama town, a possible murder and police cover-up and corruption.  However, a couple of episodes in the story takes a dramatic and unforeseen turn and instead of uncovering a murderer, it becomes a journey of discovering center on John B. himself.  Nothing is quite as it seems and, in literary fiction terms, the story is full of unreliable narrators (maybe life itself, is just a series of unreliable narrators).

S-Town is tragic and I found it terribly, terribly sad.  It’s, in some ways, easy to forget that these are real people, living real lives and not fictional characters filling the pages of a remarkable novel.  But it’s also impossible to separate that from the story and that’s what made it so sad.  John B., his mannerisms, speech and personality could easily come straight from the imaginings of some brilliant Mark Twain-esq writer, and he propels the story forward with the same frenetic pace with which he talks – which is why I binged it in two sittings.  The story twists and turns its way to the end and all who inhabit it are changed in the listeners minds by the conclusion. But like most real-life stories, the ending is unsettling, there is so much left unresolved and possibly unsaid, I found it abrupt, I wanted more.

Every year I have a goal of reading more books than the last, an easy target this year given all the extra time I have.  If I’m not reading or listening to audiobooks I feel like I’m wasting some sort of opportunity I have to rack up another stat on my Goodreads account.  I’ve come to realise, however, that there are many ways to get a story out there and so many of them are legitimate and worthy of my time.  So while I could have listened to or read an entire novel in the time it took me to get through S-Town, I’m so glad I didn’t.

If you haven’t checked it out already – and I know so many podcast-listeners have been all over this – I really, REALLY recommend S-Town.  I don’t think you will regret the time invested.

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Anne with an ‘e’ – Netflix

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As it turns out there are some very brave TV producers out there.  I come to this conclusion knowing that the very, VERY committed Anne of Green Gables fan see Megan Fellows and the 1980s Anne series as the absolute pinnacle of Anne greatness, a feat never to be bettered…. and yet, recently, some tried.  Netflix released the first season of its new take on the L. M. Montgomery classic, Anne with an ‘e’.  As one of those committed fans of both the original novels and the 1980s series (which, it turns out, is not the first screen adaptation) I was apprehensive, to say the least knowing, that my favourite story was being retold.

I put those fears aside and dived into episode one last Friday night.  My initial thought was, “No, it’s all wrong.  That’s not Anne, not Matthew, not Marilla and definitely not Gilbert.”  But I continued watching…. and I’m so glad I did.  If you’re a purest you’ll probably hate this, however if you’re willing to accept that this is a re-imagining of the story, with creative license taken with some of the back stories and a few other modifications as well as a heavy dose of reality, then you might just fall in love with this Anne as you did with Megan Fellows.

The most obvious difference between the story as we knew it and this one is the darkness, the new version does not shy away from the harshness of life as an orphan.  The emotions Anne feels about the rejection she experiences from Marilla, in particular, on discovering the boy they expected turned out to be a girl and again when she is accused of being a thief and threatened with return to ‘that Blewitt woman’ are heavy hitting.  The church picnic is no friendly matter either and being accepted at school proves an almighty challenge.  I always felt that Anne’s orphan-hood was glorified or glossed over in a rather unrealistic way (not that I minded, the story being just so charming as it was), this series rectifies that.  However, this has been a major sticking point for some fans who disliked the bleakness and darkness of the new series.

The casting in this latest version is wonderful.  Amybeth McNulty plays Anne and she is just as L. M. Montgomery described – red of hair, skinny of limb, and homely, as Rachel put it).  She’s also a spectacularly good actor as such a young age, adapting to the darker plot elements but also bringing Anne’s enthusiasm for life, flighty attitude to domestic tasks and the never-ceasing talk.  Marilla (played by Geraldine James) and Matthew (played by R. H. Thomson) are also extremely good in their parts and showing a flawed humanity (Marilla especially) that was, at times, omitted in previous adaptations.  Writer, Moira Walley-Beckett of Breaking Bad fame, fleshes out the back story of these two characters and I felt that this really added depth and understanding to their characters.

Finally, even if you don’t appreciate the changes made in this series, you may appreciate the cinematography, which is stunningly beautiful.  The sets are greatly pared back, Matthew and Marilla’s house being sparsely furnished, and the outdoor scenes are shot in grand, sweeping motions that truly encapsulates the sometimes pensive, sometimes whimsical elements of the both the story and the landscape – this is especially true of the winter scenes.

So having watched episode one I immediately started on the second and then the third, finishing all 7 by the end of the weekend.  I really did find myself loving Avonlea and all her crazy characters in a whole new way and I am so glad that this is being introduced to a new, younger audience.  There’s some classic Anne lines in here as well.  Had anyone else watched it?  What are your feelings?  Or are you decidedly in the camp of “not-going-there”?

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Book Review – A Man Called Ove

It’s been a very long time since I wrote my last book review, but rest assured that’s not because I haven’t been reading.  In fact my reading pace has kicked up a gear or two thanks to my introduction to audio books (just to be clear, I’m firmly in the camp that says audio books are not cheating, they’re just another way to get in more great stories).  In light of this, I found it somewhat difficult to decide which book to review first.  Looking through my list for just this year, I opted to start at the beginning, my January Book Club pick (called, by the way, The Wine and Ugg Boot Society, because we’re all class), A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman.

Backman is a Swedish writer and this charming novel has all the hallmarks of that quirky Scandy style.  The story follows, unsurprisingly, a man called Ove and his attempts to kill himself – yes I did say it was charming.  His attempts, of which there are many and of various forms, are repeatedly interrupted by his incompetent neighbours and their incessant need for someone else, as in Ove, to do something for them.  I should say, at this point, that Ove is a truly grumpy old man, on the surface at least.  Think Mr Wilson from Dennis the Menace or the Jack Nicholson character in As Good As it Gets.

There’s two things that hold this novel together for me, making a fun, light-hearted and, as I said, charming story.  First is the characters.  Obviously Ove is the main one, but the secondary characters are fantastically well established also.  Backman has given each a fullness that secondary characters often lack, and the way they weave in and out of the storyline and eventually come together gives the plot a richness and depth that it greatly needed.

The second aspect I appreciated was the structure.  I’m a non-linear kind of gal and this book ticked that box.  The opening scenes begin in the present, but as you progress through there are flashbacks and jumps forward.  The reader is never quite given all the information up front, you have to work for it, adding pieces to the puzzle as you go.  This allows the reader to predict and then predict again what, for instance, might have brought this cantankerous old man to hit a clown in a hospital.  I like the interactive-ness of the style, the gradual metering out of the information so that you really only see the full picture right at the end.  And then the ending that asks you, begs you, as the reader, to imagine the next bit.

Now, given that I had no real criticisms of this book I took it upon myself to scour Goodreads for the one and two star reviews – of which were only a few.  There seemed to be a couple of main gripes for those who disliked this book, all of which I can understand.  Firstly, the cat.  It’s possible (in my opinion) one of the best literary cats ever written, but Ove does treat it abominably and the fact that it keeps returning, jumps in Ove’s car and even accompanies him to the shop is possibly an unlikely action for a stray cat.  I can forgive that, others not so much.  Secondly, Jimmy, one of Ove’s neighbours is fat and Ove (or Backman perhaps) continually refers to this fact.  I think I agree with critics on this one, the point is hammered a little too heavily.  Finally, some couldn’t warm to Ove himself (which to like this book you really have to) and considered any growth in the character or any acts of heroism to be forced on Ove by others.  While this may in part be true, I don’t think it tells the full picture.  I loved Ove, I could see a few people I know in Ove.

A Man Called Ove was an ideal light, summer read for me and I think it would be equally good now that the cold weather has hit the southern hemisphere and it’s time to cosy on up to that heater, cup of tea in hand and a good book to bask in.  This could be just the thing.

Any other Ove fans out there (real or ficitional)?  Leave me a comment and let me know what you think.

Barbara.

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