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the agony and ecstasy of a reading life
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1. Marginalia in the Digital Age

Something every reader has an opinion about is marginalia. Do you dare mark up the printed page? And what about when you buy a previously owned book, must it look as though it was never read or do you love to buy books that have been well loved?

I came across an article at Fast Company today A Kindle Designer’s Touching Online Memorial to The Marginalia Scribbled in Books. The article talks about Eric Scmitt who helped design the graphic interface for the first Kindle. He is a collector of marginalia which seems like a fun thing to collect. To my horror, however, he doesn’t save the book entire, but slices out the marked up pages he wants to keep with an X-Acto knife. WTF? I’m still a bit faint and trying really hard to not hyperventilate over that bit. Maybe I’m wrong, but isn’t part of marginalia the whole book package you find it in? Doesn’t taking it out of the context of that particular book risk losing the charm and pleasure of it?

The “touching memorial” ends up being a website Schmitt started in order to share his marginalia finds. The Pages Project is an interesting idea and Schmitt invites page submissions. The design of the website is at first look kind of cool but not reader friendly in my opinion. In fact, I think some of the continuing faintness I feel is because of the website making me dizzy.

Schmitt does realize the irony in his helping create a device that is chipping away at the existence of the marginalia he loves. He does worry about how digital “marginalia” will be preserved because at this point there is no real way to save it without actively taking steps to do so. Who among us is going to take the time to do that? I know I won’t. That makes me a little sad because I love opening books I read a long time ago and marked up. I love rereading them and adding to the commentary or previous years. But with the ebooks I have read? Not going to happen unless I manage to preserve that same exact ebook and the notes file across ereaders as the years go by. And even if I manage such a thing, whose to say that in 20 years the files will still be readable because of changes in technology and formatting? It’d be like trying to retrieve a file you saved on a floppy disk in 1989. Good luck!

I am not the best or most active marginalia writer. I find some books easier to mark up than others. Some books require it. I marked up Ulysses like crazy when I read it and would not have been able to get through it otherwise. Other books invite me to make comments. Proust is one of those as well as Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen. Other books I fear would scream if I should ever touch a pencil to the page. For Some Reason Margaret Atwood falls here which is weird because I am sure she would encourage scribbling with abandon.

Marginalia isn’t dead yet. As long as there are print books there will be people who write in them. But it is certainly an activity that is becoming less common. If it ever does disappear, would you miss it?

Filed under: Books, Reading

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2. Seed Catalogs Already

It isn’t even really winter yet and I received my first 2015 seed catalog in the mail. I’m used to getting a flood of seed catalogs around the end of December so this one took me by surprise. I normally would set it aside as the first in a pile not to be looked at until January, but it came from Pinetree Garden Seeds, one of my preferred places to order from. And it looked so colorful and inviting, so fat and full or potential that I decided to just take a little peek.

Half an hour and twenty breathless pages later when I came up for air after falling into raptures over cosmic purple and atomic red carrots, I reluctantly put the catalog aside for fear of an overdose. And I do feel like I have been drugged because it has been a couple of days and I can’t stop thinking about those carrots or the catalog. Just one vegetable, I tell myself, what if I only look at all the different kinds of cauliflower and then put the catalog aside, surely I can do that? And next thing I know I am deep into all the varieties of eggplant with only a vague recollection of how I got there.

And then I get an email from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, my other main seed squeeze, telling me their 2015 catalog is now available, click here to request it now. But wait! There is a second catalog they have, The Whole Seed Catalog. This catalog is not free. This catalog is the free catalog on steroids MiracleGro super compost tea. At 352 pages it is nearly twice as big as the free catalog.

But why should I pay for a catalog? Why indeed. Don’t be ridiculous I tell myself, just request the free one. But. But But. Articles about the history of various seeds. Recipes. Growing methods and tips. And more. You know those cartoons where there is a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other and a fight ensues? Today the devil won and I bought the catalog.

I’m still a little stunned. The devil is grinning from ear-to-ear and the angel is grumbling about how it better be worth it and I’m jittery and wondering how long it will take to get here because the Pinetree Seeds catalog might not last long enough and what will I do if I can’t get another fix? Bookman just shakes his head and doesn’t want to be bothered with gardening stuff until spring when I tell him, these are peas, plant them there. I don’t think he realizes the danger of his hands off approach. This last spring he ended up digging me a small pond. The spring before that it was the herb spiral. It’s only the end of November so there is no telling what big garden project I will settle on by next spring.

I think it is going to be a long winter.

Filed under: gardening

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3. Add Another Book To the Pile

As if my reading life weren’t busy enough right now, I’ve just added three more books to the pile. It’s gotten so bad I should really quit blogging altogether until after the holidays and dedicate myself full-time to doing nothing but reading. As lovely as this sounds, I am sure my boss would not agree and after a week I would likely start to get a bit restless and long for something to break up the reading.

Even knowing that over a month of doing nothing but read would sour, I still can’t help but imagine that it would be wonderful. But what would be wonderful is all that time in which I could decide to read or not, when and for how long. Because isn’t that really what we dream of? Not so much doing nothing but read all day but the luxury of being able to make that choice. Like today. I was reading Emma at lunch and I was enjoying myself so much, I was comfortable and happy and wanted to keep reading. I had to return to work though. So what I want when I imagine a month of nothing but reading is to be able to say, I will stay here and keep reading Emma and I’ll go back to work when I feel like it. Instead of fitting reading around everything else, I want to be able to fit everything else around reading. If only.

But back to those three books I just added to my pile. Two are library books that I jumped into the hold queue for a month or more ago and I didn’t expect either of them until at least mid-December. But here they are. Women In Clothes is an “exploration of the questions we ask ourselves while getting getting dressed every day.” Edited by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, Leanne Shapton and Mary Mann, it includes photos and interviews and stories and essays long and short and who knows what other sorts of surprises await in the pages?

I have a love/hate relationship with clothes. I like clothes that are just a little different in some way, quirky. At least that’s how I like to imagine my “style” if I had a style. But because I hate shopping for clothes a large portion of my closet is filled with items I did not buy for myself but others bought for me as presents. I am pretty decent at sewing my own clothing but it is so much work and fabric is so expensive that it is just easier and more cost effective to buy a dress off the clearance rack at Target or accept whatever my mother gifts me with at Christmas. But there is a discount fabric store that recently opened near me and I am in the process of setting up my sewing machine and locating all my long unused supplies in order to make myself some fun skirts and dresses. All that explanation to justify why I would be interested in a book on women’s clothing and fashion, as if I need a reason. But I feel like I do because part of why I hate shopping for clothes is this feeling that it is frivolous (and yes I have seen the movie of The Devil Wears Prada and would absolutely love some of those outfits in my closet but I cringe over spending $50 for a pair of jeans so designer clothes are not going to happen).

Well, did I ever go far afield there. Now that you know all about my fashion sense, or lack there of, the other book from the library is F by Daniel Kehlmann. I’ve seen a few blog posts about this one that left me intrigued especially since what the “F” stands for is never actually explicitly revealed. It seems the reader is left to make her own decision about that. It is the story of a man named Arthur who abandons his family in the middle of the night and eventually becomes a famous author. Part of the novel is also what his abandonment does to his sons.

The third book just added to my pile is a review copy of a book being published in January called Dirty Chick by Antonia Murphy. It Murphy’s story of how she and her husband, both urban dwellers, decide to move to New Zealand and become farmers in order to provide a slower, safer place for their five-year-old son who was diagnosed with a developmental delay. Neither Murphy nor her husband knew a thing about farming but they figured it couldn’t possibly be all that hard. They find out otherwise, of course. I hope it will be something fun and light to read so I can forget about the cold and snow for awhile.

Now fingers crossed that I get a respite of at least a few weeks before any additional books I have hold requests on come round to me!

Filed under: Books, New Acquisitions

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4. In the Middle

The trouble with finishing so many books in October is that November has so far been a month of starting new books and being, it seems, forever in the middle but not quite at the end. What’s a person to do? No reviews to write at the moment. Shall I talk a little about what I am in the middle of and how I am enjoying it? Sure! Let’s!

I’ll begin with Jane Austen’s Emma. I am reading the book on my Kobo, a free download from Project Gutenberg. Six years ago I reread Pride and Prejudice for something like the fourth time. I’ve read all of Austen’s novels at least once but it had been such a long time that after the pleasure of P&P I decided I would reread one Austen a year until I made my way through all of them. Emma is the last. It has never been my favorite book, pretty much always ranked for me as number 5. I was kind of not looking forward to rereading it. Emma annoys me and so does Mr. Knightly. I expected I would be cringing. A lot.

But I haven’t. I’ve been enjoying the book. A good deal of that pleasure is because I just finished Being Wrong and Emma is such a perfect example of error, not only in Emma herself, but in many of the other characters too, that it has almost been funny. Also, I never remembered Mr. Woodhouse being such a hypochondriac along with a few others. They are not funny. They make me feel ever so sorry for Emma and the others who have to put up with them. I fear that I would not be so kind. I would crack so fast I’d be the scandal of the neighborhood for screaming obscenities at the top of my lungs and smashing Mr. Woodhouse’s evening bowl of gruel against the wall. I just got past the part where Mr. Elton had the nerve to propose to Emma. Horrors all around!

Emma is my daily commute and lunch break book. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is my before bed book. I’m about halfway and really liking it. The writing is solid, the characters believable, and the premise for the end of civilization all too real. In case you don’t know, there was a very contagious and deadly flu outbreak that killed about 90% of the world’s population. The book moves easily between pre-outbreak and twenty years later. Something that really caught me up last night as I was reading, one of the characters who was eight when the epidemic began walked into an old abandoned house looking for supplies and flipped the light switch, knowing nothing would happen but also hoping something would. Oh how we take electricity for granted! That moment in the book gave me chills.

My on the weekend and when I can fit them in books are many. I’m about a third of the way into A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride. I am really loving this book! It is a book that demands full attention while reading it and because of the style cannot be read quickly. But I am glad. I want to pay attention. I don’t want to read fast. It is a book that is all kinds of disturbing.

Also disturbing but in a different way is Unspeakable Things by Laurie Penny. Irreverent and unabashedly in-you-face feminist it has me alternately laughing, crying, and pissed off. I haven’t felt so charged up about feminism since my early twenties when I was young and idealistic and thought the wave was going wash patriarchy down the drain once and for all. Well that never happened and it suddenly amazes me how, even though I have never been afraid to call myself a feminist, I have, over the years, become almost resigned to the way things are. Penny is getting me all fired up and paying attention again which also means for the last week or so since I started this book I have been regularly getting pissed off about things I hear in the news and things I have heard male students say to female students in the library where I work. Getting angry about so many things is distressing but wow, does it ever feel good too.

In addition I am pecking away at Proust’s Guermantes Way and Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. Proust is amazing and I am hoping that soon I will find more time to dedicate to it. Grossman, not sure what to make of it yet. I don’t not like it but I’m not really liking it either. I’m sitting on the fence waiting for something to happen that will tip me over one way or the other.

And of course there are many books waiting in the wings from Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North to Women in Clothes and Margaret Atwood’s short stories and Murakami’s latest. I feel so rich!

Filed under: Books, In Progress

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5. Because

Because it is Monday. Because it was 7F (-14C) as I walked out my door to the bus stop this morning. Because my dentist told me I have to have two old silver fillings replaced and also need a crown. Because I got one more library book from my hold queue today and I am pretty sure I won’t be able to finish the three I already have that I can’t renew. Because Thanksgiving is next week and not this week and I thought it was this week and was so excited about only having to work three days and then getting a four-day holiday weekend and pumpkin pie. Because why not?

Because Margaret Atwood cracks me up: How to survive a zombie apocalypse according to Margaret Atwood.

Because libraries are awesome when you are a kid and continue to be awesome when you are grown up too: 7 things only kids who practically grew up in a library can understand

Because librarians are awesome too: What book should you read next? Putting librarians and algorithms to the test.

Because Emma looking like a Victorian lady is hilarious: Jane Austen fashion history.

Because pizza soup, mushroom sandwiches, and tomato soup cake: The dishes 16 writers would bring to a literary potluck.

Because just because.

Filed under: Books, Links

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6. Me and My Kobo

Have you all been wondering how my Kobo and I have been getting along? It’s okay if you haven’t but I’m about to tell you anyway.

Kobo Touch is so much smaller than the two keyboard Kindles I managed to kill. As a consequence it is also lighter. I didn’t think it would matter that much but my bag feels weirdly light these days and when I leave for work in the morning it kind of freaks me out because I think I am forgetting something. I worried that not having a real keyboard would hinder me in taking any kind of notes, but you know what? I don’t really do much in the way of notetaking to begin with so it hasn’t been an issue. The highlighting, that’s where it is at.

Since it is a touch screen all I have to do is put my finger on the screen and slowly drag it across the passage I want to highlight. When I lift up my finger, Kobo asks me if I want to highlight the passage or write a note. I tap highlight and it highlights. I tap note and I get a text box and a touch keyboard. Easy. Because Kobo Touch is eink the dragging my finger to highlight is a bit slow. I also find highlighting with my finger to be imprecise. This is not Kobo’s fault, this is also the case with any other touch screen I’ve used including my iPad. I find I tend to have extra words at the end of my highlighted passages but that’s ok. I’ve not yet tried to access my highlighted passages so I don’t know how easy that will be, but so far so good.

Turning pages is pretty easy. The screen is divided into thirds. The left and right third of the screen is for turning pages. A finger swipe to the left to turn the page forward. A swipe to the right to turn the page back. I’m still getting the hang of just the right pressure and speed. Sometimes I swipe too fast and nothing happens. Sometimes, I don’t know how, I manage to turn several pages at a time. Turning more than one page at a time happened so often at first that I somehow convinced myself that the right side of the screen was for paging forward and the left side for paging back. It took me a week to figure out this wasn’t the case.

A tap on the middle third of the screen pulls up the main menu. The menu screen is a lot different that Kindle. Kindle just listed my books in my choice of a few different orders. If I wanted anything else, I had to press the menu button and then a popup menu would appear from which I could select search, settings, etc, etc. Kobo has all this stuff on one menu screen in tiny blocks of various sizes that I find hard to read and confusing. But since I don’t spend much time on this screen, it is just an annoyance I have to put up with when switching books.

It might be my imagination, but Kobo has more graduated font sizes and a wider selection of fonts than Kindle did. I like that. Because of the confusing menu it took me a bit to figure out how to change my font and its size, but it is all good now.

An awesomely awesome thing about Kobo is that is uses actual page numbers and has no percentage bar. I didn’t think the percentage bar on Kindle ever really bothered me until I got Kobo and had page numbers again. The page numbers make me so very happy. Sometimes it is the little things that matter most.

Last weekend I dragged Bookman out in the cold and snow to look for a cover for Kobo. Kobo is the same size as a Nook Touch so I figured I could go to Barnes and Noble and find something acceptable. Nope. All they had were covers for HD Nooks and Samsung Galaxy tablets. When we asked about Touch covers they were supremely unhelpful and didn’t appear to really care about whether or not I bought something from them. Fine. So we didn’t even stay to look at books even though we had a 20% off coupon. The irony, of course, is that I ended up buying a lovely, inexpensive cover from Amazon, the very place I was trying to avoid buying from to begin with.

Kobo's coy sweater

Kobo’s coy sweater

The cover has not yet arrived. It is being delivered by dog sled apparently. I had been wrapping Kobo in a tea towel to protect the screen. Want to feel like a big dork? Sit down on the metro train and pull a towel-wrapped ereader from your bag. Bookman took pity on me and Kobo and crocheted Kobo a sweater. I like the Kobo sweater so much I almost cancelled the fabric cover order. But it will be nice for Kobo to be able to change clothes now and then. Perhaps Kobo might end up with all sorts of fashionable outfits, something for any and every occasion!

Kobo and I are still getting to know each other, but so far we are getting along pretty well. One of these days we will try and borrow an ebook from the library and see how that goes. For now, I am reading Jane Austen’s Emma on Kobo and having a lovely time.

Filed under: Books, ebooks Tagged: Kobo

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7. And the Winner is…

I tried to get the cats to help me pick a name but when they saw there were no treats in the bowl I put down on the floor they turned up their noses and walked away so I had to take care of pulling out a name myself. I would have thought a bit more gratitude on the part of Waldo and Dickens would have been in order seeing as how they have such a great new box. But that’s cats for you.

So who won?

Jeane! who also blogs at Dogear Diary.

Congratulations Jeane!

Thanks everyone for your comments. I wish all of you could get a lamp but maybe Santa will bring one to your house this year with a big pile of books too. Because I know we have all been good, but even if we haven’t we still all deserve a good lamp and a pile of books!

Filed under: Miscellaneus Tagged: OttLite

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8. On Not Finishing Books

Did any of you catch the recent article at The Atlantic online Finish That Book!? The article’s author, Juliet Lapidos, argues that we should finish reading every book we start. To that I say no way lady. I spent half my life believing I had to finish every book I began reading and don’t even want to try to calculate how many hours of unhappiness slogging through a book I was not enjoying has caused me. I can, however, tell you that it did not make me a better person in any way in spite of Lapidos’ belief that it does.

Lapidos thinks that too many people give up on books too soon. She has had personal experience in which she has kept reading a book she did not like only to find that by the end of it she liked it very much. I dunno, to me this sounds like the bookish equivalent of the Stockholm Syndrome. If you have spent a large chunk of time reading 700 pages of a book you did not like, of course by the time you are done with it you will be looking for a way to justify all that time and effort because you don’t want to admit that yeah, you should have given up on page 35 after all.

Lapidos gives a number of reasons why one should never give up on a book. They are:

  1. Pleasure. Because you never know when it might get good.
  2. Fortitude. Finishing a book you don’t like makes you stronger by building up your ability to “endure intellectual anguish.”
  3. Respect. The author worked really hard to write that book and it is only right to respect their efforts and see it through to the end no matter what.

The only time you should ever stop reading a book is if it is utter trash. But then you should avoid reading trash entirely anyway so really this is a non-issue. Right.

Lapidos takes a reading-as-broccoli approach. Books are not broccoli. Want to kill a love of reading in someone? Tell them to read a book because it is good for them.

I know a book might get good eventually. Or it might not. Sometimes I am not willing to find out. Sometimes there is just enough of something about a book that makes me willing to stick with it in spite of my misgivings. And sometimes I am glad I kept going and sometimes I am not.

I don’t think there is any merit to being able to endure intellectual anguish. What’s the point of making yourself miserable? Is there some special award that comes with cash and chocolate I don’t know about?

As for respect, sure writing a book is hard but that doesn’t mean a person deserves respect. An author needs to earn my respect, I don’t give it automatically just because they spent five lonely years writing a novel. That was their choice, though now and then I wonder if it perhaps may not have been a sign of insanity and a cry for help.

I know there are plenty of readers who slog their way to the end of a book because they feel guilty for giving up on it. I have felt that guilt too and can totally relate. But as I have gotten older and realized I have gained very little benefit from that guilt, I have managed to cut myself some slack and give up on books I am not enjoying. If Lapidos prefers to read until the bitter end that’s no skin off my teeth, she can do what she wants to with her books. She just shouldn’t be telling me what I should do with mine.

Filed under: Books, Reading

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9. Bright Lights and a Give Away

The all important reading lamp

The all important reading lamp

Let’s talk about illumination. As in reading lights. When I was a kid my mom always accused me of reading in the dark and insisted I would ruin my eyes. I can’t read in the dark, but I did prefer to read in dim, indirect light to cut down on the glare bouncing off the white pages of my book. I just scoffed at my mom the way kids do. I am happy to report that reading in dim light did not ruin my eyes so my mom has never been able to say, “I told you so” on that topic anyway. I still enjoy reading in dim light, though I never think of it as dim at all. It frustrates Bookman who will come home from work to find me sitting next to the window reading as the sun rapidly sinks below the horizon. He declares that I am going to ruin my eyes reading in the dark. Well, he used to do that. These days he just sighs heavily as he takes up the burden of trying to save my eyes by turning on a light.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate a good reading light, oh I do, believe me. It does eventually get too dark for me to read comfortably and when that happens I turn on a light. I have, as yet, been unable to achieve any kind of see-in-the-dark superpower. I’ll keep trying though. I used to have a banker’s lamp for years that I adored and then the chain broke in such a way that it could not be repaired. I was heartbroken. For the last several years I just had a plain, utilitarian lamp that gets the job done. But a few weeks ago it began marching toward a slow death, the switch on it becoming increasingly difficult to turn. I was dreading the day it ceased to work and would send me into a frenzy searching for a new reading lamp. In spite of my continuing attempts to ruin my eyes by reading in the dark, I am very picky about my reading lamps and a satisfactory one is so very hard to find. Is this the case for you too or I am just weird?

I don’t know what I did to make the reading gods so very happy, but they smiled upon me. Last week I received a fortuitous email from the folks at OttLite wanting to know if I would be interested in reviewing a reading lamp. You crafters out there might be familiar with Ottlite already as their lighting for craftmaking has a fabulous reputation. My reading lamp was dying so I had nothing to lose and said, sure, send me a lamp.

I’ve been using it for a number of days now and I must say I am quite pleased. At first I thought, uh-oh a 15 watt compact

Golly that's bright!

Golly that’s bright!

fluorescent bulb? How is that going to be even close to bright enough? Was I ever pleasantly surprised when I turned the lamp on! Wow, it practically lights up my whole living room! Even better it has a flexible neck so I can shine the light exactly how I want it for hours of comfortable reading after the sun goes down, which is pretty early these days and getting even earlier. Soon I will begin to forget what the sun even looks like.

The lamp itself is small and takes up hardly any space. If you have a little reading table, nightstand, or even desk, this lamp will fit there and leave room to pile up books beside it. The lamp has a nice “tulip” shape, simple and pleasing. As I said, there is a flexible neck, but it not only bends, but the length can be adjusted too. You can even push the neck all

In case you like ambient light

For the ambient light lovers

the way down into the lamp and use it as a torchiere for diffused room lighting. I’ve not used it this way, when I have a lamp on I’m generally sitting under it reading or writing or knitting or doing something else I need light for, I’m not one of those ambient light people; it’s all or nothing for me.

I’m really happy with the light and very thankful to the OttLite folks for sending it to me and sparing me the frustrations of a lamp shopping frenzy. Bookman is grateful too. He tells me I have no excuse for reading in the dark. Silly Bookman, as soon as the days begin to grow longer many months from now, I will again be trying your patience and smiling at your sighs as you switch on the light to keep me from ruining my eyes.

Now here’s how nice the OttLite people are, not only did they give me a lamp, they will give one of you lucky readers a lamp too. Unfortunately, you have to have a U.S. address. If you are interested in a Tulip Desk Lamp of your very own, please leave a comment saying as much. I will draw a name on Saturday morning. Good luck!

Oh, I almost forgot! The lamp comes with a wonderful accessory if you have cats:

A little something for everybody at my house.

Filed under: Reading, Reviews Tagged: OttLite

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10. Being Wrong

I’m not sure how much of a write-up I can give you of Kathryn Schulz’s marvelous book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error since, if you recall, I borrowed it as an ebook from my library and was reading it on my Kindle when it decided to no longer highlight things. And frankly, if you can’t use either the highlight or bookmark function for ebooks, you’re screwed when you finish and try to write about them. There is no going back skimming the pages for a memory refresh nor is there a collection of passages to pull interesting tidbits from. That my Kindle crapped out while I was reading Being Wrong makes me giggle though it also makes me growl because I loved this book and wish I could share all the fascinating stuff I learned with you. I did eventually manage to get Kindle to highlight again but by then it was far too late because I was almost at the end of the book. Oh well.

Not only is Being Wrong a fascinating book with tours into human behavior, memory, biology, psychology and culture, it is also quite literary. Schulz flings out the literary references with wild abandon — Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, Don Quioxte and so many more. She makes these references in such a way that it is obvious she is a reader and familiar with the books and characters in a way that someone who only mines them for relevant quotes is not. Also, she’s really funny.

Who among us doesn’t like being right? Who among us isn’t usually certain that we are right and everyone else is wrong? Who hasn’t made up excuses or reasons when discovered being wrong? Schulz sets out to examine why we are so certain about things and why we hate being wrong. In the process she looks at some spectacular instances of being wrong — Alan Greenspan anyone? In another less public example she goes over the case of a woman who was raped, identified her assailant, was instrumental in the man’s conviction and found out eighteen years later that it was not him but another man who looked very similar who had raped several women before her and several more after. How do you get over being so wrong and causing someone else to spend eighteen years of his life in prison?

But it’s not just the big errors, it’s the small things too. Schulz talks about how she and her friends, none of them physicists, were sitting around one day discussing string theory as though they were all experts. They had a good laugh at themselves and invented an imaginary magazine called Modern Jackass. Thereafter they would chide each other when someone was insisting on their rightness on a topic they really knew nothing about saying things like, oh you should write that up and submit it to the science section of Modern Jackass. A little bit of knowledge goes a long way and we all hold forth like experts on things like the economy, medicine, the weather, life, the universe and everything. And if you are saying to yourself right now, I never do that, I am too humble and never make such assumptions. To you my friend I say, you are WRONG. No one is immune.

Schulz discusses the many reasons we like to be right and why we are so afraid to be wrong. At the same time she talks about how being wrong is necessary in order to make creative leaps in art and science and our general everyday understanding of who we are and what the heck this thing called life is all about. She wishes more than once that we could find a way to be nicer to ourselves and others about being wrong. After all, to err is human and all that.

One of the especially fascinating sections of the book is when Schulz discusses belief and what happens when a belief we have held that is integral in how we see ourselves and navigate in the world is suddenly wrong. She tells the story of one young woman who was raised as a fundamentalist Christian. She moved to New York, met a man who was an atheist who became her boyfriend, and then she found herself going from believing in God to not believing in God. When she and her boyfriend broke up a few years later she was left adrift when she realized that she wasn’t an atheist but neither could she believe in the fundamentalist Christian teachings she was raised in. Schulz talks about the uncomfortable place something like this brings us to, feelings of being unmoored and adrift, not knowing who we are now or who we want to be tomorrow. It’s really fascinating stuff!

While reading and since I have finished the book, I have been more aware of my own rightness about things and noticed how quickly I get defensive when challenged. Sometimes I am able to catch myself, to back off, to not insist that I am right but instead actually listen to the other person and really consider what they are saying. And let me say, it is a weird feeling when I manage to do this. Not a bad feeling, just unfamiliar, a sort of limbo of not knowing that is hard to stay in because darn it, I want to be right. But I think if we could all become more comfortable with this limbo state at least some of the time, it sure would make for some interesting possibilities.

So, in summary, good book. You should totally read it. You can’t go wrong.

Filed under: Books, Nonfiction, Reviews

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11. The Writer’s Garden

When the publisher offered to send me a copy of The Writer’s Garden: How gardens inspired our best-loved authors by Jackie Bennett, how could I possibly say no? When the large-format book arrived with a full-color glossy cover I thought, uh-oh, it’s just going to be all photos. So I was pleasantly surprised to open the book and discover good text too.

The gardens in the book belong to the likes of Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Walter Scott, Rudyard Kipling and more. In all, twenty writers and nineteen gardens are represented and what glorious gardens they are. Some of the writers were themselves avid gardeners. George Bernard Shaw died at the age of ninety-four after falling while out in the garden pruning a tree. Of course, Beatrix Potter was a very hands-on gardener and sometimes it is hard to tell which parts of her stories were inspired by her garden and which features in her garden were reproduced from her stories. Thomas Hardy, who grew up farming, was also very hands-on as was Robert Burns who would work on his farm and garden all day composing poems in his head which he would then write down in the evenings.

There were plenty of writers who had beautiful gardens but hired other people to take care of them. Henry James knew absolutely nothing about gardening when he moved to Lamb House. While he eventually learned the names of flowers and trees, he left the actual work to someone else.

Walter Scott knew plenty about gardening, he designed his house and most of his extensive gardens, but other than lending a hand planting trees and doing a few other chores now and then, he left the actual work to his hired gardeners.

A common theme among many of these writers whose gardens were all at minimum an acre and often larger than that, is some sort of shed/hut/cottage/house located somewhere in the garden, usually amidst the trees, where they would go and escape the house to write. Roald Dahl had an actual Gypsy caravan that he bought and installed in his garden. For the few writers who did not have a writing hut, they all had studies, generally on the second floor of the house, that looked out over a part of the garden.

Some of the gardens were purely ornamental, but a good many included large kitchen gardens that helped feed the household. Most of the gardens also had orchards as well with apple, pear, cherry and plum trees. All of the writers had woods, either as part of the garden or, for the smaller estates, wooded common areas just over the fence that provided quiet, shady walks.

I found myself supremely jealous of all these gorgeous gardens. When I finished the book it seemed that writing and gardening went hand in hand that one could not possibly be a writer without garden acreage. No wonder I am not an author, I only have a small city lot and there is no chance of a writing hut. I might be able to build a small closet big enough for a chair but I would not be willing to give up even that small spot of soil. I do have a room with a window that looks out onto the garden but the cats get the window and me and my desk are left facing the wall. All of the gardens in The Writer’s Garden are in the UK so I also suffered from a bit of envy over what could be grown in some of the gardens that I could never grow in my own.

The book itself is beautiful. The pages are thick and glossy and the photos are all in color. For each writer there is a list of the books written while in residence at the particular house/garden and Bennett is kind enough to provide an update to the current state of the garden. Many of them are now owned by the National Trust but not all. At the end of the book is information on how to visit most of the gardens as well as a short list of further reading.

The holidays are fast approaching and this book would make a wonderful gift for the reader-gardener in your life. Or perhaps it might be one you yourself should put on your list for Santa. I’ll be keeping my copy handy to browse through in the winter months when my eyes need bright color and my spirit needs to imagine itself in a snug writing hut beneath the leafy green trees.

Filed under: Books, gardening, Nonfiction, Reviews

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12. November Reading Full Steam Ahead

October was a fantastic reading month. Other than The Selected Letters of John Keats, which is a massive book that will be ongoing for awhile, I have no “leftovers.” Wow, does that ever feel good. And now here we are in November. I can hardly believe the year is winding down. It seems like it was February just last week. With the garden put to bed and an “arctic outbreak” heading into Minnesota with forecast temperatures at or below freezing starting this weekend and into next week (we are a cold place but this is about 15 degrees below the normal average for this time of year), I am heading into to prime reading season. I’ve already got the quilt out in my reading “nest” (as Bookman calls it) and the cats hover around me waiting for me to sit down so they can pile on top.

The month looks like it will be crammed with bookish goodness. A long time ago I had this idea that I would read Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. I made it through the first two volumes, loved them, began the third and got stuck not quite halfway through. Guermantes Way sat around with my bookmark in it for — dare I say? —two years — before I finally decided that if I were to ever pick the book up again I would have to start over. Well, the time has come and I have begun again on page one thanks to Arti and Dolce Belezza who are also reading it. If it weren’t for them, well, I’d still be promising myself to read it “some day.” We don’t have any set dates, but we hope to be through the first part of the book by the end of the month.

Another novel I will be starting soon, perhaps this weekend, is A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. Whispering Gums is reading it this month for her book group so I thought I would read it too. Maybe I will make a surprise appearance at the book group. I’ve always wanted to go to Australia. At the very least I look forward to having someone to compare notes with.

Just received in the mail for review for Library Journal is a book called The Temporary Future: The Fiction of David Mitchell. I’ve not read all of Mitchell’s books and it appears that there is a chapter focusing on each one of them including his newest, The Bone Clocks. I suspect plots will be “spoiled” but I don’t think that really matters with Mitchell.

On the poetry front, I am reading An Invitation for Me to Think by Alexander Vvedensky. He was arrested in 1941 for “counterrevolutionary literary activities” and died of pleurisy on a prison train not long after. He was only 37. Just published in 2013, this is his first collection of poetry to appear in English. I have only read one longish poem so far. It’s good, but a thinker. I will have to read it a few more times. I get the feeling much of this book might be like that. An invitation to think indeed!

I am also in the midst of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. I am not sure what to think of this yet. It starts off at a college for magic and nothing much has really happened. On the go as well is Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz. I am over halfway and enjoying the book very much.

I requested the next Scott Pilgrim book from the library, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. And checking my library account I have a few holds that will shortly be making their way to me. Unspeakable Things: Sex Lies and Revolution by Laurie Penny is about gender and power in the twenty-first century. This will be ready for me to pick up in the next day or two.

I am the next one in line for The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. Thanks to a wonderful review at Whispering Gums, I got myself in the queue before it won the Booker Prize. I am also next in line for Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mande. This has been getting such good buzz in book blog world that I am very much looking forward to reading it.

Wow, that’s a lot of books for November. It’s a good thing I get a four-day weekend at the end of the month for Thanksgiving. I’m going to need it!

Filed under: Books, In Progress

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13. Scott Pilgrim, Volume 1

After reading and enjoying Seconds, I decided to embark on the Scott Pilgrim graphic novel series. What a zippy little book is Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life. The book is in black and white and is the closest thing to a comic that I have read since I was a kid. Total fluffy, no brain required fun, which was perfect after House of Leaves.

Scott is 23 and pretty much mooching off his roommate, Wallace. Scott has loser written all over him. He is in a terrible band called Sex Bob-Omb. He is dating a seventeen-year-old high school girl named Knives Chau. And then he meets Ramona Flowers. She is so out of his league but for some reason she likes him back. But in order for Scott to truly win Ramona, he has to fight all of her seven evil ex-boyfriends. This first volume has him taking on ex-boyfriend number one.

Like I said, fluffy, comic-y fun. That’s pretty much all there is to say. Except, even though I have the drawings in front of me as I read, I can’t help but picture Michael Cera in my head, the actor who played Scott Pilgrim in the movie. I wonder if his face will still be there by the time I make it to the end of the series? I have nothing against Michael Cera, but I hope his face eventually dissolves.

It is election day here so now I am off to cast my vote.

Filed under: Books, Graphic Novels, Reviews

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14. House of Leaves

I managed to finish House of Leaves on Friday. More or less. What I finished was the main text of the story. I still had thirty pages of appendices to read through. And the index to scan. What, wait! An index in a novel you say? Oh yes. The index actually turned out to be rather hilarious, a sort of index parody with hardly any of the things you would expect to show up there but lots of things you never see in an index like “and” which appears on pages 3-78, 80-154, and so on. There is also “five” and “July” and “more.” And then there are entries like “canine DNE” with “DNE” meaning “Does not exist.” These are sprinkled throughout the index. There is “dolphin” and “donkey” and “lubricants.” Kind of funny.

But why? Well, it plays into the fact that the main part of the text sort of mocks academic criticism. How to explain? The main text is an academic treatise written on a movie called The Navidson Record, a movie that has been seen by many but doesn’t seem to actually exist. The criticism is written by a man of the name Zampano who is pretty much driven mad by his work on the book. This text is filled with extensive criticism and footnotes. Incredibly, a good deal of what is cited actually exists. There are also citations of “experts” talking about the film and these are completely made up but they are woven in so expertly with the non-made up stuff that they appear to be real.

In spite of all the academic babble, Zampano actually does manage to tell the story of the film of the Navidson Record. It’s about a house, but not just any house. Imagine husband, successful photojournalist who has won a Pulitzer Prize, who is away from home quite a lot because of his work and has a tendency to court danger. Imagine the wife, beautiful, a former model, who has had an affair or two while husband has been away. Or maybe she hasn’t, husband isn’t sure and he isn’t sure he wants to know the truth. They have two young children. They move to a house in the Virginia countryside, hoping to create a family, hoping to save the marriage. It seems like a normal house until they leave to visit family out of state for a few days and return home to find a hallway that wasn’t there when they left. At first they manage to rationalize it away. But then another hallway shows up, this one in the living room instead of between bedrooms. This one is dark and impossibly long, this one seems to go on forever leading into perfectly dark rooms and other hallways. It is freezing cold in the dark and the rooms and hallways are continually shifting and changing.

Wife furiously battles the house with feng shui. Husband calls in friends and experts, locates professional explorers who mount an expedition into the depths of the mysterious house. Husband doesn’t get to go because wife forbids it. Weird things happen in the dark and cold. People die. Weird things happen in the light and warmth. People die.

Along with this story is a second one told by Johnny Truant. It takes place mostly in footnotes to Zampano’s book. Johnny came into possession of Zampano’s papers after he died and is trying to assemble them into a coherent whole. He becomes obsessed, his life falls apart, he perhaps goes insane, he perhaps recovers.

There is an additional layer, other footnotes by an editor who has taken the entire manuscript, Zampano’s and Johnny’s combined which amounts to one whole book, and published it.

It is a crazy book. There were moments when I was genuinely creeped out. There were others when I was utterly bored. When I finished the main text I felt like it had bordered on a waste of time. After all the appendices I appreciated the book much more. On an intellectual level, it is clever and interesting and intriguing in how Danielewski made this book even work. The ideas, the themes, parody and mockery were well done. But other than the few times I got the creeps, I was never truly emotionally engaged with the book. I was never sure why I should care and there was nothing to hate so I was left at a distance, reading a book about a book about a movie. And maybe that is how I was supposed to feel but I like my books to be more than intellectual mind games; I like to be mentally and emotionally engaged.

So there you go, for what all that is worth. I didn’t hate the book. I didn’t love the book. I am glad I read it though so that’s something.

Filed under: Books, Reviews

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15. Late Fall Garden

Fall in the vegetable garden

Fall in the vegetable garden

I’m sneaking in a gardening post! While we have been getting light frosts regularly we finally got a hard and killing, or mostly killing frost, Friday morning. I say mostly killing because it didn’t kill the kale, turnips, parsnips, or mums. Nonetheless, the leaves are all down from the trees and it was time to cut back, mulch, and get ready for winter. The day turned out to be so much nicer than forecast. We got up to 58F (14.4C), which, when you are moving around doing things, is not cold at all but quite comfortable and almost a bit warm. It was several degrees warmer than forecast and not half as windy as promised.

We cut back grasses and perennials in the front garden beds to make snow shoveling easier. Sidewalk leaves got gathered up and piled on the garlic bed to insulate the bulbs so they don’t get heaved up during freezes and thaws. Leaves also got dumped on top of the oregano and the lemon balm in the herb spiral. I didn’t protect them last year and neither survived the winter. Hopefully they will this year. I pulled up the sad little beets in the polyculture bed. They tried, they really did, but most of them had no fat roots and only a few had tiny beets the size of very large grapes. The parsnips did a little better but not much. A few of them reached small carrot size. Those things are hard to get out of the ground! After I pulled everything up in the polyculture bed I deposited some comfrey clippings for a bit of homemade fertilizing and buried the bed in leaves.

The leaves that fall on the garden and under the trees in the front of the house stay where they are. Last year Bookman and

So many beautiful leaves

So many beautiful leaves

I raked up all the leaves from under the apple trees because the tress had gotten rust. I don’t know whether this kept them from getting rust again this year or if it was something else, but they didn’t have any problems so this year we have let the leaves stay beneath them. It is good for the soil and thus good for the trees. The yards of all my neighbors are nicely raked and clean but mine, well you can see what mine looks like. I honestly think it’s the prettiest yard on my street, whether the folks on my street think so I really don’t care. I’ve got better soil than they do because of it so nah-nah-nah.

I just got a little snarky there, didn’t I? Sorry about that.

I clipped off all the remaining kale, which turned out to be quite a lot. And I pulled up some turnips that actually had turnips under them! Not all of them did though. I think I didn’t thin them enough because the biggest one was at the end of the row all by itself and the smaller large radish sized ones were all growing together. I have never grown turnips before so I will have to remember this for next year.

Small but mighty root veggies

Small but mighty root veggies

I drained Amy Pond. I found no fish or fish bodies. The raccoons ate them all. I used the pond water to water the garlic and the polyculture bed. I’m not sure if we will keep the pond next year or not. Given the repeated raccoon invasions eating the fish and destroying the plants and generally making a mess of things I am not sure it is worth the trouble. However, the birds and neighborhood cats liked it quite a lot as a watering hole which kept the ceramic frog fountain much cleaner. Will have to do some thinking about the pond over the winter.

I did some seed saving: bachelor buttons, zinnia, fennel, marigold, a pretty purple flower that sprang up in a random spot in the garden that I have never seen before but would like to see again. I made some final clippings from the thyme and oregano. Watered the various berry bushes in the garden. Finally, picked up all the gardening tools and buckets and this that and the other and stored them away in the garage. The garden looks peaceful and lovely and golden.

On a gardening book note, I recently read and wrote a review for an upcoming issue of Library Journal on a book called Epic Tomatoes by Craig LeHoullier. I mention it here because it is a fantastic book, fun and informative as well as very practical. It made me really excited about choosing tomatoes for next year’s garden and I generally don’t get excited about tomatoes. I got so excited that I will probably be starting a number of plants from seed, a tedious and work intensive task since in Minnesota I have to start them in the middle of March when there is still snow on the ground. There are a few varieties it would be fun to try that I just can’t buy as plants so the work might be worth it. I hope. We’ll see. Of course I will let you know!

As always, you can click on the photos for a bigger view.

Filed under: gardening

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16. Feeling Chatty

Yesterday was one of those days when I logged off my computer at work and didn’t want to look at a computer screen again until I absolutely had to. I got to spend most of my day outside the library today which is nice to do now and then. I attended a local conference put on by the consortium my library belongs to. The topic was library marketing. It was pretty interesting. We had a chance to do some brainstorming there too and the other person who attended from my library and I came up with what we think are some good ideas to connect with a particular group of students. The trick now is finding the time to flesh it out and plan it and then put it into practice. We have such a small staff at my library that much of the time it feels like we are barely managing to keep our heads above water with all the things we have to do.

Even though it was a good day, these conference things always leave me worn out. And since I am all caught up writing about books I have finished reading and I’ve not got any particularly fascinating book news to share, I am still feeling a little chatty so you’ve been warned.

Oh! I do have something fun to share. Have you heard about the Hemingwrite? An MIT graduate and a Michigan software developer teamed up and designed a typewriter for the digital age. It looks a lot like the typewriter I went off to college with, typewrite body with a screen that shows your text before you hit return and it then typed your line. This one, however, is even better. It has an e-ink display, wifi and cloud storage. The display is six inches and everything you type is backed up to Evernote. It is also compatible with GoogleDocs and Dropbox. It’s portable too with a battery life of six weeks or more. The designers wanted to create a writing tool designed just for writing so there would be no distractions from the internet or email or Facebook.

I don’t really have any problems with distractions when I am writing on my computer but the Hemingwrite is so neat I kinda want one. I will resist, however, because what I really want is an actual manual typewriter. I have absolutely no need for one but I admit to suffering from a bit of typewriter nostalgia. Between junior high and high school computers happened. When I was in 8th grade I took a typing class and by the end of the semester could type a whopping 60 words a minute on the industrial looking manual typewriters we had. In tenth grade I took a computer class; that’s how fast things changed (though it was years before I actually had my own computer). But aside from the nostalgia, there is a small part of my brain that says, hey, a manual typewriter will really come in handy when the world falls apart and there is no reliable electricity or internet. What I think I might need to type when the world falls apart I have no idea. Perhaps since I will be one of the few people with a manual portable typewriter I could use it to make a living typing letters and forms for people. Or maybe since I have so many fountain pens and bottles of ink I should forget about getting a typewriter and work on improving my penmanship then I can hire myself out as a scribe.

It will soon be Halloween so it’s okay to consider horrible end-of-the-world scenarios. It also means the RIP Challenge is almost over. I didn’t do as well with it as I had hoped. I only managed She and Famous Modern Ghost Stories. I am still reading House of Leaves but I’m only about 2/3 of the way through. It is a chunky book and the pages are much larger than usual. There are some sections where there are only a few words on the page and for about five pages I can feel like I am really zooming along. But then I come up to page after page of densely written text that includes the main story, footnotes to the main story, and another story also told in footnotes. It is a completely crazy book and I found early that I could not stop reading in the middle of a chapter. So I have more or less been confined to reading the book at home when I have a chunk of time to give it which has made reading it go slowly.

But that’s ok. I am glad to finally be reading this book and in a couple weeks I will be done. Bookman has to work Halloween night and we do not hand out candy. We did for years but never got more than 5-20 kids at our door which doesn’t make all the trouble worthwhile. Not that I didn’t enjoy the trouble, I love carving pumpkins, but the effort was not rewarded. My Halloween plan is to curl up under a blanket with the cats, a cup of hot chocolate by my side, and a book in my hands. I’ll start off with House of Leaves but if it starts to creep me out at all I will have something else at hand to read instead like Proust or The Magicians, or maybe I’ll start reading A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. As usual, there are too many choices. I’ll manage though, I generally always do.

You are probably tired of my rambling by now and if you have made it this far I’m not sure whether I should congratulate you or feel sorry for you. Either way, I hope you have a good book to turn to to help you wash this chat-fest from you mind. And also, have a happy Halloween!

Filed under: Books, Challenges, Technology

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17. Teach Us To Sit Still

I must give a hearty “thank you” to Ian Darling for telling me about Teach Us to Sit Still by Tim Parks after I read The Miracle of Mindfulness. When you read a book like Thich Nhat Hahn’s on meditation and he is telling you how good it is and how it will change your life it is easy to dismiss it because of course this Buddhist monk is going to say that. To then read a book like Parks’s, a personal story that leads him kicking and screaming to meditation where he discovers that it really does work, it makes you pause and think.

Parks’s story begins when he was 51 and tired of suffering from severe pains and trips to the bathroom 5-6 times a night, something that he has been experiencing for years and keeps getting worse. Parks live and teaches in Verona, Italy and happened to have a good friend who is a top urologist in the country. His friend diagnosed him with prostatitis and referred him for tests and consults with top doctors. Through test after test and scan after scan, all the doctors said that if he weren’t having such pain they would say there was nothing wrong with him. The suggested treatment was an invasive and painful surgery that may or may not work, though all the doctors assured him it would. Parks rightly hesitated.

On a trip to India for a conference he decided to visit an Ayurvedic doctor on the spur of the moment. The doctor told him he could give him all kinds of herbs and recommend all sorts of expensive supplements but none of them would work and he would never be cured until he confronted the “profound contradiction” in his character. “There is a tussle in your mind,” the doctor told him. Parks left kicking himself for wasting his time. But he could not get over this idea of there being a tussle in his mind.

On the internet he discovered a place in California that treated men with problems like his. They had a book. Parks ordered the book. Basically, their theory was that his condition was muscle-related, that his body was so full of tension that the muscles around his prostate could not relax. Treatment was an hour of “paradoxical relaxation” and regular prostate massage. Parks decided even though he didn’t feel tense, he’d give the relaxation a go since he had nothing to lose.

“Paradoxical relaxation” is pretty much meditation done laying down. The paradox is that once you are comfortable, you are supposed to focus on an area of your body that feels tense but not try to relax it. Only by not relaxing the tension will the tension go away. And there was to be no verbalization, no talking to yourself in your head, just an empty mind and focus.

Parks was surprised when he quickly learned that the body he thought was not tense at all was nothing but tense. His first few efforts ended up giving him moments of increased pain. But he kept at it and after a few more tries had a moment when something let go and he felt a warm wave wash through him. He was so excited by this that he immediately ruined the moment. But he had made progress. Eventually he had pain-free hours during his day but he still had to get up frequently during the night.

He visited a Shiatsu massage specialist. The massages caused pain but also relieved pain. His masseuse eventually recommended Parks try Vipassana meditation. Parks was reluctant but realized that he had gone as far as he could with his paradoxical relaxation so he signed up for a weekend retreat.

In Vipassana meditation you begin by focusing your attention on feeling your breath move across the top of your lip, in and out. You aren’t supposed to think. You are supposed to sit completely still. Parks quickly discovers how very hard this is. Even with his paradoxical relaxation he had supreme difficulty not thinking, not verbalizing, now it was even harder. But there were exquisite moments when it would all come together and he would feel so calm, relaxed and completely free of pain. After two years and regular meditation, he found himself cured. He still had to get up during the night but only twice a night instead of 5-6 times.

Throughout the book he keeps going back and mulling over what the tussle in his mind could be, and he discovers there are a number of unresolved issues with his parents, especially his father, with his writing and his ambition. At one point he even decides he needed to give up writing entirely but when he told the leader of the retreat he was on when he came to this conclusion, the man just laughed at him and said he had it all wrong.

Eventually he figures it out. He realizes that holding on so tight to language, to words, the “I” that language asks us to create is the problem. Meditating helped him let that go, helped him get out of his head and into his body, gave him a sense of wholeness and calm and taught him that there is pleasure in letting the self disappear.

Of course everyone will have different reasons for meditating and derive different benefits, but Parks’s experience is encouraging and uplifting. He makes you believe that if he could do it, everyone reading his book certainly can do it too.

Filed under: Books, Memoir/Biography, Nonfiction, Reviews Tagged: Tim Parks

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18. Medea

What an amazing play is Medea by Euripides. I read an edition from 2006 translated by the poet Michael Collier and the Greek scholar Georgia Machemer. Machemer also wrote a fantastic introduction. Of all the introductions to all the Greek plays I’ve read over the last several years, this one is hands down the best. What was so good about it? It provided context for the play without trotting out all the usual tired historical droning that usually makes its way into these kinds of introductions. The context provided was specific to this play itself and what was going on in Athens during the time it was produced, what the audience would have known and expected, how they would have probably reacted when their expectations were challenged, and what they would have known and how they would have felt about Euripides himself.

For instance, even though the songs Euripides wrote for his choruses were popular and sung all over town, the playwright and plays themselves often unsettled audiences. Euripides was schooled by the Sophists who were foreigners to Athens, had unnerving theories about the nature of things and could deftly argue either side of an issue. They stirred things up. Euripides didn’t let them down.

Medea opens with Medea’s nurse coming on stage. Today we would think nothing of this, but then, this was shocking. Not only was it a woman giving the opening monologue of the play but a servant who was an old slave of a “barbarian” princess. When you expect a highborn man or a god to walk out for the opening monologue, this move is quite astonishing and right off sets you reeling.

And then the play itself. A woman carries it and not just any woman. Medea is a priestess of Hecate, she has immense knowledge of the healing arts as well as potions that kill. She is from a foreign country. And she speaks throughout with the rhetorical skill of a man, scheming, tricking, deceiving to save her own honor instead of submitting to the will of her husband like a good and proper wife should. After seeing this play the men in the audience, and the audience would have been almost all men, would have been shaking in their sandals for fear of the power that a woman might wield. I could also hope that some of them left the theatre with a bit more respect for their wives but that might be hoping too much.

This play would have resonated with Athenians on a different level too. Athens had recently passed a law that said foreign-born wives could not be citizens nor could any of their offspring. This law effectively disinherited any children born from such a marriage. As a result, many men divorced their wives and married Greek ones instead. So when Jason leaves Medea for the daughter of King Creon, the men of Athens watching this play got an extra dose of discomfort.

There is an interesting note in the text of my edition of the play that says a good many scholars believe Euripides invented Medea killing her children, that prior to this play, the story did not include their deaths. So why did she have to kill them? Medea needed to destroy Jason for his betrayal and the best way to destroy him is to destroy his whole family. Thus Medea kills Jason’s new wife with poisoned gifts and Creon in rushing to her aid is also poisoned by he deadly robes. The children could not be left alive as heirs nor after killing the king and his daughter could Medea leave the children alive to likely be killed my an angry mob. So she does the deed. She almost couldn’t. Can you blame her? The gods do not punish her for killing her children because her act was honorable vengeance against a man who betrayed both her and the gods who had given him Medea to help him escape with the Golden Fleece.

Medea gets to exit in a golden sun chariot with the corpses of her children after she curses Jason. And we all known Jason dies a sad and ruined man, killed when his famous ship, the Argo, falls on his head while he is beneath it repairing its keel.

Medea, of course, has some marvelous speeches in this play. One of my favorite passages happens when she is talking to the chorus who are all women:

But I’ve been talking as if our lives
are the same. They’re not. You are Corinthians
with ancestral homes, childhood friends,
while I, stripped of that already,
am now even more exposed by Jason’s cruelties.
Remember how I came here, a war bride,
plundered from my country, an orphan?
Now who’s obligated to shelter me? Not you,
I know. As you watch my plans for justice unfold,
keep them secret, that’s all I ask. I’ve never felt
this threatened nor fearless: men win their battles
on the field but women are ruthless when the bed
becomes the battleground. We’ve lain
in our own blood before…and have survived.

In the face of Medea, Jason comes off sounding like a greedy, petulant boy whining about how Medea isn’t being reasonable in accepting the crumbs he is reluctantly offering so he looks like a good man and doesn’t feel guilty. Why he is so surprised that this powerful woman throws it all back in his face and calls him on his betrayal is the real surprise.

The sad thing though in the end, in spite of Medea triumphing over Jason and being carried away to Athens in a chariot of the sun (he’s a relative), she has lost everything too. She will have protection in Athens, but she has no home, no friends, no children. She wins by losing and that is the biggest tragedy of all.

Filed under: Ancient Greece, Books, Plays, Reviews Tagged: Euripides

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19. The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

Hilary Mantel’s newest book, a collection of short stories titled The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, has been getting quite a bit of press. It seems many people have decided to take offense at the titular story in which an IRA assassin tricks a woman into letting him into her apartment which has a perfect view, and perfect shot of the back of a hospital through which Thatcher will shortly be exiting. The woman at first is alarmed but ends up being sympathetic and helps the man by showing him an escape route through which he might be able to get away without capture. The story ends just before the gun is fired.

It’s a pretty good story. We are left wondering whether the assassination was successful. Well, we know it wasn’t, don’t we? Mantel isn’t out to rewrite history. So the shot was missed for some reason. We are left to wonder at the aftermath, left feeling sympathetic for the IRA man who fully expects to get caught but shows the utmost concern for the woman whose apartment he took over. And the woman? She’s middle-aged, single, tidy, reliable, caught in the habits of her daily life and not one to rock the boat. But this man gives her a chance to break free from the ordinary without much risk and she takes it. You can read the story yourself if you haven’t already.

Unfortunately all the talk about the one story has overshadowed the rest of the book. Most of these stories are complete stories with beginnings, middles and ends, no brief slice of life stuff that just goes for mood or effect, things happen in these stories. Whether it is an English woman living in Dubai with her husband for his job who inadvertently finds herself being courted by another man or a husband caught kissing a neighbor in the kitchen by his wife the shock of which actually causes his wife to die from an unknown heart defect, the stories feel complete.

Then there is the story “Comma” about two young girls, about twelve. The one who narrates, Kitty, lives in a solid, middle-class household. Her friend, Mary Joplin, who lives just across the street, is from a family of dubious status. But Kitty is friends with Mary and the pair slip away from the parental gaze to go wandering through the surrounding neighborhood. Mary discovers the house of a rich family across a field. At this house they have something that should be a baby but there is something wrong with it. Our narrator and Mary sneak over and spy to try and figure out what the adults refuse to talk about. And while we think the story is about this baby it is really about the relationship between our narrator and Mary and then finally on Mary’s low-class status and how that ultimately affects her life. We catch a glimpse of the two in middle age, Kitty recognizing Mary on the street one day:

It passed through my mind, you’d need to have known her well to have known her now, you’d need to have put in the hours with her, watching her sideways. Her skin seemed swagged, loose, and there was nothing much to read in Mary’s eyes. I expected, perhaps, a pause, a hyphen, a space where a question might follow . . . Is that you Kitty? She stooped over her buggy, settled her laundry with a pat, as if to reassure it. Then she turned back to me and gave me a bare acknowledgement: a single nod, a full stop.

Or the story “Winter Break” in which a husband and wife on a winter holiday, riding through the night in a taxi to their distant hotel are disturbed when the car hits something. The driver bundles it up in a tarp and puts it in the trunk. The couple think it is a goat which they have seen running around everywhere. But they discover something else when they reach their destination.

These stories are about normal people in their everyday lives. Husbands and wives, friends, coworkers, getting on as best they can, scared, alone, confused, making mistakes, trying to figure things out. The most exotic person is a writer in the story “How Shall I Know You?” who is invited by a book group to visit and give a talk. And while the story seems to be all about the writer, like “Comma” it ends up being about something else. Something bigger, that lifts it up from the ordinary to the extraordinary, if not for the characters in the story, at least for the reader who gets to see the big picture.

I’ve only ever read Mantel’s Cromwell books so I was expecting some interesting narrative stylings in the stories. But they are all pretty straightforward. I was not disappointed by that because I don’t need stylistic dazzling in my short stories; they aren’t long enough for me to get used to something unusual and by the time I’d get my bearings I’m afraid the story would be over and I’d be wondering what just happened. This is not to say that Mantel’s style is plain. She uses various structural elements that we are all familiar with: flash backs, foreshadowing, story breaks that indicate the passage of time. What I really liked about many of these stories is that often they were about something other than I initially thought they were about. And those moments in the story when I realized there was something else going on were very pleasurable.

So don’t be put off from this collection by all the press and all the controversy over the titular story. These stories are good reading.

Filed under: Books, Reviews, Short Stories Tagged: Hilary Mantel

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20. Dewey’s Read-a-Thon!

It’s read-a-thon day! It’s been a long time since I’ve participated and I am very excited. Bookman wanted to play too but he has to work today. Nonetheless, he’ll be reading when he’s home. We have decided to donate .10 cents for every page we read to FirstBook. We are not late night people so I don’t expect we will be making it to the wee hours, but we will keep going as long as we can and read as many pages as we can.

I have no plans on what I will read other than Euripides’ play Medea. The rest, well, we’ll just see where it goes. The weather is forecast for a partly sunny crisp fall day, perfect reading weather. There are cats for my lap, coffee and pumpkin muffins. It’s going to be a good day!

My plan is to make regular updates at the bottom of this post for the first part of the day and then I’ll start a new post for the second part of the day. That will hopefully keep feed readers and email boxes from being spammed every time I post an update. My start time is 7 a.m. so here we go…

Filed under: Books

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21. Read-a-thon Wrap Up and Stuff

I was tricked! Bookman and I were in bed reading last night and he began getting drowsy, decided he’d had enough. He keeps the time on the clock covered up because sometimes during the night he has insomnia issues and staring at the clock only makes it worse. When Bookman called it quits I wasn’t really tired but I figured it must be getting late, or late for us at any rate. So he turned off his light and snuggled under the blankets and closed his eyes. I kept going. When I reached the end of the chapter I still wasn’t that tired, but Bookman looked so comfortable snuggled in that I thought is would be nice to be done. So I turned off my light and burrowed into the blankets. I asked Bookman what time it was, he tried to avoid answering me, but I insisted. I thought surely it’s 9:30, or 9:45, but Bookman says sheepishly, 9:15. What!?! I could still be reading, I thought it was later. Well, it’s too late now, he said, you’re snuggled under the blankets, you can’t get back up and read more. You didn’t have to turn off your light. But — I started to protest. But he was right, I didn’t have to turn off my light. I guess I was done.

So, in the end I read a total of 277 pages. Bookman read about 100 Kindle pages. We are going to round it up and make a $40 donation to FirstBook. It was a fun day. I finally read Medea, and in one sitting too which is ideal for plays. And I am almost done with the Tim Parks book, Teach Us To Sit Still. Bookman read, I forget the title but it is Terry Goodkind, the second book in the Legend of the Seeker series.

Net year I will make more of an effort to start on time and to not let Bookman’s cute snuggled up self lure me into turning off the light! Having a short book and a longer book to read worked out really well. I will have to remember that for next time. The food and drink set up was perfect. As was the break for exercise and the occasional breaks for laundry.

And thanks to the cheerleaders who dropped by. Very much appreciated. We’ll see what I am doing when the spring read-a-thin roles around, perhaps at that one I will volunteer as a cheerleader.

I’ve got a bunch of finished books to write about in the coming days. You all can look forward to posts about Medea, Famous Ghost Stories, a graphic novel called Seconds and What Makes This Book So Great.

It is a gorgeous fall day outside and I am going to head out into it. I’m going to try watering my blueberries with diluted vinegar. It just might work. It is also time to clean up and bring in my ceramic froggy birdbath and fountain. There are other garden things to do too. It will be nice to be up and moving around after so much sitting yesterday. Away I go!

Filed under: Books, Read-a-thon

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22. Seconds

I don’t remember where I heard about Bryan O’Malley’s newest graphic novel Seconds, but I immediately put myself on the library hold queue for it. You may recognize O’Malley as the creator of the Scott Pilgrim graphic novel series or maybe you might just know that the movie Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is based on one of those novels (I learned from the movie that I should have vegan superpowers but I must be doing something wrong because I’m still waiting for them). I’ve not read the graphic novel series, have you? And if so, should I?

But back to Seconds. It is about Katie, a successful chef who runs a hip restaurant called Seconds. She is in the midst of trying to strike out on her own with a brand new restaurant but the building is in such bad shape renovations are taking forever and costing a lot of money. Katie lives in a tiny room above Seconds in order to save money. One evening, there is an accident in the kitchen and a young waitress whom Katie has been trying to make friends with is badly burned. In her room, Katie is presented with a chance to change things. A notebook appears in which she it to write what she wants to change and then eat the little mushroom that was left beside it.

Now I know what you are probably thinking about that mushroom! I thought it too. But it isn’t that sort of mushroom. What it does is erase the accident. It never happened. Katie is happy and relieved and wishes she had more mushrooms because there is so much she would change if she could. And then she discovers the mushrooms are growing beneath the floorboard of a not frequently used storage closet behind the kitchen. She helps herself to quite a few of them, a dozen. And every time something happens that she doesn’t like, she can change it. Her new restaurant, her old boyfriend, friends, she changes them all sometimes more than once. She begins to get confused about what has and hasn’t happened.

She learns from Hazel, the waitress and now her friend who burned her arms that began this whole thing, that Seconds has a house spirit. The house spirit’s name is Lis and she makes an appearance in Katie’s room demanding she give back all those mushrooms, Lis’s mushrooms. But Katie refuses. Things get bad. Really bad.

The story is good, well told. The art is good too. They combine to make an enjoyable reading experience. I liked that Katie is a successful woman and this is her story. She is not drawn as tall and gorgeous, impossibly skinny and extremely well endowed. Nope, Katie is normal. Kind of short even with sort of crazy hair. I also enjoyed mulling over all the ways “seconds” can be applied in the story. From food so good you want seconds to second chances to how a life can change in seconds.

I don’t read graphic novels very often, not because I don’t enjoy them. I think I am just very picky about them. They have to meet some kind of worthiness test that I can’t even begin to articulate. But Seconds passed the test. I’m glad it did because it’s a good read.

Filed under: Books, Graphic Novels, Reviews Tagged: Bryan O'Malley

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23. What Make This Book So Great

In the long ago time of February when I came down sick with a really bad cold that caused me to miss several days of work, Bookman brought me home some “chicken soup.” No, not fake vegan “chicken” soup. It was a book. And not one of those “Chicken Soup for the Soul” books. If Bookman had been silly enough to do that I think I probably would have barfed on him. A chicken soup book doesn’t have to be a specific book, just a book to help a person feel better. The book Bookman brought me was What Makes this Book So Great by Jo Walton. I didn’t finish it when I was sick and have only picked away at it from time to time since then. But when I caught a mild cold two weeks ago I picked it up again and managed to finish it just as I got better. Was finishing the book and my return to health a coincidence? Don’t be too quick to discredit chicken soup!

What Makes this Book so Great is a collection of essays that originally appeared at Tor and I think you can still read them there. The essays in the book are generally short, about three pages or so, perfect for cold weary brains. Walton takes a light and breezy tone, she only talks about books she likes, and it is like listening to a friend who is really excited about this book she just read and wants to tell you all about it and why you might want to read it too. Fun stuff!

There are also a few essays not about books but about book related things like wondering whether people skimmed while reading, mulling over why some people have a hard time with fantasy and science fiction, or outlining the difference between literary criticism and simply talking about books.

But most of the book is about books, specifically fantasy and science fiction books. As someone who has been reading SFF since she was a pre-teen, I’ve read my share, but there is so much I haven’t read and so much I haven’t even heard about before. Even my husband who is also a reader of SFF was stumped on occasion when I’d ask him, have you ever read … ? Which means this is a really good book for discovering “new” books. I have a tidy little list because of it.

You don’t have to be a fan of fantasy or science fiction to read this book but it helps. However, if you’re new to the genre and looking for some ideas about books to read, this would definitely be a good book to browse through.

Now that my chicken soup book is finished, I hope that means I will manage to avoid getting sick again for a long time.

Filed under: Books, Essays, Nonfiction, Reviews Tagged: Jo Walton

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24. Famous Modern Ghost Stories

When I first began reading Famous Modern Ghost Stories I mentioned how much fun Dorothy Scarborough’s introduction was. Turns out, the stories themselves are fun too.

There are fifteen stories in this collection. Some of them, like Poe’s “Ligeia,” I have read before. Some it really felt like I had read before but I couldn’t recall when or where, like “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood (I just love the name Algernon, it’s so, I’m not sure what, but it tickles my fancy so it is probably good I don’t have kids because I’d be tempted to call a boy Algernon and then you know he’d go by “Algie” for short and all the kids at school would make fun of him). Others were plain silly like “At the Gate” by Myla Jo Closser in which a recently deceased dog takes up his vigil outside the gates of Heaven with the other dogs waiting for their owners to arrive.

My favorite story in the collection was “Lazarus” by Leonid Andreyev. It is the story of Lazarus after he was raised from the dead. Did you ever see the Buffy the Vampire Slayer show where they bring Buffy back from the dead? She kind of wasn’t the same afterwards, or at least for a while. Well, Lazarus wasn’t the same either and while everyone was really glad to have him back, the haunting look in his eyes kind of freaked people out so no one wanted to be around him. Maybe if Lazarus had had a Scooby gang he would have eventually recovered.

Coming in second as my favorite story based only on the complete absurdity of it all, was “The Beast with Five Fingers” by W.F. Harvey. Bachelor uncle is ill and Eustace, while visiting, notices that uncle is unconsciously doing automatic writing. Eustace goofs around with this a bit until uncle dies. And then, in spite of uncle’s wishes to be cremated, he is not. Last minute instructions turn up and Eustace is bequeathed uncle’s well-preserved hand, the hand with which he did the automatic writing! The hand, of course, is alive but it isn’t uncle inhabiting it. At one point Eustace locks the hand in a desk drawer and the hand writes a note and slips it out through a crack in the desk. A servant finds a note bidding him to open the desk drawer and when the servant does so, the hand escapes! It is never clear why Eustace is being haunted by this hand or what the hand’s intent is, but the story comes very close to being a farce, right up to and including the hand eventually strangling Eustace and then the two of them ultimately perishing in a fire.

After reading so many ghost stories together it seems there is almost a requirement that at least one person experiencing the ghost or other phenomena has to be utterly and completely unbelieving. He, because it is usually a he in these stories, is then required to make up all sorts of logical explanations for what is happening. These explanations often approach the ridiculous. In the end, however, the unbeliever is convinced by the haunting and is either just in time to save himself or too late and dies. A few do believe right away and these have two responses. The smart ones figure out what the ghost wants. The not so smart ones go into battle. The smart ones generally come through unscathed and even satisfied about having helped a spirit move on. The not smart ones usually end up dead or psychologically traumatized for the rest of their lives.

These stories, even the bad ones, are all amusing in their own way. Of course I’m not supposed to be amused, I am supposed to get chills. But it seems that much of what haunts us is related to the times in which we live. Not that we can’t still feel a tingle down the spine when reading Poe, but it isn’t going to keep us up at night. Which makes me wonder whether in 100 years readers will think Stephen King is scary or will readers of the distant future read him and giggle and wonder why the twin girls in The Shining scare us so badly and make their way into other places like this IKEA commercial:

As a RIP Challenge read, Famous Modern Ghost Stories was quite fun. If you are looking for some older stories that don’t tend to show up in the anthologies, this would be a good choice.

Filed under: Books, Challenges, Gothic/Horror/Thriller, Reviews, Short Stories

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25. Kindle Killer

The Kindle saga has now come to an end.

If you recall, earlier this year my Kindle 2 began giving me trouble. I reset it to its factory settings and it behaved itself until about the end of August when the screen decided it was no longer going to work. So after four years together, it left me for what I hope will be a happier place in Digital Device Heaven.

I moved all my Kindle content over to Bookman’s old Kindle 1 and the two of us were getting along just fine. The Kindle 1 battery only held a charge for 5-6 days but that was fine. I planned on buying it a new battery once the current one was demanding to be charged every day or two. But apparently we were not getting along as well as I thought we were because two weeks ago Kindle 1 decided it would no longer do highlights or bookmarks. It told me my memory was full and I had to delete books. Wow, I didn’t realize I had that many, but ok, I deleted about 10 books. That should be enough.


So then I deleted all but 20 books. That definitely would be enough free space.


So then I thought, maybe it was the book I was reading. All the trouble had begun when I downloaded a book from the library Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz. Perhaps the whole highlighting trouble was just to do with some new DRM on library ebooks. So I opened Jane Austen’s Emma, a DRM-free Project Gutenberg book. And it still would not highlight. And when I tried to bookmark a page it said there was not enough memory.

Clearly it is the Kindle going kablooey. I cannot read on it if I cannot highlight. Though I have continued to read Being Wrong, which I am enjoying very much. However, it has been so long since I have read a book and not marked it up in some manner that it feels totally weird and I am having a hard time remembering things about the book. I briefly considered giving up reading it, but I don’t want to give it up. I have kept reading and when I am done with it, I won’t be able to really blog about it because I won’t be able to remember enough specifics.

Isn’t that interesting? Between college and blogging I had an entire decade in which I read books and didn’t mark them up and I was happy as a clam. Of course, ask me what I read during that decade and I would be hard pressed to come up with much. But then sometimes now at the end of the year when I look back on my books read there is one book I don’t recall reading. Of course I can read the blog post I wrote about it and it will come back, so that’s something. I find it somewhat amusing that I am reading a book called Being Wrong with a constant feeling of wrongness hovering around me.

With the Kindle 1 at death’s door, I was also having a hard debate with myself over whether to get another ereader. If it is only going to last for four or five years, is it really worth it? And if I did get another ereader, what would I get? I didn’t want another Kindle. Amazon has gotten too big and even nastier as a company. It’s kind of like the Walmart of the internet and I refuse to shop at Walmart which means I could not in good conscious buy anything from Amazon. I wouldn’t want a Nook. I don’t have anything against Barnes and Noble, but they are having such business problems with the Nook that with my luck I’d get one and next year they would no longer sell or support them.

I wasn’t going to get a new ereader then. I would just have to figure out how to manage my reading glasses on the bus and metro train and get used to carrying a book in my bag. I wasn’t happy about the prospect, but I was going to make it work.

Then Bookman told me I was being daft. You use the ereader five days a week and for those five days you spend more time reading on it than you do in paper books. You don’t want to mess around with reading glasses, especially in the winter. I’m going to get you a new Kindle. No! I said, not a Kindle. A Nook then? he asked. No not a Nook either. What then? I don’t know, I said. Well, you think about it, he said.

I thought about it. He was right that I do use the ereader a lot and I was dreading trying to juggle book and glasses and mittens and lenses fogging up or getting scratched and all that. I was still reluctant though. Bookman insisted again and told me if I didn’t decide he would just get me a Kindle. No Kindle. Amazon bad. Plus, I am clearly a Kindle killer. I’ve already killed two this year and did not want to make it a trifecta.

The only other alternative to Kindle and Nook is Kobo. I looked at the Kobo website. Maybe a Kobo Touch? Bookman ordered one before I had time to make up reasons why I shouldn’t have one. Kobo is in Canada. It took two weeks for it to get here. It arrived Friday. It’s so tiny. I need to find a cover for it to protect it in my bag. Since I won’t start carrying it until I am finished with Being Wrong on the Kindle, I have time to find a cover.

Yesterday I did all the setup stuff with it and added a couple of public domain books. I played around with it to figure out how to highlight and turn pages and get the various menus and how to make the font bigger so I can read without my glasses. The touch screen is nice, though in comparison with my iPad its responsiveness is frustratingly slow especially when trying to highlight something. But it is e-ink and at least I can highlight things!

I think Kobo and I will get along just fine. I’ll be finishing up the book on Kindle and it can join its Kindle 2 friend in Digital Device Heaven. Then Kobo and I can begin what I hope will be a long and beautiful friendship.

Filed under: Books, ebooks, Kindle, Technology Tagged: Kobo

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