Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Reads of 2015 (So Far)

Today’s Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, asks us to list our ten favorite books of 2015 so far. Right at the beginning of April I went into a terrible reading slump that was only broken temporarily by re-reading Keith Lee Morris’s The Dart League King and then reading Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation. The result? I’ve read only 17 books so far this year. I think that’s a record low.

Nominating top ten favorites from such a short list feels weird, so I picked out five:

Seating Arrangements, Maggie Shipstead
Skippy Dies, Paul Murray
The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert
Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer
The Hand That First Held Mine, Maggie O’Farrell

And see, I already feel bad about leaving off The Lola Quartet, Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, and both of the Sarah Vowell books I’ve read. But if I had read more, certainly some of those would fall off the list.

Which brings me to this: If I’m being honest, I’d also have to say that I haven’t been a good reader lately, and there’s evidence. For one, my “review” of Skippy Dies, which was all just holycowIloveditbutnotsurewhykthanksbye. Oh gosh if that wouldn’t convince you to read it I don’t know what will! I also have a post about Seating Arrangements that I wrote months ago and kept meaning to put up–but when I looked over it it last week, thinking I might post it, I was sort of happy I never did. It was just a whole lot of yammering about preppies and New England and again ohIlovedititwassogood!

Not that I think I need to write deeply about every book I read, but looking back at older posts and thinking about my current situation, I realized I have fallen into some very general bad habits when it comes to reading. I don’t take notes anymore. I don’t highlight passages or mark pages. And clearly what’s worse is that I am reading mindlessly. I’m enjoying things in the minute without really thinking about why. I suppose this sort of “love the one you’re with” approach to reading is okay once in a while. But that’s not why I got into this whole blogging thing. I got into it to talk about books. Not even to “review” them or assign them arbitrary star ratings. That definitely isn’t why I read. I read because I am interested in writing, and I like to talk about writing, and to talk about how the books I read fit into life, reading or otherwise. So if I can make a half-year resolution, it’s to be a better reader—not necessarily to read more, but more deeply than I have been.

Reader’s Journal: Into Thin Air

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest DisasterI’m not exactly a risk-taker. In fact, I’m what might be described as “indoorsy.” The most daunting thing I face daily is trying not to trip on the stairs while carrying food and drink up to my office. Given this, you might be surprised at my interest in a book like Into Thin Air.

Well, truth be told, I really wasn’t all that interested. I mainly bought it for two reasons: it was on sale, and I wanted my mother to stop nagging me about reading it already. (Don’t feel sorry for her and think that now she has nothing to nag me about. She has plenty of other things, including calling her, making one of the eleventy-million recipes she sends me, reading Wolf Hall, and wearing just a tad more mascara because it wouldn’t kill me…but I digress.) Into Thin Air is Mom’s go-to book when she can’t seem to find anything else she wants to read. The fact that a book about a terrible, real-life tragedy during a mountaineering expedition is a “go-to” book in my mother’s mind is another post entirely.

If you’re one of my hundreds of Twitter followers—I can say that now, because as I write this I am officially up to 204 followers and yes I am willingly counting you in the mix, Nissan-Dialer, whoever (whatever) you are—then you know all about the tragic events in my own life these last few weeks. But maybe you don’t so I’ll fill you in: I was reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, making some pretty nice (for me) progress and happy to be out of a months-long slump at last, when I hit page 439. Page 439 is the end of Section 4 in that book. So I flipped past the “Section 5” page and a pretty print of some flower drawing and found myself mid-sentence on page 471. My copy was a rather nice hard-bound edition, by the way. For several minutes I just flipped the pages back and forth, as though that simple motion might somehow cause the missing pages to appear and apologize for taking a break. The pages clearly had not been removed from the book–it was a printing error. (But what about Into Thin Air, right? Can’t I just tell this story when—nay, IF—I review The Signature of All Things? No. But I promise if I review that book I won’t tell this story again, okay? Happy?)

And so, as I am obviously some kind of Twitter power-user which is why I have so many people interested in what I have to say, I decided to tweet Viking Books and give them what for. And anyway long story short they were really nice and sent me a new hard-cover copy just like the old one except with all the pages and I have since finished that book BUT.

Obviously I had to have something to read while I waited for said book to arrive. Now I don’t know about you but I can’t start a novel while I am reading a novel, unless I am intentionally abandoning the first novel for the second. Besides that, I haven’t been having the best luck with fiction lately, but we can talk about that another time. I scrolled through my Kindle app to see what looked good, and there it was, my mother’s go-to, Into Thin Air, and I thought, why not?

Into Thin Air was published in 1997, and it recounts Jon Krakauer’s experience of following a guided expedition to the top of Mount Everest. Krakauer joined the expedition as a journalist, planning to write a piece about guided expeditions for Outside magazine. Krakauer visited Everest from April through May 1996, and the following September he did eventually go on to publish a 17,000-word story about the tragic events that occurred there. After receiving some criticism about the piece, and wanting to explore more deeply the events of that expedition–and his part in those events–he decided to write the book that would become Into Thin Air.

The most critical decision Krakauer made took place before he ever even left Seattle for Everest. Outside magazine initially invited him to travel to Everest in 1995 and park at the base camp to interview the climbers about their experiences. But Krakauer had a past with mountaineering. He saw what might be his only opportunity to summit the greatest mountain of them all, something he had dreamed of since childhood. He convinced the magazine to give him a year to train so that he could join an expedition and go all the way to the top.

When he arrived in Nepal in April 1996, Krakauer joined an expedition led by New Zealander Rob Hall, an experienced mountaineer who owned a company called Adventure Consultants. Including Krakauer, that expedition included ten climbers, seven climbing Sherpas, and three guides (including Rob Hall). There were at least thirteen other expeditions (groups and solo climbers) planning to summit Everest from the Nepalese side at the same time as Krakauer’s group, and two other expeditions summiting from the Tibetan side. And here’s where I should tell you the book includes a “Dramatis Personae” list to rival something out of Tolstoy. I cannot possibly cover what happens to all these people, except to say eight of them died in one day as the result of a freak storm (and some very bad decisions made by many players).

And really, it isn’t so much about events as it is about the telling, the recounting, the wondering, and Krakauer, pardon the obvious metaphor, is an excellent guide. Interwoven with the story of the Adventure Consultants expedition is his own past experience with mountaineering and the difficulties of mountaineering in general, some history of Everest expeditions, some history of key players like Rob Hall and Scott Fischer (lead guide of another expedition), the history of the Sherpas, and so on. I found it to Krakauer’s credit that he avoids making any one person the villain, which could have been easy to do.

That said, he does call into question some decisions that he believes contributed to the tragedy. In some cases, the decision he calls into question is the decision to climb at all, especially given that several of the people on guided expeditions that year were not mountaineers, not in the least. Writing about their first attempt to leave base camp for Camp One, Krakauer says:

“As I loaded my backpack for the morrow, I learned that between the demands of their families and and their high-powered careers, few of my fellow clients had the opportunity to go climbing more than once or twice in the previous year. Although everyone appeared to be in superb physical shape, circumstances had forced them to do the bulk of their training on StairMasters and treadmills rather than on actual peaks. This gave me pause. Physical conditioning is a crucial component of mountaineering, but there are many other equally important elements, none of which can be practiced in a gym.”

But then a bit later:

“But the question of who belongs on Everest and who doesn’t is more complicated than it might first appear. The fact that a climber has paid a large sum of money to join a guided expedition does not, by itself, mean that he or she is unfit to be on the mountain.”

Really, this is one of the biggest questions at the heart of the book, whether people should be shelling out big bucks (when Krakauer went to Everest in 1997, Adventure Consultants was charging $75,000 for the pleasure) and putting their own and other people’s (the Sherpas’ for example) lives in great danger. When Krakauer et. al. start to climb in earnest, he realizes that some people don’t even know how to use their equipment; they cannot figure out how to put the crampons on their boots, for example. Little things like that. Things you’d think you might get the really helpful salespeople at REI to show you in the store when you buy the damn things. (Although, granted, they probably won’t show you how to do it with numb hands and a raging altitude headache.)

If anyone maybe comes off as making some questionable decisions, it’s an assistant guide from Scott Fischer’s Mountain Madness team, Anatoli Boukreev. Boukreev, who was killed in an avalanche in 1997, wrote his own account of the tragedy in a book called The Climb. To say that he thought Krakauer got things wrong is an understatement, and Krakauer addresses this in a long epilogue in my edition. To be fair, Krakauer is as hard on himself as he is on any of the other key players that day, but while pointing out that he was not a guide and not responsible for any clients, while Boukreev was.

And I think that’s the right word, tragedy. If there is one thing Into Thin Air does not make me want to do, it’s climb a mountain. And in all honesty, I cannot help thinking, after reading this book, that people who want to climb mountains are just a leeeetle bit nuts, and not just because they expose themselves willingly to such things as extreme cold and going to the bathroom outdoors. Some of these people climb alone (well, with Sherpas to fix their ropes and carry their stuff, so “alone”). Some of these people climb without using supplemental oxygen. Keep in mind that Everest is at 29,029 feet above sea level. That is thin air indeed. Rarified. Um, nuts.

Certainly after reading Into Thin Air, I am interested in reading more of Krakauer’s work, but I’m also interested in reading more about why these crazy people climb mountains. I know, I know. Because they are there. Same reason I read books, which is easier, warmer, and so much safer. And while I don’t think this will be a “go-to” for me, I’m happy I picked it up. You win, Mom. This time.

Top Ten Tuesday: 10 Books of Summer

10 booksI’m late to the party, and really only joining for half. Today’s Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by The Broke and the Bookish) asks us about the top books on our summer TBR list, and that coincides quite nicely with Cathy’s #20BooksofSummer challenge (although I am only doing 10 because I have become the world’s slowest reader). Without further ado, here are the books on my list:

Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell
Astonish Me, Maggie Shipstead
My Antonia, Willa Cather
My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante
Mind of Winter, Laura Kasischke
Annihilation, Jeff Vandermeer
After I’m Gone, Laura Lippman
Cleopatra, Stacy Schiff
Black Water Rising, Attica Locke
Dirty Love: Stories, Andre Dubus III

A nice mix of fiction and nonfiction, one classic, some mysteries…but lighter reads overall. I had grand plans to tackle Wolf Hall, East of Eden, and Cloud Atlas this summer , but given my slow pace those might have ended up being the only books I read. I’d like to make a bit more of a dent in my TBR pile, so we’ll see how it goes! What’s on your list?

Results: TBR Double Dog Dare 2015

As I’ve mentioned frequently over the last few months, in December I signed up for the TBR Double Dog Dare hosted by James at James Reads Books. It isn’t a challenge, really, but a dare to stick with your own books for three full months, January 1 through April 1. I’m happy to announce that I was mostly successful!

Why only “mostly successful?” I’ll get there.

In the last three months, I read nine books, all from my current TBR. I didn’t read anything I bought or checked out of the library after January 1. In fact, I also finished every single book I started. I never went through a period of picking things up and putting them down 50 or 100 pages through and starting something else (although, admittedly, several of the books I managed to read had suffered such treatment from me in the past). Below are the books I read, in order:

January
Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, Sara Gran
We Disappear, Scott Heim
The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, Joel Dicker
The Lola Quartet, Emily St. John Mandel

February
Seating Arrangements, Maggie Shipstead
Bark, Lorrie Moore
Big Little Lies, Liane Moriarty

March
Skippy Dies, Paul Murray
Lake of Sorrows, Erin Hart

While I liked all of them, I enjoyed Skippy Dies and Seating Arrangements the most; I had a difficult time putting them down. The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair was the book that exasperated me the most, but obviously not to the point of abandoning it. And I’m sorry to say—and I have a proper write-up coming at some point in the next few weeks—that the biggest disappointment for me was Lorrie Moore’s Bark. I liked it, it was fine, but it’s far from her best collection. I’ll stop there before I say too much.

With the exceptions of Lorrie Moore and Erin Hart, all of these authors were new to me. I was most pleased to discover Sara Gran, Emily St. John Mandel, and Maggie Shipstead. (Okay, “discover” sounds weird, because obviously I’d heard of them; I own their books.)  I’ve got Station Eleven (which just won the Tournament of Books) and Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway waiting for me, now that April has arrived and I can read my new books.

And I suppose that brings me to that “mostly successful” part of the story.

I read nine books from my backlog. For some of you, that would be a terrible number, because you all are much more dedicated readers than I am. But for me, nine is a good number, a nice dent, especially considering that some of those books had been on my TBR since 2009. The “mostly successful,” then, stems from this: while I was reading only my own books, I never stopped buying them. In fact…I bought…uh…21 books. YOU DO THE MATH. But see, I had Christmas money, I had credit, they were on sale–ALL OF THEM.

Er, anyway, I did it. Yea me! Kind of. Oh, shut up.

Reader’s Journal: Lake of Sorrows

Lake of Sorrows (Nora Gavin #2)For my second book for Reading Ireland Month (well, also my final book I guess, although I started Maggie O’Farrell’s The Hand That First Held Mine on Saturday, so that sort of counts, doesn’t it?), I chose Erin Hart’s Lake of Sorrows, the second book in her Nora Gavin/Cormac Maguire series. I read the first book in the series, Haunted Ground, back in 2009. While Hart is technically an American (as is Nora Gavin, her female protagonist), the series is set in Ireland. Nora is a pathologist and Cormac is an anthropologist, so they seem to find themselves pulled into helping to solve modern-day crimes as a result of their work with older specimens, specifically bodies and artifacts recovered from the boglands in central Ireland.

From this point on, my review will contain some spoilers. That’s the thing about series like this one: many of the areas up for discussion will be based on things that happened in the previous books. So one thing to know about Lake of Sorrows from the get-go is that while you can read it as a standalone, some things won’t make much sense, or may seem to take up valuable time in the book without really warranting it.

As Lake of Sorrows opens, Nora is on her way to investigate (as part of a research team from the National Museum) a bog body that has been recovered by an archaeological team that works at a peat cultivation site to ensure the preservation of archaeological finds. One thing Hart does well is to keep the political and environmental impact of the bogland in the reader’s mind. Peat can be cultivated relatively cheaply to fuel power plants, but cheap fuel has its price:

It was astonishing to her that bogs, despite their role as collective memory, were still being relinquished to feed the ever-growing hunger for electric power. Up until a hundred years ago, the bogs had been considered useless, mere wasteland. then men of science had gone to work on them, devising ever more efficient ways to harvest peat—only to find out, too late, that this was a misguided effort, and perhaps the wrong choice all along. Twenty years from now, the outdated power plants would be gone. The bog would be stripped right down to the marl subsoil, and would have to begin anew the slow reversion to its natural state, layer by layer, over the next five, eight, or ten thousand years.

Nora is only at the site a short time when one of the young archaeologists uncovers another body—only this one happens to be wearing a wristwatch. Even though the second body is clearly a modern man, similarities appear to exist in the way the men have died (or were killed). When the lead archaeologist at the site is found murdered not long after the discovery of the second bog body—and again with similar marks and methods, Nora finds herself drawn ever deeper into the mystery, as is Cormac, who has accompanied her (separately) and offered her a place to stay.

Here’s where it gets a bit spoiler-y. In Haunted Ground, Nora and Cormac were set up (as a couple) by a man who was mentor to each of them. At the beginning of Lake of Sorrows, Nora is thinking that she will have to leave Cormac in pursuit of the one thing that obsesses her, which is proving that her dead sister Triona’s husband, who is about to be remarried, is responsible for Triona’s murder a few years earlier. This backstory is given much more space in Haunted Ground, and at the beginning of Lake of Sorrows it seems that this will be one of the larger subplots to help further develop Nora (and possibly Cormac). Strangely enough, although Nora spends the first few chapters acting weepy and strange and guilty for not staying focused on Triona’s death and about her decision to leave Cormac, the entire thing is all but dropped until near the end of the book, when she mentions to Cormac that she needs to return to America, and his response is not much more than, “I knew you would.” I suppose I can understand why Hart would want to save the Triona storyline perhaps for a book that’s more full devoted to that crime, it annoyed me that it was such a huge deal in the first few chapters and then is basically dropped while she and Cormac try to figure out the murders. On that note, Cormac doesn’t get much in the way of development in this book (and neither does Nora, actually, not really), and plays second string to Nora even though he has his own past issues with his father to deal with that were well-established in the first book and only given passing mention in this one.

Another thing that, for me, made Lake of Sorrows less satisfying than Haunted Ground was the mystery itself. While Hart is very good at weaving in cultural history—in this case, mostly about Celtic sacrificial rituals and Iron Age artifacts—the mystery itself is somewhat boring. The characters involved, other than the Detective Liam Ward (whom I hope reappears in later books in the series), are mostly types easily set in to make that subplot move forward. For example, Ursula Downes, the head archaeologist who is murdered, had been involved with Cormac when they were much younger. But she’s simply drawn as a manipulative man-eater (albeit one with a sad, clichéd past). This seemed to me like a real opportunity to develop Cormac’s character and have a complex villain (but not necessarily a murderer, which she’s not). The other problem for me was the pacing. Hart bogs this one down (ha!) with so many little subplots and oddball characters out to get this or that, it becomes tiresome.

Overall, Lake of Sorrows was good enough to make me want to read at least the third book, False Mermaid, if only because Hart does do such a good job with bringing in the history and culture of Ireland. I’m also interested to see if the issues I have with the second book (pacing, character development) are really more about the author feeling her way into a longer series. I definitely recommend it, but do read Haunted Ground first. You won’t be sorry.

Reader’s Journal: Skippy Dies

Skippy DiesWell, it looks like my entries for Reading Ireland Month will be a paltry two novels…but then again, with a book like Skippy Dies on that (very short) list, I feel less ashamed for only having two.

People, I don’t even know where to begin. In truth, I’m feeling very protective of this book and my feelings about it. I’m not sure why because when it was published in 2010, it received mostly highly favorable reviews (read Patrick Ness’s review here), and it was shortlisted for any number of literary prizes, so it’s not as though I am being called upon defend my love for a book everyone hates. The problem is, I just loved it that much, and I realize I may not even be able to explain why.

A plot summary won’t tell you much about why I loved it (and you can find summaries anywhere: in Ness’s review, or by clicking on the book image to go to Goodreads). I can tell you it’s a campus/boarding school novel (some of you love those as much as I do). I can tell you it’s funny and melancholy at the same time. I can tell you that every bit of Murray’s affection and empathy for these characters is evident on each and every page, and he has a keen ear and understanding for the language and dynamics of young people, without making them seem like caricatures or symbols of some societal problem or another. I can tell you that despite the fact that Murray uses very contemporary references to technology and pop culture, I seriously doubt they will date the book for future readers because the story at the heart of it is timeless. And I suppose one could quibble over its length (it’s about 660 pages, originally released as three volumes sold together), but something about the length immerses the reader and reminds us of how very slow time moves when we’re young, or when we are not as young but feel so very lost.

If you’ve been thinking about reading Skippy Dies, trust your instinct on this one. Just do it. I hope you love it as much as I did.

Skippy Still Isn’t Dead Yet

How the Irish Saved CivilizationNot that I want to see Skippy die, but I’m starting to feel anxious. I’m only about two-thirds through the book, and I started it in early March. It’s my fault of course, not the book’s. In fact, when I get a chance to read, I find it very difficult to put down because it’s very well done: observant and witty and melancholy all at the same time, which are all traits of the best books. I’m only embarrassed because I joined Reading Ireland Month, and now I am starting to worry that my contribution will be one lone entry. I hope not, because I’m tired of Erin Hart’s Lake of Sorrows looking at me reproachfully from the shelf…Oh! And also, I forgot that I have a copy of How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill, and I was hoping to read that one as well. The best laid plans!