Monday, December 29, 2014

2014 in Review

It's that time of year when I put together my reads for the year and send a list out to my reading buddies.  I keep a list in Excel as well as on the blog; I have tracked the books I've read since about 1999!  This year I captured old 3 x 5 cards from before 2003 into my master list.  I also use a program on my iPhone called SplashShopper to keep track of the books I've read (over 1,000 on that list) and to keep a list of my "TBRs" - to be reads.

The last couple of years I've also begun not finishing books I don't think are worth finishing.  This is a big departure for me, but life is too short to suffer through unenjoyable reading; unlike exercise, it doesn't make me any better!

The stats for this year are:

total reads recorded:  72
  by category:

  •     memoir - 9
  •     non-fiction - 10
  •     fiction - 38
  •     historical fiction - 4
  •    other - 11 (I think that adds up)
It wasn't a great year, I didn't have a lot of favorites, I think I'm getting pickier.  The 5 runner-ups  were:

I plan to concentrate on books on my TBR although I have four or five at my bedside and only one was from my list (sigh).  I want to walk more in 2015 so I will be adding more audio books to the list too.  

A thank you to my Mom who gave me my love of reading, scolded me when I didn't answer when I had my nose in a book and always loved a good story.

Girl's Guide to Homelessness - Brianna Karp

This is a powerful memoir of a young woman from a dysfunctional family (an understatement) who lost her 50K a year job and became homeless, living out of an old camping trailer in a Wal-Mart parking lot.  She began a blog which led to her being hired as an intern for an Elle columnist and the publication of her book in 2011.  She is an advocate for the homeless and its not clear what she as ended up doing or where she's now living.

One of the most important things I learned reading this book is that there are so many different kinds of homeless people, different types of homelessness, different reasons for getting there.  She advocates for removing judgment and extending understanding.

"Resources are the absolute most important thing when you're homeless.  You learn to make the most of everything you have....The only resource that all [homeless] have is ourselves.  My body and my mind were and are my most important assets.  As long as I was alive and healthy and physically and mentally capable of coming up with a plan and executing it, I knew I'd be okay."

She suffered through a painful, deceitful relationship while homeless, in addition to having no family support.  She was not a drug abuser, drinker or goof off.  She took no public assistance, except for unemployment, as she felt it should go to those who truly needed it.

The book reminded me of another one, Nickeled and Dimed, which pointed out how very difficult it is to afford and maintain housing.  It's one of the greatest challenges in living in the U.S. today.

I would like to know that she is secure and employed and happy - the book leaves that unsaid.

Published: 2011  Read: December 2014  Genre: Memoir

Being Mortal - Atul Gawande

Subtitle: Medicine and What Matters in the End

I'm known in one of my reading groups as the one who reads "Death and Dying" titles.  I've pursued the subject since the late 1980's when I lost my Nana, my Dad's mother, to vascular dementia.  It launched me on a study of gerontology, then an MBA in Health care Administration and volunteer and paid work with aging organizations, so aging and the end of life are subjects dear to my heart.

I've enjoyed Dr Gawande's previous books and this one is rewarding.  It provides many thought provoking discussions on how we interact those with illness and those approaching death and with how we ourselves deal with the end of life.


You become a doctor for what you imagine to be the satisfaction of the work, and that turns out to be the satisfaction of competence.

The veneration of elders may be gone, but not because it has been replaced by veneration of youth.  It's been replaced by veneration of the independent self.

[On falling]  Each year, about 350,000 Americans fall and break a hip.  Of those, 40 % end up in a nursing home and 20% are never able to walk again.  The three primary risk factors for falling are poor balance, taking more than four prescription medications and muscle weakness.

[On nursing home treatment] In almost none [of the care facilities] does anyone sit down with you and try to figure out what living a life really means to you under the circumstances, let alone help you make a home where that life becomes possible.

Studies find that as people grow older they interact with fewer people and concentrate more on spending time with family and established friends.  They focus on being rather than doing and on present more than the future.

[on caring for elderly] ...provide care without calculation or deception, don't impose any goals beyond what the person desires.

Making lives meaningful in old age is new.  It therefore requires more imagination and invention than making them merely safe does.

[Questions to ask a person facing illness or death] What are your biggest fears and concerns?  What goals are most important to you?  What trade offs are you willing to make and what ones are you not?

...our most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer; that the chance to shape one's story is essential to sustaining meaning in life.

The job in to enable well-being.  And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive.

Published: 2014  Read: December 2014   Genre: Non-fiction, aging, medicine

ISBN: 978 1 62779 055 0

Friday, December 19, 2014

Your Fathers, Where Are They? and the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? - Dave Eggers

This is a disturbing portrayl of the meaninglessness of life for a young man in the 21st century.
The book is written as dialogues between the young man and people he has kidnapped and locked up in an abandoned military base; his heroes, his tormentors, his idols, his fantasies.

"You have no idea how weird it is to envision things then have them come to nothing".

[a conversation with a woman, who speaks first to him when he says he's leaving]

And I'll be safe?

---To what end?

To keep living.

---That's my point.  That's not enough.

Read this book.  It weaves the sources of conflice, angst and unrest of the X and Y generation into a powerful inquiry into the meaning of life.

Published:  2014  Read: December 2014  Genre: Fiction

ISBN 978-1-101-87419-6

Wondrous Words Wednesday

I'm behind on the weekly word-lovers posts of new words I've come across while reading. It’s called Wondrous Words Wednesday and was created by Kathy at BermudaOnion’s Weblog.  Here are some new words I picked up this week from Peter Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read:

Verisimilitude - "We would rather have sketches than verisimilitude". 

The word means "the appearance of being true or real.  That makes sense.

Mimesis - "...we haven't seen his [daffodils] so we must imagine them, spurred by the poet's words-his mimesis."

This word is defined as imitation, in particular the representation or imitation of the real world in art and literature.
So the poet's is his imitation of what is described, in this case Wordsworth's daffodils.

Harridan - " adds a sympathetic psychological depth to a goddess [Athena] traditionally characterized as a shrill and jealous harridan"

This one I can relate to! The definition is a strict, bossy, or belligerent old woman!

What We See When We Read - Peter Mendelsund

I came down with a cold so I've been plowing through books this week.  This read is a strange sort of book.  It's pictures, drawings and designs accompanied by text discussing how our imagination creates what we "see" when we read.  The author is a well known graphic designer.  He uses examples from classic literature (Anna Karenina, Melville's Moby Dick, James Joyce's Ulysses) to show how we create in our mind the visions of the characters and settings in the books we read.

He asks, "what does the character look like" and goes on to point out we usually describe their character traits rather than their actual appearance.  He notes that we "read ahead", that is, our eyes and our minds picture something from one part of a page as we gather information from another part.

He points out that when we read what we see is personal; it's not what the author pictured, it's what our own minds imagine.  He suggests that "picturing events in fiction delivers unintentional glimpses into our own pasts".  For example, if we read about "the school hallways" we picture in our mind the schools we went to and what those hallways looked like.

It's an essay on how we imagine and understand the things we read.  A nice quirky read and thought-provoking.

Published: 2014  Genre: Non-fiction  Read: December 2014

ISBN: 3 1740 11250 0446

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Planets - Dava Sobel

I'd read this author's great little piece of non-fiction on the discovery of navigation's Longitude and the life of the astronomer in Galileo's Daughter.  I really enjoyed this book that tells the story of each of the nine planets in our solar system as well as the Sun and Moon, that we learned about in school.

For each chapter covering each body, she weaves in history, myth, evolution, discovery and space exploration facts that effortlessly portray the key distinguishing qualities of each one.  Her prose is never dry or boring:

[When describing Mercury's day] "...any given locale waits half a Mercurian year (about six Earth-weeks) after sunup for the full light of high noon.  Dusk finally descends at year's end.  And once the long night commences, another Mercurian year must pass before the Sun rises again.  Thus the years hurry by, while the days drag on forever [literally!].

She notes at one point,  "The far side of the Moon is the one place in the whole Solar System deaf to Earth's radio noise".  Facts like that strike my imagination in the same way it has song and science fiction writers.

Note, the author is female, her first name is Dava, it's not a typo.  I'll note to, there's a lot of new vocabulary to explore: ansa, extremophiles, oubliettes, vespertide and photosphere, as just a sample.

I came away with a pleasant and fondly remembered lesson in the universe we're found in and its major inhabitants.

Published:  2005   Read: December 2014  Genre: Science, Non-fiction

ISBN:  0-14-200116-3

vocabulary:  vespertide, oubliettes, syzygy, extremophiles, ansa

You Suck - Christopher Moore

Subtitle: A Love Story

Christopher Moore is a strange humor writer who comes up with some of the most odd ball ideas for his fiction.  This past summer I read his book about a sea monster terrorizing a small town and before that the auto-biography of Jesus by his best friend, Biff.  So I knew I was in for some more weird stuff with another of his books.

In this story a nineteen, gawky love struck guy is turned into a vampire by his big-hearted, older girlfriend.  They spend the first part of the book bickering and figuring out how to find a place to be during the day (you can't really call it sleep) and some one to care for them and run errands.  They con a goth teen girl who's awed by their immortality into hunting for an apartment and keeping them safe from vengeful enemies.

It's a quick beach read sort of book that brought on a few laughs and surprises and I appreciate his clever sense of humor.

Published: 2008  Read:  December 2014   Genre: fiction

ISBN: 978-0-06-059030-7

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Wondrous Words Wednesday

I found this group of like-minded readers who have a tradition of sharing new words they've found when reading every week.  So I thought I'd join in!

I've just started reading Planets, by Dava Sobel.  I really enjoyed her books Longitude and Galileo's Daughter so I snatched this one up at the half priced bookstore.  It promises to be absorbing and a lesson in astronomy.  A couple of words I found in it so far that caught my eye are:

exoplanet - "As yet, no exoplanets have been imaged directly through a telescope, so their discoveres are left to imagine what they look like."

Exoplanets are newly discovered bodies in space which are extra-solar, or planets beyond our solar system.

2)  aegis - "Absent any aegis of air to spread out and hold in solar heat, some regions of Mercury get hot enough to melt metals in daylight..."

Aegis used here is referring to the air providing support or backing.  It's a clever use of the word in a chapter on Mythology that explains the names of the planets, as in Greek mythology it refers to a animal skin or shield that provided protection.

I hope this entry sparks a new habit for me, do you think it's a good start?

Monday, December 8, 2014

Empty Mansions - Bill Dedman

Subtitle: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune

Coauthor: Paul Clark Newell, Jr.

As the subtitle indicates, this is the tale of the squandering of a fortune built by W.A. Clark in the "Gilded Age", the late 1800's.  Clark was a Pennsylvania boy who went west to make his fortune.  He ended up in Montana where he became a banker to the miners and owner of copper mines.  He built the town of Jerome, Arizona and owned the copper mine there.  He built with his own money the railroad to Los Angeles.  W.A. married a PA sweetheart and had 5 children that lived to adulthood.  In his late 60's and a widow, he married a French Canadian woman in her 20's and had two daughters.  One died at 16 and the other, Huguette (pronounced "oo-GET") outlived all her half-siblings and inherited a multi-million fortune.

The title refers to homes she inherited or acquired that set empty for decades.  She had two floors of an apartment building on 5th Avenue in NYC, a 23 acre mansion in Santa Barbara, CA, a chateau which she had built and never lived in in New Canaan, CT, $800 million in trusts and investments, and $80 million in cash and personal property; in all about $308 million before taxes.

Huguette was a shy, daddy's girl who seems to never have recovered from the death of her older sister at 16.  She was pampered and sheltered by her parents.  She married for a few weeks in her 20's and then divorced and virtually disappeared.  She rarely left the apartment she shared with her mother until her mother died and spent the last 20 years of her life in a hospital in NYC, clear minded but demanding and catered to by the staff. Her nurse, who received over $26 million while caring for her and after her death, was there every day for over 10 years.  She died at the age of 103.

Of course the other heirs, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the other 5 siblings, sued when her will left them out even though she had no contact with them her entire adult life and even though her siblings had received substantial settlements when her father had died.  The 19 heirs ended up splitting 34.5 million, with almost $100 million going to taxes.  The Santa Barbara property was given to a foundation to become a museum, though not with enough funds to keep it operating.  Generous gifts that she had left to staff at her properties, her nurse and friends were granted too.

The co-author was a grandchild of one of W.A. Clark's aunts and had contacted Huguette when she was living in the hospital and had several phone conversations for many years, off and on.

The authors don't speculate on why she chose to be reclusive, why she didn't stay in contact with her half-siblings, why she was so generous to those around her.  I found it fascinating to track the long arm of a successfully family pioneer who did little to prepare his daughter for the future as an heiress.

Clark County in Nevada is named after W.A. as is Clarkdale in Arizona.

Published:  2014  Read: December 2014  Genre: Biography