Monday, November 27, 2017

The "Non-Fiction November" Tag

It's hard to believe that November is drawing to a close, and with it the reading challenge of Non-Fiction November.  As you'll see later this week, November wasn't a particularly prolific reading month, with holiday preparations and other life commitments taking up more of my allocated reading time than so far this year, but I did finish a few non-fiction books.  As a way to reflect back on reading non-fiction as a whole, I present you my responses to the Non-Fiction November Tag.

Why do you read non-fiction?

I read non-fiction because I love learning about the world around me.  It's not that you can't learn from fiction/poetry/etc. but the scholarship involved in non-fiction has a special place in my heart and my reading life.

Where in your home do you read most?

As I read quite equally between physical and digital books, I read most anywhere.  When my partner and I have joint reading time, we usually occupy the reclining sofa in our living room; put on some relaxing music in the background and curl up under some blankets and it's just heavenly.

Share a non-fiction book that is set in -or- is about your home country...

Not just in my home country, but in my home area of Pennsylvania is Slavery & the Underground Railroad in South Central Pennsylvania by Cooper H. Wingert.  It discusses the presence of slavery in America up until the American Civil War, as well as the function of and prominent people involved in the Underground Railroad, the secret organization that spirited enslaved peoples to freedom in the North.

What book on your Non-Fiction November 2017 TBR related to the word "home" are you most excited about?

I had two books on my TBR - Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library by Scott Sherman; and Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson - neither of which did I read in November.  I'm still excited to read them...eventually.

What books do you love to read the most within non-fiction?

I've found my favorite niche of non-fiction are books about food and wine.  I'm no chef or sommelier, but I enjoy reading books written by them.  If the writing is well-crafted, you can't help but be moved by their passion for their craft.

Give a non-fiction recommendation related to the challenge word "love"...

I would really recommend either of the two books on my TBR for the challenge of "love", both of which I finished in November - Devotion by Patti Smith and Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living edited by Manjula Martin.  If you love Patti Smith's previous works and are interested in her creative process, Devotion is a must-read.  If you're interested in peeking behind the curtain to the real world concerns of authors, and why they love what they do, then Scratch should be on your TBR.

Non-fiction is a great way to introduce us to people who inspire us to be better.  Name a person of substance that you've enjoyed reading about...

I absolutely adore Toni Morrison, and find her to be absolutely compelling and brilliant.  In fact, I'm toying with the idea of working my way through her oeuvre in 2018.  I had her recently-published lectures The Origin of Others on my Non-Fiction November TBR, but I don't expect that I'll finish it before the month comes to a close.

What non-fiction book would you recommend that has a lot of substance to it?

There's only one I can think of that fits this description - Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi.  This is an almost-600 page tome that tackles the ways that racism have pervaded the culture and society of America from long before it's founding.  Dr. Kendi has indeed written a book with tremendous amounts of substance to it.

What book related to the word "substance" are you most excited for on your non-fiction TBR?

Unfortunately I don't expect that I'll read either of the two books on my TBR - The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison and The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo.  Thankfully, they'll live on my shelves until it's the right time to read them.

Non-fiction can teach us a lot.  What subject or topic have you learned a lot of because of your reading?

In the past two years, I've made it my mission to expand my understanding of the ways that America has (and, more appropriately, has not) dealt with race.  While there are innumerable fiction and poetry works that accomplish this well, I've found a lot of non-fiction books that have been tremendously valuable in opening my eyes.

What non-fiction book would you recommend that teaches something well?

Jolie Kerr's My Boyfriend Barfed in my Handbag...and Other Things You Can't Ask Martha will teach you step-by-step how to deal with real-world messes and keeping your home/clothes/etc. clean.

What book related to the word "scholarship" are you most excited about reading this Non-Fiction November?

I had two books on my Scholarship TBR, and have read one of them - Cork Dork: A Wine Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste by Bianca Bosker.  Therefore I'd say I'm most excited to read the other TBR selection - Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the 21st Century by Nato Thompson.

So I didn't get to all of the great non-fiction books that I wanted to during November, but that's okay.  Non-fiction isn't just for's for every month!  I try to include some non-fiction reading every month, and I've spent time with some great ones thus far in 2017.  If you're participating in Non-Fiction November, or are curious about reading more non-fiction and want to do this tag, consider yourself tagged.

Librorum annis,

Monday, November 20, 2017

Books I'm Thankful for in 2017

This Thursday, November 23, is our American Thanksgiving.  Originally designated as a feast shared by the British colonists and the indigenous peoples, it's become a day for us as individuals to reflect on those things we're thankful for in our own lives.  In 2017, with so much horror and disaster in the world, this is no easy task.  Human rights around the world are in jeopardy, wars are dividing loved ones, and natural disasters are remaking the face of the world.

While they won't accomplish physical needs like restoring electricity or bringing clean water, books can help.  They can change hearts and minds, encourage empathy, and bring us closer together.  That's why I'm thankful for books in 2017.  In particular, I'm thankful for fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.  I've selected three books that encapsulate my reading life this year, all of which I read for the first time in 2017.

Thankful for Fiction

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte

While most people read Jane Eyre in their childhood years, I came to it as an adult.  Charlotte's nineteenth century novel reads as surprisingly feminist for the time, and is as relevant today as it was when it was first published.  Jane's story of growth and staying true to herself amidst the horribleness of her step-mother and step-sisters, the brutal school where she is sent to be educated, the family she and her time spent at Thornfield Hall and with the Rivers' clan made an impression on me.  So much so that Jane Eyre has acquired a place amidst my Favorite Books of All Time.

Thankful for Non-Fiction

Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi

This amazing work of scholarship (which the author told me took him 3 years just to do the research!) has won just about every award out there.  In order to fully tell the story of racist ideas in America, Kendi chose to focus on five specific individuals whose lifespans extended across major points in America's history - Puritan minister Cotton Mather, US President Thomas Jefferson, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, scholar W.E.B. DuBois, and activist Angela Y. Davis.  He demonstrates how and why racist ideas were created, how they have proliferated and mutated over time, and how they continue to exist today.  To better understand the world we're living in, especially as Americans, we should all read this incredible book.

Thankful for Poetry

My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter, by Aja Monet

2016 was the beginning of my re-discovery of poetry, and it has continued into this year.  While I've read some incredible poetry collections so far in 2017, the one that stands out as one I'm especially thankful for is Aja Monet's My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter.  The way she employs language to tell stories of women - Palestinian, American, enslaved...all women - will leave you gobsmacked.  There's so much passion, fury, wonderment, and insight shining through each poem that you might find yourself swept up in emotion.  I certainly did.  If you'd like a taste of her work, check out this video of her reading the title poem in the collection.  I'm thankful and grateful for this magnum opus.

I'm giving thanks and raising a glass to books, and to these three in particular.  There'll be no post this Thursday, so I hope everyone who's celebrating enjoys their Thanksgiving!

Librorum annis,

Thursday, November 16, 2017

A Toast to Beaujolais Nouveau 2017 - Books and Wine

Today, November 16, is Beaujolais Nouveau Day!  Under French law, the third Thursday in November is the day that the first wine of the 2017 vintage, made in the Beaujolais region of France, may be released for sale.  This wine is extremely young, with the Gamay grapes often having been picked only weeks beforehand.  As a result, the flavors are extremely light bodied and fruit-forward, sometimes with an earthiness that makes them special.

In celebration of this special day, I wanted to share some of my absolute favorite books featuring wine.  All of these picks are non-fiction, so if you're participating in the #NonFictionNovember2017 challenge, consider picking up one (or more!) of these.

The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It, by Tilar J. Mazzo - This is a biography of both the well-known French champagne producer Clicquot and the woman who oversaw its growth, Barbe-Nicole  Clicquot Ponsardin.  Barbe-Nicole's husband died when she was only 27, leaving the Veuve (widow) Clicquot to take the helm of his industry, in the wake of the French Revolution and when the Napoleonic Code made it clear that a woman's place was in the home.

Pairing: A glass of something bubbly, preferably Clicquot if it's in your budget.

To Cork or Not To Cork, by George M. Taber - Did you know that there's controversy around the material used to stopper wine bottles?  Cork is the traditional material you encounter at the top of an unopened bottle of wine, but modern winemakers are sometimes using other goods, like screwtop lids, plastic stoppers, and even glass.  George Taber takes readers through a deep dive into these three materials, and the reasons they might be used, and why.

Pairing: Any bottle stoppered with cork, plastic, glass, or screwtop

Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me How to Live for Taste, by Bianca Bosker - Have you noticed that wine books tend to have really long titles?  Bosker was working as a tech editor for an online news site, and decided to quit her job to focus on wine.  She begins this new life in the bottom of the barrel (pun intended!) as a cellar rat in a fine-dining restaurant, and works her way through many different areas of the wine world.  Throughout the work, she meets some really interesting people, hones her tasting skills, and prepares to take the Court of Master Sommeliers Certified Sommelier Exam.  While maybe a little overwhelming for a wine newbie, it's compulsively readable and absolutely fascinating.

Pairing: As many different wines as you (and, even better, a group of friends) can get, to do a blind tasting together.  Bonus points if the bottles are covered in aluminum foil or knee socks, so you get the true Bosker experience.

Exploring Wine, by Steven Kolpan, Brian H. Smith, Michael A. Weiss - So you've read Cork Dork and now want to increase your own wine knowledge?  Then this is the book for you!  It's the textbook that wine and beverage students use at the Culinary Institute of America, so you know that it's well-researched and comprehensive. You will go in-depth into the details of wine growing, grape variety profiles, wine regions around the world, information on some individual wineries, wines, tasting notes, proper cellaring, serving, etc.  The book is 800 pages long, so it's perhaps NOT something you'd read from cover to cover, but it's so full of interesting information and photos that you may not want to put it down.

Pairing: Literally any wine, because it'll be in the book somewhere.

Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine, by George M. Taber - Man, George Taber writes so well about wine!  This time, he focuses on a blind tasting that took place between wines from well-established French wineries and wines from the at-the-time nascent California wine industry.  Steven Spurrier was a British wine merchant, working in Paris, who sold only French wines.  He organized the tasting event as a publicity occasion, fully expecting the prestigious wine tasters to find the French wines superior.  However, the results, and their implications for the wine industry as a whole, were shocking to say the least.

Pairing: French Red Bordeaux/Napa Valley Cabernet, French White Burgundy/Napa Valley Chardonnay

Whether you're a wine aficionado or just curious, I hope that you'll find something interesting to pick up from this list.  I have absolutely loved each and every book here, and come back to them often.  Happy Beaujolais Nouveau day!

Cheers!  Librorum annis,

Monday, November 13, 2017

Art and Money in Manjula Martin's Scratch

Art and commerce have been intimately intertwined throughout history, but it seems that public acknowledgment of that relationship has been scant.  For quite some time, the system of patronage was in play, where a rich individual, the church, or some other group would monetarily support artists, musicians, and other artisans in their work.  To a small degree this still happens in the US, but the more likely incantation nowadays are those artists who come from wealthy families and/or have a trust fund at their disposal.  There are also for-profit and non-profit groups like the MacArthur Foundation, who disburse sums of money for recipients who show promise in various fields.  But for those who are not artists, or working in the realm of patronage, the necessary relationship of art and money might be foreign territory.

Writers, just like any other workers, need to be able to support themselves in their craft, which means that they need to be paid enough to be able to pay rent/mortgage, healthcare, bills, necessities, etc.  But how much does a writer make on a book?  If a hardcover book costs $30, how much of that amount actually goes into the author's pocket?  Can an author really afford to live and work in America today, with writing as the only source of her/his income?  To attempt to answer this question, Manjula Martin started the online Scratch Magazine, which explored the worlds of commerce and writing.  After the magazine folded in 2015, Martin compiled some of the work in that magazine to create the collection Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living.

There are a total of 33 pieces in the book, including many well-known authors such as Roxane Gay, Jonathan Franzen, Alexander Chee, and Cheryl Strayed.  The entries are divided into three sections: Early Days, The Daily Grind, and Someday.  "Early Days" features authors at the beginning of their careers, including what would be their Big Break, and how money factored into their lives at that point.  Some of the authors were working day jobs, some were living paycheck-to-paycheck (alone or with a partner), and others were racked with credit card and/or student loan debt.  When they finally got a book deal, they received an "advance" amount of money that was paid out over the course of the publishing process.  For example, Cheryl Strayed received $100,000 when her first book, Torch, was sold.  This seems like a wildly large amount of money, until she realized how it would be paid - NOT all at once.  The first $25,000 installment was paid out initially in 2003, but after her agent took 15% for commission, that left her with $21,000 -before- taxes.  The next $25,000 (really $21,000) installment came two years later, when the revisions were completed.  The third $25,000 ($21,000) check came in 2006, when the hardcover edition of Torch was actually published.  The final $25,000 ($21,000) check came when the paperback version was published in 2007.  She admits that she was very lucky to even receive this amount of money, but is very honest with discussing that, although it's helpful, it's not enough to live off of on its own.  To support her family, she and her documentary filmmaker husband took teaching jobs, freelance journalism assignments, and any other kind of work that would pay.  Even now, after her second book Wild was commercially popular and adapted into a movie, she isn't rich.  She is able to pay her bills and "buy boots NOT in a thrift shop", but she isn't living the Scrooge McDuck kind of life.

In "The Daily Grind", authors share the realities of being a writer, and how these realities differ from romantic notions of Literary Life.  As the editor herself writes, "Any artist who produces work for public consumption must navigate a tenuous balance of ambition and pragmatism.  Ambition requires dreaming; sometimes dreams veer into fantasy...The Writing Life is one such fantasy; another is quitting your day job."  While she pursued her writing, she also worked as a waitress, in retail, as a personal assistant, a receptionist, a reporter, and various temp jobs.  She has had to find time to write, rather than making it her one and only profession.  Such is the case for most authors, the rare exceptions being mega-stars like Stephen King, John Grisham, and Joyce Carol Oats.

The final heading, "Someday", examines what happens to authors after they've had a Big Break and how their lives have or have not changed.  In particular, how the term "New York Times Bestseller" brings with it the connotation of massive wealth for an author, when it really is closer to being meaningless.  Austin Kleon, author of Show Your Work and Steal Like an Artists, among other published works, is interviewed in this collection by the editor.  Although he's been a NYT Bestselling author, he still works a day job.  Before, it was through web designing and copywriting,  Now, it's as from books, speaking engagements, and art pieces that he sells.  As Kleon puts it, he's just "swapping one day job for another".  He gets real about the advice that many people give aspiring artists, that if you do whatever it is that you love, then you'll be able to make a living at it.  He freely admits that that is horrible advice; just because you love doing something doesn't mean that you'll be able to earn any money from it.  It sounds too good to be true, because it is.  He isn't discouraging ambitious artists from pursuing their craft, just to be real about having a day job to pay the rent and put food on the table, and letting the art feed their creativity and their soul.

For anyone interested in being a writer in America, Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living is an invaluable read.  It will destroy the fantasy that you can quit your job/drop out of school, write The Thing and make millions off of it and never have to work a "real job" ever.  It lays bare the realities of life as an author, and really the creative life in general.  There are fewer and fewer patrons out there in the world, so artists should be prepared to support themselves by something other than their art.  Even wildly famous, NY Times Bestselling authors may not make nearly as much money as you'd think, and have to take teaching jobs or speaking engagements to make ends meet.  This book is eye opening and speaks its truth with conviction, but is ultimately very hopeful - art must continue to be put out into the world, but artists should be prepared to scratch out a living.

Librorum annis,

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The "Guilty Reader" Tag

As people who read books, and who others identify as readers, we are sometimes expected to behave in certain ways.  Maybe it's the about the books you tell people that you've read (whether you have or not), how you treat your physical books, or not reading certain types of's all things that can make us readers feel a little guilty.  The questions in the "Guilty Reader" tag get at these kinds of things.  Honestly I feel no guilt whatsoever about my reading...I read what I like and what I'm interested in reading.  Simple as that.  Here are the questions!

Have you ever re-gifted a book that you were given?

Absolutely.  A few years ago, I had purchased a copy of Delicious Foods by James Hannaham after hearing about it on NPR. It's an amazing book about a young boy named Eddie, his drug addicted mother Darlene, and the Southern farm to where she is absconded and given alcohol and drugs in exchange for work.  This tale of family, race, and slavery features a unique character - Scotty, the fast talking, devilish voice to represent the crack cocaine to which Darlene is so addicted.  It's creative, hard hitting, but still funny.

I must have talked about it a bunch, because I was gifted a copy from a friend for the holidays that same year.  Because I had two copies, I had no problems re-gifting it to someone else who I thought would also enjoy it.  Otherwise, I can't remember re-gifting a book, probably because I'm picky when it comes to the editions and specific books that I want.  If someone's giving me a book, there's a pretty good chance I'll like it.

Have you ever said you have read a book, when in fact you hadn't?

I think this comes down to social/peer pressure of things you "should" do or "should" know.  I hate those "shoulds".  But, alas, I have been guilty of occasionally telling someone that I had read a book when I hadn't.  Many are from the Western Cannon.  Thinking about it now, honestly now I'm less wrapped up in feelings of commitment to reading The Cannon than I had been just a few years ago.  So, I'm less likely to feel I should lie about what I've read.  So here are just a few books that I haven't read:

Have you ever told someone you haven't read a book when you have?

I can't say that I've ever felt embarrassed/uncomfortable/shy about something that I've read, so that I wouldn't admit to it publicly.  However, our society definitely (and unfortunately) looks down on certain genres of books - romance, science fiction, and mystery among others - so that some readers may feel like they have to hide their reading from others.  I am hopeful that this is changing, albeit slowly.

Have you ever borrowed a book and not returned it?

Never!  And my deep concern about not getting back a book is why I don't loan out books, unless I'm 100% ok with not getting them back.

Have you ever read a book series out of order?

I honestly can't remember the last time I read a book series, in or out of order.

Have you ever spoiled a book for someone?

I try to be careful about this, and will make regular use of the "spoiler alert" warning when talking about a book with a major plot twist or a surprise ending.  I did, however, inadvertently ruin the ending of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, when talking about the forthcoming movie adaptation.

Have you ever dog-eared a book?

I'm a sticky-tab or bookmark reader, not a dog-ear reader.

Have you ever told someone you don't own a book when you do?


Have you ever skipped a chapter/section of a book?

If I find myself doing this, it usually means that I'm not enjoying the book.  Once I realize that I've read a few pages, but don't remember anything about them, then I have to ask myself "why" and if I really want to keep reading the book.

Have you ever bad-mouthed a book you actually liked?

No!  I'm guessing that you might be inclined to do this if you were embarrassed about what you're reading, but you shouldn't!

That's it!  I guess I'm not such of a guilty reader after all, or at least I choose not to feel guilty when it comes to reading.

Librorum annis,

Monday, November 6, 2017

Book Review - Devotion by Patti Smith

In Devotion, Patti Smith invites readers to peek behind the curtain of her creative process.  The short work is made up of three parts - "How the Mind Works", "Devotion", and "A Dream is Not a Dream" and together they form the culmination of a creative writing project from inspiration to writing, to the finished project and beyond.  It's a fascinating look at how art and life intermingle and mutually influence each other.

In "How the Mind Works", Smith takes us along on a stream of consciousness journey.  It begins with her happening upon a film called Risttuules, about the mass deportation of Estonians to Siberia during Stalin's regime.  It's a haunting film, shot in black and white with a mixture of live-action and tableau.  The camera moves through the scene while all the actors stay immobile, giving the impression of time both moving and standing still.  There are desolate forests of birch trees in winter, Soviets rounding up villagers into train cars, and crudely dug graves.  From these images, Smith visualizes a scene of a small clapboard house next to a lake in a forest, something that was entirely her creation but would have fit neatly into the movie.  As it was late night/early morning, she fell back asleep dreaming of the movie and her created scene.

When she awoke, she was still haunted by the movie, and felt compelled to head to her favorite neighborhood cafe for breakfast and to write.  However, there was so much street construction nearby that she couldn't concentrate on her writing and headed home.  She was supposed to fly to Paris that evening, but her flight was cancelled and she had to hurry to make a sooner flight.  The purpose of the trip was to talk to journalists and writers about her experiences with the craft of writing, and she muses on the fact that she's a writer who is currently having trouble coming up with an idea to write about.  In her hurry to pack, she grabs a book about French philosopher and activist Simone Weil, and the memoir of French writer and Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano. 

When she arrives in Paris, she finds herself reliving a trip she and her sister took to Paris when they were young women.  The park bench near Picasso's bust of Apollinaire, the hotels and cafes, the youthful exuberance with which they took on the city.  Back in her hotel, she falls asleep reading the biography of Simone Weil, wakes and reads a different section of the book, turns on the TV, nods off, and wakes up to an ice skating competition.  The last skater to take the ice is a Russian teenager, and despite her drowsiness Smith can't take her eyes off the young woman; her skill and grace on the ice were that compelling. 

When Patti Smith meets with her French publishers, she finds that her editor's office is the same one that Albert Camus occupied.  Some of his books still sit on the shelves, including books written by Simone Weil, whom Camus published posthumously.  After their meeting, she spends time wandering around Paris before finding herself at 37 Boulevard Saint-Michel, the longtime home of Simone Weil and her family.  Camus made the same journey here, many years prior, upon publishing her late works. 

She then moves on to the south of France for another leg of her book presentations.  After a lunch in a Mediterranean cafe with her French handler, they wander to a nearby cemetery and spend time looking at the graves.  One in particular catches Smith's attention, for a young girl named Fanny who loved horses, and a much older headstone with the word "Devouement" carved into it.  When she asked her friend what the word meant, she was told "Devotion". 

The next day, before heading to the next leg of her journey, Smith wanders through a botanical garden and had such a strong feeling of excitement that she took out her pen and notebook and began to write.  She continues writing during her train journey back to Paris, and through the Chunnel into London.  She uses part of this trip to seek out Simone Weil's grave, in Bybrook Cemetery.  She notes that the date is the birthday of her late brother, who had a daughter named Simone.  When she finally locates the headstone, she left an offering, snapped a picture, and felt at peace.  In the final pages of "How the Mind Works", Smith talks about fate and its role in the creative process.  Specifically, how she began writing the story that would ultimately become the next section, and the title of the entire work, "Devotion". 

"Devotion" is a short story, about 45 pages, that features a young Estonian girl named Eugenia.  She was sent away to live with her sister and her husband, because her parents feared their fate under Stalin.  Eugenia was a precocious and wildly intelligent girl, becoming fluent in many languages and scoring some of the highest marks in school.  However, her one true passion was ice skating.  She leaves school for good, and focuses only her skill and proficiency as a skater on the little pond near the house she lives at in the woods.  After she is abandoned by her sister, a wealthy man happens upon her and becomes infatuated and obsessed.  He buys her whatever she wants and provides her with a dedicated skating coach.  He only asks that she devote herself to him above all else.  When the skating coach encourages Eugenia to travel with her for competitions, it creates a deep and life-altering conflict for her and her devotion to her art. 

The final section, called "A Dream Is Not a Dream", explores what role dreams, both sleeping and "the dream" of creating great work, play in art and craft.  Channeling future events, incorporating imagined pasts, all these things serve to add depth and richness to what one is writing.  She finishes the section with a reminiscence of a side trip she took, when in France, to visit the home of Albert Camus, an estate purchased with his Nobel prize money and where his descendants still live.  She met his daughter Catherine, and was able to spend time with an unpublished manuscript of his, THE FIRST MAN, which he had been intending to publish when he was killed in a car crash.  She writes that the power of this encounter was like a call to action, and that is what great writing often is. 

It's interesting to know that this work was created as an expansion of the keynote lecture she gave to the Windham-Campbell Book Festival at Yale University, and published by their in-house press.  It is the first installment in the Why I Write series, delivered during the Festival.  Karl Ove Knausgaard's lecture will be next in the series, because he delivered the keynote address to this year's festival.  These lectures feature prominent and highly creative writers discussing the craft and art of their writing, in particular the creative process.  Smith essentially provides the background information the lead to her story "Devotion", and the story itself, so that readers can bear witness to her method.  I can certainly imagine a creative writing course that might include Devotion as a tool for reflection and discussion about the nature of inspiration and creativity. 

Patti Smith is one of the most prolific and interesting creative forces in our time.  From music to art, memoir and poetry, she is highly respected and regarded.   That's why it was such a thrill to be able to take a small step into her world, even for just a few pages.  Devotion works to demystify how artistic work can happen, and the roles that observation and reflection pay in inspiration.  That's not to say that, after reading this book, you're going to be able to go out and create something that would be equal to what Smith does - her life and experiences are her own - but it gives hope to those of us who fear that artistry might be the domain of a select, chosen few.  This deeply insightful book could be the gateway for the rest of us to take on a creative project, whether it's writing or a craft of some other ilk.  And for that, and Smith's devotion, we are grateful.

Librorum annis,

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Nonfiction November - A Hopeful TBR

Nonfiction November has become a bit of an annual tradition in the bookish internet.  Every November, readers are encouraged to focus a little more on the nonfiction genre than they might otherwise do.  If you read no nonfiction books at all, consider setting a goal to read just one.  If you're a fan of the genre, expand your reading a little.  It's fun because nonfiction can be really great, and alliteration is awesome.

For the third year in a row, Nonfiction November is being hosted by Booktubers Olive and Gemma.  To encourage reading, they have selected four one-word challenges during the month.  Readers can interpret these words however they choose, and then read a nonfiction book that relates to the word in some way.  This year, the challenge words are:

  1. Home
  2. Substance
  3. Love
  4. Scholarship

As I'm a casual reader of the genre, I'm going to attempt to read four nonfiction books this month - one for each challenge.  If I'm able to fit in more, then I'll try to do so.  Last year, I challenged myself to read only nonfiction books in November, and although it was a lot of fun, I don't know that I'm up for repeating that extensive of a self-imposed challenge again this year.  Partly because my life is really busy right now, and I tend to want to curl up for hours with a nonfiction book.  Partly because I'm reading a lot more poetry now, and I honestly don't think I could go an entire month without reading at least one poetry collection.  With this in mind, here are a few contenders for each of the four challenges:


Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and The Fight to Save a Public Library by Scott Sherman - As a library lover living in a country currently being headed by a real estate tycoon, I'm particularly interested in this true story of saving a public library from developers who are only interested in turning a profit.

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson - As an amateur home cook, baker, and food-lover, I'm really interested in learning more about cooking and food traditions.  I'm hoping that this book will give me some new insights into this area.


The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo - I'm an avid tea drinker (iced in the summer and hot in the autumn/winter) and am interested in learning more about this caffeinated substance.

The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison - A very substantive collection, pulled from the author's recent lectures at Harvard University, regarding race, society, and culture.


Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, edited by Manjula Martin - Being an author isn't necessarily the ticket to a life full of comfort and riches, as told by the contributing writers in this essay collection.  It requires that you love what you do.

Devotion: Why I Write, by Patti Smith - I absolutely love everything Patti Smith does: Art, music, writing, photography, etc.  This is her latest essay, examining why it is that she takes to the written word for expression.  I can't wait to dive into this!


Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the Twenty-First Century, by Nato Thompson - A very readable work of scholarship, exploring the place that art has in the political work in our modern era.

Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Who Taught Me How to Live for Taste, by Bianca Bosker (ebook) - An investigative journalistic book written as the result of a deep dive into the world of wine and those who love it.  I'm a bit of a wine enthusiast already, so I'm curious to see what effect this scholarship has on my appreciation of the drink.

If you're participating in Nonfiction November, I hope you've got some exciting books lined up on your TBR! 

Librorum annis,

Monday, October 30, 2017

October Reading Wrapup

October was an interesting reading month for me.  I started off the first week or so reading absolutely nothing.  Then, I got my book-footing and read a whole bunch.  In total, I read 9 books in October.

The Art of Failing, by Anthony McGowan (read as an ebook) - A humorous glance into daily life in West Hampstead, London, with the author, Anthony McGowan.  Structured as a diary and organized by season, there are daily-ish entries outlining something humorous/bizarre/unexpected that happened to the author that day, or at least a noteworthy observation.

The Circle Game, by Margaret Atwood - Published in 1964, this is Margaret Atwood's first commercially-published poetry collection and it explores womanhood, colonialism and indigenous peoples, environmentalism, and many other topics.

Madwoman, by Shara McCallum - In this powerful collection of poems, Shara McCallum calls upon folklore and traditions from her native Jamaica as well as modern day experiences and microaggressions.  There is clear, strong feminism that permeates throughout the work, that grabs the reader from the beginning.  The author plays with language in very deliberate ways, interplaying rhyme, free verse, patois, and lots of symbolism.

A Year in Provence, by Peter Mayle - When Peter and his wife move from their home in Devon, England to the South of France, it is a culture shock to say the least.  They learn that time is thought of in seasons rather than hours or days, good food and wine are vital, and construction projects where the contractor uses the phrase "Normally..." are not going to be completed anytime soon.

Candide, by Voltaire - In the early eighteenth century, Gottfried Leibniz published his Theodicy, in which he purported that the world we're living in is the best of all possible worlds, because it was created by God.  No matter the suffering, violence, poverty - it is the best world.  This worldview is commonly called "philosophical optimism", and Voltaire disagreed vehemently with it.  He wrote Candide as a satirical take-down of Leibniz's approach, as well as many of the literary traditions of the time

The Diamond as Big as the Ritz, by F. Scott Fitzgerald - In this strange little novella, published in 1922, John T. Unger leaves his well-to-do family in Hades, Mississippi to attend a prestigious men's boarding school in Boston.  While there, he befriends a fellow student named Percy Washington.  John knows that Percy, a keep-to-himself kind of guy, is very wealthy, but he has no idea just how right he is until he is invited to summer with Percy at his family's home in Montana. 

Lord of the Flies, by William Golding - I appreciate the plot of this story (plane crashes on deserted island and only a group of schoolboys survives and has to forge its own society) but I take great offense to the choices in gender and overall characterization, as well as the use of the term "savage" as the author chose to employ them.  I would love to see (if there isn't already one out there...let me know if there is!) a modern interpretation of this book, where the cast of characters show more diversity and sensitivity.

Horrorstor, by Grady Hendrix (read as an ebook) - When an Ikea-esque store called "Orsk" begins experiencing strange phenomena, manager Basil recruits two of his employees, Amy and Ruth Ann, to work a covert, overnight shift to figure out exactly what is going on.  But what is going on is so much more than anyone had bargained for.

The Five Children and It, by E. Nesbit - The story features four elementary school-aged siblings - Cyril, Anthea, Robert, and Jane - and their infant brother Hilary during a summer spent in Kent.  During playtime at a gravel quarry, they uncover a sand-fairy who offers to grant them one wish every day.  Whatever they wish for will last for only that day; when the sun sets everything will go back to the way it was before.  They wish for things as children would, which is to say naively.

Now that we're almost into November, it's time to start thinking about all the non-fiction that I want to read during the annual Non-Fiction November challenge.  Stay tuned for more details on that...

Librorum annis,

Friday, October 27, 2017

An Autumnal Book Haul

Sorry for the delay, but I've managed to "accidentally" buy a few books.  Whoops!  Between a BookOutlet sale, the recent Harrisburg Book Festival, and an ARC, I've managed to add some new books to my shelves.  Poetry, short stories, fiction, essays, a play, memoir, some non-fiction, and a collection of lectures round out this particular incoming class. 

As always, I'm really excited to read them soon, but in reality I probably won't get to them anytime soon.  I'm still trying to read through some of my 2017 challenges, and I'm afraid those will take priority in the waning months of the year.  There's always next year, right?  Anywho, here are the newbs:


The Sobbing School, by Joshua Bennett - A collection focusing on the experience of being a black man in America, especially an academically-minded man in a society that doesn't encourage men like him to pursue such goals.

Cannibal, by Safiya Sinclair - The poet's Jamaican upbringing is explored within the context of living in America, and all the prejudices and preconceptions that American culture assigns to women of color.

Miami Century Fox, by Legna Rodriguez Iglesias (translated by Eduardo Aparicio) - A collection of Latina poetry, unique in that the original Spanish poem is on one side of the page, and the translator's English translation is on the other.  It explores the complexities of modern day life in South Florida.

Short Stories

Barbara the Slut and Other People, by Lauren Holmes - I read this book a year or so ago, checked out from the library.  I enjoyed it, and when BookOutlet had it on sale for less than $4, I couldn't turn it down.  The stories feature diverse female (and golden retriever) characters and situations, but that speak to the universality of our experience.

Public Library and Other Stories, by Ali Smith - A collection of stories focusing on books,  experiences of reading, and what books mean to us.


Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis - A takedown of the American ideal of the open-minded, small town.  In the American political landscape, the "small town" is a microcosm that campaigning politicians love to talk about, but rarely understand.  Published originally in 1920, I expect this book to be just as relevant now as it was then.

Baba Dunja's Last Love, by Alina Bronsky - The title character, and many of her neighbors, decide to return to their home near Chernobyl, despite government warnings about radiation.  They return to a semblance of normal life, until a stranger and a young girl arrive and turn everything on its head.


Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, edited by Manjula Martin - A number of well-known authors honestly discuss the realities of working as a writer and what it takes to be able to do your work and be able to live comfortably.

Common Sense, by Thomas Paine - An anti-monarchy essay that isn't so far away from the political landscape in which we find ourselves today.

Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay - This reissue of Gay's classic essay collection was too good to pass up

How to Cook a Wolf, by M.F.K. Fisher - Written for an audience facing food shortages and rationing during WW2, the ethos of this book is cooking simply using ingredients you already have and a lot of imagination and adventure.  There are recipes to accompany the essays within.


Fences, by August Wilson - Troy Maxson has lived his life in an America that crushes the soul of black men who express their pride.  As the repressive society of the 1950s moves into the more liberating 1960s, Troy finds himself at odds with his culture, his neighbors, his family, and himself.  This was recently released as a movie starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, which I hope to see once I've read the play.


How to Be a Woman, by Caitlin Moran - The author's recollection of growing up in lower-class British small town, and discovering herself.


Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi - I've already read (and LOVED!) this challenging and necessary work.  Check out my review here.


The Origin of Others, by Toni Morrison - Toni Morrison delivered lectures as part of the Charles Eliot Norton series at Harvard University, and drew up on them to write this small-but-mighty book.

And that's it for this book haul!  I have no idea when I'll get to read any of these books, but I hope it to be sometime soon. Winter is coming, and there'll hopefully be a some cold weekends where I can bundle up and have my own mini-readathons.

Librorum annis,

Monday, October 23, 2017

The "Finally Fall" Book Tag

Now that we're almost a full month into autumn, the weather in my area is finally starting to accurately reflect the season.  This time last month, it felt more like midsummer (highs in the low 90's F and very humid) and I am so excited for the cool-down.  That's why I was so pleased to find the "Finally Fall" book tag, because it does finally feel like fall.  Let's get to it, shall we?

In autumn, the air is crisp and clear.  Name a book with a vivid setting.

I read Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller this summer, and was completely engrossed in the British seaside town that played host to the events in the novel.  In fact, there were times where I could almost taste the salty air and feel the mists on my skin, even though I live hours away from any such coastline.  It was a transformative reading experience, to say the least.

Nature is beautiful...but also dying.  Name a book that is beautifully written but also deals with a heavy topic like loss or grief.

I believe that one the most exciting writers in American literature today is Jesmyn Ward.  All of her books are very hard-hitting, whether a memoir about losing men in her life to whom she was very close (Men We Reaped), the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf area (Salvage the Bones), or drug abuse and family ties (Sing, Unburied, Sing).  The way that she writes about these difficult themes and events is with such clarity, beauty, and hope that it's almost impossible to put her books down.

Autumn is back-to-school season.  Share a non-fiction book that taught you something new.

I just reviewed it here, but my most recent experience of reading a non-fiction book that totally refocused and  my worldview and gave me an education was Ibram X. Kendi's masterful work of scholarship, Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas In America.  In it, he tracks instances of racism from humanity's earliest encounters with diverse peoples, through to the modern day.  It'll challenge all your assumptions and expectations about how racist ideas exist and flourish, and may open your eyes to ways that you hold onto racist ideas - without even knowing it.

In order to keep warm, it's good to spend some time with the people we love.  Name a fictional family/household/friend-group of which you'd like to be a part.

A few years ago, I might have chosen the March family from Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, because of how tight-knit and loving they were.  However, as my reading experiences have broadened and changed, I think I would be less enthralled with being a Little Woman.  Instead, I'd prefer something a little more messy and interesting.  In fact, I think I'd like to be a part of the Pea family, living on the island of Nollop and having to get bizarrely creative with language in Mark Dunn's Ella Minnow Pea

The colorful leaves are piling up on the ground.  Show us a pile of autumn-colored spines.

Autumn is the perfect time for storytelling by the fireside.  Share a book wherein someone is telling a story.

One of the most prolific stories-within-a-story is the tale that Elena tells of her long-lasting friendship with Lina in the Neapolitan Quartet, by Elena Ferrante.  The four-volume set, spanning almost 1700 pages, is the character of Elena writing the story of her friendship, in the wake of Lina's disappearance from Naples.  To tell this story around a fire, you'd need a forest's worth of wood to keep it going.  If you haven't read the novels yet - My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child - don't let the page count frighten you.  If you allow yourself to relax and settle into Elena's writing, you'll fly through the books without even realizing it.

The nights are getting darker; share a dark, creepy read.

One of the creepiest books on my shelves is Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes.  It's a suspenseful, really intense novel about a serial killer, the cop who's trying to catch him, and a possibly-supernatural force.  It's really good to read, but it's even more intense if you listen on audiobook, because of the narration and the really compelling voices that the narrators use.

The days are getting colder; name a short, heartwarming read that could warm up somebody's cold and rainy day.

A truly heartwarming novella is Parnassus On Wheels by Christopher Morley.  A man wants to sell his mobile bookstore, called Parnassus, to a newly-famous author.  However, it's the author's spinster sister who sets out on a bookish adventure.  Sweet, charming, and full of book love.

Autumn returns every year.  Name an old, favorite book that you'd like to return to soon.

I'm not sure how soon I'll be able to get back to it, but I'd love to revisit the short stories of Mollie Panter-Downes.  I discovered her through my first ever visit to the Persephone Books bookshop when I was last in London, and she quickly became one of my favorite authors.  I especially loved her collection of stories illustrating the British societal changes after the end of WW2, called Minnie's Room: The Peacetime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

Autumn is the perfect time for cozy reading nights.  Share your favorite cozy reading "accessories".

I can't have a cozy reading night without a blanket and a beverage. 

That's it for the "Finally Fall" book tag.  I'm fully invested in autumnal reading, and had a blast answering these questions.  If you're interested in doing so, consider yourself tagged.

Librorum annis,

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Harrisburg Book Festival - A Recap

October 12-15 was the 5th annual Harrisburg Book Festival.  After having to travel to Philly or DC for bookish events, it was exciting to have such a grand bookish celebration right in my proverbial backyard.  Midtown Scholar Bookstore organized and played host to the entire Festival, which was no small undertaking.  A few months in advance, they started releasing social media teasers of what events to look forward to, and it was all very exciting - some nationally-recognized and award-winning authors as well as local literary denizens.  When the full schedule was released, it was very exciting - a weekend full of presentations, conversations, and interactive events.  I marked my calendar, and took part in as much of the festival as I could.

Opening Night

The opening night of the Festival was devoted to music and poetry.  Local musician Shawan Rice played a set, and her soulful, bluesy voice truly set the tone for the rest of the evening.  There were three poets in attendance this evening, and all three read extensively from their published collections.

The first reader was Shara McCallum, Penn State professor of English and Liberal Arts, who shared poems from her collection Madwoman.  Her homeland of Jamaica and her coming-of-age in the US feature heavily in the poems, as do her experiences as a light-skinned black woman in the Western world.  Joshua Bennett was next, and he read poems from The Sobbing School.  The recent Princeton University PhD graduate and postdoctoral fellow at MIT had by far the most engaging and enthusiastic style of reading.  His words flowed deftly from humor to anger and sadness, and took the audience along with him.  More than just myself got a little emotional from time to time during his reading.  The final poet was Safiya Sinclair, whose collection Cannibal has won numerous awards.  She also drew upon her Jamaican upbringing and experiences in the US for her poetry.  Especially exciting were some not-yet-published poems that she chose to read at the end of the evening - one of which was written as a palindrome.  Shawan Rice returned to the stage to wrap up the evening, and the poets signed copies of their books.  It was an inspirational, emotional, and wonderful beginning to the weekend.


In one of the most exciting turns of the entire Festival, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi was revealed to be the keynote speaker.  An exten and the Founding Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center, both at American University, Dr. Kendi is the author of the groundbreaking 2016 National Book Award winning nonfiction book Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.  I absolutely loved the book, and you can check out some of my feelings here.  Takeaways - Read. This. Book. Now.

After a warm introduction by Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse, Dr. Kendi gave a powerful and inspirational presentation.  He talked about how he came to write his book, the importance of this kind of work in our modern era, and read a bit from Stamped from the Beginning.  Afterward, the floor was opened to the audience for a Q&A session, followed by a signing.  It was really thrilling to spend the evening with an author and academic of his brilliance, and to hear about his work directly from himself.  It truly was an honor.


In the morning on Saturday was a block of programming geared exclusively toward younger readers.  A local theater troop was putting on a special performance of Aesop's Fables, children's book authors were having storytime and signing books, there were arts and crafts activities for older kids, and - most exciting of all - there was a large selection of free, brand new books that children could take home with them to read.  As I don't have any little ones in my life (and I like to sleep in on the weekends whenever possible) I didn't partake of any of the KidsFest, but it sounded like a lot of fun!

Book Critics Roundtable

The only event I was able to attend on Saturday was a roundtable discussion between four renowned book critics - Bethanne Patrick, Susan Coll, Marion Winik, and moderated by Harvey Freedenberg.  They have been published in digital and print publications including Kirkus Review, Lit Hub, NY Times Review of Books, and many more.  Some of the panelists have been (or are currently) NPR and local radio contributors.  They have all been in the book industry for a long time, and had interesting perspectives on the art, science, and business of reviewing books.  

This panel was, unfortunately, the only one I could attend on Saturday, but I was really glad that I could be there.  As someone who is a casual book reviewer, it was fascinating to hear the contributors talk about what life is like as a professional reviewer of books.  For example, a book review doesn't pay that much (maybe $200), so if you're considering becoming a professional reviewer, be aware that you probably will need a day job or some other source of income. 

They began the discussion by talking about the purpose of book reviews, and what they should accomplish.  The purpose is twofold: 1. Interest general readers in a book/influence sales, and 2. Become part of the larger cultural conversation in which the author and the book function.  They all agreed that, when being critical of a book, it's important to meet the book on its own terms, rather than what the reviewer wanted the book to be.  In other words, don't blame the author for not achieving what she/he did not set out to do.  They also discussed the role of negative criticism and how they handle giving a book a poor review.  Some of the panelists had published books, so they could talk about reviewing from the perspective of the one doing the reviewing, and the one who wrote the work that is being reviewed. 

At the end of the discussion, each of the panelists listed two books that they were really excited about in 2017.  Harvey Freedenberg recommended Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, and The Mountain by Paul Yoon.  Susan Coll recommended Impossible Views of the World by Lucy Ives and The Book of Separation by Tova Mirvis.  Bethanne Patrick recommended Home Fires by Kamila Shamsie, and Based On a True Story by Delphine de Vigan.  Finally, Marion Winik recommended Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin and Theft By Finding by David Sedaris.  Some of these I have read, some are on my shelves, and some I had never heard of, so I'd consider it an interesting mix.  The discussion on book reviewing was generally thoughtful and insightful, but it is worth noting that all of the panelists were white.  As they were talking, I wondered what the discussion would and could have been like had there been more diversity on the panel.

Creativity, Inspiration, and Novels

Bethanne Patrick stuck around for the next panel, talking about the roles of creativity and inspiration in the writing process with The Atlantic's Joe Fassler.  After that, authors Jennifer Haigh and Liz Moore took to stage to discuss their novels, Heat & Light and The Unseen World.  I was sad to be unable to attend either of these events, because they sounded like they would be engaging and thought-provoking discussions.

The Finale

Sunday, the last day of the Harrisburg Book Festival, featured three presentations about three really interesting books.  Elizabeth Wein was a Harrisburg native who moved to Scotland, and wrote her historical novel The Pearl Thief which features a Scottish influence.  Damion Searls explored the world of Rorschach inkblot tests in his nonfiction tome The Power of Seeing: Rorschach, the Inkblots, and the Enduring Relevance of the Iconic Test.  Finally, to close out the weekend, Ruth Franklin discussed her biography of the novelist Shirley Jackson, diving into aspects of her life not commonly known, called Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life.  Sadly, I was unable to attend any of Sunday's events; I was really unhappy to have missed Ruth Franklin's presentation, because of my deep love of Shirley Jackson.  I intend to check out her book very soon.


Although I wasn't able to go to every single event, I had a wonderful time partaking in the Harrisburg Book Festival.  The variety of activities, panels, and presentations was thoughtful and inclusive.  A night completely devoted to poetry was refreshing, and the selection of poets was stellar.  The keynote was absolutely relevant, not only to the local community but to society at large.  I'd say that the 2017 Harrisburg Book Festival was a huge success.  I'm already looking forward to 2018!

Librorum annis,