Companion Reads: ‘A Circle of Quiet’ and ‘The Country of the Pointed Firs’

Sometimes you come across books that are soulmates — they complement each other so that each is heightened by the other and you can’t imagine reading one without the other. We’ve dubbed them Companion Reads.

Things are rough out there and it is probably no surprise to anyone who knows me that I would turn to books during this especially challenging spring. What was surprising, to me anyway, was how I unintentionally ended up reading books focused on one theme: community.

I recently read Madeleine L’Engle’s A Circle of Quiet, the first of a quartet of memoirs by her called the Crosswicks Journals. It is hard to peg this book as “about” any one thing; L’Engle is a meandering memoirist, which makes reading the book feel like you’re wandering about in her brain. Strictly-speaking, the book is an assortment of disjointed anecdotes about her writing, her family, her faith, and various seminars she’s attended, not strung together in any particular way.

This may well sound rather dreadful, but despite her lack of of focus on a sentence-by-sentence level, L’Engle somehow ends up producing a remarkably coherent manifesto about the power of community, the importance of connection, and the value of belonging. It’s hard to think of a more timely sentiment for this moment. (more…)

April 14, 2020 at 8:15 am Leave a comment

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

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A few weeks ago, I got into a disagreement with a friend about The New Me by Halle Butler. I argued that while it’s probably a good book, I couldn’t get over the feeling that it was more a short story than a novel, that the aimlessness and emptiness of the protagonist’s life couldn’t really hold up the weight of its nearly 200 pages.

Consider me vindicated, because Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener does precisely that, but better. While The New Me showed us one extreme—a 20-something woman working as a temp in a furniture store—and Uncanny Valley shows us nearly the exact opposite, they share at their core a general feeling of malaise that plagues perhaps the majority of young, relatively privileged white women. And while The New Me makes us want to shake the protagonist and tell her to get on some medication and pull her life together, Uncanny Valley leaves us with the feeling that no matter how far we get in life, even if it’s to a six-figure tech job, nothing can fill the void inside us or make us valid in the eyes of the men who run the world.

(more…)

March 10, 2020 at 11:31 am Leave a comment

Companion Reads: Exploration Station

This January, quite unintentionally, I embarked on a bookish journey of exploration through three books that paired together beautifully. Taken together, they covered about fifty years of exploration history and took me from the heat of the Amazon to the denseness of the Congo to the frozen emptiness of the Arctic.

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon
by David Grann

Quick-moving, engrossing, and fun, David Grann’s book tells the tale of Edwardian explorer Col. Fawcett and his quest to find a mythical lost city in the Amazon. After decades of travel in the region, Fawcett eventually disappeared in the jungle with his son in the 1920s, never to be seen again. What happened to him? Did he find the Lost City of Z?

As counterbalance to this historical mystery, Grann shares his own experience attempting to answer these questions—Grann is clear that he wants to find Fawcett, and not just biographically. Grann goes into the Amazon, retracing Fawcett’s last known whereabouts and seeking the Lost City of Z himself. (more…)

January 29, 2020 at 8:27 am Leave a comment

A Statistical Decade of Reading

Since 2001, I have been keeping a list of every single book I’ve ever read. It started as a Word document with just a date and a title.

In 2006, I added authors. Shortly thereafter, my fickle laptop hard drive died and I lost many months of books. I filled in the gaps with guesses. In 2012, to prevent such a loss in the future, I migrated to Google Docs.

In 2014, I added genres and, with the document becoming ever-more unwieldy, I moved over to a spreadsheet.

In 2018, I reformatted it a little so I could more easily pull year-over-year data about my reading habits. Now, at the end of this decade, I can look back and see how my reading has changed over the years and how I’ve evolved as a reader.

This visual hindsight delights my little readerly heart (and, needless to say, the data nerd in me). I can see my dip in reading after the 2016 election. I can see my efforts to read more graphic novels starting in 2012. I can see my surge in finished books thanks to tons of rereadings in 2010. It’s fun to look back and view my reading journey from 5,000 feet via a nice, clean bar chart.

So, as we enter a new decade, here are my three big takeaways from the past decade of reading: (more…)

December 31, 2019 at 4:02 pm 1 comment

Our Year in Reading: 2019 Edition

Time for our annual year-end tradition: a look back on the books we loved, were confused by, and/or finally got around to reading this year! Here are the picks for our 5th Annual Literary Transgressions Year in Reading:

Best Reread
Corey: For whatever reason, I did a lot of re-reading this year and loved making that time to revisit old favorites. In terms of best, though, I have to go with Dracula by Bram Stoker. It’s a classic I only read once, and in high school no less, so revisiting it as an adult with some lit crit to help me truly appreciate all its facets was incredible. Also, the idea of Dracula the character being extra-terrifying for contemporary readers because Stoker was playing on anti-immigrant sentiments of the time made the re-read feel especially relevant to today (and especially scary!).

Kate: Jane Eyre, hands down. It’s more wonderful each time I read it–and I think this is read number three? The entire book is far more feminist than one might expect from the author of The Professor–Jane is a magnificent character whose actions and feelings still resonate with a modern reader. Who among us hasn’t been told to “calm down” by a man when showing normal human emotions? It’s a masterwork.

 

Most Fun Read
Kate: Corey brings this up later, but I love a historical mystery! Lyndsay Faye’s The Gods of Gotham and Seven for a Secret were so good that I’ve resisted reading the final book in the trilogy because I don’t want it to be over. Faye does so much research into the world of her characters, and it shows in every word. In addition, Anna Lee Huber’s The Anatomist’s Wife is everything I love in a historical mystery: costumes, nobility, large houses, slow-burn romances, an eccentric lady artist who knows her way around a corpse, and a splash of “I have to be in your bedroom this late at night for Reasons.” Pure unadulterated fun.

Corey: I read all of V.E. Schwab’s Darker Shade of Magic trilogy to start the year and they were delightful. I was so glad I waited for all three to be published before reading the second two books and had a ball galloping through them on a few dark January nights.

 

The Shock and Awe Award for Most Surprising Read
Kate: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. I’m not sure what I expected, but not this little jewel of a book. It’s so sharp and witty, very heavy on the cutting dialogue, and with a happy ending. A new favorite–and thanks to Corey for the recommendation.

Corey: I’m not sure how else to phrase it, but I was quite surprised at how Oscar Wilde-y The Picture of Dorian Gray was! It is chock-a-block, nonstop bon mots and witticisms. Slightly exhausting, but once I got into the groove with it, I enjoyed it. (more…)

December 26, 2019 at 9:39 am 1 comment

The romance of low expectations

…I had been starved for love. He was the first man I’d ever known to show me kindness. He had taken my loneliness away. And for that I knew I would always be grateful. But being grateful was not enough of a reason to stay with someone.

                                – Patrica Park, Re Jane

Is there a more boring love interest than Mr. Weston from Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey? It would be hard to beat him. Mostly what we know of Mr. Weston is that he’s a curate and he’s generally acted as a curate should, visiting the sick and poor and trying to alleviate their conditions. He seems fine. Really. But judging by Agnes’ reaction, one would imagine Mr. Weston to be sent directly from heaven and crafted to be her soulmate. She will die if he falls in love with Rosalie Murray; she keeps primroses he’s picked in a glass until they fall apart.

One wonders why. Mr. Weston barely intimates that he might have any interest in Miss Grey whatsoever. And his counterparts can be found in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as well as in Charlotte Bronte’s The Professor, two love interests who are generally fine, if imbued with a 19th century (or, hey, timeless) need to constantly correct all the women around them and assess them based solely on their level of attraction.

None of the heroes of these works have the joie de vivre of a Charles Bingley, the idealism of a Will Ladislaw, the transcendent charisma of an Angel Clare. Of course, most men do not, just as most women do not share the beauty of Jane, the sheer genius of Dorothea nor the archetypal power of Tess. But in reading a novel, we expect to see the good qualities of a love interest magnified as we see them through the eyes of our protagonist, who sees the best in them.

That isn’t true for most of the Bronte men. (more…)

December 25, 2019 at 1:52 pm Leave a comment

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

Serendipitously, we found ourselves reading the same book within the same month–The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, which promised to be full of intrigue, drama, clockwork and romance all set in Victorian England. Right up our streets, obviously!

The book is about a young man named Thaniel who gets pulled into investigating a mysterious bombing near his work. His investigation introduces him to the titular watchmaker, a Japanese genius named Mori, who is very clearly not at all what he seems.

In his subsequent misadventures, Thaniel meets a lady-chemist named Grace, a rival watchmaker jealous of Mori’s talents, THE Gilbert & Sullivan, a potentially violent group of Irish nationalists, and the Japanese ambassador to Britain. Among others!

The book moves rapidly and speeds up even more as it nears its conclusion. What started as a slow stroll through some imaginative world-building culminates in a breakneck terrorist plot to disrupt a Gilbert & Sullivan premiere!

Needless to say, this book has a lot going on. And we’ll admit, our reading it simultaneously wasn’t totally a matter of chance: Corey read it on her lovely holiday in France and recommended it to Kate, based on her recent research into sexuality in Victorian England. Kate dove right in, and we’ve had a pretty great discussion about the book as a result!

Spoilers lurk ahead like a clockwork octopus waiting to steal your socks…

(more…)

November 15, 2019 at 1:42 pm 2 comments

Blind Date Books #4: A History Mystery

With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, explore Corey’s most recent reads via Blind Date Books! I’ll tell you all about them, but I won’t tell you what they are until the very end. Judge for yourself if you’ll go on these bookish blind dates!

Brown-Paper-Packaging

Happy Valentine’s Day, readers! I saved a good one for this last edition of Blind Date Books: it’s a book by one of Britain’s most popular authors that attempts to solve one of the most enduring mysteries in English history. And, if that isn’t enough for you, we’ve also got murder, war, international intrigue, incest, and just about everything you might find in Game of Thrones, but in a much slimmer volume and with added benefit of historical veracity.

Interested?

(more…)

February 14, 2019 at 9:40 am 1 comment

Blind Date Books #3: Shady Trilogy

With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, explore Corey’s most recent reads via Blind Date Books! I’ll tell you all about them, but I won’t tell you what they are until the very end. Judge for yourself if you’ll go on these bookish blind dates!

Brown-Paper-Packaging

I can’t be coy about these latest Blind Date Books: I adore them! Reading them made me feel invigorated, energetic, and happy, which is no mean feat given the state of the world.

This magical trilogy takes place in three overlapping worlds all with the same name and focuses on the specially-trained (and few) people who can travel between the worlds.

I read the first book in the series many years ago before the next two books had even been published. Never one to mind waiting until a series is complete before wading in, I bided my readerly time until all three were published to complete the trilogy. (Incidentally, I have never been more glad of my forbearance since Book 2 ends with the most cliffhanger-y cliffhanger I’ve ever read in my entire life.)

You can read about how much I loved the first book elsewhere on this blog, so I’ll confine myself to comments on the second and third books. These two books succeed at expanding an already-fascinating world and, together, build towards a dramatic finale in the third book. (more…)

February 11, 2019 at 8:12 am 1 comment

Blind Date Books #2: Sisterly Love

With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, explore Corey’s most recent reads via Blind Date Books! I’ll tell you all about them, but I won’t tell you what they are until the very end. Judge for yourself if you’ll go on these bookish blind dates!

Brown-Paper-Packaging

If you’re in the mood for something comforting and cozy like a warm cup of tea, this is the Blind Date Book for you!

Personally, this wasn’t a first date for me, but a reread of a book I last read when I was sixteen years old. At the time, everyone in the book seemed much older than me. The characters all seemed preoccupied with either money or marriage (or both), two subjects that from my young perch implied maturity and seriousness to be found in my far distant future.

Imagine my surprise, revisiting as a 32-year-old, to find the main characters were right around my age at the time I first read this book — sixteen and eighteen, with a mother in her late thirties, and a (apparently horrifically) old suitor of 35. I was stunned.

Ages aside, this lovely book tells the tale of two sisters and their adventures out in the world after the death of their father. It’s an absolute classic for good reason — it’s written with wit, charm, and characters you immediately feel like you’ve known for years. (more…)

February 7, 2019 at 9:50 am 2 comments

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