Yearly wrap-up, 2013 edition

In the spirit of those sites that do a weekly wrap-up (like Dooce’s “Stuff I found while looking around” and The Bloggess’ “Sh*t I did when I wasn’t here”), here are a few odds and ends I found while going through my work e-mail inbox and my drafts folder.

How to Search: “How to Use Google Search More Effectively” is a fantastic infographic that will teach you at least one new trick, if not several. It was developed for college students, but most of the content applies to everyday Google-users. Google has its own Tips & Tricks section as well, which is probably updated to reflect changes and new features.

How to Take Care of Your Books: “Dos and Don’ts for Taking Care of Your Personal Books at Home” is a great article by Shelly Smith, the New York Public Library’s Head of Conservation Treatment. Smith recommends shelving your books upright, keeping them out of direct sunlight and extreme temperatures, and dusting. (Sigh. Yes, dusting.)

The ARPANET Dialogues: “In the period between 1975 and 1979, the Agency convened a rare series of conversations between an eccentric cast of characters representing a wide range of perspectives within the contemporary social, political and cultural milieu. The ARPANET Dialogues is a serial document which archives these conversations.” The “eccentric cast of characters” includes Ronald Reagan, Edward Said, Jane Fonda, Jim Henson, Ayn Rand, and Yoko Ono, among others. A gem of Internet history.

All About ARCs: Some librarians over at Stacked developed a survey about how librarians, bloggers, teachers, and booksellers use Advance Reader Copies (ARCs). There were 474 responses to the survey, and the authors summarized and analyzed the results beautifully. I read a lot of ARCs, both in print and through NetGalley or Edelweiss, and I was surprised to learn the extent of the changes between the ARC stage and the finished book; I had assumed changes were copy-level ones, not substantial content-level ones, but sometimes they are. (I also miss the dedication and acknowledgements.)

E-books vs. Print books: There were, at a conservative estimate, approximately a zillion articles and blog posts this year about e-books, but I especially liked this one from The Guardian, “Why ebooks are a different genre from print.” Stuart Kelly wrote, “There are two aspects to the ebook that seem to me profoundly to alter the relationship between the reader and the text. With the book, the reader’s relationship to the text is private, and the book is continuous over space, time and reader. Neither of these propositions is necessarily the case with the ebook.” He continued, “The printed book…is astonishingly stable over time, place and reader….The book, seen this way, is a radically egalitarian proposition compared to the ebook. The book treats every reader the same way.”

On (used) bookselling: This has been languishing in my drafts folder for nearly two years now. A somewhat tongue-in-cheek but not overly snarky list, “25 Things I Learned From Opening a Bookstore” includes such amusing lessons as “If someone comes in and asks for a recommendation and you ask for the name of a book that they liked and they can’t think of one, the person is not really a reader.  Recommend Nicholas Sparks.” Good for librarians as well as booksellers (though I’d hesitate to recommend Sparks).

The-Library-Book-154x250_largeOn Libraries: Along the same lines, I really enjoyed Lucy Mangan’s essay “The Rules” in The Library Book. Mangan’s “rules” are those she would enforce in her own personal library, and they include: (2) Silence is to be maintained at all times. For younger patrons, “silence” is an ancient tradition, dating from pre-digital times. It means “the absence of sound.” Sound includes talking. (3) I will provide tea and coffee at cost price, the descriptive terms for which will be limited to “black,” “white,” “no/one/two/three sugars” and “cup.” Anyone who asks for a latte, cappuccino or anything herbal anything will be taken outside and killed. Silently.

On Weeding: It’s a truth often unacknowledged that libraries possessed of many books must be in want of space to put them – or must decide to get rid of some. Julie Goldberg wrote an excellent essay on this topic, “I Can’t Believe You’re Throwing Out Books!” I also wrote a piece for the local paper, in which I explain the “culling” of our collection (not my choice of headline).

“What We Talk About When We Talk About Public Libraries”: In an essay for In the Library with the Lead Pipe, Australian Hugh Rundle wrote about the lack of incentives for public librarians to do research to test whether public libraries are achieving their desired outcomes.

Public Journalism, Private Platforms: Dan Gillmor questions how much journalists know about security, and how much control they have over their content once it’s published online. (Article by Caroline O’Donovan at Nieman Journalism Lab)

Choose your favorite year-end metaphor, or, Bookish resolutions (again)

I dearly wish my “end-of-the-year to-blog-folder cleanup” could be as neat and tidy as Brian’s, but alas, there are 21 unfinished drafts, some going back as far as 2011. That might be a good project for the last days of December and the first part of January, but first I’m trying to compile my year-end reading statistics, a project that has been snarled by a mid-year switch from Goodreads to LibraryThing (documented here and here).

I’ve been using LT pretty much exclusively since September, but LT’s statistics, while charmingly quirky (are the authors of the books I read dead or alive?), aren’t the sort I’m looking for. Goodreads, on the other hand, offers stats that are less imaginative but more practical: how many books read this year? How many pages? I thought I’d solve the problem by importing some of my LT data back into Goodreads, sans reviews, but Goodreads didn’t recognize my “date started/date finished” headings (which I had to acquire in a hacky way to begin with, because that information isn’t included in LT’s export feature: I tweaked some display preferences, got a print view, copied and pasted into Excel).

So it’s all a bit of a mess, but as best I can tell I read 159 books this year (so far!), but subtract seven “partially-read” books from that number to get 152 books for 2013. That’s about 12.6 books per month (though again, December isn’t over, and I’m halfway through David Sedaris’ laugh-out-loud Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls). This number is rather astonishingly close to last year’s: I read 159 books in 2012. I don’t really expect to improve upon that, but of course it’s not about the numbers really; it’s about the quality, and I did read some wonderful books this year.

And how did I do on my New Year’s resolution to read all the unread books on my shelves at home? Not terribly well at all. Of those pictured in the link, I read two (Olive Kitteridge and The Carriage House), but throughout the year the “at home and unread” shelf/pile(s) morphed. (Yes, I think morphed is the word.) I decided not to read (and therefore, to give away) several of them (see below), but many I still intend to read, and my dear sweet friends at various publishing houses sent even more. Fortunately, I had Christmas* day to take all my books off their shelves, dust, rearrange, and catalog: the “to be read” books are now on a shelf (okay, 1.5 shelves) in the living room, where I’ll be faced with them every day. I also bought the e-book of Far From the Tree, which I started and loved but could not make myself lug around (900+ pages!); now that it’s more portable I have no excuse.

*That’s what Christmas is for, right? Movies, Chinese food, and cataloging one’s books?

So, here’s the to-read shelf for 2014 (click to enlarge):


It’s all the books on the top shelf, starting with short stories, then fiction, then nonfiction, which continues onto the first part of the next shelf (see below).

DSC06251Do you see your favorite book on my to-read shelf? Tell me why I should move it to the top of the list!

Here are the books I deaccessioned (fancy word for “got rid of”) or am deaccessioning soon:


Of the books in the photo above, I read Olive Kitteridge, TransAtlantic, The Song Is You, and about half of TrafficThe others remain unread (by me).


Of those in this photo, I read the nine on top, but the five on the bottom went unread.


Of these, I read four and a half. Or thereabouts.

So that’s it, my year in reading. Did you make a bookish resolution? I’m curious to hear.



“Love is easy and strange”: Maggie O’Farrell

instructionsheatwaveI mentioned Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell in my previous post highlighting some of my favorite books of 2013 (and a few from 2012). What I did not mention is that, since listening to John Lee narrate Instructions for a Heatwave, I’ve listened to or read every other novel of hers I could get my hands on, starting with The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (2006, read by Anne Flosnik), continuing with The Hand That First Held Mine (2010, also read by Anne Flosnik), and most recently, After You’d Gone (2001). Just now I’m waiting for The Distance Between Us (2004) to arrive from another library; after that, there’s My Lover’s Lover (2003), and then I’ll be waiting for her next book just like everyone else, I imagine – impatiently.

Ann Patchett, one of my all-time favorite authors, has said that she writes the same book over and over, and it is true that her books feature characters in situations that are unfamiliar to them, often accompanied by strangers. Agatha Christie wrote mysteries that took place in enclosed environments, such as a small village or a country estate; Jojo Moyes often (though not always) writes love stories that are connected through generations, adding an element of historical resonance and nostalgia. O’Farrell’s gift, talent, or fixation (as Patchett says, I write the book I want to read) is for explosive family secrets – usually something hidden from a younger generation by an older one, slowly uncovered as the two stories are woven together.

afteryoudgoneAfter You’d Gone is an early example of this pattern. Alice Raikes was born in Scotland but is living in London; one day, she takes a train to Edinburgh, where her sisters meet her at the station. However, when Alice goes to the loo, she sees something so shocking that she leaves her sisters, takes a train back to London, and, later that day, steps off the curb into moving traffic. While Alice lies in a coma and her family travels to be with her, Alice’s history and that of her family is slowly revealed. Alice’s mother Ann married Ben even though she did not love him – a fact not lost on Ben’s mother Elspeth – and when Alice learns her mother’s secret, it changes her own relationship to her whole family. This revelation, on top of Alice’s grief over a recent tragedy of her own, leads to Alice’s desperate action. The story is narrated mostly in the third person, but there are a few sections in first person, for no clear reason. This puzzlement aside, the book is almost flawless; though the plot is not as intricate and unguessable as in later books, the pacing and characters are superb.

vanishingactesmelennoxMore than almost any other book I’ve read, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox illustrates in heartbreaking fashion the social constraints on women as recently as two generations ago, by juxtaposing Esme’s story with that of her grand-niece, Iris. Iris receives a call one day from Cauldstone Hospital; despite her ignorance of Esme’s existence – her grandmother Kathleen (Kitty) never mentioned siblings – Iris is listed as the elderly Esme’s next of kin. Nevertheless, Iris can’t abandon Esme, so she brings her home with her temporarily. Esme – who doesn’t seem mad at all, despite having spent most of her life institutionalized – is stunned by Iris’ life: her freedom to live alone, wear what she likes, manage her own business, not rely on a husband or father. These were the things Esme wanted for herself, but which were unthinkable in her time, and that situation led to tragedy upon tragedy. Narration is in the third person, alternating between Iris’ and Esme’s point of view, occasionally interspersed with Kitty’s stream-of-consciousness thoughts from within her Alzheimer’s haze. In this way, the reader understands Esme’s story more fully than Iris does, but Iris still understands enough to piece together crucial parts of the past. The story concludes with Esme and Kitty meeting again for the first time since they were teenagers, and a final, shocking event.

handthatfirstheldmineThe Hand That First Held Mine also weaves two stories together from different time periods, but in this case it is less immediately apparent how they are connected. In the mid-1990s (?), Ted and Elina are at home with their new baby, after a horrifying labor and a near-death experience for Elina, the trauma of which she has blocked out. The memories trickle back, however, and having a baby in the house seems to be bringing back Ted’s earliest memories as well; these memories raise questions that Ted’s mother refuses to answer. The answers, of course, lie in the past: in the late 1950s, Lexie Sinclair runs away to London, where she falls in love with Innes Kent. She works at Innes’ magazine and eventually moves in with him, but this makes Innes’ wife Gloria furious, despite the fact that she and Innes are separated. Gloria turns her daughter Margot against Innes and Lexie, with long-reaching consequences for them all. (In fact, when I got to the part where a major piece of the puzzle is revealed, I actually said “Oh my God” out loud.) In The Hand That First Held Mine, O’Farrell’s genius for intricate plotting is breathtaking, and her gift for characterization will leave no reader unaffected.

Of all the reading I’ve done this year, Maggie O’Farrell’s books have been some of the best. Though I wouldn’t want to be one of her characters, I’ll be recommending her books for years to come.

What’s the first thing you remember?

A couple days ago, our library director issued a call for contributions to our annual “staff picks/best books” column for the local paper. I skimmed my LibraryThing catalog to look over what I’d read this past year, disqualifying anything that was published before 2012…and I ended up with nineteen (19)* titles that belonged in my own personal “favorite” category.

*Compiling the “other favorites” list at the end of this post, I added a few more.

fangirlFor my contributions for the column, I excluded YA books because many of us on staff – including, of course – the YA librarian – read and love YA, and I figured the books I would write about (Every Day by David Levithan, Eleanor & Park and Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, Wonder by R.J. Palacio, The Raven Boys and The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, and Just One Day by Gayle Forman) are the ones they would write about also.

I still couldn’t possibly narrow it down to fewer than five. Here’s what I wrote about my choices (below), and after those are the rest of the list.

Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell
O’Farrell’s sixth novel is set in London during the legendary heatwave of 1976. Robert Riordan goes to get the paper one morning and disappears; his wife, Gretta, is frantic, and calls their three grown children home. Misunderstandings between siblings are resolved and buried secrets come to light, but the true genius of this book is how deeply the reader sees inside each character, while the characters lack that same insight into each other.

feverFever by Mary Beth Keane
I’m afraid this brilliantly imagined work of historical fiction did not receive the buzz it deserved. Keane brings Irish immigrant Mary Mallon, a.k.a. “Typhoid Mary,” to life in early 1900s New York, and creates a portrait of a woman whose calling was cooking, but whose cooking was lethal. For perhaps the first time, readers will have sympathy for Mary.

The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley
Ripley follows three American exchange students through a year in Finland, Poland, and South Korea – all countries whose PISA scores have shot up over the past decade – to investigate how these countries have improved their education systems and whether the United States can adopt a new approach successfully. The writing is lively and clear, the research is solid, the results are not tremendously surprising – it comes down to teachers and rigor.


Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Life After Life is like the movie Sliding Doors, but with more doors; protagonist Ursula Todd tries them all, dying and being reborn into her same life again and again. Born in England in 1910, Ursula lives through (or doesn’t) World War I, the Spanish flu, World War II and the Blitz. It’s historical fiction, time travel, and philosophical what-if all rolled into one masterful book.

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer
“The impossible happens once to each of us,” the story begins. Greta in 1985 is grieving: her twin brother is dead of AIDS and her lover has left her. But then Greta wakes up in 1918, and then in 1941. In each time, she is herself, in the same apartment, with the same friends and family, but their relationships are different. As Greta cycles through three selves – in 1918, 1941, and 1985 – she eventually realizes she must decide whether to return to her present, or stay in the past. Toward the end of this beautiful book, she concludes, “What is a perfect world except for one that needs you?”


Other nonfiction favorites:
Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett (essays)
I Don’t Know by Leah Hager Cohen
The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida, translated by KA Yoshida and David Mitchell
Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfield
Dear Friend: Rainer Maria Rilke and Paula Modersohn-Becker by Eric Torgersen (1998)


Other fiction favorites:
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld
Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin
Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell
Astray by Emma Donoghue (short stories)


Go Giants by Nick Laird
Aimless Love by Billy Collins
Dog Songs by Mary Oliver

Here are last year’s favorites.

The title of this post is a line from Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.