Monday, January 31, 2011

Kim's Reading for Medicinal Purposes

Kim from Sophisticated Dorkiness was a guest blogger here last summer, and I'm very happy she was willing to make a return visit to The 3 R's! You may recall that her blog specializes in nonfiction. Since her last appearance, Sophisticated Dorkiness was chosen "Best Nonfiction Review Blog" in the 2010 BBAW Awards, and Kim chaired the Nonfiction judging panel for the first Indie Lit Awards.

I do a semi-regular feature on my blog called Narrative Nonfiction 5, where I put together lists of nonfiction books on a particular topic. So far I’ve ranged from politics to football to ocean creatures -- there’s almost no topic I wouldn’t love to write a list on.

Since Florinda is taking this time off because she had surgery, I thought it would be fun to do a special Narrative Nonfiction 5 on books related to medicine. There’s a wealth of nonfiction and memoir about surgery, disease, and health care, so narrowing it down to just five was a challenge.

1. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman

This book is, hands down, one of my favorite nonfiction reads of all time. At the center of the story is a three-year-old Hmong girl named Lia who suffers from debilitating seizures. Despite both well-intentioned and talented people around her, Lia’s condition worsens because of the way cultural differences prevent communication between her family and her doctors. This is not an easy book to read, but one that I think fairly and honestly looks at the way medicine is practiced and what we could do differently.

I recently convinced both Care (Care’s Online Book Club) and Jeanne (Necromancy Never Pays) to read this book, and I think they were both glad they did.

2. Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science by Dr. Atul Gawande

I got a copy of this book for Christmas from my parents because they know how much I love memoirs by people who do things I will never get to experience. In this book, Gawande writes about the ups and downs of being a doctor, of dealing with patients and with learning from mistakes. He also includes ways to improve medicine and change the status quo, something I am interested in reading. A number of bloggers I enjoy and respect have said great things about this book, including Eva (A Striped Armchair), Raych (books i done read), and Lisa (Books Lists Life). The book is quickly moving up my TBR pile.

3. Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir by Sonya Huber

This is another book I haven’t read yet, even though it’s been sitting on my shelf to read since October. That doesn’t say anything bad about the book, just the sheer number of books on that shelf that I don’t have time to read! The book is Huber’s story of going from a person who viewed health care as an inconvenience, or simply didn’t think about it, to someone learning to navigate the complex world of our national health care system. As someone just getting of my parents insurance and having to deal with the system on my own, I’m curious to read about her experience and see what I can learn from it.

4. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

This book has gotten a lot of buzz in the last year or so, which makes it feel like cheating to put it on this list. But I’m going to because it’s a very, very good book. The Immortal Life of Heniretta Lacks is story of the first line of human stem cells that can live on their own. The original cells are cervical cancer cells from a woman named Henrietta Lacks, and were taken from her without permission. The book is a look a the thorny issue of race in medicine, medical ethics, and what it means to think a person can never die because their cells continue to live on.

Many many bloggers who don’t normally read nonfiction have had wonderful things to say about this book, and for good reason. The paperback version is coming out in March, so grab a copy then if your library hold list is too long now.

5. The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

It’s possible that this book is a bit of a stretch for the list, but I’m so looking forward to reading it that I wanted it here anyway. The subtitle of the book sort of explains it all: “The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic -- and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World.” I’m a bit of a sucker for history books about medicine and public health measures, and this book covers both topics. I’ve read one of Johnson’s other books, Everything Bad is Good for You, and find his style engaging and thought provoking. I’m optimistic this book will be similar. 

I've read one of the books on this list and will be adding a couple of the others to my wish list soon! What about you? 

Also: while Kim's here today, I'm over at Anna Lefler's place, Life Just Keeps Getting Weirder, participating in today's Chicken Link Showcase!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Sunday Salon: Reading, Watching, Recuperating

 The Sunday 

As you may recall, I’ve been home for the last week recuperating from shoulder surgery. It’s been a decent week for reading, once the pain subsided and the stronger drugs wore off.
  • Friday 1/21: Surgery Day: not much reading, which should surprise no one at all. I was in surgery itself for four hours, and given the pain meds and anesthesia still in my system, I wasn’t awake for all that much of the day.
  • Saturday: Finished The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks for the Indie Lit Awards nonfiction panel & wrote review (it’s on LibraryThing now, and scheduled to post here on February 7).
  • Sunday: Tried to start Cleopatra: A Life for Indie Lit, but couldn’t focus - the opening is rather dense and academic, and my brain wasn’t up to it yet. Switched to Certain Women for the Faith and Fiction Roundtable. Good call.
  • Monday 1/24: Continued Certain Women. Decided to double-team for Indie Lit with The Warmth of Other Suns instead of Cleopatra.
  • Tuesday: Finished Certain Women & wrote review (on LibraryThing now, and scheduled to post here on February 9).
  • Wednesday - Saturday: Continued The Warmth of Other Suns to completion - review is in the works.
I’ll be home on sick leave for at least another week, so I hope to keep up the good work reading!

Books aren’t the only place to find good storytelling, though. In between the books, the naps, and the online time, there’s been some TV on DVD, notably the third series of Doctor Who, which we watched in full. We are serious latecomers to the delights of the Doctor - we only started last spring, with the arrival of the 11th Doctor, but we’re truly enjoying catching up! The third series (season) is actually the second year of David Tennant’s turn as the (10th) Doctor...and I just may be re-evaluating my feelings about Matt Smith once we get back to the 11th Doctor, to be honest. But no matter who plays the Time Lord, he’s one of the most original, unusual characters ever written.

Question of the Week
, if you didn’t already weigh in on it via Twitter or Facebook: "Do you ever read multiple reviews of A Book Everyone Loves just hoping to find ONE that says 'meh'?" This was inspired by a particular book - one that I DO want to read, for the record - but after awhile all the fawning over any book just makes me wish for another take - not necessarily a hater, but just not a lover. I admit I have a contrarian streak, but I also like to see different perspectives and balance them out, and I’m wondering when widespread praise crosses the line into hype. What do you think?

Friday, January 28, 2011

Friday Fill-ins...and fillin' y'all in!

I haven't done one of these in a while, but they don't require much typing. I also didn't have a post already scheduled for today, and that hasn't happened for a while either...and hence, convergence!

But since I haven't really been here for a few days, how about another sort of "fill-in" first?

My shoulder surgery was a week ago today, and by my own estimation, I'm not doing badly. I'll still be recuperating at home for at least another week, but I've been able to scale back to Advil and off the prescription pain meds during the last couple of days. I'm slowly becoming able to do more things for myself - left-handed, of course - and although I'm not feeling up to writing much just yet, I've been online a bit. I've been reading a lot too, as I'd hoped, especially after the first few days. I see my doctor for a post-op exam on Monday morning; at that time, I think they'll be taking all the tape off the incisions, and I'll see what he has to say about my healing. I haven't left my house in a week, and I'm actually OK with that...which should probably scare me a little, but it mostly doesn't.

Friday Fill-Ins 2011-04


1. Up on the housetop, reindeer pause...out jumps good old Santa Claus...(Yes, I know it's no longer "the season." Told you I haven't been getting out much.)
2. If I stay home, I might not catch that bug that's going around.

3. Coats and scarves, mittens and boots: don't need ANY of them if I'm not going out - and when I DO go out, it'll be in Southern California, so I STILL won't need them! #weathergloating

4.  I wouldn't mind a nice back rub, but it had better wait till my arm's out of this sling.

5. I'm thinking about how soon my arm will be let out of this sling!

6. A cup of hot chocolate would be tasty right now, even if it's NOT that cold out.

7. And as for the weekend, tonight I'm looking forward to hanging out with the family, tomorrow my plans include the Battlestar Galactica series finale on DVD and Sunday, I want to read and not do much else! (Recuperation from surgery is not a time for exciting activities.)

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Serena's Year of Change and Poetry (and request for recommendations!)

Serena's book blog, Savvy Verse & Wit, was voted "Best Poetry Blog" in the 2010 BBAW Awards, and she hosts the weekly Virtual Poetry Circle there. She is also a published poet. I was fortunate to meet Serena in person last summer while visiting her hometown, Washington DC, and am happy she's visiting The 3 R's today!

Thanks to Florinda for inviting me to guest blog.

Although 2010 was a productive year for me in terms of reading and work, 2011 is shaping up to be an even more complicated and busy year. My husband and I are having our first child this March, and I was not interested in having children, either because I was too selfish or too focused on other things after breaking away from my family and out on my own. Now that my daughter is nearly here, I’ve given a great deal of thought to the books I read as a child, and the books I want to read to her and want her to read.

My fondest memories of reading come from my nana and my mom, and many of those books were Dr. Seuss. But there was more to be had than just his whimsical poetry; there was Shel Silverstein and the traditional nursery rhymes. While I do not expect my daughter to be as obsessed with poetry as I am, I do expect her to appreciate it in all its forms and understand that it can be both enjoyable and fun even to those outside academia. The process already has begun in the womb as I’ve read her poetry from contemporary writers, like Billy Collins and Sweta Vikram, and from classic poets, like Robert Frost and the Brontes.

As an online reviewer for my own blog, Savvy Verse & Wit, I’ve read and reviewed dozens of poetry books, but my reviews of children’s literature have been few and far between. However, I have kept up with some more contemporary books on the market and received some recommendations from friends who have children.
  • Barnyard Dance by Sandra Boynton
  • Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson
  • Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter
  • Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
  • Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd
None of these recommendations include poetry. Is poetry for children, young and old, just not out there or is it only the old classics that remain on the market?
I’d love to get some recommendations from everyone for poetry books because we plan to have bedtime reading every night.

I hope everyone has a prosperous new year filled with joy and adventure.

As most of y'all know, poetry isn't my thing, but do you have any children's poetry to suggest to Serena? Please leave a comment to share your recommendations, or contact Serena through Savvy Verse & Wit!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Josie's Internet-Dating Dispatches: A pursuit that's not for the faint of heart

Today's guest post comes from quite a distance, and from a blogger I've only recently met myself: Josie Speaks Up all the way from Australia! She's a (young) widowed teacher with one four-legged child (dog variety), and she's relatively new to blogging.

When Josie offered me her take on this particular topic, I went for it because her experience with it is a bit different from mine: many of y'all know that Tall Paul and I met online, and we've been together for going on six years now. Maybe this is one area in life where I've been luckier than most?

Being all grown up I’d thought I’d reached the point where I’m reasonably happy with who I am, how I look, how I conduct my life. I actually feel some self-confidence. Good, all good. Until I did some on-line dating.

I’d lost my husband to cancer 15 months ago and would really like to be in another relationship. Yes, I’d much rather meet someone through friends, or shared interests, but that hasn’t happened so it was back to the on-line dating.

Then it quickly became apparent that I was not in the correct age bracket, leading me to feel that maybe I’m too old now to meet anyone. I know this from first-hand experience because after posting my real age, I would get maybe seven people in a week check out my profile. However, if I shave a few years off my age - which of course is dishonest and duplicitous, but a means to an end - I can quadruple the number of people who actually look at my profile. This is the preferred outcome because if people never look at my profile they’re not going to actually contact me.

If you’re wondering what the ideal age group is, well, it’s not anywhere in your 40’s. Thirties is acceptable but apparently the forties means you’re overlooked in favour of younger women. (And, by the way they’re all gorgeous. I generally hold my own in social gatherings and look reasonably nice, but these woman have me intimidated.) However, the men who contact you can be in their fifties. Apparently that’s all well and good.

Then finding someone you’re actually attracted to is a bit hit and miss, especially when they’re 15 years (or more) older than you. Now, I tried to be reasonable about this because I do have friends with a large age gap between them but so far anyone that much older than me has seriously not appealed.

With a few exceptions the men who have contacted me have not read my profile and think I’d love to go out with a smoker - not so - or like watching a lot of motor sport - again not so - or appear to sit around and eat a lot and not exercise. I actually exercise a fair bit, at least every 2nd day, both to feel healthy and to look good. Or the men think my ideal way to spend time is watching the footy and drinking beer. No, no, no - and I said as much on my profile. It’s very, very disheartening and tricky. And can be very off-putting. Perhaps my expectations are far too high?

If you are tough and persevere you might actually meet someone who appears to be a good option. Someone you could actually go out with and enjoy their company. But, I’d forgotten that’s when the real pain begins. The whole self-doubt thing and the wanting a guarantee that it’ll all work out, that you’ll both be on the same page when it comes to how often you see each other or if you like doing the same things. The wondering is it going to be a couple of dates then they, or you, lose interest? Plus, I get keen quickly, how do I avoid that and not get too involved but just to be a bit casual and see what happens?

In fact the last guy I went out, after six months of contact with no one I’d actually consider, appeared promising, but then told me he wanted to go slowly. OK, so what does slowly look like? Apparently slowly is when you date other women too because you want to keep your options open, you know, get to know more than one person at a time. For me, and I would imagine most women, that wasn’t a very flattering option. I interpreted as: "I’ll see you but also see other women and maybe one of these other women will catch my interest more than you."

Perhaps this is the wrong interpretation? At any rate, I nicely let him know that he can date as many other women as he likes but he doesn’t get to date me as well.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Ten years of (sometimes reluctant) adventure

This post was inspired by BlogHer.com's year-long "Own Your Beauty" initiative and its January theme, "Adventure." And sorry to disappoint those of you who would marvel at my speedy recovery, but it was written prior to my surgery last Friday.

If I were still married to my first husband, we would have celebrated our twenty-seventh wedding anniversary on January 7. (Hopefully, "celebrated" would have been the right word.) We would have been married to each other for almost 60% of our lives at that point. And if we were still the people we'd been for almost half that time, there would have been relatively little adventure in our lives. Our nest would have already been empty for a few years and we might have moved to a smaller house, but we'd both still be working (him significantly more than me), and...well, I'm honestly not sure what else, to be honest. I was able to see us being old together, but I had trouble seeing how we'd get there.

However, we didn't stay the same people we were when we'd married at 20. (Hopefully, most of us don't stay the same people we were at 20, married or not.) Adventure entered our lives...and ultimately sent us in different directions. Adventure is part of why we're no longer married.

And yet, that doesn't mean I begrudge adventure. While certain varieties of adventure - mostly those involving physical risk-taking - hold no allure for me, and I wouldn't say I go out seeking adventure, I've found that it can be good for me. The last ten years of my life have been my most adventurous, and they've taken me to places I wouldn't have imagined when I was 20. Still, at times I really haven't seen my actions as even being all that adventurous; it's other people's reactions that make me see them that way.

One of my old friends back at the zoo gave me a sweet gift when I left there to move cross-country in 2002, along with a card wishing me well and telling me that she "admired my courage." This was a woman I thought was pretty courageous herself - she left an abusive short-lived marriage, and pursued her master's degree while coping with a full-time job and chronic fatigue syndrome (and eventually, a new relationship), so that meant a lot coming from her, but I didn't think I was being especially brave. In fact, in some ways I felt like I was running away, but I sincerely believed that my post-divorce adjustment would go a little smoother if I were somewhere that I had family, and wasn't likely to run into my ex (and future Wife 2.0) at the grocery store. But realistically, I guess that moving 1800 miles to a place you've never lived before, without a job waiting, and starting life on your own for the very first time - at age 38 - could be considered a pretty adventurous move.

But I feel that maybe it was a gutsy reaction to having been gutless for a long time. I'd known that my marriage hadn't "felt" right for a while, and that I didn't feel fully myself within it, but I was trying to downplay it and live with what I had until my ex started the adventure that led to our eventual divorce - a back-and-forth process that went on for well over two years, and in which I took a mostly passive role. Later, when I'd been away for awhile and was starting to see how I was changing, and coming to accept that maybe he and I hadn't been the best match for each other, I was still struggling, and learning to live with a low-grade depression.

Yes, learning to "live with it," and at times actively resisting doing anything about it - especially since I was pretty sure it would have been even worse if I hadn't left Memphis. I've read that you have to accept yourself before you can change yourself, and in a perverse way, I may have felt that "living with" these feelings was a way of "accepting" my life. Change can be a big scary thing, and I'd been through some HUGE change in a few short years - but much of that was in the circumstances of my life, and not so much in me. The "normal" I'd come to live with might not have been the greatest, but at least I knew how it worked - or more accurately, didn't want to know how it didn't work. I'd built myself a little box and it kept adventure at bay for a couple of years - and it was my ex-husband's next adventure that ultimately pushed me out of it. His announcement that he was getting married again was what finally pushed me into therapy - which even I have to acknowledge was a brave thing to do.

If you've ever been in therapy, you know just how much of an adventure it is. The work we did was eye-opening (and the meds helped too). I got some excellent tools that I'm still using, and about six months later I was ready for another adventurous step - into the dating pool, a place I'd truly never been before, having known my first husband since tenth grade and dated him since just after high-school graduation. But I wasn't so adventurous as to be untrue to myself; I'm better able to express myself in writing, and so I made that step from behind the computer screen via an online-dating site. The communication with my "match" went so well in that setting that when we met in person, we felt like old friends already. We've been married for over four years now. We help each other embrace the daily adventures of life; even seeing life as "daily adventures" is an adventurous change of perspective for me - and I like it.

One tricky thing about self-image is that you can find yourself holding on to a picture that doesn't square very well with your present reality - not letting yourself get confused by the facts, so to speak. That can be an obvious factor in matters like body-image issues - seeing yourself as fat when you're really not, for example - but it comes into play in less physical "images" too. And despite being able to point to a few examples of adventurous actions during the last few years of my life, I still tend to see those times as anomalies that are out of character, rather than characteristic of the person I've grown to be. Maybe they're not anomalies, though - these actions are prompted by thoughts and impulses which can only come from me, and I guess it's about time I accept that my mind and heart are more adventurous places than they once were.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Jeanne's Overlooked-Book Spotlight: *Halfway Human*, by Carolyn Ives Gilman

Please welcome Jeanne from Necromancy Never Pays to The 3 R's today! Jeanne's blog is particularly known for thoughtful discussions of genre fiction and poetry. She has a PhD in English, is a college Writing Center Director at a liberal arts college in Ohio, and loves cats, caviar, satire, musical theater, and hot weather.

Halfway HumanRhetorically speaking, Carolyn Ives Gilman's science fiction novel Halfway Human is the most interesting thing I've read since I first moved to the north and found Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin in the public library. It's not until about page 313 of this 325-page novel that you'll realize how thoroughly she has trapped you, how she's using your emotions about a fictional alien character to show you something important about what you notice and how you act towards others on your own planet.

What will get you interested, at first, is sympathy for the character of Tedla, a neuter from Gammadis, which is a planet where neuters are used as slaves and not considered human. The story of its early years on Gammadis and its time on Capella, a planet more like our own, is horrifying and compelling, especially because of the "human" lens through which the portrait has to be viewed. Before the age of 14, when all Gammadians are neuter, the children (proto-humans, or "protos") passed around rumors like that "eating beans will produce male genes, the bite of a needletail will make you female. There were diagnostic tests: If you looked at your fingernails palm up rather than palm down, you were sure to be a man. Looking over your shoulder to see the sole of your foot was a sure sign of a woman."

On Capella, the planet I think is most like our own (although a character points out that all people call their planet some variation of "earth"), "knowledge was its principle export, and its only major industry." Like the country of Gilead in Margaret Atwood's 
The Handmaid's Tale, the planet of Capella has things in common with our own planet, but they're obviously far in the future and much more exaggerated--showing where we could be headed. The problem with the knowledge culture is that "the companies need us all to be alienated from each other, because it cuts off routes of communication they can't control. If everyone shared information openly, it wouldn't be a controllable commodity, and no one could profit from it."

Tedla's story is masterfully told, moving backwards from the point at which it attempts to kill herself, alone on Capella. As it tells stories that reveal the horrors of slavery on Gammadis, we react along with the xenologist to whom she is telling her story, Val. It's clear that what happens to the neuters, "blands," as they are called on their own planet, is wrong. Even though Tedla denies that it was a slave-- "we weren't slaves. Neuters are never traded for money"-- it's clear that blands are treated as such, and the details (including torture scenes) are right out of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Told from birth that "blands" are less than human, Tedla believes it, despite growing evidence, as its story continues, that its intelligence is greater than that of the gendered humans whose every whim it must anticipate and gratify.

I keep typing "she" when referring to Tedla, and I think it's because the reader identifies with this character; I assume that a male reader might stumble over calling Tedla a "he." There's another reason I think of "it" as a "she," though, and that's the way the humans (both Gammadians and Capellans) want to use it sexually because it is extraordinarily attractive; that makes me think of stories about the lot of beautiful slave women in the American south before the civil war. Tedla is frustrated by the degree to which "we have to think about your sexuality all the time." She says:
"Some humans--maybe all--are actually attracted by asexuals. Even your standards of beauty tend to be androgynous. I don't know why it is--the ambiguity of identity, perhaps, or the novelty of a transgender experience. Then there are people who are attracted to anything dangerous."
"What is dangerous about it?" Val asked.
"On Gammadis, sexual encounters with neuters are absolutely forbidden," Tedla said. "The idea is horrible, shameful, disgusting. Anyone found molesting a neuter would be ostracized, and penalized by the harshest laws we have."
"But it's done?"
"All the time," Tedla said bitterly. "Everyone condemns it, then they do it anyway. It's the central hypocrisy of my planet. They all learn not to see it. The only thing more forbidden than doing it, is talking about it."

About halfway through the novel, Tedla meets its first alien, and the events that lead to it escaping to Capella commence. The reader is increasingly implicated in the view that what the "alien" Gammadians do is bad, and what the more "human" Capellans do is good. Val asks her husband Max, after hearing most of Tedla's story:
"Do you think we deserve to be human?"
"God knows what the test is, if Tedla couldn't pass it," Max murmured. "I'm glad we didn't have to take it."

What drives Tedla to suicide on Capella is partly what she learns about the "blands" on that planet:
"It is not just a matter of poverty, as you seem to think. Here, where people can inherit money, or get it from partners or royalties without earning it, you have many well-to-do blands. But most of them are poor. They live shabby, circumscribed lives--aware of, but never aspiring to, the humanity around them, though they will live off it parasitically if they can. They are the eyes behind all those windows in the housing tower you saw. They take whatever chances others give them. They complain, but not so that you hear them."
At this point, the social satire becomes even more pointed:
"...I began to understand something about you Capellans. I had always thought--in fact, you always claim--that you are a perfectly secular society. But that's not true. The feeling you have for knowledge is very close to the awe others feel for the sacred. Faith in knowledge is the principle you will never back away from, the thing you protect when everything else is gone. Creating is your highest calling. Destroying it, or polluting it, is the unforgiveable sin. Learning is your righteousness, research is your sacrament, discovery is your revelation. You believe not in a transcendent God but in a transcendent truth that we all can strive toward through learning."
The genius of Gilman's satire lies partly in its indeterminacy--she doesn't even point her finger at Earth, and she doesn't suggest that the way we keep our "blands" quiet is evil. It's you who will suggest this to yourself, as you read Tedla's story. The story is rhetorically magnificent; it traps you like a slave who will inevitably be recaptured every time it tries to run away.

You really should read this book! Because the only thing worse than mistreating slaves is shutting yourself off from the feelings of the other humans who share your planet.

This discussion of Carolyn Ives Gilman’s science fiction novel Halfway Human originally appeared at Necromancy Never Pays on Monday, November 1, 2010; it has been edited for a wider audience. I'm glad she shared it here - it sounds like it has some elements in common with The Sparrow, and it's headed to my wish list.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sunday Salon: Greetings from the Recovery Room

 The Sunday 

Regular readers already know about this, but just in case you hadn't heard, I had shoulder surgery on Friday. It was an outpatient procedure and I'm at home, but my right arm will be in a sling for the next four to six weeks. While I am capable of typing left-handed if I have to, it's slow and uncomfortable going, so posting frequency around here will most likely drop off during the next month or so.

After the first few days at home, I hope to be awake and feeling well enough to spend a good amount of my time reading. I've got a nice-sized stack of physical books at hand, plus about a dozen e-books - and I still have Indie Lit Awards reading to do! Assuming that happens, most of the writing I do for the next little while will probably be book reviews.  In addition, I did manage to get some posts on non-bookish topics written up in advance, and I'll be scheduling them in the mix. (And when I'm not up to reading, I've got plenty of TV on DVD to distract me too!)

Reading in bedImage via Wikipedia

I'm also very appreciative that several folks heard my plea for guest posts and were willing to help! Kori, Teresa, Mike, and Kim are making return visits - they all contributed posts here during my vacation last summer - and Josie, Serena, Jeanne, and Melissa will be here for the first time.

I'll be around and keeping up as much as I can, so I do hope you'll keep reading!

Reviews posted since the last report

Other recent posts of (possible) interest
Also - thanks to everyone who weighed in on last week's Sunday Salon discussion of "Abandonment Issues"

New additions to TBR Purgatory (all relocated from the Wishlist, where their places have already been taken by others):
Devotion: A Memoir, by Dani Shapiro (for an upcoming TLC Book Tour)
The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, by Heidi W. Durrow

New to the Wishlist

What are you planning to read this week?

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Friday, January 21, 2011

Friday Foto: Hello, Old Frenemy

The Ultrasling and I will be reunited today! I am not as enthused about the prospect as that exclamation point might imply.

My shoulder surgery - rotator cuff repair and anterior stabilization - is scheduled for 7:30 this morning. It's estimated to take two to three hours - which I will never remember, because I'll be under general anesthesia - and when I wake up in recovery, my right arm will be cradled in the familiar embrace of this contraption.

Barring any complications, I should be back home some time this afternoon. I'll be off from work for at least two weeks, and I will be keeping constant company with the Ultrasling for the next four to six weeks. A couple of months of physical therapy will start once I'm out of the sling.

If this all works the way it's supposed to, it'll be worth it. I think. I'm pretty sure.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Literate City: Without libraries and bookstores, how can it exist?

N.Y. Library on Opening Day (LOC)Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr

The annual survey ranking America’s Most Literate Cities was released this month, evaluating the USA’s 75 largest metro areas on six criteria that foster or support literacy: level of education, libraries, booksellers, Internet resources, and circulation of newspapers and periodicals. For the first time in five years, the #1 spot was not claimed by either Seattle or Minneapolis, although those cities still scored very well. Are you fortunate enough to live in or near one of the cities that made the top ten?

Washington DC
San Francisco
St. Paul
Portland/St. Louis (tie)

New York - center of publishing and character in thousands of literary works - was ranked at 26, and Chicago followed closely at 28. How did your city or metro area stack up?

I have to be honest and confess that every time the results of this study are released, I  consider relocating. Where’s Los Angeles? Securely in the bottom third, at #61 out of 75. Granted, this is a city with a reputation for not having much to do with books unless it’s turning them into movies, but that doesn’t help absorb the sting (and it’s not entirely accurate, either, for the record). It's also little comfort that we have plenty of neighbors in the back of the pack: ten of California's 12 largest cities landed in the bottom half, including Sacramento (#45) and lowest-ranked Stockton, which has been at or near the bottom since 2004, the first year of the survey.

Curious about just how we landed where we did, I took a look at LA’s rankings in each of the six subcategories. The city scored best in the Internet-resources category (#33 out of 75) and lowest in Libraries (#70). Since libraries are publicly funded and government budgets are stretched past the limits at the city, county, and state levels, the odds of improvement there aren’t good. (The Friends of the Library can only make so much money from book sales.)

We’re at the top of the bottom third (#53 out of 75) in Booksellers, but the way things are going, I expect that to slip in 2011. The Los Angeles Times’ book blog, Jacket Copy, recently started a Bookstore of the Week feature, and I hope it won’t run out of material any time soon  - there’s a bookstore-closing epidemic afoot. Encino is still fighting to keep its lone bookstore, a Barnes and Noble, open, while Borders has been closing stores left and right (although, granted, they are having lots of trouble company-wide).

Independent-bookstore supporters may not be all that broken up over the problems of the big chains, in hopes that the indies will benefit from the fallout, but it’s not necessarily so; local niche favorite the Mystery Bookstore will close at the end of January. With that following on the heels of a Borders closing, the Westwood area - the neighborhood surrounding UCLA - will soon be free of any bookstores not belonging to the University. It will also be abandoned by the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books - the country’s biggest public literary event, with over 100,000 visitors each year - which is relocating to the USC campus for its 16th edition this spring.

The 2009 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, ...Image via Wikipedia
(An aside: how can a city that supports an event like the LAT Festival of Books be ranked the 61st most literate in the country? We should get some special bonus points for that to offset some of our lower scores, if you ask me.)

I'll admit that I do pick up books at Target sometimes. It happens under the same conditions that apply when I buy books online: I already know the specific book I want, and I happen to spot it there. As a book blogger, I may be more informed about what’s out there and worth reading than many people, and that does make it easier to know what I want - but sometimes I just want to be surprised. Online booksellers and big-box stores, where books are just one of the products, simply can’t capture the experience of browsing and discovery that happens in a store dedicated to books (or in a library, for that matter). As opportunities to have that kind of experience are lost, I can’t help thinking that the literate life of a city will suffer in response.

Meanwhile, for those of you at the other end of the rankings, Flavorwire offers “10 Great Works of Literature for America’s 10 Most Literate Cities:”

Washington DC: Washington DC (novel) by Gore Vidal
Seattle: Black Hole (graphic novel) by Charles Burns
Minneapolis: The Night of the Gun (memoir) by David Carr
Atlanta: Gone With the Wind (novel) by Margaret Mitchell
Pittsburgh: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (novel) by Michael Chabon
San Francisco: Valencia (memoir) by Michelle Tea
St. Paul: Until They Bring the Streetcars Back (novel) by Stanley Gordon West
Denver: I Get on the Bus (novel) by Reginald McKnight
Portland (tie): Geek Love (novel) by Katherine Dunn
St. Louis (tie): The Glass Menagerie (play) by Tennessee Williams

It's nice that even though Minneapolis and St. Paul are Twin Cities, they each get their own books. And I think readers from any and every city should read The Mysteries of Pittsburgh - one of the best first novels of the late 20th century, if you ask me.

(A slightly revised version of this post was cross-posted at BlogHer.com.)

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Book Talk: *Let's Take the Long Way Home*, by Gail Caldwell

Let's Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of FriendshipLet's Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship
Random House (2010), Hardcover (ISBN 1400067383 / 9781400067381)
Nonfiction/memoir, 208 pages
Source: purchased (e-book for Amazon Kindle: ASIN B003E8AIHU)
Reason for reading: Independent Literary Awards non-fiction short list

Opening Lines (Chapter 1): "I can still see her standing on the shore, a towel around her neck and a post-workout cigarette in her hand—half Gidget and half splendid splinter, her rower’s arms in defiant contrast to the awful pink bathing suit she’d found somewhere. It was the summer of 1997, and Caroline and I had decided to swap sports: I would give her swimming lessons and she would teach me how to row."
Book description: They met over their dogs. Both writers, Gail Caldwell and Caroline Knapp, author of Drinking: A Love Story, became best friends, talking about everything from their shared history of a struggle with alcohol, to their relationships with men and colleagues, to their love of books. They walked the woods of New England and rowed on the Charles River, and the miles they logged on land and water became a measure of the interior ground they covered. From disparate backgrounds but with striking emotional similarities, these two private, fiercely self-reliant women created an attachment more profound than either of them could ever have foreseen. 

The friendship helped them define the ordinary moments of life as the ones worth cherishing. Then, several years into this remarkable connection, Knapp was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.

Caldwell mines the deepest levels of devotion and grief in this moving memoir about treasuring and losing a best friend.
Comments: Almost ten years ago, I read Caroline Knapp's memoir of dog ownership Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs, which explored, among other things, her relationship with her shepherd mix Lucille. I wasn't too far from being a single (divorced) woman with a dog myself, so I was intrigued by the story.

In many respects, though, Caroline and Lucille belonged to a "pack of four," along with Caroline's closest friend, Gail Caldwell ("Grace" in the book) and Gail's Samoyed, Clementine. A dog trainer played matchmaker of sorts for the two women, but they soon found many things that connected them in addition to their dogs, who accompanied them on their long walks and talks. But their time together came to an unexpected end after just a few years, when Caroline was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. In this relatively brief and moving memoir, Gail Caldwell - a columnist, book critic for the Boston Globe, and author of a prior memoir - takes readers on a rambling "long way home" as she recounts episodes and experiences from her friendship with Caroline.

Speaking both frankly and intimately, Caldwell discusses some of the common elements of their personal histories - in addition to having their devotion to dogs and their writing careers in common, both women were recovering alcoholics, but forged their friendship after they'd both stopped drinking  - and how their relationship was shaped by their shared experiences. She never outright tells the reader why and how she and Caroline became so close, but illustrates their bond through the stories she has chosen to tell.

Because the reader already knows that Caroline is dead when the book begins - and the book's ending chapters center on the events surrounding that - it's understandable that one might shy away from reading something so "sad." However, this is a memoir, not a memorial - and while Caldwell certainly does not skirt around or minimize the sadness and grief, this is a story of shared life. The attachment between Gail and Caroline is genuine and healthy, and I didn't get the feeling that Caldwell was idealizing it.

It's all too common to place friendships, no matter how close they are, on a rung below family and romantic relationships; one of the things I loved about this book is that it's the story of two people who never did that. I also appreciated the fact that both of these women were well into adulthood when they met and became friends. There are many stories about friends who've been together since preschool days - no matter how well they like each other, it seems like those friendships eventually become at least partly about the longevity of their own existence. It seems much rarer to form bonds like that when we're older - and reading about two people who did gives me some hope. Gail Caldwell and Caroline Knapp were lucky to have the kind of friendship they did, and it's lucky for readers that Gail Caldwell chose to let them share in it.

Rating: 3.75/5

This book counts for the Memorable Memoirs Reading Challenge.

Other reviews via the Book Blogs Search Engine:
S. Krishna's Books

Buy this book from an Independent Bookseller
Buy this book from an Independent Bookseller

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Did you need another reason NOT to trust your horoscope?

The zodiac signs as shown in a 16th-century wo...Image via Wikipedia
"Hey baby, what's your sign?"

You may have to start answering that question differently. It turns out that the stars aren't aligned quite the way we thought they were.

A group of Minnesota astronomers recently pointed out that the relative positions of the Earth and the sun have shifted in the 3000 years since the Babylonians developed the "zodiac" calendar. The moon's gravitational pull causes Earth to "wobble" on its axis, changing its tilt.

The zodiac is based on the perceived movement of the Sun through 12 constellations, or "houses," over the course of a year. It turns out that because of the "wobble," the sun isn't in the constellations at the same time year it was when the zodiac was first created; it's actually changed by about a month, and the "months" of the zodiac calendar have been adjusted accordingly. Here are the revised dates:
Capricorn: Jan. 20 – Feb. 16
Aquarius: Feb. 16 – March 11
Pisces: March 11
April 18
Aries: April 18
May 13
Taurus: May 13
June 21
Gemini: June 21
July 20
Cancer: July 20
Aug. 10
Leo: Aug. 10
Sept. 16
Virgo: Sept. 16
Oct. 30
Libra: Oct. 30
Nov. 23
Scorpio: Nov. 23
Nov. 29
Ophiuchus: Nov. 29
Dec. 17
Sagittarius: Dec. 17
Jan. 20
Hold on, though - an astrologer says it ain't so!
"Please don’t rush out to get a different Zodiac pendant or, as my local newscaster complained, change tattoos. The 12 Astrology signs, along with their date ranges, have not changed! The Earth axis wobble is not new. Astrologers have known about it for years. However, traditional Western Astrology does not -- repeat, does not -- use “constellations” to determine Sun signs. We use the Tropical Zodiac, based upon the discoveries by Ptolemy in the 2nd century, which begins with 1 degree Aries, the same as the Equinox. We follow seasons as opposed to constellations.

The Sidereal Zodiac, used by Eastern astrologers, is constellation based; therefore, when comparing chart construction between West and East, signs and planet House positions can differ by approximately 23 degrees."

So, does that mean the "realignment" proposed by the astronomers would essentially move everyone to the "Eastern" zodiac calendar? Or that we all could claim two signs, depending on whose charts we refer to? I'm so confused!

Well, not really, I've never taken astrology seriously and I don't consult my horoscope, but I've had fun reading up on the various traits associated with each sign and trying to decide how closely they applied to people I knew within them.

First question: Ophiuchus? A 13th sign? Apparently the Babylonians thought 13 was an unlucky number too - they decided not to use this one. Since this new calendar only allots a week to Scorpio, I supposed we could just add Ophiuchus' days there; I guess that's what they did, although there aren't any ancient Babylonians around to confirm that.

Speaking of Scorpio: My husband's and my sister's birthdays are four days apart, at the end of October - both Scorpio. Or not. It looks like my husband is actually supposed to be a Virgo, and my sister's October 30 birthday puts her right on the cusp of Virgo and Libra. It looks like nearly everyone in my family would be relocated to the next sign over, actually.

I've always thought that in many ways I was an atypical or misfit Aries. And why not? I'm an atypical misfit in plenty of other ways. But could it be that I was a misfit Aries because I was really a Pisces? I guess I'd better learn something about Pisces, then, after nearly 47 years in the wrong house!

This upheaval may mean something to some people, but I'm just a bit amused by it - it's not making my world wobble. Does the revised zodiac move you into a new "house," too?
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Sunday, January 16, 2011

Sunday Salon: Abandonment Issues

 The Sunday 

Last week, participants in The Broke and the Bookish’s “Top Ten Tuesday” posted reading and blogging resolutions for the New Year. I wasn’t one of them. For one thing, I don’t really do New Year’s resolutions; and secondly, because I try to write and schedule my posts ahead of time, I don’t do many daily/weekly memes any more unless the prompts are posted in advance.

However, I did read quite a few lists of other people’s resolutions, and one that appeared on several of them jumped out at me: “Abandon books.” Set a page threshold and stick to it; if there’s no book/reader connection by that point, call it a day and move on. I can understand making that kind of a deal with yourself, but I really don’t think I could do it.

I rarely abandon books. I sometimes discard them without reading them at all, but once I start a book, I’m usually in it for the duration. However, I do sometimes set them aside in a special category I call “it’s not working for me...now” with the intention of picking them back up “eventually.” “Eventually” is its own form of TBR Purgatory.

When I do consider quitting on a book, it’s on a case-by-case basis. I make every effort not to bail on books I’ve been sent for review; even if I end up not liking one, I feel like I need to see it through to develop an informed opinion. For others, I have no hard-and-fast rule regarding page counts or anything. I know many readers will give a book a set number of pages - 50, 75, 100 - and stop if they’re not enjoying it by the time they reach that point, but I just don’t. The primary  reason I’m reluctant to do that is that I’ve had reading experiences where a book hasn’t really clicked for me until the halfway point or later, and if I’d stopped too soon, I’d have missed out on something really worthwhile. (Jackie at Farm Lane Books has taken a creative approach to this quandary with her new “Read or Reject?” feature.)

However, knowing me, there may be other issues underlying this: a discomfort with leaving things undone, and/or some good ol’ Catholic-girl guilt.

As an aside, my copy of The Historian is approaching the fourth anniversary of its NOT being officially abandoned! I came across it in my recent book purge. The bookmark’s still ¾ in. I left it that way and put it back on the shelf.

I know that sticking it out isn’t always the best use of my reading time, but I’ll probably keep doing it anyway. What about you - do you bail on books?

New additions to TBR Purgatory:
The Nobodies Album by Carolyn Parkhurst (a book I won from LibraryThing Early Reviewers back in August just showed up this week!)

New to the Wishlist:

Recent reviews:

Upcoming reviews:

Friday, January 14, 2011

A (Weekly) Geeky Friday Foto - and by the way, it's Delurking Day!

I'm not a consistent Weekly Geek these days, but the first assignment of 2011 is a fun one:
This week, for a Geeky assignment, how about a picture? A self portrait of sorts. I think it would be fun if you all took a picture of yourself (or have someone help you most likely) reading your current book (so we can see what it is) in your favorite reading spot. Then post it! It can be a Wordless Weekly Geek if you want! Or explanations included if you want that. For examples of what I mean, check out this popular site...only ours will be called "Weekly Geeks Reading Books!"
It's hard to take a picture of yourself doing anything except taking a picture of yourself in front of a mirror, so I enlisted my husband's aid to capture this:

This is me in my favorite reading spot at home, where I don't get to spend as much time as I'd like. I probably get more reading done in bed at night or at Starbucks than I do here these days, to be honest, but I didn't think y'all needed to see either of those places.

I've had this little chair and its matching ottoman for about twelve or thirteen years. It was always intended to be my "reading chair," but for the first several years I had it it lived in the master bedroom and wasn't well-situated relative to the light, so it didn't get used for its intended purpose till I moved into my own place in 2002. Ever since, I've always placed it in the living area and set a lamp nearby - you can see the lamp behind it now, in its cozy little corner of the front room. The chair is on the small side and perfectly scaled for me, and there's a handy table right next to it for my water bottle or coffee cup - and more books, of course!

If it's not clear from the picture, my current read is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, one of the Nonfiction finalists in the Indie Lit Awards.

The word has come down from on high - well, really, from Chris at Rude Cactus - that today is DELURKING DAY 2011!
On this day, those who don't normally comment on the blogs they read are cordially invited to do so and make their presence known - and of course, those who do comment often shouldn't hold back either! Because things are kind of crazy in my world right now, I may have to extend my own comment visits into Delurking Weekend. You're welcome to do the same if it works for you - just come on by and say hi, please!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Major Medical: The next episode in the Shoulder Saga

You may have heard something about this before, but I hope you'll indulge my ruminating for a minute or two...

In a little more than a week, I will be having Major Surgery. At least I think it's Major. It's outpatient surgery, since it will be done at a surgery facility and not in the hospital and I'll go home the same day. It's an arthroscopic procedure, so it will be less invasive. However, it will require me to spend about three hours under general anesthesia while they mend the torn rotator cuff and fix a couple of others things that I've messed up in my right shoulder since last summer - and that part, at least, sounds pretty Major to me.

Granted, it's probably not quite as Major as the only other surgery I've ever had, a C-section delivery which took place 26 years ago and brought my son into the world, but it's still kind of a big deal. I guess. I seem to be swinging back and forth in my comprehension of just how big a deal it really is.
I spent a total of about seven weeks with my right arm in a sling during 2010 - three weeks the first time I dislocated the shoulder, four weeks the next. Within a couple of weeks of each incident, I didn't feel all that bad and I was managing pretty well one-handed; the sling stayed on mainly to prevent slippage and possible further injury. Because that's been my experience, part of me is approaching the procedure like it's just more of the same.

Meanwhile, another part of me is trying to convince the first part that it will be different. Even though I did have to go under anesthesia for the reduction (the medical term for putting a dislocated joint back in place) after the second dislocation, there were no incisions involved, and the whole thing was accomplished fairly quickly. However, there are always risk with a surgical procedure, even a "less invasive" one.This time, I've already been given post-op instructions that include wound care and prescription painkillers (which I've been strongly encouraged to use), and I'll have my right arm in a sling for a non-negotiable six weeks, at the minimum.

And yet, when I told my co-workers I'd be having the surgery, their first question was "How long will you be out?" - and my first answer was "Probably a week, and then I'll work from home or come in when I have a ride" (again, no driving while I'm in the sling). After giving it a few more days' thought, I decided to take two weeks off instead of just one, and to be more open-ended about my return. It finally started to sink in that this really is a bigger medical issue than the original injuries were. I'll be recovering from surgery, and that can be both painful and exhausting...which might actually be good for me. My husband will tell you that I do have a tendency to overdo - I'm not the most patient patient - but if I don't feel up to doing much, I probably won't do very much, and that should help the healing process. Good healing is really important, because the last thing I want is to have to go through all this crap again!

In the meantime, I've been busier than usual, trying to get ahead on tasks at work - where we're closing the fiscal year - at home, and on the blog. It's mostly so that I can relax in good conscience and focus on getting better during those first couple of weeks after surgery. That prospect is actually starting to look pretty appealing right now, to be honest - aside from the whole "recovering from surgery" part, at least. The closer that gets, the more I seem to be understanding that this probably is going to be pretty Major after all. Wish me luck and a speedy recovery, y'all...this episode gets underway on January 21, and I hope it ends up being as minor as something major can be!