getting rich writing book reviews


Warning! Long post follows. Sorry.

I have found myself commenting several times lately on the richness of my hobby-and-part-time-job, of reading books and then writing about them. I thought it was time I put this into a coherent statement for you here.

I was always a steady reader, as a child, and through school. I always loved to read. (In one of those blogging memes that went around some time ago, a self-interview sort of thing, I was supposed to give my favorite book as a child. I couldn’t remember, so I asked my mom. Her response was something like, “are you kidding! There was a new one daily!”) As a new librarian, I took a readers advisory class that recommended keeping a book blog as one way of recording one’s reading for reference later on. And that’s how we got to pagesofjulia; and that in turn is how I was able to apply to write for Shelf Awareness, a year or two down the road.

So I’ve always been a reader. And I had some fine English classes (and other social sciences) that trained me to take notes while reading, and to look for themes, leitmotif, stylistic quirks, and the like. But only since becoming a book blogger and paid book reviewer have I really begun to hone the skills of close reading – not for a class assignment (I knew how to do that), but to record my personal reactions, or the qualities that a prospective reader would want to know about. (I also began reading with an eye as to how a book might be improved. But that’s a different topic. Perhaps.)

Another result of reading for the sake of writing about what I’ve read, has been the growing diversity of the books I pick up. My reading volume has increased, is ever increasing, and I need the variety to keep from getting bored. If I read nothing but thrillers, at the present rate, it would be difficult to say something new about each one. And I want to better serve my editor by contributing diverse material. But also, as my reading has expanded, so have my interests, which then expand my reading, and there we have the most delightful self-perpetuating cycle you could imagine.

In the past several years, I have read widely in fiction (lots of mysteries and thrillers, as ever, but a little romance, fantasy, sci fi, historical and literary fiction, classics, and some odd formats, outliers and oddities) and nonfiction (sports and nature, as ever, but also science, history, biography, essays, politics, journalism, and literary criticism). I have tended to read for what I can learn from the book, myself, but also with a wider readership in mind, so that I can write a sale-able review. And a magical thing has come of this wide reading diversity.

I have never learned so much, so richly, as in reading this way. I attended a very fine public high school with a highly regarded International Baccalaureate program, and then a college Honors program, from which I graduated summa cum laude. I have a master’s degree. But I’ve never experienced such an interdisciplinary curriculum as this: read eclectically. Take notes.

The area of my reading that has most surprised me is in science. I never considered myself as having a scientific mind, and I was generally lukewarm on science classes (with a notable exception for chemistry); but with such magnetic titles as The Drunken Botanist and A Garden of Marvels, and biographies of Rachel Carson and Hali Felt, not to mention Annie Dillard‘s breathtaking Pilgrim at Tinker Creek… well, I found it easy and even natural to grow in that direction. (As a flower toward the sun, if you’ll excuse the simile.)

And when I began reading more widely, and repeatedly reading in areas new to me – like science – I noticed another magical thing: I started recognizing concepts. I have written before on what I’m calling synchronicity, the seeming coincidence of discovering a newly learned fact or area of study again and again in a short time. The more I think about it, the more I think my friend Liz is right: it’s not that things actually come to me in threes, but rather that when I’ve recently learned something, I am more able to see it the next few times it crosses my desk (book, mind). These are opportunities to relearn a new concept or fact; and they are opportunities to cross-reference within other disciplines, to reinforce knowledge, to gain a fuller understanding of what a concept or a fact means in historical, cultural, political context.

One area in which I am not an expert is education (or educational theory or design), so I’ll try not to get too far off-track here. But I think we’re probably doing something wrong in our formal education system regarding interdisciplinary learning. I’ve never felt so richly instructed as I do by simply spending all the time I can find in reading, widely and with both eyes wide open. And while a steady diet of bodice-ripping romance novels or pulp might not do it, notice that I’m not recommending reading a bunch of scholarly works, or even all nonfiction. (And some pulp is always welcome, just as you can probably eat a few M&Ms alongside your healthy diet.)

Fiction has a great deal to offer: entertainment, yes, but also the opportunity to get inside someone else’s head, to understand their processes and motivations; or to travel to another time or experience another culture, and likewise to better understand the workings of that time or place or culture. And these are valuable lessons to learn for the important everyday work of being human: the ability to empathize, or to understand or even imagine the motivations of others, makes us better people. (There have been some studies on this. See for example the Guardian here and here.) Fiction is good: I’ve said this before.

To say that reading nonfiction is education is a much more familiar concept; you learn new facts from nonfiction, right? (We could actually argue over this point, but let’s not do it here and now.) But again, I think that reading lots – fiction or non – is far more than the sum of the parts, of having read all those individual books. The more you read, the more you learn, not only from what you’ve read, but from the combined and compounded effects of varied reading. I feel more intellectually stimulated now than I did in high school, college or graduate school. It’s not just that I read a lot of books; I read lots of different kinds of books. Some are silly or pulpy, but as I scan this list, I can’t pick out even one that didn’t teach me something. Some are weird (for example). But put them all together, and they make for a fine education.

Read eclectically. Take notes.

from Orion: “Raptorous” by Brian Doyle

The other day, Pops emailed me:

You MUST read this. It is a work of literary richness in a mere page, informative & inspiring, on a subject you will appreciate. I read it twice – I love his word-use here; would you blog about a single-page essay?

I would, Pops!

He added, “notice who & where he is.” From Orion,

Brian Doyle is the editor of the University of Portland’s Portland Magazine in Oregon. His most recent book is The Plover, from St. Martin’s Press.

And the article in question is here.

I certainly agree with the lovely words. How many times could you happily read “hawk-addled and owl-absorbed and falcon-haunted and eagle-maniacal”? (Many times.) Muscles on their muscles! I thought first about my Husband, who loves birds (and has rescued several in and around our backyard). I think Doyle is right that many of us are addled, absorbed, haunted and maniacal about, particularly, birds of prey; but beyond them, as well, I certainly hope.

I also think it’s interesting to consider the etymology of the words “rapture” and “raptor.” I had never given conscious thought to their link, although it’s obvious at a glance, isn’t it? I think of rapture as having a religious connotation; but there’s much more to it than that. Just a few links here. I had not considered the more sinister connection to rape.

Birds and rapture have a place in my own little bird-world, too. Our backyard has been very active with the birds this summer. Because we’re growing delicious fruits back there, we’ve seen more, and more diverse birds than every before. (The bird bath doesn’t hurt either in dry Houston summers.) We have had lots of grapes growing along the back fence: 10301452_10203853874376171_9205261055523974740_n
and lots of figs:
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and a mama with her babies in our young oak tree:
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(Of course none of these are birds of prey. I’m being generous in my interpretation of Doyle’s writing, which is clearly about birds of prey specifically. But I think we can appreciate them all… and our little bird farm is encircled by hawks…)

All of this was joined a few years ago by a lovely piece by my aunt Janet, the sculptor. Its title is Rapture, and it was displayed in her home in Austin:
rapture austin
before joining us here in Houston:
rapture houston
to become a part of our backyard landscape (full of birds, although none are pictured here):
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(There is a little dog hidden in there, Where’s-Waldo-style, if you look closely.)

Brian Doyle’s ‘raptorous’ writing is well appreciated this season. Thanks, Pops.

bookish musings: pressures and impulses to read more, or read less

Just a little general reading for you today. (Ha.)

What’s new: I have been steadily increasing the reading & reviewing I do for Shelf Awareness. (Don’t know if you’d noticed.) I have also taken on reviewing responsibilities for ForeWord, so keep your eyes open for some reviews to come in that publication as well.

What this means: my “required reading” is ever-increasing. I love the work I do for Shelf Awareness; my relationship with my editor, Marilyn, has been excellent, and I am learning new things all the time, which might be the definition of happiness. I am far from complaining; I have sought out this additional work. But the days of my reading books of my own choice seem to be on hold for now. My audiobook time is still by my own choice, but the print books I read are 100% assigned lately.

The thing is, the more good books I read (for example, in the last few days: So We Read On), the more I find I want to read. That is, the more specific titles I discover that I want to put on my shelf. Good reading of the last year or so has yielded, among others, these additions to my shelves:


earthAmerican Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau, edited by Bill McKibben (from my general and increasing interest in nature writings)

forestsFallen Forests: Emotion, Embodiment, and Ethics in American Women’s Environmental Writing, 1781-1924 by Karen L. Kilcup (as above, plus obviously women)

fun homeFun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel (because Are You My Mother? was so great)

zelda clineZelda Fitzgerald: The Tragic, Meticulously Researched Biography of the Jazz Age’s High Priestess by Sally Cline (after my disappointment with Z, which whetted my appetite

zelda milfordZelda: A Biography by Nancy Milford (and another: Milford’s, I understand, is the authoritative Zelda work)

perkinsMax Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg (thanks to So We Read On for the specific recommendation; but of course as a Hemingway fan I was ripe for this suggestion)

To be clear: these are only a few of the books I have obtained in recent months, that now sit physically on shelves in what Husband calls my book room, waiting for me to find time to read them. And this, as my time to read books I choose is ever-decreasing. The more I read, the more I want to read. Good problems to have??

I am simultaneously thrilled to be expanding my book-review work, and sorry to lose my “free” reading time. I have been saying for years that if I ever want to clear my shelves of these books waiting patiently for me to find the time, I will need a 6- or 12-month sabbatical (from the day job as well as the reviewing work)… at least. Stay tuned for how I will work that out… and I will as well.

habits passed along

As I’ve done in summers past, I was looking forward this summer to seeing some Shakespeare dramatized at Miller Outdoor Theatre, where we can sit outside under the stars and bring dogs & food & drink along, and all the performances are free. This is a summer activity I grew up with and still enjoy. Part of my tradition also involves reading or rereading the plays ahead of time so I’ll be ready to fully enjoy what I see. Therefore, I started checking the website for information on the Houston Shakespeare Festival early this summer, to see what plays they’d be putting on (there is always one comedy and one tragedy or history), with the intention of getting my hands on a copy of each if I didn’t already own them.

This year’s history is Henry IV, 1, which I requested from my local public library. The comedy is The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and I was pretty sure I owned a copy, since I saw it as a child with my grandparents in southern California. I went home to check, and sure enough, my 1964 “general readers” edition from the Folger Library was there on the shelf. I pulled it out and put it in the stack.

I was not prepared for the surprise I got when I opened it up, though. This note is taped into the inside cover:

photo 2 (1)
From my grandmother:

Dear Julie,

We’re planning to take you to this play while you’re with us (it’s an outdoor theater) and since it was written 400 years ago (+/-) the language is real strange to our ears and we thought you (and your parents?) might have fun reading it during your trip! It’s a lot more fun to see it ’cause there are no stage directions in the script so it’s hard to imagine all the action. It is a comedy – really kinda silly, I suppose. But I know you’ll enjoy it more if you’re a bit acquainted with the story…

Have a wonderful time & please give our love to all those nice sisters & cousins & all.

Can’t wait for your visit to us!

Love, Grammy & Pop

P.S. Please bring the book with you!

Can you just believe! This is the very copy provided by Grammy & Pop for me to read before seeing what I’m sure was my first Shakespeare performance ever; and I’ve still got it, and here I am however many years later, going back to see the same play and preparing for it in the same way, by rereading this very copy. It got me thinking about where I got these habits. Grammy puts it in this note in almost the exact way I put it to my friends: “this play will be a lot more enjoyable if you know a little bit about the story ahead of time.” I think I can see who I have to thank for my playgoing practices!

I’m wondering about the year, of course. You can see Grammy dated it with day, month and date – no year, but the day-to-date question, combined with her mention of our other travels that summer, put me at just past my 10th birthday for this event. I also found tucked away a ticket to an Astros game (at the Astrodome! against Philadelphia) from the following summer. And my father’s and grandmother’s memories put it around the same time, so I think we’ll call this my ten-year-old introduction to live performances of Shakespeare. (I might have read some before.)

astro
Finding this note inside this book was a real treat for several reasons. For one thing, it’s always nice to hear from my Grammy, who still sends me newspaper clippings with appended notes like this one! And I am looking forward all the more to seeing The Two Gentlemen of Verona performed this summer, because I’ll be thinking back to that summer more than 20 years ago. But most of all, I think it’s charming to consider where we get our habits from. I guess I’ve just always been a person who enjoyed theatre, and enjoyed reading the written drama beforehand; but of course nothing happens in a vacuum, so it’s really fun to see this clear indication of where I come from. Thanks, Grammy.

rare Saturday post: special occasion

Happy sixth anniversary to my love.

April 19, 2008

April 19, 2008

San Diego Opera presents The Masked Ball

A few weeks ago, I was happy to be able to fly out to southern California to visit my Grammy and be her guest at the San Diego Opera for their production of The Masked Ball, a Verdi opera that I was unfamiliar with. (This is not surprising; I’m not a big opera fan.) It goes without saying that I was there to see my Grammy more than to see the opera, but the opera was rather good, too. First, Grammy had clipped a review for me by the local (San Diego) arts critic James Chute. Anyone could read this piece and see that it is a glowing review; but Grammy informs me that apparently Chute is a spectacularly tough critic, ripping apart even the good shows, so that context adds considerably to the power of his positive remarks.

Therefore, I went into the performance with a little less trepidation than I might have had. Recall that I have had difficulty appreciating opera in the past and had in fact mostly sworn off it. Well, I found the plot fairly strong and interesting, and rather tragic a la Shakespeare, as in: if only these people had talked to each other first! Or turned around and looked behind them! Ah well. The costumes were sumptuous and appropriate; the sets were fine (more on that in a moment). The singing was absolutely glorious – not my style, perhaps, but if I step back to gain a little perspective, there’s no question that what these folks can do with their voices is astounding and impressive. There was a small Korean-American woman who played a young man and sang such outrageous soprano, a very fun staccato part, that I was charmed. Indeed all the singing was very very good.

The acting is, again, not in my favorite style because it is so dramatic; but I believe that’s the operatic style, and I think it was well done. My biggest beef with the whole experience was its pacing and length; to be quite honest I found it painful right toward the end and wished I were elsewhere. This was a three-hour event with two intermissions, so three equal parts of pretty precisely an hour apiece. I could handle much more than that if it were anything but opera; but in this case I found it trying. As I keep repeating, this is an issue of my personal taste rather than how well the whole show was done. In fact, I can’t find anything to complain about from an objective standpoint. I’m just (still) not an opera person.

Where I am a philistine, though, my Grammy is a very experienced and worthy judge of the opera; she has held season tickets for gosh knows how many seasons in how many cities, and has attended overseas as well; she has a music degree and makes a fine critic. She judged this to be a near-perfect performance, with her one small concern being that the stage sets were not imaginative; she says she’s seen them done better (can’t recall if she saw this opera performed in an earlier San Diego rendition, or in Houston). It seems true to me, too, that this opera was traditional, in its sets, costumes, and performance; but traditions are not always bad.


Ratings:

To my personal tastes, this opera might earn a scant 3 or 4 herbs from the gallows – but that would be high for an opera, wouldn’t it! From a more objective view, though, I think it deserves at least 8. You be the judge.

My visit with Grammy? Absolutely ten old photographs, every time.

my beautiful Grammy with her first grandchild (that's me)

my beautiful Grammy with her first grandchild (that’s me)

West Texas bicycle adventures 2014

As you know, gentle reader, I occasionally digress from books to write about bicycles, travel, or other causes for personal celebration. Today is one of those days. If you just want the books, c’mon back tomorrow.

Last week Husband and I left town with a group of friends, as we try to do every February, headed for the Big Bend area of southwest Texas. Unfortunately I have missed the last two years: in 2012 I had just had knee surgery and couldn’t ride, and in 2013 I chose to go to Australia to see friends instead. So I last wrote about Terlingua and Lajitas back in 2011. It was so very good to be back in the big desert: big land, big sky, amazing great mountain bike trails, some of our very closest friends, and not much to do except slow down and enjoy ourselves. I thought I’d share a quick synopsis here with you, accompanied by some great photos. These were all taken by either me or my friends who I trust won’t mind. Thanks, friends. (As always, click to enlarge.)

On day 1, we arrived in Terlingua, checked into the cabins our team rents each year, and started packing up. Four of us (Husband, Holt, Damian and myself) were off for an overnight bikepack – camping out and self-supported, in Big Bend Ranch State Park.

fully loaded

fully loaded

Day 1’s riding was pretty consistently up, up, up; we did a lot of hike-a-bike:

a rare moment in which I simultaneously push my bike and SMILE.

a rare moment in which I simultaneously push my bike and SMILE.

there was a lot of this.

there was a lot of this.

Just a little wildlife:

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Although not as much as one could wish. We saw bobcat prints, and I think I heard the guys say they heard coyotes yipping at night. (I am a good sleeper.) One year Husband and I saw a mule deer; not this year.

I had some issues with my rack, which afforded us the chance for this dusky repair job at a fortuitously placed picnic table up in the middle of the high nowhere:

lovely view, no?

lovely view, no?

Resulting in this repair (shot taken in the light of day 2):

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But it all worked out fine. And what a sunset!!

beautiful picture by my handsome Husband. (recommended: click to enlarge.)

beautiful picture by my handsome Husband. (recommended: click to enlarge.)

Settling in for the night…

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We ate, had a few sips of whiskey, and fell asleep under the mixed blessing of a very bright full moon that obscured the outrageous stars visible out there where the light pollution is minimal.

The next morning we got a leisurely start on a much more leisurely ride, generally downhill and starring views like this one.

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Although day 1 had been challenging, I think we were all very pleased with our self-sufficient journey and solitude. I especially had a difficult time with all the hike-a-bike, which aggravated both my feet and my bad knee (and all that pushing of the very heavy bike bothered my lower back) – but I was with a small group of good friends & good people. They helped me out and encouraged me, and never made me feel like I was a bother. Thanks, guys.

what a crew.

what a crew.

On day 3, we did a much lighter-weight ride, with more friends, from the cabin – no gear required.

Husband conquers the ruins

Husband conquers the ruins

And at night, the whole pack of us enjoyed each other’s company.

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I mean, really. Look at these views from the porch of the cabin complex.

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photo 2

It was another great trip, and our love of these parts is confirmed and strengthened once again.

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