In Arcadia

Twin Valley beach
Twin Valley Beach at Governor Dodge State Park, via wonder_al on Flickr (Creative Commons)

A few weekends ago, I had the pleasure of discovering a new bookstore, Arcadia Books, in Spring Green, Wisconsin. (Why yes, the URL for the store’s website IS readinutopia.com – they are obviously able to laugh at the fact that some parts of southern Wisconsin don’t really seem like the real world). We were in Spring Green looking for a place to eat lunch before we headed to Governor Dodge State Park to go to the beach. Our lunch was so-so (if you can call a swiss-cheddar-cheeseburger with fried onions on toast grilled like a grilled cheese sandwich so-so), but our visit to this bookstore certainly made up for it.

The first sign that Arcadia Books was my kind of place was evident when we first entered: they have a large range of children’s book-cover t-shirts from Out of Print Clothing hanging above the shelves in the children’s section. I’m a huge fan. There is also a nice little cafe in the store. After we had done our shopping, we enjoyed sitting down and drinking an iced cold-brew coffee. I have found that cold-brew coffee is much more common in Wisconsin than it was in Toronto when I was visiting this summer, so I was excited to share the joy with my sister, who was visiting. Try it yourself! It’s got a much better flavour (less bitter) than iced hot coffee.

And, what did we shop for? My sister was looking for some children’s books, being as its birthday season in my family. We had a great chat with the store manager, who obviously has a great knowledge of children’s books, and a great memory for titles! The selection of children’s books in the store, especially chapter books for ages 6-12, is one of the best I’ve seen. And I visit A LOT of bookstores! They had some old favourites, like The Great Brain and many many Tintin books, but I was mostly impressed by the great selection of children’s books I’ve never heard of, including many many series. Two that books that stood out were:

Shoeless Joe and Me, part of the Baseball Card Adventure Series of stories about kids and baseball heroes in historical context, and

The Mysterious Benedict Society, the first in a series about four kids who answer an ad in a newspaper asking “Are you a gifted child looking for new opportunities?”

As everyone who was a voracious reader as a child knows that as soon as a kid finishes one book, he or she is bound to ask “What’s next??”. The store manager not only knew which series were likely to be attractive to kids of a certain age, he also knew which books came first in each series, and which books they had in stock for each series. Excellent!

We also received several recommendations for adult books, and my sister picked up a copy of The Night Circus. I had the chance to look at their great selection of NYRB Classics, a reprint series from the New York Review of Books which I had never seen “in person” before. They are very aesthetically pleasing but somewhat daunting. I’m not sure I’m ever going to pick up my own NYRB classics edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy, by Robert Burton – only 1392 pages of light reading! The store also keeps on hand a full set of all the plays being performed during the current season at American Players Theater in Spring Green, and, as one might expect, has a large number of books on Frank Lloyd Wright, who lived at nearby Taliesin.

Me, I opted for some beach reading, and picked up a copy of F in Exams: the Very Best Totally Wrong Test Answers. I had browsed through this book earlier in the summer in a bookstore in Toronto, and I had been kicking myself for not buying it. I was not disappointed, and I sat in the cafe at Arcadia Books and laughed so hard at this book that I started crying.

I’ll definitely be back to Arcadia Books!

 

The ten longest novels ever written?

I finished A Suitable Boy! Yes folks, I read 1474 pages in 5 weeks. I love summer.

Which brings me to this (unscientific, but seemingly reputable) list of the ten longest novels ever written, compiled by an Amazon customer. How many of them have you read? In addition to A Suitable Boy , which is number seven on this list, I’ve only read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which is number ten on this list. Could it be a coincidence that I also read this enormous tome on a summer holiday? I think not! My sister, it should be said, also happens to be tackling another big one on this list right now – Les Miserables – and the only time I ever tried (and failed) to get into War and Peace , it was also summertime.

If you’re thinking of taking the plunge into David Foster Wallace’s crazy world of insidious entertainment, drug addiction, obsessive tennis and Quebecois terrorists who speak inexplicably bad French, here’s a good starter guide to reading Infinite Jest. In my case, my reading of Infinite Jest was greatly encouraged by the fact that I started it while I was in Europe on holiday with my (now) husband, and I read most of it during two weeks in Budapest, while my husband was at a summer course. Once you’ve seen many of the sites in Budapest, which are lovely, it is a sad fact that you can get a little lonely, surrounded by people who speak Hungarian, also known as “the least accessible language in the world for foreigners who don’t happen to be Finns.” Budapest does, however, contain a number of parks with excellent swimming pools, many of which are equipped with ice cream stands, beer gardens, and best of all, places that sell the excellent savoury doughnuts called Lángos. I don’t think it’s essential to eat fried dough covered in cheese and cream in order have the energy to wade through Infinite Jest , but it certainly helped!

And so, in memory of another big book read in summer, a few photos of Margaret Island in Budapest, where I read many, many pages:

Margaret Island, Budapest, ruins

Margaret Island, Budapest, food stand

Margaret Island, Budapest

Photographic air conditioning

Well, I spent much of the weekend reading (when I wasn’t picking strawberries on our bucolic and incredibly scenic CSA Farm, that is). I finished Bowling Avenue, and I finished rereading Sense and Sensibility; I’m also reading two fairly new “serious” history books: Ann Blair’s excellent Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age and Susan Matt’s Homesickness: An American History. And yes, I will confess that I feel like a complete nerd as I take notes on post-its and stick them into Blair’s book, which contains an entire chapter on the history of note-taking. Ah well, I am sure I am in good company!

A full review of Bowling Avenue is coming soon – the short version: I liked it very much, after a slow start. But I’m afraid that today, as I sit in my non-air conditioned house with my feet in a bucket of cold water, all I can think about is winter. So, in the absence of real air-conditioning, I give you the photographic kind (all photos taken by me in Madison in January):

Lake Monona, Jan. 2012

Lake Monona, Jan. 2012 2

Yahara River, Jan. 2012

A book, or just a thicker magazine?

When it’s hot outside, and my brain needs some rest, I sometimes think I need to read a magazine. And often I do – a few weeks ago, for example, I read the May 21st issue of the New Yorker, which was particularly jam-packed. I was especially fascinated and touched by the story in that issue about the career and death of the Kenyan Marathon runner Samuel Wanjiru.

But often, I have to say, I don’t find magazines very satisfying. Too many ads, too few articles, too much of same-old, same-old. Although I have to say that I almost always buy the Oprah Magazine before going on long trips, I am getting sick and tired of being told by Dr. Oz how anti-oxidants will change my life, and Oprah’s mixed messages are annoying: am I supposed to be content with what I have, or am I supposed to buy more stuff?

(Note to self: I should probably read Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Walk the Walk of the Queen of Talk)

So, what to do when you’re too hot and tired to read anything longer than 20 pages, but you can’t stand to buy a magazine? Short stories work for some (and I can recommend The Penguin Book of Summer Stories as a start). But this weekend, I read non-fiction instead: A.J. Jacobs’ Guinea Pig Diaries, which is a compilation of humorous essays about various experiments the author has tried on himself. The experiments include

  • being as rational as possible for a month (which Jacobs defines as avoiding cognitive biases)
  • acting like George Washington for a month (by following the list of 110 Rules of Civility, compiled by Jesuit instructors, on which Washington was known to model his behavior
  • outsourcing tasks in both his personal and professional life to two women working for companies in Bangalore (Jacobs  notes that his article on the subject preceded the enormous popularity of the 4-Hour Workweek craze
  • posing nude for a magazine
  • doing everything his wife desires for one month
  • “living as a woman” – or so the book cover claims
  • uni-tasking for one month, while musing on Nicholas Carr’s article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

Of all of these tasks (and I’m sure I’ve missed a few), the only one which failed to either make me laugh and think a little (mainly because I was too annoyed) was Jacobs’ quest to “live like a woman.” This is misleading – Jacobs simply spent a month collaborating with his single, 27-year old babysitter (who, he reminds us repeatedly in a way that even he acknowledges might be a little creepy, is very attractive) in her quest to find a boyfriend through online dating. Sorry, A.J., or more likely, A.J.’s publisher, if all that “living like a woman” entails is a stream of mild rejection, some embarrassment and a whole lot of complimentary emails from men, sign me up. It’s a bit more complicated than that.

Jacobs does get into a few more of these complications, in fact, in the essay for which he did everything his wife desired for a month. He acknowledges (as does his wife, in an interesting coda), that the most eye-opening moment of this experiment came when the couple sat down, and Jacobs’ wife simply wrote down every household task she completed every week. Surprise! She was working the second shift. As a person who is lucky enough to read reference books and talk about information behavior for a living, I also found Jacobs’ chapter on multitasking, or the avoidance thereof, to be both funny and extremely interesting. Mostly, though, it just made me feel incredibly focused. I don’t, for example

  • watch TV while eating dinner
  • listen to the radio in the shower
  • do anything except knit or surf the web while talking on the phone (my husband and I, to the shock of some of our friends, own a landline phone, just one, that plugs into the wall, without a portable handset, as our primary phone, and rarely use our (one) cellphone)

That being said, I could connect to, and laugh at, Jacobs’ essay on multitasking because I have struggled with focusing my attention and with decisions about where work begins and “not-work” begins (I am, after all, a librarian writing a book blog “for fun”). The themes examined in all of these essays, whether superficially or occasionally a little more deeply, are ones that will interest most readers: how do I work? how do I relate to my family? how do I treat my spouse? what makes me unique? how do I feel about my body? am I a good parent? how do I think? how do I present myself to the world?*

Some might claim that this book is disjointed; the quality of the essays is certainly uneven. But for the price of 3 magazines (or none, if you get this book from the library!), you’ll get a satisfying reading experience. I should say, though, that if you haven’t read anything by A.J. Jacobs, I wouldn’t start with this book, and I would opt instead for The Year of Living Biblically, which, to my mind, is a much better book, because it allows Jacobs to explore one particular experiment (to follow biblical rules strictly for one year) at much greater depth, with deeper research and a more interesting personal transformation.

*(tip: George Washington presented himself to the world with his shapely right foot and calf extended, and never, never, never, wiped his nose on the tablecloth)

Warm weather reading

beach

(July will be spent reading on this beach on beautiful Lake Huron)

A colleague of mine, who is studying to be a children’s librarian, was slightly flummoxed the other day when she happened upon an online book list titled “Warm weather fiction for boys.” I suppose the author thought that boys wouldn’t like the term Beach Reads?

I have a confession: when I said the other day that the semester was over, I wasn’t telling the truth. I haven’t finished my grading (or, as us Canucks call it, marking) yet. So I will let The New York Times recommend the reading for today, in an excellent article about Beach Reads.

I should mention, though, that in case you liked the sound of the Bachelor Brothers Bed & Breakfast, you can find more Canadian humour (with a U, naturally), by perusing the list of past winners of the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour. I’ve certainly enjoyed several books on this list during summer camping trips and cottage visits, and in the wintertime too:

Leaven of Malice by Robertson Davies (1955 winner)
The Fencepost Chronicles by W.P. Kinsella (1987 – Kinsella is, of course, the author of those two other great summer baseball books: The Iowa Baseball Confederacy and Shoeless Joe ), but his short stories are less well-known, and hilarious)
Prayers of a Very Wise Child, by Roch Carrier (1992)
Barney’s Version Mordecai Richler (1992)
The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis (2008)

summertime, and the books are hefty

IMG_1033

I don’t know about the rest of you, but in summer my reading tends to be of two types:

1. short, fluffy reading that can be digested in between other more pressing activities such as eating strawberries and swimming.

2. long weighty tomes that can be read while travelling, on lazy weekend afternoons, and at at the cottage.

This post is about a book that definitely falls into the second category: Vol. 1 of Janet Browne’s new(ish) biography of Charles Darwin.

When I mentioned to a friend that I was reading this book, her response was “but wasn’t his life kind of boring?.” And the answer to that is, kind of, except when it was not. Several extremely unboring things happen in this volume:

– Darwin goes to medical school at the University of Edinburgh during a period when professors did anatomy demonstrations using cadavers obtained through distinctly sketchy methods. He has a personal crisis, but not because of the cadavers

– Darwin travels around the world on the Beagle. Browne devotes a large portion of this volume to the trip, and describes life aboard the ship, and Darwin’s travels on land, in great detail. Turns out Darwin was seasick most of the time, and had to periodically “take the horizontal” while writing up his notes on the ship.

– During this voyage, Darwin shares the ship with three “Fuegians” that the captain, Robert Fitzroy, had captured in Tierra del Fuego on a previous voyage and brought back to England to be “civilized.” Browne’s description of what happened when they returned to Tierra del Fuego, along with a missionary intending to set up a mission, is really fascinating, and the whole episode, including the names given to the Fuegians, is just so bizarre. No wonder it shook up Darwin’s view of humanity.

– Darwin returns to England and marries his first cousin. Browne makes it quite clear that this was considered normal in his family, but I still think it’s weird.

– Darwin’s daughter Annie dies, possibly of tuberculosis.

Of course, I wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t mention that quite a lot of boring events (or lack thereof) happen in this book as well. Browne, a historian of science who worked on his published correspondence, is focused on what is happening inside Darwin’s brain as the events of his life unfold. The reader receives Darwin’s education in anatomy, geology and physiology along with him, and puzzles through his ideas and theories as he reaches later life.

Browne does run into a problem that I suspect must be common to intellectual biographers: how do you deal with all that time spent in the library? Or, in Darwin’s case, in the reading room of his London club? Matters are not helped by the fact that just as Darwin’s evolutionary ideas start to get exciting, he takes an EIGHT YEAR time-out to study barnacle sex . Necessary, but a bit of a bummer on the narrative front. However, the pace of the biography picks up a bit towards the end of the first volume, and the reader is left hanging: what will happen when Darwin finally publishes???

I’ll let you know as soon as I finish the second volume. And while I know that nineteenth-century science doesn’t make for everybody’s idea of riveting beach reading, I’d really recommend this book!