Recent Reading (and Not-Reading)

I read some things, and DNF’d some others, that I feel like writing about! Let’s get to it.

Self-Helpy DNFs

Anhedonia was a major symptom of my depression, and I am still working on enjoying the things I used to (yes, that does sound like a contradiction in terms, and no, the pandemic doesn’t make it easier). And now, unmarried, children grown if not flown, and sadly newly dogless, I have so much more space in my life to do what I enjoy, to explore new things to enjoy. It’s surprisingly hard to figure out what I want to do and try–it’s been so long since I asked myself what I like.

Recently, I came across this podcast conversation between Arthur C. Brooks and Lori Gottlieb (whose book on therapy I enjoyed) on how to figure out what you enjoy, and found it helpful. Looking for more along those lines, I spotted Catherine Price’s The Power of Fun: How to Feel Alive Again at my library. Sadly, this was a DNF. There’s nothing wrong with it, really, but I can’t stand the kind of self-help where the author feels the need to create special terms that sound like they should have a trademark symbol when normal words and dictionary definitions would do. And this is that kind of book. Going through an elaborate process of journaling about True FunTM (yes, she does use that, capitalized, though I added the TM) did not sound, well, fun. I did get some good ideas about what kinds of experiences to look for, though.

Price’s previous book was on breaking up with your phone, and that carried over into this one, as she feels the fake fun we have on our distracting devices gets in the way of having real fun, which typically involves being present with others. That resonated with me, so next I turned to Johann Hari’s new book, Stolen Focus. I started the audiobook, and it wasn’t terrible or anything, but it was taking so long to get to the actual information, and then I saw Hari did an episode of Ezra Klein’s podcast and figured that was as much as I wanted to know about the book’s ideas. (No doubt it’s some kind of deadly English teacher sin to listen to the podcast instead of reading the book).

Even though I didn’t read these books, the fact that I was drawn to them showed me where I want to go next in my healing. I’d just rather get on with focusing and finding fun than read the books–which in itself suggests I’ve made some progress in healing.

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My Year in Reading, 2021 edition

Hey, it’s me! What happened to that person who seemed to have so much energy for blogging at the start of the year? Well, that energy went into self-reflection and journal-writing instead. Climbing out of depression and grief is hard work, but I’m doing it, slowly.

This fall I went up to full time at work and taught first-year literature classes for the first time in ages, so a lot of my reading energy was spent on books for class and student work.

My reading this year, then, continued to be affected by the upheaval in my personal life, and as a result it wasn’t the most interesting reading year I’ve ever had. Some of my reading experiences with my students were great! I’m going to write something about that for Dorian, and I’ll let you know when it’s posted. Here are some highlights from the rest:

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Lest We Forget

I’m about to start reading Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall with my first-year fiction students. On Tuesday, I suggested they think about the three time periods relevant to the novel: the Iron Age society that the “experiential anthropology” class in the novel recreates, building the titular ghost wall to keep out enemies; the novel’s setting right after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which the characters discuss; and 2018, the date of publication, the time of Brexit and Trump’s Wall, which inform the novel’s themes. Only that morning did I realize November 9 is the anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall. How accidentally relevant our class was, I joked!

Then this Remembrance Day morning I read news of migrants trapped on Europe’s borders, pawns, weapons, canon fodder in a dispute between autocratic, nationalist leaders. Ghost Wall‘s relevance no longer seemed funny, a matter of resonance with the past. Moss’s novel makes very clear that the impulses that led Iron Age people to build ghost walls, and that led to the World Wars of the 20th century, are alive and haunting us still.

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Some Recent Reading (or Mostly Listening)

These days, mysteries are my genre of choice: people solving problems, answering questions, seeking justice. And, of course, plots that hold my attention when I’m tired and easily distracted. Audiobooks, too, are good when I’m tired and distracted. The library and the free titles included in my Audible subscription have encouraged me to try new authors. Here are some I’ve enjoyed recently:

Catherine Aird’s Calleshire Chronicles, read by Derek Perkins

This series has been going for 40 years, and I’ve listened to 10 or so in random order, from Audible. (My library has some in e-book, but I’m not sure I’d enjoy them as much that way). These are British mysteries with village settings; not much seems to have changed in Calleshire since the first book was published in 1966, and DI Sloan and the hapless Constable Crosby don’t change either. They are classic puzzle-type mysteries, not gory but not quite twee, with a touch of comedy and a love of literary allusions. Perfect for falling asleep or lying awake with. I find them immensely soothing, partly because they are set in a timeless England that probably never quite existed outside fiction–much like Betty Neels romances.

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In the Affirmative

It seems like these days, even when I’m not looking for a “how to survive the grief of divorce” book, they find me. First there was the Duchess Goldblatt book. Now, Maggie Smith’s Keep Moving. (That’s Maggie Smith the poet, best known for her viral poem “Good Bones,” not Maggie Smith the actor).

A few years ago, I made a habit of starting each day reading poetry. During the pandemic, it fell by the wayside, partly because I get my poetry from the library and there isn’t much in digital, partly because I didn’t have the concentration for it. But I’ve been missing poetry. So recently, when I saw the audiobook of Keep Moving on my library site, I decided to give it a try, despite my deep suspicion of the type of poem that would go viral on social media.

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