Bookish and Proud: A Literary Pride Month Flag

The editors at Bookish have created a literary flag in honor of Pride Month.

Check out the article to see a larger version of the flag and the list of nearly 350 book covers used to create it: “Each book used in this collage is either written by an author or features a character who identifies as a member of the LGBTQ+ community.”

15 Novels: Learning History through Reading Fiction

Novels Mentioned

  1. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, translated by Berliani M. Nugrahani
  2. The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
  3. My Brilliant Friend (and 3 companion novels) by by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein
  4. The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu
  5. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
  6. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
  7. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
  8. Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy
  9. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
  10. Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
  11. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra 
  12. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth E. Wein
  13. The Alice Network by Kate Quinn
  14. Transcription by Kate Atkinson
  15. A Column of Fire by Ken Follett

About a year ago, when I was setting up my reading plan for the upcoming year, I came across one challenge that included this entry: “Read a book to learn something.”

My immediate reaction to this directive was, “Every book I read, I read to learn something.” Nevertheless, within the context of that particular reading challenge I interpreted this entry as a directive to read a nonfiction book.

But every time I finish a novel I remember anew that I do learn something from every book I read, not just from nonfiction. I’ve learned a lot from novels explicitly categorized as historical fiction, but I’ve also learned from novels in various genres such as science fiction, mysteries, and thrillers.

Here are 15 novels that have contributed to my general knowledge of several topics.

Many novels have served as fictional introductions to other cultures. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, translated by Berliani M. Nugrahani, taught me about  the ethnic, religious, and political turmoil in present-day Afghanistan. The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman introduced me to what life was like for lighthouse keepers on isolated islands along the coast of Australia in the years after the first world war. I learned what life was like for working-class people in Naples, Italy, after World War II from My Brilliant Friend and its three companion novels by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein. And I got a first-hand picture of life during China’s Cultural Revolution from The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu.

I’ve learned from novels more about war than I ever wanted to know. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier made me understand how the Civil War devastated both the land and the people who lived on it. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows both made me realize the magical power books can have for people experiencing horrors such as World War II. Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy made me marvel at how resilient and brave people can be in the face of those same horrors. Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars taught me how unfair and long-lived political and ethnic suspicion and hatred can be. From A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra I learned the basis for the Russian war with Chechnya.

Spies are a big part of war, and I’ve learned just about everything I know about espionage from novels. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth E. Wein taught me about courage and the power of friendship in the face of unspeakable fear. The Alice Network by Kate Quinn showed me bravery under threat of death in the first world war, as did Transcription by Kate Atkinson in the second. From A Column of Fire by Ken Follett I learned about the origin of spying during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

But I don’t just learn historical facts by reading fiction. I learn about human nature, about human desires and aspirations, about the desire to love and be loved, the search for one’s identity, and the courage to act in extraordinary circumstances. And also, yes, about the dark parts of the human heart and our capacity to inflict pain and suffering on others throughout time.

I’ve had a lot of formal schooling. But much of what I know about life I learned from reading fiction.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

A Sea Change: Coming Home Early

We were scheduled to return home from our world cruise on May 11, but during late March, while we were visiting Australia, I began to feel what I thought was the start of a sinus infection. The ship’s doctor said, “No, I think you have something wrong in your tooth.” He sent me to a dentist in Albany, Western Australia, who really tried to help me but finally admitted that my situation, an abscessed tooth, was more than she could deal with. “You need to see a specialist,” she told me. 

The doctor and the dentist each prescribed a different antibiotic, and the two medications soon reduced the infection enough that I was no longer in pain. But the dentist emphasized that there was no way to tell when the infection would flare up again. At that time we were about to embark on a 7-day at-sea cruise across the Indian Ocean toward Africa, during which I would have been unable to get off the ship. We therefore had to make a decision quickly, and we chose to come home to see a specialist. 

We left the ship in Perth, Australia, and, after two horrendously long flights, arrived home on Friday evening, March 29th. We had gotten no sleep overnight and therefore slept most of Saturday morning. When I called the dentist’s office on Saturday afternoon to see about getting an appointment, I was surprised to get a recording informing me that the office closes at noon on Saturdays; it never occurred to me that a dentist’s office wouldn’t be open all day Saturday.

Yesterday (Monday) morning I got in to see the dentist, and that tooth has now been gone for a little over 24 hours. (Recovery will involve a lot of time sitting around reading.) We had been scheduled for a 3-day, 2-night wildlife excursion in South Africa, which I’m sad about missing. An African safari is still on my bucket list, so that will have to be the basis for a future journey. 

If I had to have some medical condition, an abscessed tooth was probably a relatively good thing to have. Last year we had 7 or 8 broken legs on the world cruise. I’m glad I didn’t have to negotiate the long flights home while in a wheelchair.

Life lesson learned: Always purchase trip insurance.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

My Reading Plan for 2019

I’m going to be a bit less formal in my reading plan for 2019 than I was last year.

First, because I read so many books last year, I’m boldly going to increase my annual Goodreads challenge to 50 books for 2019.

Second, I’m going to avoid any other particular reading challenges and instead just encourage myself to read in the following categories:

    • translations
    • science fiction
    • speculative fiction
    • memoir
    • biography
    • general nonfiction
    • plays
    • poetry
    • books by local authors
    • books by people of color or about other cultures

Third, I’m going to make the effort to cross off at least four titles from my original Classics Club list.

What about you?

Do you devise a reading plan at the beginning of a new year, or do you prefer to choose books as you go along?

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Did I Fulfill My Reading Plan for 2018?

Back in January I put together My Reading Plan for 2018. My follow-through has been mixed: I overly fulfilled some intentions but failed woefully in others.

Reading Challenges

Goodreads Challenge

I crushed my Goodreads challenge to read 45 books by knocking off 63.

Here, according to Goodreads, are my additional statistics for 2018:

  • I read 22,380 pages across 63 books.
  • The longest book I read was A Column of Fire by Ken Follett, at 927 pages.
  • The average length of my books was 355 pages.
  • My average rating was 3.7.
  • The most popular book I read was Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, which was read by a total of 659,539 people.
  • The least popular book I read was Cash McCall (1955) by Cameron Hawley, which was read by a grand total of 51 people (and I’m surprised the number is that high).
  • Of all the books I read, the one with the highest overall rating on Goodreads is The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, with a rating of 4.56—which doesn’t surprise me at all. It was THAT good.

Finally, a number of the books I read every year are unabridged audiobooks. I’m not sure whether their page equivalents are included in Goodread’s algorithm for total pages read or not.

Off the Shelf’s 18 Reading Resolutions for 2018

(1) Read more books by women

Although this intention leads off this challenge, I didn’t much worry about it or even track the titles I read that fulfill it because I always read a lot of books by women—not by conscious intention, but because many women write in the fictional genres that I primarily read, mysteries and psychological thrillers.

(2) Read more diverse books

  • Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

I need to do much better on this one in the future.

(3) Read a book more than 500 pages

I am not afraid of Big Books.

  • A Column of Fire by Ken Follett, 927 pages
  • Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy, 703 pages
  • Penmarric by Susan Howatch, 704 pages
  • The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons, 624 pages
  • Lethal White by Robert Galbraith, 647 pages

(4) Read a book written by someone under the age of 35

  • My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent
  • The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin

(5) Read a book written by someone over the age of 65

  • A Column of Fire by Ken Follett

(6) Read a collection of short stories

None

(7) Read more nonfiction

I find it hard to believe, but I read only one work of nonfiction this year: Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann.

(8) Read a novel based on a real person

  • A Column of Fire by Ken Follett, based on the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth and some of her supporters

(9) Read a collection of poetry

  • Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters

(10) Read a book about an unfamiliar culture

  • Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
  • A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

(11) Read a book from a genre you might not normally read

  • Madam, Will You Talk? by Mary Stewart (romantic suspense)
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (science fiction)
  • The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August by Claire North (fantasy, or at least some variety of speculative fiction)
  • The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons (ditto)

(12) Read a book by a local author

  • The Twilight Wife by A.J. Banner
  • Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
  • The Writer by D.W. Ulsterman
  • The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

(13) Read a book about mental health

  • Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
  • Trust Your Eyes by Linwood Barclay

(14) Read a “guilty pleasure” book

  • My Brother Michael by Mary Stewart
  • Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart
  • Penmarric by Susan Howatch

(15) Read a book with an LGBTQ theme

  • Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy

(16) Read a book to learn something new

Most people would assume that this category refers exclusively to nonfiction. But I gained a lot of factual knowledge from fiction this year:

  • A Column of Fire by Ken Follett taught me about the Elizabethan era, particularly about the origin of espionage and the political machinations involved in acquiring and maintaining power.
  • The epic Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy taught me about World War II, especially the French Resistance.
  • A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra taught me about the Russian invasion of Chechnya, about which I had known almost nothing.

(17) Read an inspirational memoir

Alas, I didn’t read any new memoirs this year, although reading Dorothy Allison’s autobiographical novel Bastard Out of Carolina felt like reading a memoir.

(18) Read a book you’ve had on your shelf for years but haven’t gotten to yet

  • Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler
  • Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison

Personal Reading Goals

In an effort to read outside of my usual comfort zone (primarily psychological novels), I planned to read some of these types of books in 2018:

translations

  • My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, trans. by Ann Goldstein
  • The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante, trans. by Ann Goldstein

science fiction

  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

biography

None

fantasy

  • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (at least it’s speculative fiction)
  • The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August by Claire North (ditto)
  • The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons (ditto)
  • The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein (talking dogs are fantasy, right?)

plays

None

poetry

  • Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters

The Classics Club

I had planned to tick off six items this year, but I only managed three:

  • I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  • The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington
  • Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters

 

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

5 Big Books I’ve Read or Reread Recently

It’s been a while since I wrote about my love for Big Books (tomes of 500 or more pages). Here are the five most recent ones I’ve read.


A Column of Fire by Ken Follett, 928 pages

This is the final entry in Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge trilogy. (The first two are Pillars of the Earth, set in the 12th century, and World Without End, set in the 14th century.) This novel begins in the latter part of the 16th century, as young Princess Elizabeth is poised to become queen. One of Follett’s strengths is the creation of strong, well defined fictional characters, and he creates a cast of them here. In their interactions with a few historical personages of the era, these characters live through the religious battles and shifting loyalties of the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants.

I found particularly fascinating Follett’s picture of how the young Queen Elizabeth, facing enmity from most of Europe, created a network of spies and secret agents. This novel covers about a half century but, as in the other two novels in this series, the story never seems to go on too long. Follett is a genius at keeping a large cast of characters interesting while moving through an extended narrative arc.


Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy, 703 pages

What a gem of a novel! I discovered it through one of the newsletters of Kindle deals I receive daily.

Piercy uses 10 narrators—four men and six women—to cover the full breadth of World War II and its effects. The characters include soldiers, intelligence officers, code breakers, factory workers, French resistance fighters, and women entering jobs left vacant by the departure of the male work force. As she does in much of her work, Piercy here emphasizes the women characters, but her male characters are equally as individualized and important.

Like Ken Follett, Marge Piercy keeps a large cast of characters moving coherently over the wide sections of time and place necessary to encompass the vastness of an entire world at war. This is a novel that at some time in the future will appear on a list of Big Books that I’ve reread.


Penmarric by Susan Howatch, 704 pages

Penmarric is the only reread on this list. I think I originally read it about 35 years ago (it was first published in 1971), so I’d had enough time to forget the details and therefore relished the chance to reread it.

This is one of those big, sprawling family sagas that I enjoy so much when they’re well done. And this one is very well done. Like Marge Piercy and Ken Follett, Susan Howatch keeps a large cast of characters moving across an extended time span.

The novel covers the years 1890–1945 and three generations of the Castallack family. The story focuses on Penmarric, the huge ancestral home on the family estate of Penmar located in Cornwall (the same area where the current PBS drama Poldark is set). The house represents the family fortune and tradition, but it’s actually the Cornwall region that focuses the characters’ desires and keeps them grounded. It’s a big family, with big dreams and aspirations, and Howatch introduces us to these several characters as individuals forced to live out the consequences of a father’s decision and of the social conventions of an era.


The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons, 624 pages

The introverted, learned, meticulous novelist Henry James meets the dashing fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. What’s not to like?

At the heart of the novel lies a philosophical conundrum. Holmes is in the midst of his hiatus after the incident at Reichenbach Falls, when he was supposedly killed by his archenemy, Moriarty. Holmes has faked his own death and disappeared because his powers of ratiocination have suggested to him that he is a fictional character. While Holmes ponders his own existence, James is left to think about how own question: If Holmes is fictional, what does that make the novelist himself?

Despite their existential crises, James and Holmes have work to do: They’ve come to America to solve the mystery of the 1885 death of Clover Adams, wife of Henry Adams, scion of the family that produced two U.S. Presidents. Was Clover Adams’s death the suicide it appeared to be, or does it involve sinister forces and matters of national importance?


Dune by Frank Herbert, 535 pages

My husband, daughter, and sister-in-law all love this novel, but I had put off reading it for 50 years because I don’t like much science fiction. What convinced me to read it, finally, is not the realization that this novel has become a major icon of science fiction literature, but rather our retirement relocation to Tacoma, WA, home town of Frank Herbert. Herbert was influenced to write his masterpiece by the presence for nearly 100 years in Tacoma’s North End, very near to where we now live, of a copper smelting and refining plant. The final incarnation of the company that owned the plant was known as American Smelter and Refining Company (ASARCO). ASARCO closed the plant in 1985 because of a decline in the market for copper and the need for pollution control.

The company that was originally one of Tacoma’s biggest employers was also one of its biggest polluters. Its giant smokestack, built in 1917, dominated the area at 571 feet tall. The smokestack finally became a symbol of environmental pollution, and it was demolished in 1993. The area became a Superfund toxic cleanup site. The soil around where we leave is still being tested for contamination as older property is sold and new building projects started.

This local experience prompted Frank Herbert to write Dune, which many people consider the seminal work of ecological science fiction. I don’t love the book anywhere near as much as my family does, but I am glad I finally read it (if for no other reason than I can now include it in my list of Big Books read).


© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown