January was a surprisingly good month for me in reading. I finished eleven books in text for a total of 3,514 words and six audiobooks for a total of 2,997 (49 hours, 57 minutes) minutes listening. Including audiobooks in the total for seventeen books, I’m not sure I’ve ever read this much in a single calendar month. I did abandon two books–the Modern Mrs. Darcy book club flight pick Daily Rituals (which I’ll explain in a coming blog post shortly) and the audio of Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. Tyson’s book is lovely and his voice is, well, Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s voice. I’m just not an auditory learner. I’m not picking up anything from it because it’s a book I need to read and not just hear. I’ll likely retry if I stumble upon a good copy of this in a used bookstore.
Part of the high number this month can certainly be credited to (blamed on?) 24in48— a group of readers that attempts to read for 24 out of 48 hours in a single weekend twice a year. It was my first time participating and it was fun to see what I could accomplish. I enjoy using my free time for reading but by the end of the 48 hours, I was ready to use my freetime–even just a few minutes–for something other than reading or sitting with an audiobook playing. (I’ve never valued silence more.) Unless something comes up, I’ll probably do it again in July, though I agree that twice a year is probably enough! I did have trouble keeping up with the post/contests that were every three hours and will probably need to just set an alarm and calendar breaks around these.
Best Laid Plains
I read most of the books I planned to read when I started the month including Seven Fallen Feathers, Deep Work, Secret Daughter, Forever or a Long Long Time, The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky, Station Eleven and Arcadia. I wound up subbing Dear Fahrenheit 451 and As Bright As Heaven in for The Heart’s Invisible Furies and Priestdaddy. Added to this was a book I already own that was given to me by a dear friend called The Shock of the Fall and a wonderful library book I plan to review in the coming weeks called The Librarian of Auschwitz. Only two of the books I read this month–Seven Fallen Feathers and Secret Daughter were written by people of color. In total, I did read SIX books I already owned which is perhaps the total of books I already owned that I read last year. That six books is 1.25% of my current number of unread, owned books. Slow and steady wins the race?
Thematically, I made a few missteps this month. I read As Bright As Heaven (enjoyed) and Station Eleven (LOVED), though reading books set during the 1918 flu pandemic and a future killer flu weren’t the best choices I could have made in January as the flu was hitting Austin. Indeed, while I was snuggling up with Station Eleven, Ryan was on the couch in a flu-induced coma. Everything got Lysoled and I wore a mask around the house all week.
It feels silly to spend a full (or even a mini-) review on a book as well-known and loved as Station Eleven. I don’t know why I hadn’t read it before–maybe just that my library lists were always out of control and I owned this one so it never felt urgent. I’m glad I finally got to it this month–it’s a book I’m definitely keeping. Set in the near future after a killer flu wipes out 99% of the world’s population (taking down with it all manufacturing, electricity, etc.), Station Eleven follows a traveling Shakespearean theater company and orchestra as they travel the shores of Lake Michigan going from town to town performing. Their travels are going as planned, until the arrival of a violent prophet threatens their safety and way of life. Station Eleven is beautifully written with just the right amount of creepy detail–like the plane that was prohibited from disembarking in the airport so that twenty years later, it still stands sealed full of flu victims on the far edge of the airport tarmac. Overall, the book has some dark details but is not depressing, a feat for Mandel since Station Eleven could easily have gone off the deep end of dark. Her characters are flawed people but resilient–if we’re being cliche, Station Eleven is, at its heart, not only a story of the collapse of civilization and the dangerous directions that can take, but also of the indomitable nature of the human spirit. Mandel seemed to have thought of everything that life after the collapse of technology would mean but doesn’t lecture. She’s a master of showing rather than telling. The book is relatively short–just over 300 pages–and yet the amount of story and character development she manages to fit into those pages is impressive. If you missed this one a few years ago like I did, I highly recommend you remedy your oversight and pick this one up.
The Shock of the Fall
A book that got far less attention but was also masterfully done is The Shock of the Fall. The Shock of the Fall is written as manuscript with a handful of drawings and letters included by a nineteen year old man with schizophrenia. The manuscript is his reflection back to explain the death of his brother with Downs Syndrome when they were both children. As Matthew tells his story, you see not only how he came to grips with his brother’s death but also how schizophrenia slowly started to take hold of his life. This book could easily have gone off the rails, but the tone was overall respectful. I cared deeply for Matthew and Filer handled Matthew’s refusal of his medication in a way that the reader could understand why he was making this choice that is usually portrayed as incomprehensible. ::sidebar:: There are many and valid reasons people with mental illness don’t want to take their medications, just like there are many reasons people with health conditions don’t take their doctors’ advice or take medications as prescribed. ::end sidebar:: If nothing else, The Shock of the Fall shows how grief is a universal emotion, though the experience and the struggle of it is not universally the same.
I have to admit to being a little disappointed when, a few months ago, the Diverse Books Club had a month focused on disability and didn’t have any books on mental illness (holding out hope it may get its own month in the future). The Shock of the Fall is a book I would wholeheartedly recommend as a strong narrative with a distinct voice and viewpoint. We need more books like this–that expose us to what people with mental illness are like, to remove the stigma that people with schizophrenia are dangerous or “other.” I’d recommend this one along with Elyn Saks’s memoir The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness. This is another book that I plan to keep on my shelves.
Seven Fallen Feathers
I follow several Bookstagramers on Instagram and have come to discover that many of them are Canadian. (So when President Calliou inevitably causes the collapse of American society, I’ve got a head start on knowing people up north). Several of them read and mentioned this book one-after-another so I picked it up this month. It’s a narrative nonfiction story about the essentially uninvestigated, suspicious deaths of First Nation children who were sent away for school in Canada. As part of the narrative, Talaga provides background on the racist residential school system designed to destroy indigenous families and cultures (it was literally a model for apartheid South Africa) as well as revealing the rampant racism still prevalent against indigenous peoples in Canada today (Et tu, Canada?).
Seven Fallen Feathers was well-paced and Talaga did well in switching back and forth between narratives of different families while keeping everyone straight and distinguishable. I did have a bit of trouble with knowing absolutely nothing about Canada or its geography–even with a map, I probably didn’t fully appreciate the scope of how far some of these kids had to be sent away for school. I would love to read a book like this about America–it’s well and good that I know the specific details of Canada’s racist past but I really should know more about my own county’s. If you have suggestions on where to start on this, I’m all ears. I’m also hoping the DBC book club looks at Indigenous Peoples soon.
As February begins, I’m hoping to read another ten books including We Were Eight Years in Power (chosen for author of color on my TBR list), This Must Be the Place (MMD Book Club), Interpreter of Maladies (MMD Book Club), Left Neglected (DBC Book Club), Caleb and Kit (DBC Book Club), Pachinko (already own on Kindle), The Notorious RBG (already own physical book), Priestdaddy (BOTM), This Impossible Light, and The Burning Girl. If I’m successful, that will be three authors of color and five books I already own–both categories I’m trying to track and improve upon.
I’d love to hear how your reading is going or if you have suggestions for books for me to read. Feel free to leave me a comment below. <3