Saturday, June 6, 2020

BLACK LIVES MATTER: A WEEK OF PROTESTING, PROGRESS, AND RESOURCES YOU MIGHT NOT HAVE SEEN


Protests around the country in support of the Black Lives Matter movement truly began in earnest about a week ago, and it's heartening to see how much has been accomplished in that week alone. 

I remember just last Saturday, sitting in disbelief at the scenes playing out on the news in front of me. I thought I knew what to expect: I was active in a few groups on my college campus, and had seen protests before, with many of those same college friends still up in Seattle still going to these kinds of protests. I believed ours was a progressive city; I had heard so many colleagues and leadership in college cite the specific phrase, that Black Lives Matter, so it wasn't even presented as a controversial statement, but an obvious truth. Our mayor is a progressive Democrat and a member of the LGBT community, for goodness' sake. 

And yet, there were the protesters, taking a stand. There were the Seattle PD, responding with violence. 

The ideas that a city I had called home for four years - and been a frequent visitor to my whole life - could do such a complete about-face on what I had previously thought were intrinsically tied values, was mind-boggling. There was a shot on the TV, of a news reporter dodging flash bombs while directing the camera down the street, towards Pike Place, where the iconic Market sign shone eerily through a muggy haze of tear gas. Nearby, multiple police vehicles burned unrestrained, as the fire department couldn't navigate the crush to put them out. 

I felt, honestly, naive. I knew that Seattle - and most of Washington State - was built unfeelingly on the backs of Native American tribal members and Chinese railroad workers.  I knew about the atrocities committed against Japanese immigrants and Japanese-American peoples during WWII on our own shores. I knew about the founding of nearby Oregon as a White-Only state, and I knew that parts of our state still carry the same kind of beliefs that routinely put people in danger. But seeing this struggle - for just the recognition that Black Lives Matter, for the acknowledged rejection of overwhelming police brutality - play out directly on the news felt completely different than just knowing about it. 

As I scrolled past video after video of our country burning with grief and frustration, I couldn't help but feel like the world was on fire. I was scared for my friends, and our city. And I was scared for our country. 

But this week has been an exercise in persistence and perseverance. There's a lot more burning now than just cop cars, and the flames are climbing higher across the entire country.

LISTENING VERSUS TALKING

From a personal standpoint, I have been largely abstaining from posting on social media. I understand this is a fairly unpopular stance, but I need to explain my rationale for doing so: this week was not a time for talking, but for listening. 

Honestly, this belief is also shaped by the same kinds of topics Katie Anthony detailed in her blogpost, "5 Racist Anti-Racism Responses 'Good' White Women Give to Viral Posts." From self-identifying "I'm so ashamed," to the hypothetical "If I'd have been there...," there's a preponderance of seriously unhelpful information or dialogue being offered right now, when that same energy could be directed in more beneficial ways, like signing petitions, donating to various causes online, or giving a greater voice to activists already at work in the field. And at a time where social media sharing involves widely circulated photos and quotes, it's important to pay attention to "Non-Performative Allyship," as Mirielle Cassandra Harper shared in a viral series of tweets earlier this week. 

And honestly, I think that if the disparity in the numbers between how many people posted a black square on Instagram, and how many people had signed the George Floyd petition proved anything, there's a lot of nonessential "virtue-signalling" happening on Instagram right now, which I had no interest in being apart of. 

However, I also recognize that having the ability to step back and say nothing, demonstrates a profound kind of privilege, too. I live in a diverse, socially aware, and active enough social circle, that my timeline - on multiple media platforms - had been flooded already, with both the good and the bad. There were lists of resources made available, and directions to local protests, and instructions on how to address local government officials into making change happen. It was all very inspiring, but it was also a constant deluge of sometimes non-essential information and artsy poetry. I didn't want to add to that mix, but in staying "silent," in listening mode, it also restricts my ability to amplify voices I think warrant hearing. 

So, I wanted to share some resources, news articles, and perspectives with this post, instead. I'm sure Instagram doesn't miss me. 


JUST IN THE PAST WEEK...










Los Angeles and Mineappolis talk defunding the police... but it's only a start. 

Ferguson, Missouri, elected their first Black mayor, six years after eighteen-year-old Michael Brown, Jr. was shot by a police officer. 

"8 Can't Wait" gains traction... but is it really enough to effect change? 

My youngest sister is a big fan of the slang phrase "showing your whole a$$." Example, used in the form of a sentence: Buffalo PD showed the whole world its a$$ this week.


***update: Seattle PD has replaced their daily diet of tear gas, with smoke bombs and canned pepper spray. So, less of progress than a convenient loophole.***


Unprecedented numbers in Philadelphia, New York City, and Chicago call for justice at peacefully. 

WHAT TO DO NEXT WEEK

If we've gotten this much change accomplished in one week, imagine how much further we can go! Justice still has not been actualized. Keep pushing. There are still so many.

Please continue to sign petitions, address your local government, and if you are able to do so safely, go to protests.

Please continue to acknowledge that we are in the middle of a pandemic, and we need you to be safe as well as powerful. Don't just wear a mask, but bring more, so that you can not only distribute as needed, but also, so that you can swap out if it gets too sweaty / inundated with police dispersant. Bring water and snacks as necessary, and hand sanitizer, as well. Try to keep from touching your face or others as best you can, and make sure to wash your hands as soon as you get home. 

Please familiarize yourself with local regulations involving your right to protest, as well as procedures for arrest and imprisonment in your area. Know your rights as a citizen, and feel confident in your ability to keep those boundaries in the face of governmental authority. 

Please continue to educate yourself on the history of racial injustice in our country, focusing on issues of systemic racism, especially those occurring in your own state or region. Buy from Black-owned businesses and bookstores for these materials when you can, and try to avoid Amazon. 

Please take breaks when you need them, and take care of yourself in a time of great social and medical upheaval. Do what you need to do to keep yourself focused and calm. To be honest, right now would probably be a great time to start keeping a journal. 

Please recognize that social media is a fractional medium: there's very little way to get the full story from a tweet, an Instagram post, or a Facebook link. Do your own research.

Please look to those who are leading. Amplify activist voices, and keep your own input enthusiastic, but at a relative minimum. Lift up others, especially those in the Black community, and follow the example of those who have been fighting for much longer than you have. 

Please remember that America's history was defined by the difficult and the rebellious. From the wrongful imprisonment and police torture of protesters within the Suffragette movement, to the abusive harassment and federal terrorizing of activist leaders of the Civil Rights movement, America's foundation finds its greatness in those who progressed in spite of violence done against them. And as early as the looting at the Boston Tea Party, to the fires and broken glass that helped bring the Stonewall Riots to national attention, to say activist violence has no place in revolution is to discredit the validity of the concerns that caused it. To pretend that the only way forward is through peace, is to reject and dismiss the pain of those who came before us, and those who feel it now. 


RESOURCES YOU MAY HAVE MISSED 

There have been a couple vital books circulating the web this week, on "Anti-Racist Reading Lists" that are integral for understanding the social, historical, and cultural contexts of what Black Lives Matter really means. Here's one from the New York Times. Here's one from BookPeople. Here's one from BookShop.Org

(But please remember: as Lauren Michele Jackson pointed on Vulture earlier this week, it's not enough to just buy the book, and think of it as your good turn for the day, especially as these kinds of lists have been around for a while. As she said, "that's the thing about the reading. It has to be done." 

Need help finding a Black-owned bookstore to purchase your copy from? Libro.FM assembled a list of bookstores to support, who I'm sure would be happy to send a new title your way. 

JSTOR Daily also collected a series of articles you can read instead, in case you were looking for something a little more short form. They are divided by sub-categories, like "Video Documentation and Police Brutality: Ethical Considerations," and "Racial (In)Justice: Putting Protest into Perspective." 


Not sure how to address these difficult issues with your children? That doesn't mean those tough conversations shouldn't be happening. Sesame Street recently hosted a town hall with CNN talking about what racism means in a way that kids might be more receptive to. Act.TV released this short video that explains Systemic Racism in a general way that older kids might better be able to understand. 


Bon Appetit collected lists from around the web of Black-owned restaurants in major cities that could use some love in the midst of Covid-19 concerns. 


For more culinary inspiration, Food52 collected a list of 21 Black-authored cookbooks to add to your kitchen collection. (I've been looking forward to Toni Tipton-Martin's Jubilee: Recipes from Two Centuries of African-American Cooking since earlier this year, and that excitement has only grown since it was bestowed a James Beard Media award.) 

Not an entirely necessary addition, but have you seen the giant 7ft protester making everyone swoon? He's even got fan-fiction now. 


Please stay strong out there, continue taking care of yourself and your people, and keep working hard at fighting against injustice. I hope you have a productive and purposeful weekend. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: The Last Ten Books I Abandoned

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl!

There are plenty of reasons to set down a book. Offensive or uncomfortable subject matter, frustrating style and diction, or just a general boredom with its contents. A bad author, or a bad time of year (I can't be the only one who's been suffering from a general Covid-related slump). It's no wonder that not only is this habit widely-practiced, but also highly recommended by those who hope to up their Goodreads challenge goals. If you aren't having fun, you don't have to keep on reading!

And you know what? To put a book to the side for a while doesn't even have to mean that you're really DNF'ing it, either... just last year, I started Charlotte Gordon's Romantic Outlaws at the top of the year, in February, and didn't get around to finishing it until November. And I still ranked it pretty darn high, because I thought it was a really well researched and interesting study! I made it to the finish line in the end, and that's what matters.

Still, there are some books that should be abandoned for a reason. Take a gander at my last few put-down-able books, and let me know if there are any worth picking up again!


the ones I'm definitely not picking up again, for sure, ever

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1. Beartown, Frederik Backman
I originally perused this highly-hyped, highly-recommended novel during a bout of speed-dating my extensive TBR shelves, and was pretty interested by the time the timer went off about nine pages in. Unfortunately, the blurb on the back is coy with its actual subject matter, which I only realized during a conversation with a friend: while the description states "a violent act that leaves a young girl traumatized and a town in turmoil" is the major action, it is more specifically - spoiler alert AND trigger warning - her rape at the age of 15, by one of the players on the hockey team at the center of the novel. There are better ways to spend my time.

2. The Color Master: Stories, Aimee Bender
Wouldn't you know it? Violence and other weird relationships with women are also the reason I put this book immediately into the "donate" pile, too, after another round of speed-dating my shelves. Of the first two stories, the first describes an assault, and the second has to do with a woman who finds herself unable to have sex with her husband unless he treats her like a prostitute. No thanks.


the ones I'll end up rereading eventually, regardless

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3. Lair of Dreams (The Diviners #2), Libba Bray
To be very clear, this series by Bray - a favorite of my teenage years - is, in my opinion, one of the best YA Supernatural books on offer in any bookstore. Not only is it a personal favorite, but it's one I loved so much, I passed it along to my younger brother. So you can imagine his immense frustration at the fact that I am stuck somewhere around the middle of this thick installment, while he waits for me to catch up on my rereads before we get to the fourth book in the series, King of Crows.

4. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Harry Potter #5), J. K. Rowling 
Another example of failure in a readalong-gone-wrong with my little brother. Originally, I had started reading this book two years ago (!!!), when he and I were trying to get through reading and rewatching all of the Harry Potter books and movies over the course of a calendar year. I picked it up around July... and promptly put it back down, 11 pages in. I'd rather just reread the first four over and over again - the second is my favorite - but I'm sure I'll pick up the fifth again sometime.


the ones I was enjoying, but were just... a lot to commit to at the time

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5. The Hours, Michael Cunningham
Okay, so here's the thing: I was so, SO excited to read this one. I actually got a little over 50 pages in! But then I considered how the Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel was a reflection on Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, and carried some of its themes, and contained more than a few Easter eggs, and I haven't read Dalloway since college, which was about five years ago, and I thought, "Hey, maybe I should reread Mrs. Dalloway again first..."

6. Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
So then I picked up Mrs. Dalloway! But here's the other thing: I don't know which copy of this novel you have, but the one I have is typeset in a very small font. And its style - stream of consciousness, with winding, drawn-out descriptions and flighty, spirited deviations in time and focus - isn't exactly conducive to those with short attention spans. Which I kind of have right now, you know, now that the world is essentially a pit of chaos. I'm sure I'll pick this up again when everything goes back to normal... whenever that is.

7. Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
So, you know how that one movie adaptation of this book came out a little while ago? And how everyone in both the Book Community At Large and the Period Film Community At Large absolutely loved it? And they couldn't stop talking about Saorsie Ronan or Florence Pugh or etc.? It kind of made me confront the fact that I had never read it. (There's a story there. I'll tell you some other time.) And, you know, now I still haven't read it. I will at some point. Maybe.

8. Jane Austen: A Life, Claire Tomalin
Holy cow, was I loving this book. Absolute painstaking detail, comprehensive and far-spread focus on not just Jane herself, but the backgrounds and motivations of literally all of her wide-reaching family, as well as descriptions of the sociocultural setting of the time, just really, really well done. But then, you know, the world fell apart. And suddenly, all that detail and background and information just was a little too much to handle. I absolutely look forward to picking this one up again... just not right now!

I mean, it's a risk of the genre

9+. And so many more: various Romance Novels 
I'm just going to leave numbers 9 and 10 under the general header for this one. Romance novels, guys. It's a mixed bag. And when you take a chance on Romance - especially the self-published kind - sometimes, you might end up with something you'd rather just... not. But it's okay, because it's just so easy to move on to the next one!


What's in your Top Ten? Let me know, in the comments below!

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Unintentional Social Distancing Readathon: I Put My Phone Away, and Read 5 Books in a Week


How's this for an unproductive use of my time: I started five books in March, but somehow, only finished two. In my defense, Covid-19 stress was keeping me permanently unfocused and forever glued to my phone, neither of which is terribly conducive to reading a lot.

Because of this inability to just get to the final page, back at the end of March, I made it a priority to actually enter into the first few weeks of April with a fair amount of reading under my sleeve. In particular, I wanted to read five books in one singular week.

I figured this was a solid enough number, because I knew it was feasible with the kinds of books I was choosing, and it would help me a lot in getting back on track with my Goodreads goal for 2020. I decided I would keep my phone in a different room - with a whole staircase between us - and continued to make plenty of time in my day for regular journaling and walking (both of which help me mitigate my stress levels, and keep my mind clear), as well as spending time with my family.

And wouldn't you know it? I actually made my goal! Truly anything is possible if you force yourself off Instagram every once in a while.

(There's still one book I'm not counting, too: my Tastee-Reads cookbook - in case you've been following - for the month of April is Alison Roman's Nothing Fancy, and I spent the week reading through it cover to cover. I got through everything, including body paragraphs, ingredients lists, and recipe intros, and still had time over to flag the recipes I wanted to tackle, and then read through it a second time. Still, I don't count cookbooks towards my personal Goodreads goals!)


Here are the five books I managed to read in one week:

The Eyre Affair (Thursday Next #1), Jasper Fforde

27003. sy475 Just as charming, quick-witted, and fast-paced as I've always thought this balls-to-the-wall British absurdist comedy was. Time travel, dodos, the Socialist Republic of Wales, raucous and Rocky Horror-esque performances of Richard III, and most importantly, the ability to jump to the pages of a book and back... and that's not even managing the minor side plot about the vampires. Or the black hole. Truly, this book has it all.

But while its fit to burst with all manner of exciting and improbable plots, it never feels overburdened so much as in a happy kind of frenzy. You check your skepticism and rationale mind at the door when you open the cover of the book, and you're undoubtedly in for a good time. In an alternate version of England, 1985, there is war with Russia over the Crimea, having lasted for over 100 years, a super-villain who can disguise himself at will holding literary characters hostage, and the real author of the Shakespeare plays is as widely discussed and hotly debated as religion. Clearly, this is not the arena for a disparaging eye.

In truth, I acknowledge that the book is a lot, like a stage improv game that keeps asking itself "Yes, and...?" As are, what? The other seven books in this series, not to mention the several spin-offs? I would know... I've read each of them multiple times. This madcap detective series is one of my long-term favorites, and I know the plot well enough now to really adore all of its strange little quirks and eccentricities. I know its a lot to take in at first, but I still heartily encourage you to make the leap... you'll be swept along in the chase in no time!

Besides, it will make you want to pick up plenty more British literature when you're finished. Its really the perfect sort of series for a bookworm... if only everyone had such an appreciation for literature as Ms. Thursday Next!


Stardust, Neil Gaiman

16793Undoubtedly one of the greatest modern fairy tales of the 21st Century, Stardust is filled with familiar Fantasy elements, like witches, kings, quests, and all manner of magical creatures, but they occupy a world that feels entirely new. It carries feelings of nostalgia and comfort, due to its expert use of a craft no longer as popular as it once was, but the twists and turns that the plot takes keep it from ever getting boring. It is constructed from the well-worn clothing of Fantasy components, but as no point does it feel overly composed; it abides by Fairy Tale conventions, but is far from conventional. Gaiman is an old pro at long, involved novels, and all of his cleverness is as much as work here as it is in Good Omens or American Gods.

(Well, save for one: practically every single female characters talked about her breasts, or had them remarked upon by someone else, at least once. So much boob talk. In that way, Gaiman clearly fulfills the stereotype of a typical male Fantasy author.)

The book is a personal favorite, and would honestly be considered among the best work in his canon, save for one issue: in the late '00s, Stardust was turned into a movie. The movie version streamlines the plot a little, amps up the action in others, and gives greater animation and characterization to much of the main cast. It is - to be completely honest - my favorite, between the two formats: the movie is an underrated gem, and deserves many more fans, at least as many are fans of the book.

However, that is all still a testament to the story's construction, the compelling plot, and the engaging and evocative characters with which the novel is populated. It is so incredible, that it easily makes its way between formats, and there is something unique to each that is remarkable.

It is a genre that feels both old and new again, and a story that succeeds in two formats, about a boy and a girl who each are a part of two separate worlds.


Death on the Nile (Hercule Poirot #17), Agatha Christie

6251565Poirot is one of my favorite Christie focal points, and for great reason: his slightly antiquated and charming demeanor makes him a pleasant companion on a no-so-pleasant trip down the Nile, as a crime of passion and predilection for revenge gives way to multiple murders.

Might I just say, the oldest among Christie's canon are some of her best work! This was written in 1937, which makes its setting and time period among the most novel... it also makes some of her characterizations among the more prejudiced and not exactly politically correct. Racial descriptions, even among Europeans, are pretty rough. The communist and a secret riot-inciter on board are also there to stir the old-timey waters.

It is a perspective that Christie is uniquely adept at maneuvering: a large cast of characters, all of whom have something to hide, plenty of moving parts with varying degrees of motivation. When you factor in that the book takes place on a grand, luxury mode of transportation, comparisons to tone of her other iconic works - Murder on the Orient Express - abound... is it any wonder that in the last moments of Kenneth Brannagh's version, he alludes to an important message sent straight from Egypt? But this story stands plenty on its own, with not only violence, murder, and intrigue, but also romance, interpersonal drama, and even a little bit of political discourse.

There were any elements I thought could be streamlined. Every piece had its place, and they filled them beautifully. And, against all reason, all of those pieces came together unexpectedly by the time you reached the end... because that's one of the best hings about Christies. The world could be chaos - like it is out here - the chips could be down and everything could be falling apart... but you can bet by the final page, everything will make sense again.


Wine, All the Time, Marissa Ross

31521903As the daughter of a couple who used to host gourmet dinner parties with their friends, complete with beverage pairings, as a means of keeping tight with my Dad's fraternity brothers, you might also be able to tell that a love of wine runs in the family. But while my parents may have spent their early '90s newlywed years volunteering with the Washington Oenological Society for a few extra bottles of the good stuff, I've had to strike out on my own to gain entry to any kind of education. Hence: the oft-used Vivino app on my phone, and Marissa Ross' Wine All the Time: A Casual Guide to Confident Drinking. 

Casual it is: Ross' background lies in comedy writing, doing stand-up and acting as assistant to Mindy Kaling before her blog - Wine, All the Time - gained the attention of the Internet, eventually being parlayed into a gig as Bon Appetit's official wine editor. Hilarious personal anecdotes operate alongside instruction on tasting and flavor profiles; a comprehensive breakdown of global wine regions, their terroir, and the resulting varietals, comes only a few chapters before detail-specific step-by-step information on how to sneak white wine in a soda container into a sports arena. Her information is good, and her delivery is charming and conversational. She doesn't just tell you how to choose the right wine to bring to a family dinner, she also gives you advice on how to keep from getting so drunk you start a fight with your Great Aunt over some Facebook scam.

Its the kind of thing that will cause older wine enthusiasts - like my parents - to turn up their nose. But when you're young and inexperienced, Ross is like the older sister who buys you alcohol that you didn't know you had.


My Life with the Saints, Fr. James Martin, SJ

163362It does feel a little strange to be reviewing a Catholic memoir of a priest in the same blog where I I've also reviewed romance novels, but what can I say? I contain multitudes.

Fr. James Martin is a pre-eminent contemporary Catholic author, whose books espouse plenty of the church's more social-justice-focused progressive teachings, which is probably why I like them all so much. He is especially good at bringing the teachings of the church into arm's reach: his friendly personality, candor, and relatability make his books feel welcoming and accessible, especially to those who read with the hopes of finding a closer faith in a contemporary world.

My past year's Lenten read - A Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything - was also one of his works; one that focused on describing the Jesuit process, and how it relates to modern life, but is also filled with examples from Martin's life and faith process. This one - with chapter that find their ground in saints across the centuries - is also portrayed in a similar way, with the book laid out in a sort of progressive narrative of Martin's life experiences in the faith.

Not only is the book itself a compelling story, filled with more compelling stories, but it also provides a great jumping off point for further reading. I may have finished the book, but now, my TBR is much longer, which is exactly how faith reading should affect its readers.


Here's what I consider to be the major outcomes of this experience:

Staying the heck away from my phone was definitely the key. I was still able to check it multiple times a day - and to my chagrin, still managed a screen time record of about one to three hours a day despite the distance - but even avoiding permanent time holes like Pinterest, Instagram, and Tumblr freed up giant chunks of my day for things like reading.

Taking time to create meaningful routines also helped. I did most of my reading in the mornings, took a break for meals and long walks outside, and then would pick up my book again in the afternoons, leaving my evenings free. Sometimes, I'd read before bed. But I never felt like I was being pressured, or losing out on other activities.

Managing my stress was a major key in this week, too. Regular journaling and long walks helped a ton at keeping me feel open and relaxed, and semi-regular yoga and meditation really brought me into a more positive mindset, too. Overall, I got the emotional releases I needed, and also gave myself plenty of room to take my mind off of reading, as well as digest what I had been reading so much more freely.

Other things I've been doing: cutting out television (except for a few key favorites), watching the occasional movie (feels like more of a time investment, and carries a full and complete plot, instead of being strung along in an episode-based binge), playing board games with my family, spending more time outside, and daydreaming about getting back to work on my garden.

I also definitely think I chose the right kind of "short" books - two rereads, a fantasy, a mystery, something funny - but the "stretch" book I included (a 400-page Faith Memoir) was also a relatively easy read, because it was so personal and engrossing. I was really happy that I included it, even though it took a little longer.

I also think I'm going to keep reading down my shelves... now that I know that my reading focus in quarantine could be such a success, I'm more confident than I ever have been about my ability to continue going through my TBR shelves. I actually consider the fact that I did another round of "speed-dating my books" right before attempting this week of reading, one of the key factors in why it was so successful: it was like I had been given a little "preview" of each of the books ahead of time, and was now ready to read the feature event.

Important note: My heart is still with all of our first line of defense in the Covid-19 crisis - nurses, janitors, grocery store clerks, and more - as well as all who have had their regular lives uprooted, like teachers, students, and everyone who's spent the last couple of weeks wrestling with a ridiculously unhelpful unemployment office or cancelled graduation plans. However, by undertaking this challenge, I've figured out my way to separate the grief and the frustration from overtaking my daily life. I am more positive and productive because of it, and those are going to be my goals for carrying through the rest of this struggle.


How has your reading been going so far? What else have you been spending your time doing? Let me know, in the comments below!

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I've Read and Enjoyed, But Rarely Talk About


I've been keeping this blog for almost ten years now; that's a lot of time in which to rank reads and hype favorites. Except, of course, for when I don't.

As it turns out, after I started pondering this week's "Top Ten Tuesday" topic, there are quite a few books which I've read - and often reread - but that don't get their chance in the sun much here. It's not any particularly purposeful oversight, it might just be a chance of not wanting to repeat content, or focus too much on certain genres... but that's all changing right now.

Here are my Top Ten books I've read and enjoyed, but which rarely ever get the recognition they deserve on this platform!


24583Beyond: the Queer Sci-Fi & Fantasy Comic Anthology by Sfé R. Monster23848561. sx318

1. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
Stalwart blog readers might recognize this particular novel as not just a favorite, but a childhood favorite... one I've been reading every summer since I was eight years old. This story hits a sweet spot of new and nostalgic every time I pick it up again, and it carries with it the significance of accompanying me on many a summer vacation.

2. A Whole Lot of Graphic Novels and Comics
This might be a lot more true for in years past, but I read a lot - a LOT - of graphic novels and comics that don't end up getting a lot of words written about them on the blog. Whether it's glancing through a classic old Bill Watterson Calvin and Hobbes compendium, or getting lost in a treasured continuation like Alex Hirsch's Gravity Falls: Lost Legends, or giggling over a thick hardbound copy of Kate Beaton's Hark, A Vagrant, there are more than just a few in my collection who deserve some extra attention.

3. Beyond: the Queer Sci-Fi and Fantasy Comic Anthology, edited by Sfe. R. Monster
Specifically among those Graphic Novel and Comic book ranks, is this collection of just what the title leads you to believe it is: an anthology of LGBT-focused short comics, of the Science Fiction and Fantasy varieties. While my reception of the various contents were mixed upon first reading, there are still elements from them that I still think about literal YEARS later. I honestly think it may only have improved with time.

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4. In Other Lands, Sarah Rees Brennan
Truly one of my favorite YA reads of all time, and one I am absolutely unable to trace where I heard about in the first place. I think it might have been a throwaway recommendation on a YouTube channel sometime a few years ago, but this book - contemporary YA Fantasy following a boy as he grows up in a magical world just on the other side of a wall from ours, making mistakes and falling in love, but with elves and mermaids and harpies and such - has been read multiple times since then, and is one of my favorites to recommend, especially as LGBT rep. Read it!!

5. Romance Novels
I know, I know, I actually do talk a lot about romance novels on this blog... like I do here, or here, or even most recently, here. But in actuality, that's only the kind of stuff that's fit for dinnertime conversation. In reality, I read a lot more romances that not just don't make it onto my blog, I don't even add them to my Goodreads Challenge. No, I won't tell you which.

6. Cookbooks
I'm a passionate and devoted cookbook fan. It's one of my favorite arguments against the whole "ebooks and the Internet will destroy traditional publishing" thing: no matter how many recipes you can find on Pinterest or Google at a moment's notice, there's still an inherent value in buying a print cookbook that you don't get when you just watch a Tasty video instead. And yes, this is another one of those subjects that I do quite frequently discuss on my blog, but the reality is, I flip through at least one or two cookbooks daily. (It's one of my favorite ways to unwind.)

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7. Humor Books
I don't mean like Tina Fey's Bossypants, or B. J. Novak's short story collection... I mean like the really short form funny stuff, like Mallory Ortberg's Texts from Jane Eyre, or Jill Poskanzer, Wilson Josephson, and Nora Katz's Literary Starbucks, both of which are some of my favorites for riffing on works of classic literature in a hilariously irreverent, but loving, way. (Definitely for fans of Sparknotes' impossibly good Instagram profile.)

8. Meddling Kids, Edgar Cantero
Here's the thing: I enjoyed this book. I really, really did. In fact, I enjoyed this book so much, that my opinion has fully gone unchanged, despite numerous people whose opinions I respect telling me how much they absolutely hated it. This bananas book is a parody of teen sleuths, but more specifically, the Mystery Gang... the difference is that in their equivalencies, Velma's a lesbian, Fred is dead, and Shaggy's going crazy from constantly having to deal with what he believes is Fred's ghost talking to him. Also, there's a strong Cthulhu component. Read at your own peril, but if you choose to go along for the ride, there's a good chance you'll have a good time. Maybe.

9. Feed, M. T. Anderson
I was talking about "always recommend" books with a friend a couple of Christmases ago, about what books that, no matter who the audience was, we would recommend to absolutely everybody. She chose this uncannily prescient dystopian novel, which - despite covering topics like factory-farmed meat substitutes, eerily responsive ad recommendations, and body-modifying tech that works suspiciously like an iPhone - was written in the 2002. It was one of my first books of 2017, and it's pretty much set the standard, in my mind, for Science Fiction ever since.

30364187. sy475 10. All The Lives I Want: Essays About My Best Friends Who Happen to Be Famous Strangers, Alana Massey
It's a weird one, but one that I love. What I had originally thought, based off of its cover, was that this book would be a quasi-fluffy-marshmallow-y riff on other memoirs I've read, discussing someone's relationship with various celebrities who have shaped their pop culture perspectives, but this book is so much more than that. It's an intensely feminist lens pointed at things like the vilification of Anna Nicole Smith, the double standards of media coverage of prominent black female rapper feuds, and the horrifying public commodification of the personal beings of underage women, like Mary Kate and Ashley's virginity, or Britney's body. If this all sounds intense, it definitely is, and that makes it one of my favorite contemporarily published feminist works that I've read in the past couple of years.


What's in your Top Ten? Let me know, in the comments below!

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Speed-Dating Books: Check Your Shelf, Pt. 2


Yup. We're back here again already.

Here's the thing, though: the first installment of this year's new speed-dating project was pretty darn successful. In the time since I wrote it, I've read four of the titles I chose. Not joking! (Look for an update with their reviews, coming within the next week.)

The difference is, that the reasoning behind it last time was to break out of a slump; now, I'm just looking for a little more inspiration to continue reading at such an improved pace since last month's lack of finished titles.

What can I say? It's a really good system!

I'm actually thinking that I might mess around and try and do one once a month for the foreseeable future... at least while we're all still in quarantine / social distancing / shelter-in-place-ing. It will give me a positive focus for my attention, a way to clean off my shelves, and a great reason to continue reading the way I am now.

In case you've forgotten since the last time we were here, here are the rules again:
  1. First, you pick a stack of books you want to read from your shelves, usually between 8 and 10. 
  2. You gather the rest of your materials: a notebook and something to write with, a timer (or your cell phone), and maybe a snack or something. 
  3. Assemble the books in a randomly-sorted stack, and set your timer to approximately five minutes. 
  4. When you start the timer, you pick up your first book, and read for the complete duration, until your timer goes off. 
  5. Then, quickly jot down a couple of notes on how you think it went! Did you enjoy the style, the voice, the action? Would it be a stretch read, or an easy one? 
  6. At the end of your notes, write down whether you want to read it "Now," "Soon," or "Later." If "Later," try to specify when, like an appropriate season, occasion, etc. 
  7. When you feel satisfied with your notes, start the timer again, pick up your next read, and repeat the process until the stack is finished! 

(Note to my lovely teacher friends: I know it's hard being away from your kiddos right now, but this might be a great activity to extend to them - in a varied format, of course - to make sure they're still picking up plenty of books while they're away from the daily structure of school. Invite them to gather a couple of titles they're interested in, go through the process, and have them send you a picture of their set-up and notes, if they're able. You'll be able to stay involved in their reading habits, and they'll probably be excited to show you what they've been working on, too!)



the exercise

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Smoke, Dan Vyleta
In a Fantasy version of Dickensian London, the moral value of a person is determined by the amount of smoke that shrouds them, with the poorest and meanest covered in soot and ash. However, that doesn't mean that those clean of smoke are pure of heart...
It is quite intriguing, and has a really gorgeous central conceit, but I can't help but feel right now is not the correct time to reach for it... it does feel very Victorian, which I normally save for Fall or Winter. Maybe that will be the right time to read something as dense as this hardcover.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver
Noted novelist and writer Kingsolver moves from Arizona to a farm in the East Coast, and decides on a new family project: they will spend a year eating only what they can grow, pick, raise, and cook themselves!
This will be really good, I think, to read in June or July, when my future garden will really be embracing its destiny. What better time would there be to read about someone growing their own food? Besides, it will give me even more reasons to work hard this Spring.

Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan
The bestselling novel that inspired the critically-acclaimed movie, a young woman follows her boyfriend home to Singapore, only to realize that his family is impossibly wealthy.
Really fun, but bordering on crazy amounts of exposition as I read. Felt a little too bright and frivolous of a read for when Spring is still working out its moods. Maybe I'll revisit it sometime this Summer? That being said, though... I'm not sure that I loved it enough to jump right for it when the weather turns.

Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
The timeless tale that also inspired a recent award-nominated film adaptation, this novel follows the lives of the March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, as they grow up together, and apart.
The selection I read isn't terribly representative, being that I keep on reading for several minutes after the timer had gone off, because I was still trying to sort out some thing in my own head. I did enjoy what I read, but the book is a little long to be jumping into as I'm still climbing out of a slump. Maybe I'll keep reading it and make it into a kind of "project" read?


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Atonement, Ian McEwan
A young girl - taken to naive flights of fantasy - witnesses the flirtation of her older sister and a family servant, and misinterprets major events in a way that plunges all three of them into a future they can't control.
Beautifully written, and really quite easy to read; however, I know too much about the emotional nature of this book to choose it as a regular sort of thing. Maybe I'll save it for later on in Spring or early Summer, when the sunshine can keep some of the tears at bay... then again, I'm not really sure, having already been aware of the twist, whether I want to read it at all.

Stardust, Neil Gaiman
One of my favorite Fantasy authors delves deep into a fairy tale world, as a unique boy ventures into a magical realm, to claim a fallen star for his lady love. But the star is not what he thinks it is, and he's not the only one searching for it...
A regular favorite. I've been meaning to watch the movie again, but haven't read the book in a while. Including it in my upcoming TBR would give me plenty enough reason to do both!

The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry, Kathleen Flinn
A masterful food writer recalls her attendance at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris, France, and how her education developed through its tutelage.
Everything about this is so freaking right. I knew it the second I pulled this book from the stack... realistically, I probably didn't need to make it a part of this exercise, but its a great reminder of how much I adore Flinn's work. I can't wait to read this, especially its descriptions of culinary school.

The Liar's Club, Mary Karr
A master memoirist reflects on her explosive family and blue collar childhood, in a small, industrial-focused town in 1960s Texas.
I cannot wait to read this book, though I know I cannot do so right now. This book would be enjoyed so much better in Summer, sitting out on my back deck with a cold beverage in hand and the heat frying up my legs. I can't wait.

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Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard
The Pulitzer prize-winning collection of Dillard's reflections on the natural world around her, over the course of a year in Virginia's Roanoke Valley.
I shelved this lyrical and loving portrait of wildlife and flora back in summer, after I tried reading it in Oregon on vacation, but kept losing focus. Maybe now that its the ever-changing Springtime, instead, I'll be able to pay more attention to its varied seasons.

An Autobiography, Benjamin Franklin
The Founding Father, master writer, and diplomat recounts his life and his learning in his own words.
It's not the first time I've tried to read old Franklin's autobio, and each time, I've read a little, ruminated on how accessible it was and how it would probably benefit me to read it, only to decide that it didn't quite fit my mood. This is another one of those times.

the outcome

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When it came to deciding what to read right "Now," Kathleen Flinn has never steered me wrong. The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry is immediately engrossing and would be a perfect read... even if I wasn't obsessed with someday going to culinary school.

Gaiman's Stardust and Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek both wound up on my list to read "Soon," but I'm not entirely sure when. Probably some time in the next month or so, so I'll add them to my April TBR, next to some of the chosen ones from my last round of speed-dating!

I also liked the idea of getting around to reading Alcott's Little Women soon. There's a bit of a personal history there - one that I'll probably have to talk about on the blog at some point - so I'm excited to finally give it a shot. But it's not exactly the kind of thing I think I'll be able to get done quickly, so maybe I'll break it up into chunks.

There were quite a few titles that ended up in the "Later" column... mainly because none ended up in the "Never" column, which is, I guess, a pretty good thing (though to be completely honest, McEwan's Atonement might eventually make its way there). I moved Ben Franklin's Autobiography to be read some other time, just because I didn't really find it all that compelling right now, while Kwan's Crazy Rich Asians was designated for a sunnier clime. Mary Karr's Liars Club was similarly marked for a dog-days-of-summer kind of environment, and Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Mineral was made for days when my garden is in full bloom, like July. The only one that got significantly bumped down the TBR was Vyleta's Smoke, to November or December, when the world is a little gloomier and more open to Dickensian-inspired Fantasy reads.


What is your quarantine reading looking like right now? What books have you been inspired to pick up? Let me know, in the comments below!

Monday, March 30, 2020

Speed-Dating Books: Check Your Shelf Pt. 1


I have a totally stupid number of material possessions, the most insane of which, out of all, is my Unread Books Shelf. In total, these standing shelves boast a total of almost 199 books to sort through, because I am incorrigible and absolutely prone to fits of book purchasing at a rate that greatly exceeds the amount of time I spend reading them. (And no, that's number is not including my Kindle, either.)

Back when I instituted my first book-buying ban as a 2015 resolution, I had about 80 books on my TBR shelves. At the top of my 2017 Resolution, I had over 100. I complained in my yearly wrap-up for 2019 that last January, my physical TBR shelves alone were at 147... so clearly this problem is not getting any better.

Seriously, I read about 60 books a year - at least in the past few recent years - and even if I read only books that I already own right now off my shelves for the next three years, I still wouldn't have tackled all of them. And that's incredibly disheartening, from both a personal reading rate perspective, and a monetary perspective... I'm a huge mood reader, so that sort of pace likely wouldn't be sustainable for me, anyways, and what would likely happen, is that I'd get bored. I also do a lot of rereading during a calendar year, so those numbers would also likely be much lower.

This is important, because this egregious surplus was one of the reason I began instituting one the greatest practices I utilize in the scope of my reading hobby.

You might remember it from a past year's Valentine's-adjacent post: the year I decided to not care as much about not having a date for Cupid's chosen holiday, and learn to love a book from my shelf instead. By "speed dating" a selection of titles from my TBR, I was able to better organize my shelves and make decisions about future reads, in a quick, fun kind of self-motivated way.

Well, I can't say it's made up a ton of my blogging content since then, but it's done wonders for my own personal bookish habits. Flipping through the past year plus' worth of book journal pages, I think I've invoked this particular exercise around six or seven times, usually before vacations as a means of weeding out what really deserves a place in the suitcase. It's honestly helped me determine what I want to read next, and for someone who is a total mood reader, that can be a really big deal. In fact, the presence of a book in the lineup for "speed dating," makes me much more likely to pick it up even further down the road... there have been books I've casually allocated for "Summer" or for "Maybe Later" that have ended up getting read before those that have been on my shelves for much less time.

Here's a refresher: 

  1. First, you pick a stack of books you want to read from your shelves, usually around 8 or 9. 
  2. You gather the rest of your materials: a notebook and something to write with, a timer (or your cell phone), and maybe a snack or something. 
  3. Assemble the books in a stack, and set your timer to approximately five minutes. 
  4. When you start the timer, you pick up your first book, and read for the complete duration, until your timer goes off. 
  5. Then, quickly jot down a couple of notes on how you think it went! Did you enjoy the style, the voice, the action? Would it be a stretch read, or an easy one? 
  6. At the end of your notes, write down whether you want to read it "Now," "Soon," or "Later." If "Later," try to specify when. 
  7. When you feel satisfied with your notes, start the timer again, pick up your next read, and repeat the process until the stack is finished! 


personal disclaimer 


Something important to note, though: this entire post and project has taken on an entirely different meaning than when I first started trying to write it, back in February. Back then, it was a decision made to honor the season of Lent in the Catholic calendar... that me giving up buying books or checking them out from the library, leaving me to only read the books down from my own TBR shelves, was a gentle sort of elected sacrifice. One that was still going to be difficult for me - I add, on average, a little over ten books to my shelves a month, whether from purchase or rental - but would hopefully do me a lot of good: I'd finally get those unruly stacks into some order, and could maybe donate what I didn't think needed a place there when I was done, while finding a regular daily reason to reflect on my faith.

However, in the weeks since that point, libraries have closed their doors indefinitely. Non-essential retail workers - like those at bookstores - have been sent home, to prevent the spread of Covid-19. While big chain stores like Amazon have switched over their models to prioritize the distribution of essential goods, particularly medical supplies, others, like independent bookstores have shifted their business model to online-only, as they try to keep their businesses afloat remotely.

Meanwhile, in the midst of all this, I'm left with plenty of books. And as I mentioned in my last post, I'm having a really hard time reading them.

So, while this project was originally a means of keeping my shelves in order, now I'm learning to appreciate the books I have all the more. I am very lucky to have become such a heinous book hoarder in the past few years, and now, I have the opportunity to reap the benefits.

I don't know, I just wanted to add in this note as a sort of proof that I've been reflecting on the sheer dumb luck of my circumstances. And kind of give a rationale for why I'm going to be doing a lot more of this sort of thing in the coming weeks... provided I can turn off the news, turn off my brain, and get back into reading a lot more in April.


the exercise  


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Here's the list of books I picked up, in the order that I read them, and what my general thoughts were on each after a few minutes of perusing...

Scythe (Arc of a Scythe), Neal Schusterman
In a world where death has been eliminated, the human population has been kept in check by an organization of designated killers, called "scythes." After two teenagers are taken on as apprentices, they must decide whether to join their ranks...
Wow. Genuinely unexpected... I thought I'd think it would be too cheesy, but it's actually feeling a lot more science fiction-y than anticipated. I haven't read a YA Sci-Fi pick in a while.

The Eyre Affair (Thursday Next #1), Jasper Fforde
Thursday Next - an intrepid Literary Detective for SpecOps Division #27 - is sucked back into battle against an old adversary, as the boundaries between reality and fiction bend. When a priceless copy of Martin Chuzzlewit is stolen, and Jane Eyre's Rochester seems to make a foray into the real world, can Next set it right?
This book is a frequent reread and personal favorite for a reason, and I've been looking for a reason to jump back into the series one more time, in the hopes that my brother will read it before he leaves for school in the Fall.

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, Stuart Turton
At a deadly party, the night will end in murder... unless you're able to stop it. You've got more than one try, but there's a catch: should you fail, you wake up again the next morning in the body of another member of the party. When everyone's trying to catch a killer, you need to stay one step ahead of the house's other inhabitants, or else you might just end up a victim yourself.
At first blush, not as good as I'd hoped it would be right out the gate. I bought a copy for my best friend for her Christmas present, and I was hoping that I could read it alongside her, and we could kind of book club it. Unfortunately, I'm not interested enough, as of yet.

Jane Austen: A Life, Claire Tomlinson
A densely-packed and comprehensive biography of the life of one of British literature's preeminent female voices.
It's kind of funny: last time I undertook this project and attempted to get into this read, I picked up this book, and also reached page 6. Nothing like consistency, right? I think, however, it doesn't impress much on me more than that, as I recognized rereading very little of its contents. However, after reading through all of Romantic Outlaws last year, I might be ready to make this my big biography read of 2020.

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The Hours, Michael Cunningham
A Pulitzer-winning interpretation of Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway across the fictionalized lives of three women: Woolf herself, a '90s socialite, and a '40s housewife. 
I haven't read Mrs. Dalloway since college, and now I'm really wishing I had paid more attention. I think that same course is where I was first informed of this book, too. If I read this one, I'll be able to watch the movie as well, which has Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, and Julianne Moore. I'd enjoy to do both, and soon, I think.

Wine, All the Time, Marissa Ross
A comedy writer-turned-wine blogger tackles the subject at a beginner's level, serving as an introductory course to varietals, regions, methods, and more. 
The subtitle is "A Casual Guide to Confident Drinking," and it really is. I didn't think this would be making it into my "read soon" pile, but damn! Not to be snotty, but I thought it might be a little dumb for a comprehensive book... it really does give off that coffee-table-at-Anthropologie kind of vibe. However ,Ross does a great job navigating the subject with an approachable yet authoritative tone. And she writes for BA!

Beartown, Frederick Backman
A small town prepares for a major hockey game, but is shaken to its roots when the daughter of the coach is sexually assaulted by one of their star players. 
No matter how many times I attempt to read this one, no matter how many people vehemently tell me to do so, I don't think I'll ever actually bring myself to reading this one. I kept giving excuses about how it wasn't the right time of the year to read it, or that I wasn't in the right headspace, and I've kept it on my shelf for two years, but honestly? I am utterly uninterested in reading about the rape of a 15 year old girl, no matter the ending. There are better things to do.

My Life with the Saints, Fr. James Martin
A preeminent Jesuit author reflects on the saintly figures who have thematically impacted his life and faith journey. 
Well, that decision took very little time: by the sixth page, I was scrambling for a pencil with which to make annotations, much like I did with my Lenten read of his last year, A Jesuit's Guide to Everything. I love the way he speaks so frankly and personally about Catholicism, without judgement, guilty, or pretense.

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The Nest, Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney
A high-society family is rocked when the bad behavior of one sibling, jeopardizes the inheritances of the remaining three. 
A fun, bubbly, scandalous sibling story, starring a cast of affluent and affectionately big-headed characters... or at least, that's how it seems form the first chapter or so. Simply due to the drama factor and glittering cast, I can already tell I'm relegating this to a vacation stack.

Sightwitch, Susan Dennard
A prequel installment in Dennard's popular Truthwitch series, this novella follows Ryber, as she mounts a desperate attempt to rescue her Sight sisters from beneath the mountain. 
I've honestly been wanting to read this one for a while. It's a novella, it's a prequel, it's one in a series I share with my brother, etc... but the style is so different that I was a little daunted by it. Still, it feels pretty approachable, now that I know what's going on. Maybe on vacation?


the outcome 


By the end of the exercise, I finally felt like I had not only a better hold on my shelves, but also had come up with a stack of books I was ready and excited to read!

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First of all, the "Now" category - like last time - ended up finding two different reads I wanted to pursue next: Neal Schusterman's Scythe, and Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair. Both seemed like fast-paced, high action reads, and felt pretty approachable, with one being YA, and the other a reread. I can't wait to get to both of these soon!

I then set up my category for "Soon," with a stack of books I hoped to get to by the end of the month. That TBR lineup included Claire Tomlinson's Jane Austen: A Life, Michael Cunningham's The Hours (and by extension, Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway), Marissa Ross' Wine, All the Time, and Fr. James Martin's Life with the Saints

The "Later" pile isn't so much one stack, as it is a hypothetical determination as to when I might want to be picking these reads up again in the future. For instance, I might keep Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney's The Nest on deck for a future easy vacation read, while Susan Dennard's Sightwitch I might be getting around to sooner, so I can share it with my brother for his Spring Break vacation next week. Stuart Turton's Evelyn Hardcastle, however, I might keep on ice until something like October... I think it would be a thrilling Fall read, don't you?

One of the biggest surprises from this experience, though, came courtesy of Frederick Backman's Beartown. I didn't decide to read it at all; instead, I'm giving myself some grace and freeing up space on my shelves by making the decision to donate it. Life is too short to force yourself to read books that don't make you happy to read them... especially not these days.



Would you ever be tempted to do a round of speed-dating with books like this? Have you done so before? Let me know, in the comment below!