My 2019 Year in Books

I didn’t blog about it or write many reviews last year. It was way to crazy a year. But  here is the Goodreads summary of my 2019 reading. It was a great and varied year, with lots of new authors and a burst of non-fiction at the end. As usual, I tried to get in some African authors, some 1001 books list books, some award winners, and organized a lot of the reading around the annual challenge for the Goodreads group You’ll Love This One…!! A Book Club & More.

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A Philadelphia Crime Novel that’s much more.

Long Bright RiverLong Bright River by Liz Moore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received an advanced reader copy of this book in a Goodreads giveaway that I entered because I enjoyed Heft a few years ago. I was excited to find the novel to be set in Philly because I lived in a suburb which I tend to describe as located in the crotch of the city, wedged between the vastly different worlds of Irish working class Northeast Philly and the liberal and wealthier Germantown and Mt. Airy neighborhoods and just north of impoverished North Philly. When I worked there I also was a therapist in a private practice that was an EAP for the Philadelphia Police Department. All of that made a novel that centers on the lives of two sisters from a poor Irish family in the Kensington neighborhood, one of whom has fallen prey to the opioid crisis and the other of whom works as a patrol officer on the streets of the same neighborhood, a really intriguing read for me.

The book is half crime novel and half the story of a family threatened by poverty, death, drugs and hopeless. It takes a hard look at the ways a police force and its members can be a source of hope, support and rescue at the same time that its other members can use the power of the badge to prey on people who have few resources with which to defend themselves. It explores the challenges families in such neighborhoods face in trying to save children from the cycles of desperation that surround them. I think the two elements of the book are surprisingly well-balanced and interwoven, and both have plenty of twists and turns that unfold satisfyingly as the book develops.

The book is almost 500 pages long, but moves quickly and engagingly, alternating chapters set in a current crisis–police officer Mickey has not seen her sister in weeks and women have been turning up dead in the neighborhood–and those which slowly reveal details of the family history and the complex relationships among family members. Most of the prose is clean and effective, which made me forgive the one sentence which really didn’t work. The relationships are multidimensional and believable, the situations tense, and the neighborhoods of Philadelphia captured in all their complexity. I am curious about how the sense of place would read to people who don’t know the city, since the places and people described were already very rich and real to me from my years in the area. I would also love to know how realistically it would read from the streets of Kensington. One thing clear in the book is that people like me, upper-middle class, with an elite education, would not be expected by the members of Mickey’s O’Brien family to be a reliable source of understanding or support. It is, in some ways, a fiercely insular community. I love that this book did not flinch from living squarely in a neighborhood much of Philly would like to (and for the most part, does) ignore, except to capitalize on opportunities for gentrification. And I really hope Moore, gets it right, because I think we all need the humanizing face that she puts on Kensington and neighborhoods like it. Moore’s depiction of life in the PPD rang true for me, based on my years talking to men and women working on the force, and knowing personally some women in law enforcement in other cities. Women in law enforcement walk a precarious line in many ways, and I think Moore captures the way this might play out for one specific woman with her specific background.

I strongly recommend the book, particularly if you want a crime novel that is significantly more than simply genre fiction.

View all my reviews

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A Hero of Our Time

new 1001And then again…there is boundless delight in the possession of a young, barely unfolded soul! It is like a flower whose best fragrance emanates to meet the first ray of the sun. It should be plucked that very minute and after inhaling one’s fill of it, one should throw it away on the road: perchance someone will pick it up! I feel in myself this insatiable avidity, which engulfs everything met on the way. I look upon the sufferings and joys of others only in relation to myself as on the food sustaining the strength of my soul. I am no longer capable myself of frenzy under the influence of passion: ambition with me has been suppressed by circumstances, but it has manifested itself in another form, since ambition is nothing else than thirst for power, and my main pleasure–which is to subjugate to my will all that surrounds me, and to excite the emotions of love, devotion, and fear in relation to me–is it not the main sign and greatest triumph of power? To be to somebody the cause of sufferings and joys without having any positive right to it–is this not the sweetest possible nourishment for our pride? And what is happiness? Sated pride. If I considered myself to be better and more powerful than anyone in the world, I would be happy; if everybody loved me, I would find in myself infinite sources of love. Evil begets evil: the first ache gives us an idea of the pleasure of tormenting another . The idea of evil cannot enter a person’s head without his wanting to apply it to reality: ideas are organic creations. Someone has said that their very birth endows them with a form, and this form is action; he in whose head more ideas have been born is more active than others. This is why a genius chained to an office desk must dies or go mad, exactly as a powerfully built man, whose life is sedentary and whose behavior is virtuous, dies of apoplexy.

So writes Pechorin in one portion of this early Russian novel. Mikhail Lermontov is credited as the person who paved the way for the later great Russian novelists with this work. It is lyrical in the translation by Vladamir Nabokov, and the images of the countryside in the Caucasus region are beautiful. The novel unfolds by first introducing the reader to Pechorin through the stories of Maksim Maksimich, who tells of his earlier friendship with Pechorin as he passes time with the narrator, a fellow traveler on the winter roads. Later, Pechorin himself enters the tale, and we get a different view of him. The remainder of the novel is his journals, in which we get the intimate vision of his personality partially shown in the above extended quote.

I didn’t love this novel, but did enjoy it. It is worth reading for the language, if nothing else, and for a portrait of this complicated man.

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Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott

new 1001This is another of my TBR Challenge Books. I’ve had it on Kindle forever, but always turned away and started something else. This year I decided I really wanted to catch up on my 1001 Books reading while doing the challenges I tackle on Goodreads every year. It seemed like a good time to try Ivanhoe.

Here is what I wrote on Goodreads: A romance set in the time of Richard the Lionhearted, this includes lots of legendary and real characters from the 12th century. This book was seen as having a fairly positive portrayal of Jews for the time in which it was written, but as a 21st century convert to the faith, it is still pretty hard to take some of the portrayal, particularly of Isaac. It was a fun read, though, and made me go back and read a bit about the history of the period and the history of the Saxons. It is fun as the various characters who are hiding their identities start to reveal who they are. I won’t spoil it, but there are some folks I wasn’t expecting who turn up here.

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Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz

new 1001I just finished Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz. It was a novel set during WWII in an alley in Cairo. The book follows the daily lives of the different people living and working in the alley. The characters are nicely developed–I am about to teach a personality testing course and I could almost have filled out one of the tests I am teaching on at least a couple of the characters. It took me a little while to get into the book–it sort of lazes along–but in the end, I was trying to finish the book before going to sleep and really was frustrated that I couldn’t quite stay awake to the end. I have had the book for a long time, and am glad I finally got to read it.

If you want to see what I picture, but updated to today, when I think of this alley, you can click here.

Since I read the book, I have been thinking about what life would be like living in a very small space, with very few possessions, a very simple life, and only a few people in my world. It would be so vastly different from how we live in much of the world today.

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January Check in For 2018 TBR Challenge #TBR2018RBR

I have made a great dent in my list this month. It will get harder from here, since classes start tomorrow. So far this January, I have read:

  1. Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
  2. Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
  3. Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz

I’m currently about halfway through A Hero of Our Time.

As I post reviews for them, I will link them. I’m proud of myself for reading Midaq Alley finally. I read another of Mahfouz’s books years ago and liked it, but I have been staring at this one on my shelves since 2011. I enjoyed it, although I wasn’t completely blown away. Ivanhoe was another that I’d been avoiding, but it also went quickly, although I ended up listening to it rather than reading my paper copy. Silence of the Lambs almost felt like cheating, since I had already seen the movie, but I read Red Dragon first, so I went into it with a somewhat different perspective than if I had just read with a vague memory of the movie in mind.

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2018 TBR Reading Challenge

One of the blogs I follow, RoofbeamReader, has an annual challenge (except when he was writing his dissertation, which I totally get) to help people weed out all those books that have been sitting around for more than a year begging to be read. I have participated other years, and decided to opt in again. I am trying to replace fiddling with electronics at bedtime with reading a book instead, and so I am actually dipping back in to my vast supply of books on paper in addition to my audiobooks.

So I have to commit to 12 up front, which is hard, but I’m doing some challenges on goodreads which have given me a bit of a path to follow. Here are my choices (and the alternates in case some are too awful to keep going):

  1. A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov
  2. Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz
  3. The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
  4. Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
  5. Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow
  6. Surfacing by Margaret Atwood
  7. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
  8. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Benieres
  9. Giants in the Earth by E. O. Rolvang
  10. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
  11.  The  Winter Vault by Anne Michaels
  12. Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin

And for alternates:

  1. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
  2. Kim by Rudyard Kipling

I think I’m most likely to chicken out of #12, but I need it for a Goodreads challenge, so it may last.

Wish me luck!

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