In middle school and part of high school I kept track of every book I read on a growing stack of index cards on my desk bookshelf. I wonder what I did with those? In a box somewhere? At some point, and for some reason, I stopped: my college and home bookshelves could remind me at a glance of what I’ve read.

Not so in the digital age. Our growing and shared Kindle library is a playroom of ideas, but you can’t just look at it easily, as books get moved and shuffled into new orders. And let’s face it: I am a creature of lists. I am more accountable to myself when I write. Keeping reading lists also helps me to track thought patterns and philosophical themes more readily. Do you keep a book list? I am curious about how many people do. My Nana’s neighbor Mrs. Shelly has kept a list for all of her adult life, so I understand. She has been a voracious reader.

My friend Amy posted a anonymous quote on Facebook a few days ago that captures completely the art of reading:

“A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.”

I would add: A truly great library contains something in it to offend myself. If we’re interested in the integrity of critical thinking, we must read—and often—those books which do NOT confirm us/our ideals to ourselves. We can read for many purposes; I think we need to search out the books which shake us up and clear out our cobwebs. One controversial book this month certainly shook me to my core.

As I did last year, in seeking to balance mind and body, my target goal is still five books a month for the coming year. Why I start most of my resolutions in July (when I took up running, also when I took up swimming, then this book goal) instead of in January, I will never know!

Last year, my write-ups were more extensive, but I want to keep them a little shorter this year. If I spend more down time writing book reports, that will be less time reading, right? Ha ha.

1. Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo (fiction, 2013)

“Don’t we all live in our heads? Where else could we possibly exist? Our brains are the universe.”

Katie and I finished the Newberry Award winner Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures together. Put this on your list, though know that its magical realist elements will beg for much interpretation. Flora Belle Beckman is a ten-year-old, unisex, comics-loving girl dealing with her parents’ divorce. She claims to be a cynic, but this is a story about love. A tribute also to poetry, graphic novels, and pulp fiction, Flora and Ulysses ultimately explores how we use words and stories to interpret and come to understand the chaos around us.

2. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay (collection of essays, 2014)

“I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying—trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself.”

Do you know the writing of Roxane Gay? She is wonderful. Professor of English at Purdue. Incisive. Humorous. Accessible, angry, bighearted, insightful, intimate, thoughtful, provoking. A feminist for the modern era. I did not want my first acquaintance with this unique voice ever to end, although I finished her essays today. Tackles gender, race, cultural, and political issues with aplomb and made me think, reflect, and ask myself hard questions every step of the way. Totally recommending this one. But you do need to be open to hearing… If you come at this hating the quest of feminism, or believe that racism no longer exists, then this may not be for your stack. Or it may.

Unbelievably, I used to reject the word feminist when I was in high school and even, to an extent, in college. I think I heard the word spoken in various tones of hushed and angry. I thought it meant I had to enter a gender war, when all I want for human beings is to love and respect one another. I associated that word also with a form of political rhetoric, a type of rhetoric that can be disingenuous depending upon who or what entity wants to wield power. Having children—and embracing my own journey as a strong woman—has completely changed my relationship to the necessity of having choices, and to my gender itself. Paradise Island has never looked finer, or more within reach. Though he is older, Bill is the farthest away from a patriarchal figure that there could be: he encourages me to evolve, supports my desire to stick with two children, and has always made it clear that working outside or inside the home is largely my choice. I feel that Gay captures well the messiness of feminism to a woman like me who makes choices both within and without tradition and who wants to pursue freedom and happiness on our own terms. Hers is an incisive and modern feminist voice.

She is one of my favorite currant scholars and thinkers. Glad I met her book in Portland this summer and took it home with me.

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3. The Martian by Andy Weir (science fiction, 2014)

“If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it’s found in every culture without exception. Yes, there are assholes who just don’t care, but they’re massively outnumbered by the people who do.”

Page turning sci fi survival story with the most sarcastic, nerdy, and charmingly witty main character, a problem solver stuck on Mars—loved it. Heavy on the real science (YES!) and sharply geeky, this is a story that explores the connection between challenge and purpose/vitality. Narrative alternates between first person and third person; the playful structure enhances the suspense. Took about 2.5 days of various dedicated reading sessions to finish—this one goes down easily. Recommendation from my friends Rosa and Dan. I thought that I would be bothered already by having to picture Matt Damon as the main character: nope. Turns out, Damon will be a PERFECT fit. I could hear the character’s voice merging with his.

Read it before the film?

4. Tom Swift and His Jetmarine by Victor Appleton II (science fiction, youth, 1954)

On our first full morning in Ashland, OR this summer, Katie and I had a date to wander the town and window shop. What a lovely morning! At an antique book store, we found an edition of Tom Swift Jr. These can be hard to come by; Bill read the Jr. series as a kid. The same store had a 1910 copy of an original Tom Swift, which I almost also bought. It was a 1922 Christmas present to a young man from his mother and father with the dust jacket. I came close to the purchase, but Bill never read those.

While sipping Earl Grey, I read this book to my three beloved people as we drove from Eugene to Grant’s Pass. We also had fun also with Tom Swifties (a type of pun/wordplay). We made the most out of memories on the ride to California!

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(Reading near Grant’s Pass on the road trip)

5. The Story of the World: History for the Classical Child by Susan Wise Bauer (history, Volume 1: From the Earliest Nomads to the Last Roman Emperor)

This volume, along with its project book/workbook, is designed to be a year’s worth of history in a homeschool setting. I love it as supplement/enrichment, but ultimately we have chosen a different curriculum this year (Moving Beyond the Page, which is interdisciplinary and may more readily/transparently meet content standards). As with everything, it all depends on how we teach it and what we do with it, right?

For us, we’re using these volumes as a fun summer project of enrichment. We’re currently on the second volume: the goal has been to finish both before school starts in a couple of weeks. There is a third volume, which we will also try to work in for fun. This is an accessible history program, and I am enjoying myself thoroughly, too. We read every morning during breakfast time. I also took the first volume here with us on the road trip, and I read aloud for hours to the whole car. We all felt like we learned something, all of us.

6. Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee (fiction, pub. July 2015)

I have already written about my thoughts here on this blog. To the extent that this publication stimulated conversation about the literary canon, the interaction of reader and text, and civil rights and modern racism, I think it had a purpose this summer. Despite a few standout passages, I also think the style of writing is largely dreadful—forget the part about Atticus—and I cannot believe HarperCollins did not feel that it was fleecing the public. There is a bookstore offering refunds, did you know that?

7. The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznik (historical fiction, 2007, Caldecott 2008)

“Time can play all sorts of tricks on you. In the blink of an eye, babies appear in carriages, coffins disappear into the ground, wars are won and lost, and children transform, like butterflies, into adults.”

Part graphic novel, part film storyboard, part historical fiction, this book calls upon us to analyze the illustrations just as much as we do the text. Set in 1930s Paris, the narrative involves a boy and an automaton and mysterious passageways. This book is a memory from Portland, a little bit of Powell’s. Great for analysis with the kiddos!

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(Reading Hugo Cabret at E.A.T. one morning after swim lessons)

8. The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami (fiction,2005)

“That leads me to memories of the sheep man and the beautiful voiceless girl. Did they really exist? How much of what I remember really happened? To be honest, I can’t be certain. All I know for sure is that I lost my shoes and my pet starling.”

Took in the most recent translation of a favorite author, Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, in a day. The Strange Library reads as classic Murakami: his subterranean fascination persists, as does the moon motif, his surrealism, dark humor, and his text that leaves us with more questions than it can begin to address. The packaging of this one is itself art: it came shrink wrapped, uses a typewriter font, and deploys different illustrations in the U.S. than in the U.K. Truth be told, this is more short story than novel—and only Murakami could get away with selling a short story at novel price right now. This one is weird, gnarly, and difficult. It really only makes sense, though, in the context of more of his oeuvre.

I am on a Murakami kick right now. He and Richard Powers often duel it out for the status of my favorite modern author. Right now, Murakami is winning, but just. I am also obsessed with looking at his desk.

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(Design of The Strange Library)

So that’s July’s library, plus various other print material and children’s books. If I had to pick a single one of these to read, I would recommend Bad Feminist. We need to have the conversations she raises. The Martian is also great fun.

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(One of my post-run/post-swim treats in the morning on Monday, Tuesday, and Friday this summer has been to pull under my favorite tree at a close park and ready from about 7:15 AM to 8:00 AM and then go home for breakfast with my family).

Happy reading to all! Let the mind play!

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