What are you reading?


By the time my son was two or three years old, he knew books were always going to be part of the holiday gifts he’d receive from me. This year, I sent him three by Colm Toibin–the novels “Brooklyn” and “The Master,” and the story collection “Mothers and Sons” (couldn’t resist). I guess I give books because I love receiving them.

My son often recommends books to me–which makes me happy, of course, because it means he reads. Most recently, he suggested “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern” by Stephen Greenblatt, which won the non-fiction Pulitzer. Greenblatt explores the influence of the book “The Nature of Things” by Lucretius on modern western civilization, making a case for the importance of  Epicurus, as his world view has reached us through Lucretius. This may all sound kind of off-putting, but it’s actually a fascinating read. I’m about halfway through it and learning a great deal about the lost and found culture and wisdom of the Greeks and Romans; why monasteries preserved “pagan” papyrus scrolls and how they did it; and, how popular understanding of the teachings of Epicurus is quite simply wrong and fails to recognize the philosopher-poet’s impact on all of us.

My husband just finished a book given to him by friends, “The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood” by David R. Montgomery. Bill is a devoted amateur geologist (part-time student with the St. Lawrence University Geology Department). I noticed he was reading this book at every free moment and actually managed to stay awake at night for more than two paragraphs. He liked it because the geology is there, of course, but he found Montgomery’s exploration of creation stories respectful and interesting.  Bill says this one is good for non-geologists, too.

Your turn. What books came your way as gifts? What are you reading during the holiday season?


  1. J Williams says:

    Just finished “A Partial History of Lost Causes” by Jennifer DuBois. In it an American woman who has been diagnosed with a fatal disease goes to Russia to meet with a chess champion turned political dissident. It is very well written and poses some serious questions about the meaning of life. Not light reading but interesting especially in regard to the recent history of Russia.

  2. I am perusing Jack London, Stories of Hawaii[1907]. Gives a marvelous character study of the early natives. Leper colony on Molaki. Leprosy was a disease condemning the person to a lfe of solitary existence.
    I perused Paula Broadwells, All In; The Life of General David Petraeus. Paula was obviously under davids spell, very flowery adjectives from his paramour.
    Juan Baez, Presumed Guilty, the life of Casey Anthony and the disappearance of her daughter Caylee. A dysfunctional extended family. Juan spent 8 years waiting for the Florida Bar to admit him to practise law.
    one of the better books, Living with the Hemingways and Ernests transsexual son.
    I can go on and on, I like reading
    . I want to write a story about the life and times of a wind turbine, The savior of the planet, but it wasn’t met to be. Mn is not to reason why.

  3. Ellen Rocco says:

    Check out this list from Betsy Kepes, one of our Book Club moderators. She’s been busy this holiday season. –Ellen

    Holiday Reading Gluttony

    Last week I allowed myself to linger at the Browsing section in the St. Lawrence University library. Usually I breeze right on by this tempting corner on my way to my little office in the Faculty carrels. It is far too dangerous stopping at the shelves, pulling out new titles that sound beguiling, reading the flap copy, and scanning the first pages. An hour can fly by and I’ve still got my coat on, still on my way to get some work done in my office.
    But with a holiday week coming, I thought I could let down my guard a bit. Surely there’d be more time than usual to curl up in a chair with a book.
    The first title that caught my eye was Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers – Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.” I knew the book won this year’s National Book Award and I felt lucky to find it on the shelf. It has a striking cover—a young girl kneeling in a sewage pond, her head upturned in prayer.
    Next, the new book by Julia Alvarez caught my eye, a small green volume titled “A Wedding in Haiti.” I like Alvarez’s work and my interest in Haiti picked up after my oldest son spent time there volunteering with a mobile health clinic.
    A novel by Kim Barnes, “In the Kingdom of Men,” joined the pile in my arms. Barnes teaches at the University of Idaho and her dynamic prose made me a fan with her memoir In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in an Unknown Country. This new novel is set in 1967 in the American oil communities of Saudi Arabia. It’s a long way from rural Idaho to the middle-eastern desert and that alone made the book intriguing.
    One more chunky novel caught my eye, “The Invisible Bridge” by Julie Orringer. I read a favorable review of this book and I knew the characters were Hungarian Jews caught in the chaos at the beginning of WWII. The flap copy used phrases like “ a grand love story” and “an epic tale”.
    Now that the mad rush of Christmas is over, I’ve found time to dive into almost all of these books. The Invisible Bridge has the coveted top-of-the-pile-next-to-the-bed position and I’ve been spending hours at night following the fortunes and misfortunes of brothers Andras and Tibor Lévi.
    Yesterday I read the first third of “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” in one long session in the rocking chair. Boo keeps the pace moving as if she is writing a thriller but the subject is much more compelling than fiction—real people trying to survive on the edges of a sewer lake next to the Mumbai international airport.
    I started early on the Kim Barnes’ novel, “In the Kingdom of Men.” When I brought my stack of Browsing section books into my office I just had to try one of them out. “Oh, I’ll just read a bit while I have a cup of tea,” I told myself. The prose is fierce and dynamic and I read a few chapters, long past a single cup of hojicha.
    I may get all these books read before the end of vacation, but I won’t bet on it. I’ve told myself I have to make some headway on the clutter in the house and now that the world is covered in deep snow, skiing and snowshoeing seem like ideal ways to get outside in the brief daylight. Shoveling is also a traditional winter pastime and the deep paths we carve down our long hill to the road make excellent bobsled runs.
    Books are so polite. When I come back inside, they’re all still patiently waiting. They don’t mind the clutter at all. I’d say they deserve my time more than the dust bunnies and piles of papers. Here’s to winter reading!

  4. Rereading Neal Stephenson’s “Anathem” – sprawling, but fun – as “Brooklyn” waits on the shelf. Gave the best book of the holiday season to my spouse, “Polar Obsession” by Paul Nicklen. If you love photography, the Arctic and Antarctic, the animals and people who live there; if you want an evocative tribute to the most endangered zone on the planet, this is an unsurpassed treasure.

    • Ellen Rocco says:

      This sounds wonderful…my husband is obsessed with all things northern. Must look for this one. Thanks.

  5. I’m working my way through “Remembrance of Things Past” by Marcel Proust. (I say “Remembrance of Things Past” rather than “In Search of Lost Time” because I’m reading the original C. K. Scott Moncrieff translation. Maybe when I’m done I’ll try a newer version. )

    After each volume I take a break and read something fun, or if not fun, at least a bit easier to read.

    Anyway, with volume three finished, I moved on to “Cloud Atlas”. I had never heard of it until all the movie publicity and decided to try it. I enjoyed it, but was a bit disappointed at the end. I think I was expecting some grand, unifying revelation or something.

    I just finished “Past Imperfect” by Julian Fellowes. I’ve seen some of his TV and movie work, but never read one of his books. His commentary on the English aristocracy is a bit overstated, but the story is interesting enough to keep the pages turning.

    Both these books satisfied the “fun read” break form Proust.

    I received “The Sherlockian” by Graham Moore as a gift. I think that one will be next, then back to Proust!

    • Ellen Rocco says:

      I’m impressed, Kathy…with the Proust. Does it still “work” for you? I read it decades ago. Never loved it but think I may have been too young to appreciate.

      • Brian Mann says:

        I re-read the first installment of Proust’s epic last year.

        It had been fifteen years or so since the first reading.

        The writing felt no less remarkable, and many of the moments of described experience still resonated.

        But the larger themes of the story, particularly Swann’s obsessive love for Odette, felt very small and pitiful.

        Imagine an entire cathedral built around the kernel of one foolish, neurotic and rather adolescent conceit.

        I suppose it captures the listless and ennui-draped mood of Proust’s life and milieu.

        If nothing else, reading it, one understands a little better why so many young Europeans rushed into the deathtrap of WWI.

        They were, I suppose, escaping this increasingly tangled, bloodless and obsessive world that Proust paints.


        • A bit harsh, don’t you think? Proust driving men to go to war?!
          Still enjoy “cloud Atlas” at the second read, but it does fall short of masterpiece material. But the Moby Dick “Big Read” supplies the ineffable when I need it, via podcast. Give it a try!

      • I love the books and I do enjoy them. But I always feel like a need for a break after each one. As I said – something easier. Then after a while, I can’t wait to dive in again! The writing is like music, with a rhythmic flow that took some time to get used to, but it is beautiful.