Saving Fish From Drowning

img_9415Book: Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan

Date Read: June 3 to 30, 2021

Rating: 3 (of 5) stars

For June, the Unread Shelf Project prompted me to choose a book that was bought in a spending spree. I feel like about 85% of my books could probably fall into that category, so decided to refine it further as it relates to my own shelves. Although I do not remember the specific trip when I bought this book, I got it during what I consider an extended book-buying spree. I know I have talked about this before, but I spent large stretches of time at Borders Books when I was in college, coming home with at least 1-2 new books every week in certain semesters. Since I was not reading much for pleasure at that point, I amassed a huge number of books rather quickly—I am still working on tackling many of them more than 10 years later. Along with being purchased in that time frame, I know this was not a book I went in specifically looking for, but one I chose in the moment at the store.

The novel is set up with the suggestion that it is a true story—told from beyond the grave based on the “automatic writing” of a medium. The story is narrated by Bibi Chen, who planned a trip to China and Burma for a group of friends, but is now tagging along as a ghost after her sudden and mysterious death. It is an interesting concept, but I have to say that I was not really sure what to think as I was getting in to the first few chapters. Honestly, after finishing the novel I still have the same mixed feelings. There were pieces of it that were lovely, but as a whole something about it fell short for me.

Initially, I found it a bit hard to keep track of the characters. With a cast of 12, it was hard to keep introductions straight, although this did get easier as the story began to move along. One of the biggest detractors for me was the attitude of the tourists as they began their journey. Although they had signed up for a pretty intensive cultural experience, none really seemed fully committed to actually living that experience. They seemed to be falling into a put of every negative tourist stereotype possible. I frequently found myself feeling that the place described seemed incredible and made me want to visit—but that I would be thoroughly miserable if I had visited with that group of people.

That said: some of the tourists did start to grow on me as things progressed. Of course, that did not completely negate my irritation with them. The description of the novel simply talks about the disappearance of the tourists, whereas in the story it is very clear that they have essentially been kidnapped. I do not want to give too much away, but will say that the kidnapping is not a violent one, and is primarily due to an unusual set of coincidences, cultural misunderstandings, and information lost in translation. So much so that by the end of the novel, even after being rescued, not one of them ever realized that they had been kidnapped. While the narrative was interesting and included some great descriptions of aspects of Asian culture, the novel as a whole did not resonate well.

Boris’s Thoughts: “I do not approve of stories that make you want to go to faraway places. 1 paw.”

Unread Shelf Progress for June

  • Books Read: 5
  • Books Acquired: 2
  • Total Unread Books: 278

Hollow Kingdom

img_8797Book: Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton

Date Read: May 2 to 19, 2021

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

May brought on the challenge of reading a book that I bought as a new release. Surprisingly, I do not have a ton of these to choose from on my shelves. Knowing how many books are already waiting on my unread shelf, I do my best to avoid truly new releases. I usually push myself to wait for a paperback release, knowing that I can save a little money since I will likely not start reading it right away. It’s also a good way to sort out the books that I truly want to read—if I’m still interested in a new release by the time the paperback comes out, it’s worth adding to my list. Of course, there are exceptions made: usually for certain authors, and in this case for a recommendation in a local bookshop in Northern Michigan.

Hollow Kingdom is a book that took me by surprise. It is a story of the downfall of humanity, told from the perspective of a domesticated crow. The concept was intriguing to me, but a few chapters in I started to question my choice. Our narrator and hero, the crow S.T. (short for Shit Turd), starts out being pretty annoying to me. S.T. loves humanity, sharing all of the things that he learned from his owner, Big Jim. The problem? Big Jim does not seem like a particularly likable guy. The result is a crow who comes off as ignorant and pretentious—the exact qualities that he complains about in other animals. Still, there was a glimmer there of something special in the way he spoke about nature.

As I continued reading, S.T.’s brashness began to subside, making way for a beautiful and tragic description of the crumbling world as nature begins to reclaim the earth. S.T. begins to serve as a bridge in the natural world, with some surprising insights into the connectedness of nature and the role of humans in it. He learns what it means to be a part of the world as a bird, but is also able to use his knowledge of humanity to help the animal world. Through the story, S.T. slowly reveals details about Big Jim in a way that peels back the less appealing aspects of his personality for a look at the core of his humanity—a man who viewed his pets as part of his family, who loved and ended up heartbroken.

Despite the off-putting start and a few ridiculous seeming incidents, this story really hooked me and kind of punched me in the gut. By the end of the story, I was in love with S.T.’s picture of the world. This was a perfect mixture of humor and humanity for me, creating a sad and lovely story. I mean, who would have ever suspected that a book about a crow named Shit Turd could bring one to tears?

Boris’s Thoughts: “I like a bird that recognizes the significance of cats. 4 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for May

  • Books Read: 1
  • Books Acquired: 12
  • Total Unread Books: 281

I feel like for the purposes of accountability, I need to comment on my totals update. I definitely splurged this month—the result of a trip to a much-loved bookstore that I do not get to visit often. I am committing to balance for the coming months: more books read than books acquired.

The Vanishing Half

img_8761Book: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Date Read: April 18 to 27, 2021

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

For April, the Unread Shelf Project asked me to pick a book that was purchased from a used bookstore. This one is something I consider a gem of a find—I picked this up in the used section of my local bookstore only 3 months after it was released. I had seen multiple times on Bookstagram, and had already added to my mental to read list. I have been forcing myself to wait for paperback releases for many books, knowing that it does not make sense to spend the money on a hard cover that I likely will not read right away. So when I saw this at a reasonable price, I was super excited. Not only was it an unexpected find, it was in perfect condition. When I got it home, I realized that it was also signed by the author!

This turned out to be yet another amazing addition to my pretty phenomenal reading year. The book tells the story of a family over time, starting by following two twin sisters as their once inseparable paths diverge. The girls, raised in a small community of light-skinned Black people, run away to the city at sixteen where they seek to find a place for themselves. Stella finds herself in a position where she is able to get a better job and position by hiding her colored background, eventually seeing an opportunity pass over into a new life. Desiree continues to live her life as the person she had always known herself to be: beginning to come into her own in the absence of her sister. Separated for half a lifetime, their paths converge again through the lives of their daughters.

At its heart, I felt like this was a story about identity, and all the complex pieces of our lives that make up who we are. Although both girls grew up in much the same way, there were differences in their personalities and how their shared past impacted them. Desiree sees Stella’s choice to become white as a selfish one, where her sister chose the path looking for an easy life—unaware of the internal terror instilled in her from their childhood traumas that lead her to the decision. Although Stella did find something of an escape, her fears evolved along with her changing identity. Their daughters, in turn, each impacted by the circumstances of their upbringing and their relationships with their mothers.

This was a beautifully written and intricate story that had me frustrated with and feeling empathy for each character in their turn. The changes in time and perspective were well done, so that each time I began to form opinions about a character, there was a shift that allowed some greater insight into the full story. This is definitely an author I will be looking for more from in the future.

Minka’s Thoughts: “Seems twisty. Like me. See? 3 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for April

  • Books Read: 1
  • Books Acquired: 4
  • Total Unread Books: 270

The Art Forger

img_7822Book: The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro

Date Read: March 1 to 18, 2021

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

In March, The Unread Shelf Project had me do some traveling, by challenging me to read a book that I got on a trip. I had plenty of options, since books are one of the things that I collect when I take trips! I currently have a book for every country that I have visited, and am working on collecting books for each state. I chose this one for this prompt because it was the first “official” book in my states collection. Although it was not the first purchased, it was the first one that I got with the intent of a collection. I picked it up on a weekend trip to Boston a few years ago.

While I did enjoy this one, it fell a little short of what I was hoping it would be. There were so many elements here that appealed to me: a little real life mystery, dual story lines, descriptive settings, and some art nerdiness. I suppose I have always fancied myself to be the creative artist type, although I never had the talent or dedication to make anything real from it. Instead, I content myself with the brilliance of others’ art. So of course, as I started reading about the specific artwork and the Gardner Museum heist, I was compelled to do a little research of my own. I was disappointed to learn that although the heist was real, the main painting that the book focuses on was not. At the end of the story, I understood the decision to write about a fictional painting—but that did not do much to ease my discontent.

Despite my personal irritation at needing to imagine myself a picture of the fictional Degas painting, there were some really intriguing elements to the novel. I liked the art history aspects, which other than the information related specifically to the made-up work were true to life. I felt like the mystery was played out well, with just enough information given in the letter flashbacks to keep things moving. The descriptive use of setting was interesting as well. Personally, I could have done without the romance storyline—it felt a bit forced, as if added in for a little more scandal and intrigue.

I do have some mixed feelings about how the ending played out: while I was mostly happy that Shapiro did not go with the obvious easy solution, I was not wholly satisfied with the ending. It seemed to wrap up a little too quickly and neatly. As I was nearing the end of the book, I was getting anxious that there were not enough pages left to reach an ending with sufficient closure. I was happy that it did not have a completely smoothed out happy ending, which would not have felt realistic given the number of problems to be resolved. I suppose I have chosen to be mostly satisfied with how things turned out: despite some foolish decisions along the way, I felt like Claire got the redemption that she deserved without it being a straightforward “win” for all involved.

Minka’s Thoughts: “There should be more fancy artwork featuring cats. Why is it always ladies bathing? I am much more elegant when I bathe. 2 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for March

  • Books Read: 1
  • Books Acquired: 1
  • Total Unread Books: 268

Anxious People

img_7587Book: Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

Date Read: February 1 to 7, 2021

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

After finishing A Man Called Ove, I knew that Fredrik Backman was an author that I was not done with. I was super excited when I learned that he had a new book coming in 2020, and even more so when I won this advance reader’s edition in a giveaway on Instagram. This was a giveaway copy from the original recipient after the release of the book, and not sent to me from the publisher. I chose it for the February prompt for the Unread Shelf Project: a book you got for free. Most of the books I have gotten for free have been gifts, so this one and only book I have ever won seemed like a perfect creative twist for the prompt.

This is a story that could be about numerous things: a town, a robbery, a father and son, a divorce, a bridge, a couple (or several couples), a hostage situation, a second chance. In the end, it was about all but not quite any one of these. It reminded me of the term “sonder”—defined as a feeling of realizing that every person who passes through our lives, however briefly, has a life as complex as our own. To me, it is a sentiment that makes me feel both small and significant. An unusual sort of connection to the world at large, and one that I think we all could use just a bit more of in our lives.

Backman certainly knows how to spin a beautiful, although sometimes meandering, narrative. There are a few parallel storylines going on, each with seemingly spurious connections that all come together nicely in the end. There is enough information shared to pique the reader’s interest and generate some ideas of where things are headed, before another string is woven in to complicate and sometimes challenge our thinking. It reminded me somewhat of the tendency for conversation or thoughts wander. The type of journey where you begin by talking about where you would like to go to dinner, but somehow end up in a debate over whether it was 2 or 3 summers ago when you bought a particular lawn chair—there were logical connections along the way, but it takes a bit of effort to track them back.

One of the things that I found most intriguing is how Backman starts with a cast of characters who are not particularly likeable, but uses that to as an asset to the story rather than a hindrance. There are some glimpses of potential good qualities, but nothing that outright makes you want to root for them. Each one of them comes with their own agenda, challenges, and anxieties, but they all have something to offer, and somehow manage to make the story better for all of their flaws.

Along the way, I definitely found myself generating ideas about the overall picture, just as the police officers were trying to put together the pieces of the situation. I found myself needing to revise quite a bit—often as a result of assumptions that I had made about the information given thus far. I think that is part of the beauty of this story, its ability to challenge the reader while still keeping interest and staying true to life. There are twists that are not really twists, and coincidences that seem too convenient until you realize that perhaps in a small town they are not.

Circling back around to my comments on sonder, to me, this was a story about our connections to the people around us. A commentary on how we impact one another, whether we realize it or not. Even the best of us are sometimes unsure, anxious, lonely, or idiots—that is part of being human. After the year of uncertainties and anxieties that we have all experienced in some way, this story is a comfort to me.

Boris’s Thoughts: “Ahh. A feeling of connectedness without having to leave home. Sounds perfect. 4 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for February

  • Books Read: 5
  • Books Acquired: 4
  • Total Unread Books: 268

Where the Crawdads Sing

img_7456Book: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Date Read: January 1 to 9, 2021

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

This was my pick for the first Unread Shelf Project prompt of the year: a book with high expectations. I thought through quite a few different ways to interpret this, and decided that I would use some data from Goodreads to narrow things down. This was the highest rated book on my to read list that has been rated by over 1 million people. I felt that this gave an endorsement both for the popularity of the book, and a general consensus on quality. In addition to that, this is a book that was given to me as a gift and came highly recommended.

Despite the hype, I actually knew very little about this one going into it. In fact, I was a couple chapters in before I even decided to read the description on the inside jacket. Overall, I really enjoyed the layers to this story; although it took me a little bit to really get into it. Once I was hooked though, I could not get enough of the story. I admit I was a little put off by the time jumps in the first part of the book, created by the dual storyline. Kya’s childhood was so much more interesting to me than the murder-mystery set up happening so many years later. Of course I realized that all would eventually become relevant, but it was occasionally frustrating to be pulled away from the more engrossing part of the narrative.

I mentioned enjoying the layers of the story, which I think was the most appealing aspect of this novel for me. There is so much here to consider: love, tragedy, discrimination, trauma, coming of age, loss, judgment, and a great appreciation for the natural world. To pinpoint any one cause of Kya’s eccentricities or her ostracization would be difficult, but examining her past, it is easy to see why she developed a fear of the outside world and the behavior patterns that went along with this. It was curious to me that the main source of Kya’s peculiarities was a fear of those in town, whose own prejudices led them to fear her as well.

While I have seen this elsewhere as a criticism of the book, I appreciated the details included in the naturalistic elements of Kya’s relationship to her home. It was obvious that the author has impressive knowledge on the subject, and helped in building the fascinating juxtaposition within Kya’s own character—the bits of truth in the town’s view of her life, contrasted with the accomplishments far beyond what anyone would suspect from her. Even later when the detectives from town see her collections, they do not understand them, assuming there is some element of madness in her work. I suppose this plays even further into the “fear of the unknown” element between Kya and the town.

Minka’s Thoughts: “I think I understand this girl. I, too, am fascinated by birds. 3 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for January

  • Books Read: 2
  • Books Acquired: 0
  • Total Unread Books: 269

The Unread Shelf Project 2021

img_4916A new year, and a renewed challenge to continue reading the books that are already waiting for me on my shelves! I am not going to go too deeply into the Unread Shelf Project since I wrote about it last year, but wanted to kick things off for 2021.

I felt like I did pretty well with reading this past year, making a point to read many of the books that had been on my shelf for quite some time. Unfortunately, I was not so good about controlling the number of books that I added to my shelf. All in all, I entered 2021 with a total of 271 books on my unread shelf. This is up 1 from my starting point for 2020, and marks a new high point. At one point in the year, I was down to 253.

While this is certainly not a “win” in my quest to conquer my unread books, it is more progress than I have made in the recent past. Over the past 10 years, my to read list has been increasing fairly steadily. My efforts to vanquish the stack have helped to slow the growth over the past 2 years, and an increase of 1 is certainly the smallest increase I have seen. Maybe this means I have reached a turning point. I suppose only time will tell.

Luckily for me, there are a few new twists added in to the Unread Shelf Project for 2021 that should help me along my way. In addition to some new monthly challenges, there is also a set of bonus challenges—making a total of 24 challenges for the year. My new goal is to complete these all with books that were already on my unread self at the start of the year (with the exception of the “most recently acquired” challenge, which will depend on when I am able to work it in). So, as January comes to an end, I raise a toast to us all: let’s live our best reading lives in 2021. My first challenge post of the year will be up next week.

For more information on the Unread Shelf Project, visit The Unread Shelf blog or Instagram.

2021 Prompts

  • January: A book with high expectations
  • February: A book you got for free
  • March: A book you bought on a trip
  • April: A book bought from a used bookstore
  • May: A book you bought as a new release
  • June: A book bought in a spending spree
  • July: A book bought for the cover
  • August: A book from an independent bookstore
  • September: A book you want to learn from
  • October: A book you’re secretly afraid of
  • November: A book published before 2000
  • December: A book that reminds you of childhood

Bonus Challenges

  • A book with more than 500 pages
  • An impulse buy
  • A book on your unread shelf longer than one year
  • A book by an author you’ve never read before
  • A book you bought because of a recommendation
  • A book given to you that you didn’t ask for
  • A book you got for a special occasion
  • A book from your favorite genre
  • A book bought because of the hype
  • A book from a Little Free Library
  • The unread book most recently acquired
  • A backlist title by an author with a newer release available

Annihilation

img_7041Book: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Date Read: December 1 to 8, 2020

Rating: 3 (of 5) stars

For December, the Unread Shelf Project asks you to read the shortest book on your shelf. It’s really the perfect fit for this time of year, when everyone seems to be going just a little crazy to fit in their holiday plans along with wrapping up their goals for the year. While I am often somewhat rigid when it comes to metrics and data, I interpret this one a little loosely: anything under 200 pages counts as my shortest books. There are quite a few of them—mostly Shakespeare, as I am that person who gets the complete works of Shakespeare and then individually lists all plays as things to read (making Shakespeare both the shortest and longest books on my list!). In the end, of course, I did not go with Shakespeare: I picked this one up at one of my local independent bookshops, when I went in for a gift and had to leave with something for myself too.

Annihilation is a little outside my normal reading spectrum, as a mystery and science fiction combo. While I do enjoy both, I do not read too heavily in either genre. The story is a slow build without much direct action, but much time put into building the world of Area X. This fits with the context of the novel—it is written as a journal belonging to a biologist, who is part of an expedition to an area reported to have had experienced an “environmental disaster.” Early on, her reports suggest that there is more going on than meets the eye, although this is never quite defined.

Each member of the expedition has a different area of expertise, which they are defined by rather than named: the Psychologist, the Anthropologist, the Surveyor, and the Biologist. While they have been given general orders as a group, each seems to have their own slightly varying agenda. The expedition quickly devolves, as each of the members is impacted by their surroundings and begin to follow their own paths. The biologist’s journal paints an eerie picture of the landscape, as she tries to make sense of her surroundings and describe things that she does not seem to understand herself.

While the concept here is definitely interesting, this book left me wanting more than it was willing to give. It was an enjoyable read, although a little unsettling in places. The style allows for the reader to start piecing some things together, and there’s definitely a ton of room for speculation. However, the ending is left too open for my liking. Of course, this is the first book in a series, so there may be some of what I was looking for in the other books; though I am not sure that I am invested enough in the story to continue.

Boris’s Thoughts: “All that strange wildlife, and not cats? Ridiculous. 1 paw.”

Unread Shelf Progress for December

  • Books Read: 5
  • Books Acquired: 8
  • Total Unread Books: 271

Shakespeare for Squirrels

img_6788Book: Shakespeare for Squirrels by Christopher Moore

Date Read: November 5 to 15, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

As an intro for this book, I am going to repeat the same sentiment that I had for last year’s November prompt from The Unread Shelf Project: I have no idea what my favorite genre is. This year I enlisted a friend to talk me through figuring it out, but we both ended up a little stumped. As it turns out, apparently my favorite genre is “fiction;” which seems too nonspecific for the prompt, and also means about 90% of the books currently on my to read shelf. We decided that an acceptable adjustment would be to choose a book by a favorite author, leading to books from Christopher Moore meeting prompts in two different months of 2020! It seems fitting for such a wacky year.

If you have been around Books On My Cat for awhile, you may know that this is the third book from Moore that I have written about. In the past, I described his writing as “a unique combination of humor, intelligence, and absurdity,” and commented on his masterful ability to create new life while building from a well-known source material. Both of these hold true in Shakespeare for Squirrels, and I continue to marvel at the research, time, and thought put into a work so riddled with penis jokes.

This is the third book that features Pocket, the fool in the court of King Lear, who readers first met in Fool. After the downfall of Lear and some shenanigans in Venice, Pocket finds himself on the shore of Greece amid goblins, fairies, and manipulative royals. The main feature here follows along with Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but also draws upon other aspects from the full spectrum of Shakespeare canon. He keeps many stylistic elements true to the work of Shakespeare, with some modernizations and creative curses thrown in for good measure.

Having not read the original work, I am not as familiar with particular play, and so find it difficult to point to specific links in the stories. However, the framework is definitely there, and my limited knowledge of the play did not lessen my enjoyment of this new take. I really enjoyed the “play within a play” aspect put together in “Act 3” of the novel, which served to pull together several individual lines running throughout the book. With some luck and a little fairy magic, Pocket makes it through to the end only a bit worse for wear, and ready to head off in the direction of his next adventure.

Boris’s Thoughts: “I may not know Shakespeare, but I know squirrels; and this is definitely squirrelly. 4 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for November

  • Books Read: 3
  • Books Acquired: 2
  • Total Unread Books: 268

The Count of Monte Cristo

img_6428Book: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Date Read: February 26 to October 28, 2020

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I stretched the rules a little bit for the October challenge for the Unread Shelf Project, by starting the book early. I knew that there was no way that I was going to tackle a 1200+ page book in a single month, especially during the early months of a school year. Although I started the book back in February, I was rather slow about getting into things. I read only a few chapters each month, with the goal of getting myself in a good place to finish the book during October as a book that scares/intimidates me. With the exception of the complete works of Shakespeare, The Count of Monte Cristo was the longest book on my to read list (including several volumes that contain multiple novels). Coincidentally, I timed my reading perfectly: this novel could easily be divided into two general “sections,” and I reached the faster paced second section just as October was starting.

Despite the length, this was not a novel of wasted words. This was a very complex and intricate story, with a long build up. The style was descriptive without becoming burdensome. Each character was given a moment of importance, with few added in to be mere filler. While some parts of the beginning section seemed to move a bit slowly, there were details included that became important reference points later. I was surprised to discover in chapter 63 that there were references to seemingly minor events as far back as the sixth chapter, their significance finally coming to light with time.

Prior to reading, I had some vague notions of the story, knowing that it was famous for a prison escape. While this is obviously an important aspect of the story, I would say that the more intriguing part of the story comes later, after many layers are unfurled. It is written with an air of mystery, giving the reader many opportunities for wonderings and predictions, making the length seem a bit less overwhelming. Edmond Dantes is identified early on as our leading man, but there is still some uncertainty of his exact role in events moving in to the later chapters. It is not until chapter 82 that it is revealed that a single man is playing multiple parts, and several chapters further before it is confirmed with certainty that titular Count is Edmond Dantes.

While vengeance seems the driving force through most of the novel, I think there is a complexity in this that could be easily overlooked. Dantes is certainly seeking retribution, but sees himself acting as an agent of providence rather than vengeance—he is not directly bringing the demise of his enemies, but linking the pieces together so that they bring down themselves. At the same time, he attempts to give redemption to others, and to spare those who exist in the circle of his enemies but whom he views as innocent. With few exceptions, it seems that he has foreseen and planned for every possibility.

As a final thought on this bookish endeavor, I want to share something that I learned: translation matters. I realize that this must seem fairly obvious to many, but it is the first time that I have experienced a clear example. I started this as an ebook, which I found for free due to the age of the story. A few chapters in, I was not particularly impressed, and was surprised that others had been so excited about such mediocre writing. After checking some reviews, I noticed that a few mentioned a particular translation: the unabridged version translated by Robin Buss. I ordered this translation (available through Penguin Classics), and it truly made a world of a difference. I do not know that I would have carried this to completion based on my original version—especially disheartening considering how much I enjoyed reading.

Boris’s Thoughts: “I must say, I like this count’s style. I approve. 4 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for October

  • Books Read: 1
  • Books Acquired: 6
  • Total Unread Books: 269