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With all the movie watching I did this past month for my annual Oscar Blitz, I didn’t make as much progress as I would have liked on my TBR pile. However, it is quite clear that the TBR/Double Dog Dare challenge has really helped me limit my reading distractions, primarily by reducing the number of books I have out of the library at any one time (which is currently two or three, a vast improvement over last year’s dizzying heights). This is a very positive step for me and my attempts to curb multi-reading.

Double dog dare

I spent most of the first half of February reading non-fiction, including the TBR book I started last month (Passionate Minds by David Bodanis) as well as The Kitchen Counter Cooking School: How a Few Simple Lessons Transformed Nine Culinary Novices into Fearless Home Cooks by Kathleen Flinn and The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss. I enjoyed all three studies for very different reasons, but I found The Black Count absolutely riveting and can’t recommend it enough. Not quite non-fiction, but “based on a true story” as they say, was HHhH by Laurent Binet, part of my desire to read more in French this year. You can see my reviews of these library books at Goodreads.

As for Passionate Minds: The Great Love Affair of the Enlightenment, Featuring the Scientist Emilie du Châtelet, the Poet Voltaire, Sword Fights, Book Burnings, Assorted Kings, Seditious Verse, and the Birth of the Modern World, it was a definite improvement on last month’s The Swerve, which I thought was too ambitious in its scope. Instead, Bodanis goes to the other extreme and keeps a fairly tight focus on the personal story of his main leads, Emilie du Châtelet and Voltaire. The story of their relationship is incredibly interesting and reveals a tremendous amount about private and public life in eighteenth-century France, particularly the limited opportunities for women. However, if you don’t know anything about Voltaire, this study is not going to provide much about him beyond his time with Emilie. And it doesn’t present him in a very good light. It does a little bit better with Emilie and her work, especially by providing easy to understand explanations of some of her experiments and discoveries. But again, I could have used more information about that work and its historical significance, though there is a good list of references and follow-up at the back. Despite these weaknesses, I’m certainly happy to have read it, but also happy to pass it along when finished.


Since the book salon theme for February was Hard-Knock Lives, or works about orphans, I figured it was about time I read Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. I’ve only read two Dickens novels (A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations) and that was back in school, so I had put this one on my original Readers’ Choice Voting List. While it didn’t get chosen, since I actually own a copy, it is technically another TBR selection. I haven’t quite finished it because, when I picked it up, I realized it had markings indicating each serial installment, so I decided to read one installment each night. I don’t know if it’s the cliffhangers or what, but I have really been looking forward to this reading every night, which was a pleasant surprise. However, since I want to devote most of my reading time this coming month to Middlemarch, I will break with this pattern and try to finish as much as I can this weekend.

I did finish The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti, which was a great companion read to Oliver Twist. Both tell the tale of orphans of mysterious birth who find themselves having to make their way in the world outside the orphanage and quickly find themselves mixed up with thieves at a young age. Ren’s world is an indistinct 19th-century New England that was a bit hard to get a solid grasp on—I was never quite sure of the time period or the size and layout of the cities they were in. However, the story was an interesting one with sympathetic characters. It did get a bit gruesome in places, which was hard for me to read, but overall I enjoyed it. This was one of those books that I snagged off the work bookshelf ages ago because I had heard about it on an early episode of Books on the Nightstand.

Finally, since I was reading about orphans anyway, I also reread the second Harry Potter in an attempt to catch up with La Javanaise, who, as I mentioned last month, is reading the whole series for the first time. While Harry Potter is now perhaps the most famous orphan in literature (or maybe second after Oliver Twist), I realized that he doesn’t really have an “orphan trajectory,” as he lives with family from the beginning and also finds his magical “family” in the first book. In that sense, it seems much more of a narrative device than in Dickens. I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on this subject.

MAJOR-GENERAL:  Stop! I think I see where we are getting confused. When you said “orphan,” did you mean “orphan,” a person who has lost his parents, or “often,” frequently?
PIRATE KING:  Ah! I beg pardon—I see what you mean—frequently.
MAJOR-GENERAL:  Ah! you said “often,” frequently.
PIRATE KING:  No, only once.
MAJOR-GENERAL:  Exactly—you said “often,” frequently, only once.

—W.S. Gilbert, The Pirates of Penzance

Note: If you want to join me for a Middlemarch read-along, or discuss one or more of the other books on the list below, or any other book that focuses on marriage, please join us in the salon group at Goodreads.

The Marriage Plots
Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy)
Brazzaville Beach (William Boyd)
Breathing Lessons (Anne Tyler)
Crossing to Safety (Wallace Stegner)
Emma (Jane Austen)
Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn)
Happenstance (Carol Shields)
The House of Mirth (Edith Wharton)
Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë)
Macbeth (William Shakespeare)
Madame Bovary (Gustave Flaubert)
The Marriage Plot (Jeffrey Eugenides)
Middlemarch (George Eliot)
Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (Evan S. Connell)
Mr. Peanut (Adam Ross)
The 19th Wife (David Ebershoff)
On Beauty (Zadie Smith)
On Chesil Beach (Ian McEwan)
The Paris Wife (Paula McLain)
Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
Revolutionary Road (Richard Yates)
The Sheltering Sky (Paul Bowles)
Tender Is the Night (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
The Thin Man (Dashiell Hammett)