The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt, by Andrea Bobotis*****

“We will choose what we take with us.”

This thunderous debut by Andrea Bobotis bears a small resemblance to the work of Elizabeth Strout and the late Harper Lee. Issues of race and menacing family secrets simmer beneath the surface of this narrative like some otherworldly being biding its time in the swamp, till at last it rises and we must look at it.

As the story commences, Judith, who is quite elderly, is ready to take inventory. Her family home, all six thousand square feet of it, is jammed full of heirlooms, and each is fraught with history. The year is 1989, but as Judith examines one heirloom and then another, she takes us back to the period just before the stock market crashes, back when she was young and her parents and brother were still alive.

I have to confess that the first time I picked up this story—free to me, thanks to Net Galley and Sourcebooks Landmark—I thought, Huh. A boring old lady and her stuff. Pub date’s a ways off, so let’s put this one on the bottom of the pile. Of course, I picked it up again later. I read a bit farther this time and found I was acutely uncomfortable; I told myself I had to read it because I had requested the galley, but then I didn’t for awhile.

But like Judith, I pride myself on being reliable, so toward the end of June I squared my shoulders and opened the book. An hour later my jaw was on the floor and my husband was avoiding me, because he knew if he got too close I would start reading out loud. If you were to show up right now I’d do the same to you. I genuinely believe this novel and the characters and social issues they’re steeped in is one for our time.

Judith is the eldest of the Kratt children; her companion, Olva, lives with her, but her status is undetermined and remains that way far into the book. Part of the time she appears to be a live-in servant, hopping up whenever Judith wants a cup of tea or a blanket; at other times the two of them sit on the porch together and watch the world go by as if they were sisters or good friends. We know that they grew up together and share a history as well as the trauma of growing up with the vicious, unpredictable Daddy Kratt, the wealthiest man in Bound at the time.

As layer after layer is peeled back, using the household treasures that are inventoried as a framework of sorts, we see the gratuitous cruelty that was part of both women’s daily existence as children. Kratt can be generous at times, and yet at others—with increasing frequency—he is vicious and sadistic. We see the responses his unpredictable fury brings out of Judith as a child, her younger brother Quincy, who’s a chip off the old block, and their younger sister, Rosemarie. Kratt can ruin someone’s entire life purely on whim and never feel the slightest regret. He likes to watch. The entire town fears him.

Now he’s gone, and here we are. Judith acknowledges that her social skills are stunted, and she never knows what to say or do to smooth a difficult situation. She was never a pretty girl, and she has never married.  We can also see that she is solipsistic, insensitive to the feelings of others, and at times just straight-up mean, but she doesn’t see herself that way, because she measures herself against her late parents.  Judith is nowhere near as nasty as her daddy was; she has never permitted herself to be broken by him, as her mother was.  So Judith tends to let herself off the hook lightly. As she remembers back over the years the cataclysmic events that have taken place around her—or in some cases, because of her—her overall tone is self-congratulatory.

But her little sister, who is also an old lady now, returns to the family manse, and that overturns the apple cart in a big way.  How dare Rosemarie run out and leave Judith to contend with that awful man but now come back to claim her birthright?  Isn’t that right, Olva?

Olva just smiles.

In fact, this story is every bit as much about Olva as it is about Judith. . Every single one of these women is sitting on secrets; every one of them has a different story to tell. Every new revelation brings additional questions to mind, so that although this is not a mystery or a thriller, I cannot stand to put it down. I generally like to flop on my bed at night and read before I go to sleep, but I can’t do that with this book. I’d climb under the covers; open the book; read a little ways and then sit bolt upright. Eventually I realized that this cannot be the bedtime story. (It occurs to me just now that retelling one or another portion of this story in the voice of one of the characters not heard from would make a great creative writing assignment related to point of view.)

What Bobotis has done here is masterful. She begins with an old, wealthy white woman and yet develops her, and I cannot think of even a dozen books where that has been accomplished in a believable way in literature; once we get old, that’s pretty much who we are going to be. But the elderly Judith at the story’s end is a better person than the elderly Judith at the outset. And as if that weren’t enough, she also develops Olva, the dark-skinned elderly companion that seems to us, at the beginning, to be a live-in servant or nurse of some sort. But however circumspect Olva has been—a prerequisite for an African-American that wants to stay alive in the American South in the past and at times, maybe the present—Olva does in fact have some things to say. It is Rosemarie’s return that makes this possible.

This isn’t necessarily a fun novel to read, and yet the skill with which it is rendered is a beautiful thing in and of itself. I believed every one of these characters, those within this pathologically corrupt family and those around it. I suspect that the formidably talented Bobotis could pluck any one of these characters and create a sequel just as remarkable. This writer is going to be around for a long, long time, and as for me? I’m ready to read whatever she comes up with next.

Highly recommended.

Make Me a City, by Jonathan Carr***

I am always on the lookout for something different, and so I leapt at the chance to read this publication free and early. Thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt. It’s for sale now.

The story is set in and around Chicago, back when the city was first born. It tells a tale of shifting alliances and double crosses; yet in other ways it is an old story, one in which a Caucasian interloper cannot bear to see a Black man rise to a position of wealth and influence. It’s not an easy read.

Conceptually the story is strong, but the author tries to do too much at once. Shifting points of view; development of disparate characters; and an old time dialect that is challenging all by itself serve to render the story muddy and confusing. Too much is lost, and at the halfway point, I gave it up and commenced skimming.

Despite this, I believe Carr is a talented writer and I like his ideas. I would read his work again.

A Bound Woman Is A Dangerous Thing, by DaMaris B. Hill*****

This compact but potent collection of poetry is so good that it hurts. DeMaris B. Hill spills America’s historical shame across the printed page with the articulate rage and power of the generations she writes about. My thanks go to Bloomsbury and Net Galley for the review copy. This collection becomes available to the public January 15. 2019. 

The keys to reading Hill’s poetry are in the introduction, and in additional brief introductions at the beginning of each poem. These are broken down into five sections that depict the different ways in which women of color have been bound over the centuries, and Hill points out that Black resistance didn’t start with Black Lives Matter, and it didn’t start with Dr. King and Rosa Parks either. American Black folk have been fighting for their rights for centuries, but some periods have been better publicized and more widely recognized than others. 

The introduction is not long by most standards, but I found myself impatient to read poetry, so halfway through it I skipped to the poetry; read the collection; and then I went back to reread the introduction from the beginning. After that I went back over the poems a second time, lingering over my favorites. The review copy was a rough one, and it’s hard to read poetry if the spacing is whack. Your copy is almost guaranteed to be cleaner, but you may choose to read these more than once anyway. Strong poetry will do that to you. 

Each poem is devoted to an African-American woman that has fought in one way or another, and the conclusion is written for Hill’s son. The book is billed as a collection that takes us from Harriet Tubman to Sandra Bland, which it does, and both of these poems are resonant and in the case of Bland, achingly sorrowful. My own favorites were those written about Eartha Kitt, who was familiar to me, and Ruby McCollum, who wasn’t. The poem about Alice Clifton made me wish I could unread it, because it is harsh and horrible, but in case it wasn’t clear from the get go: Hill isn’t writing to spare our tender feelings. She’s pissed, and she’s right to be. 

These poems contain some of the finest figurative language I have read anywhere.

Highly recommended for those that seek social justice and that love excellent poetry. 

The War Before the War, by Andrew Delbanco****

You may not have had the grades or the money to attend Columbia University, but you can read Professor Delbanco’s book anyway. It’s meaty and interesting, and it clears up some longstanding myths about slavery in the USA. My thanks go to Net Galley and Penguin Random House for the review copy; this book is for sale now. 

At the outset I find this work a little on the slow side, and I wonder if I am in for five hundred pages of drone. Not to worry. By the five percent mark the whole thing wakes up. Slavery from the time of the early European immigrants to the American Civil War is mapped out, and I found myself wishing I had read it before I taught social studies instead of during retirement. Sacred cows are slain and there’s plenty of information that is new to me. For example, I did not know that the number of runaway slaves was always a fairly small, economically of little consequence but powerful in its example. I didn’t know that Caucasian people were retaliated against sometimes by sending them into slavery; since one couldn’t tell a person with a tiny amount of African-American heritage from a white person, it was possible to lie about someone whose roots were entirely European and send them down south. And although I understood that the great Frederick Douglass was hugely influential, I hadn’t understood the power of the slave narrative as a genre: 

“When [slave narratives] were first published, they were weapons in a war just begun. Today they belong to a vast literature devoted to every aspect of the slave system–proof, in one sense, of how far we have come, but evidence, too, of the impassable gulf between the antebellum readers whom they shocked by revealing a hidden world .and current readers, for whom they are archival records of a world long gone. Consigned to college reading lists, the slave narratives, which were once urgent calls to action, now furnish occasions for competitive grieving in the safety of retrospect.”

It is painful to envision a roomful of young people flipping through their phones or napping during a lecture or discussion about this damning aspect of U.S. history that haunts us even today; and yet I know it happens, because I have seen it among the teenagers I have taught. I want to roar, “Where’s your sense of outrage?” And yet it’s there; but many that are activists against cop violence and other modern civil rights issues haven’t yet made the connection between the present and our national origins. So I feel this guy’s pain. 

For the interested reader of history, the narrative flows well and the documentation is thorough and beyond reproach. Delbanco has a sharp, perceptive sense of humor and this keeps the reader further engaged. 

I recommend this book as an essential addition to the home or classroom library of every history teacher and reader. 

Invisible, by Stephen L. Carter****

InvisibleI received a review copy of this affectionate, well-documented biography free and early thanks to Net Galley and Henry Holt. This book is for sale now.

Eunice Hunton Carter was the author’s grandmother, and though her name is little known today, she was an exceptional woman, a scholar, political activist, and social diva that did extraordinary things during a time period when it was nearly impossible for women of color to rise professionally. Carter tells of her impact on what he calls “the darker nation” and in particular, of her role in taking down notorious gangster Lucky Luciano. She was largely invisible to the mainstream press; this was a time when Black people virtually never won acclaim, and women didn’t either, but it was she that devised the strategy that was needed to try to convict him.

The author is a Yale professor and has a number of successful books to his credit already. This biography is written with the professionalism one would expect; the tone is conversational and keeps the pages turning; transitions are buttery smooth; and the documentation is flawless and meticulous. Those interested in African-American history, or particularly in that of African-American women should read this book.

Carter was born into a well-to-do Atlanta family, leaders among the Negro petite-bourgeoisie. (The author uses the term “Negro” because it was the accepted, polite term during the period in which his grandmother lived.) However, the rise of terrorist groups like the Klan forced successful families of color out of the South, and so most of Eunice’s story takes place in New York City, and it is there that she became a famous woman.

Eunice was a die-hard Republican, and the author reminds us that in the early 1900s, it was still known as the party of Lincoln. Though she did not initially aspire to be politically active—a hat that her mother, Addie, already wore—she became involved in Dewey’s various campaigns after working with him in the prosecutor’s office.

The story is well documented and the voice is distinctive. Two things got in the way of my enjoyment of this biography. The first and technically most significant is focus. The author seems at times torn between his desire to write his grandmother’s biography and perhaps a desire to write about his entire family. I’ll be absorbed in the events that shape Eunice, but then her mother is mentioned—as is appropriate, since her mother is so influential in Eunice’s development—but then we’ll see more about her mother. More, more, more. Pages of Addie. When the author smoothly returns us to Eunice I sigh with relief, snuggle into my chair, and then a few pages later, there we are again. Numerous times I have typed into my reader’s notes, “Whose story is this, anyway?” Eventually I become so frustrated by Addie’s success in hijacking her daughter’s story that I stop making notes and highlight every transition, from Eunice to Addie, Addie, Addie, and ah, back to Eunice (and then to Addie again).

This irritating diversion, one that makes me feel as I am sitting in the parlor of some elderly, garrulous, lonely individual that has just poured me more lukewarm tea and picked up yet another photo album—Did I tell you about my cousin Rudy? Now there was a character, they say—mercifully abates about halfway into the story, as we move into the Luciano case. Here we are focused, and it’s a fascinating read. But during the last portion of the book, it is brother Alphaeus that needs editing down. Again, this brother has good reason to be here, since Eunice is convinced that her career suffers from his membership in the Communist Party USA; yet I feel as if a strong editor’s pen would be useful for this relative as well. Or better still: maybe let’s not read about Eunice. Maybe let’s have a biography of Alphaeus instead, since it is he that is driven to try to make the world a better place.

Because Eunice, it’s clear, is really out there for Eunice. The author makes no bones about this; yet his glee at her snobbery, social-climbing, and vast ostentatious displays of wealth is not inspirational.

When all is said and done, however, Eunice Hunton Carter deserves a place in history. Had she been born Caucasian and male, who knows? She might have become president, or at least governor of the state of New York. Her drive, talent, and energy seem to have been limitless.

As a read for general audiences, I’d say this is a 3.5 star read, rounded upward, but for those with a special interest in African-American history, or that are doing research for a more specific topic such as African-American women in politics or law, this is a must read.

A Spark of Light, by Jodi Picoult*****

ASparkofLightIf there is a prize for courageous literature, Picoult deserves to win it. I have grown frustrated over the years as I have watched countless novelists dodge and weave to avoid the mere mention of abortion as a means to deal with an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy, and I wanted to do cartwheels when I read the teaser for this book.  I thank Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy, and the author and publisher for having the integrity to go there. This book is for sale now.

That said, this isn’t a fun read, and it in no way resembles the character based escapist fiction that is the hallmark of many of Picoult’s other novels. This one is about social justice, and fiction is an approachable medium with which to discuss it. Those seeking to avoid tension and who don’t want to think critically should read something else.

The story opens at a women’s clinic in the Deep South, and a shooter has just killed the owner of the clinic and taken others hostage.  Our main characters are the shooter, George Goddard; Hugh McElroy, the hostage negotiator; Wren, Hugh’s daughter, who has come to the clinic without her father’s knowledge to procure contraception; and Louis, the clinic’s doctor. There are a host of second string characters, and they include clinic workers, clinic protesters, patients, and a spy that has wormed her way inside the clinic in search of the damning proof that fetal tissue is being sold illegally.

Because we start with the shooting and then work our way backward in time, with the narrative unspooling the background and viewpoint of each of about a dozen people, the first third of the book is agonizing. I am not usually one to peek at the ending of a novel, but frankly I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t read the fine details until I knew who was going to make it out alive and who wasn’t. I suspect that some of the negative reviews I am seeing are because of this aspect of it. It’s a tribute to how effectively Picoult is able to create tension within a story, but she may have overshot the mark a wee bit.

The first half of the book examines the various reasons why some people are opposed to abortion, and it does it in painstaking detail. I began to feel as if she was doing the work of the Right-to-Lifers for them.  More than anything, though, we see inside the troubled mind of the shooter himself. Goddard may be the best developed of the characters present here (though the story is primarily plot based in any case).

We also see the reasons why women choose to have an abortion, and we see the ambivalence and sometimes the regret of those that do so. In fact, my one real issue with this story is that there isn’t a single woman here that is having the procedure, not because she’s been raped or because she’s impoverished or abused, but because her contraception failed and she doesn’t want to be pregnant. These women exist; I know them. In fact, I have been one of them. Not every woman that seeks to terminate a pregnancy is traumatized, and apart from one character that passes in and out of the plot inside of a brief paragraph, these women are not represented here. But this is a relatively minor concern, and my rating reflects this.

Appropriately enough, the empirical voice of reason belongs to Louie Ward, the doctor.  He’s seen a lot:

“Indeed, when the pro-lifers came to him to terminate a pregnancy and told him that they did not believe in abortion, Louie Ward said only one thing: Scoot down.”   Louie respects the women that come to him, and during the conference the state requires him to have with those that have signed on for the procedure,

 

“He looked into the eyes of each of the women. Warriors, every one of them…They were stronger than any men he’d ever known. For sure, they were stronger than the male politicians who were so terrified of them that they designed laws specifically to keep women down…If he had learned anything during his years as an abortion doctor, it was this:  there was nothing on God’s green earth that would stop a woman who didn’t want to be pregnant.”

 

I like the ending.

Picoult has done her homework here, observing abortions conducted at various stages of pregnancy and interviewing over one hundred women that have done this. Her end notes show the level of research on which this story is based. Few fiction writers go to such lengths, and I doff my metaphorical hat to her.

Highly recommended to feminists everywhere, as well as to the tiny sliver of the population that isn’t firmly planted in one camp or the other where the topic is concerned.

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, by David W. Blight**-***

frederickdouglassprophetThanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.

Douglass is a key figure in American history, and Blight has made his career largely through his expertise on Douglass’s life. I expected to be impressed here, and indeed, the endnotes are meticulous and I would be amazed if there was a single error anywhere in this work. But aspects of the biography rub me the wrong way, and ultimately, I realized that the best way around this is to go back and read Douglass’s own autobiographies again.

Whether we read what Douglass tells us, or what Blight (or any credible biographer) has to say, there are two impediments that stop me short, and because I have never been required to start at the beginning and end at the end to complete a scholastic or professional assignment, I tend to read the beginning; recoil; abandon; and then return in an undisciplined, skipping-around manner that is uncharacteristic of my usual methods.

First we have the Christian aspect. Douglass was tremendously devout, and during his time it was much more common to discuss religion publicly and even in daily conversations, sometimes at length. It repels me. So that’s my first problem. It’s not Blight’s problem, but it’s one I have to deal with.

The second problem—again, not Blight’s, and it’s inherent in reading about Douglass—is that slavery was horrible. Douglass actually had a slightly better life than most of his peers, gaining an education and living in the master’s house, but it was nevertheless traumatic. It is unavoidable to see what he endured and not reflect on exactly how hellish life was for the four million that endured life in this dehumanizing, degrading system. After I read a certain amount of it, I feel as if I need to take a long shower to wash away the stain.

As for Blight’s book, there are some good moments here, and I learned some things. Who helped Douglass on his road to freedom? Free Black people did. Who knew that there were vastly more free Black folks in Maryland than there were slaves? The textbooks and other materials used to teach adolescents about slavery and the American Civil War overemphasize, to a degree amounting to deception, the participation of kindly white people, largely Quakers, and provide only a fleeting glimpse of the occasional African-American.

But I find that the eloquent passages that I highlight as I read this are not Blight’s words, but quotations from Douglass himself.

Meanwhile, the obstacles to appreciating this book are consistent and irritating. Blight makes much of inconsistencies in Douglass’s three autobiographies, and when he refers to the differences there is a superior, smirking quality to his prose that doesn’t sit well. I wouldn’t like it coming from any writer, but when the writer is a Caucasian, it adds an extra layer of insult. No matter how long Blight publishes, no matter his standing in the Ivy League, he will never be fit to polish Douglass’s boots. If he once knew it, I suspect he has forgotten it. So that’s a problem, and it’s hard to read around it.

The other issue, a more common one, is the tendency to guess at what is not known. This makes me crazy. The narrative will flow along in a readable, linear fashion, and then I start seeing the speculation, which is barely visible. Might have. Must have. Likely. It makes me want to scream. If you don’t know, Professor Blight, either don’t put it in, or address the unknown in a separate paragraph explicitly addressing the possibilities. Weed out the unimportant guesses and deal with the more critical ones head on. When these inferences are salted randomly into the text, we come away with tangled notions. Apart from the key events in his life, which of the finer details were fact, and which were surmise?

Excuse me. I need to find a nice brick wall so I can slam my forehead against it.

So there it is. For all I know, Blight may gain half a dozen prestigious awards from this work; it wouldn’t be the first time a book I’ve complained about went on to garner fame and glory. But I call them like I see them, and what I see is that it’s a better plan to read what Douglass says about himself, even though Blight appears to consider himself a more reliable resource than his subject.

If you want this thing, you can have it October 2, 2018.

Catfish Dream, by Julian Rankin****

CatfishDreamEd Scott Junior was one of the first Black catfish growers in the USA, a “Delta titan,” and he was the very first to own a catfish processing plant.  My thanks go to Net Galley and the University of Georgia Press for the review copy. It’s inspirational, well written, and well sourced. The book will be available to the public tomorrow, July 10, 2018.

To say that this story is out of my usual wheelhouse is an understatement. I’m a city woman, Caucasian, living in the Pacific Northwest. The two slender ties that drew me to this biography are my interest in civil rights, and my love of a good plate of catfish; yet I enjoyed it a lot, and I think you will too.

Scott was the son of a successful Black farmer, a former sharecropper that bought land incrementally until he owned hundreds of acres in the Mississippi Delta. The first third of the book explains how he did that, and the experiences that Scott Senior and Junior had with the Civil Rights Movement and the local power elite. It’s a little slow at the outset, but the narrative wakes up in a big way around the 35% mark.

As Scott’s farm grows, he encounters one obstacle after another, and the racism is naked and blatant. Local white agribusiness runs him out of the rice growing business—and he has the nerve to drive a better truck than some of the white farmers in the area, which is an affront they can’t let pass. Left with hundreds of acres and no seeds to plant, Scott decides to dig ponds. Rankin is clear: by ponds, he means bodies of water the size of 15 football fields. Big damn ponds.

Caucasian farmers are able to get subsidies and FMHA bank loans, but Scott is declined, not on the basis of his credit score, but because he is African-American. Bank officers and local government officials are so certain of their positions of power that they put their refusals on the basis of race in writing, and up the road, that is what Scott will use to bring them down.

Prior to the 1980s, catfish was not sold in supermarkets. It was considered a lowly bottom-dwelling fish by many, and so its consumption was limited to the families of sport fishermen and poor Southerners . When it made its debut and was purchased by “Midwestern homemakers”, this reviewer was among them, puttering in the back of a Kroger in Toledo, Ohio. “Huh,” I said, “Catfish. Now we’ve never tried that.”  I missed the cheap, readily available salmon I’d grown up with in the Pacific Northwest, and was jonesing hard for fish. I had no clue that an immense power struggle lay behind the little foam tray of fish in my shopping cart, but once I’d dipped it in a cornmeal mixture and fried it up, there was no turning back. Yummers.

I read multiple books at a time now that I’m retired, and some of the thrillers I favor make poor companions at bedtime.  This biography was perfect then. It’s linear for the most part, focused, and although I was angered by the way Scott was treated, I could tell he was going to emerge victorious, so it didn’t keep me awake after the light was out.

Rankin wants to be clear that there’s a whole lot that needs to change before we will be able to say that every race is treated equally in the Delta, or elsewhere the US. One might hope this would be obvious. But everyone needs to read victory stories to boost their morale and remind them of what is possible. If you need a story where the good guys win, then you should get this book and read it.

So Close to Being the Sh*t Y’all Don’t Even Know, by Retta**

SoClosetobeingtheshHuh. Go figure.

Although I don’t watch Parks and Recreation, the television show for which this comedic actor has become famous, I thought I would enjoy her memoir. For one thing, she’s a big woman, and I love it when well-padded women have the courage to go on stage for a purpose other than disparaging themselves. At least one reviewer on Goodreads hadn’t watched her program, yet loved this book. Thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the DRC; I want to like this book too, but I don’t.

Retta is the child of Liberian immigrants who sacrificed a great deal so that she could receive a stellar education. They had no clue that life would lead her to show business instead of medical school. She began her career by doing stand-up routines, and so I went to YouTube and watched a clip from Comedy Central, and I thought it was pretty good. But much of the humor she uses is in the delivery. Without the pauses, without the facial expressions and other body language, things that cannot be conveyed in writing, that routine comes out flat. I watched her perform her signature line, and whereas I didn’t feel the magic, I suspect context would improve it.

If the memoir were simply a little dull, I could likely go with a third star here, but there are aspects that I found abrasive. I don’t need to know all about the many thousands of dollars apiece that go into her handbag collection, and I wonder why anyone would find that kind of self-indulgence amusing. How many good causes could use that money? I don’t need all the details of what she does on the toilet; ew. And why insert a chapter complaining about the gifts she has received from others? Was she raised to be so ungracious? So much of the collection includes her great love for booze that I found myself wanting to hire a skywriter to fly over Southern California to say, GET HELP.

On the other hand, I’m a member of the Boomer generation. I suspect that a lot of Retta’s fan base is younger than I am. So if you already a big fan, you may like this book, but unless your pockets are deep—not deep enough for fifteen thousand dollar purses, but deep—I suggest waiting until you can get It free or cheap. Others may want to read something else. 

Best of the Year: 2017

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2017 has been a stellar year for literature, and when I sat down to rate my top ten, I found myself stymied. Working up to it by offering the best of each genre seems more approachable, although still daunting. Most … Continue reading