Reading more and reflecting on what I’ve read is one of three goals I’ve made for 2013. (The other two include running 1,100 miles without injury and going on one big vacation that doesn’t involve visiting my or my husband’s parents, which, fingers crossed, should be less challenging.) I read plenty in 2012 and just about every preceding year as well, but I want to take special care to not only read more books for pleasure rather than work this year, but also to take time to process those books by writing about them here.
In 2012 my big leap forward in reading was resolving to utilize my new Kindle. To that end, I registered for Amazon Prime, a $79 annual membership that includes benefits like unlimited free two-day shipping on any items that qualify (no minimum purchase required), access to a collection of streaming media that rivals Netflix, and – one of the biggest draws for a new Kindle owner like me – the ability to borrow one book per month from the Amazon Prime Kindle Owners’ Lending Library.
Signing up for the membership was a bit of a gamble. I wasn’t sure how much I’d use it but it seemed like a great deal. I told myself that after a year had passed, I’d evaluate how many books I’d read, how useful the other benefits ended up being, and whether or not it would make sense to renew and recommend to others. I just got a Kindle for Christmas in 2011; it was the first ereader I’ve ever owned despite working in the publishing industry since 2005. I have been very slow to jump on the ereader bandwagon and had vowed to wait until format and copyright issues were sorted out before putting my money behind books whose format, like the MiniDisc and VHS, may be laughably obsolete in a few years. I had planned to wait until ebooks were reliably established as a viable alternative to print books for people looking to build a lasting library, however intangible. But after following digital publishing issues very closely since 2008 with bated breath, I finally came to the conclusion that it’s going to be a long time before format and copyright issues are resolved, so why wait? I’m ready to take the plunge with the understanding that whatever ebooks I buy now may be tomorrow’s cassette tapes.
I’m not a big movie or TV person, but I still watched season two of Downton Abbey thanks to Amazon Prime (it wasn’t available on Netflix at the time I looked for it) and a few other things. My husband, a big movie fan, watched a few movies and TV shows per month on average. And while I was disappointed to see how limited the Kindle Lending Library actually is, I still found ten books to read for free in 2012, and most were quite enjoyable. The prices Amazon charges for the Kindle versions of the ten books I read came out to a total of $82.08, which just barely recouped the $79 annual fee, although honestly only two of the ten books I chose were on my to-read list; the rest were chosen because they were available and I felt I had to pick something.
This brings me to my biggest criticism of the Kindle Lending Library: I’m concerned that I’ll sooner than later exhaust the limited selection of books available that I find appealing. Of the appealing (or merely vaguely interesting) books I found, most were enjoyable, but I probably would not have read, let alone purchased, them had they not been part of the library, so it’s hard to use their value to justify the expense of an Amazon Prime membership. I also love my excellent local library, and while it’s nearly impossible to borrow the vast majority of ebooks it offers without months of waiting, I’m still a fan of print and likely would have read these books for free if I had wanted to read them. Some of the books on my to-read list are also public domain and therefore available for free elsewhere, and when possible I prefer to use sites like Project Gutenberg, even if the formatting isn’t always rendered well on my Kindle. And I still buy plenty of books by authors I know I like or that I may want to read again in the future.
That being said, I’m pleased with the opportunity to borrow books for free and use my Kindle, which is remarkably more convenient than toting around the large tomes I tend to prefer. The convenience is certainly a factor to take into consideration when deciding if the membership fee is well spent, as is the chance and reason to choose to read books I may have otherwise overlooked. Additionally, if I still lived in Israel where books are almost prohibitively expensive for especially avid readers, or in Japan where English books are not widely available and also comparatively pricey, this value would be even more pronounced.
To summarize the pros and cons of the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library:
- Possible to find interesting books to read, even if they aren’t your first choices
- Completely hassle-free and instant access to borrowed ebooks (vs. unpredictable, long
wait lists at libraries)
- Opportunity to read books you may have otherwise overlooked
- Great way to read more ebooks even if you’re hesitant about investing in a digital library when format and copyright issues are still so far from settled
- When you borrow a book, you’re allowed to borrow another on the first day of the following month, and only after returning the current book; this might serve as needed motivation for some readers to finish a book rather than let it sit for months
- Very valuable option for English speakers living in countries with limited access to affordable English publications
- You can’t borrow any book you want; the selection is quite limited and may not appeal to all tastes
- You’ll need to sync your reading schedule to work with the due date system, which is based on the calendar month rather than total books per year or what date you borrow the book (i.e., being eligible to borrow one book a month means you may borrow one book between January 1 and January 31 and keep it as long as you like, and you are only eligible to borrow the next from February 1; if you don’t borrow a book during January, you’re down to being able to borrow a total of 11 books for the year)
- It’s surprisingly difficult to browse the library. Amazon does not make it easy to find the collection in one place (I believe this is deliberate to discourage borrowing in favor of buying), and you must borrow a book by searching for it on your Kindle even though I’ve found it incredibly hard to find interesting books by browsing the library using a Kindle. The least inconvenient way to borrow books seems to be browsing online through Amazon by setting search filters to only display Kindle books that are Prime eligible (or click this link from Publishers Marketplace, as Amazon doesn’t seem to think it’s necessary to provide this resource), finding the book you want, searching for it on your Kindle, and then clicking “borrow for free”
While it’s debatable if access to free books alone pays for Amazon Prime membership, if someone in your household gets regular use from services like Netflix, Amazon Prime membership makes even more sense; Netflix is $7.99 per month for unlimited access to its library of streaming media, which comes out to $95.88 annually for a very similar (as far as I can tell, anyway) selection. Moreover, the two-day free shipping benefit has been unquestionably worth the price of Amazon Prime membership, even considering my husband and I are not big shoppers by any means. We do tend to do a good portion of shopping online due to being budget conscious and because many if not most brands only offer tall sizes online (read more about that shopping conundrum here).
In conclusion, if you or someone in your household has a Kindle and uses it often; if someone watches plenty of movies and TV; and if someone prefers or is comfortable shopping online, chances are Amazon Prime is a steal.
And in case you’re curious, here are the ten free Kindle books I read courtesy of my Amazon Prime membership, in reverse order, including links to my reviews (if I wrote one) and the price for the Kindle edition. Books I highly recommend are marked with a *:
- The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (review): $6.29
- Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum (review): $8.52
- The Final Move Beyond Iraq by Mike Evans (review): $9.96
- The Bloodletter’s Daughter by Linda Lafferty (review): $4.99
- The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd by Richard Zachs: $8.69
- * The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan (review): $8.52
- * Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of How the Wildest Man in Congress and a Rogue CIA Agent Changed the History of Our Times by George Crile: $9.60
- Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen: $6.73
- Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes: $8.79
- * The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis: $9.99
It looked damp and blustery outside today, but I must have been desensitized after seeing all the devastating images from the East Coast because it didn’t seem bad enough to stay inside. After hearing what friends were facing and seeing the shocking media coverage of Hurricane Sandy, things were looking pretty good here.
That is until I tried to run north along the lake shore. Sleet pelted my face and stuck to my eyelashes, but it takes more than icy precipitation to faze people around here. I began to run, then leaned forward and put everything I had into sprinting straight ahead. I felt like I was incrementally tiptoeing forward. So I turned south and began to jog, then run, then sprint, and it felt like I was flying. With the wind at my back, even with my recent injuries (a torn muscle in April and two broken toes last month), I ran the fastest mile I can remember since my sophomore year of high school. The waves looked too intense to continue along the beach and I didn’t want to risk going near piers or other potentially dangerous areas, so I headed inland for the rest of my run.
I passed by a friend bundled up to walk her dog and was informed that it was crazy to be outdoors. At that point I had wanted to loop around to head back home, but kept going farther and farther south and east to try and find a path sheltered from the wind to make progress in the opposite direction. I eventually headed to a route with enough trees to make it home at a decent pace.
People say that winds had reached upwards of 48 miles per hour along this part of Lake Michigan and up to 57 mph nearby, which explains why the only other people outdoors were men driving pickup trucks holding cameras pointed at the waves. One guy stopped and asked, “Where are the thirty-foot waves at? I want to see those!”
Here’s what I saw:
My thoughts are with people on the East Coast and elsewhere who faced the hurricane and all the damage and hardships it has caused.
When trying to convince the dog to go outside last night during the third and final presidential debate, the Lions game, and the (at least in my household) supremely important Giants game, it became clear that she would need time to work up the courage to brave the rain despite her obvious discomfort. I left the door wide open for her for about two minutes before it became clear she would rather suffer than get wet.
During those two minutes when I was distracted by all the important happenings on TV, a frog managed to leap into the house. No one noticed the frog’s presence for quite a while due to all the political and sports-related excitement overload, but once he was found, I carefully captured him in a jar:
He was safely returned to the dark, rainy backyard. The dog still refused to consider joining him out there.
The Giants game went as my husband had hoped, I didn’t notice what was up with the Lions, and I enjoyed the dynamic of the third debate more than the previous two. For those with the right to do so, I hope you vote. For those who find uninvited creatures in your home, I hope you forgive them and graciously return them to their preferred habitat. And for anyone with extra tickets to the World Series, I hope you’ll consider taking a giant, entertaining Israeli man whose wife doesn’t always appreciate the volume of his enthusiasm for baseball.
Note: If you’re not a baseball fan and were wondering where the panda part of this story is, here you go.
Rather than do the predictable thing and head to Israel for the high holidays this year, we decided it would be fun to visit Israelis in California instead.
While we didn’t attend services for Rosh Hashana, there was plenty of gefilte fish and other Jewish American holiday staples (namely brisket, which received rave reviews, though I can’t comment on it). We ate with my husband’s uncle’s family (he and his wife immigrated to Los Angeles in the 60s) and some expat Israeli friends of theirs.
For Yom Kippur we attended Kol Nidrei (All Vows) services in San Francisco with more cousins-in-law. It was the first time I had the chance to attend American services and I was excited to experience an event in English and with a very reformed congregation that doesn’t practice gender segregation at the synagogue so that I could actually sit next to the person I was there to support. In fact, there were musicians (and a banjo!) playing throughout the services, and all was presided over by a lady rabbi who also sang from time to time — it was very disorienting for my husband, who has only ever been to typical Israeli synagogues that are anything but reformed.
One thing that prevented us from attending American services in the past even when we were both in the States and interested in going was the cost. While I’m used to Christian holiday services where worshipers usually donate what they can when collection baskets are discretely passed around during a hymn, American Jewish holidays are different. It’s customary to purchase tickets in advance to attend holiday services, and depending on the synagogue, these tickets can be a major expense for those unaccustomed to the practice. In Boston, the place we wanted to go with friends for Passover one year cost $250 per ticket, which was a luxury poor students like us could not afford. We ended up eating Thai food at home instead. The place we attended in San Francisco was much more flexible, and we were able to give generously for us rather than being obligated to “donate” a fixed amount.
I’m so glad to have experienced American versions of the holidays this year. The city and country at large obviously didn’t celebrate en masse like in Israel — there was still tons of traffic on Yom Kippur rather than the vacant streets seen in Israel, and business and public transportation operated as usual — but I’ve always found celebrating culturally irrelevant holidays to be a very personal and meaningful experience that inspires a level of introspection and reflection often not present when celebrating with the majority.
Not to mention the scenery was pretty fantastic in California:
I hope everyone had a good holiday season (or a wonderful mid-September to early October, if you’re not involved in Jewish holidays)!
There’s an international market in a nearby large-ish city that seemed like a potential source of kosher food in the area. (Passover this year involved not-kosher-for-Passover fare despite multiple attempts to find seasonally appropriate matzah; I’m already planning how to avoid repeating that fiasco.) While there were plenty of European delicacies for sale at the international market, there wasn’t even a Mediterranean/Middle Eastern section or a Jewish section.
There was, however, a ラムネ section:
I haven’t even thought about, let alone encountered, ラムネ (ramune, a famous Japanese beverage) since misunderstanding someone who was talking about לאבנה (labneh, a soft cheese popular in Israel and the Middle East).
Even in a culturally homogenous region of the United States, you never know what’s waiting to be discovered.
As someone who was away from home often, houseplants didn’t make a lot of sense. Some fellow expats and travelers would arrange for family or friends to come water their plants while they were away (usually as an afterthought to caring for pets left home alone, which seems more worth the effort). Others brought their plants to the office so a secretary could water them during their absence, others had dependable roommates. But I never felt comfortable knowing I’d have to depend on the kindness of acquaintances to keep something alive.
But then I got married and suddenly there was another person in my home who could help do all the things I’d never grown accustomed to having help doing (I won’t get into how that person may or may not have ever grown accustomed to having to help do anything). Soon my mother-in-law presented us with a hearty plant, which was one of the first things I labeled with a name tag — צמח באדנית (tsemach ba-adanit, plant in a pot). These name tags became omnipresent in our home in Israel and elicited comments from visitors, be they delivery people or childhood friends, as I grew more determined to learn Hebrew. My husband’s mother said the tsemach would live for a month or two, but it lasted almost the entire two years we were there, and could still be alive for all I know. All thanks to having someone there even when I was not.
Now that my life is less transitory — which is lamentable for this blog but a nice change for the time being — I decided to try to grow something more challenging. After the unexpected success of my first houseplant, I bought a tiny basil plant, transferred it to a proper pot, and have scrupulously cared for it all summer.
Even though this tsemach isn’t in Israel, I still think of it by its Hebrew name and expect all potted plants that will surely join our household over the years will be labeled as such in my mind, even if they lack a characteristic name tag.
When the postman (who’s actually a postlady) knocks on my door laughing at the legible parts of the packages she delivers, I’m happy to be making her job more pleasant but also terribly embarrassed.
The latest source of her mirth:
The package contains documents that shouldn’t be bent. Or banded, according to the warning. In the sender’s defense, the post office in Israel from which this package was sent was out of “Do not bend!” stickers and the Israeli postman (or lady) was forced to write the admonition from memory by hand, complete with an Israeli accent.