October/November Book Log

Let’s get right to it today…

  1. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (5/5) – I kept meaning to read this, and I’m glad I finally got to it. What an incredibly imaginative telling. Much like The Handmaid’s Tale, it feels both real and not real at the same time. I’d love to teach this book at some point.
  2. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (5/5) – Patchett is one of my favorites, and I always read her books as soon as they come out. A few years ago I was worried she’d lost her fastball a bit, but then she came out with the stunning Commonwealth, which I still think is her best novel. The Dutch House is nearly on that level. As with Commonwealth, it focuses inward and deals with close familial relationships. Patchett is a master of focusing on the small parts of ordinary life, which are so big to most of us.
  3. The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis (4/5) – I’ve started letting the kids suggest to me books they’ve read. This one came from James. I’d never gotten around to Narnia and even in the world of Narnia this book is often forgotten. But it’s is very good children’s novel. Written without condescension and with more creativity than I anticipated.
  4. Silas Mariner by George Eliot (4/5) – I read this both because I really love the Eliot I’ve read and to see if I might want to teach it (I do). This reads, really, as a very literary fable, which is a compliment as far as I’m concerned.
  5. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (3/5) – Simone wanted me to read this one. I didn’t think it was as good or inventive as the first book. It was interesting in spots, but felt a bit like several short stories wedged together.
  6. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (5/5) – The first of two teaching books from November. I hadn’t read this in a while, and it still holds up. Too much, frankly. It feels startlingly relevant in a way that would be hard to achieve for a book that was just written. Never mind one that’s about to turn 35.
  7. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (5/5) – Speaking of teaching things. This has got to be one of the easiest books to teach. It’s complicated and real and for some reason, it deeply resonates with HS students.
  8. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante (4/5) – The third of her four connected novels (which she considers to be one novel, the internet told me recently). I thought this was the least of the three I’ve read so far. It was still enjoyable, but did feel like a lot of set up in places for not very much payoff. The characters were definitely at their most frustrating in this bit.
  9. McSweeney’s 56 (4/5) – McSweeney’s is so consistently good. I don’t think I ever dislike an issue and some of them are downright brilliant. This was very, very good. With one story (and only one) that I just didn’t care for. Always worth checking them out if you haven’t.

August/September Book Log

Well, it’s school time again which means, in terms of reading that there’s lots of re-reading done at a slower than I would like pace which also slows down the completion of the books I’m reading for fun. That said, I’ve loved pretty much everything I’ve read lately, and that’s awfully nice.

Anyway, here we go a list and stuff.

  1. Relativity by Albert Einstein – Listen, I’m not giving relativity a rating. That’s absurd. I’ve read so much pop physics around it that I wanted to go to the source. It’s surprisingly easy to understand, for the most part. There are, of course, very mathy sections that fly over my head. But you shouldn’t be scared of it if you were before.
  2. The Storyteller by Pierre Jarawan (5/5) – This was an amazing book that centers on a German-born-of-Lebanese-parents and his struggles to deal with both his family and the pull her feels for a homeland he’s never seen with a bit of a mystery novel feel to it. Everything about this book feels completely true and real and the writing is gorgeous. One of the best books I’ve read this year.
  3. Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko (5/5) – I don’t know what I thought this book was going to be like, but it wasn’t that. Lately, I’ve been so appreciative of any narrative structure that diverts from the norm. The way this story is told feels like an essential representation of the essence of the story.
  4. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (5/5) – And here we are with the first book my AP literature class read. It’s wonderful and a completely essential read. That said, this is the fourth or fifth year in a row I’ve taught it, and it’s time to mix things up a bit next year.
  5. A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen (5/5) – And here’s the second thing AP lit will read. It had been a little bit longer for me on this one and I continue to enjoy it. I’m interested to see how students react to the ending, which still plays as somewhat shocking even today.
  6. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (5/5) – And THIS book is what my junior classes just finished. This is on the very short list of books I think I could teach every year. There’s so much nuance to it and I love watching my students come to grips with the different characters. The only film of it was made in 1957 and I feel like we could stand a new version now. It’s awfully relevant at the moment.
  7. Herzog by Saul Bellow (5/5) – This had been on my shelf for a couple of years. I’m glad I finally got to it. I read Bellow in college, but not at all since then. Sometimes the best books are those that manage to humanize thoroughly unlikable characters.

June and July Book Log

I managed to read 10 books over the last two months. Eight from my book queue (I’m also currently reading two more books from the queue. Anyway…

  1. The Tangled Tree by David Quammen (3.5/5) – Very interesting and quite thorough. Too thorough, actually, as it manages to veer significantly off topic for about the last third of the book.
  2. Sing to It by Amy Hempel (5/5) – An easy reading short story collection (many of the stories are only a page or two) that closes with a novella. Hempel’s writing is just so… good? right? I don’t know. I don’t have good descriptors for her, but you should read her stuff. I can pretty much guarantee this will be on my end of year list.
  3. Her Mouth as a Souvenir by Heather June Gibbons (3/5) – When I want to get some poetry, I go into the book store and start grabbing volumes and reading random poems. If I really like a poem, I get the book. It’s really that simple. Sometimes, though, it means I end up with a wildly uneven collection. Such is the case here. Though some of these poems – those in which she plays the most with language – are really great.
  4. The Writer’s Map (5/5) – This was an incredible book of essays by a variety of writers about fictional worlds and maps. If that sounds like your kind of thing, I promise you it is.
  5. Mikhail and Margarita by Julie Lekstrom Hines (4/5) – This book had been on my shelf for ages. It was a good and interesting read. It didn’t quite live up to the material it drew from, but that’s the risk you run when you base your book around a masterpiece.
  6. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (5/5) – I had not read this before. No idea why. It’s beautiful.
  7. The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante (5/5) – I didn’t love the first book of the tetralogy like most seem to have (but I did like it a lot). This book was incredible, though, and I’ll be moving on to the third book soon. I’ve also read an unrelated book by Ferrante and really feel like everything she does is probably essential reading at this point.
  8. How to Tame a Fox by Dugatkin and Trut (5/5) – I read a National Geographic article about the Russian fox domestication experiment a long time ago and was fascinated by it. This book is a full and fascinating explication of the (very successful) endeavor.
  9. Paris in the Middle Ages by Simone Roux (4/5) – I’ve taken to occasionally reading history lately and this appealed. I liked it and certainly learned from it. It changed how I thought about some things, which is always welcome.
  10. McSweeney’s #55 (3.5/5) – McSweeney’s has been knocking it out of the park lately, so they were due for an issue that I most thought was just fine. Which is what this was. Too many stories that felt like the MFA cookie cutter stuff that’s around a lot now. But some of them were still good.

Book Queue (things I shall endeavor to read):

  • At least the first book of the Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake
  • Herzog by Saul Bellow
  • Relativity by Albert Einstein
  • The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante
  • Mikhail and Margarita by Julie Lekstrom Heines
  • Little Reunions by Eileen Chang
  • McSweeney’s 55
  • Sing to It by Amy Hempel
  • How to Tame a Fox by Dugatkin and Trut
  • Love and Death by Ivan Turgenev
  • Paris in the Middle Ages by Simone Roux
  • The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
  • Her Mouth as a Souvenir by Heather June Gibbons
  • The Storyteller by Pierre Jarawan

May Book Log

As I write this, it isn’t summer vacation yet, but it very nearly is and I need it. The last several summers have been absurdly busy with life happening and finally, I have a summer with nothing hugely stressful looming aside from a week of training for a new class I’ll be teaching. Correspondingly, I’m really, really, really hoping to read in a relaxed manner over the next couple of months. So I’m bringing back something I did a long time ago: A book queue. It’s just a lit of books I plan to read over the next 2-3 months, but I like having the list.

Anyway, here’s what I read last month:

  1. The Radetzsky March by Joseph Roth (5/5) – I didn’t know what to expect from this, really. I just knew Chekov had praised Roth and that was enough for me. It’s a novel about pre-WWI Europe that’s not like anything else I’d read before. It tracks one family over three generations as they rise to prominence as the result of a mostly accidental association with the monarch. So much goes on in this novel so quickly, it’s hard to explain, but it’s very worth the read.
  2. Ripples in Spacetime by Govert Schilling (3/5) – This is a good book, but I’ve also read a lot of pop-physics books now, and that makes a lot of them also pretty redundant. I’d wager this would get a 4 or 5 if I’d never read anything like it before. As is, it’s a good discussion about the discovery of gravitational waves.
  3. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway (4/5) – I hadn’t read any Hemingway in a long time and after a lot of fairly dense/ornate prose the last few months, it felt called for. This is an interesting memoir. Not his best, but fascinating to read because of all the characters who appear in it. Related: Fitzgerald was a mess.
  4. We and Me by Saskia de Coster (4/5) – The last third of the book is easily the strongest. Before that it reads as a fairly standard bourgeois angst novel. Entertaining enough, but nothing to get that excited about. A genuine urgency comes through in the latter part, though, which some pretty convincing epiphanies that make it a worthwhile read, especially if you’re in the mood for something of its kind. The Privileges by Jonathan Dee was similar and highly lauded book several years ago and this is much stronger than that one.

Book Queue (things I shall endeavor to read):

  • At least the first book of the Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake
  • Herzog by Saul Bellow
  • Relativity by Albert Einstein
  • The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante
  • Mikhail and Margarita by Julie Lekstrom Heines
  • Little Reunions by Eileen Chang
  • McSweeney’s 55
  • Sing to It by Amy Hempel
  • How to Tame a Fox by Dugatkin and Trut
  • Love and Death by Ivan Turgenev
  • Paris in the Middle Ages by Simone Roux
  • The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
  • Her Mouth as a Souvenir by Heather June Gibbons
  • The Storyteller by Pierre Jarawan

March and April Book Log

Ah, the end of school. It’s coming, but getting there – as always – is taking a hit on my reading. Maybe I’ll pick it up this summer.

  1. McSweeney’s 54 (5/5) – Essential reading as much as anything I’ve come across in quite some time. Subtitled “The End of Trust,” it’s collection of nonfiction about the different ways technology enables surveillance and eliminates privacy.
  2. My Twentieth Century Evening and Other Small Break Throughs by Kazuo Ishiguro (4/5) – His Noble acceptance speech. A nice little read. I always love Ishiguro.
  3. The White Book by Han Kang (5/5) – Now THIS was interesting. Kind of a narrative. Kind of not. Kind of poetry and kind of prose. Completely fascinating overall. I think I’ve read everything from Kang so far and it’s all been excellent. She’s someone to pay attention to.
  4. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon (5/5) – I got a fancy copy of this book and so it was time for a reread. This is one of my top-five ever and I think this was my fifth time reading it. Great as always.
  5. Binstead’s Safari by Rachel Ingalls (2/5) – I LOVED Mrs. Caliban, which I discovered more or less by accident, so this was an easy decision to pick up at the book store. Blech. Not well done. Awfully colonialist and otherwise dull and predictable.
  6. The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot (5/5) – I hadn’t revisited this closely in ages. read through it with a guide to all the allusions in the text. You don’t need the background to enjoy the poem – which is fantastic on its own – but the additional depth is really interesting.
  7. Little Culinary Triumphs by Pascale Pujol (4/5) – This was a fun read. Very French. Intentionally silly in spots. I was rather distracted while I was reading it and I wonder if it doesn’t maybe deserve a five. But sometimes that’s how it goes. Fun and recommended.
  8. The Odyssey by Homer (5/5) – I just finished teaching The Odyssey for he first time ever. I picked up the Fagles translation to read through because it had been a LONG time since I read Homer. Translations can make such a huge difference. This was so good, I’m gonna grab The Iliad to read just for fun.

February Book Log

Only finished three books this month, but that happens sometimes. Thanks to a good January, I’m still on pace. While you’re here, I’m going to be writing for charity in about a month and half, and if you’d like to help out, it would be wonderful. Louisville Story Project is a fantastic organization that seeks out unheard and marginalized voices and makes sure they get published. You can donate here.

  1. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (3/5) – I was disappointed in this book, and I realize I’m very much in the minority. I don’t have a problem with novels that are more about place/time/culture than character (some of my very favorite books fall into this category – One Hundred Years of Solitude, for instance), but I do need there to be some focus on character. In this novel, it seemed to me that the people never really got to be people rather, they were props who existed waiting for deus ex machina to come along and move the story to its next phase. Again, I know i’m in the minority, but that’s how it goes sometimes.
  2. Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare (5/5) – A teaching reread, but Act III of Caesar is one of my very favorite things in all of literature. Do yourself a favor and go watch the Brando version from 1953. Marlon Brando was good.
  3. Collection of Sand by Italo Calvino (3.5/5) – Another disappointing one. I’m working my way through Calvino right now, and this is the first work that hasn’t done much for me. Mostly, I’m sure, because it’s a collection of essays and not a unified work and those are always problematic. The first half or so of the book is very pedestrian (2/5), but the second half I quite enjoyed (4.5/5). So take that for whatever it’s worth.

January Book Log

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I have started off the year well. I finished seven books in January. The last two years have been off years for me. While I’m not looking to read 100 books this year or anything, it would be nice to read more than I have recently. I supposed we’ll see.

  1. Robin Hood by J.C. Holt (3.5/5) – I have a thing for British legend/myth. I always have. It surfaces occasionally, as it did here. This isn’t a retelling of the legend, but an academic exploration of it. It’s an interesting book and I mostly enjoyed it, but Holt was a little to fixate on the idea of their being “right” answers. I would have liked more cultural context and less discussion of the minor outlaws who could have been the loose basis of some of the stories.
  2. Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Patillo Beals (4.5/5) – I hadn’t read this before, but as I’m currently teaching it, I had to make sure I’d read it first. It’s a disturbing and fascinating first-hand account of the Little Rock Nine. And, as with too many things, feels especially timely of late.
  3. Theory of Bastards by Audrey Schulman (5/5) – This was a fantastic novel set in a vaguely dystopian near-future at a dilapidated primate research institute. It manages to touch on a number of issues without ever becoming heavy-handed. The whole thing is beautifully and delicately written. An early candidate for my end-of-year list.
  4. The Remaining Life by Maria Gabriela Llansol (4/5) – The second of her books I’ve read from this omnibus of three novels I have. Just as strange as a first one. I’m glad her books are short because I think they require small doses as they exist somewhere in the space between novel and poetry. They definitely make me feel and think, though.
  5. Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas (4/5) – This was really interesting. It reminded me of a bunch of things I’ve enjoyed Lincoln in the Bardo, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Winesburg, Ohio. A very interesting portrait of a moment in a particular place.
  6. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (5/5) – Teaching this. If you are a member of a culture that has participated in colonialism/oppression of indigenous people and you haven’t read this, you need to.
  7. Jazz by Toni Morrison (5/5) – Also teaching this (does teaching three different books at once sound fun? No. Good, because it isn’t.). Anyway, this is still my favorite Toni Morrison novel (though I haven’t read them all) because of how it plays with truth and perception. The use of language and structure is really masterful.

2018 Reading Year in Review

Welcome to the annual review of my reading experiences. Life continues to be busy. Last year, I moved. This year, I changed jobs. Who knows what will happen in the coming year. Let’s talk about books.

Books Read: 57 (goal was 70)
Pages Read: 14,134 (goal was 20,000)
Average per Book: 248 pgs.
Pages per Day: 38.8

Biggest Reading Month: February – 6 books, 1815 pages.

Smallest Reading Month: October – 4 books, 787 pages.

Five Longest Books:

  1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy – 819 pgs.
  2. Freya by Anthony Quinn – 556 pgs.
  3. The Overstory by Richard Powers – 502 pgs.
  4. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon – 487 pgs.
  5. Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan – 430 pgs.

I find it weird that I only read three books that topped 500 pages even though I had almost exactly the same average book length as 2017. Lots of medium-sized books, I guess.

Five Shortest Books:

  1. Best to Keep Moving by Jess Worley – 26 pgs.
  2. Andy Catlett: Early Education by Wendell Berry – 27 pgs.
  3. The Golden Cockerel by Alexander Pushkin – 42 pgs.
  4. Rumors of Light by Welsey Shane- 58 pgs.
  5. Phrasis by Wendy Xu – 60 pgs.

Books I Read Again:

  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Hamlet
  • The Little Prince
  • The Things They Carried
  • The Hobbit
  • The Silmarillion
  • Jazz
  • Native Speaker
  • Anna Karenina
  • 1984

Most of these were teaching books, as is always the case.

Now, onto my favorite and least favorite books of the year.

Biggest Disappointment of the Year: Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan. I generally LOVE Jennifer Egan. Her story telling is almost always inventive and intriguing. This… wasn’t. It was fine, but it didn’t take me anywhere I wasn’t expecting to go. It always hurts the most when a favorite writer lets you down.

The Top 10

  1. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino – This became one of my favorite books the moment I finished reading it. It’s top-5 for me. It’s also impossible to explain to someone in a way that doesn’t sound stupid. But if you like to read, you should read this book.
  2. The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride – McBride’s first book – A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing was a work of genius. So is this, but this one is much more accessible. I feel like her work will be read for decades.
  3. The Book of Communities by Maria Gabriela Llansol – My top three books this year all approached fiction in unconventional ways and this is perhaps the least conventional. I suppose there’s a story, but it’s more a novel of feeling, I suppose? I have more of her work to read (soon) and I might return to this one. I can’t get it out of my head.
  4. Other People’s Love Affairs by D. Wystan Owen – These stories are very conventional in some ways, but they also exist in a kind of timeless reality that feels reminiscent of Cheever. One of the most perfectly written story collections I’ve come across in a very long time.
  5. Craving by Esther Gerritsen – This book will catch you off guard. It will take you places you don’t expect it to go. Be prepared.
  6. Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls – I randomly grabbed this book. As soon as I started reading it, I realized it was the basis for The Shape of Water (which I have not seen). It is a quick and excellent read about the malaise of a certain kind of existence.
  7. The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli – I just posted about this book yesterday. The best nonfiction I’ve read in a couple of years, I think.
  8. Goblin Market and Other Poems by Christina Rosetti – Easily the oldest book on this list. I hadn’t really read Rosetti before and I’m irritated that I never had. Her writing is magical and so outside the expectations for her time period that it’s easy to understand why she’s under-appreciated.
  9. Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse – A long overdue first read of a classic. In a way, this is probably a progenitor for some other books on my list. A fascinating exploration of duality.
  10. Phrasis by Wendy Xu – The last book I finished this year. As with the Rovelli, I posted about it yesterday.

Goals for Next Year

My life has changed so much in the last several years, that setting goals for reading almost seems pointless. I don’t know how much I’ll read or what is reasonable. I’d like to hit 60 books and 15,000 pages. I’d like to read a few of giant books I’ve never read before. I’d like to revisit some old favorites I haven’t picked up for a while. We’ll see what happens with regards to all that, but I’ll most likely be here writing about it next year.

December Book Log

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The Year-in-Review reading post will be along in the next few days, but we’ve got a book log to do first.

  1. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (4/5) – A really good book recommended by my pal Chadwick Ulysses Dotson. It is his favorite book ever, but not quite mine. It was a quick read and very enjoyable. Exactly what I needed when I was reading it. I do think it drags a bit in the second half and works too hard to tie everything up with a bow. I have a hard time imagining someone who reads and wouldn’t enjoy this book, though.
  2. The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli (5/5) – This was a wonderful exposition of the complexities of time in reality versus how we perceive it from our limit perspective. I rarely feel moved to quote a passage, but take a gander at this:

    The difference between things and events is that things persist in time; events have a limited duration. A stone is a prototypical “thing”; we can ask where it will be tomorrow. Conversely, a kiss is an “event.” It makes no sense to ask where the kiss will be tomorrow. The world is made up of networks of kisses, not of stones.

  3. Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen (4/5) – Enjoy Ibsen very much and read something of his every so often just because. This was probably my least favorite of what I’ve read so far, but it’s still excellent and still feels more modern in its critique of society than any 150 year old play should be.
  4. McSweeney’s 53 (5/5) – This issue was perfect all the way through. And that’s so hard for a quarterly to do. And excellent issue to start with if you’ve ever been curious about them.
  5.  Phrasis by Wendy Xu (5/5) – Sometimes, I go the book store and pull random volumes of poetry off the shelf. I read a poem or two and when I find something I like, I buy it and take it home. That’s what happened here. These poems are as close to perfect as poetry can be, I think. Xu has a linguistic playfulness that manages to supplement rather than undercut her themes, which are generally more serious (and varied, which is alway nice, plenty of poetry collections are repetitive).

October/November Book Log

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The academic year has been completely insane so far correspondingly, my reading has been slow AND it’s been hard to write about reading. Anyway, here’s what’s been knocked out the last couple of months.

  1. McSweeney’s 52 (4.5/5) – I’m so glad McSweeney’s is back to publishing regularly. They aren’t perfect, but they make such an effort to find interesting stories and diverse voices. This was an an excellent issue.
  2. The Book of Communities by Maria Gabriel Llansol (5/5) – This was an incredible little book. I don’t know exactly how to describe what it is any better than the title. It’s rare to find a book that surprises me in the way it approaches narrative, but it’s happened a couple of times lately.
  3. Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (4/5) – Reread for teaching. I have nothing new to say here.
  4. My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Mosfegh (3/5) – This book has gotten a fair amount of press. I thought it was really interesting. My central issues with it is that I feel like it’s longer than it needs to be. Even so, it’s a quick and interesting read. I just don’t find it to be as resonant as many do.
  5. 1984 by George Orwell (5/5) – I hadn’t read this in ages, but I was teaching it this year, so it was back to it. I liked it better than I remembered liking it before. Perhaps because it was so incredibly relevant. So relevant, in fact, that class discussion of it often had the students visibly uncomfortable.
  6. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (5/5) – This was a reread to keep me sane. And the first time I’d read this book at my own pace instead of to a child in a very long time. I love it. I could do Tolkien forever.
  7. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (5/5) – Still one of my very favorite books ever. I hadn’t read it in several years. This time, I found myself more engaged in Levin’s story than I ever had before. He’s certainly infuriating at times, but his uncertainty and constant search for meaning and purpose feel very relevant to me after the last several years of my life.