The summer is officially over now as far as my previous book queue is concerned. I read everything except Summerland, which I just wasn’t in the mood to re-read and The Abstinence Teacher, which I read about two pages of before deciding I didn’t like it and moving on to something else.

I am very excited for reading this fall. There are new books coming out by Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, Barbara Kingsolver, Joe Posnanski, Margaret Atwood, and Audrey Niffenegger among others, so it figures to be a good time. In addition to reading these new books, I have two other goals: 1. I’ve been on a slight classics kick lately, I want to keep up with that. 2. I want to read at least five writers I haven’t read before. This is where my vast, blog reading audience comes in. I know I’m going to read Anna Quindlen, but other than that, I’m undecided and open to suggestions. So show me what you’ve got. I’m looking for contemporary (read: Not Dead) writers and mostly novelists (though I’ll certainly take nonfiction suggestions). Now, on to the traditional book log.

1. Gun with Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem (3.5/5): I have officially determined that Lethem’s writing gets better as it gets more recent. This was his first published novel (though, apparently, he had two others already written that were later published), and it’s fine. Most of it is good, but the last 60 pages or so are rushed and lazy (it probably should have been 100 pages longer). Also, he gets a little carried away with drug cliches. Still, the world he creates is interesting and unique and, if you’re a Lethem fan, I wouldn’t shy away from this.

2. The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch (4.0/5): One of two books I read this summer because I was going to be expected to teach them. It was better than I expected (I’m not normally a fan of moralizing memoirs). Pausch has a good sense of humor and because the stories are usually good, the steady writing, while not gorgeous, is enough to carry the book.

3. The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios by Yann Martel (4.5/5): An excellent collection of short(ish) stories that fell just short of a 5. I was particularly impressed with Martel’s control of structure as three of the four do not follow any kind of conventional story telling pattern. The stories themselves are always very interesting with honest characters. When ever he manages to release another book, I’ll be waiting.

4. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (4.0/5): The other book I read for work. This is carried almost entirely by the story which stops just short of breaking the rule: “If it isn’t believable, it doesn’t matter if it really happened.” As a writer, she’s a bit sensationalist (as you might expect from a former gossip columnist), but her decision to the story from the perspective of her child self keeps it from going over the top. It’s not great literature, but I can’t imagine someone not finding it entertaining.

5. Men and Cartoons by Jonathan Lethem (3.5/5): I didn’t even mean to read this book. I opened it up searching for a good science fiction story to use in my creative writing class. After I’d read four or five of the stories (all of which were just a bit too adult to teach in a public school), I figured I might as well read the whole thing. The The best stories are great, most of them are very good, but in a few, he writes about sex and drugs like a twelve year old boy.

6. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (5.0/5): I love this book, and I hadn’t had the shit scared out of me by a novel for a while, so I thought I’d re-read it. I’m not really going to review it so much as tell you that if you haven’t read any Atwood you should, and that this book would be as good a place to start as any. After you finish you can be thankful that our society hasn’t devolved to that point, yet.

7. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (4.0/5): The Old Man and the Sea got me curious about Hemingway, and this made me realize I should starting reading everything he’s done. I spent most of the book unable to decide if it was very good or terrible (the book it mostly dialogue, and much of it seems frivolous). Fortunately, the end (literally the last four or five pages) brought everything together for me and I understood the point of all that talking.

8. Barrel Fever by David Sedaris (3.5/5): I re-read this book to see if I liked it any better the second time around (I first read it long before I read any of his other books). I didn’t. The essays are great, but the short stories that make up 3/4 of the book vary alarmingly in quality from excellent to I’m-glad-it’s-only-seven-pages. I’d recommend this for the essays and one or two of the stories, but otherwise, leave it be. Easily his weakest.

9. The Tempest by William Shakespeare (5.0/5): I’d been meaning to read this for quite some time and now that I have, I don’t know what to say about it. It’s so different from all the other Shakespeare I’ve read. It was straightforward without being at all predictable. And, I don’t know, it was just really good. It’s Shakespeare doing something akin to science fiction and doing ti really well, and that’s just so interesting to read.

Fall Book Queue (to be completed by the end of December):
Robert Frost’s Poems by (ahem) Robert Frost
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Anton Chekov’s Short Stories by (double ahem) Anton Chekov
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
The Reivers by William Faulkner
The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper
The Machine by Joe Posnanski
Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon
The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo
One True Thing by Anna Quindlan
Mystery Author 1
Mystery Author 2
Mystery Author 3
Mystery Author 4

Summertime, Revisited

August 9, 2009

A bit more than a week after Simone was born I wrote a post about being a father and put a little addendum about my hopes for the summer. I thought it might be a good idea, now that I have just two days of summer vacation left, to come back and see how things went.

To be perfectly frank, I did not write nearly as much as I would have liked. I finished two short stories — one of which I think is actually good — and am maybe a third of the way through another. A couple of things interfered. Most notably, it is very difficult to write while holding a small child. This is also why I did still manage quite a bit of reading as that only typically requires one hand. Still, with just Simone, I was getting some writing done. What really killed it was moving. Cate and I spent about two weeks moving crap down to the car and driving it over to the new place. We’ve been moved in for about a week now and are finally, really settled in (I don’t know how we ended up with so much crap or how, upon moving to a larger place, it turned out that we needed to go buy some more crap). Correspondingly, here I am writing a non-book log blog post for the first time in almost three weeks.

Still, it has been a good, if busy, summer. Though this is somewhat cliched, being a father has helped me put my priorities in place. I don’t mean this in the “Oh, being a father is everything” kind of way. I mean that I don’t want to waste time on stuff I don’t really care about, and I want to minimize paper grading during the year so that, when I have time, I am doing things I actually want to do. Be that spending time with Simone or taking a few hours to work on a story. There’s an entire blog post about that already, though, so I’m not going to go too in depth.

Now that school is about to start, I find myself looking forward to the year in a way I haven’t before. I recently learned that I will have three creative writing classes (one more than I thought I was going to have). This will, I think make the day a bit less dry (teaching the same thing four times a day was boring as hell). Also, (cliche alert) the job seems to matter a bit less now, which makes the little inconveniences of it seem less bothersome.

There we go, I suppose. Another fractured as hell post, but a post nonetheless. We’ll see if I still feel this optimistic a week or two into the year, but I think I will.

July Book Log

August 2, 2009

July was a busy month. Cate and I moved into another apartment and this is the first chance I’ve had to sit down and write anything for about a week and a half. For a while, I thought I was going to get to ten books for the month, but alas, moving interfered, and I was unable to finish anything after July 22nd. Perhaps next summer I will manage that lofty goal. Also, August is the last month for the summer book cue at the end of the month, I’ll have a new queue for the first semester of school (though school will already have been going for a few weeks). Okay, off we go.

1. The Character of Physical Law by Richard Feynman (3.0/5): Totally adequate. My main problem with this book is that it covered a lot of stuff I already understood. However, I do think Feynman can be a bit condescending in places and occasionally takes too long explaining something. Still, it’s pretty good and a decent intro to certain advanced concepts of physics.

2. Tomcat in Love by Tim O’Brien (4.0/5): This is a strange book. I hate all of the characters, but I enjoyed watching them behave insanely and do terrible things to each other. It’s the kind of book where I found myself changing allegiances frequently. Mostly, because I wanted to see everyone get there due. Not my favorite Tim O’Brien, but still pretty good. Certainly a very fun read.

3. The Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen Hawking (4.5/5): I really like Hawking. He’s goofy enough to be likable, but not so goofy as to seem like he must really be an idiot. The main appeal of this book (over A Brief History of Time) is it’s organizational structure, which I did find more logical even if I didn’t end up liking the book quite as much. It is a really good text, though. Based on what I’ve read so far, I’d recommend Hawking over Feynman every time.

4. Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver (5.0/5): I really needed this book. I hadn’t been blown away by a piece of fiction in a while, and this did the trick nicely. One of the most appealing things about the book is that, unlike Tomcat in Love, it’s very hard to not like ALL the characters. You find yourself constantly rooting for everyone. There is still plentyh of conflict and whatnot, but everyone comes across as human and likable in their own way. It’s an optimistic portrait of humanity that I found myself getting on board with. In the end, however, the best thing about Kingsolver in this book is the false simplicity of the writing. She packs so much meaning into a short sentence without using even one twenty-fove cent word. I don’t understand why she hasn’t been showered with awards.

5. A Place of My Own by Michael Pollan (4.0/5): This book tells the story of Pollan building a small building (a personal office) “on his own” (he had a lot of help). As is often the case with Pollan, I really enjoy his writing as long as he is telling the story (which he does for most of the book), but at some point, he always seems unable to hold himself back and has to give you the complete archetecural and philosophical history of the window, for example. I’ve come to accept that he can’t do anything without first reading EVERYTHING about it, but that doesn’t mean I want a thirty page book report in the middle of his book. It’s what makes this book very good instead of great.

6. Where Water Comes Together with Other Water by Raymond Carver (4.5/5): Cate discovered Raymond Carver recently and her enthusiasm caused me to revisit him. I remembered really enjoying his short stories in college, but I had never read his poetry. It’s just as good. I tend to measure how much I like a book of poetry by how many of its poems actually leave a lasting impression. Carver does well on that front. His sad, simple recountings in poetic form leveled me more than once.

7. Empire Falls by Richard Russo (4.5/5): Sometime recently, I sort of decided I wanted to read all of the Pulitzer Prize winners. Most of the ones I’ve read, I’ve enjoyed, so it seemed reasonable. This was the first book read in service to that project and it did nothing to deter me. Russo remakes contemporary America so that seems as fantastical as something out of a fantasy or science fiction novel. I don’t know how he does it, nothing truly unreasonable happens, but the effect is mesmerizing. My only quibble is with the ending. I tend to want full disclosure at the end, and this doesn’t quite deliver. Heartily recommended overall, though.

8. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (5.0/5): The older I get the more I like Hemingway. I read this because it was short and I though It might help me decide if I want to read more of his stuff. It did. Everyone talks about how bare-bones his writing is and blah, blah, blah, but I though the best part of the book was the way he stretched it right to the breaking point. He always switches thigns up at just the right moment. He never stops short or goes on to long. It’s the mark of an incredible talent, and I thought this book was fantastic.

Book Queue Update:

Tomcat in Love by Tim O’Brien
Gun with Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku
Summerland by Michael Chabon
The Children of Hurin by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perotta
Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver
The Character of Physical Law by Richard Feynman
All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy