January Book Log

January 31, 2010

This month was much better, and it was nice to get the year off to a good start reading wise. Last year, my goal was 50 books, and I blew that out of the water. This year, I’m aiming for 60, so it’s nice to be a little ahead of the game already. I read several lovely books, and, as you’ll see, I’m pretty much in love with William Maxwell right now. Also, I’m currently reading two books (I’m a Stranger Here Myself and America America) which I am enraptured by. I am in a very good reading place right now. On to the log…

1. Straight Man by Richard Russo (4.5/5) – One of these days, Richard Russo is going to blow my mind. I can feel it coming, he just hasn’t done it quite yet. I’ve read two of his books now, and each time, I’ve found everything about them wonderful. Except… Well… There’s just something about the endings. They’re good, but they just don’t feel, exactly, perfectly right to me, which is pretty much the difference between a 5 and a 4.5. Anyway, this book was great, and had a lovely sense of humor.

2. So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell (5/5) – If I had read this a few weeks earlier, it would have been one of my top five of last year. Totally amazing. How he manages to tell such a detailed story with so many full, living characters in 135 pages is beyond me. William Maxwell is most of what I try to be as a writer. I can’t believe it took me so long to start reading him.

3. The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin (3.5/5) – Good, but fractured. Is it a science book? Is it a travelogue? Is it an adventure book? It really doesn’t seem to know. It’s definitely entertaining except that, whenever Darwin gets bored, so do you. You know what Charles? If you’re tired of describing a desolate landscape you can, I don’t know, stop, instead of just telling us you’re tired of it. An interest book, anyway.

4. To Siberia by Per Petterson (5/5) – I’m going to have to read all of Petterson’s work now. This was sad and wonderful in many of the same ways as Out Stealing Horses, plus it was nice to see him really flesh out a female character. Petterson is fantastic at endings. You don’t know how he’s going to get there, and then he does and it knocks you over.

5. The Folded Leaf by William Maxwell (5/5) – This is the lengthiest Maxwell story I’ve read, and I really enjoyed watching him make use of the extra space. The characters in this book are perfect in their subtlety (rarely have teenagers been so well and uniquely done) and have wonderful, realistic, human flaws. Maxwell is officially one of my favorite writers now. I love him.

6. Great Plains by Ian Frazier (3.5/5) – Fractured in a different way than the Darwin, but fractured nonetheless. I never quite knew where he was going with it. I certainly enjoyed the ride and I learned an awful lot, but in the end, it just sort of seemed like he stopped without really reaching an ending.

Late Breaking News: I finished another book last night right before bed…

7. I’m a Stranger Here Myself by Bill Bryson (5/5) – Really, really funny book. Bryson at his best, as far as I can tell. I’ve read one other book of his and, while hilarious, it had some dull bits. Not so here. I enjoyed every moment of this.

Winter/Spring Book Queue Update:

America America by Ethan Canin
The Damnation of Theron Ware by Harold Frederic
Rabbit, Redux by John Updike
Parallel Worlds by Michio Kaku
Great Plains by Ian Frazier
So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin
Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo
Dune by Frank Herbert
One of Ours by Willa Cather

Writing in 2010

January 3, 2010

2009 was a fairly productive year for me considering Cate and I had our first child. I managed to (finally) finish the first draft of what is now Lonely Human Atoms and I wrote a good handful of short stories. Not bad, but not what I would have hoped for either. Correspondingly, in order to hold myself accountable, I thought it might be a good idea to write a little blog post with some writing goals I have for the year.

1. Finish Lonely Human Atoms. As in, really finished. I’m making revisions now, but I’ll have to go through it at least two more times before I consider it anything like done. I’d really like to begin sending it off sometime over the summer, so the official deadline for this is the end of the school year. We’ll see, but I think I can get it done. I really love this book. I think it’s the best creative thing I’ve ever done.

2. Submit short stories. I have several short stories which are not, as far as I can tell, terrible. In fact, there is a percentage (small though it may be) of the population who may actually enjoy reading them. Correspondingly, I really need to start sending them around to literary magazines. The only thing keeping me from doing this is that I hate the whole submission process. I shall have to force myself, but this should be done, in some fashion, soon.

3. Write new material. In 2009, I started, for the first time in a long time, writing things that were not part of Charles Burden’s story. I would like to continue that. I have several ideas for books and short stories are always floating around. So, this is my goal: By the end of the year, in addition to having finished Lonely Human Atoms, I would also like to have either 50 pages of polished writing (this would probably be short stories) or 100 pages of rough writing (the start of a new book).

I think these are all reasonable goals. I think, if I actually apply myself, I can accomplish them. We will see, but I am trying to set them too high. Hopefully all goes well.

Reading Year in Review

January 1, 2010

This was a banner year for me in terms of sheer volume. I managed to read 74 books while teaching my lovely little heathens and experiencing fatherhood for the first time. Below is a list of what I think are the five best books I read this year along with the one that frustrated me the most. Note, these didn’t all come out this year, but I hadn’t read them before, so they were new to me.

1. All the Days and Nights by William Maxwell – I stumbled on some Maxwell digging through old papers from undergrad looking for things to show my creative writing classes. I hadn’t looked at the stories (two little fairy tales) for a while, and I found I liked them enough to seek out the collection they came from. What I discovered was a fantastic author who seems largely forgotten though he was, apparently, one of the most important people in American fiction for more than half a century. I fully plan to delve into Maxwell more this year, but what I will say about this collection is similar to what I said in my book log earlier in the year. I have never read short stories better than these. Set him along side Cheever and Carver and Joyce and Chekhov and whoever else you can think of. These are fantastic. If you read fiction, you are doing yourself a disservice by not reading them. The “improvisations” that close the book are especially enchanting. Just magical, wonderful writing. Perfect.

2. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver – This just came out a few months ago. Cate and I (both Kingsolver fans) disagree about its quality, but I think it was fantastic. This is her best work as far as I’m concerned and I hope she is richly rewarded for it. Historical fiction has all the pitfalls of regular fiction except that there is much more research and it is easy for someone to figure out if you messed something up. As far as I can tell, she didn’t. Add to that a wonderful story with compelling characters and you have something that, in my opinion, is a masterpiece. I only hope it doesn’t take her another ten years to come out with a novel.

3. Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson – I’m still thanking Fred for introducing me to Petterson. This book was so bleak and beautiful. It’s like Cormac McCarthy (more on him later) without the pretense. I loved the main character and I loved trying to put everything together as the book moved on. This might have the best ending of all the books I read this year. It leveled me. I don’t mind saying that I sobbed for a minute or two at the end of it. Not because I was sad necessarily, but because he got it so right. I can’t wait to read more of Petterson.

4. Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris – I’ve read everything by Sedaris now, and I think this is his best. No duds in this collection at all. What really takes it up, I think, is that it feels just a bit more personal than his other writing. These stories often feel more like they are happening to him and that they were/are important. He is certainly amusing, as he always is, but he is also touching.

5. The Road by Cormac McCarthy – The jury was out on this book for the first forty or fifty pages, but then I just couldn’t put it down. McCarthy, at his best, is a magician. He makes you care about endless marches and barren country much more than it feels like you should.

Honorable Mentions: Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon, Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver, Only a Theory by Kenneth Miller, The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, The Tempest by William Shakespeare

Biggest Disappointment of the Year:

The World According to Garp by John Irving – I LOVE A Prayer for Owen Meany. It’s one of my favorite books. I read this in hopes that I would come close to enjoying it as much as I enjoyed Owen Meany. I did not. I understand why people like this book. I understand why it’s famous. I don’t like it. I think it is sensationalist and outrageous for the sake of being sensationalist and outrageous. Irving crosses several believability lines for me. Unless you’re doing magical realism, there is a limit there. He isn’t, and I think he surpasses the limit by quite a bit. There’s a lot of hate and fear in this book. Too much, I think.

December Book Log

January 1, 2010

This was a sad month for reading. I really expected to get a lot more done, but the end of the semester was unusually busy and for the first time, I experienced what it means to be a parent at Christmas. Aside from Jane Eyre, I did manage to finish the book queue though (being honest: I substituted Straight Man for Bridge of Sighs and only finished that this morning, but it’s Russo, so I’m counting it). I do think this last book queue was a bit too ambitious and I’m going to try and be better about that this time. I like to have room to go off list when I want. Soon, maybe even later today, I’ll have a top books of the year/reading year in review post, but for now, just a short book log and new queue…

1. Blindness by Jose Saramago (4.0/5) – This book was really good. It’s a wonderful work of literature. However, I can’t claim to have enjoyed reading it all that much. I think Saramago crosses the line stylistically and is a bit too experimental. Sentences and paragraphs are good, in my opinion, and even if I get what he’s trying to do and even if I think he pulls it off brilliantly, that doesn’t mean I thnk it was a really good idea. This really is a wonderful book, and I’m glad I read it, but there is something to be said for accesibility, and I wish this book had been a bit more accesible.

2. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (5.0/5) – This was read as part of my continued attempt to catch up on classics I ought to have read. I really enjoyed it. Dickens is, even today, a very easy read, and he pulls such wonderful sentences together every now and then (the first and last of this book are two of the most famous in English). I’ll probably start plowing into him more seriously soon. I’ve yet to read something by him I didn’t love.

3. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (5.0/5) – I didn’t even mean to read to Dickens novels in a row. This was read as part of Christmas enjoyment. Not much to say about it. The story is well known, and the book is very good.

That’s it. Pretty sad, huh? I’ll try to do better next month.

Winter/Spring Book Queue (to be completed by the end of school in May)

America, America by Ethan Canin
The Damnation of Theron Ware by Harold Frederic
Rabbit, Redux by John Updike
Parallel Worlds by Michio Kaku
Great Plains by Ian Frazier
So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin
Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo
Dune by Frank Herbert
One of Ours by Willa Cather