January Book Log

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Well, it’s probably not a good thing that I’ve already failed at one of my 2018 reading goals. I didn’t read a book over 400 pages this month, but I’ll finish a 550 page book this weekend and then attempt to make up for my shortcomings as the rest of the month progresses. Anyway…

  1. The Origins of Creativity by E.O. Wilson (4/5) – This is an interesting look at creativity from the perspective of a well-regarded scientist and thinker. It also contains the best Franzen burn I’ve ever seen in print. It is not an entirely focused work, but it is very interesting and provides plenty for food for thought.
  2. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bugkov (5/5) – It took me forever to read this novel. I think I started it back in November. But it was fantastic. Not, obviously, a quick read, but it exists in what is – for me – a delightful space somewhere between Tolstoy and Nabokov. I am not at all certain exactly what it means or is trying to say (neither, from what I’ve found on the internet, are most people) other than it is clearly opposed to the intellectual restrictions of Soviet-style communism. But I very much enjoyed the ride.
  3. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (5/5) – Maybe shouldn’t even count this. But I got a fancy copy of it and read it (along with the commentary volume) and it was as moving as it has always been when I’ve read it and ended with me crying and searching for my children to hug. If you haven’t ever read this, dear lord, sit down with it and make that happen. It won’t take long.
  4. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (4/5) – This was The Book from last year. I liked it pretty well and I understand why other people love it. The whole subject matter of the supposed afterlife and what it’s like is one I’m a bit tired of as a reader, but that’s hardly Saunders’ fault. In any case, the story telling is interesting and the book is an easy read.
  5. Hamlet by William Shakespeare (5/5) – Teaching it for the first time in a while. I do always enjoy all of the reminders this gives me of how often we quote Shakespeare without thinking about it.

2017 Reading Year in Review

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Ah, reading friends, here we are again. This year was weird. I didn’t read nearly as much as has been normal. But I did move and buy a house and there was plenty of life interrupting along the way. Still, here’s how it all went down, book-wise, in 2017.

Books Read: 52 (goal was 60)
Pages Read: 12,948 (goal was 15,000)
Average per Book: 249 pages
Pages per Day: 35.5

Very meh right there. I need to read more on a daily basis. There were some full weeks when I barely read at all.

Biggest Reading Month: October (when all moving nonsense was complete) – 7 books, 1604 pages
Smallest Reading Month: August (maximum moving nonsense) – 3 books, 501 pages

Five Longest Books:

1. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens – 923 pages
2. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann – 712 pages
3. Collected Poems by Carol Ann Duffy – 558 pages
4. Theft by Finding by David Sedaris – 514 pages
5. The Complete Short Fiction by Herman Melville – 504 pages

I find it somewhat amusing that the two longest books I read were the first and last books I finished in 2017.

Five Shortest Books:

1. Ararat by Louise Glück – 40 pages
2. Fox by Adrienne Rich – 61 pages
3. Vita Nuova by Louise Glück – 64 pages
4. The Wild Iris by Louise Glück – 67 pages
5. Witch Wife by Kiki Petrosino – 72 pages

Books I Read Again:

The City in which I Love you by Li-Young Lee
The Stranger by Albert Camus
The Crucible by Arthur Miller
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

All the teaching books.

Biggest Disappointment of the Year:

Beren and Luthien by J.R.R. Tolkien – This wasn’t bad, but I wanted it to be much less scholarly and much more a coherent and unified narrative a la Children of Hurin. 

The 2017 Top 10:

Reminder – this only counts books I read for the first time in 2017.

Okaywere, here we go, starting from the bottom:

10. Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich I very much have a thing for books that live in a place more than they live with their characters. It’s something that started for me with 100 Years of Solitude. Love Medicine belongs in that category and it is probably for that reason that I find this to be much better than the other Erdrich books I’ve read (which were still very good). It’s a different feeling to finish a book and feel as though you know a place instead of a few people.

9. Little Birds by Anaïs Nin There is, of course, the sex in this book, but there is also the feeling of post-WWI rule breaking that was such an important part of literature when this was being written. I’ve read some of her journals and generally found them a bit dry. The language here is much more lively and makes me think at least a little bit of the best Hemingway.

8. Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabó – I read this because her novel The Door was so brilliant. This was similarly brilliant with a central character who – as we all are at times – manages to be both completely understandable and unlikable at the same time. A good illustration of how messy it is to be human.

7. Scott’s Last Expedition by Captain R.F. Scott – If you ever wonder what endurance is like, this will show you, I think. It is nonfiction and so, of course, real in the literal sense, but it also feels as real as good fiction often does. And the foreknowledge of the ending becomes more and more intense as your attachment to the narrator and his men grows.

6. A Zero Sum Game by Eduardo Rabasa – I feel like most years, there’s a book on my list that I didn’t initially give a 5 out of 5, and  this is it. This book is hard. And I don’t mean that it’s hard to read. The prose is excellent. It’s hard to face because it is both dark and uncomfortably honest. Like Black Mirror, it’s theoretically satirical but manages to hit much too close to home.

5. The Wild Iris by Louise Glück – This is her best known work for a reason, I think. Like Shakespeare, I feel like she had a run of absurd brilliance that made her lesser, but still excellent volumes seem less good somehow. Anyway, this is the high point int he fabulous run. Her Hamlet or whatever.

4. All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews – Spent forever meaning to read this book and then not reading it. It is one of the few really excellent representations I’ve read of middle age and depressing monotony that can accompany it amidst the raising of children and aging parents and all that.

3. Melville by Jean Giono – One of the oddest books I read this year and why NYRB is a good source of literature. It’s a slim novel that was supposed to be an essay but turned into a story about a fictional Herman Melville and it manages to be a lot of fun while also working on several more complex levels.  I feel like it would appeal to just about everyone who reads, which isn’t something I say, well, ever.

2. The Vegetarian by Han Kang – This book is incredible. It is one of the best uses of multiple-perspective storytelling I have ever read. It’s dark as hell, but you should read it anyway. Dark books for dark times and all that.

1. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino – Upon a strong recommendation, I finally knocked Calvino off my “need to read, but haven’t yet” list. And I can tell you right now this is going to be included whenever I next update my 100 favorite books list. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever read except for maybe aspects of Borges. Like Melville, I also thing it’s a book a lot of people could enjoy, however. Anyway, it changed what I thought of as possible with fiction and that hasn’t happened in a long time.

Goals for 2018

I plan to get back to myself next year in terms of reading. I want to really read a lot and read some long books and also focus on works in translation more because I feel like I’ve gotten the most out of those in recent years (5 of the books on this year’s list are works in translation). My goals are as follows:

Read 70 books
Read one book longer than 400 pages every month (greater than 500 is ideal) because I like long books and there are many long things I tend to procrastinate on
Read two works in translation per month
Read 20,000 pages (this was my norm for a long time, but I drastically undershot it this year).
Tolkien re-read. This was a goal from last year that never got remotely off the ground. It’s just for fun and to be a nerd. Hopefully I manage it this time.

November/December Booklog

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My giant year-in-review post will come along here in a few days, but I want to quickly touch on what I read these last couple of months.

  1. McSweeney’s #50 (5/5) – The did their 50th issue right. I’m not claiming every single element was a home run, but most of the content was. Much better than issue 49.
  2. Spring, A Folio Anthology (3.5/5) – An easy and enjoyable little giveaway from the Folio Society. Nice bits of thematically linked prose and poetry.
  3. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (5/5) – Live up to the hype. Reminded me a bit of Garcia-Marquez, which is a high compliment.
  4. Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich (4/5) – Good, but not as good as her best work. Another entry in the dystopian genre but, well, she really nails the ending, I think. I won’t spoil it, but it’s exactly right.
  5. Vita Nuova by Louise Gluck (3.5/5) – I’ve been slowly reading my way through Gluck. If this was the first thing of hers I’d read, I think I’d be floored, but as it wasn’t
  6. Witch Wife by Kiki Petrosino (3/5) – Some excellent stuff in here, but less unified and somehow more repetitive than her last volume of poetry. I feel like this needed a bit of culling and a little extra material.
  7. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (4/5) – I mostly enjoyed this very much, like all Dickens, it got a bit wordy at times, especially during the last quarter or so. But I’d been meaning to read it for years, and I’m glad I did.

October Book Log

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After two pretty pathetic reading months while I moved and then moved again, I rebounded with my best month of the year, so far. Pretty sure I can hit my yearly goals if I stay on the ball.

  1. Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich (5/5) – I’d read some Erdrich before and liked it without being blown away. Apparently, this is what I should have been reading, because It was fantastic. As I was reading it, I constantly found myself thinking of One Hundred Years of Solitude, in that this seemed to be a novel of place as much as people. There are lots of books right now that do inter-connected narratives. Almost none of them do it as well as this book does.
  2. Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barbery (4/5) – I’ve developed something of a fixation on Barbery. I like her voice – or her voice as I experience it in English, at least. This was probably the least good book of hers I’ve read, but it was still enjoyable. The main character is thoroughly objectionable, and the book as a whole uses that to effectively question the idea of what makes a person worthwhile.
  3. The Crucible by Arthur Miller (5/5) – I hadn’t read this since my junior year of high school. On a related note, I have juniors for the the first time this year. It was in the curriculum and it was time for a re-read. I suppose there isn’t much new to say about it, but it is a particularly relevant work right now. The idea that people will believe what it is convenient for them to believe hits home, to say the least.
  4. Glimmer Train 100 (3/5) – I have little to say about this. A perfectly adequate issue.
  5. Melville by Jean Giono (5/5) – This is a novel written by one of the translator’s involved in the French edition of Moby-Dick. This, I believe, was supposed to be an introductory essay, but ended up as a small novel in which Melville is the main character. It’s delightful and fun with an interesting narrative style that manages to hold onto the idea of the essay while still telling the story.
  6. Scott’s Last Expedition by R.F. Scott (5/5) – This took me ages to read (because of the move), but was entirely worthwhile. It recounts Captain R.F. Scott’s  successful, but also fatal, expedition to the South Pole. Recounts is the wrong word, though. These are his journals. Scott is an engaging narrator with a clear fondness for those he works with. As, I suppose, a could captain should. It makes it hard then, when one can see the end coming. I don’t know if I’ve ever read anything quite like it. Maybe I’ll write a bigger post on it later.
  7. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino (5/5) – When I was in college, I had a writing teacher that assigned a few excerpts from this. I read them and forgot about them for fifteen years before finally picking this up in order to cross Calvino off my “people I need to read” list. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever read. Also unlike anything I’ve ever read before. The nearest it comes is Borges or maybe some Nabokov in that it is very aware of itself and what it’s trying to do. And I love it.

September Book Log

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Moving has caused reading issues for the second month in a row, but things seem to be smoothing out now. I’m in the middle of two big books and hoping October is a banner reading month.

  1. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (4.5/5) – Taught this book for the first time ever. I hadn’t read it since college and it had soured in my mind. Turns out it actually deserves it’s reputation. It’s not perfect, but is very good and incredibly timely right now. Humanity has such a way of repeating the same mistakes over and over again.
  2. Human Acts by Han Kang (3.5/5) – I enjoyed this book, but don’t think it quite rose to the heights of her first novel The Vegetarian. That book presented us with different character perspectives whereas this one had large chunks trying to present a generalist we/you perspective that almost never works for me as a reader.
  3. The Stranger by Albert Camus (5/5) – I thought I was going to teach this, but ended up not teaching it. Anyway, I read it again, obviously, and still love it. I have some unread Camus sitting on my shelf that I need to get to. As is, Mersault is right up there with Humbert Humbert as one of the most interesting insane narrators in literature.

August Book Log

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I generally spent August packing my entire house whilst also minding/trying to feed two kids, so not a lot of reading happened. Only three books.

  1. News of the World by Paulette Giles 3.5/5 – This was a very enjoyable book and an easy read, which I needed amidst the packing chaos. She does try to hard to wrap everything up at the end and that felt a bit cheap to me. A bit of ambiguity is okay. Still, it was a good book and a good read, compelling with well-drawn, honest characters.
  2. Beren and Luthien by J.R.R. Tolkien (3/5) – I wanted this to be a a full assemblage of this narrative, which is one of my favorites from Tolkien. It was, instead, more scholarly discussion of how the narrative evolved over the years. Still interesting, but not exactly what I was after.
  3. Ararat by Louise Glück (4/5) – I’m slowly working my way through all of her poetry. This volume dealt largely with familial relationships in a way that occasionally felt repetitive, but which, in general, was as insightful and resonant as most everything she writes.

July Book Log

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In July, I both sold my house and agreed to buy another house. I predicted back at the beginning of the year that this was going to be a complicated and busy year for me. So far, that’s accurate.

So four books this month and we’ll see about August.

  1. The Life of Elves by Muriel Barbery (4/5) -Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog was my favorite book last year, so it’s safe to say I was excited for this one. As was the case with Elegance this one grows on me the more I think about it. I already wonder if 4/5 is too low a rating. Anyway, this book is like… I don’t know exactly. Imagine if David Mitchell was more fantasy and less sci-fi and also French. I’m going to have to read everything of hers now, I can feel it.
  2. Theft by Finding by David Sedaris (3.5/5) – This is a thick tome consisting of excerpts from Sedaris’ diaries over a 25-year period. Sedaris is an excellent writer, but he wasn’t in 1977. It’s interesting for the story it tells and the last 12 years or so contain a lot of really good writing, but it’s uneven overall.
  3. The Vegetarian by Han Kang (5/5) – Rare is the book where you have nothing in common with any of the characters, but end up genuinely empathizing with nearly all of them. I see myself in none of the people in this book, but their struggles are still very real and the emotions they feel hit home. Kang is a fabulous writer and I’ll be seeking out more of her work.
  4. Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin (4/5) – Finally got around to this. it is, in many ways, supposed to be the Ur of Russian literature. And I see why. It predicts much that comes after it, especially Tolstoy. It was A LOT of metered, rhyming poetry for my taste, but I’m still very glad I read it.

May/June Book Log

Okay, quickly. Here’s what I read during the last two months before a third month passes.

  1. Collected Poems by Carol Ann Duffy (3.5/5) – The first book on the list reflects the issues I had semi-constantly over the last two months. Parts of this are great, parts not so much. And when you’re in a “not so much” stretch, it’s easy to put the book down and leave it there for a while. Such is the danger of collected works.
  2. Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabo (5/5) – This, on the other hand, was fabulous all the way through. I’d read and loved Szabo’s The Door last year and had this strongly recommended to me. Wonderful book wherein even the unlikable characters are understandable and at least somewhat sympathetic.
  3. Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano (4/5) – Three novella here. Two I REALLY liked and one I thought was okay. This is the second Modiano book I’ve read, I’m going to have to seek him out actively now.
  4. Gilmmer Train #99 (3/5) – Uneven, uneven, uneven.
  5. The Wild Iris by Louise Gluck (5/5) – Wonderful collection of poetry. Gluck’s work is sad and self-aware. I know anonymity is the way with poets, but I feel like she should be more widely known and taught.
  6. Eve, Out of Her Ruins by Ananda Devi (4/5) – When I finished this book, I had it rated lower, but as happens at times, it’s stayed with me and I’ve found myself considering it with some frequency. Deep Vellum continues to put out excellent works in translation and this book which delves deeply and honestly into the problems with a world seen from the male gaze is no exception.
  7. McSweeney’s #49 (4/5) – First issue in years and I was glad to have it. It’s all cover stories and most of them are great. A few don’t work. Perhaps because what they covered was a little too iconic.
  8. The Complete Shorter Fiction by Herman Melville (2.5/5) – The height of unevenness. Melville can be transcendent. He can also bore to tears. Both are present in more or less equal weight here.
  9. Letters to a Young Writer by Colum McCann (5/5) – One of the best “on writing” books I’ve read. It dispenses mostly with the This Is What You Have To Do nonsense and focuses on the particular kind of honesty and perseverance that is required of a writer.

March and April Book Log

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Whoops. Hey, kids. Whoops.

Whoops whoops whoops.

I was EXTREMELY distracted during March and read very little and forgot my book log entirely. I was still distracted in April, but at least have it together enough to do this here little post about my reading.

  1. Little Birds by Anaïs Nin (5/5) – This is one of several recommendations I was given over the last couple of months and it was a good one. I hadn’t read any of Nin’s fiction, only her journals. The language was surprisingly spare and there was a wistfulness here that made me think of Sherwood Anderson but with sex.
  2. CivilwarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders (4/5) – Another recommendation and now I’ve finally gotten around to Saunders. I quite liked these stories and I was surprised by how dark they were. Saunders does what the best dystopian writers do. He uses it as a tool to make his point rather than allowing it to be the point on its own.
  3. World Enough and Time by Robert Penn Warren (3/5) – I love Robert Penn Warren and always will, but this book is imperfect. Much too long, especially at the beginning, and with characters who don’t really rise to the level of realness I’m accustomed to. The last 150 pages do really sing and Warren’s gorgeous prose is ever-present.
  4. The City in which I Love You by Li-Young Lee (5/5) – A long delayed re-read. Lee is one of my very favorite poets and it’s been ages since he put anything new out. I wish he’d get on it.
  5. Glimmer Train #98 (3/5) – The most uneven issue of Glimmer Train I’ve read. Some of these stories I’ll end up teaching. Some were so bad I’m confused about how they could possibly have been published. It closes with a novella that is superb, however.
  6. Train Dreams by Denis Johnson (5/5) – Speaking of novellas. This was the last book on this list that was a recommendation and my goodness it is wonderful. Johnson takes a fabulously complex story and somehow wedges it into just over 100 pages. Shades of the best Jack London here as well. I’m going to have to go read everything he’s written now.
  7. What Are the Blind Men Dreaming by Noemi Jaffe (4.5/5) – I’ve pretty much fallen in love with Deep Vellum press now. This is a memoir in two parts. First, the journal of a holocaust survivor and second, her daughter’s reflections on it and upon visiting Auschwitz, where her mother was held. It feels like… I don’t know… Nabokov a little, maybe? I’ve never read anything like this before.
  8. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (4/5) – Reread this because I was teaching it. It’s been years. I didn’t like it as much as I once did, but it’s still an excellent novel.
  9. Before by Carmen Boullosa (4/5) – Another Deep Vellum book. This is novella-length and haunting. I still haven’t gotten it out of my head and may find myself rereading it and becoming more impressed with it as time passes. A sort of ghost story but also not a ghost story. Deep Vellum really does pick fabulous texts.

February Book Log

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Keeping right on pace with where I want to be. Currently in the midst of a very long Robert Penn Warren novel I’d probably have finished if I hadn’t been struck down by the plague for about a week and a half.

  1. When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro (4.5/5) – I probably qualify as an Ishiguro fan boy at this point, but everything I’ve read by him has been really, really good. As with a lot of his writing, this deals with the difficulty of forming and desire to form meaningful connections. In this instance, it’s through the lens of orphanhood with a vaguely Holmes-ian backdrop. Ishiguro has the most creative settings and circumstances. Anyway, read this. It’s good.
  2. The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments by George Johnson (4/5) – This was a Folio Society book that I won at Christmas time (nice little present) and was a great deal of fun to read. It is exactly what it says it is (more or less). A recounting of ten very beautiful instances in which experimentation was effective in advancing our knowledge. It’s nicely written and recommended if you have even a passing interest in science.
  3. Observations by Marianne Moore (2.5/5) – Meh. This poetry was – for the most part – far to formulaic and dependent on rhyme. Which is, I realize, a product of the era to some extent. There is a section in the middle where she moves into free verse and I very much enjoyed those. But, in general, this volume was not my cup of tea.
  4. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (5/5) – I mean, there’s nothing to say about this. Taught it for the first time in years. Still great.
  5. A Zero-Sum Game by Eduardo Rabasa (4/5) – I have VERY high standards for novel-length satire and this came very near meeting them all. It is a frightening indictment of the way value is placed and distributed in Western society and extremely apt in our current political climate. It takes just a little too long to get where it’s going, but it is very well done overall.