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.

January Book Log

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Welcome to yet another year of book logs. Here we go.

  1. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (3.5/5) – I read this book because it shows up as important for lots of writers I really admire and respect. My feelings about it are mixed. It is a philosophical and nearly plotless novel. I don’t mind the plotlessness a bit and quite enjoy watching the relationships develop between the characters. However, far, far too much time is spent giving voice to various philosophical viewpoints. I’m glad I read it, but I very much doubt I’ll ever consider reading it again.
  2. Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space by Janna Levin (4/5) – This book deals with the narrative of the quest to detect gravitational waves and provide experimental confirmation of an aspect of Einstein’s relativity. It is a VERY well written book and n intriguing read, especially because gravitational waves were, in fact, detected as she was finishing the book, resulting in an additional chapter being added. There are a couple of spots where I could have done with less detail regarding the petty in-fighting that breaks out between some of the scientists, but it’s an interesting read all the same. Excellent book for the right kind of nerd.
  3. Fox by Adrienne Rich (4/5) – A very enjoyable collection of poetry. I’m under-read on Rich and trying to fix that. If one were to cut a few poems where she is perhaps a bit over-fixated on anatomy, this would be a perfect collection.
  4. All my Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (5/5) – This book was great. I’d been meaning to read it for a while and I’m glad I finally got to it. It deals primarily with depression and sadness between siblings, but also paints an evocative and realistic picture of the confusion of adult life with children and how complicated everything can be. Early contender for my end-of-year list.
  5. Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith (4.5/5) – This book uses the octopus and other cephalopods to discuss consciousness and what it means to be sentient. The best nonfiction books, alter or enhance how you see the world and this did both of those for me. I understand some things better now and, as a result, I have more questions.

2016 Reading Year in Review

I have now been doing this for eight years. That’s a long time to do something on the internet. Hooray for me. Let’s see how I did…

Goals:

I read a lot more women writers and spent a lot of time in my local bookstore. So I was good on those. Did not, however, ready much that was long and sprawling. Oh well. I’m in the middle of a giant book right now, at least.

By the Numbers:

Books Read: 72 (goal was 75)
Pages Read: 16,692 (goal was 20,000)
Average per Book: 232 Pages
Pages per Day: 46

Biggest Reading Month: March – 9 books, 1915 pages
Smallest Reading Month: August – 3 books, 872 pages

Five Longest Books:

Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel – 604 pgs.
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – 521 pgs.
Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen – 510 pgs.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoet by David Mitchell – 478 pgs.
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren – 464 pgs.

Five Shortest Books:

The Deleted World by Tomas Tranströmer – 37 pgs.
No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre – 46 pgs.
Meadowlands by Louise Glück – 62 pgs.
Lampblack & Ash by Simone Muench – 65 pgs.
Shirt in Heaven by Jean Valentine – 65 pgs.

Books I Read Again:

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
The Great Enigma by Tomas Tranströmer
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K Rowling
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Transformations by Anne Sexton
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

These were mostly the result of teaching/Simone again. Such is always the case.

Biggest Disappointment of the Year:

Nicely enough, I didn’t have anything that really disappointed me this year. Which is to say the books I didn’t particular care for didn’t come with high expectations.

Best Books of the Year

As my reading has become more diverse, it’s been harder and harder for me to figure out what categories to use and rank. And, so, rather than divide things up, here are my 10 favorite books form last year that I read for the first time.

Honorable Mentions: The National Geographic Book of Nature Poetry (best book of poetry for children I’ve ever encountered. By far), Winter in the Blood by James Welch, Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper, Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón, The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, Meadowlands by Louise Glück, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

10. Mischling by Affinity Konar – One of two books on this list that is crushingly sad. What I loved most about this, however, was the way Konar tells a story in which the worst perpetrators of the holocaust are characters without having the story being about them (a sentiment one of the main characters even voices at one point in the novel). It’s a wonderfully told story as well as a denial of validation to horrible people.

9. Incorrect Merciful Impulses by Camille Rankine – One of four volumes of poetry on my list. I like best how it acknowledges imperfection without apologizing for humanity.

8. Blood of the Dawn by Claudia Salazar Jiménez – I just published the book log with this a few days ago. Still amazed at how she fits to much into so few pages. Like Mischling, this deals with some of the worst in humanity, but shines the light where it needs to be.

7. Fort Red Border by Kiki Peterino – Like all literature, poetry often takes itself to seriously. This volume is light in spirit while also carrying plenty of artistic weight. That’s a tough trick.

6. To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey – Having seen two novels from Ivey now, I think it’s safe to call her a genius. Among authors I’ve read, I can’t think of anyone living who’s started their career this strongly. Most take a book or two to really get going. She hasn’t. As an aside, this book, does a great job of incorporating visual elements into the story. Everything is perfectly constructed and thought out.

5. The Door by Magda Szabó – This is a story about isolation and the desire for human connection. Heavily metaphorical and perfectly crafted. I’d love to teach it some day.

4. Parallax by Sinéad Morrisey – My favorite volume of poetry this year. There is something about Irish writers in general that tends to resonate with me, but this, especially is filled with the kind of careful language and inventive imagery that is present in the best poetry.

2(tie). Moonglow by Michael Chabon – I can’t pick a second place book. I finished Moonglow right at the end of the year and was bowled over. I need a little more distance from it before I can correctly place it against the next book listed here. Chabon is one of my very favorite writers and, early on, was one of the people who made me want to write. The only thing he’s written that’s better than this is The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

2(tie). Commonwealth by Ann Patchett – This deep exploration of the nature of family may be Ann Patchett’s best work. I need to re-read a couple of things before I can say that for sure. But it is so radically and impressively different from everything else she’s done. I didn’t even know she had this gear and it makes me excited to see what she does next.

1. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery – I never know exactly what to say about what makes my favorite book of the year my favorite. This one, I suppose, knocked me over more than anything else. Perfectly formed, human characters. An honest story that manages to affirm existence in the way of Tolstoy. That’s the highest praise I can give, I think.

Goals for 2017:

I’m pretty happy with a lot of where I’ve landed reading wise. I have a suspicion that this will be a busy year, so I’m lowering my counting goals a bit to 60 books and 15,000 pages.

Other goals:

  1. More works in translation. I recently got a subscription to Deep Vellum, which should help with this. There are several works in translation on my top-10 this year, which is a good motivator.
  2. More poetry. This last year is the first time I’ve started writing poetry really seriously. I’ve been reading more as a result and enjoying it very much.
  3. Actually read more long books. Really. For real. I mean it. Nothing like finishing a book that is both wonderful and really long.
  4. Knock out the too-read shelf. Some of these have been sitting here a really long time. Gotta read ’em or get rid of ’em.
  5. A choronological Tolkien reread. A friend mentioned this to me and it sounded like fun, so I’m going to read about Middle Earth starting in the first age. Call me a nerd. I’m cool with it.

December Book Log

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Five books to close out the year. As with last month, I ended December in the middle of a big book (The Magic Mountain). Big end-of-year reading post to come sometime this week.

  1. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoet by David Mitchell (4.5/5) – This had been on my shelf for quite a while and I finally got to it. I really do enjoy everything Mitchell does. I’m also starting to see the way he weaves his universe together. This was a brilliantly told bit of historical fiction that managed to connect to his other books while also remaining entirely realistic.
  2. Blood of the Dawn by Claudia Sanchez Jimenez (5/5) – Breathtaking and sad. This is one of the darkest, but also one of the most honest books I read all year. Dealing with horrible violence in Peru in the 80s and 90s, this book manages to be of short length but enormous scope. Highly recommended.
  3. Moonglow by Michael Chabon (5/5) – It’s safe to say I was entirely blown away by this. I’ve loved most of what Chabon has written, but I’d also been waiting for him to recapture some of the magic he had when he wrote Wonder Boys and Kavalier and Clay. Here, he does. This is, I think, second only Kavalier and Clay among his work. It is brilliant story telling and the character are as real as anyone you’ll find in any book. I can’t praise this enough.
  4. Folio: A Winter Anthology (4/5) – This was a giveaway compilation by The Folio Society, whose books I very much enjoy. It’s a nice little collection. Easy to read and seasonally relevant.
  5. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling (4/5) – It’s safe to say Harry Potter mania has hit Simone full on. As with the first book, this one was better when I was reading it to a child. Seeing it through her eyes, I was much less concerned about some of the little things that bothered me about it before. I’m excited to work through the series again as I recall being rather impressed by the later books.

November Book Log

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I read five books in November, a bit off my normal pace, but I’m in the middle of one of the big David Mitchell books and didn’t manage to finish it before November was up. Anyway, here we go…

  1. Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris (5/5) – I went for this as a therapeutic re-read after several books in a row about war and death. It was a good call. Sedaris at his best is as funny as they come, and this book is, I think, tied with Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim as his best. I was surprised, re-reading it, how much extra depth I found, though. I amy have to start working my way back through more of his writing.
  2. The Hardball Times Annual – I don’t rate this book because I’m too involved in the production to be in anyway objective. However, as an editor, I think this is the best one I’ve been involved with and that’s saying something, because they always contain excellent baseball writing. Certainly worthwhile for any baseball fan.
  3. How I Became a North Korean by Krys Lee (4/5) – I read her book of short stories last month and while this wasn’t quite as good as those, it was still an excellent and worthwhile read. I feel like she does an excellent job of making North Korea seem like a real place when the face we see of it in America is often so farcical and terrifying.
  4. Transformations by Anne Sexton (5/5) – Another re-read, mostly because I had a conversation about Anne Sexton. This is on my 100 favorite books list and there’s a reason. Great use of traditional fairy tales to comment on 20th century America.
  5. Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge (4.5/5) – Count Bainbridge as the first writer I ever discovered from a song. Mark Knopfler wrote a song about her and I looked her up and then I got a copy of this book and it was fabulous. I feel like this might work on me like The Sun Also Rises did where, the more I read it, the more I find inside. Definitely a candidate to be re-read soon.

October Book Log

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This was a good reading month. I’m nice and on track to read 75 books this year, so that’s fun. Onward.

  1. Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen (4.5/5) – I was interested to see how this book was. Springsteen, obviously, knows how to use words, but I was prepared for this to be a bit of an over-wrought mess. It wasn’t. It was, in fact, really interesting. There are somethings I’d like to have learned more about and some things I could have with less of, but in general, it is a well-told life story and Springsteen really is a good writer
  2. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (4/5) – I was an adult by the time Harry Potter became a thing, so when I read the books it was mostly out of curiosity. I remember finding the first several books unspectacular. However, this time, I was reading it with the kids and it did radically change my experience. They are hooked and a good time was certainly had by all.
  3. Distant Lands: An Anthology of Poets Who Don’t Exist by Agnieszka Kuciak (4/5) – Another in my run of bookstore poetry finds. This is a fun concept and she deftly manages to write from many different voices and personas. Some of those voices enchant me and others don’t, but they all appear distinct.
  4. Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare (5/5) – Re-read this for teaching. I still think it has the most recognizable quotations of any Shakespearean play with the possible exception of Romeo and Juliet.
  5. Drifting House by Krys Lee (5/5) – This is a really nice collection of stories that address Korea, especially the north/south tension, in a way I don’t know that I’ve ever seen in English-language literature. Not that it hasn’t happened, but I haven’t read it. Add to it that her writing is very, very, very and good and it makes for a en excellent read. There are several teachable stories here for me. I have her other book in my to-read pile right now and I’m excited to get to it.
  6. Glimmer Train #97 (3.5/5) – I feel like this was a slightly off issue for Glimmer Train, but there were still several really great stories.
  7. Mischling by Affinity Konar (5/5) – This was a good reading month and this book was the best thing I read. Completely heartbreaking. I don’t want to write too much about it, but I do want you to go read it.

September Book Log

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Well, this month I got more or less back to normal after a few months of very little reading. 7 books and lots of really great stuff. Here we go…

  1. Fermat’s Last Theorem by Simon Singh (4.5/5) – This is an excellently written account of the quest to solve a several-hundred-year-old math problem. Singh does a good job of making it compelling. There really is a fair bit of drama in the situation. Anyway, a good book, especially if you’re the nerdy type as I am.
  2. McSweeney’s 31 (2/5) – Ugh. I picked this up in a used bookstore not too long ago. It’s the worst issue of McSweeney’s I’ve read. The concept is to have modern writers revisit old writing forms. Unfortunately, almost all of the entries are delivered with an ironical “I’m above this tone” that wears thin very quickly.
  3. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (5/5) – This book was wonderful. One of two genuine masterpieces I read this month. It is very French and very philosophical, but the characters are still fully-formed individuals who function as people as well as ideas. A wonderful exploration of how it is easy to underestimate both others and ourselves.
  4. Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (5/5) – I love Ann Patchett, but her last couple of novels haven’t been up to her earlier standards, I thought. This, however, is the best thing she’s ever written. I’m not exaggerating. It goes so far beyond her best work, that I found myself almost dumbstruck. And again, she’s one of my favorite writers. The idea here is to explore the way fractured families interact while also looking at the idea of fictionalization, biography, story-telling, and how stories change. She pulls off every bit of it. It is a perfect novel.
  5. No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre (5/5) – I’d never read any Sartre and I’d been intimidated by what I’d heard others say about him. This is a play about three people in hell, and I didn’t have any issues with this at all. I found it alternatingly funny and heartbreaking.
  6. East of the Sun, West of the Moon (5/5) – Norse fairytales illustrated by Kay Nielsen. The point is largely the gorgeous pictures, but I’ve read enough fairy tales now to be interested in the way different stories get twisted as they move from one culture to the next. There were also some things in here, I hadn’t seen yet.
  7. The Great Enigma by Tomas Tranströmer (5/5) – This is my favorite volume of poetry and I needed a re-read. I find poetry restorative and while Tranströmer’s vision can be bleak, there is a clarity to what he writes that allows the reader to at least understand the placement of everything in the disordered puzzle of the world.