September Book Log

October 3, 2018

Four books this month. Not enough, but I’m hoping to pick it up in October.

  1. The Overstory by Richard Powers (4.5/5) – This is one of the big novels of the moment. I was very skeptical for a while because it seemed like a short story collection pretending to be a novel. It isn’t. Everything winds together eventually and wonderfully. The ending is imperfect and just a bit too heavy, but the experience f reading it was definitely worth it.
  2. The Golden Cockerel by Alexander Pushkin (4/5) – I got hold of a wonderfully illustrated little edition of this a while ago. Since, I read The Golden Cockerel by Juan Rulfo. Obviously, folktales wind together. Anyway, there was no real connection. But the Russians are the best and Russian folk tales are always a good read.
  3. Native Speaker by Chang-rae Lee (5/5) – I’m teaching this for the first time in several years. Lee is one of the best writers of prose out there, I think. This book does an excellent job of honestly illustrating humanity and the themes present always feel like things worth considering. It’s focus on recent immigrants feels especially relevant now.
  4. The Imagined Land by Eduardo Berti (4/5) – Another from Deep Vellum Press, which continues to be my favorite indie press. This is a story about pre-revolutionary China translated from Spanish and written by an Argentine writer who currently lives in France. Which, yeah. It seems a recipe for things to go wrong, but it was a satisfying read. The first person narration and close-focus of the story were well-executed and to me, at least, it seemed authentic and well-researched.

July/August Book Log

September 4, 2018

I missed last month in the rush of getting ready for school, so here’s the last two-months of reading. August has been a bad reading month for several years running. Something about the start of the academic year must make it hard for me to focus. Only three of these are from August. Here we go.

  1. Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (2.5/5) – This is a good candidate for disappointment of the year. I’ve really enjoyed everything I’ve read from Egan before. Largely because she’s such an inventive storyteller. But this was so pedestrian.
  2. The Big 50 by Chad Dotson and Chris Garber (5/5) – Yes, I do know these guys. I’ve written about baseball with them for a long time. This is ONLY a book for Reds fans, but if you like the Reds, you’ll be interested.
  3. Summer: A Folio Anthology (4/5) – The last of the little freebie series the Folio Society has been putting out lately. And the best, I think. A very enjoyable afternoon read.
  4. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (4/5) – It has been a long time since I had to teach a book I hadn’t read before. This was my summer homework. I doubt I have anything to say about it that hasn’t been said elsewhere. I did enjoy it though, and it’s an interesting book to teach, so far.
  5. Andy Catlett: Early Education by Wendell Berry (4/5) – The last of my little collection of books form Larkspur Press. It was fun and tiny. I hadn’t read any Berry in a really long time. Maybe I need to again.
  6. The Goblin Market and Selected Poems by Christina Rosetti (5/5) – Now this book I have something to say about it. I had never read any Rosetti before and I can hardly believe Goblin Market was written in the 19th century. It’s so out of step with the time with its obvious sexuality. All of her poetry is highly structured and generally rhymed, but I didn’t feel it like I usually do. Her meter and rhyme were deft and natural seeming in a way that rarely occurs. Not many poets can make me want to read a list of fruits over and over again.
  7. Circe by Madeline Miller (4/5) – Good but not great, which I suppose I should have expected. I feel like it’s a bad sign usually, when writers categorize themselves. The Song of Achilles was a remarkable book but Circe is never as good a character as Achilles was. Her rages are glossed over. She is too rational. In some ways it feels that she’s not much more than a foil for the less rational mortals and gods who pop in and out of her story. I want more from a title character.
  8. Other People’s Love Affairs by D. Wystan Owen (5/5) – The best book of short stories I’ve read since Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy. Despite being ostensibly set in the English town of Glass, these stories feel mostly divorced from place and time. The setting is only there to the extent that it’s a necessary back drop for the characters who all come to life trying to figure out their own particular version of love. I want to teach all of these.
  9. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (5/5) – This is the best birthday present I’ve gotten in a long time. I’d never read any Waugh. He was one of my unfortunate blindspots. This wasn’t what I expected. I’d been made to understand that he wrote a fair bit of biting satire, but Brideshead was something else entirely. It wasn’t until the very end that I knew exactly what kind of story I’d been reading. It wasn’t exactly about love or friendship or family, but it was also about all of those things. All against the backdrop of war. An entirely worthy read.

 

June Book Log

July 10, 2018

Belatedly as always. And quickly.

  1. Craving by Esther Gerritsen (5/5) – This was a strange book. It feels fairly conventional to start, but takes a few turns along the way (I don’t really want to spoil things). Ultimately, the disparate parts work well together by the end of the book. I could stand to read this again at some point and that, in doing so, my assessment might change. I feel like the mind of the author was carefully managing every detail here. It reminds of non-scifi Atwood.
  2. The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien (4/5) – Part of the great Tolkien re-read. The hardest part.
  3. In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick (4/5) – The story of the shipwreck that Melville apparently based Moby Dick on. An interesting read whether you care for that novel or not, but especially intriguing for me since Moby Dick is one of my favorites. Philbrick does a good job with a portrayal of the crew that feels both honest and fair.
  4. In Full Velvet by Jenny Johnson (5/5) – I do not feel especially qualified to comment on these poems without spending more time with them except to say that they are wonderful and complex and I fully recommend them to anyone who is looking for new poetry to read.
  5. Calypso by David Sedaris (4/5) – David Sedaris has been around for so long now and written so many books. What he writes now is less about being overtly funny and more about an honest – if offbeat – appraisal of how we all go about our daily business.
  6. Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls (5/5) – Picked this up on the strength of the first page and was not disappointed. It’s a short novel that slips immediately into science fiction/fantasy without acting as though there’s anything unusual about it. This is, rather obviously, the story upon which The Shape of Water was unofficially based, which I didn’t know when I picked it up. It does what I always want books like this to do, using that which is unusual to force us to question the usual.

April Book Log

May 16, 2018

This is tardy. It’s been a busy time. Okay, quickly now.

  1. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (4/5) – I read a Ferrante book that wasn’t part of the tetralogy several years ago and liked it a lot. I like this almost as much and I’m excited to read through the next three. I didn’t think this one, in particular, was quite as brilliant as everyone else seems to have, but what do I know?
  2. Banthology: Stories from Banned Nations (4/5) – This, as you can tell from the subtitle, is an anthology of stories from all the nations that were/are part of Trump’s travel ban. Of course, the saddest thing about collections like this is that, generally, the people who most need to read it never will. Good stories, nevertheless, that provide windows into places we in America don’t see often enough.
  3. McSweeney’s 51 (4/5) – I don’t know why this was the month for four-star books, but it was. This was the first “regular” issue of McSweeney’s in ages. The quality of the writing is generally very good, though as is typically the case with journals, I found there to be a few duds. Mostly, I’m glad that they’re finally steaming along again because, more than any other important magazine, they try to be interesting and give us writing that isn’t the same old MFA claptrap.
  4. The River of Consciousness by Oliver Sacks (4/5) – This book was really fun and interesting and you should read it. I learned interesting things about the mind and it’s going to send me down a path of more reading, which I always enjoy. The only reason it isn’t a 5 is that it wasn’t quite as unified as I wanted it to be, reading more like collected essays than an actual book.

March Book Log

April 1, 2018

I continue to truck along with the only real difficulty being making sure I finish a long book every month. As was the case with January, I’m nearing the end of my long book (The Worst Journey in the World) but not quite there. Otherwise, it was an incredibly pleasing month of reading with one exception.

  1. The Golden Cockerel and Other Writing by Juan Rulfo (5/5) – There is a blurb on the back of my copy of this book where Gabriel Garcia-Marquez essentially gives Rulfo credit for his own writing. I don’t know that there could be a stronger endorsement. And the connection is clear. This is very much proto-Garcia-Marquez and it is uniformly brilliant all the way through.
  2. Playing in the Dark by Toni Morrison (5/5) – Morrison mentioned this volume in an interview I watched while prepping to teach Jazz earlier this year, and I was intrigued. It’s a scholarly look at the way white American writers have dealt with blackness in the their novels. Really interesting and convincing work by a brilliant writer and thinker.
  3. The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride (5/5) – McBride’s first novel A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing was a work of genius that was also nearly impenetrable. This novel is no less brilliant, but much more accessible as it gives a stream-of-consciousness account of romance between well drawn and complex characters. I definitely expect it to be on my end of year list. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
  4. The Nagano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami (2.5/5) – Meh. There is nothing wrong with this book. Is well-written and I have no issues with any particular bits or passages, but I didn’t register a single feelings the entire time I was reading it. The characters aren’t much more than a collection of nervous ticks that try to stand in for human traits.
  5. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (5/5) – I hadn’t read this in ages, but I’m teaching it, so a re-read was called for. This book is heavily chronicled at this point and if you haven’t read it, you should. O’Brien does the most honest job of writing about war of anyone I’ve read.
  6. Rumors of Light by Leslie Shane (5/5) – I was recently lucky enough to be given several editions from an Larkspur Press, which is an artisan book producer here in Kentucky. The books are gorgeous and this one, which is the first I’ve read, is excellent pastoral poetry. This kind of poetry often feels stale or empty but Shane finds new wrinkles and manages to play with the language without losing the mood or feel of a pastoral piece. Very well done.

February Book Log

March 2, 2018

Read pretty much exactly what I wanted to read in February. On track with all goals and so forth. Hooray for me.

  1. Freya by Anthony Quinn (2/5) – Holy crap. I was enjoying this book immensely. For the first 400 or so pages. Unfortunately, it’s about 550 pages long. I’ve never seen a book crash and burn like this before. It was amazing. To construct a character so thoughtfully 400 pages and to then quickly contradict and destroy everything you’ve created. It was every possible bad decision about how to end a book. It’s almost an accomplishment how thoroughly he ruins it all.
  2. Jazz by Toni Morrison (5/5) – Taught this book for a the first time in a few years. I really enjoy teaching it because the structure is so different from what kids are used to seeing. It challenges them interesting ways. And I continue to enjoy it, having read it 4 or 5 times now, which says something as that’s usually the point for me when even books I love often become a bit stale.
  3. Magnetic Point by Ryszard Kynicki (4/5) – Over the last few years, I’ve kind of developed a thing for Eastern European writing. Especially poetry. And with poetry, what you get are mostly these selected poem collections of someone’s enormous and important career. It’s interesting the trace the phases and I inevitably prefer some to others, but this volume was mostly up my alley. Tranströmer with a bit more naturalism is, I suppose, how I’d describe it.
  4. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino (5/5) – This book was an absolute delight. I am just going to read all the Calvino. When I finished this one, I laughed loudly and delightedly. I can’t remember ever having that response to a book before. I think anyone who hasn’t read this and really enjoys reading will appreciate it and take quite a bit of joy from it. It is a book for readers.
  5. The Violins of Saint-Jacques by Patrick-Leigh Fermor (3/5) – The introduction to this little volume acknowledges that Fermor is an interloper to the culture he is trying to capture, and it’s disappointingly true. The story is brief and compelling, but it is very much the kind of book colonizers have always written.
  6. The Great Unknown by Marcus Du Sautoy (4/5) – I had a lot of fun reading this book, which explores questions about science and how far it can reach in a compelling and self-aware manner. Sautoy doesn’t ignore any of the elephants in the room and I learned quite a bit. Most of the physics stuff I’d read previously, but this was a very enjoyable book if you’re of the kind of science-nerdy persuasion that I am. I sped through it, as well, thanks to an easy-to-embrace narrative voice that never overcomplicates or talks down to the reader.

January Book Log

February 3, 2018

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

January 6, 2018

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

January 1, 2018

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

November 1, 2017

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.