2018 Reading Year in Review

January 5, 2019

Welcome to the annual review of my reading experiences. Life continues to be busy. Last year, I moved. This year, I changed jobs. Who knows what will happen in the coming year. Let’s talk about books.

Books Read: 57 (goal was 70)
Pages Read: 14,134 (goal was 20,000)
Average per Book: 248 pgs.
Pages per Day: 38.8

Biggest Reading Month: February – 6 books, 1815 pages.

Smallest Reading Month: October – 4 books, 787 pages.

Five Longest Books:

  1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy – 819 pgs.
  2. Freya by Anthony Quinn – 556 pgs.
  3. The Overstory by Richard Powers – 502 pgs.
  4. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon – 487 pgs.
  5. Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan – 430 pgs.

I find it weird that I only read three books that topped 500 pages even though I had almost exactly the same average book length as 2017. Lots of medium-sized books, I guess.

Five Shortest Books:

  1. Best to Keep Moving by Jess Worley – 26 pgs.
  2. Andy Catlett: Early Education by Wendell Berry – 27 pgs.
  3. The Golden Cockerel by Alexander Pushkin – 42 pgs.
  4. Rumors of Light by Welsey Shane- 58 pgs.
  5. Phrasis by Wendy Xu – 60 pgs.

Books I Read Again:

  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Hamlet
  • The Little Prince
  • The Things They Carried
  • The Hobbit
  • The Silmarillion
  • Jazz
  • Native Speaker
  • Anna Karenina
  • 1984

Most of these were teaching books, as is always the case.

Now, onto my favorite and least favorite books of the year.

Biggest Disappointment of the Year: Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan. I generally LOVE Jennifer Egan. Her story telling is almost always inventive and intriguing. This… wasn’t. It was fine, but it didn’t take me anywhere I wasn’t expecting to go. It always hurts the most when a favorite writer lets you down.

The Top 10

  1. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino – This became one of my favorite books the moment I finished reading it. It’s top-5 for me. It’s also impossible to explain to someone in a way that doesn’t sound stupid. But if you like to read, you should read this book.
  2. The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride – McBride’s first book – A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing was a work of genius. So is this, but this one is much more accessible. I feel like her work will be read for decades.
  3. The Book of Communities by Maria Gabriela Llansol – My top three books this year all approached fiction in unconventional ways and this is perhaps the least conventional. I suppose there’s a story, but it’s more a novel of feeling, I suppose? I have more of her work to read (soon) and I might return to this one. I can’t get it out of my head.
  4. Other People’s Love Affairs by D. Wystan Owen – These stories are very conventional in some ways, but they also exist in a kind of timeless reality that feels reminiscent of Cheever. One of the most perfectly written story collections I’ve come across in a very long time.
  5. Craving by Esther Gerritsen – This book will catch you off guard. It will take you places you don’t expect it to go. Be prepared.
  6. Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls – I randomly grabbed this book. As soon as I started reading it, I realized it was the basis for The Shape of Water (which I have not seen). It is a quick and excellent read about the malaise of a certain kind of existence.
  7. The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli – I just posted about this book yesterday. The best nonfiction I’ve read in a couple of years, I think.
  8. Goblin Market and Other Poems by Christina Rosetti – Easily the oldest book on this list. I hadn’t really read Rosetti before and I’m irritated that I never had. Her writing is magical and so outside the expectations for her time period that it’s easy to understand why she’s under-appreciated.
  9. Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse – A long overdue first read of a classic. In a way, this is probably a progenitor for some other books on my list. A fascinating exploration of duality.
  10. Phrasis by Wendy Xu – The last book I finished this year. As with the Rovelli, I posted about it yesterday.

Goals for Next Year

My life has changed so much in the last several years, that setting goals for reading almost seems pointless. I don’t know how much I’ll read or what is reasonable. I’d like to hit 60 books and 15,000 pages. I’d like to read a few of giant books I’ve never read before. I’d like to revisit some old favorites I haven’t picked up for a while. We’ll see what happens with regards to all that, but I’ll most likely be here writing about it next year.

December Book Log

January 4, 2019

The Year-in-Review reading post will be along in the next few days, but we’ve got a book log to do first.

  1. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (4/5) – A really good book recommended by my pal Chadwick Ulysses Dotson. It is his favorite book ever, but not quite mine. It was a quick read and very enjoyable. Exactly what I needed when I was reading it. I do think it drags a bit in the second half and works too hard to tie everything up with a bow. I have a hard time imagining someone who reads and wouldn’t enjoy this book, though.
  2. The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli (5/5) – This was a wonderful exposition of the complexities of time in reality versus how we perceive it from our limit perspective. I rarely feel moved to quote a passage, but take a gander at this:

    The difference between things and events is that things persist in time; events have a limited duration. A stone is a prototypical “thing”; we can ask where it will be tomorrow. Conversely, a kiss is an “event.” It makes no sense to ask where the kiss will be tomorrow. The world is made up of networks of kisses, not of stones.

  3. Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen (4/5) – Enjoy Ibsen very much and read something of his every so often just because. This was probably my least favorite of what I’ve read so far, but it’s still excellent and still feels more modern in its critique of society than any 150 year old play should be.
  4. McSweeney’s 53 (5/5) – This issue was perfect all the way through. And that’s so hard for a quarterly to do. And excellent issue to start with if you’ve ever been curious about them.
  5.  Phrasis by Wendy Xu (5/5) – Sometimes, I go the book store and pull random volumes of poetry off the shelf. I read a poem or two and when I find something I like, I buy it and take it home. That’s what happened here. These poems are as close to perfect as poetry can be, I think. Xu has a linguistic playfulness that manages to supplement rather than undercut her themes, which are generally more serious (and varied, which is alway nice, plenty of poetry collections are repetitive).

October/November Book Log

December 8, 2018

The academic year has been completely insane so far correspondingly, my reading has been slow AND it’s been hard to write about reading. Anyway, here’s what’s been knocked out the last couple of months.

  1. McSweeney’s 52 (4.5/5) – I’m so glad McSweeney’s is back to publishing regularly. They aren’t perfect, but they make such an effort to find interesting stories and diverse voices. This was an an excellent issue.
  2. The Book of Communities by Maria Gabriel Llansol (5/5) – This was an incredible little book. I don’t know exactly how to describe what it is any better than the title. It’s rare to find a book that surprises me in the way it approaches narrative, but it’s happened a couple of times lately.
  3. Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (4/5) – Reread for teaching. I have nothing new to say here.
  4. My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Mosfegh (3/5) – This book has gotten a fair amount of press. I thought it was really interesting. My central issues with it is that I feel like it’s longer than it needs to be. Even so, it’s a quick and interesting read. I just don’t find it to be as resonant as many do.
  5. 1984 by George Orwell (5/5) – I hadn’t read this in ages, but I was teaching it this year, so it was back to it. I liked it better than I remembered liking it before. Perhaps because it was so incredibly relevant. So relevant, in fact, that class discussion of it often had the students visibly uncomfortable.
  6. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (5/5) – This was a reread to keep me sane. And the first time I’d read this book at my own pace instead of to a child in a very long time. I love it. I could do Tolkien forever.
  7. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (5/5) – Still one of my very favorite books ever. I hadn’t read it in several years. This time, I found myself more engaged in Levin’s story than I ever had before. He’s certainly infuriating at times, but his uncertainty and constant search for meaning and purpose feel very relevant to me after the last several years of my life.

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.