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.

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.

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.

August Book Log

September 4, 2017

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.

April Book Log

May 2, 2015

Only seven books this month. I was going for eight. Alas, I finished that one on May first, so you will have to wait, with bated breath to read my little writeup of Bend Sinister.

1. Find Me by Laura van den Berg (4/5) – This book is very interesting the second half is almost completely different from the first half, which is why you find so many scathing reviews from readers out there. The change was abrupt, certainly, but it mostly worked. I prefer this to the other book about a plague making the rounds right now (Station Eleven), but they are so different as to not really be comparable.

2. The Arabian Nights (3/5) – Some of these I liked a lot. Some went on a bit. I don’t have too much to say otherwise.

3. Nora Webster by Colm Toíbín (5/5) – His books always startle me because they seem so simple while you’re reading, but in the end, they leave such a mark. This is a very powerful novel that doesn’t seem powerful at all while one is in it. It’s a story about a woman trying to deal with the death of her husband and raise her children and she manages okay, and that’s kind of it, but at the end, it ends up that you’ve really read something great.

4. The Tempest by William Shakespeare (5/5) – Taught this to my AP class. Probably safe to say this is my favorite Shakespeare at this point. It feels so much more contemporary than most of the rest of his work. Other than teaching, I’ll not be dipping into Bill’s plays too much for a while, though. I’m still recovering from last year.

5. A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (5/5) – This has won some big awards, but it is not a simple read. It is a masterpiece, however. Clearly influenced by James Joyce. It’s hard to imagine a more honest emotional portrait. It is like being immersed in how a person feels their own feelings.

6. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (5/5) – I held Simone off for a while, but after a year, I was ready to read this too her again. She digs it, and I do to. It’s certainly better than the terrible movies that have been out lately. Simone has the animated version from the 70s and has watched it a lot. It’s pretty faithful, but omits Beorn, so when he entered the book she was thrilled (I was wrong, the book is better than then movie!).

7. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (4.5/5) – This won the Pultizer as I was reading it. It is very, very, very good. It’s a different kind of WWII novel than I’d ever read before and I enjoyed how Doerr chose to present it in countless little chapters of intense moments. Not quite a masterpiece if you ask me, but I have a hard time imagining anyone who is a reader not enjoying this book.