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.

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.

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.

September Book Log

October 1, 2016

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.

February Book Log

March 1, 2015

February was a good month, especially given that it’s the shortest month of the year. I’m in a weird strained place with reading right now. I’m teaching two different books and Simone has me reading The Hobbit to her again. It’s all well and good, but it makes it hard to finish anything very quickly and I do still want to read some other books. Anyway, eight books this month. Some I was less than thrilled with…

1. Seven-Star Bird by David Daniel (3.5/5) – This is a collection of poems. The latter half of the book is great, especially when he goes into prose poetry. The early parts I could do without, but that’s always the danger of collections. Still glad I read it.

2. Matilda by Roald Dahl (5/5) – Simone is back on chapter books with a vengeance. I loved reading this one to her. It’s so absurd and delightful. Dahl doesn’t pull punches. He also keeps from getting too preachy. My favorite of his that Simone and I have read together so far.

3. McSweeney’s 48 (5/5) – This is among the very best McSweeney’s issues I’ve ever read. Were there some stories I liked more than others? Of course, but they we re all at least very good and some were spectacular. I can actually imagine myself going back to this for things to teach to my writing classes. Great, great issue.

4. When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka (3.5/5) – I’ve read both of her books now. Each a slim volume. And while there are stretches of greatness, I never feel like she’s gone deep enough. The last 2/3 of this is great, but the first is rather lackluster and the whole thing could stand more character development.

5. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuine (3/5) – Meh. That’s what a three is for me. Meh. It was fine. Margaret Atwood called it a modern classic and I’m always on the lookout for good fantasy writing (because I have a hard time finding it), so I got it from the library. Didn’t do much for me. Too much plot. Not nearly enough character.

6. The BFG by Roald Dahl (3.5/5) – Can you tell Simone and I have been reading a lot lately? This was nice, but it had some poorly executed stretches, thus it didn’t rise to the level of Matilda.

7. Fire by Anaïs Nin (3/5) – I’d read snatches of Nin here and there and this had been on my to-read shelf for a long time. Mostly, I don’t think reading diaries is really for me. It’s too repetitive. There were moments of greatness, but I’d much rather read a novelization of all of this.

8. All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost by Lan Samantha Chang (5/5) – Finally, a great novel to close out the month. This is a brisk 205 pages, but what pages. It is a campus novel, but it is up with Stoner among the best campus novels I have ever read. The characters are so full and rich and all of their mistakes are so understandable. It is a perfect little book. I don’t know that any writer could hope to do better. I can’t recommend it more strongly.

December Book Log

January 1, 2015

This was a really nice reading month for me. I finished eleven books, which ties the most books I’ve ever read in a month. A lot of them were short, though, as I was powering through Shakespeare, which I did finish, so there’s another goal met. December’s list is below. My year-in-review post will be up in a day or two.

1. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (5/5) – I taught this book for the second time this year and read it for, I don’t know, the bazillionth time. It’s good. You know. Dickens and all that. I won’t pretend I have new stuff to say about it.

2. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (5/5) – I also taught this, but reading it for only the second time, I took a great deal from it. As with all books that I reread, I was able to appreciate the way Tolstoy structured this. Of particular note were the complimentary narratives of Levin and Anna, which play off each other brilliantly. Anna Karenina deserves it’s reputation as one of the greatest novels ever, and I continue to be impressed by Tolstoy’s excellent run at providing the meaning of life.

3. The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare (5/5) – Here at the end, Shakespeare has become a bit more uneven. Lots unfinished. Lots of strange choices, but this was great. It does a wonderful job of mixing comedic elements with a serious exploration of redemption. Well done all around. It’s one I’ll revisit.

4. Cymbeline by William Shakespeare (4/5) – It is easy to imagine this as one of Shakespeare’s great plays. The material is all there. The story is compelling. But it is either unfinished or not entirely written by Shakespeare (or, perhaps, just lazily done in places). The poetry isn’t there like it is in his best plays, and so it’s not quite a masterwork.

5. The Tempest by William Shakespeare (5/5) – I remembered this as one of my favorites by Shakespeare, and it still is. Brisk and brilliant, I’ll be teaching it in the new year, and it’s one of few I feel like I can stand to re-read right away. It belongs every bit in the same place as Lear or Macbeth or Hamlet.

6. Henry VIII by William Shakespeare (4/5) – This is a collaboration, and as the collaborations have been generally terrible, I was not looking forward to it. I was pleasantly surprised. It’s fun in a way that none of Shakespeare’s other plays are. And Henry VIII comes with a good story already. This is the only one of Shakespeare’s collaborations that I might someday revisit.

7. Edward III by William Shakespeare (2.5/5) – The last one I had to read. It is such a recent addition to the cannon that it wasn’t included in my complete Shakespeare, and I only found out about it through friend. There are moments of nice poetry, but overall, it is not a good play. No need to ever read it again.

8. McSweeney’s 32 (3.5/5) – A back issue I picked up at a used book store. It was decidedly meh. I’m starting to figure out that whenever McSweeney’s commissions writers to write on a particular topic, they get a couple of great stories, a few okay, and several that just don’t work.

9. Leonard Cohen: Songs and Poems by Leonard Cohen (3/5) – This is part of the Pocket Poets series. There are some very, very good pieces here, but Cohen writes about the same stuff in the same way fairly often and his rhymes are pretty obvious. I like him best when he sticks to unrhymed free verse. In those instances, his creative metaphors and similes really shine.

10. The Call of the Wild by Jack London (5/5) – Cate got me a beautiful illustrated edition of this for Christmas. I really like Jack London, but hadn’t read this since seventh grade. Because he is so often read only by middle school boys, London gets unfairly overlooked. HIs sentences are great and he is able to pack a pretty fierce emotional punch in not that many pages. Having re-read it, this feels like one I’ll revisit with some regularity.

11. In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat by John Gribbin (5/5) – This was a great book. I like to read about physics, and no one ever gives a good in-depth treatment to quantum mechanics. This does AND it makes quantum mechanics really accessible. Gribbin is an excellent writer and now I’m going to see what other stuff he has written and maybe read that, too.

November Book Log

December 5, 2014

Well, let’s call this month the one about Shakespeare. I had been slowly falling off the pace, and if I was going to finish the plays this year, I had to get on it. the result is that I read seven different plays by Bill this month as well as three other books. My long book for the month is Anna Karenina, which, under normal circumstances, I’d have finished ages ago, but I’m teaching it, so I have to move at the same pace as my students, and they still have a little more than 100 pages to go in it. Anyway, here we are.

1. All’s Well that Ends Well by William Shakespeare (1/5) – This rivals Titus for the worst Shakespeare I’ve read. I will never return to it, and I suggest you stay away.

2. King Lear by William Shakespeare (5/5) – This, on the other hand, was another masterpiece from Shakespeare. It was the only one of the great tragedies I hadn’t read. Unsurprisingly, it is great. There’s a particular humanity to this one that feels almost unique in Shakespeare. Lear’s descent into madness and eventual remorse feel real in a way that resonates still. There’s nothing about it that is confined to a particular time. One of my favorites. I may actually prefer it to Hamlet.

3. Timon of Athens by William Shakespeare (2/5) – And  now another dud. This was either not entirely written by Shakespeare or never finished. It is quite a bore. There are some nice moments toward the end, but it’s another one to skip.

4. McSweeney’s #47 (4.5/5) – After what I felt was an off issue in #46, I was very pleased with the content here. Nicely diverse. The newly discovered Shirley Jackson stories were definitely highlights. Only one featured author was a bit of a dud. Otherwise, gold all the way through. Also, another awesome design. This issues came slipped case with ten pamphlets for nine different authors (plus letters for the tenth). The pamphlets can be lined up to create one long cover illustration that is a mirror image of itself. So neat.

5. Macbeth by William Shakespeare (5/5) – When I read this in high school, I hated it. I was very, very, very wrong. Completely brilliant. I love how tight it is. Everything in this is completely essential. It is, by some measures, his shortest play, but it deserves it’s reputation as one of his best.

6. Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare (4.5/5) – This play wasn’t perfect in the way of Lear or Macbeth, but it was wonderfully intriguing. I hadn’t read it before, and I love how dynamic the character of Marc Antony is when this is combined with Caesar. The two together make for a fascinating set. I never quite by Shakespearean battle scenes, though, and this has a few to many of them.

7. Pericles, Prince of Tyre by William Shakespeare (3/5) – Another one that isn’t fully written by Shakespeare. Meh. Very meh. One thing I’ve learned about Shakespeare is that, if it’s rumored that he didn’t write all of it, it’s not worth so much of your time.

8. THT Annual 2015 (N/A) – I’m not going to rate this here because I have an article in it and I was one of the primary editors, but it is a good book if you’re into super-nerdy baseball stuff. There’s lots of excellent analysis you won’t find anywhere else. You should buy it.

9. The Street by Ann Petry (5/5) – The last book on Cate’s list for me this year, and it might be the one I like the best. I’ve read a few books this year that have dealt explicitly with race or class and it amazes me how relevant they continue to be. The Street is getting to be an old book, and yet, it doesn’t seem that we’ve really come all that far. It’s something everyone could stand to read.

10. Coriolanus by William Shakespeare (4/5) – The accompanying materials I read with this try to place it in the Othello/Hamlet/Lear/Macbeth echelon. I don’t quite see it. I found it rather dry in spots. Which isn’t to say it’s bad. it’s actually quite good, but I don’t think it sits with Shakespeare’s very best work. Also, I am really running out of stuff to say about William Shakespeare.

Okay, one more book log left for the year. I’ve already hit just about every goal I set for myself (just a few more plays to read), and I’m excited to finish the reading year. See you next month.