Bookshelves #18

I last did one of these bookshelf posts nearly a year ago. I’m back! I’m skipping shelves 16 and 17, which hold mostly cookbooks, most of which I don’t ever consult (so why do I keep them?).

Starting along the top, there’s a repeat. The Burned Children of America anthology lived in shelf #15 when I wrote that post, but I’ve since loaned it out and placed it back on this shelf because my system of shelving is a little imprecise.

I’ve meant for years to read Graves’s The White Goddess, and it’s probably part genius and part poppycock. I liked it a lot and wrote a brief review of why I liked it here. I doubt I’ll ever read it cover-to-cover again, but I could see visiting bits and pieces of it again from time to time.

I don’t think I ever finished Melville’s Typee, but one day I may. I generally keep Melville books.

Gaddis is one of my favorite authors, and I coveted this book of his letters for years before finally buying it last year. I gobbled it up and have already consulted it a couple of times as a reference when reading the Graves book above (Gaddis used it as a reference and even met Graves to talk through some ideas) and rereading Gaddis’s J R a few weeks ago. It’s a gold mine of info about how Gaddis lived and grew as an author, and it’s surprisingly readable.

I’ve read 2666 two or three times even though I really didn’t even love it the first time I read it. A lot of it is really rough going. Some of it is pretty compelling. It’s a translation, and I’m generally pretty iffy on reading work in translation. Still, I’ll bet I wind up going back to it sooner or later. I’ve written about it at some length in years past here and here (the latter link points to a catalogue of the novel’s dreams I kept for an online group read).

Inherent Vice is short but was not very fun. Still, I keep Pynchon and will likely wind up rereading most of his work one day.

Bertrand Russell was formative for me when I was in college. He was a mathematician and philosopher. I am neither and certainly couldn’t pretend to understand his work in mathematics, but the essays in this book are (as far as I recall — it’s been 15 or so years since I reread any of them) pretty digestible. It was Russell whose work helped me make some declarations about my own beliefs that were pretty hard to make when I was younger, so I think I’ll always have a soft spot for him.

Clean Code is a book I got through work years ago. I’ll never read it again (I don’t often write code anymore), but work bought it for me, so I’d feel weird about getting rid of it. It’s a good book, just no longer relevant to my work or interests. Tucked in to the right of Clean Code and only partially visible in this shot is a book called Kanban and Scrum, another work book about some light-weight project management methods.

I’ve read only two or three of Roth’s books. I want to read him because I understand that he’s important, but I’ve had trouble making myself sit down and read him. I liked Portnoy’s Complaint and felt meh about some other novel of his and meh or better about a collection of novellas or stories or both. I’ll read Indignation some day, I’m sure, as I will a few others of Roth’s that are tucked here and there throughout the house.

Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself is a book about the press tour David Foster Wallace made in conjunction with the release of Infinite Jest, which as has been noted time and time again in this series of posts has been one of the most formative pieces of literature for me. I’ve not yet gone back to this book, but it was very meaningful to me and I may one day. I wrote a review shortly after its release here.

I’m a sucker for anthologies and picked up the Joyce Carol Oates book I forget where I forget how many years ago, but I’ve never cracked its cover. Maybe one day I will. I know that as soon as I get rid of it, I’ll discover a pressing need to read something it contained, so I’ll likely hang onto it as a sort of talisman at any rate.

And finally, The Elements of Style, which in an earlier edition I was made to copy large portions of out by hand in a high school English class. There’s plenty of bad advice in the book, and I’ve read critiques of it that’ve seemed to hold water. I can’t recall a time I’ve gone to this book in the last couple of decades for any practical advice (for that I go mostly to Garner back on some of the earlier shelves). But it would seem kind of weird not even to own a copy of it, so this one’ll stay shelved forever.

Sabbatical

One of the employment benefits my company offers is a 2 – 3-month sabbatical every five years you’ve worked there. I delayed mine for a while for various reasons — I’ll have been working full-time for the company for 8 years in just a few days — but finally about a year ago decided I was ready and scheduled my sabbatical for April through June of this year. What I didn’t really do was plan with great specificity what I would do while away from work.

Oh, I made some rough plans. I figured I might try writing a bit, as that’s something I’ve dabbled with off and on for many years. I thought I might look for some volunteer opportunities. It was possible I’d do something like try to learn a language or take some sort of physical activity class (e.g. gymnastics) or something. But really, until my sabbatical was just about underway, I didn’t plan much.

Well, I’m a month in. So what’ve I done? Not a whole lot! I have done some writing, but not as much as I had planned, after growing discouraged with it after my first couple of weeks. I made our front yard look less trashy by doing some back-breaking landscaping. I’ve taken the kids on a day-trip to an area theme park (I’ll do this a couple more times before the summer heat arrives). I’ve resumed fairly regular exercise. I’ve watched some TV, though mostly I try to do that on my phone while exercising or doing chores. So far I’ve been enjoying The OA and Rick and Morty, and I watched Russian Doll. I missed a few seasons of Game of Thrones, but my wife has kindly caught me up, and I’m watching this season. I’m occasionally following American Gods. I’ve read a few D&D adventure books and am trying to work out some way to get a regular group to play with (vs. this thing called Adventurer’s League that is cool but is falling short for me in a couple of ways). I’m continuing to read of course — some things for my edification, some for pleasure, and some as research for the writing projects I continue to ruminate on. That’s about it, so far.

It’s so nice to have nearly 100% leisure time. Although especially early in April, I treated the writing projects essentially as a job (that is, I’d pretty much sit at the desk in front of the computer doing related work for a full work day), it was still nice to be able to do that and have the evenings for family time, leisure reading, watching shows with less guilt, etc. I could certainly get used to this.

I’m not sure what May will bring. The family’s out of school in the fourth week of May, and our June is pretty well booked with trips, camps, etc., so really I’ve got about 25 more days of truly flexible time. I’ll spend most of today on a reread of one of my favorite books (Gaddis’s J R). It’s a long book, so that may be a lot of my next few days. It’s also a pretty writerly book, and part of the reason I’m rereading it is to see if it’ll get me back in a frame of mind to revisit some of the projects I started at the beginning of my sabbatical (though more likely it’ll make me feel that much less adequate, for it is a marvelous achievement). One day this week, I may keep my son out of school and take him to the area theme park (we’ll avoid crowds and walk onto everything!). I aim to do some interior wall painting while on my break, so maybe I’ll fit that in too. Maybe one day I’ll just go back to sleep for a few hours, even.

Having the ability to do these things is such a nice perk. I give a lot of myself to my company, and I think it’s rare to be as lucky as I am in working for a company that’ll give something like this back.

Dungeons & Dragons: The Books

I’ve written a few things now about D&D, most recently about my penchant for dice. Another big draw for me are the books. Here’s my collection so far:

They’re really beautiful hardback books with vivid art, imaginative world-building, all kinds of fake lore, and even some humor. The art has sure progressed over the years. Here’s an early drawing of a monster called a Beholder:

And here’s a spread from the Art and Arcana book showing some of the evolution of the Beholder art over time:

And here’s the art of a Beholder from the latest Monster Manual:

That’s quite a difference in art quality over the years! Here’s an example of a description and art of a creature called a Tabaxi. It’s gorgeous and comprehensive and really helps bring the creature to life. The thought that has gone into crafting creatures and environments and religions and planes of existence and magical items is really impressive.

Some books are devoted to describing rules or creatures, but there are also adventure books that guide you through a bunch of encounters, landscapes, dungeons, villages, and so on. Here’s one map (of many) from one of the books I own:

And here’s a map of a whole walled city:

The adventure book I pulled these from has easily a dozen or two such beautifully rendered maps.

I’m a sucker for the front-matter in books. I actually read the copyright and similar stuff, and sometimes doing so turns up little touches like these:

I don’t especially love the style of the writing in these blurbs, but I appreciate the silliness and the attention to detail.

All of this is just to say that D&D has been enjoyable to me not merely because it’s a hobby my son and I have done together and not merely because of game play itself or even because of fun things like dice, but also because there’s this whole culture of art and writing and world building in these books that really appeals to me. In short, it’s a really well fleshed out hobby that’s turning out to tick a lot of boxes for me.

Dice

I’ve written a few times about things pertaining to Dungeons and Dragons, which I’ve been playing over the last few months along with my son. Initially I developed the interest for his benefit, so that he could have the opportunity to play. The more we immerse ourselves in it, the more I’m enjoying it for myself.

Game play can be fun, but there are also just a lot of neat accoutrements. I’ve written about dice towers and DM screens, but I’ve added more trinkets and goodies to my collection since then. For example, you can get neat dice trays to roll your dice into so that they don’t roll all over the place (I have two). You can get dice vaults and boxes. You can get dice bags (of which I now have several). Then of course there are miniature figures for game play, and battle mats for drawing out landscapes for battle, and loads of marvelously detailed and illustrated books (I now have several).

Among my favorite accoutrements are the dice. A standard set includes seven dice with different numbers of sides and used to roll for various things in the game. There’s a big variety of dice types, and I just really enjoy seeing the different designs and finishes. My favorites right now are metal dice manufactured by Jovitec and Bescon (I don’t remember which are which). They’ll dent a table if you’re not careful (the dice tray helps avoid this!), and they just have a really pleasant weight and they roll really satisfyingly. I also have a few sets of the “Ancient” line of Hedronix dice from D20 Collective — Ancient Copper, Ancient Malachite, Ancient Clay, and Ancient Stone — and these look neat at a distance but seem more plasticky up close and are a little sluggish to roll. My other favorite set is a set of dark green sort of marbled looking dice from Chessex. I’ve bought a few other sets too just to have around for others to play with, and my son has a few sets, including a big random grab-bag we emptied into his stocking for Christmas this year.

It feels a little silly to be so into dice, but I really do just enjoy getting a new set and having a growing collection. They are, at least, small (I used to collect books).

Podcasts

Many years ago, I briefly ran a podcast as part of my job. This was during the early days of Web 2.0 when podcasting was a new thing that one sort of just had to try if they were doing my sort of job for a Web 2.0 company. I was pretty terrible at it, and I never much cared for listening to podcasts until the last year or two. I’ve long sort of disdained nonfiction stuff and tended to want to absorb fiction more slowly, via books. For anything newsy or simply informative (if I must consume it), I’ve tended to prefer reading, which lets me skim quickly for the important info without spending a lot of time with the material. I shake my fist at news sites that try to show me a video reporting something I can read in a fraction of the time.

But over the past couple of years, I’ve found myself in the car a lot more. Although I still work from home, I drive kids to and from school, I do some of my grocery shopping across town, and I more routinely venture out of the house for social or sporty events. Car time has always felt like wasted time to me. I can’t read during car time! But I can listen to things and make that time entertaining or useful. So I’ve tried a number of podcasts over the last couple of years. Here are some that I’m currently enjoying or enjoy dipping into occasionally, in no particular order.

The Memory Palace. Nate DiMeo offers lyrical dispatches about little snippets of history. I like this one for its lyricism and brevity. I can listen to an episode on a short grocery run and enjoy not only its content but also the poetry of DiMeo’s writing. I was a poetry person many years ago, and this one sounds like a poetry reading for better or for worse. To me, it’s soothing and puts me in a little different mental state than usual, though my wife listened to an episode once and immediately had a “that guy sounds like he really thinks a lot of himself, how annoying” sort of reaction, which is fair of this sort of artificial, almost “posed” reading. I listen to this one not super regularly, but I like to have it on my phone for when I’m in the mood or have just the right amount of time for a quick listen.

RadioLab. My wife turned me on to this one, and I really enjoy it. You’ve likely heard of it. The stories, whose topics vary a lot across disciplines as distinct from one another as sports, politics, science, art, technology, history, and memoir, are well researched and well reported. I like the hosts a lot, and I almost always learn something fascinating or feel enriched.

99% Invisible. I’ve always thought of this one as Radiolab-lite. It focuses loosely on the designed world, but that’s a much more reductive description than the actual scope of the podcast. As with RadioLab, topics are varied, and I almost always find the show enriching, funny, or educational. It’s usually a little shorter than RadioLab, so it’s easier to finish one in a single trip to and from an errand across town.

Still Processing. This one really stands out as a favorite. A couple of culture writers from the New York Times chat weekly about topics generally pertaining to race and culture. Rather than mostly giving me information or entertaining me, this one makes me think hard about my place in a racist society (but also gives me information and entertains me). The show went quiet for a few months over the Fall and I felt bereft. It’s back up and running now with a couple of great new episodes, and I was so relieved to learn that they were on a break and not canceled.

Anthropocene Reviewed. I like John Green as a purveyor of thought and culture. I’ve offered mixed personal reviews of some of his books, but John Green as a human in the world I feel very positive about. In this podcast, he shares starred reviews of often oddly juxtaposed things that have emerged in the human-dominated era of history. He has reviewed things like pineapple pizza, Googling yourself, Tetris, and the Piggly Wiggly. The stars he awards are really an afterthought; the substance here is in the brief histories he shares and the meditations on the human experience. Episodes are brief, funny, informative, and sometimes profound. I could imagine that Green’s writing or delivery might be annoying to some, but I’m a fan. I give Anthropocene Reviewed five stars.

The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry. A scientist and a mathematician expand upon their BBC Radio show to offer a little more information and more laughs as they try to find answers to science questions listeners send in. The investigations tend to be a little cursory and unsatisfying, but I like the hosts’ dynamic and often find that I learn a little something and enjoy giggling at their schtick.

Nerdette. I’ve listened to only a few of these so far, but I’m enjoying them. The hosts talk about issues that impact women — e.g. the ongoing wage gap and a fight to narrow it — and so far I’ve found the show entertaining and informative. I like that it offers me a view of issues and perspectives I might not be very plugged into otherwise.

I’ve got a number of other podcasts on my phone that I listen to only sporadically, that were limited runs, or that I’ve found tempting but haven’t dipped into yet. I’ve listened to a couple of the Serial podcasts, for example, and another single-season show called Bundyville that I found really great and then learned that some of my colleagues had worked on. I occasionally listen to episodes of Chris Hayes’s Why is This Happening, for a while I was listening to Ear Hustle, and I’ve got Bookworm, The Read, Pod Save the People, and The Trouble, and Reply All lined up for a listen someday, but I’ve got only so much time in the car, and I spend most of my other free time with my nose stuck in a book.

Books, 2018

Last year I read 89 books, and this year, based in part on having gotten so close last year and in part on a comment by a colleague about how neat it’d be to set a goal to read 100 books in a year, I made that my goal for 2018. It turned out to be a stupid goal, and I’ll never do it again. I found myself skimming more than I like and sweating the goal a fair amount, even though I was way ahead of pace for most of the year. At any rate, I finished my 100th book of 2018 with a week to spare on Christmas Eve and am glad to be done with that goal.

I’ve had a reading focus for each of the last few years, and this year my intended focus was to spend a fair bit of time with detective or mystery fiction. I got tired of this pretty quickly, though I did wind up reading a fair few such books.

I really didn’t buy many books this year other than books for work. I used to have an ambition to have a big library, but I’ve pared down a lot over the years and in general don’t want to own a lot of books anymore, so I read mostly from the library this year. Because our outlying branch libraries are small, this meant that often enough I read things I hadn’t really wanted to initially because the branch had one or two books by an author I was interested in, but not the book I actually wanted. I generally took this in stride and just read the books that were available.

As I look back over my list now, the ones that really stand out to me are Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, Patrisse Khan-Cullors’s When They Call  You a Terrorist, Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach, Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, Hala Alyan’s Salt Houses, Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, Louise Erdrich’s Shadow Tag and her LaRose, and Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways. Jeanette Winterson and Samantha Hunt stood out as notable authors I’m really glad I encountered this year, and Lauren Groff and Louise Erdrich continued to dazzle me.

I had a lot of four-star books this year and no five stars (these are rare). I read a handful of books for work and reread a few books. I tried to read a fair bit of fiction that’d show me slices of life pretty distant from my own experience (e.g. books set in Asia). I read my daughter’s summer reading fairly closely, and I reread Cloud Atlas to then go and discuss with some students in a high school English class my wife teaches (this was fun).

I list my 2018 books below, by star rating and then broken into a few other categories (all books are listed by rating, and others are re-grouped only where called for in the later listings).

Four Star Books

I give five-star ratings very begrudgingly — the book basically has to have changed my life or worldview in some way — so a four-star book is a pretty resounding thumbs-up from me. By my count, 38 of the 100 books I logged this year were four-star books, which seems pretty high.

  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling
  • A Book of Common Prayer, by Joan Didion
  • The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler
  • When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, by Patrisse Khan-Cullors
  • Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett
  • Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green
  • In the Skin of a Lion, by Michael Ondaatje
  • Behold the Dreamers, by Imbue Mbolo
  • Huck Out West, by Robert Coover
  • Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi
  • Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan
  • Pachinko, Min Jin Lee
  • Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado
  • Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward
  • Salt Houses, by Hala Alyan
  • The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
  • The Seas, by Samantha Hunt
  • Mr. Splitfoot, by Samantha Hunt
  • Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
  • Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport
  • Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff
  • Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, by Roxane Gay
  • My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier
  • The Effortless Experience: Conquering the New Battleground for Customer Loyalty, by Matthew Dixon
  • The Year of the Runaways, by Sunjeev Suhota
  • March: Book One, by John Robert Lewis
  • The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer
  • The Letters of William Gaddis, by William Gaddis
  • Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed
  • The Fires of Heaven (Wheel of Time #5), by Robert Jordan
  • Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, by Scott McCloud
  • Shadow Tag, by Louise Erdrich
  • LaRose, by Louise Erdrich
  • Lighthousekeeping, by Jeanette Winterson
  • The Blindfold, by Siri Hustvedt
  • The Sundial, by Shirley Jackson
  • A Golden Age, by Tahmima Anam

Three Star Books

A three-star book is one somewhere on the continuum between “I liked it well enough but didn’t love it” and “I don’t regret reading it.” If a book was fine but brief, it might find its way on this list, and if a book was long and not gripping but pretty decent on the whole (e.g. the Wolitzer books), it might make this list. I count 37 books on this list, which added to 38 four-star books means that three fourths of the books I read this year felt like at least reasonable uses of my reading time; given that I very rarely abandon books, that seems a pretty good success rate.

  • The Story of Your Life and Other Stories, by Ted Chiang
  • Warcross #1, by Marie Lu
  • The History of Bees, by Maja Lunde
  • The Ten-Year Nap, by Meg Wolitzer
  • The Female Persuasion, by Meg Wolitzer
  • The Uncoupling, by Meg Wolitzer
  • Coraline, by Craig P. Russell
  • The Feral Detective, by Jonathan Lethem
  • The Effective Executive, by Peter Drucker
  • The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Inheritance #1), N.K. Jemisin
  • The Broken Kingdoms (Inheritance #2), by N.K. Jemisin
  • Celine, by Peter Heller
  • The Antelope Wife, by Louise Erdrich
  • The Painted Drum, by Louise Erdrich
  • The Keep, by Jennifer Egan
  • Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust
  • An Abundance of Katherines, by John Green
  • Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie
  • Maus 1: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History, by Art Spiegelman
  • Furyborn, by Claire Legrande
  • The Daylight Gate, by Jeanette Winterson
  • The Bonesetter’s Daughter, by Amy Tan
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, by J.K. Rowling
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J.K. Rowling
  • Some Buried Cesar (Nero Wolfe #6), by Rex Stout
  • The Red Box (Nero Wolfe #4), by Rex Stout
  • The Golden Spiders (Nero Wolfe #22), by Rex Stout
  • Champagne for One (Nero Wolfe #31), by Rex Stout
  • Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling, by Edgar Schein
  • The Miniaturist, by Jesse Burton
  • Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay
  • A is for Alibi (Kinsey Millhone #1), by Sue Grafton
  • B is for Burglar (Kinsey Millhone #2), by Sue Grafton
  • Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box, The Arbinger Institute
  • Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe
  • Hum if You Don’t Know the Words, by Bianca Marais
  • The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett

Two Star Books

I didn’t enjoy these much but didn’t dislike them enough to rate them down to one-star books. These tend to be tedious or poorly written or simply not to live up to my expectations for them. For example, The Golden Notebook is a pillar of feminist literature, but I found it both tedious and overlong and just not worth the big investment, though I know it is considered an important book, and in a case like this, I figure the fault is in me and not in the book. I would have difficulty recommending any of these books to anybody based on my personal feeling after reading the book.

  • The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, by Ken Liu
  • E is for Evidence (Kinsey Millhone #5), by Sue Grafton
  • The Stone Gods, by Jeanette Winterson
  • No One is Coming to Save Us, by Stephanie Powell Watts
  • The Golden Notebook, by Doris Lessing
  • Candide, by Voltaire
  • Go Tell it On the Mountain, by James Baldwin
  • Too Many Cooks (Nero Wolfe #5), by Rex Stout
  • The Hazel Wood, by Melissa Albert
  • The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett
  • The Kingdom of Gods (Inheritance #3), by N.K. Jemisin
  • The Ballad of Tom Dooley (Ballad #9), by Sharyn McCrumb
  • Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
  • American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
  • Lord of Chaos (Wheel of Time #6), by Robert Jordan
  • Half a Life, by V.S. Naipaul
  • If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O (Ballad #1), by Sharyn McCrumb
  • The Jane Austen Project, by Kathleen A. Flynn
  • A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster
  • The Invisible Circus, by Jennifer Egan
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde
  • The Bookshop of Yesterdays, by Amy Meyerson
  • Einstein’s Dreams, by Alan Lightman

Other Ratings

I read The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz and thought it was awful and gave it one star. I wrote a brief review here.

I also read Appointed Rounds: Essays by Michael McFee and enjoyed it a whole lot. He was an instructor and mentor of mine when I was in college half my lifetime ago, and this book brought back so many fond memories and was also just full of pleasant meditations on writing and writing-adjacent things. I don’t give stars to books by people I have some connection with, so this one’s unrated on Goodreads, though in my heart it’s a solid 4-star book.

Books by White Men

I hadn’t felt like I had read a bunch of books by white men this year (I’ve tried to avoid doing that as a default over the last few years), but about a third of the books I read were by white men, which disappoints and surprises me, though it’s an improvement over last year when about two thirds of what I read was by white men. I’ve got nothing against white men! I’m just trying to be more conscientious about reading things from perspectives other than my own. I did do a fair bit of that this year, picking up books set in or about people from (at least) India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, South Africa, Cameroon, and Nigeria and reading a few books about the African American experience, but this is still a pretty big list of white guys.

  • The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler
  • Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green
  • Huck Out West, by Robert Coover
  • Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
  • Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
  • Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport
  • The Effortless Experience: Conquering the New Battleground for Customer Loyalty, by Matthew Dixon
  • The Letters of William Gaddis, by William Gaddis
  • Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, by Scott McCloud
  • Coraline, by Craig P. Russell
  • The Feral Detective, by Jonathan Lethem
  • The Effective Executive, by Peter Drucker
  • Celine, by Peter Heller
  • Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust
  • An Abundance of Katherines, by John Green
  • Maus 1: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History, by Art Spiegelman
  • Some Buried Cesar (Nero Wolfe #6), by Rex Stout
  • The Red Box (Nero Wolfe #4), by Rex Stout
  • The Golden Spiders (Nero Wolfe #22), by Rex Stout
  • Champagne for One (Nero Wolfe #31), by Rex Stout
  • Too Many Cooks (Nero Wolfe #5), by Rex Stout
  • Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling, by Edgar Schein
  • Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box, The Arbinger Institute
  • The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett
  • The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett
  • Candide, by Voltaire
  • American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
  • Lord of Chaos (Wheel of Time #6), by Robert Jordan
  • A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde
  • Einstein’s Dreams, by Alan Lightman
  • The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz
  • Appointed Rounds: Essays by Michael McFee

Mystery and Detective Books

Fifteen of my books this year fell unambiguously into this category. I enjoyed revisiting the Nero Wolfe stories (I had read a few of these when I was a kid) and enjoyed the Kinsey Millhone ones (I also followed these as a kid) a lot less. The older noir-type stories felt pretty one-note. I had intended to read something like some Kellerman but never got around to it because the guy is so prolific that it’s hard to know where to start, and my library never had the ones I thought I might start with when I happened to be looking.

  • The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler
  • The Feral Detective, by Jonathan Lethem
  • Celine, by Peter Heller
  • Some Buried Cesar (Nero Wolfe #6), by Rex Stout
  • The Red Box (Nero Wolfe #4), by Rex Stout
  • The Golden Spiders (Nero Wolfe #22), by Rex Stout
  • Champagne for One (Nero Wolfe #31), by Rex Stout
  • Too Many Cooks (Nero Wolfe #5), by Rex Stout
  • A is for Alibi (Kinsey Millhone #1), by Sue Grafton
  • B is for Burglar (Kinsey Millhone #2), by Sue Grafton
  • E is for Evidence (Kinsey Millhone #5), by Sue Grafton
  • The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett
  • The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett
  • The Ballad of Tom Dooley (Ballad #9), by Sharyn McCrumb
  • If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O (Ballad #1), by Sharyn McCrumb

Fantasy

Most of these were family read-aloud books. I had high hopes for the Jemisin books but felt so-so about them on the whole (I’d like to read her other series, which I think is the one she’s won awards for; again I was at the mercy of what was available from my branch libraries here)

  • The Fires of Heaven (Wheel of Time #5), by Robert Jordan
  • Lord of Chaos (Wheel of Time #6), by Robert Jordan
  • Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi
  • The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Inheritance #1), N.K. Jemisin
  • The Broken Kingdoms (Inheritance #2), by N.K. Jemisin
  • The Kingdom of Gods (Inheritance #3), by N.K. Jemisin
  • Furyborn, by Claire Legrande
  • The Hazel Wood, by Melissa Albert
  • American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

Nonfiction

I always wrinkle my nose when I talk about reading nonfiction, but I read a surprising amount this year, a little less than half of it for work. I really enjoyed Gaddis’s letters (they were a highlight of my year in reading, which I guess makes me a pretty big nerd).

  • When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, by Patrisse Khan-Cullors
  • Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport
  • Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, by Roxane Gay
  • The Effortless Experience: Conquering the New Battleground for Customer Loyalty, by Matthew Dixon
  • March: Book One, by John Robert Lewis
  • The Letters of William Gaddis, by William Gaddis
  • Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed
  • Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, by Scott McCloud
  • The Effective Executive, by Peter Drucker
  • Maus 1: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History, by Art Spiegelman
  • Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling, by Edgar Schein
  • Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay
  • Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box, The Arbinger Institute
  • The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz
  • Appointed Rounds: Essays by Michael McFee

For Work

I don’t generally enjoy this sort of reading, but a few of these were pretty decent for what they are. I’ve written more about most of these over here.

  • Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport
  • The Effortless Experience: Conquering the New Battleground for Customer Loyalty, by Matthew Dixon
  • The Effective Executive, by Peter Drucker
  • Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling, by Edgar Schein
  • Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box, The Arbinger Institute
  • The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz

Young Adult or Kid Literature

I read about half of these aloud to the family and read the others out of my own interest.

  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, by J.K. Rowling
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J.K. Rowling
  • Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi
  • Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green
  • March: Book One, by John Robert Lewis
  • Warcross #1, by Marie Lu
  • Coraline, by Craig P. Russell
  • An Abundance of Katherines, by John Green
  • Maus 1: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History, by Art Spiegelman
  • Furyborn, by Claire Legrande
  • The Hazel Wood, by Melissa Albert

Birthday Troll

Some of our close friends have a son who turned 18 this year and whom we’ve known since he was about 2 years old. As he’s gotten older and has begun to value money more than toys and such as gifts, we’ve rolled with his preferences, but not without making it a little (good-naturedly) tough on him. For example, one year, we gave him a box full of something like $47 worth of unrolled pennies. This year, we were especially late in getting a gift to him (we see our friends just a few times a year), and I felt like we needed to make the gift opening experience especially memorable to make up for our tardiness. I had been doing some wood working (if you can call my rustic efforts wood working) and decided to make him a box, pictured below.

Although I am no expert carpenter, the workmanship on this box is especially rough by design. There was a very real risk of getting a splinter or possibly even tetanus if he didn’t handle the box pretty carefully. I used some nails and some heavy-duty cabinetry screws (which I had on hand from a recent replacement of our kitchen cabinets). Inside the box I put several checks for random odd amounts and with silly memo lines like “For your 7th birthday” and “For singing lessons” (my wife’s inspiration, so that should we hear him singing badly in the future, we can ask him what he did what that money we gave him for singing lessons). I also threw some random coins into the box so that it would rattle, and this necessitated that I goop over some of the cracks left by my crude joinery with wood filler. I suppose this rigamarole seems a little mean, but that’s the relationship we have with this kid, and he loved it.

He spent something like thirty minutes trying to get into the box and finally triumphed by drilling a bunch of holes into it.

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