Bookshelves #3

Now we come to the orange overflow and yellow shelf. Follow this shelf series here if you’re game.

I don’t remember the Jhumpa Lahiri book very well, though I read it just last year. I did dog-ear a couple of stories, so I must’ve figured I’d revisit them one day. A Lesson Before Dying is a good, important, difficult-to-read book. The Lester Bangs is a departure from the sort of thing I usually read. A lot of the pieces in it were meh, a lot were really funny, and here and there were really great ones. It’s not one I’ll ever reread all of, but I may go back to dog-eared columns here and there.

You Bright and Risen Angels is I believe the only Vollmann book I’ve ever finished, and I didn’t really like it. I’ll probably never read it again and should probably get rid of it. The Saunders was ok, but I keep Saunders, period. I haven’t read Five Skies yet but have heard good things about Carlson. The Marquez was pretty good (not as good as Solitude), and maybe I’ll go back to it one day.

Infinite Jest changed the way I live in and think about the world and validated the way I inhabit my own head. I’ve owned a couple of copies over the years, but this was my first, which I first read I guess 19 years ago or so, and which I’ve read cover to cover I believe 6 times, with a few partial reads scattered in there as well. I wrote a lot about it a few years ago here (other authors on the site used the same tag, so all those posts aren’t mine) and which I started to write about some more here as I reread a couple of years ago. Wallace has had a more profound influence on who I’ve become as an adult than probably anybody else. This book is definitely a keeper.

Next to Wallace is Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, which I false started on maybe 13 years ago and finally read in full two or three years ago. It’s surprisingly accessible and fun.

Julian Barnes is smart and writes well, and I’ll almost certainly look back over his work over time, so The Lemon Table stays. Tucked in next to that one is DeLillo’s The Body Artist. I have really mixed feelings about DeLillo. For example, I thought his Falling Man was terrible, and I rarely love any of his books, but then you come to one like Underworld that’s hard and sometimes a little uneven but that grapples with so much and is at times virtuosic, and you can’t discount him. This little book was evocative and kind of mesmerizing, and it had a really good payout for the time I invested in reading it.

I had meant to read Lethem for years and finally picked up a few books in 2015. By and large I think he’s great, and this weird, fun little book was a treat. I don’t know that I’ll ever go back to it, but I’m not ready to part with it yet (I have a knack for selling a book back and then deciding a few months or years later that I desperately need to take another look, at which point I often enough buy it back again). I didn’t love Gaddis’s Carpenter’s Gothic (it’s the worst of his novels), but I keep Gaddis. The slender Moby-Dick title is a comic book version that a friend gave me many years ago, and I keep Moby-Dick. I used to group Moby-Dick books together on the shelves (as I did Wallace), but now I scatter them, each, like good old Ishmael, its own sort of orphan.

I rarely read nonfiction and even more rarely read nonfiction about work or business stuff, but I moved into a leadership position in my job a couple of years ago and picked up a few relevant books to read about teamwork, leadership, etc. Work Rules was interesting enough that I thought I might go back and read my scribbles and the things I had underlined from time to time (and I was right).

Finally, there’s Libra, which I may have read 15 years or so ago and sold back and forgotten and later bought back with a different cover. I forget. I do tend to nibble at DeLillo’s work, and I intend to read this one (again?) some day, though I’m not very excited about it.

Next up, the pale yellows and greens.

Bookshelves #2

For number two in my bookshelves series, we’re transitioning from red to orange. As usual, the top is stacked mostly with newer arrivals. The Vegetarian was so puzzling to me that though I didn’t absolutely love it, I thought I’d keep it around for a potential reread one day. A friend and colleague gave me The Jam Fruit Tree, which I read late last year to get some more background on the Burghers in Sri Lanka, and his sharing it with me was meaningful, so the book stays on my shelves. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was recommended by another coworker a few years ago and passed along to me through yet another coworker (we did a book swap). I didn’t love it but figure I should pass it along to someone else, or at any rate that it’s not mine to sell. I’ve owned this copy of Europe Central for years and never read it. I want to like Vollmann but have real trouble liking his stuff, so this is one of those mountains I figure I’ll climb one day. It sits atop the stack because I found it buried in my nightstand drawer recently, where it had sat for years.

Nathaniel Philbrick wrote a pop history of the whaler Essex, which was sunk by a whale and figured into Melville’s Moby-Dick, and the slim dark red book at far left is his defense of reading Moby-Dick, which is a nice little read. The Morgesons is awful. I read it last year as part of a project to read non-white-dudes, and a professor I had spoken with at a community Moby-Dick discussion group suggested this and Beulah (not pictured) as good specimens. Given how dry The Morgesons was, I haven’t had that heart yet to pick up the other from the shin-high stack (in front of this shelf, on the floor) of things I haven’t yet had the heart to read but probably will. I’m not sure why I’m keeping this one. Speaking of tough antiques that it can be hard to get into, maybe 20 years ago, I read the first three fourths or so of The Brothers Karamazov before giving up and ultimately selling the book. A couple of years ago, I decided to try it again, finished it, and figured I’d keep it, as I’ll probably dip back in at some time in the next 20 years. The drama book is a textbook containing a number of non-Shakespearean Renaissance plays, of which my favorite is The Knight of the Burning Pestle (which is basically like a venereal disease joke right there in the title). Before I failed to get into grad school for literature and went off to earn my fame and fortune working on the internet instead, I had hoped to study this stuff as my life’s calling, so I suppose it’s worth keeping a couple of inches of shelf space even though I rarely go back to the plays these days.

I have not read The Inkling by Fred Chappell, but I did go listen to him at a poetry reading when I was in school, and a very young Chappell taught my mother English at UNCG. I forget how I came by this book, but I’ve always meant to read it. It’s not inscribed to my mom or anything, so I suspect it’s not hers and that I just found it at a book sale sometime. This is a weird one because I attach no sentimental value to Chappell or to the book in particular or to my mom’s brief overlap with Chappell, but the book nevertheless represents some sort of tie between my mom and the studies that were so important to me at a time when I was certainly growing more distant from her, so while I don’t ever think about the book or really any of what I’ve just said, when I think about getting rid of the book, I decide not to.

The short story anthology satisfies my penchant for such anthologies. I generally like Zadie Smith’s work and will probably read White Teeth again one day. Half of a Yellow Sun was the best book I read in 2015 (and the best I’ve read since, an among the best I’ve ever read), and you should read it. I think this copy of The Canterbury Tales belongs to my wife. I haven’t read a significant number of the tales since high school but was reading “frame tales” a few years ago and had intended to go back to Chaucer as a purveyor of them, so I must’ve stolen this one from my wife at the time.

The Broom of the System is an obvious keeper for this fan of Wallace. It’s certainly not my favorite of his books, but I do have a fondness for it. I loaned out my first copy many years ago and never got it back, so this is a replacement whose spine I haven’t cracked. The Zak Smith book is a book of illustrations of Gravity’s Rainbow, one for every page. It was an art project a few years back that inspired Matt Kish’s similar Moby-Dick project (more on that when we get to shelf #10). Some of the art here is really neat, and some is I suppose profane (as of course is much of Pynchon’s novel). I walked through this book page by page the last time I read GR a few years ago, and it was neat. Finally, in this little postmodernish section of the shelf (not so shelved by design), we have a slim book by John Barth that I have not read but intend to. I tend to like Barth more in the abstract than in his particulars, but I haven’t read much of his shorter work, so maybe the shorter particulars will do more for me.

Next up, we move into the yellows!

Bookshelves #1

I’ve always sort of collected books. I’d pillage library sales and buy things from the used book store that I thought surely I’d read some day. They’d sit in a big teetering pile on my night stand for a while, and eventually I’d read them or shelve them. We moved into a new house about a decade ago and I had to do a big book purge, which sort of broke my heart because I liked the ownership of these objects, and I suppose I felt a sort of pride at owning what seemed like a fair lot of books for just a normal bookish person but not like a professor or real collector to own.

A couple of years ago, I moved my home office from our bonus room to a downstairs living room that we installed some doors on. It was a smaller space that we had been using as a toy room, and it was nice to move the kids’ mess upstairs and out of sight and to make a nice office space that would also allow me to showcase some of my books. We installed some nice built-in shelves in the bonus room for the kids’ books (which now rival and probably surpass my diminished collection in number), and I decided to confine my books to the usual nightstand pile and a single 5×5 Ikea shelf that serves as my backdrop when I have video chats with coworkers.

This meant doing another purge to make all my books fit, and though I thought I’d mind it, I now apparently am (mostly) over the ownership of books as objects, unless the specific book is one I know I want to keep for reasons other than the abstract desire to own books. This means that mostly my bookshelf now represents the things I really and truly do intend to read or reread, the things I have read and hold dear, and a few things that for whatever reason I can’t let go of. (It also means that I buy a lot fewer books, which is good for the old pocketbook. I went through a period last year during which I’d go buy $100 worth of books more or less at random, and not necessarily want to keep any of them, or be able to sell them back for much at all. As a result, I’m using the library a lot more, which can be frustrating when I can’t find stuff I want but which also imposes a kind of neat constraint on what I read.)

You’ll note that the books pictured above are all reddish. I had long sorted my books mostly randomly anyway (with little pockets here and there for poetry, say, or for a collection of books by the same author), and when I moved into the new office and knew my books would be my backdrop for the many video chats I do, I thought I’d make them lovely to look at. So they’re arranged rainbowishly, and the pictured compartment is at top left as you face the shelves. On nearly every video call in which a person I haven’t chatted with before sees my bookshelves, they comment on the shelves, and I get a nice jolt of pleasure out of the inquiry. I thought it’d be fun to do a series (if it doesn’t peter out) in which I consider the books in each of (or at least each of the more interesting) compartments. This’ll be number one in the series.

This is a really good compartment. You can typically tell when I’ve acquired a book in the last year or two because it’s shelved horizontally rather than vertically. Here we see Erdrich’s The Round House, which I got last year and liked enough that I wanted to keep it. I got the Morris dictionary way back in college when I was really into word origins, and it’s fun to dig into every once in a while. I think I learned of Jodi Angel from a One Story story, and I liked this collection enough that I figured I might reread it some time. I’m not enamored of the Boswell book on Wallace, but pretty much anything pertaining to Wallace I keep; a few years ago, this one would’ve been shelved with a linear foot or so of other books on or by Wallace. I keep anything by Saunders because I figure that one day I’ll do a big study or something on him, so Civilwarland makes the cut. I learned about Garner many years ago via Wallace, and when I got his dictionary of American usage as a gift a while back, I sat down on the spot and read about half of it as if it were a novel. Look out for his more comprehensive guide (my new go-to for usage questions) when we hit the blue shelves. Coover, as one of the parents of postmodernism, is somebody I figure I’ll keep coming back to, though this is the only book of his I own. I don’t love all the stories in it, though a couple are doozies. I keep anything by Gaddis (postmodernism, plus he’s just so very good, though this collection of essays is kind of meh). I’m a sucker for short story anthologies but haven’t read the one pictured here and should probably get rid of it to make room for the Erdrich. I do mean to dip into it one day. I haven’t tried to read Lord Jim since I first stalled out in it maybe 20 years ago but figure I will one day. I should ditch On Beauty because I didn’t really even like it, but I figured that it was probably my fault and not Smith’s that I didn’t like it and that I should reread it one day after getting around to reading Howard’s End, so on the bookshelf it stays. I’m a sucker for a Norton anthology and do actually dip back into the various of these anthologies we own every once in a while. And finally, Alice Munro — what a near perfect story writer she is; I know I’ll go back into this collection later.

That’s it, installment one of potentially 20 (the bottom row of my shelves mostly contain things that aren’t books). I might decide it’s too boring or too tedious to even write these things much less to read them, so we’ll see how far I get.

Kindle Teasers

Although I generally prefer paper books, I have had various and sundry Kindles over the years. I do like how I can highlight a section or do a quick word lookup as I’m reading. My latest Kindle is a Paperwhite, which comes in a couple of flavors — one with ads on the home screen and that costs a little less than the ad-free one. As long as ads aren’t popping up while I’m reading, they don’t bother me too much, though I really think that with access to a whole lot of my recent reading history, Amazon could do a better job of trying to show me books I’m likely to want to purchase. I guess they’re just showing ads for the books whose authors bought the most ad impressions. I’ve found some of them so laughable or terrible or confusing that I’ve begun to sort of like them, and when I see an unfamiliar new teaser that’s a hoot or a puzzler, I’ll read it aloud to my family and ask if I should invest in the book. So far I’ve purchased none of them. A recent sampling follows.

 

‘”I’d have my nose broken every morning if it meant spending the rest of the day with you,” Avriel admitted in his painfully nasal voice.’ This one has a certain sleazy charm that I’d maybe be taken in by if my legs weren’t already so tired from running through the speaker’s dreams all night. It’s hard to know if the closing words in this quote are self-parody or not.

 

“Their lives collided for a reason. Was it only by chance or was it destiny?” Maybe it was fate or happenstance or through some purpose. At least it wasn’t clichéd.

“A beautiful women [sic]; a black widow, meets [sic] an arms trader who wants a secrete [sic] device from an engineer that [sic-ish] needs money. A volcano creates a tidal wave.” This book’s got everything! (Accept apparentley; an edditor.)

“Did people ever wonder… Why water lily’s leaf is shape [sic] like a heart ? [sic] And you will find the magical answer right here in this unforgettable tale .” [sic] I’m not interested in poking fun at what seems very probably like English as a non-native language here, and I’m actually sort of interested in the origin story this seems to point to, which could make a neat little tale, but it’s hard not to be shocked that there are zero editorial standards applied to the ad program. If Amazon is going to let people try to peddle their books, it seems like everybody benefits if there’s just a tiny bit of editorial work as part of the ad placement process. On the other hand, I guess I’d be pretty steamed if I bought a book based on a nice grammatical ad and the book itself was written as this ad is written, so there’s something to be said for truth in advertising. I do think there’s almost a sort of cruelty at play in letting this kind of thing through, though.

“You may claim to understand me but just when you are at the climax of your sureness, you may also be disappointed. Bon Voyage. Christopher Flier.” I hate when I’m disappointed at the climax of my sureness.

Head scratcher

This weekend I celebrated a birthday that pushed me into a new decade. By “celebrated,” I mean that I did some chores and did some things with and for my lovely family and finished a book I was reading and read the first third of another book, which is all pretty solid stuff to have done.

There were cupcakes and there was pizza and there was grocery shopping and sweeping and vacuuming and a little bit of saying “clean your room or you can’t go outside and play with your friends for a week,” pretty typical old man fare.

We finished a family read of a book I wasn’t much enjoying reading, which cleared the decks for Animal Farm, which I’m really pleased (and also horrifed) to be rereading (to my children, to my goddamn children — all Americans are equal, some are more equal than others).

My family and some close friends gave me some nice gifts. I have a device now that will let me pour beer from cans and bottles as if from a tap, which is kind of neat. I have a set of whale bookends, which are pretty well-placed given my penchant for Moby-Dick. For a while now, I’ve wandered about the house saying things like “Alexa, pour me a beer” and “Alexa, cure my back pain” and “Alexa, vacuum the whole house, thou cursed varlet” after a friend got an Amazon home intrusion device a year or two ago and I was introduced to the voice-activated home. We got the little dot device for my daughter this year, and now I have this giant soundphallus on my mantel that answers my every vocal command. Although I was really being absurd and not actually hinting when parading about shouting fake commands (I was more like pretending to channel Star Trek), it is kind of cool to be able to holler “Alexa, play the theme song from Gilligan’s Island” and have that venerated show’s music fill my house or to ask generally “why, Alexa, why?” and have her say in soothing tones something about white guilt and the rising tide of stupidity and something something trumpstinction of the masses or to say “Alexa, is the NSA listening to my every word” and have the device kind of do this sort of nervous bloooop sound and seem to shut down (this has actually happened a couple of times). So but seriously, it’s kind of neat to be able to say “Alexa, when was Balzac born” or “Alexa, play Silversun Pickups” and have her/it (It. It’s definitely an it and not a her, right?) respond appropriately, and I’m pretty ambivalent about the surveillance aspect (like, I’m sort of afraid to say “Alexa, could you contrive to make Trump suck on his own anus until, Ouroborus-like, he becomes sort of a singularity or disappears into his own anus-like mouth and we never have to hear his inane honkings again” for fear of being SEEN IN COURT). Anyway, so I got an Amazon echo, and it’s very neat when I compartmentalize and don’t think about how creepy it is. Makes me feel like I’m living in the future, though I STILL WANT MY GODDAMN HOVERCAR.

But maybe my favorite thing I got is the head scratcher thing depicted above. I know a couple of people who’ve had these things for a few years, and I’ve always liked them, though as a person not super stoked about sharing scalp detritus, I’ve not always loved sharing them. You position this device sort of hear the crown of your head and then press it down, and it opens and gently tickles your scalp, sublimely. Makes my eyes roll back in their sockets. I love it. I had mentioned this thing to my son as a possible gift back in November, during the obligatory period of dropping oblique hints to your loved ones about the things you hope they’ll think later to purchase for you. I didn’t get this for Christmas as I had sort of expected, given what was essentially a directive for him to tell his mother to get me this delightful appliance should  nothing else emerge as an obvious pick, but the fact that two months later, he remembered, warmed the cockle (I have only one) of my heart. I keep it on my desk and used it maybe two dozen times today to soothe myself when I felt the urge to primal scream.

Stuffed Meatloaf

meatloaf.jpg

Had this lovely dish at a restaurant in Vegas on a work trip last week. Underneath the probably two pounds of meat was a bed of mashed potatoes, and if you look closely, you can see some caramelized cheese too. It was really good and would easily have fed my whole family of four for a dinner, with some leftovers. I had debated getting a nice salad instead, and the sudden shift and juxtaposition of choices amused my colleagues.