Bookshelves #14

I started this bookshelves series as a way to force myself to write a post a month, but I’ve wound up with other things to write about, so I’m lagging a bit. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to say something useful in June about Pride Month, but I’m having trouble articulating what I want to say, so for now, here’s shelf number 14.

For many years, I had intended to read Proust, and finally this year I picked up Swann’s Way, which I did not love. I imagine I’ll go back to it one day, so I’m keeping it on the shelf for now. Bastard Out of Carolina was a gift and a really good book. Donna Tartt is consistently good. The Goldfinch actually probably isn’t even my favorite of hers, but I’m sure a sucker for books that touch on the art world, and I can surely imagine going back to several of her books one day, this one among them.

I don’t know why I hang onto A Hog on Ice. It’s one of those weird little word nerd reference books that I’ve never actually read but but I also don’t like to get rid of because maybe one day (inevitably the day after I get rid of it), I’ll have cause to look up a phrase. The book purports to give the origin stories for colloquial phrases, but they’re in no discernible order, so as a reference, it’s not actually all that useful. As a bathroom book, it might be ok. The internet has likely rendered the book obsolete.

Carver writes one heck of a short story, and I dip back into his work occasionally. Where I’m Calling From is chock full of good ones.

Ozick I keep on principle. I forget the details of The Puttermesser Papers, but I find her work consistently smart and satisfying.

Signifying Rappers I own because I used to fancy myself an aspiring owner of all works by Wallace. It’s ok as a book, I guess. Farther along in the shelf, you’ll see Everything and More, another Wallace book that to me was so-so but that I keep because maybe I’ll read it again some day and in part because once I’ve bought Wallace, I don’t get rid of Wallace.

Arranging your bookshelves by color has its downfalls, as I was reminded this weekend when I purchased a copy of Frankenstein for my daughter’s summer reading for next year’s schoolwork. I was fairly certain we owned a copy already, but I was looking in the blue and black sections of my shelves and overlooked this slim pale volume. So now we own two copies (the new one has a black spine).

I haven’t read DeLillo’s Players in many years and don’t remember liking it much when I read it, but I tend to keep DeLillo, thinking that one day maybe I’ll dip in and do a study of him or reread everything at least.

Evangeline is lovely, and I reread it every so often (I’m way overdue for a read). I also have this poem in the beautiful two-volume Longellow collection back on shelf #7, but this one makes for more convenient reading.

In general, graphic novels and comics don’t do a whole lot for me. I find them annoying to read (which, to be clear, says more about me than about the form). I do try to get out of this mentality from time to time, and a few years ago, a few people had suggested Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, or The Smartest Kid on Earth. I read and enjoyed it and will almost certainly read it again some day. I’ve heard good things about Ware’s Building Stories but haven’t ever yet managed to work up the gumption to try it out (it sounds more annoying even than trying to visually parse graphic novels).

Portnoy’s Complaint is hilarious. With Roth recently dead, I suppose I ought to go and read a lot of his stuff, though I resist for now because I imagine him to be pretty far afield of the more diverse sort of reading I’ve been trying to do over the last couple of years. I’ve read a couple of others of his and have several others lying unread around the house.

I sort of hated Vineland, but I hang onto Pynchon with aspirations of doing a reread of the whole body of work one day, and maybe one day I’ll appreciate it (I hated Gravity’s Rainbow my first few abortive and probably my first full time through it too, and it grew on me, so maybe this one will too). Against the Day was surprisingly enjoyable and, for Pynchon, easy. I keep it in part because I keep Pynchon and in part because I’d like to read it again one day for enjoyment (rather than as medicine, which is sometimes how Pynchon goes down for me).

And finally, Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness is great. I like her work a lot. Every story has this feeling of having been bolted together just perfectly, and even when they’re a little dull, they feel so well constructed and often enough have this little central darkness to them that it’s hard not to admire Munro. I’ll read and reread her forever, and it’s good to have a collection I can pick up and leaf through when the mood strikes me.

Bookshelves #13

Well, it’s been a while since I shared a bookshelf snapshot. For any newer readers, the idea here is that I’m trying not to keep books unless they’re meaningful to me or are things I’ll likely reread. Every once in a while, the books have a neat story. I’m slowly cataloguing them all, whether they have good stories or not. My shelves are organized roughly by color. Here we are in shelf cubby number 13 (of 20), transitioning from very dark covers to the more neutral tones.

Riding along the top there is a book I got for work and didn’t like very much. The author fancies himself a maverick but seemed to me to mostly just be kind of flakey and annoying.

My kids wore out the copy of The Hobbit we had had for years, so this is a newer copy. I read Bobbie Ann Mason’s Feather Crowns a long time ago in college and found it kind of so-so. Her In Country was much better, if with less of a carnival appeal to it.

Barth I have perpetual mixed feelings about. Giles Goat-Boy is hilarious and smart and never-ending and really uneven, like pretty much all of Barth’s long fiction that I’ve read. I’ll likely dip back into it someday.

I read the Baldwin essays and liked a couple of them but was less interested in the rest. I imagine I’ll give the ones I liked another read someday, so for now I’m hanging onto it. I recently read one of his novels and felt very meh about it.

Lethem is pretty consistently good, or at least aligned with my tastes. The Fortress of Solitude is one of my favorites of his.

The Southern literature anthology was the text of a class I took in college, and it’s chock full of good stuff, and of less good stuff. I revisit things in it from time to time and generally tend to hang onto anthologies. I’ll skip quickly to the next book, A Handbook to Literature, which is an earlier version of the copy that made an appearance in shelf #6. This copy happens to’ve been my mother’s. A professor of mine was the editor of the more recent edition that I used in college.

One Hundred Years of Solitude is magnificent and very much worth keeping to reread later.

I never finished Pierre, though I reckon I’ll read it one day. I also didn’t read A Whaler’s Dictionary all the way through. It’s more of a commonplace book than a thing you sit and read. It’s got some neat entries in it. I picked it up a few years ago when doing an in-depth read of Moby-Dick. It’s a nice book to own, and one that I’d be surprised to find in my local library.

I keep Pynchon, so V remains on the shelf. I haven’t read that one in many years and didn’t love it when I did read it. I can see myself trying it out again, though I’d be more interested, as I think about it just now, rereading one of his others.

I never finished The Savage Detectives. I’ve read Bolaño’s 2666 a couple of times and had been told that this one was also a really good book, but I lost interest maybe 2/3 of the way through and never got back into it. One day maybe I’ll try again. It’s that sort of negligent optimism that keeps me hanging onto this one.

BookNotes.blog

I read a fair bit, and increasingly, I’m kind of holding my nose and reading business-oriented books in hopes of leveling up my game as a worker who leads people. A couple of years ago, I might have struggled more with technology challenges in my work, as I was writing code and chiefly leading people who were writing code. About a year-and-a-half ago, I took on a split role in which I was still leading a team of developers but was also leading a handful of leads in our support division (the division under which my developer team worked). In the latter portion of 2017, I switched my full-time focus to leading leads, and at present I have 10 folks under my direct care and about 70 under my care directly or indirectly. This tightening of focus gives me more mental bandwidth to spend on learning how to improve as a leader than I had had previously, when I was also focusing on how to be a producer of software. Now I think a lot more about things like trying to help articulate and execute a vision for the departments I work with, helping navigate change more effectively, designing and implementing programs in the service of professional development for the folks in my overall department, and other abstract things I hadn’t had a lot of prior experience with.

So I’ve really ramped up my focus on reading business-oriented books. I don’t typically enjoy this kind of writing. I prefer to get lost in an imagined story or to think about the architecture and plumbing — the technique — that goes into making a piece of fiction resonant and innovative or just well put-together. I don’t generally like the tone that self-styled gurus can strike, and I think there’s a lot of this tone in the world of business books. I have tended to find these kinds of books kind of boring, or at any rate inapplicable to my life and thus not useful. Well, now, with a more intense focus on the kind of work these books tend to address, I’m finding the practice of reading them more useful.

For a couple of years now, I’ve kept very brief remind-myself sorts of reviews at GoodReads, but these aren’t comprehensive at all or really useful to anybody but me. Part of my goal in developing myself as a lead is to also help develop the leads I work with. One way of doing this is to act as a sort of — I forget where this colorful term came from, but it applies here — a shit umbrella for the things I’m reading. That is, I’d like to be able to tell people “it’s not worth your time to read this book; its salient points are A, B, and C, but you don’t need to kill time reading the whole book” or “this book is well worth a deeper read and will help you further develop your thoughts on X.” Because I’m forgetful, my path to providing this sort of service is to take better notes on the things I’m reading and to go ahead as soon as I finish something and determine whether I think it’s worth somebody else’s time or not.

To that end, I’ve started BookNotes.blog. I tend in general toward maximalism in my writing, but here I’m trying to offer brief summaries with in most cases a verdict about whether the book is worth a closer read or not. My hope is that this’ll help me preserve my verdicts and memories of these books in a way that’s useful to others.  I’m just one shit umbrella with one opinion, of course, so it’s worth only whatever the value of my specific opinion is. At some point, I may invite others to contribute to the blog as well. My summaries aren’t terribly incisive or consistent in rigor or tone. But there they are, for whatever they may be worth — if you’re thinking of reading a business-oriented book and have found conversations with me about books to be worthwhile, maybe these short articles will help you decide where to spend some of your reading attention, or where not to.

Books, 2017

I read more books and more pages this year than I’ve read in any year since I’ve been tracking fairly reliably, finishing the year with 89 books and about 30,000 pages (whatever that means, since I don’t always find the same edition I read, and sometimes I’m reading on a Kindle). My prior best (if we can call volume or quantity a superlative) was 75 books for 26k pages in 2015. This year I averaged about 340 pages per book, and in 2015, I averaged about 347, so I really did just read a lot more this year. My longest book this year was 1280 pages (took me five weeks to read that one) and my shortest was about 90.

I had a fair few four-star books this year, which makes me wonder whether I read better books or whether I lowered my standards somehow. A five-star book is a rarity for me in any case, and typically a four-star book is one I would recommend to somebody pretty enthusiastically, though not necessarily one I’d recommend to everybody. A three-star book is one I enjoyed and might recommend but wouldn’t recommend unreservedly. Anything lower than that I probably wouldn’t recommend.

Last year, I made an effort to read almost all things written not by straight white dudes after noticing a dearth of such authors in my 2015 reading list. I wasn’t as monomaniacal about it this year and wound up reading a little more than half straight white dudes. I did the bulk of my pleasure reading from the library this year, though I bought a few things. I intentionally read a bit more fantasy and sci-fi, which I’ve been a bit snobbish about in the past. This is partially due to my family’s selection of some fantasy stuff for our read-alouds (we read the first four of the Wheel of Time series and started the fifth this year), but I’ve gone out of my way to read some of this stuff on my own too, with varied results. Here at the end of the year, I’ve read a few mystery novels by Rex Stout, whom I remember reading as a kid. I may make mystery novels a bit of a theme in 2018 and generally continue to explore genre fiction a bit more. I read a few things for work and in general read a bit more nonfiction than I usually do (I’ve also reinstated my Harper’s subscription after a lapse of a few years).

Real standouts for me this year were Jerusalem by Alan Moore and We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates. The former I think may be one of the great ambitious, important books written in my lifetime, and it is definitely not one I would recommend unreservedly for anybody and everybody. The latter seemed just ridiculously well written; even when it wasn’t the absolute most interesting thing to read, it was so well put together that it was a pleasure to spend time with. Whitehead, Le Guin, and Erdrich were also standouts this year.

Four star books included the following:

  • Night by Elie Wiesel
  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
  • Jerusalem by Alan Moore
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (a reread)
  • We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates
  • Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk (a reluctant 4-star review; I’m embarrassed to have enjoyed it, but I did)
  • Doc by Mary Doria Russell
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka
  • Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip Heath
  • The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich
  • The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin
  • Tehanu by Ursula Le Guin
  • The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders
  • The Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich
  • The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
  • John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
  • The Best American Short Stories 2017 by various
  • Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Men and Cartoons by Jonathan Lethem
  • A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
  • Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
  • Postcards by Annie Proulx
  • Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (a reread)
  • A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe

Three star books include the following:

  • Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead
  • Arthur and George by Julian Barnes
  • Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler
  • The Eye of the World (Wheel of Time #1) by Robert Jordan
  • The Great Hunt (Wheel of Time #2) by Robert Jordan
  • The Dragon Reborn (Wheel of Time #3) by Robert Jordan (read aloud to the family)
  • The Shadow Rising (Wheel of Time #4) by Robert Jordan (read aloud to the family)
  • Shadow & Claw (The Book of the New Sun #1 and #2) by Gene Wolfe
  • Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days by Jake Knapp
  • Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
  • Slade House by David Mitchell
  • The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
  • Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick by Philip K. Dick
  • Heir to the Glimmering World by Cynthia Ozick
  • Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit
  • Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey
  • The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
  • The Farthest Shore by Ursula Le Guin
  • Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon
  • When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
  • Othello by Shakespeare
  • A Gambler’s Anatomy by Jonathan Lethem
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson
  • The Best American Essays 2017
  • Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr
  • The Maze Runner by James Dashner (read aloud to the family)
  • Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut
  • The Art of Forgery by Noah Charney
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
  • Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
  • Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris
  • Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem
  • The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni
  • Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone
  • Local Souls by Allan Gurganus
  • Ghost Lights by Lydia Millet
  • Apex Hides the Hurt by Colson Whitehead
  • Leading Change by John Kotter
  • The League of Frightened Men by Rex Stout
  • V for Vendetta by Alan Moore

Two-star books:

  • The Circle by Dave Eggers
  • Meaty by Samantha Irby
  • The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
  • The Dragon’s Tooth by N.D. Wilson (read aloud to the family)
  • Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace by Gordon MacKenzie
  • The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Fer-de-Lance by Rex Stout
  • Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
  • Ariel by Sylvia Plath
  • You Don’t Love Me Yet by Jonathan Lethem
  • The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017
  • Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert A. Heinlein
  • Sword & Citadel (The Book of the New Sun #3 and #4) by Gene Wolf
  • The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier

Some books I don’t rate, usually because I have some personal connection to it or its author in real life (which makes rating them feel weird), which is the case for each of these three:

  • We Were Once Here by Michael McFee
  • The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs
  • The Woman Who Lived Amongst the Cannibals by Robert Kloss

I’ve grouped many of the books listed above into categories below. Anything that appears below also appears above, so read on only if you’re curious about the groupings.

Dystopia

  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (a reread)
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (a reread)
  • The Maze Runner by James Dashner (read aloud to the family)
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
  • V for Vendetta by Alan Moore

Nonfiction

  • Night by Elie Wiesel
  • Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip Heath
  • The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders
  • A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
  • Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days by Jake Knapp
  • Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit
  • When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
  • Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris
  • The Best American Essays 2017
  • The Art of Forgery by Noah Charney
  • The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni
  • Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone
  • Meaty by Samantha Irby
  • Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace by Gordon MacKenzie
  • The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs
  • Leading Change by John Kotter
  • The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier

Sci-fi

  • Fahrenheit 451
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick
  • Shadow & Claw (The Book of the New Sun #1 and #2) by Gene Wolfe
  • Sword & Citadel (The Book of the New Sun #3 and #4) by Gene Wolf
  • Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson
  • Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick by Philip K. Dick
  • The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
  • Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut
  • The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017
  • Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert A. Heinlein

Fantasy

  • The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin
  • Tehanu by Ursula Le Guin
  • The Farthest Shore by Ursula Le Guin
  • Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler
  • The Eye of the World (Wheel of Time #1) by Robert Jordan
  • The Great Hunt (Wheel of Time #2) by Robert Jordan
  • The Dragon Reborn (Wheel of Time #3) by Robert Jordan
  • The Shadow Rising (Wheel of Time #4) by Robert Jordan
  • The Dragon’s Tooth by N.D. Wilson (read aloud to the family)
  • The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

Not Straight White Dudes

  • We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates
  • Doc by Mary Doria Russell
  • The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
  • Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilak
  • The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich
  • Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
  • The Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich
  • The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin
  • Tehanu by Ursula Le Guin
  • The Farthest Shore by Ursula Le Guin
  • The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
  • John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead
  • Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead
  • Apex Hides the Hurt by Colson Whitehead
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
  • Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
  • Postcards by Annie Proulx
  • Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (a reread)
  • A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe
  • Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
  • Heir to the Glimmering World by Cynthia Ozick
  • Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit
  • When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
  • Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
  • Ghost Lights by Lydia Millet
  • Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris
  • Local Souls by Allan Gurganus
  • Meaty by Samantha Irby
  • Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch
  • Ariel by Sylvia Plath
  • The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs

For work

  • Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip Heath
  • Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days by Jake Knapp
  • The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni
  • Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone
  • Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace by Gordon MacKenzie
  • Leading Change by John Kotter
  • The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier

Bookshelves #12

Here’s another humdinger of a shelf. Riding along the top there, we’ve got yet another edition of Moby-Dick. I’ve never actually read this edition, but it was a gift and I don’t really feel great about selling or donating a gift. The last time I remember doing so, it was Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, and my sister-in-law, who had purchased it for me from my wish list, busted me. I really wanted to like Lowry’s book because people whose opinions I respected liked it, but it just didn’t do the trick for me, and I was in the middle of a purge of a couple of hundred books to make room for things I did value as literature (vs. as gifts). Anyway, I’m keeping this one.

Next up we have The Decameron and Don Quixote, which I read together a few years ago during a period of reading frame tales (stories within stories). The Decameron is full of bawdy jokes and is sometimes boring and sometimes hilarious to the extent that a book about aristocrats escaping the plague by leaving the city behind to go out into the country and tell one another moralistic and sometimes bawdy tales can be. Don Quixote is also really funny (if sometimes a bit tiresome) and is one I’ll likely reread in a decade or so.

I forget where I heard about Wickersham, but I picked this book up without really knowing what to expect. I didn’t love its first story, but on the whole, the stories wound up being really good, really well done. I kept the book as a reminder to read more Wickersham later.

This shelf holds two by Nicholson Baker — The Traveling Sprinkler and The Fermata. What an off-beat character the main guy (Paul Chowder) in these novels is. He’s kind of delightful and kind of an asshole. The books give us his childlike view mixed with I guess a bit of depravity (especially in the latter book). I liked Sprinkler in part because it taught me what a traveling sprinkler is as a real thing in the world (and what a neat thing, full of possibility for metaphor). I think there’s another in the series of Chowder books, but I forget whether I’ve read it if so. I’m sort of mesmerized by Baker’s easy-seeming style. I should probably get rid of these and read them, if ever again, from the library.

I’m a bit of a Pynchon junkie. When I read Bleeding Edge, I thought of it as the most accessible long-form Pynchon to date. This of course means that it’s not really full-on Pynchon, which is sort of disappointing but also sort of a relief. I keep Pynchon, so even though this one didn’t knock my socks off and I doubt I’ll ever read it again, on the shelf it remains.

I was talking to a friend just recently about Ozick. She’s somebody whose name I learned by reading interviews with David Foster Wallace, whose talking about the stuff he read or admired has informed a lot of what I’ve read over the past two decades. I’ve read five or six books by Ozick now, and they’re almost always really good. They don’t pack much of an emotional punch for me in general, but they’re just well written and so very smart, and I read her in part because I figure that reading smart stuff will make me smarter. To my friend, I likened Ozick to Alice Munro in terms of like the simple and matter of fact correctness of the way her stories are put together and narrated, but like Munro writing in a way more informed by academia than about the lives of Canadian women. I don’t remember a lot about The Cannibal Galaxy in particular, but in general I’m keeping and will plan to reread Ozick.

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story is a brief biography of David Foster Wallace. I wrote a bit about it here. I keep it because I keep Wallace’s work and ephemera.

Finally, we have Richard Powers’s The Time of our Singing. I haven’t read this book in over a decade, but when I read it, I remember finding it really marvelous. This was at a time that I had been reading a fair bit of Powers and finding his work disappointing. He was regarded as sort of a wonder boy of literary fiction, but I thought his books were contrived and awkward, and it seemed often enough like he maybe hadn’t ever actually met or spoken with a real human being for long enough to be able to write one convincingly. This book was such a nice change. Looking back, it’s hard for me to say whether it was actually beautifully done or was just a relief after so much other bleh work I’d been reading by Powers (a stomped toe being a sort of relief after so many kicks in the nuts). In any case, it’s one I’d like to try again sometime.

In my next bookshelves post, we’ll transition from blacks and grays into beiges and whites, with of course a few of the usual suspects lined up.

Bookshelves #11

Here we are starting the second half of the bookshelves series, and it’s a bit of a dud, or perhaps it’s fitting, as a few of these I’ve left only half-finished.

I like Mark Twain but haven’t read the one here. I think I got it at a library sale of old books many years ago. One day I’ll get around to it.

I put The Brothers Karamazov down about 700 pages into it maybe 20 years ago, and two or three years ago decided to see if I could read the whole thing with a critical eye. I could! I picked up this biography of Dostoevsky by a historian whose work on Dostoevsky David Foster Wallace (of course) wrote good things about. It was a very readable book, but I ran out of time to read both this tome and The Brothers Karamazov simultaneously and on a bit of a deadline, so I stopped 200 or 300 pages in. I like to think I’ll go back to it some day.

I had heard that Flaubert was the quintessential stylist, and so what better way to read this classic than en Français? That turns out to be difficult if you don’t really know much Français. I tried a few years anyway, with a translation app on my phone to help me quickly get a handle on vocabulary I was missing. It was tedious and frustrating, and maybe one day I’ll try again (in English if not in French), but here we are three books into the shelf and I’ve completed not a one of them.

The Whale I read a few years back along with a bunch of other secondary material when leading an online group read of Moby-Dick. This one is obviously mis-shelved down here among the black books. It was a nice read. I don’t know if I’ll go back to it, though, but I hang onto it just in case, since as soon as I get rid of it, I know something will compel me to read Moby-Dick again and I’ll regret the loss of this secondary source.

DeLillo I tend to keep, figuring I’ll do some big completist type survey of his work some day. I read Mao II a few years ago and was I think so-so on it.

The Swerve was neat — a rare bit of nonfiction that I picked up in part because when I saw the title, it made me think back fondly to my old college class on Milton (my professor introduced me then to the concept of swerve).

This edition of Heart of Darkness is illustrated by Matt Kish, who also illustrated the Moby-Dick we saw on the last shelf. It’s really lovely to look at, and it was fun to see some of the ways in which he departed in this book from some of the themes and gestures so prevalent in his Moby-Dick art (though some of those remain).

I forget what I thought of the Eggers book. Probably I thought it was Eggers-ish, which is to say maybe a little too cute and proud of itself but also with something worthwhile in it. I think I recall that a friend sent me this book (his own copy) and didn’t want it back, and it’s not super clear to me whether I’m to cherish it as a gift or send it out to someone else in the world to enjoy. I suspect the latter.

And finally, Look Homeward, Angel. I grew up in North Carolina, though not in the mountains that Wolfe writes of. Wolfe is celebrated at UNC, which I attended. I remember seeing in some museum or pamphlet about him while I was in school there a photo of him standing beside knee-high stacks of paper that made up, I believe, this book. I should love this book, but I’ve twice now started it without finishing it. I don’t remember that anything has particularly turned me off to it, but I’ve just petered out for one reason or another. On a trip for work recently, I watched the fairly recent movie Genius, which tells the story of Wolfe and his relationship with editor Max Perkins. I enjoyed the movie, though I can’t imagine why they picked Jude Law to play Wolfe, and it made me want to try the book again. Maybe the third time’ll be the charm.

Bookshelves #10

The Tunnel is a enough of a kick in the nuts that I had to put it first in the list so that I could have the rest of this shelf to recover. What a horrible negative ghastly vitriolic book. I don’t even remember how it ended. I had to give it a couple of tries before I could make myself slog through it. But there is this one blessed section about the dustbowl and a grasshopper plague that is one of the finest pieces of writing I’ve ever read. I’ll keep the book for that alone. Also there’s one page upon which the words are arranged to look like a cock and balls (take that, George Herbert), which makes me giggle. There’s other good stuff too.

Stacked up sideways on top, we have Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which I enjoyed a lot. I think Tartt is maybe a rare talent, so I’ll keep reading her and keeping her work. The Makkai book I was ambivalent about. This is one I’m keeping so that I can remember to check out her later work.

Speaking of ambivalence, let’s look at Danielewsky’s House of Leaves. It’s a difficult book and a frustrating book in much the same way that Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is frustrating, in that some of it is kind of terrible. I’m a sucker for literary gimmicks, but I tend to prefer mind-fucks to like weird typographical tricks. Still, there’s something kind of neat about some of the stuff this book does. I predict that I’ll try it again in a decade or so and will scoff at it and never think about it again.

John Milton? Who’s that guy? This book set me back $80 about 20 years ago, and a lot of it is dull as ditchwater. But one of my best professors in college was my Milton professor. He did this thing where he would just sort of hover outside the classroom until it was time for class to begin and then he would sort of run into the room and start talking at the same time and it’d be 50 minutes of ramming smart shit into my head. I admired the heck out of this guy, and I think I did some decent work in his class. I liked Milton’s Comus and Renaissance drama in general enough that I intended to study the stuff of this period as my life’s work, but it didn’t work out. I’ve thought a lot lately about maybe rereading at least Aereopagitica, though probably I’m too addled with age and 21st-century mind-numbing work experience to get much out of it. Anyway, this book, and that class, were formative for me. I learned in college that I’m a terrible reader with a terrible memory, so I had to reread things two or three times to make them stick, so I probably managed to read Paradise Lost 4 or 5 times in a semester. I guess a side benefit is that 20 years later, I can still recite the first 15 or 20 lines of Paradise Lost from memory. That’s practical.

Suttree is a really difficult book. I remember having to read the first 5 or 10 pages several times to get much out of them. The word that has always come to mind when reading this book is “lush.” McCarthy has such a great vocabulary, whether he’s writing about pampooties or the chaparral or good old humble Knoxville, as in this book. I like McCarthy generally, and this one I keep because it’s about the place (albeit a different place than the one I really know) I’ve called home for nearly two decades now. A few years ago, a bar opened in town named Suttree’s, and I went there a fair bit until the night I discovered that it had been discovered (there was a line down the street), which didn’t fit my mostly reclusive temperament.

The next two slim volumes are one about Wallace and one by Gaddis. I read the Wallace book long ago but don’t remember anything about it; Burn is considered a scholar. Gaddis’s Agape Agape I don’t remember much about, but Gaddis is Gaddis, and I suspect this one’ll mean a lot more to me as I get older and older, as it is (if I recall correctly) sort of a dying yawp of a book based largely on Gaddis’s ruminations on the player piano as sort of a weird avatar of the crisis of easily reproducible or mechanized art and, in its obsolescence, probably of death.

Speaking of kicks in the nuts, there aren’t many people I don’t know (other than, say, Trump and company) who’d I’d line up to cock my big hammy leg back and sock really hard in the nuts, but Franzen is one of them. I don’t think he’s a particularly good writer, but he’s lauded as one of our greats. He writes in this contemporary realist mode, but his realism is terrible. He’s humorless (or when he tries to be humorous, it generally fails to land), and I’m not sure he really understands what it’s like to be a hu-man being. He and Wallace were sort of competitive friends, and it’s hard for me to imagine, based on what I’ve read of Franzen’s fiction and his of his public persona, that Wallace could have derived much value from the friendship or the competition. I thought Freedom was really awful and haven’t managed to make myself read Purity yet. The Corrections wasn’t terrible; there was some ok stuff in it. Still, I can’t muster much more than casual disdain for Franzen. A few years ago, there was a news item about a guy who stole Franzen’s glasses briefly (I believe they were later returned). I feel like Franzen probably deserved it and probably also deserved the kick in the nuts the opthalmological purnoiner failed (short-sightedly?) to deliver. I reckon I’ll read this goddamn book again one day in any case. There’s something not awful about it amid its awfulness.

If you’ve read many of my posts bout the nine shelves preceding this one, I’m sorry, and I also know that you know that I’ve got a thing for Moby-Dick. I tried to read it to my firstborn while she was in utero, but my wife ridiculed me just a few pages in (to her credit, it is awfully weird to read a book to a belly, and it is perhaps all the weirder to read to a belly a book such as this). So, it’s an important book to me. I’ve written about it (more about art about the book) on this blog here, and a lot more (with others) about the book itself here as part of an online group read I led a few years ago. This book is a really beautiful book containing an illustration per page from the artist’s edition of the book. When I was conducting the group read a few years ago, I found the art book (inspired by Zak Smith’s similar project around Gravity’s Rainboow — see shelf #2) and reached out to artist Matt Kish, who was very kind to respond and write some posts for my site. We’ve been in touch off and on since, and I have a tattoo based on one of his drawings, and he did me an unnecessary but nice courtesy by mentioning me in the acknowledgments of this beautiful collection of his drawings. So I guess I’ll keep it. I see his art every day in seven framed pieces of his original artwork that adorn my office walls, and I have a few bookmarks (I collect these) that my wife commissioned from him that I’m afraid to use for fear of messing them up (though I use them anyway — carefully).

Finally, we have The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. My son picked this out from somewhere (I forget where), and we shortly thereafter discovered that it had some pretty explicit T&A stuff in it that we weren’t quite ready for our then-8-year-old son to be exposed to. I mean what, Moore, not super appropriate for children?

Thus ends row two of the shelves. I fear that shelf #11 will be a disappointment by comparison, but there are plenty of good books yet to come.