Bookshelves #19

Here we are in the dull neutral tones section of my bookshelves, pretty firmly on the home stretch in this series. Let’s start at the top.

Lethem is pretty strong in general, and this short book was clever and funny. I liked it, and since it wasn’t a stinker (as one or two of his have been for me), I kept it. Salt Houses was a lovely story, good by any metric but especially good for a first novel (and one of my favorite reads of 2018); I’d like to read more by Alyan. Lauren Groff has been ridiculously consistent and is one of my favorite living authors. The Monsters of Templeton Place was my introduction to her work — and a lucky random bookstore find — and I’ve been a fan of her work ever since. Salt I have not read; it was a gift to my wife that somehow wound up on my shelves. Maybe I’ll read it one day! Native Son is one of those classic books you sort of have to read, and I’m glad I finally did. My brief Goodreads review read “harrowing and eloquent.” I imagine I’ll revisit it one day.

The Pale King is David Foster Wallace’s posthumous last novel, and while it is very far from being perfect, it contains some of his best writing, and some writing that departs significantly from his other work. I’ve read it once or twice and false-started another time and will definitely reread it one day. Look a few spines to the right and you’ll also see Wallace’s posthumous essay collection Both Flesh and Not. I’ve not read this cover to cover, though I think I’ve read most of the pieces in some form or another.

Weird and Wonderful Words was a gift probably 20 years ago. Although I like this sort of book, I’ve not read this one cover-to-cover and likely never will, but it’s neat to have a reference handy.

I remember nothing about Ozick’s Dictation, but Ozick is a marvel, so I keep everything of hers I pick up.

This edition of The Inferno came out when I was in college. Its translator, Robert Pinsky, was going to be coming to my university to read his own poems and participate in some activities with the writing students at the school. I had never read The Inferno and figured it was as good a time as any. So I got the book and sat alone in my dorm room one night reading it aloud, I believe in one setting and until I was hoarse. It was good! I’m a dork! Maybe I’ll do it again some time.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti also came to my university a year or two before Pinsky did, and he and his work had a pretty big impact on me at the time. I didn’t go out and become a Ferlinghetti-ish writer (though I did then read a lot of Beat work), but I have always had a soft spot for him. He was a great reader.

The Moby Dick item is a game and not a book. It was a Kickstarter I funded, but of course nobody would ever play the game with me, and I don’t imagine it’s too much fun anyway.

Tom McCarthy is pretty much always worth a read, and I keep his books when I get them. I don’t remember much about Men in Space.

Gass sure befuddles me. He’s so dang smart, and I can’t keep up. Middle C was more accessible to me than some of his other works of fiction, and I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it. Still, I keep Gass when I buy him, out of a naive hope that one day I’ll be smart enough to read him properly. See also his Finding a Form a couple of spines over — I’ve read some but not all of these essays.

I’ve always wanted to like Donald Hall, since way back when I was studying poetry in college. A couple of grown-ups I admired pointed me to his work. And I liked some of his work (his gut-wrenching poetry collection Without also appears among my shelves). I just haven’t gotten around to this one yet.

Barthelme and Markson are sort of experimental writers, and I like that sort of writing in theory. I’ve read a lot of Barthelme’s stories but haven’t gotten around to his Snow White yet; I’m waiting for the mood to strike me. Wittgenstein’s Mistress was a big important text for David Foster Wallace, and as I did with so many of the things I knew had influenced him, I picked it up many years ago. The Markson didn’t resonate with me, and as with Gass, I figure maybe I’m just not smart enough to get it.

Finally, there’s a collection of Pynchon’s short stories. I think I’ve read them and I think I felt meh about them (at any rate, I remember nothing about them). One day I may go back and reread all of Pynchon, and these’ll be worth revisiting if I do so.

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.

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

Bookshelves #15

Here we end the penultimate row in my bookshelves series. Along the top there you see various and sundry notebooks I’ve picked up over the last few years for long-hand writing and a spiral sketch-pad I bought when briefly (and it turns out optimistically) thinking “I’d like to learn how to draw.” I don’t know why these’ve landed in this cubby, but they have.

The Burned Children of America is a short story anthology I got because it had a David Foster Wallace story in it. It also has several other good stories by well-known authors of Wallace’s generation like Saunders, Eugenides, Bender, Moody, Lethem, Lipsyte, and Foer, and it’s got one by Julia Slavin that really knocked my socks off.

I first tried reading Ulysses probably 20 years ago, and probably three or four times after that failed attempt, I started it and didn’t get very far at all past stately, plump Buck Mulligan. Finally, back in 2010, I led an online group read of the book and did make it through. I surely didn’t love every minute of the book, but I was glad to get through it at last, and though at the time, I said I didn’t know if I’d ever read it again, I suspect I probably will (and indeed have been feeling the itch a bit lately). This one I’ll hang onto if only to avoid sending my silly margin notes out into the world for others to read.

I don’t love this Moby-Dick children’s book, but I keep Moby-Dick books. I did read this one to my kids a lot when they were little.

I apparently misread Americanah. It read as a fundamentally sad book to me, but Adichie apparently laughed all the way through writing it. I think my misreading stems from my discomfort taking as comical the struggles of characters whose experience (and whose sense of humor about it) is so very far removed from my own privileged experience. Anyway, misread or not, I didn’t love it, but I do think Adichie is a fantastic novelist (her Half of a Yellow Sun garnered a rare 5-star Goodreads review from me and is one of my favorite reads of the last few years), and I’ll likely reassess this one at some point.

I remember nothing about Your Fathers…, but Goodreads suggests that I liked it quite a lot. I suppose I’ll look at it again some day.

When I was in college many years ago, regional author Alan Gurganus gave a reading that I believe was from Plays Well With Others, though I don’t recall whether the book had yet been published. I don’t remember loving the reading, but I did go out and read his well-known Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, which I forget how I felt about. And at some point, I picked up this book, which I vaguely recall as being biting and sort of angry and sometimes probably a little boring and sometimes very funny. I’ve read a little bit more by Gurganus since and not loved it, but I would like to try this one again in the future, as I was still a pretty young reader when I last went through it.

I had never read Watership Down until we picked it up as a family read a few years ago. I had always assumed it was some sort of naval adventure based on the name (though that actually doesn’t make sense either). I loved it. It’s so well imagined and just awfully well put together. I recently suggested a reread to my family.

Tristram Shandy was a real labor. I read it as part of reading a series of sort of foundational frame tales a few years ago. Yes, parts of it are hilarious, but it’s also just so very tedious and annoying that it was a real labor for me to get through. I tend to retry the hard ones, though, so I imagine I’ll go back to it again some day.

I have a probably irrational antipathy for Jonathan Franzen. I thought The Corrections was reasonably well written, and I really hated Freedom, which just felt ham-handed and improbable (though in the realist tradition) and dumb. I didn’t read Purity because by the time it came out, I had read enough of Franzen’s other work and read enough things about him that I just didn’t really want to be connected to more of his work. I think that if his books really did the trick for me, I could put the antipathy aside, but I really just don’t think the work is all that good either. I’ve never read this earlier book of his, but I hang onto it just in case I brush this chip off my shoulder one day and decide to give him another chance, as I’ve heard this is a good one (but I mean you hear that about all his books).

Tom McCarthy generally writes things that tickle some fancy of other of mine. It’s been a bit since I read C, but I vaguely recall it as sort of Pynchon-lite in its treatment of war, technology, and spiritualism. I’ll generally try anything this guy writes and think of him as somebody to maybe revisit overall one day.

Ah, Mencken, what a troll. I first encountered him in a Southern literature class in college, and I bought this anthology of his work a few years later to get a broader sampling. I’ve never read it cover-to-cover, but it seems like the kind of thing I might dip back into from time to time for topical readings.

Next time, I’ll do a carriage return to the next shelf of cubbies, which features some good books but also a bunch of cookbooks that I won’t likely go into detail about and a mysterious background layer of books that hides some of my deepest shames.

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.