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

Books, 2016

Oops, I apparently never published this post at the end of 2016. I discovered it only after writing up a draft of my book list for 2017. So I’ll post this now and my 2017 list once the year wraps up. These are books from 2016. When I mention “this year,” I mean 2016; when I mention “last year,” I mean 2015.


Last year, I recorded having read 74 books for a total of 25,500 pages. I fell a little behind this year, logging 67 books and 22,107 pages, which I suppose is still respectable enough. Last year I padded my book count some by reading the 13 books in the Series of Unfortunate Events series to my kids and participating as fully as I could in the Tournament of Books, which required a sort of mania to manage. Much of this year in reading to the kids was consumed by reading Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, which contributed to the page count (these are 800+ pages apiece if I recall correctly) but added a paltry three books to the list. This year I read almost all things that were new to me (To Kill a Mockingbird was the exception, though I hadn’t read it in 25 years, so it was sort of new all over again), and I tried a different approach to picking what to read.

When writing last year’s summary of my reading, I noticed that I was reading mostly white American men. Since I am a white American man, I suppose this makes a certain amount of sense, but I figured it was time to broaden my horizons a bit, and the best way to do that is intentionally. So I made 2016 the year of reading people who weren’t white American/English/Canadian dudes. Brandon Sanderson and a late read of a Heinlin book (which gets logged on 2017 anyway) aside, I managed to avoid white guys. My failures were concessions to my family, who didn’t necessarily want to go along on my personal journey, though I dragged them along for some of it. The Sanderson at least featured a strong female protagonist; the Heinlein was a late break for my wife, who couldn’t bear another soporific read-aloud of Agatha Christie (who my children oddly really like).

So, how did I pick all these books by non-white men? Sometimes it was more or less at random. I actually browsed a little local bookstore a lot (enough that they got in the habit of thanking me not for my purchase but for my “contribution,” as if the sometimes not insignificant purchase was an act of charity) and read book covers to see what looked interesting. The store — Union Avenue Books —  has a small new paperback collection (I’m generally not charitable enough to buy in hardback) that rotates frequently enough that I could stop by and pick up a stack of six or eight books to last a month or two and find a fair few different books on my next stop. I basically profiled authors by looking for names that seemed unlikely to belong to white men, and when possible I would confirm by looking for an author photo or bio. It felt a little weird to physically profile people, and I consoled myself that it was ok since it was in the service of expanding my perspective to include the perspectives of people whose work I had not actively sought out before, but I’m still not sure it was actually ok. In any case, what’s done is done.

One thing I found was that when trying not to read white dudes, it’s very very easy to read white women. I read more white women than I really wanted to, to the extent that it felt a little cheaty, since though they do have a different experience of the world than white men, it seems very probable to me that overall, the experience these (I suspect largely entitled) women have of the world is probably very much more like the experience I have of the world than the experience of, say, a Nigerian Jesuit.

Now a word about my GoodReads rating system. First, I wish they allowed partial stars, as often I find five-star granularity to be insufficient for expressing how I feel about a book. Some books are better than three stars but not quite 4 stars, and it’s frustrating that I can’t express that in my quantifiable review. I tend to rate down, I guess because I’m a little snobbish and don’t want to elevate a book that didn’t really do it for me. So, a five-star book is basically transcendental for me; it changed my worldview or offered a perspective or a beauty of writing that made me really want to put it in a very small group of favorite books. A four-star book is very good and I liked it a lot (maybe even loved it a little) or found it exceedingly worthwhile even if not altogether enjoyable to get through. A three-star book I liked just fine. A two-star book I didn’t like much at all. A one-star book I pretty much hated. An abandoned book is very very rare for me, and I abandoned one this year (The Night Circus — irredeemable, and I wish I could bill the author for my time).

Of the books I read this year, I gave no books five stars but gave these 18 books four stars:

There were a few surprises here for me, notably the presence of some genre fiction in A Wizard of Earthsea (I wanted to continue the series but my daughter wasn’t digging it; I’ll likely revisit on my own later) and Epitaph, which is a loosely historical novel that isn’t at all the sort of thing I tend to pick up. Groff was a new find for me this year, and what a great find. The Vegetarian was more of a 3.5, but I rated it up rather than down because it was a bit of a puzzler for me, and I’m intrigued by puzzlers even if I don’t strictly like or enjoy them. I was glad to find Mason’s book so good, as I had read her Feather Crowns many years ago and found it merely ok. I would cheerfully recommend almost all of these books to just about anybody with the exception perhaps of The Vegetarian.

I gave three stars to these 37 books:

Lots of the family reads made this list. I hadn’t expected to like the Mistborn books as much as I did (and the third was kind of bad and thus got only two stars). Sri Lanka is well represented here in the books of Ondaatje and Cummings, thanks to recommendations from a colleague and friend. Africa makes a couple of appearances, largely because I so enjoyed Half of a Yellow Sun (a rare five-star) last year and wanted to read a bit more from Africa (which, I know, is a very reductive thing to say). The Sellout was a big disappointment to me, enough so that I fear that the defect is in me as a reader and not in the book (it failed to connect for me in the way that a lot of Barth fails to connect; there’s something very smart about it but also something over-labored and thus tedious and annoying about it). Tartt delivers solid books consistently (two this year netted three stars for me and another four). I would recommend these books with less confidence. Some would surely land for some readers, but this cohort of books on the whole didn’t wow me.

I gave two stars to these eleven books:

The Erdrich was a real disappointment (I really liked The Round House), as was the Atwood, which I picked up randomly because it was on a table at a bookstore and I hadn’t read much Atwood and I was sort of feeling like maybe the U.S. was heading toward a Handmaid’s Tale-like future. My daughter liked Persepolis, and I was glad to learn more about Iran but didn’t really care for the book itself. The Stoddard and Wharton books were mostly just boring. Sanderson should have given up while he was ahead, and the Gratz was a real dud in my opinion after a more enjoyable first two books in that series.

I read but didn’t rate The Girl in the Well is Me by Karen Rivers because I’m very vaguely, tenuously acquainted with the author, and I feel weird about rating or commenting on books when I know the author (even though really I don’t — it’s a very very teensy, old connection, but enough of one that I feel weird about rating the book anyway).

Usually when I finish a book, I leave a very brief review on GoodReads, mostly just enough to tell a future forgetful me generally how I felt about a book or why I thought it was or wasn’t good. These micro-reviews aren’t really worth reading on the whole, but if you’re curious why a book landed in one pile or another and want to gamble on whether there’s useful context or not in my little review, click the link above and look for my review (easier to find if you friend me on GoodReads, I believe).

So, that’s 2016 in books for me. I’m glad I tried branching out. It was hard sometimes to avoid picking up a book by a white guy (there’s new Lethem, for example, and I got a book for my birthday that didn’t meet my criteria and has sat on my nightstand for 11 months), but I’m glad I mostly avoided it, and I’ll continue trying to keep an eye on how homogeneous my reading list is, and strive for heterogeneity. I think it’s probably more and more important to do so in a changing (or maybe merely acknowledged?) political climate in the U.S. that more than ever seems to favor the entitled and terrorize the rest.

She threw up her hands

For the last 11 or 12 years, I’ve read aloud to some portion of my family pretty nearly every day, except when things like travel or houseguests or illness have gotten in the way. It sounds silly, but this is one of the things I’m proudest of as a parent (my kids are big readers, which I feel great about). We’re in book three of the Wheel of Time series now (an old favorite of my wife’s that I had never read and that both the kids are old enough now to follow along with), and I’ve noted that people throw up their hands a lot in these books.

I’m an inveterate punster, and I notice and relish things like potential Spoonerisms, weird usage, unintentionally funny phrases, and of course opportunities to crack Dad jokes. These books have instilled in me a new habit of stopping to say “well if she hadn’t eaten her hands in the first place, resorting to auto-cannibalism wouldn’t have made her sick and she wouldn’t have had to throw them up” and similar (usually simplified) variants. For a while, these pauses got eye-rolls and groans out of my family, but then they stopped responding at all to my interjections, which of course makes me want to escalate (because I am a troll).

Oddly, the escalation in this case turned into almost more of a de-escalation, since instead of shouting or being more dramatic and doing the verbal equivalent of an elaborate elbow-nudge or pratfall, I started just folding the observation into the prose itself as a subordinate clause (e.g. “she threw up her hands, which she shouldn’t have eaten in the first place, but Bocephus continued to smirk”) without so much as a raised eyebrow. Thankfully, the family noticed and fed me with eye-rolls and groans and commentary about how fiendish it was to adapt in this manner, which was gratifying.

Bookshelves #9

Well here we are at shelf number 9, nearly halfway through the series. This one is a pretty heavy duty one.

Riding along the top there we’ve got a famous essay collection by Wallace that contains a couple of my favorite essays (the cruise ship one that so well describes despair amidst the trappings of pleasure and the state fair one). Then we have a short story collection that is mostly kind of so-so but that does do a pretty good job of dramatizing how easy it is to try to appear to be a good person while actually being quite a bad person. It’s really honest, nasty stuff that struck a chord with me when I read it as a young man. Generally I don’t recommend Wallace’s short stories to people, and of his several story collections, this is the one I’m least likely to recommend stories from.

I didn’t love Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, but it was fine, and I’m keeping Barnes for probable further study later.

I love this collection of Byron’s work. I bought it cheap at a used book store back in college, when I aspired to one day own a big collection of old and rare books. I don’t suppose it’s too rare since I was able to afford it as a college student who sold his plasma for booze money, but it was published in 1905, which is old for my collection. The pages are pretty brittle, and I don’t often actually read it very often (did make it through a fair bit of Don Juan 20ish years ago), but it is one of the books I really just like owning as an object.

I first tried to read Gravity’s Rainbow probably about 15 years ago. I don’t think I got past about page 2. It just didn’t grab me. I false started a few other times, once even getting about halfway through before giving up. Finally, a few years ago I led an online group read of Gravity’s Rainbow that forced me to get through the book. Or maybe I had managed to read it once already by then and this was a reread. I don’t remember. At any rate, I’ve now read it I believe three times fully, and though it is in many ways a really awful, ugly book, it’s also a real work of genius that runs the gamut from inducing a gag reflex to making you laugh aloud to making you roll your eyes to making you feel real sympathy for some of the characters. I figure I’ll read it once a decade or so from here on out.

I didn’t love Chimera, but that’s my way with Barth, whose books I keep even if I don’t love them.

A person who contributed to one or two of my online group reads wrote Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky, and I tend to keep books by people I know or sort-of know. Coincidentally, that author happens apparently and independently to be friends with a college friend of mine who recently died and who has a memoir about the last year or so of her life coming out soon. I’ll keep that one too.

We saw Peter Heller back on the blue shelves. His The Painter is really good, and I’ll keep reading his books until he pulls a Mitchell on me and starts writing stinkers.

A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall I read as part of the Tournament of Books a couple of years ago. It ticked a number of my boxes and seemed like a pretty solid first effort, so this is one of those books I kept maybe to read again some day but mostly as a reminder to revisit this author when he publishes more.

I didn’t much like Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, though I feel guilty for not liking it, as it’s supposed to be foundational. I’d like to give it another try one day, though, as sometimes it’s just not the right time for a book. Well, this is probably a very right time in the world for this sort of book but it wasn’t the right time for me.

Robert Pinsky came to my college when I was a junior studying poetry writing. He was really great — gracious with his time, earnest when he spoke, personable (at a dinner I was lucky enough to get to go to, I landed a seat at his table, and he talked warmly about his grandkids and was generally charming and full of stories), and really just all-around inspiring. He was then the poet laureate of the U.S. if I’m not mistaken (or maybe he came to that a little later, or a little earlier — I forget), and he had a thing for reading poems aloud. So I developed a thing for reading poems aloud, and for example one evening I sat in my dorm room and read his translation of Dante’s Inferno aloud to myself (sipping liberally from a big tall cup of vodka and Mt. Dew, if I’m being entirely honest). I also printed out copies of a bunch of poems that I thought merited reading aloud and carried them around with me. Pinsky gave a really great public reading at the university, and I very vividly recall his reading of the poem “Impossible to Tell,” which is a really great poem. Otherwise, at the time, I didn’t have a great deal of affection for his poems, but I sure liked the man, and his voice, and his presence, and his influence over my approach to poetry as a thing best done aloud. This (then) new and selected poems of his, titled The Figured Wheel, is inscribed to me (something vague and not actually all that impressive or personalized like “Good luck with poetry”) and so is a thing I value given how I valued my little distant interactions with him. It’s been I guess about 20 years now since I tried reading it, so I should probably give it another shot with the benefit of a little more age (though also with a much reduced interest in and patience for poetry). The program that brought Pinsky to our school was one that offered senior honors students more access to the visiting poets. Only a handful of juniors were allowed to go to a workshop and later a dinner in his honor, and I didn’t win the drawing or lottery or whatever, which was a little devastating. My professor (who fills about half of shelf #20) came to me at some point saying he wasn’t going to be able to go himself and giving me his slot, which was, I suspect, basically an act of charity on his part, for which I was and remain most grateful.

The Southern Critics is a little book of criticism and history I believe about the agrarian poets of the early and mid-20th century. My sister-in-law gave it to me years ago, and I’m sure I read it then. I haven’t read it since, but I may one day, and I hang onto this partially as a little souvenir of a burgeoning shared interest in literature that that sister-in-law and I have since continued. In other words, I feel a hair sentimental about it, to the extent that I do sentimental.

There’s plenty of Delillo’s work that I don’t love, and there’s probably a solid 400 pages of Underworld that I could do without, but there’s also a lot in this behemoth that does the trick for me, including some fun stuff about outsider art and one of the finest pieces of writing I’ve ever read in a long intro describing a day at the baseball field. I’ll probably read this again in the next 20 years. It’s another that I false started a time or two before actually finishing it.

Finally, in an inversion of the “books shoved in on top of others” pattern, I’ve got a huge art book tipped sideways on the bottom. I read maybe 20% of it a few years ago after picking it up cheap I forget where, but I’ve forgotten most of what I read. I like art (what a stupid, broad statement) but don’t know much formally about it, so having a book like this that I can go to every once in a while to fill in a knowledge gap is helpful, if sort of infrequent given what a pain it is to get the book out and return it to the stack.

So, on the whole, a really solid shelf with yet more foundational stuff on it. It’s a doozie, and #10 will be too, so stay tuned.

Bookshelves #8

Well this is a sad little shelf compared to the others so far. Rather than being stuffed full or having a few tag-alongs stacked on top, we’ve got some leaners, and a couple of pretty dull ones in the mix too.

We start with more Lethem. Motherless Brooklyn is sort of a noir book that I enjoyed, though it’s not my favorite Lethem by a pretty long shot.

The Melville biography is actually quite good — a really nice mix of literary criticism and biography and a must-read if you have more than a passing interest in Melville or in Moby-Dick. It is very readable, and I’ll almost certainly at least re-skim it in the next decade or so.

I tried reading Catch-22 some 15 years ago and couldn’t get into it, but I tried again in the last five years and loved it. What a mix of hilarity and gut-punching.

Next up, we have the last Mitchell from before he went kind of rogue with the weird pseudo-sci-fi horology stuff. I recommended The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet to some coworkers a few years ago before remembering that it opens with a really grisly complicated birth scene complete with diagrams, which isn’t usually the sort of thing it would occur to me to recommend to coworkers. In any case, this really is a lovely book about the Dutch East India company opening a trade route to Japan, with a little bit of the mysticism that leads into the catastrophe that is Mitchell’s followup The Bone Clocks. Maybe we can consider the gap between this and the next book sort of a moment or space of silence or void in honor of the book Mitchell could’ve/should’ve written next.

I didn’t absolutely love every moment of Barnes’s History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, but there was surely some good stuff in evidence, and in general I’m hanging onto Barnes, as I believe he’s smart and important and is somebody I’ll want to keep reading and rereading.

Wallace of course was inevitable (something by, about, or somehow pertaining directly to him has been found — unintentionally, I assure you — on every compartment of the shelves so far), and this issue of Sonora Review focuses on his work. I keep it because I’m a near-completist.

I rarely read nonfiction. When I do, it tends to be about things like art forgery or the classical concept of swerve as a way of understanding the universe — basically stuff that teaches me about art or literature or culture — but a couple of years ago, I was forced asked to lead a team at my company, and as a result (since I was more of an “I’ll just get this done” person than an “I’ll help others get this done” person), I read a few books on leadership. I still do kind of pinch my nose and wade through a book of this sort every once in a while (I’m in one now called Thanks for the Feedback). This one in any case was pretty interesting. Although it read very much like a consultant-authored book, it read a lot less like an infomercially “I am just going to pontificate at you inspirationally” book than others because they backed it up with lots of data. The authors looked at a lot of teams that had been successful and tried to extract data about things that correlated with that success, and there was plenty in this book to highlight and think about. It’s a little dry, and I highlighted and took notes about all the good bits, so I suppose I’d recommend asking me for the highlights over reading the book, if you’re in the market for such stuff, but I’ve kept it because my company paid for it (so selling it back feels inappropriate) and because I could well imagine flipping back through it sometime.

The book on computer programming is dry and horrible, and my company bought it for me and I’m ashamed I haven’t read it. A developer I admire recommended it a few years ago, and I got to page 11. I hang onto it out of shame and should really pass it along to a developer on my team or elsewhere within the company.

The first Roth I read was Portnoy’s Complaint, and boy was it hilarious. There’s good stuff in Goodbye Columbus too, but it’s probably not worth keeping. I read one other book by Roth a year or two ago. I’m kind of meh on him. He seems pretty funny but kind of a shithead. I’m putting this book in the sell-back pile now, and I suppose I’ll really need to start stocking up on dark blue or purple books to round out this shelf.

I ran across Jodi Angel in the little magazine one story (which I really love, though I have a backlog of about two years to wade through), and this was a really solid collection. She writes often enough from the perspective of teenaged boys, and much better than I’ve ever managed to write even though I once was a teenaged boy and a fair few bits of the little writing I’ve tried to do over the last 20 years’ve been from the perspective of or about the experience of a teenaged boy. I’ll definitely revisit these, and other work by Angel.

We finish strong as we head into the browner tones with Ozick. Well, we finish strong in that we finish with Ozick, though this is very far from my favorite of the books of hers I’ve read. I think she’s great, but this was very meh for me. Still, when I find an author I really like, I tend to hang onto their books.

Next time we’ll get to a real humdinger. It’ll take me probably 3,000 words to get through writing about the Pynchon, Byron, Barth, some of the shorter works of Wallace (who will be nine for nine on my shelves), Delillo, Pinsky, the agrarian poets, and um the whole of of art history.

Bookshelves #7


I have to start this post off with a confession: I used to write poetry. When I was 16 or 17, I wrote about things like “oh, I have these deep soulful blue eyes that speak of my pain in this world,” but by the time I got to college (at least the later parts of it, during which I wrote a poetry manuscript that’s bound in one of the university libraries and for part of which I actually somehow won a literary prize with a cash reward for which the value was equivalent to like 8 weeks of selling my plasma, which I think is probably pretty close to a Pulitzer or a Nobel), I was a little more serious and let’s say literary about it. By this, I mean that I read a lot of conventional poetry and adopted an attitude of “fuck that shit” and tried to buck tradition in mostly ultimately pretty silly ways, but in ways that seemed to either spark the admiration of my peers or cause them to lie to me. I did also write a big long formal and mostly traditional cycle of poems that included a couple sonnets and a villanelle and if I’m not misremembering a few forms of my own devising in it, so I wasn’t all “fuck that shit” but was also a little bit “but there’s sometimes something kind of nice about that shit.”

This all brings us to good old Richard Wilbur, whom I do not like. Some of his poems are nice. His children’s poems are downright delightful. I met him while I was studying poetry writing in college and indeed had an opportunity to have him critique one of my poems, which from my perspective (not so far removed, I’ll grant, from the “deep soulful blue eyes” perspective, but also a fair bit more mature) was a like elegy to the loss of religious feeling in spite of deep family ties to that feeling. When Wilbur visited my school and spoke in his sort of elevated tone about poetry, it was sort of wonderful, but when he read and critiqued my poem, one of many (almost certainly more artful ones by my peers) that he could have selected, in front of a big bunch of people, and when his critique consisted of basically the statement that the author probably needed to get right with God, I was pretty unimpressed. Still, if he is still living, he is considered one of our best living poets, and in spite of my kind of terrible experience with his semi-publicly dismissing whatever like literary or prosodic value one of my poems may have gestured toward, it was neat to meet him. He gave a reading while he visited my school (during which he really did endearingly read some of the children’s poems), and afterward I had a chance to sit around and drink whiskey with him and some classmates and teachers, and it was very neat (he told stories from the war, among others).

All of which in the end is to say that this nearly 20-year-old collection of Wilbur’s poems is autographed but thankfully and somewhat surprisingly not autographed “may you find Jesus, you troglodyte.” I don’t love his poems for grown-ups, but I do admire something about his formalism. When my class of poets had a chance to spend some time with him, and somebody asked whether he labored over his poems, he said that they just kind of came to him (in I suppose rhyming iambic meter), to which I mostly call bullshit. So that’s Wilbur.

Ahem.

The Dog Stars is lovely and sad. I certainly recommend it, and I’ll also recommend Heller’s The Painter, which I must surely have kept (though upon a quick scan, I don’t see it on my shelves, so maybe I gave it to someone).

Now we come to the sweet little darlings of my collection. Back in college, I harbored dreams of one day owning a bookstore, not understanding that that was no way to make a real living. This was before the kindle was a thing, even, so it wasn’t as dire a prospect as it is now. Every once in a while, I’d pick up an old-timey book or two. I used to have a set of three volumes of Ben Jonson from I believe the 1700s, but they were in bad shape, and I eventually gave them the old heave-ho. I have an oldish Byron (shelf #9)  that we’ll get to a few shelves hence. But these two little books are so nice. Longfellow is so nice. I read Hiawatha many years ago in a different edition, and I forget whether I read Evangeline in these books or in another, but this little set from 1872 really pleases me, and there is much to admire within Longfellow’s work. I suppose he too, had my heathenish sentiments been put before him, may have proposed that I find my way to Jesus, but he didn’t say it to my face in front of my peers, so I can hardly fault him for it.

More Saunders, another set of essays on Wallace, and more Barth. Blah blah blah, the usual. Let me pause here, though. There’s also a reader’s guide to Gravity’s Rainbow that is indispensable if you’re a serious reader of the book. A few years ago, I submitted some ideas (pertaining, oddly enough, to lemmings and NYC independent theater of the ’60s) to its author that he seemed intrigued by and said he’d follow up on, but I’ve never heard back, so maybe my ideas didn’t hold water. I keep meaning to check out the since-revised edition to see if I (or my weird reference) make a cameo.

And then we come to Girl with Curious Hair by Wallace. I love “Lyndon” and “John Billy” from this collection, though “My Appearance” is probably more well known given legal shenanigans pertaining to it. The novella that wraps up the collection was reportedly stolen from the trunk of Wallace’s car and thus rewritten from scratch, but I’ve never known whether or not to believe that story, since “John Billy” seems to be influenced heavily by Gass’s “Omensetter’s Luck”  (see shelf #4), whose preface also goes at length to say that the original manuscript was stolen (which seems kind of too coincidental).

You can’t really see it in the photo, but there’s another graphic novel of Moby-Dick tucked in there. My ten-year-old son recently took a look at this and liked it, so I’m optimistic that I may get him looped into Melville-mania, though my wife and daughter continue to resist. I quoted a bit at the dinner table a couple of nights ago, and nobody swooned at how good it was, so count me a pessimist for the moment (maybe I should’ve chosen a quote other than “ego non baptizo te in nomine patris sed in nomine diaboli”?).

Often enough, while on a video conference for work, I’ll hear what sounds like an English usage error, or something will trigger me to think about usage, and I’ll turn around and pluck Garner’s Modern American Usage off the shelf to check on something. I had cause to do this just yesterday. We saw the smaller cousin of this book (also by Garner) on shelf #1. This is one of my favorite, most useful, books. I’m pretty decent at using words, but pretty much any time there’s ambiguity around usage, I can pick this book up and get clarity. Garner is very witty, and I really love his language change index, which offers different ways of thinking about usage issues, such as for example (my favorite among several) the etiquette analogy, which rates usage errors on a scale from “audible farting” to “audible belching” to “overloud talking” to “elbows on table” to “refined.” If you’re interested in American English usage, pick this one up. Since Wallace is a theme in my shelves, it’s worth noting that he and Garner seem to have been fans of one another, which is in fact why Garner’s books are on my radar at all.

Finally here we have Borges, who in this translation I do not love. A Wallace (of course) acquaintance and semi-biographer has suggested to me that another translation is much better, but my feeling from reading this collection, admittedly kind of tired, on an airplane a few years ago, was that Borges does this thing where he states something really obvious as if it’s something of consequence, and that it doesn’t work. It’s almost like the old Jon Lovitz thespian skit on SNL in which he does transparently poor acting and then pronounces with a flourish “Acting!” So, I’ll probably reread this collection one day, or some subset of the stories translated by someone else, but there is certainly no rush.

This is a pretty important shelf to me, even if I don’t love every author or every book on it. Next we’ll wrap up blue and head into purple, with, naturally a few of the usual suspects represented.