I’ve read 23 books since my last list, which puts me at 75 for the year, so far.
■ Parnassus on Wheels (Christopher Morley; 1917. Fiction.) RFS
I meant to read this ten or fifteen years ago, but I’m glad I didn’t because its innocence, humor, and bookish fun were something I needed now much more than then.
“Judging by the way you talk,” I said, “you ought to be quite a writer yourself.”
“Talkers never write. They go on talking.”
■ How to Die: An Ancient Guide to the End of Life (Seneca; ed. James Romm; 2018. Non-fiction.) RFS
■ How to Keep Your Cool: An Ancient Guide to Anger Management (Seneca; ed. James Romm; 2019. Non-fiction.) RFS
■ How to Grow Old: Ancient Wisdom for the Second Half of Life (Marcus Tullius Cicero; ed. Philip Freeman; 2016. Non-fiction.) RFS
■ How to Be Free: An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life (Epictetus; ed. A.A. Long; 2018. Non-fiction.) RFS
These four books are part of Princeton University Press’ “Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers” series. I was particularly delighted by Cicero’s anecdote about Sophocles defending himself against his sons’ claims that he was experiencing age-related feeble-mindedness.
[T]he old man then read to the court his Oedipus at Colonus, which he had just written and was even then revising, asking when he finished if it sounded like the work of a weak-minded person. After his recitation, the jury acquitted him.
It’s no secret that I am an abiding fan of synthesis / serendipity / synchronicity: We had tickets to Court Theatre’s now-rescheduled production of The Gospel at Colonus. Of course, then, Oedipus at Colonus was in my reading plan for April. How neat to have this tie-in.
■ The Bookshop (Penelope Fitzgerald; 1978. Fiction.) RFS
When I added Parnassus on Wheels to my Goodreads, this came up as a suggestion — another book I had meant to read a long time ago. The ending broke my heart, but I loved The Bookshop. Lively, whose Moon Tiger (1987) I greatly admire, is a wordsmith.
■ The Haunted Bookshop (Christopher Morley; 1919. Fiction.) LIB
This was nowhere near as beguiling as Parnassus on Wheels.
■ Chemistry (Weike Wang; 2017. Fiction.) RFS
I’m not certain I am actually the audience for this book about a young woman who experiences personal crisis after her partner proposes, but I thought it was terrific — smart and bittersweet. Check out this interview with the author.
■ The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes; 2011. Fiction.) RFS
Most folks read this years ago, when Barnes nabbed the Man Booker Prize. Again, this was just the book I needed now. It’s exquisite… perfect.
Later on in life, you expect a bit of rest, don’t you? You think you deserve it. I did, anyway. But then you begin to understand that the reward of merit is not life’s business.
How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but — mainly — told to ourselves.
Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
■ The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (Jonathan Gottschall; 2012. Non-fiction.) RFS
Naturally, this fan of synthesis / serendipity / synchronicity appreciated hearing an echo of Barnes’ narrator in Gottschall’s exploration of narrative and psychology.
We spend our lives crafting stories that make us noble — if flawed — protagonists of first-person dramas. A life story is a “personal myth” about who we are deep down — where we come from, how we got this way, and what it all means. Our life stories are who we are. They are our identity. A life story is not, however, an objective account. A life story is a carefully shaped narrative that is replete with strategic forgetting and skillfully spun meanings.
■ Oedipus at Colonus (Sophocles; 406 B.C. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald; 1969. Drama.) RFS
I am perfectly content, so long as you
Can neither wheedle me nor fool these others.
Unhappy man! Shall it be plain that time
Brings you no wisdom? that you shame your age?
An agile wit! I know no honest man
Able to speak so well under all conditions!
■ Truth and Beauty (Ann Patchett; 2004. Non-fiction.) RFS
This complemented Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face (1994), which I read last month.
Finally, I saw myself, how my wit exceeded that of other men but gave me no leverage against fate, and how in the time to come it would avail me nothing but possibly an understanding of the full scope of my helplessness.
■ Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (J.K. Rowling; 1998. Fiction.) RFS
■ Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (J.K. Rowling; 1998. Fiction.) RFS
I had expected that returning to these would prove too bitter… but it was sweet comfort.
■ Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery (Richard Kolker; 2013. Non-fiction.) RFS
After watching a trailer for a new movie of the same title, I headed to the shelves where this terrifically written entry in the unsolved mystery / true crime genre has awaited me (for *shhh* seven years). Review here.
■ The Tempest (William Shakespeare; 1610. Drama.) RFS
Years ago, when I first read The Tempest, I noted that Miranda was homeschooled. As I wrote elsewhere those many years ago, Prospero the schoolmaster serves his own needs at the expense of his student’s; and his dubious classroom management skills coupled with his troubling use of “wench” as term of endearment irritated in both that first reading and this most recent. Yet, when nearly every kid in the United States is “suddenly homeschooled,” rediscovering Shakespeare’s take on homeschooling provided another dose of synthesis / serendipity / synchronicity.
Act I, Scene 2
Now I arise:
[Resumes his mantle]
Sit still, and hear the last of our sea-sorrow.
Here in this island we arrived; and here
Have I, thy schoolmaster, made thee more profit
Than other princesses can that have more time
For vainer hours and tutors not so careful.
■ Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy (Viktor E. Frankl; 1946. Non-fiction.) RFS
This was the fourth or fifth time I’ve read this book.
Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain (they were often of delicate constitution), but the damage to their inner selves was less. They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom.
Humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation. It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.
We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
■ Give Me Your Heart (Joyce Carol Oates; 2010. Fiction.) RFS
It was a bit of a chore to work through this one.
■ Viktor Frankl: A Life Worth Living (Anna S. Redsand; 2006. Non-fiction.) RFS
A suitable introduction to Frankl for middle-school students.
■ American Predator (Maureen Callahan; 2019. Non-fiction.) RFS
Related link here. This was one that made me check the window and door locks. Again. And again.
■ Flatland (Edwin A. Abbott; 1884. Fiction.) RFS
Trippy blend of satire, math, and physics. Related link here.
■ Measure for Measure (William Shakespeare; 1603. Drama.) RFS
The Shakespeare Project of Chicago hopes to move its production of Measure for Measure to next season.
Act I, Scene 4
Our doubts are traitors
And make us lose the good we oft might win
By fearing to attempt.
Act II, Scene 2
So you must be the first that gives this sentence,
And he, that suffers. O, it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.
ATY Acquired this year
LIB Borrowed from library (including Hoopla and Overdrive)
RFS Read from shelves
Last year, I issued myself a bold challenge: Read one hundred books from my shelves (i.e., books in my collection before the end of 2018), including at least 24 non-fiction titles and at least one book from each of the following “special collections”: Shakespeare, poetry, NYRB, Vonnegut, Joyce Carol Oates, philosophy, art, and children’s / YA. I met the special collections goal, but of the 42 non-fiction titles I read last year, only 18 were RFS (read from shelves). And of the 120 books I read last year, only 53 were RFS. (Here is last year’s summary.)
Without fanfare, I renewed the challenge for 2020, and I’m enjoying significantly more success. At this writing, I’ve read 69 books, 51 of which were in my collection before the end of 2019; and I’ve read 27 non-fiction works, 23 of which were RFS. As for the mini-challenges:
Shakespeare RFS: Richard III, The Taming of the Shrew, As You Like It and The Tempest
Poetry RFS: Aimless Love (Billy Collins)
Joyce Carol Oates RFS:
Philosophy RFS: How to Die: An Ancient Guide to the End of Life (Seneca); How to Keep Your Cool: An Ancient Guide to the Anger Management (Seneca); How to Grow Old: Ancient Wisdom for the Second Half of Life (Marcus Tullius Cicero); and How to Be Free: An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life (Epictetus)
Children’s / YA RFS:
I’m three stories into Joyce Carol Oates’ 2010 collection, Give Me Your Heart; and I recently pulled Mother Night from my Vonnegut shelves. The narrator is a Nazi propagandist, so the choice may prove an interesting complement to The Plot Against America (Philip Roth, 2004), which I read last month. I haven’t made decisions about the other categories.
My unfinished business from last year is Chris Chester’s Providence of a Sparrow, which is a gorgeous memoir. I simply need to finish it.
So with eight months remaining in the year, I’m experiencing a sense of (cautious) optimism about meeting all of my 2020 reading goals. In fact, I have been toying with increasing my Goodreads challenge, which is currently 104 books. We’ll see.
And, yes, book talk in the midst of a pandemic may seem like the equivalent of putting my hands over my ears and saying, “La, la, la! I can’t hear anything.” I do hear. Books are what keep me sane afterward.
■ Autobiography of a Face (Lucy Grealy; 1994. Non-fiction.) RFS
The cruelty of children is immense, almost startling its precision. The kids at the parties were fairly young and, surrounded by adults, they rarely make cruel remarks outright. But their open, uncensored stares were more painful than the deliberate taunts of my peers at school, where insecurities drove everything and everyone like some looming, evil presence in a haunted machine. But in those backyards, where the grass was mown so short and sharp it would have hurt to walk on it, there was only the fact of me, my face, my ugliness.
■ The Plot Against America (Philip Roth; 2004. Fiction.) RFS
I had thought this would be a reread but then realized I had confused it with American Pastoral. The book is practically perfect, so although the first episode of the new HBO series was solid, it’s unlikely that I will continue watching.
Turned wrong way round, the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as “history,” harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.
Whether outright government-sanctioned persecution was inevitable, nobody could say for sure, but the fear of persecution was such that not even a practical man grounded in his everyday tasks, a person who tried his best to contain the uncertainty and the anxiety and the anger and operate according to the dictates of reason, could hope to preserve his equilibrium any longer.
To have enslaved America with this hocus-pocus! To have captured the mind of the world’s greatest nation without uttering a single word of truth! Oh, the pleasure we must be affording the most malevolent man on earth!
■ Aimless Love (Billy Collins; 2013. Poetry.) RFS
Billy Collins is a treasure.
■ Severance (Ming La; 2018. Fiction.) RFS
Prescient and gorgeously written. I cannot recommend it enough. Mr. Nerdishly agrees, wryly adding, “It’s also scary as hell.” Review here.
■ Trees, Vol. 3 (Warren Ellis; 2020. Graphic fiction.) LIB
Strong addition to the series.
■ Oblivion Song, Vol. 4 (Robert Kirkman; 2020. Graphic fiction.) LIB
■ Catch and Kill (Ronan Farrow; 2019. Non-fiction.) RFS
This reminded me of my experience reading Bad Blood: I could not put it down; hours disappeared. A review and an article about the related podcast.
■ The Old Man and the Sea (Ernest Hemingway; 1952. Fiction.) ATY
This is another of those books that I have reread as an adult and realized, “Wow, that was clearly wasted on my teenaged self.”
No one should be alone in their old age, he thought. But it is unavoidable.
■ Postal: Deliverance, Vol. 1 (Brian Edward Hill; 2019. Graphic fiction.) LIB
The owner of the comic book store we patronize has fruitfully recommended several series to me, so it’s odd that he didn’t mention that Postal, a series on my shortlist, had continued. Well, it was a treat to discover the first volume on Hoopla.
■ The Nose (Nikolai Gogol; 1835. Fiction.) RFS
We saw some of William Kentridge’s The Nose Series at the Milwaukee Art Museum, but a search of the museum’s website yields only a tax document mentioning that the prints were there. Weird. Well, in any event, I now plan to watch the Kentridge production of the Shostakovich opera via Met On Demand.
But nothing lasts long in this world, and so even joy is weaker one minute than the last, and by the third it has become something fainter still, until finally it fades imperceptibly back into the more usual state of one’s mind, just as a ripple on water, born from the drop of a pebble, will gradually merge back into the smooth surface of the lake.
■ The Book of M (Peng Shepherd; 2018. Fiction.) RFS
Too long by one hundred pages, and, boy, is the chapter for each narrator device one of the most overused in contemporary fiction, or what? Add to that the fact that I grew impatient with the fantastical elements by the final third, and you have the recipe for a Meh rating.
■ The Lion in Winter (James Goldman; 1966. Drama.) RFS
Reread one of my favorites because this is a season that requires such indulgences.
Act II, Scene 1
Eleanor: I adored you.
Eleanor: I still do.
Henry: Of all the lies, that one is the most terrible.
Eleanor: I know: that’s why I saved it up for now. (They throw themselves into each other’s arms.) Oh, Henry, we have mangled everything we’ve touched.
■ The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe (Kij Johnson; 2016. Fiction.) RFS
My ticket stub from Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s 2016 production of Tug of War: Friendly Fire marked page 41. My best guess, then, is that I began this unusual book four years ago and set it aside. Written as a feminist counterpoint to H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, this short novel is certainly not my usual fare, but I returned to the beginning and gave it another shot. Still not my cuppa, but, hey, I finished it this time. Related article here.
ATY Acquired this year
LIB Borrowed from library (including Hoopla and Overdrive)
RFS Read from shelves
I ordered several of these from the Seminary Co-op Bookstore, which needs support now more than ever. Consider making your April book purchases there.
Landing in the hospital for a preventable accident is one of the last things anyone wants — ever, I suppose, but especially right now. So we are careful, so much more careful. Careful with the knives. Careful on the steps into the living room and garage. Careful at the stove. Careful in the shower. Careful with the yard tools. Careful behind the wheel.
My husband’s car had been no further than the grocery store for two weeks. It really needs a run, he told me last Thursday. It’s not a thoroughbred horse, I replied, tempering the retort with, But why don’t we drive to a nearby conservation area and back?
To be hurt is the last thing anyone wants — ever, I think, but especially right now. So I am careful. Careful about sarcasm. Careful about criticism. Careful about sharing the news. Careful, so much more careful, with my words. Not so careful that I am a stranger to myself, of course, or to him, but careful enough to cushion the blow a soft apocalypse could deliver.
This will be nice, I added. The park will be beautiful.
We took his reliable and decidedly ordinary sedan to the drive-through car wash. My husband parks beneath an oak, and it is spring. Rain or not, the car needed a wash. Then we took it not for a run so much as a sedate stroll on nearly empty roads beneath heavy clouds.
We had already worked out, and my husband had several meetings scheduled for the afternoon. Hiking the kames on last autumn’s slippery leaves? Not on this finally healing knee. And you don’t want to miss any of your commitments. We saw a few walkers on the backside of the area, but part of that trail abuts the creek, which in spring and summer frequently overruns its banks. A stumble. A cold. No, we must be…
The park was beautiful if gloomy and gray. On the way out, we stopped to watch a pair of sandhill cranes, and on the way home we stopped at a store. We were armed with gloves and sanitizer and wipes. Fine, but we must be quick. And careful.
When we returned home, he carried the bags into the garage and wiped down the contents. Did we really need toilet paper? Gently, not critically.
They haven’t had any in weeks, and you can’t be too…
He’s right; I know.
After showering, we put away the groceries and made lunch. (Careful by the stove.) After we called our daughters, he dialed into the first of many meetings, and I washed the dishes. (Careful with the knives.)
As the soapy water drained from the sink, I heard the chorus of murmurs that signals a meeting has begun in earnest. He moved down the hall, and I poured a mug of coffee and carried it into the living room. (Careful on the step.) As I looked out the rain-splattered window, a cardinal couple alighted on the platform feeder. Careful. A sharp-shinned hawk has been spending a lot of time in and near our yard. The male passed a seed to the female, and I thought, Be careful with one another.
I may switch it up before week’s end, but this is what I’m working with right now.
It’s as if I had been preparing for this moment my entire life.