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.
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.
■ The Truants (Kate Weinberg; 2019. Fiction.) LIB
A quick, entertaining read. I particularly relished the idea of Agatha Christie as a subject of academic inquiry.
■ Women and Power (Mary Beard; 2017. Non-fiction.) RFS
Mary Beard is a genius. Related link here.
■ Men Explain Things to Me (Rebecca Solnit; 2017. Non-fiction.) RFS
Related link: “Before there was mansplaining, there was Rebecca Solnit’s 2008 critique of male arrogance. Reprinted here with a new introduction.”
Dude, if you’re reading this, you’re a carbuncle on the face of humanity and an obstacle to civilization. Feel the shame.
Gay men and lesbians have already opened up the question of what qualities and roles are male and female in ways that can be liberating for straight people. When they marry, the meaning of marriage is likewise opened up. No hierarchical tradition underlies their union. Some people have greeted this with joy.
■ The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Muriel Spark; 1961. Fiction.) RFS
Muriel Spark was a genius, too.
■ The Lady from the Sea (Henrik Ibsen; 1888. Drama.) RFS
Read in anticipation of seeing the Court Theatre production.
■ Five Days at Memorial (Sheri Fink; 2013. Non-fiction.) RFS
Related link here.
■ The Taming of the Shrew (William Shakespeare; 1592. Drama.) RFS
Reread in anticipation of seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company at Chicago Shakespeare.
■ Zeitoun (Dave Eggers; 2009. Non-fiction.) RFS
This was the perfect companion to Fink’s Five Days at Memorial and Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler earlier this year.
■ As You Like It (William Shakespeare; 1599. Drama.) RFS
Read in anticipation of seeing the Chicago Shakespeare production.
Act III, Scene V
But, mistress, know yourself: down on your knees,
And thank heaven, fasting, for a good man’s love:
For I must tell you friendly in your ear,
Sell when you can: you are not for all markets:
Cry the man mercy; love him; take his offer:
Foul is most foul, being foul to be a scoffer.
■ American Dirt (Jeanine Cummins; 2020. Fiction.) ATY
From the NYT review by Parul Sehgal:
But does the book’s shallowness paradoxically explain the excitement surrounding it? The tortured sentences aside, “American Dirt” is enviably easy to read. It is determinedly apolitical. The deep roots of these forced migrations are never interrogated; the American reader can read without fear of uncomfortable self-reproach. It asks only for us to accept that “these people are people,” while giving us the saintly to root for and the barbarous to deplore — and then congratulating us for caring.
It certainly was “enviably easy to read.”
What a waste of time it had all been. Lydia feels annoyed that her niece won’t get to see the music box she purchased for her special day. How expensive it was! She realizes, even as this thought occurs to her, how bizarre and awful it is, but she can’t stop it from crashing in. She doesn’t rebuke herself for thinking it; she does herself the small kindness of forgiving her malfunctioning logic.
He’s a philosopher, she thinks. He’s rough, but he means what he says, and his openness is a provocation. Despite everything, he likes being alive. Lydia doesn’t know whether that’s true for herself. For mothers, the question is immaterial anyway. Her survival is a matter of instinct rather than desire.
■ Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey (Alberto Manguel; 2007. Non-fiction.) RFS
We’ve had our tickets to the Court’s sold-out, site-specific remount of An Iliad since September. It was more than worth the wait and the price.
We don’t know anything about Homer. It is otherwise with Homer’s books. In a very real sense, the Iliad and the Odyssey are familiar to us prior to opening the first page. Even before we begin to follow the changing moods of Achilles or admire the wit and courage of Ulysses, we have learned to expect that somewhere in these stories of war in time and travel in space we will be told the experience of every human struggle and every human displacement. Two of our oldest metaphors tell us that all life is a battle and that all life is a journey; whether the Iliad and the Odyssey drew on this knowledge or whether this knowledge was drawn from the Iliad and the Odyssey is, in the final count, unimportant, since a book and its readers are both mirrors that reflect one another endlessly.
A book’s influence is never straightforward. Common readers, unrestricted by the rigours of academe, allow their books to dialogue with one another, to exchange meanings and metaphors, to enrich and annotate each other. In the reader’s mind, books become intertwined and intermingled, so that we no longer know whether a certain adventure belongs to Arsilaous or to Aquiles, or where Homer ends Ulysses’ adventures and the author of Sinbad takes them up again.
The scene of war, says Homer, is never only that of war: it is never only that of men acting out in the present the events of the day. It is always the scene of the past as well, a display of what men secretly once were, revealed now in their ultimate moments. Confronted with the imminence of violent death, war also confronts them with the memory of days of peace, of the happiness that life can, and should, grant us. War is both things: the experience of an awful presence and the ghost of a beloved past.
■ The Iliad (Gareth Hinds; 2019. Graphic fiction.) RFS
I did not appreciate this volume as much as Hinds’ graphic retelling of The Odyssey, which I read last year.
■ Why We Can’t Sleep (Ada Calhoun; 2020. Non-fiction.) LIB
Could we even see our newfound midlife invisibility as a source of power? In Harry Potter’s world, one of the most prized magical tools is an invisibility cloak. There are great advantages to being underestimated. Two of the best reporters I know are women in their fifties. They look so friendly and non-threatening, if you notice them at all. They can lurk in any room without usually wary people remembering to keep their guard up. Then they write devastating whistleblowing articles. The world ignores middle-aged women at its peril.
■ Vinegar Girl (Anne Tyler; 2016. Fiction.) RFS
Read as a companion to my Shrew reread. This was also “enviably easy to read,” and that’s not a criticism.
ATY Acquired this year
LIB Borrowed from library
RFS Read from shelves
On this gray, cold morning, all I really want to do is sip coffee, watch the birds in my yard (right now, three beautiful crows, my bird of the year), and read. Alas, I am covering the vacation of the gal who took over my tutoring gig, so I must rouse myself, don something more appropriate than these comfortable flannel pants and my favorite old sweater, and prepare the sort of nutritious lunch that will keep me going until 6 p.m. Sigh.
Once upon a time ago, I would cobble together a monthly (or so) review of books I’d been reading with notes, quotes, and / or links. I thought I’d do that today to get back into the posting groove. So far, I’ve read twenty-three books this year, fifteen of which are from my shelves and eleven of which are non-fiction titles. I’m off to a promising start, eh?
■ The Mousetrap (Agatha Christie; 1952. Drama.) RFS
Read in advance of seeing the Court Theatre production.
■ Trust Exercise (Susan Choi; 2019. Fiction.) RFS
Interesting review here.
■ Rutherford and Sons (Githa Sowerby; 1912. Drama.) RFS
Read before seeing the TimeLine Theatre production.
■ Richard III (William Shakespeare; 1592. Drama.) RFS
Reread before seeing the Shakespeare Project of Chicago production.
■ In the Heart of the Sea (Nathan Philbrick; 2000. Non-fiction.) RFS
In a weird twist, I watched the movie before reading this terrific book. My interest was, of course, fueled by my Moby-Dick reread late last year.
■ Dear America (Jose Antonio Vargas; 2018. Non-fiction.) RFS
Related link here.
■ A Long Way Gone (Ishmael Beah; 2007. Non-fiction.) RFS
Arrived at this book a bit later than most. Here’s a related link.
■ Frogcatchers (Jeff Lemire; 2018. Graphic fiction.) LIB
Another of Lemire’s meditations on death, regret, and letting go.
■ On Tyranny (Timothy Snyder; 2017. Non-fiction.) RFS
Again, arrived at this later than most. I began marking passages for the commonplace book and soon realized I’d copy the entire text. Review here.
■ Tomten Tales (Astrid Lindgren; 2017 ed. (1960 and 1966). Juvenile fiction.) LIB
Small gnome ornaments topped the holiday gift bags I distributed this year. In a lovely note, my music teacher thanked me for, among other things, “the adorable tomten.” In pursuit of a definition, I stumbled on this delightful children’s book.
■ An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth (Chris Hadfield; 2013. Non-fiction.) RFS
My younger daughter (insistently) recommended this.
If you start thinking that only your biggest and shiniest moments count, you’re setting yourself up to feel like a failure most of the time. Personally, I’d rather feel good most of the time, so to me everything counts: the small moments, the medium ones, the successes that make the papers and also the ones that no one knows about but me. The challenge is avoiding being derailed by the big, shiny moments that turn other people’s heads. You have to figure out for yourself how to enjoy and celebrate them, and then move on.
■ Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates; 2015. Non-fiction.) RFS
Poetry aims for an economy of truth — loose and useless words must be discarded, and I found that these loose and useless words were not separate from loose and useless thoughts. Poetry was not simply the transcription of notions — beautiful writing rarely is. I wanted to learn to write, which was ultimately, still, as my mother had taught me, a confrontation with my own innocence, my own rationalizations. Poetry was the processing of my thoughts until the slag of justification fell away and I was left with the cold steel truths of life.
■ Keep It Moving (Twyla Tharp; 2019. Non-fiction.) LIB
■ The Passengers (John Marrs; 2019. Fiction.) ATY
Flawed and a bit predictable but an altogether entertaining way to pass a Sunday evening.
■ Digital Minimalism (Cal Newport; 2019. Non-fiction.) RFS
This book is partially responsible for the gap in entries here.
■ We Should All Be Feminists (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; 2014. Non-fiction.) LIB
Today, we live in a vastly different world. The person more qualified to lead is not the physically stronger person. It is the more intelligent, the more knowledgeable, the more creative, more innovative. And there are no hormones for those attributes. A man is as likely as a woman to be intelligent, innovative, creative. We have evolved. But our ideas of gender have not evolved very much.
■ Daughter of Time (Josephine Tey; 1951. Fiction.) RFS
I reread this after rereading Richard III.
It was shocking how little history remained with one after a good education.
“No, that doesn’t matter at all. Most people’s first books are their best anyway; it’s the one they wanted most to write….”
■ Blood Dazzler (Patricia Smith; 2009. Poetry.) LIB
■ Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men (Carolyn Criado Perez; 2019. Non-fiction.) RFS
Wow. Wow. Wow. This will certainly top my list of memorable reads this year. Related link here.
■ The Whisper Man (Alex North; 2019. Fiction.) ATY
■ The Warehouse (Rob Hart; 2019. Fiction.) LIB
Although I’m weary of the narrative device of alternating voices, it worked in this near-future dystopian novel.
■ Emma (Jane Austen; 1815. Fiction.) RFS
Austen’s prose sparkles; her wit pierces. But I wonder if I am too old to appreciate Emma. I reread the novel before seeing the new Chicago Shakespeare musical.
ATY Acquired this year
LIB Borrowed from library
RFS Read from shelves
This is the last of my Jólabókaflóðið haul.