My winter break is moving fast! My daughters, who spent Christmas week with us, have returned to Boston, and my husband and I have begun Part II of our two-week vacation. I know I’m not the only parent of adult children who wonders, “Where did the time go?” Today, though, I am choosing book talk over melancholic musings, so here are a few titles from my Jólabókaflóðið haul. More to follow.
With nearly a week remaining in the year, there is little question that I will finish Providence of a Sparrow: Lessons from a Life Gone to the Birds, so I am calling it at 121 books read this year. (As always, I have included only cover-to-covers.) Here is my complete list, and here are a few numbers:
— 50 novels (not including graphic works)
— 38 non-fiction titles (not including graphic works)
— 3 poetry selections
— 6 plays
— 24 graphic works (six of which were non-fiction selections)
As I recounted in October, I crafted a bold challenge for this year: 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 also planned to make short work of 2018’s unfinished business and to closely (re)read Moby-Dick.
Knowing that my daughters’ relocation would consume a great deal of my spring and summer, I chose a goal of 104 books total for the year, but I happily surpassed that goal by 17. So, while I did not meet my challenge of one hundred from the shelves, it was certainly a fascinating and productive year of reading! I read a total of 44 non-fiction books — a substantial increase over previous years; 19 of these were from my shelves. Well before my October review I had completed the books I carried over from last year, and I completed my reread of Moby-Dick on Christmas Eve. I met all of my mini-challenges, too:
Shakespeare RFS: Hamlet
Poetry RFS: Lunch Poems (Frank O’Hara)
NYRB RFS: The Summer Book (Tove Jansson)
Vonnegut RFS: Player Piano
Joyce Carol Oates RFS: The Rise of Life on Earth
Philosophy RFS: Letters from a Stoic (Seneca)
Art RFS: But is it art? (Cynthia Freeland)
Children’s / YA RFS: Milkweed (Jerry Spinelli)
Here are a few more facts about this year’s 121 books, 32 of which were published this year:
— 54 read from shelves
— 31 acquired this year
— 28 borrowed from the library
— 8 other
And here are the standouts:
Even better on rereading:
■ Moby-Dick; Or, The Whale (Herman Melville; 1851. Fiction.)
■ Beowulf (Trans. Seamus Heaney; 2000. Poetry.)
■ Oedipus the King (Sophocles (Trans. Ian Johnston; 2007); 429 B.C. Drama.)
The most engrossing books I read this year (not including rereads):
■ Ghost Wall (Sarah Moss; 2018. Fiction.)
■ A Loss for Words: The Story of Deafness in a Family (Lou Ann Walker; 1986. Non-fiction.)
■ The Wall (John Lanchester; 2019. Fiction.)
■ Charmed Particles (Chrissy Kolaya; 2015. Fiction.)
■ Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America (Beth Macy; 2018. Non-fiction.)
■ An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic (Daniel Mendelsohn; 2017. Non-fiction.)
■ The Mighty Franks (Michael Frank; 2017. Non-fiction.)
■ In the Woods (Tana French; 2007. Fiction.)
■ The Story of Arthur Truluv (Elizabeth Berg; 2017. Fiction.)
■ American Spy (Lauren Wilkinson; 2019. Fiction.)
■ Wild Game (Adrienne Brodeur; 2019. Non-fiction.)
■ All the Names They Used for God (Anjali Sachdeva; 2018. Fiction.)
Fabulous story for a long car trip:
■ Paddle Your Own Canoe (Nick Offerman; 2013. Non-fiction.)
Fabulous story to read while waiting in airports:
■ My Sister, The Serial Killer (Oyinkan Braithwaite; 2018. Fiction.)
Cannot stop talking about the ideas in these books:
■ Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality (Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton; 2013. Non-fiction.)
■ The Class Ceiling: Why it Pays to be Privileged (Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison; 2019. Non-fiction.)
■ The Years That Matter Most (Paul Tough; 2019. Non-fiction.)
■ The Privileged Poor (Anthony Abraham Jack; 2019. Non-fiction.)
Best graphic works I read this year:
■ Nobody’s Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead (Bill Griffith; 2019. Graphic non-fiction.)
■ They Called Us Enemy (George Takei; 2017. Graphic non-fiction.)
At this writing, I am still drafting my 2020 goals, but 120 will likely be my minimum total, with at least 24 non-fiction. Otherwise? In 2017, I completed “Shakespeare in a Year,” and the group is reconvening in 2020 to follow this schedule. Although I posted the schedule and accepted an invitation to serve as a moderator, I remain ambivalent. I had planned to reread at least four of the plays in 2020 (in anticipation of productions we are slated to see), but I have the ingredients of several other projects — including the Bible, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and a reread of George Eliot’s Middlemarch — any of which would prove more compelling than revisiting the sonnets. Heh, heh, heh. (This year’s projects included rereading James Joyce’s Ulysses and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.)
No matter what I decide, I will continue to participate in Robin’s “52 Books in 52 Weeks.” Speaking of which, one of her suggested challenges is to read three Agatha Christie works in 2020. Because Robin got me hooked on Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series, the recommendation to return to Christie, an author I once adored, has that serendipity / synchronicity / synthesis vibe that I so appreciate.
One often hears of writers that rise and swell with their subject, though it may seem but an ordinary one. How, then, with me, writing of this Leviathan? Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor’s quill! Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint with their outreaching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include the whole circle of the sciences, and all the generations of whales, and men, and mastodons, past, present, and to come, with all the revolving panoramas of empire on earth, and throughout the whole universe, not excluding its suburbs. Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.
Chapter 113: The Forge
“Well, well; no more. Thy shrunk voice sounds too calmly, sanely woeful to me. In no Paradise myself, I am impatient of all misery in others that is not mad. Thou should’st go mad, blacksmith; say, why dost thou not go mad? How can’st thou endure without being mad? Do the heavens yet hate thee, that thou can’st not go mad?—What wert thou making there?”
Chapter 115: The Pequod Meets the Bachelor
“Hast seen the White Whale?” gritted Ahab in reply.
“No; only heard of him; but don’t believe in him at all,” said the other good-humoredly. “Come aboard!”
“Thou art too damned jolly. Sail on. Hast lost any men?”
“Not enough to speak of — two islanders, that’s all; — but come aboard, old hearty, come along. I’ll soon take that black from your brow. Come along, will ye (merry’s the play); a full ship and homeward-bound.”
“How wondrous familiar is a fool!” muttered Ahab….
Chapter 135: The Chase
“Cherries? I only wish that we were where they grow. Oh, Stubb, I hope my poor mother’s drawn my part-pay ere this; if not, few coppers will now come to her, for the voyage is up.”
Chapter 81: The Pequod Meets the Virgin
:: “Don’t be afraid, my butter-boxes,” cried Stubb, casting a passing glance upon them as he shot by; “ye’ll be picked up presently—all right—I saw some sharks astern—St. Bernard’s dogs, you know—relieve distressed travellers….”
:: For all his old age, and his one arm, and his blind eyes, he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all.
Chapter 85: The Fountain
Seldom have I known any profound being that had anything to say to this world, unless forced to stammer out something by way of getting a living. Oh! happy that the world is such an excellent listener!
Chapter 86: The Tail
It never wriggles. In man or fish, wriggling is a sign of inferiority.
Chapter 93: The Castaway
So soon as he recovered himself, the poor little negro was assailed by yells and execrations from the crew. Tranquilly permitting these irregular cursings to evaporate, Stubb then in a plain, business-like, but still half humorous manner, cursed Pip officially; and that done, unofficially gave him much wholesome advice. The substance was, Never jump from a boat, Pip, except — but all the rest was indefinite, as the soundest advice ever is. Now, in general, Stick to the boat, is your true motto in whaling; but cases will sometimes happen when Leap from the boat, is still better. Moreover, as if perceiving at last that if he should give undiluted conscientious advice to Pip, he would be leaving him too wide a margin to jump in for the future; Stubb suddenly dropped all advice, and concluded with a peremptory command, “Stick to the boat, Pip, or by the Lord, I won’t pick you up if you jump; mind that. We can’t afford to lose whales by the likes of you; a whale would sell for thirty times what you would, Pip, in Alabama. Bear that in mind, and don’t jump any more.” Hereby perhaps Stubb indirectly hinted, that though man loved his fellow, yet man is a money-making animal, which propensity too often interferes with his benevolence.
I read Charlie Mackesy’s lovely The Boy, the Mole, the Horse, and the Fox earlier this month. Amen and ayup. Sometimes. Sometimes just getting up. Just carrying on. Brave. Magnificent, even.
Chapter 41: Moby Dick
:: All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled up on the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.
:: Here, then, was this grey-headed, ungodly old man, chasing with curses a Job’s whale round the world, at the head of a crew, too, chiefly made up of mongrel renegades, and castaways, and cannibals—morally enfeebled also, by the incompetence of mere unaided virtue or right-mindedness in Starbuck, the invulnerable jollity of indifference and recklessness in Stubb, and the pervading mediocrity in Flask. Such a crew, so officered, seemed specially picked and packed by some infernal fatality to help him to his monomaniac revenge. How it was that they so aboundingly responded to the old man’s ire—by what evil magic their souls were possessed, that at times his hate seemed almost theirs; the White Whale as much their insufferable foe as his; how all this came to be—what the White Whale was to them, or how to their unconscious understandings, also, in some dim, unsuspected way, he might have seemed the gliding great demon of the seas of life,—all this to explain, would be to dive deeper than Ishmael can go. The subterranean miner that works in us all, how can one tell whither leads his shaft by the ever shifting, muffled sound of his pick? Who does not feel the irresistible arm drag? What skiff in tow of a seventy-four can stand still? For one, I gave myself up to the abandonment of the time and the place; but while yet all a-rush to encounter the whale, could see naught in that brute but the deadliest ill.
Chapter 49: The Hyena
There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own. However, nothing dispirits, and nothing seems worth while disputing. He bolts down all events, all creeds, and beliefs, and persuasions, all hard things visible and invisible, never mind how knobby; as an ostrich of potent digestion gobbles down bullets and gun flints. And as for small difficulties and worryings, prospects of sudden disaster, peril of life and limb; all these, and death itself, seem to him only sly, good-natured hits, and jolly punches in the side bestowed by the unseen and unaccountable old joker. That odd sort of wayward mood I am speaking of, comes over a man only in some time of extreme tribulation; it comes in the very midst of his earnestness, so that what just before might have seemed to him a thing most momentous, now seems but a part of the general joke. There is nothing like the perils of whaling to breed this free and easy sort of genial, desperado philosophy; and with it I now regarded this whole voyage of the Pequod, and the great White Whale its object.