decemberthirty: (tree swallow)
Happy New Year, friends! Oh, my year is off to a lovely start. I have come down with a cold, it's true, and I would prefer if I hadn't. But other than that it is lovely. I am settling in to my residency; I am working; I am walking in the woods in the afternoons; I am reading Virginia Woolf; I am watching bluebirds outside the window of my studio. I will have more thoughts to share about the residency soon, but for now it is time to talk about books.

So. here is the list of what I read during the past year. Links go to the post that contains the closest thing to a review of each book that I wrote; my orderly reviewing habits got away from me a bit towards the end of the year, so there are some books without links. Oh well. Some of them I still intend to write about; others will just have to be passed over. Books marked with a "Q" are those that I deem to be, in some way, queer:

1. Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet (Q)
2. The Night Watch by Sarah Waters (Q)
3. The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi (Q)
4. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
5. The Shell Collector by Anthony Doerr
6. As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann (Q)
7. Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf (Q)
8. Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev
9. Another Country by James Baldwin (Q)
10. The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín
11. Bang the Drum Slowly by Mark Harris
12. Am I Blue?, Marion Dane Bauer, ed. (Q)
13. H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
14. The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas
15. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
16. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
17. The Quiet American by Graham Greene
18. Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood
19. The Gathering by Anne Enright
20. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
21. A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr
22. Now and Then by William Corlett (Q)
23. The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
24. Lila by Marilynne Robinson
25. A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah
26. On the Edges of Vision by Helen McClory
27. The Women by T.C. Boyle
28. Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
29. The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
30. How Winter Began by Joy Castro
31. The Maytrees by Annie Dillard
32. Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford
33. Watchers at the Pond by Franklin Russell
34. The Shipping News by Annie Proulx (Q-ish)
35. Sunstroke by Tessa Hadley
36. So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ
37. Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence
38. Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff (Q-ish)

Look at how many Qs there are in the first part of the year, and how few in the second! That's interesting. This is also the third year in a row in which I didn't re-read any books--I'm glad I set myself a goal of doing a bit of re-reading to remind myself that it has real value. Books by women made up 55% of my reading this year, so that's nice and balanced. I only read four works of nonfiction; while that may not be balanced, it is quite typical for me.

Because I always find this a bit interesting, here is the list broken up by nationality of author. )

Books that will stay with me:

As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann: I had been searching for over a year for a book that would sweep me off my feet, and this was the one that did it. It is a flawed book, but it tells an all-consuming story. A muscular, immensely powerful, ferocious story. An indelible reading experience.

Another Country by James Baldwin: A big, messy, and stunningly ambitious book about race, sex, identity, and the way those things intersect and merge in New York in the late 1950s. It sprawls, and some parts of it are more successful than others, but it contains fearless metaphors and more than one scene that I know I won't forget.

Bang the Drum Slowly by Mark Harris: This is the sequel to Harris's book The Southpaw, but it far surpasses it in quality. It's the best baseball book I've ever read. Harris touches on deep matters with a light hand, finds humor everywhere, and bundles it all up into a beautifully bittersweet package.

H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald: I can't remember the last work of nonfiction that held my attention as effortlessly as this memoir. I love books that are in deep conversation with other books, as this one is with T.H. White's The Goshawk. Smart, thoughtful, and written in straightforwardly beautiful prose.

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward. This book is a tour de force. On the surface it is about four siblings who survive Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, but it is about so much more than that: family, memory, poverty, community, and so many different forms of love.

Other titles that I recommend include Jacob's Room, The Testament of Mary, The Gathering, A Month in the Country, Lila, The Blue Flower, and Sunstroke.

Happy reading to all in the coming year!
decemberthirty: (tree swallow)
Happy New Year, friends! I have to confess that I love this time of year on livejournal, as everyone posts their summaries and reflections, their resolutions and goals, their lists of books and movies and what have you... I've already shared my goals for the coming year, so now it's time for the annual reading list.

My reading seemed to go in phases this year: I had stretches of time where I loved every book I read, and other stretches where I spent ages slogging through two or three lackluster books in a row. In 2012, I narrowly missed my goal of reading 33 books so I set the same goal for 2013. I made it this time, but it was surprising to see that for the first half of the year I was on pace for a much higher total, and then slowed down significantly in the last three or four months. Interestingly, at the same time that my reading pace slowed, I decided I need to get a handle on my ever-growing pile of unread books and so forbade myself from checking anything out of the library. So that means I just couldn't get as excited about the books I own? Or I made the wrong choices from my shelf?

Enough talk! Here is the list (links go to the post that contains the closest thing to a review of each book that I wrote):

01. Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse
02. Toby's Room by Pat Barker
03. Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada
04. Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood
05. The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
06. Bad Dirt by Annie Proulx
07. Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
08. Art and Fear by Ted Orland & David Bayles
09. The Last of the Handmade Dams by Bob Steuding (never posted a review--oops!)
10. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
11. The Real and the Unreal: Where on Earth by Ursula K. Le Guin
12. Tenth of December by George Saunders
13. The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene
14. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
15. Plainwater by Anne Carson
16. The Charioteer by Mary Renault
17. A Gesture Life by Chang-rae Lee
18. Inscriptions for Headstones by Matthew Vollmer
19. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
20. Historic Tales from the Adirondack Almanack by John Warren
21. Ireland by William Trevor
22. Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon
23. Martin Dressler by Steven Millhauser
24. Where Angels Fear to Tread by E.M. Forster
25. A Humument by Tom Phillips
26. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
27. The King Must Die by Mary Renault
28. We the Animals by Justin Torres
29. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
30. Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
31. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
32. Giants in the Earth by O.E. Rolvaag
33. Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
34. An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler

Not a single re-read this year--how unusual! Only 12 of my 34 books were by women, which is also unusual--I usually come closer to a 50/50 split. Far more nonfiction than usual, and fewer short story collections. For my own interest, here is the list divided up a couple of different ways:

By genre )

By nationality of author )

My favorites this year:

Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood: Two closely linked novellas with narrators that are highly observant of others and intriguingly effaced themselves. Clever and compelling and full of beautiful prose. A pure pleasure to read!

Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich. A brilliant example of the novel-in-stories, this book provides a complicated portrait of two families over several generations. I loved Erdrich's variety of narrators and the way she subtly traced the long ripples of history through her characters' lives. Erdrich's use of language is so rich it feels decadent.

Tenth of December by George Saunders. Brilliant, brutal, heartbreaking, funny. This is on everybody's "Best Books of 2013" lists, and it belongs on all of them.

The Charioteer by Mary Renault. Fun, fun, fun. A soap opera, sure, but it grabbed hold of my emotions and made me feel like a teenager. It's a flawed book, but I loved it anyway.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I hated the first hundred pages, but now I'm ready to call it the best book I read all year. This book is so smart, so sharp, so gripping. It's full of fantastic characterizations and sly humor. I can't remember the last time I was so engrossed in a book.

Other titles I would recommend include Every Man Dies Alone, The Real and the Unreal, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, Where Angels Fear to Tread, and Bring Up the Bodies.

The biggest disappointments were Steppenwolf and A Gesture Life, which were just plain boring, and Gone Girl which was utterly, inexcusably moronic.

Here's to great reading to 2014 for all of us!
decemberthirty: (Default)
So. It seems there has been a lack of beauty lately. I spent all day yesterday working with agonizing slowness to claw my way out from under a mountain of end-of-quarter grading. In the larger world, the events unfolding at Penn State this week are spewing so much ugliness that I want to tear up my resume and burn my diploma.

Clearly the solution to this is to spread beauty instead. So here are some beautiful things for you, my friends:


Here is a beautiful blog, called pizzicati of hosanna, and composed entirely of recordings of poems read by Nic Sebastian. I don't know who Nic Sebastian is other than a person with a gorgeous voice, but I could listen to these readings for hours. My favorite may be the reading of "Orchard" by H.D., but they are all wonderful: soothing and lovely.


I recently came across the work of Japanese painter Matazo Kayama, who was born in Kyoto in 1927 and died in 2004. I have only seen reproductions of his work, but I would love to see these paintings in person.

Beautiful, no? Here are two more. )


Perhaps this video has already gone viral and everyone has seen it before, but I had never seen or heard it before my mother shared it on facebook this morning. If something has already made its way to my mother, there's a good chance the rest of the internet is already aware of it. But I wasn't aware of it, and the sound of these three voices was just the sort of loveliness I needed this morning.

Enjoy! And please feel encouraged to share any beauty that you've come across lately.
decemberthirty: (egret)
It's time once again for my summary of what I've read in the past year. As usual, grad school makes precise record-keeping difficult--I read many books at once, I skim some books and read only pieces of others. So I will simply do the best I can.

I think that this year I will list my reading in two ways: my usual chronological list, and a second list in which the books are grouped in categories. My reading is usually 90% novels and just a few other things here and there, but I have the feeling that there was more diversity to what I read in 2009, so I'm curious to see how it breaks down.

The chronological list )

The categorized list )

Well, it's nice to see that I was able to do more reading that I chose for myself this year, as opposed to my previous years in grad school, when it's been all I could do to keep from drowning in the reading for various classes. Also, it was the year of Marilynne Robinson; I read all three of her novels this year, heard her read on twice, got my copy of Gilead signed by her (it's a first edition!), and attended a very interesting Q and A with her during which she and I talked about the intersections of real and imaginary geography in writing. In addition, it's quite clear that short fiction was the theme of the second half of the year--lots of novellas and story collections in the latter part of my list.

These are a few of my favorite books of 2009:

Break It Down by Lydia Davis. Davis's stories are extremely short and extremely precise. She can do so much with just a few words. Not all of the stories are successful, but she has a way of hiding deep insight in these little paragraphs about mundane matters. When you're not looking, these stories will cut you.

Runaway by Alice Munro. Alice Munro is brilliant. Her stories are the opposite of Lydia Davis's: long, rich, and full. But they too will cut you.

"The Dead" by James Joyce. This is a re-read, so I guess I'm not supposed to mention it, but reading it again after so many years was a revelation. It is a novella that is perhaps even more enjoyable on a second or third read, when the characters feel like old friends to you, as they are to each other. It has the most beautiful ending ever written.

Pilgrim At Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. I can't remember the last book that demanded as much of me as this one. I had to read mindfully, and try to hold whole chapters in my mind as I read. Beautifully written (though occasionally a bit overwritten), the book is Dillard's attempt to come to a spiritual understanding of the natural world. This one will merit a second reading at some point.
decemberthirty: (audubon spoonbill)
I found it a bit more difficult than usual to compile my year-end reading list this year. I'm usually very orderly about my reading--one book at a time, from start to finish--but that reading style isn't really compatible with having lots and lots of required reading for school. There were many books that I just skimmed or read in bits and pieces, and my careful record keeping sort of went out the window. So here, as best as I can reconstruct it, is a list of the books that I read in something close to their entirety in 2008:

The List )

I'm disappointed in how few books I read "for pleasure" this year (some of the assigned reading was pleasurable, of course, but it's somehow not quite the same.) Only nos. 8-14 were my own choices. But it's always been very hard for me to do outside reading when I'm in school, so perhaps I shouldn't be surprised. I am surprised at how little fiction I read--only about one third of the titles on the list are novels, a shocking development when you consider the fact that my reading lists are usually at least 97% fiction. I did read a lot of short fiction that isn't represented here (mostly in The New Yorker, but from a few other places too), but it's still a much smaller amount of fiction than usual. I know that this is because I took two classes that required a lot of reading about pedagogy and one where the reading list was entirely autobiographies, but I'd really like to make sure I get back to reading more novels in 2009.

The lack of variety in my list makes it difficult to do my usual awards show format, with different categories and all the rest, so instead I'll just name a few of the best books of the year.

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson: This book is beautiful and quiet, perfectly suited to the dark and the cold. I suppose it's no wonder that I liked it, since it hits on a couple of my big themes: aging and memory and family history.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein: I had never read a full-length work by Gertrude Stein before this one, and I was intimidated going into it, but I ended up really liking the book. Stein creates a vivid depiction of her and Alice's life in Paris. I was surprised by how funny the book was, and also by the way it forms a sort of slyly moving portrait of their long life together.

Memories of a Catholic Girlhood by Mary McCarthy: I loved McCarthy's voice in her autobiography: erudite, clever, curious, matter-of-fact, and thoughtful. This book also served as my inspiration for an essay on family history and place that I've been working on for a while now.

Cruddy by Lynda Barry: It's difficult to hold a book that I only finished two days ago up against books that have had months to settle in my mind, so perhaps I'll change my mind on this at some point, but I was really into this book. It is a glimpse into a dark, violent, sexualized childhood and its aftermath that was totally engrossing. I kept finding myself in bed at night saying "One more chapter. Okay, now just one more chapter..." I haven't written a proper post about this book, but I'm planning to do it very soon.

The two worst books of the year were The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta and The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. The Perrotta was absolutely flaccid and boring, and The Mistress of Spices was nothing but cheap exoticism and non-credible romance. To be avoided!
decemberthirty: (Default)
Why on earth would I want to grade my students' papers when there's a book meme that I could be doing instead? You guys have seen this one, I'm sure. These are the top 106 books most often marked as "unread" by LibraryThing’s users. As in, they sit on the shelf to make you look smart or well-rounded.

Now everyone will see some of the gaping holes in my reading, and you all can tell which of these books I ought to go and read right now, and which ones I can allow to pass me by without a second thought.

Bold the ones you've read,
underline the ones you read for school,
italicize the ones you started but didn't finish.
add * beside the ones you liked and would (or did) read again or recommend.

The Aeneid*
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay***
American Gods
Anansi Boys
Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir
Angels & Demons
Anna Karenina
Atlas Shrugged
The Blind Assassin
Brave New World
The Brothers Karamazov
The Canterbury Tales
The Catcher in the Rye

A Clockwork Orange
Cloud Atlas
Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed
A Confederacy of Dunces
The Confusion
The Corrections*
The Count of Monte Cristo
Crime and Punishment
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
David Copperfield
Don Quixote
Dubliners* [Okay, it's true that I haven't read the whole thing. But I've read several of the stories, and I certainly plan to read the rest. It deserves the asterisk for "The Dead" alone.]
Eats, Shoots & Leaves
Foucault’s Pendulum
The Fountainhead
Freakonomics: a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything
The God of Small Things******
The Grapes of Wrath
Gravity’s Rainbow
Great Expectations
Gulliver’s Travels
Guns, Germs, and Steel: the fates of human societies
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
The Historian: a novel
The Hobbit
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
The Iliad
In Cold Blood: a true account of a multiple murder and its consequences****
The Inferno
Jane Eyre
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
The Kite Runner [Bah]
Les Misérables
Life of Pi: a novel
Love in the Time of Cholera
Madame Bovary
Mansfield Park
Memoirs of a Geisha
Mrs. Dalloway

The Mists of Avalon
Moby Dick
The Name of the Rose
Northanger Abbey
The Odyssey
Oliver Twist
The Once and Future King******
One Hundred Years of Solitude
On the Road
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Oryx and Crake
A People’s History of the United States: 1492-present
The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Poisonwood Bible
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man [On the list for this summer]
Pride and Prejudice
The Prince
Reading Lolita in Tehran
The Satanic Verses [How can I call myself a Rushdie fan? I know, I know...]
The Scarlet Letter
Sense and Sensibility
A Short History of Nearly Everything
The Silmarillion
The Sound and the Fury
A Tale of Two Cities
Tess of the D’Urbervilles
The Time Traveler’s Wife
To the Lighthouse
Treasure Island
The Three Musketeers
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Vanity Fair
War and Peace
Watership Down*********
White Teeth

Wicked : the life and times of the wicked witch of the West
Wuthering Heights [This one makes me wish there was some way to indicate books you've ready but absolutely despised...]
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
decemberthirty: (Default)
I don't have a whole of time right now, so today's list is going to be less in-depth than the others have been. Oh well. The topic today is the contents of my to-read shelf:

1. Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
2. Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
3. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
4. Strong Motion by Jonathan Franzen
5. Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy
6. Gifts by Ursula K. LeGuin
7. Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie
8. The Sea by John Banville
9. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
10. Ghostwritten by David Mitchell
11. The Swimming-Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst
12. Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Wow. That's kind of a lot.
decemberthirty: (moon and shooting star)
The inspiration for today's installment of list week comes from both my snow day yesterday and the lovely morning I spent pushing cars out of iced-in parking spots today--the good and the bad sides of winter weather!

The best instances of snow, winter, and storms in literature:

1. "The Dead" by James Joyce. I'm not going to rank the rest of this list, but this story had to be number one. The last paragraph is perhaps the most beautiful thing ever written:

Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

God, I love that so much.

2. The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper. Man, this book is so good. Set in the week before Christmas, the mythology of mid-winter runs all through this story. You can feel the cold and dark closing in as you read it. As a bonus, the climax of the book takes place in a winter storm of unparalleled violence.

3. "The Blood Bay" by Annie Proulx. A frigid Wyoming winter results in this hilariously morbid tale. I can't even describe how funny this is without giving away the punchline--just go read it.

4. The Centaur by John Updike. I love the Rabbit books as much as the next guy (probably more, actually, unless the next guy happens to be my father), but I think it's a crime that they so often overshadow this book, which is perhaps the single best thing Updike has written. The story is a both a skewed retelling of the myth of Prometheus and an exploration of the difficult relationship between a father and son. It takes place over the course of two days as a big snowstorm and some poor decision making repeatedly prevent the father and son from getting home. I'm particularly fond of this paragraph near the end, describing what the son sees from his window after they've made it home at last:

I turned my face away and looked through the window. In time my father appeared in this window, an erect figure dark against the snow. His posture made no concession to the pull underfoot; upright he waded out through our yard and past the mailbox and up the hill until he was lost to my sight behind the trees of our orchard. The trees took white on their sun side. The two telephone wires diagonally cut the blank blue of the sky. The stone wall was a scumble of umber; my father's footsteps thumbs of white in white. I knew what this scene was--a patch of Pennsylvania in 1947--and yet I did not know, was in my softly fevered state mindlessly soaked in a rectangle of colored light. I burned to paint it, just like that, in its puzzle of glory; it came upon me that I must go to Nature disarmed of perspective and stretch myself like a large transparent canvas upon her in the hope that, my submission being perfect, the imprint of a beautiful and useful truth would be taken.

5. The storm scene in King Lear. I don't know whether the raging wind and rain that drive Lear mad are actually a winter storm or not, but I just saw a fantastic production of King Lear last weekend (by the Classical Theatre of Harlem at the Folger Shakespeare Library down in DC), and it reminded me of what an incredibly powerful scene this is, pitting the force of Lear's grief and rage against the strength of the elements.

6. Drop City by T.C. Boyle. Okay, so this one isn't great literature. It's still a fun read, and it's one of Boyle's better books. This book tells the story of a group of hippies who, finding California too restrictive for their tastes, decide to move their commune up to Alaska. They arrive during the summer and have a wonderful time living off the land, but gradually the Alaskan winter sets in and things start to change.

And...that's all I've got. Anybody know of any other great winter books or snow scenes?
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