I’ve had one of my best reading years in a long time. My book nerd stats: I’ve read 40 books (likely 41+ by the time the ball drops), or 14,068 pages. Thirteen of the books were over 400 pages, and as usual, the longer books tended to be my favorites of the year. Here are those favorites, with only the first one being in order: Continue reading
Category: Read 2016
Where I’ve been and what I’ve read
No excuses for not posting except — and it’s a big except — I was gutted by the US election result and continue to writhe like an eel on a spike with every tweet, headline, and cabinet pick. When I can’t deal with reality, I escape to other worlds in books. So the good news is that I’ve been reading a lot in November and December. The bad news is that I’ve not been commenting much about those reads. This doesn’t bode well for my blogging life in 2017 either. People say they are glad to leave 2016 behind, but I’m afraid 2016 was only the beginning of scarier and sadder times ahead. I suppose I’ll get used to it, but I’ll confidently increase my reading goal next year nevertheless.
Still, I started this blog with the intent of keeping track of my reading and impressions. So here is a short list with “lite” (or simply shallow) commentary on what’s been keeping me away from the headlines and semi-sane for the past few weeks. Continue reading
Small Obsession: The Visitors
The first thing I ever wanted to be when I grew up was an archaeologist. This realization hit me around 1976 or so, when King Tut’s tomb artifacts were on their second tour of the United States. I think I saw the exhibit at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. in 1976 or 1977, though I can’t remember exactly. Given the Tut-mania of the time, it wasn’t a particularly original career choice and I never truly took it seriously. Besides, my fascination was equal parts romanticism (gold, discovery) and revulsion (mummies, dead things). Continue reading
Love & Serpents
Last night I stayed up late to proofread an essay my son wrote for his sophomore English class. The topic was love, to define it in his own words and then spin off from there. The night before last, I stayed up late finishing The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. As I was reading my son’s sometimes humorous, sometimes touching, and sometimes bewildering thoughts on love, my thoughts on the novel became a lot clearer. It’s a novel about love, pure, simple, and complex. Continue reading
The Transformation of Travel
For me, there is nothing quite like travel to freshen my perspective, inspire me artistically, and remind me of all the interesting ways and places there are to live. Recently, I’ve read three books in which travel plays (at least) one of these three roles to the main character.
The Lower River by Paul Theroux
The pacing of this book was superb. By page 16, we learn that our protagonist, Ellis, longs nostalgically for the time he spent as a young man teaching and building a school in a remote African village. He has spent the years since in a business and marriage he didn’t care much about. Now, business closed and marriage dissolved, he intends to return to Africa and revisit the village and his youth. He brings along plenty of cash to help out the villagers.
However, the one thing he decides he doesn’t need to take a is a cellphone because the phone had “uncovered his entire private life, shown his as sentimental, flirtatious, dreamy, romantic, unfulfilled, yearning. What did all those emails mean? What in all this emotion was the thing he wanted?” After a series of events leave him the unromantic and all-too-real prisoner (and bank) for the village leader, the bubble bursts, and he sees that his nostalgia has been foolish. It still takes about 300 pages to extract him from his jail without walls — which would’ve taken much less time if he’d brought a cellphone (and not been such an ass). Continue reading
The Rich Stink of the North Water
If you enjoy a lively adventure tale and have a strong stomach, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more rollicking read than Ian McGuire’s The North Water. What a humdinger!
Set in the late 19th century when the world’s population of whales is in decline, a whaling ship is outfitted and sent into far northern waters in search of a few of the beasts to fill their hold with oil. It’s an odd journey — late in the season for finding whales so far north — and yet the ship pushes farther and farther northward at grave (or is it planned?) risk of being locked in the ice for the winter. Continue reading
But…Angle of Repose
I’m not sure why Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose was never on my radar, particularly considering my interest in recent years with novels of the West. But I had never heard of it until recently, when I read mention on some blog or other (that is the problem with reading so many bookish sites–I lose track of where I hear about things). It was called a classic of Western literature, Stegner’s masterpiece, and so forth. A few days later I happened to spy a copy at the local library book sale, so it seemed fate was telling me to read it.
This is a very, very good book, and perhaps it is Stegner’s masterpiece (it’s another winner of the Pulitzer, 1972), but for various reasons, I am not sure it lives up its laurels. It starts out rather slowly, narrated by Lyman Ward, a retired historian who suffers from an unknown debilitating illness which has left him with an amputated leg and skeletal stiffness. He is confined to a wheelchair and needs help with daily tasks, yet he has retired alone, to his son’s displeasure, in his grandparent’s house in rural Grass Valley, CA. There he has set a task for himself to sort through his grandmother’s letters and to reconstruct the remarkable and historic path his grandparents cut through the mid-1800’s West in the early years of their marriage. His grandparents’ marriage suffered a series of disappointments and great tragedies (no spoilers) that led them to live out their remaining years at an “angle of repose” rather than in a fully engaged and loving relationship. Lyman’s grandfather, whom he adored, was an engineer. The titular phrase refers to the engineering concept of the steepest angle at which loose matter can be piled before it slips down the slope. Lyman’s own marriage has suffered its own disappointments (he is estranged from his wife), and it becomes clear as the novel progresses that he is searching not only to understand how his grandparents arrived at this angle themselves, but also how he might resolve his own emotional conflict about his ex-wife. Continue reading
My second Persephone, but #3: Someone at a Distance
I am sleepy today because last night I couldn’t put down Dorothy Whipple’s marvelous Someone at a Distance until I’d finished it. Why isn’t this writer better known and more widely read? To be sure, this novel has the flavor of the past; it lacks any contemporary literary tricks, and it’s subject, the failure of a marriage, is hardly edgy. But the depth of psychological understanding that Whipple brings to the characterizations feels modern and relatable. It’s been a good while since I whipped through a 400+ page book in two or three sittings because the story spun along effortlessly to a satisfying, but not really predictable, conclusion. Persephone has done so good in reissuing this novel. Continue reading
Quick Reviews of Recent Reads
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert
I have such a love-hate for Elizabeth Gilbert. On one hand, she’s so sunny, lucid, and wise. On the other, she’s blithe and oblivious. Big Magic, her treatise on creativity and living the creative life, is all those things. I find some of her ideas incredibly inspiring, such as not making your creativity pay for itself–it’s okay to work a “real” job so you don’t put that kind of pressure on being creative. Or, inspiration will find another person to make it manifest if you don’t grab it when it arises (kooky, but I like it). Continue reading
A Persephone virgin no more: The Blank Wall
I have been coveting the Persephone imprint for some time, but the high overseas postage kept me from ordering any of these lovelies from England. My birthday last month was the perfect moment to ask for — and receive — a sixth month subscription. Happy birthday to me!
The first book to arrive was The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. First, can I say how very surprised I was by the size and the material; I thought Persephones were hardbacks! They are much smaller than I expected, too, but just right to hold and open widely without cracking the spine. Being a fabric hound, I love the hidden pattern reproductions on the endpapers and matching bookmark. My only disappointment, at least with this copy of The Blank Wall, was the quality of the printing; there are several places where letters did not completely print. It doesn’t make the book unreadable, it’s just a surprising to find these flaws. Although in some way, the flaws increase the charmingly retro feel of the book. Continue reading