What I Read in February
1. Distracted by James M. Lang (this one is not pictured because it upset the arrangement of photos and it was the most "one of these books is not like the others"). Lang writes about cultivating attention in the classroom. I was intrigued about mindfulness and attention and curiosity (and still am) and was in a major teaching application mode at the time.
2. What It Is by Lynda Barry. I believe I discovered Lynda Barry through Austin Kleon. During my Tumblr days, I would devour her posts, which were bits of her drawing/writing/comic courses at the University of Wisconsin. This book is a kind of collage of memoir/essay/activity book that wonders what an Image is. It also wonders what happens to the person who, as a child, played and drew and sang and danced. How can we get back to that state?
3. Via Negativa by Daniel Hornsby. I love a road trip story. In the first pages an ex-priest saves a coyote who's been hit by a car. The animal stays in the back seat (served plenty of pain killers and fed Spam by the spoonful) while Father Dan travels west. His car becomes a kind of monk's cell. He visits a variety of roadside attractions and reflects on his life and the reader learns over time just why he's become homeless. (Oooh this would make a cool multimedia pairing with the film Nomadland.)
4. Drifts by Kate Zambreno. This is a novel about a writer writing a novel. It's a series of diary-like entries where the author writes about her dog, her neighborhood's landscape (the trees, the garbage, and animals), her correspondence with fellow writers, the books she reads and the films she watches, her pregnancy. It's a way of looking very closely at the mundane and finding wonder and beauty in it. I loved it. It's looking at the work of an artist through time and space in a way I don't often read in literature. Often, the "art" becomes the set dressing for whatever drama is going on for the characters (it's not lost on me that writing about fictional paintings, music, dance, etc. is hard to pull off in fiction and if anyone has recommendations for those who do this spectacularly, I'm all ears). Instead, the walks, the meanderings, the commutes, the adjunct teaching is very much a part of the artist's work despite them not appearing in the final product. I'd love to read a similar kind of book from an actor's perspective. Shoot, maybe I'll even write my own about preparing for a role.
5. The Searcher by Tana French. I adore French's mysteries. (I have 2 or 3 yet to read.) This is a wonderful slow burner about a retired Chicago cop who moves to a remote village in Ireland. He ends up "taking on" a missing persons case--only without the resources of being an actual cop. I'm not doing that description any justice. She's so good with atmosphere and character. This isn't an edge-of-your-seat thriller like some of her other books can be, but I loved the simmering pace. It felt like it was just what I needed. French first started with the the "Dublin Murder Squad" series (which I think can be read in any order) and are wonderfully complex procedural mysteries. The Searcher, along with The Witch Elm, is a "standalone."
6. Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam. I listened to Marin Ireland narrate the audiobook to this "domestic chamber thriller." (I just made up that phrase.) A well-to-do Manhattan family takes a vacation to the Long Island countryside, stays at a marvelous Air B&B and then the Internet disappears and cell phones stop working. Some global event has happened. Soon, the owners of the Air B&B house show up and need a place to stay. This book doesn't answer a lot of questions. I highly recommend listening to the book. It's not a Covid novel, but Alam wrote something uncannily timely but something that will surely transcend our situation.
7. Memorial by Bryan Washington. Benson and Mike live together in Houston and have a...let's just say, a strained relationship. To add further complications, Mike brings his mother to stay at their apartment (for an indeterminate amount of time) while he flies to Japan to look after his estranged, dying father. (I loathe writing succinct summaries, so click through the link to get a better handle on it.) The writing on Houston and food is exquisite. The book is sensitive and wry and great.
8. Fortunes of War: The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning. This was my door stopper read for the month. I made it (barely) with the goal of reading 30 pages a day. British newlyweds, Harriet and Guy, have moved to Bucharest, where Guy teaches English. But World War II is imminent. So for 900 pages, you get this incredibly twisty, suspenseful, domestic, cosmopolitan clash of circumstances. Manning drops these marvelously insightful observations of people and their relationships. She writes about the city and landscape beautifully. It's frequently funny and charming. I'm in awe. There's a brightness and energy flowing through this writing that I sometimes miss from contemporary stuff that I read. Is that a "me thing" or is it indicative of the times/trends? Do I read older works through a different, subconscious way? AND YET...this was an eerily relevant read in the midst of the pandemic (not that I want to compare WWII with now, but there are parallels). It's full of people denying their reality or choosing to commit to life in midst of chaos in baffling and touching ways. For example, Guy stages a production of Troilus and Cressida while the Germans invade Paris (and inch their way closer to Romania). I've got the second installment--The Levant Trilogy--where Harriet and Guy settle down in Cairo, I believe. I'd like to read it later this year; we'll see. A BBC miniseries of Fortunes of War is available on Youtube, starring Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh (which I haven't seen, but plan to check it out).
This is a 25-minute blog post.
I set a timer for 20 minutes, then I have 5 minutes to wrap it up and make adjustments. Here goes.
In 2021, I've committed to reading a "door stopper" novel each month. My parameters are:
Anyway, in January, I read Roberto Bolaño's epic 2666. The novel is wild. It's divided into 5 books and they make up a kind of...whatever you'd call a five-paneled work of art (quin-tych?). I guess the books can be read on their own in any order, but I am fascinated by the one laid out by the publishers and Bolaño's family (he died right before completion).
At the end of the second book ("The Part about Amalfiatno"), we get this sublime passage about "door stoppers."
"There was something revelatory about the taste of his bookish young pharmacist...who clearly and inarguably preferred minor works to major ones. He chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick,...and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers. What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench."
2666 is just under 900 pages. I read about 30 each day, save for one day, but it was easy enough to carve time to catch up. The experience was incredible. It covers so much terrain, sprawling and diverging and still manages to contain some kind of whole. This book is difficult in sooo many ways (it's often unrelentingly gruesome). I wrestled with it a lot and just when I was on the brink of calling it a day, something stunning would ping off the page, and I'd hunker down for more reading.
Recently, I'm keenly interested in that struggle. That moment when a work becomes frustrating, when I'm not getting it, bored, or confused, or whatever. How do I get out of that? Is it an issue with the book or me? In 2666, I'd always come to some kind of marvel at his genius. I'd come to a satisfying rationale for each annoyance or idiosyncrasy.
Now, there are books out there that just don't work for me. And I'm getting better at understanding if A) the read will be constant struggle and simply "not for me" Or (B) if the read will be something that's going to take an investment and a careful examination of paying attention to my reaction to the reading. This mindfulness is something George Saunders calls for in his latest book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain.
I picked up that book a few weeks ago and read the introduction. It's brilliant. Saunders is one of my favorite writers and he teaches at the MFA Creative Writing Program at Syracuse. One of his classes is an exploration of 40 Russian short stories. His latest book is a condensed version of that class, choosing only 7 stories instead. Saunders is focusing on the short story and talking to me as a fellow writer, but also as a reader and general art reader (seeing a film, theater, taking in a painting, etc.).
I'm curious what Saunders would have to say about how the sprawling novels differs from the short story (beyond the obvious: length). So I'm sure Saunders would approach 2666 in a different way as a reader/writer. But I know that after reading only the first 6 pages of A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, I was thinking about how I was reading 2666: what delighted me, what didn't, and why. This made the experience that much more full and engaging. Perhaps I'll share more of that someday.
My timer just dinged, so I'm going to make sure there isn't anything totally embarrassing.
But here's to "the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown."
I'm a third of the way through Olivia Manning's Fortunes of War: The Balkan Trilogy and it's a totally different kind of "torrential" work. More on that later.
Books Read 2022
Books Read 2021
Books Read 2020
Books Read 2019
Books Read 2018
Books Read 2017
Books Read 2016
Books Read 2015
Films Watched 2022
Films Watched 2021
Films Watched 2020
Films Watched 2019
Films Watched 2018
Films Watched 2017
Films Watched 2016
Films Watched 2015