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.
Ali Smith's Autumn is the first of four seasons novels. I understand they are independent novels, but I'm sure they will talk to each other in fascinating ways. Critics have considered it the first major post-Brexit novel. While it does cover some of that territory, it's much more than that. The dread about the results of "The Vote" can be directly applied to America. It's immediate and expansive. No wonder it's shortlisted for the Booker.
This is a book that has an extremely dense thread count. It's not linear. It read like a long prose poem. I don't know that I've read too many novels that are this "experimental." But Smith is being careful as much as she's being playful. Nothing feels capricious (except when it's inentional). The quotes I've copied below are fairly bleak, but I promise you, there is a pervasive "stop and smell the roses"/"rise above the muck" element that I adored. The autumn here is often hot and humid. Leaves are falling. Winter is coming, but there are wondrous bursts of color and life. Much like the autumn I'm experiencing right now.
The primary story involves the close friendship between Elisabeth, a young art professor and her old, dying neighbor Daniel. There are imagined conversations, dreams, flashbacks, and cringe-funny passport renewal scenes at the post office. We also get to see Elisabeth working on her dissertation on Britain's pop artist Pauline Boty.
I was able to finish this in a couple days. I've never read Smith, but I'm keen to try others.
The opening sentences:
"It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again. That's the thing about things. They fall apart, always have, always will, it's in their nature. So an old man washes up on the shore. He looks like a punctured football with its stitching split, the leather kind that people kicked a hundred years ago."
(Elisabeth frequently reads to Daniel. One of the books is A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens.)
And it continues with lines like these:
"Can you be hungry and dead? Course you can, all those hungry ghosts eating people's hearts and minds."
"Someone killed an MP, she tells Daniel's back as she struggles to keep up. A man shot her dead and came at her with a knife. Like shooting her wouldn't be enough. But it's old news now. Once it would have been a year's worth of news. But news right now is like a flock of speeded-up sheep running off the side of a cliff."
"Anonymous people start to add tweet-sized comments about Daniel beneath Daniel. They are commenting on his ability to change things. The comments get more and more unpleasant. They start to make a sound like a hornet mass and Elisabeth notices what looks like liquid excrement is spreading very close to her bare feet. She tries not to step in any of it."
"The pauses are a precise language, more a language than actual language is, Elisabeth thinks."
"He had a voice off old films where things happen to well-dressed warplane pilots in black and white."
A list of books read in 2017
(finished titles only--many, many more have been abandoned for a number of reasons)
Here's a list of books I read in 2016 (completed books/plays/etc. only)
I finished reading Anthony Marra's outstanding collection of stories (which are put together as a single work--it's nearly a novel): The Tsar of Love and Techno.
“His misery is among the few indulgences I allow myself.”
“Despite inheriting her grandmother’s beautiful figure, Galina danced with the subtlety of a spooked ostrich….If she were anyone else’s granddaughter, we wouldn’t think twice about her dancing like the victim of an inner ear disorder."
“You need a soul the devil wants before you begin bargaining with him.”
“It takes nothing less than the whole might of the state to erase a person, but only the error of one individual--if that is what memory is now called--to preserve her.”
"Behind the ticket counter stood a man as skinny as a soaked poodle. He sported a shirt of swatch-sized plaid and a blond ponytail that, unless destined for a chemotherapy patient, should have been immediately chopped off, buried in an unmarked grave, and never spoken of again. Hipsterdom's a tightrope strung across the canyon of douche-baggery. He clung by a finger."
“Galina had been as vivid as stained glass, but we hadn’t imagined that Kolya might have been the sunlight saturating her.”
“Kolya was a hundred meters of arrogance pressed into a two-meter frame, the kind of young man who makes you feel inadequate for not impressing him. He was forever leaning, slanting, sidling, his existence italicized down to his crooked hat. In another country, he might have grown up to be an investment banker, but here he grew up to be a murderer, the worst kind of murderer, the kind who murdered one of us. “
“The pause was long enough to peel a plum.”
“Turning ‘I would’ to ‘I did’ is the grammar of growing up.”
"If occupations were assigned by disposition, he'd be the supreme leader of a volcanic island republic devoid of natural resources."
"One man gazing at the waters patted his potbelly tenderly. Maybe he'd spent the last fifty years wondering if it could be deployed as a flotation device, and now, finally, would find the answer. There's nothing quite like the sight of two dozen half-naked octogenarians. We enter the stage of life as dolls and exit as gargoyles."
The following paragraph encapsulates the book perfectly, I think. I don't know how it works out of context, but the beauty among the chaos is a major deal:
“Kolya entered the chorus with an orchestra of punch-drunk madmen living in him, belting the tune to the velvet yellow, to the misting lake, to the carcinogens no song could dislodge from his capillaries, and in this amphitheater of decimated industry, on this stage of ice and steel, he taught the granddaughter of a prima ballerina to dance. “
We're back on the road, baby!
Our first stop for this winter leg is the Sunset Theater in Asheboro, NC. We toured here last year.
It has The Table: a charming farm-to-table, fast casual restaurant. I had the best French toast of my life at this very place a year ago. For lunch, I opted with the avocado BLT and the delicious coffee. The next day, they were out of the French toast, but the sausage/pepper/onion omelette with potatoes on the side was tasty tasty tasty.
We had performances of Julius Caesar and The Importance of Being Earnest. It was kind of tricky getting used to the swing of things. I imagine the cobwebs will be gone soon. But I felt pretty good about our time at the Sunset.
I must give a shout-out to the North Carolina Zoo. It's largely open-air for all the animals. They have a lot of space to roam. The sun was shining and the animals were active. A keeper tossed a bunch of carrots and sweet potatoes to a 12,000-pound African elephant (named Ardie or something like that). Year-old lions gnawed on meaty bones. Lemurs licked each other (all over the place). A youngster chimpanzee wrestled with an elder. A rhino growled at another. I had a blast. If you're ever near Asheboro, check out the zoo and eat at The Table.
Lynchburg, VA – Academy Center of the Arts
We played Julius Caesar to a giant warehouse/black box space in downtown Lynchburg. There were three stadium seating banks on three sides of the playing space. It was giant! I saw that the room had the capacity for 700+ people, and most of the seats were filled. We're used to squeezing the shows in some tighter spots, but this allowed us to expand, which made for some LONG crosses on the stage.
I also enjoyed the short (but cold) walks to the White Hart Cafe. Get the breakfast bagel sandwich. Trust me on this. I expect to take a lot more long walks when the weather permits. I'm trying to read (or listen) to at least 8 of the 17 Tournament of Books shortlist. Currently, I'm listening to The Turner House by Angela Flournoy. I'm reading The Whites by Harry Brandt (aka Richard Price). I'm turning over some ideas about to creatively highlight my reading experience here. I'll keep you posted. So far, I've already read Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.
Here's everything I read in 2015. I abandoned a lot of books (and tried to keep track of those as well). The bolded titles are ones I especially enjoyed. I think I'll aim for at least 45 next year. We'll see...
(October 11 – 17)
We spent the week in Vermont and New York City—again, an embarrassment of riches.
St. Michael's College has easily the top five dining halls on the tour. I had choice anxiety. Do I want the burrito, the chicken tikka masala, the salad bar, the sweet potato/black bean soup, the pizza, the paninis, the stir fry?
After our performance of HENRY V, the English Department hosted a dinner with faculty, students, and the president of the college. They love to wine and dine us. I'm so grateful for the chance to sit down and chat with the professors and students. We don't often get to interact at length with the folks on the road in this way.
Burlington, Vermont is awesome. I hopped on a bus to travel downtown. Returned to a favorite spot from last year: The Skinny Pancake, which is a creperie with great coffee and tasty beer on tap. I sat down and started reading Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City. (It's brilliant.) I wandered around Winooski, and paid way too much for a cheeseburger, but it was near-life-changing and that makes it priceless, right? Later that evening, I returned with some tour mates for local beer and the “acoustic soul” styling of Josh Panda. He plays at the Skinny Pancake every Wednesday night. A grand cap to the day off.
After Vermont, we headed to the Bronx to set up the space for a performance of THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST at Manhattan College. Then we traveled to Yonkers to check into the hotel. After that, a few of us went to Harlem for a reunion with some friends. The next day, I slept as much as I could (it's been go-go-go lately). That night was a fun performance of EARNEST. The front row was full of friends from grad school and beyond. We managed to cram into a crowded Bronx bar afterward to catch up. I was exhausted, but it was worth it.
October 4 – 10
Canton, New York
Beautiful country. Beautiful campus (St. Lawrence University). This is one of the longest stays on tour. We did a dozen workshops (I had three myself) and five performances across the week. It was busy, but there was a nice amount of downtime. And we could walk to The Bagelry!
Susie, Josh, Cordell, and I went on a hike along some river on our day off. The weather was cool and overcast, but it allowed all of the autumn colors to pop. The sun poked through the trees toward the end of hike. It was a tough one (not that I go on a lot). But there were a lot of steep hills and stairs. The pictures give a pretty good glimpse. I'm so glad I elected to get out of the hotel room for this one.
On Saturday, I attempted to be as restful as possible. We had a double-header: JULIUS CAESAR at 7:30 and then EARNEST at Midnight. We probably had 90 minutes in between shows. Whenever we do CAESAR, it wipes me out. The only extended break I have is during the oration speeches. And even then, I'm putting on my armor for the second half. There's the tent scene, the birthday speech, the fight, and then the death. It's kinetic, passionate stuff. I love it, but it takes a lot out of me. So the thought of doing EARNEST right after that (and that late at night) was daunting. I should say, this midnight show is a tradition for the ASC and St. Lawrence University. I'm probably mistaken, but I think it started as a Halloween tradition. Anyway, we did both. We made it out alive. Things were admittedly punchy and loopy toward the end of EARNEST. The wonderful folks at St. Lawrence (shout-out to Sarah Barber) provided the troupe with plenty of snacks and drinks.
This week I enjoyed reading the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard's “autobiographical novel” My Struggle. He has six volumes in total of them, each around 400+ pages (not all are in English yet). Some folks are calling him Norway's answer to Proust.
News, updates, quotes, and other miscellany.
Books Read 2020
Books Read 2019
Books Read 2018
Books Read 2017
Books Read 2016
Books Read 2015
Movies Watched 2020
Movies Watched 2019
Movies Watched 2018
Movies Watched 2017
Movies Watched 2016
Movies Watched 2015