Category Archives: Reading

Recent Reading

This year has started out pretty well for me, reading-wise; it’s not been perfect, but I did finish two novels I liked very much, Anita Brookner’s Look At Me and Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. This is the third Brookner novel I’ve read, and I think it’s my favorite so far. Brookner captures a certain kind of consciousness so well — the lonely, smart, isolated figure who wants a different life but can’t quite reach it. It’s a first-person point of view, and the narrator is ruthless in her honesty, which makes for a sad story. But there’s something bracing in that honesty that I admire. What’s really hard to read is the process she goes through of figuring out that she was wrong about her relationships. She thought she was doing things right, when it turns out she wasn’t. Sad! But Brookner dissects it all so well.

The Lethem was fabulous as well. Motherless Brooklyn is the second Lethem novel I’ve read, after The Fortress of Solitude, and I think it’s my favorite (perhaps because the subject matter of the other one didn’t appeal as much). It’s a detective novel, and a book I read for my mystery book group, which met last night. In a lot of ways, it’s a straightforward mystery, with murders and detectives and clues, etc. But the main character, Lionel, has Tourette’s, which means he’s not able to control his words and actions as a traditional detective might. I thought Lethem did a great job portraying what life with Tourette’s might be like (not that I know for sure, of course, but his depiction was convincing), and I was fascinated by how imaginative and fluent Lionel was with language. The problem, of course, was that he couldn’t control the outpouring of words, and this frequently got him into trouble. He’s an appealing character — a thoroughly unconventional detective who does the best he can in some difficult circumstances.

I also finished Terry Castle’s collection of essays The Professor and Other Writings, which was a little disappointing. Some of the early essays in the book were good, especially the one on Susan Sontag and another one her obsession with World War I. Other essays I didn’t quite get the point of, and the title essay is much too long, book-length, really, with not enough pay-off. The success of an essay collection comes down to voice, I think, and I was never quite won over by Castle’s.

And now I’m reading Ali Smith’s The Accidental, which has been very good so far. It tells a story from multiple points of view and follows the characters’ minds closely in a stream-of-consciousness style that captures their different experiences well. I can sometimes be put off by writing that seems labored or self-consciously poetic, and I postponed reading this book for a long time because I was afraid I would find that kind of writing here, but that hasn’t been the case at all.

Before I go, a quick note on cycling: since January 1st, I’ve done 11 rides with 410 miles total in over 26 hours on the bike. That’s perhaps one reason I haven’t posted here much!

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2011 wrap-up

I finished my last book of the year this morning, so it’s finally time to sit down and wrap things up. I read my highest number of books ever this year, 100 (as far as I know, since I haven’t been keeping track for long, but I doubt I ever read this much). This has been fun, although I’m not going to try to match the number in 2012. I usually read in the neighborhood of 60 or 70 books a year, and the number went up in part for two reasons: I counted audiobooks this year for the first time, and I read quite a lot of short books. But I only listened to seven audiobooks, so that doesn’t account for much, and I read some decently long books as well. A full 9% of my reading was the Little House series, though, and those books fly by.

But, whatever. My only resolution for 2012 is not to care about numbers so much (although I will still keep track) and to read whatever I please. So although it’s been fun reading fast (for me) this year, and not going to try to keep it up.

So, a breakdown:

  • Books read: 100
  • Fiction: 67
  • Nonfiction: 33 (I thought this percentage would be higher than last year, but it’s only higher by a little; last year I read about 30% nonfiction)
  • Poetry: 0 (I read part of a book that I didn’t finish)
  • Essays: 9
  • Biography/autobiography/letters: 16
  • Theory/criticism: 6
  • Short stories: 3
  • Mysteries: 11
  • Books in translation: 11

Gender breakdown:

  • Men: 28
  • Women: 68
  • Both:4

I’m usually very close to even between men and women, and I don’t know what made the difference this year. There were the nine Little House books, of course, but beyond that, it was just a matter of what I felt like reading at any particular moment (and the books chosen for book groups).

Nationalities:

  • Americans: 54
  • English: 20
  • Canadian: 5
  • French: 4
  • Irish: 4
  • Finnish: 2 (two books by Tove Jansson)
  • 1 book each by Czech, Egyptian, Nigerian, Scottish, Spanish, Swedish, Swiss, Trinidadian, Virgin Islander, and Welsh writers. Plus one book by authors from various nationalities.

Year of publication:

  • 17th century: 1
  • 18th: 1
  • 19th: 2 (yikes! these numbers are low)
  • First half of 20th century: 22
  • Second half of 20th century: 17
  • 2000s: 22
  • 2010-2011: 33
  • Various time periods: 2

This is way more contemporary writing than usual, 55% from the 21st century. I read a lot of review copies this year, which contributed to this.

Now a word about my riding this year. In a lot of ways, it was an off year for riding: I didn’t race much and I spent a lot of the year trying to get in shape after having fallen out of it. This happened partly for good reasons: my 3 1/2 week trip to Ireland and England was great but meant a lot of missed riding. There were also lost days because of my thyroid problem and because of bad weather, both last winter and this fall (hurricanes, blizzards).

BUT, 2011 is also my second highest mileage year ever, at 5,213 miles. My highest year was 2010 when I rode 6,597 miles, and 2009 is now my third highest when I reached 5,097. So, even though I was often riding slowly, I still rode a lot. I’ve kicked up the mileage in November and December in preparation for winter training and the March racing season, and if keep I my current pace up, I might break my mileage record in 2012. But that’s not a particular goal of mine. We’ll just have to see what happens.

I’d like to write a best-of 2011 list; I’ll be back to do that soon.

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Reading notes: Didion

Recently I picked up Joan Didion’s essay collection Slouching Toward Bethlehem because I needed a nonfiction book and was in the mood for some classic essays. And classic they were. I liked them so much I wanted to read more Didion right away, and as I had The Year of Magical Thinking on hand, I picked that up. It, too, was very, very good. I liked the essays better, by a little bit, but both books are great examples of Didion’s voice: clear, pared down, melancholy, implying rather than spelling things out. Both books are about loss, The Year of Magical Thinking most obviously as it tells the story of her husband’s death, but Slouching Toward Bethlehem is also about the loss of ideals and dreams in California, and sometimes in Didion’s own life. There is an elegaic tone to Didion’s writing, even when her topic isn’t obviously loss, but it’s never sentimental; instead it’s almost numb, reflecting her inability to change anything. She witnesses but has no power, except the power to write about what she sees.

Critics have written about the differences between The Year of Magical Thinking and Joyce Carol Oates’s own grief memoir A Widow’s Story, which I read earlier this year. But the entire time I was reading Didion, I kept thinking about the similarities between the two. The books have the same structure: they cover about a year’s worth of time after the husband’s death, they tell in great detail the story of the death itself, dwelling on and returning to the details of the death scene, trying to figure out how it could have happened. They tell of kind and not-so-kind friends who try to offer support, and of reading their husband’s writing in search of clues that might tell them something new about their lost one. They also are going through a traumatic experience from a place of great privilege: their husbands will get obituaries in famous newspapers and will be mourned by strangers and neither needs to worry about financial security. This makes a difference in some ways and in others it doesn’t: they are describing an experience many people have gone through or will, but theirs is not exactly a universal story. Still, both books offer much to think about — and to feel. If Oates’s book speaks more on an emotional level — and I was riveted by the raw emotion on the page as well as horrified by it — I admired Didion’s resolve not to accept comfort that violates long-held intellectual beliefs. She knows there is no God to create meaning out of her loss; all there is is change and all she can do is watch change as it happens.

I thought when I picked up The Year of Magical Thinking that reading Blue Nights right away might be more grief memoir than I could handle, but I don’t feel that way now. Reading two grief memoirs by Oates might be more than I can handle, but Didion is not such an emotionally raw writer. But I don’t have Blue Nights on hand, so that reading will wait until I find a copy somewhere.

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Very brief reviews

I’m not going to pretend to get caught up on reviews or review everything I’ve read lately, but I would like to say at least something about a few books I’ve finished recently.

  • The Laughing Policeman, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. I chose this book for my mystery book group and am glad I did, because I liked it very much and most of the members of my book group did as well. This is the fourth in what’s called the Martin Beck series, but Martin Beck is really just one of a group of characters and doesn’t stand out much more than the others. The book is dark, as one expects of Scandinavian crime fiction, and the writing is very good. I’m not sure how the authors divided up the writing, but whatever they did worked well. I liked the interaction among all the officers, and I thought the dark humor that runs throughout the book was great.
  • Maria Edgeworth’s Helen. This was a bit of a disappointment. It tells an interesting story and takes up some important themes of the early 19th century, but it’s too long, with too many digressions. The story is partly about the complicated friendship between Helen and Cecilia; Helen is your typical nearly-perfect heroine of early fiction, and Cecilia is charming and gracious but has a fatal flaw: when under pressure, she hides the truth about herself. This puts Helen in danger and threatens her potential marriage. The novel is also about unreasonable expectations (or at least I think they are unreasonable expectations — it’s hard to tell what Edgeworth’s stance is) placed on women to love one man only during the course of their lives. The social critique here is interesting, but the novel needed some serious editing.
  • William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience. I really loved this book. James surveys a range of religious experiences, focusing on the personal rather than on the institutional aspects of religion. His approach is for the most part nonjudgmental; he wants to describe and understand rather than to judge. The basic idea he is working with is that our religious experiences stem from our individual psychological histories and that the many varieties of religious experience exist because humans have a wide range of religious needs. I valued most his tolerant and open-minded approach, as well as his very pragmatic idea that we should follow the religious practices and beliefs that suit our needs most.
  • Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. This book was so much fun! Before this, I had only read “The Lottery” by Jackson, and now I’m ready to read more. I loved Jackson’s use of point of view; she writes in the first person and uses it masterfully to slowly reveal information about the protagonist and her family — information that, as it turns out, is really bizarre. The book isn’t scary exactly, but it’s incredibly creepy, and it perfectly maintains that tone right through to the end. I’m looking forward to reading The Haunting of Hill House very much.

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How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read

I loved How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard, although I think I loved it as much for its tone and attitude as for the arguments it makes. I thought Bayard’s arguments were fascinating, if limited, but the real attraction was his way of saying things few others are willing to say (an attitude his title indicates well) and his refusal to take reading so terribly, terribly seriously. There was something very freeing about reading this book (and it’s not the fact that I now feel I can talk about books I haven’t read!).

The title is a little misleading, because even though Bayard says he is going to give advice about how to talk about books you haven’t read, he only does that occasionally. Mostly the book is a meditation on what it means to have read something and on how small and uncertain the difference is between having read something and not having read it. If you think about it, is it meaningful to say that you have read a book you don’t remember a thing about beyond its title? Isn’t it possible to know much more about a book that you have recently skimmed than one you read 20 years ago and have completely forgotten? Isn’t it possible that you could say something more insightful about a book you have read a review of and understand from an exterior, distanced point of view, than one you have read and in whose details you have lost yourself?

I’m not in the least interested in pretending to have read books I haven’t, but I realized as I read Bayard that I talk about books I haven’t read all the time: I do it in blog posts where I talk about what I want to read or why I bought particular books that are as yet unread. I recommend books I haven’t read to people I think might possibly like them (while admitting I haven’t read them), and I allude to books I haven’t read while I’m teaching class, in order to make some point about history or context. It’s this kind of book knowledge Bayard is interested in; he talks a lot about cultural literacy, which to him means knowledge of the ways books fit together, their relationships with one another and with their contexts. I can tell you something about a Trollope novel I haven’t read because I know a little about Trollope and a fair amount about the Victorian novel. I understand the context from which his novels come, and, for that matter, I know a lot about novels. If this is the kind of knowledge about books that matters, then actually having read the Trollope novel is kind of a minor detail.

I don’t buy that argument fully — it leaves little room for the actual content of books to surprise you after all — but it does seem true that just by surrounding yourself with bookish people and culture, you can absorb a whole lot of knowledge about books you will never pick up. A bigger problem with Bayard’s argument is that he nowhere acknowledges that reading books might actually be fun. I don’t read solely for the purpose of gaining the kind of cultural literacy he describes (especially now that I’m out of grad school); I read because I want the experience of being absorbed in a book.

But these disagreements aren’t what matter to me. What really matters is the fun of exploring the complexities of reading. Bayard deconstructs the reading/nonreading distinction, but he also undermines the very notion of a book, or rather, he makes up a whole bunch of “books” in addition to the actual book you hold in your hand. Because as soon as you have finished reading a book, you immediately construct your own version of it, a “book” that is only a little bit like what you have read. Every reader brings to books a certain history, capacity, and set of interests that shape how they make sense of them, which means the books they read are a little (or a lot) different than other people’s readings of the exact same books. So when we talk about books, we are really talking about entirely different things: I’m talking about my book and you are talking about yours, no matter whether the words we read are the same or not.

So, given that logic, why not talk about books you haven’t read? One excellent point Bayard makes is that readers should lose the shame they feel about unread books. In fact, any reader’s relationship with books is primarily one of not having read them, since we can only read a very small percentage of all the books out there. Not only that, but our relationship with books we have read is one of loss: once we stop reading, our “inner” book becomes a separate thing from the book itself, and we immediately start the process of forgetting. The small percentage of what we remember, out of the tiny percentage of what we have actually read, leaves us with not a whole lot.

These arguments don’t strike me as all that original; if you’ve studied philosophy or literary theory or just thought deeply about reading they won’t be particularly surprising. But Bayard does a great job of making the ideas fun. The book makes an interesting pairing with Alan Jacobs’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction; they seem like very different books in many ways, one urging us to read for pleasure and the other not even acknowledging that pleasure in reading exists. But both urge a certain freedom in our reading, whether it’s the freedom to read at whim, or freedom from the shame we feel at not having read things. Reading is a serious endeavor, yes, but we could all stand to lighten up a bit.

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Currently Reading

It’s a rainy Friday night here in Connecticut; I spent much of the day grading papers, but the evening is free, and I plan to do some reading ASAP. I also have a book-buying spree to look forward to on Sunday, when Hobgoblin and I will head out with our special book-buying friends to see what we can find. We will be looking in the Northampton, Massachusetts, area, which seems to have a good number of stores, and I hope to come home with some good things.

I don’t think I ever wrote about seeing Jonathan Franzen and Colson Whitehead a couple weekends ago. It was a book signing at McNally-Jackson bookstore in Manhattan; there was no reading or talk, so I only had brief moment to see the two of them, but it was fun. They both looked tired, which isn’t too surprising as they were both involved in the New Yorker Festival and were at the end of a busy weekend. But both were friendly. Meeting Franzen was a little strange, though, because after he finished signing the book and I was ready to go on my way, he kept looking at me as though he expected me to say something. As I’ve written here recently, I’m too shy to say much to authors at these things, and I just wanted to go, but I had this strange feeling I was disappointing him somehow. Was I supposed to tell him how awesome I think he is? I’m not sure, and I’m probably making it up, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I needed to find some awesome line with which to make my exit. Instead, I just kept smiling and left.

After that, Hobgoblin and I headed over to the fabulous Three Lives bookstore, where I bought Alan Jacobs’s book and also one called The Art of Time in Memoir by Sven Birkerts. It’s part of what looks like a wonderful “Art of…” series by Graywolf Press. There were several I wanted. Okay, I wanted the whole series. Then we hit the Partners in Crime just a couple blocks away, where I bought the next Mary Russell book A Letter of Mary.

So, uh, I guess I don’t really need to go on a book-buying trip this Sunday. Except, of course, that I do.

For now, I’m in the middle of listening to The Given Day by Dennis Lehane on audio. It’s been totally awesome to listen to. This is my first Lehane, and I’m sure it won’t be my last. It’s historical fiction, set in Boston, mostly, in the years after World War I, and it’s a satisfyingly long tale with great characters, dramatic action, and a fascinating historical backdrop. This is the kind of historical fiction I like, I guess, where there’s a strong sense of context that’s developed in a natural, convincing way and fully-fleshed out characters that get caught up in their historical moment but don’t feel like they are there only to make a point.

I’m also slowly reading William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, which I’ve had on my shelves for ages. It’s quite good, it turns out. I was worried that it might be a little dull, a little too predictable in its structure, and that I might feel as though I were plodding through one variety of religious experience after another. But James’s tone and style are wonderful. I didn’t realize this until recently, but the book is a transcript of lectures he gave, and so his tone is a little bit on the informal side of things and his descriptions and images are great. What I like most is his compassionate tone. What he wants is to understand, not to judge, and he is wonderful at explaining the psychological sources of a whole range of religious behavior, without dismissing the mysterious, spiritual, divine aspect of it.

I am also in the middle of the novel Zeina by Nawal El Saadawi, an Egyptian writer. But more on that later. I hope you have a wonderful weekend everyone!

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The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

Full disclosure: a former professor of mine wrote this book, and it was a professor I liked very much, so I suppose I’m biased. But I’m quite sure I would have liked this book anyway, and I did like it very much. My guess is that book bloggers who like books about books and reading will enjoy it as well, since it touches on a lot of topics that get debated on blogs: how to choose what to read next, how best to do that reading, “serious” reading vs. reading purely for pleasure, the value (or lack thereof) of keeping lists and making reading plans, the danger of technology pulling us away from our reading. This book is also great for anyone who feels uncertain about their reading choices and abilities. I want to recommend it to all the people I can think of (and it’s a lot of people, including many students, and including, sometimes, myself) who have ever expressed a doubt about their status as a reader. My guess is that it will make them feel much better.

What I liked best about this book is how successfully it makes recommendations and gives advice without coming across as preachy or judgmental. Jacobs has very definite opinions on things, but I got the feeling that he would not mind a little disagreement. His main argument is that you should read at whim and that pleasure in reading should be your first goal. He also believes that you should mark up the book as you read — or at least you should if it’s something more complex than a thriller that’s not meant to be analyzed that closely. You shouldn’t worry about reading a lot of books; in fact, he believes you’re probably reading too fast and should slow down. He strongly dislikes books such as How to Read a Book, and 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die because they encourage the mindset of reading only in order to cross something off a list. Rereading is very much a good thing.

But the tone that comes across is warm and generous, not scolding. (In fact, while I was in the middle of reading the book, I tweeted something about being absorbed in it but allowing myself a Twitter distraction now and then, making a little joke about his title, and he tweeted back, “It’s allowed!”) Mostly, he just wants people to enjoy their reading and to read exactly what they want to, because that’s the practice that will make reading meaningful and take the reader in unknown and exciting directions. To complicate the reading for pleasure idea, he talks about whim vs. Whim. Lowercase whim is “thoughtless, directionless preference that almost invariably leads to boredom or frustration or both.” Uppercase Whim, however, “can guide us because it is based in self-knowledge.” We learn, over time and by paying attention to our own responses and feelings, what it is we really want from books. We figure out when we want something challenging and difficult and when we want to reread an old favorite or to pick up a book we won’t have to think about too much. We figure out when to put down a book that isn’t working for us or to keep at it because we might come to like it later, or even because we think we might want to reread it in ten years and appreciate it only then. Reading for pleasure is not a simple thing — pleasure itself is not a simple thing.

One of my favorite sections of the book is on serendipity, the unplanned, unexpected discoveries when you read at whim and let accident guide you:

Fortuity happens, but serendipity can be cultivated. You can grow in serendipity. You can even become a disciple of serendipity. In the literature of the Middle Ages, we see reverence for the goddess Fortuna — fortune, chance — and to worship her is a religious way of shrugging: an admission of helplessness, an acknowledgment of all that lies beyond our powers of control. But in the very idea of serendipity is a kind of hope, even an expectation, that we can turn the accidents of fortune to good account, and make of them some knowledge that would have been inaccessible to us if we had done no more than find what we were looking for. Indeed, it may be possible not only to cultivate the sagacity but also the accidents. It may be possible, and desirable, to actively put yourself in the way of events beyond your control.

This is a philosophy of life as much as it is of reading, and I like it very much on both accounts. It can be wonderful when reading — or life — takes you in unexpected directions  (it’s much less risky when it’s reading we’re talking about, though), and it seems worthwhile to strive to be the kind of person who can take full advantage of, and indeed to seek out, the accidental.

Jacobs says his book is aimed toward people who find themselves struggling to read because of the lure of technology and their inability to concentrate after too much time spent multitasking, skimming websites, and following links. He does have a lot to say about this problem, but his potential audience is actually much wider: it’s anybody who likes to think about reading. It’s a book that will inspire you, I think, and inspire you not to read like Jacobs does, necessarily, but to figure out how to read like yourself.

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The Little House books

I mentioned earlier that Hobgoblin bought me a set of the Little House on the Prairie books, and I have now read through the first four of the nine novels. It’s been fun to reread the books (who knows how many times I’ve read each one — it’s many), and especially to do it shortly after I read Wendy McClure’s book on rereading the series as an adult, and also at the same time that I’m reading Laura Miller’s book on C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. All this thinking about children’s books and what it’s like to reread them! I’m also sort of in the middle of rereading the Anne of Green Gables books, although it’s been a while since I picked one of those up.

A friend asked me if rereading the Little House books reminds me of what I felt about them as a child, which it has, and also whether it reminded me of where I was when I first read them, which it hasn’t. I read the books too many times to remember where I was when I first read them; all the subsequent rereadings have erased my first memories. But I do remember how much I loved reading all the details of the characters’ lives, although right now I’m feeling surprised and a little overwhelmed by exactly how much detail there is, especially in Little House in the Big Woods and Farmer Boy, which, I learned from Wendy McClure, were the first two books written and were meant as companion books — Laura as a child and then her husband Almanzo as a child.

Not much actually happens in these volumes except everyday life. We learn about what Laura and Mary did on Sundays, what they played with during the week, how they helped their mother, how they waited for their father to return from hunting trips and journeys into town. Farmer Boy is even more detail-laden; it takes the reader through a year on the farm and describes all their tasks: plowing, planting, weeding, and harvesting; breaking in colts and calves; repairing the house and barns; fishing and berrying; chopping ice into blocks and packing it in sawdust; and most of all, cooking and eating. The book is overflowing with food and descriptions of eating. There are many passages like this one:

Almanzo ate the sweet, mellow baked beans. He ate the bit of salt pork that melted like cream in his mouth. He ate mealy boiled potatoes, with brown ham-gravy. He ate the ham. He bit deep into velvety bread spread with sleek butter, and he ate the crisp golden crust. He demolished a tall heap of pale mashed turnips, and a hill of stewed yellow pumpkin. Then he sighed, and tucked his napkin deeper into the neckband of his red waist. And he ate plum preserves and strawberry jam, and grape jelly, and spiced watermelon-rind pickles. He felt very comfortable inside. Slowly he ate a large piece of pumpkin pie.

As McClure points out, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote this book during the depression when food was scarce and after having gone through years of poverty and deprivation. It’s no wonder she focuses on the food so much.

Almanzo loves working on the farm with his father and longs for the day when he can have a colt of his very own to train. Wilder describes his joy in the farm animals and farm work so infectiously that it makes me want to live on a farm, even though I most definitely know better. I would not like all that hard work and uncertainty one bit. But Almanzo thrives on it, and Wilder makes the abundance of the farm and the reliable rhythms of yearly agricultural cycles so appealing. I knew as a child that living on a farm is not quite like it’s described in Farmer Boy, but I found the fantasy version of farm life comforting then and I do now as well.

Little House on the Prairie and On the Banks of Plum Creek have slightly more going on in terms of plot, although they, too, have lots of descriptions of how things get done, especially how houses and barns get built. These two novels tell the stories of how the Ingalls family packed up and headed into new territory, first the Indian territory in Kansas, and second to farm land in Minnesota. The plot, such as it is, centers around the struggle to settle themselves in a new place and the question of whether they will make it there. In Kansas there are the Indians (whose land they have taken), prairie fires, and blizzards, while in Minnesota there are blizzards and grasshoppers swarms. In Minnesota there is also school and Nellie Oleson to deal with. On the Banks of Plum Creek was the most engaging, partly because there is more story involved and also because Laura is getting older and her challenges are more interesting (to me): she is now having to find her way through the social world and make more decisions for herself.

What I don’t remember caring about much as a child but what I thought a lot about this time around was the isolation the family lived in, especially in Little House on the Prairie. As a child I took it as natural, I guess, to want to head off into unknown territory and settle it, and as my life was spent mostly with my family, I didn’t question their reliance on no one but themselves. But now I’m amazed at their willingness to live almost entirely without neighbors and extended family. In Kansas they have a few people they see occasionally and who play crucial roles in keeping them alive and well, but for the vast majority of the time, they are completely alone. Town is 40 miles away. They have only themselves to talk to and get entertainment from (Pa’s fiddle helps a lot with this). Unless I’m forgetting something, there are no references to books until we get to On the Banks of Plum Creek, and then there’s only one novel and a newspaper mentioned. I understand the desire for independence and the longing to create their own life on their own land, but would that life really be satisfactory and fulfilling with only themselves in it? I think my child-self would be surprised at how important being surrounded by lots of people has become to me, but that’s a significant way I’ve changed as I’ve gotten older.

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Contemporary Fiction

At the end of my last post I complained a little about being bored by contemporary fiction, and specifically realistic fiction, and a number of people said that they sometimes feel the same way. Lilian asked if I would be willing to explain what I meant. So, uh, maybe? I’m not entirely sure what I meant, except that I wanted to express a vague feeling of discontentment and to explain why I didn’t fall in love with The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, a book that others have fallen in love with and is probably worth falling in love with.

I certainly don’t feel bored by all contemporary fiction; looking over my list of books from the last year or so, I see that I loved Arthur Phillips The Tragedy of Arthur, Teju Cole’s Open City, Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, and Joshua Ferris Then We Came to the End. I also liked Scarlett Thomas’s PopCo, although I thought it broke all kinds of fictional rules. I liked it because it broke fictional rules. And that’s what I liked about all these books, I see now. The Phillips book is a novel that pretends to be a play and a memoir; Open City is basically a guy walking around cities and thinking stuff; Baker’s novel has only a little bit of a story and lots and lots of meditations on poetry; Egan’s book is really linked stories with a lengthy chapter written using PowerPoint (and using it very well); Ferris’s book is in the second person (and focused unusually closely on the workplace); and PopCo spends a lot of time explaining how encryption works. That book explains everything.

And I loved all that. I think the perfect contemporary novel is one that breaks the rules in some way while still being fun. It’s possible to break the rules to such an extent that the book is boring or too difficult to enjoy, but the ones above do it perfectly.

Where I run into a problem is when books are more conventional in their plot lines and writing style. It’s not that I dislike all these books, necessarily, just that I don’t often get excited about them. Part of the issue is that I don’t read for story. There are exceptions, such as Sarah Waters, but mostly I don’t care about the plot. I don’t really read for beautiful sentences either, unless we’re talking about an extreme case — unless you’re Proust, for example. Mostly I read for that sense of excitement that comes when I fall a little in love with a character or a voice or the way a book explores an idea or does something new. I’m a little suspicious of sincerity, which is odd because I’m a serious and sincere person, but in my books, I prefer lightness and humor. Do what you do with energy and gusto, and I’ll be impressed.

That’s not always true, of course. I loved Olive Kitteridge, for example, which has hardly any lightness, humor, or gusto. But I guess there I liked the linked story form and the unremitting darkness of that book struck me as brave. I like brave books.

I keep talking about contemporary novels because my feelings about older novels are different. Conventional plot lines bother me less there. Seriousness and sincerity are fine in those books. I don’t look for experimentation in quite in the same way. But you can see why Tristram Shandy is a favorite of mine.

So, there, that’s my explanation of how I feel about contemporary fiction. Anybody else want to try to define their aesthetic? It’s a fun thing to think about.

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Reviewing Joyce Carol Oates

I recently read Joyce Carol Oates’s new memoir about her husband’s death, A Widow’s Story and liked it very much; it turns out the New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin most emphatically did not. Maslin’s review strikes me as odd; is it helpful at all in one’s review to say things like this?

Although the book flashes back to various stages of the marriage, and to the remarkably treacly addresses of their homes in various cities (their last street address was 9 Honey Brook Drive), it offers few glimpses of how they actually got along.

The tone of the entire thing seems strangely angry. Who cares if their street names were on the sweet side? But one of Maslin’s criticisms is much harder to dismiss: Oates was engaged to be married 11 months after her husband died, and Maslin wonders why she did not mention this in her book. I hadn’t known about the engagement and marriage until I read the review. Oates presents herself one year after her husband’s death as beginning to recover and to return to a more normal life, but as forever scarred by her loss. There is no evidence in the book that another romance is afoot.

I’m not sure what to think about this. On the one hand, I strongly believe that art is what matters most, and if Oates needed to exclude some information in order to make her book a better work of art, then that’s what she should do. I also strongly believe that memoirs are always shaped and molded to meet the writer’s needs; they always have omissions and elisions, and they are very carefully crafted. I suppose it’s never quite as simple as this, but I always want to argue that a writer’s first duty is to the writing, and everything and everybody else will just have to deal with it.

On the other hand, part of what was so powerful to me about Oates’s memoir is that it seemed so very real. I believed every word of it. I know I sound contradictory — if it’s so carefully crafted, then how can it be real? It’s clearly all artifice! — and yet I also believe that artifice can help express truth. And I felt as I read that I was getting a true picture of what suffering is like. I’m now imagining all widows I know as having experienced something like what Oates experienced, and I feel horrible for them.

But if Oates wasn’t telling the whole story about her emotional experience — leaving out a new engagement is kind of a big deal — then what am I left with?

Or, perhaps, everything she wrote about her suffering is absolutely as true as she could make it, and that suffering isn’t diminished by the fact that towards the end of her story when she is beginning to show signs of recovery she doesn’t tell us quite how much that recovery actually meant.

I don’t know. I’m not sure how I would have felt if she had written about her engagement in the book, but I do think it would have made the book less unified and less powerful. It comes down to my purpose in reading, I suppose. The part of me that reads for aesthetic pleasure has no problem with the fact that Oates omitted something major from her memoir. The part of me that reads for emotional truth isn’t quite as sure.

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Thinking of E-Readers

Teresa’s post on the subject of e-readers caught my attention because something similar to her experience has happened to me too. I wasn’t interested in e-readers at all, until all the sudden it turned out that I was. I’ve said for a while now that I have nothing against e-readers per se and that if I ever felt the need for one, I would get it. But I hadn’t felt the need for one. I love paper books and hate the idea of not being able to do some of the things you can do with regular books: flip through them quickly, share them, admire their beautiful, unique covers, smell them, fill bookcases with them.

I think I will always feel this way. But  some of the things you can do with e-readers do appeal to me, one of which is downloading free classics. I spent some time exploring various sites that offer free books (Eva’s post contains links to a number of great sites) and was amazed by what is on offer. I also learned in the last week or so that it’s possible to get review copies of books electronically; Stefanie introduced me to NetGalley, a site where readers can request digital galleys of forthcoming books. I’m also intrigued by the idea of reading magazines on an e-reader.

The truth is, though, that I already own an e-reader: my iPhone. I just haven’t thought of it much as an e-reader; I downloaded book apps a long time ago, but I never took seriously the idea of reading anything that way. The screen seemed too small. However, I was curious enough about NetGalleys to request one of their books to see what reading on an iPhone would be like. and I’m now in the middle of Joyce Carol Oates’s forthcoming memoir A Widow’s Story, all of which I’ve read on the phone. I can also read the book on my computer, of course, but I’ve found I like reading on the phone better; the screen is small, yes, but I can curl up with it much more comfortably on the couch. And the truth is, the small screen doesn’t bother me much. If I were a faster reader, I would get frustrated at having to flip to a new page so often, but at my reading pace, it’s not so bad, and the pages “turn,” or whatever verb is appropriate, very quickly. I can adjust font size, margin size, and screen brightness, and I can bookmark and annotate passages.

But still, having a larger screen would be nice, and hence a new e-reader. (Also, while I can read ePub files on my iPhone, I can’t read PDFs; the font on those documents is much too small and not easily adjusted, as least as far as I know.) I like the way the Kindle looks, but I don’t like Amazon and don’t want to deal with their finickiness about file types. So I’m thinking about either the Nook or the Kobo. I like the idea of doing what a number of people I know do, which is to use the e-reader only for free books. The number of free classics will only increase, and I have a feeling electronic review copies will become more and more popular, so it seems like there will be plenty of free things to read. It’s funny how quickly I can go from not wanting something to thinking it would be a great idea to have it!

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What shall I read next?

I finished up my mystery book group selection a couple nights ago: Sarah Caudwell’s Thus Was Adonis Murdered. We are meeting tomorrow night, so perhaps I will write about that soon. Last night I read a decent-sized chunk of the biography I’m in the middle of: Richard Holmes’s Coleridge: Darker Reflections. I am really enjoying it, even if it is quite grim. It’s not called Darker Reflections for nothing. I was planning on reading steadily in it until I finished or got close, but it’s just slightly too heavy to be my default read — by which I mean the book I read to relax and the one I feel I can read in for hours, if need be. I always have something going in that category, and it’s usually a novel.

So it’s time to pick up a novel, it seems. I’ve been thinking about Eva’s post on reading at whim lately, a concept I can really get behind. I’m in the mood to read exactly what I want without thinking about reading plans or what I should read or whether I’m challenging myself enough. I have some reading I have to do for school, and I’d prefer that all other reading be exactly what I want and nothing else.

This brings up a little problem for me, though, because I’ve been realizing that reading at whim isn’t easy when 1. my whims change frequently, 2. I’m a slow reader, 3. I like to finish books I start, except in rare cases, and 4. I prefer not to have a huge pile of books I’m in the middle of to suit my every mood. That would be too confusing. The problem is a lot of times that the whim of one day is entirely different from the whim of the next or the day after, at which point I’m still in the middle of the book I began following my whim on day 1. I’m sorely tempted to pick up Margaret Oliphant’s The Perpetual Curate, thanks to Amateur Reader, but it’s a long book, and what if I get in the mood for something short and contemporary a few days from now? I’m sometimes in the mood to read something challenging, but what if just a couple days from now, I need something easy? I’d rather not put a book down in the middle of it if I’m not hating it, and I don’t want to just keep adding books to the pile of ones I’m currently reading, so it seems I can read at whim only now and then.

That’s why I agonize about what I’m going to pick up next, I suppose. So, off to the shelves …

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And now back to reading

It’s felt like an odd summer as far as my reading goes, largely because while I like to take on a challenge or two in the summer, something long and difficult (Infinite Jest last year for example), it hasn’t happened this time around. I had hoped to read Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, but the time never seemed right to pick it up. Instead I stuck to shorter books and then did some reading for a class in world literature I’m teaching this fall.

One book I read that could count as a challenging book, although it’s not terribly long, is Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf, as part of my effort to read through her major works in order. I’ve been a little scared of Woolf’s more experimental fiction after trying to read The Waves quite a lot of years ago and not doing very well with it. I love To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway, but my impression was that Jacob’s Room might defeat me just as The Waves did. Well, I ended up enjoying it greatly, and it makes me wonder how I will do with The Waves when I get there for a reread. It was definitely a challenge, with quick shifts in perspective and time and without a whole lot of explanation to help get the you get situated in each new scene. Woolf lets you make connections on your own without spelling them out. The book demands that you read slowly.

But the writing was so beautiful, and, most importantly to me, it had the insights about people and relationships and experience that I value so much in Woolf. She can capture a moment and a feeling so perfectly and describe it so accurately that I’m left thinking, yes, that’s it, that’s exactly right, there’s no need so say anything else.

The Common Reader is next, and while I’ve read it before, I loved it so much the first time around, I’m anticipating loving it again.

Another book from earlier this summer that stands out is Rosamund Lehmann’s Invitation to the Waltz. This is my third Lehmann book; the first one I read I loved (A Note in Music), but the second one I didn’t (The Echoing Grove — it felt like a slog), so I was happy to find that I’m back to loving her writing again. Invitation to the Waltz is thoroughly charming, and it also does what I admire Woolf for doing, which is to say, it looks closely at a small group of people and digs in deep. The novel tells the story of two sisters as they prepare for and then attend a waltz. That seems really simple, and yet so much goes on — there is so much the sisters think about, experience, agonize over, and analyze, and the drama of it all, quiet as it is, is really moving. Lehmann is a writer I look forward to reading more of, perhaps someone whose work I will read in its entirety.

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Reading Notes

I had a perfectly fine day today, especially since on Mondays I don’t have class and get to work from home. But even when working from home, colleagues can get aggravating (thanks to email!), so I spent the second part of the day irritated, annoyed, and feeling mentally scattered. It’s more often my colleagues who cause me problems than my students, who, for the most part, are great, or at least fine, or at least … gone at the end of the semester. All is well, but I’m still feeling mentally scattered, which means you get bullet point notes on my reading.

  • I finished Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates this past weekend, and I’m not sure what I think of it. Vowell has a light, humorous style, which is entertaining, but her sense of humor isn’t exactly mine. It’s fine, but I don’t love it. The book is about the pilgrims, and Hobgoblin, who is teaching a class on early American literature right now, says that she’s a little shaky on her facts. I think it’s hard to write popular history well, especially in a book as short and fast-moving as this one, so a certain amount of oversimplification is probably inevitable. But I wonder just how much of it is there.
  • I’m in the middle of Balzac’s Cousin Bette right now, and I’m unsure of that one too. Basically everyone in that book is either really and truly awful, or so good they are thoroughly unbelievable. The book is much more about social criticism than about character development and realistic action. Everyone is desperate for money or sex or social advancement, or probably all three, and the world it depicts is a truly frightful place. All that is fine for subject matter as a novel, but for me it gets dull without a stronger sense of character than what I’m getting here.
  • I’m going to pick up Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley next for my mystery book group. It’s not a mystery, really, but we decided it’s fine to branch out a bit into crime fiction. Hobgoblin really enjoyed it, and I’m looking forward to it.
  • And now on to some newly acquired books. Book Mooch has been working really well for me lately, and I’ve managed to snag a copy of Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps, which is a collection of linked stories. After my success with Olive Kitteridge, I’m looking forward to reading another example, especially from a writer I love. I also received a copy of Laurie King’s A Monstrous Regiment of Women, the second in her Mary Russell series. I’d like to see if I will like the second book better than the first; many have told me it’s better, and they are probably right. Then just today I received a copy of Cane by Jean Toomer. It looks fascinating; a quick flip through the book shows that it mixes fiction with poetry, and there are also sections of dialogue written as though it were a play. I’m curious how it will all fit together.
  • I have a couple new nonfiction books as well. First is John Hollander’s Rhyme’s Reason: A Guide to English Verse. Ever since reading Nicholson Baker’s book The Anthologist, which is largely about poetry, I’ve been in a mood to read more books about it — as well as to read more poetry. I also received Adam Thirlwell’s book The Delighted States, which is subtitled “A Book of Novels, Romances, & Their Unknown Translators, Containing Ten Languages, Set on Four Continents, & Accompanied by Maps, Portraits, Squiggles, Illustrations, & a Variety of Helpful Indexes.” Now, to be honest, in spite of such a lengthy subtitle, I still don’t have much of an idea what the book is about, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

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New Books

Did I ever seriously comtemplate not buying more books for a while? Yeah, that didn’t happen. I am doing well with the reading part of Emily’s TBR challenge, even if I’ve forsaken the not buying more books part. I’ve finished five of the twenty books on my list (which you can see on the sidebar to the right) and I’m in the middle of a sixth one (Olive Kitteridge). Considering that the challenge goes on through the rest of the year, that’s not a bad start.

So what are the new books I’ve been acquiring? I got a small stack last Friday when Hobgoblin and I spent the day in New Haven. We visited the Yale Center for British Art first, which was great — they have a strong permanent collection of 18th and 19th-century British art and had a great exhibit on Romantic-era drawings from around the world. And then we toured some of the local bookshops. It was our first visit to Labyrinth Books, which was a really great, really smart shop with dozens of books I could have brought home. We also visited old favorites The Book Trader Cafe and Atticus books. I found:

  • Lydia Davis’s Varities of Disturbance. I want to read more short story collections this year, and this one has been on my list for a long time. The stories are very short and I hear are as much like poems as stories. I’m curious how I will like this.
  • Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett’s Dog Day. Gimenez-Bartlett is a crime writer (perhaps a future choice for my mystery book group), and the book is one of those lovely Europa editions I always notice in bookstores.
  • Mary Oliver’s Rules for the Dance. This one is a guide book to reading and writing rhyming poetry. I like Oliver’s poetry a lot, and something appealed to me about looking a little more deeply into the structure of poetry. I’m not at all interested in writing rhyming poetry (or poetry of any sort), but I do like learning about it. And I feel inspired by reading The Anthologist to think about poetry more.
  • Gabriel Josipovici’s Writing and the Body. The book is made up of four lectures Josipovici gave in 1981. The first one is entitled “The Body in the Library.” Hard to resist, right?

And then there are books I’ve gotten in other ways:

  • I won a copy of Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World from Musings, which is tremendously fun and exciting. I don’t know much about the book, but I do know that Ms. Musings liked it a lot and other friends enjoyed it as well,
  • From Book Mooch I got An Ethiopian Romance by Heliodorus. I love learning about the history of the novel, so this “novel” or “romance” or whatever you want to call it from the third century sounds interesting.
  • Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking also came from Book Mooch. I realized the other day that I really loved her essay collection The White Album, so it only makes sense to have more of her writing on hand. I have a feeling I’ll end up with a fairly large Didion collection eventually.
  • Finally, Marge Piercy’s The Moon is Always Female. Since I have new books that are about poetry I figured I should get some of the thing itself.

That’s all for now, although I’ve had luck with Book Mooch lately and may find some more books I can’t resist.

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Austen in Manhattan

Yesterday I got to do what I’ve been looking forward to for months: see the Jane Austen exhibit at the Morgan Library in New York City. It was a great exhibit and part of wonderful day spent with Hobgoblin and our friends Suitcase of Courage and She Knits By the Seashore (the same couple with whom we visited Edith Wharton’s home on one occasion and Concord, Massachusetts, on another — we have quite a lot in common, but one important thing is obviously a love of literary travel).

Hobgoblin and I took the train into the city, a trip of about two hours, and about 1/3 of the way there we transferred trains and joined Suitcase and She Knits for the rest of the trip, giving us a chance to catch up a bit before we started the business of the day. From Grand Central Station, it was only a short walk to the Morgan Library, although it was such a cold day even a short walk was enough to leave us feeling thoroughly chilled.

When we got there, the exhibit was everything I’d hoped for. It was small, but in a way that let me see everything and read everything without getting too tired (large museums are wonderful, but small ones are more satisfying because you don’t feel like you’re missing lots of important things because you tire out after an hour or two). The highlight of the exhibit was the display of a number of Austen’s letters and parts of handwritten copies of her early novels Lady Susan and The Watsons (this one was never finished). It was amazing to look at the sheets of paper Austen wrote on and to see her handwriting. In some cases she would write her letter in the normal way, and then turn the paper sideways and continue to write in lines perpendicular to what she had just written, to save paper and postage. In one letter she wrote all the words backwards, as a little joke for her niece.

Austen’s handwriting wasn’t the only handwriting on display; the exhibit also had manuscripts from various other authors who either influenced Austen or who wrote about her and her works. I got to see manuscripts from Byron, Frances Burney, Walter Scott (in which he write positively about Austen’s fiction), W.B. Yeats (who also praised Austen), and Nabokov (who wrote up lectures on Austen to deliver at Cornell). There was also a handwritten copy of Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey, most likely penned by his daughter Lydia.

And there was more — early editions of Austen’s novels, books by writers from her time, conduct manuals and etiquette guides, prints from artists working in Austen’s day, manuscripts of notes written by Austen and her family members. There was also a short film on Austen and her legacy, although I didn’t watch it at the museum because I saw it’s available online.

I thought the whole thing was very well done. It captured Austen’s sensibility well — the chatty, witty letters, the family members she cared greatly about, the close relationship she had with her sister Cassandra, her interest in fashion and etiquette, and the literary world she lived in. It was wonderful to look at the things Austen looked at, wrote on, and read.

When we were finished with the exhibit, we still had the Morgan library itself to look around in. It consists of three rooms, each one full of books, in some cases two or three stories high with balconies (although unfortunately, you’re not allowed to look at the upper floors). We spent time looking through the collection of hardbound volumes and also had a chance to see the Gutenberg Bible on display, and also the manuscript of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, complete with his corrections and additions.

All that right there is enough to make a great day, but we weren’t finished yet. Because we were in Manhattan with a whole afternoon ahead of us, we got some lunch and then headed out to the bookshops. The first stop was The Strand, which was as fabulous and overwhelming as always. I’ll admit that as much as I love that store, it does get horribly crowded and after a while I get tired of fighting my way past people to browse the shelves. I usually head straight back to the literary nonfiction section, a place that’s relatively quiet and has a wonderful selection of biographies, letters, essays, and memoirs. Here I picked up a copy of Readings by Sven Birkerts and A Bolt From the Blue, essays by Mary McCarthy. From the fiction section, I happened upon a collection of four novels in one volume by Sylvia Townsend Warner that I couldn’t pass up, even if it was a heavy book to carry around with me the rest of the day.

Then we wandered across Greenwich Village to find Partners & Crime, a shop devoted to mysteries and detective fiction. At this point we were grateful for the chairs available for weary browsers, but we had fun looking through their selection of mysteries of all types from many different countries. Out of the $1 bin I picked up a copy of Deadlock by Sara Paretsky.

Then we headed just a few blocks away to Three Lives, which is one of the best bookshops I’ve ever been in, especially considering its small size. Its collection of books in translation and books by small presses is amazing. I picked out John Williams’s novel Stoner to take with me.

At this point we were thwarted in our attempts to see more shops; the next one on our list was unexpectedly closed and it was time to get some dinner and head home, which we contentedly did.

There are, however, quite a few bookshops we didn’t get to visit, which means we need to take another trip to the city as soon as we can.

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Happy New Year!

I started off the new year in what I think is an appropriate way: a little bit of laziness (sleeping until 9:00 or so and reading in bed until 10:00ish), a little more reading (an hour or so in the late morning), and a nice long bike ride (three hours with Hobgoblin down to the beach and back). After I write this post, it’s time for more reading. If only things could continue in that leisurely fashion! Or, rather, it would be leisure mixed with the kind of exertion I like: thinking hard about books and then pedaling hard on my bike.

As for what I’m reading, it’s Nicholson Baker’s novel The Anthologist for the second time, because one time with that book wasn’t enough. I read through it fairly fast on the first reading, and now I’m taking my time to savor the ideas and the language. More on that book soon. I’m also reading a friend’s mystery novel draft, which has been enjoyable. It’s set locally, which is always fun, and it has a good plot and interesting characters. I like having such talented friends.

As for cycling, today’s ride was perfect. Well, it was perfect if you set aside the cold (temps in the 30s) and the damp (puddles and slush, but no ice!) and the fact that I got covered in mud. But I felt strong and managed to stay warm, and halfway through the ride, Hobgoblin and I stopped at a cupcake shop for some dessert and coffee. Yum. My final mileage for 2009 is 5,097 miles total and 5,042 miles outdoors (I rode 55 miles on the trainer last winter).

And now for some thoughts on the coming year. I’m keeping things very simple in both my reading and my riding. I was planning on ignoring all reading challenges, and I ignored a lot of them, but I found two I couldn’t resist. One of them is Emily’s TBR challenge, the books for which are listed in my sidebar. And then I saw Kate’s short story challenge and decided it would be perfect for me as I’d like to read more stories this year. I’m going to try to read five collections, although I haven’t chosen the authors yet. I’m thinking one will be Lorrie Moore, and the others I will choose as inspiration strikes.

Otherwise, I plan to read book group books, books for school, and then whatever else I feel like.

As for cycling, my main goal for this year is to not be so numbers-obsessed. I’m glad I reached my 5,000-mile goal in 2009, but I don’t want any more mileage goals, and instead I’d prefer to focus on the kind of riding that will make me stronger for racing and that will keep me in shape for riding with my cycling friends. The number of miles I ride has little to do with these things, and in fact, I could benefit from riding fewer miles and concentrating instead on mixing low- and high-intensity workouts in a better proportion.

There is a limit to my ability to forget about the numbers though. When I told my friend Megan that I wanted to stop worrying about how many miles I was riding, she sensibly asked me why I don’t just stop keeping track. The idea was so shocking I hardly knew what to say. I can’t imagine not knowing. So I will keep logging my rides, but I’m planning on riding fewer than 5,000 miles, so there’s no point in worrying too much about how fast the total mileage is increasing.

I suppose I should have some racing goals too, but I don’t. Or perhaps I should make my goal something abstract like getting as much enjoyment out of racing as I can while not worrying about the results. As I’ve written here many times before, I feel ambivalently about racing, but I’m not quite ready to give it up, as it has nice benefits like making me strong so that my cycling friends don’t leave me behind, and also making me part of the racing community and allowing me to support women’s racing, which needs it. So I’ll race and get stronger and see what happens.

I think that’s it. I guess I’m not one for complicated and detailed resolutions.

I hope your year has started off well!

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The best of 2009

Well, it’s New Year’s Eve now, so I guess it’s time to do my final wrapping-up post and list my favorite reads of the year. As always, this list is not about books published in 2009, although one or two from this year may appear here, but it’s about what I liked best and what stands out most in everything I read regardless of when it was published. Links are to my post on the book.

First, the stand-out books in fiction, the absolutely top-notch, amazingly wonderful books:

  1. David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest.
  2. Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist.
  3. Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone.
  4. Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night.

Then other novels I really, really liked:

  1. Bernard Malamud, The Assistant.
  2. Ann Patchett, Bel Canto.
  3. Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog.
  4. Patrick Hamilton, The Slaves of Solitude.

And now some great nonfiction:

  1. Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions.
  2. Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father.
  3. Anne Fadiman, At Large and at Small.

And one quirky, odd book I really liked: David Cecil, The Stricken Deer, a biography of William Cowper from 1930.

Happy New Year everyone!

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2009 by the numbers

I think it’s time to take a mathematical look back at this year’s reading. I’m anticipating finishing a book I’m in the middle of right now; I’m going to count it in this year’s numbers because I’ll most likely finish it by December 31st, or I will have read most of it in 2009 so it should count for this year anyway.

Books read: 69 (plus 6 audio books, which I’m not including in the numbers below)

Fiction (of any genre or length): 52

Nonfiction: 16

Poetry: 1

Short story collections: 1

Essay collections: 4

Nonfiction books about books, reading, and writers: 8

Female authors: 34

Male authors: 34

Multiple authors, men and women: 1

Books in translation: 5 (France [2], Austria [2], Mexico)

Books by authors from England: 29 and Scotland: 1

Books by authors from Ireland: 2

Books by Americans: 29

Books by Canadians: 1 (L.M. Montgomery)

Books by Russians: 1 (Nabokov, written in English)

Books from the 19th century: 7

Books from the 20th century:  41 (first half: 18; second half: 23)

Books from the 21st century: 21

Books re-read: 3

Books by authors I’d never read before: 42

So there it is. I usually read more books from pre-19C times, but I didn’t this year, although I did read a bunch of essays by Montaigne. I have read only 700 pages of the 1,200-page complete essays, so I can’t count that one. And as usual, unfortunately, I haven’t read many books in translation, although I am up one from last year (but down from the year before where I read 15). I swear I don’t try to get the gender ratio so evenly balanced; it just worked out that way. I didn’t try to get the balance between English and American authors so even either.

I think I have a decent amount of variety in my reading, but I’d like to have even more — more poetry, more books in translation, more short stories, more books from earlier times.

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New Books

Did I say I was slowly emerging from the end-of-semester fog? Not sure what I was thinking there. My work load is beginning to decrease, true, but the stress of end-of-semester doings is still there and it’s significant. But I should be finished with everything by the end of the day tomorrow, so that’s something to look forward to.

So since I’m not feeling up to writing a book review tonight, I’ll post on what new books I’ve acquired or am about to acquire very soon. Did I write a post earlier on the possibility of not acquiring any new books for a while? Yeah, that didn’t work out. So here’s what I have:

  • Marie Vieux-Chauvet’s Love, Anger, Madness. Verbivore reviewed this one at The Quarterly Conversation, and when it appeared on Book Mooch, I grabbed it.
  • Lorrie Moore’s Anagrams. Finally I will get around to reading something by Lorrie Moore. I know she is most famous for her short stories, but I thought I’d start with a novel anyway and move on from there.
  • Joyce Cary’s Herself Surprised. A friend sent this one to me. It’s the first volume of a trilogy and was published in 1941.
  • And now on to some nonfiction. The same friend also sent me P.D. James’s Talking about Detective Fiction, which is “a personal, lively, illuminating exploration of the human appetite for mystery and mayhem, and of those writers who have satisfied it,” as the book jacket says. It will be perfect after all the mysteries I’ve read over the last couple years.
  • Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind. I’ll be reading this one with a group of people at work, and I have no idea if it will be good or not. It’s subtitled “Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future.” We shall see.
  • And then there are some books I was able to get a great deal on thanks to Musings, including Hermione Lee’s Biography: A Very Short Introduction. A long introduction I wouldn’t want, but a very short introduction sounds perfect, as I do like to read biographies and I like to read about how they get written even more.
  • Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals. I already have the Grasmere journals, but I don’t have an edition with both.
  • John Keats, The Major Works. I already own quite a lot of Keats’s work, but I don’t have many of the letters, and this edition has some.
  • And finally, Jane Austen’s Selected Letters. Being the Austen fan I am, I should own this.

I’m guessing I may be back in a week or so with another list of new books …

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