Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Books I Finished Reading in 2015

Here is some information about the books I finished reading in 2015. First I'll present a chronological list of every book, in the order in which I finished each one. Then I'll conclude with a list of the top 10 in terms of quality.

1.) The first book I finished reading in 2015 was Dancing in the Dark by Janet Hobhouse. It came out in 1984, and I think the copy I read was printed then. It was old, anyway. I remember the sentences being very smooth and complex, operating at a level above and beyond most fiction writers. I wondered why this author isn't more famous. She died in the '90s. It's a book about some yuppie couples in New York in the '80s. Highly recommended. I plan to read her other books.

2.) The next book I finished was The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. This one was extremely entertaining. It's a page-turner about a young lesbian and a hetero couple who comes to town and a ruined marriage and a crime and a cover-up of that crime. Also a trial and further romance and drama. I'm being vague because I don't want to give things away. Also, it's British, and it takes place in 1922. Highly recommended. I plan to seek out the author's other books.

3.) Next was yet another novel, The First Bad Man by Miranda July. This one was hilarious and unique. It's about a woman with a lot of frustrations in her life and the younger woman who comes into her life and changes it in profound ways. It's really funny. These are "comic novel" characters, not "serious" characters, but if you're like me and you like a good comic novel, then there you go, this book is for you.

4.) The next book I finished was the second volume of Shelby Foote's The Civil War: A Narrative—this volume being subtitled Fredericksburg to Meridian. I finished the first volume in 2014. Reading this trilogy was an immense project for me. It took me nine months, from September 2014 to May 2015. Shelby Foote's credentials as a history writer may have been somewhat suspect. But as a storyteller, there's no one better. So it's a great place to begin reading about the Civil War, but by absolutely no means should it be the end. It inspired me to read a lot of other Civil War books, many by more serious academic historians, some of which even point out things Shelby Foote got wrong. But still, as a detailed overview of the whole arc of the war from start to finish, Foote is definitely worth the time, if you have nine or so months to spare.

5.) Next was Friendship by Emily Gould.

6.) My next book was The Soul Thief by Charles Baxter. Kind of a thin story, with kind of a groaner ending. Will I read another Charles Baxter book? Hard to say.

Numbers 7 and 8 were by people I know, so it's too embarrassing to write about them.

9.) Next was a book of essays, This Is Running for Your Life by Michelle Orange. Very good essays on various topics. Highly recommended.

10.) Next was Under the Skin by Michel Faber, the author of one of my favorites from last year, The Book of Strange New Things. They made a movie of Under the Skin starring Scarlett Johansson, which I saw in the theater. The projection wasn't great, and I regret not seeing it in a better theater. Anyway, the movie was interesting, but I liked the book a lot better. It's a lot different from the movie. Read the book! And watch the movie, but don't expect the same story that's in the book. In fact, the book and movie are so different, it doesn't matter which one you experience first; one won't spoil the other. This year I plan to read a third Michel Faber book, The Crimson Petal and the White.

11.) Next was a poetry book called New Depths of Deadpan by Michael Gizzi. I've also been reading his Collected Poems, which just came out this year. Very good and exciting poetry.

12.) Another book of poetry.

13.) Next was Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb.

14.) On Memorial Day I finished the third and final volume of the above-mentioned Shelby Foote trilogy, this volume subtitled Red River to Appomattox. I finished it sitting on a rock in a cozy secluded area in the far upper reaches of Central Park.

15.) Next was the latest book by John Ashbery, Breezeway. I'm not sure these are the kind of poems I'd want to read over and over again, like with most of his other work, but there's some good stuff here. It's good to see he's still having fun at his age (88).

16.) After finishing up with Shelby Foote, I went looking for other Civil War books to read. Before I even finished Foote's trilogy, I started reading the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. I read the Penguin edition with an introduction and notes by James M. McPherson. Grant had no literary pretensions whatever and only wrote the book to provide money for his family after he died from the cancer he was suffering from as he wrote. His prose style is plain and simple and supposedly influenced Gertrude Stein. (One odd thing: An awful lot of passive voice is used by him, but it grew on me after a while.) The book only covers his life up through the end of the war; it doesn't cover his presidency (which he wouldn't have had time to write about anyway, since he died just days after completing the manuscript). I'm not sure if this should be the very first book you read about the Civil War, since it helps to have some basic contextual knowledge going in, but it's definitely one you'll want to read eventually.

17.) Up next was The Hunters by James Salter, inspired by his experience as a fighter pilot in the Korean War. It was his first novel, and the style is pretty much the same style he would use throughout his career. In life, it's important to be a great fighter pilot. And this book tells you why. Highly recommended.

18.) Another Grant-related book, U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth by Joan Waugh. This is an academic study of the ways Grant has been remembered in history and culture. It's part of a recent trend of books that reevaluate Grant and do something to rehabilitate his image, which many would say has been unjustly tarnished over the last century or so.

19.) Next was the highly engaging Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz. This is a journalistic tour around the modern (as of the 1990s) South and explores people's attitudes about various aspects of the Civil War. Timely as ever, what with Confederate flags and memorials very much in the news this year. Highly recommended.

20.) Next up was Don DeLillo's 9/11 novel, Falling Man. Ordinarily I probably wouldn't read a novel about 9/11, but obviously I'll always make an exception for DeLillo, my favorite living (or all-time?) novelist. Being a native New Yorker, as well as a highly perceptive writer about politics in the broad sense, he's as reliable as anyone could be on this topic. Highly recommended.

21.) Next came Talk by Linda Rosenkrantz, a novel from the sixties in the form of transcribed and edited real-life dialogue. Two women and a gay man spend a summer in the Hamptons and talk about their lives. Very witty and frequently hilarious. Highly recommended.

22.) Next we have another Grant book, the iambically titled The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace by H.W. Brands. I will need to read other Grant biographies to compare this to, but it seemed fine. I learned some things I didn't know before, which is always nice. I have another Grant biography on my shelf that I hear is supposed to be better.

23.) Next up was Vicksburg: The Campaign That Opened the Mississippi by Michael B. Ballard. This is the book to read if you want to know about the Vicksburg campaign and don't have enough lives in which to read every book published about every battle in every war. It's probably a bit of a slog for the general reader. Then again, the months-long campaign to take Vicksburg was a slog itself for everyone involved, so it's an appropriate narrative approach.

24.) Next was Mislaid by Nell Zink, which was highly entertaining. You can easily find a summary of the plot on various websites and such.

25.) Next was another Civil War book, The War That Forged a Nation by James McPherson, the preeminent Civil War scholar. It's a collection of essays on various topics. This year I plan to read his classic Battle Cry of Freedom, which is regarded by many as the place to start reading about the Civil War.

26.) Another poetry book!

27.) Last and far from least was Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, the biography that inspired a Broadway musical. I had started it several years ago, but I got distracted and put it aside. I started it again this November and finished it yesterday. Highly recommended. It's the book to read about Alexander Hamilton if you don't have multiple lives in which to read every book ever published about Alexander Hamilton.


Okay, here's the Top 10 in terms of quality (but listed in alphabetical order by title, not in order of quality).

Alexander Hamilton
The Civil War (Foote)
Confederates in the Attic
Falling Man
The First Bad Man
Mislaid
The Paying Guests
Personal Memoirs (Grant)
Talk
This Is Running for Your Life

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Books I Finished in January


Dancing in the Dark by Janet Hobhouse. This one is about yuppies in New York in the early eighties. It was published in '83, so I trust its faithfulness to the zeitgeist it depicts—more, that is, than I would trust a book written about that time now, decades later. The sentences are incredibly sharp and smooth, by which I mean they articulate highly nuanced and complex ideas in clear ways, not a word too many or too few. The author is a master observer of interpersonal relations. The characters are richly drawn and have what I value most in characters: specific individuality. Hobhouse seems to be largely forgotten now, which is a shame. If she hadn't died, she'd still be alive today. Her final, unfinished novel, The Furies, is available from NYRB Classics, and it's on my to-read list.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. This is a suspenseful, intense page-turner about whose plot I won't say too much, because it's fun to discover the whole thing gradually as you go along. Basically, this young woman and her widowed mother in 1922 London decide to rent out part of their house to help pay off accumulating debts. A young, vibrant couple moves in. Trouble ensues. That's all you need to know for now. Just read it. A reader faster than I will probably devour it in two or three days.

The First Bad Man by Miranda July. I've been a fan of July's since the day I saw Me and You and Everyone We Know at its NYC premiere at the IFC Center—and then saw July herself taking questions from the audience afterward. This is her first novel. I was into it from page one. I don't want to say much about this plot either, for the same reason mentioned above. The main reason to read this book? It's very funny and strange. It has a lot of quotable lines. (Which I won't quote here, since it's better to come upon them yourself.) Not just funny, it's touching in a very idiosyncratic, non-sappy way. It sort of reminded me of a Todd Solondz movie, but less bleak.

Friendship by Emily Gould. I've now read two Emily Gould books, for some reason. I actually kind of enjoyed her memoir, but this novel, not so much. It would be an unfair oversimplification to say that it's partly a book about a snarky former gossip blogger who loses everything and then, by the end of the book, learns valuable life lessons about humility by volunteering at a soup kitchen. But yeah, that is partly what it's about. Mainly, it's about the friendship of two young women of the educated middle-class persuasion in New York circa now. I truly, unironically, unabashedly am fascinated and intrigued by such subject matter, despite what you may assume, but when the prose—especially the dialogue—is as lackluster and unimaginative as in this book, my interest fades.

The thing is, though, I know that if I were to write a novel, I would be prone to the same flaws. I'd write something that sounded a lot like this book, probably. Which is why I hesitate to criticize. I think part of why I finished this book at all was the ego boost it afforded me in relation to my own writing. For a would-be writer, there's something heartening about other writers' mediocrity. If this mediocre novel got published, then even I might have a chance!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

What I Read (pronounced "red") in 2014


I still think there should be a new spelling for the past tense of "read." Anyway, here's what I red this year. My total number is deceptively low, because for the past four months a great deal of my reading time has been taken up with Shelby Foote's The Civil War, which is around 3,000 pages long, in three volumes. After four months and roughly 1,600 pages, I'm still in volume two. Add those pages to my total page count for the year, and it's a new record, around 15,000. That's well over 300 pages per book, also a new record.

Category names are self-explanatory. Each list is alphabetical by author.

Number One Top Favorite

Americana — Don DeLillo


Best of the Year

Americana — Don DeLillo
Mao II — Don DeLillo
The Book of Strange New Things — Michel Faber
The Late Parade — Adam Fitzgerald
Neverhome — Laird Hunt
Waterfront: A Walk Around Manhattan — Phillip Lopate
After Claude — Iris Owens
Burning the Days: Recollection — James Salter
Light Years — James Salter
The American Future: A History — Simon Schama
The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular 
          Fall of a Serial Impostor — Mark Seal
Travels with Charley: In Search of America — John Steinbeck
The Goldfinch — Donna Tartt
Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in the Seventies
          James Wolcott


Honorable Mention

Quick Question — John Ashbery
Serenade — James M. Cain
Jamie Is My Heart's Desire — Alfred Chester
Underworld — Don DeLillo
Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud — Martin
          Gayford
Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a 
          Masquerade — Walter Kirn
Madame de Pompadour — Nancy Mitford
Netherland — Joseph O'Neill
Forgetting Elena — Edmund White


Pretty Good

Ancient Light — John Banville
The Stench of Honolulu — Jack Handey
girls: A Paean — Nic Kelman
10:04 — Ben Lerner
Wait for Me! — Deborah Mitford
Vile Bodies — Evelyn Waugh
Somebody Owes Me Money — Donald E. Westlake


Meh, Not Bad

Wolf in White Van — John Darnielle
Nude Men — Amanda Filipacchi
Nightmare Alley — William Lindsay Gresham
The Folded Leaf — William Maxwell
BUtterfield 8 — John O'Hara
Cabot Wright Begins — James Purdy
Sophie's Choice — William Styron
A Game of Hide and Seek — Elizabeth Taylor


Disappointments

One Pill Makes You Smaller — Lisa Dierbeck
The Expendable Man — Dorothy B. Hughes
The Unknowns — Gabriel Roth
Three Bedrooms in Manhattan — Georges Simenon


Severe Disappointments

The Natural — Bernard Malamud


In Progress, Currently Enjoying

Bleak House — Charles Dickens
The Civil War: A Narrative — Shelby Foote
Dancing in the Dark — Janet Hobhouse
Mating — Norman Rush
East of Eden — John Steinbeck

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Five Best Books I've Finished So Far This Year


The five best books I've finished so far this year:

The Goldfinch  Donna Tartt

Burning the Days: Recollection  James Salter

Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in the Seventies  James Wolcott

The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Impostor  Mark Seal

The American Future: A History  Simon Schama


My reading list of late is colon-happy. I've always wanted to read more non-fiction, but for some reason I keep putting it off. Which is funny, because I tear through non-fiction books many times faster than I read novels. Knowing that a story really took place (or that something as close to the story as the writer is willing and/or able to put into words took place) motivates me to keep turning the pages in a way that fiction can never quite do (though some, like my favorite book so far this year, come pretty close).

My big project this year is to reduce my "currently reading" pile from dozens to maybe three or five. My new rule is: I won't start a new book until I've finished two that I'm currently reading. My total at the moment is 59. So I finish two and it's down to 57. I start one and it's up to 58, but then I finish two and it's down to 56, and so on. Already this process has helped me stop making so many impulse purchases and borrowings. And I'm starting to feel less cluttered mentally.

The Goldfinch was one of the most pleasurable reading experiences I've had in a long time. According to my records, it's the longest book I've ever finished. (I am, however, currently reading two that are even longer: Bleak House and Underworld.) In January, just as I was getting near the end of the book, I got to see the actual Goldfinch painting during its brief stay at the Frick. I also saw Girl with a Pearl Earring. It's weird seeing a famous painting in person. You keep having to remind yourself you're not looking at a dorm poster, but at the real thing.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The 60 Books I Finished in 2013


Happy New Year. Here are my ten favorite books from 2013. Nine of them were published in years other than 2013. I'm still reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. It would be #1 if I had finished it by midnight on January 1. Instead it will be on next year's list.

1) Moby-Dick — Herman Melville
2) The Enchantment of Lily Dahl — Siri Hustvedt
3) The Flamethrowers — Rachel Kushner
4) Shadow Train — John Ashbery
5) The French Lieutenant's Woman — John Fowles
6) Turtle Diary — Russell Hoban
7) The Art of Fielding — Chad Harbach
8) The Lichtenberg Figures — Ben Lerner
9) Lightning Field — Dana Spiotta
10) A Long and Happy Life — Reynolds Price


Here are all the books I finished reading in 2013, in the order in which I finished them. Favorites in bold.

Lightning Field — Dana Spiotta
The Lichtenberg Figures — Ben Lerner
The Enchantment of Lily Dahl — Siri Hustvedt
Nervous Device — Catherine Wagner
A Little White Shadow — Mary Ruefle
Stranger in Town — Cedar Sigo
Dayglo — James Meetze
The Mountain Lion — Jean Stafford
Your Invitation to a Modest Breakfast — Hannah Gamble
Dear Jenny, We Are All Find — Jenny Zhang
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh — Michael Chabon
Legs Get Led Astray — Chloe Caldwell
And the Heart Says Whatever — Emily Gould
Invisible — Paul Auster
Million Poems Journal — Jordan Davis
Tenth of December — George Saunders
Shadow Train — John Ashbery
Veronica — Mary Gaitskill
Red Lights — Georges Simenon
Alexander's Bridge — Willa Cather
Journey into the Past — Stefan Zweig
The Ballad of the Sad Café — Carson McCullers
The Pumpkin Eater — Penelope Mortimer
How Should a Person Be? — Sheila Heti
The Art of Fielding — Chad Harbach
Wild — Cheryl Strayed
what purpose did i serve in your life — Marie Calloway
Rock Crystal — Adalbert Stifter
Cassandra at the Wedding — Dorothy Baker
Drinking with Men — Rosie Schaap
The Angel Esmeralda — Don DeLillo
Fatale — Jean-Patrick Manchette
Seven Days in the Art World — Sarah Thornton
Taipei — Tao Lin
Here and Now: Letters (2008-2011) — Paul Auster and J. M. Coetzee
A Hologram for the King — Dave Eggers
Tampa — Alissa Nutting
Unmastered — Katherine Angel
Life Itself — Roger Ebert
The Constant Heart — Craig Nova
The Pornographer's Poem — Michael Turner
Moby-Dick — Herman Melville
Balloon Pop Outlaw Black — Patricia Lockwood
Lolita — Vladimir Nabokov
The House of Mirth — Edith Wharton
Leviathan — Paul Auster
Meat Heart —Melissa Broder
The Deep Whatsis — Peter Mattei
Waiting to Be Heard — Amanda Knox
The Flamethrowers — Rachel Kushner
The Great Gatsby — F. Scott Fitzgerald
All That Is — James Salter
The French Lieutenant's Woman — John Fowles
A Long and Happy Life — Reynolds Price
Last Night — James Salter
Turtle Diary — Russell Hoban
The Cement Garden — Ian McEwan
Deliverance — James Dickey
The Seamstress and the Wind — César Aira
Fun Home — Alison Bechdel

Saturday, October 26, 2013

I'm at my third coffee shop of the day, but the first two were for work, this one's for pleasure. (I had coffee at the first two, at this one I had hot chocolate—an unbelievably chocolately one.) I'm past 12,000 words—which would translate to somewhere around 40 pages in a book—on a novel that I'm pretty sure no one is ever going to read, the main reason being that I'm probably not going to let them. But I have to write it before I can move on to whatever's next, so it doesn't feel at all like a waste of time. I can at least stick it in a drawer and know it exists. About a fifth of it exists already, if my guess about its eventual total length is accurate.

It's weird getting used to writing something on such a large scale. I mean, it'll be short for a novel, but still orders of magnitude longer than anything I've tried to be before. But it's nice because you realize, especially keeping in mind that it's a first draft, you don't have to hold back. You don't have to make tough decisions about things to leave out in order to be concise. Instead, you spill out 600 or 800 words and you're thinking, this is way too much, way too detailed, I'm blabbering ... but then you reread that 600 or 800 words and you realize that what took you three hours to write only takes three minutes to read. And you go, oh, I see, right. That's what novels are like. They have these long substantive paragraphs full of information. And they just go on and on.

After the second coffee shop I ate dinner and then I walked around to various movie theaters looking for a movie to watch. I couldn't find anything I felt looked exciting enough for 13 or 14 dollars, and eventually it was too late to find anything that started before 9 o'clock, so I ended up here instead. It was exactly like what happens when I browse Netflix sometimes. There are a lot of things I kind of want to see, so I spend an hour and a half trying to decide between them before noticing that I'm really tired now and would rather just watch a Kids in the Hall I've probably seen before and go to bed.

I'm at Think Coffee, by the way. The original, on Mercer. I haven't been here in a long time. Mostly because I found other places with better coffee and less NYUness. But that was an impressive hot chocolate.

Lots of Halloween costumes around town tonight, of course. Reader poll: Halloween, SantaCon, or St. Patrick's Day: which of these three is the most awful, obnoxious, alcoholic shit show on the NYC social calendar? You decide.

Meanwhile I finally have an excuse for not doing any Halloween things: I'm working that night. If anything, my only costume there will be my birthday suit.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Trish


On a recent Saturday I sat under a tree in foul territory of a softball diamond in Central Park. I was on the third base side. I had managed to find a comfortable position sitting back against the tree, not easy to do among the exposed roots. I had been walking all day. I had taken the J train into Manhattan and got off at Essex Street. From there I walked east to the river, up the promenade to 23rd Street, over to 1st Avenue, up to 47th Street, then straight across town to 12th Avenue, over to 11th, then up to the Lincoln Center Atrium for a bathroom break, continuing up Central Park West and into the park somewhere in the 80's, then over to the north side of the Great Lawn, where a game was in progress.

I hadn't made any plans to watch a game that day, let alone at this specific field. But right away I saw that one of the teams looked familiar. I had seen them play on the same field the week before. They were part of a coed recreational league. Actually it wasn't so much the team I recognized as one particular player. She wore a sleeveless dark blue jersey, tight gray pants, and knee-high socks the same blue as the shirt. Her blonde hair was tied back in short pigtails under her Minnesota Twins cap. I remembered her vaguely from the week before, but now I really paid attention. Her team's bench was on my side of the field, and when they were batting and she was standing around with her teammates, I was just able to see her face clearly enough to tell she was pretty. She reminded me a little of a girl I dated in high school. She smiled a lot. It was clear she was having a good time.

It was also clear she was a serious athlete. When she stepped into the batter's box, she had, unlike many other players on the field, the presence of a veteran. She set her feet wide apart, and before every pitch she had a way of popping into her stance with a kind of controlled spasm or shudder in the arms and shoulders, dipping down and raising her bat. It's the kind of movement so singular it's impossible to describe or imitate. Also hard to describe is the powerful effect it had on me. The upshot was that I had to write about it. At some point I heard one of her teammates call her name and I'm pretty sure what I heard was "Trish", which sounded exactly right. I took out my notebook and tried to figure out how to describe her batting stance, her clothes, her face, and my experience of watching her.

I watched the end of the game and the whole of the next one, as it turned out to be a doubleheader, at least for Trish's team. They faced a different opponent in the second game, which they won. Apparently it was the championship game. They hoisted a big trophy and congratulated each other.

As I watched them celebrate, gather their equipment, and prepare to leave the field, I thought about how I would probably never see Trish again. I knew there was no way I could talk to her. She was a woman in uniform, after all. Too intimidating. I would likely never have another opportunity. Of course, I never would have thought I would run into her by accident on two consecutive Saturdays, so I suppose anything's possible.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Mar. 25, 1992
Wednesday

I don't think I have guitar lessons tonight. I hope not. I haven't practiced a bit.

I think I'll go play basketball. I'll be back. Well it's too wet out.

I have to study social studs. My Mom going to quiz me.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Mar. 24, 1992
Tuesday

We have a sub today again. He's a man. He is nice. He's tall.

Michael Allen beat Aaron 21 to 2. After that he beat Doug the bug 9 to 2. After we came in we all flopped our coats in the closet.

All I have to do is this and math and I'm done. The Teacher left alot of work.

Monday, August 5, 2013

March 23, 1992
Monday

Today we have a substitute. I kind of like her. I think we are having our resess today.

I got a new shirt. I also got a new car. My mom and Dad got them while they were in Chicago.

Boy did I have a hell of a weekend when they were gone! I wore the same clothes I wore Friday, until Sunday! I slept downstairs. And with the light on, I watched t.v. and played two games of solitare at one in the morning.
Mar. 20, 1992
Friday

Today we have three letters left in resess! I think we're having an extra resess today.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Mar. 19, 1992
Thursday

Yesterday our basketball team got our trophys. We got the trophys because we earned them. Not like Meg's Softball team. They lost all of their games. They got a trophy anyway. And hers is bigger than mine.

Tonight I was supposed to have cub scouts. But when I got there, there was nobody there. I think I had a field trip too. My permission slip is still in my coat. At least I got to watch wheel of fortune.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

March 18, 1992
Wednesday

Our resess was cut short. In two ways. For one we were were way too loud! And our resess on the board was also cut short by three letters. Right now we are being VERY loud! Christie just got sent out into the hall. Almost Carson. Also Deondra.

Well tonight at the boys club we will have our banquet. We will get our trophys. Our team gets two.

I hate Carson.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Mar. 17, 1992
Tuesday

I think I'm in big trouble. Alot of people have their name on the board. Yes! I'm not in any trouble!

Tomorrow our basketball team gets our trophys. We get two. The one for the holiday tournoment and the regular season. We ended up in first place for our leage.

Today is St. Patricks day. I tried to wear green today, but I have nothing green!