Don Hosek - Past reading - Literature

And here the truth comes out. My bachelor's degree was in English. I read a lot. Lots of fiction, somewhat less poetry and criticism and biography, but more than most people, I suspect.

What I've been read in the past - Literature
J. D. Salinger: A Life by Kenneth Slawenski
[Finished 15 June 2017] As a biographer Slawenski’s contribution is to attempt to fill in the gaps of Salinger’s military service employing the experiences of others to provide some sense of what Salinger experienced between his landing as part of the D-Day invasion until his arrival in Munich. The greater contribution though is in the reading of Salinger’s published work, where Slawenski shows himself as a talented and sympathetic reader. Slawenski spends little time on the uncollected stories, although he does highlight some of the more significant works, but it’s the collected stories especially where Slawenski shows himself to be a superb guide.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
[Finished 27 May 2017] I think I would have liked Mandel to have been a little more commercial in some aspects of her storytelling (there are some distressing loose ends in the story that I would have liked to have seen tied up, especially given Mandel’s reliance on coincidence in other aspects of her plotting), but in many ways this is the book that I wish The Stand would have been. The looks back at the life of Arthur Leander provided a depth to the characters that made the book especially enjoyable.

A Separation by Katie Kitamura
[Finished 27 May 2017] I was not especially impressed.

We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge
[Finished 16 May 2017] Freeman sets us up for one story, about a family who are recruited to teach sign language to a chimpanzee, then throws a curveball in moving to a historical narrative that begins to explore the racial undertones of the study. She doesn’t completely manage to connect the dots in a satisfactory way (although I wonder how much of that might be a blind spot on my part as a white male reader). Even so, I enjoyed reading this and look forward to the possibility of more books from Greenidge in the future.

Summer of the Red Wolf by Morris West
[Finished 15 May 2017] I’m most familiar with West’s religiously-oriented fiction, his novels about the papacy and other institutional aspects of the Catholic Church, so it’s a bit of a change to read something like this which is largely secular in its subject matter although even as such, West’s Catholic sensibilities manage to make themselves known in his writing. The story was pretty compelling although West takes a bit of a cheat in his story’s conclusion,

The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch
[Finished May 2017] I had high hopes for this book after reading The Small Backs of Children, but I found myself not especially thrilled with this one. The whole skin grafts thing felt forced and none of the characters really lived in my mind.

The One-Eyed Man by Ron Currie Jr
[Finished 28 April 2017] This book started out strong with the narrator, K. (I assume an unsubtle reference to Kafka) demonstrating himself caught up in literal interpretation of nearly everything he encounters, presumably as the consequence of the trauma surrounding his wife’s death. I was curious to see how Currie would spin this character out into a novel-length work of fiction and sadly, I found myself disappointed with the result. I suspect that there might not be a way for there to be a satisfying conclusion. What we end up with is K. becoming the star of a reality show whose literalistic view of the world tends to result in K.’s being subjected to violence, culminating with K. coming up against a group of gun fanatics.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett
[Finished 25 April 2017] I found Bennett’s frame for the story, a first-person plural narrative told by the members of the prayer circle at a San Diego-area African-American church to be underused overall, but the story as told, about two friends and the challenges that they face around sex and pregnancy was plenty to keep me hooked.

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
[Finished 24 April 2017] I feel like there was a much better book that Hosseini was afraid to write. I really wanted this book to focus on the pain surrounding the giving up of Pari in the first chapter. Instead, Hosseini takes himself into exploring all sorts of tangential matters and really only directly faces the question at the end of the book. That said, it’s far from fair to judge a book for not being the book that was written, and what Hossein did write has a lot to commend it, just not enough for me to completely love the book.

Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier
[Finished 23 April 2017] There’s something about this novel that felt exactly like what I needed to read right now. After a chance encounter, Raimund Gregorius, a middle-aged teacher of Latin and Greek finds himself compelled into a fascination with Portuguese language and culture and discovers a book of brief essays by Amadeu Prado which leads him on an impromptu trip to Portugal where he spends his time trying to uncover Prado’s life and understand who he was, largely by managing to find Prado’s surviving friends and family. Beautifully written and hard to put down.

Americanah by Chimimandah Ngozi Adichie
[Finished 12 April 2017] At times brilliant, but too often just dull. It felt like Adichie wasn’t quite up to fully facing the issues that she writes about in this novel. Add in a flat lifeless ending after a dull final section and what could have been a great book came out as merely average.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti
[Finished 8 April 2017] Beautifully written. Tinti does character like no one else and her characters live on the page in ways that other authors (myself included) can only aspire to.

The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise by Georges Perec
[Finished 2 April 2017] Absolutely brilliant. Written without any sort of pauses, Perec starts with a flowchart and explores all the possible paths through the flowchart with humor and style and where it could have grown repetitive, instead this remains compellingly readable all the way through.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
[Finished 1 April 2017] Saunders has increasingly become a writer invested in language. I noticed it reading Tenth of December and in this book, he quite masterfully writes using nineteenth century American diction. Unfortunately, his characters never quite come alive in this book (which can only be partly attributed to the fact that most of his characters are dead), and that ended up leaving this as less of a book than it could have been.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
[Finished 26 March 2017] A fascinating account of missionary life in Congo around the time of Congolese independence. Kingsolver lost me a bit as she followed her characters after the family left the village where they had their mission—while I agree with her politics, she doesn’t quite have the knack of making the political into compelling fiction—but the first part of the book which treats of the family’s attempts to deal with the realities of Africa and how the idealistic vision of how the mission would work were plenty fascinating.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
[Finished 10 March 2017] A largely plotless book, but with beautiful prose, so I suppose that goes a long way towards making up for it.

Momma: A Start on All the Untold Stories by Alta
[Finished 8 March 2017] An interesting mix of memoir and poetry with Alta adopting her own idiosyncratic spelling and punctuation rules which keeps it from being too formal. As a view into the challenges of motherhood, even with almost fifty years past since the writing of the book, it’s remarkably insightful.

The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards
[Finished 1 March 2017] I suppose there’s a bit of significance in the titular character’s absence from so much of the book (although it could be argued that her physical absence causes a stronger psychological presence in the barriers between her father and mother and her father and her brother, I suppose).

The book itself was not especially notable, the prose serviceable but not fantastic and the plot interesting but not overly so. And none of this was enough to keep me from getting annoyed every time Edwards wrote “Down’s Syndrome” when she meant “Down Syndrome.”

The O. Henry Prize Stories 2016 edited by Laura Furman
[Finished 31 January 2017] I didn’t use to get the O. Henry anthology because the overlap with Best American was so high that it felt redundant. This year, there is no overlap at all. As always, there’s a mixed bag as the anthology attempts to be all things for all readers. For me, my favorite stories were the more speculative in the batch. A sort of magical realist account of specimen collection and delivery by envelope by Geetha Iyer, “The Mongerji Letters,” was my favorite. Elizabeth Tallent’s “Narrator” seemed simultaneously brilliant and sterile. Ron Carlson’s “Happiness” was my least favorite in the bunch, but Carlson seems to be a taste that I am unable to acquire.

Sex, Class & Culture by Lillian S. Robinson
[Finished 13 January 2017] I first encountered Robinson in an anthology of post-structuralist theory I read for one of my undergrad theory classes. I don’t remember why I decided that this book was going to be essential reading for me, but I kept my eyes open for it and managed to stumble upon a used copy at my local used bookshop.

And then the book sat unread on my shelves for 26 years.

Robinson’s writing is clear and beautifully argued. The key essay here is probably “Who’s Afraid of a Room of One’s Own” which is a seminal work in Marxist-feminist criticism, but other pieces are also brilliant, including “The Critical Task” and “The Keen Eye… Watching: Poetry and the Feminist Movement.”

While some portions feel a bit dated (the world, particularly for women, has changed a great deal since the late 60s/early 70s), there is still a lot that is relevant in today’s world. It’s a pity this book has gone out of print.

Jewish Stories of Prague by V. V. Tomek
[Finished 11 January 2017] My disappointment with this book stems perhaps at least in part because I was expecting something that was more voice-driven, sort of a Jewish Brothers Grimm. But it turns out that Tomek wasn’t Jewish (and there are occasional parts of the book where Tomek seems at pains to make it clear that as the author of the book, he is a Christian even if his subject is not). The anonymous translator is also not Jewish and has minimal understanding of Jewish customs as he makes clear in his brief preface where in the first paragraph, he relates an encounter with an Orthodox Jew in tones on par with someone relating an encounter with the Loch Ness Monster.

Aside from telling the stories in a rather sterile style (frequently engaging in bits of irrelevant history), the choice of stories is very much those of someone on the outside looking in, with many of the stories involving Jews only tangentially or as the bogeymen of the gentile imagination.

On top of all that, the translator on at least one occasion interjected his own prose into the text (making a reference to the Holocaust which wasn’t to happen until a decade after Tomek’s death) which leaves me wondering how much of the other defects also belong to the translator.

This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Tadeusz Borowski
[Finished 5 January 2017] Absolutely brilliant. I had hesitated about this because I had hoped to read Borowski’s World of Stone which is exclusively about his experiences in DP camps, but it appears that Borowski has only been selectively translated. The writing here is incredibly beautiful and heartbreaking and gives a valuable perspective with a dose of satyric humor on life inside Auschwitz.

La Fiesta del Chivo by Mario Vargas Llosa
[Finished 30 December 2016] Qué me gustó más de este libro fue como Vargas Llosa mezcló el presente y el préterito para hacer el pasado presente in unos escenas de la historia. Quiero tratar haver esto en mi proprio escribiendo.

The Forgetting by Sharon Cameron
[Finished 29 December 2016] Another of the books from my brother’s haul from the SFWA conference. My previous experiences had been underwhelming but this was a pleasant surprise. The pacing was well-established and the central conceit, of everyone forgetting everything that they know every twelve years, was managed in a surprisingly good manner. The reveal of the setting was similarly handled in a nicely subtle manner.

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Álvarez
[Finished 27 December 2016] It’s a bit of a coincidence that I read this book at the same time that I was finishing La Fiesta del Chivo . Getting two perspectives on the Trujillo administration at the same time was an interesting experience. Álvarez’s perspective is considerably closer to ground level with Trujillo largely an offstage menace while she focuses on the travails of the Mirabal sisters. The whole thing was beautifully written and a joy to read.

Doña Barbara by Rómulo Gallegos
[Finished 18 December 2016] Well, first off, this is a dreadful translation with a number of cases of the translator picking the wrong word in his translation (translating, e.g., rodeo as rodeo rather than round-up, for example, creates a new meaning for the former word that I don’t think has ever existed before). The novel itself, notable for historical significance, doesn’t really hold up very well. The titular character ends up as a two-dimensional caricature and the better-drawn characters seem only mildly better with the motivations for many of the characters being hard to grasp.

Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger
[Finished 4 December 2016] See my review at

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
[Finished 23 November 2016] Although it feels a bit as if Whitehead loses steam somewhat as his story moves northwards, this is still a genius bit of work. The idea that the underground railroad was an actual railroad, under the ground, is almost certainly a near-universal misconception/misimagination (I can remember my brothers relaying a classmate asking how they kept the underground railroad from caving in and I, as the younger brother who had not yet learned that aspect of American history was surprised to learn that the underground railroad was neither underground nor a railroad). But to a certain extent, the literal underground railroad of Whitehead’s story exists primarily to give him the freedom to approach the rest of his story with the freedom to engage in the necessary anachronisms to make his broader points about American society and race. Given the rise of Orange Hitler, Whitehead’s novel takes on added gravitas, although I’m sure he would have been happy to avoid that.

Sixteen Self Sketches by George Bernard Shaw
[Finished 14 November 2016] In lieu of an autobiography, Shaw collected seventeen short pieces of writing that are largely autobiographical (the first is actually his father’s view of the young GBS which accounts for the discrepancy between the title and the contents). The contents are occasionally redundant since the pieces were written at different times and for different purposes, but Shaw’s charm shows throughout the book and reminds me of why I loved his writing so much.

The Dead Run by Adam Mansbach
[Finished 14 November 2016] A weird book mixing some borderline offensive stereotypes of indigenous Mexican religion with supernatural horror elements and bonus action/thriller tropes. It was good enough to keep my attention while it lasted, but it felt like there were too many deus ex machina moments (both for the side of the good guys and the bad) throughout for it to be a credible story. The conclusion, apparently setting up a new series, felt weak and rushed.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
[Finished 3 November 2016] It’s Ann Patchett, of course it’s good. I really was impressed with Patchett’s handling of temporal shifts in the novel.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
[Finished 26 October 2016] A fun bit of historical fantasy with the titular golem and jinni finding their way to turn-of-the-century New York and doing their best to fit in to human society. Wecker does a great job of providing lively detail of her setting and allowing the coincidences that are central to her plot unfold in a natural way.

Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn
[Finished 25 October 2016] While I was reading this book, someone asked me what it was about. At the point in the novel that I was at, it was hard to say. Dennis-Benn has woven a complicated story of a Jamaican family, a mother and her two daughters, and the things that they’ve done to survive and attempt to pursue their dreams.

Nine Stories by J. D. Salinger
[Finished 25 September 2016] See my review at

The Memory Room by Mary Rakow
[Finished 19 September 2016] Rakow is very much a treasure. This novel, which reads at time like poetry, is a stunning account of a woman’s coming to grips with her abuse as a child at the hands of her parents and the struggle to reconcile pain and beauty. I could only aspire to attempt at writing prose this beautiful.

The Princess of Cleves by Madame de La Fayette
[Finished 13 September 2016] A book perhaps more interesting for its historical position (it’s considered by some as beginning the modern tradition of the psychological novel and it’s also an early novel by a woman) than for its contents. I found the story a bit boring at times which suited me well as it was my bedtime reading.

The Peerless Four by Victoria Patterson
[Finished 6 September 2016] A lingering title from the Nervous Breakdown book club. This tells a fictionalized version of the first Canadian female athletes to participate in the Olympics. The sexism of the 1920s is stunning to encounter, although perhaps even more stunning is how much that sexism has managed to survive nearly a century later.

The Magic of Murder by Susan Lynn Solomon
[Finished 23 August 2016] My brother picked this up at the SFWA conference and I have to say it’s painfully badly written. It was a tough slog to make it to the end.

The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asmiov
[Finished 22 August 2016] Reading this, I found myself really keying in to what makes an Asimov plot an Asimov plot: He creates little puzzle boxes (or in the case of Foundation big puzzle boxes) of plot which are then unwound in an inevitable fashion. The conceit of the Foundation Trilogy, with its psychohistory as its basis is a perfect playground for Asimov’s imagination and it’s fascinating to see how it all fits together.

Vampires: The Recent Undead edited by Paula Guran
[Finished 22 August 2016] A mixed bag although a lot of it leans towards the banal. Vampires as a topic apparently inspire bad writing.

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
[Finished 14 August 2016] See my review at

Letters to J. D. Salinger edited by Chris Kubica and Will Hochman
[Finished 2 August 2016] Certainly an odd bird, and yet it inspired me to revisit Salinger for the first time in a couple of decades, giving me a chance to remember just why I loved Salinger so much.

Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty by Vikram Chandra
[Finished 27 July 2016] I heard about Chandra on his birthday from The Writer’s Almanac and as a writer and programmer, I thought I’d take a look at this book. There was a great deal of potential here, but it felt, in the end, like Chandra fell short of his goals and ultimately wrote a failed book.

This Is Why I Came by Mary Rakow
[Finished 24 July 2016] A great book consisting of retellings and reimaginings of familiar stories from the Bible. Mary Rakow is a writer to watch.

Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan
[Finished 19 July 2016] A collection of stories written by a Jesuit priest from Africa set in different countries throughout Africa. The stories run long, almost to novella length, and provide a fascinating look into the lives of the marginalized in that continent.

The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle
[Finished 17 July 2016] A fascinating story which straddles the line between the realistic and the fantastic, especially given the fact that the story is set in a psychiatric facility with is protagonist enduring heavy medication that leaves him uncertain about his own perceptions. Outstanding.

The Explanation for Everything by Lauren Grodstein
[Finished 15 July 2016] An attempt at writing a novel about the conflict between faith and science although there’s too much implausible characterization for it to be really worthwhile.

Point of No Return by Martha Gellhorn
[Finished 13 July 2016] A fascinating novel about the final days of World War II. While the Jewish protagonist sometimes falls a bit flat, it’s still a worthwhile read.

The Singular and Extraordinary Tale of Mirror and Goliath by Ishbelle Bee
[Finished 7 July 2016] A story that does weird for the sake of weird and fails miserably at a lot of it. There are multiple first-person narrators but no signals to the reader who is narrating at any given time which just adds to the general incoherence of the book. I think that there might have been a good book lurking in Bee’s mind, but it didn’t make it on to the page.

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
[Finished 6 July 2016] This feels very much like the book that Karen Russell was trying to write in Swamplandia! but with the key difference that it feels much more successful in its examination of the weird and odd.

Merde Encore!: More of the Real French You Were Never Taught at School by Genevieve
[Finished 28 June 2016] See my review at

Just Say Nu: Yiddish for Every Occasion by Michael Wex
[Finished 19 June 2016] See my review at

Free Within Ourselves: Fiction Lessons for Black Authors by Jewell Parker Rhodes
[Finished 17 June 2016] When I first heard of this book, I was curious about what would distinguish a book of fiction lessons for black authors from fiction lessons for any authors and whether I, as a non-black author, would have anything to gain from the book. It turned out to be a mix of the informative and the banal. To a certain extent the latter is because there are certain basics of instruction that are part of any writing text.

Where things get interesting is in two aspects of the text that are interconnected: First the choice of African-American authors for the example texts throughout the book alongside talking about how some aspects of the African-American literary tradition can uniquely inform the writer.

Por Amor Al Arte by Lourdes Miquel and Neus Sans
[Finished 12 June 2016] An assignment for a language class. An amusing enough story although the lack of linguistic variety forced upon the book for pedagogical reasons grew a bit grating with time.

The Complete Poetry of John Donne by John Donne
[Finished 11 June 2016] As an undergraduate, sixteenth and seventeenth century poetry was my specialty, so it was a bit of a delight to return to the poems from this collection I’d read previously and to read the ones I hadn’t.

Hall of Small Mammals: Stories by Thomas Pierce
[Finished 25 May 2016] I’d read one of these stories previously, in The Missouri Review if I recall correctly. That was the least impressive of the lot. My favorite, “Videos of People Falling Down” was not published previously. There’s some brilliant handling of unfolding plot in these stories (“Ba Babboon” would make a good case study for a creative writing class, I think).

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy
[Finished 3 May 2016] I really enjoyed Flournoy’s use of POV in this piece. While some of the narrative threads don’t fully pay off, the writing is sharp and captivating on its own.

All That Is by James Salter
[Finished 19 April 2016] My first Salter, I found the book frustrating and fascinating at the same time in how Salter managed shifts in perspective and distance in his narrative. I can see the appeal of Salter, but I’m not sure I’m likely to read much more of him.

Small Victory by Zelda Popkin
[Finished 2 April 2016] One of the first (if not the first) novels to touch on the Holocaust. Popkin, who was in Europe after the war as a journalist drew on her experiences in telling this story about the American reconstruction effort and the moral failures therein.

Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut
[Finished 25 March 2016] An interesting selection of Vonnegut’s short works with things ranging from science fiction to straight commercial fiction. I couldn’t help thinking as I read some of this that he was writing for a market that no longer exists.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
[Finished 20 March 2016] I’m not entirely sure what to think of this book. It has a problem in that it doesn’t seem to be clear what exactly the book is meant to be about. Its protagonist, Harrison Shepherd seems more passive observer than actor in his life, which makes him not especially interesting in many ways. The various parts of the book each have a fair amount to recommend them, but it doesn’t feel like they really connect together as a novel.

Amerika: The Missing Person by Franz Kafka
[Finished 23 February 2016] Kafka’s first novel, and most distressingly incomplete. The situations run far more overtly comic than in his other work and the surrealism that informs so much of his later work is present in a primarily embryonic state. But it’s such a joyful and entertaining work to read, that even in its incomplete state, it’s a delight to read.

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
[Finished 14 February 2016] I have mixed feelings about this book. The exuberance of the voice is hard to resist, I feel like this was, in a lot of ways, what Philip Roth was trying to do in The Great American Novel and ultimately failed. Rushdie doesn’t entirely succeed himself with his narrative falling off the rails at times, and some of the elements of magical realism fail to justify themselves all the time, but he succeeds enough to make this a book worth reading.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
[Finished 3 February 2016] This book kept turning up in the best of 2015 lists, so I decided to give it a look. Macdonald does a great job of braiding several narrative threads, her loss of her father, her training of a goshawk and the life of the writer T. H. White. At times the threads fray, but even then, the elegance of Macdonald’s prose keeps the reader bound to the text.

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
[Finished 19 January 2016] After I saw the film based on this novel, I stopped at a nearby bookstore and bought this along with a Dover edition of The Overcoat. Years later, I finally got around to reading it.

I found myself put off by the voice of the novel. The use of a third-person present-tense narrative seemed to leave the story feeling emotionally flat and the thematic material a bit overdone. There was a lot to admire, and I’ve enjoyed Lahiri’s short fiction a great deal, but this failed to do much for me.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson
[Finished 5 January 2016] Damn, this is fantastic. Lila was a bit of a cipher in the other two books Robinson has published set in her fictional town of Gilead, but this book not only makes her live and breathe, but gives her reason to be a cipher in those other works. I found myself really wanting to go back and read Home and Gilead to see how Lila illuminates them.

A Short History of Fingers (and other state papers) by H. Allen Smith
[Finished 1 January 2016] My dad told me about discovering this book while browsing the library at work when he was younger. The writing here is of a sort that doesn’t really exist any more (although I suppose blog posts might be a close analog). These are generally humorous pieces, although at times the humor misses the mark and some of the attitudes towards women expressed in the essays seem positively neanderthal.

Speedboat by Renata Adler
[Finished 31 December 2015] I learned about this book from the Bookfight podcast when they read and discussed it. It’s an odd but wonderful book, essentially plotless with the story, such as it is, told through often comic vignettes in a voice that made me wish the book were longer than it is.

Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror edited by Ellen Datlow
[Finished 19 December 2015] A rather uneven collection. What I found most interesting while reading this was wondering how, exactly, is horror defined for this collection. I assumed that there would have to be supernatural elements or at least mass murderers, but in some instances the stories lived in the realm of the realistic focusing on things I wouldn’t have thought qualified as horror (in the genre definition of the term, not in the sense of being horrific), such as child sexual abuse. There were some bright spots in the collection, but they were overshadowed by the less interesting stories that outnumbered them.

Living with Saints by Mary O’Connell
[Finished 2 December 2015] An amazing collection of short stories with each one in some way employing a saint’s intervention in some way or other, often in entertainingly unorthodox fashion. This is the sort of grown-up fiction about religion that I really love to read. I really want to track down more of O’Connell’s writing after reading these stories.

The Complete Stories by Franz Kafka
[Finished 9 November 2015] Mostly complete works along with a handful of fragments. The better-known stories are obviously the best of the lot, but most of the other work seems strictly optional. Only obsessives need anything more than a selected stories volume. Others need not worry about missing some underappreciated work of genius.

Life after Life by Jill McCorkle
[Finished 30 October 2015] In 2013, two major books appeared with the same title. This is one of them. I started reading it thinking that it was the other (I intend to read them both, I just didn’t remember which was which), but as I realized that I was not going to get the story of a woman who keeps living the same life with different choices over and over again, I was brought into this story. McCorkle tells the story of a small southern town through a variety of different characters, allowing herself to drop into each for varying amounts of time, including periodic reports of the last moments of some characters both from the perspective of the main protagonist, a woman who does hospice work, staying with people as they die and the internal monologues of the dying themselves.

In the Language of Miracles by Rajia Hassib
[Finished 15 October 2015] An intriguing story about an immigrant family of Egyptian Muslims and the weeks leading up to the first anniversary of the date that there oldest son killed his ex-girlfriend and then himself. Overall, it’s well-drawn, with a masterful use of shifting perspectives, although Hassib plays too coy about the murder-suicide at first. It really felt like nothing was gained by being so reticent about what happened in the earlier chapters.

The Witch of Portabello by Paolo Coelho
[Finished 10 October 2015] A bunch of new-age nonsense. It is interesting to see how the new-age nonsense is sold. I was a bit of a fan of Richard Bach as a youth and fell for his own new-age nonsense. It’s rather tempting to do something similar (writing under a pseudonym, for heaven forbid someone think I actually believe in such folderol), proposing some simple counterintuitive set of actions that will unlock the untapped potential of the mind. Throw in a dose of ersatz mysticism and boom, people are beating a path to the bookstore to fill their minds with the intellectual junk food on offer.

After Many a Summer Dies the Swan by Aldous Huxley
[Finished 8 October 2015] I suspect I’m not alone among contemporary readers in having picked this up after reading about it in Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man. The book is an interesting account of pre-war Los Angeles mixed with some discussions of philosophy and history and a bonus round of science fiction. Having just read Salman Rushdie’s latest novel which was also a novel of ideas, I found that Huxley managed to do a better job of it than Rushdie. And for an added bonus, there’s a literary version of Forest Lawn Cemetery in this book to rival Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One.

Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpont
[Finished 4 October 2015] I picked this up courtesy of a rapturous review on NPR. When I actually read it, I found a book that was well-written and had some intriguing devices in its narrative (particularly the two chapters of telescoped future action, one in the middle and one at the end), but in the end, it didn’t seem like Pierpont had enough there there to make this a satisfying read.

Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie
[Finished 28 September 2015] In the end I was disappointed. Perhaps it was the flood of rapturous praise that greeted Rushdie’s new novel on its publication, but I was left feeling disappointed in what Rushdie produced. He has a clear ideological goal in the novel, advocating atheism, but I found his efforts in that direction incoherent at best, as is bound to happen when one attempts to employ the supernatural in an effort to destroy the supernatural. Perhaps, there is an intentional irony in that failure. On the plus side, Rushdie does have moments of rapturous prose and there is a sense that he enjoyed himself writing the book even if the reader may not be able to enjoy the same raptures.

Best American Poetry 2015 edited by Sherman Alexie
[Finished 16 September 2015] A great collection of poems, overshadowed by the Yi-fen Chou controversy. Alexie does a great job of seeking out new voices, bringing in a number of poets new to the series through aggressively choosing to dig deeper. He is not only willing, but eager, to investigate, for example, the outpouring of new online venues for poetry.

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood
[Finished 2 September 2015] I’m declaring a behind on my reviews amnesty for a while.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
[Finished 21 August 2015] I’m declaring a behind on my reviews amnesty for a while.

The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch
[Finished 17 August 2015] I’m declaring a behind on my reviews amnesty for a while.

The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood
[Finished 5 August 2015] I’m declaring a behind on my reviews amnesty for a while.

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
[Finished 5 August 2015] I’m declaring a behind on my reviews amnesty for a while.

The March by E. L. Doctorow
[Finished 29 July 2015] I’m declaring a behind on my reviews amnesty for a while.

The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald
[Finished 28 July 2015] I’m declaring a behind on my reviews amnesty for a while.

Shirley by Susan Scarf Merrell
[Finished 15 July 2015] I’m declaring a behind on my reviews amnesty for a while.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
[Finished 2 July 2015] I’m declaring a behind on my reviews amnesty for a while.

Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter
[Finished 30 June 2015] A complex story with a vast cast looking at attitudes towards Jews in the years before the beginning of the holocaust.

Narratology by Mieke Bal
[Finished 16 June 2015] A simply outstanding introduction to the theory of narratives. Ball writes in a clear style, making clear from the outset the meaning of any jargon she employs (perhaps most subtle being the distinction between the narrative text, story and fabula. There are times when Bal’s theory causes her to reject categories of narrative (most notably she dismisses second-person as little more than a gimmick, ignoring the possibilities that are available in the second person which are not possible in first or third and is quick to accept uncritically Jonathan Culler’s dismissal of omniscience). Even with these limitations, however, this book is essential reading for both scholars and writers alike.

The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer
[Finished 12 June 2015] A wonderfully detailed historical piece played out by Hungarian Jewish protagonists against the times just before and after the second world war (apparently at least partially inspired by Orringer’s own family history). I realized while I was reading this that I knew little of Hungary’s involvement in World War II so I read the wikipedia article and when I read about how roughly 70% of the Jewish population of Hungary was killed during the war, I was left with a feeling of deep dread as the war began and continued.

Unfortunately, the book fails somewhat in its final chapters, perhaps because Orringer was conscious of the already sizable length of what she had written and she engaged in a great deal of compression to the story as it reached its conclusion, to the detriment of the narrative. It seems strange to say about a book so long, but it could have stood to have been a fair bit longer.

A Void by Georges Perec
[Finished 4 June 2015] A re-read. Coming back to the book, it was possible to catch more of Perec’s humor and the esprits joyeux of his use of language. Still an amazing work of literature.

Zombies: The Recent Dead edited by Paula Guran
[Finished 2 June 2015] A mixed bag of stories. Some are relatively strong, more or pretty weak, with a wide variety of conceptions of zombies, from the traditional Haitian zombie to Romero zombies to any other sort of revenant as zombie. It was worth getting as part of a Humble bundle, but not something that I would have otherwise read.

Gutshot: Stories by Amelia Gray
[Finished 1 May 2015] The opening story was pure brilliance, but as I read deeper, I found the inconsistency of Gray’s work maddening. She writes in a surrealist style with most of her stories running to the very short end of the spectrum.

Miracle Girls by M. B. Caschetta
[Finished 28 April 2015] I was curious to read this having been an occasional visitor to Caschetta’s blog. The premise, of a girl who has mystic visions and the Catholic setting seemed like something would appeal to me, and it might if it weren’t for the overly elliptical prose. The two threads of the story, the nuns running a sort of underground railroad for abused girls and the visionary who is the main character also failed to come together.

Recusant Poets, with a Selection from their Work, Volume I: St Thomas More to Ben Jonson edited by Louise Imogen Guiney
[Finished 27 April 2015] A great collection of often unknown works. There is a tendency towards the lyric in this anthology and perhaps more disturbing to transform into the lyric. Few long poems are printed in their entirety, although comprehensive source information is provided. Some separation of textual notes from the source information would be welcome, though, given the choice of Guiney to reproduce all poems with the original spelling.

The book dates from a period of some renaissance of English Catholic sentiment and there’s a great deal of effort made to provide as strongly a pro-Catholic view as possible which is complicated in some cases by the biographies of some of the poets included who later converted from Catholicism, often after a conversion to Catholicism earlier in their lives and the consequent determination of precisely which of the poet’s works qualify as “recusant.”

Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino
[Finished 21 April 2015] Calvino’s surrealist and often absurdist takes on ideas from science in these short stories make for wonderful reading. I had to occasionally pull myself out of a scientific mindset (the misconceptions of gravity in “The Distance of the Moon” were a bit distracting) to fully appreciate the work, but that’s my weakness, not Calvino’s. I really wanted to write some of my own stories in this vein after reading this book.

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
[Finished 9 April 2015] A bit of a forgotten work, and I kind of feel like some of the forgetting might be justified. There is a bit of a science-fiction element to the story (it’s set a decade into the future from when it was written and features a handful of technological advancements) that’s completely irrelevant, passages of pastiche are marked with asterisks which strikes me as being an indication of a failure of the writing to do its job. The humor of the story is uneven, although when it works, it works wonderfully.

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
[Finished 2 April 2015] This is just an amazing fucking book. Rankine writes about both the major public racism African-Americans face (whether it’s racially motivated killings by civilians and police) and the casual everyday insults that are part of the fabric of ordinary life, such as the waitress returning Rankine’s credit card to her white companion even though that same waitress accepted the card directly from Rankine earlier in the meal. The every day racism accounts are the most powerful, I think, with an incredibly effective use of the second person to transform these events from being the singular account of Rankine’s experiences into something that the reader experiences directly.

Antología de Cuentos Mexicanos II edited by Ma. del Carmen Millán
[Finished 24 March 2015] Largely composed of stories from the sixties and seventies, this second volume in the series gets into a lot more experimental work with stories pushing the boundaries of the form. I especially enjoyed the two Carlos Fuentes stories in the book, along with contributions from Amparo Dávila, Rosario Castellanos, Jose de la Colina and José Emilio Pacheco.

The Reprisal by Laudmia Bonanni
[Finished 16 March 2015] A strange book, about a period of Italian history that I know nearly nothing about, when Italy had surrendered, but Germany was still fighting World War II: among the Italians there were divided loyalties that served as the catalyst for the plot of this story with a group of fascists waiting for a woman who may or may not have been a partisan to give birth so they can execute her. The narrator, who often seems to vanish from his own story, serves as an ambiguous character himself, a witness, if not a participant to all the sins that take place.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante
[Finished 13 March 2015] The book opens with a seemingly endless list of characters and their biographies. This nearly made me give up on the book, which would have been a pity as it’s a truly amazing work. Even being only a portion of a multi-volume account, I found this to be a compelling and hard to put down read, impressive for literary fiction, particularly fiction which seemed to frequently be rather static in its storytelling.

Angel’s Ink by Jocelynn Drake
[Finished 28 February 2015] A high-concept book. Assorted supernatural beings and a somewhat noir setting. It kind of comes to nothing in the end and feels like it’s more a way of establishing characters for a series than a proper novel. Clearly I’m not the target audience for this.

Dead Witch Walking by Kim Harrison
[Finished 17 February 2015] Another one of these high-concept books, here a large part of humanity is wiped out by a genetically modified tomato and as a result, supernatural beings (“inderlanders”) come out of the shadows. We get the full complement of creatures, some interesting characters and a completely incoherent plot. Perhaps it gets better as the series progresses, but I’m unlikely to find out.

The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock
[Finished 16 February 2015] My first Pollock, and I’m impressed by his rural gothic fiction. At times it seems as if there might not be any connection between some of the incidents portrayed, but eventually everything manages to come crashing back together with a brutal inevitability. Gives hope to us oldsters who have yet to publish our first novels.

Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball
[Finished 6 February 2015] A gorgeous book, written as an investigation by a journalist named Jesse Ball who, in response to his wife’s stopping speaking, investigates a mysterious murder case in Japan. The whole thing is simply gorgeous.

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold
[Finished 2 February 2015] The pacing of the novel is a bit slow in the beginning and while Bujold is steadily building up plot elements and character traits that will become important in the later part of the book. What sets it apart, though, is the beautifully realized theology of the world that she created, one in which the artificial gods of her world are able to act as a sort of illumination into questions of theodicy and divine intervention in our contemporary world.

I Do Not Come to You By Chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani
[Finished 19 January 2015] A wonderful story about the Nigerian side of those scam e-mails that come in and the protagonist’s moral journey from being poor and naïve to his involvement in 419 scamming. It was also an interesting examination of a number of quotidian aspects of life in modern Nigeria, helping me learn more about a region in which I’ve become quite interested of late.

The Taken by Vicki Pettersson
[Finished 16 January 2015] An amusing enough story with a novel concept, although the story line feels a bit over-improvised and too convoluted for its own good.

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight by Vladimir Nabokov
[Finished 8 January 2015] Oh my, this is wonderful. I don’t know how Nabokov was capable of writing so beautifully in a foreign language when my own efforts in my native language are so clumsy and ugly in comparison. Post-modern in its structure, the novel tells the story of the narrator attempting to write the biography of his brother (and claiming along the way that he is omitting himself from the story while doing precisely the opposite). There are cases of people claiming to be others, of continual missed connections and mistaken identities. There are numerous possible readings of the text, including a literal sense that what’s happening is what’s claimed to be and then the possibilities that Sebastian Knight might be a creation of the narrator or have been a creation of his previous biographer or been no relation to the narrator despite the narrator’s claims… The whole question of what happened is left deliciously open. This has left me ready to go back to Pale Fire and see more.

The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami
[Finished 2 January 2015] A very short novel that’s as much objet d’art as story. Reportedly the text was given to designer Chip Kidd with the instructions to illustrate it somehow. This is one of four extent editions of the book at this time (the British, German and original Japanese were all designed and illustrated independently). The illustrations live as reflections on the text more than illuminations of it. Kidd’s illustrations, with the exception of two photographs, are all original and manage a mix of pop-art and Japanesque style. Even the binding does something different with the front cover (if that’s what you’d identify it as), folding up from the back cover with another protective tab folding down from the back to reveal the first page of text. The text itself is set in a typewriter-esque font giving the feeling like one is reading the writer’s original transcript.

The story itself has the feel and logic of a dream, with a labyrinthine set of corridors leading form the mysterious room 107 to the reading room which turns out to be a prison cell. The characters include a sheepman and a girl who is nearly incorporeal and transforms into/from a bird (perhaps?). Everyone has their own fears and their own concerns, whether it’s the old man’s willow switch with which he torments the sheepman or the memory of being bitten by a large black dog which torments our nameless narrator.

Conclave by Greg Tobin
[Finished 31 December 2014] One of these days, I need to write the definitive critical survey of the genre of “pope novels”. Having read a wide sprectrum of these, it seems that these are continually a sort of wish fulfilment fantasy: “This is what I would do given the power of the papacy.” Here, our protagonist, a liberal New Jersey cardinal stands in for the author, a liberal New Jersey journalist writing largely on Vatican and Catholic topics. The Evangelium Christi group of the novel seems pretty clearly a stand-in for the real-life Opus Dei, although more specific identifications become harder to make. It is interesting to note the many parallels between the pope that Tobin’s cardinal becomes and the pope that Cardinal Bergoglio became, although I think that even Tobin would be surprised at how much more humble Francis is than his own Celestine.

It was a bit disconcerting to see the references to terrorism as a concern in this book published in the first half of 2001. I’d be curious to see how the post-9/11 world would fit into a pope novel written in the time between 9/11 and the death of John Paul II.

The Stand by Stephen King
[Finished 29 December 2014] I read the full “restored” edition which adds a whole novel’s worth of filler to an already long novel as well as incompletely updates the date of the novel by a decade. My overall impression of the book is that while some of what King had to cut in the initial release of the novel was a loss, other parts were far from essential and could have just as easily remained cut from the text.

The novel itself aspires to theological depths but fails miserably at reaching them. It seems to me that King lacks the necessary theological background and/or intuition to be able to really tackle the question. Perhaps it’s a consequence of a shallow protestantism in his background but his great theological insight comes down to “apparently God sometimes demands a sacrifice for no apparent reason.” Among the characters, the growth of Larry Underwood is a missed opportunity and Mother Abagail is literally a magic negro. There are handfuls of literary references sprinkled through the text with no apparent purpose other than to show off that King has read T. S. Eliot. In one instance, he goes too far, I think, taking the image of “Strange Fruit” and applying it not to lynched black men but to flyers blowing from someone’s trunk.

Thoughts of Sorts by Georges Perec
[Finished 22 December 2014] Thirteen essays from one of the key members of the Oulipo. The most Oulipan of the works here was “Eighty-One Easy Cook Recipes” which works through a full panoply of permutations of ingredients and techniques, leaving a piece of writing that is more to be counted than read.

Stupid Children by Lenore Zion
[Finished 20 December 2014] I wasn’t really left with much sense of there being anything of depth in this book. The author’s psychological training didn’t seem to have provided her with the ability to create a compelling psychological portrait of her characters.

Best American Poetry 2014 edited by Terrance Hayes
[Finished 17 December 2014] Not a whole lot to say. The Best American Poetry series depends heavily on the tastes of the guest editor and while there are some really fantastic poems in this volume. I’m also left with a sense that Hayes was making an effort to include a lot of friends and colleagues in this collection.

Painted Cities by Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski
[Finished 17 December 2014] Galaviz-Budziszewski is trodding much the same ground that Stuart Dybek did before him, albeit a couple miles further east. This is no longer the West side of my father’s youth but the west side of my own. The stories here vary from the purely realistic to occasional journeys into magic realism with seamless mixing of the two given the tendency for boys to want to believe the impossible, even with evidence to the contrary given to them. There’s a subtle hat tip given to Dybek in one of the stories and it should have been no surprise to me when near the end of the book I glanced at the back cover and saw that Dybek had given the book a blurb. Galaviz-Budziszewski is a writer to watch.

Divergent by Veronica Roth
[Finished 15 December 2014] Normally when I’m reading commercial fiction, it takes me a while to accept the narrative voice—most commercial authors write poorly, it seems, and it takes me a few chapters to get used to their clumsy style. Here, Roth managed to hook me at first and it wasn’t until halfway into the novel that I started to feel the prose turning clunky.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
[Finished 10 December 2014] A disappointment. The narrative voice was weak and the main character shows no development over the course of the story (and is, in fact, disturbingly psychopathic). I remember reading a review of a film that said that a pop culture reference is not the same thing as a joke. I’d add that a collection of pop culture references does not a novel make either.

MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood
[Finished 6 December 2014] The conclusion to the saga begun in Oryx and Crake. Atwood doesn’t provide the conventional closure to the story and what I believe is the case (that Zeb and Adam were the real masterminds of the near-extinction of humanity) is left unspoken. The narrative techniques used in telling Zeb’s story were the highlight of the novel.

The Corpse Exhibition by Hassan Blasim
[Finished 5 December 2014] Just simply amazing. Blasim writes in a disarming style blending brutal realism with the fantastic and the surreal.

Our Secret Life in Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree
[Finished 5 December 2014] I really just didn’t get into this collection of short experimental works. Only a few hit home with me but most just seemed meh.

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
[Finished 28 November 2014] An interesting look at other aspects of the world Atwood created in Oryx and Crake. Atwood relies perhaps too much on coincidence (it seemed that nearly every female character under a certain age was at some time Jimmy (Snowman)’s lover in the past). At the same time, we’re left with some unspoken hints as to the origins of Crake’s humanity-destroying plague.

Literary Hoaxes by Melissa Katsoulis
[Finished 20 November 2014] See my review at

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
[Finished 4 November 2014] A close to perfect book. Eugenides manages the first person plural expertly in the first half of the book, but then when he becomes too conscious of the story telling and begins making reference to artifacts and research techniques, the voice falters. The last quarter of the book, thankfully, abandons a lot of what mars the book, but it’s still an astonishing first novel.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
[Finished 3 November 2014] A wonderfully comic novel. Anyone who doesn’t laugh while reading this needs to slow down and realize that Austen writes comedy, not drama.

Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
[Finished 21 October 2014] Absolutely brilliant stories from Atwood. The first three stories form a linked trilogy with characters from each reappearing in the others, bringing us deeper and deeper into their overlapping lives and the worlds they created. There are really no clunkers here.

The Receptionist by Lauren Groth
[Finished 21 October 2014] See my review at

A Different Bed Every Time by Jac Jemc
[Finished 14 October 2014] The poetic impulse that drove My Only Wife comes out even more strongly in this collection of short short stories. Many of the stories are more prose poem than fiction and Jemc does a great job of really pushing the boundaries of the short story form here. “Let Me Be Your Tugboat King” is more an author at play with language than anything else. Elsewhere the stories take on surreal and almost gothic tones like “The Wrong Sister,” a bizarre tale of a twin taking her sister’s place when she rightly suspects the brother-in-law of murderous intent.

A Bouquet by Karel Jaromir Erben
[Finished 2 October 2014] A collection of Czech folk tales told in verse, the translation here is (presumably—I don’t know the original) good and the use of slant rhyme and mostly regular meter works well with the material which tends towards the gothic and grotesque. I’d really like to read more of Erben’s work as well as more of Czech folklore and fairytales in general.

The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel
[Finished 1 October 2014] See review at

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
[Finished 27 September 2014] I haven’t read this since high school and that was a re-read as well. It’s amazing how much of the story was deeply ingrained in my mind and also how much I had completely forgotten (e.g., the feud between the two families or the Duke and the King pretending to be the brothers of a recently deceased man). Perhaps most interesting to me was how Twain allowed seemingly unrelated story lines to impinge on the novel and yet they became part of the built-up meaning of the novel.

Friday was the Bomb by Nathan Deuel
[Finished 25 September 2014] Disclaimer: I’m friends with Nathan from our MFA program. Having said that, I can still recommend this collection. It’s a bit uneven at times reflecting its origins as a collection of shorter personal essays. The chronological arrangement means that some of the strongest essays (the title essay and “Flood-tide Below Me”) end up near the end of the book. Still, Deuel manages to convey the anxieties of being the stay-at-home dad in a marriage where his wife’s job represents a continual threat to their life while they live in a city where the violence of the region grows ever closer until finally they decide to leave the Middle East for the Midwest (they’ve since settled in Los Angeles, ruining the delightful symmetry of that move).

Read to Me by Gloria Rolton
[Finished 19 September 2014] See my review at

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer
[Finished 18 September 2014] Vandermeer’s trilogy has gotten a fair amount of press for its unusual fact of being published over the course of a single year. I was curious to try it, but I found the narrative voice of the unnamed biologist to be grating as I read. It became better (or perhaps I grew accustomed to it) as the novel wore on, but I was put off enough by it that I’m uncertain about reading the remaining two volumes of the trilogy.

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
[Finished 4 September 2014] At first, the setting and protagonist of the novel, a young white woman in 1950s America seems that it would be an odd milieu for Oyeyemi, an African-born English writer. But as the story unfolds, background elements like the occasional intrusion of news from the early civil rights struggles in the south begin to move to the forefront and the novel becomes more clearly a novel of people living their lives as someone they’re not, right down to the name of the protagonist, a girl named Boy.

The Year of What Now: Poems by Brian Russell
[Finished 3 September 2014] Russell’s poems form a loose narrative of his wife’s treatment for cancer, with occasional flashbacks to the time that preceded it. Russell’s command of his language and the rhythm of his poetry is wonderful, with the emotions of this traumatic period expertly preserved in the lines of his poems.

Perhaps most impressive of all: It’s fiction.

Maybe the Saddest Thing by Marcus Wicker
[Finished 29 August 2014] I had the good fortune to meet Marcus during my final residency in my MFA program. I enjoyed his reading and managed to buy the last copy of his book in the campus bookstore the next morning. He covers a wide range of subjects in this collection: pop culture is everpresent and racial issues lurk just below the surface when they’re not on plain view. There’s a wonderful mix of the humorous and poignant in these poems. Definitely a collection to return to.

Collected Stories and Other Writings by John Cheever
[Finished 27 August 2014] Given the surfeit of Cheever-related seminars scheduled for my final residency in my MFA program, it seemed appropriate to dig into Cheever. Having made it through all 1000 pages of this collection, I’m left feeling a bit empty. There were some good stories in here, and some fine sentences, but overall it was not as rewarding an experience for me as, say, reading the Library of America Carver collection. I was part of a discussion about Cheever with some of the faculty at lunch during the residency and there was some debate about why Cheever has fallen out of favor (or whether, in fact, he has). Was it because the WASPish middle-class world that he depicts no longer exists in any meaningful way? The more I think about it, the more I think that might be the case. One essay at the back of the collection, about Cheever’s departure from Manhattan for the suburbs as the middle class was priced off the island seems especially apropos, in that the pressures that drove Cheever and his family and his neighbors out of the city have only accelerated and increasd, now driving their world out of existence. As a depicter of the manners of this dying breed, it seems likely that his writing has become a window into a world that has only limited appeal to readers of today. Perhaps in another generation, as the last survivors of this world have died, the fascination with this society may increase and lead to a revival of Cheever’s fortunes.

El Amor en los Tiempos del Colera by Gabriel García Márquez
[Finished 26 August 2014] This whole book is a masterclass in transitions in time and space in an extended narrative. There’s an infinitude for a writer to learn from García Márquez.

My Only Wife by Jac Jemc
[Finished 22 August 2014] Jemc does a great job here of mixing the poetic and the prosaic in her writing. This is a book which is ultimately about the voice rather than the story such as it is. The resolution of the central mystery insofar as it’s resolved (and that its a mystery) is almost a disappointment as the character of the wife in the story feels more powerful without the revelation the novel provides, but then the monster behind the door is never as scary once the door is open.

The Three by Sarah Lotz
[Finished 17 August 2014] I sometimes wonder whether it’s unfair to judge a genre book by the standards of literary fiction. Should i be concerned about the fact that Lotz fails at her ambition to present the bulk of her story as if it were an oral history? Or should I allow her story to overwhelm it? And then there’s the coda which in answering the unanswered questions ends up feeling instead like a too-neat wrap-up which makes the book far worse than it might have been otherwise. But presumably, the readers of a book like this would not tolerate ambiguity in the ending: suppose we never knew for sure what the children were or why? Does having the question answered really improve the story? Add in that a great deal of the first third of the book feel like padding and it’s not really a book that I can recommend. It’s a great concept but the execution is poor.

Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link
[Finished 8 August 2014] No review: I’m declaring behind-on-this-list amnesty.

The Orenda by Joseph Boyden
[Finished 27 July 2014] No review: I’m declaring behind-on-this-list amnesty.

The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
[Finished 15 July 2014] No review: I’m declaring behind-on-this-list amnesty.

Not to Disturb by Muriel Spark
[Finished 8 July 2014] No review: I’m declaring behind-on-this-list amnesty.

Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott
[Finished 6 July 2014] No review: I’m declaring behind-on-this-list amnesty.

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
[Finished 27 June 2014] No review: I’m declaring behind-on-this-list amnesty.

The Revolutions by Felix Gilman
[Finished 18 June 2014] No review: I’m declaring behind-on-this-list amnesty.

Tlooth by Harry Mathews
[Finished 31 May 2014] No review: I’m declaring behind-on-this-list amnesty.

Mlik & Filth by Carmen Gimenez Smith
[Finished 30 May 2014] No review: I’m declaring behind-on-this-list amnesty.

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
[Finished 27 May 2014] No review: I’m declaring behind-on-this-list amnesty.

Dune by Frank Herbert
[Finished 21 May 2014] No review: I’m declaring behind-on-this-list amnesty.

Demonology by Rick Moody
[Finished 11 May 2014] No review: I’m declaring behind-on-this-list amnesty.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
[Finished 5 May 2014] No review: I’m declaring behind-on-this-list amnesty.

The Instructions by Adam Levin
[Finished 26 April 2014] An absolute masterpiece. When I finished the book, I immediately turned back to the beginning and started re-reading it.

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine
[Finished 25 April 2014] No review: I’m declaring behind-on-this-list amnesty.

Lying Awake by Mark Salzman
[Finished 1 April 2014] No review: I’m declaring behind-on-this-list amnesty.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
[Finished 30 March 2014] No review: I’m declaring behind-on-this-list amnesty.

Paris Trout by Pete Dexter
[Finished 26 March 2014] No review: I’m declaring behind-on-this-list amnesty.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
[Finished 21 March 2014] No review: I’m declaring behind-on-this-list amnesty.

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín
[Finished 11 March 2014] No review: I’m declaring behind-on-this-list amnesty.

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
[Finished 27 February 2014] An interesting concept: the aged of Earth are sent into space to be soldiers in interstellar warfare. Along the way, Scalzi raises a number of metaphysical questions and then proceeds to completely ignore them. The characters are given new cloned bodies and their consciousnesses are copied into them, but do the bodies still retain any consciousness? Scalzi is apparently uninterested.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinnney
[Finished 19 February 2014] Kinney plays around with a wonderfully underregarding narrator in this book. A nice mixture of prose and comic book.

Pirate Cinema by Corey Doctorow
[Finished 16 February 2014] A ridiculously bad book. Where to start? There’s the whole propaganda aspect of the book. Everything and everyone in the book exists to serve Doctorow’s ideological argument. Then there are the incredibly two-dimensional characters, especially the narrator who is an almost archetypal “Mary Sue” character. Even the “flaws” that Doctorow gives him in an attempt to make him less of a caricature only highlight the ridiculousness of the character. And then of course, there’s the painful overuse of British slang. It’s like the unpronounceable alien names in bad sci fi but worse because Doctorow apparently thinks this gives his book dimension. Instead, it just calls attention to the fact that this is a book about a British teen written by an American. The discourse about how the House of Lords works is the biggest case of this. Seriously? We’re going to take a break from the narrative to correct the sort of misimpression about Lords that an American would have in a story narrated by a British kid who we can only assume is speaking to a British audience? A friend said that there was a good book hiding somewhere in the pages, but I really don’t think so.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
[Finished 11 February 2014] The first time I read this, I didn’t care for it. I don’t know what the hell was wrong with me. This is hilarious and wonderfully written. I owe Brock Clarke and apology for not accepting his whole-hearted recommendation of Muriel Spark.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
[Finished 8 February 2014] This is apparently one of the “big” books of 2013. Certainly big in terms of page count. I’m less persuaded about big in terms of importance. The narrative voice felt a bit grating to me, not really someone that I cared to spend 771 pages with.

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
[Finished 5 February 2014] Fitzgerald does some interesting things with voice, veering from a close third-person perspective to a rather detached narration which would be appropriate in a pure non-fiction history. There’s a lot to learn about technique here, but I wasn’t really taken by the experience of reading the book.

Vacation by Deb Olin Unferth
[Finished February 2014] No review: I’m declaring behind-on-this-list amnesty.

Chess Story by Stefan Zweig
[Finished 29 January 2014] A curiously structured story. Two chess players, Czentovic and Dr B are each introduced with lengthy backstories and the story culminates with the two broken men facing off at the chess table with Czentovic’s brokenness ultimately defeating Dr B’s brokenness at the chess table, but revealing Dr B to be the more humane and more human of the two men in the end.

Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen
[Finished 19 January 2014] The first of my reading for the last term of my MFA. Hansen is one of these authors that I should have known sooner than I have. Hansen is what seems like a rarity in contemporary literature: someone who takes religion seriously without becoming overly pious or sentimental. There are some wonderful sentences in this book, and intriguing uses of mixed chronology (the bulk of the narrative comes in paired streams: a present-tense narrative of Mariette along with conversations relating observations about the events of the present-tense narrative given in past tense within the conversation).

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
[Finished 16 January 2014] A re-read. I last read this about twenty-five years ago, so I only had some vague memories about the book other than that I loved it on first reading. On returning to it, I still love it. This is a book which rewards in-depth study; there’s so much to be learned from how Ford handles his use of flashback in the novel, the unreliability of the narrator (of course) and what I had forgotten most was how funny the novel is.

Crooked Letter Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
[Finished 11 January 2014] Some reading for my MFA residency. The genesis of the novel is interesting: Tom found a literary agent as a result of a short story he wrote. The literary agent liked the violence in Tom’s work and thus was born this story of violence and redemption in rural Mississippi. Franklin does a good job of evoking the terrain and people of his setting and tells a page-turning story, although some of the characters end up a bit two-dimensional in the end. I did like that there were multiple mysteries within the text, not always about the two main murders, but also about the characters and how they ended up who they were. I did somewhat wish that things were less cleanly wrapped up in the end of the story.

Unmentionables by Beth Ann Fennelly
[Finished 6 January 2014] A great collection of poems. Fennelly writes largely in a confessional mode. There is one delightful sestina here, “To JC and DL on the Opening of the Sestina Bar” while other poems tend to be more free in their form including a few prose poems in the mix.

From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler
[Finished 4 January 2014] There are a handful of good things here, but it gets overwhelmed early on when Butler declares that writing that doesn’t follow his process is not—cannot be—art. Read the chapters on cinema and dialog, ignore most of the rest.

The Book of Men edited by Colum McCann
[Finished 31 December 2013] Eighty very short pieces, some fiction, some essays. A handful are especially good but some end up being little more than an impression.

I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe
[Finished 26 December 2013] Not just a turd of a book, but a 752-page turd of a book. Supposedly, Wolfe had his college-age kids vet the depiction of college life, but I’m guessing they looked at the massive pile of manuscript and just said, “sure, Dad, it’s great.” The book reads like a long jeremiad directed at Jocks, frat boys, and nearly everyone else at the university. Wolfe goes to great lengths to justify in his narrator’s mind that his title character is in some way to blame for her inevitable date rape. His ideas of college slang and culture are laughably inaccurate. I kept expecting the narrator to, at any moment, break into a chorus of “Kids” from Bye Bye Birdie while I was reading it. That said, I think it will work well as fodder for an essay I’m working on about unreliable third-person narration, even though Wolfe almost certainly did not intend this novel to be an instance of this.

Beloved by Toni Morrison
[Finished 18 December 2013] A difficult book, but one which largely rewards the reader for raising to its challenge. I found Morrison’s use of achronology especially interesting.

Best American Stories 2013 edited by Elizabeth Strout
[Finished 16 December 2013] Some good stories here. I especially liked Antonya Nelson’s “Chapter Two.” Enough so that I sent her a fan e-mail.

Best American Essays 2013 edited by Cheryl Strayed
[Finished 30 November 2013] This is only the second volume in the BAE series that I’ve read. My first observation is that the guest editor makes a huge difference from one year to the next. David Brooks’s selections left me unimpressed, but I really loved the essays that Cheryl Strayed picked for this volume—digging deep into the world of independent publications makes a world of difference. Another thing she’s done differently to great effect is abandoning the usual alphabetical order of the essays (the only other case of this I’ve seen in Best American was when Ann Patchett opted for reverse-alphabetical order for her volume of BASS). Instead, essays are arranged in such a way that they form a sort of internal dialog with each other.

Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex by Oksana Zabuzhko
[Finished 13 November 2013] This book reminded me, more than anything, of Kathy Acker. There are some great structural things happening here, like the shifts between first, second and third-person narration, although overall the book felt a bit light to me. I suspect this came to me at the wrong time.

& Sons by David Gilbert
[Finished 12 November 2013] When I read Beautiful Ruins, the whole time I was worried that Jess Walter was going to fuck up the delicate house of cards he had constructed in his wonderful work. Thankfully, he didn’t. Reading & Sons, I felt safe that David Gilbert wouldn’t—couldn’t even—fuck up his work. Sadly, I think he did, with a plot twist that is neither earned nor justified roughly mid-book. After this element of plot is brought in, I kept waiting for the justification of it and never had it given to me. That said, there is still some great language here, wonderful use of an omniscient first-person narrator and a book that is compelling to read even if it fails on some levels.

Best American Short Stories 2012 edited by Tom Perotta
[Finished 6 November 2013] The perils of delayed reviewing of books: I don’t remember specifics of this volume.

Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd
[Finished 1 November 2013] Another “historical” recommended by MFA faculty. I’ve found Ackroyd to be a bit hit-and-miss and this book was, for me, mostly miss. The whole time-travel occult thing seemed to be a bit of a jumble and the archaic language of the seventeenth-century segments was more hindrance than help for establishing mood; I think it was perhaps a little overdone (having written a piece using the English equivalent of tutiendo, I can understand the temptations, but I also can’t excuse the succumbing to those same temptations).

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
[Finished November 2013] I first read Roy when she made her debut on the pages of Granta just before this, her first and only novel, was published. Reading this, I really wish that Roy were still writing fiction. The use of time in the novel, moving forwards and backwards without effort and mingling the consciousnesses of the twins at the center of the story makes for a compelling read.

The Passion by Jeanette Winterson
[Finished 25 October 2013] A recommendation from one of the faculty members from my MFA program for historical fiction. There’s some interesting use of varying narrators here, although interestingly, Winterson is willing to use nearly identical voices for the two main narrators, as well as placing some of their statements into other characters’ mouths. As I think back on it, this was a bit of genius really.

Strangers at the Feast by Jennifer Vanderbes
[Finished 25 October 2013] A novel by one of the new faculty at my MFA program. The novel is told using multiple close third-person perspectives with some interesting uses of flashback to establish backstory within the framework of the narrative as well as the occasional flashforward to hint at the looming disaster in the story. A rather interestingly structured piece of fiction.

Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem
[Finished 20 October 2013] Lethem is doing some interesting things with his structure, veering from linear storytelling, at times unpredictably, in his account of how Rose and her family lived the second half of the twentieth century and the beginnings of this one. The descriptions are evocative and the characters are for the most part well-composed, but in the end there doesn’t seem to be a lot of there there in the book and the chronological variations don’t seem to have much real payoff in the novel.

The Passport by Herta Müller
[Finished 10 October 2013] I’d had high hopes for this given how highly-recommended it had been by classmates in my MFA program, but I found it overall to be a not terribly exciting work. Apparently I’m missing something.

The Diviners by Rick Moody
[Finished 6 October 2013] A sprawling novel which had its moments of poetry but I felt that some of the experimentation, particularly the movement from one POV character to another throughout the novel, was underdeveloped and the whole intertwining of the movie-within-the-novel and the novel itself was forced at best.

Atonement by Ian McEwan
[Finished 30 September 2013] The first time I read this novel, I hated it. I felt like the brilliance of the opening section was not met by the remainder of the book. Coming back to it knowing the twist of the final section and how everything fit together, however, it made a lot more sense. If it weren’t for the shift into first person in the final section, this would be a perfect instance of a novel written with an unreliable third-person narrator. The commentary on Briony Tallis’s attempts to tell the story behind the first section served as a great case of the novel becoming reflexive and self-aware of its story-telling.

Selected Poems and Letters by John Keats
[Finished 30 September 2013] I didn’t particularly care for Keats when I was originally assigned selections from this book back in 1986. Returning to him now, I can appreciate him somewhat more, although I still find the Victorian verse to not be all that appealing, but I do have at least some appreciation for his skills.

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
[Finished 28 September 2013] An early piece of science fiction, telling of a dystopian future. The fascinating thing for me was Zamyatin’s use of language, employing science and mathematics as a source of metaphorical language for the narrator. One thing the novel most definitely was not, however, was a first person plural narrative as Brian Richardson implied it would be in Unnatural voices.

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti
[Finished 23 September 2013] Very much the book that I needed to read when I needed to read it. I’d previously only known Tinti as an editor (One Story), and finally getting a chance to read her fiction, there are some things which should have been obvious (e.g., with a name like Tinti, of course she was raised Catholic and will be writing from a Catholic worldview), but the bigger thing was just getting the opportunity to see how she developed her characters, paradoxical in their mix of morality and lack thereof. Absolutely brilliant.

The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison
[Finished 18 September 2013] A disturbing account of a consensual incestuous affair between a father and daughter. Harrison employs dissociative language in an attempt to diminish her own complicity with the affair, but the fact of the complicity is still hard to avoid.

Expositional Modes and Temporal Ordering in Fiction by Meir Sternberg
[Finished 17 September 2013] Of all the criticism that I’ve read this year, this has had the most lasting impact on my thinking. Sternberg’s book is deservedly an important work in narrative theory and goes well beyond the topics suggested by the title. The chapter on omniscience was one of the best critical looks at the subject I’ve seen.

Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticatt
[Finished 9 September 2013] Danticatt give a glimpse into life in rural Haiti in what’s billed as a novel but is really a collection of linked short stories. The format works well for Danticatt with the opportunity to get insight into events of the preceding stories from the stories which follow.

Living to Tell About It: A Rhetoric and Ethics of Character Narration by James Phelan
[Finished 4 September 2013] The key word in the title here is “ethics,” a concept that Phelan at times abuses in his effort to create a coherent theme through his criticism here. There are some interesting thoughts on unreliability in the novel but not much to make it worthwhile.

Narrative Discourse: An Essay on Method by Gérard Genette
[Finished 29 August 2013] I was looking forward to this after the lest Genette that I read, and this should have been a more satisfying read, yet I found it to be less interesting to me than FIgures of Literary Discourse. It did make me more eager to revisit Proust, though, and that’s a worthwhile thing in itself.

Vox by Nicholson Baker
[Finished 29 August 2013] An amazing technical feat. The whole book is a single conversation on a phone sex line. I can see this as a useful resource for some of my own writing which explores similar structural ideas (although very different topics).

The Hundred Brothers by Donald Antrim
[Finished 27 August 2013] A strange and bizarre book. The titular brothers gather in a library in a state of dilapidation and while at first it seems as if this will be some special gathering, it’s gradually revealed that they apparently all live together in a house gradually collapsing (the library is part of the house whose extent is unclear although it’s apparently large enough to house and feed the hundred brothers). Things devolve quickly into a state of chaos and remain there. I was not especially impressed.

Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts by William H. Gass
[Finished 26 August 2013] At one of my MFA seminars, the lecturer presented a number of quotes from this book that made it seem like it might be interesting, so not knowing anything more than title and author and a vague recollection of some sentences, I requested it from the library. It ended up being a bit of a mixed bag. There were a few essays that I found beautifully written, a few where Gass’s prejudices hindered my enjoyment of the work (and while it might be my own opposing prejudices at work, I believe his interjections did little to improve his argument).

A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee
[Finished 20 August 2013] The opening chapter and a half of the novel are brilliant, leaving the reader unmoored at each step of the way. I was almost hoping for a Calvino-esque story where each chapter left me starting over from the beginning with a new set of characters and situations. Instead, things devolve into a fairly straightforward narrative, very plot driven with not a whole lot to make it artistically interesting. I found the pushing of the themes of forgiveness and redemption in the story to be a bit heavy-handed in its execution.

The Half-Known World by Robert Boswell
[Finished 14 August 2013] A remarkable book on writing craft. Boswell takes on a series of aspects of craft, varying from incorporating the political into fiction to omniscient viewpoint to those aspects of the writing process that surprise the author (he is very much of the school of thought that the writer shouldn’t try to shoehorn his characters into a too-preplanned plot). Boswell doesn’t hesitate to be prescriptive in his writing, choosing to focus on his own technique more than attempting to provide a more encyclopedic account of writing craft, but within these boundaries he creates something new and vital.

Pump Six and Other Stories by Paolo Bacifalupi
[Finished 14 August 2013] More cheap science fiction from an on-line promo. In this case Bacifalupi writes stories of a dystopian future from outside the standard Western viewpoint, even when he sets his stories in the remnants of the United States. Two stories explore different aspects of a post-fossil fuel world in which calories are the supreme currency and the production of food is controlled by a handful of global conglomerates who, it is implied, have engineered a series of diseases to destroy competition from natural food sources. The mood here is overwhelmingly bleak and Bacifalupi falls prey to the temptation of so many science fiction writers to lade his prose with nonsensical names and terminology leaving me with a sour feeling after reading these stories despite the originality of so much of the writing.

Unnatural Voices: Extreme Narration in Modern and Contemporary Fiction by Brian Richardson
[Finished 10 August 2013] I had hoped for more discussion of omniscience in this book, but even so, reading the theoretical constructs surrounding a lot of unconventional narratives (particularly second-person and first-person plural) was illuminating and helpful for my own writing. I was particularly surprised to discover the long history of the first-person plural narrator, something which I had assumed was a recent innovation

The Collected Stories by Katherine Mansfield
[Finished 8 August 2013] Pretty much every story Mansfield ever wrote (a few minor fragments were published elsewhere along with her journals). The inclusion of the unfinished and suppressed, however, only works to the detriment of the collection, especially given that they take up the majority of the pages. I would recommend to the reader to stick with The Garden Party and perhaps Bliss but skip the rest. I suppose, with sufficient devotion, one might also read In a German Pension, but the two collections of unpublished and unfinished stories are completely skippable.

Figures of Literary Discourse by Gérard Genette
[Finished 5 August 2013] Reading French structuralists can be challenging, but I found Genette, at least in the early esays in this collection, to be an engaging read. The selection here, taken from a number of Genette’s works in French, is selected thematically, on the study of the concept of “figure” (related to, but not confined to, the English idea of the figure of speech) which the translator relates to the Roman rhetoricians figura and the Greek schema. Most of this is not related to my research for my MFA essay, but I can see this being fertile ground to mine for further critical and craft essays.

The Best American Essays 2012 edited by David Brooks
[Finished 3 August 2013] I’m not really a non-fiction person. It’s always surprised me how little the fiction section comprises of most bookstores. So this is the first time I’ve given the Best American Essays series a go. I have to admit it hasn’t really changed my mind. The pieces that I enjoyed the most were those that formally could have been short stories rather than essays, such as David J. Lawless’s “My Father/My Husband” about his wife’s Alzheimer’s-related dementia, while those that veered into polemic, like Marcia Angell’s “The Crazy State of Psychiatry,” were difficult to get through (I almost wonder, given the tone of Angell’s piece whether she might be connected to the Scientologists).

A Small Hotel by Robert Olen Butler
[Finished 1 August 2013] After hearing an interview with Butler about this novel, I was curious to see what he was doing with his omniscient point of view. There are a number of places where he manages a seamless transition in perspective from one character to another and he does a good job of transitioning between impersonal narrative and a stream-of-consciousness narrative which shifts between the present of the novel and the main characters’ remembrances of their history together. Where Butler fails, however, is in his characterization of the husband. It seemed that he needed a Hemingway or Gordon Lish to excise some of his over-explanation of the husband’s motives. I felt like passages such as, “Nearer to them, in the sweet smell of them, he would only become clumsy, would only feel the need for words and gestures he could never adequately give.” This sort of explicit characterization not only takes away from the narrative (Butler would have been better served, I think, depicting this through actions rather than thoughts), but makes the denouement of the novel that much weaker for the sudden shift in the husband’s character.

A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik
[Finished 23 July 2013] Maksik writes beautiful prose, describing his character, Jacqueline, with enough detail and emotion that I was willing to read for pages knowing little of who she was or even where she was as she sought out food and shelter. Faced with the difficult problem of how to make a narrative of a person who has few interactions with other people and whose primary concern is daily survival, Maksik rises to the challenge admirably. Unfortunately, this is not enough and after a while, I began to feel that Maksik had belabored his point too long until the point where the final revelation comes, of the final details of how Jacqueline found herself homeless and hungry in Greece, feels almost anti-climactic. Enough of the back story had been dribbled out earlier that there was insufficient payoff for the novel’s conclusion. Still, even its failure, A Marker to Measure Drift is an interesting read with much to teach about its central narrative challenge through Maksik’s solution to the problem.

Image, Music, Text by Roland Barthes
[Finished 19 July 2013] With this collection, I find myself returned to the paths of my undergraduate education, the late 1980s academic war around literary theory. In those days I enjoyed Barthes a great deal. Coming back to him now, I find myself thinking that there’s a great deal of authoritative statements about things which Barthes actually knows nothing about (whether photography or Hebrew grammar: I am an expert in neither subject, but I know enough to be able to be distracted by claims that are untrue and detract from Barthes’s central argument). When things grow closer to Barthes’s core competency, writing about linguistics and literature, however, he is able to write more cogently.the essays, “An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives” and “The Death of the Author” (I clearly remember reading the latter in one or more of my theory classes with its opening analysis of Balzac, although memory has conflated Balzac’s description of the castrato with Jung’s description of a priest in his writing). In these, I find a handful of ideas that are useful in developing a stronger reading of narrative for my own work.

The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel by James Wood
[Finished 17 July 2013] If only this book had existed (and I’d read it) as an undergrad, I might not have had my crisis of faith in criticism that led to the collapse of my academic career (I reached a point where I could justify creating literature, and creating literary theory, but literary criticism stopped making sense to me; unfortunately, I still had to write a fair amount of it to complete my coursework).

Wood, in theory, is focusing on humor in the novel in the essays here, although in practice, his nominal thematic thread frays by the end of the first third of the book. That said, the essays remain lucid and Wood is not afraid to be judgmental in his evaluations of the books and authors he writes about. More than that, his essays provide models not just for how to write literary criticism, but a guide for the writer of literature in shaping his own craft.

I do feel that Wood let his own prejudices work to his detriment in his essay on J. F. Powers, Wood’s confessed anti-clericalism causing him to misinterpret Powers to fit his own beliefs.

Juego de Soledades by Sergio Galindo
[Finished 17 July 2013] I first encountered Galindo in Antología de Cuentos Mexicanos, an anthology of mid-to-late twentieth-century authors. I enjoyed the Galindo stories in that book enough to seek out more Galindo. Very little of Galindo’s work is available in English and, as far as I know, none of his stories. This anthology takes selections from throughout Galindo’s career, beginning with selections from his first published collection and concluding with a handful of previously uncollected stories.

Galindo is perhaps little appreciated outside of Mexico for failing to be one of the followers of Pedro Páramo, the founding work of Latin American magical realism. His fiction has a more European feel to it (three stories take place either in Europe or en route to it, while another is about Europeans living and visiting Mexico). He would best be classified as being one of the followers of the followers of Kafka, bringing in some of the tangled situations of Kafka’s work while remaining firmly grounded in realistic subject matter, for example in “Tio Quintín” (Uncle Quintin) centers around the narrator’s attempt to find any member of his family who can help him remember his uncle Quintin, an uncle who it seems few if any of his family will even acknowledge the existence of. “Retrato de Anabella” (Portrait of Annabella) focuses on a semi-retired Italian opera singer living in squalor in Mexico visited by her niece and her niece’s husband, a day earlier than expected. They help her clean her apartment while learning of her life and the husband who left her on their wedding day to accept a fellowship in Europe, telling Anabella that he didn’t think she’d want to leave Mexico, and so Anabella stayed in Mexico descending into alcoholism and squalor.

The Years by Virginia Woolf
[Finished 14 July 2013] As dense as you’d expect from Virginia Woolf. Telling the story of an upper class English family on decline from the 1880s through the 1930s, it has the feel of a book which was meant to be much longer but ran out of energy before it could reach that point. There were some interesting uses of narrative technique throughout, although it was not quite the exemplar of omniscient narrative I had been led to believe.

The Novel Today: Contemporary Writers on Modern Fiction edited by Malcolm Bradbury
[Finished 8 July 2013] I picked up this anthology primarily for John Fowles’s “Notes on an Unfinished Novel” although I found all of the essays to be fairly interesting. Philip Roth wrote in an instantly recognizable voice about the problems of writing fiction in the face of a world already quite strange (and this in 1963 speaking primarily of figures from the ’50s!), there was a great deal of discussion about the impact of postmodernism on the novel and whether a postmodern approach would displace the “traditional” narrative form (as a few decades of history have shown, it has not), some mention of the impact of cinema on novel-writing, and a fair bit more. There were a few writers that I was unfamiliar with introduced to me and overall a great sense overview of how the novel was viewed in the ’60s and early ’70s.

Pilgrimage, Volume 1: Pointed Roofs, Backwater, Honeycomb by Dorothy M. Richardson
[Finished 3 July 2013] Notable as the first novel in the language to employ stream of consciousness (and the first work to have that term applied to it), this is the beginning of what ultimately spans fourteen novels, staying within the mind of the protagonist Miriam Henderson the whole time. It’s been interesting to use Google books and Project Gutenberg e-texts to examine works by Fielding and Dickens to discover the lack of any sort of internal monologue in the third person (and nothing quite like what marked it in the twentieth century first person narrative). As the novels progress, Richardson grows increasingly daring with her narrative style, employing ellipses and fragmentary narration with greater frequency. I think this was enough of a taste of Richardson’s style for my needs, but I could see the interested reader reading the whole of the work.

Further Interpretations of Real-life Events by Kevin Moffett
[Finished 2 July 2013] The title story from this collection is one of my favorite short stories. I first read it when it appeared in Best American Short Stories and it more than stands up for a re-reading. The collection as a whole generally meets the challenge of quality set by that first story with Moffett exploring slightly off-kilter versions of the world and using humor to push against harder truths to acknowledge.

Terrorist by John Updike
[Finished 1 July 2013] This is the first novel of Updike’s that I’ve read (I’ve only read a couple of his short stories previously). The protagonist of Updike’s novel, Ahmad Ashmawy, ends up being a flat character with little life. The second main character, Ahmad’s high school guidance counselor, Jack Levy, is a little more two-dimensional, but really the most alive character ends up being Ahmad’s boss/coworker after graduation. The imam of the mosque which Ahmad attended had some moments of dimensionality, but being only seen through Ahmad’s eyes, Updike was limited in his ability to make the character live.

I read this book in particular because it was mentioned in an article on omniscient narrative, but other than a few moments in early chapters, this is less an omniscient narrative as one told largely in close third with occasional abrupt changes in the POV character. The choice of present tense in the narrative does provide a sense of omniscience through the grammar of the novel.

Oulipo Compendium edited by Hary Mathews and Alastair Brotchie
[Finished July 2013] A wonderful book. Presented in encyclopedic format, it ends up being not really a book to read but one to dip into, presenting references on the people, works and ideas of the Oulipo and its related movements. If I were to do a PhD in Lit these days, this would be my dissertation topic.

My Escapee by Corinna Vallianatos
[Finished 26 June 2013] Not entirely to my taste, there were some sublime moments in this collection, but a lot of times when I felt that I must be missing something. The first and last stories in the collection, both of which tell the stories of old women, were easily the best in the collection.

Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk
[Finished 24 June 2013] My first Palahniuk. There’s a lot that I would expect from my experiences from the films of his books: the gratuitously transgressive characters (among other things, the narrator runs a fake suicide hotline with which he encourages the despondent to end their lives), the country-spanning crimes, the nihilism. There are some truly wonderful details amidst the story here and a good narrative voice. I’ve noted that some people have found this to be not so good, which makes me all the more interested in reading more Palahniuk.

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
[Finished 20 June 2013] A wonderfully rich story. The second part occasionally runs a little off the rails with the jarring first-person narration of the interrogator, but the overall mystery is handled with perfection leaving the reader uncertain exactly how the story will end.

The Complete Poems by Thomas Hardy
[Finished 17 June 2013] As a poet, Thomas Hardy is a pretty good novelist. There are some (rare) moments of poetic brilliance here, but most of the volume is rather forgettable. Hardy is most inclined towards narrative poems telling tales that verge on the gothic. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of reading Hardy’s poetry is realizing how far into the twentieth century Hardy lived. He gave up novel writing at the end of the nineteenth century but was writing poems write up to his death in 1928, with poems touching on subjects such as the sinking of the Titanic, World War I and most surprisingly Albert Einstein’s theories.

The Practice of Creative Writing: A Guide for Students by Heather Sellers
[Finished 13 June 2013] I found this book to be a bit dull and prescriptive. I think a big part of it is that it’s really geared towards the beginning writer and having never taken a beginning creative writing class, I can’t really place this into my own context. Other people seem to like it a lot more.

The Mothers by Jennifer Gilmore
[Finished 10 June 2013] After hearing Gilmore interviewed on Fresh Air, I thought that this would be an interesting read. And there are times when Gilmore manages to convey well the emotions surrounding infertility and adoption, but it seems like there’s a wide swath of the novel which is dedicated to some poorly crafted characterization exercises and the actual experiences with the birth mothers felt rushed as Gilmore consigned these to the last fifth of the book. Add on what felt like some generally lazy writing and poor proofreading and overall I felt like I got more from her interview than from her novel.

The Throne of the Heaven of the Nations Third Millenium General Assembly by Denis Johnson
[Finished 6 June 2013] Reading for my MFA program, I found this book, unlike Johnson’s fiction, to be a bit offputting. There were occasional flashes of brilliance, but most of it felt rather mundane.

It Chooses You by Miranda July
[Finished 5 June 2013] A book about more than its ostensible topic, the stories and people behind for sale listings from The Pennysaver. It’s also about July’s own creative process both in the writing of this book and in the writing of the movie she was working on at the same time. Unlike the short story collection that I read, there seemed to be an undercurrent of honesty and courage that her fiction lacked. It does make me more interested to see The Future having read the book.

Life: A Users Manual by Georges Perec
[Finished 4 June 2013] Just absolutely amazing. I’d previously read Perec’s A Void which was written without the use of the letter E (and perhaps more impressively, then translated into English without the use of the letter E). But Perec is no one-trick pony. Here he tells the story of an entire building, going off on delightful digressions based on the contents or previous residents of the building’s apartments, while simultaneously playing with the concept of an artist who painted watercolors which were made into jigsaw puzzles, re-assembled, restored to being watercolors then returned to the place of their creation where the paint was removed returning the paper on which the paintings were made to their original blank states. Everything in the building is detailed from lists of things found on the staircases to the furnishings of the apartments to the detritus abandoned in the cellars. Seriously, just go and read this book. You’ll love it.

No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July
[Finished 3 June 2013] An occasionally beautiful, occasionally frustrating collection of stories. There’s an undercurrent of loneliness throughout July’s work here which when it comes a little closer to the surface enjances her prose, but too often gets pushed away as more a joke than anything else.

Collected Stories by Raymond Carver
[Finished 21 May 2013] An amazingly comprehensive collection of Carver’s fiction. The inclusion of both What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and Beginners provides an interesting opportunity for seeing Gordon Lish’s editing process at work.

There’s the cliché among writers of “killing your darlings.” Comparing the Lish and Carver versions of the stories, Lish not only killed Carver’s darlings, but he burned down their houses, and tracked down and slaughtered all of the darlings’ friends and relatives. In many cases, the Lish version of the story was half the length (if not less) of the original Carver version and the excisions almost always improved the story, allowing the central Truth to shine without so much unnecessary explaining (“Tell the Women We’re Going” is a notable example of this with Lish eliminating a lot of unnecessary explanation behind the motivation for the murder of the girls—as well as having Jerry kill both girls and not just one as was the case in the original story). There are some bizarre emendations made by Lish though. I can’t help but wonder what made him change the room number in “Gazebo” or the name of the cardiologist in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

The small selection of Carver’s essays is another nice bonus, providing a chance to get some insight into Carver’s own view of his writing process. I entered this volume having never read a Carver short story and I left it a huge Carver fan.

Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link
[Finished 20 May 2013] A wonderful surprise in the ebooks that were part of the humble ebook bundle. This is less science fiction and more in the realm of magical realism. Link lets her imagination take her to any place she likes in the stories in this collection and her imagination manages to choose some delightful destinations for its travels. It’s not perfect writing by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s among the best in the humble bundle so far.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander
[Finished 17 May 2013] When I first read “Free Fruit for Young Windows” in Best American Short Stories, I wasn’t very impressed. But when I read it again at the end of this collection, it almost seemed a different story. Englander manages to write in many tones in the stories in this collection, opening with the Carveresque “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” which is able to be referential to the Carver story without descending into pastiche. Some of the stories are published for the first time in this collection including some of my favorites.

Homer & Langley by E. L. Doctorow
[Finished 4 May 2013] A surprisingly bland take on what should have been fascinating subject matter. I first learned about the Collyer brothers from a play I saw with my wife at one of the little theatres that dot Chicago’s north side. That play treated the brothers as, ultimately, an enigma, only understandable through guesses and speculations based on occasional sightings from without. Doctorow takes the opposite approach, putting himself squarely in the mind of Homer, the blind Collyer brother. He takes significant liberties with chronology and character, creating events and interactions that existed only in the pages of the novel as a means of making his novel a commentary on the whole of the twentieth century. It fails at this and fails at producing any illumination into the Collyer brothers as well, resulting in a book which is ultimately flat and lifeless.

A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia by Victor Pelevin
[Finished 25 April 2013] I enjoyed Pelevin’s magical realist stories in this volume, tales that blurred the boundaries between dreams and realities (although I thought that “Bulldozer Driver’s Day” perhaps went too far in the direction of attempting to write a dream as a story). There’s a sense of surrealism and absurdity in these stories which really appealed to me. I wish I could write like this, but any attempts I’ve made have ended in dismal failure.

Tenth of December by George Saunders
[Finished 25 April 2013] Saunders is a writer who is a master of narrative voice and this collection continues to demonstrate his skill in that arena. There does appear to be some limitations in Saunders’s thematic imagination with two stories depending on the impact of psychopharmacological drugs with trademarked names. But other stores manage to be great additions to the canon of surreal Saunders stories.

Airships by Barry Hannah
[Finished 17 April 2013] Hannah writes with an incredibly strong voice in these stories. His use of language and vernacular dialect is astonishing (as well as a complete lack of fear surrounding the use of the “N-word”). There’s a level of alienation I feel encountering him, the difference between a southern writer and a boy from Chicago reading his words, but his characters, plots and voice manage to bridge the gap, even when he’s writing about Confederate soldiers or southern good ol’ boys.

Goshawk Squadron by Derek Robinson
[Finished 16 April 2013] Darkly comic. The obvious comparison is Catch-22, but I found this book to be far more entertaining and more successful in its aims. Robinson manages to make the erratic and misanthropic Woolley, his central character, an ultimately tragic and likeable character against all odds.

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
[Finished 15 April 2013] The problem with the post-apocalyptic novel is figuring out what the end-game should be. Do we conclude with a nihilistic we all die in the end resolution, or try to come up with some sort of hope for the story and if so, what form does that hope take. And then there’s also the problem of having a story which is able to rise above the post-apocalyptic setting. Heller occasionally reaches that point, particularly in his depiction of the relationship between Hig and his dog Jasper, but most of the time, the story stays distressingly static and fails to live up to its potential.

Mount Analogue by René Daumal
[Finished 9 April 2013] I suppose had I read this when I was the young man who could read Richard Bach with a straight face I would have loved this book. Instead, I read this when I’m older and wiser. There are some moments of hilarity in Daumal’s narrative, but they’re overshadowed by clumsy allegory and absurd metaphysics.

White Man's Grave by Richard Dooling
[Finished 9 April 2013] I’m somewhat surprised that this book has fallen out of print. I like how Dooling manages the portrayal of African culture through the eyes of his American protagonists, keeping close his own views on whether the events of the novel are natural or supernatural (with the exception of the appearance of the bat in Randall’s bedroom). The accounting of American culture in the early 90s is exceptionally well-drawn, especially the dashed dreams of recent college grads facing the disconnect between their education and real life.

Arcadia by Lauren Groff
[Finished 5 April 2013] I first encountered Groff through her short stories, so it was interesting to see what she does in the long form. Here she writes in a stream of consciousness style, redolent of Cormac McCarthy. The first part, with her protagonist Bit as a young child raised in an upstate New York commune, is hard going because of this, the perspective fragmented and incomplete, but as her character ages, the voice becomes more grounded and drives the reader to revisit those earlier pages as a means of understanding the later parts of the novel. There’s a great depth to the subject matter as Groff explores questions of human excess in the collapse of the commune as well as the last section, set in a near future where climate change and pandemic viruses threaten human existence, all without losing touch with the central narrative of the life of Bit. There are times when the huge cast of characters gets distracting, trying to keep track of the assorted characters from the commune who drop in and out of the narrative as the novel progresses, but the novel ends up being a satisfying read in the end.

The Rebels by Sándor Márai
[Finished 28 March 2013] I found Sándor Márai’s The Rebels to be an interesting work. It starts off feeling almost directionless, but then in the last two chapters as things disintegrate for the four boys at the center of the book, it becomes hard to put down. There were a number of wonderful sentences scattered throughout the book, writing about ideas in a way that’s become uncommon in a lot of contemporary literary fiction. The use of a sort of composite third-person point of view in many portions of the novel was especially interesting to me.

Antología de Cuentos Mexicanos edited by María del Carmen Millán
[Finished 27 March 2013] For me, reading in Spanish can be a slow and challenging process. I can read newspapers without too much effort, but literary fiction, like the stories in this volume, requires a careful word-by-word reading as my vocabulary slowly expands. But slow reading has its own benefits, finding wonderful turns of phrase (many of which I fully intend to shamelessly pilfer) and intriguing idioms (pueblo rabón, meaning a run-down village, translates literally as bob-tail village). The authors in this collection are largely unfamiliar to me, and few if any have been translated into English. I may correct that.

Kiku's Prayer by Shusakū Endō
[Finished 21 March 2013] I first encountered Shusakū Endō in an article somewhere which described him as the “Japanese Graham Greene.” As a dedicated Greene fan who’d run out of Greene to read (I’ve also made my way through Evelyn Waugh’s œuvre), I decided to read what was considered Endō’s most characteristic novel, Silence. Like Silence, Kiku’s Prayer is centered around the persecution of Japanese Catholics, although the focus has shifted from the beginning of the persecution in Silence to the end of it in Kiku’s Prayer. There’s also a shift in Endō’s focus here. In Silence, the title referred to the silence of God to the suffering of the Catholics and the ultimate apostasy of the European missionary priest in the face of his torture by the Japanese authorities. But here, Endō writes about the end of the persecution and as a reader, we know that there is hope for these characters, the only question is whether Endō will end the novel before the ban on Christianity is lifted. I find myself thinking that in some ways the comparison with Greene is not completely justified. Greene’s characters are ones who, in many ways, are fleeing from God’s grace, most explicitly in The End of the Affair, but also in his other “religious” novels. With Endō, the characters are actively seeking God and are greeted with only silence. Except here, the notes of hope actually manifest themselves in some strange ways: The sinful Itō who has the job of persecuting the prisoners and who exploits Kiku and is indirectly responsible for her death and directly responsible for her despair, becomes a “Kirishitan” although he remains very much the sinner. And Kiku, who, despite her love for the Kirishitan Seikichu, never becomes Kirishitan and retains a hostility towards the faith because it is keeping the man she loves away from her for reasons she cannot fathom, is given a vision of the Virgin Mary just before her death on the floor of the Nagasaki Christian Church. The depth of the comparison between Greene and Endō lies really in the fact that both authors treat religion as something of complexity and death rather than as a purely inspirational topic.

Miami Blues by Charles Willeford
[Finished 12 March 2013] One of those pure entertainment books which is hard to put down. I’m intended to write annotations on this book, for my MFA program, but I kept forgetting to take notes as I read. Just great writing and a gripping plot, who could ask for anything more? Even the grotesque coincidences weren’t problematic for me.

Force Majeure by Bruce Wagner
[Finished 10 March 2013] The opening of Force Majeure left me predisposed to dislike the book. I just found the writing in the first paragraphs to be forced and unappealing. Going back to it now, I’m realizing it’s as much a problem with the narrative voice. As a whole, the book felt disappointingly episodic with no real overarching plot (Wagner flirted with Bud’s relationship with the Doctor being an important driver of the story, but too often just let that fall apart while he departed on yet another fanciful adventure, but even the episodes were uninspiring as they seemed to lack any meaningful beginnings or endings. The character of Bud’s mother felt like Wagner might have ripped her off wholesale from the character of Jonathan Price’s mother in Brazil.

The Narrow Corner by W. Somerset Maugham
[Finished 28 February 2013] I’ve been a Maugham fan ever since I discovered him through his short stories purchased at a mall bookstore in St Louis, back in the days when malls had bookstores. It’s a somewhat languid tale told mostly from the point of view of Dr Saunders, a skilled eye doctor and opium addict who is uprooted from his comfortable existence to treat a patient on a somewhat remote island where he ends up hitching a ride back towards home with a mysterious pair of men: a crooked captain and a young man of mysterious background. As a pure adventure and mystery story it’s enjoyable, but where it really shines is in its exploration of the relationship between ugly old age and youthful beauty. Truly a wonderful piece of writing.

Little Black Book of Stories by A. S. Byatt
[Finished 20 February 2013] Once again, Byatt doesn’t fail to please. This is some amazing stuff here, with Byatt in great control of her language and able to create great imagery, for example, I loved her use of increasingly vivid and unlikely adjectives in the following sentence: “His creased face and his arthritic fingers and his cobbled teeth and his no doubt graveyard breath had nothing to do with anything so alive and lovely.”

A Farewell to Arms: The Hemingway Library Edition by Ernest Hemingway
[Finished 19 February 2013] A well-drawn account, as much about love as about war. I found myself finding all manner of wonderful things to note within the body of the text, but even more interesting were the appendices which gave some insight into the composition and revision process of writing the novel. Seeing the edits that Hemingway made is a writing seminar in itself, well worth the price of admission on its own.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
[Finished 13 February 2013] This is a book that’s all plot. OK, not all plot, but man, the plot the plot the plot. I have some qualms about the characterization in the book (the depiction of Amy, in particular, if this book had been written by a man, would be seen as disturbingly misogynistic), and when Flynn stops the diary entries, it feels less like two different narrative voices in the Amy and Nick chapters, but the storytelling and pacing are top notch and her use of asynchrony between the two narratives is handled amazingly well.

Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose
[Finished 12 February 2013] When I first saw this in the bookstore, I read the first chapter and realized that this was effectively an English major in a book. I really wish this book had existed when I was an undergrad, it could have prevented my crisis of faith in the value of literary criticism and interpretation. This is clearly an essential book for any writer to own and also for most readers to own as well. If I have any quibble, it’s in the labelling of the bibliography as “To Be Read Immediately.” Alas, what I had hoped would be a curriculum is really merely a list of all the books quoted and most of the books mentioned in the text.

Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy
[Finished 12 February 2013] After reading Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, I thought that I should read Lucy Grealy’s account of things. There’s not much overlap in the two accounts (although both recount Lucy’s losing her virginity at the beginning of her time at the University of Iowa). What surprised me was how prosaic the book felt. Having recently read Mary Karr’s Lit, I was expecting a stronger writing style, but instead it seemed rather pedestrian. Patchett’s book felt more poetic to me than the book by the actual poet.

Touch by Elmore Leonard
[Finished 8 February 2013] Part of my MFA reading, I found the premise a bit interesting: What would happen to a person who is a saint in the modern world, but the execution was a bit flawed. Most of the characters felt two-dimensional and wooden to me, especially August, the Catholic traditionalist. Juvenal, the novel’s protagonist, at least was well-drawn. I think I would have liked if Leonard had stuck with a single point of view character throughout the novel and let some of his pop culture references slide. The ending was a bit of a disaster, but it seems that this is a problem endemic with Elmore Leonard novels.

Venus Drive by Sam Lipsyte
[Finished 8 February 2013] Lipsyte creates amazing characters, people who are broken by life and love, unable to fit in to society, but unwilling to be apart from it. I’ve read a handful of his stories in other contexts, but this is the first time facing one of his collections head on and I approve. This is good stuff.

Live By Night by Dennis Lehane
[Finished 6 February 2013] My second Lehane novel, and while it’s not quite the artistic triumph that Mystic River was, it’s still a good read. Lehane does a great job of making his characters and locations feel real and I found myself seeing so much of Tampa clearly just from reading the novel.

Fight Song by Joshua Mohr
[Finished 6 February 2013] I really enjoyed the technical artistry in Mohr’s last book, Damascus, and was hoping to see something similar here. It was well-written, certainly, and he creates a world where we learn not to be surprised by anything that happens because anything really can happen. The story itself is a delight, but in the end it’s more entertainment than literature

Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages by Ammon Shea
[Finished 30 January 2013] Shea, sadly, does not have the kind of engaging voice that made A. J. Jacob’s similar book about the Encyclopedia Brittanica so engaging. It’s a similar format, but Shea does little to make sharing his experience pleasant. In fact, I find it somewhat surprising that his girlfriend tolerates his dictionary habit. Perhaps it’s because Shea is a self-described lifelong reader of dictionaries, but he just isn’t an interesting enough person to sustain the memoir portions of the book while the entries are occasionally enjoyable, they’re more often just there.

Rabbit Punches by Jason Ockert
[Finished 27 January 2013] I really wanted to enjoy this collection as Jason himself is a wonderful person, but I found the stories to be a bit uneven. Where Ockert allows himself to be less focused on attempting some sort of Faulknerian stream-of-consciousness, he’s more enjoyable, but the opening stories left me feeling a bit cold. The best of his writing, I think, were the stories which had some connection to other stories in the volume: an off-hand reference to an event central in another story, characters and even narrators in common, this is where Ockert is his strongest. He has a novel coming out this spring which I think should draw on his strengths more fully.

Lit by Mary Karr
[Finished 27 January 2013] I continue to not think of myself as a memoir reader all while continuing to read memoirs. I was drawn to this by the passing reference to Karr’s conversion to Catholicism in one review of the book. But what made the book worth reading, more than anything was Karr’s facility with language. She can wield a metaphor like a skilled chef wields a carving knife. And like a skilled chef, she knows when to use embellishments and when to let the text speak for itself, making the appearance of a beautiful metaphor that much more wonderful. In fact, I only found one passage that felt like over-writing to me, a sin often committed by those who compose beautiful prose. The account drags a bit when Karr gets into writing about writing her first memoir (writing about writing is seldom interesting which is part of why, I think, the first volume of Graham Greene’s autobiography, about the period before he finally achieved success as a novelist, is so much more compelling than the second volume which encompasses the time when he wrote his most familiar novels). I was sad to see the book come to an end and I’m rather curious to encounter some of Karr’s poetry now.

The Major Plays by Anton Chekhov
[Finished 24 January 2013] Reading Chekhov plays has never been an especially enjoyable experience for me. I cam back to this volume from which I had read excerpt s as an undergrad and gave it another try. Only those plays which I had previously seen staged left much impression on me. Unlike some other playwrights (Shaw, I’m looking at you), Chekhov simply does not live on the page.

The Godfather by Mario Puzo
[Finished 23 January 2013] An amazingly badly written book. Puzo has a great story (and Coppola perfected it in the first two Godfather movies), but the craft here is awful. There is frequent overexplaining, needless shifts in point of view and overall wordiness and disorganization.

The Judges by Elie Wiesel
[Finished 23 January 2013] A bit of confused mess, really. I expected a better handling of omniscient point of view from Wiesel, but there were times that it was difficult to know in whose head we were. That said, the language was still beautiful, as one might expect, although the story tips its hand in a way, at one point talking about how one of the characters might have read too much Kafka or Borges.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
[Finished 23 January 2013] An amazing book. Faulkner does the near-impossible, writing from multiple points of view with each voice distinct. This alone makes it an artistic tour de force, but then throw in the layers of the narration, the hidden streams of character that are revealed only indirectly and it’s easy to see why this is one of the top novels of the twentieth century.

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
[Finished 19 January 2013] A wonderful collection of short stories. Lahiri has a great way with language, although there is also a uniformity of voice that works against her in the trio of linked stories which close the book—there, the voice being identical in the first person narratives of two different characters (along with a third-person final narrative).

Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye
[Finished 19 January 2013] Gothic horror. There’s a somewhat outside of time nature to the stories, an odd mix of the medieval and the modern. On occasion, the supernatural turns into the natural and vice versa, and when the ghost that haunts contemporary Germany—the holocaust—appears towards the end of the collection, it brings an even greater level of horror to the proceedings than all the assorted murders, rapes and executions that preceded.

The Spy's Bedside Book edited by Graham Greene and Hugh Greene
[Finished 17 January 2013] It makes me happy to see this book re-issued as it was one of the few bits of Greene’s oeuvre that I didn’t own, and hadn’t read. The preface, with its disclaimer of real-world espionage experience, is especially entertaining given what we now know of Greene’s continued involvement with the British intelligence services. Just another sign of Greene’s famous sense of humor showing through.

The contents of the book itself tend from the banal to the fascinating with selections drawn from a wide variety of sources, both fiction and non-fiction. Greene’s own contribution, a brief passage from The Basement Room marks an interesting choice given so many other more directly relevant choices Greene could have made from his own work—perhaps more of Greene’s humor at play here, possibly revealing some of how his espionage work and writing intersected.

Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace
[Finished 8 January 2013] I read this stuff and I find myself thinking how much I would have liked to have known DFW. It’s like spending an evening talking with a super-smart hyperliterate friend about everything in society. The final essay in the collection, “Host,” takes the non-linear footnoted style of DFW’s writing to its logical conclusion by breaking the prose up with arrows and boxes to carry the reader through various levels of digression. It’s not to some people’s taste, but then some people have no taste.

Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? by John R. Powers
[Finished 28 December 2012] Labelled as a novel, it really felt more like a collection of linked stories. Each chapter could have easily stood on its own. The tone and subject matter reminded me of Ring Lardner and early Salinger, with stories tending to end on what might be called a punch line. There were a lot of laugh-out-loud moments although the tendency towards hyperbole transformed the stories into something less than they could have been.

Embassytown by China Miéville
[Finished 28 December 2012] A science fiction novel primarily about language. A lot more satisfying to me than was Kraken, although Miéville still can’t give up on the science fiction writer’s crutch of invented vocabulary, which makes the book weaker on that score. The overall philosophy of the meaning of language though is handled well.

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane
[Finished 23 December 2012] A masterpiece of handling shifting close third person narratives. And a damned good story. I’m thinking that Lehane would be a good model for me to focus on in my own writing.

Forty Stories by Donald Barthelme
[Finished 19 December 2012] I’d not quite enjoyed Barthelme’s Sixty Stories, but this collection just knocked me off my feet. This was just an incredibly beautiful collection of stories, with almost every one a diamond. Barthelme’s subversion of form works especially well in these stories.

One of our Thursdays is Missing by Jasper Fforde
[Finished 16 December 2012] A wonderfully bizarre book, filled with literary and writerly in-jokes. There are times when Fforde gets a little repetitive but these are outweighed by the delightful strangeness of the whole endeavor.

Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau
[Finished 13 December 2012] The Oulipo works tend to be more about language than anything else which makes the fact that I was reading this in translation all the more magical (although the translator effectively wrote a few new exercises in English as part of her work). As a self-contained work, this would not necessarily be very satisfying, but as an exploration of the possibilities of language it’s brilliant.

Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell by Charles Simic
[Finished 12 December 2012] An interesting book, a sort of reproduction of Cornell’s artistic project as a collection of one page quotations, essays and prose poems.

The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets by Diana Wagman
[Finished 10 December 2012] I have a bit of an obsession about omniscient third-person narrative and in this book, I’ve found a great example of how not to handle it. Wagman, whose Bump I enjoyed, is not a bad writer, but the craft here seems to have failed her on this novel.

Familiar by J. Robert Lennon
[Finished 7 December 2012] A story which begins as a domestic drama then takes an interesting turn with the central character feeling that everything is not as she expects it to be. Everything is different, her car, her self, and most importantly, her son who had died in a van crash as a teenager is now alive. Lennon does a good job of conveying the ambiguity about whether Elisa’s world has in fact changed or if she has had some sort of mental disturbance and explores the consequences of everything reasonably well, but things fall apart in the ending of the book which descends into incoherence.

The Bohemian Girl by Willa Cather
[Finished 6 December 2012] After reading Therese Svoboda’s Bohemian Girl, it only seemed logical to go back to Willa Cather and read this book. A collection of short stories, I was struck with the beauty of Cather’s prose from the first page. She does a great job of conveying the lives and landscapes of the nineteenth century prairie west.

Mean Free Path by Ben Lerner
[Finished 4 December 2012] Really amazing poetry. I had been a bit afraid when I started this collection that I might not “get it,” but I found the work to be both accessible and deep. There’s a certain random collage aesthetic to the work, with each line not necessarily following from the previous and occasional repetitions of phrase in separate stanzas to catch the reader’s attention.

Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie
[Finished 3 December 2012] Rushdie’s memoir of his time under protection, spanning roughly from the moment that the fatwa was declared until the aftermath of September 11th, gives an interesting look into the mind of the writer. While he seems sometimes to try to make himself look better, particularly over points of public criticism that he suffered while he was under protection, Rushdie is unflinching in being willing to admit his private failures (during the course of the memoir, Rushdie has two marriages fail and a third on the road to failure with his first marriage already dead). At times his anti-religious stance gets a bit tiresome, but his views on religion are hard-earned and worth forgiving.

Loving • Living • Party Going by Henry Green
[Finished 27 November 2012] Green is an author that I learned about from reading Graham Greene’s autobiography when he mentioned the other Green as being a great writer. I had read the other Penguin omnibus of Nothing • Doting • Blindness some twenty years ago, and remember just getting lost (in a bad way) in Green’s prose. His plots tend to be not especially grand or expansive, focusing on rather uninteresting aspects of life, but in great detail. The blandness of his subject matter is reflected in his titles (which are mostly single words) and even in his name (Green is a pseudonym for Henry Yorke).

All this is by way of prologue. I came at this trio of novels focusing much more on Green’s craft. This is really the most rewarding way to read Green. He’s a writer for writers more than for readers, providing incredible management of scene character and narrative voice. I may actually come back to Party Going when I write my critical paper for my MFA, his handling of POV is so masterful and well-handled in that book.

Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson
[Finished 20 November 2012] This is a book which is really all about the narrative voice and use of language. The stories, such as they are, tend to be a bit slight and often meander without going anywhere in particular (the last story being a grand exception), but as a reader, it’s hard to object because the writing is so amazing.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman
[Finished 14 November 2012] A really amazing and fun book. The standard one-line description is that it’s Harry Potter for adults, but it’s more than that. Yes, there is the opening of a seemingly ordinary boy who is invited into a school for magic, but things seldom follow the expected path, including our hero Quentin, who doesn’t end up being much of a hero. He’s not the bravest or the smartest or even the one who defeats the big bad of the story. Instead he’s a guy who screws up over and over and has to live with the consequences of his mistakes. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of Grossman’s planned trilogy.

I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal
[Finished 29 October 2012] I started this with some trepidation. I hadn’t really cared for Closely Watched Trains, but I found this book to be far more enjoyable. The narrative style reminded me of Louis Adamic’s Laughing in the Jungle, all big voice with minimal scenework.

Bohemian Girl by Terese Svoboda
[Finished 29 October 2012] I really had little idea what to expect from this book. I certainly didn’t expect a western. But once I got over the shock of setting, I enjoyed Svoboda’s use of a stream-of-consciousness narrative (although there are a couple mostly unexplained departures into conversations between a pair of Indians who are nowhere near the narrator).

vN by Madeleine Ashby
[Finished 25 October 2012] Rather average science fiction. I need to stop listening to Cory Doctorow’s recommendations. We apparently have very different taste in fiction. I found the craft to be somewhat amateurish and the existential questions raised were shied away from. Plus the ending felt like a complete non-sequitur.

The Coast of Chicago by Stuart Dybek
[Finished 21 October 2012] I’d only read three Dybek stories before beginning this collection, but I continue to be amazed at the man’s talent. This is a brilliant exploration of the culture of the lower west side of Chicago in the 50s and 60s.

Home by Marilynne Robinson
[Finished 19 October 2012] Marilynne Robinson has yet to disappoint me with her writing. Home is a sort of sequel to Gilead, although it, in fact, takes place roughly simultaneously with the earlier novel and like the earlier novel is at its heart concerned with the character of Jack Boughton, a notorious sinner. The Rashomon-style approach taken in these two books (Gilead is told from the perspective of John Ames, a friend of Jack’s father, while Home is told from point of view of Glory, Jack’s baby sister), manages to give us some hints of insight into Jack’s character while still leaving him enigmatic in the end. I can only hope for further exploration of Jack Boughton perhaps in Robinson’s next novel.

The Convalescent by Jessica Anthony
[Finished 14 October 2012] An amusing tale. I can see some elements of Gunther Grass in this book, and there’s a call-out to J. D. Salinger in the dedication.

The Great Tradition by F. R. Leavis
[Finished 12 October 2012] A masterful work of criticism, Leavis examines what he considers to be the thread of the best English novels, focusing on works by George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad. There are some occasions of absolutism in Leavis’s judgment of the quality of the works that he examines, which I sometimes disagreed with (although not always). Perhaps the most important aspect of the book is not the specific evaluations of the works within it, but the framework that Leavis establishes which enables him to show exactly what makes a book good or bad in his eyes. It’s been a while since I’ve read like a scholar and Leavis provides a good model for doing so in this book. I do find myself wanting to reread James now.

The Little Book by Selden Edwards
[Finished 9 October 2012] Time travel stories can be broadly divided into two groups: History-is-fluid, exemplified by the Back to the Future movies, and History-is-fixed, exemplified by The Time Traveler’s Wife. The Little Book falls into the latter category, although the characters discover this long after the reader does. The unfortunate predictability of the plot, however, is overcome by a compelling storytelling voice which also helps the reader ignore some of the repetitive aspects of the storytelling and the hit-you-over-the-head-with-a-hammer parallelisms of some aspects of the plot.

I was rather intrigued by the use of omniscient POV in the novel. Edwards manages it quite well by using the idea of the narrator as an unnamed and invisible character (possibly the protagonist’s mother as the note at the beginning of the novel would seem to imply). Further, by employing devices such as referring to the protagonist’s journal as a source of information, it provides a frame that allows the reader to accept the incredibly broad knowledge the narrator has of the characters and events. I had read this book hoping to learn a bit about fin-de-siécle Vienna and I came away having learned a fair amount of one way to manage omniscient viewpoint.

Everyman by Philip Roth
[Finished 4 October 2012] Philip Roth’s primary thematic obsession in his novels is the body, whether it’s the sexual obsessions of Alexander Portnoy or the emaciated frame of Merry Levov in American Pastoral, some of his most enduring images in the mind of the reader are of his descriptions of the human body and its relation to the mind of the human in that body. In Everyman, the obsession is on the decay of the body, beginning at the funeral of its nameless protagonist (a choice which reinforces the “Everyman” conceit of the title) and then looks back on the course of the protagonist’s life, focusing on the decay of the body in old age.

Overall, it’s an incredible piece of writing, something which really does live up to the aspirations that the title gives it as being a sort of modern morality tale. Even the difficulty of telling a third-person novel with an unnamed protagonist is handled well, although at times, the lack of ability to call the protagonist by name makes for some awkward bits of prose.

The Alienist by Caleb Carr
[Finished 4 October 2012] I first learned of this book during one of the seminars in my MFA program so I added it to my reading list, thinking (correctly) that it would offer me some useful historical insights (although I’m writing a continent away) and provide a useful voice to listen to in the reading of it. The story is essentially a police procedural, notable for its locus in time with many modern techniques of detection unknown or unaccepted. This justifies perhaps a bit too much expository dialogue, but it was interesting to see the characters attempt to employ some distinctly non-scientific methods along the way.

Best American Poetry 2012 edited by Mark Doty
[Finished 27 September 2012] My first entry into the poetry version of the Best American series and I have to say, “wow.” I’ve not read much contemporary verse, beyond what comes my way between the stories and essays of literary magazines (in fact, one of the poems in this volume I remembered from its original appearance in The New England Review), and I was surprised how much I enjoyed the reading of this volume. I will definitely be continuing with this series.

Against Deconstruction by John M. Ellis
[Finished 23 September 2012] Not surprisingly, given the title, this is a polemical work. Ellis makes a compelling argument throughout, but I’m left wondering whether he has accurately characterized deconstruction in his book. It’s been quite a while since I read Derrida, Culler or DeMan, but I remember there being a greater depth to their ideas than Ellis is willing to admit. I suppose I need to revisit the deconstructionists to regain my understanding of that vein of thought.

The Marquise of O and Other Stories by Heinrich von Kleist
[Finished 23 September 2012] Foreshadowing of some of the themes that would later resurface in Gissing and even more so in the existentialists of the twentieth century. Kleist’s examination of the ways in which the twin promises of Christian theology and enlightenment philosophy fail in the world, witha rational well-ordered universe failing to manifest itself upon an investigation of reality. Interestingly, “The Duel,” which marks the last of the stories to be written has moved from the grim injustice of “An Earthquake in Santiago” to a clear intervention of the divine to bring about a just conclusion to the story.

The Free World by David Bezmogis
[Finished 19 September 2012] I first learned about this novel in an interview on Writers on Writing and was intrigued to get some of the story of the Lativan emigrants and their attitudes towards the Soviet Union. Alas, the character whose views I was most interested in, the true-believing communist Samuil, was at best a tertiary character. The novel as a whole felt rather episodic and while there are some beautiful bits of writing, as a story it didn’t offer much to compel the reader.

Laughing in the Jungle by Louis Adamic
[Finished 18 September 2012] Sort of a novel, mostly a memoir, this book tells the story of Adamic’s life from his origins in Slovenia to his establishment in America, ending in 1928, just before the beginning of the great depression. The tone is light and breezy and enjoyable to read. It was interesting to learn that Adamic was more of a Menckenite than a socialist, although in retrospect, it seems obvious.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens
[Finished 13 September 2012] A re-read for my MFA program. I can still remember discussing this book in a Dickens seminar I was auditing at Scripps College with Richard Fadem. During a discussion of the opening paragraph, there was some debate about whether the receded flood waters were those of creation or the great flood. I offered, authoritatively, that they had to be the waters of creation “because dinosaurs are antediluvian.” The combination of revealing esoteric knowledge of archaic natural history plus using the latinate word left me more than a little embarrassed.

Coming back to the book, I was interested in teasing out how Dickens managed his dual narration and I found it interesting although a bit clumsy at times. Few of the characters came across as living breathing people rather than as types, although as types they were remarkably strong. I’m not sure that I felt a lot of connection with Esther Summerson despite her being the protagonist of the novel, but Richard Carstairs felt a strong character, despite some aspects of him being more caricature than character.

Devil Said Bang by Richard Kadrey
[Finished 8 September 2012] Serviceable commercial fiction, this felt in a lot of ways like two different books, both in tone and content, with Stark/Lucifer first dealing with running hell and then solving what seems like an unrelated mystery upon returning to Earth. There’s a lot that was confusing having jumped into this series (although Kadrey did a good job of providing enough information for a neophyte to the series) in the middle of things, but I liked the book enough that I’m willing to go back and give the first book of the series a chance and see what it’s like.

ABBA ABBA by Anthony Burgess
[Finished 4 September 2012] ’ve not encountered anything quite like this before. The book divides neatly into three parts: The first is a novella about a hypothesized meeting between John Keats and Giuseppe Giacchomo Belli, the last third is a selection of Belli’s sonnets translated into English and the middle third is a sort of essay tying the two parts together. There is a sly fiction about the sonnets being translated by one “J. J. Wilson” who is, in fact, a fictionalized version of Burgess, and some wonderful commentary on the sonnet form where the meaning of the title is revealed as both the rhyme scheme of the octet of the Petrarchan sonnet as well as the name Jesus used to refer to the father, Abba.

The book, ultimately, is about the sonnets, I think, with the first two sections providing an essential introduction to their context and content, giving us some grounding in what Belli was trying to do in writing them as we well as what Burgess was trying to do in translating them.

Sixty Stories by Donald Barthelme
[Finished 29 August 2012] I’d encountered a few of Barthelme’s stories previous to this, then with some recommendations from students and faculty in my MFA program, I decided to pick up the two large-ish anthologies of Barthelme stories. There’s a flood of story here, coming in chaotic confusion. Stories told as dialogues, as jumbles of unattributed speech, those verging on the surreal. This is clearly the wellspring of so much happening in contemporary fiction, filtering and amplifying the most bizarre aspects of Kafka and Joyce into something completely new. I like it.

The Luzhin Defense by Vladimir Nabokov
[Finished 29 August 2012] A pretty good account of a man’s descent into madness as a consequence of his obsession with chess. I’m not sure what I was expecting from the book, but I found it dry and not entirely to my tastes, although there were a few passages of great style within.

Aspects of the Novel by E. M. Forster
[Finished 24 August 2012] Wonderful. A brilliant examination of the craft of novel-writing. I had feared that it would feel dated, having been written nearly a century ago, but Forster’s analysis remains vivid and relevant even as literature has progressed. I’m not sure that I agree with all of his judgments, but I can appreciate them nonetheless.

Death in Venice and Other Stories by Thomas Mann
[Finished 23 August 2012] I’ve had this book for over twenty years, if I recall correctly, having bought it as an undergrad on the recommendation of Graham Greene. I made an attempt at starting it once but was in the mood for something lighter, so I put it back on the shelf and now I’ve finally returned to it.

Mann is a master of writing tragedy and unrequited love, perhaps a consequence of his own homosexuality, which shows up most strongly in the title novella of the collection which, despite being the tale of an older man falling in love with an innocent boy, manages to remain beautiful without becoming creepy, a remarkable feat. The writing here is gorgeous and there are many passages I’ve marked for my own collection of beautiful sentences.

Storm Prey by John Sandford
[Finished 21 August 2012] Pure commercial fiction. I’m not sure how this ended up in my reading list—it must have been a blog recommendation or something as it’s a bit out of my normal reading choices. I was interested in noting how Sandford managed his descriptive language and point of view. The whole thing is in an omniscient third person, but not handled elegantly. Sandford does have a way with plot and even with the inevitability of the events of the novel, it remained a page turner.

Closely Watched Trains by Bohumil Hrabal
[Finished 16 August 2012] The closely watched trains of the title are German supply trains under close surveillance (one of the early English titles of the book was Close Surveilled Trains). We learn of a somewhat comic crew of railway workers including the narrator, a failed suicide who suffered from ejaculatio praecox with his girlfriend (this was the cause of his attempt at suicide). It’s a slight book and feels in many ways more like a film treatment than a novel.

The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth
[Finished 13 August 2012] A book for my MFA program. There were some aspects of it I found really helpful, it giving a good ground-level view of life in the Austro-Hungarian Empire before World War I, but as a story, I was not especially interested: I would have more happily read stories of clerical life than of military life. There was certainly a touch of the anarchic mockery of the authority structures of the empire which also marked The Good Soldier Švejk.

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
[Finished 3 August 2012] Reading this, I found myself frequently remembering the film with Debra Winger and John Malkovich along with a forgettable actor in the role of Tunner (Timothy Spall as Eric Lyle, on the other hand was perfectly cast). This combined with my own recollections of Morocco made the descriptions in the book almost superfluous, which is a pity since they represent a big part of the book’s charm. The plot is more or less a straight line down with Port becoming ill and dying and Kit descending into a sort of fugue state herself. Tunner, while a forgettable character in himself, acts as catalyst for all of this. Kit and Port feel compelled to provide good appearances for Tunner and are both drawn to and repulsed by him. The catalyzing action is when Kit gives in to Tunner’s advances on the train while Port rides with the Lyles in their car. Having had sex with him, Kit is willing to go along with Port’s efforts to avoid Tunner, even though she can see the folly and danger in his plans.

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris
[Finished 29 July 2012] I had really enjoyed the inventiveness of Joshua Ferris’s first novel so I was eager to see what he did in his second. It seemed to me that he may have been influenced by Tom McCarthy’s Remainder in his writing, the tone of this novel seemed remarkably similar to that other book (in fact, I had to remind myself a number of times that I was reading a book by the author of And Then We Came to the End and not the author of Remainder). But that said, the book overall was a disappointment. Ferris pushed his metaphors beyond the breaking point more than once and his plot became directionless and unmoored.

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
[Finished 28 July 2012] I really enjoyed the challenge of reading this book; I realize some people can find the time shifts confusing, but I found them exhilarating, an inspiration for my own writing. I have some ideas for some writing of my own which would engage in similar time shifts.

The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2012 edited by Laura Furman
[Finished 25 July 2012] I’ve decided to expand my universe of prize anthologies beyond the Best American Short Stories collection, and so the first of these that I’ve tackled is the O. Henry anthology. There’s some overlap with the Best American selection, but most of the stories here are unique to this volume. I do find the physical quality of the book to be poorer than the Best American book, the cover stock is lighter and the pages have the look and feel of newsprint. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the pages turning yellow and brittle in short order.

One feature unique to this is having three jurors write essays on their favorites at the end of the book. Alas, other than Ron Rash’s essay on Alice Munros “Corrie,” I found these essays to be a bit shallow and uninteresting. I really hoped for an analysis as deep and interesting as the conversations at the end of the New Yorker fiction podcast.

Watership Down by Richard Adams
[Finished 18 July 2012] This falls into the category of books that are hard to put down. The writing is workmanlike, there are no great flights of lyrical prose, and the great innovation here is the invention of lapine language (including some occasional extension of English to include such neologisms as “hydrophanic” which here means showing water), but Adams tells a good story and creates some memorable characters even if the female characters are woefully underdeveloped and the character of Fiver, the most interesting of the rabbits, mostly drops out of the story in its final chapters.

The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye by A. S. Byatt
[Finished 18 July 2012] I first encountered this book courtesy of the readings for one of the seminars in my MFA program. The professor, however, only gave us copies of the first few pages of the title novella from this collection of modern fairy tales, and I so loved the writing that I had to immediately buy the book so that I could see what else was there.

The prose, as I noted, is just gorgeous in this book, with Byatt subverting the conventions of fairy tale storytelling to tell her own sorts of stories in their place. The title novella goes a level deeper with multiple stories told (or retold) and the protagonist a narratologist in her 50s who meets the titular character after her own story is half-told. I read this book in fits and starts over a couple of months and I’m glad that I took my time with it as it’s a book well-worth savoring.

Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto by Maile Chapman
[Finished 12 July 2012] Re-reading this book made me appreciate it a great deal more than I did on the first time around. I was focusing largely on how Chapman handled POV in her book, and while the discussion questions at the end of the book imply that the first person plural and omniscient viewpoints are meant to be distinct, there are no real transitions between them and I prefer to think of it still as the free-floating consciousness of the uppatients telling the story.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
[Finished 7 July 2012] Maybe because,as a failed L.A. refugee-turned-Seattleite, big portions of this seemed familiar, but I really loved this book. The idea of trying to understand everything that led up to the narrator’s mother’s disappearance and so gathering big piles of relevant and irrelevant e-mails, brochures, report cards, into telling a frequently hilarious story was absolutely delightful. The humor was brilliant, the plot unpredictable and while it faltered a bit at the end, it was a complete novel. A definite recommendation. Just ignore the cover which makes the book look like it’s chick lit.

The Big Kerplop! by Bertrand R. Brinley
[Finished 29 June 2012] As a kid I loved the Mad Scientists’ Club adventures, being influenced by it to the point that I talked about going to the Air Force Academy, as the kids in the books aspired to do. This is billed as the first adventure of the Mad Scientists. It provides a foundation myth for the group as meet slightly younger versions of the kids in this story. I had worried that the adventure might be a bit juvenile from the description, but there doesn’t seem to be a discernible difference in age of the kids in this story versus the short stories.

This is Brinley’s first attempt at a novel and I do have to admit that it seems that he had less than a novel’s worth of story here. At times, the plot ends up dragging as Brinley tries to pad his word count, but overall, it was a fun read, with more than a few laugh-out-loud moments throughout.

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
[Finished 24 June 2012] I really appreciate books that are ambitious. And this is an ambitious book. The story spans sixty years, manages to incorporate multiple points of view and means of storytelling in a comprehensive whole. There are a few places in the middle where Walter’s reach exceeds his grasp and he’s not quite as successful at the storytelling as I would like, but these are slight sins in a book that tells its story remarkably well.

Lofty Dogmas: Poets on Poetics edited by Deborah Brown, Annie Finch and Maxine Kumin
[Finished 18 June 2012] A wide-ranging survey of poets writing about poetry, focusing on questions like inspiration, the creation process and the interaction of poets with society. The selections range from the ancient to contemporary including writers from around the globe although the bulk of the poets are writers from the Anglo-American tradition. My lone complaint would be the brevity of the selections: The editors have traded breadth for depth and in many cases I would have liked to have been able to get greater insight into what they were finding

Another Good Loving Blues by Arthur Flowers
[Finished 14 June 2012] I read this book largely to better understand some of the readings for my MFA program (which discussed this book and its relationship to Their Eyes Were Watching God). It’s a decent book, with a strong voice at times, although not always consistently so.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
[Finished 12 June 2012] A beautifully written book. The use of dialect makes for difficult reading at times, but I found that hearing it spoken in my head went a long way towards making things intelligible. I can see how this became an important book to writers of the seventies, but its disappearance during the fifties and sixties seems inexplicable.

Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art by Julia Kristeva
[Finished 9 June 2012] Really the worst sort of late twentieth century literary theory. Jargon-laden with a sense of being ultimately content-free. Kristeva’s uncritical acceptance of Freudian theorizing at a time when actual psychiatrists were beginning to realize how absurd and useless Freud’s concepts are was especially laughable. There were a few notable moments in the book where I thought there were some useful insights into language and meaning, but these felt few and far between.

Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto by Maile Chapman
[Finished 7 June 2012] Chapman is one of the instructors at my MFA program and I wanted to get some sense of what her writing and tastes were like. I have to admit that had I not known that she was teaching a class on writing historical fiction, I would have had to wait quite a while to get some sense that this novel isn‘t set in the present (in fact, a lot of the contextual clues require some knowledge of historical medical care and the history of Finland‘s relationship with Russia).

The narration is strangely disembodied, occasionally manifesting itself as a first-person plural but most of the time reflecting a sort of free-floating consciousness of the whole setting. I found it strangely satisfying, an interesting twist on omniscient third-person narration.

The plot itself is rather slow and feels more character-driven that story-driven which makes the sudden deaths in the final chapters a bit jarring and the denouement even more so.

Sons and Other Flammable Objects by Porochista Khakpour
[Finished 5 June 2012] I really wanted to enjoy this book more than I did. It seemed in many ways to be a quintessentially MFA style novel, despite the promising cast of characters, an Iranian immigrant family living through life before, during and after 9/11. There were some wonderful moments, but the characters felt surprisingly familiar and unsympathetic, with a central conflict between father and son that seemed nearly inexplicable.

Every Hunter Wants to Know by Mikhail Iossel
[Finished 4 June 2012] A linked collection of stories (nearly a novel, but the fact that some of the stories refer to the protagonist in the third person and the fact that each story stands on its own presumably makes this the former). Iossel gives a sense of the paranoia surrounding life in Soviet Russia, but I found, in some ways at least, his relentless anti-communist attitudes a bit off-putting, I guess a consequence of my own blind leftism.

The Collector Collector by Tibor Fischer
[Finished 1 June 2012] A wonderfully surreal piece. Funny and experimental all at once, with a number of delightful verbal ticks in the narrative voice of the ceramic bowl who relates the story of both Rosa, the appraiser who serves as (human) protagonist as well as some of his own adventures through a few thousand years of human history.

The use of odd words in the narrative such as “lugal” or “chryselephantine” are another interesting use of language in the novel, giving some indication of the age (lugal comes from a cuneiform term) and nature (chryselephantine refers to a form of decoration) of the narrator.

The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice by Rachel Blau DuPlessis
[Finished 29 May 2012] A rather strange book. DuPlessis pushes the limits of prose in her writing and on many occasions, this really felt more like reading poetry. It’s provocative and beautiful, and I could see someone coming across a manuscript of one of these essays and rejecting it out of hand because it’s so very very strange in its presentation.

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
[Finished 13 May 2012] I wasted my youth. I say this thinking about how I spent my twenties largely in pursuit of things all vanished from my life now, starting a magazine which failed, buying a house which I couldn’t afford, pursuing a girl who didn’t love me. And somewhere in the midst of all of this was the potential for something more and reading Rilke’s letters from this book, I can see in his preternatural creative and spiritual gifts some hint of what I might have aspired to instead of the vanities that I accepted. This was a man who understood what was important and seized it. If only I had had the wisdom to do likewise.

That said, this is still a wonderful and beautiful book, full of wisdom and worth submersing oneself into (or, if falling short of that, dipping into it with a sort of sorties Rilkiana). Wonderful.

The Magician's Assistant by Ann Patchett
[Finished 10 May 2012] A beautifully written book. This is the first glimmer of the fully mature Patchett of Bel Canto and Run. She writes in a close third person rather than the omniscient POV of those books, but manages to turn out beautiful sentence after beautiful sentence. Most of her characters are well-drawn and fully-fleshed, but the two teenagers, Guy and How are undeveloped and nearly interchangeable and their father Howard is more caricature than character, but the remainder of the characters live on the page and the magically of the ordinary manages to light up the book.

There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby by Ludmilla Pretrushevskaya
[Finished 10 May 2012] This collection is subtitled “Scary Fairy Tales” which is an apt description. The stories which span her career are, alas, not designated with any sort of dates which makes it difficult to put them in a cultural context (it would be nice to know which stories were written in the Soviet era, which in the heady early days of the Russian Republic and which in the the broken-promise-land of contemporary Russia). Many of the stories begin with a storybook style formula, but then mysteriously mix realism and a sort of waking dream state which gives the stories their power.

Truth Like the Sun by Jim Lynch
[Finished 2 May 2012] A book club pick. Interestingly, this is the second Seattle book that I’ve had from them, and both have interwoven historical and contemporary narratives, although this time, a but more successfully in the story of how a man who is, at heart, a distinctly decent person has his story told accurately but incompletely by an ambitious newspaper reporter as he is running for mayor of Seattle. The story, though, is really about the difficulty of being able to tell someone’s story and how an account can be accurate and misleading all at the same time. In all, an interesting work.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
[Finished 2 May 2012] This is one of those books that really makes me wish I kept better track of how books end up on my reading list. I can’t for the life of me figure out how a mystery set in 1950 with an 11-year-old girl as the detective at the center of the story came onto my radar, but I have to admit that I’m very glad that it did.

Precocious beyond plausibility, Flavia de Luce is one of those characters who end up being completely unforgettable and addictive. The mystery itself is sufficiently engaging with plausible red herrings in it’s telling to keep the reader occupied for the whole book.

Aphrodite by Russell Andrews
[Finished 27 April 2012] I heard an interview with Peter Gethers (who use Russell Andrews as his pen-name) some years ago and apparently found it interesting enough to order a cheap copy of this book from Amazon. It is, ultimately, a serviceable commercial thriller. I found it interesting how elliptical Gethers was about sex when he wrote it (although he seemed a bit less squeamish about some, but not all, of his violent scenes). The conspiracy at the center of things and how Gethers resolved the conflict felt a bit flat to me, and there was a tendency to get a bit too involved with some characters (most notably a pair of twin assassins) who would have been more effective left as ciphers than being explored in such depth.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
[Finished 26 April 2012] What a wonderful little book. I had a hard time staying away from this, dipping into it while I was waiting for tasks to finish on my work computer. Atwood creates a wonderful narrative voice and plays with chronology in a way that sets up the narrative as a mystery as sorts (how on earth did the world become what it was in the novel). This mystery ultimately is the real plot. The activities of the novel’s “now” are not terribly exciting with the protagonist heading back to the remains of civilization in search of food and supplies, but understanding how Jimmy became Snowman and the roles of the titular Oryx and Crake in all of this makes for an enjoyable read.

One thing that I really enjoyed was a nice bit of voice that Atwood employs a few times, just enough to establish it as part of the voice, but not so much that it becomes tiresome or overbearing (a problem that Kurt Vonnegut verged upon in his writing on more than one occasion). Here’s an example from early in the novel:

Not that Snowman passes judgment. He knows how these things go, or used to go. He’s a grown-up now, with much worse things on his conscience. So who is he to blame them?

(He blames them.)

Just brilliant.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
[Finished 20 April 2012] I’d read conflicting reports on this book before I began it. Wil Wheaton thought that he waited an awful long time for anything to happen in the book. Maureen Corrighan thought it was Patchett’s best work. Me, I found myself luxuriating in the language in the opening pages. Patchett did some, ultimately, unsuccessful things with memory and dreams that force the reader to slow down just to have some sense of what’s happening in the story, and I think that hurt her somewhat in her writing. And there were occasional cases where the writing flopped like a dead fish, for example, at the opening of chapter three, speaking of her protagonist’s passport, she wrote, “the man stamped an empty page in a booklet filled with empty pages.” “Booklet”? Oh dear, why not just write passport here? This choice of another word just drove me nuts. And this from the same author who just a few dozen pages earlier wrote, “There was inside of her a very modest physical collapse, not a faint but a sort of folding, as if she were an extension ruler and her ankles and knees and hips were all being brought together at closer angles.” On the flip side, I found the story compelling and not the snoozefest that Wheaton claimed it to be. Yes, this isn’t Bel Canto or even Run, but it’s a worthy addition to Patchett’s canon.

The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism by T. S. Eliot
[Finished 12 April 2012] A collection of lectures Eliot gave in the 1930s, this is Eliot’s summary of the history of poetry criticism and while he doesn’t really fulfill his goal of creating a sort of first principles of philosophy with respect to poetry and criticism, it did provide a useful and enlightening read.

The Cove by Ron Rash
[Finished 9 April 2012] Rash has written a tragedy which is undeniably so, and yet it manages to also be mysteriously beautiful in its management of its tragic nature. About halfway through, I just knew that bad things were coming, with an unsettling certainty. although there was nothing explicit to point in that direction. The attention to detail and building of character in this book was amazing.

Round Up by Ring Lardner
[Finished 5 April 2012] This, apparently, was Lardner’s hand-picked “best of” collection of stories. I, like (I imagine) many contemporary readers, know of Lardner through the recommendation of Holden Caulfield (and to a lesser extent the Glass family) and reading this, I can see the influence of Lardner on Salinger, especially in his earlier “commercial” stories (which are uncollected). Lardner is a master of voice and dialect and while his stories tend to have that cuteness to them that I associate with the pulp writers of the 1920s, the language is exquisite and keeps the stories lively and readable.

The Lake Shore Limited by Sue Miller
[Finished 30 March 2012] I think I discovered this book in a list of books about 9/11, with this perhaps being named the best of the lot. There’s a lot to digest in this book, which is told in eight chapters, two each for the four protagonists of the novel, each dealing with their own losses, some surrounding 9/11, some not, all entangled in the grand complexity of life. The center of the novel is a play written by one of these characters, “The Lake Shore Limited,” which focuses on a family’s dealing with a terrorist attack on the train of the same name in which the family’s mother was traveling. The play, in turn, serves as a vehicle for the playwright, a woman who’s accustomed to mining her life for her work, to digest her own feelings over a lover with whom she was no longer in love who died in one of the planes on 9/11. Thematically, it’s a rich book, but I found myself growing a bit annoyed at the writing. Miller has a tendency to overuse conjunctions at the beginnings of her sentences (at one point early in the book, I found myself noting more sentences that began with “But” or “And” than not). There were some other places where it seemed that insufficient care was given to the language of the book. Maybe I am getting a bit of that poet’s concern for language in my reading and writing concerns.

The Innocent by Ian McEwan
[Finished 29 March 2012] At first this seemed like it was going to be a garden-variety espionage story, a tale of an innocent underling getting caught up in a betrayal of secrets relating to his position in a project to tap Russian communications in 1950s Berlin. But McEwan does a superb job of turning things on their head and when the revelation of the official secret comes, it comes as a means of protecting a personal secret instead.

The narrative is taut and well-written although there are places where the authorial voice becomes overly intrusive as McEwan feels compelled to defend his depiction of a 1950s-era radio technician to a reader in the 1980s with the gulf of the sexual and cultural revolutions of the sixties and seventies separating his readers from his characters. While these were well-written, they also seemed unnecessary and distracting.

The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac by Kris D'Agostino
[Finished 23 March 2012] A coming of age novel set in the directionless 20s of today’s post-adolescents, D’Agostino manages to write with humor, compassion and honesty. And yet all of that doesn’t seem to be enough. I longed for some connection between the components of the story, the autistic children at the school where the narrator works, his obsession with a girl he doesn’t really know who is said to have a hole in her head she keeps hidden with a baseball cap, his father’s illness, the family’s financial troubles, his sister’s pregnancy, but this ends up feeling more like a jumble of anecdotes than a proper story in a lot of ways. Perhaps this is intentional, a way of mirroring the directionlessness of the narrator’s generation, but I found it just a void at the heart of the novel.

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
[Finished 20 March 2012] It seems that the linked collection of short stories is a bit of the hot thing in contemporary literature. Rachman’s debut centers on the life of a dying English-language newspaper published in Rome, with stories told in close third person for a different character each time interspersed with short vignettes of the newspaper’s history.

At times I wanted to spend more time with some of the characters and even though it was doomed, I really wanted to see the newspaper somehow succeed, perhaps because there’s a part of me that somehow became the city desk reporter I’d envisioned myself become in high school, driving to west side crime scenes in a bare-bones domestic hatchback (and another part of me somehow became the business titan who owned either the Sun-Times or the Trib and turned it into my own personal mark on the world).

In all, it was a pleasant read, although I wonder whether there was all that much depth or it was a confection too hard not to keep reading at every opportunity.

Polly's Ghost by Abby Frucht
[Finished 17 March 2012] How strange that I read, largely by coincidence, two literary novels with ghosts in a row. In this case, the titular ghost is the omniscient narrator of the story (I’ve done something similar in The Archbishop’s Son, although a bit more subtly).

The prose here is dense. Frucht is fond of writing long sentences that require the full attention of the reader, and her narrative is not always linear, but for the careful reader, the prose is rewarding, although the story doesn’t so much end as fade away.

Scenes of Clerical Life by George Eliot
[Finished 14 March 2012] Eliot’s first book, not really a novel, but rather a compendium of three novellas. I have to confess I grew a bit bored reading about the various minor travails surrounding clerical life in rural Victorian England, although there were a few wonderful moments like the mockery of the evangelical preacher in the final novella, Janet’s Repentance.

How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly by Connie May Fowler
[Finished 14 March 2012] I began this book with some trepidation. While I’ve never read any of Fowler’s works, I knew she was also the author of Before Women Had Wings which Oprah made into a movie (which I’ve also never seen), and so I expected to read a book worthy of being filmed for the Lifetime Movie Network. Pure prejudice, I know.

But my fears were not borne out. Instead I found myself reading a beautifully written book and a wonderful example of managing a mix of close third person and omniscient viewpoint with some wonderful bits of magical realism thrown in (the narrative features numerous ghosts, an angel and sentient animals). The prose was wonderfully crafted. My only problem was the extent to which Fowler let her heroine’s epiphany come at the hands of a male friend and colleague. If anything, it seemed to make the book feel a bit anti-feminist in some of its undertones, but this was a minor failing and this easily should make it into my top books of the year.

Wide Eyed by Trinie Dalton
[Finished 7 March 2012] Most of these stories felt more like anecdotes than actual stories. Few of the stories had anything really feeling like a satisfying plot. The language was wonderful and the characters intriguing, but the lack of plot left me unsatisfied. The most successful of the stories was “Bienvenido el Duende,” a set of letters between a middle-aged woman and a mythical elf.

The Mariposa Club by Rigoberto Gonzalez
[Finished 1 March 2012] Another MFA faculty member book. This time, we venture into young adult territory with the story of four gay teens at a southern California high school who decide to start a LGBT club to get their picture in the yearbook. Or at least that’s what it says on the back cover. The story is a bit more involved than that, covering all manner of concerns that could happen to gay youth in a not terribly accommodating environment. Alas, the story seems to verge into after school special territory throughout (not even the boy who runs away and ends up living with an older man has sex), and the narrative voice, told in first-person present tense, feels frequently as if it’s the voice of an older adult and not the seventeen-year-old that it theoretically is.

Bad News of the Heart by Douglas Glover
[Finished 23 February 2012] Part of my MFA instructors literature series, this is a collection of twelve wonderful occasionally surreal stories. There are moments of humor mixed with horror. Glover’s ability to write in big voice carries some stories while others are more intimate first-person accounts. My only complaint would be that at times it seems that the juxtaposition of some stories emphasizes thematic commonalities of those stories in a way that makes the scope of Glover’s imagination seem smaller than it is.

Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
[Finished 22 February 2012] Didactic in the way that only nineteenth century literature could be, this was at many times a lecture on the evils of slavery and the virtues and power of Christianity. Few of the characters had any real depth to them, especially the titular character (although the transformation of his name into an epithet seems unjustified). Perhaps most surprising in then book was, despite the anti-slavery bent of the author, the current of racism that ran through the book. Even with the author providing real life examples of blacks made good in Ohio, Stowe doesn’t seem to be convinced that they are equal to whites and views the recolonization of Africa as per the Liberian experiment to be the best solution to the question of what to do with the freed slaves.

A Vocation and a Voice by Kate Chopin
[Finished 21 February 2012] Around the time that I bought this book, I had a subscription to The New Yorker. I remember being rather pleased and surprised to see a review of this book at that time, although I was a bit perplexed as to why a book in the Penguin Classics series would rate a New Yorker review (I don’t recall much of the contents of the review itself—I’m sure I didn’t once I read the book as the reason for the review became obvious).

It turns out that this collection had been intended to come out after The Awakening, but was canceled by her publisher in the aftermath of the controversy over that book.

Some of the stories here carry that veneer of turn of the century scandalousness, although to modern eyes, there’s little to scandalize. I found in some ways the most interesting things some of the more meta aspects of the compilation, such as the revelation that most of the stories were written in fairly short time frames.

The other thing I enjoyed, was noting how often the notes at the end of the book revealed more about the book’s editor than the text, particularly one in which the editor reveals with some surprise about how Catholics celebrated mass in Latin until the 1960s.

The Girls Next Door by Peter Turchi
[Finished 16 February 2012] Turchi sets up an interesting premise. A trio of prostitutes move into the house next door to the narrator, a young man married for just a year when the story takes place. Some of the plotting is handled clumsily, details about timing, such as when the narrator’s father died and how long the couple have been married seem a bit vague until later in the novel than they should have been. A road trip away from the neighborhood takes the story into different thematic territory, bringing a focus on the narrator’s relationship with his wife that could have been developed earlier as it changes the meaning of the novel in ways that were an improvement, but left me wondering why he lated until so late in the book to bring those aspects into the story.

But along with that are some wonderfully comic scenes and pitch-perfect descriptions of the sexual temptation of the almost-newlywed narrator by one of the trio of prostitutes, a girl who while not attractive still manages to exude a certain sexiness that transcends her looks. Overall, it was an enjoyable first novel even if it didn’t live up to the expectations that I developed from reading a later Turchi book on writing.

The Sovereignties of Invention by Matthew Battles
[Finished 13 February 2012] A book club selection, this felt like something that I should enjoy a lot more than I did. There was a wonderful surreality to the short stories in this collection, but they managed somehow not to connect with me. Towards the end of the collection, I decided that I was reading a sort of mock-Borges, trying to bring the ideas that Borges wrote about into the twenty-first century. Only one of the stories, “For the Provisional Description of Superficial Features,” managed to succeed on that point with two deep-space explorers stumbling upon the internet and wikipedia on a distant planet where their presence should have been impossible.

The Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Fiction by Joyce Carol Oates and Christopher Beha
[Finished 9 February 2012] A thick tome filled with a variety of stories. I suspect that the bulk of the work fell upon the shoulders of Mr Beha whose name appears in much tinier type than does Oates. Still there seems to be some touch of Oates’ sensibilities here as many of the stories touch on darkness and violence. It’s a good look at what’s happening in the current scene and I was quite pleased to discover a number of authors whose work I’d like to delve deeper into.

How To Read an Unwritten Language by Philip Graham
[Finished 8 February 2012] Just from the title, I was drawn into this book. How could I possibly resist? Graham writes a beautiful work, managing to take his title and invest it into a story of man’s own slightly off-kilter life, looking for the poetry of insurance and the stories everyday objects tell. The frame that Graham uses in his story works surprisingly well (or perhaps I’ve just grown accustomed to ineffective frames in the stories that I’ve been reading), with the frame illuminating the memories and the memories illuminating the frame.

The Other Woman by Ellen Lesser
[Finished 2 February 2012] A character driven novel, Lesser traces the history of a single woman’s experiences from having an affair with a married man to his moving in with her and bringing the kids on weekends. It was wonderfully written, but I found myself feeling like this was a book not for me. I really wanted to enjoy this book, but I found myself somewhat alienated from the subject matter, I wonder if because of my maleness?

The Company Car by C. J. Hribal
[Finished 20 January 2012] My first Hribal book, but likely not my last. Hribal begins with familiar territory to me, writing about a Czech family from Chicago (the narrator’s father lived in Cicero, just a couple miles from my own boyhood home). There are two narratives intertwined here, one spanning over half a century, telling the story of a family from the father’s boyhood through the births of seven children and their own growth into adulthood.

Intermingled with this is another story, partly the telling of the family story, partly the contemporary situation of the narrator as he drives to and participates in his parents’ fiftieth anniversary party while he worries about the state of his own marriage. It’s this second story that makes the narrative vibrant, although in the end, Hribal doesn’t quite succeed in making the stories really mesh, although there is a valiant effort as the narrative deconstructs itself in the last chapters.

Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer by Peter Turchi
[Finished 16 January 2012] I had the good fortune of reading this book not too long after I read this article (not to mention being a bit of a map head in general). The central metaphor, comparing the process of writing to the process of cartography is brilliant in its design, with the added advantage of being able to draw on writing in which mapmaking was central to the effort (Robert Louis Stevenson’s account of writing Treasure Island is central here). And then there was the portion of the book in which Turchi compared section breaks in two writers’ works, quoting the section breaks (and only the section breaks), which was laugh out loud funny. A brilliant imagining of what’s involved in the writing prices.

Little Peg by Kevin McIlvoy
[Finished 12 January 2012] An interesting concept, although it seems more empty than anything else. Peg is a mentally ill woman who teaches a creative writing class in which her students are assigned the responsibility of writing about Peg, although she takes their stories and completely rewrites them before returning them to the class. It kind of feels as if McIlvoy had set out to write a set of linked short stories, but didn’t manage to make the linkages between the stories that worthy of reading.

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg
[Finished 8 January 2012] Can you really say that you’ve ever “finished” reading this book? This is as much a sourcebook, a launching pad for flights of fancy as it is anything else.

The Full Matilda by David Haynes
[Finished 5 January 2012] A wonderful century-spanning account of an African-American family, told through the relationships with Matilda Housewright, the formal and practical-minded spinster daughter/sister/aunt/great-aunt of the male characters in the novel whose perspectives make up the bulk of the story, although there are a handful of interludes narrated in the first person by Matilda herself. It manages to describe the African-American experience without feeling exclusive about its perspective. Haynes doesn’t seem to have the white people wouldn’t understand subtext in his writing that I sometimes perceive in African-American writing (perhaps that’s my own failing). There’s humor and pathos and engaging characters, the deaths of each one who does die striking as a blow to the reader’s heart. This really feels like the level of writing that I should be aspiring to reach.

The Missing Person by Alix Ohlin
[Finished 29 December 2011] Ohlin almost lost me completely when in the opening paragraph of the second chapter, she wrote, “The sun was plangent and full.” Perhaps her experience has been different than mine, but I have never known the sun to be anything but silent and unemotional. It struck me as a sentiment painfully overwritten stretching a metaphor beyond the breaking point.

Fortunately, the book largely redeemed itself in the remaining pages, as the meaning of the title ramified across the pages, fully exploiting the possibilities of the meanings of the phrase “The missing person,” leaving us wondering just who it was who was missing, or whether in fact it was the personhood of the narrator herself that had vanished. The book, as is so common in many contemporary novels, faded out rather than coming do a definite conclusion, but Ohlin’s writing was worth the journey, misbegotten metaphors notwithstanding.

Best American Short Stories 2011 edited by Geraldine Brooks
[Finished 16 December 2011] Taking the stories one at a time: Adichie: Ok, not a favorite.Bergman: More my style, despite the off-putting title of “Housewifely Arts”. Bissell: This was a high point of the anthology, the cultural-religious conflict of the characters and their circumstances. Egan: One of the parts of Here Comes the Goon Squad that I was unimpressed with. Englander: A study of moral relativism, sometimes I like it, sometimes not. Goodman: forgettable. Havazelet: Another one that escaped me. Horrocks: I loved this piece. I kind of would like to do the sleep myself some winter. Johnston: Another favorite from the anthology. Keegan: Not really to my tastes. Lipsyte: Amazing. I must dive into the collection of his stories I have sitting at home. Makkai: A beautiful piece, with great characters and plot. McCracken: I loved how she managed to cause everything to change meaning in the final pages of the story. Millhauser: I wanted to like this more than I did. Nuila: A writer to watch, I look forward to reading more of his work. Oates: Falls into that middle territory again. Powers: Hmm, two second-person narratives in this years’ BASS. This one does something really cool with the idea, almost a choose your own adventure type narration. Row: I felt about the same about this as I did about The Train to Lo Wu. Saunders: Wonderfully Saunders-esque with a well-drawn concept. Slouka: I loved how Slouka managed to change the meanings of things within the span of his story. Another great piece.

Overall, this was a good collection, but I think that I would rank the King and Rushdie volumes over this one.

Wild Desire by Karen Brennan
[Finished 15 December 2011] I found the stories in this collection left me more than a little flat. Some of the longer pieces worked better, but this just wasn’t my sort of book in the end, even if the writing was first-rate.

Century's Son by Robert Boswell
[Finished 12 December 2011] A domestic drama with a great deal of simmering subtext (not to mention the simmering text itself). Boswell tells the story of a family struck by their son’s suicide, a daughter who became pregnant by their next door neighbor when she was fourteen, a public intellectual father-in-law facing senility and irrelevance and the husband’s desire to do right by his junior partner, a young man who turns out to be every bit the punk that everyone else believed him to be. An excellent study of character.

The Train to Lo Wu by Jess Row
[Finished 1 December 2011] Seven stories linked by geography and culture, most telling the stories of Americans in Hong Kong, although the last tells of a Chinese student in New York during the sixties. I enjoyed looking at how Row structured his stories and seeing how I could incorporate some of this in my own writing, trying to get away from the single transformative event narrative which is central to so many of my short stories.

The Weatherman by Clint McCown
[Finished 29 November 2011] A wonderfully strange and touching book, on its surface it’s a darkly comic story about an inept weatherman/reporter who, as a boy, witnessed his cousin commit murder then watched as the cousin grew up to be the leading candidate for state attorney general. But mixed in with all of this is some delightful painting of character along with a surprising meditation on free will versus predestination. One of my favorite reads of my books by MFA instructors project.

The Price of Land in Shelby by Laurie Alberts
[Finished 20 November 2011] A sprawling family saga, this is really more a collection of linked short stories than a novel per se with each lengthy chapter generally capable of standing on its own.

Damascus by Joshua Mohr
[Finished 18 November 2011] Maybe it’s just me being super-attentive to omniscient narratives, but I found this to be an especially enjoyable read. Mohr manages to play an interesting game with his narrative here, writing in a self-conscious narrative style where the narrator occasionally goes to great lengths to show his omniscience, whether it’s revealing a statement withheld at the moment of its occurrence for the benefit of the reader of whom the narrator is conscious, or spiraling into revelations of distant events taking place at the same moment as the main action of the novel.

The story itself is a wonderfully varied portrait, more an ensemble piece than an account with a single protagonist. With this palette, Mohr paints a wonderful portrait that deserves to have a bigger audience than his indie publisher is likely to provide.

FatherMucker by Greg Olear
[Finished 11 November 2011] Olear’s novel reads mostly like an extended riff on modern parenthood than a novel. I found the narrative voice was one that wore thin after the first chapters (which I found riotously funny). An extended digression on autism and asperger’s syndrome felt like something inserted because Olear realized his page count was lower than he wanted. And the climax and conclusion ended up feeling a bit sappy given the slightly edgy feel to the book (or at least the attempts at edginess). It wasn’t a bad book, per se, but it also wasn’t one that I really would recommend as anything other than a disposable read.

When to Go Into the Water by Lawrence Sutin
[Finished 10 November 2011] What a cool book. The conceit is that Hector de Saint-Aureole (lovely name, that) is the author of a book, When to Go Into the Water and we get glimpses of his life and how the book is received by various readers over the years following Hector’s death. Short, but beautifully written.

The Ancient Rain by Domenic Stansberry
[Finished 8 November 2011] A contemporary noir, this book felt like it was all promise and no delivery. We had an interesting atmosphere set up with the mix of contemporary and late 60s political intrigue, but the mystery at the heart of the story is both given away and unrevealed in an unsatisfactory manner. And the motivations of far too many of the players ended up being more opaque than intriguing.

The Mover of Bones by Robert Vivian
[Finished 3 November 2011] An unapologetically experimental work. For some reason, my library shelved this as a “mystery,” and while I suppose with some grotesque deformation of the conception of that genre one could classify it as such, it really is more a pure work of literary fiction, sadly consigned to publication by a university press where it is unlikely to get the sort of recognition that it deserves.

Told as a series of vignettes, with the exception of the first and last pieces in the first person, we get a fragmentary account of Jesse Breedlove, a man who dug up the body of a girl he had raped and murdered from the basement of a church and then proceeded to travel around the country with her body which occasionally formed as a living being, sometimes was just a collection of singing bones, and in various ways touched the lives of the people who they encountered, or who encountered them, or who were placed in the way of the unlikely pair of Jesse and his murdered/resurrected victim.

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
[Finished 27 October 2011] Despite the claim on the front cover, this is not a novel, but rather a collection of linked short stories. That said, Egan is a superb short story writer, and while I’ve read two of the stories here before, I was happy to re-read them and pay close attention to the craft of what she’s doing in each story. In some cases, there’s a bit too self-conscious an affectation. “Forty-Minute Lunch”, even without its footnotes, feels like a David Foster Wallace pastiche (it feels like Egan was closely studying Brief Interviews with Hideous Men) and “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” which is written as a PowerPoint presentation came across as an attempt to be clever without enough to back it up, but much of the rest of the collection left me overwhelmed with the quality of her writing.

The Big Why by Michael Winter
[Finished 22 October 2011] I’d never heard of Rockwell Kent before reading this, but I’m not sure that this really impacted my understanding of the book. Winter writes in a style that reminded me of Cormac McCarthy (especially his use of punctuation, or really lack thereof). There are some beautiful sentences here and the story really gets going once Kent’s pacifist views come into complex with World War I-era Newfoundland.

Fiction Writer's Workshop by Josip Novakovich
[Finished 21 October 2011] I picked this book up as an audition of sorts for Novakovich who is one of the fiction instructors in a low-res MFA program that I’m considering applying for. Many of the questions addressed here are somewhat lower-level than I need. This seems like it would be a good text for a college or advanced high school creative writing class (something that, in my arrogance, I’ve never actually done). Each chapter concludes with a number of writing exercises and wonderfully enough, the exercise concludes with a check that the writer can use to see whether they’ve “succeeded” in the exercise. I found reading this that Novakovich and I have similar perspectives on the writing process, so I suppose he’s passed the audition.

Ovenman by Jeff Parker
[Finished 11 October 2011] Usually, stories about people in the lower classes who engage in all manner of sub-optimal behaviors like stealing, drug use, etc. drive me nuts. It reminds me of what a square I am to find myself wanting the protagonist to clean up their life and get on the straight and narrow.

For some reason, I didn’t feel that way with When Thinfinger, the narrator of Ovenman. I was actually delighted by his petty larcenies and frequent blackouts.

April Fool's Day by Josip Novakovich
[Finished 10 October 2011] A great picaresque firmly in the tradition of Švejk. We get an absurdist take on communist Yugoslavia, the civil war that broke the country apart and post-independence Croatia along with a wonderfully bizarre conclusion in which the protagonist either dies and becomes a ghost or is buried alive and manages to crawl out of his grave and lead a life on the far fringes of society. I loved it.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
[Finished 6 October 2011] I find Marilynne Robinson’s writing intensely seductive. She writes in a way that I couldn’t begin to emulate (nor would I necessarily want to), where she manages to assemble one beautiful sentence after another while fully inhabiting her characters and telling an intriguing story. The ultimate reveal was not necessarily that exciting or important but the journey was so enjoyable I want very much to read the companion volume to the story and bask in her prose for one more volume.

C by Tom McCarthy
[Finished 5 October 2011] After reading Remainder I was eager to read McCarthy’s second novel, which treats of the life of Serge Carrefax, beginning with his birth, with a caul on his head (shades of David Copperfield, I presume). There are some elements of some of the surrealist realism of Remainder in the book, but overall, I found the book a bit of a disappointment, falling into the all-too-common second-novel flop.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
[Finished 28 September 2011] Moving from novellas to short stories, I found Conan Doyle’s narratives to be painfully thin here. Or maybe I’ve just overdosed on the Sherlock Holmes.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
[Finished 26 September 2011] A re-read, I found myself enjoying this as a return visit with some old friends, while simultaneously paying close attention to craft. It seems to me that the opening paragraph of the book, which establishes the omniscient viewpoint was essential to the narrative tone. We begin with a sentence that was essentially third-person limited (“When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her.”), then we get some unattributed point of view (“Maybe he had been turning towards her just before it was completely dark, maybe he was lifting his hands.”) and then we finally get the omniscience: “There must have been some movement, a gesture, because every person in the living room would later remember a kiss.”

It’s hard to imagine the book beginning in any other manner than it did, although apparently Patchett originally had a prologue from the POV of Gen, the translator. I can see how that would be tempting. Gen, more than anyone else, is the protagonist of the story and it would have been possible to write this as a first person or close third staying with Gen, but that prologue would have made using the omniscient POV, which was a major goal of Patchett’s in writing the book, a dismal failure.

The Creative Writing MFA Handbook by Tom Kealey
[Finished 23 September 2011] Breezily written, I found this a bit of a mixed bag. There were some parts that were useful, some not so much (the section going into details on MFA programs didn’t address any that I could realistically attend), but the section on workshops seemed remarkably useful to me.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
[Finished 11 September 2011] By now, we all know the story of Franzen and Oprah and all the brouhaha associated with that infamous incident. I never really understood Franzen’s reluctance to be part of her book club. I gathered later that it was based, at least in part, in a misunderstanding of what was entailed on Franzen’s part.

But what got me to read this book was less that incident than hearing a portion of Franzen’s next novel, Freedom read during a review on Fresh Air. It was just a paragraph or two, but I found myself thinking how incredibly well-written it was, and at that point I decided to read not only Freedom but The Corrections as well.

Franzen manages to take his beautiful prose and apply it to a study of a family in some level of decay. The patriarch is descending into senile dementia and suffering the affects of Parkinson’s. His wife lives in a state of denial enhanced by a dose of a fictional drug prescribed by a shady cruise ship doctor in international waters. Then there are the children, Chip, a disgraced former professor who lives on borrowed money while sleeping with a married woman and writing a comically bad screenplay who ends up being spirited to Lithuania to take part in a scheme to defraud American investors seeking to buy a piece of Lithuanian government. Gary, a control-freak, who, on the surface is the most stable and settled of the children but is revealed as the novel progresses to be the most broken of the children. And Denise, the chef with a taste for married men and women who manages to implode the success that she’s stumbled into by having affairs with both her boss and her boss’s wife. Throw in a dose of humor on top of the beautiful prose and a level of truth in the familial relations that is at turns familiar and painful and it truly is an amazing novel.

The Sign of the Four by Arthur Conan Doyle
[Finished 7 September 2011] I had thought that I’d never read any of the Holmes novels, but after reading this one, I find myself with hints of recollection of the story. Maybe I did read this after all. Various details of plot and language kept lingering on the edges of my consciousness, telling me, “you’ve seen me before, you know this plot, you know this character, you know this scenario.”

The Score by Richard Stark
[Finished 3 September 2011] A great bit of classic commercial fiction. Plain prose, simple descriptions, but gripping story-telling with a certain level of inevitability in the plot.

Pretty by Jillian Lauren
[Finished 1 September 2011] A book club selection. I found the whole thing a bit dull and not quite to my liking. It’s well-written, just not terribly interesting.

A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle
[Finished 1 September 2011] Between the BBC series and the Robert Downey Jr movies, I’ve become a bit of a Sherlock Holmes fanatic of late, so I decided to go to the source having never read the original stories. The place to begin, naturally enough, is the beginning, and so I did. The novel is divided into two parts: The first is the form that I was expecting, a first person account from the perspective of Dr Watson, with Watson standing nicely in for the reader in becoming acquainted with Holmes, but in the second part, there’s a sudden shift to an omniscient third-person narrative of events in the American west. I actually found myself wondering whether a different book had been inadvertently mixed in with the Holmes novel, the shift in tone and subject was so dramatic.

Remainder by Tom McCarthy
[Finished 26 August 2011] Wow, what a beautiful piece of writing. McCarthy takes the style of magical realism and applies it to the quotidian.

Men Undressed: Women Writers on the Male Sexual Experience edited by Stacy Bierlein, Gina Frangello, Cris Mazza and Kat Meads
[Finished 24 August 2011] An amazingly diverse selection of work. While a few sections border on erotica (or are proudly part of that genre), the majority is literary fiction drawn from both short stories and novel excerpts (no poems though). Some of the novel excerpts stand alone better than others, and with a handful of exceptions, everything in the anthology was previously published elsewhere.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett
[Finished 21 August 2011] It seems that I’m reading a lot of multiple-narrator books lately. Stockett manages it well here, and while she admits in a note at the end of the book that she’d been wary of attempting to write in the voices of her black women characters, she acquits herself admirably. Each of her three narrators manages to keep a distinct identity, even without the tags at the beginning of each narrator’s sections.

I notice that Roxane Gay has been highly critical of both the book and the movie, and while I imagine that as a black woman she has insights that a northern white male would lack, it doesn’t change the fact that I found the book to be, if nothing else, a thought-provoking read. Are things really that different now? The help is more likely to be Latina rather than black, and the laws are now centered around illegal immigration rather than racial separation, but the class barriers still remain strong. Even without the legal and racial barriers, I suspect that the class barriers manage to provide difficult and uncomfortable terrain to manage

Last Orders by Graham Swift
[Finished 18 August 2011] I had a remarkably difficult time getting into this book. I found the plethora of narrators difficult to keep up with, and having characters named Vic and Vince didn’t help with that at all. It’s interesting to finish not long after reading an article about authors not liking “great” books and a similar passage in Exit Ghost where a friend of Zuckerman ascribes his not caring for Zuckerman’s latest manuscript to his own failing. Is it my own failing that I was left cold by this book? It did, after all, win the Booker prize (I think that’s how it ended up in my reading list). Or did the book fail in its ambitions and win the prize despite this failure?

Exit Ghost by Philip Roth
[Finished 17 August 2011] The last of the Zuckerman novels. This is the Philip Roth who dragged me in when I first read American Pastoral, writing beautifully crafted sentences in a book about ideas as much as characters. I have some sympathy with Zuckerman’s view on literary biography, the attempts to find the “real life” inspirations for the characters in an author’s work. It’s pointless and voyeuristic, in a way, although at the same time, in a body of work as pointedly autobiographical as Roth’s Zuckerman novels, it’s oddly self-referential to make that critique (although I would point out that I have managed to remain blissfully ignorant of the state of Zuckerman’s prostate).

Usually, writing of the (frustated) lusts of older male narrators leaves me cold, but here, it manages to be poignant, the strong desire that Zuckerman feels for Jamie that is only—can only be—requited in the notes he makes for “He and She”, a dialogue that at times Zuckerman seems to confuse with reality, much as reality causes its own difficulties for Zuckerman in the story with his failing memory.

Machine of Death edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, David Malki
[Finished 12 August 2011] This book is one of those odd things that could only have happened in the internet era: Inspired by a webcomic, we get 34 stories by mostly unknown authors (only two have achieved the necessary level of notoriety to have articles about them on wikipedia, and one of those two has his fame from writing his own webcomic). The basic concept is simple: There’s a machine that will tell you how (but not when) you die. The catch is that the information is vague and not necessarily helpful. “Old age” could mean that one dies old, or that one is hit by a car driven by an old person.

But interesting origins aside, the question remains, is it any good? I would say that for the most part the answer is yes. There weren’t really any stories that I finished and thought, “this is awful,” although the two stories by the “known” authors were not among my favorites. There are some stories which are based around the ambiguity of the prediction, with the associated ironies attached to that, but more interesting were the stories which delved deeper into the social impacts of the existence of such a machine, whether it’s the fact that having a bad death predicted would foreclose a lot of possibilities by institutions looking to preserve their prestige (what elite prep school wants an alumnus killed in a prison knife fight?), or the fact that the entropy requires the predictions to remain vague to preserve the laws of thermodynamics.

By far, my favorite story was James Foreman’s “Heat Death of the Universe” which manages to really bring out the tragedy and doom of its central characters with an apocalyptic doom hanging over them.

Truth and Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett
[Finished 11 August 2011] Many years ago, I was at a talk where a priest said that he believed that there should be a sacrament for friendship. I puzzled over this for some time afterwards, wondering what exactly a sacramental friendship would entail. After all, friends come and go, many of my best friends had already disappeared in the brevity of my lifespan to that time. But I’ve come to realize, at least in part because of reading this book, that the sacrament of friendship would not be something imposed from the outside on the friendship, some sort of ceremony involving white dresses and cake, or even pocket knives and the commingling of blood. The sacrament of friendship arises from the friendship itself.

I begin on this note, at least in part, because reading this book, I found it the most Catholic of all Patchett’s books that I’ve read so far. There’s been a sort of Catholic undercurrent that runs through her books, sometimes close to the surface (like in Run), sometimes buried deep (like in Taft), but it’s always there. But here, in her account of her friendship with Lucy Grealy, along with the parallel story of her rise to success as a writer, the Catholicism percolates her every action. It’s not the Catholicism of a tedious moralist. Patchett is able to face both Grealy’s and her own sexuality without judgment. It’s more a Catholicism of love, an understanding and living of the unconditional love of God, along with our own limitations in being able to reach those heights.

I had been hesitant to approach this book. After all, I’d managed to be ignorant of Lucy Grealy (I’m still unacquainted with any of her work) and I feared that it was not going to be a compelling read. But the closing of the Santa Monica Border’s a few years back left only a few Ann Patchett titles on the shelf and this was one of them and who can resist a 50% discount? So I bought the book and it sat unread on my shelves for a couple years until now when most of my unread books are still in boxes and this was one of only two books in English in the unread book box that I’ve opened already. And I’m glad that I did, if only to get a chance to read some of Patchett’s mature writing.

The Hours by Michael Cunningham
[Finished 10 August 2011] I knew the outline of the story from seeing the film, but this was my first time reading any of Michael Cunningham’s writing. And even though I’ve seen the film, I can’t imagine how this was made into a movie. So much of the story is internal, the private meditations of the three Missuses, Woolf, Dalloway and Brown. And somehow, three stories are tied together in a beautiful and extraordinary fashion. I can’t help but envy Cunningham’s prose, the beauty and elegance of each sentence, something that I can only grasp at in my own writing, but never quite achieve.

What a delightful coincidence that I finish reading this on Virginia Woolf’s birthday.

Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson
[Finished 6 August 2011] My reading this book was a consequence of successful Facebook marketing: Because I had indicated in my Facebook profile that I liked Anne Patchett, I got a little ad on my pages suggesting that I would like this book. I decided to give it a try and I’m glad that I did. It’s not especially close to Patchett’s style, at least not the later books that I’ve really loved, but Henderson’s characters and setting were compelling and imminently readable.

Suttree by Cormack McCarthy
[Finished 5 August 2011] Cormac McCarthy goes into a bar and says, “Their chattel razed whore-red wainscoting,” and the bartender goes, “That’s not even a sentence.”

I encountered that joke (courtesy of Merlin Mann) just before I dove into Suttree, an adjective-laden text much in the tone of the Cormack McCarthy joke. It seems more a collection of vignettes than a cohesive story, but it was a wonderful exploration of language and story that I wouldn’t mind re-reading.

Kraken by China Miéville
[Finished 4 August 2011] I first heard about this courtesy of Boing Boing and finally a few years later I got to reading it. I’d known that it was going to be some sort of fantasy/sci-fi type book, but the opening chapter with its quotidian realism let me forget that until things gradually increase in their surreality as the story unfolds. At times the plot ended up a bit of a mess with pointless strangeness and needless twists but even with all of that, it was a fun reading.

Indignation by Philip Roth
[Finished 3 August 2011] In my hot-cold relationship with Philip Roth’s novels, this falls into the hot category. The story of a Jewish college student in the 50s dealing with the constraints of contemporary culture, Roth adds an interesting twist by revealing a few dozen pages in that his narrator is telling his story from the formless void of the afterlife.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
[Finished 28 July 2011] A great book. I first heard of this on Ford’s agent’s blog, and I put it on my reading list by virtue of the title alone (man, I really wish I’d come up with a title like that). At places Ford pushes his central metaphor a bit harder than I would have liked, but he manages to control the time shifts between the 40s and the 90s superbly, not letting himself fall into a neoclassical rigidity of pattern (too often writers can get sucked in by neoclassicalism’s siren call).

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
[Finished 26 July 2011] I first encountered Shteyngart in a panel at the L.A. Times Festival of Books when he was promoting Absurdistan and I was charmed enough by him that I made a note to read some of his books. I finally got to it with his latest work, and while the satirical tone began fairly light-hearted with Jeffrey Otter, the story quickly turned depressing to me. It’s not so much the vision of America as a bankrupt right wing consumerist dictatorship on the brink of collapse. I was fully conscious during the Bush II years so I’d already grown accustomed to that. It’s more the idea of a world in which reading and literature have largely disappeared, replaced by scanning texts for information and a general cultural shallowness. That was the thing that I had the hardest time dealing with while I read the book. A reader looking for something wildly comical would best look elsewhere (I think, though, I’ll still try at least one of Shteyngart’s earlier novels).

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey
[Finished 21 July 2011] After a bit of a slow start (which, I admit, was at least partly caused by my refusal to read any jacket copy on the book), this became a gripping read of a journey to Jacksonian America by a liberal French noble and his pragmatic English servant. There are times when Carey’s characters become a bit too prescient for their own good (America will one day be ruled by an idiot being the prime example, but the overall concern of Americans about money over all else being the other), I still found this an enjoyable read.

The Dying Animal by Philip Roth
[Finished 19 July 2011] A novel almost entirely written in big voice, my copy has a “movie cover” showing Ben Kingsley and Penelope Cruz and leaves me wondering how this could possibly have been filmed. The story, such as it is, is entirely an interior story. I’ll find out eventually—I have it in my netflix queue.

The language of the novel is beautifully seductive and once again I find myself in awe of Philip Roth. He seems very much an author for whom I really love what he does or I find him unappealing.

The Girl who Kicked the Hornets' Nest by Stieg Larsson
[Finished 15 July 2011] I’ve written already about the defects in Larsson’s writing: His tendency to go into great depth on irrelevant materials (a section of this book where Salander visits her accountant in Gibraltar is completely superfluous), his slow arrival at the meat of the plot, the fact that Mikael Blomqvist (and obvious stand-in for Larsson) sleeps with every single significant female character in the series (with the exception, thankfully, of his sister). But despite these flaws, the books manage to be compulsively readable. The plotting of this book is less byzantine than the second book in the series and as a consequence the story is more compelling.

Some Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day by Ben Loory
[Finished 7 July 2011] Wonderful wonderful wonderful. This, I think, is easily going to be one of my favorite books of the year. A collection of 40 mostly short-short length stories (some fall below the flash fiction line). Everything is written almost entirely in big voice and has a wonderful magical realist fairy tale feel to it. It didn’t surprise me to find that Loory lists Richard Brautigan among his favorite authors. There’s a very Brautigan-ish feel to much of what he writes.

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson
[Finished 6 July 2011] My wife warned me that it takes the first third of the book for things to really start happening, and indeed, that is the case. The characters here don’t really feel that connected with the first book of the series, and I have to hope that there’s not the same kind of unfinished nature to the plot of book three of the series as there was to book two.

Netherland by Joseph O'Neil
[Finished 5 July 2011] This is one of those books in my library queue that I had no idea how it got there (I later realized it was at least partly because it was a book that Obama was spotted reading early in his presidency). A beautifully written book although the big reveal turned out to be more non-sequitur than anything else. It was interesting to be reading two books simultaneously which featured bodies being found in canals in their early pages.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
[Finished 25 June 2011] Painfully badly written. This is a book which desperately needed editing and rewriting, but its author’s demise prevented that from happening. But even with its flaws in storytelling and characterization, it was still compulsively readable and I had to finish it even though I found it not that well written

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace
[Finished 22 June 2011] I just love how DFW manages to subvert the whole structure of story telling in so many of his works. This is post-modern literature at its best.

Willing by Scott Spencer
[Finished 19 June 2011] Spencer starts with a high concept—his narrator has just broken up with his girlfriend and gets the opportunity to go on a high-end sex tour of northern Europe. But given this, the story ends up being remarkably vacant. The other men on the sex tour end up being largely faceless archetypes with little to make them seem interesting.

Spencer does have the ability to write some incredibly beautiful sentences and there’s a fair amount of the book that is quotable. His decision to omit quotation marks in his writing is presumably to slow the reader down but at times the ambiguity turns against the narrative in an unfortunate manner.

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
[Finished 15 June 2011] I’m a sucker for novels that subvert my expectations of them. And boy did this novel subvert my expectations. What seemed like a fairly straightforward bit of historical crime fiction took a sharp left turn at the end of part one and then swerved again off a cliff on the first page of part two (and then rocketing to Mars as part two continues). The final part of the novel ended up being relatively prosaic and predictable, especially given the amazing jolt I had reading part two. That’s about all I want to say about the plot for fear of spoiling the experience for someone who decides to pick up the book based on this review. The writing itself is serviceable and the author manages to do a good job of writing in two distinct narrative voices without letting the two blend into a single voice.

A Void by Georges Perec
[Finished 8 June 2011] It’s fascinating how this author can go through all his work without using a particular glyph and in translation too!. Also many unusual linguistic constructions inform his book, marking it as an uncommon thing to accomplish.

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
[Finished 3 June 2011] Wow. I picked this book up courtesy of its appearance on the 1001 books to read before you die list, and had no idea what to expect. Maybe that’s why the magical realism and fantasy elements caught me by surprise and impressed me so much. But still, there’s a great deal of depth to this novel with plays on identity and language and symbolism rife throughout the book. This will easily make it into my top books of the year list.

American Masculine by Shann Ray
[Finished 31 May 2011] Another book club selection. The existence of this short story collection as a published work is the consequence of Ray winning an award for this writing, although I have to admit a certain coldness for this style and his subject matter.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ichiguro
[Finished 19 May 2011] My third Ichiguro novel. It seems that the second world war haunts Ichiguro much as Napoleon haunted much of nineteenth century literature. I knew at least some of the outline of the story from having seen the film (and it was hard to envision the characters as anything other than the actors who played them in the movies).

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
[Finished 15 May 2011] A first-person account from an autistic boy’s perspective. Haddon manages to convey his narrator’s perspective on a world in which everything familiar to the rest of us is alien using the structure of a detective story (the mystery turning out to not entirely be the mystery that it would have appeared to be at first).

Skinny by Diana Spechler
[Finished 13 May 2011] A curious book, with an interesting twist conclusion. I do have to admit that I could never really picture any of the adolescent characters in the book as being in any way overweight which doubtless impacted my ability to enjoy the novel.

Taft by Ann Patchett
[Finished 6 May 2011] Patchett’s favorite of her novels, but I found myself a bit underwhelmed. The characters all felt a bit flat and unconvincing. More soap opera than literature.

Zuckerman Bound by Philip Roth
[Finished 4 May 2011] The first three “proper” Zuckerman novels, along with an unproduced teleplay of The Prague Orgy. My love for Roth begins to abate again. There are times when he can be really amazing and there are times that he can be tedious (the fallout of Carnovsky, presumably a stand-in for Roth’s own Portnoy’s Complaint rather bored me, although it did provide a catalyst for the action of the later Zuckerman novels.

What Now? by Ann Patchett
[Finished 27 April 2011] A slender volume adapted from a graduation speech, this is part memoir, part exhortation, the ultimate message being that we really need to look outside ourselves. Grim advice for an introvert like myself.

Emily Alone by Stewart O'Nan
[Finished 21 April 2011] My first O’Nan (oh, how that name must have led to painful teasing in junior high), and a compelling read. I can see why the Fresh Air book reviewer loves O’Nan’s writing so much and I too want to read a lot more of his books.

The Great American Novel/My Life as a Man/The Professor of Desire by Philip Roth
[Finished 18 April 2011] Three radically different novels. The Great American Novel is filled with an exuberance that reminds me a bit of the opening pages of Raise High the Roofbeam Carpenters, a book which is as much about the joy of writing as the story that it tells. In My Life as a Man I get a bit more of a feel for the Roth that I feel in love with when I read American Pastoral.. Maybe it’s because of the first appearance of Nathan Zuckerman (here, a fictionalized version of Peter Tarnopol, himself a fictionalized version of Roth), but I really loved the multi-layered narrative of this novel. Finally, we have The Professor of Desire in which the protagonist of The Breast, no longer an enormous mammary, grapples with his male sexuality in a more mature manner than I’d read in earlier Roth and again, I found this to be a more appealing novel.

Drinking Closer to Home by Jessica Anya Blau
[Finished 4 April 2011] Another book from my book club. It was compulsively readable, despite the fact that the characterizations of the family were inconsistent (there were times when I was confused over which daughter was which during the first half of the book, a problem only compounded by Blau’s choice to use a third person omniscient POV, something I’m not sure that she handles as well as she could have done).

Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald
[Finished 13 March 2011] A curious book: Combine a narrative in stream-of-consciousness format (it reminds me most of Proust) with a selection of (found) illustrations and we have a book that, while I can find books to compare it to, and already have, is still somewhat sui generis. The meditations on architecture and origins are fascinating and a delight to read.

The Girl with the Curious Hair by David Foster Wallace
[Finished 5 March 2011] My first DFW experience and I found myself blown away. Wallace does an incredible job of subverting narrative conventions without being overly showy about things. From the first line of the first story I was enthralled. There’s so much to learn from this one book, and I want to read more more more more more.

West of Here by Jonathan Evison
[Finished 20 February 2011] A sort of epic parallel story between the early twenty-first century and late nineteenth century. There was a lot going on here, and some parts of the story worked better than others.

The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman
[Finished 11 February 2011] I had some doubts about reading this book. I knew that Pullman was an atheist and that the big bad of the “His Dark Materials” trilogy is God, but I’ve found that, at least with this first book, this is not a distracting aspect of the story. Meanwhile, the world building is brilliantly handled with little pieces of information revealed to let us see more and more how the world of the book is different from the Earth that we know so well. I have conflicting feelings about the occasional bursts into omniscient story telling, which give us some understanding of why at least some of the adults act the way that they do (as opposed to the sometimes inexplicable behavior of the adults of the Harry Potter world), but at the same time it ends up feeling a bit much like telling us rather than letting us discover these things through the story.

Pictures of You by Caroline Leavitt
[Finished 9 January 2011] Beautifully written, if a bit soap-opera-y at times. There was, of course, the usual art-house cliche of setting up expectations to pull them away in a somewhat unsettling way (and a perhaps sly wink at this in the dialogue when one character makes clear to the other what was going to happen).

The whole book uses only one simile (which I can’t remember while I write this and the book is not to hand), but it’s a striking one and its lack of peers made it all the more impactful.

What I really enjoyed, though, was the brief author’s note at the end which was an essay on writing book reviews as a novelist and reading about what she learned about writing from closely reading other writers’ books, a practice, I think, that I need to adopt, even if I’m only writing brief reviews for these pages.

The Wings of the Dove by Henry James
[Finished 6 January 2011] It has been a very long time since I’ve read James. I’d forgotten how dense his prose can be, having to re-read paragraphs or even pages just to regain some sense of what I had just read, although the extra effort is worth it.

You Lost Me There by Rosecrans Baldwin
[Finished 24 December 2010] A lot of what I’ve been writing, in short fiction at least, has to do with memory, so a novel on the subject struck me as something worth reading. Alas, this book didn’t quite live up to that promise: Despite a superb premise, the book seems to lose its way in multiple directions including the visit of the protagonist’s god-daughter, the failure to really employ the narrative of the protagonist’s wife, or even the concept of memories being written on index cards, or integrating more about the protagonist’s own research into memory and Alzheimer’s disease. It was an entertaining read, but not what it could have been.

Silence by Shusaku Endo
[Finished 15 December 2010] I don’t remember where I first heard of Endo. I imagine it was in reading something about Graham Greene (perhaps the collected letters), since the preface refers to Endo as the Japanese Graham Greene. I can totally see this. Endo is one of the rare writers who writes intelligently about the borderland between faith and doubt, for whom religion is a question of nuance and complexity, rather than merely a yes or no question which seems too much the case in contemporary discourse.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie
[Finished 5 December 2010] I, like most people, first heard of Salman Rushdie in the controversy that followed from the publication of The Satanic Verses. Being the conceited self-important young man that I was at the time, I declared an intent to not read Rushdie’s book for some years to see whether it actually stood the test of time.

Stupid me.

Having finally dipped my toes into Rushdie’s waters, I was left with an awe at his ability to use language and imagery with such skill. It was like reading a dream: And from my own experience, I know that writing a dream is a task of near-impossibility. How many years I denied myself the beauty of Rushdie’s writing for no good reason, a fault I must remedy.

And Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
[Finished 28 November 2010] A delightful book. At times the first person plural narration was a bit distracting, but in the end it was more successful than the attempts I’d read by Andrea Barrett, enough so that I’m tempted to re-read Barrett and see how I react to them now.

Half a Life by Darin Strauss
[Finished 17 November 2010] I’d first heard Strauss’s story told on This American Life, and if it were not a TNB pick, I doubt that I would have read the book. Fortunately or me, it was, and I did read it. It’s a short book, but it tells the story of the aftermath of Strauss’s having killed a classmate in an auto accident just before graduation his senior year of high school.

As an aside, this book, published by McSweeney’s is exquisitely designed and manufactured. I’ve always thought of Dave Eggers’ empire as being too cool for me, but given the obvious care lavished on the details of this book—something all too rare in contemporary publishing—I find myself wanting to take another look at the Eggers empire.

As an aside, this book, published by McSweeney’s is exquisitely designed and manufactured. I’ve always thought of Dave Eggers’ empire as being too cool for me, but given the obvious care lavished on the details of this book—something all too rare in contemporary publishing—I find myself wanting to take another look at the Eggers empire.

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
[Finished 14 November 2010] Not exactly a novel, but not exactly a not-novel either. My first Kundera, with great depth, especially the sense of betrayal that the left-leaning intellectuals of Czechoslovakia felt as Stalinism made its influence felt in their land. I definitely want to read more of his writing after reading this wonderful little book.

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey
[Finished 4 November 2010] A curious tale of Victoriana, with some surprising twists and turns as the narrative unfolds.

An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro
[Finished 20 October 2010] Beautifully written from the first line. I had assumed, from previous experiences reading Ishiguro, that his prose style was always rather flat, but this time, I was left feeling that there was a great depth to things that might have otherwise seemed ordinary.

Children of God by Mary Doria Russell
[Finished 8 October 2010] A sequel to The Sparrow, it answers some long-standing questions from the first book, some in satisfying ways, some in ways that seemed rather redundant (we don’t always need to know everything). But still, one of those rarities, a contemporary work of fiction which is able to view questions of religion with depth and nuance.

Exley by Brock Clarke
[Finished 6 October 2010] Another TNB book club pick. Having previously read Clarke’s Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England, it was easy to fall into the trap of reading this book as a retelling of the former book, and as a consequence of that, I have no doubt that my enjoyment of the book was lessened as a result.

Best American Short Stories 2010 edited by Richard Russo
[Finished 2 October 2010] I was at the store on publication day to pick this up. It’s become very much my fall tradition to dig into the latest Best American anthology. This issue, I think, had a little too much of the post-global warming themed issue of McSweeney’s and overall, it seemed like the stories were drawn from a narrower range of magazines than in the past. My favorite of the lot has to be Kevin Moffett’s “Further Interpretations of Real Life Events.”

Room by Emma Donoghue
[Finished 12 September 2010] The first book from my membership in the Nervous Breakdown book club. A wonderful look into one of those horrible situations. In this instance, inspired by the stories of women held captive for years, and even bearing children to their kidnappers and rapists, we get a story told from the naive perspective of a young boy born to a kidnap victim who has lived his whole life in a backyard shed with no view of the outside other than a small skylight in the ceiling.

My big surprise came that the book quickly moves from the rhythms of captivity into the disruption of the greater world, a space that the boy finds less comfortable than the room where he had lived the first five years of his life. In retrospect, of course, it is that aspect of the story which is most interesting and if anything, I would have liked more of this, perhaps a glimpse into the boy’s life a decade or more after his entry into the world.

Dracula by Bram Stoker
[Finished 10 September 2010] Another of these books which it seems to surprise people that I’ve never read. I know the story, in broad outline, from various adaptations. The epistolary form seemed to be a bit contrived and clumsily handled, with Stoker having to go to some strange measures to make his story tellable. I wonder if it might not have been stronger had he the courage to let his narrative be more fragmentary.

I wonder whether the power of the Catholic sacraments in the face of the englishmen’s skepticism was a deliberate dig by the Irish Stoker. Certainly, the Catholicism of Van Helsing was an aspect of the story which has not survived in any of the adaptations of which I’m aware.

And a final note: I was pleasantly surprised at how much of the Buffy mythos comes out of the novel. This truly was the beginning of the modern vampire story.

What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt
[Finished 4 September 2010] I had some difficulty getting into this story at first. Hustvedt writes in a somewhat dense MFA style and I found myself rebelling at reading yet another New York intelligentsia novel. The extent to which New Yorkers can be full of themselves gets tiring quickly. But eventually I managed to get past that difficulty: the descriptions of Bill’s art drew me in as I found myself really wanting to see the works described, although at times it seemed I could detect some trace of the real-life inspiration for some of the works in my memory.

There’s something about art that’s irresistible to writers. Perhaps it’s the directness of it, where the writer may need a page or more to convey a concept, the visual artist can just show it. And being able to tell a story about artists and art critics gives Hustvedt a wealth of opportunities to explore this ability to do so. But the story runs deeper than this, with its emotional core centered around the two deaths along with the collapse of two marriages, albeit in different ways (in one case it’s the birth of a child which ends the marriage, in the other, the death of a child leads to a marriage held at a distance.

But I think the title holds some of the greatest profundity of the novel. To use the phrase what I loved in a story about remembering relationships says something about the narrator’s ability to relate to people and perhaps indicates that for him, in some ways it was the art which was more alive than the artists.

Selected Poems by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey
[Finished 28 August 2010] English poetry before Shakespeare is dominated by the two poets of Tottel’s Miscellany, Wyatt and Surrrey. While I was an undergrad I managed to find a complete poems of Wyatt but only selected poems of Surrey, the latter of which I’ve only now gotten around to reading. I think I was interested in Surrey as a potential crypto-Catholic, although Dennis Keene who edited this selection finds that claim unlikely and provides significant evidence to the contrary.

The poems themselves vary from somewhat banal to quite nice, but what’s especially interesting is that this is Surrey working to, in effect, invent English poetry, experimenting with the sonnet form as well as writing the first narrative poetry in English using blank verse.

Money by Martin Amis
[Finished 19 August 2010] Martin Amis’s father famously threw this book across the room in disgust when he reached the point where the Martin Amis character appears in the book. I have to say that although I wasn’t aware of this anecdote when I reached that point in the story, I was tempted to join Kingsley Amis in a physical criticism of the novel.

Martin Amis manages to have a compelling narrative voice in John Self, a man who is defined by vulgarity, but he tells a story with to recommend it. A mystery introduced early in the novel has little if any meaning and the big con of the book appears as unexpectedly as the horse beneath the Old Spice guy. What’s more, there seems little justification for the character of Martin Amis being Martin Amis other than egoism. In all, a rather disappointing read. I read in an interview with Amis that he said if his father had pursued a different career, he would have pursued that same career. This book almost makes me wish that were the case.

The Complete Short Stories, Volume One by D. H. Lawrence
[Finished 18 August 2010] I remember really liking Sons and Lovers when I first read it (although it did nearly get me arrested by campus police because I happened to be reading it in a dorm lounge when a girl living in the dorm was worried about a stalker (not me) and they spent an inordinate amount of time paging through it while determining that I wasn’t a suspicious character).

But maybe it’s a change of tastes since I was twenty, but I found little of this collection of stories to interest me. Some of it is because these are early efforts by Lawrence (the back cover copy is a bit apologetic about the books), and in nearly 300 pages, only a single description of emotional pain stuck out as better than average writing.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy
[Finished 4 August 2010] McCarthy does some interesting stylistic things with his prose, eschewing quotation marks and most apostrophes, but the stream-of-consciousness style manages to keep this from being distracting.

The story itself is a meditation on human nature, really, the question of what it means to be one of the good guys versus one of the bad guys, in the context of a world gone horribly bad, where humanity has been reduced to scavaging from the remains of civilization or, when that fails, cannibalism and other savagery. The plight of the old man in the story as he leads his son on a destinationless journey down the titular road is especially compelling. Was he right not to join his wife in her suicide at the end of civilization? Is there meaning to the journey if it’s only about the survival of him and his son? I feel that there is a great deal of depth in the seemingly simple story that I have only half-plumbed.

Novels 1967–1972: When She Was Good, Portnoy's Complaint, Our Gang, The Breast by Philip Roth
[Finished 3 August 2010] When She Was Good: I’m guessing that Roth was weary of being described as a “Jewish” writer, so he wrote a book about WASPs. The whole thing felt a bit misogynistic to me and the ending seemed contrived.

Portnoy’s Complaint: An incredible narrative voice but somehow Roth manages to make a book about sex feel wearying and dull. At this point, I found myself wondering whether the ardor I felt for Roth’s writing after reading American Pastoral was misplaced.

Our Gang: And this slim story didn’t help. I imagine it was hilarious 30 years ago. Now, the whole thing feels painfully dated. Most likely one of those books which remains in print primarily for the benefit of completists.

The Breast: And then my faith in Roth is restored. I’m less inclined to be a Philip Roth completist after working through these early works. I can see why Howard Junker spoke of having grown bored with Roth in one interview. But suddenly here, we manage to see the mature Roth emerge. Or at least that’s what I hope it is. With deliberate reference to Kafka and Gogol, we get the story of a man transformed into an enormous breast and the writing once again feels deft and compelling. Am I seeing the emergence of the Roth who wrote American Pastoral? Or are these just sparks in the firmament? I’ll have to read on to know for sure.

Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow
[Finished 30 July 2010] A novel in verse about werewolves.

Is the “in verse” a gimmick? Yep. Barlow writes with a distinctive voice, but I don’t think that removing the line breaks would really impact the experience of the book (although it would cut down on the line count and the radio interviews).

There are a number of goofs that only someone writing about Los Angeles without having any significant direct experience with the city would make (the three that stand out were a pair of errors in Spanish and leaving out the article on “the 10”).

The story was pretty compelling although the central event of the story was a bit jumbled and confused, but I loved, absolutely loved the mythology of the story.

The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
[Finished 28 July 2010] A brilliant novel of ideas. I listened to this as an audio book, something which I suspect made part III a bit more intelligible since each character’s voice was distinct. I knew that it was about a castaway on a lifeboat with a tiger from the beginning, and found myself a bit impatient through the first part waiting for Pi to be on the lifeboat already. And at times, during the long detailed narration of the time on the lifeboat, I grew impatient again, but looking back over the 100 chapters, I found that even those parts that I was impatient over were essential to the whole and the wonderful combination of comparative biology and theology make for a wonderful meditation into meaning, narration and the nature of grace.

The Light of Day by Graham Swift
[Finished 24 July 2010] Nominally a detective novel, but really a novel about remembering. Since much of my own writing, I’ve come to realize, is also about remembering, I paid especial attention to his style to see how he managed the task.

An Arsonist's Guide to Writer's Homes in New England by Brock Clarke
[Finished 16 July 2010] The second I saw this title, I knew that this was a book that would make for an interesting read. Or at least I hoped it would. Certainly, it’s a title I wish I had come up with. Fortunately, Clarke manages to take the concept dictated by the title and turn it into something a bit special, if a bit English-major-y (but in a good way). The nominal story exists to a large extent as a framework for considering the concept of story telling and truth, and what makes a story a good story? Should it be true? Should it lead to good things on the part of the reader? There is a bit of it which dates the novel since there’s a bit of a preoccupation with the current obsession with memoir and its ascendency over the novel as a preferred form of recreational reading (something I still don’t entirely understand myself, and I suspect Clarke would agree with me on this one).

But even with the heady intellectual aspects of the narrative, there remains a delightful humor and storytelling which keeps this from veering too deeply into literary novel which only an English major could love. Clarke’s choice to leave his contemporary authors unnamed makes for a fun game of guess the writer/book as an added bonus.

The Periodic Table by Primo Levy
[Finished 14 July 2010] This book was on a list of the 100 best novels, an interesting thing since it’s not actually a novel or even a work of fiction (modulo a pair of curious interludes on lead and mercury in the middle of the book, plus the carbon chapter which closes the book), but a memoir. Levi elides his experiences in Auschwitz since he’s talked about it in great detail elsewhere and instead focuses on the time before and after that experience instead. A strange and wonderful book that makes me wish I had been more open to chemistry as an undergrad.

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
[Finished 7 July 2010] When I first heard about this book, I immediately added it to my reading list (slowly spiraling out of control, of course). A book about a book restorer struck me as something that would interest me a great deal.

It’s a bit deeper than that, using the book restoration story as a frame for a series of short, mostly disconnected narratives tracing the history of the book back in time. Each of these could stand on their own and provide some fascinating looks at historic narratives taking as their launching point a seemingly insignificant detail of something captured in the book.

The framing narrative is occasionally a bit disappointing, although a final bit of suspense and crime(!) does give it some justification for existing beyond as a linkage for the stories, although I’m not entirely certain that the non-book aspects of Hannah Heath’s life really amount to that much. In all, though, a wonderful introduction to the writing of Geraldine Brooks. I’d definitely read more by her.

The Colour by Rose Tremain
[Finished 30 June 2010] One of these books that it’s difficult to make sense of. At first it seemed that it was going to be a story of a man making a hardscrabble living in 19th century New Zealand, but the book quickly transformed into being more about the women of the period, focusing initially on the wife and mother of the man I had originally assumed to be the protagonist and fanning out in a network to other women of the terrain including the former Maori nanny of the son of a wealthy couple who live near our putative protagonist’s home.

And every step of the novel suggests a path that the story might take, but then backs away from that possibility. What distinguishes the plot more than anything else is the paths that appear to be clear but then are blocked like the passage through the mountains from the east to west coast of New Zealand.

The Accidental by Ali Smith
[Finished 10 June 2010] An interesting book. At first, I was a bit thrown by the stream-of-consciousness narrative, but as the story developed, I fell into Smith’s rhythm and found myself enchanted by the tale she was telling. The fragmentary style, told from multiple POVs is a stylistic triumph, even if things fall apart a bit in the final section of the book.

Rosalynde, or, Euphues' Golden Legacy by Thomas Lodge
[Finished 8 June 2010] A curious volume, something I picked up in college as part of my bibliomania surrounding my undergrad thesis (I would buy anything that had the name of a Catholic author on the spine at the time).

Rosalynde is a prose romance, written, as the alternate title suggests, in imitation of Lyly’s “Euphues,” and notable primarily as being the source for the plot of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.”

Perhaps more interesting than the text is the fact that this is one of several editions of the work published during the first couple decades of the twentieth century (and as I recall, similar volumes were popular for other minor works which were source material for Shakespeare). If they exist in print today, it’s because they’re reprints of these earlier editions, remnants of an era when the new criticism hadn’t become the dominant mode of approaching texts.

The Locked Room by Paul Auster
[Finished 27 May 2010] The final volume of Auster’s New York Trilogy. A mention of the first two books of the trilogy in the penultimate chapter marks the first real intertextuality between the books (and perhaps identifies the anonymous narrator of the novel as Paul Auster, although not necessarily the Paul Auster(s) of the first novel in the trilogy. There are some wonderful narrative devices at play, the telling of the story of Fanshawe through the mystery of his disappearance, along with an assumption that the reader will be familiar with Fanshawe is a beautiful stylistic tic, something I wish I had come up with. While perhaps the most complete story of the trilogy, this one also left me feeling emptiest, although perhaps it was the fact that Fanshawe remained a bit of a cipher throughout the book, leaving us wondering whether he ever really existed (and the fact that he didn’t actually exist only takes things a bit further).

Drop City by T. C. Boyle
[Finished 20 May 2010] An interesting book. This is my first book I’ve read by Boyle and it seems that he is an author whose books are driven primarily by character rather than plot. The plot of this book, such as it is, is rather thin, with most of the conflicts fading away rather than being really resolved. But the characters that Boyle creates stay with the reader and kept me coming back to the book the whole way through.

Graham Greene: A Life in Letters edited by Richard Greene
[Finished 14 May 2010] When I read a collection of an author’s letters like this, I sometimes wonder what the 21st century equivalent will be. Selected e-mails perhaps? No matter, Richard Greene’s (no relation) collection gives an interesting perspective into Graham Greene’s life. We’re left with a sense of a man who strays less far from the church than the Greene of the Sherry biography, but at the same time this might be a bit of selection bias: R. Greene may have chosen his letters to support a view point, the recipients of Greene’s letters may have kept only those letters which supported their own preferred view of the man, or Greene himself may have done more to cultivate the appearance of a certain level of belief (although that level is far from full orthodoxy as well).

There’s a clear sense of Greene’s voice in these letters, and it’s easy to see just why I’ve enjoyed his writing so much over the years. There’s also a bit of support for some of my suppositions about writings by and about Greene. The origins of Ways of Escape are confirmed and the reticence of the second volume of the Sherry biography is also explained.

Oil! by Upton Sinclair
[Finished 7 May 2010] A first-class bit of propaganda. It’s hard not to want to go out onto the streets singing “The Internationale” after reading this book, Sinclair does such a good job of portraying the plight of labor against the backdrop of the seemingly invincible power of moneyed interests. Even more surprising, though is how relevant the book seems to my contemporary eyes: Sinclair’s description of the drilling process seems still applicable to how it’s done today (at least as it’s described in accounts of the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico). The hypocrisies of Eli Watkins and Vern Roscoe also have contemporary resonances.

The book opens with a bit of rather poetic description, something which I hadn’t expected (I think I may have paged through The Jungle in my younger days, but I doubt that I actually read it), although the poetic language faded pretty quickly on, so it’s hard to see that as central to Sinclair’s writing as his clear agenda in the writing.

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
[Finished 30 April 2010] I went into this book with two sets of expectations: The delight that I gained from reading Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo and vague memories of the story informed primarily by the animated series that was shown during the Banana Splits show, along with the film with Charlie Sheen and Oliver Platt.

So coming into this story, it starts out much as we all recall. A bit of adventure and intrigue, the hilarious triple-duel scene for d’Artagnan’s “meet cute” with the three musketeers, but then as the story proceeds, it becomes clear that the three musketeers are—well, not to put too fine point on it—dicks.

What’s more, their role in things seems a bit anti-patriotic. They seem to be helping the queen as she undermines her own country, while the “villainous” Cardinal Richelieu is actually acting in the best interests of France. The musketeers aren’t heroes, they’re anti-heroes! Imagine my surprise.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
[Finished 24 April 2010] A wonderful book, or really books, there are a series of novels, nested together like matryoshka dolls. As we begin the unnesting process, Mitchell begins to expose the philosophical underpinnings, most particularly, the question of what the real story is here. Is it the innermost nest of the lot, or are the inner stories set in progressively distant futures, just imagined audiences of one of the outer stories. Meanwhile, the nested stories raise questions of freedom and slavery, free will and the relationship among layers of society. Overall a brilliant book.

Ghosts by Paul Auster
[Finished 16 April 2010] A slender volume without chapter or section breaks. Continuing on the first volume of the New York Trilogy’s theme of surveillance and identity, we have another story of surveillance, this time of a detective named Blue hired by a man named White to watch another man named Black. The color theme carries throughout the book but it seems like this is more connective tissue than a solid novel. The fact that it appears to be out of print outside of omnibus anthologies containing all three works only bolsters that point.

City of Glass by Paul Auster
[Finished 7 April 2010] Whoa, this was brilliant. The story is ultimately a reflection on philosophy of identity. The protagonist, a writer of detective novels who identifies with his main character about whom we writes under a pseudonym, takes on the identity of Paul Auster, whom he believes to be a detective. He later discovers that Auster is a writer himself, one who is familiar with his non-pseudonymous early work. And we learn that the narrator who remains absent until near the end, is yet another unnamed character. And that’s not touching on the various Michael Phillipses, discursions on the tower of Babel and the original language, or what it really means to be alone. What a brilliant bit of writing, even more so in that the whole thing appears quite effortless.

Tinkers by Paul Harding
[Finished 5 April 2010] Really the epitome of the MFA novel. Beautiful beautiful prose and no real plot to speak of. There were some great moments and some fascinating plays on words, including the title (“tinkers” could be interpreted as a verb or a noun), but in the end, I was left feeling empty.

A World of My Own: A Dream Diary by Graham Greene
[Finished 16 February 2010] Greene’s epitaph to his life’s work. The preface by his last mistress, Yvonne Cloetta makes it clear that this was the last work he assembled from a lifetime’s records of dreams and it was arranged to conclude with Greene’s dream of his own death and the poem he wrote as is own obituary.

The prose takes on a poetic quality that is generally absent from Greene’s fiction, allowing Greene to manage the difficult balance between the reified and immaterial that is essential in any good account of a dream. Not an essential work, certainly, but a wonderful conclusion to Greene’s ouevre.

Lanark: A Life in Four Books by Alasdair Gray
[Finished 12 February 2010] There’s something interesting inherent in a book which begins with Book Three and has the prologue after the beginning and epilogue before the end. Sadly, the whole thing ends up being a bit of a hash. There are really two separate narratives here, the surrealistic Lanark story and the naturalistic Thawe story, each with its own merits, but with what seems only a tenuous connection (something acknowledged by the author in the epilogue). I feel like there were two good books here, but the postmodern narrative managed to sink them both into a bit of a morass.

Anathem by Neal Stephenson
[Finished 12 February 2010] The Stephenson that I’ve read previously has all been set in the same universe of 17th and 20th Century earth, focusing on questions of cryptography and the nature of money, so coming into Anathem which is set in a distant future and alien world was a bit of a shock. Add onto that the fact that Stephenson decided to create his own vocabulary for a number of things and I found the book off-putting at first. Creating a world is difficult enough, creating a language is much harder and tends to fall flat unless the writer is someone skilled in linguistics (like Tolkien) or who takes an existing language and modifies it for his ends (like Burgess did in A Clockwork Orange). Stephenson is certainly not a linguist and while he uses some latinate vocabulary to good end in the book, his deviations from that tend to way down the narrative, especially given that he doesn’t consistently distinguish between his “Fluccish” and “Orth” words.

The story itself is an interesting one with some nice discussions of mathematical concepts (Stephenson’s forte, by far is mathematical fiction), although the conclusion ends up devolving into a bit of nonsense (but then that could be said of the other Stephenson novels that I’ve read as well). But even with the flaws, I had a hard time putting it down and I found myself flying through its nearly 1000 pages in short order.

Last Night in Montreal by Emily St John Mandel
[Finished 11 February 2010] Part of my project to read recent first novels. St. John Mandel’s prose has a glowing dreamlike poetic quality that is hard to put a finger on and makes me really really wish that my writing were like that. She manages to do a great job of unravelling her story through non-chronological storytelling, although towards the end it feels like she doesn’t really have a good sense of what to do with her characters and falls into some cliches of storytelling, but I look forward to reading her next novel.

A Series of Unfortunate Events 10: The Slippery Slope by Lemony Snicket
[Finished 9 February 2010] We’re slowly seeing the characters grow and mature and finally getting some clues as to the whole VFD/Eye mystery. It was neat to see Sunny really get a chance to shine this time around.

The Last Word and Other Stories by Graham Greene
[Finished 2 February 2010] A hodgepodge of stories from across Greene’s career including those deleted when 19 Stories became 21 Stories. There are some delightful surprises in the mix, “The Man Who Stole the Eiffel Tower,” being chief in the mix, a wonderful bit of whimsy telling precisely the story the title promises. Some bits were tedious, most notably, “Work Not in Progress,” which is more a description of a story than a story in and of itself. It’s surprising, though, to note that the story comes from the 50s and not the 80s.

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
[Finished 1 February 2010] This book is really the definition of commercial fiction: Plot-driven, difficult to put down, but not necessarily of any great depth. One of the comments that many others of my acquaintance who’ve read the book is that there’s a lot of information on cathedral building in the book. Perhaps, although I don’t feel, joking to the contrary, like I can go out and build a medieval cathedral in my back yard now that I’ve read it.

The story, as I noted, is compelling and fast-paced. The 900+ pages of the book fly by with amazing celerity. But characterizations are not necessarily very deep. There doesn’t really seem to be more than one dimension for almost every character in the book. Aliena shows the greatest depth and even she doesn’t run especially deep.

But this is commercial fiction. We read it for the story, not for the characterizations and certainly not for the prose. We get a touch of an idea of what medieval life is like and a story that makes the reader want to just read a few pages more before bed. And in that, it succeeds quite well.

The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd
[Finished 26 January 2010] When this book first popped to the top of my reading list, I assumed that the title used the term “lambs” metaphorically, to talk about innocents in London, and while ostensibly, the Lambs of London are in fact, Charles and Mary Lamb (of Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare), I think that there’s some merit to my original assumption, as Charles and Mary are, in a way, secondary characters in the novel, overshadowed by William Henry Ireland. I read this somewhat ignorant of the real Ireland’s history so the twist, that he was a forger and not a discoverer of lost texts, was one that caught me by surprise (it also helped that I hadn’t read the jacket flap copy). In all a delightful diversion.

Reflections by Graham Greene
[Finished 23 January 2010] I had some concerns going into this volume when I saw that it was a collection of essays from throughout Greene’s career including many which had been excluded from Collected Essays for a variety of reasons. But upon reading the collection, I found myself pleasantly surprised by the quality of the essays. A number of the early essays, speaking abstractly about film, form a sort of manifesto for what narrative arts in general (not just film) should seek to do and how it should approach the task. There are some curious bits of occasional verse included along with a concluding essay containing some notes on abandoned story and novel ideas.

Best American Short Stories 2009 edited by Alice Sebold
[Finished 14 January 2010] This volume is apparently where the Hurricane Katrina fiction made it through the pipeline into the best of anthologies. Neither of the Katrina stories really called out to me that much, though. The stories which I enjoyed the most were Alice Fulton’s “A Shadow Table,” Karl Taro Greefield’s “NowTrends,” Greg Hrbek’s “Sagittarius,” Yiyun Li’s “A Man Like Him,” Rebecca Makkai’s “The Briefcase” (the best one in the book), Richard Powers’s “Modulation,” and Alex Rose’s “Ostracon” (an interesting bit of experimental writing).

Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee
[Finished 8 January 2010] A wonderful book, far better than the last Coetzee I read and a clear indication of why it was that he was named for the Nobel prize. While there is a fair amount of old man mourning his dying sexuality in the story, the stories of the stupidity of the imperial military caused a decrease in security took over. In a way there were two conflicting narratives going on: One was a bit of an allegory on the failures of empire (prescient of American overreach in Afghanistan and Iraq), the other the story of the magistrate. Oddly while I tend to find allegory tiresome, in this novel it was the more successful aspect of the novel. At times, the magistrate’s story descended into banality and boringness.

L.A. Outlaws by T. Jefferson Parker
[Finished 3 January 2010] An enjoyable crime novel. Parker does a good job of sprinkling clues without giving things away, although it felt as if the story lost its momentum in its final pages. I think, though, that I might read more Parker in the future. He has a wonderful feel for Los Angeles.

Selected Poems by Alexander Pope
[Finished 3 January 2010] I’ve been reading these poems for the past couple weeks, reading a collection I’d only dipped into when I purchased it for my 18th Century English Literature class. The Penguin edition has the odd choice to omit line numbers on the poems making the usual citation format a bit difficult (I’m still a bit disturbed to look back on the papers I wrote on Pope and see the odd-looking citations), but the poems themselves stand on their own even if I do find myself slipping into a bit of a rap rhythm while reading them.

The Master by Colm Tóibín
[Finished 30 December 2009] I have to admit I found this book to be rather dull. It’s been a long time since I’ve read any Henry James, but I think that about half the time I found myself in the same situation with James’s work so maybe it makes sense that I’d react the same way to a novel about Henry James.

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
[Finished 28 December 2009] Second novels are an interesting thing. After pouring out a life’s worth of experience on the first novel, a successful writer is often given a sizable sum of money and a deadline in which to produce a second novel, not always to the best effect. Niffenegger manages a creditable second novel with Her Fearful Symmetry, demonstrating a good handle on writing third-person omniscient (I think it might be coming back into fashion) in her take on a ghost story. At times the symmetry metaphor is handled a bit clumsily, but the writing is beautiful and the plotting is as surprising as she managed with her first novel.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
[Finished 22 December 2009] How unpromising the title seems. A woman writer and a domestic title. And yet upon opening it, I was left feeling like this was some of the most purely beautiful prose that I’ve ever encountered, written with a hypnotic quality that leaves you feeling as if you’ve wondered into a waking dream. It’s not often that I find myself going back to the beginning of a chapter to re-read it for the pleasure of reading it one more time. I feel that my own writing has turned limp and inadequate in comparison.

Yours, Etc.: Letters to the Press 1945-1989 by Graham Greene
[Finished 19 December 2009] I picked up my copy new as a first edition out of my Greeneian completist instincts. Probably over half the text is actually explanatory prose from editor Christopher Hawtree, essential to an understanding of many of the issues which have since faded into obscurity (and even when they haven’t are often in need of clarification courtesy of the minimalist style of a letter to the editor). That said, it’s a frequently enjoyable read, especially given some of Greene’s habits as a practical joker. Having read the revelations of the later volumes of Norman Sherry’s biography of Greene since my first reading of this book, it’s interesting to wonder how much of the political writing was showmanship for Greene’s continuing espionage career.

Metamorphoses by Ovid
[Finished 18 December 2009] I can understand the temptation to take an epic work of poetry in Latin and Greek and translate it in prose as Mary Innes has done with this edition, but the end result is seldom good and this is no exception. We’re left with a rather prosaic rendering of the text and the choice to turn the Metamorphoses into prose has ended up leaving the text feeling like a dense blob of words rather than something special.

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
[Finished 13 December 2009] There is something a bit obvious in writing a book called The Plot Against America in the days following 9/11 amidst the seemingly unstoppable upsurge of the Bush-Cheney regime. Roth’s alternate history even includes a president who likes to do his own flying (although Lindbergh, unlike Bush flew solo).

But all that said, somehow I found the novel falling a bit flat. Using the perspective of a 9-year old Philip Roth to tell the story, there is a great deal of promise, but it feels as if towards the end, Roth grew tired of his premise and decided to give up on the book rather than follow it where it was leading (which would have led to a much longer book, certainly, but, in the end, I think a much better book).

True, it’s a Philip Roth book, so even as flawed as it is, it’s still hard to put down, but in the end, I was left seeing more in the book that Roth hadn’t written than in the book that he had.

A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul
[Finished 7 December 2009] I know very little about the postcolonial period in Africa, but Naipaul manages to convey the atmosphere quite well in this novel. The country that Naipaul depicts is unnamed in the novel, but this, in a way, manages to make the themes more universal: that people more knowledgeable than I can make cases for different countries as the locale for the novel tells me that the conditions in various central African nations were similar.

Perhaps most interesting is that the story is told from the perspective of an outsider, an Indian trader working in rather cultural isolation. The commentaries on the international world of the fifties and sixties were especially fascinating.

The Captain and the Enemy by Graham Greene
[Finished 4 December 2009] Greene’s last novel. There are elements of Greene’s experiences in Panama in the narrative, with characters clearly reminiscent of Omar Torrijos and Chuchu from Greene’s Getting to Know the General. There are some possibly metaphorical elements in the story, including some hints that the Captain of the title is, in some ways, a stand-in for an ambiguously good God. This was the first Greene book I was able to purchse new and at publication, which in some ways is a bit of a pity since our lives had such little overlap chronologically.

Beautiful Children by Charles Bock
[Finished 2 December 2009] I have no idea how this ended up in my reading list, but sometime between when I took it out of the library and when I started reading it, I came across a reference to it from a literary agent citing it as something he would like to see more of.

Bock does an interesting job of weaving together different characters and chronologies around the central mystery of the story, what happened to Newell Ewing. There’s a fascinating look into the worlds of the marginalized, whether it’s comic book fanatics, strippers, runaways or a father whose marriage is collapsing and has begun to seek solace from strippers and pornography. It really is a great debut novel and leaves me seeing a higher level of writing to aim for.

Bump by Diana Wagman
[Finished 30 November 2009] I first heard about this book from Barbara DeMarco-Barrett’s Writers on Writing show and upon reading it, I realized what it was that had attracted me to the book. The characters in the book are each, in their own way, touched by suicides whether it’s the cop who collects suicide notes, has a father who killed himself and spends most of the novel thinking that this will be the last day of his life before he himself commits suicide to the Beverly Hills housewife who volunteers for a suicide hotline. Wagman does a great job of managing the coincidences which tie her characters together with the exception of one character’s demise near the end of the novel which seemed just a bit too tidy for my tastes. For a novel whose unifying theme is suicide, this manages to be a rather uplifting read.

If On A Winter's Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino
[Finished 26 November 2009] A wonderfully readable post-modern novel. It’s really about reading and includes a delightfully byzantine story about foiled attempts at reading where just as the reader reaches the end of the first chapter, one of a number of problems leads to the reader being led to a new book, entirely different from the first. One of my favorite reads of the year.

The Red Queen by Margaret Drabble
[Finished 20 November 2009] I think I read Drabble’s The Waterfall in college, and if I did, my primary memory is of feeling rather disconnected from the narrative and that the story felt like I was seeing it through a gauze mask.

Coming back to Drabble to read this recent novel, I found her narrative style a bit more engaging. The story is told, for the most part, from the perspective of the deceased Korean Crown Princess Hyegyong of the title. We begin with a story of the princess told in a formal style, then move to a close third person narrative of a contemporary female academic who reads the life of the princess and finds it consuming her while simultaneously engaging in some parallel activities in her own life. We conclude with the academic meeting Margaret Drabble and Drabble writing the novel. Enjoyable, but not necessarily 5-star material to my mind.

Morte d'Urban by J. F. Powers
[Finished 15 November 2009] Powers is my people. Not merely a Catholic, but a pacifist and a writer whose first stories appeared in The Catholic Worker. This is a lightly comic tale of a worldly priest slowly coming to his own epiphany. The story is managed in such a way to avoid heavy handedness in its ultimate morality. Powers does a masterful job of letting us identify with and root for Father Urban so as he starts to feel the limitations of his world view, we do as well. I am eager to read more Powers in the future.

The Tenth Man by Graham Greene
[Finished 16 September 2009] A bit of an oddity in Greene’s oeuvre, a treatment for a film that was never made (until after the treatment was published). It was part of a trove of lost writings by Greene unearthed in the early eighties.

The story is easily the most commercial of Greene’s plots, written out of the same sort of financial desperation that brought about Stamboul Train, although perhaps tinged with additional worry of middle age. The conclusion is more than a little melodramatic and Greene’s use of coincidence overbearing, but underneath it all is the distinct sense of moral ambiguity that underlies so much of Greene’s writing.

The Sea by John Banville
[Finished 14 September 2009] I didn’t really get into this book as much as I had hoped I might. There is some beautiful writing and exquisite use of allusion and reference in the text, but the structure of the book with its frequent shifts in time left me feeling unmoored as I read.

The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge
[Finished 2 September 2009] A wonderfully strange book, it starts out as what seemed to be a bit of a domestic drama about two single young women sharing an apartment (and a bed, with a wall of pillows and books separating them). But as the central event of the book, an outing of workers at the bottle factory where both women work, comes to pass, the story takes a strange twist into a morbid comedy about dealing with the body of one of the women who dies on the outing (it’s revealed at the end that it was an accidental killing by one of the men on the outing). It’s the sort of twist that one sometimes imagines happening in a story but never actually encounters in reality (the only point of comparison I can come up with is the film From Dusk ‘til Dawn with its genre shift mid-story).

Nuns and Soldiers by Iris Murdoch
[Finished 22 August 2009] I’ve had this novel sitting on my shelves for at least a decade, probably longer. I went through a bit of an Iris Murdoch phase in college, and after reading this book, I’m thinking that I’d really like to revisit at least some of those books again now. In this instance, it’s an almost Victorian tale in some ways, complete with something approaching a Dickensian happy ending. And the language is exquisite. One thing I remember well from earlier reading of Murdoch was her skill at describing artworks, and here while there is an artist character, that skill ends up portraying the subjects of the art rather than the art itself.

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
[Finished 21 August 2009] A wonderful book, with touches of magical realism amidst the world of African Americans struggling to survive in mid-twentieth century America. I can see the influence of her on August Wilson and I really look forward to reading more Morrison.

My Name is Will: A Novel of Sex Drugs and Shakespeare by Jess Winfield
[Finished 14 August 2009] One of the central conceits of this novel, that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic, was one which I was familiar with from my undergraduate research on English recusancy and 16th century literature. For me, I found the analogy to be one of politics, trying to connect recusancy with the struggle of the poor in Latin America. In Winfield’s novel, he makes the connection (perhaps more successfully) between the actions of the pursuivants and the Reagan-era war on drugs. The story more fades away than comes to a conclusion and the attempt to bring the contemporary and Shakespearean narratives into contact was as fuzzy as the drug trip depicted, but it was still a fun read and it was nice to see some of my more esoteric interests represented in something approaching pop culture.

Monsignor Quixote by Graham Greene
[Finished 12 August 2009] I first learned of this book from Dave Kostelancik. He was stopping by the high school where I was a freshman and he had just graduated and had a copy of the book with him. He described it as “Don Quixote is a priest and Sancho Panza is the communist ex-mayor of El Toboso.” I decided I had to read the book and rushed to the local public library to check out their copy.

Dave’s one-sentence summary does give a good sense of the plot and this is the most idea-centered of all Greene’s novels, even more so than A Burnt-Out Case, and represents, if Norman Sherry is to be believed, a bit of Greene’s rapprochement with Catholicism, the idea that belief and doubt were to be forever intertwined in his psyche. As I re-read this, I found myself reveling in the familiarity of the passages that I’ve read so many times and see the germination of many of my own beliefs, religious and political, in its pages.

My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult
[Finished 8 August 2009] I read this primarily because my wife told me as we left the film that they had changed the ending (and I’ll be talking about that, so skip reading this if you’ve not read the book and/or seen the movie and care about spoilers), so I feel compelled to write about both the book and the film in this review.

The film was flawed in that, at least in the first act, and somewhat less later, it felt compelled to stick closely to the book, which meant trying to translate the multiple first-person narrations to the screen, which in turn came out as a series of gratuitous voice overs. In screenwriting, a voiceover is the cinematic equivalent of telling-not-showing in print. Very rarely is a voiceover a good thing in a film. And I’d also point out that multiple first person POVs are a deadly trap in narrative fiction. It seems like a good thing at the time, but it’s difficult to meet the challenge of writing more than two narrators, and even that is beyond most author’s skills. The fact that the book designer felt compelled to do the cutesy thing of changing the body typeface for each narrator (including some hideous choices of typeface).

As a storyteller, Picoult manages to transcend the limitations of her POV choice, though, and while I think that some of the streamlining of the story that took place in the film was worthwhile (although eliminating the Jesse-as-arsonist story turned his character into a bit of a cipher in the film), she made for a good story, the sort of thing that would spark some good book club discussions, even if she was a bit heavy-handed in bringing up the “are we responsible for others” theme.

And the ending? The film went for the Hollywood ending: Anna was filing the lawsuit because her sister wanted her to do so, because she was ready to die. And frankly, I think it was more effective than the self-conscious ending that Picoult chose for the novel, where Anna is killed in a car accident and her kidneys are transplanted to her sister, miraculously saving her life and allowing her to live well into the future. It just felt too contrived for my tastes. I suppose if Kate had died anyway, I would have felt better about it. Picoult had spent so much effort in letting us know that Kate was unlikely to survive that letting her live at the end cheapened the novel.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy by John Le Carré
[Finished 7 August 2009] I’ve not read much of the spy novel genre. Really only a couple of books by Graham Greene, and of those only The Human Factor really counts as a spy novel. So I don’t have a real point of comparison (other than watching films in the genre). That said, I found this a fun read, a great account of the psychology of deceit. What makes a good spy novel fascinating is less the spycraft side of things and more the whole psychological impact of a life style which is focused on deception.

A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby
[Finished 7 August 2009] Hornby is my favorite light writer. I can feel pretty confident when I pick up a Nick Hornby book that I’m going to encounter a strong voice, an entertaining tale and a weak ending. And A Long Way Down is a solid entry in that tradition. It does feel like Hornby is pushing himself a bit beyond his abilities in attempting to establish multiple narrators in his books, something he’s been doing for the last few novels, but as he increases the number of first-person voices, the strength of the narrators weakens. Here, only Jess has a strong voice, and while Maureen is the most interesting of the characters, she has the weakest voice. Still, Hornby resists the urge to moralize in the book, while acknowledging the pressure to do so. In all, a successful book.

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
[Finished 2 August 2009] Oh my. It’s hard to overstate how good this book is. Maybe it’s partly because the people in the book are very much my people. I was someone who did research on book arts related stuff at the Newberry Library (I’m not sure if it was Audrey Niffenegger herself or one of her Columbia colleagues who, seeing the document requests that I had made at the library came to see who was researching Beatrice Warde). The bookstores and record stores mentioned in the book are places that I’ve been, that I’ve blown my hard-earned pay on books and CDs that I probably couldn’t actually afford.

There’s not a sentence in this book which doesn’t seem perfect. Granted, the overall narrative runs out of steam in the final pages, but the first 500 pages more than make up for that. The time travel acts as a way of being able to provide a brilliantly crafted non-linear narrative. We don’t really follow Henry or Clare’s lives in sequence, but instead get both out of sequence, so not only is the reader learning things in a non-linear fashion, but so are the characters of the book. There’s a small list of books that I wish I had written and this, I think, takes the position at the top of the list.

Slow Man by J. M. Coetzee
[Finished 1 August 2009] My first (but not last, courtesy of the 1001 books list) Coetzee novel. The novel begins conventionally enough, seeming like it’s going to be yet another story of post-midlife lust. And in some ways it is, but the introduction of the character of a writer, Elizabeth Costello, who says that she didn’t come to the characters in the book, but that they came to her puts the book squarely into post-modern territory. The fact that Costello is not simply an imposition of Coetzee into the narrative, but a character in her own right gives her a narrative interest that might not otherwise be possible. At times, her presence is more a distraction, and Coetzee is inconsistent in his use of this authorial character, but even the attempt at such a difficult balance in narrative is a daring choice.

On Beauty by Zadie Smith
[Finished 1 August 2009] A fascinating book about contemporary academic life and its overlapping with townie life. Smith is a bit clumsy at times with her use of the omniscient narrator. Her opening, “One may as well begin with Jerome’s e-mails to his father,” makes us aware of the presence of a narrator who disappears and reappears throughout the book. It seems as if we might have been better off if she were to let herself stay with a moving close third person narration. But as a storyteller, Smith is brilliant, using lacunae to move the story along, keeping us involved and giving us reason to read on, if only to learn what happened in the days weeks or months that passed in the blank space that separates the chapters.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor
[Finished 27 July 2009] A delightful novel about growing old and dying at a London hotel. We follow the titular Mrs Palfrey as she moves into the Claremont Hotel and becomes a part of the insular society of the permanent residents as well as befriending a young would-be writer. It’s a short breezy novel, an absolute delight to read.

Herzog by Saul Bellow
[Finished 24 July 2009] When I first read Bellow as a callow college student who had been pointed at Henderson the Rain King, I fell in love with the writing. Coming back to him at double the age, I found myself less enamored with him, although as I got deeper and deeper into the novel, I found it more appealing, although the letters scattered throughout varied from being distractions, to being illuminating, to being unnecessary, a view that Bellow himself may have agreed with as they almost completely disappeared from later portions of the book.

Ways of Escape by Graham Greene
[Finished 22 July 2009] I was looking to see if I had a review of this book in my archive, and it turns out that I did. AND, I had speculated that I had first read the book (almost) exactly ten years earlier. The date of that review: 23 July 1999. Apparently, for whatever reason, I come back to this book every ten years. And each time, I’m still in that hotel room outside Princeton.

I’ve read a number of biographies of Greene’s life now, so coming back into his autobiography now becomes an interesting commentary on those (or those on this). Greene’s tax troubles that led to his tax exile are elided in a few words, and he alternates from openly discussing his mistresses to discretely referring to staying in a hotel with “a friend.”

Greene’s attempts to tie his memories in with the title throughout are a bit weak and there’s one point where “athleticism” is used where “asceticism” is meant (I assume an editor is to blame--or perhaps Greene’s typist). The fact that a large portion of the book is re-purposed from introductions to the various books only makes things worse.

And yet, Greene’s life is compelling enough to let us get past these flaws and draw us in. It’s a pity that time has led to the book falling out of print.

Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope
[Finished 18 July 2009] Ah, the joys of returning to Trollope. The unconventionality of the characters made it not immediately clear whether John Grey or George Vavasor was meant to be the hero of the story, although, as in most things Victorian, this should not have been a difficult question to resolve with modest reflection. I had some doubts about whether I would want to read the Palliser novels when I first started reading this novel, but those doubts are resolved. I do.

Saturday by Ian McEwan
[Finished 11 July 2009] McEwan has set an interesting challenge for himself: Tell a story that takes place entirely in one day from the perspective of a single character. The events manage to largely fold together into a consistent story, and McEwan has sufficient skill as an author to keep the reader entranced even as we go into long internal monologues. I’m still not entirely sold on McEwan, but I enjoyed this a bit more than the contrived Atonement.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
[Finished 14 June 2009] A wonderfully anarchic novel. A lot of it is disconnected, but it seems to do an excellent job of capturing the pointlessness of war.

ESPete: Sixth Grade Sense by Arnold Rudnick
[Finished 11 May 2009] The main reason I picked up the book is that the author is my brother’s writing partner and on my brother’s last trip to town, Arnold gave me a copy of the book.

That said, this is a reasonably entertaining and well-written book, aimed at middle grades. There’s a tendency at times to write down a little to the audience, but overall it’s a fun and entertaining little book, the sort of thing that I can see really capturing a kid’s imagination. The book includes the opening chapter of the planned sequel, ESPete: Psychic Hoop Dreams.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
[Finished 9 May 2009] It’s rare that I get towards the end of a book and deliberately slow down my reading because I don’t want the book to end. But this time, I had been so captivated by Ishiguro’s narration that I couldn’t bring myself not to.

This is, I suppose, a work of literary science fiction, and from the beginning with the familiar yet unfamiliar vocabulary, I could tell that there was something a bit different about the world that Ishiguro was depicting (I knew nothing about the book when I began reading it), which is actually precisely the sort of science fiction-ish narrative that I really enjoy.

I think some of it is the almost emotionally flat narrative, something which didn’t work in the screen adaptation of Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day (I’ve not read the novel, so I can’t comment on that), but in this context serves, ironically, to heighten the emotional content of the story.

Doctor Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party by Graham Greene
[Finished 8 May 2009] This, apparently, is considered a minor work in Greene’s canon, having fallen out of print and not meriting any mention at all on Norman Sherry’s biography of Greene.

But it seems like this is a somewhat misplaced view of things. Yes, there are some clumsy characterizations in the novel, but at the same time, the philosophy of the narrator rivals Querry’s in its pessimism, the concept of a God who exists primarily to humiliate his creation, does provide a fascinating view into Greene’s state of mind at this stage of his life. It’s interesting to note that Greene’s next novel would be Monsignor Quixote.

No Star is Lost by James T. Farrell
[Finished 7 May 2009] It’s been a while since I’ve read any Farrell. I remember being absolutely captivated by Studs Lonnigan, so I was more than happy to start the Danny O’Neill pentalogy a few years back before discovering that most of Farrell’s works had fallen out of print. Now they’ve come back into print so I’m able to easily obtain copies of the books on the pentalogy that I didn’t have and I’m back into it. What’s interesting is that despite the sometimes clumsy narration (when a character is first introduced, we get a description that seems more like what you’d find in stage directions than in a novel), there’s a compelling voice here, especially in the rendering of dialogue. The plot such as it is, is a bit wandering and undirected with no real protagonist for the action to be centered on (is Danny meant to be the central character? Or Margaret? Or Mother? Or is it the family in general?), but even so, the narrative voice is enough to keep the reader propelled through the story.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac
[Finished 4 May 2009] This book reads like a first draft typed out on a benzedrine high, but oh my, what an amazing first draft it is. The incredible compelling voice here grabbed me and never let me go through the whole story. The madness and energy of Dean Moriarty are addictive and it’s easy to see our narrator drawn into the adventures that Moriarty instigates as well as setting off on some of his own. Could it be a more polished narrative? Sure, but it would at the same time lose some of the energy of the book. It makes me tempted to re-read the book in the scroll edition.

The Tin Drum by Günter Grass
[Finished 30 April 2009] There are those occasional works of literature which are widely acclaimed as great, but which manage to leave some readers cold. For me, this is one of them. I can see some of the flashes of brilliance in this book, particularly, the account of the burning of the synagogue, and elements of the surrealist narration, but too much of it just seemed to drag and not be that interesting. That said, even in a book like this, I find some small inspiration for a bit of formation of future writing.

The Human Factor by Graham Greene
[Finished 17 April 2009] I remember being puzzled when I bought this book that it wasn’t a Penguin paperback like all my other Graham Greene novels. Only later did I learn that a conflict over the title of the book led Greene to change publishers with the publication of this book.

Re-reading it with a memory of the vague outline of the plot took away some of the suspense of the story, but allowed me to really enjoy how Greene unfolded character and mood. I did find the Catholic “furniture” in the story to be an odd diversion in the story, the metaphors and confession scene seemed to be completely out of place.

Caspian Rain by Gina B. Nahai
[Finished 16 April 2009] I’m not sure what attracted me to this book to put it in my library queue. Was it the first-person omniscient voice? The magical realism? The account of hearing loss? Perhaps some combination of them all. That said, it was a beautifully written book with a compelling voice.

The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perotta
[Finished 13 February 2009] I have to confess that I had high expectations for this book, and that I was left a bit underwhelmed by the result. It seemed like it took Perotta an awfully long time to begin to draw the character of Tim as a three-dimensional human being, and even moreso with Tim’s wife. Instead, the Christians of the story ended up as being rather cartoony and unsatisfying, especially the character of the pastor of the tabernacle. It’s a pity because when Perotta was in good shape, it was really good, but it just didn’t seem like he had any good idea of what to do with his characters (the plot more peters out than reaches any sort of conclusion). I’m likely to try another Perotta novel, in hopes of feeling more satisfied, perhaps if he stays more within his comfort zone, the writing will be more satisfying.

Best American Short Stories 2008 edited by Salman Rushdie
[Finished 28 December 2008] Another wonderful collection of stories. This time around, the editor Salman Rushdie focuses on the American part of the story with an interesting essay in what exactly constitutes an “American” short story, finally settling on an especially broad definition of the term.

There’s a fair amount of skewed reality in the stories (although surprisingly, not from George Saunders’s contribution), which I found pleasant. Allegra Goodman’s “Closely Held” managed to really grasp the reality of working in the tech industry.

Malone Dies by Samuel Beckett
[Finished 1 November 2008] Looking back on this book, what I remember more than the book itself is how it inspired me to add a new chapter to my own work in progress.

A Series of Unfortunate Events 9: The Carnivorous Carnival by Lemony Snicket
[Finished 25 September 2008] I’m left with a stronger sense that we’re writing novels now instead of clever stories. Snicket has enough sense to pull back on some of the verbal games that could have grown tiresome this deep into the series.

The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett
[Finished 31 August 2008] Having read Ann Patchett’s most recent novels, I decided to start at the beginning and read all of her works. I was a bit surprised to discover that she wasn’t using her omniscient POV in this work, but rather uses a series of three first-person narrators.

If I had any doubts about whether Patchett was a Catholic before reading this, they were dispelled when I finished

Lord Rochester's Monkey by Graham Greene
[Finished 27 August 2008] A re-read. It’s still somewhat surprising that this was considered too scandalous to publish on its creation.

The Plague by Albert Camus
[Finished 21 August 2008] I always expect surrealism from Camus, for some reason, but never find it.

Novels and Stories 1959-1962: Goodbye, Columbus & Five Short Stories / Letting Go by Philip Roth
[Finished 19 August 2008] Roth’s early writing is not quite as engaging as I might have hoped, although some of it is attributable to the youth of the author. When I was in college, I made a point of reading lots of first novels. They were often quite delightful, containing the author’s lifetime of pent-up creativity in their pages. I don’t see that happening with the early Roth. Instead, there’s some indication of his nascent creativity beginning to show, and with his first novel, some hints of the narrative genius that he would become.

Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford
[Finished 18 August 2008] A revisiting of the characters of Mitford’s first novel, and surprisingly, just as entertaining.

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
[Finished 11 August 2008] Oh, such delicious characterization.

The High Window by Raymond Chandler
[Finished 8 August 2008] By far my favorite of the three Chandler novels which I’ve read, although in this case, most of the plot twists which Chandler assumed drove the novel were abundantly clear. Maybe that’s why I liked it.

Farewell My Lovely by Raymond Chandler
[Finished 3 August 2008] I’m getting a bit more accustomed to Chandler’s plotting and geography, although this is still a bit too convoluted a story for my tastes.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
[Finished 28 July 2008] Maybe it’s just me, but I had a hard time getting into Chandler. Although being an Angeleno, I can at least envision his geography reasonably well.

The USA Trilogy by John Dos Passos
[Finished 15 July 2008] An amazing literary experiment. The “camera eye” segments seemed to be largely failures, although failures with grand aspirations. The mini-biographies of real-life figures, however, were fascinating as was the overall plan of the book in which the protagonist was not an individual but a nation and the arc of how capital and labor interacted over the first part of the twentieth century.

The Mad Scientists' Club by Bertrand R. Brinley
[Finished 21 June 2008] I hate to confess that it’s my fault that the Stickney-Forest View Library does not have a copy of this book. I checked it out over and over and managed at some point to lose it (costing an astronomical ten dollars of library fines as a consequence). And because the library’s copy was lost, I haven’t read these stories in some three decades. I’d forgotten the contents of almost all of them, so it was like reading them fresh when I got my own copy of the book.

Some of the plots are a bit simplistic, and there’s a fair amount of “magical” technology courtesy of small radios which can be effortlessly wired into doing any of a number of things, but it’s forgivable as children’s literature, especially given its ability to inspire a youthful imagination.

Journey to the End of Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline
[Finished 13 June 2008] A book which is perhaps most amazing in its voice which manages to carry through even through the necessary mutilation of translation. There is a startling frankness and directness to Céline’s narration which sets the book apart.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
[Finished 27 May 2008] This is only the second Woolf I’ve ever read, the first being To the Lighthouse which I read but didn’t really get as an undergrad (that, of course, excludes countless readings of “A Room of One’s Own”). Coming back to Woolf now, I can appreciate the exquisite beauty of her prose, although I have to admit that I find that Ann Patchett is a better Woolf than Woolf herself is.

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan
[Finished 21 May 2008] Another one of these fun brisk novels. The story is pretty straightforward and there aren’t the sorts of extreme twists and turns which seem obligatory for a modern thriller, but I enjoyed it nevertheless. I’m thinking that I may definitely read more Buchan in the future

Collected Short Stories by Graham Greene
[Finished 8 May 2008] Coming back to these stories, I find many of them to be a bit lacking, feeling more like outlines for novels never undertaken rather than full-fledged examples of the short story art. In many of the stories, there is a lack of closeness that leaves the reader feeling a bit empty. Even the stories which feel more like stories, like “May We Borrow Your Husband,” come across more as a piece of a novel more than a story. I can’t help wondering whether that might have been the intent behind some of the stories.

But not every story is a failure. Greene is at the peak of his art in a story like “Under the Garden”, a story whose half-forgotten memory, mixed with the half-forgotten memories of the plot itself, have haunted me for decades since first reading it.

The Rainbow by D. H. Lawrence
[Finished 8 May 2008] It’s been a long time since I’ve last read D.H. Lawrence (I think not since just after the first time I dropped out of college). The reasons for this being banned seem somewhat trivial in modern society (a not terribly graphic lesbian romance), but more interesting are things like the attacks on her husband’s religion by Anna Brangwen.

A Sort of Life by Graham Greene
[Finished 26 April 2008] I stumbled across my first edition copy of this at a book fair in Chicago some twenty years ago. Coming back to the book again I find it remarkably readable. There are parts of the book which I realize that I’ve managed to forget in such a way that I’ve incorporated them into my psyche, a sign of just how dramatically reading Greene has impacted my own personality.

Some readers have found the detachment in this first volume of memoir offputting, but the younger me found it exhilarating, while the older me finds it comfortable, a reminder of what I liked as a young man. I’ve become old enough that I no longer read writers’ autobiographies as a recipe for how to lead my own life, but instead as an insight into another mind.

Time Regained by Marcel Proust
[Finished 23 April 2008] The final book in In Search of Lost Time. I’m finally really bound up in Proust’s prose. So much so, that my thought as I finish this last volume is that I would like to re-read the whole thing, although I think that when I do, I would like to do it outside my usual context of bus rides and stolen moments.

Travels with My Aunt by Graham Greene
[Finished 8 April 2008] Coming back to this book after a couple decades, I’m left amazed with the pure richness of the narrative. Sometimes the international travels seem a bit gratuitous, as if Greene had wanted to be able to justify some vacation time as a tax deduction, but it still ends up being an entertaining yarn, definitely one on my short list of the best Graham Greene novels.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
[Finished 4 April 2008] Russell’s novel manages to start on an amazingly high note, worth quoting in its entirety:

After the first exquisite songs were intercepted by radio telescope, U.N. diplomats debated long and hard whether and why human resources should be expended in an attempt to reach the world that would become known as Rakhat. In the Rome offices of the Society of Jesus, the questions were not whether or why but how soon the mission could be attempted and whom to send.

The Jesuit scientists went to Rakhat to learn, not to proselytize. They went so that they might come to know and love God’s other children. They went for the reason Jesuits have always gone to the farthest frontiers of human exploration. They went for the greater glory of God.

The characters that Russell creates are largely well-drawn although two members of the party end up being little more than names and occupations. And the situation that she sets up is an amazingly intriguing one. The problem is that she doesn’t quite succeed in pulling off the conclusion of the story, not too difficult though since she’s trying to tackle the Job problem, how God can allow suffering and bad things to happen. Nevertheless, I’m still eager to take a look at the sequel that she wrote to see how well it works.

Anthology of Catholic Poets edited by Joyce Kilmer
[Finished 20 March 2008] A New Critic’s dream. The poems here are identified only by title and author, with the selection listed in alphabetical order by poet’s name. No dates, no background information, only the text.

The subjects of the poem are mostly religious, although there are a handful of poems with secular topics as well. It provides a pretty good sense of what was in vogue at the opening of the twentieth century (the first edition of this book was produced in 1917). A later edition added some additional poems to the collection including a fair number by Kilmer himself.

Ten Miracle Plays edited by R. G. Thomas
[Finished 10 March 2008] One of the ancient books in my collection. I picked this up at a time when I had the idea of writing a great comprehensive paper on reinterpretations of the gospel story (intending to write about everything from medieval miracle plays to Andrew Lloyd Weber). I never did.

The book is a collection of different portions of multiple pageants, all presented in unmodernized middle English. The decision to simply provide a glossary at the back of the book rather than marginal annotations was not one that I would have made. It was interesting to see the medieval didacticism at work in the play.

The Collected Essays by Graham Greene
[Finished 1 February 2008] As an undergraduate I started reading this collection, but I don’t think that I ever finished it. I can guess how far I got into it by where the familiar turned alien. The review of Recusant Poets that turned me onto my undergraduate thesis topic was familiar. The account of Castro and 1960s Cuba, or Pope Pius XII were unfamiliar, but fascinating.

The Captive & The Fugitive by Marcel Proust
[Finished 31 January 2008] As I come into the home stretch of In Search of Lost Time, I find myself beginning to really get Proust. I have some sense of the sprawling landscape of the novel and the long stretches of uninterrupted prose are easier to get through, I’m almost ready to try re-reading the whole thing, although that will likely be a pleasure reserved for later in my life.

Best American Short Stories 2007 edited by Stephen King
[Finished 19 January 2008] It’s probable that it’s at least partly a consequence of King’s sensibilities, but I found this volume to be far more plot-oriented than last year’s edited by Ann Patchett. King notes in his introduction that he feels that the American short story is alive but not well, largely because writers have become too focused on writing for other writers as opposed to writing for readers, a trend which tends to reinforce and be reinforced by declining circulations of literary magazines.

In this volume, my favorites were John Barth’s “Toga Party,” Lauren Groff’s “L. Debard and Alietto: A Love Story,” and Richard Russo’s “Horseman,” although unlike the 2006 volume, there really weren’t any stories that left me cold.

The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells
[Finished 9 January 2008] In my little H. G. Wells marathon, this was the only story that I didn’t have any previous exposure to. The closest I came was the trailer for the 1996 film.

So maybe that’s why of the three Wells novels, this was the one that made the greatest impression on this reading. I found myself thinking that it was an especially creepy story, one which left me chilled as I finished reading it. Perhaps it was also aided by a relative lack of Wells’s usual sociological moralizing.

The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells
[Finished 8 January 2008] I don’t know if I ever read this as a child or if my memories are based primarily on the various adaptations of the story (the old black and white film, Orson Welles’s radio broadcast, even the Spielberg film).

It’s interesting to see how Wells adapted his preference for first person narration to a story which really needed multiple points of view (by recounting the experiences of the narrator’s brother and making references to pamphlets which had been published).

But the real crux of the novel seems to be the encounter between the narrator and the artilleryman near the end of the book when the artilleryman outlines his plan for surviving until the humans are able to finally defeat the Martians. It almost seems an echo of the Morlocks from The Time Machine.

The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
[Finished 4 January 2008] I had read this book at some point in my childhood, so I had a vague recollection of the Eloi and the Morlocks, along with mental images which resurfaced as I read the book.

But what I didn’t remember, and what probably eluded me on that first reading, was the social commentary which is an essential part of this book. Wells was clearly concerned about a strict separation of the classes, and more than anything else, this book seems a parable designed to warn against the dangers of the idle rich depending too heavily on the working classes and being unable to function for themselves.

The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt
[Finished 2 January 2008] What a wonderful book. As a number theory math guy, the prospect of reading a novel about Ramanujan was already appealing, but Leavitt is a skilled writer and managed to handle the story remarkably well. The focus of the story is on G.H. Hardy, including a significant amount of his personal life that I was unaware of (I hadn’t known that he was gay). The mathematics is presented in a way that manages to not frighten off the non-mathematical (or so I assume) while still providing enough information for the mathematically inclined to get the sense of what’s in there. And perhaps most deliciously, The Anecdote is saved until almost the end of the book, something which keeps those of us who know little more than the bare outlines of Ramanujan’s life on our toes waiting for it to finally appear in the narrative.

I think one test of a historical novel is whether it inspires the reader to want to learn more about the subject of the story. By that test, Leavitt has more than passed the test.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
[Finished 30 December 2007] Hearing an interview with Díaz on NPR, I thought that this would be a book that I would enjoy a great deal, but I found that large stretches of the book left me feeling a bit bored. The character of Oscar was compelling, but much of the rest of the book was less interesting. I can see how some of the parallels that Díaz set up were meant to work, but I don’t think that it was that successfully managed.

The Comedians by Graham Greene
[Finished 30 December 2007] In one of my English classes, the professor asked us what would be the epigraph for our lives. I had recently read the Gospel of Matthew and had quoted it a fair amount in my papers and he thought perhaps I would take my epigraph from that book, but I told him that I thought I would take it instead from Greene’s novel, writing, “I would rather have blood on my hands than water like Pilate.”

Coming back to this novel 19 years later, I realize that I only read it the one time, so I was able to have quickly forgotten the twists of the story, only the general outlines and a handful of memorable scenes. It’s a good read, and while it’s not up to the quality of Greene’s earlier work, I enjoyed it a fair amount.

Beware of God by Shalom Auslander
[Finished 23 December 2007] After reading Auslander’s memoir, I decided to take a look at his stories. Auslander is a writer of some skill, although he seems to have a rather limited range and many of the stories are riffs on the same joke, one which also is central to Auslander’s memoir as well. Some of the stories manage to take this riff and bring it to brilliant heights of comedy, but others fall flat or, in the worst case, descend to the depths of mediocrity. There is a fair amount of potential that is lost because of Auslander’s apparent fear of really facing the full depths of his topic.

Interestingly enough, the copyright page does not include any previous publication information on any of the stories. I’m not sure whether that’s an indication that this is a collection of stories never previously published.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo
[Finished 20 December 2007] Wow.

One of the concerns I’ve found myself exploring in my own writing has been language, so when I heard about this novel, I immediately had to read it.


The story is serviceable, a story of love found and lost. But the telling of it, in the context of learning a language (and the learning of the language was the context of writing the novel), is amazingly beautiful. Guo manages to make broken English readable for 300 pages. Absolutely brilliant. The language gradually transforms as the book advances, which, although it’s not done quite as perfectly as one might hope, is still effective at conveying the development of Z’s facility with the language.

Ron Carlson Writes a Story by Ron Carlson
[Finished 18 December 2007] I’ve tended to be someone who leans away from writing books written by writers. Far more interesting and useful is the advice proffered by editors and agents, people who have a view of many many manuscripts and have some sense of what the slush pile looks like.

But that said, there is some value for knowing something about how an individual writer approaches their writing. This is a somewhat interesting take in that it takes a line-by-line approach to how Carlson was inspired to write a single short story. It’s somewhat interesting, but I found myself wishing for more of the craft than the inspiration. There’s much more to be learned from how the story was crafted than where the ideas come from. And in this case, the structure of the book, creates the unfortunate illusion that there was a single draft through in the writing process.

Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett
[Finished 17 December 2007] I still have mixed feelings about Andrea Barrett’s writing. It seems that she misses the mark a fair amount, but partly because she’s so willing to push the fiction much farther than is safe. The short story which is clearly connected to The Air We Breathe is apparently her first effort at the first person plural narrative and it’s a bit clunkier in its first attempt.

The Linnaeus stories, though are superb and are worth the price of admission alone, as is the title novella.

Munster Village by Mary Hamilton
[Finished 16 December 2007] For some reason, I went through an eighteenth-century novel phase in my early twenties and this was one of the books that I bought that I never quite managed to pick up. Reading it now, I found it to be a somewhat tedious read.

Foreskin's Lament by Shalom Auslander
[Finished 13 December 2007] After hearing Auslander interviewed on Fresh Air, I thought that this might be an interesting book to read. Auslander has an interesting relationship with God, one which is both complex and juvenile at the same time.

I don’t always find Auslander to be a sympathetic character although he is refreshingly honest in his depictions of his struggles with responding to his sexuality and the temptations to spend the day with porn and pot instead of writing.

In all, it’s an interesting memoir of struggles with belief and the consequences thereof, good enough to suggest that his collection of short stories about God would be worth reading.

Quarantine by Jim Crace
[Finished 6 December 2007] After this was mentioned on NPR, I decided to give the book a look. It’s a rather odd look at the historical Jesus, perhaps akin to Kazantakis’s Last Temptation of Christ. Not exactly a naturalistic understanding of the events, as there is at least one, if not two, putative miracles in the story. And yet, the understanding of the events—Crace is recounting the 40 days in the desert—is not exactly orthodox either.

By focusing on the other hermits in the desert and giving us some sense of what a desert quarantine would be like in first century Palestine, we get some more insight into just what Jesus’s task would have been. Familiar biblical phrases appear, but transposed and not necessarily with the same meaning that they have in the gospels.

In all, a well-written and thought-provoking work although not quite having the impact of Kazantzakis which stands apart as the best of the modern re-imaginings of the gospel story.

Run by Ann Patchett
[Finished 30 November 2007] I’m thinking that I have a new favorite author. This is another one of those brilliant works of literature which have so many depths to them to explore. Consider the title. One short word, but one which has so much meaning. You can run on a track, or run for office, or have the run of the laboratory, or run the household, or run away (figuratively or literally), or things can run in the family or be run over by a car. Somewhere there’s an English major who’s getting 5-10 double-spaced pages on this topic for their contemporary literature professor who will remember this paper when she writes a letter of recommendation for that student’s application to a PhD program.

This is only the second Patchett novel that I’ve read, but I’m hooked on her use of language, something so skilled that I need to switch over to classical music on my iPod when I’m reading so that I don’t get distracted from her words, something I normally only need to do for poetry, she’s that good.

Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill
[Finished 27 November 2007] O’Neill has a compelling voice in this work and manages to capture the language and psychology of a child remarkably well in this book. Although there are occasional points where she lapses from her 12-year-old’s perspective to philosophize, these might be forgiven somewhat as a bit of reflection from a presumably older point of view.

A far bigger problem for me is the structure of the narrative. While it’s very well told, even given the rather ugly turn the narrative takes, it tends to be rather episodic, more like memoir than novel. That, plus a happy ending which felt tacked on and somewhat out of character with the rest of the narrative left me feeling like this wasn’t quite the great work of literature it could have become.

The Air We Breathe by Andrea Barrett
[Finished 25 November 2007] I caught an interview with Barrett on the Writers on Writing podcast and was intrigued by the concept of the first person plural narrative structure. It’s a fascinating conceit, and one which gives Barrett at least some of the freedoms of an omniscient narrator while retaining some of the intimacy which is characteristic of a first-person narrative. but at the same time, the conflict of the two left me feeling like the book was being narrated by some sort of disembodied consciousness: At no point were any names ascribed to the collective we, nor any actions directly connected to the narrative. There also seemed to be a fair number of cases where it didn’t make sense for the collected narrators to know some aspects of what had happened.

But even so, and with a plot which manages to be predictable and compelling at the same time, Barrett’s use of language gripped me and enabled me to ignore the POV issues (I’m beginning to think that we’re actually on the verge of breaking out of a neoclassical rigidity with respect to POV which would be quite welcome in some cases and a bit disastrous in others). I am intrigued enough that I think I may read Ship Fever to get a broader sense of Barrett’s style.

A Burnt-Out Case by Graham Greene
[Finished 24 November 2007] Given what I know about Greene’s life now, it’s hard to not read this book as a somewhat autobiographical statement (in fact, Greene admitted as much in a letter to Evelyn Waugh). There’s a bleakness to Greene’s psyche at this point which is stunning. And yet, despite the presence of annoyingly ernest Catholics like M. Rycker and Fr Thomas in the narrative, there is also some hope lurking in the margins of the book that perhaps God does exist. This is not the narrative of a committed atheist, but of someone who, like Querry, is a burnt-out case, who has lost hope and the ability to love.

I suspect that this was meant to be Greene’s swan-song, and only a rather bad choice of investment advisors forced Greene into having to continue writing over the remainder of his life.

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
[Finished 16 November 2007] I found this a bit more developed a story than Slaughter-House Five although the book ends with more of a whimper than a bang after building to a crescendo in which all the characters are brought together.

I note that the book was made into a film. This was doubtless a grave artistic misstep as the value of the book is much less in the story (which is the core of a good film) and more in the use of language in telling the story. One of the narrative conceits which is common to the two Vonnegut novels which I’ve read at this point is the explanation of the obvious throughout the story. Unlike with the insult-your-intelligence footnotes that I’ve complained about in some other books, these explanations carry with them the unspoken belief that the reader knows damn well about what’s being explained, and it’s the sly explanation, often in a satyric vein, which makes the story worth telling.

I have to admit that in general, while Vonnegut’s voice continues to impress me, I find his story-telling itself to be a bit disappointing. He falls back too much on giving 2-paragraph summaries of Killgore Trout novels as a means of commenting on the events in the story, a trope which leaves me a bit unimpressed.

Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene
[Finished 15 November 2007] As I read this, I came to the realization that many of my favorite Greene novels aren’t beloved for their style, but for their plots and characterization. This is another light novel, although it does turn a bit darker as Wormold’s circle of “agents” begins to be targeted for elimination or intimidation. It’s telling that Captain Segura, the police officer with a cigarette case made from human skin, ends up being an at least partially sympathetic character after being introduced as an intimidating figure. Meanwhile, Braun and Carter end up seeming as much deus ex machina to move the plot as real character.

Sherry’s biography of Greene gives some insight into Greene’s writing practice at this stage of his life and it does provide some explanation of the weaknesses of Greene’s long-form fiction at this stage of his career.

Jake's Thing by Kingsley Amis
[Finished 14 November 2007] I was in Claremont and planning on heading back into L.A. but had no book. Add in that it was the final day of existence for Claremont Books and Prints (although much of the inventory and the selling thereof in the space is continuing--sans the presence of Chic Goldsmith--as Second Story Books), so I spent some time digging through the selection in the fiction room for something I could read on the train. My something turned out to be Amis’s book Jake’s Thing. While there were some funny bits, for the most part it struck me as a bitter book written by a bitter man with little to redeem it. Let me leave a letter for my future self: Don’t ever write a book about how awful the sex life of a middle-aged (or, for that matter, old) man is. It’s not that interesting. Also leave out the writing about lusting over younger women as well.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
[Finished 9 November 2007] Among the authors whom I’ve never read, much to the surprise of others, is Kurt Vonnegut. Perhaps it was because in high school Dave Orland loved Vonnegut but his girlfriend Kim Bartosz found him vile (and if you found yourself at this page by googling either of them, drop me a line).

So now that I’ve read my first Vonnegut (prompted by the comic strip Frazz to read not just this one but also Breakfast of Champions), I can see a big part of the appeal of Vonnegut: he has a distinctive and infectious voice in his writing. In fact, I’m almost tempted to put aside any writing projects until I finish Breakfast of Champions just to make sure that none of this voice creeps into my own writing.

There is also a lot to say against Vonnegut as well, though. His style is the sort of thing that I would imagine many of the pretentious high school students who love him grow out of as they transform themselves from pretentious high school students into pretentious adults. And the marriage of the science fiction (or is it mental illness) and wart narratives doesn’t seem to quite work for me.

The Dynasts by Thomas Hardy
[Finished 8 November 2007] This book is an odd little backwater of Hardy’s output: A massive three-part verse drama which would not have been easily produced (if it were even possible) at the time that he wrote it. Certainly the fledgling film industry had begun to exist by this point, but it’s difficult to see Hardy anticipating the invention of the mini-series this early in the twentieth century.

As an account of the Napoleonic wars, it comes across as a bit slow and turgid. Apparently Hardy had wanted to face the subject of the Napoleonic wars for some time (The Trumpet Major which I read earlier this year being his previous work which touched on it), but was put off from writing it in novel form because of the immense shadow cast by Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Alas as a verse dramatist, I find Hardy to be a bit of a failure, and this work is justifiably consigned to the back corners of the literary world.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
[Finished 7 November 2007] Since I became a member of my current writing group, I’ve become a lot more conscious of point of view in writing. I used to simply assume that third person was the same as omniscient (and as I read closely, this seems to be the rule in a lot of older writing). So when I heard in an interview with Patchett that Bel Canto is considered to be a masterwork of writing in third-person omniscient, I decided to take a look at it.


This is one of the best-written books I’ve read in some time. I think part of it is that unlike a lot of literary fiction, it actually is about more than the language in which it is written. There’s a story worth stopping the wedding guests for here.

And the story is told not only with style and beauty but with humor (for example, the translator who learned Swedish by watching Ingmar Bergman films and thus is best equipped to discuss dark subjects). My previous experience with Patchett had been her work as an editor on Best American Short Stories 2006 and I had feared the worst coming into this book. Instead, I found the best.

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
[Finished 30 October 2007] I guess it was all the buzz about Sebold’s new novel which provoked me to finally read this book. I can remember seeing it on the tables by the entrance to Borders and found the conceit of the novel intriguing: A story told by a murdered girl from the perspective of heaven. But it never really attracted me enough to actually read the book.

Coming to it now, I wish I had read it earlier. Sebold has managed to succeed phenomenally at capturing the psyche and language of a young girl denied the chance to move into adulthood and her narrative conceit gives her a logical way to be able to look into the thoughts of any character while retaining the distinctive voice of a first-person narration.

But writing this a week after finishing the novel, I find myself feeling a bit empty about the book. There was something--I can’t quite put my finger on exactly what--lacking from the book which left me feeling that what I read was good--very good, in fact--but fell short of being great.

A Series of Unfortunate Events 8: The Hostile Hospital by Lemony Snicket
[Finished 30 October 2007] The format of the books is completely broken at this point with the Baudelaires on the run at the beginning of the story. Putting aside some of the bizarre leaps of logic (although I do realize the oddity of being less concerned about a baby passing as a doctor than records about the fire which killed the Baudelaire’s parents being kept at a hospital), the story progresses although mostly in the way that seems typical of the middle movie of a trilogy. We’re being positioned for a continuation of the narrative more than telling a story worthy of standing alone.

Loser Takes All by Graham Greene
[Finished 29 October 2007] As I continue my Graham Greene re-reading project, I’m brought to the first of his “light” novels. This was, in a way, the first side of Greene that I was exposed to when I first discovered him in high school when I read Monsignor Quixote (which manages to merge the light Greene with the Catholic Greene).

As a purely entertaining book, this shows a new side of Greene, one which must have seemed alien to Greene (although if I remember correctly, he had published some mildly humorous short stories by this point as well). The change in tone must have been shocking to Greene’s readers at the time, especially coming in the wake of The End of the Affair and The Quiet American

Rasselas, Poems and Selected Prose by Samuel Johnson
[Finished 24 October 2007] Samuel Johnson, I’ve come to realize, is not an author that people read for pleasure. And yes, I realize the irony of that statement. This is one of two selections of Johnson’s writing that are left over from my undergrad days and the first that I’ve undertaken to read cover to cover.

I remember being assigned Johnson as an undergrad and wondering why, precisely, we were assigned to read him. As a poet he was a decidedly minor figure and his “novel,” Rasselas pales in comparison with other prose fiction of the period. Since the curricula of an English major tends to be overwhelmingly focused on poetry, fiction and drama, the concept of dealing with essays, particularly, the sort of essays which Johnson specialized in, which are now an extinct genre, seemed especially alien.

Coming at Johnson again with a couple decades’ reading to intervene, Johnson still seems not especially worthy of reading. He occupies an odd space between philosophy and literature. His life is more interesting than his works and I find myself thinking that I would rather re-read Boswell than this volume.

The Quiet American by Graham Greene
[Finished 22 October 2007] Greene’s use of the first person narration has greatly improved betwen his writing of The End of the Affair and this novel. Part of it, no doubt, was the consequence of spending more time on the novel: This was three years’ work. The narrator, again, is recognizably similar to Greene, but the plot is less close to his experiences and as a consequence he is able to put more art into what he writes.

A lot of the attention to this novel is based on the prescient account of American intervention in Vietnam, but really, that’s just decoration on the real story, the love triangle of Fowler, Pyle and Phuong. It’s interesting to note that while the first film of this novel, with Audie Murphy, grotesquely misportrayed the politics of the movie, it did a better job than the Caine-Fraser film of depicting the personal relationships which are the center of the novel.

I also find, re-reading this novel that Greene’s writing here is essentially cinematic. So much of the text is devoted to setting scenes and providing a sense of place. There’s a lot to be learned from this novel in that respect.

Brasyl by Ian McDonald
[Finished 17 October 2007] In 1986, Paul Simon released Graceland an amazing fusion of his own songwriting with the stylings of musicians from South Africa. Four years later he followed that up with The Rhythm of the Saints, an imminently forgettable attempt to redo that success by incorporating Brazilian musicians into his music.

Ian McDonald appears to be following in Simon’s footsteps by following up what I’ve heard is an outstanding science fiction novel set in future India with a science fiction novel set in future (and present and past) Brazil. Alas, like Simon’s 1990 album, I’m left with a sense of the effort being more tourism than real understanding.

That’s not to claim that my understanding of Brazil runs any deeper than a few Caetano Veloso CDs and a viewing of Cidade de Deus on DVD, but rather that my sense is that McDonald’s understanding of Brazil doesn’t run much deeper.

That said, there are some moments of brilliance, particularly the opening scene of a pilot of a reality show centered around filming car thieves stealing a car rigged with hidden cameras with the prize being the stolen car if they succeed at evading the police for the duration of the show. Had McDonald focused on this character and the social degeneracy around her television producing life, he could have had an outstanding work (or perhaps merely a poor knock-off of Series 7: The Contenders).

We’re taken through a plausible series of events centering around a quantum multiverse but the final pay off again leaves a fair amount to be desired. I think that I’ll read McDonald’s River of Gods to give him another chance, but I wasn’t particularly impressed with this book.

The Bill From My Father: A Memoir by Bernard Cooper
[Finished 12 October 2007] In a lot of ways, this book really is a shining example of how to write good literature: Write a beautiful sentence, and then write another. Cooper has a knack for being able to write beautiful sentences even when he doesn’t have that much to say. Fortunately, there’s a fair amount of interesting material here, although the titular bill doesn’t show up until fairly late in the book. I think that I might have used that as the hook to build the book from, although the bill was, in many ways, not as detailed as I might have imagined. There’s also a bit too much writing about writing the book, instead of writing the book itself, although I suppose that’s a hazard of being a memoirist: After a certain point, what you’re remembering is the act of writing itself.

But even with these weaknesses, the book is always a good read, and while I don’t feel that Cooper succeeded in revealing much about his father’s life before the events of the book took place, he does an excellent job of showing his father’s life declining into dementia and ultimately death.

Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais
[Finished 10 October 2007] This was, I have little doubt, an absolutely hilarious book when it was first published. But changing tastes and social conditions leave it as more of a slow text of jokes that seem like they could almost be funny to the twenty-first century reader. I can see some roots of later satires, particularly Gulliver’s Travels but also The BFG in the book, but ultimately, I was more bored than entertained by the book.

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
[Finished 9 October 2007] I first read this eighteen years ago in the aftermath of a painful and inexplicable (to me, at least) break-up. I thought it was a work of genius, and I began writing my own story, about a character going through a break-up with a girl named Sarah that I realized on its completion was complete and utter dreck, although between the reading and writing (and perhaps also some subconscious remembrance of The French Lieutenant’s Woman), I had developed such a complete dedication to the name, that I still sometimes have a hard time convincing myself that I have, in fact, never actually dated a Sarah.

So to return to the book in a different state of mind and stage of life, I find my reaction to its pages quite different. I see further confirmation of my belief that break-up fiction makes for good therapy and lousy literature. I don’t think that I’m likely to continue citing this novel as the counterexample. There are huge problems of characterization, particularly with the narrator, Maurice Bendrix, who is meant to be an atheist, but who keeps making references to Catholic belief (so much so, that when Garrison Keillor described the book on Greene’s birthday on “The Writer’s Almanac,” he incorrectly stated that Bendrix was a devout Catholic). There are also clumsy repetitions that leave me feeling like I’m reading a barely-edited first draft, as if this were a book that Greene wanted to get out of his system as quickly as possible. I can’t help but feel that this is perhaps an almost-masterpiece, but falls far enough away from success that its status in the canon is undeserved.

The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles
[Finished 1 October 2007] What should I make of the fact that amazon doesn’t appear to have an in-print edition of this book? I thought that this was clearly part of The Canon and therefore immune from falling out of print.

This is yet another re-read for me as it occured to me that what I’m thinking of doing with draft three of the novel might be too close to what Fowles did here. It isn’t, although it could have come close and the re-read helped me delimit what I was going to do with the writing to avoid that problem.

I also found myself rediscovering a wonderful quote from chapter thirteen that I re-published in the Scripps College Press book, Livre des Livres (my copy of the book has the letter from Fowles granting permission to use his work with some small emendations to make the text stand better on its own).

The authorial intervention in the narrative is something that I intend to do, but it will be with some narrative purpose of its own, although I’m not quite certain just what that purpose will be. And the mock-Victorian narrative style is not something that I intend to attempt at all.

Sodom and Gomorrah by Marcel Proust
[Finished 30 September 2007] I stopped in a used bookshop in Santa Monica recently and noticed that in the edition of Proust they had on the shelves, this volume was entitled Cities of the Plain, an interesting bowdlerization of the title. I didn’t open it up to see if the text itself was similarly butchered.

I still find Proust to be a bit of a slog, I think partly because of the long uninterrupted stretches of prose (it’s especially difficult with paragraphs that run for two or more pages). But at the same time, I seem to have developed some affinity for Proust’s prose style as I didn’t feel as at sea while reading this volume as I have previously, even with the years that have passed since I’ve read the preceding volume. Only three more to go to complete the set.

The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene
[Finished 30 September 2007] This is one of the most religious of Greene’s works (if I recall correctly, this was the book which prompted one reviewer to wonder if Greene’s next book would even be understandable to a layperson). Certainly, the experiences of reading it before I became Catholic and reading it again as a Catholic were quite different.

The descriptions of Scobie’s loss of faith--if that’s even the right word for it--were especially haunting as he found himself cut off from the experience of God’s presence in his life. This is certainly in Greene’s top tier of works.

The Third Man / The Fallen Idol by Graham Greene
[Finished 21 September 2007] A novella and short story which are bound primarily by being transformed into films by Carol Reed and the need to hit a minimum page count in a published book.

The Third Man represents a first pass at the story and we’re faced with a curious situation: Most of the films of Graham Greene novels I’ve seen are pale shadows of the printed word. In this case, however, the film is a looming presence over the book. It’s difficult to read the book without imagining Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton in the central roles.

For the Fallen Idol, on the other hand, I have only a vague recollection of the film from a cable showing in the late ‘80s, so I’m able to look at the story as story. There’s an interesting thematic concern happening in the story, one which appears elsewhere in Greene’s writing, about the corruption of the child, the impinging of adult concerns and desires into the terrain which belongs rightfully to the innocence of childhood. As a story which is written for the page and not the screen, it seems to work better as a work of literature, even with the rather conventional plot that Greene uses to explore his themes.

Best American Short Stories 2006 edited by Ann Patchett
[Finished 19 September 2007] I’ve long seen this on the shelves in book stores (but with different years), and now that I’m back writing, especially writing short fiction, I figured that it was a good idea to read some of these stories. The general emphasis, in this volume, at least, seems to be on language and mood over character and plot. The one story which I absolutely loved was “The Casual Car Pool” by Katherine Bell which is a masterpiece of third person omniscient story-telling. She makes it look so easy. Others I enjoyed were “A New Gravestone for an Old Grave” by David Bezmogis, “The Conductor” by Aleksander Hemon, “Tattooizm” by Kevin Moffett, “So Much for Artemis” by Patrick Ryan and “Awaiting Orders” by Tobias Wolff. I did my best to avoid the usual writer’s reaction of “my stuff is so much better than this crap but keeps getting form rejections what’s wrong with the world,” although there were times it felt difficult. The Ann Beattie story largely confirmed what I had suspected before, that I’m not cool enough for McSweeney’s. I do want to read more of these volumes, as well as get the O’Henry Prize stories as well, so expect to see the new volumes on these pages when they appear and perhaps some working backwards through older volumes when I can turn them up.

The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene
[Finished 7 September 2007] Coming back to this book again, with the benefit of knowing the story, allows me to focus a bit more closely on Greene’s use of language and character. Wow. This is more than just an “entertainment” as Greene labels it. It explores the themes of sin and redemption that permeate Greene’s work in ways that sometimes seem at odds with the story being told, but ultimately, works well. This isn’t the best of Greene’s early works, but it’s an enjoyable read nonetheless.

Final Conclave by Malachi Martin
[Finished 3 September 2007] The problem with so much Pope Fiction is that there’s an overwhelming tendency to make the novel into a manifesto. This book is probably the most overwhelming example of this. The first 100+ pages of the book are Martin’s version of the history of the papacy of Paul VI (or as he, idiosyncratically writes, Paul 6). Then we get to the drawn out politicking of the selection of a successor.

There is little doubt throughout the book of where Martin’s sympathies lie although he decides to focus his attention on the actions of the liberal faction and leaves his proxies in the conclave as enigmatic sphinxes. He lays out a stark choice: Either return to a traditionalist church with liturgy in Latin or we’ll all be godless commies!

Being able to look back at the outcome of the geopolitics of the 70s with the advantage of 30 years of intervening history, Martin’s concern that Russia would come to dominate western Europe comes across as laughable.

As a piece of literature, the book is little better. The opening section has all the voice of an AP newswire, and through the use of an omniscient third person present-tense narrator, he manages to keep a journalistic tone throughout which only serves to make the book a dull slog, hardly worth the effort of opening, let alone reading.

Selected Poems by T. S. Eliot
[Finished 3 September 2007] Courtesy of Mr Caravello, my high school English teacher, I have the opening lines of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” permanently tattooed in my cerebral cortex. Curiously, throughout the entire coursework of a B.A. in English, I never revisited Eliot again.

I picked up this volume a decade and a half ago at Midnight Special Books, back when they were (a) still in existence and (2) on the Third Street Promenade (along with half a dozen other bookstores, none of which was Borders or Barnes and Noble). I only now got a chance to sit down with it and I continue to be in awe at Eliot’s abilities to make music from language. He makes it look easy, but from my own occasional efforts at poetry, I know that it’s far from easy to write a poem a fraction as good as what Eliot wrote.

At a younger age, it’s unlikely I would have fully appreciated the poems here, with the references to a mourning of lost youth and the religiosity which shows a man drawn towards Catholicism, but too timid to come any closer than high church Anglicanism. I may have to go ahead and spring for the complete poems.

Nostromo by Joseph Conrad
[Finished 24 August 2007] Who’d’a thunk it? A Joseph Conrad novel which is not entirely in quotation marks.

Reading this, I can see that Conrad is somewhat less skilled at writing from an omniscient viewpoint and there are some scenes in particular which end up coming across rather poorly as he tries to tell us everything that we think that we should know, but the build up to the climax is quite gripping and it makes for an engaging read.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
[Finished 24 August 2007] Like many (most?) people coming to this story in the twenty-first century, my primary previous exposure comes from Walt Disney. Or more specifically, the Mr Toad’s Wild Ride attraction in Fantasyland (best ride in the whole damn park). So I have to say that when I got to that part of the story, I was somewhat shocked to discover that Grahame disposed of the whole affair with a scene break. Mr Toad drives off and the next we see him, he is on trial.

The story, for the most part, focuses on the character of Mole, who, one spring day decides to explore the world outside of his hole. We’re introduced to his friends Ratty, Toad, Otter and Badger, as well as an odd world in which anthropomorphic animals somehow coexist with humans, as well as sit down to an occasional plate of meat (I can picture that scene leading a young reader into vegetarianism as they begin assembling the consequences of such a scenario). In all it is a fun and gentle story which deserves a more prominent place in the canon than it currently occupies.

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
[Finished 21 August 2007] This is, I think, Graham Greene’s best-known work, and one which I’ve only read once before. Coming back to it again, and reading it close on the heels of The Lawless Roads, I can see the influence of Greene’s journey on his writing, but even more so, I see the clear influence of Greene’s consciousness of his position in the world as a Catholic. The theology of The Power and the Glory is more fully-formed than that of Brighton Rock and Greene’s attention has turned, at least briefly, from a focus on sin to a focus on grace, albeit grace as seen through the veil of sin. It is a perspective that Greene would never really regain until Monsignor Quixote, I think.

The Complete Fables by Aesop
[Finished 16 August 2007] We all think that we know Aesop’s fables, but the reality is a bit different. Reading this translation by Robert Temple really forces the reader to re-evaluate everything that they think they know. Yes, the boy who cried wolf and the fox and the grapes are there, but the “morals” which are likely later additions are set off and italicized to emphasize this. Throw in the lack of bowdlerization and the fact that many of the fables were meant more as jokes than moral lessons becomes considerably clearer.

The notes scattered through the collection vary from pedestrian and useful, to more interesting than the text which they accompany. Some notes seem to exist primarily to show off Temple’s broad knowledge, although one simultaneously demonstrates his lack of interest in religious topics when he points out that a fable occurs in the Bible, but then makes a point of his choice to not consult the Septuagint text to see whether a particular Greek word is used in that telling.

Salinger: A Critical and Personal Portrait edited by Henry Anatole Grunwald
[Finished 15 August 2007] A fascinating collection of essays by authors including John Updike and Joan Didion (when she was less well-known than Arthur Mizener, Alfred Kazin, Granville Hicks and Maxwell Geismar).

The essays were written in late fifties and early sixties, most between the publication in book form of Franny and Zooey and “Seymour/Raise High the Roof Beam”. It was somewhat interesting to note an account at one point of a Harry Potter-esque frenzy around the release of Franny and Zooey. And yet half a century later, no one remembers the frenzy (the book, on the other hand, is still very much with us). As the second book of criticism that I’ve read in recent months, I continue to be surprised at my receptivity to reading criticism. Again, it may be a quality issue. It was especially interesting to think about what the critics were saying about Holden Caulfield (and Huck Finn) in the context of what I need to do in writing my own novel. I somewhat wish I’d gotten around to this collection earlier in my reading.

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad
[Finished 14 August 2007] I had a bit of Conrad burn-out after being assigned Heart of Darkness in three consecutive classes across my high school and college career. I returned to The Secret Agent later in College and developed an appreciation for Conrad, but coming to this work, I found myself just drowning in his narrative, not particularly grabbed by story or language. Except the key part of the story in which Jim abandons the ship. I suspect the failing is my own, but this was just not a work to hold my affections.

Men Without Women by Ernest Hemingway
[Finished 7 August 2007] I’ve always tended to shy away from Hemingway: The macho reputation was something rather off-putting to me. Then some years ago, I decided to read a collection of his short stories (not this one) and found, to my surprise, that I did enjoy them. And the linguistic detail in For Whom the Bell Tolls still impresses me ten years after I read it.

But then coming to this collection, I find myself face to face with all that I feared I wouldn’t like about Hemingway and discovering that my fears were, indeed, justified. I just had no interest in most of the stories of this book. They were well-written enough, I just wasn’t grabbed like the other Hemingway I’d read.

The Call of the Wild by Jack London
[Finished 5 August 2007] This is one of those books which I’ve known of for most of my life, and yet never read. Would I really want to read a book about a dog? Probably not, but it’s on the Observer list, so here I am.

The book takes us from Buck’s theft from his home in California to his life as a sled dog in the northern wilderness and eventually his taking a place as the lead of a wolf pack. I found the book to be rather slight and unimpressive. I suppose that’s a large part of why I never read it earlier in life.

A Passage to India by E. M. Forster
[Finished 3 August 2007] An interesting view into a past time in India’s history. The state of racial relations between the English and the Indians at the time that this novel was set, in many ways, seems completely incomprehensible to me. And at the same time, it’s not too far from the racial relations that I grew up with in suburban Chicago in the ‘70s.

The story is skillfully drawn, although at times I lost track of some of the characters, perhaps as a consequence of reading the first half of the book on a weekend trip full of sleep deprivation. The delay of the major crisis of the book until nearly the halfway point makes for some slow pacing early on, but the second part moves at a pace more amenable to contemporary sensibilities.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowlings
[Finished 30 July 2007] I made a point on the evening of the release of Harry Potter to head over to the local Border’s. Not to buy a copy, but to see the excitement, celebration and chaos of it all. I’m pretty sure that there will never be this kind of excitement about a book again in my lifetime (although I would be more than happy to be proven wrong).

It’s also been interesting to note how common sightings of the book have been in the days since (I think there was at least one copy per row on the two flights I took the weekend before finishing the book).

But enough about the cultural phenomenon, what about the book itself?

Well, there were portions that just dragged. The action of the book doesn’t really start until nearly halfway through the book. That could have been safely condensed to half its length (although that would have denied Rowlings yet another Guiness Book of World Records entry). There was also her too-common tendency to introduce some previously unheard of aspect of the wizarding world to meet the needs of the plot. And with only two exceptions, most of the deaths came and went with too little notice for them to have any real emotional impact.

But at the same time, there was some wonderful writing here. The pensieve was used to decent effect to convey some additional back story and the scene before Harry’s face-off with Voldemort was perhaps the best bit of emotional writing that she has done in the whole series.

In all the Harry Potter series has been frequently flawed, and Rowlings has perhaps been somewhat hurt by getting such success at an early stage in her career, but she is still an excellent writer. I have little doubt that these will be books that are still read in decades to come.

Oyster by John Biguenet
[Finished 29 July 2007] I first discovered John Biguenet on the pages of Granta. I was sufficiently impressed by that first story, that I’ve kept my eyes open for his other work and have since read his collection of short stories and now this, his first novel.

I had some trepidation about starting this novel. It was the religious themes in Biguenet’s writing that first attracted me. Would a historical novel about New Orleans oystermen interest me much?

It turns out, yes, it would.

Biguenet manages to come up with a compelling narrative, although at times it does feel as if he’s stretching a bit to fill in his minimum page count. In all, though, it was the kind of read which was difficult to put down. I’ll have to remember to send him an e-mail to see what’s been published since The Torturer’s Apprentice.

The Confidential Agent by Graham Greene
[Finished 28 July 2007] As I continue on my re-reading of Graham Greene’s work, this is the first book besides the two withdrawn novels which appears to be no longer in print. I’d always assumed that Greene’s books would remain in print forever, so it was a bit of a shock digging through Amazon and not finding an in-print edition of this book. Sic transit gloria mundi, it appears. I suppose it was a good thing that I obsessively collected his work when I did.

The story is a bit thin, and as I recall, was written under the influence of Benzedrine and Joseph Conrad to fulfill a bit of financial need while Greene was also writing The Lawless Roads and preparing to begin The Power and the Glory. This stretching thin is apparent in the work. It’s an atypical bit of output, and falls short of greatness (although it isn’t difficult to imagine some small changes in the story making it a much more powerful work). I suppose there’s a reason why this particular work fell out of print.

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
[Finished 27 July 2007] A delightful satire of the insecurities of academic life. Even with the decades of change which have elapsed since this was written, the behaviors and insecurities of those in higher education remain highly recognizable. Amis succeeded here in accomplishing one of those rather difficult tasks: Writing a book very much of its time while still keeping it timeless.

Poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins
[Finished 25 July 2007] I picked this up some time ago and only know have gotten around to reading it. I have to admit that I found Hopkins’ style to be a bit quaint for my tastes. There were a few nice images or turns of phrase, but for the most part I found Hopkins’ style to be affected and archaic. I remember a then-girlfriend seeing the book on my shelf some years ago and thinking that it would be good reading. Turns out she was wrong.

The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers
[Finished 22 July 2007] The edition of this book that I read was labelled an illustrated children’s classic, which was an interesting take since the book was a bit of a challenging read for me, if only because of the large amount of unfamiliar naval vocabulary (among other things, I learned the phrase “coign of vantage” which my dictionary informs me I should have noticed while reading Macbeth).

The story was a bit convoluted and the inclusion of numerous maps throughout helped make some sense of the geography of the story.

The sands of the title refers to the sandbanks off the Frisian coast of Germany and Holland and the story is about how two British amateur spies managed to discover a German plot for using these sands as a launching point for a potential invasion of England via shallow-draft boats. Even from the vantage point of a century later, the story managed to effectively convey its time and place quite well to the reader.

Diary of a Nobody by George Grossmith with illustrations by Wheedon Grossmith
[Finished 21 July 2007] A charming bit of suburban satirical fiction. The illustrations do add quite a bit to the book, including page count, which the book is a bit shy of (it only runs a bit over 100 pages).

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome
[Finished 16 July 2007] My top 100 list claimed that this is one of the funniest books in the English language. I’d say that Wodehouse consistently outperforms Jerome on that front. But there are some delightfully funny parts of the book, even if the humor has been dulled by a century of exposure.

I also realized while checking this book off from my list that my list isn’t in order of excellence, but is chronological, which is why Philip Roth is so low on the list.

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
[Finished 15 July 2007] As I continue with my project of re-reading Graham Greene’s works, I come to my favorite of Greene’s novels, Brighton Rock. There is so much to learn from Greene’s pacing, plotting and characterization. At the same time as I read this, I’m realizing that this is not a novel which could be written today, at least not as a non-historical piece of fiction: The sense that Catholics once had, as a people set apart, is long gone. Perhaps this is why Greene, later in life, only addressed Catholic issues in Catholic countries.

A Series of Unfortunate Events 7: The Vile Village by Lemony Snicket
[Finished 13 July 2007] In preparation for the upcoming release of Harry Potter 7, I figured it was best to finish off the current Lemony Snicket book I’ve been reading in snatches at the bookstore. That I did this on Friday the thirteenth is merely a serendipitous coincidence.

The plot here remains suitably outlandish, and is, for the most part rather forgettable. I found it most interesting in what it sets up for book 8 in the series. We’ve had a bit more of an intrusion of Snicket into the plot, along with some surprising development of one of the Baudelaire children, but other then what resembles a bit more than usual of a cliffhanger ending, this one seems more like filler than anything else.

Deception by Philip Roth
[Finished 12 July 2007] This book was suggested when I was looking for books which told a story through dialogue. I was looking for more of a framing device, but in this instance I found something quite different. Roth tells his story through conversations stripped of context, even dialogue tags. It’s as much an experimental work as Begley’s Shipwreck, but in this case, I think that the experiment is more successful.

Both works treat much the same subject matter: Middle-aged lust and infidelity, writing, language. But I find that Roth is by far the more skilled writer (or at least the one whose writing fits in well with my tastes in reading). And Roth’s final chapters, rather than providing a comfortable conclusion to the story which wraps up everything in a relatively predictable fashion as did Begley’s tale, instead provides an internal justification for the format of the story, which Begley never managed to do. I didn’t love this book as much as American Pastoral, but it has confirmed me as a Philip Roth fan. He is not a writer to be checked out of the library, but one to be purchased from the bookstore, at full price, with money obtained by selling plasma to the university medical center.

Shipwreck by Louis Begley
[Finished 10 July 2007] I came across this title as a result of a request for contemporary stories told through dialogue and I had no ideas what the story might hold as I began reading it.

Begley makes an interesting choice in omitting quotation marks in the framing narrative, which forces the reader to slow down since we have a first person narrative inside a first person narrative, but in the end it seems more stylistic choice for the sake of style.

The bulk of the narrative ends up being a rather tedious account of middle-aged lust, leavened occasionally with some thoughts on self-doubt which mysteriously disappear as the novel progresses. The denouement of the novel, likewise ends up feeling cheap and not particularly satisfying. It seems as if Begley had a short story, perhaps a novella here, and did what he could to pad it out to 77,000 words.

Two Stories of Prague by Rainer Maria Rilke
[Finished 2 July 2007] This book is almost as much Angela Esterhammer’s as it is Rilke’s. Esterhammer serves as more than just a translator, but also as a bit of a tour guide, providing some insight into the various places throughout Prague which are so central to Rilke’s narratives. For my research purposes, this is an outstanding book, providing me with a great deal of the raw material I’ve been seeking to write my story of turn-of-the-century Prague.

As for the narratives, I was more than a little distracted by my research reading, so I can’t say too much about them. Rilke’s prose styling seems rather modern, especially compared to Jan Neruda’s stories from just a decade earlier. This is clearly something that I want to return to.

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
[Finished 26 June 2007] When I started this novel, I was overwhelmed with the sheer vitality of Alex’s narration. The language with its frequent malapropisms was the sort of thing that I wouldn’t even attempt to do in my own writing.

But reading on, I found that while this was a brilliant and promising novel (wow, what kind of first novel author gets blurbed by Joyce Carol Oates?), there were flaws that ultimately left me feeling unsatisfied. The novel is essentially three narrative streams. Alex’s account of the journey to the Ukraine by the hero (named, intriguingly enough, Jonathan Safran Foer), letters from Alex to Jonathan which are commentary on the novel and a magical realist take on Jonathan’s family history from the 18th century to World War II.

The magical realist thread, left me the most unsatisfied of the three. Foer has clearly been reading García Márquez, Fuentes, and Borges. And while he’s learned a lot from them, the style doesn’t fit him, sort of like a teenager wearing his dad’s sport coat (to borrow a simile from Jonathan Gold). There are some beautiful images there, and as he develops as a writer, he will doubtless grow into his ambitions unless success stunts his growth (as has been the case with J.K. Rowlings).

The letters from Alex to Jonathan are sparse and are an interesting conceit, commenting on the novel as it unfolds. Again, Foer’s reach exceeds his grasp here, and the letters fail as much as they succeed, although the successes are of exquisite beauty.

Alex’s narrative is, I think, where Foer is at his strongest but again, he manages to hit a fatal flaw, this time with the problem of telling a story which is clichéd and predictable in the end.

As a craftsman of language, Foer is in the top tier easily. In another age, he would be a poet rather than a novelist (in fact, while looking up his bio, curious as to whether he was a product of an MFA program--he’s not--I discovered that, based on his endeavors, he’s been exploring artistic endeavors beyond the novel). As a crafter of plot, however, he has some distance to go (which is why I was curious about whether he had done the MFA).

Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
[Finished 26 June 2007] This is one of those stories which has lost its impact through its familiarity. Unlike, say, Frankenstein where the core of the novel is missed somewhat in the Universal monster movie version, there isn’t the same sort of depth to this story. It’s more the novelty of the story which makes the novel noteworthy. In fact, the structure of the story is such that most of the story consists of prologue, setting up a mystery about Jekyll and Hyde that perhaps would have been more compelling if a century or so of popular culture hadn’t spoiled the great twist that made the final two chapters so compelling to the novel’s original readers.

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
[Finished 20 June 2007] Let me begin by complaining about the Barnes and Noble edition of this book which I checked out of the library. The book is a perpetrator of “insult-your-intelligence footnotes.” Do we really need a footnote telling us that a row is a disruptive argument? Worse still are the missing-the-point footnotes. If someone doesn’t know what it means to be between Scylla and Charybdis, will telling them about Scylla and Charybdis without explaining the metaphor really help them? I’m sorry, but readers should be encouraged to pick up a dictionary from time to time. Lord help us if B&N ever decides to put out an edition of anything by Anthony Burgess.

This is a surprisingly political work for Trollope. Perhaps my view of Trollope is excessively colored by my reading of the Barsetshire Chronicles, but I found this to be something almost more like what I’d expect from Dickens than from Trollope. And while it’s a surprising choice to represent Trollope for the Guardian’s top 100 (it’s number 26), I’m glad for the unorthodox choice as I might not have read this book otherwise.

A Gun for Sale by Graham Greene
[Finished 16 June 2007] As part of my re-reading of Greene, there’s always the moments of re-evaluation. When I had first read A Gun for Sale I was happy to put it aside as a minor and forgettable work. Coming back to it again almost twenty years later, it’s remarkable how gripping the narrative is. Greene’s ability to conjure the paranoia of Raven’s world as the police close in on him while he closes in on Cholmondely/Davis makes the book compelling. There are still some parts of the narrative which don’t quite work for me, including the entirety of the last chapter which seems to be a fair amount of anti-climax, but I had previously marked the beginning of the mature Greene with Brighton Rock, but I think that I would move that up and claim that this was the first of Greene’s mature work.

Graham Greene: The Novelist by J. P. Kulshrestha
[Finished 30 May 2007] As an undergraduate, I had a major crisis of faith about what I was doing as an English major. It made sense to write literature. It made sense to do critical theory. But to do actual criticism seemed to me an empty and pointless act.

This is probably the most significant reason why I didn’t get a PhD in English.

Maybe it’s a consequence of a rejuvenation of my writing life over the last year, but I’m finding myself re-examining my English major years and thinking about them as something more than providing some solidarity with Garrison Keillor’s occasional jokes about being an English major.

Reading this book by Kulshrestha has actually made me come to appreciate the value of criticism. A big part of it, no doubt, is the clearly written text. As an Indian academic, he apparently feels no compunction to wrap his prose in a thick gauze of jargon. Or perhaps it’s a consequence of the clear writing style of his subject, but for the first time, I found myself really enjoying a work of criticism. And seeing how Kushrestha reads Greene, I felt more inspired in approaching my own writing. I suppose it would be possible to think of it derisively as “writing for critics,” but it’s really a case of writing for discerning readers. A good work of criticism, I think, is precisely that: A discerning act of reading set down on paper. It almost makes me want to teach a freshman rhetoric class.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
[Finished 27 May 2007] Interesting: While pulling up the ISBN for this book from Amazon, I discovered that this was an Oprah’s book club pick.

I haven’t read any other Tolstoy before I started this book, so I don’t have much point of comparison, but this translation (by Pevear and Volokhonsky) seems to have managed to convey the sheer poetry of Tolstoy’s writing (or is it that they’ve added it where it hadn’t previously been?).

There were some stretches of the book where I was a bit lost in the minutiae of nineteenth century Russian society and the footnotes provided didn’t always provide the kind of background that I wanted to have, but in all it was a wonderful read.

And as an added bonus, the book features one of the rare literary uses of my favorite word, “wertherian.”

England Made Me by Graham Greene
[Finished 23 May 2007] This is, to me, the first book in which we get a look at “Greeneland,” that seedy perspective on the world which is, to some readers, the distinctive mark of Greene’s writing.

The interplay between our central characters here is the essential aspect of the story made by Anthony Farrant with his habitual lies and string of casual failures in his past, none of which he attributes to his own shortcomings and his interactions with Minty, the shabby journalist living primarily on his remittances from home with dark secrets of his own in his past and a spider captured under his toothglass (that spider is perhaps one of the greatest images in the early Greene).

The characters of Kate and Krogh are less clearly drawn and some experiments in stream-of-consciousness in the early chapters show a novelist still feeling his way to his voice, but this is very much the beginning of the mature Greene.

How to Become a Famous Writer Before You're Dead: Your Words in Print and Your Name in Lights by Ariel Gore
[Finished 18 May 2007] OK, here’s an example of why a good title makes a difference. I wouldn’t have picked up this book if it weren’t for the title.

The actual advice is largely pedestrian and some of the interviews seem more like padding than anything else. What I was most interested in was seeing what she had to say about career-building moves and guerilla marketing tactics. Some of her advice sounds good (like her emphasis on doing things like readings to get your name out there), but I’m not really buying her enthusiasm for self-publishing. The analogy to indie music is made more than once, but it’s worth noting that even those major label artists who have made some moves back into the independent world (I’m thinking of Robert Fripp in particular) tend to still release their “big” stuff on the major labels.

The anthology whore advice, on the other hand, is something that I’d not heard previously and is by far the most striking single item that I hadn’t previously considered.

It's a Battlefield by Graham Greene
[Finished 2 May 2007] There’s a long period of mostly forgotten novels in Graham Greene’s output during the thirties. I’ve read all of these once back when I was in college and not returned to them at all since.

The opening chapter of this book, It’s a Battlefield, is awfully slow and poorly drawn, but as the book develops, we begin to see some signs of the mature Greene, with a few beautifully-drawn interior monologues in the middle of the book. In all, it’s a weak book, but it shows the promise of what’s to come.

Will Warburton by George Gissing
[Finished 28 April 2007] Gissing is one of those pleasures that seem to be unknown to all but a select few, like Argentine films or the taco truck at Olympic and La Brea.

It’s been a while since I read Gissing, and I found myself pleasantly surprised when I picked up this book. The energy in the opening page sucked me in to the book, until I had finished it a couple days later. It’s not the best of the Gissing that I’ve read, with the plot unfolding almost as predictably as a Trollope novel, with the twist that Gissing’s version of a happy ending is a far cry from what was typical for a Victorian writer.

Stamboul Train by Graham Greene
[Finished 26 April 2007] This book marks the beginning of Greene’s mature period. At this point, Greene has abandoned historical fiction for something set contemporaneously. There are still some signs of his early idiosyncrisies in the writing and we’re still a few novels away from Greene as he would later become familiar (his trip to Mexico raised the importance of Catholicism in his writing).

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
[Finished 23 April 2007] This is, by far, one of the girliest books that I’ve ever read, and I have to admit that if it weren’t in my list of the top 100 novels of all time, I would never have picked it up.

The girliness of the book declines a bit from the opening chapter, but it pervades it still. Clearly, when Alcott set out to write a book for girls, she succeeded. In all, the book is well-written, if a bit sentimental for my tastes.

Rumour at Nightfall by Graham Greene
[Finished 23 February 2007] This is Greene’s third novel, withdrawn after the first edition went out of print. I stumbled across a copy in a bookshop in Victoria, British Columbia at a ridiculously low price (I suspect the bookseller had no idea what he had).

The novel is set in Spain in the ending days of the Carlist uprising and represents Greene’s last foray into historical fiction. Familiar themes of religion and betrayal are present here, but Greene’s sense of Catholicism is still somewhat immature, especially compared to later works, and he still writes of Catholicism from the perspective of an outsider. An interesting read for the sake of seeing the origins of Greene’s work, but not worth the price that copies generally sell for in the used market these days.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
[Finished 16 February 2007] Another book in my project to read the top 100 novels of all time. It’s an interesting experiment in shifting narrators, although not as adventurous as that might seem at first glance (the shifts in narration are made too much a concern of the narration, I think). The story drags in places and certainly represents a Victorian sensibility which appealed to me much more when I was younger than it does now.

I have to admit some disappointment in the central mystery of the story. It ended up being somewhat inconsequential and was resolved in a completely unsatisfactory manner, with the narrative continuing on in a way that would seem unnecessary in modern fiction. All told, an interesting work, but one whose interest is as much for its position in literary history as for any intrinsic merits.

Time and Again by Jack Finney
[Finished 4 February 2007] During an interview with Audrey Niffenegger, she mentioned this book as one of her favorite time travel novels, so I decided to give it a read. I have to say that I’m not that impressed. The illustrated novel part of things is almost nice, but it seems that the use of found artwork is rather grating pretty quickly. The frequent insistence that the narrator was drawing things in the style of the time seemed more crutch than a benefit: Why not re-draw the illustrations for the book? It would make for a huge improvement over what’s there.

The writing itself was also a bit disappointing. There were some rather transparent devices in the writing (it’s not the author being melodramatic, it’s the characters, cause that’s the way people talked back then), and the pacing was a bit off, and the differences in social mores between the 1970s and the 1880s was poorly handled. There was also a strong sense of, “I did all this research for my novel and damnit, I’m going to put it all into the book.”

But there were some nice parts too: The means by which time travel was effected, for example, was brilliantly conceived: A bit of setting up props combined with self-hypnosis and boom, you’ve walked outside into the wrong year, and the ending was a nice one (although the ambiguity was spoiled by the postscript on the sources for illustrations).

Looking at the Amazon reviews, his sequel seems to emphasize all the things that I disliked about this book with little of what I liked.

A Series of Unfortunate Events 6: The Ersatz Elevator by Lemony Snicket
[Finished 1 February 2007] We’re starting to see a lot more continuity here in the books, we’ve moved from episodes to a story arc. A few more hints about Lemony Snicket and Beatrice are in the narrative, and our narrator becomes more of a character. It’s a difficult feat to pull off, but one that works well here. Count Olaf’s plot is a bit more finely drawn as well, leaving me the sense that there’s much less a sense of “it’s just a children’s book” in planning out the story. The connections that are drawn are also a bit more involved, leaving me to eagerly await my start on the next book in the series.

The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile by Noah Lukeman
[Finished 27 January 2007] This is another one of the blog-recommended writing books that I picked up at the library. The tone and style is very different from the first. Instead of writing in short bites (each “reason” in the Walsh book was 1-3 pages, here we’re treated to 19 in-depth chapters), and the perspective is much more geared towards what’s wrong with the stuff in the slush pile. What I read here fell a lot less into the “gee, I already knew that” category, and a lot more into “this is something that I think I’m good about, but I should look for it when I’m revising my work.”

Another nice feature is the inclusion of exercises at the end of each chapter, things to look at in your manuscript and find ways to improve the text.

Less useful, for me at least, are some of his examples of the faults at work. They felt far too contrived and it would have been nice to see actual slushpile examples rather than the obviously fake (and, I would hope, extreme) cases that show up in the book.

But all told, this is an excellent book. I read both writing books in library copies, but this one, I think I’m going to buy.

The Man Within by Graham Greene
[Finished 24 January 2007] After finishing the last volume of Norman Sherry’s bio of Graham Greene, I decided that it was time to go back and re-read all of Greene’s work (or in the case of the essays, read it for the first time). When the first volume of the Sherry biography came out, I started driving to every book store in Chicago until I had nearly all of Greene’s novels, and I read (or re-read) nearly everything Greene had written during the summer of 1989. Much of this, I haven’t looked at since.

So starting at the beginning, I’m faced with Greene’s first published novel (two earlier attempts were never published). I remember finding the work a bit opaque when I first read it, and coming back to it, I think some of that is due to the lack of any context of when the story is set. I know enough now to place it in the 19th century, marking it as historical fiction, a genre which Greene avoided in his later writing. In the preface to the Penguin edition which I read, Greene criticizes the book for its romanticism, and this is certainly a problem with the book. Re-reading it with a critical eye, I’m struck by the many failures of description which occur throughout the book, either with scenes being over-written, or Greene failing to give the reader a sense of place.

The characters of the protagonist Andrews and the father figure, Carlyon, who he portrays are well-drawn, although the relationship between Andrews and his father almost feels clichéd, and Elizabeth is little more than a cardboard cut-out of a character for Greene to hang plot points upon. Even the prostitute in Lewes is better-drawn than her.

In all, the book is primarily of historical interest in seeing the origins of one of the great writers of the twentieth century.

78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never Be Published & 14 Reasons Why It Might by Pat Walsh
[Finished 22 January 2007] On one of the literary agent blogs I’ve been reading, there was a list of recommended books on writing. Since I’ve never actually read a book on writing, not even what they passed out in junior high about grammar, I decided that maybe it’d be worth checking these out, since they did come with a personal recommendation.

This book is written by an editor at a small publisher, and covers a wide variety of sins committed by would-be authors. Only a small portion of these are about the writing itself, much of it being more a guide to etiquette and protocol in shopping one’s finished book around. I kind of feel proud of myself that there was little that I didn’t already know, courtesy of such luminaries as Miss Snark, and Jenny Rappaport, but the style is light and engaging and is a lot faster than reading agent blogs for a few months. It does encourage me to know that just by writing at a level of competence, I’m already in the 90th percentile of submissions (alas, it takes being in the 99th percentile of that group to actually get accepted).

The Algebraist by Iain Banks
[Finished 12 January 2007] I first spotted this book at Border’s in Santa Monica on one of the tables near the entrance. The title caught my attention since, at the time, I was an algebraist of sorts. Fast forward to the end of the year and I spotted the title in someone’s best of 2006 list, and I need to add something to an amazon order to get free shipping, but because I don’t know what might have been bought from my wishlist for Christmas, I can’t just pick something from there so I order this one.

The story starts out slow and a bit disjointed. While Banks does eventually tie everything together in the end, the first third of the book was still just not that gripping. The best parts, to me, were the descriptions of Dweller society, and I found myself wishing for 300 pages of that in preference to some of the other description which was presented. Add in a badly-written back cover blurb (which only really makes sense after you’ve read half the book) and it’s something that I might not have read otherwise. Banks does a good job of world-creating, but not so much a good job of storytelling. It’s not a bad book, but it wouldn’t make my best reads of 2006 list.

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
[Finished 31 December 2006] This is a classic case of changing tastes leading to a “great” work falling a bit flat. The intrusive narrator here is more annoying than entertaining, and the underlying social views (the headstrong Becky Sharp ends up being a mostly unsympathetic character while the docile Amelia Sedley is rewarded at the end). There are some great character creations, and I can see that Thackeray clearly influenced other authors (I can see elements of him in Trollope), but it hardly seems worth nearly 1000 pages of prose.

Tales of the Little Quarter by Jan Neruda
[Finished 30 December 2006] More research reading. The details of life in Prague, albeit a bit earlier than the period of which I’m writing about are invaluable, but the writing itself is wonderful as well. No wonder Pablo Neruda took his nom de plume from Jan. It’s a light touch, difficult to do well, but when it is done well, it is a beautiful thing. This is that style of writing, an intrusive narrator, done very well. Only a handful of the stories are a true first-person narrative, but “I” is present throughout.

The Life of Graham Greene, Volume III: 1955-1991 by Norman Sherry
[Finished 28 December 2006] At long last, I read the final volume of Norman Sherry’s biography of Graham Greene. I find myself a little disappointed to discover that it lacks the promised complete bibliography of Greene’s works (only the works actually mentioned in the book are included, and Sherry does not even mention two of Greene’s late novels, The Tenth Man and Doctor Fischer of Geneva.

After the depth of volume II, this volume seems a bit slight. Only the chapter on Greene’s religious beliefs near the end of his life seems to provide any insight. And even then, we’re given little insight into Greene’s opinion on the changes in the church after Vatican II (although there is some hint of his view in Monsignor Quixote. Otherwise, it seems that we are faced with an endless game of “on whom did Greene base this character?” as well as the intrusive presence of Sherry himself. My last complaint would be Sherry’s frequent abandonment of chronological narration throughout this volume. Some retrospective views are appropriate, but there are places where it appears that the pages of the manuscript had been shuffled and never returned to their original order before publication.

But reading this volume also leaves me eager to revisit Greene’s works, many of which I haven’t read since I was in college and reading the first volume of Sherry’s biography.

Cuentos de Eva Luna by Isabel Allende
[Finished 27 December 2006] Efforts to enhance my Spanish vocabulary. I still need a dictionary to get through any given story (and often any given page), but my ability to read Spanish, at least, is developing well. If only my ability to understand spoken Spanish were proceeding equally well.

Ask the Dust by John Fante
[Finished 21 December 2006] Palm tree. Palm tree. Palm tree. This is largely held up as the great Los Angeles novel. The plot, such as it is, is not especially good, and the characters of Arturo and Camilla are too annoying to hold much sympathy, but the writing--wow! There is a film of this book, but I have to wonder what the point is (I suppose I’ll find out when it pops up to the top of my netflix queue). This is a book in which the language of the narration is everything, and the characters and plot are more there to provide a raison d’etre for the writing. But even while the characters are not sympathetic, they manage to remain compelling. I still find myself thinking about Arturo telling Camilla to abandon her huaraches for proper shoes, then regretting his command after seeing her change for him.

A Series of Unfortunate Events 5: The Austere Academy by Lemony Snickett
[Finished 17 December 2006] The schtick which sustained the first four volumes of the Series of Unfortunate Events has largely run its course, so Snickett has been forced into changing the formula a bit here. Of course, the Baudelaires have learned, the adults are of no help in dealing with the dangers of Count Olaf, so they find themselves helped instead by a pair of triplets. Most of the other characters in the book continue to be two-dimensional, but some further insights into the narrator and his beloved Beatrice are hinted at, and the series begins to transition from loosely connected discrete tales to more of a genuine story arc.

Sybil, or The Two Nations by Benjamin Disraeli
[Finished 24 November 2006] This is a book which was on my to-read list since it was mentioned by one of my professors in college. I was expecting a typical victorian novel of manners, an accounting of life among the upper classes. So I wasn’t expecting the sudden appearance of working class Catholics in the narrative very close to the beginning of the story. The subtitle of the novel suddenly becomes much clearer. What particularly intrigued me after reading this was to look up Disraeli’s biography and find that he was a founding member of the Conservative party in England. Apparently “Conservative” had very different meanings then than it does now.

Czech and Slovak Short Stories edited by Jeanne Nemcova
[Finished 11 November 2006] Part of my research for my current novel, I continue to be frustrated at the difficulties in finding accounts of Prague life before World War I. Much of what I’d like to read has not been translated into English, so I read whatever I can find.

Perhaps it’s my goal-oriented reading, but I found the older stories in this collection to be the most satisfying. The only one of the post WWII stories that I loved was Josef Nesvadba’s “Mordair,” a wonderfully dark and surreal tale. On the other hand, I simply adored most of the early stories, whether it was Neruda, Herrmann, Rais, Hasek, Capek or any of countless others. I do think that I will definitely pick up some of the other Capek stuff which has been translated into English.

The Trumpet-Major by Thomas Hardy
[Finished 5 November 2006] One of Thomas Hardy’s lesser works, but still a fun read. I continue to marvel at how long a shaadow Napoleon cast over nineteenth century literature (in fact, it seems that nearly every nineteenth century novel that I’ve read recently has made reference to Napoleon.

The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Svejk, Book One by Jaroslav Hasek
[Finished 30 October 2006] I first heard of this book (and this translation) from an article in the Chicago Reader. Shortly afterwards I bought it from amazon, but it took a few years (and the writing of a novel set in Prague a couple decades earlier) for me to actually read it. I can’t compare it to the earlier translations of Hasek’s work, but it is a fun read and the humor comes across quite well. I eagerly await the publication of the three remaining volumes. The translation of book two is apparently complete and books three and four are near completion so we may see them soon.

English Literature in the 16th Century by C. S. Lewis
[Finished 21 October 2006] The fact that this book is out of print and likely only available in libraries or select private collections (like mine) is, I think, connected to my flame out as an English major as an undergrad. This book represents the kind of comprehensive look at literature that was pushed out of fashion by the various post-modernist movements in critical thinking. Lewis is able to give us a serious critique of 16th century poetry and prose (drama was covered in a different volume in the series) because he is familiar not just with the texts which he treats, but the historical, philosophical and religious contexts. The result is a remarkably erudite look at the literature of the time, informing the reader of contemporary perspectives on magic, religion and the role of literature itself. I bought this book as part of my undergrad thesis research, but didn’t read it at the time. I wish I had because it would have given me precisely the focus that I struggled with in my own critical writing, in particular Lewis’ division (not always neatly) of the writing of the period into “drab” and “golden” stylings with occasional glimpses into the beginnings of metaphysical and augustan styles and the occasional authors who were very much sui generis.

The Black Sheep by Honore de Balzac
[Finished 18 October 2006] I first heard of Balzac when reading some advice for would-be novelists in Writers’ Marketplace while I was in college. It was something along the lines of don’t try to be like Dickens or Balzac. Dickens I knew, but Balzac was unknown to me, so I went to the bookstore, bought a second-hand Penguin paperback of The Black Sheep and put it on my bookcase where it remained for the next 17 years.

And now it comes back as number 12 on the list of the top 100 novels of all time.

The beginning of the novel is slow in the way that nineteenth century novels had the luxury of opening, but as it progresses, it becomes a fascinating story of Napoleon-haunted France at the beginning of the 19th century. I can clearly see how Balzac was held up as a model for writers alongside Dickens after reading this.

Vicar of Christ by Walter F. Murphy
[Finished 6 October 2006] Reading this book in “writer” mode, one of my first thoughts was that this was a novel written by someone who’s more an enthusiast than a writer. At over 600 pages, for one thing, the book is just too long and could have done with some serious pruning. And the narrative conceit, that each section of the book tells a non-overlapping part of the life of Declan Walsh, soldier-turned-chief-justice-turned-Pope, is more a distraction than a benefit to the narrative.

But as a page-turner, it does its job reasonably well, telling, as is typical with novels of fictional popes, a story more about the author than the papacy. I didn’t really need to look at the short bio on the back flap to see that Murphy was a soldier in Korea or a professor of constitutional law. And the novel tells me a lot more of Murphy’s tastes in women and politics than does the bio. There are some unique touches here, like a hint that Declan Walsh’s changes to the church meet with the approval of God, if not of the CIA or the curia, but also the usual cowardice in the conclusion (since this book, like all others of its genre, concludes with the untimely death of its pope) with its hints that, despite the promise that the gates of hell will not prevail, the gates of hell do indeed prevail in the end.

The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal
[Finished 29 September 2006] As I work through the top 100 novels (this is number thirteen), I sometimes find some that I don’t really relate to. This is probably the least exciting of the lot. Part of it is doubtless that this book is strongly in violation of one of the prime rules of contemporary fiction: “Show, don’t tell.” Much of the book is long sequences of just that. I am happy to have reached the end of the book.

The BFG by Roald Dahl
[Finished 27 August 2006] This is number 88 on the top 100 novels of all time. While I still would pick Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or James and the Giant Peach to represent Roald Dahl’s output, this gave me an opportunity to dig a bit deeper into Dahl’s writing. Since it’s been many many years since I’ve read any other of his children’s novels (I did read a collection of the “adult” short stories when I was a college student), I can’t really make a direct comparison, but it was a fun light read. The playfulness of language is especially beautiful and the playful tone doesn’t keep Dahl from the dark aspects of his story (viz, people are eaten).

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
[Finished 16 August 2006] My first exposure to The Count of Monte Cristo was through the passages in Huck Finn where Tom Sawyer refers to the book. Having read it, I can see how it could capture Tom’s imagination. This is a fun adventure story. There’s not a whole lot of depth to the story. For the most part, the bad guys are bad, the good guys are good and there is little shading in between, but the plot moves along in such a compelling way. This is the nineteenth century version of a great popcorn movie.

Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock
[Finished 26 July 2006] This has been one of the harder books to find in my project to read the top 100 books of all time: While the L.A. Public Library has several copies of the book, most are non-circulating, and the two circulating copies are not in the main stacks. I had to have a librarian fetch the book from the closed stacks.

And what did I get for the effort? A short, somewhat comic novella which seemed far from top 100 material to me.

The Trial by Franz Kafka
[Finished 21 July 2006] Kafka is one of those authors who suffers from being over-assigned by high school English teachers (although I managed to avoid having Kafka assigned to me for any class: The three Kafka novels I’ve read have been purely for my own enjoyment).

Unlike The Castle, The Trial manages to avoid easy allegorization. Instead it manages to be a fascinating story of disorientation and paranoia. The unfinished nature of the book, with a large appendix of deleted passages is a bit frustrating in that it forces the reader into being a bit of a textual critic on top of being a literary critic. My choice was to ignore the whole appendix as best as possible (the typographic indications of a deleted passage in the text, however, were a bit obtrusive).

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
[Finished 12 July 2006] A dangerous subject for a novel, and reading Nabokov’s afterword, it did have an impact on his attempts to find a publisher. But an incredible tour de force of novel-writing, at times reaching levels which can best be described as poetry, most notably the early description of nymphettes and later, the accounts of motels. The climax of the novel itself was somewhat less satisfying, but the whole was a masterpiece of prose.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
[Finished 7 July 2006] When Spark died earlier this year and I heard her obituary on NPR, I thought that she might be an author who would appeal greatly to me. After all, my favorite authors have been English Catholic writers (including Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh who apparently both mentored Spark). But I was left feeling a bit unsatisfied by this book: The narrative experiment is quite impressive, and, I think, successful, in creating a novel way to tell a story, but the story that she tells doesn’t seem that satisfying, nor are the characters ones that I felt much connection to. In the end, not a particularly satisfying read.

L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy
[Finished 30 June 2006] It’s not often that my reading material generates widespread commentary from strangers, but this book was one that did. Some of it was a consequence of the film that was made of the book, but Ellroy has a significant fan base in Los Angeles (not surprisngly).

While a long book, this was a rather quick read, with short chapters. The 50s slang made things a bit hard going at first, but I quickly adapted.

The plot is convoluted and I’m still not quite sure how everything fit together, and it makes me wish for the relative simplicity of the movie version of the story (which eliminates half the characters and sub-plots of the novel).

But even with the byzantine plotting, this is a great book and hard to put down.

Atonement by Ian McEwan
[Finished 27 June 2006] The first part of the book is brilliant, and the narrative device of the child/aspiring writer Brony Tallis is pure genius. But the second part of the book, focusing on the Battle of Dunkirk, and the latter sections of the book seem to lack the energy and vitality of the first part.

American Pastoral by Philip Roth
[Finished 21 June 2006] Part of my project to read the top 100 novels of all time (this one weighs in at #99).

One of the great lacunae in my reading is twentieth-century American authors, so it shouldn’t be surprising that I’d never read Philip Roth before. But after reading this book, I suspect that I very likely will return to Roth in the future. The narrative structure is amazing with its frequent shifts in time and non-linear sequencing. The narrator, who is a major character in the first section of the book has completely disappeared by the end of the book, which I suppose might be seen as a flaw although I find it an interesting choice on the part of the author.

Also interesting to me, more on a personal note than anything else, is that Roth is quite squarely in my parents’ generation, and parts of this book feel like they could have been written, if not by my dad, then by one of his high school classmates.

A Series of Unfortunate Events 4: The Miserable Mill by Lemony Snickett
[Finished 18 June 2006] I’ve now moved past the end of the material covered in the film, so I no longer have the cognitive interference from it to distract me from reading the book as book alone. I don’t think that this alone accounts for the rather dramatic change of pace in this book, The orphans’ new guardian has moved from cluelessness to nearly malicious viewpoints. And Klaus and Violet find themselves reversing their usual roles in the resolution of the story. In all, not a bad way to spend an hour or so.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
[Finished 27 May 2006] I’m sure I’ve said this somewhere else in the log, but it bears repeating: For someone as well-read as I am, I’m surprisinly poorly-read.

Case in point: Frankenstein. Wasn’t everyone assigned this book in high school English class? Or if not then, sometime in college?

Not me. Not sure how I missed it, but there it is.

What to say about the book itself? A gripping read, although I found myself periodically flipping back wondering if I’d missed something (Victor’s father’s death slipped past me). Doubtless my own failing, rather than Shelley’s.

Ulysses by James Joyce
[Finished 25 May 2006] When I was beginning my freshman year of college, a friend talked about having read Finnegan’s Wake on a family vacation and (I think) getting a T-shirt which read “I survived Finnegan’s Wake” I remember being not terribly impressed by this, but having (finally) finished reading Ulysses, I appreciate his accomplishment.

This is the third Joyce book that I’ve read (the others being Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), and I’m left thinking that reading Joyce isn’t really a terribly pleasurable experience for me, at least not in sustained readings. Early on, I found that one secret was to read the novel as if I was reading a poem. I was able to appreciate the language of Joyce’s writing, but as it continued, I just wasn’t able to sustain that kind of close careful reading. When I reached the famed 45 page run-on sentence (not really, more just a final section devoid of punctuation), it was more with a sense of relief than regret that I came to the end of the novel.

Against the Grain by Terry Eagleton
[Finished 21 May 2006] There was a time in my life that critical theory was something of great importance to me, and Terry Eagleton was very much the center of that universe. Now I come back and read some of the last unread Eagleton on my shelves and I find myself wondering how I’ve changed so much. There are bits of the essays which still strike me as containing some interesting ideas, but most of it comes across as dry and pretentious rather than appealing.

Six Comedies by W. Somerset Maugham
[Finished 19 May 2006] In his introduction, Maugham effectively dismisses the plays in this volume as being of little literary significance, meant only for entertainment, but most of these seem to fall short of even that aspiration. Perhaps its because of the sameness of most of plays’ themes, or the short shelf-life of humor, or even the loss of impact from reading a play rather than seeing it, but I was left disappointed by most of the plays. Only Home and Beauty and The Breadwinner left me happy to have read them. The former for its wonderfully silly plot, the latter for its hints at some of the themes that would recur in The Moon and Sixpence amd The Razor’s Edge. I’m thinking that it’s beginning to become time to re-read the short stories.

The System of the World by Neal Stephenson
[Finished 27 April 2006] It’s been a long road to get here: Nearly 3000 pages read in spurts spread out over 2 years, but I’ve reached the end of Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. I think that the time in some ways helped enhance my enjoyment of the book, in that I didn’t make connections between minor appearances of characters in volume one and their recurrence in later volumes.

Unlike The Cryptonomicon, Stephenson has managed to actually write a satisfying ending to his story (albeit one which is at times a bit Dickensian in its wrapping up of loose ends).

English Poetry of the Seventeenth Century by George Parfitt
[Finished 18 December 2005] A dry accounting of different strains in poetry during the 17th century.

A Series of Unfortunate Events 3: The Wide Window by Lemony Snickett
[Finished 17 December 2005] I’m at roughly the end of what was in the movie now and I’m a bit more into the rhythm of the books. The running jokes and dry humor are a hoot.

The Confusion by Neal Stephenson
[Finished 22 November 2005] It’s become my custom to employ my educator discount at Border’s to buy yet another thick Neal Stephenson novel. In this second volume of the Baroque cycle, we’re treated to some of what had come before made explicit (in particular, the curious longevity of Enoch Root, although the story of the mysterious eater of rotten fish is not handled in a satisfying way. The mathematical content here is a bit thinner than in previous Stephenson works, but the economics is a bit more fully fleshed out. I’m eagerly awaiting the next educator appreciation weekend when I’ll buy the final volume of the series.

The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope
[Finished 25 September 2005] For the first time since I started reading this series, I’ve read two Barsetshire Chronicles back-to-back. Mostly I was motivated to find out what happened to the saga of Johnny Eames and Lily Dale which had been left unresolved at the end of the previous volume, a hope which ended up being somewhat dashed in this one. I found that the passage of years had left neither character especially sympathetic. Johnny had turned into a bit of a boor while Lily had turned into a self-pitying parody of herself.

But the remainder of the story did provide some motivation to read the nearly 900 pages of Trollopian prose, and Johnny and Lily notwithstanding, the story was the typically comfortably predictable story which I usually expect from Trollope. But having finished this novel, I’m more than ready for a bit of a break from Trollope.

Red Hat by Ralph McInerny
[Finished 5 August 2005] What a depressing read. McInerny is a conservative in the “the world is going to hell in a handbasket” mode and I feel like the election of Bush and Benedict probably has him feeling awfully triumphant. There’s an amazing amount of wishful thinking here (e.g., the miraculous disappearance of AIDS from Africa while the disease ravages Gay America, close to the opposite of real life), and a needlessly complicated plot. It does provide further grist for my conception that papal novels are really all about wish fulfillment for the author.

The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope
[Finished 31 July 2005] I first started reading the Barsetshire novels while I was in college. Maybe one every three or four years. There’s always a comfort in reading Trollope but in this case things don’t completely turn out as expected. So for the first time in my reading of the series since I read the first two books back-to-back as an undergraduate, I’m diving immediately into the successor novel.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling
[Finished 20 July 2005] This, I think, is the best book in the series. The shock of the second chapter was only exceeded by the shock of the penultimate chapter.

There’s a lot to be said for the argument that there’s still a lot of filler here, but it seems to me that Rowling has, at last, gotten some of the editing that she so desparately needed.

It’s hard to say much about the book without spoilers though. I will say that I didn’t really expect any of the last couple chapters at all, but perhaps I’m just a bit dense. At the least, I’m not quite so obsessive as to compile spreadsheets of information from the book in order to connect the dots. I’m looking forward to book 7 to see how it all ends up.

A Series of Unfortunate Events 2: The Reptile Room by Lemony Snicket
[Finished 13 July 2005] In the second book, I’m getting a bit more into the flow of the writing and able to put aside my memories of the movie a bit more easily now. The various asides about the meanings of words and phrases are one of the highlights of this series and at this point we have occasional characters explaining what words mean as the story progresses for a bit of entertainment value.

There might be some who would object to a homicide in the book, but given that the first volume opened with the deaths of both Baudelaire parents, we’re actually at a lower body count than has previously been the case.

The Marvelous Land of Oz by L. Frank Baum
[Finished 11 July 2005] A bit of light reading as a break. This is the first of Baum’s sequels in the Oz series. It’s been a long time since I’ve read the Wizard of Oz, and I suspect that my perspective has been colored a bit more by the movie than the book, but it seems to me that Baum has played fast and loose with his characterizations in this follow-up. That plus some seemingly arbitrary plot points which don’t appear to have any purpose other than to pad out the length of the book. But it has its enjoyable moments and there are some amazingly funny scenes, like the translation difficulties sequence when the pumpkin head meets the scarecrow.

There is also a fair amount to be said about the role of gender in this book, but there’s a part of me that feels that a proper treatment of the subject requires a more thorough understanding of Baum himself and his relation to the political movements of his time. A new critical approach to the topic would be a disservice to the text.

The Erotic Poems by Ovid
[Finished 1 July 2005] The introduction to this volume, by translator Peter Green, is a fascinating overview of Ovid’s life and the context of his poems. This was almost worth the price of admission alone.

However, the translation of the poems left me feeling that it was somewhat suspect. Green frequently uses anachronistic colloquialisms in his translation. I can understand the motivation: A literal translation of a first century colloquialism might not convey the informal nature of the text, but his choices leave me feeling like I’m reading a paraphrase rather than a translation.

Thankfully, Green didn’t feel the need to shoehorn Ovid’s poems into an English verse form, further deforming them.

A Series of Unfortunate Events 1: The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket
[Finished 25 June 2005] Is it bad form to begin a book review by mentioning the film, let alone comparing to the film? Then so be it. It was the film which inspired me to pick up the book.

The Series of Unfortunate Events books, unlike the other contemporary children’s best-seller series consists of much shorter, more manageable books. I was able to read this one at a single sitting while waiting for my wife at the mall. Having seen the film previously, I found myself waiting for some of the better jokes from the book to make their appearance and was somewhat disappointed when they didn’t. But the spirit of the writing is still quite entertaining and the didactic elements of the book are quite entertaining with the occasional interposed vocabulary lessons. I suppose I’ll keep at the series until I catch up. And one hopes that once I get past the source material for the film, I’ll be able to more directly appreciate the storytelling.

The Very Persistent Gappers of Fripp by George Saunders
[Finished 3 May 2005] Saunders is best known as a writer of surrealistic short stories for adults. In this instance, he tackles instead a surrealistic short story for children.

It’s wonderful.

This is a book that I will read to my children in hopes that they too will grow up to be somewhat strange and offbeat.

The Prodigal Project Book 3: Numbers by Ken Abrahams and Daniel Hart
[Finished 10 April 2005] Hmm, let’s see what’s happening now: We’re introduced to a wacky angel (his name is Stan! he likes Jell-O! He drives a Cadillac!), we learn that Azul Dante is the Anti-Christ, all those night people are probably not the same as Izbek Noir but are apparently demons or devils or whatever they would be in the cosmology of this series, and that some how Izbek Noir (who, presumably, is Satan), is perhaps at odds with Azul Dante or perhaps subtly linked with him. It’s all quite a mess really.

One reviewer on Amazon has called this series, “Left Behind for mature adults.” I hate to imagine how bad Left Behind would be.

And am I the only one who’s reading this and thinking that the theology is pretty problematic? Not just the whole idea of the rapture, but the way God acts in this book is a bit off.

At Risk by Stella Rimington
[Finished 27 February 2005] A decent first novel by the former head of MI5. There’s some personal story from the protagonist which mysteriously vanishes in the second half of the book, leaving the reader wondering why it was in the book in the first place, and Rimington has some difficulty making her characters distinct (which left me a bit confused at times who the various people in the book were), but as it proceeds to the climax, the narrative narrows its focus and Rimington’s potential becomes much more evident.

The novel gets a lot of press for being a novel about a female spy, but far more interesting (and evident), I think is the interplay between the two British spy agencies, MI5 and MI6 which is, by far, the most fascinating part of the book.

The Prodigal Project Book Two: Exodus by Ken Abrahams and Daniel Hart
[Finished 12 January 2005] Well the mystery of Daniel Hart is revealed. As near as I can tell, he’s the person who’s come up with the broad outline of the story while Abrahams does the actual writing. I’m guessing that this is Abrahams’ modus operandi: He gets some collaborator who wants to write a novel without actually doing the writing.

As for the book itself, it’s more of the same and then some: Of course we throw in some mild anti-Semitism to go with the anti-Islamic slant (it’s interesting to note that other than a brief passage in the first book, the Catholic Church is completely absent from the book). There’s some sort of goofy mystery about “seven” which is left unresolved (or maybe it is, I didn’t count the number of people who are asked about “seven” but the obvious Satan stand-in. Still worse, we get interior monologue from the assorted characters that I assume are Satan, all of which comes across as rather ham-handed and poorly managed.

And then there’s the lost opportunity. The first book, with its subtitle Genesis provides a framework of sort for the book: It’s about the beginnings of the whole thing. The second, presumably should be something about travelling, perhaps with the characters gathered in a central location, but alas, the possibility of symbolism is lost.

And there are still too damn many characters. I’m really hoping that the shooting in chapter ten will result in a death in the beginning of the next book since that way there will at least be one less character in the narration.

Return to Eden by Harry Harrison
[Finished 11 January 2005] The story of the Yilane in South America, introduced in the second volume reaches its fulfillment here, albeit not entirely satisfyingly. Perhaps less satisfying is the resolution (or really, lack thereof) of the conflict between the humans and dinosaurs. But I’ve also come to realize that it’s really not the story which is the most interesting part of this as the descriptions of societies in change. Here, the South America subplot really shines as the dinosaurs find a way to structure a society around their new philosophy. Similarly, the human society, on the verge of a change in its way of living, also creates some interesting elements, although at times the whole thing seems a bit rushed. I wouldn’t mind seeing a fourth book in the trilogy.

My Name is Aram by William Saroyan
[Finished 5 January 2005] I wanted a bit of light reading to start out the year so looking over my libri legendi shelves, I spotted this volume of short stories by William Saroyan. I had previously read Saroyan’s The Human Comedy and had enjoyed the gentle humor of the book, so I figured that this would be similar. It was. Nothing dark or challenging here at all, just recollections of a childhood in the San Joaquin valley filled with wonder and poetry and love.

Winter In Eden by Harry Harrison
[Finished 17 December 2004] Clearly a middle book. The narrative gets fragmented as we follow an assortment of characters introduced in the first book of the trilogy. The issues of suspension of disbelief are lessened in this volume, I suppose because I made it through one volume already with Harrison’s bizarre concepts. But this is clearly a set-up for the final volume of the trilogy and a bit unsatisfying still. But I’ll doubtless continue on.

The Prodigal Project: Book One-Genesis by Ken Abraham and Daniel Hart
[Finished 9 December 2004] I started reading this book when my wife and I stopped at Vroman’s in Pasadena to rest a bit after a strenuous hike in the mountains. I’d been toying with reading the Left Behind series in bookstores (no real interest in actually owning these books), and figured this looked, at the least, to be shorter.

Except, “Book One-Genesis”? Does that mean 65 more books to come? (Apparently not: Book Four brings things up to Kings).

Anyway, I read the first three chapters that day and still hadn’t finished with character introductions (or had an introduced character return, for that matter). I finished it off at Borders today and I’m left thinking that this is pretty much a me-too book. Let’s see, only Christians are good, Muslims come out as largely off-screen and unmitigatedly evil (curiously, although the book was first published in 2003, the events of September 11th seem not to be referenced in any way, despite an obvious opening). Less suspense (and more predictability) than even a Dan Brown novel.

The most fascinating thing to me was the fact that the brief author bio didn’t mention Abraham’s co-author. I’m not sure that I’ll bother with the other three books. Or maybe I will. They are, at least, fast reads. Next time I’ll bring a CD player with me so that I can listen to something other than piped-in Christmas Carols while I read.

Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson
[Finished 20 October 2004] I came at this with some trepidation as some reviews I read had been a bit less than positive. But I’ve found it to be a very interesting read indeed. My knowledge of European history has assorted lacunae, one of which is the late 17th and early 18th centuries, which is precisely the time period covered in Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, so I’ve been learning quite a bit in the process of reading this (although sorting out the historical from the fictional is occasionally a bit of a challenge). But like the best historical fiction, this book leaves me inspired to delve deeper into the period.

I’m looking forward to the paperback releases of volumes 2 and 3 of the Baroque Cycle.

Deus lo Volt! Chronicle of the Crusades by Evan S. Connell
[Finished 14 October 2004] A very odd book. The bulk of it is a history of the crusades written from the perspective of a medieval noble, which provides an interesting perspective on the topic, and forces the reader to be aware of the narrator’s credulity (although bits of modern sensibility creep in at times). This part was interesting although at times a bit tedious (I felt like it would have been helpful to have a timeline perhaps, and maybe a dramatis personae to keep track of all that was going on).

Towards the end of the book, the tone suddenly changes as our narrator participates in one of the final crusades lead by the French. Oddly, while this is the closest to a traditional novel that the story gets, it’s also the least successful part of the novel. In the end, I was left wondering why I read the book at all, although I do confess to having more understanding of the crusades than previously. I just think that a straight history would have been a more productive way to have learned what I learned.

Understand This by Jervey Tervalon
[Finished 17 September 2004] When I was researching Locke High School when I was offered a job there (which I ultimately did not accept), I encountered references to this book which fictionalizes the school as Bolt, and I decided to pick it up as part of my decision-making process. I ultimately ended up teaching at a different school, but I did find the novel to be a very compelling read. The day-to-day lives of the students at the school are chronicled in honest detail (Tervalon had been both a student and teacher at Locke). At times his change of narrator with each chapter seemed a bit gimmicky, but it ultimately served the tale quite well.

To Kill the Pope: An Ecclesiastical Thriller by Tad Szulc
[Finished 12 August 2004] One of the better Pope novels I’ve read in the past few years, Szulc’s book reads a lot more like biography than a novel, which makes sense if only because Szulc is primarily known as a biographer.

In this novel, his Gregory XVII stands in for John Paul II, with the plot centering around the unconfirmable story that Szulc found when he investigated John Paul’s attempted assassination. The fictional characters behind the plot can be easily connected to the real characters, allowing Szulc to get his version of the story out while at the same time providing a rather entertaining history of the Catholic Church in France and the church’s relationship with Islam since the Crusades.

I recommend this one without hesitation, regardless of the veracity of Szulc’s story (on which I have no firm opinion, although I’m willing to believe Szulc)

In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O'Brien
[Finished 9 August 2004] I came across this novel mentioned on a writing professor’s website as key reading for the students in his writing class, so I decided to take a look at it.

Having read it, I have to agree that it’s a beautifully crafted story, with an amazing repertoire of technical tricks used to advance the ideas of the novel. Definitely worth reading. I won’t say anything about the plot details for I think that it pays to read this novel, “blind” knowing nothing about what the novel is about.

Robert Browning's Poetry: Authoritative Texts, Criticism (Norton Critical Edition) by Robert Browning
[Finished 5 August 2004] I guess it’s been too long since I’ve read poetry, especially difficult poetry. It took me most of the book to finally begin to get Browning, and then it was too late. And given the heft of this volume, going back just seemed to be too much.

Of the critical essays which conclude the book, the historical essays seemed to be an alternating series of vituperation and reverence while the modern ones were a bit more compelling. The interpretative essays in particular were well worth the read, particularly the essay, “Blougram’s Apologetics” which provided a novel, but persuasive interpretation of “Bishop Blougram’s Apology”.

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
[Finished 25 July 2004] It’s been a while since I’ve read any Dickens and this was rather slow going at first, but as I read further, my mind began reacquainting itself with Victorian diction and it became a much easier read.

It’s a bit interesting in that there seems to be a lot in common with 18th century novels in this book, particularly the periodic digressions into implanted short stories which is something that I tend to associate more with Fielding than Dickens, but perhaps given that this is Dickens’ first novel and bears many of the marks of his influences (especially Fielding), that shouldn’t be a big surprise.

Supertoys Last All Summer Long and Other Stories of Future Time by Brian Aldiss
[Finished 2 July 2004] I picked this up in the wake of seeing the brilliant, if flawed, film, AI. Having now read the stories that inspired the film, I’m left a bit disappointed: I think that the film realization of the concept was far superior to the original.

The other stories in the collection were also largely empty. I don’t particularly think that Aldiss met his goals as stated in the introduction very well, or, in many cases, at all. There were a handful of good stories and a lot of what felt like filler.

West of Eden by Harry Harrison
[Finished 16 April 2004] An engaging fantasy. I had a hard time suspending disbelief for the dinosaur civilization and the subplot about the daughters of death ended up having no real consequence, but I still had a hard time putting the book down. I’ll definitely pick up the sequels.

5 Novels by Daniel Pinkwater
[Finished 14 April 2004] I picked up this omnibus out of a desire to re-read one of my favorte novels from my childhood, Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars. The book was still as entertaining as it was when I first read it over 20 years ago. The others in the collection were a bit of a mixed bag. Slaves of Spiegel didn’t particularly do much for me other than remind me of Pinkwater’s weight problem and become more conscious of the omnipresence of food in Pinkwater’s writing. The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death had a good start but seemed to rush to its conclusion. On the other hand, The Last Guru and Young Adult Novel were both works of genius. All of the books reveled in the joys of nonconformity and creativity, and for that alone, I think that all young people should read these books.

Pastoralia by George Saunders
[Finished 1 April 2004] I really enjoy Saunders’ writing voice. This collection was a bit more conventional in setting for many of the stories than was Bad Decline in CivilWarLand, but it still had the compelling voice. One thing that I’ve found that I really enjoy with reading Saunders’ work is the gradual sense of becoming oriented to the universe of the story. You’re never certain what “normal” is until the story has been read most of the way through. It’s a great example of what the deconstructionists meant about the transformation of meaning as the text progresses. And even if you’re not into literary theory, they’re still fun stories to read.

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of The Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester
[Finished 11 March 2004] A fascinating tale. Historical reconstructions like this are always a bit of a challenge to make interesting, but Winchester is up to the task in this book. He manages to convey an interesting mix of information about the creation of the greatest English dictionary, Victorian England, the treatment of mental illness in the 19th century and more. A great companion to Chasing the Sun which approaches the question of dictionary-making from a more global perspective

The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis
[Finished 24 January 2004] Well that’s the end of the Chronicles of Narnia. Again, I found this a more compelling read than some of the earlier volumes. The portrayals of religious hypocrisy and false prophets struck me as particularly interesting. The conclusion of the book also had me caught quite by surprise.

I would say, at this point also that perhaps publication order is the best order to read the books rather than chronological. I really think that The Magician’s Nephew would work much better after The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.

I think also that some of my reservations about the series are largely a result of my general distaste for allegory. Once I can get past that, the books become more enjoyable (and interestingly, the books that are least allegorical are the ones that I enjoyed the most.

The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis
[Finished 20 January 2004] Is it that the books are getting better in the series or am I getting more accustomed to Lewis’ writing? My personal favorite passage from the book:

After that the Head’s friends saw to it that she was no longer a Head, so they got her made an Inspector to interfere with other Heads. And when they found out she wasn’t much good even at that, they got her into Parliament where she lived happily ever after.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis
[Finished 18 January 2004] The most satisfying, in literary terms, of the Narnia series thusfar. Aslan is largely offstage which helps a fair amount. This feels much closer to a classical picaresque than to a Christian allegory which also seems to help, although this is the first book in which Lewis directly hints that Aslan=Jesus.

Prince Caspian by C. S. Lewis
[Finished 15 January 2004] Continuing with the Chronicles ol Narnia. I’m realizing the two things that bother me about this series: The first is how problems are almost always solved through violence. This wouldn’t seem to really jibe with Christianity in many ways. The other is that Aslan as a character just doesn’t work, but then God has never made a good literary character. I’m reminded of how in Paradise Lost, despite Milton’s best efforts, Satan ended up seeming the hero of the piece.

The Horse and His Boy by C. S. Lewis
[Finished 13 January 2004] I continue to be bothered by the extent to which Aslan is a deus ex machina in this series. This could have easily been a much longer book than it was. I’m not sure that I really like the Chronicles of Narnia series. There are some good moments in the books, some brilliant imagery, but Lewis’s plots seem to leave a lot to be desired.

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
[Finished 12 January 2004] This book felt a bit less juvenile to me than did The Magician’s Nephew. The character of Edmund in particular struck me as being a rather interesting choice for a children’s novel, although Lewis tended to shy away from too much complexity in the characterization and to make Aslan a bit too much of a Deus ex machina for the plot.

The Magician's Nephew by C. S. Lewis
[Finished 5 January 2004] The first (in chronological order) of the Chronicles of Narnia. I managed to somehow never read these books when I was younger, so having received the full set as a Christmas gift this year, I’ve decided to take the plunge. The narrative tone is at times a bit grating, but the story moves along nicely and makes for a good read. Certainly, I had a hard time putting the book down.

2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke
[Finished 23 December 2003] An entertaining enough read. There were plenty of unresolved threads and pointless diversions (like the celebrities on the flight to Halley’s comet), but since I don’t read that much genre fiction, it was easy to overlook the shortcomings while I read through the book.

The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson,
[Finished 6 November 2003] It turns out that the title story was the least interesting of the lot. I was most intrigued by the glimpses of a much simpler life lead by the main characters. Minimal possessions, simple abodes... and the heart-rending relationships. The recurring character of James Harris left me especially intrigued and I wonder if he appears in othe Jackson writing.

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
[Finished October 2003] An enjoyable read, with some significant mathematical content. This was one of the best explanations of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem that I’ve encountered.

In general I enjoyed the Lawrence Waterhouse passages the most. Stephenson has a knack for creating good “genius” characters. Other sections fell a bit flatter, and Stephenson’s tendency to wait a hundred pages to fill in a lacuna was a bit disconcerting at times.

The conclusion of the book was rather disappointing. It felt like Stephenson decided that he’d written 900 pages so he’d better end the book sooner ratherthan later.

The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown
[Finished October 2003] A painfully predictable read. I figured out the identity of the Teacher fairly quickly, solved all the riddles almost immediately (except in cases where key information was withheld), I knew the 10 digit account number well before the characters found it, realized immediately where the grail was, who sophia was, etc.

Then there’s the “history” which is full of so many absurd fabrications and instances of anti-Catholic bigotry that I found the whole thing more annoying than entertaining

Lilith by George MacDonald
[Finished 19 August 2003] An intriguing proto-fantasy novel. At times the allegory and metaphysics become a bit too victorian for my tastes, but it was a worthwhile endeavor.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling
[Finished 5 August 2003] I found this entry in the Harry Potter series a bit disappointing. The all-is-well ending was rather unsatisfying. It’s a series of books, not a sitcom. It’s really not that important that each book end with the characters in similar places as the previous books.

That said, the book does reflect a more mature Harry Potter and an interview with Rowling which I read earlier this year in which I read that she had intended the books to be read one a year while the reader was the same age as Harry and his pals actually made the books make a bit more sense in some ways.

Players by Don DeLillo
[Finished 5 August 2003] Despite good reviews elsewhere, I found this novel to be a bit empty. Perhaps I missed something

Millenium Pope: A Novel of Spiritual Journey by Frederick J. Luhmann
[Finished 1 August 2003] My annual “Pope” novel. This one is another American liberal Catholic fantasy following the usual pattern. It confirms my belief that Pope novels tend to be more about the author than religion.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of the Fire by J. K. Rowling
[Finished 23 July 2003] The high point of the series. Rowling has hit a high point in her writing and pushed the plot to an interesting breaking point.

The Talented Mr Ripley; Ripley Underground; Ripley's Game by Patricia Highsmith
[Finished 25 May 2003] An omnibus collection of the first three Ripley novels. I decided to read this after seeing the film with Jude Law and Matt Damon (which, by the way, was quite excellent). The books left me a bit disappointed. The clever plotting in the film was in many ways a creation of the screenwriter with the novel being a bit less carefully conceived. I don’t think that I’ll read the last two Ripley novels. Or at least not buy them.

Selected Short Stories by Guy de Maupassant
[Finished 19 May 2003] I first picked this up after I had discovered W. Somerset Maugham and read that he considered Maupassant to be one of his key influences. A couple early starts at reading the stories left me having a hard time getting going, but this time around they flowed like good wine. I’m thinking I should learn French so that I can read the originals.

The Gospel According to Peanuts by Robert L. Short
[Finished 18 May 2003] An amusing and interesting little book, taking the religious themes in Peanuts (which is a remarkably religious comic strip, but not obsequiously so) and using them as a starting point for a discussion about theology.

Evelyn Waugh: The Later Years 1939-1966 by Martin Stannard
[Finished 15 May 2003] Most peoples’ lives are less interesting in the second half of their lives, and Waugh is largely no exception.

Hard Times by Charles Dickens
[Finished 5 May 2003] Dickens in heavy-duty social commentary mode.

The Torturer's Apprentice by John Biguenet
[Finished 20 January 2003] Ever since I first discovered John Biguenet in the pages of Granta, I’ve been waiting for this. He’s got a great voice and is potentially the successor to Graham Greene as a great Catholic writer. Not all of the stories are winners, but enough are that this is a must-read collection.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling
[Finished 27 December 2002] The first really good book in the series. Rowling still needs an editor, but she’s got a better idea of how to construct a plot now. I imagine part of it comes down to her conceiving of the series as books which should be read at the same age as Harry is. Certainly the subject matter is becoming a fair bit more mature.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling
[Finished 22 December 2002] An improvement on the first book, but still somewhat inferior to the film, which manages to tighten up the plotting quite a bit. Somebody get this woman an editor. At least the ending is a bit better conceived than in the first book.

Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone by J. K. Rowling
[Finished 21 December 2002] Being a bit sick while visiting my cousin’s family, I decided to read this book while in bed. I had hoped that the conclusion was somewhat better than that of the film, but was disturbed to see how faithful the film was to the book. In general, I think the film was actually superior to the book because it caused some forced editing to take place. Overall, the writing is pretty good, though, and I ended up getting hooked on the series.

Artemis Fowl: The Arctic Incident by Eoin Colfer
[Finished 28 November 2002] Read on Thanksgiving break afternoon while my cousin was visiting (it’s his book). Breezy and fun. I really should read the first book in the series, but this seems very much the sort of thing that I would have enjoyed as a child and I do enjoy it as an adult.

The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce
[Finished 25 August 2002] My edition (not the one linked) was apparently abridged, but given that it was a $.99 Dover edition I don’t feel too cheated. It was just the right length to read straight through, which would have been unpleasant for a longer version.

Ayres and Observations by Thomas Campion
[Finished 16 August 2002] 16th century lyric poetry. The introduction includes a bit of music with lute tabulature.

Thank You For Smoking by Christopher Buckley
[Finished 15 August 2002] Buckley (the son of William F.) Has a fun light touch in his satiric writing which makes his writing always a pleasure to read. In this case, we’re told the story of a P.R. man who ends up being used. The Nick Naylor short I read was similar in character and Buckley has a gift for writing entertaining fiction.

The Reckoning by Thomas Monteleone
[Finished 13 August 2002] My annual “Pope” novel and a really awful one at that. It reads like a Jack Chick tract re-written by Jerry Bruckheimer. But I always try to finish the books that I start and I slogged through it, all the time wondering, “why? why would anyone write this? or more to the point, why would anyone publish it?”

King Richard the Second by William Shakespeare
[Finished 2 August 2002] A slender, sparsely-commented volume (not the edition linked to at amazon!), this is the first of Shakespeare’s 8-play history cycle, a sequence of plays well worth returning to.

Man and Superman by Bernard Shaw
[Finished 31 July 2002] I remember reading or hearing somewhere that the theatre was about Ideas with a capital I, and certainly, Shaw’s theatre is very much so. I don’t know why I don’t read more Shaw more often. I always enjoy it.

The Captives, or The Lost Recovered by Thomas Heywood
[Finished 19 July 2002] I’m trying to remember this book nearly three years later as I fill in the gaps in the book list, but I’m stumped. Pretend there’s something profound here.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
[Finished 15 July 2002] A classic gothic tale, complete with mysterious goings on, rooms that are not to be entered and a handsome yet tragic love interest for the heroine. A fun fast read.

Exemplary Novels by Miguel de Cervantes
[Finished 3 July 2002] More a collection of stories than novels, my copy is a limited edition (although long enough print run to make that description a bit odd). Nothing to quite measure up to Don Quijote.

Graham Greene on Film by Graham Greene
[Finished 20 June 2002] The sort of book that one buys and reads because of completist tendencies, which as a Greene afficianado, I freely admit to. I’ve seen only a handful of the films reviewed in the book, and many of them have disappeared into the collective amnesia.

Many Dimensions by Charles W. Williams
[Finished 16 June 2002] Continuing my explorations of the inklings, I decided to try this kind of science-fictiony adventure yarn. Similar in spirit to War in Heaven, although a bit more enjoyable and better conceived. Certainly a world away from Tolkien.

Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer
[Finished 9 June 2002] I don’t remember how I first encountered this book (perhaps amazon recommendations), but it was a breezy and fun read, especially in the wake of having recently read Stephen J, Gould’s Dinosaur in a Haystack. I would definitely seek out more Sawyer in the future.

Four Plays by Eugene Ionesco
[Finished 4 June 2002] I first encountered Ionesco when I saw the film of Rhinocerous on PBS while a child home with chicken pox. I loved it enough that when I saw the play in the Marshall Field’s bookstore nearly ten years later, I grabbed it. Wanting to read a bit more Ionesco, I found this at a used book sale. I guess he had more to say to fourth grade me than adult me.

Complete Tales and Poems by Edgar Allen Poe
[Finished 2 June 2002] I figure being the sort of geek that I am, that I really should read the bits of Poe that I hadn’t or knew primarily by reputation (thank you Ray Bradbury). Nice haunting stuff, which holds up pretty well after nearly 200 years.I especially enjoy his detective fiction.

The Guermantes Way by Marcel Proust
[Finished 24 May 2002] Maybe it’s the long stretches without so much as a blank line between paragraphs, but Proust really more tires than entertains me. Every so often I’ll spot a vignette which appeared on stage in a Proust production I saw a few years back and I’ll enjoy the spot of recognition, but most of the time, I’m kind of bored if I might admit it.

How to be Good by Nick Hornby
[Finished 16 May 2002] Nick Hornby tries writing a novel with a female narrator and largely succeeds. As usual, he doesn’t really have a good idea of how to end his novel, but that’s not really why I read Nick Hornby anyway. I’m curious to see the inevitible film of the book (which will doubtless be in theatres when the paperback of his next novel is published).

The Third Woman: The Secret Passion Which Inspired the End of the Affair by William Cash
[Finished 6 May 2002] An intriguing story of Graham Greene’s affair with Catherine Walston. It provides a compelling supplement to Norman Sherry’s biography of Greene, going into greater detail and giving a rather fascinating mix of sexuality, religious fervor and artistic genius which motivated Greene at this point in his life

Introduction to Literature: Poems by Lynn Altenbernd and Leslie Lewis
[Finished 7 April 2002] A New Critic’s dream anthology. Minimal commentary and the editorial intervention is largely constrained to a roughly chronological ordering with some excerpting of larger works.

Night by Elie Wiesel
[Finished 5 April 2002] The current One Book One Chicago selection. I’d actually meant to read some Wiesel for a while after hearing an interview with him on NPR. It’s a haunting read based on Wiesel’s own experiences during the holocaust.

Fictions of Sappho, 1546-1937 by Joan DeJean
[Finished 9 February 2002] When I was in college, rather under the influence of J. D. Salinger, I had a bit of a whirlwind love affair with Sappho. This is one of the loose ends that remained as time passed on.

As someone whose biogrpahy is known only in fragments, Sappho tends to have a great deal projected upon her and this book is an attempt at untangling some of these threads to see not so much who Sappho was, but rather how perspectives on her reflected the times and culture from which they originate. An interesting, albeit sometimes dry book.

The Paradise of Dainty Devices edited by H. E. Rollins
[Finished 17 January 2002] An early anthology of flowers, in this instance dating back to the sixteenth century. This edition is a lightly edited version of the original edition, with poems from later editions added to the end of the book.

Dream Catcher: A Memoir by Margaret Salinger
[Finished 15 January 2002] One of these books that I’ve read largely because of the dearth of biography of J.D. Salinger. It’s an interesting inside view of Salinger’s life written by his daughter and not surprisingly, when her life veers from her father’s, the story becomes less interesting, but it’s still a vital read for the Salingerphile.

War in Heaven by Charles Williams
[Finished 29 December 2001] After re-reading The Lord of the Rings I decided to explore some of the other inklings. Wright’s tale transpants the grail story to 20th century England. It’s occasionally comic and doesn’t really have much of a conclusion but does make for an interesting read. I really should find some more of his novels.

Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle
[Finished 26 December 2001] Quite a lot different from either of the films of the same name, we have a frame which helps provide some new twists on the theme with the cautionary tale taken in a different direction (closer to the second film than the first). There’s quite a bit of minutiae in the narrative which makes for a better novel than film

The Return of the King by J. R. R. Tolkien
[Finished 8 December 2001] And the saga comes to a close. There were a few more parts here that seemed familiar than in The Two Towers but a fair amount which seemed out of reach. I hope that I haven’t ruined my enjoyment of the films by going back to the books right before the movies begin.

The Two Towers by J. R. R. Tolkien
[Finished 25 November 2001] Unlike The Fellowship of the Ring there was quite a lot of this volume that didn’t come back to my memory which makes me wonder whether I actually finished reading the book or, perhaps, if I had just skimmed over the last two volumes looking for fodder for my expanding universe of Dungeons and Dragons characters and adventures (sadly never played because of a lack of fellow hardcore nerds).

The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien
[Finished 18 November 2001] It’s been almost 20 years since I read this. Parts are still familiar, others had escaped my memory entirely. I have to admit that I don’t see the Catholic allegory that everyone claims is there (I suppose one could make a case for a Christian allegory, but specifically Catholic? I think not). It’s a bit startling how slowly the story starts off and how abruptly it comes to a conclusion at the end of the volume, something that I remember deeply upset me when I first read this book as a high school freshman

Civilwarland in Bad Decline: Stories and a Novella by George Saunders
[Finished 10 November 2001] What makes these stories work is the voice. There is a clear authorial voice here, one which remains familiar without becoming grating. Occasionally the stories miss the mark (“The Wavemaker Falters”) but mostly they’re dead on. Saunders manages to convey a sense of melancholy and decay that’s just perfect.

If you came to buy this collection after hearing “Offloading for Mrs Schwartz” on This American Life, hesitate no longer. Buy the book.

The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
[Finished 30 October 2001] A re-read in honor of the upcoming films of The Lord of the Rings. I’m a bit startled to see how childish the tone is in this volume. I’d quite forgotten that. But it does also make it a much easier read than I recall the later books being.

Poetry and Life edited by F. J. Sheed
[Finished 24 October 2001] Despite the innocuous title, this is actually a rather specialized anthology, focusing exclusively on Catholic poets. Not much beyond that to really recommend it. I bought this when I was on a bibliomanic buying rampage for all things relating to Catholic poetry.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
[Finished 14 October 2001] A re-read, and one that’s well earned these days. It’s been a long time since I’ve read this, and with it being a One Book One Chicago selection, it seemed about right to pull it out again. How delicious are the details and how wonderful is Atticus Finch. This is what I aspire to be as far short of the mark as I often fall.

I can see why Harper Lee never published another book. How could you meet the expectations that this book set.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
[Finished 7 October 2001] An amusing enough yarn, although I seem to recall having enjoyed Swiss Family Robinson a bit more. It’s a bit startling to realize how blithely Defoe has his protagonist spending decades stranded on his island.

Within a Budding Grove by Marcel Proust
[Finished 30 September 2001] The second volume of Remembrance of Things Past is a bit easier going than the first, but still left me feeling a bit lost at sea. I think a big part of this is the bulk not only of the whole book, but of the individual parts of the book as well.

Complete Poetry and Prose by William Blake
[Finished 9 September 2001] There’s something about reading poems written by a man with such a psychotic imagination which can’t help but capture the fancy of the reader. There are the familiar lines (“tiger tiger burning bright”) and the unfamiliar, all of which provide a strange and unusual trip into pure fantasy.

America's First by Charles Edwards
[Finished 13 August 2001] A missed opportunity. Edwards, setting out to write a novel about the first black president of the United States, ends up with a mishmahs of mafia themes, behind the scenes manouvres of his central character’s party, and even Saddam Hussein. All of which adds up to little of consequence. Not worth bothering with in the end.

Interpretation in Teaching by I. A. Richardson
[Finished 8 August 2001] An intriguing book, discussing how questions of interpretation shape the teaching of English, although in the end, I don’t feel that the book really provided what I hoped it would. Had I read this when I bought it, it might well have only exacerbated my existential crisis about the role of criticism.

The Accidental Pope by Raymond Flynn and Robin Moore
[Finished 4 August 2001] This year’s Pope novel. Hmm, why is the American ambassador to the Vatican such a central character? It turns out Flynn was the ambassador to the Vatican during the Clinton years. Well, that explains a lot. Yet another formulaic Pope novel with little to recommend it.

A Flowering Tree: And Other Oral Tales from India by A. K. Ramanujan
[Finished 6 July 2001] A fascinating collection of orally-transmitted folk tales from India. It is made a bit perplexing by the incorporation of some scholastic apparatus including a nomenclature for classifying tales according to some sort of rather mechanical system. I felt at times like I’d missed most of a semester of class. But the tales are great.

Walter Benjamin and the Bible by Brian Britt
[Finished 2 July 2001] Not entirely sure why I bought this. I guess it’s because of the Terry Eagleton-Walter Benjamin connection, but having not actually read any Benjamin, this came across as amazingly opaque.

Chasing the Sun: Dictionary-Makers and the Dictionaries They Made by Jonathon Green
[Finished 1 July 2001] This is one of those subjects that seems to fascinate me but few others. I knew a very small amount about dictionary making before I read this book, largely courtesy of reading about Samuel Johnson. This provided a rather interesting history of the genre (which is relatively young). It’s interesting to note, for example, that the idea of arranging words alphabetically was not self-evident (after all, if you know a word and want to know what it means, it works well, but if you want to know what the word is for, say, the knee of a horse, a standard dictionary is little help at all). In all a fascinating work.

The Quest for Graham Greene by W. J. West
[Finished 21 June 2001] One of the weaknesses of Sherry’s biography of Graham Greene is the additional information which has come to light since he began writing. This, in part, explains the fact that between the publication of the first and second volumes, the size of the work had expanded to three volumes with the second volume being far more detailed than the first.

In writing this work, West has come at it with the view that his readers would likely be familiar with the other biographies and makes frequent reference to them (including scathing rebuttals to claims made in Shelden’s travesty of a biography). This ends up creating a work which helps fill in the gaps that were unavoidable in Sherry volume 1 and makes this an essential companion to Sherry’s work for the serious Graham Greene scholar (or fan).

Say I Am You: Poetry Interspersed With Stories of Rumi and Shams by Jalal Al-Din Rumi
[Finished 15 June 2001] I stumbled upon the Sufi mystic and poet looking over the shoulder of a girl I sat next to on the bus one morning heading in to work. We both got off at the same stop, she went right to art school, I went left to my computer job. Something significant there.

The poems come from the Sufic mystic tradition of Islam, although I find that mysticism tends to be fairly uniform regardless of the underlying theology. A great read and one that I’ll doubtless return to.

On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism After Structuralism by Jonathan Culler
[Finished 29 May 2001] Some leftover reading from college. I kind of wish I’d actually read it when I took the class. This was a highly readable and quite interesting introduction to post-structuralist criticism. Certainly a lot easier to follow than some of the other work that I did read all those years ago.

The Stranger by Albert Camus
[Finished 28 May 2001] One of those books that most of my peers read in high school but I managed to miss (that’s what I get for writing a novel in place of senior English, I guess). The sense of alienation throughout the novel is something which will haunt me for years to come, I suppose.

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
[Finished 14 May 2001] A pleasant read, in a series of vignettes. This was a One Book One Chicago selection when I read it.

Typee by Herman Melville
[Finished 14 April 2001] I spotted this at a book sale and picked it up having enjoyed other Melville that I’d read. Divorced from any context it was a bit perplexing: Was I to take at face value the manuscript’s claim to be true. Obviously not. On the other hand, I also missed out on the ways in which this was a truly shocking story: From the perspective of a 21st Century American, the sexuality, cannibalism etc. aren’t that outrageous.

A Catholic Reader edited by Charles A. Brady
[Finished 12 March 2001] A delightful compendium of Catholic writings from throughout English history. Some of the short stories are particularly delightful

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle
[Finished 16 February 2001] I had my doubts about this book as I started reading it. How interesting can a novel about a pre-adolescent be? As it turned out, it was actually quite good, perhaps better, even, then the Barrytown trilogy.

Decadence and Catholicism by Ellis Hanson
[Finished 26 January 2001] When I saw the title, I was intrigued enough to want to read it so I picked it up at Border’s (using my discount card). By “decadence” Hanson is referring particularly to a late 19th-century literary and artistic movement which was fascinated by decay. And what better source for decay than the Catholic church in England, finally coming out from under the weight of severe penal laws prohibiting Catholicism and divested of much of its historical wealth? Yet the reading remained relatively dry, even with Oscar Wilde as a central figure in the book. I suppose it would have been far more interesting to me as a college student.

About a Boy by Nick Hornby
[Finished 21 January 2001] A great premise with fun and interesting characters. But of course, as seems to be perpetually the problem with Nick Hornby, he is unable to provide an ending to his story. The film of the book helped a bit on that front, but here the book just sort of peters out. On the other hand, the path there is sufficiently fun that really it’s hard to begrudge Hornby his inability to end a novel.

Samuel Johnson by W. Jackson Bate
[Finished 18 January 2001] A captivating biography of Johnson, surprising in its detail. This is the second Johnson bio that I’ve read (the first being, of course, Boswell), and I’ve found that it gave me a remarkably good perspective on Johnson the man, and his accomplishments in his life.

Granta 70: Australia, the New New World
[Finished 4 January 2001] Once again, Granta manages to put together a stunning collection, although it felt like some of the fiction could have used some footnotes for those of us unfamiliar with the finer points of Australian life.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
[Finished October 2000] A re-read. I first read this as an undergrad, and after lending my copy to a friend who never returned it, I decided to buy a new copy (this edition which includes the Postscript). This is clearly a book which rewards rereading, with its layered meaning in the detective story. I’m thinking that I’d like to read it one more time paying a bit more attention to the historical background in the book as well for still more meaning waiting to be unwrapped

Eminence by Morris West
[Finished August 2000] Another annual “Pope” novel. I’m back to Morris West who’s probably the king of the genre. Once again, West manages to do a good job of using fiction to reveal the state of the church

Swann's Way by Marcel Proust
[Finished July 2000] Inspired by the “Summarizing Proust” skit on Monty Python, I’ve long meant to read Rememberence of Things Past, so I finally decided to begin. It’s a long, often difficult journey, with chapters which run for unbelievably long stretches, which is largely incompatible with my somewhat addled reading habits.

The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson
[Finished June 2000] Great fun. Yes, parts of it seem to be gratuitous filler, but it’s still an awful lot of fun to read. Even bits of the filler have stuck with me as a source of amusement some years after reading it.

And if you’ve ever played Illuminati, this is almost a must-read.

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood
[Finished May 2000] A mixed variety of short stories set in Germany between the world wars. It’s been a while since I read these, but I remember enjoying many of them.

In the Heart of the Seas by S. Y. Agnon
[Finished March 2000] A very curious narrative. It’s written in an eighteenth century style, but seems to be a contemporary piece. I believe I got this from a list of top 100 spiritual books of the twentieth century.

The Cardinal Sins by Andrew Greeley
[Finished 20 February 2000] Better than White Smoke although Greeley still doesn’t do too much for me as a novelist. If you’re looking for a compelling Catholic novelist, try Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh or Morris West.

Granta 69: The Assassin
[Finished February 2000] Another fascinating collection from Granta.

Graham Greene: On the Frontier by Maria Coutos
[Finished February 2000] Not terribly insightful, I thought.

The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham
[Finished 21 January 2000] Not one of Maugham’s best novels, but still an interesting (and short) read.

Evelyn Waugh: The Early Years 1903-1939 by Martin Stannard
[Finished 18 January 2000] An outstanding and intriguing examination of Waugh’s life and opinions.

Granta 68: Love Stories
[Finished 16 January 2000] The Cheever left me cold, but as usual, some nice stories and articles.

Birdy by William Wharton
[Finished 4 November 1999] A re-read. I first read this in college when I borrowed the copy my roommate had for one of his classes and later bought a copy for myself. I still love the intertwining narratives and timeframes.

Poems for the People by Carl Sandburg
[Finished 11 October 1999] Mostly lesser poems, there’s one really nice one describing a gypsy girl sitting across from Sandburg on the L which was the whole reason I bought this.

Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov
[Finished 22 September 1999] Not as funny as some reviewers have led me to believe, but certainly the lightest Russian literature I’ve ever encountered.

Granta 67: Women and Children First
[Finished 15 September 1999] An interesting look at the places where social niceties seem to break down or stand up.

Life and Poems of Nicholas Grimald by L. R. Merrill
[Finished 2 September 1999] The archipropheta is especially interesting as are the many contradictions of Grimald’s life. This is part of my collection on Catholics in Elizabethan England.

Papabile: The Man Who Would Be Pope by Michael J. Farrell
[Finished 3 August 1999] Not quite the book it could have been.

Ways of Escape by Graham Greene
[Finished 23 July 1999] A re-read. Interestingly as I was reading this, I found myself transported to the hotel room in New Jersey and its environs where I read this book initially in 1989 (in fact it’s entirely possible that I read this exactly one decade earlier).

The Golden Book of Catholic Poetry edited by Alfred Noyes
[Finished 15 July 1999] A fair anthology of poems which stretches beyond the breaking point the definition of “Catholic Poetry.”

A Sentimental Journey with The Journal to Eliza and a Political Romance by Laurence Stern
[Finished 25 June 1999] Not quite as great of a read as Tristram Shandy was.

Granta 66: Truth and Lies
[Finished 24 May 1999] As usual, a great outing from Granta

The Satyricon by Petronius
[Finished 19 May 1999] Frustrating with its frequent lacunae, an amusing and bawdy work.

Granta 65: London--The Lives of the City
[Finished 7 April 1999] Another outstanding collection of fiction and essays.

The Oberagammau Passion Play 1970 by J. A. Daisenberger
[Finished 3 March 1999] Rather pedestrian. The dialog added to flesh out the story is incredibly banal. The portrayal of Judas was somewhat sympathetic, which seems to be characteristic of just about any dramatic treatment of this material.

Viper's Tangle by François Mauriac
[Finished 15 February 1999] An intriguing and provocative novel. A nice treatment of spiritual matters without descending into becoming maudlin.

The Short Stories of James T. Farrell by James T. Farrell
[Finished 12 February 1999] When I first read Farrell’s Studs Lonigan I ended up losing a lot of sleep reading my way through the book. The other Farrell I’ve read has often failed to measure up to that masterpiece, although some of the stories here come close. It’s a shame that nearly everything Farrell has written has fallen out of print.

Granta 64: Russia
[Finished 6 December 1998] Possibly the best Granta yet. The first one with multiple authors that I’ll be seeking out more of their writing.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
[Finished 30 November 1998] Stuffy Victorians? Posh and nonsense. They were heavy drug users apparently.

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin A. Abbott
[Finished 28 November 1998] Classic nerd fiction. Some of the allegory is a bit forced and frankly it gets a bit dull at times. Back when I thought four-dimensional geometry was the coolest thing on earth though, this would have been my favorite book.

Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse
[Finished 20 September 1998] I liked it; an interesting exploration of the meaning of life from a Jungian perspective.

Granta 63: Beasts
[Finished 17 September 1998] This is why I love this publication. Usually there’s a clunker or two in any given Granta, but this one is perfect. Wow.

Anthony Trollope by James Pope Hennesy
[Finished 28 August 1998] Fortunately Trollope’s life is fairly fascinating because this book is a bit of a mess.

I am Mary Dunne by Brian Moore
[Finished 24 August 1998] Not one of Moore’s best. I found Mary Dunne a fairly unconvincing creation, but the exploration of memory and identity was promising. I wonder if Moore ever attempted to return to that theme.

Trout Fishing in America; The Pill vs The Springhill Mine Disaster; and In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan
[Finished 17 August 1998] Three books in one. I had a feeling of being on a really bizarre acid trip with Trout Fishing in America, felt the poems were largely disposable and the lyric beauty of In Watermelon Sugar absolutely captivated me. I may have to dig up some more Brautigans.

The Aquitaine Progression by Robert Ludlum
[Finished 15 August 1998] A bit of brain candy. Too much of this book made no sense and seemed like it was there just to incorporate another death in another country. But I still couldn’t put it down. I hate that.

White Smoke: A Novel About the Next Papal Conclave by Andrew M. Greeley
[Finished 10 August 1998] My first Greeley novel. Quite a disappointment. It seems that Greeley is incapable of creating characters who aren’t Andrew M. Greeley himself. The central characters in the novel are all interchangeable. There is barely a thing that one says that couldn’t come out of the mouth of another. And the characters who aren’t Andrew M. Greeley are so 2-dimensional as to be laughable. I’ve got a few others on my list that were mentioned in other books that I’ve read, and I’ll still read those, but it’s unlikely that I’ll add more to my list if this is par for the course.

Granta 62: What Young Men Do
[Finished 3 July 1998] Delightful. One of the best Grantas yet. I especially liked the long article on Indonesian headhunters.

The Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath
[Finished 29 June 1998] What I didn’t know when I started reading this: Ted Hughes, who edited this volume, was Sylvia Plath’s husband. A friend who is a big Sylvia Plath fan told me this. What was interesting is that I, unfamiliar with much more than the most basic biographical facts (poems, oven, dead) was able to come up with a description of Hughes that matched his view based on reading every scrap about Plath that’s ever been published: In short Hughes is a bit of an egomaniacal bastard. He talks about the meticulous care that Plath put into arranging her poems for publication than proceeds to disregard this in this collection and instead publish everything in chronological order.

Fortunately, the strength of the poems comes through. Great stuff, although I personally didn’t find it as depressing as my friend did. There’s a sort of quiet sadness that pervades many of the poems, but also a great beauty in that sadness.

Naked Masks: Five Plays by Luigi Pirandello
[Finished 30 May 1998] Some leftovers from college (the only assigned play in the book was Six Characters in Search of an Author). In cases Pirandello seems a bit too facile in his philosophical explorations, although I think It is so! (if you think it is) is rather successful indeed.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
[Finished 22 May 1998] As a pretentious high school student, I read this book and completely missed out on what it’s about. Coming back to it again, I find myself shocked by how kind Raskolnikov is at times. The treacley ending is a bit hard to swallow, but it’s truly a brilliant novel.

Last and First Men and Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon
[Finished 15 May 1998] Histories of the future form an interesting genre. As prediction they generally fail miserably, but as a philosophical exercise they are quite interesting indeed. Stapledon was a philosopher and his two novels (the first is a history of the future, the second an exploration of other worlds) betray his philosophical concerns: He saw humanity in the twentieth century as being in crisis, and on the verge of self-destruction. He saw the solution as finding a balance between individualism and communitarianism. Writing in the thirties, he is clearly influenced by his times and the racism, sexism and anti-Semitism (this latter, I think, only possible in persons like Stapledon in the years before Hitler’s atrocities were revealed) sometimes make the text hard to digest. Only when he gets some distance away from contemporary humanity do these views manage to evaporate.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare with the Famous Temple Notes by William Shakespeare
[Finished 15 May 1998] Frankly, the Temple notes aren’t all that impressive. Also, it’s much easier to watch Shakespeare than to read him. The more obscure plays are leaving me quite in the dust (the typography of this edition is also quite awful, which doesn’t help much). My big surprise was how much I enjoyed the history plays. [Note the link is to a different edition. I can’t vouch for its typography or editorial content.]

Granta 61: The Sea
[Finished 23 March 1998] A few gems and a bit of dreck, but as usual a good collection of writing.

Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings by Jorge Luis Borges
[Finished 10 March 1998] Delightful. I’d never read any Borges before this, but I will definitely read Borges again. I think that I’ll keep my eyes open for the fiction in Spanish.

Douglas Adams's Starship Titanic by Terry Jones
[Finished 26 December 1997] If like me you’re puzzling over what “Douglas Adams’s Starship Titanic A Novel by Terry Jones” could possibly mean, the answer is revealed in the introduction. The Starship Titanic was a passing reference in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy which was recently made into a CD-ROM game under the direction of Adams. Adams then asked Jones to write the novelization, and this book does read an awful lot like a novelization of a CD-ROM game: An awful lot of looking for lost artifacts and solving puzzles. At least Jones doesn’t fall into some the facile linguistic games that Adams is so fond of.

Granta 60: Unbelievable
[Finished 20 December 1997] A bit of a mixed bag, really. I could have lived without the Princess Diana thing, although at least it was the “minority” view. The article on Emma, though was spellbinding.

Nice Work by David Lodge
[Finished 27 November 1997] Lodge created a delightful satire of the world of academia, especially the literature departments. Add in a near-perfect portrait of 80s society and the fundamental philosophical question of meaning in life and literature and we’re left with a fine book indeed. I haven’t decided if the Dickensian ending spoils the book or is the only possible postmodernist conclusion to the story.

The Thanatos Syndrome by Walker Percy
[Finished 15 November 1997] Although it predates the drug and the book, this is in many ways a good companion to Kramer’s Listening to Prozac (below). As a work of fiction---I don’t know it struck me as being a bit Crying of Lot 49 at times. Perhaps I’ll read some other Percy and see if this is typical of his work.

The Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck
[Finished 28 October 1997] After a rather slow start, the book picked up themes that were really much better developed in the Winter of Our Discontents. Some of the descriptions struck me as being a bit clumsy as well.

The Castle by Franz Kafka
[Finished 23 October 1997] I first discovered Kafka through the comic strip “Kudzu” which had a sequence in which Mr T was guest-hosting a Masterpiece Theatre production of Metamorphosis. That was (yikes) fourteen years ago. I haven’t been back to Kafka since that first reading of Metamorphosis and really only have some general memories of plot to work from for reference. The Castle is an unfinished work and certainly that colors my perception of the work. The underlying religious metaphor is a bit clumsy since it’s difficult to conceive of the book as being anything but a religious metaphor. It does seem, though, from the notes on omissions and surviving fragments that the finished product would have been quite a bit better indeed.

Granta 59: France--The Outsider
[Finished 16 October 1997] Not one of the better Grantas, I’m afraid. The “France” content made up only about half of the book and it was a bit confusing to find oneself out of France at that point. What’s more, the non-French bits were some of the better ones.

I understand the French think that Jerry Lewis is a cinematic genius.

The Van by Roddy Doyle
[Finished 14 July 1997] The last of the Barrytown trilogy. Doyle is clearly a playwriter in his prose styling, but the end result is quite excellent.

Harlequin by Morris West
[Finished 10 July 1997] West is probably the best of the Catholic novelists writing today. This was the first of the non-overtly religious novels which I’ve read and was pleasantly surprised to see the intelligent discussion of religious questions carried into a secular narrative (as it should be).

The Snapper by Roddy Doyle
[Finished 8 July 1997] My favorite of the Barrytown trilogy and the only one for which I have not seen the film. I wonder if that’s just coincidence?

The Commitments by Roddy Doyle
[Finished 24 June 1997] A much better accounting of the interpersonal dynamics than was present in the movie (but the movie sounded much better).

The Gospel According to the Son by Norman Mailer
[Finished 17 June 1997] Mailer manages to recast the gospels in a first-person psychological novel form and avoid providing any new insights into the Gospel. He doesn’t even come up with any facile blasphemies. This is Norman Mailer? I’d never read any of his books before, but I’d expected something a little more solid.

If you want to read a good novel about Jesus, pick up Kazantakis’ Last Temptation of Christ instead.

Granta 58: Ambition
[Finished 16 June 1997] When I renew my subscription, I’m buying two years. John Biguenet is an American Catholic writer to watch for. I’m also going to keep my eyes open for Paul Auster’s memoirs.

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
[Finished 13 June 1997] One of four or five Dostoyevsky novels I picked up with the last of my store credits at Huntley Bookstore before leaving Los Angeles. I continue to be intrigued by the philosophical-intellectual situation in late 19th c. Russia, but I have to admit to being somewhat baffled by it still. It’s quite an alien culture, I think. And I’d like to have a reference guide to help keep the characters straight in Dostoyevsky.

Interviews with Spanish Writers by Marie-Lise Gazarian Gautier
[Finished 29 May 1997] You’d think maybe Gazarian Gautier’s interviewing skills would have improved for the second volume in the series. You’d think wrong.

Interviews with Latin American Writers by Marie-Lise Gazarian Gautier
[Finished 28 May 1997] A present from a friend who was aware of my interest in Mexican literature. The book is saved by the writers interviewed by Gazarian Gautier. She herself is not really much of an interview and misses the obvious follow-up questions.

Granta 17: While Waiting for a War
[Finished 23 May 1997] I bought this back issue expecting a bit more Graham Greene content than I found. The remainder of the volume was a bit less coherent than the first Granta that I read. I especially enjoyed the pieces by Alice Munro and Marianne Wiggins. The “name” pieces were uniformly weak.

Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture edited by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg
[Finished 29 April 1997] An incredibly jargon-laden work. Sadly, many of the contributors really have nothing to say and spend a long time not saying it. On a few occasions, however, some of the contributions really shine and remind one that not all of academia is populated by mediocrity.

Notes from Underground; White Nights; The Dream of a Ridiculous Man; and Selections from the House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
[Finished 18 April 1997] I’ve been reading a fair amount of Dostoyevsky (favorite of pretentious high school students everywhere) lately and this particular collection is especially nice as it shows quite clearly a progression in Dostoyevsky’s thought. To what extent the progression has been manipulated by the editor, I don’t know, but it is certainly quite revelatory.

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot
[Finished 11 April 1997] There’s nothing to make one feel settled like a nice long Victorian novel. And Eliot can be counted on to not only provide the novel, but to include some subtle subversions in it as well. Daniel Deronda doesn’t fail to satisfy on this front and is largely an interesting novel, although some of the “Jewish bits” do seem forced.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
[Finished 27 March 1997] My admiration for twentieth-century Latin American fiction continues unabated. Garcia Marquez creates an interesting work on the circularity of narrative with the theme reasserting itself in all manner of subtle and fascinating ways.

Granta 57: India
[Finished 24 March 1997] I’m hooked. Granta will be filling the void left in my reading material after Tina Brown ruined I mean took over The New Yorker. (Damn it, I liked the four part articles on zinc!)

My only complaint would be that there was too much short material in the magazine. I would rather have had fewer longer pieces.

English Morality Plays and Moral Interludes edited by Edgar T. Schell and J. D. Schuchter
[Finished 13 March 1997] Morality plays which were the dominant form of drama until the Elizabethan era are an under-studied area of English literature. I became fascinated with the whole concept when I read Bangert’s history of the Jesuits which gave some considerable attention to the continental forms of this type of drama and only now am I getting around to this anthology which I managed to find (along with another collection of Mediaeval religious dramas) shortly after reading Bangert some five years ago. Unfortunately, I found the plays themselves to be generally rather dull and uninteresting.

The Red and the Green by Iris Murdoch
[Finished 13 February 1997] This is the second historical novel in recent history that covered a period of European history with which I have an inadequate acquaintance. As a device for getting me interested in the period leading up to Irish independence, it succeeded. As a novel, not so much.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
[Finished 10 February 1997] I knew I had picked the right book to read at the beginning of my (now-ended) stay in the community of the Catholic Worker when I discovered that every other member of the community had read the book. This is quite possibly Dostoyevsky’s best novel, an interesting examination of the role of religion in society.

Antología de Cuentos Mexicanos I edited by Carmen Millan
[Finished 9 February 1997] Frequent visitors to this page (if such persons exist) will know that I read volume 2 in 1995. Again, I find myself very impressed with contemporary Mexican literature and interested in pursuing it even further than I have in the past. I’ll definitely re-read this.

Murther and Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies
[Finished 4 February 1997] Very much a failed narrative experiment. Davies was trying to do something interesting here, I think, but he didn’t succeed.

The Lyre of Orpheus by Robertson Davies
[Finished 3 February 1997] I find myself wondering when I read a book like this, how much of it the author is just making up, working on the assumption that his readers will not know enough about the subject matter to realize that it’s all bullshit.

What's Bred in the Bone by Robertson Davies
[Finished 1 February 1997] Actually the best of the Cornish trilogy, I think, although that’s not saying too much. The closing of the novel seemed a bit rushed, as if Davies had realized that he already had his usual page count totalled and he should wrap things up quickly. It’s a pity, because the novel could have been much much more.

Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies
[Finished 28 January 1997] Very much what I would expect from Robertson Davies after reading the Deptford Trilogy. The dual narrators, however, are poorly managed and only a few too-rare moments reveal the full potential of the device.

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
[Finished 26 January 1997] This is, I think, the best of all Greene’s novels. It’s been a long time since I’d read the book and my attempts to view the film in a revival house in London failed because I was too jet-lagged to remain awake in a dark room for the requisite 99 minutes. So I return to the book. Rereading a book is a very different experience from reading a book. It’s much like revisiting one’s home town as compared to being a tourist, the terrain is familiar and one can focus on the details of the landscape and discover the delightful things that were missed in the broad view.

A Liar's Autobiography, Volume VI by Graham Chapman
[Finished 24 January 1997] I look back and I’m not entirely certain why I bought this book originally. I guess I was looking for something funny and Chapman’s book is sometimes funny (after all it was written by Graham Chapman with assistance from Doug Adams, among others). And sometimes it’s absolutely unreadable. At other times it’s a rather fascinating view into Chapman’s character. The mix is not always good and I can see why it was on the shelves of a used bookshop priced cheaply, but I suppose the fun and interesting parts were worth slogging through the unreadable bits and paying whatever I paid for this book.

Graham Greene: The Enemy Within by Michael Shelden
[Finished 20 January 1997] One of my authors asked me recently about whether I wanted footnotes in a piece that he was writing. I told him that if he was making any claims that people might dispute, he should footnote the hell out of it. Michael Shelden doesn’t do this. His biography is full of controversial claims but his critical apparatus is very weak. In fact, one of his claims, that a gardener at an uncle’s home was a central figure in his life, doesn’t seem to have any documented source at all.

If the claims were restricted to gardeners, this would not be an important detail, but Shelden makes an assortment of claims, identifying Greene as a homosexual, an antisemite, a closet fascist, and even insinuates that Greene was a murderer as well. Of all of these claims, only the antisemitism claim seems to have any merit and what merit there exists is for a weaker antisemitism than Shelden claims. The claim of homosexuality doesn’t jibe with Shelden’s own account of Greene’s life.

Perhaps most amusing is that while Shelden is eager to point out Greene’s fondness for deception, he doesn’t seem to acknowledge the possibility that he himself was being deceived.

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
[Finished 14 January 1997] People tend to get hung up on the macho aspects of Hemingway. The hunting, the bullfights, the sex, the dynamite, the war, etc. But what they miss with this approach to Hemingway is the exquisite use he makes of language. I think he is perhaps somewhat superior to Anthony Burgess, even, in that his experiments with language are much more subtle than Burgess’. In For Whom the Bell Tolls, we get the feel in the dialogue that we’re listening to the dialogue of people whose language we’re not entirely comfortable with. Not just in the qué va’s and thee’s and thou’s but in the idioms (“How are thou called?”) that the characters use. And Hemingway does an almost perfect job of dropping in and out of this as appropriate to the context of the language. Wow.

Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope
[Finished 7 January 1997] So I’m reading this book and then, on page 481, disaster. It’s not there! The binder screwed up and inserted the wrong signature at this point. Fortunately, they had a replacement copy at the local B&N (and didn’t even ask me if I had bought it there--I hadn’t) so I was able to finish it without too much discomfort.

Graham Greene wrote in his introduction to The Lawless Roads about the pleasures of reading Trollope. I have to agree, it’s a comfortable world where things always work out well in the end and the journey along the way is pleasant enough.

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy
[Finished 10 October 1996] Hardy can always be counted on to tell a good story. The Mayor of Casterbridge is no exception on this front, but there are some problems with the structure of the novel. There’s almost a Job-like plague upon Michael Henchard where once things seem like they might finally be settling down, something else pops up.

Lazarus by Morris West
[Finished 29 September 1996] The last of the books in West’s Papal “Trilogy.” I think that trying to make a trilogy out of The Shoes of the Fisherman, The Clowns of God and this book was a mistake. The Clowns of God was really not written as a sequel to The Shoes of the Fisherman and certainly doesn’t lend itself well to a sequel such as this one. I think it might have been better to have eliminated the gratuitous references to the two earlier novels and to just let this novel stand on its own. That said, each of the three novels is a remarkable portrait of the papacy in the times of the writing of each novel (The Shoes of the Fisherman was written ca 1960, The Clowns of God ca 1980 and Lazarus ca 1990).

The Clowns of God by Morris West
[Finished 24 September 1996] A dull evening lead me to Borders and thence to a night spent reading. This was the book that I bought and read. I’ve enjoyed West’s writing and this was a fairly entertaining and moving book, although I think that West was a bit out of his element with the apocalyptic dimension.

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
[Finished 21 August 1996] I think that part of the reason why many people are disappointed in this work is that their expectations are raised much too high by the preface. The book itself is really quite well crafted and really quite funny although from much of the comments lavished upon it, I suspect readers go into it expecting Douglas Adams, which of course, they won’t get.

I wonder if Karol Wojtla has ever read this book.

The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies
[Finished 19 August 1996] Wow. This is a really amazing work. Not perfect, but awfully close. I’ve long been interested in telling a story from multiple perspectives and in the trilogy Davies does a very good job of accomplishing this task. This is the first Davies I’ve read and I’m looking forward to reading more.

A World I Never Made by James T. Farrell
[Finished 13 August 1996] When I read Studs Lonnigan back in 1991, I remember being so impressed with Farrell that I ran out and bought every one of his books that I could find. Reading this book, I’m still impressed with his ability to manage the technicalities of literature, but I find that his story is less compelling.

The Shoes of the Fisherman by Morris West
[Finished 8 August 1996] It seems that every year about this time I read another “Pope” novel. In this case, West was remarkably prescient about coming changes to the Catholic church and the papacy. In these days of the continuously travelling John Paul II, it’s difficult to see the dramatic impact of a single papal visit to France or of proposing that African clergy might be exempted from learning Latin, yet even still, West manages to convey the mood quite well.

From a Burning House: Writing from the AIDS Project Los Angeles Writers Workshop edited by Irene Borger
[Finished 3 August 1996] This book puts the lie to the first sentence of the next commentary. (Fun part about reverse chronological order, eh?) I picked up this book, also from a radio interview, in this case a local NPR interview with Irene Borger who is the editor of the collection as well as the leader of the APLA workshop. My interest in the book was twofold: First to see what the individuals who were in the work shop would write and second, I find works-in-progress (of which much of the work in this collection could be classed) to be fascinating. On both counts the book was successful. The contributions by Christopher Gorman and Ezra Litwak were easily among my favorites and the beginning of the unfinished novel, The Headless Boy on its own demonstrates the great tragedy of AIDS---I would love to have had the opportunity to read the rest of this work. Perhaps when I die...

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
[Finished 2 August 1996] It’s not often that I’m persuaded to read a book from a radio interview but Hornsby’s interview with Terri Gross on Fresh Air had me intrigued and I decided that I’d pick this up next time I was in a bookstore. (That I was buying a new book was also an unusual event).

The book itself was frequently laugh-out-loud funny and also insightful. It gets a bit soppy and juvenile (in a bad way) towards the end which is a pity, but it was well worth the time it took to read.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
[Finished 28 July 1996] Like most Americans I read The Great Gatsby. Correction: I was assigned to read The Great Gatsby. After reading this over the course of a weekend, I am certain that I never actually read it when it was assigned.

Reading assigned to kids too immature to understand the works assigned is doubtless responsible for how little reading happens these days. The fact of the matter is that The Great Gatsby is a great book with wonderful characterization and some passages whose language is, well, perfectly crafted. I found myself wishing, on more than one occasion, that I had written some of this.

Love Among the Ruins by Evelyn Waugh
[Finished 18 June 1996] There are two contemporary English authors who I’ve read and collected extensively: Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. My views of the world are probably closest to Greene, but my own story is closer to Waugh’s. What that means, if anything, I wouldn’t care to guess.

This book is perhaps the most explicitly political of Waugh’s fiction. He comes across, really, as nearly Newt Gingrich. He posits a world in the new future in which the State has been elevated to Godhood (in fact, his characters use interjections of clichés with the word “God” substituted with “State”, e.g., “State be with you.” It’s not really a surprise that this is not one of the novels available in a Little Brown paperback edition. Politics aside, it’s not a very good novel (although in reality it’s not much more than a long short story).

A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch
[Finished 16 June 1996] For some reason, I had found myself wanting to get this book many years ago when I use to buy books with the fervor of a hypomanic, but I was never certain why. In all, I have to admit that I found the book to be entertaining, but slight. Not quite up to the level of some of my favorite Murdoch work (I’d have to say that I liked Henry and Cato the best).

Fergus by Brian Moore
[Finished 13 June 1996] I had tired of the “hard” reading I’ve been tied up with of late, so I took a quick novel break, reading this brief work by Brian Moore nearly straight through. In a way, it’s a work similar to John Fowles’ Mantissa (see the archive), although in many ways it’s a more successful book. It does lack an ending, but the process of discovery in the novel is still quite pleasant.

A Sor Juana Anthology edited by Alexander S. Trueblood
[Finished 29 April 1996] Sor Juana was a seventeenth century Mexican nun who was also a notable poet. Unfortunately, this particular translation (by Trueblood) is quite execrable. Translating poetry is dicey business at best and is perhaps best handled with a literal translation and occasional footnotes. Trueblood imposed rhymes where there were none in the original and a rather jangling rhythm more appropriate for twentieth-century Madison Avenue than seventeenth-century Mexico City. His introduction also seems to distort some of Sor Juana’s attitudes to meet his own ideology. Thankfully, the book also includes the poems in the original Spanish.

Words, Things and Celebrations by Wendell Stacey Johnson
[Finished 25 April 1996] A rather basic book on ideas about language. It was on my shelves, I read it. The target audience is probably junior high or high school students, so it’s a bit basic, but it also presents a rather novel approach to the subject, giving “games” rather than exercises at the end of each lesson.

Cecilia by Fanny Burney
[Finished 18 February 1996] It’s been a long time since I read Evelina and all I remember was not much caring for that novel. Cecilia has me thinking about picking it up again and giving it another spin. Burney has hit upon the same vein as Chekhov did with Uncle Vanya and it certainly is one to appeal to this reader.

Postscript to the Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
[Finished 5 February 1996] An amazing little book. Eco chooses not to explain what he wrote (consistent with his views on literary theory) but rather why he wrote, an all too rare occurence. Occasional author’s autobiographies move into this territory, but too infrequently, I think. Eco is one of the more accessible of the contemporary theoreticians, and this is certainly one of the more accessible of his works, not a bad introitus to literary theory. I would, however recommend that students not use this as Cliff’s notes when writing papers on The Name of the Rose your professor will almost certainly know who you’re cribbing from and judge you accordingly.

Aventuras de don Quijote by Miguel Cervantes
[Finished 4 February 1996] In Spanish, but in a condensed & heavily illustrated (one picture per sentence, roughly) form. Not bad for someone like me whose Spanish is good enough to read, but not good enough to read the original (yet--it is on the libri legendi shelves). At times the editing is a bit choppy---it seems that the intent of the editor had been to simply condense the book, but to avoid any rewriting, but it’s still not a bad effort. I may do a similar job on Tom Sawyer which I feel is the American Don Quixote.

Clarissa by Samuel Richardson
[Finished 24 January 1996] I first encountered this novel in the office of John Peavoy, a literature prof at Scripps College. It was the largest Penguin paperback I’d ever seen, roughly the size of the Chicago Metro Yellow Pages. A few years later, I saw it in a Cambridge bookshop and bought it for later reading. It’s finally come to the top of the stack, nearly five years after I bought it and seven or eight after I first saw it. I have a vague notion that this might be the longest novel in the English language.

Samuel Johnson once said that anyone who read Clarissa for the plot would hang himself. This is true. It’s a remarkably slow-moving book, although it does have its rewards. After the first five- or six-hundred pages things pick up a bit and in the last five-hundred pages it’s hard to put down. The unfolding of plot is predictable, but still compelling. I’ll probably have to pick up Terry Eagleton’s The Rape of Clarissa now and read that.

Little Wilson and Big God by Anthony Burgess
[Finished 2 January 1996] It’s rare that I encounter a book in English that I need to read with a dictionary handy. Anthony Burgess’ autobiography is the first book which has forced this in quite a while. The life itself was rather fascinating, covering primarily that portion of Burgess’ life before he became a writer. This is the point in a writer’s life which is interesting. After they settle into the task of actually writing, their lives tend to become dull as dirt.

Mantissa by John Fowles
[Finished 25 December 1995] A novel about writing, nominally, although Fowles has perhaps gotten to wrapped up in the eroticism of his nominal tale so while it has it’s moments, this is largely a rather unsatisfying book on all counts.

Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope
[Finished December 1995] The third book in the Barsetshire series, it, like most Trollope, is a fun, light read. The ending is evident about one fifth of the way through the book (Trollope tells us), but that’s not the fun of Trollope anyway.

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
[Finished 18 November 1995] The first chapter of this book, was clearly written separately from the remainder. The characterizations, especially of Owen Meany, the narrator and the narrator’s grandmother all don’t really seem to be the same characters as those persons by the same names we encounter in the remainder of the book. As a humorist, Irving is outstanding and this certainly is a funny book. The conclusion helps compensate for some of the deficiencies of the text, but in all it’s a rather imperfect novel, certainly not up to the level of Garp.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
[Finished 10 November 1995] With a cover in Penguin’s own brand of Pantone 804 (although not a Penguin), this book grabbed my eye at the library book sale. This edition concludes with an embarrassingly shallow essay, which one assumes was only included because of its provision of a Nadsat glossary. I’m told that Burgess opposed this (most likely both for the glossary and for the poor essay which is its companion).

Reading A Clockwork Orange was an experience much like reading the Mexican short stories of Antología de cuentos Mexicanos (see below), in that one is somewhat distanced from the text by not knowing what all the words mean, and occasionally misunderstanding the text itself. Should you, O my brother, find yourself reading this book for the first time, I urge you to eschew the glossary and just experience the text itself.

Getting past the superficialities of language itself, the novel, like the other Burgess that I’ve read (The Wanting Seed) is effectively an examination of a dilemma of Christian philosophy, in this one the matter of free will. In that, I think Burgess succeeded quite well where he had been somewhat clumsy in execution in The Wanting Seed.

This Side of Paris by F. Scott Fitzgerald
[Finished 6 November 1995] First novels have a certain quality that can never be regained no matter how hard the author tries. The first novel encompasses a lifetime’s experience in a way that can never be repeated, much as one’s innocence can never be restored. This Side of Paradise has all the autobiographical qualities one expects in a first novel and it’s easy to see the promise of the young Fitzgerald in its pages. The book concludes a bit too weakly and Amory Blaine’s impromptu speech on socialism in the last chapter leaves much to be desired, but in all, this was quite a satisfying read.

The Inheritors by William Golding
[Finished 4 November 1995] An intriguing experiment in expressing perspectives, I found. Golding does an effective job of putting one in the head of neanderthal man, and presenting the known (canoes, bow and arrow, etc.) as unknown. As a story, I must admit that I preferred Lord of the Flies and Darkness Visible.

Antología de Cuentos Mexicanos II edited by Carmen Millan
[Finished 1 November 1995] Yes, in Spanish. I must say that I find twentieth century Mexican literature fascinating. I bought this book in the spring of ‘92 while I was in the D.F. Unfortunately, I’ve never managed to track down volume I. But then my library is filled with many incomplete sets like this.

Reading an anthology of this sort when one is developing one’s language skills is incredible. One never quite becomes conscious of individual vocabularies until one reads an anthology of multiple authors whilst on the boundaries of literacy.

Of the authors I’ve read, I’ve enjoyed Sergio Galindo’s “Querido Jim” and I hope to be able to find some of his other works. Carlos Fuentes has been a big challenge and easily the densest of the writers. I may stick to reading Fuentes in translation (there’s no way in hell I’d’ve been able to read Christopher Unborn in Spanish). José Emilio Pacheco was another favorite. What looked like it might be difficult going turned out to be really rather compelling and an interesting read.

I’m putting this book back on the libri legendi shelves guaranteeing that I’ll reread it. Certainly my Spanish is much stronger now and I hope that after reading other works in Spanish, I’ll be in excellant shape to return to these stories.

The Winter of our Discontent by John Steinbeck
[Finished November 1995] Steinbeck is at his best when he avoids his tendency to allegorize (e.g., Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Men. Alas, too many unimaginative high school English teachers have turned off too many better-than-that high school students by sticking to the allegory and skipping the good stuff. This is a particularly fascinating novel with some of Steinbeck’s most inventive experiments with narrative structures.

The Devil's Advocate by Morris West
[Finished November 1995] An interesting story about a priest’s journey into rural Italy to investigate a reputed saint. Having read Woodward’s The Making of Saints helped a bit in supplying background details, but it wasn’t essential. West is easily one of the better writers dealing with Catholic issues.

The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham
[Finished November 1995] It’s interesting when one gets a sort of synchronicity of themes in one’s reading, especially if one, like myself, has a somewhat arbitrary method for selecting the next book to be read. In this instance, I find myself hitting the same theme, approached in radically different ways, in three consecutive books. In the end it all comes down to Thoreau’s challenge: Simplify! Simplify! Which of course is really just Jesus’ a man cannot serve two masters put in a forceful American way. Materialism. It’s killing us all. I’m not much better than most. I just have different household gods. Books, mostly.

The American Senator by Anthony Trollope
[Finished 19 October 1995] Trollope is one of the great underrated writers of the nineteenth century. This particular novel, which from its title sounds as if it might be a satire of American manners (a la the American scenes from Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit), is in fact very little about the title character and instead turns around two intertwined marriage plots. The story reminds me the most, perhaps, of Trollope’s Kept in the Dark. In any event, The American Senator is pure Victorian potboiler and a good read.

Graham Greene: An Intimate Portrait by His Closest Friend and Confidant by Leopoldo Durán
[Finished 6 October 1995] Are there no editors anymore? After I’d sat down with the book for less than half an hour I found numerous items that any competent editor would have found, errors that are reminiscent of what happens if I write something at three in the morning and don’t check it again after getting a good nights’ sleep. I found similar problems in the Sherry bio. There is an interesting book here, but the final product lacks the touch that a good editor could have lent the work.

The Cambridge Book of Lesser Poets edited by J. C. Squire
[Finished 3 October 1995] A friend majoring in English attempted to slip a course plan past her advisor which did not include any course in Shakespeare (her plan was rejected). Perhaps this anthology would appeal to her. The basic plan is to begin by excluding the best known poets of the English language along with anyone still living (then again, perhaps she wouldn’t like the anthology) and collect what’s left.

The Life of Graham Greene, Volume II: 1939-1955 by Norman Sherry
[Finished 24 September 1995] I’ve spotted on bookstore shelves recently three Graham Greene bios (and of course have purchased each). The Sherry biography is perhaps the most “respectable” of the three, being the authorized biography. Despite the authorized label, however, it’s far from a whitewash, particularly in this second volume. One wonders to what extent the death of Greene in the interim between the publication of volumes I and II is part of this. It was a fascinating read, taking me just about a week to finish. There are a few places where it feels like Sherry’s editor was lax and the organization is sometimes confusing in the jumping about in the chronology.

Hadrian VII by Frederick Rolfe (aka Baron Corvo)
[Finished August 1995] I first encountered this story in a radio drama on KCRW and decided to start tracking down books by the author, a rather difficult process to say the least. As the radio drama made more clear by calling the main character Rolfe rather than Rose, this is a bit of self-fantasy about the author’s being “rightfully” given his ordination as a priest and later being named pope. If one can get past the rather dull turn-of-the-century geopolitical diatribes, there’s an amazingly prescient view of where the church did end up going half a century later.

Graham Greene by John Spurling
[Finished August 1995] A rather cursory treatment of Greene’s work I find. I’ve not found any Greene criticism which I particularly enjoyed. Whether the problem is with Greene, contemporary criticism or myself, I don’t know.