Don Hosek - Past reading

This is the archive of my reading. Soon, I'll put in the subject subindexes.

What I've been read in the past
The Best American Essays 2016 edited by Jonathan Franzen
[Finished 13 June 2024] There were occasions that I wanted to throw this book out the window (most notably the essay complaining about how professors can’t date students anymore), but other essays were insightful and overall this felt less like a historical artifact than the 2015 edition did.

Night Watch by Jayne Anne Phillips
[Finished 4 June 2024] I figure I should be sure to read the fiction winners of the Pulitzer Prize as much as possible. I wasn’t all that taken by this particular book though, with the shifts in chronology and borrowings of names leaving me more confused than I would have liked otherwise.

One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Khoul
[Finished 3 June 2024] A varied collection of essays, some more impactful than others. Her insights into the immigrant/cultural outsider’s perspective were especially insightful.

The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan
[Finished 2 June 2024] A distressing book about punishment of mothers by the system taken to extremes, although to be honest, I found it an increasingly difficult book to read since as a parent, I could identify painfully closely with the protagonist’s predicament.

The Best American Essays 2015 edited by Ariel Levy
[Finished 30 May 2024] Reading this, I was acutely aware of the fact that the world has changed dramatically in the decade since these essays were selected. I always feel like the Best American short story and poetry collections are largely timeless, but the essays here felt like digging into a quaint time capsule.

Empty Theatre: or, The Lives of King Ludwig II of Bavaria and Empress Sisi of Austria (Queen of Hungary), Cousins, in Th by Jac Jemc
[Finished 28 May 2024] A wonderfully researched and immersive novel about a period in continental history that I know too little about.

The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb
[Finished 27 May 2024] A bit of a literary confection. The identity of the thief was pretty obvious to me pretty early on (although part of that comes down to the dictates of the genre, particularly that the obvious suspects cannot be guilty).

Cloistered: My Years as a Nun by Catherine Coldstream
[Finished 22 May 2024] After hearing Coldstream interviewed on Fresh Air, I decided that I wanted to read her memoir (especially as I once dated a former Carmelite nun). Her account of her time in the monastery described the complicated mix of holiness and disfunction that’s very much the core of what the Church is. I certainly felt that had Coldstream entered into a healthier community, she might be a nun still, and I think a memoir of life in such a community, as honest as this one would also be a fascinating read, but this is what we get and I was captivated throughout.

Chicago Mosaic: Immigrant Stories of Objects Kept, Lost, or Left Behind edited by Chris Solís Green and Amy Marie Tyson
[Finished 16 May 2024] An interesting collection of first-person accounts by immigrants in the Chicago area, encompassing a wide range of national origins.

Selected Stories by Philip K. Dick
[Finished 16 May 2024] After watching the remake of Total Recall, it occurred to me that while I’d seen a lot of movies based on Dick’s writing, I’d never actually read him. This volume includes the stories behind Total Recall and Minority Report along with a career-spanning selection of other stories. It was interesting to see the development of metaphysical themes in Dick’s writing alongside the rather conventional stories that he also told, but overall I wasn’t inspired to seek out more of his writing.

Sociopath by Patric Gagne
[Finished 10 May 2024] An absolutely fascinating look into how the mind of someone diagnosed as a sociopath (itself a kind of badly defined term) with a pretty high level of self-awareness and understanding. I was less enthralled by the memoir-ish aspects, but understand their need for commercial reasons.

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
[Finished 6 May 2024] Hemingway’s final book, a memoir about his time in Paris and a fascinating look at a time when literally everybody in the literary scene knew everybody else.

Lech by Sara Lippmann
[Finished 3 May 2024] A pretty good novel set in the world of declining Jewish summer camps and Catskills life.

Edisto by Padgett Powell
[Finished 29 April 2024] After reading an interview with Powell, I thought I’d read this novel and—I was a bit underwhelmed.

The Other Side by Mary Gordon
[Finished 27 April 2024] My second Mary Gordon novel and I liked this one a bit more, but still not fully getting into her writing.

Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination by Toni Morrison
[Finished 24 April 2024] A great selection of essays on race and literature.

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön
[Finished 23 April 2024] I forget who recommended this book to me in the wake of my divorce. I would say that it’s a lot more about meditative practices than about dealing with loss.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
[Finished 20 April 2024] Such a brilliant piece of writing.

2 A.M. in Little America by Ken Kalfus
[Finished 19 April 2024] Another Rooster book, and one that I think falls short of its potential.

The Four Million by O. Henry
[Finished 19 April 2024] Yes, this is the book that has “The gift of the Magi” in it. I kind of feel that having kids read that story in middle school does a disservice to them as they end up expecting that sort of twist as a requirement in a story (and so many of O. Henry’s stories follow that template). Still, an interesting look at early twentieth-century commercial fiction.

Loot by Tania James
[Finished 17 April 2024] After seeing this mentioned by Matt Bell on Bluesky, I picked up this book which was an interesting bit of speculative history and the central artifact in the story, it turns out, is an actual thing.

Rift by Kathy Fish and Robert Vaughan
[Finished 14 April 2024] Another TNB book club selection from my shelves. It was an interesting choice to not identify which of Fish and Vaughan wrote the pieces which made up the book although when I decided to check, I was always right in my guess.

An Island by Karen Jennings
[Finished 9 April 2024] I think this was another Rooster competitor. The lack of concrete details in the setting worked against the book for me, although I have no doubt that was a central part of Jennings’s concept for the book.

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka
[Finished 7 April 2024] A lingering Rooster competitor in my reading list, an interesting concept, but I wasn’t able to fully invest myself in the narrative.

Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved By Beauty by Kate Hennessy
[Finished 6 April 2024] An absolutely fascinating and grounded look at Day’s biography written by her daughter, with a lot of focus on the challenges of the conflicts between living a holy life and having a family.

Answer to Job by C. G. Jung
[Finished 4 April 2024] A brief book, and an interesting look at Jung’s approach to theology.

The Boat by Nam Le
[Finished 2 April 2024] After a discussion on the title story on Bookfight and an interview with Le on Between the Covers, I decided to check out this book. It was, overall, a bit of a mixed bag, with some stories hitting better than others. In some ways, like 4ʹ33ʺ, some of the importance of the book lies less in the execution than the concept.

Graham Greene: The Last Interview: and Other Conversations by Graham Greene
[Finished April 2024] Many of the interviews in this collection I’d read although some of them only in edited format. The editor of the volume made a point of tracking down full transcriptions of some of the interview when possible. I don’t know that I necessarily learned anything new, but I’m a Graham Greene completist though there it is.

Infinite Country by Patricia Engel
[Finished 30 March 2024] A long-neglected TNB book club pick that I finally got around to. Again, some weird choices in achronology in the narrative, but an interesting look into aspects of the e/immigrant experience.

The American Daughters by Maurice Carlos Ruffin
[Finished 28 March 2024] Ruffin is one of those authors whose name I’ve heard over and over but I somehow managed never to read him so when I heard this book recommended, I picked it up. I have to admit to being a bit challenged by some of Ruffin’s choices to tell his story out of chronological order and the final sections of the book didn’t fully work for me, but overall, it was an interesting book.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
[Finished 27 March 2024] This book had been one that got a lot of press when it came out but I managed not to get to it until recently. I found the conceit of structuring the book around an English literature syllabus to be largely pointless. The plot itself was fascinating and made for an intriguing mystery with a satisfying conclusion.

Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle
[Finished 26 March 2024] I’ve had this book lingering on my to-read shelves for a while, but it finally managed to snake its way to the top and maybe it’s a consequence of the glowing reviews it received, but I was largely unimpressed.

Martyr! by Kaveh Akbar
[Finished 20 March 2024] Perhaps Akbar relies a little too much on coincidence, but I’m willing to forgive it for such fun prose and a fascinating conceit.

The Amnesiac in the Maze by Michael Czyzniejewski
[Finished 20 March 2024] I first encountered Michael’s work in an assortment of literary journals (both in print and online) and he was one of the writers I sent a fan email to. When he was at the Printers Row Book Festival promoting this new collection, I made a point of showing up to buy a copy and finally getting around to reading it, it’s very much a delight.

The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas
[Finished 15 March 2024] A delightful bit of fantasy. This is my second Scarlett Thomas novel and I’m definitely a fan now.

Still Alive by LJ Pemberton
[Finished 14 March 2024] A largely forgettable book, I’m afraid.

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher
[Finished 9 March 2024] A charming book, although I think I might have preferred for the protagonist to not have had quite such a happy ending and to have retained his curmudgeonly and quixotic character.

The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride
[Finished 7 March 2024] Just a masterful book, written by a writer with extraordinary self-command of his craft.

The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky by Jana Casale
[Finished 6 March 2024] When the novel kept going past its protagonists’ young adulthood and into her old age and death, I just found it disappointing. I feel like it would have been a better experience had Casale focused her writing on a narrower slice of her protagonist’s life.

Open Throat by Henry Hoke
[Finished 29 February 2024] The narrative of this book is told from the perspective of a dispossessed mountain lion, inspired by the real-life P-22 (who’s mentioned in the acknowledgments). The story takes a bizarre twist where the mountain lion befriends a young woman and there’s a fantasy sequence where the two of them go to Disneyland which was also the point where Hoke lost me.

Boys Weekend by Mattie Lubchansky
[Finished 28 February 2024] No one will mistake the story of Boys Weekend for thinly veiled actual events. A graphic novel telling of a bachelor party in a libertarian sea island nation where no laws apply featuring a monster-worshipping cult and clones and a trans-femme central character trying to make sense of her role among the men she went to college with whose lives have diverged greatly from her own. And yet, somehow this felt extraordinarily real and true.

Dayswork by Chris Bachelder and Jennifer Habel
[Finished 27 February 2024] Dayswork is borderline not exactly a novel. The unnamed narrator has a biography that seems to line up with Jennifer Habel and the book is largely interior reflection on Herman Melville, life in the lockdown days of 2020 and marriage to another writer (who, while absent as a narrative voice in the novel is present on the byline). I started out being skeptical of the book, with short one-paragraph sections (this is very much the prose of a poet), but as the book continued, I was sucked in and entranced.

Monstrilio by Gerardo Sámano Córdova
[Finished 25 February 2024] Monstrilio starts as a tragedy with a mother mourning her son’s premature death and cutting open his body to retrieve a piece of his lung as a grim keepsake. She later feeds the lung which turns into the titular Monstrilio. The whole thing is delightfully bizarre, at turns grim and hilarious. I would add that my daughter (who’s currently in fourth grade) picked up the book and got hooked on it, despite it being, by no means, a book aimed at children (I did repeatedly ask her if some of the gruesome aspects of the story bothered her).

The Lost Journals of Sacajewea by Debra Magpie Earling
[Finished 23 February 2024] The Lost Journals of Sacajawea is a book that dares the reader not to finish it. Earling doesn’t handhold the non-Indigenous reader in her narrative beyond a brief preface indicating why some words appear in grey italics. It’s a difficult read, but one that left me absolutely obsessed.

A Sunday in Hell: Fables & Poems by Daniel Berrigan
[Finished 21 February 2024] A gift from some Catholic Worker friends, I don’t know that I’ve previously had a deep exposure to the writings of Daniel Berrigan and I found this a charming read.

What You Are Looking For Is in the Library by Michiko Aoyama
[Finished 19 February 2024] There seems to be a bit of a trend these days of books about librarians or booksellers. Aside from the two books in this year’s competition, there are also such notables as The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, The Little Paris Bookshop and countless others that showed up in my Goodreads recommendations when I was reading those two. These seem to fall into two categories There’s the tragic bookseller/librarian, who is healed through the power of literature of their psychic wounds, and there’s the magic bookseller/librarian, who heals their patrons through the power of literature of their psychic wounds. Sometimes it’s both. In this case, the librarian is a bit of a cipher, we learn a little of her story, but mostly we focus on the patrons of her library who, thanks to some felted talisman and a random book recommendation added in amongst their primary requests. I found the experience of reading the book charming. The kind of delight that comes from a book like Jonathan Livingston Seagull, where you can fall into the magic even though you know it’s all really just mind candy with no substance.

Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whitmore
[Finished 15 February 2024] I seem lately to keep finding myself encountering stories about a middle or lower-middle class individual who worm their ways into the bosom of an upper class society in my TV and movie watching so this felt much of a piece with that sort of writing. The central mystery was intriguing, I suppose, but overall I was left feeling like this wasn’t necessarily my favorite of the reading.

The Bee Sting by Paul Murray
[Finished 14 February 2024] I had to wait a long time to get to the top of the holds list for this book at the library. The Bee Sting is, I think, the heftiest of the Rooster contenders this year, examining an Irish family by giving each character an extended POV section, each of which could almost be a novel on its own. The writing of each section is distinctive and it’s almost hard to believe that these are all the work of the same author, all of which builds to a conclusion both inevitible and devastating.

Cold People by Tom Rob Smith
[Finished 13 February 2024] Cold People starts as an apparent romantic comedy: an American college student is vacationing with her family in Lisbon and accepts an invitation for a private boat tour with a local who feels they have a strange connection.

And then.


The aliens serve largely as a huge plot device: All of humanity is given a short period of time to relocate to Antarctica. Those not on land when the deadline arrives are killed. The rump society (including our American college student and her Portuguese tour guide) try to rebuild a civilization in the inhospitable antarctic. Utopian socialism and genetic engineering ensue. A lot of the why questions are left unanswered which seems quite reasonable, really. The question is whether the human side of the story satisfies. My initial impression is that it did.

Brainwyrms by Alison Rumfitt
[Finished 6 February 2024] Brainwyrms seems to be part of a pattern of books in the Tournament of Books that take contemporary anti-trans attitudes and turn them into a near-future dystopia (last year’s tournament featured Manhunt also in that genre). I understand the desire and need for this in a community that feels besieged, but at the same time, the stories that have come out end up feeling a bit undercooked. This was another case of this, with the titular metaphor not making much sense for me.

Death Valley by Melissa Broder
[Finished 1 February 2024] I heard about this book on the Writers on Writing podcast and I thought the surreal conceit would make for an interesting read, but alas, it seems that it really didn’t do it for me with a significant portion of the book being the narrator lost in the desert with little to justify those pages.

Blackouts by Justin Torres
[Finished 28 January 2024] Blackouts is very much the embodiment of the Important Novel. It won the National Book Award and treats of a Serious subject, a social history of homosexuality in the twentieth century blending fact and fiction in a seemless way so that even the question of whether the central characters are real people is left ambiguous. Add in blackout poetry from mid-century books about homosexuality and the result is something Literary with a capital L. But despite it’s flirting with the border between fiction and non-fiction, I was left not all that moved by the book.

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph J. Ellis
[Finished 27 January 2024] Perhaps the most interesting part of this book was the fact that between its initial publication and the release of the paperback edition, definitive proof that Jefferson fathered children with Sally Hemings was revealed which forced Ellis to have to completely revise his previously held views on the subject (he had previously considered the possibility very unlikely). Overall, I find Jefferson a much less sympathetic character than John Adams.

Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler
[Finished 25 January 2024] I’m not sure what I expected from this novel, but a Kafkaesque experience of a man trapped in a system of conformity and penalism that he helped create was not it.

The Shamshine Blind by Paz Pardo
[Finished 21 January 2024] It took me a bit to get into Pardo’s novel, a science-fictiony novel set in a U.S. devastated after it was defeated by Argentina in the Falklands war thanks to the Argentine invention of mood-inducing pigments. The inversion of north and south created a fascinating world, although the plot was a bit convoluted and not always convincing.

Babel by R. F. Kuang
[Finished 16 January 2024] Oh man, Kuang is rapidly becoming one of my favorite authors. Another banger of a book, this time a bit of historical fantasy in a world in which translations etched onto silver bars gave Britain even greater power than they had in the nineteenth century mixed with Oxford stuff and social commentary and I loved it.

The Librarianist by Patrick deWitt
[Finished 10 January 2024] Another ToB read, and my favorite of the bunch so far. The protagonist might seem a bit passive to some, but the series of backwards steps in the novel leading up to the conclusion (this last a bit weak) made the book illuminating about how the characters came to be who they were.

Glory Be by Danielle Arceneaux
[Finished 9 January 2024] I have a vague notion that I heard an interview with Arceneaux on Writers on Writing, but this book popped up again thanks to the google news alert I have for any mention of Graham Greene and I decided to check the book out. Black Catholicism is not something that is much on most people’s radars and it was fun to see it written about in this novel.

Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
[Finished 9 January 2024] Adjei-Brenyah’s debut story collection floored me. I had high hopes for this novel, but I have to say that I think this would have been better as a long story.

My copy has a “read with Jenna” sticker on the cover and I found it absolutely amusing to confirm my suspicion that the Jenna of the sticker is in fact Jenna Bush, daughter of George W.

Absolution by Alice McDermott
[Finished 4 January 2024] Wow. McDermott may be my new favorite author. This was absolutely amazing. She had been on my radar as an insightful author writing from a Catholic perspective, but this was just brilliant and one of those signs of how much more I need to grow as a writer.

How Not to Kill Yourself: A Portrait of the Suicidal Mind by Clancy Martin
[Finished 29 December 2023] After hearing Martin interviewed on Fresh Air (it had never occurred to me that not everyone contemplates how they might kill themselves), I thought I’d pick up this book and read the whole thing. It’s a mix of memoir and writing about depression and suicidality from the inside, but I kind of hoped for a bit more than there was.

The Guest by Emma Cline
[Finished 28 December 2023] My second ToB read. It’s always a challenge for me to read these kind of stress-inducing reads where a character’s self-destructiveness keeps making things worse and worse, but it was also hard to put down.

The Poems of T. S. Eliot: Collected and Uncollected Poems by T. S. Eliot
[Finished 25 December 2023] The first volume in a massive critical edition of Eliot. I found the critical apparatus, however, to be completely useless in the end, with little elucidation of things that merited elucidation while pages are devoted to the uninteresting. Better to skip this and just get an edition of the poems sans apparatus.

The Auburn Conference by Tom Piazza
[Finished 17 December 2023] This year, I’ve decided to make the effort to read all the books in the Tournament of Books before the tournament so as to be able to have a dog in the fight when brackets time comes around (I did the same with the ToB summer camp last summer). Aside from the one book from the summer camp that is in the tournament, this is my first read in the process, an interesting bit of alternate history in which a literary conference brings together Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, a woman’s popular fiction author and a confederate general for an increasingly chaotic gathering in upstate New York. There are some odd choices in the writing (having two first-person narrators alongside third-person passages—I think one would have been fine, but the second first-person narrator only served as a point of confusion), but it was a bit of a fun ride.

Notes on Your Sudden Disappearance by Alison Esbach
[Finished 14 December 2023] I was fascinated by the use of apostrophic language in this book with the narrator speaking to her dead sister. It was an intriguing way to structure the book and I think, if my own brother hadn’t died shortly after i started reading the book, I would have enjoyed it more.

American Mermaid by Julia Langbein
[Finished 13 December 2023] I loved Langbein’s description of the Hollywood writing process and how it chews up and spits out the work of novelists and the novel-within-the-novel was intriguing, but overall, the pieces didn’t fit together as well as I would have hoped.

The Sum of All Fears by Tom Clancy
[Finished 10 December 2023] My God, this was a slog and a crappy read. It was a bit amusing to get to the part where domestic terrorism was declared a solved matter (and of course, the only domestic terrorists were Native American drug dealers), or the simplistic solution to the question of Israel which only needed having the Swiss Guard expand their operations from the Vatican to Jerusalem because the occupied territories and the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank are non-issues. The Jesuit academic/secret Vatican diplomat was entertaining at least, but the whole thing felt like a Republican fever dream (and reading it did explain some of what’s happening in the recesses of the right-wing brain).

Pierrot Mon Ami by Raymond Queneau
[Finished 6 December 2023] A charmingly comic novel, following the exploits of the titular character and his associates in a picaresque series of adventures.

The Night Parade by Jami Nakamura Lin
[Finished 1 December 2023] I was a bit bemused when I saw “a speculative memoir” on the cover of the book, wondering what that could possibly mean. It turns out to be a mix of writing about Japanese (and to a lesser extent Taiwanese) folklore in the context of Lin’s own life with her struggles with bipolar disorder, her father’s death from cancer and giving birth to her first child. An absolutely amazing book and one that merits revisiting.

Street Cop by Robert Coover with drawings by Art Spiegelman
[Finished 1 December 2023] I heard about this book on KCRW’s Bookworm program and decided to order the book from the Italian publisher as it was uncertain if the book would continue to be available for long (it was only the second book from the publisher and there were rumblings that they would only do single press runs of each title). Whether sales were less than expected or they changed their business model, I notice that Isolarii still offers the book for sale.

The book itself is a surreal tale of a criminal-turned-cop-turned-criminal in a dystopian near future where robot cops, mobile buildings, the walking dead and a pervasive fear of “terrorism” rule the day. Spiegelman’s contribution are a series of illustrations which portray the titular character as an adult version of Sluggo from the Nancy comics. I rather enjoyed the story although the format, a tiny book smaller than a deck of cards, seemed unnecessarily precious.

Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley
[Finished 30 November 2023] A rather brutal book to read, showing how a girl with few options ends up falling into prostitution and then ends up in the center of a scandal regarding police sexual abuse. I was initially skeptical of the book, but the author’s voice and storytelling skill won me over. And to think how young she was when she began the book—I expect big things from Mottley.

Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat
[Finished 28 November 2023] Danticat’s first novel, it feels autobiographical even though the protagonist shares less with the author than one might assume. It was interesting, but simultaneously felt a bit directionless.

A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer duBois
[Finished 24 November 2023] An intriguing book weighed down by a promise that it cannot keep. A fascinating close-up look at life in Putin’s Russia nevertheless.

Medusa’s Ankles by A. S. Byatt
[Finished 22 November 2023] I didn’t love all of the stories as much as I hoped I would, but it was a nice overview of her career and I’m glad I picked it up when I did.

The Plains by Gerald Murnane
[Finished 21 November 2023] After hearing a lot about Murnane, I decided to pick up one of his books and I wasn’t grabbed the way I hoped I would.

La invención de Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares
[Finished 19 November 2023] A fascinating book. I’m not sure I would ascribe perfection to it, but it is quite amazing. I think it’s worth coming back to it and translating it to fully understand how it works.

Mouth to Mouth by Antoine Wilson
[Finished 17 November 2023] An intriguing story, and a nice use of a frame, but spoiled a bit by an ending that was too on the nose and yet also failed the internal logic of the story.

Final Payments by Mary Gordon
[Finished 17 November 2023] I’d first read Gordon in Best American Catholic Short Stories where I loved her story. I didn’t connect as much to this piece, atlhough it had its moments.

The Most Secret Memory of Men by Mohamed Mbougar Sarr
[Finished 14 November 2023] An absolute masterpiece of a work. Clearly influenced by Bolaño, but also very much it’s own thing.

In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell
[Finished 10 November 2023] It took me a while to get into the dream logic of this novel as the previous Matt Bell novel I had written was a work of realist fiction and the title had me expecting a riff on Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods (whose title I’ve been misremembering as being In the House of the Lake of the Woods). Once I did, it was more compelling, but not as good as Bell’s Scrapper.

Mercury Pictures Presents by Anthony Marra
[Finished 9 November 2023] This book bugged me because it showed me how much my current work in progress still needs to be what it should be. I’m also writing about a little-known corner of World War II history and have a similarly polyphonic work, following a number of interconnected characters. I can see both what I’m lacking and how Marra both succeeded and failed in filling those voids. Initially, as I was reading, I had some trouble keeping characters straight, but as I continued in the book, it became compelling and hard to put down.

Green Girl by Kate Zambreno
[Finished 5 November 2023] A hard book to find my way into as it’s largely plotless and the central character is not someone with whom I have anything in common, but I did eventually get a bit of a grasp on the novel.

The Diary of Jesus Christ by Bill Cain
[Finished 3 November 2023] A wonderful book, even if it’s occasionally not internally consistent, where Cain takes a series of scriptural passages as launching points to imagine in greater depth Jesus’s life. I can see a lot of conservative folks up in arms at some of Cain’s imagined events, but I found it a gripping read and one that really showed the power of Ignatian spirituality.

Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann
[Finished 30 October 2023] I picked this up as an inaugural read of the Bluesky book club. A weird little novel where a flock of sheep seek to solve the mystery of who killed their shepherd. A lot of fun (I think that if it’s ever made into a film, it should totally be claymation by Aardman) and interesting to see how the sheep try to understand the strangeness of human behavior.

The Thing in the Snow by Sean Adams
[Finished 30 October 2023] A somewhat surrealist novel delving into the uncanny. Not always successful, but it kept me reading.

Secret Rendezvous by Kōbō Abe
[Finished 30 October 2023] Because I tend to read multiple books at once, they often talk to each other, and in this case, because I was reading Secret Rendezvous at roughly the same time as The Thing in the Snow, I’m afraid the books talked to each other in ways that made it hard for me to enjoy Secret Rendezvous since the were saying such similar things. I will definitely return to Abe and perhaps enjoy him more on the second round.

State of the Union: A Marriage in Ten Parts by Nick Hornby
[Finished 26 October 2023] The story of a marriage in danger of collapse told as a series of conversations as the couple wait in a pub across the street from their marriage therapist for their appointment time. It’s a brilliant conceit and Hornby manages to actually come up with an ending, which is usually his big weakness.

The Unseen World by Liz Moore
[Finished 24 October 2023] A rather enjoyable read about a brilliant young woman and the mystery of her father’s background. Brilliantly plotted with good characterization and humor.

Three Plays by August Strindberg
[Finished 21 October 2023] Three plays showing the evolution of naturalism in Strindberg’s writing. I read at least one of these as an undergrad as part of a Modern Drama class (and upon googling the professor I studied with, discovered he died a few years ago as did another of my favorite undergrad professors who died last year). I still find myself reading it with an eye towards some of the questions asked back then.

The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution by Jonathan Eig
[Finished 20 October 2023] Aside from a bit of an organizational issue with chronology in some early chapters, this was an imminently readable book and one that did a good job of exploring just how dramatic a change in society the advent of the birth control pill was, although some of the freedom that came about was erased by the advent of AIDS in the 80s.

The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan
[Finished 19 October 2023] One of these novels that I had a hard time getting into. The Scots dialect was lovely, and the glimpse into lives that was so alien to me was fascinating, but I just never managed to connect with the book.

Angels by Denis Johnson
[Finished 12 October 2023] Another novel which I had difficulty connecting with. I’ve ever quite been able to connect with Johnson’s fiction, but I did enjoy his poetry a lot more.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith
[Finished 11 October 2023] While the plot felt a bit contrived, specially as it reached the final chapter, I loved the characters and humor of the narrative,

Call Me Zebra by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi
[Finished 6 October 2023] This sort of hyperliterate, intelligent narrator should totally be my jam and yet I never really managed to connect with her. I’ve read a short story by Van der Vliet Oloomi which seemed to connect a bit better so I think another of her novels might be a better fit.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis
[Finished 4 October 2023] A collection of linked stories about the twelve children of the titular Hattie, spanning about fifty years of twentieth-century Black American experience. A rather stunning and kaleidoscopic account from a new voice.

Sketchbook 1946–1949 by Max Frisch
[Finished 30 September 2023] I think that this is a mix of Frisch’s diary entries and notes towards future writing, but there is little information and all the other Goodreads reviews are not in English. This feels a lot like some of my notebooks that I used to keep in the 80s and 90s and I kind of want to resurrect that practice now.

The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq
[Finished 29 September 2023] A weird book that I’m still torn about whether I love or hate it.

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
[Finished 26 September 2023] In a lot of ways, this is two stories: one about kids growing up in a slum in Zimbabwe who, it turns out, had actually lived in middle-class homes earlier but those homes had been bulldozed in a politically-motivated destruction of their neighborhood that the children don’t understand. Then another about a Zimbabwean child who emigrates illegally to Michigan and her attempts at assimilation. Bulawayo’s ability to evoke the naïve perspective of the children is done brilliantly, but the American chapters, other than the delightfully poetic penultimate chapter, feel a bit flatter.

In the Woods by Tana French
[Finished 23 September 2023] An interesting enough crime thriller with some massive red herrings thrown up along the way and an intriguing set of characters. That said, I did find the detective characters interchangeable enough the detectives in another French novel that I’d read that I had to look and see if they were the same (they were not).

Sally Mara’s Intimate Diary by Raymond Queneau
[Finished 21 September 2023] A delightfully playful novel. Written in the form of a diary, we get Sally Mara’s naïve perspective on the world around her, her discovery of sex, the bizarre criminality of those around her, all through a view of her not understanding all the words that she uses which creates some comic sentences. Queneau is one of those writers who is chronically underappreciated in the English-speaking world.

Power Politics by Arundhati Roy
[Finished 15 September 2023] Much of this felt like it lost a great deal thanks to being divorced from its original context. Given how well the two essays on Bush’s reaction to the bombing of the World Trade Center hit, though, I think that if I were more closely aware of the issues surrounding the building of the dams in India, I might have been more impacted by that work as well.

Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique
[Finished 13 September 2023] There was some sense of inevitability in the narrative, but the voice and a setting and time about which I knew nothing kept me involved.

Tom Lake by Ann Patchett
[Finished 11 September 2023] Easily Patchett’s best work. The novel demands your full attention while reading and the shifts between the narrative frame and the main story were distracting at first but eventually became essential to the story. One of those books that went immediately back into the to-read pile because I know I will benefit from revisiting it.

[To] The Last [Be] Human by Jorie Graham
[Finished 6 September 2023] A beautiful collection of poems bringing together several of Graham’s books into one large volume.

Non Violent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD
[Finished 4 September 2023] To a certain extent, this book doesn’t really say a whole lot that’s new, and it doesn’t fully justify its page count, but even so, the way that Rosenberg presents his ideas about how to communicate in a way that can eliminate conflict is brilliant and I think there’s a lot to be learned from this book. So much so, in fact, that while it’s not a five-star book, it’s still one that I feel that I need to own a copy of rather than merely read through it once from the library.

Via Negativa by Daniel Hornsby
[Finished 3 September 2023] A novel I wish I’d written. I loved being in the mind of the narrator, a retired priest facing regrets over his life in the midst of seeing the optimistic post-Vatican II Church become a distressingly conservative institution.

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
[Finished 25 August 2023] This is my second Jones novel I’ve read and I found Silver Sparrow to be a more interesting read than An American Marriage. Both are novels that touch on sensitive aspects of the African-American experience, but here with the focus on a pair of adolescent girls, I think Jones was a bit more in her element and was able to make her characters live more fully.

The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso by Dante
[Finished 24 August 2023] Having never read this before, I was struck by just how spiritual it was. Granted, I largely skipped the end notes that got into the minutiae of thirteenth-century Italian politics, but it was a fascinating read and one that would bear a return.

Good Night, Irene by Luis Alberto Urrea
[Finished 21 August 2023] A decent novel, but marred by craft deficiencies. Urrea’s attempt at an omniscient narrator is a sharp example of exactly how not to manage omniscience.

PopCo by Scarlett Thomas
[Finished 21 August 2023] This often felt like a novel made explicitly for me: math and literature in one heady bundle.

Manhunt by Gretchen Felker-Martin
[Finished 11 August 2023] An interesting post-apocalyptic scenario in which men have become feral monsters and TERFs and trans women are at war with each other, but I felt that the gore and poor characterization worked against the story.

Sophomore Slump by Leigh Chadwick
[Finished 9 August 2023] Chadwick’s prose poems are marvelous. A must-read.

Dinosaurs by Lydia Millet
[Finished 8 August 2023] A delightful tale of one man’s search for connection and belonging.

Ice by Anna Kavan
[Finished 7 August 2023] Another novel that didn’t really land for me.

The Best American Poetry 2020 edited by Paisley Rekdal
[Finished 3 August 2023] So much in the Best American Poetry series depends on the guest editor’s taste and judgment and in this edition, Rekdal showed great taste and judgment in her selections.

The Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch
[Finished 3 August 2023] A novel of ideas which just didn’t really land for me on this reading.

The Museum of Human History by Rebekah Bergman
[Finished 1 August 2023] This was just amazing. Bergman managed the chronological and character shifts with a level of control and mastery that would make you think this was not her first novel.

Lone Women by Victor LaValle
[Finished 29 July 2023] My second LaValle novel and I continue to find him a delight to read. Here we have a tale set in a little-known milieu: that of single woman settlers in early 20th-century Montana, combined with a bit of supernatural horror.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
[Finished 27 July 2023] A weird surrealist novel about a family who, it turns out, all have various supernatural gifts, none of which they are willing to reveal to others. The narrator is able to taste the emotions of whoever prepares her food, which she ends up largely avoiding by sticking with a machine-made processed diet. Her brother has a tendency to merge with his furniture and vanish for increasingly long periods of time. All in all, an odd but fascinating read.

The Magician by W. Somerset Maugham
[Finished 26 July 2023] A weird early Maugham novel about a character inspired by Alastair Crowley. Maugham’s early fiction is largely ignored today and for good reason. This was mildly entertaining, but definitely not up to the level of his later writing.

Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron
[Finished 21 July 2023] Another case of my experiences and the authors being mismatched. Styron’s depression is so far removed from my own that it seems unrecognizable.

Small Burning Things by Cathy Ulrich
[Finished 20 July 2023] I’ve been following Ulrich on Twitter pretty much all the time that I’ve been on Twitter and she’s a master of flash and these stories are all brilliant. Go buy this book.

Western Lane by Chetna Maroo
[Finished 19 July 2023] Part of the Summer Tournament of Books reading, I didn’t really connect to the story here. I suspect I wasn’t the right reader for the book when I read it.

The Odyssey by Homer
[Finished 19 July 2023] It’s a long time since I’ve read Homer—not since my undergrad day, when I read the Iliad in Lattimore’s translation and the Odyssey in Fitzgerald’s. Coming back to it after more than three decades, I found Wilson’s translation compelling and her introductory essay justifying her choices compelling. I’m looking forward to her Iliad, and there’s a part of me that wants to maybe do an Odyssey odyssey re-reading Wilson and Fitzgerald and throwing in Lattimore and Fagles and maybe even Pope to see how the different translators handled the text. And then I can read the original.

Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich
[Finished 18 July 2023] One of the classics of spiritual writing, something that I was aware of previously for its use of female imagery to describe God, but there’s so much more to this than that. Definitely a book to return to.

The Birthday Party by Laurent Mauvignier
[Finished 12 July 2023] Often, when you encounter a book written in a challenging stream-of-consciousness mode, not much of consequence happens in the story. Mauvignier turns that upside down by employing this mode for what could be a crime thriller.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
[Finished 10 July 2023] Not sure what to say about this. It didn’t do a whole lot for me, but I think that some of it is that my grief is so different from Didion’s rather than her writing.

Dog on Fire by Terese Svoboda
[Finished 7 July 2023] One of the things I enjoy about Terese’s writing is that she never seems to tread the same ground from one book to another. This book is mildly science fiction, but really mostly, a story about challenges of relationships in the wake of the protagonist’s brother’s death.

The Better Brain by Julia Bucklidge, PhD. Bonnie Kaplan, PhD.
[Finished 4 July 2023] I heard an interview with Kaplan on a podcast which intrigued me enough to take a look at this book. I’m not entirely sold on the central thesis, but I am willing to make some efforts to boost micronutrients in my diet to see what it can do for me.

One Crimson Thread by Michael O’Siadhail
[Finished 30 June 2023] Absolutely brilliant and heartbreaking. O’Siadhail makes his sonnets seems absolutely effortless while being impeccable.

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta
[Finished 27 June 2023] I’ve read two other Perrotta novels and been unimpressed. But I wanted to read this one to see how the climactic scene at the end of the HBO miniseries worked on paper. It turned out that the scene in question isn’t in the novel (one of many changes made in the transition to the screen). That said, it felt like most of Perrotta’s weaknesses were absent from this novel and I enjoyed it enough that maybe I’ll give him another try.

Couplets by Maggie Millner
[Finished 25 June 2023] Another Summer Tournament of Books read, this one a novel in (mostly) rhyming couplets. An interesting conceit, but I didn’t really connect with the narrative.

Small Odysseys: Selected Shorts Presents 35 New Stories edited by Hannah Tinti
[Finished 23 June 2023] A fun collection of short stories on the theme of journey (some more distant from the theme than others). More hit than misses.

How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu
[Finished 21 June 2023] More a collection of linked short stories than a novel. Clearly a post-pandemic novel, the chapter with the euthanasia park devastated me to the extent that I nearly put the book down entirely, but beyond that it was an interesting look at a world taken apart and put back together again.

The Immortal King Rao by Vauhini Vara
[Finished 16 June 2023] Thanks to wide reading, I was familiar with the Dalits (better known outside India as “untouchables”) which gave me some key insight into the title character that wasn’t present early in the book (although given a later mention of “untouchable” might indicate that this might have been a deliberate choice). An interesting mix of history, cultural commentary and near-future science fiction, but I think the choice to use non-chronological narrative was a mistake.

Best Debut Short Stories 2020: The PEN America Dau Prize edited by Yuka Igarashi
[Finished 16 June 2023] Like most of this sort of collection, some stories landed better than others, but this edition seemed to have more misses than the others.

Yellowface by R. F. Kuang
[Finished 12 June 2023] It starts out darkly comic (although perhaps for non-writers some of the humor might be a little too inside-baseball for them to get), and then turns dark. The conclusion is a bit weak, but overall a fun read.

Big Swiss by Jen Beagin
[Finished 12 June 2023] Part of the Summer Tournament of Books from The Morning News, I found myself at turns fascinated and bored. The setup for the story was brilliant, but there didn’t feel like enough there there for it to fully satisfy. I’m sure other readers might feel differently.

Something Rich and Strange: Selected Stories by Ron Rash
[Finished 9 June 2023] I’ve read Rash’s The Cove in the past and was amazed by his writing then and this collection of stories blew me away even more.

The Mwindo Epic from the Banyanga edited by Daniel Biebuyck Kahombo C. Mateene
[Finished 7 June 2023] I read this as I finally got around to joining a Catherine Project seminar. I think that the translation ends up missing the tone of the original, and given the improvisatory nature of Banyanga story telling, trying to get a sense of the story from a book is like trying to get a John Coltrane performance from looking at the sheet music.

PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2019 edited by Yuka Igarashi
[Finished 1 June 2023] Like most of this sort of collection, some stories landed better than others.

The Man Without a Transit Pass by Jaroslav Hašek
[Finished 26 May 2023] Hašek is best known as the author of The Good Soldier Švejk which has been the victim of some atrocious translations. This collection of short stories which has the weakness of being a translation of a translation (it’s based on German translations of Hašek’s Czech), still does a great job of capturing the Hašek’s absurdist humor.

How to Be Happy by Eleanor Davis
[Finished 26 May 2023] A collection of graphic short stories/essays. Some connected, some did not.

Hanging Out: The Radical Power of Killing Time by Sheila Liming
[Finished 25 May 2023] More a memoir in essays than the book that the cover would seem to promise. I think my disappointment mostly stems from the fact that I wanted to read a different book than I got.

Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford
[Finished 24 May 2023] I didn’t expect to be very impressed with this. An older white male writer writing older white male things should be kind of boring, but it turns out that Ford is an amazing stylist and even in this fairly brief novel manages to be expansive in his descriptions. I’m definitely willing to read more of his writing.

If Nuns Ruled the World: Ten Sisters on a Mission by Jo Piazza
[Finished 22 May 2023] I have a different relationship with nuns than most Catholics in that I never attended Catholic school and had my first interactions with nuns as an adult. Those that I knew veered from the stereotypical image of the strict ruler and rosary–wielding disciplinarian. One friend was a science fiction fan who only wore a traditional habit when attending Star Trek conventions, others were actively involved in social justice movements, so there’s not much new to me here, but it was still fun to read a number of tales about nuns I knew about and some I did not.

PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2018 edited by Yuka Igarashi
[Finished 19 May 2023] Finally got around to starting to read this series. Like most of this sort of collection, some stories landed better than others.

The Prestige by Christopher Priest
[Finished 17 May 2023] I read this mostly out of curiosity, wondering how it related to the film made of the novel. I think, overall, the movie was a superior version of the story, eliminating a lot of superfluous elements that complicated the story for little benefit. That said, I think had I not seen the film I would have found this an outstanding read on its own merits.

I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai
[Finished 13 May 2023] When I read Rebecca’s previous novel, one of the pleasures of it was reading a scene that I recognized as being inspired by an actual event in her life which she posted on Facebook about. When I asked Rebecca about this during her launch event in Chicago, she said that there was nothing autobiographical in the book, but I think that it’s not quite right. The thing in her mind that did end up in the novel, I think, was a talk that she gave that appeared on the Beneath the Covers podcast where she talked about who the narrator of the novel is addressing and this novel, is not merely a first-person story (her first in a novel, I believe), but is also addressed to a particular hypothetical reader which I think is central to how the novel works.

The Candy House by Jennifer Egan
[Finished 11 May 2023] The sequel to Here Comes the Goon Squad that nobody asked for. I kind of feel like this would have been a better book if it weren’t a sequel. It’s over a decade since I read the preceding book and I didn’t necessarily remember all the relationships in it well enough to make some of the connections that I think Egan wanted to make, and I’m not sure that the book benefited from them anyway. Why not just let this be its own thing?

Florence Gordon by Brian Morton
[Finished 7 May 2023] A beautifully drawn account of the waning days of a woman who was once a feminist icon and thanks to a recent article, becomes a bit of one again.

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
[Finished 6 May 2023] A brutal novel about a woman’s kidnapping and rape. It felt a lot like Gay was incorporating her own experiences as a rape survivor in her writing.

The O. Henry Prize Stories 2017 edited by Laura Furman
[Finished 3 May 2023] It’s long enough between reading the book and writing this note that I’ve forgotten anything notable.

Radical Disciple: Father Pfleger, St. Sabina Church, and the Fight for Social Justice by Robert McClory
[Finished 2 May 2023] I’ve often wondered how Father Pfleger became who he was, and this book provided a lot of the answers. Plus, it was just delightful to read about Pfleger’s occasionally quixotic crusades to make the area around St Sabina a better place.

The Castle by Franz Kafka
[Finished 29 April 2023] In high school, I read this in the original translation which included all sorts of detritus of the editing process. The new Schocken translations are so much better.

House of Cotton by Monica Brashears
[Finished 27 April 2023] An intriguing debut novel. I feel a bit like some of the surrealism could have been managed better, but overall, it marks Brashears as an author to watch.

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy
[Finished 25 April 2023] This feels more like the McCarthy of Remainder than C did, although there’s a part of me that feels like it’s perhaps retreading familiar ground too much.

The Book of Goose by Yiyun Li
[Finished 20 April 2023] A slow burn of a book that becomes more and more intriguing as it proceeds.

El otoño del patriarca by Gabriel García Márquez
[Finished 20 April 2023] One of those books that immediately goes back into the to-read pile. The disorientation and the use of long unbroken blocks of text made this a challenging but rewarding read (especially since I was reading it in Spanish and still need to make frequent recourse to the dictionary).

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
[Finished 14 April 2023] I’d been reluctant to dive into this when it won the Booker prize, but I shouldn’t have been. It’s a great account of a little-known part of World War II and the choices in the narrative structure still remain with me months later.

The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy
[Finished 2 April 2023] A weirdly frustrating and simultaneously delightful McCarthy novel. I’m curious to read Stella Maris and see how that fits in.

Allegient by Veronica Roth
[Finished 9 March 2023] Chapter two, and Roth suddenly drops what had been the strongest aspect of the first two books, the narrative voice of Tris. Suddenly, we have two first-person narrators, whose voices are indistinguishable (which caused me periodic confusion as I tried to make sense of what was happening only to realize that it was Four speaking and not Tris. Given the plot, I can understand the reason for the choice, but it’s still a disaster artistically.

Insurgent by Veronica Roth
[Finished 4 March 2023] A shift from the experimental to the prosaic. I remember being impressed with the writing in Roth’s Divergent and while it’s been nearly a decade since I read that and I had to consult wikipedia a number of times to refresh myself on who all the characters were, I found the narrative here well-written if a bit maddening for its lack of advancement since being the middle book of a trilogy, it serves largely to bring us to the conclusion.

A New Name: Septology VI-VII by Jon Fosse
[Finished 1 March 2023] An initially maddening and ultimately satisfying book. Fosse makes a number of choices to make the book difficult to read: Characters are given similar or even identical names, the narrative switches from first to third person, traditional divisions into paragraphs and even sentences are largely avoided. Add in that the other book I’m reading alongside this is Gabriel García Márquez’s El otoño del patriarca which also avoids paragraphs and employs multi-page sentences and my whole idea of what narrative looks like has been turned inside out.

I Is Another: Septology III-V by Jon Fosse
[Finished 25 February 2023] Since the different parts of this are essentially a single work, I’m reserving my comments for the final volume in the series.

Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules by Rosalind Wiseman
[Finished 22 February 2023] My son is currently a few months younger away from turning nine, so this is a bit early to be reading it, but I still found it a fascinating insight into what will face my son as he gets older. I do feel like Wiseman was focusing on addressing moms more than dads most of the time and didn’t always listen to what her boy advisors were telling her, but even so, it’s an improvement over how I faced much of this by trial and error in my own day.

The Other Name: Septology I-II by Jon Fosse
[Finished 12 February 2023] Since the different parts of this are essentially a single work, I’m reserving my comments for the final volume in the series.

Embassy Wife by Katie Crouch
[Finished 10 February 2023] A mix of the comic and maudlin with perhaps a bit too much coincidence for it to be credible, but when it succeeded in its storytelling, it was a fun read.

Barney's Version by Mordecai Richler
[Finished 4 February 2023] Extravagant and profane, the narrator who is grappling with his fading memory, tries to tell his life story and defend himself against the charge of having murdered his friend decades earlier. I feel like the footnotes didn’t”t entirely do what they set out to do (although that might be the fault of reading this in e-book format where reading the notes required jumping to a different part of the book), but overall, this was a brilliant piece of fiction.

Margot by Wendell Steavenson
[Finished 3 February 2023] A history of a young woman’s gradual feminist awakening as the 50s turned into the 60s. There was one bit of historical detail (where, in the background, there is a news report on an Igbo uprising in Nigeria) that gave me reader-tingles. I think this sort of irrelevant historical wallpaper is a great way to establish the credibility of a historical novelist’s writing.

Starling Days by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan
[Finished 27 January 2023] An interesting but somewhat shallow look at the life of a chronically depressed and suicidal young woman. I’m not entirely sure that the leaps into her husband’s point of view contributed enough to make them worth while.

Best American Poetry 2018 edited by Dana Gioia
[Finished 26 January 2023] A nicely varied collection of poems. Gioia went beyond the usual suspects in searching out his poems and while there were some politically conservative publications among his choices, their were also some (although fewer) politically liberal publications as well.

Awakening Lives: Autobiographies of Jewish Youth in Poland before the Holocaust edited by Jeffrey Shandler
[Finished 26 January 2023] Another discovery thangs to the end notes of When I Grow Up, in this case, a collection of the raw autobiographies that Krimstein had available to him. Even without Krimstein’s illustrations, these continued to be fascinating reads.

Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast
[Finished 22 January 2023] Chast’s graphic memoir of her parents’ decline and death, perhaps even more compelling as my parents are turning 91 and 82 this year.

Profiles of a Lost World: Memoirs of East European Jewish Life before World War II by Hirsz Abramowicz
[Finished 20 January 2023] I found this book in the notes at the end of When I Grow Up: The Lost Autobiographies of Six Yiddish Teenagers and this is a different selection (and presentation) of autobiographies from the YIVO project, equally fascinating in the glimpses of Jewish life it provides.

John Adams by David McCullough
[Finished 20 January 2023] Despite having an inexplicable fondness for Adams, I knew very little about his life and since I’ve decided to go ahead and continue my project to read at least one presidential biography a year (hopefully dying before I reach the forty-fifth president—although I might mix in vice presidents to help stretch things out), this was a fascinating and compelling read of a man who sought to do the right thing even if it wasn’t personally advantageous. He reminds me a lot of Jimmy Carter in his integrity and reading this I’m looking forward to getting to John Quincy Adams.

Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland by Jan Tomasz Gross
[Finished 16 January 2023] While the anti-Jewish pogrom in Jedwabne perpetrated by the Poles in the early days of the German was an important event that happened. it feels like Gross was stymied by the lack of a documentary record and ended up with a weaker book as a result.

Rabbinic Responsa of the Holocaust Era edited by Robert Kirschner
[Finished 12 January 2023] Maybe it’s because I have no previous experience with this genre, but I found this collection absolutely fascinating as various rabbis explained their reasoning behind their answers to questions posed them about various questions of moral theology.

Daily Life in Wartime Japan, 1940-1945 by Samuel Hideo Yamashita
[Finished 11 January 2023] A sort of follow-up to Yamashita’s collection of diaries, this presents the information from Yamashita’s diary research in thematic groupings, providing a fairly comprehensive overview of what the life of Japanese citizens was like during World War II.

Waiting for Hope: Jewish Displaced Persons in Post-World War II Germany by Angelika Königseder
[Finished 9 January 2023] A semi-accidental re-read. I’d read this before and accidentally requested a copy of the book from the library and decided to leave it in the stack and read it again. The re-read uncovered some details that I’d not been too aware of before while simultaneously giving me a stronger sense of the full context around everything now that I’m close to the end of my researches.

When I Grow Up: The Lost Autobiographies of Six Yiddish Teenagers by Ken Krimstein
[Finished 7 January 2023] Krimstein doubtless inferred additional details into his presentations of the autobiographical essays presented here, but the graphic presentation of the text adds a great deal and makes this a must-read text.

The Atomic Bomb: Voices from Hiroshima and Nagasaki edited by Kyoko and Mark Selden
[Finished 5 January 2023] A collection of responses to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There are a mix of memoirs, fictionalized narrations, poems, artwork, photographs and children’s writings (these last all from Nagasaki) which provide a broad spectrum of experiences. Much of the work here is translated into English for the first time.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
[Finished 4 January 2023] This was the first Robinson I read and I decided that I needed to own a copy of all Robinson’s works so I bought a copy and re-read the book and it’s still an amazing bit of writing.

The Cage by Ruth Minsky Sender
[Finished 3 January 2023] A well-written account of life in the Łódź ghetto and afterwards. Great insight into Minksy Sender’s experiences.

The People on the Beach: Journeys to Freedom after the Holocaust by Rosie Whitehouse
[Finished 27 December 2022] An interesting investigation where Whitehouse tries to track down the life stories of one group of Holocaust survivors. It’s as much about the writing as the discovery and somewhat fascinating.

Shrapnel Maps by Philip Metres
[Finished 26 December 2022] Powerful poems reflecting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Korean Language Fundamental 1 by Hee-Seo Park
[Finished 26 December 2022] Geared primarily to children, the book really doesn’t go deeper than the basic letterforms and leaves implicit things like how ᄉ and ᄅ have a different sounds at the end of a syllable than at the beginning of the syllable, but the large size of the Korean text samples at least helps, along with guides for the order and direction of strokes in building the jamo.

Łódź Ghetto: Inside a Community Under Siege edited by Alan Adelson and Robert Lapides
[Finished 24 December 2022] An attempt at putting together a collection of primary source materials to give a complete history of the Łódź ghetto, somewhat akin to the Chronicle of Auschwitz. The Łódź ghetto’s own chronicle is a vital source, but it has crucial lacunae which are here augmented by memoirs and diaries from ghetto residents.

We Wept Without Tears: Testimonies of the Jewish Sonderkommando from Auschwitz by Gideon Greif
[Finished 22 December 2022] The Sonderkommando is a somewhat underdocumented aspect of Auschwitz and this collection of interviews and accompanying essay provides a great deal of good background on it. Emotionally devastating reading.

By Chance Alone: A Remarkable True Story of Courage and Survival at Auschwitz by Max Eisen
[Finished 17 December 2022] One of the more compulsively readable memoirs of the Shoah. Eisen cared as much about how he told his story as the story he told and the effort shows.

Leaves from an Autumn of Emergencies: Selections from the Wartime Diaries of Ordinary Japanese by Samuel Hideo Yamashita
[Finished 16 December 2022] Diary writing is a common practice in Japanese culture and these diaries give some sense of the daily life of civilians and others during World War II. Much of this material has not been previously available in English and there is a whole world revealed through Yamashita’s work.

Hiroshima: Three Witnesses edited by Richard H. Minnear
[Finished 14 December 2022] This is an omnibus of three sets of writing by survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima, much of it translated for the first time in English. I found Toge Sankichi’s Poems of the Atomic Bomb to be the most compelling of the three books included, but all were fascinating reads, although they tended to focus more on the aftermath than the events of August 6.

Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad by Matthew F. Delmont
[Finished 12 December 2022] A well presented overview of the last war of the Jim Crow army and the racism that Black soldiers faced as they fought a battle against Hitler’s racist regime. The irony of American apartheid being held up as an improvement over Nazism was not lost on the soldiers of the era.

After the Holocaust: The Long Road to Freedom by Erna F. Rubinstein
[Finished 9 December 2022] After reading Rubinstein’s first memoir, I had high hopes for this volume, but alas, she disposed with life in the DP camps in a single sentence, skipping over the whole experience in short order.

An Estate of Memory by Ilona Karmel
[Finished 7 December 2022] I had a hard time connecting to the story here.

The Survivor in Us All: Four Young Sisters in the Holocaust by Erna F. Rubinstein
[Finished 6 December 2022] Somewhat uncharacteristically for memoirs of the Shoah, Rubinstein has written her memoir in a novelistic style, offering a level of detail that is hard to justify as a historical document but that makes for a more compelling read at the same time.

Life Between Memory and Hope: The Survivors of the Holocaust in Occupied Germany by Zeev W. Mankowitz
[Finished 6 December 2022] A bit too focused on the big picture of things than I had hoped it would be.It would be nice to get more individual stories in the account.

The Kingdom of Gods by N. K. Jemisin
[Finished 5 December 2022] The conclusion of Jemisin’s inheritance trilogy. I found the series losing steam as it progressed, much like the society that it describes and it was somewhat less compelling with each volume. I enjoyed seeing more of the outside world in the second volume, but this volume seemed to have less to offer and some of the promised threads failed to reach satisfying ends.

Easy Thai: An Introduction to the Thai Language by Gordon H. Allison
[Finished 2 December 2022] A not especially good book. Allison was not a native speaker of Thai nor a linguist, but rather an expatriate (and perhaps a bit of self-important one at that) living in Thailand. This book does not really discuss anything about grammar and pays minimal attention to tones. The bulk of the focus is on teaching the alphabet, but even at that it ends up failing largely because the small type makes it difficult to make out the vital aspects of letter forms (good luck distinguishing between ใ and ไ in the small print which has a lot of bleed or being able to distinguish between ช and ซ).

Holocaust Chronicles: Individualizing the Holocaust Through Diaries and Other Contemporaneous Personal Accounts edited by Robert Moses Shapiro
[Finished 1 December 2022] A collection of essays about Holocaust research. It raises some of the issues about reliability that I’ve found on my own as well, and made for some interesting reading.

The Book of Dirt by Bram Presser
[Finished 29 November 2022] Writing fiction about the Shoah tends to be a challenge and I like Presser’s approach where he began with the life of his grandfather and research into it, and used that experience as scaffolding around the story that he told. A brilliant work overall

The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak: Five Notebooks from the Lodz Ghetto by David Sierakowiak
[Finished 25 November 2022] A good ground-level view of life in the Łódź ghetto.

The Go Programming Language by Alan A. A. Donovan and Brian W. Kernighan
[Finished 24 November 2022] A decent overview of the language, although while I learned C from Kernighan and Ritchie, I don’t know that I’m up for the same approach for language learning now.

The Complete Maus: A Survivor's Tale by Art Spiegelman
[Finished 24 November 2022] Absolutely stunning, something I wish I’d read years ago.

Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima by Robert Jay Lifton
[Finished 22 November 2022] Some interesting insights into the psychology of survivors of Hiroshima.

The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind edited by Claudia Rankine, Beth Loffreda and Max King Cap
[Finished 21 November 2022] A collection of short essays on race and (mostly) writing that came out of an online project instigated by Claudia Rankine. Quite a few interesting insights here and I find myself wanting to write my own essay on the topic as well. I do feel a little bit of self-satisfaction in that despite being white and growing up in a rather homogenous environment, my writing does tend to be much more conscious of race than is the case with other white writers, although I certainly have my own blind spots, a fact I know because they’ve been pointed out to me on occasion (I remember one instance where the response came without words by means of a facial expression in response to an ignorant remark).

The Romance Reader by Pearl Abraham
[Finished 21 November 2022] A fascinating inside look at life of a Hassidic teenager growing up in America, not to mention a good story on its own merits.

I Just Want This Done: How Smart, Successful People Get Divorced without Losing their Kids, Money, and Minds by Raiford Dalton Palmer
[Finished 19 November 2022] One of the lawyers I consulted about my divorce sent me a copy of this book, which he had written. I kind of feel like it’s targeted at people who are quite a bit wealthier than I am, although there are a few usable nuggets within it. The bottom line is don’t be vindictive or worry about the principle of things but rather to focus on what you want and why.

Our Courage: Jews in Europe 1945–48 edited by Kata Bohus, Atina Grossman, Werner Hanak and Mirjam Wenzel
[Finished 18 November 2022] A pan-European look at Jewish experiences after the Holocaust covering nearly the whole of the continent. My only complaint is that the individual pieces tended to be a bit on the short side leaving me wanting more than was said.

Out on a Ledge: Enduring the Lodz Ghetto, Auschwitz, and Beyond by Eva Libitzky and Fred Rosenbaum
[Finished 15 November 2022] A great memoir of one girl’s experiences before, during and after the Holocaust. One of my favorites in the genre.

Holocaust Survivors in Postwar Germany, 1945–1957 by Margarete Myers Feinstein
[Finished 15 November 2022] A book I wish I’d read first six years ago, but better late than never. Feinstein’s book is full of great information on the DP era and helped fill in a number of gaps in my knowledge.

Stranger's Journey: Race, Identity, and Narrative Craft in Writing by David Mura
[Finished 12 November 2022] Parts of this book are straight craft and the parts that address identity seem a bit scattered in their targeting (are they meant to be for non-white authors or for white authors writing about non-white characters?), but overall an excellent addition to the craft canon.

Renia's Diary: A Holocaust Journal by Renia Spiegel with Elizabeth Bellak
[Finished 11 November 2022] The variety of experience underlying the Holocaust is somewhat staggering. In this case, this is the diary of a Holocaust victim who lived in the Eastern Poland under Soviet occupation after the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Life managed to stay relatively normal until the Germans declared war on the Soviet Union and invaded and brought their genocidal policies to the East.

The Broken Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin
[Finished 7 November 2022] More diving into the world that Jemisin created in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. I continue to be in awe of how Jemisin manages her world building.

Voicing The Void: Muteness And Memory In Holocaust Fiction by Sara R. Horowitz
[Finished 7 November 2022] It’s interesting reading his in that by seeing how an academic approaches a piece of literary writing, it provides me with inspiration for my own creative practice. I have to imagine that other writers might do the same, but I’ve never heard anyone mention it.

Making Stories Making Selves: Feminist Reflections on the Holocaust by R. Ruth Linden
[Finished 3 November 2022] This was an interesting book, a bit of a follow-up to the collection, Her Story, My Story? with a mix of memoir and academic writing in a single volume.

Bitter Glory: Poland and Its Fate, 1918–1939 by Richard M. Watt
[Finished 3 November 2022] Watt’s book is very much a great men and war style of history with all of its limitations (it is quite nearly a biography of Józef Piłsudski given Piłsudski’s importance in this period of Polish history). There is a background to show the history of the Polish region from the middle ages up to the books nominal beginning with the close of the first world war. Seeing the conditions around the establishment of the Polish republic, so much of the subsequent events of history feel inevitable, between the disputed borders in the east and west, the Polish-Soviet war (something that I think I somehow missed in my history classes—whether it was just not taught or I wasn’t paying attention when it was, I couldn’t say) and the reluctance of France and Britain to push back on the earliest military adventurism of the Hitler regime, it seemed almost a certainty that Poland would end up being partitioned between Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939. The other thing that seems to be a common thread in my reading of this period is the utter stupidity of the Communist party outside of the Soviet Union between servile submission to the Soviet leadership and ignoring the needs of the local population.

The Abandoned Book and Other Yiddish Stories edited by Eitan Kensky
[Finished 2 November 2022] An assortment of stories (mostly, there are also a poem and a memoir piece) from the PaknTreger magazine where they were originally published, translated from the original Yiddish into English. Like any anthology, it’s a mixed bag, although the highlights were quite bright indeed.

Her Story, My Story?: Writing about Women and the Holocaust edited by Judith Tydor Baumel-Schwartz and Dalia Ofer
[Finished 29 October 2022] This is a collection of academic autobiographies by women who have done Holocaust research. I find it aggravating how much they had to fight to have women’s voices recognized as something worthy of study and wonder how much was lost thanks to the delays caused by the resistance to their project. Many of the authors in this book were ones with whom I was familiar, although some were new names who in turn opened up new directions for my own research.

Veronica by Mary Gaitskill
[Finished 27 October 2022] I think I heard about this novel through the Bookfight podcast. And while there was some beautiful writing here, I had some difficulty with the temporal shifts in the novel and never managed to connect. Perhaps if I had encountered it at another point in my reading life, I would have reacted differently.

Hope Is the Last to Die: A Coming of Age Under Nazi Terror by Halina Birenbaum
[Finished 27 October 2022] A fantastic memoir of a Holocaust survivor, describing her life in the Warsaw ghetto and then her later deportation to Auschwitz and thence to labor camps and her ultimate liberation.

The Kosher Capones: A History of Chicago's Jewish Gangsters by Joe Kraus
[Finished 20 October 2022] I grew up down the block from the nephew of an Outfit figure (never indicted) and went to a high school whose school board was controlled by the Outfit along with the whole government of the town of Cicero. For me, organized crime was always synonymous with Italians because that’s what I had exposure to (movies like The Godfather and its successors also contributed, of course). I was aware of Jewish figures connected to Italian organized crime, but only tangentially. So when I discovered that this book existed, I figured this was a good chance to dig into this (plus get some background on a neighborhood where one of the characters in my novel lived before and after his WWII service).

Kraus does some interesting things structurally, arranging his material thematically rather than strictly chronologically so that each chapter often doubles back on material previously covered to cover it again from a different angle. It’s not always successful, but it still makes for a good read and one that gives me a perspective on the west side of Chicago that I might otherwise have missed.

Risen from the Ashes: A Story of Jewish Displaced Persons in the Aftermath of World War II, Being a Sequel to Survivors by Jacob Biber
[Finished 19 October 2022] A rarity among Holocaust literature, a memoir that focuses not on the Holocaust itself but on its aftermath. The first part of the book is about Biber’s experiences in the Föhrenwald displaced persons camp, and the second, shorter part, his experiences after immigration to America.

Out of the Whirlwind: Essays on Mourning, Suffering and the Human Condition by Joseph B. Soloveitchik
[Finished 15 October 2022] This is really my introduction to the philosophy of Modern Orthodoxy as a philosophical movement and I’m really blown away by Soloveitchik’s synthesis of Western philosophy and Jewish thought. Some of his observations brought new light to familiar Biblical stories as well. I really wish I could find the tweet that directed me at Soloveitchik’s book.

Surviving the Cold Crematorium: (An Alternative to the Gas Chambers) by Joseph Hausner
[Finished 14 October 2022] A self-published memoir which focused primarily on the author’s experiences in the Kaufering subcamps of Dachau, although there are some good accounts of DP life as well.

Fresh Wounds: Early Narratives of Holocaust Survival edited by Donald L. Niewyk
[Finished 13 October 2022] This is a sort of follow-up volume to David Broder’s I Did Not Interview the Dead. Many of the interviews from that volume are re-presented here, although in abridged format. More female voices are presented and only Jewish survivors’ accounts are used in this volume. I remembered in the first that the women’s narratives tended to focus on what happened to the men in their lives, but in this volume, we get more of a sense of the women’s own experiences.

Dachau and the Nazi Terror 2: 1933–1945 Studies and Reports edited by Wolfgang Benz and Barbara Distel
[Finished 7 October 2022] A second volume of articles selected from the German publication where they originated. While the first volume focused mostly on first-person accounts of the Shoah, this is focused more on academic studies. It’s a bit overwhelming to see just how much is still unknown about what’s probably one of the better-documented events of the twentieth century.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin
[Finished 3 October 2022] A brilliantly conceived novel which casts us into a completely novel world and allows us to gradually become enmeshed in how Jemisin’s world functions.

Winter in the Morning: A Young Girl's Life in the Warsaw Ghetto and Beyond by Janina Bauman
[Finished 2 October 2022] A Shoah memoir that distinguishes itself by presenting a great deal of the historic context around the author’s own experiences.

Dachau and the Nazi Terror 1: 1933–1945 Testimonies and Memories edited by Wolfgang Benz and Barbara Distel
[Finished 30 September 2022] An interesting mix of articles originally printed in German (a handful of the articles were translated into German for their initial publication and are presented here in their original English, most are translated by various hands from German into English).

A Letter To My Children, From the Edge of the Holocaust by Abraham J. Klausner
[Finished 29 September 2022] A rather essential work on the DP era, although somewhat marred by the fact that Klausner was apparently not a completely reliable narrator of his own story, tending to exaggerate the plight of the DPs to justify his own desire to move them out of Germany as quickly as possible.

The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor
[Finished 23 September 2022] In many ways this is more a collection of linked short stories than a novel. Each chapter/story takes its focus on a different character of the titular Brewster Place apartment building, building up to the tragic conclusion of the tale. Naylor’s interweaving of the stories is done beautifully, and while it’s not anything that I can imitate in my work in progress, it’s just masterful writing.

Purim: The Face and the Mask
[Finished 21 September 2022] A collection of essays to accompany an exhibition by the Yeshiva University Museum. I was mostly interested in an article about the celebration of Purim in the Landsberg DP camp in the aftermath of World War II, but there were other insights as well. The essay by Joseph Soloveitchik was curious in its perspective on gender roles.

Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
[Finished 20 September 2022] Sort of two books in one: the first half is a Holocaust memoir, but one which is colored by Frankl’s psychiatrist’s perspective where he viewed everything through a mental health lens, one which gave interesting insights into his observations. The second half is an account of Frankl’s theory of psychotherapy which he calls logotherapy which is based around the idea that finding meaning in life is the essential task of human life.

Anya by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer
[Finished 18 September 2022] A novel of a woman’s experience from the comfortable years before the Holocaust through the era of the ghettos and then concentration camps until she finally managed to escape and then her life in the immediate aftermath of liberation. It was well-written, although I had trouble connecting with the novel, my own fault I imagine.

Jewish “Shtetls” in Postwar Germany: An Analysis of Interaction among Jewish Displaced Persons, Germans and Americans be by Kierra Mikaila Crago-Schneider
[Finished 17 September 2022] A doctoral dissertation I stumbled across in the course of my research for the novel. Absolutely perfect for me—there are a handful of references to useful sources and lots of good detail. It’s almost as if it were written specifically to be a guidebook for me in novel research.

Ruthka: A Diary of War by Ruthka Lieblich
[Finished 15 September 2022] One of a big pile of Holocaust diaries that I’m reading. Most of it is written before the worst happened, so it stands most strikingly as an account of what the internal life of a teenage Jewish girl in pre-war Poland was like.

The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto, 1941–1944 edited by Lucjan Dobroszycki
[Finished 10 September 2022] This book consist of entries written during the time of the Łódź ghetto by mostly anonymous men within the ghetto. It’s a mix of news, record-keeping and gossip. It was striking that the great shpera of 1947 where all the children and old people were taken from the ghetto to their deaths was largely absent from the chronicle, presumably because of how terrible an event it was.

Hiroshima Diary: The Journal of a Japanese Physician, August 6–September 30, 1945 by Michihiko Hachiya
[Finished 8 September 2022] A compelling account of the period from the bombing of Hiroshima through to the end of September from the perspective of a doctor who survived the bombing and then treated the survivors, having to deal with the discovery of the impacts of radiation sickness on the survivors including himself. Easily one of the best accounts of Hiroshima I’ve read.

The Nazi and the Barber by Edgar Hilsenrath
[Finished 6 September 2022] What makes this book work, I think, is the wildly extravagant first-person narration which comprises the bulk of the book. It flags a bit when Hilsenrath shifted to third-person narration for one section of the book and then recounted a lot of that in first-person again in the section following, but the narrative voice was strong enough to excuse the structural sins.

King of the Jews: A Novel of the Holocaust by Leslie Epstein
[Finished 5 September 2022] A hugely fictionalized version of the Łódź ghetto. Aside from changing the character of Chaim Rumkowski (whose name is instead applied to a bathhouse), it also omits some of the more dramatic historical events in the history of the ghetto, most notably the great szpera where the children and old people were deported from the ghetto en masse.

Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy
[Finished 27 August 2022] A novel with vast scope, perhaps too vast. Mostly about the war, although there are some chapters in the last part that take place in the camps and the DP world. Mostly helpful to me for getting a cultural sense than anything else.

Auschwitz Chronicle: 1939–1945 edited by Danuta Czech
[Finished 21 August 2022] A day by day reproduction as much as possible of the events that took place at the Auschwitz concentration camp from its founding to its abandonment with the advance of the Russians.

A Scrap of Time and Other Stories by Ida Fink
[Finished 20 August 2022] Some damn fine short fiction here. Fink is one of those under-studied writers of European Judaism who deserve a wider audience.

Complete Short Stories by Graham Greene
[Finished 10 August 2022] I’ve read almost all of these before, although I’m a bit startled to realize that it’s a dozen years since I last read Greene in any great amount, so while some of the stories had a sense of familiarity, many came out fresh and new.

The best of the lot are, I think, still the original early stories that comprised Twenty-one Stories, but there are gems throughout and it’s fascinating to see Greene trying his hand at rather commercial styles in some of these stories including horror and science fiction.

Questions I Am Asked About the Holocaust by Hédi Fried
[Finished 6 August 2022] I was a little skeptical about whether this book would be helpful, but 30 books or 31, what’s the difference. Fortunately, it turned out that Fried’s book was helpful in that it was based on the questions that she was asked by schoolchildren and children being children ask about things that adults are too polite or shy to ask.

From the Jewish Provinces: Selected Stories by Fradl Shtok
[Finished 4 August 2022] So much of the canon of Yiddish literature is written by men and excludes female perspectives. Shtok tends to write about men as well, but also concerns herself with women’s lives and this selection of her fiction was a nice introduction to Jewish women’s lives in pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe.

The Art of History: Unlocking the Past in Fiction and Nonfiction by Christopher Bram
[Finished 30 July 2022] A delightful little book in the Art of… series from Graywolf. This one leans a lot towards the practical and gives useful guidance in writing historical narratives along with an extraordinarily intriguing reading list. One of my favorites from that series.

Rutka's Notebook: A Voice from the Holocaust by Rutka Laskier
[Finished 30 July 2022] Part of my current research binge as a I prep for draft three of the novel. Rutka Laskier was murdered in Auschwitz and her diary preserved by a gentile friend and gives a good view into the concerns of a teenager living through the constriction of Jewish life in the 1930s and 40s.

The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick
[Finished 29 July 2022] A slender book with just two linked stories, “The Shawl” and “Rosa.” The first takes place in a concentration camp where Rosa attempts to save her daughter against all odds but ultimately fails, the second, longer story, a novella really, is a sequel set in 1970s Florida where Rosa struggles to live with her memories of her daughter’s death. The first story, I think, is overweighed by its language and this casts a shadow over the second story which is a more straightforward narrative although living in Rosa’s trauma is its own challenge to the reader.

Get It Done: Surprising Lessons from the Science of Motivation by Ayelet Fishbach
[Finished 24 July 2022] I heard Fishbach interviewed on a podcast and found what she had to say intriguing so I decided to check out her book. Not a whole lot of new information here, but it was nice to see a lot of the scientific research laid out in this fashion. There could have been a bit more done in connecting the dots between the research and the practical applications thereof, but I suspect that this didn’t happen at least in part because Fishbach, as a responsible scientist, is unwilling to make connections she can’t fully support through research,

Eye of Water by Amber Flora Thomas
[Finished 15 July 2022] There were a few moments of language here that caught at me, but for the most part, I felt like I wasn’t the right reader for these poems.

Survivors: Children's Lives After the Holocaust by Rebecca Clifford
[Finished 12 July 2022] A bit more research reading for the novel in progress. It gave me some good insights into one of the secondary characters in the novel which have already impacted the code.

La casa de los espíritus by Isabel Allende
[Finished 7 July 2022] Me gusta mucho los libros de Isabel Allende. La escritura es perfecta. Tengo que leer más Allende.

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld
[Finished 6 July 2022] The characterization of the girls in this novel felt absolutely perfect. I had some glimpses into the lives of teenage girls during my brief career as a high school teacher (reading confiscated passed notes, which in retrospect, was a serious dick move and if I could go back in time, I would have either ignored the notes or kept them unread until the end of class and returned them, but anyway), and this felt absolutely true and I had to wonder how much of this was autobiography. The final long chapter kind of lost the momentum of the earlier chapters though and the big crisis that concluded the final chapter felt contrived, but overall, I’m happy to have spent time reading this book.

The Hacienda by Isabel Cañas
[Finished 29 June 2022] There were a couple cases where there were minor flubs in the descriptions (in the 1820s, the priest would not be behind the altar during the Mass but before it and would not be wearing a Roman collar), but overall, a well-told story even if it occasionally descended into pedestrian prose at times. I look forward to seeing what else Cañas does.

Revenge of the Scapegoat by Caren Beilin
[Finished 9 June 2022] I feel like I somehow failed this book. Perhaps I needed to read it in a single continuous read (it’s a relatively short book. I only found the sections that took place at the farm/art museum to be compelling. The scenes before and after had less interest and the philosophical aspect of the novel left me cold.

Scandal by Shūsaku Endō
[Finished 27 May 2022] Endō is one of my obsessions (every book of his that I’ve read only makes me want to read more). In this case, there’s a mystery about a döppelgänger of the protagonist of the novel, a prominent Catholic author, who is engaged in scandalous practices that could discredit him. It’s not entirely successful, but it’s successful enough.

Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler
[Finished 26 May 2022] This is the first of Tyler’s books that I’ve read and damn, she tells a compelling story. I had a hard time putting the book down as each chapter ends, which is fascinating in that there isn’t necessarily anything that fascinating about the events beyond her inciting incident. I really want to know how she does that.

Creating and Consuming Rich PDFs by Leonard Rosenthol
[Finished 22 May 2022] A more detailed look at PDFs than Whitington’s book, but still fairly high level. That said, a good prolegomenon to reading the full spec.

Hiroshima Nagasaki: The Real Story of the Atomic Bombings and Their Aftermath by Paul Ham
[Finished 20 May 2022] I was hoping for a bit more about the aftermath on the ground of the bombing of Hiroshima, although there were some good details here. Perhaps most impressively is how Ham manages to subtly but persuasively make the case that the use of the atomic bombs in Japan was far from necessary and that the decisive factor in ending the war was not the bombings but the entry of the Russians into the war with Japan.

PDF Explained by John Whitington
[Finished 19 May 2022] A decent high-level tour of the capabilities of PDF.

Graham Greene: Man of Paradox edited by A. F. Cassis
[Finished 8 May 2022] A collection of interviews, profile and excerpts from longer works. It’s curious that for some of the authors, no biographical information was able to be found (I’m guessing that these might have been works written for newspapers or other occasional publications, perhaps). It was really interesting in some of the later interviews to hear Greene referring directly to earlier pieces in the collection. I don’t know that I necessarily learned anything new about Greene, but it was interesting to see these pieces collected in one place.

The Family Moskat by Isaac Bashevis Singer
[Finished 22 April 2022] Continuing to read works by the Singers as background research for my novel. This one covers a somewhat later period than I. J.’s Brothers Ashkenazi, so it’s more relevant for background material than that novel, but I found that the older brother’s writing is more engaging and he tells a better story.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
[Finished 2 April 2022] I had a therapist who found this book a boring read, and having finished it, I kind of wonder what his problem was. I can see the use of Jamaican patois being a challenge for some readers (although having invented my own creole for a short story set in Burkina Faso, I had no difficulty with it). The bigger challenge was keeping track of the assorted characters (it’s always a bit of a warning sign when there’s a list of characters at the beginning of the book) and finding my footing within the story. I feel like a re-read of the book would be very rewarding although it’s a long enough book that I’m also reluctant to do that.

Practice Makes Perfect: Spanish Conversation by Jean Yates
[Finished 22 March 2022] A book my wife got to push me into building my insufficient Spanish skills. A pretty good resource (I have one year of college Spanish and some scattershot acquisition of the language since then) and this helped fill in some gaps for me. The Kindle format that my wife bought it in is somewhat suboptimal though.

Five by Endo by Shūsaku Endō
[Finished 22 March 2022] I’ve read two of Endō’s novels before this book and those prepped me to love his writing and I wasn’t disappointed in this book. Beautiful writing on intriguing subjects. The only weak spot was the story which was in fact the first chapter of Endo’s The River which, contrary to the introductory notes, doesn’t really work as a stand-alone piece.

Refuse to Be Done: How to Write and Rewrite a Novel in Three Drafts by Matt Bell
[Finished 17 March 2022] I’ve read one of Bell’s novels and two more on my shelves (he’s apparently a guaranteed pick for the TNB book club), and thanks to some of his promotion on Twitter, I decided to give his craft book a shot and damn, it’s good. I’m already applying some of it in my rewrite process on my own novel and I plan to use it to make a plan for the third draft revision process.

Especially notable is that he tends against prescriptivism in his advice unlike a certain other writing professor whose writing I’ve read who insisted that his method was the only way to create Literature.

The Latinist by Mark Prins
[Finished 16 March 2022] As a would-have-been classics major, I was inclined to be into this book with its dark academia premise, but it had a slow and jumbled start, spent too much time in the wrong character’s head and had a rather disturbing scene in the penultimate section which just didn’t make sense (I had to back up and make sure I hadn’t misread what happened). I feel like this could have been a much better book than it was and the book that it is ends up disappointing as a result.

Evelyn Waugh: A Biography by Selina Hastings
[Finished 11 March 2022] I first discovered Waugh through a passing mention in Graham Greene’s autobiography and he joined my pantheon of English Catholic writers whose work and life I obsessed over. Hastings’s biography of Waugh is rich in detail although it gets a bit thin after the second world war (which means that Waugh’s most notorious acts of cruelty towards his children are omitted). I’m thinking maybe it’s time to re-read Waugh this time in chronological order rather than the scattershot approach I took when I first read him when I haunted the W’s in the fiction sections of every bookstore I encountered.

LaTeX in 24 Hours: A Practical Guide for Scientific Writing by Dilip Datta
[Finished 7 March 2022] It might be ungenerous to say this, given that I’m writing my own book on LaTeX, but this is not a good book. I picked it up when Springer was giving away eBooks of their catalog and I figured I should see what a recent LaTeX book looked like. On the positive side, it goes beyond core LaTeX, but it seems to miss the fundamental concept of LaTeX—separating content and form as much as possible—and has a number of incorrect recommendations.

Rywka's Diary: The Writings of a Jewish Girl from the Lodz Ghetto by Rywka Lypszyc
[Finished 7 March 2022] The diary has a wealth of great detail as do the supplementary materials. Perhaps the most fascinating part though, was the introduction where the author couldn’t bring herself to speak ill of Chaim Rumkowski and went to great pains to declare that Rywka’s love of another girl in the ghetto was romantic but not erotic which spoke more of the author of the introduction than her subject.

Salvaged Pages: Young Writers' Diaries of the Holocaust edited by Alexandra Zapruder
[Finished 6 March 2022] A collection of diaries, either in excerpts or their entirety giving first-person views of young peoples’ lives during the Holocaust. The details are simultaneously heartbreaking and compelling.

Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross edited by Maia-Mari Sutnik
[Finished 2 March 2022] The photos of Ross are, of course, present here, but also some essays by various hands which elucidate the context of the photos and Ross’s presentation of them after their recovery. It was great to have some visual records of life in the Łódź ghetto during the Nazi occupation.

Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots by William Wallace Cook
[Finished 27 February 2022] I saw this book mentioned on Twitter and decided to give it a look. It’s a fascinating book and while it might not have all plots in it, it probably has most of them. There were a number of plots that I recognized as being used by relatively recent films. Not quite the guide to plot that I’d hoped for though.

The Brothers Ashkenazi by Israel J. Singer
[Finished 27 February 2022] One of those rare bits of Goodreads serendipity. At first I thought that the author’s name was a garbled version of Isaac Bashevis Singer, but it turns out that the better known Singer had an older brother who was also a writer and, if I might say so, who was a better writer! There were some moments in the story where I was distinctly unmoored not knowing enough of Polish history to know where I was in time, but in at least some instances, I was able to find a bit more information to help me (and I even contributed a translation of an article from Polish Wikipedia on the Łódź uprising—along the way discovering that I’ve been mispronouncing Łódź, thinking it was wohj rather than wooj). This was a fascinating look at Polish Jewish life from the middle of the nineteenth century to the 1920s and definitely worth seeking out. I. J. Singer deserves to be at least as well known as I. B.

Altitude Sickness by Litsa Dremousis
[Finished 16 February 2022] A slender pamphlet I got for contributing to the funding for the submerging writer fellowship (the premium included a few other chapbook-sized works as well as a book I already had). It reminded me of a friend from college who also died in similar thrill-seeking circumstances in the mountains near Seattle (I even wondered whether her friend might have been my friend renamed but it wasn’t). It was nicely written and Dremousis has a lot to recommend her.

Double Jeopardy: Gender and the Holocaust by Judith Tydor Baumel
[Finished 15 February 2022] An outstanding collection of essays on gender and the Holocaust. One of the rare books that covers the DP era, although sadly, most of what Baumel has to say is that there’s not much documentation of women’s experiences in that time.

We’re All Just Trying to Make It to January 2nd by Diane D. Gillette
[Finished 11 February 2022] A collection of flash pieces themed around holidays by one of the members of my writing group. I’ve read a lot of Gillette’s work in progress and it’s a pleasure to see her writing in its final form (one of these I had read previously) and to see how excellent her writing gets when it’s completed.

The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe by Roger Penrose
[Finished 8 February 2022] Quite a bit more abstruse than I expected. Even with graduate studies in mathematic behind me, I found myself ending up having to more or less skim over some of the mathematical content. That said, even with the technical depth, it stood as a good roadmap to modern physics.

L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present by Josh Sides
[Finished 29 January 2022] One of these books I picked up by way of researching background for characters in my novel. For my purposes, I could have stopped after the first chapter or two, but I was fascinated by a lot of the history that I didn’t know. L.A. is in many ways, a model of integration in the U.S., and it’s startling to read this and remember that it’s still pretty awful by objective standards. Some of the stuff that Black people have had to put up with, I found myself thinking that it’s a fucking miracle of restraint that they haven’t just gone and killed all the white people for being such assholes already.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
[Finished 25 January 2022] An amazing book, taking turns I never expected more than once.

Treason by Terese Svoboda
[Finished 16 January 2022] Svoboda was one of my mentors during my MFA and while I worked on fiction during my semester with her, she is originally a poet and this was my first experience reading an extended selection of her poetry and—oh my, I love this. I’ve read/heard individual poems before and it’s uncanny how much what I write in poetry and what she has written overlap in subject matter and tone. I really loved this book.

A Play for the End of the World by Jai Chakrabarti
[Finished 13 January 2022] Novel-adjacent reading, this novel uses the performance of the play The Post Office by the Indian writer Rabindrahoth Tagore in the Warsaw ghetto and then a restaging of the play by Bangladeshi refugees in 1973 India as a way to consider how its protagonist, Jaryk Smith processes his survivor’s guilt surrounding his experiences during the Holocaust. The whole thing is beautifully written although the romance story occasionally flirts with cliché, especially when it attempts to avoid cliché in its conclusion and gleefully stomps into an alternate cliché (although I’m not entirely certain that there is a solution to that particular conundrum). Overall a good book and Chakrabarti, whose short fiction I’ve read, is someone to watch.

The Secret Place by Tana French
[Finished 8 January 2022] Told in alternating chapters where we get a third-person omniscient perspective of a group of teenage girls whose lives intersected with a murder and a first-person account of a would-be homicide detective who by chance gets the opportunity to work a homicide case. The third-person chapters don’t always work very well and there’s an odd bit of supernatural activity that doesn’t seem to go anywhere (I avoided knowing as much as possible about the book and other than this was the fifth book in a series, I knew nothing. I was really curious about how the supernatural stuff would play out but was disappointed to see it left dangling). There was also a bit of leaning too hard into Irish pronunciation and slang that seemed a likely consequence of French being an American living in Ireland and apparently eager to establish her Irish cred.

Faithful Families: Creating Sacred Moments at Home by Traci Smith
[Finished 29 December 2021] A collection of home prayer practices meant as a means for parents to be able to pick and choose the things that fit into the lives of their family to make faith a part of everyday life. A lot of ideas here I’d like to try with my family.

The Seance and Other Stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer
[Finished 29 December 2021] A second collection of Singer stories that I picked up because I had read that he had written controversially about a lesbian relationship in one of the stories and I was curious to see how he wrote it. Immediately after reading it, I had thought that it wasn’t helpful, but having allowed it to percolate in my brain, I think it was helpful.

Mixing Messages by Ellen Lupton
[Finished 26 December 2021] A nice time capsule of the design world in the 1990s. I was given my copy by the author while we were on a flight from Amsterdam to New York after the ATypI conference (the perks of being the editor of a typography magazine) but I only now after 25 years got around to reading it. Fascinating read.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
[Finished 23 December 2021] I have over 1000 books in my list of books to get from the library and when I’m waiting for a book at the front of the list to become available, I end up digging into the middle to pull up something from Libby that I can read while I wait.

I say this largely to point out that I don’t know why this was in my list. It might not have made it if I came across the title again. It’s a bookseller novel! A tragic figure who has lost the love of his life and has some unexpected entry in his life that changes everything. Zevin manages to keep things from falling into maudlin stereotype most of the time, although not always successfully. There were enough moments of humor along the way to make it worth reading.

The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber
[Finished 21 December 2021] A sort of protestant version of The Sparrow in more than just the surface religion of the protagonist—the fact that the motivator here is commerce and colonization rather than evangelization really carries some of the distinction between the protestant and Catholic world views (yes, I know that, especially in the Americas, there was a big colonization and exploitation aspect to the conquista, but especially with the Jesuits who also played a central role in The Sparrow, ad majorem gloriam dei really did play a key role in what was done).

The big reveal in the plot worked well although it felt like the novel more faded away than concluded and I would have preferred a more conflicted protagonist. It was also weird reading the accounts of the calamities back on Earth and feel like I was reading about contemporary times.

Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer
[Finished 18 December 2021] To make sure that I can accurately render the personalities of the characters in my novel, I thought that reading Singer would be helpful. It is. Little of this can be directly employed without making things feel like all I know about Jewish culture I learned from Fiddler on the Roof, but it still helps. Some of the translation choices made feel odd to me, as if Bellow and the other translators were trying to de-emphasize the Jewishness of the characters, but overall it’s a great look into a lost time.

Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body by Megan Milks
[Finished 11 December 2021] An almost-successful book, a weird mélange of genres and perspectives. The promotional copy on the back cover oversells the queer aspects of the book and the final section feels more like an undergraduate polemic turned in as a term paper than a part of the book, but it’s interesting and weird enough that it gets one of the coveted finite spaces on my bookshelves.

Shtetl by Eva Hoffman
[Finished 10 December 2021] A bit of research for the novel, this is a book about Jewish life in a Polish village on the Byelorussian frontier before the Holocaust. Apparently it’s a companion to a documentary film that aired on PBS, but full of interesting information.

The Famished Road by Ben Okri
[Finished 7 December 2021] An odd bit of African magical realism. I felt unmoored more than usual with this book and had a hard time connecting with the story. That said, there were some interesting aspects to the book and I won’t turn away from reading more Okri in the future.

In War's Wake: Europe's Displaced Persons in the Postwar Order by Gerard Daniel Cohen
[Finished 28 November 2021] Largely an institutions view of how the DP situation worked in the aftermath of World War II and not at all what I needed in terms of research.

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate by Naomi Klein
[Finished 18 November 2021] A rough read just because it’s a reminder of how fucked we are and how much 2017–21 didn’t help with that.

I’m not entirely sure what to do with what I’ve read here. While the epilogue is meant to inspire some level of hope, it seems pretty clear that we’re badly screwed. I mean for fuck’s sake, the Nature Conservancy is drilling for oil on land that they theoretically purchased to protect it from oil drilling (at least they’ve been off my donation rotation for a long time).

Cardinal Galsworthy by Edward R. F. Sheehan
[Finished 18 November 2021] Pope novels tend to be a bit of wish fulfillment with the protagonist typically a stand-in for the novel, and in this case, the titular Cardinal Galsworthy is apparently a stand-in for Sheehan. Galsworthy is a bit of a fop and more than a little materialistic, plus he has some bizarre racial attitudes (his insistence on referring to Black Africans as Nubians comes across as distinctly 19th century). I’m not sure how much of this is an attempt to try to humanize a self-idealization and how much is social blindness. It was difficult to really tolerate spending 500 pages with this protagonist.

Burntcoat by Sarah Hall
[Finished 4 November 2021] This started out as an amazing novel and then there was a weird turn into being a pandemic story. I noticed in the acknowledgments that Hall had some writing retreat time working the novel in 2019 which tells me that she started writing one novel and then turned it into a pandemic novel afterwards. That explains a lot. I feel like if Hall had avoided trying to make the novel topical it would have been a much stronger piece of fiction.

Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness by Kristen Radtke
[Finished 30 October 2021] An amazing book. Radtke’s illustrations do a lot to enhance her text (modulo a few pages where they’re a bit weak). The subject of loneliness is one that is barely discussed and there’s a lot of depth that I was unaware of.

Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany by Marion A. Kaplan
[Finished 28 October 2021] A fascinating account of life of Jewish people under the Nazi regime in Germany. What makes it really special is that Kaplan gives emphasis on women’s experiences, something which so much writing on the subject has tended to de-emphasize.

The Copenhagen Trilogy: Childhood; Youth; Dependency by Tove Ditlevsen
[Finished 20 October 2021] An interesting enough book, although it was odd how little the Second World War seemed to impact Ditlevsen. She was surrounded by pro- and anti-Hitler factions in Denmark and then the country was occupied by the Germans and she seemed to be largely oblivious to all of this. It was an interesting look into her mind and her descent into opioid dependency, but I seem to have missed the mark for being able to love this book as much as many others seem to. There were some fascinating looks at the publishing scene in pre-war Denmark though, including a casual mention of dinner with Evelyn Waugh and how she found her initial publication opportunities. A very different world indeed.

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women by Kate Moore
[Finished 13 October 2021] The subject matter is gripping—the focus on profits over people in the nascent radium industry—and yet I found the reading to frequently be tedious. In the afterword, Moore comments about how there was no non-academic writing about the young women who lost their lives to radium poisoning and I imagine some of the tedium of the academic writing on the subject couldn’t help getting into her writing. It felt like this could have been a better choice for a work of fiction, and given that Moore became interested in the subject while directing a play on the subject, I may not be that far off from the truth of the matter.

Masterclass by Morris West
[Finished 10 October 2021] A late novel from West, it’s at times a jumbled mess, and at times a fun ride. There are two separate plots going on here: one a murder mystery, one a kind of art crime where the protagonist might have a lost Rafael masterpiece, or might have a copy made during the second world war. None of the stakes feel that compelling and yet I had a hard time putting the book down once I started going with it. I’m still not entirely sure what I think of the book.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
[Finished 1 October 2021] Curiously, this is not the first novel I’ve read in recent memory about a family living with a chimpanzee, and I think that as a consequence of having read the first of these books, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, which viewed the situation through a lens of racial issues, I had a harder time dealing with the white middle class characters of this novel and accepting their problems. It didn’t really help a whole lot that Fowler was taking a self-consciously post-modern approach to her narrative in a way that didn’t fully work. And yet, her characterization managed to pierce through her efforts to muddle it, at least for her narrator which was a redeeming facet in the novel even as other characters in the novel fell flat.

Married to Distraction: Restoring Intimacy and Strengthening Your Marriage in an Age of Interruption by Edward M. Hallowell, Sue George Hallowell and Melissa Orlov
[Finished 24 September 2021] Hallowell is best known for writing about ADD issues, and there’s a chapter in this book about ADD, but here, writing with his wife and contributor Orlov, he broadens his focus to relationships in a culture which creates a sort of cultural ADD. There are some rough patches in the book—particularly through a mix of first-person voices in the book where it’s not always clear who “I” is at any point, but overall, a pretty good book.

South: The Story of Shackleton's Last Expedition 1914–1917 by Ernest Shackleton
[Finished 24 September 2021] See my review at

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
[Finished 15 September 2021] Jones made a point of entitling her novel An American Marriage to make the point that it wasn’t especially a Black story, if I remember the interview I heard some years ago correctly. And while the inciting event, a husband wrongfully convicted of rape seems most likely for a Black man (and a point that is made often throughout the book), the emotions in the story, the desperate clinging for love and acceptance, are, indeed, very much universal. Most impressive to me was Jones’s management of three distinct narrative voices in the novel in a way that worked remarkably well.

La historia de mis dientes by Valeria Luiselli
[Finished 14 September 2021] This is the second Luiselli novel I’ve read although the first that I heard about. I found her writing much more compelling in Spanish than in English, with the narrative voice of Carretera especially strong. The final section, which is not written in Carretera’s voice, not surprisingly, is the weakest part of the book, but it was a delightful read.

The Golden Tradition: Jewish Life and Thought in Eastern Europe edited by Lucy S. Dawidowicz
[Finished 10 September 2021] An eclectic anthology of writing by and about notable Jewish thinkers from the 16th century to the eve of World War II. I stumbled upon this after reading Dawidowicz’s memoir of her time before the World War II studying at the YIVO institute in Vilna and then working with DPs in the aftermath of the war, and decided that it would be useful background for immersing myself in pre-Holocaust Jewish thought. It was often a dry read, but it did meet my needs well.

Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple
[Finished 5 September 2021] I picked this up in the pile of free ARCs at the library and I think what I read was a largely unedited text—a few pages in, I realized that what I had was pretty much a bound copy of Semple’s Word document. But even so, this was still a largely enjoyable read. At times, it felt like Semple was hitting many of the same notes as she did in Where’d You Go Bernadette and certainly, this book pales in comparison to Semple’s debut, but it still had fun, although there were some aspects of the story that felt a little cheap and some plot points that didn’t fully work.

Delivered from Distraction: Getting the Most out of Life with Attention Deficit Disorder by Edward M. Hallowell and John J. Ratey
[Finished 5 September 2021] There were so many points in the course of reading this book, I found myself thinking that Hallowell managed to somehow know exactly who I am and what I’m like. I’d’ve liked more concrete coping tips, but it was still an illuminating read.

I could feel the afterglow by Megan Gidding
[Finished 25 August 2021] A refreshing palette cleanser after my last read, a mini-chapbook, published only as a pay-what-you-want PDF ebook of a dozen pages. The story, told in a series of short vignettes, reflects on death and dying and life as well. I’ve been a fan of Giddings’s writing since I first discovered her on the pages of a literary magazine I had read, and this did not disappoint.

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George
[Finished 24 August 2021] While this was in my currently-reading shelf on Goodreads, that site offered me a plethora of other bookstore-related novels as suggested reads. Who knew that it was a genre? And given that it’s a genre that is flattering to both booksellers and book buyers, it seems a rather self-serving genre for the author and a bit skeevy. As a book, this is kind of sappy and moralistic. The proprietor of the titular bookshop (which is located on a working barge in the Seine, a fact which causes the bookshop to head upriver and navigate canals to a great book city in search of a pseudonymous author who wrote a book of great importance to the bookseller whose name, Perdu, literally means Lost and well, either this sounds good to you or your eyebrows are working their ways to the back of your head. Did I mention the vanished lover who it turns out has been dead for decades? Or the philosopher-chef and the best-selling young author who’s lost his inspiration both of whom join the bookseller on his journey? It’s not a bad book. per se, but neither is it a good book.

Parables for Our Time: Rereading New Testament Scholarship After the Holocaust by Tania Oldenhage
[Finished 12 August 2021] I’m not entirely certain how this ended up in my to-read list. I’m guessing it’s a consequence of some artificial intelligence algorithm feeling that this would be good reading for me. I felt like a lot of the book was overly dependent on other writing which I’ve not read, but overall, it was thought-provoking and introduced me to some new ways to approach scriptural interpretation which I was not previously famiiliar with.

Parenting Forward: How to Raise Children with Justice, Mercy, and Kindness by Cindy Wang Brandt
[Finished 5 August 2021] I’m not really in Brandt’s target market of ex-vangelicals, most likely because my own religious journey is quite different from hers, spending my life as a questing agnostic before eventually becoming a Dorothy Day Catholic. But there was still plenty of good ideas here about how to raise children in an open-minded way.

Best American Catholic Short Stories edited by Daniel McVeigh and Patricia Schnapp
[Finished 2 August 2021] I have mixed feelings about this collection. On the one hand, I discovered a number of authors who I really liked and whom I had not read previously. Tim Gautreaux, Mary Gordon, Jon Hassler and Phillip Deaver are all going into my to-read list. On the other hand, it seemed like an inordinate amount of the collection was dedicated to pre–Vatican II authors with Caroline Gordon taking up perhaps more space than she merits (three stories including one from before she became Catholic). There also seemed to be a preference for stories that feature Catholic furniture rather than those that really exemplify what Catholic fiction can be (I attended a talk at the New York City Catholic Worker given by a Fordham University Jesuit who defined Catholic fiction as fiction that addressed some question of Catholic doctrine and that has seemed to me as good as any other definition of what makes Catholic fiction Catholic and not just fiction written by a Catholic).

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
[Finished 27 July 2021] This is good. Really really good. I have a lot of thoughts about it and I think it’s worth writing an actual essay.

Catch the Rabbit by Lana Bastašić
[Finished 21 July 2021] I feel like the novel somewhat loses its way and there’s a part of me that was distracted by Bastašić’s biography. For someone to describe themselves as “Yugoslav-born” is usually a kind of code language for Serb who resents the breakup of Yugoslavia (as a half-Slovene, I have a bit of a radar about this sort of thing. I can still remember noticing the abrupt switch in my Grandmother’s language about her nationality in 1991). While it is technically true that she was born in Yugoslavia, having been born in 1986, it’s hard to imagine most non-Serbs wanting to identify as Yugoslav post-1991, especially with the especially bloody final stages of the civil war. This ambiguity carries over into the story itself. There’s an unspoken mystery surrounding the ethnicities of some of the characters in the story as well. But overall, it’s a well-drawn story and compelling narrative and it’s all too rare that stories from the Balkans make it into American consciousness.

The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom by don Miguel Ruiz
[Finished 18 July 2021] Well, first off, I’m not really buying the whole “ancient Toltec wisdom” thing. But even so, I think that Ruiz has some good ideas for how to approach life and there is a lot to commend this thin little book.

The Rust Programming Language by Steve Klabnik and Carol Nichols
[Finished 14 July 2021] The “official” Rust book (and available for free and included with a normal Rust installation), I got the paper copy from the library because I still prefer paper books as much as possible. It provides a good overview of most of the language. My biggest complaint would be that it ignores the wealth of third-party crates that are available for simplifying many common tasks (like error handling or command-line parsing), but other than that, I can strongly recommend this as a good first Rust book, to be supplemented with the O’Reilly book.

Beginning Rust: From Novice to Professional by Carlo Milanesi
[Finished 11 July 2021] An actively bad book. I shouldn’t be surprised. I have never seen a good book from APress. The material is badly organized and often spends inordinate amounts of time on esoteric information that would only serve to baffle the “Novice” reader that this book purports to be aimed towards. It’s not even that good for propping up a monitor because it’s kind of thin.

Programming Rust: Fast, Safe Systems Development by Jim Blandy and Jason Orendorff
[Finished 6 July 2021] Despite being a bit old and in places outdated, this is an excellent comprehensive coverage of Rust development. I found the emphasis on systems development early in the book a bit offputting, perhaps because what Blandy and Orendorff call systems programming I’ve always just thought of as programming (I cut my teeth in the era when “real” programs were written in a compiled language—most often C/C++ or Pascal, occasionally more exotic choices like PL/I, Ada or Modula-2—while interpreted languages were reserved for more mundane tasks like scripting), but the level of detail is fantastic. I’ve since learned that a new edition of the book has been published and it should definitely be on any Rust developer’s bookshelf.

From That Place and Time: A Memoir, 1938–1947 by Lucy S. Dawidowicz
[Finished 6 July 2021] While I’m close to the end of the “first” draft of my novel, I continue to do a lot of research reading. This was an excellent book for getting background on both the conditions of Jewish life before World War II and also the situation in the years that followed, although the latter was perhaps a bit thinner than I would have liked.

Operation Exodus: From the Nazi Death Camps to the Promised Land: A Perilous Journey That Shaped Israel's Fate by Gordon Thomas
[Finished 4 July 2021] One of many books that I’ve read on the Exodus 1947 while I work on the antepenultimate chapter of my novel. Thomas’s story is a good instance of narrative non-fiction and he does his best to present his version of the story with the pacing and intensity of a novel. There were a lot of good details that I have been able to put to use from this. Interestingly, there were also a fair number of places where Thomas’s account and the other accounts I’ve read contradict each other.

Century of the Wind by Eduardo Galeano
[Finished 3 July 2021] See my review at

Faces and Masks by Eduardo Galeano
[Finished 24 June 2021] See my review at

Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter by Kerri K. Greenidge
[Finished 7 June 2021] After hearing an interview with Greenidge on Fresh Air, I requested this book from the library and found it every bit as fascinating as the interview promised (often, after an interview with an author on Fresh Air, when I get to the book, I discover that all the “good bits” were already presented in the interview, which was not the case here). There was a lot that I did not know (not surprisingly) and it gave an interesting perspective on the struggle for basic human rights by African Americans in the half century after the Civil War. Perhaps the most striking thing is that the “radicalism” of Trotter seems to me, from my twenty-first century vantage point, to be basic common sense. Sadly, there are two many white folks even now who would consider that basic common sense to be radicalism.

Lost Books of the Bible edited by William Hone
[Finished 6 June 2021] A rather misleadingly compiled and presented collection of early pseudepigrapha and writings from the Apostolic fathers. The admixture of the two makes is particularly problematic, along with the lack of any sort of historic or critical background on most of the works presented here. I had originally bought this as an undergrad when I was fascinated with the whole concept of apocrypha, but this volume languished while I read others and coming at it with a more educated and informed perspective it’s hard to recommend this as worth looking at in any way.

Genesis by Eduardo GaleanoLost Books of the Bible
[Finished 31 May 2021] See my review at

When Capone Ruled the Village by Linda M. Malek
[Finished 24 May 2021] I stumbled across the existence of this book during the last days of my time on social media. The village of the title is Stickney, the suburb of Chicago where I grew up and, it turns out, Malek was the granddaughter of the old woman who lived next door to us when I was a kid (we used to play on her steps and she would come out and yell at us, “ji domů” (go home).

Malek is upfront about identifying herself as neither a writer nor historian and a lot of this book is compilations of primary source material with little context. It would have been nice to have had some more context given, particularly about the relationship between Capone lackey Anton Rench and later village president George B. Rench, Malek is also reticent about making the connection between the establishment of the Hawthorne Kennel Club and its subsequent reinvention as Sportsman’s Park (she does eventually give this information, but it would have been nice to have had the connection made when she first introduces the Kennel Club).

Some of the most interesting information is beyond the scope of her ostensible subject, where she talks about the trial of Sabella Nitti for the murder of her husband Francesco. There was a book on Nitti published a few years ago (that I’ve added to my reading list), which seems to be convinced that Nitti was innocent of the charges, but Malek seems persuaded otherwise.

Overall, the book is to be commended if only for making accessible a fair amount of Stickney history which might otherwise be unavailable.

Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier
[Finished 17 May 2021] A light novel, it had its moments of comedy, but I felt like I wasn’t the right reader for the book.

Waiting for Hope: Jewish Displaced Persons in Post-World War II Germany by Angelika Königseder and Juliane Wetzel
[Finished 17 May 2021] A detailed look at Jewish DPs in the wake of World War II. Originally written in German, it is well-researched and gives detailed accounts of two camps, although unfortunately, neither is the camp at the center of my novel in progress.

Death Note, Vol. 12: Finis by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata
[Finished 12 May 2021] At least it’s over. Interestingly, the superfluous coda to the story actually does a lot to make the story more compelling as we see the consequences of Kira’s demise along with Matsuda’s ambivalent reaction to it and suspicions about what really might have happened with Near’s confrontation with Light and Mello’s role in it.

Death Note, Vol. 11: Kindred Spirits by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata
[Finished 7 May 2021] The thing that comes to mind as I read this is the scene in The Princess Bride where the man in black faces off with Vizzini in the battle of wits. “All I have to do is divine from what I know of you: are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own goblet or his enemy’s? Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet, because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I am not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool, you would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.” The same sort of “logic” feels endemic here and, just like in The Princess Bride, the ultimate winner does so by effectively cheating.

A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn
[Finished 2 May 2021] Between being in leftie circles for a lot of my life and, I think Zinn’s own influence on the culture, this did not come off as quite the revolutionary book that it once was. There were a few things I was unaware of and Zinn seems to fall pray to the no difference between the parties fallacy that infects a lot of political discourse, but there was still a lot to recommend it. I can see giving this to my kids to read when they’re in high school as a useful corrective to the standard curriculum even with its flaws.

Death Note, Vol. 10: Deletion by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata
[Finished 29 April 2021] Things get a little bit more interesting here, although I’m actively looking forward to completing the series now.

The Bittersweet Science: Fifteen Writers in the Gym, in the Corner, and at Ringside edited by Carlo Rotella and Michael Ezra
[Finished 25 April 2021] I enjoyed this far more than I would have expected. There’s a certain romance around boxing that makes it aesthetically appealing. The article which combines criticism of Million Dollar Baby with an account of a real-life woman boxer was one of my favorites, but there were few dull moments in this collection of essays.

Close Calls With Nonsense: Reading New Poetry by Stephen Burt
[Finished 25 April 2021] Burt (now Stephanie, but her dead name is still the name on the spine of the book as published) is an insightful critic and expositor of contemporary poetry. I found myself adding a lot of poets to my to-read list after reading this and having a better sense of how to approach a lot of contemporary poets’ writing more fruitfully.

Fighting in the Jim Crow Army: Black Men and Women Remember World War II by Maggie Morehouse
[Finished 24 April 2021] A good collection of information on Black service during World War II. My only complaint is that it focuses on combat troops and not the majority experience which placed Black soldiers in support roles.

Death Note, Vol. 9: Contact by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata
[Finished 23 April 2021] It continues to drag. There’s a new predictability in the story as well. Of course, Mello won’t be killed in the attack on his headquarters.

The Exodus Affair: Holocaust Survivors and the Struggle for Palestine by Aviva Halamish
[Finished 16 April 2021] Exactly the book I wanted for my research for the novel. A great attempt to uncover the facts and events of the Exodus affair.

Death Note, Vol. 8: Target by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata
[Finished 14 April 2021] I remember not being that interested in Death Note the Anime once it moved on to the post-L era, and my reaction reading the manga is similar. The Mello-Near conflict adds an interesting dimension and I managed from the anime to miss that Mello is a boy and not a girl.

Death Note, Vol. 7: Zero by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata
[Finished 6 April 2021] In a flashback, we learn what Light’s plan was with his imprisonment and see the denouement of Light’s battle with L. At the same time, we learn that L and Watari are not lone figures but are, in fact, part of a larger organization created by Watari which gives us L’s successors, one of whom decides to take the side of criminality.

Letraset & Stencil Cutting by Dave Farey, Colin Brignall, Mike Daines, Alan Meeks, Freda Sack and Peter O'Donnell
[Finished 3 April 2021] A slender volume, just 16 pages. I think Dave Farey himself gave me this back when it was initially published. It contains the memories of the stencil cutting artists who worked on the Letraset typefaces back in the day before dry-transfer lettering became a niche product at best and mostly obsolete in the mainstream. It’s fascinating to consider this oddball stream of lettering that worked hard to get respectability in the design community even as many designers happily used it.

Death Note, Vol. 6: Give-and-Take by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata
[Finished 2 April 2021] The Yotsuba arc is brought, mercifully, to an end. It didn’t do a whole lot for me, although there was still a lot to recommend this volume.

Black Fire: The Making of an American Revolutionary by Nelson Peery
[Finished 31 March 2021] I discovered this book by a bit of serendipity while looking for Black Radical in my library’s online catalog. I realized from the description that this was a book that I needed to read even though I hadn’t known about its existence before I got to it. So much that I need to reconsider in my novel as I’m working on it.

Death Note, Vol. 5: Whiteout by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata
[Finished 25 March 2021] Light’s abjuring of the powers of the death note, along with his memories of having used it, makes for an interesting twist in the story. Especially interesting is the fact that Light is clearly planning something but unlike so many of his previous complicated moves against L, we’re not privy to what he’s thinking (nor, for that matter, is he). Meanwhile, Rem has given his death note to someone else who’s using it for financial gain and has created an opportunity to see L’s investigatory skills in a new light. The puzzle box has grown more complicated and I’m very curious to see how it unfolds.

The African American Experience During World War II by Neil A. Wynn
[Finished 23 March 2021] I’ve found myself digging into this subject largely as a result of an accidental discovery of a book that I’m still reading that’s revealed a lot of how much I need to learn to correctly write a supporting character in my novel. This book is not especially useful for my needs as it focuses largely at the “great men” level of history rather than the base level of experience which I’m more interested in digging up. For what it is, it’s not bad, although it is a bit slight.

The Last Asylum: A Memoir Of Madness In Our Times by Barbara Taylor
[Finished 19 March 2021] I got this as one of the free e-books from University of Chicago Press and finally got around to reading it. Overall, it was not terribly satisfying. The writing was dry and I found little to keep my interest in Taylor’s account of her time in an asylum.

Exodus 1947: The Ship That Launched a Nation by Ruth Graber
[Finished 16 March 2021] I’m coming into the home stretch on my novel and I’ve decided that part of the novel will take place on the voyage of the Exodus 1947, a failed effort to transport 4,500 Jewish refugees from Europe to Palestine in the summer of 1947. Graber’s book is partially about this, but not as much as the title would lead the reader to believe (the book was retitled from its original publication). Still, there’s a wealth of great detail for a novelist writing about this, even if there could be more, but then there could always be more detail.

Death Note, Vol. 4: Love by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obat
[Finished 14 March 2021] And Misa/second Kira arrives on the scene. I’m a bit put off by the treatment of Misa—the male characters all assume that she’s not that bright, including Rem, her Shinagami, and I think that Ohba views her that way as well. There are glimpses of good thinking on her part though and I do like that she’s very much her own person in a lot of ways and has her own intelligence that shows through despite the misogyny of the characters and narrative.

Death Note, Vol. 3: Hard Run by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata
[Finished 4 March 2021] Where Vol. 2 of Death Note was bogged down on second- and third-guessing, Ohba managed to catch himself and make that part of the plot in the first direct interaction between Light and L as they face off on the tennis court and then together. Adding in the second Kira and the story has newly raised stakes.

Marvel 1602: Spider-Man by Jeff Parker and Ramon Rosanas
[Finished 2 March 2021] The Spider-man 1602 segments of New World were the strongest in that book, and that continues here. There’s still over-reliance on “look how cleverly we can make 1602 versions of Marvel characters” in the writing, and the loss of Virginia Dare early on is especially damning as she’s the one original character to the 1602 universe, but the writing at least feels less dependent on the gimmick.

Marvel 1602: New World/Fantastick Four by Peter David, Greg Pak, Pascal Alixe and Greg Tocchini
[Finished 1 March 2021] Given how much better the MCU films are than their DC equivalents, it’s surprising to me to see the DC comics succeeding so much better than the Marvel comics. My point of comparison here is Superman: Red Son vs the Marvel 1602 universe. Red Son managed to re-imagine Superman in an exciting new way where, in stead of his ship landing in the U.S., it lands in the U.S.S.R. It’s brilliantly accomplished. Here, though, it feels like the whole story is geared around being clever about making 1602 versions of Marvel characters rather than re-imagining the characters in new ways. It all feels like a lost opportunity.

The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna
[Finished 27 February 2021] I never managed to connect with this story. There was a lot to interest me, but I think the shifts in point of view kept me from getting too committed with any of the intertwined narrative strains. Maybe I should have been a better reader.

The Dead Kids Club by Rich Hosek
[Finished 18 February 2021] My brother wrote this book.

A Tour of C++ by Bjarne Stroustrup
[Finished 15 February 2021] In a lot of ways, this is what I wanted from Effective Modern C++, a look at the language and the best practices therein. There are a few peeks at the upcoming C++20 standard along the way. I got this from the library, but I feel like I really want to own a copy. Perhaps I may wait for a third edition, assuming it comes out in a timely fashion.

Deacon King Kong by James McBride
[Finished 14 February 2021] It took me a couple chapters to get into McBride’s narrative voice but once I did, this was a delightful book. One of those rare stories where you find yourself wanting everyone to succeed even those who don’t deserve to, while self-interest isn’t always what it appears to be. McBride’s willingness to go off on random tangents just made the novel that much more fun.

Death Note, Vol. 2: Confluence by Tsugumi Ohba Takeshi Obata
[Finished 12 February 2021] As the story continues, we get into a bit of tedium. By constructing a pair of antagonists who are both flawlessly intelligent, Ohba has created a situation where it has to seem like everyone is acting perfectly. The biggest crisis, when Light meets Raye Penber’s fiancée and realizes she must be stopped ends up being a non-event other than the inevitable ripples it leaves for the story going forward.

The Cruel Way: Switzerland to Afghanistan in a Ford, 1939 by Ella Maillart
[Finished 11 February 2021] This is another one of the free e-books I got from the University of Chicago press. It’s an interesting enough text, although the cultural perspective of Europeans in the Middle East and South Asia towards the residents and customs of that area was highly distracting. Overall the book had little to hold my attention.

The Secret Lives of the Four Wives by Lola Shoneyin
[Finished 9 February 2021] The key thing to remember here is that this book is, at its heart, a comedy. Once I realized this, the book made so much more sense and became so much more enjoyable.

The Last Million: Europe's Displaced Persons from World War to Cold War by David Nasaw
[Finished 6 February 2021] I’ve read a lot about DPs in the last five years thanks to the research I’ve been doing on my novel. Early on when I started the project, I was debating whether I should write fiction or non-fiction. I’m glad I chose the former because I would have found out about this book last fall and thought that all my efforts would have been for nought.

Nasaw’s book is clearly a product of the present moment. Other books have focused on the cold-war politics around DPs or justification of Zionism, but here, the underlying focus is on America’s moral failure around refusing the immigration of DPs, especially Jewish DPs. A casual mention of Jared Kushner’s grandmother serves to emphasize the connection between the 1940s moral failure and the trump administration’s anti-refugee policies.

Overall, an excellent book and great addition to my research library as I continue work on my novel.

Death Note, Vol. 1: Boredom by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata
[Finished 2 February 2021] My wife and I watched the anime series during the late ’00s and I’ve since seen both the American and Japanese live action films so it was nice to go back to the original source material. It feels so far that the anime was remarkably faithful to the manga (at least as far as my ancient memories can attest), and for good reason—the source material is great.

No Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe
[Finished 30 January 2021] Everyone knows Achebe from Things Fall Apart, a book that I read on my own in college but don’t have any lasting memories of. This is a darkly comic book of a young man’s attempts to move beyond the strictures of his society and his ultimate failure to do so.

Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi
[Finished 22 January 2021] The frequent time and space jumps in the narrative made it difficult for me to get lost in this book. Eventually I managed to get myself centered in the narrative, but it took a while, perhaps too long, to get there. It was a book that I felt I might have enjoyed more had it been just a little different.

Unseen City by Amy Shearn
[Finished 18 January 2021] American magical realism where ghosts are a common but unspoken phenomenon. There is a lot to recommend this book, the investigation of a little-known corner of history, a community of free African-Americans in the heart of Brooklyn before the civil war, the ruminations on New York real estate (New York seems to be one of those cities where real estate is an overbearing concern that seeps into the cultural landscape).

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
[Finished 15 January 2021] I was surprised to see that this book is not highly-rated on Goodreads. My best guess is that people reading the title expected something very different from what Yu wrote, which is a book about family memory and the experience of time, with time travel being a consequence of language and grammar rather than technology and the language being more important than the story.

The Heart Keeps Faulty Time by Siân Griffiths
[Finished 13 January 2021] I “know” Griffiths from Twitter (which I’m about to delete). I picked this up more or less on impulse when there was an end of year sale and—wow. It’s a slender volume with mostly very short stories but everything here is written at such a high level of quality that it’s hard to put down.

Before All Memory Is Lost: Women's Voices from the Holocaust edited by Myrna Goldberg
[Finished 12 January 2021] This was exactly the book I needed to read. Accounts of life before during and after the Holocaust from the perspectives of women. The final section about life in the Soviet Union was less helpful than the others, but that’s more a consequence of my own research needs than anything else. It makes me a bit angry that women’s voices and experiences during the Holocaust have been so often dismissed or repressed.

Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami
[Finished 6 January 2021] A meditation on womanhood, divided into two parts focusing on the titular breasts in the first part and eggs in the second part. The first part, which focused on the narrator’s sister’s desire to get breast implants while the narrator’s niece finds herself not wanting to develop breasts as she matures was fairly successful. The second part, about the narrator’s desire to get pregnant via sperm donation didn’t work as well although there was a riotously funny section about literary readings there that I adored.

Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey
[Finished 31 December 2020] It’s easy for the police procedural to become cliched but Quartey has a unique hook: He was born and raised in Ghana and knows the culture well enough to set his story there. Other than a brief explanatory note at the beginning of the book, he trusts his reader to be able to infer (or look up) the meanings of much of the cultural trappings in his story. That combined with a flawed protagonist makes for a good read.

Hija de la fortuna by Isabel Allende
[Finished 27 December 2020] I read this in dribs and drabs over the course of nearly the whole year. This made it a bit challenging to keep everything in my mind in this expansive chronicle which has in its early parts some significant jumps in locale and time but in all provides a fascinating look at life in the mid-19th century. Meanwhile my knowledge of Spanish was boosted (because I did read this in Spanish) and I found myself delighting in Allende’s use of language throughout.

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor
[Finished 24 December 2020] I first read Okorafor in her short story collection, Kabu, Kabu, which was a great introduction to both her writing and to some aspects of Nigerian culture. Here she turns her hand to YA fantasy. The world-building is fascinating and far more interesting than the obvious comparison, Harry Potter. By making her protagonist a Nigerian girl born and raised in the United States before returning to Africa (which makes her the “Akata” of the title) and someone disconnected from her Leopard Person heritage, there is a narrative in to explain aspects of the culture with no prior assumptions. The main plot, such as it is, raises a number of threads which are left unresolved (perhaps for later books in the series?) and the main conflict was closed in an unsatisfying way (a complaint I had about the first Harry Potter book as well), but Okorafor is such a compelling writer that I think readers would be well-served in digging into this series.

The Navigator by Morris West
[Finished 20 December 2020] A lesser work by West. The book never really manages to decide what it wants to be about and the narrative rather abruptly ends with no satisfying resolution to anything. There’s a reason this is not among the well-known West works.

Everything Good Will Come by Sefi Atta
[Finished 14 December 2020] Atta is a Nigerian writer writing a story about family and friendship in Nigeria during the 70s and 80s. There are some asides about cultural aspects of writing (e.g., how American and European writers assume everyone knows about the background of anything that they write about but African writers are expected to explain even the most mundane things to their hypothetical American/European readers) that are interesting but largely irrelevant to the narrative.

Bobok by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
[Finished 14 December 2020] A bizarre surrealist little narrative. Completely unlike all the other Dostoyevsky I’ve ever read.

Love Game: A History of Tennis from Victorian Pastime to Global Phenomenon by Elizabeth Wilson
[Finished 8 December 2020] I used to get the University of Chicago Press free ebook every month until there was some issue with being able to download the books to my iPad and I let it stop because I wasn’t getting to them anyway. This was one of those books that managed to get surfaced and it’s something I might not have read otherwise and something I still wouldn’t read. David Foster Wallace managed to make tennis writing a little interesting but this isn’t DFW and the whole thing feels a bit jumbled and not well organized. There are some interesting revelations about the history of tennis but overall I was not interested enough and the writing wasn’t good enough for me to care.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
[Finished 2 December 2020] By far my favorite read of 2020. Ng manages to create a story of a family torn apart by loss where no one feels like they belong, and alienation and ostracization are the defining characteristics of their lives. There’s some small hope in the end, but I wasn’t looking for a happy story, I was looking for a true story and that’s what I got.

Divide and Rule: The Partition of Africa, 1880–1914 by H. L. Wesseling
[Finished 28 November 2020] See my review at

Golden State by Ben H. Winters
[Finished 25 November 2020] Winters came on the scene with Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, a knock off of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies which didn’t give me much of high expectations for the book. It turns out, though, that his debut notwithstanding, Winters an actually write and came up with a novel idea, of a future California in which there is an almost maniacal devotion to the idea of unchanging truth. The book falters in its ending, which does a lot to disrecommend it, but the first two thirds made for a good page-turning read.

Witnessing Torture: Perspectives of Torture Survivors and Human Rights Workers edited by Alexandra S. Moore and Elizabeth Swanson
[Finished 21 November 2020] One of the free Springer-Verlag ebooks I picked up during their quarantine giveaway. My last read was a bit disappointing, but this book was a compelling read. The torture was carried out in a variety of countries, in many cases by Americans or under their direction, and the first-hand accounts by survivors are often harrowing, but its still essential reading.

Effective Modern C++: 42 Specific Ways to Improve Your Use of C++11 and C++14 by Scott Myers
[Finished 21 November 2020] I was looking for something akin to Joshua Bloch’s Effective Java but for C++. This is kind of it, but C++ being C++, a lot of the material was pretty low-level. Things that I never think about in Java, like returning an object turn out to be really big deals and fairly complicated in C++ although the standard template library allows some of this, at least, to be abstracted away.

A Brief History of India by Alain Daniélou
[Finished 11 November 2020] See my review at

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments by David Foster Wallace
[Finished 8 November 2020] If I’d started with this book, I might have never read any more Wallace. So much of the writing feels condescending towards its subject (only when Wallace writes about tennis does he not condescend towards his subject, but then one feels him emanating a sense of superiority towards his readers).

Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality by James M. Nelson
[Finished 4 November 2020] Largely a survey of existing research more than anything else. It does reveal a lot of the narrowness of the field: The vast majority of study has been focused on Christianity, which given the locus of much psychological research shouldn’t be surprising, but is still something to recognize. Overall, I found The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach to be a more satisfying read.

Memories, Miracles and Meaning: Insights of a Holocaust Survivor by Franny Krasner Lobovits
[Finished 28 October 2020] See my review at

Theological and Halakhic Reflections on the Holocaust edited by Bernard H, Rosenberg and Fred S, Heuman
[Finished 24 October 2020] I discovered this in the course of researching some aspects of Jewish theology for my novel. The book contains a wide range of perspectives, although a large number of them feel uncomfortable to me. A number of the authors seem to feel that the Holocaust justifies any policy that leads to the expansion of Israel without regard for the Palestinians, which is a somewhat narrow vision that’s hard to swallow for someone looking from the outside in.

Flavius Josephus: selections from his works by Flavius Josephus
[Finished 6 October 2020] See my Dewey Decimal Project posts at

The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo
[Finished 24 September 2020] Lombardo is giving a lecture this October at the Oak Park library and I decided I would take a look at her debut novel to see what her writing was like.

There was the germ of a good novel here, but I think that the novel that wanted to be born was wrapped in a lot of other, less interesting material. Lombardo created a large palette of a family most of whom were irrelevant to the story. The youngest sister, for example, vanishes for most of the book and what little role she does play seems more distraction than contributing to the novel. Lombardo does handle the parallel time structure reasonably well, although I suddenly found myself questioning some of my own choices in managing multiple close third-person narratives after reading this and seeing how jarring the frequent transitions are.

The Last Cherry Blossom by Kathleen Burkinshaw
[Finished 22 September 2020] I seem to stumble on background material for the Hiroshima chapter of my novel in progress by persistent serendipity. In this instance, a post by Burkinshaw’s agent on Twitter revealed the existence of this book which I promptly read. It makes a good companion to Barefoot Gen showing a different family’s experiences in the time leading up to the bombing of Hiroshima and its immediate aftermath.

Overthrow by Caleb Crain
[Finished 9 September 2020] A long-delayed read from the Morning News’s Tournament of Books. I tried really hard with this but found myself not able to connect with the characters despite my interest in the subject matter. It felt like a not that great execution of a great idea.

Radical Sacrifice by Terry Eagleton
[Finished 9 September 2020] When I was an undergrad, I became obsessed with Eagleton: a Marxist, a Catholic and someone who was deeply involved with literary theory. This seemed like the perfect mix. So spotting this at the bookstore, it was an obvious buy for me. Sadly, I had a hard time getting into this. There was one extended section that felt like an effort more to aim barbs at Jacques Derridas than anything else. There were some interesting insights here, but overall it felt like a slight book.

Alone!: Lives of Some Outsider Women by Rosemary Dinnage
[Finished 8 September 2020] See my review at

Women's Holocaust Writing: Memory and Imagination by S. Lillian Kremer
[Finished 2 September 2020] A book of literary criticism—which I hadn’t expected when I ordered it online. Most of the value for me was discovering works of fiction that I’ll read in doing continued research on my own novel, as well as some food for thought about what makes a work of fiction about the Holocaust something which is both artistically and morally sound.

Romancero Gitano by Federico García Lorca
[Finished 25 August 2020] As I was trying to do the Sealey Challenge (read a poetry book a day for the month of August—which I gave up on with this book), the next short poetry book I had was this one. I read it in Spanish, a language which I can somewhat read/speak but not as well as I should. García Lorca challenged me extremely when I began reading this. My vocabulary doesn’t include a lot of the terms that García Lorca used in his poems and then his often surreal imagery had me looking up words that I already knew because I found myself second-guessing the meaning of some words. But because of this, it was a deeply educational experience. I was forced to read slowly (I ended up reading just one poem a day to be able to meditate on each one) and to be really conscious of his language. I feel like the experience of reading this in Spanish has made me likely to be a better poet and writer in my own work.

Pirate Women: The Princesses, Prostitutes, and Privateers Who Ruled the Seven Seas by Laura Sook Duncombe
[Finished 23 August 2020] See my review at

The Cost of Living by Rob Roberge
[Finished 22 August 2020] A well-written book that’s completely not for me. I have a hard time reading about self-destructive people with substance abuse problems. I liked the parts about band and music life, but the continued spiral down in the protagonist’s life just left me aggravated. More my failure than Roberge’s though.

Trébuchet: Poems˘ by Danniel Schoonebeek
[Finished 6 August 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

Little Black Daydream by Steve Kistulentz
[Finished 4 August 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

When Rap Spoke Straight to God by Erica Dawson
[Finished 3 August 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz
[Finished 2 August 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

1919 by Eve L. Ewing
[Finished 1 August 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

The Letters of Flannery O'Connor and Caroline Gordon edited by Christine Flanagan
[Finished 30 July 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

Dark Age Ahead by Jane Jacobs
[Finished 30 July 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
[Finished 29 July 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

Adam by Ariel Shrag
[Finished 25 July 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, and Me by Adrienne Brodeur
[Finished 13 July 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

Purple Hibiscus by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie
[Finished 13 July 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

County: Life, Death and Politics at Chicago's Public Hospital by David A. Ansell
[Finished 4 July 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Y. Davis
[Finished 27 June 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

Storm Front by Jim Butcher
[Finished 27 June 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

Interior Castle by Teresa of Ávila
[Finished 20 June 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

The Female Face of God in Auschwitz: A Jewish Feminist Theology of the Holocaust by Melissa Raphael
[Finished 19 June 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey
[Finished 18 June 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life with Children Ages 2–7 by Joanna Faber and Julie King
[Finished 6 June 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

Tonight I'm Someone Else by Chelsea Hodson
[Finished 4 June 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian by Avi Steinberg
[Finished 4 June 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis
[Finished 31 May 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier
[Finished 25 May 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
[Finished 23 May 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

The Yes Brain: How to Cultivate Courage, Curiosity, and Resilience in Your Child by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson
[Finished 21 May 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

Dead Girls by Abigail Tarttelin
[Finished 19 May 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
[Finished 18 May 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
[Finished 10 May 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
[Finished 7 May 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

Slouching Towards Los Angeles: Living and Writing By Joan Didion's Light edited by Steffie Nelson
[Finished 1 May 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
[Finished 24 April 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
[Finished 18 April 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

Barn 8 by Deb Olin Unferth
[Finished 16 April 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

Saudade by Suneeta Peres da Costa
[Finished 12 April 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

Optic Nerve by María Gainza
[Finished 6 April 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate by Gary Chapman
[Finished 6 April 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

The Resisters by Gish Jen
[Finished 1 April 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

The Daring Book for Girls by Andrea J. Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz
[Finished 28 March 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

Gilgamesh: A New English Version
[Finished 23 March 2020] See my review at

The Passage by Justin Cronin
[Finished 15 March 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

Iphigeneia at Aulis by Euripides
[Finished 11 March 2020] See my review at

The Best American Short Stories 2019 edited by Anthony Doerr
[Finished 9 March 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

The Eclogues of Virgil by Virgil
[Finished 8 March 2020] See my review at

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
[Finished 5 March 2020] My first Agatha Christie and I can see the appeal of her writing with the exquisite construction of the story here. The island setting provides a perfect locked room mystery setup and I didn’t guess the perpetrator of the murders and didn’t feel cheated by the reveal at the end of the book.

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
[Finished 5 March 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

A Writer's Reality by Mario Vargas Llosa
[Finished 3 March 2020] See my review at

Confessions of a Young Novelist by Umberto Eco
[Finished 28 February 2020] See my review at

Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee
[Finished 26 February 2020] Declaring a behind on this journal amnesty.

Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection by Julia Kristeva
[Finished 24 February 2020] See my review at

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
[Finished 19 February 2020] Declaring a behind on my book log amnesty on writing reviews.

Women in the Holocaust: A Feminist History by Zoë Waxman
[Finished 14 February 2020] Declaring a behind on my book log amnesty on writing reviews.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
[Finished 13 February 2020] Declaring a behind on my book log amnesty on writing reviews.

Saint Joan of the Stockyards by Bertolt Brecht
[Finished 13 February 2020] See my review at

False Bingo: Stories by Jac Jemc
[Finished 7 February 2020] Declaring a behind on my book log amnesty on writing reviews.

Sexual Repression And Victorian Literature by Russell M. Goldfarb
[Finished 5 February 2020] See my review at

Writing in Restaurants: Essays and Prose by David Mamet
[Finished 29 January 2020] See my review at

Pushcart Prize XLlV edited by Bill Henderson
[Finished 26 January 2020] Declaring a behind on my book log amnesty on writing reviews.

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
[Finished 25 January 2020] Declaring a behind on my book log amnesty on writing reviews.

The Lifespan of a Fact by John D’Agata
[Finished 24 January 2020] See my review at

Giambattista Bodoni: His Life and His World by Valerie Lester
[Finished 20 January 2020] Declaring a behind on my book log amnesty on writing reviews.

Jay's Journal of Anomalies by Ricky Jay
[Finished 16 January 2020] See my review at

The Man from Beijing by Henning Mankel
[Finished 13 January 2020] Declaring a behind on my book log amnesty on writing reviews.

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross
[Finished 8 January 2020] See my review at

White Noise by Don DeLillo
[Finished 1 January 2020] Declaring a behind on my book log amnesty on writing reviews.

The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King
[Finished 31 December 2019] Declaring a behind on my book log amnesty on writing reviews.

How to Photograph Children: Secrets for Capturing Childhoods's Magic Moments by Lisa Jane and Rick Standt
[Finished 27 December 2019] See my review at

A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor
[Finished 25 December 2019] Declaring a behind on my book log amnesty on writing reviews.

The Artists of Terezin by Gerald Green
[Finished 23 December 2019] See my review at

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
[Finished 18 December 2019] Declaring a behind on my book log amnesty on writing reviews.

How to Read Impressionism: Ways of Looking by James Rubin
[Finished 18 December 2019] See my review at

Treating Childhood and Adolescent Anxiety: A Guide for Caregivers by Eli R. Lebowitz and Haim Omer
[Finished 17 December 2019] Declaring a behind on my book log amnesty on writing reviews.

Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do (and More Life to Live) by Eve Rodsky
[Finished 13 December 2019] Declaring a behind on my book log amnesty on writing reviews.

How to Be Both by Ali Smith
[Finished 6 December 2019] Declaring a behind on my book log amnesty on writing reviews.

Barefoot Gen = Hadashi No Gen: A Cartoon Story Of Hiroshima by Keiji Nakazawa
[Finished 5 December 2019] I discovered this book while reading Why Comics and decided that I would pick it up as soon as I could as research for the Hiroshima chapter of my work in practice. It was perfect to that end most particularly because by nature of being a graphic narrative, it provided a great deal of background details that I was unlikely to find anywhere else.

As a work on its own merits it’s also wonderful, showing the grueling life of Japanese civilians during World War II made so much more difficult by the protagonist’s father’s pacifism and resultant being treated as a traitor by all those around him. The countdown towards the bombing which concludes the volume carries an additional sense of horror as we realize what fate has in store for the family that we grow close to in the preceding 250 pages.

Why Comics?: From Underground to Everywhere by Hillary Chute
[Finished 26 November 2019] See my review at

Polymer Clay for the first time® by Syndee Holt
[Finished 19 November 2019] See my review on

Marina City: Bertrand Goldberg's Urban Vision by Igor Marjanović and Katerina Rüedi Ray
[Finished 18 November 2019] See my review on

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
[Finished 15 November 2019] It took me a while to understand why I was not loving this book. I think it comes down to two things: First, I don’t think Patchett was successful with the time jumps that are so prominent in the first third of the novel which left me, as a reader, feeling unmoored, and second the book overall feels a bit unfinished, as if it could have used one more complete rewrite before being declared done.

The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells
[Finished 15 November 2019] Wells creates an intriguing world here, with multiple humanoid races and a central character who only in the course of this story discovers his own place among the races. Unfortunately, it felt like Wells was more invested in world-building than character-building.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
[Finished 14 November 2019] When I read Wolf Hall I rather disliked the book. I suppose some of it was the rather sympathetic portrayal of Thomas Cromwell—I’ve gained most of my knowledge about the period through Catholic sources and Cromwell is considered a prime villain of the piece. Perhaps it was the experience of having my expectations reset by reading Wolf Hall but I was able to enjoy this book a great deal more and really appreciate how Mantel manages her narrative with a close-third person narration almost entirely in Cromwell’s head throughout the book.

The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City by Carl Smith
[Finished 13 November 2019] See my review at

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing
[Finished 9 November 2019] See my review at

We Are Here: New Approaches to Jewish Displaced Persons in Postwar Germany edited by Avinoam J. Pratt and Michael Berkowitz
[Finished 4 November 2019] A good resource for my continued research on the novel in progress. Perhaps most exciting to me was that my mom saw the book and expressed an interest in reading it which tells me that my subject matter for the novel has some appeal.

Outwitting Contractors: The Complete Guide to Surviving Your Home or Apartment Renovation by Bill Adler Jr.
[Finished 31 October 2019] See my review at

The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage And The Quest To Build The First Computer by Doron Swade
[Finished 24 October 2019] See my review at

Reading the Bones by Sheila Finch
[Finished 22 October 2019] There’s the germ of a good idea here, actually a bunch of them, but the story itself just fails to fulfill its promises.

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
[Finished 21 October 2019] The story is familiar, but it’s always good to go back to one of the original tellings and get a feel for how it was presented to audiences over two millennia ago. I do find myself wondering what it would have been like to have experienced the play without knowing the story beforehand. The translation here is reasonably serviceable using archaic language and verse, but retaining enough contemporaneity of diction that it isn’t a labor to follow the dialogue.

The Best American Essays 2019 edited by Rebecca Solnit and Robert Atwan
[Finished 17 October 2019] I’ve fallen behind in my Best American Essays, so I don’t know whether the 2018 Best American Essays reads like this one, but I was blown away by the urgency of the essays, a clear reaction to the Age of Trump. This felt like BAE’s response to last year’s excellent Best American Short Stories from Roxane Gay.

Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse
[Finished 16 October 2019] A wonderful bit of serendipity: I have a chapter in my work in progress that takes place in the immediate aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima. Goodreads threw this up as recommended reading despite my not having anything in my history that would suggest that I needed this book, but need this book I did. It’s a greatly detailed fictionalized version of the aftermath of Hiroshima which I was able to use to fill in many of the blanks I faced for my Hiroshima chapter.

Paper: Paging Through History by Mark Kurlansky
[Finished 14 October 2019] See my review at

The Road to learn React by Robin Wieruch
[Finished 3 October 2019] Declaring an “I’m way behind” amnesty.

Jews, Germans, and Allies: Close Encounters in Occupied Germany by Atina Grossman
[Finished 3 October 2019] A book I wish I’d read much earlier in the process of writing the novel I’m working on. Full of useful information on the Jewish DP period, although Grossman is more focused on Berlin than other parts of Germany.

Seeds of Science: Why We Got It So Wrong on GMOs by Mark Lynas
[Finished 1 October 2019] See my review at

At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson
[Finished 28 September 2019] Declaring an “I’m way behind” amnesty.

Loudermilk: Or, The Real Poet; Or, The Origin of the World by Lucy Ives
[Finished 23 September 2019] Declaring an “I’m way behind” amnesty.

The Third Hotel by Laura van den Berg
[Finished 22 September 2019] Declaring an “I’m way behind” amnesty.

Two Awesome Hours: Science-Based Strategies to Harness Your Best Time and Get Your Most Important Work Done by Josh Davis
[Finished 17 September 2019] See my review at

Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane
[Finished 13 September 2019] Declaring an “I’m way behind” amnesty.

The Pushcart Prize XLII: Best of the Small Presses 2018 Edition edited by Bill Henderson
[Finished 13 September 2019] Declaring an “I’m way behind” amnesty.

The Useful Book: 201 Life Skills They Used to Teach in Home Ec and Shop by David Bowers and Sharon Bowers
[Finished 12 September 2019] See my review at

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
[Finished 28 August 2019] Declaring an “I’m way behind” amnesty.

The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean
[Finished 26 August 2019] See my review at

The Walking Dead, Vol. 32: Rest In Peace by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, Stefano Gaudiano and Cliff Rathburn
[Finished 16 August 2019] Declaring an “I’m way behind” amnesty.

The Truth About Tesla: The Myth of the Lone Genius in the History of Innovation by Christopher Cooper
[Finished 16 August 2019] See my review at

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee
[Finished 13 August 2019] See my review at

Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust by Yaffa Eliach
[Finished 7 August 2019] Declaring an “I’m way behind” amnesty.

The Electrifying Fall of Rainbow City: Spectacle and Assassination at the 1901 World's Fair by Margaret Creighton
[Finished 30 July 2019] See my review at

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
[Finished 30 July 2019] Declaring an “I’m way behind” amnesty.

Playing For Time by Fania Fénelon
[Finished 25 July 2019] Declaring an “I’m way behind” amnesty.

Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape by Frans de Waal and Frans Lanting
[Finished 25 July 2019] See my review at

Pawpaw: In Search of America's Forgotten Fruit by Andrew Moore
[Finished 22 July 2019] See my review at

Piltdown: A Scientific Forgery by Frank Spencer
[Finished 16 July 2019] See my review at

The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang
[Finished 16 July 2019] Declaring an “I’m way behind” amnesty.

The Last Human: A Guide to Twenty-Two Species of Extinct Humans by G. J. Sawyer and Viktor Deak
[Finished 11 July 2019] See my review at

Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala
[Finished 9 July 2019] Declaring an “I’m way behind” amnesty.

A Girl Goes into the Forest by Peg Alford Pursell
[Finished 5 July 2019] Declaring an “I’m way behind” amnesty.

The Basics of Earth Science by Robert E. Krebs
[Finished 1 July 2019] See my review at

Interior States: Essays by Meghan O’Gieblyn
[Finished 26 June 2019] The surprise best-selling status of The Empathy Exams a few years ago brought attention to the personal essay, and while I read that collection when it came out, I have to say that I was more captivated by these essays by Meghan O’Gieblyn than I’d been reading Leslie Jameson. Perhaps it’s the fact that O’Gieblyn writes about Christianity from a point of ambivalence in most of her writing here that makes her so fascinating to me. Her writing is haunted by her lost faith in a way that I can’t imagine any other genre expressing quite so well.

Trieste by Daša Drndić
[Finished 26 June 2019] I first heard of Drndić around the time of her death and was intrigued by the descriptions of her writing. Then a workshop instructor I had a month later mentioned her as a writer worth reading. And yet I still didn’t get around to reading her. It was when I found Trieste on a list of interesting fiction about the Holocaust that I finally got around to her since it seemed like it would be useful background reading for the novel I’m working on.

Drndić’s novel is elliptical, often circling around its subject matter rather than facing it head on, only directly confronting the Nazi Lebensborn program that was responsible for Drndić’s protagonist’s loss in the last part of the novel. But the journey there is haunting and compelling.

The New Chemistry: A Showcase for Modern Chemistry and Its Applications edited by Nina Hall
[Finished 24 June 2019] See my review at

Speak by Louisa Hall
[Finished 19 June 2019] It’s interesting that largely by coincidence I’ve ended up reading fairly close together two books which feature Alan Turing as the star of a central thread. I feel like this book did a better job of portraying Turing than did A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines. There are multiple threads of narrative here, and I feel like Hall’s reach exceeded her grasp a bit with some of her parallels feeling a bit forced, but overall, it was an enjoyable read.

Nebula Awards Showcase 2013 edited by Catherine Asaro
[Finished 19 June 2019] It’s nice to see the best of sci fi in one place. Not a lot of clunkers here. I’d especially call out “The Paper Menagerie,” “Sauerkraut Station” and “Ray of Light.”

The Character of Physical Law by Richard P. Feynman
[Finished 14 June 2019] See my review at

The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe by Stephon Alexander
[Finished 11 June 2019] See my review at

The Magic of Math: Solving for x and Figuring Out Why by Arthur T. Benjamin
[Finished 7 June 2019] See my review at

Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz by Jan Tomasz Gross
[Finished 5 June 2019] I picked this up because it was referenced in some of my online research for the novel and struck me as being directly relevant to what I want to know for my writing. It provided a great deal of useful information and was in general a compelling read (often historical accounts can fall into the academese writing trap).

What A Body Remembers: A Memoir of Sexual Assault and Its Aftermath by Karen Stefano
[Finished 4 June 2019] A near miss, both in her experiences and in her writing. Maybe it’s just that I wanted a different book than what Stefano wrote. I think that it could have been a stronger book if there had been more about her PTSD.

The Last Man Who Knew Everything: Thomas Young, the Anonymous Polymath Who Proved Newton Wrong, Explained How We See, Cu by Andrew Robinson
[Finished 3 June 2019] See my review at

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
[Finished 2 June 2019] I feel like I should have enjoyed this more than I did. There were moments that I was pulled fully into the story, but it often just failed to hold me, I think as much my own failing as that of the book.

Slovene Complete Course: A Complete Course for Beginners (Teach Yourself) by Andrea Albretti
[Finished 29 May 2019] See my review at

A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin
[Finished 25 May 2019] I’d expected more from this book than it offered. It’s largely a somewhat overwritten biofiction of Turing and Gödel which draws some parallels between their lives and thoughts, although I wonder whether someone with little understanding of mathematics and computer science would necessarily be able to find the parallels between Gödel’s incompleteness theorem and Turing’s uncomputable numbers and the halting problem.

Inside Job by Connie Willis
[Finished 19 May 2019] A fun fictional aperitif with the self-contradictory premise of H. L. Mencken speaking through a spiritual medium to debunk mediums and their ilk.

The Writer's Notebook II: Craft Essays from Tin House edited by Tin House
[Finished 13 May 2019] I got this for Antonya Nelson’s essay on revision which ultimately provided a great outline for an intro to fiction course (I want to try writing a piece from this method myself) and I felt like this alone was worth the price of admission. There were a few essays that I didn’t get much from, but overall, a great collection.`

The Walking Dead, Vol. 31: The Rotten Core by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, Stefano Gaudiano and Cliff Rathburn
[Finished 9 May 2019] In some ways predictable, although there was a twist near the end of the volume I didn’t expect.

Responding to Student Poems: Applications of Critical Theory by Patrick Bizzaro
[Finished 9 May 2019] A fascinating book. At its strongest when Bizzaro talks about New Criticism and reader response theory. In those sections, Bizzaro provided a good link between theory and praxis and a compelling understanding of how the two function together. I felt (and I could be wrong), that Bizarro fundamentally misunderstands deconstruction, although if my understanding of deconstruction is correct, I’m not sure how it could be of any use in the writing workshop. In all, a mixed bag, but one that holds more good than ill.

Forward: 21st Century Flash Fiction edited by Megan Giddings
[Finished 3 May 2019] A brilliant and wonderful collection of flash fiction by authors of color (along with some essays on the form and an editor’s roundtable). My favorites were Desiree Cooper’s “The Choice” and Maggie Su’s “Circumnavigation,” but the contents overall were exceptionally strong.

Circa by Adam Greenfield
[Finished 30 April 2019] This novel is essentially two disconnected narratives. I kept waiting for the connection between the adult Henry and the high school Henry and never really found it. It seemed to me that the chapters of each thread could have been published independently and would likely have made for two books, each stronger than the whole as presented here.

Greenfield is an engaging writer and has a gift for the colorful metaphor, a gift which he’s perhaps too eager to deploy. At times the absurdism gets over the top with no real payoff for going where it does.

Atlantic Hotel by João Gilberto Noll
[Finished 28 April 2019] A dreamlike narrative of an unnamed narrator who is traveling for unknown reasons and keeps encountering death and sex along the way. I read an excerpt from the novel in Bomb and was intrigued enough to seek out the rest of the book.

Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet by Terese Svoboda
[Finished 23 April 2019] This is right in my wheelhouse. Poetry plus early twentieth-century radical politics. All it needed to make it completely mine was a dose of Catholicism and I’d be there, but Ridge was not religious in any sense. There is a great injustice in how Ridge’s work has been marginalized and forgotten (including, it seems, by the executor of her estate who has failed to do things like keep her work in print), and this biography should be a good first step in undoing that injustice.

Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li
[Finished 10 April 2019] Written after the death by suicide of Li’s own son, there’s some beautiful writing here and it can be heart-wrenching, but ultimately, it added up to not much more than listening in on someone’s grief therapy sessions.

A Primer of Biblical Greek by N. Clayton Croy
[Finished 10 April 2019] See my review at

The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story by Edwidge Danticat
[Finished 9 April 2019] Beautifully written and my first book from this series, so I don’t know whether my expectations were misguided, but I expected something that was more of a craft book than this turned out to be.

Portrait of Sebastian Khan by Aatif Rashid
[Finished 5 April 2019] It was the Model U.N. stuff that drew me in, and while many aspects of Rashid’s protagonist’s life are quite different from my own experiences, the heavy drinking was more than a little familiar. There are places where the characters don’t live, but overall, it was an engaging story. I almost want to write my own college Model U.N. novel after reading this.

Possession by A. S. Byatt
[Finished 31 March 2019] A wonderfully layered book, showing the vicissitudes of the academic life and uncovering a sufficiently interesting mystery for the book to justify itself.

The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat
[Finished 27 March 2019] I’ve fallen behind on this diary, so I’m taking the opportunity to punt on some reviews.

Scala Cookbook by Alvin Alexander
[Finished 16 March 2019] Not really what it claims to be: this is not, in fact, a collection of recipes in the traditional sense of other O’Reilly “Cookbooks.” Instead it’s more of a Scala by example book. It does that reasonably well, but it’s not quite what I expected to see.

Census by Jesse Ball
[Finished 4 March 2019] A dreamlike narrative. I feel like the preface about Ball’s brother would have been better as an afterword. In its place, it set up an expectation that the book ultimately fails to deliver.

2666 by Roberto Bolaño
[Finished 28 February 2019] Absolute genius. How Bolaño manages to write so poetically at such length mystifies me. I definitely want to read more of Bolaño’s writing.

The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon
[Finished 20 February 2019] There are some odd choices made in this book, like titling chapters after the protagonist of the chapter who may or may not be the narrator. I admired Kwon’s writing, but found some of her characterizations flat. Good enough that I’ll likely read her second novel, but I could see myself dissuaded by a bad review.

The Selective Mutism Resource Manual: 2nd Edition by Maggie Johnson and Alison Wintgens
[Finished 19 February 2019] This book is geared primarily to the practitioner who has little or no experience with Selective Mutism. As a parent, it had minimal relevance, but I can see this being a vital reference to speech pathologists, child psychologists, etc. who are treating children with selective mutism.

The Tempest Tales by Walter Mosley
[Finished 15 February 2019] A novel in stories (meaning, among other things, that there’s not really an overarching plot and the characters’ arcs are never completely wrapped up). This is my first Mosley and he has a deft touch, not afraid to deal with tough questions in his fiction.

Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children by Thomas Gordon
[Finished 11 February 2019] A lot of this is familiar to me from having read humanist psychology and some of the books that have built upon this, but it’s always good to get to the source. The principles in the book are simple, but not always easy to apply. It’s worth the work, though, to do so.

Wild Life: Collected Works from 2003–2018 by Kathy Fish
[Finished 9 February 2019] Kathy Fish is probably the best known contemporary practitioner of the short short story (or as it’s come to be known, flash fiction, a term I’m not particularly fond of). Her writing is beautiful with a number of great turns of phrase, although some of the stories didn’t hit the mark for me. Still, it’s a collection worth reading (and owning) as a reference to how a master of the genre approaches the short short piece.

Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
[Finished 6 February 2019] The opening story of this collection, “The Finkelstein 5,” was just devastating. I had to put the book aside for a while after reading it. The next story was (thankfully?) forgettable. Some of the stories show a strong influence from Adjei-Brenyah’s mentor, George Saunders, a bit to his detriment, although Adjei-Brenyah manages to make the Saunders-style story mostly his own in the story, “Zimmerland” as opposed to “The Era” which, if it were presented on its own, could have been written by any of a world of Saunders-imitators. Overall, it’s clear that Adjei-Brenyah is a writer to watch.

Helping Your Child with Selective Mutism: Practical Steps to Overcome a Fear of Speaking by Angela E McHolm, Charles E. Cunningham and Melanie K Vanier
[Finished 5 February 2019] A pretty good overview of SM and its treatment. It seems geared towards parents without professional help and shows its age in the introductory chapters where a lot of the answers to the basic questions (what causes SM? what’s the best treatment?) come down to “more research is needed.”

Those Who Knew by Idra Novey
[Finished 28 January 2019] I enjoyed this book, although it felt like it wrapped things up a little too tidily at the end and never fully explored Lena’s family’s complicity with the authoritarian regime whose legacy casts a shadow over the island republic. But the writing is beautiful and the characters are worth spending time with.

Mothers, Sisters, Resisters: Oral Histories of Women Who Survived the Holocaust edited by Brana Gurewitsch
[Finished 24 January 2019] Divided into three sections, per the title, this is a fascinating collection of testimonies from female Holocaust survivors. I’d hoped for a little bit more about the DP camps afterwards, but there was valuable information for my novel research about the concentration camp experience and life before.

The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling
[Finished 13 January 2019] There are a number of disparate threads in the narrative of this book: the struggles of a mother of a young child, the State of Jefferson right-wing separatist movement and the socio-cultural-economic situation that led to its rise, the story of the old woman facing the end of her life. I felt that each of these on its own was compelling, but the three narrative threads didn’t really form a cohesive whole.

The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write with Emotional Power, Develop Achingly Real Characters, Move Your Readers, by Donald Maass
[Finished 7 January 2019] A good practical work on emotional work in fiction. Like other Writers Digest books, it incorporates numerous exercises which help reinforce the concepts of the book.

Him With His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories by Saul Bellow
[Finished 31 December 2018] At the recommendation of one of my professors in college, I read Henderson, The Rain King and enjoyed it. A bit later I found this book used (I don’t remember where) but didn’t get around to reading it for another thirty years. I honestly can’t say whether what I liked about Henderson is present in this volume, but I generally found myself having a hard time staying involved with the rather long stories here. There were a few details about seventies Chicago which were fascinating, but overall, the stories blended into one another and were nothing special.

Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine
[Finished 25 December 2018] While in some ways this is a flawed book and takes too long to determine what it’s about, the writing is wonderfully evocative. Her use of parentheses as part of her omniscient narrative is genius.

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez
[Finished 18 December 2018] After The Friend beat The Great Believers and There There for the National Book Award, I wanted to see what this book that was judged better than either of those two would be like. I have to say that I was pleasantly impressed. As much a series of meditations as a coherent story, the writing is bright and poetic and I was happy to have spent this time in Nunez’s mind.

The O. Henry Prize Stories 2018 edited by Laura Furman
[Finished 10 December 2018] I’ve always tended to view the O. Henry anthology as a sort of runner-up to Best American Short Stories. This year in particular the comparison does not come down so well on the part of the O. Henry because of the powerful and political choices that guest editor Roxane Gay made in her selections. That said, this collection offers some intriguing stories. “Queen Elizabeth” was one that I read originally in One Story and it continues its power on re-reading. I also feel obliged to call out “Why Were They Throwing Bricks” and “The Tomb of Wrestling.”

There There by Tommy Orange
[Finished 30 November 2018] Absolutely brilliant. Orange has a strong narrative voice and manages to juggle his operatic cast of characters with the skill of a writer with far more experience than he has. I look forward to reading more of Orange’s work in the future.

Orison Anthology, Vol. 3 edited by Luke Hankins, Nathan Poole and Karen Tucker
[Finished 30 November 2018] I bought this primarily to see what sort of work they were publishing. There seemed to be few real standouts other than Joy Ladin’s essay on “Writing God as a Contemporary American Poet.” I’m not sure how much of this is on the editors of the anthology and how much is a reflection of the shallowness of the pool in which they’re fishing.

The Rathbones by Janice Clark
[Finished 26 November 2018] Stir together Melville and García Márquez and you might get something that looks like this, a surreal family history of a whaling family revealed piece by piece by the narrator. The pseudo-nineteenth century elocution was offputting at first and I feel like the book could have done with some tightening in places.

Word Puppets by Mary Robinette Kowal
[Finished 25 November 2018] I’d read one of the stories in the collection previously, but it was great to get a deep dive introduction to Kowal’s writing. Her interests as a writer are wide and there didn’t seem to be a dud in the whole collection. Definitely a writer to read more of.

How to Be Safe by Tom McAllister
[Finished 23 November 2018] McAllister inhabits his narrator thoroughly in what’s ultimately a book of reflections on contemporary culture, particularly as it relates to mass shootings, guns and the harassment/objectification of women. The plot, such as it is, serves largely as a scaffold for McAllister’s wit (damn near the whole book is quotable), and a magical-realism bit about the sun disappearing in the town where the shooting took place feels like something that just barely missed getting excised but maybe should’ve been, but it was a thought-provoking and even fun book that I really needed to read with the world in the state that it’s in.

A Questionable Shape by Bennett Sims
[Finished 14 November 2018] I read an intriguing review of this and thought I’d give it a try. It took me a while to get used to the voice, but about twenty or so chapters in, something clicked and I began to really enjoy the discursive narration (complete with even more discursive footnotes). The zombie story exists largely as a device for the narrator to have something to narrate with digressions into art, philosophy and literature rife throughout.

The Changeling by Joy Williams
[Finished 31 October 2018] Someone somewhere recently recommended this book and I thought I’d give it a look. There’s an interesting sense of unreality throughout the novel that could be offputting to some with much of the setting and events feeling completely improbable yet Williams manages to make it work, if only through the beauty of her language in the book.

The Best American Short Stories 2018 edited by Roxane Gay
[Finished 25 October 2018] Can we get Roxane Gay to guest edit BASS every year? She’s raised the bar here in terms of diversity of writers and their backgrounds, including pulling stories from online-only publications and representing what I think was a record number of women and POC writers. There didn’t seem to be a single dud in the whole collection. If I had to prune my BASS collection, this one would go into the definitely-keep pile.

Becoming Functional: Steps for Transforming Into a Functional Programmer by Joshua F. Backfield
[Finished 23 October 2018] A step-by-step guide, using an example project, to how one can make an object-oriented code base into something more functional in its structure. Not too bad.

Ponti by Sharlene Teo
[Finished 12 October 2018] Told in three interleaved timeframes, I was curious to see what this novel had to say about female friendships. It made for an interesting read, but didn’t leave me feeling like I’d learned anything particularly new.

The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Volume 2 edited by Gordon Van Gelder
[Finished 6 October 2018] A good sampling of fiction over the latter part of the history of Fantasy & Science Fiction. I enjoyed most of the stories here, although a few (Brian Aldiss’s comes to mind) left me cold.

Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward
[Finished 5 October 2018] A practical handbook which makes for near-essential reading for writers who are trying to enter into the minds of characters different from themselves (which, really, should be all writers). While Shawl and Ward come from a background of writing science fiction and fantasy, the ideas and exercises here apply to writers of any genre.

Getting Off: One Woman’s Journey through Sex and Porn Addiction by Erica Garza
[Finished 28 September 2018] I heard Garza interviewed on “Writers on Writing” and thought her story sounded interesting (and potentially useful for background information for a story I’ve contemplated writing). Her accounts of her youth were compelling reading, but there began to be a certain sameness to things as she moved into adulthood, which, I suppose, artistically, works in service to the story as it fits the sameness to the sexual experiences she had even as she sought out more and different kinds of experiences.

The Walking Dead, Vol. 30: New World Order by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, Stefano Gaudiano and Cliff Rathburn
[Finished 27 September 2018] The challenge with an ongoing zombie series is keeping the narrative interesting. The zombies themselves have largely fallen away as a major threat and the new challenge is the rebuilding of civilization. In this volume, center stage is taken by the question of what sort of world order the new civilization should take. We have the contrast between the Alexandria communities which are largely egalitarian and the newly encountered commonwealth in which a rigid class structure has been established with people’s positions in the class hierarchy being determined by where they stood before the collapse of civilization.

The Redemers by Leo W. Schwarz
[Finished 25 September 2018] An early account of the experiences of the Jewish DPs after World War II. There’s a fair amount of myth-making on display here with the account largely being a “great men” perspective on events with very little about the every day experiences of the DPs in the camps and elsewhere and a narrative structure that makes the exodus to Israel the inevitable outcome of the situation.

I Can’t Date Jesus: Love, Sex, Family, Race, and Other Reasons I've Put My Faith in Beyoncé by Michael Arceneaux
[Finished 15 September 2018] I heard Arceneaux on Fresh Air and was intrigued to read about his experiences growing up as a gay black Catholic in Texas. Alas, the religious side of things was a small part of the book. Where Arceneaux got into religion, I was greatly impressed, but much of the book felt like Arceneaux as skating on the surface of his life and unwilling to get deep.

Shadow Show: Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury edited by Justin Eisinger and Alonzo Sitman
[Finished 2 September 2018] A subset of the stories from the anthology of the same name re-presented in graphic novel form. Some stories work better than others and in some cases, it seems like little or no effort was employed in making a graphic narrative (e.g., Harlan Ellison’s contribution). Those that did work, worked wonderfully at least.

Arbitrary Stupid Goal by Tamara Shopsin
[Finished 1 September 2018] I heard about this from and he led me to expect a different book than Shopsin actually wrote. Rather than something about employing arbitrary stupid goals to achieve satisfaction in life, this is really a history of her father and the store/restaurant that her family has run since before she was born. Interesting, but not what I was looking for.

Testing in Scala by Daniel Hinojosa
[Finished 27 August 2018] A decent enough book, I think, paradoxically, it would have benefitted from less complete examples of the tests.

Contenders by Erika Krouse
[Finished 22 August 2018] An interesting enough premise: Nina makes her living by inducing men to attempt to assault them but then turns the tables on them and beats them up and steals their wallets. Then one of the men turns out to be a cop who becomes obsessed with Nina wanting his badge and his pride back. But the inclusion in the story of a deceased brother who has left behind a daughter that he expected Nina to raise even though the two of them had lost contact a decade earlier is the first of several missteps that keep the book in rather prosaic territory. The writing is solid, the characterization is decent but the plot just lost me.

Girl at War by Sara Nović
[Finished 18 August 2018] The first section starts a bit slow, but beginning with the death of Ana’s parents, the narrative ends up being heartbreaking and hard to put down.

Millard Salter’s Last Day by Jacob Appel
[Finished 15 August 2018] The big problem here is that Appel sets up an impossible-to-resolve-in-a-non-clichéd-fashion premise here. Too much time is devoted to the question of will he or won’t he kill himself when either ending would end up rather pedestrian. I think the secret to such a novel is to make the rest of the book flow in such a way that the reader doesn’t get any emotional commitment to one outcome or the other (or perhaps is committed to the suicide option), so the answer to will he or won’t he is largely irrelevant.

That complaint aside, the writing is well-executed and there are some great moments of pathos and humor alike here.

Report to the Men’s Club and Other Stories by Carol Emshwiller
[Finished 14 August 2018] Delightfully weird stuff. I’m finding that women writers of scifi are by far doing the most interesting work in the genre.

Dossier K: A Memoir by Imre Kertész
[Finished 9 August 2018] Presented in the format of a transcribed interview, this is largely an account of Kertész’s work and a bit hard going for someone who isn’t already familiar with his fiction (like me).

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
[Finished 8 August 2018] I had resisted reading this for a long time. I generally prefer fiction to non-fiction, particularly essays, so an essay collection, even one by as esteemed a writer as Ann Patchett, was not something that I looked forward to. I shouldn’t have hesitated. The subject matter is varied, and while there’s perhaps a bit too many takes on her husband’s courtship of her and their long arduous path to the happy marriage of the title, overall it was a great read.

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
[Finished 28 July 2018] A magnificent book, deserving all the attention it’s received.

O the Chimneys: Selected Poems, Including the Verse Play, Eli by Nelly Sachs
[Finished 26 July 2018] At times, the language of these poems comes across as a bit overwrought, particularly with its use of “O” in direct addresses (see, for example, the book’s title) which, courtesy of the original German appearing on the facing pages I can see is on Sachs and not the translator, although perhaps “O” is less dramatic in German. But even with that, the poems carry great power as Sachs worked to show that there could be poetry after the holocaust.

Beneath the Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste
[Finished 14 July 2018] I picked up this novel since I was going to be working with Mengiste at the Disquiet Literary Conference and I wanted to know something about her writing. I don’t know a whole lot about Ethiopia. I remember the whole famine of the ’80s thing, I can find it on a map and I’ve heard of Haile Selassie, but beyond that, most of what I know is fantasy delivered by the likes of Samuel Johnson. I had a massive corrective here as Mengiste takes a ground-level view of how protests against the emperor and mismanagement of the country’s resources led to the communist takeover and the beginning of the repressive Derg regime.

Operation Shylock: A Confession by Philip Roth
[Finished 12 July 2018] There’s so much this book could have been but wasn’t. The idea of döppelgängers lurks below (and above) the surface of the narrative, between the other Philip Roth in the novel (I wonder whether Roth was inspired at all by Graham Greene’s experiences of someone claiming to be him) and the claims by John Demjanjuk that Ivan the Terrible was not him, but merely someone who looked like him with a similar name. But these ideas, along with the disaporism plotline end up going nowhere so while there are some profound moments and comic moments, overall the novel felt a bit lacking.

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McLoud
[Finished 1 July 2018] I picked this book up because I had a creative writing workshop where one of the pieces we would be workshopping was going to be a graphic narrative and I wanted to have more of a critical framework to approach graphic narrative. This fit the bill perfectly—I learned a great deal and am better able to appreciate all the graphic narrative that comes my way now.

The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa
[Finished 22 June 2018] A wonderfully bizarre book, mostly randomish observations about life, religion and philosophy. Not exactly a novel, but not exactly not a novel either. The translation I read tried to take the various bits of The Book of Disquiet that Pessoa had written and arrange them in chronological order by the date on which they were written, a challenging task given that most fragments are undated and were not part of any collation done by Pessoa during his lifetime. I don’t know if this makes for the best reading experience, but it worked for me.

Women and the Holocaust—Volume XXII: Narrative and Representation edited by Esther Fuchs
[Finished 19 June 2018] A nice multi-disciplinary anthology. I discovered this reading the author notes on Esther Fuchs’s book on the golem and it was worth reading if for no other reason than to have read some criticism of artistic portrayals of women during the holocaust and having an idea of what not to do.

The Walking Dead, Vol, 29: Lines We Cross by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, Stefano Gaudiano and Cliff Rathburn
[Finished 12 June 2018] Maybe I’m becoming a more astute reader of graphic narrative, but I found a number of elements of this volume to really exploit the nature of graphic narrative in enjoyable/impressive ways. Add in some compelling developments in the plot and this is one of the best volumes in the series.

The Lovers by Morris West
[Finished 11 June 2018] At its heart a doomed love affair set in the midst of post-WWII intrigue of Europe with the moral compromises made in the name of anti-communism in the early days of the cold war playing a central role. I’m not sure how much the Catholic stuff is integral to the story versus feeling merely grafted on as a sop to fans of West’s more overtly theological fiction.

Living Clojure by Carin Meier
[Finished 10 June 2018] The first roughly two-thirds of this book provides a gentle introduction to Clojure, providing more hand-holding than does Clojure Programming but sacrificing little depth (mostly in the realm of more esoteric features of the language). Again, advancements in the Clojure community make the contents in many ways different, with newer, often simpler solutions available courtesy of newer libraries.

I did find Meier’s decision to clump all the exercises together as a timed learning plan to be a bit odd—I would rather have had there be exercises interspersed with the primary text, but that could just be me and certainly it wouldn’t fit with her modeling the text on the Couch to 5K model.

Clojure Cookbook: Recipes for Functional Programming by Luke VanderHart and Ryan Neufeld
[Finished 31 May 2018] A bizarre mix of ridiculously basic with complex recipes, it’s hard to see who the authors saw as their target audience. It’s interesting to see how the Clojure community had advanced from the time of the publication of Chas Emerick’s Clojure Programming. At this point, Leiningen has become the de facto standard build tool for Clojure projects to the point where it would be difficult to employ many of the recipes in this book without also using Leiningen.

The Holocaust and History: The Known, the Unknown, the Disputed and the Reexamined edited by Michael Berenbaum and Abraham J. Peck
[Finished 21 May 2018] I hadn’t realized the extent or, for that matter, the existence of, scholarly debate on the Holocaust. There are some interesting glances at internal debates within the scholarly community and a handful of familiar names as my reading on the Holocaust expands. I’m finding increasingly often that a book cited will be one that I’ve already read.

There were a few useful pieces of information and perspectives on the Holocaust here, but in all, I’m beginning to reach a point of diminishing returns in my research.

Experience and Expression: Women, the Nazis and the Holocaust edited by Elizabeth R. Baer and Myrna Goldberg
[Finished 21 May 2018] A wide-ranging collection with plenty to contribute towards my research needs.

Clojure Programming by Chas Emerick, Brian Carper and Christophe Grand
[Finished 9 May 2018] Perhaps a bit out of date now (unless O’Reilly has put out a newer edition), but an overall good introduction to this particular dialect of Lisp. I’ve been intrigued by lisps since I first encountered them in high school, but have never written any significant lisp or done much more than try to decipher emacs-lisp code to little success. Emerick et al do a good job of introducing the reader to the principles of Lisp and manage to be insistent on FP principles without seeming as doctrinaire as some other FP programming book authors I’ve encountered have. I feel secure enough from having read this book that I feel like I could tackle my next new project in Clojure should I feel that it would benefit from being written in that language.

Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health by Jo Robinson
[Finished 7 May 2018] I heard about this book on Science Friday, I think. My memories of the book are a bit clouded, it seems, though, because I thought this was going to be a book that focused more on the idea of foraging and eating wild plants for their nutritional value. In fact, it turns out that Robinson’s thesis is that we’ve lost a lot of nutritional value in our domesticated plants and that eating plants closer to their wild ancestors would lead to better nutritional outcomes.

Robinson bases everything on decent scientific research and doesn’t take a simple-minded approach, noting cases where the domesticated plants are, in fact, the more nutritious (the small seedless watermelons at Trader Joe’s being a good example of this). While at times the text is a bit repetitious, overall it’s a good read and quite informative.

Scaling Data Services with Pivotal Gemfire by Mike Stolz
[Finished 25 April 2018] This read more like a bit of technical marketing than a genuine book on the topic, but at 62 pages, it would be difficult to expect more. There’s some valuable information here, but overall it was less than I desired.

The Golem Redux: From Prague to Post-Holocaust Fiction by Elizabeth R. Baer
[Finished 20 April 2018] I’m not sure what I was hoping for here, but this is a well-written survey of the appearances of golems in literature, film, television and comics. Baer relies a little too heavily on plot summary at times, but does manage to provide some decent insights into how the various retellings of the golem story inform each other.

The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai
[Finished 5 April 2018] The first section of the book could stand on its own and be a satisfying work all on its own. The latter sections, each in their own style, serve to elucidate mysteries of the preceding portions of the novel and while one section in particular was a bit too on the nose, most of it is satisfying although I somewhat wonder whether the revelations of the latter sections (each set further back in time) are strictly necessary.

Sister Emily’s Lightship and Other Stories by Jane Yolen
[Finished 5 April 2018] Yolen has a nice mix of stories here, some straight science fiction, but most take a familiar bit of folk story or fairy tale and find a way to invert the story or shine light on it in some new way. A great discovery and a bit of inspiration on ways to come into stories.

The End of Eddy by Éduoard Louis
[Finished 2 April 2018] It’s labelled as fiction, although it seems awfully autobiographical to me. The evocations of Louis’s childhood growing up gay in rural France are done beautifully with an incident of childhood bullying serving as an introitus to the young Eddy’s life and a recurring chorus through the book.

The Bitter Road to Freedom: A New History of the Liberation of Europe by William I. Hitchcock
[Finished 19 March 2018] Hitchcock pulls no punches here. He acknowledges the evil of the Germans during World War II but focuses here on the consequences of the Allied invasion of Europe. A large chapter is dedicated to the brutality of the Russian forces in the East, but the bulk of the book is dedicated to pointing out the destruction, intentional and unintentional, inflicted by the British and American forces as they battled the Germans to secure the Western front and then faced the even more difficult problem of maintaining order as a conquering power. In many ways, this is exactly the book I was looking for in my novel research.

The Survivors: The Story of the Belsen Remnant by Leslie H. Hardman and Cecily Goodman
[Finished 17 March 2018] A sensitive account of the lives and circumstances of the Jewish survivors at the Bergen-Belsen camp complex under British control after the defeat of the Germans.

21st Century Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell and Patrick Nielsen Hayden
[Finished 15 March 2018] A nice cross-section of what’s happening in contemporary SF writing. Cory Doctorow’s contribution (the last story in the collection so freshest in my memory) sets up an interesting premise, but fails to deliver in the end, nor does it justify its length. The same can be said about a lot of the longer pieces in the collection.

What I Didn’t See and Other Stories by Karen Joy Fowler
[Finished 11 March 2018] A mix of literary and light SF. A bit surprising to see this in a SF bundle from Humble Bundle, but I enjoyed reading it, probably more than I would a straight SF collection.

Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion by James Martin
[Finished 27 February 2018] A well-reasoned and completely orthodox perspective on how the church and members of the LGBT community should interact.

The Healer’s War by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough
[Finished 24 February 2018] A bit of autobiographical fiction set during the Vietnam War which includes a magical realism component which felt a bit unnecessary and forced. The book includes an afterword which attempts to justify the magical realism aspect of the book, but I think it fails to make its case and the novel would have been stronger without it.

Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro
[Finished 22 February 2018] I first became aware of Jamie Quatro through a negative review, which despite its disdain for Fire Sermon intrigued me enough to seek out the book and I’m glad that I did. This is a beautifully written book in lyrical prose that explores the challenging dialogue between sexuality and faith through the story of an affair. Quatro merges multiple threads of narrative in first and third person, present and past tense along with dialogs from therapy sessions, letters, e-mails and phone calls. It’s a masterful work and I’m glad I read it.

Scala by Example by Martin Odersky
[Finished 4 February 2018] It starts out pretty good, but some of the later chapters end up falling into the weeds of computer scientific jargon that ended up feeling like it’s more abstract than practical.

What I Talk about When I Talk about Running by Haruki Murakami
[Finished 31 January 2018] I was expecting more about writing from this than I got. The running parts were a bit inspirational to someone who’s been an occasional dilettantish distance runner and I find myself wanting to try a marathon again, but I suspect this is unlikely to be in the cards for me.

The Annie Dillard Reader by Annie Dillard
[Finished 31 January 2018] An interesting cross-section of Dillard’s work, focusing largely on her creative non-fiction writing. The excerpts from An American Childhood were, to me, the best part of the collection but overall I found myself wishing I’d read Dillard sooner in my life than I had.

The Devourers by Indra Das
[Finished 26 January 2018] There was something about this book that just never geled with me. I had a difficult time settling into the narrative voice of the author and when I finally did, I found myself in many ways disappointed that the book relied so heavily on Western tropes for its werewolves (the primary shapeshifter characters of the novel are all European) and the rather earthy narrative did little to draw me in. Apparently, I was the wrong reader at the wrong time.

Dear America: Reflections on Race edited by Nicole Matthew, Amber Peckham, Jessica Dyer, Brad King and Elise Lockwood
[Finished 23 January 2018]

Yesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress
[Finished 23 January 2018] It’s kind of nice, when a lot of science fiction is overlong tomes written by white dudes to find something slim and written by a woman. Kress has written an intriguing story that manages to be alarmingly prescient about the state of American politics and brings in a story that plays with ideas around genetics and scientific ethics.

Different Voices: Women and the Holocaust edited by Carol Rittner and John K. Roth
[Finished 17 January 2018] A bit academic, some of the biggest value was in the first-person narratives of victims (I don’t remember for certain now, but I think at least one narrative was from someone who didn’t survive Auschwitz). I’d love to have something that just compiles women’s narratives of the holocaust, but this at least offered some of that.

When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold S. Kushner
[Finished 16 January 2018] I’ve known about and avoided this book for years—decades really—after all, what could it possibly have to offer. It turns out the answer is quite a bit. Taking its lead from the Biblical book of Job, Kushner takes the stance that it’s not so much that God allows bad things to happen as that God, having set up the laws of the universe, is powerless to intervene (Kushner doesn’t allow for miracles). Overall, it’s a brilliant piece of theology and well worth reading.

Kabu Kabu by Nnedi Okorafor
[Finished 13 January 2018] While not every story meets its mark and it’s a weird mix of science fiction, magical realism and straight up realism, it’s a compelling collection of stories that helps make the case for cross-cultural reading.

Reactive Web Applications: Covers Play, Akka, and Reactive Streams by Manuel Bernhardt
[Finished 12 January 2018] A decent enough book, although it could have done with being less broad and getting into greater depth in its topics

Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir by Deborah A. Miranda
[Finished 12 January 2018] Using poetry, parody, bits of family and personal history and a fair amount of history, Miranda looks at her familial history as a descendent of California mission Indians providing a counter-narrative to the sanitized version that’s a standard part of the California fourth-grade curriculum, along with her own relationship to her family history, both in the sense of the somewhat abstract relationship to more distant ancestors to the painful aspects of her relationship with her alcoholic father. The poems that are part of the narrative are luminescent and I really wish there were more of them.

Applied Akka Patterns: A Hands-on Guide to Designing Distributed Applications by Michael Nash
[Finished 29 December 2017] I’m left not sure who this book is for. There’s a mix of basic information about the actor pattern and some more advanced material that assumes a great deal of familiarity with the Akka framework.

Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich
[Finished 22 December 2017] What I found especially interesting here was Erdrich’s portrayal of religion. Unlike in, say, The Handmaid’s Tale, religion is treated with some complexity: yes, it is a vehicle for oppression, but at the same time, it (much to my delight in the form of the Catholic church) also serves as a vehicle for liberation.

The Salterton Trilogy by Robertson Davies
[Finished 21 December 2017] Apparently, these are Davies’s first novels but they show some interesting establishment of style. In all three, Davies establishes his scene with characters who turn out to be relatively minor in the overall story (although Leaven of Malice’s newspaper editor is less ancillary than the characters who open the other two novels). There is a wittiness to the books that on occasion manifests itself as a rather dark humor but one that’s enjoyable regardless.

King James Bible
[Finished 15 December 2017] My edition is a Gideon Bible, liberated from a hotel nightstand when I was in college. This translation, while not the first into English, is one of the most influential, defining for many what Biblical language should be. A lot of its characteristics come from being a strictly literal translation (to the point of printing any interpolated words, such as implicit pronouns, in italic and preserving as much as would be intelligible in English, the word order of the original Greek and Hebrew). This is also a definitively sola scriptura approach with no interpretive or critical apparatus provided leading to centuries of bizarre misreadings of the Biblical text.

On the Edge of Destruction: Jews of Poland Between the Two World Wars by Celia Heller
[Finished 6 December 2017] More research for the novel. I was hoping for a bit more on the quotidian aspects of life for Polish Jews before World War II, but the bulk of the book focused on how anti-semitism was rife in Polish society (both before and after World War II),

Functional Programming in Java: How to Improve Your Java Programs Using Functional Techniques by Pierre-Yves Saumont
[Finished 6 December 2017] Saumont comes at things with a very opinionated perspective, to the detriment of the book. Like the Scala book in this series, the text is geared largely to (re)implementing a functional library, which makes it feel in many ways like a mathematics textbook which focuses on presenting proofs of the theorems in the text while generally ignoring the question of how those theorems are applied. Overall, I was hoping for something that was more geared towards developing a functional idiom within the framework of the Java standard library rather than trying to turn Java into something it’s not.

A Curse on Dostoevsky by Atiq Rahim
[Finished 16 November 2017]

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
[Finished 5 November 2017]

Women in the Holocaust edited by Dalia Ofer and Lenore J. Weitzman
[Finished 3 November 2017]

American Gods by Neil Gaiman
[Finished 23 October 2017]

The Walking Dead, Vol. 28: A Certain Doom by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, Stefano Gaudiano and Cliff Rathburn
[Finished 21 October 2017]

Mrs Fletcher by Tom Perotta
[Finished 21 October 2017]

Scrapper by Matt Bell
[Finished 10 October 2017]

We Remember with Reverence and Love: American Jews and the Myth of Silence After the Holocaust, 1945–1962 by Hasia R. Diner
[Finished 9 October 2017]

The Grip of It by Jac Jemc
[Finished 29 September 2017]

Fountain of Age: Stories by Nancy Kress
[Finished 24 September 2017]

Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction by Charles Baxter
[Finished 20 September 2017]

Cake Time by Siel Ju
[Finished 13 September 2017]

Emotional Digital: A Sourcebook of Contemporary Typographics edited by Alexander Branczyk., Jutta Nachtwey, Heike Nehl, Sibylle Schlaich and Jürgen Siebert
[Finished 7 September 2017]

Lies of the Saints by Erin McGraw
[Finished 5 September 2017]

Maelstrom by Paul Preuss and Arthur C. Clarke
[Finished 3 September 2017]

The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry by William K. Wimsatt
[Finished 30 August 2017]

Mrs Bridge by Evan S. Connell
[Finished 26 August 2017]

Selected Works by John Dryden
[Finished 22 August 2017] I have a gap in my studies of English literature between Milton and Pope. Not just literature, but history as well, the whole restoration period is a bit fuzzy in my mind, so long long ago I picked this volume up secondhand somewhere and I finally got around to reading it.

The poetic fashion of Dryden’s era tended towards rhymed couplets and Dryden was nothing if not faithful in following fashion. Most of the poems were imminently forgettable, but there were some interesting moments in Dryden’s apologetic work, particularly when he tackles defending Catholicism from protestant arguments (Dryden converted to Catholicism when James II ascended the throne and remained Catholic after James was deposed because he realized that there was little to commend one protestant sect over another).

I found reading this that perhaps part of why this period in English literary history is foggy in my mind is that there isn’t much to commend it.

Displaced Persons by Ghita Schwarz
[Finished 18 August 2017] I wrote a review of this which apparently vanished and I don’t feel like redoing it now.

Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan
[Finished 3 August 2017] Written in sections that shift in time starting in the fifties and running to the 80s (iirc) alternating with sections in the more-or-less present day. Taking different characters for her close third-person narrative, Sullivan is able to tell a story that none of her characters fully understands and manages to paint a wonderful picture of Irish-American Catholicism in the Boston of the late twentieth century.

Venus Prime 1: Breaking Strain by Paul Preuss and Arthur C. Clarke
[Finished 27 July 2017] This is an interesting project: Preuss apparently took a set of Clarke short stories and used them to link together a narrative about a character of his own creation. It’s relatively easy to spot where Clarke leaves off and Preuss steps in—the two writers are at different levels and while Preuss has squashed the prose down to his own level, the plotting is likewise distinguishable between the two writers.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healley
[Finished 21 July 2017] Healley does the seemingly impossible task, making a compelling story narrated by a character with senile dementia whose train of thought often doesn’t make it from the start to the end of the paragraph. Despite this narrative challenge set for herself, she manages to let the story with its dual mysteries unfold in a compelling manner leaving the reader to put together the pieces that are left incomplete.

Jewish Displaced Persons in Camp Bergen-Belsen, 1945–1950: The Unique Photo Album of Zippy Orlin edited by Erik Somers and René Kok
[Finished 13 July 2017] Photos mixed with an assortment of essays on related topics. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of information about the contents of the pictures.

Essential Latin by George D. A. Sharpley
[Finished 9 July 2017] See my review at

In Progress: See Inside a Lettering Artist's Sketchbook and Process, from Pencil to Vector by Jessica Hische
[Finished 8 July 2017] It was fascinating to see how Hische’s process worked, particularly her use of skeletons in the lettering design. Some aspects of this were things that I’ve worked out intuitively in my own lettering work, but either way, it was educational to see how an expert does the work.

Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia Butler
[Finished 3 July 2017] I’ve never read Butler before this book and I can see what I’ve missed out upon. She does an incredible job of telling stories, not just with unique and intriguing worldbuilding, but with great command of language and character. The two essays in the volume, which are largely cheerleading for would-be writers, are disposable, but the stories themselves are all gems.

Run by Ann Patchett
[Finished 30 June 2017] The most Catholic of Patchett’s novels, with the Catholicism of the Doyle family front and center in the narrative, this was the book that persuaded me that Patchett was at least raised Catholic, which, it turns out, she was. The coda of the novel feels a bit of a cheat, and the scene with the two Tennessees is a bit out of character to the rest of the novel, but the characters are a joy to spend a novel with.

Shirt of Flame: A Year with St Therese of Lisieux by Heather King
[Finished 26 June 2017] I actually had crossed paths with King back in the 90s when we both were semi-regulars at the Wednesday evening liturgy at the Los Angeles Catholic Worker and that was what inspired me to get this book. Fortunately, there’s more depth to it than that and I had to check myself and slow down as I read it because this is a book meant to be consumed in small pieces and re-chewed repeatedly. What King has created is a sort of modern Spiritual Exercises, taking events from the life of St Therese as well as King’s own experiences (with an implicit invitation to the reader to bring her own experiences to the table). I think I might return to this book again spending a whole month praying with each chapter in the manner that is implicitly suggested in the book’s structure.

Stories of Rebbe Nachman
[Finished 20 June 2017] I hoped to get a feel for the language and style of Jewish folktales from this and I suppose I did, but at least stylistically, this is not something I can use for the writing project I wanted to employ it in.

Walk in Darkness by Hans Habe
[Finished 19 June 2017] A pulp-y novel written just after the war with a rather heavy-handed message about racism in America and Europe.

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.

Functional Programming in JavaScript by Luis Atencio
[Finished 26 May 2017] Employing functional idioms in JavaScript has been a growing trend and here Atencio does a good job of showing how best to exploit the benefits of FP in JS while also providing a good introduction to the benefits of FP in general.

Functional Programming in Scala by Paul Chiusano and Rúnar Bjarnason
[Finished 26 May 2017] Another good introduction to FP, here Chiusano and Bjarnason dedicate most of the book to re-implementing basic library functionality as a means of explaining the benefits of functional programming and showing how these things can be implemented in Scala. There’s an assumption of some familiarity with Scala programming in the book which makes some of the examples a bit inscrutable at times, but this is otherwise an excellent book.

Las Puertas Retorcidas by Kathie Dior
[Finished 18 May 2017] See my review at

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,

Italian in 32 Lessons by Adrienne
[Finished 12 May 2017] See my review at

Suicide and Attempted Suicide by Erwin Stengel
[Finished 2 May 2017] Aside from being several decades out of date and occasionally racist (it attributes violence in suicides to an inherent attribute among black people), this is still an interesting read, if only for its snapshot of perspectives on suicide in the mid-1960s.

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.

We’re Alive and Life Goes On: A Theresienstadt Diary by Eva Roubičková
[Finished 26 April 2017] A nice ground-level view of life in the Terezín ghetto.

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.

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit
[Finished 4 April 2017] I put in a hold request for this book in December. It wasn’t until the end of March that a copy finally became available. I’m not the only one looking for hope in the dark, it seems.

Written in the midst of the second Bush administration (after the Iraq war and before the 2004 election), things seemed grim for progressives. Republican control over congress had increased and there were no apparent consequences for the illegitimate invasion of Iraq. What Solnit endeavors to do is reinforce that “the dark” means the unknown and not the terrible and that while progress may be slower than we like, it is inevitable. I had hoped for some concrete plans of action to come from reading the book, but solace was an acceptable consolation.

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.

The Walking Dead, Vol. 27: The Whisperer War by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, Stegano Gaudiano and Cliff Rathburn
[Finished 10 March 2017] A number of big reveals in plot and character along with a nearly non-stop plot make for a pretty good installment in the saga.

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 Liberators: America's Witnesses to the Holocaust by Michael Hirsh
[Finished 24 February 2017] As I continue to research the current novel, I wanted to get some sense of what happened at the time that the camps were first liberated. This book fit the bill perfectly. There’s a bit of rah-rah patriotism in the book, but not distractingly so.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
[Finished 20 February 2017] I suspect that the editing that was done on the manuscript was more than claimed by the editor in the preface (although some cursory internet research indicates perhaps not). No matter, while the language is high-Victorian in style, the story itself is fascinating, providing an often grueling account of the life of a “privileged” slave who, while never flogged, faced a life of continual sexual harassment by her owner and a desire to be owned by no one. She ultimately escapes to the north (after spending seven years(!) cramped in the secret attic of a storage shed), and even once she has custody of her children, finds that she is still not safe once the fugitive slave act is passed.

Perhaps most startling is how much of the book feels relevant to modern race relations with so many white people’s views of blacks being not much changed between the nineteenth century and the twenty-first. It’s books like this that make my decision to strive to have at least 15% of my reading be by non-white authors feel like a wise choice.

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction by J. D. Salinger
[Finished 19 February 2017] See my commentary at

The Terezin Diary of Gonda Redlich by Gonda Redlich
[Finished 14 February 2017] Redlich was a member of the Altensrat at Terezin and had a sort of high-level view of what happened at what was originally to be a model ghetto and instead was largely a transit camp where Jews were sent before being sent to the death camps in Poland, a fate that Redlich himself eventually shared with the other inmates. Copious footnotes throughout give a good deal of helpful background. Overall a useful reference for getting a sense of day to day life in Terezin.

After the Holocaust: Rebuilding Jewish Lives in Postwar Germany by Michael Brenner
[Finished 10 February 2017] Another look at the DP-period (and beyond) of Jewish life in Germany after World War II. Brenner provides a fair amount of information, but the section with the interviews was perhaps a bit disturbing in that the only woman interviewed is interviewed to give her husband’s story. Women’s stories are completely excluded.

Among the Survivors of the Holocaust, 1945: The Landsberg DP Camp Letters by Irving Heymont
[Finished 9 February 2017] A look from the army side at the running of the biggest DP camp in the American zone. This is easily one of the most important primary source documents available from the period.

The Wild Place by Kathryn Hulme
[Finished 4 February 2017] Hulme was part of the UNRRA (later IRO and currently UNHCR), the organization charged with caring for and placing the thousands of displaced persons in the wake of World War II.

The account here covers from the beginning of her time, part of a multinational group of people who were going to end up responsible for thousands of refugees in their one camp alone through her moves to other camps as the UNRRA resources were spread increasingly thin and ending with the repatriation efforts which were frustratingly slow and bureaucratic for those hoping to emigrate. While Hulme is determined to put a bright face on things and sees the humor in many of the incidents including a case where a group of DPs managed to sneak a stolen cow into the DP camp by putting special boots on the animal’s feet, there is still a sense of some of the tragedy surrounding the fate of the DPs.

Hulme had little contact with Jewish DPs and it seems that when she did finally have to deal with one such group as they moved into a new camp in Bavaria, she found herself positively impressed by their organization and state of being. I’m not sure how much of this was her inborn optimism and how much was that she met them late in their journey when they had had time to recover from the problems they faced in the concentration camps. It’s also likely that a great deal of those she met were not concentration camp victims, but rather Jews smuggled from Eastern Europe by Brichah who used the Jewish DP camps as a way station in the emigration path to Israel.

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.

All But My Life: A Memoir by Gerda Weissmann Klein
[Finished 28 January 2017] One of the sad things that I hear agents say is when they have to reject people’s memoirs is that their story just isn’t interesting or different enough. Sure, you recovered from cancer, but so did thousands of other people. What makes you special? Weissmann Klein has something special in her story but doesn’t seem to have really fully understood it herself. The interesting part of her story is less her experience under the Nazis (although that has a lot to commend it regardless), but instead her anti-love story: As a young woman, there was a young man who fell in love with her just as the Nazi restrictions on Jews were falling into place. Unfortunately, she could not bring herself to return his affections, a situation which did not deter him in the least. He spent a great deal of time attempting to woo her and engaged his family in trying to help her, help which she found a way to decline in order to not encourage him unfairly. Ultimately, he has himself transferred to a harder more dangerous work assignment in order to be closer to her, and it’s then that he finally realizes that she will never return his affection. If Weissmann Klein had centered her memoir more fully on this tragic story, this would have been a five-star book.

Female SS Guards and Workaday Violence: The Majdanek Concentration Camp, 1942-1944 by Elissa Mailänder
[Finished 24 January 2017] I’m pretty sure that this book began as someone’s graduate thesis. It has that advanced-student academic vibe to it. That said, the book doesn’t fully live up to its promise, of giving details on the work and lives of female SS guards at Majdanek. Part of this is due to the lack of reliable records and testimony. Much of the necessary documentation was destroyed by the Nazis at the end of World War II and the guards themselves were generally not terribly forthcoming with their roles, doing their best to dissemble, disguise or simply lie about what they did. Mailänder does her best with the materials she does have, supplementing her information with information about the better documented Ravensbrück camp as well as information about the male guards and some general information. For my own needs, the book was adequate, giving some of the vital information that I need for my work in progress, such as information about the guards’ uniforms and how they were to be addressed by inmates and what interactions looked like.

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.

Terezin: Voices from the Holocaust by Ruth Thomson
[Finished 1 January 2017] One thing about requesting library books online is that sometimes I get something that I didn’t quite expect. In this instance, I ended up with the only book about Terezin that my library system had and it was a children’s book. It was still helpful for my research and there was the shocking moment when I saw my own last name appear attached to one of the bits of survivor testimony.

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

Inside the Vicious Heart: Americans and the Liberation of Nazi Concentration Camps by Robert H. Abzug
[Finished 27 November 2016] A somewhat narrow but useful account of the end of World War II. Abzug’s mission is to focus specifically on how the Americans dealt with the reality of the Nazi Concentration Camps they discovered as they pressed into Germany, finding atrocities such as barracks full of the charred corpses of prisoners burnt alive (in one instance, a prisoner had managed to flee the burning building only to be electrocuted upon running into the electrified fence surrounding the compound). For my own needs, the chapters on the army’s handling of DPs and the setting up of DP camps in the American zone were especially helpful. Even better, the writing was of a surprisingly high quality given how much historical writing falls into being dryly academic.

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.

The Walking Dead, Vol. 26: Call to Arms by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard and Stefano Gaudiano
[Finished 20 November 2016] I’m really enjoying what Kirkman has done with the Whisperers in the series. The dead themselves have receded quite a bit as the menace in the series. They’re omnipresent and dangerous, but it’s a manageable danger. What has become instead the principle danger is other people, both within and without the community with the Whisperers acting as a catalyst to bring these conflicts to the fore. The conclusion of this TP provides an especially strong and shocking progression to the story.

Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr
[Finished 17 November 2016] I desperately needed this book after the mess that was the 2016 presidential election. I’d managed to forget to take a book with my to my Sunday workout at the Y, so I stopped by the local indie bookshop and found something off my wishlist to read. I kept this at a slow pace because it was just so comforting to me (I’ve had the good fortune to have met Fr Rohr a couple times when he came to visit the L.A. Catholic Worker and I’ve read several of his other books so I had a good idea of what was coming down for me). Definitely a book to savor and likely to re-read.

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.

The Journal of Hélène Berr by Hélène Berr
[Finished 8 November 2016] I’ve been pleased to discover that diaries of Jews in the forties do not begin and end with Ann Frank. This is an interesting account from a young woman in Paris who had been studying English literature before that avenue was cut off to her under the German occupation. Her candid views on the occupation, whether her own involvement with the Jewish agency in France was perhaps a form of collaboration and the question of Palestine make for fascinating reading.

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.

The Long Road Home: The Aftermath of the Second World War by Ben Shephard
[Finished 20 October 2016] Shephard has become my favorite World War II historian. This is exactly the book on displaced persons that I’ve been looking for for a while now.

Rising up from Indian Country: The Battle of Fort Dearborn and the Birth of Chicago by Ann Durkin Keating
[Finished 1 October 2016] One of these books that I might never have picked up on my own but having done so, I’m glad of the experience. I ended up learning a lot more about Chicago (pre-)history and the poor treatment of Native Americans in the Northwest Territories as the American settlers pushed into territories that the Native Americans had been promised. It was hard not to have a certain amount of sympathy for the Native Americans as they fought their last-ditch battles to preserve their rights to their lands and way of life.

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.

Between Two Streams: A Diary from Bergen-Belsen by Abel J. Herzberg
[Finished 14 September 2016] A secretly kept diary from one of the Bergen-Belsen inmates. Herzberg served as a member of the committee which was involved with maintaining discipline among the Jewish inmates at Belzen, handing own punishments for the various infractions against camp life. While not exactly a luxurious life, the inmates for most of the time of this diary were in better shape than many other Jews in camps further east who were being worked to death or exhaustion (and thence execution as their usefulness was gone), a fate that Herzberg and his compatriots in the camp were well aware of. A useful look into one aspect of Jewish life under the Holocaust.

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.

DPs: Europe’s Displaced Persons, 1945–51 by Mark Wyman
[Finished 31 July 2016] I had high hopes for this book, but found that it’s goals and my own were incompatible. For Mark Wyman, the story of the DPs is the story of the opening of the cold war. He is far more interested in how the DP camps acted as bases for anti-Communist forces to organize (and ultimately emigrate to the west) and spends very little time on Jewish DPs. His willingness to forgive Nazi collaboration in the name of battling Communism was perhaps even more disturbing.

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.

After Daybreak: The Liberation of Bergen-Belsen, 1945 by Ben Shephard
[Finished 21 July 2016] A meticulously researched and amazingly written book. Great details for my research.

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

The Swift Programming Language
[Finished 18 June 2016] A sufficiently comprehensive and clear introduction to the language. It appears to be a viable successor to Objective C for Apple programming.

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.

Aula Internacional 2 by Jaime Corpas, Agustín Garmendia y Carmen Soriano
[Finished 9 June 2016] Este libro es más útil como un libro para usar en la aula que para aprender solo. Lo usé en unos clases de espańol al Instutito Cervantes y estaba muy práctico. Todo el texto es en español, y es necesario tiene un diccionario para usarlo. Creo que un libro similar pero con la intención para faciliatar aprender solo sería muy buen en verdad.

How Happy Became Homosexual: and Other Mysterious Semantic Shifts by Howard Richler
[Finished 8 June 2016] See my review at

KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps by Nikolaus Wachsmann
[Finished 7 June 2016] A comprehensive history of the camps. There’s a tendency to conflate the Nazi concentration camps and the Holocaust, and while there’s a fair amount of overlap between the two, it’s worth remembering the camps held more than just Jews and that the camp killing machine was directed not only at Jews but at other groups (the first prisoners murdered at Auschwitz were actually Russian POWs). Overall, this provided a great deal of information that I can use as background in the writing project I’m beginning to put together.

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 Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language by John McWhorter
[Finished 20 May 2016] See my review at

My Toddler Talks: Strategies and Activities to Promote your Child’s Language Development by Kimberly Scanlon
[Finished 19 May 2016] Some useful information, although the bulk of the book, the games and activities, could be condensed to about two pages of general principles. I suppose some people might find them helpful though.

The Danish Way of Parenting: A Guide to Raising the Happiest Kids in the World by Jessica Alexander
[Finished 10 May 2016] I’ve reached the point where I’m realizing that pretty much every parenting book is saying more or less the same thing. I guess that means either that I’m choosing (or more accurately, my wife is choosing) titles wisely, or I’ve fallen into a self-reinforcing silo of epistemic closure. Fortunately, even if the latter is true, it all seems to be working quite well with my kids.

The Death of Superman by Dan Jurgens et al.
[Finished 4 May 2016] After seeing Batman v Superman, I thought I’d take a look at the comic book sequence that was one source for the film. I found Apocalypse, though, to be a completely uninspired and uninteresting creation who existed solely to cause the death Superman. The movie, at least, provided a better mechanism for the mutual death of monster and man of steel, which was sadly lacking here.

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.

The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World’s Most Endangered Languages by David K. Harrison
[Finished 30 April 2016] See my review at

History of the Breast by Marilyn Yalom
[Finished 25 April 2016] See my review at

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
[Finished 23 April 2016] I have a vague recollection of reading this in elementary school, returning it to an adult, there are the occasional familiar points in the story, but also some unfamiliar aspects as well. It’s fascinating to see how, in some ways, the lives of the families in the back house were often rather mundane (aside from being essentially trapped inside for several years). Overall, the book had more to say about the psychology of Anne Frank than it did about the holocaust, but is still valuable for that as an object lesson in just how human the victims of the Nazis were.

The War by Marguerite Duras
[Finished 19 April 2016] A collection of diary, memoir and fiction about the end of World War II. Duras does a great job of describing the day to day lives of people making the change from being the resistance to being citizens of the restored republic and all the moral challenges that underpin that transformation.

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.

Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption by Laura J. Miller
[Finished 9 April 2016] See my review at

The Walking Dead, Vol. 25: No Turning Back by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, Stefano Gaudiano and Cliff Rathburn
[Finished 8 April 2016] The Walking Dead has gone firmly into attempting to rebuild civilization mode in its storyline and it’s fascinating to see how Kirkman has played with the components he had to make the story still compelling. I’m eagerly awaiting the next trade paperback in the series.

Swansong 1945: A Collective Diary of the Last Days of the Third Reich by Walter Kempkowski
[Finished 7 April 2016] Incredibly dense, perhaps too much so. I was hoping to get some sense of what was happening on the ground at the end of the second world war, but found this was a bit too broad in its scope, making it hard to keep the various narrative threads in mind.

The Bully, The Bullied and the Bystander by Barbara Coloroso
[Finished 4 April 2016] See my review at

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.

I Did Not Interview the Dead by David P. Boder
[Finished 30 March 2016] A challenging read, this is a collection of interviews with people in D.P. camps after the end of World War II. The majority of those interviewed were Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, but there was one woman who had ended up in the D.P. camps after fleeing the Soviets and who expressed an inversion of the expected views about the Germans. This is a difficult to locate book, but one well-worth reading.

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.

In His Sights: A True Story of Love and Obsession by Kate Brennan
[Finished 23 March 2016] See my review at

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.

Displaced Persons: The Liberation and Abuse of Holocaust Survivors by Ted Gottfried
[Finished 13 March 2016] An interesting choice of topic for a book targeted at young readers (this was the only book on displaced persons that turned up in a library catalog search). The material is presented in short sections, but without oversimplifying the matters. Even the question of Zionism is handled in a subtle and nuanced way, less black-and-white than I might have expected with perhaps an intentional irony in the choice of one chapter title, “Birth of a Nation.”

The Temptation of Despair: Tales of the 1940s by Werner Sollors
[Finished 3 March 2016] Ultimately, a collection of critical essays on various artifacts of post-WWII Germany, I came to this as part of my research for a new novel (I had promised myself while writing my last novel I wasn’t going to go historical again, and I wasn’t going to set something in a country where I didn’t speak the language, and now I’m stuck in 1940s Germany). While not all of it is directly relevant to my project, I can see how it’s going to inform the background of what I’m writing, even if the background is off the page.

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.

Flight and Rescue: Brichah; the Organized Escape of the Jewish Survivors of Eastern Europe, 1944–1948 by Yehuda Bauer
[Finished 20 February 2016] A rather functional book. It was interesting to note that the survivors of the holocaust were actually a marginal aspect of the Brichah with the bulk of the emigres to Palestine coming from Russia and Eastern Europe.

The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy and the End of the Republic by Chalmers Johnson
[Finished 18 February 2016] See my review at

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.

English Grammar for Students of Spanish by Emily Spinelli
[Finished 5 February 2016] Having found the Latin book in this series immensely helpful, I thought this would be similarly useful. Alas, Spinelli is too quick to defer to the reader’s textbook for the details of grammar in a way that makes this book far less useful as a standalone volume.

The Nazis Next Door: How America Became a Safe Haven for Hitler’s Men by Eric Lichtblau
[Finished 4 February 2016] See my review at

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.

Red Chicago: American Communism at its Grassroots, 1928–35 by Randi Storch
[Finished 26 January 2016] See my review at

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.

Hannah Arendt by Julia Kristeva
[Finished 13 January 2016] See my review at

Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland
[Finished 12 January 2016] One of the essentials of the comics renaissance of the late twentieth century. It’s interesting to see how Moore takes the mythology of the Joker and turns it into something inherently psychological.

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.

Unlocking the Census with GIS by Alan Peters and Heather MacDonald
[Finished 3 January 2016] See my review at

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.

Siblings without Rivalry: How to Help your Children Live together so You Can Live Too by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish
[Finished 30 December 2015] Having two kids, there’s the whole issue of how to deal with the potential of sibling rivalry and conflict. There are portions of the book that are not relevant to me since we have twins so there was never a time that there was an only child with a second on the way, but other aspects do seem helpful. What’s interesting is how much overlap there is between this and the RIE stuff I’ve read along with the discipline book reviewed earlier.

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.

Girl Land by Caitlin Flanagan
[Finished 18 November 2015] See my review at

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich
[Finished 18 November 2015] Obviously, I picked this up because Alexievich won the Nobel prize for literature. An amazing, but harrowing, read. The losses that so many of these people suffered in the wake of the accident at Chernobyl are staggering. I found it difficult to read this for extended stretches because of the power of the work.

No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson
[Finished 18 November 2015] There’s not a whole lot to the discipline strategy in this book, which is not to say that it’s ineffective, just that the principles are simple and straightforward. The use of specific instances to consider how best to react to a child’s misbehavior was an effective way of delving into exactly how the principles that Siegel and Bryson lay out. It seems that this is a book useful for more than just dealing with child discipline but for keeping any interpersonal conflict from going awry.

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.

No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame by Janet Lansbury
[Finished 1 November 2015] The bulk, if not the entirety of this book, is available on Lansbury’s website, so this is one of those books that exist primarily to provide a more convenient way to read the site’s contents.

This book provide a pretty good overview of RIE parenting, a philosophy that tends to be child-centered, allowing children to do things when they’re ready for them while providing them with the rules, boundaries and limitations necessary for a sense of security in their lives. Definitely recommended.

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.

Cults by Karen Zeinert
[Finished 28 October 2015] See my review at

Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son by Peter Manseau
[Finished 22 October 2015] See my review at

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.

When the Church was Young by Marcellino D’Ambrosio
[Finished 5 October 2015] See my review at

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.

The Walking Dead, Vol. 24: Life and Death by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, Stefano Gaudiano and Cliff Rathburn
[Finished 1 October 2015] We’re getting into some of the more interesting aspects of the post-zombie apocalypse world in this volume, particularly the problems of rebuilding civilization (and the question of whether civilization is something that should be rebuilt at all). Throw in what appears to be the beginnings of an intriguing storyline with Negan (who I have to believe is going to play an important role in volume 25) and the story of surviving the zombie apocalypse has grown new legs.

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.

Heirs of the Fisherman: Behind the Scenes of Papal Death and Succession by John-Peter Pham
[Finished 17 September 2015] See my review at

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.

Priests in Love: Roman Catholic Clergy and their Intimate Relationships by Jane Anderson
[Finished 27 August 2015] See my review at

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

The Happiness Project: Or Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean my Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotl by Gretchen Rubin
[Finished 21 August 2015] I’m declaring a behind on my reviews amnesty for a while.

20 Hot Potatoes Christians Are Afraid to Touch by Tony Campolo
[Finished 19 August 2015] See my review at

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 Collar by Jonathan Englert
[Finished 11 August 2015] See my review at

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.

The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus by Michael F. Bird
[Finished 22 July 2015] See my review at

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

Excavation by Wendy C. Ortiz
[Finished 10 July 2015] I’m declaring a behind on my reviews amnesty for a while.

The Case for God by Karen Armstrong
[Finished 9 July 2015] See my review at

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
[Finished 6 July 2015] Watchmen deals with a lot of the same issues raised by The Dark Knight Returns, but in a more nuanced way. Moore recognizes the problems with superheroes and deals with them face on in his story and while Rorschach is in many ways the star of the book, his right-wing leanings are presented as distasteful, even to his fellow costumed vigilantes.

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.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller
[Finished 27 June 2015] Maybe I know too much about Frank Miller to enjoy this. Miller points out the fascistic tendency of the superhero ethos but then chooses to revel in it, extolling the virtues of fascism over his squeaky-kneed caricature of liberalism.

God by Alexander Waugh
[Finished 22 June 2015] See my review at

Don’t Look, Don’t Touch, Don’t Eat: The Science Behind Revulsion by Valerie Curtis
[Finished 17 June 2015] I’m always skeptical about the claims of evolutionary psychology. There’s a certain quality of mythology around these claims that feel not much different from Phaeton scorching Africa with the chariot of the sun. Here, Curtis does a decent job of justifying her theory (that disgust comes from parasite avoidance), but still falls into the mythology trap. Perhaps most notable about the book is how much Curtis acknowledges areas in which additional research is needed.

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.

The Parables of Kierkegaard by Søren Kierkegaard
[Finished 2 June 2015] See my review at

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.

Superman: Earth One, Vol. 3 by J. Michael Straczynski and Ardian Syaf
[Finished 28 May 2015] Zod. A new girlfriend for Superman (and one who even knows the Clark Kent/Superman connection). Plus Lex Luthor comes to the fore. Again, with the new universe, there are possibilities to upend the expectations, although there needs to be more of this, perhaps earlier on in the stories to allow for the usual course of events to not always be the expectation.

Batman: Earth One, Vol. 2 by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank
[Finished 27 May 2015] One of the benefits and also drawbacks of established mythologies like with mainstream comic book characters is that there’s an understanding of the characters that is present regardless of how the story gets presented. We know that if we meet District Attorney Harvey Dent, then Two-Face is waiting in the wings. The Earth One series has the advantage that it’s creating its mythos from scratch and can play with these expectations in different ways, like the transforming of Alfred from butler to bodyguard and the surprise of just how Two-Face comes about.

An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy by Karyn L. Lai
[Finished 26 May 2015] See my review at

Best American Essays 2014 edited by John Jeremiah Sullivan
[Finished 22 May 2015] By far, to me the star of the volume was Lawrence Jackson’s “Slickheads,” which does a lot to work with language. Wells Tower’s piece on Burning Man was an intriguing look at a subculture from a “norm” perspective. John H. Culver’s essay about his wife’s death while on a trip to Rome was another dramatically memorable piece as was Ariel Levy’s account of her miscarriage in Mongolia.

Eric Gill by Fiona McCarthy
[Finished 18 May 2015] Aside from the revelations about the sexuality, which seemed more prurient than anything else, there was little to make this biography noteworthy. At times, the narrative seemed rather choppy with people suddenly appearing from nowhere with no warning. I had hoped for a bit more about Gill’s relationship with Stanley Morison and Beatrice Warde, but they were almost relegated to little more than passing mentions.

What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael J. Sandel
[Finished 18 May 2015] See my review at

Walking Dead vol. 23: Whispers into Screams by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard
[Finished 15 May 2015] The big mystery of the previous volume, the strangers camouflaging themselves in the skins of the dead is unveiled and Kirkman does a good job of maintaining the tension as we encounter new characters and new dilemmas. The changing nature of the threat has become abundantly clear.

Logic Made Easy: How to Know when Language Deceives You by Deborah J. Bennett
[Finished 13 May 2015] See my review at

The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis by Jacques Lacan
[Finished 4 May 2015] See my review at

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.

My Lunches with Orson by Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles
[Finished 30 April 2015] When I was younger, I knew Orson Welles primarily from his commercial appearances. Even at that point of his decline, his charisma was undeniable. I’ve later come to become a fan of his works, as inconsistent and maddening as everything after Kane can be. It’s very easy to hear Welle’s voice through these transcripts of lunch conversations. It would have been nice to have a bit more commentary and context about the conversations (it’s easy for me to forget that Welles lived into the 1980s as his television presence had dissipated before that time) but it’s a great account of the people and personalities of twentieth-century film.

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.

Economics for Humans by Julie A. Nelson
[Finished 20 April 2015] I’ve always been a bit skeptical about the claims of capitalism, especially having seen how the single-minded pursuit of maximized profit results in poorer products. Nelson strives to provide an alternate model for economics that moves from the purely mechanical ideas that predominate contemporary economics which seems geared towards a deterministic view of how economic relations work. There have been some signs of this sort of thing beginning to happen in the real world, between criticisms of the idea that a corporation’s sole duty is to maximize shareholder value to Tim Cook’s telling people who think that Apple shouldn’t be investing in eco-friendly practices to invest their money elsewhere since profit isn’t everything.

Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life edited by Barnaby Conrad and Monte Schulz
[Finished 16 April 2015] Sadly, the only good thing about this book is the Peanuts cartoons interspersed throughout (which comprise pretty much all the best Peanuts cartoons on writing and literature). The short essays that make up the prose of the book are generally rather anodyne and uninteresting. Elmore Leonard’s commentary on his process is really the only gem in the book.

In Defense of Lost Causes by Slavoj Žižek
[Finished 16 April 2015] See my review at

Accounting for Taste: The Triumph of French Cuisine by Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson
[Finished 14 April 2015] A dry and academic account, although that’s not the biggest failure of this book. Instead, it’s the fact that, even though it’s nominally about cuisine, there is very little writing about actual food. How did the meals of the ancien regime become the haute cuisine of post-revolutionary France? Beyond the move from banquet-style service to service a la Russe, there’s no real description of this.

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.

Your Neighborhood Gives me the Creeps by Adam Selzer
[Finished 30 March 2015] See my review at

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.

Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief by Lewis Wolpert
[Finished 19 March 2015] See my review at

Clive Barker’s Hellraiser: The Dark Watch Vol. 2 by Clive Barker, Brandon Seifert, Tom Garcia and Korkut Öztekin
[Finished 18 March 2015] I continue to be unimpressed with this comic. It apparently continues for one more volume, which I’m not going to bother to find and read.

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.

What Number is God? by Sarah Voss
[Finished 10 March 2015] See my review at

Clive Barker’s Hellraiser: The Dark Watch, Vol. 1 by Clive Barker, Brandon Seifert and Tom Garcia
[Finished 2 March 2015] Comic book time. Revisiting the Hellraiser universe, although I found myself only experiencing the dread of the original film more by associative memory than by anything on the page. This actually was less horrifying than the movies, which given the freedom the graphic format gives, should have been the opposite.

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.

Socrates Café by Christopher Phillips
[Finished 24 February 2015] See my review at

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.

Trauma and Recovery by Judith Lewis Herman
[Finished 3 February 2015] Herman, in this book, is doing a lot of the work to establish PTSD as a genuine disorder, tracing its origins from the “hysteria” of Freud and his contemporaries to contemporary survivors of trauma whether in war or through abuse. Her orientation is very much psychodynamic and feminist and this seems at times to adversely affect her focus and perspective, but even with those limitations, this is a brilliant and well-written book on the subject.

English Grammar for Students of Latin by Norma Goldman and Ladislas Szymanski
[Finished 2 February 2015] Almost a good book, Goldman and Szymanski take readers on a tour of English grammar and its parallel constructions in Latin. Meant more as a reference than a book to be read straight through, each section is headed by a title asking a question about some grammatical point, e.g., “What is a reflexive pronoun?” Where the book fails is in its frequent choices to direct the reader to her Latin textbook rather than simply presenting, e.g., a complete declension or conjugation as appropriate.

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.

5 Survivors: Personal Stories of Healing from PTSD and Traumatic Events by Tracy Stecker, Ph.D.
[Finished 19 January 2015] This was not the book I was hoping for. What I was interested in reading were first-person accounts that described what it was like to live with PTSD. Instead we had five peoples’ autobiographies, focusing on what led up to their traumatic event and then a shorter passage about their healing process, but little about the actual experience of having PTSD.

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.

Appeal Of One Half Of The Human Race, Women, Against The Pretensions Of The Other Half, Men, To Retain Them In Political by William Thompson
[Finished 11 December 2014] A landmark text, but alas, it’s written in a rather archaic and poorly-aged prose style.

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.

Rudolf Koch: Letterer, Type Designer, Teacher by Gerald Cinamon
[Finished 2 December 2014] My big complaint: Not enough illustrations and insufficient connections with the illustrations and the text.

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.

Cognitive Therapy of Depression by Aaron T. Beck, A. John Rush, Brian F Shaw and Gary Emery
[Finished 25 November 2014] A re-read, it feels rather short on specifics and is substantially geared towards practitioners, but insufficiently so to be a practical handbook. I looked at my original review from 1999 and found that my opinion then was pretty much the same.

What's Wrong with You? by Omar Yamini
[Finished 21 November 2014] If this were a work of fiction, I think every reader would immediately leap to point at the narrator as being unreliable. That’s not to say that Yamini is a bad person or that he outright lies, but there does seem to be a vein of self-justification running through the work that makes it unintentionally interesting from the reader’s perspective. Useful for getting a sense of the quotidian details of prison life, I don’t think it works in the “scared straight” manner that Yamini apparently intended given the book’s subtitle.

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

On Immunity: An Innoculation by Eula Bliss
[Finished 17 November 2014] This was an odd book. At one point Bliss really nails the oddity of the book when she talks about how she was surprised to consider herself “press” when denied an interview with a doctor. The subject matter is the sort of thing that might call for a journalistic investigation but instead we get something that lives firmly in creative non-fiction land. There’s a wonderful examination of the cultural and scientific aura that surrounds vaccination (Bliss, thankfully, is not an anti-vaxer or I would never have made it to the end of the book) showing how the two have been intertwined for as long as the subject of immunity has been understood (or just half-understood). Plus, I learned that etymologically, vaccine comes from the Latin vaca, cow.

The Life and Works of Eric Gill by Cecil Gill, Beatrice Warde and David Kindersley
[Finished 16 November 2014] A close and personal look at Gill’s life and works. Beatrice Warde’s contribution is by far the best of the lot, and it feels at times like there’s a lot of responding to unspoken rumors (many of which were doubtless fleshed out in Fiona McCarthy’s Gill biography).

Requiem for a Paper Bag edited by Davy Rothbart
[Finished 12 November 2014] See my review at

Leviathan by Ian Edgington and D'Israeli
[Finished 9 November 2014] A damned good near miss. This could have been something truly amazing here, but it felt like Edgington was too eager to wrap up the main story with a conclusion that felt overly rushed. The additional stories set in the Leviathan universe are entertaining but not enough so to make up for the weaknesses of the main story.

The Walking Dead, Vol. 22: A New Beginning by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard
[Finished 8 November 2014] It is indeed a new beginning in these pages with new characters introduced and familiar ones placed into new and sometimes uncomfortable situations. The introduction of the “whispering zombies” was especially stunning. Add in a new set of point of view characters approaching Rick and the others with skepticism and suspicion and I’m eagerly awaiting the next TPB more than ever.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
[Finished 7 November 2014] Brilliantly written, with the illustrations taking as important a role in the story as the words, this is exactly what graphic narrative should be.

The Secret Museum by Molly Oldfield
[Finished 5 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.

French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon
[Finished 2 November 2014] Part memoir, part manifesto for feeding kids. As a memoir, it was often frustrating (as in “woman, how could you possibly not get it already?”), but as a manifesto it’s both encouraging and depressing (the latter when we discover the challenges that Le Billon faced upon returning to Canada, which apparently has acquired the bad eating habits of its fat neighbor to the south). Some of her challenges in Canada are resolved when she realizes that she should serve food that’s more indigenous to Canada, shopping at the local farmer’s market rather than trying to replicate the foods she made in France, but it still represents a challenge when the peer pressure her kids face moves from eat this fish to eat this McFish.

Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
[Finished 23 October 2014] A charming little noir-ish tale. It is a bit marred by the sketchy nature of Feiffer’s art which made a number of blonde female characters difficult to distinguish, a vagueness which is, in places, important to the plot, but in other places only serves to confuse.

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

Loserpalooza by Darby Conley's
[Finished 15 October 2014] Cartoons from ca 2002 here, I remember the odd coincidence of B. D.’s return from Iraq happening the same time as Rob Wilco’s cousin, with even the same injury making me wonder if they were perhaps the same character. They weren’t.

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.

The Concise Guide to Sounding Smart at Parties by David Matalon and Chris Woolsey
[Finished 8 October 2014] See review at

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

Introducing Screen Printing by Anthony Kinsey
[Finished 30 September 2014] A practical classroom-oriented introduction to screen printing. Kinsey encourages those who would begin to attempt screen printing to experiment with technique and to make their own tools and supplies insofar as practical.

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).

Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity by David Foster Wallace
[Finished 19 September 2014] Wallace’s “compact” history is actually fairly involved. It’s engagingly written, although oddly targeted, apparently at math-English double majors or somesuch. I found a lot of the discussion elucidating although I continue to be unclear on what keeps the rational line from being a continuous space or the reason why c is not equal to א1 (and his distinction between “number line” and “real line” seems to be unique to this work).

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.

Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us and How to Know When Not to Trust Them by David H. Freedman
[Finished 9 September 2014] See review at

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.

Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Twins: A Step-by-Step Program for Sleep-Training Your Multiples by Marc Weissbluth
[Finished 13 August 2014] No review: I’m declaring behind-on-this-list amnesty.

The Walkind Dead, Vol. 21: All Out War, Part 2 by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard
[Finished 13 August 2014] No review: I’m declaring behind-on-this-list amnesty.

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

Weekends at Bellevue by Julie Holland
[Finished 6 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 Walking Dead, Vol. 20: All-Out War by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard
[Finished 24 July 2014] No review: I’m declaring behind-on-this-list amnesty.

Sex Criminals, Vol. 1: One Weird Trick by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky
[Finished 18 July 2014] No review: I’m declaring behind-on-this-list amnesty.

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh
[Finished 16 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.

Superman: Red Son by Mark Millar, Dave Johnson, Killian Plunett, Andrew Robinson and Walden Wong
[Finished 10 May 2014] A perfectly executed alternate history Superman story. Absolutely brilliant.

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

Superman: Earth One, Volume Two by J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis
[Finished 4 May 2014] No review: I’m declaring behind-on-this-list amnesty.

Marvel 1602 by Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert
[Finished 27 April 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.

What to Expect the First Year by Heidi Murkoff with Sharon Mazel
[Finished 19 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.

Wood Nymph Seeks Centaur by Francesca Lia Block
[Finished 7 March 2014] No review: I’m declaring behind-on-this-list amnesty.

iZombie Resurrection by Chris Roberson and Michael Allred
[Finished 27 February 2014] And in a sudden burst of activity, the storyline is brought to a sudden and unsatisfying conclusion. Perhaps, given more time to develop the mythology and characters of the story, it would have been a more successful series, but with this conclusion, it ends up being ultimately unsatisfying.

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.

iZombie: Six Feet Under and Rising by Chris Roberson and Michael Allred
[Finished 20 February 2014] I think this is just around the point where the creators of the series discover that cancellation is imminent. Additional characters and story elements appear in the comic just in time for it to suddenly become a burden.

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.

iZombie: uVampire by Chris Roberson and Michael Allred
[Finished 9 February 2014] After a strong start in the first volume of the series, I felt like the writers were treading water in this volume. Yes, a new antagonist is introduced (or maybe she appeared at the end of the first volume—I don’t remember), but overall there was not much to make me too excited about where things were going. I gather it gets better in the last two TPs of the series.

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 Mindful Way through Depression by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal and Jon Kabat-Zinn
[Finished 6 February 2014] While there’s some good ideas here, I felt like a lot of this was marred by a rather western sensibility of goal-orientedness. The presentation of ideas through “case studies” in particular struck me as rather irritating.

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.

Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn
[Finished 29 January 2014] The good: The book is lyrically written and doesn’t oversimplify mindfulness like some other books on the subject does. The bad: there seems to be a confusion of being attentive towards a child and being indulgent towards a child. There’s a fair amount in here which seems like a recipe for disaster in childrearing.

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.

Bringing up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman
[Finished 22 January 2014] Part of my project to learn everything there is to know about parenting before the babies are born. My wife and I both read this; she went first. As she told me about the book and raised some objections about how it all seemed common sense to her (she’s Mexican), I told her that reading the book was likely to be a different experience for us. For me it would be about how the French parent, for her it would be about how Americans parent. With that insight she realized that this was precisely the case.

The book presents its insights in a memoir format, letting us discover the French parenting ideas through her eyes. At times, she seems to get the clue a little slowly.

Druckerman is clearly an aficionado of the French parenting style, and I can see why. There’s a lot to be learned from the French cadre. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of Cesar Millan’s techniques in dog behavior management. A lot comes down to rules, boundaries and limitations, but with the added bonus that given that we’re working with human beings rather than animals, it’s possible to actually communicate rationally with children.

My wife says that there are a number of bad reviews of the book on amazon from people who mistake discipline for cruelty. That’s a pity. My experience is that children are pretty resilient, even the most spoiled children can grow up to be good adults. The big difference really is how pleasant the journey there will be for those around them.

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.

Minimalist Parenting by Christine Koh and Asha Dornfest
[Finished 9 January 2014] There’s a fair amount here which seems to be common sense and a disturbing assumption that parent is the same as mother. But even with that, this is a useful resource it seems.

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.

Demon Camp by Jennifer Percy
[Finished 5 January 2014] A book from my book club, narrative nonfiction I would not have otherwise read. Percy tells a compelling story, intermixing the suicidal reaction of many soldiers to PTSD to their evangelical demon-haunted response to the condition.

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.

Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber
[Finished 1 December 2013] Graeber opens his book with a provocative statement: The idea of an age of barter is a myth. As an anthropologist, he’s able to make a persuasive argument on this case. The title of the book is a bit misleading, however, in that the first two-thirds of the book are more an anthropological survey of debt, slavery and interpersonal relationships. Still, more than anything else, Graeber manages to come up with a compelling explanation of just what money is (and along the way, without explicitly saying anything about it, gives justification for a mildly inflationary fiat currency and shows why Bitcoin will likely fail as currency.

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.

The Walking Dead, Vol. 19: March to War by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard
[Finished 23 November 2013] Finally, things are happening.

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.

Among Murderers: Life After Prison by Sabine Heinlein
[Finished 7 September 2013] Sadly superficial. I was hopig for a deeper sense of what was happening in the lives of the men profiled in this book, but we rarely get much beyond Heinlein’s surface perceptions.

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.

Our Own: Adopting and Parenting the Older Child by Trish Maskew
[Finished 29 July 2013] At times humorous, this is mostly a sobering account of what’s involved in older child adoption. While Maskew talks about the benefits, she also believes that an honest appraisal of the challenges is also essential for parents to be successful in the adoption (or to realize that the challenges are beyond their abilities to cope).

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.

Five Hundred Years of Printing by S. H. Steinberg, revised by John Trevitt
[Finished 21 June 2013] A wonderfully readable account, not just of printing but also of publishing and to a lesser extent book design. At times Steinberg’s text frustrates because he fails to provide illustrations of some of the typefaces or designs that he describes, but overall it was a fun read. John Trevitt’s updates in the body of the text are cleanly done and noticeable only because of the occasional reference to events beyond Steinberg’s death. Sadly the final chapter added by Trevitt doesn’t measure up to the rest of the book. There are a number of careless errors (“Adobe’s Apple-Macintosh,” being the most glaring of these) and an occasional misunderstanding of the state of the art of printing at the time of the update.

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.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8, Vol. 8: Last Gleaming by Joss Whedon, Georges Jeanty and Scott Allie
[Finished 18 June 2013] And the season arc comes to an end with an almost endless sequence of mind-numbing violence. Big chunks of plot turn out to be just not justified well or at all and overall I was left feeling a bit disappointed with how everything played out, not just because of the fate of characters but because it seemed like the overall season 8 arc was poorly conceived in the first place. I’m not entirely sure I’ll do season 9. (Oh who am I kidding, the note at the end of the book with some bits of explanation about dealing with the translation from television to comics and a touch of apology plus the fact that it’s Joss Whedon means I’ll give him another shot at doing it better).

Project Physics by Harvard Project Physics
[Finished 18 June 2013] Written as a high school textbook to teach physics without requiring calculus, this ends up being a bit of an odd bird. The chapters on mechanics end up being a bit vague since it’s hard to really talk about acceleration without a concept of the derivative (and anti-derivative). Curiously, the chapters on nuclear physics and relativity don’t suffer as much from a lack of higher mathematics. The title seems a bit misleading as there are no projects actually on offer in the textbook (although there were apparently supplementary materials with said projects). The organization around the history of Physics does make for a good read, although there is perhaps a bit too much time dedicated to incorrect theories for my tastes. My overall reaction is that physics is a subject that can only be covered superficially without calculus at the ready.

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 Walking Dead, Vol. 18: What Comes After by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn
[Finished 15 June 2013] We’re moving to a point in the story now where the zombies have become more of a background threat with the real danger being the other humans and the struggle to rebuild civilization. Negan’s character is developing as an interesting villain, although it seems difficult to understand exactly why the people in his community follow him given his somewhat capricious nature.

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.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8, Vol. 7. Twilight by Bred Meltzer, Georges Jeanty and Joss Whedon
[Finished 11 June 2013] The story picks up a bit building towards the final act, but the art continues to mar things. There were more than a few occasions when I had to turn back a few pages matching outfits to figure out who some of the characters were supposed to be.

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.

Superman: Earth One by J. Michael Straczinski and Shane Davis
[Finished 12 May 2013] A delightful re-imagining of the Superman origin story, establishing a new villain with another new villain behind that one and making Superman a bit less of the universally admired figure he was in his original incarnation. The graphic novel format of the Earth One series allows for an expansive story and a higher level of artwork, all to the book’s benefit.

My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman
[Finished 11 May 2013] If there is any doubt that the language of faith is poetry, this book (and also Mary Karr’s Lit) should put those doubts to rest. Wiman creates a compelling picture of the dialog between faith and disbelief, the struggles that are at the heart of faith for the modern soul. Wiman manages to convey what his relationship with God is about without becoming saccharine, superficial or dogmatic.

The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger
[Finished 11 May 2013] In the local authors area at the Chicago Cultural Center, they have some pages from The Night Bookmobile on display. They’re a good reminder that Niffenegger was an artist before she was an author. The illustrations and text combine to create a wonderful experience, something surreal and a little horrific (the plot evoked a similar emotional response in me that Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry did).

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.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8, Vol. 6. Retreat by Jane Espenson, Georges Jeanty and Joss Wheadon
[Finished 1 May 2013] A fairly action-packed and well in-character sequence of comics. There are a couple of returning characters, but two big reveals in this section are harmed by the fact that I really didn’t realize who the characters were meant to be (I had to flip back a few pages to know who the girl in the purple shirt was and Oz was completely unrecognizable to me). Still, despite these shortcomings in the art (and the cast of many interchangeable and disposable extra slayers who don’t really do much for me), it was an interesting sequence and made me eager to continue with season 8.

iZombie: Dead to the World by Chris Roberson and Michael Allred
[Finished 25 April 2013] A wonderfully written and drawn comic. I’ve taken up reading comics relatively lately and this is one of three series that I’m buying (the others being the Buffy comics and Walking Dead). By far, this has the best artwork of the three, and the writing is crisp and entertaining, without descending into camp. We get all the standard movie monsters: ghosts, zombies, vampires, werewolves (sorry, wereterriers), but not Frankenstein monster (yet) plus a secret clan of monster hunters. There’s been a set of interesting turns with the division into good guys and bad guys not being entirely clear and plenty of hints that not everything is what it seems. With that, I’m happy to keep reading this series because I need to know what comes next.

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.

The Empire of Death by Paul Koudounaris
[Finished 23 April 2013] A lavishly illustrated book, with monochrome pictures on every text page and more than enough color plates to satisfy the visual appetite. As a picture book, it’s wonderful. As a book of text, on the other hand, it falls short on a few points. First, the choice of small type and light ink makes the book near-impossible to read in anything but ideal lighting conditions. As for the text itself, Koudounaris displays a good historical understanding of his subject, but fails at anything relating to Catholic religion. There are numbers of mistakes (e.g., confusing limbo and purgatory) that mar Koudounaris’s account.

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.

The Vatican Diaries: A Behind-the-scenes Look at the Power, Personalities and Politics and the Heart of the Catholic Chu by John Thavis
[Finished 9 April 2013] Essential reading for anyone interested in the contemporary Vatican. Thavis managed to hit the luck jackpot for his book, having his book come out a week and a half after Benedict announced his resignation, guaranteeing him far greater sales than might have otherwise been possible. A paperback edition was rushed into production before the conclave.

Thavis presents his information in thematic chapters covering the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. One unfortunate aspect of this is a tendency to jump around in time, leaving the reader uncertain when the events described are taking place or who is pope at the time. It might have behooved Thavis to focus his writing on the papacy of Benedict. A final chapter on the “Real Benedict” was sadly less informative than Thavis was in his Fresh Air interview on the papacy.

In some ways, Thavis’s depiction of the Vatican press was more illuminating than his coverage of the Vatican itself. It was startling to see how little the Vatican is able to control its own message and how much the press gets things distorted or just plain wrong.

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.

Penny Arcade: Attack of the Bacon Robots by Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik
[Finished 10 March 2013] Apparently, this is the most popular webcomic. Personally, I found it tedious and incomprehensible. Apparently, between not being a gamer and reading topical humor over a decade old, this ends up being completely uninteresting.

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.

XKCD, Volume 0 by Randall Munroe
[Finished 27 January 2013] I’ve read all of them, and I wouldn’t have bought the book, but I got the PDF for free from the Humble Bundle, so what the heck. Some of the humor is badly dated, but much is still excellent. And of course I was nerdy enough to take the binary-coded ASCII and decipher it (from memory) and get one of the many hidden jokes. I also did all the integrals. Oh God, I need help.

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.

Geek Dad's Guide to Weekend Fun by Ken Denmead
[Finished 11 January 2013] Maybe it’s because of my lack of kids, but I didn’t really find most of the ideas in this book that interesting or worthy of doing. Maybe in a later version of myself my attitude will change, but for now I can see why this was on the hyper-discounted shelves of our local Border’s when they were closing down

Batman Earth One by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank
[Finished 9 January 2013] An interesting re-imagining of Batman, and perhaps even moreso, of Alfred the butler. Gotham has always been a darker take on the superhero’s city, especially compared to Superman’s Metropolis, but it’s conceived even darker here, with even Gordon starting out as a morally compromised character. By the end of the book, the characters have been set on their paths towards a recognizable version of the Batman mythos, but one that seems quite worth continuing.

The Lost City of Z by David Gann
[Finished 8 January 2013] A mix of personal narrative, history and geography, focusing on the explorer Percy Fawcett’s quest for the remnants of a lost civilization in the Amazon. Intermingling elements of the author’s own research (including journeying to the Amazon himself), we’re given a fairly compelling account of Fawcett’s exploration with the added bonus of an archaeologist’s account of the true story of the lost Amazonian civilization.

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.

The Walking Dead, Vol. 17: Something to Fear by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard
[Finished 28 December 2012] Things have gotten brutal here. The title of this trade paperback does not disappoint, there truly is something to fear in this set of six issues. This time around the story is told as one continuous novel without the individual issue’s covers and letters sections, a choice I’m not too crazy about. I had rather enjoyed those elements as well as having the opportunity to catch one’s breath with each issue.

Looking Closer 2 edited by Michael Bierut, William Drenttel, Steven Heller and D. K. Holland
[Finished 26 December 2012] Compiled at a period of crossroads in graphic design, with the profession under assault from various directions: the rise of grunge typography and the assault on communication from the deconstructionist design community; the advent of desktop publishing, putting the tools of graphic design into the hands of the laity for the first time, as well as requiring the professional designer to deal with a greater portion of the production life cycle than had perviously been the case; and the rise of the internet and electronic publishing, inventions that were still not fully understood and that still had the possibility of being stillborn for decades to come. Looking back the decade and a half at what the concerns were, it’s fascinating to read these essays, knowing what was to come, that graphic design as a profession would become commoditized with graphic design scoring higher than English as a major bad for your career, that grunge typography, already on the decline when this anthology was compiled, would become irrelevant with the dawn of the new millennium, the aesthetic superseded by the German neo-modernist school of design, driven, to a large extent by the pixel-based restrictions of the internet and e-book publishing, arenas where good design has yet to have made a full impact, in some cases as a result of technological limitations beyond the power of the publisher to control. But even given its historical nature, this is an essay worth reading, if only for the discussion of questions that can be understood to still have relevancy.

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.

The Most Dangerous Game by Zach Weiner
[Finished 5 December 2012] The second Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal collection seemed a bit less entertaining than the first. I wonder whether Weiner’s responses to what drew people to the comic are responsible for this. If so, it seems to be a cautionary tale of the dangers to art of striving for page views.

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.

Save Yourself, Mammal!: A Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal Collection by Zach Weinersmith
[Finished 30 November 2012] Oh my goodness, there’s some really funny stuff in this book. There’s a fair amount of obsessing over recurring themes, superheroes, bad parenting, God, Hitler, all the standard comic strip stuff, but it’s all really well done. There was one strip I still don’t get, even after obsessing over it for days, and I solved the math problem tattoo, although I had a sign error on my first attempt at solving it.

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).

The Douai-Rheims Bible
[Finished 26 October 2012] A surprisingly readable translation. That it’s a translation of the Latin is its main failing. The Challoner revisions remove some of the more awkward Latinisms of the original edition.

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.

Signal to Noise by Neil Gaiman and David McKean
[Finished 15 October 2012] My first Gaiman (not counting movies based on his writing). It’s very much a post-modern sort of graphic novel, with the images and text interplaying in some interesting ways.

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.

Basic Typography by H. F. Lock
[Finished 29 September 2012] An oddly planned book, there’s a strange mix of the specific and the general in frequently impractical ways. Especially interesting is that this book was published a year into the second world war when paper shortages were the norm in England. How this book ended up being published at all is a bit of a mystery.

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.

The Mosher Survey: Sexual Attitudes of Forty-Five Victorian Women by Clelia Duel Mosher
[Finished 17 August 2012] I first heard about this book courtesy of an article from Stanford Magazine which got some play on the internet. An ILL request later and I was reading the book myself. This is pure primary source material, other than a pair of short introductions, this is nothing more than raw typescripts of the handwritten survey forms. Despite the relatively narrow demographics of the survey (these seem to be mostly faculty wives in the survey), there is a surprising variety of attitudes to sex and some wonderfully expressed views about marital relations. I guess the thing to do know is to look to see if this appears in the social sciences citation index and read those papers.

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.

Bookbinding: Its Background and Technique by Edith Diehl
[Finished 13 August 2012] A decent workmanlike book. Not quite sufficient for self-education, but a good supplement to learning the craft in a studio situation. Diehl assumes some familiarity with tools and materials which the reader may not have, a fact complicated by the change in tools and materials available since the book was written. The history section which composes the first half of this volume has a handful of errors in it, which are a bit of a negative.

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.

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter
[Finished 7 August 2012] This is one of those books that it seemed that everyone but me had read (or at least had on their desk) when I entered nerd school. Coming to it now a quarter century later, I can see the appeal of it, and I think it would be fun to teach a course using this book as the central text. I was most interested in the Gödel part of the book, which was a central concern of the first two-thirds and was really well-done, providing a good in-depth look at the meaning and consequences of the incompleteness theorem. As Hofstadter moved into the domain of artificial intelligence, the book began to really show its age. Aside from the obvious case of Hofstadter believing that a computer would never beat the best human chess player (which, in fact, happened in 1997, 18 years after the book was published), the field of artificial intelligence has moved in directions rather different from what Hofstadter imagined at the time of this writing. Still, despite its age and its flaws, it’s a book well worth reading.

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.

Work is Hell by Matt Groening
[Finished 28 July 2012] Back in the late 80s, I bought School is Hell and Love is Hell but left Work is Hell unpurchased since at the time I was living through school and love, but not work. Now that I’ve spent time in the working world, and I happened to stumble upon this collection at Open Books in Chicago, I’ve completed the trilogy of the original three Life in Hell compilations. Some of the humor is a bit dated in that the face of office work is now staring into a computer monitor, but much of it holds up pretty well. Not bad for humor which is going on 30 years old.

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.

A Millenium of the Book: Production, Design and Illustration in Manuscript and Print, 900–1900 edited by Robin Myers and Michael Harris
[Finished 27 July 2012] A collection of essays on the history of books looking at a variety of topics from the origins and development of the Aldine italic to the progress of bookbinding as it transitioned from a luxury to a commodity. This is the sort of wide-ranging book which seems more a library purchase than a part of an individual’s library (my copy was sent as a review copy from the publisher and languished on my shelves for nearly two decades before I finally read it). There are some great bits of academic historical research here, but little to really grab the casual reader.

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.

Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch
[Finished 13 July 2012] A large and dense book. The third thousand (or should I say first?) of the title is the pre-history of Christianity, examining its roots in Greek and Hebrew thought, seeing how the founders of Christianity were influenced by their cultures, the religious and philosophical ideas surrounding their writing.

MacCulloch’s with and erudition are on display throughout the book, making it an entertaining and engaging read, almost enough to forgive the shortcomings of the book. Most notably, MacCulloch isn’t really able to move beyond his own liberal Anglican background in his writing of history, which is most notable in his superficial treatment of the sixteenth century, but in writing on religious topics, it’s not entirely clear that any truly objective account is possible.

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.

The Way of Life by Lao Tzu
[Finished 10 July 2012] I imagine the translation of the Tao Tê Ching here is adequate, but it’s marred by an atrocious commentary. R. B. Blakney reveals only a superficial familiarity with Chinese philosophy and instead fills his commentary with spurious references to Plato and the Bible. Clearly a believer in the all religions are one school of thought, his commentary creates parallels where none exist, in some instances actually distorting the meaning of the text to fit his own agenda.

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 Walking Dead, Vol. 16: A Larger World by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn
[Finished 2 July 2012] Now I’m completely caught up with the comics, barring how ever far the monthlies have gotten while waiting for the trade paperbacks to come out. We’re beginning to see the start of an attempt at normalization as well as the impact of the breakdown of civilization on interpersonal and intercommunity trust. I’m really looking forward to seeing how the story progresses from here.

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.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8, Vol. 5. Predators and Prey by Joss Whedon, Jane Espenson, Steven S. DeKnight, Drew Z. Greenberg, Jim Krueger, Doug Petrie,
[Finished 11 June 2012] After spending so much time reading The Walking Dead, the pacing and tone of the Buffy comics comes across as a welcome change. Each issue is a self-contained story which in this instance means that the overall story ark is not really advanced (other than the return of Dawn to human form). The Whedon humor is on full display here.

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.

Bucky Katt's Big Book of Fun by Darby Conley
[Finished 28 May 2012] Some of the funniest stuff I’ve read. I remember reading a lot of these when they originally appeared in the paper, but they’re still wonderful to revisit.

The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood by James Gleick
[Finished 27 May 2012] A really nice cross-disciplinary look at information theory. Being a few chapters into a more academic computer science oriented text on the subject (working through lots of proofs and calculations relating to entropy, encodings, etcetera), I found some of the concepts familiar and had a bit of deeper background in understanding where things were going in the discussion, but I don’t think that this was strictly necessary. There’s a great deal of wonderful background and example-building that enables a great deal of breadth as well as making connections between computability and Gödel’s incompleteness theorem.

Dynamite: A History of Class Violence in America by Louis Adamic
[Finished 23 May 2012] I’ve been on a bit of a radical reading tear. Here, Adamic gives a history of the labor movement from the early nineteenth century until the late 1920s, using violence as his framing device for understanding the development of relations between labor, capital and the state. Adamic’s socialist sympathies are clearly on display and he’s more sanguine about the use of violence than my own Menshevik sensibilities can allow. On the other hand, he clearly blames the use of violence by trade unions for the eventual takeover of those unions by organized crime, itself a development which he doesn’t have a clear view pro or con for.

Most surprising, though, is how much the economic conditions of today mirror those of the early twentieth century. It makes me even more fearful of a Republican takeover of the government in this year’s elections.

An Anthology of Western Marxism from Lukacs and Gramsci to Socialist-Feminism edited by Roger S. Gottlieb
[Finished 22 May 2012] A nice diverse collection of essays. Some of the essays end up feeling a bit dated, especially many of the socialist-feminism essays, a fact thrown into stark contrast because of the presence of Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Life without Father” which points out how much of the patriarchy theory has fallen apart with the movement of women into the labor force since the 1970s (although having watched a fair amount of 1970s television I can understand how much those sorts of patriarchal ideas permeated American culture, at least).

Perhaps most interesting to me was Gramsci’s critique of the Catholic Church which managed to be especially apt with the state of the church in the early 21st century. I really need to read more Gramsci.

The Walking Dead, Vol. 15: We Find Ourselves by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn
[Finished 22 May 2012] There’s a definite move of the problem in the post-zombie world being the people more than the zombies. I find the waves of discontent forming and receding among the human characters to be fairly compelling, although there’s a danger of things falling into stagnation if not handled well. Meanwhile I guess I have to wait a month for the next trade paperback of the comics. I’m not sure I’m willing to go the individual comics route, not yet at least.

Walking Dead, Vol. 14: No Way Out by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn
[Finished 19 May 2012] It’s as if they could read my mind. Suddenly there’s a letters column with every issue in this book. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who thought it would be nice. One nice thing for forcing my addiction into quiescence is that I’m nearly caught up. And sadly, I’ve already started on Vol. 15, the last currently available collection (although #16 will be out in mid-June).

If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home by Lucy Worsley
[Finished 17 May 2012] More a tour guide history than anything else. There are a few nice details on changing practices in the home, but I would have liked something perhaps a bit more systematic than this. For example, Worsley has a tendency to move from one period to another with minimal transition. And then there’s her fondness for spurious etymologies and origin stories, which make me somewhat distrustful of her overall trustworthiness.

The Walking Dead, Vol. 13: Too Far Gone by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn
[Finished 15 May 2012] A weird mix of things happening and stasis in these six issues. A threat from outside the walls is resolved disappointingly quickly, and likewise with the resolution of the domestic violence story. It’s not that I needed action throughout, but it seemed like Kirkman didn’t want to fully explore the consequences of some of the things he set up.

On the flip side, the issue 75 bonus features including letters and the full color aliens sequence are a delightful bonus. It seemed like letters are in every issue of the individual comics. I wonder why they don’t include them in every issue?

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.

Orange County by Ray Bradbury, West Light
[Finished 3 May 2012] I stumbled on this at the going out of business sale at Dawson’s Books. The appearance of Ray Bradbury’s name on the spine and some of the photos showing an unrecognizable Orange County inspired me to add the book to the treasures that I grabbed from the shelves. Now that I’ve finally opened it, I was surprised to discover that Bradbury’s contribution to the book was limited to a brief essay at the start of the volume and the unrecognizable O.C. was just a year older than my first visit to the place myself.

Perhaps the most interesting thing is to see how much the county has changed since the book was published in 1985. It’s still full of Barry Goldwater wannabes, but increases in the Latino population have provided some liberal incursion into the county and the growth of the Asian population was completely unforeseen by Bradbury in his essay. The Catholics ended up buying the Crystal Cathedral from a bankrupt congregation, saving themselves the trouble of relocating the San Andreas fault to reduce it to rubble. Meanwhile, many of the views of the county already appear more than a quarter century distant.

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.

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 Walking Dead, Vol. 12: Life Among Them by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn
[Finished 29 April 2012] The story continues with our heroes arriving at a walled suburban community outside Washington D.C. run by an ex-congressman. The big conflict here lies in the fact that our protagonists are afraid to believe in the safety and normalcy that they’re offered by the community. They have a high level of paranoia, but despite glimpses of some awful event in the past, this doesn’t seem to be justified based on what we’re shown.

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.

God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World by Stephen Prothero
[Finished 19 April 2012] I notice that the second part of the subtitle (“and why their differences matter”) has been removed from the paperback edition of the book. This does not surprise me, this was my single biggest complaint about this book—there is little attention paid to this final question beyond a concluding chapter which makes the argument that “Godthink” which lumps religion together, whether on the part of the New Atheists, or the perennial philosophers, is not a terribly useful way of thinking about religion.

The book itself provides a good overview of the eight most influential religions (Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba, Judaism and Daoism) and a shorter chapter on atheism, which provides a broad, but necessarily shallow, overview of these traditions. My own religious understanding is largely confined to the Abrahamic traditions, although I did learn a fair amount about Buddhism courtesy of a course in Zen Buddhism while I was an undergrad. Overall, it’s a good starting point for getting some sense of the incredible diversity of religious thought and philosophy in the world.

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.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
[Finished 8 April 2012] A difficult book to react to. I found myself reading this in the context of the criticism of The Help. Once again, we have a story of a white girl coming to the rescue of black folks, but this time, the story is true. Is it somehow more or less acceptable given that fact? And is this an oversimplification of the question? Had this been a straightforward piece of scientific writing, this issue wouldn’t be so prominent. Even by including the story of Henrietta Lacks’s life, we get a human dimension, but no questions of race rise up. But in the inclusion of Rebecca herself into the narrative, the white girl coming in to fix things (although unlike in The Help, one could make the argument that Skloot doesn’t really reach the same level of success—real life can be tricky that way).

There are few cases where the appearance of the biographer in the biography manages to be a successful endeavor (Ian Hamilton’s The Search for J. D. Salinger comes to mind). I’m still not sure if this is one of those instances.

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 Walking Dead, Vol. 11: Fear the Hunters by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn
[Finished 25 March 2012] This could have been a really dark turn in the story. There are two stories in this volume, first a single-issue arc where one of the twin kids kills the other, saying that it would be ok because he didn’t destroy the brain so his sibling would come back. This is followed by a five-issue arc where our group is confronted with a group of people who have found that cannibalism is their ticket to survival since people are easier to hunt than animals. And yet, despite the darkness of these stories, it manages to be not too depressing as some of the earlier arcs had tended towards.

Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures by Robert K. Wittman with John Shiffman
[Finished 24 March 2012] After reading Michael Capuzzo’s book on the Vidocq Society, I was expecting this to be similarly poorly written. Surprisingly, my expectations were not fulfilled. There’s some similarity in the books using genre conventions with the narrative starting with a teaser chapter before going back in time to fill in the background and bring things back to the present, but here we have something very well written, providing a compelling narrative, a fascinating protagonist and while some of Wittman’s hobbyhorses are very much on display here, they don’t distract, instead they inform the narrative.

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.

The Walking Dead, Vol. 10: What We Become by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn
[Finished 9 March 2012] The action is back up, as our newly expanded group heads on the road to Washington. They pass near Rick’s old town to collect supplies—and Morgan who has gone a bit nuts in the aftermath of his son being bit—while Dale shows distrust of Rick. Since I’m currently watching the series as well, it seems that there’s almost no chance of the two story lines converging now given the differences in who lives and who dies. It’s kind of strange that I’ve been turning to the comics for a less dark view of things, especially given that one issue in this volume seems to have been dedicated to a recollection of the awful things the characters have done.

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 Walking Dead, Vol. 9: Here We Remain by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn
[Finished 2 March 2012] Growing somewhat impatient with waiting for the next gigantic compendium for The Walking Dead to be released, I decided to try out the Comics+ app on my iPad and read this there.It would have been slightly cheaper to get the paperback from Amazon, but I’m becoming increasingly disenchanted with the big A (I suppose I should start buying this stuff at the comics shop down the street).

It took me a while to remember what had been happening in the Walking Dead storyline, but once I did and remembered that we were in the aftermath of the attack on the prison with I don’t remember exactly who dead, I was better able to keep up with things.

This volume is a bit quiet, but establishes some interesting things like how exactly the herds of walking dead form and set up the introduction of some new characters and the next story arc. Perhaps most interesting is the beginnings of some explorations of issues of mental health in the post-apocalyptic world.

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.

Oak Park: The Evolution of a Village by David M. Sokol
[Finished 28 February 2012] At times this felt like a revised and expanded version of Sokol’s Oak Park, Illinois: Continuity and Change, but with a higher text-to-pictue ratio than that book. Overall it was an interesting look into the history of Oak Park, although at times, it felt like there were key details omitted, such as explanations of buildings or institutions which were mentioned in passing without explanation. It’s not the last word in Oak Park history, but it is a pretty good contribution to the exposition of local history.

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 Murder Room: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World's Most Perplexing Cold Cases by Michael Capuzzo
[Finished 30 January 2012] Great subject matter, awful writing. The book is written like a pulp true crime book, full of overwrought prose. Worse still, Capuzzo tends to write with an omniscient point of view, the worst choice for writing what is, at heart, a mystery narrative. If it’s clear that the narrator knows everything, there’s no compelling reason for that narrator to hold back the truth.

The Vidocq society itself has some interesting characteristics, but I found myself surprised at how much superstition (e.g., psychics) and pseudo-science (e..g., polygraphs) played a role in their investigation. Furthermore, one of the central characters, a profiler, struck me as egotistical and willing to make unfounded accusations based on his dubious conclusions, although a passage where his process was broken down a bit more made his process seem a bit more reasonable.

C++ Coding Standards: 101 Rules, Guidelines, and Best Practices by Herb Sutter and Andrei Alexandrescu
[Finished 29 January 2012] A reasonably comprehensive overview of the best practices of contemporary C++. I found myself realizing as I read this how poor and out of date my C++ has gotten. There were big chunks of the language which I had forgotten existed in any form.

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.

Your Happy Healthy Pet Beagle by Elaine Waldorf Gerwitz
[Finished 20 January 2012] A somewhat redundant book, but our visit to the library resulted in us clearing the beagle books from the shelves. The chapter on training was pretty good and for those who would have adopted a puppy there is a great deal of essential information. It does appear that there’s a fair amount of cut and pasting done between this book and other breed-specific books in the same series.

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.

Beagles for Dummies by Susan McCullough
[Finished 8 January 2012] A useful and somewhat interesting book, although much of what I needed to know, I learned from Cesar Millan before reading this. There were some fun bits of trivia and this would not be a bad book for someone considering getting themselves a beagle even if the prose tends to be a bit precious at times.

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.

Panther Baby by Jamal Joseph
[Finished 27 December 2011] A compulsively readable book. Another memoir I would not have picked up without my book club, I found Joseph’s story to be can’t-put-down compelling. The writing was plain and unpretentious, but the story, well, I could see myself being a happy supporter of the Black Panthers had I been more than an infant back in the day. Joseph’s story gets a bit less interesting after the dissolution of the Panthers, but his account of his time in Leavenworth became a bit more interesting and kept me from being annoyed at the saccharine uplift of the final chapter of the book.

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.

A Member of the Family: The Ultimate Guide to Living with a Happy, Healthy Dog by Cesar Millan
[Finished 11 December 2011] Since my wife and I were in the process of getting a dog (which we’ve now done), and she’s a devotee of Cesar’s from his TV show, we read this book to make sure that we were on the same page for how to train our newly adopted beast. In all, it’s a pretty good book, although it tends to be a bit short in some specifics. I would have liked to have gotten direction on how best to apply Cesar’s principles to some of the behavior modifications that we would like to train in our dog.

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.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 8, Volume 4: Time of Your Life by Joss Whedon, Karl Moline and Jeff Loeb
[Finished 20 November 2011] Largely a bit of a digression from the main twilight big bad of Season 8, here we get an odd time travel story which reveals a bit about the future of Willow, slayers and the planet earth in the distant future.

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.

Y: The Last Man, Vol. 1: Unmanned by Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra and José Marzán, Jr.
[Finished 8 November 2011] An amusing concept: Yorick is the last man on earth. Not the last person, just the last man. He and his pet monkey, Ampersand are apparently going to face a post-apocalyptic world where the women turn out to be willing to supply the savagery that men can no longer provide (being dead and all). I stumbled on this sitting unshelved on a table at the Chicago Public Library and decided to give it a read having a bit of time to spare.

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.

Hadoop in Action by Chuck Lam
[Finished 24 October 2011] I went into this book thinking that much of the learning curve of Hadoop was going to be centered around programming issues and was irritated that the early programming examples employed a version of the API that was already deprecated when Lam wrote the book. But as I dug deeper, I realized that the programming side of things is ultimately the least important aspect of Hadoop; writing a Map-Reduce program is not that complicated (and Pig/Hive which are brought into discussion in later chapters really deserved more coverage simplify that even further). Most of the book focuses on management issues with Hadoop which seem to be the core of working well with Map-Reduce development

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 Dumbest Generation by Mark Bauerlein
[Finished 29 September 2011] I’m not sure what made me think that I would find this an interesting read, but ultimately, it came across as some interesting observations overwhelmed by an unhealthy dose of “get off my lawn” conservatism. Unless people have the same respect for the classics that Bauerlein does, they clearly are philistines and responsible for the decline of civilization. I was more annoyed than anything else reading this book. There are some good arguments to be made along the lines of what Bauerlein wants to say, but Bauerlein’s own limited horizons cause him to fail at the task.

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.

Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys but Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life by Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang
[Finished 19 September 2011] I think i heard about this book from Science Friday. At the very least, I remember hearing about many of the topics covered in the book on that program. The book is written in a casual breezy style, frequently choosing anecdote as a way of introducing a subject. There was little in here that I didn’t already know, but I’ve managed to read a bit more than the typical layman on questions of neuroscience and psychology, but for the neophyte in this arena, I can see this being a valuable introduction, especially since there’s a good selection of references for deeper reading referenced to each chapter.

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale
[Finished 14 September 2011] I’m not sure how this book ended up in my reading list, but I’m glad that it did. Sort of a nice counterpoint to all the Sherlock Holmes I’ve been reading of late, Summerscale manages to beautifully recreate the minutiae of Victorian life in her account of a mysterious murder, its investigation and the aftermath. Even better, it’s written well enough that I’ve finally been motivated to begin my collection of beautiful sentences that I’ve long meant to create. My samples:

While a murder went unsolved, everything was potentially significant, packed with secrets. The observers, like paranoiacs, saw messages everywhere. Objects could regain their innocence only when the killer was caught.
A storybook detective starts by confronting us with a murder and ends by absolving us of it. He clears us of guilt. He relieves us of uncertainty. He removes us from the presence of death.

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.

Tatoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle
[Finished 6 August 2011] OK, confession time: Greg Boyle could have put out two-hundred pages of “qwerty asdf” and I’d’ve bought it to support Homeboy Industries. I’ve known Father Greg since sometime in the early 90s when I met him through the Los Angeles Catholic Worker and I’ve been happy to do everything I can to support his ministry.

But that said, Tattoos on the Heart is definitely not 200 pages of gibberish. It’s more a collection of the stories of the young men and women he works with that he tells in his homilies and presentations, and a lot of what he writes here I’ve heard before, but even so, it was a delight to be able to read these again and hear Father Greg’s voice in my head. It’s a wonderfully inspiring collection along with a fun read. Definitely get this book and read it. Right now.

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).

Spring Integration in Action by Mark Fisher, Jonas Partner, Marius Bogoevici,
[Finished 21 July 2011] Pretty good coverage of Spring Integration by the project lead and several committers. It does assume some familiarity with enterprise integration patterns, but not so much that it’s a handicap to read it without that background.

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.

Multiplex: Enjoy Your Show: Book One by Gordon McAlpin
[Finished 19 July 2011] I discovered this book at the Chicago Cultural Center and became immediately addicted to the strips (I’ve since gone and read all the strips online). Great compelling characters and a lot of humor that appeals to a movie nerd like myself.

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.

Spring in Action, 3rd Edition by Craig Wallis
[Finished 15 July 2011] A great update to the previous edition of Spring in Action. As usual, the framework is presented through the context of building a web application, but the greater simplicity that comes with the annotation-based configuration in Spring 3 means that Wallis is able to cover more topics and get into greater depth in some areas without sacrificing comprehensiveness.

Make More Money Investing in Multiunits by Gregory D. Warr
[Finished 11 July 2011] A much more useful book for my needs than I have found previously, although a lot of the information is dependent on a $199 software program available from a website which seems abandoned. But there’s enough information here to really feel comfortable moving forward with some real estate investments.

EJB3 in Action by Debu Panda, Reza Rahman and Derek Lane
[Finished 11 July 2011] A good overview of EJB3 technologies, although there seems to be a bit of a defensive stance taken with respect to the growth of Spring and its lightweight framework.

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.

On Becoming a Person by Carl Rogers
[Finished 1 July 2011] A collection of essays rather than a comprehensive work in itself, so at times it gets repetitive, but an interesting look at the point in which psychology/psychiatry finally began to break from its Freudian pseudo-scientific roots.

Investing in Income Properties by Kenneth D. Rosen
[Finished 28 June 2011] Not at all the book that I was looking for. I’m interested in learning more about valuing a rental property, being able to invest for current income, not for capital gains, but it seems that Rosen is all about leveraged capital gain improvement and not once mentions the downside of a leveraged investment (that is, the potential cash-on-cash return is balanced by a startling downside where a 20% drop in a property’s value can wipe out an entire investment). In all, it seems like it’s a book geared towards investment naïfs and its main value is in generating a new income stream for the author rather than educating the reader.

Born Standing Up by Steve Martin
[Finished 27 June 2011] I didn’t really fully appreciate Steve Martin until I saw his surprisingly intelligent films of the early 90s: L. A. Story, Roxanne and Leap of Faith, three films which made it clear that he was more than just a silly performer. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy him earlier. I had memorized a number of his early bits learned from friend’s comedy LPs and appearances on Saturday Night Live.

Here, Martin pulls back the curtain and gives a fascinating account of his life from childhood to his transition from stand-up to movie-making with The Jerk. He quotes enough of his early routines to keep the smiles coming (at times the book is laugh-out-loud funny), along with a number of great early photos. And the whole thing is exceedingly well-written. My favorite line would be, “Was she beautiful? We were all beautiful. We were in our twenties,” a sentiment both poignant, entertaining and true.

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.

The Walking Dead Compendium One by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, Cliff Rathburn, and Tony Moore
[Finished 11 June 2011] Wow, addictive and compelling. Yes, there’s not necessarily a whole lot new here. It’s easy to point out parallels between the prison of the later chapters and the mall of Day of the Dead and whole hosts of post-apocalyptic zombie tales, but even so, I was sucked into this, like I haven’t by so many zombie films. It was especially interesting to see how much the AMC series deviated from the books (in some ways much to their improvement—there was a greater depth to the characterizations and conflicts in the AMC series than in the comics). I look forward to the release of compendium two.

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.

Kids' Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood by Gary S. Cross
[Finished 27 May 2011] In an academic fashion, Cross gives us a history of American childhood and toy marketing, purchasing and consumption. Perhaps the most stunning revelations are the extent to which childhood is a twentieth-century creation and how war toys weren’t really a part of boys’ play before the 1950s (so much for the “genetic” argument justifying the purchase of toy guns since boys would turn any object into guns otherwise—this is ultimately the consequence of pervasive marketing to children).

Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences by Abraham H. Maslow
[Finished 26 May 2011] Not really what I had hoped it would be. Rather than a scientific and clinical appraisal of peak experiences, the book is largely anecdotal with a stated goal of creating a new religion with psychiatrists as its high priests and Freud as its prophet.

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.

London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd
[Finished 13 May 2011] A history of London that focuses on thematic rather than chronological organization. Ackroyd knows his subject well, although at times he depicts urban legend as fact and there was one questionable use of the word “noisome” which perhaps referred to its archaic meaning of annoying, but more likely was used where “noisy” was meant. Still, it was a fascinating look into London’s history and seems to have informed my understanding of works I’m reading later.

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.

Oak Park, Illinois: Continuity and Change by David M. Sokol
[Finished May 2011] A slender volume, mostly a means of providing pictures with a bit of text, but a nice introduction to local history.

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.

An American Demon by Jack Grisham
[Finished 26 April 2011] If you’re writing a memoir, do you really want James Frey blurbing you? Perhaps, this odd choice was an essential part of the story, in which Grisham claims to be an incarnated demon who became human after the birth of his daughter. But between not really believing Grisham about his callow evil and the rather unpleasant nature of he narrative, this was something that I could have easily skipped reading.

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).

The Wall Street Journal Complete Home Owner's Guidebook by David Crook
[Finished 17 March 2011] A book focused almost entirely on the financial aspects of the guidebook and very much a compendium of the new common wisdom in the aftermath of the housing market crash. I would summarize the book in six words: “A house is not an investment.” There’s some decent number-crunching to back up a number of Crook’s points and some sobering and surprising statistics (most notably that renovations/additions/etc. as a rule pay off at under 100% in home value appreciation. A pretty good book for the financially naïve. For me, the most useful thing was the maintenance checklist near the end of the book.

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.

Man and the State by Jacques Maritain
[Finished 23 January 2011] An interesting bit of political philosophy. There are some things that I find myself feeling dubious about, and apparently Maritain is classified as a political conservative which would go a long way to understanding my discomfort.

Cocoa Programming for Mac OS X by Aaron Hillegass
[Finished 22 January 2011] This is definitely the book to get to learn Cocoa programming. I started this with a study group, but fell behind the group and finished it up on my own. There’s a pretty good overview of the libraries, but I would have liked more depth. I’m assuming that I need more books to cover details (or just get deeper into the Apple-supplied documentation).

Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season 8, Vol. 3. Wolves at the Gate by Drew Goddard, Joss Whedon, Georges Jeanty, and Jo Chen
[Finished 21 January 2011] One last issue in my first set of Buffy comics. I’m looking forward to getting more later, but this will be it for a while.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season 8, Vol. 2. No Future for You by Brian K. Vaughan, Joss Whedon, Georges Jeanty, Cliff Richards, and Jo Chen
[Finished 19 January 2011] The story advances. I’m not going to say too much on these issues as I’m behind on updating my book log a bit belatedly. I am having a hard time pacing myself and not just reading a whole volume at a single sitting.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season 8, Vol. 1. The Long Way Home by Joss Whedon and Georges Jeanty
[Finished 15 January 2011] After hearing a friend speak highly of this series, I decided to go ahead and start buying the collected issue volumes. And I can see the joy here. We have a nicely paced, well-written set of stories. I’m glad I wasn’t going out and buying individual comic books since the wait between issues would be insufferable. The artwork is occasionally a bit dodgy with some characters verging on unrecognizable at times, especially in some of the long shots where the details are wiped out. But it’s interesting to see some familiar characters return.

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.

My Best Mathematical and Logic Puzzles by Martin Gardner
[Finished 22 December 2010] A fun collection of puzzles. They seem to be arranged, more or less, in order of increasing difficulty. Some of the earliest puzzles in this volume I was able to do in my head, while as things moved on, I needed paper or a peek in the back of the book.

An Inspired Journey: The First 100 Years of the SNPJ by Jay Sedmak
[Finished 20 December 2010] My grandfather was the longest-serving president of the SNPJ, and I’ve been a member of this fraternal insurance organization my whole life, although as the Slovene population has become diluted outside of Ohio and western Pennsylvania, it doesn’t really play any role in my life (unlike my childhood when I regularly attended meetings for Circle 26 at the SNPJ hall in Cicero as well as other events that my grandfather took me to).

So, I read this with an eye towards understanding a bit more about this organization. Sedmak’s style is a bit bland and it seemed that he was unwilling to really address the importance of pro-labor politics in the formative years of the SNPJ (although I would note that Sedmak claims that an earlier history of the SNPJ commissioned by the organization was shelved because of an alleged over-emphasis of the labor politics). What is more interesting is the tension between the Pennsylvania-Ohio faction of the SNPJ and the Chicago faction. I had been aware of this on the periphery of my consciousness since my childhood, and can remember my grandparents excoriating the members who wanted to move the SNPJ headquarters from Chicago to Pittsburgh or Cleveland. As a young adult, when I attended lodge meetings in Fontana, I can remember Joe Umeck expressing disappointment when I supported the idea of moving the headquarters (it seemed logical to me, given that the bulk of activity was happening in that part of the country), but after reading this, I can understand a bit more of the deep personal divisions that lead to the conflict.

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.

The Visiting Suit: Stories From My Prison Life by Xiaoda Xiao
[Finished 9 December 2010] I was left completely flat by this book. In general, memoir has little to appeal to me, and this book was no exception.

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.

Stanley Morison by Nicolas Barker
[Finished 24 November 2010] A re-read. Again, I find myself fascinated by the parallels in thought between Morison and myself. How many Marxist Catholic typophiles can there be, even given the span of time in which typography, Marxism and the Catholic church have coexisted? But re-reading it, knowing more of his relationship with Beatrice Warde enabled me to read between the lines to find some traces of that particular situation. It did remind me of how much of my typographic memory has evaporated over the years, as I tried to recall the details of the various typefaces discussed in the text.

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.

Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, the Indie Label that Got Big and Stayed Small by John Cook
[Finished 13 October 2010] A bonus book from the TNB book club. I’m largely ignorant of the artists of Merge Records, but even so, as a musician, I was able to appreciate this account of what’s wrong and right with both the major labels and indies.

If I had a problem with the book, it would be, to quote Billy Joel, “there’s a new band in town, but you can’t get the sound from a story in a magazine.”

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.

Collaborative Intelligence In Action by Satnam Alag
[Finished 7 October 2010] A bit of a mishmash, although there’s a fair amount of useful information on algorithms and open-source solutions to collaborative intelligence problems.

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.”

Meanings of Life by Roy F. Baumeister
[Finished 30 September 2010] A re-read. When I first read this book, I managed to find it in the interregnum between the end of the hardcover’s print run and the release of the paperback. Coming back to it a decade later, I found it interesting for perhaps different reasons than the first time around. I was particularly struck by the fact that much of what makes life—or at least work—meaningful is precisely what contemporary society is trying to pull out of the last corners of work where meaning could have been found.

The Cathedral of St Vitus by Ivo Hlobil
[Finished 19 September 2010] A slim volume sold at the bookstore of the Prague Castle. Of great assistance in researching details for my novel.

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.

I Don't Believe in Atheists by Chris Hedges
[Finished 29 August 2010] Frankly, a bit of a disappointment. I had expected a reasoned critique of the “new atheists”, but instead Hedges uses them as a launch pad for a critique of the neocon world view (a box I’m not entirely sure that the new atheists completely fit into). Add into it a rather didactic tone in the writing and I found myself put off from the book a good amount.

There are some good points, although a lot of these come not from Hedges so much as from his sources (his writing in the final chapter on Proust’s view of memories was especially nice, if not entirely on topic).

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 Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber
[Finished 25 June 2010] As someone not especially sympathetic to either capitalism or protestantism, this was an odd book to read. There seems to be a fair amount of assertions made without basis, and assumptions of good in areas where I would argue that the premise is flawed (for instance, his view that a worker who responds to a pay raise by reducing the amount of work being done is acting against his own self-interest).

I remember this book being mentioned as important reading by one of my professors in my undergrad days, but I don’t remember which professor or why they felt that it was important to read, a question that I puzzled over as I read this. I think that I had a vague notion that Weber would be writing in a more critical mode than he was, and while he makes token efforts to establish his correlation does not imply causation bona fides, they remain nothing more than tokens.

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food by Jennifer 8 Lee
[Finished 15 June 2010] An interesting book, although there is a lengthy chapter on the best Chinese restaurant in the world which is indirectly acknowledged as an attempt to pad out the size of the book and is almost completely dispensable. Lee also has a tendency towards some of the organizational flaws which are all too common in contemporary narrative non-fiction, but even so, she does some great detective work in ferreting out the origins of not only the titular fortune cooke, but also chop suey (a staple of the Chinese restaurants of my childhood which is now almost completely extinct) and General Tso’s chicken, among other things.

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.

4 Months to a 4-Hour Marathon by David Kuehls
[Finished 1 June 2010] Since my brother has beaten my family marathon record and he was kind enough to give me this book for Christmas last year, I’ve read it and plan to follow its advice to set a new familial record to put him back in his place. The advice here is simple and practical and seems like it will do a good job of delivering on its promised goal. I guess the only thing to do is to check back in four months from now.

Lettering, Designing, Illustrating, Cartooning by International Library of Technology
[Finished 31 May 2010] A fascinating book, less because of its nominal content than for the glimpse it gives of vocational training and cultural attitudes near the beginning of the twentieth century.

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.

Data Structures & Algorithms in Java by Robert LaFore
[Finished 11 May 2010] A decent introduction to data structures. There wasn’t a whole lot in here that I didn’t already know, but I felt that it would be a good idea to plug in some of the gaps in my knowledge.

Much of the information is presented informally and readers are directed to a set of Java webapps to be able to see how the structures and algorithms work in slow-motion. For some of the more complicated structures, these are especially handy for understanding

This is the first entire book that I’ve read on the Kindle and I found the Kindle experience to be a bit underwhelming, complicated further by the fact that program listings and tables are presented as graphics because of the limitations of the Kindle format. ePub theoretically would work better, although when I looked at a programming book on a Nook while visiting Barnes & Noble, I was similarly underwhelmed by that device’s display of technical content as well.

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.

Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther by James A. Fischer
[Finished 5 April 2010] A rather dull set of commentaries. The text is from the New American Bible translation, but Fischer finds that translation defective in places.

A big part is a lack of targeting of the commentaries. It seems that Fischer wants to write a scholarly commentary but is constrained by a market demand to make something suitable for the Biblically naïve Catholic layperson, the result being a commentary that doesn’t fit either role and ends up feeling both condescending and inaccessible at the same time.

Catechism of the Council of Trent
[Finished 25 March 2010] An interesting book, translated from the Latin produced in the wake of the Council of Trent. The book is explicitly directed at priests in pastoral roles, addressing how matters should be approached in sermons and he confessional. At times sexist views of the times drown out the content, but it’s also amazing how contemporary some of the discussions can seem as well.

Handbook of the Christian Religion by Wilhelm Wilmers, S.J.
[Finished 5 March 2010] This was one of the first books on Catholic theology that I read. Coming back to it a couple decades later, I can see the clear influence of a second hand in the book, that of the American editor and co-translator James Conway who indicates that he felt free to expand, delete and edit many portions of the book as he saw fit. It’s hard at times to determine how much of the book is Wilmers and how much is Conway. The only clearly designated addition is the appendix which contains a list of church councils, the texts of several creeds in Latin and Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors.

It is interesting to note how little of the book is dedicated to questions of moral theology and how much to more abstract theology. There are a few passages which betray a surprising conception of space, time and causality which seem more appropriate to someone writing in the late twentieth century than the mid-nineteenth.

The Mass in Slow Motion by Ronald Knox
[Finished 19 February 2010] A chatty little book adapted from a series of catechetical sermons Knox gave to the students of a girls school evacuated to Shropshire during World War II. It’s an interesting and informal look at the details of the Tridentine mass. An interesting note is that et cum spiritu tuo, which had previously been translated into English as “and also with you,” and has been a bugbear for many liturgical traditionalists, is translated by Knox in his comments as “the same to you.”

I re-read this largely hoping to get some details on the celebration of the mass for use in my current novel, and I got some of that, although a great deal of what Knox focuses on is the inner thoughts of himself as he celebrates the mass and the thoughts he would like the members of his congregation to have as they hear the mass.

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.

Collected Plays by Graham Greene
[Finished 25 November 2009] Greene is known in US primarily as a novelist, and it’s perhaps a bit surprising that during the latter period of his life, he considered himself to be more of a playwright. The earlier plays reflect themes similar to the concerns of Greene’s novels of the period, but later plays manage to become their own entities including the delightfully farcical “The Return of A.J. Raffles”

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.

Social and Political Philosophy: Readings From Plato to Gandhi edited by John Somerville and Ronald Santoni
[Finished 13 November 2009] A nicely curated selection of readings from Plato to Gandhi. It was my first time reading any of Hitler’s writings and I have to admit feeling violated as a I read his racist and anti-semitic ranting. Truly disturbing. Jefferson’s comments about the political theorists of past ages not necessarily being applicable to his present time seems surprisingly applicable now. And reading Marx and Engels I was reminded that yes, I am truly a Marxist at heart.

Stripes ...and Java web development is fun again by Frederic Daoud
[Finished 10 November 2009] A nice clear and lucid introduction to the Stripes Java web framework. I found that the framework did everything that I needed it to do and did it in a generally clear way. Daoud does a good job of covering the cases where Stripes is a bit out of sorts in the way it handles things (most notably some odd corners of Spring integration). Sidebars and commentary go a long way towards adding clarity and pointing out some of the more complicated aspects of the framework.

The Zapatista Reader edited by Tom Hayden
[Finished 9 November 2009] I had decided that I needed to know a bit more about the Zapatista movement than my casual acquaintance with the facts provided (and that the wikipedia article covered), so based on a citation of this book by wikipedia, I decided to dig a bit deeper.

As might be expected in a book edited by Tom Hayden, there is a strong leftist slant in the information provided, something which left me a little dissatisfied as I found a fair amount of the writing felt more like hagiography than analysis (although there were a few token dissenting pieces, I would expect there to be a greater depth of serious critique of the Zapatista project in existence. Then again, given the intellectual bankruptcy of American conservatism, perhaps not). Most appealing were the direct interactions with Subcommandante Marcos whose intelligence, wit and charisma show in his writings and his interviews with others. I also found a wealth of background on the history and sociology of Mexico in general and Chiapas in particular.

My primary complaint about the book is that the choice of organization fails to provide a comprehensive narrative and Hayden’s introductions tended to be redundant rather than illuminating.

The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer
[Finished 5 November 2009] A long long book on Gary Gilmore, the first person executed after the Supreme Court ban on the death penalty was lifted in the 1970s. I have vague memories of the execution in the news (I was eight at the time, so more concerned with legos and dinosaurs than with someone being executed in a distant state), but the book does a lot to illuminate events using the non-fiction novel format to detail Gilmore’s life as well as the lives of those around him.

Mailer manages to weave the materials he had (he came onto the project after Gilmore’s death and relied on interviews with Gilmore gathered by others as well as is own interviews with principals of the events) into a compelling interview which has left Gilmore a weighty presence in my consciousness even after finishing the book.

Number Theory and its History by Oystein Ore
[Finished 30 October 2009] Written well before the modern computing age, this book has a tendency to focus a bit on computational exercises, although I have to admit that having worked through the book that the heavy computation does a lot to bring a deeper understanding of the mathematical concepts underlying the discussions. It would be a nice introduction to number theory for advanced high school students or non-specialist college students.

Programming in Scala by Martin Odersky, Lex Spoon and Bill Venners
[Finished 6 October 2009] Not only an excellent book on Scala, but an excellent book on functional programming and on programming in general. By far, this is the book which does the most to really explain what FP is all about and how programmers can take advantage of it. Scala is a language that I think that I would really like to pursue and this is a book which will remain at convenient arms’ length

Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organizationm and Strategy in the California Farm Workers Movement by Marshall Ganz
[Finished 24 September 2009] My wife saw this book sitting on my desk while I was reading and asked whether I had been inspired by an exhibit of photographs of Chicano history we had seen a week earlier. I told her no, I needed to learn how to organize farm workers for a short story that I was writing.

And given that I had this rather prosaic goal in mind, this book did a great job of explaining what made the UFW movement so successful. Ganz was one of the early outside volunteers with the movement who later moved into an organizational position with the UFW. He provides a clear-eyed accounting of what happened, and is never afraid to talk about mistakes that were made, nor does he treat Cesar Chavez as an infallible saint (the final chapter that talks about the decline of the UFW is especially noteworthy in this respect; it’s very common for progressives to want to overlook the faults of their leaders, especially charismatic and successful leaders like Chavez. Ganz has no such illusions and while he is able to point to the successful moves of Chavez with the rest of them, he has no problem discussing Chavez’s failings and the organizational problems of the latter-day UFW).

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 Victorian Illustrated Book edited by Richard Maxwell
[Finished 15 September 2009] A collection of essays on the illustrated book. It was a bit illuminating (so to speak), since I hadn’t really considered the technological advances that allowed the advent of the illustrated book in the beginning of the nineteenth century or the cultural changes that resulted in the banishment of illustration from serious literature. Some of the articles were a bit over-jargoned, a failing too common in humanities writing, and there were occasional factual errors (e.g., a misidentification of the Kelmscott Chaucer type as Golden), but overall it was an interesting read, something that I’m happy to have added to my reading experience.

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.

Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World by Dan Koeppel
[Finished 8 September 2009] Much of the core of the story in this book I learned from Koeppel’s interviews on NPR (he was on Fresh Air and, I think, Science Friday), but it’s still interesting to get the details filled in, to see how banana cultivation represents the ultimate monoculture, with all bananas in a given variety being genetically identical.

Koeppel makes a compelling case for the importance of GM techniques in creating a future for the banana and points out that since bananas are sterile and propagate only through cloning that many of the concerns about GM techniques in other plants are inapplicable when it comes to the banana. Given that in Africa the banana is a central part of the diet (in some areas 70% of the caloric intake comes from bananas), preserving a future for the banana makes for a critical concern on the continent.

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).

Prague Then and Now by J. M. Lau
[Finished 1 September 2009] While working on my current novel, I thought that it would be nice to get some old photographs of Prague to enable me to fill in some of the gaps in what I could imagine or infer from what currently existed. Amazingly, this book came out in the midst of the writing process and has turned out to be quite helpful for my research including some occasional filling in of some gaps of historical information (e.g., when electric trams and streetlights would have begun to appear).

If I have a complaint it would be that at times the book focused far more on the contemporary photograph than the historical photograph in its descriptive text. Worse still, as a rule, no date is given on the older photographs.

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.

Confessions of a Spy: The Real Story of Aldrich Ames by Pete Earley
[Finished 15 August 2009] It’s infrequently that I decide to read a book and then read it right away. I have nine shelves of unread books at my side right now, and I keep a list of books that I plan to check out from the library which currently has over 100 titles in it (I’d never counted until just now: I’m shocked at how long the list is). All of which means that when I come to a book, I may have no reason how I heard of it or what motivated me to read it (perhaps I should start adding notes into the library book list, at least).

This is the third Pete Earley book on spies which appeared in my library list. How I decided to read this batch of books eludes my recall, but I find myself thinking that perhaps one day I might write a spy novel. One thing that I find intriguing are the common threads in the stories that Earley tells. Is this because of Earley’s own editorial bias (unconscious or not), or because his subjects read the earlier books and imposed others’ motivations on their own stories, or possibly that’s just the way things are. For example, I notice that it seems that many of the men profiled found themselves frustrate by how much both the US and the USSR were uninterested in the intelligence that the future double agents thought was really important. When men like Ames considered intelligence to be little more than a game, there may have been a grain of truth in that.

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.

Java Persistence with Hibernate by Christian Bauer and Gavin King
[Finished 11 August 2009] A great overview of Hibernate. There are problems of course: Some unnecessary chapters (e.g., the gratuitous chapter on SEAM); too much coverage of XML vs Annotation-driven configuration; not good enough reference organization; too little coverage of JPA. But even with these flaws, I learned a lot about how to configure entity beans with Java and manage their persistence. Definitely a book to keep within arm’s reach of my desk.

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.

A Programmer's Guide to Java SCJP Certification: A Comprehensive Primer by Khalid A. Mughal and Rolf W. Rasmussen
[Finished 7 August 2009] I read the guide for Java 1.4 in the Bates and Sierra version, so I decided to try someone else’s guide in prepping for the Java 6 test. The overall material is pretty good, but I found myself frustrated by frequent errors in the review questions/answers. Numerous answers are missing from the back of the book and there were four questions in the review test where the answers in the back of the book didn’t match the questions. Those problems aside, it’s a good enough book for learning the material and diagnosing weaknesses.

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.

The Film Club: A Memoir by David Gilmour
[Finished 28 July 2009] As a movie buff, when I first heard about this book, about a father who lets his son drop out of school and not work in exchange for watching three movies a week with him was one that I couldn’t pass up.

As a memoir, it has the usual not-quite-story-arc structure of real life, and at times Gilmour’s teenage son’s travails in his love life can get repetitive, and the film commentary which is pretty dense in the early days of the story start to fade away later in the book. But on the other hand, it’s an interesting account of hands-off parenting (eventually) turning out alright, although the route there is circuitous and leads the reader (and Gilmour) to wonder whether it’s all a big mistake.

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.

Family of Spies: Inside the John Walker Spy Ring by Pete Earley
[Finished 18 July 2009] As much a character study of a man (John Walker) with antisocial personality disorder as an account of espionage. Earley makes some odd decisions, like not pointing out until near the end that there are some big questions about how Walker first approached the Soviets to begin his spying. Perhaps some of the pages that had been torn out of the library copy that I read would have resolved these issues I had with the book, but it was still a fast compelling read and I had a hard time putting the book down during the time I spent reading it.

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.

Programming Erlang: Software for a Concurrent World by Joe Armstrong
[Finished 11 July 2009] I’m not always confident about reading a book written by the creator of a language. Sometimes it works well (see Knuth’s TeXBook, sometimes not so much (the original ANTLR book by Terrence Parr). This book, thankfully falls into the first category. I would have liked to have had some more guided application development in the book. It’s a surprisingly thin volume, but then Erlang is at its heart a rather simple language. Armstrong does a good job of establishing the FP mindset and I find myself tempted to write some of my newest code in Erlang.

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.

Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word o by David Plotz
[Finished 27 May 2009] (I listened to this book as a free promotional download from Plotz, like many Americans, had never really read the Bible, but only knew it in bits and pieces from Hebrew school and popular culture. What he set out to do here was to provide a naïve perspective on scripture, writing about what someone who didn’t have a strong religious background or access to Biblical scholarship would make of the Bible. When I first read the Bible, I read the New Jerusalem Bible which incorporates significant commentary throughout, which meant, among other things, that I knew about the JEPD theory of the origins of the Pentateuch, and there are many times that I found myself frustrated by Plotz’s naïveté in understanding some of the text, but even so, it was an entertaining read, although Plotz’s tendency to snarkiness was more distracting than entertaining.

Plotz’s big takeaway from reading the Bible was twofold: One was that he became appreciative of how much our culture was dependent on the Bible for many of its references (although I think some of the connections he makes may be spurious), the other was how it made him really address his own Jewish heritage.

God in the White House: A History: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush by Randall Balmer
[Finished 14 May 2009] A bit disappointingly thin. I felt like there was a great deal more that could be said on the subject than Balmer does, and was left wondering why he couldn’t have written more on the topic.

For example, a single chapter covers religion and presidential politics from Alfred Smith through Kennedy, and it seemed like we were rushing through each presidency thereafter.

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.

Radio Replies: Third Volume by Rev. Dr Leslie Rumble, M.S.C. and Rev. Charles M. Carty
[Finished 15 April 2009] I’ve been reading this three volume set off and on again for longer than I’ve been keeping this diary. Mostly off, apparently, since I didn’t find any sign of the previous two volumes as I prepared to write this review. This is a collection of apologetic writing, in question and answer format, from a radio show in the 30s and 40s. The scope is pretty wide ranging, although there’s a fair amount of focus on critiques of the church from an Anglican perspective plus a fair amount of references, sans context, to contemporary controversies. What was especially surprising was the general openness on some topics, such as evolution, which were beyond what one might have expected from the time. Overall, a delightful and grounding read for me.

Programming Groovy: Dynamic Productivity for the Java Developer by Venkat Subramaniam
[Finished 27 March 2009] A reasonably well organized book for a sometimes disorganized language. I felt like there was a lot more to the language than I got from the book, although some of the key aspects of the language which have a great deal of promise, particularly the builders. On the other hand, playing with the language I’ve found that it has a tendency to change types unexpectedly.

Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love by Dava Sobel
[Finished 20 February 2009] A wonderfully written accounting of an obscure bit of history. Who knew that Galileo had children (two daughters and a son). The daughters were sent to a convent while the son turned into a bit of a ne’er-do-well. The oldest daughter, though, remained devoted to her father and while his letters to her no longer exist, hers to him have been preserved and Sobel uses the letters for the narrative hook on which she hangs her biography.

There’s a fair amount which was new to me, even having a deeper than the usual paragraph-long summary that came out of my high school history classes. Sobel manages to paint all the characters in the drama with a fair amount of nuance showing exactly what the forces were that led to Galileo’s famed trial and the consequences of the trial in Galileo’s life.

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.

Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About by Donald E. Knuth
[Finished 9 January 2009] I knew Knuth originally because of TeX and Metafont, which were in many ways my entre into computer science. This book is a collection of Knuth’s lectures centering primarily on the process that he used in writing his book, 3:16, a collection of commentaries on Bible verses.

Maven: The Definitive Guide by Sonatype
[Finished 5 January 2009] A pretty good guide to Maven, although I have some quibbles about the order in which things are presented (I’d rather have it start from the perspective of someone working in Eclipse, for example), but it covers everything that one needs to know about this build/dependency management tool.

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.

The Czechs and the Lands of the Bohemian Crown by Hugh Agnew
[Finished 28 December 2008] I’ve read enough histories of the Czechs that a fair amount of this was familiar. This was, however a very readable account and there were a fair number of gaps in the periods I’m most interested in which were filled.

Java Tools for Extreme Programming by Richard Hightower and Nicholas Lesiecki
[Finished 18 December 2008] I found this in my wife’s library and decided to read it, but found myself frustrated by the obsolescence of large swaths of the text along with the high proportion of filler.

Jakarta Commons Cookbook by Timothy M. O'Brien
[Finished 17 December 2008] Another essential reference desk. Here the problem is that a fair amount of the Jakarta Commons is made less meaningful with Java 5. Perhaps, though, this would be a good area to contribute to the open source community: Putting together Generics-aware versions of the libraries.

Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture by Carl E. Schorske
[Finished 16 December 2008] An interesting account of the political and cultural forces in Vienna (and to a lesser extent the whole Austro-Hungarian empire) at the end of the nineteenth century. A fair amount of useful background for my novel.

Java Cookbook by Ian F. Darwin
[Finished 13 December 2008] An essential reference for any Java programmer. My one complaint is that there’s a concerted effort to ignore anything outside the Java libraries.

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.

The American Jitters: A Year of the Slump by Edmund Wilson
[Finished 17 October 2008] Before the Great Depression got its name, Edmund Wilson travelled the country collecting anecdotes of what life in the country was like. It’s useful preparation for the days ahead in some ways, and a startling look at what society was like before Roosevelt in others.

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.

Dvorak and His World edited by Michael Beckerman
[Finished 11 September 2008] A collection of essays I stumbled upon while looking for a biography of Dvorak. I really had no sense of critical perspectives on Dvorak before reading this, and found that there was a whole universe of which I was unaware.

The Bush Tragedy by Jacob Weisberg
[Finished 5 September 2008] An intriguing look at Bush’s background and ruling through the lens of Shakespearean tragedy. A surprisingly sympathetic yet disturbing account.

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

Core JavaServer Faces by David Geary and Cay S. Horstmann
[Finished 29 August 2008] We decided to avoid JSF on our project before I began this book, although after reading it, I’m wondering whether that was a mistake. It seems a great technology, although this book contains a little too much padding and off-topic material to boost its page count for my tastes.

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.

Head First Object Oriented Analysis and Design by Brett D. McLaughlin, Gary Pollice and Dave West
[Finished 22 August 2008] A bit more basic than I had originally expected. A good primer for a programmer who is not quite ready for design patterns yet, to get them thinking about how to solve programming problems.

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.

Comrade J: The Untold Secrets of Russia's Master Spy in America After the End of the Cold War by Pete Earley
[Finished 4 August 2008] An interesting account of the life of a KGB officer who ultimately defected to the U.S. at the end of his career, not because he had ever grown disturbed by communism, but because he had become disturbed by the kleptocracy which replaced 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.

Core J2EE Patterns by Deepak Alur, John Crupi and Dan Malks
[Finished 1 August 2008] It seems more a book for someone writing a framework than for someone using a framework. I can see this as useful as my Java work becomes increasingly sophisticated, but at the moment, it seemed mostly a dry and uninteresting work.

Maxed Out: Hard Times in the Age of Easy Credit by James D. Scurlock
[Finished 28 July 2008] It’s hard to read this book and not get angry. So many of the contemporary problems in the economy were foreseeable and foreseen. Especially if we dig deeper, we can see that things are even worse than they seem.

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.

Inside Java 2 Platform Security: Architecture, API Design, and Implementation by Li Gong
[Finished 21 July 2008] A great deal of information at higher detail and lower level than I’m interested in. Perhaps someday in the future I’ll come back to this and be happy about it.

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.

Hibernate in Action by Christian Bauer and Gavin King
[Finished 12 July 2008] Argghh! For some reason Bauer and King decided to change the title of the book between editions so I inadvertently bought the old edition.

Google Web Toolkit Applications by Ryan Dewsbury
[Finished 10 July 2008] A bit of a disappointment. I had hoped for something that was a bit more about integrating GWT with Java applications, but Dewsbury’s focus is almost entirely on doing fancy stuff in the front end.

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.

Spring in Action by Craig Walls and Ryan Breidenbach
[Finished 9 June 2008] Given how much material there is to cover, this volume does an admirable job of covering it, although it really could have benefitted from frequent references to other sources on the material where there was insufficient room to cover the whole of the material. As for the framework itself, it seems an outstanding framework and I’m looking forward to working with it on our current project.

Unfashionable Observations by Friedrich Nietzsche
[Finished 6 June 2008] I acquired this book as an entry in the first Serif design competition (it won the first prize).

This is my first direct reading of Nietzsche, and what’s perhaps most striking to me in this is the strong German nationalism in the writing. A bit offputting, really.

But the strength of the writing is quite striking, not enough to overcome my middle-aged aversion to philosophy, but enough to make me think more about it.

Nickel and Dimed, On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich
[Finished 4 June 2008] Reading this book really changed how I saw those around me. I checked this out of the library the day that I began a three-day business trip and finished it two days later. Understanding a bit of the lives of those toil for low wages in the face of this made me see the invisible services that took place behind the trip quite differently. Realizing that the maids who cleaned my hotel room each day faced a grueling schedule (and with a shift towards paying them by the room, rather than by the hour, they were quite possibly making less than minimum wage).

Perhaps most startling is to think about how hard Ehrenreich had making ends meet with gasoline at $2 a gallon. Now that gasoline is more than double that, small wonder that bicycle and transit use has skyrocketed.

Java Generics and Collections by Maurice Naftalin and Philip Wadler
[Finished 2 June 2008] One of the interesting features in Java 5 is the addition of the generics and collections features. To a large extent, this reminds me of the introduction of the STL in C++, and just like that opened new possibilities in C++, the generics material makes Java a more compelling language to work with.

Implementation Patterns by Kent Beck
[Finished 28 May 2008] It’s not often that a computer book is beautifully written. But this is one case where the rule is violated and the prose is exquisitely crafted.

The patterns described here are rather simple things, not quite on the level of Gang of Four patterns. They consist of such concepts as how to name methods or fields, or how to assign responsibilities to classes. A delightful book and one which seems like it would repay re-reading handsomely.

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.

Unit Testing in Java: How Tests Drive the Code by Johannes Link
[Finished 23 May 2008] A clear, well-written book on the subject of unit testing in Java. Not a whole lot which is unfamiliar to me, courtesy of doing a lot of test-driven development in other languages, but it was nice to see my practices and beliefs validated by another developer’s suggestions. It is interesting to note that dependency injection is viewed as the solution to the mocking problem for Java, which makes sense since some of the Perl-esque solutions I’ve been using are not really possible in Java.

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.

Agile Estimating and Planning by Mike Cohn
[Finished 7 May 2008] A somewhat different approach to scrum than I learned from Scrum and XP From the Trenches. The most useful part, I found, was the final chapter which provided a case study of scrum in action, something which seems to be the most helpful way of really learning how it goes.

Catalyst: Accelerating Perl Web Application Development by Jonathan Rockway
[Finished 1 May 2008] An amazingly bad book. What’s really necessary for Catalyst is a single tutorial than a comprehensive overview of the features well-organized. What we get instead is a set of tutorials which don’t necessarily cover all the features of Catalyst, and no reference features to speak of at all. Wondering what the function of the method attributes in a controller are? You won’t find that information here. The index is frustratingly incomplete, the book is thin and vague and the whole thing is a bit of a waste. Would-be Catalyst developers are better off just reading the POD documentation than trying to make any use of this book

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman
[Finished 29 April 2008] I picked this up thinking that it as going to be primarily a science fiction-ish accounting of a future earth without human beings. And it was to a certain extent, but even more so, it’s an interesting account of how we as a species have impacted our environment, both in the obvious ways (cities, farms) and the non-obvious (small bits of plastic entering the eco-system, invasive species, reshaping the landscape in our image). As an overall narrative, it’s not as cohesive as I would have liked, which seems to be a common shortcoming of a lot of contemporary non-fiction (I think this is a consequence of journalists writing book-length pieces). But even with its failings, this is still a fascinating book and one which provides an interesting insight into human impact on global ecology.

American Notes for General Circulation and Pictures from Italy by Charles Dickens
[Finished 28 April 2008] An interesting pair of books. These are Dickens’s travel accounts of trips to America and Italy. As a detailed accounting of what life was like in each country in the first half of the nineteenth century, these are great accountings. Dickens at times comes across as one of those grumpy travelers for whom nothing abroad can be anything better than an inconvenience or a pale attempt at doing something which is done far better at home, but getting beyond that, Dickens’s humor shows through and he makes for an entertaining traveling companion.

Books from North River Press by Paul McPharlin
[Finished 27 April 2008] A curious volume. As near as I can tell from its contents, North River Press was a vanity publisher struggling for respectability. It’s not clear if the publishing company by the same name is connected, which would indicate that they managed to make the move from vanity publisher to actual publisher (although that is not clear from the current publisher’s information). The book, is reasonably well printed, albeit hurt by being set with linotype. The bulk of the book are sample pages from books published by the press, designs with little distinction in most cases. More interesting, I found, were the introductory sections which served as both advertisement and apologia for the press.

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.

The Truth About Managing People by Stephen P. Robbins
[Finished 16 April 2008] A somewhat helpful book. The organization is a set of very short (2-3 pages) essays on different topics of personnel management. A lot of it is focused on recruitment/interviewing, although that is a significant part of management (the other part being retention). It is definitely a useful book to keep on my desk to dip into as I need to consider special considerations, although it wasn’t quite everything that I had hoped it could have been.

Inside the Company: CIA Diary by Philip Agee
[Finished 15 April 2008] It’s not often that a book mentions in its closing passages exactly what’s wrong with it. As a book written to serve a particular agenda, in this case to expose the CIA’s efforts to undermine democracies in Latin America in the name of fighting communism.

Parts of the book are fascinating, particularly when Agee manages to give a good accounting of his own personal experiences, but large parts of it are a dump of classified information whether code names for CIA operations or listings of CIA operatives. If Agee were a better writer, it could have been a better book, but instead it ends up being little more than an attempt to harm the CIA (and this from a leftist who is fully in agreement with Agee’s beliefs).

Prague Pictures: A Portrait of the City by John Banville
[Finished 12 April 2008] A somewhat idiosyncratic look at Prague by an Irish author who describes the city partly from his own experiences in the city and partly through the lens of his researches for an historical novel about Kepler and Brahe.

I had bought the book, I think, hoping for some actual, pictures, having taken the title a bit too literally, but I found at least a few bits of description which help put me in Prague even without the illustrations.

Prototype and You Never Knew JavaScript Could Do This! by Christophe Porteneuve
[Finished 9 April 2008] I freely admit that it was the visual candy of which brought me into learning this package, but the syntactical candy of prototype really impacted how I looked at writing JS code.

The book itself is a somewhat odd bird as at times it assumes familiarity with JS techniques and at other times, it assumes ignorance thereof. Overall, though it does provide pretty decent coverage of the Prototype and libraries, although I would have liked a little more remedial JavaScript as part of the text.

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.

What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist-The Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century E by Daniel Pool
[Finished 26 March 2008] An interesting enough book, talking about the facts of life in nineteenth century England. Pretty much it’s a collection of all the stuff that your college English professor said during discussion to provide context for what was happening in the novels you read. It’s primarily of use to readers rather than writers, but did provide some useful background to me (although some of the things which I’ve always wondered about, like clubs, is left unexplained).

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.

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen
[Finished 7 March 2008] I first learned about GTD from Merlin Mann, and frankly, there’s enough from that site that the book isn’t strictly necessary, but I still found the book really wonderful and helpful. I’ve just begun really employing a GTD workflow in my work day, focusing on capture and categorization at this point, but it does make my life much easier, especially as my responsibilities at work have increased and I find that there’s much to take care of. I’m using Omnifocus as a primary organizer at the moment, although I’m finding that in some ways, the software acts as an obstacle to the workflow as much as an assistant. But regardless of my own experiences, I can see that there’s a lot to be learned here and I can see how it will make me more productive and less stressed.

The Bible: Its Criticism, Interpretation and Use in 16th and 17th Century England by Dean Freiday
[Finished 5 March 2008] Although this book is labeled as being part of the Catholic and Quaker studies series, for the most part it is concerned with the development of Biblical studies in Anglican and Puritan circles (there are, however, some Quaker and Catholic scholars discussed as well).

The Parables of Peanuts by Robert L. Short
[Finished 28 February 2008] Back in the 60s, Robert Short managed to parlay the occasional references to Christian theology into a minor publishing empire. The text itself is a pretty straightforward theological treatise, pretty much a low church Calvinist perspective. By illustrating his points with Peanuts cartoons, Short managed to get people who might not otherwise ever read theology to read his texts. It was apparently a successful gambit: My copy was bought used and has the original 1960s cover, but the book is still in print 40 years later (I imagine that his earlier book, The Gospel According to Peanuts is also still in print).

It’s an interesting approach, and while some of the cartoon references are a bit of a stretch (and he has many instances of describing a cartoon without showing it), but he does manage to provide an interesting and compelling framework for his theological exposition, even if I don’t always agree with all of his conclusions.

Perl Medic: Transforming Legacy Code by Peter J. Scott
[Finished 28 February 2008] Bleah. This is a wannabe Perl Best Practices, but without the quality or depth of Conway’s work. In fact, a fair number of the suggestions are the opposite of best practices. Don’t bother with this one, get Conway and consider yourself done.

Pro Perl Debugging by Richard Foley with Andy Lester
[Finished 23 February 2008] I opened the box from amazon and found a hardcover computer book. Imagine my surprise.

Cover aside, there’s a fair amount of good information in here, although it seems at the same time to be about half filler (I think this has been my experience with Apress books in general). There are, however, some good recipes for debugging web applications (short version, run Apache in single-user mode), and for those of us who like paper references, it’s a useful tome to have on the shelf.

Can We Be Good Without God? A Conversation About Truth, Morality, Culture, and a Few Other Things That Matter by Paul Chamberlain
[Finished 20 February 2008] When I was an undergrad, there was always that person in class who would write their essays in story form. I never did it because it seemed that it was always the worst of both worlds, as fiction, it suffered because it was being forced to conform to the requirements of an essay and as an essay it suffered for being forced to conform to the requirements of fiction.

This book is a prime example of this at work, with the added bonus of it not being a very good argument to begin with. The characters are two-dimensional with their only purpose being to represent viewpoints, and those not very well.

Chamberlain presents his Ted the Christian (as a note in how bad the fiction is, this is, in fact, how the character is described, and the others are similarly named) character as a smug know-it-all who manages to easily demolish the straw man arguments which represent the opposing viewpoints. Each person ends up being quickly convinced of the correctness of Ted’s perspective.

Alas, what this book ultimately does is unintentionally provide a good argument for the deconstructionist view of morality, that there is no way of pinning down an objective system of morals from within the system. There ends up being a choice as arbitrary as “arbol” meaning “tree” and while it may not be aesthetically pleasing, it does carry its own logic.

Practical Perforce by Debra Wingerd
[Finished 15 February 2008] For whatever reason, my current employer is using perforce for version control. Not being familiar with it (but having used RCS, CVS, SVN and even SourceSafe in the past), I figured that it would be a good idea to read the book so that I could tell what practices were dictated by the software and what were cultural (and perhaps subject to improvement).

All told, I have to say that I prefer svn’s overall methodology. It just seems a lot more agile than the perforce approach, although the final chapter on dealing with web-based projects is a bit more sensible. I’m thinking that there might be some applicable ideas in the agile version control with svn book, despite the use of the word “svn” in the title.

As a manual, the book falls a bit short. I’m thinking that there’s room for a good book that’s repository-neutral to talk about the best way to manage version control in a programming environment.

Sadhana: A Way to God: Christian Exercises in Eastern Form by Anthony de Mello
[Finished 13 February 2008] I’ve been dipping into this book a little at a time for a few years now. There are a total of 47 exercises in the book, drawing on Jesuit and eastern traditions as a means of developing spirituality. This is really the sort of book to keep on a table in your prayer space, more than one to sit down and read. There are places where it really feels like it would be helpful to have someone acting as a facilitator for the exercise (perhaps doing these in a group context would be a good idea so that a facilitator can read the instructions). As it was, some of the exercises didn’t really work as individual exercises. But overall, it seems a useful tool for one’s spiritual development.

Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen
[Finished 13 February 2008] This is the sort of book that needs to be kept on the bookshelf to be most useful. A simple read-through is helpful to get the lay of the land (and perhaps is essential), but this is really a resource collection, a set of ideas for how to structure and implement the end of a sprint retrospective (although the content is not really scrum-specific). Having read through it once, I was ready to start dipping into it in planning my next retrospective and will likely continue to do so.

Five Cries of Youth by Merton P. Strommen
[Finished 8 February 2008] An interesting book. It’s a bit dated in that much of the book is based on surveys done between the late 60s through early 80s (what’s more, it feels as if most of the book was written in the early seventies then lightly edited to reflect societal changes in the early 80s).

While the work is based on good hard data, there does seem to be a bit of an a prioristic slant to the interpretation, where the five cries were pre-determined, rather than emerged from data clusters. But even with that, it does provide an interesting framework for working with youth, and a pointer, if not a model, for how to do research in psychology of religion

Death March by Edward Yourdon
[Finished 7 February 2008] When I started my new job, this book was sitting on my desk. Fortunately, it seems that the corporate culture is not one which encourages (or, it seems, tolerates) death march projects.

So the book has little immediate applicability (my wife, on the other hand, is a different story). There are some ideas which are good general technical management practice though, and I can see being able to employ them in a non death-march context.

MySQL Database Design and Tuning by Robert D. Schneider
[Finished 5 February 2008] A decent enough book, although too much of it seemed like it was straight out of the MySQL manual, without enough supplemental information. Why would I choose InnoDB over MyISAM? How exactly do I interpret the results from EXPLAIN? There was nowhere near enough of this sort of information, which I would really have liked to have seen.

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 Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible by A. J. Jacobs
[Finished 15 January 2008] I love A. J. Jacobs’s books. At least in part because he engages in the sort of quixotic enterprises that I enjoy myself. He reads the Encyclopedia Brittanica, I watch the IMDB Top 250.

For his latest book, I realized that what Jacobs is doing is a more extreme version of the kind of thing that I do for my lenten sacrifice. I’m actually a bit jealous of the extent to which Jacobs was able to take things, as well as that initial journey of spiritual discovery. In his year of taking the Bible literally, he found that religion is not merely self-delusion, but does speak to something transcendent, even if the Bible is not quite the perfect guide that many claim it is.

Programming Ruby by Dave Thomas with Chad Fowler and Andy Hunt
[Finished 11 January 2008] A pretty good book which manages to thread the line between needing to be a tutorial and needing to be a reference. The big problem I see is a complete lack of coverage of any of the practical library components necessary to do any real development work. I suspect that this is part of why Rails is viewed as an almost inseparable part of Ruby.

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.

Perl Testing: A Developer's Notebook by Ian Langworth and chromatic
[Finished 31 December 2007] I wanted to get a stronger sense of the testing capabilities of Perl, so, this being the sole book on the topic that I was aware of, I placed an order.

The book is fairly dense and designed more as a reference than a tutorial. It helps to have a computer handy to try the code that’s provided and do experiments, but even more so, it’s a means to be able to learn the material well.

It’s a very different approach than the Head First series which I’ve taken to much more closely, but it does seem to have a valuable place in the nerdbook ecosystem.

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.

ABC of Leather Bookbinding by Edward R. Lhotka
[Finished 17 December 2007] A delightful little book. Not quite enough to learn leather bookbinding without an instructor, but a great reference in conjunction with actual instruction. Every other page is an illustration. Definitely worth finding a copy on the second-hand market.

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.

In Search of a Character: Two African Journals by Graham Greene
[Finished 16 December 2007] Reading this, I find that the form is very similar to what my notebooks that I kept during college and the following years. I wonder now, how much I was influenced by reading this slender book.

The first part, Greene’s journal when he was preparing to write A Burnt-Out case is the more interesting part and confirms my suspicion that that work was meant to be Greene’s final novel.

The second part, notes on the journey to west Africa during World War II is rather less interesting, perhaps because it lacks the raw material of a novel.

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.

The Gnostic Scriptures by Bentley Layton
[Finished 13 December 2007] It’s interesting to note that the later editions of this book identify it as being part of the Anchor Reference Library (I have a first edition hardcover which does not do so). The style and organization is very much that of the Anchor Bible Commentary series.

Layton provides copious background and commentary on the texts he discusses, some of which only exist as fragments quoted in anti-Gnostic polemic texts or as summaries of the matter in the same. Enough intact manuscripts exist, however, to attest to the accuracy of the manuscripts.

For those who think that The Da Vinci Code presented anything like an accurate account of Gnosticism, reading this book will be a shock. The philosophical and cosmological understandings of the Gnostics come across as distinctly bizarre, albeit familiar at times to those who know their way through Plato’s dialogues (the concept of the androgynous original humans of The Symposium is fundamental to some of the concepts of Gnostic thought).

The texts themselves tend to be painfully dense and twisted and most of the time, I found that Layton’s introduction essential to being able to follow the text.

Sun Certified Programmer & Developer for Java 2 Study Guide by Kathy Sierra and Bert Bates
[Finished 6 December 2007] While digging up the ISBN for this at Amazon, it appears that the exam has changed since I (well, my wife, actually) got the book. Looks like another purchase may be necessary, although this exam is apparently still given as well...

The text is well-presented and gives good advice on how to approach the material. I found the Bates/Sierra jokey style a bit cloying at times as I read through the book, but it didn’t detract too much from the information being presented. The practice CD is, alas, Windows-only (come on folks, right the software in Java!), which leaves the paper-only reader with fewer practice questions than I would like.

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.

The Holy Bible translated by Ronald Knox
[Finished 19 November 2007] Ronald Knox was a polymath whose path took him from the Anglican priesthood to the Catholic priesthood. This was probably what he considered his greatest work, but courtesy of changing standards of Catholic biblical scholarship has ended up a footnote. What we are presented with is a translation of the Vulgate Bible with reference to the Hebrew and Greek originals, finished just in time for the Catholic church to declare that it was no longer necessary for Catholic Bibles must be based on the Vulgate.

The New Testament translation seems to me to be superior in its use of the English language than does the Old Testament, perhaps at least partly because the latinized spellings of NT names are generally close to the anglicized spellings as opposed to the frequently bizarre spellings of the Vulgate OT (e.g., Noe for Noah or Osee for Hosea).

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.

Head First Design Patterns by Eric Freeman and Elisabeth Freeman with Kathy Sierra and Bert Bates
[Finished 15 November 2007] Quite simply, this is the best book for learning design patterns. Yes, it’s a bit overstuffed with some fluff and filler (and perhaps a bit too much whitespace in places, which is an uncommon complaint for contemporary computing paper brick books). By beginning with a problem to be solved then showing how a pattern fits it, the authors manage to do an outstanding job of presenting what could be a difficult and abstract problem.

The examples are presented in Java, but it should be a simple matter for any competent programmer to use this to apply patterns to her preferred language if it’s not Java.

If the rest of the Head First series is this good, then O’Reilly has a big winner on its hands here.

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

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert
[Finished 25 October 2007] An interesting book, although not quite the book promised by the title. Gilbert’s interests are primarily in cognitive psychology, particularly in the study of perception, so while we would think that this would be a book about what makes people happy, it turns out to instead be a book about how people perceive and anticipate the world and only tangentially about how this impacts happiness.

But getting beyond that, Gilbert has written a good overview of much of current research into cognitive psychology in a humorous and engaging style which I find the sort of thing which could be helpful for teachers to read to get an idea of how to make dry material engaging.

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 Unknown Karl Marx edited by Robert Payne
[Finished 5 October 2007] This was a less interesting collection than I had hoped. It’s a hodge-podge of materials by and about Marx which had not been previously published in English. These included Marx’s essays for graduation from gymnasium, a pair of embarrassing conspiracy theory pamphlets about how the Russians were secretly controlling Lord Palmerston, his wife’s unpublished short autobiography (with deletions, presumably, by Marx’s daughter) and some letters from Marx’s daughter to his illegitimate son). Nothing that really justified the purchase price. There was more of an intriguing look at the “unknown” Marx in the introduction to the Viking Portable Karl Marx.

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.

Harpo Speaks by Harpo Marx
[Finished 13 September 2007] Courtesy of MacBreak Weekly (no, really!), I keep reading show biz bios.

So next up was Harpo Marx. I always loved the Marx brothers as a kid, although I was more partial to Groucho than the others. Having read this, I’m wondering whether, in fact, Harpo was the real genius of the bunch. One of the highlights was reading about Harpo’s involvement with the Algonquin Roundtable, a rather incongruous match-up: The second-grade drop-out hanging out with some of the greatest literary wits of the time. But in reading this, it makes sense. They didn’t need another Harold Ross at the table, they needed someone to engage in juvenile antics to help relieve the pretension.

The voice of the story is wonderfully modest, with Harpo happily telling tales of his life with a sincere modesty and occasional bits of gee-whiz naivety.

I’m thinking that I want to read about George Burns or Jack Benny next after this batch.

101 Common Therapeutic Blunders by Richard C. Robertiello and Gerald Schoenewolf
[Finished 12 September 2007] I hadn’t looked too closely at this book when I picked it up at a used book store in Chicago some years back while I was studying psychology. Had I done so, I would have doubtless put it back on the shelf. This is a monstrous collection of Freudian mythology in fable form: Therapist A made mistake B with patient C because of some unresolved issue with his/her mother/father. At times, the Freudian jargon verges on the absurd. Castrating mothers, indeed! I had thought, perhaps, that reading this I might at least come up with some story ideas for fiction. Not hardly. I am happy to note that while the book was released in a paperback version, it has since gone out of print. Nevertheless, I am astonished that something like this could have been published as late as 1992. Somebody needs to make it abundantly clear to the psychodynamic people that they’re not practicing psychology, they’re practicing witchcraft. The few valid observations of Freud were much more efficiently and effectively explained by B. F. Skinner.

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.

The Lawless Roads by Graham Greene
[Finished 2 August 2007] Re-reading this book after nearly 20 years, I have a new perspective courtesy of the time that I’ve since spent in Mexico. Cities like Las Casas, San Luis Obispo and Mexico are less abstract concepts to me now, and more places I have been to, and, in some cases, have something approaching intimacy with.

Reading this relatively close on the heals of Journey Without Maps, it’s clear that Greene has a distinct travel-writing style, on which focuses on fairly short vignettes rather than in-depth observation. It’s clear after reading this that Greene ended up a stronger Catholic as a result of the trip, but at the same time, his distaste for Mexico itself also comes across rather clearly.

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).

44 Lectures Complete by Robert G. Ingersoll
[Finished 19 July 2007] This is one of those books that I’ve been moving around with me for twenty years without reading. It had previously belonged to my great uncle and I suspect may have had an owner before him.

Ingersoll made his fame as an advocate of atheism and the Republican party (a combination which seems essentially unthinkable today) and the lectures here are on those two topics, primarily the former.

There is a high level of repetition in the lectures as these appear to have been occasional speeches, not intended to form a comprehensive whole and I found myself skimming over portions that I had seen previously.

Ingersoll’s greatest weakness as a polemicist against religion is that he is unwilling to allow religion to define itself on its own terms and he took the most radical fundamentalists as his baseline in his attack and discounted the representativeness of anyone who took a moderate stance. In his mind, to allow for a historical-critical approach to the Bible was tantamount to denying the Bible. His interpetative approach was in many ways more fundamentalist than the fundamentalists he attacked.

His Republican speeches reflect the social progressive wing of the Republican party which was still on the ascendency in the late nineteenth century, but which gradually weakened until becoming almost entirely extinct in the era of George W. Bush. The attitudes in the democratic party that he railed against have become the province of the modern Republican party which embraced southern segregationists into its bosom in the 50s and 60s.

In all, the interest here is primarily historical, providing an interesting window into a mindset which seems to have disappeared. Ingersoll’s prediction of the imminent demise of religion in particular has failed to materialize: Today, in fact, it’s difficult to imagine the kind of large crowds described in this book gathering to hear any prominent atheist speak on the topic of atheism.

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.

Devil Take the Hindmost: A History of Financial Speculation by Edward Chancellor
[Finished 6 July 2007] I’m old enough now to have seen three speculative bubbles pop (junk bonds in the 80s, real estate in 1990, tech stocks in 2000) and see another one on its way to popping (real estate--again!).

Chancellor does a pretty good job of describing a history of speculative bubbles. Everybody knows the tulip mania and the 1929 stock market crash, but most of the rest of these are relatively unknown (although it’s interesting to see not one, but two works of fiction that I’ve read reflected in the pages of this book: The Way We Live Now is directly referenced and The Baroque Trilogy clearly drew upon this book for inspiration and information.

If I have any complaint, it’s in Chancellor’s reluctance to take any clear stands on the historical issues that he talks about. Only towards the end does he evince a lukewarm enthusiasm for Bretton-Woods-style currency controls as a bulwark against speculative excess, although it’s difficult to see how a return to that sort of currency control would even be possible in the hyper-globalized economy of the twenty-first century.

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.

Before the Dawn by Nicholas Wade
[Finished 16 June 2007] A fascinating book. Wade, a science writer for the New York Times, gives a pretty good overview of what science has been able to learn from DNA sequencing. By examing things like the variations in mitochondrial DNA (revealing the matrilineal heritage) and the Y-chromosome (revealing the patrilineal heritage), it’s possible to do things like find the spread of humanity from our ancestral homeland in East Africa throughout the world. What’s more, by making inferences from the rate of mutation in the DNA, it’s also possible to date the spread of humans into each part of the world, correlating that from geological history and fossil evidence to get some sense of prehistoric anthropology that was not previously accessible.

My only complaint about the book is Wade’s willingness--eagerness even--to accept as fact theories on the edge of acceptibility. Science tends to be inherently conservative, much to the consternation of science journalists who are looking for a big story, not an incremental advance in knowledge, and while it’s not difficult to find cases where the radical theorist was correct, it’s also easy to forget about all the cases where the radical theorist was completely off base.

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.

A Smile in the Mind by Beryl McAlhone and David Stuart
[Finished 12 June 2007] A large number of design books tend to be large collections of pictures with little or no commentary. Since designers are often not particularly verbal people, this isn’t too surprising, but it also shouuldn’t be surprising when such a book ends up being used as a source of rip-offs “inspiration” by lesser designers whose work ends up looking suspiciously like the exemplars put forth in the picture collection.

This book, which treats the concept of “wit” in design manages to strike a decent balance between pictures and words. Yes, a large section of the book is a garden-variety picture collection, but the first part is an interesting essay on just what constitutes wit in the world of design (although it is perilously under-illustrated!). The last section, similarly, is a collection of interviews with designers on the topic of “how I got the idea.” Of course, designers being the non-verbal bunch that they are, this is often a bit hit or miss, with the misses outweighing the hits (although it was nice to see at least one designer open with a forthright, “beats me!”).

The examples, not surprisingly, given the nationalities of the co-authors, are overwhelmingly British, and one co-author’s design firm is perhaps a bit over-represented in its pages, but there’s also a good collection of historical examplars as well. In all, the end product is one of the better design book which I’ve encountered.

(And as an aside, it occurs to me that this is a review I could never have allowed myself to run on the pages of Serif, and it also strikes at the heart of the problem with that magazine, in that it tended to want to focus on words rather than pictures.)

Prague 1900: Poetry and Ecstasy edited by Edwin Becker, Roman Prahl and Peter Wittlich
[Finished 8 June 2007] So I’m writing a novel set in Prague in 1900 and I’m thinking, wouldn’t it be nice if there was a book about Prague in 1900.

Then I find this book.

It’s not exactly what I was looking for, with its focus primarily on the arts of the period, but there were a few historical photos and paintings worth the price of admission (which was free since I found this book at the library), and I was able to get a bit more of the cultural zeitgeist than I had previously, which is always good. And I have the names of some artistic figures whose lives and work may reveal a bit more of what I’m attempting to learn.

Journey Without Maps by Graham Greene
[Finished 6 June 2007] Having read Greene’s cousin’s account of this journey since the last time I read this book, my perspective is dramatically changed on Greene’s telling of the story. Most notably, Greene’s cousin is barely mentioned and Greene’s illness isn’t mentioned at all.

I remember being a bit bored with this when I first read it, and the impression remains that it’s not the most interesting of accounts. Most of the time in the bush is a rather monotonous account of interchangeable villages and squabbles with the carriers. Knowing that Greene was ill with fever for most of this time, explains a lot.

The most interesting parts of the story are the occasional ventures into autobiography which are mostly confined to the first part of the book. It’s this, rather than the details of the bush which make this worth reading at all.

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.”

The King of Comedy by Shawn Levy
[Finished 26 May 2007] I heard about this book while listening to MacBreak Weekly and decided to pick it up at the library and read it. This would be my first entertainment-industry book, I suppose, as I had to create new categories in the database for it.

Usually in a biography, the most interesting part is the childhood and adolescence, but in the case of Lewis’s life, I found the early years of his life to be painfully dull. It wasn’t until we got to the development of his primary character, “The Kid,” while he was partnered with Dean Martin that his life began to become fascinating and even more interesting were some of the aspects of Lewis’s personal life.

As a kid who grew up watching Lewis on the MDA telethon every Labor Day weekend along with his movies playing on weekend matinees on the local UHF stations, it was fascinating to learn more about his life. I realized after reading this that I really don’t have many strong memories of his “golden age” films, although I do remember seeing “Hardly Working” in the theatre and being quite impressed by his performance in the Scorsesi film from which this book takes its title.

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.

The Republic by Plato
[Finished 11 May 2007] As I started reading this, I found myself wondering why I’m reading Plato at this stage of my life. I’m thinking that reading philosophy is, in a lot of ways, a game for younger people.

But to revisit Plato at a remove of more than a decade since I’d last read him and two decades since I first read him is an interesting experience. My initial impression of Plato was that he was an asshole. I strongly objected to his views on democracy and on fiction. Coming back to him older and wiser, I still object to his artistic views, but having lived through six+ years of Bush II, his ideas about democracy have a bit stronger of a resonance. I can see in his writing also some of the origins of the Catholic concept of vocation, something which has become an almost unconscious assumption in my own worldview.

That said, the Republic is a somewhat overmined source of ideas, and it didn’t necessarily seem worth spending a week on it.

This translation, though, is rather nice. The short summaries and commentaries which lead into each chapter are handy for providing a quick roadmap, and the occasional footnotes discussing some of the background in ideas or reasoning behind translation choices is also quite good. If you’re going to read the Republic, this is probably the translation to use.

The Perfect $100,000 House by Karrie Jacobs
[Finished 4 May 2007] It sounds like a great concept: An architecture writer with $100,000 in the house sets out to see what she can buy for that money somewhere in America. And the first chapter, where she goes to “architecture camp” in Vermont sets us up for something promising.

But the promise isn’t fulfilled because for a book like this which is as much travelogue as reporting requires that we have a guide that we enjoy spending the trip with, and Jacobs is that most obnoxious sort of New Yorker: No place is good enough because it just isn’t New York. The other cities in America, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, are just places to get through on the way to another rural area which will be dismissed because it’s just some remote area where there aren’t enough hip people (or too many hip people) for it to be comfortably similar to living in Manhattan.

Worse still, in a book about architecture, there is one essential ingredient which is painfully absent. PICTURES. I’m sorry Ms Jacobs, but your prose is not sufficient to convey the feel of the homes you describe without abundant illustration to accompany them. Instead we’re treated to one(!) illustration per chapter, which often isn’t even the most interesting-sounding building from the chapter.

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.

A History of the English Church in the Sixteenth Century from Henry VIII to Mary by James Gairdner
[Finished 23 April 2007] Yet more leftover research books from my undergrad thesis (you’d think that nearly two decades later, I’d have finished these). At this point, the nominal topic of the book is not especially the most interesting point to me. I’ve read enough religious histories of the period that I’m really not learning anything new about the time. Instead, what I find interesting is trying to tease out exactly what perspective the author is writing from.

At first, I imagined that it was a typically Anglo-Catholic position, asserting that the church founded by Henry VIII was the same church as existed previously in England, but as I continued reading, I was struck by the harsh stance the author took towards Henry’s innovations, and his general disdain for the protestants. At the same time, however, the book lacks the tendency to whitewash the Catholic actions of the period common to most Catholic-written histories of its time (it was first published in 1902), almost lends it the more objective tone common to the late twentieth century. In the end, I’m left with a book more fascinating as a study of the history of history-writing than as a study of the history being written about.

The New Testament for Spiritual Reading: The Epistle to the Philippians, The Epistle to the Colossians edited by John L. McKenzie
[Finished 2 April 2007] This was one of a pair of books that I was given by a friend who found them in a library book sale. I was a bit surprised to see that it’s been 12 years since I read the other book from the pair, although my overall impression is the same: They’re largely forgettable Catholic interpretations of the New Testament. There were a few bits where I found the commentary stretching a bit to be orthodox without providing sufficient justification (say citations of other biblical texts or patristic writing) to support the stretches. There were a smaller number of intriguing readings of the text, but nothing which grabbed me.

The Episcopal Church and Its Work by P. M. Dawley
[Finished 30 March 2007] A book I bought in a bout of not terribly selective research buying for my undergrad thesis. In this case, I bought something which would have been completely useless had I taken the time to read it.

It’s an interesting read, less for what it says about the contemporary Episcopal church than for its being a snapshot of a time in intellectual history. Dawley writes from a perspective of unquestioningly assuming the rightness of the Episcopalian position, something which the intellectual upheavals of the last half of the twentieth century make a more difficult position to take for most writers (only the fundamentalists of whatever stripe are still able to do this).

The snapshot of the church at the time of its writing (my copy dates from 1955) is interesting from a historical perspective, and contains a few interesting surprises, most notably that social conservatism was considered to naturally be in opposition to Christian values, something which has been lost as anti-abortion stances, social conservatism and Christian stands have managed to be conflated into a single thing in too many peoples’ minds.

Marriage as a Path to Holiness: Lives of Married Saints by David and Mary Ford
[Finished 26 March 2007] I suppose I shouldn’t have been too surprised to find that a book with this title is written from the Orthodox perspective rather than the Catholic one. The Catholic tradition recognizes very few married saints, mostly couples who decide to live together chastely (or as this book puts it, “as brother and sister”).

Since the Orthodox tradition allows for married clergy, and clergy and religious tend to be disproportionately represented in the canon of Saints, it’s not too surprising that there would be a larger number of married people in the Orthodox canon.

The introduction to the book is perhaps the most interesting part, with a good explanation of the Orthodox understanding of the sacrament of marriage. The lives of the saints themselves, on the other hand, are somewhat less interesting. As mentioned earlier, there are a large number of those who lived together as brother and sister, along with a number of married priests of note (for example, the Russian priest who lead the evangelization efforts in Russian Alaska). A bit more disappointing are the national heroes named as saints. The erastian nature of Orthodoxy leads to such oddities as naming the founders or early defenders of various countries as saints, a decision which is difficult to defend on the basis of the lives as presented here.

Perhaps the most interesting story had a wife encouraging her husband on his way to martyrdom.

But in the end, I found that the lives of the saints did not really meet the title of the book, showing marriage as a path to holiness. There were really few if any cases where the fact that saints were married had anything to do with their holiness.

Agile Web Development with Rails by Dave Thomas and David Heinemeier Hansson
[Finished 23 March 2007] I’ve come to appreciate the value of a good framework in application development. Yes, it sometimes forces me to set things up in a way that seems a bit unnatural, but the benefits of scaffolding and MVC-architecture by far outweight that difficulty.

Ruby feels much like the programming language that I’ve been looking for, with a clean dynamically-typed object model and mostly well-conceived language structures. The big difficulty I’ve found is that there isn’t any good single resource for Ruby/Rails programming. This book provides a decent overview, but the current practice in programming books to build the bulk of the text around the construction of a sample application doesn’t really fit the way that I like to learn a language: I want to get into my own project and the needs of the sample project and my own code generally split apart pretty quickly. I’ll doubtless come to appreciate the value of this book over time, much as I grew to love the llama book, but for now, I find myself wishing that it was more of a reference than a tutorial.

And I would add that I do feel that I can trust the Pragmatic Programmers series of books for future purchases, regardless of my reservations about this volume.

Ephesians 4-6 by Markus Barth
[Finished 15 March 2007] The last of the unread volumes in my Anchor Bible collection. This one is written by a theologian, so it as much less of a focus on the minutiae of the language and is more focused on the interpreation, but Markus Barth, the son of famed theologian Karl Barth, writes from a polemical low-church Calvinist position. I think that it would have been more interesting to read what a Catholic theologian had to say on the material on ecclesiology, or, when we get to the part about women being subject to their husbands, perhaps a liberal feminist theologian. It’s an interesting read, but not especially remarkable in the corpus of works that make up the Anchor Bible.

Anglicanism and the Christian Church by Paul Avis
[Finished 4 March 2007] I picked this up as an undergrad thinking that I should counterbalance the Catholic perspectives on the English reformation that were my primary source of religious history.

Reading this (at last) I find that the arguments presented are a bit unconvincing and rather a prioristic: Avis has a motivation to justify the status quo in the Anglican church, and he does what he can to do so, trying to make the case that the post-Henrician church did not represent a break with the pre-Henrician church, all while trying to also make a case for the validity of the more protestant expressions of the church. There’s some interesting history included (including an awful lot on Coleridge’s theological writing, of which I had not previously been aware), but in the end it was not a book I found particularly interesting or useful.

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.

Pimsleur Basic Czech
[Finished 6 February 2007] My first audiobook. In this case, it’s something which really can only be presented in audiobook format: Language lessons.

And I have to admit, that I like the Pimsleur format. The pacing is generally pretty slow (although lessons six and ten were both a bit fast compared to the rest of the ten-lesson set), and plenty of repetition means that as long as you’re consistent about doing at least two lessons a week, you don’t generally need to repeat lessons to get the learning from them (although I’ve let the lessons repeat into my iTunes playlist).

I’m not sure if I’m reading things into the conversations that aren’t there, but it seems like lesson nine has our male speaker trying to hit on the female speaker and getting shot down pretty badly. I always enjoy unexpected dialogues in languge learning materials.

But I’m not going to take their offer of a $50 discount on the comprehensive Czech CD set. There are two problems with this set. The first is that the lack of printed materials is a bit disorienting for me. I’m really a visual learner and not being able to see the words has been problematic for me. But even more of a problem is that the pronounciation on the CDs is bad. The male speaker has a tendency to add syllables to the ends of words that just don’t exist (I’ve checked with my father who speaks Czech on this). So whenever the male speaker on the CD says, e.g., “dobry den” it comes out as “dobry deno.” This is completely unacceptable for an audio-learning program. There are also other places where the pronounciation is unclear so, while it was a good introduction to the language, my further studies will be using more traditional paper methods. It’s a pity because it was a nice way to spend my walk home from work.

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).

Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid by Jimmy Carter
[Finished 18 January 2007] I was curious to hear what Jimmy Carter had to say about the Palestine-Israel matter, especially in the wake of the controversies which followed the publication of his newest book. Was Carter really presenting an unbalanced view of matters in Israel?

Having finished the book, I think that the answer is that he’s probably not being unfair in his assessment of the situation. I think that one could make a case for unbalanced, but unbalanced is not the same as unfair. A balanced view of global warming or evolution, for example, would not be appropriate since one side is clearly in the wrong on the matter.

In the case of Israel, there is nothing in Carter’s book that contradicts the reporting from the area that I’ve read previously. There have been some facts that I was not aware of (for example, the Israeli security fence is entirely within Palestinian territory).

The history of the conflict that Carter provides is essential reading for anyone interested in knowing the background of the situation.

The only sustainable solution to the Palestinian question has been known for almost four decades: Israel needs to withdraw to its 1967 boundaries. Israel’s claim to any foreign occupation only provides justification for continued attacks upon Israel.

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.

"Say Cheesy" by Darby Conley
[Finished 3 January 2007] This is one of the better collections of Get Fuzzy cartoons. The first dozen pages or so, especially, were full of laugh-out-loud moments, and unlike Blueprint for Disaster, there are no long stretches of clunker strips. Definitely a must-have Get Fuzzy collection.

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.

Seminary Boy: A Memoir by John Cornwell
[Finished 26 December 2006] Another research book. One nice thing about Catholicism before Vatican II is that things tended to be somewhat static and unchangeable, so an account of a minor seminary in 1950s England is useful in understanding life in the minor seminary in Prague in 1900.

It was somewhat amusing to discover that their was interplay between this memoir and the biography of Graham Greene that I was reading at the same time.

From Good King Wenceslas to the Good Soldier Svejk: A Dictionary of Czech Popular Culture edited by Andrew Lawrence Roberts
[Finished 23 December 2006] I picked this up as research on my current novel, although as the author pointed out to me in an e-mail after I’d ordered it, it tells me more about how contemporary Czechs view things than providing the kind of historical background that I needed. But even so, given the conservative nature of Czech tastes (for example, the Czech diet remains largely unchanged even after the transition from Hapsburg dependency to republic to communism to the current state of affairs). Even just for some pointers on some of the names and locations of some chief landmarks, it has been invaluable. The compilation of pop culture is also, for its own sake, a significant work.

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.

The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power by James Traub
[Finished 4 December 2006] I first heard about this book during an interview of James Traub on Fresh Air, so I decided to request it from the library. The interview turned out to be a bit more interesting than the book, largely a consequence of Traub’s writing style: The book reads as if it is a book-length newspaper article. Traub doesn’t provide many inessential details, a failing that reveals how essential the inessentials are.

The tale that Traub tells is an interesting account of recent history, largely focusing on the last decade. What I found most striking here is the contrast between the original hopes for the U.N. (FDR viewed it as a continuation of the alliance that won World War II), and the body which seems incapable of doing anything substantive, largely because of the unwillingness of the member states to take action. The Bush years have been hard on the U.N., but they’re to a certain extent a continuation of the US’s ambivalent relationship with the U.N. As someone who was raised on idealistic internationalism (not to mention eight years of Model U.N. in High School and College), it’s a tough pill to swallow when looking at how the world community has let the U.N. turn things into such a bad situation. I almost wonder if a new body needs to be created, one which is closer to a United States of Earth model (similar to how the original articles of confederation of the US gave way to the constitution). Perhaps using economic cooperation as the bait to get states to guarantee basic rights to their citizens and to yield the necessary level of sovereignity to this global body to make it truly workable.

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.

Perl Best Practices by Damian Conway
[Finished 13 November 2006] After reading Damian Conway’s excellent Object-Oriented Perl and hearing about this book, I of course let amazon take some of my money so that I could read this one. It’s a solid book with absolutely no filler in its 500+ pages. There are some sections which could do with a bit less explication of the low level section (I’m thinking in particular the advice to use Inside Out objects, which would have been better to start with explaining how to work with Class::Std or Object::InsideOut rather than going into details about how to do by hand things which are better handled by the appropriate CPAN module). And there are some bits of advice that I disagree with entirely (for example, Conway’s deprecation of protected access to data which he might think is an idea which is best forgotten, but I find is, at least at times, a very useful way for parent and child classes to communicate). But even if you disagree with some of the practices, it provokes the programmer into contemplating that aspect of coding. No perl programmer can read this without coming out at the back a better programmer. And many of the ideas are rather language agnostic and could be applied to coding practice for other languages as well.

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.

Foundations of Ajax by Ryan Asleson and Nathaniel T. Schutta
[Finished 24 October 2006] Part of what attracted me to this book when I picked it up was the fact that it had screenshots of Safari and Firefox from a Mac. Great, someone writing about web development who knows that there are browsers other than Internet Explorer under Windows.

The exposition is pretty decent, although as with too many computer books (I think I’m ready to give up on Apress books already), there’s a lot more padding than content here. What’s worse, what seems to me the best approach to dealing with Ajax having finished my first project where I used it, is to have some sort of Framework, a possibility which isn’t even mentioned until the end of the book, and that in passing. The appendix on browser issues, is helpful and not something I was able to find in the web (I wish I’d finished reading the book before I started the Ajax project since I really needed that info many times). The index is woefully incomplete especially when you’re looking up information on particular Javascript properties.

In all, a decent, but not spectacular book. I think what I really want is something which is geared around the use of some Ajax framework (or perhaps more than one) and which deals with the ugly details of how to do the job in an appendix. And much shorter code snippets between explication. Four-page listings of HTML/JavaScript make my eyes glaze over. Having typographically indistinct Java code as well makes things just that much more complicated.

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.

Applying UML and Patterns: An Introduction to Object-Oriented Analysis and Design by Craig Larman
[Finished 20 October 2006] A fairly quick read, I tackled this while re-entering the programming world. Parts of it are a bit frustrating, like some vagueness about some aspects of UML and what the components are, but the structure of the book, which looks at the life-cycle of a software development project does give a pretty decent introduction to both UML and design patterns, although it’s not especially useful as a reference to either.

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.

Apache Cookbook by Ken Coar and Rich Bowen
[Finished 13 September 2006] I had high hopes for this book, which were quickly dashed once I started actually reading it. Much of the information is sparsely and incompletely presented (the latter especially perplexing given how thin this book is). A great deal of time is expended on explaining also how to get Apache running under Windows, a foolish prospect if there ever was one: The only reason to use Windows as a server is if you want some Windows-specific functionality which in turn implies IIS. A well-informed web administrator would run a proper server OS on their webserver.

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
[Finished 11 September 2006] Continuing to read a fair amount of American history. The obvious and intriguing comparison is between Lincoln’s political history and handling of the Civil War and the current resident of the white house’s parallel circumstances. Especially since (per NPR this morning), the administration is busy trying to make the same comparison. But it’s worth noting that Lincoln’s stance was one of moderation and trying to reach out to others, as opposed to the current administrations tack of demonizing all who deviate from their viewpoint. Perhaps there is a comparison to be made, but Bush doesn’t play the role of Lincoln in that comparison.

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 Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan
[Finished 23 August 2006] Every so often a book comes along that can radically change the way that you lead your life. For me this is one of those books. I first heard of Michael Pollan when he was interviewed on NPR’s Science Friday (if you don’t read the book, at least listen to the interview).

My wife and I generally make an effort to eat healthy foods, and whenever possible organics, but I hadn’t considered the implications of some of what’s happening in the industrial food chain in America. The realization that local food is probably more important than organic food, for example (the food that Americans eat travels an average of 1500 miles to get to their table). Or the thought that a huge percentage of what we eat has its origins as corn grown in Iowa (not just the obvious things like corn syrup, but most of the other ingredients that don’t sound like food on the label of your processed food come from corn). Add in that most of our meat is corn-fed now, whether or not that animal is designed to eat it and we have some serious recipes for disaster. The various e. coli outbreaks in the meat supply chain are a direct consequence of feeding beef cows corn (these sorts of infections are not an issue for grass-fed cows). This leads us to such abuses of the food chain like irradiated meat and the widespread use of antibiotics in animal feed which leads primarily to the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.

So what changes have been made? The big one is a stronger drive towards eating local foods. It’s a hard habit to break, especially when you walk into the supermarket in August and see stacks of gorgeous-looking Australian-grown oranges (although the high price should be a deterrent). Avoiding high fructose corn syrup means avoiding almost all processed foods which is a frightening prospect (take a look at the labels sometime: It’s in everything: Bread, lunch meat, soup, salad dressing...).

Living in L.A. we have access to a superabundance of farmer’s markets at least, although there seems to only be one Community Supported Agriculture farm that serves our area.

The first two sections of the book are definitely the best part. The hunter-gatherer meal, was less interesting to me, if only because I really don’t see myself willing to get so close to my food chain as to actually hunt my own wild meat (although my wife and I have contemplated the possibility that game meat might be the healthiest possible option, on second thought though, we just don’t eat that much meat to begin with).

Now to find the L.A.-area restaurants that use local foods...

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.

PHP 5 Objects, Patterns, and Practice by Matt Zandstra
[Finished 3 August 2006] Maybe it’s because I was reading this at the same time as Damian Conway’s excellent book on object-oriented Perl, but this came across as quite a bit less well-written. There’s much less information on object-orientation here, but a big part of that is the more mature object mechanism in PHP compared to the kludgy Perl5 object system.

There are a few chapters which seem to be padding as a consequence, although even as padding they do address some useful topics for good programming practice (PEAR, CVS and Phing).

Object Oriented Perl by Damian Conway
[Finished 31 July 2006] This is easily one of the best programming books that I’ve read. The tone is light but informative, and one of my favorite features of the book is that Conway ends each discussion with a reference for where to find out more: Sometimes it’s a book or article, sometimes a website, sometimes the perl documentation. The book covers, reasonably comprehensively, the ins and outs of object-oriented programming in perl. There are sections which are a bit out of date already (always a problem with a rapidly evolving language like Perl which was at 5.005 when Conway wrote the book, is 5.8.6 on my Mac, and Perl 6 is under way (one hopes with a bit more alacrity than the LaTeX 3 project).

Do I have any complaints about the book? None that I can think of. This is an essential for any perl programmer’s book shelf.

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.

Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama by Daniel Goleman
[Finished 20 June 2006] Whatever preconceptions I had when I picked up this book and what form it would take were nowhere near what the reality was.

The book is largely a narrative of discussions between scientists and the Dalai Lama about scientific and Buddhist perspectives on destructive emotions. This part of a continuing series of meetings/books. The discussions themselves were often a bit shallow, but hinted at some tantalizing deeper ideas and discoveries.

If that was all there was to the book, it would be a disappointment indeed, but the final section, offered just what I hoped it would: Some pointers to the research that had come out of the meeting and even better, there’s a website which presumably includes some live updates on the material.

It almost makes me wish I were a psychology or neuroscience graduate student (or better still, PhD).

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.

Job by Marvin H. Pope
[Finished 2 June 2006] I began collecting and reading volumes of the Anchor Bible some 15 years ago. But it’s only recently that I’ve re