Queen Harvest’s 2017 Reading Recap

Early this year I followed Marie Kondo’s advice and put every book I owned on the floor to be judged. Image-1

I held every book and decided whether it brought me joy–if yes it stayed, if no it was discarded. Unfortunately, the joy a book brings can fluctuate based on all those words between the covers. Many of the books I read this year did not bring me joy, but I had to both hold the book and read it to find out.

1. White Rage, Carol Anderson (2016)

White Rage supplies a lot of pieces that are missing from the average American history curriculum. Anderson methodically lays out how white Americans used the law to prevent black Americans from attaining equal status with themselves, beginning with the abolition of slavery until the present day. Anderson examines the white-supremacist objectives of Presidents from Andrew Johnson to Ronald Reagan, the undermining of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, various detrimental Supreme Court decisions, the failure of the criminal justice system, and the gutting of any progress made by the Civil Rights Movement. Particularly striking to me is Anderson’s explanation of how questions of race and civil rights were completely redefined (by white people) in the 1960s and 1970s, when economic inequality was substituted for racial inequality and civil rights were “won” by the desegregation of water fountains and bus seats. There is so much more to learn and know, but White Rage is an excellent introduction to the institutionalized racism that simply succeeded our country’s institutionalized slavery.

2. The Thirteen Problems, Agatha Christie (1932)

The best phrase I can think of to describe The Thirteen Problems is a “murder-mystery Canterbury Tales.” Over the course of two dinner parties, each attendant lays out a mystery from their lives for the others to solve (answered one and all by Miss Marple, of course). These are fun and fast-paced mini mysteries.

3. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967)

800px-rotarydialThe plot of One Hundred Years of Solitude is like the dial of a rotary phone: it begins in one place, is quickly rolled back in time, and slowly returns to the place of beginning, over and over again. The narrative seems like a progressive stream of people and events, but the individuals and their habits and their lives continuously circle and swell, building into something complex, beautiful, magnificent.

 4. One Hundred Years of Solitude: Modes of Reading, Regina Jones, ed. (1991)

This collection of essays includes historical context, biographical notes on Garcia Marquez, publishing history, and critical essays. The more I learn about One Hundred Years of Solitude, the more incredible the novel is; that’s how you know it’s the Real Deal.

5. The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch (1978)

The Sea, The Sea combines light literary farce, dramatic introspective discovery, and ambiguous supernatural forces with flawless prose. I was on the main character’s side at the beginning; he seemed like a fun-loving, living-for-himself-but-harmless guy. It is difficult to maintain this affection as we see how the hero’s ego affects those around him in numerous and devastating ways.

6. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (1949)

After Rowling’s Hogwarts, Orwell’s Airstrip One is the fictional world invoked most often in the current political climate. Instead of reading the actual news, I reread Nineteen Eighty-Four. Yes it is a great novel. Yes it is a terrifying novel. Yes fiction is a powerful tool to better understand reality. Yes I wish a lot of dummies read more novels. Yes I’ve stopped being courteous to dummies.

7. A Brief History of Ireland, Richard Killeen (2012)

Reading Killeen’s A Brief History of Ireland was such a pleasure it caused me grief—I can’t believe I forced myself to read The Making of Modern Ireland when this book was available. A Brief History of Ireland details the history of Ireland from its prehistoric past to its state in the 21st century. Killeen goes a step beyond breakdowns of historic events and biographies of essential figures. The really rewarding feature of Killeen’s writing is the way he explains the social and cultural context of various events. He describes the impact of, say, the Great Famine on the average citizen, or the reasoning that led to any one of the many popular revolts. Knowing that history does not occur in a vacuum, Killeen makes Irish history feel like a continuous narrative, rather than a disjointed succession of disgruntled secessionists.

8. Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson (1980)

Admittedly, I remember very little about this book. I remember there were beautiful sentences and sorrowful characters. There are albums that suit people in a certain state of mind or phase of life; this may be a novel for another mood.

9. Wolfish Girl, Andy Mascola (2016)

Wolfish Girl, written by under-the-radar Twitter star @andymascola, is an entertaining horror-romance novella. The plot is unpredictable and difficult to put down. Wolfish Girl puts a really interesting twist on the monster story.

9.5 Superbosses, Sydney Finkselstein (2016)

Superbosses (of which I read about 65%, hence the partial numeration) looks at the phenomenon of business leaders whose proteges consistently succeed after striking out on their own. Nick Saban comes to mind, as a coach who has had many assistants go on to become successful college football head coaches (of course, Saban is a branch on the mega-coaching tree of Bill Parcells via Bill Belichick). The gist seems to be that many bosses are great at their jobs, have a vision for their future, and are nurturing to employees. What sets “superbosses” apart is that they are not threatened by possibly superior talent, intellect, or ability. Where a mediocre boss might not hire the brightest candidate, or might discourage or prevent the progress made by their subordinates, “superbosses” give their proteges the space to become the best version of themselves.

10. The Book of Kells, Edward Sullivan (1920)

800px-kellsfol032vchristenthroned

Are those corners unadorned because a monk had to escape when his monastery was attacked?

Joseph Campbell recommends reading this book of examples of and commentary on The Book of Kells as a key to Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. The glossy prints of Kells pages are colorful and intricate, and Sullivan’s text provides insight into the creation and meaning of many of the illuminations. There are probably plenty of Kells images online, but looking at a copy in your hand, in natural light, is a rewarding activity.

11. Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel (2009)

After intense research, I have uncovered two types of Wolf Hall readers:

  1. Those who completed it and adore every line.
  2. Those who could not complete it because they despise every line.

I am proud to conquer virgin territory: I completed it despite despising every line. Read my reasoning here.

12. The History Buff’s Guide to the Civil War, Thomas R. Flagel (2010)

A history book organized by Top Ten lists: of course such a project cannot encompass the vastness of the Civil War in all its horror and meaning. Nevertheless, Flagel conveys a great deal of information without coming across as flippant. Perhaps being limited by brevity forced the writer to condense the events and facts to their essential, undiluted heinousness.

13. Germania, Simon Winder (2011)

German history is European history—ancient, consequential, continuously relevant. Yet it seems difficult to find much historical literature that doesn’t focus on 20th century Germany (admittedly a significant period). The Third Reich managed to occupy three generations of academic German historians and three generations of interested Germophiles. Germania is written not by a historian, but by an enthusiast who doesn’t even speak German. Winder does not discount or disrespect 20th century German history, but revives the wonder and beauty and terrors that preceded the World Wars. It is all I could do, midway through reading, to not jump on a plane to Germany(/Czechia/Poland/Austria/etc.) to explore the castles and restaurants and other living artifacts of Germany’s bygone past.

14. Shakespeare: The World as Stage, Bill Bryson (2007)

Image-1(1)Instead of hypothesizing, guessing, or projecting possibilities about Shakespeare’s life, this biography delivers exactly what you want to know about Shakespeare: What do we actually know about him? Where did this information come from? Where do those images of Shakespeare come from? Why do people think Shakespeare did not write the works under his name? Why are those people most likely wrong? Bill Bryson is at his best when he is writing about literature and language (and generally things other than himself), and this little biography is a joy.

15. The Waste Land (Norton Critical Edition), Michael North, ed. (2000)

This edition of The Waste Land (like the critical edition of Solitude, above) contains historical context, literary sources, and critical essays from the time of its release to more recent scholarship. I had not read the poem before, and I assumed it was universally revered; many of these essays undercut that notion. I personally found the essay by Cleanth Brooks, Jr., most truthful, and F.R. Leavis’s essay offered helpful insight into Eliot’s world.

16. Ulysses, James Joyce (1922)

Bloomsday simply felt incomplete without reading from Ulysses, so I started the whole thing over again. Every reading is so rewarding; I look forward to returning to Dublin again soon.

B1. Deuteronomy, KJV

This is as far as my Biblical readings took me this year. Deuteronomy seems to be a summary of all the important stuff from the preceding books. Like Moses is doing an exam review before the Israelites are tested in the Promised Land.

17. The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver (1998)

Early in my journey into the Congo, I knew The Poisonwood Bible was a treasure. I listened to the audiobook, which is a format particularly suited to this novel. Kingsolver relates most of the novel through characters who have an incomplete view of the situation; the audiobook narrator worked wonders with the five voices and personalities. It feels like it could have ended about 75% of the way through, but I still enjoyed the remainder of the book.

18. The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson (2003)

This narrative presentation of two concurrent American sagas was easy to immerse myself in. I wrote about The Devil in the White City here .
Tl; dr: It stands on its own, but also could serve as a useful introduction to reading The Fountainhead.

19. Loon Lake, E.L. Doctorow (1980)

I finished this book out of spite. Spite against what or whom? I don’t know. But I really did not enjoy any of it.

20. Dubliners, James Joyce (1914)

Rereading Dubliners was long overdue. The first time I read it I could tell there were depths I was not plumbing; this second time around I did not fare much better.

20.a Dubliners (Norton Critical Edition), Margaret Norris, ed. (2005)

This, my third critical edition of the year, provides tremendous insight into Joyce’s short stories. Each essay illuminates some connection between stories, some implication within an interaction, some gem of hidden meaning ready to gleam in the light of recognition.

21. The Body in the Library, Agatha Christie (1942)

This mystery novel is set in the same universe as The Thirteen Problems, above, and has about as many mini mysteries packed into a single narrative. Apparently it also takes place in our reality, because Agatha Christie mentions her own name among a list of autographs by famous mystery authors.

22. Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell (2004)

I expected Cloud Atlas to be confusing and complicated in the tradition of Infinite Jest—needlessly, a vanity project. Instead, it is somehow straightforward while being complex in a lovely, entertaining, and fascinating manner. Though it gets a little self-aware toward the end, I really enjoyed this novel and could see myself (or perhaps a reincarnated version of myself) returning to it in the future.

23. Naked, David Sedaris (1997)

David Sedaris is like a childhood friend that I don’t see very often, but whenever we get together, we laugh like idiots. Of course, it’s a pretty one-way street between me and David; he does most of the heavy lifting and I do most of the laughing. I was surprised to learn that not everybody knows Sedaris is greatest living essayist, so I’ve started recommending his books to my friends. Woe unto him who heeds not my counsel!

24. The Confessions of Nat Turner, William Styron (1967)

Upon publication this novel met two diverging, powerful responses: negative backlash from the black community, and critical acclaim and a Pulitzer Prize (from the white community). I decided to read the novel before investigating the substance of either response; I wanted to experience it without outside influences, and then read the criticism. I admit, as a white person who is not well-schooled in identifying the racism that pervades the world I grew up in and who knows nothing of the historical Nat Turner, The Confessions of Nat Turner was a literary pleasure. While reading, I felt Styron artfully lampooned the hypocrisy of the courts passing sentence against the rebels who were themselves trying to escape the life of imprisonment, torture, and death imposed on them by their “victims.” Styron’s “good” slaveowners are portrayed as guilty of perpetuating the institution of slavery, even as they lament its evils. I did not pick up on the many problems contained in the novel for much the same reason Styron did not feel troubled to write them; we have had the luxury of ignorance. Regardless, I had the following book of criticism on the shelf before I began the novel, and I was open to what the writers had to say.

25. William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, John Henrik Clarke, ed. (1968)

Published the year after Styron’s novel, this collection of essays is alive

Image-1

God save the used bookstore.

with the energy of an ongoing conflict. I originally felt some empathy for Styron—a creative mind with an interest in history made a misguided attempt at fictionalizing a fascinating figure of American history. After reading these responses, I doubt not only his methods but also his motives. These writers make it clear that Styron had all the information and resources he needed to write about Nat Turner accurately, but he willfully ignored history and created a fictional Nat Turner who embodies all the degrading, harmful stereotypes historically imposed on black people and their enslaved ancestors. Styron concocted his own facts, which not only diverged from the historical record but were patently racist. When the facts are wrong, the truths arising therefrom are flawed. Through the corruption of facts, Styron’s novel churns out flawed conclusions—Turner is emasculated, rebellions are futile, rebels are criminals, and slaveowners are generally good people. Styron ignored the history and ideas of black people and wrote a novel beyond redemption; the progressive white public ignored the voices of these black writers and others and awarded Nat Turner a Pulitzer Prize.

26. Holidays On Ice, David Sedaris (1997)

On my third try, I finally finished this essay collection. I also realized the reason Holidays on Ice never grabbed me like Sedaris’s other books: This one has a higher concentration of fictional stories. The succession of fabricated Christmas curmudgeons don’t do it for me like his usual genuine misanthropes.

27. High Spirits: A Collection of Ghost Stories, Robertson Davies (1982)

Robertson Davies was the Master of Massey College of the University of Toronto from 1963 until 1981. Davies told a ghost story each year at the school’s Christmas party, and those are collected in this book. What a treasure and a blessing it must have been to be present when this master storyteller related a charming tale, written and delivered for your ears only.

28. Poem A Day, Vol.1, Karen McCosker and Nichols Albery, eds. (1994)

I began reading a poem as soon as I woke up about two years ago; this book took the guesswork out of selecting which poem that should be. Running from January 1 to December 31, poems in Poem A Day are intended to be memorized; I gave up on that project some time around January 5. Selections cover all periods of time and style (though not place), and most poems include a brief biographical note on the author, usually with some indication regarding why a poem was chosen for a particular date. Thanks to Volumes 2 and 3, I hope to benefit from the simplicity of this series until 2020.

Upon Reflection

I didn’t achieve any of my reading goals this year. Most of my selections were for the purpose of self-education (history, criticism, literacy) rather than pleasure. Reading in 2017 was hard because I made it hard; I often read out of an obligation imposed on myself by myself. In 2018 I want to bring reading back to a place of ease and delight. I want to read more fiction, and I want to allow myself to stop reading a book if it does not bring me joy.

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Looking West From Peristyle, Court of Honor and Grand Basin of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition (Chicago, Illinois)

In Review: The Devil in the White City and The Fountainhead

Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City is a remarkable piece of pop history. Cover of The Devil in the White City by Erik LarsonLarson takes two very different historical narratives–one bringing pride and hope to a city, the other leaving shame and fear –and sews them into one fascinating garment. I expected the serial killer to keep my interest, but I was pleasantly surprised to find the ins and outs of a group of architects (the collective noun is a “facade” of architects) similarly engaging.

Another surprise was The Devil in the White City revealing itself to be an inadvertent introduction to Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Those who object to Objectivism may be surprised to find The Fountainhead palatable, even enjoyable. Written before Rand fully developed her signature philosophy, The Fountainhead is not concerned with the economic or political morality that is inextricably linked with Atlas Shrugged. Instead, The Fountainhead‘s ethical agenda is individual artistic integrity. Howard Roark is the superman who cannot be threatened or bribed to abandon his artistic architectural vision, and Rand makes a convincing case to draw the reader to his side.

Howard Roark is a wholly fictional personage, but his work and architectural Cover of The Fountainhead by Ayn Randphilosophy are based on that of Frank Lloyd Wright, who is a minor figure in The Devil in the White City. Wright was the protégé of Louis Sullivan, one the team of architects who designed The White City. The Devil in the White City touches on Sullivan’s proposition of “form follows function” (a fundamental principle of The Fountainhead) and lays out Sullivan’s decline. Rand clearly drew on Sullivan’s history for her novel. She fictionalized Sullivan as Roark’s mentor Henry Cameron: an architect who fell into poverty and obscurity because he did not have an audience for his work, and would not betray his ideals.

I never thought I needed to read a history book to understand The Fountainhead, but The Devil in the White City proves me wrong. Larson illustrates the forces at work in the world of American architecture in the early 20th century. The magnitude of the World’s Fair and the effect the The White City on the public’s architectural ideals were more powerful than I realized—Rand was not kidding around. The White City was the actual cause of a national nostalgia for a nonexistent classical past.

Looking West From Peristyle, Court of Honor and Grand Basin of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition (Chicago, Illinois)

The Devil in the White City provides the background of the architectural milieu into which Roark is born. Throughout The Fountainhead, Rand ridicules the use of classical Greco-Roman architecture in 20th century America, and Roark fights this American obsession. Looking at this style through the lens of her trademark objectivity, Rand sees unnecessary ornamentation, spatial inefficiency, and sub-optimal design. In contrast, Larson lovingly describes the circumstances that brought The White City into existence and the reasons it took hold of the American imagination. The White City did not draw thousands of visitors from all over the country because they were interested in the functionality of its buildings; The White City brought people to Chicago for a display of American magnificence and the pride of knowing that their countrymen could create something beautiful on par with the grandeur of Europe. For good or for bad, these are feelings that Rand and Roark do not share.

The Devil in the White City stands on its own as an absorbing book of true crime and colorful history, but it also pairs well with The Fountainhead. Just as Rand’s philosophical writing is best balanced with counterpoints and differing arguments, Rand’s architectural opinions are subject to scrutiny. Readers of Rand are always at risk of developing insufferable superiority complexes, and The Devil in the White City provides a soothing antidote to Roarkitis.

In Review: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

I ought to warn you that this essay will contain spoilers for Wolf Hall (and lots of them), img_3096but I am not sure that this book can be spoiled. Wolf Hall is historical fiction, based on the actions of Henry VIII and his councilors surrounding the English Reformation. In addition to the king, the three main characters are Thomas Cromwell, Anne Boleyn, and Thomas More. The death of one of these is particularly notorious, but (and here’s where the Spoiler Alert gets tricky) all three met the same, headless end. Wolf Hall concludes with the death of More, prior to the deaths of Boleyn and Cromwell. Evidently Wolf Hall is the first novel of a Thomas Cromwell trilogy. Bringing Up the Bodies (2012) ends with [Spoiler Alert] the execution of Anne Boleyn. Presumably, the final installment will put an end to Thomas Cromwell, as well.

Surely the author intends the reader to anticipate their executions. Indeed, if one does not know that everyone involved is doomed to decapitation, there seems little weight to the novel. It is a spoiler to say “Thomas More dies,” but unless you know Thomas More is going to die, you are missing a crucial piece of the dramatic puzzle. Historical knowledge of the personalities involved in the English Reformation is a prerequisite to grasping Wolf Hall. This is not in and of itself a flaw; a good book can be enriched by a historical founding, and I don’t dispute the possibilities of historical fiction. This book rewards those familiar with the history, while those unfamiliar must hold on tighter. Titles are used interchangeably with names, somewhat aggressively at times, challenging readers’ history and memory.

THomas More by Hans Holbein

Thomas More, by Hans Holbein

The driving literary device in Wolf Hall (and much historical fiction) is dramatic irony: the reader knows Katherine will be dethroned, the Church will split, heads will roll, Mary will be bloody, but the characters do not. If the reader knows what is going to happen, why bother reading? Two main reasons: to learn the history more intimately or to enjoy the book as a literary work. I certainly learned a lot from Wolf Hall. I gained a different perspective on the historical sequence of events surrounding the English Reformation, and what feels like familiarity with the names and actions of the individuals involved.

For the other purpose, to enjoy the novel qua novel, the piece of historical fiction must cross from a simple dramatization into a work of literary art. To stand on its own, it needs to do more than go through the historical motions. Wolf Hall does not. It is as if each of the many characters is simply a vehicle for his or her historical actions. We know Anne Boleyn and her family wormed their way onto the throne, so they are constantly worming, deceiving, scheming. We are shown Thomas Cromwell’s childhood with an abusive father and the devastating loss of his family members as an adult, but these events don’t seem to change his personality or motivation. He is a calculating, family-oriented boy, and he is a calculating, family-oriented man. We are told he was a fighter as a youth, but the novel opens on Cromwell not fighting back, and we never see him throw a punch.

We do not receive the literary joys of character growth, philosophical insight, or linguistic novelty. The prose drags. Instead of the cleverness or subtlety of real irony, Wolf Hall is dripping with dramatic irony, which is an excellent supplement but a poor substitute. The weight of the novel is borrowed from the subject matter, so that the whole book is written with a faux gravitas that is more muddled than affecting.

The one literary device with which the author takes great liberty is her disregard of the rules of pronouns and antecedents. Most of the time, the pronoun “he” refers to Thomas Cromwell. Unless and until the reader internalizes this convention, the text is almost unintelligible. Take, for instance, the following paragraph:

On October 2 the cardinal reaches his palace at Cawood, ten miles from York. His enthronement is planned for November 7. News comes that he has called for a convocation of the northern church; it is to meet at York the day after his enthronement. It is a signal of his independence; some may think it is a signal of revolt. He has not informed the king, he has not informed old Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury; he can hear the cardinal’s voice, soft and amused, saying, now, Thomas, why do they need to know?

The subject is established as the cardinal, to whom the following “his”s and “he”s refer until the second half of the final sentence. The last sentence uses “he” twice to refer to the cardinal, and a third time to refer to Cromwell.

Jarring shifts like this are on every page of the book, and require some mental rewiring

Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein

Thomas Cromwell, by Hans Holbein

to read comfortably. The implications of typical sentence structure are upended, as in this sentence: “When he meets the king, Henry rages about Gardiner.” In a normal sentence, “he” would refer to “Henry,” but in Wolf Hall, Henry is the king (except when Henry is not the king). Of course, King Henry is easy to remember, but when less distinctive titles and names are used, like “duke” and “Thomas” or “secretary” and “Stephen,” deciphering becomes even more complicated. Thomas Cromwell is given precedence over all other characters, with the effect that Wolf Hall is narrated by something less than first person, but more than omniscient third person. Occasionally a sentence or two from outside Cromwell’s ken is thrown in, and these are often jarring in themselves, as unjustified by the scope of the preceding narrative scheme.

The two things that make Wolf Hall intelligible are getting used to thinking “Cromwell” when you see “he” and simply knowing who everybody is. This brings back the issue of spoilers. If a book contains historical fact, and the reader is presumed to know the fact, and foreknowledge of the fact is necessary to appreciate the book, is there anything the reader can “know” to spoil the book? What is the meaning of Thomas More torturing and executing others unless you know he will meet the same fate? Where is the power in Thomas Cromwell having More executed unless you know he will also be subject to trumped up charges that will be his end? I am a card-carrying anti-spoiler activist, but I can’t imagine a book more in need of a spoiling. I value walking away with the new perspective on history, but I am disappointed that this novel turned out to be a slog.

Queen Harvest’s 2016 Reading Recap

I’m now in my second year of prioritizing reading as an adult, and I don’t know how I let all those years before slip past. I used to have four or five TV shows in regular rotation, but I have spent the last three months just slowly rewatching Mad Men because TV isn’t as important to me. I recently (¯\_(ツ)_/¯) got a library card, so my reading is no longer hampered by costs (as if that stopped me before) and has expanded to serendipitous selections, rather than premeditated purchases. Once again I can justifiably define myself as a bookworm, and I’m happy to be back.

Of the 44 books I read this year, only one was an audiobook. I am also making my way through a One Year Bible, which gives a daily reading from the Old Testament, New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs (hence the misplaced Gospel). I won’t count these as whole “books,” so they get their own numbering system because I want to keep up with my thoughts on them.

1. 100 Best-Loved Poems, Philip Smith, editor

I use my phone as my alarm clock, so I literally wake up with my phone in my hand. This has resulted in the negative habit of looking at Twitter first thing in the morning. What a terrible start to the day! I wanted to change this at the same time that I realized that I rarely read poetry. I claim to enjoy poetry, and I read a lot of books, but I rarely sit down to a book of poetry. My plan to kill two birds with one stone was to read a poem every day as soon as I wake up. Certainly, I don’t always remember what I read, but I like starting my day with some nourishing brain food instead of bad jokes and worse news. This collection hits all the high points of the Western canon; easy on the sleepy eyes.

2. Ulysses, James Joyce

james-joyce

Why are the Js different??? Scholars may never know!

Much of my 2015 reading led up to Ulysses, and all the preparation was worth it. It is as good as [the people who have actually read it] say it is.

3. Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor

Wise Blood is like a nightmare that feels real and sticks in your gut even after you wake up. The characters in this novel struggle with seemingly every level of human consciousness: spiritual, faux spiritual, anti-spiritual, faux anti-spiritual, man reduced to artifact, man as animal, thinking man, impaired man, and certainly others. Even though I don’t quite speak the language, the message is powerful.

4. The 158-Pound Marriage, John Irving

This novel of intertwined wrestlers and relationships shines a light on the instability of a polyamorous lifestyle. Expecting the emotions of several individuals to line up without conflict is a pipe dream. You can tell that Irving is bursting at the seams with stories to tell. His novels are stories within stories about stories on top of stories.

5. Henry V, Billy S

While reading Henry V, the mood of the play felt heavy and solemn. I read somewhere that a high-profile mock trial found the titular King guilty of war crimes, which further colored my feelings toward the play. Then I saw a production of Henry V that framed it as essentially a comedy. I was impressed by the humor the actors brought out in both the goofy bit parts, and also the more serious schemers. I’m sure that other troupes could perform the play as a tragic piece. Ah! The majesty of The Theatre!

6. The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia, Michael Booth

Everything I know about the Nordic nations (which remains very little) I learned from this book. Booth takes the reader country by country (i.e., Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland) and discusses each nation’s history and culture–what they do well and what they do poorly. He also explores how they see themselves and each other, and how they fit into the present day. Booth is an informed outsider with a lovely sense of humor, so he makes ignorant Americans like myself feel right at home.

7. The Victim, Saul Bellow

The Victim feels like more than a novel. It feels like a play. Or like reading someone’s dream journal, specifically an entry describing a nightmare he had after reading The Trial.

8. The Comedy of Errors, Swan of Avon

The Comedy of Errors is another Shakespeare play I had the good fortune to see performed live soon after reading. There is no question this one is a comedy, and the actors certainly brought out more humor than I could deduce from the writing (which is flawless itself, obviously).

9. Gilead, Marilynne Robinson

I am very impressed by Robinson’s thoughtful, literary writing. In an age where religion often comes with hostile connotations, Gilead is a lovely example of the complexities and beauties of living with Christianity at the center of your world. I look forward to reading Robinson’s previous lauded novel, Housekeeping.

10. The Moviegoer, Walker Percy

The Moviegoer is about two people who face death and then have to learn how to face life. Personally, I did not pick up on what I needed to understand while reading it. This novel is one I can imagine angsty teens relating to, but after reading about it I am more aware of what I missed out on.

11. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

On my to-read list for a long time, The Handmaid’s Tale is an incredible read. The Handmaid’s Tale fits into the rich adult literary tradition of 1984 and the later The Road with a focus on the experience of women–a point of view found more often in the Young Adult dystopian novels that are so common these days.

12. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë

This was one of those that I enjoyed in img_2094high school, but couldn’t justify claiming to have read it since I didn’t remember a thing about it. The mixing and matching of names is hard to keep up with, so I used my index card bookmark to make a family tree (my habit for all Victorian and Dostoevsky novels). I read the same copy from all those years ago, and late in the game I found the bookmark I had used then–I have not changed.

13. A Concise History of Germany, Mary Fulbrook

I read this book to prepare to read Simon Winder’s Germania (which I have on hand but have not begun). It is remarkable to realize that the united nation-state of “Germany” as we know it was only created in 1871, and the “Germany” my generation grew up with has only existed since 1989, having been expanded and contracted and divided and united many times in the interim. Germany is at once an ancient land, and a nation technically younger than the United States. “Concise” is the right word for this history–all facts, no fuss.

14. Everything Is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foereverythingisilluminated

I have heard this novel described as a “Holocaust book,” and I would like to make that description a little clearer. Everything Is Illuminated does not deal with concentration camps, but it does involve an anti-Jewish pogrom. Despite the heavy subject matter, this book is written in a light, humorous hand. Foer combines the absurdist energy of Catch-22 with the magical generational narrative of One Hundred Years of Solitude and creates a beautiful, engaging novel I am grateful to have read.

15. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde

The first half of Dorian seems to confirm every stereotype about Oscar Wilde. The characters are pretentious to the point of exhaustion; I found myself questioning whether I even wanted to finish it. The second half, however, is some of the most thrilling storytelling I’ve ever read, and I couldn’t finish it quickly enough. At that point, I realized (doofus that I am) that Wilde knows exactly what he is doing. Gray and company’s highfalutin speech and behavior are creating a world that Wilde goes on to utterly destroy. I love it when a Classic holds up.

16. The Master Classics: Poems I, Doubleday, Page & Company c.1927

My next morning poetry collection was this tiny hardback volume, purchased secondhand and without much identifying publication information. The world of poetry changed dramatically in the last century, and these old collections are beautiful little time capsules of the world that came before. The reader gets to read poems that might have otherwise been removed to make space for Robert Frost (who, of course, deserves the space he takes up).

17. Ulysses, James Joyce

I read it twice, so I get to count it twice. Sue me.

18. James Joyce’s Ulysses, Stuart Gilbert

As discussed here, I alternated between this book and the corresponding episode of Ulysses. Gilbert discusses plenty of symbols and meanings that I had not been aware of, but I was also aware of meanings he does not discuss. Ulysses is a novel that requires multiple additional books to cover every possible interpretation and meaning (and there are probably still many uncovered). For every reading of Ulysses, I can look forward to the help of a different Joycean scholar.

19. Blonde, Joyce Carol Oates

After reading this fictionalized account of Marilyn Monroe’s life, I feel like I know her. It is difficult to see her image used in commercials and movies and elsewhere without feeling a deep sadness for her and the difficult life she lived. Blonde was the first book I’d read in months that had me desperate to keep reading.

20. Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me truly changed the way I perceive and understand many events, institutions, and relationships. Coates describes the world as I have never had to experience it. He wrote this book as a letter to his son, but the lessons therein are meaningful for any of us willing to listen.

21. God Knows, Joseph Heller

godknowsIn God Knows, the Biblical King David retells the story of his own life, speaking as an old man looking back on his deeds and accomplishments and considering the world he is about to leave behind. Heller delightfully brings David out of his historical setting; David talks like a man of the 1960s, and freely quotes Jesus and Shakespeare, as well as poets and politicians. My knowledge of the Old Testament is limited, and I know I would get so much more out of God Knows (and all of Western literature) if I were more familiar with the Bible. It was this book that convinced me to pick up a One Year Bible and start reading.

22. How to Read Novels Like a Professor, Thomas C. Foster

Even though it is the subject about which I am the most passionate, I have never formally studied literature. I love to read about novels after I complete them and have scholars tell me the symbols, themes, and other facets that I didn’t pick up on. Slowly but surely I am educating myself on how to identify the elements of the craft for myself. I had never given much thought to the novel as a distinct, and relatively new, branch of literature.

23. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

Foster’s How To book left me itching to ingest some classic novels, and Huck Finn is as Great American Novel as they get. Often while reading I was struck by how modern Twain’s sense of humor is, how unlike the humor of his English contemporaries. Then I would remind myself that Twain pretty much invented American humor; he isn’t just like David Letterman–he caused David Letterman.

24. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K.Rowling

I took the release of Cursed Child as an opportunity to reread the Harry Potter series beginning to end, which I’d never actually done at one time. Reading Sorcerer’s Stone for the first time in over a decade, it hit me: This book was written for children. The series quickly advances in complexity and reading level, but Sorcerer’s Stone is definitely for young readers (as it should be).

25. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K.Rowling

Many years ago, my neighbor recommended and lent the first few Harry Potter books to me. I read Chamber of Secrets first because she told me it was the better book. I’ve long wondered how I was able to enjoy it, since I lacked knowledge of setting and events from the first book. Reading it now, I see that the story and characters are fully reset. Everything that occurs or is explained in Sorcerer’s Stone is retold in Chamber of Secrets as needed. The first few Harry Potter books stand alone and can be consumed in any order, like a multi-camera sitcom. The final, more serious Harry Potter books require understanding and knowledge of the entire series and must be consumed consecutively, like a single-camera drama.

26. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K.Rowling

The Harry Potter series can be classified within several different categories of fiction: Young Adult, fantasy, adventure, coming of age, and British fiction all at once. At the heart of each novel is a category not immediately associated with the Harry Potter name: Mystery. Amid the adventures and lessons learned are unknowns pondered and clues dropped until the denouement when a mystery is solved (usually: who is Voldemort hiding behind this year?). Like Agatha Christie, Rowling shows the reader all the cards, but she never tips her hand. Christie will reveal a character has changed her name and is living among those she is plotting to harm. In Prisoner of Azkaban Rowling reveals that Scabbers, a quiet presence in the first three books, is more than just a pet rat.

27. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K.Rowling

Goblet of Fire (the best Harry Potter book) is a masterpiece of mystery. The intricate plot weaves countless clues into multiple mysteries, ending in a spectacular resolution. I’ve always thought Goblet of Fire, and specifically the death of Cedric Diggory, carries the series across the boundary from children’s stories into serious fiction.

28. The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle (Audiobook)

This was perhaps the fourth time I have listened to this book, as read by the author. I revisit it from time to time when I become particularly anxious or discontented. Before The Power of Now I literally did not understand the meaning of “peace” or “enlightenment.” It is not hyperbole to say that the teachings of Jesus only began to have meaning for me after learning from Tolle.

29. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K.Rowling

Order of the Phoenix is the least good Harry Potter book. I understand that Harry is dreaming of a real family, but he is never around Sirius enough to be so attached to him. Also, he is awfully whiny this year.

B1. Genesis, King James Version

Pretty much everything I have ever heard of from the Old Testament (except Moses) happened in Genesis, evidently. It is not a new piece of business, but I must point out here: There are two (2) creation myths right at the top.

  1. Eve made from Adam’s rib.
  2. Adam and Eve made from mud.

Literal readings of the Bible are in conflict with the Bible.

30. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J.K.Rowling

Half-Blood Prince is incredible. So much of what you wished would happen in the first five books finally happens: Harry is good at Potions; Snape teaches Defense Against the Dark Arts; Harry and Dumbledore hang out all the time. And then the ending, of course. There is a circle of hell reserved for anyone who spoiled this ending for another reader.

31. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K.Rowling

Deathly Hallows is about seven books in and of itself, and they are all great. Each escapade and battle and explanation (wrapping up series-long mysteries) is satisfying and worthy of the Harry Potter finale. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Harry Potter is the mythical hero of my generation, and I couldn’t be more proud to have grown up with him.

32. Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow

Lin-Manuel Miranda says that he read this biography and could not believe a musical had not already been written about Hamilton’s extraordinary life. He is not exaggerating. From birth to death and at every age in between, Hamilton led a life of adventure, tragedy, and accomplishment worthy of wonder. There are several wild biographical details that are not represented in the musical–Hamilton was simply too much.

33. Watchmen, Alan Moore

I had never read a graphic novel before, but I am usually willing to read The Best writing of any genre. Watchmen lives up to the hype. After reading it I better appreciate what a graphic novel is capable of–what it can do that a written novel or film can’t do.

34. A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson

I enjoy Bryson’s writing because we share a fascination with origin stories. Not like Batman’s origin story, but like the origin of a particular English phrase or the origin of an idiosyncratic ritual. In Short History, Bryson writes the origin story of science itself–of concepts, facts, and fields of study that we citizens of the 21st century take for granted. Bryson covers everything from the age of the earth to the size of the universe; how life began and how extinction events will wipe it out. A Short History of Nearly Everything is a trivia player’s dream, and like a dream I forgot each fact as it passed through my brain.

35. The Adolescent (aka The Raw Youth), Fyodor Dostoevsky

the-adolescent

There is a lot to keep up with.

If Dostoevsky’s titular narrator were living in 21st century America instead of 19th century Russia, he’d fit right in with all the other 19 year old guys with half-baked philosophies and father issues. The first half of The Adolescent is mostly set up–there are many characters and tangled relationships–but the second half is meaty, funny, and worth working for.

36. The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins

This year’s superstar pop fiction. I appreciate that there are no real heroes and no loose ends. A satisfying little thriller.

37. The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison

Beautiful and terribly sad. My heart breaks for the little girl, and also for her parents who were once little children, too.

B2. Exodus, KJV

Moses murdered a guy and had to skip town! That didn’t get much airtime in my early religious education. Also, at one point I was reading and (out loud) said “Oh!” because I realized I was reading the Ten Commandments. My edition of the Bible doesn’t come with a lot of fanfare.

B3. Matthew, KJV

This Gospel gets right to the point. It cuts through a lot of Jesus’s childhood and we quickly find ourselves in the Beatitudes. A note here: I had not realized that at least some lines of the Beatitudes are directly quoting Psalms. It makes sense that Jesus would be using existing Jewish holy texts to get his message across, I just didn’t know it. It was like when I read the Tao te Ching and came across the Beatles song “The Inner Light.”

38. The Joke, Milan Kundera

Like his well-known novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera frames The Joke around the political and social upheavals of mid-20th century Czechoslovakia. This setting is at once familiar (e.g., ‘60s cultural revolution) and foreign (e.g., Moravian folk festival), so that it can feel like a fantasy novel. None of the characters are without blame or blemish, or are particularly likeable, but that is not why The Joke is worth reading. Kundera’s effortless reflections on people and society stopped me in my tracks. He may be writing in another language about a faraway land, but he exposes universal truths of timeless quality. His writing reminds me why I read.

39. The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

fabritius-vink

The titular Goldfinch.

I had my eye on this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel for many months, but upon reading it I was ultimately disappointed. The Goldfinch starts off with a bang, but most of its hundreds of pages are drawn out and boring. This review expresses a lot of my feelings about this novel. In addition to the tedium, I found the lack of consequences–personal, physical, or legal–suffered by the main character to be unbelievable. By any metric, he should have been in turn expelled, debilitated, sued, arrested, and rejected by his friends and society. Instead, this morally bankrupt narrator is free to offer his banal and contradictory philosophy as the “moral of the story.” No thank you.

40. How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Thomas C. Foster

How to Read Literature Like a Professor provides an excellent foundation to do-it-yourself literary criticism. Foster gives straightforward explanations with plenty of illustrative examples. He leaves the dense theory to other books, at one point saying outright, “I like to keep things fairly simple. I’m no fan of the latest French theory or of jargon of any stripe.” Right up my alley.

B4. Leviticus, KJV

I spent Leviticus thinking, “Hey! That’s where that rule comes from!” Seeing the lengthy list of sins and abominations brings into stark relief just how much folks who “adhere to” the Bible pick and choose.

41. A Pocket Full of Rye, Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie does not waste a single word. Every action, every line of dialogue, every off-hand detail is a purposeful thread in her tapestry. To finish the book and see the all the mysterious pieces resolve into focus is incredibly satisfying. Did you know Christie is the best-selling author of all time? Even though every single TV show seems to feature a knock-off Poirot or Holmes, they cannot match the suspense and resolution of the genius at work.

42. Jack of Spades, Joyce Carol Oates

This thriller is narrated by an established mystery author as the dark side of his psyche, which pseudonymously writes less-reputable noir fiction, takes over his thoughts and actions. Jack of Spades moves swiftly from a natural inner monologue into an unsettling insanity.

43. The Variety of Poetry: An Anthology, Edward A. Bloom, et al.

Another poetry collection, read one morning at a time.

44. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo

Perhaps I am predisposed to her way of thinking, but by page three I had bought in 100% to the KonMari method. One notion I’d never heard before Kondo was striking to me: We receive instruction on how to cook, clean, buy, and organize, but when it comes to decluttering and discarding our possessions, we are all self-taught. I am naturally sentimental and genetically predisposed to hoarding, so I value Kondo’s guidance and the chance to develop my discarding intuition.

B5. Mark, KJV

The Pharisees feel threatened by Jesus and are looking for any reason to kill him. Because he violated the laws of the Old Testament, he must die. I can’t imagine anyone using Mosaic Law as a reason to ostracize and punish a peaceful citizen today….

Epilogue

I reached all my reading goals this year. Instead of an overall number of books, I specifically wanted to read at least 12 books written by women. I read 19 (including seven Harry Potter books :P) by 12 different women. Reading Ulysses was another major goal for me. I was pleased to not only accomplish that goal but also truly enjoy the novel.

The following are my top five books on the year:

  1. Ulysses
  2. Everything Is Illuminated
  3. Blonde
  4. The Handmaid’s Tale
  5. Alexander Hamilton

Next year I want to up my percentage of books by female authors to at least 45%. I also intend to read more works by authors who aren’t white. I recognize a lack of minority voices in the culture and history I consume, and I am working on remedying that disparity.

2015 was for Infinite Jest, 2016 was for Ulysses, and 2017, in my effort to become The Biggest Literary Snob In The World, will be for Finnegan’s Wake. As is my policy, if the book can be read by literate English speakers, I won’t be convinced I can’t read it. Joyce has become one of my favorite authors, and I won’t feel complete if I don’t take the time to wade through the Wake.

Until next year, Happy Reading!

In Review: The Ulysses List

The Ulysstes? The Ulistes?
No.

What better day than Bloomsday to revisit my plan and preparations to read Ulysses. Right on schedule, I started Ulysses January 1, and I was able to finish on February 1. I am not foolish enough to make any attempts toward analysis, but I am comfortable saying that Ulysses is a very good book.

Preparatory Reading Rundown

Nothing I read was more fundamental to Ulysses than A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. If you aren’t familiar with Portrait of the Artist, the first three episodes of Ulysses are about some arrogant kid who isn’t even the main character.

Second in importance to Portrait of the Artist was, not surprisingly, The Odyssey. I did not, however, pick up on most of the allusions without outside help. While some episodes recreate particularly memorable scenes in Odysseus’s adventure–the Cyclops, the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis–there are many based on minor characters or even passing references from The Odyssey. Even if I remembered the Lestrygonians episode, I can’t remember their name, and neither Proteus nor any Wandering Rocks are really in the poem. Nonetheless, learning how Joyce wove these myths into Ulysses is fascinating and arresting.

Dubliners prepared me for living literarily in Dublin. While certain Dubliners also appear Ulysses, I did not remember them while reading it. That gives me something more to look for upon future readings.

I didn’t keep count, but it felt like every single Shakespeare play is mentioned at some point in Ulysses. Most fundamental is Hamlet, but all the major tragedies and a hearty helping of the comedies take part in the novel. The life of the Bard himself is also a point of reference in Ulysses, making me wish I knew more of his biography.

Ulysses takes the reader’s knowledge of Irish history as a given, so I’m grateful for having read The Making of Modern Ireland. I needed refreshers at various points, but I had the foundation to pick up on major themes like home rule and religious conflict.

I read another book last year that inadvertently prepared me to read Ulysses: Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Mrs. Dalloway consistently employs the stream of consciousness narration to which Ulysses frequently returns. Having settled into reading Woolf’s style, I believe I was better prepared to dive into Joyce’s text.

Midpersual Reference Confession

Ulysses - Rory GilmoreI did not strictly read Ulysses from cover to cover without consulting outside sources. I kept a copy of the Gilbert schema in my book to review before reading each episode. I didn’t understand most of it, but I used it as a general reference point regarding the corresponding Odyssey episode and the time of day. Otherwise, knowing that the “technic” was “Enthymemic” or “Gigantism” probably confused me more than assisted me. I taped to the back of my book another general list that describes each episode’s theme/technic/joke in layman’s terms. This second list was not helpful at all.

There were only two episodes during which I threw my hands up and found a summary to read online. The first was Episode 11, Sirens, which weaves action and speech from various characters into rhetorical chords and harmonies and melodies. Since this is a style born in the brain of Joyce, I am comfortable admitting I needed help midway through the episode. The second problem episode was 14, Oxen of the Sun. Unlike Sirens, knowing what happens in Episode 14 does not help me follow along with the text. Oxen of the Sun is probably the episode that most earns Ulysses its reputation for impenetrability.

One notable consolation to the reader is that Ulysses does not get progressively more difficult to read. For example, Episodes 9, 11, and 14 may be relatively obtuse, but 8, 13, and 17 are more straightforward and easier to follow along.

Postliminary Learning Listing

The Great Courses series taught by Professor James A. W. Heffernan was the ice cold bottle of orange Gatorade following the grueling workout of Ulysses. Heffernan lit candles down dark corridors that I didn’t even know existed and untied knots that would have kept me eternally tangled.

There is a lecture series available through iTunes U called “Ireland in Rebellion 1782-1916″ that brings to life many major figures, places, movements, and events in Irish history. The opening sentence of the first lecture is a quote from Ulysses: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” The speaker, a Trinity College professor, attributes the quote to Portrait of the Artist, which may invalidate the entire series, but I’m willing to let it go.Ulysses Photo

Presently I am reading Ulysses again. (Currently in the middle of Oxen of the Sun, ora pro nobis.) After each episode I read the corresponding chapter in Stuart Gilbert’s book, James Joyce’s Ulysses. Every reading and every annotation brings more light and depth to the novel. I also picked up a copy of Daniel R. Schwartz’s Reading Joyce’s Ulysses to get yet another round of illumination.

Concluding Conclusion

I used to envy those who share a birthday with some celebrity or historical figure, but now I am confident that June 16 is the best possible birthday. Ulysses deserves the praise and deserves the effort.

Happy Bloomsday!

Queen Harvest’s 2015 Reading Recap

Learning that a friend read over 200 books last year compelled me to reevaluate my reading habits. A voracious reader as a child, I had let various distractions take priority over my time, even though reading continued to bring me joy and satisfaction. I read maybe five books in 2014, and I found that unacceptable. So I set a goal: 30 books in 2015 and hopefully knock out a handful of those classics I never got around to. This decision has been very gratifying.

Ferris Reading

An asterisk indicates that I listened to an audio recording of the work. I recognize that listening is not the same as reading, but my goal was to absorb great literature in the place of podcasts and other brain candy. There are certain writers and works I have avoided reading for whatever reason, and listening to audiobooks is certainly preferable to a dramatization or not reading altogether.

The following are listed in the order in which I finished them.

1. *The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
After several years of knowing I should read Hemingway but not actually bringing myself to read Hemingway, I decided to just get it over with by listening to an audiobook version of this novel. I enjoyed the hell out of it and will happily consume my next Hemingway novel with my eyes.

2. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
I began this book in the fall of the previous year and finished it in January. I wrote about it here.
tl;dr Too long. Don’t read.

3. Hamlet, Shakey
I reread this play as a follow-up to Infinite Jest. It is always striking to see just how many phrases and quotes that we take for granted are packed into this, and many other, Shakespeare plays. While reading this one I decided to read a Shakespeare play a month for good health.

4. Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson
I loved Bryson’s books on the English language (especially Made In America and The Mother Tongue), so I was really jazzed to get into this travelogue. Turns out, as inferred from his self-reported interpersonal interactions, he’s kind of a prick.

22 Jump Street

Not the title of Catch-22, but tell that to my brain.

5. Catch-22, Joseph Heller
Catch-22, Slaughterhouse-5, and Fahrenheit 451 make up the Should Have Read In High School Word Plus Number Triumvirate. I did not expect the war novel Catch-22 to be as funny, playful, and engaging as it is. I see what all the hype is about, and I dig it.

 

6. Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck
This novella had me crying by the second page. There is little to say about the classics that doesn’t sound trite and unoriginal. Every sentence of Of Mice and Men is necessary and gorgeous.

7. High Fidelity, Nick Hornby
The film captured the tone, rhythm, plot—everything but the English accents. I enjoy the ego boost of a music snob liking some of my favorite music; I shouldn’t.

8. Much Ado About Nothing, The Shakester
No modern movie rom-com comes close to the hijinks and goofiness in Shakespeare’s comedies. Reading this play helped me get a LearnedLeague answer, and much of Mumford and Sons’ “Sigh No More” comes from the final act.

9. Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Marquez wrote this novel after he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s like, leave some literary genius for the rest of us, Gabe!

10. The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell
This book opened my eyes to the world when I first read it a few years ago. I reread it this year as a refresher and so I could more confidently defend the Harry Potter series as the great mythology of my generation.

11. A Kid’s Matinee, Joseph Britt
This compelling story of YA fiction is due to hit bookshelves any day. Buy a copy for your tween. It’ll grow hair on his knuckles.

12. Richard III, Shakeman
Gilmore Girls references this play more than any other, so after my TV binging I knew it was high time to read it. Holy smokes, this is a good one. My reading happily coincided with the reinterment of the King’s bones, so I could take a greater interest in the most interesting archaeological find of recent years.

Esmeralda

This is a photograph of me.

13. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo
I am not familiar with the Disney movie, so I didn’t have any unreasonable expectations of happiness for this book. Nevertheless it is bleak. Exciting, beautiful, wonderful, but bleak.

14. Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), Tom Vanderbilt
This book makes me want to evangelize to the people: Read it! Absorb its lessons! Write your Congressperson! Also, it is nothing but traffic talk, so reading it has the effect on your nerves of sitting in traffic. Worth reading regardless.

15. What to Listen for in Music, Aaron Copland
I’ve been meaning to read this book since I bought it as a gift for someone who never read it 10+ years ago. It is best read as a companion to the pieces discussed, which is not how I read it.

16. Julius Caesar, The Shakinator
I had not remembered just how much action occurs after fall Caesar. Very exciting play where 87% of the characters have names beginning with “C.”

17. The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende
Like Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Allende moves through several generations of families, with names and old mistakes repeated. The handful of Latin American or Spanish novels I have read share similar themes in the style of magical realism. Thinking about this further, I realized that I absolutely think about the Latin side of my family in terms of generations repeating patterns and the influences each makes on the next generation’s life. There must be something in the water.

18. Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire that Rescued Western Civilization, Lars Brownworth
I read this history of the Byzantine Empire both to prepare for a LearnedLeague quiz (I got 8/12) and because I’ve always wanted to know more about it. Western centrism lets us ignore the fact that the Roman Empire lasted for another thousand years in the East, and it was a pretty interesting millennium.

19. Othello, Shakenbake
Will doesn’t hold back when it comes to the racial insults, though I’m sure those included are tame for the time and of course they are necessary to the disposition of the characters. This play beautifully imparts the universal emotions of love, jealousy, sadness, and anger; it breaks my heart.

20. Notes From a Dead House, Fyodor Dostoevsky

Pevear and Volokhonsky

Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear. I would like to be them.

I snap up every Dostoevsky I come across translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky, the fabulous duo that is not afraid to deviate from long-accepted title translations. I was a little disappointed that this book really is a collection of notes, rather than a true narrative. It is, nonetheless, often gripping, poetic, and illuminating.

 

21. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
Classics of a certain stature (especially the ones many people read in school) usually have their most distinctive scenes become common cultural knowledge. I know how Anna Karenina ends; I know Leo Bloom’s wife steps out. I was not expecting the final image of this book one bit. Also: what a fantastic novel.

22. Will Not Attend: Lively Stories of Detachment and Isolation, Adam Resnik
I had high hopes for this collection of humorous essays, but the author’s overwhelming cynicism and misanthropy did not entertain me.

23. We Were the Mulvaneys, Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates’ long and prolific career has touched many generations, and I’m proud to be part of the new wave that got into her through her Twitter account. #Millennial This story of a family unit that crumbled to pieces crumbled me to pieces.

24. The Martian, Andy Weir
The Martian bandwagon was definitely worth jumping on. This quick read has just enough science to be believable, but not so much that galoots like myself get bored or bogged down. The movie version is fun, but loses the sense of individual struggle that is the heart of the novel. The globe unites to bring him home, but he survived months of Mars’s desolation completely alone.

25. Twelfth Night, Slick Willy
I have observed that many men think homosexuality is very funny, especially when a guy is tricked into feelings for another man. This is exploited in cases where a man is attracted to a man he thinks is a woman (see: Some Like It Hot, White Chicks, Tootsie) and where a man is doesn’t understand why he is attracted to a woman he thinks is a man (see: Twelfth Night, She’s The Man).

26. Success Through Stillness, Russell Simmons
All meditation books are the same: 98% explaining why you should meditate, medical/health/happiness benefits of meditating, meditation success stories, etc; 2% how to meditate. (This is because meditation is very simple and can be done without the help of books NOTE TO SELF.) Simmons really wants you to know about all the drugs he’s done, women he’s chased, and money he’s earned, which is not the usual spiel of enlightened teachers. Of course, he can speak to an entirely difference audience, not just folks who are already crunching it up at yoga and sipping on home-brewed kombucha.

Danubia

Look at how gorgeous this cover is!

27. Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe, Simon Winder
I picked up this history of the Habsburg family after hearing their name peppered across centuries of history lessons. Winder’s approach to their story is delightful. I would have appreciated it more if I had a better working knowledge of European history—a a goal Danubia inspired me to pursue.

28. Dubliners, James Joyce
These stories are so simple but rich in character and emotion. As each story ends I’m sure something has transformed, but I can’t put my finger on what.

29. *The Iliad, Homer (translation by W.H.D. Rouse)
It’s kind of hard to sympathize with Achilles and Agamemnon’s beef. They cannot stop whining about who gets to keep a sex slave for himself—not relatable. Clearly Achilles is in love with Patroclus, anyway.

30. Happy To Be Here, Garrison Keillor

Katie Reading on the Beach

My father’s daughter.

Listening to A Prairie Home Companion with my family was a sweet part of my childhood. Reding the stories from Keillor’s prime felt like a cozy return.

31. Macbeth, The Bardman
To continue my series, So That’s What That Play Is About?, it does not take much at all to get Macbeth to murdering.

32. Areas of My Expertise, John Hodgman
My brother gave me this almanac of fake trivia several years ago and started me on a path of wonder and joy that is John Hodgman. Hodgman is the kind of humorist I most admire, relate to, and aspire to be. Well-educated, but not pedantic; clever, but not mean; proper but not prudish.

33. I, Claudius, Robert Graves
Read on Judge John Hodgman’s orders, I devoured this book like nothing else this year. Graves breathes life, with all its dreams, failures, and murderous relatives, into the Julio-Claudian dynasty. I, Claudius was published in 1934, and every piece of historical fiction written in the last 80 years has only tried to match its greatness.

34. More Information Than You Require, John Hodgman
The second in Hodgman’s trilogy of COMPLETE WORLD KNOWLEDGE, we get to see his transformation from a former literary agent into a minor television personality. Also useful as a page-a-day calendar. Note: I was Hodgman-heavy during this part of the year in preparation for seeing him perform live. He’s the best.

35. *The Odyssey, Homer (translation by W.H.D. Rouse)
Contrary to the impression given by the dramatizations I’ve seen, the adventures of Odysseus take a small part of the total poem. I love the characterization of Penelope. It is lovely to see a foundational work of Western civilization portray women as strong, wise, and level-headed.

36. The Tempest, William Shakespeare
A wonderful play that I would very much like to see performed. Somewhere along the line I learned that the words “Caribbean,” “cannibal,” and “caliban” are all etymologically related, which is just interesting.

37. The Leftovers, Tom Perrotta
The most exciting part of this book happens before the narrative begins. The rest is paperback-poor dialog, unsympathetic characters, and unnecessary action. Maybe the TV series is better.

38. Ishmael, Daniel Quinn
The telepathic gorilla is something I never quite got over, but I appreciate the message. I was genuinely surprised by some of the positions advocated. The message does not follow the save-the-world party line, which was interesting and provoking.

39. Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
What Birdman did with unbroken continuity in film. Mrs. Dalloway did first. Like Dostoevsky, Woolf is one of the few authors who can capture the erratic, insecure, fluid nature of human thought. Perhaps that is revealing of my personal stream of consciousness, but I see great truth in her characters’ inner monologues. (For reference, I think Hal’s “stream of consciousness” toward the end of Infinite Jest is god-awful.)

40. Why Not Me?, Mindy Kaling
There is an interesting contrast between post-Office Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? Mindy and superstar Why Not Me? Mindy. Both Mindys make me laugh hysterically, but I’m afraid Mindy’s officially gone Hollywood. To be fair, she covered much of her pre-star life in the first book, so this one had to present the world as she lives it. Please keep writing, Mindy. I love you.

41. As You Like It, Big Boy Bill
The titles of Shakespeare’s comedies are often so vague it’s infuriating. Lots of silly name-changing and gender-bending in this one, but very enjoyable.

42. The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language, Mark Forsyth
I am so grateful to the friend that recommended The Etymologicon to me. One of the great blessings of my life is to be a native speaker of English, and this book brings out dozens of the wonderful, colorful, meaningful relationships and associations shared by English words and phrases. Truly a delight.

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That face.

43. The Lyre of Orpheus, Robertson Davies
The final installment in Davies’ Cornish Trilogy, The Lyre of Orpheus seems to have more plot lines and characters than necessary. Nevertheless, the novel wraps up the trilogy satisfactorily, with a full measure of Davies’ unfailing wisdom and mirth.

 

44. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
The second of the Should Have Read In High School Word Plus Number Triumvirate, I am alarmed by how similar this dystopian America is to present America. The dream of constant entertainment is more feasible than ever, and the dumbing down of art is rampant. I can also see how an angsty teenage boy could focus his identity on this novel.

45. King Lear, The Pride of Stratford
Lear and his selfish daughters break my heart. Also, how dare Gloucester name his sons Edgar and Edmund? As if I didn’t already need a family tree cheat sheet.

46. The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand
While Atlas Shrugged is certainly political, The Fountainhead is about the strength of the individual to honor the abilities and desires and truth within, instead of acting and thinking at the pleasure of other people. At its core, The Fountainhead echoes the often misinterpreted exhortation of Joseph Campbell to Follow Your Bliss.

47. The Making of Modern Ireland 1603-1923, J.C. Beckett
Published in 1966, you better know your English history before going in because there will be no stopping to explain. This book focuses in painstaking detail on over three hundred years of Irish parliaments and political leaders. I learned a great deal about the politics of Ireland (which of course involves religious issues), but I will need to look elsewhere for its cultural history.

48. A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man (twice), James Joyce
There are only two books I have ever restarted the day I finished them: this and Notes from Underground. What they have in common: nontraditional structure that is only visible in hindsight, layers of meaning and symbolism that reward additional readings, very short.

49. *Moby-Dick, Herman Melville
After starting and stopping this behemoth a couple of times on paper, the audiobook helped me power through the more technical digressions without giving up entirely. I really do love Melville’s writing, and I am always pleasantly surprised by his humor. Writers like Melville make me proud to be an American.

50. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
Coming in just before the deadline, I completed the Should Have Read In High School Word Plus Number Triumvirate with great success. Horrifying, darkly humorous, and educational in a variety of areas, Slaughterhouse-Five was more similar to Catch-22 than I actually expected. Where Heller communicated the incommunicable realities of war as absurdities, Vonnegut treats them as science fiction. Each effectively convey the psychological effects of war in ways gritty military tales and histories can fall short.

51. Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton
A tale perfectly told. Wharton’s prose conveys the desperation and despair of the poor who cannot afford to live out their dreams.

52. The Awakening, Kate Chopin
This December, I was much more worried about the ending of this novel being spoiled than learning the twists of Star Wars. That The Awakening was published in 1899 is incredible; that Chopin could barely publish afterwards and that the novel was “rediscovered” in the 1960s is very believable. Between this one and Ethan Frome, I’ve learned that being heartsick in the late 19th century had one particularly drastic solution.

The five that I most enjoyed and am most likely to read again are Catch-22, The Etymologicon, Richard III, I, Claudius, and Mrs. Dalloway.

Reading more and watching less enriched my 2015. Only seven of the works on this list were written by women, and that is a bias I intend to work on in the coming year(s). My to-read list is long and ever-growing. On to the next one!

In Review: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Here come a riddle. Here come a clue. If you were really smart, you’d know what to do. – Talking Heads ’77

Infinite Jest Kindle edition

Benefits of IJ Kindle edition:
1. Thinner, lighter, and more portable
2. Easier back-and-forth to endnotes
3. Search function for forgotten character references
4. Looks less pretentious while reading

One lyric that typifies the style and charm of The Decemberists’ songbook comes from “Calamity Song,” in which a verse begins,

Hetty Green, Queen of supply-side bonhomie bone-drab (ya know what I mean?)

This line combines an obscure historical figure, some vocabulary words, the hint of death, and a humorous aside. (No, Colin, I don’t know what you mean.) Try to decipher the literal meaning of this line and you will lose the spirit of the song. Instead, if you allow the words to flow over you, the experience of listening to the song becomes greater than simply understanding the words. The danger of understanding the words to a song is that the story becomes dull; you already know what is going to happen. But when the words mean more than their denotation, when they are present as a collection to incite emotion, not just an established picture in the listener’s head, then the words can take on any number of meanings. Then the song does not grow stale, but grows in mystery and interest.

Infinite Jest (“IJ“) has a similar quality of elusiveness and mystery. Impossible to nail down as a straightforward narrative, the novel begs to be reread and reanalyzed and still keeps its secrets from even the most dedicated readers. Like listening to The Decemberists, I found that it was often more important to let the words glide by and to experience their effect than to stop and start and attempt to parse the explicit meaning of every phrase. This sentence from the mind of Hal Incandenza, for example, invokes a Decemberist-esque mix of highfalutin verbosity and informal phraseology: “At the horizon to the north a bulbous cone of picric clouds that gets taller by the hour as the Methuen-Andover border’s mammoth effectuators force northern MA’s combined oxides north against some sort of upper-air resistance, it looks like.” To quote Pemulis, “Jumbly polysyllables out the ass. Whole thing gave me a migraine.” [N.B. It is no coincidence that “Calamity Song” specifically resembles IJ. The lyrics were inspired by the novel, and the music video is a beautiful adaptation of the game of Eschaton played on Interdependence Day.]

Playing with Words

Much of IJ is written in Hal’s voice, which is that of a hyper-intelligent teenager. Additionally, a lot of the novel is in the voice of less educated persons; people whose thoughts may not have Hal’s grounding in physics, calculus, literary theory, or whathaveyou, but do nonetheless have their own internal logic. Wallace takes the reader through the oftentimes hellish thoughtscapes of the poor, the abused, the addicted, the dregs. If you are anything like me, this is not your usual literary fare. My love of literature is strongly rooted in love of the language–well-crafted sentences, artful phrases, and prose that uses the rules of English to convey a meaning beyond its words. I prefer authors who play with the language. By a certain definition Wallace does this, but it is wordplay of a different breed and one that, frankly, makes me uncomfortable. Wallace delivers the narrative in the dialect of whichever character is central at the moment, and usually this is informal and heart-wrenching. By delivering the story directly from the heart of one of the soul-weary crowd that populates IJ, the reader tunes directly into the sentimentality of that person’s story. Instead of playing with the language, Wallace uses the language to play with the reader’s emotions.

One interesting technique Wallace employs is his style of progressively introducing characters. Most noticeably in the cases of Mario Incandenza and Joelle Van Dyne, the character is brought up with increasing levels of specificity ranging from a vague mention to the central figure. The first mention of the character is as an oblique personage; the character’s name and characteristics are unstated and the person plays a side role in another character’s story. Next, perhaps the character is named, but no specifics are revealed. The following interaction with the character may give the reader some background information about him or her. Finally, the story turns to focus on the character, with the narrative eventually being framed through that character’s thoughts. This technique is one of the many ways Wallace builds his novel on mysteries (who is this person he keeps bringing up?) and frustrations (why won’t he explain what this person’s deal is?). An additional level of complexity comes from having to keep track of these unknown characters as their appearances are in inconsistent and non-chronological contexts.

There is no denying the author’s mastery of the art form. Wallace uses wonderful language and crafts beautiful axioms, and his pages spill over with stories layered with detail and meaning. Sometimes, however, I can’t help but find that he spoils the flow by putting a joke or turn of phrase into the story for its own sake–as if he though up some clever idea and just wanted to put it somewhere. This is most alarming when the joke is not original to the author. The story of Gately and his burglar friend and what they did with the DA’s toothbrushes is an urban legend that predates IJ, and yet is presented as an actual occurrence. This calls into question the other interesting incidences and whether they were truly created by the author or simply repurposed. The old joke about the agnostic with dyslexia is certainly borrowed. I know that talent imitates and genius steals, but genius is supposed to do something new with its purloined goods. If nothing original is added, it just seems lazy.

Tennis Players and Drug Addicts

Cheat sheet for Infinite Jest year names.

Having the year names on hand helped to decode the narrative’s chronology while reading.

An attempt to map out IJ geometrically would surely require an advanced understanding of differential equations and multiple dimensions, but there is a clean set of parallel lines underlying the narrative. Enfield Tennis Academy (“ETA”) and Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (“Ennet House”), with nothing more than a hillside between them, stand as institutions aligned by their dedication to the principles of rigorous activity, mutual support, and self-discipline. Through this comparison, Wallace equates the rigors of professional athletics with the difficulty of life-long sobriety; both require an internal motivation that is developed first through external imposition.

Life in a teenage tennis academy is portrayed as relatively similar to life in a halfway house. Admission to ETA and to Ennet House involves an exacting interview process, and admittees bunk with others at like stages of their journey. The occupants–teenagers and recovering drug addicts–are not the most dependable people in the world, and a certain amount of leniency is granted for rulebreakers. Egregious behavior (e.g. drugging a classmate or inciting a full-scale, guns-drawn street brawl) is nonetheless grounds for expulsion into a less structured and less hopeful outside world. ETA graduates who do not make it to “the show” to play tennis professionally have the option of becoming a prorector, living on campus, and teaching the current students. Similarly, successful Ennet House residents, like Gately, can stay and work as live-in staffers.

Both ETA and Ennet House exist to fundamentally change their occupants, and life within each institution is thus characterized by a necessary strictness. Teens enter ETA as talented but unseasoned athletes, and the Academy enforces an exacting regimen controlling every aspect of their lives. For example, they only put down their forearm-pumping tennis balls to eat, and they are permitted sweets only once a year, on Interdependence Day. Ennet House, halfway between residents’ initial detox and full reentrance to the outside world, also imposes specific protocols for the betterment of its tenants. Residents are required to attend meetings, maintain employment, and complete their in-house assignments. The pleasures which both students and residents would naturally seek–lazing about, unwholesome food, mind-altering drugs, etc.–are altogether eliminated, and replaced with discipline.

Ideally, once residents have completed their stint at Ennet House, they have not only overcome their physical dependence on drugs, but have also overcome their emotional need for the release and escape drugs provide. Similarly, ETA wants to do more than physically train elite tennis players. The Academy also attempts to rid its students of their thirst for fame, thereby preparing the young athletes for the psychological hardships that come from discovering the empty promises of stardom. Live-in guru Lyle counsels young LaMont Chu, who envies the successful pro Michael Chang, against the desire for fame.

“LaMont, the world is very old. You have been snared by something untrue. You are deluded. But this is good news. You have been snared by the delusion that envy has a reciprocal. You assume that there is a flip-side to your painful envy of Michael Chang: namely Michael Chang’s enjoyable feeling of being-envied-by-LaMont-Chu. No such animal.”

“Animal?”

“You burn with hunger for food that does not exist.”

“This is good news?”

“It is the truth. To be envied, admired, is not a feeling. Nor is fame a feeling. There are feelings associated with fame, but few of them are any more enjoyable than the feelings associated with envy of fame.”

“The burning doesn’t go away?”

“What fire dies when you feed it? It is not fame itself they wish to deny you here. Trust them. There is much fear in fame. Terrible and heavy fear to be pulled and held, carried. Perhaps they want only to keep it off you until you weigh enough to pull it toward yourself.”

ETA trains students to become successful tennis players, and fame is expected to accompany that success. The Academy’s mission is to strengthen the players so that they can handle the fame when it comes. While residing in Ennet House, tenants essentially surrender their freedom to choose whether or not to consume drugs. Upon their departure, however, the choice is once again in their hands. That freedom of choice can be a heavy burden, and Ennet House’s mission is to strengthen its residents to handle that freedom without relapsing into old habits. The burning fire of drug addiction could be substituted in Lyle’s lecture for the students’ envy of fame. Feeding the fire, giving in to the desire for whatever drug one burns for, does not kill the fire because satisfaction in substances is a food that does not exist.

Closing Problematics

Like Hamlet for which it was named, Infinite Jest makes use of the supernatural to propel the story. Unlike Hamlet, which has a ghost in the first scene, IJ‘s inclusion of the supernatural lacks the proper foundation to be initially accepted. As I read, I admired the novel for its realism. Amazing things, incredible things, unlikely things happen, but they remain within the realm of the laws of the established universe. With the final supernatural occurrence, however, I was expected to believe something that exceeds the bounds previously established by the author. Explanation for this rift comes a little too late. As a reader, I had accepted a world of slight science fiction and of unlikely coincidence. Weird science could account for the defective monsters of the Concavity. Passionate realism could incite the bizarre terrorist organizations. Though some readers have attempted to explain the final phenomenon scientifically, the evidence indicates that the author intended the event to be taken literally, and the connection between IJ and Hamlet further supports this understanding. Perhaps the late appearance of this paranormal activity was born of a desire to surprise the reader and act as a moment of revelation, but it only sours the experience.

Infinite Jest is a long book; it is a confusing book. This novel is infinite because the beginning is the end and the end demands a return to the beginning and the novel is not complete without the two sides joining and flowing into one another. This novel is a jest because the reader does not know that she has been sucked into this neverending loop until it is too late. Admittedly, if there were not an internet community ready to explain the greater plot of the novel, I would be resentful of the author’s willful interruption of traditional story structure. As it exists, Infinite Jest is a fascinating, depressing, and prophetic work that I will never read again.