Queen Harvest’s Top Five (5) Albums of 2018

By January of 2018, I was burned out. I had spent each of the previous 52 weeks identifying, listening to, and evaluating a new album. Though I got a lot out of my 2017 music mission, I did not have the energy or interest to invest in a lot of new music. As a result, my 2018 listening list is meager. Even so, the magic of music is such that you fall in love with whatever you give your time to. I only invested in a few albums in 2018, but those albums provided me with hefty returns.

5. Sure Sure (Sure Sure, 2018)

Favorite Song: “Koreatown”

suresure

This eponymous debut album is like an ice cold Sprite: bright and airy, flavorful and poppy, and uncaffeinated. The back half of the album is not as strong as the first (with the exception of “Hands Up Head Down”), but when it’s good it’s good. Sure Sure uses their punchy, unique sound to create truly remarkable songs. Every time I hear “Friends” or “New Biome,” it feels like I’m hearing it for the first time.

4. Marry Me (St. Vincent, 2007)

Favorite Song: “Paris is Burning”

marryme

I listened to Marry Me as the methodical first step toward Getting Into St. Vincent. I’d never heard her music, but second-hand descriptions indicated that she and I would get along. Experience confirms my initial hypothesis.

Marry Me allows me to flex my superpower, which is the ability to point out when a song sounds like The Beatles; I detect a strong whiff of Revolver in “Now Now” and “Your Lips Are Red.” In an additional favorable comparison, the piano in “All My Stars Aligned” could be a B-side of Bowie’s “Aladdin Sane.” “Paris is Burning” is a semi-timeless anthem for a city with a tendency for revolution. The title track is a deliberate march toward an unhappy romance.

Reflecting on this album, I’m surprised to realize that the music stands out to me more than the lyrics. This is normal for many, but highly unusual for a lyric-hound like me. St. Vincent’s lyrics perfectly complement the music, and perhaps that is why the sound cuts through so clearly.

3. Worry. (Jeff Rosenstock, 2016)

Favorite Song: “Staring Out the Window At Your Old Apartment”

worry.

Worry. is terrible on paper. Rosenstock doesn’t have a great singing voice. The lyrics are often incomprehensible, and most of the time the songs aren’t even finished. In action, Worry. is wondrous. It is not a collection of singles, but a unified album. It is symphonic in the way songs flow one into the other, the energy rising and falling and crescendoing and collapsing, echos and reflections of words and messages reappearing throughout. Worry. is full of earworms that stick around for weeks–all the more dangerous because they are short and unable to be resolved.

2. The Immaculate Collection (Madonna, 1990)

Favorite Song: “Into the Groove”

immaculatecollection

Before 2018, I could list half a dozen Madonna singles, but I couldn’t sing you more than two. (“Holiday” is played in pop culture pretty regularly, and I knew “Lucky Star” from a scene in Snatch.) “Material Girl,” “Like a Virgin,” and “Papa Don’t Preach” were just titles to me. Now that I’ve listened to The Immaculate Collection roughly six hundred times, I have what may be a shocking, fresh perspective on Madonna. It is my personal opinion that she makes catchy, delightful, perfect pop songs. Hell, I’d consider her pop royalty. A duchess, perhaps? I may be inviting conflict by saying so, but I stand by it.

1. Invasion of Privacy (Cardi B, 2018)

Favorite Song: “Bickenhead”

invasionofprivacy

As so often precedes my forays into current music, I just wanted to understand what all the fuss was about. And once again, I was infected by the fuss. Cardi B’s take-no-prisoners, give-no-fucks attitude is empowering as hell, and came to me at the moment I needed to feel strong. She is everything I want in a songwriter–her lyrics are funny, playful, and nonstop. I can’t count how many times I’ve gone through this thought cycle: “I love this song! I should sing it at karaoke.” *actually listens to song* “Whoops! Can’t say that word, won’t say that word, that entire verse is off limits. Never mind.” (But I still haven’t ruled out karaoke for good.)

Honorable Mentions

I’ll Be Your Girl (The Decemberists, 2018) Certainly not the strongest Decemberists album, but it definitely grew on me. The band knows it–they didn’t even play the title track during their promotional tour. Superpower at it again: “Rusalka, Rusalka” opens similarly to The Smiths’ “Last Night I Dreamt that Somebody Loved Me.”

CLPPING (clipping., 2014) Daveed Diggs and company play with sound, words, rhythm, rhyme, meter, and anything else they can get their hands on. “Taking Off” is a mathematical masterpiece, and “Work Work” without fail makes me move.

Looking Toward the Future

Still somewhat reacting to 2017, I am not putting minimums on my music intake for 2019. One guiding principle that has naturally taken shape is this: I don’t have the energy to listen to men sing about women they don’t care about. I’ve heard enough of that point of view. Otherwise, I will take music as it finds me.

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Queen Harvest’s Top Ten (10) Movies of 2018

  1. The One that Holds Everything (The Romanoffs Episode 8)

  2. The Violet Hour (The Romanoffs Episode 1)

  3. End of the Line (The Romanoffs Episode 7)

  4. House of Special Purpose (The Romanoffs Episode 3)

  5. The Royal We (The Romanoffs Episode 2)

  6. Bright and High Circle (The Romanoffs Episode 5)

  7. Expectations (The Romanoffs Episode 4)

  8. Panorama (The Romanoffs Episode 6)

QUEEN HARVEST’S 2018 READING RECAP

I had one goal for reading in 2018: enjoy it. I forced myself to read too many educational books in 2017 for no reason other than I should, and I did not want to wear myself down that way again.

I believe I succeeded.  I still read a fair number of educational books, but they did not need forcing. There are a few books on this list that captured my mind and fired up my soul and filled me with the wonder that is literature’s unique drug.

1. The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck (1931)

I listened to The Good Earth as an audiobook, something I recommend everyone do for books they should read but haven’t gotten around to reading. It’s a book full of shrewd women and weak men, the idle rich and the overworked poor, and the way needs and wants change when the poor gain wealth and the rich become poor. The simple prose and clear storytelling reflect the simplicity of the protagonist’s drive for survival and the lengths to which he goes to stay alive. I expected the novel to end with a revolution of the poor against the protagonist, but prefer the subtle return to a man attached to his land.

2. Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov (1962)

If Misery‘s Annie Wilkes and the title character from What About Bob? had a baby who pale firebecame a literary critic, he might have written Pale Fire. It is frequently spoken of in hallowed terms, as a difficult novel, due to its central structural device: the novel takes the form of the annotation of a long poem. My mission in life is to spread the word: Do not fear! The poem is not difficult! The annotations are hilarious! Nabokov reveals the characters (the narrator, the poet, the poet’s wife, the narrator again) with such sly slight-of-hand, you don’t realize how insane the narrator is–even when you’re convinced the narrator is insane. I will reread Pale Fire for two reasons: 1) There are a hundred clues to a mystery you don’t realize you need to solve, and 2) it is a hilarious, beautiful joy to read.

3. Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris (2000)

The first time I remember registering David Sedaris in my mind, he was promoting this book on David Letterman. I was a little put off by the title, since it sounds like the words of a child or a cave man or someone of below average intelligence. I was delighted to learn (in reading) that “Me talk pretty one day” are in fact the words of an adult doing his best. Like so much of Sedaris’s writing, it has a sweetness you can forget lies beneath his outer curmudgeonly attitude.

Sedaris’s essays spin threads of his life, which when woven together result in a truly bizarre tapestry. Here is young/OCD/tic David; here is meth-head performance artist David; here is cat-owner David–they are all the same, multitude-containing David. If he tried to write them all at once, as a long-form autobiography, we probably wouldn’t believe him. His essay work, revealing himself in discrete layers, let us take in his many mannerisms and the lives he has led without ever doubting him.

None of the many Davids revealed unto us seem like the kind of guy who would listen to NPR. Young David always desires fame and adulation; I wonder what he’d think of older David’s devoted public radio fanbase.

4. Vacationland, John Hodgman (2017)

This is the polished version of sets I’d seen Hodgman perform in Birmingham and Atlanta, with new stories and fresh punchlines. Hodgman’s sense of humor directly aligns with mine in just about every way.

Hodgman has accepted the judgment of his style as “white privilege morality comedy.” He is acutely aware of the implications of white privilege, and makes a serious effort to communicate that he knows how his race, sex, and class have affected the life he’s living. I appreciated one detail in particular: when describing a white person in a story, he describes them as “white.” Writers frequently only mention an actor’s race if they are not white, implying whiteness by omission. Just as the “generic he” is on the way out, the “default white” should also be a thing of the past.

5. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1962)

250px-maggiebrodie

Who wouldn’t be enchanted by Maggie Smith?

Perhaps I expected something maudlin or idyllic, like Goodbye Mr. Chips or Mary Poppins, but The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie surprised me by being neither. Far from a stodgy prose narrative, Sparks flows between past and present as easily as Gabriel García Márquez. The title teacher tricks her pupils and the reader into initially believing that she is in Her Prime. Upon reflection, she is not as strong as she projects herself to be; she lives a life of nostalgia, paranoia, and insecurity. Yes, she is an independent woman in a world that somewhat rejects her; yes, the men in her life are fascinated by her; yes, her students remember her long after she is gone, but we never see her through any lens but teacher. We never know her inner life or how she is at home, alone.

 

6. The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoevsky (1868-9)

My annual Dosty took me months to finish. I’d like to think I was recreating the original experience of reading it in monthly installments, but honestly it’s another book that takes quite a while to heat up. By Part IV, the narrative voice shifts to a more present, active personality. At the same time, a wave of premonitions, visions, and themes come to fruition in a variety of awful ways, bringing the novel to an exciting, terrible close.

7. The Everything Learning German Book (2d), Edward Swick (2009)

Man cannot live on Duolingo alone. This book was my first German instructor, and reading it straight through gave me an overview of the rules of basic grammar, syntax, vocabulary, conjugations, etc. I will return to this book as needed in the future as I continue learning the language. I didn’t become fluent from reading it, but the explanations and examples were klar as Tag.

8. A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving (1989)

A Prayer for Owen Meany excerpt

Irving describes his own flowing style in the voice of his narrator.

A few major plot points in Owen Meany are cribbed from my favorite novel Fifth Business; I was inordinately proud of myself for picking up on them and relieved to read that Irving acknowledges the influence. Though I think there are a few too many similarities between the two novels, the relief let me enjoy falling back into Irving’s writing. The way he triangulates seamlessly from topic to topic reminds me of the ease with which Woolf moves among consciousnesses in Mrs. Dalloway. It’s a wonder to behold.

Even so, by drawing so explicitly from Fifth Business, Irving invites comparison. John does not grow and change like Dunstan Ramsay; other characters change too much to be believable. What’s worse, the entire plot wraps up too tightly; perfect puzzles are more appropriate for Agatha Christie mysteries than ambitious literary novels. An opening epigraphs states, “…I can hardly even imagine what kind of an experience a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience would be…how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt?” Irving goes on to create such an experience, which leaves no room for doubt. Unfortunately, the reason the author of that quote could not imagine such an experience is because cut-and-dry miracles are the stuff of legend. When Irving veers into that territory, the novel lost me.

9. Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Kind (and Keep) Love, Amir Levine & Rachel S.F. Heller (2010)

The title is heavy-handed, but the content rings true. Of course there is more to learn and this book won’t solve the world’s problems, but it taught me a tremendous amount about myself and those I am close to. I appreciate this new way of understanding my own (and others’) behavior. Additionally, this book is well-written; it doesn’t fall into that pop-psychology ditch of being overly repetitive or feeling like a sales pitch.

10. The Cow in the Parking Lot: A Zen Approach to Overcoming Anger, Leonard Scheff & Susan Edmiston (2010)

Scheff learned Zen Buddhism from many teachers and created a workshop to share what he learned with others; this is more or less the written version of that workshop. It is little more than a compilation of others’ words, with little insight. It probably works better as a workshop.

11. The Seventh of Joyce, Bernard Benstock, ed. (1982)

This conference monograph was often too dense for me to understand, particularly the bits explicitly about hard science or Finnegans Wake. Nevertheless, there were always little tidbits to pick up and carry along on my next trip to Dublin.

12. I’ll Be Gone In the Dark, Michelle McNamara (2018)

I read this book shortly after the Golden State Killer was arrested, so that I would be understand all the news, rumors, and juicy details in context. Published posthumously, you can tell that certain sections are unfinished or cobbled together from the author’s notes. In addition to being a well-written, fascinating, terrifying book, it carries complex baggage for the modern reader: one is satisfied that the crimes have been solved, but one is woeful that the author–who dedicated so much of her life to unmasking the GSK–did not live to learn his name.

13. The Girls, Emma Cline (2016)

A cautionary tale: the story of how an awkward girlhood, a bad homelife, and an unexpected relationship could lead to joining the Manson Family.

14. Eileen, Ottessa Moshfegh (2015)

eileenEileen is my new favorite obsession; it is the rare book I could not believe existed as I was reading it. Strangely, it is very similar to The Girls; though I didn’t intentionally read them in succession, Eileen is the book I had hoped The Girls would be.

The novel is an incredible portrayal of the isolated inner life of an unhappy, intelligent young woman and the light that begins to shine when she meets someone who breaks her icy shell. Moshfegh’s narrator Eileen looks back on a pivotal moment in her life while moving fluidly into reminiscences, explanations, and reflections. She never goes too far off-track, and the reader never forgets where she is. Masterfully written, remarkably dark, hilarious, and thrilling.

15. Dubliners, James Joyce (1912)

Reading Dubliners with a solid foundation of Ulysses allowed me to realize just how intertwined the stories are with the lives of Stephen and Bloom in the Ulyssniverse1. And after years of reading and study, I can finally start to see how they are not just a collection of short stories; the simplicity of Dubliners belies a beauty and complexity on par with any other Joyce work.

16. Suspicious Readings of Joyce’s Dubliners, Margot Norris (2003)

After I read Dubliners the first time, I knew I missed a world of depth. This book revealed that world to me. With an essay corresponding to each short story, Suspicious Readings is a perfect companion piece to the original. I alternated reading a story with its critical essay, and my world expanded with each new perspective and revelation. Written with the benefit of nearly a century of Joyce scholarship and a woman’s perspective, Norris questions the motives and decisions of each story’s narrator. She dives into how the style, voice, and other details work to manipulate the reader, and a bit into how individual stories contribute to the whole.

17. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce (1916)

I was alarmed and confused to realize that I had not read Portrait since 2015, before I ever read Ulysses. I am hungry to dive into the criticism on Portrait–there is so much to learn! The sermon on Hell doesn’t scare me as much as it did before; now I just have The Good Place to keep the fear of eternal damnation alive in my soul.

18. The Story of Art (16th) E.H. Gombrich (1995)

Rather than a textbook history of art, with names and dates never veering from fact, this sistine-chapel-ceiling-flattened-1is a story of art, with an engaging narrative style that pretty cleanly connects people and movements to one another. It is exciting to read, and every concept is illustrated with large, colorful images.

The Story of Art retains many of the problematic elements typical of a work originally published in 1950. The author is fairly patronizing toward primitive peoples and their art, and he completely dismisses the role of Middle Eastern culture in preserving science and techniques that allowed the Renaissance to even occur. An honest title would identify this as the story of Western art. Nevertheless it is a well-told and beautiful story.

19. Homesick for Another World, Ottessa Moshfegh (2017)

Riding the high from Eileen, I was initially concerned by the cynicism of this collection of short stories by the same author. I felt drained and overwhelmed at first, but the energy builds and builds with each story. Moshfegh can make my jaw drop.

20. How to Read Poetry Like a Professor: A Quippy and Sonorous Guide to Verse, Thomas Foster (2018)

This slim volume starts with many of the basics I’ve learned and forgotten about poetry–trochees and dactyls, sonnets and villanelles. This book was truly valuable because of three points Foster makes about literally reading poetry. Two points resolved uncertainties I’d been wrestling with, and the third enhances the experience still more.

  1. Ignore line breaks, and read according to the punctuation.
  2. Ignore the lilt of the meter, and read like a normal human.
  3. Read poems out loud, not silently in your head.

My daily morning poem is all the more enjoyable thanks to these tips.

21. How to Be the Greatest Improviser on Earth, Will Hines (2016)

In 2018 I accidentally got into improv comedy. This is the first book on improv I read to supplement my classes and other practices. Hines expounds on improv maxims (e.g., yes-and) and adds and emphasizes as his experience moves him (e.g., know care say). Among the very useful mini lessons is one big lesson: Each mantra may only be helpful to an individual for a short while. That means I can use a line as guidance for now, and be OK if I need something different later. I wrote out a list of such lines from this book for future (and current) reference.

Another plus of Hines’ book is it is laugh-out-loud funny–as in, I laughed out loud while trying to read quietly at work.

22. Ulysses, James Joyce (1922)

This was the third June in a row that I thought, “I should be reading Ulysses right now.” I had not read the Ullyssniverse trilogy in order since the first time I read them in 2015-2016. I was able to remember the backstories of many of the folks who appear in Dubliners, enriching my and Bloom’s experience. I would like to dig into the criticism on the episodes Nausicaa and Oxen of the Sun.

23. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov (1955)

I’d read it long ago, but after countless hours listening to My Favorite Murder and consuming similar shows, Lolita strikes me as a fictional true crime novel. As a people, we are more comfortable reading about murderers than child molesters, and Nabokov is better with the English language than pretty much anyone, so typically Lolita is not grouped with the rest of the genre.

Though our narrator Humbert thinks it is romantic, Lolita does not romanticize his relationship with Lolita.The ugliness and violence are out in the open. The child’s voice is almost unspoken, but her misery is clear. The entire novel is the raving of a maniac.

24. All the Light You Cannot See, Anthony Doerr (2014)

I have a laundry list of problems with this book, but I couldn’t put it down. Perhaps I just wish it met its full potential.

25. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf (1922)

To the Lighthouse is a wonderful depiction of the oceans of feeling, emotion, thought, memory, etc., that roll beneath each person’s external presence, actions, and words. I knew nothing of this novel, and was surprised and intrigued by the structure of two single days, separated by ten years.

26. Poem a Day, Vol. 2, Laurie Sheck ed. (2003)

I was disappointed in Volume 2 of this series. The author of Volume 1 took great care in linking the day of the year to a day in the poet’s life. Volume 2 doesn’t even list the poets’ dates of birth and death. Instead, each poem is accompanied by a long and uninteresting biography of the poet. This collection also includes a fair number of translations and recently published poems, which tend to be less desirable to me.

I look forward to Volume 3 each day of 2019.

In Conclusion

My numbers went down a bit in 2018, but the quality went up. The books I got the most out of or will certainly return to are as follows:

  1. Pale Fire
  2. Eileen
  3. The Story of Art
  4. Suspicious Readings of Joyce’s Dubliners

In 2019 I hope to continue seeking out novels that put a fire in my belly, and disregard books that feel like a chore.


1. Trademark 2019 Kate E. Britt

Becoming a Cyclist: Gearing Up

Right now my bike is propped up in a closet, a frame without a front tire or pedals, hidden from a curious cat. The bike came in a box “partially assembled” with “all necessary tools,” but the instructions are clearly designed for someone who has put bikes together before (or at least knows what a bike is supposed to look like). In the last week I’ve found myself eyeballing bikes on the street. “So that’s what side the handlebars go on.” “Ok I did have the brakes facing the right direction.” My plan is to put it together as best I can, then pedal to a shop where more knowledgeable folks can correct my errors.Assembly instructions

Less than helpful.

The last time I owned a bike, I had two pieces of equipment: a helmet and a pump. The game has changed since I rode my fixed-gear Schwinn around the neighborhood. For starters, I know I need lights. A helpful REI employee clued me in to all the hot new bike light tech: multiple flashing modes, numerous lumens, laser-lit lane function, and slides to slip the lights off whenever you park. That last feature took me by surprise; purchasing lights isn’t just about safety, but also security.

Evidently thieves will make off with every bike component that isn’t nailed down, and in a college town a lock is more important than a helmet. I need removable lights, a special seat clamp, a couple new wheel axles, several chains, and possibly some kind of alarm system or invisibility spray. Two major deterrence strategies are raising the theft difficulty level (multiple locks, special screws) and lowering the apparent value (making your bike look old and cheap). Like running from a bear, you just want your bike to be less attractive than your neighbor’s.

In addition to safety and security, my mind is spinning with the variety of storage options. I have driven myself insane reading and rereading The Wirecutter’s article on baskets, racks, and panniers. I am returning the front basket I bought because I’ve gathered they are dangerous/uncool. I don’t know how much difference $10 makes in the quality of a rack. Do I need a front bag? Should I just carry my backpack? Will I really use any of this stuff? Time will tell, and I’m wrestling with myself to not spend too much money before time lets me know.

I might eventually put my bike together, but knowing what side of the tire faces front does me no good if a bandit makes off with my wheel. My close scrutiny of strangers’ bikes is definitely going to get me in trouble with the authorities. To beat the thieves I need to think like a thief, and to go grocery shopping I need $100 in storage gear. Needless to say I’m completely overwhelmed by every aspect of bicycle gear, and my bike didn’t even come with a kickstand.

Becoming a Cyclist: A Crisis Of Identity

I started as a driver in the suburbs. Suburban Alabama does not accommodate bicycles; the lanes are designed for the exclusive use of Ford F-150s. Even in my mid-size sedan, cyclists were always In The Way. A single bicycle could covert the steady flow of the two-lane highway between my town and the interstate into an infuriating crawl, as each driver waited for an opening in oncoming traffic to pass or cruised behind the cyclist at an excruciatingly slow pace.

Then I became a motorcycle rider. Before I hit the road I briefly wondered whether there was any affinity between cyclists and riders. Both are using two-wheeled vehicles; both operators are exposed to the elements; both ride “bikes.” I quickly learned the answer: No. There is no affinity. When riding a motorcycle, every other mode of transportation is objectively worse, more lame, less important, and the people who are behind the wheels or handles or whathaveyou are simply obstructive dweebs. The super-suave motorcyclist wave doesn’t even extend to scooter riders, much less bicyclists.

Most recently I became a pedestrian, walking over a mile each way to and from work on neighborhood and city sidewalks. I assumed that bike lanes could contain the bike riders, but again I was wrong. Few things are as unsettling as an unexpected bike whooshing by from behind while walking unawares. For an added dash of indignation, a cyclist friend explained to me how much more dangerous bicycling on a sidewalk is versus on a street. Fools! Hooligans! Be gone!

Now I face a new phase in my transportation tale. Last week I received a brand new bike to ride for my daily commute and to get around town without having to pay or fight for parking. I will join the club whose members have been my enemy; like Dylan’s Miss Lonely, I can no longer talk so loud or seem so proud.

Bike box by door

She’s here!

My mission is to be the cyclist I want to see in the world. This means learning the rules–both written and unwritten–of cycling etiquette, and following them mindfully. I have a lot of work to do (and gear to buy), but I think it is possible to ride a bicycle in such a way that annoys the fewest number of others.

The most weighty question remains: How will I regard other cyclists when I am, myself, a cyclist?

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.

2017: Third Quarter Note

I feel like several years have passed since the second quarter of 2017. For reference, in the last three months I have graduated with a master’s degree, left my job of over three years, and moved across the country to start my career in a new landscape and climate, where I know no one but my cat. The change of routine (when am I even supposed to listen to music?) and the change of focus (do I need a vermicultural habitat for my apartment?) have allowed me somewhat to neglect my album project.

Pre-life transition, I primarily listened to music (1) driving to and from work, and (2) working out at the gym. Post-life transition, I don’t drive to work and I don’t have a gym. It took a couple weeks, but I have discovered two rich mines of previously unavailable musical opportunity: (1) walking to and from work, and (2) during work. Music enhances these experiences, and the experiences make the music better.

As always, my impersonal rating system follows. The mid-level three-star rating has come to mean “I’d like to hear these songs mixed into a playlist, if not the whole album in sequence.”

★★★★★ I listen to it regularly.
★★★★☆ I will listen to it again.
★★★☆☆ I wouldn’t mind listening to it (in a mix).
★★☆☆☆ If it comes on I won’t turn it off.
★☆☆☆☆ I’m not interested in hearing it again.

Week Twenty-Seven

The_Knife_-_Deep_CutsThe Knife – Deep Cuts (2003) ★★★★★

I can hardly believe I’ve only known this album a few weeks. Every time I listen to Deep Cuts (which is often) I’m surprised by how many tracks knock my socks off. Whether in the car, at home, or working out, “Heartbeats” gives me no choice but to do body rolls for the duration. When I hear “Is It Medicine” and “Got 2 Let U,” I feel the full-body musical experience I imagine is sought when people go clubbing. I love this album so much.

Week Twenty-Eight

CureDisintegrationThe Cure – Disintegration (1989)
★★★☆☆

I don’t dislike anything about this album. Perhaps one must be in a certain mood or in a certain time of life for it to click, and I am not there. I can imagine other times when it would have hit me harder. As I am, I can see its appeal, but it doesn’t speak to my soul.

 Week Twenty-Nine

Sky_Blue_Sky_(Wilco)Wilco – Sky Blue Sky (2007)★★★★☆

Wilco is consistently brought up in The Next Bob Dylan conversation, and now I get it. The resemblance to Jack White’s music is particularly satisfying.

Week Thirty

SantogoldalbumSantogold – Santogold (1980)
★★★☆☆

From song to song, Santogold may sound like Gwen Stefani, MIA, or Sixpence None the Richer. All I can do is marvel at her talent.

Week Thirty-One

Sheperd's-dog (Iron & Wine)Iron & Wine – The Shepherd’s Dog (2007)★★★★★

The Shepherd’s Dog is addictive. I get sucked in to the hypnotic musical jangle and the continuous lyrical patter. For so many years I thought of Iron & Wine was some band ~other people~ listened to. My loss! I love this album.

Week Thirty-Two

Cate_Le_Bon_Mug_Museum_album_coverCate le Bon – Mug Museum (2013) ★★★☆☆

Mug Museum sounds like Tender Buttons with a healthy dash of Nico. Through repeated listens, the surface ‘60s airy sound gives way to a more complex collection of tunes.

 Week Thirty-Three

Pixies-DoolittleThe Pixies – Doolittle (1989)★★★★☆

The Pixies confound genre definition. They can scream like nu metal, play guitar like surf rock, and write lyrics like an indie band. Some of the songs on Doolittle sound like earlier versions of songs I already love from Bossanova. “Hey” and “La La Love You” are very special to me.

Week Thirty-Four

Fully_Completely (The Tragically Hip)The Tragically Hip – Fully Completely (1992)
★★★★☆

News of Gordon Downie’s illness brought a lot of attention to The Tragically Hip this year; I wasn’t previously aware of their importance in Canadian and musical culture.  I really enjoy Fully Completely’s irresistible, energetic rhythms and powerful lyrics. In a world of Canadian musicians accommodating the U.S. market, they also stand out as unapologetically Canadian. Even if I don’t get the references, it feels real and truthful.

Week Thirty-Five

Kesha_-_RainbowKesha – Rainbow (2017)★★★★★

None of us saw this coming. It took a couple of middle aged podcast men to convince me I should listen to a Kesha album, and I’m very glad they did. “Boogie Feet” and “Woman” are undeniable feel-good songs. There’s something about “Spaceship,” with its mesmeric melody and oddly hopeful lyrics, that takes my breath away every time.

 Week Thirty-Six

Dopamine (Borns)Børns – Dopamine (2015)
★★★☆☆

I was prejudiced against Dopamine prior to hearing it because I hate the album cover. Dopamine is generic, hear-it-in-any-commercial pop music. Even so, this album is full of bangers, and I admit I came to enjoy it quite a bit.

Week Thirty-Seven

Welcome Home ('Til Tuesday)’Til Tuesday – Welcome Home (1986) ★★★★☆

Aimee Mann’s music always strikes me as good driving music, particularly “David Denies,” which is on repeat in my head all the time.

 

 Week Thirty-Eight

Brick Body Kids Still Daydream (Open Mike Eagle)Open Mike Eagle – Brick Body Kids Still Daydream (2017)
★★★★☆

These songs sound like no others I’ve ever heard. Open Mike Eagle has a unique voice and style. Even when I don’t know what he means I can tell it’s meaningful.

 Week Thirty-Nine

PrintFlight of the Conchords – I Told You I Was Freaky (2009)★★★☆☆

This album has a lot of funny. I’ve loved “Carol Brown” for years; it is a perfect song.

Fourth Quarter Projections

Even though the third quarter did not hit the high heights of the second (see: Cher and the Great Comet), it did not drop to the valleys of the previous quarter, either. Overall I enjoyed more of the albums an average amount, which is all I can ask.

I am committed to finishing the year out strong. There are still many crowd-sourced recommendations I haven’t listened to, and I will try to attend to those before I close up shop.