Monthly Archives: December 2010

2010 Wrap-up

It’s time to start wrapping up the year, now that I’ve made it to the very last day. Every year I like to write up my reading stats for the year, so here they are, first the total number and genre:

  • Books read: 72 (not counting 9 audiobooks, not included in the stats below)
  • Fiction (of any genre or length): 45
  • Nonfiction: 22
  • Poetry: 2
  • Drama: 3
  • Essay collections: 7
  • Biography/autobiography/memoir/letters: 6
  • Mysteries: 10

And now the gender breakdown:

  • Books by women: 35
  • Books by men: 36
  • Books by men and women: 1

Nationalities and books in translation:

  • Authors from America: 32
  • Authors from England: 21 and Scotland: 1
  • Books in translation: 13. Chinese: 1, French: 2, German: 3, Hungarian: 1, Sanskrit: 1, Norwegian: 1, Russian: 3, Spanish: 1
  • Authors from Ireland: 2
  • Canadian: 1 (L.M. Montgomery)
  • Nigerian, written in English : 1 (Chinua Achebe)

Year of publication:

  • From the 5th century: 1 (poems of T’ao Ch’ien)
  • 16th century: 1 (Montaigne)
  • 17th century: 1 (Francis Bacon)
  • 19th century: 8
  • First half of 20th century: 14
  • Second half of 20th century: 20
  • 2000s: 16
  • 2010: 9

And a couple more:

  • 12 rereads (a lot for me; these come partly from rereading for class)
  • Books by authors I had never read before: 34

Not a bad year. Some of the rereads and books in translation come from preparing for my World Literature class, and many but not all of the mysteries were for my mystery book group. Quite a lot of nonfiction. I hope to be back soon for a list of my favorite books!

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Miss Pym Disposes

One more review before I write some wrap-up posts about the year. I’ve owned a copy of Josephine Tey’s book Miss Pym Disposes for quite a while and finally got around to pulling it off the shelves. I very much enjoyed the book, but I spent much of my time reading it wondering why it’s called a mystery novel. By the end, it began to make a little more sense, but it’s best to think of this book as a regular old novel with some crime in it. Those of you who have read other Josephine Tey novels, is she always like this?

But that’s not to say I didn’t like it. The setting is very interesting, first of all: it takes place in a women’s physical training college. The young women learn dance, gymnastics, and various types of sports, as well as anatomy and the basics of medical training. They keep to a very rigorous schedule of physical and mental training, of the sort that, athletic as I can be, would wear me out in no time. They will leave the school ready to teach physical education and to work in medical clinics. It’s a close-knit school, where the smallness and the rigors of the training bring the students and teachers close together.

Miss Pym is friends with the school’s headmistress, and she has been invited to give a lecture on psychology. Lucy Pym became an expert in psychology largely by having enough leisure to read everything published on the subject (Tey’s novel was published in 1946, so perhaps the field hadn’t grown that much by then?), to have an idea of her own, and to turn that idea into a best-selling book. The best-seller part was a complete surprise to her; she had merely wanted to express her opinions. But now she is an expert, and in demand for lectures, and so she finds herself at the college, rudely awakened by the 5:30 wake-up bell.

She is so horrified by that 5:30 bell that all she want to do is to get home immediately, but the students beg her to stay, and when she does, she finds herself more and more caught up in the life of the school. She’s fascinated by the question of what type of young woman would thrive in such a school and how each one keeps up the energy and spirits to make it through the program.

The early parts of the book explore college life and Lucy’s increasing attachment to it, and they do so at a leisurely pace, although never one that is dull. The excitement begins to build, however, when Lucy observes one student attempt to cheat during an exam she is proctoring. Around the same time, everyone learns that a post will be available at the prestigious school of Arlinghurst, the girls’ equivalent of Eton. These events quickly destroy the school’s peace, and Lucy finds herself in the middle of it all.

Lucy’s status as an expert in psychology becomes a way for Tey to explore the value of the discipline; in this close-knit community where the tensions are rising, Lucy is perfectly situated to observe the mental and emotional turmoil around her. And yet, as it turns out, people are much more mysterious and unknowable than the discipline allows for. And here is where the real mystery of the book lies: not so much in the question of who committed the crime — although that is a very interesting question — but in the question of how much it’s possible to know about another person.

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The Lost Art of Reading

I happened upon David Ulin’s book The Lost Art of Reading in the library last week and checked it out on a whim. It turns out that Stefanie has been reading the book as well, and she decided she liked the book very much. I have to admit that I began the book feeling very resistant to it and prepared to dislike it intensely. I also have to admit that as I sat down to read it, I was prepared to enjoy not liking it. I don’t like books that make sweeping generalizations about the way things are now, and that lament a lost glorious past and tell us our world is steadily getting worse. And surely a book with the title The Lost Art of Reading would do those things?

It did those things in places, but it turns out the book is much better than I thought. It steadily won me over, and by the end, I decided that I like Ulin’s way of thinking about things very much. He does worry about where our culture is headed, and he laments how much harder it is for him personally and for the culture at large to focus on reading in a deep, thoughtful way. We are too easily distracted by our laptops and our gadgets, too easily sidetracked by blogs and twitter, to be willing to sit down with a book for a lengthy stretch of time and to lose ourselves in it. He thinks there is something valuable about deep reading and how it encourages us to think carefully, to get to know ourselves better, to develop empathy for others, to bring us back to a sense of time and our place in it.

But at the same time, Ulin is not anti-technology. This gets at how the book won me over, because his argument is more complex than a simple dismissal of the internet. He sees the value in being able to look things up on Google; he has a Blackberry and loves it. He discusses Jennifer Egan’s new book A Visit From the Goon Squad (which I’m in the middle of right now and am enjoying it very much) and the cool things she does with multimedia in the book and on her website. He’s fascinated by the Facebook page for The Great Gatsby. He sees that technology can add to our experience of literature rather than merely spiriting us away from it. He wants to preserve the experience of reading but at the same time is willing to acknowledge that our ways of reading can change, and that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

I also liked how he hinted at a spiritual element to reading, something I’ve been thinking about lately. He says that reading can be like meditation, a way to practice focus and calm and to get out of our own minds for a while:

What does it mean, this notion of slow reading? Most fundamentally, it returns us to a reckoning with time. In the midst of a book, we have no choice but to be patient, to take each thing in its moment, to let the narrative prevail. Even more, we are reminded of the need to savor — this instant, this scene, this line.

I’ve often felt that if I don’t get the chance to read, at least a little bit, every day or almost every day, that I start to lose a sense of myself. I feel scattered. Taking the time to read helps me pull myself back together again, somehow. It’s partly the simple act of sitting quietly that does it, but also the discipline of following someone else’s thought, focusing on someone else’s experiences or arguments. I’m not sure what kind of person I would be without reading, so in spite of all my doubts, it was a pleasure to read Ulin contemplate what reading has done for him.

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The Old Religion

I recently finished David Mamet’s novel The Old Religion, published in 1997. As you might expect if you know Mamet’s films, the novel is dark. It is a reimagining of the true story of Leo Frank, a factory owner who lived in Georgia in the early twentieth century and who was falsely accused of rape and murder. He was sentenced to life in prison, but during a hospital stay was abducted by a mob and lynched. He was a victim of an anti-semitic culture looking for an outlet for its rage.

The point of the novel isn’t what happens, which is a good thing since the book’s publishers tell you everything (as I have done here) on the back cover. The point is to explore what goes on in the mind of the main character, Leo Frank, and to capture from that perspective what it might feel like to be falsely accused. The book is made up of very short chapters that explore scenes of Frank’s life and give you his thoughts on whatever is occurring, serious or mundane. The book begins before the accusation and trial, so we see Frank among his friends, relaxing, talking, pondering philosophical and political questions. He is a very thoughtful, sensitive, analytical person, and when we finally learn about the rape and murder charges and the trial begins, it’s a shock to see him so badly misunderstood and villainized.

This is the point: to show the humanity of a man whom the world had turned into a monster. Mamet makes this point well, and what’s so effective about it is that he stays inside Frank’s mind with very little narration. We learn about what is happening only indirectly, as a result of Frank’s attempts to process it. As Frank’s world is falling apart around him, he remains the same thoughtful, analytical person, but now his analytical bent becomes a way to try to handle the insanity he is experiencing, a way to stay sane himself. As time goes on, he has to try harder and harder to find ways to occupy his mind, until he ends up looking for meaning in the manufacturers’ names stamped on the bars of his prison cell. Right up until the end, his thoughts are calm and rational, in contrast to the virulence of the people who want to see him dead.

The Old Religion is an intensely uncomfortable book: it’s hard to read about Frank’s downfall and the extremity of the hatred he experienced, and it’s also hard to read Mamet’s portrayal of Frank’s accusers, which is ugly. But Mamet’s stream-of-consciousness style works effectively to capture Frank’s experience. It’s a good thing the book is short, and I say that not because I didn’t like it, but because brevity works well both with Mamet’s subject matter and with his style: he can capture so much in so few words, and that kind of intensity needs to be short-lived.

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Christmas books

I hope everyone is having a great weekend, whether you celebrate Christmas or not. I’ve had a wonderful time lazing around, reading, eating, and watching The Thin Man (lots of fun, and After the Thin Man is up next). I got a short bike ride in yesterday, but now the ground is covered with snow, and tons more is on the way. Sigh. I love riding outdoors, even in winter, but deep snow is the one thing that keeps me inside. I’m eagerly awaiting the 40-degree temperatures promised for next weekend.

Now, of course I have to tell you about my Christmas books, of which I got a nice stack:

  1. Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, sent to me by a friend. I’ve been hearing about Shirley Jackson on various blogs for a long time, but the only thing of hers I’ve read is her famous story “The Lottery.” I’m excited to read a novel of hers, and I’ve heard this one is great.
  2. Lynda Barry’s What It Is, also sent to me by a friend. I had never heard of this book before, and it looks fabulous, full of drawings and pictures, as well as text. The book’s pages are a lot like what you see on the cover. It’s about writing and creativity, and has some exercises that might be useful for my creativity class.
  3. From my parents, I got a copy of Orhan Pamuk’s The Naive and Sentimental Novelist. I wondered how they did such a great job picking out the perfect book for me, until I learned they found it on my Book Mooch wishlist. Oh, yeah. It’s useful having that list up!
  4. The rest of the list comes from Hobgoblin. Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer is the book for me this year, because shortly before Christmas, I found out I would be getting a copy to review, and then the gift-giving friend above told me she had a copy for me, and then Hobgoblin got me one. Clearly, I am destined to read this book.
  5. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad. I checked this one out from the library a while back but didn’t have time to read it, and so I’m glad to have it now to read at my leisure. I’ve heard such great things about it, and I just read a brief discussion of it in David Ulin’s The Lost Art of Reading, so I think I need to pick it up soon.
  6. David Markson’s The Ballad of Dingus Magee. I enjoyed Markson’s mystery novels so much that Hobgoblin thought I might like his other venture into genre fiction. This one is a western. Perhaps after this, I will have to try another of his experimental novels. What a range this guy has!
  7. David Foster Wallace’s Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will. This is one of Wallace’s undergraduate theses, and along with the thesis itself is included a number of essays by various philosophers on free will and a memoir about Wallace as a student. This is a great addition to my growing collection of Wallace’s work.

And now to get reading!

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Full Dark, No Stars

After seeing Stephen King a few weeks ago, Hobgoblin suggested that I read one of his books. This thought hadn’t occurred to me because horror is not my genre at all, but Hobgoblin and other people have assured me that King writes more than just horror and that a lot of his books are more about psychology than anything else. So I picked up his latest book Full Dark, No Stars (although not one of the two copies we got signed!). I ended up liking it quite a bit. The book has three novellas and one short story, and yes, there was violence in each one, but the stories were more about character and psychology, just as people had promised.

The first novella was good — gripping and hard to put down. But it was a complicated reading experience that reminded me of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley in the way both books have psychotic narrators who commit atrocious crimes. In King’s story, it’s a first-person narrator, and in Highsmith’s it’s a third person narrator who stays so close to Tom Ripley’s consciousness that I keep forgetting it’s not actually in first person. In both cases, I got so wrapped up in the stories and identified with the narrators to such an extent that I started feeling obscurely guilty, as though I were the one who had committed the crimes. I had to remind myself that no, there was nothing I needed to worry about, no fear that anyone would come and arrest me for the horrible thing I did.

I started the second novella relieved that the mood was lighter, at least initially. That story is about a semi-famous cozy mystery writer who is asked to do a reading for a literary society when Janet Evanovich cancels on them. But then on her way home she gets attacked and raped, and I began to worry about what I’d gotten myself into by reading this book. The first story was about a man murdering his wife, and then here was another story about violence toward women, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to read about it anymore. But I kept on and realized that King wasn’t simply using violence toward women as a plot device, but was making a point of exploring its cultural meaning. The cozy mystery writer, Tess, spends a long time thinking about how she is going to deal with the attack, and a big part of her worry concerns what the public will make of it, since inevitably the press will seize on the story. She is a bit of a public figure, after all. She imagines someone insinuating that she invited the attack somehow, and she delays calling the police. She is agonizingly alone, a victim another time over, since she knows how hostile the world can be toward rape victims. I won’t give away the rest of the story, but I’ll just say it’s satisfying and Tess ends up with a little bit of the support she deserves.

Next was the short story, which was good but didn’t quite fit with the rest of the book. And finally, the third novella once again takes up violence toward women and once again handles it well. Reading about the violence in all four pieces was uncomfortable at times, but once I figured out that King was exploring violence as an idea, I began to enjoy the reading more. I have to say this is not what I expected, to read Stephen King for the ideas. But I think I’ve been unfair to him. I can’t say I’ll read him again very soon, since even with the psychological focus, violence and horror really aren’t my things. But I’m much more interested in him than I was before, and that’s a good thing.

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The TBR Challenge

Well, congrats to me on (mostly) finishing Emily’s TBR Challenge! The challenge was to read or attempt to read 20 books from your TBR pile and to post on each one. There was something about not buying new books in the challenge, but I think everyone involved quickly forgot about that. I finished 19 of the books and made a serious attempt to finish the 20th, Rosalind Belbin’s Our Horses in Egypt, but I wasn’t enjoying it, so I set it aside. I didn’t quite write on every book, but I wrote about most of them, and I’ll bet each book got at least a brief mention, if not a full review. Here’s the post with the list of books. I was surprised to find that the challenge wasn’t really all that challenging; I didn’t feel constrained or limited by it and was happy picking up each book when the right time came.

So, I thought I would make another list for next year. These books are ones I’ve had on my shelves for a while, some of them for a long time, such as the William James and the Yukio Mishima. Some authors I’ve been saying forever that I want to read (Atwood, Colette). Others just caught my eye when I was reading through my list of unread books. I have seven novels and five nonfiction books, one for each month, or something like that. I’m looking forward to it!

  1. Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov
  2. Yukio Mishima,  The Temple of the Golden Pavilion
  3. Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace
  4. Colette, Cheri and The Last of Cheri
  5. Scarlett Thomas, PopCo
  6. Sybille Bedford, A Legacy
  7. G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday
  8. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience
  9. Cynthia Ozick, Quarrel and Quandary
  10. Janet Malcolm, Two Lives
  11. Mary McCarthy, On the Contrary
  12. Francis Wilson, The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth

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