2013 Reading

Happy New Year! I’d hoped to post at least once before Christmas, but I wasn’t able to finish my fall semester grading before we headed off on an almost-two-week trip to visit family in western New York state and California, so I just couldn’t squeeze it in. The trip to California involved three flights on the way there and three flights on the way back — with an eleven-month-old. It was crazy. But the trip was great, and involved this:

Cormac Beach

and this:

Hiking

And this (that’s a winery in the background):

Cormac winery

The California sunshine was lovely. Now I’m back home and there is a snowstorm on the way. Sigh. But it’s a good time to think about last year’s reading. I read much more last year than I thought I would, considering I had a baby and all. I read a lot in the few weeks before the baby was born and then a lot during the night when I was up with the baby, so I learned that it’s not having a child that keeps me from reading. It’s really my job that’s the problem. When the job started back up, my reading slowed down. Again, sigh.

Here’s how my reading breaks down:

  • Books read: 100 (tied with 2011 for my highest number)
  • Audiobooks: 2 (down from the previous year because of podcasts)
  • eBooks: 27 (way, way up)
  • From library: 30 (also up. This includes some library ebooks)
  • Fiction: 67
  • Nonfiction: 33 (this fiction/nonfiction breakdown is pretty typical for me. Nonfiction means a lot to me, but I read it more slowly than fiction.)
  • Poetry: 0 (fail)
  • Essay collections: 10 (typical)
  • Biography/autobiography: 14
  • Theory/criticism: 4 (other nonfiction included history, religion, and unclassifiable nonfiction)
  • Short story collections: 3 (up!)
  • Mysteries: 12 (typical)
  • Graphic Novels: 2
  • Books in translation: 6 (up only a bit)
  • Books by writers of color: 12

Gender breakdown:

  • Men: 36
  • Women: 63 (almost exactly the same as last year. I used to read more evenly. I don’t purposely try to read more women; it just works out that way.)
  • Collection with men and women: 1

Nationalities:

  • Americans: 70 (up a lot!)
  • British: 17 (down)
  • Canadian: 2
  • French: 2
  • One each by Dutch, Irish, Israeli, Japanese, Norwegian, Pakistani, Spanish, Sri Lankan, and Swiss authors.

Year of publication:

  • 18th century: 0 (I’ve moved on from my grad school days, I see.)
  • 19th: 1 (fail)
  • First half of 20th century: 6
  • Second half of 20th century: 16
  • 2000-2009: 25
  • 2010-2013: 52 (way up)

This year and last year I read  many more contemporary novels than I used to. Ah, well. I’m just balancing out earlier years of my life when I hardly read anything contemporary.

As for the upcoming year, I’m doing what I did last year and setting no specific goals and making no real plans. I would like to try to read more books from other countries, keep reading more and more books from authors of color, and read more books from earlier centuries. It would be great to read some poetry as well. But these are just thoughts in the back of my mind and if I don’t follow through, so be it. The one thing I’d like to do this year is not worry about the number of books read. If I read less, I don’t want to feel bad about it. This year promises to be very busy, so I’d like to focus less on quantity and more on quality. I set myself a goal on Goodreads of reading 50 books, half of this year’s number and a goal I shouldn’t have any trouble meeting. I hope this will help me choose the books I pick up a little more carefully and take my time with them.

I hope to come back soon with a list of favorites from 2013.

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Reading Round-Up 12/8/2013

First of all, I never reported back on my Small Business Saturday book shopping experience. I loved Sherman Alexie’s Indies First idea — that authors go hang out in bookstores and act as booksellers for a day — and I wanted to take part in it as much as possible. One of my local bookstores, Byrd’s Books, hosted the author Mark Slouka, who recently published the novel Brewster, which takes place in a town not far from my home. So we stopped in the store to meet him, and I left with a signed copy of the novel. The bookstore was full of people and excitement, which was great to see. Then we headed out of town to visit Oblong Books in Rhinebeck, NY. The drive was rather lengthy, but Hobgoblin wanted to see Kelly Braffet and get signed copies of her books, and I was happy to go along. We thought perhaps her author husband, Owen King, son of Stephen King, might be there, but he wasn’t. That was fine, though. In the store, it took a minute to figure out who Kelly Braffet was, and then it took a few minutes more to figure out how to get a conversation going. But since she was hanging out by the cash register looking a little bored, I eventually just went up and asked if she was giving out book recommendations. She immediately lit up, happy that someone wanted a recommendation from her, and we headed over to the fiction section, where we spent the next 10-15 minutes looking over books and talking about ones we liked. As we talked, I realized how difficult Hobgoblin and I are as customers in bookshops; much of what Braffet recommended, we had already read. We talked about Jennifer Egan, Megan Abbott, Joe Hill, and others. Eventually, we came across Jenni Fagan’s novel The Panopticon, which neither of us had heard of, and which sounded great. Then Hobgoblin got Braffet to sign his books, we looked around a little more, and we were two happy customers.

That’s not all going on in my book world, though. Yesterday evening, my mystery book group met to discuss D.A. Mishani’s novel The Missing File. It was a lively discussion, although not because the novel is a great one. For the most part, I was enjoying myself as I read the book, but afterward when I tried to put it all together, it just didn’t work. It’s a very odd mystery novel. The detective is not very good at his job and makes several important mistakes. His colleagues do a better job conducting the investigation, but they are flawed as well. Mishani spends a lot of time with a marginally-related character who involves himself in the mystery for reasons that I never fully understood. He’s a writer, and through what I guess is writerly imagination and empathy ends up doing a better job understanding the people involved in the mystery than the detective does. But this guy is kind of creepy and doesn’t cohere as a character. I think Mishani is most interested in the ways fictional stories help but also more interestingly fail to help us understand stories in the “real” world. This is an intriguing idea, but Mishani doesn’t manage to pull his plot and themes together.

Next up for the mystery book group is Margaret Millar’s novel Beast in View, which was my choice. I became interested in Millar after reading this essay by the crime fiction critic Sarah Weinman. Sarah has come through with recommendations for me before, so I’m looking forward to seeing how this one turns out.

The only book that has come into the house since I last wrote about incoming books is Brewster. I have added a bunch of books that I’d like to investigate and perhaps add to my TBR pile at some point, though. These are by no means books that I will definitely read; they are just ones I’ve got my eye on:

  • James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, winner of the National Book Award.
  • Javiar Marías’s The Infatuations, as another Marías novel to follow All Souls.
  • Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies. I can’t remember where I heard about this one….

These books are small press books, a category I’ve been learning more about recently as I listen to podcasts with small press authors or that champion small press books. I really have no idea if I will like these or not, but it will be fun to explore them:

  • Monica Drake, The Stud Book,
  • Anne Marie Wirth Cauchon, Nothing,
  • Renee Gladman, Event Factory,
  • Pamela Erens, The Virgins: A Novel,
  • Jamie Iredell, I Was a Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac.

Have a good week everyone!

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All Souls, by Javier Marias

I enjoyed All Souls by Javier Marías in a detached, intellectual kind of way. It’s not the kind of book that wins over your heart, or not in any obvious way at least. It’s set in Oxford and tells the story of a visiting lecturer from Spain who is looking to pass his two years as pleasantly as possible. He has minimal teaching duties and frequently finds himself bored. He looks around for and then finds a woman, an Oxford tutor, with whom to have an affair and this helps fill his days. But his life is fairly flat. He finds amusement looking through used book shops — this is, as Amateur Reader pointed out to me, a book shopping classic — and he also observes British life and particularly university life and reports to us on its oddities. Most memorable for me was a lengthy set piece describing a college dinner in which one of the dons behaves spectacularly badly and everyone else pretends not to notice. We also get lengthy descriptions of the things that fill the narrator’s life: the beggars he sees on the streets as he takes long walks, the author whose work he is trying to track down, the garbage that accumulates in his apartment.

All this sounds dull, but it’s not. Somehow, through the satirical tone, the dry humor, the detached observations, a deeper feeling comes through. I’m not sure how to describe it; perhaps it’s melancholy, sadness, and nostalgia all mixed together. The narrator is writing from a time after his stay in Oxford is over; he is back in Madrid, married and moving on with his life. We learn early on that two of the men most important to him while in Oxford have died, and he is writing in part in order to describe them and his interactions with them. So a sense of loss hangs over the whole book. It’s not only these friends — or, perhaps, acquaintances — that he has lost, though; he recognizes on the novel’s first page that the person he was then is gone, replaced by someone entirely different. Even memory doesn’t hold him together as a coherent being. He didn’t make much of a mark in Oxford, and it seems that this is his fate: not to make much of a mark on the world. All he can do, it seems, is to write down his story, and to seek out the nearly-lost stories of others, which his bookshop haunting allows him to do.

The pleasures of this novel are quiet, but real, nonetheless. For a lengthier review of the book, make sure to read Litlove’s take on it. I think I might like to read more Marías at some point. All Souls has intrigued me.

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Supporting Independent Bookstores

I care very much about independent bookstores staying in business, so it only makes sense to buy books from independent bookstores as frequently as possible, right? Right. I thought so. So while on our way to visit friends in Vermont for Thanksgiving, Hobgoblin, the baby, and I stopped in Brattleboro to visit a couple stores. From Mystery on Main Street, I bought Sarah Weinman’s anthology of stories Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense. The book includes stories by Patricia Highsmith, Dorothy Hughes, Shirley Jackson, Margaret Millar and others. Troubled Daughters From Everyone’s Books just around the corner, I found How to Read a Novelist by John Freeman, a collection of profiles of contemporary authors.

And then later, in Manchester, we stopped by the fabulous Northshire Bookstore and I got a few more things. First is Maureen McLane’s book My Poets, which Stefanie wrote enthusiastically about. How could I resist? It’s a book of experimental prose, combining memoir, criticism, and poetry, and it sounds beautiful. My Poets I also found My 1980s and Other Essays by Wayne Koestenbaum. I’ve never read Koestenbaum before, but he seems to write the kind of book I admire — idiosyncratic cultural criticism. And finally, I picked up From the Mouth of the Whale, a novel by Sjón, an Icelandic writer. A.S. Byatt wrote glowingly of his work, so I thought I’d give it a try.

When I arrived home, I found this waiting for me, a non-independent bookstore purchase (I’m not perfect!): Hallman The Story About the Story II, edited by J.C. Hallman. I loved the first volume Hallman edited. The book collects  essayistic literary criticism — criticism of literary works that is literary in its own right. As a lover of literature and of the essay form, I had to have this, right?

To further support independent bookstores, I hope to stop by my local bookstore (one of my local bookstores, I should say — I’m lucky!), Byrd’s Books, which is hosting Mark Slouka as part of “Small Business Saturday” and Sherman Alexie’s Indie’s First idea, where authors act as booksellers for a day at their local stores. It should be fun.

I’m just here doing my duty!

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Giveaway Winners and Recent Reading

First of all, I’d like to announce the winners of Elizabeth Gentry’s novel Housebound. And yes, I said “winners” because I decided to give away two copies. The first winner is Teresa, and the second is Stefanie! So congrats to both of you, and thanks to those of you who entered. I hope everyone gets a chance to read the book at some point. If the winners would email me with their mailing addresses at ofbooksandbikes at yahoo dot com, that would be great.

I’d also like to write about the latest Emily Books selection I read, Samantha Irby’s essay collection Meaty. Irby is the author of the blog Bitches Gotta Eat, which I hadn’t heard of before I read the book, but which has a lot of readers and a devoted following. Irby is also a comedian in Chicago. The essays in Meaty have a “bloggy” feel to them, which I don’t mean as a negative; I just mean that they are loose, funny, and informal. They are also very personally revealing and sexually explicit. They are not for everyone, for sure! But I liked their forthrightness, their energy, and their humor. I always admire writers who can reveal personal details about themselves and do it in a way that’s not irritatingly self-absorbed. These essays may be self-absorbed, but they are self-absorbed in the best possible way, which is to say that they are entertaining and may make you feel better about yourself. To say that Irby “reveals” personal details isn’t quite the right way to put it; it’s more like she revels in them, she throws them in your face and dares you to criticize her. She is her own worst critic, after all, so you can’t possibly do her any harm. Her topics include body image, dating and sex, race, food, money, mothers, health, and others. Her first essay is about turning 30, and is basically a long list of all her longings and failures. In another essay, she lists, in actual list format, all her physical imperfections. The overall effect, in spite of or because of the in-your-face tone and the foul language, is charming. She seems like she would make a great person to hang out with, if maybe not the best roommate.

As for the fiction I’ve been reading lately, I finished Javier Marias’s novel All Souls, and I’ll try to write about that later. This evening, I’m going to start Tinkers, by Paul Harding. And soon, I’ll pick up The Missing File by D.A. Mishani for my book group.

Have a good week everyone!

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Book Subscriptions

I’ve become a subscriber to Emily Books, an ebook-only bookstore that makes one book available per month and offers a subscription service so that each month’s book arrives as a link in your email box. I’m very happy with the service, in part because Emily Books are so distinctive: they are generally books by women and ones that have been overlooked or forgotten, or are out of the mainstream for one reason or another. They tend to have a feminist sensibility, and are sometimes edgy and experimental. The books are sometimes novels, sometimes nonfiction. The most famous ones are probably Muriel Spark’s Loitering With Intent and Barbara Comyns’s Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, but there are a lot that I had never heard of before. I have Emily Books to thank for introducing me to Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding, a book I loved.

I’m enjoying reading by subscription, but it does cause some anxiety: a new book arrives every month, and I always wonder when I will have time to read it. There is so much to read already! I don’t want these books to pile up unread (metaphorically speaking — they are ebooks!). But on the other hand, I love the idea of someone else choosing a book for me. And I love supporting a small, indie bookstore like Emily Books. They are doing great work in supporting and promoting lesser-known books and authors.

It seems to me that book subscriptions have been growing in popularity lately. There’s the NYRB Classics Book Club, the Melville House Art of the Novella subscription series, the TNB Book Club, and others, I’m sure. There is even a personalized service from Heywood Hill bookshop, which Alex wrote about recently, that offers a book a month tailored to your individual taste.

Emily Books is the only subscription service I’m participating in right now, and I should probably limit myself to only one such service at a time, but they all look so good. All this is entirely too tempting for someone as greedy for books as I am!

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Reading Round-Up, 11/19/13

First of all, don’t forget that I’m giving away a book! Leave a comment on my post reviewing Elizabeth Gentry’s novel Housebound to have a chance to win a copy. I’ll draw a name after this Friday.

A few new books came into my house in the last week and a half, although none of them were books I bought — they were all books I won in some way or another. I rarely have this many free books coming into the house at once, so it felt decadent:

  • Jill McCorkle’s Life After Life came from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer’s program. I’m not sure if this book is getting more attention or less since it has the same title as Kate Atkinson’s new release.
  • From Goodreads I won Brother Kemal: A Kayankaya Thriller by Jakob Arjouni, part of Melville International Crime from Melville House. This is book 5 in a series of crime novels set in Germany.
  • And then The Cutting Season by Attica Locke, which I won in a giveaway on Twitter. Can you believe my luck? This is another mystery, part of Dennis Lehane’s imprint with HarperCollins.

I added a few books to my TBR list (which numbers in the hundreds and includes a lot of books I may not get to for a long time):

  • The first is Young Rebecca: Writings, 1911-1917, which Rohan from Novel Readings was tweeting about recently. I’m a great admirer of West’s, but I haven’t read any of her nonfiction and would like to.
  • Then there is Christa Wolf’s One Day a Year 1960-2000, which Danielle has been writing about. The book is made up of diary entries from, as the title tells us, one day each year. The concept is intriguing.
  • And then I’m greatly looking forward to writer/professor/blogger Jenny Davidson’s forthcoming book Reading Style: A Life in Sentences. It’s not coming out until next spring, but I’ll get a copy as soon as I can.
  • Finally, I read about Enid Bagnold’s book The Squire from the Persephone catalog. It was originally published in 1938 and is largely about pregnancy and childbirth. Intriguing, right?

As for what I’m reading now, I decided to pick up All Souls by Javier Marias, which I’ve had on my shelves for a while now. I was drawn to it because I felt like reading about its Oxford setting, and I just finished a rather ridiculous set piece narrated in great detail about formal dinners at the university, or “high tables.” So far I’m enjoying the novel’s dark humor. I’m also making my way through the essay collection Meaty by Samantha Irby. I should finish that one soon.

After that, who knows?

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