pandemic year reading (pt.3)

 A Pandemic Year in Books, Pt. 3

A year in books. A pandemic year in reading.

Above you see the the tsundoku pile that lived atop my nightstand for most of this year, and in the photo below: the bottom shelf of my nightstand, where I didn’t touch a single book in that tsundoku pile this year. They’re both there to be reduced next year.

The odd thing about the image above is that 7 of those 12 books I purchased this year — 3 of those were published this past summer. As I read books off the pile I acquired new ones that took their place, and therefore spun my reading wheels in place.

I purchased 2 of the books in the picture below this year, the rest I’ve owned anywhere between 2 to 28 years. A tsundoku 28- years old(!) and there’s yet an older book I own that I’ve yet to read. I know that’s the case for many book lovers — we’ll eventually get to them.

Working on this list some trends became evident. Starting in February and lasting through mid-summer I read many books about plagues, pandemics, epidemics, and infectious diseases; then sometime in mid-summer I segued into post-apocalyptic themes and dystopias.

And what I think is really odd is that I’ll get books I really want to read when they’re published and they’ll often sit on the shelf for a year (or more) as I’m open to reading whatever piques my interest at the moment, despite what I had set out to read. I’ll sometimes read half-a-dozen books simultaneously, and if I’m not enjoying a book I started at the beginning at the month, I might finish the five other books before the one I’m not enjoying s — and maybe drag it into the next month and finish 10 books before finishing the one I’m having issues with.

I really try to finish a book once I’ve started it. I’ve read the synopsis, maybe a couple of critic’s blurbs on LitHub or Book Marks, certainly the book jacket remarks — so I know I want to read it. But on occasion I hit a wall with a book that I just can’t finish because it feels like a waste of time and there are so many books out there (mostly on my nightstand and bookshelves) waiting to be read. So a couple of times a year I DNF (do not finish) a book — but only after I read well past halfway (usually 65%) — because if you get that far into a book and you’re still not wringing anything from the experience it’s time to move on. That only happened twice to me this year with People of Paper and Vernon Subutex, two books that seemed to be right in my wheelhouse.

Anyway, below is what I read this summer trimester; a summer of no travel but lots of reading.

And even if there were travel and vacations there would have been plenty o’ reading — just not this much. I believe reading is an imperative. The great Werner Herzog said it best:

“Read, read, read, read, read. Those who read own the world; those who immerse themselves in the Internet or watch too much television lose it… Our civilization is suffering profound wounds because of the wholesale abandonment of reading by contemporary society.

***

Below I share with you what I read this year: by month, title, author, year of original publication, a brief response to the book, the format of the book, and the date I finished the book.

(Note: I often read 3-6 books simultaneously (sometimes more) — high school and college style — and that accounts for sometimes finishing fairly long books in such close temporal succession)

This is what I read this year.  This is Part 3, July – September:

July

Fruit of Knowledge: The Vulva vs. The Patriarchy / Liv Stromquist (2014)

Chock full of recondite knowledge: some funny and plenty that is enraging. How stupid we (men) are — or really, the patriarchy is. So much useless pain and loss, but presented and drawn fantastically by Stromquist. Really well done. / e-book, 07/02/20.

Devolution / Max Brooks (2020)

I suppose this is more disappointing than not due to my expectations. I was a big fan of his previous book World War Z.

A very clunky structure here, very limited and strained POV (given what Brooks is trying to do) and the narrative flow suffers for it. It feels filmic (was there an eye to a film deal already roiling in the mind) and not very literary. But that’s OK if it’s done well. This isn’t that well done.

It’s hard to conceive that especially into the second week of the siege that Katie would still be journaling in the fashion she does, but it’s not just that it gets in the way of willing suspension of disbelief it’s also the unlikely changes in character so many of these people undergo, without justification. 

The characterizations are mostly flat — and there have been many central characters in lit that have been unsympathetic, but most of these characters (except maybe Mostar) are so one dimensional — due to the structural conceit — as to be uninteresting. 

I was hoping they’d all get drawn, quartered and consumed quickly so that maybe Katie might become truly dimensional via the intense self-reflection (that most journaling becomes) as opposed to a mere journaling narrative.

And many of the McCray and Schelling “interviews” are shoehorned in at such inconvenient places — ostensibly to add context — but become narrative burps. So much that what should be narrative becomes quick exposition. 

And that pages long IDF book quotation/insertion so late in the story is really incongruous, it may be thematically congruous, but it really sticks out like a Frankenstein suture.

But Brooks knows how to write thrilling scenes and set up good cliff hanger like episodes. It didn’t matter that I knew I was sometimes reading cheesy writing he still had me hooked — and that’s worth something. The sign of good craft, despite of all the “sewing mistakes” and obvious suturing. 

I read it in two sittings and I wanted to get to the resolution — that’s the sign of a writer who is on to something. It’s just not really very good literature — but a good yarn told at turns well and very “clunkily.” / hardcover, 07/04/20.

Pale Horse, Pale Rider / Katherine Anne Porter (1939)

An excellent Modernist fever dream. / e-book, 07/05/20.

Midnight’s Children / Salman Rushdie (1981)

Too many notes…
Baroque-o-rama…
So-o-o-oh-oh Rococo…
At turns masterful, brilliant and amusing and yet wearying, taxing, and so full of its own unusual self. Quite an experience. Quite unlike anything else — like G.G. Marquez on steroids! Amazing and frustrating all at once. Oy! / ebook, 07/07/20.

Vernon Subutex / Virginie Despentes (2015)

DNF’d 16 chapters in — about 65% of the book. More and more vapidities, torrents of insipid characters, and just plain “dumbassness” caught up in a eurotrash toilet bowl eddy. I had to bail out on this, there are too many good and middling books out there to justify spending any more time with Vernon’s traipsing through the vacuous Paris scene. 

Yeah, we get that these people / “scenesters” are supercilious and shallow but make the damn thing interesting! Wait, don’t tell me, all the interesting characters and situations show up in Chapter 17. Ah, well…

God damn! this was insanely imbecilic. Frustrating.

And the worse thing transgressive lit. can afford to be is dull. And this got dull quickly! Not a whiff of Burroughs, Acker, or even Allemann about.

For all its purile reaching and trying this was just incredibly stupid. Booker short listed?! (what acid was passed out on that jury?) 

This got worse and more uninteresting the further it went along, until it became like an abscess on the back of your throat that you just have to lance immediately to stop the pain… unfortunately some of the pus manages to dribble its way down your esophagus.

I stuck around waiting for the pivot… it never came through 16 chapters… and… I didn’t want to devote anymore time to this abortion. I can’t say “stupid” enough in relation to this “schlocky turd.” / ebook, 07/08/20.

Little Brother / Cory Doctorow (2008)

The concept was great. The writing and situations at turns good and sophomoric. And the deus ex machina in chapter 20 and the lacking denouement — but then again the multipart series is paramount — nearly ruined a decent yarn. Not a good enough flourish at the end to interest me in the rest of the series (won’t be reading it) but a topical tale in its time. / ebook, 07/09/20.

Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. / Alice Birch (2017)

This Play Rages! This is righteous. This is anarchic. This is absurd. And this deserves to be seen (it reads like it), but alas I’ve only read it… maybe it’s out on the intertubes somewhere? Anyway, very good stuff! Ends brilliantly, especially Acts 3 & 4.

“It failed. The whole world failed at it. It could have been so brilliant. How strange of you not to feel sad. 
Who knew life could be so awful.”

Nails it all! / ebook, 07/10/20.

Thank You for Voting: The Maddening, Enlightening, Inspiring Truth About Voting in America / Erin Geiger Smith (2020)

If this were more of a deep dive about the history and machinations around voting then it would be a really solid book. It does some of that around historic voter suppression, gerrymandering, and Supreme Court cases but not enough. 

A lot of space is devoted to how recent organizations go about working up voter aggregation, how social media is used by various players, and even how a documentary film about voting came to be at the Tribeca Film Festival. 

It does provide factoids, but do I need a checklist? I was looking for history and substance, and that’s not the primary focus here. I guess I didn’t read the book synopsis closely enough. 

I did appreciate the nonpartisan approach!

This book maybe best for first time voters, or completists amassing a shelf devoted to books about voting. 

Most engaged voters don’t need guidance on how to distinguish viable news sources or how to figure out how to sort out voting. 

I loved the Electoral College chapter. One whole star for that alone.

Props for being so topical that it manages to include a mention of how Covid-19 might potentially impact voting. Great book for a novice voter. An OK book. / ebook, 07/11/20.

Lost Girls / Robert Kolker (2013/2019)

I don’t read much in the “true crime” genre, but if it’s all this good perhaps I should be paying more attention. 

I came to this because I enjoyed Kolker’s new book Hidden Valley Road so much last month. I took this all in in two sittings. A page turner. 

I don’t follow true crime on TV either, but one had to be under a rock in 2010 not to be vaguely aware of this story. 

Kolker covers it well, and the added bonus is that the e-book version included a 2019 “Afterword” that tied up some loose ends nicely. 

After reading both of Kolker’s books it is obvious that he is a top notch nonfiction writer with an amazing ability to braid multiple narratives into a solid engaging whole. Looking forward to his next work. / ebook, 07/13/20.

The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time / John Kelly (2005)

Another really good, and very well researched, narrative history of the great plague of the mid-1300’s. I’ve read well over half a dozen in the past few months — plague reading through a pandemic. 

Along with Barbara Tuchman’s Distant Mirror (which was about so much more than the plague, but spent a good deal of time of the book focused on the numerous outbreaks during 14th century) — those two are the best books on the subject I’ve read yet. / ebook, 07/15/20.

Life Is Short — Art Is Shorter: In Praise of Brevity / David Shields (2015)

Over three dozen micro fictions, micro nonfictions, and hybrids in between. 

Varying qualities: some old, some new, and without doubt every section annoyingly preceded by the editors providing a synopsis and “writing assignment” on what you’re about to read. 

This was so intrusive that I read the book sections from back to front after the midway point. So instead of being told what I was to read, it became a recap. 

Some gems here, and some duds. / ebook, 07/18/20.

Break It Down / Lydia Davis (1976)

Great collection of micros, short-shorts, flash fictions and any other diminutive one can imagine. Davis is a master of the short form. Among my favorites were one of the longest (at 10 pages) “The House Plans” and one of the shortest (at 9 lines) “The Mother.” / paperback, 07/20/20.

An African American and Latinx History of the United States / Paul Ortiz (2018)

I wish there was more contextualization of the history recounted here into the wider history we’ve been told. It should have been more engaging because it’s such an important subject. 

I was happy to hear a different take on some of the Cuban history I grew up with, but overall while this is good, it’s merely a starting point on getting a more rounded understanding on how Latinx and African Americans impacted dominant US History. 

A more cohesive narrative and dovetailing into the hegemonic history is still needed. Good. / ebook, 07/21/20.

Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back / Mark O’Connell (2020)

I enjoyed the eschatological bent of this book, which was made all the more engaging due to the dark comic undertones — which were often overtones. 

It softened up a bit and became a tad lachrymose during the last chapter “The Redness of the Map.” Otherwise I enjoyed the unusual characters and situations from South Dakota to Chernobyl, and really enjoyed O’Connell’s writing. 

Looking forward to his next book… if we’re still around. / ebook, 07/22/20.

How to Be an Antiracist / Ibram X. Kendi (2019)

Staggering. Another necessary tonic for everyone in this country, and in the Western world by extension. I’ve got Kendi’s earlier books on my to read list now. 

What a personal story, too — beyond the theorizing and historical context. Amazing. 

This is a necessary discomfort. / ebook, 07/23/20.

The Middle Road: American Politics: 1945 – 2000 / Christopher Collier (2001)

Entertaining history of US in the latter half of the 20th century. 

Less obscure surprises for me here (as I wind down with the 22nd book of this 23 book series) as many of these events took place during my lifetime, and I read differing opinions about them in real time. 

One more book to go. This is a YA U.S. history series, which is informative and entertaining for adults as well. Very quick read. / ebook, 07/25/20.

Undiscovered Country Volume 1: Destiny / Scott Snyder (2020)

I checked this digital version out on a whim. 

The synopsis read: “Journey into an unknown region that was once the United States of America — a land that’s become shrouded in mystery and literally walled off from the rest of the world.” 

I thought this might be topical dystopia. Why not? We’re living through one. 

The first 6 issues at once… sure!

How do I get my two hours back? Oy! 

Suffice to say, on a good year I might read a dozen book length graphic novels, and I tend toward the memoir or halfway plausible material. So I’m not the intended audience for most of this genre.

At he tail end of this, Valentina — a journalist, says: “I want to see where the road leads.”

Not I. 

I disembark here… ain’t coming back for more. / ebook, 07/26/20.

Poetry June 2020 / Don Share (ed.) (2020)

Kudos for the Rita Dove, Cynthia Guardado, Rodney Gomez, and Divya Victor. Pages 249-276 are utterly forgettable. / paperback, 07/29/20.

August

The Painted Bird / Jerzy Kosinski (1965)

Searing, strange, and unforgettable — in all the best ways. / ebook, 08/02/20.

Forget Sorrow: An Ancestral Tale / Belle Yang (2010)

A multigenerational family tale replete with lots of Chinese history — both nuggets of ancient history and mostly 20th century Chinese history. 

But this is not a “history” graphic novel, it’s the story of multiple generations of one family living through the upheavals of family intrigue and unfolding historic events in China — and the US in parallel sweeping jump cuts. 

Enjoyable artful graphics and an excellent story — kicks into gear about 2/3’s of the way thru. / ebook, 08/06/20.

The Cold Vanish / Jon Billman (2020)

A compelling and fascinating book for any day hiker or wilderness backpacker. 

The thread organizing the narrative is the heart rending search of the Gray family, especially that of the paterfamilias — Randy — for his son, Jacob, who disappeared on a bike ride through ONP in 2017. 

Author, Jon Billman, was an active participant throughout. 

Because of the dearth of logical details about the numerous other disappearances Billman relates — a fair amount of time is spent entertaining Sasquatch, alien abduction, and preternatural vortex theories (more than I appreciate) — and maybe one too many cases are considered. 

A solid book. Enlightening about Search and Rescue methods and entertaining to boot. / hardcover, 08/10/20.

S-27 / Sarah Grochala (2009)

Sparse and short — a terrifying play. 

Terrifying in that it is based on true accounts of a handful of survivors at S-21, the former Cambodian high school turned torture prison by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970’s.

“Beckett-ian” in its sparse but evocative language and stage direction. 

A powerful work, and made all the more horrifying because it is recent history. / ebook, 08/12/20.

The Lorax / Dr. Seuss (1971)

Just read it for the first time, didn’t read it when I was a kid. 

I read it because Mark O’ Connell (in his terrifying book 
Notes on the Coming Apocalypse…) wrote so highly of it, and how the book had transformed his relationship with his son.

I’m glad I read it. I love its message:

“UNLESS someone like you
cares a whole awful lot, 
nothing is going to get better.
It’s not.”

And I love the classic Dr. Seuss drawing style and language. Better late than never! / ebook, 08/17/20.

Remain in Love: Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Tina / Chris Frantz (2020)

The most enjoyable aspect of this book is the “inside stuff” I never knew about, despite having read a few books and many articles about Talking Heads — and obviously having all their records. By “inside” I mean how certain songs and records were conceived, the dynamics of the NYC scene from Frantz’s POV — much of this is well known, but there were a few obscure and sharp nuggets offered here by Frantz. I also enjoyed hearing more detailed info about his experience at RISD.

What I didn’t much enjoy is the personal sniping (which seems to border on vendetta), or hearing about who did what drugs with who, how often Frantz had “love interludes” with Tina Weymouth, of what he was wearing or eating (to a painful degree of minutiae) 50 years ago, 37 years ago, or 10 years ago — seriously? Who remembers that shit?! 

I’m aware that “gossipy” type anecdotes sell some books, but for someone who constantly takes pains to tell us to what lengths TH went to be “outside of the mold” — some of the more prurient details are straight of of a Kitty Kelley biography or takes from TMZ. Some “color” is good, too much is…

Frantz is not a rocker/writer in the league of Patti Smith or even David Byrne, which in my estimation are better writers of memoir / nonfiction — it doesn’t detract from his right to tell his story (I was glad to find, in theses pages, that Tina is writing her own memoir) — but Frantz tells it in a sophomoric manner/style of rote personal essay. He could have used some more editorial guidance — especially around cliche, triteness and treacle.

It’s, nonetheless, a mostly enjoyable read — beyond style, beyond the areas of anachronistic lack of clarity, and some spots of sheer dullness.

It’s also a reminder of how talented these four players (and the supporting cast) are, and a reminder that no matter how successful all the Heads have been on their own, and how enjoyable a lot of that work has been — it’s never completely attained the same level of what they were able to accomplish together.

I hate hearing how so many of the artists I enjoy are assholes in their full-time lives. I guess it’s better to know than not. 

I don’t think I’d read this again, but I’m glad I read it. / hardcover, 08/19/20.

Earth Abides / George R. Stewart (1949)

Interesting and mostly entertaining take on a post-apocalyptic cataclysm — and unusually topical during today’s pandemic.

The second-third of the book, as well as the tail end of the first section, was a slog. Endless vacillation on a number of issues by Ish, a dull settling in the narrative, and some characters I didn’t care for, especially Joey. 

I also didn’t enjoy Stewart’s italicized parallel narratives — sometimes heavily biblical, sometimes forward looking, often intrusive to the unfolding narrative.

Gimme The Road every time over this.

Chock full of good ideas hampered by mediocre execution. / audiobook, 08/20/20.

Atomic Habits / James Clear (2018)

Read it all before in other guises. To Clear’s credit, he repackages and presents anew all those self-help books of previous decades — now here for millennials. A bit of a “jock” mentality, but nonetheless “punchy” and crisp in presentation. No new concepts here — they’re just called something different than what you’ve heard before. / ebook, 08/21/20.

Poetry July/August 2020 / Don Share (ed.) (2020)

Really enjoyed his edition of Poetry — including the Edwin Morgan Portfolio & Poetry Award sections, and the Comment section. 

Outstanding poems from Roseanne Watt (“Nightingales”) and Penny Boxall (“Fabric”) and James McGonigal’s “Edwin Morgan…” essay.

All five poems by Eduardo C. Corral were excellent (“God is circling like a vulture…”). 

Joyce Carol Oates’s “The Blessing” was a treat — of sorts. / paperback, 08/23/20.

The Dog Stars / Peter Heller (2012)

Very well imagined and written. Such an improvement over Earth Abides, which I recently read. The first half was taut and engrossing. It’d been a long time since I’d come across passages in a book that were so riveting that in a couple of sections I couldn’t read fast enough to get to the resolution of tension. Heller does that very well.

The book’s soft spot — is literally its soft spot — the unspooling of a love story, and the attendant sexuality, which to my palate was neither credible or necessary… Heller’s prerogative, it’s where his muse took him. But it seems out of place to delve into an annoying (or was it a crass editorial ploy to engage a certain readership?) romance novel” diversion. Truly off-putting and a tear in the fabric of the narrative.

Otherwise, it’s full of well rendered characters and situations — pulse-pounding in places, surprising, and a very good entry into the post-apocalypse sub-genre. / ebook, 08/25/20.

The Changing Face of American Society: 1945-2000 / Christopher Collier (2001)

Started this series two years ago, and 23 short and entertaining volumes later… I’m done.

Oddly, I found the books less interesting the closer I got to the period which I actually lived through. Again, being a YA series, you get short, punchy writing, and some serious glossing over is done.

The series does an excellent job providing a primer and in a number of cases a first exposure — even to a fan of history. 

Well done series of books. / ebook, 08/26/20.

1984 / George Orwell (1949)

Re-read in 2020. Fourth time around with this one, and ever more prescient — now more than ever… (if you say it enough it becomes truth?)

The best book I’ve ever read to get at the gist of political power and the human condition in relation to that power. Just astonishing in the complexity ensconced within the simplicity of the writing and the stark situations portrayed. 

Amazing.

Still at the top of my reading heap — up there with Beckett’s Godot and Camus’s Sisyphus. Will return to these works time and time again as long as I can read. Although 1984, in my estimation, is the bleakest of the three — but the most palpably possible. 

First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers / Loung Ung (2000)

Amazing what Ung lived through. The story is amazing. 

The writing choices and style are a hinderance and a burden on the narrative. Too many times I was taken out of the narrative flow by the 1st person present tense POV, ostensibly a 6-10 year old? The adult observations were jarring.

More power to Ung for surviving it and doing such great work as an adult, but an editor or better editorial guidance would have made this a classic. 

Congratulations on the film, which I’ll see soon, and the series of memoirs. An amazing story, imperfectly told. / ebook, 08/28/20.

Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me / Ellen Forney (2012)

Engaging graphic novel. Good pen work. 

Too long tho, spun its wheels about 3/4 of the way through. 

As a BP2 individual I know how long it can take to sort through everything Forney went through after a diagnosis — we just don’t have to live and relive every med recalibration. 

A tighter edit would’ve made this very good. Still enjoyable (to the extent someone else’s difficulties could be empathized with) and enlightening — especially to those who may be starting down the potentially long path to balance, and understanding for family members. But not a “second read-thru” or ownership candidate. 

Still glad I borrowed it from the library. Good. / ebook, 08/20/20.

Arctic Oil / Clare Duffy (2018)

Interesting intersection where the maternal dynamic, environmental terrorism, and North Sea drilling intersect.

A couple of moments of melodrama and pendantic sloganeering that detract a bit, but this is a good short play.

Evocative line: “Did you know that every dawn is an apocalypse?” / ebook, 08/30/20.

438 Days: An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea / Jonathan Franklin (2015)

Well written recounting of Salvador Alvarenga’s hellacious 438 day drift across the Pacific Ocean from Costa Azul, Mexico to Ebon, in the Marshall Islands, in a 25-foot long “sharking” launch.

Truly one of the greatest feats of survival I have encountered in a book. Franklin did meticulous research and fashioned a crisp and direct narrative, continually incorporating expert accounts and other instances of forays into the doldrums in the Pacific. 

He detailed and provided background for just about everyone who who came into the orbit of Alvarenga’s drift into castaway history. 

Amazing story. Very good book. / ebook, 08/31/20.

September

Night Sky with Exit Wounds / Ocean Vuong (2016)

The first section of this collection is among the most evocative poetry I’ve encountered. Amazing juxtaposition of images and unusual allusions. At turns violent and searingly beautiful. Well worth repeated readings. / ebook, 09/01/20.

One Man’s Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey / Richard Proenneke & Sam Keith (1973)

Enjoyable journal narrative of Richard Proenneke’s year and a half in the wilds of Alaska as he built his cabin, refined it, and stayed 16 months — venturing out to spot wildlife, fish, fell lots of wood, and generally enjoy the pristine scene at his lakeside setting nestled within the rim of a mountain range.

Sam Keith did an excellent job of editing through the narrative and creating an engaging story. Unfortunately the slight problem with this stylistic choice is that a lot of journal writing focuses on some of the dullest quotidian stuff in a person’s life, e.g. what he eats, how much wood he saws, how he cooks, what packages are flown into the cabin, et al. So there is a fair amount of repetitive and uninteresting information among the thrilling wildlife encounters (including a near death experience).

But it’s such a grand endeavor that Proenneke sets out on, and lived through, that it more than obviated the diaristic approach. Good read! / ebook, 09/03/20.

Down and Out in Paris and London / Geroge Orwell (1933)

Mostly very enjoyable reading. 

Intending to read the Orwell oeuvre — being only familiar with a smattering of essays, Animal Farm, and 1984 (four times) — I was surprised by the strength of his first book, but also put off by some wisps of anti-semitism (that I’m not certain is only a “put-on” projection for the narrator) and some of the judgmental “class chauvinism” I detected.

I always considered the “Goldstein” caricature a necessary narrative trope in 1984, to illustrate the lengths totalitarian states go to vilifying “the other,” but in conjunction with some of the vitriol here in his first complete book it makes me curious.

The narrative here, in this fictionalized memoir (as best I can tell), is very good. Typical clear simple prose conveying complex ideas, great roman a clef conventions, and some very funny episodes in both Paris and London are illustrated, but there is a darkness in Orwell’s class and race observations that is off-putting to this 21st century reader — especially here, where it is unclear to me where the author’s POV ends and the narrator’s begins. One in the same? How much is fictionalized in this ostensible memoir, and just how much of this did Orwell believe himself?

Still a worthwhile read. And still looking forward to the rest of the Orwell shelf. / ebook, 09/04/20.

Fight Club / Chuck Palahniuk (1996)

All I expected and more, having seen the film ages ago, and already having read Pygmy and Damned. (Consider This is the next Palahniuk I read.) What a brilliant way to start a literary career. The tsundoku list is one volume shorter! / paperback, 09/05/20.

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage / Alfred Lansing (1959)

Fantastic read. Lansing did an amazing job weaving a solid narrative from many sources. 

Amazed that there isn’t the slightest afterword mention of expedition members lives post-rescue — just a couple of paragraphs?! 

Gripping stuff. / ebook, 09/07/20.

Good Citizens Need Not Fear / Maria Reva (2020)

Very good debut collection of short stories. Novelistic in that they are linked — a number of characters make repeat appearances in the stories, and a crumbling apartment block (pre and post Perestroika) are the common link to these darkly comic and absurd stories. I’d definitely read Maria Reva’s next book. / hardcover, 09/09/20.

Blue Ticket / Sophie Macintosh (2020)

I found this at turns interesting (conceptually) and flat. In the abstract I enjoyed the ideas, the narrative was a bit on the “meh” side. I enjoy some of the amorphousness — enough space to allow the reader to bring in their propensities in exegesis and prejudices, and fill in the narrative; but after thinking about it at length, I think that it was too decontextualized to be the type of book I would want to re-read, though I truly appreciate the ideas about freedom / control therein. / audiobook, 09/11/20.

Darkness Visible / William Styron (1990)

Moments of sheer desperation tempered by the same flatness in the narrative that affected Styron in life. It’s tremendously intimate with odd moments of being held arm’s distance away from his experience. He captures depression so well and yet oddly oblique. / ebook, 09/16/20.

Horizon / Barry Lopez (2019)

(Barry Lopez passed away last week, on Christmas day. Barry Lopez’s righteous voice will be sorely missed.)

The writing and sensitivity are virtuosic. Impressive look back at a peripatetic life, through numerous visits to the same places layered over each other. “Palimpsestic.
Quite a vision of the world.

But on occasion there are one too many tangents, one too many notes, and one too many navel gazes. I loved everything but the middle “Jackal Camp” section. 

This is incredible volubility of mind. 

I’m a newish fan of Lopez’s, this is only the second book of his that I’ve read. I’ll obviously be back for more. / hardcover, 09/18/20.

The New Wilderness / Diane Cook (2020)

An astounding melodramatic mediocrity made all the more disappointing by its shortlist for the Booker Prize, and all the hype surrounding this book.

Half-baked soap opera in the wilderness state of a nebulous dystopian society. Full of unsympathetic characters — I can’t tell you how often I wished Bea, Agnes, Carl or Glen would have been dismemboweled by wolves, felled by falling trees, swept away during a river ford, or ingested toxic mushrooms. 

Hallmark Channel Dystopia.

This may be all the more disappointing because I’d been mildly disappointed by Blue Ticket, a dystopian Booker Prize longlister. I may ignore next year’s Booker list. Oy! / hardcover, 09/19/20.

Walking / Erling Kagge (2019)

Meandering meaditation on the central act of walking and its connection to just about everything else in our lives and culture. Covers a lot of ground — family, epistemology, exploration, philosophy, the arts & writing, and how these are interconnected with walking. As varied as the author is peripatetic, and he walks a lot. Uplifting and engaging slim volume. / ebook, 09/21/20.

Rachel Carson / The Sense of Wonder (1956)

A lovely exploration of childhood wonder. Should be required reading for any parent — and any adult that wishes to rekindle that glorious state of approaching the world. Truly lyrical and a touch rueful that Carson didn’t get to complete this fantastic little book. / audiobook, 09/25/20.

Hiroshima Mon Amour / Marguerite Duras (1959)

I can’t imagine reading this in a vacuum, i.e., not having the Alain Resnais film as context. While the images here are helpful they don’t capture the true genius that was the film, and neither does this script on its own. Very nice that appendices are included with the scenes that were cut from the film, including the character studies and background. / ebook, 09/27/20.

Red Pill / Hari Kunzru (2020)

Mind-warpingly good. Intelligent and dense high concepts. One of the year’s best books.

What seems an odd and meandering tale of recondite academicism and lassitude, during a writing fellowship in Wannsee, turns into a slide into the heart of darkness. 

One of the best depictions of a descent into acute madness I’ve ever read. 

Foreboding and cautionary (in the best way) and darkly humorous to boot. More Kunzru going on my reading list! / ebook & audiobook, 09/28/20.

Dream Work / Mary Oliver (1986)

Very good collection of poetry. Oliver is masterful at pulling out the analogues of natural world situations and juxtaposing them with human situations, and then presenting it in a very original and distinct manner. 

“Dogfish,” “Rage,” “Wild Geese,” “Storm in Massachusetts…,” and “1945-1985…” were especially resonant.

“… in your dreams you have sullied and murdered,
and dreams do not lie.”
/ ebook, 09/30/20.

“Our children and grandchildren, seeing how tentative our response has been to global climate disorder and to whatever else might conceivably be coming along—the sudden collapse of an international financial institution like Deutsche Bank or a pandemic for which there is no immediate cure—have framed already their objections: Why did you not prepare? Why were you so profligate while we still had a chance? Where was your wisdom?”

— Barry Lopez / American Geography, Introduction

About istsfor manity

i'm a truncated word-person looking for an assemblage of extracted teeth in a tent full of mosquitoes (and currently writing a novel without writing a novel word) and pulling nothing but the difficult out of the top hat while the bunny munches grass in the hallway. you might say: i’m thee asynchronous voice over in search of a film....
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