pandemic year reading (pt.4)

A Pandemic Year in Books, (Pt. 4)

 A year in books. A pandemic year in reading.

I suppose that at a certain point this past year — during the second month of the COVID-19 lockdown here in Massachusetts — I must have felt like Henry Bemis, the Burgess Meredith character in the Twilight Zone episode pictured above. That show, appropriately entitled ” Time Enough at Last,”  remains one of the most popular and memorable Twilight Zone episodes ever.

But instead of having all that time available left to read voraciously because I was the last man on earth after a nuclear war, I was just one of the millions of people who suddenly had a surfeit of time to dispose of in whichever way they found fit within the confines of four walls. I chose to read the maximum number of books I could manage in a year’s time. 

I read more than I ever did at any time in high school, college, or graduate school: I read 185 books in 2020.  I finished the last one this afternoon: Poetry December 2020.  

185 books is nowhere near a record — look around on and you’ll find dozens of folks who manage to read 200-300 books a year — but 185 books in one year is my personal record. A record I don’t wish to repeat, because if I have that much time on my hands again,  it would be an augury of bad things afoot in our world. 

My reading resolutions for next year: again, is to read 100 books (2 books a week, really, so 104 books are acceptable) and that 50 of those come from the 185 tsundoku books arrayed about the house. Tsundoku are books that amass in one’s keep, sometimes for years, that go unread.

If you’re not already connected to all the benefits your local public library has to offer —  I strongly recommend availing yourself of services and apps that are offered free through your library such as Overdrive (ebooks & audiobooks), Libby (ebooks & audiobooks), Hoopla (ebooks, audiobooks, movies/tv, and music), RBG Digital (magazines & audiobooks) and Kanopy (films). You’ll never have to step foot in your library, especially helpful during a pandemic, and all you need is an active library card, and those services will provide countless hours of edification and entertainment. I used those services liberally this year.

Ray Bradbury’s advice got me through this most unusual year: “Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens.”

I wish you have a safe and happy new year. It is bound to get better.

Thanks for stopping by and reading in 2020. All the best to you in 2021!


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 4, October – December:


A Burning / Megha Majumdar (2020)

What resonates most with me is that despite the specific locale and culture this book depicts situations that are universal. Raw political power, class chauvinism, and human determinism will steamroll over the unlucky and the unfortunate — it’s the same the world over. No matter the country or the “-ism” in practice. And it’s a very good tale to boot.

The braided story form is ambitious and very well done. The time Majumdar takes to develop the characters, add dimension, and allow the narrative to unspool on its own particular timeline, belies that this is a debut novel. 

So well done and deserving of consideration on the Booker Prize shortlist and the National Book Award. It’s heartening to see/read A Burning in light of some other underwhelming and overhyped books. 

I look forward to whatever Majumdar has on deck next. / hardcover, 10/01/20.

Zen Pencils: Creative Struggle / Gavin Aung Than (2018)

Enjoyable graphic retelling of inspiring quotes, life experiences, and “aha!” moments from some of the greatest artists, writers, painter, scientists, etc., including 8 helpful daily rituals from Than himself. / ebook, 10/06/20.

Upstream: Selected Essays / Mary Oliver (2016)

An excellent collection of essays, usually keeping the natural world in the forefront. Oddly, I found the only somewhat flat parts to be the middle section essays on writers: Emerson, Poe, Wordsworth, and Whitman — all good, but not what I wanted which was Oliver’s unique views on the natural world and juxtaposing it with the human condition. Great read. / ebook, 10/08/20.

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body Healing of Trauma / Bessel A. van der Kolk (2014)

Important book about the trauma/brain-behavior circuit. Effectively shows how trauma leads to physiological changes (re-wiring) in the brain, and how it leads to less than ideal outlooks and behaviors. The author provides different approaches/disciplines to dealing with these difficulties and how to go about achieving equanimity. / ebook, 10/09/20.

The Glass Hotel / Emily St. John Mandel (2020)

I really enjoyed the temporally disjunctive narrative and the convolutions of the plot, and how eventually all the loose ends come together in denouement. 

The trip back to 2008 and the Madoff-like ponzi was bracing — the horror as everything seemed to be in meltdown… wow, sounds familiar 12 years later.

Anyway, really well done. A gripping yarn. I like that we don’t always get what we want — tha’ anti-Hallmark is always welcome. Emily St.‘s got it going on. / ebook & audiobook, 10/10/20.

Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness and Creativity / David Lynch (2006)

What’s not to like? Plenty of factoids about most of Lynch’s films, his meeting Fellini and Lynch’s favorite films; his time in art school; a great account of how TM has helped Lynch creatively and through life (this is not a how to meditate book or how to do TM, go elsewhere for that); and plenty of theory on how to be creative via an extended fishing metaphor. 

I read the physical book while listening to Lynch read it on Audible and it was a treat. Lynch’s deadpan quasi-whine is pitched perfectly over the proceedings. 

I’m a huge Eraserhead fan, and it was fun to be reminded that it was once Kubrick’s favorite film. 

Very quick read or listen, but concentrated with good stuff. Definitely “a must” for Lynch fans. / ebook & audiobook, 10/11/20.

Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster / Adam Higginbotham (2019)

Very well researched and chilling story of the Chernobyl disaster. Deep background on the USSR’s secretive nuclear program and the culture that led to the disaster. Expertly told and written. Hard to put this book down. / ebook, 10/14/20.

Dada & Surrealism for Beginners / Elsa Bethanis, Peter Bethanis, & Joe Lee (2007)

Yes, for beginners, but still entertaining and has the added benefit of the graphic illustrations. / ebook, 10/15/20.

To You We shall Return: Lessons About Our Planet from the Lakota / Jospeh M. Marshall III (2010)

Very enjoyable ruminations of a Lakota childhood; sobering reminders of hateful hegemony; and a paradigm for living in unison with the earth and each other. I’m not hopeful, but I am grateful for those who are. / audiobook, 10/16/20.

Leave the World Behind / Rumaan Alam (2020)

For me this was almost a perfect novel. At its best it reminded me of what I love so much about Waiting For Godot, The Myth of Sisyphus, or even Eraserhead. Except the absurd and existential here is married to a novel of mores. There is never truly an ability (or need) to know everything when one finds oneself in an existential quandary, only that one has to act — or not.

Alam is masterful at brining an omniscience in on occasion to comment on what is going on — or maybe going — in the wider world. There are plenty of absurd moments, and a fair amount of serious social commentary implied. 

I don’t really enjoy how certain sex scenes are rendered — while I have nothing against such scenes — I don’t enjoy knowing how cum goes down a particular character’s throat, et al. This is market driven stuff, crass calculations made by a writer that doesn’t need to do so. I don’t enjoy Sex in the City intruding in this great narrative. These are the only jarring moments for me. The rest of the suspense (which I feel is of a literary, not potboiler bent) is expertly done. 

This is the first of Alam I’ve read. I have no interest in reading his first novel — it sounds precisely like the made for market tripe I like to avoid. And if going forward this is the sort of work and issues he takes on, I will be an expectant reader.

Really very good. It could also be a perfect work of theater or film (or limited series) if done well. I would be shocked if this isnt already optioned to be filmed or adapted. Doesn’t skrimp on intelligence or excellent characterization. 

A near classic, and certainly a perfect work for our times. 2020 in a nutshell. / ebook & audiobook, 10/17/20.

The Sun Is a Compass: A 4,000-Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds / Caroline Van Hemert (2019)

Amazing adventure. The sometimes super-heavy navel gazing is tempered by the truly expert nature/expedition narrative. 

I learned about birds I never knew existed — E7 the legendary godwit? seriously?! — and what true affinity to one’s calling can be like. And an incredible long distance adventure to boot — with some of the gnarliest close animal encounters I’ve ever read about. 

The images are great too. It’s nice that Van Hemmert sorted it all out. Btw/ she and Pat built an incredible looking cabin. He’s got some serious design chops. / hardcover, 10/18/20.

Tender is the Flesh / Agustina Bazterrica (2017/2020)

First translation in English. Memorable book. Memorable characters. Memorable scenes.

There are a handful of chapters in the first third of this book that are among the most hair-raising and creeped-out pages I’ve ever read. I don’t think this is merely a genre book (horror/sci-fi) that would diminish it. 

This is a book about big ideas akin to 1984, but its main conceit, I think, holds it back from being a classic in the same vein — it’s just so unsettling on a visceral level.

But it is an outstanding book, and it’s guaranteed to stay with you long after reading. The deadpan declarative approach makes it all the more unsettling. 

“Soylent green is people!” will, in retrospect, seem merely a cavil after this. 

Great mind. Great writer. / paperback, 10/20/20.

Dream of Fair to Middling Women / Samuel Beckett (1932/1992)

This took a month to read. It was a virtuosic slog.

It’s hard to believe that the same man who wrote Godot, Endgame, The Unnameable, anything post-1946-48, is the person who wrote this.

The first section reads at times like a dada confluence of glossolalia & logorrhea meet Gertrude Stein. Wow! The prolixity, the dam break of allusions and proto-eurotrash pre-jet set flotsam… seriously, it was a slog — five or six pages at a time.

Imagine The Wasteland without the end notes over 241 pages. No wonder he didn’t want this published during his lifetime. 

It’s not bad at all, but it defies Beckett-ian expectations. My favorite work of lit is Waiting For Godot, and while this has some of the same sensibility it has none of its economy or deadpan style. It’s funny, yes, but in a sophomoric way. 

It is such a showy work — in modernist style: disjointed narrative, excessively allusive, stylistically disjunctive. I would have enjoyed this as an undergrad if it had been published then.

I mostly enjoyed it because it’s Beckett. It’s at turns intelligent, funny, and flummoxing. Did I mention it was a slog? / paperback, 10/21/20.

Beckett in 90 Minutes / Paul Strathern (2004)

I read this because I love Beckett’s work, but mostly because I’d just finished Dream of Fair to Middling Women. I wanted more insight on that work. I got it; it’s a short passage, and then I was reminded why I love Beckett so much. And I learned some great new stuff too, especially about his life and the manner in which Suzanne Dechevaux saved his career and by extension his life which seemed at a complete standstill. A very good introductory look into Beckett’s life and work — warts and all. / audiobook, 10/21/20.

Journal of a Trapper: Nine Years in the Rocky Mountains, 1834-1843 / Osborne Russell (1921)

One of the rare books of this type that admits that the depredations inflicted by white men on the fauna of the west was a terrible mistake, but it’s only one sentence toward the end of his time in the western lands — and he certainly had no compunctions about killing the numerous Indian people already there. 

The main drawback of “journal” narratives is that in most cases they’re really not. They’re just a quotidian accounting of events, often laconic, e.g.,November 1 — camped by the Powder River. Eight inches of snow fell. November 2…

These books still offer a look back at the exploration (though it’s mostly extirpation of Indians, beaver, and bison) of a previously pristine and changing landscape, and that’s why they attract, but too often it’s a look back in horror. Nonetheless, it doesn’t detract from Russell’s intrepidness and determination at making a life for himself (at too great a cost, I believe). We can’t change history. We can only hope not to repeat our terrible mistakes. / ebook, 10/21/20.

Schopenhauer in 90 Minutes / Paul Strathern (1998)

I got more of Schopenhauer in this 90 minute gloss than I did in a semester-long undergraduate Intro to Philosophy course at a Jesuit University.

It’s a good departure point for further exploration if one is so inclined. It’s odd how the same mind can conjure such bright and exacting views on existence and still have room for misogyny, racism, and anti-semitism. 

It’s a good introduction that doesn’t really touch on much of the latter, but the older I get the harder it is to parse and rationalize any of that away. 

I did “jump off,” read a little more and found that I don’t need to spend more time with Schopenhauer than this.

This for me is the best of Schopenhauer:

“Our life is not only short, but our knowledge of it severely limited… our consciousness is a momentary flicker in the midst of night…”
— Arthur Schopenhauer / Parerga and Paralipomena

audiobook, 10/22/20.

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear / Elizabeth Gilbert (2015)

I haven’t read any other Elizabeth Gilbert. Eat, Pray, Love seems like the sort of book tailor made for the Hallmark Channel… no, thanks. Someone suggested I read this. Gilbert has a lot of intelligence and experience when it comes to creativity and the discipline of writing. I enjoyed her take on art. / ebook-10/24/20.

Averno / Louise Glück (2006)

Amazing poet. Now a Laureate. Fantastic collection. “Telescope” is one of my all time favorites. paperback, 10/25/20.

Nothing to See Here / Kevin Wilson (2019)

An absolute hoot! Fantastic voice and persona throughout, odd characters, and absurdly surreal kiddies catching fire. Good stuff. I’m going back to read earlier Kevin Wilson. / ebook & audiobook, 10/26/20.

My Morning Routine: How Successful People Start Every Day Inspired / Benjamin Spall & Michael Xander (2018)

Curious to see what others do, but didn’t represent enough artists and writers — more CEO’s and business folk than engaged my full interest. Still full of some practical and useful info, and a couple of bizarre folks and routines. / audiobook, 10/31/20.


The Body: A Guide for Occupants / Bill Bryson (2019)

Bryson does as marvelous a job with our human bodies as he did with Australia, the year 1927, the AT, et al. He makes any subject engaging and witty — especially when it comes to his own life. An amazing mass of information reintroduced and made more interesting than any high school or college class on the same subject. / audiobook, 11/01/20.

Intimations / Zadie Smith (2020)

Life in the time of pandemic. The closing essay is astounding and worthy of canonizing. All dealt with the pandemic in one form or another, so it’s topical. But a few were slight. I did not enjoy the “Intimations” postscript thingamajiggy that does more for the writer than it does for the reader. Still good stuff overall. / ebook, 11/03/20.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost / Rebecca Solnit (2005)

Always an entertaining and educational experience reading Solnit. Loved the strands throughout the collection about her days as a youngster in San Francisco and being a denizen of punk and alternative film movements. All “The Blue of Distance” essays were excellent. Great book to get “lost” in. / ebook, 11/06/20.

Poetry October 2020 / Holly Amos (ed.) (2020)

Enjoyed the poems of Nathan Spoon, Adrienne Su, Katie Hartsock, and Nikki Wallschlaeger, et al. / paperback, 11/07/20.

Look: Poems / Solmaz Sharif (2016)

Excellent and difficult collection that reads like a litany of the worst types of iniquities and death that we rain upon each other — specifically as it relates to war and the delusions the US operates under as it moves through the world with its awful logic and nomenclature. Searing stuff. / paperback, 11/09/20.

Several Short Sentences About Writing / Verlyn Klinkenborg (2012)

Use this book as a soporific.

It’s loaded with good advice, tho… (just broke two rules) / audiobook, 11/14/20.

The Violent Bear It Away / Flannery O’ Connor (1960)

Has all the elements of O’Connor’s masterful storytelling ratcheted up to “11.” Imagine Wise Blood on steroids and you’ve got the Tarwaters of Powderhead, TN. She took many of the concepts she first explored in Wise Blood and took them to their (ill) logical and more violent conclusions here. / ebook & audiobook, 11/15/20.

The Harpy / Megan Hunter (2020)

Amazing narrative of the inexorable breakdown — and liberation (of sorts) — of the narrator Lucy Stevenson. Her husband Jake’s deception leads to Lucy’s quasi-surreal transmogrification that explodes every aspect of her acculturated life as a housewife / mother. Great counterpoint in the narrative. / ebook, 11/18/20.

Verge: Stories / Lidia Yuknavitch (2020)

This may be the most disappointing Yuknavitch book I’ve read — I’ve yet to read them all, this is the fourth I’ve read — it’s nonetheless an OK book. Some stories are excellent, strange, and evocative (exactly what one expects from Yuknavitch) — “The Pull,” “The Organ Runner,” “Cosmos,” “A Woman Refusing,” are examples.

Other stories in this collection feel bloated and overwrought, despite the short word counts. It’s up and down with this collection. Many more “down beats” (narratively repetitive moments) during the last half: “Shooting,” “A Woman Apologizing,” “Second Coming,” “How to Lose An I,” et al. 

I left with a feeling of tawdriness and underachievement I never felt during The Chronology of Water despite the similar themes and incidents. It read as “one notey” on the way out. / hardcover, 11/21/20.

The End We Start From / Megan Hunter (2017)

Nothing else quite like it. I’d read Hunter for the first time a few days prior when I finished The Harpy, which was very engaging with its quasi-surreal story and braided narrative approach. This is even more engaging (I thought) in its sparse narrative and poetic flourishes, and I enjoy how Hunter counterpoints the narrative here with mythological jump-cuts (of sorts). At times reminiscent of the best qualities I enjoyed in The Road (the narrative sparseness, the lack of a certain knowledge, and the wandering through an end times event with child) Children of Men and a touch of The New Wilderness which this is far superior to. Keen to see what Hunter cooks up next. / ebook, 11/22/20.

Poetry November 2020 / Holly Amos (ed.) (2020)

Oy! on the verge of cancelling my subscription to this journal.

I did love the Avery R. Young and Vanessa Stauffer. / paperback, 11/24/20.


The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity / Toby Ord (2020)

We’re in for some hard times ahead, and yet Ord ends up feeling more optimistic than not about humanity’s chances. The first five chapters are riveting, then the book loses steam in a chapter devoted to statistical analyses, and never really regains its form, despite some pragmatic ideas. Worthwhile read. / audiobook, 12/11/20.

The Orchard Keeper / Cormac McCarthy (1965)

Big fan of the author’s “mature style.” This reminds me of Samuel Beckett’s first novel, which I recently read, lots of flash and style (it’s painfully detailed natural descriptions here) and a far cry from the “weight” and ascetic quality of later work. Still, it’s McCarthy and worth the time. Just don’t expect No Country for Old Men or The Road style McCarthy. / papaerback, 12/12/20.

How to Break Up with Your Phone / Catherine Price (2018)

Practical advice about putting the blasted “devil machine” down… for a bit, anyway. / ebook, 12/13/20.

1968: Eye Hotel: A Novella / Karen Tei Yamashita (2014)

Interesting reading, great sense of time and place, and a very engaging look at this cultural milieu. Don’t know if I’ll read all ten, but will definitely read 1970: I Hotel next. / ebook, 12/16/20.

1970: “I” Hotel: A Novella / Karen Tei Yamashita (2014)

Engaging look back at the height and the start of the wane of radical countercultural philosophy and just how hard it was to make pragmatic. Riveting characters here. / ebook, 12/18/20.

1974: I-Migrant: A Novella / Karen Tei Yamashita (2014)

The most engaging section/novella in the first half of the massive I Hotel. The histories of numerous emigres, mostly Philippine in this section, overlaid on the the history of the first half of the 20th century. Rich characterizations and development. Very good. / ebook, 12/19/20.

MOME Vol. 10 / Eric Reynolds (ed.) (2008)

Interesting anthology, good variety of artists. Wonderfully askew. But admittedly hit or miss. Favorites were “The Five Oracles of Gossip” by Ray Fenwick, Jim Woodring’s “The Lute String, part 2,” and “Life with Mr. Dangerous, part 8.” Too much Sophie Crumb for my palate. I really enjoyed the interview with Tom Kaczynski more than I enjoyed “Phase Transition.” Good read. / ebook, 12/23/20.

The Best of America: Seven Classic Short Stories / Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, O. Henry (2012)

All classics, indeed — except Alcott’s “Mermaids,” which was the only story here I was unfamiliar with, and better suited for an 8-year old girl, the reading was so treacly, and the story despite being a child’s story was as dull as could be. Most of it purple prose, but I suppose the best of American purple prose. / audiobook, 12/24/20.

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work / Mason Currey (2013)

Re-read. Piecemeal reading works best here, I spread it out over two months this time — reading about the working routines of others is very interesting but could make for a dull book if read in a two day session. Making a daily ritual of Daily Rituals works very well. Illuminating, intriguing, and always fun to compare others working routines to your own. / hardcover, 12/25/20.

The Writing Life / Annie Dillard (1989)

Re-read. A fitting bookend read. This is one of the first books I finished after the outgoing President’s inauguration, and one of the last I’ll read at the end of his pathetic term. Just to say, I enjoyed it so much more this time around in this cultural milieu. 

Dillard’s book revealed much more of itself this time around. I went into it the first time expecting a direct engagement with the writing life(as Anne Lamott, Walter Mosley, and Stephen King did in their books about the writing life) e.g., practicalities, how Dillard did this and that, her approach, etc., and there is that here, but in a more subsumed form. It is is a much more poetic book that engages creativity on a grander scale, not merely the practicalities of the art/discipline. 

As I was expecting this approach on the second read (nearly 4 years later) I was able to take more from it. It’s quite a marvelous book about the creative life, and naturally “the writing life” is part of that too. / audiobook, 12/29/20.

This Year You Write Your Novel / Walter Mosley (2007)

Re-read. I still consider this one of the best and most encouraging books on writing. Mosley’s focus is on the novel, but his approach to writing is good for any discipline one attempts. I think this re-read begs a re-read next year of Mosley’s Elements of Fiction, which I read earlier this year and was disappointed and confounded by — must have been the virus in the ether. This is a top 3 book on writing — along with Lamott & King’s entries in the subject.

Poetry December 2020 / Holly Amos (ed.)

That’s the way you finish out the year — with the best issue of the year! Noor Hindi’s “Fuck your Lesson on Craft, My People Are Dying” is the best among an excellent selection of poems from Brayan Salinas, Agne Minko, A.D. Lauren-Abunassar, et al. / paperback, 12/31/20.

“Oh, there is a hell coming that is incomprehensible to people—we’re going to lose a lot of people. And the government is not going to get us through, and the business mind is not going to get us through. We’ll have to learn to take care of each other locally and wait for that to spread from one community to another. But I think it’s possible.”

— Barry Lopez / Sierra, interview, August 20, 2019.

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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