2017: My Year In Reading

I finished 30 books in 2017. It was a good year for reading–nine perfect scores, including three in a row! The biggest development was getting new glasses over the summer–after suffering headaches that slowed me down for far too long, I finally took care of this, and I got much more done after. On the downside, I now see some big holes: no poetry, no science fiction or fantasy, not nearly enough of what I started the year wanting to read. Alas. Still, a great time.

  1. Eliza, Keith and Ann Terry (1.8, biography)–B
  2. Where Love Is, There God Is Also, Leo Tolstoy (1.14, literature, Dole trans. / Jordan intro)–A
  3. Eclogues & Georgics, Virgil (1.21, poetry, Mackail trans.)–C
  4. The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer (2.11, classics, poetry, Neville Coghill trans.)–A+
  5. To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf (3.11, literature)–B
  6. A Walk Among the Tombstones, Lawrence Block (3.20, mystery)–B
  7. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Rod Dreher (3.27, biography)–A+
  8. The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher (5.29, religion, politics)–A
  9. The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank (6.23, history)–A
  10. Born Fighting, James Webb (6.27, history)–A
  11. Uncle Vanya, Anton Chekhov (7.1, drama)–C
  12. Saint Joan, George Bernard Shaw (7.27, drama)–A
  13. Everything That Remains, The Minimalists (7.27, memoir)–A+
  14. Purgatory, Dante (7.29, poetry, classic, Anthony Esolen trans.)–A
  15. The Awakening of Miss Prim, Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera (8.22, fiction)–B
  16. Nightworld, F. Paul Wilson (8.26, horror)–A+
  17. Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift (9.17, satire)–A
  18. Paradise, Dante (10.17, poetry, classic, Anthony Esolen trans.)–A+
  19. How Dante Can Save Your Life, Rod Dreher (10.23, literary criticism, memoir)–A+
  20. Speak To The Earth, Rachel Peden (10.31, nature, memoir)–A+
  21. Fear and Trembling, Soren Kierkegaard (11.10, philosophy, Lowrie trans.)–A
  22. Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer (11.20, classic, Windeatt trans.)–D
  23. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, Richard Bushman (11.22, biography)–A+
  24. Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche (11.23, philosophy, Kaufmann trans.)–C
  25. Backwards and Forwards: A Technical Manual For Reading Plays, David Ball (11.25, literary criticism)–A+
  26. Candide, Voltaire (12.2, satire, classic)–A
  27. It’s All Relative, A.J. Jacobs (12.8, genealogy, humor)–B
  28. The Best American Short Stories 2017, Heidi Pitlor, ed. (12.16, literature)–B
  29. The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories, P.D. James (12.19, mystery)–B
  30. Rameau’s Nephew, Denis Diderot (12.21, satire, Leonard Tancock trans.)–C
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C.H. Spurgeon, Rachel Peden, Katrina Kenison, and Me

bassThis is the story of an invisible community, where one voice at a time leads us to connect with others, in a chain back in time.

It starts with Katrina Kenison, who edited the annual Best American Short Stories series in the 90’s and early 2000’s. I love the essays she’d write as a foreword to each volume–usually loving little slices of the literate life, crisp and juicy together. For example, consider the paragraph from her essay in the 2001 volume, below. Isn’t it perfect?

Actually, her very best such essay was the one that started off the 2004 volume. I’ve used that essay a number of times with students, as a model of style and form–it seamlessly weaves a meditation on books with an illustrative anecdote, written in a way that creates comfort while it also demands engagement and action. I don’t have a copy handy just now, so I can’t provide a quote, nor is it anywhere online that I can find, but this book–along with all the volumes she edited–is worth tracking down just for her essays alone.

(She’s written other books, but I wish she’d compile one just collecting all these essays. What a treat that would be!)

 

IMG_20171214_055708

In the 2004 edition essay, however, Kenison mentions several older books that she’d found in a used book shop that was about to close. She tosses off titles with brief reveries about the contents–tiny taglines meant to offer whisps of joy found between those covers–and I’ve long wanted to find some of them myself.

This year I finally did. One in particular stood out to me, Rachel Peden’s Speak to the Earth. As I recall, Kenison called Peden “a naturalist of the first order.” Sounded good to me.

No library in southern Nevada had a copy, so I used the interlibrary loan program available at the university where I work part time to borrow a copy from whomever had one to share. Continue reading

The Great Books Podcast

Two months ago, National Review magazine launched a weekly podcast called “The Great Books.” My first thought on hearing about this was, “What does a literature podcast from National Review have to offer the world?”

The answer begins with another question: what would the world want from a National Review literature podcast? An appreciation of classics from a socially and politically conservative viewpoint, I suppose.

But that could be the source of its failure as well: when conservative outlets analyze any media or cultural product entirely through the lens of the right wing, it tends to collapse in on itself in an implosion that leaves no trace of itself. Five minutes later, this empty exercise may as well have not even happened. After all, you never hear explicit left wing preaching on NPR–it’s just assumed that that’s the worldview the audience values, and the reports proceed accordingly.

I’m glad to say that the new NR podcast avoids this danger admirably.

I’ve listened to three episodes so far: those for Macbeth, Paradise Lost, and Agamemnon. Each was superb: an expert on each text is interviewed for about half an hour, plot points are discussed in a delicate way that doesn’t try to avoid spoilers but which is far from a SparkNotes summary, and the greatest focus tends to be on timeless themes.

Conservative ideas are never outright given center stage, but are obliquely integrated usefully and organically into the conversation. For example, in the Agamemnon discussion, a parallel is drawn between Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter, and Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in the Bible. The comparisons and contrasts were genuinely enlightening to both texts, and it was just a minor caveat in the larger discussion, as well as an insight I’d never had on my own.

The discussions are never preachy, in any way, but are loving analyses of cherished classics. That’s it. And it works terrifically. They’re often like mini version of the huge lecture courses I like to get from the library, usually on several CDs at a time, where some professor waxes on about the many facts regarding a text. The big difference here is that the podcasts’ conversation format is much more lively–there’s clearly a script of questions, but there are also clearly spontaneous comments and connections from both interviewer and interviewee.

What could anyone want from a literature podcast by National Review? What more could we want?

“The Great Books” podcast is available to hear online and in a variety of apps, in addition to an option to download episodes. My only complaint is that these podcasts aren’t available on YouTube, which would be even more convenient for me. Maybe it’s because there’s no video component, but still.

Screenshot 2017-11-16 at 4.53.46 PM

 

Ten Favorite Books: Fiction

This week a friend posited this exercise for a list: our ten favorite works of fiction. I then realized that I had never made such a list before. I scoured my record of everything I’ve read, considered only the perfect-ten A-plusses, and came up with these:

10. Tom Wolfe, A Man in Full

A tour de force of satire, and an absolutely perfect portrait of late 20th century us. A huge achievement in making us look at our warts in the mirror and laugh our heads off at them. By far the best American novel of the 90s.

9. Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomson, The Rule of Four

Incredibly fun puzzle mystery, without being ponderous or pandering. A flawlessly fun read.

8. P.G. Wodehouse, Code of the Woosters

The first Jeeves and Wooster book I ever read, and still the best. We all type LOL every day, it seems, but how often does something actually make us laugh out loud? This book did, many times.

7. James Clavell, Noble House

I didn’t think a 1000 page novel about a British business executive in Hong Kong in the 60s could be the most exciting, engrossing adventure story I’d ever read, but here we are.

6. James Joyce, Dubliners

A phenomenal achievement of the mind, this little collection of stories has history’s greatest difference between the simplicity of the narratives and the depth of the ideas.

5. Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights

The bleak setting, the haunted and violent saga, the elegantly complex plot and style: this is the greatest novel from 19th century England, which is saying a lot.

4. Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove

A surprise, just like Noble House. Who would have thought a long, rambling Western would also be the most humane, exciting, passionate celebration of life I’d ever see between two covers? I wish I could read it again for the first time.

3. Frank Herbert, Dune

The cover of the current paperback edition calls it “science fiction’s supreme masterpiece,” and if anything, that’s playing it safe. This majestic epic broke all the rules, and in doing so, wrote the ones we’ve been following ever since.

2. John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces

The one and only truly counter cultural book I’ve ever seen–a story so bogglingly original that it has endless surprises and challenges for everybody…and is genuinely funny on every single page.

1. Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

It’s difficult to even begin describing the wonders of this super masterpiece. Let just one bit of praise suffice: this grand work has the best rendering of life’s very largest dramas and its very smallest details. One or the other would be enough to put it on this list, but it has both. Amazing.

Quote About Reading Great Books, From a Great Book I Once Read

Winston stopped reading for a moment. Somewhere in remote distance a rocket bomb thundered. The blissful feeling of being alone with the forbidden book, in a room with no telescreen, had not worn off. Solitude and safety were physical sensations, mixed up somehow with the tiredness of his body, the softness of the chair, the touch of the faint breeze from the window that played upon his cheek. The book fascinated him, or more exactly it reassured him. In a sense it told him nothing that was new, but that was part of the attraction. It said what he would have said, if it had been possible for him to set his scattered thoughts in order. It was the product of a mind similar to his own, but enormously more powerful, more systematic, less fear-ridden. The best books, he perceived, are those that tell you what you know already.

–George Orwell, 1984, Part II, chapter 9

 

Strategies For Reading and Relationships

In relationships, never give up on people. Stick it out, make it work.

In reading…just the opposite. A book should always be a perfect ten. If your connection to a book ever cools off, feel free to kick it to the curb and find another one. Plenty of fish in the sea, plenty of books in the library. Life is short and you deserve the best.

Just don’t get these two ideas confused. Your life will be fun for others to watch, but frustrating for you.

Comparing Three Translations of Les Miserables

I recently started reading Les Miserables. I’m up to Part III and–no surprise–it’s amazing so far.

It had a rocky start, though. I researched translations and couldn’t find one that stood out, so I figured I’d just try the old original standard translation from the 19th century, the Wilbour translation.

I only got a few pages in before getting tired of the pretentious contortion of it all. I decided to find a copy of Denny’s translation from the 70’s. My local library district actually didn’t have that one, but do you know who did? The library at the school where I work! How great is that?

And from page one I loved it. I don’t know how well it reflects the French, but this English version hums and sings for me with pitch-perfect tone.

Here are two passages I really like so far, compared between three popular versions: Wilbour’s, Denny’s, and the recent Julie Rose translation.

This is the end of Part II, chapter 8:

Denny 1

Denny

Wilbour 1

Wilbour

Rose 1

Rose

Continue reading

Literacy Victories!

One of the best things I get to be part of as a teacher is introducing young people to great books they love. Granted, 99% of what I do in this department falls on deaf ears, but those glorious moments of success–few and far between though they are–really do make it all worth it.

Here are a few recent ones:

Last semester for a book project, one girl chose to read The Handmaid’s Tale from a list of options I gave. She loved it and, when they all had to do presentations on their books, she was overjoyed to learn that it’s being made into a series on Hulu.

Cormac McCarthy is always a safe bet. I often recommend his books to students, and they tend to love him. So many kids read his various books last semester that some classes had spontaneous compare/contrast discussions where they picked up on stylistic and thematic trends across his works. They did this on their own.

Earlier this month I had classes take notes on a documentary about Moby Dick. At the end of class when they turned their notes in, one girl was so excited about it that she had already put the ebook on her phone and said that she’d start reading it that weekend. This wasn’t assigned–she just wanted to read Moby Dick on her own. For fun.

Symbolic Book Titles

I just had the idea to list books where the title is also the book’s chief symbol. So far I have:

  1. The Catcher in the Rye
  2. Lord of the Flies
  3. Ulysses
  4. The Bluest Eye
  5. The Bell Jar
  6. The Color Purple
  7. The Maltese Falcon

Please add more in the comments.

I’d also like to make lists of books where the title is an allusion (The Grapes of Wrath, The Sound and the Fury) and where the title is a complete sentence (Death Comes For the Archbishop, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter).

My Year in Books: 2016

I finished 37 books in 2016. For variety and quality, it was one of my best years for reading: nine “A plusses” this year, more than ever before!

1. Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers, Patrick Kavanaugh (1/12, music, religion)–A+

2. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy (2/6, literature, Garnett trans.)–A+

3. Pity the Beautiful, Dana Gioia (2/9, poetry)–B

4. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo (2/28, self-improvement)–F

5. Buried Alive, Gloria Skurzynski (3/1, young adult)–C

6. Thomas Cole, Earl A. Powell (3/1, art, biography)–B

7. The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius (3/9, classics, Watts trans.)–C

8. Albert Bierstadt, Tom Robotham (3/12, art, biography)–C

9. Redshirts, John Scalzi, (3/19, science fiction, comedy)–B

10. Rendezvous With Rama, Arthur C. Clarke (3/26, science fiction)–A

11. The Fifth Gospel, Ian Caldwell (4/30, mystery)–A

12. Browsings, Michael Dirda (5/10, memoir, reading)–A+

13. The Lord and His Prayer, N.T. Wright (5/12, religion)–A

14. The Last Good Kiss, James Crumley (5/14, mystery)–B

15. The Anchoress, Robyn Cadwallader (5/19, historical fiction)–C

16. The Prisoner of Zenda, Anthony Hope (5/26, adventure)–B

17. The World’s Strongest Librarian, Josh Hanagarne (5/28, memoir, humor, reading)–A+

18. The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester (6/13, science fiction)–B

19. We Are Called to Rise, Laura McBride (6/17, literature)–A+

20. Fair Isn’t Always Equal, Rick Wormeli (6/28, education)–D

21. Mockingbird, Walter Tevis (6/30, science fiction)–A+

22. The Libation Bearers, Aeschylus (7/1, Greek drama, Lattimore trans.)–C

23. Never Go Back, Lee Child (7/12, mystery)–B

24. Death in Venice, Thomas Mann (7/15, literature, Lowe-Porter trans.)–C

25. Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, Monique Morris (7/20, sociology)–F

26. The Taking, Dean Koontz (7/28, horror)–A

27. Fluent in 3 Months, Benny Lewis (8/3, language/self-improvement)–A

28. The Knight of the Swords, Michael Moorcock (8/4, fantasy)–A

29. How to Be Perfect, Daniel Harrell (8/9, scripture study, religion)—B

30. The Eumenides, Aeschylus (8/9, Greek drama, Lattimore trans.)—C

31. Zion: The Long Road to Sanctification, Larry Barkdull (8/17, religion)—B

32. Inferno, Dante (8/26, poetry, classics, Anthony Esolen trans.)—A+

33. Submission, Michel Houellebecq (9/3, fiction, translated from French)—C

34. The Aeneid, Virgil (10/28, classics, Robert Fagles trans.)—A+

35.  A Winter Haunting, Dan Simmons (11/1, suspense)—B

36. To the Rescue: The Biography of Thomas S. Monson, Heidi Swinton (11/13, religion, biography)—A+

37. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (12/29, literature, Maude trans.)—A

The Best Used Book Store In Las Vegas

Dead Poet Books closed last year, but as great as it was, it wasn’t the best spot in town to find cheap used books. It’s not the also-awesome Amber Unicorn, either, or any of the few other decent such stores.

It’s Savers, the thrift store. Yes, most thrift stores are full of junk and the used book section is a waste of time (I’m looking at you, Goodwill), but Savers gets the job done.

There’s a location near the school where I work, and I drop in sometimes to check in on the inventory. It rotates pretty quickly–a good sign. I could tell about plenty of great finds there, but here’s the most recent one:

Last week I went in with three things in mind: I’ve wanted to read Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth for years, but it’s long enough that I would want to own a copy so I could take my time. Ditto for James Michener’s Alaska, which I started three years ago and really liked, but couldn’t finish before I had to take it back to the library. Also, I’ve wanted to read Edward Rutherford’s London ever since it came out when I was in college. I’ve been keeping an eye out for good used copies of each for a long time, and they were all on my mind when I stopped in there last week. I decided ahead of time to buy a copy if I should see one of them.

They had all three. Six bucks well spent!

Here’s another example: a couple of years ago, when the Dragon Tattoo trilogy was super popular, I went looking for them in paperback for a friend. Found all three of those there, too.

Yes, it’s also full of Dean Koontz and John Grisham stuff, but the variety and quality of books there has never disappointed me.