Category: books Page 1 of 2

I did it: I finished Bruce Tate’s Seven Languages in Seven Weeks. I even took a good-faith stab at the exercises. it would have taken me a damn sight longer than seven weeks, even if I hadn’t set it aside for long periods. an interesting survey of languages and ideas 📚

The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee is really good; I recommend it. 📚 Al Franken also has a good interview with the author on his podcast, which introduces the main ideas of the book. find it wherever you get your podcasts (or on YouTube)

a truly excellent judgement in today’s ToB matchup of James McBride’s Deacon King Kong v. Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown, one where the judge’s opinion is nearly as thoughtful, poignant, and beautiful as the books being discussed:

Reading this book was like getting to see the world in X-ray, where the underlying structure of so many things I’ve spent my life thinking about—human, historical, national—were suddenly at long last made visible.

ahhh, this week’s ToB matches have been back to their usual good level. yesterday saw Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown (which I really liked) knock out Quan Barry’s We Ride Upon Sticks (which I plan to read soon). today’s matchup was a thoughtful judgement of Percival Everett’s Telephone v. Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs. I haven’t read either – and don’t plan to – yet I still enjoyed the discussion.

Catching up on a couple of ToB match days, starting with Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind v. Kawai Strong Washburn’s Sharks in the Time of Saviors on Thursday. I read & liked Sharks a lot when I read it for Camp ToB last summer (which it won, thus earning its spot here in the main tournament).

And I don’t say this often, but I started and immediately stopped reading Leave the World Behind. The tone and style were just very very not my thing. Book people talk sometimes about disliking a title so much they want to throw it across the room, and, well, now I know what they mean. But that’s the one that won this round, and so there’s a chance someone will tear it apart in its next matchup.

Though maybe, I learned after reading the snarky, condescending judgement in Friday’s quarterfinal matchup of James McBride’s Deacon King Kong v. Bryan Washington’s Memorial, I wouldn’t enjoy that so much, after all. This judge apparently didn’t care much for either book, which made for a pretty dreary round. The Commentariat had a lot strong opinions, on both sides, of his final criteria:

I think it’s unlikely that these two books will be much read, loved, or discussed in a hundred years… 1920 produced one indispensable masterpiece, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, and hopefully whichever title takes this year’s Rooster incarnates even a fraction of that book’s invigorating brilliance and enduring virtuosity.

I suppose, as a tie-breaker, such a consideration might be valid, though I tend to agree with those who argued that one’s own reading experience – right now, in the present – is worth more than what imagined future generations will enjoy or be moved by or be inspired by. Not to mention the dubious logic of cherrypicking one masterpiece from a hundred years ago to compare, really, any modern book to. Anyway, it didn’t actually break his tie, as he deems both well below that measure. So I guess he just thought that was clever, or was showing off (as one Commentariat member succinctly put it, “Wow. MFA much?”), or just did it for the lulz.

The good part is that I’m convinced about Deacon King Kong; it’s added to my TBR list. To be clear, that’s thanks to all the folks who really loved it, not this judge finally, grudgingly picked it as the winner. Not the best matchday ever, but I’ll be here for the next one on Monday.

happy Monday, because the ToB is back today: Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain v. Percival Everett’s Telephone 📚 I’m just happy I didn’t read either of these miserable-sounding books. Telephone was published in 3 different versions! Monstrous! I’d have been so mad if I’d read one.

the first week of ToB ended yesterday with another excellent match: Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown v. Raven Leilani’s Luster 📚 I happened to have read both of these; if I had to pick one to advance, I would have picked the same, but they were both fantastic

today’s ToB: Lydia Millet’s A Children’s Bible v. Bryan Washington’s Memorial. 📚 Extra eciting because I’d actually read one of these (A Children’s Bible), which I really enjoyed. its competitor sounds like a well-written and touching book of the type that I’m just not that interested in.

The judgement featured another of my favorite parts of this event: a recognition of similarities between books that on the surface don’t seem remotely similar:

That is why I was so surprised to find, from the first page, how many thematic and stylistic similarities Memorial shares with A Children’s Bible. It, too, is a story of estranged parents and children, told in short, breathing beats…

It’s the natural human impulse to look for patterns, spurred by these oddly (randomly?) paired novels, from which each judge has to pick a “winner”. It’s so crazy, it just [does] work.

first match of the opening round of the Tournament of Books (ToB): James McBride’s Deacon King Kong vs. Agustina Bazterrica’s Tender Is the Flesh. 📚 As is the case with most of the books in the tournament, I haven’t read either of these. Yet that reduces my enjoyment of each day’s rounds not a bit. One main thing I get from the ToB is high-quality additions to my to-be-read (TBR) list. Today, Deacon King Kong (spoiler alert: today’s “winner”) moved a step closer to my list, while Tender is the Flesh earned a permanent ban, a book that is clearly Not For Me, Thank You.

And then the other thing I get from the ToB shone through: the book-clubby beauty of the whole goofy event. I’d read the judge’s well-considered and well-written judgement, which went a long way toward convincing me that a dystopian story of a society that purposefully adopts cannibalism didn’t sound great. And then the very first comment (one of the still-astounding things about the ToB is that the comments are actually good(!)) laid out a case that made me see: well, okay, there’s some merit and some interesting themes to this book. It’s still firmly Not For Me, Thank You, but I got exposure to and a much better appreciation of this book because of this wonderful event.

And I’m glad to see Deacon King Kong advance. It sounds much better to me now than the blurb (or the hideous cover art) led me to think at first, but I’m not sure. Now there will be at least one more head-to-head ToB judgement, and more discussion, to help me to decide.

happy Black History Month! I’m going to only read books by Black authors this month. started the graphic novel The Black Panther Party yesterday (+1 for library ebooks!); others on top of my TBR pile: Leave the World Behind, The Vanishing Half, The Sum of Us 📚

new post: Reading Goals, in which I declare victory on the common “I should read more” resolution

Reading Goals

Like many, I’ve long wanted to read more. Even my love of browsing bookstores was getting cramped by the guilty knowledge that I had more books waiting patiently on shelves at home than I would ever get to. But now, at the end of this year, I feel I can claim victory. I did it: I read more.

One boost was the daily reading habit I started last year, which has been great. I set a fifteen minute timer, and don’t allow myself to read that particular book outside the daily dose. This keeps me from cheating and going longer, which I think helps me keep the habit: I know it’s only ever “just” 15 minutes, and done. By a quick review of my Goodreads list, I got through some seventeen books this way in 2020. (Granted, some of those were the shortest and fastest reads – comics and graphic novels. No apologies.)

Being locked down due to the pandemic probably didn’t hurt the amount I was able to sit and read, although switching to full-time remote work did cut down on commute audiobook time.

Book clubs definitely helped. The computer book club I ran (until I stepped down in October) prompted me to get through five books, and the Tournament of Books’ virtual Camp ToB was a fun way to go through six really enjoyable reads that I wouldn’t have picked up on my own. I struggle with book clubs sometimes, resenting the obligation of having to read something, but it’s fun in small doses (and the ToB online community is a surprisingly good one).

I had also set an ambitious Goodreads reading goal for this year: 50 books. And I made it! As mentioned, some of those were quickies, but some were not, e.g., Emma (476 pages), Madame Bovary (411), The Paying Guests (564), and that’s not even getting into those computer books, like Coders at Work (632).

But I’ve decided that the numbers of books, and their page-counts don’t matter. Is this because I participated in a writers’ novel swap group, and so read several full-length novels without even getting credit for them in my Goodreads count? Yes.

Errr, no. No, that’s not it, really. As I said to start, I’ve wanted to read more, and to my own surprise, I’m actually doing it. I enjoy it, and I’m actually prioritizing doing it, and it’s happening. Having a quantifiable goal in Goodreads, and a tracking app that makes a satisfying ding! when I read each day, and following along with a book club, those are all things that helped me build the habit of reading back into my life. I’ll continue with those practices as far as they’re still fun, but the reading is the thing.

P.S. Gretchen Rubin has announced regular, daily reading as her “Happier” podcast’s 2021 goal. Last year they encouraged listeners to walk 20 minutes in ’20; this year their suggestion is to read for 21 minutes in ’21. See her blog post for details, hints, and tips. Maybe I’ll up my daily timer…

finished Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began, by Art Spiegelman 📚

finished Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard today 📚 what a staggering work. lyrically written, much of it more like poetry than prose, her view of nature probing its ruthless violence as much as its unbelievable beauty. I’ll be rereading this for sure. maybe annually

that copy of The City We Became that I ordered the other day from Austin’s beloved BookPeople came today. flipping through, I discovered that it’s a signed copy! there’s something that will never happen when you shop from Amazon 📚

just ordered the first book for this summer’s Camp TOB: The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin. I haven’t done a group book club like this before; little worried that time pressure will make it less fun. but going to give it a shot & read some books I otherwise wouldn’t! 📚

rest in peace, Christopher Tolkien. I’m sure I’ve read more of J.R.R.’s writing, thanks to Christopher’s beyond-painstaking editing & publishing, than the original trilogy (plus) combined. ?

journal – reading update, in which I change my serial reading, and put down Wolf Hall for the last time ?

journal – reading update

I praised the Serial Reader app last month, thinking at the time it would be a fun & significant boost to my reading time. But following Dorian Gray, I started and abandoned several others that just weren’t for me. As I dug deeper into the titles, I felt like I was grasping for something good, instead of picking from the (long) list of books on my existing “to-read” list. I tried a couple that were on my list, like Little Women, and Middlemarch, but didn’t enjoy either of them. So, although it’s clever, I decided Serial Reader isn’t for me, after all.

But the strict daily reading time still seemed good, so I’ve been trying simply sticking to that habit, with the help of the iOS app Streaks. It’s a simple daily reminder app that’s meant to keep you from “breaking the chain”, maintaining regular daily habits. I’ve tried it before, but eventually rebelled against what came to feel like tyrannical nagging. So far this time, however, for reminding me to stay on something I enjoy, it’s been going great. That’s 17 days in a row, since I’m counting. The books I’ve read this way have admittedly been quick and light: the first two omnibus editions of an anime my daughter recommended: Vinland Saga. I may continue graphic novels for this daily habit for a while; I have Watchmen sitting over there on the shelf.

On another front, I admit defeat, for the third and final time, at trying to get through Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. I want to love this book, and the second (Bring Up the Bodies) which is also on my shelf, and the third which is due out next year, but it’s just not happening. I pride myself on being undaunted by tougher prose: The Odyssey, Don Quixote, some of the deeper Tolkien, including his Beowulf, but I find Mantel’s style a slog too far. The setting is too foreign, the characters too numerous, and the pronouns too ambiguous. I’m pretty bummed by this concession, but also looking forward to starting a book I’ll look forward to each night.

just finished my first full book on the clever Serial Reader app (The Picture of Dorian Gray). there are lots of older & public-domain titles on my list, anyway, & I found the 10 to 20-minute chunks of reading each day fun & easy to stay on top of. recommended! ?

(2/2) “rede” is a good one but my favorite of those is “ruth”, “a feeling of sympathy and sorrow for the misfortunes of others”.

like an opposite of “ruthless”!

finally had the time & focus today to really dig in to The Fall of Gondolin, the latest (& last) from J.R.R./Christopher Tolkien. enjoyed looking up and learning some new (very old) words along the way. gems like:

  • ruth
  • meed
  • brake
  • astonied
  • rede
  • thence
  • fain

just finished Data and Goliath, by Bruce Schneier, for this month’s Austin Computer Book Club meetup. it was eye-opening and kind of horrifying, but pragmatic, interesting, and more timely with each passing day’s headlines ?

The Library Book

I recently started The Library Book by Susan Orlean, via an audiobook that somewhat ironically I bought, rather than getting from the library. (This title was also just selected as this year’s Mayor’s Book Club book, so I have a head start there, ha ha.) It’s really good so far, a unique blend of LA history, in broad strokes and small ones, with a little mystery and a huge dose of detailed examples of how awesome libraries are.

And they really are. They’re kind of a miracle, in many ways. I spent the afternoon yesterday working at our big, beautiful new Central Library, and then attended a wonderful talk with Rachel Kushner, author of the excellent The Mars Room. The circumstances that led me there last night were Byzantine, when I thought about it, but it was so nice. I feel happier just being at the library, and I should make the effort to get there – including branches – more often.

librarians should “read as a drunkard drinks or as a bird sings or a cat sleeps or a dog responds to an invitation to go walking, not from conscience or training, but because they’d rather do it than anything else in the world.”

- Susan Orlean, quoting Althea Warren, director of the LA Public Library 1933-47, in The Library Book

when you order the cheapest used book you can find and it winds up being signed by the author (if barely) & has his business card tucked in the back ? ?

added to my to-read list: a new book from Mike Monteiro: Ruined By Design. as evidenced by the sample chapter (“Ayn Rand is a Dick”), it clearly (and typically for Monteiro) pulls zero punches (via Jen Myers’ email newsletter)

just finished Anna Burns’ Milkman. haven’t enjoyed a book this thoroughly in a long time. the unique style might not be to everyone’s taste, but I fucking loved it. the story, the style, the characters, the insights… every page was a delight. a masterpiece. ?

just finished The Sisters Brothers, a book I liked so much the first time that I not only intended to reread it, I actually did! Just in time for the movie to be gone from theaters, lol/sob. but what a great book, I enjoyed it as much as I remembered. ?

finished The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead. Another gripping & masterfully written story from an author I like a lot, though for me, imagining the railroad as a literal underground construction didn’t add as much to the story as I’d expected.

finished reading God Save Texas, by Lawrence Wright. I enjoyed the mix of history, personal anecdotes, and political analysis. some of the stories cast recent events – in Texas & the US more broadly – in an interesting, some-of-this-ain’t-all-that-new light. ?

finished Functional Thinking by Neal Ford for yesterday’s @atxcompbookclub. I found juggling examples in several different languages to be more work than it was worth, but as an intro, background, & argument in favor of functional programming, it nailed it. ?

finished reading: The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller. I really enjoyed this modern telling of The Iliad story, which I knew broadly but have never read. This is so well written, evocative, with superb characterization. highly recommended. ?

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