Because it was one of my 2015 New Year’s resolutions to read more books, I paid some mind to my reading habits this year. This resolution was a real softball pitch to myself, since in all of 2014 I read only eight books. At that paltry rate, even if I am lucky enough to live another 40 years, I will only read 320 more books in life.
(In my defense, 2014 was the year I finished up graduate school and got remarried, so the first half of 2014 didn’t leave me a lot of reading time. Still, eight books. It’s hard to call yourself a writer if you only read eight books a year).
This year I did somewhat better: 15 books (not counting re-reads of books that I was teaching this year). How did I fare with these? What follows is a brief review of each title in my motley 2015 bookshelf:
Apollinaire, Guillame: The Heresiarch + Co. This was a gift from Gloria on her return from France. I found these stories charming—hilarious, sweet-natured, wry, odd, just a bit surreal. Sometimes the plotting seemed a little artless, but there were other touches of language that seemed masterful, like the poet with “the gift of ubiquity” and the cigar with the plea for help written inside. Apollinaire is a favorite poet of mine, so I was predisposed to love his fiction.
Austen, Jane. Emma. The second Austen novel I’ve read, I found this book a perfectly delightful comedy of manners and a sly (perhaps over-subtle) critique of the British class system and the limits placed upon English women. Emma’s character is almost thoroughly unsympathetic for the first half of the book or so, but she acquits herself admirably. Austen’s humor is gentle, understated, and yet at the same time absolutely electric. The characters were generally types—something like the types of Shakespearean comedy—rather than fully fleshed out bundles of complication. But that’s Austen’s style.
Bailey, Thomas R., Shanna Smith Jaggars, and Davis Jenkins. Redesigning America’s Community Colleges. This was a wonky read, but a very good one. While I was already convinced of our need to develop guided pathways for community college students, this book provides both evidence supporting the argument as well as some suggestions for further research and colleges to watch. I have a feeling I’ll be consulting this book a good deal in the coming years.
Dyson, Freeman: Disturbing the Universe. One of the best books of essays I’ve read. Freeman is very much like Loren Eisley as a writer—somewhat less sublime but also funnier. Some of these essays have lasted better than others, but I am quite taken with Dyson’s powerful and utterly unique moral vision.
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Lathe of Heaven. I reviewed this earlier in the year. It’s a gripping read, one of those stories which breaks a cardinal rule of writing (in this case, no “it was all a dream” stories) but which Le Guin gets away with because, hey, she’s Ursula Le Guin. I don’t know that this novel held together at the end quite as well as some others of hers—like Left Hand of Darkness—but I was taken with the humor and horror of this story, as well as with Le Guin’s of-the-era argument for the quieter, wiser ways of Taoism as a corrective to the evangelical Judeo-Christian Western Rationalism that brought us the Vietnam War and global warming and the DSM.
Link, Kelly. Stranger Things Happen. I loved these stories overall. The best of them were truly chilling and surreal, like Twin Peaks on the page. Link is masterful at, well, linking disparate, subterranean connections in her work, and the best stories—like the first three in the book—do things that I couldn’t imagine doing as a writer. At times the writing is a little precious or too eager to crack a joke, but Link is the real deal.
Newport, Cal: So Good They Can’t Ignore You. The best career advice book I’ve read. This quick read annoyed me in a few places—Newport mostly interviews the beneficiaries of privilege, like himself, and he has a lot to say about what being a faculty member at Georgetown will be like before he’s even started the job—but the career advice Newport gives here is sound and a valuable corrective to the conventional wisdom of “following your passion.” I bought this book for my oldest daughter and will pass it along to the younger girls when the time is ripe.
Peake, Mervyn: Titus Groan. The first of the Ghormenghast Novels. This was a remarkably slow read, oddly and loosely plotted (in some ways almost without plot), full of demanding and self-indulgent writing. But I’ve also never read anything like it: Peake has a gift for arresting imagery and wordplay. His work is like a novel-length set of Edward Gorey drawings.
Art credit: Michelle Duckworth
Peake, Mervyn: Gormenghast. The second Gormenghast Novel. I think that in most ways I preferred Titus Groan, even though Gormenghast has more action. Peake’s work is by turns inspiring and maddening: he will turn a phrase or describe a scene in such an arresting way that I can’t imagine how he managed it; then, he’ll try to squeeze out of a plot difficulty with a hamfisted and frustrating plot twist, coincidence, or ad hoc explanation. While there’s plenty that frustrated me about this book and its predecessor, I probably have enough momentum here to finish the Gormenghast novels next year.
Penn, Rob: It’s All About the Bike. This was an enchanting little history of the bicycle. I’m not certain how accurate it is on every point, but I loved the stories of the bike’s early days, interspersed with Penn’s quest for his own “lifetime bike.” It makes me want to assemble a bike myself.
Romano, Tom. Write What Matters. This book was dedicated to my dad and contained some sweet moments from his life (as well as from the life of another beloved and departed writing teacher of mine, Ken Brewer). While I didn’t always follow Tom’s organization, I loved Tom’s voice and his fierce love as a writing teacher. His words about rough drafts have helped me during this tough slog through the sloppiest rough draft I’ve ever attempted: Pacifica.
Schwarz, Barry. The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. I picked up this easy, engaging read in my research into structured pathways at my community college. The book is funny, humanistic, and it digests a lot of psychological and economic research into a reader-friendly form. I may want to pass this book along to my daughter to help her with her career-picking struggles.
Sterner, Robert and James Elser: Ecological Stoichiometry. This book took me several attempts, but when I really sat down to deal with it, I got through it in about 8 months of two-pages-a-day reading. It really is a remarkable scientific work, and I came away convinced that phosphorous is the most ecologically important chemical on Earth (because of its role making up RNA). I’d love to do science like this! I realize, though, that it’s not the kind of science that most people do in their spare time. I’ve definitely decided to keep reading in the biological sciences, though, and perhaps a cool home project will present itself.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. I’d been meaning to read this since taking a long ago grad school class on the symbolists and decadents. Overall, this seemed like a Poe-esque gothic tale peppered with Lord Henry’s bon mots and aphorisms. Plot-wise, it dragged a bit—it seemed highly influenced by Huysman’s Against Nature—and there were few truly sympathetic characters besides Basil. At the end, it struck me as a much more conventional morality play than I had been led to believe it would be—maybe that’s why I came away a bit disappointed. The art for art’s sake motto of the aestheticists ultimately seemed to give way to a somewhat conventional Victorian morality, less daring in its conclusions than Hardy or George Eliot or Flaubert or Dostoevsky.
Wilson, David Sloan: Darwin’s Cathedral. This book really affected me powerfully–I wrote about it in my previous blog post. The idea that religious behavior is adaptive and selected for through multi-level group selection is revolutionary (though maybe it shouldn’t be). I can see how this book is influencing my approach to writing Pacifica: Jude wants to build the next religion that will expand our moral circle to include all humanity and be compatible with science.
I hope that 2015 was a good reading year for you, perhaps so good that it would be impossible to fit your thoughts into a single blog post. I’ll see you in the new year!