Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Where I've been

After I snuck a last one in today, here are the books I read this year. Those I'd recommend strongly are marked with an *. I've linked to a random scattering of reviews, too, just for the hell of it. 

Fiction: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes was most remarkable.
Non-fiction: The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright, with honorable mentions to Bonhoeffer and Voices from Chernobyl.
Poetry: Nets by Jen Bervin was favorited for the concept as well as the poetry itself, which was rivaled by Sestets.
Short fiction: Tenth of December by George Saunders, followed closely by No One Belongs Here More Than You.

59. The Mansion of Happiness by Robin Ekiss (Dec 31)
58. Television Without Pity by Tara Ariano (Dec 22)
57. Sometimes There Are Travails by Lisa Ciccarello (Dec 22)
56. The Other History by Scott T. Starbuck (Dec 14)
55. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (Dec 7)
54. Phèdre by Jean Racine (Nov 29)
*53. No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July (Nov 20)
52. The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obrecht (Nov 13)
51. Off-Topic: The Story of an Internet Revolt by GR Reader (Nov 11)
50. Portuguese Irregular Verbs by Alexander McCall Smith (Nov 5)
*49. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (Nov 3)
*48. Voices from Chernobyl by Sveltlana Alexevich (Oct 28)
47. If Not Winter: Fragments of Sappho (Oct 22)
46. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (Oct 21)
45. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (Oct 17)
44. Songs for the Missing by Stewart O’Nan (Oct 12)
43. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand (Oct 10)
42. The Quality of Mercy by Barry Unsworth (Sep 28)
41. Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl by Gert Hofmann (Sep 3)
40. Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel (Aug 28)
*39. The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq (Aug 17)
38. The Old Child by Jenny Erpenbeck
*37. The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright (July)
36. The Chemistry of Death by Simon Beckett (July)
35. Whispers of the Dead by Simon Beckett (July 14)
*34. Tenth of December by George Saunders (Jul 10)
33. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks (July)
*32. The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelenick
*31. Ophelia Unraveling by Carol Berg (June)
*30. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas (June 21)
29. Morte D’Urban by JF Powers (May 25)
*28. This is Not a Novel by David Markson (May 4)
27. Under the Skin by Michel Faber (April 29)
26. Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam (April 25)
*25. The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa (April 21)
24. Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes (April 20)
*23. Nets by Jen Bervin (April 20)
22. Dog Ear by Erica Baum (April 12)
21. After Visiting Friends by Michael Hainey (April 9)
20. The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd (April 9)
19. The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson (April 5)
*18. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (March 19)
17. In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan (Mar 15)
16. The Complete Perfectionist by Juan Ramón Jimenéz (Mar 15)
*15. Old Filth by Jane Gardam (Mar 12)
*14. Group Portrait with Lady by Heinrich Böll (Feb 26)
13. Sex with Buildings by Stephanie Barbe Hammer (Feb 19)
12. Corner Office by J. Hope Stein (Feb 18)
*11. Talking Doll by J. Hope Stein (Feb 15)
10. The Quiet Winter by Carrie Bennett (Feb. 9)
9. The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman (Feb. 8)
8. The Infinities by John Banville (Feb 7)
7. The Big No by George Grosz (Feb)
6. Almanac of the Sleepless by Karin Gottshall (Feb 7)
*5. Sestets by Charles Wright (Feb 6)
4. Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal (Jan. 26)
*3. Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson (Jan. 21)
2. The Best of Fence, ed. Rebecca Wolff (Jan)
1. Of Lamb by Matthea Harvey (Jan. 18)

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Threshing song

The past was a hectic time. It was full of kings and beheadings, word coinage, and tunneling out of prison. Dynasties fell. It is believed the ball came before the wheel, the egg before the deviling. There were wars that went on for years and more years; there was a lot of sex, food left uneaten, bookburnings, and tribal and disco dancing. Rules were made up, then changed (read: broken). People got born by the billions.

The invention of the telephone was followed by a lot of senseless and overlapping jabbering. Statistics established average intelligence. Wires crossed, and obesity rode the airwaves. Many flea markets ended with more junk unsold than sold. Dump trucks lugged some surplus to the ocean, which solved one problem while fathering another. 

The past keeps adding up. Some days when I’m struggling with what on earth to make for dinner, I’m glad when it's behind me.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Year of Abandoned Books

Years ago, my husband had a bookmark listing “The Rights of the Reader.” Along with the right to skip, to dip in, and to mistake fiction for real life, was the all-important right to give up. No one likes to, but sometimes it is a worse decision to press on.

For me, it was a year of abandoned books. True to my half-hearted promise of giving up on books that --given a fair trial-- look like they won't pay off, I drop-kicked a number of titles in 2013. 

“Songs for the Missing,” a novel of a suburban girl who goes missing, failed to make me care. The word ‘boring’ comes to mind. 

My "Lost Illusions" experience was sad and disappointing. I'd really wanted to read the book this year, but the typo/error/major screw-up on p. 1 left me shell-shocked.

“Fatal Vision,” sorry, was just badly written. Good try, true crime. 

Ditto “No Apology” by Mitt Romney, which came off as a self-celebratory and poorly written campaign speech. 

At Good Reads, I ranted about “Galileo’s Daughter,” which turned me off as a feminist, and drew a comment from a fellow reader about what a shallow and immature person I am. I was sorry to get dragged into that, but hey, after much soul-searching I still agree with everything I said. Smile. 

"Birdsong," a WWI novel that had been on my to-read pile for years, was a disappointment I ditched. The ooey-gooey sex did me in - how Isabelle realized she was "born" to have sex with Stephen, to be "impaled" by him, and to feel his "sticky seed" between her legs. Oh, come ON

Richard Brautigan’s “In Watermelon Sugar,” a classic of hippie America, was written in a little boy voice that got my eyes rolling. “I get that it's supposed to be simple and innocent, but it would be helpful if it were also good,” I said in a brief review. 

There was a faint odor of something foul lurking through the pages of “The Tiger’s Wife,” which was only fully revealed after I gave up a good lick through and discovered the schmalzy acknowledgements.

Alas! I abandoned a couple others that are not worth noting. I read a lot of worthwhile books, too, which I’ll highlight as part of my year-end list in the next couple days.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The week in hindsight

Learned: the Italian word for ‘rodent’ is ‘roditore,’ which sounds very grand, and means “he who gnaws"
Saw: Albrecht Dürer exhibition at the Städel 
Disliked: what the smell of Kentucky Fried Chicken at the airport at 7 am did to my headache and stomachache 
Read: obituaries online
Ate: Kartoffelpuffer (potato pancakes)
Bought: chunky candles
Skipped: dessert (tiramisu - who can eat the equivalent of 2 dinners after dinner?)
Drank: Primitivo (Puglia)
Received: 2 rejections (Ninth Letter & Tin House)
Watched: Sherlock Holmes episode “The Illustrious Client” 
Rolled my eyes at: Horn honkers in gridlock. You built it, you suffer it. 
Ordered: The Brontes and Mr. Peanut 
Cried over: People greeting their loved ones at the airport. Yeah, I suck at airports. 
Listened to: pages turning, ambulances, people talking with their mouths full 

Pithiness of the week: "To be totally understanding makes one very indulgent."-Baroness De Stael-Holstein 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


Robert Oppenheimer went to New Mexico as a youth to recuperate from tuberculosis. He later said he had two loves, physics and New Mexico. Would there be a way to combine them?

Eugene O'Neill had TB, as did Paul Éluard. Albert Camus suffered TB, an ailment compounded by heavy smoking, but though TB toiled away for years, a car crash killed Camus within seconds.

My cousin Christopher, whose middle name was Camus, was killed in the Catskills by a hit-and-run driver, never apprehended.

Emma Goldman ranted incessantly about how stupid people are. Asked by her long-time companion, Alexander Berkman, how she could reconcile that conviction with her drive for anarchy, she was unable to answer the question. 

Watching the 'gadget' explode in Los Alamos in 1945, Oppenheimer thought of the lines from the Bhagavda Gita, "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds."

Miles away a girl who had been blind from birth saw the light of the explosion.

Centuries ago, the existence of mermaids was widely accepted as true. In winter 1493, Columbus wrote in his journal that three of the creatures had been sighted off the coast. They "rose well out of the sea, but were not so beautiful as they paint them."

Thanks for Meghan Howland for the image. 

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Lost Faith

I began Lost Illusions yesterday. It opens auspiciously in a print shop, and Balzac describes who was called a ‘monkey’ in the printing industry in those times, and who a ‘bear.’ The distinction had to do with a person's motions, which reminded me of Apollinaire’s poem “At the Santé:” Every morning I pace my pit like a bear.

The narrator talks about the transformation of printing, and how equipment then becoming obsolete had once brought "the beautiful books printed by Elzevir, Plantin, Aldus Didot, and the rest..." Wow, I thought. I like the typeface Didot - I will have to look up Aldus Didot.

I looked up Didot, indeed the name of a family of French typesetters, though none of them named Aldus. Well, I thought, maybe Balzac invented him, this being a work of fiction. But that would be weird since the Didots were real, and Elzevir and Plantin were also breathing people who now have typefaces named after them, and in fact, Aldus, too, is a typeface in and of itself..... ummm….

Helped by Amazon’s “Look Inside” function, I read the first page of Illusions Perdues in French, which said: "...les beaux livres des Elzevier, des Plantin, des Alde et des Didot…"

One needn’t be a French scholar to see the “and” separating Alde/us from Didot. In other words, there should have been a comma between them, or an “and.” Aldus Didot wasn’t meant to be a first and surname. I was so dismayed by this glaring error on the very first page - whether the translator’s or the proofreader’s - that I was unable to read any more of this untrustworthy edition, published by the way by Modern Library Classics!

And that is how I began The Pickwick Papers.

Friday, December 06, 2013

A Week's Hindsight

Learned: the word lalochezia, the use of foul language to relieve stress
Saw: Phèdre (decent acting, horrible play)
Heard: Anita O’Day sing You Came a Long Way from St. Louis
Made a (birthday) wish: can’t say what, but it wasn’t for me
Bought: wrinkle cream (see above)
Read: The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
Skipped: the office Christmas party
Drank: Rioja
Received: the muscular blooms pictured 
Resolved: sit-ups!
Honored: with a Pushcart Prize nomination for my poem ‘Gacela of Ash
Watched: Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (umpteenth time)
Rolled my eyes at: person who followed a limping old man into the supermarket shouting at him for parking in a handicap spot without a sticker
Laughed: about these truths
Cried: yup

Pithiness of the week: Our virtues are most frequently but vices in disguise (La Rochefaucauld)

I stole this roundup idea from philoku, a German design blog. Resolve to learn German! 
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