Reading List: My Last (And Next) Five Books, March 2017

The election of our first woman president was a momentous occasion, and I decided to commemorate the milestone by reading a lot of books by female authors this year.

Oh, wait…

Turns out, we didn’t elect a woman president. (Well, WE did, but the Electoral College chose someone else, but that’s another story…) I’m not going to let that deter me, though; I’m still going to read a lot of books by women this year, including my first five, listed below.

My standard goal is to read 25 books in a year. I haven’t reached that goal lately, but I think I’m going to stretch it this year, and try to read 25 books BY WOMEN. In addition to a few by men. So I’m really challenging myself, but I’ve discovered that I can get through thrillers and mysteries pretty quickly, and there’s certainly no shortage of books in that genre by women I’d like to read, so I think it’s doable. And even if I don’t make it, I don’t think I’ll die trying.

Another thing about my reading lately: I normally try to alternate my books, one novel followed by one nonfiction. Lately, though, I’m finding the real world’s nonfiction—or maybe I should put that in quotes, like “nonfiction”—is a little too much to take, so I’ve been taking refuge in fiction. It’s been all novels so far this year, and that will probably continue for at least the next couple of books. I did get a couple of enticing (and male-written) nonfiction books for Christmas, though, so both of these trends will be broken at some point, probably later this spring.

In any case, here are my first five books of 2017:

The AwakeningThe Awakening, by Kate Chopin. This is actually a novella, I guess (but when you’re stretching your goals, novellas can count as books).

I chose to start off my feminist-reading year with this 100-year-old book by an author from St. Louis. I enjoyed it for the most part, but it did feel, well, a little dated.

Rubyfruit JungleRubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown. In addition to books written by women, another reading theme of mine, lately, is gay/lesbian books. As a straight guy, it’s an area I haven’t explored much in my reading, but I’ve been working on remedying that over the last six months or so. As is true of all of us, I have a lot of friends who are gay, almost certainly more than I realize. A couple of them have mentioned this book as a classic of lesbianism, so I hunted for it and found it through the library.

I enjoyed the book. It’s basically a coming-of-age story, starring a full-of-life protagonist who knows what she wants and generally ends up getting it.

SalvageTheBonesSalvage The Bones by Jessmyn Ward. This one had been on my “want to read” list for a long time, mainly because it was a National Book Award winner about Hurricane Katrina, an event I remember vividly although I didn’t experience it personally. The book is about a poor family living in coastal Mississippi in the days leading up to and including the hurricane, a time during which the protagonist, a 14-year-old girl, learns she’s pregnant. The family tries to prepare for the coming storm, while she tries to keep her secret. The drama builds and by the time I was halfway through the book, I didn’t want to put it down. Fair warning: there is a fairly intense scene of dogfighting in the book which will certainly bother some readers.

TheRiverAtNightThe River At Night by Erica Ferencik. I’m not generally a reader of thrillers, but I was in the mood for a quick, intense read. So, while at the library dropping off Salvage The Bones, I took a look through the New Releases rack and found this one. I’m kind of a sucker for books (or movies or music) with bodies of water in the title, so it didn’t take long for me to decide it would be my next read. It was a good choice.

Four friends, all women, head to Maine for a whitewater adventure on an uncharted river. They have a guide who has run the river a few times before, but some of the women have doubts about him. Safe to say, their inexperience catches up with them, and they have to deal with a lot of unexpected hazards along the way. I found it very well-plotted and well-written, and I read it in about five days, which is extremely rare for me. I’ll be reading more in this genre this year.

TheBeanTreesThe Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver. This is this third book by Barbara Kingsolver that I’ve read. (Flight Behavior and The Poisonwood Bible were the first two.) I’m always impressed by her descriptions of nature; “place” is always a key element in her books, although maybe a little less so in this one than the other two. And I also love her ability to create unique, memorable characters. This was her first novel, but her voice was already well developed. I’m definitely looking forward to reading more of her work.

*****

An interesting (for me, anyway) note: four of these five books came from the library. I’ve been a booster and a trustee of our local library for years, but, oddly, more often than not I end up buying books for my Kindle rather than checking them out of the library. Well, I’m making a conscious effort to use the library more, and saving some money in the process!

*****

Usually, at this point, I list five more books, my best guess at the next five I’ll be reading. Rather than go out on that particular limb, though (I don’t think I’ve ever gotten it right; inevitably, some other book strikes my fancy or suddenly becomes available or something), here are some books that I have my eyes on to read in the coming months. My next reads will certainly include some of these, probably not all:

The Woman In Cabin 10, by Ruth Ware.

In The Woods, by Tana French

Consenting Adult, by Laura Hobson

The Roundhouse, by Louise Erdrich

Stone Butch Blues, by Leslie Feinberg

Illumination Night, by Alice Hoffman

Land of Enchantment, by Leigh Stein

*****

As always, if you’re interested in keeping up with what I read in real time—rather than waiting for me to write about it here in Shoulblog—you can friend me up on Goodreads. I’m always interested in recommendations for books to read.

Reading List, July 2016: My Last (And Next) Five Books

What are you reading? It’s one of my favorite questions. Here’s a list of the books I’ve read recently, along with my best guess at the next few. I do this every once in a while on Shoulblog: previous posts are here and here and here and here and here and here.

This time, it’s a pretty good group of books. These are listed in reverse order: i.e., most recent first.

(And by the way, here’s another reminder: if you’d like, you can friend me up on Goodreads, and that way you can follow along in near-real time, and I can see what you’re reading too!)

51UbMPz9x5L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_1) Let The Great World Spin, by Colum McCann. Several people have recommended this book to me over the last few years, and man, were they right. This novel revolves around a a real event: a tightrope walker who stretched a wire between the twin towers of the World Trade Center and walked across in 1974. The book follows several characters who were indirectly affected by that event. Just stellar writing and characterization throughout; definitely the best book I’ve read in a while.

61mTY9T9xBL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_2) It Happened In Wisconsin, by Ken Moraff. An allegory about a barnstorming, socialist, Depression-era baseball team that gets trapped in a Wisconsin hotel with a capitalist provocateur. A fun read.

I try to read at least one baseball book each summer, and I guess this one will fulfill that role, but I’m always open to reading more, if y’all have any suggestions.

51L5cGs+4jL._SX314_BO1,204,203,200_3) Long, Quiet Highway: Waking Up In America, by Natalie Goldberg. Goldberg is is the author of one of my favorite writing books, Writing Down The Bones: Freeing The Writer Within; I’ve read it a couple of times, and it definitely colors the way I feel about writing.

Long, Quiet Highway is an autobiographical story of her spiritual journey in Zen Buddhism, a journey that coincided with the development of Writing Down the Bones and other books of hers that I’ve read, so it was interesting to see how those stories came together.

41-ZKdTxiRL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_4) Wall Of Glass, by Walter Satterthwait. I don’t read a lot of mysteries, but this one popped up on one of my bargain Kindle-books sites, and since it was set in Santa Fe, N.M., I snapped it up. I’ve been to Santa Fe a couple of times and am planning to go back later this year, because I simply can’t get enough of New Mexico. This one definitely captured a lot of the northern New Mexico flavor that I’ve been craving.

I say I don’t read a lot of mysteries, but I think I’ll be reading more: when well done, they can be quick, fun reads, and I’m all about that.

41c6I2lIMDL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_5) Swimming Studies, by Leanne Shapton. A book of short essays about a life in swimming by a former competitive swimmer whose career reached the Canadian Olympic Trials. Funny, insightful and, to the limits of my own swimming experience, accurate.

By the way, Natalie Goldberg in No. 3 wrote about Zen and writing, but for me, I think swimming is more of a Zen experience. But then again, I’m pretty new to this Zen thing.

And now, here’s a guess, just a guess, at the next five books I’ll read

High Season, by Jon Loomis. Picked this up at a bargain-book sale somewhere. It’s another mystery, set in Provincetown, Mass. See, I pick my mysteries based on the setting. Since I’m currently on a beach vacation—but not in Provincetown, alas—I figured this would be a good one to read; I started it yesterday.

Saving Capitalism: For The Many, Not The Few, by Robert Reich. I recently received this as a gift, and I’m looking forward to seeing what the former Labor secretary has to say.

The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver. This one’s been on my to-read list for a while. At the beginning of this year, I moved it to my must-read-this-year list (along with Let The Great World Spin). I read Flight Behavior a couple of years ago, and always wanted to read this one.

Salvage The Bones, by Jesmyn Ward. Another well-reviewed book that has always piqued my interest.

Death Comes For The Archbishop, by Willa Cather. A New Mexico classic.

Thanks for playing along, and hey, maybe I’ll see you on Goodreads!

 

Reading List: July 2015

Whoa. Hey, it’s been a while, sorry.

Let’s get this blog (re)started with a reading update. Haven’t done one of these in a couple of years, but for those of you who followed this thread in the past (here and here and here and here and here), there’s some good news at No. 1.

Here, in reverse chronological order, are the last five books I’ve read:

stan1. Stan Musial: An American Life, by George Vecsey. This one had been on my list for years. For a while, I wanted to make sure and read it before Stan died—but then he died, and the impetus passed with him. But I’m feelin’ baseball this summer, so I finally grabbed it and read it. Very interesting book. Not your typical biography, so much as a series of stories to illuminate The Man’s life. Some of them went on a little too long, but on the whole I really enjoyed it.

financial2. The Financial Lives of the Poets, by Jess Walter. I’m a sucker for a good title, and this one got me. And the text lived up to the title. There was lots of laughing out loud while I read this book, a story about a guy who has lost everything and then sets out to lose more. I’ll definitely be reading more from this author. I’m also a sucker for bargain books; I’m on about three lists that send me daily emails with reduced-price e-books. This was one of those books, as were Nos. 3 and 5 in this list.

manhunt3. Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase To Catch Lincoln’s Killer, by James Swanson. For a while this spring, I was on a Civil War reading binge, and this was one of the books. A pretty interesting documentation of the assassination of Lincoln and attempted assassination of several of his Cabinet members, followed by the long hunt for John Wilkes Booth and co-conspirator David Herold.

Gettysburggrantnever4. Gettysburg, Grant Comes East and Never Call Retreat, by Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen. OK, it’s three books—a trilogy—but I’m embarrassed enough to have Newt in this list that we’ll just confine it to one slot. This was sort of an alternative history of the Civil War, beginning with the battle of Gettysburg, speculating how things might have gone if Robert E. Lee had not attacked head-on on the second day of the battle, but instead tried a different tactic. The three books detail how things might have played out over the next year or so, as Lee and Ulysses Grant square off in a series of subsequent battles. All in all, a pretty interesting take.

horses5. Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson. This novel was on sale for a couple of bucks in the Kindle store, and I guess I was in the mood for something Scandinavian, so I picked it up. I was glad I did. It was a very enjoyable read, set in Norway, and much of it in flashback to the World War II years. It may be the first book I’ve read that was translated from Norwegian, and I found the style very interesting: very, well, Scandinavian.

The Next Five

Now, although I’m never very good at this and this time it’s even more guesswork than usual, here’s a list of what just might be the next five books I’ll read:

1. The Dirty Parts of the Bible, by Sam Torode. Like I said, I’m a sucker for a good title. I’ve  started this one and it’s going by very quickly, which is a good sign.

2. Go Set A Watchman, by Harper Lee. My initial instinct, after the first reports came out about a racist Atticus Finch in this book, was to not read it. But since then I’ve heard more positive feedback, and that this one reveals some things about the development of To Kill A Mockingbird, which is at or near the top of my (and probably most readers’) “favorite books” list.

3. From The Bottom Up, by Chad Pregracke. This is the story of the man who took it upon himself to clean trash and waste from the banks of the Mississippi River a decade or so ago, and built up a network of fellow volunteers and corporate supporters that has spread throughout the river system. A couple of years ago, he was named CNN’s Hero of the Year.

4. A Sudden Light, by Garth Stein. Like “Watchman,” above, this was a birthday present, and I’m looking forward to diving into this fairly new book from the author of “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” another favorite.

5. Purity, by Jonathan Franzen. I’m guessing, the way my reading’s going this year, that I’ll be about at this point in my list when this new novel comes out in September.

How ’bout you? What books are on your list?

List: Top Five Story Songs — No. 1

This week, it’s been all about Story Songs, those songs that adopt their own meanings, sometimes far from what the original artists meant. Previous editions are here and here and here and here. And finally, we come to:

1. Stay Free, by The Clash.

Way back then, in the early early 1980s, we wrote letters. Lots of letters. On actual paper, which went into real envelopes, which that spent several days in transit before they were delivered.

My friend Geoff was back in New York, and I was in St. Louis, and for a couple of years there, it was extremely rare that there wasn’t a piece of paper in my typewriter, representing a letter-in-progress. Mostly to Geoff, and later to Jean, but also to other friends.

Geoff, in particular, soon got bored with sending letters in plain white envelopes, so my mailbox got a lot more colorful, with envelopes made out of pages torn out of rock magazines and folded around the letters inside, with my address scrawled on the outside under a stamp.

Basically, the outsides of our mailings became as much an outlet for creativity as the insides. Geoff, of course, was always much more creative than I was.

So yes, letters also went to other people, one of whom was my brother Jim. In the spring and early summer of 1980, we hung out a lot together, but by July of that year he found the weather and the attitudes of St. Louis to be too stifling, and picked up and moved to Provincetown, Mass., where he had some friends and where, I think, he had lived for a time previously.  That summer, I was sorry to see him go, but I always knew it was important for him, and I knew that once he got back to Provincetown, he was happier and, frankly, where he belonged.

He was from St. Louis, but he was at home in P-town.

Sometime in the late winter/early spring of 1981, I sent him a long letter. And on the outside of the envelope, I wrote the following song lyrics:

‘Cause time has passed and things have changed,
I move any way I want to go.
And I’ll never forget the feeling I got
when I heard that you’d got home.

And I’ll never forget the smile on my face
‘Cause I knew where you would be,
And if you’re in the Crown tonight,
Have a drink on me.

But go easy,
Step lightly,
Stay free.

They’re the closing lines from the song Stay Free, from The Clash’s Give ‘Em Enough Rope album. I thought they pretty well summed up how I felt about Jim at that point. (The “Crown” reference was a bonus; the previous year when we were in town and working at our Dad’s company, we would often have lunch together at Crown Candy Kitchen, a landmark in north St. Louis.)

Anyway, I sent the letter off and didn’t think much more about it, until that summer, when I took the train to the East Coast to visit both Jim, in Provincetown, and Geoff, in New York.

It was my first visit to P-town, and I was able to spend the better part of a week there. Jim had some friends who were Clash fans, and he was actually starting to listen to Sandinista! a little bit; it was beyond his usual range, but his musical tastes were always eclectic.

These friends had taken him to see the Clash movie Rude Boy, and he told me—I can still visualize him telling me this—that when they played that song in the movie, for the first time he recognized the lyric from my envelope. He had thought that I had just written it, so when he saw the lyrics sung out before him in the movie theater, it was a revelation. I think I would have written “—Strummer Jones” at the bottom of the lyric on the envelope, but at the time he received it he probably wouldn’t have known who Joe Strummer and Mick Jones were.

I wish I could remember our conversation more clearly, but for the most part it’s lost to time. I know, however, that he appreciated the sentiment, and the fact that he remembered the lyric over the several months between my letter and his seeing Rude Boy was fantastic.

So anyway, the song has always, for me, sort of encapsulated everything I felt about Jim and Provincetown. And my favorite part is that he got it; he was right there with me on it.

*****

My Clash-fan friends won’t believe this—and will probably berate and shun me when they read it—but I’ve never seen Rude Boy. But as I was preparing this post, thanks to the miracle of YouTube, I have finally seen the Stay Free scene. It’s a little raw, compared to the album version, but hey, it’s the Clash. And it’s great. Here:

List: Top Five Story Songs — No. 2

2. Christmas In Cape Town—by Randy Newman.

This is possibly the darkest, ugliest song that Randy Newman has ever written, and he’s written some ugly ones.

Consider yourself warned: Listen.

The thing you have to understand about Randy Newman, though, is that he often writes songs from the viewpoint of despicable characters—polar opposites from the way he feels—to get his point across.  This song, about a bigoted white South African who sees his country going through changes he doesn’t like, could not be more bleak. The protagonist describes the locals lining up for work at the diamond mine: “They were staring at us real hard with their big ugly yellow eyes. You could feel it. This time you could feel it.”

“What we gonna do, blow up the whole damn country?” he asks at the end.

The song reeks of desperation.

Which will seem strange, when you consider what I associate it with in this list of “story songs.”

On September 22, 1984, I ran in the Busch Stadium Run in St. Louis. It was a 10K (6.2 miles) that wound through the streets of downtown, starting outside the stadium and finishing inside on the field near second base. Another twist on this race was that it had a staggered start; the very old and very young would start first, and then, in 30-second increments, other age groups would start, women before men, until it was the mid-20s guys like me starting last; the idea was that, in theory, everyone would have an equal chance of crossing the finish line first. The upshot was that for me, young and healthy and in shape (those were the days, eh?), I was starting at the back of this pack of hundreds of people, and so for the entire race, I was catching people and passing them. For a runner in a race, that’s almost the perfect definition of fun.

Like most runners, before a big race, I’ll generally focus on a particular song, and listen to that song right before the race so it’s still in my head while I’m running. Now, there’s no way that I would have picked a song like Christmas in Cape Town for that purpose. What probably happened was that I was planning on running to Newman’s  “I Love L.A.,” a considerably more upbeat song, which is the first track on the album Trouble In Paradise. But something happened; either I lingered in the car a little too long and the cassette went on to the second track—which is Christmas in Cape Town—or I just made the jump in my mind. In any case, as I ran the race, it was that darkest-of-dark songs that was playing in my brain.

To add to the mood, it was raining; that was one of the few races I’ve taken part in that was actually run in a steady downpour.

But here’s the thing: after I’d watched all the older and younger and female-er runners start ahead of me, and I got to start with all of my prime-of-life compatriots, something clicked. Suddenly, I was really enjoying myself. And Randy Newman’s song, although dark in tone, seemed somehow to be the perfect tempo for my mood. I started reeling in the runners ahead of me, a dozen at a time. The rain? Sure, I was wet. But once I was wet, I wasn’t getting any wetter, so why not just keep running?

And the running felt great. Joyous, really. Puddles, crowds: nothing bothered me as I glided through the St. Louis streets on my way back to the stadium. Maybe I didn’t realize it at the time, but at 25 years old, I really was in the athletic prime of my life. Actually, that day, I probably did realize it. I finished the race in 38:05, which was probably a minute faster than any previous 10K I’d run up to that point, and it still stands as my fastest 10K ever.*

So now when I hear the song Christmas in Cape Town, I’m not thinking about South Africa or Apartheid. Definitely not about Christmas. I’m thinking about that long-ago September morning, when nothing was slowing me down.

List: Top Five Story Songs — No. 3

3. Sunday, Bloody Sunday, by U2.

October 27, 1985: Denkinger screwed up, and the Cardinals were ticked. After the nightmare finish to Game 6 of the 1985 World Series, it was easy to see that Game 7 was going to be a powder keg. The only question was, who was going to set it off?

I previously wrote about the finish of Game 6 here.  Oh, and also here.

The next afternoon, Sunday, the day of Game 7, I was searching for a song that might capture my apocalyptic mood and get me emotionally prepared to watch the game that evening. I was thumbing through my record collection, and came to the album War, by U2.

AHA!   There’s a song called New Year’s Day on that record that was just right: from the very first distorted piano chord, the song draws you in with a taut, gritty tension that won’t let you go. It was perfect for what I was feeling that day.

I went to put it on … but New Year’s Day was the second song on that album; the first, which I’d forgotten about, was even MORE perfect: Sunday, Bloody Sunday.

“I can’t believe the news today,” the song begins. “I can’t close my eyes and make it go away.” And truly, the news was unbelievable. The Cardinals, with one of their best lineups ever, were supposed to coast through that World Series against the Royals, who were—let’s face it—pretenders to the American League crown. But after that awful finish to Game 6, there they were, all even, going into the deciding game at Kansas City’s home field. Their backs up against the wall, as the song says.

And yes, there was an egregiously blown call by the umpire, but the blame for the Game 6 loss falls squarely upon the Cardinals, who completely fell apart at the end. And worse, their reactions after the game indicated that they were going to spend the whole day Sunday fuming about the umpire, rather than focusing on Game 7.

(OK, readers who are not sports fans—and I know there are a few of you out there—may think that this violent, militaristic song and desperate imagery might be a little over the top when discussing a game. But we’re talking about the World Series here. And the St. Louis Cardinals. In the 1980s, baseball was all St. Louis had.)

So yes, the tone of this song was absolutely perfect. Even the title was exactly right: Sunday, Bloody Sunday. It was clearly going to be bloody. My prediction before the game—I’m not boasting; it was about the easiest prediction one could make—was that it was going to probably be an ugly, blowout game, with at least one person being ejected. I held out a slim hope that it would be the Cardinals on the upper side of the blowout, that “anger can be power” and they’d come out energized against the Royals. And yes, there’s even a tiny note of hopefulness in the song: “We can be a swarm tonight.” But deep down inside, I knew it would probably go the other way.

And, as we all know, it did: I think the score was 10-0 Royals when I gave up on the game, and both manager Whitey Herzog and pitcher Joaquin Andujar had been tossed. It was probably the worst day in the history of Cardinal Nation.

Bloody Sunday, indeed.

List: Top Five Story Songs — No. 4

4. King Horse, by Elvis Costello.

King Horse on Spotify.

This is, without a doubt, the best juggling song ever.

It’s from Elvis’ best album, Get Happy!, which I was listening to quite a bit in the winter of 1981-82, when I learned how to juggle. Besides being a great song, it has lots of wild starts and stops and timing changes, perfect for throwing in tricks. In fact, the lyric I quoted at the top of yesterday’s post is precisely the point of juggling nirvana, for this or any other song.

As jugglers go, by the way, I claim nothing but amateur status. I can keep three objects in the air pretty well, but try adding a fourth and there are soon four objects on the floor. But three, three I can do. And when I hear this song, my arms start itching to juggle.

My second favorite juggling song is Modern Love by David Bowie. Beyond that, really, any song will do.

Not much of a story, eh? Well, it is No. 4…

*****

By the way, I mentioned that what songs mean to us is often different from what the songwriter originally intended. So what did Elvis Costello intend with King Horse? Some interesting discussion here.