Reading List, February 2013—My Last (And Next) Five Books

I’m back on track with reading now, hopefully. As you’ll see, Christmas threw a big, and welcome, wrench into my reading list.

My last five books, in order of completion:

2115402141: A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. It’s my Christmas tradition. This year I put it off until the last moment, and didn’t start reading it until I went to bed on Christmas Eve. But that didn’t diminish this classic one bit.

I’m not sure what I can say about this story that hasn’t been said many times before, except that I did wonder about one thing. After Marley’s Ghost had visited Scrooge and warned him of three more spirits, the first to come 1 a.m. the next day, Scrooge woke up at 12 and it was dark outside.

Twelve! It was past two when he went to bed. The clock was wrong. An icicle must have got into the works. Twelve!

He touched the spring of his repeater, to correct this most preposterous clock. It’s rapid little pulse beat twelve: and stopped.

“Why, it isn’t possible,” said Scrooge, “that I can have slept through a whole day and far into another night…

What is this “repeater” thing he has? Sounds pretty cool, whatever it is. I wish I lived in the high-tech days of the early 19th century.

FARTHER AWAYBy: Jonathan Franzen.2: Farther Away, by Jonathan Franzen. This is a collection of essays, speeches and criticism from Franzen over the last few years. Oddly, the pieces are presented in reverse chronological order, but it works, in part because the first one in the book, and therefore the most recent, his 2011 commencement address at Kenyon College, serves as an introduction for the rest. I mentioned one of the essays here.

Franzen has written several nonfiction books along with his novels. I tend to look forward to the fiction more than the nonfiction, for some reason, but I really enjoyed reading this one. If nothing else, he offered up a lot of suggestions for future reading.

Casual_Vacancy3. The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling. Perhaps you’ve heard of J.K. Rowling. She’s written a few books that have received  moderate attention in some circles. But those were all kids’ books. The Casual Vacancy is definitely not a kid’s book. Although, interestingly, the adolescents in this book are the most well-developed characters. The adults, for the most part, are fairly cartoonish, and only the kids are really fleshed out.

This is a book about politics. And I don’t mean electoral politics, although an election is a central part of the story; I mean the politics of rich and poor, the haves and have-nots. It’s also a very English book, much more so than I remember from the Harry Potter series, although it’s been a few years since I read those books. Between all the British idioms and the large number of characters, it took me a hundred pages to really get rolling in this book—but that’s OK, because it’s more than 500 pages long.

This was one of four books I received for Christmas. The holiday really shook up my reading plans for January … in a very good way.

PreacherKing4. The Preacher King: Martin Luther King Jr. And The Word That Moved America, by Richard Lischer. This was a fascinating book. Not a biography per se, but an examination of the evolution of King’s preaching and speaking style, beginning with his tutelage under his father, who was also a pastor in Atlanta. It chronicles King Jr’s education in rhetoric and theology, and the many pastors and professors, in addition to his father, who influenced him. And it details how his message changed from one of identification in the 1950s and early 1960s to one of more confrontation in his last few years. Throughout, though, he always insisted on a strategy of nonviolence for the movement.

This book was some pretty serious stuff. So while I read it, I was simultaneously reading the next book on this list. In terms of balance, it actually worked out quite well, and I finished both of them on the same day.

Dogfight5. Dogfight, by Calvin Trillin. The blurb on the cover calls this book “laugh out loud.” I normally hate that adjective, because it’s almost never true. For this book, though, it fit. It’s a look at the entire 2012 election campaign (stretching back to 2011, of course), but all told in verse.

Some—OK, a lot—of the rhymes are pretty strained. But that’s part of the charm of the book. There were probably dozens of lines in this book that provoked audible guffaws from me, so the cover blurb was accurate. Just one example:

And Bachman, still the faithfuls’ faithful fighter,
Emerged as Palin lite—or even liter.


Now, time for my best (but inevitably wrong) guess at the next five books I’ll be reading:

1. The Maytrees, by Annie Dillard. Found this on the bargain list in the Kindle store a couple of days ago. Among other things, it’s set in Provincetown, Mass., and I have a great longing for a taste of Provincetown right now.

2. One Heart, by Elie Wiesel. Recommended by my friend Anne the last time I did one of these lists. Hey folks, if you recommend books to me, I pay attention!

3. We Can All Do Better by Bill Bradley. Another Christmas gift, and, after pretty much taking a break from serious politics (Dogfight doesn’t count) I’m ready to get back at it.

4. Are You Happy Now, by Richard Babcock. Another novel purchased from the Kindle bargain book bin.

5. Stan Musial: An American Life, by George Vecsey. This has been on my list for a long time, and I really wanted to read it before Musial passed away. Obviously, I didn’t. Maybe this time.


Previous ‘Five Books’ Lists on Shoulblog:

Reading List, December 2012

Reading List, May 2012

Reading List, January 2012

Reading List, October 2011

Questions For The Author

Author Jonathan Franzen, in the essay “On Autobiographical Fiction,” part of his 2012 collection Farther Away, writes that whenever a novelist gives a public talk or reading, he or she is invariably asked four “unpleasant questions.” They are, he writes “apparently the price we have to pay for the pleasure of appearing in public.”

The four questions are:

1) Who are your influences?

2) What time of day do you work, and what do you write on?

3) I read an interview with an author who says that at a certain point in writing a novel, the characters “take over” and tell him what to do. Does this happen to you, too?

4) Is your fiction autobiographical?

I’ve been to a few readings/book signings over the years (not my own … but with real authors), and I can verify that yes, these four questions or close approximations are usually asked. And I can see why an author wouldn’t like them, particularly when repeated night after night.

But I’m going to confess that at one time or another, I probably would have asked the same questions, had I gotten up the nerve to stand up and ask something. I’ll go even further to say that the one that authors probably find the most banal is the question I’m most interested in. That would be No 2, about the author’s working hours and habits. Of the four questions, Franzen gave the least amount of space—one paragraph—to dispatch that one, although his answer does include one of the best lines I’ve ever read about the work of writing:

When I’m working, I don’t want anybody else in the room, including myself.

OK, I don’t really care what time an author works, and I don’t care if he writes longhand which word processor he uses (although years ago, I was fascinated by the choice-of-word-processor questions). But what I’m curious about is the process of writing: how the author can get himself into the frame of mind in which he can create characters and stories out of nothing. Because I’ve dabbled in that a little bit myself once or twice over the years, and man, is it tough. When one is leading a real-world life, it’s hard to imagine being able to create fictional lives.

So there must be some secret to it, and we wannabes have to show up at all the readings to try and get the authors to give it up.

As for the time-of-day question, I think this author probably has the right idea. She jumps in to writing the first thing in the morning, after only breakfast and coffee, and without letting any newspapers, television or Internet to get between her and the words. I’ve not read any of Roxana Robinson’s fiction, but I think I’ll give her a try this year.

(Too-) Good Reads

good-readsI’ve taken what I guess is a quintessentially New-Year’s step and added the “Goodreads” widget to the sidebar of this blog’s home page. (It’s down there at the bottom of the right column of blog stuff.) By clicking on it, you can see what I’m currently reading, and what I’ve been reading and what I’m planning to read. (Although the widget doesn’t seem to be accurately updating page numbers, but perhaps that will work itself out.)

I know you probably don’t care about any of that, but it’s now right there for you in case you’re ever excruciatingly bored.

Goodreads is a sort of social network for book readers. Besides sharing all of the information above, you can get book recommendations, review books, read others’ reviews, etc. All great stuff if you’re a reader: kind of like the comments section of an Amazon listing, but without the stray “I’m only giving one star because I ordered this but never received it!!!” comments.

I first joined Goodreads about three years ago, and promptly lost interest. I have a couple of problems with Goodreads. One  is that my tastes, at least in fiction, tend toward what I guess would be called “literary” books, while it seems most of the community there likes “genre” fiction—romance, crime, etc.

Also, to be a productive Goodreads member, you need to write reviews of books and rate them on a 1–5 scale. OK, I can force myself to write capsule reviews (although I hate the idea of summarizing a 100,000-word book in 100 words), and I guess I sort of do so on my blog in my five-books lists.

But to rate a book on five-star scale? That’s a tough one. And here’s the reason. I’m a pretty slow reader, and a book requires of me a pretty substantial commitment, often a multi-week commitment. I’m not going to take that kind of commitment lightly. This means I’m not going to casually jump into a book I won’t like, but I’m more apt to like every book I jump into, if that makes sense. If a book’s just not right for me, I’ll bail out and not finish it, but that’s actually a surprisingly rare occurrence. I have enough respect for authors and the amount of work I know they put into a book to not give up if it doesn’t sing to me in the first half of the story. I’ll make myself like it, if necessary.

So if I’ve made that kind of commitment to a book, and I stick with it to the end, it’s highly unlikely that I’m going to give it anything but a four- or five-star rating. If I’ve finished a book, you can pretty well infer that I liked it. So the rating system doesn’t make much sense for me.

With the new year, I’m giving Goodreads another try. If nothing else, it will spur me a little to keep reading, and maybe I’ll pick up a good recommendation or two along the way.

So ignore the stars, but you’re welcome to look over my shoulder and see what I’m reading. And if you’re so inclined, consider joining Goodreads and “friending” me and posting your own book lists.