15 Books of Summer, Or: Yes, I’m Still Kicking

15 Books of Summer

In the past three months, I’ve hardly finished more than a book per month, which is abysmal stuff for someone who works full-time in a library and doesn’t really have other hobbies. Luckily, two projects have come along that should help me out of my slump: Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer, running from June 1 – September 3, and my library’s summer reading program, running anytime-I-damn-well-please. I’m hoping to bust out of my reading slump by joining both challenges at the same time, blogging again, and starting graduate school in the midst of it. This might be a classic case of over-compensation.

Because of the graduate school thing, I’ll be reaching for 15 books this summer rather than 20. I have some titles in mind, mostly books that will also satisfy the library’s summer  program (a bingo card with various reading tasks to complete), but I’d like to leave myself some degree of spontaneity. That being said, here are a few books I do hope to finish:

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  1. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles: A book that has been on my radar for over five years. This will fill the Bingo task to “read the first (debut) book of any author.”
  2. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi: A newer book I’ve been hearing great things about. This could also satisfy a couple of different Bingo squares, including “A book with a one-word title,” or “a book about a country you’ve never been to” (Ghana).
  3. An Untamed State by Roxane Gay: I’ve yet to read Roxane Gay, but many of my reading friends like and recommend her, so this could be worth a shot.
  4. The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen: Another book I’ve been meaning to read for a while, and one that will tick-off the “Read a book published before 1960” square.
  5. Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel to the End of the World by Nell Stevens: This book is (a) a memoir, about (b) writing, that takes place on the frozen outreaches of (c) Argentina, and has a (d) penguin on the cover. I couldn’t have designed a more perfect-sounding book in a laboratory, and then one of my favorite bloggers, Rick at Another Book Blog, gave it a glowing five-star review. I hope it lives up to the hype.

I have a few other books on my radar, but these are the five I’m most excited about. I hope to be back soon with an update — with just four weeks until classes start, I’m planning to read the first few books quickly!

2016, A Year in Review: “Thriving is Elegant. Surviving is Important.”

I’ve already explained that 2016 wasn’t my most prosperous year; neither has it been many other people’s. But despite feeling like I hardly accomplished a thing, I will have completed–hopefully–58 books by New Year’s Eve. Not the worst year of reading I’ve had, by a long shot. Here are my books by the numbers (including one that I’m currently reading).

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Books Read: 58
As I said, I’m happy with this number in spite of everything. I had originally planned to read more, but a lot of things fell into my way this year and I’m proud of the number I was able to complete. It’s actually two more books than I read last year.

Female Authors: 34/58 (58%)
This is something I’ve been working on for the last year or so: picking up more books written by women. I think this might be the first year that the scales finally tipped in their favor.

Non-Fiction: 31/58 (53%)
I read a lot of non-fiction this year, and especially a lot of memoirs (which has never been my favorite type of book, so I’m not sure exactly what happened). I like to strike a balance between fiction and non-fiction, and this ratio is pretty near perfect.

My Reading in 2016:
Like I said, this might have been the year of the memoir. I gravitated toward biographies and memoirs far more than I usually do, instead of broader, more generalized histories. Individual lives are starting to interest me more. I also read a few more practical, how-to, and design type books because of my home purchase in March.

Overall, this was a solid year in terms of reading, if a bit unfocused. I discovered a few new authors that I hope to read more from, re-read a couple of old favorites, and did absolutely nothing to reduce the number of books I have stockpiled at home. Which is typical, really.

Favorites of the Year

Fiction
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
The House at the Edge of Night by Catherine Banner
Landfalls by Naomi J. Williams
The Distant Marvels by Chantel Acevedo

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Non-Fiction
The Portable Dorothy Parker by Dorothy Parker
The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing
The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit

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Memoirs & Biographies
Dust Tracks on a Road by Zora Neale Hurston
How to Live: A Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell
Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen
The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell
As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes

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Favorite New Authors
(Sidenote: All women!)
Rebecca Solnit
Sarah Bakewell
Olivia Laing
Ruth Ozeki
Naomi J. Williams

All of the books above I would happily recommend, but I especially loved The Lonely City, The Faraway Nearby, Landfalls, The Distant Marvels, and A Tale for the Time Being (probably my favorite of the year).

I’ll be back to report on some reading plans for 2017. Stay tuned!

“Announcing Your Place in the Family of Things.”

In May, it will have been five years since I graduated from college, a length of time that still seems staggering. In that time, I haven’t accomplished a whole lot personally. It has been a period of almost constant uncertainty, frustration and fear, occasionally interrupted by something lovely, like the birth of my nephew. I have felt, for most of that time, like I’ve been squandering my twenties. I’ve traveled briefly, but not as much as I’d like; maintained only one friendship from college and let the rest drop; dated hardly at all. The only goal I’ve had during this time is, eventually, to buy my own house.

I’ve been living with my parents since I was 22, looking for a secure job and then, upon finding one, saving every dollar I could. About two years ago I started browsing through listings online, getting a feel for the market around me, making endless calculations about how much money I’d need to get started, and how many years it would take before I’d have it. About six months ago, I decided to step up my game. I realized how quickly the condos I liked were being scooped up, and began contacting realtors to get my foot in the door. And what all of that comes down to is this.

Over the past four weeks, I:

  1. Accidentally contacted the wrong realtor about a condo I was interested in;
  2. Decided to work with that realtor to find my first home;
  3. Found a great condo and submitted an offer;
  4. Had my offer accepted;
  5. Bought a house.

I know that buying a house is not exactly an uncommon event, but for so long it seemed impossible that I still have trouble wrapping my brain around it. The sentence “I bought a house” keeps sticking in the back of my throat. It just doesn’t seem real.

And that’s one reason I haven’t written anything about it until now; I was so sure it was going to fall apart. For a couple of weeks during the negotiations, it seemed poised to. But the sentence “I bought a house” is true and has been for ten days, now, so I’m writing to tell you the news. Guys, I bought a house!

Well, a condo. It’s a great space, perfectly sized, and situated in my dream location. It has two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a small patio that leads to a common yard (great for my dog, who became more of an obstacle in this search than I would have imagined). The living room boasts a wood-burning fireplace and built-in bookshelves, something I imagine Belle would approve of (and that is, embarrassingly, important to me). The sellers have updated everything, including boring, costly things like the furnace. The paint is fresh and plain. The whole unit’s a blank slate.

I’m doubly excited about that, because I’ve developed a sizeable interest in design. My Pinterest account has devolved into a collection of interior design boards sorted by room and function, and I regularly browse through home design websites and blogs. I also spend an inappropriate amount of time at Home Goods. Until now, there hasn’t been much I could do with this interest, but now that I have a home I’m eager to dive in.

All this has been an elaborate way of excusing, once again, my absence here. And to warn you that this “book” themed blog might quickly transform into a “house” themed blog, with a side of books.

And finally, because it would be anti-climactic otherwise, some pics:

It will be about a month before I can move myself in. I’ve applied for a mortgage, and now the bank is doing its thing. I’m using that time to acquire some of the things I need, planning changes I’d like to make, and thinking about what shape my life will take once I live there. And really, it’s anybody’s guess. Odds are I’ll maintain the same lifestyle I have now, only somewhere else. But it’s pretty to think it might be more.

I’ll let you know.

“Our Life is Part Folly, Part Wisdom.” Reading My Own Damn Books in January

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The first month of the new year is coming to an end, and good riddance. Between unavoidable stresses at work, upheavals at home, and my harboring a cold over the past week, it wasn’t exactly a promising start to 2016. In terms of reading, though, it was actually a decent start. I began the year with one goal in mind: to read my own books as part of a year-long challenge by Estella’s Revenge. I also decided to spend the month of January reading only books written by women, since I tend toward the opposite direction if left to my own devices. I began the year with 79 books in my TBR, and in January I’ve managed to knock it down to 74. (You can read more about my challenge here.)

The Portable Dorothy Parker by Dorothy Parker: I loved this. It had been languishing on my shelves for a long time, and I’m embarrassed that it took me so long to dive into. I wrote more about Parker and my reactions to this book here.

Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl: Another one that I’ve been meaning to read for a while, but this didn’t go over as well. This is primarily a memoir of Reichl’s unconventional upbringing and early adulthood, with some of her favorite recipes sprinkled throughout. Reading about the author’s childhood was actually kind of fascinating, but I became less fascinated as she aged. It’s not much fun reading about twenty-somethings hobnobbing all over the country, living in penthouse apartments, travelling and working whenever they damn well please, when you’re a twenty-something who can’t afford to do any of the above. I’m hostile toward Reichl’s generation, and it showed.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey: This is the most collectively beloved book by my friends on Goodreads, with an average rating of 4.53. Suffice it to say that I didn’t understand what the fuss was about.

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard: This was a short, quick read, with beautiful writing and great insight. Dillard is a skilled writer. But for some reason this book didn’t resonate with me as much as Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones.

How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell: Confession time! I’ve never actually read Montaigne’s Essays, but I hope to change that soon. I’ve been hearing great things about this biography for a long time, and it definitely lived up to the hype. This is primarily a biography of Michel de Montaigne, but it’s also a history of France in the 16th century, and a study of philosophy from Socrates and the Stoics all the way through to Nietzsche. It was beautifully done, and introduced me to ideas, characters and time periods I’d forgotten all about. A great read, if you’re into this sort of thing. The author has a new book arriving in March, which I’ll definitely be adding to my list.

20160125_154417.jpgSo that’s January, in the bag. In February I’m hoping to continue reading women writers, and I have a few books from my shelves lined up and waiting. This weekend, though, I picked up my first library book in a month: Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road. Hurston was the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, a book I read for the first time last fall (and one I highly recommend!)

I’m also shaping my reading to fit my library’s winter reading program, a bingo card with different reading tasks to complete. I created this program, so I felt I had to give it a try. In February I hope to read Geek Love by Katherine Dunn (a book published in the year I was born), Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith (a book that has been turned into a movie), and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (a book with a one-word title).

That’s all for now! See you next month.

“Excuse My Dust:” A Love Letter to Dorothy Parker

dorothy-parkerWhen Dorothy Parker died in 1967, she was living alone in New York. Her husband and creative partner, Alan Campbell, had already passed, and she had no children or other family still living. She left everything she had to a hard-working and compassionate civil-rights activist she had never even met: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Parker’s story is full of incredible intersections like this one. Reading her columns, reviews and letters in The Portable Dorothy Parker is an unexpected glimpse into the top-tier literati of the ’20s and ’30s. She panned plays by A. A. Milne and Theodore Dreiser (both of whom she hated), reviewed books by Ernest Hemingway and John Updike, wrote introductions for works by James Thurber, scolded Jack Kerouac, sent telegrams to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and trashed one of Florenz Ziegfeld’s infamous “Follies,” for which she promptly lost her job. She worked in Hollywood, writing movie scripts during the Golden Age, but her heart belonged to New York (even though, she writes, “I was cheated out of the distinction of being a native New Yorker, because I had to go and get born while the family was spending the summer in New Jersey, but, honestly, we came back into town right after Labor Day, so I nearly made the grade.”) She new everyone, and everyone seemed to know her.

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Parker was a prominent member of the Algonquin Round Table, a group of New York’s  elite writers, actors and editors, that met for lunch each day at the Algonquin Hotel. They were known for their clever and often poisonous wit, with Parker’s astute ear for language, and her ability to turn almost anything into a pun, leading the charge. (Challenged one day to use the word horticulture in a sentence, she supplied, without hesitation: “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.”) They were the Bright Young Things of the Lost Generation, and they took New York by storm. Later in life, Parker downplayed the group’s importance:

These were no giants. Think who was writing in those days—Lardner, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Hemingway. Those were the real giants. The Round Table was just a lot of people telling jokes and telling each other how good they were. Just a bunch of loudmouths showing off, saving their gags for days, waiting for a chance to spring them… There was no truth in anything they said. It was the terrible day of the wisecrack, so there didn’t have to be any truth.

Parker was, most of all, a prolific writer, penning dozens of short stories and three complete volumes of poetry. She also wrote regular columns for Vanity Fair, until she was fired, and then jumped ship to the newly-founded New Yorker in 1925, where she reviewed books in a regular feature called Constant Reader. (I have a feeling she would have been a fantastic book blogger, given the opportunity). She is remembered today for her one-of-a-kind humor and scathing wit, with many of her one-liners passing into notoriety. (“Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses” is one of hers, as is: “Tell him I was too fucking busy – or vise versa.”)

When Martin Luther King died in 1968, Parker’s estate passed onto the NAACP, per her wishes. Her executor contested the move for years, and Parker’s ashes languished in the filing cabinet of her attorney for 17 years. Finally, in 1988, her ashes were buried in a memorial garden, outside the NAACP headquarters in Baltimore. Her plaque reads:

Here lie the ashes of Dorothy Parker (1893–1967) humorist, writer, critic. Defender of human and civil rights. For her epitaph she suggested, ‘Excuse my dust’. This memorial garden is dedicated to her noble spirit which celebrated the oneness of humankind and to the bonds of everlasting friendship between black and Jewish people.

And strangely, it is that moniker, “humorist,” that would have bothered Parker, and the fact that it precedes the word “writer” in her epitaph. While known for her wit and charm, Parker took little stock in her own reputation as a humorist. Her stories and poetry are, overwhelmingly, serious in nature, often focusing on love, death and suicide (she attempted three times to take her own life). She struggled mightily to produce a novel, something that would prove her mettle as a serious writer, and lamented when she failed. Here’s Parker reading one of her more famous poems, “Resume.” (Note: Almost entirely sure that’s not her picture, unless she was born fifty years before the record states).

Having spent the last week happily wrapped inside the extended Portable Dorothy Parker, I can vouch for her abilities as a writer. My copy has been (neatly) underlined, asterisked, and covered in loving notes. Next to one of my favorite reviews, a scathing indictment of A. A. Milne’s newest play (which she ended with the words “and so I shot myself,”), I scribbled: “OMG. I love this woman.” And those are basically my sentiments about the collection as a whole.

The Portable was originally compiled in 1944, and Parker selected and arranged the stories and poems herself. It was part of a series of small, lightweight books intended for use by soldiers overseas, and Parker’s is the only one of that series, aside from the Bible and Shakespeare’s collected works, that has never gone out of print. In 2006, Penguin repackaged and expanded the original Portable with dozens more stories, and also included samples of her reviews, columns, and letters. That, for me, is what makes this edition worthwhile. Parker can write, but so can a thousand other people – it’s her humor that can’t be reproduced. Many of her “serious” stories fell flat for me, and I can admit to skipping a few of them in order to get to the good stuff. It’s unfortunate that she undervalued her wit – I think it’s what has kept her in print all these years.

Here’s a passage from one of my favorite stories in this collection, The Waltz. In it, you have the inner monologue of a woman dancing politely with a man she’s just met. On the inside, though, she’s reeling. Here is how she reacts after the man inadvertently kicks her shin while dancing:

Oh, no, no. no. Goodness, no. It’s didn’t hurt the least little bit. And anyway it was all my fault. Really it was. Truly. Well, you’re just being sweet, to say that. It really was all my fault.

I wonder what I’d better do – kill him his instant, with my naked hands, or wait and let him drop in his traces. Maybe it’s best not to make a scene. I guess I’ll just lie low, and watch the pace get him. He can’t keep this up indefinitely – he’s only flesh and blood. Die he must, and die he shall, for what he did to me. I don’t want to be of the over-sensitive type, but you can’t tell me that kick was unpremeditated. Freud says there are no accidents. I’ve led no cloistered life, I’ve known dancing partners who have spoiled my slippers and torn my dress; but when it comes to kicking, I am Outraged Womanhood. When you kick me in the shin, smile.

This, I would argue, is Parker’s greatest strength: the ability to capture the most fleeting and often cynical thoughts and create an entire story out of them. She is the funniest writer I’ve ever read, and that is a considerable talent, whether or not she’d agree. And she did agree to some extent, at least once. In one of her columns for the New Yorker – one in which she reduced Theodore Dreiser to a sopping puddle – she wrote:

I am unable to feel that a writer can be complete without humor. And I don’t mean by that, and you know it perfectly well, the creation of the appreciation of things comic. I mean that the possession of a sense of humor entails the sense of selection, the civilized fear of going too far. A little humor leavens the lump, surely, but it does more than that. It keeps you, from your respect for the humor of others, from making a dull jackass of yourself.

Well, if that’s all I can get, I’ll take it.

“That Bird Only Sings When She’s Unhappy.”

I haven’t blogged, or written nearly anything, in almost a year. I’ve tried more than once to return to blogging in the interim, because I really do miss it when I’m gone. Like a few other book bloggers I know, I’m charging into the new year with (somewhat) renewed energy, and a fresh start.

Or at least I would be, but the last couple of weeks have been more stressful than usual, and I don’t feel “renewed” so much as exhausted. Part of the reason for my return, if I’m honest, is because I could really use a creative outlet right now, and a project to focus my time on. The past year was a difficult one for me on multiple fronts. I’m trying to take some steps to make things better in 2016, and blogging and writing again are major links in the chain.

In terms of reading: I had a rough year. I was able to polish off a respectable number of books, but I slogged through so many that I didn’t enjoy and had trouble making myself read. I got bogged down in books I really should have pushed aside, and lost a lot of time floundering in between. My plan, and my only plan in 2016, is to read the books I have at home. I’ve noticed that a lot of other bloggers are doing the same, mostly led by Estella’s Revenge and the Read Your Own Damn Books Challenge, which might be the best-named challenge I’ve ever heard. I’ll be making my own attempt, which you can follow along with here.

What’s On Tap
I’m kicking things off with Dorothy 51qrl0o4m1l-_sy344_bo1204203200_Parker, who might just be my spirit animal. The Portable Dorothy Parker is a collection of short stories and poetry originally collected and arranged by Parker in 1944. The newest incarnation, released by Penguin in 2006, includes dozens more stories and poems, along with a sampling of Parker’s letters, reviews, and columns written for the New Yorker. It’s more than double the size of the original. I’ve had it on my shelf for a few years now, and I’ve dipped in and out a couple of times but now I plan to read it through.

I also tried a small experiment in the fall of 2015, during one of my longer slumps, which I might try to replicate in January. For one month, I read only books written by women, and it was by far the best month of reading I had. I’m not sure if that was just coincidence, but I’d like to think not. One of the highlights, for me, was finally getting through a book by Virginia Woolf, and then another. I’ve never been able to read her before, and now I’m slightly in love.

I’ll leave you with some great advice from Miss Parker herself, which hit particularly close to home.

If you looked for things to make you feel hurt and wretched and unnecessary, you were certain to find them, more easily each time, so easily, soon, that you did not even realize you had gone out searching. Women alone often developed into experts in the practice. She must never join their dismal league.