a reader

an eudæmonistreading

2020

November

Phil Christman. Midwest Futures. Cleveland, OH: Belt Publishing, 2020. [145]
A charming, disarming book on the Midwest, class, money, and politics.
Matt Stansberry and David Wilson. Rust Belt Arcana. Cleveland, OH: Belt Publishing, 2018. [144]
An interesting strategy for talking about the natural world. I would imagine it being somewhat harder to be excited about ‘nature’ in Ohio than, say, the Amazon basin, but the author and illustrator manage it.
Meghan Purvis, trans. Beowulf. London: Penned in the Margins, 2013. [143]
Thoroughly enjoyable.
John B. Morrall. The Medieval Imprint. Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1970 (1967). [142]
As it sounds. Light, but decently thorough. Definitely better than the Pelican book on witchcraft.
Tanya Tagaq. Split Tooth. New York: Viking/Penguin Random House audio, 2018. [141.a]*
A strange, weird, moving story.
Seamus Heaney, trans. Sweeney Astray. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1985 (1983). [140]
In a similar vein to Beowulf, but with more birds and watercress.
Marguerite Duras. The Lover. trans. Barbara Bray. New York: New Directions, 1997 (1984, 1985). [139]
An irritating book.
Robin Wall Kimmerer. Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State UP, 2003. [138]
A charming collection of personal essays on moss. Did not realize it was by the same author as Braiding Sweetgrass, the marketing for which I did not like (and so have not read). But this was good.
Seamus Heaney, trans. Beowulf. New York: Norton, 2001. [137]
Ok, but a bit flat.
Franco Moretti. Signs Taken for Wonders: On the Sociology of Literary Forms. trans. Susan Fischer, David Forgacs, and David Miller. London: Verso, 2005 (1983). [136]
Although I did not particularly care for the final three essays in the collection, as a whole it was an invigorating take on literary criticism, and the discussion at the genre level (Elizabethan/Jacobean drama, horror, detective stories) was particularly good – only when considering individual works in isolation (i.e. as symptomatic of a movement) did their strength taper off, although it may have been my lack of critical interest in the particularly works discussed. He seemed rather wrong-headed about Ulysses.
Pennethorne Hughes. Witchcraft. Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1967 (1952). [135]
A book with high aspirations – which it did not meet, not least because of the casual misogyny, racism, and homophobia scattered throughout, particularly where this was combined with the smug satisfaction of being ‘reasonable’ and ‘open-minded’.
Norman Manea. The Fifth Impossibility. trans. Various. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2012 (1992–2009). [134]
A thought-provoking collection, perhaps most interesting for the ways in which Manea’s thought develops (or doesn’t) over time. I will admit to preferring the earlier, less US-Americanized thinking, but even in the later essays there was usually always something that would surprise or unsettle – or call for thinking, anyhow. Better than its blurbs would indicate.
Virginia Woolf. Mrs. Dalloway. Ed. Jo-Ann Wallace. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview, 2013 (1925). [133]
Artful, masterful – and so much better and richer than I remember it. Indeed, it is a shame that the techniques and skills that Woolf chose should have become so far a commonplace in literary fiction that the disruptive construction of Mrs. Dalloway should seem so … ordinary.
Émile Durkheim. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. trans. Joseph Ward Swain. New York: The Free Press, 1965 (1912, 1915). [132]
An interesting follow-on to William James (who is mentioned in the conclusion) that argues for the essentially social character of religion; at the mercy, of course, of the limitations in the fieldwork which forms the foundation for the book’s synthesizing argument.
Georgette Heyer. The Grand Sophy. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2009 (1950). [131.d]
An interesting counterpoint to Heilbrun’s discussion.
Carolyn G. Heilbrun. Toward a Recognition of Androgyny. New York: Norton, 1982 (1963). [130]
Appropriately cutting towards the macho literature and criticism of the mid-twentieth century, there were still of course many blind spots and some notions that were perhaps a wishful thinking in the reading of character (Isabel Archer is not a model of anything one would want to follow). The discussions of Wuthering Heights and Mrs. Dalloway were particularly interesting, especially the latter.
Jane Alison. Meander, Spiral, Explode. New York: Catapult, 2019. [129]
Although the marketing copy wants to add ‘Against Aristotle’ to the subtitle, the idea that (good) literature/art should/does/will follow pre-established models seems a very Aristotelean project. Did not, on the whole, live up to its hype (which would of course be very difficult), but the ‘museum pieces’ selected from MFA reading list standbys did not help. Broader, deeper reading might have been more illuminating, surprising, spectacular.
Frédéric Gros. A Philosophy of Walking. trans. John Howe. London: Verso, 2015 (2011, 2014). [128]
More about philosophers and poets walking, really. See post.
Amanda Flower. Magical Bookshop Mysteries. 4 vols. New York, Obsidian, 2016–2019. [127.d]*
Diverting, but suspiciously devoid of deep emotion for murder mysteries.
Namwali Serpell. Stranger Faces. Oakland, CA: Transit Books, 2020. [126]
An interesting collection of essays that did not hang together quite as well as Elisa Gabbert’s, but in a similar vein. Seemed in some ways like an alternate entry from Restless Books’ the face series. The essay on ‘Psycho’ was particularly good.

October

Jhumpa Lahiri. In Other Words. trans. Ann Goldstein. New York: Vintage, 2017 (2016). [125]
Had Lahiri not already been an award-winning writer in English, it is unlikely that this book would have been published, as it is very much apprentice-work. Not having the language to express complexity, it must be hinted at with the awkwardness of an adolescent (not an infant, not a childlike) use of language. The section on ‘the wall’ – when native speakers of language refuse (not necessarily consciously) to understand a non-native speaker (even when that person speaks clearly and/or effectively) – rang true.
Richard Kieckhefer. Magic in the Middle Ages. Cambridge: CUP, 1995 (1989). [124]
As it sounds; a quotidian introduction to magic and ideas about magic in the Middle Ages.
Dick Davis, trans. Hafez, Faces of Love and the Poets of Shiraz. London: Penguin, 2013 (2012, 14th C.). [123]
Charming, an interesting accompaniment to early Greek lyric poems. So many tangled curls, so much wine, such a distance for desire.
Jess Kidd. Things in Jars. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2019. [122]
It did not go quite the way I expected, which in itself was probably something to be anticipated. The outlines of the characters were sketched in and they stayed true to their outlines, but everything felt a bit too tidy.
André Breton and Philippe Soupault. The Magnetic Fields. trans. Charlotte Mandell. New York: NYRB Poets, 2020 (1920). [121]
Yes, fine, very nice. Neither as cloying as the Williams nor as wildly despairing as the Beckett. A fine hack on hobby horse.
Joy Williams. Ninety-Nine Stories of God. Portland, OR: Tin House, 2016. [120]
Charming, brief, but not quite what I was in the mood for. Folks who liked Kathryn Scanlan’s The Dominant Animal would probably like this and the other way ’round.
Silvia Federici. Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women. Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2018. [119]
Quite a few interesting ideas in this slim volume, but the tone is polemic, which means that the thread of argument is generally isolated from the supporting fabric of evidence (which is not to say that the bibliography and notes are not helpful, just that the use of evidence felt … weak). Often when reading strongly argued books, one feels the author could cut the cackle (of supporting documentation) and get to the eggs (the argument) – here there are many eggs, but one is not entirely sure whence they came. Giving the benefit of the doubt, however, and assuming that most of the points are explained in greater detail in Federici’s Caliban and the Witch (2004).
Dan Beachy-Quick, trans. Stone-Garland: Six Poets from the Greek Lyric Tradition. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed, 2020. [118]
Perfectly fine, with a charming introductory essay. Other thoughts discussed elsewhere.
Samuel Beckett. How It Is. trans. Samuel Beckett. New York: Grove, 1964 (1961). [117]
A book to read quickly, for its rhythms, for its strangeness.
Elisa Gabbert. The Unreality of Memory. New York: FSG Originals, 2020. [116]
A timely book, but better than that would make it sound. The interconnection between the essays – tight without binding them together (i.e., each essay was coherent in itself), without sinking to redundancy (repetitions were not tedious) – was among the most interesting elements. The concern with ethics, grappling with being in the world, added greater nuance than one would expect in a belletristic collection of this sort.
Ernest Jones. On the Nightmare. New York: Grover, 1959 (1910–1912; 1931). [115]
An amusing book, which combines a very specific sort of bookishness with a very earnest sort of Freudianism. Learnedness in support of the whimsical or absurd is always good for a diversion. It should be said, however, that it a straightforward book that provides a wide range of background materials for the classic ‘nightmare’ (à la Fuseli’s painting), as well as vampires, werewolves, the devil, and witches – and a special etymological excursion on horses.
Jocelin of Brakelond. Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds. trans. Diana Greenway & Jane Sayers. Oxford: OUP, 1989 (c. 1200). [114]
A charming narrative about politics, monks, policy, and administration. Suitable for budding medievalists or fans of Ellis Peters. There is even a Prior Robert.
William Shakespeare. The Second Part of King Henry the Fourth. ed. Samuel B. Hemingway. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1921 (159?). [113]
Still not a fan of Falstaff. Feels like all the good stuff happens offstage.
Laurie Forest. The Shadow Wand. Toronto: Inkyard, 2020. [112.d]*
Diversion, but one that led me to think about narrative time and how an author ‘earns’ the sense of time passing. This was not a particularly successful instance as, even allowing for the ways in which time slows during periods of great stress and change, a month-long period of training (which it is clear fundamentally alters the protagonist’s abilities/character) is glossed in much less time than a few seconds of hand-wringing about her insecurities earlier in the book; the expected alteration in the character’s skills/personality are thus not sufficiently ‘earned’ or grounded.
William Shakespeare. The First Part of King Henry the Fourth. Rev. Ed. ed. Tucker Brooke and Samuel B. Hemingway. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1947 (1597). [111]
Not a fan of Falstaff. Hotspur’s inconsistency could I think be resolved in staging. Plenty of good insults, though.
D.F. McKenzie. Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts. Cambridge: CUP, 1999 (1984, 1986). [110.d]
Thoughtful consideration of the boundaries of a ‘text’ and what that means for bibliography, but more interesting perhaps for the implications of what that means for how one should understand reading and interpreting texts, particularly in terms of the boundaries of literacy and orality. In many ways the points McKenzie makes remain timely (e.g., in his analysis of the uses of the Treaty of Waitangi or television violence and its support of a police state).

September

Yuri Herrera. Kingdom Cons. trans. Lisa Dillman. London: And Other Stories, 2017 (2008). [109.d]*
Readable and short, but not something that I absorbed. It remained sitting on the surface.
Jazmina Barrera. On Lighthouses. trans. Christina MacSweeney. San Francisco, CA: Two Lines Press, 2020 (2017). [108]
As it sounds. Meditative, ruminative. Not sure I have any stronger opinions about lighthouses now than before I read it. Am, however, more interested in reading Sir Walter Scott’s journals.
Allie Brosh. Solutions and Other Problems. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2020. [107]
More artfully structured than Hyperbole and a Half, but with less of a narrative arc (based on what I can remember of the older book), which is not a bad thing.
Griselda Jackson Ohannessian. Once as It Was. New York: New Directions, 2007 (2002). [106]
An odd book – though one that snapped into focus once I figured out the connection between the author and the subject.
William James. Varieties of Religious Experience. In William James: Writings 1902–1910. New York: Library of America, 1987, pp. 1–477. [105]
A delight.
Burton Raffel, trans. Beowulf. New York: Signet Classics, 2008 (1963). [104]
PF recommended this translation and it is not bad – readable, picks one up and carries one along, like Grendel carrying along a warrior for a later snack.
Christina Tudor-Sideri. Under the Sign of the Labyrinth. Seattle, WA: Sublunary Editions, 2020. [103]
Another dark, elusive, allusive memoir.
Anne Serre. The Fool and Other Moral Tales. trans. Mark Hutchinson. New York: New Directions, 2019 (2004–2012). [102]
I very much like the first novella, and did not mind the second, but the third was too much like The Governesses for my taste – it is going someplace that is not particularly interesting for either its shock or kitsch value (a sort of mash up of My Secret Life and another book: I have no desire to figure out which at the present moment.
Mary Capello. Lecture. Oakland, CA: Transit Books, 2020. [101]
Charming.
Alice Oswald. Dart. London: faber & faber, 2002. [100]
Multivarious – containing multitudes.
Mary Oliver. Dog Songs. New York: Penguin, 2013. [99]
At times a greeting-card blandness, a whiff of chintz and wicker and ocean, but occasional glimmers of the depths.

August

Heather Christle. The Crying Book. New York: Catapult, 2019. [98.d]*
The weakest parts were those about its own composition. At best, it was personable, and seemed very like a bit of creative memoir turned in by a clever undergraduate, who found out halfway through that the story s/he wanted to tell has already been told, and better, by someone else and so resorts to half measures to make it seem as though that is not what was meant, at all. It does not reckon very satisfactorily (one wants to say successfully, but one cannot know that) with suffering.
Jane Austen. Northanger Abbey. Oxford: OUP, 1965 (1818). [97]
The cringeworthy parts were rather less cringeworthy than I had feared and the archness wasn’t as overwhelming as I remembered. An amusing book, good-spirited, without taking itself too seriously.
Alberto Manguel. Packing My Library. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2018. [96.d]*
An element of kitsch – a departure from the supposedly ‘elegiac’. Had I read it when younger, aged twenty or so, I might have delighted in it, but now I cannot tell if it is supposed to be an advertisement for the National Library of Argentina or something else entirely. Whatever it was supposed to be, it did not satisfy my hunger for what I thought it was.
Maggie O’Farrell. I Am, I Am, I Am. New York: Vintage, 2019 (2017). [95]
Surprising. Unexpected.
Henry James. The Speech and Manners of American Women. Lancaster, PA: Lancaster House Press, 1973 (1906–1907). [94]
Not Mr. James at his most acute or astute or sympathetic.
Walter Benjamin. One-Way Street. trans. Edmund Jephcott. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2016 (1928, 1978). [93]
A treasure-trove of oddities, another lumber room of thought.
Maria Michela Sassi. The Beginnings of Philosophy in Greece. trans. Michele Asuni. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2020 (2009). [92]
The uneven copyediting detracted from what was, on the whole, a perfectly serviceable state-of-the-art survey on early Greek philosophy.
Julie McElwain. Shadows in Time. New York: Pegasus, 2020. [91.d]
Diverting.
James A. Hall. Jungian Dream Interpretation. Toronto: Inner City Books, 1983. [90]
Better than its title would suggest; a short introduction both to Jungian analysis and dream interpretation.
Hermynia zur Mühlen. The Castle of Truth and Other Revolutionary Tales. trans. Jack Zipes. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2020 (1921–1944). [89]
Rather heavy-handed in their presentation of socialism – often better in summary than in the reading (e.g. ‘Ali, the Carpet-Weaver’, a somewhat brutal retelling of ‘The Fisherman and His Wife’).

July

Petina Gappah. An Elegy for Easterly. London: faber & faber, 2019 (2009). [88]
Brutal.
Djuna Barnes. The Lydia Steptoe Stories. London: faber & faber, 2019 (1922–1924). [87]
Whimsical.
Alejandra Pizarnik. A Tradition of Rupture: Selected Critical Writings. trans. Cole Heinowitz. Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2019 (2012; 1961–1971). [86]
An odd, uneven collection. See post.
Sappho. Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments. trans. Aaron Poochigian. New York: Penguin, 2009 (7th C BCE). [85.d]
The presentation of the poems and commentary, at least in the ebook version, was disorienting and somewhat confusing.
Alice Oswald. A Sleepwalk on the Severn. New York: Norton, 2009. [84]
Odd and dreamy; not certain I followed with the repetition and variation, but worth reading.
Giorgio van Straten. In Search of Lost Books. trans. Simon Carnell and Erica Segre. London: Pushkin, 2018 (2016). [83]
An odd and oddly light collection of essays, flirting with larger things (creativity, desire, madness) but never seeming to enter into the depths. Only one work by a woman considered and even then mainly in light of the actions of the male literary executor; all white, most European (the one lone American – Hemingway). For all that it claims to be interested in the ‘lost’ it lingers safely in the confines of fame, of the established, acknowledged ‘genius’ and makes no great (or even minor) leaps of the imagination to those works lost because they never could be written, not because of the author’s perfectionism or outreaching of his (emphatically his) grasp, but because of the bonds of history, colonialism, &c., &c. – the Shakespeare’s sister phenomenon, as Woolf more dramatically described, though going one step (an insufficient one) further.
Sinéad Gleeson. Constellations: Reflections from Life. New York: HMH, 2020. [82.d]*
On the body, on women’s bodies, on health, on happiness. Another of those essay collections I pick up thinking I’ve never read anything by the author only to find an essay halfway through that I recognize and remember reading.
Clara McKenna. Murder at Blackwater Bend. New York: Kensington, 2020. [81.d]*
Light fare; weaker than the first in series, the characters flatter, their edges hardening, becoming caricatures of themselves. The heroine perpetually, excessively brushing tendrils of her hair from her face.
Dola de Jong. The Tree and the Vine. trans. Kristen Gehrman. Oakland, CA: Transit Books, 2020 (1954). [80]
Very much a postwar book in terms of tone, with a curiously obtuse narrator. Relationships that are forever ‘entering a new phase’ while remaining essentially the same are perhaps not of the greatest interest.
S. Josephine Baker. Fighting for Life. New York: New York Review Books, 2013 (1939). [79.d]*
A book of wide-ranging interests.
Marina Tsvetaeva. Letter to the Amazon. trans. A’Dora Phillips & Gaëlle Cogan. Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2020 (1932, 1934, 2016). [78]
Very lyrical, but I’m not convinced her argument (such as it is) can bear the weight of such effusions. A whimsical business.
Andrew Hughes. The Coroner’s Daughter. New York: Pegasus Books, 2017. [77.d]*
Diverting; would satisfy those who like Kaite Welsh, Ambrose Parry, and (to a lesser extent) the ‘Lady Darby’ mysteries. The sense of time as a material difference was not strong, but perhaps the subtleties were beyond me.
Anonymous. Becoming Duchess Goldblatt. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. [76.d]*
Although I wanted to keep the ebook out of the library for the full twenty-one days to savor as my very own, I also wanted to return it immediately so other people could read it, too, once it had been quarantined and all the tears had dried.
Vivian Gibson. The Last Children of Mill Creek. Cleveland, OH: Belt Publishing, 2020. [75]
Charming mid-20th-century memoir of growing up St. Louis.

June

Kathryn Scanlan. The Dominant Animal. New York: MCD × FSG Originals, 2020. [74]
Grim.
Cora Harrington. In Intimate Detail. New York: Ten Speed Press, 2018. [73.d]*
After following Harrington on Twitter for a while, I saw her book in the library ebook app and decided to take a look. It is as comprehensive an introduction as one would wish.
Melissa Harrison. Rain: Four Walks in English Weather. London: faber & faber, 2016. [72]
Charming – perhaps not the equal of The Living Mountain, but deserving to be on the same shelf.
Jenny Boully. Betwixt-and-Between: Essays on the Writing Life. Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 2018. [71]
Butterfly writing – very pretty, but the impetus for the flitting around is hidden from the outsider.
Ryan Ridge. New Bad News: Stories. Louisville, KY: Sarabande, 2020. [70]
Cool story, bro.
Maria Tumarkin. Axiomatic. San Francisco, CA: Transit Books, 2019 (2018). [69]
Explorations of failures in the system; first two essays particularly strong.
Helen Darbishire, ed. Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth. New York: OUP, 1958 (1798, 1800–1803). [68]
Quotidian – a combination of chores completed, visits made, and observations of nature (from diverse walks). Toothaches, bellyaches, chills, and all.
Anne Serre. The Governesses. trans. Mark Hutchinson. New York: New Directions, 2018 (1992). [67.d]*
Odd, uncanny.

May

Jenny Boully. The Book of Beginnings and Endings: Essays. Louisville, KY: Sarabande, 2007. [66]
An odd book. Wouldn’t say they were essays, except in the sense of assay. Even so. Odd.
William O. Douglas. Points of Rebellion. New York: Vintage, 1970. [65]
Update a few names and, unfortunately, still topical. (Amusing copyright note: ‘A portion of this book appeared in Playboy in somewhat different form.’)
Natalia Ginzburg. The Dry Heart. trans. Frances Frenaye. New York: New Directions, 2019 (1947, 1952). [64]
Barbara Pym meets Clarice Lispector on the subject of marriage, misery, and murder.
Dorothea Lasky. Animal. Seattle, WA: Wave Books, 2019. [63]
The essay on color was particularly good.
Leah Price. What We Talk About When We Talk About Books: The History and Future of Reading. London: Basic Books, 2019. [62.d]*
An engaging read, but one I wish had been available earlier when I was starting to read about book history. A moratorium on titles using the phrase ‘What we talk about…’ &c. is warranted.
Dominique Fortier. The Island of Books. trans. Rhonda Mullins. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2016 (2015). [61]
Art, place, desire, history, wrapped up into one, in peril of the sea.
Lia Purpura. All the Fierce Tethers. Louisville, KY: Sarabande, 2019. [60]
Observations of nature, from an urban perspective.
Niccolò Machiavelli. The Prince. trans. George Bull. London: Penguin (Great Ideas), 2005 (1531, 1961). [59]
‘…the gulf between how one should live and how one does live is so wide that a man who neglects what is actually done for what should be done moves towards self-destruction rather than self-preservation.’ (p. 65)
Anthony Gottlieb. The Dream of Reason. Ashland, OR: Blackstone, 2013 (2010). [58.a]*
A light and entertaining survey of premodern Western philosophy, even if George Steiner thinks it isn’t quite dark enough (‘haute vulgarisation at its very best’; I am not sure that I can agree with Steiner that omitting Heidegger from a discussion of Plato and Aristotle in a general survey is a lamentable oversight). One cannot be all things to all people and this was perfectly acceptable to listen to while walking around the house during a pandemic.

April

Y.S. Lee. The Agency. 4 vols. Somerville, MA: Candlewick, 2009–2014. [57.d]
Amusing, improbable.
William Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Richard the Second. ed. Robert T. Petersson. Rev. ed. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1957 (1597). [56]
‘My lord, wise men ne’er sit and wail their woes, / But presently prevent the ways to wail.’
John M. Munro, ed. Selected Poems of Theo. Marzials. Beirut, Lebanon: American University of Beirut, 1974. [55]*
I think this will remain the definitive edition of Marzials’ poetical offerings.
Claire-Louise Bennett. Pond. London: Fitzcarraldo, 2019 (2015). [54]
Considered elsewhere.
MLA Handbook. 8th Ed. New York: Modern Language Association, 2016. [53]
See more detailed discussion elsewhere.
Cecilia Watson. Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark. New York: Ecco, 2019. [52.d]*
Surprisingly enjoyable!
Tim Whitmarsh. Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World. New York: Knopf (HighBridge), 2015. [51.a]*
Perhaps received less attention than it deserved, but also not wholly clear that it serves the purpose of history as polemic in shedding light on its own time. It was fine, clear, and cogent – but not wholly satisfying. I might have liked it more as a paperbook.
Cory Taylor. Dying: A Memoir. Portland, OR: Tin House, 2017 (2016). [50.d]*
An oddly structured book, but interesting.
Valeria Luiselli. The Story of My Teeth. trans. Christina MacSweeney. Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 2015 (2013). [49]
Strange and entertaining. Very disconcerting that the first paragraphs of books IV and VI (see pages 99 and 149) are in a different typeface for no apparent reason.
E.J. Koh. The Magical Language of Others. Portland, OR: Tin House, 2020. [48]*
Melancholy and broken; the pieces do not wholly fit together, but that suits the fashion of the genre.
Benjamin Dreyer. Dreyer’s English. New York: Random House, 2019. [47.d]*
I did not think I would enjoy it; I was pleasantly surprised.
Juliet Dark. Fairwick. 3 vols. New York: Ballantine, 2011–2013. [46.d]*
I could say that I am interested in how authors adapt fairy tales and folklore into adult novels, but mostly I just wanted to be diverted.
Glennon Doyle. Untamed. New York: Random House, 2020. [45.d]*
There is always the problem with memoir, that it begs the question of narrative. I have not read (and do not intend to read) Ms. Doyle’s other books, but in this she seems to acknowledge that she had previously fallen into that trap and is hoping, through discrete anecdote, to render a more accurate picture. I read this book because it was helpful to a friend; beyond that, I cannot judge it, because it was not for me.
Timothy Snyder. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017. [44.d]*
More or less as expected. Recommended by the knitting group.

March

Eviatar Zerubavel. The Clockwork Muse. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1999. [43]
The advice not to be precious about pursuing tasks that might fall victim to procrastination is helpful (and commonsensical), as was the chapter on breaking a project down into daily chunks. The final chapter, on the mechanics of working on a project, however, has aged less well – but the book is not about research as such and only about writing, so that is perhaps to be expected.
Djuna Barnes. Interviews. College Park, MD: Sun & Moon Press, 1985 (1913–1931). [42]
Strange and uneven and sometimes quite moving.
Selah Saterstrom. Ideal Suggestions: Essays in Divinatory Poetics. n.p.: Essay Press, 2017. [41]
A collection of essays that does not quite hang properly, as though a dog’s skin had been wrapped around a cat’s skeleton; the greater fault for this uncanniness appears to lie more with the publisher than the author, although appearances can be deceiving. The text itself is complicated and allusive, and the interior design choices (particularly for distinguishing section or essay breaks and differentiating notes/commentary from the text proper) did little to ease the reading process. It is unclear whether the text was copyedited or proofread.
William Shakespeare. The Life and Death of King John. ed. Stanley T. Williams. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1927 (1591?). [40]
Although there are some amusing passages, this would not rank highly in a list of good plays.
Nina and Sonya Montenegro. Mending Life. Seattle, WA: Sasquatch Books, 2020. [39]
A charming book, with clear instructions for basic mending skills.
Suzanne Buffam. A Pillow Book. Ann Arbor, MI: Canarium Books, 2016. [38]
A short meditation on pillows; a place to rest one’s thoughts.
Michael Alexander, trans. The Earliest English Poems. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966. [37]
A slow read, but a good one. Particularly enjoyed ‘The Ruin’, ‘The Wanderer’, and ‘The Seafarer’. The collection is dedicated to Ezra Pound, which sets an odd tone for the whole.
Amanda Leduc. Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2020. [36.d]*
An interesting set of essays on ableism and disability. Leans a bit much on Sontag for some language issues, but that is perhaps to be expected. Thought-provoking.
Ben Jonson. Timber, or Discoveries. London: J. M. Dent, 1902 (1641). [35]
Divers diversions.
Alice Oswald. Memorial: An Excavation of The Iliad. London: faber & faber, 2011. [34]
Richly enjoyable, especially about trees.
Jenny Offill. Weather. New York: Knopf, 2020. [33]*
Dept. of Speculation was unexpected; Weather is not.
Valérie Mréjen. Black Forest. trans. Katie Shireen Assef. Dallas, TX: Deep Vellum, 2019 (2012). [32.d]*
Melancholy, absurd.
William Shakespeare. All’s Well that Ends Well. ed. Arthur E. Case. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1926 (1598?). [31]
This is unlikely to enter the list of my favorite plays.

February

Joseph Brodsky. Watermark. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1992. [30]*
I missed the moment when I would have read this with the greatest pleasure and instead noticed the exhaustion, a weary coyness. The parts about Olga Rudge stood out as amusing.
Sanmao. Stories of the Sahara. trans. Mike Fu. London: Bloomsbury, 2019 (1976). [29]*
Strange and shapeless, but cunningly worked.
P.G. Wodehouse. The Play’s the Thing. New York: Samuel French, 1926. [28]*
Not as tightly wound as Rough Crossing, but amusing enough.
Stanley T. Williams and Leonard B. Beach, eds. The Journal of Emily Foster. Oxford: OUP, 1938 (1821–1823). [27]
An odd book, haphazard and plotless, like many journals.
Wioletta Greg. Accommodations. trans. Jennifer Croft. San Francisco, CA: Transit Books, 2019 (2017). [26]
Reworkings of elements of Finite Formulae & Theories of Chance, and other further adventures of young people who are not quite sure what they want. Nihilist in a way.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Dear Ijeawele, Or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions. New York: Knopf, 2017. [25.d]*
A small book, but reminded me of Laura (Riding) Jackson’s Four Letters to Catherine in tone.
William Shakespeare. Twelfth Night or What You Will. ed. William P. Holden. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1954 (1922, 1600). [24]
‘If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.’ (III.4.132f.)
William Shakespeare. As You Like It. ed. S.C. Burchell. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1954 (<1600). [23]
‘’Tis a Greek invocation to call fools into a circle.’ (II.5.59)
Tom Stoppard. Rough Crossing. London: faber and faber, 1985. [22]
Heaven knows I have not burst out laughing while reading in quite some time. Good, solid belly laughs, too, none of your polite giggles. The clarity with which the physical comedy comes through is a delight. I’m glad Turai finally gets his cognac.
Rachel Cusk. Coventry. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019. [21]*
Essays personal and on literary topics; Cusk easily relates any topic (from Cimue to François Sagan, from dishwashing to Louise Bourgeois) to the material of her own life, which she considers with the bewildered perplexity of an ethical vegan who has somehow wandered into a butcher’s. The reader ultimately comes to share some of that perplexity.
William Shakespeare. Much Ado about Nothing. ed. Tucker Brooke. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1917 (1599). [20]
Such an enjoyable reading experience, especially the first half. The resolution in the final act is a bit odd, though.
Katherine Howe. The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. New York: Hyperion, 2009. [19.d]*
In many ways accurately presents the hazing and intellectual brutality inherent in graduate degree programs, though I suppose some programs are more occult than others.
María Sonia Cristoff. Include Me Out. trans. Katherine Silver. San Francisco, CA: Transit Books, 2020 (2014). [18]
An odd story, fragmented.

January

Georg Simmel. The Art of the City: Rome, Florence, Venice. trans. Will Stone. London: Pushkin, 2018 (1898–1903). [17]
The essay on the city in general was perhaps the most illuminating; although the purpose of using chronological order is clear, moving from the happy accidents that characterize the layout of Rome to the individual ground beneath the heel of money is disconcerting. The whole reminded me very much of Henry James.
Mary Beard. Women and Power. New York: Liveright (Random House Audio), 2019. [16.a]*
To paraphrase: ‘thankfully not everything can be related directly to ancient history.’ Would that the afterword to the revised edition could have been the starting point, as there one felt the undercurrent of power.
Cees Nooteboom. Lost Paradise. trans. Susan Massotty. New York: Grove, 2007 (2004). [15]*
It feels like a book that is familiar, that is like other books that one has not yet read; perhaps something like Nobody Is Ever Missing (which I did read) or A Time for Everything (which I haven’t read, but which was published the same year as this book). Might be trying to do too much; echoes of Milton and Magic Mountain and other things, too, I’m sure.
William Shakespeare. The Merchant of Venice. ed. William Lyon Phelps. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1923 (<1598). [14]
An odd play. Certainly better than Two Gentlemen of Verona, but the silliness with the rings feels unnaturally Plautine for its setting.
Cees Nooteboom. The Following Story. trans. Ina Rilke. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1994 (1991, 1993). [13]*
A tender, melancholy book.
Cees Nooteboom. The Captain of the Butterflies. trans. Leonard Nathan & Herlinde Spahr. Los Angeles, CA: Sun & Moon Press, 1997 (1983, 1989). [12]*
Melancholy, a rich luster. Echoes of H. D.
Jan de Hartog. A View of the Ocean. New York: Pantheon, 2007. [11]*
A short book, but wrestling with large issues. I found it while searching the library catalogue for something else.
Christopher Nadon. Xenophon’s Prince: Republic and Empire in the Cyropaedia. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001. [10]*
An odd book, at once trying to relate the Cyropaedia to Machiavelli and comment obliquely on the dangers facing education at the time of its writing (or indeed now, I suppose). It rests heavily on ‘reading’ Xenophon’s book, but doesn’t give much of a sense of it – not clearly, anyhow.
Elizbeth Berg. The Year of Pleasures. New York: Random House, 2005. [9.d]*
I saw someone on Twitter reading a different book by this author and it had a flat appeal, a suggestion that moral and emotional ambiguity might be lacking, but that it would soothe a mind harried by overwork. It was and did – but I need to remember not to consume such books like bonbons, as it upsets the digestion of better things.
John Durham. The Marvelous Clouds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. [8]*
On wanting to make a mark; on wanting not to leave a trace. I am not quite sure I followed down all the lines of thought quite as intended, but it was a meditative book and doubtless did me little harm in not being fully understood.
M. L. West. Ancient Greek Music. Oxford: Clarendon, 1994 (1992). [7]*
Much of the information about music (i.e. the later chapters) was a bit too technical for me, and the section on rhythm seemed more a matter of wishful thinking based on available evidence rather than sound examination, but that, again, could be my own ignorance.
John Gould. Herodotus. New York: St. Martin’s, 1989. [6]*
A sympathetic and thoughtful overview of Herodotus and his methods; less concerned with being an all around introduction than Roberts’ book, it was thus more successful (in requiring less baggage from the reader). Also a model in criticism – finding what is good in a source and making the most of that, acknowledging its limitations, and avoiding cutting remarks for the sake of showing off one’s own cleverness.
Linda Boström Knausgård. Welcome to America. trans. Martin Aitken. New York: World Editions, 2019 (2016). [5]*
Another story about a broken family.
Carmen Boullosa. Before. trans. Peter Bush. Dallas, TX: Deep Vellum, 2016 (1989). [4]
A ghost story.
Suneeta Peres da Costa. Saudade. San Francisco, CA: Transit Books, 2019 (2018). [3]
Reading the beginning, it felt like I had read it before. It has a flat dreaminess similar to Devi’s Eve out of Her Ruins, as well as that book’s fragmented approach – but less brutal, less implicit moralizing.
Jennifer T. Roberts. Herodotus: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: OUP, 2011. [2]*
Although there is much to like in this book (as at least one reviewer noted), it is a strange little book, oddly informal, and the picture that it presents of Herodotus, while not directly contradicting my own understanding of The Histories, is not wholly recognizable. It is like seeing a familiar acquaintance being introduced in a more formal setting, to an audience of people who cannot be expected to care and so much effort is taken to point out ‘marketable’ aspects of their personality. The final chapter on the historian’s errors and accuracies would have been much helped by footnotes.
Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, trans. Songs of Kabir. New York: New York Review Books, 2011 (ca. 15th C.). [1]*
Engaging translation, one that becomes part of and actively engages with the corpus as a living thing rather than monumentalizing it. Doniger’s preface helped contextualize a bit, as did the translator’s introduction. Not at all what I expected – and more than I imagined. Glad to start the year off with poetry that is also borrowed from the library.

(last revised: 27 November 2020)

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