My take on reading goals

reading challengeSo, following up on Barb’s post on reading goals, I thought I would put my own perspective in.  I know it is considered declasse by people in the serious literary set, who, it turns out, are drunk a lot.  I know, you should love reading and you shouldn’t need goals and all that.  Quality over quantity.  I get it.

I do a goal and I like it.  As Barb mentioned, it is important to remember that a goal is just a goal.  A target.  You are not on the Bataan Death March.  It’s a goal, designed to encourage a certain level of activity but not to suspend all reason.  (Something I have seen put in less positive terms on numerous performance reviews.)

So, with that in mind, I just kind of kept it in my mind that I wasn’t going to start reading short books just to make the goal.  We read War and Peace and Infinite Jest the last two years, each of which was the equivalent of four smaller books, and which are not reading goal friendly, but I don’t want to stop doing that, so I just keep it kind of loose and don’t get wrapped up in the goal too much.  I might mentally add it in, for my own purposes.

Also, if I read all of a literary journal, that’s a book.nerds

At one point, I was thinking, you know, there could be like a book equivalency of pages, like an FTE or some kind of sports stat, a truly evolved metric with a ∑ in it, and then I thought, maybe you are taking the book nerd thing a little too literally.

The main thing I like about goals is that when you get to the end of the year, you don’t get that “what did I do with my year” feeling, which no one likes.  I need to get next year’s goal set up…



Review: The Year of Lear

the-year-of-lear-9781416541653_hrSo December is when people will think back on the year that is soon to be past, and they will think about what they accomplished.  Most people wish they had done more.  If you think you did a lot, consider this.

In 1606, William Shakespeare wrote King Lear, Macbeth and Anthony and Cleopatra.

So no, you didn’t do a lot.

That’s quite a year for someone to have.  Honestly, that’s a lifetime of creative output for most artists and it happened in one year.

I’ve posted a couple of times about The Year of Lear by James Shapiro, but I do want to do a summary/review.

It’s a really good book, for two reasons.

First, it delves into the detail and the context that the plays came out of.  This was a tumultuous time, from the Gunpowder Plot in late 1605 (see Guy Fawkes) to the plague to King James seeking to unify Britain to horrifying repression of Catholics, some of which appeared to even reach Shakespeare’s family.

So, as a study of literature as an artifact of its time, this book succeeds.  As I mentioned previously, you don’t get this when you study Shakespeare in school.  Shapiro does a great job of delving into the actual texts of these plays to show not just the themes they explored but also the inside jokes buried inside of them–little cultural references and snippets of familiar language that would have delighted his audiences.

The cover, in fact, is a picture of prisoners being dragged to a gallows where an apparent drawing and quartering is scheduled.

The key point is that great art rarely comes out of peaceful times, just as great art rarely comes out of sanguine people.  Chaos makes us question, and when we question the lives we lead–and the question of our basic humanity, as they had to have been doing in this time–we make great art.

You don’t make great art in cruise control.  It comes from troubled minds.

Second, the book succeeds a primer to great storytelling, which I suspect it did not intend to be.  We were taught in school that Shakespeare used old stories as the basis for his plays, but Shapiro puts us inside that process.  He shows us what Shakespeare started with and then how he adapted the stories to tell the story he wanted to tell and how sometimes that process can be seen in individual passages, like the fossil of a bug in a piece of rock.

This source material includes King Leir, an old play, Plutarch for Anthony and Cleopatra and Holinshed’s Chronicles for Macbeth.  In each case, he relied heavily on source documents but did not let them stifle the storytelling process.  As it has been said, “research can kill a novel.”

The borrowing casts an interesting light on current teaching:

Students are taught to be original and where authors who borrow can end up being labelled a plagiarizer.

Students are also taught not to use too much timely language or jargon, but note this:

Shakespeare’s Macbeth was written not for posterity but for contemporaries like Matthew Banks and his fellow carpenters, playgoers drawn to a post–Gunpowder Plot tragedy…

So there.

Lastly, there are certainly parallels to our time, which is actually far kinder and safer than 1606, but we still have ample opportunities to understand that humans have a good side and an awful side.

What to read?

So how do you figure out what to read?  This is a challenge that I suspect all of the book nerds out in Booknerdland will identify with.  No matter how avid a reader you are, there is only so much time you can read, and you want to make sure that you are enjoying everything you read.

This is not easy.  There are SO many books published every year, and so many of them are quality, especially when you consider the arduous process of getting published in the first place.  In fact, they could never publish another book again, and you could spend the rest of your life reading great stuff that has already been published.

So, with all of these book options, how does a discerning reading find things to read?

My method, which I have been using for a number of years, is to wait until December and review two book lists:  the New York Times Notable 100 books and The Economist books of the year.

The theory here is that these books have been vetted by people who have high standards. A book might end up not being to your taste, but at least they won’t be “bad.”  And they are likely to be significant–representing the highest levels of literary achievement for the year.

Also, this method is good because it gives access to high-level fiction and non-fiction books, which is important to me.

From there, I print the lists out and then sit and circle the ones that seem interesting to me.  Pro tip:  some of the books on these lists are pedantic in the extreme.  If you search for words like “engaging” and “readable” and “compelling” you will find the more accessible options.

Then, those books get transferred to my wishlist and then after that when I need something to read, I scan the list and pick one out.  They can stay on the list forever, which is good because sometimes you are at a used bookstore and you see one of the books from the back end of your wishlist, and let’s be serious, a notable bio of Rutherford B. Hayes is every bit as notable in 2017 and it was in 2011.

This is how I get 90% of my reading choices.  The other ones are gifts and…once in a while…I will go to the bookstore and walk up to the staff picks shelf and just pick one that I never heard of before.

too-many-booksI know what the big objection is:  FOMO.  Fear of missing out.  Am I restricting myself to the establishment, mainstream choices available from the New York Times and The Economist?  Are there great books they will never expose me to?

The answer is yes.  No matter how you do it, there will be great books you do not read in any given year or lifetime.  That’s just how it goes.  You have only so much capacity, and it is dwarfed by the supply.

Once you accept that, then you have to make selections.  I’m sure there are other notable book lists that could be used as well.  By the way, the NYT 2017 notable books are out, if you decide to take a look.


guy fawkesSo, still working my way through the Year of Lear by James Shapiro, which is excellent.  I mentioned before that the book is about the year when Shakespeare wrote King Lear and MacBeth.  It was also the year of the Gunpowder Plot, known to every British youth as “Remember, Remember, the Fifth of November.”

So, your key storyline here is that the Catholics are being persecuted by the Protestants in England.  It is serious, along the lines of any other religious persecution, you might want to find, even the pre-final solution days of the Holocaust.

In modern terms, England/Britain was a police state, with the same ubiquity of surveillance and oppression of speech that we saw in Leaving Berlin.

So, the Jesuits came in from outside the country to provide sacraments to Catholics, any of who could put brutally executed if caught.  People actually built houses designed to hide priests.

So here is the thing.  This is a pre-fifth-amendment world.  You could be forced to testify against yourself and you were, in fact, required to. (This is where the Fifth Amendment came from).  So, the Jesuits develop a theory of equivocation, which meant that because God knew your thoughts, it was OK to lie under the right circumstances.

This was a huge controversy.  People were drawn and quartered over this very issue, which was used to prove the moral weakness of the Papists.

There are a lot of interesting sides to this.  One of them, though, is the impact it had on storytelling.  Because, whatever you might want to say, storytelling is a form of lying, even true storytelling.  Shapiro writes:

And what else did playwrights do, in an age of theatrical censorship, but encourage actors to say one thing while slyly pointing at another?

Of course, we know this is true, even when there is no censorship.  You only have to read the summaries of three random Shakespeare plays to see some of the most complex subterfuges which often flip on themselves until they reach a bewildering scale.  He didn’t just portray everyday equivocation, borne of human weakness, but true strategic and intentional equivocation, borne of bad intentions.

It had to be that way because drama is about conflict and usually that’s between good and evil.  That’s a timeless idea.

But the passage above brings another element into the question, which is the idea of censorship and repression.

And this is another timeless idea:  that artists sneak social criticism into the work and get away with it because it’s just a story.  Here, Shakespeare is no different than Vaclav Havel.

Shapiro points us to Sonnet 138 to make one last point, and that is the naive idea that you can “root out” equivocation is “dangerously naive.”  This is true if no other reason than this:  many times the truth is punished.

He only quoted the first two lines of Sonnet 138, but I’m going to put the whole thing in here.  It is pretty beautiful when viewed both at the level it was written…and at the symbolic level we are discussing here.

When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutored youth,
Unlearnèd in the world’s false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false-speaking tongue:
On both sides thus is simple truth suppressed.
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
Oh, love’s best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love loves not to have years told.
    Therefore I lie with her and she with me,
    And in our faults by lies we flattered be.

On book awards….

national_award_1118The national book awards are due out tonight.  I was going to do a little bit of handicapping, but, you know, the reality is that I don’t have the faintest idea who is going to win.  And there’s no wagering.

So the post is going to be about whether I care.

There are many awards, but to start with let’s look at the NBA.

I looked back at the fiction winners.  The last book I read that won was Let the Great World Spin.

For non-fiction, the last book I read was The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.  

Both of which were, you know, AWESOME.

Apparently, though, winning a National Book Award does not send me scurrying to the bookstore to snag a copy.

The last Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was All the Light We Cannot See, which I may have read before the prize was awarded and would have read because Anthony Doerr and I attended the same college.

The last non-fiction club was The Metaphysical Club (not enjoyed) and the last biography was Chernow’s bio of George Washington (loved).

I’m not saying that if I am at the bookstore and they have those little laurel Film_Fest_Laurelthings on the front I don’t give it a second look, but the track record speaks for itself.  I don’t make a point of reading award-winning books.

I can remember three instances when I read books because they were involved in awards.

I read one of the Hillary Mantel books because it won the Man Booker prize.  Did not enjoy.  (I get it, she’s great.  Did not find it readable).  DNF.

I read A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James because of the Man Booker.  It’s great but was also a DNF.  Just reached a point where I felt like I’d heard all I needed to hear.

Third, was American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell, who is a Michigan writer with a low-key university publisher who ended up nominated but not winning.  This is a collection of short stories that was just great…Hillbilly Elegy but five years ago.  I eventually saw her at an appearance in Ann Arbor.

But she didn’t win.  And, the national book awards later announced that they were revamping their nominating procedure to avoid the chance of “obscure” story collections being nominated.

So there’s that.

Here’s the thing.  Awards are won for a lot of reasons.  Sometimes they win because they are great art, sometimes because they reflect their time especially well, sometimes because they fill a political need (I’m looking at you, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) etc.

What they all have in common is that they are subjective.  And so am I.  When you get to something as personal as fiction, I just think it is hard to let other people pick ONE book that is the best and have it work for you.

Later this year, I’ll let you in on how I build my reading wish list.

Ultimately, I read literary fiction and non-fiction for pleasure.  Not to impress people or be up to date on the craft or on the bleeding edge of literary fashion.  Heavens knows, not to talk at cocktail parties, which I don’t ever get invited to and if I did I suspect there isn’t any talk of the National Book Awards.

If you want, you can watch the National Book Awards live tonight.  There’s no red carpet show.

On Studying Shakespeare

If you are an English Major, you read Shakespeare.  That’s just how it goes.  For my part, I have to say that I was never an enthusiast.  There are moments when it is absolute magic, but on the whole, it never became something I craved.  Clearly, his command of language and structure are other-worldly.  So, conceding all that, I never got to the point where I just loved it.

I also felt it was taught wrong.  The main reason is that I thought that it wasn’t right to read Shakespeare.  It was meant to be performed and it just seemed to me that it would be more accessible to students (/me) that way.  I actually noticed this when I discovered that our library had video recordings of performances of plays…kids, this was 1984 and the first home VCRs were only just popping onto the scene.  You had to watch them in the reserve room of the library on a little monitor about the size of the latest iPhone.)

So I went down and watched a performance of a play and more effectively completed the assignment in half the time.  The caveat was that it was difficult to follow along in the text because (and no one tells you this) directors remove scenes from Shakespeare plays all the time, which you would think would be a no-no.  Anyway, that discovery created my belief that even in literature classes you should watch performances rather than read text.

year of learI had a new revelation on this topic recently.  I am reading The Year of Lear by James Shapiro, a book I paid for and heard about on a New York Times Podcast.  The book is very good but what is so interesting is that it is about the play and the times–and literally the year–it was written in.

And it is fascinating.  The context of the play, the rise of the Jacobeans, the battle to unify Britain, the plague, the actors Shakespeare wrote for….and the older text that Shakespeare drew on…is utterly fascinating.  Shapiro mentions that people consider Shakespeare an Elizabethan writer but his career continued following her death.  I have to confess I had the same assumption.

So here’s the thing.  All of our other literary training included an examination of the cultural times in which the book lived.  We talked about the times that Hawthorne lived in.  Melville.  Twain.  Hemingway and Fitzgerald.  Jean Rhys.  It was just the way the curriculum was constructed.

So why not Shakespeare?  I think that we have become so invested in the idea that Shakespeare is timeless that we have forgotten that he wasn’t.  Yes, I know there’s controversy about how to teach and that there’s the idea that the text is the thing, but The Year of Lear clearly shows us that he was a man of his time who explored the issues that were in front of him.

And I think including that into the teaching of Shakespeare would make it that much more accessible and interesting to students.  It would open the door in a way that the timeless approach does not.

Review: Strangers in Budapest

strangers in budapestSo, yeah.  This is a little awkward.

This review is of Strangers in Budapest by Jessica Keener.  Full disclosure: I received this eARC from NetGalley for a fair and honest review. (Thanks NetGalley!)

So, fair and honest it will be.

I didn’t like this book very much.  I gave it 2 stars on Goodreads.  I see that others liked it quite a bit and I respect that and I’m not going to trash it, but I just didn’t like it very much at all.  I’m not someone who goes to a restaurant looking for things to nitpik.  I want to be pleased.  I just wasn’t.

To work on the positive side, the book did eventually work itself up to a dramatic conclusion which was good to read.

Beyond that, though, I just found the storytelling incredibly stilted and awkward.

For example, the following construction occurs over and over in the book:

“You’re a man of questions this morning,” Bernardo said to Will, obviously enjoying Will’s interrogations.

First, that’s an awkward way for someone to talk, but the tag on the end is just very difficult for a reader, in my opinion.  It separates the reader from the story and the action.  I just think it would be stronger if it actually was obvious, as opposed to having it explained.  And, this construction is used over and over in the book.

Second, people who have commented about the book feel like Budapest became a character in the book.  That was clearly the objective–to portray it as a kind of inscrutable city with a lot of secrets and a dark, hidden side.  Having said that, while I understood that was the idea, I never really felt it.  I read Leaving Berlin recently, and that book captured a city way better than this one did, as did Gentlemen in Moscow.

Also, all the dark actions taken were taken by Americans living in Budapest, so maybe it isn’t Budapest that was dark.

Speaking of which, there’s an overly broad scene where American women who live in Budapest talk just the way you’d expect them to.

And, at one point, a main character–an American–talks about Budapest like he ate a Wikipedia entry about the city.  And a chain-smoking “escort” is thrown into the story for no apparent reason.

Anyway, other people have enjoyed this book.  I wasn’t one of them, but people’s views can vary.