Reading Round-Up: November 2018

November was a pretty good reading month for me — not as many books as I’ve hit on other occasions, but all high-caliber.

  1. The Best American Poetry 2018 (ed. Dana Gioia)
  2. Rules of Civility (Amor Towles)
  3. Southern Discomfort (Tena Clark)
  4. The Best American Poetry 2017 (ed. Natasha Tretheway)
  5. Possession (A. S. Byatt)
  6. The Reckoning (John Grisham)
  7. Stress Family Robinson (Adrian Plass)
  8. Out of the Silent Planet (C. S. Lewis)
  9. Perelandra (C. S. Lewis)

This is the time of year when my reading list starts getting a little repetitive; I have a few books that I read yearly, and generally in the colder months. In November I read A. S. Byatt’s Possession, which remains a top favourite and in which I am always finding new things at which to marvel. I wrote about it at a bit more length last year. This year, I found myself focusing most on the poetry that serves as epigraph for nearly every chapter; all of it is pertinent and it was interesting to go back and read after finishing each chapter, to better see the themes highlighted by each poem or snippet of poetry.

And speaking of poetry, I read two collections this past month, namely the two latest editions of The Best American Poetry. It was enjoyably different to read a few anthologies, as most of the poetry I’ve read in this past year has been collections by single authors. These two books had a tremendous amount of breadth in terms of style and subject, all the more so because they are picked and organized on a very simple principle: new poetry that best catches the eye of each edition’s guest editor. I slightly preferred, overall, 2018 to 2017 as a collection, but in each I found many wonderful things.

The only other non-fiction I read in November was Tena Clark’s memoir, Southern Discomfort, her account of growing up gay in the American South in the 1960s. Oh, and growing up white while being raised by the black women who worked for her family. And dealing with an alcoholic mother, and a bully of a father who essentially owned their town, and her own burning desires to a) play the drums and b) escape. (There’s a lot going on in this book.) It’s a heart-wrenching, tender, and engrossing read with a few major surprises along the way. Great stuff.

I put Rules of Civility — Amor Towles’s debut novel — on my library list after devouring his magnificent A Gentleman in Moscow (review). Rules of Civility is set in the glitzy inter-war period in New York City, following Katey Kontent, her roommate Eve, and roguish banker Tinker Grey in a novel about social climbing, aspirations and assumptions, truth and transformation.

My last post reviewed Grisham’s The Reckoning (major spoilers). And since that was such a downer, I turned to one of my pick-me-up standbys, Adrian Plass. Stress Family Robinson is a portrait of the chaotic and charming Robinson family (Mike and Kathy, teenage sons Jack and Mark, and six-year-old Felicity) as seen through the eyes of their dear friend Elizabeth ‘Dip’ Reynolds. As always, Plass is laugh-out-loud funny, with a generous dose of wisdom thrown in. I note that there’s a sequel, which I will have to look up one of these days.

Lastly, I started reading C. S. Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy, finishing Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra in November (I just finished That Hideous Strength but that will have to wait for December’s round-up post). Technically this is a re-read for me — I read the whole trilogy perhaps ten years ago, and Perelandra for a class in grad school — but it had been so long since I encountered Out of the Silent Planet it was like reading it for the first time. I found myself completely entranced by Lewis’s cosmology. While it’s not exactly medieval it carries the same sort of flavour — it felt a bit like reading Dante — only with spaceships and things thrown in, of course! These are really fine examples of classic science fiction, in the imaginative mode that perhaps was more possible before we actually got to the moon. This series may have to find its own spot on my annual read list.

Reading Round-Up: September 2018

Happy October! This is one of my favourite times of year — when it finally really starts to feel like fall. The weather is cooler, the leaves are starting to turn, we’ve got a string of family birthdays coming up… it’s a good time of year! I’m looking forward to some good reading this month — but first, here’s what I got to in September:

  1. Educated (Tara Westover)
  2. The Whistler (John Grisham)
  3. How to Think (Alan Jacobs)
  4. A Gentleman in Moscow (Amor Towles)
  5. From A to Bee (James Dearsley)
  6. Why Not Me? (Mindy Kaling)
  7. The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir (D. Watkins)
  8. China Dolls (Lisa See)
  9. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (Frederick Douglass)
  10. The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles (Julie Andrews Edwards)
  11. The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America (D. Watkins)
  12. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (Robin Sloan)
  13. Sourdough (Robin Sloan)

This month was pretty heavy on memoir; it’s a genre I’ve really been enjoying these days. Human beings are endlessly fascinating! Now, some of these books were pretty heavy, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend reading them as closely-spaced as I did; I found my mood plummeting after reading The Cook Up, and then China Dolls (not memoir, but saddish fiction), and then Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass all in a row. It was, how you say, a bummer. Worth reading… but not exactly uplifting.

Previous posts have touched on The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, A Gentleman in Moscow, and Narrative of the Life and The Beast Side.

Educated is Tara Westover’s memoir of growing up with survivalist, “sovereign citizen”-esque, anti-government Mormon parents in the Idaho mountains. She and her brothers were kept home from school, not vaccinated, and spent most of their time either working their father’s junkyard business or prepping for a government assault and/or the end of the world. She didn’t even get a birth certificate until she was nine years old. It’s really crazy stuff. But with the help of one of her older brothers, Tara made it out — she got accepted (by the skin of her teeth) to BYU, and later went on to complete a doctorate at Cambridge. It’s a powerful story, and I appreciate that she didn’t try to tie a neat bow on everything at the end. She is estranged from half her family; things are unresolved; it’s clear that her story has not ended.

Two memoirs on the fun side of things were James Dearsley’s From A to Bee and Mindy Kalings Why Not Me? Dearsley’s book is his account of his first year as a beekeeper; it’s clearly just a blog shoved between two covers, but it’s an interesting read and made me consider beekeeping as a possible future endeavour. (That lasted about fifteen minutes.) Why Not Me? is Mindy Kaling’s second book; this one is more personal, I think, than Is Everyone Hanging Out with Me? (And Other Concerns), looking at career and personal turning points in her early thirties. It’s a fun read. Oh, and she meets Bradley Cooper.

D. Watkins’s memoir The Cook Up was an incredible read, although not for the faint of heart: it opens with his brother Bip’s murder, and the going doesn’t get easier from there. The Cook Up is ultimately a story of redemption, of Watkins’s journey from a life of crime on the streets of East Baltimore to his current position as a college professor. I would recommend this book over The Beast Side if you want to start with Watkins; because the latter is a collection of essays it reads as fairly disjointed. The Cook Up shows Watkins’s skill as a storyteller; I’m sure this will not be his last book.

Alan Jacobs’s How to Think was the only other nonfiction I read this month. It’s a quick and insightful read. What I remember best is Jacobs’s point that thinking doesn’t happen in a vacuum; when we learn to think differently of something it’s usually because we are learning to think with different people. Similarly, when we say that someone has is “finally thinking for themselves” what we usually mean is that they’re “finally thinking like me.” He ends the book with what he calls “The Thinking Person’s Checklist”, which I abbreviate for you here as a useful resource:

  1. When faced with provocation to respond to what someone has said, give it five minutes.
  2. Value learning over debating.
  3. As best you can […] avoid the people who fan flames.
  4. Remember you don’t have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness.
  5. If you do have to […] realize that it’s not a community but an Inner Ring.
  6. Gravitate … toward people who seem to value genuine community and can handle disagreement with equanimity.
  7. Seek out the best and fairest-minded of people whose views you disagree with.
  8. […] assess your repugnances.
  9. Sometimes the “ick factor” is telling; sometimes it’s a distraction from what matters.
  10. Be ware of metaphors and myths that do too much heavy cognitive lifting…
  11. Try to describe others’ positions in the language that they use…
  12. Be brave.

On to fiction! First on the list was The Whistler by John Grisham, which was pretty mediocre. I like Grisham, but this wasn’t anywhere near one of his stronger efforts. I’d give it a pass.

After reading The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane I knew I would want to read more from Lisa See, and so China Dolls was my second venture with her. The novel tells the story of three young Oriental women (as they were then called) working in San Francisco’s Chinese nightclubs in the years surrounding the Second World War. It’s a fascinating look at a world I never knew existed, exploring some big questions about friendship, race and nationalism, and loyalty.

Finally, we come to Robin Sloan. I had read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore some years ago — long enough to just remember the broadest of outlines — and decided to re-read it after stumbling across something or other online that reminded me of his books. Mr. Penumbra’s is a super fun read about books and technology and secret societies and the quest for unending life. There are puzzles galore and his characters are satisfyingly quirky without going overboard. Sourdough is his second novel, following Lois Clary as she moves from to Michigan to California for a programming career, only to find her life turned upside down when she is gifted a (sentient?) sourdough starter and is drawn into the weird world of California food culture. There’s a lot about humanity vs. technology, what makes a culture, and microbiology (really). It’s super strange and super interesting, and I’ll definitely be reading it again one day.

Welcome to the Metropol Hotel

You guys. This book.

A Gentleman in Moscow tells the story of Count Alexander Illyich Rostov, an aristocrat sentenced by the Bolsheviks to spend his life under house arrest at the Metropol Hotel in Moscow — just across the way from the Kremlin, in fact. There he spends the next thirty-two years, from 1922 to 1954. It’s a rich and delightful novel, and the ending was so perfectly bittersweet that it made me weep (thereby greatly alarming my husband, who had been peacefully sleeping beside me when I burst into tears). Here is the book trailer, which will perhaps give you a taste of it:

Despite the physical constraints of life inside the Metropol, Count Rostov’s life is enriched and enlivened in particular by his contact with three women: by Anna Urbanova, the glamorous silent film actress; by earnest and curious Nina, whom he first meets as a nine-year-old staying in the hotel with her governess; and most profoundly by Sofia, Nina’s five-year-old daughter, who is deposited into his care for “a month or two” halfway through the novel, when the Count is in his mid-forties. Nina is following her husband into Siberia; you can perhaps imagine how that ends, and so the Count finds himself thrust into unexpected fatherhood. There is also a largeish cast of supporting characters, including hotel staff, foreign diplomats and envoys, Soviet officials, friends from Rostov’s past, members of the KGB, and of course, hotel guests various and sundry.

What is most amazing to me about what Towles has done in this novel is that it feels so much like one of the classic Russian novels, albeit with a much more modern setting. This is despite the fact that Towles is American, born in Boston and currently residing in New York; he says on his website that “I am hardly a Russologist. I don’t speak the language, I didn’t study the history in school, and I have only been to the country a few times” (source). Now, I’m not a Russologist either, but I have read some of the Big Russian Novels and A Gentleman in Moscow has the same — what? Tone? Flavour? It’s hard to put my finger on it exactly, but this felt in a lot of ways much like reading Anna Karenina or something in that line. It’s just so very Russian.

If you’re looking for a novel in which to engross yourself, give A Gentleman in Moscow a try. It’s perfectly splendid.

Explore More: Amor Towles (author website) | Book soundtrack (Spotify) | The Metropol Hotel (official site) | The Metropol Hotel (wikipedia)