The 50 book challenge

First, a raft of Shakespeare:
46. Macbeth.
Murder, treason, witchcraft, and marital squabbling. These are a few of my favorite things.

47. King Lear.
No matter how often I read this or see it performed, no matter how intellectually and analytically I approach it, Regan shocks and horrifies me every single time. That bad, bad daughter. Why Regan and not Goneril? Er, um, I could not say. Regan seems more thoughtful in her betrayal, perhaps.

I reread Lear after seeing Laurence Olivier’s deeply touching BBC portrayal, but a friend recently lent me a 1970s Shakespeare in the Park version. I recommend it highly, not only for the towering wall of sound that is James Earl Jones as the enraged and maddened Lear, but also for Raul Julia: so young, so evil, and in leather pants. Mmm-hmm.

48. Twelfth Night. I described the delights of “Twelfth Night” here.
49. Richard III. A fun contrast to, say, Othello, where we see the gradual development of the villain and his plot, Richard announces himself a villain right from the get-go. Relish it.

50. Hamlet.
I have nothing useful to say about The tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark except: Read it. Reread it. See it performed. See it again. Then see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and laugh yourself sick. God, I love Tom Stoppard. (Well, not everything.)

51. Othello.
My favorite of Shakespeare’s plays. Always worth rereading; I have a slim and sturdy Victorian reprint to carry in my handbag.

And a few others:

52. Smilla’s Sense of Snow, by Peter Høeg. Whoa — two hundred pages of lyrical writing, with complex characters and an promisingly elaborate plot. Two hundred pages of total enthrallment.

But the whole book is 499 pages. Too bad, that.

53. In the Shadow of No Towers, by Art Spiegelman.
[moment of silence] [/end moment of silence]

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The 50 book challenge

42. The Grotesque, by Patrick McGrath.
McGrath’s first novel has been compared to Henry James, Edgar Allen Poe, and Evelyn Waugh, but to me it smacks unmistakably — and irresistibly — of Roald Dahl.

43. Possession: A Novel, by A.S. Byatt.
Slow, inexorable, and impressive. Byatt persuasively builds a literary history for the poets who are two of her main characters, and lambasts the academic world by describing the race to uncover the mystery in newly discovered texts.

44. The Evil B.B. Chow and Other Stories, by Steve Almond.
With each story, I feared Almond would slip into blatant mockery, but there is something tender here; he embraces the touching human frailty in each character.

45. Dark Water, by Suzuki Koji.
Is the structure and mission of Japanese fiction substantially different from most English-language fiction, or is Suzuki Koji a truly bad writer? Rather than showing us the development of plot and character, he tells us. And having told us, he tells us again in the next sentence. A paragraph later, he may remind us. It’s excruciating and boring, not an easy combination.

A blurb on the inner cover says “Suzuki is often billed as the Stephen King of his country, but that’s not really accurate.” Nor is it fair… to Stephen King, who at least writes a ripping good yarn.

50 book challenge

One fresh read, and two stragglers from last month.

39. Asylum, by Patrick McGrath.
Thanks to The Little Professor for the recommendation. I tore through this chilling, unflinching, beautifully crafted little volume in one day, engrossed and unwilling to put it down.

It reminded me, in a horrid way, that I had forgotten to list

40. Damage, by Josephine Hart.
Shudder. There is some similarity between McGrath and Hart, certainly, but I can only define the difference by saying I will be seeking out more of McGrath’s work but not of Hart’s.

Sheer mindless word association sent my memory from Hart to Tartt:

41. The Little Friend, by Donna Tartt.
My, my, my, such a lot of (nonspecific Southern regional) childhood. I had me a powerful craving for biscuit and gravy, corn bread, and Co-cola while reading this. Only when I had finished did I realize it evoked as powerful a craving to reread To Kill a Mockingbird, which did a great deal of this business earlier and better.

50 book challenge

In (approximately) the words of Mimi Smartypants, I read the way junkies rummage through your medicine chest, so from the very beginning I regarded a mere 50 book goal as laughably easy.

Then I realized the pitfall would not be in the reading, but in the recording of them. Not only is the time an issue, but simply remembering the existence of a book can be tricky, since my library modus operandi consists of wandering the library as a playboy wanders the singles bar. I pick them up, check them out, plunder the pleasures they offer, then drop them off and — as often as not — never give them another thought. It’s heartless, but it’s true.

The time has come start jotting some names in my little black book:

22. Rapunzel’s Daughters: What Women’s Hair Tells Us about Women’s Lives, by Rose Weitz.

Oh, hush. Sometimes you know a book will be pretty awful, but you hope it won’t. This book was.
At 35, I have a frankly startling head of salt and pepper hair, which I’ve chosen not to color; perhaps understandably, I’m more interested in hair as a symbol of femininity and sexuality than most. I was hoping this book might contain an intelligent discussion of the feelings going gray elicits in women. Take it as a powerful comment on the book when I tell you that, although there is a chapter dealing with going gray, I cannot begin to remember what the tone of it was. I found myself repeatedly checking the author’s credentials, unable to believe that she is allowed to teach this sloppy, vague babbling.

23. Widdershins, by Oliver Onions.

This collection of ghost stories made a light, fun read — like Henry James without the sex, or M.R. James without the shuddering, but competently written and certainly diverting.

24. Course in General Linguistics, by Ferdinand de Saussure.

Anytime I start getting ideas above my station thinking I’m clever or industrious, I pick up a linguistics text, which immediately brings me back to earth. Several years ago, I entertained the idea of majoring in linguistics, but it turns out that linguistics is hard. It makes me feel my brain. That can’t be good.
25. Egil’s Saga, translated by Herman Palsson and Paul Edwards.

I first read Egil’s Saga a few years ago for a class on Old Norse archaeology. Leafing through it last week seeking a particular verse, I was struck again by its brutal charm, and I opened to the flyleaf and read straight through.

Oh, the hacking and hewing and rending of flesh! The paeans to the (many many) shining blade edges! The vomiting. So much vomiting. I was especially taken with a passage I had completely forgotten, in which Egil and his men are captured during an incursion, and the captors remark that it has grown too dark to have much fun torturing them — he recommends waiting until morning, when the light is better and, presumably, they’ll all be fresh and ready to fully enjoy the torture.

You’ve got to love the Vikings.

26. The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, by Gideon Defoe.

Given my fondness for Vikings, with their hacking and hewing, you will not fall over in astonishment to hear that I like pirates, too.

Gideon Defoe wrote this book in an attempt to woo a girl away from her boyfriend. She didn’t succumb, but I think the less of her for it.

It reads almost like a delightfully clever and arch children’s book, a feeling reinforced by the size of my copy: an advance-reader paperback, it just covers the palm of my admittedly large hand. But the frequent references to looking down ladies’ tops and mermaids who put out convince me otherwise. It’s a lovely read, though. Arrrrrgh.

50 book challenge

[In which our heroine is forced to admit that maybe it is impossible for a book to please her]
#16. As She Climbed Across the Table, by Jonathan Lethem.

Having been thoroughly enthralled by Lethem’s Gun, with Occasional Music, I could barely wait to get my hands on this book. And Lethem’s subject matter provided further enticement, at least for me. Professors! Physics! Research laboratories!

It’s a witty little story, and novel in its use of physics as a metaphor for the building and unravelling of human relationships, but the lack of substantial character development coupled with Lethem’s seeming consciousness of his own cuteness is wearing. For a subtler and (I think) more masterful handling of the metaphor, I recommend Copenhagen.

#17. Eleanor Rigby, by Douglas Coupland.

Coupland identifies loneliness as the epidemic of our times, and as the defining trait of Liz Dunn, the protagonist of Eleanor Rigby. Why does he tell us about her loneliness, instead of showing us? I remember how clearly and hauntingly Palahniuk conveyed a sense of the narrator’s isolation in Fight Club, and I cringe for Coupland. This work reads like a second draft.

#18. My New Filing Technique Is Unstoppable, by David Rees.

I am making a conscious effort to read more graphic novels — an effort that has so far been largely unrewarding. I hear people saying how brilliant and biting and relevant this book is, and I wish I could see what they mean.

#18. Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L. Sayers.

After all this hipster text, I allowed myself to luxuriate in an old favorite. With typical wit and charm, Sayers lovingly skewers the academic cloisters of Oxford. Her descriptions of the female dones, at a time when female dons were still controversial, is wry but respectful, and touches the heart of a dusty old academic (and future female don) like me. I cannot do justice to this book, except to tell you that the edges of my copy have grown as fuzzy as felt from repeated handling.

#19. In The Cut, by Susanna Moore.

I can’t do better than to quote Bookslut’s Gena Anderson:

I would recommend In the Cut for an intensely quick read — it is a short but powerful book on language and violence, how they are related and how someone could struggle to define violence but never be able to convey it’s [sic] reality.

#20. The Adrian Mole Diaries, by Sue Townsend.

On a friend’s recommendation, I plowed my way through this charmless fictional journal. J., please don’t stop recommending books, but, well, not books like this.

50 book challenge

#11. Drawing On the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards.

The professor leading my introductory drawing class is more interested in providing us a place to draw and giving us enthusiastic praise than in teaching us techniques, so I turned to this classic for help, sure that it would contain novel tips and exercises to expand my range. Eh.

For the total novice, this book would be a boon. For a moderately experienced or moderately talented artist, the exercises are a reminder, not an awakening. That can certainly be valuable, but I have already internalized truisms like draw what you see, not what you know, and am ready to move on to, for example, the formulas by which we create three-point perspective. Any suggestions?

#12. The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton.

As always, Wharton is dry, witty, and displays a masterful economy of language. The book itself is beautifully balanced, with the playful manipulations of Book I echoed more darkly in Book II. This deeply angry book is written with remarkable restrain.

#13. The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett.

The dialogue makes me a bit dizzy: because the 1941 film adaptation is faithfully lifted from Hammett’s prose (although necessarily shortened and edited), I cannot read it without hearing Bogey, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sidney Greenstreet. It is charming, dark, romantic, and brutal in turns.

#14. Pornography, Sex, and Feminism, by Alan Soble.

I tried, I really did, to give Soble a fair reading, even after he declared (only 23 pages in) that female scholars researching pornography have historically recoiled in disgust and fear from the prospect of procuring it. I’m not sure why I tried, but I assure you that I did.

Perhaps more damning to Soble’s work, and emblematic of the simplistic nature of his reasoning, is his misreading of what constitutes the current literature on pornography, sex, and feminism. He takes several swipes, for example, at Andrea Dworkin, as if she is the current figurehead of modern feminism. As if, indeed, there is a figurehead of contemporary feminism, as if feminism were monolithic.

#15. The Repatriation Reader, edited by Devon A. Mihesuah

This text is essential reading for the serious student of the archaeology of North America. Mihesuah has collected a wide range of articles about the legal, ideological, and political issues surrounding repatriation of Native American remains and ceremonial artifacts, allowing the reader to explore the gulf between academic and Indian activist, and possibly paving the way for reconciliation between them. The unnecessary animosity that occasionally surfaces reaffirms my desire to work in museum outreach programs. With patience and hard work, we can bridge that chasm.

Yeah, yeah, the idealism. Read the book.