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.

50 book challenge

the 50 book

#7. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig.

How did I reach the age of 35 without having read this at least once?

#8. The Compleat Gentleman: The Modern Man’s Guide to Chivalry, by Brad Miner.

How did I make myself read this at all?

#9. Passage, by Connie Willis.
Any other author writing a 600-page novel on near-death experiences would stumble into the maudlin, the mystical, or the sloppily romantic. Willis is crisp, credible, hilarious, and sharp. This is one of my favorite novels in recent years.

#10. Unnatural Death, by Dorothy L. Sayers.

Popular literature from 80 years ago is undeniably stamped with the bigotries of the era, as ours will be if people are still reading Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace in 80 years. However, I can still access the cultural relativism microchip inserted during Anthro 101, so I can get past the assumption that [spoiler alert!] unmarried women who are passionately fond of each other are evil, and enjoy a ripping good story.

50 Book challenge

An update on the 50 book challenge.

#3 Miracle and Other Christmas Stories, by Connie WIllis. An interesting but ultimately tame mix of cheer and darkness from the Author of Lincoln’s Dreamsm and Passage. I enjoyed it, certainly, but it was an insubstantial little frill. I expect more from Willis.

#4 Best New American Voices, 2005, edited by Francine Prose. The collection is very uneven in tone and quality, more a pastiche of new writers than a coherent anthology. Joshua Ferris’s More Abandon was the one story that grabbed me.

#5 Why Some Like It Hot: Food, Genes, and Cultural Diversity, by Gary Paul Nabhan. Nabhan, an ethnobiologist, presents a discussion of nutritional ecology stripped of technical language and simplified for a popular-press audience. Admittedly, I’m a slavering geek, but I feel that a little more techspeak would be appropriate here.

#6. Invisible Monsters, by Chuck Palahniuk. Palahniuk’s uncompromisingly graphic writing has kept me up at night more than once, as I tore through pages of Fight Club, Choke, and Lullaby long past midnight. His plots are intricate and unpredictable, and the writing — oh, the writing. More blunt instrument than surgical tool, his style has me wincing as I read.

Not so in Invisible Monsters, where the plot is transparent almost from the first pages, with the contrived series of denouements becoming one long bore. Worst of all, the writing, loades with brutal physical grotesqueries layered sloppily onto emotional metaphor, reads like a parody of Palahniuk. With no gripping plot or breathtaking writing to obscure his tricks, Invisible Monsters is nothing but tricks. It’s like seeing the magic show from backstage: I might never again believe he can saw the lady in half.

50 Book Challenge

Because I love a sure thing, I’m jumping on the 50 book challenge. Since I’m just starting a new semester, it’s worth mentioning that I won’t count course textbooks or research reading in the tally, although I might post some thumbnail descriptions of them, just to provide a clearer idea of my bedside shelf (i.e, the perilous stacks of books surrounding my bed).

After excruciating sessions of soul-searching versus practicality, I only allowed myself luggage space for two books on my recent trip, but I did surprisingly little reading. This is partly because one book was too bad to read, and one book was too good to read.

#1.Gun, with Occasional Music, by Jonathan Lethem

I read Fortress of Solitude several months ago, I remember being stuck once in a while by a handsome turn of phrase, but it failed to grip me. I picked up another Lethem only because I needed a second book for my trip and it was on the shelf, used and cheap.

By the third or fourth page, Gun had utterly captivated me — the writing, the plot, the bold economy of character development. A few chapters in, I started rationing pages to avoid finishing too quickly. After several more chapters, I closed it and started again from the beginning to draw out the pleasure of reading as long as possible.

Reviewers have said that Gun crosses the style of Raymond Chandler with the vision of Philip K. Dick. Although this sounds glib, it is a flawless description of the simplicity, the complexity, and the brilliance of Gun.

attempted #2, mission aborted. Sarum: The Novel of England, by Edward Rutherfurd.

Man, is this book stupid. An novel of this length risks becoming clumsy and unwieldy, but Sarum exceeds all expectations. Its language is graceless, peopled with caricatures, not characters, and it displays a pervasive if not startling lack of understanding both of archaeology and human evolutionary psychology. I am nearly 800 pages into it, and will never finish it. No, not even for the 50 book challenge. No.

actual #2. The Friendship Crisis: Finding, Keeping, and Making Friends When You’re Not a Kid Anymore, by Marla Paul.

Paul’s writing could be described as chatty or as sloppy, depending on the charity of the reviewer. I picked it up from the new shelf at the library because I’ve moved twice in the past 4 years, and am largely without the intense network of local friends that I’m used to.

However, while reading, I realized how lucky I am that these friendships are mostly intact, although quite different. When I come to town, old friends go out of their way to meet me for coffee or a drink, offer guestrooms, and we dissolve into laughter just as we did years ago. I just received a card from an old friend, with whom I had coffee or drinks twice a week when we were both single girls. The card included a picture of her second daughter, born just before Christmas. As busy as she is, and as long as it’s been since we had time for a coffee, we are there, on the edges of each other’s lives.

Most of all, I’m grateful for the friendships that have changed for the better over the years. Instead of winding down like an old clock, they evolve and develop new facets. My friendship with Elli is an exemplar of this phenomenon: we knew each other as little girls, as intolerable adolescents, as wild young women, and now, as our lives take meaningful shape and despite the Atlantic between us, our friendship is richer and more rewarding than ever.

As you can see, the book was not remarkable, but the experience of reading it was moving.

Won’t somebody think of the children?

In a shocking exposé, a Maine couple announces that schools are scheming to teach young people, actually going so far, in some cases, as to use books:

“They see it as, they say, ‘Hey, it’s a book, let’s expose the kids to it, and see what they learn from it,’ ” said Minnon, who with his wife operate [sic] a greenhouse on Route 202 in Lebanon.

The Minnons, parents of a first-year student at Noble High School, object to his class’s study of The Catcher in the Rye. Not satisfied with the school’s provision to allow their son to study another book, the Minnons are attempting to prevent the entire first-year literature class from studying Salinger’s classic.
(link thanks to Bookslut)


So many bloggers keep a pretty sidebar with links to “Books I’m Reading!”, and I love to see that, since my usual broad-spectrum foraging technique for contemporary fiction is woefully unfocused. I typically go into the library and fling myself toward the new fiction shelves, castigating myself for not writing down that author’s name and hoping I can find something promising in the ten minutes before my bus is due.

I’d love to maintain a “current reading” sidebar myself, truly I would, but with the quantities of texts I’m reading for classes and research, it simply isn’t feasible to be entering and linking them here. No, really.

No, really.

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