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Readings for April 2016

Novel streak!

The Land Across by Gene Wolfe

I happened across a positive review of Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun and decided to check it out. As it happened my local library branch did not have that particular work, but did have some more recent of his novels. I was honestly unsure what to choose, so after some jacket perusal I went with The Land Across. It is the surreal story of a travel writer stranded in a generic eastern European nation. Grafton suffers successive misadventures at the hands of the bureaucracy and the occult. Let the reader decide which threat is more dire.

Now I'm not one to put much stock in review blurbs. However, Gene Wolfe has the amazing distinction of being called the sci-fi/fantasy community's Melville by Ursula K. LeGuin. I was sold.

The Land Across is one of those novels where I have a particular issue: I really enjoy my reading experience, but I progress slowly. In this case I dragged through and eventually took a break to read My Struggle Book Four. Then I picked Wolfe up again and finished it. I love Wolfe's voice and I love the tone of this book. But for some reason I was not compelled to turn pages. Gass is another author with whom I had this struggle, but later enjoyed tremendously. So I'll try another by Wolfe, maybe the original recommendation.

Assumption by Percival Everett

After Glyph I went directly back to the Percival Everett well. Assumption is comprised of three novellas centered on the same small town policy deputy in the U.S. Southwest. Now I'll give this note in hopes it'll save another reader the confusion I suffered: Assumption is three discrete stories, not three acts in the same arc. I was confused in reading because I was looking for a link from the first story in the second before I more-carefully read the back cover description.

Do you like detective stories? Do you like deconstructing detective story tropes? Check it out. I really enjoyed it. Recommended.

Periodicals

  • Harper's March 2016

Readings for March 2016

I have gotten into a streak of reading novels, which is nice.

Glyph by Percival Everett

Everett is one of the authors I had on my "to try" list, so I grabbed a Glyph, a slim, fairly-recently published work. It is the farcical story of a an infant prodigy who doesn't deign to talk, but writes with a skill both startling and amazing to the adults in his world. Needless to say this draws interest from a number of fronts, and before long we're treated to the literary version of a baby outsmarting his kidnappers, a la the "Baby's Day Out" film. But it's better than that, of course. Really Everett draws together themes of childhood, race, and parental love to provide a rich subtext for the zany antics.

I'll recommend it, especially for its brevity, as an easy way to step in to Everett. I've already logged another by him, as you'll see next month.

My Struggle: Book 4 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

I am one of those shameless Karl Ove Knausgaard fans of whom it has become hip to make fun. I discovered that the fourth installment of My Struggle had been published in English, so I took a detour on the way to another meeting to pop into Powell's and purchase it. I was late to the meeting. I suppose that means I'm an addict, as the Knausgaard habit is affecting my responsibilities in the rest of my life.

The theme of this work is so simple: a young man trying to get lucky. At first it seems so cliche for a memoir, but then it really is foundational to the ego of a young man, isn't it? This volume interweaves the Quest with his last two years of secondary school and a year working as a teacher in Northern Norway.

As always, Knausgaard's recollections have the effect of stirring up my own memories of my youth, sometimes dredging up things I haven't recalled for years. On the whole it is a good thing, but can be uncomfortable as well. And zooming in to a young man's first year of independence - and the seemingly-boundless potential lying ahead - has the peculiar effect of forcing the reader to also consider "what could have been"?

Recommended of course, and I can't wait until the next volume drops. Maybe I'll be the only one in a tent on the sidewalk, waiting to buy it on its first day.

Readings for February 2016

In which I enjoy some pop novels.

Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson

When in doubt, Brandon Sanderson. Shadows of Self is the next installment in the Mistborn series, and the second in the Wax and Wayne cycle: you know, magic in a steam-punk setting. And I'm OK with that. Sanderson in this novel is showing his increasing command of comedy - I had some honest guffaws. He also managed to find a way to write novels (for some series) which do not stretch the technology of book binding, so that is a plus. Recommended.

The Martian by Andy Weir

I saw the film The Martian in the theater with a friend and loved it. My wife picked up the novel recently, and it was even better. I really devoured it (and so did she, after I relinquished it). Most of the time I don't put too much stock in "real science" sci-fi, because to me the storytelling is ultimately more important than the genre bonafides. This story managed to blend both to perfect taste. Recommended, and I hope the author Andy Weir writes more to enjoy in the future.

Periodicals

  • Tin House #62

Readings for January 2016

Getting caught up on periodicals feels good. Getting deep into long books feels good too, though they don't show up in the ledger in a timely fashion.

Periodicals

  • Harper's January 2016
  • Harper's February 2016
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Category: books Tags: readings

Readings for December 2015

In which our hero realizes that life changes have made reading more difficult by observing his end-of-year reading stats.

Basically I lost a long train commute which afforded a lot of reading time and on top of that had a baby. It was my lowest total since 2010, when I had my first son.

The Technological Society by Jacques Ellul

Considered by many to be Ellul's magnum opus, The Technological Society did not disappoint. It is the full exposition of the thinking of Ellul which I had only seen in small bits previously. Reading his account of technique will change how you perceive the world in a fundamental sense. Or at least it has for me.

I left many dog-ears in my copy, and I keep saying I'm going to a post expanding on my observations there. For the most part his observations are prescient and still relevant to this day. One fascinating angle in the work is that he wrote at the height of the Cold War, at a time when it was not clear how it would pan out.

This is a very dense work, so it takes commitment to complete. Recommended if you have the will to get through it. Perhaps warm up on some shorter articles or interviews to find out if you have the taste for Ellul.

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

Walker Percy has a boisterous following, and some thinkers I respect are among them. The Moviegoer won the National Book Award and therefore in some sense is a part of the American literary canon. Yet it is in a realist school which I find a bit tiresome. I felt as I did after reading The Sun Also Rises, that nothing important had really transpired in the course of the novel. Yeah, I probably didn't read closely enough, and missed the point. But this one did not inspire close reading for me.

The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman

Gaiman's The Sleeper and the Spindle is a delightful short story which springboards from a certain well-known (but never explicitly named) fairy tale. The version I read was made even more delightful by the inclusion of fantastic illustrations by Chris Riddell. I got through it in a single sitting, and I do believe it has re-read value (once I get it back from a friend to whom I lent it). Recommended.

Periodicals

  • Harper's October 2015
  • Harper's November 2015
  • Harper's December 2015

Year-end stats

In 2015 I read:

  • 14 magazines
  • 18 books
  • 7,874 pages
  • or about 22 pages per day

Much less than last year, as discussed above.

Readings for November 2015

We happened to welcome a new baby to our family near the end of the month, so I feel lucky to have completed what I did.

Xenocide by Orson Scott Card

XenocideAs I began Orson Scott Card's Xenocide, third in the Ender series, I quickly fell into the same joy which accompanied Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead, the first two books in the series. Card's craft is storytelling first and science fiction second, as it should be. In this novel I particularly appreciated the mixing of religion (not just religious themes, mind you) into science fiction.

Card sets the stakes high in this novel, with the opening plot on a course to the destruction of a planet full of colonists along with two (or three?) entire sentient species. The addition of a new characters on another world - some obsessive-compulsive whose attention to detail is put work in service of an empire - adds a good counter-balance, keeping Ender's universe from becoming too in-grown.

What spoiled the book for me, to a degree, was Card reaching too deep into fantastic world-building in order to elucidate the mysterious connection between Ender's mind and that of the Hive Queen, the Pequeninos, and Jane - the ghost in the machine of the interplanetary communications network. It's not that Card's plot device is too fantastic, it's that it arose in a series in a way in which I feel it violated the reader's expectations. Card set the stage one way, and dramatically shifted it later. Probably the brightest spot coming out of this plot shift is that we get to see a bit of Mormon theology shining through: namely the implication of the pre-existence of souls.

As anyone can tell by reading the front-matter, the Ender saga is far from over. However I think I'll leave it here. It has been quite enjoyable, but it is time to move on to new stories.

Anarchy and Christianity by Jacques Ellul

I have probably read three or four works on Christian anarchism, but Jacques Ellul's Anarchy and Christianity is now my favorite. This is definitely a good read with its emphasis on nonviolence and neither seeking nor serving political power.

I have slowly been making my way through his seminal work The Technological Society. Once I complete that, I am planning on putting together a "Quotable Ellul" piece with quotes from each of these works.

Readings for October 2015

I promise, I have a bunch of longer books going. I promise.

Periodicals

  • Harper's August 2015 - I found it fascinating to read about the Parsis of India in Nell Freudenberger's article "House of Fire".

  • Harper's September 2015

Until next time.

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Category: books Tags: readings

Readings for September 2015

In which I discover that reading on an e-reader may lead to you to forget the name of the novel you are reading.

The Fires of Heaven by Robert Jordan

I was planning what to read for our family's vacation and wedding travel this May when I decided to read the next volume in the Wheel of Time saga. Luckily my wife had already bought me the paperback, so I grabbed it off the shelf and started reading a night or two before the trip. In the course of reading the first chapter I was getting the most incredible sensation of deja-vu, and upon starting the second it become clear: I was accidentally re-reading the preceding book in the series, which I completed in February 2014.

Well, that was somewhat embarrassing, because I was the one who told the wife which book to buy. The day before the trip, I walked to Powell's from work to get The Fires of Heaven, the fifth book in the series, and the actually correct one. And they literally had every single book in the 14-book series except this one.

With no time left, I decided to try something new: I purchased an electronic copy for reading on my wife's e-reader. That was quite the experience. I really enjoyed not having to lug around a big heavy book, and liked that I could customize the font, the size, and what headers and footers to include (or not). As I alluded in the introduction, I actually forgot the name of the novel by the time I finished it, partly due to a long break in reading, and partly due to never seeing the cover. Ultimately I won't invest more in e-books, since I don't like the terms of service and digital restrictions management which go along with them. Maybe someday the great technology will be partnered with new content without draconian protections.

Great story about e-readers! What about the book? Well, I have to say this was not the greatest read. It felt like Jordan was marking time in this book, not progressing very quickly at all. I feel like it could have easily shed 400 pages and still covered all of the pertinent plot points and character development.

But am I ready to quit the series? Not exactly. I've already invested so much in it, and in a 14-book series, you're allowed to have a stinker or two.

Readings for August 2015

In which I made progress on long books but did not finish anything.

Periodicals

  • Harper's May 2015 - You know when you think you lost an issue of a magazine, but you find it under a pile of stuff? That's pure joy.
  • Harper's July 2015

Until next month.

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Category: books Tags: readings

Readings for July 2015

Summer reading was in full swing, but where was I?

Periodicals

  • Tin House 61 - Hard to believe this was already my 12th issue from the venerable Tin House.
  • Harper's June 2015
Published:
Category: books Tags: readings

Readings for June 2015

The sweet beginnings of summer reading.

The Spirit of Eastern Christendom by Jaroslav Pelikan

In graduate school our course on historical theology had us reading the first and third volumes of Jaroslav Pelikan's The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. At the time our professor recommended volume two, which though it was not part of the curriculum for the course, was still an excellent insight into Eastern Orthodoxy (which to most American Christians is vague and mysterious). I purchased the volume at the time, but never got around to reading it . . .

. . . until now. And I am glad that I did. First of all, by reading a historical theology of the Eastern Church, it helps me as a Western-centric Christian to appreciate that my scope is not the whole of Christianity. Secondly, it provides a good examinations of theological controversies, some of which are still alive, some of which are mostly settled, and some of which made me really question my position.

The most difficult part of The Spirit of Eastern Christendom is the focus on Christological and Trinitarian controversies, which occupy the first part of the work. I was familiar with them all, but some of them go into such detail that at times I was having trouble actually understanding the distinction being debated by past theologians (perhaps their parishioners felt the same way). I was a bit relieved when a few of the controversies were basically deemed unanswerable and therefore out of bounds for debate.

I really enjoyed learning about the iconoclastic controversies, and how those related to the Eastern Churches' relationship with the West, Islam, and Judaism. I also became acquainted with the rather fascinating notion that Rome was Never Wrong (TM) on theological debates, which as a protestant I find cute.

Pelikan is a great academic writer, so be warned about the density of this work. If you like historical theology, or want to learn more about Eastern Orthodoxy, this is certainly recommended.

My Struggle: Book 3 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

The next volume of Knausgaard's magnum opus arrived in English translation in paperback, so I picked it up. In this volume the author retells his boyhood, from about the time he started primary school until he moved away before high school. There will be boyish high-jinks, parental angst, the beginnings of romance, and poignant observations about the nature of things.

I thought I had come to divine something of a pattern from the first two volumes, but this one broke the mold a bit, with no ill effects. It is more chronological, with fewer flashes forward and backward in time. It also lacks the meta narrative which provided the framework for the first two volumes. Volume four apparently continues on into high school, so I am getting the feeling that these will form something of a double volume of youthful recollections.

Still recommended.

Readings for May 2015

It's that season when you are finishing up an old job, going on a long vacation, and then starting a new job afterward. You get a decent amount of reading done on vacation, at least, but it is in an epic fantasy novel, and does not result in getting to add it to the reading log. So May looks pretty pathetic, but I'm turning things around.

Periodicals

  • Harper's April 2015
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Category: books Tags: readings

Readings for April 2015

Potential job transition leads to slowdown in reading.

The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett

I had picked up The Color of Magic some time ago, having wanted to test the waters of the Discworld series for some time. When Pratchett passed away recently, I decided it was a fitting time to dive in.

Now this is a bit of a strange review for me, because I was not very engaged by reading this entire month. I believe that was due to being distracted by other developments in life. So this may color my review a bit.

Pratchett's Discworld is a great premise. I love the goofy universe, the characters, the magic, etc. I find Pratchett's comic writing to be superb, and I had some real guffaws whilst reading. However, for whatever reason, this was not a page turner for me. It took me quite a while to get through a short novel, because I was just not all that interested in finding out what came next.

I may try another Discworld novel, just because people I respect love Pratchett so much. But for now, I did not love The Color of Magic.

Periodicals

  • Harper's March 2015

Readings for March 2015

In which I went full Knausgaard.

My Struggle, Books 1 and 2 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

If you have read any literary reviews in the past years, you have read about Karl Ove Knausgaard. His six-volume autobiographical novel My Struggle been written about everywhere, mostly favorably. Seeing that book one was out in paperback, I picked it up, and it was not long until I picked up book two.

This is going to sound silly, but here it goes: Knausgaard's work had to classed as fiction because it is too true to be a proper autobiography. He writes with incredible candor about personal matters, and does not spare his ego nor the feelings of those around him in what appears on the page. So in spite of the literary praise reckoning him to Proust and other superlatives, one of the most exciting aspects of readings this work is to see just what observations he makes which most would not dare to commit to writing.

Some readers approach the immense count of pages with trepidation, fearing that this is simply a tome of over-sharing, a vast catalog of "what I had for lunch" status updates. But it is a lot more than that. Knausgaard's prose and power of observation make for the most sublime reading in the midst of any topic. His characters are vivid, and the stories are compelling.

Quite frankly I loved the first two volumes. Knausgaard's struggle is stated in different ways in each of the first two volumes so far, but I felt resonance with both. He wants to do good work, and feels he is capable of doing so, but his life circumstances (arrived at through his own will) constrain him. I think that is a common sentiment, especially among those who review books.

Recommended.

The Noble Hustle by Colson Whitehead

As I was reading Colson Whitehead's newest, I got a funny feeling that I had read it before. And then I realized that I had indeed - it was excerpted in the pages of Harper's some months before. So that accelerated my enthusiasm, which is already very great when it comes to reading Whitehead.

The Noble Hustle's premise is simple: writer gets staked to play in the World Series of Poker. If you know anything about Whitehead, you know that his wit and irony is going to make for great description of that strange world. I had not read any of Whitehead's non-fiction, and it was definitely a treat.

Pick it up, read it. Learn a bit about poker and the crazed world which surrounds it. Root for the author to win it all, but don't be too sad when he doesn't. Recommended.

Readings for February 2015

With apologies for the lateness of this post . . .

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams

I read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in 2008, therefore this is the next installment in a very occasional series. I have a volume which combines all of the Hitchhikers novels, so I will eventually get through all of them.

This novel was, well, delightful. Just a silly, fun read, and very enjoyable. The series is compulsory for any self-respecting nerd, so this is of course recommended.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

It is my intention to read all of the Lord of the Rings again, but I cut short after the first volume to make way for other interesting new reads (to be covered in a subsequent readings post). This was my second time through, so it was interesting to see how my recollection help up. Mostly the Fellowship seemed longer than I remembered, though not overlong.

I was dismayed by one little bit in the story. I have been quite critical of The Hobbit films for adding too much to the story, including the bit where Gandalf et al confront the crypto-Sauron at Dol Guldur. I thought it was a rather silly bit of story-telling for the filmmakers to pull a fast one: "the real significance of this story is that it has the same ultimate villain as the other trilogy. It was Sauron the whole time!" Of course I discovered that the White Council's unmasking and repulsion of Sauron from Dol Guldur is actually a fairly prominent plot point, mentioned multiple times in the text of Fellowship of the Ring, not just in the appendices. So yeah, fair play on that one (though I still think all that was not necessary to make a good Hobbit film).

What, am I not going to recommend part of the Lord of the Rings? That's crazy. Recommended.

Periodicals

  • Journal of Biblical Literature volume 132 number 1

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