Tag Archives: Book Reviews

2018 Reads in Review

A quick recap of the books I read in 2018, with comments sprinkled throughout. (Some) fuller reviews can be found on Goodreads.

First US edition cover of Pnin by Nabokov

My favorite novel of the year. Read it twice. (picture of first US edition)

  1. To Save Everything Click Here by Evgeny Morozov
  2. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
  3. Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical by Jacqueline Jones (so rare to find a new biography on an American anarchist, especially on one so under-biographized as Parsons. I only wish I learned more about her, especially about her thoughts about race and passing)
  4. Know Your Place by Nathan Connolly (a book that asks 24 working class writers to answer the question, ‘In 21st century Britain, what does it mean to be working class?’)
  5. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (read again in honor of getting a first edition)
  6. Ajax Penumbra 1969 by Robin Sloan (takes place before Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. I am a sucker for books about bookstores, libraries, and secret societies of bibliophiles)
  7. Meno by Plato
  8. One Another’s Equals: The Basis of Human Equality by Jeremy Waldron
  9. Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence by Rachel Sherman (eye opening)
  10. The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food by Dan Barber (If you like all the Netflix shows on chefs and food, you’ll love this)
  11. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (I scour book award lists for new reading recommendations. Little reveals my dilettante nature more than the fact that I hadn’t heard of Saunders before stumbling upon Lincoln in the Bardo [it won the 2017 Man Booker Prize]. Two things to say. First, people say the writing here is ‘experimental’ but I did not have that thought at all while reading it. You do not have to be highfalutin to experience the elegiac beauty of this book. As for its formal qualities and purported experimentalism, my thought while reading it was something like this: ‘instead of getting a description of a thing directly, or of a thing itself, it feels more like this author provides us with descriptions of the spaces, shadings, and shadows that surround the object. We are then left to – and trusted to – hold those descriptions together in a way that allows us to then come to grasp the object enclosed by them.’ Another way I thought about it had to do with drawing. When you first start out, there’s a tendency to want to fill in with pencil the spaces that you want to highlight. Kids draw in color on the cheeks. As you go along, though, you realize that when you want to highlight something, you don’t draw it in. You fill in/shade the spaces around it. Saunders here is the writer analog of an excellent drawer. He gives us the shading and we are left to see the highlight. The second thought I wanted to share is this: the style and topic of Lincoln in the Bardo is not representative of much of Saunder’s other writing! His short stories are fun, griping, and often techno-dystopic, with sharp criticisms of consumerism and classism, but elegiac they are not!)
  12. Kew Gardens by Virginia Woolf
  13. Book Collecting: A Modern Guide by Jean Peters
  14. Modern Book Collecting by Robert A Wilson
  15. The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of American Culture by Joshua Kendall (great topic but disappointing read)
  16. Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman (read after seeing the movie, I kid you not, about six times in theaters. Over the course of a single week. Dark times, friends. Dark times)
  17. Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life by Julia Briggs (prep for my life-changing Virginia Woolf reading and walking trip [see post re: Boston Globe article here])
  18. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
  19. Why Does Inequality Matter? by Tim Scanlon
  20. We the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights by Adam Winkler (loved this and before you blame Citizens United as the critical moment where the Court went wrong, you absolutely must read this)
  21. The Rare Book Market Today by William S. Reese
  22. Publisher for the Masses, Emanuel Haldeman-Julius by Alton R. Lee (another great topic but just so-so execution)
  23. Dr. Rosenbach and Mr. Lilly: Book Collecting in a Golden Age by Joel Silver (loved this. I fantasize about having this kind of relationship to a dealer)
  24. Printer’s Error: Irreverent Stories from Book History by Rebecca Romney
  25. The Early Community at Bedford Park: Corporate Happiness in the First Garden Suburb by Margaret Jones Bolsterli (again, love the topic but execution leaves much to be desired. Nevertheless, beggars can’t be choosers where many of my interests are concerned)
  26. Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado (a short story collection. I enjoyed the weirdness and themes)
  27. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (Lydia Davis translation) (Will read Adam Thorpe’s translation in the future as well)
  28. The Lesbian Community, with an Afterword, 1980 by Deborah Goleman Wolf (covers the development of the San Francisco lesbian feminist community from 1972-75. Describes the women involved and the community itself. Favorite part was the brief discussion of a lesbian feminist bookstore. Such an under-investigated piece of our collective intellectual history. Recommend!)
  29. The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness by Elyn R. Saks
  30. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (third reading? Remains one of my favorite novels of all time)
  31. The Veiled Woman by Anaïs Nin
  32. The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley (If found a book about a bookshop lacking, you know you should think twice before reading it)
  33. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder
  34. Text Me When You Get Home: The Evolution and Triumph of Modern Female Friendship by Kayleen Schaefer (gave this to my sister and some friends going through rough times. Such a great topic, even though this book is just ok)
  35. The Art of Intimacy: The Space Between by Stacey D’Erasmo (one in a series of craft books published by Graywolf Press. Have gotten something out of them all)
  36. Gifts Glittering and Poisoned: Spectacle, Empire and Metaphysics by Chanon Ross (about the ‘power and prevalence of spectacle’ in the modern era. Focuses on Christian views of this over history. My Goodreads review, “One need not be religious to find this book incredibly interesting. I have pages and pages of notes and new ideas.”)
  37. Honoring the Body: Meditations on a Christian Practice by Stephanie Paulsell (Stephanie, from Harvard Divinity School, was our Virginia Woolf expert this summer. Her book is so important. Paraphrasing and de-contextualizing a bit, Stephanie makes you want to be a better person. And you would be, if you were around her all the time)
  38. Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places by Rebecca Rego Barry
  39. Hermann Zapf: A Life in Letters by Julian Waters (Lovers of beauty, look up Zapf)
  40. The Art of Perspective: Who Tells the Story by Christopher Castellani (in the Graywolf Craft Series)
  41. My Solo Exchange Diary, Vol. 1 by Kabi Nagata (the sequel to My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness. The original was, alas, much better)
  42. Essays in Love by Alain de Botton
  43. Interpreters of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (collection of short stories, introduced to me through a Craft of Fiction course I had the very good fortune to take this past semester)
  44. A Model World and Other Stories by Michael Chabon
  45. Success by Martin Amis (hate the players, hate the game, revel in the story)
  46. Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov (hands down my favorite book of the year. I love Pnin. My first Nabokov. The rumors are true: his writing is pure delight. It feels like he must love me, or at least enjoy flirting with me, through his prose. Also a nice way to shower after Success)
  47. The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith
  48. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (best read as a kid, I suspect)
  49. Political Virtue and Shopping by Michele Micheletti (not worth it)
  50. A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America by Lizabeth Cohen (much more useful than the above. Pages of notes)
  51. Batman: The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb (a gift from a comic and Batman devotee I met at Sheila Water’s calligraphy retreat this summer)
  52. Escape from Spiderhead by George Saunders
  53. Tenth of December by George Saunders
  54. Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov (again! The only book I read twice this year. God, I love this book)
  55. Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld (so well written, you’ll likely need a xanax (or two) to get through it)
  56. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (highly recommend. Bought my sister a copy)
  57. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (read again for class, with a new appreciation for her structuring)
  58. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
  59. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (great idea packaged in a tragically lacking story)
  60. Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
  61. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay (loved it all but loved the Scrabble story best)

March – May Reads

  1. The Taming of Free Speech by Laura Weinrib (HUP 2016)
  2. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
  3. Why Some Things Should Not Be For Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets by Debra Satz (OUP 2010)
  4. NW by Zadie Smith
  5. We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World by Melvyn Dubofsky
  6. To Steal a Book is an Elegant Offense: Intellectual Property Law in Chinese Civilization by William P. Alford (Stanford University Press 1997)
  7. Orlando by Virginia Woolf – loved this
  8. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
  9. The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand – loved this
  10. The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements by Eric Hoffer
  11. Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives by Elizabeth Anderson (PUP 2017) – this combines her Tanner Lecturers with commentary by scholars from various fields. I’m hoping this is a sign that philosophers are becoming more interested in theorizing about work relations and private-ish law.
  12. The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbian Spaces and Culture by Bonnie J. Morris (SUNY Press 2016) – Books on lesbian culture are hard to come by so I was quite happy to have stumbled upon this one. Very interesting. The discussion of conscious raising and how it resulted in intra-group fights(e.g. concerning women-born-women only spaces) and factions pairs well with the documentary She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, which covers the rise of the women’s movement, focusing on 1966-71.
  13. Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil (University of Chicago Press 2017) – better to know a bit about these women before you read this.
  14. Food Justice by Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshi (MIT Press 2010) – some helpful information for those with limited knowledge about the issues. I found it repetitive.
  15. Attached by Amir Levine

January Reads

I’ve decided to do another 52 book challenge this year. While last year I read more than 52, I didn’t want to set a higher goal this year because, in short, I’d like to avoid creating conditions that disincentivize the reading of both longer and more complex books. With a goal of 52, last year I was able to read a number of long books (e.g., Middlemarch and the biography of Chavez) and a number of complex books — books that I wanted to read very slowly (e.g., To the Lighthouse and a number of the more philosophical texts). This year I’d like to ensure I have the space to do that again.

With that, my January reads.

  1. Autumn by Ali Smith (embarrassing confession: I’d never heard of Ali Smith before reading an LGBTQ newsletter for Boston-area people that just happened to include a list of lesbian authors. After seeing her described as “Scotland’s Nobel Laureate-in-waiting”, I had to look her up. This book was a real treat. So much ‘high’ literature is depressing but this was quite the opposite. While the book is set in post-Brexit England, and while many of the characters have painful memories of past relationships, and live with an awareness of the narrowing of opportunities for them as time goes on, there is something quite hopeful and, I thought, joyful in these pages. Perhaps not so different from the conflicting feelings of closure, nostalgia, regret, and possibility that Autumn itself can evoke.
  2. How to be Both by Ali Smith (I read that the book is published in two versions. One version has the story Francesco del Cossa, the Italian renaissance artist, first, and the other has the story of George, a modern girl living in England, first. I happened to get the Francesco story first. I suspect I would have enjoyed it more the other way around and recommend the same to future readers. If you do insist on reading Francesco first, I think it best to read Francesco again, after you read George. Either way, I enjoyed Autumn more than this one.)
  3. Heartbreak: The Political Memoir of a Feminist Militant by Andrea Dworkin
  4. The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri (my close friend was going to buy me this book but I thankfully ended up buying it for myself first. Thankfully because otherwise I’d feel bad saying the following: it’s not worth buying. I’ve not read her other work (work I’ve heard is fantastic, for what it’s worth) but this should not be a book. It was originally a lecture and there simply aren’t enough ideas in here to merit publication in book format. I wish her editor would have encouraged her to put forward a few ideas and then spend some time really developing them. As it stands, it could have been a nice (and easily shortened) Slate article. Disappointing. Though the book cover itself is appealing.

62 books read in 2016

A great year of reading.

Since my last post:

  1.  The Crusades of Cesar Chavez by Miriam Pawel (fascinating, even-handed)
  2. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
  3. If on a winter’s night a travel by Italo Calvino
  4. Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett
  5. She Came to Stay by Simone de Beauvoir

September Reads

While I’ve completed the 52 book challenge already, I’ve decided I’ll keep posting my monthly reads. At least for now.

  1. Liberty’s Refuge: The Forgotten Freedom of Assembly by John Inazu (YUP 2012)
  2. Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by John King (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2015)
    • In one of Colin Powell’s leaked messages he mentioned reading this book (he specifically said, “Just finished a book by a guy named Llosa about loss of culture. It was reviewed in the WSJ last week. Culture is going and with it the ties that bind.”). If Powell thought it worth mentioning the book, I figured it was worth my reading it. I found it a mixed bag. I’d recommend the first eighty or so pages and then a skim of the rest.
  3. Autobiography of Mother Jones by Marry Harris Jones (aka: Mother Jones), edited by Mary Field Parton (Charles H. Kerr Publishing 1996. Originally published by Kerr in 1925)
    • An absolutely incredible person. However, I recommend a bibliography before her autobiography (she assumes lots of prior knowledge). A few tidbits:
      • You remember the Divine Right of Kings? Here is what the President of the mine owners association said in 1902: “The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected not by the labor agitator but by the Christian men and women to whom God in His infinite wisdom has given the control of the property interests of this country.” (61).
      • Work or Fight Laws (Mother Jones called the “infamous slave bill”): A law was passed (again, the wealthy control of the government was no joke) that said: if you strike, you are automatically sent to the front line trenches. (177) The Governor veoted it but just take a moment to think about how that passed.
      • With company-owned towns, they were able to tell workers (who were paid in company script instead of real money and thereby forced to buy from company-owned stores [with marked up prices] and live in company-owned shacks [also marked up]) that allowing Mother Jones into their homes constituted trespass (on company property, remember). Indeed, the police would stand on the boundaries of the company-owned land. If she stepped one foot inside, she was arrested. If any workers pushed for change, they were immediately kicked out of their shacks, blacklisted, and without money.
  4. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (first published in the UK, by Bloomsbury 1997. First US edition published by Scholastic in 1998)
    • I’ve started listening to a fabulous podcast that I fully recommend: Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. I also attended my first in-person meeting of their book club last week. So what does it mean to treat Harry Potter as a sacred text? Three things (per their site):
      • 1) trusting the text (“we practice the belief that the text is not ‘just entertainment’, but if taken seriously, can give us generous  rewards.
      • 2) rigor and ritual (“The text in and of itself is not sacred, but is made so through our rigorous engagement”)
      • 3) reading it in community (“Scholars of religion explain that what makes a text sacred is not the text itself, but the community of readers that proclaim it as such. The same applies to us.”
    • Often times (and somewhat related to Book 54) it seems people are unwilling to fully embrace the things they love. There’s this desire to keep an ironic distance. While irony has its place in our lives and how we view our beliefs (see: Richard Rorty), there is also something incredibly valuable about loving something and pursuing its gifts in earnest. This podcast fully embraces this philosophy. I’ve learned so much from them and their subscribes (who call in). If you want to cultivate the virtues, this would not be a bad place to start the work. (and as they point out, becoming a better person is work)
  5. Speaking Freely: Whitney v. California and American Speech Law by Philippa Strum (University Press of Kansas 2015)
    • Unfortunately, no relation (as far as I know!)