Favorite books from August

The best books I read in August, in no particular order.

Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates. Required reading for all Americans, especially white Americans.

Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston. This was my second time with this novel (read it again for my church book club), and it was just as dazzling and powerful the second time around. Notably, I felt struck by what an important feminist novel it is.

The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight Into Beauty

The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty, Soetsu Yanagi. This book, a series of philosophical essays on Korean and Japanese folk art, so perfectly captures all that I adore about Japanese aesthetics. I am dying to go back to Japan and fill up an entire suitcase with ceramics.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West. This tome is so deeply worth it. Rebecca West travels throughout the former Yugoslavia and the Balkans on the brink of World War II and writes about the region and its history with such beauty, wit, and strength. Highly, highly recommended.

Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing

Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, May Sarton. I knew from the first sentence that I’d love this novel, and I was right. The dialogue flags in places, but it’s beautifully composed, and the characters are extremely memorable and strong. This is the first book of Sarton’s that I’ve read, and I’m looking forward to reading many more.

White Girls

White Girls, Hilton Als. Bold and occasionally inscrutable essays by a powerful writer. I particularly enjoyed his perspective on Flannery O’Connor, and the essay about André Leon Talley was pitch-perfect and heartbreaking by turns.

A Life in Letters

A Life in Letters, Anton Chekhov. Collected correspondence from Chekhov’s life, which shines a light on his humor and very human genius.

What were the best books you read last month?

Late summer

#woolenmills #homesweethome #rivanna
Rivanna River, a few blocks from our house.

August! So blissful. This month, we have no travel and no house guests and thus time just to BE at home. We’re finishing little projects around the house and yard, planning some perfunctory hikes, and spending our free time reading, dining with friends, preventing the hens from brooding, and walking the dogs.

Primary emotions lately:

  • Compulsion for domestic order is high. I’ve realized that sweeping the entire main floor after I get home from work every day really helps me calm down and feel like my world is safe and good. Today, for instance, I am sincerely looking forward to cleaning and reorganizing my calligraphy studio. I have a supplies situation that looks and feels like it is spiraling out of control.
  • Related to that sensation, the desire to keep paring down my possessions, namely clothes and beauty products.
  • Heaviness of heart when I think about the obdurate brand of American racism; have been thinking a lot about Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which I think should be mandatory reading for all white Americans. I’ve also been thinking a lot about my very racially segregated community.
  • Desire to read more books. Desire to read all of the books that I own but haven’t read yet (rough estimate of 30 unread titles languishing on shelves).  Desire to read all the books in the public library, more or less.
  • Tenderness for my husband. Tenderness for the psychologically damaged Pyrrha. Marginal tenderness for the crazy Eden.
  • I am not ready to be cold all the time. Can’t summer stay a little bit longer?
  • Eager fear and excitement when I realize that our European summer is less than a year away now. (We will be living in London for three months next year. I’ll be working out of my company’s branch there, and Guion will get to come with me, because he can work from anywhere. Whee!)
Home (August 2015)
Dining room at midday.

Favorite books from July

The best books I read in July (all fiction this month!):

Coup de Grâce

Coup de Grâce, Marguerite Yourcenar. This is the third novel of Yourcenar’s that I’ve read, and I’m increasingly convinced that she’s perfect. Her psychological analysis is unmatched. This tiny novel is narrated by an egotistical young Prussian who is in love/hate with a damaged and yet strong young woman.

My Struggle: Book 2: A Man in Love

My Struggle, Book 2, Karl Ove Knausgaard. Karl Ove. How’d you get to be so wonderful.

The Story of a New Name

The Story of a New Name, Elena Ferrante. If you can’t tell, summer 2015 is the year of dueling masterful series for me: Knausgaard and Ferrante, Ferrante and Knausgaard. I am reading them both breathlessly, in quick succession. This is book two of the Neapolitan Novels series, and it’s just as dazzling as the first, although a heckuva lot darker.

Victory Over Japan: A Book of Stories

Victory Over Japan: Stories, Ellen Gilchrist. I’d never heard of Gilchrist before, but this was a completely charming and engrossing series of stories featuring powerful, memorable Southern women in starring roles. A lovely summer read, actually. I am usually reading very seasonally inappropriate books, but I’d recommend this to someone for a beach vacation.

What was the best thing you read in July?

Previously:  Favorite books I read in March, April, May, and June.

Favorite books from June

The best books I read in June:

H is for Hawk

H Is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald. Stop everything and go read this book. It entranced me completely. Macdonald is a masterful writer, and she held me in her spell for the entirety of this gorgeously written book — part grief memoir, part goshawk guide, part meditation on the beauty and mortality of the natural world.

My Struggle: Book 1

My Struggle, Book 1, Karl Ove Knausgaard. The Norwegian Proust! It is everything everyone says it is (magnificent, breathtaking, compelling, mystifying). I read it on the plane to and from Iceland, and it made that sum total of 12 hours in air feel like a beautiful passing minute.

Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus

Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus, Robert Farrar Capon. To a skeptical, literature-loving, doubt-filled Christian like myself, the pleasures of reading Capon are vast. This book brightened my own weak conception of my faith and what matters about it in the end.

Mislaid

Mislaid, Nell Zink. Bizarre and impeccably told. The New Yorker  profile on Nell Zink made me intensely curious about her, and I devoured this novel, her most recent, with great fervor. The frequent references to the University of Virginia and the Virginia countryside, in which I reside, were also delightful.

Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood

Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood, Steven Mintz. I’ve always found American history interesting, and this is a particularly interesting history textbook. Steven Mintz covers the movements within American childhood (and parenting) from the Puritans to Columbine High School. It’s extremely fascinating. We’ve come a long way, regarding children, and we’ve changed our collective minds about them over and over again.

Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy; translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. This is the third time I’ve read AK, and it never fails to please and delight. Read for my church book club. I love the way that this novel, after centuries, still has the power to enchant and enrage readers (our book club was divided strongly into pro- and anti-Anna camps). I think it’s an immortal work of art.

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on Their Decision Not To Have Kids

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, ed. Meghan Daum. I’ll probably still have kids, Mom, but it was intensely interesting to read a variety of perspectives on why people choose not to have them. I read this book in a sitting, with great focus, on my deck. It was only after I’d finished that I looked up and thought, The only reason I was able to read this book in one breathless sitting is precisely because I do not have children.  So there’s that. The women’s perspectives, naturally, were more resonant with me on a theoretical level, but the three men’s essays were the funniest and most lighthearted on the topic (probably because men, biologically and culturally, can be more laissez-faire about childrearing).

Austerlitz

Austerlitz, W.G. Sebald. I’m not sure if I really get  German literature, but this was beautiful and unusual, even if the prose was murky and dark at times. The photographs were so fascinating to me.

What did you read in June? Any recommendations?

Favorite books from May

For whatever reason, I apparently didn’t read as much in May as I did in April. These were the best books I read last month.

Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint

Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint, Nadia-Bolz Weber. After hearing Bolz-Weber speak at Mockingbird in April, I felt completely hooked and bought Pastrix as soon as the conference concluded. Part memoir, part testimony, Pastrix chronicles Bolz-Weber’s journey to believe, become sober, and start a church in Denver. Highly recommended.

The Sellout

The Sellout, Paul Beatty. Uncomfortably raucous, Beatty presents a scathing satire of race relations in America, imagining a narrator who decides to re-segregate his California town and take an old black man as his slave.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert. The world is ending, and Kolbert has the science to prove it. A grim but well-written account of how humans are hurtling the planet toward the next great extinction. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

Thousand Cranes (Penguin Modern Classics)

Thousand Cranes, Yasunari Kawabata. I come back to Kawabata over and over again for his lovely, spare, luminous prose. He writes such sad, distant characters, but I am drawn in by them time and time again. I particularly enjoyed the rushes of nostalgia for these places in Japan, specifically Kamakura, and for the gorgeous traditions of Japanese art and tea.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Atul Gawande. A compelling account of end-of-life care in America and the drastic changes that need to be made to improve the quality, not quantity, of life for all of us as we near death.

What were some of the best things you read in May?

Favorite books from April

A list of the best things I read in April.

My Brilliant Friend

My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante. It is as good as everyone says it is.

On Immunity: An Inoculation

On Immunity: An Inoculation, Eula Biss. Beautifully written meditation on the history and language of vaccines.

The Blue Flower

The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is my latest lady novelist obsession.

The Diary, Vol. 3: 1925-1930

The Diary of Virginia Woolf, vol. III (1925–1930). Her happiest, most productive years.

The Writer in the Garden

The Writer in the Garden, ed. Jane Garmey. Charming collection of essays, poems, and thoughts about gardening from talented writers.

Life and Times of Michael K

Life & Times of Michael K, J.M. Coetzee. Darkly moving.

What did you read and enjoy in April?

New reading goal: National Book Award for Fiction

New goal, starting today: Read all the winners of the National Book Award for Fiction between now and next April.

After tracking what I’ve read from the various lists from the Pulitzer, the Man Booker, the Book Critics Circle, I’ve realized that I tend to like what the National Book Award picks best, so, why not read them all?

The National Book Award started in 1950, so I have some catching up to do. Let the NBA Challenge begin!

Of the books that have received this award so far, I have read 15 to date.

Thus, here are the books I still need to read, in chronological order:

  1. 1950: The Man with the Golden Arm by Nelson Algren
  2. 1951: The Collected Stories of William Faulkner by William Faulkner
  3. 1952: From Here to Eternity by James Jones
  4. 1955: A Fable by William Faulkner
  5. 1956: Ten North Frederick by John O’Hara
  6. 1957: The Field of Vision by Wright Morris
  7. 1958: The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever
  8. 1959: The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud
  9. 1960: Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth
  10. 1961: The Waters of Kronos by Conrad Richter
  11. 1962: The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
  12. 1963: Morte D’Urban by J. F. Powers
  13. 1964: The Centaur by John Updike
  14. 1965: Herzog by Saul Bellow
  15. 1966: The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter by Katherine Anne Porter
  16. 1967: The Fixer by Bernard Malamud
  17. 1968: The Eighth Day by Thornton Wilder
  18. 1969: Steps by Jerzy Kosinski
  19. 1973: Augustus by John Williams
  20. 1973: Chimera by John Barth
  21. 1974: A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer
  22. 1974: Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
  23. 1975: Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone
  24. 1975: The Hair of Harold Roux by Thomas Williams
  25. 1976: JR by William Gaddis
  26. 1977: The Spectator Bird by Wallace Stegner
  27. 1978: Blood Tie by Mary Lee Settle
  28. 1979: Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien
  29. 1980: The World According to Garp by John Irving
  30. 1981: Plains Song by Wright Morris
  31. 1981: The Stories of John Cheever by John Cheever
  32. 1982: Rabbit Is Rich by John Updike
  33. 1982: So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
  34. 1984: Victory over Japan: A Book of Stories by Ellen Gilchrist
  35. 1985: White Noise by Don DeLillo
  36. 1986: World’s Fair by E. L. Doctorow
  37. 1987: Paco’s Story by Larry Heinemann
  38. 1988: Paris Trout by Pete Dexter
  39. 1989: Spartina by John Casey
  40. 1990: Middle Passage by Charles Johnson
  41. 1994: A Frolic of His Own by William Gaddis
  42. 1995: Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth
  43. 1996: Ship Fever and Other Stories by Andrea Barrett
  44. 1997: Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
  45. 1998: Charming Billy by Alice McDermott
  46. 2000: In America, Susan Sontag
  47. 2002: Three Junes by Julia Glass
  48. 2003: The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard
  49. 2004: The News from Paraguay by Lily Tuck
  50. 2005: Europe Central by William T. Vollmann
  51. 2006: The Echo Maker by Richard Powers
  52. 2007: Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
  53. 2008: Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen
  54. 2009: Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
  55. 2010: Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon
  56. 2012: The Round House by Louise Erdrich
  57. 2013: The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

I’m going to start with Herzog, because that’s up next in my book club queue, so it’s perfect timing.

The downside is that there are books on here that I’m not looking forward to, and this is a very man-heavy list. I’ve also done my best to avoid all of Updike and most of Roth thus far, le sigh. And so many war novels get so many prizes! But I’m committed.

Any advice from this list on what I should tackle after Herzog?

Favorite books from March

I read a lot of very enjoyable things in March. Particular favorites from the past month:

A Joy of Gardening, Vita Sackville-West. Utterly charming in every way! A delight for literature-loving gardeners.

Offshore

Offshore, Penelope Fitzgerald. My first introduction to Penelope Fitzgerald, and I found myself totally smitten by her. Continuing my newfound obsession, I am currently reading The Blue Flower, which I stumbled on at the library book sale.

The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion

The Unspeakable, and Other Subjects of Discussion, Meghan Daum. I might just share a brain with her, for better or worse.

Electric Light: Poems

Electric Light, Seamus Heaney. The most delightful neologisms.

Between the Acts

Between the Acts, Virginia Woolf. This was the third time I’ve read this novel, Woolf’s last, and I was so pleased to discover that I enjoyed it just as much now as I did as an undergrad. I like how loose and playful it is. It is not her best, but Woolf’s “not best” is far superior to the majority of fiction. So. There’s that.

Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant?

Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?, Roz Chast. Funny and heartrending in all the right ways.

All the King's Men

All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren. This was on my to-read list for many years; it’s stirring and interesting, in ways that I didn’t expect.

Selected Poems

Selected Poems, Rita Dove. I also finally got around to the work of Rita Dove, one of my town’s resident famous poets. Deeply enjoyable. She has such an enchanting musicality to her work.

An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness

An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, Kay Redfield Jamison. Borrowed from Celeste, my personal purveyor of good things to read. A well-written account of the author’s life with manic-depressive illness and its juxtaposition to her career as a psychologist.

Mr. Palomar

Mr. Palomar, Italo Calvino. Some people may find this plot-less collection of observations frustrating, but it is just the sort of thing that I love.

What did you read and enjoy in March?

Things I have no interest in learning

For whatever unspoken reasons, I am not interested in learning how to

  • crochet
  • change a tire
  • speak Spanish
  • properly use a curling iron
  • prepare and cook meat
  • make a quilt
  • shoot a gun
  • drive stick
  • French braid my own hair (although I can do a bangin’ job on someone else’s head)
  • ski
  • clean and gut a fish
  • start a fire using only dry leaves and your imagination
  • rock climb
  • befriend cats
  • tie knots like a sailor
  • shape my brows
  • drink and/or like coffee

No judgment against these things;* I’ve just never wanted to learn more. Naturally, knowing how to do any of these things would make me a more utilitarian human (and considerably more likely to survive in postapocalyptic America). But I am uninterested. Alas. Life is short; one can only pursue so many things. But these things, cast aside, haunt me nonetheless. I will apparently go down quickly when the zombies come.

(*Fine; I do reserve a lot of judgment about guns. But that’s the only one.)

Any common task you’ve been uninterested in learning how to perform?