I kept a log of all the books I read (or started reading and then abandoned) in 2018. I don't want to recap the details of that log here, but instead hit some of the high points and low points. Let's start with...
The low points
Books I abandoned, and why
- Line Break: poetry as social practice, by James Scully (nonfiction).
Disagree strongly with Scully's interpretations of poems such as Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts." Decided Scully doesn't really like poetry, merely thinks it can and should be effective propaganda.
- Concluding Unscientific Postscript, by Søren Kierkegaard (nonfiction)
Not really interested in reading about why I should be a Christian. Found Kierkegaard's reasoning often specious. Antisemitism and misogyny, as in this quote:
For Jews and women, as we all know, can bawl out more in a single minute than a man can accomplish in an entire lifetime.(Note that not only women but also Jews are considered something other than "a man.")
- John Skelton: The Complete English Poems, by John Skelton (poetry/literature)
Turns out, the handful of Skelton's poems that get anthologized all the time are his few good poems. Also, the physical book (bought 2nd hand) was literally falling apart in my hands.
- Shakespeare's Christmas, by Charlaine Harris (fiction)
Uninteresting characters, tedious pacing, wooden prose style.
Books I probably should have abandoned, but didn't
- The Works of Arthur Schopenhauer: The Wisdom of Life and Other Essays, by Arthur Schopenhauer (nonfiction)
I haven't read Schopenhauer's major works, but these essays seem more like a bag of cantakerous opinions than a reasoned philosophy. Schopenhauer judges all people by himself, and finds himself the very best sort of person. He has difficulty looking beyond himself—"as all truly noble individuals do," he concludes.
- The Ruby in the Smoke, by Philip Pullman (fiction)
Makes use of the sinister Asian trope, including the half-breed Chinese villain who—horror of horrors!—wants to marry the white British heroine.
- The Next Revolution, by Murray Bookchin
Bookchin's "libertarian socialism" is too idealistic to work, but not idealistic enough to inspire. Utopias that are meant to be realized are the least interesting utopias.
The high points
Books I would highly recommend oh and I am or someone I know is involved
- Quick Shivers from the Midwest, from DailyNightmare.com (fiction)
Includes a piece of mine.
- On the Jefferson Line, by Eve Ott (poetry)
A wonderfully unified chapbook of poetry, based on a bus trip from Kansas City to Minneapolis.
- Boundless: An Anthology of Prose, edited by David G. Collins (poetry/lit)
Includes work by my younger sister.
Nonfiction books, entirely by strangers, that I would highly recommend
- Paris France, by Gertrude Stein
This memoir of Stein's life in Paris is full of shrewd observations and vivid character sketches in her inimitable style.
- The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex, by Murray Gell-Mann
Not always an easy read (at least for this non-scientist), but a fascinating one. By the Nobel laureate who named quarks, "quarks."
- Rosalind Franklin & DNA, by Anne Sayre
If this book doesn't make you shout "F*** the patriarchy!" then nothing will. Sayre doesn't quite say that Watson and Wilkins stole Franklin's work and then smeared her name... (Crick seems to have been removed from any machinations or politics.)
Fiction books, entirely by strangers, that I would highly recommend
- The Wind Done Gone, by Alice Randall
This parody of Gone with the Wind is careful not to use any of the names from that novel. Nonetheless, Margaret Mitchell's estate sued the author and her publisher for copyright infringement. The plaintiffs were granted an injunction, which was vacated on appeal, yada yada yada. Legal maneuvers aside, this is an effective and moving tale and an often savage satire.
- The Voyage Out, by Virgina Woolf
An early and accessible work by this modernist author. Woolf draws her characters with a satirical but not unsympathetic eye. The story could be seen as both tragic and comic.
- All the Harry Potter books, by J.K. Rowling
I had read a couple of these books years ago, and at my daughter's urging read the rest this year. I'm glad I did. I'm not ashamed to say that more than once I was moved to tears.
- The Chrysalids, by John Wyndham
I've read Wyndham's more well-known works, The Day of the Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos. This is a better novel than either of those. Of course, my opinion might be skewed by the fact that the narrator, David, has a rigidly religious preacher father, as I did. (Though my dad was not at all the moral monster Joseph Strorm is.)
- Wilderness Tips, by Margaret Atwood
I'm a big James Joyce fan. The stories in this collection are equal to any in JJ's Dubliners.
Poetry/lit books, entirely by strangers, that I would highly recommend
- Helen in Egypt, by H.D.
If Homer and Sappho had collaborated, they might have written something akin to this lyric epic—or is it an epic lyric? Hard to classify, psychologically and philosophically complex, dazzling.
- Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry, edited by Wu-chi Liu and Irving Yucheng Lo
I appreciate Arthur Waley's work in translating Chinese literature, but there's no denying that he makes all the poets sound like Arthur Waley. That isn't an issue in this anthology. Here you'll find a variety of authors, translators, periods, themes and voices. The notes are interesting and informative.
- Baudelaire in English, edited by Carol Clark and Robert Sykes
While Sunflower Splendor includes many translators for many poets, this collection uses many translators for a single poet. Sometimes one poem is presented in multiple translations. Paradoxically, or maybe entirely naturally, a single personality comes through. I can't read French, but insofar as I can judge, this is the best Baudelaire translation I've seen.
- Paper Bodies: A Margaret Cavendish Reader, edited by Sylvia Bowerbank and Sara Mendelson
Don't know Margaret Cavendish? You should! "Mad Meg" Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, was a 17th-century poet, philosopher and fiction writer. She wrote a science fiction novel, The Blazing World (included complete in this book). Much of her poetry was on scientific topics. Eccentric, frequently brilliant, a true original.
Image: Adolf Schrödter, Don Quixote in the Library, 1834. From Wikimedia Commons.