Lord of the Flies by William Golding

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Perhaps as a mother I could read this as a story of children abandoned on an island and left to survive in any way they can.

I could read it as a story illustrating that children, unsupervised by adults, revert to a state of nature, which, because of the inherent violence of humanity, ignores all logic and reason for the allure of superstition, tribalism, and destruction.

I could read it as a story of how a crowd of children can be influenced to follow a despotic ruler, who offers chants and fun, and who jeers at those over whom the crowd would like to feel powerful rather than following the boring logic of democracy and the drudge of working toward a common, rational goal, while the majority, unnamed, unnumbered, and unconsidered, sit by without using their voices outside of mindlessly echoing the words of those in power, without action besides the basics of human existence.

I could read this story and think how tragic it is that children left to their own devices might act in a way contrary to their own self preservation.

I could wish that someone from a rational civilization that’s above the squabbles of a handful of boys on an island would come and save them.

I could wish that there were anything left to be saved.

I could wish that I believed in salvation.

Read as part of my Cavalcade of Classics, Round Two.

The Epic of Gilgamesh

A bit of background: The Epic of Gilgamesh is old. It’s very, very old. So old, it’s more than a little amazing that any of it has survived, let alone enough to put together a cohesive narrative.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is also bizarre. A bizarre, old story. It’s got elements common to familiar creation myths—a flood, a descent from a state of nature precipitated by a wily female—and a really close friendship that seems to be based on the fact that both guys are the biggest and strongest guys around and on their shared interest in gratuitous deforestation.

Perhaps my favorite part is Gilgamesh’s journey after Enkidu’s death. After all of the wanton violence, I appreciate the self-doubt Gilgamesh shows and the wisdom of Uta-Napishti, which the sage delivers with just a little smugness.

I’ve not read any other translations of The Epic of Gilgamesh, but this one by Andrew George worked for me.

I read this as part of round two of my Cavalcade of Classics. You can see all of the titles on the list here.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

This book was incredible. I listened to it on audio, and there were so many points at which I exclaimed audibly about an insight Baldwin had shared.

I’m not sure why The Fire Next Time struck me more deeply than Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (which I also “read” on audiobook), but I do see a couple of big differences between the two.

One difference is the quality of the writing. Coates’s writing is fine and powerful at times, but Baldwin’s writing is something else entirely. It feels smooth and adept. Baldwin knows language, and he crafts it and wields it with a skill that I savor (and covet just a little). I haven’t read any of Baldwin’s fiction, but after my experience with The Fire Next Time, I’m inclined to move some of his other writing towards the top of my to-read list.

Another difference between The Fire Next Time and Coates’s memoir which it inspired is the focus. Like Coates, Baldwin writes about his personal experiences, but he doesn’t place them at the center of the work as they are in the chronological recounting in Coates’s book. I have a fairly high bar for memoir; I like it to do something more than just tell about one person’s life. In his book (or perhaps it’s more accurate to call it a long-form essay), Baldwin uses his personal experiences to illustrate a larger point about American culture and its racial history. This was more powerful to me than reading the story of one life.

This should in no way give the impression that it was only the quality of the writing and the structure of the book that I enjoyed. The content was extremely powerful. Baldwin comes across as conflicted, angry, vulnerable, skeptical, wary, and, in some ways, weary. I was especially struck by what seems like Baldwin’s near-despair about how to proceed as a culture, racially segregated or not, without leaving behind the good with the bad. His reflections after his visit with Elijah Muhammad—juxtaposing the supportive community, the young women and their babies, with the rhetoric of violent segregation—present his internal conflict powerfully.

One thing I’m still seeking—and which I realized at the end of the book that I was unconsciously and unfairly hoping Baldwin would provide—is a picture of how a post-racial world might look. What does an integrated society, one in which there is a universally accepted assumption of the inherent worth of all individuals, look like? What is the right path forward knowing that we can’t make right the past? Can we make a reality something we can’t envision?

This isn’t something Baldwin or anyone can answer, but I still hoped for it. 

I read this book as part of round two of my Cavalcade of Classics. You can see all of the titles on the list here.

Bookends: October 2018

October brought cooler weather and a much-needed readathon, which helped me make a good dent in my Cavalcade of Classics list. My goal was to read at least one title from my list each month, and this month I read four. Starting strong and hopefully not burning myself out too quickly.

Regular TBR reads (including those that weren’t on my TBR until I picked them up):

New Boy by Tracey Chevalier (audio)

The Traveling Bag by Susan Hill

The Call by Peadar Ó Guilín (audio)

Maggie’s Door by Patricia Reilly Giff (read-aloud)

Ghostland by Colin Dickey

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

From my Cavalcade of Classics:

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser (audio)

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (audio)

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (on audio)

The Epic of Gilgamesh

Currently Reading:

Gilgamesh Among Us by Theodore Ziolkowski

The Ramayana by Vālmīki ( I’m working on the shortened modern prose version by R. K. Narayan. I can’t tell if it seems weird because it’s just weird or because it’s from a mythology that’s unfamiliar to me or if it’s just the version I’m reading. I might try another version to find out.)

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff (audio)

To-Read in November:

November is going to be a challenge. I decided at about 2:00 pm on October 31, to participate in this year’s NaNoWriMo. I reached the 50,000-word goal in 2010, attempted but didn’t reach it in 2011, and haven’t tried since. A friend is participating this year, and I figured this would be a chance to show her some support and to try to get something down from a novel idea I’ve been poking around at for a few years.

I figure it could go one of three ways:

  1. I write a lot and meet my daily word count goals and don’t have time to read, or
  2. I read a lot to distract myself from the fact that I’m not meeting my daily word count goals because I’m reading, or
  3. I really nail time management, make the most of the extra hour the end of Daylight Saving gives me, and meet both my reading and my writing goals.

Anything’s possible, but there’s precedent for only two of those possibilities.

Reading goals for November, in addition to completing the books I’m currently reading:

The Odyssey by Homer (Emily Wilson translation)

Circe by Madeline Miller

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

What books have your read recently that speak to you? What books are you excited to read in November?

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

13784569I listened to this on audio, and I have to admit, the first few hours were pretty brutal. I listened to the first three hours while taking a long walk and nearly cried from the boredom (it wasn’t all the audiobook’s fault, though; I’d picked a particularly blah section of suburban sidewalk along which to amble while listening). But as I stuck with the novel (at 1.5x) it grew on me. Dreiser brought things together in a satisfying way towards the end, allowing Carrie to grow and change throughout the novel and dealing with his characters with compassion even when it was clear that he didn’t approve of their actions.

I kept forgetting that this novel was written before the stock market crash of 1929, before both world wars, even before the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. I need to look back at this time in U.S. history for more context.

I’m definitely getting this one in print so I can read more deeply—and underline. There are some parallels between themes in this book and other books I’m reading/have read recently, and I need the book in front of me to catch them.

This is another title from the second round of my Cavalcade of Classics. Here’s a view from my otherwise boring walk during the first hours of the audiobook. Not so bad when I look back on it now.

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The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

22890386A letter from an old friend and the opportunity for a road trip leads Mr. Stevens, a career butler of the Downton Abbey era, to reflect about his life and his actions both past and present, and Ishiguro brings us along on both this literal and figurative journey with skill and precision. Mr. Stevens may be one of the most authentic, realistically written characters I’ve read in a very long time.

I’ve never been a butler for one of the distinguished old houses of pre-war Great Britain, but I can very much relate to Mr. Stevens’s habit of revising and reframing memories of his actions that don’t fit with his image of himself. It’s the kind of story crafting that we all do, I think, whether consciously or not, as we try to assemble a narrative for our life that is consistent with how we want to view ourselves.

One thing that seems to elude many authors is the art of showing character development over time, but this is something else that Ishiguro does with quiet finesse in this novel. Mr. Stevens’s evolution is subtle but significant. At the beginning of the novel, he holds firmly to his accustomed way of remembering his actions in the best possible light, brushing aside the reactions of others that might provide evidence that his way of looking at the situation isn’t consistent with how it actually happened. As the novel—and the road trip—progresses, we see Mr. Stevens begin to question himself and to confront the inconsistencies and hypocrisy of some of his actions.

This is the first book in a long time that had an ending that felt satisfying to me. By the end of the novel, Mr. Stevens hasn’t sloughed off all of his old habits, but he’s much better able to look at himself more realistically and more holistically, admitting his shortcomings with fewer rationalizations and excuses. His transformation isn’t dramatic—there’s no Extreme Makeover for this butler—but it’s rather the kind of slow opening of the eyes that one hopes life has in store for us before night falls.

This novel I hope to revisit as a masterclass in character development and in the crafting of language that is subtle, economical, and powerful.

This is the first title from the second round of my Cavalcade of Classics that I’ve completed. I listened to this novel on audiobook during one of my weekly Epic Walks around San Diego. As a result, below is one of the sights I now associate with this novel. That and mountain bikers playing “American Woman” as they nearly mowed me down.

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Bookends: March to September 2018

One of the things lost in the whirlwind of my cross-country move early this year is my monthly Bookends post. This post, a recap of March through September (in reverse order), is a way to reset the Bookends clock before time for my Year in Books at the end of December.

During these past few months, I read a lot of books aloud to my children and then, starting in July with the advent of my Epic Walks, I began listening to lots of audiobooks. I’ve noted which are which in the list below. Links are to reviews on Goodreads, which I should cross-post here but don’t.

September:

New Boy by Tracy Chevalier (audio)

Memory’s Last Breath by Gerda Saunders (audio)

The Vegetarian by Han Kang (audio)

The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt by Kara Cooney (audio)

The Small Hand by Susan Hill

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Eileen by Otessa Moshfegh

The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle (audio)

August:

The Circle by Dave Eggers (audio)

The Long-Lost Home (The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, #6) by Maryrose Wood (read-aloud)

The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas

Nory Ryan’s Song by Patricia Reilly Giff

July:

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine (stopped reading)

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (audio)

The Diabolic (The Diabolic, #1) by S. J. Kincaid

The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True by Richard Dawkins (stopped reading)

The High Crusade by Poul Anderson

June:

Rodzina by Karen Cushman (stopped reading)

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg (re-read, read-aloud)

A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

Rebels of the Heavenly Kingdom by Katherine Paterson (read-aloud)

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (re-read, read-aloud)

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

May:

A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle (stopped reading)

The Sand-Reckoner by Gillian Bradshaw (read-aloud)

April:

Voices (Annals of the Western Shore, #2) by Ursula K. Le Guin

Gifts (Annals of the Western Shore #1) by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène du Bois (read-aloud)

The Last Star (The 5th Wave, #3) by Rick Yancey

The Infinite Sea (The 5th Wave, #2) by Rick Yancey

Commodore Perry in the Land of the Shogun by Rhoda Blumberg (read-aloud)

The 5th Wave (The 5th Wave, #1) by Rick Yancey

The Capture (Guardians of Ga’Hoole, #1) by Kathryn Lasky

Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories by Philip Roth (stopped reading)

Stargirl (Stargirl, #1) by Jerry Spinelli

The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr (stopped reading)

Life of Fred: Pre-Algebra 2 with Economics by Stanley F. Schmidt

The Golden Goblet by Eloise Jarvis McGraw (read-aloud)

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (re-read, read-aloud)

Catalyst (Insignia, #3) by S.J. Kincaid

March:

Pretty Monsters: Stories by Kelly Link

The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Other Stories by Robert Louis Stevenson (read-aloud)

Currently Reading:

Maggie’s Door by Patricia Reilly Giff (read-aloud)

Ghostland by Colin Dickey

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

To-Read in October:

October and thereafter, I will attempt to read at least one title per month from the second round of my Cavalcade of Classics. Goals for this October, in addition to completing the books I’m currently reading:

The Epic of Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh Among Us by Theodore Ziolkowski

The Odyssey by Homer (Emily Wilson translation)

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (on audio)

What books have your read recently that speak to you? What books are you excited to read in October?

Bookends: January and February 2018

We started January with a cross-country road trip, and ended February with the sale of our house in Massachusetts and are only a few days away from closing on a house in California. No wonder I missed posting January’s Bookends. Never fear: Here’s a two-for-one post to catch both months at the same time.

Books I read in January and February:

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2017: My Year in Books

Here at the end of 2017, I’m in the midst of my 17th relocation since I graduated high school (and my 23rd move since birth (not including the relocation from my mother’s uterus into the world at large)). That’s a lot of moving when I put it like that. It feels like a dubious accomplishment.

I vowed to make 2017 a travel year, but I didn’t know until November that in addition to the trips we took to California, Utah, Washington, DC, and Spain, we would also be relocating 3,000 miles southwest.

At the time this post publishes, if all goes according to plan, I’m sitting in a rental car with one spouse, two children, one cat, and a box full of muffins and pretzels, driving farther and farther away from the below-zero temperatures of this New England winter. I’ve spent the past few years in New England assembling a wardrobe largely made up of black and gray wool, which I trust will be of great use in San Diego.

Planned and unplanned travel and wardrobe choices aside, 2017 was, as usual, a year of books.

I read 101 books this year. The average (mean) books read per month was 8.41, and the average (mean) per week was 1.94. Total number of pages (according to Goodreads) was 27,931 (76.5 pages per day, 537 per week). Of course since a lot of these were audiobooks, not all of these were pages, per se.

Of these books, 69 were fiction (including children’s books), 10 were memoirs (up 100% from last year), and the remaining 21 were other nonfiction (an increase of nearly 150% from 2016). Of these, 16 were audiobooks and 6 were DNFs.

My Cavalcade of Classics list expired in January with disappointingly few books checked off. I plan to use my TBR List Declutter to help assemble a new, more reasonable Classics list. I’m not terribly skilled at “reasonable” when it comes to books, but it’s a laudable goal and probably something of a spiritual practice. Biblioasceticism or something.

Between Dewey’s and 24in48, I think I hit my readathon stride this year and learned a lot about how to assemble a readathon pile that holds my interest throughout 24 hours of reading.

As 2018 dawns, I am reading White Tears by Hari Kunzru. I predict that the first week of January will be filled with audiobooks, but after that I hope to be able to spend at least a little bit of time with my reading-with-my-eyes books in between house-hunting and connecting with homeschooling groups, orthodontists, veterinarians, pediatricians, dentists, and the myriad other members of our entourage.

 One of the biggest downsides of this late-breaking moving madness (we didn’t know we were moving until November 30; yippee!) is that I didn’t get my usual birthday/Christmas present of five library books selected for me by my spouse. Maybe I can convince him to get me a half-birthday/Christmas-in-June stack of books. Or maybe once we’re in the land of perpetual good weather, I’ll no longer want books as gifts. That would be strange development, indeed, but I rule nothing out anymore.

Below is my book list for 2017, by the month I finished each book. Click on the month name for the “Bookends” for that month, which includes other information about my reading progress throughout the year. I also cross-post most of my reviews on Goodreads. If you’d like to just go straight to Goodreads to see my reviews there, here’s the link to my Goodreads profile. You can also go there to see all 1163 books I’ve read and logged on Goodreads. If you’re not a Goodreads fan, you can check out my collection on LibraryThing instead, although it’s not as up-to-date as my Goodreads (alas).

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Bookends: November 2017

November. Holy moly. November.

It was fun, but oh, so tiring. My family traveled 15 out of 30 days, were in the capitals of three nations, and I lost ten pounds (not intentionally; I always lose weight when I’m traveling and then my son got a stomach virus, and, well, there you are). Sometime I’ll write about all of it (except the stomach virus), but it might have to wait until January. In the meantime, check out my Instagram (see sidebar) for images of our adventures.

In between all of that, I read a few books, and that’s what this is all about. I would have read more if those movies and games on the airplane seat backs weren’t so compelling. I’d say I hope to have more titles to report in December, but December’s going to be a whole different brand of crazy, so more reading is probably too much to ask.

At any rate, here are November’s books:

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