A midyear addendum to my reading goals

I’ve developed a routine of setting goals in roughly three categories: quality of life, writing, and reading. At the same time, I returned to meticulously tracking the non-academic reading I do, including raw numbers of books and pages, genres, languages, and author demographics. In general terms, I do pretty well in terms of cultural diversity in my reading, but the practice of recording demographics have revealed exactly how AWFUL I am at reading books by women.

This is not on purpose; to be cliche: some of my favorite authors are women! I am sure that my tendency to track down foreign literature that is translated into English doesn’t help these numbers, but it is a fact that most of what I read is by men. So I’ve made it a particular goal to read more books by women.

Turns out, setting goals and rigorously tracking your progress works! Since first setting to fix this situation, I’ve increased from 2 (6%) to 4 (7.5%) to 8 (13.5%) to 9 (26.5%) so far this year. I am tracking to hit my target for this year and then some, seeing as I am just one book off, but the current pace also has me reflecting on how pathetically low I set this goal even if it represents an improvement over last year. With this in mind, here are my revised goals:

First, I want to start measuring these reading targets in terms of percentage of overall books read, you know, in case my pace slows for whatever reason. For this year, the new minimum bar is 25%, but I would like to raise the percentage to 30-33% or more.

This will mean increasing my already-raised pace, but I think it is doable because, second, every book I start in August will written by a woman. (I may extend this through September, too, if, as I expect, my reading time gets slashed because of coming of the academic school year.)

There are a number of reasons for me to do this, including that it helps cover a clear weakness in my reading habits, but it isn’t an onerous task by any stretch. I am very much looking forward to this to-be-read pile, which includes:

  1. Wishful Drinking – Carrie Fisher
  2. Royal Assassin – Robin Hobb
  3. The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin
  4. Stalin’s Daughter – Rosemary Sullivan
  5. Always Coming Home – Ursula K. le Guin
  6. Birds of America – Lorrie Moore
  7. The Vegetarian – Han Kang

But first I have to finish Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Way to Paradise.

Reading and order

Sometimes there is an obvious order books ought to be read in. I learned this the hard way many years ago when I read the Wheel of Time series in this order: one, three through seven….two. Things made quite a bit more sense once I read the second book. More than just pushing the plot forward, each book in a series adds characters and deepens or broadens the setting. But the question I’ve been thinking about recently is whether there is a more general principle in this regard.

In other words, is there a Platonic ideal for the order in which one reads books that maximizes a) enjoyment and b) the appreciation of the content of each? If so, what sort of pattern might it follow, taking into account fiction and non-fiction, the gender, orientation, cultural background of the authors, and genres?

Obviously not. This is an impossible hypothetical for any number of reasons. For one, there are simply too many permutations and too little time to label anything “essential.” For another, taste is subjective, so the list would have to be customized for each person. Nor does the awareness of a given book disappear upon closing the cover, so while the actual order in which the books are read will have some influence on the experience of the next book, the interpretation of books gone by (let alone books re-read) is open to revision upon further thought.

It might make some logical sense to equip this tabula rasa reader with the tools of literary and cultural criticism, honing sensitivity before unleashing him or her onto the the written word like a wolf onto sheep. If one were to prioritize deep appreciation of the book over the simple pleasure of reading. Yet not only does the reading work this way (the idea of equipping a kindergartner with Derrida’s deconstructionism before, say, The Hungry, Hungry Caterpillar is laughable), but also it is impossible to gain a deep appreciation of literary and cultural criticism without first being steeped with culture (books, in this case).

This thought experiment works somewhat better for specialized subfields, particularly in terms of non-fiction, because a) this means that there are demonstrable bounds to the literature and b) there are things that might be termed foundational texts (and essays analyzing or debating those foundational texts, and on and on) from which the edifice of knowledge is constructed. These foundational texts are unavoidable; when thinking about the ancient economy, it is impossible to avoid dealing with Moses Finley. In this respect, it is possible to at least approach an ideal order in which to read the literature. Yes, the list would be politically charged based on the biases of the list creator(s) and, yes, the list would be limited by oversights, scope, and additions, not to mention issues of what methodological texts are “necessary” for a given topic, but at least it is possible to conceive of the task.

If this concept is an impossible absurdity, why have I spent nearly five hundred words on it? There are two answers to this question, both incomplete. The first is that it was a thought that came to me as I read Chuck Klosterman’s But what if we’re wrong? close on the heels of Tom Wolfe’s Back to Blood and thus thinking about what it means for a novel to grapple with a given culture. The question I had was whether I would have had a fundamentally different reaction to Back to Blood if I had read them in a different order.

The second is a broader, more general experience I have had where the second of two books read in the same genre has seemed derivative of the first when they were, in fact, published in the reverse order. (The principle is equally applicable to any consumed media, really). This quirk inevitably shapes how the reader (listener/watcher/consumer) interprets both books and threatens to diminish the appreciation of the foundational book that now may be seen as unambitious, derivative, or inchoate, even though it forged the trail that made the second book possible—simply because it now exists coevally with the media that followed it and so may now be experienced afterward. And this is without considering intertexts that cross genres and the interplay between fiction and non-fiction.

Perhaps a single list is the wrong model. The all-encompassing Platonic structure, might look more like a three dimensional flowchart with near-infinite connections that can be entered from almost any point, depending on what one has already read, what one’s objective is in reading, and what book(s) one is working toward as an objective. Then again, this ceases to be a way to structure reading and becomes a visualization what already exists, provided that a reader cares enough to plan ahead.

A Strangeness in My Mind – Orhan Pamuk

In a city, you can be alone in a crowd, and in fact what makes the city a city is that it lets you hide the strangeness in your mind inside its teeming multitudes.

Oh, Mevlut, haven’t you learned, rights don’t matter in the city, only profits.

Mevlut is an old-fashioned street vendor with an old-fashioned sensibility. He moved to Istanbul to attend school and help his father at the age of twelve, leaving the village life behind. The city is simultaneously all that he possibly imagined—vast, sprawling, growing and filled with characters—and so much less. He lives in a dirt-floored hovel his father and uncle built on ill-gotten land. During the day Mevlut attends school and at night helps his father sell boza, a traditional, mildly alcohol drink. Despite occasional visits, Mevlut never moves back to the village, but, unlike seemingly everyone else in his life, neither does he ever realize the dream of striking it rich in the city.

A Strangeness in My Mind follows Mevlut’s life and experiences in Istanbul through a variety of voices, but the driving component of the narrative comes when he attends his cousin’s wedding as a young man and locks eyes for a brief instant with the beautiful younger sister of the bride. Mevlut asks the groom’s brother Suleyman who this enchanting young woman is, but, instead of truthfully saying “Samiya,” his cousin gives the name of the middle sister, Rayiha, who we are told is the least physically attractive of the three. Mevlut resolves to write to Rayiha while he serves his mandatory military service to tell her of his love. After leaving the army, Mevlut and Suleyman arrange for Rayiha to run away with him and it is only that night when he discovers the error. Mevlut and Rayiha come to be parents to two little girls and genuine love each other, but the uncertainty over whom those letters were addressed to casts a pall over the family, particularly when Samiya moves to Istanbul, is courted by Suleyman, and ends up running away with another man.

Mevlut is a man caught in the middle. He supports a mild Islamist political program (including that he votes for Erdogan for mayor of Istanbul) out of his belief in his religion, but he is friends with and sympathetic to the Leftists, while his extended family is extremely right-wing. He is reliant mostly on his cousins for money and social status, but they regard him as a drag whose intransigence over selling boza and the rights to land jointly claimed by their fathers weigh down their monetary ambitions. Most of all, though, Mevlut’s old-fashioned hobbies, old-fashioned honesty, and unbreakable optimism lead people to regard him as simplistically innocent. Mevlut doesn’t care, though, and he only cares about breaking free of the the loneliness that plagues him.

A Strangeness in My Mind fell short of Pamuk’s best work in my estimation. It is poignant, at times beautiful, and has incredible formal structure—the main narrative is told through Mevlut’s lens, but it is interspersed with interjections from the other characters correcting, explaining, or supplementing the main narrative the way that a documentary might—but it is missing much of the mystery that I so love in Pamuk’s writing. In that respect, much of what transpires over such a long span of time seems to be in service of showing how the growth of Istanbul affected one Turkish family rather than having a really compelling plot of its own. The mistaken identity provides adequate narrative backbone for the family drama and is undoubtedly poignant, but it also came across as of secondary importance. All that said, I am very much looking forward to Pamuk’s next book due out later this year.

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I recently read The Kingdom of the Gods, the final book in N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy and just started Tom Wolfe’s Back to Blood.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms – N.K. Jemisin

Yeine Darr is the ennu of a small, wooded, backwater kingdom in the Northern part of the world, but has had to give that life up because she is summoned to the Arameri city of Sky, a floating palace from which the world is ruled. Though she has never been to Sky and is woefully unprepared for what she will find there, Yeine is not like other outsiders because her mother, now deceased, was the sole daughter and presumed heir to Dekarta, the ruler of Sky and chosen of Itempas (god of order and ruler of the universe). Now Dekarta is nearly dead and Yeine is summoned to join two of her cousins as his potential heirs and so finds herself thrust into a political conflict that, if she is to have any chance at survival, requires her to learn about Arameri customs, hierarchy, and brutality. Complicating matters further, Yeine meets the legendary weapons of the Arameri, Nahadoth, Sieh, Kurue, and Zakkarn, all gods bound by Itempas into servitude at the conclusion of the God’s War thousands of years ago and beings with their own agenda and know more about Yeine than she knows about herself. The ceremony to anoint the next chosen of Itempas is set to take place two weeks after her arrival and Yeine must uncover Arameri secrets, her family secrets, quickly if she is to be more than simply a sacrificial lamb.

There is a lot I really liked about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. It is a political thriller set in a fantasy world and like all books that introduce a world, the reader needs to have a way in. The more fantastical the world, the more important this entry is, but, the more time the author spends developing the world, the more he or she may be criticized for caring more about the world than the story. Jemisin does an astoundingly good job of introducing our protagonist (Yeine) who knows some things about the world, but transferring her to a part of the world where she knows nothing so that the reader learns everything right along with her. Combine this with thrusting Yeine immediately into the heart of the action where she must learn about the world in order to survive the conflict and you have a book that is in some ways entirely about introducing the reader to the world without sacrificing the plot for worldbuilding one iota.

The world of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms may be taken in two ways: the cosmology and the mundane setting. The novel’s cosmology is a play on a fairly traditional triad of original deities, one who embodies chaos, one who embodies order, and one who embodies change. From these three deities come all of existence, including their children and their creations. In this world, however, the god of order reigns supreme, because in the dim twilight of history there was an event called the God’s War where Enefa, the god of change, was killed and the god of chaos, Nahadoth, along with their surviving children were bound into servitude. Not only do these divine forces act directly upon the world, but some of them are forced to do so by mortals, which brings me to mundane setting. There are (perhaps) a hundred thousand kingdoms in the world, all with sovereignty, but under “benevolent” Arameri hegemony. The Arameri largely reside in Sky, a palace and city that serve as the seat of world power where disputes are resolved. Peace (order, really) is the objective, provided that the lesser powers bow to Arameri demands. Some of these are to a contemporary mind benevolent—no slavery, human rights restrictions—but Arameri guidance is absolute and any opposition is to be brutally crushed. For plot reasons, the world setting largely takes a backseat to the cosmological one, but it nevertheless serves as a clever way to build contrasting views of the Arameri among whom Yeine finds herself.

I had minor quibbles about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Occasional, passing comments seemed somewhat out of place in their addressing of what seemed likely particularly modern concerns. This is not to say I disagreed with the stances taken, but rather that such comments seemed particularly “of their time.” There were likewise a few scenes, including one involving a bathroom, that I found a little cheesy. None of these should take away from what is an enormously entertaining and very thoughtful debut novel. By way of recommendation, I will say that I am very much looking forward to reading the rest of this trilogy and to pick up Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, which won the Hugo Award for best novel.

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I just finished reading a history of the city of Odessa (in Ukraine), chosen in part because I have ancestors who came to the United States from there. Next up is probably going to be Stefan Zweig’s Confusion.

Women of the Silk – Gail Tsukiyama

I read The Samurai’s Garden early in 2016 in my push to start reading a more diverse array of books and liked it well enough that I decided to pick up a copy of Tsukiyama’s acclaimed debut novel, Women of the Silk.

Women of the Silk is a slow story that unfolds over nineteen years (1919-1938) in southern China. Pei is the second daughter of a peasant son-less farmer who dedicated his life to mulberry bushes and fish ponds. A series of lean years force the family to make difficult decisions, one of which is to ostensibly sell Pei, about age eleven, into servitude at the Yung Kee silk factory where her wages will help support the family. The novel unfolds slowly, following Pei and her new family (the eponymous women of the silk), be they her surrogate mother Auntie Yee or her friends like Mei Li and Lin. It is a story about friendship and everyday life, with characters grappling with love, labor, and their liminal position between the truly rural existence that Pei was born in and the urban environments of Hong Kong. There are limited climaxes as tension builds over some conflict, but the story ultimately builds to the end of this existence when there appears the specter of war with Japan.

Unlike most stories that deal with child labor, Women of the Silk portrays the situation in terms of sadness, not horror. The work is difficult, but, while there is one incident of labor unrest, it is not brutal and the women are taken care of. Moreover, Tsukiyama focuses on how Pei and the other women formed a surrogate community within a culture extremely dependent on family, doubly so when the women perform a commitment ceremony to symbolically wed the work. Work is difficult, but the pay offers freedom that did not exist for women like Pei’s biological sister whose life is entirely at the whim of her father or husband. Thus, silk work is likewise attractive even to Lin, whose background is diametrically opposite Pei and equally as restricting.

Tsukiyama’s prose is lyrical in a way that suits Women of the Silk‘s narrative as it builds the relationships in the silk factory. That said, I found myself frustrated because the book seemed to be giving vignettes of particular importance that I did not think were all completely earned. It goes without saying any book will have to focus on these episodes and none of them were necessarily inappropriate for the characters, but in several the story drops in without either developing the characters directly involved in the episode or focusing on Pei’s reaction to the events. The result is a dissonant sensation where the prose gives a sense of depth, but the story only sometimes allows for this to be realized. It was for this reason that while I didn’t dislike Women of the Silk, I much preferred The Samurai’s Garden. In other words, Women of the Silk is a first novel with a lot of promise, but left me wanting more.

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Next up, I finished Andrey Platonov’s curious and increasingly esoteric novel The Foundation Pit and am now reading nobel laureate Mo Yan’s The Republic of Wine.

Laziness in the Fertile Valley – Albert Cossery

Laziness in the Fertile Valley is the third novel by Albert Cossery and the fifth that I have read. Although living in France, all of Cossery’s novels are biting social satires set in twentieth-century Egypt, which gave him the nickname “Voltaire of the Nile.”

Laziness in the Fertile Valley is a traditional family drama. In a rural house in Egypt live five men: a widower patriarch, his once-wealthy brother, and his three grown sons all determined to, in their own ways, secure their inheritance. When the patriarch decides to remarry, it threatens the careful balance in his home. Then Cossery’s wickedly ironic sense of satire takes over. The patriarch has not left his room in ages, the house seems to emit powerful waves of lethargy, and the inheritance the brothers are seeking to preserve is the freedom to sleep. Galal, the eldest, has been sleeping for seven years, wrapping himself in darkness and silence and rising only to eat and relieve himself. Rafik, the middle son, is an ardent firebrand, but only when it comes to protecting the silence of the home, while the youngest, Serag, is fascinated by the promise of modernity represented by a never-completed factory and by the industry of a young homeless man, even though he can barely stay awake long enough to walk to the hulking ruins.

Work is an anathema to Cossery and the themes in this novel are reputedly stolen from his own experiences. This family uses work as a refuge: from school, from work, from society. Only the work of their housekeeper and cook, a female relative, is tolerated. They are also wealthy enough to do so, minimizing their costs through inactivity. Even as Serag is determined to get a job (he dreams of working in the factory, ignorant that it was never operational), he is cautioned away from it by the rest of the family, who tell him of its oppressive horrors, and the siren’s song of sleep catches back up.

Since Serag’s struggle to join the noise and bustle of the outside world is forever stunted, the main conflict in Laziness in the Fertile Valley comes from the intrusion of a go-between matchmaker in the community who is trying to find a new wife for Hafez (the patriarch). Rafik, in particular, sees this invasion as a threat of catastrophic proportions and makes ready disrupt the proceedings by any means necessary…except leaving the house.

Laziness in the Fertile Valley is my second favorite of Cossery’s novels, behind only The Jokers. Sloth and rest seem good to me right about now, but I also think that using humor as a reprieve from the violence and oppression of social forces is more potent than turning ones back on it. Similarly, there is a deep conservatism baked into Laziness, wherein the ambition is to reject all change. Traces of the same argument might be found in The Jokers, but it is not nearly so pronounced since the characters in that novel do have broader public ambitions. The latter option is a privilege most do not get to enjoy. There was a still an enormous amount of humor in this novel as Cossery subverts tropes of oriental laziness and generational family dramas, but it came up short of The Jokers in my estimation.

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I still have one more book to write about from my reading backlog, Henry de Montherlant’s Chaos and Night, an odd little riff on Don Quixote about a Spanish anarchist living in Paris for two decades after the Spanish Civil War, strangled by his memories and now forced to return to Madrid.This past month has been something of a struggle both in general and in terms of the time I have been able to dedicate to reading. I am persisting, though, and am currently reading Jenny Erpenbeck’s beautiful and deeply moving novel The End of Days.

Some thoughts on rereading

Once upon a time there was a young man who loved reading. he read all the time, including in trees and on buses and in chairs and one time was reprimanded in sixth grade math class for reading a book. Despite being a precocious reader, this young man once checked the same book on Sitting Bull out of his elementary school library thirteen consecutive times.* But each time he checked that book out, he read it at least once. He read all the time, but he had a lot of books that he was particularly fond of.** Then something happened: he all-but stopped rereading books, even particular favorites.

[*That young man would do worse during graduate school, but at least then he was working on a dissertation.]

[**That young man also had a curious habit of reading more than one or two books at a given time, at least until he burned himself out during college while trying to juggle close to twenty books at once.]

To no-one’s surprise, that young man is the author of this blog. I actually do quite a bit of rereading still, albeit usually for research purposes, but I hardly ever reread anything simply for pleasure even though I am still, at heart, a rereader.

So what is it that I like rereading books that I have read one, twice, or a half-dozen times before? First, I find a comfort in rereading books where I like the characters that is similar to meeting up again with old friends. Moreover, there is a comfort in this sort of safe-space where you already know what is going to happen. I also believe studies that suggest that “spoilers” generally don’t diminish enjoyment but give a pleasure of heightened anticipation. [On that issue, if the quality of a book or movie is premised on such an important twist, it is deeply flawed.] Finally, whether a book is part of a long-running and intricate series or is just a great piece of literature, there are layers to the story that will add to meaning in light of other information, whether from other books or from life experience.

Despite these pleasures of rereading, I don’t do it for the same reason that I don’t pester famous authors to finish their long-running series in a timely manner: there are too many amazing books out there are not enough time to read them all. I would like the pendulum to swing back the other direction a little bit because there are some all-time great books that I want to reread. In the meantime, though, I am comfortable allocating my limited time to new books and reading reread projects online that evoke many of the same comfortable feelings while coloring them with just a tinge of envy.

“To Curiosity”

A review of: Who Is the Historian?, N.A. Raab

Three things made me pick up Raab’s slim volume on the work of historians: 1) its brevity 2) a longstanding love of inspirational stories from historians 3) desire to be familiar with the genre should I ever be fortunate enough to teach a historiography course. Unlike From Herodotus to H-Net, this book is not really a book of historiography, but an essay on the doing of history in the twenty-first century, covering spaces, sources, disciplinarity, technology, and skill-sets.

Raab’s wants to give personality and humanity to historians qua historians rather than historians as professors. He offers a vision of them as an eclectic globe-trotting bunch who work in a host of different jobs in addition to teaching college courses. The overarching themes of the work are how the field has changed, expanded and become enriched in recent decades, and how historical thinking is fundamentally embedded in all walks of society.

With few exceptions, Raab avoids overwhelming the reader with specific disciplinary periods, themes, and names, which, while useful, sometimes means that the book errs on the side of general observations rather than specific developments or advice. For instance, there is specific discussion of certain open-access sites and how that has changed how historians do their job, but doesn’t suggest specific technological expertise that could be beneficial. Certainly historians do not work in a vacuum and some of the observations, such as the wide variety of viable source material, is well taken. Similarly the book is well-written, and Raab is an advocate of the written style as critical for the field, but offers no suggestions for how to get there or how to frame questions in order to best use the material.

Raab works a middle-path that didn’t work for me. On the one hand, while much of the book is reflective, to give personality to the stuffy old-fashioned vision of the tweed-clad professor, neither are most of the reflections personal. Similarly, while he includes a broad range of people in the historical fields, Raab still tends to default back to the historian as professor. On the other hand, neither does he provide skill, methodological, professional, or practical suggestions to those who might be interested in being a historian. Raab is clearly enthusiastic about history, but his audience for the book is not wholly clear. Students may appreciate the insights and some might be inspired, but the testimonials are not particularly uplifting and the defense of the humanities follows traditional paths. Who Is the Historian? has its virtues and in some ways shows a more nuanced understanding of historians in the world than did From Herodotus to H-Net, but it was still in some ways lacking. It might be the right book for an opening gambit in an undergraduate historiography class for some, I am still looking for that right one for my tastes.

Water for Elephants – Sara Gruen

It must have been five or six years ago that a package arrived from my father containing two books, this one and Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus, and a note saying something to the effect that he was glad I now read literary novels (as opposed to almost exclusively science fiction) and that perhaps I would enjoy these. I took to Dr. Faustus quickly, but this book about the circus didn’t pique my interest. It was around the same time that the movie starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson (who I still only think of as “that guy from Twilight”) was made and still I didn’t crack it open. That is, until two days ago.

Gruen launches the reader immediately into the action of a circus disaster–the animals escape their cages in the menagerie and stampede into the tent. The rest of the novel, split between events seventy years later and recollections of an old man, works its way back to that disastrous start.

Jacob Jankowski is in his nineties and lives in a nursing home, barely able to walk and his memory beginning to fade about details, but active enough to be a grouch. Particularly when people are lying. His family visits every Sunday and, this week, the circus is in town and it calls to mind events in the early 1930s when, the week of his final exams at veterinary school, he is driven to jump onto a passing train. This train, which is the property of the BENZINI BROS MOST SPECTACULAR SHOW ON EARTH traveling circus, literally sweeps him onto an adventure that both sheds light on the deep-seated problems of the early years of the depression in the United States, while also catching Jacob (and the reader) up in the romance of the performances.

Jacob is forced to begin his journey among the workers, setting up tents and playing bouncer for extracurricular entertainments, but quickly finds a job working for August Rosenbluth, the carnival’s master of beasts, taking care of the show’s animals. However, August alternates between the most charming of men and the most violent. To make matters worse, Jacob is smitten with Marlena, the star of the show and August’s wife. The slow-burn is ratcheted up a notch when the carnival adds to the menagerie a “stupid” elephant, the playful and clever Rosie. The triangle of tension that are Jacob, Marlena, and August, becomes a foursome and the plot careens toward the inevitable collision.

Many beats in Water for Elephants were fairly predictable, some because it is at its heart a love story, but most seem to be the details of Gruen’s rich descriptions foreshadowing events because my guesses did not distract. I hated and had affection alongside Jacob throughout the story, both as a very innocent young man and as an old man once again in need of escape. In short, Water for Elephants is a poignant tour of America where nearly every town looks the same from the point of view of the midway on which there are extreme risks for compassion, but where, ultimately, that is also the only way to thrive rather than just survive.


Next up, I am reading Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (yet another) novel about the brutality of totalitarian states turning on the individuals who helped create them. Already I suspect that I will need to give this type of novel a break for a while.