I seem to be even less willing these days to continue with books I’m not totally enjoying. In some ways I know I am missing out on worthy material, but seriously, these days if it doesn’t grab me pretty quickly, I’m not going to give it the time. After finishing a great vintage spy thriller by Helen MacInnes (Hidden Target) I had a difficult time settling into something new.
I was extremely lucky to spend a week in Bologna in mid-February to study Italian. Not only lucky that I had the time and resources to do so, but also that my timing was lucky indeed. The day I left Italy to return home on February 22nd, there were only 75 known cases of covid-19 and two deaths from the virus. At the time all of these cases were in Lombardia which is the province immediately north of Emilia Romagna where Bologna is located. I was worried about perhaps bringing the virus home with me and becoming patient zero for the DMV. That didn’t happen. In fact it took at least another week before cases started to appear in Emilia Romagna so I didn’t worry too much. And now Italy has 21,157 cases and 1,441 people have died there. And people in this country are finally starting to realize that we need to take drastic measures to try and flatten the curve.
I went to the Washington National Opera last night to see Samson and Delilah by French composer Camille Saint-Saens. It was a last minute purchase made possible by a change in travel plans. And, as is usual for me, I did that thing where I was looking forward to it, but then on the day of the performance I start wishing I could just stay home. But happily I fought inertia and got my butt out of the house.
Pathogens Flying Everywhere
Maybe because I have been reading and talking a lot about Covid-19 over the past two weeks I was hyper aware last night of other people’s behavior. (I had been in Italy, quite near the origin of the outbreak, right as it was starting to get a foothold, so for the past two weeks I have worried about becoming DC’s patient zero. At day 15, it looks like I might be in the clear.) Anyway, to wit:
The first thing I did was use the bathroom, not just because I had to go, but because I wanted to wash my hands. Not surprisingly for men, as I spent 20 seconds at the sink, at least two people left the bathroom without washing their hands at all.
Then I noticed the ticket takers pawing everyone’s tickets despite the fact that they have a scanner that doesn’t require them to touch them at all. I politely made a point of not letting her touch mine and we shared a joke about it, but then I realized if I wanted a program (and I did) I would have to take it from another usher. So with a possibly tainted program, I made my way to my seat.
Then the opera. All I could focus on was how much the singers, chorus, supernumeraries, and dancers were touching each other. So much touching, so many hands on faces. I was thinking they should re-block the whole thing during intermission so there would be no virus transmitting action on stage. I hope their union has good health insurance.
And speaking of hands on faces, there was no part of my face that I didn’t want to touch. I finally gave in.
Oddly, at intermission an older, elegant woman next to me offered me M&Ms from a cup that she had been eating from. In my 30+ years of concert going, no stranger has ever offered to share a snack with me. So why on the night DC confirmed its first cases of Covid-19? I declined and chuckled to myself.
It seemed to me, that the older the person the fewer precautions they seemed to take. Uncovered coughs and all sorts. For my own part, during intermission, I executed a perfect, fully encapsulated, elbow sneeze.
Then Ruth Bader Ginsburg Walked In
The orchestra had started tuning when a smattering of applause began. I was a bit confused because the conductor doesn’t walk out when the orchestra is tuning so I didn’t know what was going on. Then I noticed in the aisle two rows ahead of me, a frail, old woman with a friend and a small group of people who seemed to be Kennedy Center personnel and at least two Secret Service agents were crossing the theater. It was 86-year old opera lover Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was walking extremely slowly making her way to her seat as the rest of the theater (including myself) realized who she was. The applause gained strength until most of the place was on its feet applauding and cheering. It was extremely heartening–and frightening. No one better give RBG Covid-19!
And it made me think how incredibly important the next election is.
An Exploding Necklace
At one point in the final act, with a full stage, with the dancers having completed the main portion of the Bacchanale, there was the sound of something raining down onto a platform. Like big wooden beads falling off of someone’s necklace. And then, seemingly confirming my ears, large gumball-sized objects started rolling off the platform where they seemed to have fallen from the neck of a chorus member or supernumerary, onto the raked stage where they made their way to the front and over the edge onto the screen that shields the orchestra pit from just that sort of calamity.
But then there were a few stragglers, probably falling out of the folds of a sparkly robe. One stopped just behind the foot of one of the dancers. Staying very much in character she elegantly flicked it behind her with her foot where it headed off stage–until it started rolling forward and landed right at the knees of Samson (Roberto Aronica) who was in the middle of singing plaintively about how he had sold out his people for a night in bed with Delilah. It made me chuckle at the wrong moment, but I don’t think anyone heard me. (One couldn’t really blame the dancer for wanting the bead out of the way, there was still lots of dancing to come. Occupational Health and Safety after all.)
A few seconds later, as the the cast was looking toward the back of the stage, another bead started to make its journey forward when Delilah herself (J’Nai Bridges) trapped it under her foot. Sadly, I didn’t see what happened to it after that. That’s a real diva–stop a rogue bead in its tracks while never losing focus.
Last weekend Frances of Nonsuch Book and I went for a good rummage around one of the less organized used bookstores in the area. Although frankly it is starting to get too organized for my tastes. We spent almost three hours hunting and chatting. It was great to catch up with Frances. At no point did we fight over any of the books.
Published in 1976, the Iris Murdoch is the newest book in the stack. Turns out I already owned the Thirkell (and in that edition) so it’s going to Frances.
I think it was Jenny of Reading Envy who reminded Instagram the recently that any used bookstore worth its salt has to have at least one Anita Brookner on its shelves. This one passes the test.
Now look at this beautifully bound volume. What treasure could be lurking inside?
This? Even funnier was another similarly bound edition of a very suspect wok cookbook from the 1980s. Either someone had a lot of money or had a hobby.
I bought this one because it was about London from 1958. I had no idea what it was about. It was even written by Anonymous. Turns out Anonymous was Michael Nelson and it was anonymous because it was a gay novel. Although, having it read it, it is really a bitchy gay novel. An odd thing. Meant to be satire.
The other night I was again faced with needing to find a book to read…I had a post in my head, but am beginning to wonder about the point of it.
To my recollection, in the 14 years or so that I have been blogging I don’t think I have ever really written a navel gazing post about whether to keep on plugging away at my blog. But it seems like the time has come to maybe do just that.
Here are some mostly random thoughts about the state of my blogging psyche:
Social Media Has Changed Everything
Although I am active on Twitter and to a much lesser degree, Instagram, and really enjoy my interactions with bookish people on those platforms, the rise of those behemoths (and others) has pretty much meant the death of blogging, or at least the death of what I used to know of the blogging community. I was going to write about activity in the comments sections here at Hogglestock, but to be honest, my comments sections were never all that lively. There was a core of regulars, but again to be honest, I still have a core of regulars, and I love them/you. And some read my blog posts and then comment on Twitter instead of here. But I sometimes I feel like I am just whistling in the wind.
you can’t skim a podcast
Let’s be honest, the only way we could keep up with so many bloggers back in the day, was because we skimmed the shit out of those things. Sometimes a post title was a far as we would get, sometimes we’d skim and jump around all the way to the end, and sometimes we’d read the whole damn post. But c’mon, skimming was the only thing that left room to read actual books. But with podcasts, there ain’t no such thing as skimming.
Now some of you may be thinking, hey wait, you idiot, you were co-host of a podcast for a couple of years. Yes! But my not so secret dirty secret was that before Simon asked me to join The Readers I had never listened to a book podcast–not even The Readers. I absolutely loved being on the podcast and, based on the number of downloads we got, people liked listening to it as much as I liked doing it. Since then I have listened to a few book podcasts by others and definitely enjoy some of them, but, not being able to skim, and not having much time for listening, I pretty much skip them entirely.
This is no disrespect to anyone with a booktube channel, but holy shit, really? I’m painting with a broad brush. They are great in some ways, and no doubt, yours is better than the rest, but…I should probably stop right there. Also…impossible to skim, like podcasts.
The rise of the author industrial complex
None of you are surprised I don’t read much recent fiction. I certainly read more of it when I was on The Readers, but with each passing year I’m less and less interested in newly published books. Part of it is the fact that so many superlatives are thrown around for truly mediocre or uninteresting books. Part of it is MFA programs churning out cookie cutter authors with entitlement complexes. Boo hoo, you wrote a masterpiece that isn’t getting isn’t any press? You can’t live off of what you make as a writer? Well, that’s never happened to any artist ever.
OLD books vibrate
On a less antagonistic note, I used to think that I liked older books because they stood the test of time, etc. But in reality I read plenty of books that didn’t stand the test of time. Many have not only been forgotten but the authors who wrote them are barely even mentioned in the farthest, deepest recesses of the web. Truth is, I have a predilection for the past. It was highly imperfect. It was deadly for so many. But I like inhabiting the past, whether it is the 1890s or the 1990s. I can be moved by recently published books, for sure. But there is something about older books. They vibrate across the years, decades, and centuries. I like connecting with those dead authors.
old books don’t sell newspapers and i’m going to die one day
My interest in older fiction keeps many of you coming back here, but old books don’t, as they say, sell newspapers. I’m okay with that. In fact, as long as I know a few of you are out there, I will keep blathering on about them. In fact, as I have said before, I consider myself a bit of a literary seed banker. I keep some books just because I don’t want them to get pulped because no one is clamoring to read them. And although much of what I write here is just to have a creative outlet, or as a reminder for myself of what I have read, I like the idea that some day someone is going to come across an old book no one has ever heard of, and they are going to surf whatever the web of the future is and will come across something here. And I’m not thinking about my legacy, I’m thinking about the book’s legacy. I feel the same way about my library. I think a lot about what will happen to my books when I die. I have no heirs and, even if I did, most heirs don’t give a rat’s fanny for the books they inherit. And nothing I have is of any interest to any book depositories. But I know there is some young weirdo out there that would like them. But then again maybe not. And even if, well, needle in the haystack, etc.
The reality of this old blog and bookish Twitter is that I have made friends with flesh and blood people, some of whom I have met in real life. And we get each other. We don’t always agree but we like each others quirks and senses of humor and most importantly, we like each others pets.
When I am out and about looking for dusty old copies of novels that most people don’t want, I come across other old dusty novels that I’m not really sure I want, but which have covers that say, “Hey, what about me? I think I may be up your alley.” And sometimes when those books speak to you, they really know what they are talking about. Two fairly recent examples include when I stumbled on Prairie Avenueby Arthur Meeker and Victoria 4:30 by Cecil Roberts. Two old books I took chances on only to be rewarded more than I ever could have imagined.
So in early December right before I had a tonsillectomy I combed my TBR shelves to see what I might want to read while I recovered from surgery. The doctor told me it would be seven to ten days of pain and no work. As I tried to figure out which way to go, I got a hankering to tackle at least a few of those old dusties that I had picked up over the years but hadn’t gotten around to reading.
Happily, the first two days post surgery were really not too bad so I got a lot of reading done. But as the doctor warned me, on day three things started to get really painful, and even worse, on day four the narcotic pain meds had me ejecting what little food I had in my stomach. So, days five through ten found me trying to manage the pain with ibuprofen and ice packs. Still, I did manage to finish three of the dusties in the ten days I was laid up.
Oddly, the three books that I got into and really enjoyed were all set in New York City. As I have mentioned before I love books that take place in the past, but I don’t quite trust historical fiction. What I prefer is fiction that is old. That way when they describe a scene, I don’t spend all my time second guessing whether the author was accurate. This is especially true in these three books, I would have constantly been asking myself, would this character have done that in the ’50s or ’60s? The answer is, apparently, yes.
The oldest of the three, but the second one I read, was New York 22 by Ilka Chase. Published in 1951, the book is set on the Upper East Side, and eventually Paris, in the years immediately following the Second World War. A well-written compelling love triangle and a fabulous look at the publishing/magazine/society in New York and Paris just after the war. I loved getting this snapshot into that milieu during that time period. It was like literary archaeology. Each description providing a marker for social scientists to study the time and place.
I think it was a much more interesting, or at least much more enjoyable, look at France in the immediate post-war period than William Maxwell’s The Chateau.
Published in 1959, Just Off Fifth by Edith Begner was the last one I read, but the middle of the three chronologically. It’s a fun look at the lives of tenants in an apartment building, not surprisingly, just off Fifth Avenue. Like the other two books, I relished all the period details and loved the story of the still famous, but severely blocked, novelist who moves into the building with her husband. She ends up being the fulcrum around which much unpleasantness takes place. This was full of great characters and a totally enjoyable read, but not as well done as the other two novels.
The first of the three I read but third in the line-up chronologically was Michael Rubin’s A Trip Into Town which was published in 1961.
Away from the confines of Westchester and Long Island, away from indulgent parents and prosperous homes, come Suki, Esther, and Steven–to savor freedom and explore the city, and incidentally, to attend the university.
This was a pretty fascinating look into college life at the time, and particularly what it was like for women whose families weren’t necessarily expecting them to get a degree. Written by a man, and dated in some ways, I was still surprised at how relevant it seemed. Of course I was on oxycodone at the time, but I think it would hold up. Suki reminded me of Jessa from HBO’s Girls.
And just to prove how much of a dusty this one is, I am the only, I repeat, the only person on Goodreads who has read, or at least rated, this book. There was a different edition already cataloged there, but no one has actually rated it. Until now. And given Rubin’s rather common name, it was hard to find anything about him. This, it turns out, was exacerbated by the fact that he died in 1989 before digital footprints existed. Thankfully one of his classmates at Bard, writer Eve Caram, advocated for his inclusion in Bardians of the 1950s exhibition, or I wouldn’t know anything about him.
I bought each of these mainly because their covers got my attention. What a lucky thing that was.
Even more fun seeing the covers of this accidental New York Trilogy lined up is seeing the author’s lined up.
I did a bit of digging around with my (mom’s) DNA data on Ancestry today. There was a DNA link that was new and I hadn’t seen it before. It made a connection to some of our ancestors in colonial Massachusetts. Not a big surprise these days in my research. My mom’s side, once almost completely unknown to us, has yielded ancestors in colonial CT, MA, NH, NJ, NY, and RI. But then I was poking around with the new information and quickly traced those lines much further back. (If you get any of your ancestors back to New England, the records are amazing and you will be amazed how much information is there.)
Turns out my ancestors were in Plymouth Colony…and more specifically…drum roll please…on the Mayflower.
My 10th great grandfather was John Alden a blacksmith and the cooper on the Mayflower, who decided to stay rather than return to Europe. He ended up marrying passenger Priscilla Mullins whose parents and brother all died the first winter in the colony.
But wait, it gets better…so Priscilla, my 10th great grandmother, was the only woman in the colony of marriageable age at the time and was pursued by Miles Standish as well as my grandfather…about which Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the probably apocryphal poem The Courtship of Miles Standish.
But wait, one more thing…Longfellow wrote the poem because he was one of John and Priscilla’s direct ancestors, which means that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is my 5th cousin 5 times removed.
Wait I hear my phone ringing, Henry Louis Gates Jr. is calling to offer me a job
As people on Twitter and elsewhere divulge their picks for best books of the decade, I’ve been thinking about my own reading over those ten years. And then this tweet came along today:
Those of you who know me will instantly realize this won’t be my problem. In fact, I began to wonder if any of my favorite reads for the decade would even have been published in the past ten years. So what does a data nerd do? Crunch the numbers.
How many of my favorite reads were from the past decade?
Out of the 820 books I have read in the past decade, 152 rated a score of nine or ten on my ten-point scale. On my scale, nine is “Absolutely Loved It” and ten is “All-Time Favorite”. Out of those 152, only 19 of them (1%) were published in past ten years. Whoops. So what were my favorite reads over the past ten years? Scroll to the end to see the results.
Thanks to Nancy Pearl, the good outweighs the bad
Out of the 820 books I’ve read in the past decade, 461 of them were rated a seven or higher. Not only has Nancy Pearl pointed me in the direction of some of my favorite authors (Barbara Pym, Ward Just) and other beloved books, but her Rule of 50 has kept me from hanging out too long with books I’m not enjoying. This is the rule that says if you aren’t enjoying a book by page 50 feel empowered to move on. And for every year you are over the age of 50 you can subtract one page from that total. Even prior to turning 50 this year I modified this rule and feel fine setting books aside long before page 50 if they aren’t speaking to me. (In a Twitter exchange in the past year or so, Pearl herself has admitted that she no longer strictly follows her Rule of 50, life being too short, etc.
Women Win the Decade
Out of the 820 books I’ve read, 425 of them (52%) were by female authors. That is as it should be in my world. When you look at the 461 books I rated seven or higher, that lead goes up to 54% in favor of the women.
Bens didn’t do so well, Benjamins did much better.
The two books by Bens on my list only scored a measly 2/10. Ben Dolnick for At the Bottom of Everything and Ben Marcus for The Flame Alphabet. On the other hand the two Benjamins on my list scored at the other end of the scale, each getting 8/10. Benjamin Tammuz for Minotaur and Benjamin Constant for Adolphe.
How many Erskines do you know?
I’ve never met an Erskine in real life, but in the past 10 years I’ve read books by two of them: the absolutely brilliant Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell and the kind of interesting, but ultimately tedious, The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers.
Leo Tolstoy and Lena Dunham are both Hogglestock Sevens
Just to give you an idea of how my rating scale works, both Lena Dunham and Leo Tolstoy rated 7/10 for their books Not That Kind of Girl and The Devil. My scale is purely about how much I enjoyed a book. It says nothing about literary merit. (No offense to Dunham, but I think she would admit she is no Tolstoy.)
My favorite reads actually published in the past decade
These are in order by author last name. You will notice that my choices are pretty orthodox. Not much in the way experimental or envelope pushing.
MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes Coral Glynn by Peter Cameron Outline by Rachel Cusk The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble American Romantic by Ward Just Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel Nutshell by Ian McEwan A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler
My favorite reads of the decade
There is a lot that is missing from the following list of ten. First, I got rid of all my favorite authors (Sarton, Brookner, Atwood, Pym, Shute, etc.). Second, I didn’t include re-reads (I’m looking at you Howards End and Narcissus and Goldmund). Third, even though there were about 35 more books that have earned 10/10 in the past decade, I feel like these rise to the top because beyond enjoying them, they really delighted me or, in most cases, provided a real emotional connection. Fourth, I eliminated anything published in the past decade.
They are also all books that any fiction reader is likely to appreciate–might not be your cup of tea, but you won’t be upset having taken the time to read them. Again, in alpha order by author.
The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker The Professor’s House by Willa Cather Being Dead by Jim Crace The End of the Affair by Graham Greene Train Dreams by Denis Johnson The Song of Names by Norman Lebrecht Ben, In the World by Doris Lessing Martin Eden by Jack London Birds of America by Mary McCarthy Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams
For whatever reason I didn’t get around to posting about the week we spent in Maine in August over my 50th birthday. This year we managed to rent a house that was on its own 4-acre island. We had our eye on this house when it was for sale a few years ago because the possibility of letting Lucy run around on four acres was so appealing. When it came up as a rental we didn’t hesitate for a second.
We’ve never really been able to have an off-leash experience with Lucy outside of a few fenced yards. We were curious how she would act. Would she stick by us, would she disappear for hours at a time. Turns out she did both. She did stick by us and kept tabs on where we were and would come when we called or whistled. That is until she discovered that the island had squirrels. If we couldn’t find her and she wouldn’t come when we called, all we had to do was follow the sound of distressed squirrel and there we would find Lucy staring, waiting very patiently under a tree. And when that happened no treat in the world could entice her away. Proof that keeping her on leash for the last nine years was the right thing to do. It was an absolute delight to watch her being a free range dog. She loved every second of it.
I loved every second of it as well. Since it was my birthday week and we had invited friends to join us, including three teenagers, I decreed ahead of time the prohibition of audible electronic devices. My own intention was to unplug as much as possible so I also decreed that no one was allowed to bring up anything that they read in the news. We could talk about current events but I really didn’t want any kind of updates about anything others had read online. (Turns out this was the week the Cheeto tried to buy Greenland. I remained blissfully ignorant of the whole mess.)
The house itself was amazing. Lots of fun books all over the place to peruse. I had brought plenty of my own to read so I didn’t read any of their rather good fiction collection, but I did enjoy looking at some of the vintage non-fiction they had on science and engineering. Some of those books had been in the house a long time. And, as you will see below, they had the perfect spot for jigsaw puzzles.
The island was in a protective cove and not at all far from shore. It was only about a three-minute boat trip from the town landing. And at low tide one end of our island was only about 30 feet from shore. But it still felt plenty oceany with lobster boats and those fantastic Maine tides.
Sometimes too much to choose from is just plain too much. With about 800 books in my TBR it is really hard sometimes to know what to move on to. When I go to the public library or bookstore, the choice rarely seems overwhelming. Most things I see I don’t want to read (which is a good thing, life is too short). But on my shelves at home, all the books have already passed through a screening process and landed on my shelves because, at least at some point, I wanted to read them.
So what do you do when you have too many good options to choose from? Especially when you have had a slow reading year (only 43 books so far) and suddenly feel the need to make a dent in all those unread books. It can kind of make your head spin. The other day when I needed to choose something to read, it wasn’t that nothing was speaking out to me, it was that everything was speaking to me. I was in one of those moods where everything seemed fascinating. I tried to use a randomly generated number to choose the next book, but when I located the corresponding book on the shelf it just seemed too final.
That’s when a sort of madness set in. I wanted something short and I wanted something that had perhaps been languishing for a while on the shelf, or maybe an author I’d been meaning to get to. Or maybe dipping into a Persephone or NYRB Classic. Or maybe…I came up with the idea that I could choose one book from each shelf that would, when taken in total, help me scratch all of my itches. Obviously, I couldn’t read them all at once, but making a smaller set to choose from seemed like a worthy and possibly effective way of spending my time. Since I have 20 shelves of unread novels, this means I came up with a stack of 20 books to read. And as usual I wanted to read them all at once. Just somehow cram them into my brain. Eventually, however, I managed to cool my jets, pick one up (the Graham Greene) and actually start to read. It kind of started a mini-tsunami of reading, I finished the Greene, the Bronte, and the Laski. To keep up the momentum, I even brought nine of the 20 with me on my eight-day Thanksgiving Day trip. I just finished the Laski this morning so now I get to pick the next one…at least I only have seven to choose from instead of eight hundred.