What I’ve Been Reading: December 2005

Books I’ve Bought/Borrowed/Recieved for Christmas:
The Pocket Penguin 70th Anniversary Collection
Chronicles: Volume One — Bob Dylan
Holidays On Ice — David Sedaris

Books I’ve Read:
The Polysyllabic Spree — Nick Hornby
A Christmas Story — Jean Shepherd (not finished)
The Pocket Penguin 70th Anniversary Collection, books #1-30:

1 – Lady Chatterley’s Trial
2 – Cogs in the Great Machine — Eric Schlosser
3 – Otherwise Pandemonium — Nick Hornby
4 – Summer in Algiers — Albert Camus
5 – Innocent House — P.D. James
6 – The View from Mount Improbable — Richard Dawkins
7 – On Shopping – Which Gladdens The Heart — India Knight
8 – Nothing Bad Ever Happens In Tiffany’s — Marian Keyes
9 – The Mirror of Ink — Jorge Luis Borges
10 – A Taste of the Unexpected — Roald Dahl
11 – The Unabridged Pocketbook of Lightning — Jonathan Safran Foer
12 – The Cave of the Cyclops — Homer
13 – Two Stars — Paul Theroux
14 – Of Pageants and Picnics — Elizabeth David
15 – Artists and Models — Anaïs Nin
16 – Christmas at Stalingrad — Antony Beevor
17 – The Desert and the Dancing Girls — Gustave Flaubert
18 – The Secret Annexe (from The Diary of Anne Frank) — Anne Frank
19 – Where I Was — James Kelman
20 – Noise — Hari Kunzru
21 – The Bastille Falls — Simon Schama
22 – The Dressmaker’s Child — William Trevor
23 – In Defence of English Cooking — George Orwell
24 – Idiot Nation — Michael Moore
25 – Rose, 1944 — Helen Dunmore
26 – The Economics of Innocent Fraud — J.K. Galbraith
27 – The School Inspector Calls — Gervase Phinn
28 – Young Austerlitz — W.G. Sebald
29 – Borneo and the Poet — Redmond O’Hanlon
30 – Ali Smith’s Supersonic 70s — Ali Smith


This is a direct copy from the Prime piece, but I wanted to throw in a couple of other things I recieved and tried to read this month. First, I finally finished The Polysyllabic Spree. After months of hiding it in a drawer of our coffee table, I picked it up and finished it. Hooray for me.

Second, I attempted to read A Christmas Story (the book of short Jean Shephard stories that were taken and lumped together to create the hilarious film,) but after reading two thirds of it I recieved my Pocket Penguins box set. Needless to say, I gave up on anything that I had been reading previously.

I did recieve two great books for Christmas: David Sedaris’ Holidays on Ice and Bob Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One. The Sedaris book is a collection of his Christmas stories (all of which I’ve read before) and will be a great addition to our “Christmas box books,” those books we keep with the ornaments and break out during the holidays. It’ll be snug next to A Christmas Story and The Night Before Christmas (an Avon pop-up book special that’s nearly as old as I am.) Dylan is going to help me cope on my week long jaunt to Idaho, so he’d better have some sage words of advice for me.

So, with that, onto the column.


Every once in a while an item is released that redefines a collector’s view of his or her media. It becomes the defining piece in a collection. Scott Hudson, Prime’s music columnist, considers Bob Dylan’s, The Bootleg Series Vol. 1 – 3, a three-CD set of unreleased Dylan songs – “almost the Holy Grail for Bobaholics,” as Hudson puts it – to be the greatest box set in his collection. I’m not sure if Prime’s DVD reviewer, Jeffrey Miller, would select the Stanley Kubrick Collection or The Complete Monty Python’s Flying Circus Megaset, but either selection, in my opinion, could fight to the finish for the “best DVD box set” title.

For me, it is the Penguin Pockets 70th Anniversary Collection, a seventy book set that spans the first seventy years of Penguin Books’ life by bringing together the best authors that the publisher has ever released. Nowhere else could you bring the mainstream mystery of P.D. James together with the incredibly thoughtful short stories of Jorge Louis Borges, nor have the many voices of Nick Hornby jostle for space alongside Richard Dawkins’ explanations for evolution.

In reality, these books were meant to be separate – a 55-page introduction to each respective author. But, with the success of the series in England, Penguin brought them all together inside a box and sold it to the masses. Well, to the masses of the United Kingdom, that is – this box set is unavailable in the United States: reason number one as to why I’m not reviewing every book in the set.

Reason number two, of course, is that I’m not sure Prime would allow me the space to rattle off my thoughts on thirty books. I’m also not sure that anyone would want to read such a diatribe. Really, this box-set wasn’t about reading and absorbing each of the seventy books individually. Instead, it was a quick-study in British literary culture, a way to expose myself to new authors and soak in the tastes of readers from across the pond. Since these books aren’t available in the States, I’m considering each review as a look at the author – the man or woman behind a great 55-page excerpt.

With that, I present “The Very Best of the First Thirty Books of the Penguin Pockets 70th Anniversary Collection.”

Nick Hornby – Otherwise Pandemonium
Hornby has always been a sort of personal hero for me. I love his ability to recreate different voices – that of an American rock-star, or a child tired of mainstream life, or even the mother of a suspected porn-star – and create fiction that doesn’t betray the fact that, well, he’s a balding 40-something for England. The two stories in Otherwise Pandemonium – one about a 15-year-old kid who gets to see six weeks into the future though the aid of his pawn-shop VCR, the other about the aforementioned mother of a suspected porn-star, helped me realize what a talent Hornby truly is. It’s no surprise that this is the same man who could so easily write from the guise of an unsatisfied woman in How to be Good and the guise of a pompous rich man in About a Boy.

Jonathan Safran Foer – The Unabridged Pocketbook of Lightning
Unabridged Pocketbook of Lightning, a title that Foer writes about always wanting to use, is an excerpt of his already published Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. My response to Foer’s writing was the same as it was to David Eggers’ writing two years ago: “this guy is really, really good.” In this selection Foer speaks through the brilliant mind of a nine-year old, the mute thoughts of that child’s grandfather, and the lost voice of the boy’s German grandmother – a generational span that is told in three distinct ways. Some of the books in the Penguin Pocket Collection introduced me to new authors who I may never read again. The Unabridged Pocketbook of Lightning introduced me to an author of whom I’ll run out and purchase everything he’s written.

Gervase Phinn – The School Inspector Calls
I’ve always been an anglophile, thanks in part to my mother’s guidance, and Phinn’s The School Inspector Calls drips with “anglophilic” joy. Set in Yorkshire, Phinn’s memoirs of his former life as a school inspector bring together typically cute exchanges with children and a dry sarcasm that is evident in many who have chosen the education field. It’s funny without being sappy, and it’s biting without being insulting. The characters, most of whom I’m assuming are real, are painted in a way that shows their faults in a humorous way without any possibility of upsetting their real-life counterparts. All in all, it’s a safe set of stories, but it’s mastered well enough (Phinn being a former English teacher himself) to make it entertaining.

Roald Dahl – A Taste of the Unexpected
Dahl, author of some of my favorite children’s books (James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) comes to the Penguin Anniversary Collection with a handful of very adult stories. As all good short stories should, they leave a lot to think about upon completion: A wine connoisseur is outed while trying to guess a wine, a woman who is always waiting for her husband discovers herself free without him, a man boards at a house and discovers a landlady well versed in stuffing animals (among other things). The stories are dark, just as (in retrospect) all of his children’s books. It’s amazing to consider what great writing was wasted on me as a child.

Jorge Luis Borges – The Mirror of Ink
This book has the feel of an ancient text, though it was originally published in 1998. Each story is crafted to recreate older periods of time – ancient Babylon (where a lottery system is thoughtfully compared to the cycle of life, religion, and death), nineteenth century Ireland (the location of a grand conspiracy that eventually resulted in the hero-worship of someone who could have easily been a traitor) and Africa in 1904 (an area that ends up being the location of a mysterious rock which should never be touched.) The themes are lofty, and the stories are unbelievable – that is, until you’ve reached the end. Borges forces the reader to rethink conventions, to the point that I found myself actually considering the thought of a grand lottery that dictates our place in life. It’s great, thought-provoking and mysterious, if you’re into that sort of thing.

There’s an air of mystery in reading authors you’re not aware of, in reading a collection of books for the sake of reading it in its entirety. I’ll say that most of the thirty books I read were unknown to me, either because I was unaware of the author’s existence or, in the case of a well-known writer, because of a naivety in the breadth of a person’s work.

I’ve immersed myself in what Penguin books considers its finest talents – the best writers that have ever been published for Penguin Books. I’ve taken on the styles of thirty different authors, nearly one for every day of the month. I’m learning to appreciate a wide array of stories, novels, and non-fiction writing.

Penguin chose a fine selection of writers for their 70th anniversary collection. But, after seventy years in the business of producing affordable and well-regarded paperback books, who am I to doubt them?

This was lovingly handwritten on January 6th, 2006