What I’ve Been Reading – October 2006

Will SelfMelissa BlankJohnathan CoeSue Townsend

Books Bought/Received:

Book Lust – Nancy Pearl
More Book Lust – Nancy Pearl
Housekeeping vs. the Dirt – Nick Hornby
The Sleeping Father – Matthew Sharpe
Tear Down the Mountain – Roger Alan Skipper
H2O – Mark Swartz
Electric Flesh – Claro
The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers – Delia Falconer
The Tipping Point – Malcolm Gladwell
Swann’s Way – Marcel Proust
As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner
American Pastoral – Philip Roth
How We are Hungry – Dave Eggers
The Blind Side – Michael Lewis

Books Read:

A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens (not finished)
The Pocket Penguin 70th Anniversary Collection, books #34-70:

34 – Cloud, Castle, Lake – Vladimir Nabokov
35 – 1914: Why the World Went to War – Niall Ferguson
36 – The Snobs – Muriel Spark
37 – Hotheads – Steven Pinker
38 – Under the Clock – Tony Harrison
39 – Three Trips – John Updike
40 – Design Faults in the Volvo 760 Turbo – Will Self
41 – The Country of the Blind – H.G. Wells
42 – Doctrines and Visions – Noam Chomsky
43 – Something for the Weekend – Jamie Oliver
44 – Street Haunting – Virginia Woolf
45 – Martha and Hanwell – Zadie Smith
46 – The Scales of Justice – John Mortimer
47 – The Diamond as Big as the Ritz – F. Scott Fitzgerald
48 – The State of Poetry – Roger McGough
49 – Death in the Bunker – Ian Kershaw
50 – Seventeen Poisoned Englishmen – Gabriel García Márquez
51 – The Assault on Jerusalem – Steven Runciman
52 – The Queen in Hell Close – Sue Townsend
53 – Iron, Potassium, Nickel – Primo Levi
54 – Letters from Four Seasons – Alistair Cooke
55 – Protobiography – William Boyd
56 – Caligula – Robert Graves
57 – The Worst Thing a Suburban Girl Could Imagine – Melissa Bank
58 – My Side of the Matter – Truman Capote
59 – Scenes of Academic Life – David Lodge
60 – The Kiss – Anton Chekhov
61 – Young Bysshe – Claire Tomalin
62 – The Aristocratic Adventurer – David Cannadine
63 – Jeeves and the Impending Doom – P.G. Wodehouse
64 – The Great Wall of China – Franz Kafka
65 – Short Short Stories – Dave Eggers
66 – The Coronation of Haile Selassie – Evelyn Waugh
67 – War Talk – Pat Barker
68 – 9th and 13th – Jonathan Coe
69 – Murder – John Steinbeck
70 – On Seeing and Noticing – Alain de Botton

– – – – – – – –

It’s official. I’m done!

This means two things. Number one, I finally finished my Penguin Pockets 70th Anniversary Box Set, reading through nearly every page over a broken, two-month period. Number two, this is my first “post-Prime Magazine” What I’ve Been Reading article. I officially quit last month – both because I wasn’t willing to put the extra time into it that I had to each month and because it’s so much easier to write for you – the faithful blog reader.

Of course, before I get to the 70th Anniversary Love Fest, I’ve got to tell you that it was a doubly prolific month in the way of book acquisition. I mentioned (numerous times) that I had attended the Third Annual South Dakota Festival of Books. Nancy Pearl, rockstar librarian, was present for a couple of panels, and we had no choice but to buy her books: Book Lust and its sequel More Book Lust. They’re great for that “what should I read next” quandary that often comes up after finishing a book.

Additionally, I’m working with a month-long lapse time on the books I’ve ordered. Nick Hornby’s new collection of book reviews – Housekeeping Vs. the Dirt – was purchased in August, but I didn’t receive until this month. It’s an exciting purchase; I fully plan to read it and then further hone my aping of Hornby’s style. I can hardly wait. The ordering lapse continues next month, and you’ll be reading about how I ordered the Maus collection and several of my “Classics I Must Read” selections in September, but didn’t receive it until an early November drop shipment.

Finally, two BMOWP posts helped bring me ten different books. Soft Skull Press, impressed with my love of Bruce Springsteen, offered to send me Deliver Me From Nowhere by Tennessee Jones. I e-mailed back, letting them know that not only do I own the book, but I had also already read it and had, in fact, included it as one of my top 10 books of 2005. They responded by sending me a “party pack,” including five books: The Sleeping Father, Tear Down the Mountain, H2O, Electric Flesh, and The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers.

Also, a birthday mention of my Powell’s Wish List prompted a gift from my mother: five more books. Two were new books I am incredibly excited to read – The Blind Side by Michael Lewis (author of Moneyball) and How We Are Hungry by Dave Eggers. I also received three books on my “Classics I Must Read” list – Swann’s Way, As I Lay Dying, and American Pastoral.

(We also acquired a copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. I had to throw that in somewhere.)

Of course, this mass import of literature came at a perfect time. As mentioned earlier, I have created a list of classics that I simply must read by authors that are widely revered as some of the best. Before I was able to do that, however, I needed to get through my first project – the Penguin Pockets 70th Anniversary Set.

This set is explained in more detail throughout this blog, most specifically in the December 2005 What I’ve Been Reading. For those who are new, I’ll sum it up with a quote:

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…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.

This set has everything – from biography to poetry, existentialism to magical realism. It’s a perfect introduction to literature, and with my next quest being a foray into the true classics, it’s a perfect foyer to the living room of my reading experience.

First, though, an aside. While reading through the 36 books I had remaining in this collection, I found myself thinking back to Nick Hornby’s essay on reading. In it, he reminds us that reading is supposed to be fun. If you’re reading something that you don’t particularly enjoy, just stop reading it. There are too many books out there to be worried about finishing every single one. With this in mind, I didn’t hesitate to skip or skim some of these books, primarily non-fiction, biography, and poetry selections. I had a box to finish. I couldn’t waste my time with some lawyer’s memoir or a wandering account of Percy Shelley’s childhood.

(This also worked to my advantage with A Tale of Two Cities, the only non-Penguin Pocket I attempted this month. Charles Dickens might be a legend in literature, but I found the first quarter of this book to be so word-heavy, so unnecessarily intricate and slow-moving, that I was glad to put it down. It helps my “Classics I Must Read” journey as well – I now know that Dickens is fine in small quantities, but an entire book? No thanks.)

Anyway. What this set became to me over the two months I spent plowing though it is a celebration of the short story. When condensing an author into 54 pages, one can only choose the shortest of selections. Eighty percent of the time, this means a selection of short stories. Other times, we find excerpts or expurgated chapters, but regardless of its original form, it’s a short story all the same. I was blind to it through the first 35 books, but this time it’s all I could think of. Zadie Smith actually brought it up in her introduction:

America is a great place for short fiction – it is taken seriously. Prizes are awarded, classes are given, short-story collections are best-sellers, and American students so commonly dedicate themselves to the study and production of the form that critics speak wearily of an “MFA program short-story style,” in which, more often than not, a tiny domestic incident is given great symbolic weight and an inconclusive Carveresque ending is the reader’s only payoff.

Jonathan Coe also brings up the short story in his book:

I don’t find it easy to write over a short distance, being drawn to complexity and panorama in fiction. Ideas which begin as short stories usually turn into novels after a while. Three times, however, in response to pressure from friendly editors or publishers, I have managed to exercise some restraint on myself, and the results are printed here.

Throughout my Anniversary travels, I marveled at how so many authors could sum up a literary career into just 54 pages – how they could completely buck the novel’s tradition and contain their words concisely into these Penguin selections.

I read some great books during this time. But, for lack of patience and time, I can only choose four. Paring it down was made a little easier by not including John Steinbeck’s Murder. I mean, it’s obvious that I loved this one – in fact, I went into it trying to hate it, trying to look at it from a non-Steinbeck angle and attempting to separate it from his usual stock. I couldn’t. I knew right away it was Steinbeck, and I loved every word of it.

Will Self – Design Faults of the Volvo 760 Turbo
It’s the cars fault, right? That’s why Bill is cheating on his wife with a “doll” of a socialite. Everything it exists for – the feelings of guilt, the suspicion that the car has grown larger and is actively outing the cheating couple, that his wife will obviously find out – makes the car a very real subject in Will Self’s first story. It’s wickedly funny, and it has a nice little twist at the end. What’s more impressive is his second selection – a weirdly symbolic story about a boy who begins speaking “business German” (at the age of two) and a German businessman who slowly spins into dementia, until eventually he is no different from the boy he is somehow connected to. It’s creepy, but it’s brilliant, and I want to buy everything Will Self has written because of it.

Melissa Bank – The Worst Thing a Suburban Girl Could Imagine
I’ve always loved short stories like this: a couple, living in a big city apartment, considers their relationship and argue and attempt to figure their lives out while we, the unsuspecting reader, look on, rooting for our side and wondering what would happen if one of them leaves. They all take place in the apartments that split the cities, and they all touch on the awkwardness of falling in love and breaking up. In this story, we meet Jane, an associate editor. Her relationship with both her dad (a once strong father dying from leukemia) and her boyfriend (an older editor who she’s already dated once before) make it a complex search into a woman’s soul, but one that is easily summed up in 30 pages or so.

Sue Townsend – The Queen in Hell Close
I wonder what the outcry was like when this book was published; a book where the Royal Family is out on their ass, forced to live in public housing and only given the bare minimum in handouts. This illustrates an outdated monarchy surviving on government support, stripped of their titles and struggling (quite humorously, I might add) with their newfound poverty. It’s part moralistic story – a Black Like Me type of role reversal, with the Royals learning first hand what life is like as a poor family – and part funny-as-hell satire. After all, the family is taking it all in stride, jumping through hoops to receive their assistance, skimping, saving, and discovering how horrible life is while still acting like the proper English nobles they grew up being. This is one of the few excerpts that lacks background – why are the Royals out of their castle? – but it’s still hilarious, and I look forward to finding the entire book.

Jonathan Coe – 9th and 13th
There are two wonderful parts to this selection. First is a very short story about a piano player that meets a woman and imagines their future together, only to snap back to reality and send her on her way, tail tucked between her legs. It’s a wonderful view of what quickly goes through a man’s mind – and what optimism can be found in the first throes of romance – when meeting a woman for the first time. Second is an admission of obsession, in Coe’s case, a Sherlock Holmes movie directed by Billy Wilder. This obsession is summed up quite succinctly, and is quite inspirational. We all have a hidden not-quite-serious obsession (for me, it’s acquiring a DVD version of Becket) and it’s refreshing to see that these hang-ups are actually quite normal; that they, in fact, can seem quite poetic.

So with that, I’m done. There is no more. My Pocket Penguins have been vanquished, and I have absorbed a condensed 70 years of publishing marvel.

I find that this accomplishment is pretty important. I sought this box set for months, and once I received it I assumed I’d never actually get through it. I did, however, and it served as a perfect literature sampler, like a box of chocolates on Christmas Day. From this I discovered some of my favorite authors, and from those authors I discovered more; and the ball continues to roll.

Reading this box has given me a lot of freedom. I’ll never be able to say, “I don’t have anything to read.” It wouldn’t be true. I’ve got 70 different starting points; 70 different branches that will lead to hundreds of authors and thousands of book options.

And life is all about options, isn’t it?

This was lovingly handwritten on November 1st, 2006