Year-end recap: books I read in 2017

Time to recap the books I completed reading in 2017. I wanted to share some quick recollections, impressions, and reflections. I read 49 books in 2017, one more than 2016. For some reason, in late summer I came to a near-complete standstill with my reading. I was on pace to read well over 50, maybe 60 titles, but I really slowed down. Much of that has to do with teaching load: prepping classes can wreck the reading life. I think something else was going on–perhaps a malaise having to do with the times we live in right now. Who knows. Let’s hope I get back into it in 2018.

Without further ado, onward to the titles!

Counterculture through the Ages by Ken Goffman. Read the ebook version and used it to help prepare an English 102 course themed on counterculture texts. It was most helpful. Goffman writes in an accessible style for a general audience, and he was especially good at showing interconnections between disparate time periods, moving from the ancients all the way up to the present day hacker subcultures. Thumbs up on this one.

Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus. I was steered back to Aeschylus by the Goffman book mentioned above. It was a rewarding read. The Greek dramatists are special. Prometheus is a figure I’m learning more about, thanks to Ken Goffman again. I also read Shelley’s “Prometheus Unbound,” and will be re-reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 2018 (as I’ll probably be teaching it next fall). What I’m realizing is how important Prometheus is as a figure for Romanticism and the Modern Age. He’s up there with Faust in the mythic stratosphere.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. I taught selected chapters from Defoe’s novel in Literature & Environment in Spring 2017, and re-read the entire novel in preparation for that. There’s a very nice ebook edition at University of Adelaide which includes illustrations by N.C. Wyeth. Robinson Crusoe is a great novel in spite of itself. It’s one of the first British novels and important on  that score. But it’s also relevant because Crusoe is one of these mythic figures (like Faust, Don Juan, Prometheus, etc.) who resonate through the years. For my course, we examined how Crusoe tackles nature when on the deserted island. He controls it, manages it, dominates and cultivate it, like a good young Capitalist. He’s about the best example I can conjure to show anthropocentric and Eurocentric attitudes in operation.

Candide by Voltaire. Another re-read for a Western World Lit II course taught in Spring 2017. What can you say? One of the greatest satires ever written. Voltaire rips everyone to shreds with great brio. Honestly, I don’t know what the students thought of it, given our hyper-sensitive times, but I’m glad I exposed it to them again.

Steppenwolf by Hesse. I taught this one in English 102 and this is the third time reading it. It’s a strange book and may be becoming a dated period piece, due to the overwhelming Jungian analytical psych perspectives loaded into it. That being said, I still love the book. It takes chances, and offers students a lighter-weight exposure to Modernist literature.

Faust part 1 by Goethe. Taught for Western World Lit II. It’s tough to teach, and tougher in these current times, though it remains highly relevant. If only people would pay more attention to what Goethe was going for here.

Notes from the Underground by Dostoyevsky. Many of the books I taught in Western World Lit II seemed displaced by our contemporary moment. This was one of them. Here we have a wretched man, self-loathing and massively egotistical, I don’t know, maybe a kind of inverted narcissist. He’s totally insecure, hard on himself and on others. I have no clue what the students really thought about it. My impression was they rejected it as out of bounds. There were, however, one or two (and there always are) who were moved by it, which is why I put it on the syllabus. All about exposure.

An Enemy of the People by Ibsen. I teach this regularly in Literature and Environment and it sparks thoughtful debate every time. I also made a print-on-demand version of the public domain text, available at sprucealley.com. It came out looking great.

The Dharma Bums by Kerouac. Re-read this one for my counter-culture themed course last Spring. Kerouac goes over well, usually, although this time out we paid more attention to the problematic treatment of women in the novel, and some of my better students wrote excellent feminist analyses of the book. In keeping with what is now a running theme of my commentary, I felt like this book is starting to feel dated. I got the strong sense from some students that the idea of running off on the road like that and living on mountaintops is just completely foreign. You mean, he did it without a smart phone? Yeah.

Madame Bovary by Flaubert. This was the centerpiece of my Western World Lit II course, a high point in European realist fiction. I had not read the book since college! I loved getting the opportunity to revisit it, and it was even more impressive to me.

Franny and Zooey by Salinger. I retaught this one in Spring and Fall English 102 courses, and it hasn’t gotten old yet. Neurotic, precocious twenty-somethings searching for more meaningful lives. When are the purported new Salinger books coming out, anyway?

Hyperion by Holderin. I was led to this book I think because it was mentioned in my Western World Lit II textbook, and we did a short poem from it. German Romanticism is a pretty interesting space to me, and while I don’t have strong impressions to share about Holderin’s book, I’m glad I gave it a read.

The Island of Dr Moreau by H.G. Wells. Re-taught this book. Every time I teaching a book again, I read it along with the class.

Drop City by T.C. Boyle. I ambitiously tackled this novel for the first time with a class, and though I probably won’t teach it again, it was fun to share with them, and it paired nicely with other things we were reading and watching (Dharma Bums, Into the Wild, for instance).

Hedda Gabler by Ibsen. Taught this one in Western World Lit II. The second time I’ve taught it. Ibsen is always in style for me. We screened the Ingrid Bergman teleplay version on Youtube, which really brought the words to life.

The Pleasure of the Text by Barthes. Why do I insist on reading theory? It’s like an itch I can’t scratch to satisfaction. This short book was OK, I guess. I rather like Barthes’ precious style for what it’s worth, but honestly, I can’t remember much of what it was about.

Oryx and Crake by Atwood. I taught this for the first time in Literature and Environment for the first time in Spring and again in Fall, and it’s now in regular rotation for that course. Great novel, part one of the Maddadam trilogy. Atwood is in vogue again, what with the Handmaid’s Tale TV series being so popular. She’s a sharp, witty, prescient, smart, and effortless writer.

Loplop in a Red City by Kenneth Pobo. Ken is a friend and colleague. I really enjoyed his book of ekphrastic poems and reviewed it for Turk’s Head Review.

Selected Cantos by Ezra Pound. In my leisure reading time I’ve been exploring a lot of early 20th century work, so Pound is a big part of that picture. I’m not a huge fan. His poetry is challenging and uneven. His political views were rabid and unhinged. This selection was OK. Wouldn’t rave about it though.

Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta. I taught this novel again in Spring and Fall, and I’m liking it more and more each time. Excellent counter-culture themed book, and the history is recent enough to be of interest to the students. You can use it to teach 60’s, 70’s, and 90’s cultural history. Music plays a large part in the book too. Spiotta will send you hunting on Spotify and Youtube for obscure tracks.

Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle. Awesome and timely book that I taught in English 101 this year. I really wanted to get the students’ eyes opened up on just how much our personal technology is affecting us — as individuals, social beings, and citizens. It’s a book anybody should read.

Book of Hours by Rilke. There’s a bookstore in my hometown that I like to support now and then. They sell deeply discounted clearance type titles. The Rilke showed up at a good price so I snagged it. This is a recent translation that I liked a lot, except for the liberties the translator took with the source text. In the notes you’ll find edits confessed to, such as I left out the last nine lines for whatever reason. What’s here was fine, and I got exposed to some new Rilke, but I’m left wondering what got left on the cutting room floor.

Creation Myths by Marie-Louise von Franz. This was an impulse buy at the used book store run by the West Chester Senior Center (I throw a lot of business their way). Jungian psychology applied to creation stories from different cultures. Really interesting if you’re into that sort of thing. Maybe too much of a good thing though. I got a bit weary towards the end.

Battle of the books by James Atlas. Another used bookstore pickup. Dim memories of this one. It was a polemical history of the early salvos in the culture wars.

Marxism and Form by Fredric Jameson. A used bookstore find. Bought it because I thought I could sell it on eBay or Amazon. Then I read it just for the hell of it, and because, as noted above, I have this perverse attraction/aversion to literary theory. I’d say the first half of the book or so was pretty good, and then (like most theory) it got tiresome. Yes, I sold it! Kaching.

Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse. I have been slowly making my way through Hesse’s oeuvre and for reasons unknown I got bogged down in this one, not because it’s bad–I think other books just intruded on my attention. Finally when I got to summer I had the time to push through the second half of the book. Solid Hesse all the way. The Medieval/Renaissance setting gave this one a different feel than his other novels.

Culture is our Business by Marshall McLuhan. This is a weird period piece of a book. McLuhan riffing on magazine ads. It’s fun to try and figure out what the hell his words have to do with the advertisements. I almost feel as if dope was involved in putting this one out. McLuhan can be completely inscrutable, but he’s also rather fun, unlike many theorists.

The Great Ideas Today 1966. I love these Britannica annuals. They are such time capsules.

Nova Express by Burroughs. Really entertaining William Burroughs cut-up style fiction. Who knows what it’s about, but it was a fun ride.

In the Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. Part 2 of the Maddadam trilogy. Loved it, and I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t gotten to it yet.

19th century American poetry vol. 2, Library of America. Took me a while to get through volume 2. So many poets and not enough time! These anthologies are invaluable resources though.

The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler. Kunstler’s blog has descended into hackery and older man crankiness. He’s been repeating himself for years, and his comment section is a cesspool of thought crimes. So I don’t go over there much anymore. Geography of Nowhere is an earlier book (when his ideas were fresher) and a smart critique of what went wrong with American community planning in the 20th century. The book has been sitting around for a long time and I decided it was time to finish it and sell it, which I did.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Remarque. I picked up a lovely Heritage Press edition of Remarque’s novel at the used book shop, and listening to Bob Dylan’s description of it in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech made me want to read it through. This one may be my highlight of the year. I absolutely loved it. An incredible war novel. Highly recommended.

Literary England Photographs. This was an old photo book we got from a library sale, probably. Fun to leaf through and read the notes. The photos weren’t all that great, however.

I Look Divine by Christopher Coe. This one was a Vintage Contemporaries title. I have been collecting that paperback series. A slight curiosity of a novel, perhaps too precious in the writing. Just OK.

The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy. Over the last decade I have become a Hardy fan, but when I was first exposed to The Return of the Native in high school, I bailed on it. I got stuck in the heaths. I’ve read most of Hardy’s major novels and this one stood out as an unfinished goal. So I tackled it, and loved it! Not quite the same person I was in high school, I guess. That’s a good thing.

Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard. I wanted a change of pace, so I read a crime novel. Leonard is great with the dialogue. Ultimately, though, I found the book to be just a notch or two better than a waste of time.

How to Speak How to Listen by Mortimer Adler. Adler is a fascinating figure to me. A nebbish pedant but also a true popularizer and dedicated educator. The theme of my 101 course was Conversation, so I thought I might learn a few things from Adler about the topic. It’s OK. If you liked How to Read a Book, you’d probably like this one.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. It’s on my agenda to read more James Baldwin. We did a chapter from Nobody Knows My Name in Western World Lit II, and I often teach “Sonny’s Blues” in Short Fiction, so I pulled this title off the living room shelf and read it in a day. Makes Ta Nehisi Coates look like a great pretender. Baldwin is the real deal.

The Guermantes Way by Marcel Proust. My journey through Remembrance of Things Past reached a milestone this summer. I got halfway through by completing this book. When I set myself to completing it, I sank deep into its grooves and so many of the scenes were riveting. A lot in this one about the Dreyfus Affair, too. Cool to see Proust tapping into the zeitgeist.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. I found a vintage edition of this one that I wanted to sell (and did). Before I shipped it, I read it. Glad to check it off my bucket list.

Vida by Patricia Engel. Came back to this book of linked stories for a English 102 class in the fall. It went over really well, and I enjoyed teaching it again.

Raise High the Roofbeams Carpenter and Seymour an Introduction by J.D. Salinger. Teaching Franny and Zooey made me want to plug a gap in my Salinger reading. Have never read these two stories and made it easily through the book in a couple of days.

What is Zen? By D.T. Suzuki. Nice introductory lectures/essays on Buddhism by the man probably most responsible for introducing Buddhism to the west, at least this century.

To deny our nothingness: contemporary images of man by Maurice Friedman. Kind of an interesting piece of existentialist literary criticism. Friedman covers a host of 20th century writers with insight. The pace was slogging at times, but I made it through eventually.

Mountains and Rivers Without End by Gary Snyder. Might be Snyder’s most important book. Took him decades to finish.

Boy with Thorn by Rickey Laurentiis. Up and coming African-American writer. The poems are opaque and haunted. Difficult read for me, but there’s clearly talent in evidence.

Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill. Another Vintage Contemporaries. I liked this book of stories (her debut, I think) a lot more than the Coe novel mentioned above. Good 1980’s fiction. Gaitskill can write a sentence. Some stories are much stronger than others, but it’s an overall solid collection.

The Somme by Peter Barton. Phenomenal coffee table history book with panoramas of the battlefield then and now, vintage photos, heaps of excerpts from soldiers’ diaries and letters, super detailed maps. Who knew trench warfare could be so absorbing to read about? This is crack for war history buffs.

And now, my top 10 favorites of the year 2017

I define a favorite as a book that impressed me the most, that I remember the most vividly, that changed the way I think, or a book I learned the most from. Drum roll please….

10 -The Fire Next Time

9 – Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenter and Seymour: An Introduction

8 – Madame Bovary

7 – Eat the Document

6 – The Somme

5 – Reclaiming Conversation

4 – In the Year of the Flood

3 – The Guermantes Way

2 – Oryx and Crake

1 – All Quiet on the Western Front

Honorable mentions go out to Bad Behavior, Nova Express, The Return of the Native, Of Mice and Men

Happy New Year of Reading to all!

 

 

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The Magic Mountain

A professor in college told our Continental Literature class that there were certain books you should read before you die. Among them I recall the following: The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, The Death of Ivan Ilych, Madame Bovary, The Magic Mountain. There may have been a few others. I respected Dr. West’s opinion so much, that I inked that mental bucket list note, and have over the years committed myself to reading these great novels, and I’m happy to say that I have finally completed The Magic Mountain.

IMG_20160710_115826Like all great novels, The Magic Mountain is absorbing, works on many layers of meaning, and features unforgettable scenes and characters. The Magic Mountain is not an easy read. It is dense, very long, and slowly paced. But every time I picked up the heavy book to read another chapter, I would get drawn into Mann’s carefully wrought world, so much so that I wanted to be Hans Castorp convalescing for years in that sanitarium at the top of Europe. The book contains vivid characters who are obviously symbolic but no less real: Dr. Settembrini, Naphta, Madame Chaucat, Dr. Behrens, Mynheer Pepperkorn. It’s definitely a novel of ideas and leitmotifs, and the intellectual debates between Settembrini and Naphta were particularly compelling to follow. It’s also full of memorable set pieces, scenes that jump off the page with cinematic scope: Hans’ carnival party dialogue with Chauchat, Hans’ strange vision after getting lost in the snow, the excursion to the waterfall with Pepperkorn, the seance where Joachim’s ghost is conjured, the climatic duel between Settembrini and Naphta, and the harrowing World War battle scenes that finish the book. Mann said he worked 12 years on the book and that we should really read it twice to get the full impact. I’m putting it on the “re-read” pile. It’s that good. You have to be patient with a book of this size, but its rewards are generous indeed. Great works of art are more than immensely satisfying aesthetic experiences. They have an indelible impact on your thinking; they can change your life.

 

Natural Supernaturalism

M.H. Abrams passed away last year at the ripe age of 102. I don’t know how much he is talked about anymore among the trendsetting literary cognoscenti today, but when I was a student, you couldn’t escape his influence. M.H. Abrams was one of the giants. Perhaps best known as the editor of the venerable (and sometimes maligned) Norton Anthology of English Literature and the indispensable reference book A Glossary of Literary Terms, Abrams was largely responsible for dispensing the literary canon to the masses, and he did a fine job at it. Abrams was also one of the premier critics of the Romantic period. His books The Mirror and the Lamp and Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature are classics in the field.

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M.H. Abrams

When I was touring potential grad schools in the 1980’s, I visited Goldwyn-Smith Hall at Cornell, and passing by M.H. Abrams’ office, I went weak in the knees. It was almost unreal. That name on the title page of my Norton Anthology, he lived here. It was a humbling moment, one where I realized that literary tradition is forged by real people. It doesn’t descend from the heavens. It is made by scholars and writers, head to hand, at work in offices and libraries and classrooms. I still have my college edition of the Norton Anthology. It represents something large in my imagination, the idea that there is a continuity, a lineage that connects students to teachers, scholars, critics, creative writers, historians, philosophers, a connection spanning decades, eras, epochs. The Norton Anthology, that bulky mass of thin pages like a Bible, was my initiation to a living tradition.

I recently finished Natural Supernaturalism and can confirm that, beyond the mazy, dead-end twists in literary theory since it was published in the early 1970’s, the book retains its magisterial status.

Abrams first of all establishes the significant influence on Romantic writers exerted by the Bible, and then Milton. The Old and New Testament provided the essential plot and themes for major Romantic works like Wordsworth’s Prelude, Blake’s prophetic books, Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner and Biographia Literatia, Holderin’s Hyperion, Keats’ Fall of Hyperion, Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, and even the philosophical works of Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel–to name a few of the many writers and thinkers represented in this exhaustive analysis. The one writer conspicuously absent is Byron, but then again, Byron’s work doesn’t fit the mold and style established by Wordsworth, who serves as the foundation for everything Abrams sets out to do in the book. This is one indication that Natural Supernaturalism is by no means the only book on Romanticism that you should read. It is necessary but not sufficient.

Christianity in the West was perceived to be on the wane, due to the rise of modern philosophy and science. So the Romantics morphed God into Nature, thereby preserving much of the Biblical template: the Fall, the apocalypse, the Revelation, the paradise regained. They picked up cues from the tradition of spiritual autobiography established by Saint Augustine and focused their attention on the individual’s struggle to reintegrate the self from a state of alienation through the quasi-mystical and transformative engagement with Nature (both external and internal). I’m being way too reductive here, and you really ought to go back to Abrams for the full story; it’s a fascinating journey through British and German literary and intellectual history, a book that kept sending me to the encyclopedia to learn more about the authors and works he quotes so generously throughout the book. To me, this is a sign of great literary criticism. If the critic makes you hungry to know and explore more about the topic, he or she is doing their job.

Another major component of the analysis is the history of revolution in the period, namely the French Revolution, its promise and its tragic disappointments. Romantic writers had to deal with the revolution’s failure to usher in a “New Jerusalem”. They needed to accommodate that failure and think their way into new directions. Abrams also sends us on a head-spinning grand tour of Romanticism’s obsessive interest in apocalypse, cycles, spirals of history, dialectics, and he shows us how Romanticism influenced the writers that would come after: e.g. Marx, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, the Beats, and many more. It’s pretty clear that whatever you want to call the post-Romantic period, we are not done with Romanticism’s influence. One more recent development Abrams doesn’t really touch upon so much is ecocriticsm, environmental writing, deep ecology, etc. Environmental consciousness owes a huge debt to the Romantics, an indication that these intellectual threads run through history to our present moment. That longing to “get back to the Garden” hasn’t left us, and I anticipate it never will. Today we talk in terms of sustainability, of cohabiting, harmonizing with the more-than-human world. We talk about how our fate as a species in in the balance. You can see that the apocalyptic models haven’t disappeared either. If we don’t get right with Nature, the end for us is nigh. An understanding of Romanticism will inform your understanding of these contemporary movements. I can’t imagine a better way for a student to “unlock” and reveal the structuring principles of the period. Can books like this be surpassed? I doubt it. They can be augmented, but you can’t deny the achievement.

 

The Voyage Out

Virginia Woolf’s first novel brims with ensemble characterization. A cast of privileged Brits journeys across the Atlantic to a fictitious coastal settlement in Brazil, where they while away idle time dining, reading, gossiping, flirting, playing games, doing hobbies, making excursions, and indulging in self-reflection. Woolf’s knack for dialogue blended with omniscient introspection shows a master artist’s touch. How she is able to juggle all of these narrative perspectives is a feat, especially as this is her first book. As I was absorbing the characters and setting, I thought, this is what Downton Abbey wishes it could be. Her narrative camera roves among the ensemble, it picks up telling details, assembling a world that is felt as much as it is shown. Characters are revealed as distinct entities, and the way they play off one another in various combinations is fun to watch. A lot more fun than the ham-fisted, soap opera, costume drama antics of the gang from Downton, because Woolf knows the power of language as vehicle for storytelling. It can get inside the minds of characters like no other art form can.

Eventually the plot centers on a pair of characters, Rachel and Terence. They get engaged, she suddenly takes ill, and after an excruciating decline that rattles the entire cast of vacationers, she dies. Plotting has been downplayed here; it gives way to the textured descriptions, tangents on themes like death, gender, and marriage. Death haunts the book like a shadow. The suddenness of Rachel’s demise is actually foreshadowed quite well. Woolf is executing a narrative chiaroscuro, where dark and light, death and life, are in constant opposition. Other binary dances can be seen working through the story to one degree or another. Men and women. Old and young. Those who don’t work for a living and those who do. The “civilized” English and the “native” Brazilians. Humans and nature. The persona (how people present themselves) and the inner life (what they say to themselves when no one is looking).

Woolf manages, even at this early stage in her career, to weave these threads into a compelling, absorbing tale. At times, we become a little too aware of watching the young artist at work, trying out different techniques, running through her narrative exercises, working out the details. In those spots, Woolf runs the risk of letting the form over-determine the content. This is certainly a feature of modernism, and The Voyage Out is a modernist text, though not nearly as experimental as what would issue from Woolf very soon. She stretches the conventions here, and to a degree she may be constrained by them. What wins the day in the end is Woolf’s masterful prose. Her touch is impeccable. Those beautiful sentences are a joy to read. By comparison her contemporaries Henry James and Joseph Conrad seem a clotted mess. There’s a lighter touch here, a cleaner prose line, capable of insightful introspection and nuanced external description. Here is one of the handful of great English prose stylists in her auspicious beginning. It’s like watching a hall of fame athlete in her rookie season. She takes the stage, announces her presence: here I am, look what I can do. Watch and learn.

I read the Barnes and Noble classics edition on the Nook e-reader, which includes an introduction, helpful notes and supplements. It was evidently pieced together with some care and would serve well equally at home and the classroom.