Books read in March

IMG_2979I continued my streak of intense reading this month. Following a query from my husband, who was somewhat incredulous about the number of books I’ve read, I studied my time logs to see how I am making time. It is not that I am working less, or doing any less of the kid-transporting and the like. Instead, I am allocating a higher proportion of my existing leisure time to book reading. The Economists and other magazines are, alas, stacking up unread, as are the newspapers. The New York Times fell off my frequently visited websites list on my phone. I generally have about 90 minutes on weekdays to read if I read during the hour before bed, and then half an hour somewhere else (while the kids are watching TV or some such). On weekends, I usually do an hour during nap, and maybe 2 hours at night or elsewhere through the day. This adds up to 13.5 hours a week. I can read swiftly — about 50-60 pages an hour — so 13.5 hours is 675-810 pages a week. That’s like one 300-page book and two 250-page books — as long as I keep a solid “To Be Read” list going.

Here are my reports on books read in March. Technically, March is not quite over, but I don’t think I will finish Tender is the Night before midnight tomorrow, so it will go on the April list.

The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough

McCullough is a very popular historian, and this biography of Orville and Wilbur Wright is short and swift. Heavier-than-air flight experienced quite a breakthrough between 1900-1916, if you think about it, from being thought impossible and the stuff of quacks to being used strategically in warfare. Much like the 4-minute mile, no one did it, and then quickly everyone was doing it, though it is pretty clear that the Wrights were the first. I had read about the 1903 flight, but the later test flights in Europe and Ohio were all new to me. Like A Clearing in the Distance (reviewed last month) this is a good portrait of America at a very specific point in time.

Pond, by Claire-Louise Bennett

I confess that I do not understand what the author was going for in this novel narrated by a slightly ornery young woman living in a rural part of Ireland. While the prose is spirited and luminous in places, there is no plot, and the narrator does not change in any appreciable way. It could have been interesting as a set of Walden sorts of non-fiction autobiographical essays, but as a novel, not so much. If anyone else has deeper insights into this one — especially given that it was written up so glowingly in various magazines I read — I welcome enlightenment.

The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran

I had read this slim book before, but coming into graduation season, I thought I would pick it up again. While there’s also little in the way of plot in this one (it is presented as poetic essays from a prophet sharing his wisdom with a town he is leaving), the upside is that there are dozens of incredibly quotable lines. One favorite: “What is your friend that you should seek him with hours to kill? Seek him always with hours to live.”

The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton

Oh, this book. Newland Archer, a rich young dandy, represents New York society in the late 1800s, as it is slowly unraveling. He marries the right woman but loves another. Neither he nor she can do much about that without becoming people they don’t wish to be. I had read this years ago, but this time picked up more on Archer’s growing fury with society’s hypocrisy. Ellen’s relatives don’t want her to get a divorce from her far-away husband, because that would be public. Instead, as the lawyer points out, he’s there and she’s here, so what’s the problem? The idea is that she can have affairs as she wishes, it’s only if she wants to get married again that people get upset. New York is richly described, and the characters believably drawn. This one sticks with you (or at least it did with me) for a bit.

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I had read this one too, as I’m sure everyone does for school. But again, it had been a while. Like Age of Innocence, this is about New York in a specific time, the roaring twenties with people who party hard and don’t actually care much for each other. Gatsby wants Daisy, and he wants to go back to the past and have now what he couldn’t when he first met her, but he wants more from her than she can give, and it leads to his undoing. The Great Gatsby has some of literature’s most brilliant lines (“Her voice is full of money”) though I was somewhat startled in the re-reading about how short it is. A lot is missing from Gatsby’s life that could have created more tension, and I was struck — reading it after The Age of Innocence — that Wharton created more of an intensity with her New York novel, if Fitzgerald creates some pleasurable economy. Much like tasting wine flights, literature is affected by what you read in close sequence. Also, Fitzgerald is a Princeton boy and he makes fun of Yale. I enjoyed that.

A Piece of the World, by Christina Baker Kline

Christina Olson is the woman in Andrew Wyeth’s haunting painting, Christina’s World. Kline researched the life of this proud, intense woman with debilitating mobility impairments who spent her whole life in rural Maine, and created a story for what led to the moment when she is pictured on the field, reaching toward that old house (she’s actually crawling, which is how she was getting around at the point when Wyeth painted his masterpiece). Olson had a tough life, and the descriptions of Maine are elegant in places, though the plot dragged a bit in the middle. The story skips around in time, and you know that Olson winds up living with her brother, so it’s pretty clear the love interest Kline devotes huge chunks of real estate to isn’t going to work out. So I wound up skimming parts of that. But I can say this: reading this right after Wharton and Fitzgerald, I still found it decent. So there’s that.

Sailing Alone Around the Room, by Billy Collins

I decided I needed some poetry for a palate cleanser after all those novels. Collins, a former poet laureate of the US, is very accessible, and there are some great lines in his poems that induce smiles. I can’t say I was much moved by any of them, though perhaps that’s not the point. One poem in this collection talks about how people want to tie up poems and torture them to get the meaning out, but Collins is perfectly happy if people water ski over his poems, or fumble in the dark for the light switch with them. Different images entirely.

How the Hell Did This Happen? by P.J. O’Rourke

The first books on the 2016 election are starting to come out. O’Rourke is caustically funny, which made these essays (many of which covered the Republican primary) good for a quick read on the absurdity of it all.

The Benedict Option, by Rod Dreher

I picked this one up because it was getting a lot of attention on various political websites I skim in my non-book-reading time. Dreher argues that America is a “post-Christian” society, and that orthodox Christians (which seems not to include squishy Presbyterians of my ilk) need to recognize that mainstream American culture is not welcoming to them. In particular, he believes that the widespread acceptance of gay marriage has indicated a tipping point. So the communities Dreher is addressing should withdraw and create their own independent societies, much like the Benedictine monks did as Rome crumbled around them. Homeschool your kids, start your own businesses, live in tight-knit communities centered on your places of worship. I guess the best thing I can say here is that I am not the target market for this book. I think tight-knit communities are great (if these intentional religious ones can go very wrong). My biggest head scratching moment in this book is when Dreher makes the reasonable point that we all need to spend less time glued to our phones. He talks about meeting his great friend pundit Andrew Sullivan for coffee, a bit after Sullivan left the internet in 2015, and seeing how great and relaxed he looked. Sullivan is one of the founding fathers of the push for gay marriage. Dreher does not mention this. Did the topic come up? Inquiring minds want to know!

Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather

I read My Antonia last month. So this month I went through the rest of Cather’s “prairie trilogy.” Thea Kronborg is one of seven children, born in a small Colorado town, where the railway and harsh winters come to define life. She is musical, and destined for great things, but keeps needing to move on from people who can help her for a while, but eventually serve to limit her. Close to epic in scope, this book has some nice writerly touches. We leave Thea at the height of her opera singing fame in New York and end with an epilogue from the perspective of her Aunt Tillie back in Colorado, who manages to work into every conversation that her niece gets a thousand dollars a night for her appearances. It is a masterful way to close the loop.

O Pioneers!, by Willa Cather

I realized, afterwards, that I read the prairie trilogy backwards. This book, about farm owner Alexandra Bergson, was Cather’s first entry into this three book set about strong women of the American west. The writing is less sure on this one vs. Song of the Lark. O Pioneers! aims to be epic, but comes across as a bit too short to justify the sweep. The moralizing is also a bit much; the two characters pondering adultery of course have to die violent deaths in their illicit embrace. There were some good lines; Carl, after his years of wandering, tells Alexandra that “freedom so often means that one isn’t needed anywhere.” And Cather’s writing definitely gets better as the books go on. I find this particularly comforting from a writer’s perspective.

Four Seasons in Rome, by Anthony Doerr

Long before All the Light We Cannot See, Doerr won a prestigious writing fellowship that came with a very modest stipend ($1300/month) and a slightly-more-exciting year-long lease on an apartment in Rome. He got news of winning this fellowship the same day his wife, Shauna, gave birth to twins. A few months later, the four of them packed up and moved to Italy, and he kept a diary, which became this book. Certainly, a writer of Doerr’s talents creates compelling descriptions of Rome. Between this and Under the Tuscan Sun (read last month) I am hankering for a trip. He also writes tenderly of his little boys. But there were other aspects of this book that reminded me of a particular pet peeve of mine: the acknowledgement sections in books by male writers (always) where they apologize for all those missed dinners, and thank their wives for taking care of everything so they could write. Doerr notes on the twins’ first birthday that in the past year, Shauna “had put the boys down for 1,460 naps. She did something close to four tons of laundry. I folded maybe four pounds of that.” At one point she winds up hospitalized for exhaustion; meanwhile, he seems to spend a lot of his time at the office procrastinating by reading Pliny the Elder. Hmmm. Though I will acknowledge that perhaps my sour feelings on reading this are just jealousy that other family members might treat writing as a very very serious job to the point where one is automatically excused from laundry folding.

Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry

Modern Mrs. Darcy put this on her list of books she’d read over and over again. She lives in Kentucky, and Berry is one of Kentucky’s most celebrated writers, but you don’t have to live in those hills and hollers to enjoy this one. Berry paints Port William as a complete world. The lonely Jayber Crow becomes the town barber, and slowly finds himself folded into community life, sustained by his lifelong, unrequited love for the tragic Mattie Chatham. Berry’s anti-war commentary is a bit much (any young man you care about winds up sent off to war and coming home in a body box) and the moralizing about modern progress gets to be a bit much too (of course the guy with the tractor is the villain). But the descriptions of the land and community are gorgeous nonetheless. What is perhaps most surprising about Jayber Crow is that it was written in 2000. It reads much more like Wharton and Cather than more modern fiction. I may read Hannah Coulter (another book in the Port William series) soon.

A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway

This is Hemingway’s posthumous memoir of 1920s Paris, when he was very young, very poor, and very happy, at least in his telling. He and his first wife Hadley, and baby son Bumby, try to make a go of it off his writings and the occasional victory at the track. By far the most interesting stories are those involving other literary lights of the day, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald (“Scott”) whose alcoholism, neuroticism, and disintegrating marriage to Zelda are written about with much foreshadowed doom. Of course, Hemingway writes slyly of his own impending woes; he ends with a feint at his own unfaithfulness to Hadley, written half in the third person. After reading this, I ordered some Hemingway novels I haven’t read, now knowing what he was thinking at the time.

19 thoughts on “Books read in March

  1. This IS an impressive list of books! You are rocking the reading lately.

    I had a very not-reading-heavy month. In fact, I’m not positive I finished even one whole book. It was a weird month for me.

    1. @Kristen – thanks. I doubt April will look this intense for me. March just felt in the groove. One good thing: our local library opened back up after being closed for a year for renovations. This will make it easier to make frugal book choices!

  2. I loooooooooove Hemingway and FitzGerald.
    I read The Paris Wife, which is one of my favorite styles of books to read- historical fiction told like a memoir; its not written by Hemingway but focuses on his life and relationship with his first life based on some real life accounts. I still need to read A Moveable Feast, though…
    I love your book reviews (putting Wharton , Gibran, and Cather on my to read list) , but I couldn’t get passed the ‘Benedict Option’ after reading the blog post critique of it… I’m still over here scratching my head. thanks for sharing your review and the critique. I am so intrigued.

    1. @Angela – I will check out the Paris Wife. I know very little about most of these writers’ personal lives, so it’s been interesting to see the sorts of lives they led.

  3. I have the opposite issue with acknowledgements–I hate when male authors I suspect have wives and families don’t mention them at all (even in the “about” section on the back flap), and when female authors fall all over themselves apologizing for their families eating takeout for months while she was writing the book (or folding laundry, or having a messy house, and so on). It’s obviously not a requirement to thank or mention your family, but I’ve noticed that women almost always do it and men often don’t–I get the sense that the men just expected to have someone in the background taking care of them, so I think it’s nice when a man acknowledges the work his wife did. I do think it’s odd that they apologize for missing dinners, though–presumably they are eating at some point, right? And eating dinner takes maybe 15-20 minutes? Cooking and cleaning up takes much longer. And, really, Doerr didn’t notice that his wife was close to exhaustion before she collapsed?

    1. @Caitlin- I guess I can see that acknowledging it is better than not doing so. But you’d think that maybe if he was able to notice that his wife was washing four tons of laundry and he folded four pounds, that he could have folded a wee bit more.

    2. YES!! I have noticed this too and it irks me. (Almost as much as when famous authors, artists and crafters describe themselves as ‘stay at home moms’ when they are internationally known, teaching classes and attending conferences worldwide, and writing books. Like it’s somehow bad to admit you have a job. At least call it ‘work at home mom’ if you don’t have an office.)

      I have also noticed an interesting trend where female authors who are mothers give detailed shout outs to their babysitters and nannies (enough for the reader to know who that was). On the one hand, great that this isn’t invisible work, and it gives us a clue on how people are able to write a book while having small children. But OTOH, you never see men doing this, but presumably someone is caring for their kids. (Or maybe in most male writers’ cases it’s as you mention above and it’s the saintly wife who’s doing everything.)

      1. Going off on a tangent – On the one hand I definitely agree that there is a set of visible internet moms who – for the purposes of marketing and image – say they are SAHMs while running what is essentially a media empire (blog, FB, Twitter, Instagram, etc. etc. etc.). On the other hand, I think there is some gray area where one makes the transition from being a SAHM to a WAHM. I have a friend who works 40hrs per week out of her home office selling mutual funds. I (and she) would 100% call her a WAHM. But I work about 10-ish hours a week adjuncting 4 classes (3 online) and do a little ad-hoc project work now and then but the bulk of my time is spent caring for my kids (ages 2 and 4 so not in school FT yet). Am I a WAHM? I work so few hours that it’s hard for me to call myself that, and I certainly don’t have a media or personal image as a SAHM that I feel like I have to keep up – nearly every mother I know works at least somewhat and many work full time. But I definitely do real professional work most days, and I desire to work more as my kids get older so maybe I am a WAHM. If pressed, I guess I would call myself a SAHM who does some part-time work. Even the qualifications to participate in Laura’s survey seem to show there’s disagreement in what qualifies as a working (vs SAH) parent. Her criteria would consider someone working 30-hrs per week to be a WAHM, but a woman working 30-hours/week isn’t actually working FT (40hrs/week), I think one could reasonably label that same woman a SAHM or working SAHM because she fails to meet the true threshold for FT work.

    3. Have you seen the #Thanksfortyping Tumblr and twitter feed? This is super common in academic books “Thanks to my wife for typing this book….and editing and dealing with the children etc…”

  4. Regarding the acknowledgments section in Four Seasons in Rome – have you seen the interest in #thanksfortyping, the hashtag being used to track or list those book acknowledgment sections that thanked the unnamed wife for typing the author’s manuscript? Buzzfeed had a post on it.

    PS: I am a big fan of yours, especially your books on time and time management. Can’t wait for the next one, although I was a little disappointed I’m not your target demographic for your last survey (single, professional, no kids). Maybe next time.

    1. @Spring – I had not seen that hash tag, but…yeah. At least now that we have computers, the grunt work of typing later drafts doesn’t need to be outsourced (to the supportive wife or anyone else).

      My next book will really be for everyone! It’s just that to get data on time stress I needed people who were highly likely to feel time stress. Gallup does a poll every year and finds that people who work full time, and people who have kids, are more likely than other people to feel like they lack the time for the things they want to do. If I didn’t have those requirements, then I already knew what the biggest correlation would be for feeling relaxed about time: not working full time, or not having children. I am hoping to find other things. I really appreciate your interest in my books 🙂

    2. Ooh, I love that #thanksfortyping piece! It reminds me of Dorothea and Casaubon in Middlemarch. Also, as a professional indexer, it has always gotten under my skin to read older, thanks-for-typing era bits thanking academic wives for indexing manuscripts (there’s a funny exchange in Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women about just that [side note, Pym was an indexer]).

      1. @Meghan – alas, I’m betting that a lot of writers, male and female, don’t understand that indexing is a profession or what skills it entails. Kind of like some members of the general public assuming that now that we have spell check and grammar check, there’s no need for editors…

  5. Whoa, that acknowledgment section! It definitely doesn’t inspire me to pick up All the Light again (I couldn’t get into it). Your reading is impressive! I counted the other day and have read 19 books this year, but while some were quite weighty, not a few were YA and historical romance 🙂 I refuse to call them fluff – they all have excellent merits – but are less time-intensive than the nonfiction.
    I love Edith Wharton and Willa Cather! Now I want to finish the prairie trilogy. Have you read The Reef by Wharton? I stumbled on it in the library and it’s great – the more so for me totally disagreeing with the pedantic, mansplaining intro written by some professor dude in the mid-60s.

    1. @Meghan – to clarify, the bit about the four tons of laundry wasn’t in the acknowledgements of Four Seasons in Rome, it was in the book itself, when he’s talking about celebrating the twins’ first birthday. It just reminded me of that frequent part of the acknowledgement section (since most books aren’t autobiographical).

      I have not read The Reef. That’s one reason I post these book reviews — people give me ideas of books to pick up! (If I will skip the mansplaining intro…)

  6. I love Willa Cather! I was assigned to learn about her in elementary school (Nebraska born and raised through middle school), and her works have always stuck with me. Despite loving the East Coast, I’ve always missed the prairies and the wide open spaces that Cather describes so beautifully.

    1. @DVStudent – I read a few books this month with a really strong sense of place: Cather with the prairie west, Wharton and Fitzgerald with New York, Kline with Maine, Wendell Berry’s Kentucky. I guess Hemingway’s Paris too! Maybe I’m particularly drawn to those sorts of books. I always like writing about the natural world, and Cather, Kline, and Berry did a lot of that (fun fact: my office is decorated with several Wendy Hollender botanical drawings/prints).

  7. Oh, Moveable Feast! That book is amazing, especially when you realize his brain was mush from too many traumatic brain injuries. And still his prose is magnificent. It kind of made me die a little of jealousy. Unfortunately, I convinced my bookclub to read it after The Paris Wife, which is a fictionalized version of the same story from Hadley’s perspective that steals boldly from A Moveable Feast, but delves more into the infidelity. They weren’t able to forgive Hemingway to enjoy his lovely prose.

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