This was another doozy of a month for reading. I was in between drafts of Off the Clock (which is now back on my plate), and I had a reasonable amount of time on planes and trains. Plus, book reading has become my default activity before bed. I can usually get 60 minutes in if I’m disciplined about it. Here’s what I tackled this month:
Still Life, by Louise Penny
I finished this mystery in September, but after I posted my books read list. This was my “autumn” pick — richly described fall scenery, a bit of spookiness. Chief Inspector Gamache comes to Three Pines, a small town in Quebec, to investigate the murder of a woman everyone knew but no one really knew. There are a lot of whodunnit tropes: the conflict between the veteran and newbie law enforcement agents, the early arrest and accusation that wraps everything up too neatly, if for no other reason than that we still have more than 100 pages to go. But I still enjoyed it, and may check out some other Penny mysteries too.
Dandelion Wine, by Ray Bradbury
Bradbury is best known for writing Fahrenheit 451 and the Martian Chronicles, but he wrote in all sorts of genres. Dandelion Wine is a highly nostalgic look through one Midwestern boy’s eyes at one summer, 1929, when the world was full of stories. All was possibility. There isn’t really a plot in this book. It just moves from anecdote to anecdote from June to September, but its sense of time passing is vivid nonetheless.
Field Notes from a Catastrophe, by Elizabeth Kolbert
I picked this up at the library. It is New Yorker science writer Kolbert’s reporting on various places already affected by climate change (in 2006). While Kolbert is a great writer, and her voice is engaging, I can’t say I remember a whole lot about this book a few weeks after reading it. I know she won a Pulitzer for her 2014 book The Sixth Extinction, though, so maybe I will pick that one up and try it.
What Happened? by Hillary Clinton
I found Clinton’s campaign memoir surprisingly readable. She is no longer running for anything, so it was a bit less cliched and a bit more straightforward than much political writing. Like all candidates, she still has her blind spots, but I was most intrigued by her discussion of her and Bill Clinton’s marriage. They’ve been together more than 40 years, including through some incredibly public low points. Why are they still together? She only spends a few pages on that topic, but they’re definitely the best pages of the book.
Bored and Brilliant, by Manoush Zomorodi
Sarah and I were planning to discuss this on our podcast, so I read it. Zomorodi ran a challenge for listeners of her Note to Self podcast to spend less time on their phones (though not by cutting out her podcast, of course!) This is the book version of the challenge, with various suggestions for opening up space to be bored, and move through that boredom to deeper thoughts. While the challenge itself didn’t particularly move me, I have been thinking about how to give myself more white space lately. So some food for thought there.
Now I Sit Me Down, by Witold Rybczynski
Another library book. I enjoyed Rybczynski’s book on Frederick Law Olmsted, A Clearing in the Distance. So when I saw this on the stack of recent releases, I thought I’d try another book by him. It was about…chairs. A whole book on chairs! And while there are certainly aspects of chair design that I can’t say I appreciated before, I’m not sure I need to read anything else on this for a while. (It was a short book, so I figured I’d go ahead and finish it — but my library haul wasn’t that great this month).
Going into Town, by Roz Chast
This was the only book I read as respite during my tackling of War and Peace. Chast wrote this comic as a guide book to NYC for her daughter, who was going off to college there. It’s light and funny — especially the bit about stand pipes (yes) — and readable in 90 minutes. Very different from Tolstoy that way.
War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
This Russian epic about the Napoleonic wars had been on my reading bucket list for a while. In October, I decided to take the plunge. I wrote a post about it last week. The one sentence review: it’s compulsively readable, despite its length. If you’re looking to tackle a long book, I would recommend it. Just skim the second epilogue!
Draft 4: On the Writing Process, by John McPhee
McPhee is the master of creative non-fiction. This book talks about his writing process. You can read my previous post about it here. Great for any McPhee fans, or any fan of the “writers on writing” genre. (Speaking of which…any other recommendations? I’ve read Bird by Bird before anyone suggests that.)
Battle Cry of Freedom, by James McPherson
Yes, I read a second epic book in October — 900 pages, according to Amazon (though I read it on the Kindle app, so I was dwelling in percents). I didn’t really set out to read this classic book about the Civil War this month. I had downloaded it several months ago when I was trying to find a book about the antebellum south. I eventually read Cotton Kingdom, which more closely fit what I was looking for. I had read about 2 percent in this book back then, and then on my trip to St. Louis, I finished the McPhee book pretty quickly, and needed something else to read. (A side note: I have found that attempting to do much other work during a day I am traveling to give a speech is an exercise in frustration. So in general I just let myself relax — hence the copious reading time). So I opened this one back up. What can I say, I got into it. I guess that’s why McPherson won the Pulitzer Prize. Since I’d already read Team of Rivals, and Grant’s memoirs, there was nothing new in here for me. I mean, to the point where I was thinking hmm, I wonder how he will present the “Battle of the Crater” disaster at Petersburg? But it was told in a swift and engaging voice. And, having recently read War and Peace, I was more interested than I might usually be in the slight differences in military strategy that arose between 1812 and 1861. So I finished it. I think I am truly done with Civil War books for now (which may be a shame, as the new Chernow Grant biography is out… has anyone read that?)
Republican Like Me, by Ken Stern
Ken Stern, the former CEO of NPR, and a lifelong Democrat, decided after the 2016 election that he needed to understand the other side. The premise of this book was that he spent a year traveling around Red State America to see what he could discover. But the book in practice was less journey and more a discussion of issues. Though that seems like a bait and switch, it was probably wise, as the red state journey tropes (look at me! I’m hunting! I’m at a gun show!) are a bit…done. Stern’s presentation of the research on polarization is fascinating; Americans increasingly draw their identities from political affiliations, to the point where it’s more about your team than about your beliefs. This, more than any other data point, might explain Donald Trump. However — and I would like to be wrong! — I am pretty sure the mushiness of the politics limits the appeal of this book (Democrats are right about some things! Republicans are right about some things! And both are wrong about some things!) I had a discussion with some publishing people the other day in which they pointed out that there really aren’t many popular “purple” books. It’s red or blue — like the country, more or less.
I’m not really sure what’s next on my TBR list. I bought Rebecca, as another fall-spooky book, but I don’t think I’m going to be able to make myself read it. I have a lot of potential books, but I also need to do some work on my own books, so we shall see.
Photos: Pumpkins from The Glow show in Fairmount Park. This was some pretty epic jack-o-lantern carving.