As I was putting the title on this post, I realized that I started doing a monthly post on my reading log one year ago (so “books read in February” is taken). While I read a good number of books in January 2017, it was only in February 2017 that I started reading novels with any seriousness. I am happy to report that, one year later, my reading mix is much more satisfying than it used to be.
That said, I didn’t have a whole lot of real winners this month. Some decent stuff, but no wow. Any ideas for a wow? As always, I welcome suggestions. Also, the list is somewhat shorter this month because I spent about an hour a day watching the Olympics. I’m still working my way through the DVR’d episodes, though at some point I’m going to have to give up. I have no idea how anyone manages to find the time to watch 20+ hours of TV a week.
All Creatures Great and Small, by James Herriot
In the first installment of the series by England’s beloved animal doctor, young James takes a job as an assistant to a brilliant but eccentric vet serving a picturesque part of the British countryside. It is rough work — delivering breech cows in the freezing cold at 2 a.m. — and the crusty animal owners don’t make it easy, but over time, James comes to love the work and the people (and one specific person: the lovely Helen, whom he woos and marries). I wanted to like this book, since I know many people consider it such a treasure, but I found the stories repetitive. Yet another cow, yet another sheep, yet another recalcitrant English farmer. James bumbles, but it all turns out OK in the end. I think if you’re a real animal person, you might forgive those flaws, but as is probably apparent from our lack of non-fish pets, I’m not really that type.
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo
I reread this book in preparation for Sarah’s and my podcast on the topic. You can read about that podcast in yesterday’s post.
Memories of My Melancholy Whores, by Gabriel García Márquez
This was the first of several novellas I pulled off a BuzzFeed List of 46 short novels. This was quite a find as lists go. With a good list, I can tell immediately from the description whether a book is for me or not (this is why I like MMD lists too). I don’t expect to like every book on a list, but I want the list to tell me enough that I can make that decision. Anyway, it had been a long time since I’d read any GGM stuff. This book has a rather disturbing premise. An old man decides, on his 90th birthday, that as a birthday present to himself, he would like to sleep with a virgin. A longtime patron of various brothels, he finds a madam who will arrange such a thing. He shows up to find a 14-year-old girl asleep in the bed. She never wakes, but he is so taken with watching her sleep that he then pays many times over the next year to watch her sleep, finding, when he thinks she has disappeared, how much he has come to love the girl. If you can get past the premise, the book itself moves swiftly, and GGM’s magical realism makes for a lush (and in this case, very quick) read.
Design for Strengths, by John Coyle
Coyle won a silver medal for speed skating in the 1994 Olympics. He is now a professional speaker, often covering the topic of time, which is how I got to know him (and he occasionally comments here — hi John!). This forthcoming book looks at something else: what it really takes to succeed. Coyle has very specific athletic gifts, which don’t include a high aerobic capacity. Despite some precocious success in skating and cycling, he struggled upon reaching the highest levels when his training involved trying to shore up his weaknesses. When he learned to train for his strengths (amazing anerobic capacity for very short bits of time) he was able to win. He also applied the design thinking he learned at Stanford to rethink how he skated. By developing a new technique for approaching turns, he was able to post faster times than anyone else, simply by skating less distance. Design for Strengths is a very readable blend of self help and Olympic memoir — including all the rough stuff and heartbreak that comes before success…and sometimes after (deciding when to retire as an athlete is hard. Few people quit at the top of their games). I particularly enjoyed reading this while watching the PyeongChang Olympics. (Alas for everyone else, it won’t be published until later this spring).
Mezzanine, by Nicholson Baker
Another find from the BuzzFeed list. A young man ponders life while on his lunch break. This book delves deep into the most inane things: a broken shoelace, the office men’s room, a trip to CVS to replace the broken shoelace. If you’re not willing to take a gamble on experimental fiction, I wouldn’t bother, but if you are, parts are reasonably compelling, and make you look at the little objects of modern life in a different way.
Speedboat, by Renata Adler
More (short) experimental fiction. A young female journalist describes life in 1970s New York, with its rich characters and craziness. There is no real plot, though the vignettes themselves are entertaining.
[A book on a productivity-related topic that I’m reviewing for a publication]
More to come on this when the review is published!
Breakfast at Tiffany’s, by Truman Capote
Holly Golightly, a flirtatious and eccentric young woman, fascinates her neighbor. Their friendship goes through its ups and downs as he realizes more about the strange journey that took her from being a rural child bride to a New York walk-up, where she confesses that when she wants to feel all is right in the world, she dreams about having breakfast at Tiffany’s. All is order and prettiness there, in a way life can’t quite manage. Definitely a classic, and a good introduction to Capote, as — per its inclusion on the BuzzFeed list — it is very short. (I actually haven’t seen the movie, so can’t say how it compares).
I am currently reading a book called The Hidden Life of Trees, but finding it a bit difficult to get into. It was another find at the same airport bookstore where I bought the book on octopuses. I am starting to be a good patron of this place in SFO…