Books read in May 2018

I am pausing from the constant Off the Clock book promotion to bring you… books (by other people) read in May!

I am not sure if this was a good month or not. I started off with some heavy fiction, then ran out of steam on that, partly because I wasn’t thrilled with either of those books I read. I am still looking for some good titles to tackle this summer. I tend not to go for the traditional beach read (unless it was a beach read written in 1927) so I am sputtering. I do plan to make a book store trip to go hunt for my book (and a printed copy of the Weekly Standard where I had the cover piece) so maybe I’ll find something serendipitously. We shall see.

Anyway, this is what I read this month.

Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner

Warning – spoiler alerts in here. Angle of Repose covers the life of Susan Ward, a gifted illustrator, and her husband, a mining engineer and sometime entrepreneur, as they made their life in the American west in the late 1800s. The story is told by Ward’s grandson Lyman, whose ill health has left him in a wheelchair and dependent on a caretaker. He is trying to come to terms with his own life and the world of the 1970s by writing his grandmother’s biography. I have very mixed feelings about this book. On one hand, I did get deeply absorbed in the story and the characters. The description of the American west was fascinating, and the plot was sweeping in scope (almost 700 pages). The structure was intriguing — two unhappy lives and marriages, going back and forth between them — as was the narrator’s unexpected perspective. I thought he was cheering for his grandmother most of the time, only to learn at the end that it was his grandfather he most respected. But…for all the ambition, parts of the plot were just lazy. All adulteresses must be punished, and in pretty tired, trope-ish ways. The narrator’s ex-wife, in particular, is a caricature. She leaves him for the surgeon who amputated his leg. Really? Why not just make it another appendage? The plot eventually came across as just relentlessly bleak. I also could not sympathize with the wronged Oliver Ward (Lyman’s grandfather). He had crushed his wife’s hopes and dreams through his insistence that they live his life, not the artistic life out east that she would have excelled in. So if she crushed his hopes at some point after decades of putting up with him…it was hard not to feel like he had it coming. I know this book has a lot of fans, and it certainly is an ambitious and interesting read. So I wouldn’t discourage anyone from picking it up. You should just know what you’re getting into.

As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner

After Addie Bundren’s death, her family vows to follow through on her wish to be buried in nearby Jefferson. Washed out bridges and other woes mean that the trip takes too long, the corpse begins to rot, and the characters suffer (and cause their own suffering) in various ways. This southern Gothic tale is told in numerous short chapters by multiple narrators. Parts are strange (“My mother is a fish” — that is the extent of a chapter) and parts are darkly comic. I hadn’t read any Faulkner, and so I started with this one because it was billed as accessible and short. Perhaps because it was accessible and short I didn’t feel like I got much out of it. Other than the ability to throw around the phrase “my mother is a fish” to show my literary sophistication.

Clockwork: Design Your Business to Run Itself, by Mike Michalowicz

I read an advance copy of this book by small business expert Mike Michalowicz (out August 21, 2018). He begins by describing entrepreneurs who’ve faced crushing levels of burnout, and then teaches how to restructure your business to run…like clockwork…without you doing everything. The goal? Being able to take a real vacation. This strikes me as much more realistic goal than a 4-hour workweek, with some solid advice on figuring out what absolutely has to happen in your business, and what does not.

A book on a sociology topic that I’m reviewing for a publication

(More on this when the link is up)

The Pine Barrens, by John McPhee

I took McPhee’s famed narrative non-fiction class at Princeton, and this is one of the few titles I hadn’t read. Writing in the late 1960s, McPhee describes the Pine Barrens wilderness in New Jersey. Despite being between Philadelphia and New York, this land is scarcely populated (and by some wild types) and has few roads. He gets to know these back woods folks, and tells the history of the Pine Barrens, along with various fun factoids about the place. It’s not exactly a page turner, but it’s interesting to see the structure of a long narrative non-fiction piece, held together by the tale of one particular man who’s lived his life in these woods.

Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You, by Heidi Grant

Sarah and I are looking forward to having Grant on the podcast soon. Reinforcements covers the research into how to effectively ask for help. The key take-aways: asking for help is hard, but most people, when asked (individually) for help, are more than willing to do so. Appeals are more effective when they are about identity, rather than what the person asking for help will get out of it. Ask your kids to clean the kitchen to show that they can “be helpers” — rather than because you’re tired of having a dirty kitchen.

Another book on a different sociology topic that I’m reviewing for a different publication

I’m running quite the reviewing business here!

In Praise of Wasting Time, by Alan Lightman

Lightman, the bestselling novelist, tackles the topic of smart phones, being connected, and zoning out. I’d seen this book on a number of summer book lists. The gist is that getting off the phone and letting your mind wander is good for restoration and getting new ideas. Lightman is always entertaining, but I’m not sure people who read a lot about productivity will find much new in here. Manoush Zomorodi’s book, Bored and Brilliant, for instance, has very similar themes. Also, I’d quibble with the title. I’d argue that the vast majority of what people do on their phones is wasting time. The idea that we’re on our phones to be productive is something of a straw man. Then there’s this: Lightman introduces this topic by talking about how he finally caved in on getting a smart phone a few months before writing this book. It has the feeling of a lot of articles I read in 1996, in which the reporter breathlessly discovers the internet. What is this brave new world? Yep, people spend a lot of time on apps. Smart phones are also very distracting. There we go.

I welcome ideas to add to my reading list for June.

5 thoughts on “Books read in May 2018

  1. Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. Won the Man Booker in 1987 and is now in The Guardian’s just for fun race (one book from each decade of the 50 years the prize has been around) for the best Man Booker winner ever. A strong woman, a kaleidoscopic view of time/history… it’s a good read.

    1. @Lauren – just ordered this one and am looking forward to reading it. Thanks for the suggestion!

  2. I always enjoy reading your lists of books read and your take on them. Did you happen to catch the first episode of The Great American Read on PBS? The idea is to choose the most loved novel in America, and the list of the 100 contenders (chosen by nationwide poll) is here: http://www.pbs.org/the-great-american-read/books/#/ I’m sure you’ve read quite a few of them already, but something might jump out at you as being of interest.

    I’m currently reading (and enjoying) Sweet Bean Paste, by Durian Sukegawa. I’m not too far into it yet, but it’s billed as a story of redemption and friendship.

  3. For fiction, since you enjoy Virginia Woolf, the library service Novelist suggested that you might enjoy Ian McEwan, specifically The Children Act (I haven’t read this one but enjoyed Atonement by him).

    If you are looking for nonfiction, you might enjoy Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life by Julia Briggs or A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf by Emily Midorikawa.

    For personal recommendations, it seems like you enjoy literary fiction–two I finished recently and enjoyed were Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.

    Also, I’m nearly finished Off the Clock and one line that struck me as delightful was “…realizing I had the freedom to read like a graduate student as the working mother of four children was absolutely liberating.” It made me think that you might consider looking up some syllabi (for graduate or undergraduate students of literature) and pulling some book ideas from there as well. It also delighted me because I am expecting my first child and while I know my reading time will shrink, it’s nice to hear a voice of reason that it won’t be nonexistent. (As a public librarian, reading is something I love but also somewhat part of my job, although almost always outside of my working hours.)

    1. @Caitlin – excellent suggestions! I might check out some syllabi because, yes, those would have interesting ideas for themes. It is entirely possible to read while raising children. Like anything else, you have to decide to make it a priority.

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