My Pandemic Reading
It’s now six weeks since my second shot of Pfizer vaccine, and a month since my wife’s second shot. My daughter, who just turned sixteen, is now half-vaccindated. It feels like spring after a long, dark cold winter.
There have been so many struggles, by us and by others, but one thing that kept me sane is that it’s been a great year for reading! For one thing, the pandemic convinced me, finally, to take advantage of Austin Public Library’s e-book lending program. Between the library and Project Gutenberg, I’ve barely paid for a book.
So, quickly, here’s a list of books I read during the pandemic, in roughly chronological order, with some quick notes on each. For completeness, I’m including books on my kindle with download dates going back to the beginning of 2020, pre-pandemic, because some of those I didn’t get around until after the lockdown started, but I can’t remember which.
- Short Stories Collection — F. Scott Fitzgerald: Unlike his two great novels, Gatsby, and Tender is the Night, the short stories feel somewhat dated, with lots of 1920’s slang that’s lost to us now. Still there are some good stories here. “The Jelly Bean”, whose title is based on slang I still don’t understand, still captures the pathos of a man caught in unrequited love in that way that Fitzgerald managed so masterfully. “The Camel’s Back” is hilarious. “The Ice Palace” captures something essential about the difference between the American South and the North. And of course, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”.
- Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse Book 1) — James S. A. Corey: In January of 2020 I was down for several days with a horrible, covid-like, flu. I used my time in bed to binge all four seasons of The Expanse on Amazon. It’s excellent sci-fi that fills a niche that has gone largely unfilled: sci-fi set in our solar system, with non-relativistic space travel and (moderately) realistic space warfare. After seeing it, I started on the books, one at a time, as they became available at the library. Good sci-fi fun.
- Caliban’s War (The Expanse Book 2) — James S.A. Corey. See above.
- No Country For Old Men — Cormac McCarthy: A few years ago, I rented the movie version to watch on the plane while traveling for work, not realizing it was a Cormac McCarthy story. At the end, I felt as if I must have fallen asleep and missed the scene where the story all comes together and makes sense. No. The book left me feeling the same. I love McCarthy, but this book not so much.
- Post Office — Charles Bukowski: This was just okay. Maybe I picked the wrong book, but I think Bukowski’s poetry is better than his prose.
- Maybe I’m Flying To You (Short Story) — DiAmaya Dawn. A sweet, romantic short story from our favorite Lit Up EIC.
- Norwegian Wood — Haruki Murakami: I. Loved. This.
- Fight Club — Chuck Palahniuk: I’m not allowed to talk about it.
- Pattern Recognition (Blue Ant Trilogy Book 1) — William Gibson. This one has been sitting on my shelf in paper form for years. I started reading it once and then put it down and never picked it up again, for reasons unknown. One reason I read on Kindle is that I can read in bed while my wife is sleeping with the lights out. This time, I got the book from the library and finished it. Set in the present day, it’s not really science fiction, though it does have some minor speculative elements. Still, it’s full of Gibson’s typical motifs of ordinary people caught up and used in the machinations of the very powerful. I liked it.
- 1Q84 — Haruki Murakami. When you get a paper book off the shelf in the library or bookstore, you immediately know how big a task you’ve taken on by the physical size of the thing in your hand. With ebooks, not so much. Little did I know that is a long trilogy in a single ebook volume, and there was no way on earth I could finish it in my three-week library loan. Luckily, I discovered that if you put the Kindle in airplane mode, it can’t get the signal that tells it to invalidate the book license, and you can just keep reading!
- Abaddon’s Gate (The Expanse Book 3) — James S.A. Corey: The Expanse books were in high demand at the library. I had to wait weeks for them to come off hold. That was good, though, because it gave me some time to forget the details from the TV show.
- The Beach — Alex Garland: Despite liking Leo Di Caprio, I never had any interest in seeing this movie. Now that I’ve read the book, I don’t want to see the movie for fear it’ll ruin the book.
- The Canon of Reason and Virtue — Laozi (aka Lao Tzu), translated by Paul Carus: One thing you don’t know about me is that I collect translations of the Tao Te Ching. This is an older one, first published in 1913. It complements the well-known Stephen Mitchell translation and Ursula K. Le Guin’s “rendition” very nicely. If anyone can recommend a good Spanish or Italian translation, let me know. (Sadly, my French is not good enough, and may never be, but I was recently surprised to see how much Italian I still remember, and I think my Spanish is getting very close to my Italian now, at least for reading.)
- On Love — Charles Bukowski. I’m not generally a big reader of poetry, overall, but I really love this collection. As a father of a daughter, his poems about his daughter really get me, but the others too. The poetry has a rawness that catches me in a way that a lot of other poetry does not. I’m happy, if slightly baffled, that this ebook seems always to be available at the library. I keep checking it out, reading a bit, and returning it when the loan expires. Then I wait a few weeks or months and get it out again. It really makes the ebook library feel like my own infinite bookshelf.
- Poems of William Blake — William Blake: Somewhere recently I ran into a few Blake poems and realized I liked them. “The Tyger” is great but there are others..
- Heart of Darkness — Joseph Conrad. I got this from Gutenberg, and given all the good things I’ve heard about it, was actually a bit disappointed.
- Selected Poems — Robert Frost. A road taken.
- Spook Country (Blue Ant Trilogy Book 2) — William Gibson: The Blue Ant books are a trilogy in perhaps the same way that Cormac McCarthy’s “Border Trilogy” is a trilogy. Which is to say, it’s three separate stories that happen to have some characters and settings in common but are only loosely related.
- Zero History (Blue Ant Trilogy Book 3) — William Gibson: see above. I’ll always read Gibson.
- The Anguish of an Oyster: Poems — Ecem Yucel. More Medium writers need to publish books! Medium is a great venue for poetry, and has a wonderful community of poets, but a Medium story has a half-life of a few days — older posts are washed away by the firehose. So I was delighted to get to read Ecem’s collection and see what I’ve been missing. I hope other Medium literary writers will take the time to collect their works in book form. (hint: I may have an announcement on that front soon)
- Cibola Burn (The Expanse Book 4) — James S.A. Corey. More of The Expanse. Now that I’m caught up, my plan is to read each novel after the corresponding season of the show comes out. My wife and I just finished season five, so I can start the next one now.
- Love and Other Stories — Anton Chekhov: The inventor of the modern short story. Every few months I get another volume of Constance Garnett’s thirteen-volume translation to read. They are all available as free ebooks from gutenberg.org.
- The Stranger — Albert Camus: Thirty years ago, in the embryonic days of my first band, The Cure’s “Killing an Arab” was one of the first songs we learned to play. I knew that the song was a musical rendition of a scene from Camus’s existentialist novel, but it took me thirty years to find the book and read it. Having read it, I find it very much a piece of the 20th century. It was interesting, I can’t say I enjoyed it, though I think enjoyment is beyond the point. In any case, the existentialist theme that was radical in 1942 feels dated now. (In addition, the song itself seems to be spiraling down the memory hole these days. Wary that the song might be used as a racist anthem — though it was never intended that way — the band seems to have scrubbed the original track from streaming services, though live versions and cover versions are still available.)
- Slaughterhouse 5 — Kurt Vonnegut. Another classic that I’d heard about for almost my whole life but never read. A strange book and not at all what I expected.
That’s it. I started Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle as I began to draft this post and since this post has languished in my drafts, I finished the first book, but I won’t include it here, mainly because I can’t figure out how to characterize it in a short note.