Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Be It Resolved: Booking the Year Ahead

My reading habits are sporadic, flighty, and subject to change at the next FedEx delivery to my front door.  The best way to describe it is a dog chasing a butterfly through a meadow: snapping his teeth at first one butterfly then, as another crosses his field of vision, suddenly dodging after that one, and the next, and the next.

I have an unnatural perception of my books, treating them less as objects and more as creatures with feelings that can be hurt.  For instance, if I have a book in my To-Read Stack and it has, after many months of patient waiting, finally made its way to the summit, ready to be the next one to be opened and read, but then I suddenly come into possession of a book that absolutely demands my absolute attention and I put that volume at the top of Mount TRS, I'll carry around a heavy guilt for that poor book that almost got read.  I'll make some lame excuses about the importance of the newcomer, the interloper book--something like, "You don't understand, this is Philip Roth.  I can't turn him away"--and equally lame promises of "Someday soon, I'll get around to reading you.  Please don't be angry with me."

Now you understand why I've been in therapy for most of my adult life.

This past week, in a fit of typical year-end rejuvenation, I decided to completely rearrange and reconsider my To-Read Stack.  I cut out about a dozen books, but still it looms dangerously high on my desk.  (I've promised myself that if it ever reaches the point where Mount TRS looks like it will avalanche down on me and cause physical harm--perhaps even death--then I will either subtract more books and deal with the guilt or else move the stack to another location.)

So, today I've decided to give you a brief geologic analysis of the stacks.  First the long view.  I believe you've met my desk before:

Now let's zoom in for a closer look (clicking any of these photos will give you an enlarged view):

This pile is a combination of books I've been assigned to review for New West (the first four fishing-related books) and three books I've started this past year but never finished, due to any number of new books catching my attention like the aforementioned butterflies.  I suspect this stack will take me well into February to finish (he says optimistically and just a tad foolishly).

With the exception of the Library of America Lynd Ward boxed set on top, this stack mostly consists of books written by friends and internet acquaintances.  Starting at the top and working my way down: A Father and an Island by O. Alan Weltzein, 600 Hours of Edward and The Summer Son by Craig Lancaster, Volt by Alan Heathcock, Quiet Americans by Erika Dreifus, The Ringer by Jenny Shank, Dog on the Cross by Aaron Gwyn, This is Not the Story You Think It Is by Laura Munson, In the Devil's Territory by Kyle Minor, Stranded by Jen Dutton (she and I went to grad school together), and Tim Sandlin's Gro Vont Trilogy (Social Blunders, Sorrow Floats, and Skipped Parts).  Note to any of these author-friends reading this: the order of this stack is not necessarily the order in which I'll read them, and there is a small chance I won't get around to reading them (see the Butterfly Caveat above).  In which case, feel free to heap copious amounts on guilt on my shoulders.  For me, guilt is as much a carrot as it is a stick on my hindquarters.

By the way, if any of those books look like something you might want to read, I encourage you to follow the links and add them to your shopping cart.  Having read at least a small portion of each book, I can assure you that your money will be well spent.  Who knows, maybe you'll even get around to reading them before me.

This stack starts off with a beautiful little edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland which I bought sometime in the past 18 months.  It fits neatly in the palm of my hand and has all the original John Tenniel illustrations.  I've never read Alice and this edition practically demands that I do so (instead of "DRINK ME," it says "READ ME").

Traveling downward, I come to the Montana section of Mount TRS: a history of Butte (Copper Camp), The Pass by Thomas Savage (which the aforementioned Alan Weltzein has been urging me to read for more than a year now), Everything by Kevin Canty, Half in Love by Maile Meloy, another Butte history (The War of the Copper Kings by Carl B. Glasscock), Blood Knot by Pete Fromm, Red Rover by Deirdre McNamer, and The Car That Brought You Here Still Runs by Frances McCue (which I'll probably read after I finish the collection of Richard Hugo poems I've been working my way through this year).

Then comes a novel about Charles Dickens and the doomed Arctic explorer John Franklin: Wanting by Richard Flanagan.  The next book, Then Came the Evening, is by an Idaho writer, Brian Hart, I heard read at this year's Montana Festival of the Book.  I liked what I heard so much that I ran out of the room and immediately bought Hart's novel at the festival bookstore.  Next comes another short story collection I've been wanting to read, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us by Laura van den Berg.  Another ambitious reading project for 2011 is the Library of America collection of Flannery O'Connor's novels and short stories, along with Brad Gooch's biography of Miss O'Connor.  Besides Charles Dickens, Flannery O'Connor has had the deepest influence on my own writing and I've been dying to read this highly-acclaimed biography.

When during my interview with Thomas McGuane I confessed that I had never read anything by Philip Roth, he insisted that I read American Pastoral.  And you know, when Captain Berserko insists, you have no choice but to obey.

And finally, three novels which are the biggest and brightest butterflies currently occupying my attention:  Aurorarama by Jean-Christophe Valtat, Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King, and The Four Fingers of Death by Rick Moody (apart from a couple of short stories, I've never read anything by Mr. Moody, so this looks like a good place to start).

Of all the stacks, this is the one which will likely receive the most attention; it's full of books that have either received rave reviews, are by authors I know and trust, or which practically carry the threat of death if I don't read them soon.  Not one to take such threats lightly, I'll be grabbing from this stack frequently in 2011.  At the top, we have two short story collections by Lewis Nordan, The All-Girl Football Team and Welcome to the Arrow-Catcher Fair.  These are both books I read years ago and which deserve a second go-through this year.  I'm a huge fan of Lewis Nordan--one of the most under-read, under-appreciated contemporary American writers.  I've said it before and I'll say it again, Nordan is the only writer I know who can break your heart while herniating you with laughter.

That thick unbound brick of pages you see beneath the Nordan books is the uncorrected proof of Adam Levin's The Instructions I received from McSweeney's some months ago.  When it comes time to actually read this 1,030-page behemoth, I'll probably open up the wallet and shell out a few clams for the hardbound version.  I doubt this unbound proof could survive the three weeks it will take me to read it.

 From there, the must-reads in the stack are: Tinkers by Paul Harding, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Skippy Dies by Paul Murray, The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pitard, The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier, Witches on the Road Tonight by Sheri Holman, Give Me Your Heart by Joyce Carol Oates (which is also this week's Friday Freebie--enter NOW), Gryphon by Charles Baxter, Long, Last, Happy by Barry Hannah, Room by Emma Donoghue, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower, the Volokhonsky-Pevear translation of Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, Sunnyside by Glen David Gold, and Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving.

 Whew!  (pats brow with handkerchief)

 Not shown in these photos are a couple of books I have queued up on my Kindle (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell and My American Unhappiness by Dean Bakopoulos) and on order from Amazon (Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon and Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand).

First, however, is this year's Agatha Christie.  I always try to start off the New Year with a cozy whodunit from the Queen of Crime.  This year, I think it will be The Seven Dials Mystery.

 So, there you have it: my overambitious, slightly unrealistic reading plan for 2011.  Given the fact that I only read an average of 50 books a year (this year, I managed to sneak in 52), there's a good chance many of these spines won't be cracked.  And then I'll spend the rest of the time wallowing in guilt.

 What about you?  What are you looking forward to reading in the coming year?


  1. Did you factor in all the books that will be released in 2011? My blueprint for reading this next year includes many more titles from the New York Book Review Classics series. Also, we're doing a twitter group read of John Williams' Butcher's Crossing (he wrote one of the best novels I've ever read, STONER); a group read of Middlemarch, the Lydia Davis translation of Proust, Room, Let the Great World Spin, and I would like to read one novel by Anthony Burgess just to see what I've been missing. Aren't we lucky to have so many choices? I will have read 48 novels this year; it's been wonderful.

  2. Sonya,

    A couple of 2011 releases are on my list, but I've mostly confined myself to the books I have on hand right now. If I start digging into publishers' catalogs, my head will explode. Of course, you've already started the bomb ticking by mentioning STONER and the Lydia Davis translation of MADAME BOVARY. Yikes!

  3. I have a long list for 2011 as well, starting with Bellow's Letters, and the collected fictions of Borges. I plan to read Spring Snow by the Japanese author Mishima, and some other Japanese writers since I know so little from that corner of the world. I also plan to read Proust's Remembrance- I have never read it. I remember where the writer Jim Harrison once said he was saving Joyce's Finnegan's Wake for the old folks home. I had the same idea with Proust. A few years ago, I started reading books by Julien Gracq- fantastic writing (not much plot), but I plan to finish up with his work available in English. I also want to read Skippy Dies, some Alice Munro, and Alistair MacLeod, another Canadian writer who I have never read. And Room,too. Years ago, I began a project where I would read at least one book by every Nobel Laureate for Literature. What I did not foresee then was that some of the winners have works not available in English, and my inability to read 12 or 13 languages fluently ground that idea to a halt. I believe I made it through 80 or so authors, but I keep checking for new translations every year. Finally, I plan to read some fly fishing books, too. I have never read Karas's book on brook trout, nor (ashamedly) have I read some of Lee Wulff's trout books, either.