March Books

I read A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders this month.  Saunders is a professor at Syracuse and he reflects on the stories that he enjoys teaching the most and then goes through seven examples by four Russian authors (Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Gogol).  It does read like a class on fiction writing at times, but it was also really fun to watch someone who is undeniably good at something pick apart how other people do that thing.  I also enjoy people writing and discussing teaching, so this was right up my alley. I heard about this book because Saunders appeared on the So Many Damn Books podcast and he sold me on it.

All of that aside, I did get a little bit tired of the perspective of seven stories all told by old Russian dudes. So if you are looking for a read that has diversity of perspective ... this ain't that.


As is required whenever I mention George Saunders, I have linked to my favorite of his performances below.

41 thoughts on “March Books”

  1. I finished Normal People this past week. I can't remember where I'd heard about it. On here, maybe?

    It was a good book but I hated it. I can't stand to see two people continue to make bad decisions and have their lives spiral downward. That's why I wasn't a big fan of Gilligan's Island as a kid.

    1. LOL. The people on Gilligan's Island didn't spiral downward! They could have been Lord of the Flies, but they managed just fine. It was almost utopian, in fact!

      1. I don't know about that. Did you ever watch the movie? They couldn't cope with civilian life once they got off. They were basically Brooks from Shawshank!

    2. I loved it! I get what you're saying, but their decisions somehow felt so true to life that I could appreciate it. I probably talked about the book here, but it's going to take someone with admin powers to figure that out for sure.

  2. Three Novels Read in February. All three novels were translated from French, kind of an odd coincidence for this month:

    Exposition by Nathalie Leger

    The White Dress by Nathalie Leger

    Books 1 and 3 of Leger's tryptych about art and women. (Book 2 - A Suite for Barbara Loden was published a couple of years ago). Leger writes incredibly well, and the ideas in the books are so good. I started these shortly after I finished Leslie Jamison's Make it Scream, Make it Burn and the way Leger frames and puts ideas into writing just blew Jamison out of the water. Exposition is about Virginia Oldoini, who set out to be the most photographed woman in the world (this was in the 1850s or so). Interspersed with the thoughts about what story her pictures tell, the author also ruminates on the images of her own childhood and what they reveal or obscure. The White Dress has the story of the artist Pippa Bacca, who set out to hitchhike across Europe wearing a wedding dress as a way to promote world peace. In this case, the author contrasts this trust in humanity with the relationship between her mother and father and their relationship with her.

    Both were really good, although not page-turning novels by any stretch. You have to settle in for ideas and ruminations and contrasts and images held up against each other to see what sparks.

    Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes

    Despentes is always referred to as "provocative" in every blurb I've seen. The characters in this book certainly have their dials set to provocation. I got tired of so many diatribes and so many racist, xenophobic, homophobic, misogynistic, intolerant screeds. The book was what it set out to be, and there is always a place for righteous anger and disgust at these things, but it felt like a blunt object in this case, so that kept me from really getting anything out of it.

  3. I only managed to finish two books in February - Abaddon's Gate, book #3 in the Expanse series and "The Vital Abyss" one of the Expanse novellas that is suggested to be read between 3 & 4

    I've since started Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore and Cibola Burn, book #4 in the Expanse series. Splitting my time between two larger tomes meant neither got finished.

  4. I’m currently in the middle of Nate Chinen’s Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century, reading a chapter a week along with a friend. We’re pairing the chapters with two recent jazz albums, each of us selecting one, and then having a discussion by phone at the end of the week. It’s been a lot of fun. I’m also finishing Elliott Chaze’s Black Wings has My Angel (in the New York Review of Books edition), a noir novel that came with a compelling recommendation from a friend. I pounced on it because it’s a (rare?) noir novel not set in any coastal megalopolis, with some chapters taking place in rural stretches along the Gulf Coast and in the southwestern US, and a few city-based chapters in Denver and New Orleans. It’s lived up to its recommendation.

    1. I finished Black Wings has My Angel; it held up to my friend’s recommendation all the way through. He had just finished Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock, also an NYRB edition, and also gave it a strong endorsement. I thought, “What the heck? Might as well...”

      I absolutely love noir, but I do still have a saturation point. I might need to take a break after this, I suspect.

  5. Love me some Saunders, but I don't think I'll end up reading that book. Congratulations, by the way is a favorite graduation gift to give, though!

    I've read several books since last time. I really enjoyed:

    The Fifth Season is the first fantasy book I’ve read in a long time. Fantasy used to be my favorite genre, but over the years I have not been pulled into the fantasy books that I picked up. I struggled through some and gave up on others. The book was a refreshing breeze. The world building is approachable enough that I did not realize until I finished the book that there was an appendix in the back defining its newly created words. As with most fantasy novels, there is much within the book that is speaking to our real world and daily lives. In some areas the world of The Fifth Season is incredibly more punishing to the looked-down-upon of its society. In other areas the world of The Fifth Season does not look down, or even look twice, at groups of people who are marginalized in reality.

    The Song of Achilles was a fast read for me as well. As someone who knows nothing of the classics, I had read Madeline Miller's Circe a year or two ago and found that enjoyable. Were I knowledge about the classics, maybe I wouldn't have liked this book. But I did!

    I had more so-so reactions to The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Ready Player Two. They were OK reads, though.

    Oh, I also read Amusing Ourselves to Death. I almost put it away in favor of reading a synopsis somewhere, but it caught me about halfway through (it's a short book). In any case, it's only pushing me further down the "don't bother paying attention to the news" path I was already on.

  6. Finished From Beirut to Jerusalem by Minny's own T. Friedman, and the Atlas of Countries that Don't Exist (Middleton).

    At page 611 of Stick's Washington read (Chernow).

  7. My son asked me to read the Hitchhiker quadrilogy. We're halfway through the second book. He now walks around the house pretending to be Marvin.

  8. My trip through the presidents has picked up some steam. I read about 2000 pages this month, which is not quite what I need to average to complete the project in one year, but I am pretty happy with my progress.

    On the first day of the month, I finished, Washington, A Life by Ron Chernow, which I talked about last month. Subsequent to that, I completed John Adams by David McCollough, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, and James Madison, A Biography, by Ralph Ketcham. Wowzers.

    Let me first say that I am an engineer by education, I had a miserable US History teacher in high school, so I've come at this project with a fair amount of ignorance. My goal was to learn, truly learn about the American presidency and the current political climate through the lens of history. I've learned a ton(!) and I wonder how much of it will be in my memory a year from now, but it has been enjoyable.

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    1. One thing I meant to add about Madison was that as president he tried very hard to maintain his ideals about how the federal government should function (limited!). But, he found out during the war that sometimes, you know, you kind of have to do things or the whole damned thing is going to burn to the ground. However, his last act as president was to veto legislation that he approved of, but that he felt (wrongly, I think) needed a Constitutional amendment. Imagine that kind of behavior in 21st Century America.

      1. Also, there was a fair amount of angst about whether acquiring the Louisiana territory was Constitutional. Imagine that. A world power hands you a huge tract of language for pennies an acre and you are worried about whether the government has to power to accept that gift. These same people owned other human beings. The incongruity of their thinking is REMARKABLE.

        1. One other thing that I wanted to say about Adams is that for all of his warts, I firmly believe that he was a true American hero after reading the Jefferson and Madison books. One of the things that he did was lend support to the Madison administration when Federalists in Massachusetts were down right disloyal and it seems traitorous. Madison, who was a severe critic of Adams, appreciated that support and I think it showed that he was first and foremost, an American patriot.

      2. Here's another thing that I thought was very interesting. Both Washington and Madison married young widows who had children, but neither of these presidents had children of their own. Both of them, though, had step children who were real problems. Jacky Custis was a ne'er do well who Washington was unable to get straight. He died at the age of 26.

        Dolley Madison's son Payne Todd, was a gambler and a drinker who ran up almost ruinous debts that Madison paid off. He ended up selling land to finance his step-son's gambling habit, which totaled into the tens of thousands of dollars (real money back in those days). After Madison died, his wife was destitute, so Payne literally robbed his mother of her inheritance.

        Both Martha Washington and Dolley Madison were pretty young (Martha was 28, Dolley was 26) when they married for a second time, so these children were under the care of the presidents from a relatively young age. It seems that they may not have been too attentive to their stepsons and both turned out to be scoundrels.

    2. Are you planning to read Ammon's book about James Monroe? I read that one about 15 years ago and thought it was dry but pretty good at filling in some details about the first president who wasn't really a Founding Father.

  9. I finished Ducks, Newburyport, and it was phenomenal. One of the best books I've ever read. I can't say enough good things. The book touched upon everything. I couldn't believe how many times arcana from my daily life just popped up in the book. Despite being published on July 4, 2019, there was even a passage about a black man being choked by police for passing a counterfeit $20. If you do get around to reading it, you can actually talk to DG and I about it!

    I then read Real Life by Brandon Taylor. While it's getting all sorts of fiction buzz, I wasn't particularly into it. Admittedly, I'm not a queer black man (and a book is focused on the main character's struggle about his identity), but the characters almost seemed to be too generic to me.

    I'm just about done with David Treuer's The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, a book about the Native American experience since 1890. It's very good (and a little Minnesota-centric because Treuer is from the Leech Lake Reservation) but also a little bit disorganized. It can't quite decide if it's a history book or a book of anecdotes, and it struggles threading that needle in a few places.

  10. I adored Tenth of December when I read it a number of years ago, but I haven't read any other books by Saunders since then. Someday!

    The peperoncino's Harry Potter obsession continues. We just recently finished Half-Blood Prince, though he made me skip the chapters leading up to and including

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  11. Last night I finished A Man Called Ove, and it's worth a recommendation. Just a sweet little book. A bit heavy-handed and predictable in both the beginning and the end, but the middle is a fun little ride, and I both laughed out loud and cried at this book, so that's something.

    1. A while ago, I was book shopping with my mom and I was reading the back cover of this book, and she said that she had read it and really liked it, but said that she couldn't imagine a book less likely to match my reading taste.

      Not sure what that says about my reading taste, but I chuckled at the memory when I saw the title come up here.

      1. I'd guess that what she meant was "this book is about normal people in normal places dealing with normal things, and you clearly have no tolerance for anything remotely normal, and would it hurt you to call a little more often?"

  12. No books read this month. I am a month behind on my Economist. Maddow's Bag Man is sitting on my bedside table, judging me.

    And I just bought Donna Jackson Nakazawa's The Angel and the Assassin. Really looking forward to reading that.

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