Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Books Read - 2014

As is the annual tradition, here is the final list of books I completed reading in 2014, in chronological order of completion. As usual, links are to posts in which I've either written about the book or the author, or posted excerpts—though this year there were very few of either. The whole year featured just 13 posts overall prior to this one (down from only 25 from last year), several of which are only excerpts, or don't reference current reading at all. So it was an exceedingly slow year blogging-wise.

Following the list are comments and observations, plus the always all-important statistical breakdown.

1. The Meaning of Freedom, Angelia Y. Davis
2. Want to Start a Revolution? Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle, Dayo F. Gore, Jeanne Theoharis, & Komozi Woodard, eds.
3. Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited, Clinton Heylin
4. Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, Catherine Clinton
5. Either/Or, Part I, Søren Kierkegaard (Howard V. Hong & Edna H. Hong, trans.)
6. Glass, Irony & God, Anne Carson
7. The Black Woman: An Anthology, Toni Cade Bambara, ed.
8. Men In The Off Hours, Anne Carson
9. Plainwater, Anne Carson
10. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs
11. The Beauty of the Husband, Anne Carson
12. The Silent Crossing, Pascal Quignard (Chris Turner, trans.)
13. Highway 61 Revisited, Mark Polizzotti
14. Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880, W.E.B. Du Bois
15. The Hamlet, William Faulkner
16. The Wave, Evelyn Scott
17. On Strike Against God, Joanna Russ
18. Once Upon A Time: The Lives of Bob Dylan, Ian Bell
19. Gargantua & Pantagruel, Rabelais (J.M. Cohen, trans.)
20. The Childhood of Jesus, J.M. Coetzee
21. Odd Number, Gilbert Sorrentino
22. Blues People, LeRoi Jones
23. The Angela Y. Davis Reader, Joy James, ed.
24. The Einstein Intersection, Samuel R. Delany
25. My Struggle, Book Three, Karl Ove Knausgaard (Don Bartlett, trans.)
26. Prisoner of Love, Jean Genet (Barbara Bray, trans.)
27. "Worse Than Slavery": Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice, David M. Oshinsky
28. Generosity, Richard Powers
29. Black Feminist Thought (Updated 2nd Edition), Patricia Hill Collins
30. Strangers in the Universe, Clifford D. Simak
31. Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer
32. Authority, Jeff VanderMeer
33. Hotel Andromeda, Gabriel Josipovici
34. Understanding Waldorf Education, Jack Petrash
35. Like A Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads, Greil Marcus
36. Wars I Have Seen, Gertrude Stein
37. Report From Part One, Gwendolyn Brooks
38. Civil Wars, June Jordan
39. Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
40. Percival Everett by Virgil Russell, Percival Everett
41. American Desert, Percival Everett
42. Acceptance, Jeff VanderMeer
43. Trouble on Triton, Samuel R. Delany
44. Technical Difficulties: African-American Notes on the State of the Union, June Jordan
45. Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin
46. Maud Martha, Gwendolyn Brooks (re-read)
47. Soldier: A Poet's Childhood, June Jordan
48. Dust Tracks on a Road, Zora Neale Hurston
49. Erasure, Percival Everett
50. The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1941-1956
(George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn and Lois More Overbeck, eds.)
51. The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin
52. Gilead, Marilynne Robinson (re-read)
53. Home, Marilynne Robinson (re-read)
54. What Ever Happened To Modernism?, Gabriel Josipovici (re-read)
55. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. LeGuin
56. The Drama of the Gifted Child, Alice Miller (Ruth Ward, trans.)

Some statistics
Number of which substantial portions were read last year: 3
Number that are re-reads: 4
Number of books that were borrowed from the library: 22
Number of books that were borrowed from friends: 7
Number of books read on the Kindle: 1 (Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl)
Number of books written by men: 31
Number of different men represented: 24
Number of books written by women: 25
Number of different women represented: 16 (Note: two books, Want to Start a Revolution? & The Black Woman, are multi-author collections; the former is primarily woman writers, the latter entirely woman writers)
Number of books by American authors: 40
Number of American authors: 25
Number of books by black American authors: 22
Number of black American authors: 13
Number of black American women: 8 (13 books)
Number of black American men: 5 (9 books)
Number of books by non-American, English-language authors: 9
Number of non-American, English-language authors: 4
Number of non-American, English-language authors of color: 0
Number of books in translation: 7 (including Beckett's Letters)
Number of authors of books in translation: 7
Number of translated books by woman authors: 1 (Miller)
Number of foreign languages represented in translation: 4 (German, French, Norwegian, Danish)
Most represented foreign language: French (4: Rabelais, Quignard, Genet, Beckett)
Number of Nobel Prize-winners:3 (Beckett, Coetzee, Faulkner)
Number of books which were acquired via the Big Dalkey Get: 1 (Sorrentino's Odd Number is contained in Pack of Lies)
Number of other Dalkey books: 0

Number of novels: 22
Number of collections of short stories: 1 (Simak)
Number of books of poetry: 4 (to the extent that Carson's books can so easily be thus categorized)
Number that are plays or written for stage: 0
Number that could be categorized as science fiction: 7
Number of science fiction books written by women: 1

Number that are biographies or letters or memoirs: 10
Number that are philosophy or about philosophy: 1
Number that are books of criticism or essays: 6
Number that are about politics or economics or history: 18
Number about pop music: 4
Number about Bob Dylan: 4
Number about science: 0
Number explicitly feminist or about feminism: 3
Number about parenting or education: 2
Number that are anthropology: 0

Number of books from before 1800: 1 (Rabelais!)
Number of books from 1800 to 1899: 2 (Jacobs, Kierkegaard)
Number of books from 1900 to 1914: 0
Number of books from 1915 to 1940: 4 (Scott, DuBois, Hurston's Their Eyes, Faulkner)
Number of books from 1941 to 1950: 2 (Hurston's Dirt Tracks, Stein)
Number of books from 1951 to 1960: 3
Number of books from 1961 to 1970: 5
Number of books from 1971 to 1980: 4
Number of books from 1981 to 1990: 4
Number of books from 1991 to 1999: 5
Number of books from 2000 to 2010: 16
Number of books from 2011 to 2014: 10 

Comments & Observations:
I began this year in media res with two books, Angela Davis' The Meaning of Freedom and the multi-author essay collection, Want to Start a Revolution? The latter I managed to write about, at least a little bit, but I was remiss in not writing about the former, as I was in not writing about so much of my reading this year. Davis' book, which as a collection of speeches and other talks might seem minor when compared to her Autobiography or Women, Race, and Class, is in fact very much worth reading. Some of the questions she raises in her talks, some of the links made, as for example between prisons and slavery, led to my decision to make (American) slavery and its aftermath and legacy (some admittedly very broad ideas that I mean very broadly) a special focus in my reading going forward. In this, history, memoir, slave narrative, biography, and so on, served (and will serve) as my intentional reading choices.

I'd long felt I wanted to, but several of Davis' remarks led me to actually take the time to read DuBois' long but simply essential history, Black Reconstruction. I had so much I thought I'd wanted to say about that book, but never could bring myself to begin a real essay. Suffice it to say here that the current American political situation makes a lot more depressing sense after reading Black Reconstruction than it did before. Alongside this, I was also reading the Davis Reader, which has many excellent essays. Fascinated by what she said in one of them about the convict lease system (and the failure of Frederick Douglass and, to a lesser extent DuBois, to say anything about this post-Reconstruction atrocity), I read David Oshinsky's "Worse Than Slavery". This is a pretty good book, but the title is misleading and I have to think intentionally provocative. The title references what someone said about the convict lease system, but the book itself is not primarily about the convict lease system, rather the convict lease system is one element on the way to what is really the main topic, the Parchman Farm prison labor system (still important and very bad, but no one seemed to confuse it with slavery). Also, the book focuses a little too much on 'colorful characters', and as such gives off a whiff of 'narrative non-fiction', a book written by someone who flits from topic to topic, writing well-written books. Whereas something like the convict lease system, and prison labor in general, I think, would benefit greatly from both the urgency and theoretical base someone like Davis would bring to it.

Beyond Du Bois' history, I read Catherine Clinton's useful biography of Harriet Tubman and, finally, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. The death of Amiri Baraka, embarrassingly, led me to finally read the excellent Blues People (published when he was known as LeRoi Jones, and which I've owned a copy of for probably 20 years without reading), which also dovetailed nicely with one of the Davis Reader essays. This made me want to read more Jones/Baraka, which led me to look for the Reader I thought I had, but I fear that this was one of the books I discarded in my big purge. One of the few regrets on that front, but a regret it is. A reference by Davis to Jean Genet's comments about the Black Panthers in his Prisoner of Love had me digging that book out, not least because I had no memory of the Black Panthers having been in it when I'd read the first half of Prisoner of Love about ten years ago. I'd thought the memoir excellent at that time, yet still never returned to its second half. What I did this time was look up all references to the Black Panthers, read those, then read the rest of the book from where I'd left off. [Relevant update: I should definitely say here that the book is a primarily a memoir of Genet's time spent with Palestinian rebels in the early 1970s.]

Patricia Hill Collins' Black Feminist Thought was unfortunately a bit of a slog for me, which is too bad because I think it's an important book. After that, I read multiple books each by Gwendolyn Brooks, June Jordan, and Zora Neale Hurston. Highlights in this group were Brooks' intriguing sort of memoir Report From Part One, Jordan's fantastic essay collection Civil Wars, and Hurston's classic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (it deserves its reputation) and fascinating autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road. And I finally had some success with James Baldwin's essays, reading both Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time. About half of Notes, especially, is composed of utterly crucial essays that really every American should read.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is the first fiction I've mentioned in these notes, perhaps surprisingly. In fact, it took four months before I read any fiction at all this year, so it's fitting. While in the midst of Black Reconstruction, I was packing books for a move, and came across Faulkner's The Hamlet, the only Faulkner book I own that I had not yet read. I set it aside to read once I'd finished the Du Bois. Same was true of Evelyn Scott's The Wave. Interestingly, The Hamlet concerns poor whites in Reconstruction Mississippi (or probably just post-Reconstruction), and The Wave is Scott's big 'modernist' (so the back copy says) Civil War novel - and it's in many ways quite brilliant. Reading at that time two novels by Southern white writers about the Civil War period and its aftermath is not how I would have designed it, honestly; this was one of those accidents of history, as it were: I had them on hand, so they moved to the top of the pile.

Prior to said move in April, I'd noticed our then-housemate's copy of Anne Carson's Glass, Irony & God and quickly read it. I loved it. This led to a brief Carson focus, in which I read four of her poetry-cum-essay collections. I'd've read more, probably, but ran through my friend's copies, moved, then got re-focused on other things. I expect to return to Carson at some point, perhaps soon. That was about the only 'poetry' I read in 2014, though as usual, I did sample stray pages from the likes of Wallace Stevens, Rimbaud, T. S. Eliot, etc. This doesn't really belong here, but here it goes: I read another Gertrude Stein book, her strange and wonderful World War II memoir, Wars I Have Seen. Ditto Pascal Quignard's again more or less uncategorizable book The Silent Crossing - uncategorizable except that it's much like his other book, The Roving Shadows, which readers will recall that I read last year. After fully embracing the latter when I read it, I had many reservations about The Silent Crossing. I'd hoped to pull them together for a blog post, and may still. But in brief, I had several problems with the general theme this time round.

Brief interlude to include a list of books I read substantial portions of - or at least began in earnest - without yet completing by the year's end:

The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America, Gerald Horne
Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America, Saidiya Hartman
Not In My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City, Antero Pietila
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber
The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann (this one just missed the cutoff, alas, and will in short-order be the first book completed for 2015)

Books I'd read substantial portions of in 2013 and had fully expected to return to in 2014 but in fact never did: 

Feminisms, Warhol and Price Herndl, editors
Direct Action: An Ethnography, David Graeber
Praeterita, John Ruskin
Selected Prose, 1909-1965, Ezra Pound

Back to fiction, I again read a clutch of science fiction novels, including Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, which I liked, two more knotty books from Samuel R. Delany, and Jeff VanderMeer's much ballyhooed 2014 Southern Reach trilogy (Ethan more or less captured how I felt about the latter, despite being generally entertained). Off science fiction, I returned to old friend Gilbert Sorrentino, for his novel Odd Number, the first of what is now the Pack of Lies pseudo-trilogy. I tried to dive right into the second novel, Rose Theatre, but found it more or less unreadable at the time. Coetzee's The Childhood of Jesus was a strange experience, seeming weirdly inconsequential when placed aside his recent books. A trip to the library for another purpose had me picking up Richard Powers' Generosity. Powers was once my favorite novelist, which seems odd saying now. I used to snap his novels up immediately upon publication, but I'd passed on this one (as well as his new one, Orfeo, as yet). It was an enjoyable read. I'd had some interesting thoughts about it at the time, which have all more or less dissipated. At a separate library visit, my eye caught a recent novel by Percival Everett, a writer I'd long been curious about, but for some reason been somewhat skeptical of. I ended up reading three of his novels, beginning with the one that caught my eye. This one, Percival Everett by Virgil Russell, I thought was excellent, so I immediately and eagerly dove into American Desert from 2004, which was quite the opposite. Though it's not without its entertaining moments, I frankly disliked it; it seemed utterly pointless, and the prose perfunctory. It was then with less enthusiasm that I later tried the novel he's best known for, Erasure, but thankfully this one is much better. Moving along, readers will remember my re-reads of Marilynne Robinson's excellent novels Gilead and Home, both of which I managed to blog about.

I shouldn't forget that I finished Gargantua & Pantagruel and read Part I of Either/Or. Thoughts perhaps worthy of sharing on each remain as yet languishing in sketchy draft form. And since Rabelais and Kierkegaard are both at least in part associated in my mind with this blog's patron saint, Gabriel Josipovici, now seems a good place to mention that I read his latest novel Hotel Andromeda, which was up to his usual high standards, and re-read his wonderful What Ever Happened to Modernism? And there was volume III of Knausgaard's My Struggle, known elsewhere as "Boyhood Island". As with the first two volumes, I fairly consumed it, reading it very quickly, and found much to appreciate, but the urgency of the first volume seems to be gone.

Finally, I read four books about the music and/or life of Bob Dylan. First came Clinton Heylin's very informative, and for that useful and interesting, but often obnoxious and overall ploddingly written biography, Behind the Shades Revisited. Mark Polizzotti's enjoyable entry in the 33 1/3 series, about the great album Highway 61 Revisited, is much better. As was the first part of Ian Bell's two-part biography, Once Upon a Time: The Lives of Bob Dylan. Bell can be repetitive, but his approach is much more exploratory and curious than Heylin's, and his ideas more interesting, which makes for a more enjoyable reading experience no less than does his superior prose. All of this, and my ongoing full-blown Dylan obsession, led me to read a book I'd honestly mocked the existence of when it was first published, Greil Marcus' Like a Rolling Stone, which in the event I found to be very much a typical good Greil Marcus book, which is to say generally enjoyable, and by turns fascinating and ridiculous.

[Update: I realized, after posting this earlier, that I didn't really characterize my reading year, nor name specific favorites. I don't need to do either, of course, but I felt I wanted to. If I had to name, say, five favorite books of the year (not including re-reads), I think I'd go with Black ReconstructionGlass, Irony & God; Civil Wars; The Meaning of Freedom; and about half of Notes of a Native Son (that is, the good stuff in it is so good as to completely outweigh the not as good stuff). Overall it was a bit of a strange year. Looking back, it feels very choppy. I felt primarily focused on black writers and black history and experience, yet the stats don't bear that out. Or at least not in any straightforward way. Throughout the year, there were many marvelous pages in books that were frequently slogs. Not to mention that I was often wading through books in tired circumstances. This is not new either. Or books I found fascinating, or wholly engaging, but that I would have a hard time claiming as personal favorites. I don't know. This paragraph is pointless.]

And with that, I'll close here. Thanks for sticking with me, and thanks for reading. See you next year.

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