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Finishing 50 Books in a Year (2017)

My reading goal in 2017 started with a desire to finish a number of the books which I had started over the past three years for the purpose of getting them off my “Currently reading” list. On the list, those books which I started before 2017 are marked with an *. I’ve sorted the books into four categories: F (Fiction), NF (Non-fiction), E (Essays), and P (Poetry). Additional notes have been provided for distinctive experiences, or other informational tidbits.

Most interesting was the way the type of book I read evolved. In the last few years, I’ve displayed a propensity for non-fiction, particularly high theory and neo-Marxist economic treatises (lots of things published by Verso and Semiotext(e)). In the name of expediency, I turned to both poetry and fiction. Around the time I picked up Bruce Sterling’s Pirate Utopia (an excellent alternate history where the short-lived Futurist state the Regency of Carnaro, does not fail), with its introduction by Warren Ellis, I determined that I should attempt to read more fiction. That path led me to The Ballad of Black Tom, the genius of Victor LaValle, and a taste of the recent spate of Tor Publications of new Lovecraftian stories focusing on the voices that H.P. himself would have overlooked.

Working with the Lovecraft Arts and Science Council opened up a wealth of opportunities to pick up more Weird fiction (contemporary and otherwise). My time with them began in earnest around October, which is reflected, somewhat, in the wealth of Weird fiction novels that make their way onto the list around that time.

  1. Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco [01.09] *F
  2. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams [01.11] – F
  3. Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams [01.17] – F
  4. Governing by Debt by Mauricio Lazzarato [01.19] *NF
  5. Hellboy’s World, Monsters in the Margins by Scott Bukatman [02.11] – NF
  6. Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine [????] – P
  7. Six Memos for the New Millenium by Italo Calvino [03.13] – E
  8. Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling [????] – F
  9. Patient by Bettina Judd [04.10] – P
  10. The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle [04.17] – F
  11. The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle [04.27] – F
  12. The Agony of Eros by Byung Chul-Han [05.06] – NF
  13. Curious Visions of Modernity by David L. Martin [05.20] – NF
  14. Failure and I Bury the Body by Sasha West [05.26] *P
  15. No Accident by Aaron Anstett [????] – P
  16. The Panopticon Writing by Jeremy Bentham [06.03] *(more @ this post)
  17. Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion [06.11] – E
  18. Between Ghosts by Reno Dakota/SJ Lee [06.18] – P
  19. The White Album by Joan Didion [06.23] – E
  20. Books v. Cigarettes by George Orwell [06.24] *E
  21. Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery [06.29] – F (French)
  22. The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White [07.05] – NF
  23. Frank Miller’s Daredevil and the End of Heroism by Paul Young [08.06] – NF
  24. Censorship Now!! by I.F. Svenonius [08.14] – NF
  25. A Short Guide to Writing About Film, 3rd Ed. by Timothy Corrigan [08.26] – NF
  26. Girls Omnibus by The Luna Bros. [08.30] – F (Graphic Novel)
  27. 13 Views of the Suicide Woods by Bracken MacLeod [09.09] – F
  28. Teatro Grottesco by Thomas Ligotti [09.10] – F
  29. On Tyranny: 20 Lessons from the 20th Century by Timothy Snyder [09.21] – NF
  30. The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance by Franco “Bifo” Berardi [09.22] *NF
  31. Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer [10.11] – F
  32. Authority by Jeff Vandermeer [10.13] – F
  33. Acceptance by Jeff Vandermeer [10.14] – F
  34. Islands in the Net by Bruce Sterling [10.28] – F
  35. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera [11.13] – F
  36. Looming Low Vol. 1 by Justin Steele and Sam Cowan, eds. [11.20?] – F
  37. Songs of Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti [11.25] * – F
  38. King Lear by William Shakespeare [12.01] – F
  39. War of the Foxes by Richard Siken [12.03] – P
  40. Agents of Dreamland by Caitlyn R. KIernan [12.05] – F
  41. Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw [12.05] – F
  42. Unnatural Creatures by Neil Gaiman, ed. [12.08] – F
  43. Parasite Life by Victoria Dalpe [12.09] – F
  44. Beta Decay #1 & 2 by Andrew Jackson King [12.15] – F
  45. The Dream Quest of Vellit Boe by Kij Johnson [12.19] – F
  46. A Guide to Undressing Your Monsters by Sam Sax [12.28] *P
  47. Beta Decay #3 & 4 by Andrew Jackson King [12.29] – F
  48. A User’s Guide to the Demanding Impossible by Gavin Grinden and John Jordan [12.30] – NF
  49. Kissing Dead Girls by Daphne Gottlieb [12.30] P
  50. City, rediscovering the center by William Whyte [01.11.18] – NF

Obviously, I extended my deadline of “the end of 2017” by a little, but I needed to motivate myself to finish City by William Whyte, not because it was bad, but because the last few chapters deal almost exclusively with the issues facing zoning boards and their habits. Without underselling my enthusiasm for city planning, descriptions of zoning board decisions don’t even have the excitement of watching them make come about as one is able to do in transcripts or in person.

A list of 50 books does pretty much no one any good, however, so instead, I will tease my list of Top 10 Books I recommend after 2017:

  1. The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
  2. Failure and I Bury the Body by Sasha West
  3. The Elements of Style by Strunk and Whyte
  4. On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder
  5. Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer
  6. Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin R. Kiernan
  7. 13 Views of the Suicide Woods by Bracken MacLeod
  8. Beta Decay (whatever Issue you can find) by Andrew Jackson King
  9. Girls Omnibus by the Luna Brothers
  10. Kissing Dead Girls by Daphne Gottlieb

More on those ten books to follow.

Capsule Reviews I

It has seemed incomprehensible to some that there should be any need or desire for horror fiction when one need only look to the newspaper or out the window to find things to make one’s blood run cold.

But Professor Nobody, who makes his appearance in Thomas Ligotti’s Songs of a Dead Dreamer, explains why it is exactly, in moments of turmoil and distress, that we turn to horror fiction, not as individuals, but as a collective:

“In transforming natural ordeals into supernatural ones, we find the strength to affirm and deny the horror, to savor and suffer them at the same time. […] In story and song, we could entertain ourselves with the worst we could think of, overwriting real pains with ones that were unreal and harmless to our species.”
— “Professor Nobody’s Little Lectures,” Thomas Ligotti

With that in mind, consider picking up the following titles the next time you are at loose ends and looking for something to read.

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer

Beyond a barrier blocking off a portion of the Floridian peninsula, some kind of otherworldly natural rejuvenation is at work. In Annihilation, the first book, we join the 12th expedition across the barrier as they seek to understand what is happening in Area X, but few things are as they first appear. The first installment works excellently as a stand alone narrative, introducing us to Area X and establishing the tantalizing promise of the Southern Reach, the government department tasked with understanding Area X. The subsequent two books take you deeper into the mystery of Area X and the Southern Reach to find answers that are as strange and satisfying as the questions to which they correspond. Vandermeer’s lush prose is rivaled only by the Florida landscape it describes and the elegant tapestries of his characters.

Ultimately, Jeff Vandermeer’s alienating masterpiece might best be described as it was by the reviewer Scott Christensen on Google Books: “It’s kind of a love story at the end. And I thought that was sweet.”

(Read Annihilation to prepare for its cinematic adaptation, starring Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Oscar Isaac.)

Looming Low (Vol. 1) Edited by Justin Steele and Sam Cowan

The first anthology out of Dim Shores, a press established by Justin Steele and Sam Cowan, which has made a name for itself publishing chapbooks from esteemed Weird fiction authors Jeffrey Thomas, and more recently, Gemma Files and Joseph S Pulver, Sr.

Looming Low Vol. 1 serves as a whistle stop tour of contemporary Weird fiction. It features works by established names like Michael Cisco, Brian Evanson, Livia Llewellyn, and S.P. Miskowski. It also features stories by less immediately familiar names, and as a whole serves as an excellent introduction to Weird fiction and its impressive variety of styles and topics; from the supernatural to the mundane, the romantic to the fraternal, and beyond the human heart is metamorphosed before your eyes as it tangles with the incomprehensible and the irreconcilable.

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti

Thomas Ligotti has been described as a mix between Kafka and Lovecraft. His personal brand of transcendental horror, as if Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau had ascended to that higher spiritual plane only to realize that life is something worse than a cosmic joke, is utterly unlike anything else. His dreamy, rotting post-industrial landscapes peel back to reveal humanity dancing on the end of a string, while elsewhere, close by, the universe laughs.

Perhaps most effectively, unlike the hapless or blissfully ignorant characters which popular Weird and Science fiction, who stumble upon unimaginable horrors, Ligotti’s characters often walk into the knowledge with some semblance of forewarning. His seekers after truth are aware that they are damning themselves by looking, but cannot keep themselves from it.

The Penguin classics single volume re-release of his first and second collections of short stories (Songs and Grimscribe, respectively) is an opportunity for everyone to re-/discover this master of dread.

The Easiest Way to Travel : five tips to help you read more.

Reading is the cheapest journey you’ll ever be able to take. It’s an opportunity to visit cities you’ve never been to, try foods you’ve never heard of, and meet people you would never be able to meet otherwise. But like all travel, it can be daunting to undertake. It is a harder choice to go somewhere new than it is to stay at home, where things are familiar and easy.

Many of us used to take these trips all the time, as children. Unencumbered by anxiety or responsibilities or knowledge, we would pick up a book and instantly be transported somewhere else. It was easy to go and easy to return to those places again and again until the adventure was over, or until we tired of it.

But adulthood brings with it all sorts of excuses to stay home and avoid these excursions into fantastic worlds, both ordinary and otherworldly. It becomes difficult to reach for a story with all the noise of Real Life clamoring on the edges of our consciousness, threatening us with the spectre of “not enough time”.

Nevertheless, for those who wish to get back to it, I have five tips to make it easier to get back to traveling.

1. Audio books

Everyone is busy. Finding the time to get anything done can be a challenge. From obligations, to desires, to necessities, it can be difficult to fit it all in around the rush of chores and commutes and commitments.

There is an option for people who want to do two things at once; audio books leave your hands free. If you’re able to listen while you fold laundry, cook dinner, or drive to work, you have plenty of time that can be used to find out what happens next in any book of your choice.

For anyone who listens to podcasts, this is a great option. It’s just a matter of switching content, rather than form. This is not to say that you need never listen to a podcast again, but if you’re feeling starved for the experience of reading a book, you don’t have to rearrange your entire life to find a way to fit it in.

Even better, if you’re willing to read something a little bit older, plenty of people make use of works that are out of copyright to make audio books, and upload them for free on YouTube! Rather than signing up for a service like Audible right off the bat, try The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
or an Edgar Allen Poe story first.

2. Ebooks

Others, like me, might find the idea of someone reading to them grating. I grew up with my father reading me The Hobbit and Harry Potter and Alice in Wonderland, while I had a few Maurice Sendak stories on tape and an audio book of My Father’s Dragon I love my father’s reading voice best. I’m not willing to trade the experience in for anyone else. I’d rather hear the stories in my own head, than aloud in someone else’s voice. But that doesn’t mean I’m out of options.

Despite the fact that ebooks lack much of the tactile experience of book books, that doesn’t mean they must be dismissed entirely out of hand. If you’re trying to read something really thick, like David Graeber’s Debt, the first 5000 years which clocks in at a whopping 700-odd pages, you might not want to carry it around in your bag on the off chance you find some time to read a few pages.

Likewise, on a crowded commuter train or bus, you don’t necessarily want to pull out a book of any size, wrestling with your bag, finding a comfortable position to hold it, worrying that you’ll poke someone around you with the corners, or, perhaps worst of all, fearing someone might read the cover of the book and judge you or attempt a conversation with you about it. It’s a minefield. Ebooks provide a clever way around those problems.

I read most of Victor LaValle’s The Devil in Silver on my tablet going to and from campus during my last semester at school. However, I also read bits and piece of it, and Bruce Sterling’s Pirate Utopia on my phone when there wasn’t room to pull my tablet out, or I was running errands that didn’t require me to bring it along. Most ebook services, be they from Google, Amazon, Apple, or someone else, will let you sync your current page across devices, so you can pick up where you left off, regardless of which device you were reading on at the time.

3. Change your habits

Reading ebooks on you phone brings me to my most important point: don’t just change how you read, but what you read.

The average American spends approximately two hours a day on social media.1 That’s a lot of time. Most of the time you’re on social media, you’re reading something whether it is tweets, facebook statuses, or captions for cute cat pictures.

I’m not here to rail against social media. But if you put your ebook app next to Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram, whichever app is your vice of choice, you’ll be giving yourself the option to choose whether you want to look at pictures of a vacation you didn’t take, food you haven’t eaten, or people you haven’t spoken to, or whether you want to take a trip somewhere you’ve never been, eat food you’ve never encountered, or meet people you’d never be able to meet.

You don’t have to replace social media with books completely, even if you just spent half as long on social media, you’d be reading seven more hours a week than before. That’s a lot of reading.

4. Start small

Maybe seven hours won’t let you read all of Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum (600+ pages), you might not even be able to get through all of Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency — but you can probably finish three stories from Raymond Carver’s collection, Cathedral.

It can be daunting to face down an entire book or novel when you’ve been out of the reading game for a while. But that’s why we have poetry, short stories, and essays. There are plenty of stories which will transport you which can be read in seven hours. You might try Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities which will take you to a new city with every page turn. Or you could read the short stories of Robert W. Chambers (which are in the public domain), or discover the absolute genius of Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom which is only 100 pages.

Equally you could read the essays of James Baldwin, or enjoy the desolate road trip in Sasha West’s poetry collection Failure and I Bury the Body. The worlds of poetry and short fiction are sterling examples of the adage “Less is more.” They have the added benefit of helping you get used to traveling. It’s a weekend in New York City or New Hampshire, rather than a week long stay in Paris. Once you’ve whet your palate with the more manageable reading lengths, you’ll be ready to launch yourself headfirst back into novels, biographies, and history books.

5. Set goals

Everyone has a bit of a competitive streak in them. Maybe you have a friend you challenge to seemingly impossible tasks (like who can read the longest book), maybe you have a coworker whom you look up to because they seem to be able to do it all — and then some, or maybe you like to push yourself to achieve new markers of success. Not everyone is up for the quantification of their lives, but humans love to watch numbers increase.

With that in mind, maybe you set yourself a goal of how many pages you want to read a day, or how many books you want to read a month, or you have a list of “Great Books” you’d like to read before you die. But give yourself something to work towards, because sometimes, the most satisfying part of a reading experience, is finishing the book. As someone with a tendency to read political and economic theory, there are lots of books I read with the goal of finishing them. The experience is always entertaining and illuminating, but there are stretches where I find myself thinking “just 10 more pages to the next section, just 5 more pages, just 3 more…” and then I put the book down and go do something else, like watch TV or take a walk while the information percolates.

Personally, I set myself a goal of finishing 50 books by the end of the year. I decided to exclude graphic novels, but I’ve allowed myself to include poetry collections. I look at my list and I’m proud to say that with 33 books read I’m over halfway through, although I can still see myself sliding in under the wire on December 31st, to get to that sought after fifty.

What I like about my arbitrary numeric goal is that it leaves me free to read whatever I want. I’ve also let myself include books I started reading years ago, but never finished. At the same time, I’m pushing myself to read more fiction, rather than only theoretical nonfiction.

Your goals don’t have to be immediately clear. You’ll find that the more reading you do, the more motivated you are to do certain types of reading. The loveliest part of coming back to reading is remembering the joy of the process. With every book you read, you learn something new about yourself, and you are reminded of the places you’ve always wanted to go; literary fiction, historical fiction, geopolitical analysis, science fiction, historic essays.

So, take what you will from these little tidbits. Get back to reading, and give yourself the time to get away from Real Life. Go somewhere you’ve never been, eat something you’ve never heard of, meet some people who you’d never be able to meet otherwise.

Ride Share Profiles II

E.

10 October 2017, UberX.

E. drives a shiny, new looking, red Toyota Camry. I only know the make of the car, because I remember reading it off the Google maps page with my UberX ride information. It’s weird to realize that I can see the route suggested by the app displayed on my own screen while this stranger drives to pick me up. I find myself critiquing the algorithm, because I have my own ingrained routes which offer themselves automatically when I register someone’s location.

He’s not quite my father’s age, but nevertheless, he reminds me that the sharing economy is not, as promised, a source of income for young workers looking to make some extra cash, but a source of income for people of all ages.

It’s nearly eleven in the morning, and he’s driving me to work in downtown Providence. I missed the bus and figured this is what the so-called “sharing economy” was made for: using someone’s side gig to get to my own side gig.

I ask him how he’s doing and he’s cheerful. His radio is tuned to 95.5 FM, which used to be WBRU – Brown University’s student radio station – but was recently sold and now broadcasts Christian rock music. I wonder if it’s a hold over, or if it’s a recent addition to his radio presets.

It turns out he’s from Puerto Rico. He tells me he still has family there, his mother and his brother. I ask how they’re doing and he says they’re fine. The house is made of concrete and withstood the weather, they have water from the ground, and his brother had bought a large generator. They have water and power, so they’re alright, he says. The only problem is food; the supermarkets are only letting people in 10 at a time to avoid mayhem and to ensure that people only take a few of the things they need, rather than everything. If you need batteries, you can only take two packets.

He asks me if I’m going to work, I say that I am, and that I usually take the bus, except that I missed it this morning. He tells me about how he took the bus once, in 1991 with his kids and said “never again.” The next year, 1992, he got a car. I mention that the bus is always crazy, always somebody having some problem on the bus. (The two bus lines which run near my house run between two transit centers and one runs between hospitals. A large portion of the regular riders are people who make use of the city’s human services – you see a lot of colorful characters, and hear a lot of interesting stories.)

E. tells me that he used to ride the train when he lived in New York. Always there were people who would get into fights and cause trouble. If a seat opened up, you’d have to deal with other people who wanted to sit there, regardless that you’d both been waiting for it. He’d often let other people take it, he says, he doesn’t know if the person who was sitting there was sick. Better to avoid the fight and the uncertain cleanliness. He’d wait for the seat to get cold, he says.

I ask him about living in New York; how long did he live there?

He went in 1977, three months before the Blizzard of ’77. He never forgot it, he says. At the time, he’d been living in an illegal basement apartment. There was no door leading to a hallway on the inside, only a door to the outside. When the snow piled up, there was no way for them to get out. The landlady didn’t want to call the cops or the fire department because the apartment itself was illegal. They were stuck there for days, eventually, she did call the fire department. When they showed up, they cut a hole in the floor of the kitchen and pulled everyone out. No more basements apartments after that, he said.

He asked me about my parents, I said that both of my parents had been born here, in Providence, but that my mother’s family was Greek, and my father’s father was Puerto Rican, but grew up in New York, and my father’s mother was from Ohio. So you have Puerto Rican blood, he asks. Yes, I say. But you’ve never been there? No, I tell him, but I’d really like to go sometime.

He tells me that July is the best month to visit Puerto Rico. Every day is a carnival. One day they’ll close one street, the next they’ll close another. It’s the best month to go on vacation. He always tells people to visit Puerto Rico in July. Wait for them to get everything back to normal, and go on vacation in July. I tell him I’ll do that.

I really hope I’ll have the chance to do so.

Ride share Profiles I

L.

08 October 2017, Lyft.

It’s dark, and I don’t notice what kind of car she drives. I think it’s silver, and I know it’s some kind of four door sedan. As always, I’m entranced by the weird little bulbous LED screen that Lyft provides its drivers. The tail end of my friend’s name scrolls across and I inform her that I’m not Eric, although I am the person who will be taking the ride. In the dark, I spot a flash of a tattoo on her arm; it’s the triforce from the Legend of Zelda games.

Driving through the greater Boston metro area at night is one of my favorite experiences. I say I’m trying to catch the last train to Providence, because I have work the next morning. She asks me what I do and I explain that it’s a part time gig working in a bookstore. I’m looking for work, I tell her. What do you hope to do? I studied journalism, I say.

I assume she doesn’t drive for Lyft full time and ask what she does outside of this work. She corrects me, kindly, and I apologize. It’s good money, she says.

I ask her what she would be doing if she could do anything, and she tells me she studied to be a jeweler. She had an agreement to take on an apprenticeship, but it fell through, because the jeweler she would have been apprentice to is moving into the holiday season and doesn’t have time to take her on.

I tell her I’m also hoping to get experience before moving into a more freelance position. We’re both newly graduated, although we both seem like non-traditional graduates. She tells me that she’s completed all her classes and walked in the spring, but that she couldn’t pay for the last two classes, so her degree is being held hostage by the university.

Without a degree, she can’t find work. The car is dark, and we’re both facing forward, and under the passing street lights we take confession. We share our fears about moving to a big city, without a job, merely because we know that’s where the jobs are. Even entry level positions require 3 years experience, she says. In the dark, I nod. As we’re getting on the freeway, Fall Out Boy’s Just One Yesterday starts playing on her radio, and I think about the time I spent away from school.

Making rent in Boston is scary, she tells me. I tell her that I think I’m going to have to find work in Idaho. Maybe it’s time to do things that scare me, she says. Maybe so, I think.

Her degree was more theoretical, than practical. Though she studied jewelry, her program had no prerequisites, and so she would find herself in advanced classes with a bunch of beginner students, which would stymie her opportunity to learn more technical aspects. She spent her education making fashion jewelry, the showy, and sometimes cumbersome, pieces that we’re might be familiar with from the runway, or in galleries. It’s not the sort of thing one would wear in a regular situation.

She had hoped to start her apprenticeship while still in school. But at the time she was working part time, going to school, and driving for Lyft, which was already difficult to manage, adding the apprenticeship would have been impossible.

If she can’t get an apprenticeship, there’s a school in San Francisco she is interested in. Without the apprenticeship, she can’t get a job. If she can’t get the apprenticeship, more school will have to do.

When we pull up to south station, we wish each other luck.