Read and run

"If there is an amateur reader still left in the world- or anybody who just reads and runs- I ask him or her, with untellable affection and gratitude, to split the dedication of this book four ways with my wife and children."


Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction

What I am reading, 08 May

The Yellow Sofa by Eça de Queiros

I just started this. At this point in the plot the main character is thinking about why, exactly he is so interested in his coworker’s torrid love affairs, even though he (the main character) is very much in love with and very faithful to his wife. Foreshadowing?! I loved The City and the Mountains, so I have high hopes.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

I started this, got six chapters into it, and put it down (for now). I’ve wanted to read it for a while- it’s on my list, so I must have seen a good review of it at one time or another. But I’m sick of prescriptivist food writing. Once again I have to say that this is my opinion at this particular time in my life. But since everything a pregnant woman eats is up for discussion by everyone all the time, I got fed up with worrying about it about four months ago and now I’m eating all the deep-fried beignets, full-fat ice cream, unwashed strawberries, and factory-farmed hamburgers I can hold. Go ahead, tell me this is bad for the baby. I DARE YOU.


Also, I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma years ago and found it much more interesting, and it is practically the same book.

What I was reading last week:

Intruder in the Dust by William Faulkner.

SO GOOD. And so unlike any other Faulkner novels that I’ve read! No, that’s not entirely true. Many of his other novels are funny (darkly, morbidly so) and poignant, but this is the only one that I could describe in any way as gripping. Like, I was staying up way past my normal bedtime because I wanted to know what happened. I suppose you could describe it as a stream-of-consciousness murder mystery? Perhaps it’s better not to describe it at all.

Highly recommended, though not to someone who doesn’t like Faulkner, or who has never read him, as there are probably other more accessible novels. Here is a good discussion about which of his novels is the best for a beginner, if you’re interested.

The Control of Nature by John McPhee.

Very good non-fiction about humans trying to control things that are very clearly beyond us (though sometimes we are successful). The book has three sections, about the Mississippi River, a volcano in Iceland, and debris flows in California. The most interesting part was the section about Iceland, because I love volcanoes, and also because it is an underdog story with a happy ending. The volcano just popped up out the nowhere and started spewing lava! A good portion of the town was saved, and people live there today! So cool.

The other two sections were more frustrating to read because they were about the ways we try to control nature for our own selfish purposes. I found myself rooting for both the Mississippi River (vs the Army Corps of Engineers) and for the San Gabriel Mountains (vs people who build houses in the path of debris flows), but then again I’m a bit misanthropic.

What I am reading - 23 April

The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis. Although Amis was a prolific writer it seems like the only book of his anyone is familiar with anymore is Lucky Jim, and with reason. I’ve also read The Biographer’s Moustache, which was mediocre, and while I’m enjoying The Old Devils, it’s got nothing on Lucky Jim (yet). The story follows, so far, four or five late middle-aged/old men in various states of decrepitude, and one thing that I do like about the book is how little dignity the main characters have. This is no Exit Ghost (still one of the worst books I’ve ever read), where the incontinent main character fantasizes about seducing a much, much younger woman. No, in The Old Devils I think you can very clearly see Amis making fun of himself. I like that.

What I was reading last week:

Dancing Girls by Margaret Atwood. Very, very good collection of short fiction. I’ve never read any of Atwood’s short stories before, but they are entirely in keeping with the rest of her works. Insightful, but disturbing, all in some way about women. I especially liked “When It Happens”, which is sort of a cross between “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and The Road, and “Giving Birth”, which, though fiction, seems more relevant to me than all five million pregnancy/childbirth articles I have read in the last six months. But that’s just me. More specifically, that’s just me right now.

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle. At first I thought this was a litany about all the terrible ways children torture and abuse each other, but then I started to like it (but not necessarily enjoy it), and in the end it got very, very good. It is a difficult read, being composed of vignettes and having no discernable plot, but I liked it very much, much more than A Star Called Henry (the only other Doyle I’ve read).

What I am reading

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GOOD QUESTION.

I’ve got three books going at the moment. First, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. My mom came to visit over the Easter holidays and graciously brought me all seven HP books, which weigh a collective 25 lbs (or so). I’ve been wanting to read them again for a while, more than anything to see how they’ve held up over the last ten years. I really enjoy going back to read books I loved as a child (or as a college student, in the case of Harry Potter), because they are always so different from the way I remembered them, though of course I am the one who has changed.


The HP books haven’t changed that much, since it has only been a decade since I read the first one, but the farther I get into the series, the more adult they become. There are some vaguely dirty jokes that I missed the first time around. But I’m also struck by how full of unfairness they are. I think The Order of the Phoenix is the most difficult of the seven books, because of that terrible, terrible woman, Dolores Umbridge. But she is really just a continuation of all the unfairness that Harry Potter has had to endure since the beginning. The pattern is this: Harry arrives at the start of term, happy to see his friends, then bad things start happening to him (and mostly him), no one believes his side of the story, everyone hates him until the end of the book, when the truth comes out and his name is cleared. But by that time we’ve slogged through 500 pages of mistrust, unfair punishments, helplessness, spite, and bitterness. It’s wearing. I actually thought about skipping The Order of the Phoenix because I remember that Umbridge woman being so infuriating that I got no pleasure out of reading the book.

Anyway, I can’t recommend it either way. It’s Harry Potter, you already know what it’s about, and if you haven’t already read it, nothing I can say will change your mind.


Second, I’m reading The Burial at Thebes, which is Seamus Heaney’s retelling (??) of Antigone. I’m reading it at the same time as The Order of the Phoenix because the latter weighs half a ton and I’ve got to carry something else to read on the metro. I can’t comment much on it, as I’m only a dozen pages in, but I am finding the modern(ish) language both very accessible and somewhat offputting.


Third, I’m reading parts of What to Expect the First Year. My old boss gave this to me when she found out I was pregnant, and between us it’s full of bullshit. Ok, that’s not entirely true. It has a lot of useful information, but it subtly (and sometimes explicitly) stresses over and over that the baby is YOUR responsibility and your husband should be congratulated for lending a hand once in a while. There was also a lot of information about how to lose your baby weight as soon a humanly possible, which made me a bit angry, but in retrospect, I guess they’re just giving people what they want?

I’ve also heard the What to Expect books bashed for being alarmist and full of all the things that could go wrong with your baby, but I actually find that the most interesting part. Perhaps it’s just not in my personality to worry about birth defects or fatal childhood accidents, but I think it makes for interesting reading. I would not recommend it to someone who has a tendancy to fret, however.

2012 Year in Review

Look at all you people who are still reading this! You must not cull the list of blogs you follow very often.

In 2012 I read 108 books, the most since I started keeping track in college. This was not due to any sort of diligence on my part, but rather an increasing lack of interest in the internet and my unusual summer vacation. I usually have an August slump, but this year we spent two weeks camping in the north, and where there is no electricity there is nothing to distract you after the sun goes down and you end up spending hours reading by the light of a little wind-up lamp.

I had three goals for 2012:

1. Read 20% non-fiction

2. Read 10% en español

3. Keep up with Read and Run.

1. For the sake of simplicity let’s assume 20% means 20 books. I may or may not have reached this goal, depending on what you consider non-fiction. I read 13 non-fiction books, and 8 books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which, while autobiography, are usually shelved as fiction. So my total could be 21. Decide for yourself.

2. Such a lofty goal. I only read three books en español this year, one by Borges and two by Bolaño, but Los detectives salvages was a whopping 609 pages, so I think we can consider it three books and say I read five? No?

3. Ha ha ha. See above about increasing lack of interest in the internet.

The best non-fiction book I read in 2012 was Uncle Tungsten, by Oliver Sacks. It was a memoir, an account of his boyhood in England, and it mainly focused on his obsession with chemistry. It was wonderful. Over and over again, while I was reading it, I thought “I wish I had studied chemistry instead of english”. That is a mark of good non-fiction.

Runners-up would include Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl (autobiographical food writing) and Night of the New Moon by Laurens van der Post (author’s experience in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in WWII).

Last year I didn’t try to pick a best fictional book, and now I see why- it is just too hard. Was it The Human Factor (Greene), which left me feeling drained, and elated, and awe-struck? Was it Revenge of the Lawn (Brautigan) or Ficciones (Borges), both collections of short stories which are works of genius in two very different ways? Was it 1Q84 (Murakami), which took over my life? Was it Fathers and Sons (Turgenev) which was just such a damn good novel? Was it Catch-22 (Heller), which I read for the third time, and which I understood better than I ever had before? Or was it The City and the Mountains  (Eça de Queirós) which was moving and funny, a beautiful story with a happy ending? I JUST DON’T KNOW.

In 2013 I am going to turn my normal way of operating on its head and not make any goals for myself. I very seriously doubt that I will be able to read 100 books this year, due to Lifestyle Changes that are going to come about in six months or so, but I bet I can get in at least 70. So that’s what I’ll shoot for.


Just for the sake of comparison, check out my stacks of books to read in Januarys 2011 and 2012 (at the bottom), and my entire bookshelf of books to read in January 2013:

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I am doomed, happily doomed, to wallow in unread books forever.

Some good things I read in June

Llamadas telefónicas by Roberto Bolaño

I love Bolaño and there is something about his writing that makes it easy for me to read in Spanish (that is to say, easy for me to forget I am reading in Spanish). I think I liked another story collection, Putas asesinas, better than Llamadas telefónicas because the stories were darker and had more action, but Llamadas telefónicas is still full of excellent stories from an excellent writer.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Say what you will, this is a really excellent YA novel. I picked it up the day we were going to the Valle del Jerte, and asked Jaime if he’d mind me reading while he drove. “No, not at all,” he said. And then I didn’t speak for the next three hours.

The thing that I appreciated most about the book (SPOILERS) was that the female protagonist, despite all urgings to the contrary, did not fall in love with the male protagonist, which is something that really irritates me about a lot of YA fiction. A few months ago I read Howl’s Moving Castle, which was so good and so funny until the last few pages, where someone told the main characters “You don’t realize it, but you are actually in love with each other” and they were like “I guess you’re right!” and then it was all happily ever after blah blah blah. Bullshit.

So, yeah. I really enjoyed The Hunger Games. I won’t see the film though- I can only handle that kind of action in print.

Under the Volcano by Malcom Lowry

I did not enjoy this book. My non-enjoyment was a little like the non-enjoyment I got from reading The Power and the Glory, except that TP&tG is a far superior novel, and also half as long. Here’s what my notes say: “Under the Volcano has turned into a real nightmare, a sticky, drunken nightmare. Somewhat like The Power and the Glory it is a nightmare in part because of how good it is.” What I mean to say is that Under the Volcano is a very good book, but I did not have fun with it. Caveat lector.

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight by Vladimir Nabokov

Excellent. It has only improved the second time around. No spoilers, because I bought the audiobook for my dad and he still has to listen to it.

A Star Called Henry by Roddy Doyle

Great novel, great protagonist, really enjoyed reading it. How accurate is it, though? How many of the event really happened in the war? Is Michael Collins accurately portrayed? Did the IRA really use provocation tactics like Doyle says? I will still like the book without getting the answers to those questions, but it would be nice to know how accurate it is.

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick

Very, very very good. Not as good as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which is one of my favorite books of all time, but still very good. I feel like I need to read it again to really get it- just flipping through it to write this review, I have noticed some things that went completely over my head the first read around. I think the novel is about love, what it means to be loved by millions and loved by no one, and the futility of love. The plot line of the main character’s unpersoning seems to be almost incidental when compared to some very minor episodes, like the story of Emily Fusselman’s rabbit, or Mary Ann Dominic’s blue vase.

I don’t know. I think it’s about love, but it might be about something else entirely. Anyway, the point is that Philip K. Dick is a criminally underappreciated writer (though you’ve all seen movies based on his stories), and you should go read him immediately.

"My God! Horses," Hugh said, glancing and stretching himself to his full mental height of six feet two (he was five feet eleven).

I am reading Under the Volcano by Malcom Lowry and having a rollercoaster sort of time with it. In some parts it reminds me a lot of the best Saul Bellow, effusive and complex. I love this quote about mental height; it is such a marker of being human. My own mental height is five foot seven, though in reality I am three inches shorter.

Other parts of the book are anguishing, embarrassing, so difficult to push through. Those are mostly the parts where the Consul appears, pickled up to his eyeballs, in the last stages of alcoholism. When he’s on the scene reading feels like being drunk at the tail end of the night, exactly when you want most to be sober. So A++ for Malcom Lowry, but when those parts come around I just want the book to be over.

Some good things I read in May

I’ve left out the books about which I have nothing to say.

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

A monster of a book. It took over my life. And then I got Stockholm Syndrome and was sad and aimless after I finished it. I made the mistake of reading a Wodehouse novel immediately after and it was like brushing your teeth after drinking orange juice. Gak.

I love a lot of things about Murakami’s writing, but more than anything I love his characters. They are all so deliberate. They chop vegetables, they make soup. They take showers and examine themselves in the mirror. They never say more than necessary. They are basically everything I am not, but I aspire to be a version of a Murakami character, only without all the supernatural weird shit.

Who am I kidding? I would definitely take the supernatural weird shit.

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev, but I already wrote about that.

Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

All of the characters in Decline and Fall are static. None of them are anything more than characters to which things happen. Waugh even says at one point,

…as the reader will probably have discerned already, Paul Pennyfeather would never have made a hero, and the only interest about him arises from the unusual series of events of which his shadow was witness.

I loved the book, though, and having read a lot of Waugh’s other novels it is interesting to see where his other characters came from (like Tony Last in A Handful of Dust). I also think that it is a better novel than Vile Bodies (though very similar), because there are fewer dated in-jokes for 21st century readers to puzzle over.

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

This was good, but I didn’t really enjoy it. I liked the narrator, who might have been the forerunner of Nick Carraway and Jake Barnes, narrating the collapse of all those around him. But I couldn’t bring myself to care about the other two main characters. Overwrought emotional drama is just not my thing (I’m looking at you, Madame Bovary). I hear it’s a classic, though, so get on it if you like that.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

I liked it a lot, though it is not my favorite Barnes (that would be Talking it Over). Great story, great characters. It didn’t leave much of an impression on me (no dog ears, no marginalia), but it was certainly worth reading.

Edit: Last night I found a note I had written to myself about The Sense of an Ending, noting that the last chapter in the book retrospectively illuminates the rest. That is a writing trick I particularly love. It takes what you had previously thought was one kind of story and transforms it into a completely different beast. Essentially two for the price of one.

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev, 13/05

Since the new year I have read several dozen books, some of them good, some of terrible (Philip Roth, why do I bother), some of them confusing (what is up with Riddley Walker), some of them King Lear, but none of them have been as wonderful, as moving, as magnificent as Fathers and Sons (sorry, King Lear). I’ve been in a very peculiar frame of mind lately, and that might have something to do with how much I loved the book. But guys, it was so good. The blurb on the back cover says that the novel “contains some of the most moving scenes in the literature of any language”, and that is not an overstatement.

You are all hereby assigned to read Fathers and Sons over the summer and report back.

Mrs. Chippy’s Last Expedition by Caroline Alexander, 21/04

This is a lovely, lovely book about a Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition told from the point of view of the ship’s cat. If you like cats or Antarctic exploration or faux scholarly books, I recommend it. It is not at all twee, as you might expect from a book narrated by a cat.

CAVEAT LECTOR: do not, I repeat DO NOT google “Mrs. Chippy” and under no circumstances whatsoever should you read the Wikipedia article about Mrs. Chippy, otherwise Mrs. Chippy’s Last Expedition will become the saddest book you’ve ever read. I cried at the end. What can I say? I have a soft heart.

Mass Updates

… are easier than individual posts. Here is what I read in March.

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, 02/03

Very, very good. I enjoyed it a lot more than The Robber Bride, which is the only other Atwood I’ve read recently (Cat’s Eye, Oryx and Crake, and The Handmaid’s Tale are too far back to remember). I really enjoyed the framing of the second story-within-a-story and how both parts of the book slowly converge. The pieces don’t all fall into place until the very end of the novel, which is something I really like.

Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl, 04/03

So, so, so good. The best non-fiction book I’ve read this year. It’s a collection autobiographical essays (and corresponding recipes), mostly about the relationship between people and food, which is what life is really about, right? Plus Ruth Reichl kind of reminds me of my mom. If you love food you will like this book. If you don’t love food then I don’t know why we’re even friends.

The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, 09/03

Wrote about it here.

Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapúscinski, 15/03

Very good. I found it a little disconcerting the way Kapúscinski jumped around so much (through time and space) with nothing but Herodotus to connect the different parts of his story, but that’s hardly a criticism at all. I did love the way he talked about The Histories, and he sold the book so well that I went out and bought a copy after I finished. Recommended.

N.P. by Banana Yoshimoto, 17/03

Good. Better than Kitchen, which seemed really spacey. The story was good and weird, and the narrator was sweet. I flew through it and was very satisfied at the end.

Augustus Carp, Esq. by Himself: Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man by Sir Henry Bashford, 20/03

Wrote about it here, but I have to say again: READ IT.

Mr. Standfast by John Buchan, 25/03

A top-notch spy novel. Richard Hannay, the main character, is a racist, sexist, one-sided dick but I suppose you take what you can get from 1919. Very enjoyable for what it is, though.

The Eden Express by Mark Vonnegut, 27/03

Excellent. This would be the best non-fiction book I’ve read all year if Tender at the Bone wasn’t so damn good. Vonnegut really does a good job of showing what mental illness feels like to the person who is suffering from it. Besides the mental illness, the book has hippies, drugs, communes, political unrest, and familial conflict- what more could you want?