2016 in books. A lot of books.

Excluding abandoned books, but including any re-reads I bothered to track, here are some Facts about my year in reading.

Books finished: 74

Oldest book: She by H. Rider Haggard (1887)

Read old books! They’re great sometimes. This one has magic, powerful women, pillars of fire, and immortality, as well as imperialist racism, terrible sexism, and other fun bits of black mold.

Longest book (by Goodreads page count): Dune by Frank Herbert (537). Runner-up: Carry On by Rainbow Rowell (522).

Average rating: 3.87

This seems utterly absurd to me!!! That’s a really high average. Have I gotten so profligate with my star ratings? Last year I was at 3.8, which astonished me at the time. Looking back — 2014 was 3.42, and 2013 was 3.64. Maybe I’ve gotten better about dropping bad books. Maybe I’m going soft.

Rating distribution:

🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟 = 18 books
🌟🌟🌟🌟 = 32 books
🌟🌟🌟 = 21 books
🌟🌟 = 3 books
🌟 = 0 books

Phew, that’s a lot of highly rated books.

Largest divergence from average rating: -2.21 (My 2 stars up against the average 4.21 stars)

Last year, the books I read and liked more than average were interesting to me. This year they are not. This year the books I liked less are interesting, but it still feels mean to harp on that.Things are not to everyone’s tastes.

I’m thinking of trying something different next year. I might abandon Goodreads in the end, but for now I’m going to double-log. Goodreads stats are awkward to parse at the end of the year, and don’t really give me the info I necessarily want.

To come: Should I review my paltry accomplishments in reading poetry and romance? Will I come up with some other way to talk about 2016? Will I set actual reading goals for 2017 or continue to let impulse guide me? ehhh who knows.

This week in reading articles

Because I have found writing difficult lately, and I have had little interest in novels, and various other small reasons, I have been reading a lot of articles lately. Here’s another smattering of things I have been reading:

“Capitalism has always divided its labour supply along lines of race and gender, ensuring that in times of unrest, we don’t start burning our looms – far safer for us to set fire to one other.”
No, identity politics is not to blame for the failures of the left, Laurie Penny

Obama Reckons with a Trump Presidency
A good read. I’m excited to see what Citizen Obama does. Something about this article makes me feel like he is going to be a force to be reckoned with.

“Trying to fix economic policy without tackling structural inequality is not just morally misguided— it is intellectually bankrupt.”
— Against Bargaining, Laurie Penny

What’s Wrong with Literary Studies?
I am a recovering English major, and sometimes I have these flare-ups of interest in the academic side of things. The sort of thing discussed in this article, while perversely fascinating to me, is why I never had much interest in continuing on an academic path! Look, pals, let’s not lose sight of the fact that stories are fun. Sometimes you read Woolf because her sentences are beautiful, and sometimes you read Harry Potter to deconstruct the inequality implicit in muggle/wizard society.

“Is it worthwhile to persist in retrying to remake the world? Or, still postmodernists, do we concede that the arc of the moral universe is long, and it bends toward meliorism?”
Twilight of the Idylls, on three books about attempted utopias

Links: Sundry articles

Some things I have read recently and enjoyed deeply. Any bold emphasis in the quotes is my addition.

Ursula Le Guin Has Stopped Writing Fiction — But We Need Her More Than Ever – “Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable—so did the divine right of kings.”

New Words Were Needed – “Another translation of ostranenie I occasionally find is “alienation,” making the familiar alien, which brings us to science fiction. Whereas modernists tend to defamiliarize at the level of the image, line, or sentence, sf writers have been in the business of defamiliarizing at the level of story since the very beginning.”

1194384Why women are leading the death positive movement – “It was not only important to us to amplify the voices of those actively creating the future of death, but also address the issues many women are facing who are confronted with the reality of ‘bad deaths’ such as femicide, victims of police brutality, reproductive rights and so much more.”

(Note: Talk to me more about women and death. Talk to me of the women who lay hands on the dead and bring them to their rest. Talk to me about the feminization of an industry being intrinsically coupled with its denigration. Talk to me about women and  our physical reality, women and bodies, women being forced to reckon with their bodies in ways that men are not, women taking that to a career that makes death familiar. Talk to me about women.)

Every Body Goes Haywire – “A migraine attack blurs the distinction between “sickness” and “health.” Headache, dizziness, nausea, trouble concentrating, fatigue, poor verbal skills—these symptoms could just as easily result from a hangover or a bad night’s sleep. That the same symptoms can result from irresponsible decisions gives patients an air of culpability.”

The Identity Politics of Whiteness – “These voters suffer from economic disadvantages even as they enjoy racial advantages. But it is impossible for them to notice these racial advantages if they live in rural areas where everyone around them is white. What they perceive instead is the cruel sense of being forgotten by the political class and condescended to by the cultural one.”

The Case Against Reality – “In contrast, you’re saying, Look, quantum mechanics is telling us that we have to question the very notions of ‘physical things’ sitting in ‘space.’”

Today: How to Survive an Anti-Feminist Backlash -“By underestimating the damage that Trump’s extremist right-wing movement is prepared to do to women’s rights, we all but ensure that damage will occur. We can’t relax, and we can’t assume that everything (or anything) will work out.”

Reading Poetry: It Begins…

I had this idea to force one of my poetry friends to engage in a conversation with me in which I yell belligerently at them about poetry.

(tweet deleted for not being funny: Someone said that “poetry is that which is lost in translation,” right
What the hell
What does that mean)

Instead I muse about it sometimes on Twitter, and always have some book of poetry or other I’m working through. I enjoyed the Carol Duffy I read, I guess, but honestly, what do I know? I enjoyed some of the Silvina Ocampo, but some of it was just words. I’m reading Anne Sexton and spoiler not enjoying it much.

(tweet deleted for being too long: What is free verse? Are you sure it’s poetry and not just a bunch of words? …is this like modern art, where it’s up to the beholder to decide it’s art, like Duchamp’s urinal or anything Mark Rothko ever touched?)

But now I’m also reading Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook, which I think is a good thing for me to read. What I’ve struggled with is articulating what I feel I don’t know, articulating why I feel ill-equipped to deal with poetry, articulating why I don’t get it. And it’s not like I don’t get all of it. I have favorite poems. But why do I like them? Why do I dislike others? Why are some considered good, and some not? What makes a poem? Exactly what is it that you consider with poetry that’s different from prose or essay? Why do line breaks matter, and why do they vanish and change? Why can two lines be a poem? What intricacies am I missing, since something 200 pages long can also be “a poem”? There must be categories and names for all this, right? I mean, “epic,” but what’s the two-line poem called? Mini? Micro? Wee baby poem? Why did Transformations have to be poetry, versus The Bloody Chamber‘s stories? Why does free verse even exist, man? What’s its deal?

I am being completely serious in my flippancy.

(tweet deleted for being too rude: Yeah, but prose poetry. That’s a scam, right?)

But I really want to hash some of this out and dig under the haze that poetry seems to be under for me. I am going to do that. This is my public declaration of helpless naiveté.

I say all of this as someone who studied poetry* in undergrad.

So I can’t imagine what other people feel.


*Not as my focus, but by way of both English and Spanish literature, I ended up reading and writing about a good amount of poetry. And yet. And yet.

Too much talking and too many rules

On Twitter, someone linked to this post (I want to say it was Kelly Link, but it was sometime last week, and I’m pretty sure Twitter doesn’t exist more than 24 hours into the past) and when I finally read it, it felt like sinking into a chair I forgot I owned, and thinking, “When did I put this in storage? Why isn’t this in my living room?”

Anyway, the post is Reality Affects by Matthew Cheney, talking about another essay (What Should Fiction Do by Bonnie Nadzam).

When you hang out with a lot of readers and writers, it’s really easy to get caught up in what others think fiction ought to be. If there’s a formula, if there’s a map, if there is a right and a wrong when it comes to shaping a story, that makes things easier. If there’s a way to do it right, wouldn’t you want to do that? If someone says they know how to write a story that will get an agent’s attention, that will be a bestseller, well, heck, maybe they do know! Maybe if you do what they say, you’ll sell your next book, and everything will be okay.

Writing from inside these conversations, while surrounded by movies, while seeing each book-of-the-moment pass by, at some point you might accidentally absorb all these rules about stories. You have to have an inciting incident. Your character has to go on a journey. They must refuse the call and have a thousand faces. Your protagonist must try and fail and try again, try bigger, fail harder. There must be scenes and sequels, action and cliffhangers, emotional processing, a familiar shape like a mountain, like a bell curve…

But is that all? Of course not.

I don’t think I even noticed that I’d absorbed and built up these rules around me, until they started to chafe. I wanted to follow patterns, to obey plot structure, and by God, I wanted to do things right. If I’m going to do a thing, I better do it right. I will listen, I will take notes, I will show up and do it exactly as you’re supposed to. I will analyze and figure out what the heck a chapter is, where and how often to drop foreshadowing, how much to worldbuild, when exactly to have the protagonist hit their dark night, their nadir, and when I finally slog through writing this book, I’ll have done it up right.

Oh, Lord, is it tiring and deadening to think like that. Do it right? What’s that even mean? everything is made up. Like, all of art is a construct of one sort or another. The rules come from the last group of people who were making it up as they went along. They looked at what had been done, and did something a little different. And a little different again. Or a lot different! Transgressing the established formula speaks to the thing you’re transgressing as well as asking a reader to be more conscious of what they’re reading. And I find that very interesting. Not the idea of breaking all the rules for the sake of breaking things, but not being beholden to them.

Literature deserves more than formulas, more than cinema. The written word can do interesting and complex things, different from the mapped out swoop of a story, something other than fake cinema. Written stories can do so much more than what’s popular and salable right at this moment. Beyond all that writing advice that’s in digestible bullets and charts. And I’m very interested in all that lately, freshly, again.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that literature isn’t doing any of this. Only that’s it’s very easy to find myself suddenly wearing blinders I didn’t know I’d picked up, and get trapped into thinking X the only way to do writing right. Cheney’s essay was like a cold splash of water to wake me up and remind me of the things that excite me most. I read it at a good time, when I was feeling weary and sort of confused about this one project, and realized I was weighted down by the idea of doing all these things right.

It’s nice to be reminded that “right” is debatable, and so is the idea of what fiction should do.