The Stack of Books Next to My Bed

stack-of-books2016-8

I read a lot, and keep a massive stack of books next to my bed that I’ve bought, found, or been given. I’ve got two main principles when it comes to reading:

  1. Reading should be fun.
  2. There’s a whole lot of different books out there to check out.

I write about each book I read in 99 words or less. Here’s hoping you find something you like.

In the Woods of Memory, by Shun Medoruma (2009, translated by Takuma Smiley, 2017)

In the Woods of Memory tells of the rape of a teenage girl during the American occupation after the Battle of Okinawa and the subsequent attack on an American soldier by a young Japanese fisherman.  Though the novel begins in 1945, most of it takes place sixty years later as Medoruma places us in the perspectives of nine Japanese and American characters, bridging the events across time.  The novel’s real power unfolds as readers merge its events together on their own, pinnacling in the stream-of-consciousness Seiji chapter (originally written using Okinawan dialect) that evokes the most powerful modernist fiction.

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In the Woods of Memory at Stone Bridge Press

In the Cards, by Angela D’Onofrio (2016)

D’Onofrio’s novels take place in fictitious Aviario, Connecticut, a town where the underground lines of magic intersect and supernatural happenings abound. This second book in the series revolves around a string of murders, a demon that haunts one of the town’s oldest families, and a romance that everyone except the main character thinks is a bad idea.  The story’s real energy, however, comes from its twentysomething cast of characters who read tarot cards, run a magic shop, play table-top games, and never fail to talk like real people, making the whole novel feel decidedly current (spirit animals notwithstanding).

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Angela D’Onofrio’s website

Author interview

The Possessed, by Elif Batuman (2010)

Elif Batuman is a grad student in Russian literature, and these essays are about her adventures.  Aside from some dense portions related to the actual Russian literature, this book moves, due in no small part to Batuman’s dry, quick-witted humor that pokes fun at everyone from the Uzbek landlord who feeds her from an ant-covered jam jar to the elderly professor who literally shits his pants.  The real gems, however, are Batuman’s introduction on why she avoided creative writing (reminiscent of her essay “Get a Real Degree”) and her reflections on grad student obsessions—both pointed commentaries on academia.

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Prince Caspian, by C.S. Lewis (1951)

While waiting for a train, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy are sucked back into a much-changed Narnia to help the rightful Prince Caspian regain his throne.  I’ve realized that for me the most lukewarm sections of the Narnia books are the battles, which Lewis relates either through dialogue, summary, or another distancing mechanism.  With World War II a recent memory in 1951, these battles are clearly important to Lewis, but fail to capture the modern imagination.  A shame, since the rest of this is quite immersive, with the Christian symbolism once again revealed in a more controlled manner.

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The Horse and His Boy, by C.S. Lewis (1954)

A boy raised in the Calormen desert south of Narnia meets a talking horse and flees a life of slavery on a journey north.  Lewis’s Christian symbolism grows even more painfully obvious here, espousing an outdated fable of a heathen from the backward Pagan lands (Calormen) embracing Jesus (Aslan) as he works to get to heaven (Narnia).  This feels more egregious when you consider Lewis’s treatment of Calormen with a Middle Eastern theme, though his protagonist’s skin is “fair and white” like the “beautiful barbarians of the north.”  Combine this with an unimaginative plot and the result is….not worthwhile.

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The Magician’s Nephew, by C.S. Lewis (1955)

After finishing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe I decided to give the rest of the series a try—plus I found a cheap set of the other Narnia books at Salvation Army.  The Magician’s Nephew is Lewis’s prequel, with a Genesis-type story that tells how Narnia came to be, with more than a few Biblical allusions.  Though the first half is genuinely solid children’s lit (magic rings, a lost world, childhood observations, etc.), the creation scenes go on for far too long.  Still, it’s worth reading for the London sections and the introduction of the White Witch.

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The Wanting Seed, by Anthony Burgess (1962)

In a vastly overpopulated future, London’s Ministry of Infertility coerces the populace to either stop having children or take up with your own sex.  Though the concept has tremendous potential, Burgess seems more interested in his theories of overpopulation and cycles of government than in the plot, which merely serves as a vehicle for his ideas—as thought-provoking as they are, the book itself is a bit of a slog.  Its 1960s treatment of homosexuality is also downright insulting today, combined with a few cringeworthy thoughts on race.  Better to read A Clockwork Orange and leave this one buried.

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A Girl on the Shore, by Inio Asano (2011)

A ninth-grade girl wanders distraught after a subpar encounter with the class playboy, then seeks solace with another guy who likes her and a shit-ton of graphic middle-school sex ensues.

I’m not kidding—this manga isn’t for the squeamish, since there’s A LOT of sex here shown in close-up, and just when you think it can’t go any farther, it does.  In terms of story, Koume and Isobe’s relationship shows a lot about first love, disenchantment, and searching for something you can’t quite describe, and their confused realizations keep you guessing until the end, with stirring results.

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Revolutions We’d Hoped We’d Outgrown, by Jill McCabe Johnson (2017)

Johnson’s poems hit that sweet spot of being approachable yet challenging, not too simple, yet not too arcane.  The opening section was written during her walking trek through France in the days leading up to the 2015 Paris attacks and captures both the country’s historic character and the ideological ugliness behind ISIS, including its abominable treatment of women (which tends not to get as much coverage).  The collection’s other poems convey images of loss, humiliation, and conflicts with loved ones in moments that quietly ask for our reflections, along with a few plays on words to break the rhythm.

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Jill McCabe Johnson’s website

Revolutions We’d Hoped We’d Outgrown at Finishing Line Press

Peter Pan, by J.M. Barrie (1911)

Another children’s classic I never actually read as a kid, the original Peter Pan holds up solidly in its story, characters, and playful writing style, but not in its cringeworthy turn-of-the-century descriptions of Native Americans. Barrie also inserts some distinct undertones for careful readers, such as the rivalry between Wendy and Tinkerbell for the clueless pre-pubescent Peter, the Darling parents’ obsession with doing everything society expects of them, and Hook’s being a former prep school kid, along with an epilogue (left out of the Disney version) that explores what it really means to outgrow the carefree adventures of youth.

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Last Words, by George Carlin (with Tony Hendra, 2009)

Carlin’s posthumous memoir (based on a decade of conversations with co-author Hendra) covers his New York childhood, his humdrum ‘60s comedy, his departure into gritty realism (“Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV”), his cocaine addiction, and finally his move toward satirizing politics and society.  This was my first real foray into Carlin’s work, and it proved a solid start—many of his most famous pieces are transcribed with commentary, and his biting, thoughtful voice is always present.  I was most drawn to his reflections about leaving the mainstream to find his real voice—undoubtedly the strongest section.

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The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers (1940)

Four lonely people in a Southern town search for meaning outside of life’s banalities, brought together by a deaf-mute who’s mourning the loss of his closest friend.  Parts of this book resonated with me strongly as the characters express their inability to fit into the world around them, especially Mick’s analogy of the outside room where she performs for society versus the inside room where she enjoys her secret love of music.  The rest of it, however, moves painfully slowly, with long chapters and dialogue that hasn’t aged well, leaving its raw power to be deciphered rather than enjoyed.

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