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.

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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My Untimely Death, by Adam Peterson (2008)

For an entire week in September I ask my wife to feed me only Swiss chard.  There is a day when I eat a can of tomatoes bigger than a toddler.

This is a 43-page small press book that fits easily in a pocket—a series of prose poems about bizarre deaths.  I don’t write this kind of prose myself or read it very often, but I’ve developed an odd kind of respect for it, and enjoy it in small doses that evoke an emotional response before I move on.  In that sense, this little book accomplishes that nicely.

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More About this book from Subito Press

Sophisticated and Poetic Literary Novel About Old Age With No Plot (2013)

One of my favorite books of all time, Catch-22, can also be said to have no plot, but what makes Catch-22 different is that while its chapters jump erratically through time and veer off on massive tangents, the novel’s events are thematically linked by the issue of Yossarian being bullied by his superiors into fighting a war that doesn’t make sense.  This novel has no such thematic link, or only vague links that did little to convince me that this novel was about anything besides character exploration and poetic-sounding prose, which, sadly, aren’t enough to make a novel work.

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No One Belongs Here More Than You, by Miranda July (2007)

I loved this book.  I loved how its stories are meaningful but also speckled with Miranda July’s dry humor (“As with the whole-grain bread, Carl did not initially leap into the idea with enthusiasm”) that stops them from ever being too pretentious.  I love that these stories are about relationships that don’t always work.  I love that July’s characters undergo real emotional turmoil.  I love how there are things about these stories I don’t understand, and that I’m OK with that.  Finally, I love that this paperback comes in five different colors and that mine happens to be orange.

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What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami (2008)

Every day, Japanese author Haruki Murakami writes and runs, each on a set schedule with set goals.  Most of this essay collection is ostensibly about running, but when Murakami talks about the discipline involved with marathon training he’s also talking about the discipline involved with writing, so that reading about his stretches and his Hokkaido ultramarathon provides insight into a disciplined creative mind.  He also recounts his transition from jazz club-owning twentysomething to focused writer, and the entire book forms a quiet, unpretentious reflection on what it means to pursue a skill—even if you don’t like sports.

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THIS IS A BOOK BY DEMETRI MARTIN (2011)

Demetri Martin’s wordplay-filled humor translates ridiculously well to book form, as this collection of drawings and short humor shows.  His best pieces expose absurd situations with exaggeratedly forthright reactions (a man obsessed with speaking into a megaphone, a Rashomon-esque recount of a bee sting that includes inanimate objects) while the least successful ones run with simple concepts far longer than necessary, such as the list of bugle performances that all include reveille or the protagonists’ hospital where male action heroes get treated for superficial wounds.  Fortunately the hilarious far outweighs the lame, making this book a damned funny read.

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The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro (1988)

An aging butler in 1950s Britain goes on a road trip and reflects on the glory days of the British aristocracy that turn out to be not so glorious.  This novel works so incredibly because of its narrator, who speaks in a voice that’s both dignified and easy to read, reeking of unreliability and dry humor as he encounters the common folk.  Greater stakes, however, lie in its backstory of what democracy really means and how an entire working class could trade their independence for service to the upper classes—who are prone to more than a few shortcomings.

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Election, by Tom Perrotta (1998)

A high school presidential election pits a goody two-shoes overachiever against a clueless jock and his rebellious younger sister, with one teacher viewing the race as a microcosm of who gets ahead in life and why.  Election shows how much these contests seem to matter in the moment but afterwards feel trite—it explores rivalries based on jealousy, social class, love, popularity, and the glory of the spotlight.  The novel’s rapid switches between narrators (often in mid-scene) are among the most effective I’ve ever read, and keep the novel constantly moving.  Read this even if you’ve seen the movie.

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Nijigahara Holograph, by Inio Asano (2006)

Children speak of a monster in the drainage tunnel behind their elementary school while one of them sleeps in a coma; as adults, their paths cross in mysterious ways, and there are butterflies.

Nijigahara Holograph feels obliquely perplexing until it reaches its gut-wrenching conclusion, though on a second skim-through the connections felt clearer, revealing this to be a meticulously crafted manga that tells a powerful story.  The climactic reveal left me feeling uncharacteristically drained and somewhat disturbed—I’m still not sure how I feel about it, but that a manga can exert this kind of power means a lot.

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Sinbad’s Seven Voyages and Other Stories From the Arabian Nights, retold by Gladys Davidson (1974)

Things I learned from reading/rereading these four stories:

  1. In the original tale, Aladdin, far from being a purehearted street rat, is an “idle, careless” boy who through the adventure of the lamp becomes a responsible, skilled adult man.
  2. The forty thieves dismember Ali Baba’s greedy brother into four separate pieces so that the local cobbler has to sew him back together, which is badass.
  3. The Sinbad stories are kind of repetitive, and made me want to watch the Ray Harryhausen films.
  4. Like in all good stories, servant girls are always more clever than their masters.
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