Reading year 2012, with a few annotations


Honestly, sometimes I’m surprised that I read anything at all last year. Moving was quite an adjustment.  But I’m sure that even with distractions, it was therapeutic to read 1) in English, so I could at least feel competent in my native language and culture, and 2) in Italian, so I could learn about the place I’d stepped into.  So without further ado, here’s the list:

No Remorse: The Rise and Fall of the Killer John Wallace, by Dot Moore

About the sometimes violent place and culture my family is from, but not so well-written that I’d recommend it.  Flannery O’Connor is so much better!

Shantung Compound, by Langdon Gilkey

Interesting study of an alternate society and of human nature in a WWII prison camp.  Though he’s not a main character in this book, Eric Liddell from Chariots of Fire is one of the inmates.

The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, by Alex Ross

I really did learn a lot from this book, most especially why Germany was the cradle of 20th-Century modernism.  I enjoyed Ross’s way of describing the music.  Be prepared: It’s long!

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Oliver Sacks

Sarie likes Oliver Sacks a lot, but I enjoy him less.  His books are full of interesting phenomena, but I prefer more theory and connection between my anecdotes.  Or maybe it was just February.

The Meaning of Marriage: Finding Happiness in Your Most Profound Relationship, by Timothy Keller

When I first read this, I confess I was less encouraged than I’d hoped to be. But I held on, and kept going back to the passages I’d underlined, and now the same parts that hit my ears with a thud the first time around are really starting to sing. Which is no doubt because I’m in a better frame of mind, and that’s part of Keller’s point about marriage.

Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, by Charles Murray

I never want Murray to be right, but I remain fascinated by his willingness to ask hard questions.

The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade, by Susan Wise Bauer

Even though we’re not homeschooling anymore, I’ll probably keep reading this series as long as I can manage to get its weighty volumes to Italy.  I probably enjoy them more than Sarie ever did, anyway!

Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Pevear and Volokonsky translation)

Wow, this book is so much more vivid than I remember it being in high school!

The House of the Seven Gables, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Good Italy, Bad Italy: Why Italy Must Conquer Its Demons to Face the Future, by Bill Emmott

When I Was a Child I Read Books, by Marilynne Robinson

The Abolition of Man, by C.S. Lewis

Because I’m always reading Lewis.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain

If you’re an introvert, and you didn’t read this when it came out last year, do so, because you might get along with yourself better.  If you’re married to an introvert or have one in your family, read it, because you might get along with them better.  It gives good reasons to let introverts be themselves and also good tips on when and why an introvert might want to act extroverted now and then.

Un Italiano in America, by Beppe Severgnini

Not the greatest book in the world, but still historic because it’s the first one I read all the way through in Italian.  Il barone Lamberto (see below) promises to be much better.

The Complete Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi

The Sorrow of War, by Bao Ninh

If This is a Man/The Truce, by Primo Levi

These last three I read just so I’d be able to discuss them with Sarie, since they were assigned to her as part of the IB program she’s enrolled in.  All three were part of a unit called “Victims of War.” I liked Levi the best.  I even read some of my favorite passages in Italian. He’s from Torino and I know exactly where he lived, having visited an accountant’s office next door to his apartment.  My favorite chapter of If This is a Man is one in which, despite the horror of his surroundings, Levi spends the afternoon discussing the Odyssey with a friend.

Some books I hope to read this year: 

Bleak House, by Charles Dickens (deep into it already!)

Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy (Pevear and Volokonsky translation)

Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, by George Steiner

The Remains of the Day, by Ishiguro Kazuo

Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer

C’era due volte il barone Lamberto, by Gianni Rodari

The Dark Side of Italy, Tobias Jones

Every Good Endeavor, by Timothy Keller

Most of these I’ve listed because I’ve already started them, but that’s sort of a cop-out explanation since I must have had some reason to start them. So: I’m reading them because I love the Russians, especially as translated by Pevear and Volokonsky; because I want to keep learning Italian or learning about Italy, or because someone in my family is reading them and I want to discuss what we both thought. In the case of the Keller book, I’m thinking about my own future work.

And in the case of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I want to read it because it’s not at all the sort of thing I usually read and maybe it will exorcise a few New York ghosts.  After all, part of the movie was filmed on our old street, with interior shots from the building next door to ours (the one where I think Flannery O’Connor lived).  That likely explains why everything looked so eerily familiar when I watched the trailer.

So, have you read and enjoyed any of the books I’ve listed?  Would you like to join me in reading any of them this year?  What would you put on a book list of your own?


16 thoughts on “Reading year 2012, with a few annotations

  1. Laura,

    Your list makes me jealous, not just for what you’ve read, but that you’ve managed to do it! My own reading is way, way off. I keep sending long articles to the Kindle, but for now they are continuing to pile up.

    Still, we have a good library in town, and occasionally I’ve been inspired to check out a book I saw referenced somewhere.

    The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs. I put this down after skimming 100 of its 150 pages, deciding that it was aimed at a different sort of reader. I already believe that reading holds its pleasures in this distracted age, and I wasn’t much interested in the case Jacob made for it.

    Love Goes to Buildings on Fire by Will Hermes. An account of the New York underground/independent music scene 1971-1976, told comprehensively and chronologically. Punk and New Wave were important to me, and so I enjoyed learning how those two genres developed. But I also appreciated Hermes’ approach, which was to cover every genre that was born in those five years, which had him exploring salsa and free jazz, disco and proto-hip-hop, Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson, and a lot more. Still, I eventually began to skim the sections on music I was less knowledgeable about.

    Our Band Could Be Your LIfe by Michael Azerrad. A terrific history of 13 key indie bands from the 80s. Not only did it renew my interest in some bands I loved back then (in particular, Minutemen and Mission of Burma), but the stories of what those bands endured in order to perform and record was eye-opening for me.

    How Music Works by David Byrne. I loved Talking Heads and the central role David Byrne played in making that music, but I haven’t been much interested in his subsequent work. Still, he is a very intelligent and relatively down-to-earth guy, and his observations on the mechanisms involved in composing, performing, and listening to music were very helpful. Until Brian Eno writes something similar, I’m happy this one exists.

    Debt: the First 5,000 Years, by David Graeber. I’ve just started this one, and it’s already taught me a lot. Graeber is an anthropologist, anarchist, and one of the key figures in launching the Occupy movement, so you can imagine his take on economics is not at all traditional. I like his approach because he focuses on economic activity as an integral part of social activity, something that can’t be understood independent of it.

    Too Much Coffee Man Omnibus by Shannon Wheeler. I discovered TMCM when Shannon Wheeler was first creating little comic books by hand in Austin. (My own collection is still around here somewhere.) I loved it and followed it for awhile, but comic books aren’t really my thing and I eventually lost track. But I never forgot one particular one-page comic Wheeler did, periodically scouring the internet for it, only to come away frustrated. When I discovered that most of TMCM had been compiled into this 500-page behemoth, and that I could buy a used copy online for $4, I had to have it. It is delightful, and I think Wheeler is a genius of sorts, but one that would only appeal to a narrow range of readers.

    1. That’s an interesting list, Rick, partly because there’s no overlap at all (books or subjects) with my own list. Jacobs is the only author I’m familiar with. (And Byrne, of course, but not as an author.)

      I never realized how similar our early/college music tastes were. I was an indie fan before college, but being an art student in Athens, GA in the early 80s certainly upped the ante. David Byrne and Laurie Anderson (whom I have jokingly called my alter-ego) were high on the list, along with many Athens bands, of course. And the Sugar Cubes (a.k.a Bjork). I confess that on the recent final day of the Mayan calendar, I looked up “The End of the World as we Know It” on You Tube and caused my currently-Monteverdi-happy daughter to run screaming from the room. But one viewing satisfied my REM nostalgia and my curiosity about how video had changed.

      Interesting that your music tastes have gone in a definite Bluegrass (for lack of a better word) direction while mine have gone in a classical (also for lack of a better word) direction as we have aged. It probably has at least something to do with where we each live. I admit to liking many different kinds of music, though, as long as there’s some kind of integrity there.

      Persepolis is a graphic novel, btw, the first I’ve read. It had its moments. I might have to look up TMCM.

      1. Laura,

        We made a deliberate choice to pursue Appalachian music, just because we were living in Appalachia with no plans to leave. (We still live within spitting distance.) If back in 2001 I had chosen a music just for its raw appeal to me, I would have chosen cajun, with conjunto (Tex-Mex) being a close second. At the time I didn’t like Appalachian music all that much, but friends I highly respected loved it and played it, and so I knew that immersing ourselves in it would eventually yield rewards.

        I bought and devoured Laurie Anderson’s first few albums as they came out, and saw her perform once in the early 80s. She’s the only performance artist I ever liked, unless you count David Byrne’s work with Talking Heads. I think what I liked about her was that she shifted the usual ironic stance just enough to be inviting and approachable–a little self-deprecation, a little silliness–and underpinning it all that incredibly warm and human voice! She made for a very friendly and understanding guide to a part of music I was curious about but didn’t really want to immerse myself in.

        Shannon Wheeler has a weblog where many (but by no means all) of his Too Much Coffee Man cartoons are posted. He also posts his regular submissions to the New Yorker, which are published sometimes. Here’s one of those you might appreciate:

        Women who read too much

        I couldn’t find any of my absolute favorite TMCM pages, but these two are a good mixture of the qualities I like best–exaggerated and cinematic drawing style, extreme expressions, absurd humor.

        Where did my body go?

        And one from the very early days, back when I first ran across his work in some Austin bookstore–not as funny as his later work, but even more engergetic:

        Introducing …

      2. I’ve run out of reply buttons so I’m posting up here. I like Wheeler’s New Yorker-type cartoons best, although when I had a look at the blog I also liked the cartoons about TMCM “getting away from it all.” He pokes holes in all our little foibles.

        I never analyzed my interest in Anderson that much, but just liked her work. That includes a sort of singing bowl that I saw a couple of years ago at the Guggenheim. She’s still working in the same vein.

        And I’m sure that wherever you are does tend to affect the sort of music you learn and play. Even the Italian and NYC classical music scenes are very different. Also, Sarie has shared the Reeltime Travelers (sadly defunct now) with some of her friends, and they say there are local parallels. Here, folk music tends to feature accordions and has a charm of its own.

  2. Your book list posts always inspire me. I still have the one book you read a long time ago… Ten Ways To Destroy The Imagination of Your Child… on my Amazon wish list. Insert huge sigh here. One of these days it will actually make it’s way into my shopping cart and on to my bedside table.

    Hopefully, this will be a better ‘reading’ year for me. Last year I managed to read Pinnochio (aloud to my six year old, does it still count?), A Way Through The Wilderness by Jamie Buckingham (devoured it!), and the Hunger Games trilogy (I confess shamelessly as I just had to know what all the fuss was about). I barely squeaked in Jen Hatmaker’s book: 7, An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess, finishing it up the last day of Christmas vacation.

    One last confession: I started Little Dorrit in 2011, had hopes of finally finishing it in 2012, but alas, it still haunts me here in 2013. Will that book ever end? There’s just something about me and Dickens. Outside of A Christmas Carol, he and I have issues. :-/

    Your list for this year looks great. That Mrs. Dalloway and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close have especially piqued my interest. 🙂


    1. Hi, Lynn!

      I used to ask myself the same question about children’s books. I usually didn’t add them, but I can see schemes in which one would. I just made a specific bargain with myself not to go for quantity.

      About Dickens: It helps if you read him understanding how serial-writing shaped his books. I’ve heard people joke that he was paid by the word, which I don’t think is strictly true, but he was paid for quantity somehow; I think by chapter. So he spends about the 1st third of a book introducing characters and background material, the 2nd developing the situation/plot, and the 3rd accelerating the plot. So he starts slow, does a lot of economical and eccentric character-sketching, and goes back and forth between the characters a lot in the middle. That sort of beginning loses some people. But if you persist, towards the end, the plot starts to roll precipitously and you can’t put the books down! Having experienced this with about five of his novels now (TOTC, OT, DC, GE, HT, BH), I know how to look for clues at the beginning that will make the end like reading a mystery novel. That said, I’ve never read Little Dorrit, but my all-time favorite so far is Great Expectations.

      My husband Bob really liked the Hunger Games movie and wants me to watch it so see whether it was as good as he thinks, or whether he just got caught up in it. But since we almost only watch movies on planes these days and I haven’t flown Alitalia in a while, I keep missing it. Oh, well!

      1. Yes, I had heard that somewhere too… that Dickens was paid by the word. I wasn’t sure if that was entirely correct either. Someone else told me that Little Dorrit was a weekly publication… chapter by chapter. But, I am not sure if that is completely true as well.

        I need to learn, as you have, to look for those clues. I do find Little Dorrit interesting, so that isn’t my problem. I can’t quite put my finger on it. I think it may just be the enormity of it…

        Although I did read aloud Great Expectations to my older kids in 2011 and I admit, while I finished it, I still found it hard to get through. So maybe it’s his writing style? Ah, I don’t know.

        Either way, I’ll keep plugging through and one day I’ll be able to say I finally finished Little Dorrit! 🙂

  3. I enjoyed reading your list and annotations, Laura. I’ve read the Saks book (I liked it), and some of the essays in Robinson’s book, though I’m determined to read more this year. I’ve only read one of her novels (Home) but Gilead is near the top of the pile of books I want to read this year. There is an interesting interview with Robinson in the Paris Review that I enjoyed. Tom and I have started the Keller book, but it got set aside over the holidays. I’m almost finished with Piper’s “This Momentary Marriage” (I think that is the title). I liked this one a lot, i.e. it has convicted, blessed me more than any other marriage book I’ve read, though it could be in part that it was the right book at the right time.

    1. Thanks for the alert on the Robinson interview; I might like to look that up. I’ve read both Home and Gilead and they’re very different.

      Your recommendation of “This Momentary Marriage” also intrigues me. One thing I like about Keller is that he doesn’t make up relationship rules, but just sticks with what’s in the Bible and gives guidelines and leeway to work out the rest. That said, his guidelines/advice seem sensible to me. And he’s not silly, which is a big plus in my opinion.

      1. Melissa, I just wanted to say thanks so much for mentioning the Robinson interview in Paris Review. I read the whole article this morning and enjoyed it very much. There were many good parts, but I think my favorite line was the one about thinking that all cultural frameworks have to go: “It’s like deciding how much more interesting it would be if you had no skeleton: you could just slide under the door.”

        And there are lots more authors in the series who will also be fun to read about.

  4. Laura, I love your book lists, too! I’m interested in the Marilynne Robinson book, although someone told me it struck them as a bit pretentious. I’m not sure what they meant by that (it was a brief conversation). . . What did you think of the book?

    I read the introverts book by Susan Cain and liked it fine. Honestly, I sometimes get tired of personality self-analysis, but I do think people need to understand introverts better and stop seeing introversion as a weakness to be overcome. (Have you seen Cain’s TED talk? I liked it.)

    I’ve read Persepolis, too, and thought the graphic concept idea was interesting. I liked the book. The only other graphic novels I’ve read are the Maus books (memoirs, too), which I liked more than Persepolis.

    Best book I’ve read recently? The letters of Jonathan Netanyahu. What’s the title?. . . Let me run and check. . .Oh, yes. . . Self Portrait of a Hero (obviously not self-titled!the letters were published post-humously). I can’t put this down!

    And then there are my course-books, some of which are actually quite interesting. I happen to have ten of them to read this term, so I won’t have a lot of time for other reading (though this doesn’t seem to be stopping me from reading the book of Netanyahu’s letters).


    1. Hi Susan!

      Quite honestly, the Robinson book also struck me as being pretentious in places. Not all the way through, and I really liked parts of it, but I can at least sense what the person you talked to may have meant. One reason I didn’t add any notes on it is that I don’t have the energy right now to tease out just why I felt this way. And partly, I was hoping it was actually going to be more about childhood and books than it was!

      I agree with you exactly on the Cain book. One thing I liked was that she affirmed introversion, which many people think of as a flaw that needs to be overcome, but then she also gave good reasons why an introvert might want to step outside his/her own personality box. I think that’s pretty balanced. And yes, I liked the TED talk!

      I don’t know the Maus books (note to self to look them up). I liked the Iranian parts of Persepolis better than the European parts. Satrapi just seems to have a much better sense of who she is in Iran, and I mourned that she had to leave it when she wasn’t really old enough yet. But then again, that’s part of the purpose of the story–finding who she is given her complicated background. And if you read her interviews, she actually tones herself down a good bit in the book. She is VERY in your face in real life!

      I think I’m just going to have to look up this Netanyahu book! Arrch, my screen is acting up, so I’m going to have to close.

    2. Susan,

      I second your recommendation of Maus. I could not have endured the horrors that Art Spiegelman relates in a conventional narrative. But somehow cartoon cats, mice, pigs, and dogs provided just enough distance to let me face it head on. How Spiegelman stumbled on that idea I’ll never know, but it makes him a genius and I’ll always be grateful to him.

      I’m also not sure that Spiegelman’s father Vladek would have worked as a character in a conventional story, but he fits right in to the choppy, episodic narrative that Spiegelman was able to create in the comic book format.

  5. Hi Laura,

    nice–I always like to know what you’ve been reading!

    I just finished with Cain’s book. I found it very interesting and well written. I had picked it up hoping it would help me to understand some people in my life, myself included. And it was very insightful–good to know why some people are the way they are, but also good to know that we aren’t chained to our personalities.

    Two favorites that I read this year are Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamazov. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky do an amazing job of character development as well as peering into some deeper philosophical issues.

    My other favorite of the year for personal devotion was/is (I keep this one nearby to pick up and meditate small portions) The Hidden Power of Kindness by Lawrence G. Lovasik–found through Susan. It helps to remind me daily of Christ and how much I want to be like him!

    I am going to have to check out Keller’s Every Good Endeavor as I am right in the midst of some quasi new ones now.

    Thanks for sharing!


    1. Yes, I think I share your fascination with Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. (I like them for different reasons, but both for their hugeness.) The Steiner book of criticism is good, too. I intend to finish it while or after reading Anna Karenina.

      I’ve read a lot of Susan’s recommendations over the years, too! As usual, this one looks interesting.

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