The 50 books of my year to date

For the last few years — alas, I wish I’d done this always from a child — I’ve kept a list of every book I’ve read.

Yesterday my list for 2018 hit 50 books, and here they are.  I like complete freedom in choosing books, so I don’t make any kind of reading plan, and often bypass my pile of recently purchased books to choose others.  I use the New York Public Library and the Brooklyn Public Library (for audiobook downloads) a lot.  I follow my interests (in the last few years, Russia, pre-and-post revolution), or powerful suggestions, such as the Backlisted Podcast, which brought me to #27, 28, 32, or books mentioned on other podcasts I listen to.  I note when I’ve listened to a book instead of reading it on paper, but I consider listening equivalent to reading.  In some cases, it’s superior to reading — for instance, hearing the audio of “Purple Hibiscus” gave me the Nigerian accents and pronunciations of names without which the experience would have been much flatter.  I also like audiobooks for history, which I’ll happily listen to all the way through instead of getting bogged down in the paper book.

I’m committed to maintaining my ability to concentrate for long bouts of reading, in physical books.  I did read a couple of these books on my iPad because e-books were the only format the public library had to lend, but while I don’t condemn it, I’ll still never prefer it.

The books that wowed me the most are in bold.

 

1 Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets   Svetlana Alexievich         Audiobook

2  Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine    Anne Applebaum                          Audiobook

3  The Orchid House     Phyllis Shand Allfrey

4  The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars     Daniel Beer Audiobook

5 Niels Lyhne           Jens Peter Jacobsen

6  City of Sedition: The History of New York City During the Civil War     John Strausbaugh      Audiobook

7 The Adolescent (The Raw Youth)    Fyodor Dostoevsky

8   Hotel Savoy    Joseph Roth

9   Nothing is True And Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia            Peter Pomerantsev               Audbiobook

10 Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 & How It Changed The World                 Laura Spinney             Audiobook

11 The Shooting Party  Anton Chekhov

12 The Girl From the Metropol Hotel: Growing Up in Communist Russia Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

13 Notes From Underground    Fyodor Dostoevsky

14  The Double   Fyodor Dostoevsky            Audiobook

15 Caught in the Revolution—Petrograd, Russia, 1917      Helen Rappaport 

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16  My Cousin Rachel     Daphne Du Maurier                    Audiobook

17  Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: A Essay in Contrast  George Steiner

18   Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birdbizhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region    Masha Gessen       Audiobook

19  Lincoln in the Bardo    George Saunders

20  The Unpossessed     Tess Slesinger 

21 Slow Days Fast Company  Eve Babitz

22 The Fox in the Attic     Richard Hughes

23 The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia    Masha Gessen            Audiobook

24  L.A. Woman     Eve Babitz

25  Eve’s Hollywood   Eve Babitz  

26 Elmet                   Fiona Mozley

27 Corregidora     Gayl Jones

28 The Lowlife   Alexander Baron

29 The Romanovs 1613-1918    Simon Sebag Montefiore           Audiobook

30 An Empire On the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America  Nick Bunker                 Audiobook

31  Kudos    Rachel Cusk

32 The Fatal Englishman: Three Short Lives       Sebastian Faulks

33  Remember Me Like This     Bret Anthony Johnston

34  American Wife  Curtis Sittenfeld         Audiobook

35 The Turn of the Screw    Henry James   Reread/Audiobook

36  A Wrinkle in Time   Madeline L’Engle           Reread/Audiobook

37  Journey into the Mind’s Eye: Fragments of an Autobiography    Lesley Blanch

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38  Purple Hibiscus  Chimananda Ngozi Adichie        Audiobook

39  Trotsky in New York 1917: A Radical on the Eve of Revolution      Kenneth Ackerman  Audiobook

40 The Feud: Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson: The End of a Beautiful Friendship   Alex Beam     Audiobook

41 Red Plenty       Francis Spufford  Audiobook

42 The People’s Act of Love    James Meek

43  In A Lonely Place   Dorothy Hughes        

44  The World Broke in Two: Woolf, Eliot, Forster Lawrence and the Year That Changed Literature          Bill Goldstein          Audiobook

45  Florida    Lauren Groff

46  Asymmetry      Lisa Halliday      

47  Corpus Christi            Bret Anthony Johnston    

48  The Rainbow          D H Lawrence     Audiobook

49 Days of Awe: Short Stories             A M Homes

50  The Best American Short Stories 2016           Junot Diaz, editor

The book by Lesley Blanch was so much fun for me, because it hit my reading pleasure center in multiple ways — a lot of romantic tosh about pre-revolution Russia, a transgressive love affair, enthusiasm about books, and evocative descriptions of foreign places — Blanch writes about the origins and experiences of her life-long obsession with Russia, a Russia of fairy tales, wolves chasing sleighs across stony wastes, onion domes, extravagant despots.  It’s an absolutely charming book, and it came to me at random — NYRB republished it and sent it to me as part of a subscription; I think I enjoyed it more for not having anticipated it at all.

 

In a Lonely Book Place

As recommended by my podcast-soulmate Backlisted, I’m reading Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer, which is a story collection and, at long last, In a Lonely Place by Dorothy Hughes, the 1940s noir novel on which the film with Bogart and Grahame was based.  The film is one of the handful that I can’t not watch whenever I see it’s coming on TCM.  Reading the book afterwards is quite a lesson in how novels, when adapted for movies, can be changed, plot-wise, in big ways, often for the (cinematic at least) better. The simple switch — though so not simple! — from making the protagonist in the book, whom we know is a serial killer from the outset, into a man with anger issues who could be the killer, but we’re pretty sure isn’t, takes it to a higher orbit.

 

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Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart in In A Lonely Place

I’m also in the midst of Lauren Groff’s latest book, “Florida”, another story collection.  Post writers conference, my interest in the short is resurging.

13bennett-cover-jumboOn audio I’ve got 1922: The Year That Changed Literature by Bill Goldstein, which is about how, in that year, four great writers made their great leaps forward: Woolf, Lawrence, Eliot, and Forster.  It’s sending me to read some Lawrence, which I haven’t seen college.

You may well wonder how I get all this reading done — but in fact I usually feel I’m not getting enough reading done, as, come dusk, I turn to TV binge-watch mode.

 

“My” show of the moment, Claws, has been putting out a 2nd season even better than its stellar first.  It hits my Buffy the Vampire Slayer and sleazy southern noir buttons, it’s hilarious and continually inventive, and also akin to Buffy, the characters are real people with backstories that are “surprising and inevitable,” as Flannery O’Connor says the ending of a short story must be.

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In a similar vein, I saw the movie The Spy Who Dumped Me” this week, with expectations pretty low: killing an afternoon somewhere cool, seated comfortably, so as to avoid running into my cleaner. I’d read somewhere that the action sequences in it exceeded those of the latest Mission Impossible, and I like action — I also like movies that Tom Cruise is nowhere near.  My expectations were large exceeded — this was a funny BFF comedy with Mila Kunis and Katherine McKinnon getting mixed up in a dangerous international caper.  The plot was superfluous, the pleasure was in seeing a story about a pair of best friends who use their best-friendship to conquer all before them.  Recommended, though maybe not for the $17.50 I had to pay when I wandered like a shorn lamb into the theater at 2 o’clock on a Thursday afternoon.  (I go to very few movies — the last one I saw was The Death of Stalin last winter.)

Studying with Bret Anthony Johnston

I went to the VQR Writers Conference to mix with a bunch of my fellow writers, and for a fiction workshop run by the novelist Bret Anthony Johnston.

Bret Anthony Johnston and NK Shapiro

My workshop teacher, Bret Anthony Johnston, and me.

Bret was funny, super-smart, friendly, focused on accentuating the positive in everyone’s writing.  He also taught me things (see two random notebook pages) about story structure that I’ve struggled with for years in trying to do it intuitively — not only do I feel energized by spending the week with him and other workshoppers whose work filled me with an urge to make more of my own, but I’ve come away empowered with some tools I didn’t have before.

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Structure 101 was new to me.

 

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Story structure diagrams are my new jam.

Got home on Saturday evening, and Chuffey just arrived, dropped off by his heroic dogsitter, Jason — also a fine poet.

Chuffey with Blue Elephant

Chuffey is glad to be home with Blue Elephant.