Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Down to 153, and don't really feel like doing anything to make that number any bigger at the moment

I'm 153 books from Book Shelf Zero after finishing up The Confessions of Nat Turner and Flashman and the Mountain of Light. I managed to slip in another of the library ebooks, Old Man's War, between those two print books. 153 is the fewest books I've had left to read in my quest to read all my owned books. It's a satisfying place. I'm so satisfied with reaching 153 that I am not struggling with a desire to run out and buy another book. I know what I want to buy when I'm ready to pull the trigger, The Use of Weapons (book 3 of the Culture series), but I would rather see my to read number at 153 (or lower) than have it bounce back up to 154.

I secretly hoped that this desire to see my to be read number shrink would help me resist the constant temptation to buy a new book. My book buying habit is so strong I wasn't sure that a goal with such a long time horizon would be enough to counter the quick hit that comes with a nice book purchase. It's taken a couple of years, but I think I'm finally there. I have no desire to repeat the book buying binge that I indulged in at the end of 2016. I would feel like all the discipline I enforced on myself over the last several months would be a total waste if I just raced out and loaded up on a bunch of stuff.

The type of books that I've been reading is definitely playing a part in tamping down the book buying cravings. A House for Mr. Biswas, The Confessions of Nat Turner, and that Flashman book are all novels that I have owned for a long time. If I have owned these books for a long time, I have wanted to read them for a long time. It's nice to have actually taken the time to read these books that, while very satisfying, are not exactly thrilling page turners. The sense of mass that I felt when contemplating the number of books that I had on my shelves waiting to be read has slowly receded as I have steadily made my way through my tremendous reading backlog. I have no desire to revisit that cramped and claustrophobic space.

The completion of Flashman and the Mountain of Light (the last of the Flashman books that I own, the last two in the series have been sitting in my Amazon items saved for later for years) left me looking for the next thing to read. I had started a book on my phone, a book that I own, but I wasn't really feeling the desire to pursue that one in earnest. I looked over my shelves and spotted Roth's American Pastoral. That felt like the right thing to read. I was surprised at how quickly this book hooked me and at the pleasure I took in reading it. There is no challenge to keep reading this one. I have given up time to play Breathe of the Wild (a game that still has me engaged while playing it for over a year (although I am getting close to the point of just wanting to beat Ganon and get on to something else)) to keep reading Roth's amazing prose. My progress is slower than I would like as my reading time has been hindered by family activities, but there is no question that I will keep going with this one until I reach the end.

I just happened to pick up this book a couple of days after Roth had died. I didn't know he had died. Somebody following my Goodreads entries would have seen me start reading it and could have assumed that hearing the news of his death had prodded me to start reading what some consider his best book, but there was no conscious connection between his death an me sliding the book off the shelf. I don't know why I avoid Roth's books. I've read a couple of them and have found them highly engaging. I remember reading Portnoy's Complaint in my post-college apartment, but I really have very little recollection of the book (I may have to do a very rare reread). I have Sabbath's Theater on my shelf waiting to be read. That one also has some very high praise. I don't think I will roll right into that one after finishing American Pastoral, but it's become a much more intriguing read than it was a couple of weeks ago.

The pursuit continues, one page at a time...

Friday, May 18, 2018

Fates and Furies - Book 15 of 2018

I read Fates and Furies to spite the reviewers who juts didn't like the characters (that is just the laziest reaction to a book that I can imagine), but it was a surprisingly pleasurable reading experience. The core of this book provides its relevance. The story is nothing inspired and the characters are a bit a flat and cliche. The dynamics of the marriage makes the book worth reading. The whole playwright thing is a joke. A famous playwright? Really? Are there really that many theaters clamoring for stuff from the newest hot thing? Maybe, I have absolutely no interest in the stage so maybe the hot young thing really is famous in the right circles. Our protagonist's name and backstory are utterly ridiculous. The same goes for his wife. But the marriage made the book readable. It's hard to capture exactly what made that part of the book work, but the way two lives were joined and became something greater than two individual lives captures something very real. The rest of the plot is just embellishment. They were better together then either of them could have been alone. That idea, and the reasonably good writing, propelled this book to critical acclaim. Marriages matter. This book puts that feeling into words.

I did not buy this book. It came to my attention through the Kindle Daily Deal. In years past I would have bought it on intrigue alone, but I'm no longer so quick to surrender to intrigue. I read it as an ebook from the library. It's not part of any list and it gets me no closer to Book Shelf Zero, but the book snagged me from the first few pages. It was fairly short and pleasurable to read. I'm happy to have read it. I'm glad I didn't buy it.

Fates and Furies is book 600 in my Goodreads list. I was hoping that book 600 would be some long held book that I've taken forever to getting around to reading (like The Confessions of Nat Turner, which I have finished but haven't gotten around to blogging about yet), but it was this random book that I just happened upon. I added yet another book from my past to extend that list another digit past 600 earlier today. I had not yet noted that I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X in my distant reading past. I'm pretty sure it was late in high school. It may have been early in college. I don't remember all that much of it, but I read it during an impressionable part of my youth so I'm sure it tweaked me a bit in some impossible to rediscover way.

I have been extending my list through audiobooks, The Godfather and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, and other library books that are also on one of my lists (Old Man's War, I'll get around to commenting on this one eventually, after Nat Turner of course). I thought I was done with library books for awhile, but a title that I put on reserve was automatically borrowed today. My plan was to read one of my owned ebooks. I even read a few pages of one of them yesterday. I may set that aside to read this new book. Maybe I'll try reading them both while also reading Flashman and the Mountain of Light, an effort that was strongly inhibited by Old Man's War. I like seeing my to be read pile shrink (especially as I have decided to not buy another book until I get at least one more book read), but the quick and entertaining library reads are so appealing.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Player of Games - Book 14 for the year

Reading these Culture books by borrowing them electronically from the library feels like the just right way to obtain and consume this series. Instantaneous electronic access is the way things work in the Culture. I have to use a clunky cell phone to get access to the system that delivers the book, there would be some kind of sentient drone ready to instantly handle my spoken request in the Culture, but avoiding the hassle of the physical book itself is the way things get done in that far, far advanced civilization. The Culture is so advanced that organisms aren't really organisms any more. They are more like biological machines than beings subject to the accidents of genetics and biological systems. Anatomy is tuned and tweaked and optimized to provide just what the person wants or needs. Gender is fluid, the endocrine system has been souped up to manufacture any combination of drugs to change mood and mind, and lost body parts can be regrown or existing body parts modified to provide superior performance. Life in the culture is one big party. Tedious and dreary jobs seem as antiquated as illness and disease. There is no money so people just do what they like. You pursue what gets you going. The Player of Games, this guy Gurgeh, spends all his time playing (and winning) at every kind of game the universe can imagine. They live on manufactured space stations built at epic scales in fully automated houses that meet every desire and whim.

This utopia is the opposite of Terminator-like visions where robots remove humans from the mix. In this instance, the robots seems to nurture and deeply care for the biological machines. It's almost like the biological machines are the pets for the drones and other self-aware mechanical beings (which all carry the moral and legal status of a person). People in the culture are as far removed from a natural environment as possible, but they are deeply invested in pursuing the physical pleasures that come with being an animal. There's plenty of sex and drugs and drinking and food. They are all genetically fixed to be in great shape and stay young and fit. They can basically do whatever they want with no fear of consequences. The Culture is communism perfected. People can't run a centrally planned economy, but nearly omniscient Minds are able to manage the required complexities with aplomb. Each person is able to give the best of their ability. Gurgeh gets manipulated into using his gifts to further the aims of the Culture.

Damn, I just realized that these books are hugely leftist. The philosophy and morality of the Culture is very much the logical extension of conventional liberal ideologies. The first book had a planet that had been totally destroyed by a war. Stupid generals killed everybody. The Player of Games was centered around a game used by an empire that tortures, oppresses,and subjugates different sexes to maintain its power and structure. And to think I was planning on giving a discourse of how separated we've become from our biological and natural roots. I'm not very liberal in my political positions. I never really challenged or questioned the idea of the good life and success when I was a kid. I very much desired achieving success and distinction within the system as it existed. Well, I'm still pretty much following that pattern with a slightly higher awareness of the absurdity that is life in a corporation. I'm definitely no rebel or extremist of any sort. I'm aware of and recognize the short comings in our system, but I don't see the point in making a big deal about it. I would rather just live my life the best I can within the bounds of the current system. I have no desire to foment change. At least not at a societal level. I'm all about change in my personal space.

Taking an idea to its logical extremes, like Banks has done with The Culture, certainly builds interest. A deep focus on one or two issues seems to be the way people get attention for their endeavor. People are far more likely to read about some crazy adventure than follow somebody's quest to read all the books that they have dropped money on over the year. Going deep into some common interest, video games, a sport, a team, any kind of hobby, gathers like minded people to you in some effort to share in or learn from your experience. People want to know what they can get from you. What secret knowledge can you share that will give me an edge? Teach me something! Show me something I didn't know! Give me access to the parties and events that my lowly social status prevents me from accessing! Isn't that what the Kardashians are all about? Opening the doors of riches and celebrity to the prying eyes of the heathen public? There are all kinds of people out there living their life differently than I live mine. Some of these people are fictional, like our friend Gurgeh, the Player of Games, some of them are real people showing a curated and largely fictional depiction of their life, and others are sharing something real about their experience. The more extreme your little life experiment, the more attention you will garner.

This little project could be about helping people find books to read. It could be about helping people build a reading habit. It could be about me and what I think (using whatever book I'm currently reading as a starting point for some maybe slightly related diatribe), or it could just be me recording my reading activities just for the hell of it. I'm thinking I may just do it for the hell of it.

In that vein, I quickly switched to this book Fates and Furies after finishing The Player of Games. It's another ebook from the library. It was the Kindle Daily Deal last week. I would have just bought it a couple of years ago, but seeing that to be read number go up cancels out the small joy I get from buying books. Getting it from the library feels like I'm cheating the system somehow. It's also free, easy, and requires no commitment. I read a few pages to see what all the fuss was about, it was highly lauded when it came out a couple of years ago, and was instantly hooked. I'm racing through this one. I would be going even faster but I'm making sure I keep making progress on The Confessions of Nat Turner as well. I think I see where this Fates and Furies book is headed. I really hope I'm wrong. I guess I'll know soon enough.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Virginia at War, 1862 finished, 154 to go

I won this battle. Well, it was really more of a skirmish. I didn't need to use many resources to take care of this one. No matter the scale (it wasn't hard at all, it was a very pleasant experience), the final result is one less book on my to be read pile. I also picked up a bit more of the atmosphere and experience of the Civil War. This series of books does a nice job of getting behind the battle fronts to recount the experience of the people not engaged in combat. The Civil War evolved into a total war. The people involved didn't realize that victory would require the complete dedication of each nation's industrial output, part of this book tracks how early efforts to supply soldiers were strained by the Army's failure to procure the total output of Virginia's limited fabric manufacturing capabilities. The level of cohesion and commitment war demands from the population is so easy to overlook in the flood of detailed accounts of battles and military strategy. It takes the resources of a nation to enable those military maneuvers.The people had to believe in the cause and justice of the war. An indifferent population will not carry a nation to victory.

The essentially total breakdown of mass culture and the sense of a national identity has probably made total war a near impossibility for us now. We are slowly creeping into such highly curated and customized cultural niches that a shared sense of anything is gradually eroding. The sense of our individual importance dwarfs anything the nation may need. Even the fixation on Trump derives more from the perceived threat he presents to the continued evolution of particular cultural trends than any sense that he is altering the fundamental tenets or principles of our shared notion of The United States. The simple desire to bring back the sense of the United States as a unified nation with its central role of spreading democracy and freedom to the rest of the world is a threat to numerous sects and niches groups that fill people with purpose and meaning. Progressive politic's excessive focus on the individual and all the superficial traits that make us different, and how those differences have been used to exploit and oppress, has been a central driver in breaking all of us up into distinct, and rival, mini-cultures. A nation of rival mini-cultures will never coalesce to support total war.

My newest front in the war that is Book Shelf Zero is The Confessions of Nat Turner. I have the 25th anniversary edition of the novel. The book was written over 50 years ago. (Translation, I've had this book for a long time.) I was wise to read the afterword before plunging into the novel itself. The origins and history of the novel with its many years of controversy was good to know before I started the story. I could say that the story definitely feels like a white man putting himself in the place of a black slave, but that could just be the influence of that afterword. Any book written now would be an imagined experience of slavery. Nat's arc and descent into rebellion feels very contrived. The overwhelming power of the writing pushes these concerns very much to the margin though. Styron creates powerful images and scenes. He puts you right into the Tidewater plantation. The book is moving along smoothly enough. I've been splitting my reading time between Nat's story and another book (which I recently finished) so the going is a bit on the slow side. I would like to have this done by the end of the month but I'm not sure that's going to happen.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Dragonflight - Book 12 of the year

I've had my fill of Anne McCaffery. The book was average at best. I have read some excellent books that were much lower on that NPR list. This one was a solid dud. The principle components of the story are solid, but the execution was just so impatient and poorly developed. Events just happen. There is very little build-up or suspense. The big reveal of why so many of the other places are empty is satisfying, but the payoff is less than it could have been. It's all stiff and impatient and just poorly crafted. At least it was short.

Dragonflight marks the 42 NPR Sci Fi/Fantasy book that I've read from the list. That's the same number of Modern Library Top 100 that I have read. I've read 7 of the NPR books this year. I've read 1 of the Modern Library books. I would guess that I have a better chance of finishing the Modern Library list first. There are still 215 books on the NPR list for me to read (lots of series in that list). Side note, I already own 1 of those books. Just 1. Dragonflight aside, I've been pleased with the books on both of the lists so I have no reservations to keep using them as a source of solid reading material.

I should finish Virginia at War, 1862 by the end of the week. A family trip to DC for some baseball and museums may interfere a bit with my reading, but that's not a bad thing. Some desperately needed sleep may cut into my reading time tonight, and my kids being home with me in the morning could slow down my before work reading progress. I guess that leaves Tuesday night as the only real chunk of reading time before the trip. Well, maybe I will be able to read a bit in the hotel room.

Friday, March 30, 2018

A House for Mr. Biswas complete - 155 remain

It took me almost 2 months, but I have finished reading A House for Mr. Biswas. This book creates a sense of character and place that far exceeds the sum of the words that fill its many pages. The sense of place plays a critical role in the story. This is not just a story about the events of a man's life. It's the story of a life. Where things happen proves just as important as what happens. This isn't much of a stretch to make as chapter titles are mostly where Biswas happens to live at that point of his story. His story could not happen as it does anywhere other than the Hanuman House (which I can finally read without thinking of Baljeet as Hanuman Man) or Green Vale or any other place on Trinidad. The power of this novel is undeniable if subtle. The novel's action lies within Biswas. It's not about thrilling adventure or a gripping plot full of suspense and intrigue. It the slow unfolding of a life and all the limits and struggles that come with living our allotted place. I wasn't ready to read this novel when I bought it over 15 years ago. Life needed a chance to buffet me around a bit. I empathize with Biswas and understand his struggles. He's easy to dismiss as weak and ineffectual, but in dismissing him, we would be all too eager to dismiss so much of what each of us struggle with every day. 

It took me a few days to settle on which book to read after finishing the Naipaul. (Brief aside, I fully intend to purchase another Naipaul book in the not too distant future. A Bend in the River will likely be that purchase. I would like to take a look at it first, but it's not in stock at any of the B&N locations near me. I could borrow it from the library as an ebook without too much hassle, but I kind of like the process of going to the store and looking at it. I enjoy the process of buying the book (obviously, that how I ended up with so many of them to read!). The failure of any retail location to figure out how to stock books that appeal to a limited audience is a real bummer. Maybe the existence of the limited audience is the real downer. Anyway, this is the kind of situation that heralds the demise of the mass book seller. Well, the end of mass everything is the real trend. Books are just a marginal enough product that it's dying faster than some other industries. Long live the niche! At least online resources will provide a way for me to keep getting books like this. Opening a box just isn't the same as going to the store.) After spending 7 weeks with a single physical book, I was not eager to engage with another several week long reading project. A field trip with my daughter to a Civil War battlefield had me in an historical frame of mind for the last month or so. After some looking around on my shelves, I found the Virginia at War books. I have four of the five volumes (only 1865 remains to be purchased), but I have only read the first one, 1861. The books are a series of chapters on different aspects of the war with an exclusive focus on events in Virginia. Each one of the volumes is pretty slender, not quite 200 pages including notes, with the final chapter of each being an excerpt from the diary of a woman who lived in Fairfax during the war. These skinny little books on the Civil War were a perfect fit for my current reading needs. 

So Virginia at War, 1862 is moving along smoothly. Each chapter is the right length to be read in a single session so the book moves with a nice cadence. I'm very familiar with the events of the Civil War in Virginia in 1862 (that is really the only period and theater of the war that I really know anything about) so the books move quickly. The chapters focus on events outside of battles and generals. The topics are minor but provide very interesting context for the larger events that I already know a bit about. There are always a few pages of notes at the end of each chapter so I get some bonus pages to record in Goodreads with each one I finish. I've read three chapters in as many days. I should finish the book next week. 

I'm also making nice progress with Dragonflight, yet another NPR 100 book that I borrowed from the library. I'm not very impressed with this one. It's decent enough, but it's not very well written. It's short, and I'm about 3/4 of the way to the end. I will finish it this weekend.

I'm tired of being stuck around 155 books to read so I'm going to hold off on buying anything for a little while. I really need to pick a harder ebook that I already own to take on while reading something engaging in the physical format. I have some plans for how to make that happen. We'll see if I follow through.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Lost in Shangri-La

I have been putting Lost in Shangri-La aside for years as it felt like it would take too much effort to read.  I should have known that a book given away for free with iBooks would be an entertaining and require very little effort. This book was a fun read with very little in the way of resistance or challenge. It wasn't anything particularly profound or paradigm shifting, but it was an engaging way to spend a few hours.

Those few pleasant hours allowed me to get my to be read number down to 155. Unfortunately it popped right back to 156 when my plan to delay the arrival of my latest purchase, The Destructive War, was thwarted by Amazon's efficient supply chain. I skipped two day delivery in favor or a later delivery date (and the $1 discount on a digital item that was offered with the slower delivery), but my book was shipped with a phone case that I ordered for my son. Oh well, I had good intentions. I guess I'm just left to be stuck at 156 for months and months.

I could get off of 156 if I could just finish A House for Mr Biswas. I started this book in early February. It's the middle of March and I'm still a touch over 100 pages from being finished. It's not that this is a bad book or a real drag to read, it's neither of those things. I've just been reading other books instead (like the aforementioned Lost in Shangri-La). As the end of Mr. Biswas gets closer I'm more inclined to read it. It helps that I haven't been immediately drawn into a different book on my phone. I started Dragonflight (yet another ebook I've borrowed from the library), but getting through the indirect description of what's happening and some less than easy to keep track of names has made the early going on this one a bit slow. The basketball tournament has also been distracting me from reading. 

It's fitting that I'm spending weeks and weeks on Mr. Biswas as I've had it for years and years. I bought it soon after V.S. Naipaul won the Nobel Prize back in 2001. I read another of his books, The Enigma of Arrival (it was called his masterpiece in the Nobel citation so I'm not surprised I started with that one), and was engaged enough to try another. I was thrown off by the Indian characters in Trinidad and wasn't able to find a drive to read that book amid my flurry of book buying activity. (I bought loads of books when I had no money.) I bought it at Border's to give a sense of how long I've had it. I've said it before and I'll keep saying it, books like this is what Book Shelf Zero is all about. It's hard to overcome the inertia of a book sitting on my shelf for years.

A House for Mr. Biswas has had a long residence on my shelf, but there are others that have been waiting longer. As best I can determine from my memory of when I bought my books, a memory that is strangely vivid, For Whom the Bell Tolls is my longest held book. I think I bought it while I was still in high school. I've tried reading it a couple of times but I quickly lose interest and move onto something else. Hemingway has never really made the earth move for me, I've only read The Sun Also Rises and I almost gave up on that a couple of times, but I will eventually make it through this piece of propaganda. Now that I've recognized it as my longest held book, maybe I will have to get to it sooner than I had planned (or maybe I should save it for the book that brings me to Book Shelf Zero?).