Monday, March 3, 2014

52 Books - February update: 21/52

A previous post of mine said that I will be reading 52 books in this year's 52 weeks. I fully intend to achieve that goal. Here is my progress:

As of last post, I had 10 books down and now, with the year's shortest month done and gone, I have 21 (!?!?!) completed! I've had to improvise some rules lately about what "counts" as "reading a book this year", as you'll see, but, ultimately, I'm trying to be generous towards encouraging myself to read more, which is the goal of the project anyway, right? So, even with some "lax" rules about counting books, I'm making significant progress towards the ultimate goal:

I finished a series of novels I started within the last post; they were fun, quick reads, and I even experienced some funny coincidences around them (and have plans to continue with more … books, that is). I finished a dense book I technically started before Jan 01, but I counted it (because of external explorations). I read a series of graphic novels and ended up counting some of them as fractions of a book (but I don't want this to be a comment on graphic novels, as a genre, only on my ability to read them at a brisk pace and their smaller page counts). And I'm looking forward to many of the books I'm diving into next …

Here's what I've managed to read since my last update:

11/52: Sunny Side Down, by Levni Yilmaz
This was a fun one. I've followed Lev's YouTube channel for a few years and have always enjoyed his quirky, self-deprecating humor, interesting voice, and "in the moment" drawing style. I spotted this book at the Harvard Book Store (not the Coop) a couple months ago for a dirt cheap price and had to buy it. It reads a bit like a collection of thoughts/stories/opinions and a bit like a graphic novel. It's laid out chronologically over Lev's life, from high school to college and to becoming an "adult" and then to "becoming" an adult. His humor shines through, and the drawings are simple yet lively. I think the organization doesn't do much to display his creativity, unfortunately. I found myself laughing out loud to some of it, smirking at other parts, yet just flipping through the rest. Meanwhile, his YouTube videos have me chuckling and smiling the whole way through. Perhaps this says more about my attention span than his comic stylings, but sobeit. I think Lev was hamstringed by the written format, and he did quite well with it. I will still recommend this to anyone who follows Tales of Mere Existence, especially, as well as anyone who just wants to laugh about some awkward times in their life (i.e. high school, dating, finding a job, dealing with parents, etc.)

12/52: Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi
I can't recall exactly how I decided to read this book. I have a distinct memory of the film version being shown at CMU a few years ago, and a friend recommending it. But how did it reenter my consciousness recently? I have no idea. Perhaps it's because I've lately been stopping by the "graphic novels" section of the Boston Public Library every time I go there (I mean, it's right by the front desk) and this popped back into my brain, or perhaps … the author's name stuck in my head all these years and it spilled out of my mind. Whatever the reason, I found myself looking up this book and finding it upstairs in the "teen graphic novel" section. I almost awkwardly walked into the actual young adult section of the library before realizing the "graphic novel" section is on a shelf just outside. There was only a librarian inside‘an elderly-looking lady‘and then some kids who looked no more than 14. Then, I spotted the right shelf and found the book I sought. At that moment, a teenager at an adjacent table caught my attention to ask about my beard. He was sitting with a lady-friend, and he asked me how long I had been growing my beard. I said, "Since last summer", which was not entirely true, since I've trimmed a couple times since then, but I find it's the easiest way to phrase the true answer of "I've had a beard for like 8 years but the last time I trimmed down to almost nothing was last summer". He said he was trying to grow, as well, and stroked the 4 hairs protruding from his chin. I wished him luck and moved on.

Anyhow, this book was amazing. The stories are very well told, and the drawings are entertaining and engaging. I read this book over a handful of coffee shop excursions and, on several occasions, I found myself tearing up and wondering whether it would be appropriate to start sniffling and tear-shedding in public. How many books have made you debate that? I thought about how sheltered my life is, in comparison; I thought about how, even despite Satrapi's breadth of experiences, she still felt under-appreciative of her life, at times; I thought about the tragedies of war and the futility of it all; I thought about the universality of love, personality, and humanity. It was beautiful.

13/52: Ask The Dust, by John Fante
This was the 2nd stop on my Bandini excursion, having read The Road to Los Angeles last month. Typical Bandini here, and typical Fante, in a great way. He has a way with words, and I can see why (and how) Bukowski was influenced by his blunt yet evocative prose. I worry that the more removed society becomes from the culture of the 1930s and 1940s, the less interesting the love story in this novel will become, the less believable the characters will be, and so on. Regardless, this is a solid novel, and an enjoyable read.
What's more, I learned in the last few weeks that there is a film version of this novel. I have no pre-conception for how good of a film it is, let alone how accurate it might be. Turns out, the Boston library system had it, and I now hold the DVD in my hands. It stars Salma Hayek and Colin Farrell. I'm already kinda cringing. But I hope it's good … The novel was great, anyway!

14/52: Homer: The Odyssey & Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales & Dante's Divine Comedy, adapted by Seymour Chwast
I ended up counting all of these as one book because they were super quick reads. I finished each in about an hour or two. (I didn't read these in precisely this order, but it's easier to count them all as 1 book here.) Also, I'd already read The Odyssey and Dante's trilogy before, so that made it easier, I guess. Funnily enough, though, it was the Canterbury Tales adaptation that I liked the most! Chwast was faithful to the underlying stories (from what I remember/could tell) but played around with the graphics. The Odyssey was drawn as an intergalactic journey, played out via ancient Greek war. The journey in the Canterbury Tales occurred on motorcycles. And the narrating protagonist of Dante's trilogy was an Inspector Gadget-looking character, sans gadgets. I admired the ambition of these undertakings, and appreciated the appropriation of classic tales into a more modern (perhaps?) format, but I felt like much of this was just done to be said that it was done. Ya know? I'd recommend the Chaucer version to anyone, and the others only to those who either already know the story and want to experience a "different" telling, or those who don't know the story and want a more visual introduction.

15/52: The Mathematics of Games, by John D. Beasley
I took out this book to potentially find some interesting examples to play in math classes, but also out of interest, and to possibly find some interesting research projects for myself and for students. I ended up reading through it over a couple of weeks, and not getting any good examples for class, per se, but I did find some interesting potential for some Math Club activities or seminar talks/presentations, and research ideas. I was intrigued by some examples like the Sylver Coinage game, where a winning strategy for Player 1 can be proven to exist, and yet actually implementing that strategy is incredibly difficult, conceptually, as well as computationally time-consuming. I'd recommend this for folks who are already kinda mathy and want to learn more about how to analyze games, but anyone who has already studied game theory, in any sense, would just get turned off by the lack of rigor. Likewise, anyone who just likes games but is "not a math person" (as much as I hate that phrase), will be turned off by the lack of explanations. I enjoyed it, though!

16/52: Heads or Tails: Stories, by Lili Carré
These are fascinating, well-told yet sometimes abstract stories. Never mind the fact that the graphics are awesome. These stories are great. Set them into perfectly laid-out panels with eye-grabbing drawings that complement the stories perfectly … and you have a helluva book. I ended up reading through this pretty quickly in one evening out at a coffee shop, but I'm absolutely going to read through it again before I return it to the library. What's even more remarkable, to me, is that none of these stories feels like the centerpiece, nor the filler; they all contribute to the collection. And the graphics are distinct enough between stories that I'm amazed this was all done by one author/illustrator!

17/52: Funny Misshapen Body, by Jeffrey Brown
I picked this one up perusing the graphic novel section at the library. It looked like a longer story format than the other graphic novels I've read recently, so I was intrigued. It has a stark, black and white, panel-by-panel format, but Brown's broad and sketchy strokes really fill it all in and give it some energy. Also, it's an intensely personal telling of his childhood, teens and college years, and later development into a "professional" life. At times, I cringed. Other times, I laughed. Other times, I cringed about how I was laughing. Ultimately, I enjoyed the stories but the drawing left something to be desired. I felt like I had to be someone who already cared a lot about the graphic novel as a visual and story-telling art form to really appreciate this one. Not that I didn't. But I felt like it didn't speak to me as much as some other graphic novels have. Just some thoughts.

Coincidentally, from having this on my Goodreads list, I recently ended up winning a contest for an advance copy of Jeff Brown's new book, Kids Are Weird: And Other Observations from Parenthood! So I'm looking forward to getting that book and reading it! Check out a review next month or so.

18/52: Philosophy of Mathematics: A Contemporary Introduction to the World of Proofs and Pictures , by James Robert Brown
This is the book that I technically started a few days before this year. I remember cracking it open on the MegaBus ride from Boston down to NYC to visit my sister and her bf and some old friends, right after Christmas. This has been a dense read, and has prompted me to have so many "staring out the window and thinking" sessions; it has also pointed me, via the "suggested reading" sections, towards many articles and books that I've perused in the meantime. So I feel fine counting this as a book this year. I still have like 10 post-it notes stuck in the book, reminders of things to look up and read about.
This author is so blatantly and unapologetically Platonist that it almost made me put the book down, on several occasions. But despite that, I actually really liked it, for how broad of a survey it is of interesting topics it is, while simultaneously presenting those topics in sufficient depth to convey their intrigue and open problems/questions. I'd highly recommend this book to any mathematician curious about philosophy, and vice-versa, but I would warn either party about the heavy biases of the author. Take them with large spoonfuls of NaCl, and you'll be fine.

19/52: Dreams from Bunker Hill, by John Fante
Ah, the closing chapter (chronologically, anyway) of the Arturo Bandini saga. Interestingly, I ended up starting and finishing this entire book in an evening sitting at the Bukoswki Tavern in Cambridge. I've been to their location near the Hynes T stop a lot (I live near there) but had never been to the Cambridge spot. I found myself in Centra Square last Saturday afternoon and ended up going here for the evening. I spent a couple of hours sitting at the bar with some beers, finished this book, and went on my merry way! Good times. I felt that was appropriate, considering the influence on Buk himself.

20/52: Life With Mr. Dangerous, by Paul Hornschemeier
I heard about this author via the Comedy Bang Bang! podcast/TV show. I'm a regular listener (viewer whenever it's available online), so I recently learned that Paul is the guy who does the graphics for the TV show. I found this book at, you guessed it, the Boston library and dove right in. I ended up finishing it in one sitting at a coffee shop later that evening on Newbury Street. I laughed and frowned and sighed and smirked along with it all. This is really a novel in graphic form. This sounds patronizing, given the format, but it bears repeating. This book has great story-telling, compelling characters, and benefits even further from the author's ability to exploit the visual form. Just read this. It'll take you an hour or two. If you like it, awesome; go find more like it. If you don't, fine. I owe you a beer for two hours of your life "wasted".

21/52: The Stranger, by Albert Camus
This has been on my "to read" list for so many years. I'm pretty sure I obtained the paperback copy I have now from a used bookstore, but I can't even remember which one. Maybe it was a library sale? Maybe it was a Pittsburgh bookstore? There's no price penciled in anywhere. There's also a name written in ink on the inside cover, and copious highlighting and margin-notes throughout. So I don't know what to think. Except this: what a book!
Honestly, thank you to whoever Jamie Gilder is, or whoever borrowed this book from Jamie. I loved your highlighting and note-taking (for the most part). It really underscored my reading of this novel as an existentialist description of one man's life; and, ultimately, what else could we ask for, as fellow human beings?
I'm not sure why I'd put this one off for so long. Perhaps I'll dive into more French literature now. (Also, the version I have has a cover illustrated by Leo Lionni, who I know well for Swimmy!)

Up next:
Wait Until Spring, Bandini, by John Fante:
I read so many Fante novels recently that I couldn't resist more! Earlier today, I found this at the (yup, my fave place) Boston library, and started reading it at (yup) Bukowski's. This is the first novel in that Bandini saga, and I'd never read it before! So I have to. I'll be done by the weekend, I predict.

The Mathematical Magpie, edited by Clifton Fadiman:
I started this last month, and described an earlier compilation by the same editor with similar ambitions, Fantasia Mathematica. I'm about 2/3 through this one, and should be finished soon.

Gravity's Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon:
Yeah yeah yeah, I keep saying it. But this is it. March is the month I fucking tackle this book.

Wise Blood, by Flannery O'Connor:
I saw the film version of this a few years ago, when I was in a "Criterion Collection" phase. (Who am I kidding? I'm still in that phase, it's just less frequently acted-upon.) And then, last weekend, I went to a local concert and saw an artist called Weyes Blood and she reminded me of this. (By the by, her set was amazing. Wonderful singer. Check out her Bandcamp page here.) I found myself in the fiction section at the library today and thought, "Aha, O'Connor!" Here we go.

I have a few other graphic novels in the mix, too. I've been on somewhat of a kick with them recently. Mostly, I think this is because they're "quick reads", and I can easily fit them in between grading and class prep and, ya know, sleep and whatnot. So, my reading list feels unfairly padded this month, and my pace will likely slow over the next few months. Spring break is next week (w00t!) but I'd also like to be more ambitious about reading material (and length) over the next couple of months, so it'll all balance out, I think.

Ultimately, I think the whole project is working out, in the sense that (a) not only am I choosing to spend my free time outside of class/work in reading mode, but (b) I'm actively making time for these adventures. I'm going to the library a lot, both on campus and in Copley, to find new books and explore the shelves. Whenever I have some free time, I crack open a book. At very few times, I do feel like I'm reading so that I can get through some books I'm working on; but, then again, I realize I'm only doing this so I can get ahead and read some more books that I'll love even more. Huzzah!

Until next time! Keep on readin' on, my friends.

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