Books acquired: “Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops: A Memoir,” Allison Hong Merrill
Books read: “The Inferno,” “Purgatorio,” “Paradiso,” Dante Alighieri; “Mark Twain’s Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years,” Laura Skandera Trombley; “The Imperfectionists,” Tom Rachman; “Sweet Thursday,” John Steinbeck; “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf; “Dickens and Prince,” Nick Hornby
Welcome to September, the two-thirds point for 2023. I finished what I think of as eight books for the month of August, which I’ll explain momentarily. Whether I read six (pictured) or eight (to me), all of them came from the same bookcase in my home, the one for fiction and literature.
The big kahuna was the trilogy “The Divine Comedy,” a 900-pager that is my 2023 version of last year’s big book, “Don Quixote.” To my surprise, I read the whole thing in one month, about one week per book, with a short break for other reading in between.
I’m counting “The Divine Comedy” as three books. They were all published separately and are often found/sold that way; each is nearly 300 pages. And I might have had trouble persuading myself to tackle this if it counted as only one book, while knocking it off as three books was definitely satisfying.
“The Divine Comedy” (1308-1320): Admittedly, reading this was like assigning myself homework. Due to Dante’s meticulously constructed allegories and metaphors, and his continually inventive descriptions and comparisons, you could spend your life studying this text. I am not that committed, but I read it all, including most of poet/translator John Ciardi’s footnotes, which are helpful, modest and sometimes very wry. The three canticles decline in interest from the one before (for me, at least), yet the overall effect is astonishing. It’s easy to believe while you’re reading that Dante is describing the three places from a personal visit, so vividly does he render them (heaven is mostly light), and to think that what he wrote is close to theology rather than an act of imagination. (Bought in 2011 at Rancho Cucamonga’s Borders Books during its closeout sale.)
“The Imperfectionists” (2010): A series of close-up portraits of the expatriates who work for an international English-language newspaper in Italy circa 2005, with interstitial chapters offering vignettes of the newspaper’s start, rise and fade over time. Characters make cameos in one or two stories before suddenly taking center stage. Rachman’s novel is sympathetic, heartbreaking and funny while avoiding the usual romanticism of newspaper life or of Rome. (Bought in 2015 at St. Louis’ Patten Books.)
“Mark Twain’s Other Woman” (2010): A biography, not fiction, but it’s on my fiction/literature shelves along with books by Twain himself. His last years weren’t productive, but he cemented himself as a genial white-haired and -suited public figure. His private life wasn’t as well known, but his secretary, Isabel Lyon — almost completely ignored by scholars — kept a daily record. We learn that one of Twain’s free-spirited daughters was embroiled in a near-scandal, an affair with a married man, and Lyon, who knew the details, appears to have been thrown under the proverbial bus to help hush it up and maintain Twain’s rep. A minor part of his life story, but for Twainiacs, this study is lively and interesting. (Bought in 2010 at the Rancho Cucamonga Public Library during an appearance by the author.)
“Sweet Thursday” (1954): An enjoyable trifle about the drunks, layabouts and prostitutes with hearts of gold along Cannery Row, with biologist Ed Ricketts a vehicle to express Steinbeck’s personal doldrums and romantic salvation. At various points I wondered why I was reading it, but this ramshackle, loose-limbed construction is amusing, and heartfelt in its own way. (Bought 2019 at Salinas’ National Steinbeck Center gift shop.)
“A Room of One’s Own” (1929): Nearly a century after publication, this slim book still has power as Woolf lays out, calmly and reasonably, the obstacles that had kept women from writing or from being objects of historical interest. Her book is a landmark in its own right and a benchmark to measure our own times against. The situation has improved, obviously, but it’s a little depressing how much of this hits home even now. (Bought in April at Joshua Tree’s Space Cowboy Books.)
“Dickens and Prince” (2022): A slightly daft premise, and hardcore fans of one artist or the other may find the comparison ridiculous or offensive, but Hornby makes his gimmick/conceit work. Here were two creative types who came from poverty, produced an astonishingly vast body of work despite zero training and engaged in unproductive (if earnest) battles over their rights before expiring at 58. Hornby genuinely loves them both. By pulling each figure out of his time, Hornby makes you think about him in a fresh way. And of course it’s often very funny. (Christmas gift, 2022.)
A pretty good month, in quality as well as quantity! Woolf’s and Hornby’s are the most accessible, as well as the slimmest, and “The Imperfectionists” a good modern work.
In an echo to my note about the reading count this month, August’s reading allowed me to knock seven, rather than eight, books off my unread list. Why seven?
I had pulled “The Imperfectionists” off my shelves a year-plus ago, thinking I would never read it, and attempted to sell it at three different used bookstores, none of which took it, for reasons unknown. Maybe they all had copies already? Otherwise, it was a nice-looking copy of a New York Times notable book, so what was the hangup? A few weeks ago, the author’s latest book got good reviews, and on a whim I checked to see if the LA Public Library had “Imperfectionists” as an audiobook, which it did. So I borrowed and listened to it, while bringing the book out of the sell box.
So, it counts as a book I read, since I read it, but it wasn’t on my unread books list any longer, so it didn’t come off any lists. (I also listened to the audiobook of “Sweet Thursday,” while also reading the introduction and notes from my print copy.)
By focusing on one bookcase this month, the one that had 27 unread books, the most of any of my six bookcases, I got that number down to an even 20. That sharp drop felt like an achievement. (That bookcase once had 130 unread books — oof.) It’s now second to the bookcase that has both mystery and Southern California books, with 23 unread books.
And that’s where I will focus in September, albeit only with hopes of completing three. I need to read one for work and decided to knock off a couple more that I feel guilty for not having gotten to yet.
How about your August, readers? What did you read? Realistically, probably not “The Divine Comedy.” Looking forward as always to finding out.
Next month: books about California history.