2015 in Reading, and 12 Books I Want to Read in 2016

I spend a lot of time reading. I really do, even though I think I don’t. I get down on myself about my pleasure reading–the barely begun novels splayed upside down on my nightstand, the eBooks downloaded but not started on my Nook Tablet (yes, I have one of those), the impulse bookstore purchases that are shoved haphazardly in my bookshelves–until I realize I reread everything I teach each and every year. Thankfully, teaching four different classes gives me a lot of variety, even if there is a lack of diversity in the curriculum (which I want to fix). In 2015 alone, this included Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Eliot’s Silas Marner, Huxley’s Brave New World, Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Beowulf, McCarthy’s The Road, and Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams. In addition, I started teaching a new class–Crime, Punishment, and Justice in Literature (short: Criminals and Literature), and besides the stuff that made it into the course–Camus’ The Stranger, Dante’s Inferno, Guirgis’ The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Capote’s In Cold Blood–I also read Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Kafka’s The Trial, (most of) Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, as well as (much of) Couldn’t Keep it to Ourselves, edited by Wally Lamb. All this is, of course, on top of all the academic articles, short stories, and poetry that I sift through and sometimes discuss with my classes. And the student essays. Oh, the hundreds of pages of student essays.

Still, my substantive pleasure reading was relatively thin and relegated mostly to the summer. Walter Mosly’s The Man in My Basement and (especially) Jesmyn Ward’s haunting Salvage the Bones were among the highlights of my off-time. After taking a novel writing workshop at Colgate University this summer, I devoured my instructor Leslie Daniel’s excellent comic novel, Cleaning Nabokov’s House. This fall, I started listening to some of the Great Courses lectures, listening (twice!) to the one on the Inferno, one on the New Testament, and 20 of the 30 lectures on World War II, to be completed in the New Year when I’m driving in my car again. (Don’t tell me if Hitler wins!)

Oh, and I have a three year-old, so I read a lot of children’s books. Did you know that George is a good little monkey and always very curious?

While the smartphone era means I’m always reading some sort of cultural or political article during tv commercial breaks or when I’m, er, otherwise disposed, I do want to go into 2016 with a reading plan of something besides consuming more Donald Trump clickbait than a white supremafish in a stocked pond. Not so much a strict order of what I’m going to read or a list of “Don’t touch another book until you’re done with this” titles, but more a catalog of the top titles I want to go cover-to-cover in the next 365 days. So here’s one for each month; some are for work, some are for pleasure. They’re arranged loosely in the order in which I think I’ll read them.

Just Mercy

  1. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson: A book that was on my list for 2015, the fact that the author is coming to speak across the street from my school in April pretty much seals the deal. Of course, I’m not exactly excited to read a book that will anger, depress, and haunt me, but the fact that I’ll likely select passages from it (if it holds up to its promise) to open discussions about injustice and the court system with my students makes it the first thing I’ll open (disclosure: I already started it) in the New Year.
  2. To Be Determined: The second book I read will probably be a companion to the first. Not sure if I’ll be in the mood for some sort of social justice memoir (like Dead Man Walking or any of several prisoner memoirs), or something more argumentative about prisons and punishment (like an Angela Davis book), but whatever I pick will help inform my class discussions as we close out our discussion of In Cold Blood and move on to excerpts from Discipline and Punish and the overall idea of justice, buoyed by several longform essays.
  3. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates: On the “Why didn’t I get to this last year?” list, I’ve had my copy since the summer but just didn’t pick it up, despite me reading several of his Twitter essays in the meantime and even asking people at the midnight launch of Go Set a Watchman if they’d heard of Coates. (No one had.) Anyway, these three should begin the year on a poignant note, but they’ll only scratch the surface of what I don’t and can’t know.
  4. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov: Long on my “must read” list, one of my fellow teachers uses this novel and I hope to hop in a few of his classes, if I can, while he discusses it. Yeah, I might be better served reading some more Russian Lit first, but I’ll never have all the background I need and it’s just been too long.
  5. A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin: One of two books my wife got me for Christmas, I’ll probably be reading bits and pieces of this throughout the first few months as each short story is only a few pages and they will probably make for good bedside reading when I’m too tired to handle something longer. All the reviews for this are excellent, and I’m excited to not know what to expect.
  6. The Sellout by Paul Beatty: The other Christmas gift, this satire will probably be best enjoyed in the less-hectic spring months. Perhaps the book I’m most looking forward to just by synopsis and blurb alone.
  7.  Calvin by Martine Leavitt: I honestly just heard about this today, as the buzz around the 20th anniversary of the last Calvin and Hobbes strip circulated around the web. But it’s an interesting premise for a young adult novel–a  schizophrenic teen feels himself connected to the work of Bill Watterson–the type I would have liked to have read back in 1995 when I was fourteen. I don’t read YA fiction regularly, and I think I need to dip my toe in it once in a while to see what the kids are reading.
  8. Hell by Robert Olen Butler: Probably a hot summer read, but after teaching the Inferno and gearing up for it again in the fall, this satirical look at the place of eternal punishment seems like something I’d like at the beach if I ever read a book at the beach instead of making sure my son didn’t drift out to sea.
  9. Purgatorio/Paradiso by Dante Alighieri: I only breezed through these on my own in college, and since I’m switching translations for the Inferno next year (from Robert Pinsky to Mark Musa, mostly for ease of reading and use of notes), it’s worth me seeing how the non-damned fare in the afterlife.
  10. Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta: I read her excellent Stone Arabia a few years ago, and she came to the Colgate Conference and read from her promising upcoming novel. This one, which I had her sign when I got to talk to her for a bit, also reminds me (indirectly) a bit in premise of the one TV show I fell in love with this year, The Americans.
  11. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski: A student gave this to me when she graduated, and the only thing stopping me is that I think I need to just take this to the library and stare it at for a few hours a day during the course of two weeks. Not an easy task, especially because I don’t slide into the postmodern and experimental very well, but I think it will be worth it.
  12. A classic. Usually dictated by what I’m teaching, I still am woefully behind on much of the literary canon. Invisible Man or Middlemarch might be the top candidates if I’m going long, but I probably won’t. As I type this I’m next to my bookshelf and realize I’ve never read any Willa Cather and there’s a bunch of Faulkner I’ve been meaning to get to. I might just go with PG Wodehouse, because of course I should.

Hey, the New Year is full of so much promise. Now, on to more Trump articles!

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Anatomy of a Lullaby

My son is about four months old, and I spend a lot of time walking around our house with him in my arms, talking to him about what a great little guy he is and babbling on about whatever is on my mind. As a rule, he seems to think that me sitting down while holding him makes porcupine quills shoot out of my arms, so this crankiness leads to him growing tired. As any parent knows, though, being tired does not mean a baby is going to–heaven forbid!–close his eyes, so when he really needs to be put down, Daddy sings a lullaby. But this is harder than it seems.

You see, you have to sing a lullaby by memory. And there are only so many (that is, one) verses in “Rock-a-bye Baby” and me riffing on “Hush Little Baby” leads me to make up things Daddy’s going to buy him. This is what my boy has to look forward to after my gift of a Mockingbird (why would I buy him that? He couldn’t possibly care for a bird!):

If that diamond ring don’t shine,

Daddy’s going to buy you a land mine.

If that land mine doesn’t explode,

Daddy’s going to buy you a toilet commode

If that toilet commode don’t flush,

Daddy’s going to buy you an Orange Crush

If you want to know what happens when that Orange Crush don’t fizz, you’ll have to enter the following captcha to prove that you’re 18.

(Yes, I know captchas don’t prevent lying about your age. But you have to have been born before 1995 to know the inability to contain Lew Alcindor’s Skyhook)

But “Hush” and “Rockabye” are the only lullabies I’m really familiar with. So I’m left with singing pop and rock songs, but only ones that I can remember the words to without having the music. That’s tougher than it seems, at least for me, made especially more difficult when I also have to consider the songs that I can’t slow down enough to turn into proper sleepy-time music. (So no “Radar Love” by Golden Earring, at least not until he gets his own Power Wheels) My musical palate is pretty limited, too, leaving me with few options. While Christmas music gave me a little reprieve, holiday standards easy to whisper to my lil’ guy during those cold December nights, it wasn’t until the last month or so that I settled on a song that really worked, because it was equal parts melodic, soothing, and most of all, subliminal.

Nebraska is an acoustic album from Bruce Springsteen, originally recorded in his apartment as a demo to play with the E Street Band but rightfully released stripped down and about as bare-bones as possible. Most of the songs are narratives about the dark immoral side of life in recessionary early-80’s America, with songs about spree murderers, unemployed auto plant workers, dreams of winning the lottery, and organized crime. “My Father’s House,” the second-to-last track, has long been my favorite on the album. It inspired a short story of mine (one that I haven’t touched, unfortunately, for a few years), and like most young men, I have my own issues with my father (or at least my idea of him). The song is haunting but not maudlin, simple but deeply allegorical:

Last night I dreamed that I was a child out where the pines grow wild and tall
I was trying to make it home through the forest before the darkness falls

I heard the wind rustling through the trees and ghostly voices rose from the fields
I ran with my heart pounding down that broken path
With the devil snappin’ at my heels

I broke through the trees, and there in the night
My father’s house stood shining hard and bright the branches and brambles tore my clothes and scratched my arms
But I ran till I fell, shaking in his arms

I awoke and I imagined the hard things that pulled us apart
Will never again, sir, tear us from each other’s hearts
I got dressed, and to that house I did ride from out on the road, I could see its windows shining in light

I walked up the steps and stood on the porch a woman I didn’t recognize came and spoke to me through a chained door
I told her my story, and who I’d come for
She said “I’m sorry, son, but no one by that name lives here anymore”

My father’s house shines hard and bright it stands like a beacon calling me in the night
Calling and calling, so cold and alone
Shining ‘cross this dark highway where our sins lie unatoned

In sum: the song is about a man who dreams of being a child again, embraced and consoled by his father, waking up needing to reconcile with him. When he tries to bridge this emotional and geographical distance, he finds that his father no longer lives at his house–that the man (and presumably his father, too) will never be able to make up and repair their relationship. And since it’s Springsteen, it has the word “highway” in it.

The first time I sang that to my little guy, he fell asleep right on that last word: “unatoned.” It was beautiful; I even stretched out my pronunciation of the word so I could say, “Good night, buddy” as I put him in his crib. As a parent, you’re happy when something works, consequences be damned, right? But I will admit that I did question my choice in lullaby. Should my son hear this as he drifts off each night? Is it fair to hypnopaedially condition him to wanting to preemptively make up with his father? Have I doomed him to his first words being an apologetic, “I’m sorry, Daddy”?

I can’t say for sure. After all, he doesn’t always fall asleep to “My Father’s House.” Sometimes he’s still wide awake, and I have to move on to The Gaslight Anthem’s “Here’s Looking at You Kid” (about a bunch of failed relationships). And if he’s really bright-eyed, I throw in a little Billy Joel and “Piano Man” (about a bunch of drunks with unfulfilled dreams) until he finally fades in the glow of his turtle night light.

I’m sure I won’t have to worry about that this evening, though. Mommy will probably be taking him up to his crib.