With Apologies to Hornby: January 2019

Books read
A Princess of Mars – Edgar Rice Burroughs
March: Book 1 – John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell
The Canada Geese Quilt – Natalie Kinsey-Warnock, Leslie W. Bowman
Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark – Alvin Schwartz, Stephen Gammell
More Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark – Alvin Schwartz, Stephen Gammell
The Academy of Hay – Julia Shipley

Books bought/found/given
The Law of Similars – Chris Bohjalian
Going Up the Country: When the Hippies, Dreamers, Freaks, & Radicals Moved to Vermont – Yvonne Daley
Wild Delicate Sounds: 29 Wildlife Encounters – Charles Finn
Valhalla & Other Poems – Robert Francis
Gifts From the Sea – Natalie Kinsey Warnock
The Canada Geese Quilt – Natalie Kinsey-Warnock, Leslie W. Bowman
The Night the Bells Rang – Natalie Kinsey Warnock, Leslie W. Bowman
Nightmares in the Sky – Stephen King/f-stop Fitzgerald
The Order of Time – Carlo Rovelli
The Riverside Reader – Joseph F. Trimmer, Maxine Hairston

This past Christmas, I gave my oldest son a copy of Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books by Nick Hornby. It’s a compilation of his bimonthly Stuff I’ve Been Reading column, which appears in the always sublime and engrossing The Believer magazine. 

Calling Stuff I’ve Been Reading a book review column doesn’t begin to approach what Hornby is doing, and if you haven’t read it before, it’s definitely worth checking out. The most recent one can be found at https://believermag.com/stuff-ive-been-reading-february-march-2019/. And if you’re not familiar with Hornby, he’s responsible for books like High Fidelity, About a Boy, A Long Way Down, and a few others. All worth your time.

Anyway, I wanted to keep better track of the books I’m buying and reading. For me, 2018 was a year marked by out-of-control book buying and not enough actual reading. And one of my goals for 2019 is to read more books by a wider spectrum of authors and across a greater number of genres. And here we are now with With Apologies to Hornby, a humble, monthly homage to one of my literary heroes.

I probably won’t touch on every book listed above. Instead, this’ll be an organic, rambling thing that goes where it wants to, while staying beneath the umbrella of books that were in my life last month.

Right away I picked up on a couple themes in the books I read in January. One: I focused a good bit of time on middle-reader level books. Two: I read mostly thin books. 

Taking the last theme first, I’m wondering if there was some subconscious effort to beef up this first crack at With Apologies to Hornby with some shorter, quicker reads. I’ve been planning this since late December, so anything’s possible. But in defense of my fragile subconscious, I did make a purposeful effort to spend time with The Canada Geese Quilt, Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark, and More Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark to study the form and work out some struggles I’ve been having with my own writing.

I hadn’t read Schwartz and Gammell’s Scary Stories … books in quite a few years, and I was impressed by how well they held up. They’re a lot of fun, and I’m compelled to pass them on to some young readers in advance of Guillermo Del Toro’s movie adaptation. As an older reader and a writer focused on folklore, the real high-point of the books was the extensive bibliography I never gave a second thought to when I was younger. Yes, past Ethan, research can be fun.

The very first book I read this year was one of the very last I bought in 2019. March: Book 1 is the graphic novel written by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell that tells the story of Lewis’ childhood in the segregated south, his participation in the non-violent sit-in movement, and the role Martin Luther King, Jr., played in his young life. I was thrilled to discover that this book is the Vermont Reads selection for 2019, and I’m excited to see it in the hands of students around the state this year. It’s a landmark in graphic storytelling, and I’m looking forward to reading the next two volumes that are on my bedside table.

Back in the fall, I bought The Academy of Hay by Julia Shipley. For the past year or so, I’ve worked on developing a better understanding and appreciation of poetry. With a focus on farming, the struggles of rural living, and an appreciation of the little things that make up that sort of life, I felt at times that Shipley’s book was written just for me. 

What did I learn about poetry from this experience? At least for me, it’s a meditative experience. I couldn’t just sit down and read the book in the way I typically do. Prior to Academy of Hay, I’d focused most of my poetry reading on Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman, the only two that had any staying power. I’m excited to go back to them now with what I’ve learned from Shipley and re-experience their work.

I’ll also never look at a corn stalk or a shiny bulk milk tank the same way.

It’s probably safe to place poetry on one end of the literary spectrum and assume that there’s quite a bit of distance between it and pulpy adventure stories from the early 20th century. But like poetry, it’s a literary style I’d never successfully breached. So I gave it a shot last month with A Princess of Mars, the first book in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series of novels about a Civil War soldier whisked away to the red planet to live and fight among green and red martians and white apes.

I’m not sure if this is for me. It took most of the first act to really catch the rhythm of Burroughs’ writing, and most of my reading came in small doses. No offense to him, though. This sort of writing style is of its time, and my struggle is more from lack of exposure than anything else, I think. That said, there was some fantastic world building, from development of the fantastical landscapes to the structure of martian societies. What worked most for me with this was how Burroughs did it without dragging readers into rabbit holes of minutiae that don’t really go anywhere of value.

 I bought the first three books in the Barsoom series at a barn sale a couple years ago for a quarter each. Since I enjoyed Princess enough and have a heavy financial investment in them, I’ll give the second one a try at some point.

In the middle of January, I attended the League of Vermont Writers winter workshop. Through pure coincidence, Julia Shipley was a presenter that day, and I got to tell her how much I enjoyed Academy of Hay. The workshop was also were half of my book purchases for the month stemmed from.

There was a used-book sale at the back of the conference room, and I grabbed Valhalla & Other Poems and Nightmares In the Sky there. Valhalla is a book-length narrative poem about a Vermont farm family that I’ve wanted to read for a while, and I picked up a nice, older edition that smells good. Nightmares is a coffee table book of gargoyles, demons, and other terrifying visages, captured in stone and resting along the sides and tops of building. Stephen King accompanies the photos of f-stop Fitzgerald (bonus points for that name) with text.

As part of the workshop program, Sean Prentiss (Finding Abbey, Far Edges of the Fourth Genre) discussed and dissected how time works within storytelling. One of the pieces he used as an example of time dilation came from Wild Delicate Sounds by Charles Finn. The writing was captivating, so I sought the book out. I couldn’t stop thinking about time and how it works in a literary context, which led to thinking about the concept of time in general. This led me to The Order of Time, a book by Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli. It’s described as a philosophical and scientific look at time, and it should be a good challenge for my little brain.

Speaking of time, it’s time to wrap this up. I need to go read February’s books.

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