Open Thread! What are you Reading Lately?
For our 3-month anniversary, we're sharing Juke writers' recent reads and inviting our readers to join in.
“What are you reading lately?” is one of my standby questions. It’s kinder, I think, than asking someone for their FAVORITE book—which for a lifelong reader is like being asked which internal organ you’d hate to lose. (Um… all of them?) The qualifier “lately” narrows things down a bit, and there’s no need for the book to be a Top 5 or a Top 10 selection, much less the be-all end-all. It’s a nice way to get a sense of someone. It’s a good way to flesh out your own list of books to read. And, as you’ll see, the question can start a conversation that’s far more enjoyable than small talk.
For Juke's 3-month anniversary, I asked each of our contributors to "tell me what they're reading lately". Their responses are below. Each took the question a little differently, and each responded in his or her own style (which is part of the beauty of the question.) In the comments, I’d love for each of you to do the same… Tell me, what are you reading lately?
I picked up “Insomniac City” a few months ago in Green Apple Books in the Inner Sunset district of San Francisco. I was both an insomniac and new to the city, so I locked onto the title immediately while I scanned the shelf. The book, by Bill Hayes, is partly about insomnia and what it is to be an insomniac in the city (New York, in his case.) It has some wonderful scenes of city life and Hayes’ photography. But it is also about grief and it becomes a moving portrait of love and Hayes’ 8-year relationship with Oliver Sacks at the end of Sacks’ life. I was enchanted by it.
“I don’t so much fear death,” Sacks says at one point, “as I do wasting life.”
I was at a gallery opening and feeling out of place, so I grabbed Rosemarie Beck’s “Letters to a Young Painter and Other Writings” off a table of books for sale. I like letters and journals, and this one had some good moments. One of them: "You learn, above all, by trusting your innermost orders, and by consenting to your deepest aloneness."
Otherwise, thanks to Ukraine, I went through a war reporting phase: "Slightly Out of Focus" by Robert Capa and “The Face of War” by Martha Gellhorn. And, of all the books I’ve read in my self-help period, I would recommend “Buy Yourself the F*cking Lilies” by Tara Schuster.
Next on my pile is Ry Cooder’s “Los Angeles Stories”. I found it in the basement of Copperfield’s Books in Petaluma. I was just crazy about the first paragraph:
“I work for the Los Angeles City Directory, a book of names, addresses, and job descriptions. I am one of many. Our job is to go out and collect the facts and bring them back. Other people take our work and put it in the Book, but we do the important part. Los Angeles is a big city, and the City Directory is a big book.”
Now I just want to sit down and read the rest...
What am I reading? What am I NOT reading? I always have a few books going at any time. Sometimes, a book is consuming enough that I avoid the others for a while and stick to that hot one of the moment, but usually, I have a few going at the same time.
And it has evolved to where they are arranged according to the geography of my apartment. I’ll have a few near the couch, but this location has gotten used less for reading lately and more for sleeping, so the books there are languishing. They include the signature book about the 1918 influenza pandemic, and I won’t even give the title here because I know everybody is sick of that book. Too bad, as it’s an interesting read. That nebulous corner of the room also includes a bio of Ryszard Kapuscinski, a favorite author of mine, and a copy of Keith Haring’s journals and I’m going to need to move that soon because it’s been calling to me. And where would I move it? I’m glad you asked.
There’s an ancient wooden Coca Cola crate by my bathtub that routinely contains my most current books. I have been bathing more, here in the water-rich Northeast, and seriously enjoying Isaac Babel’s “Odessa Stories,” which blew me away, having never read them before, along with a copy of his “Red Cavalry,” both translations by Boris Dralyuk. I have some large format books leaning against that crate, as well.
A new translation of “Kolyma Stories,” as opposed to the old Penguin “Kolyma Tales,” by Shalamov, also sits there, as I am never done reading and re-reading that stuff. I’m now comparing the new and old translations. I’m also reading “Planet News,” by Ginsburg. There are other books by the bathtub, including some stuff by the Roman Stoics, but I have not touched that much since my friend Jerry died of Covid early in the pandemic. He was the one who turned me on to the Stoics. There are a few other books on that crate, but I won’t mention them or you’ll think that all I do is sit in the tub and read, which is not true.
There are a ton of books on the bookshelf near my bed and most of them are near and dear to me. I love to re-read books, you see, which are like old friends. Returning to them comforts me.
Also active is what’s on my Kindle, and the blessing and curse of the Kindle is that you can bop around from one book to the next without ever leaving bed. Way too many to list there now, but I am almost ashamed to admit that I am again re-reading “Five Families,” by Selwyn Raab, on the rise of the New York mafia. This is purely escapist stuff and I love it, just like I love the Parker novels by Donald Westlake. The newest thing I’m reading on the Kindle is a volume from Stephen Kotkin’s magisterial bio of Stalin—the book that covers 1929 to 1941.
I like history. In fact, if I were to name some of my favorite books off the top of my head, the list would include “Kolyma Tales,” “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” by Richard Rhodes, “A World Lit Only By Fire,” by William Manchester, “Winter,” by Rick Bass and…oh wow…I have to stop. I’ll list some more the next time we do this or maybe further down in this thread, if it becomes a thread. I think I need to take a bath now. Yes, time for a bath.
Damon Falke: What I am reading…
Less than two weeks ago I found myself returning from another trip and unpacking books into my library where there are no longer any shelves on which to stack them. I placed the recent editions on my desk. Later I distributed them to various piles I have started between the bookcases. In the beginning, there was an order to these piles. Now the effort is to keep the piles from getting too tall and falling over. All that managed, I grabbed up the necessary reads and took my solitary way. Here is the present list: a selection of poems by Giacomo Leopardi published by Princeton University Press (1997), The Cambridge Companion to The Literature of The First World War, edited by Vincent Sherry, Andre Aciman’s debut novel (2010) Eight White Nights, Geoff Dyer’s The Missing of the Somme, and a short collection from the late Peter Beard, photographer, writer, diarist and man about, called Zara’s Tales: Perilous Escapades in Equatorial Africa.
Ned Mudd: Mudd reading list, July 2022*
Merlin Sheldrake, “Entangled Life”
Andrew Schelling, “A Possible Bag"
Thoreau Society Bulletin, Number 317, Spring 2022
Herman Hesse, “Trees”
Willa Blythe Baker, MIT News, On Campus and Around the World, May 25, 2022
Peter Wohlleben, “Forest Walking”
AARP’s magazine, Special Summer Issue, 2022
Chogyam Trungpa, “Mindfulness in Action”
David Rothenberg, “Always The Mountains”
Heather Cox Richardson essay, June 25, 2022
* subject to instant change
I have been in the process of building a new studio and beginning some new films, so most of my library has been in storage for a while. In this time of transition and production I’ve found a number of books have helped to support my creative practice, and they are all loosely linked by concerns with ecology and history. My most recently read books include After Nature by W.G. Sebald, Being Ecological by Timothy Morton, The Third Unconscious by Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, Enlivenment by Andreas Weber, and History and Utopia by E.M. Cioran.
As someone who makes images in the form of films and photographs, I am often thinking about the beginning of an image - the way that my brain uses images to find order in the world. I found this excerpt from Sebald’s After Nature to be compelling:
For it is hard to discover the winged vertebrates of prehistory embedded in tablets of slate. But if I see before me the nervature of past life in one image, I always think that this has something to do with truth. Our brains, after all, are always at work on some quivers of self-organisation, however faint, and it is from this that an order arises, in places beautiful and comforting, though more cruel, too, than the previous state of ignorance. How far, in any case, must one go back to find the beginning?…
Anthony Head: Juke Book Report
I recently fell in love with a small Texas town called Cuero. That’s an old Spanish word that essentially means “leather” and it’s apt. Cuero was right on the Chisholm Trail, and the local ranchers must have moved hundreds of thousands of cattle north to Kansas. The town of Cuero is a wonderful place now, with a cozy off-the-trail feel to it. While I was there, I was fortunate enough to get a couple books—not about the Chisholm Trail, but rather about one of the deadliest, most lawless periods in Texas history, which defined Cuero and DeWitt County more so than did the cattle. –Anthony Head, San Marcos, Texas
The Sutton-Taylor Feud: The Deadliest Blood Feud in Texas (Chuck Parsons)
This highly detailed account of Reconstruction-era Texas focuses on what Parsons writes began as a feud between two families but spread to nearly the entire state. It didn’t matter which side you were on, you were expected to kill members of the other side. And they did so without abandon, and usually without consequences. So many others—the innocents—were swept up into this blood feud and died as a result. There was nearly no stopping either side from committing the worst kinds of atrocities because the state and local governments were inept and corrupt and scared and usually on one side or the other.
The Feud that Wasn’t: The Taylor Ring, Bill Sutton, John Wesley Hardin, and Violence in Texas (James M. Smallwood)
Although Smallwood acknowledges that Parsons’ book is one of the few that accurately detailed the events of the Sutton-Taylor feud, his revisionist history re-examines the time period and concludes that, despite family and friends of both families being the major players in this truly traumatic time in Texas history, this was no feud at all. It was pure outlaw behavior, plain and simple. The Sutton group often aligned with local law enforcement as well as the occupying U.S. Army as a way to prevent the Taylors from their desperado ways, and very little of what occurred was personal between the two sides. Smallwood’s book takes a larger look at what was going on in the state at the time, and makes very compelling points, although he doesn’t necessarily disprove Parsons’ theories.
The bottom line is that the Reconstruction period in Texas was a despicable, dangerous time. A frightening time. Racists and bandits (wrapping themselves in the Rebel flag) outmanned and outgunned their legal opponents. Freedpersons, women, and men just trying to live their lives were routinely killed, for no damn good reason. Taken together, both books put a chill on my spine that hasn’t altogether dissipated.
I usually have several books hanging around in various states of completion or indifference. Sitting down and reading is not a luxury I allow myself unless trapped on an airplane, or to give a recent example, self-isolating with covid. Like potted plants, my books tend to have to survive on their own—I am not a nurturing reader. I did recently complete Lidia Yuknavitch’s raw and compelling memoir “The Chronology of Water”. It’s an IN YOUR FACE assault of a book. Upon finishing it I felt as though I survived reading it more than enjoyed reading it. It came highly recommended by a friend. I now see this friend in a new light.
My current book I found on my own, and it could not be more different in both tone and the experience of reading it. “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is by poet Ocean Vuong. It is his first novel. It is quiet, gentle, and devastating in its spare, honest writing. Only a poet can write with such precision and both convey and elicit such deep feeling in so few words. This is a book to savor, to make time for. I plan to give it some love.
And now it’s your turn…
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Nice to hear you mention Green Apple Books, Tonya. I lived in SF for twelve years and that was a big favorite. I'm currently reading James Welch's The Indian Lawyer. We have a big book festival coming up here in Montana later this month named after Mr. Welch, and featuring only Native writers. And my podcast partner and I are going to be interviewing Debra Magpie Earling about her novel Perma Red, which is an incredible book. So she requested that we pair her book with The Indian Lawyer, and I'm loving it. Also came across this very timely passage, from a book published in 1990:
“Montana is becoming one big reservation and all the people in it are the Indians. They make noises about self-determination, but we know who, up to this point, determines what’s good for Montana—not the Indians, not the people of Montana, but the special interests, the giants, and their backers. And these backers are the ganglia of the body politic. They are spread throughout and they have interests you wouldn’t believe. They would sell out Montana for the opportunity to have a photo hanging on their wall of them kissing George Bush’s ass.
"But—this is worst-case scenario. Even here, on the state and local level, the conservatives, the gun nuts and the constitutionalists, are posing a real challenge to our candidates. They call themselves the mainstream, and the scary thing is they might be right. This country is turning is a ad direct, Sylvester. Those people you wanted to appeal to—the Indians, the poor people, the conservationists—they are on the outside, liking in. And I’m afraid they’re going to stay there for the next four years, possibly the next eight years.”
such fun to read! Thanks, Tonya