Below you will find an ever-growing list of books, stories, and miscellany that I’ve read in 2023. But before we begin, please note why reading is such an important and valuable endeavor, as described by these famous personages:
Think before you speak. Read before you think.—Fran Lebowitz
The reading of all good books is like conversation with the finest (people) of the past centuries.—Descartes
A good book is an event in my life.—Stendhal
Once you have read a book you care about, some part of it is always with you.—Louis L’Amour
What better occupation, really, than to spend the evening at the fireside with a book, with the wind beating on the windows and the lamp burning bright.—Gustave Flaubert
Practicing Peace by Pema Chödrön
War begins when we harden our hearts, and we harden them easily— in minor ways and then in quite serious, major ways, such as hatred and prejudice—whenever we feel uncomfortable. It’s so sad, really, because our motivation in hardening our hearts is to find some kind of ease, some kind of freedom from the distress that we’re feeling.— Pema Chödrön
The Third Man by Graham Green
Who killed Harry Lime? Well … you have to read the book to find out! The Third Man is a wonderful little thriller, and also a great movie featuring Orson Welles.
We never get accustomed to being less important to other people than they are to us.—Graham Greene
The Birds by Daphne du Maurier
It’s a great little scary story with a somewhat ambiguous ending.
Nat listened to the tearing sound of splintering wood, and wondered how many million years of memory were stored in those little brains, behind the stabbing beaks, the piercing eyes, now giving them this instinct to destroy mankind with all the deft precision of machines.—Daphne du Maurier
Inside the Now by Thich Nhat Hanh
Inside the Now is part-memoire, part-philosophy, part-art, and part-poetry. Thich Nhat Hanh recounts his travails in Vietnam as he was growing up, and as a monk in his formative years. He went through a lot but,d because of his Buddhist foundation, was able to rise above the violence with an expansive, loving understanding of himself and the world.
… understanding, love, compassion, and insight are not abstract ideas, but energies which can be generated in real-life situations, no matter how difficult they may be.—Thich Nhat Hanh
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
Charlie was born with severe intellectual disabilities. He wanted so much to be smart just like his sister and his friends and was given the chance by undergoing an experimental brain surgery. The operation was a complete success and, within months, he had become a genius. But what are the ramifications of so quickly gaining that kind of intelligence … and would it last?
Winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards, this great, sad book is well worth the read.
Intelligence is one of the greatest human gifts. But all too often a search for knowledge drives out the search for love. This is something else I’ve discovered for myself very recently. I present it to you as a hypothesis: Intelligence without the ability to give and receive affection leads to mental and moral breakdown, to neurosis, and possibly even psychosis. And I say that the mind absorbed in and involved in itself as a self-centered end, to the exclusion of human relationships, can only lead to violence and pain.—Daniels Keyes
Why Buddhism Is True by Robert Wright
So if you ask the question “What kinds of perceptions and thoughts and feelings guide us through life each day?” the answer, at the most basic level, isn’t “The kinds of thoughts and feelings and perceptions that give us an accurate picture of reality.” No, at the most basic level the answer is “The kinds of thoughts and feelings and perceptions that helped our ancestors get genes into the next generation.” Whether those thoughts and feelings and perceptions give us a true view of reality is, strictly speaking, beside the point. As a result, they sometimes don’t. Our brains are designed to, among other things, delude us.— Robert Wright
Diamonds Are Forever by Ian Fleming
James Bond goes undercover to the United States to break up a diamond smuggling ring.
It is an intoxicating moment in a love-affair when, for the first time, in a public place, in a restaurant or a theatre, the man puts his hand down and lays it on the thigh of the girl and when she slips her hand over his and presses the man’s hand against her. The two gestures say everything that can be said. All is agreed. All the pacts are signed. And there is a long minute of silence during which the blood sings.— Ian Fleming
How To Walk by Thich Nhat Hanh
Thought you knew how to walk? Think again!
Actually, this is a little book on walking meditation. In it, Hanh reflects on mindfulness while walking, and paying attention to the beautiful world around us while we walk. Often, we spend our time walking lost in thought, dreaming about the past or the future, but not soaking in the present moment, which is what we should be doing.
When we walk, we produce the energy of mindfulness. Instead of thinking of this or that, just be aware of the contact between your foot and the ground. If you pay attention to that contact, it’s very healing. Don’t wait until you have a group or a scheduled time. Every time you need to move from one place to another, you can apply the techniques of walking meditation.— Thich Nhat Hanh
A Poet to His Beloved by Ian W. B. Yeats
This is a small compilation of poetry by Yeats. Many of the poems are from his early life as a romantic young man. These poems may not be as sophisticated as his later work, but are still eminently readable and full of passion. My favorite poem from this compilation is called The Song of the Wandering Aengus, which is quite legendary. Aengus is a god of love, the summer season, and youth in ancient Irish folklore and mythology.
I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering— William Butler Yeats
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.
The Ministry of Fear by Graham Green
Arthur Rowe goes to a fête one evening in London during the Second World War. He wins a cake and then someone tries to kill him. Why?
This noir mystery is more than just a thriller, but a critique of love in the face of overwhelming hardship.
This novel was also made into a movie in 1944 by the same name. I haven’t seen it yet, but I think it’ll be pretty good.
But it is impossible to go through life without trust; that is to be imprisoned in the worst cell of all, oneself.
Her face looked ugly in the attempt to avoid tears; it was an ugliness which bound him to her more than any beauty could have done. It isn’t being happy together, he thought as though it were a fresh discovery, that makes one love–it’s being unhappy together.
They had to tread carefully for a lifetime, never speak without thinking twice: they must watch each other like enemies because they loved each other so much. They would never know what it was not to be afraid of being found out. It occurred to him that perhaps after all one could atone even to the dead if one suffered for the living enough.Graham Green
I Sing the Body Electric! by Ray Bradbury
I didn’t read the whole book; just the short story I Sing the Body Electric! In the story, a mother of a family unexpectedly dies. The father and his three children feel that life is too difficult without her, and so they order an android replacement whom they call Grandma.
The title, by the way, comes from a Walt Whitman poem in Leaves of Grass.
What is Love? perhaps we may find that love is the ability of someone to give us back to us. Maybe love is someone seeing and remembering, handing us back to ourselves just a trifle better than we had dared to hope or dream …— Ray Bradbury
Collected Short Stories by Graham Greene
I read six stories from this book, The Blue Film, Across the Bridge, The Case for the Defence, Brother, I Spy, and The Second Death.
As always, Greene’s work is sensitive, insightful and human. His characters are genuine and their motivations authentic.
- The Blue Film – an English couple are vacationing in Thailand (Siam). They go to a seedy part of town and watch a pornographic movie. The husband is in the movie.
- Across the Bridge – An old man, who is rumored to be very rich, is stuck in a border town in Mexico with his dog, who he treats horribly.
- The Case for the Defence – A man is on trial for murder. A witness is certain the defendant is the culprit. However, the defense produces his twin brother. Now, she’s not so sure.
- Brother – Communists in Paris force their way into a bar. One of them dies.
- I Spy – A small boy learns his father’s secret.
- The Second Death – A man is on his deathbed. He tells his friend that he had died before but was miraculously revived by a wandering preacher.
She was dry and hot and implacable in her desire. “Go on,” she said, “go on,” and then she screamed like an angry and hurt bird. Afterwards she said, “It’s years since that happened,” and continued to talk for what seemed a long half hour excitedly at his side. Carter lay in the dark silent, with a feeling of loneliness and guilt. It seemed to him that he had betrayed that night the only woman he loved.— Graham Greene
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Billy Pilgrim gets unstuck in time, and as a result, travels back and forth in time through his own life. At one moment, he is an American soldier and a prisoner of war in Germany during World War II, and the next moment, he is living in a glass dome as a part of a zoo exhibit on the planet Tralfamadore.
Slaughterhouse-Five also recounts the bombing of Dresden. Kurt Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in Dresden when the bombing took place. Obviously, he survived to tell the tale in only a way that Vonnegut could.
It is just an illusion here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone, it is gone forever.
All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.— Kurt Vonnegut
The House in the Sand by Pablo Neruda
Neruda in this book of prose poems describes his life by the sea in his house at Isla Negra. Neruda won the Nobel Prize in 1971 and is considered Chile’s greatest poet.
The Pacific Ocean was overflowing the borders of the map. There was no place to put it. It was so large, wild and blue that it didn’t fit anywhere. That’s why it was left in front of my window.— Pablo Neruda
The humanists worried about the little men it devoured over the years.
They do not count.
Not even the galleon, laden with cinnamon and pepper that perfumed it as it went down.
Not even the explorers’ ship — fragile as a cradle dashed to pieces in the abyss — which keeled over with its starving men.
In the ocean, a man dissolves like a bar of salt. And the water doesn’t know it.
Averno by Louise Glück
The myth of Persephone reexamined. This is an amazing book of poetry by a Nobel prize-winning poet. She writes with such emotional and intellectual honesty about mortality and the loss of innocence.
I rode to meet you: dreams
like living beings swarmed around me
and the moon on my right side
followed me, burning
I rode back: everything changed.
My soul in love was sad
and the moon on my left side
trailed me without hope.
To such endless impressions— (Omens) Louise Glück
we poets give ourselves absolutely,
making, in silence, omen of mere event,
until the world reflects the deepest needs of the soul.
The Wild Iris by Louise Glück
Many of the poems in this volume are written from the point of view of different flowers, inspired from her own garden in Vermont. Unlike humans, flowers can die and be resurrected after a cycle of seasons. The poets considers our differences. In other poems, she addresses a creator … nature perhaps, and wonders at it, and how it can be so cruel as to make us mortal.
Do you know what I was, how I lived? You know
what despair is; then
winter should have no meaning for you.
I did not expect to survive,
earth suppressing me, I didn’t expect
to waken again, to feel
in damp earth my body
able to respond again, remembering
after so long how to open again
in the cold light
of earliest spring–
afraid, yes, but among you again
crying yes risk joy
in the raw wind of the new world.— (Snowdrops) Louise Glück
Chapterhouse Dune by Frank Herbert
The last and final book of the immortal series.
All governments suffer a recurring problem: Power attracts pathological personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptible.
Since every individual is accountable ultimately to the self, the formation of that self demands our utmost care and attention.
The writing of history is largely a process of diversion. Most historical accounts distract attention from the secret influences behind great events.Frank Herbert
Wherever You Go There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn
An eminently readable, practical guide to mindfulness and meditation.
Meditation is the only intentional, systematic human activity which at bottom is about not trying to improve yourself or get anywhere else, but simply to realize where you already are.
So, in meditation practice, the best way to get somewhere is to let go of trying to get anywhere at all.Jon Kabat-Zinn
Meadowlands by Louise Glück
Meadowlands, published in 1996, combines classical mythology, particularly the story of Odysseus and Penelope from Homer’s Odyssey, with a modern narrative of a failing marriage (presumably Glück’s own). This dual narrative presents a multilayered exploration of love, loss, regret, and the nature of personal relationships.
A flock of birds leaving the side of the mountain.
Black against the spring evening, bronze in early summer,
rising over blank lake water.
Why is the young man disturbed suddenly,
his attention slipping from his companion?
His heart is no longer wholly divided; he’s trying to think
how to say this compassionately.
Now we hear the voices of the others, moving through the library
toward the veranda, the summer porch; we see them
taking their usual places on the various hammocks and chairs,
the white wood chairs of the old house, rearranging
the striped cushions.
Does it matter where the birds go? Does it even matter
what species they are?
They leave here, that’s the point,
first their bodies, then their sad cries.
And from that moment, cease to exist for us.
You must learn to think of our passion that way.— (Parable of Flight) Louise Glück
Each kiss was real, then
each kiss left the face of the earth.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is a hauntingly intense semi-autobiographical novel that follows the protagonist, Esther Greenwood, a young woman from the suburbs of Boston, through her journey of mental illness. An exceptional student who has won a work assignment on a New York fashion magazine, Esther begins to feel detached and disoriented in this high-pressure environment, gradually losing her mental stability. Her dreams of becoming a poet give way to an engulfing depression, and she descends into a mental breakdown involving a suicide attempt and subsequent institutionalization.
I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.— Sylvia Plath
Blue Nights by Joan Didion
Blue Nights is a poignant and introspective memoir by Joan Didion, reflecting on the loss of her adopted daughter Quintana Roo Dunne, who passed away just two years after Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne. The book captures Didion’s raw and unfiltered grief, exploring the themes of aging, mortality, and the transience of life. Blue Nights, the term referencing the twilight time just before dusk, becomes a metaphor for the fear and uncertainty Didion experiences as she grapples with her own aging and looming mortality, against the backdrop of her devastating loss. This memoir serves as a profound meditation on life and death, offering an intensely personal account of bereavement and the inevitable passage of time.
In theory momentos serve to bring back the moment. In fact they serve only to make clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here. How inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here is something else I could never afford to see.— Joan Didion
The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion
The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion is a tightly woven and disorienting tale of political intrigue and personal identity. The novel follows Elena McMahon, a Washington D.C. journalist who abandons her career covering the 1984 presidential primaries to execute a seemingly simple errand for her ailing father. This task inadvertently entangles her in an intricate, international arms deal that ties back to the very story she was covering. As she navigates a labyrinth of political corruption and personal deception, Elena becomes further lost in a world of secrets and undisclosed motives. Didion’s novel is a masterful exploration of the blurred lines between personal desires and political realities, embodied in a narrative that mirrors the disorientation of its protagonist.
You will notice that participants in disasters typically locate the “beginning” of the disaster at a point suggesting their own control over events. A plane crash retold will not begin with the pressure system over the Central Pacific that caused the instability over the Gulf that caused the wind shear at DFW but at some manageable human intersect, with for example the “funny feeling” ignored at breakfast. An account of a 6.8 earthquake will begin not at the overlap of the tectonic plates but more comfortably, at the place in London where we ordered the Spode that shattered the morning the tectonic plates shifted.— Joan Didion
Had we just gone with the funny feeling. Had we just never ordered the Spode.
We all prefer the magical explanation.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
Published in 1899, The Awakening explores the journey of self-discovery and societal constraints faced by Edna Pontellier, a married woman and mother in the Creole society of late 19th-century Louisiana. Throughout the story, Edna becomes increasingly dissatisfied with the roles imposed upon her as wife and mother, leading her to rebel against societal norms by embarking on passionate affairs, withdrawing from familial obligations, and seeking artistic and personal independence. As Edna grapples with her awakening desires and the societal pressures that suffocate her, the novel reaches a haunting and tragic conclusion, offering a critical examination of the limitations placed on women during this period.
But the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing. How few of us ever emerge from such beginning! How many souls perish in its tumult! The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation.
The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.— Kate Chopin
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
One Hundred Years of Solitude is a seminal work of magical realism that chronicles the multi-generational saga of the Buendía family in the fictional town of Macondo, Colombia. The narrative delves into the intertwined lives of the Buendía family members, marked by love, solitude, tragedy, and the inescapable repetition of history. The novel melds the magical with the mundane, as supernatural events and legends seamlessly weave through the reality of Latin American history and politics. As the tale unfolds, Macondo’s isolation from the world is mirrored by the recurring patterns of hope and despair in the Buendía lineage, culminating in a revelation about the family’s foretold fate. The novel stands as a poignant exploration of time, memory, and the cyclical nature of existence.
Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.— Gabriel García Márquez
Spain – A History by Melveena McKendrick
In preparation for my recent trip to Spain, I read Spain – A History. It is an account of Spain’s ascent from the Middle Ages to cultural brilliance and its discovery of the New World, leading to its status as Europe’s preeminent power in the 16th and 17th centuries. It also chronicles Spain’s rapid decline in the 18th and 19th centuries, overtaken by more progressive European nations. It also recounts in some detail the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath.
It’s a succinct but informative history.
Three Plays (Blood Wedding, Yerma, and The House of Bernarda Alba) by Federico García Lorca
Blood Wedding explores themes of love, betrayal, and the inescapable grip of fate. Set in rural Spain, it tells the story of a young bride who is torn between her duty to her husband and her passion for a former lover, Leonardo. This love triangle leads to a dramatic and violent climax, culminating in a deadly confrontation between the men.
Yerma centers around the struggles of a woman deeply anguished by her inability to conceive a child. Set in rural Spain, the narrative delves into Yerma’s growing obsession with her barrenness, which becomes a source of frustration and societal pressure. Her desperation for motherhood leads to tension and estrangement from her husband, Juan, culminating in a tragic ending that highlights themes of unfulfilled desire, societal expectations, and the conflict between personal longing and social conventions.
The House of Bernarda Alba is the story of a domineering matriarch and her five daughters. Following her husband’s funeral, Bernarda imposes an eight-year mourning period, confining her daughters in her repressive household. The play explores themes of oppression, desire, and rebellion, as the daughters struggle against their mother’s tyranny.
Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut
Bluebeard is the autobiography of Rabo Karabekian, an elderly, one-eyed, once-struggling artist. Set in East Hampton, Long Island, the story unfolds through Karabekian’s recollections, particularly of his Armenian heritage, experiences as an apprentice to a famed abstract expressionist, and his later life as a successful minimalist artist. The novel explores themes of art, war, and the complexities of human relationships, culminating in the revelation of a mysterious painting locked away in Karabekian’s barn.
It’s the emptiest and yet the fullest of all human messages: ‘Good-bye.’
“Everything about life is a joke. Don’t you know that?”
“What’s the point of being alive,” she said, “if you’re not going to communicate?”Kurt Vonnegut – Bluebeard