For just shy of thirty years I've maintained a little spiral notebook (now missing its back cover) in which I've recorded the particulars of every book I've read through to the end. I don't often flip through its back pages, but every now and then I hunt up the title of a volume I no longer own, or take a look back to refresh my memory about when I read a certain book or what I was reading during a given period in my life.
I have to shake my head about some of the entries in the notebook — did I truly read two books, a decade apart, about the Iranian revolution, a subject that's of no more interest to me than a hundred other topics I might have read about but never bothered to? Some books, looking back on it, were more or less a waste of time, but in the end not that many. There are some things on the list that I know I read and enjoyed but don't now don't particularly remember much about (Jan Morris's Heaven's Command, Marcia Davenport's biography of Mozart), some I had mixed feelings about at the time but that I've never quite shaken off (David Searcy's virtually unreadable but oddly fascinating Ordinary Horror), and some I've gone back to and re-read multiple times. And then there are the ones I don't remember at all — not many, maybe 1% of the total, and none in the past decade — and those are the ones that really puzzle me.
Arenas, Reinaldo Graveyard of the Angels Avon 1987I read a lot of Latin American literature and I know exactly who Reinaldo Arenas was, but if you had asked me if I had ever read anything by him I would have been quite sure that I hadn't. The most I can summon up about this one is a vague Caribbean atmosphere, which I could just as well have gotten from reading a review. I read it just before Cortázar's El examen (which I remember quite clearly, though I've never gotten around to re-reading it).
Bacon, Charlotte Lost Geography Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2000Nice cover (see above). I recognize the story line, but I mistakenly thought it belonged to another novel (see "Michaels, Anne" below). I did like this, and probably would read it again, but I'm not sure if I still own a copy.
Badaracco, Claire Trading Words: Poetry, Typography & Illustrated Books in the Modern Literary Economy Johns Hopkins 1995This sounds like something I would have gone for but I no longer remember it at all.
Childress, Mark Crazy in Alabama Putnam 1993I draw a blank on this one. Judging from the publisher's description it doesn't sound like something I would have read. But read it I did.
Forrest, Emma Namedropper Scribners 2000"Meet Viva Cohen: her bedroom walls are plastered with posters of silver-screen legends, and underneath her school uniform she wears vintage thigh-high stockings. Her best friends are a drugged-out beauty queen and an aging rock star. She lives in London with her gay uncle Manny." Okay, very vaguely familiar.
Huston, Nancy The Mark of the Angel Steerforth 1999I feel bad about this one. I think I must have liked it, and I know who Nancy Huston is, but I can't say that I recall the story.
Michaels, Anne Fugitive Pieces Knopf 1997I have good memories associated with this author and title, and I still have the galley, but apparently I've also confused it with another book (see "Bacon, Charlotte" above). Here's the jacket copy:
In 1940 a boy bursts from the mud of a war-torn Polish city, where he has buried himself to hide from the soldiers who murdered his family. His name is Jakob Beer. He is only seven years old. And although by all rights he should have shared the fate of the other Jews in his village, he has not only survived but been rescued by a Greek geologist, who does not recognize the boy as human until he begins to cry. With this electrifying image, Anne Michaels ushers us into her rapturously acclaimed novel of loss, memory, history, and redemption.It sounds promising but I don't recall it.
Millet, Lydia Omnivores Algonquin 1996Publisher's Weekly describes this as follows:
"Millet's feisty but sometimes awkward debut tells of a young girl's coming-of-age in an extremely dystopian version of modern America. The Candide-like protagonist, Estee Kraft, spends her childhood as a prisoner of a bedridden mother and psychopathic father, who forces her to assist him in a variety of murderous 'experiments,' beginning with moths and culminating with his abduction of an elderly woman."It doesn't ring any bells.
Offil, Jenny Last Things Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1990Here's how the publisher describes this:
Grace's father believes in science and builds his daughter a dollhouse with lights that really work. Grace's mother takes her skinny-dipping in the lake and teaches her about African hyena men who devour their wives in their sleep. Grace's world, of fact and fiction, marvels and madness, is slowly unraveling because her family is coming apart before her eyes. Now eight-year-old Grace must choose between her two very different, very flawed parents, a choice that will take her on a dizzying journey, away from her home in Vermont to the boozy, flooded streets of New Orleans — and into the equally wondrous and frightening realm of her own imagination.If you say so. Maybe the skinny-dipping caught my eye.
Perutz, Leo By Night Under the Stone Bridge Arcade 1990Leo Perutz is a special case. I remember very clearly reading his novel The Marquis of Bolibar, which I still own, and liking it enough that I wanted to read the other books of his that Arcade released at about the same time, but I remember nothing about these two volumes, which I no longer own. Two or three years ago, in the course of a discussion of old Prague legends, someone recommended that I read By Night Under the Stone Bridge. I made a mental note to do so, not recalling that I already had. Update: I read, or re-read, By Night Under the Stone Bridge in August 2016. I enjoyed it a great deal, but still have no memory of having read it years before. This one remains a puzzle.
Perutz, Leo Saint Peter's Snow Arcade 1990
Teller, Astro Exegesis Vintage 1997I read a book by someone named Astro Teller? Have I even heard of Astro Teller? The book appears to be science fiction. I remember nothing about it — zilch. The next book I read was Pynchon's Mason & Dixon, all 773 grueling pages of it. For better or worse that's an experience I won't forget.
Wolfe, David W. Tales from the Underground: A Natural History of Subterranean Life Perseus 2001This sounds good but I don't recognize it.
Wolff, Philippe Western Languages AD 100-1500 Phoenix Press 2003This was undoubtedly a review copy that came into the office where I was working at the time. I've always been interested in historical linguistics but I suspect it must have been deadly dull for it to have made no impression on me whatsoever.
My apologies to the authors; it's not you, it's me.