Category Archives: Books

Reading Round-up, 10/1/2014

I’d been meaning to read Nella Larsen for a long time and finally picked up my copy of Passing. What a good novel! Or novella, perhaps I should call it, as it’s very short. It’s about two women, Irene and Clare, although Irene is the one through whom the story is told. They are both of mixed race with light skin, but Clare is passing as white while Irene is not. The story is about Irene’s feelings about Clare, her bitterness towards Clare’s openly racist husband, and her uncertainties about her own marriage. There is so much packed into very few pages — so much about race in America, about friendship, about dealing with one’s life choices, about desire.

I liked Passing so much I went ahead and read Quicksand, Larsen’s other novel, which was bundled in my book with Passing. This novel (novella) is about Helga, a  teacher in the novel’s beginning, who quits in search of a life that’s more suited to her personality and desires. She lives in various places, including Copenhagen where she has some relatives, and among various types of people, always in a quest for the contentment and fulfillment that she has found elusive. With a title like Quicksand, you might be able to make a guess as to where the novel is heading. This one was also good, satisfyingly complex. I wish Larsen had written more novels.

I also read My Brother Michael by Mary Stewart for my mystery book group, which was a disappointment. I was hoping for a fun, cozy mystery/romance, but I found it dull and implausible with characters that seemed too thin and with way too much landscape description that I found myself impatiently skimming. Although opinions on it differed in my book group, it generally was not a success. Our next read is Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising, and perhaps we will have better luck next time.

And now I’m in the middle of two very good nonfiction books, first of all, Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, which makes me want to read the novel again (which, if I were to do it, would be my third time. I am no casual George Eliot fan and take my Eliot reading seriously!). Mead’s book is excellent. She weaves together biographical information on Eliot, her own experiences reading Middlemarch, and thoughts on the novel itself, and makes all these sections equally compelling. I’m also reading Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong, a book about … well, wrongness. She explores what it means to be wrong (and whether “rightness” is something we can even settle upon), how people have dealt with the idea of rightness and wrongness historically, the value of making mistakes, what it’s like to experience being wrong and changing one’s mind, and why acknowledging one’s own wrongness is such a hard thing to do. Schulz’s tone is light and always entertaining — this book will make you contemplate your own mistakes but Schulz makes this as painless as such a thing can possibly be.

And one final book: I had the urge to reread something by listening to it on audio, and my library had an audiobook version of Ian McEwan’s Atonement available, so I’ve been listening to that. It’s so good and at the same time so painful that I’m wondering why I wanted to put myself through listening to such a heartbreaking story. But it’s also so good! As it turns out, I won an audiobook version of McEwan’s latest novel from LibraryThing, so I’ll be listening to that one soon as well.

And now it’s time to dive back into my reading … I hope you’ve read some good things lately too!

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The Fever

I unwittingly chose to read (by which I mean listen to on audio) Megan Abbott’s new novel The Fever at just the right time — right after I finished Eula Biss’s excellent book On Immunity. On Immunity takes up controversies over vaccines and explores their cultural meanings and is really, truly great. The Fever is, in part, a fictional exploration of our cultural anxieties about vaccines (among other threats), and it’s also great, although it’s an entirely different book — a thrilling, plot-driven novel about hysteria in a small-town high school. One girl has a seizure and goes into a coma and shortly afterward girl after girl gets struck down with terrifying and inexplicable symptoms. As the bodies of the young girls go out of control, the minds of the adults go bonkers as well; they desperately search for a culprit and one likely source is the HPV vaccine recently administered to the students. This, of course, allows them to freak out not only about vaccines, but about adolescent female sexuality, which, of course, parents are perfectly primed to freak out about.

But this is only one possibility — there is also the polluted lake that everyone was supposed to stop swimming in but that some people swam in anyway. And there are many other dangers and pollutants lurking everywhere, in building materials, in processed food, in the air and the ground and everywhere. No one feels safe and no one knows what to do about it. Abbott is really great at capturing what it’s like to be a teenager today (or at least this strikes me, as one who is very much not a teenager, as true) and makes me feel relieved I’m all grown up. She’s particularly good at describing what it’s like to live with modern technology, and interestingly, the characters seem to find it a burden. Their phones never let them forget about gossip and scandals and what everyone else is doing and tie them to people they would prefer to escape. They interrupt the moment with the promise of new information but more often bring only anxiety. As the characters try to sort out the dangers, if any, of something like the HPV vaccine, information on the internet only confuses the issue further.

Fortunately, Abbott’s protagonists are sympathetic and do their best to stay calm and sane in the midst of the uncertainty around them, and this keeps the tone of the book from becoming too dark. The novel is both entertaining, and a good portrayal of some of our current cultural obsessions. This novel, along with On Immunity, make excellent reading for anyone wanting to understand more about the things — vaccinations included — that scare us.

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Reading Round-Up, 9/14/2014

Lots of interesting reading going on around here these days, including:

  • Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment. This is my first Ferrante, and probably won’t be my last. It was a strange book, difficult — in the sense of emotionally wrenching — unpleasant, surreal at times. It’s the story of a woman dealing with her husband’s abandonment, and it starts off in what feels like familiar territory but then veers off into unexpected places. I can’t say I enjoyed the book exactly, but I was intrigued by it. The book was unpleasant in a way I’m not entirely sure how I feel about, but this was not entirely bad.
  • Sarah Waters’s The Paying Guests. I may have been spoiled for further Sarah Waters books by Fingersmith, which I liked a whole lot. I’ve also read The Night Watch, which was good but not quite as good, and now The Paying Guests was not quite as good as well. I thought the first half was too slowly paced and the direction the plot was heading in was obvious. The second half picked up the pace a lot, which was good, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the entire thing needed more shaping and editing. I was reasonably happy reading this — Waters is good at what she does — but I wanted more. I read Waters to get immersed in a good story, and she sometimes delivers that, but this was uneven.
  • Matthew Salesses’s I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying. This one was intriguing. It’s a fairly short book, and is described as a novel written in flash fiction, or “short-shorts,” which sounds kind of gimmicky, but it worked really well. There are 115 short chapters, usually only part of a page long, describing a man’s experience as he finds out about and meets his five-year-old son. It’s a first-person narration from this man’s point of view, and he is straightforward about his many affairs and infidelities and all his other character flaws. There’s something about his voice that is compelling in spite of all his unpleasantness. But mostly it’s the writing that makes this book so good. Each chapter is a self-contained unit that’s a little like a poem in its richness. I wanted to slow down and read each piece slowly so as not to miss anything.

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The Blazing World

First of all, let me point you to a review I wrote for Necessary Fiction of Tiphanie Yanique’s new novel Land of Love and Drowning. Take a look over there to see what I thought!

I recently finished Siri Hustvedt’s new novel The Blazing World and found it to be thought-provoking. I’m guessing this is the kind of thing that wouldn’t get published if Hustvedt hadn’t had a long track record of novel publications already (although maybe this is unfair….), since it is unabashedly academic and intellectual, a complicated, philosophical story about misogyny in the art world. The main character, Harriet, known as Harry, is an artist who found herself frustrated at the lack of enthusiasm with which her work was greeted. After much time passed, she decided to try an experiment, to launch a project that would test the extent to which her work was ignored because of her gender. Over a series of years she works with three different men, creating art and then having them present it as their own. It probably won’t surprise you to learn how the work was received. She runs into trouble with the third man, though, who claims that the art was really his.

This story is interesting in and of itself, and Harry is a great character, brilliant, determined, and angry at the world. Additionally, though, the structure of the novel is intriguing. We learn that Harry has died, and the novel itself is framed as a collection of various materials — journals, interviews, statements by the characters — meant to explore Harry’s art, her life, and her relationship with the men who pretended her art was theirs. The compiler of all this material is I.V. Hess, a professor who stumbles upon the story and can’t let it go. He interviews various friends and family from Harry’s life, as well as people from the art world, and gets many perspectives on who Harry was, what kind of art she produced, and whether she really created all the work she claimed she did.

I loved the different voices in the novel, which led to a lot of tonal variety. Oddly, Harry’s own journals were sometimes the least compelling sections, perhaps because of her occasionally elusive, mysterious thought process. But this is only sometimes the case, and as a character, she is wonderful. I felt like I learned a lot about the art world and what it was like — and perhaps still is — for a woman trying to make her way in it.

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A Kiss Before Dying

The most recent choice for my mystery book group was Ira Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying (Hobgoblin’s choice, in fact), and what a great book it was to discuss. Levin is an author I would happily read more of. The novel is hard to write about, though, because not only are there fun twists and turns of the plot that I don’t want to describe because it would give too much away, but even to describe the structure of the novel and to talk about issues like point of view risks giving too much away. I’ll just say about the beginning of the novel that it reminded me of The Talented Mr. Ripley in the way it creates a strong sense of dread: we are in the mind of a killer and are so close to him that we can’t help — or I couldn’t help — identifying with him, which is an uncomfortable situation to find oneself in. I found myself rooting for him and then berating myself for doing so, and then feeling horribly anxious about whether he  — and I couldn’t help but feel that it was I — would get away with it.

But there is so much else to think and talk about as well. It was published in 1953, and World War II hangs over it in important ways, as does post-war economic issues and the idea of the American dream. The portrayal of the women characters is fascinating, as is the rather cavalier way Levin treats mystery genre conventions. The book boasts one of the most compelling unconventional detectives I’ve read in a while, but I can’t tell you who it is because that gives away more than I’d like. The very fact that I don’t want to write about who the detective is tells you something about the wonderful strangeness of this novel.

If you decide to read this, I’d recommend picking it up without reading anything about it beforehand. Just plunge in. It’s a real treat.

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Meg Wolitzer’s The Ten-Year Nap

I listened to Meg Wolitzer’s 2008 novel The Ten-Year Nap on audio and liked it a whole lot. This is my second Wolitzer novel (after last year’s The Interestings), and I think she’s so good! The ten-year nap of the title is the main character Amy’s ten years spent as a stay-at-home wife and mother. She now feels pressure to go out into the world and “do something”: volunteer, get a job, something besides “stay at home.” She worries about people asking her what she does all day. She knows she does a whole lot, but people in careers are always skeptical. Amy is the main character, but there are so many other lives Wolitzer tracks: other mothers, many of whom have chosen not to work outside the home and some who have. She also tells the stories of women’s lives from earlier generations, in some cases stories of the mothers of her main present-action characters and in other cases, stories of famous women and what influenced their careers and decisions about family. Wolitzer is going for a broad view of women, feminism, and family, tracking how things have changed from the early days of modern feminism in the 1960s and 70s up until the early 21st century — what women have gained and what they haven’t. It’s very much an issue novel in the sense that it’s clear what Wolitzer set out to do, but the characters are so well-drawn and interesting, and the satire is so sharp and funny that the issues don’t get in the way of the fiction. Anyone who has tried to balance work and family life will appreciate this. The book made me feel, on a personal level, SO HAPPY to have a job, and also SO HAPPY to have a lot of time at home with my son and SO LUCKY to have the husband I do. Wolitzer does a great job of showing just how complex it is to sort out one’s life as a modern mother, while at the same time recognizing that these are very privileged problems to face.

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An Untamed State

Some brief thoughts on An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay: Gay seems to be the star of the literary world right now, which is cool; I follow her on twitter and have enjoyed her tweets and her online essays for a while now. I’m looking forward to reading her essay collection Bad Feminist when I can. As for the novel, I had mixed feelings about it. This hardly ever happens, but I ended up appreciating the second half more than the first. I don’t want to get too deeply into it and say too much about the plot, but I thought the second half of the novel headed into territory that is newer than what happened in the first. The first half of the novel is pretty hard to take; before you pick this one up, if you are thinking about it, be prepared for some graphic sexual violence. But the story Gay tells is powerful and it brings up interesting issues about parent/child relationships and marriage and power. However, part of my mixed feelings came from feeling unimpressed by the writing, which was plain and occasionally awkward. It’s plain in a way that drew attention to itself, oddly, rather than being plain in order to disappear in service of the plot, which is what the writing in the best plot-driven novels can do. So while I found the novel emotionally moving at times, I didn’t fall in love.

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