Everybody really liked my year in reading post, so now I’m thinking I should maybe write more about the books I read.
But I have this problem – because I read so much, people tend to go read the books I rate at five stars or say that I love, and then a lot of times they feel kind of annoyed because those books aren’t really good enough to justify their time. Here’s the thing: I read all the time, so I read everything. But if you have an actual life and so you read a normal amount, there might be a book that I really, really loved that still isn’t worth you reading it. Because if you read, say, five novels a year, then I’m going to recommend not just five novels I loved, but five novels that are (a) the best fucking novels of all time and (b) the sort of thing that you particularly with your taste, your interests, and your perspective are going to enjoy and appreciate.
So, I’m going to write about the books I read and what I think about them, but I’m also going to include a bit about who else should actually read them, if anybody.
Ok, so here’s what I’ve read this year so far:
My Life In Orange by Tim Guest: I read a lot of books about cults and cult members. I don’t have an explanation for why, it’s just an interest I have. The tagline of this particular book could read, “An interesting person ruined my life, and I have no idea why.” This memoir of Guest’s upbringing in the Rajneeshi cult should be fascinating, but it’s spoiled by Guest’s inability to elevate it from mere factual retelling into literary memoir. He plods along, recalling every tiny detail as if it were important for its own sake, so that the book is stuffed with childhood recollections that aren’t necessary for our understanding of his experience. And he offers almost no insight into the characters of the people involved: it’s a lot of “here’s what happened” and almost no “and here are the conclusions I’ve drawn about it,” which results in the book weirdly reading as if it were written by ten-year-old Tim. The present day Guest has almost as little perspective on the whole thing as he did as a child.
In the end, this book is more of an exorcism of a personal grievance than something that would be of any interest to anyone outside the Guest family. I was intrigued by Guest’s mother – she’s the sort of person that I want to understand better, and that’s why I read a lot of books about cults. But Guest doesn’t understand her at all, or give her much of a chance to speak for herself (a little bit at the end). Granted, he’s really mad at her and she was a truly shitty mother, but she’s also more interesting to an uninvolved reader than he is (the whole thing happened because of her choices, whereas he was just along for the ride), so it would have been nice if the book had been about her instead of about her confused, unhappy child.
Should you read it? No.
Flow by Mihaly Csiksgentmihalyi: I read this for work. This book is about how we’re happiest when we’re fully absorbed in something, and it makes some suggestions for how to create and maintain absorption in whatever you’re doing. It was actually pretty useful for a pop psychology book! Some aspects of it were simplistic in a sort of ‘misery is just a matter of perception’ kind of way, and a couple of sections were downright cringe-inducing (the anecdote about the happy homeless man in particular). But for the most part, I think most people could find something useful and relevant in here, and there were quite a few suggestions that are useful to me.
Also, according to this book, I’m rather an enlightened being! Much of what Csiksgentmihalyi describes as being an ideal state of existence is essentially a description my daily life; I am apparently always in a state of flow. I have never seen any evidence that anyone on earth wants to be anything like me on any level, but given all the attention this book got, apparently I am an actual sage! If I’d only known, I’d have written this book first (under a male pseudonym) and made some money.
Should you read it? If you tend to read businessy/pop-psychology/self-help books, this might be a decent one to pick up, sure.
Sexual Politics by Kate Millett: Most of the Ye Olde Feminist Texts that I read are still entirely relevant in today’s more enlightened times, which is probably the most depressing thing about reading them. We have not gained as much ground as we like to think that we have! We are still fighting a lot of the exact same battles! In fact, in many areas, we are fighting them OVER AGAIN having seemingly won them in the past. Equal rights for women proceed like waves crashing on society’s shore — they just touch and then the undertow of backlash drags them back out to sea again. We have made some progress that has stuck, however, and Sexual Politics, I think, is no longer really very relevant reading. Many feminists wonder why it’s out of print, but I don’t think there’s anything nefarious about that — it’s simply too dry and academic for a general audience. Don’t get me wrong — it’s an impressive work and poor Kate Millett has been screwed and betrayed in pretty much every way possible over the years since she wrote it for us; but I don’t really know who would need to read this particular book today.
Wait, no, I do — 17-year-old me when I was being made to read Lawrence and was pissed about it. The literary takedowns in this book are really fun, but they also feel dated — Miller failed to gain a serious literary reputation; Mailer is mostly remembered as the adorable grouchy old misogynist uncle who had a cameo in Gilmore Girls; and Lawrence is still pressed on high schoolers despite, rather than because of, his issues with women. Everyone now realizes Freud was full of shit. I’m not an academic, so I don’t know if functionalism is still a big thing, but I doubt it.
It is pretty entertaining to read how much of sociology and psychology over the years really just boiled down to men being like, “If only women would just accept that they’re supposed to be lovey-dovey baby ovens they wouldn’t all be so goddamned angry and depressed about it all the time!” Overall, while it was necessary and important for Millett to write Sexual Politics when she wrote it, I doubt many people will get a lot out of revisiting it now.
Should you read it? No. Instead, I recommend Faludi’s Backlash, which everyone should read immediately and reread every six months until we get so far up the beach that the waves don’t even touch us at high tide.
A Curious Earth by Gerard Woodward: A Curious Earth is apparently the final book in a trilogy, but I didn’t know that until after I’d finished reading it. It’s a sadly comic novel about a widower’s attempts to connect with other people (mostly women) in the last few years of his life. Aldous flings himself at other people artlessly and hopelessly; you cringe for him throughout. The best parts of the book are very funny — at one point toward the beginning, Aldous collapses in his kitchen and his son’s girlfriend comes over to complain to him about her failing relationship. Although Aldous has crapped himself and can’t move from the floor, she takes his word for it that he’s just resting, and so unburdens herself and then leaves him there.
It’s not a perfect book — there’s some casual racist fetishization of a black woman that’s played for laughs, and there are also a couple of really confusing point of view switches where we’re suddenly plunged into Aldous’s daughter’s mind without much transition. But for the most part, this is an enjoyably funny and well-written book about aging. I have another one of the books in this trilogy, and I’ll read it at some point.
Should you read it? Nah.
Lessons In Taxidermy by Bee Lavender: Bee Lavender has so far survived cancer, lupus, a ruinous car accident, two dangerous pregnancies, and growing up surrounded by poverty and violence. This well-written memoir of her medical history is horrifying to read. I’m not sure any living person has survived as much as Lavender, so if she can write and parent and live through all this, there is hope for anyone. If I ever get ill or injured, I will give this a re-read, but as a currently very, very lucky mostly healthy person, it was just sort of pointlessly traumatizing to read this.
Should you read it? I don’t recommend reading it unless you or a loved one has a health condition that makes you feel scared for your life or limited in what you can do: if that’s the case, reading it might be helpful.
Mindset by Carol S. Dweck: Another business/pop-psych book I read for work. The idea is helpful: this book distinguishes between people with a fixed mindset, who believe that talent, character, and ability are immutable traits that determine a person’s success; and people with a growth mindset, who believe that with hard work anyone can learn and improve. The latter type of people are more successful in life because they are more interested in learning than in having people view them as smart. We should all keep this in mind and praise our children and our employees for their efforts, not for their successes or abilities. People with a fixed mindset will do much to avoid failure or rejection because they don’t want to be seen to fail. People with a growth mindset don’t much care how they’re seen; they just want to be learning.
Should you read it? If you feel you require 200 pages of anecdotes illustrating these few ideas, then yes; if you get the point from this blurb, you needn’t read the whole thing.
Les Liaisons Dangeruses by Choderlos de Laclos: I never know how to evaluate translated novels, or very old ones, and so this one is both of those things and I don’t really know what to make of it. Beyond being translated in the first place, the translation I read (by Douglas Parmee) has also been kind of pseudo-modernized, so who knows what the original book really reads like. Also, the morals and attitudes of the period that Laclos is writing about are so foreign to me that the book seems entirely irrelevant to anything anymore. I mean, it is the eternal story of rich men getting away with being rapist dickbags and women being slut-shamed, so that much hasn’t changed since the 18th century, but the extreme overwroughtness of it — that some rich people banging each other is this life-destroying upheaval that leaves them all mad and dead and walled up in convents — that’s just hard for me to relate to in 2016. And the first two thirds at least are grindingly repetitive and really hard to get through; Valmont’s letters are total snores and there’s not even any actual sex until nearly the end.
Should you read it? No, go watch Cruel Intentions instead. Except ignore the ending and pretend instead that Catherine got away with everything and remained victorious in all respects, as she should have and would have in real life. Team Catherine Forever.
A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin: I wasn’t going to read these, but then I wanted some sprawling, comfort food ‘crawl into it’ literature for the winter doldrums, so I’m slowly reading them in between other things. I’m enjoying them, but I thought the writing would be a bit better. I was expecting like Tolkein-level writing, which this isn’t. Martin’s prose is functional, wordy, repetitive, and not very interesting, but it’s not bad — there’s nothing to choke on. And he’s an unbelievable worldbuilder and his characters are fantastic.
Should you read it? You already know whether you have any interest in reading these or not.
The House on Fortune Street by Margot Livesey: This a nice, mannerly novel about British people talking to each other Britishly. I always enjoy this sort of thing. However, there are two contrivances for artificially ratcheting up the stakes that are done to death in contemporary literature, and this novel has both of them: pedophilia and suicide. Probably every other novel I read has a pedophile in it. I understand how it happens: authors are like, well, I have this group of characters orbiting around each other, flat as paper dolls. How do I make them into a capital-N Novel, how do I let all readers know that they’re worth reading about, how do I invest this narrative with Meaning and Purpose, how do I raise the stakes? Put a pedophile in. It’s so exhausting, though, reading book after book and seeing some man and thinking, ‘surely this isn’t another oh yep, it is, another pedophile.’ Anyway, as British novels with plot device pedophiles go, this is a good one. I also love reading about lonely desperate love-starved women, and this has one of those, too. The final section is the weakest, and Livesey has this really obnoxious way of over-using parenthetical commas:
She was looking, he noticed, in a purple blouse and blue skirt, unusually pretty.
They’re not all this bad, but there are at least five per page, and it gets really aggravating.
Should you read it? If you like this sort of thing, you probably wouldn’t be sorry to read it, but it’s not the sort of thing anyone would be really missing out on.
I love this. Thanks for putting so much effort into these descriptions and the alternatives you’ve suggested.