Well, I did it again. I waited too long. So, here’s a giant post on everything I read this whole summer! This is going to be so long that I can’t imagine anyone will read it except possibly my mother, but now that I’ve started doing this, I feel a compulsive need to blog about every single book I read (almost), so sorry!
(Also, I’m glad this one is so long because there is something buried toward the end of it that will make almost everyone I like mad at me if they see it.)
A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert: I read this not three months ago, and I already have absolutely no recollection of it. To be completely honest, this is the case with a lot of contemporary fiction I read — in part, it’s probably my fault, because I read so much and so quickly, and I only slow down if something is either really, really good or perplexingly terrible or challenging to read. I do remember things I don’t like for quite a long time, because they irritate me in very specific ways and that sticks with me more than just general ‘this was ok, pretty good’ impressions. And that makes me think maybe all these novels that are quite competent but not that mind-blowing are in fact really terrible literature, because they are so forgettable overall.
I really tend to feel like I’m already a very critical reader, however. When I read other people who write about contemporary literature, they seem to be so broadly complementary of almost all of it and there’s a general attitude out there that it’s churlish and small-minded to be critical of anything, since if someone out there loves it, it’s served a purpose and maybe it’s just not your thing, why you gotta hate. And that’s a decent point, too, I guess, except it seems like if you read a book, part of the work of actually having read it is forming an opinion about it, and figuring out how to articulate that opinion in such a way that other people understand it. That in itself is a form of writing that we are all working on, when “writing” means thinking about various aspects of things and figuring out to express those thoughts verbally. I’m not very good at doing that yet, but I’m hoping I can get better at it by just forcing myself to do it.
Anyway, I mostly recall that I thought Walbert was doing a pretty dead-on impression of early Virginia Woolf, and she did pretty well with it! But it just made me want to put this down and go read some actual Virginia Woolf. Otherwise, I don’t remember much about this.
Should you read it? Probably not.
A Feast of Crows and A Dance of Dragons by George R.R. Martin: I thought A Feast of Crows was the best of these. The characterization in it is deeper, the plot cracks along at a swifter pace, and the prose has less repetition. It felt the most tightly edited of any of these, I really enjoyed it.
And then came A Dance of Dragons, which might be my least favorite. The writing seemed rushed and the pace seemed slow, there were a ton of new characters introduced who were not very fleshed out or interesting and meanwhile we barely heard about the really interesting characters we already knew. There were a ton of boring scenes of various lords advising each other on which other various lords were on what side or possibly on the other side, or supported this other person we’d barely heard of, or this other group of people and couldn’t be counted on, or could, or whatever, and meanwhile, nothing much actually happened. It was like the ‘begat’ passages of the Bible.
When you stop to think about it, though, it’s really mind-blowing that this whole world spun out of one man’s head. That’s why I enjoy epic fantasies. I wonder if he’ll ever write another one.
Should you read them? You probably either already have, or you’re not interested.
The Dialectic of Sex by Shulamith Firestone: Some really good points here, and I like Firestone’s unapologetic radicalism, but overall this book feels pretty dated, and also she’s got the same problem as Naomi Wolf in that she doesn’t see why making a point once is sufficient, if you can make it five times with ever-increasing hyperbole.
I find myself agreeing with most Utopian progressives that the nuclear family would likely have to be abolished before we could create a truly equal society, but at the same time, I cannot get on board with their dismissiveness about what an immense sacrifice this would be for most people. Children do care more about their parents than other people; ditto parents about their own children, and you can’t just downplay that reality because it’s inconvenient to the vision. The parent/child bond is for real. You can certainly argue that it’s not as important as having a decent and just society would be, and that getting past it is a worthwhile sacrifice to make, but so few radicals are willing to admit that they’re calling for anything to be sacrificed at all, which just makes them seem absurd.
Firestone does say that while the biological family structure is certainly the natural way of things, it doesn’t follow that what comes naturally to us is best and should be where we stop, which I agree with, and it irritates me that a lot of radical thinkers try to unconvincingly argue that their ideas are “natural” instead of just saying that what’s natural is irrelevant in a discussion about how we ought to structure society. But she also just breezily declares that all children primarily resent and feel smothered by their parents and that all nuclear family relationships are poor ones, and then moves on like she didn’t say anything that needed any support at all. Which, what?? This just makes her seem resentful. Also, we have to wade through the usual bucketful of refuting Freud.
I did enjoy her postmortem on the Russian Revolution — she argues that it failed primarily because its organizers failed to incorporate radical feminist ideas (like abolishing the nuclear family), which were crucial to its success. I don’t know enough about it to critique how valid that criticism is or anything, but it was interesting to read because every time I’m around communists at all, they’re always oblivious blowhard self-congratulatory white dudes who cleaned up part of the kitchen one time in 2007, and yet rant to anyone in earshot about how men need to do their share of the housework.
Should you read it? No.
Children in New Religions edited by Susan J. Palmer and Charlotte E. Hardman: Some of these essays were interesting, but most of them seemed very invested in answering a straw man who had just said “It is inarguably abusive and horrible for children to be raised in communal environments.” I guess I expected it to be more about how being raised in a communal environment affects people’s long-term development, but it hardly discussed or interviewed any actual adults who had been raised in communal environments. It was mostly just research into those communal environments so phrased as to argue that CPS intervention is unwarranted — that they found no abuse, and that the children were testing ok from the homeschooling.
Also, there’s one essay here that defends the Children of God and paints its critics as hysterical bigots who just can’t get past the fact that the organization used to maybe kind of have a little bit of unconventional sexual practices that it has long since disavowed. Having read the memoir by the daughter’s founder, he clearly sexually abused his own children and everyone around him and founded the entire movement so he’d have a wider web of people to abuse, so even if the movement has since moved on from him, there’s absolutely nothing nuts about everyone seriously side-eyeing the whole thing, and it’s disingenuous to try to downplay what happened.
Should you read it? No.
Get It Done When You’re Depressed by Julie A. Fast: This is the single most helpful self-help book I have ever read. Let me be clear: this is not a good book for understanding depression or depressed people, and it is not a good book for anyone in the throes of a major depressive episode. But if you live with chronic depression and it’s been diagnosed and treated, and you generally manage it, but you have the kind that doesn’t ever fully lift and you’ve accepted that, I highly recommend this book.
A lot of the tactics discussed are things I have done for years on my own, but others were new to me. It’s all really practical advice, and it’s also refreshingly bracing. So much advice about depression starts from the position that you’ll one day feel better or feel good, and you should work towards that and never give up until you feel like a million bucks or whatever. But you can’t actually control that, and it seems apparent to me that for many people (including myself) chronic depression is something you manage, not something you ever fully overcome. So I appreciated hearing from someone who is just like, “Look, some of us are just always going to feel like miserable, exhausted zombies dragging ourselves along until it’s acceptable to go to bed again, but we can still get some stuff done sometimes anyway. Mourn the time you’ve lost in the past, accept it, and move on.”
Should you read it? See above.
Sum: 40 Tales of the Afterlives by David Eagleman: A book club at work read this one. I enjoyed it, it’s clever and a fun quick read. I enjoy books like this that are brief creative thought experiments, because they’re so obviously fun for the writers to create. It’s like watching someone play. Another one along these lines is Einstein’s Dreams.
Should you read it? If the description intrigues you, you’d probably enjoy it.
Demonology by Rick Moody: I quite liked the first long story in this collection. But the rest of these became very cloying very fast. It was just a whole lot of Moody, all the way through, and some of these felt like padding. Moody really wants to write like Wallace, but he doesn’t have much depth or talent. I’ll probably give him another shot at some point, but while I don’t agree with the famous takedown that he’s the worst writer of his generation, I do think his work is not really very interesting.
Should you read it? No, but read that Dale Peck thing linked above if you never have; it’s really fun if you like snotty literary slap-fights (and who doesn’t?).
Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes: At the risk of sounding gullible, I thought this book was entirely convincing. Taubes thoroughly explains the various movements and discoveries in nutritional science over the past century or so, and explains what we got right, what we got wrong, why he believes this, and what we still don’t know. The whole ‘carbs are the problem’ argument has always made a lot more sense to me than ‘calories in, calories out’ but I still had questions, and this book has pretty much answered all of those.
It has definitely changed the way I eat – I’m back off Soylent and back on the Pete’s Paleo delivery list. The only thing is, Taubes doesn’t discuss compulsive/binge eating, which I think is a big problem, and I want to know how bad it is. I imagine he’d probably say that periodic binging doesn’t actually have as much effect on our lifetime weight as our shame about it leads us to believe, but I would have liked some information on it.
Should you read it? If you think calories in/calories out is indisputable logic and that low carbing is a stupid fad, and/or if you still somehow think fat people simply have no self control, you should probably read this. But mostly, I think we should all make a mighty effort to stop thinking about our weight so much, just in general.
Fat Is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach: First, let me say that I certainly do agree that fat is a feminist issue. But not for the reasons put forth in this book. Orbach is very focused on binge eating as a suppressed desire to be bigger for various reasons. I think that what she describes here is certainly something that happens with some women (and men) some of the time, but it is not the sole or primary explanation behind binge eating.
I’ve been a binge eater all my life, and it is true that exactly once, I gained a ton of weight specifically because guys were getting interested in me and I wasn’t really ready to date and wanted them to ignore me. I wasn’t consciously aware that’s what I was doing at the time, of course, but it’s obvious in retrospect. But all of the other times I struggled with compulsive eating, it was because of stress or depression or other factors, and had nothing to do with subconsciously wanting to be bigger. People mostly binge eat for the exact same reasons people abuse any substance. It’s also idiotic to say that it’s primarily women who binge eat. I know as many men who binge eat as women, tons of people do it.
I do think that Orbach is correct that in order to cure yourself of binge eating, you have to first separate it from the idea of weight gain or loss and address it on its own. I personally think that while you can be healthy at all different kinds of weight, binge eating specifically is a destructive and unhealthy behavior, and it’s very weird that for all we talk about weight and weight loss, we almost never address binge eating. One reason is probably because it’s so shameful and embarrassing for people who do it that they don’t ever discuss it, and people who don’t do it genuinely have no idea that all these other people are doing it, because if you don’t have this particular issue, it makes no sense at all that anyone would ever do it.
And another reason is probably that, as with any kind of disordered eating, curing yourself of it is probably going to mean ultimately gaining weight, at least in the short term and possibly forever, and we have this idea that you can’t possibly get healthier and gain weight. Just try to sell that diet plan! Like many women with disordered eating histories, I’ve spent the past few years wrestling with the realization that if I want to eat like a normal person who doesn’t hate herself, I’m going to have to learn to be ok with being heavier than I want to be. I mostly have reconciled myself to it, but I still change my mind like four times a day, because, of course, I want to be treated like a very thin person. It all sucks.
Should you read it? No.
The House with a Clock In Its Walls by John Bellairs: I’ve started re-reading a lot of books that I remember reading and loving when I was a kid. I vaguely remember reading this one, and I confused it with another book that I vaguely remember. This is neither the book I thought it was, nor is it much good. Kids might like it, though!
Should you read it? No.
Song of the Gargoyle by Zilpha Keatley Snyder: I read this book approximately 400 times when I was in sixth and seventh grade, and I loved it. I had forgotten most of it, so it was fun to re-read, and I still love it! It’s a very bizarre little book about a court jester’s son in some sort of medieval-era fantasy world who has to go into exile when bad men take his father, and who is befriended by a magical gargoyle who sings. The gargoyle part is never really explained, and it doesn’t need to be — the more important part is that the gargoyle is like the best, most amazing dog any kid would ever want to have. Also, at some point, they sort of take up with these two little orphan children. It’s all pretty random, and I just love it.
Should you read it? Yes!
The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder: This was another book I remember loving as a kid and had mostly forgotten, and it’s still really good. I vaguely remember that as a kid, it made me feel severely unoriginal and boring. Why didn’t my friends and I construct imaginary worlds to live in in our free time? The closest I got was forcing my friend Zahn to act out books like this one with me over and over again. It still makes me feel pretty unoriginal today, but I love reading it anyway.
I love Snyder, because her children are all so smart and she takes them so seriously! I just love how in the first chapter she has Melanie size up April, and quickly suss out that April is so annoying because she’s insecure. And then later, when she hides her fake eyelashes to spare her. How wonderful is that! Usually, some stupid wise grownup would, like, tell Melanie to be patient with April or something. But none of that is needed here, Melanie knows all this herself because she is really good at people. And April is bad at people, but she’s creative.
Also, Snyder writes about smart, creative, unusual people, but she never beats us over the head with talking about how unique her characters are (I’m looking at you, L’Engle; see below), she just lets them be and speak for themselves. Like when Melanie says, “Dad says the reason Marshall needs Security is that he had such a hard time being a baby. Dad says being a baby offended Marshall’s dignity.” I mean, this tells us so much about Marshall and their dad, and also it’s funny and clever. Compare that to L’Engle’s endless passages where everyone’s just like “Charles Wallace is so different from other children, and they don’t understand him because he’s smart and people are threatened by smart people.”
And when Marshall thinks Halloween is a protest because his parents are academics!! I love it.
Finally, the whole bit about the popular boys discovering this game and wanting to participate in it, and how they kind of can’t stand to at first because they’re so self-conscious about it, and also, the others don’t really trust them for awhile — like the careful negotiations of that entire thing just seem incredibly real to me and take me back to what those sort of kid friendships are like. Snyder really remembers being a kid in a way I don’t think many adults do.
While it’s tempting, I’m not going to give Snyder props here for diversity, because I’m pretty sure the rest of her books are all about white people.
Should you read it? So, obviously, I think so, but I also worry that you will hate it and be really confused about why I love it so much. I’m not as worried about that with the gargoyle book, because even if you think the writing is dumb, you’ll probably be like ‘cool, a gargoyle.’
Dog Years by Mark Doty: A really lovely memoir about Doty’s relationships with two dogs and about the deaths of those dogs and how the love and grief he felt for his pets fit into his larger life, during which he lost his long-term partner to AIDS and then fell in love with someone else. I read this before the recent death of my pet; I think if I had read it after, it might have destroyed me. For a memoir saturated with death, though, the book is pretty life affirming. It made me want to adopt a dog and read more Emily Dickinson, but then, everything makes me want to do that. Also, here’s the best explanation of why comforting platitudes are so offensive that I’ve ever read:
Too easy an acceptance seems, frankly, sentimental, an erasure of the irreplaceable stuff of individuality with a vague, generalized truth. That’s how sentimentality works, replacing specificity with a warm fog of acceptable feeling, the difficult exact stuff of individual character with the vagueness of convention. Sentimental assertions are always a form of detachment; they confront the acute, terrible awareness of individual pain, the sharp particularity of loss or the fierce individuality of passion with the dulling, “universal” certainty of platitude.
Next time we feel the need to reach for a dismissive platitude in the face of someone else’s pain, let’s try hard to be comfortable with offering instead an understanding and companionable silence. It’s hard, I can’t usually do it! But I keep trying.
Should you read it? If you enjoy sad memoirs about loss, yes.
Quiet by Susan Cain: The book that launched a movement! This was one of those books that I’d heard so much about and read so many excerpts from that I actually thought I had read it, but I hadn’t. It’s easy to forget that the whole introvert/extrovert spectrum thing that we’ve all gotten so excited about in the last few years is really just a personality theory, and I’m not sure how scientific it is, but it certainly feels accurate to our experience and it’s a tremendously helpful way to talk about our social differences. It definitely does seem that some people are charged up by social activity and others are drained by it.
I am, apparently, an extreme introvert and a very high self-monitor, so for me, it’s just unbelievably exhausting to be around other people, which is why I don’t do it very often. Anyway, this is a very comprehensive book on dealing with introversion and introverts, with some practical advice. I appreciated the tips on how to tell if a school will be good for introverted children or not, for example. I mean, I don’t have kids, introverts or otherwise, but if I ever did, that seems like it would be useful to have.
Should you read it? You could probably just read a few online articles about it.
Fortunately, the Milk, Coraline, and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman: I’ve always meant to read more stuff by Neil Gaiman. I read Neverwhere awhile back and liked it ok, but that was it. I’m the sort of person who heard about Gaiman because of Tori Amos and Amanda Palmer, rather than the other way around. Anyway, I picked up a boxed set of three of his children’s books.
Fortunately, the Milk was kind of cute but not really; it was the kind of thing that wouldn’t have been published had it not been by someone who already has an audience.
Coraline was better – I really loved the movie, and the book is weirder and darker. I really dig how unapologetically feminist the metaphor behind Coraline is (Coraline feels ignored by her mother, who has a career and a life outside of doting on her daughter. She discovers an “other mother,” who is a caricature of the sort of “live only for your children” type of mother women are often encouraged to be. The other mother at first seems great, but turns out to be an emotional vampire who only wants to consume Coraline and everyone else around her. Coraline realizes her actual parents love her as a separate person, and that that is far preferable to being controlled by someone who sees you as their only purpose in life. Etc.). The movie is more explicit about this than the book. Also, Coraline herself is really badass, so that’s nice to see.
Finally, The Graveyard Book destroyed me. I don’t know if I was just in a mood, or if the book has this affect on everyone, but I bawled like a baby for a day after reading it, and I don’t know when the last time a book (or anything) had that kind of effect on me. The plot is entertaining, but the main thing is the world that Gaiman creates and the relationships — how the graveyard inhabitants are all so deeply invested in Bod and love him so unconditionally and selflessly! The idea of them all existing there for all of eternity in this one small forgotten spot, and never seeing him again, but always remembering him as their one boy. UGH! It KILLS me! Like, tragic romances do nothing for me at all, but this thing here really got me where I live. Oh, man, I’m tearing up just thinking about it.
Should you read them? Watch the movie version of Coraline and if you like it, read the book, and definitely read The Graveyard Book.
Millionaire Teacher by Andrew Hallman: This was incredibly helpful, just very simple, easy to understand advice for what to do with your savings. I plan to take all of Hallman’s advice. I’m already doing some of it, because I just did what my parents told me to do with any extra money I ever had, and they told me to put it in Vanguard index funds. But I feel completely capable of doing the rest of what Hallman recommends; this is not intimidating or confusing at all.
Should you read it? If you don’t know anything about saving for retirement or investing, definitely. This is incredibly easy to understand and it is not hard advice to follow.
It by Stephen King: Ok. So, I read this because everyone said it’s the first of King’s books you should read (I also read The Shining at some point, but otherwise, I haven’t read anything by King), and the main thing I want to say about it is girls’ breasts do not hurt when they grow in, Stephen King!!!!!! Does it hurt when you get taller? Does it hurt when you get fatter? No? IT ALSO DOESN’T HURT WHEN YOU GET BOOBS. Sure, boobs ache when you’re PMSing, but they don’t hurt when they grow and all King had to do to double-check that before mentioning it something like ten times throughout the novel was just ask his wife, ‘hey hon, seems to me like when girls are first getting breasts, it probably hurts. I’m right about that, right?’ But he apparently never bothered, and this is just the sort of shit that drives me nuts about how men write about women and no one ever calls them on it.
And so most of the way through this book, I was just stewing resentfully over King’s male privilege because if any woman writer ever got a boy’s puberty as wrong as King gets poor old Bev here, she’d be laughed off the bestseller list, and yet — and yeah, let’s just cut right to The Scene, I’m not going to beat around the bush about it — here we have an 11-year-old girl not only taking on six of her friends (WHAT??) and not injuring herself in the process (???) but actually having MULTIPLE VAGINAL ORGASMS (LOL WHAT?!?!?!?!). Like, ok, so it’s problematic enough that the sole female character’s characterization is 100% just entirely her sexuality and how that affects all the various men around her, nothing else. But even let’s say you can accept that bit, since granted, that’s all women in male-written literature, their characters are going to be their sexuality, we can’t expect otherwise. But even given that, he could at least not make the technical details of that sexuality even less believable than the psycho clown.
Also, good god, this book is homophobic. Besides the obvious parts, it’s also kind of odd that King goes for a full out prepubescent kid gang bang, but he has all the boys politely wait their turn in the pitch dark for the one girl? Come on. His complete and total refusal to consider any splash of homoeroticism (except when the “bad” kids do it to further underline how gross and weird they are, let us know how you really feel, Stephen) makes this kid sex read weirdly prudish and old-fashioned in 2016.
Anyway. Otherwise, I really think everyone’s love for this book is mostly because they read it when they were kids. It’s really not very interesting. The first scene is chilling and incredibly well written and I was like, whoa, this King guy is AS ADVERTISED, I can’t believe I’m going to get 1000 more pages of this! And then, I didn’t. The scene where Ben sees the mummy on the lake is also really good. But the rest of the book went back and forth between tiresome and silly.
Anyway, I am still going to give Stephen King another chance or two because everyone loves him so much, and when he slows down and tries to write well, I actually find his stuff pretty absorbing. I’ve read some short stories that I really liked.
Should you read it? I would say no, but everyone but me loves this book, so you might, too.
Thinking Statistically by Uri Bram: A quick read and very easy to understand. Perhaps too basic for my purposes, but it serves as a short primer on statistical thinking and an explanation for why most of the stats you read in the news are pretty meaningless, if anyone thought they weren’t. The book also has a ton of typos and weird phrasing and syntax — I know it’s just a brief book, but it always amazes me that people publish books and flat out don’t bother to have them edited, or even proofread. You can even get a friend to do it for free!
Should you read it? Read the Huff instead; see below.
Talking from 9 to 5 by Deborah Tannen: I read this book when I was in high school because my mom had it back in the 90s, and strangely, I remember quite a bit of it pretty well. I’m not sure what that means. Much of the advice is still relevant today, and actually, it’s not really just a good ‘women in the workplace’ book. It’s a good ‘workplace communication’ book overall. When Tannen wrote this, the big thing was women in the workforce, but now that’s not as much the thing, but the various communication styles she discusses still persist. She talks about cultural differences, and employer/employee dynamics and so forth. It’s more about what different people mean by different things and how you can be more understanding and a more patient and clear communicator.
Should you read it? Maybe, yes.
The Time Quintet by Madeleine L’Engle: I feel really, really terrible about what I am about to say. This will probably be the most controversial statement I have ever made on this blog. And yet, I feel I must be honest.
These books are not good.
I know, I know, I remember loving the first three when I was a kid, too, but my god, on re-read the Murrays are just an insufferable group of arrogant humble-braggers. I cannot stand them. And Meg is a whiner! All she does is screech. Like, this is every single one of these books:
“Mother!” cried Meg. “I just don’t think the kids at school are ever going to understand Charles Wallace! Charles is just so special, but they can’t understand how special he is!”
“It’s ok, Meg,’ counseled Charles Wallace. “I don’t mind it. Also, you are extremely special, too, which is why you have such a hard time in school.”
“What!” wailed Meg. “But I’m only good at math! Not like Mother, who is a Nobel-prize winning genius, and anyway, I’m not beautiful and mother is SO beautiful.”
“Yes, Meg,” said their mother. “You will just have to be patient with people around here, because they’ve never met anyone as brilliant as we all are, and it’s hard for them to understand us. And although it’s true that I’m very beautiful now, when I was your age, I also looked awkward. So I’m sure you’ll be very beautiful soon, in addition to being so incredibly brilliant.”
“The twins are geniuses, too,” observed Charles Wallace. “Although they’re better at passing than the rest of us, and are both very athletic and popular. They aren’t as brilliant as you or mother, and they definitely aren’t as brilliant as me, but they are geniuses.”
“That’s right, Meg,” agreed their mother. “Sandy and Dennys are also geniuses, but they know to hide that because they know that people around here just can’t understand us. And how smart we are.”
“But mother!” screeched Meg. “What will we dooooooooo?”
“Well, for now, we just will try not to mention my Nobel prize, or how frequently the President asks your father’s advice when there are other people around. But we will keep sitting here in the kitchen and repeating woodenly to each other about how brilliant we all are, for five goddamn entire novels.”
“Yes, this is just exactly it!” chimed in Calvin. “Even though I get along ok with people at school, deep down, I’ve just always felt like I’m super smart and I’ve had to hide it, and so I finally feel at home now that I’ve become acquainted with you Murrays! Also, I’m deeply in love with Meg for some reason, even though we only met five minutes ago and all she does is wail.”
“I think your friend Calvin is very special, Meg,” said their mother. “Not as special as we all are, obviously. But very nearly. We must be loving and patient with his poor, ignorant family. And with all the other not so special people around here.”
“But mother!” shrieked Meg. “Will it ever get any easier, being so special?”
“Yes, Meg,” soothed her mother. “It will get much easier, very soon.”
I’m not even exaggerating, really, this is basically verbatim dialogue. And beyond just that…L’Engle can’t write very well. The dialogue is super wooden, the way she handles exposition is painful, and the prose is just flat out bad. A Wrinkle In Time is the best of the lot, and the first three are better than the final two (I couldn’t even finish An Acceptable Time), but honestly? They’re all pretty bad.
Some things should be left in our nostalgic pasts. I wish I had not re-read these.
Should you read them? Read A Wrinkle In Time (and only A Wrinkle In Time) to your children, if you have them.
The Group by Mary McCarthy: This is my friend’s all time favorite book and she loaned it to me, so I was afraid I wouldn’t like it and was very relieved to love it. It’s a witty book set in the 30s about a circle of over-educated, undervalued young white women who were all friends in college and their misadventures over the next 10 years or so. The narrative structure is a sort of la ronde, where you spend a chapter or so with each young woman before the story transitions into the POV of a different one, and it doesn’t ever travel back on itself and tie things up. And without saying too much, while no one’s life turns out particularly well, the novel does end with just the right person getting shafted in just the right way which feels very satisfying, and which I observed aloud was a fine example of “deus ex lesbian,” and then looked around my bedroom all proud of myself before realizing no one was there to marvel at my wit. I think McCarthy would have guffawed, though.
Should you read it? Yes! I know McCarthy sort of Jane Fonda’d herself back in the day, but regardless of how you feel about her politics, this is a fun and interesting read, and well worth picking up.
Corruption by Tahar Ben Jelloun: This terribly written, deeply misogynist novel is the worst thing I’ve read this year (even worse than An Acceptable Time). True, it’s translated from the French, but I can’t imagine that the translation alone is responsible for how completely two dimensional the entire thing is. There’s not even an interesting point being made — the economies in developing countries run mostly on bribes and graft, and this is bad, but when everyone has to work within the system, there’s no real way for any one individual to change or resist it. I mean…duh? That’s just an observation, not a novel. The characters here are two dimensional stereotypes; I read a review that says that’s intentional, maybe, but why would it be? And then at the very end out of nowhere, he adds in some random magical realism details that don’t fit with anything else. It’s all incredibly odd.
I was interested to read something by a Moroccan writer, but surely there’s got to be someone better than this guy. Yet Ben Jelloun has been shortlisted for the Nobel prize! What am I missing here? Is his other stuff a whole world better, because this reads like it was written by a 22 year old.
Should you read it? No.
How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff: Another enjoyably written primer on why the statistics commonly used in news articles are essentially meaningless, and a bit on how to look for more useful ones. You have likely heard much of what Huff explains before, but it’s the sort of thing you forget, and this is nice refresher to read from time to time when you’re thinking something like “I feel like either this poll or the interpretation of its results can’t possibly be accurate, but I can’t put my finger on exactly why” (which is something we’re probably all thinking a lot just now).
Huff writes really well, and the dated anecdotes he uses to make his points (this book was written in the 50s) are charming to read today. The exact amount of what’s considered a high personal income has changed a great deal since Huff’s day, but the misleading way media outlets manipulate bar graphs has remained exactly the same. (I preferred this one over Bram’s.)
Should you read it? Yes, if you can easily get a copy of it. I think it’s maybe out of print.
Ok! All done! Whew, that was a sprint. I have to blog more frequently this year, so I’m really going to try to do these monthly instead of quarterly.