Here’s what I’ve been reading over the late summer and into fall:
The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington: This 1918 novel is about a wealthy family, and in particular its favored only child, as a synecdoche for the swiftly changing American economy at the turn of the last century. The metaphor is very heavily underlined, but the book is very witty and fun to read. I feel that the point of the book is very old-fashioned and no longer relevant: I’m not sure that long established families of great wealth lose it all through failing to adapt to the changing times anymore. Wealth seems to pretty securely rest with the same people, and is solidly passed down. New money is dicier, but old money seems like it’s something you can depend on if you’re one of the few that have it. I suppose that now, it’s more that long established corporations go out of business due to what they make becoming very swiftly obsolete without their noticing it. On the other hand, it’s interesting to compare how quickly the world completely changed during the time that Tarkington is writing about with how quickly it changed again in the technological age. Now it seems to change again every few months or so, but only online.
Should you read it? Probably not, it’s a bit dated and fusty.
The Whitsun Weddings by Philip Larkin: So, I’m trying to read poetry again, a little bit, and this is where I started. I mean, what can I possibly say about poetry? Some of these were good, I think? The volume didn’t take the top of my head off, I guess? I’ll continue wading in.
Should you read it? Do you read poetry?
Leading from the Front by Angie Morgan and Courtney Lynch: Two former marine officers who now run a leadership consulting company wrote this book, and there are some good tips in it, but mostly, it’s pretty tired material. A bad decision is better than no decision, take personal responsibility for your team’s failures, don’t apologize, don’t cry at work, etc. One of the opening anecdotes is told in such a cringingly racist way that I would hesitate to recommend this book to anyone without a major disclaimer, and every chapter comes with two personal stories of how the principle being discussed was applied in each woman’s leadership history that mostly were so pointless and repetitive, I skipped them all after the first couple chapters.
Should you read it? No.
Moving Diversity Forward by Verna A. Myers: Myers wrote this book for well-meaning white people to essentially teach them how to mean less and do more. She carefully and diplomatically explains how systemic racism applies to the workplace, and what each of us can do to take the first steps toward dismantling it. Myers targets the book to people who realize these problems exist, but aren’t sure how to rectify them, but I think you could give this book to anyone. It’s very comprehensive — even those with little foundational understanding of systemic inequality would come away from it having understood the points made. Myers is the walking definition of disarming. She navigates a potential minefield with grace, humor, and patience. Her suggestions about how to work toward more inclusive workplaces are practical and doable, whether you have institutional support or whether you’re out there on your own. I’d recommend this book to anyone.
Should you read it? Yes!
The Echo Maker by Richard Powers: Every so often, it comes time for me to take my medicine, literarily-speaking, and choke down another one of the Great White Male award winners. This piece of shit won the National Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer! Powers has won a McArthur award! This book is godawful. And as I read (all 400+ fucking pages of it), I thought about what makes it so very terrible, and I think I figured it out: it is completely humorless. Not just humorless in that, like, it’s not funny, but humorless in that Powers himself seems to have absolutely no sense of humor whatsoever. This is very apparent in The Echo Maker because he wants to write one of the main characters, Mark, as a sort of irreverent scamp, and he has no idea how to write dialogue for him. It’s very painful. An example: he dubs the neuroscientist examining his case “Shrinky.” LOLZ! That Mark! Here’s Mark, when he learns Shrinky will be on a news show:
Mark tossed his paddle in the air and almost caught it. “The Incredible Shrinking Man, on the idiot box. Can’t miss that, now can we?”
It’s not just Mark, though, it’s everything; here’s Powers trying to write a scene of loving, light-hearted banter between a long-married couple:
He remembered that day, a decade or so into their marriage, when he’d asked her, surprised, “Is your hair getting straighter as we get older?”
“What are you talking about? My hair? I used to perm it. You didn’t know that? Ah, scientists.”
“Well. If it’s not on a scan, it can’t really be trusted.”
She pummeled his soft underbelly, in reply.
But that first night back from Nebraska, he noticed. Woman. Maybe it was the dressing up. They had to go out that evening, to a fund-raiser in Huntington. Some halfway-house shelter that Sylvie’s Wayfinders were sponsoring. She was dressed already when he pulled in. “Ger! There you are. I was getting nervous. You should have called me, let me know you were on the way.”
“Called? I was in the car, Woman.”
She laughed her laugh, helpless but to forgive. “You know that little phone you’ve been carrying around? It works while you’re moving. One of its selling points. Never mind. I’m just glad that Tour Director got you home safely.”
She wore a blouse of Italian silk, something new, pale bashful lilac, the color of first buds. Around her still-smooth new hung a thin hank of freshwater pearls, and two tiny seashells clung to her ears. Who was this woman?
“Man. Don’t just stand there! Philanthropists of all stripes have paid to see you in a monkey suit.”
He undressed her that night, for the first time in years. Then he gazed on her, looking.
“Mmm,” she said, ready to frolic too, if a little abashed at them both. She laughed at his touch. “Hmm? Where did this come from all the sudden? They put something in the water out there in Nebraska?”
As we get older. She laughed her laugh. Thin hank of pearls. He gazed on her, looking. The color of first buds. Mmm, hmm. Monkey suit, something in the water. There are over 400 pages of this! And they gave it an award!
On the next page: “Her laughs bobbled out of her, buggies over speed bumps.” Later: “She threw her hands into the air like a ninja cheerleader.”
I mean, he’s just a flat out bad writer, is what it is.
One thing that I think fooled people into thinking this was a Great Book (other than that it’s set in the bleak middle of nowhere and there is nothing even remotely entertaining about it) is that Powers bookends each section with a long descriptive section about cranes. It’s in a formula for writing an Important Book that you pick a natural phenomenon of some sort and you spend a lot of time with it on either end of the action. Because only serious readers want to wade through long pages of poetic descriptions of clouds and bugs and shit, this means that you’re writing for them, and not people who buy Sue Grafton novels. There’s one section where Powers details what special significance cranes have had to different cultures and peoples over time that especially highlights this as a transparent ‘build-a-novel’ step: it’s essentially a Wikipedia article on ‘cranes in world culture’ just copy-pasted into the book. Think I’m exaggerating? Here’s one portion:
In Africa, the crowned crane ruled words and thought. The Greek Palamdes invented the letters of the alphabet by watching noisy cranes in flight. In Persian, kurti, in Arabic, ghurnuq: birds that awaken before the rest of creation, to say their dawn prayers. The Chinese xian-he, the birds of heaven, carried messages on their backs between the sky worlds.
Cranes dance in southwestern petroglyphs. Old Crane Man taught the Tewa how to dance. Australian aborigines tell of a beautiful and aloof woman, the perfect dancer, turned by a sorcerer into a crane.
Apollo came and went in crane form, when visiting the world. The poet Ibycus, in the sixth century B.C., beaten senseless and left for dead, called out to a passing flock of cranes . . .
It goes on. The whole book goes on. Endlessly. Much like I am going on about it, even though I didn’t like it. Why am I quoting this bad novel so at length? I just can’t wrap my mind around the fact that so many people think that it is good. As a reader, I take this personally. I feel I’m owed an apology.
Should you read it? Hell no.
Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter by Astrid Lindgren: My friend sent me a copy of Ronia, The Robber’s Daughter, which was a very important book to her in her formative years, and I’m so glad she did, because I ADORE it. I really loved the Pippi books when I was a kid, too. Ok, yes, they were racist, but also, the world of girls’ literature is just a world full of Annikas, and Lindgren gave us Pippi. Here’s my favorite part of Ronia:
But Ronia had seen little more than this during her short life. She knew nothing of what lay outside Matt’s Fort. And one fine day Matt realized — however little he liked it — that the time had come.
“Lovis,” he said to his wife, “our child must learn what it’s like living in Matt’s Forest. Let her go!”
“Ah, so you’ve seen it at last,” said Lovis. “It would have happened long ago if I’d had my way.”
And from then on Ronia was free to wander at will. But first Matt had one or two things to say to her.
“Watch out for wild harpies and gray dwarfs and Boka robbers,” he said.
“How will I know which are wild harpies and gray dwarfs and Borka robbers?” asked Ronia.
“You’ll find out,” Matt said.
“All right,” said Ronia.
“And watch out you don’t get lost in the forest,” said Matt.
“What shall I do if I get lost in the forest?” Ronia asked.
“Find the right path,” Matt said.
“All right,” said Ronia.
“And watch out you don’t fall into the river,” Matt said.
“What shall I do if I fall in the river?” Ronia asked.
“Swim,” Matt said.
“All right,” said Ronia.
“And watch out you don’t tumble into Hell’s Gap,” Matt said.
He meant the chasm that split Matt’s Fort in two.
“What shall I do if I tumble into Hell’s Gap?” Ronia asked.
“You won’t be doing anything else,” Matt said, and then he gave a bellow, as if all things evil had suddenly pierced his heart.
“All right,” said Ronia when Matt had finished bellowing. “I shan’t fall into Hell’s Gap. Is there anything else?”
“There certainly is,” said Matt. “But you’ll find out bit by bit. Go now!”
I mean. This should be the free range kids movement’s Bible! It just gets better from there, too. Also! They’re making a movie.
Should you read it? Yes!
Shrill by Lindy West: Shrill is as good as everyone says it is, but it isn’t as funny as everyone says it is. That’s not a criticism of it; if anything, it’s a further compliment. The structure of the book itself parallels what happened to West over the years — a fat woman who started out in comedy and comedy-adjacent writing, wandered onto the internet, and ended up becoming a reluctant feminist warrior, troll battler, and fat activist, West (who is herself extremely funny) writes that she never wanted this book to be the book she would write.
Any woman who has so much as dabbled in any aspect of male dominated culture (which is pretty much all culture, unless you’re really into weaving or something) will see herself in this book. You start out merely wanting to do the thing you enjoy, you admire the other people who do it, you figure it’s all about the art. As the first little pings of misogyny hit you in the face, they’re like gnats; you wave them off, you barely even notice them, you don’t see why they bother other women so much — probably those women are just weaker than you.
But as you get further into your run at the culture, as you work up a good sweat, those gnats come faster and more regularly, until eventually you are in a full-blown misogyny gnat cloud — the gnats are in your throat and swarming your eyes, you find yourself swinging your arms around your face and hacking and bellowing and the only thing you can talk about is how gnats ruin everything, and everyone around you who hasn’t been full out gnat-enveloped is like ‘jeez, why’d she get so obsessed with gnats, she used to be fun, what’s a gnat here and there, they’re annoying, sure, but you have to deal.’ Eventually, you just go home, because fuck it.
This happens to every woman who does anything that certain types of men still don’t want women doing (which is almost everything), and it makes you profoundly unfunny and unfun to be around. Anyway, the first few chapters of West’s book are hilarious, the next swath are infuriating, and the last few are, somehow, unbelievably, hopeful and inspiring. The whole thing is cathartic.
Should you read it? Most of the people who are reading this blog will love it. There’s a chapter where she talks very unapologetically about her abortion, so if that’s something you can’t abide by, you won’t like anything else she has to say either, probably, which is a shame. And finally, if it’s very important to you to dislike women shrieking from the interiors of gnat clouds because you’re still desperately clinging to the idea that gnats don’t actually swarm and women who say they do are just trying to make us all feel bad about enjoying ourselves, this won’t change your mind.
Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski: I really enjoyed this witty, interesting novel about anthropologists and missionaries in Thailand squabbling over their opposing feelings of entitlement to treat the local tribal villages as their own personal escapist playground. The ending got a bit mystical for my taste, but that’s a minor quibble; almost no one ends a book well. It’s a smart book with an involving storyline and unique and compelling characters, and the style is pretty original (I would guess one of Berlinski’s biggest influences is Rushdie, but other than naming the narrator character after himself, he gets over the more obvious imitations after about the first third of the book). I dug it! I’d read other stuff by Berlinski.
Should you read it? I’m not sure I’d recommend it if you don’t read that much; there are probably better things you could be reading. But if you have time to read a lot and the above sounds interesting to you, sure.