Well, 2017 hasn’t officially started yet, so I’ve still been reading a lot. Mostly books I have not been loving that much. So, you know, be forewarned. Not a lot of solid winners in this post.
Ape House by Sara Gruen: Somehow Ape House got into my reading pile. It’s commercial fiction, and really crappy commercial fiction at that. It was sort of interesting to learn about bonobos and their ability to communicate with sign language, but no one needs to suffer through this novel to learn about that.
Should you read it? No.
Collected Stories by Lydia Davis: Minimalist literature isn’t really my thing. These stories are well-written, but some are better than others. I’m not sure that any one of these stories would on its own be a particularly compelling piece of writing; it’s more that Davis is doing something unusual and interesting taken altogether (although, I don’t know, didn’t Barthelme already kind of do this?). But you read a few, you’ve basically read them all. This collection collects four individual volumes, and I dog-eared (yeah, I do that) the most in Samuel Johnson Is Indignant. I think that was the best of the four; the stories felt the most consistently clever and interesting and purposeful.
Should you read it? If you are interested, read Samuel Johnson Is Indignant.
The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad: Along with contemporary fiction, I have a number of books from the canon (nearly all by dead white men) sprinkled throughout my bookshelves, and I dutifully read them as I come to them. Some are surprisingly delightful (The Old Wives’ Tale) and some are bafflingly terrible (All the King’s Men), but most are just ok — I can see why they became classics, but they don’t really have much to say to me now. Conrad’s The Secret Agent is one such: it’s about terrorism and anarchism and London and social class and asks who is really good and who is really bad, and at the end of the day, isn’t it frail, dependent woman who is the worst terrorist of all, yadda yadda. But I see no real reason to read it.
Should you read it? Nah.
The Great Fires by Jack Gilbert: Still bravely pushing through some poetry occasionally. These are love poems about grieving and aging. Some of them are kind of sexist, but overall, I liked this volume much better than the Larkin. I dog-eared eight of them for reading again. I still don’t know how to read or talk about poetry.
Should you read it? It’s poetry.
Three Lives by Gertrude Stein: My mother always said of Gertrude Stein that she was a great patron of the arts, and in return, the artists all agreed to consider her a great writer. Reading Three Lives (my first experience with Stein), I’m inclined to agree. She gets a lot of credit for basically inventing stream of consciousness here, and if she did indeed artlessly open a door that Joyce and Woolf later went more purposefully through, we have to give her some credit. But man, this is just so terrible. The writing is exhausting and tedious, but Stein and her supporters maintain that’s the point. But the bigger problem is how unbelievably racist (and classist and misogynist) the book is.
Had Stein done this same experiment with people she considered as fully human as herself (so, other rich white American women), fine, I might have appreciated it more. But she has here set herself the task of imagining the inner life of three lower class women, one of them black, and she imagines them as basically slightly high functioning animals. It displays the limits not only of her own understanding, but of her own curiosity and imagination about human life. She actually told herself she was interested enough in women leading very different lives than she had had to attempt to write three entire novellas from their perspective and then…didn’t learn a thing about any of them. Or even apparently give much thought to her task.
It’s sort of fascinating in a gross way to get this insight into Stein’s incredible myopia. Is this how many privileged people view the working class, as essentially a kind of subspecies of humanity? I would say surely not anymore, but I’m not really sure that’s true.
Should you read it? Certainly not. I feel kind of dirty just having done so.
Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, Nice Girls Still Don’t Get the Corner Office by Lois P. Frankel, and Breaking Through Bias by Andrea S. Kramer and Alton B. Harris:
Sandberg pissed a lot of people off with her book, but pretty much everything she says in it is true. Sorry. The second half of this book gets pretty Feminism 101 Career Edition, and there are few things there that most women wouldn’t already know, but the first, more controversial half is helpful. The “It’s a Jungle Gym, Not a Ladder” chapter about making an 18 month plan and being more open to risk taking was especially helpful to me. The vast majority of people (men and women both) don’t have careers on the major scale Sandberg is talking about here, but some of her advice probably still applies no matter what you do.
As to Nice Girls, I feel like most of this is common sense for me, but surprisingly not for everyone. I’d say it’s good to know everything Frankel talks about in this book, whether you agree with it or not, as most of these tips are kind of how you’re expected to know how to behave in a corporate environment. For me, it probably wasn’t really worth reading the whole thing, but there were some good reminders throughout of things that I know I shouldn’t do and still do sometimes (and even a few I didn’t realize I shouldn’t do), and I marked all those to keep them in mind, so maybe it was worthwhile. I also noticed other women making these mistakes more right after I read this.
Breaking Through Bias is a very useful and pragmatic guide for women in the workplace. This gives clear guidelines on how to navigate the various “Goldilocks” minefields unique to working women (you must sound assertive, but unlike men, you will be punished if you sound aggressive, etc.). Most working women my age and younger like to pretend all this stuff is irrelevant now, but sadly, it isn’t even slightly, and you can’t break or change the rules until you know what they are and how to follow them.
Should you read them? If you’re a woman and you work, you should be definitely aware of all this kind of thing. Just go to the library, get a stack of these kinds of books, and skim through them all, taking notes.
Naked Statistics by Charles Wheelan: This was possibly too detailed for my purposes. I sort of skimmed over a lot of the mathier sections, especially in the last third of the book. Also, Wheelan’s attempts at levity are strained and irritating. He seems to have had some sort of “one joke! per page” rule in mind as he wrote, and they do not help to elucidate the concepts or to provide a respite when the material becomes drier, so mostly they feel like tiresome distractions. And I could have 100% done without all the fat people jokes. I read his Naked Economics some years ago, and as I recall, his style worked much better there. Or maybe I just was less judgmental at the time. Anyway, this isn’t a bad book, and it gives a good amount of detail on basic statistical concepts. I could probably have done with a digest half as long, but it’s better to have too much information than too little.
Should you read it? If you need this information, yes.
The North Ship by Philip Larkin: This was Larkin’s first effort and he classes it more or less as the derivative and immature strivings of an undergraduate. I liked it pretty well, because I’m a beginner here and have no idea what I’m reading.
Should you read it? More poetry.
Search Inside Yourself by Chade-Meng Tan: Some useful advice in here, but overall, this is mostly a collection of information from other books and studies I have already read (Flow, Mindset, Drive, etc.), so not much in here was new to me. Also, mindfulness is very popular just now, but from what I’ve seen, the actual claims behind it aren’t all that persuasive. A lot of the touted benefits could actually be applied to fully absorbed reading, as well, which I do all the time and deeply enjoy. Whereas, since meditation is super boring to me (and given that I have a sleep disorder, it’s very difficult for me to stay awake during it), I don’t want to sink the time into developing a daily practice until the benefits are more proven than they have been so far. Tan seems like a delightful person, though, and there are some very good communication tips in here.
Should you read it? If you are interested in developing a mindfulness practice, it would probably be a really accessibly intro guide.
Freedomland by Richard Price: Richard Price is well known for his screen and television writing. He wrote The Night Of, which I haven’t seen yet, and a few episodes of The Wire, which I firmly believe to be the great American novel, and I know, I know, “white people all love The Wire.” I do, it’s true! Freedomland gives the impression of being more or less a well-written Law & Order style crime story, but its final section is what it’s really all about. The book isn’t about the central missing child case but instead uses it to explore one angle of how the criminal justice system intertwines with our racially divided cities, both reacting to and instigating racial discord. Although it was written in 1998 back before white people started paying attention to this stuff, the book feels especially timely today, which just shows how little progress has been made.
The story is incredibly complex, but as I was reading it, it felt like nothing at all, which is very impressive. Price is rightly praised for his handling of dialogue (although I could wish he would lay off on using commas to indicate pauses) — not only are his back-and-forth scenes as real as a recording would be, but he somehow manages to ease his characters from conversations that actual people would have into the sort of lengthy monologues only found in novels without calling attention to the shift, which almost no writer is able to do.
The story mainly follows its incredible central character, Lorenzo Council, but it also spend a lot of time with the somewhat less interesting reporter, Jesse, and both of those characters have countless long scenes with the bereaved mother, Brenda. Brenda is unbearably tedious and spends most of her time trying very hard not to say anything for pages and pages and pages, and so we see her moan and rock herself and put her hands over her face and take them off again and stammer a bit and then curl up and refuse to talk. This makes the book feel about a million pages longer than it actually is, but I’m not really sure how Price could avoided it since it’s part of his story. I suppose if Brenda could have been somehow more interesting to read about, the book would have been a lot better, or perhaps I could have done with about 175 pages less of her being as she is. But it’s pretty good anyway.
Should you read it? Sure! I mean, it’s longer than it strictly needs to be, but if it sounds interesting to you, sure.
MoveOn’s 50 Ways to Love Your Country by various and The One-Hour Activist by Christopher Kush: MoveOn’s book was pretty useless, really. I expected advice about what types of actions are most effective and for what reason. But this was just a collection of anecdotes by various people who’d circulated a petition or organized a meeting or something. The Kush was more what I was looking for. It’s a useful entry-level guide to effectively contacting your representatives, what they listen to most, and how to exert actual influence. I had always suspected that online petitions and cookie-cutter email templates aren’t as much use, and Kush confirms the same. Basically, the most useful thing you can do is to contact your actual representatives as a constituent with a personal appeal. Get to know their staff, try to meet them face-to-face if at all possible, and give money during campaigns.
Should you read it? Read The One-Hour Activist, for sure. Everyone should read it right now.
6 Calculated Risks by Gerd Gigerenzer: Gigerenzer writes that we should always express risks in terms of natural frequencies, because people don’t understand probabilities intuitively. For example, compare these two explanations:
A device has been invented for screening a population for a disease known as psylicrapitis. The device is a very good one, but not perfect. If someone is a sufferer, there is a 90 percent chance that he will be recorded positively. If he is not a sufferer, there is still a 1 percent chance that he will be recorded positively. Roughly 1 percent of the population has the disease. Mr. Smith has been tested, and the result is positive. The chance that he is a sufferer is?
[. . . ]
Think of 100 people. One has the disease psylicrapitis, and he is likely to test positive. Of those 99 who do not have the disease, 1 will also test positive. How many of those who test positive do have the disease?
Most people would not correctly answer 50% to the first, but would get that the second is 1 out of 2.
So, a compelling point! I get what this guy is throwing down. To demonstrate his point, Gigerenzer provides a number of real world situations where the confusion around probabilities has led to irrational choices and dangerous results, in everything from cancer screenings to DNA evidence. He argues that most doctors and lawyers do not understand probabilities either, and so frequently draw incorrect conclusions and give bad, sometimes dangerous advice their patients and clients.
All of that would make a nice, persuasive 100 page book, but the weird thing about this book is that Gigerenzer goes so far into depth with each of his examples that the book ends up becoming about the examples. Most notably with breast cancer screenings — he writes about this at such length and in such depth that I kept re-reading the back of the book jacket to make sure I really was reading a book about statistics. His examples are interesting, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that he had an axe to grind that had nothing to do with what I was reading the book for. Anyway, the tip to restate probabilities in terms of natural frequencies is fantastic and helpful – I’ve used it a few times already to better understand things I’ve read.
Should you read it? Not the whole thing, no.
Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler: I hate, hate, hate that I have to say this because I know everyone adores Octavia Butler, but I thought this was really pretty bad. Because other people love her so much and I wanted to love her, I won’t go too into it. But…wasn’t a fan. 😦
Should you read it? Probably, because so many other people love her whose opinions I put a lot of faith in.
Head to Toe by Joe Orton: What even was this? How did it end up on my shelf? The blurb on the back describes this as “full of needle-sharp pastiche . . . Head to Toe is like a modernized Alice In Wonderland for adults.” Toward the beginning of this satire Orton imagines the government as run by women — they cannot stop talking about the draperies! Yuk, yuk. Alas, Orton was very much a man of his times. This thing was one of the least entertaining comic novels I’ve ever dutifully skimmed through. Far more interesting and far darker than his work was Orton’s brief life and deeply tragic death.
I can’t believe their surviving relatives still commingled their ashes after Orton’s boyfriend MURDERED him. I mean, what the fuck? Not that it matters to the dead, but…I feel fairly certain saying that if they had survived that night, their relationship would not have.
Should you read it? No, but check out that Wikipedia page, for real.
All Is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost by Lan Samantha Chang: From the beginning, I really wanted to hate this novel — it’s a slight book about love affairs between a teacher and students in an MFA program, could we be less interested? And the main characters are named Roman and Miranda, hand to God, not even joking. And Chang is NOT JOKING. How can she not be joking about any of this? The whole thing reads like a parody, except it’s not self-aware. But by the end, I came to enjoy it. Chang does a decent job here of intertwining people and then pulling them apart. It’s short, so you can read it in a day, and at its close, I felt saddened, somehow, even though there was no real reason I should be invested in these people or their relationships. In part, this is because Chang makes heavy use of nostalgia in the final chapters, which always works on me, but I can respect someone who can jerk me around with some skill.
Should you read it? Probably not.
Interesting and eclectic list and some nice commentary!
For a reprieve from the badness (but not a shameless plug) check out I Too by T. E. Stazyk (currently available pre order only on Amazon Kindle) but soon to be more widely available!
Have a great holiday season.