Recent Reads

I haven’t done one of these in awhile! Here’s what I’ve been reading:

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey: This was so much fun! I had only read one Peter Carey novel previously, His Illegal Self, and it was not very good, so I wasn’t expecting much with this one, but it was a delightful read all the way through. It’s a hilarious romp through London and Australia with a collection of bizarre and hapless characters who attempt to do epic, improbable things and mostly fail spectacularly. Carey clearly enjoyed the hell out of writing this. This is a novel about the elusiveness and ultimate futility of faith in any of its forms, as told through slapstick, and masquerading as a sweeping period love tale. What a feat!

Should you read it? Sure!

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli: As advertised, these are seven very short articles on the basic concepts of physics. It’s easy to follow and more about descriptive wonderment than detailed information. Every time I start to read anything about physics, I at first think, “Why do we ever think about anything else? This is the most fascinating area of human knowledge; if there is any meaning to human life, it’s somewhere in this realm. I should quit my job and go back to school and just think about physics all the time!” And then I read about fifty pages further, and I’m like, “Nope, actually customer service is a good use of my abilities.” Same thing happened here — I followed everything conceptually, sort of, up to probability. I can somewhat follow general relativity, but quantum mechanics is pretty much beyond me even in broad strokes (other than that it makes me visualize the entire universe as made up of vibrating anxiety like the animation in Dr. Katz, which does seem relatable).

Should you read it? Maybe, if the description is interesting. It won’t take you very long.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl: The first half of Man’s Search for Meaning is Frankl’s absolutely mind-boggling account of surviving three years in Nazi concentration camps. I can’t even imagine. It’s a wonderful perspective check if you’re ever feeling sorry for yourself. His dedication to his own survival is astounding; I can say right now I would not myself have what it takes. Frankl’s broader purpose here is in telling us all what it takes. And who is going to look a man who survived the Holocaust in the face and say, “eh, your idea of meaning that got you through that experience doesn’t really do that much for me.” Fucking no one, that’s who! He could have come out of that and been like “the meaning of life is pill bugs,” and we would all be like, “Thank you, sir, that’s extremely profound to me.”

Which brings me to what I couldn’t stop thinking about all the way through this: what kind of up-their-own-ass narcissist goes to a HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR for THERAPY? How did Frankl have any clients at all, who WERE these people? Who is so self-absorbed that they’re like, “well, I think I just put up a lot of emotional walls early in life and now I’m having trouble dismantling them, and so I feel that a man WHO SURVIVED ACTUAL FREAKING AUSCHWITZ might have some good perspective on that for me.” Like, a woman actually went to him because she couldn’t have an orgasm, other people because of insomnia, and I just can’t grasp it. Did he hide who he was, did they not know? I can’t fathom who would go talk about these things to this man.

Should you read it? Yes, and then again every time you’re tempted to whine about something stupid.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson: Housekeeping is one of my favorite novels, and I did a very close reread of it over the past year. I recommended it to a friend who has similar literary tastes and he liked it well enough but didn’t love it, and asked me to write about why I admire it so much. Here’s the thing: I find it very easy to explain why I don’t like a book. There are very specific reasons why books that don’t work don’t do it for me. But it’s difficult for me to explain why I uncritically love a novel. To me, it’s simply self-evident that everything about Housekeeping is very near perfect, but it would probably take me a twenty page essay to enumerate all the reasons. Also, I don’t want to. It’s really hard work writing about fiction, and literature is my hobby. On the reread of Housekeeping, I marked exactly one long paragraph and one short one that I do not think work; every single other line in the book works perfectly. And this was Robinson’s first novel! The last ten pages or so land like a physical punch in the stomach when I read them, every time, no matter how often I read them. Probably there is no way to communicate why something hits you that way.

Robinson is interested in how the actual day-to-day business of living holds us together against a great void of meaninglessness and loss. She is deeply aware of the difficulty of participation in a way that few writers are — her characters work hard at life, it does not come naturally to them. They convince themselves daily and with difficulty to stay tethered to their own sphere. Robinson’s view of the world makes sense to me (which is especially interesting as she is deeply Christian and I am an unconflicted atheist). Very few writers portray living as this sort of laborious and intentional daily choice — another is Flannery O’Conner, also a religious writer who Robinson reminds me of in many ways. I think that if I did not share her perspective on what it feels like to be human, I would still admire her artistry, but her novels might not be as deeply moving to me.

Should you read it? Yes.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates: Ta-Nehisi writes a letter to his son about what it has meant to him to grow up as an African-American man, and what it might mean to his son. It’s a very personal book, and it is also a snapshot of race relations in the country at this particular time, although it cannot be the only book you read on that topic, if that’s why you’re picking it up. “There are no racists in America, or at least none that the people who need to be white know personally.”

Should you read it? Yes, and also read Coates’s wonderful article, “The Case for Reparations,” and then listen to this podcast where he talks about his conflicted feelings about Obama, among other things.

Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury: This is useful information to know. I had no idea how to negotiate, it turns out. Did you know you are not supposed to start higher or lower than you actually think is fair? I’m still not really sure that’s the case. A boring book to read, but probably necessary information for people to have.

Should you read it? Maybe.

Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt: This is the story of a family with identical twins and their early realization that one of their children is transgender. Their fight to safeguard their daughter’s rights and to give her a happy childhood is inspiring. Most people’s goal in reading this will likely be to better understand what it is like to be trans or to know someone who is trans on a personal level, and the book is a success in that respect (although Nicole’s mostly safe and supported experience is sadly probably very atypical).

I would have been interested in a few more specifics on the science behind gender differences. Nutt goes into this a bit, but it’s broad and sort of hand-wavey: “Ultimately gender identity is the result of biological processes and is a function of the interplay between sex hormones and the developing brain, and because it is a process that takes place over time, in utero, it can be influenced by any number of environmental effects.” But gender identity varies — which aspects of gender are hormonal and which are cultural? Nutt outright dismisses the idea that gender is cultural (based solely on one particular case study), but she doesn’t answer the question: what is gender absent culture? If a woman is born alone on a desert island, she’s presumably not going to smear mud on her face and get into a subservient relationship with a parrot out of nowhere. So what is different about what this woman would do than what a man would do in the same situation? Or perhaps more to the point, what would this woman do that is more similar to what every other woman would do in the same situation than it is to what any man would do? Nutt doesn’t say (except that she mentions that women have a larger area of the brain that’s associated with interpersonal awareness), but then this is also outside the scope of this book.

Should you read this? Yes, everyone should read this, because “bathroom bills” are currently a big issue, and I don’t see how anyone could possibly support them after reading this book. If you’re a voter, you need to inform yourself by (at the very least) reading this book or something like it before taking any action that will negatively affect someone else’s life.

Life of the Beloved by Henri J.M. Nouwen: I’m an atheist but I read a lot of religious stuff, trying to understand everyone else, and I saw this suggested somewhere. I didn’t really get it, though. I think these sort of books are actually really good parenting advice because I’ve noticed that when people talk about what they need from Jesus and what they get from him, they’re basically describing what they would have wanted from the most ideal parent anyone could ever have. This book is basically about unconditional love. I can’t relate to the god part, but I think it’s good advice for child-rearing.

Should you read this? No.

Take This Bread by Sara Miles: Most people who lived Sara Miles’s life would have written a memoir about the first half of it, when she was a journalist in Nicaragua in the ’80s, living in a war zone and being just a total badass fascinating person. But Miles mentions this only as a prelude — what she really wants to talk to us about is how she set up a food bank in San Francisco years after that. And that right there tells you what kind of person she is. She is exceptional, but I didn’t get the sense at any point in reading this memoir that she thinks of herself as exceptional at all.

I think books like this are really important to read right now. We do so little for each other in any practical sense, and I’m losing faith in political action as an agent for lasting progressive change. It moves too slowly and reverses too often. Also, I think the secular and the religious have to learn to work together — neither can afford to turn down the organizing power of the other anymore. I’m worried that as our planet gets sicker, our institutions will begin to crumble, in which case, we’re all going to need to work together to keep life enjoyable.

Should you read this? Yes.

Becoming Wise by Krista Tippett: Here, Tippett excerpts interviews she’s had with various thinkers, gurus, humanitarians, and artists over the years on the topic of meaningfulness. This sort of thing isn’t really for me, but there were some interesting bits. I could have done with less of Tippett herself.

Should you read it? Two things: first, instead, read Sara Miles’s memoir. Then, skim through Becoming Wise and pick one interview that looks interesting to you, any one. Then, read one of that person’s books. Go deep, not broad! For me, the most interesting person profiled here is john powell, and I intend to check out some of his work.

A Field Guide to Lies by Daniel J. Leviton: This was a fairly basic overview, but a quick read and a nice reminder of things to be aware of when reading the news. Leviton breaks this book into two main parts: first how statistics, graphs, and other numbers are used in misleading ways, and then how specious reasoning and poor logic typically reveals itself (logical fallacies, dubious experts, bad “science”).

Should you read it? I don’t know how obvious these things are to most people. I guess that if you don’t already know this stuff, you should. I don’t think you have to learn it from this book, specifically (there are probably much better books on the subject), but we should certainly all be familiar with how to think critically.

The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss: The Name of the Wind is really, really good – it’s one of those fantasy series that makes you sad when it ends because you want to live in its world longer. And then you get to, with The Wise Man’s Fear! And at first, it’s like 500 more pages of the same stuff as the last novel, which although it doesn’t feel very necessary, is still enjoyable because you liked the last novel.

Then, our hero finally leaves the university and progresses to the next stage of his journey, and at first it’s sort of interesting, but then he runs off with this sex fairy for no real reason. I could deal with the annoying male fantasy stuff, but the whole way the section is written doesn’t feel in sync with the tone of the novel. It doesn’t fit. And then he leaves the fairy world and suddenly all the women in the book are throwing themselves at him and it turns into a National Lampoon movie. The women in the book were always pretty much just there for the men to be attracted to, but it gets so much worse from this point out that it’s impossible even to ignore it. I mean, I know we’re dealing with an unreliable narrator who likes to make himself seem even more awesome than he actually is and so all this stuff might be part of that joke. But even so, it’s boring.

And then…then he saves two girls who were stolen as sex slaves by a bunch of bandits. And this bit is SO AWFUL that it basically ruined the entire series for me. First, it’s a dark sort of world, -ish, but mostly it’s not this kind of dark, so it was sort of like the rape scene in Downton Abbey in that I was just enjoying myself with my brain in a drawer and then it was like OH SURPRISE HERE’S ANOTHER BIG OLE RAPE FOR YOU BECAUSE YOU REMEMBER HOW ALWAYS ALWAYS RAPE? Second, there was no real reason for this. It was an unimportant episode, or at least, there was nothing about it that couldn’t have been accomplished with some other less cliched motivation, although Rothfuss might have had to work a little harder to think of something. And finally, it’s all very “our hero is such a swell guy, because badass guys save women from rape” which, endless barfing.

I’d like to say I won’t read the final one in this series if it ever gets written, but I probably will. Still, I didn’t like this one at all, and I’m sad it got ruined for me. 😦

Should you read it? So, definitely read The Name of the Wind, but then maybe don’t read this one? But let’s be real, you’re going to read this one if you read the first one. So, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Lithium for Medea by Kate Braverman: This was well-written, but dated, and it’s the sort of novel that is primarily for those who personally relate to it, and I don’t relate to it. I have this issue with a lot of white feminist novels, those that are about young women who hate themselves and ruin themselves on losers because they think that’s all they are good for, and then they realize that they can live their life, too, and it’s all meant to feel gritty and real and cathartic. But I personally have never felt that it was my role in life to be the desired woman of a worthless fellow (or any fellow), so they aren’t really for me. Mostly these novels all just feel like 300 pages of when you get drunk with your one friend with low self-esteem who just keeps making the same mistakes over and over again and goes on about herself and her problems endlessly, and she’s always like, “this is how it is to be a woman in this world,” and you agree politely, but internally you’re just thinking, “girl, sort yourself out.”

Should you read it? No.

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