Recent Reads

I haven’t done one of these in awhile. I’ve been reading a lot! But not much of it has been good. Anyway, here’s all the books I’ve hated lately:

Kalimantaan by C.S. Godshalk: Ok, this one I did like. In fact, I loved this beautifully written novel about the wives of the brutal white rajas who colonized Borneo in the 19th century. All the people in it are horrible, but their lives are so awful and impossible that they feel justly punished for it, and Godshalk really builds an amazing, complex world here. At root, her theme is almost ridiculously simple: everyone wants love, but we’re mostly incapable of giving or maintaining it. This was the rare book where I stayed up late on a work night because I had to finish it, and then when I did, I felt gutted and bereft and had to lie there and stare at the ceiling for an hour before I could fall asleep. I’m not sure if that sounds like a selling point or not? I love books that feel more real and involving than my own life, because my own life doesn’t interest me much, and this was one of those.

Should you read it? It takes awhile to ramp up, so read twenty pages or so out of the middle of it, and if you like the writing, you’ll probably like the book. Pro tip, though — if you do read it, keep a running list of the characters and all their various names and titles as they’re introduced. I did not, and so I’m only halfway sure I actually understand who did what.

America’s Bitter Pill by Stephen Brill: This is a detailed look at how the ACA was written and passed and launched, what was happening with the healthcare and insurance industries just before it, and how it mitigated and delayed a few of those problems, but how a major overhaul is really what’s required. It’s not exactly thrilling reading, but it’s informative enough about the situation we’re currently in. The examples of ludicrous hospital billing were my favorite part. Brill doesn’t go a great deal into the history of our healthcare system and he doesn’t compare it to how other countries operate, so I understand a lot more about where we are now (not a good place to be in), but not much more about how we got here. This bit from the NY Times review basically sums everything up:

In Brill’s account of the Affordable Care Act, the insurers got a fair shake, uninsured and underinsured patients truly benefited, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies and medical equipment companies were left free to charge exorbitant prices, while the general public was left with no real strategy for cost containment.

Should you read it? No, it’s really boring.

Headlong Hall and Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock: I’m sure this was the height of topical wit in 1818. That Shelley! So emo!

Should you read it? No.

Strangers In Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild: It seems like a distant memory now of a simpler time, but only a few months ago, liberals were falling all over themselves to say that surely Trump voters couldn’t all be awful people, we just needed to understand them better. No one is saying that now! Me, I grew up a southern conservative, surrounded by southern conservatives, befriended and taught and raised by southern conservatives, so I feel like I know pretty well what they’re thinking, but then sometimes I think, “have I become so estranged from it all in the past 15 years that I don’t really understand it anymore, and just think I do?” And then I read something like this, and I’m like, nope, that’s about what I recall.

Should you read it? No, if Tea Party conservatism is truly that foreign and mystifying to you, just read the letters to the editor of online Southern newspapers from time to time.

The Spire by William Golding: This book is nearly as disturbing as Lord of the Flies, but in a more complex and interesting way. It’s about a priest who insists on building a massive spire atop a cathedral with no firm structural foundation, and all the people he chews up on the way. More than that, it’s about grandiosity and phallocentrism. And madness. And architecture. And how women actually secretly control everything behind the scenes with their evil sexiness.

Should you read it? It’s sort of worth it for the dick jokes alone. I mean, it’s a Very Serious Novel, but it’s also about building a giant penis? And the master builder who is terrified of heights and believes the spire will crush them all has never had sex with his wife because every time they get started, she laughs so hard they can’t continue!

The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick: This is the third book by Ozick I have read, and I have thought all three of them are pretty good, but more accomplished than infectious. This one was more like a series of linked stories that featured an aromantic bibliophile protagonist that personally offended me just the tiniest bit due to her resemblance to, well, me. A lot of this was very funny. I’ve probably read enough golem stories at this point to last me for awhile, though.

Also, I always buy used books and I very rarely come across marginalia, but someone really outdid themselves on this copy. I think marginalia is often more revealing than a diary. Whenever I’ve had a heavily marked up book, I’ve been conflicted on how to dispose of it. There was one I carried around with me for long enough to find so humiliating, I ripped each page to shreds and buried it in a stranger’s dumpster in Chicago. This person had no such self-consciousness. Right on the front page, she has written, “What if I tried to pass myself off as Jewish? Would they check the registrar? Investigate my heritage?” And it goes on from there! So, I read this book sort of in parallel to the story of a very stupid person who once read this book, which, this book being what it is, I think added to the story more than anything.

Should you read it? I think everyone should read something by Cynthia Ozick, but I’m not sure I feel strongly about which book.

The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason: Similar to David Eagleman’s Sum and Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, Mason here takes a central theme and riffs off it in as many different ways as he can imagine. For his theme, he chooses the Odyssey. The chapters are short and each brings a surprising little twist to the well known story, or shows some aspect of it in a different context than we’d expect. It’s clever, and I went through a Greek myths phase in middle school and it was neat to recall some of the minor characters as they popped up. (This one had a golem in it, too!) These types of books are always referred to as Borgesian, but I think that’s giving them a bit more weight than they’ve earned (for one thing, I’m mostly too stupid for Borges, whereas no one is too stupid for these). They’re fun and creative, but I’m getting a little tired of them.

Should you read it? Sure! I think most people would find this pretty enjoyable to read.

You Shall Know Our Velocity! by Dave Eggers: For many years, I have dismissed Dave Eggers in all the ways that white men fear being dismissed now. I judged him mainly by the sort of young men who sang his praises to me, by being familiar with the other stuff those young men like. I thought he was probably mediocre and not that original, and that he likely gets an outsized amount of credit for a level of creativity that isn’t all that creative and a level of ability that isn’t all that impressive or hard won, because he appeals to a certain boring demographic that has an outsized influence on what is considered creative and stylish in the literary arts, as well as in everything else. I felt he was likely well connected and appealing to certain segments of society who find his work relatable without being particularly challenging, those who are more interested in being literary than in reading literature. I figured his books would feel quickly written and thin, that there’d probably be some lazy similes that don’t actually work and poorly researched details that don’t actually make sense, that I’d get needled at least a few times by some subtle (or not so subtle) misogyny or racism, that there’d for sure be the dreaded layout-based cuteness like blank pages and small illustrations and paragraphs formed into shapes.

But I also never actually read anything by him. I just assumed all this without reading his work.

And now I’ve read this, and so I can say with authority that I was dead on about all of it.

That sounds harsh, and I think Eggers himself is likely a more insightful person than my description here would paint, and I do hear that as he’s gone along, his books have gotten better (well, as they would), but this particular book isn’t interesting. I feel like Eggers is very much a writer who introduces progressive, privileged, artsy American readers to the stories of people who are different than they are, and his philanthropy and activism is a part of that. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, and in fact, I know he does a lot of good, but I don’t want to think of myself as the sort of reader who needs to have anything unfamiliar to me filtered through an intellectual white dude in San Francisco. I don’t want to need a Dave Eggers to point something out to me for me to get interested in it.

I do have A Heartbreaking Work because it was like 50 cents somewhere so I’ll probably read it eventually, although I can’t imagine I will like it, as even Eggers apologists say that one is a stinker.

Should you read it? No, let’s not encourage any of this.

Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie: Salman Rushdie wrote a children’s book! It’s not very good.

Should you read it? No.

City of Thorns by Ben Rawlence: Rawlence describes life in the world’s largest refugee camp through the stories of nine individuals, which structure makes this book more compelling than a more typically straightforward explanation of its topic would be. Obviously, it’s horribly depressing. Life in Kenya’s Dadaab Refugee Camp where nearly 250,000 people live (it’s the second largest refugee camp, the first one being Bidi Bidi in Uganda) is so unremittingly primitive and difficult that it’s hard to believe it is contemporaneous to the life people like me enjoy. Throughout the book, the terrorist group Al-Shabaab hovers, unidentifiable and yet eternally destabilizing like a poison mist. Rawlence doesn’t offer any solutions or lectures; he’s simply explaining what’s going on there as best he can. What we do with that knowledge is up to us, and it will no doubt be nothing at all (certainly in my case).

Should you read it? If you’re in the habit of reading really depressing nonfiction.

Belchamber by Howard Sturgis: I’m always going to love a novel about a hapless asexual British aristocrat with far more estate than he wants and manipulative friends. This shit’s right in my wheelhouse (even though it’s pretty misogynist). It’s even better when there’s famous Literary Drama behind it. I love that Henry James was all, “look, it’s not at all that I hate it because the protagonist is a thinly veiled and extremely unflattering self-portrait of you but also kind of of me, it’s that you’re too American to do this right.” And that Sturgis couldn’t see what was really behind that and was so mortified by his hero’s criticism he never wrote again just makes me want to hug him.

Should you read it? If you’ve already read Brideshead Revisited and you want something similar but not quite as good.

The Line by Olga Grushin: I’ve read so many novels about soul-crushing daily life in soviet Russia, and when I began this one, I thought, here we go again. But this is about soul crushing daily life in general that just happens to be in soviet Russia! The Line is beautiful and bleak, mysterious and familiar, sad and hopeful all at once. It’s not a perfect novel, but it’s one of the more interesting ones I’ve read this year. I will seek out other work by Grushin.

Should you read it? Yes.

Rich People Things by Chris Lehmann: I used to enjoy these essays back when Lehmann wrote them for The Awl. They ought to be out of date now, but unfortunately, everything Lehmann was complaining about in the aughts is doubly so today. I mildly enjoy this type of over-educated strident unsparing snark. Be forewarned that this book is for the already converted: Rich People Thing No. 1 is “The US Constitution,” and if that makes you think anything other than ‘fuck yeah it is,’ you won’t like Lehmann at all.

Should you read it? You can read some of it over at The Awl.

The Journey Home by Dermot Bolger: I don’t know quite what to think of this book. It made me deeply sad, which is hard to do, and so I admire it just on the strength of that alone. And the writing is lovely. But there’s a lot to dislike about it. The narrative works on a metaphorical level: the Plunkett brothers’ relationships with Hano and Shay as a metaphor for Ireland having cheaply sold its true sons’ birthright to the most venal and morally bankrupt bidders it could find. But outside the metaphorical, the baddies are so cartoonish that the novel falls apart. One scene in particular is meant to read (I think) as nightmarish but instead made me laugh out loud. Also, the ‘teenage girl as vessel for men’s needs’ thing is, as always, terrible and unnecessary; the novel could have been fine without Cait even being in it.

Should you read it? No.

The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty: I love Eudora Welty. The Optimist’s Daughter is not as gorgeously written as The Golden Apples, and it’s not as inventive and clever as some of her other short fiction, but I like it anyway. My only ding against it is that I don’t think the breadboard scene worked. I wonder if people who aren’t southern (and maybe who aren’t southern women) can fully appreciate the brilliance of Welty’s work. Like, the scene where all the ladies sit in the yard the day after the funeral and carefully dissect how everyone behaved themselves is so funny and honest and perfect, and I think people who aren’t southern probably wouldn’t understand exactly why. Which makes me think about all the hundreds of novels I read of cultures other than my own, and all the many little moments I must surely be missing altogether.

Should you read it? Read everything by Welty, but read The Golden Apples first.

Drown by Junot Diaz: At some point, I will need to reread The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao because, while I liked it well enough, I wasn’t blown away by it, and given everyone else’s opinions about it, I really think I must have missed something. These short stories were fine. They were mostly about the same family, which is nice: I like linked story collections as you don’t have to reset your interest for each story. Some of the stories feel more significant than others, and overall, you can tell Diaz was using them to get at the novel he really wanted to write, which again, makes me want to reread Oscar Wao.

Should you read it? No, but you should read Oscar Wao because everyone else has and they all loved it.

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit: I enjoyed these essays. This is not a complex work of groundbreaking feminist radicalism or anything, but Solnit writes well and some of these are really great. The title essay will feel familiar and deliciously cathartic to most women, and “Cassandra Among the Creeps” and “#YesAllWomen” are especially relevant reading right now.

Should you read it? You can (and should) read a version of the title essay here, “Cassandra Among the Creeps” here, and “#YesAllWomen” here.

God Is Dead by Ron Currie, Jr.: This brief story cycle is clever and entertaining. It didn’t blow me away or anything, but I enjoyed it enough to want to read Currie’s novel.

Should you read it? Nah.

Waterland by Graham Swift: I have saved the worst for last. This was some real shit. First of all, I cannot stand the way Swift writes. And that’s probably just a matter of preference — you can’t say this is bad writing or anything, the cadence and style of it just set my teeth on edge. Secondly, I don’t expect much of women characters in books by older male writers. I tend to just ignore them entirely (as these men apparently do women as a matter of course). But I do require that the writers at least seem to have met a woman at some point. To give you some indication of where Swift is at with women, in this book, the main female character has a sexual relationship with her boyfriend’s mentally handicapped brother because his penis was so enormous that she was fascinated by it. And also because the two of them felt sorry for him because he probably wasn’t ever going to get to have sex. And that’s not even the most ridiculous part! Everything about this book was just tedious garbage, really.

Should you read it? NO!

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