Recent Reads

I read 57 books in 2017, although I don’t necessarily count every book I read as a “book.” I also read some business books and some children’s books and things that I didn’t keep track of. Here’s what I read in the last few months of 2017 and January:

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner: I really enjoy the way Stegner writes; it’s so smooth and sensible, like pouring milk into a glass. He’s not the most interesting writer in the world, but his work is very sturdy and accomplished and solid. Like a table. A glass of milk on a table. What am I talking about? I don’t know.

No one in this novel was very human except for the nagging wife, Charity. The workhorse narrator, his loving, long-suffering wife, and the henpecked husband weren’t really there. The relationships, though, make you believe in heterosexuality again. It’s all mating for life and skating and eating meals and having parties with singing and taking a year in Italy and going on a hiking trip with baskets full of wholesome food. Don’t overthink it, just do your work and love your spouse! And the problems weren’t complex, either: you got polio, you were broke, your dear friend died in old age, your pal’s rich wife wore the pants in their relationship and it drove you out of your fucking mind. Everyone did their best, and in the end, you couldn’t really say you wasted a lot of time on anything frivolous.

Should you read it? It wouldn’t hurt, but Angle of Repose is probably a better book.

The Report by Jessica Francis Kane: This is a well-written reimagining of a small scale historical tragedy that Kane uses to illustrate the various ways in which the much broader historical tragedy of World War II affected the lives of the people in one working class London borough. It’s sad and interesting, and I recommend it.

Should you read it? Sure, it’s short and I think most people would find it interesting.

Shakespeare’s Kitchen by Lore Segal: These linked stories are funny and dry and dark, and made me want to read Lore Segal’s other books. I honestly can’t think of anything else to say about them, so maybe read this.

Should you read it? If it sounds like something you’d enjoy. If you’re a spinster librarian type who liked some of the more esoteric stuff on The Toast, you’d probably like this ok.

The Less Deceived by Philip Larkin: I think this was my favorite yet. It seemed about older tireder people, maybe.

Should you read it? I really can’t advise reading poetry of any kind.

Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel: At first, I thought this was pretty good, but after I thought about it for a day, I decided it was trite. I read books without knowing anything about them, so I read this as Martel likely intended it to be read, all in one sitting and I thought I was reading this somewhat enjoyable kind of cute thing, and then it suddenly turned into a nightmare, and I finished it right as I was about to go to sleep. The games at the end were like a series of punches one after the other, and I felt pretty destroyed. At first, I was impressed! But then later, I felt like it was kind of cheap. The Waiting for Godot homage doesn’t really work and there are some things that Martel spends time on that don’t seem to matter or make sense, and some fairly stupid choices. I’m not sure if Martel did exactly what he intended to do and it wasn’t the best concept, or if he had a half-baked idea and threw a bunch of stuff into it that wasn’t that well thought out.

Should you read it? No.

Over the Edge of the World by Laurence Bergreen: I don’t know why I have this book, but it was fascinating to read. I didn’t know I was interested in Magellan’s journey until I read about it. It’s unbelievable that people lived like sailors did in the 1500s. I can’t wrap my mind around survival under these conditions — the smell alone seems like it would outright kill a person.

So, the thing about Magellan’s journey is, no one ever mentions that his long sought strait was so far down the coast of South America that he only would have had to go like a few more days south to just round the whole thing altogether. And like, I get that it’s probably really turbulent sailing around the tip of Tierra del Fuego, but he didn’t know that. He wasn’t looking for a way to avoid the tough sailing around the continent’s southern tip; he was looking for a shortcut through the middle of the American landmass, which he most assuredly DID NOT FIND. And yet everyone is like, he somehow knew there was a strait and he found it! He didn’t, and no, he didn’t!

Anyway, this whole book is super interesting for a variety of reasons. The best thing about it is that Pigafetta, the sweet little nerd who provided the primary source material made it the whole entire way around the world somehow when nearly everyone else died and he kept hold of his books the whole time, and I adore him unreservedly: just studying linguistics and delighting over trapping an interesting bug in a box while all the sailors around him were colonizing and raping and mutinying and torturing and slowly rotting away of scurvey.

Should you read it? Yes, it’s so interesting!

Yes, Yes, Cherries! by Mary Otis: These weren’t bad, but they weren’t very good, either. They are just sort of there, in imitation of a lot of other writers doing this sort of thing much better and with more purpose.

Should you read it? No.

In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William Gass: This is not the sort of fiction I typically seek out or enjoy, and I didn’t really enjoy it this time. It’s old-fashioned masculine prose which isn’t something I care much about, although I do often trudge through it out of a sense of obligation to be familiar with The Canon. But that said, these novellas and stories are well done, and I can admire the writing. I got drawn into them, which is surprising as they have no relevance to me or my interests. I will likely read something else by Gass at some point.

Should you read it? No.

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson: I really did not care for this. It was painfully unfunny, tedious, and misogynist. The author obviously was doing his damnedest to be clever and surprising, and there’s nothing more cringe-inducing than watching someone who isn’t funny try really hard to be funny. And as a side note, I also just personally find it extremely boring to read about “best friends” who don’t like each other at all, particularly when they are men: I find this in a lot of novels by men, and I can never tell if they’re making an intentional point with this, or if they really think that friendship is merely having been aware of someone’s existence for a long time. Anyway, this novel is about antisemitism, particularly how it plays out in various ways among liberal upper-class British intellectuals, and I do feel like I understand some aspects of antisemitism better than I did. But because I don’t find Jacobson a trustworthy or insightful writer or observer, I don’t assume that much of what I think I learned is accurate in any important way.

Should you read it? No.

The Apple’s Bruise by Lisa Glatt: Back when I was trying to write short stories, I noticed that a lot of short fiction that was getting published and admired at the time (particularly that by white women) takes an improbably zany incident with no relationship to the main plot point and has it play out in parallel, suggesting that some sort of additional depth and meaning is given to each storyline by the other (whether it actually is or not). I started trying to imitate this style, and I have old lists of ideas of some sort of zany unrelated thing I could have going on alongside a more mundane one (“a breakup + all women have started shaving their heads as a trend”; “the protagonist’s mother is dying + there are rumors of a unicorn spotted in their suburb and all the neighbors are seriously hunting for it” — that kind of thing).

Thankfully, fiction seems to have finally gotten over this, but Glatt wrote these back when this style was in full form, and I was just noticing that all her stories do this, when I turned to the next story and read this first sentence and laughed out loud:

In addition to this horrible heat wave and the trouble with my wife, Michelle, I’m worried about the animals dying at my zoo.

I blame Laura van den Berg.

Anyway, of the writers who were doing this, Glatt is not a well-known one, and honestly these read more like the sort of crappy imitations I was writing than the most enjoyable examples of the trend. (Although, now I kind of want to write both those dumb examples I just made up… )

Should you read it? No.

A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft: Mary Wollstonecraft was a stone cold bitch, and I love her. She is Proudly Sex Negative, and she is not here for your fun feminism. Her argument basically boils down to, “listen, we have got to start educating women, because currently, they’re a bunch of slutty vapid ninnies who are screwing up their children and are so goddamned boring no one can stand to be around them.” You might think that I’m exaggerating, so here’s some of my favorite shade:

That women at present are by ignorance rendered foolish or vicious is, I think, not to be disputed.

Fragile in every sense of the word, they are obliged to look up to man for every comfort. In the most trifling danger they cling to their support, with parasitical tenacity, piteously demanding succor; and their natural protector extends his arm, or lifts up his voice, to guard the lovely trembler — from what? Perhaps the frown of an old cow, or the jump of a mouse; a rat would be a serious danger. In the name of reason, and even common sense, what can save such beings from contempt; even though they be soft and fair?

Men order their clothes to be made, and have done with the subject; women make their own clothes, necessary or ornamental, and are continually talking about them; and their thoughts follow their hands.

The conversation of Frenchwomen, who are not so rigidly nailed to their chairs to twist lappets and knot ribands is frequently superficial; but I contend that it is not half so insipid as that of the Englishwomen whose time is spent making caps, bonnets, and the whole mischief of trimmings, not to mention shopping, bargain-hunting, etc. etc.

Women in particular all want to be ladies. Which is simply to have nothing to do but listlessly to go they scarcely care where, for they cannot tell what.

I have known several notable women, and one in particular who was a very good woman — as good as such a narrow mind would allow her to be, who took care that her daughters (three in number) should never see a novel.

 . . . How many children are absolutely murdered by the ignorance of women! . . . For it would be as wise as to expect corn from tares, or figs from thistles, as that a foolish ignorant woman should be a good mother.

Many women have not mind enough to have an affection for a woman, or a friendship for a man.

I have often felt hurt, not to say disgusted, when a friend has appeared whom I parted with full dressed the evening before, with her clothes huddled on because she chose to indulge herself in bed till the last moment.

That’s right! Mary Wollstonecraft is disgusted when her lazy idiot friends sleep in!

And this is all flattery compared to what she had to say about the rich. She also spends some time explaining that soldiers are basically just like women, because they are also brainwashed obedient fools who can’t think for themselves. And once she’s done with all the main parts of her argument, she adds one last chapter specifically to excoriate women for going to fortune tellers, having shitty taste in novels, and being just generally useless in a few other ways she couldn’t work in earlier.

I’m sure she had not a single friend and was never again invited to a party after this came out, and I’m equally sure that that suited her fine. Thank god, she must have thought, to be finally spared from having to listen to you silly bints natter on eternally about your stupid clothes.

But also, she was really radical. She clearly was a closet atheist and hardly bothered to hide it, she properly identifies that cruelty to animals is a gateway to overall inhumanity, she demanded public education for everyone regardless of income or class, she correctly predicts that midwifery would be discredited merely because women practice it, and she says that, “From the respect paid to property flow, as from a poisoned fountain, most of the evils and vices which render this world such a dreary scene to the contemplative mind” before launching into a diatribe on the evils of social class and hereditary property.

Should you read it? Probably not, it’s super dry and also not the most relevant feminist theory to be diving into in today’s times. You couldn’t exactly call Wollstonecraft intersectional.

Among the Missing by Dan Chaon: Well-written stories about lonely people. I enjoyed these more than most story collections I’ve read recently.

Should you read it? No.

Ironweed by William Kennedy: I half really enjoyed this, and half found it mawkish. I’m still not sure which half wins. There’s a very nice passage where the main character looks at a picture of himself in a newspaper clipping that I read several times. I think perhaps this book is too dated to feel fully relevant. Hard times for Francis and his pals pale in comparison with the hard times we hear about today.

Should you read it? No.


  1. Pam Kocke says:

    I like how everything is “should you read this? no.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Elizabeth says:

      I try to be honest!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Same here, Pam 😂. When Elizabeth says Yes, though, I put it on my TBR list.


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