Recent Reads

Well, I have sort of an unofficial rule not to do two of these books posts in a row without something else in between them, because I don’t want it to seem like all I do is read, but…all I do is read.

Also, since I’ve started doing these, I’ve now developed a compulsion to write something here about every book I read, regardless of whether it’s of any interest to anyone or not. For a bit, I thought maybe I’d just stop! But I feel like this stack of read books is burning a hole through my desk, waiting to be blogged about. I feel like if I don’t blog that I’ve read them, I haven’t read them, in the same way I now feel like I haven’t taken a walk if my Fitbit didn’t record it. It is truly a golden age for neurotic obsessives!

And so:

War Trash by Ha Jin: This was a very long novel that could as well have been a short story, I think. The writing wasn’t very good or interesting, and the subject matter wasn’t personally very interesting to me. So, pretty much a miss for me all around.

Should you read it? No.

The Blood Oranges by John Hawkes: A lyric novel with an unreliable narrator is typically up my alley, but the writing in this was pretty repetitive and not especially lovely or creative, and the characters were thinly sketched (so much so that Hawkes can only think to distinguish two of them by having one say ‘baby’ and one ‘boy’ in every single line they speak). And of course, it was misogynist and racist and classist. I like little weird poetic books about manipulative people, but this one wasn’t particularly imaginative. The setting was evocative, but that’s about the best I can say for it.

Should you read it? No.

Voice of America by E.C. Osondu: These stories weren’t very good.

Should you read it? No.

Philosophy and Social Hope by Richard Rorty: I don’t know why I have this book, but I enjoyed reading these essays. I feel like I understand pragmatism now; I misunderstood it before. Most of these essays are very accessible to a general audience. They were written in the ‘90s, and those concerning the political situation at the time are pretty prescient given where we find ourselves now.

I have some other thoughts about this book and about pragmatism, but I am not widely read in social or political philosophy, and the quickest way to look a fool is to opine on a subject you’ve absorbed only a small bit of, so I’ll refrain.

Should you read it? Probably not.

The Scenic Route by Binnie Kirschenbaum: Binnie Kirschenbaum is really witty, and I enjoyed reading the segues in this novel, but the novel itself isn’t good. I would like to read essays by Kirschenbaum. The plot and characters in this novel are obviously just there as a sort of empty framework for clever writing, so I would have just as soon had the cleverness and not the rest of it.

Should you read it? No.

Corregidora by Gayl Jones: So many famous novels are about white male sexuality and culturally, male sexuality is really boring. There’s never been anything to hinder it and everything is set up to cater to its primacy, so the writers are all just, “sex feels good, I like it, but society only wants me to have sex with one person!” and then sometimes, “I liked having sex with a woman below my station and eventually abandoned her, and although I don’t really feel bad about it or ever think about her point of view at all, I think it’s an interesting thing about me.” The most complex it EVER gets is “Catholicism tried to make me feel bad about how good having sex feels, but I persevered.”

But women’s sexuality is complex and confusing and political and multifaceted. Corregidora is about how Ursa’s family history of exploitation and abuse is a silent third partner in her current relationships. Jones examines the intersection of violence and desire and it’s all very uncomfortable and resists easy conclusions. Because Ursa’s family’s abuser was never publicly identified as such, because his crimes against them went straight from being legal and accepted practice to being unacknowledged “ancient” history, the women of her family prioritize the telling and retelling of what was done to them in the hopes that one day they will be able to tell their story and receive justice. Meanwhile, they all carry it.   

Every time I read another book about the legacy of slavery, it furthers my certainty that this country can never begin to mend or to reconcile until we have a national system of reparations and at least a year of formal mourning and expiation. We need to make both practical and symbolic atonement.

Anyway, Gayl Jones has had a really fascinating and sad life herself, and I hope she’s doing ok now.

Should you read it? Sure! It’s very short.

Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans Keilson: Everyone says that if something like the Holocaust happened again, they’d take people in and do whatever it took to help and resist. But that’s insane, obviously, because clearly no one would do anything at all. Everyone would say, “well, I really wish I could, and if I were still a young person I would, but I’m a parent now, and I have to put my children’s wellbeing above all else,” and then they’d go about their usual business. What’s more interesting to me is that Europeans at the time actually did this. We don’t talk enough about this! We talk a lot about the Holocaust and what could possibly have motivated people to go along with evil, but like, of course people went along with evil. There’s no real mystery in that; everyone’s resentful and tribalist and easy to frighten and manipulate.

The more interesting thing, the thing that we should be writing books and doing tons of studies into is that some people actually took total strangers into their homes and hid them for years! Putting themselves and their families at great personal risk! This is incredible and unprecedented! Seriously try to imagine anyone you know actually doing this. Like, imagine your Uncle Bill hiding a strange Hispanic man he’d never met in his bonus room for two years at great personal risk to his family. It would never happen.

We should instead be studying what it was about society in the various European countries at the time that made some people so decisive and brave and selfless that they were able to do this. Not everyone by any means; not even most. And a number of them went nuts under the pressure and caved, kicked people out, threatened violence against themselves or their guests. But some actually did this and stuck with it! We should obviously be imitating those cultures as much as possible everywhere.

And when you look into it, in the vast majority of the cases, people hid Jews because they just turned up on their property. Like, if you found someone on the run and hiding in your field, you’d probably be more likely to shelter them, because they are right there in front of you, and so you either take them in or refuse them to their face. I think that’s a lot more likely. I can picture Uncle Bill doing that. But the famous Dutch example, where you basically sign yourself up to host a family — that I can’t imagine anyone doing.

And this short translated novel is about that kind of sacrifice, a couple who hid a man in their spare room and he died on them. It’s a simple little novel about one quaint little terror corner in the sprawling nightmare of WWII, a perspective that we don’t typically focus much on, and it made me think a lot.

I don’t know if I would ever take anyone in. Probably not because I wouldn’t talk myself around quickly enough — I have to talk myself into doing inconvenient things for like a year before I actually take a first step and by the time I got around to it, it’d be too late. I have this long of a turnaround time even for deciding on fun things, which is how I missed the boat on doing recreational drugs.

But if a refugee actually turned up at my place, I probably would, because it would be harder for me to turn them away face-to-face. And I would volunteer for it if I were severely socially shamed by people whose opinions I value. Realistically, I will always just take the path of least resistance. And that’s what we would have to rely on, probably — we would have to make people feel too ashamed not to do it, so ashamed that it’s easier and more comfortable for them to risk the possibility of future grave harm coming to them if they were caught than to continue to endure the current social shaming.

Should you read it? Sure! Again, this one is also very short. I mean, it’s a translated novella, so don’t expect much, writing-wise, but it made me think. Or don’t, and read Fateless instead (see below).

Yes Means Yes edited by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti: This is a collection of short blog-style essays on issues related to consent, rape, and sexism and sexuality. Some of these were great, others were interesting but didn’t really resonate with me, and one was terrible and I’m not sure how it wound up in here. The format of the book is a bit silly. I’m not sure I really learned anything new, but I’m pretty steeped in these issues already. This is a well-rounded intro for anyone who has not thought that much about consent.

Should you read it? I think Unscrewed is probably better (see below).

The Best American Short Stories 2016 edited by Junot Diaz: Oh hey, guess who doesn’t have to feel bad about not liking Junot Diaz’s stuff anymore?!?!?

Or pretend I had a more mature and nuanced reaction than that. Anyway,the quality of the stories varies in this story collection, as with all these Best American collections. I actually found this one as a whole less interesting than most years. I just read it and I can’t recall a single story. None of them really blew me away.

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg: This is a weird little book that’s sort of a Swiftian send up of the concept of predestination. I was raised a Calvinist, and I remember that when I first found out about predestination, I was like, “ah, so I can just do whatever the fuck I want, then?” They really did not think that one through.

Should you read it? I don’t know, I dug it, but it’s pretty old. But do go do a Google image search for Brocken spectre.

Fateless by Imre Kertesz: I’ve read a lot of Holocaust novels, and sometimes I think I don’t need to read any more Holocaust novels, and then other times I think that we should all just be reading Holocaust novels all the time. Holocaust novels are often about the resilience of the human spirit, and I appreciate that this one was not. This one was more like what I imagine being in a concentration camp would be like for most of us: George entered the camps as a boy not having any idea what was going on, he was starved and frozen and overworked for about a month, and then he got a terrible infection and was basically just a body waiting to die for the rest of the war. He wasn’t any sort of hero and he wasn’t resilient and he had no grand realizations. He gave up and wanted to go ahead and die pretty immediately, but through dumb luck, he managed to survive until the camp he was in was liberated. And then he went home, and everyone treated him like shit.

Should you read it? Maybe! Do you want to read a depressing translated novel about the Holocaust that has no uplifting message about the inevitable triumph of the human spirit? If so, definitely.

The Whore’s Child by Richard Russo: Boring old man crap. I don’t know what any of the middle-aged white male academic narrators of these stories look like, but Russo did not forget to describe the breasts of a single one of their wives or girlfriends or daughters. No joke, there are two separate stories in the collection wherein the narrator gets nervous about his partner exposing her breasts on a ferry. There is at least one mention per story (sometimes more!) of a woman bending over and her breasts can be seen in the gap of her neckline by someone — usually Russo’s fictional proxy, but sometimes another woman who is of course either disapproving or competitive. We’re so many breasts out there, just breasting through life with our breasts! No woman writer could ever get away with being this transparently fixated on something.

Should you read it? No, but read all these tweets; they’re perfect.

The End of Alice by A.M. Homes: This was maybe the most disturbing book I’ve ever read, which is really saying something, as I kind of seek out disturbing books. Nearly every chapter of this book actually made me feel like I might vomit. I would take a break and realize my face was twisted up in revulsion. I’m not actively revolted by much in fiction, so I feel like that in itself is an accomplishment, but here’s what’s really impressive about this book: there’s an entirely ordinary family dinner scene partway through it that is so bleak and hopeless and distressing that it made the graphic prison rape scene that came right before it seem less upsetting by comparison.

The book isn’t perfect. I’m not sure it’s even good. The young girl is chillingly convincing, and Homes is making a really interesting and brave point about how power and sexual violence play out differently for men and women, but the protagonist just comes across as a hodgepodge of various intellectual sociopath characters from books and movies, less homage than inconsistent cliche, and that sort of detracts from everything else. It’s definitely an impressive feat of writing, though, because for one thing, I can’t fathom how much self-confidence you have to have to put something like this out there.

Should you read it? I feel like you might want to out of curiosity given how I described it, but I’m not really recommending it. Right when I finished reading it, I kind of wished I hadn’t read it, but that was in March and now it’s faded as all things do, so do what you want. I’m still not entirely sure what I think of it.

The Heights by Peter Hedges: Derivative airport fiction about boring rich people in Brooklyn.

Should you read it? No.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace: I love this essay collection. I’ve read it several times now, and I find more to enjoy in it every time. Consider the Lobster is probably a better collection to sit down and read because this one has two long funny essays and then a bunch of odds and ends about tennis and literary criticism, but it’s all really good. I couldn’t give less of a crap about tennis, but I read everything Wallace writes about tennis with great interest.

Should you read it? Yes, and if you find it slow going, just read the long ones about the state fair and the cruise ship.

Unscrewed by Jaclyn Friedman: Timely and covers a lot of ground. Some of it’s a bit Feminism 101, but it’s a really great comprehensive introduction to all the various aspects of contemporary American sexual politics.

Should you read it? Yes.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace: A lot of Brief Interviews is Wallace playing around, which I really can’t get enough of, but I wouldn’t recommend this collection as an introduction to Wallace. There are a lot of techniques and ideas in here that went into Infinite Jest, not to mention cropping up in more polished form in the work of other writers. Wallace was one of those artists who opened a lot of different stylistic doors that other writers later went through and explored further.

Should you read it? If you’re already a Wallace fan; otherwise, read the essay collections and Infinite Jest first.

Saturday by Ian McEwan: I always find McEwan’s novels very accomplished and solid and well thought out and not that interesting, and this one was no exception. It’s well-written but it already feels dated, there’s nothing particularly surprising or affecting in it (I mean from a writing standpoint, not from a plot one), and also the way he writes the women characters is really gross (but I could overlook that if the rest was more interesting).

Should you read it? No, but this is fun.

Et Tu, Babe by Mark Leyner: I think I might find Mark Leyner’s stuff funny if I were younger or a different kind of person, or maybe if I had not already been exposed to so many different kinds of comedy.

Should you read it? No.

Curriculum Vitae by Muriel Spark: I’ve never actually read anything by Muriel Spark, and I’m not sure why I had/started with her autobiography, but this was really enjoyable. It’s breezily written and fun, and her early life was interesting. She makes a lot of reference to setting the record straight with this, to counteract all that had been said about her. Which makes me so curious to know what had been said about her! Was there a time writers like Muriel Spark were controversial tabloid figures, much gossiped about?

Should you read it? No.

The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti: I really like Jessica Valenti, and I agree with everything she says in these essays, but this is maybe not her most well-written book. I think a lot of it is adapted from Feministing, and it reads like blog writing. I spent a lot of time thinking about reading this book as someone who disagrees with all the points Valenti is making, and I don’t think such a person would find it persuasive — for example, there are some important points where she uses one or two examples to illustrate a widespread trend, and doesn’t have any kind of statistic to back up that it’s widespread. To me, it’s self-evident that these things are widespread, but if I thought these examples were rare exceptions, I wouldn’t find anything here to convince me otherwise.

Still, I don’t really see how anyone can argue with her overall point — that America still views young women primarily as sexual property and that fetishizing “virginity” (whatever virginity is) is objectifying and dehumanizing. I wish I had discovered the feminist blogosphere when I was in high school and college in the south; I think it would have made a big difference to my life.

Should you read it? Probably.

Paradise by Toni Morrison: Toni Morrison is such a phenomenal writer that I don’t think it’s possible for her to write a bad book. However, this wasn’t one of her better books. If someone else had written it, I’d probably think it was more impressive than I did, but compared to Morrison’s other work, this one is overstuffed with too many characters who don’t have time to really become people, and the ending is a bit of a mess. I still enjoyed it.

Should you read it? No, but read Song of Solomon and Beloved, at least.

Hey Ladies! by Michelle Markowitz and Caroline Moss: This is a one-evening humor read and it’s wonderful. I wish it had been three times as long. If you read the “Hey Ladies!” column on The Toast, this is the book version of that. It’s just a one-note bit, but it could really go on and on. Pour one out for Charlotte.

Should you read it? You probably have to have at some point been on a Hey Ladies email chain to really get why this is so funny, but I could be wrong. You can read The Toast column on the Internet Archive. As with many things, the further back you go, the funnier they are.

The Merry Spinster by Daniel Mallory Ortberg: It’s very difficult for me to say that anything written by Ortberg is not perfect, but I didn’t love this one so much. A couple of the stories are great, but the rest aren’t as much. I really loved the “Children’s Stories Made Horrific” series for The Toast and would have preferred to just read a collection of those. I will definitely continue to read everything Ortberg puts out (probably forever), but this isn’t my favorite.

Should you read it? Read all of these!

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