Recent Reads

Ultimately, I read 67 books in 2018 (not counting management-type books for work and more service-y type nonfiction). Of these, I really loved 4.5. Here’s the final batch.

Fine Just the Way It Is by Annie Proulx: Annie Proulx is a good writer. The more I read contemporary fiction, the more of an accomplishment that seems to me, because there are so many people out there writing and publishing, and so few of them are actually good at it. I don’t love everything Proulx writes, but she knows how to write. And in reading this, I realized why short story collections typically leave me cold — I mostly read those by brand new writers who don’t have any status yet, and so the collections they’re permitted to publish are very polished and derivative of what other writers have done and sold successfully, and so they end up well-written but generic and similar and flat. (I’m far from the first person to point this out, I know.) But story collections by more established writers who get to publish whatever they want are uneven and all over the place. They have stories ranging from excellent to stupid, and are just more interesting to read. Not all of these are good, but I enjoyed the thing as a whole more than I’ve enjoyed a story collection in some time. Proulx is like, “here, I have a couple of incredibly long and beautifully written bleak stories about early pioneers, a few of these sort of comedic things about the devil that aren’t really as funny as I think they are, and then some maudlin junk that is sort of like my other better stuff but a bit too much. Want to just publish all of this together?”

Should you read it? Definitely read something by Annie Proulx, but I don’t know that this collection is the one to start with. I haven’t actually read very much by her, just odd stories here and there, so I don’t know what to suggest.

You Were Wrong by Matthew Sharpe: This was pretty dumb and thin. Sharpe is often clever but there’s nothing underneath his cleverness — this is all icing and no cake. It reminds me a lot of the type of stuff I write, which is not a compliment. I have another novel by Sharpe, so I’ll read that at some point, but that’s probably it. 

Should you read it? No.

Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer: A friend once explained to me that part of the reason he so hated The Big Bang Theory was that it felt like its makers had identified nerdy guys as a potential audience and foisted its derivative mediocrity upon them, like, ‘here, this is the type of shit y’all love, right?’ I think most voracious readers of contemporary literature feel the exact same way about the Brooklyn Jonathans. “Here! This is just the sort of thing y’all are impressed by. Look – here’s three of them for you! Look at their glasses!” 

But because I’m a sucker for completion, they’re all somewhere in my massive to-read list, and Safran Foer finally came up. I admire the attempt of this book more than I admire the attempt of some other Jonathan work. And I loved parts of it — I think the bits with Alex are wonderful, and I love how he creates a full character out of butchered language. It’s really consistent and well done, and a lot of fun. But the meat of the book — the quirky town and the more serious ending sections — is not so successful. For one thing, he’s got too many different styles thrown in, and it feels like he’s imitating a lot of writers he’s admired, but not doing it that well. When I added this to Goodreads, I saw a friend had compared it to a poor imitation of Marquez (were the butterflies too on the nose?), which is funny because the whole way through, I kept thinking it was like bad Allende.  

For another, and I feel like a broken record on this because I point it out in every single book, but y’all, it is in every single book, there’s so much unexamined misogyny. Not to mention two — two! — very sexy small children who everyone wants to fuck. Now look, about this, because I really feel like I have to say something. Writers. You can have a sexy small child in your book who everyone wants to fuck, but you have to treat it with at least some level of intent or purpose. It’s not dealt with seriously here, and it usually isn’t in most books, and I just don’t understand where this comes from? Is it Anne Rice’s fault? Why are there so many of these? It’s enough already. 

Also, the Holocaust bits are overwrought and so they feel very emotionally manipulative, and they’re what the whole book is leading up to, so after you get over feeling gut-punched, you’re like ‘wait one damn minute.’ 

But I also feel a bit mean putting Safran Foer through the wringer when I’ve given much worse writers more of a pass. The truth is, I especially wanted to dislike him. If I were in an MFA program with a person who came in with this novel, I’d be like, well, that’s this class’s successful writer sorted. But that’s the thing — the Brooklyn Jonathans to me will always be 24-year-old grad students writing to impress their teachers and intimidate their peers, no matter how much they grow or what they do. It’s not their fault; it’s how they were marketed.  

Anyway, this one is much better than Franzen. 

Should you read it? No.

Pink Brain, Blue Brain by Lise Eliot: The first few chapters of this book seem well-researched — Eliot went to a lot of trouble to back up every point she made, and was also careful to point out when the research was inconclusive or the study wasn’t well conducted or couldn’t be replicated. One issue with social science is that there will be a study that demonstrates absolutely anything — the trick is whether it can be replicated multiple times. Most studies can’t, and I will now make the bold claim that I don’t actually think social science or psychology are scientific fields. Human behavior is too complex to be distilled into precise conclusions. There are too many variables. You’ll never have the equivalent of a scientific law when it comes to human activity. 

Anyway, after the first few chapters of the book, Eliot gets sloppier and starts just asserting things without backing them up with much, and relying on a single study if she agrees with the outcome. I think this is because the most controversial aspects of gender differences are those in infancy, because those are the ones that indicate there are innate differences in men and women. Later on, the differences don’t provide as much ammo to gender essentialists, since obviously they developed within a social context that can be altered. So she worked harder at the bits that would be most scrutinized. Still, she gets pretty sloppy — by the last chapter, she’s saying things like “we all know women are more fearful than men” with nary a footnote or citation to be found. 

We’re starting to conclude that most innate differences between men and women are caused by hormonal exposure in the womb. The differences are quite small and don’t mean a lot, but that’s where they begin, and they can vary in intensity based on exposure. This is interesting, because hormonal exposure in the womb is likely something we can quite easily manipulate, and one of the most compelling things to me about living in 2018 is that we’re teetering on the brink of intentionally designed people (we’re already doing it), at which point all of the “natural” divisions and excuses that have been so important to everyone up until now in ordering society will become entirely irrelevant, probably overnight. And then what will happen! I can’t wait, it’s very exciting. 

I like that Eliot’s aim here is to arm parents with the information they need to mitigate the typical struggles of each gender — she gives many practical tips for helping boys to develop communication and language skills and for helping girls to develop better spatial skill performance and to stick with math through the middle school years. I don’t like that her personal values peek out here and there and they aren’t my values. She seems uncomfortable with homosexuality — her very few mentions of it are a bit gross. And for all her delving into prenatal hormonal exposure, she doesn’t mention trans people at all, which is weird because some of the most interesting findings in that area have to do with trans children. Finally, she is pretty gender essentialist — she writes from the assumption that we all prefer the traditional gender binary and want to preserve it in the main while limiting its more harmful effects. 

Should you read it? I would say that if you tend to be more of a gender essentialist, this book could expand your view of things a bit and challenge your assumptions without freaking you out too much. If you’re already woke, though, Eliot will probably just make you impatient. Either way, I think the first few chapters are a good summary of what we think we know about all this right now (or did in 2009).  

Enormous Changes at the Last Minute by Grace Paley: I don’t know how it took me this long to read Grace Paley, but she’s a really interesting writer. Her style and voice require attention; this isn’t heavy writing, but you have to read it carefully. This is one of the few story collections that I’ll reread, and indeed that I’ll need to reread a few more times to really understand what Paley is doing. Not all of these are great, of course, but some are. Paley is often compared to Barthelme — they worked together and were influenced by each other’s styles — but I don’t think they are very similar in substance. For one thing, she’s a woman so she’s pissed about the world, and Barthelme, being a man, was untouched by that sort of anger. He plays a lot in his work; she doesn’t get to play. 

Should you read it? Sure!

The Dinner by Herman Koch: The Dinner is about four horrifying assholes and their monster children. It’s incredibly depressing to read right now, when just this exact sort of terrible people have gotten a revived stranglehold on my country (this book is set in the Netherlands). Koch is even more of a misanthrope than I am, and ultimately, that’s why this book is bad: these people aren’t real. Even horrifying assholes and monster children aren’t this bad; or at least, they aren’t this one-note. These people are flat and unbelievable — Claire especially does not resemble any sort of actual living human person. For contrast, Lionel Shriver also hates people and has no hope for them, but her characters are real and three-dimensional. 

Should you read it? Read We Need to Talk About Kevin. I think it’s very interesting in a number of ways, and underrated. 

The Patterns of Paper Monsters by Emma Rathbone: I really enjoyed this lovely, hopeful novel. It made me feel really good, especially after reading The Dinner, and it kept my attention the whole way through. It’s perhaps not the most original book, but it’s very well done — the characters and the story are interesting, the writing is clever and absorbing, and there’s no snag in any of it. Rathbone does exactly what she sets out to do with this. I want to read her other books. 

Should you read it? You could do worse.

Girl Factory by Jim Krusoe: This was really stupid, and I can’t figure out what the point was, if there was one. 

Should you read it? No.

Memories of My Father Watching TV by Curtis White: This was meant to be dark and clever, but I found it really tiresome, and it just seemed like a completely arbitrary collection of words. This is no doubt in part because, with the exception of having seen a few episodes of seaQuest DSV because the boy from Ladybugs was in it, I have no familiarity whatsoever with any of the genres of TV that White is satirizing at great length here. So, if you are an American man of White’s age, you might get a lot more out of this, but I think the audience for this book is pretty narrow. 

Should you read it? No.

The Liar by Stephen Fry: This was a bit of a mess; I don’t think it would have been published or popular if Fry wasn’t famous. It’s a few different types of novels shoved together, and none of them new. Also, not for nothing, but I have read something like thirty novels at this point about the masturbation habits of 15-year-old public school British boys. I know far more about their sexuality than I do my own. I resent how much knowledge I have accrued in this area; it does not seem anywhere near a consequential enough topic for the amount of ink spilled on it. 

Should you read it? No.

Forms of Rhetoric: Ordering Experience edited by Tom Kakonis & James Wilcox: This very old book has a drawing of a diva cup on the cover! Otherwise, it’s fusty old writing advice, and some of it is good. One of my many secrets is that I actually never learned how to write. I don’t actually know anything about grammar or sentence structure. I just read a lot as a kid because I was really lonely, so I absorbed how English writing is generally supposed to sound and look on a page. But I don’t really know the rules, or why some things feel right and other things feel wrong. I should probably learn all that at some point? But then, I’ve gotten this far without it, and I’m a much better writer than the vast majority of people, so really, who gives a shit. 

Should you read it? No.

Saints and Sinners by Edna O’Brien: I really love how Edna O’Brien writes, but I think this might be partly because of nostalgia, because I first read her during a certain phase I went through in college when I was feeling really fantastic about the possibilities of life, and I was extremely interested in and delighted by everything I was reading. (I have never felt that way since.) I’m not sure if I can really separate anything by O’Brien from that feeling; she’s tied like the way certain smells evoke a trip or a summer. Other authors who were caught up in that whirlwind of joy: Virginia Woolf, Angela Carter, Jeanette Winterson, Doris Lessing, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (bit of a theme here).  

Should you read it? Probably not.

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III: This was a really great idea for a novel, and I enjoyed reading it, mostly, but I felt it fell apart at the ending. The climax was just too big of a leap and felt more like a plot-driven movie than a character-driven novel. And honestly, the characters don’t rise much above cliches. The writing and plotting are capable enough to where it took me some time to notice that the characters were thin, but once it occurred to me, I couldn’t ignore it. And the relationship between Kathy and Lester seems a real stretch. Also, I remembered as I read this that I watched this movie when I was a lot younger, and I somehow came away from it thinking it was a metaphor for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (It is not.)

Should you read it? Probably not.

In a Different Voice by Carol Gilligan: This was really dated and didn’t seem particularly relevant or insightful anymore. Also, it was boring as all hell. I more and more think that psychology is mostly hogwash anyway (that therapy is a useful form of practical support, but psychology is just some pseudo-intellectual bullshit in between therapy and actual psychiatry). 

Should you read it? No.

The Boy Next Door by Irene Sabatini: The first third of this reads like a first novel and I didn’t like it much, but it becomes more complex and interesting as it goes, and by the end of it, I was in love and didn’t want to stop reading it. The writing is very simple, but the book is not — the characters grow and change in front of us, and the way that Sabatini demonstrates how their relationship was formed and changed and challenged by the political environment they lived in is so lightly and believably done. I didn’t know anything about Zimbabwe’s history and I appreciate that she takes her readers seriously enough to assume they’ll go figure it out on their own — there are a few introductory paragraphs in sections where someone rather clumsily explains what’s going on, but mostly you’re just immersed in the world as if you are a part of it. I especially appreciate that Sabatini never tries to explain exactly why Lindiwe is so in love with Ian. Everyone in her life is baffled by this relationship. They are so poorly matched and he’s a stupid racist who isn’t good enough for her, and yet she totally loves him anyway, which is basically the story of most heterosexual relationships, but most writers try to make their female protagonists especially heroic or self-sufficient as if they are models for living rather than people. I also appreciate that the novel is about a woman’s entire life — she grows up in a war-torn country, but she also struggles with her relationships with her parents, her partner, her son, her friendships, her career, money. The state of the country is a backdrop that filters into everything and further complicates the challenges of young adulthood. Everything in the book feels entirely earned, and (except for the amateurish feel of the first third) nothing sticks out as extraneous or clunky. 

Should you read it? Yes.

People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry: People describe this book as a fascinating look into a dark subculture in Japan, which certainly sounded like my kind of trash read. But it turned out to be a fairly straightforward and not very well-written book about a murder case with your usual sociopathic serial rapist who goes after sex workers. Also, it is primarily focused on the British family whose daughter was murdered. None of that is anywhere near interesting enough to read 400 pages about. Also, the writer of this book has a huge hard-on for the victim’s father, who was obviously a complete dirtbag — even with the writer trying his best to portray him as a misunderstood villainized good guy, he still comes across as a massive asshole. Part of the reason the writer sympathizes with the dad so much is that he (the writer) clearly has a giant chip on his shoulder about women and projects that everywhere — I mean, he basically is like, “you know how vindictive ex-wives are” on every other page, which is really distracting. 

Should you read it? No.

Fever Chart by Bill Cotter: Come on. 

Should you read it? No, but definitely read A Confederacy of Dunces

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri: These were very accomplished stories, but like most accomplished short stories, they didn’t feel especially necessary to me. I read them, but I could just as easily have not read them. They’re pretty narrowly focused — most are about Indian-American academics in Boston, their emotional reserve, and their relationships with their immigrant parents. None will stay with me. 

Should you read it? Nah.

Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler: Old dude lit. This was meant to be funny, but it mostly just felt stale. 

Should you read it? No.

The Bells of Agony by Autran Dourado: When I was in high school, the lit mag sponsored an open mic poetry slam once a month. It was as horrifying as you’d imagine, and the worst part was this one guy who I never saw anywhere else (I’m not even totally sure he went to school there) who read incredibly long poems about some girl I’m confident he was never actually in any kind of relationship with, and one began with: “Agony. I get mad, and throw a chair.” And then he’d throw the chair onstage a little ways. So now, every time I see the word “agony,” I mentally follow it up with, “I get mad, and throw a chair.”

This story has nothing to do with The Bells of Agony, which I neither enjoyed nor understood and have nothing to say about. I have to stop reading translated novels.

Should you read it? No.

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