Recent Reads

Ahh, the first books of the year!

Bartleby and Benito Cereno by Herman Melville: I used to really love Bartleby the Scrivener, but reading it now that I’m in management, it just made me feel incredibly stressed out. As for Benito Cereno, oof, because it is an amazing novella, but it’s also so racist that I felt dirty reading it. I know that’s in part the point, sort of, but it’s not the point in the same way it would be the point if Melville wrote it now. “Isn’t it interesting how Delano’s biases caused him to entirely misinterpret a very obvious situation and rationalize everything he observed to fit his outlook” is a far cry from “HOLY SHIT WE ACTUALLY DID THIS TO PEOPLE AND EVERYONE THOUGHT IT WAS FINE! COMMENCE REPARATIONS IMMEDIATELY!” 

Should you read them? Yes, you should probably read everything Melville wrote.

The Red and the Black by Stendhal: I suppose minor classics are minor for a reason, but also, this was probably a poor translation. 

Should you read it? Heavens, no. I have no idea why I did.

Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy: This was written in 2005, but it’s already very dated. Levy makes some good points here (and some bad ones), but pop culture and feminism have thankfully mostly outgrown the phase she’s discussing in this book. 

Should you read it? No.

Mortals by Norman Rush: I don’t think this is a very good book, but it’s just the sort of thing I like — 700+ pages of an introspective person endlessly talking (and mostly to himself). Ray is a pretty unlikeable person, but his interminable interior monologue is my cup of tea. I like the way Rush writes and will read his other tome, Mating, at some point — this is the less well-regarded of the two. 

Should you read it? This is the type of thing I enjoy, but I’m pretty sure no one else does.

A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvette Edwards: I suppose this was well-written, but I just can’t relate to women who want to be with men so bad that they’ll put up with whatever. Not that I can only be interested in books about things I relate to, but in this case, I just have no patience for it, and I don’t care about anyone involved in stories like this. Just buy a vibrator and make some friends. 

Should you read it? No.

True Confections by Katharine Weber: This was meant to be clever and in parts, it was, but I mostly found the humor pretty tired. It was a kind of tedious read; I put it down about halfway through and couldn’t force myself to go back to it until I had binge-watched all five seasons of Bojack Horseman.

Should you read it? Read Fannie Flagg instead. And you should definitely watch Bojack Horseman.

Faithless by Joyce Carol Oates: Joyce Carol Oates’s stories are perfectly consistent. In each one, we know that a woman is about to undergo something unpleasant — whether mildly or fatally so —  because of some sort of an encounter with a man. This feels true to my life experience, and so I usually enjoy reading her stories.

Should you read it? No.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean: To me, Susan Orlean is the quintessential New Yorker writer in that she writes about random niche topics I’m not interested in, but I end up reading all of her thousands of words about them anyway because the writing is so involving. I didn’t need to read a whole book about the public library system in LA, but I sure enjoyed it, and I have an increased appreciation for libraries and librarians now. I never darken the door of a library anymore (because people), but when I was younger and had roommates, I spent a lot of time in libraries. My favorite library was probably the Harold Washington library in downtown Chicago. It was always quiet and had a massive, well-organized collection. Plus I liked the owls on the roof, and it often had genuinely good author readings. In general, I prefer big older libraries with six floors of dusty stacks and plenty of hidden carrels tucked into rarely visited corners where you can spend a whole day and only see one or two silent and quick-stepping passers-by. I usually like a state university library. I do not appreciate the new library layouts where all the books seem hidden away somewhere and there are lots of big open noisy spaces facilitating engagement, like the new library in downtown Austin that everybody else loves. 

Should you read it? Yes, if you enjoy reading pleasant, relaxing, well-written nonfiction (and/or subscribe to the New Yorker).

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson: This wasn’t for me (I can’t take war stories seriously), but even if it was, I’m not sure it was especially good. All the usual Vietnam war book and movie cliches are here, which almost makes it read as unintentionally parodic. Also, the writing is clunky, the dialogue is corny, and the characters are flat. But here, read this review. I don’t read reviews until after I’ve made up my mind about a book, but this guy loved it and his review is pretty fun to read and makes me think I should have loved it, too! Maybe I should have.

Should you read it? Many people thought it was brilliant, but I cannot personally recommend it, no.

Searches & Seizures by Stanley Elkin: At first, I found the first of these three novellas so racist that I almost abandoned the book entirely, but I kept reading it anyway, and I’m overall glad that I did because there’s a lot of really interesting writing in these. But there’s also a lot of tired old-fashioned humor that reads like it was written in the ‘70s. Comic writing doesn’t always age well. I also found the bear scene in the second novella to be pretty misogynistic (vagina horror). I really loved the final novella, The Condominium.  

Should you read it? No.

Stories In the Worst Way by Gary Lutz: Gary Lutz is a fantastic writer, and I sincerely hope he writes something one day. 

Should you read it? No.

Small Wars by Sadie Jones: This is a straightforward, traditional sort of novel about war and heterosexuality, and it just isn’t my sort of thing at all. 

Should you read it? No.

There we go! 2019, off with a whimper.


  1. greenpete58 says:

    Well, glad that you at least recommended Melville! (My favorite.)


  2. Pam Kocke says:

    I’m just sitting here wondering how do you pick all these books you end up hating? I feel like your record is pretty terrible. Maybe one day if I’m bored I’ll go through all of your book posts and figure out which percentage you actually liked.


    1. Elizabeth says:

      It’s because I don’t pick them. I have a massive list of ~1500 authors that I want to check out and see how they write, and I just go through it at random. I already own a ton of books that I haven’t read yet ( at this point, I’m down to about three bookcases worth), and currently, I’m just reading my way through those.

      I don’t really _hate_ any of them. There’s something to admire or learn from in most. I’m very interested in writing (even when I’m not actively trying to write) and checking out what different people are trying to do with words is endlessly fascinating to me, even when I don’t think they were particularly successful.


  3. T E Stazyk says:

    To improve your year, can I recommend Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng.
    Also, don’t forget to try my I Too!


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