Recent Reads

Whoops, I forgot to do this for awhile, so this is a long one. I don’t have a lot to say about the books, though, so it’s not as long as it could have been. I’ve gotten to one of the paperback shelves of my bookcases, so these are especially random and hit-or-miss.

A Short History of Tractors In Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka

This was charming and delightful. It’s no great work of fiction or anything, and I won’t revisit it, but I enjoyed it while I was reading it. 

Should you read it? Sure!

Century of Struggle by Eleanor Flexner

This is a fascinating read! I had no idea how hard American women fought to get the vote. I mean, I knew they did in the way that we all respectfully say that they did, but I had never read a book on precisely what that hard work involved. This book is instructive for what it actually takes to enact social change — it takes volunteers to do decades of grinding, tedious, exhausting, utterly unrewarding work that never ends, seems to lead nowhere, and gets you nothing but ridicule from everyone. The bit toward the end where the older faction of feminists and the newer, younger, more openly rebellious faction had to learn to work with each other and join forces to get over the last hump is especially resonant with what’s going on today. Also, many of the methods of protest and organization that a lot of contemporary American women sneer at when younger women do it today are actually the exact same methods that were used to get us all the vote. It’s inspiring! I mean, it won’t inspire me to do anything, because I’m so tired all the time and talking to people is boring, but it’s theoretically inspiring. They should teach this book in schools. Also, it’s absolutely revolting that any of this was ever necessary, and that it took so long, and that it was so hard. 

Should you read it? Yes.

Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943 – 1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright by Steven Millhauser

I really enjoyed this bizarre, macabre book, which simultaneously parodies Boswell and imitates Nabokov, and is about unhealthy obsession as enacted by schoolchildren. 

Should you read it? It’s a literary curiosity and I love curiosities, but not everyone wants to sink a lot of time into reading full novels merely because they’re unusual experiments, so probably not. 

A Fairly Honorable Defeat by Iris Murdoch

I expected to love Iris Murdoch, but this was a lot less clever than your typical TV show these days. Perhaps it was more original when it was first written, but it hasn’t aged well. 

Should you read it? No.

The Mighty Walzer by Howard Jacobson

I don’t like Howard Jacobson, but I already had this, so I skimmed through it. It was even worse than the previous book I had read (and not liked) by Jacobson. He writes stale old-fashioned humor for old white men. 

Should you read it? No.

Flash and Filligree by Terry Southern

I would say this is the worst published book I’ve ever read, but that would make it sound a lot more interesting than it is. 

Should you read it? No.

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

Swift deserves credit for being one of the first satirists, but satire has come a  long way since, and this was pretty tedious. I did not know that the word ‘yahoo’ came from Gulliver’s Travels

Should you read it? No.

Stranger In a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

This was unreadably bad, and had absolutely nothing to recommend it. I usually get something out of even the very worst books, but I got nothing at all out of this — it wasn’t even bad in an interesting way. I felt as if I were actually gagging it down, and I resent the time I spent with it. Both the writing and the story are about at the level of a particularly poorly written Archive of Our Own fic. I have no idea why this book is well regarded at all.

Should you read it? No.

Oblivion by David Foster Wallace

This was not my favorite of Wallace’s books, but I like pretty much everything he has written. Since I last read something of his, I learned about his treatment of Mary Karr. Apparently, this was old news, but it was the first time I’d heard about it. I’m a bit embarrassed I didn’t know about it, but this is likely because I have never been interested in learning anything at all about the lives of artists of any kind. The way I figure it is that they already put everything interesting and important about themselves into what they created — that is what they intended to share. There is nothing left in their prosaic lives that is more notable than what they already went to great trouble to create for the rest of us, so it’s stupid to be like “wow, if you wrote that masterpiece, what must your lunches have been like!!!!.”

Plus, they usually turn out to be assholes.

So anyway, I didn’t know and now I do, and it has affected my enjoyment of his work — the whole way through this, I kept thinking about it and getting angry, so I was not really able to concentrate on the stories. I’ve always been bothered by Wallace’s fan boys and since his suicide, it has become increasingly embarrassing to me to admit that I admire his work so much, given that he’s become such a darling of the fedora-wearing set. Of all art forms, literature is perhaps the most impossible to consider separately from its maker, since reading a book is actually immersing yourself in someone else’s brain. And I have to admit, I do not like being in Wallace’s brain anymore, which is kind of upsetting to me, but not as upsetting as it would have been six years ago. I have his other books (I haven’t read them all yet), and I will still read them at some point, but I will have to work hard at compartmentalizing while I do. 

Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth

Aren’t we all so fortunate that we are alive in an age where all kinds of people are writing all kinds of things, and making every sort of wildly original comedy that could possibly be imagined, and just blowing open artistic doors all over the place? For like a century, shit like this was all there was! Nowadays, even the dumbest network sitcom is riskier and more inventive than this. But to be fair to Roth, comedy rarely ages well. 

Should you read it? No.

A Gathering of Old Men by Ernest J. Gaines

I enjoyed this short novel about race relations in the south, and it had some powerful moments, but Gaines decided to break into chapters which were each narrated by a different character, and there seemed to be no reason behind that choice, as the narrating characters didn’t really vary in voice or contribute anything to the way their sections were told. With one or two exceptions, the chapters all read the same as they would have if they’d been narrated by an omniscient narrator. 

Should you read it? I wouldn’t go out of your way.

Neuromancer by William Gibson

I understand why people enjoy this book, and it is exactly what it sets out to be, but it isn’t my sort of thing at all. I really enjoy world-building, but I don’t really like world-building that’s all about gizmos. I’m just not that interested in stuff. I like world building that also includes either beautiful or interesting writing, or well developed characters, and/or teaches me to look at the world (by which I mean humanity) in new and different ways. This does none of that, really, it’s just a cool world with badass stuff in it, and the contents are merely there to have something to fill up the frame. 

Should you read it? If it is your sort of thing, you will probably really enjoy it.

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

I’ll try anything (literary) once, but this hard-boiled detective stuff is just dumb. It’s possible I would have found it slightly less dumb before it became such a cliche (so when Hammett was first writing it), but I don’t think so, and anyway, we’ll never know now. 

Should you read it? No.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

I didn’t expect to be especially interested in this (although I do love a dystopia), but it’s very good! I read the older American version that omits the final redemptive chapter. If I had known about the two versions prior to reading this, I probably would have read a later version since that was the version Burgess intended, but frankly, I suspect it would have ruined the book. 

Anyway, by comparison to Neuromancer, A Clockwork Orange has some impressive world-building and also really interesting writing and also a fully developed (and horrifying) character and also presents me with a bunch of questions I cannot answer, and now cannot stop thinking about.

We’re meant to find what was done to Alex abhorrent, but why? Well, for one thing, it didn’t work. But if it had, wouldn’t it be a good thing if we could cause sociopaths to feel horror and revulsion at the idea of harming other people? Were all the people that Alex raped and beat and murdered worthwhile sacrifices to his personal freedom to choose to be a violent sociopath? Is Alex’s freedom of choice worth more than other people’s lives? And even if we decide that personal choice is most important, is lifelong incarceration less of a trespass on a person’s personal freedom than a very specific and targeted form of brainwashing would be? Most of us would probably say yes, but why is that, and what does that say about the type of freedoms we value? Were Alex’s upbringing and societal influences any less shaping of his choices than the aversion therapy he received? Did he exercise free choice in the first place? Do any of us?

The book resists easy conclusions. Also, the questions it raises seem every bit as relevant today as they did in 1962 — probably more so. 

Should you read it? Yes.

Maurice by E.M. Forster

I enjoyed Maurice. It’s not a great novel, but it is a gay one, and that’s all it’s trying to be. Pretty much every gay love story I’ve ever read ends in tragedy, so I was pleased at the silly, happy ending to this one (ridiculous classism aside). Who among us hasn’t wanted to throw it in an old flame’s face that we’re going to go live our best most authentic lives loafing around the Continent with a strapping laborer? Suck on that, Clive and the early 20th century! 

Should you read it? Eh, probably not.

Deliverance by James Dickey

This is either very well-written, or very terribly written. Actually, I think it slides between the two throughout. Everyone remembers the rape scene (because it happens to a man, which distinguishes it from the endless parade of raped women and children we barely notice in everything else), but there is a scene in this wherein the out of shape protagonist scales a cliff face with his bare hands that is far more excruciating and suspenseful — every muscle in my body was tensed up as I read it. 

Should you read it? Probably not, but you could do worse. Maybe just read the scaling a cliff scene?

Women In Love by D.H. Lawrence

Welp, after falling in love with Ursula’s independent spirit in The Rainbow, I here got to read 500 turgid pages about her becoming a beard to Lawrence’s doppelgänger. What a downfall!

Should you read it? No! I have returned to my former “fuck D.H. Lawrence” position!

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

Treacly sentiment and clunky prose. 

Should you read it? No.

The Bay of Noon by Shirley Hazzard

Hazzard’s writing is really beautiful, but I didn’t get very much out of this. I don’t ultimately know what the point of it was. However, I’ve never really understood storylines about how satisfying it can be for a beautiful young woman to emotionally service an older, unlikeable man who is going through a rough patch, and I know that’s something a lot of women find really resonant and meaningful, so it’s possibly just not for me. 

Should you read it? No.

The Happy Isles of Oceania by Paul Theroux

I mostly just found this sort of tedious and hard to get through. Also, I’m pretty sure Theroux is a creeper — the vibe just emanates from his writing. I could very well be wrong, but reading his stuff always makes me feel a particular brand of uneasy, like talking to an old American man in a hostel in Southeast Asia.  

Should you read it? No.

Gimpel the Fool by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Old-fashioned translated stories. 

Should you read it? No.

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

I really, really dislike Anna, in part because she is the type of woman I have always tried my very best not to become. I find her pathetic, and I found myself sneering as I read about her. This says more about me than about the character or the novel. I enjoyed this novel very much, although (or maybe because) it made me uncomfortable. Also, if you have never seen Doris Lessing’s reaction to winning the Nobel Prize, you must watch it now. “One can’t get more excited than one gets, you know.” 

Should you read it? Well, I found it well worth reading, but it is very long and extremely boring. If you’re up for it, go for it. 

The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers

A very tedious spy novel. The author’s name is the most interesting part. You don’t find many Erskines these days – should we bring it back?

Should you read it? No.

Comments 6

  1. Daryl L. L. Houston July 14, 2019

    Ooh, I’ve read a few of these and have things to say about a few of them!

    Portnoy’s Complaint made me cackle a lot when I read it sometime in the last decade. I wonder maybe if the humor in it ages better if you’re reading it having existed as a maybe 20-year-old guy (which still doesn’t mean it’s good humor of course; probably quite the opposite).

    I agree re the Bradbury. I read another of his recently too that was very bleh. (So is Fahrenheit 451, for my money.)

    I sort of hated The Golden Notebook, mostly because it was long and often dull. What made me most uncomfortable about it was that it’s this pillar of feminist literature and I didn’t like it, which maybe means I’m not the feminist I like to imagine I am?

    Of course I have opinions re Oblivion. I think it’s probably his hardest fiction to read, meaning like the most demanding line by line or scene by scene or story by story (IJ being demanding I think more as a feat of endurance and patience and willingness to not understand things entirely, but being also pretty darned readable and follow-able at the line/scene level). I have managed to compartmentalize mostly, but when I do think about the nasty facts of Wallace’s life, I feel icky about it. I think I just have to kind of try to separate what’s good about the art from what’s bad about the man, without condoning what’s bad about the man. I guess that’s convenient or a cop-out.

    I read the Gibson a few years ago and liked it well enough for what it was if I recall correctly, though I now remember nothing about it.

    I’ll stop there, as I’ve managed to “yo dawg” your blog post by putting a blog post in your blog post.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Elizabeth July 15, 2019

      > I wonder maybe if the humor in it ages better if you’re reading it having existed as a maybe 20-year-old guy

      It’s more just that I’ve read and seen so many things that are this exact thing, so it felt very stale. And I would acknowledge that Roth did it first, except a bunch of Brits did it before him.

      > What made me most uncomfortable about it was that it’s this pillar of feminist literature and I didn’t like it, which maybe means I’m not the feminist I like to imagine I am?

      I mean, if it helps, the characters were terrible feminists, and Freud’s influence is all through this book and he was a horrible misogynist who was wrong about basically everything. I admired it more because of its scope and how well Lessing carried off what she was trying to do with it. It is super dull, though.

      > I think I just have to kind of try to separate what’s good about the art from what’s bad about the man, without condoning what’s bad about the man.

      Part of what makes this difficult is that the way Wallace viewed women shows up so much in his work. I have always been able to more or less ignore it, because it’s less pervasive than with a lot of other writers, and I think he knew it was a weak spot — he didn’t write about women very much. But now it sticks out to me more.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Recent Reads – Accismus

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