Everyone is stuck inside and looking for new books, so as usual, I’m here with a list of those you should probably avoid. Let’s get to it!
Revolution from Within by Gloria Steinem
I’m sort of embarrassingly second wave, and one of my more old lady opinions is that today’s feminists have been too harshly dismissive of Gloria Steinem. Sure, there’s a lot she could have done better, but if you read her actual books, she was always pretty clear that underprivileged women and women of color are the primary victims of patriarchy, and that feminism should center their concerns because privileged white women are already doing ok. Also, sorry, but Bernie Sanders is the most typical sort of lefty male bullshit artist and any self-respecting woman should be able to see right through him*, and y’all wouldn’t have been so butthurt about what she said if there wasn’t some truth to it. I SAID WHAT I SAID. Anyhow, this book is pretty dated, and you’re probably familiar with everything it says by now.
Should you read it? No.
Black Tickets by Jayne Anne Phillips
Phillips has an interesting voice, but I got tired of it pretty quickly. This collection was more of this sort of thing than I guess I really wanted to read at a stretch. Still, I would definitely read more by Phillips; I’d be interested in reading one of her novels.
Should you read it? No.
Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann
I adored this novel, and I loathe writing about books that I love; I cannot do them justice. I can’t articulate what I love about them. This novel is mostly about mothers and daughters, and how love leaves us (parents especially) endlessly vulnerable to dread, how worry becomes the relentless tattoo underscoring even our most quotidian contentments, how we are all simply holding our little families close against an increasingly chaotic and hazardous environment, and that in the end, managing to do so is usually enough for us.
It is also an ambitious and delightful literary experiment — Ellmann’s novel is not only entirely interior monologue, but is moreso one long unpunctuated sentence that is grounded for the reader with the repetition of “the fact that,” which serves both as a backstop that keeps the prose from being unreadable (try to read a page omitting it and notice the difference) and as a cheeky wink at William Strunk, who famously hated this phrase.
As with many books I enjoy, it seems to me that many reviewers have largely misinterpreted the novel. In particular, they seem to view the stories of the lioness and the narrator as contrasts — the lioness is described by reviewers as free and wild, unfettered by the accumulation of “too many facts” that the narrator suffers under, the example of what we are supposed to be. I don’t understand this reading — I think people are so distracted by the unique device of the internal monologue that they feel it must be the point rather than the method. To me, the arcs of the lioness and the narrator are identical: both of them are attempting to guide their children through a rapidly fragmenting and disintegrating environment that they are unable to control or comprehend, both of them go through a terrifying ordeal in which it seems their children will be lost to them and likely killed, and in the end, both of them find that they can endure and in fact ignore living in any circumstances as long as their children are close to them. Common wisdom would say that however we have destroyed the lioness’s environment and world, we have done so to benefit people like the narrator, but Ellmann’s novel makes clear that, whoever is benefitting from the tradeoffs we have made (and someone is certainly benefitting), it is not mothers of any species.
I don’t get too far into details in these short reviews, but there are so many more impressive things in this book, and Ellmann handles them all with a light touch and total trust in her readers to connect the dots themselves — for example, there’s an absolutely perfect detail about race that you could almost miss, but that gives the entire book and one of its core relationships a deeper level of significance. It’s handled absolutely perfectly and Ellmann resists the temptation to betray her narrator by further underlining it, but it’s a real and charitable depiction of both the ways in which white privilege limits our perception of the world, and the limitations of true understanding of another that even the most relentless maternal obsession cannot fully overcome.
Finally, Ellmann’s unnamed narrator becomes a deeply known and fully realized person through this reading experience. I love her, and I feel like I know her so well by now that it’s weird that she’s not actually someone I can call up and talk to.
Should you read it? I say this rarely, so buckle up: hell yes!
On Writing by Stephen King
I’m not really a fan of King’s writing, and I’ve definitely read enough sepia-tinted reminiscences of Boomer boyhoods to last me my whole life and then some, but the writing advice in here is very good. Probably the simplest, most straightforward and useful creative writing advice I’ve read, if not really the most interesting. Anyone who writes or wants to write would do well to start with it.
Should you read it? Yes, if you’re a fiction writer or interested in writing fiction.
Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever by Justin Taylor
Everyone went nuts for this collection when it came out, but it doesn’t feel emotionally honest to me. It reads a lot like a young person writing about the sort of experiences and emotions that he imagines other, cooler people are having and hopes he will himself one day, and/or attempting to write some of his own experiences and relationships as more significant than they actually were. And that kind of writing is pretty dull in much the same way as listening to someone recount their dreams is dull — it feels adjacent to meaning, but empty of it.
Or maybe I’m just not very interested in young people right now.
Should you read it? No.
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
Christ, what a bunch of assholes.
Should you read it? No.
The Trial by Franz Kafka
Really, you only need a short story’s worth of Kafka; I’m not sure his work needs the novel form. After a couple of chapters of this, you get the gist.
Should you read it? No, but read “The Metamorphosis” and “A Hunger Artist” and “In the Penal Colony.”
Gates of Eden by Ethan Coen
Most of these were only mildly clever, but I loved “The Boys.” I couldn’t stop laughing.
Should you read it? No.
The Baum Plan for Financial Independence by John Kessel
Typically, I enjoy speculative fiction that plays with gender roles, and a number of these stories are quite concerned with that, and they are from the male perspective, which is interesting. Unlike a lot of men, Kessel really gets that being a woman sucks for women every bit as much and in exactly the same way as it would suck for him if he were a woman. Whereas most men, when you get to talking to them, you realize that they have this sort of unconscious assumption that if they were a woman they would also be fundamentally different in some other personality-based way that would make that experience different and more bearable somehow than it would be for them-as-they-are. Like, they don’t think “what would it be like to be me in a woman’s position.” They instead think, “what would it be like to be a woman version of me in a woman’s position.” And they don’t get that the “woman version” of them would just be them in a woman’s position.
But the stories are pretty uneven in terms of creativity and sophistication. Like I would be reading along and nodding and getting into it, and then I would suddenly feel like I was just reading the gender version of White Man’s Burden.
And then, beyond the more interesting (if uneven) stories, there are also a number of not great stories that feel like filler. This would have been a stronger book if it were about a third shorter, but I feel that way about most story collections.
Should you read it? No. Read The Birthday of the World.
Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis
So, here’s the trouble with reading old stuff. Lewis here has written a novel about a tremendous jerk, but he thought he wrote a novel about an American hero (and so did all his readers at the time). And this is why the classics don’t age well. I mean, at the end of this book, the protagonist decides he’s not super into his wife and he just…walks out on his child? And is like, ‘ah, too bad about my son, but maybe he’ll look me up in ten years’ — direct quote! He feels literally no more complicated feelings about it than that! And it’s not that he’s a shallowly drawn or unrealistic character; I think there were really men like this. But how could I possibly relate to a man like that at all? That disinterest in his own child just makes him inhuman and uninteresting to me. I can’t imagine being so shallow. That’s just the most extreme example of why this particular novel is not accessible to someone like me, but it’s not the only reason. The whole book was like reading a novel about an alien who bears some small passing resemblance to men as we know them today, but has nothing in common with them at all. And this is a good thing! I think this sort of outlook on children was more common in the ‘20s; I know some men are still like this, but I’m happy to say that I don’t personally know any men who feel like their own child is just part of a phase they once dabbled in and then grew out of, in part because if I ever met one, I’d run the other way. Back when I was dating, if I got the merest whiff that a guy felt like his kids were just an appendage of his ex and not the central purpose of his entire life, I was OUT; that shit is my top dealbreaker.
Oh, also, this book was about a doctor developing a vaccine in a pandemic, which feels a bit on the nose at the moment. I can’t tell you how often I randomly end up reading a book that just happens to map onto exactly what is happening in the world or in my life at the time I’m reading it. Although maybe that’s because there are only really like ten things that happen.
Should you read it? No.
The Spy Who Came In from the Cold by John Le Carré
This is much slighter (both in length and merit) than A Perfect Spy, but it was an enjoyable enough quick read. It’s hampered by having a pretty pivotal female character who is a mere plot device, with not a scrap of characterization about her. Nothing she does is convincing, nor is her relationship with the protagonist earned at all. Although the protagonist is a cipher as well (although that’s a bit more understandable given his profession). The whole book is pretty thinly sketched, really.
Should you read it? No.
The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
Wow, what a trip. Sprawling, dated, boring, overly intellectual, and containing a lot of filler, this is not essential reading for contemporary feminists in my (perhaps blasphemous) opinion, but you have to respect the founders of the faith. I will say, I really enjoyed how much de Beauvoir sort of hated women. I mean, she says it’s their circumstances that make them all a bunch of dumb, complaisant cows, but she sort of spends a lot more time on explaining all the ways in which they are dumb, complaisant cows, and I’m here for it. For example:
In the United States the influence of the venerable “moms” is powerful; this is to be explained by the leisure accorded them by their parasitic mode of life; hence its balefulness. In Generation of Vipers Philip Wylie has this to say of the American mom: “Knowing nothing about medicine, art, science, religion, law, sanitation . . . She seldom has any special interest in what, exactly, she is doing as a member of any of these endless organizations, so long as it is something.” Their effort is not integrated in a coherent and constructive plan, it does not aim at objective goals; it tends only to make their tastes and prejudices imperiously clear or to serve their interests. For example, they play a considerable role in the domain of culture, since they buy most of the books; but they read as one plays solitaire. Literature assumes sense and dignity when it makes its appeal to persons engaged in projects, when it helps them go on toward ever wider horizons; it must be integrated with the movement of human transcendence. Instead, woman abuses books and works of art, engulfing them in her immanence; the picture becomes a knickknack, music tiresome repetition, the novel a reverie of no more value than a crocheted antimacassar. It is the American woman who is responsible for the degradation of the best-sellers; these books are intended not only merely to entertain, but worse, to entertain idle women in search of escape. . . . Not being specialists in politics, or in economics, or in any technical branch, the old ladies have no concrete grasp upon society; they are ignorant of the problems that call for action; they are incapable fo working out any constructive program. Their morality is as abstract and formal as a Kantian imperative; they issue prohibitions instead of seeking to discover avenues of progress; they do not try positively to create new conditions. They attack what does exist in order to eliminate evils. This explains why they always unite against something: alcohol, prostitution, pornography. . . . As long as woman remains a parasite, she cannot take part effectively in making a better world.
Oh, yeah? Well, we all know everything about your sex life now, you hypocritical French bitch!
I like reading old feminist texts because the OG feminists were unafraid to say the really obvious stuff that we all have to pretend we don’t think anymore (and no, I don’t mean TERF shit): namely that traditional marriage is prostitution, religion is inherently misogynist, and femininity is an artificial construct that is deeply degrading to all women, even those who think that they enjoy it.
Also, I didn’t know who H.M. Parshley was, but I was tickled to death by the translator’s notes in my edition — Parshley uses their footnotes to express their own opinion on de Beauvoir’s points throughout, which I believe is illegal for translators and should have gotten them disbarred? But it’s hilarious. I mean, maybe not knee-snappingly so, but you have to make your own fun when you’re wading through 800+ pages of Freudian theory and literary analysis from a 1900-era French perspective. Anyway, I looked him up later, and he’s a man of course, and he also apparently mistranslated the hell out of the book, in some cases so much so that the English text says the exact opposite of what de Beauvoir was actually saying.
Also, God damn, people used to take Freud seriously! To the point where even a woman who was smart enough to know he was full of shit had to act like there was some credence to his work in order to be taken seriously herself! It infuriates me when I think of how much of current psychology and overall thinking and societal structure and everything else that misogynist cokehead influenced.
Thank God feminism won, and things are so much better for us in America in 2020. Except most of de Beauvoir’s complaints are still accurate today; for example:
Things are quite otherwise for the woman worker or employee, the secretary, the saleswoman, all of whom go to work outside the home. It is much more difficult for them to combine their employment with household duties, which would seem to require at least three and a half hours a day, with six hours on Sunday — a good deal to add to the hours in factory or office. As for the learned professions, even if lawyers, doctors, and professors obtain some housekeeping help, the home and children are for them also a burden that is a heavy handicap. In America domestic work is simplified by ingenious gadgets; but the elegant appearance required of the working woman imposes upon her another obligation, and she remains responsible for house and children.
Furthermore, the woman who seeks independence through work has less favorable possibilities than her masculine competitors. Her wages in most jobs are lower than those of men; her tasks are less specialized and therefore not so well paid as those of skilled laborers; and for equal work she does not get equal pay. Because of the fact that she is a newcomer in the universe of males, she has fewer chances for success than they have. Men and women alike hate to be under the orders of a woman; they always show more confidence in a man; to be a woman is, if not a defect, at least a peculiarity. In order to “arrive,” it is well for a woman to make sure of masculine backing. Men unquestionably occupy the most advantageous places, hold the most important posts. It is essential to emphasize the fact hat men and women, economically speaking, constitute two castes.
This was written over 75 years ago, and could have been written yesterday.
Should you read it? Goodness no, but if for some reason you want to, get the more modern translation, the 2009 one.
*Please note that I will not be accepting questions on this at this time.