Well, hold onto your hats…I genuinely enjoyed more than one book in this batch! Is the quarantine getting to me? Probably!
Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby
Really entertaining. Lighter than Irby’s first book, and more normcore than her second, it’s probably my least favorite of the three, but I love every word Irby writes, so it’s still a lot of fun to read. I read her recaps of Judge Mathis religiously even though I’ve never seen the show and never plan to; that’s how funny she is.
Should you read it? Yes, read everything by Sam Irby.
The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead
This is a weird novel. It’s widely considered an overlooked masterpiece, a novelist’s novel, and many excellent writers cite it as an influence and a work of brilliance. But I found it clunky and hard to parse. The characterizations are great — the book is about two horrible people who married each other and then had a pack of long-suffering children, and Sam Pollitt is a picture perfect narcissist. I recognize him in some of my friend’s fathers, we all know a guy like this and we all pity his family. The book is dark and bleak, it’s not fun to read. Henny and Louisa Pollitt, the other two main characters, are similarly real and recognizable, and it’s very difficult to watch how Henny (and everyone else) treats Louisa, and maybe a bit inspiring to witness Louisa’s emotional endurance. The prose is just sort of bizarre, in the way that certain books written in the early 20th century are bizarre, as if sentence structure just worked differently at the time. But it didn’t, because other writers in the ‘40s were perfectly comprehensible, if stylistically dated. I never know quite what this sort of jerky, awkward syntax is all about in older novels, whether it was a choice at the time, or just poor writing. Similarly, the structure of the overall book, which doesn’t quite fit together or flow in what seems to be an intentional way, and which includes very detailed but seemingly random segues that either I don’t understand the significance of, or that the writer didn’t. Not sure which! Anyway, there are impressive things about this novel, but I’m not sure it was really worth the time investment of reading it, and I would be unlikely to read anything else by Stead.
Should you read it? No.
The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe
This was really terrible, it read like something someone in one of my writing groups would write.
Should you read it? Definitely not.
Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin
I know this was clever and surprising when it came out, so props to Maupin for that, but it’s so dated now that it mostly reads as embarrassingly cheesy.
Should you read it? No. Although apparently they’ve recently done a TV series based on it for some reason, and I hear it’s entertaining.
Moral Clarity by Susan Neiman
This was dull and I don’t especially like the way Neiman writes, but it was also interesting. It’s especially interesting to read her attempt to unpack the immorality of the Bush years now that even some liberals look back on them with nostalgia in contrast to what we’re undergoing now. I mean, really, the Bush years were arguably worse; Trump has yet to launch an unjustified invasion that killed over a hundred thousand people, and the executive overreach and system of surveillance that Bush established have continued on unchecked through both succeeding administrations and look unlikely ever to be rolled back. But I digress. Neiman here mounts a defense of the Enlightenment and argues for the left to embrace the notion of heroism and to wield terms like “good” and “evil” without wincing in embarrassment. She’s probably not wrong, but having just read this book, I would be hard-pressed to summarize her point, and I’m not sure whether that is because the book is sort of all over the place, or because I wasn’t that attentive to it because I found it dry, or because I am too stupid to really understand what she was talking about, or all of the above. Anyway, I’m glad to be done with it, and to be fair, even if Neiman was the most persuasive writer ever to put pen to paper, it is very difficult to feel anything other than nihilism at the moment.
Should you read it? Nah.
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
I Am Legend was ok. The ten stories included with it were very stupid. I did not realize it, but I read another book by Matheson, Hell House, which I judged as silly, boring, and sexist. I Am Legend was better than that one, and it also felt fairly relevant at the moment, but it didn’t blow my mind or anything.
Should you read it? No.
The Lecturer’s Tale by James Hynes
There is no prose more painful to read than that of a deeply unfunny person attempting to be witty and cutting. Here are nearly 400 pages of it. Hynes seems like an awful chore to be around; I skimmed faster and faster trying to get away from him.
I read his Next back in 2010, and I remember liking it ok, because I thought the book was well-constructed and attempted something interesting even if it didn’t quite come off, but I was put off by the unpleasant protagonist and the author’s seeming sympathy for him. This was a lot more of that, so I guess it wasn’t a one-off.
Should you read it? No.
The Dead Republic by Roddy Doyle
I like the way Doyle writes, but this bored me. It’s the final book in a trilogy I haven’t read, but I don’t think that’s why. I liked the second half much better than the first.
Should you read it? No, but watch Derry Girls; it’s fantastic.
The Collector by John Fowles
Wow, there is scarcely a false note in this (the ending was perhaps a bit forced, but I would not have wanted it to be any longer), which would be impressive at the best of times given the challenge Fowles set himself here, but is especially so given this was written in the ‘50s. I am never more ready to damn an author straight to hell than when a man attempts to write in the voice of a young woman, but Fowles does right by Miranda. She is, in fact, a more fully drawn and deeply real character than I can remember reading in some time. Also, it was very impressive and subtle what Fowles did with the character of G.P. — how he used him as a mirror to Clegg, and how he lets the reader see, entirely through Miranda’s perspective, exactly what sort of person G.P. is even though Miranda herself does not yet know what kind of person G.P. is; how he does this without in any way being condescending to Miranda or winking at the reader; and how he explores through this parallel what it is like to be Miranda, who, had she escaped Clegg, would likely next have fallen prey in a more insidious way to a more refined predator (though that would of course had been the better fate). This book could have been so many terrible things, and it ended up being literature, and a feminist work at that. I was very pleasantly surprised.
Should you read it? Yes!
The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty by Eudora Welty
Eudora Welty was a genius. The stories in The Golden Apples especially are works of genius — you cannot learn to write sentences like those in “June Recital.” No one can learn to write a story like that, and to read it is to give up on any idea you ever had of writing. Why bother? I think the stories in A Curtain of Green are the most fun, and the stories in The Golden Apples are the most brilliant (that entire collection is a mind-blowing work of absolute art, and it’s astonishing to me that we don’t spend more time talking about it), but there are pretty amazing stories in the other two collections as well. Not all of these are winners — some read like failed experiments, and quite a few are more like studies than stories — but she hardly wrote a boring sentence in over 600 pages.
I sometimes wonder if people who are not from the deep South can appreciate how perfectly she paints scenes. Like this, from “June Recital”:
As she struggled, her round face seemed stretched wider than it was long by a feeling that failed to match the feelings of everybody else. It was not the same as sorrow. Miss Eckhart, a stranger to their cemetery, where none of her people lay, pushed forward with her unstylish, winter purse swinging on her arm, and began to nod her head — sharply, to one side and then the other. She appeared almost little under the tree, but Mr. Comus and Dr. Loomis looked more shrunken still by the side of her as they—sent by ladies—reached for her elbows. Her vigorous nods included them too, increasing in urgency. It was the way she nodded at pupils to bring up their rhythm, helping out the metronome.
This describes a spinster making an ass of herself at a funeral by momentarily losing control of her reserve and outwardly expressing a grief that all those present feel is unseemly and demonstrative for a person like her to be feeling. And if you don’t understand what I mean by that, you’re probably not Southern. That little aside, “sent by ladies,” absolutely sent me (as the kids say). In nearly every story, a character in some way punctures the unspoken code of conduct Morgana enforces on its members, and the violence of even a subtle disruption is jarring to the reader. Welty wrings comedy out of tiny moments; every character leaps off the page, and she can reveal an entire personality from a gesture or a single line of dialogue.
Should you read it? Yes, but if you are only going to read a bit of Welty, I recommend first The Golden Apples and then A Curtain of Green. At the very least, read “June Recital.”
The Hamilton Case by Michelle de Kretser
I really enjoyed this novel. The writing is lovely, although the structure is a bit wandering. I will read more by de Kretser.
Should you read it? Sure.
Jeff In Venice, Death In Varanasi by Geoff Dyer
I thought “Jeff In Venice” was stupid and boring, the usual sort of cliched dude comic novel, but then I got to “Death In Varanasi” and I realized what Dyer was doing, and appreciated it quite a lot. It is clever and creative how Dyer mirrors the two halves of the story. Although the book is not dense or challenging, its seeming simplicity is deceptive. I very much enjoyed all the little details I caught on the first read-through, and I know I would catch more details if I read it through more carefully, probably more on each successive read. Am I interested enough to do that? Probably not, to be honest. Still, I appreciate the book and the craft that went into it, and I am happy I read it.
Should you read it? If you enjoy literary experiments, you’d probably find it fun. It’s a quick read.
Wish Her Safe At Home by Stephen Benatar
Well, this was a goddamn delight! I mean, I’m always going to love a novel about a batty inappropriately horny spinster going gradually insane in her own house, but it’s quite something that I’ve read two female POV novels by male authors in as many months and approved of them! See, I am not impossible to please. I enjoyed everything about this, including the Tennessee Williams references. High school me would have LOVED this book, and it would have been good for her, too, as she took herself too seriously (how many times can one read The Bell Jar).
Should you read it? Sure, it’s a fun quarantine read especially.