Recent Reads

Been reading a lot, as usual! Here we go:

Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand

Entertaining enough, I guess, but felt kind of half-baked. I always think I like horror novels, but then they are forever unsatisfying to me because what I really want is some sort of conclusive explanation that ties everything together, and there can never be one because ghosts are not real. The end of every horror novel feels like the last season of Lost. So I don’t really know why I think I like horror novels! 

Should you read it? No. I mean, maybe, if you like horror novels. Most people did like this one, I’m just very hard to please.

Herzog by Saul Bellow

Four hundred plus pages of the tedious thoughts of a bitter divorcee. Not sure I’ve ever read a less interesting interior monologue. Why Saul Bellow thought Moses Herzog was worth creating, I’ve no idea — this was the literary equivalent of an errands day. 

Should you read it? Certainly not.

Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

Interesting idea, clunky execution. Heuvelt’s attempt to set the book in the US for the English translation was a poor one. It’s always extremely painful when grown writers try to write contemporary dialogue for teenagers and there was a lot of that here, including some truly painful “tech speak.” One major character was a cartoon from another book entirely. There were some annoyingly obvious holes in the continuity of the books world. And finally, the “lesson” was pat and overly spelled out (and there was a lesson). 

Should you read it? No.

After Alice by Gregory Maguire

This was cute and entertaining, and Maguire got Carroll’s tone just right. I didn’t really like the inclusion of a black child as a sort of sacrificial (and stereotypical) symbol while the two white girls were fully drawn characters, and I didn’t think it was necessary. Not sure what that was all about, it seemed like a lazy poorly thought out way to wedge some gravity into a light novel. But I enjoyed the read for the most part. 

Should you read it? Nah.

Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century by Jonathan Glover

A rough but necessary read, this is a long survey of the largest scale atrocities of the 20th century, what enabled them, and what we should (but clearly won’t) learn from the conditions that made them possible. Glover focuses primarily on the choices and moral failings of individuals; this is not a history book. It is not about economic conditions or major political actors (although it covers those in brief) — it’s about the citizens, and what they did or didn’t do as their countries slid into dictatorship, war, and genocide. Sort of frighteningly timely, although it was published in ’99.

Should you read it? Absolutely, you should choke it down dutifully.

Styles of Radical Will by Susan Sontag

Most of this was too turgid and academic for me, but I enjoyed her reflections on porn, America, and North Vietnam. 

Should you read it? No. Also, previously.

The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace

This isn’t a great novel, but it’s fun to read if you’re a Wallace fan, as it’s basically a dress rehearsal for Infinite Jest. It’s really interesting to watch him developing some of the techniques he’d put to much better use later. The biggest flaw is that Wallace is not good at writing women (it’s to his credit that he seems pretty self-aware of it and avoids doing it too much most of the time) and this novel has a woman protagonist, which is fairly painful. The style of the novel kind of reminds me of the ‘90s playwrights everyone was obsessed with when I was doing theater ten years later — Nicky Silver, David Lindsay-Abair, Durang. Just this sort of wacky broad humor that I wouldn’t really have associated Wallace with; his later work is more sophisticated. I loved those playwrights at the time, though, and if I’d read this novel back then, I’d probably have been much more impressed with it. 

Should you read it? No, but I still maintain that everyone needs to read Infinite Jest because I’m a dirtbag boy.

Six Myths of Our Time by Marina Warner

This seemed like the sort of thing I’d really love, but I couldn’t really follow Warner’s point in these essays. Do essays need to have a coherent point for me to enjoy them? I wouldn’t have thought so, but possibly. 

Should you read it? No.

The Collected Stories of Bertrand Russell by Bertrand Russell

This book was a gift from a friend who knows I likes Russell (see above re: am dirtbag). Russell isn’t really remembered for his fiction, and this collection demonstrates why. The few non-fiction pieces in here were better. 

Should you read it? No.

Lady Chatterly’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence

This is Lawrence’s most famous book, which is funny, because it’s the least well written and least creative of all of them. I can now authoritatively say that The Rainbow is his best, and the rest of Lawrence can be safely skipped. 

Should you read it? If you are an adolescent without internet access and with intrusive parents, this is probably the closest you can get to porn that no one will question. Otherwise, no.

Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta

I think I finally figured out why I never like novels about rock musicians: they always aim at cool and land at corny, and they feel embarrassing for me to read. Fiction writers are simply not as cool as musicians, and they don’t do well at trying to inhabit that pose. Every time I read any novel about a band or people in a band, I find myself doing the mortified “hiss through the teeth” you do when you’re watching a comic bomb during an open mic. I feel so anxious on behalf of the writer that I can’t relax into the novel. Actually, the same is true of nonfiction pieces about musicians. Maybe it’s just that the particular atmosphere of the music world comes across as hopelessly corny when translated into prose. 

Other than that, I’m also just so bored of novels about women caring for and worrying over and loving and revolving around brilliant, troubled, eccentric, and/or genius men. Let’s have more novels about men ordering their entire lives around brilliant, troubled, eccentric, and/or genius women. 

Should you read it? No.

Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood

Beautiful, hilarious, surprising, and yet at the same time resonant for anyone who has had to go back home as an adult (which at this point, is basically all of us). I love Lockwood’s voice. 

Should you read it? 100%, absolutely!

The Stories of Bernard Malamud by Bernard Malamud

Enjoyable. I liked “Rembrandt’s Hat” best. 

Should you read it? No.

The Bad Boy’s Wife by Karen Shephard

At first, I was not at all interested in this book — I have a really hard time (especially at this point in my life) relating to stories about women who throw themselves away on worthless men. And it’s not that I have to relate to everything I read, but it seems so inexplicable to me it’s like reading about aliens who participate in ritual flogging. I just feel like…just quit it, and the problem is solved? I don’t see what you get from it, or why you’re doing it in the first place? This is a non-problem! 

But the book cleverly works backwards through a disintegrated marriage, so the rest of the novel made me better understand the characters and their relationship, and why they were in the position they were in, and Shepard writes well, so I enjoyed the book overall. 

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

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

Dreiser is always really tedious to read, he’s not a very good writer, and this should have been a third as long. Still, I expected this to be a morality tale about a corrupted young woman led to ruin and was really pleased it was the opposite. Carrie is kind of awesome (although she’s two-dimensionally written). I at least liked this better than An American Tragedy, which isn’t saying much.

Should you read it? No, nobody needs to read Dreiser at all.

The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux

This was fun to read. I always mildly enjoy Theroux’s writing, although he’s clearly an asshole. 

Should you read it? No.

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

This was well-written, if MFA-y, but, as I mentioned above, I have a hard time relating to why people get into and stay in even healthy and rewarding relationships, so abusive ones are really beyond me. It all seems so elaborate and unnecessary to me when simply remaining single is the easiest and most passive thing in the world. 

Should you read it? Maybe, people love Machado so if you’re the sort of person who does relationships you might quite like this.

Stories In An Almost Classical Mode by Harold Brodkey

Would you enjoy wading through 600 pages of dense repetitive Freudian prose in which Brodkey works out his mommy issues? I did not! But someone might! 

Should you read it? Inadvisable.

Moo by Jane Smiley

I did not like this as much as the other books I’ve read by Smiley, but I find her such an interesting writer. Everything she writes is distinct from everything else, she seems to have no consistent voice, but yet, none of her books read as experimental. Also, this is a novel written in 1995 about a Midwestern ag college and Smiley (a white academic) includes what I thought was a pretty realistic subplot of a Black student character and her experience there (I can’t say for sure, being white, but it seems like a fairly decent attempt based on what Black writers have been saying about their experiences at white universities lately). White writers usually either omit Black characters altogether or make an insultingly reductive attempt at representing them. Overall, though, this was satire and it wasn’t especially clever or entertaining. 

Should you read it? No, but I tell everyone to read The Greenlanders.

Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh

I’m so in the tank for Allie Brosh that I really can’t be objective about her work. I did not like this second book as much as her first (it felt like in some cases she was scraping for content), but I would read anything by her, so I still liked it quite a lot. The changes in her style from her first book to this one are really interesting and subtle (the regression in depiction of her adult self and the footie pajamas, for example). I feel incredibly saddened by what she and her family have been through during her hiatus — I had no idea how bad things had gotten in her life. She’s a really strong person. I’m so glad she’s writing again, and I hope she keeps it up because she’s one of my favorite voices. 

Should you read it? If you like Allie Brosh, you surely already plan to.

Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell

I usually find these sorts of reductive portraits of vacuous suburban matrons (by men) to be really insulting and shallow. People are more complex than this. This type of book always just feels like men being spiteful and condescending toward their mothers. However, Connell is a good satirist, and I really enjoyed the side characters in this novel — Wilhelm Van Metre was particularly perfect. Overall, it was a fun quick read.

Should you read it? No.

Comments 4

  1. Zandy October 23, 2020

    I spent a few years convinced that there was some unholy trinity between Dreiser, Henry James, and Edith Wharton. Can’t stand the lot of them. Though I understand The Haunting of Bly Manor is based on Turn of the Screw, which I’m not sure is redemptive.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Elizabeth October 23, 2020

      I like Wharton ok, but she’s not a favorite or anything. I’m reserving judgment on James for now having read only one of his big novels (The Ambassadors, it was a snore). I did enjoy Turn of the Screw, though.

      Like

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