Recent Reads

I read 70 books in 2020, not including a few books I read for work and one I abandoned part-way through (see below). Here’s the last batch, followed by a list of the ones I especially liked over the year (15). This was a typical year’s reading for me, as I’m an antisocial hermit and a big reader just in general, and so my lifestyle this year wasn’t really all that different than it is any other year (except that I didn’t travel or see family, and also I got pregnant).

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

This was cute, but kind of insubstantial. 

Should you read it? No.

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth by Isabel Greenberg

This was creative and delightful. I am only just now starting to read graphic novels, but comparing this to Through the Woods, which I had read just before, the level of art and effort is in another league entirely. Greenberg has created a whole little world here, and the small details in the drawings are essential to its expression and add more than half of the story, which I imagine is the idea for graphic novels. I wished it were longer. 

Should you read it? Yes.

Intuition by Allegra Goodman

I can be harsh in these reviews, but I actually feel mean about what I have to say about this one: this is a bad book. The writing is bad, the dialogue is bad, the characters are bad, the plot is bad. There is no style whatsoever, the writing is wooden and dead on the page. Goodman has a tin ear, and really should not be writing. 

Should you read it? No.

Collected Stories by V.S. Pritchett

These were fine. Some were fun, some were skippable, all felt dated and not especially essential reading anymore.

Should you read it? No.

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

This was cute. I enjoyed reading it, but I didn’t love it. 

Should you read it? Nah.

The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine

This was very stupid, just a beach book kind of thing. 

Should you read it? No.

Logicomix by Apostolos Doxiadis, Christos Papdimitriou, Alecos Papadatos, and Annie Di Donna

I found this interesting enough, and easy to follow. It succeeded in its goal of making complex mathematical principles easily understandable by a dumbass like me. But I don’t really know what it gained from being a graphic novel. It felt a bit cheesy, like the educational cartoons you watch in school. 

Should you read it? Probably not.

My Favorite Thing Is Monsters by Emil Ferris

A brilliant masterpiece! Ferris contracted West Nile virus at 40-years-old and was paralyzed from the waist down as well as losing most functionality in her dominant hand. As she recovered, she spent 6 years living in poverty and laboriously cross-hatching this novel with a ball-point pen. I found out about all of that after I had read it; even without that context, I was blown away by its creativity and ambition. 

The book is very dark and it ends on a cliffhanger (there is to be a Volume II). I fell completely in love with its protagonist, 10-year-old Karen, and reading about the tragic things that happen to here was almost too much for me. I am currently pregnant and I’ve been told by other women that having a child will permanently lower my tolerance for narratives about bad things happening to children. I didn’t necessarily believe this, but now I do think it’s happening. I could hardly get through this. Your mileage might vary. 

All that said, this is definitely my favorite graphic novel of those few I’ve read so far, and has reshaped my understanding of what the genre can do. 

Should you read it? Absolutely.

The Anatomy of Melancholy by Richard Burton

The 25 people who have read this tome all rave about it, and frankly, I think this is primarily due to sunk cost fallacy. Readers describe devouring it, laughing heartily throughout, loving this better than any book they’ve ever read before or since. And granted, tastes vary, but I feel like they’re maybe protesting a bit too much. This isn’t so much a book as an exhaustive list of references: Burton here catalogues every single example of melancholy (including causes of, cures for, and comorbidities) that human history had as yet provided up to his publication date of (at first) 1621, including every previous mention in literature, song, myth, etc. It’s less like reading a book than like reading the output of someone with a severe case of graphomania. A very educated (by 17th century standards) person with graphomania, to be sure! It’s impressive (I guess) that Burton stayed true to this cataloguing compulsion for his entire life, but I’m not sure it’s actually worth reading.

The first two partitions (on melancholy, its causes, and treatments) could be summed up as “strive for moderation in all things.” The final partition is about romantic love and religious fervor, and as the only thing that interests me less than romantic love and religious fervor is the opinion of a 17th century man on romantic love and religious fervor, I mostly skimmed that bit. One thing I do feel I missed in all this is that reviewers rave about Burton’s great wit. I consider myself fairly well attuned to wit, but I did not detect that much of it here, although Burton does write with a sort of gently witty tone in general. I’m not sure I agree that wit is so much in evidence here that the book is (as Anthony Burgess claims) “one of the great comic works of the world.” But to be fair, you might have to be especially up on British popular culture in the 1600s to really get the references. 

Should you read it? Lol, imagine your life being so empty that you actually read this book. …Wait.

The History of Tom Jones by Henry Fielding

I didn’t expect to enjoy this, but it was a fun bawdy romp through 18th century England, and I had a good time. I especially enjoyed Fielding’s winking metafictional chapters at the beginning of each book. 

Should you read it? No.

The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls by Mona Eltahawy

Ever since #metoo kicked off, I’ve been waiting for some feminists to speak up with the obvious but unsayable: if we ever really want things to change, women have to start killing our rapists and abusers so that men begin to fear retaliation from non-consenting women (as they will never need to fear it from the state). I read somewhere that Eltahawy was saying it, so I started following her on Twitter, and put her book on my to-read list. The “Violence” chapter here was what I was most interested in, and in it, Eltahawy heavily cites legal professor Mary Ann Franks, in her article “Men, Women, and Optimal Violence.”

I think really, I just wanted to read that article. But Eltahawy’s book is worth reading because it’s contemporary, and she focuses heavily on non-white, non-American stories of currently ongoing fights for justice and human rights, some of which I was entirely unaware of, and all of which I was very interested to read about. 

Should you read it? Probably. But definitely read “Men, Women, and Optimal Violence.”

A Ship Made of Paper by Scott Spencer

Hoo-boy. Imagine, as recently as 2003, the publishing industry not only published books like this by white men, they nominated them for major awards! Couldn’t be now. Spencer here tries and spectacularly fails to imagine, among other things, how Black people experience race and racism, and how women experience sex. He also plots cartoonishly and his prose is dead on the page. In these reviews, I usually just write about whether or not I like the book, because this is my personal blog. But fair book reviews are supposed to focus on whether or not an author succeeds in trying to do whatever they are trying to do. By either measure here, Spencer fails. This book is one giant cringe; I read it through parted fingers. Possibly one of the worst books I’ve ever read. 

Should you read it? No.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

I don’t like Hemingway very much, but I did like this. 

Should you read it? You probably already have; I think most people read this in school.

Blankets by Craig Thompson

This was a very sweet love story that made me wish I had had a high school romance. I’m not usually very interested in love stories, but when I am, they are usually love stories about teenagers, because romantic love seems designed for that age. In older people, it seems a bit absurd, something you really ought to have grown out of, like doing drugs or writing poetry. But it’s entirely appropriate in the young, and I sometimes wish I had gone in for it more at the time (I often wish I had done a lot more drugs). 

Should you read it? Probably not, unless you’re a teenager. Especially the sort of teenage boy who over-romanticizes relationships.

Heliopolis by James Scudamore

This is somewhat interesting, but the writing, plotting, and characterization are all pretty clunky. 

Should you read it? Nah.

The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent by Lionel Trilling

I picked this up from a used bookstore because I had a general idea of having enjoyed Trilling’s writing when I’d come across it. The essays here are literary criticism, so I only read a handful of them, those about writers I’ve actually read. I disagree with Trilling’s conclusions and thoughts on most everything, turns out! In particular, he completely misreads Lolita. Everyone misreads Lolita, which is always surprising to me, because it’s not actually a hard book, but Trilling misreads it more than most. 

Also, he’s a colossal bigot re: the gays, and we could excuse him by saying this was common for his time period? Except it wasn’t, he was an intellectual, and intellectuals have always known better than that — they cut their teeth on the Classics, for god’s sake! 

Should you read it? No.

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

This was cute and entertaining. A well-worn detective story homage, freshened up by way of a protagonist with Tourette’s, sort of another The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time. It didn’t really have enough to it to keep my interest for a full novel, and I think would have held up a lot better as a short story. 

Should you read it? Nah.

Black Hole by Charles Burns

This just didn’t seem that original or interesting to me. The artwork is very straightforward, kind of boring, the characters and dialogue are pretty flat, and the thematic material (adolescent alienation and early sexual guilt) is so frequently explored that it really needed an especially fresh perspective not to read as tired or to compare negatively with many similar attempts. I don’t know, it just didn’t seem especially creative to me, but I’m probably not the target audience. 

Should you read it? No.

The Wings of the Dove by Henry James

I really struggle with James. Serious readers pretty much universally admire him; he’s considered complex and difficult, but rewarding. But…I feel like his prose is just unnecessarily tortured and intentionally impenetrable for seemingly no reason. I think I maybe just am not smart enough to get why it’s good. But I also feel like no one who admires it ever really explains why it is good and not bad. Once you get into the rhythm of how he writes, it’s easier going, and there were certainly some passages in this that I thought were creative and admirable (although James never wants to explain something one time if he can hit you over the head with it with 20 pages of ever-increasing explanation — he doesn’t trust his readers to intuit anything at all).

The other issue with this book (and increasingly for me with canon literature) is it’s yet another book about the problem of aristocratic white people being unable to marry without access to generational wealth. It’s really astonishing how many works of great literature are about this: nearly every British novel written from the Romantic period on, and although the Americans initially had other things to talk about, they picked this topic up from the Brits around the turn of the century right when the Brits were getting tired of it and kept it going. Not to say that plot is everything, but even as a framework for arranging your prose and themes and so on on top of, how many novels centered around this fringe concern can one person be expected to appreciate? This particular novel becomes much more interesting once it pivots from “I cannot possibly marry my girlfriend because I have to work for a living” to “my girlfriend is clearly a sociopath but I’m still in love with her anyway.” I liked it better than The Ambassadors at any rate. 

Should you read it? No

Ghost Story by Peter Straub

I read this in August, and immediately forgot I had read it until I noticed it in my ebooks in December and thought it was new. I don’t remember whether I liked it or not, or anything about it, but I apparently gave it two stars on Goodreads at the time, which means I didn’t like it. 

Should you read it? No

Thick: And Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom

These essays are infuriating and up-to-the-minute relevant. Reading about Cottom’s treatment by multiple medical providers during her tragic miscarriage would surely have enraged me at any time, but reading it while pregnant made me so angry that I couldn’t read it all in one sitting. I had to take breaks; it actually took me a couple of days to get through. All women are treated poorly by medical providers — many of my white friends had their second babies at home after horrific experiences during their first pregnancies, they regularly trade stories about taking their husbands along to appointments so their complaints are taken seriously, etc. — but I cannot fathom any white woman (well, of Cottom’s social class) ever being treated the way Cottom was treated. It simply would not happen. In fact, it was difficult for me even to read the rest of the essays, because I felt I could not focus on anything else until someone assured me that the doctors and nurses involved were made to pay in some way: fired, imprisoned, publicly flogged, murdered, ideally all four. This is one difficulty for me in reading nonfiction: I am not very good at detaching from accounts of real life injustice. I want to see the perpetrators suffer. I want revenge. 

Anyway, I was also very interested in the essay about the classist elevation of black-ethnic people (African, Jamaican, or other black immigrants) over black-black people (African-Americans) in academia and elsewhere, which is a nuance in “D&I” movements that I have of course been entirely oblivious to, but which I can completely see now that I have read this. The book is full of eye-openers of this kind. 

Should you read it? Yes.

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard

I feel like I ought to have loved this novel, but it left me entirely cold. I like Hazzard’s writing style, but of all the love stories in this novel, only one of them actually felt convincing in any way. In all the others, we’re told that people are just burning for each other, but are given no insight into why, and we don’t get any sense (other than being repeatedly told it) that they actually are. And then there is a twist, and first of all, it does not seem like a book like this should have a twist. I certainly wasn’t expecting it to. And the twist read as if it were from another book entirely; it didn’t feel earned by what had come before and just seemed tacked on. Also, the mirroring of the changing times with the protagonists’ lives seemed more like something the writer felt she needed to do to make the book weightier than anything required by the novel itself; I didn’t in the end feel that these people were moved by anything other than the author’s hand. 

Should you read it? No.

The Black Minutes by Martín Solares

I feel like the fault here might be primarily the translation, but this is unreadably bad. I’m astonished anyone made it through, much less that the book was well-reviewed by serious publications; it reads as if it were written by an actual child. It reminded me of Threat Level Midnight by Michael Scarn. It’s so cartoonishly poorly written that I felt it must be a joke somehow. I haven’t abandoned a book in years, but I couldn’t suffer through more than 100 pages of this.

Should you read it? No.

Exley by Brock Clarke

This novel had some problems, but I enjoyed reading it. 

Should you read it? Probably not.

Straight Man by Richard Russo

I really cannot stand Richard Russo, but I’d forgotten how much I disliked him when I read this. This wasn’t as horrible at The Whore’s Child, but it was yet another “comic” novel about a wry middle-aged white male writing professor at a small university who is plagued by the nonsense of his colleagues and his students and the women in his life. Literally every old white dude writer has written this exact novel, they all think it is knee-snappingly hilarious, and it has never been even remotely clever or original, even once. But they keep writing it! They’ll write it forever, I think, even after we no longer have liberal arts departments or tenured professors or MFA students. 

Should you read it? No.


Over the year, I dearly loved the following books:

  • Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann
  • Wow, No Thank You by Sam Irby
  • The Collector by John Fowles
  • The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty by Eudora Welty
  • Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood
  • My Favorite Thing Is Monsters by Emil Ferris

I also really enjoyed:

  • The Hamilton Case by Michelle de Kretser
  • Jeff In Venice, Death In Varanasi by Geoff Dyer
  • Wish Her Safe at Home by Stephen Benatar
  • Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century by Jonathan Glover
  • Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh
  • The Encyclopedia of Early Earth by Isabel Greenberg
  • The Old Man and the Sea by Earnest Hemingway
  • Blankets by Craig Thompson
  • Thick: And Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom

These weren’t the only books I liked, but they were the top few.

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