Books I have read in the last six weeks or so in no particular order

Hisham Matar, The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land In Between. The author’s memoir of his search for his father, who was kidnapped in 1990 and disappeared into a political prison in Libya, never to emerge. Amazingly moving and a newly relevant read in light of last week’s events — and the themes of grief and the engagement with the literature completely sucked me in. Probably the best book I have read this year. 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner. I plan to read his novels next.

Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings. A group of friends coalesces at a summer camp; the book traces their creative ups and downs through the events and fads of New York City for thirty years. Story told mainly / heavily from the perspective of the friend who doesn’t make it creatively. The allusions to modern American culture are annoying, but somehow this one kept me reading, the portrayals of the characters’ emotional responses feel authentic, and I really liked the ending.

Rachel Cusk, Outline and Transit. A recently divorced woman tells her story through a series of deftly constructed, partially philosophical conversations with people she encounters about their lives — students, fellow travelers, workmen, friends. I loved these and wish I had written them. First two books of a projected trilogy.

Jay Asher, Thirteen Reasons Why. A young man listens to the tapes made by a young woman to explain why she killed herself and point the finger at her classmates. I read this in order to talk about it with A, but we haven’t had a chance to discuss it. The world is in uproar because the Netflix filmed version is supposedly triggering or suicide-positive. I thought the book told a fascinating story but the emotional life of the female protagonist didn’t ring true to me; while there was a high degree of verisimilitude regarding U.S. high schools, I found the entire narrative implausible.

Alice Dreger, Galileo’s Middle Finger. A discussion of the conflicts between scientists and activists over social science questions of political relevance, with heavy emphasis on intersex and transgender matters. The author (a professor of medical history and ethics) seems to take the position that political activism around social science is okay as long as the science is accurate — but ignores that she herself occupies a political position (it’s the bad guys who distort science with politics, never she herself). Interesting read, though, and a huge indictment of the American Anthropological Society.

Kayla Rae Whitaker, The Animators. Read only 100 pp. The story of the tensions between a creative pair of friends that meets in college, makes an animated film together, wins an award, and then suffers a devastating blow. I could not get the slightest bit interested in how the story ended.

George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo. Read only about 50 pp. When U.S. President Lincoln’s son, Willie, died, Lincoln was so grief-stricken that he entered the crypt several times to embrace the body (a historical anecdote for which there is contemporary evidence). The novel retells the story with Willie “trapped” in the bardo, a sort of Buddhist intermediate status between life and death, conversing with others in the same place. This book has been a critical darling, but I found it turgid, uninteresting, and pretentious in terms of its form — it seemed to me that the novelist gave up his obligation to actually tell us a story about anything. For readers familiar with Kempowski’s Das Echolot, the formal structure is very similar, but the confusion between real historical data and fictional narratives makes for unpleasant reading. (So this is the second book that Lee Pace has liked that I have not cared for.)

Bandi, The Accusation. This the first North Korean story collection to be published outside North Korea, which is why I am reading it. I don’t usually like short stories, but the world described in these seems very remote and intriguing to me. I am halfway through but plan to finish it, mostly because it feels so much like undiscovered territory.

Chimamanda Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun. A story of the Nigerian / Biafran civil war told from the perspectives of a Nigerian couple, a white novelist and his partner, the sister of the woman in the couple, and a young man from a village who’s the man in the couple’s houseboy. I didn’t connect anything with “Biafra” except famine / starvation before I read this — it’s a tremendously moving book. This is the third book of hers I’ve read and they have all been excellent. I’ve read just recently that she’s involved in some sort of controversy over gender matters and I am studiously trying to ignore it.

Chris Kraus, I Love Dick. A couple who have dinner with an acquaintance conceive the idea that he wanted to have sexual encounter with the woman, and write a long series of letters to him together that they eventually send, to his bemusement and alienation. I’d heard about this book ages ago and just saw that it’s been made into a film, so decided to get on top of it. Probably not a book for the faint of heart — it makes tons of references to literary theory and long stretches of it reminded me of Waiting for Godot (which is not everyone’s thing). The narrative is not particularly compelling, but I finished it because it’s a rigorous treatment of what Derrida called “enforced voyeurism,” something I’ve been accused of on blog many times.

Julia Pierpont, Among Ten Thousand Things. The marriage of a New York couple breaks up, and shatters their family in the wake of the husband’s infidelity. I read all the the way to the end but I am not sure why. Not very compelling. This might have been on the catapult “staff picks” list.

Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. A study of housing conditions and rental markets for the poor in Milwaukee. Essentially reportage but very well done, and makes clear that the major people benefiting from the current situation are the slumlords, but somehow managing not to slam them, either. Pulitzer Prize winner. An interesting read but not essential.

Julie Buntin, Marlena. A high schooler moves to northern Michigan from Ann Arbor and becomes friends with a drug dealer and his girlfriend, Marlena. Years later, memories of her youth are invoked when Marlena’s brother visits the protagonist in NYC. (Why is so much contemporary American writing about NYC?) I read this because I read a really thought-provoking interview with the author about writing about things that have happened in one’s family — an issue that I have as a writer as well. The book was okay, but the interview was better.

Megan Marshall, Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast. Biography of the famous poet (author of “One Art,” a favorite of mine), whom the author knew slightly because she took a class with her at Harvard in the 1970s. Their narratives are intertwined in thoughtful ways. It’s been widely compared with Kay Jamison’s recent biography of Robert Lowell (Bishop’s friend and a poet of similar inclinations), but it’s much better as a study of the artistry of poetry (Jamison, as per usual, only wants to write about mental illness and its etiology, about which I don’t find her tremendously insightful.)

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, The Fact of a Body: Murder and Memoir. The author weaves information about the sexual molestation and murder of a young boy that she encountered while interning for an anti-death penalty law firm with her own fragmentary memories of sexual abuse at the hand of her grandfather. Neither story is entirely clear-cut. The first third of the book annoyed me but I was interested enough in the murder conviction to keep reading; by the end of the book I was more interested in the author’s experiences.

Patty Yumi Cottrell, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace. A young woman living in New York City learns that her brother (like her, a Korean adoptee into a white family) has killed himself; she returns to her uncomfortable childhood home to Milwaukee to “solve the mystery.” I thought this book was hilarious! But it is page after page after page of satire and black humor.

Alan Garner, The Owl Service. Apparently Garner is a classic youth fantasy author in the UK; I’d never heard of him. Two English youngsters visit Wales in the school holidays and stir up some trouble in the attic of the cottage they stay in. Lots of classic tropes of this kind of story here, but I enjoyed it without thinking it was spectacular.

~ by Servetus on May 27, 2017.

40 Responses to “Books I have read in the last six weeks or so in no particular order”

  1. Man, that’s a impressive list. I could never squeeze enough time out of my day to read so much weighty literature. I cannot give up my addiction to fan fic, checking out blogs, Netflix and judge Judy. When did you figure out you did not have to finish a book you started. That is so liberating. I always feel compelled to finish, even if I don’t like the book.


  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on these. I’m trying to get back to reading more. I used to consistently read a book a week (although most not so weighty), but like Kathy, lately I’ve been spending so much time reading blogs/blogging (and working/living life) that I haven’t read much. I miss it.
    Funny, after we were discussing “Thirteen Reasons Why”, I was given it for my birthday. So, I guess I’ll read it in the next little while after all.
    As a teen, I loved theatre of the absurd, most particularly “Waiting for Godot”, which I read but also saw performed several times. That “I Love Dick” reminded you of it intrigues me.
    “Sorry to Disrupt the Peace” sounds like a good read too.


    • I decided at some point in mid-March that I just had to keep myself from reading so much news, and I wanted to take a deep dive into the kind of novels that are being critically praised these days, as I didn’t have a good idea. Every second I’m reading a book is a second I’m not flipping over to the WAshington Post to see what fresh horror has happened.

      Let me know what you think of “Thirteen Reasons Why.” re: I Love Dick — it’s not as immediately funny as Waiting for Godot is, although if you like irony you will get your fill. (I feel that way when I read certain kinds of literary criticism: all the time I’m asking myself, “is this for real?”). Unfortunately it has the sterile quality of a lot of post-modern literature, a sort of disposable feel to the narrative, imo. If you like “Sorry to Disrupt the Peace,” I’d recommend the other satire I loved last year, “The Sellout,” — which, however, tramples on every single political piety of racial politics.


      • Makes sense. Books have always been a great escape for me, too. I have a few books on the go right now, so I seem to be starting up again and hopefully I’ll read some of these soon too. I also was given Trevor Noah’s book, which sounds interesting.


        • I’ve seen that recommended positively in several places, but I try to avoid satirical news, so I am going to stay away from it.


          • Oh! I’m hoping it’s not satirical…. let’s see… the back of the book has a Kirkus review that calls it “A gritty memoir…studded with insight and provocative social criticism…” so I’m hoping. But we’ll see.


            • he hosts “The Daily Show.” I’m assuming this will be his real political opinions — I just really disagree with the whole idea of satirical news (as much as I love satire, I feel like shows like this cause Americans to jeer at each other). So I’m not that interested in his political opinions because of that, if that makes any sense. This puts me in a serious minority among my politically likeminded friends, so I’m aware it’s a minority opinion.


              • Oh Ok. I see what you mean. For me, I’m interested in the story of growing up as a mixed race child in South Africa and the impact of that on his life. I’m not sure I’ve actually ever seen “The Daily Show” since he took over.


  3. (Flabberghasted that this post is only showing up in my reader now, 10 hours later… WP…) Anyway, that’s an impressive list. I wish I had the discipline to tear myself away from the internet and read more. Which of the books was the most compelling, or which one would you label a must-read?


  4. Oh, you didnt like the George Saunders book. I hope I like it better I was really looking forward to reading something by him.


    • I don’t usually like short stories, but if I’d been familiar with his short stories I might have skipped this. Some people really love this book, though.


  5. I kept looking at “Lincoln in the Bardo” and just wasn’t able to decide whether I wanted to read it. I’ve heard interviews with the author and read reviews that go in both directions. In the end, I decided to let it go. I’m half-way through “The Sellout.” I have to keep putting it down for some reason as I find it disturbing, when I don’t find it hysterical. I saw the series 13 Reasons Why from beginning to end – it was done very well, but I agree that the emotional life of the protagonist ( whose name I forgot after one week) also didn’t ring true. Sounds cold, but she had the support she needed at hand and rejected it. I think it’s worth discussing with kids, but one thing it seemed to show me was that even the best intentioned, on the ball, vigilant parents are just never going to know what’s going on with their kids no matter what they do or how often they ask. It was disheartening. One aspect I thought was really helpful was that social communications class the school sponsored. But thanks for the the recommendations. There are a few titles I will give a try.


    • I thought you might have read it, with your Lincoln / Civil War interests. In the end, I was just too bothered by the mixing of historical and fictional — the method of doing it. I think that was part of his intention but I didn’t care for it.

      “The Sellout” really is disturbing. I read it after I saw a review in The Guardian that didn’t really capture the essence of the book; if I’d known what it was really like I might have skipped it, but I’m glad I read it. However, I’ve been saying to everyone who tells me they want to read it: beware: brutal.

      In my experience, depressed teens are usually so caught up in their inner world that they wouldn’t have the energy or drive to put together such a sophisticated plan. I was also flummoxed that any author thought a teen would record audio cassette tapes of their thoughts in 2007. (The author’s response to that was that it made the story “timeless.”) In the end, I thought it was a well constructed adult’s revenge fantasy about what they might have liked to have done as a teenager. Nothing wrong with that but not really truthful in terms of its own subject matter.


      • 13 reasons: The author ( at least in the series) gave nod to the audio cassette issue because the young man didn’t have such an easy time finding an audio player or a walkman. ( just can’t remember names – but they were all very “current”). Re: Lincoln. I used to love historical fiction until I started reading a lot of historical non-fiction and biographies. Since those days, I usually find historical fiction annoying – not period stuff necessarily that intertwine history with a fiction, but works like Killer Angels ( which I loved when I read it and sort of started my whole self education) no longer do it for me. Just recently ( last week) I finally read The Sunne in Splendour, which has been a little bit debunked after the finding of RIII’s remains, and it just annoyed me. OTOH, I can;t wait for the third volume after Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies.


        • I meant Michael Shaara’s book and Hilary Mantel’s ,respectively, in case someone might not have gotten my reference.


        • Here in the museum of superseded technology, we might have an audiocassette player, but I’d have to look really hard. I can’t imagine most people have one anymore. If you’re a teen in the 2007, that means your parents became interested in music just as that technology was disappearing.

          I think we’re on the same page about historical fiction. (Most historians don’t especially like it.) Totally agree re: Sunne in Splendour, and it’s no fun to sit and take potshots for hundreds of pages. I adore Hilary Mantel, and Geraldine Brooks is another really great historical fiction author.


          • I’m not sold on Geraldine Brooks. I thought People of the Book was very simple, even though I liked the way she structured it ( a little like Michener’s The Source) – but I forgot about March – which was really terrific. For March, though, although she had some fictional characters, she was able to draw on a lot of primary sources – including Sherman’s own writing. But yes – that was a good one I forgot about.


  6. Thanks for sharing! (books! ^^)


  7. 🙂 For sure, this is the best way to rid oneself of the bad news. Except that when the sun is shinning, just as now, I prefer friends meeting or gardening. But what an impressive list. I have been carefully reading the same book for about one month. No binge no diagonaly read I should speak of deep exploration. You know why.


  8. I’m happy to just be reading out loud to the girls this summer…The most in-depth read we have is probably Caddie Woodlawn.


  9. […] I’ve read since the last time, in no particular […]


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