Books I have read lately (March 2018)

Books I have read since the last time. Wrapping this up now because the next few days will be busy, and also because I just got Elizabeth George’s latest clunker and I guess I’ve decided to read it (~700 pp.) even though I am sure I will be annoyed afterwards. Why do I do this to myself?

This month I learned a lot more about how the genre of the graphic novel works and thought a bit more about when it’s successful or could be a desirable format. This is a fundamentally foreign way to think about a story for me; I’m not opposed but I don’t understand it intuitively, as I do with written narrative. Looking at this now, I can see I gobbled a lot of stuff down, but in retrospect, I felt like I read way too much memoir or semi-autobiographical narrative; I want to be reading more straight fiction. On the other hand, memoir seems an important way into the world at the moment and I wonder why. It tends to mean I don’t read funny things enough. Or am I self-selecting?

This was a weird month of reading. I need to adjust the library queue again. Or maybe this is the hangover from the previous organization of the list. I’m trying to read a book a day for as long as I can, and I have 75 books available to me, so probably some of those were the result of the previous selection process.

Highly recommended

Yasmina Reza, Happy are the Happy. Originally published as Heureux les heureux (2013). Robert and Odile, a middle class Parisian couple, start this novel off feuding over their purchases in the line at the cheese counter. This piece alone makes the short, compact, tightly structured book worth it; I recognized the truth and the absurdity of the situation. Their friends, the Hutners, have a son they have institutionalized due to his delusion that he is Céline Dion, but they can’t admit it to anyone. You will have gathered that this is really a book about unhappiness; it does truly crackle with frustration, but also with beautiful language and an elegant translation. Each character is drawn distinctly. The novel is written in eighteen chapters that draw together their family and friends and their problems in a series of internal monologues.  Also, it introduced me to a poem I didn’t know. (Here’s the English version.) Reza is a lauded playwright, and in some ways it’s more like a play than a novel; I could have imagined any of these chapters as a monologue for drama school practice, and many of the statements the characters make seem like they could be intended to be spoken.

Ali Smith, Winter. Multiply recommended in the literary press, and I loved its predecessor volume, Autumn. These books are observational commentaries on post-Brexit Britain. Begins with a Dickens-esque opening chapter about all the things that are dead; it’s impossible not to love her play with language. Plotwise: A blogger becomes the object of a media pile-on when his girlfriend takes virtual revenge on him; if you’ve ever watched an online drama you will nod when you read this description. Suddenly single, the blogger needs to find a girlfriend to bring home for Christmas, so he picks someone up at a train stop. They to go Cornwall to his mildly batty mother, and her estranged sister ends up there as well. Chock full of the puns, funny observations, and absurd subplots that characterized Autumn. Loved the birders. Loved the novel. Can’t wait for Spring!

James Agee, A Death in the Family. Picked up because I saw it on a list of Tim Gunn’s favorite books, and I’ve always found his persona appealing, and it turns out that like me, he really likes Thomas Mann, and because I admired Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and because I’d played the Barber piece in college, and thought, huh, why haven’t you read that? So it was overdetermined. In case you haven’t read this classic, it’s the story of what happens in a family when a father, called home to see his own ailing father, dies in a car accident on the return journey to Knoxville, Tennessee. As the (semi-autographical) text was unfinished when Agee died, there are several different editions that reflect various schools of thinking on what the text should be. I read the Penguin, which apparently represents a more traditional view. Every moment of the writing here is so evocative; Agree fully inhabits the perspectives and the tics and prejudices and reactions and vision of each individual character. Particularly memorable: a chapter that explores a child’s emerging awareness of race; a chapter where a woman lies awake in bed, processing her reaction to her husband’s father’s illness.

Alison Bechdel, Fun Home. Graphic novel. Another one I should have read when it came out to acclaim and controversy. Picked up now because I read a “best of 2017” graphic novel list and remembered it. The author describes her growing up years with a father struggling with his identity and taking it out on his family. The story has the uncanny feeling of a narrative with incongruous elements: a father overly concerned with his Victorian house reconstruction who’s also an undertaker and an English teacher and an abuser. As events unfold, pieces of Bechdel’s identity emerge in parallel to pieces of her father’s story, which she only uncovers bit by bit. There’s a particularly skillful juxtaposition of Icarus, Camus, the myth of Sisyphus, Bechdel’s father’s practices of embalming, and his apparent suicide in one chapter, for instance. I had a very familiar sense reading this: something’s always seemed strange about oneself and then I learn something about by family that makes it make total sense. Why do families have so many secrets? Why is there such terror and shame in the face of the truth?

Julie Lythcott-Haims, Real American: A Memoir. One of my black history month picks. It’s a memoir of a woman who identifies as Black, with a white mother and a Black father, and her experiences figuring out her racial and cultural commitments as she graduated from Stanford and Harvard and then worked as a lawyer and a university dean. This book made me cry for multiple reasons. One is that she spent most of her childhood about 125 mi from here, in the town where I lived when I did my doctorate — so I’m familiar with the atmosphere she describes and I completely get what a problem it could be to grow up this way in this state, even in its most liberal enclave. She’s two years older and we have so much in common but our experiences could not have been more different. I could identify with the self-loathing that the teen years seemed to inculcate, even if hers came from a different source than mine did, and I broke down when she described her emerging awareness that she had hated her own perceived race. And when she worried about what skin colors her children might have and how others might respond to it. And as she gradually realized that as the child of parents of two different races, she didn’t really have someone who shared her experience in either parent. And when she said that needed white allies and hated that she needed them. And when she noted that she loves her white husband but that his whiteness creates certain problems for her personally and politically, which in turn upsets her. Just: everything. The ambivalence of every situation, the constant self-questioning, the feeling of having nowhere to be really “home.” I hate that my country does this to people. And while I don’t think I’m naive about race, I learned a lot from this book.

Kristen Radtke, Imagine Wanting Only This. Graphic novel on a “best of 2017” list. I avoided this title for a while, as every description I read of it in reviews seemed so hopelessly pretentious in a literary way that I thought I’d hate it. But I think I’m finally starting to get the “literary” graphic novel genre and this is a particularly beautiful exemplar with gorgeously balanced pages and wonderful, cleanly drawn frames, at times classical in influence, at times threatening, at times translucent. The trick of the genre seems to be to build things into the frame that one doesn’t mention in words, but wants the reader to think about while processing the narrative. So, for example, we see a discussion of industrial ruins in the Midwest that’s explicit, framed with remnants of her relationship with an old boyfriend. It’s framed as an attempt to come to terms with the sudden death of the author’s uncle, but the dominant question throughout is: what remains? What will remain? What pieces of the present will survive into the future? What will rot, what will persist? The picture of the uncle’s family, living their lives in the ruins and remnants of the house he’d lived in is placed next to a picture of the rotting, poisoned mining town the author visits on the same trip, and the reader is left to draw her own connections.


Elif Batuman, The Idiot. Recommended in the literary press and it’s on the Woman’s Prize long list now, I saw by NBK. A young woman enters Harvard in the mid-90s and falls in love with someone invulnerable. Eventually, she pursues him to Hungary. It’s kind of an unremarkable plot and a lot of critics found it confusingly boring. I really enjoyed it, perhaps because of the many references to higher education in the 90s, just when everyone was getting email. I laughed as she wound her way through her introductory Russian class — it seemed at the time like everyone was taking intro language classes with textbooks that presented the student with not very suspenseful unrequited love affairs. She also had an episode doing math tutoring when she wanted to tutor English — this happened to me, too, when I was a freshman, a few years earlier. There were just so many things in this book that I hadn’t thought about in years. You will also get a crash course in 90s-era linguistic theory (Chomsky, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis). In many ways it’s a novel about reading other novels and the more well-read the reader, the greater the profit. Brush up your Balzac. I was trying to figure out if Batuman was trying to compare her protagonist to Prince Lev in the Dostoyevsky novel of the same name, but it’s been so long since I read that that I couldn’t really say.

Danzy Senna, New People. This novel is in some ways the opposite number to Lythcott-Haims’ memoir (which I put in the “highly recommended” column above); Danzy’s characters are on some level the person Lythcott-Haims thought she wanted to be (right down to the mixed race woman with the Jewish boyfriend). It’s a satire of the mixed race, new “N*****ati” (not my word) who emerged in the mid-90s from the interracial liaisons of the 60s and 70s. Senna’s in a good position to write it; as she made clear in a memoir that I appreciated several years ago, she is the product of one such ultimately failed union. Like Lythcott-Haims, Senna’s anti-hero (because it’s hard to really admire Jasmine) is struggling with her identity and that of her fiancé and (like many characters in the novel) is trying to seem or be more Black. Just as it seems everything’s coming together and she’s finishing her dissertation and about to get married to a similarly-heeled young man, she finds herself preoccupied with a poet, whom she stalks until it’s clear there will be no response. Senna portrays them all as acting race, acting class, creating crises in order to shore up their positions, and miming a response to an oppression that is quite different in reality than it is in their minds. I didn’t know what to do with this book, exactly. I wanted to laugh in recognition of situations I remember myself from the period, but then I found myself in horror at my laughter. The main characters are the kind of people who get lengthy, narrative wedding coverage in the New York Times and that makes it easy to laugh at them, maybe too easy at times. This book is not deep, but it’s really smart.

Sacha Batthyány, A Crime in the Family. Originally published as Und was hat das mit mir zu tun? – Ein Verbrechen im März 1945. Die Geschichte meiner Familie (2016). Non-fiction, picked up despite my current aversion to WWII-era stories, after reading an excerpt. Batthyány, a reporter at the NZZ, learns from an elder colleague that details about his great-aunt’s behavior during the war have emerged. A Thyssen who married into the upper Hungarian nobility, “Aunt Margit” was responsible for or witnessed the murder of 180 Jews on her estate. Batthyány had never heard the story from any family member, but they all knew about it. After the 1950s in Hungary, the family was able to purchase Swiss citizenship. Batthyány began to dig, finding a memoir written by his grandmother in Hungarian about her awareness of the persecution of the Jews on and near her family’s estate and the slaughter of the parents of friends of hers. Trying to identify the friends brought him to a Jewish family in Buenos Aires, the daughters of his grandmother’s friend; she, too, had written a memoir (in Spanish) about her survival of the Shoah. His research brings him in increasing tension with his family, which he tries to address in sessions with a Jewish therapist. He also tries without success to solidify his relationship with his father by making a trip with him to Siberia to find traces of his grandfather’s lengthy gulag imprisonment. As so often occurs in memories, the stories don’t jive and the remaining ruins don’t yield answers; the problem (or solution?) is that people end up sticking with the version of a disturbing past that is least disturbing to their allegiances in the present. This book was truly thought-provoking and somehow it avoids the typical pitfalls of the “we suffered too” explorations of the perpetrators’ fates in WWII. There is some creative non-fiction in here, but it bothered me less than it typically would, even if I wish it had been more clearly signaled. The translation, however, is a hot mess. It’s not just that I frequently noticed German idioms that got literal translations into English, it’s that the whole thing is a game of telephone. Batthyány translated from Hungarian and Spanish into German and added his own German narrative to his text, but Anthea Bell translated the whole thing straight from Batthyány’s German into English. This is highly irresponsible translation practice and frankly I was surprised that the Goethe Institut would support it. Read it in German, if you can.

Thi Bui, The Best We Could Do. Graphic novel. I had read most of this book in December and then had to give it back to the library and only got it back just now. A memoir of growing up as a refugee in the U.S., the circumstances that led the author’s family to leave Vietnam, and their precarious existence in between in a refugee camp. They arrived in the U.S. to general social disdain, a tanking economy, and the non-recognition of their academic qualifications, all experiences that continued the pressure on the family that had been going on for decades already. It’s a book that records the history of a family as much as it attempts to come to terms with the personal deformations of the characters. A compelling, heart-breaking story that nonetheless somehow leaves the reader feeling hopeful, but unfortunately this book is simply not as well drawn as the other graphic novels I read this time around. However, the format is perfect for the story, which has a lot of different faces and strands. And it’s the perfect read for right now.

Jade Chang, The Wangs vs. the World. A family of Chinese (Taiwanese) immigrants goes on an epic road trip from California to New York to China after the father, a makeup entrepreneur, goes bust in one of the early twenty-first century financial crises and decides he wants to recapture his long-abandoned Chinese patrimony with his 100 percent American in tow. He’s got a materialistic wife, a successful artist daughter, a ne’er-do-well college student son who wants to be a stand-up comic, and a teenage daughter who wants to be an Insta fashion influencer. The characters are the best thing in this book. Although all are to some extent based on Asian and Asian-American stereotypes, I felt like the author gave us permission to laugh at them and their many absurd remarks and perceptions. (I for one loved the father’s musing over the fact that Americans think of his last name as slang for “penis,” although this isn’t going to be everyone’s kind of humor.) Once I got over my inhibitions about laughing at immigrant behavior, I enjoyed the rollicking good ride of the story.

Zachary Lazar, Vengeance: A Novel. A novelist who shares important characteristics with Lazar visits a fictional inmate in Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison. The inmate, Kendrick, insists he’s innocent but also that his story is too complicated to be believed. The novel gradually explores its protagonist’s own past with violent crime as it attempts to dig into the details of the inmate’s life and activities. It also reveals many of the logistical and ethical issues that bedevil the U.S. justice system, which might be interesting to readers less familiar with it than I am. Very post-modern without preening over its constant undermining of the truth and reality; there’s something a bit Crónica de una muerte anunciada about it, and the reader is never quite sure what’s real. More than any auto-fiction I’ve read thus far, this seems like an actual novel.

Edward St. Aubyn, Bad News; Some Hope. Next two novels in the “Patrick Melrose” omnibus that I started last time. Bad News is about Patrick’s trip to pick up his father’s remains and is a drug-fueled decadent journey through 1980s Manhattan; Some Hope covers his return to England and gradual recovery from addiction. I continue to feel ambivalent about these books. They are so readable; the style is so gorgeous; the observation is lucid and straightforward; their use of metaphor so trenchant. They read so quickly — they go down smoothly and are page-turnerish without being cheap. On the other hand every single character is unlikable and I don’t feel enriched or nourished by reading them at all, and not even entertained, really. I laugh when I read it, but mostly bitterly. There’s a biting send-up of Princess Margaret that made me laugh a little bit in that way. It’s a bit strange. Anyway, I had to give the omnibus back for another library patron, so perhaps I will break off before deciding if I want to read the last two — it’s apparently the fourth one (Mother’s Milk) that gave St. Aubyn his breakthrough.

Shanti Sekaran, Lucky Boy. An undocumented Mexican border crosser who’s captured with her infant son is forced to surrender him into the California child welfare system, where he is fostered with intent to adopt by a middle class Indian – American couple. Recommended in the literary press but I had avoided it because I have read so many works with similar or the same “there are no winners” narrative. What saves this one: evocative prose that effectively evokes both life in a Mexican village, the struggle to cross the U.S.-México border, and the texture of life in Berkeley. Also, it helps a lot that both of the mothers are immigrants, so (in comparison to Celeste Ng’s recent book, which I thought a failure) we’re not set up with a transparent “upper class white cultural imperialism or appropriation” story. Kavya, the legal immigrant, is also, within the boundaries of her own highly upwardly mobile Indian immigrant community, also a bit of a failure, and Soli, the undocumented immigrant, at times appears to be more of an achiever. In other words, the clash of cultures here is complex and occurs on an equal basis, apart from the demands of the law. A bit long but definitely worth your while.

Emily Rapp, The Still Point of the Turning World. A memoir of the diagnosis of the author’s child with Tay-Sachs disease. Found on a list of recommended books dealing with grief. The nature of Tay-Sachs is such that there are no more developmental milestones; indeed, the child regresses, with muscle control lost and the senses gradually disintegrating until the child becomes paralyzed and dies, usually before the age of four. In this atmosphere, the relationship of the parents with the infant change drastically, and the way that one things about the world and the future are significantly altered. The first two chapters are searing; the intensity fades somewhat after that, but I was most convinced by Rapp’s exploration of what happens when suddenly one of the main focuses of parenting in the U.S. disappears: the concern about preparing one’s child for the future. Lots of literary allusions, for those of us who enjoy that kind of thing.

Samin Nosrat, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. A cookbook that explores cooking almost as a chemical science. I had avoided this because I heard a radio interview with the author that made me snort (not in a good way) repeatedly, but the library web page wanted me to read it. And I’m continuing to look for a good cookbook for my sciency nieces and upon closer examination this seemed like it could be that book. I liked its scientific aspects, particularly the way it offers explanations for the practical knowledge you pick up over years in the kitchen. For instance, I knew that if you care about the texture of your baking, you don’t melt your butter in the microwave, but I couldn’t have told you why. Nosrat knows. I also appreciated very much her insight that American food tends to be undersalted, as well as her discussion of when in the cooking process different kinds of acids should be added. The drawings are also really neat, although they won’t be useful at all for a true novice cook, as they don’t give a sense of the proportion of some of the things they depict, particularly in the vegetable section. There were two things I didn’t like: there’s a chart (for instance) of which fats go with which cuisines — don’t put bacon fat in your Indian curry. While I agree with that insight, for the purpose I would gift this book, that insight is really counter-productive. I really don’t want to be cultivating a purist, authenticist taste in my nieces; I want them to be trying and exploring rather than learning rules about taste. As a Midwesterner, I suppose I have an inherent inclination towards less fuss and an openness toward substitutions and fusions. The other thing is that most of the recipes are aimed at the globalist, foodie audience. I’d love to have given this to my older niece, and she’d have enjoyed the first half of the book, but most of the recipes are for stuff she’d never eat normally and probably be disinclined to try.

Maja Lunde, The History of Bees. Originally published as Bienes historie (2015). Discovered at NBK’s blog. An “international bestseller” but it hasn’t gotten much U.S. press as far as I have noted. I liked the basic premise: in 2098, all bees are gone and all plants must be fertilized painstakingly, by hand. China, with its disregard for labor conditions, becomes the world leader. We follow Tao as she does this — and as she pursues the mysterious disappearance of her son. This story is woven together with narratives in previous periods: that of an nineteenth-century English beekeeper obsessed with building a better bee-hive, and a twentieth-century U.S. beekeeper whose rejection of modern farming in the face of the growing awareness of the disappearing bees disrupts his family life. This is a dystopia (not my favorite genre) but it’s so focused on the family relationships of the three different main characters that I found myself thinking about that less. (Also, I find environmental collapse dystopias inherently much more credible than the feminist ones that I seem to encounter everywhere these days). A slight downside: the “message” of the novel seems to be a sort of blunt critique of individualism that reads as very Norwegian to me. That’s not bad, but it’s kind of obvious and my frustration with “message novels” is growing by the day. But throughout, this problem with the bees, their disappearance, their absence, truly compels the reader. The ending, when we find out what happened to Tao’s son, is provocative and not expected. And I was really impressed by how well the author wrote three such entirely different time periods and characters.

Recommended if the material interests you

Curt Meine and Keefe Keeley, eds., The Driftless Reader. A collection of historical, geographical, scientific and literary texts about the “Driftless,” which is the part of Wisconsin not affected by the Wisconsonian Glacier. This is kind of a thing in Wisconsin; it’s a bit weird but we learn about the glacier in school and so much of our landscape was influenced by it that it’s a regular feature of discussion. In fact, there’s a huge debate going on about a glacial feature and its preservation in my hometown right now. So this is about the non-glacial part of the state. I particularly learned a lot about the First Nations piece of that history and the genealogy of place names (for instance, no one’s really sure where the name “Wisconsin” comes from, which I knew, but not so much about all the alternatives). Picked up because of my continued interest in writing a novel about Wisconsin history. Recommended to people interested in the history of the U.S. Midwest.

T. Christian Miller & Ken Armstrong, A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America. Interesting and frankly outraging story that contrasts two police forces that were actually pursuing the same serial rapist: one believed its victim and the other didn’t. The one that didn’t undermined the victim until she recanted, with horrible consequences for her life, which was already plagued by numerous vulnerabilities. One of the points is that the failure to investigate these crimes initially as if the victim is telling the truth and a lack of education about how trauma victims behave is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy situation, where true victims are pressure to recant and then the recantation is in turned used as evidence that women often make false allegations of rape. Pretty straight reporting, resulting from an extraordinary coincidence that two different reporters were working on cases that turned out to have the same perpetrator.

Alyssa Cole, A Princess in Theory. Absolutely not my usual read. Picked up in the wake of research about romance novels, due to Richard Armitage’s Wanderlust adventure, and in response to this article about political elements in them. An African-American graduate student in epidemiology receives emails from an African country, suggesting that her marriage to an African prince is imminent. She ignores them as the work of a scammer, but the prince is real, the marriage is scheduled, and the adventure unfolds from there. Every romance novel trick is here (arranged marriage, identity confusion, Cinderella story) but they are all used ironically, beginning with the joke about the “marriage scammer” actually being real. Also significant to me: the author knew something about how research scientists actually work and built it into her story, lending some realistic elements to a very fantastical narrative overall. A very quick read. I would read another one of these.

Ryan McIlvain, The Radicals. Was on a 2018 “most anticipated” list. Graduate students in a Marxist theory course get involved in some practice: an Occupy-similar house occupation attempt against an Enron-simulacrum corporation that leads them from Lower Manhattan to Arizona and to ——; well, that would be a spoiler. This feels like an older novel; I don’t know how to put it, but I felt like this same book could have been written about unionist struggles in the 1920s. I get that it’s supposed to be a novel about belief but it gets very hooked up in a setting that seems not so timely anymore. (Is the news cycle really moving that fast?). You will get more out of it if you know the difference between Marx, Trotsky, and Stalin.

Sarah Smith, See What I Have Done. Picked up because NBK is interested in it. Retells the 1892 Borden axe murders, emphasizing the axis of anger and rivalry between the Borden sisters, in particular by heavy reference to the perspective of the Irish maid, Bridget. Conceived as an MFA thesis piece and the language is like that, just a little bit overwrought, trying too hard. What works is the incredibly claustrophobic inside the sisters’ relationship and the house they shared with their parents. Another problem for me was the author’s constant tic of turning nouns into verbs; the regular creation of neologisms interfered with what is supposed to be a nineteenth-century story. Still, the author gives a good sense of how obsessed she was with the story. If you’re not familiar with the narrative of the Borden murders, read the wikipedia article first, as characters are introduced mostly without explanation; the author seems to assume we’re all as interested in this story as she is.

Michael Wolff, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. A tell-all, boulevard-style account of the first hundred days of the new presidential administration that took over a number of news cycles in the U.S. The book became available January 5th and although I reserved it on the day the library got it, I was #248 in line to read it, and the line did not move quickly; I got it the second week of March (the library bought 60 copies, 5 large print copies and 8 audiobook copies) and there are another 200 people still waiting in line. So I guess people are really reading it — maybe because they knew getting back in line was so onerous. It is a quick, entertaining read but its style is so scurrilous that it’s hard to credit the worst rumors. I felt like it was my political duty to read it but I felt dirty after having done so. Recommended only to politics and gossip mavens; and even to someone like me, it was a depressing read.

Candida R. Moss and Joel S. Baden, Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby. I read a review of this somewhere. An examination by two scholars of the Bible of the corporation famous in the U.S. for its sale of craft and hobby items, closing its stores on Sunday, and trying to deny its employees access to contraception in contradiction to the Affordable Care Act. Here they look into their “intellectual” activities: their collection of antiquities, which has led to forgeries and contributed substantially to the destruction of the national heritage of Iraq; their funding of the Museum of the Bible, their attempts to use non-disclosure agreements with scholars who use their collections in order to suppress results that contradict their religious beliefs; and their attempts to get a biblical curriculum back into the U.S. public schools. The authors are more sympathetic to the corporation (run by the Green family) than I am. They point out correctly that the label of “non-sectarian” covers the fact that they are hardcore American evangelicals, and also that being so naive, time and time after time, points to a willfullness that insists on enforcing their religious vision on everyone in the U.S., no matter what stripe of Christian or non-Christian. The book is written pretty neutrally but these people are political menace and their actions are leading concretely to the destruction of the ancient past and worst of all, they don’t care because they think their works will give them extra religious merit in the eyes of G-d. Seriously infuriating.

Volker Kutscher, Babylon Berlin. Originally published as Der nasse Fisch (1995). Picked up because of the rave reviews of the new German TV show based on this series of novels by a Berlin historian, journalist and editor. Gereon Rath, transplanted homicide detective from Cologne takes up a vice investigation in Weimar-era (1920s) Berlin; his travels through the Berlin underworld bring him into contact with arms and gold smugglers, Russian exiles and cocaine. Point-blank: I found the first 150 pp pretty boring and I’m not sure why I kept reading; normally I stop at p. 100 if the story doesn’t engage me. But I guess I wanted to know how it ended and it picked up after p. 150 or so. Obviously written under the influence of Raymond Chandler, but not quite so hardboiled. This might have been the translation, which I thought was overly literal and mediocre (Er will es nicht wissen doesn’t necessarily mean “he doesn’t want to know”!), but also has to do with the behavior of the main character, who’s too connected to his family and surroundings for the complete, almost murderous detachment of the Chandleresque detective. I also think the non-German reader will get way less from this book than the German as the author frequently uses the shorthand of telling the reader where something is happening in Berlin as a substitute for description, so unless you know where the red lights districts were in the interwar city, you won’t have a clear picture of the setting. And there are tons of Easter eggs (Gereon and his brothers are named after the medieval churches of Cologne; there’s a joke about East Prussians being only slightly less stoic than East Westphalians; the police commissioner is nicknamed “Dörrzwiebel” ) that won’t really mean anything to non-Germans. I suspect this could be a series where the TV show is actually more convincing than the novels, and I say that rarely. I always like the book better.

Meh / Not recommended

Lisa Halliday, Asymmetry. Huge darling of the literary press. Half of it is a barely-disguised roman à clef about the author’s affair with Philip Roth when she was twenty-something and he was seventy. It’s juxtaposed without explanation to the story of an Iraqi American who gets stuck in Heathrow while trying to travel back to Iraq to visit his brother. The point seems to be “look at Philip Roth’s first-world problems.” Or something. In the Roth section, the female narrator has no interiority. None. Honestly, the section on the Iraqi American was interesting and informative and could have been the character biography for a novel about some actual events, or else an outline for a longer novel. The part about Philip Roth is more or less plot-free and includes, inexplicably, long excerpts from Hannah Arendt (there are so many excerpts from other books in this section of the novel that it has pages of endnotes). And then the book ends with a long (fictionalized) interview with Roth. I didn’t get it. In the end I resented having wasted my time. I can’t believe I read the whole thing. I’ve always liked Malamud better than Roth anyway. Well, except for Patrimony. Maybe that was my problem. In consequence, I decided to order a Malamud biography to read one of these days.

Leni Zumas, Red Clocks. Feminist dystopia describing the lives of four woman living in a fictional future U.S. in which a fetal personhood law prohibits both abortions and certain kinds of fertility treatments. Stopped at 100 pp. I’m starting to developing an allergy to self-proclaiming “profound” novels about situations I think unlikely to materialize; I’m starting to think that there’s a certain kind of feminist author who doesn’t find the real present threatening enough, so she uses a dystopia as an artificial source of dramatic tension at all. It doesn’t work here, and the devices of adding in a pseudo-witch and the narrative of a Norwegian female explorer don’t help. I got particularly tired of the character who couldn’t explain why she wanted to have a baby but boy did she want one. Middle class feminist authors, allow me to exhort you to write realistic books about actual problems women experience in the present, as opposed to creating propagandistic, artificial worlds of oppression that only increase everyone’s fears without actually moving anyone to political action. Really, there are still plots out there! Or else get involved in politics. Quit this tired-out genre. I suppose we’re going to have to put up with this until the end of the current presidency at least. Blerg.

Thisbe Nissen, Our Lady of the Prairie. Recommended on the library page. A theater professor in Iowa has an affair that triggers encounters with her stagnating marriage, her daughter’s mental illness, her mother-in-law’s lies about her past, and the Amish families in transition into which her daughter marries. Oh, and the 2004 presidential election is in there, too. Stopped at p. 150. This is supposed to be funny. Maybe. There’s too much in the novel; the main character behaves in ways that are neither fully screwball nor emotionally credible; and I didn’t get why the novel went off the deep end into her fixation with the possibility that her mother-in-law was a Vichy collaborator. It’s a very long spoof whose elements don’t mesh.

Will Boast, Daphne. Recommended in the literary press, and I picked it up because I found the premise of the novel interesting: the protagonist has a disease where feeling any kind of emotion causes her to pass out, a sort of emotional narcolepsy, I suppose. Also a mythological retelling of Daphne and Apollo. Neat idea but a protagonist who can’t have any emotional inner life because she gets panic attacks means that the protagonist has: no emotional inner life. Is a trend? I read about half of it before giving up as I’d developed no emotional attachment to any piece of the plot.

Edmund Gordon, The Invention of Angela Carter. This had been in my library queue since its publication and then Richard Armitage decided to read some stories from A Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. I thought it was time to refresh my biographical knowledge of Carter, which dated from the mid-1990s. I read about forty pages, but the author is preoccupied with Carter’s childhood weight and Freudian explanations of her childhood in a way that is unbearably sexist. Then there are moments where he describes things as surprising (her childhood school’s preoccupation with imperial patriotism) that wouldn’t be surprising if he’d read some cultural history of the British postwar. I then read the section during which A Bloody Chamber was published, and this is pure biography; there’s no attempt to discuss the intellectual or cultural significance of the works; it’s merely event-level footstep-tracking. In his conclusion, he apologizes for potentially feeling over-identified with Carter. Sorry, somehow I missed that through all the disdain and disgust he presents in the first pages. It’s too bad as there wasn’t a good biography before this and given how widely the book has been praised, there probably won’t be another attempt until everyone who knew her is dead (and he admits that many potential informants refused to speak to him). Lost opportunity.

Karen Crouse, Norwich: One Tiny Vermont Town’s Secret to Excellence and Happiness. Profile of a small community from which a disproportionate number of U.S. Winter Olympians hail, and its (relaxed) child-rearing and community sports programs, written by a sports journalist who has been jaded by her coverage of the Olympic Games. Not sure why I picked this up; I must have seen it reviewed somewhere. It was presented as an alternative to the white-knuckling, assertive “tiger mother” parenting-for-success approach to which many Olympians are subjected and which has become one of the recommended parenting strategies among the U.S. elite in the last decade or so. Supposedly if all Olympic training programs follow the Norwich model, athletes will be more successful and won’t be so destroyed by their careers and audiences will regain their interest in the Olympics again. (The author doesn’t explain how to eliminate the influence of sports endorsements, corrupt sports medicine, media advertising contracts, or international politics: apparently the problems with growing audience cynicism about the Olympics are all caused by the athletes.) She doesn’t, however, really question the fundamental assumption that U.S. community life should be organized to optimize our attainment of Olympic gold medals. Whatever.

Matthew Sweet, Operation Chaos: The Vietnam Deserters who Fought the CIA, the Brainwashers, and Themselves. In the wake of the Ken Burns Vietnam documentary last year, I thought it would be interesting to read something unfamiliar on the topic. This made a “highly anticipated” list, and although there’s not much about the outlines of discussion about the war that I’m unfamiliar with, this story about American military deserters granted asylum in Stockholm, the CIA’s infiltration of the group, and the consequences, fit the bill. First, of all, the story is highly improbable, which isn’t in itself a reason to doubt it, but it screams “tin hats.” A topic like this demands a sober style and careful source analysis, but Sweet flaunts an absurdist style with so many asides and remarks that I had a very hard time accepting that he was being critical of his sources at all. It’s really readable but I honestly don’t know how much of it is really true, despite the footnotes, and how much of it is Sweet’s own inclination to goose the establishment.

Djuna Barnes, Nightwood. Picked up because I’d read in several articles recently that this novel was influential on a number of authors whose work I appreciate. Also, I had this vague memory that it had been on a suggested reading list for my doctoral exams and I hadn’t read it then. It’s polite, Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, sneering, “wandering Jew” anti-Semitism pure. Maybe I’d have had the patience for it when I was studying these things academically, and read a bunch of Celine’s novels, but not anymore. Returned to the library after 30 pp.

~ by Servetus on March 30, 2018.

18 Responses to “Books I have read lately (March 2018)”

  1. Books added on my to be read list.
    I realize I’ve never read “Heureux les heureux”^^

    Liked by 2 people

    • LOL 🙂 Actually the French book I’ve liked most recently was “Finir avec Eddy Bellegueule” (read in English, however). Happy reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I hope The History of Bees will have an effect on as many people as possible. I think many people are aware that there is a problem with bees, but few people consider how serious the consequences can be. There are several companies in Germany and Switzerland now that sell “insect hotels” pre-filled with wild bee larvae so everybody can help increase the population sizes. I’m considering getting one 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think it might be a “slow burn” success in the U.S.

      We have a huge yard (5 acres) and I want to put in a section that’s bee friendly. Unfortunately dad and I are both allergic to bee sting, and he still does all the yardwork. So it might have to wait until he’s ready to quit with that and we can pay someone. But I did sign up to take a class on it the next time it is offered — there’s a store nearby that is bee specialized.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the recommendations. There are a few I’d like to read, particularly “Real American” and “A False Report”. You read a book a day? Wow. I think I can’t physically read that fast. I used to read a book a week, but something changed a couple of years ago and I can’t quite figure out what. This is the first time in my life where I have a pile of unread books (gifts or purchases) that I just can’t seem to pick up and read. And books that I would have found engaging, I sometimes put down part way through, feeling bored. For sure, part of it is that I have way too much on the go and don’t seem to have long blocks of time to read. Now, I tend to read things on my phone, which is always with me, so I will be reading novels on a book app only in little snippets, or fan fiction, or blogs, or listening to audio books. Well, and maybe the Armitage obsession has taken up some time. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can read 120 pp an hour in English, so if I put my mind to it a book a day isn’t a huge struggle. That’s for most fiction. Non-fiction can be faster or slower depending on the topic. I just got Elizabeth George’s latest and it’s almost 700 pp. — it’s going to take me a few days to get through it.

      I totally agree about the way that everything is competing for our attention. I think the main issue for me is I spend too much time reading at a computer screen; I’m trying to break that habit now.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s amazing. I think I could read faster if I didn’t have a million things going on in my brain all at once. On vacation, I read much faster than I do now. I seem to be having a hard time focusing on just one thing at a time.

        Liked by 1 person

        • For me it’s really important to get away from the screen (something I was reminded of this weekend) if I want to concentrate. I have a number of things on my mind, but I find that proximity to a screen makes it all worse.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Yeah, I should really try to get back to reading more print books. With the phone in my hand on iBooks, I’m much more likely to be flipping all around to different things.


            • I just finished the E George book and I averaged 103 pp per min.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Hopefully you mean per hour!


                • oh, yeah! Sorry. Per hour!


                  • Not quite superhuman then! 🙂
                    I’ll have to time myself next time I can actually sit down for a period of time. Now I’m curious.
                    Was it good by the way? I’ve actually never read any of her books, although I’ve heard about them.


                    • her first several justly deserve their great reputation. At the point at which she became a regular bestseller, however, she started writing these huge klotzes of books that badly need editing. She also became very unsubtle with her characters, which had always been stereotypical but became much more so. My impression is that most people (like me) who are still reading her books are doing so out of either love for the characters or a love/hate relationship with the long, continuing plot lines. IMO she’s also a huge misogynist, which can be hard to take over 700 pages (it was this time). But there’s one character in the books that I really love and for now that is enough to keep me reading. But I wouldn’t pay for them anymore.

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • Sounds like if I do try her, I should go back to the early ones then.


                    • yeah, I would start at the beginning. There are some truly affecting plotlines and characters that are more subtle and complex (that have in the interval been mostly written out of the story).

                      Liked by 1 person

  4. […] last time, in no particular order. This was not a very enjoyable reading month for me, for reasons that are […]


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