What I Read This Week

I do not think there is a theme to the books I finished this week. Maybe difficult people? Because certainly all four of these books feature people who are, to varying degrees, prickly and capricious.

My favorite of the bunch is probably Daniel Mendelsohn’s memoir An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic, which describes how the author–a classics professor–allows his father to audit his seminar on Homer’s Odyssey. The two men also go on an Odyssey-themed cruise, which sounds cool until it ends in disappointment — they don’t make it to Ithaca! — but is ultimately less interesting than the class. In my GoodReads review I said that this book filled me with wistfulness, and it did; I suppose this is appropriate for a book that features the Odyssey so heavily. But how I would love to take a good lit class now — I suspect I would get much more out of it than I did when I was actually an undergrad. I admit, though, that although this memoir made me want to take up the Odyssey again (maybe I’ll learn ancient Greek, I told myself) I have never quite enjoyed epic poetry as much as I probably should.

I also finished up two big fat biographies this week. I can’t remember why I initially decided to read Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine, by Joe Hagan; I suppose it got a good review somewhere interesting, but I am not usually a Rolling Stone person and don’t know that much about music so it’s not the kind of thing I ordinarily pick up. This started out as an authorized biography, but it isn’t what I would call a hagiography and I believe Wenner disavowed it before it was published. And it certainly makes Jann Wenner sound like an absolutely repellent person. That is probably unfair, but I do think it is safe to say he and I would get along poorly. The book itself is well-written and researched and all that but I did get awfully tired of hanging out with Wenner.

The second big fat biography, which took me weeks to read, was the Robert Blake book on Benjamin Disraeli, the Victorian novelist/prime minister. I loved this book to bits. Partly because I am a Victorianist at heart, partly because Disraeli himself was such a fascinating person, and partly because Blake is an interesting writer. I found Disraeli’s relationship with his wife, and his proud but ambivalent feelings about his Jewish ancestry to be the most captivating threads in the book; I was also intrigued by his work as a novelist, and I may even pick up Coningsby at some point.

(I will probably never pick up Coningsby any more than I will read the Odyssey in ancient Greek, but I’m letting myself pretend.)

But in the end Blake’s asides were my favorite parts of the book. This quote, for instance, weighs heavily on my mind as we begin the long road to the 2020 presidential election:

This is the eternal cry of the diehard whether of the Right or the Left — that the way to his party’s political salvation is to adhere more rigidly than ever to the very principles on which it has suffered defeat. All leaders hear that cry often before their careers end. Most of them ignore it.

And this one, which feels less ominous, but which seems like an appropriate idea to keep in mind as I dive into The Old Curiosity Shop in April:

To modern minds the Victorians had an almost morbid preoccupation with death — and no one more so than the ruler who gave her name to the era. Yet perhaps the emotionalism, the tears, the locks of hair, the keepsakes, the plumed hearses, crape, black-edged paper and the rest provided a relief which our stiff upper lips and requests for no mourning and no flowers do not quite give. We laugh at Victorian inhibitions about sex. Are we not equally inhibited about death?

(It is illustrative of the current state of the American presidency that the quote about politics feels more ominous than the one about death.)

Finally, Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Fated Sky was just a treat. This is the second book in her Lady Astronaut series; the high concept here is that a meteor hits the earth in 1952, accelerating climate change and pushing the United States and other nations to colonize space. And the urgency of the situation means that women and minorities can participate in NASA’s work at the highest levels much more fully than they could in our 1952, although not without some friction.

I liked the first book in the series, The Calculating Stars, a bit more than I liked this one; by necessity, it has more world-building, which is my favorite part of this series. I also felt that The Fated Sky was just a wee bit tokenish, and I questioned whether racism and sexism could really be pushed aside as easily as they sometimes seemed, even in a true international crisis like the one in the book. But it is still a wildly entertaining story with a really engaging main character, and I cannot wait until the third book comes out next year.

 

What I Read This Week

I did not notice until just now that three of the four books I finished this week dealt with race. This was pure serendipity, one of those happy accidents that occurs when you read as much as I do. Of the three, Jane Harris’s Sugar Money seemed the least successful to me: I was hoping for something plotty and complicated, like Harris’s previous novel Gillespie and I. Sugar Money is the story of two brothers sent to Granada, where they were raised, to rescue several dozen slaves. It is a straightforward adventure tale for the most part, given additional weight and emotion by the relationship between the two brothers and by the brutality of slavery. It isn’t a bad book; in particular, I thought the character of Lucien, the younger of the two brothers and the narrator was well-developed and realistic, although sometimes his voice sounded a bit off to me. (Was I influenced by my knowledge that the author is a white woman?) But it wasn’t quite what I wanted it to be. That’s probably not fair to Harris, who did not swear out an affidavit guaranteeing me the sort of book I wanted, but I was left unsatisfied.

The New Negro, a biography of Alain Locke by Jeffrey C. Stewart was pretty much exactly what I expected it to be, if quite a bit longer than anticipated. It was a reading chosen for Black History Month, and then it stretched far into March. On the one hand, I had not heard of Locke before I read this book and I learned a ton about him; on the other, 873 pages of small print is a really long time to spend with someone you’ve never heard of previously, even if you should have. 

Locke, it turns out, was a prominent African-American philosopher who worked in the first half of the twentieth century. He focused on aesthetics and culture and influenced people like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Stewart writes, “Locke’s New Negro advanced a new paradigm — that one was both assimilated and non-assimilated, culturally American, but psychologically Block; and thus, what that meant was that one was thoroughly modern in a complex way.”

Locke was gay and his personal life was messy and unsatisfying — in this he reminded me a bit of Edward Lear’s life as depicted by Jenny Uglow in her recent biography. The two men were very different (although I suspect they might have enjoyed each other’s company) but alike in their frustration that they could not have full personal lives in that era.

Heads of the Colored People, a story collection by Nafissa Thompson-Spires, was another disappointment, albeit a slight one. I  love short stories, but most of these did not quite work for me — I felt that Thompson-Spires was working a little too hard to come up with a twist or a clever ending. The standouts, for me, were “Belles Lettres” (I do love a good epistolary story), “This Todd” (a story about a woman with a very specific romantic type), and the title story “Heads of the Colored People: Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology.”

I wasn’t really crazy about the story “Suicide, Watch,” but it did have a great first paragraph:

Jilly took her head out of the oven mainly because it was hot and the gas did not work independently of the pilot light. Stupid new technology. And preferring her head whole and her new auburn sew-in weave unsinged, and having no chloroform in the house, she conceded that she would not go out like a poet.

There was a lot here that I didn’t love, but I like the author’s somewhat askew perspective on life and I will happily pick up her next book.

Finally, Nicholas Nickleby. I think I have read this immense novel four or five times now. The first time I read it I was so young I was actually worried that Madeline Bray would have to marry Arthur Gride. (Spoiler alert: Edith Wharton would have made her, but Dickens doesn’t.)

I cannot think of a book in all the literasphere that puts me in a better mood than Nicholas Nickleby. It is not by any means Dickens’s best work; it probably isn’t even in the top tier. Madeline Bray, the love interest, barely exists; she may be the least interesting character in all of Dickens’s oeuvre. (Madeline is such a nonentity that I would suspect Dickens of parodying popular romantic tropes, except that’s not really how Dickens rolls.) But on the other hand, for my money Nicholas Nickleby is the funniest of Dickens’s novels, and it certainly has a good heart. I could do without the chapter near the end of the book where Kate and Nicholas congratulate each other on their high-mindedness, but I will never not enjoy Wackford Squeers getting the beating he so richly deserves, and the Mantalinis and the Infant Phenomenon still make me giggle even though I really should be above such things.

 

 

 

 

What I Read This Week

So many biographies read as if they were written by the subject’s defense attorney. Frederick Crews’s Freud: The Making of an Illusion feels like it was written by a prosecutor. Everything Freud did is pulled apart, every inconsistency noted, every sin meticulously documented. I wasn’t a quarter of the way through the book before I started to feel a little sorry for Freud, and by the halfway point I was actively constructing a defense strategy in my head. This is not my usual reaction to criticisms of Sigmund Freud!

Look, Crews is probably right about a lot of what he says. I am not an expert on Freud, but the research certainly seems solid. I do not find it difficult to believe that he fudged data, that he exploited his subjects, that he used lots and lots (and lots) of cocaine, that he had an affair with his wife’s sister. But without any counterbalance at all, with no sense of what Freud was like as a human being, it just reads like a brief for the prosecution, and 700 pages is a very long brief indeed.

By contrast Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth exudes empathy to spare. What struck me the most about this book is that Smarsh seems to have a bottomless well of compassion for her flawed family; her upbringing was messy and unstable and I would not begrudge her some bitterness but none is apparent. Instead, she calmly points out the socioeconomic factors that combined to complicate her parents’ lives:

To be made invisible as a class is an invalidation. With invalidation comes shame. A shame that deep–being poor in a place full of narratives about middle and upper classes–can make you feel like what you are is a failure.

No one around me articulated these things, let alone complained about them. The worker who feels her poor circumstances result from some personal failure is less likely to protest, strike, or demand a raise. Further, the Midwestern Catholic ethos that surrounded me as a child defaulted to silence. Our sense that our struggles were our own fault, our acceptance of the way things were, helped keep American industry humming to the benefit of the wealthy.

Smarsh is right, of course, but I sometimes wondered if her clinical analysis of the invisible forces shaping her parents’ lives masked a more personal sense of betrayal. Can all this intellectual and emotional distance be the real story? She doesn’t owe anyone an explanation of her feelings; she is entitled to keep her emotional life as private as she wants, but I could not help but muse about whether she had really discarded all that childhood baggage.

Smarsh uses a framing device in this memoir that seems to be somewhat polarizing, based on my perusal of the GoodReads reviews: she frames it as a letter to an unborn child, a child whom, she concedes late in the book, will never be born (not because she will never have children but because she will never have that particular child). This grates on a lot of people, and it did grate on me at first, but by the end of the book I had entirely come around on it.

Finally, Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire is the best novel I’ve read in a while. I did not expect that! I’ve only read one other book by Shamsie, A God in Every Stone, which I found dull and forgettable. But I was determined to give Home Fire a shot because it won the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and I am glad that I did. It’s an utterly beautiful novel, consistently captivating, and it held my attention until the very last page.

Home Fire is a very modern story: the story of three Pakistani siblings living in London. One joins an extremist group (think ISIS), one tells the authorities, one can’t forgive her sister for betraying her brother. Nothing could be more current; it felt ripped from the headlines, especially since I was reading and writing about Hoda Muthana at the time. But Shamsie bases her story on the plot of Antigone, a play written in 441 B.C. To me this was a powerful reminder of why fiction matters: a work more than two thousand years old can still feel relevant, can still have something to say so long after its author has turned to dust.

What I Read This Week

I expected that Adrian Tinniswood’s Behind the Throne: A Domestic History of the British Royal Household would be about royal servants. Alas, it mostly was not, no doubt in part because those who serve the British royals have been, ah, strongly discouraged from spilling what they know. Witness–for example–the sad tale of Marion Crawford, the governess to the future Queen of England and her sister, whose multiple memoirs–it will not surprise you to learn that Princess Margaret was a biter–caused her to be cut off from her former charges without so much as an annual Christmas card or even a wreath at her funeral.

But I already knew about what had happened to Crawfie, just as I already knew about Lady Flora Hastings (Queen Victoria accused her of being pregnant out of wedlock, when in fact she was suffering from cancer) and Sarah Churchill (a childhood playmate of Queen Anne who lost her position, for reasons that are minutely detailed in The Favourite). In short, I would have enjoyed Behind the Throne much more if I hadn’t already consumed so much media about the British Royal Family. As it was it served only as a mildly entertaining diversion.

Elmet, by Fiona Mozley, made quite a splash when it was published a couple of years ago, making both the Women’s Prize longlist and the Booker Prize shortlist. It’s a novel about class and poverty and family with a gothicky vibe: it is set in Yorkshire, but it reminded me forcibly of the Ozarks, where I grew up. Some have taken issue with Elmet‘s depiction of child abuse but for me the dark-fairy-tale quality kept it from being misery porn in the way that, say, A Little Life was.

The writing is beautiful and if I had had a less stressful week I might have fallen in love with this novel. As it was I struggled to focus and I only liked it. But I so felt Cathy when I read this:

I told her that I was hardly ever angry and then she told me again that she felt angry all the time.
She told me that sometimes she felt like she was breaking apart. She told me that sometimes it was as if she was standing with two feet on the ground but at the very same time part of her was running headlong into a roaring fire.

Cathy, of course, is talking about something specific in that passage but it did make me think of all the news stories about the anger of women in the past few years. I have different problems than Cathy does but boy do I feel like I am running headlong into a roaring fire some days.

I found myself very frustrated by Gerald Horne’s The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America. Horne’s argument is that the primary motivation of the American Revolution was not a desire for political freedom but the colonists’ desire to preserve slavery. The thesis is so provocative and intriguing, the research is so impressive. But the presentation of the argument is strident and one-sided, to the point that it becomes difficult to take Horne’s argument wholly seriously. He makes so many good points! Yes, large sectors of the American economy at the time did rely upon slavery. Yes, the British government was pursuing abolition throughout its empire. And Horne is right to draw attention to the way colonists rhetorically compared themselves to slaves when they argued for rebellion in the years before 1776. But on the other hand Horne doesn’t seem to grasp the nuances of British history — I took issue with his account of the Jacobite rebellions, for example — and he gives short shrift to facts that do not serve his thesis.

But Horne’s thesis — poorly presented though it may be — remains a genuine contribution to the way we think about the Revolutionary War. If you’re only going to read one book about the causes of the American Revolution, this should not be the one. But read in tandem with a more conventional account (maybe Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution), it would serve as a useful corrective to the rah-rah depictions of the American colonists as devotees of freedom.

Reading Roundup

childrens-crusadeThe Children’s Crusade, Ann Packer — I’ve had a soft spot for Ann Packer ever since The Dive from Clausen’s Pier pulled me out of a horrendous reading slump a few years ago. The Children’s Crusade is a solid read, consistently interesting with compelling characters. (Maybe the mother could have been a shade less self-centered and the father a shade less selfless, but I’m quibbling.) It wasn’t really a standout read for me–I’m not sure how well I’ll remember it in six months–but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Girl at War, Sara Nović (quote) — Set in what was Yugoslavia, just as the civil war breaks out. I was pleasantly surprised by this one — I had expected it to be a sort of issue-of-the-week girl-at-warnovel, but it was much more than that. The writing is elegant, and I found that the protagonist really came to life. Nović resisted the urge to soften some of her main character’s sharp edges, which only made the novel feel more real. Some absolutely devastating scenes, and some beautiful ones.

My Name Is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout — Beautiful! The best 2016 book I’ve read so far. It’s a very short novel — only about 200 pages, and many of those pages have only a few lines on them. But every word is well-chosen. I know that a lot of lucy-bartonreaders disliked the brief chapters and the lightly-sketched incidents, but to me the vignettes gave the novel the effect of a verbal mosaic, and at the end I thought the portrait drawn of Lucy Barton was nearly perfect. It is similar to the way that Strout built the character of Olive Kitteridge in her eponymous novel, except that Olive Kitteridge is made up of short stories rather than paragraphs. (I can see similarities to Rachel Cusk’s Outline as well, which I also love.) Highly, highly recommended if this is your sort of thing.

Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and greek-fireChemical Warfare in the Ancient World, Adrienne Mayor — I always find Mayor’s thoughts interesting, but she does have a tendency to overinterpret. For example, because Hercules used fire in his mythical battle with the Hydra, “projectile weapons tipped with toxic or combustible substances must have been known very early in Greek history.” Well, maybe. Or maybe the mythmaker had a vivid imagination? Mayor’s interpretation is plausible, but “must” seems a bit strong to me.

No Fond Return of Love, Barbara Pym — British comfort food. I only wish I’d thought to make myself a pot of tea before I no-fond-return-of-loveread it. It’s my first Barbara Pym, and I will definitely check out more of her work. I do think that the comparisons to Jane Austen on the back cover of my edition were a bit overblown. What it reminded me of more than anything was early P. D. James, except without the murders. (That is a high compliment. I think P. D. James is hugely underrated as a writer.)

The Royal Experiment: The Private Life of George III, Janice Hadlow — More Brits, these of the royal variety. This is a biography of George III, with special attention to his family life. In other words, it is exactly the kind of thing that I eat up royal-experimentwith a spoon. George III was a better father than most of his ancestors, which was a low bar to clear. Interestingly, rather than being a negligent, distracted parent, which one might expect–after all, he was the King of England–he was in many ways the original helicopter parent, so devoted to his daughters that he couldn’t bear for them to marry for decades after they came of age. I found it a fascinating book, if a bit long.

river-whiskeyIf the River Was Whiskey, T. C. Boyle — I like short stories and I like T. C. Boyle (although I miss the days when he went by T. Coraghessan Boyle, if only because “Coraghessan” is fun to say). But this collection didn’t quite do it for me. I think in his shorter work Boyle has a tendency to be weird and/or clever just for the sake of being weird and/or clever. I rarely feel a connection to his stories the way I did, for example, to San Miguel. He’s always worth reading, but nothing here excited me.

Reading Roundup

gap-of-timeThe Gap of Time, Jeannette Winterson (quote) — Very moving retelling of one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. If I have a complaint, it is that it felt too short. Some of the ideas in the second half of the book didn’t quite have time to breathe. Still highly recommended.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Brian Moore (review) — Beautifully observed, heart-breaking character study. This one will stick with me for a long time.

The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro — Oh, Kazuo Ishiguro, how you try my patience! I was the world’s greatest Ishiguro fan for years. Read everything he wrote. Multiple times. Swore I would find his grocery lists interesting. Then came Nocturnes, a collection of five novellas which I have read twice and just cannot enjoy. But everyone is buried-giantentitled to an off day, right? Still, I was nervous enough that I put off reading The Buried Giant for a year. A year. That is a lot for someone with no impulse control. And I am sad to report that my fears were justified: The Buried Giant just didn’t work for me. I found it slow and overwritten. How could the man who gave us The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go produce this? Total disappointment. (Having said that, I might wait a year or two and then give it another go. Sometimes a book is just bad for a particular time in your life, not bad per se. Of course, that is what I said about Nocturnes.)

Saint Mazie, Jami Attenberg — I really enjoyed this book, although for some reason discovering at the very end that Mazie was based on a real person dampened my enthusiasm a saint-maziebit. But I really did enjoy the time I spent in Mazie’s company: she was a charming companion even when she faced heartbreak. Pete Sorenson (the character who, in the novel, finds her diary) says, “I just wanted it to go on and on. I wanted her to live forever.” Me too, Pete.

The Stuff of Thought, Steven Pinker — I was really excited about this one, despite waiting five years after purchasing it to actually read it. As it turns out, though, I am just not that interested in linguistics. Good to know, I guess. I am pretty sure this is my problem, not Steven Pinker’s — the book is well-written and he does a good job of clearly explaining the technical jargon that inevitably comes up in a book like this.stuff-of-thought And to be fair, the chapters on naming and swearing did hold my attention. (I’ll be scheduling a therapy session to figure out why, exactly, those were the only two topics that caught my interest.)

Also, that is one super-ugly cover.

The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway — I first read this for my very favorite college class, a history seminar on American expatriates in Paris. It was my introduction to Hemingway, except for a couple of short stories in high school, and I really sun-also-risesloved the way that he wrote. I still do, although I really wrestle with his sexism. I think he writes women terribly, and I don’t think Brett Ashley holds up particularly well. I still think his best book is A Moveable Feast, which purports to be a memoir but is really just about as fictional as any of his novels.

Reading Roundup

The Painted Veil, W. Somerset Maugham (quotereview) — Beautiful and memorable, somewhat marred by a heavy-handed ending.

v-for-vendettaV for Vendetta, Alan Moore — I loved Watchmen when I read it several years ago, but I disliked V for Vendetta. Part of it was the art; it was often so dark I could barely make out what was happening, and even when it wasn’t I found it aggressively ugly to look at. But I also thought the story glorified violence to a degree that made me uncomfortable. Not my cuppa.

Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary, Anita Anand — I adore reading sophiaabout the British monarchy, India, and the suffragist movement, so I ate this up with a spoon. I’d never heard of Sophia Duleep Singh before; she had a fascinating life and this book was riveting. I especially enjoyed learning more about the British suffragist movement, as I wasn’t nearly as familiar with its history as I am with the history of the American suffragist movement. On that note, one quibble: I really with the author hadn’t insisted on referring to Sophia and her fellow activists as “suffragettes,” as that was a term coined by the opponents of women’s suffrage and used to belittle the movement; I much prefer “suffragist.”

the-friday-gospelsThe Friday Gospels, Jenn Ashworth  — I don’t know when exactly I picked up this odd little book, or who recommended it to me, but I did enjoy it. I always like novels that take religion seriously. I could quibble with some of the plot points — a lot of them, actually — but in this case I preferred to just let go of critical analysis and live in the characters’ world for a while.

Planetfall, Emma Newman– Well-written, character-driven planetfallscience fiction. I enjoyed the first two-third, felt vaguely let down by the final third. But Emma Newman is a writer to watch.

year-in-the-lifeA Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, James Shapiro — provides fascinating historical context for Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Hamlet. I especially enjoyed the discussion of As You Like It.