Recent Reading, Escapist and non

I’ve been getting back into regular reading in the last couple weeks, but I’ve still been in the mood for books that feel escapist. Rich and Pretty, by Rumaan Alam was perfect — so enjoyable and absorbing and fun — and after I finished it, I wanted something similar. I asked around a bit, looking for a book that would let me get lost in the world it creates, and settled on Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead. It, also, was perfect. It’s another “rich people problems” book, which for some reason I find comforting, probably because while there are problems, they aren’t all that serious and they don’t make me feel bad and worried. Seating Arrangements takes place on an island in New England and tells the story of a wedding weekend. There’s the bride and her family — the novel’s main characters — as well as the groom and his family and everyone’s friends. The novel is full of unlikeable characters, which I just love; the worst one is Winn, the bride’s father, who is so horribly self-involved and lacking in self-awareness, and Shipstead captures him so well, it’s just delicious. His biggest worry in life is not getting invited into the country club he so desperately wants to be a member of. Shipstead makes us feel the absurdity of his character, but she also makes us sympathize with him, just a little bit, and I loved that.

As for my non-escapist reading, I finished Sady Doyle’s book Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear … and Why. This book looks at the phenomenon of the famous woman who completely and utterly loses it, who turns herself into a very public disaster. Think Britney Spears. But also think Mary Wollstonecraft, Billie Holiday, and Sylvia Plath. Doyle looks at the modern meaning of the “trainwreck,” but also at historical examples to show that this is not just a modern phenomenon. Doyle is great at explaining the cultural meaning of this figure — how it developed, the meaning we find in it, and why we just can’t look away. Doyle’s writing is smart and also lively and fun. It’s a disturbing topic, and Doyle offers some useful ways to think about it.

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We Gon’ Be Alright and other reading

We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation by Jeff Chang is a book I began before the disaster of an election almost two weeks ago. I was really appreciating it before the election, but afterward it began to feel even more important. It’s an essay collection with pieces on the idea of diversity, student protest, Black Lives Matter, race and the Oscars, what it means to be Asian-American, and everything that has happened in Ferguson. This last is the subject of Chang’s longest essay where he goes in depth on the history of the city, everything that led up to the shooting of Michael Brown, and the aftermath of his death and the protests. Chang’s writing is clear and incisive, and the book as a whole feels necessary. We need smart people writing good books about race in America right now. I don’t feel like I have a lot to say about the book, as I don’t want to get into the details of his arguments, but the book is useful as a way of thinking about the state we’re in.

As for other reading, I haven’t been doing much in the last couple weeks. It’s been a busy and stressful time, and generally not a happy time. I am in the middle of Rich and Pretty by Rumaan Alam, and although I’m reading it very slowly, I’m liking it. It’s a story about the friendship between two women in their early 30s in New York City as they figure out their relationships and work while keeping their friendship going. Not much happens in it — or at least not much so far — and I’m liking that. A mildly-escapist look at female friendship is just the thing for right now.

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A Body, Undone, by Christina Crosby

This memoir about the aftermath of a horrible bicycle accident was hard for me to read — although good enough not to give up on — because the day after I started it my husband got in a bicycle accident. His accident was not horrible, and he’s fine now, but I felt shaken up about it for a while. Crosby is also a professor who lives in Connecticut … and it’s all just too close to my life! A Body, Undone is a really fascinating read, though, and worth sticking with in spite of my mild queasiness. Crosby’s accident, which took place in 2003, was horrific: she landed on her chin and broke her neck. She has lived with paralysis ever since. The book tells the story of the accident, the immediate aftermath, and how she has changed and adjusted in the years afterward. It also reaches back into her childhood and life before the accident and describes how the accident affected her family, particularly her relationship with her brother, who suffered from MS and passed away not too long after Crosby’s crash.

Crosby’s story is compelling, but I especially liked the more philosophical aspects of the book where Crosby considers how the accident changed her sense of self. She considers the relationship of body and mind and what it means when one’s body no longer functions as it used to. She also makes a point of resisting traditional narratives of disaster and recovery, refusing the usual move toward optimism as her book moves along. I loved the closing chapter where she considers literary conventions and argues that hers is more like a horror story than a traditional memoir:

Even the most accomplished cripple you can imagine is undone, and living some part of her life in another dimension, under a different dispensation than that of realist representation. In my case, spinal cord injury casts a very long shadow, the penumbra of which will only grow darker as the years pass and the deficits of age begin to diminish me still further. I’m living a life beyond reason, even if I have invoked some of the stabilizing conventions of realism in this narrative. Those conventions are the ones I know best, but profound neurological damage actually feels to me more like a horror story, a literary genre governed not by rational exposition but rather by affective intensification and bewilderment.

Crosby has created a post-accident life that’s meaningful, but I admired the honesty with which she writes about her suffering and fears of the future.

The quotation above gives you a sense of what the writing is like: Crosby is an academic, and it sometimes shows in her prose. The voice felt a little uneven to me at times. But this problem affects only parts of the book, and the interest I felt in the ideas made up for it.

A side-note: for those who have read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Crosby is the friend who just suffered an accident in that book, and Nelson makes appearances in Crosby’s book as well. As a fan of both writers, I liked discovering their friendship and how they have influenced each other.

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The (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel Reaches a Decision! (and other updates)

After not a whole lot of much deliberation, the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel has reached a decision on the 2016 Man Booker Prize winner! The winner is…….The Sellout, by Paul Beatty!!

Okay, the truth is that The Sellout got three out of five votes, so it was not a unanimous decision by any means. But three of us — including me — felt that it was the most deserving novel on the list. If we wanted to settle on a book that all of us actually genuinely liked, Eileen would probably have been our choice, or maybe His Bloody Project, but it would have been one of those unanimous decisions that’s really more about settling than choosing what the majority of us think is the best book.

The official announcement comes down tomorrow (Tuesday, 10/25). My guess is that either The Sellout or Do Not Say We Have Nothing will win. The Shadow Panel was not particularly taken with the latter novel, but it’s gotten a lot of good reviews and strong buzz. So we’ll see.

As for other reading, I recently finished Jade Chang’s The Wangs vs. the World, a book I liked quite a lot. It’s a riches-to-rags story, and also a road trip novel, and also a coming-of-age novel, and also a story about the immigrant experience. It tells the story of the Wangs, a family that has just lost its considerable fortune in the most recent financial crash. The two younger children get pulled out of college and private school — because how can they pay for it now? — and they all drive across country from California to upstate New York where the eldest daughter lives. The story of their journey is fun — add to the list above that this is a picaresque novel — and the story touches on important ideas along the way, always with a light touch. I can’t say it was a super-deep read, but it was enjoyable.

And now I’m in the middle of Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho, a fantasy novel about magic in Victorian England. I haven’t read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, but it’s definitely a novel in that vein. In fact, the cover claims it’s a cross between Susanna Clarke and Georgette Heyer. I’m reading it largely because it’s the first pick for Book Riot’s Riot Read, a super-informal month-long read-along. The idea is that people will read and discuss it across social media, blogs, in comments at Book Riot, or wherever they want to. So far I’m liking the book a lot — it’s a quick read (except I don’t have much time to read right now, so I’m getting through it slowly, but it would be a quick read in other circumstances), enjoyable, light, kind of obvious in its themes but still very well done.

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Pond, by Claire-Louise Bennett

I really loved — for the most part — reading Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond; it’s the kind of book I like: focused on one character, about consciousness, beautifully written, experimental, or on the borderline of being experimental. It’s about one woman living an isolated life in an Irish town. The book’s chapters can be considered separate short stories, but it’s clearly the same main character in all of them, so I’d call them vignettes from the main character’s life rather than separate stories. It’s the kind of fiction where not much happens, except that everything happens, everything meaning thoughts, feelings, memories, dreams — the stuff that we live with all the time. The book should be boring, but I found myself enthralled with chapters about walks, bowls, her yard, her neighbors, her landlady. Bennett takes you deep into her character’s mind, and it turns out to be a place where the ordinary becomes riveting.

When I said I loved it for the most part, I mostly meant that toward the end the voice begins to fall apart and I became less sure what was going on and what to make of it. It’s like the character begins to sink into dreams and nightmares and leaves everyday reality a little bit behind. I would like to read this book again to see what I make of it a second time — to see better whether the ending fits with the rest and how it does or doesn’t. I may simply have not understood everything the book was doing towards the end.

But overall, I’m fascinated by what Bennett has done. I got this book from the library, but I want a copy on my shelves to pick up again when I’m ready. I think that’s a testament to how much this book got to me.

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Reading Round-Up, 9/27/2016

I wrote last time about being in the middle of Chloe Caldwell’s Women and Ruth Ozeki’s The Face: A Time Code. Both, as turned out, were excellent. Women tells the story of an intense relationship and a young woman’s exploration of her sexual identity in New York City. I suppose it’s a conventional story in a lot of ways — a love affair in New York City! — but it’s also intense and bookish, and it reads like a memoir or a long essay, which I mean as praise. The Face I just loved. Ozeki’s thoughts about her life, her body, and her mind as she sits and stares at her face for three hours are so interesting, so thoughtful, so evocative. I enjoyed being in her company while reading the book, and, really, that’s exactly what I wanted.

Then I read Jerald Walker’s The World in Flames: A Black Boyhood in a White Supremacist Doomsday Cult, which is exactly what the title promises. Walker grew up in the 1970s and 80s in Chicago in a large family devoted to a cultish religion that believed the world was going to end very soon. If not on the date the leader promises, then … sometime after that. So Walker spent his childhood believing he would never become an adult, that he never needed to think about his future because he wouldn’t have one, at least on this earth. He also spent his childhood in an area experiencing white flight and in a church that believed in racial segregation. There are a lot of strands in this book (oh, both his parents are blind as well), and Walker tells the story in a straightforwardly engaging manner. It’s a glimpse into a fascinating childhood and adolescence.

Now I’m reading Claire-Louise Bennett’s short novel Pond, and I love it. But more on that later.

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Fiction Fatigue

In case you haven’t heard, the short list for the Man Booker prize was announced last week, and it turns out I didn’t do too badly at guessing: I picked four out of the six books from the official short list. The (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel picked three out of the six. I’m very happy that my two favorites — The Sellout and Eileen — made it, and I’m also pleased that All That Man Is made it as well. I was correct about Hot Milk also, although I’m less enthusiastic about that one. I wish My Name is Lucy Barton was on the list, and I think The Many deserves to be there. Of the two I didn’t pick that made the list, one doesn’t surprise me: Do Not Say We Have Nothing seemed likely to make it, with its large scope and ambition. I’m more surprised they went with His Bloody Project, which I thought was entertaining, but had a weak ending and wasn’t particularly ground-breaking.

So now we wait for the winner. I’m hoping it’s The Sellout, and I’m guessing it will be that one or Do Not Say We Have Nothing.

And now, I’m ready for other kinds of books, particularly some nonfiction. I will always read novels, I love novels, but too many of them in a row can be a challenge for me, particularly when the novels are complex with lots of characters and plot. When I finished the Booker list, I felt a craving for books that were simpler in scope. I’m beginning to think that there’s a certain type of large, ambitious novel that I need to read very sparingly — the kind that makes you wish you had kept a list of characters, that makes you go back and double-check plot points, the kind that skips around in time and covers decades or centuries. What I want more of is the kind of novel that focuses on one main character, or two at most, and that doesn’t have a lot going on in the way of plot, but instead focuses on character development and ideas. And I want nonfiction of the same sort: essays and memoirs or other kinds of personal nonfiction that offer the pleasure of a single consciousness and a unique voice.

So what have I been reading in the last week? Well, first I read John D. MacDonald’s The Deep Blue Good-By, which does not fit the criteria of what I’m looking for, but which I needed to read for my mystery book group. It was an interesting novel to think about, but the group in general decided it’s severely flawed by the main character’s misogyny. So, onward. I also finished a forthcoming essay collection by Phoebe Robinson called You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain. This is much closer to what I want. The essays are a great combination of funny and serious. Robinson is a comedian, and it shows, but the pieces also touch on important ideas about race and gender, and they can be moving in places.

And now I’m moving on to two books, the first of which is Ruth Ozeki’s The Face: A Time Code, which is about … Ruth Ozeki’s face. I’ve only just begun, but she decides to spend three hours looking at her face in the mirror and writing about the results. This is part of a series of short books on writers and their faces, with two others in the series so far by Chris Abani and Tash Aw. I love the concept. The other book is Women by Chloe Caldwell, another short book, in this case a novella. It’s fiction, but it’s the kind of fiction that reads like it could be essay or memoir: it’s first person and about real-life experiences  and focused on relationships and identity. It’s good so far. I loved reading the Booker long list fiction, but now I’m loving not reading the Booker long list fiction.

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