Reading Notes

I had a perfectly fine day today, especially since on Mondays I don’t have class and get to work from home. But even when working from home, colleagues can get aggravating (thanks to email!), so I spent the second part of the day irritated, annoyed, and feeling mentally scattered. It’s more often my colleagues who cause me problems than my students, who, for the most part, are great, or at least fine, or at least … gone at the end of the semester. All is well, but I’m still feeling mentally scattered, which means you get bullet point notes on my reading.

  • I finished Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates this past weekend, and I’m not sure what I think of it. Vowell has a light, humorous style, which is entertaining, but her sense of humor isn’t exactly mine. It’s fine, but I don’t love it. The book is about the pilgrims, and Hobgoblin, who is teaching a class on early American literature right now, says that she’s a little shaky on her facts. I think it’s hard to write popular history well, especially in a book as short and fast-moving as this one, so a certain amount of oversimplification is probably inevitable. But I wonder just how much of it is there.
  • I’m in the middle of Balzac’s Cousin Bette right now, and I’m unsure of that one too. Basically everyone in that book is either really and truly awful, or so good they are thoroughly unbelievable. The book is much more about social criticism than about character development and realistic action. Everyone is desperate for money or sex or social advancement, or probably all three, and the world it depicts is a truly frightful place. All that is fine for subject matter as a novel, but for me it gets dull without a stronger sense of character than what I’m getting here.
  • I’m going to pick up Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley next for my mystery book group. It’s not a mystery, really, but we decided it’s fine to branch out a bit into crime fiction. Hobgoblin really enjoyed it, and I’m looking forward to it.
  • And now on to some newly acquired books. Book Mooch has been working really well for me lately, and I’ve managed to snag a copy of Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps, which is a collection of linked stories. After my success with Olive Kitteridge, I’m looking forward to reading another example, especially from a writer I love. I also received a copy of Laurie King’s A Monstrous Regiment of Women, the second in her Mary Russell series. I’d like to see if I will like the second book better than the first; many have told me it’s better, and they are probably right. Then just today I received a copy of Cane by Jean Toomer. It looks fascinating; a quick flip through the book shows that it mixes fiction with poetry, and there are also sections of dialogue written as though it were a play. I’m curious how it will all fit together.
  • I have a couple new nonfiction books as well. First is John Hollander’s Rhyme’s Reason: A Guide to English Verse. Ever since reading Nicholson Baker’s book The Anthologist, which is largely about poetry, I’ve been in a mood to read more books about it — as well as to read more poetry. I also received Adam Thirlwell’s book The Delighted States, which is subtitled “A Book of Novels, Romances, & Their Unknown Translators, Containing Ten Languages, Set on Four Continents, & Accompanied by Maps, Portraits, Squiggles, Illustrations, & a Variety of Helpful Indexes.” Now, to be honest, in spite of such a lengthy subtitle, I still don’t have much of an idea what the book is about, but I’m looking forward to finding out.


Filed under Books, Life, Reading

13 responses to “Reading Notes

  1. Now that’s interesting. I find Cousin Bette so crazy that I don’t find it dull. Ludiocrous, sometimes. But I also have a very strong sense of many (not all) of the characters – Crevel, for example, striking his attitudes, or Bette, always worse than I expect.

    You’re right that there’s very little character development. A bunch of different chemicals collide, resulting in an explosion.


  2. Ooh, I’ll be interested to see what you think of Cane. I really love the first of the three sections, am kind of medium about the second, and don’t really care for the third. But when Toomer’s good, I think he’s fantastic.

    And I just scored a Highsmith, too – The Price of Salt for me. I’m super curious to check her out – have heard such intriguing things.


  3. That’s amusing what you say about character in Balzac. He’s generally understood to have immensely strong characterisation – too strong, if you like – as his characters embody one principle – Bette, and revenge, Crevel and ambition, the father figure (whose name has slipped my mind) and debauchery. It’s an intriguing book for me as it shows the real start of the dissolution of patriarchy. All the male characters get stitched up by women, and faith in the great institutions of church, state and head of household are being replaced by the power of money and commercialism. But sure, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and very particular to its time and context.

    I really want to read Highsmith! I’ve been promising that book to myself for ages and not picking it up. I should get around to it soon enough to follow your discussion!


  4. I read Vowell’s Assassination Vacation a few years ago and felt the same way about it as you do about Wordy Shipmates. I love the subtitle of The Delighted States. I look forward to hearing what the book is actually about 🙂


  5. I had the same reaction to Vowell’s sense of humor in The Wordy Shipmates, but she’s shaky on her facts about the present day as well as in terms of simplifying history. For example, she has a throwaway mention of the Hutchinson River Parkway being the main road between New York City and Boston, which it’s not—not least because it only exists in the state of NY and turns into the Merritt Parkway in CT, where it’s thus no longer named after her beloved Ann Hutchinson.

    That’s pretty nitpicky, but having grown up half a mile from the Merritt it gets an eyeroll and puts me on notice.


  6. I loved The Talented Mr Ripley–it’s rare that I root for a criminal, but strangely you almost want him to get away with his crimes. I’ve always meant to read more of her as she seems fascinating, but I’ve not yet gotten around to it. I’ll be curious to hear what your group thinks. Too bad about the Vowell book–I’ve got The Partly Cloudy Patriot on my pile–may have to keep in mind it’s a read for mostly entertainment purposes.


  7. Next time I see you, we’ll have to discuss The Wordy Shipmates. I love Vowell, but I don’t read her for her historical accuracy (although she leads me into interesting online research projects).

    After loving The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, thinking it was such a fun and original idea, I read A Monstrous Regiment of Women, which went exactly where one would expect an unoriginal work to go, and I stopped there with the series, because I didn’t like it. I’ve often thought of returning to it, but somehow I couldn’t get past the natural inequality between Holmes and Mary that came out in the second book. (But I’ll shut up, because I may be giving away too much here.) I’ve started The Talented Mr. Ripley — very creepy so far.


  8. I really enjoyed A Monstrous Woman. I would say more, but I have 2 kids with me on the bed, one writing a story, and the other doing spelling homework. Both involve much chewing of gum, occasional squabbles and “Mo-om” so I am rather distracted.


  9. I think you are due a book that you can be excited about and enjoy after these two, so I hope Highsmith works out! I’m still trying to finish P&P…too busy lately which I dislike!


  10. I didn’t know The Talented Mr. Ripley was a novel. If my TBR stack wasn’t so big, I would Amazon it, but I’m really focusing on reading what I have.

    I’ll be interested in hearing what you think of it–should you like it, I may have no choice but to consider it anew.


  11. zhiv

    Great stuff. You didn’t think you could take a broad swipe at Balzac like that and not see some ripples, did you? I don’t remember too much about the book, but the painfully slow and silent reversal, everything turned upside down, is a rather amazing spectacle. My sense at this point is that it shows that the cost of unhealthy pride and selfishness is paid over the course of years and years. And it’s kind of surprising and good that the characters aren’t warm and satisfying, something about the emptiness of revenge.

    Ripley is a fine choice after Chandler, but don’t be afraid to go right back to another Chandler sooner than later. You’re gonna love Company She Keeps. Looking at my note and your comment, I would recommend rereading Brooks Brothers as you go through it, to get the full “linked” effect. And I’ve been intrigued by Cane for awhile, and thank you for the reminder. I should have that book, and get around to reading it.


  12. verbivore

    Cousin Bette is a Balzac I have yet to read, but it’s on my list for this year, so I’ll be curious to see what I think of it. And I really enjoyed The Talented Mr. Ripley, so I hope you like it. He’s creepy! Now, I saw the film before I read the book, so I had a hard time keeping the actors’ faces out of my reading, but such is life.


  13. Amateur Reader — for some reason the craziness isn’t working for me. I guess I just don’t like craziness, maybe. I love your metaphor of the chemicals colliding!

    Emily — it’s your review of Cane that intrigued me! Thank you 🙂 I have yet to begin the Highsmith, but I’m looking forward to it. I hope you like The Price of Salt.

    Litlove — I’ll be reading the Highsmith soon, and I’m guessing Emily B. will as well. It would be lovely if you joined us! Cousin Bette continues to drag, unfortunately. I think the characters are too strong, as you put it, for my taste. I want people who are a little more complex! But I like your argument about the patriarchy. This is definitely a world where the traditional order is corrupt and falling apart.

    Stefanie — when I find out what The Delighted States is about I’ll definitely let you know! I’m glad to hear you felt the same way about her other one, so I’m not alone. I can see why people love her, but it didn’t turn out that way for me.

    Nicole — oh, yeah, I noticed that about the Hutch too! Wouldn’t you take 95? I love it that that highway is named after Ann Hutchinson, but it’s definitely not as important as Vowell makes it out to be.

    Danielle — that’s what Hobgoblin said about Ripley too! I’m very curious. I haven’t started it yet, but I will soon. You may enjoy the Vowell quite a bit (who knows how different author’s voices work for different people, right?); she certainly writes history in an entertaining way.

    Emily (pvreader) — yes let’s discuss Vowell! I can see that historical accuracy wouldn’t be the reason to read her, though (not that she’s hugely off, but you can get historical accuracy elsewhere). You certainly make me interested in the next Russell book. I’ve heard such different things about the series, I don’t know what to think. I’m so looking forward to Ripley!

    Lilian — oh, you and your kids crack me up! I’m glad to know you liked the book, and I’m looking forward to getting to it when I can.

    Debby — I have had a decent number of books I haven’t liked lately, it’s true. Olive Kitteridge partly made up for it, though.

    JaneGS — I saw the movie a while back, but I don’t remember much of it, which is good. I’ll be posting on the book in a couple weeks, which is when the book group will meet.

    Zhiv — I expect that I will love The Company She Keeps and will make sure to take another look at the Brooks Brothers story. You’re right that making sweeping statements about canonical authors will get some response! I’m just not enjoying the spectacle. I can see why others might enjoy it, but it all feels so cold and bleak, and while I don’t need warm and sympathetic characters, I do want a sense of depth I’m not seeing here.

    Verbivore — I saw the movie too, although I don’t remember it well. But I will have Matt Damon’s face in mind, which … well, it could be worse 🙂 I’m glad you’ll be reading Cousin Bette too, so I can see what you think. I take it you liked his other novels?


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