Very brief reviews

I’m not going to pretend to get caught up on reviews or review everything I’ve read lately, but I would like to say at least something about a few books I’ve finished recently.

  • The Laughing Policeman, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. I chose this book for my mystery book group and am glad I did, because I liked it very much and most of the members of my book group did as well. This is the fourth in what’s called the Martin Beck series, but Martin Beck is really just one of a group of characters and doesn’t stand out much more than the others. The book is dark, as one expects of Scandinavian crime fiction, and the writing is very good. I’m not sure how the authors divided up the writing, but whatever they did worked well. I liked the interaction among all the officers, and I thought the dark humor that runs throughout the book was great.
  • Maria Edgeworth’s Helen. This was a bit of a disappointment. It tells an interesting story and takes up some important themes of the early 19th century, but it’s too long, with too many digressions. The story is partly about the complicated friendship between Helen and Cecilia; Helen is your typical nearly-perfect heroine of early fiction, and Cecilia is charming and gracious but has a fatal flaw: when under pressure, she hides the truth about herself. This puts Helen in danger and threatens her potential marriage. The novel is also about unreasonable expectations (or at least I think they are unreasonable expectations — it’s hard to tell what Edgeworth’s stance is) placed on women to love one man only during the course of their lives. The social critique here is interesting, but the novel needed some serious editing.
  • William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience. I really loved this book. James surveys a range of religious experiences, focusing on the personal rather than on the institutional aspects of religion. His approach is for the most part nonjudgmental; he wants to describe and understand rather than to judge. The basic idea he is working with is that our religious experiences stem from our individual psychological histories and that the many varieties of religious experience exist because humans have a wide range of religious needs. I valued most his tolerant and open-minded approach, as well as his very pragmatic idea that we should follow the religious practices and beliefs that suit our needs most.
  • Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. This book was so much fun! Before this, I had only read “The Lottery” by Jackson, and now I’m ready to read more. I loved Jackson’s use of point of view; she writes in the first person and uses it masterfully to slowly reveal information about the protagonist and her family — information that, as it turns out, is really bizarre. The book isn’t scary exactly, but it’s incredibly creepy, and it perfectly maintains that tone right through to the end. I’m looking forward to reading The Haunting of Hill House very much.


Filed under Books, Fiction, Reading

9 responses to “Very brief reviews

  1. I really like Shirley Jackson as well and have read the three you mention. I think she has also written some humorous works and I am very curious about them as I have heard good things. It’s interesting that a writer can be good at both humor and horror (well, such as the horror is). I am going to read those Martin Beck bookss next year–at least start reading them as I have heard they are almost the best when it comes to Scandinavian crime novels! I should do a post like this–when the books start stacking up and I’ve not written about them it makes me sort of fidgety. Glad to hear you are getting in lots of reading!


  2. I completely agree about We Have Always Lived in the Castle. And you got me curious about Helen despite the severe need of editing. The subject matter and social critique angle certainly do appeal!


  3. I’ve been meaning to read The Varieties of Religious Experience for about ever – for some reason I always put it off, even though I’m sure I’m going to enjoy it. Yo’u’ve given me incentive to bump it up the TBR list. And what you say about Helen is interesting, I really enjoyed Castle Rackrent and wanted to read more of Edgeworth at some point, but I’ll choose something else instead first!


  4. I loved Shirley Jackson when I read her last month and will certainly be reading all she wrote. Funnily enough, I am currently in the middle of Jeffrey Eugenides The Marriage Plot, and William James’ book is hugely significant for one of the characters. So I’m especially glad to know it IS as engaging as the character claims it to be!


  5. I know you are reading a lot of books from Twitter and Goodreads and am always amazed how fast you read. Thanks for these “mini” reviews, succinct and informative. I’ve read The Lottery ages ago but nothing more from Jackson and didn’t know about her other works until now. I look forward to reading your thoughts on Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Also, I’ve been listening to some audio books lately but I don’t consider having read them. Wonder what’s your view on audio books.


  6. Love Shirley Jackson. I just read a good essay and review of a new William James bio in the New York Review of Books. James sounds like he was a really interesting person and I have Varieties on my TBR list for ages. One of these days!


  7. Danielle — it’s satisfying to be able to say at least something about books I don’t have to time to review fully. There are some I probably won’t review at all, but I don’t feel as strongly about those. Some books just don’t need to be reviewed, I think. I think you would like the Martin Beck books — I’m hoping to read more at some point.

    Nymeth — yes, Helen is interesting in spite of its flaws. If you like early novels and don’t mind long books, you might check it out. I find often that subject matter is why I read early novels, and not so much style and artistry.

    Michelle — I want to read Castle Rackrent at some point. I’d recommend reading Belinda next; I think it’s a much better novel than Helen. I put off reading the James for a long time too; it was an effort to read books I’ve had around forever that made me finally pick it up, and I’m glad I did.

    Litlove — I just finished The Marriage Plot recently and loved hearing about William James in it. The Eugenides book also made me want to read Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, although I will be reading it in much better circumstances than Madeleine was!

    Arti — I look at other people on Goodreads and similar places and think I read slowly, so thanks! It’s silly to compare, I guess. So far I’m enjoying the Didion very much, three essays in. I love her understated tone. As for audiobooks, I just started including them in my list of books read, and I’m happy with my decision. I don’t think, ultimately, that using your eyes is the only way to read.

    Stefanie — I read that article as well — yes, very good! I may have to look for other James books to read.


  8. I downloaded The Varieties of Religious Experience at the beginning of the year. Your post reminds me that I really need to read it!


  9. I read the whole Sjowall and Wahloo series; great stuff.


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