It’s time for another update post, I think, since I’d like to record at least brief thoughts about the books I’ve finished over the last month or so. Here they are:
- First, there was Kenzaburo Oe’s novel A Personal Matter, which is a strange choice of book to read during pregnancy, since it’s about a man who discovers that his son was born mentally handicapped. He spends the rest of the novel reacting badly to this news. But I wasn’t bothered by the subject matter, and I liked the novel a lot. There’s an unsparing directness to it, a sense of strangeness and a willingness to dig deep into the main character’s disturbing, although in moments unexpectedly sympathetic, mind that I admired.
- Then I read Tim Parks’s illness memoir Teach Us to Sit Still, which I also liked very much. He tells the story of mysterious pelvic pain that he suffered from for many years before feeling desperate enough to seek solutions in unexpected places. He turns to various forms of meditation and finds that this helps him recover and transforms him in deeper ways as well. The book is a really interesting exploration of the limits of western medicine and the surprising (to him and to many other people I’m sure) connections between the mind and the body.
- I listened to The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker on audio, and I’m not sure why, but I didn’t respond to this with as much enthusiasm as I thought I would. Parts of the story were great, the depiction of how people responded to the totally mysterious slowing down of the earth’s rotation in particular. I liked how simply and naturally Walker describes what this was like. The integration of the sci-fi elements with a coming-of-age story was well-done as well. But the coming of age story itself seemed a little cliché. I didn’t really like the teenage romance element.
- Then there was Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, which I thought was fabulous. I suppose this is a fairly cliché coming-of-age story as well, but the writing was very, very good, which made up for it. Mitchell has a marvelous way with a sentence. It’s a novel-in-stories, each chapter forming its own vignette in the life of the main character, a thirteen year-old boy who struggles with bullies and a stammer. Mitchell captures this character and the setting in which he lives very well.
- For my mystery book group, I read Dorothy Hughes’s In a Lonely Place, a book I chose after having heard good things about Hughes. It turned out to be a good choice, as the group liked her, and the discussion was lively. It’s told in the first person from the perspective of the murderer, and the mood is unsettling and claustrophobic. We spent a lot of time trying to figure out the extent to which the narrator is unreliable and what exactly the other characters figured out and when. I like that sort of puzzle.
- From the library, I got a copy of Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins, a book I thought was very well done, a good, entertaining piece of literary fiction that made me feel a little dissatisfied with the state of literary fiction generally. I can’t pinpoint anything wrong with the book, but I guess I’m in the mood for books that are more innovative or do something more exciting on the sentence level. It’s a book about a family in Chicago and their struggles with a wife/mother who is seriously ill because of her weight. The descriptions of the family dynamics are good and if you’re in the mood for a family drama, you might very well like it more than I did.
- Then Kate Zambreno’s book Heroines, which I liked with some reservations. It’s partly literary criticism, history, and biography, and partly memoir. I enjoyed the combination of these things. Zambreno focuses on the “wives of modernism,” writers such as Zelda Fitzgerald, Vivien Eliot, and others who were kept from writing or whose writing was dismissed and ignored because of their gender. Zambreno analyzes the language used to belittle these writers and the ideas about women and creativity that still influence us today. All this I liked. I just wished the book had a clearer organizational structure, as it felt repetitious and too long.
- Finally, I just finished Meghan O’Rourke’s memoir about her mother’s death, The Long Goodbye. This is a book that grew on me as I read; at first it seemed to be a fairly unremarkable story about illness that I wished had more reflection rather than straightforward narrative. The reflective elements of the book became more important as it went on, however, and the second half or so has a lot of interesting insights into grief and mourning.
I thought I’d give you the list of books I bought during a spur-of-the-moment book buying spree in Manhattan last weekend; I decided that I wanted to get out and walk around the city a bit while I still easily can. I visited 192 Books for the first time, a very small but great bookstore, and also old favorites Three Lives and McNally-Jackson. Here’s what I got:
- Jean Strouse’s Alice James A Biography
- Andre Aciman’s Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere
- Jo Ann Beard’s Boys of My Youth
- Barbara Comyn’s Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead
- Maggie Nelson’s Jane: A Murder
- William Gass’s On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry
- Roland Barthes A Mourning Diary
And now for a pregnancy update: I’m a little under eight weeks away from my due date. All is going well, although I’m eagerly awaiting the end of the semester, which will get here in about two weeks, so I can stop having to lumber around campus feeling ridiculously large. My teaching is going fine, but it’s getting increasingly uncomfortable to stand in front of a class. I’m both looking forward to some time in which to linger on the couch and do nothing, and worried that I will be too uncomfortable to enjoy it and/or bored out of my mind. We shall see. Here I am at 32 weeks: