Monthly Archives: December 2016

Recent Reading: December 17th, 2016

I have one novel and two nonfiction books to report on this time. First the novel: Seeing Red by Lina Meruane. I’ve seen this described as auto-fiction, a term that … I guess makes sense? Autobiographical novel is better, but frankly I’m not that interested in its autobiographical origins. What’s interesting is that it’s a first-person account of struggling with blindness. The novel opens with the main character — Lina, of course — at a party, discovering that her eyes are filling with blood. She has known that this might happen and has had to be careful to try to keep it from happening, but it was inevitable that it would happen eventually. The rest of the novel is about trying to get by afterward — about learning to cope without sight and living with the hope that her eyes might get better but with the possibility of disappointment as well. It’s a fierce novel, about pain and anger and fear. It’s short, and I think that’s a good thing, because even though I liked the book quite a lot, it would be hard to read a work with such intensity for very long. I like fiction that gets deeply into a character’s mind, even when that mind is an uncomfortable place, and this book satisfies that desire perfectly.

Then there’s The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri, a very, very short book — an extended essay, really — on book covers. It’s a great follow-up to her book from earlier this year In Other Words, which was about learning to speak and write in Italian. That book was also about identity and how language and writing have shaped her, and The Clothing of Books picks up the same theme, just this time in relation to her feelings about book covers generally and the covers of her own books in particular. I like Lahiri’s nonfiction style — translated from the Italian in both cases — which is very simple and straightforward while managing to make intriguing arguments and to suggest depth of thought. Both books are great for people how like to think about language and writing and books as physical objects.

Finally, there’s 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write by the playwright Sarah Ruhl. The essays here are 1-2 pages usually, and most of them are about the theater — Ruhl’s thoughts about her own plays and her experiences working in the theater and also more theoretical ideas about how drama works and what plays can and should do. Ruhl starts with a description of trying to write with small children to explain the genesis of the book: each essay is an idea told briefly and simply, an idea that perhaps she could have expanded if she had had more time. But they feel complete already, or at least most of them do, and I enjoyed them for their suggestiveness and their air of exploration: they are essays in the sense of “attempts” or “assays” into a thought instead of fully-developed and defended arguments, and they are enjoyable in their brevity and incompleteness. This book is a must-read for anybody who has thought about the theater a lot, and interesting for those who haven’t but wouldn’t mind giving it a try.

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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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