2011-2012 reading omnibus

January 27, 2012

So I’m working on this well-read thing, with the reading and so forth. The goal this year is 30 books. I’m already behind and reading Anna Karenina; expect failure. Also, I’m only about 150 pages in, but I really think it’s going to work out for Anna and Vronsky! It seems promising!

But I thought I would account for the stuff I read last year — one of my favorite bloggers ever, 50 Books (now retired), used to post capsule reviews of books she’d read, and even now, years later, when I finish a classic or a book written before that blog ended, I’ll go over and see what she said and what people said in the comments. This is sort of born of that. Onwards:

Appendix A: Recommendations. A few weeks ago, I posted a best of 2011 lineup of links and follows, which seemed to go over well, so here’s most of that (in no particular order):

  1. Ace of Spades reviews Bad Teacher
  2. Joe Posnanski of SI on Jeff Francoeur: French and Hope
  3. “Many people, such as me, have the burden of coming back, and fading away, forgotten. Your son will never be lost this way, he will live forever.”
  4. Michael Chabon on reading Huck Finn to his kids and dealing with the word “nigger”: The Unspeakable in Its Jammies
  5. Sarah Miller at the Awl: Why Emma Watson Really Left Brown
  6. Megan McArdle on the worst inequality: The Tyranny of the Meritocracy
  7. Leon Wolf on the terrifying reality of American politics: Free Ponies Will be the Death of America
  8. A journalist on 25 years of knowing George W. Bush: Dubya and Me
  9. Interview: Justin Timberlake in Playboy

Appendix B: Recriminations. These are the books I finished in 2011:

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

Let’s be real: The Fountainhead’s appeal is entirely a hot relationship. Outside of Dominique and Roark (and it is a hot relationship, she did pull that off), the entire book is about modern architecture, weirdly expository monologues sometimes about architecture, and trials about architecture. While I actually have a lot of fondness for that topic, in the same way that despite its cherished status, Pride & Prejudice is actually about a pretty nerd and a rich elitist falling in love, modern architecture isn’t exactly a national sweet spot of nostalgia. Nevertheless, critics who question the central premise of it all — a selfish to thine ownself the 1% and the 1% in spirit — should rewind on that Steve Jobs Stanford speech everyone so loves to quote. It’s kind of terrible advice, but for a few people. Anyway, in general: The dialogue’s not very well written! Very awkward and a touch removed from reality. Especially Ellsworth Toohey’s endless monologues. A+ for Dominique/Roark, though.

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

Wrote about here. People forget Bowen was good (and a boozy Edmund Burke fan, too), and she really has a crazy deft hand with perspective shifts. She breaks off some lines like this, “The innocent are so few that two of them seldom meet—when they do meet, their victims lie strewn all round.” Unfortunately, this one features a 16-year-old girl who acts like an eight-year-old and reads as possibly mentally challenged by 2012 standards. If you like The New Girl

Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain

Read in advance of the HBO miniseries, which I didn’t watch after reading the reviews and kind of the book itself, to be honest. It’s very much a domestic portrait of a woman who has a borderline incestuous infatuation with her sociopath daughter, and frustrating as hell to read, because you just want to be like, Mildred, Jesus Christ.

Macbeth

I somehow missed reading “Macbeth.” For an English major, I have some giant holes in my Shakespeare knowledge, so I’m trying to work through what I hadn’t read (“King Lear” is on deck). Here is the sad part: I actually read this so I could retroactively mock Bella Swan for writing what sounded like an annoying ass paper about it. Anyway, it’s good! Two notes: First, one of the things I like about having the Norton Anthology is they always give you the history of the source material for the plays; apparently, the source material has Duncan as a young and feeble ruler, and Macbeth going on to have a great rule for a decade. Which, I suppose, puts The Social Network in slightly better regard for history. Two, Ross is hilariously awful at delivering bad news. He first tells MacDuff that his family was doing awesome hey nonny nonny, and then is like “Oh, actually, gotta tell you something: jk they’re all dead.” Then in the final scene, when Siward’s son has been killed by Macbeth, he informs Siward, who actually has to ask, “My son is dead?” or something like it, that’s how poor a job he does at explaining the situation.

Bossypants by Tina Fey

Very funny and awesome, and loved by all who have read it. Wrote about it here, but my favorite parts continue to be the college stories and the ones about her father. Also, the stylist’s assistant will be a chic twenty-year-old Asian girl named Esther or Agnes or Lot’s Wife.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Everybody says this, but: It’s a pop culture drive-by shooting that The Hunger Games gets grouped with Twilight. Collins is so superior a writer to Meyer, and that book is so much better conceived of and executed than Twilight. HG, however, has a really interesting appeal: It’s a book with a female protagonist, written by a woman, but it’s still very popular with guys, including middle school guys (for a quick example: my former boss’s son loved the books and so did his friends). That’s…different.

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

I should have loads to say about this book, but I don’t really, except to say that it’s excellent and unique, and but for The Age of Innocence, my favorite book I read in 2011. It compares well to The Master and Margarita for its delightful intricacy and the seamless logic of the insanity at hand.

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

The story of the last, peevish American ambassador to Germany before WWII, his kind of hilariously slutty daughter, and the only book I’ve ever paused to think, “PLEASE DON’T SLEEP WITH HITLER, GIRL” before turning the page. I preferred it to Devil in the White City, as the latter’s start-stop alternating structure frustrated me; here, Larson focuses on one time period, within one family, so if it’s not as original, it’s more cohesive (to me).

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

I have a really bad habit of writing part of a blog post and not finishing it, and here is one on this book:

Weiner’s Troubles could only have happened in a post-2000 world, and even then that’s generous. I mean, the sins are the same, and so forth, but when Paul Revere sent a woman a dirty picture, he had to draw it himself, and ride all night just to deliver the message. I don’t want to belabor the point, but the newness of it is interesting.

That makes it an odd companion to a book written 90 years ago. But Wharton’s writing has a weird transcendence, where it retains a modern analogue at all times, and delivers insight where you expect stodginess. She has a story called “The Other Two” that’s about a really sly ho who’s been married, now, thrice, and whose two ex-husbands live on — there’s no quaint antiquity about it. Wharton could have written it in 1970. “Age of Innocence” differs, of course, in that Wharton is very concerned with the oldness of things, against the newness of 1920.

Wharton works a kind of love triangle — it’s a very…isosceles love triangle — to carve up pre-WWI Old New York society, and to examine the intricate chain of unspoken duties and falsehoods. The revelation here is sort of anti-climactic with the context in the latter half of the book, but the way the pieces fold together into this dinner set piece is amazing:

[dinner scene cut because it's long but it's really good go read it]

Wharton caps “Age of Innocence” with an epilogue, set 26 years after the bulk of the book. There, she enlists the Archers’ eldest son as modernity, so Archer can debate with himself what it is that’s changed. He settles on this: That the youth meet fate as an equal, and something that can be fought and conquered, rather than inevitability and its weight.

The inherent newness of the Weiner scandal sets me up right there because here: The immediacy of the social media world requires you to believe on some level that you sit across from fate. If you can see reality move, then you have to believe your ability to affect it a little bit. Add to that the impulse to share rather than withhold, and

…that’s where I stopped writing. After Ethan Frome, I always expect Edith Wharton to plow right through your heart with the misery express, but Age of Innocence has a very lovely, very bittersweet ending — so don’t let the threat of despair ward you off.

My Antonia by Willa Cather

Wrote about here. Don’t get into it there, but one of those true Great Visuals books, where you have a lasting vision of the world therein. The book’s built around the seasons and the girl, and I have the clearest picture of both, sort of Norman Rockwellian HD, colored in with Crayola.

The Trial by Franz Kafka

Another Missed It Somehow book. I had this in my Sandusky-Paterno post but I scrapped it:

There’s a part where Josef K., the main guy, is in his office, and he hears something in the closet, opens it and finds his original arresting police officers getting beaten for screwing up something and it escalates and escalates and they’re asking him for help, until he closes the door and goes away, and then later — it might even be a different day — he opens the door again, and they’re exactly in the SAME positions as before, still begging for his help. The Sandusky situation reminds me of that — like how the hell did the people who knew just…ignore it?

While the ending is surreal by subtraction, Kafka assembles a series of set pieces like the closet built to disorient. Some of them creeped me the hell out, And Then There Were None-style, chief among them when he sees the lawyer and it’s dark and sketchy, anyway, and then the lawyer points out the guy who’s been sitting in the dark corner the entire time.

The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Philips

If you are an English major, or English major adjacent who hated reading Shakespearean plays (but has a decent working knowledge of them) and also loves some good metafiction, this is your book. It has a fake Shakespearean play in it (like, for real, Philips wrote a whole play, it’s at the end of the book), and a lot of the plot elements function like modern-day Shakespearean comedy elements (twins and so forth). I loved it, but you may not.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Wrote about here. Still great. Still recommended. Much like the visuals of My Antonia, I keep circling back around, “I divorce thee, I divorce thee, I divorce thee.”

Appendix C: Ongoing failure. Two books I spent a lot of time reading in 2011, but didn’t finish because whatever, I’ll finish them: Henry James’s Wings of the Dove (I actually started reading it in 2009 on the flight to Prague and will eventually finish, possibly from hell), and The Master and Margarita (which is awesome, my fall just got kind of busy and I lost momentum).

Appendix D: Future. On the list for 2012 after Anna: Triumph of the City, Pulphead, some John le Carre, Middlemarch (another on the unfinished list), and The Postman Always Rings Twice (it’s in my sweet James M. Cain sampler book). Also trying to close some major nonfiction gaps because, true life, I’ve virtually read no Hitchens, Didion, or anyone else. The only George Orwell book I’ve ever read cover-to-cover? Keep the Aspidistra Flying, which makes me one of the 12 people living who has.

I’ll just make this big, after 9,342,204 words about what I’ve been reading: What are you reading this year?

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Matt January 27, 2012 at 4:07 am

1. Going to Tulane I have to hear so much effusive praise for Confederacy of Dunces that I’m already tired of it, even though I’ve never read a page. I expect I will, eventually.

2. I’ve been sitting on this $5.00 Barnes&Noble gift card for weeks, and I think I’m going to use it to subsidize the purchase of The Marriage Plot. I’ve never read any other Eugenides so we’ll see how that goes.

3. I don’t normally read much fiction but I almost bought The Hunger Games in an airport once. In the checkout line I opened it up and realized it was written in the present first-person, which I realized is something I have a very low tolerance for in my pop lit.

4. Every time you link to that Megan McArdle piece I read it, and I’m always impressed by how well she says things that I think

Katherine Miller January 27, 2012 at 9:54 am

1. People had been after me to read it since junior year of high school — i.e. six years before — so I feel you. It is really good, but a good summer read because the lols. If you want to make other people feel bad about themselves for reading terrible stuff at the beach, THERE’S your book.

2. I’ve read Virgin Suicides which is creepy and different, but not Middlesex (…I think I’ll be skipping it tbh). WORTH IT.

3. I hate first-person present too. Here it generally works, and you get over it. I haven’t read the sequels, but I’ve heard the usefulness of the tense wanes.

4. She reigns over my Google Reader.

CJ January 28, 2012 at 2:43 pm

I just used a B&N gift card to pick up two collections of Orwell’s narrative and critical essays. I’ve never read any of his non-fiction (besides “Politics and The English Language”), but I hear it’s really good. You can borrow them when I’m done, if you want.

I’ll probably slog through the last 500 pages of Infinite Jest. And when I get tired of spending an hour reading 20 pages about tennis matches and existential dread — because David Foster Wallace trolled his readers like that — I’ll read one of the Game of Thrones books in, like, a weekend.

I’ve also been reading Charles Fort’s Book of the Damned, which is completely insane.

Katherine Miller January 28, 2012 at 4:54 pm

Hell yeah, I’ll borrow it! I’ve heard the war writing is the absolute best. I’ve never read any DFW, either. Or William F. Buckley. (I’m the worst.)

You and Infinite Jest is me and any number of books — I don’t know about you, but my favorites are the big sprawling, kind of a mess books; the problem is they take for goddamn ever to read. I hear Infinite Jest is great, though.

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