January Round-Up

I managed to write at least a paragraph or two about all fifteen books I read this month, so in some ways a round-up isn’t strictly necessary. But it’s nice whenever a widely acknowledged marker of time has passed to take a moment to reflect on what one did with that chunk of time, so I’m going to do a round-up anyway. This month, I read the following books—

Anne Perry: The Murder of the Century by Peter Graham
Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller
Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild
A Killing in Amish Country by Gregg Olsen & Rebecca Morris
Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh
March: Book One by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, & Nate Powell
Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling
The Murder on the Enriqueta by Molly Thynne
March: Book Two by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, & Nate Powell
Lucky You by Erika Carter
The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey
The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware
I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
Insane Clown President by Matt Taibbi

January Round Up.jpg

January reads (not pictured: everything I read on my Kindle).

About half of these were published in the past year, which is a sort of unusual trend for me but, current events being as pressing as they are, I spent a lot of time with my eyes glued to The National Conversation and hence read a great many titles that have been touted as being Important Cultural Touchstones. Some of what I read as a result was rewarding—Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land and Moshfegh’s Homesick for Another World were probably my two favorite reads this month—while some of what I read was awfully disappointing. The benefit of sticking primarily to time-tested reading material is that, while disappointment isn’t eliminated, one usually knows that the book in question is likely to be a bit of a letdown and can begin with the appropriate mindset.

It took me a while to get to the first book for my new year’s resolution challenge (described here) which ended up being Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang. It was lovely to sit down with this book and know at page one that it was going to be worth the effort. And The Monkey Wrench Gang was a bit of an effort (I blogged about my problems with it here). So many classics are, each for their own unique reasons, but, as I was reminded of this month, so are a great deal of non-classics, and they aren’t necessarily worth all the fuss and headaches, ultimately. And then again, some are. (Have I mentioned often enough how goddamn good Moshfegh’s short story collection, Homesick for Another World, is? I’m not sure I could mention this fact enough.) Discovering a truly good and rewarding new book is a very particular kind of joy, one I value enough to keep trying new books for even when odds are great that I’ll be less than blown away. It’s a little like being among the first to discover that the new restaurant in town is actually phenomenal, but you can do it from your couch in your underwear and you won’t have that awful experience of returning with a friend to whom you’ve hyped the place nonstop only to find that there’s a different, less skilled chef on shift that evening.

When it comes down to it, though, there is a finite number of books we’ll all manage to cram into our short lifetimes, though, so it’s best to err on the side of choosiness. When my dad retired about a year ago, he started to delve into those long haha-maybe-someday titles most of us keep on our shelves but never touch (Proust, the complete works of Henry James, that sort of thing). This habit has rather precluded the reading of lots of smaller, unestablished works, but the payoff of devoting months to Remembrance of Things Past seems, from what I can tell of his experience, worth the sacrifices. I imagine I’ll come to similar habits eventually, but I’m not there yet. I still love my trash and my open-ended small risk-taking reads.

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Mini Book Round-Up, Again

I finished three books between The Monkey Wrench Gang and the end of January but all that reading didn’t leave much time for writing about what I’d been reading. So now, a little catch up before I do a round-up of the month’s reading so I can head into February with a slate clean of tasks (blogging-wise, anyway).

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The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware (2016)
Scout Press
3/5

I read Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood last spring and enjoyed it so much that I immediately pre-ordered this one, The Woman in Cabin 10. Sorry to say, it was a bit of a disappointment, though I’m willing to attribute some of that effect to how highly I’d hyped it in my own mind as I stared longingly at it sitting on my bookshelf for months. The Woman in Cabin 10 tells the story of a young travel reporter (Lo Blacklock) who, despite having been semi-violently burgled at the beginning of the novel, decides to go on a luxury cruise for her job, believing it to be the career break of a lifetime. On her first night aboard, she thinks she sees a body being thrown overboard from the room next to hers which is supposed to be unoccupied. Because she’s a heavy drinker with a history of mental health problems, though, no one finds her story very convincing, and the novel unfolds from these plot points.

Part of my problem with this book is that I feel like I’ve read a bunch of thrillers along these lines, lately (vulnerable woman, alcohol abuse, gaslighting, and an only vaguely ascertainable crime to hold it all together). Ware does pull some narrative tricks that prevent this story from careening down the unreliable narrator path, but I almost think I would have been more hooked if she hadn’t done so. That’s neither here nor there, however; the biggest issue I had with this book was the writing quality. The prose wasn’t as polished and the narrative wasn’t as tight as I remember In a Dark, Dark Wood being. This book seems to have been custom-written for half-alert vacationers, fellow cruise ship riders half-in-the-bag themselves: characters repeat themselves over and over; the clues are practically italicized for easy spotting, and the mystery unfolds in a thoroughly predictable way. I think I’ll still pick up Ware’s next book whenever it comes along, but this thriller was a let-down and I would definitely recommend her debut, In a Dark, Dark Wood before I would this one. 3/5.

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson (2014)
Dial Books
4/5

This YA romance/bildungsroman is the story of twins, Jude and Noah, who are exceptionally gifted in the arts but caught in a never-ending web of griefs that force them to test and explore the extent to which art can make sense of, enhance, and validate the act of living. The narrative switches back and forth throughout the novel between the perspectives of the twins, starting with Noah at 13 as he’s preparing to apply to a prestigious art academy and falling in love for the first time with a boy who seems as eccentric as he is but whose inexplicable popularity seems to be buying Noah a pass with the cool kids for the first time in his life. Interspersed with the Noah chapters are the Jude chapters. We see Jude when she’s 16, fallen from her previous social pedestal and struggling to cope with two deaths, haunted by ghosts she believes are purposefully destroying her sculptures to force her to atone for past bad behaviors. Trying desperately to help herself, she enlists the aid of a local reclusive artistic genius who’s healing powers are also being enacted on a British-accent wielding bad boy nude model with whom Jude promptly falls hard in love.

I really enjoyed the premise of this novel, and I thought the writing was wonderful—it has energy, vibrancy, and beauty, and it’s been a while since I’ve read a book that had so much unabashed, unironic fun with language, so this aspect was very refreshing. I also loved the characters who are more or less unapologetically bizarre but also complicated, earnest, interesting mirrors of each other and also real, breathing people, and the effect is that they’re a delight to follow through their stories. I was a bit worried when I first picked it up that their quirkiness would get old fast, as last winter I read David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green and it dragged for me, so the initial similarities between books made me hesitant. But there was enough stuff going on to keep the book from falling into overly cutesy territory, and the effect overall was quite charming.

That said, this book seemed just a smidge too long. Page-wise, it’s a reasonable length for a YA novel, but some sections just seemed to linger on far too long, causing me to get a little frustrated. I never got frustrated enough to want to put the book aside, though, and I’d recommend it as a strong YA that packs a satisfying emotional punch along with its romance. 4/5.

Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus by Matt Taibbi (2017)
Spiegal & Grau
4.5/5

I’ve read a few of Taibbi’s books (Griftopia about the financial crisis and The Divide about correlations between wealth and treatment in our justice systems), have always admired his ability to explain the most complex of current events clearly, succinctly, and with the outrage these current events seem always to call for. Insane Clown President is no exception. This book is mostly a collection of Rolling Stone articles written by Taibbi over the course of the presidential election season and they focus on how Trump secured the Republican party nomination and how he ran his campaign against Clinton. Taibbi correctly predicts Trump’s cinching of the nomination but incorrectly called Clinton as the ultimate winner, and there’s a nicely written and illuminating epilogue in which Taibbi provides an exploratory explanation as to how he and nearly everyone else managed to misread the political situation in this country so drastically.

Reading some of these articles made me nostalgic for a time, not so long ago, when presidential politics was obsessed with Ben Carson’s bizarre claims about pyramids and we all thought every Trumpian gaffe surely had to be the one that would end him. It’s odd how much stuff from last year’s campaign season I’d already managed to forget in the maelstrom of national disasters that’s followed; Insane Clown President helps one to remember. And remembering is important, as Taibbi argues, because the lunacy that brought us Trump is the lunacy we must acknowledge and engage with if we are to combat it and do better from here on out.

Throughout the book, Taibbi makes many direct appeals to fellow journalists, pointing out journalistic tactics and media trends that, he argues, made a Trump win possible, and suggesting, if not concrete ways of reeling back the damage, at least an ideological framework that, if implemented, could help to get us, journalists and consumers of media both, all back on track. Insane Clown President isn’t a nuanced, historically informed study of Trump’s place in the national narrative—it’s too soon for that—but it is an appropriately passionate (Taibbi’s mastery of invective alone makes this book worthwhile) recount of recent events that cannot be allowed to fade from our collective consciousness any time soon. 4.5/5.