November 2016 Books


Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut

I get that this is a Good and Important Book, and I basically appreciated it, but did not feel the sort of deep emotional connection that many people seem to have to it. Which is fine–not every book has to be super personal, I guess.

Selected quote:

The book was Maniacs in the Fourth Dimension, by Kilgore Trout. It was about people whose mental diseases couldn’t be treated because the causes of the diseases were all in the fourth dimension, and three-dimensional Earthling doctors couldn’t see those causes at all, or even imagine them.

One thing Trout said that Rosewater liked very much was that there really were vampires and werewolves and goblins and angels and so on, but that they were in the fourth dimension. So was William Blake, Rosewater’s favorite poet, according to Trout. So were heaven and hell.

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., Adelle Waldman

Compelling, but not especially…weighty? It does capture really well, I think, that turning point in a relationship where one finds oneself irrationally annoyed with pretty much anything the other person says or does and you just wish things could go back to the Way Things Were (which may at this point be a completely idealized fantasy, because you perhaps didn’t know the person well enough to be annoyed at them yet and the whole thing was coated with sexy novelty). And how real and hard to suppress that irritation is on your side, while at the same time, the other person hasn’t actually done anything–there hasn’t been one definitive action–to earn your now cold/dismissive behavior. So the reader can probably sympathize with both Nate and Hannah in the breakdown of their relationship, at least from that aspect.

As to the rest, ughhh Nate is pretty terrible in a very realistic way; if the author were male, you’d for sure assume Nate was the self-insert character and his views on women were the author’s views and it would just be another funny, well-written, but ultimately kind of frustrating/disappointing tale of the Sexual Angst of a young Jewish (aspiring) novelist in New York. But: the author is female? Which maybe makes it more interesting, because it’s way more likely that it’s meant to be a sort of satire or deconstruction of that genre rather than a straight telling. But if so, it’s pretty subtle?  There’s a back of the book blurb comparing it to High Fidelity, and that seems semi-accurate, although I can only speak to the movie. And a lot of dudes do seem to identify with the John Cusack character, so I feel like a similar unironic reading could be done here, if one didn’t look at the author’s name. But maybe I’m underestimating men’s ability to do a nuanced reading along gender lines when faced with a male protagonist.

Selected quote:

“Are you really so indifferent to the fate of books?” Nate asked. “You said the other night you love Nabokov. Wouldn’t it be a bad thing if people stopped reading Lolita?”
“I think people who are likely to appreciate Lolita will read Lolita,” she said, her expression challenging—flirtatious. “I don’t care about the rest. I mean, I don’t care what they do for fun.”
It flashed through Nate’s mind that Hannah’s position wasn’t very feminine. She sounded more like an aesthete than an educator, and women, in his experience, tended by disposition to be educators. He felt intuitively that she was paraphrasing someone else (a professor? Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature?) and that the someone was a man.

Damned, Chuck Palahniuk

Eh, whatever. The writing style is pretty obnoxious, which is perhaps to be expected from a middle-aged man trying to write in the voice of a 13-year-old girl in a sort of Judy Blume pastiche. And all of the attempts at social satire feel cheap and dated (even for 2011). But I’m a sucker for depictions of Hell, and this is an interesting one in the sort of overwhelming but also super mundane grossness? E.g. mountains of toenail clippings, a lake of saliva, discarded popcorn balls everywhere, etc.

Selected Letters of E.M. Forster, Volume Two 1921-1970

Yes, good. Forster’s correspondence with T.E. Lawrence starts sometime in this volume, and that maybe sent us down a path that will probably culminate in the purchase of this ludicrously expensive book, if we can even manage to find a copy–but more on falling down the T.E. Lawrence rabbit hole in December books, probably.

This volume is probably somewhat more depressing than the first, since it contains the whole slow build to World War II and then also just a lot of age-related mortality–Forster is 42 at the beginning and 91 at the end, so we see his friends dying off and his own health failing. The age things isn’t quite as depressing as it could be, since Forster seemed to be constantly forming new relationships with people of all ages, so that by the time he was in his 80s, he still had plenty of healthy, middle-aged correspondents, but still–while living to 91 and retaining one’s wits and independence and ability to enjoy life until almost the very end is basically the best case for aging, one just does not want to be reminded of the inevitability of aging and the fact that the human body is a piece of hardware not built to last.

Selected quote:

Nay, I have been greatly tossed by the Waives, and you will be delighted to hear that I was repelled by the emotion emanating from Percival, told Leonard so, and he told Virginia. But moderate your content. With this repulsion mingles the conviction that the book will be a classic, and while you will pertly pipe up ‘Well why not?’ the gap isn’t, for a person of culture, so easy to skip. For there is emotion, and I was interested to learn that Vanessa too was overcome by it, though in a favourable sense. The position is that I have got to being bored by Virginia’s superciliousness and maliciousness, which she has often wounded me with in the past, and with this boredom comes a more detached view of her work. A new book of hers affects me like a newly discovered manuscript. One unrolls the papyrus—yes! This time a masterpiece. This too I have told her. I don’t know what she makes of the gap.

Your remark about her hatred interests and cheers me, and perhaps it is true.

(To W.J.H. Sprott, 4 December 1931)

So curious about the other half of this correspondence, because holy shit, do I need the full context of Forster and Sprott’s bitchy remarks about Virginia Woolf.

Swing Time, Zadie Smith

Yeah, sure. Not my favorite thing she’s done, but still pretty compelling.

Selected quote:

I’d noticed that other people had this adolescent gift for “spiraling out of control,” of “going off the rails,” but whatever catch inside of themselves they managed to release in times of sadness or trauma I wasn’t able to find in myself. Instead, self-consciously, like an athlete deciding on a new training regime, I decided to go off the rails. But no one took me very seriously, least of all my mother, for she considered me a fundamentally reliable teenager.

Spin, Robert Charles Wilson

Really cool concept that will sound dumb if I try to recap it here, but the most appealing aspect is that there’s some timey-wimey shit that allows for terra-forming and divergent evolution to occur on Mars within a human lifetime and lets the humans of Earth meet the Martians who now have a completely different hundreds of thousands of years old history and civilization. Unfortunately, Wilson’s story-telling priorities were not quite mine, and  that aspect is not the biggest part of the novel; instead, he seems more interested in exploring how humanity reacts to the knowledge that the world will end in ~40 years, which: sure, fine, and it seems realistic enough.

In terms of the writing style, though: I think having the narrative alternate between past and present (which the past story eventually catches up to) was a poor choice and I’m not sure what it accomplished? Reading the present chapters until the story catches up is basically like, “I don’t really know what’s going on here, but I know that the flashbacks are eventually going to make this all clear,” so you just want to get back to the flashback chapters as soon as possible. And because the story’s present is a sort of generic chase thriller in a sci-fi near future setting, it’s not the most welcome opening to the book, although maybe I’d feel differently if I were more into sci-fi novels?


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