Sunday, December 10, 2017

What I'm Reading

I am mostly grading final portfolios and exams, as well as working on the edits for Fault Lines. But I am reading, because I'm always reading.

Here's what I've been reading lately -- these are just the ones I've finished. I've started about a dozen others and tossed them aside. There are so many terrible books out there. As I told the Kid recently, I just don't want to read about book about some rich person whining about their rich white person life, especially if their big problem is something self-induced (o should i have an affair/ o should i get divorced / o why is my marriage so empty when I married this shallow person / o why does my life have no meaning when all i do is drink and fuck why)


Sherry Thomas, A Study in Scarlet Women, A Conspiracy in Belgravia

The premise here is that Sherlock Holmes is actually Charlotte Holmes, a young woman from an impoverished (though noble) family. She has three sisters, one of whom seems to be severely autistic, and faithless parents. Rather than allow herself to be married off to someone who might support her, Charlotte flees home and -- eventually -- sets up as a private detective.

All the other players -- Watson, Mycroft, Mrs. Hudson, Moriarty -- have their counterparts in these books, though none is the same as in Doyle's series; and Charlotte is solving mysteries. But the books are part historical fiction and part feminist fiction.

Nice writing, and good characters. Charlotte is especially well-done, but her sister Livia is also very good. A well-done sibling relationship is rare in fiction, outside of Jane Austen. This one reminds me of Austen.

Thomas has only two books out in this series so far. I'm hoping for more.

Fiona Barton, The Widow

I'm still not sure what I think about this one. It's very readable, and the two main characters -- the wife and a reporter -- are well done.

It's entirely a premise book, if you know what I mean: an elevator pitch book. Two year old kid goes missing, woman finds out her husband is the suspected kidnapper, and that he's a pedophile. What next?

The book works -- if it does -- because we feel something for Jean Taylor, who is married to Glen Taylor, the suspected pedophile and abductor of the infant Bella.

But whatever we feel for Jean, it's not pity or sympathy. It's not fellow feeling. It's that base instinct Plato identified which makes us gawk at piles of bodies near executions (his example) or at accident on the freeway (to use a modern example).

That's the main energy in this book. Barton is playing on those base desires, the same ones that keep Fox News and scandal magazines in business. She knows this, too: her main character, besides Jean Taylor, is Kate Waters, a star reporter for such a scandal magazine. It is through Kate's eyes that we learn much of the story.

Both Kate and Jean are well done. I especially believe Jean's character: she's an incurious working class woman with the best of intentions who would have done fine if she had married someone better, but who is entirely incapable of rising above her circumstances. Married to a decent man, she'd be a decent wife. Married to a Nazi, she'd be a Nazi. (Left unmarried? But unpossible!)

As I noted above, this is readable. But we don't come out of it edified.It's just another book using the rape and death of a girl -- an infant girl, in this case -- to sell copy.

Joanna Rakoff, My Salinger Year

This is a memoir, not fiction. I read it because I have a love/hate relationship with J. D. Salinger. Well, who doesn't? (Except people who have a hate/hate relationship with him I suppose.)

You remember up there at the beginning when I said I was sick of reading about rich people whining about problems they created for themselves? Yeah, this book.

This young woman drops out of graduate school in Paris, because she's bored with it, and comes back to work in New York City (why not!), where she gets a job as an assistant to a literary agent. It's the 1990s, and she doesn't have enough money, though this seems more a plot device than actual fact, since we never see her short of any cash. That is, she is never short of money to spend on whatever the fuck she wants, for someone who has no money. At one point, there's a scene where her parents surprise her with the news that she has students loans and two huge credit card bills (they took out the loans in her name, and led her to believe they had been paying for the credit cards, also in her name.) But we never see her worrying about those ever again either.

Meanwhile, she wants to write. So does her boyfriend, who writes impenetrable prose about how beautiful women want to have sex with him. When she starts getting poetry and short stories published, she has to hide this from him. (Why? I think we're supposed to believe because he would be jealous, and they would break up -- but why would you stay with a guy who would break up with you if you were successful?)

Now and then she talks on the phone with Salinger, who is thinking of publishing his last short story as a novella. But then he doesn't.

The end.

Don't waste your time on this one, unless you like period pieces about rich young people in New York in the 1990s.

Elif Batuman, The Idiot

I kept seeing this one recommended all over the internet, plus my library had a copy, so I checked it out.

It's supposed to be a hilarious story of a freshman at Harvard in the 1990s (what is it with novels set in the 1990s all of a sudden?). "Charming" and "capacious," with "genuinely likable" characters. Comparisons are made to Russian novels.

I made it almost all the way through this one before giving up in bemusement. Whatever other people are finding here, I'm not finding. Maybe there's some nostalgia for the 1990s other readers have that I don't share? (Lots of reviewers squee about Selin's discovery of the internet.)

The characters and the dialogue and the details in this one all strike me as contrived. The plot is both Byzantine and dull. I didn't go to Harvard, mind you, so maybe I'm wrong about this, because Harvard might be different, but the academic details strike me as entirely unrealistic.


Nicoleandmaggie said...

I have a hate/hate relationship with Salinger!

I know a lot of Harvard professors. They’re like regular academics but with a better secretarial staff ratio (stars get their own, other folks share like one admin to 3 profs) and more money for students. Unlike Stanford, the buildings and furnishings are pretty worn. Harvard also has as much red tape as your favorite public regional. It is almost the prototypical academic university.

delagar said...

In Batuman's book the professors are whacky. Hijinks ensue. It's like reading a absurdist play written by someone who has only the vaguest idea how universities work.

But I am almost positive that Batuman did attend Harvard, so I am mystified by the unrealistic nature of the university scenes.

nicoleandmaggie said...

Well, I am told that back in the day (long before the 1990s), the older professors were whackier. They did things like have afternoon tea seminars with brandy and cookies... So... maybe not so much.