Reading journal: January wrap-up

Not full reviews or even necessarily recommendations, just some notes on what I’ve been reading.

I will never read all the dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction out there, but I keep trying. This month I read a very early apocalypse story by Jack London: The Scarlet Plague (free to read online). This short story feels like an ur-story for George Stewart’s Earth Abides (also set in San Francisco). It doesn’t really have a plot; rather, it’s just a description of civilization’s quick fall from disease and a meditation on how easily humanity could return to savagery. Frequent readers of apocalyptic fiction will recognize a lot of ideas that were later fleshed out by other writers, but London should get credit for being one of the first. This might also be considered an early steampunk story, as well. London’s vision of the future–the plague hits in 2013–includes dirigibles and steam power, as well as some radically altered version of U.S. government. However, it’s also terribly classist and sexist. But it’s short enough to read in one sitting and would be of interest to anyone studying this genre of fiction.

I also read Margaret Atwood’s latest dystopia: The Heart Goes Last. (I linked to the NYT review, which I pretty much agree with.) Not every book by a favorite author can be great (with the exception of Jane Austen). Inevitably, a disappointment comes along, and here comes one from an author who is a personal hero of mine. Atwood’s messaging regarding security and freedom is pretty heavy-handed, the sexual content is more than a little disturbing, and the end just left me cold. It feels like a throw-off and certainly in no way resembles Atwood’s more masterful dystopias, Oryx and Crake and The Handmaid’s Tale.

I do have a book recommendation to post soon, and I am just starting another post-apocalyptic novel: Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins. 

Reading journal: Ringing in 2016

This year, I’ve decided to post snippets from my ongoing reading journal that aren’t full reviews, just thoughts about what I’m reading and what I want to read. This will possibly be terribly dull; I’ll let you decide. Here’s what I’ve been reading since the start of the year — a lot of short books!

I started with the The End Is Now. This is a second in a series of short story anthologies called the “Apocalypse Triptych.”  This stories in this volume take place during the apocalypse, and many continue from where the stories in Volume 1 left off. It wasn’t as good as Volume 1. There were several zombie stories. What is the fascination with zombies, anyway? Seriously, they’re not that interesting. I’m over zombies altogether. Totally.

I also finished The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes, a noir thriller published by New York Review Books in their classics line (reviewed previously). I liked Hughes’ taut writing, but particularly enjoyed her setting of 1960s Phoenix, Arizona, so much so that I’m planning to read  more books set in the Southwest. I wonder how many I’ll get through before I get tired of desert settings?

Unfortunately, the library is hampering my plans to read more in the Southwest. I am on the waiting list for one request, the other is coming from somewhere else (possibly Nepal), and the third turned out to be almost 700 pages long, which is more than I’m willing to gamble on a new-to-me writer. Honestly, what is with all the big bloat? I understand that some stories legitimately take 600+ pages to tell, and if the writing is good and the story is enthralling, I’m willing to put in the time. But I seriously doubt that so many books have to be that long. Ideal length for me is around 350 pages, especially if I’m just getting to know the writer.

Anyway, in the meantime, I knocked out Edward Abbey’s Black Sun, which is set in the Southwest and is very short. The writing is lovely, especially in reference to nature, but it was written in the early ’70s (and shows it), and Abbey’s attitude toward women is… cringe-worthy, at the least.

Since I’d just read another noir novel, The Expendable Man, I thought I’d also go ahead and knock out The Maltese Falcon, which I already had on my shelf (still waiting for library books). Eh, it was better than The Thin Man, but as a writer, Hammett doesn’t come close to Raymond Chandler. He’s good with dialogue, though, which is probably why his books made such great movies–better than the books, in my opinion. I’ll give this one props for helping to invent a genre and a ton of tropes. And I think I’m done with crime noir for the time being.

I’m a sucker for gorgeous book covers, so check out these beauties, all of which I own.

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After a detour to California, The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi came in from the library, and it is near-perfect length, 370 pages. It’s set in Nevada and Arizona, so continuing my Southwest streak…

Links for readers…

Happy new year! I have decided that 2016 is the year of not giving a fuck. And yes, there is a book for that.

Here’s a fresh roundup of links for your reading pleasure.

Popular Books Read and Unread in 2015

I like to track my reading in multiple ways, for which I use the various OCD tracking tools on LibraryThing. One way is to track what I read during the year as compared to what others were reading during the same period (here’s the list). It interests me to see what trends emerge.

Here are the most popular books I read last year that multiple others also read:

I can recommend all of these!

Now here’s a selection of what everyone else was reading that I chose not to read, and why:

  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins: So many people were reading this and talking about it, that I was sure it would be a letdown. Let’s just say that I’ve been burned by uber-popular thrillers in the past.
  • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, which won the Pulitzer and all, yadda yadda yadda. Let’s just say that I couldn’t bear taking on yet another World War II book at this time.
  • The Rosie Project by Graeme Simpson, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley, and Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple: As we all know, we shouldn’t judge books by their covers (or titles), but these seem way too cutesy for my tastes.
  • The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey: I actually picked this one up and read the first few pages, but I am sooooo tired of zombies. Burned out big time.

Feel free to try to convince me I made a mistake passing any of these up in the comments.

An appreciation of Jane Austen…

contemporary-books

I recently completed reading all of Jane Austen’s finished novels, a pleasant and rewarding project. Although her body of work was not large, there is not a single clunker in the bunch. The same cannot be said for many other novelists.

The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. – Northanger Abbey

Like Shakespeare, Austen was a master of her form. As I was listening to Sense and Sensibility (the first of Austen’s books published but the last that I read), I happened to glance down at the progress bar just as Willoughby had sent his devastating letter to Marianne. It was exactly the fifty percent point. Austen know how to structure a narrative arc–she made it look easy.

Well, I am convinced that there is a vast deal of inconsistency in almost every human character. – Sense and Sensibility

Austen’s novels cannot be dismissed as merely romances. Her characters are fully realized people who come to seem like old friends, but they also represent the wide range of folly to be found in human nature. Austen used her constricted social settings to illuminate the limitations placed on women without coming across as preachy or melodramatic. Although her novels are 200 years old, we have no trouble relating to her characters or recognizing these issues with gender roles that our society still struggles with today.

But there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world, as there are pretty women to deserve them. – Mansfield Park

Although Austen’s novels follow the same general format, each one is unique and has something important to say. Her satire on the gothic romance, Northanger Abbey, is often laugh-out-loud funny, but also a charming appreciation of readers and novels, as well as an exhortation to young women to rely on themselves and their own merits. Mansfield Park, on the other hand, showcases Austen’s biting, pointed wit; everyone gets exactly what they deserve in the end. As a coming-of-age story, Emma features a heroine who genuinely experiences self-realization and change over the course of the book.  (This essay is an illuminating look at how Austen pioneered a new point of view in novels that we now take for granted in Emma.) Many of us admire and want to emulate the headstrong, self-assured Elizabeth Bennett, but it is often Elinor Dashwood with whom we most sympathize and respect. Persuasion is possibly Austen’s most mature novel, a character study of an introspective, analytical heroine that advocates the rights of women to choose their own way in life.

She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older: the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning. – Persuasion

I’m sure I will continue to return to Austen’s novels as touchstones in my reading life. I count her among my favorite writers. Even after two centuries, her work remains relevant, inspiring, and unsurpassed.

Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind! But vanity, not love, has been my folly. … Till this moment I never knew myself. – Pride and Prejudice

Rebecca Solnit, fast becoming my new hero

Rebecca Solnit on books no woman should read:
“The list made me think there should be another, with some of the same books, called 80 Books No Woman Should Read, though of course I believe everyone should read anything they want. I just think some books are instructions on why women are dirt or hardly exist at all except as accessories or are inherently evil and empty. Or they’re instructions in the version of masculinity that means being unkind and unaware, that set of values that expands out into violence at home, in war, and by economic means. Let me prove that I’m not a misandrist by starting with Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, because any book Paul Ryan loves that much bears some responsibility for the misery he’s dying to create.”

The Love Story Behind “Carol”

I’ve recently rediscovered Patricia Highsmith, and I read The Price of Salt, her only lesbian novel, this year. This essay about the novel and the new movie coming out based on it (Carol) helped inform my understanding of the book.

How Patricia Highsmith turned her erotic obsession with two women into literary art.

Source: The Love Story Behind “Carol” – The New Yorker