Everything I read in June

I said I would write something about everything I read in June. For once, I’m going to be true to my word (that word being “something”).

Richard III by William Shakespeare

Richard is insane, evil and more fun than Iago (not that the first word “Iago” brings to my mind is “fun”). I saw this terrifyingly good (and bloody) production of it at the Huntington:

The Nice and the Good by Iris Murdoch

Following the wickedness trend, this novel is an exploration of all the ways in which people are anything but nice and good, however much we may desire to be perceived as good by others or by ourselves. Dramatic, dark and philosophical, The Nice and the Good is a fleet-footed book guided by Murdoch’s expert use of the tropes and conventions of the mystery and theatrical genres and grounded in the author’s own proclivities towards writing about characters who are fascinated by power and sex, characters who manipulate and harm one another and who cannot coexist generously and restfully partly through the faults of their own natures and partly because the world itself is too aggravated a place for such selflessness to exist on anything but the most superficial level.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Kaleidoscopic, haunting, and expansive. Funny, tragic and apt. Formally inventive, preternaturally intelligent, and beautifully done.

All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost by Lan Samantha Chang

The first book I’ve finished in a single day a long time, Chang’s novel about students at a claustrophobically small MFA program is a taut and engrossing portrait of ambition, solipsism, jealousy and love–artistic and otherwise. Chang creates characters of exceptional emotional intensity in spare and luminous prose.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

I’m still learning to read graphic novels. I’m too word oriented. I have trouble paying attention to images and I tend to race ahead, expecting all I need of the narrative to exist solely in the text. But I’m learning and certain pages in this complex, allusive and forthrightly personal memoir have stayed with me in their entirety, words and images each incomplete without one another.

The more I think about it, the more impressed I am by the way Bechdel creates in a single book a troubled elegy for her father–a gay man who never openly (or at least verbally) expressed his homosexuality–, a memoir of her own adolescence and coming out, and the history of a certain cultural era.

This is a book that captures the deep ambivalence that often exists almost inextricable from the enormous amounts of love we feel for those to whom we’re closest. It’s also a book that positions itself within a dense and refracting world of literary references.  Allusions to shared reading–Ulysses, Oscar Wilde, Proust, The Wind in the Willows–make up a huge amount of the relationship between young Alison and her father, and as literature so often does, after her father’s death, all these books seem to leave Bechdel with as many questions as answers. Stories can always be reread, reframed or even retold, and one of Fun Home‘s greatest strengths is its ability to allow multiple interpretations–of a single conversation or memory, of a paragraph from a famous novel, or of a set of seeming indisputable facts–to exist alongside one another, no single truth besting the synthesis of all possible realities.

Original Sin by P.D. James

Classic P.D.. Murder, secrets, an architecturally fascinating crime scene, a fuller than usual meditation on evil (looks like I did a lot of that in June), a frame narrative device involving an innocent (of the crime in question, at least) outsider, and a closed cast of intelligent, capable suspects very few of whom lack for motive or opportunity. I’ve always liked Adam Dalgliesh, but Original Sin made me appreciate James’ skill in her creation of more minor characters, particularly Detective Kate Mishkin.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

It’s been a while since I’ve read any YA, but this came highly recommended and the first book at least totally lived up to expectations. Katniss Everdeen lives in a dystopic future North America. The continent has been divided into 12 districts, each isolated from one another and all dominated by the Capital, which exploits each district for resources and each year, as a reminder of the price of rebellion, selects a male and female tribute (between the ages of twelve and eighteen) from each district to compete in the Hunger Games, a televised fight to the death. Katniss lives in District 12, the coal-mining district, where she hunts illegally with her friend Gale in the forest just beyond the often-electrified fence.

When her twelve year old sister Prim is selected as District 12’s female contestant in her first reaping, Katniss volunteers to take her place, and the nightmare begins. The first book is gripping, exciting. The second and third books disappointed me–they’re entertaining, dark, and in flashes really interesting. But they could have been a great deal better if Collins had considered more of the social and political implications of the universe she created, if she’d made just a few choices differently, cut most of the second book and turned the third into two (because obviously that’s a minor adjustment…)…I could go on. But I won’t. Still worth reading–you’ll race through them and you won’t feel cheated, which to my mind is no small accomplishment.

– – – – – – – – – – –

I feel certain I read a couple other things in June…I’ll surely come across them on my floor sometime soon. And if I do, I’ll write “something” about them as well. Happy post-mid-July, everyone!

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