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!

Language, violence and rape.

At work last week I checked npr.org for the news, as I often do, and the headline story was about the gang rape of an eleven year old girl in Texas. I didn’t read the article, because I knew how much it would have upset me to do so. Today I read an article by Roxane Gay titled “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence” which I found via Bookslut’s blog. I think the article is so right about so many things, which is totally terrifying. While writing my thesis, I explored a lot of theory and criticism about writing on violence, particularly war. The representation of violence, war and rape in fiction and non-fiction–and in (and through) language in general–is something which deeply concerns and interests me in my (admittedly limited) capacities as a thinker and a writer, and (in a less limited capacity) a human being. I hope it concerns you too.


Usually I think of winter as the time to dig into long novels. Most of the lengthiest books I’ve ever read I undertook between November and March, and though I read Dead Souls in late December (and liked it a lot) since then I’ve found that I can’t make it past the second chapter of any book longer than 400 pages. I put a lot of weight on how well or how poorly I’m reading (and writing) as a measurement of my overall mental state, so it actually does worry me when reading doesn’t come easily.

A friend of mine said to me today that she’s been failing to get through The Pickwick Papers, and she thinks this is partially due to the fact that it’s just not the kind of book one can read ten pages of at a time. There’s definitely some comforting truth to this—some books you’re meant to be immersed in, sixty-plus pages at a time. To read them in three page sips then, is to miss the immersion altogether. Even I can’t usually find time in my day to read for a steady hour and a half.

Another explanation might be that I’m just trying to read the wrong six hundred page books, but after my discard pile stacked up to my knees, I began to assume there was something more at the root of my inability to read at length than merely poor selection.

Right now, I’d say the problem is February. But if this is still going on in March, I suppose I’ll have to reassess.

The upside of not being able to read anything that weighs more than eight ounces has been that I’ve been racing through some shorter fiction, essays, and even some plays. I find that when I’m struggling to make it past the first two paragraphs of anything, I return to my favorite writers because I have faith their books will take me in—that they’ll both shelter and engross me—so over the past two weeks I’ve gone back to Vonnegut, Murdoch, Shakespeare and Calvin and Hobbes.

I’ll be writing a bit more about these books shortly—stay tuned for posts about slim paperbacks numbers one, two and three (with four and five in the offing).

My Favorite Books of 2010

I won’t speak for the best books of 2010 (if you’d like to read some people who do, read lists here, here, or here), but I can speak for my favorites, and here they are:

Two Serious Ladies – Jane Bowles

This novel is now one of my favorite books. I wrote extensively about how much I loved it right after I finished it this spring.

Here – Wislawa Szymborksa

I love this collection of poetry. I’ve been reading and rereading it for weeks now, and I’m thoroughly looking forward to having it with me for years to come.

Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It – Maile Meloy

This is a terrific collection of short stories. Achingly intense situations, spare writing that spares no one (least of all the reader), this is one of the books I recommended most to people this year. I hope some of them read it and that at least a few loved it as much as I did.

King Lear – Shakespeare.

I don’t know why I’ve read King Lear so many times in 2010 (by so many, I mean I’ve read through it completely twice and returned to parts of it far more often) but somehow this play has been integral to the fabric of my thoughts this year. So many of its themes (self-knowledge, loyalty, friendship, madness, fools and foolishness, aging, loss) have played important roles in my thoughts and writing over the past twelve months.


Oh So Honorable Mentions: The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner; Sirens of Titan, Kurt Vonnegut; The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolano; The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoevsky; Just Kids, Patti Smith; The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis; Sakura Park, Rachel Wetzsteon; The Open Road, Pico Iyer; The Complete Julian of Norwich; 9 Stories and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, by J.D. Salinger; Sonnets from the Portuguese, Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

I also really loved 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, The Anthologist, the writings of Marcus Aurelius, Don Paterson’s Rain, A House and Its Head, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, and rereading Milton’s Paradise Lost. I could go on, but I won’t.

I haven’t kept up with this blog very well over the past few months. Most of the major blog-related projects I attempted were abandoned rather speedily. But I actually think that’s for the best. I guess we’ll find out in 2011. Happy New Year!

Playing catch-up, part 1.

Here’s a list of lots of things I’ve seen, read and thought about over the past few weeks.


  • A girl reading Arthur Ransome’s Secret Water in the crêperie near my apartment. This made me really happy.
  • A Daunt’s book bag identical to the one I’ve got, slung over the shoulder of someone walking past the store where I work.
  • Multiple copies of Franzen’s Freedom being read on the T, in coffee shops and outside, when it’s sunny.

What I’ve been reading:

  • Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan, C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, Murial Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Dan Simmons’ Hyperion (in the middle of this one), Shakespeare’s Henry IV part I, Nicole Krauss’ Great House, Bernd Brunner’s Moon: A Brief History (in the midst of this as well), Best American Essays 2010 edited by Christopher Hitchens, and some dabbling about in different collections by David Sedaris.
  • J.K. Rowling on “The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination,” poet Don Paterson (whose new book, Rain, contains some really beautiful poems, especially the title piece) on Shakespeare’s sonnets, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on metaphysics, and various pieces from recent New Yorkers.

Posts I’ve thought about writing but haven’t:

  • A post about dialogue and conversation, spurred by the fact that I think Shirley Jackson writes conversations really, really well, capturing the way speaking to other people can really be just a part of a full-scale psychological guessing game.
  • A post about characters in mystery series, spurred by reading Margery Allingham, who seems really gifted at creating characters in a line or two. In mysteries, character is often subservient to plot. There is usually only one fully developed character: the detective. And the detective’s character development is usually arched not just through a single book, but through the series as a whole. The other personages in a single book all function as parts of the game the detective is trying to solve, as suspects, red herrings, and distractions. So they get to be 2-dimensional, but often in flamboyant, deeply suspicious ways, and I thought this was interesting. Maybe I’ll come back to it.
  • Forthcoming: some thoughts on Nicole Krauss’ Great House and other contemporary fiction.
  • Multiple posts apologizing for the general lack of posts…