Archive for February 19th, 2009

Books Read in January

February 19, 2009 @ 9:05 pm | Filed under:

I read a lot last month. That’s because during the first half of the month, I was too pregnant to do much else, and during the second half I was snuggled up with a snoozing lump of baby. My hands are too full for writing, most of the time, but reading, ah, that’s something I can do.

World Made by Hand by James Howard Kunstler, a novel set in the not-far-off future, after a sweeping political and economic event (described only in vague terms) has dramatically altered American society. There’s no more oil. The grid is down: no electricity, no long distance communication, not much government to speak of. Bombs have destroyed Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. A flu epidemic has wiped out masses of people. In the narrator’s small upstate New York community, the survivors have cobbled together lives from the refuse of their former existence; abandoned houses (most of the houses are abandoned, now) are stripped for parts, and the unsavory character who has taken control of the old landfill is one of the chief power-wielders of the community. The narrator and his neighbors seem perpetually dazed, still shaken by the waves of tragedy and loss that washed the old way of life away. The events of the book force the narrator to wake back up.

I have a great fondness for post-apocalyptic literature and film, so this book’s premise was right up my alley. The narrator’s state of shell-shocked numbness keeps the reader somewhat at a distance, but it’s a believable numbness and perhaps a merciful distance: there is so much loss, so much pain, so much quivering uncertainty about the future. Kunstler’s vision of the various ways society gropes to reshape itself is convincing and minutely detailed.

The Uncommon Reader: A Novella by Alan Bennett. What a little gem. Scott checked it out from the library and said he thought I’d enjoy it. As usual, he was right. The Queen of England discovers, by chance, that a library bookmobile visits the palace grounds. To the astonishment of the librarian, she checks out a book—and finds herself on a literary rabbit trail, hopping eagerly from one book to the next. Surprising, original, delightful.

The Moving Finger (Miss Marple Mysteries) by Agatha Christie. Everyone deserves a Christie break now and then.

The Music Teacher by Barbara Hall. Really wanted to like this novel. So much potential in the setting and cast of characters: the novel is about a woman who gives violin lessons in a small music store, the only female on the staff, half in love with one undeserving coworker and flattered by the attentions of another. Eventually I grew tired of the relentless melancholy and bad choices. I admit I lose patience with people (even fictional ones) who seem determined to be miserable.

Which is why the next book, Meg Wolitzer’s The Ten-Year Nap, annoyed the bejeebers out of me. Don’t get me wrong: Wolitzer can write beautifully. But oh what a bunch of whiners in this novel. I kept wanting to shake them and shout, “Knock it off! Quit your bellyaching and DO something! Read to your kid! Take a walk! Bake some bread! SOMETHING. Anything.” I’d read rave reviews. People loved the “honest” look at the misgivings of women who gave up promising careers to stay home with their children. I’m sure many women do have those misgivings. But, look, you make your own happiness. The women in this novel seemed to me to be sleepwalking, drifting through their days in a state of vague discontent, trapped in the hamster wheel of their own minds. I have little respect for people who refuse to wake up.

The Twilight of American Culture by Morris Berman.

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi. Had this one on the library reserve list for a long time. Really enjoyed it—sort of. Seemed like Nafisi was trying to untangle some knotty emotional threads about the Iranian Revolution and her own choices during those stormy years and the decade following. The eyewitness-to-history narrative was fascinating, but became terribly repetitive as the book went on. The best parts of the book are her literary discussions, her thoughtful unpacking of Gatsby, Daisy Miller, Lolita, Pride and Prejudice, and other works. Here Nafisi shines, and it’s easy to see why her students became so attached that many of them returned to audit her classes year after year. Best of all, Nafisi got me reading: she made me hungry to revisit old favorites (Austen, Gatsby) and curious about books like Lolita that have spent far too many years on my TBR list. I wanted to hear what Nafisi had to say about them, but I loathe spoilers, so I had no choice: had to read the books. Am very glad I did.

These next few titles, then, are books I read between sections of Reading Lolita.

Daisy Miller by Henry James.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. For the, I don’t know, sixth or seventh time? I can open this book to any page and just sit there tasting sentences.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Creeped me out in the worst way—but I couldn’t put it down—and jiminy crickets what gorgeous, sumptous writing. And beneath the creepiness, the terrible sadness, the bleak impenetrability of Humbert’s cage—worse even than the cage Lolita is trapped in.

(And a February note: my James kick has continued. First Washington Square, new to me. Now, Portrait of a Lady, the first half of which I loved passionately in college, a love that turned to outrage during the second half, because at that point in time I had no stomach for a book with a likeable heroine who did not find felicity in romance at the end. Now, nearly twenty years later, perhaps because I am comfortably immersed in a still-crazy-in-love marriage, I am finding that I can allow the novel to be the novel it is, not the happy-ever-after tale I wanted it to be in college.)