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.)

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34 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Kathy says:

    Hi Melissa! Kunstler lives in, and writes about, my very small hometown. He has always been unbearable as a personality (as opposed to as a person, I guess, since I don’t know him except through appearances at town hall meetings and local gossip), but even more so since oil prices did what he always predicted and went through the roof. That said, I found his non-fiction thought-provoking. But I haven’t been able to bring myself to read his novels.

    However, given your recommendation, maybe I’ll suggest it to my bookclub!

  2. sarah says:

    I love a good book review – so thank you for these. They made me hungry for reading.

    I studied Lolita at university. Hard going. But prose to fill the corners of your soul.

    I also like post-apocalyptic fiction, so will search out that book. I’ve heard nothing but good about The Uncommon Reader … but sorry, nothing you can say will endear me to The Great Gatsby.

    Your comment about characters stuck in misery touched a nerve. I feel the same way as you – and I also understand the authorial urge to create something grittier than a happy ending.

  3. Kathryn says:

    Love the sound of The Uncommon Reader. Waiting for it to arrive from the library …

  4. Sara says:

    You make them sound so interesting—at least the ones you enjoyed! I’ll have to try a couple, although my sr. in high school despised Reading Lolita, but then he’s very picky. Though I was an english major, I’ve never read any James.

    Have you read any Sigrid Undset? Her books are beautiful but they don’t have happy endings. I get tired of the misery, but it’s pretty realistic.

  5. Sarah says:

    I’ve read a lot of James Kunstler and loved Handmade Nation. It was clear to me that he really understood how pre-industrial America worked from a technological and sociological point of view. That, combined, with his familiar rants against suburbia made the book pretty interesting to me. The other commenter is right though–he’s got a big head!

  6. Karen@Candid Diversions says:

    I’ll have to look for the first one you mentioned. I think the only post-apocalyptic book I’ve read is “Alas, Babylon” and that one just drew me in and wouldn’t let me go.

    I often lose patience with characters in books. I don’t demand that every story have a happy ending but my goodness, the whining and apathy in some novels is enough to…well, anyway, I agree with you.

  7. adrienne says:

    How have I missed World Made by Hand? I love post-apocalyptic fiction *and* I live in upstate NY. Now it’s on my list–thanks for pointing it out!

  8. Lisa says:

    Kind of creepy–I just read “10 Year Nap” and felt the same; I read “Reading Lolita…” a while back and felt…the same….I’ve also been into James in the last year and “Washington Square” was my starting point [in all honesty because it was on cd and I needed a car book!] and I felt….the same. What’s coming up in my stack: “Portrait of a Lady”….I’ve picked up the “Music Teacher” twice at the library and put it back…..guess it was that feeling you had that made me put it back! lol…”Great Minds Think Alike?” lol…

  9. Natalia says:

    What a productive month you have had! If I wasn’t so old maybe I’d get myself a baby so I can read 🙂 I read Lolita in Teheran a couple of years ago and loved it. It was boring at time but for me, being a foreigner in this country, it was an emotional read. I could identify with her pain at having to leave her country. And it did make me want to read, read, read.

    A question- How do you decide what to read next? where do you get suggestions?

  10. Melissa Wiley says:

    Lisa–that’s uncanny! I’ll have to start trolling your blog for book ideas, since our tastes seem to run along the same lines… 😉

    Sara–I have tried Kristin Lavransdattar at least three separate times, and have never made it past chapter three. And yet so many friends are crazy about that book & have told me they think I’d love it, so I’d still like to try it again. I don’t know why I’ve had so many false starts with it.

    Natalia–great question! Sounds like a post in itself! More later…

  11. MelanieB says:

    It took me several tries to get into Kristen Lavransdattar. i’m glad I persisted, though. On the third try I think I pushed past that third or fourth chapter and finally it picked up momentum and I liked the novel quite a bit. Another of those with characters who don’t act like I think they should– sometimes Kristen drove me crazy; but with deep insights into human nature and a very interesting spiritual journey. I liked the Catholic worldview which infused the story.

    You might also check which translation you have. From what I understand the translation by Tiina Nunnally is supposed to be superior and the other, by I can’t recall his name, not so much. I read the first two volumes in Nunnally’s translation and the third was a different translator and I did notice a drop off in quality. I think I want to read that third volume again sometime with the Nunnally translation to see if I missed anything.

  12. Penny in VT says:

    I can’t wait to read The Uncommon Reader – thanks Scott!

    The others sound great as well. I did my senior thesis on F.Scott Fitzgerald, it was a wonderful year in my life!

    I hope you can still read when Huck starts to crawl 🙂

  13. Melissa Wiley says:

    I hope you can still read when Huck starts to crawl 🙂

    Yeah, ain’t likely, is it? One of the many reasons they call this brief span of time a babymoon…it’s already passing! We’re getting smiles and coos now…and a very alert baby who isn’t quite as content to hang out in my lap while I read! My February book count is a good bit lower…

  14. Heidi @ GGIP says:

    I never could finish Lolita in Tehran. I liked it, but couldn’t push through to the end.

    I just read Gatsby for the first time last month. Loved it!

  15. Yvonne says:

    My daughter is 12, loves mysteries, reads tons, but I thought Christie–content-wise–would be too mature for her. Which were your daughter’s first titles? I read a ton of Christie in highschool but that was too many books and children ago for me to really remember. Thanks.

  16. Michelle says:

    On Kristin Lavransdatter: I agree that for these books the translation makes a big difference in how you interface with the characters and understand the setting/society. Nunnally’s writing flows so much better. Also, I believe the original English translation was a bit edited, and Nunnally’s version is not. That, in itself, is enough to try hers.

  17. Stephanie says:

    I’m 33 and having been reading Agatha Christie sine I was 12. You could say I’m a Christie fanatic. It’s in my genes – my Dad started reading them when he was about 12, 13. The first one I read was The Secret Adversary and my own daughter (also 12) has just started it. It’s a “Tommy and Tuppence” mystery and there isn’t any adult content. So it is good for younger readers. I grew up watching Mystery! on PBS and remember watching a wonderful adaptation of Tommy and Tuppence starring Francesca Annis, who seemed so glamorous to me at the time!
    I love the Miss Marple mysteries and was pretty disappointed with the recent adaptations on PBS starring Geraldine McEwan. They changed some of the endings! And took a Poirot mystery and rewrote it to star Miss Marple instead!

  18. Andrea says:

    “…and remember this, Isabelle, though you have been hated, you have also been loved. Ah, but Isabelle–adored.”

    I remember being back in the infirmary senior year at Mary Wash. Kidney infection. I had to read PORTRAIT OF A LADY for Dr. Singh’s novel class…

    So, let’s blame it on the illness: I get to the last pages of the novel, read the lines quoted above, and immediately burst into such powerful, hysterical crying that the nurse on staff runs in to see what is wrong. I am so overwrought, I can’t answer her–just keep pushing the book into her hands.

    Somehow, I think Henry James would have approved…

  19. scott says:

    Dr. Singh’s novel class

    A serious contender for worst course I ever took. I started keeping track of how many of my answers in class he’d shoot down dismissively. I ended the year at 1-for-19…and the one correct answer was to his question of which video had Madonna as a mermaid.

  20. Melissa Wiley says:

    I never took a class with Dr. Singh, but I worked for him (along with all the other English profs) in my clerical workstudy in the English dept. He was nice, that way, but my roommate hated his class, I remember. And I would reply to her: “Count your blessings. I have Dervin. Twice.”

  21. Melissa Wiley says:

    Yvonne asked: “My daughter is 12, loves mysteries, reads tons, but I thought Christie–content-wise–would be too mature for her. Which were your daughter’s first titles?”

    Last year I worried, too, about some of the mature themes (namely all the extramarital affairs, most of which led to murders) in Christie’s books. I vetted all the books first & will have to ask her which ones she started with. In recent months we have decided to give her free rein with Christie’s catalog. It’s kind of a genteel and euphemized introduction to the sordid side of life, I guess.

  22. Andrea says:

    LOL: I remember telling Dr. Singh the first day of class (during an uncomfortable silence) that I liked the short stories of O’Henry…he didn’t call me an idiot, per se…but he came durn close. Simplistic? Unread? Something like that. Not my biggest fan…

  23. Andrea says:

    Oh! Dervin, on the other hand, chased me down at graduation to tell me that, even on his death bed, *nothing* would make him happier than writing me a letter of recommendation…

    Which colors my memory of him tremendously 🙂

  24. scott says:

    In my Singh class we dropped a novel because not one person liked it—I have a feeling it was Portrait of Lady and mea culpa for that, my love—so he opened the floor to suggestions for uncovered authors to replace the Henry James. I suggested something by John Steinbeck, and he looked at me as though I had Tourette’s. I think we went with John Fowles instead.

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