Catching up, forever
Ever start uncontrollably sweating when you look at your TBR pile? I mean, uhm, metaphorically? I know I’ve been, lately. Not that it affects my purchasing decisions, of course.
Like: E. and I went to Seattle back in May. By ourselves. Without the kids. “Without the kids” hasn’t been part of our functional vocabulary since before the pandemic. Or even since before there were kids to be without. The one thing I wanted to do that week was drink all the local beers. Came close! I also wanted to visit every local bookshop in walking distance; I’ve done a lot of comfort purchasing but haven’t been inside a bookshop in years, and I was ready to shake things up, to buy whatever the staff recommendation shelves told me to buy. Four stores and eight books later my carry-on baggage hurt.
Then we got home and I found the box of books I’d honestly forgotten I’d ordered before leaving Ohio.
Which is all to say that by “metaphorically” I mean “disturbingly literally.”
What I’ve been reading
Anyways, not only does my TBR pile frighten me, but I've also fallen way behind on reporting on what I've been reading. Would you hate me if I go lightning-round here? Now’s your chance to find out!
Girl, by Camille Laurens, translated by Adriana Hunter
I picked up Girl, by Camille Laurens, because I’m a fan of Other Press in general, and I recall really liking Laurens’s previous book, Who You Think I Am. I feel bad, but I felt kind of lukewarm on this one. Bad timing, honestly, starting this rather serious, depressing story, when I did, right when I was so in the mood to leave the world behind for a while.
That said, there’s certainly good stuff in this book. It felt a bit like a feminist response to something like Everyman by Phillip Roth, a comparison I shouldn’t be making because it’s been decades since I read the Roth book, but. I particularly liked its active concern with language. There’s some story beats that caught me emotionally unprepared. If anything, I think there were some moments when I thought, or hoped, the story might go in certain deeper, more psychologically specific and complex directions, but it dodged my expectations. So aside from wrong book, wrong time, I may have also actually read the book itself a bit wrong.
Pandora’s Star, by Peter F. Hamilton
Then we have Peter F. Hamilton. For me, his fat, horror-tinged space operas just scream "vacation read." I took Pandora’s Star along with me to Seattle. Took me forever to get through it but it was a right book, right time read.
To be clear: I won't tell you he’s a great writer. Maybe he’s not even a good writer, I don’t know. He writes science fiction for straight, hormonal teenage boys. Every lady character he writes? Hot. Super hot. Super duper hot! I mean, hey, cool for the future, everyone being so hot, but, like, also, settle down, my dude.
Still, he's awful fun, all gas pedal, occasional NOS. Or, to swap metaphors, as a juggler, he’s happy to throw ball after ball after ball into the mix with manic glee.
And, like, there’s a bit where—quick plot summary: it’s the far future, humanity has developed wormhole technology, medical tech is great so everyone can live forever, and, uh-oh!, something crazy happens to a star outside humanity’s reach, which means we have to build a starship to go investigate—and that whole sequence, when the mystery of the book begins to unfold and expand, was gripping in a way I wish I felt like I could get from more better-for-me literary fiction. Which brings us to...
Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh
...which was every bit as gripping for me in the way I wish I felt like I could get from more better-for-me literary fiction. I’ve known about but have not yet read Ottessa Moshfegh for a bit now. Someone at the Elliott Bay Book Company flagged Eileen as being ideal for fans of Shirley Jackson, which, yes, please. I loved it and had a lot of trouble putting it down, which says something for a book that spools out mostly as a dark creep-show mood piece for most of its run time. Hang in there, though, and it rewards you with third-act explosions. Highly recommend; it made me want to read everything she has ever written.
[ a dashed-off, half-baked aside about the whole gripping thing, that, were this a professionally minded publication, would probably be thrown directly into the furnace ]
Gripping, though: is it bad that I want your book to make me want to keep reading it, that I think that's one of your book's, like, main jobs? It's like, I have Middlemarch on my TBR pile right now. I’ve never read it. I suspect it’s going to be great, of course. Because I want the big fat classics to be great. I was once upon a time a sad young literary English major boy and I still want to feel like describing something as "character-driven" somehow makes it intrinsically, morally superior to anything that would deign to dabble in things so pedestrian as "plot." But I also happen to actually really love plot. I feel no rush to get into Middlemarch, because I strongly suspect it's going to take me about four years to get through it. Anymore it feels a little like, if a book isn't going to defend my attention span with a sword and a shotgun, I feel like I'm going to be really easily distracted. Or am I just in a summer state of mind, still? And yet for all that the book I'm devoting the next issue to I found incredibly gripping, despite being, like, seventy-five percent descriptions of plants, which I'd previously have thought I'd be one-hundred percent useless at caring about. Clearly, I have no idea what I'm talking about.
The Bishop’s Bedroom, by Piero Chiara, translated by Jill Foulston
After I got back from vacation I realized everything on the TBR pile felt long at a time when I really needed something short—because I'm apparently physically and emotionally incapable of buying novellas—so I went to the library and picked up The Bishop’s Bedroom by Piero Chiara.
And, hey, it wasn’t bad. Didn’t love it. Not mad at it. It's about a guy with money and a boat who picks up another guy with money but who doesn’t have a boat to go sailing around an Italian lake after World War II. They have an antagonistically low-key bro-down while sometimes having sex with ladies who are there to be had sex with. There’s a murder! Eventually. But, like, you know who did it. So.
The notable bit here for me was the mood it cast, how weird it felt reading it over lunch at the start of the summer on benches in the town square greenspace of the college town where I work, feeling for brief spells like I was the only person in the world, reading a book about people who were the only people in their world.
Also, reading this reminded me I’ve never read Patricia Highsmith. I should read Patricia Highsmith, right?
How Should a Person Be?, by Sheila Heti
Oh boy! Speaking of people who are the only people who exist in their own world! Next up was How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti. Which I guess I initially found endearing. Because according to my original draft of this take, which I wrote way back closer to when I actually read the book, I wrote that I found it endearing. I have no reason to believe I was lying, even though my lingering memory of the book is that somewhere in the middle I felt like it got really tedious, and I don't actually remember finding anything endearing about it after that.
If I had to talk to any of the characters from this novel at a cocktail party—well, actually, no, none of them would ever talk to me at a cocktail party. If I ever had to go to the kind of cocktail party that these kinds of characters would attend, and if I had to stand next to these characters while they were having conversations with themselves? I am pretty sure I would find them all completely insufferable.
I guess I'm glad I finally read something by her—she’s one of those contemporary writers I’ve known about for a while now but who I’d yet to experience—but I can’t exactly say I’m eager to go back for more. Of course I say that but then also part of me does kind of want to go back to the book just to really tear it apart. So I don't know. I guess I can be pretty insufferable, too.
100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet, by Pamela Paul
I grabbed 100 Things We've Lost to the Internet, by Pamela Paul, on a whim. (From the library. Different branch, this time. I was there solely for the kids, this time, I swear.) It's a book I knew about because of the Internet (I sometimes listen to The Book Review Podcast from The New York Times, which she hosted before she moved on to writing op-eds full time that I guess make Twitter mad? I don't know) and I was mentally working on the previous issue of this newsletter and I was all keyed up on thoughts about place, and there I was, physically, at a place, and it all kind of came together, symbolically.
It was okay. It’s not an anti-technology screed. Of course, every book that questions our use of technology is contractually obligated to mention that it is not in fact an anti-technology screed. I’m also pretty sure that if you tallied up the score, team “Stuff we maybe should actually miss, because internet culture isn’t actually better than pre-internet culture” would probably have scored way more points than team “Hey, remember paper maps? Those sucked.”
Also, as I was finishing this issue, E. sent me a link to an app that I guess our older son's gradeschool is promoting, that will allow me to "see photos and updates from the classroom." This really is no country for old men, is it?
The Gutter Prayer, by Gareth Hanrahan
The Gutter Prayer, by Gareth Hanrahan, was lots of fun. I don’t read books for their tropes—I feel like this is something the kids these days might do, or at least some of them, or maybe just like one or two of them, based on certain BookTok-style videos I’ve half-watched, and something about the whole idea of reading books because they check certain tropes boxes fills me with fear and dread—but this one certainly was positively overloaded with stuff I generally love in fantasy works; richly layered (literally) cityscape (dark), drenched in complex, layered (metaphorically) history (dark), cool lead characters (dark), truly weird creature design (dark). Serves dessert-level plot for an appetizer, notices you seemed to really like that, so it throws out the rest of the menu and just keeps rolling out the confections, because who has time for anything else?
I ordered the rest of the trilogy before I turned the final page. I’m also reminded that I haven’t reread Perdido Street Station since I originally read it, uh, many years ago. Not that I’m not putting this on the same level as that—at the risk of underselling it, I think Prayer feels a little more like a trashier, b-movie cousin to Station—but, like, that’s what this brought to mind; if your book is going to kind of remind me of another book, you can do far, far worse.
Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, by Gustavo Arellano
Fair warning: this book will make you need a burrito. Need.
If quotation mark typography inconsistency makes you feel queasy, please know I've jumped through hoops in past issues to fix them, but that I honestly could not look at this issue for one second longer.