July and August 2010 Books

August has been a very rough month for me: it started out so rough that I completely forgot to post what books I read in July, and has continued on rough-ish (with the bright spot of my books from Seattle arriving, woo!) Anyway, here’s what I’ve been reading for the last two months, and here’s to a better September…with even more excellent reading!

July 2
The House Of Spirits by Isabel Allende

The thing I thought about most when I was re-reading this for like the thirtieth time was that I wanted to live in Clara’s world when she was a child. Also her decision not to marry for love—why would someone with such gifts do that? Did she feel that her marriage would be a means to an end? Also the class issues—and a better understanding of the political history of the desesparacidos.

July 12
Spineless Wonders by Richard Conniff

I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to read an old favorite—all about invertebrates and it’s awesome, good writing style, doesn’t anthropomorphize too much—although no one likes a good anthro more than I do; used to be famous for, when I went to zoos a lot, for annoying my zoo companions and anyone else in listening distance with my hilarious renditions of what the animals must be thinking. Also for a while I was convinced I could communicate with animals, and one year—I don’t know where else I’ll eve get to tell this story—I was a camp counselor at a day camp on the island and we all went to Metrozoo and the kids were driving me MENTAL and I told them that if they were quiet enough and thought very very hard at the white tiger to ‘go in the pool’ he would pick up their psychic vibratations and go in the pool.They were vibrating with attention and I got to spend some precious minutes cradling my head in my hands and regretting my choice of summer job. And what do you know, the tiger? Actually did go in the pool! MIND SCIENCE WORKS, Y’ALL!

July 20
The Parrot’s Lament by Eugene Linden

Not very good, not very well organized. It’s a bunch of…I hesitate to say ‘stories’ because they’re not fiction, it’s more like ‘anecdotes,’ about how animals are awesome. Now I am a huge sucker for awesome animal stories or anecdotes or whatever, but this whole thing read like he was just sort of randomly talking—this was neither evidence-based enough for me nor narrative-based enough. The stories themselves were sort of interesting but they didn’t hang well together as a book and I found his tone irritating.

July 30
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I’ve read these stories before, of course, and this time what struck me was the gender stuff: Holmes being a pretty avowed misogynist (except when it comes to “The Woman”) and also the idea of natural feminine benevolence—women as a whole (maybe only women of a certain class, actually) are seen to be incapable of certain kinds of treachery. Sort of. I thought about that a little, and also just enjoyed Holmes being something of a snarky bitch. I also like that he proto-Googles things; he’s all like “My dear Watson, have the goodness to look up the coat of arms for the royal house of Bohemia in this slim volume devoted completely to that topic that I happen to have here on my desk, right next to my snuffbox and the solution of two percent cocaine which I am now going to shoot up in a fit of ennui.” You know?

August 1, 2010
I Do Not Come To You By Chance by Adaobi Tri Nwaubani

This is a story about Nigerian email scammers, of all things, and I enjoyed the chance to see that whole thing from a different perspective: to understand why someone would do that for money, why someone would be taken in by that sort of scam, and how the relationship forms between the scammer and the scammee. The language was really good and engaging and I got very into the story, like I got worried about what was going to happen to the protagonist’s mom at one point—I love it when that happens.

August 3 2010
The Ask by Sam Lipsyte

Sort of snarky and wunderkind-ish, a lot about the slow downward spiral from one’s liberal arts college to one’s series of well-meaning yet meaningless non-profit jons, and, ultimately, out of the middle class. I, unfortunately, related to that.

August 7
The Romantics by Galt Niederhoffer

I am never ever again reading a book that uses the term “exotic Jewess” non-ironically. That’s all I have to say about that.

August 8
This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

Miserable mid-thirties guys loses everything: wife, unborn baby, job, father—yet finds redemption in the end after a week spent with emotionally-unavailable and prone-to-wacky-hijinks family sitting shiva. I couldn’t put it down! (Really!)

August 16
The Birthday of the World by Ursula K Le Guin

I sold some books at Arty Bees and saw this and Always Coming Home on the shelf, and it turned out that I’d made exactly enough money selling the old books to buy those two new ones. I’ve read this set of short stories so many times, I can’t even remember how many—it was such a comfort to own it again, for reasons I don’t quite understand. The guy behind the counter was really excited that I was getting two LeGuins and asked me if I’d read any other feminist sci-fi writers, and I was all (imprudently, I now know, because turns out he was a bit of a sci-fi fanatic) “Oh yeah, I don’t really think of her as a sci-fi writer, I just think of her as someone who writes about people living in other worlds in other times,” which, yes, I guess that sort of is sci-fi, but I don’t know anything about sci-fi, so…Anyway this guy started telling me about all these other authors I should read, one in particular who apparently writes about men getting skewered somehow by aliens? And how he thought that was awesome and feminist? “Oh,” I said, “dismemberment isn’t really a part of my feminism, but…” and then he got all upset and was like YES IT IS and I was like okay, can I have my books now please? But long story short, I’m very happy to have this book back with me, so I can (re) read it whenever I want.

August 23
A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 35 Great Writers On Why We Read Jane Austen
Edited by Susannah Carson

My friend Theresa gave this to me, knowing about another of my great re-reading loves, and I just really enjoyed getting to spend a chunk of time…thinking about Jane Austen, with the help of, like, Eudora Welty! And Virginia Woolf! Two Amises: Kingsley and Martin! C.S. Lewis! Amy Heckerling, who wrote Clueless which is, as we all know, based (loosely!) on Emma! I’ve read the four ‘canon’ novels more times than I care to remember (and I’ve re-read both Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility at least a couple times each) and I have all these thoughts and feeling about the stories and the characters and Jane Austen herself and the time and place in which she wrote, and about what a comedy of manners is, and about what a novel is and what it does, and I don’t ever really get to talk about that with anyone. It was a good feeling—and now of course I want to read all the novels again, so bonus for me!

August 25
Persuasion by Jane Austen

Rarely for me, I wasn’t in the mood to re-read Pride And Prejudice–for once I agree with Jane Austen herself in that it was too ‘light and bright and sparkling’ for the mood I’ve been in, and since I only own that and Persuasion at the moment, Persuasion it was. It is still amazing and magnificent, and I was SO RELIEVED when Captain Wentworth wrote Anne Elliot that letter, like whew!. I actually really dig Captain Wentworth and I sort of don’t understand why Mr. Darcy gets all the love all the time from everyone. I mean not that Mr. Darcy doesn’t deserve, you know, but Captain Wentworth is probably the most fully realized of all the male heroes, like he actually has a history and an inner life and everything. I dig him. I think it was wrong for him to lead Louisa Musgrove on like that—because girl he totally did—but I still like him. Since I’d just read a whole book about Jane Austen (isn’t it weird that I always want to refer to her by both her names, instead of just by her surname like with most authors?) I was very aware of something that one of the essays brings up, in that she breaks the big writing rule of Show Don’t Tell. Now I am a HUGE fan of Show Don’t Tell, but dang girl, Jane Austen Tells all over the place and I LOVE IT. It totally works and I even found myself thinking, hey, this Telling she’s doing? Is very useful! It’s totally helping me understand the story! Awesome! So…yes, the delights of the Jane Austen re-read, they are many. Aaaaahhhh.

August 25
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

This was in one of my book boxes that my mom sent me from the States and I was so excited to see it that I basically read the last page of Persuasion, made myself a cuppa tea, and picked up Fun Home and knocked it out in a couple of hours on one of my 80%-life-size couches in my pink fur hoodie and pink and silver space booties that I wear at home. It’s a comic book, sort of. Sort of. It’s about Alison Bechdel’s father and his possible suicide, and Proust, and Joyce, and her mother’s being married to a gay man, her family’s funeral home, small towns in Pennsylvania, the gay scene in the 80s, and basically feeling alone in your family…or being part of a family, more like, in which every member feels alone. It is, obviously, brilliant, and I was so happy to be reading it, like I was so happy to have this woman’s thoughts and memories in my hands again. I have never read Proust or Joyce (except the last ‘yes I said yes I will Yes’ paragraph in Ulysesses) but I don’t care, their place in the narrative and sense to me. Man I’m glad those books arrived. I am glad this book exists.

August 27
Four Ways To Forgiveness by Ursula K. LeGuin

Also in my box of books from Seattle, and also an old love I’ve read many many times. It’s about slavery and honor–one of the big questions in these stories is, what kind of honor is available to people in a slave-based society?–and a lot about gender stuff (as much of her work is). I love her worlds and her people. That’s it, that’s all. It’s been a while since I read this and it was like settling into a nice warm bed with the flannel sheets and the hot water bottles all ready and waiting for me.

August 31
Emma by Jane Austen

This was the first Jane Austen I ever read—we had an old copy at home and I’d sort of looked at it and thought it was boring several times; I don’t know what drove me to get into it again, or why it stuck when it did, but I do remember very clearly laughing out loud at the prose (I think it was something Mr. Woodhouse says about everybody joining him in a nice bowl of gruel). After I read that book of essays last week I of course wanted to read all the novels again so I got Emma out from the library and immediately was thrown into an absolute tizzy because of the foreword Andrew Davies who, as we all know, did the one and only BBC adaptation of P&P. Now, I have to respect what this man says about Jane Austen, you know? And what he says is that Emma is this total rich bitch—she’s the antagonist in all the other novels yet somehow here she’s the heroine. And I was all “Wait…what? But you guys it’s TRUE. She is awful, and sort of self-righteously snobby in a totally destructive way (at least towards Harriet, and certainly towards Mr. Martin) and, is totally mean to Jane Fairfax, not to mention the famous put-down of Miss Bates, and like, seriously, she’s so mean. (And snarky! And funny! Which is one reason we love her, because we’re all jerks too!) And what’s with Mr. Knightley being sixteen years older than her and being in love with her since she was thirteen? (Andrew Davies brought this up as well but I too have that question!) There are a lot of questions about this book, the biggest one being why I still love and why, this time around reading it, knowing there are major problems with it, agreeing full-heartedly that there are some major problems with Emma as a character—why I still have some sympathy for her. I’ve been thinking about morals and ethics and values a lot—a lot–lately and I think for me this time it’s Emma’s moral development that keeps striking me. So often she knows what’s right and she doesn’t do it, so often she rationalizes and explains away her behavior, so many times she cuts herself probably a bit too much slack, depending on her beauty and charm (and the fact that she’s a very big fish in a very very small pond) to see her through. You see her change, though, you see her eyes open up. I mean, yeah fine, she marries Mr. Knightley, good. Whatever. This story isn’t about that, I don’t think. I think it’s about the tension between what’s right and what’s expedient, what people will forgive you for because of context and circumstances and what has to be struggled through without that consolation. It’s feeling very real to me at the moment, which is, of course, another mark of a good story.

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6 comments

  1. I came across Jonathan Tropper’s How to Talk to a Widower randomly a few years back and even though he very much sticks to a formula, I’ve been a devotee ever since.

  2. Persuasion is probably my favorite Austen novel. It runs neck and neck with Pride and Prejudice. I think it’s the same reason you give – Captain Wentworth’s character.

    I’m glad you had Ursula K. LeGuin on your list. I want to take a break from spy novels and read some Sci-fi. I haven’t read any of her books so one of these will be my next read.

  3. Woman, how have you had time to do anything this August? You’re outta control!

    I’ve recently felt that (minus the riches) Emma is the Austen character I most resemble. The rationalization, the meddling with friends’ lives, all in the name of trying to help… Yeah, that’s me, spot on. Although I’d much rather be Eliza Bennett, of course.

    Which one is closest to you, Chiara dear?

  4. Sherlock Holmes is my hero!!! Funny choice for a feminist hey? You should definitely check out ‘Sherlock’ on the BBC though…it was awesome! (no more proto-Google for our modern boy….he has the real thing!)

  5. I just don’t know how anyone can read that fast! And how do you manage to fit Facebook time in amongst all that reading?

    Some of those books sound good thought, I hope they come to Tonga!

    xxLove from an exotic Jewess

  6. I have taken to reading these posts with Goodreads in another tab, so I can add the good ones. I’ll never get through all of them, but at least I’ll never run out of things to read thanks to you.