My reading in August got off to a slow start–I was in Japan for the first third of the month; there wasn’t a whole lot of time for reading while I was there. Even though my total books read this month is slightly lower than most months, the choices, I think, were better. Every one of the five books I finished this month was absolutely fantastic. Like, babble-about-it-to-your-friends fantastic… So, friends, commencing babbling:
First up: The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman
What it’s about: A newspaper that’s going out of business. A guy still in love with his wife. A suddenly discontented writer of obituaries. A woman choosing whether to be alone or settle for the guy who’s not quite perfect. An aging countess methodically reading through back issues of the newspaper.
The structure of the book is rather simple—it introduces a workplace as a microcosm of the world and tells stories about the occupants of that world. The parts are nearly perfect—the stories are complex and unexpected and completely individual. I was amazed at the difference, the personality, Rachman gives each of the characters. Even the minor ones. And really, there are no minor characters, they are just peripheral to the story that is currently being told. They have another story, a few pages away.
If the parts are nearly perfect, the book as a whole achieves that goal. While each story is complete, together they layer, one upon another, revealing such a multiplicity of minor victories and heart-stopping failures, grand heroics and petty cruelties, of humanity in all of its thousands of perfections and, yes, imperfections, that it seems as if the author has drawn from every possibility of life and said yes, these are us. The eccentrics, the weirdos, the mundane, the inane, the profane. Humans. We’re all in it together.
Why now?: My boyfriend read a glowing review of the book and thought I’d like it. (Awww.)
2.) The Glass Castle: A Memoir, Jeanette Walls
What it’s about: Growing up really really unconventionally. Like, protective-services unconventionally. And somehow surviving. And thriving.
The picture on the front cover of the book is of a little girl telling secrets… and that’s how the book feels. It’s kind of shockingly self-revealing (and at times it seems perhaps a bit self-laudatory—in a memoir, I suppose you get to be your own hero, if you want) but the story that is being told is so gripping that you keep reading anyway. Walls’s father preferred dreaming up get-rich-quick schemes to working. Walls’s mother cherished artistic ambitions and none of any other kind. At the beginning, they seem like a temporarily down-on-their-luck Scott and Zelda—audacious and romantic and bravely attempting to forge an extraordinary life in difficult circumstances. But their luck doesn’t change, and the choices that preserve their autonomy send them reeling from reduced circumstances to absolute, stealing-food-from-the-trash-can poverty.
This book troubled me. On one hand, I believe much of “the system” (oh, that nefarious system) is broken. We are told we need things (few of which seem to be absolutely necessary in the food and raiment sense of the word) and then taught that to buy these things we have to work…and work, and work, and work. And we’re so exhausted and broken down by working too many hours at soul-draining jobs that we spend more money and need more things that we think will make us feel better. And we then have to work more hours to pay off our toys. So I kind of respect the “forge your own way” mentality.
But the kids almost starved. And they almost froze. And they pretty much had to raise themselves. It’s hard to see anything heroic in that. But I find the rhetoric that compels complete self-abnegation for the sake of the next generation similarly problematic… so yes. The book troubled me. Strong conclusion, eh?
Why now: Er, I had nothing to do at work and it was queued up on the Kindle app on my iPhone. Great reason, eh? (And oh, the significance of ranting about ‘the system’ moments before admitting that you had time to read an entire book during a shift at work. And reading that book on your iPhone. After whining about our cultural dependence on tech-y toys to survive soul-draining jobs. Yeah, I’m a great proponent of ‘down with the system’ mentality.) (I’m going to blame it on the fact that I’m underemployed and go with it.)
3. Carmilla, J. Sheridan Le Fanu
What it’s about: Lesbian vampires. Written in 1872. Yep, that was 1872. 25 years before Dracula. Amazing.
Why now: A professor mentioned it last semester in connection with my Victorian supernatural project, and I was abashed at my ignorance. So I rectified the situation. Not sure if it will be of use in that project, but certainly was interesting. I’m intrigued by the recurrent connection between sexuality and vampirism. (I realize I’m hardly alone in that… about a million academic articles have investigated the intersections of gender/sex/vampirism in literature… and if those don’t convince you, check out the cover of the True Blood TV series. Anyway it’s interesting to see that sexuality portrayed through the blood-sucking female rather than the blood sucking male. We still have the figure bending over the still, white form of the sleeping girl… but the figure is slightly more rounded. I wonder if Dracula’s three seductive and seducing vampiresses are the first women vampires preying on men? And how does that complicate the idea of the masculine aggressor/female victim? So much to think about!
4. Twilight Stories, Rhoda Broughton
What it’s about: Five short ghost stories by Victorian novelist Rhoda Broughton. [Random fact: Broughton is the niece of the previous author, Le Fanu. Don’t you feel smart now?] The stories are excellent, chilling and creepy but sort of absurdly funny too—until they become horrible. And then they’re better than ever. My favorite (I think… I liked them all) was “Under the Cloak”; the story took place entirely during an overnight train journey, didn’t actually even feature a ghost or anything supernatural, but was so incredibly creepy that I had trouble sleeping after. And what a superb title! And if I ever teach a literary theory class, I will teach it through Victorian ghost stories. So incredibly full of…well, everything. Yep, you heard it here first.
Why now: Victorian ghost stories. OBVIOUSLY. Have you been listening to me at all?
And finally, 5. Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen
…about which I’ve already babbled, and about which I still have nothing substantial to add to the great and theoretical literary—or even blogospheric (?)—conversation. It’s a wonderful book; if you aren’t familiar with Jane Austen (well, you’ve probably been living under a rock your whole life, so look into getting some housing first) you should check her out. And if, like me, you’ve gotten stuck in the annual reread of your absolute favorites (Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility for me), and haven’t delved into the wonders contained within Northanger Abbey, well, stop reading blogs and get to it. Yep, go. Skedaddle.