What are you reading? Jan 5

One of my goals this year is to write a bit more about what I read. Writing is tied to thinking (they aren’t separate actions–think then write. Rather, the act of writing–sifting through the detritus at the top of the brain to get down to the good stuff–inspires thought.) My tendency is to read and read and read without really stopping to think or analyze. So–while I can’t promise brilliance with any regularity–since I’m invested in thinking about what I read, I’m trying to write about what I read.

The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai1. The Hundred-Year House, Rebecca Makkai
2014, 352 pgs, 1 of 40 Reader’s Choice

Fascinating, and a bit inconclusive. The structure, most of all, was just intriguing. Makkai tells the story in retrospect– 1999, then 1955, then 1929, then 1900. We get the ending, then a bit of the interior, and everything fits together, but how is not clear until the end. the unconventional timeline takes a good story and makes it great. I’ll definitely reread.

The Hundred-Year House is about the long history of an estate in northern Illinois–a lavish home, a debauched art colony, the place of many secrets–every generation has something else to find and something else to hide.

While I liked the way the book was set up, what really grabbed me was the description in the first section of the protagonist’s scholarly project:

At a department meeting later that same week, Zee reluctantly agreed to take the helm of a popular fall seminar. English 372 (The Spirit in the House: Ghosts in the British and American Traditions) consisted of ghost stories both oral and literary. It wasn’t Zee’s kind of course–she preferred to examine power structures and class struggles and imperialism, not things that go bump in the night–but she wasn’t in a position to say no. Doug would laugh when she told him.

I’ll eventually teach that class. AND I’ll teach it with power structures and class struggles and imperialism–this presumes a false separation, that imaginative fiction (ghost stories) have nothing to do with the material realities of the world. However. I love that Makkai has a scholar thinking about this stuff in her book. Makes me happy.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell2. The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell
2014, 624 pgs, 2 of 40 Reader’s Choice

This is the third Mitchell that I’ve read–first was a long ago Audible version of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, then (of course) Cloud Atlas, and now this. And I feel I’d need three or four more rereads of each to be able to speak intelligently (i.e., craft any sort of argument or critical analysis) of the books.

But. I liked it very much. Mitchell requires (and, imho, deserves) a lot of attention. The plots are not straightforward. They twist, they turn, they curl back on themselves and rewrite what you thought you just figured out. Nothing is linear, or singular, or simple.

The Bone Clocks is, at the root, the story of a divine war and the repercussions on humanity. (Ok, I know the Atemporals et al are not actually divine, but that whole rebirth thing definitely puts them as more than human.) Reminded me of the Illiad in that respect: the battle of the gods, the casualties all human.

The book is divided into six novellas, each with a different protagonist, each divided from the previous by a decade or so. All of the stories are linked by character and by plot (that central battle between the Atemporals and the Anchorites: Atemporals are naturally rebirthed into a new body after death, Anchorites have found a way to stop aging on a cellular level through murder).

My favorite novella–the one I thought most well-written–was the second: “Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume (1991)”, which focuses on Cambridge undergraduate Hugo Lamb who is not, shall we say, exactly what he seems. Excellent sketch of a psychopath, without ever using the word, without anyone but the reader putting together all the pieces of his very fragmented lives.

3. The Devil’s Grin, A. Wendeberg
2012, 225 pgs, 3 of 40 Reader’s Choice

A. Kronberg is a doctor–and what’s more, the premier bacteriologist– in late Victorian London. The credentials the good doctor holds are impressive–even more so when it is revealed (by the third page, no spoilers here) that Anton Kronberg is really Anna Kronberg–short haircut, breast binding, and fake penis all employed in the singularly unfeminine goal of being a doctor. As all of her cross-dressing is in pursuit of employment, not in desire to express a felt gender, it seems ok to refer to her as Anna from here on out. Anna is called in to examine a cholera patient who has floated down the Thames. When she arrives, a tall, skinny, beaky nose man is bent almost double, examining the ground around the corpse. Yep, you guessed it, the intrepid Sherlock has beat our intrepid doctor to the scene.

Anna and Sherlock vie back and forth with their respective secrets: he sees through her male attire almost immediately, she has more insights into his character than are usually voiced in the canon… but soon they are distracted from their battle by the realization that this case of cholera doesn’t have any of the usual traits. Anna gets it back to the lab, and during a dissection, comes to believe that the corpse was infected purposely. Why anyone would do this, and who is behind the heinous crime–and how far it reaches–is a puzzle that neither Anna nor Sherlock could answer on their own.

I enjoyed this. (I have the next two books in this series and the prequel lined up on my dresser, so it’s a good thing I did!) I compare all Sherlock-ish stories to Carole Nelson Douglas’s Irene Adler series–while I might perhaps still prefer those (Sherlock always kind of grates on me, he doesn’t strike me as a romantic lead. At all. Honestly, more of a psychopath, but with a conscience, which is a contradiction… whatever.) So the romance angle didn’t grab me, but that’s primarily because I’m going into this with so many preconceptions about Sherlock. That aside, the mystery was good, I was impressed by the historical detail (especially the slums–h/t to Henry Mayhew), it was a quick read (and sometimes you really need a quick read), and I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.

Really good part tracing the disassociation with her body that Anna, after dressing as Anton for several months round-the-clock, experiences. There’s a disjunction, a separation of mind and body, of thought and feeling, of brain and gender. In her guise as a cross-dresser, she sees “manly” and “feminine” as costumes to be inhabited rather than outworkings of some innate gender norm. There is perhaps a touch of a gender stereotype (Anna, as a doctor, cares more for the patients than the other doctors, presumably because of all that mushy woman’s emotion) but I think that could easily be read as resulting from the gender socialization as a woman (caring and nurturing, etc. ad infinitum) throughout the first 20 years of her life.

Well, that’s what I’ve been reading this week. Clearly, the Reader’s Choice category has been getting a workout… but it’s vacation, and so, as I will defiantly state to any who inquire,  I’m allowed.