I’ve lately tried to ease off and stop keeping such a tight control of what I read. Instead, I’m just reading whatever I’m in the mood for. I’ve found that this pattern tends to lead to short-lived enthusiasms, where I read 3-5 books in a single thematic area, and then leap over to something else. In a way, it makes me sad for all the books that I don’t read. Each time I become enthusiastic about something, I make plans to read dozens of books in that area, and most of those books are things I’ll never get to. But it also keeps things a bit fresher.
I’ve already written a bit about The Privileges, which was the first book I read while on this trip. I followed it with Jonathan Dee’s latest book, A Thousand Pardons. I can’t say that I enjoyed this one as much. Where The Privileges felt like it had a good sense of what it was trying to do, A Thousand Pardons felt too thematically incoherent. It’s about a woman whose husband has a scandal, so they get divorced and she goes to work at a PR agency. But too many things happen–there’s a whole subplot with a movie star that she knew as a child, for instance–that don’t feel like they add up. Although it was fun to read, it left me feeling a bit empty.
Then I am ashamed to admit that I read Chad Harbach’s nonfiction anthology MFA vs. NYC. From reading that title, I know that people are going to assume that this book is about whether or not to get an MFA. That is, however, emphatically not what it’s about. Harbach assumes that all literary writers will get MFAs. Instead, the book is about whether to try to make a living within the commercial apparatus of publishing (mostly located in New York) or by teaching at an MFA program. Since it’s an essay collection, it doesn’t have a sustained point to make, it’s mostly about examining the contours of the literary world as they exist now. Although it felt a bit onanistic, I still enjoyed the book, mostly because I’ve lately come to have my doubts about whether the university setting is conducive to creating good writing. However, I am also not really enthused by the idea of moving to New York. It kind of seems…overdone? Like, doesn’t the world have enough stories about New York? Also, it’s expensive there. I don’t know. It was food for thought, anyway.
After that, I read Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Enjoyed it alot. The book is about a Princeton-educated Pakistani who becomes disillusioned with life in America after the 9/11 attacks. What I found distracting, though, was the monologue format of the book. The whole thing has this whole “I am sitting across from you in a cafe and telling you a story” form that felt extremely artificial, because it meant the narrator had to say things like, “Oh, do you see that man standing across the street from us and how he is shifting his weight from side to side and looking at us. Oh, and smell how the jasmine is so sweet and the air is full of the shouts of hawkers, etc.” The whole conceit was just absurd and didn’t feel real at all. Still, the novel succeeded in spite of that.
Then I read Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind Of A Funny Story, which is about a clinically depressed kid who checks himself into a psych ward after seriously contemplating suicide. Really loved it. Lately I’ve become sensitized to the cutesy wryness that so many young adult novels have. So many of them sound like the opening of Catcher In The Rye, but completely sanitized and spineless. It’s okay for the teen protagonist of a YA novel to not be edgy, but what’s unforgivable is when someone completely whitebread tries to narrate like they’re edgy and then expects you to just buy into that. This novel didn’t really do that. The protagonist just doesn’t care about anything, and that’s what he’s about.
My next book was Richard Hughes’ A High Wind In Jamaica, which is one of the craziest books I’ve ever read. This 1929 novel is about a family of English children who’re being shipped from their farm in Jamaica to their new home in England, except the ship gets captured by pirates, who take the children away. There is something very surreal, but also very psychologically honest about the kids’ time with the pirates. This isn’t Lord Of The Flies: people don’t lose all their humanity and start destroying each other. But…changes do take place within them. One of the kids dies, and the rest of the kids never talk about it, even though they feel the loss. You get the sense of the huge depths within these kids, and the ways that tragedy affects people in strange ways.
And now I am reading another YA novel, Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, which is about the first year in college of a girl who’s a popular fanfiction writer and also an identical twin and also suffers from fairly-severe social anxiety. So far, I am liking it alot. One of the most emotionally affecting scenes, for me, was the one where her professor sits her down and tells her that her fanfiction assignment is plagiarism and that there’s nothing original about it. The professor isn’t trying to hurt the girl, she’s trying to guide her, but you can still feel the incredible damage that’s being done. I can’t help but think that some of my own students will probably think of me in that same way. The one bad thing about the novel, though, are the numerous excerpts from the actual fan-fiction (it’s basically Harry slash Draco fiction, but for a made-up property that’s not Harry Potter even though it strongly resembles Harry PotteR). I do not like the excerpts. They are boring. So far I’ve been skipping them and I think my comprehension of the story has been harmed not at all.
On a sidenote, there will be plenty more reading before this trip is done. My flight from Chicago to Baltimore got cancelled before I even began the trip, so I got them to reroute me through San Francisco (after I spend about 8 hours in Seattle airport). I’m spending a night in the Bay Area and then leaving tomorrow afternoon. I’m not going to get back to my home until like midnight tomorrow.