Books to try reading when you’re in a bad mood (Coetzee, Hornby, Agatha Christie, and Ira Levin)

I’ve been in kind of a bad mood lately (one that, thankfully, seems to have at least temporarily abated), and it was that kind of mood where I both really wanted to read something—television really held no appeal for me—but was also disgusted by everything that I tried to read. I must’ve read the first pages of at least three dozen books. Especially Graham Greene novels. I kept thinking that I wanted to read Graham Greene, only to discover that I really did not want to be reading Graham Greene. I guess what I really wanted was to be able to go back in time and read The Power And The Glory for the first time. Anyway, the books I did end up reading were fascinating to me—they’re about as different, in terms of comfort reading, as one can imagine. And, yet, they all had their consolations.

____high_fidelity2High Fidelity by Nick Hornby – A few days ago, I and a bunch of the MFA peeps were talking about Nick Hornby in the context of chicklit. He’s the perfect example of an author who would be thrown into the chick-lit ghetto if he was a woman. However, since he’s a man, he can write fluffy, slangy books about youngish people who live in urban environments and have aspirational jobs and relationship troubles. And it’s okay, because it’s literature (another example: J.D. Salinger). Anyway, I’m not one to ignore an author just because he’s the beneficiary of a sexist literary establishment (after all, I want to benefit from that establishment myself someday). I quite enjoyed this novel. I’d seen the movie previously (it’s about a record store owner whose girlfriend breaks up with him because he is immature…alright, I know…that’s pretty much what all male coming-of-age stories are about…) But the novel has some nuances that were absent from the book. For instance, even after they get back together, the main character’s relationship with his girlfriend remains a bit limp and sad. The whole novel was surprisingly sad, actually. The main character has a very empty, friendless life. And it doesn’t feel like much is ever going to fill it up. The book was easy to read and made me feel a lot better.

life-and-times-of-michael-k-a-novelThe Life and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee – I really didn’t want to read this book. It was the absolute opposite of what I thought comfort-reading should be. It’s a very quiet, very spare, very beautifully-written account of a somewhat-stupid man who takes his mother out into the war-wracked countryside (so she can go back to the farm where she grew up). But I read the first page. And then I read the second page. And then I kept reading pages. And before I knew it I was like a tenth of the way into the book. I kept feeling like I shouldn’t be reading it. This was not what I wanted at the moment at all! But I couldn’t stop. It had a weird immersive quality to it. I didn’t quite enjoy it, not in the same way that I enjoyed the humorous situations in high fidelity. It was more like…it created its own world: a very quiet and a very still world. It wasn’t necessarily the world that I wanted to be, but it was such a novel experience to be in this other place that I couldn’t stop reading. I cannot recommend it highly enough. I feel like every time I read a Coetzee novel, I close it and think, “That was amazing” and then have no desire to read another one. He’s someone who lies in wait, quietly, until I need him.

9781849015882Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin – It’s weird to read a classic horror novel, because the novel doesn’t know that it’s a classic. It doesn’t know that even nine year olds know the twist. It thinks it’s revving up for a SHOCKING ending. Both of Ira Levin’s classic novels, Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, have this issue to some extent. It’s not possible to read these novels with a blank mind: to read them is, basically, to reread them. But re-reading Rosemary’s Baby is really fun! It’s interesting to see the subtle ways in which the men in Levin’s novels are horrible. I mean, the women are never perfect. In fact, one gets the impression that they’re no better, morally, than the men. Rosemary is petty and a schemer and for much of the beginning of the novel she lies to her husband about her ovarian cycles because she wants to get pregnant (even though he is not so sanguine about having a child). But…because the women are powerless, you sympathize with them. And the men…man…they are horrible. Not all the men. There’s usually a kindly older gent somewhere. But most of the men…my god. It is fascinating to see the simple and subtle ways that they gaslight and manipulate Rosemary. I don’t know why this one made me feel better, but it really did.

elizabeth-costello-jm coetzeeElizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee — I’ve actually had this one for a long time. It is undoubtedly one of the weirder novels I’ve ever read. It’s a collection of essays and speeches that were originally written by Coetzee. Most of them were separately published by non-fiction. But, in this novel, they’re put into the mouth of a tired old writer, Elizabeth Costello, who’s achieved a living legend status somewhat similar to Coetzee’s. She travels around the world, visits relatives and old friend, and delivers speeches on realism and the state of literature and animal rights and love. It is an amazing performance. Once again, I thought this would be the last thing I’d be interested in, but I was completely enraptured. Costello is such a vivid and well-realized character. Her relationships are so complex, and the feelings that people have about her are so delicate. For much of the first part of the book, she’s in the company of her son. And he has such odd, conflicted emotions about her. He realized, late in his life, that his mother was a genius, and, because of that genius, he’s sort of started to forgive her for his childhood. So, yeah, the fiction part is amazing. But what’s really astonishing are the speeches and how they fit in with the fiction. The speeches are, somehow, integral to this book. Each one fleshes out Costello’s character and makes her come alive a little bit more. You get the sense of her playfulness and her integrity and her iconoclasm and her peevishness. And you get some sense of what it means to lead a life of the mind and to put so much of yourself into ideas. It’s really amazing that this novel works at all. The fact that it works well is a tremendous accomplishment.

Murder on the Orient ExpressMurder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie – Crime novels would seem to be perfect for a bad mood, but in the last seven days I’ve actually sampled and discarded a ton of them, including a bunch by my favorites: Cain, Thompson, Willeford, Goodis. For some reason, though, Agatha Christie has held my interest. Her novels are so odd. They have so little personality. The characters don’t really pop. Even the settings are just barely sketched-in. But, somehow, those settings really manage to evoke a hazy, mysterious atmosphere. And her plots are rollercoasters. The amount of stuff that happens is simply incredible. I guess this kind of stripped-down book is good for a bad mood. (I’m not done with this one yet, so don’t spoil it! Unlike w/ Roger Ackroyd, I have absolutely no idea what is going to happen in this one!)

 

 

Three SF Books I’ve Read Recently That Had Gender-type Themes: Dragonflight, The Stepford Wives, and Conjure Wife

Dragonflight (1968) by Anne McCaffrey — I reread this one for a book discussion at the Baltimore Science Fiction Society’s headquarters. This is the first in a series of novels by McCaffrey about a distant colony planet, named Pern, where people ride dragons that they use to fight these spores that periodically rain down and devastate the planet (devastation that has, not incidentally, reduced the planet to a pseudo-feudal medieval state). Basically, it’s a fantasy novel about brave dragon-riders who try to do their duty even though everyone around them is corrupt and power-hungry. I read soooo many of these Pern novels when I was young. I would not be surprised to learn that I’ve read thirty or forty Anne McCaffrey novels overall. However, I have to say that this one (which was one of her first-published books) did not really hold up well. Aside from everything else, the writing was just shockingly bad. Here is the first line of the second paragraph:

Rigid with concentration, Lessa lay in the straw of the redolent cheeseroom she shared as sleeping quarters with the other kitchen drudges.

From the moment I read the phrase “redolent cheeseroom,” I knew that this was gonna be pretty hard to get through. I soldiered on (doing more skimming than reading) and almost forced myself to shut off my mind and get lost in it, but it was not easy.

It’s very hard to believe that this novel won the awards that it did (it’s a fix-up, created by conjoining three novellas, including one that won the Hugo and one that won the Nebula). In both cases, McCaffrey was the first woman to win these awards, and her work has long been hailed as a classic of feminist science fiction. But…I don’t know, it’s had to believe that even back in the 60s, there was nothing better than this.

Some people might say, “Oh, well, you know…this book was published in 1968, and back then this stuff was revolutionary.” But I find it hard to buy that. Here are some other SF books that came out in 1968: 2001; Camp Concentration; Nova; Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep; The Iron Man; Stand on Zanzibar; and The Wizard of Earthsea. All of these books are so much better than Dragonflight that it’s almost impossible to believe that they exist in the same sort of cultural space.

But, on the other hand, there is something about this book that resonated with people, even back then, and that resonated with me when I was ten years old. Oh well, at least the discussion was interesting. And I guess that even poorly-written adventure fantasy needed to have its glass ceiling broken.

 

The Stepford Wives (1972) by Ira Levin — If you don’t know the premise of this novel, then you should probably stop reading, since I’m going to spoil it. This is a very short novel about a wife who moves to a small town where all the women have no personality: they only care for domestic household chores. The wife discovers that the women have all been replaced by robots. And that her husband is planning to replace her as well! I think this novel goes to show how important it can be to take that additional step. For most of the novel, the husband is portrayed as an enlightened man: someone who doesn’t mind that his wife is a professional photographer and a feminist. And it would’ve been so easy to preserve his enlightenment and paint him as a victim of this cabal of chauvinists. Instead, it was a stroke of genius to rip away his veneer of civilization and show that he’s just as bad as them. He–like all the rest of these men–felt threatened by her growing power, but was too afraid to confront her openly, so he plotted against her in secret: he lied to his wife and manipulated her and brought her to this place so she can be murdered and replaced with a simulation. However, I have to say that I don’t really enjoy that last act of so many novels, where the build-up is all finished and it becomes a thrill-ride, full of chases and stand-offs and such. I just don’t enjoy long descriptions of people running around.

 

Conjure Wife (1943) by Fritz Leiber — This novel is crazy. It’s a campus novel wherein an up-and-coming comparative religions professor discovers that his wife has been using witchy rituals in order to try to advance his career. After forcing her to relinquish that superstitious nonsense, he discovers that all the other faculty wives are also using witchy rituals and that without his wife to protect him, he’s powerless against them.

This is another example of a novel that made some good decisions. In this case, I think the best one was to carefully calibrate exactly how much the wives know about magic. There’s an implication, in the book, that all women know magic and that all women use it to help their husbands, but I think it would’ve been very easy to fall into the traditional sitcom paradigm where women are preternaturally wise and men are complete buffoons. In this case, the wives practice magic, but they’re not fully in control of it. It’s something that they feel their way through and discover by happenstance and keep secret even from each other. The whole magical element is handled with incredible dexterity. And it’s quite amusing to see it mixed up with small-college politics.