September and October Books

At some point I should write about the books I stop reading. More often the problem’s not in them, but in my being particular. There are some things that are perfectly fine that I don’t like, and pretending they’re rubbish isn’t really useful.

September

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler (2013): Growing up, Rosemary Cooke had a brother and a sister, but now as a twenty-something college student she has neither, and it’s the unraveling of the why and what happened that makes up much of this novel. It’s a great read, and the secret’s not withheld for more than a 100 pages, so it’s not one of those books where you wish someone would just stop for a second and tell you what the big secret is.

Jump-Off Creek – Molly Gloss (1989): I loved this book. It’s a Western about a widow that heads out to the Pacific Northwest and becomes a homesteader. Gloss can really dig in and excavate the present moment her character’s experience. I got weepy when she read the letters from her mom.

Your House Is On Fire, Your Children All Gone – Stefan Kiesbye (2012): Another short novel that reads like comic strips straight from Edward Gorey’s Amphigorey. The difference being that the asshole quotient has been turned way up to eleven. There’s a lesson here. In a book where everyone behaves like an a-hole, the reader will know people will do horrible things at any time because they’re a-holes, and that will rob the story of any and all tension. Overall a decent book, but at the end I couldn’t muster more than a shrug. People are a-holes. Thanks for reminding me.

A Year In Marrakesh – Peter Mayne (1953): Expat Englishman in 1950s Marrakesh that decently articulates the fact that often the worst thing an expat can encounter is another expat. Also less than 200 pages and I felt like I lived more here in these pages than I did in plenty of other books that have longer page counts.

Authority – Jeff VanderMeer (2014): The second book in VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, in Authority the Ballard meets the Strugatsky brothers of the first book shifts over to a weird spy thriller reminiscent of Stanislaw Lem in His Master’s Voice and Chain of Chance.

October

I Never Promised You A Rose Garden – Joanne Greenburg (1964): Autobiographical novel about a precocious 16 year-old girl with a mental disorder in 1950s USA. Fascinating and heartbreaking. The main character constructs an elaborate fantasy world she uses as a coping mechanism against the real world, only to wind up tormented by her own creation.

The Other Side – Alfred Kubin (1908): A Gothic fantasy novel by expressionist illustrator Alfred Kubin, it influenced both Kafka and Peake, as well as provided a satire of all reactionary, idealistic utopias where one wealthy genius (or “man of ego”), heaves off to some isolated spot with his followers and impresses his will completely upon them to disastrous results. The kind of book you either love or hate. I loved it, but I enjoy a good, long slow train ride to decay and dissolution.

Trickster Travels: The Search for Leo Africanus – Natalie Zemon Davis (2006): Leo Africanus was a 16th Century Moroccan diplomat that was captured by Christian pirates and given to the Pope as a “gift”. In Italy, Africanus converted to Christianity and wrote several books on African geography while serving as a translator of Arabic texts, and then German soldiers sacked Rome and he fled back to North Africa and became a Muslim again. A fascinating book about a man trying to navigate between two hostile ideological movements while respecting them both.

Dinner at Deviant’s Palace – Tim Powers (1985): The myth of Orpheus set in a post-apocalyptic LA where an alien parasite has set itself up as the messiah. Fun and colorful.

The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View From the Future – Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway (2014): A book from the 24th century outlining the collapse of Western Civilization in the 21st century due to an inability to apply the scientific knowledge we have regarding global warming because of our faith in free market capitalism. It’s a short book, and worth the read.

Good Morning, Midnight – Jean Rhys (1938): Modernist novel about a woman returning to Paris after a suicide attempt. She’s a lost soul, drinking too much and spiraling down, and the story’s told in disjointed stream-of-consciousness fashion. There’s a husband that left her, a dead baby, and a series of mistakes and bad decisions hovering around her like a cloud. While the final tragedy is kept off stage, by the novel’s end you know nothing’s going to be right again.

The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms – Amy Stewart (2004): Not just the best book I’ve ever read on the subject of earthworms, but the only book I’ve ever read on the subject of earthworms.

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5 responses to “September and October Books”

  1. Maggie Della Rocca says :

    I always love the diversity of your reading selections – especially that they vary so much in publication dates. The only one I read from this list is “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” which I read around the time it was published. It was recommended to me by my therapist at the time and I was the same age as the central figure so it had a lot of meaning. But now I think I should read it again because I think at the time, I was so young and self-involved that I probably filtered the entire story into something about me.

    I am definitely going to put the Fowler book on my Kindle wish list.

    • Justin says :

      I’m curious how Rose Garden would stand up to a reread. I suspect pretty well despite the head-hopping, which wasn’t so bad and gave the book a wider perspective than just the girl.

  2. gordsellar says :

    I’m glad that you enjoyed the Mayne, and you neatly sum it up–one of the worst things indeed. (“I’ve seen things you non-expats wouldn’t believe…”)

    As usual, so much else looks interesting here too… someday! The Collapse of Western Civilization is likely the closest to my interests, but I have to admit the Africanus sort of locks into my interest in “expatriates” and their experiences in history… hm.

    • Justin says :

      “Collapse…” is quite short. You read it in an hour or two. It’s basically a long magazine article packaged as a book, but without all the padding most other mag articles packaged as books normally get.

      You know I didn’t even think of Africanus as an expat until you mentioned it – but, yeah, that is interesting. There would be plenty of fodder on the subject in Africanus and his circle. Some of the other scholars working with him were in similar places: from a marginalized population but supported by a patron. The book also deals a lot with that era’s publishing world in and around Rome. Those were the driest parts, but might be interesting.

      • gordsellar says :

        I’m a big-tent type when it comes to who’s an expat… hell, I see The Great Migration as a kind of expatriation experience: same country, but is it really any less different that Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot moving to England early in the 20th century? I dunno…

        Anyway, you’ve sold me on Collapse, and Africanus too, someday at least. If you still have your copy, don’t toss it… our paths will cross sooner than you think, and I’d love to borrow it.

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