Sunday, December 08, 2019

The Reading: October/November 2019

October was a slow month; I only finished two books: Sontag, the biography of Susan Sontag by Benjamin Moser (Which seemed to say as much about the biographer as it did about his subject, but that's not a criticism. I like mulling about these fraught kind of relationships.) and Bettyville by George Hodgman, which, as I predicted, broke my heart. I had no business reading about elderly parents and adrift, middle-aged children at this point in my life, but I couldn't not read it. Anyway, two books, but the weightiness felt like ten.

November was much more productive. It truly turned out to be a banner Nonfiction November (Hi, Unruly Reader!) with tiny whiffs of novel.

The fiction, first. Interestingly, these were both rereads from many years ago. Some sort of nostalgia bug must have been gnawing on my entrails:

The Truth About Mary Rose - Marilyn Sachs. A 1973 juvenile novel. The plot, which involves Mary Rose, named after an aunt who died as a child in an apartment fire. Her obsession and hero-worship of the original Mary Rose is less interesting than the look back into the 1970s at New York City and people trying on new ideas like women being dentists and men being full-time homemakers. I always liked Sachs' work, as a young reader. It felt real, honest and gritty.

The Sterile Cuckoo - John Nichols. Did you ever revisit a novel and then wish you hadn't? I remember loving this one, but why? I hated the leaden prose, and the blockhead narrator, Jerry. The characters are supposedly having fun and high jinks at college, but it's stifling, airless. No oxygen can get in, Only the wistful, frustrating Pookie kept me from bailing. This is a book that has aged badly. I propose a rewrite. From Pookie's POV.

The nonfiction!

What Do We Need Men For? - E. Jean Carroll. Elle advice columnist Carroll goes on a road trip across America with her dog. She stops in towns with female names and asks women the title question. Answers vary. Meanwhile, readers are treated (probably the wrong word) to her list of the 21 Most Hideous Men she's ever known. Donald Trump is on the list, and he's not even the worst. I was amazed, sickened, uncomfortable. I recognized that I could make a similar list. Carroll gives the impression of triumphing over all of this, but it feels brittle. Brittle or not, I hope it's lasting.

The Grief Recovery Handbook - John W. James and Russell Friedman. I read this because I went to a Grief Recovery class. I misjudged the book early, thinking it would be all hippy-dippy, touchy-feely. Instead, it is dignified and restrained. There is a thoughtful and sensible balance between intellect and emotion, each receiving their due. Exercises in each chapter guide the reader through the grieving process. James and Friedman intelligently wrote the book to deal with any sort of loss in life. Recommended.

Talking to Strangers - Malcolm Gladwell. This was my first outing with Gladwell. What can I say? I like the play of his mind, the warp and weave of his thoughts. The cut of his jib. Talking to Strangers explores why we often get people's intent wrong, although we think we've studied them during our interactions and we're good judges of character. Apparently, we default to the premise that the person is being straightforward and truthful when they aren't. I didn't quite see how some of the chapters fit into the book, but I was intrigued, and left wanting more Gladwell.

Dannemora - Charles A. Gardner.  Gardner lives in upstate New York and worked in the prison system there, so he was a front line witness to the three-week manhunt for two escaped killers during the summer of 2015. His writing style is a little dry but his derision for the escapees and their feckless accomplice Joyce Mitchell, who flagrantly broke rules to help them shines through. His true scorn is reserved for Governor Andrew Cuomo, who seems to see the prison break as an opportunity to shore up his sagging PR. On the other hand, Gardner is unstinting in his admiration for the volunteers, supporters, and law enforcement who worked without rest in rough terrain to bring the ordeal to its end. 

Blink - Malcolm Gladwell.  Gladwell poses an interesting question and tries to solve it. How do we know what we know when we don't even know why we know? How can we make lightning-quick, accurate judgments? How could someone barely glance at a forgery and comprehend it is so wrong that they felt nauseated? Gladwell then gives various examples of what he terms as 'thin-slicing'. His writing is so addictive. I just want more, more, more.

Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie & Clyde - Jeff Guinn. This is the most comprehensive study of the 1930s outlaw pair. Guinn traces the two back to their dirt-poor origins in Texas where they were both born, within months of each other, in 1910. Both had families who had relocated from rural surroundings to West Dallas, a downtrodden area near Dallas proper. Back in those days, there was little hope of upward mobility, which was difficult for a couple of youngsters with ideals of romance and a dislike of being labelled. Before I read this book, I didn't realize how young Bonnie and Clyde were -- barely in their twenties. Guinn also covers in detail their fumbling attempts at crime in the beginning. Clyde excelled mostly at stealing cars and robbing armories. His bank-robbing skills weren't as developed. He and his gang spent most of their time knocking over small grocery stores just to meet their traveling expenses, stealing cars, and taking serpentine routes that always led back to West Dallas for family visits. Go Down Together is empathetic, readable and scrupulously researched, It was my favorite read for November.

Now it's December, and I'm finishing a memoir by Frank Bruni called Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater. Bruni has got me drooling with his descriptions of food, which are vast and contain multitudes (mostly of pasta, but trust me, the man leaves no scone unturned.) I'm reading a library copy, and I found some sort of food or sauce (reddish-orange) caked on page 54. Usually, I'm disgusted, but in this case, the previous reader has my complete understanding and forgiveness.


Ruthiella said...

Hi Bybee,

Off hand, the only novel revisit where I downgraded the book was Memoires of a Geisha. I think when I first read it, I was inundated with the world and historical period of which I knew nothing. But when I re-read it about 20 years later, I thought it was poorly written. I think my dislike of it the second time around was due to a combination of my changed reading tastes and my ever-developing ability to recognize certain writing and storytelling styles – not because I am such an astute reader but I read so much now. 20 years ago, I only read maybe 10 books a year at best.

I was also first introduced to Malcom Gladwell this year. I read and liked Blink. It makes you think about the assumptions one makes about who to trust and why in daily interactions. I have a couple of his other books on my shelves to try.

Bybee said...

The only thing I remember about the geisha novel was that her eyes were an odd color for a Japanese person. Was it gray?