As usual, we begin 2011 with some old favorites, and move on from there:
- The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien
- The Fellowship of the Ring, J. R. R. Tolkien
- The Two Towers, J. R. R. Tolkien
- The Return of the King, J. R. R. Tolkien
- The Silmarillion, J. R. R. Tolkien
- Deer Hunting with Jesus, Joe Bageant
- The Truth-Teller’s Lie, Sophie Hannah
- The Wrong Mother, Sophie Hannah
- The Lecturer’s Tale, James Hynes
- Bright-Sided, Barbara Ehrenreich
- Better, Atul Gawande
The lesson of 2011’s reading, so far, is that I do very well at picking fiction and less well at picking non-fiction. Yes, this is a hint. Recommend me some delightful things!
Two of the three non-fiction books I read were deeply disappointing. I was hoping Bright-Sided would provide a trenchant cultural analysis of the problems with American optimism. The first chapter, on the culture of breast cancer, was exactly what I was hoping for: carefully observed, insightful, and witty, while still connecting the specifics of her experience to larger issues of affect and attitude. Unfortunately, that’s where I should have stopped reading. There are some great moments from later in the book, like her attempt to interview Martin Seligman, but the more she gets into sweeping generalizations (especially about history!) the less interesting she becomes. I felt almost the same way about Deer Hunting with Jesus, which I thought would provide a trenchant cultural analysis of the small-town working poor. The book was great when it stuck to Bageant’s encounters and experiences, and the chapter on health care was a gem*, but I just had no tolerance for his larger rants.
Maybe I should just stop reading things looking for trenchant cultural analysis? But that’s how I found Better, which was absolute genius and has made me want to read everything Gawande has ever written**. He writes about the American medical system, mostly, except his essays are also meditations on complex systems, paying attention, the problem with diligence, the proper use of data, and more. Gawande sticks closer to the real world than Ehrenreich or Bageant, which I think is part of what makes it work so well, and I think he also knows when to stop. Each of his pieces is a brilliant essay – and then he’s done, leaving you to think over what he’s left you with.
My fiction choices, on the other hand, were three for three on the excellence front. I knew the Hynes was going to be good, since I read some witty academic-horror novellas by him last year. The Lecturer’s Tale, though, was better than any of them. It’s very straightforward, but also a tricky bastard of a story, which is why I really liked it.
The premise of The Lecturer’s Tale is simple: power corrupts. The main character gains a magic power that lets him make people do what, and glorious disaster ensues. The setting is simple: a devastating satire of an academic English department, rife with power struggles and nonsense theories and intellectualized babble. Putting the two together, though, makes some wonderfully good reading. Do books matter? Why do we read? What does an educated person need to know? What is identity? How does language work? Plenty of issues that any good English department deals with are actually in here, but narrativized in a way that makes them meaty and engaging. For example, I think the trickiest tricky-bastard things that Hynes does are around the inevitable race-and-gender issue. The “race and gender matter” folks are initially presented as embarrassing caricatures, and the protagonist seems almost justified in his “But WAAH I didn’t get a good job because I am a white dude” self-pity. As self-pity turns slowly to power, you-the-reader begin to see just what’s behind that set of attitudes on both sides – and yet by the end of the book it hasn’t quite resolved into a simple answer for anyone. Highly recommended, assuming you have a relatively strong stomach for both authorial and in-character nastiness.
Sophie Hannah, on the other hand, is someone I’d never heard of before, but she’s also delightfully tricky, if in a rather different way. She does psychological thrillers, except that while most books of this type seem to focus on the “thriller,” she emphasizes the psychological side of things in a way I haven’t quite seen done before. Sadly, I can’t come up with an example to give you that doesn’t involve major spoilers, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. Let’s just say that there’s plenty of action, but the reasons why people do the things they do are what drive the action. I was really conflicted about how Hannah handled a lot of the gender stuff, though. She does a wonderful job of creating well-rounded, interesting female protagonists, but they are largely tethered to the plot by their genitalia: rape and sex in The Truth-Teller’s Lie, sex and motherhood in The Wrong Mother. Both are very active protagonists, including rescuing themselves from some unpleasant situations, but also get into quite a few shenanigans that end up reinforcing gender norms***. On the whole, I’d say the good outweighs the bad, especially since the action moves so quickly you probably won’t notice the funny taste in your mouth until the book is over. I couldn’t put these down; I just feel a little dirty about it.
* No, seriously. It made me want to drop what I’m doing and become an advocate for affordable elder-care in rural communities.
** Except I have to learn to stop reading things about childbirth or I am seriously never going to have children, ever.
*** I also have to learn to stop reading books in which incompetent, unhelpful men suggest their wives cut back on work instead of, you know, becoming competent at housework and childcare themselves. Especially if the book resolves with the woman learning to love her life just the way it is. Awwwww, oppression is so cute!