Friday, February 6, 2015

What I Read: January 2015

  • The Vanishers - Heidi Julavits: Full post here. Very odd; interesting; excellent on the material world. Not necessarily to my taste - too theoretical/academic, frustratingly pretentious - this was probably intentional but I didn't find it enjoyable. Strange and unsettling.
  • The New York Times 36 Hours: USA & Canada, West Coast: Five weeks - L.A. to Vancouver. BRING IT ON. Any and all recommendations heartily welcomed.
  • Bright Young Things - Scarlett Thomas: Also pretty odd. I'm interested in the back catalogues of popular/hyped/acclaimed contemporary female writers at the moment. I read Popco when I was maybe fifteen and I remember enjoying it in a mathsy kind of way but I haven't read any of her bigger, more recent books. I think this was her first novel and I picked it up on a whim at the library. It's very of its time (late 90s) and prescient about the rise of Big Brother tv. A bunch of varied and feckless twenty-somethings sit around shooting the breeze + mystery element. It was pleasant enough.
  • Crown of Midnight - Sarah J. Maas: I read a fair amount of YA and will vigorously defend the genre but I'm pretty picky. I didn't necessarily love Throne of Glass (Book 1 of this series) but I liked it enough to read Crown of Midnight (Book 2) and I will probably read Heir of Fire (Book 3) if it shows up at the library. This doesn't sound like (and isn't) a ringing endorsement but, given how rarely I continue a YA series, it is something. The heroine's emotional and physical consistency is very patchy but female assassins + the possibility of magic. I have a sizable soft spot for young women in fantasy kicking arse and taking names.
  • Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures - Emma Straub: Emma Straub and The Vacationers were everywhere last year and that's great, she seems very nice, but every time I picked up the book/read the blurb I felt unenthused. Many people whose opinions I respect rated the book but, in a world of near infinite books, the subject left me flat. There are just other things I would rather read about than a family holiday. Luckily, Straub's earlier novel LL is based around an idea/world/setting that does interest me - Golden Age Hollywood and 1930s-60s L.A. Straub's writing is precise and generous and her characters are so recognisably human despite the glow of nostalgia and glamour. This is a skillful but restrained book about a fascinating time and place.
  • The Lost City of Z: A Legendary British Explorer's Deadly Quest to Uncover the Secrets of the Amazon - David Grann: If you follow me on Twitter you might have caught multiple conversations where I exclaimed about how truly (madly) deeply GROSS this book is. The Amazon is full of disgustingness. I am deeply squeamish and the gleeful descriptions of diseases and insects and decaying bodies had me feeling faint on the bus. Excellent New Yorker writer David Grann investigates the disappearance in the 1920s of Colonel Fawcett's expidition to find a lost city in the Amazon. There is mystery and obsession and colonialism and anthropology and cartography and a lot of maggots. You can read Grann's article on the subject as a taster.
  • Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers - Janet Malcolm: BOOK OF THE MONTH. I can't believe I had never read Janet Malcolm before (I don't think) - she is perfect and I love her! She might disdain this kind of ineloquent, fond worship but I can't help myself. These essays about artists and writers are just impeccable; brilliant, balanced and clever. Despite being devastatingly smart and well read she isn't grandiose or alienating and her considered interest cloaks the reader like a blanket. I read essays about artists I had never encountered (Thomas Strouth, Harriet Stratton-Porter), artists I knew only vaguely (Diane Arbus - photography is clearly an interest and Julia Margaret Cameron, Edward Weston and Irving Penn) and artists I have experienced (Edith Wharton, J. D. Salinger) with almost equal pleasure. Admittedly, the longest chapter in the book, by many pages, is about Artforum and the 80s-90s NY art/art critic scene and I came to loathe the chapter and all the characters involved but you can't have it all. I am interested in many things but not, it turns out, the squabbles of the self-righteous, yuppie modern art world. You live, you learn. The chapter is, at least, a masterclass in allowing subjects to hang themselves with their own rope. Luckily though, most of the essays in the book are excellent and the chapter on the Bloomsbury group is perfection and I want to read it on loop forever. I also want to read every single piece of work referenced in the essay. Such a strange, progressive group of brilliant weirdos! I had a rough knowledge of the group and varying levels of knowledges about its members but my brain feel like it has been blown open. I am inspired and invigorated and curious and what more could you want from a book?

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