It by Stephen King, 2/5
Stephen King is more than a popular writer, he’s a respected one, so I was excited to read one of his most famous books despite hating the 2017 film it inspired. Initially, I was impressed by the length and density of the plot, which caused me to forget characters’ names and refer back to previous chapters with an urgency not felt since I read War and Peace. However, after a while all the details and increasingly gross events lost their novelty and the thread of the story felt more like a patchwork of cliches. That same scattered aesthetic and uneven tone is what put me off the 2017 film version, which felt like 2 hours and 15 minutes of movie trailers for every horror film made in the last 40 years. I didn’t really experience any feelings of “horror” until near the end of the book, when I encountered King’s casual description of ritual group sex between children. At that point, I lost respect for the author and will likely not read anything else by him.
Why I read it: I was looking for something entertaining to read on the plane during our Scotland trip and while browsing in Half Price Books, realized I’d never read anything by Stephen King before.
Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins, 3/5
I really wanted to like this book (given to me by a friend to whom it means a lot) and for about two-thirds of it, I succeeded more or less. I’ve never been a fan of the hippy aesthetic, but Robbins’ writing style is humorously bizarre, featuring inventive descriptions and colorful characters, set in familiar Pacific Northwest locations. I found the non-linear narrative style to be stressful at first, but ultimately rewarding, and was interested in the unique plot and development of the theme–how best should human spirituality express itself in a post-Christian world?
However, I eventually became irked by the novel’s increasing preachiness. What starts as a quirky, raunchy story gradually turns into a hippy manifesto that preaches a muddled pop-paganism full of weed-infused platitudes while tearing apart a weak version of Christianity created by the author only to be destroyed. I dislike being preached at, especially by philosophical novels, where practically any point can be “proven” in the highly-controlled universe of an author’s creation. The temptation to commit the straw man fallacy generally proves too strong to resist in these cases and the level of intellectual integrity required for useful discussion of philosophical matters is difficult to attain amidst distractions of story and style. Perhaps someone from a less religious background than I could easily get past these concerns, but I found them distracting enough in this case to mar my enjoyment of the book.
Why I read it: A thoughtful Christmas present from a friend.
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, 5/5
All my words are insufficient to convey how exquisite this semi-autobiographical novel is; I am reduced to a string of mere adjectives…raw, beautiful, funny, insightful, uplifting, bittersweet…none of which can fully capture this story of two sisters, one a struggling writer with a history of failed relationships and the other a beautiful concert pianist who possesses everything happiness requires…except the will to live. Intensely personal, defiantly human, undeniably humorous, this book is a masterpiece and a privilege to read.
Why I read it: The first chapter is in McSweeney’s No. 48.
The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin, 4/5
A semi-fictitious scholar named Bruce (who, in sharing the author’s name, not-so-clearly provides literary license) explores the concept of “Songlines” or “Dreaming-tracks,” a musical interpretation of geography by which Aboriginal Australians understand the creation of the world and their place in it. Vivid characters and landscapes, described in short paragraphs with Chatwin’s succinct prose, have the power to transport the reader almost as surely as any vehicle to foreign lands.
Why I read it: I recognized the title in the thriftstore from reading Chatwin’s In Patagonia.
McSweeney’s No. 48, 4/5
I tend to have a difficult time enjoying modern literature, but this curated collection of writings was just light and varied enough to be interesting. Sure, there were the dark, unsettling, claustrophobic stories and the bafflingly artistic tales that I am apparently not smart enough to understand, and the gross story by the enlightened author who thinks writing about sex is soooo avant-garde. Thankfully, though, there were also a selection of entertaining, skillfully written pieces that kept me interested and appreciative.
Why I read it: Stumbled across it in the library and recognized the name from their website, where I remembered reading some funny open letters.
Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy by Jostein Gaarder, translated by Paulette Møller, 2/5
The most thought-provoking aspect of this reading experience was simply trying to understand how a book featuring such peculiarly bad writing could be published at all, much less become an “international bestseller.” Half of it consists of dialogue between two-dimensional characters, so stilted and unnatural it has to be read to be believed. The other half reads like increasingly vague course descriptions for philosophy classes taught by someone who considers Wikipedia articles to be the pinnacle of literary accomplishment through the ages. In my experience, fiction writing this bad generally relies on themes like sex, mystery or fantasy to attract readers, so I guess in a twisted way this book’s very existence is a testament to the powerful appeal of philosophical ideas and the ubiquity of existential angst.
Why I read it: recommended to me by a gym friend.