When God Laughs by Jack London, 4/5
The short story has never been one of my favorite literary forms, so I was not exactly jazzed to crack open what I thought was a Jack London novel to find a collection of twelve shorter works under one title. They say a brief speech requires much more effort to create than a long one and I can only assume that even the best novelists face a similar challenge when it comes to crafting shorter works. My mild pessimism was wasted in this case, however, because most of these stories were captivating–full of vivid characters and a variety of dramatic plots and settings. It is a testament to the author’s skill that I could become so emotionally invested in stories ranging from just ten to forty-two pages long.
Why I read it: Just trying to read through the old books on my shelf!
Slain by the Doones by R.D. Blackmore, 1/5
I love the old classic Lorna Doone, so I was very excited to spot what appeared to be its sequel on the shelves of a small, local thrift store. Unfortunately, the book turned out to be a collection of terribly-written short stories, only one of which had a connection to Blackmore’s earlier (and much better) novel. I have read a lot of late 19th-century literature with no comprehension issues, but I found some parts of this collection quite difficult to understand, presumably due to the author’s use of then-trendy references and short-lived terminology. While it’s understandable that the passage of time can be less than kind to certain writing styles, there really is no excuse for the lame plots that made these short stories a chore to get through. At least it’s pretty, though!
Summertime by Denis Mackail, 5/5
When I selected this unassuming novel from my stacks of unread vintage books, I didn’t know what to expect. Delightfully, it turned out to be a sweet little romance, full of naive characters, 1920’s charm and dialogue that is occasionally very witty. Author Denis Mackail may be unknown now, but he was popular when it mattered most (during his lifetime) and since he published one novel every year from 1920-1938, I’m optimistic that more of his works will eventually find their way into my collection.
Why I read it: Just one more step towards the goal of having read every book I own!
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values by Robert M. Pirsig, 2/5
Reading this philosophical novel was, for me, like trying to experience a song by simply reading the lyrics–I understood the words, but I couldn’t hear the “music.” I suspect this is due in part to my reflexive antipathy for the 1960s zeitgeist and a general shift away from academic thought in my life. However, I’d prefer to think that the fault is the author’s, for alternating arbitrarily-detailed descriptions of a motorcycle road trip with dry, preachy philosophical rants that fall into the trap described by C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man:
“…But you cannot go on ‘explaining away’ for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see (81).”
In an attempt to understand my negative experience with such a popular, respected book, I read a lot of user reviews afterwards and learned more about the author. I now know that the book is highly autobiographical and wonder if my dislike of it reflects a basic personal incompatibility with the author/narrator and a recognition of how his pursuit of personal catharsis might taint the intellectual integrity of his arguments. I didn’t feel any sort of sympathy, connection or respect for the main character, suspecting that I would dislike him if I met him in person, which is certainly not a great basis on which to approach a book. With this understanding, I might re-read it in a few years and see if I can get something more out of it than I did this time.
Why I read it: I was browsing Half Price Books for reading material for a trip to Scotland and recognized the title.
Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, 5/5
Far from the tidy Victorian romance I expected, this short novel has a plot as fast-paced and dramatic as a play and stars a cast of four flawed personalities engaged in a brutal love rectangle. I enjoyed it as thoroughly as I later despised the shallow and cliched 2015 film version.
Why I read it: my sister, Grace, recommended it to me.
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.