Tuesday, April 15, 2014


I want to start up a reading log again, only without the chirpy questions and dull format that made me abandon the last one, so this will be much more informal. I don't feel compelled to write up every book, or even go on for that long (HA, haha) at first. Let's see how it goes.

Books read this month (so far):

Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers, Janet Malcolm. Malcolm, like Kael or Sontag, is for me always interesting and irritating, simultaneously -- such subjective (and often wrong) judgments, rendered with Olympian conviction in clarion prose, so intelligent and so often deliberately wrongheaded. Malcolm's books have always been short yet spectacularly dense, like condensed matter, but this book is more of a falling-off: just about half of it is taken up with a pointless reprint of "A Girl of the Zeitgeist," Malcolm's adoring thirty-year-old lengthy profile of Ingrid Sischy (what everyone remembers from this piece is the flattering yet condemning description of her chopping tomatoes. Only Malcolm). It's not even updated with an epilogue (in fact, some reviewers don't seem to realize it's from 1986). There are some real gems here -- "A House of One's Own," about Vanessa Bell and her apparent melding of domesticity and pure art, "Salinger's Cigarettes," a reconsideration of Franny and Zooey, and of course Malcolm's aggravated attack on the giant Arbus retrospective (which Zoe Heller writes about amazingly, and why aren't you reading that right now?) -- but the majority of pieces don't quite come off. A pallid portrayal of Thomas Struth, now famous for photographing the Queen, and some weak, brief considerations of Gene Porter-Stratton, Edward Weston, nude photography, the Gossip Girl books (for Christ's sake) and William Shawn's son's memoir, are all jumbled together without much structural or thematic connection. The last three bits (eulogies for Shawn, Joseph Mitchell, and a very weird disavowal of autobiography) are, plainly, squibs. It's dismaying to find stuff in a Malcolm collection which would fit in one of those late everything-and-the-kitchen-sink-plus-the-plumber's-crack Updike holdalls. In fine, this isn't any better than the equally disappointing late Malcolm works, Iphigenia in Forest Hills and The Crime of Sheila McGough. But I could (and have) read the Bell and Salinger pieces over and over again. I just wish they were in a book worthy of them.

(I don't even know what to say about the title piece, it just went on forever and made no sense, and I believe it was planned that way and it's so coy and unrevealing and just....off. Everyone else loves it, apparently. Good for them. I am alone in wishing that she'd expanded the piece on Vanessa into something like Two Lives or The Silent Woman, sigh.)

The Grave Tattoo, Val McDermid. I read this mainly because Beatrice mentioned it. I had the exact opposite problem that every other critic/reader did with this book: too much modern era, not enough Wordsworth literary history! Also, the two murder storylines, in the past and the present, really didn’t have anything to do with each other at all. Nevertheless, a fun read, and much less upsetting/problematic than the Tony Hill books, none of which I am ever ever reading again (I think I got through two and a half before giving up and running screaming).

Updike, Adam Begley. I have a much longer post planned about this which I will probably never write despite having two pages of notes on it, haha! //cries -- It's a lot better than the giant Cheever and Carver biographies, which, again, everyone loved but me, in that it does attempt to show you some connection between Updike's life and art rather than just detailing how the subject was a complete asshole who, oh yeah, somehow wrote some great stuff on the side. It was quite well-written, except when the author repeatedly indulged himself in some annoying faux-Nabokovian Updike alliteration (see what I did there), and he falls down completely on the question of sexism, and is insulting about feminist critics/criticism/anything feminist. This doesn't happen until fairly late in the book, though. It's much too short and was I think written ENTIRELY without any contribution at all from Updike's second wife, but nevertheless it's still pretty good.

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, Susannah Cahalan. Sadly, truly overrated. You have to hesitate about criticizing the writing style of someone who lived through major brain trauma (or at least, I do) but the accolades about how wonderful her writing was just annoyed me. Despite the hype there's no real sense of her doing "investigative reporting" on her own life, unlike, say, The Night of the Gun, because she just goes ahead and fills in chronologically with third-person perspectives mostly gleaned from her parents.

-- That's not even half of what I read but suddenly I'm very tired so I'll just wrap this up with:

I'm right now reading Manhunt: The Twelve-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer, by James L. Swanson, which took some gentle ribbing, as I recall, when it first came out for being kind of an action adventure movie of a book. It's certainly not well-written -- the style ranges from clunky to florid to pedestrian, often within the same sentence ("now that Booth had slowed down, the pain in his left leg bloomed under the moonlight....relief trickled down the wounded assassin's spine") -- but hell, I like some action adventure movies (we just saw Skyfall on Netflix streaming), and more to the point, this is one of those stories where the events themselves are so gripping the author doesn't have to do much more than just get out of the damn way. It's our great collective murder ballad, the tragic wound at the heart of our country, and probably would remain riveting even if acted out with finger puppets.

Booth's calling card - Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Ambition - Lincoln's Life Mask