To help me stay on track in my 2016 goals, I’m documenting the books I read all year. Here’s what I read in June:
David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.
I bought this 23-story fiction collection at The Last Bookstore approximately 1 million years ago, and finally pulled it out of my bookshelf at the beginning of the month. The only other DFW book I’ve read is Infinite Jest (which I need to reread soon), and I wanted to try some of his other fiction.
I expected Brief Interviews to be really good, but this book’s style and DFW’s command of the English language blew me away. I especially enjoyed reading the story series that the collection derives its name from, where an unnamed author interviews men with seriously warped minds — but you don’t know what questions are being asked, which makes you reevaluate your expectations of the literature you read. The other short stories I thought were exceptional are “Adult World” and “On His Deathbed, Holding Your Hand, the Acclaimed New Young Off-Broadway Playwright’s Father Begs a Boon.” I know a lot of people either adore or despise DFW, but you can’t deny that his work makes you think. I have yet to find another writer in the same vein of originality. I am also probably the only person in the world that enjoys doing this, but I like having to pause and look up a word that I don’t know. If you’re into experimental fiction or just want an intense brain exercise, this book is for you.
V.S. Naipaul’s Guerrillas.
I was surfing the Internet one day and stumbled across a Brain Pickings article that detailed Joan Didion’s list of favorite books. I’d already read A Farewell to Arms and loved it, so I was pretty confident in how much I would like her list. I ordered Joseph Conrad’s Victory (more on that book in July) and Guerrillas, since I had read elsewhere (it might have been another one of her interviews but I can’t remember) that Guerrillas drew on Victory.
The story centers on an English woman named Jane, who comes to a Caribbean island to visit her South African boyfriend Peter. Peter works with Jimmy Ahmed, who is the leader of an agricultural commune Peter is sort of but not really helping to establish. The story doesn’t really follow a traditional narrative, but culminates in the island’s violent political upheaval. The ending of this novel is graphic and violent and I’m not going to discuss it here, but if the premise sounded interesting I’d advise against reading Guerrillas if sexual violence triggers you.
My main takeaway from Guerrillas was that it’s a commentary on the emptiness of liberal values and the lasting effects of colonialism. Jane thinks she is intellectual and understands the island’s political situation clearly, but finds out throughout the course of the novel that she really understands nothing. You can have a lot of well-intentioned ideas about race and politics, but understanding the reality of a grim situation and the social forces at play are a completely different thing. The paradise isn’t real.
This book is also a testament to how important multicultural voices are, and that we can’t rely on the white canon to tell the stories we need to hear. I would not count this as one of my favorite novels, but it helped to round out a genre I don’t usually read. If you’re looking for other books about postcolonialism, I would also suggest Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother.
Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays.
In a complete reversal of my David Foster Wallace experience, I’ve always loved Joan Didion’s essays but never read her fiction. Play It As It Lays is her second novel, and one that she’s brought up in her later nonfiction and interviews.
The novel centers on a young actress named Maria Wyeth, who is recovering from a nervous breakdown in a California psychiatric hospital. With the exception of a few chapters from the perspectives of her friend and ex-husband, Maria recounts what has brought her to the hospital — a toxic marriage, a haunting abortion and an alleged participation in her friend’s suicide. Maria is marooned from a world that was supposed to bring her success and happiness, and instead spends her days driving all across Southern California and up to Las Vegas.
I was unsurprised by the book’s premise, because Didion’s work often deals in themes of anxiety, unfulfilled potential and disconnect from reality. For someone who was deep in the Hollywood way of life and made a living from it, she has always been highly critical of what it can do to an outsider. I didn’t read a lot of criticism on Play It As It Lays, but I can imagine that Didion drew from her own experiences and the stories of the people around her. But as always, I am in awe of Didion’s prose and how she can say volumes in just a few words. If you read this and like it, read her nonfiction collections The White Album and Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay.
If you’ve been reading my monthly recaps, you know that I’ve been working through the Neapolitan novel cycle for a few months. The further I progress, the more this series lives up to the hype that initially drew me in. I was thinking about this book the other day, and realized that I probably haven’t committed to a series like this since middle school. That’s how good it is.
Save for a very quick flash-forward to the last time Elena Greco sees Lila Cerullo, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay picks up right where The Story of a New Name left off. This novel mostly focuses on Elena’s marriage and family life, with a few sidebars on Lila’s life after she leaves her husband. While Ferrante has woven several major themes throughout the series, this installation seems to pause on class structure and gender equality. It is so hard for these women to achieve any kind of success and enjoy it, because of the traditional gender roles they’re forced to conform to and the violence and political tension happening around them. Their friendship dramatically suffers because of their fragile personal lives, and in their selfishness Elena and Lila don’t seem to grasp that they’re dealing with some of the same issues. I’m interested to see how it plays out in the final book.
I predict that in the next few decades, Ferrante’s work will be at the center of incredibly smart academic analysis about literature and gender studies, as well as popular culture. I wish that there were more Ferrantes in the world — or maybe I just haven’t discovered them yet. This series is so good that I haven’t intentionally looked up spoilers, because I want to be surprised at how it ends. If you still haven’t started My Brilliant Friend, get on it.
Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is another book I’ve had kicking around in my bookcase. I bought it in high school before I had access to Amazon, so all of my classic books came from the Barnes and Noble reprinted classics carousel. I’ve tried to read it a few times before, but got distracted by other books every time.
In Victorian-era England, Dorian Gray is a wealthy and beautiful young man. He’s also the muse of an artist, who paints Dorian’s portrait. Under the influence of another wealthy guy, Dorian finds himself worried about losing his youth. In a supernatural experience, he trades his soul so that he’ll stay the same but the portrait will age. After a tragic romance, Dorian indulges in every hedonistic vice he can find, including brothels and opium dens. Spoiler alert — in the end, the portrait can’t save him from dying.
I was extremely disappointed with this novel, so much so that I chided past-Zoë for spending $5 of her babysitting money on it. I read Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest in high school and liked it, but didn’t find this novel particularly amusing. Dorian has no redeeming qualities whatsoever, so I didn’t find any room to sympathize with his benders. I knew going into reading The Picture of Dorian Gray that it’s supposed to be a philosophical discussion on the purpose of art, but I didn’t find it riveting. I found myself flipping through pages wholly uninterested, because I don’t really care what a white British dude — however subversive he was — thinks about art.
Have you read anything good lately? Tell me about it in the comments.