Are You Reading New Books? and What I’m Reading

Too many old books?

Too many classics?

My husband and  I have switched genres.  For years we both read the classics.  We met in a classics class.

Then I switched to new books. (It was partly for my job.) He continued to read the classics.

Now he has switched to new books.  I’m back to the classics.

Recently he read the latest Erdrich and The Collected Stories of Barry Hannah. I’m dying to read the Erdrich.  Still, I have a bone to pick.  My wacky theory is that if you’re reading mostly books reviewed in The New Yorker (which I’ve often done), you’re not really reading “new” books.  When  you’re guided by the essays of James Wood, Hilton Als, or Alexandra Schwartz, you’re reading such a tiny percentage of what’s published that it is not “new” but  “New Yorker.” (I’m hoping I’ve deconstructed “new.”)  Every intellectual from coast to coast will read Ferrante, Rachel Cusk, and Katie Kaitamura.  We love Ferrante, but I am quite sure  you need to browse sometimes and try something strange.  Though maybe if I were guided by The New Yorker, I’d strike out less often.

My cousin recently put a hold on my library card (supposedly for fines) but actually because she was sick of my ordering “The Complete Books of Tedious Windbags” through interlibrary loan, as she said.

“Read something new!”

I adore Turgenev and Tolstoy (their names must begin with T), but  even I must take a break from “translatese.”   And I love James, but can’t always be ecstatic over his beautiful use of participles.

So what new books am I reading?

laura-van-den-berg-find-me1. Laura van den Berg’s Find Me.  This literary dystopian novel, published in 2015, is eerie and gorgeous.  A plague of forgetfulness has descended on the U.S. and wiped out much of the population, but the narrator, Joy, is immune, a survivor among empty streets and overflowing garbage.  She has no one:  she grew up in foster homes and group homes , and worked in a convenience store, taking Robitussin for highs.  One day a doctor approaches her and takes her with several survivors to a hospital in Kansas. They are locked in and can’t commune with the outside world, while the doctor and nurse supposedly work on a cure for the outside world.  But eventually Joy escapes, in search of her mother, whom she has googled on the internet.

Van den Berg is s stunning writer, and this is much, much better than most of the dystopian novels that have hit the market in recent years.

ann-hood-book-that-matters-most-268895212. Ann Hood’s The Book That Matters Most.  Ann Hood is a  “middlebrow” writer, and I very much enjoy her novels.  Her style is simple and clear, which I wish I could say for every writer.  A few years ago I loved The Obituary Writer, which I wrote about here. Recently, looking for a light read, I picked up a copy of her new novel, The Book That Matters Most.

Is it a light read?  Well, not so much.  It intertwines the stories of a mother and a daughter: Ava, a French professor, is grieving for her beloved husband, who has left her for an exhibitionist knitter who puts sweaters and mufflers on local statues and is often on the TV news. Ava joins an elite book group, run by her friend, for distraction, while her daughter Maggie, who has had many problems, is living in Paris as a kind of junkie hostage of an art dealer who supplies her with drugs.  Her mother thinks she’s in Florence.  She thinks Maggie is doing well.

It is a very odd, uneven book, and so I am stuck.  Why?  Because Ava doesn’t read the books for her book group.  When they read Pride and Prejudice, and she watches the movie, I am disappointed.  Will she eventually read one of the books?  And I am not that interested in Maggie’s story.

It is a bit rocky so far, but I will continue.  Hood will bring it together, I’m sure.

ARE YOU READING SOMETHING NEW?  And who or what is your guide?

Second Copy

Pretend you didn't see this:  books on the bedroom floor.

Pretend you didn’t see this.

I am a bookworm-housewife who looks up once or twice a week from a book to dash around the house swiping everything with a dust rag and Murphy’s soap.

Occasionally my housewife friends, appalled by my Bean-cum-Target wardrobe and laissez faire attitude toward housework, have a chat with me.  If I would just color my hair, then blow-dry it, then never wear jeans again, then wear that cream… what do I mean I’m allergic to it?…then buy that special Swerf, or is it Smurf, duster, and vacuum every day, I would feel much better.

And what do I mean I can’t apply eyeliner?

And don’t I want to get rid of a few books?

You can see by the picture above that there is an overflow of books from the shelves on to the floor.

You don’t have to own every book you read, people say.

When we moved here I gave away 250 books to the library and sold 300 to Half Price Books.  We’ve filled our shelves again, and one thing  I’ve learned is that you end up buying new copies of everything you give away.

I had to buy a second copy of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, because I adore the hero Tietjens and  realized I wanted to spend more time with him.

Did I know that I’d want to reread The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford?  Hell, no.  I don’t much like her stories, but I wanted to reread “The Echo and the Nemesis” last summer after I read Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother, so I bought a second copy.

I can hardly tell you how I feel about losing my autographed copy of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It must have been put in the giveaway box by mistake.  NOTHING CAN REPLACE THIS.

Today I read an essay by Michael Dirda in the TLS that reflects how we feel about our bookish house.

He writes,

My wife would claim that we actually do live in a second-hand bookshop, except that there isn’t a sign on the door and nobody ever comes to buy anything.

My husband and I laughed very hard about this.  (You have to subscribe to the TLS to read this essay, but who knows?  Maybe they’ll post it at their website someday.)


Taming of the shrewI’m not a termagant, am I? Or do I mean a harridan?  I’m not a harridan, am I?   I’m NOT.

Am I a termaharr?  A gantidan?

I am actually very, very nice.

My parents were very outspoken and sometimes funny.  And a nun once told me I was too honest.

Humor plus too much honesty means termagant-harridan misunderstandings?

Anyway, we’ll all throw up if  I’m too nice, right?    We’re not online to network, are we?  Or are we?  Did we know how to network when we were in a network?   Or didn’t we?  (I’m fooling around.  I am certainly not networking here.)

I love the classics and read mostly books by dead people.

This year I am trying to read more 21st-century books.

But, you know, most of the new books are mediocre.  I now reject anything not of obvious classic status (in its genre, I mean) that doesn’t grab me after 25 pages, because I am not a book reviewer, I don’t have to hang on to the end, and there are so many other good books.

I’ve only read seven new books so far this year, and none of them is bad.

In the excellent range are:  D. J. Taylor’s Derby Day (great!) and Kept (great!) and Elizabeth Spencer’s collection of short stories, Starting Over (great; haven’t written about it yet).

In the good to very good range are:  William Gibson’s Zero History (very good, but haven’t written about it), Jo-Ann Mapson’s Bad Girl Creek (very good, and I’ll write about it soon), and Carol Anshaw’s Lucky in the Corner (good). 

In the okay range is: Jason Porter’s Why Are You So Sad? (I tried to convey in my “review” that some will like this more than I did; the humor just wasn’t for me.)

I can’t count the wonderful new book I’m reading as new,  Frederick Busch’s Collected Stories, because of course Busch is dead.  I wrote a fan letter to him in the ’80s, and he sent me a very nice letter in return.  Unfortunately I lost the letter in one of our moves.

And I have read about 100 pages of D. J. Taylor’s Ask Alice, a brilliant, fast-paced novel which ranges from the plains of Kansas to England, and pays (so far)  quick homages to The Wizard of Oz and J. B. Priestley.  It’s a fast and clever read.

Any recommendations of good new books?  I’m sure I have some  in that pile on the floor somewhere (though most of them look old, don’t they?).