6 thoughts on “2018: What Are You Reading?

  1. Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain

    Short description: Lifetime Network novel, or to be more precise, Lifetime Network Family Noir. The book would probably quickly hook fans of that channel and carry them along, although, ultimately, I don’t know if they’d be satisfied.

    The story takes places in the 1930s. Mildred is married to a deadbeat husband, who eventually leaves Mildred with two school-aged children. In a way, much of the book has a Gloria Gaynor, I-Will-Survive vibe, feeling like a soap opera. This may sound bad, but it wasn’t that way for me. I liked the titular character, rooted for her. The novel also doesn’t feel cheap or tawdry–the writing and characterization makes this closer to quality literature than pulp fiction (although it has the trappings o the latter).

    Insight into social relations between men and women is a descriptor I recall hearing about Cain’s writing, and based on this novel (the only one I’ve read by him), I’d say that was accurate. His depictions of men and women and their interactions aren’t really dated. What stands out is the way he places a woman at the center of the novel. (Reading it made me want to re-read Madame Bovary, just for a point of comparison.)

    I’ll say a few spolierish things in the next section.

    I’d say there’s no wasted words in this novel, and it really does a good job of carrying the reader along. However, at times, I found the reading a bit unappealing. The main reason? Veda, her bratty, bitchy quality, including she had Mildred wrapped around her finger. I liked Mildred enough where I didn’t enjoy these moments. I do think this situation is a twist on the Femme Fatale.

    One question I had. Veda accuses Mildred of being just like her–specifically accuses Mildren of using and then dumping her husband, in the same way Veda treats virtually everyone. This came as a surprise as, up to that point, I didn’t really think of Mildred that way, certainly not in the same type of sociopathological way I associate with Veda. But, if I recall correctly, Mildred protestations to this accusation seem a little tepid and slightly unconvincing. It raises doubts in my mind, and that’s an interesting twist on the character.

    It would be interesting to discuss large implications regarding society, women, and men, if there are any (and I suspect there are), but I lack of the motivation to do so.

    One last thing. Cain also wrote Double Indemnity, which like this novel, has been adapted into a movie. (HBO also recently did what seems to be a more faithful version; the Joan Crawford version, if I recall, is really different, but I remember it being a good film.) I generally credited Billy Wilder with the great dialogue in that film (some of the greatest I’ve heard) . After reading the novel, I’m not sure he deserves most of the credit. There are two scenes in this that made me think of some of my favorite moments in Double Indemnity . Just thinking about them makes me want to go back and re-read them.

  2. Our Kind of Traitor (2010) by John le Carre

    This is the first book by le Carre that I’ve read. I believe that long ago I tried reading one of his novels, but was never really interested. I heard this book referenced by Michiko Kakutani, saying the book’s subject was very relevant to current Trump-Russia investigation.. I’d say that was accurate. Kakutani, in her review of the book, also referenced Hitchcock to describe it, citing the way too normal people get caught up in espionage (e.g., The Man Who Knew Too Much). Kakutani raved about the suspense, but I don’t feel as emphatic as she seemed to (This could have been more of a defense mechanism on my part than any failing by the book.).

    A thirty-something British couple, the man a English teacher and the woman a lawyer, run into a Russian money-launderer, who is looking for a way to get out. I think that’s basically what you need to know.

    What stood out for me is that quality of writing. My impression was that le Carre is a writer of popular fiction, and my expectations for the quality of writing is going to be lower than what’s considered serious literature. I’m not sure about the classification of le Carre’s novels, but the writing here was excellent. Some writers are terrific at vividly describing a scene–not just the setting and atmosphere, but the characters, how they look, feel, and think. Le Carre is excellent at the latter, and made the book a lot of fun to read.

    Saying that, I can’t really recommend this unreservedly. There’s at least one feature that I know some people would hate–maybe more than “some.” I was OK with this, but I would be sympathetic to those who would not like the book.

  3. For what it’s worth, I just started reading Ready Player One. I quickly thought of two people: Joel and Mitchell (probably in that order). With Mitchell, this is the type of book were I could see him really liking or disliking, even really disliking, for some offense or failing that I could not anticipate. The concept would appeal to both.

    I think I’ve had too much of what this book has to offer, so I’m not sure if I’m going to finish this.

  4. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

    The story involves a video-game mogul who decides to give away his fortune to anyone who can find a hidden egg inside his virtual reality world, The Oasis. One needs find three keys that will help them pass through three gates. Here’s a few things about the world and the contest. Individual choose avatars representing themselves. In this world, like in a role-playing game, players try to gain experience points, money, and weapons and magic items. Money can be used to buy space ships, weapons, even planets. And in this world both magic and tech-based weaponry co-exist. The story focuses on Wade, a orphaned teenager who is not only good at video games, but also well-versed in 80’s culture. This last part is crucial because the Oasis creator was a huge fan of the 1980s, and the contest involves many references to the 80s. In the post above, I said I was not certain if Mitchell would like this. I tend to think the chances of him liking this, at least a little, are far greater. So I would recommend this to him.

    By the way, in my opinion, I feel like a lot of changes should be made for the movie adaptation. I think a more faithful translation might actually be a little less interesting.

    One last thing. The writing here is fine, not great, but not annoying, either. I thought some of the dialogue and 80’s references would be too self-conscious, but for me Cline largely avoided that.

    It’s a fun fast read made for Gen-Xers.

  5. My biggest question remains: is the story good enough on its own without the nostalgia? I think nostalgia can tip over into a kind of cynicism, where it seems to imply that other elements of a story don’t have to be very good as long as the story taps into our positive nostalgic feelings. A friend of mine has very publicly made this criticism of Stranger Things, which I dispute, but I don’t dispute that such a thing exists.

  6. My biggest question remains: is the story good enough on its own without the nostalgia?

    I think it is, at least as light entertainment. I think the chances that you like the story better than I did is pretty decent, and I’d be surprised if you liked it less than I did.

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