40 thoughts on “2018: What Are You Reading?

  1. Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain
    73/100

    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.

  7. 1984 by George Orwell

    I understand sales of this novel have exploded, and I’ve heard some say the novel is essential reading during the Trump presidency. The latter may be true to some degree, but a part of me feels this could be misleading, at least it was for me. In my view the book is almost a utopian vision for an absolute dictator, a kind of fantasy blueprint for how a such a dictator could rule securely and indefinitely. One big weakness for dictatorships, especially very repressive ones, is the very nature of it creates enemies and resistance, both of which create a constant threat to the dictator. Orwell offers a way to completely eliminate the threat. In the process, we see how awful this world is, and I read somewhere that the novel is more of a satire or a farce, which I guess could be possible, as it is extreme in many ways.

    Much of this doesn’t really relate to Trump and his presidency in my view. Trump operates in a Constitutional democracy, albeit one that might be weakening and vulnerable, while the government and society in 1984 is a completely totalitarian system.

    The one way it does relate to the Trump presidency has to do with the nature of truth and language. Both use language as a way to control and undermine objective truth, although Big Brother has a more conceptual and strategic approach. (I found this aspect, as well as the concepts behind sustaining control over the society, the most interesting parts of the novel.)

    In my view, the novel stands up, something I wasn’t quite sure it would do, and it’s worth reading.

  8. The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright

    This is a pretty ambitious book that attempts to look start from the roots of terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and end with the 9-11 attack. I get the sense that Wright gathered a whole lot of material, and the way he puts it all together is admirable. In a way, it reminds me of a long Atlantic or New Yorker piece. I came away with a better understanding of those terrorist groups–which I would say the takes up over half the book. The remaining involve the U.S. intelligence community struggling to gather and piece together information about the attack (which was fairly compelling, if not frustrating).

  9. Man, I’m in the middle of like twenty books, although I finally managed to finish two this week. I’ll review them later, but they are Ellen Conford’s Loving Someone Else and Patty McCord’s Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility.

    Conford is a favorite since elementary school, and I know Penny was a fan as well. She has a formidable corpus and a lot of her titles slipped my attention. When people ask (and let’s face it: nobody ever asks) where my writing voice came from, I always cite Ellen Conford and Paula Danziger, two writers I still find myself emulating sometimes. This isn’t one of her better novels, but it’s decent. And it took me like eight months to read.

    McCord was the Chief Talent Officer at Netflix for like fourteen years, and is co-author of the viral Netflix Culture Deck, a slide deck meant for internal use that more than 15 million people have read since someone shared it publicly. The emphasis is on recognizing the power your good hires have and giving them the agency to use it. There’s a lot here about flattening top-town management styles, but quite a bit as well about recognizing good talent and leveraging it laterally. It’s pretty good, although I suspect Reid would hate it for not being realisitic, or for highlighting the inherent differences between a private company whose managers have unilateral decision-making freedom and governmental organizations whose managers do not.

  10. The book about Netflix sounds familiar. I feel like there was either a podcast or Ted Talk that I posted here in the past and discussed. Shoot, I can’t really remember that points made, though.

    When people ask (and let’s face it: nobody ever asks) where my writing voice came from,…

    Are you aware of the specific aspects of your writing that stem from their writing, or is it more of a general, vague thing?

  11. I’m pretty aware. It was a goal when I was in elementary and intermediate school to write like them, and even when my stories and audiences have been different, I used their voices to influence mine. It’s different now, but it’s still more influenced by them than anyone else.

  12. Part of the reason I ask is because I’ve been more cognizant and actively attempting to identify good writing, especially when I think I’m reading such writing. I have put in very little effort in analyzing the writing, to identify what makes it good, but what I’ve found is that pointing to specific passages seems like an inadequate way to show that the writing is good. It’s almost as if the totality of writing is good, and you can’t really pinpoint that quality in a few passages. Does that make sense?

    I think this relates to the influence of your writing. If you can point to specific sentences or aspects of the sentences, then it seems like you’ve been able to drill down in a way that I’m not able to.

  13. It’s not that you’re not able to; it’s that you probably haven’t practiced it a lot. I know my own ability to look at writing this way was boosted in 12th grade English classes. In our timed writings, we were often given a passage to read, then prompted with questions like, “What is the writer’s main purpose, and how does her word choice contribute to it?” It’s a leading question, but it forced us to ask ourselves what kind of choices the writer made, and why those were the right choices.

    It’s not something everyone does, in reading or writing. But it’s something everyone should do! I say that half-jokingly, but doing it as a writer makes you a better reader, and doing it as a reader makes you a better writer.

    One way to develop it (and I know you know it doesn’t develop overnight) (but it’ll be faster for you than it was for me, because you already have far more language now than I had when I was in college) is just to read everything with a pen in your hand and underline anything you like. It might be an idea. Or it might be a word. Or something that made you laugh. Any way at all that something causes you to react is worth noting. Then once in a while, just ask yourself why.

    The thing about writing (good or bad) is that every word is a choice. It might be a thoughtless choice (in which case the writing is probably bad), but it’s a choice.

    So take a line like “The words are lovely, dark, and deep.” It’s such a memorable line, and it’s so pretty. Why? Why did Frost choose those three things and why did he put them in that order?

    Maybe you can’t answer all of those questions, but asking them and trying to answer what you can makes you more cognizant about what writers are doing, even if you’re completely wrong. For instance, I can’t tell you why he chose those three adjectives. But I think he chose that order for a few reasons: the rhythm is more musical than if he had written “The woods are dark, lovely, and deep.” “Deep” rhymes with “I have promises to keep” and “And miles to go before I sleep.” “Dark” is an interesting choice here; I think maybe he uses it for the alliteration. It’s a memorable line partially because of that alliteration, don’t you think?

    Maybe you don’t. And maybe I’m wrong. But asking the question is the beneficial part of this, whether you attempt an answer or not, and whether you have a good answer or not. Asking the question just makes you pay attention.

    I know several people who get paid to write, and once in a while a certain detail in their work will catch my eye, and I’ll wonder what the other choices were before the writer settled on THAT detail. Man, I can’t remember who it was, but someone was writing from the mainland about the missile false alarm, and he or she wrote something like, “Would I ever see my dear Cafe Duck Butt again?”

    I laughed. And then I wondered what else was on the list before “Duck Butt” was selected. So I just asked. The answer wasn’t very revelatory (it might have been something like “I just really like Duck Butt and it was the first thing that popped into my head”), but however the writer got there, “Duck Butt” was a really good choice. I admit that in addition to sating my curiosity, I asked the question because I wanted the writer to know I knew what he or she had done. Writers like it when stuff like that is noticed. 🙂

    Anyway. Long answer and I probably didn’t say anything you don’t already know. I could just have said, “I liked how conversational Ellen Conford’s style read off the page, and years of trying to understand how she did it really shaped my own voice.” Because you know what? If writers actually wrote the way people conversed, it would be awful reading. Writers who write conversationally are contriving “conversational,” and it’s work!

  14. Shoot, I totally miscommunicated what I meant (and my thoughts were clear to myself when I wrote the previous post). I think I was thinking of two things:

    1. Getting a good sense of what distinguishes various degrees of quality–to simplify: bad, OK, and great. My sense is that I have an easier (but not necessarily easy) time distinguishing these levels in movies or music. It seems harder to talk about and identify specific passages that would show this. For example, I think I’d have difficulty finding a passage representing each level of quality, which would also make passage fits the category. Does that make sense?

    For what it’s worth, this question has come up because I’ve noticed that some novels will entertain me, but the prose will leave me dissatisfied, almost empty. Other novels that aren’t serious literature will entertain me, but the prose will satisfy me or at least not make me feel really dissatisfied. What’s the difference between the writing? I’m really not sure, and I really have a hard time pinpointing passages or articulating specific reasons.

    2. The second part relates to the components of a writer’s voice. I’m not sure if this is accurate, but I think of a writer’s voice, in a similar way to a musician’s or a filmmaker’s. It’s their style or identity. Again, for whatever reason, I have an easier time picking these out and talking about this with regard to music and film relative to writing.

  15. But you can at least recognize that Henry James has a different voice from Dave Barry, right? So really the next step is trying to understand why. Which just goes back to my other advice. Read actively.

    As for degrees of quality, that’s not difficult either, as long as you recognize that there are also kinds of quality. A quality romantic comedy is different from a quality documentary, for example, and each type of film has its own kinds of goodness and badness. Although from a technical (vs. artistic) point of view, it’s certainly a lot more obvious when something’s bad or good. But even there, there can be room for debate. I’ve said before that the writer I’m most jealous of is Larry McMurty because he does something amazingly difficult that I suspect many readers don’t recognize. He’s a soul surfer among shredders.

  16. But you can at least recognize that Henry James has a different voice from Dave Barry, right?

    So really the next step is trying to understand why.

    Yes. This is just hard for me to do. And come to think of it–I don’t think I’m really good at to articulating the differences in other art forms.

    As for degrees of quality, that’s not difficult either, as long as you recognize that there are also kinds of quality. A quality romantic comedy is different from a quality documentary, for example, and each type of film has its own kinds of goodness and badness.

    But even within a type of writing–say, popular fiction–identifying and articulating the differences is hard, at least for me.

    By the way, I’d be interested in hearing what separates McMurty from writers who are good or bad.

  17. Ugh. Me too. Soon as I figure it out I’ll let you know and I’ll probably write a best-seller too. I mean, I know exactly what the quality is. I just haven’t been able to figure out how he does it.

  18. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

    I still haven’t processed this book completely, and I’m not sure I will. Before I share some quick thought, I heard some people recommend because it somehow was appropriate for the Trump becoming president. In a way, I think this is misleading–or at least it was for me. I’ll say more about this below.

    Here are some quick thoughts:

    • I hesitate to describe the plot, even generally because this is the type of story where the enjoyment resides in the unfolding, not only of the story and characters but the world of the story as well. If you’ve seen films by Yorgos Lanthimos, especially something like Dogtooth, then you have an idea of what I mean.
    • I thought the writing was very good in this, enough to get me interested in hear other books.
    • The most interesting part of the book involves some of the premises and principles behind the society–including the larger points or insights the book is making based on this. To give an example, think of the government and society in Orwell’s 1984. The way the government controls information, particularly via language, provides insights into the role language plays in the way governments and political leaders control populations. In Handmaid’s, I suspect the way the society is structured reveals insights into sex, gender and male-female relationships. (If I put in the work, I think I’d have more to say about this, but unfortunately, I haven’t.)
    • The way the novel might be appropriate for the times we’re living in relates to the way the oppressive, patriarchal society in the novel seems to fit with Trump’s attitude and behavior towards women, specifically Hillary Clinton. I’m not sure if this make the novel apt for the times we’re living in, but that’s the first thing that came to mind.
  19. She’s a really good writer. I enjoyed The Robber Bride, a bunch of her poems, and a short story called “Rape Fantasies.”

  20. Bread and Wine by Ignazio Silone

    In the introduction, Irving Howe describes Silone as someone who operates within the tensions that exist between socialism and Christianity, and I believe that’s a good description of the nature of this novel. In it, a hunted socialist revolutionary returns to his home country of Italy (in the 1930s). Sick and worn out, he receives help, getting sent to a small town disguised as a priest. The main action of the novel, in my opinion, involves the conversations the main character has with various people–other priests, fellow socialists, and peasants. Here, not only tensions, but also the overlap between socialism and Christianity emerge. Normally, this sort of approach would feel contrived, as if the story is an excuse for pontificating about religion and politics, but for whatever reason, I don’t feel that way. I suspect the quality of Silone’s thought and insight are big reasons for that. In a way, the novel makes me think of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, although with inferior storytelling and insight into the human condition. (To be fair, you could say that about many other writers.)

  21. No, I’m thinking specifically of this because it was recommended to me by our high school history teacher. I always thought you’d read it. Or maybe I thought you read it when we were living together.

  22. Stephen King reminded me (in his On Writing) of something I’ve been keenly aware of for at least a year: I’m not reading enough, and reading is a huge part of the job of writing. My writing partner reminds me of this all the time, but for some reason we don’t talk about it much and it hasn’t been sticking.

    My problem is (as it always is) time. I try to read the news (I subscribe to the Washington Post and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser) every day, at least some of it. And I do a lot of reading for my jobs. But none of that is really the reading I’m supposed to be doing in service to my writing, so I’ve made some adjustments.

    Now, if I’m on the bus or waiting for a bus, that’s time for pleasure reading. It means less podcast-listening, probably, and less music-listening, because for some reason I can’t read if music is coming through the earbuds. I mean I can’t read for pleasure. I work-read with music in the earbuds all the time.

    Also because of Stephen King, I was reminded of how much I enjoy Sixties-era science fiction, so with refreshed resolve (and not a small amount of liberation, permitted — nay, directed — by Stephen King himself to indulge my escapism because it’s part of the craft, I remembered an anthology of Harry Harrison stories I purchased a couple of years ago but never read. Perfect for bus stops.

    The anthology is published by Wildside Press, a legit publishing company that makes an effort to keep older material in print. It has a “Megapacks” imprint, a series of anthologies (like the one I’m reading) that it sells for very cheap, giving a lot of the content away free on its website. This collection of Harry Harrison stories and novels appeared in the SF periodicals of the day, such as Analog. Wildside either purchased the entire back-catalogue of these magazines or worked out an agreement with the publishers, and it’s a really nice thing, because the stories can be difficult for the enthusiast to track down if they only exist in pulp magazines from 60 years ago, you know?

    I paid $.99 for this Harry Harrison Megapack (I hate that name, but whatever; the price is right). So far I’ve read a short story called “Arm of the Law,” which could have been an early inspiration for Robocop, and am halfway through a novel called Deathworld, about a planet so hostile to its own inhabitants that every form of plant and animal life seems to have evolved with the sole purpose of killing its humans. Like many classic SF novels of the time, it was first serialized in these magazines before being published in novel form, so what I’m reading is different from the novel Harrison fans know as Deathworld; I’m reading the earliest version before it was ever a book.

    I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed Harrison’s prose. His action narrative is just right, and I think I may subconsciously have learned a lot of my own action narrative (such as it exists) from his Stainless Steel Rat novels. The Stainless Steel Rat stories aren’t included in this collection, but I’m okay with that since I’m enjoying what’s here. Also, $.99.

    I just looked it up on Amazon and the Kindle edition is now priced at $.55.

  23. I’ve read (and still own) the Eric Chock collection. The #4 title on the first list is written by Susan and Kristie’s best friend. Too jealous to read it yet. I haven’t read this Kanae collection but she’s really good, and when I worked with her at KCC she was always super nice to me. Treated me with far more professional respect than I deserved. So I’m very biased.

  24. So I’m very biased.

    This is something that concerns me a little about lists like these. The community of local authors (or authors with ties to Hawai’i) has to be small, and I’m sure the authors and books don’t get a lot widespread attention, generally speaking. Because of this I wonder about the extent to which these people making recommendations can be candid. If I were them, and I made a list, I really wonder if I could be completely honest.

    And that touches on another point. I’m a little nervous reading some of these books, especially the fiction recommendations. I really want them to be good, and if I have end up making the opposite judgment, that’ll be depressing. It’s like seeing Marcus Mariota fail.

  25. If you’re looking for an unbiased list of the qualitative best of anything you’re never going to find one. But your point about the local community is valid. It tends to lean a bit self-congratulatory.

    The only thing to be nervous about is the loss of your time. But reading a bad novel by a local writer shouldn’t be depressing. Geez. At least not for the reason you seem to imply. It’s art. Most of it’s going to be bad, especially since the canon is so young and tiny. I find this aspect of it to be exciting. We don’t know what’s going to be remembered a hundred years from now. Maybe one novel, maybe a small number of poems. Reading it while the canon is still unsettled is like walking through fresh snow.

    1. I love that neither list includes All I Asking For Is My Body by Milton Maruyama. There was a time in our lives when it would have been on everyone’s list. But man, is it written poorly. I didn’t have room at the bottom of my napkin, so I didn’t get to write what I meant to add: “…but NOT All I Asking For Is My Body!”

      Time moves on. The bad work piles up in bigger piles. The good work piles up in smaller piles, but it grows. And things displace other things. And someone writes Blu’s Hanging, and we can get excited and say, “Yay. Let’s finally take these Maruyama books off the small pile!”

  26. But your point about the local community is valid. It tends to lean a bit self-congratulatory.

    I suspect the issue is a lot more pronounced in a smaller, marginalized community like Hawai’i writers, but the problem goes beyond these communities. In general, I’m wary of writer’s praising or recommending writers that they know well. (I always feel like this is the situation with blurbs on book jackets.) I also kind of don’t like critics becoming good friends with the people they have to evaluate. How can this not impact the candor and critical analysis? This is the type of bias that I find problematic. If these elements are absent, I think one could create a good “best of” list.

    But reading a bad novel by a local writer shouldn’t be depressing. Geez. At least not for the reason you seem to imply.

    If you really want someone to succeed and they fail, isn’t that painful?

  27. No, because most of art is unsuccessful. And if Marcus Mariota fails, you feel like he’s failed on behalf of Hawaii. That’s how you feel when a local writer writes something bad?

  28. No, because most of art is unsuccessful.

    But these are highly recommended books, not just books in general.

    And if Marcus Mariota fails, you feel like he’s failed on behalf of Hawaii. That’s how you feel when a local writer writes something bad?

    If Mariota failed I don’t feel like he “failed on behalf of Hawai’i.” He’s from Hawai’i, so I’m rooting for him to succeed. When he doesn’t, that’s disappointing.

  29. Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

    After the 2016 election, I got the impression that many recommended this book as a way to explain Trump’s victory. I read the book with that in mind, but I’m not sure that’s the best approach. The book is a memoir written before the election. Vance focused on his life, family, and their sub-culture, mostly in that order; the book isn’t meant to explain Trump’s victory, and it could lead to the wrong conclusions just as much as the right ones.

    On a related note, I also went in expecting that Vance’s story would be a very familiar one. I had a strong feeling the people and place would be similar to Wai’anae. I’m not sure if that distorted my view, but I would say that the similarities far outweigh the differences.

    There’s something else the story confirmed for me. Socioeconomic status is less important for education and future economic success than having loving adults that strongly value education. Vance’s mother struggled with substance abuse and never had a stable relationship. Vance’s grandparents, while often vulgar and volatile, provided incredible unconditional love and support for his education. Vance had a traumatic childhood, but if every individual living in poverty had those two elements, I’d predict that key social indicators would be a lot better than some would think.

    For what it’s worth, the book was a fast read, and fairly well-written (or at least not written poorly).

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