Sunday, October 2, 2016

What I Read on my Arizona Vacation

There aren't many delights left when it comes to air travel:  one must get to the airport ridiculously early, and often one waits and waits for delayed planes, for the weather to clear, for it to be one's turn on the runway, and then, for the plane ride to be over.

But one of the delights of air travel, as readers of my blog know, is the chance to read.  And our recent trip to Arizona, I had plenty of opportunity for reading.

I began with Curtis Sittenfeld's Eligible, which was a brilliant modernization of Pride and Prejudice.  I ended with Elisabeth Egan's A Window Opens, which reminded me of I Don't Know How She Does It.  I found them both alternately delightful and tedious, with characters I both liked and grew tired of and then liked again.  In some ways, they're exploring aspects of modern women's lives that seem to have little to do with me and my current state.  I'm not figuring out how to meet an eligible man and marry him (Eligible) and while I am wrestling with career decisions, they are deeply different than the ones Egan's characters face.

I also read Shrill, by Lindy West, a book of essays which does have more of a narrative arc than I first thought.  As a larger woman myself, I found her meditations on being a fat woman in America to be compelling, but her thinking about comedy and rape jokes will likely be seen as more important on a theoretical level.

I had heard about Lauren Groff's Fates and Furies as ambitious and brilliant and important, and it may be all those things--but was it a good read?  Yes, for part of the book, but I lost patience somewhere along the way.  Clearly it's not meant to be a book of strict realism, but by the end, the plot twists become completely unbelievable--I could not suspend my disbelief.

And, at the risk of sounding like an elderly prude, I was shocked by the amount of sex in the book.  I almost put the book down after the first few scenes of bacchanalia; I found the main male characters' attitudes about women as sex object to be so offensive.  But then the scenes of parties (with less sex) in the early days of a marriage wooed me and kept me reading.

No, if I had to choose a book that wowed me with its ambition that would be Lionel Shriver's The Mandibles:  2029-2047, a chilling, compelling dystopia.  If you ever wondered what the USA would be like should its economy go the way of Venezuela, this book will tell you.  I found it so compelling that when I returned, I wanted to see what others had said.  When looking up reviews, I came across  this podcast where Shriver talks about writing it--a great podcast.

Some have criticized this book for its ponderous talk about economics and theory and modern life, and maybe it's the company I keep, but I didn't find the dialogue unbelievable.  I liked that the book was so thoroughly grounded in economic theories all along the spectrum.

I've always thought that novels set in the future or with supernatural elements tell us more about our current fears than about what we really think might happen--and this book certainly does.  Along the way we get interesting insights about life as we are currently living it too.

And so, to close, some quotes from the book:

"She dreaded Kurt's eviction.  When she first took in a tenant, she hadn't considered that, for landlords with a conscience, renting was closer to foster than commerce.  She couldn't bear kicking someone out who had no place to go" (pp. 163-164).

“Late in the day, she appreciated the miracle of civilization, whereby people paraded sacks of grocery, or jingled keys to a car, and were not immediately set upon.”

"Across the nation, Americans' mental and physical health had vastly improved.  Hardly anyone was fat.  Allergies were rare, and these days if people did mention they avoided gluten, a piece of bread would probably kill them.  Eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia had disappeared.  Should a friend say he was depressed, something sad had happened.  After a cascade of terrors on a life-and-death scale, nobody had the energy to be afraid of spiders or confined spaces or leaving the house" (p. 333).

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