Rapid-fire Reading Reviews

2019.08.18 by Josh Erb; 1767 words.

I enjoy reading. I sincerely find it to be one of the most rewarding and affordable experiences that life has to offer. And to be totally transparent, when I say this I’m talking about analogue reading. That’s reading words on physical paper without notifications or a connection to the Internet.

I’m finding as I get older that reading has become one of those rare moments in life when I get to sit without distraction and focus deeply on a single subject. Yet, more and more I find myself cramming my personal reading. Frequently, I do it on the bus during my daily commute. While I am still able to focus, this forces me to context switch quickly when I arrive at my destination, without taking time to reflect on what I’ve just read. Writing short personal reviews is a way to counteract this lack of reflection and give myself space to absorb each work.

Earlier this year, I set a goal of writing one review for each book that I read this year. My original goal of writing one review post per book has proven to be - how can I put this? - a chore. Rather than agonize over a post for each book I’ve read since Borges, I’m just going to drop a bunch of quick thoughts on each book in this single post.

This is mostly a personal indulgence and a way to soothe my goal-oriented conscience. If you happen to be reading one of these books and appreciate someone else’s opinion, well that’s fine too.

Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller

This one is on my list of books to read before I die or go blind. Without soliloquizing too much about times gone by, I remember seeing the title on a poster in a Barnes & Noble when I was an angsty teenager and thinking that it must be a pretty punk rock book.

Reading a play is often much different than reading a novel, and reading a play from the first half of the 19th century is no exception. The premise, execution, and emotional weight of Miller’s play are well executed. Descriptions of the setting are minimal and well thought out.

However, I can’t help but admit that, while I think the work was important at the time and packs a large emotional punch, the language and drama felt a bit heavy handed. It has much to say about a persons value under mid-century capitalism, and I never felt like my time was being wasted.

Title Author Rating
Death of a Salesman Arthur Miller ✻ ✻ ✻ ✻

Till We Have Faces, by C.S. Lewis

I grew up on C.S. Lewis, which may be to his detriment in this instance. His style is very familiar to me, so this work didn’t feel particularly inventive.

With Faces, you get a sense that he was very proud of himself for rewriting a classic in a way that was more intellectually satisfying. You can’t base an entire novel on scratching that sort of itch, though. Beyond this central insight that the myth of Psyche and Cupid only makes sense if Psyche’s sister, Orual, can’t see the palace where Psyche is living with her own eyes, it doesn’t feel like there’s not too much going on.

As the title of this novel has been rattling around in my brain, I’ve begun to find the use of “Till” instead of “Until” to be stylistically oppressive. I’m not sure why.

One point this novel really hammered home for me, reading Lewis as an adult and not a young child. with the impact of what I like to call The Agenda on the narrative structures of his writing. However, that’s a topic for another post.

Title Author Rating
Till We Have Faces C.S. Lewis ✻ ✻ ✻

Fiasco, by Stanisław Lem

Ever since I first read Solaris a few years ago, Lem has been lodged firmly at the top of my list of favorite authors. Fiasco only served to crystalize my high esteem for his body of work.

After reading Lem, you find yourself questioning the premise of all other Science Fiction. His purposeful refutation of the anthropomorphic. His relentless exploration of the true implications of humanity coming into contact with other sentient life.

I won’t even get into the specifics of Fiasco. It’s truly great and you should read everything Lem has ever written. I would also say that the narrative structure and pacing of this book rival that of Solaris, though I don’t know that the comparison is worth too much as the two novels seek to explore different aspects of Lem’s overarching thesis.

Title Author Rating
Fiasco Stanisław Lem ✻ ✻ ✻ ✻ ✻

Flights, by Olga Tokarczuk

We are so very luck that Jennifer Croft took the time to translate this work. I have no sense of how the original work read in Polish, but this English version is worth picking up and doesn’t feel as watered or standardized after being translated.

Flights did some very interesting things and it did them very well. The stories visceral, psychological explorations of historical and fictional events. These tiny vignettes were all connected by thematics and structure, but not connected narratively.

Honestly, I really enjoyed reading this book, but I think the one thing it missed was some sort of unification aside from just thematic elements. It felt more like a collection of short stories than a novel. Maybe the fault is mine for coming to it with different expectations than I should have.

Title Author Rating
Flights Olga Tokarczuk ✻ ✻ ✻ ✻

Under the Glacier, by Halldór Laxness

Laxness is best Nobel Prize winning author you’ve never heard of.

This book stood as a nice counterpoint to Lewis’s Till We Have Faces. Rather than shoehorning myth into the strictures of modern Western values and story conventions, Laxness does the exact opposite. The guiding themes and sensibilities of the story seem to grow from Icelandic myth, and you are pulled along by them.

After reading this, I immediately went out and found a copy of Independent People a less “experimental” novel written by Laxness pre-Nobel. I’m very much looking forward to reading it.

Title Author Rating
Under the Glacier Halldór Laxness ✻ ✻ ✻ ✻

Slouching Toward Bethlehem, by Joan Didion

I find that I have a hard time reading non-fiction. I often confirm this by looking back at what books I read each year and seeing nothing but literary or science-fiction novels.

I’m not sure what caused me to pick up this collection of essays by Didion, I think it was the use of the W.B. Yeats quote in the title and the Author’s Introduction. Didion’s style is clear and she writes with a sharp eye. Each topic she addresses is given the same scrutiny and her inability to keep from seeing the broader implications for culture in had me devouring each one.

This collection, though it’s written exclusively on topics from the 1960s, felt extremely relevant to today.

Title Author Rating
Slouching Toward Bethlehem Joan Didion ✻ ✻ ✻ ✻ ✻

Less, by Andrew Sean Greer

This book was recommended to my by several people. I should note that I am frequently grabby about accolades along the lines of “Best Seller List” and “Pulitzer Prize Winner.” The former means just that a large amount of people have bought the work, not necessarily that it’s a good book. The latter means that this work likely appeals to the biases of the fellow writers who are on the reviewing committee.

This book is a “Pulitzer Prize Winning New York Times Best Seller,” so it is starting out at a disadvantage. I am also very surprised at how drastically my reaction to this book differed from many other people’s. I found the protagonist and the entourage of surrounding characters to be flat, the stakes to be laughably low, and the ending to be as predictable as the ending of a Disney animated film.

That being said, I can’t say that the book was poorly written. Greer is strong in several ways and he does write well. I just don’t think he’s strong in the categories that I give the most personal emphasis to.

Title Author Rating
Less Andrew Sean Greer ✻ ✻ ✻

Billy Bud, Sailor, by Herman Melville

One thing you should probably know about me is that I’m a Melville completist. I read Moby Dick, or the Whale one summer in college and I have been hooked on his prose ever since.

Billy Bud is a short little novella that was published posthumously and still feels somewhat undergestated. The premise of the novel feels very much akin to a Thomas Hardy story, i.e. how do bad things happen to good people? Yet, even with these caveats, I found myself so intoxicated by the rhythm of Melville’s ornately structured and punctuated sentences, the morally charged monologues of his characters, and the subtle inconsistencies of certain plot points in the final few chapters that it was not an unpleasant read.

Title Author Rating
Billy Bud Herman Melville ✻ ✻ ✻ ✻

The Swamp Thing, by Allan Moore

I’ve had Allan Moore’s run of Swamp Thing on my list of things to read since High School, and I am glad that I finally got around to it. Moore is one of the few authors whose writing is so strong that I’ll be along for the ride regardless of my gut reactions to any other aspect of the comic.

In the first issue of this run alone, Moore somehow manages to completely disassemble the previous myths of an already well-established character and put it together in an original way despite the strictures of writing a comic that exists within the context of a larger “narrative universe.”

Title Author Rating
The Swamp Thing Allan Moore ✻ ✻ ✻ ✻ ✻

Northlanders: The Iceland Saga, by Brian Wood

I grabbed Northlanders from my neighborhood library on a whim. I had read the first volume of this graphic novel a while ago and remember enjoying it.

This volume was less engaging than the first. While Wood’s writing is strong throughout, the stories did not feel quite as compelling and the use of stylistically dissimilar artists throughout the series made for an uneven, disjointed experience between each vignette. Honestly, this last point impacted my experience with the book much more than I expected it to.

Title Author Rating
Northlanders: The Icelandic Saga Brian Wood ✻ ✻ ✻

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