The Nickel and Dime Decade: American Popular Culture During the 1930s, by Gary Best

This book is pretty awful.

So I was looking for social histories of the Depression for… no reason. Certainly not because I was researching the life and times of Steve Rogers, nope. >_> Although… hypothetically speaking… if anyone wanted to chat about this stuff, you might possibly find me a very enthusiastic willing ear.

And this book does indeed have a lot of relevant and interesting information, but it also has some of the most dishonest scholarship I’ve seen since I picked up an Ann Coulter book.

Strap in, friends, we’re gettin’ political!

Updike, Champion Literary Phallocrat

So the other day I mentioned in passing that I’d given a particular, unnamed John Updike book a try, that I read it for twenty pages and then quit as being about “fucking boring old people.” Well, a friend of mine correctly identified the title in question from that dismissive one-line summary, and linked me to a review that David Foster Wallace wrote for the NY Observer. It is here, and it is amazing, seriously if you haven’t read it yet, do that and then come back. Cuz I want to talk about it.

To rewind, though:

Black Blade Blues, by J.A. Pitts (38/107)

So I went out on a date, my first in like five months, I’m very proud of myself. I swear, I am catnip for bicurious straight dudes. We came back to my place and watched Dr Horrible and I beat him at Scrabble and sent him home. Then I settled in to read a book, and what I grabbed off the shelf was Black Blade Blues.

What follows is less of a review and more the commentary I was jotting down as I read, joined by my BFF as she wandered in drunk and started reading Judge Dredd comics for the first time. Recall that I promised to read at least 50 pages of a book before giving it up as a lost cause.

In which I pan a book, flow of consciousness style.

Discontinued books — Anathem and As Meat Loves Salt (34,35/107)

Back in August I was telling one of my random hookups about my 107 books project and he asked, “Which one are you least looking forward to reading?” And my answer was, “Uhm… none of them?” Because I wouldn’t have bought them if I didn’t want to read them, right.

New answer: these two.

Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood (28/107)

Margaret Atwood is one of those writers whose ideas and turns of phrase will periodically make stop me in my tracks while I’m reading and go, Damn, but I wish I could write like that.

(Keep reading good things, I suppose, and keep growing up, and I might get there eventually.)

That said, I did not really enjoy Oryx and Crake. Her ideas are unparalleled, both in the post-apocalyptic world that her viewpoint character lives in now, and the pre-apocalyptic but circling-the-drain world that we see in his flashbacks. She has a gift for bringing her worlds alive, with a wealth of detail that makes them feel vibrant, plausible, and lived-in. The problem in this is her characters, because her viewpoint character — called Snowman after the apocalypse, Jimmy before — is an unbelievable loser, alternating between pathetic and distasteful, and the titular Oryx and Crake, when they’re introduced later, are more interesting but equally difficult to connect to. I found that I was reading for the world and not the people in it — I was interested in the big picture and curious to find out how everything had gone to hell, but the less of Jimmy/Snowman’s point of view I had to put up with, the better.

Verdict: read A Handmaid’s Tale instead.

ETA: I wrote all that when I was about 30% of the way through the book, and after finishing it anyway there’s nothing I would add except that the last chapter is totally unnecessary and Oryx turns out to be even more of a letdown than I thought she would be. Jesus H. Christ, Atwood is one of the really good feminist writers out there, and this feels like it could have been written by a straight white guy with a “feminist madlibs” card.

Verdict: watch Dredd instead! Because it’s also post-apocalyptic but it has far better female characters, and I’m writing fanfic for it, and I will be so sad if no one reads it.

The Swimming-Pool Library, by Alan Hollinghurst (23/107)

So I tried to read a book today, since I’m moving again in August and I could do without hauling six thirteen boxes of books with me this time. I didn’t get very far.

Because GAWD, literary fiction is dull.

I think what it boils down to is that I have absolutely no patience for protagonists whose fictional lives are less interesting than my real life. Bored, spoiled young aristocrat whose only interests are meaningless sex and being judgy? Gag me with a goddamn spoon. Or better yet, gag him.

And it kills me that this genre — these dreary, monumentally tedious accounts of ennui and promiscuity — is almost all that gay men ever write. This is the literature of my people, and yet it’s all I can do to slog through my self-imposed 50-page minimum before I’m like, FUCK THIS NOISE, I’D RATHER READ X-MEN FANFIC. >:(((((

(Incidentally, the reason why this book wound up on my shelf: a number of boys that OkCupid has tried to hook me up with listed Swimming-Pool Library as one of their favorites, and I thought it’d be nice to have some common ground. Yeah not so much, because “WHY WOULD YOU LIKE THAT BOOK? EXPLAIN YOURSELF!” may be a conversational gambit that works on me, but I’ve gathered that other people find it off-putting.)

It’s frustrating, and I can’t quite put my frustrations into words, because I want to be able to appreciate literary fiction. This is the stuff that’s supposed to be objectively high quality, but all I get when I read it are sporadically keen observations about people, protagonists whose reactions and thought processes are nothing like what I’d do or what I can relate to, and not giving any fucks about what they’re doing, usually because they don’t give any fucks. Relationships, romantic and otherwise, are utterly boring because the protagonist has an emotional range that runs the gamut from horny to disdainful. Yes, fine, it’s realistic, but it’s the kind of realism you can get by going outside and not enjoying your day.

How does anyone like this? I’m honestly at a loss.

***

In other news, I’ve wandered back over to the X-Men: First Class fandom now that ficcers have had time to write epics, and it is delightful! Erik and Charles, christ, the more I read of them the more they break my heart, because they are one of the most perfect tragedies in all of literature.

So rather than recommending Swimming-Pool Library, I’ll rec you some fics instead:

Most anything by AO3 writer Yahtzee; my standout favorites are Winter of Banked Fires, which gets my Best in Fandom award for post-X3 fix it fics, Enigma, and Anarchy in the UK. I like this author for a lot of reasons, but mostly because her work is intensely emotional and even in AUs does total justice to the depth and difficulty of their relationship. (Just don’t expect uncomplicated happy endings — that’s not what you go into XMFC fandom for.)

If You Liked the Book, You’ll Hate the Movie, which is a high school AU, of all things, but really good. Absorbing, atmospheric, frequently hilarious — vaguely like magical realism, in that there’s nothing outright impossible going on, but a lot of things that, when taken together, are sort of improbable. Seriously, I enjoy this more than I can explain why.

Troll, by Johanna Sinisalo (22/107)

In brief: weird little book, very fast read, interesting ideas but I don’t think I particularly liked it.

Set in Finland, the main character is a gay photographer called Angel (real name Mikael) who comes across an injured troll cub being picked on by some teenage hooligans. He is immediately taken with the troll, and after the hooligans have been chased off, takes it back to his apartment even though this is self-evidently a Very Bad Idea. Trolls, in this world, are a species of wild animal in Scandinavia, reclusive and rare but well-documented as fact, so the greater question is what the hell was it doing in the city. Angel names the troll Pessi and becomes increasingly obsessed with it, layered heavily with sexual overtones even though it’s very young and an animal, and it all ends badly.

Troll lost me with the characters, really, because I could have been onboard for much weirder if I’d liked the people in it. Unfortunately all of Sinisalo’s characters fall into one of two categories: actively unlikable, or just pathetic. I see that in general fiction a lot, as if authors think that dreary characters will make their work more ~realistic~ when really they just make it tedious. Angel is a manipulative narcissist; the guy he has a crush on is the same, only worse; the guys who have a crush on Angel are pathetic; Angel’s Filipina neighbor is irrelevant to the story and also pathetic. And maybe that’s realistic, but it set up a narrative distance that kept me from becoming the slightest bit invested in anyone, and from giving any sort of fuck about what happens to them.

Which is a shame, because I wanted to like this book — I like Finland (my father’s side of the family is Finnish) and I really like the “monsters as love interests” trope. But Pessi is not a love interest or even a character, he’s more like a really weird feral cat that the main character gets an inexplicable hard-on for. If Pessi had been slightly more human in his intelligence, then it could have been about the two of them, the human trying to relate to the alien and vice versa; as it stands, it’s all about Angel, and Pessi is interchangeable with anything else that Angel could project his obsession onto.