Draft no 4 – 3/5 Stars
I don’t know much about John McPhee. I didn’t grow up reading the New Yorker or being around or knowledgeable about public intellectuals and they’re not much discussed in academic classes. What I was hoping this was is a book cataloging good writing and revision rules and advice the way books by like William Zinsser are. Instead it’s more like a writing memoir from a widely known and documented public career. There’s some advice here and there, but it’s not particularly useful to my purposes, which is looking for supplementary material for writing students. In part his is because it’s creative nonfiction, which for the most part I don’t teach, but more so because the book is almost like a brag sheet of a career. That’s good and cool, but it’s funny because it’s almost presented like an advice book but it’s not advising enough for that, but it’s also not bragging or swaggering enough to be a great LOOK AT MY CAREER memoir. It’s good and interesting, but limited.
What to Read and Why – 3/5 Stars
This is a book of essays by a well-known and seasoned fiction writer. The essays in here do NOT address the title question and in fact the title question is so off-tone for the book’s content that it’s beyond a disservice. To some degrees this book is saying, here’s some books I really liked and here’s why. And for the most part, a) I mostly agree with her and b) her reasons are pretty good in general. I found myself disagreeing with Ursula K Leguin a lot more in her book reviews, especially with books she didn’t like, but I found her arguments way more convincing and compelling to engage with. So the issue here is not one of disagreement, but of tepid agreement. For me, a lot of these reviews are basically the received wisdom of what makes a particular book good, but one that challenged me at all. So while I might agree, I have nothing to add. And so I was kind of meh on a lot. The writing is good and the precision of the reasoning is impressive, but looking for the actual essays here that said something more meaningful was lacking. The essay on clarity is very good and most the reviews are fine.
Unclean Jobs – 3/5 Stars
I generally like Alissa Nutting, but she might be a perennial 3 star book writer. She earns every bit of those three stars, but I am not seeing a “great” book coming for her. This is her first story collection the the very fetching and interesting voice I found in her other two novels were very much present here. Luckily this book does not contain the same content as that book so my weird kinds of hesitancy and triggers on sexual violence especially were not here, but also not here was any kind of specific excitement about the stories. And since a lot of the stories are myth-adjacent I was suspect. The introductory essay did a good job of elucidating what’s the value, according to Nutting, of stories like this, where they provide a clear sense of cultural themes and values based in the myths. But I often find them boring or suspect.
L.A. Confidential – 3/5 stars
I love LA Confidential the movie. It’s a nearly perfect crime film that does a great job of highlighting and hiding and obscuring a mystery until it’s ready to be revealed and brought to light. This book is just ok. I found the writing to be serviceable at best and pretty bad at other times. For example, for a book whose tone is pretty much neutral to in the head of the character it’s following, but without editorializing, I find it pretty hard to overlook when a novel’s narrator uses slurs and lazy language and it’s not part of creating a character. This is a novel trying to be all tough and cold, but it comes off as lazy when it happens. The movie took much better care to couch the language and bigotry squarely with the characters.
How To Die
This is the kind of outlook on life and death brought to you by like teenage boys and single dudes in their 40s. I get it. Stoicism is an attractive tool, but I think it’s a bankrupt philosophy. I think that it’s a way to face terribleness in the world and still feel like you have control, but it’s also a weird way to shame people who feel living with “indignity” is another way to maintain and gain control over impossibly bad situations. I will talk more about this when I get to the review of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, but we get one life, and Seneca does not espouse an afterlife, so for a lot of people I get why they’d want to hang on. But he is mostly talking about opening up more possibilities more than shutting them down.
This book is essentially a defense of saying if you’ve had enough, you’ve had enough and taking your own life have an inborn dignity to it. And I don’t disagree but it’s presented with a kind of too-easy clarity.
The Matisse Stores –
This is a short collection of three stories inspired by various paintings, the biography, and criticism of the French painter Henri Matisse. We have a Matisse in our bedroom, and like with almost all art I wonder a lot about that painting. I think about what makes it good or even great and why it’s known when something else isn’t. I should clarify we have a Matisse print in a Target frame, not an actual one. Anyway, this collection does a version of this wondering. In the first story, we have an older woman getting a haircut “more befitting” her age. The result is a very funny public breakdown of a vulnerable woman trying to hold on to the limited amount of control she feels she has over her life. The next story is about the art world, a world I have little to no respect for, but of public and financial art. The last story, the best of the collection, is about a complaint from a student about an older art professor and semi-successful artist who maybe sexually harassed and definitely savaged an art students’ work. The story is told through the consciousness of a fellow professor whose job it is to assess the validity of the claims and make policy decisions on that accusation. I liked this one the most because it gets into the mindset and choices of people who might currently find themselves in some hot water today, but from 25 years ago.
The Day of the Locust –
A HOLLYWOOD BOOK! An ok one. Like other books about Hollywood, this one felt like a book I have read a 1000 times before and will 1000 times since. It’s interesting because it’s written in the 1930s and already has a clear sense of purpose and self in an emerging literary market. It’s clear that this book is partially writing the rules as it goes and these are rules we would otherwise recognize. That does not mean that this is the best example of a Hollywood book, but it’s certainly quite good. What it most reminds me of is Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, another book about LA and Hollywood that I think is very good, but also one that is more early than good. The best Hollywood book is probably What Makes Sammy Run by Budd Schulberg. Anyway!
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich –
Final review for this colleciton of reviews. This is one of those books that’s been on my life for a very long time. I was probably first made aware of this book when I was 15 or so in English class and it’s been on my radar ever since. Like a lot of books about prison, this book spends a lot of time trying to convey the passing of time and everydayness of the experience but also showing the cruelty but also being interesting. There’s probably no better metaphor for all this than the central scene of the novel in which Ivan Denisovich Shukov is literally building the wall that is imprisoning him. Working as a mason before he’s incarcerated, he’s clear on his professionalism and work ethic and does not want to make the wall badly, but he’s also erecting the wall around himself. In addition, there’s also a lot of attention paid to the ways in which we try so hard to justify our own exceptionalism and exceptional behavior, but there’s further scenes in this novel in which the guards are so cruel to the prisoners, but forgetful of the fact that the prisoners are mostly guilty of trumped up and fabricated charges. In any case, this novel is about the failure of human society to do anything except protect itself at the cost of individual members of that society.