January 2016 Reading Recap

I don’t feel compelled to list each book individually for the first time since I started doing these. This is because, for the first time since I started reviewing books I have read here, I actually reviewed all six books I finished in January: The Green House, Darkness at Noon, Water for Elephants, Girl With Curious Hair, The Samurai’s Garden, and Between the Woods and the Water.

January can be a good reading month for me. The combination of holidays, travel, and a birthday mean that I cut myself some slack to read a lot. This year, January also included my version of a New Year’s Resolution to settle in to do a lot of reading and, I am happy to report, I have not yet broken this goal. I am also quite pleased that the six books I finished, while still geared a bit toward dead white men, actually constituted a diverse slate, with one travel-narrative, one short story collection, two books written by women, one of whom is of non-white heritage, and including books originally written in English, Spanish, and Hungarian. I am particularly happy to have read two books by women in the first month, though I don’t have another one lined up for the near future–something that needs to be remedied.

I am also happy to say that I largely enjoyed all six books, with only The Green House and Girl With Curious Hair not being overwhelmingly enjoyed. Among the other four I can’t choose a favorite because none of them really stood out as superlative, but all were excellent and enjoyable for different reasons. For instance, The Woods and the Water swept me onto the Hungarian plain on a trip I want to enjoy, Darkness at Noon was a revelation on incarceration and revolution, Water for Elephants a fast-paced adventure, and The Samurai’s Garden a beautiful meditation. Darkness at Noon is probably, objectively, the best piece of Literature among these books, while Water for Elephants was the most fun to read, and The Samurai’s Garden meant the most to me personally in terms of where I am mentally, emotionally, personally.

In the interest of always striving for the next thing, I do want to make sure I take some time to read non-fiction–in this, Patrick Leigh Fermor hardly counts. Fortunately, I have just the solution: a new biography of Haile Selassie, the former emperor of Ethiopia. I looked for a biography last summer, only to find that the available ones were in some sense encomiastic. Last week I came across one newly published in English, a supposedly even-handed account of Haile Selasse written by the king’s nephew.

Girl With Curious Hair – David Foster Wallace

Among my favorite writers there is no-one whose writing sometimes does nothing for me more frequently than David Foster Wallace. There are reasons for this, including that some of the stories and essays are dated such that I can’t connect with them. More frequently is that what I admire about Wallace’s writing are his powers of observation, his penchant for remarkable phrases, and a panache that flaunts convention and format. These same traits that I admire can also have the effect of making the stories alien and difficult for me to appreciate even as I admire their technical features. The second issue I have is that I often struggle to invest in short stories in the same way I do with longer works, which is a “me” problem more than his writing. This is all by way of preamble for some thoughts on Girl With Curious Hair, Wallace’s first short story collection, the second I have read.

Girl With Curious Hair was published in 1989, and the stories all in some way intersect with the worlds of advertising, media, communication, relationships. My favorite story, the eponymous “Girl with Curious Hair,” is a detached account of a young east coast man, his sexual predilections, and his punk friends on acid going to a concert in Los Angeles. “Here and There” tells of a long-distance relationship that results in both parties being tortured, albeit for very different reasons, and “Say Never” of an infidelity over the question of fit. One story that felt particularly dated to me was “My Appearance,” about an actress appearing on a young David Lettermen’s show–I liked the story itself, but I don’t understand the connection people have or had with David Lettermen, particularly now that he has retired. (I have heard from some people about how much of a revelation Letterman was, but I’ve never really seen it myself.) None of these anodyne descriptions do credit to Wallace’s curious characters who inhabit the same world we live in. The best example of this is in the final story, “Westward the course of empire takes its way,” much of which literally takes place in a clown car careening through the tall corn of central Illinois on its way to a reunion of everyone who ever appeared in a McDonald’s commercial.

Ultimately, I didn’t love most of the stories in this collection, but almost every one had striking or haunting moments. I preferred Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, another Wallace short story collection, to this one because I was more enamored of the stories themselves, which were both a little closer to my lifetime and were, in my opinion, more artfully constructed. These felt, probably with good reason, like a collection completed as part of a portfolio in a writing program, which brought their own strengths—more unified themes behind the stories, stories that were polished and tidy (albeit with the final story offering a critique of such analysis), and being kept from wandering too far into the wilderness of prose style. Of course, I prefer Wallace’s essays to either story collection.