Welcome to the weekly round-up of what the BookNerd is reading and how many points I scored (or lost) in Library Chicken. To recap, you get a point for returning a library book that you’ve read, you lose a point for returning a book unread, and while returning a book past the due date is technically legal, you do lose half a point. If you want to play along, leave your score in the comments!
It’s a dark week at Library Chicken HQ, my friends. First of all, my husband’s library card expired, and since he doesn’t get to the library on a near-daily basis like a NORMAL person (I really don’t know how he spends his time) he hasn’t yet renewed it and suddenly all of the books that he — or, you know, totally well-intentioned spouses — had checked out on that card came immediately due. You can see the casualty numbers towards the end of the post. Secondly, on a sadder note, I reluctantly made the decision to return (unread) two short story collections, one by Sherman Alexie and the other by Junot Diaz. As you may know, both of these esteemed authors have recently been accused of sexual harassment (minimally). Sigh. I think I’ll get back to them at some point, but right now I have so many books on my to-read list that I decided to set these aside. I certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed reading them just now. And speaking of problematic authors: don’t you hate it when you eagerly start a sf novel by one of your favorite authors and it turns out to be a dystopia in which Obamacare — together with married women who choose to keep their own names instead of using their husbands’ — brings about the destruction of the United States? Yeah, well, that didn’t exactly happen this week, but you’ll understand when you read the update.
Girl Who Reads Woolf and Woolf-Adjacent Non-Fiction: Strachey, a core member of Bloomsbury and one of Virginia Woolf’s closest friends, is one of those fascinating people who I love to read about but who probably wouldn’t have bothered to say two words to me if we had ever met in real life. (Actually I think that applies to pretty much all of Bloomsbury.) He was his generation’s Oscar Wilde, shunned by “polite” society because of rumors about his “deviancy” (homosexual acts still being illegal in England at this time) until his snarky little collection of biographical essays on beloved Victorian figures (including Florence Nightingale and General Gordon) became a best-seller and worldwide phenomenon. He was an oversized man (he may have had Marfan syndrome; you can see wonderful portraits of him here and here) who usually spoke in a squeaky high-pitched voice, and who went around falling in love with all sorts of unsuitable people and creating surprisingly stable triangular relationships (again, like pretty much all of Bloomsbury). Michael Holroyd’s 1994 biography is interesting not only for its subject matter, but also because Holroyd’s original 1967 two-volume biography of Strachey (of which this is an update) was controversial when first published because it openly acknowledged Strachey’s homosexuality and relationships with other men.
(LC Score: +2)
- OTTOLINE: THE LIFE OF LADY OTTOLINE MORRELL by Sandra Jobson Darroch
- DECEIVED WITH KINDNESS: A BLOOMSBURY CHILDHOOD by Angelica Garnett
Girl Who Reads Woolf and Woolf-Adjacent Non-Fiction Continued: I love Lady Ottoline. I don’t see how anyone can not love Lady Ottoline. She was a wealthy patron of the arts, including many of the Bloomsbury set, who ran various houses and salons where the intelligent and talented could meet and rub off on each other. (Her hospitality would become very important during World War I, when many of the conscientious objectors among her friends would find sanctuary and government-approved employment at her country farm.) She had relationships with the likes of as Bertrand Russell (turns out he was a massive jerk) and D. H. Lawrence (ditto, but I already suspected that). Unfortunately, Lady Ottoline is also somewhat of a tragic figure, in that while her brilliant friends were using (and occasionally abusing) her generosity, they -- particularly the Bloomsbury folks, who do not come off well here -- were also often ridiculing her in vicious and cruel ways in their letters. Darroch’s biography of Ottoline, while interesting, didn’t do much to illuminate that disconnect for me or explain why she was seen as so ridiculous (apparently Ottoline wore silly clothes? and too much makeup?), nor does it succeed in going beyond documenting Ottoline’s life to showing us what she thought and felt, leaving me wanting more. Another tragic and slightly mysterious Bloomsbury figure is Angelica (Bell) Garnett, daughter of Vanessa Bell and niece to Virginia Woolf. Angelica grew up amid one of those complicated Bloomsbury triangular relationships: while her father was officially Clive Bell, Vanessa’s husband (who no longer resided with her), it was an open secret that her actual father was Duncan Grant, Vanessa’s longtime love-interest who also happened to be gay. At the time of Angelica’s birth, Vanessa lived with Duncan and Duncan’s lover, David Garnett, who (a) was always hitting unsuccessfully on Vanessa, and (b) looked at baby Angelica in the crib and said he’d marry her when she grew up. In a disturbing twist, he did. In 1985, Angelica wrote this memoir of her Bloomsbury childhood and the damage done by the secrets around her parentage. She speaks of being “brainwashed” by Vanessa’s suffocating mothering, but leaves so much unsaid that it’s sometimes hard to understand what exactly went so wrong (beyond the obvious problem of lying to your daughter about who her father is). That something did go wrong is clear in Angelica’s history with Garnett, who looks an awful lot like a sexual predator to modern eyes. Bloomsbury’s inability or unwillingness to protect Angelica from Garnett has to be reckoned as a major failure.
(LC Score: +2)
PASTORALIA by George Saunders
I don’t have much to say about this collection of George Saunders stories except that they are strange and excellent and Saunders should write more quickly so that I don’t have to ration out his older stories so carefully.
(LC Score: +1)
WEEKENDS AT BELLEVUE: NINE YEARS ON THE NIGHT SHIFT AT THE PSYCH ER by Julie Holland
Dr. Holland had some fascinating experiences during her years in charge of the psychiatric ER at Bellevue, but I had a hard time with this memoir, mostly because I had a hard time warming up to the author. She deals with being a woman in a male-dominated profession by being a super-flirty one-of-the-guys gal, and handles the stresses of her job by becoming callous and overly-macho. To her credit, she doesn’t like the “bullying” (to use her own word) side of her that comes out in the ER and works hard to change, but while I appreciate her commitment to warts-and-all storytelling, I have to question Holland’s self-awareness when she implies that she finds sexual harassment to be a huge turn-on. (Which is more than discouraging to read in a book published as recently as 2009.)
(LC Score: +1)
READINGS: ESSAYS AND LITERARY ENTERTAINMENTS by Michael Dirda
This collection of fun little bookish columns from the Washington Post (1993-1999) is just the kind of soothing reading I need these days — and it was especially nice to discover that Dirda is a Mapp & Lucia fan!
(LC Score: +1)
THE ABOMINABLE by Dan Simmons
Sigh. I saved the worst for last. You all know from my last post that I am a big fan of the scurvy-and-SNOW-MONSTER fun fest that is Dan Simmons’s The Terror (are you guys watching the AMC show? is it good? don’t tell me anything!), so of course I was excited to pick up this novel about a (fictional) 1925 expedition to Mount Everest (immediately following the 1924 death of George Mallory on the mountain). Unfortunately, I have to report that there is NO scurvy (I guessed that going in) and (SPOILERS but I don’t even care) NO snow monsters. I knew this book would be something of an uphill climb (LEAVE ME ALONE I’M SAD AND PUNS ARE A COPING MECHANISM) because I am the poster child for “Not Getting It” when it comes to mountain-climbing and Everest-climbing in particular, and Simmons handles some of the uncomfortable elements surrounding the culture of Everest climbers (childish interchangeable sherpa-characters who never become distinct individuals and only exist to be killed off screaming? CHECK!) in less than adroit fashion. Even so, I wasn’t expecting that the first half of this 650-page novel would read like a lecture entitled “Look At All the Cool Research Dan Simmons Did!” (SPOILER: it’s not actually that cool.) But none of this raised the book to Truly Awful status until the ending, where Simmons reveals what is actually “abominable” and yeah, there are Nazis, but even Snow Nazis couldn’t cheer me up with this one. Simmons is one of those authors whose books I (usually) love, but whose politics I can’t stand, as I discovered when I read his other Truly Awful book, Flashback, where Obamacare and women’s lib combine to destroy the country. So why do I keep reading him? He’s a great writer (and really has a way with scurvy) and in books like The Terror, with its almost complete lack of women and liberals, it’s easy to overlook the issues I have with his personal beliefs. During this last reread of The Terror, I was a little uncomfortable with the fact that the one human (i.e., non SNOW MONSTER) villain in the book is gay — which allows the other Victorian-era characters to go on about how disgusting that is — but he actually has a positive portrayal of another gay couple, so... This book doesn’t have that kind of redeeming virtue. NOT RECOMMENDED. And I’ll just be over here in the corner rereading books I ACTUALLY LIKE because YOU’VE MADE ME VERY SAD, DAN, VERY VERY SAD.
(LC Score: +1, but I’m not happy about it)
- Returned Unread: LC Score: -40
- Library Chicken Score for 5/9/18: -32
- Running Score: -22 ½
On the to-read/still-reading stack for next week:
- The Brandons by Angela Thirkell (I’ll just be going back to my Thirkell happy place now)
- Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer (not a ‘happy place’, so to speak, but definitely a good reread)
- Classics for Pleasure by Michael Dirda (I trust that fellow-Lucia fan Dirda will only give quality recommendations)
- Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud by Elizabeth Greenwood (because that’s an awesome topic and I am here for it)