Thursday, February 17, 2022

Book 323: Amsterdam


“As far as the welfare of every other living form on earth was concerned, the human project was not just a failure, it was a mistake from the very beginning.”

Dates read: June 25-27, 2019

Rating: 6/10

Lists: Booker Prize, The New York Times best-seller

Few things are more satisfying than boiling hot self-righteousness. If there's a drug that gives you that feeling of someone else being not just incorrect, but morally wrong, and being about to shove it in their face that you're a better person than they are, please no one tell me. I will become an addict. Of course, we all know that it is almost inevitably followed by realizing that you are not quite in fact as heroic as you felt, nor is the other person the literal spawn of Satan. But it's a heady rush while it lasts.

Even long-standing friendships aren't immune from misunderstanding and resentments. In Ian McEwan's Amsterdam, two old friends meet at the funeral of a woman they each had loved once. But it isn't the free-spirited Molly, now gone after a brief but terrible bout of dementia, that drives apart Vernon, the editor of a struggling London newspaper, and Clive, a respected composer. They've long since come to terms with that part of their lives. Neither of them can much understand what she ever saw in another one of her former lovers, who also attends the funeral: Julian, a conservative politician whose policy stances would seem to be anathema to Molly's guiding principles of love and acceptance. Nor can they understand why she married George, who seemed bent on controlling her and molding her into conventional respectability. Like many friends, Vernon and Clive have gone through cycles of being more or less close over the years, and the funeral pushes them back into each other's orbit. Spooked by the circumstances of Molly's death, each promises that if the other were to be in a similar state of decline, they would help the end come quicker.

Not long afterwards, both men find themselves in a position to have to make a moral choice. Vernon is given photographs that Molly took of Julian during their that his support base would find shocking. These photos would solidify Vernon's position at the paper by boosting circulation and catapult him into the spotlight after a lifetime of toiling away in relative obscurity. Clive has received a prestigious government commission to compose a piece to celebrate the millennium, and struggles for inspiration until, when taking a hike while out of town, he sees a man attack a woman on the trail. Finding himself suddenly able to see where he wants his symphony to go, he ignores the situation and doesn't report what he saw to the police. Clive is aghast that Vernon would even consider publishing the photos of someone else's private, intimate moments. Vernon is insistent that Clive report what he saw and face responsibility for his failure to intervene on behalf of the woman and keeping what he witnessed from law enforcement. The two are bitterly estranged.

This book is so short as to practically be a novella. That doesn't limit the impact of McEwan's satire, though. If you have ever known a pompous middle-aged man, Vernon and Clive are pitch-perfect. Both ruminate on the clarity of the situation facing the other, while running themselves ragged in the mental gymnastics required to justify their own choices. Each can only see the ways in which they themselves have been good, devoted friends, while the other has taken advantage of their generosity. But that's kind of one of the issues: character. While obviously something this brief and with this perspective isn't out for a deep character study, Vernon and Clive are basically the same person. And George, who shows up to create havoc throughout, seems more like a plot device than a human. I never found anyone compelling enough to really care about how it would end up.

How it ends up is a little too tidy and convenient, for that matter. And the pacing is drags and feels bloated (despite its brevity) in places, but the conclusion feels rushed. It's not without its clever moments and witty turns of phrase, but it really feels like an excellent short story concept that got padded into a decent-but-unspectacular short novel. It's worth a try (the upside of having such a low page count is that even if it doesn't work, it shouldn't take long to finish), but there are sharper, funnier satires out there. 

One year ago, I was reading: The Eyre Affair

Two years ago, I was reading: The Year of Reading Dangerously

Three years ago, I was reading: Daisy Jones & The Six

Four years ago, I was reading: My Name is Venus Black

Five years ago, I was reading: Nefertiti

Six years ago, I was reading: The Namesake

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Book 322: American Psycho


"There wasn’t a clear, identifiable emotion within me, except for greed and, possibly, total disgust. I had all the characteristics of a human being—flesh, blood, skin, hair—but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being, with only a dim corner of my mind functioning. Something horrible was happening and yet I couldn’t figure out why—I couldn’t put my finger on it." 

Dates read: June 21-25, 2019

Rating: 6/10

The trouble with having grown up prior to the YA boom is that when I was a teenager, once you ran out of the Lois Duncan, R.L Stine, and Sweet Valley High books, there wasn't a lot left. That's a bit of an oversimplification (the excellent Speak came out when I was in 9th grade, and obviously the Harry Potter series as well), but not too much. So I read a lot of adult literature. Some of which was just too complicated for me (I gave up about 60 pages into Anna Karenina), some of which went over my head, but a lot of which enriched my mind and expanded my boundaries! As a result of that experience, I've always been strongly opposed to any sort of censorship of teen reading...making sure you know what your kid is reading and talk to them about it, sure, but the reading is the important part.

I didn't think I would ever read anything that would make me think that an age restriction for a book could be realistically justified. And then I read Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho. Patrick Bateman (older brother of The Rules of Attraction's Sean Bateman) is a New York City banking bro in the 1980s. It would seem like he has a pretty great life: his job is prestigious and pays well, he has a pretty fiancee, he works out regularly and is in good shape, he has a nice apartment. But what Patrick also has going on is a gnawing emptiness at his center, and violent urges he's not quite able to control. He lashes out at first against the powerless: poor people, prostitutes. But his need to hurt people escalates farther and farther until he's committing actual atrocities against even people he knows, while somehow still trying to keep it together enough to go to work and live his life as normally as possible.

I'm not usually overly puritanical about depictions of sex and violence in books. Sex and violence are (fortunately and unfortunately, respectively) parts of life. And I'd seen the movie! I thought I had a handle on what was in store. But this book doesn't just flounce right over the line of being gratuitous, it goes into actively stomach-churning territory. There are things I read in this book that gave me pictures in my head I will never unsee and honestly gave me heaves. And part of it, I think, is deliberate...besides being just gross, the book is also a razor-sharp satire. A recurring motif are Bateman's much-stressed-about trips to the video store, where he rents violent pornography which desensitizes him both towards normal sex and violence against women. Living in a culture where depictions of outlandish acts of sex and violence are easy to access means that it requires yet more extreme examples to achieve the titillating/disturbing effect...examples, of course, that the text itself provides. It's clever, if also very off-putting.

I had a really hard time deciding how I felt about this book. As a cutting send-up of the consumer culture of the 1980s, particularly in the heart of the NYC finance scene, it was extremely effective and often entertaining. The agonies about getting a table at the latest bougie restaurant serving the most unappetizing-seeming "exotic" food combinations were dead on. The way the book played with identity, with Patrick both constantly mistaking people he sees for people he knows and being wrong, and himself being called by the incorrect name, because as seriously as he takes his outfits (most of which are described in detail), the end result is that he looks just like everyone else, was smart and insightful. I would be pulled in and admiring the craft of it...and then there would be a gruesome murder and I would pulled back out again.

Even just skimming much of the over-the-top portions of the book (it gets worse and worse as it goes along), it was a reading experience I found really difficult. This book has age restrictions for access in several countries, and I'm actually not mad about it. I might have found one of the few things I actually don't think a teenager should read without an adult having to be a part of the process. I don't know that I would affirmatively recommend that anyone read this book, it's that messed up. Which is a pity, because the parts of it that are satirical are incredibly well-executed (pun sort-of intended) and effective. But the rest of it is just too much. Yes, it's worse than the movie. Much, much worse. If your interest in still piqued and you have an iron stomach, there is merit here. But be prepared. 

One year ago, I was reading: The Leftovers

Two years ago, I was reading: The Lives of Tudor Women

Three years ago, I was reading: Forest Dark

Four years ago, I was reading: Wonder Boys

Five years ago, I was reading: Between the World and Me

Six years ago, I was reading: Ahab's Wife

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Book 321: The Coming Plague


"Overall, Swine Flu and Legionnaires' Disease boiled down to the same set of troubling perceptions for the American public, and, to a lesser extent, the Canadian, Mexican, Australian, New Zealand, and European publics: something new and very scary was coming; nobody was sure what it was, but the experts were certain it was dangerous; the federal government seemed quite distressed about the matters, but the experts and authorities didn't seem to agree as to what, if anything, should be done to protect the public; and it was all costing taxpayers a pretty penny. In both cases, public apprehension would eventually yield to impatience and allegations of incompetence, even scandal."

Dates read: June 10-21, 2019

Rating: 7/10

I just want to kick off this review by noting that I read this book well before "covid" was a string of letters I'd ever think to put together. I considered going back and re-writing this based on what we know now, but I thought it was more genuine to preserve my reaction to the book as of the time I read it. Anyways! Of all the times I've ever been sick, I don't know that anything has been as unpleasant as the times I've had the simple flu. The soaring fevers, the aches, the blocked up sinuses that make sleep so's several days of feeling just utterly wretched, followed by several more where you just feel weak like a kitten. But of course, I've never been really sick. I've had the odd bout with pneumonia, which I also do not recommend, but generally I've been in good health. I do appreciate living in the world of antibiotics.

Once upon a time, a simple strep throat or upper respiratory infection could literally kill you. And it wasn't even that long ago, really! Penicillin was discovered less than 100 years ago. What it might be like to return to a world in which there were not effective antibiotics is one of the many topics covered in Laurie Garrett's The Coming Plague. In this large volume, Garrett investigates how the world continues to be vulnerable to infection, the consequences we might face for the widespread overuse of antibiotics in the modern world, and the way in which our own actions continue to bring us into contact with new agents of disease. She takes a broad look at trends in epidemiology: the emergence of Ebola, the discovery of Legionnaire's Disease, toxic shock syndrome, and of course, the spread of AIDS. And she doesn't shy away from an examination of the underlying systems that help perpetuate the spread of infection, particularly among the poor.

I found the most compelling portion of the book to be its examination of the AIDS crisis. I came of age in a world where AIDS was just a fact, and this is the first time I really got a sense of the fear that the beginning of the epidemic created. Hemophiliacs and gay men just...dying, in large and inexplicable numbers. The way that no one knew what was happening, or how this new disease spread, and (heartbreaking) the difficulty of getting government systems, controlled by conservative Republicans, to care about an illness that was affecting a group of people that they were just not interested in helping. There's an urgency there which really comes across strongly and made it hard to put down.

Garrett is a journalist by trade, and it shows in the writing of the book. The Coming Plague is strongest when she's focusing less on the recitation of facts (like she does when she talks about the process through which some microbes become antibiotic resistant, which feels like struggling through a science class) than on telling a story about people. There are some dynamic personalities, like Dr. Joe McCormick, that show up again and again in the fight against emerging infections, and this work shines when she lets them and the patients they treat take center stage. For the most part, she does keep the focus on people and the systems in which they operate in a way that keeps the book moving along, but it does occasionally bog down when she tries to get too heavily scientific, and in a book this long, it's a tricky bog to escape from.

I found myself wondering as I was reading this book who exactly Garrett had in mind as the target audience. It's got over 600 pages of text before endnotes, and the print on those pages is not large. It seems too long, and too detailed, to get wide traction in the general population of readers. But it's not scholarly or academic in nature, either. I'm a reader who is prepared to do some intellectual work, especially when reading nonfiction, and by the time I had only 150 pages left I was ready to be done even though the material I was reading was just as good as what had come before it. If she'd cut out some of the more science-oriented material, I think it would have kept the book moving better and more accessible to readers. As is, this is good, particularly if you have any interest in epidemiology, but feel free to skim through the more dense portions if they're not catching your interest. 

One year ago, I was reading: The Secret Life of Bees

Two years ago, I was reading: Whores of the Devil

Three years ago, I was reading: The Mind's Eye

Four years ago, I was reading: Thank You For Smoking

Five years ago, I was reading: Orange is the New Black

Six years ago, I was reading: Creative Mythology

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Top Ten Tuesday: Books with Character Names In the Titles

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about books with character names in the titles. I've pulled these ones off my to-be-read list, and honestly it seems like this was more of a thing with the classics? SO many old books are named after their main characters!

Madame Bovary

The Last Temptation of Christ


Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Violet & Claire

The Brothers Karamazov 

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Doctor Zhivago