Sunday, February 1, 2015

Books I Finished in January

Dancing in the Dark by Janet Hobhouse. This one is about yuppies in New York in the early eighties. It was published in '83, so I trust its faithfulness to the zeitgeist it depicts—more, that is, than I would trust a book written about that time now, decades later. The sentences are incredibly sharp and smooth, by which I mean they articulate highly nuanced and complex ideas in clear ways, not a word too many or too few. The author is a master observer of interpersonal relations. The characters are richly drawn and have what I value most in characters: specific individuality. Hobhouse seems to be largely forgotten now, which is a shame. If she hadn't died, she'd still be alive today. Her final, unfinished novel, The Furies, is available from NYRB Classics, and it's on my to-read list.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. This is a suspenseful, intense page-turner about whose plot I won't say too much, because it's fun to discover the whole thing gradually as you go along. Basically, this young woman and her widowed mother in 1922 London decide to rent out part of their house to help pay off accumulating debts. A young, vibrant couple moves in. Trouble ensues. That's all you need to know for now. Just read it. A reader faster than I will probably devour it in two or three days.

The First Bad Man by Miranda July. I've been a fan of July's since the day I saw Me and You and Everyone We Know at its NYC premiere at the IFC Center—and then saw July herself taking questions from the audience afterward. This is her first novel. I was into it from page one. I don't want to say much about this plot either, for the same reason mentioned above. The main reason to read this book? It's very funny and strange. It has a lot of quotable lines. (Which I won't quote here, since it's better to come upon them yourself.) Not just funny, it's touching in a very idiosyncratic, non-sappy way. It sort of reminded me of a Todd Solondz movie, but less bleak.

Friendship by Emily Gould. I've now read two Emily Gould books, for some reason. I actually kind of enjoyed her memoir, but this novel, not so much. It would be an unfair oversimplification to say that it's partly a book about a snarky former gossip blogger who loses everything and then, by the end of the book, learns valuable life lessons about humility by volunteering at a soup kitchen. But yeah, that is partly what it's about. Mainly, it's about the friendship of two young women of the educated middle-class persuasion in New York circa now. I truly, unironically, unabashedly am fascinated and intrigued by such subject matter, despite what you may assume, but when the prose—especially the dialogue—is as lackluster and unimaginative as in this book, my interest fades.

The thing is, though, I know that if I were to write a novel, I would be prone to the same flaws. I'd write something that sounded a lot like this book, probably. Which is why I hesitate to criticize. I think part of why I finished this book at all was the ego boost it afforded me in relation to my own writing. For a would-be writer, there's something heartening about other writers' mediocrity. If this mediocre novel got published, then even I might have a chance!