What We’re Actually Reading: Spring 2016 Roundup

I’ve read four books of my goal to read twenty books this year! Not counting books we read for this blog. Obviously. The word “goal” implies some kind of personal achievement.

Jane Eyre

What’s It About?

It’s Jane Eyre, y’all.

What’s It Like?

Is it weird if my favorite parts of this were the first few chapters about Jane an orphaned, abused child, and then I got much less interested when Mr. Rochester showed up? My friend who encouraged me to finally read this book assured me that Rochester has more depth than the usual asshole man who’s really just misunderstood, but in the end I wasn’t seeing it.

Can You Explain It In Terms of Other Books We Read On This Blog?

It’s certainly an actual classic and Jane herself is a great character, but Mr. Rochester definitely fits more easily into the Christian Grey asshole mold than one might want to admit. And it’s not like this is a “oh, sure, it looks bad now when you compare it to that” thing: remember when we read Pamela? Even compared to a contemporary, the male romantic lead doesn’t get off looking that great. Jane kicks ass, though.

jane eyre

An Untamed State

What’s It About?

A woman gets kidnapped by ransomers while visiting her family in Haiti. Things go badly.

What’s It Like?

Roxane Gay is one of my favorite feminist essayists/critics, and now I know that she’s one of my favorite authors too. Although as you might have gathered from the summary, this is a rather brutal read. It’s amazing how many difficult questions she’s able to pull out of this narrative – reconciling the different Haitis the main character knows, the complexity of the human condition and the shallowness of masculinity – and how as unanswerable as these questions are, how much understanding the novel finds with them. Apparently it’s just been announced that it’s going to be made into a movie; I would highly recommend this book anyway, but definitely read it now so you can get properly excited about that.

Can You Explain It In Terms of Other Books We Read On This Blog?

Oh fuck, not really. I mean, Crossfire dealt with themes of abuse, but An Untamed State is the sort of thing that really highlights just how hollow it feels in Crossfire.

untamed state

We Need New Names

What’s It About?

The coming-of-age story of a young girl, from her childhood in extreme poverty in Zimbabwe to her teenage years as an illegal immigrant in America.

What’s It Like?

As you might have guessed, this is also a pretty brutal read. We started a book club at work and my boss told me that I picked the saddest book ever. (In my defense, I came up with a list of five books for the others to vote on, so we all picked the saddest book ever, really.) We haven’t had the actual book club meeting for it yet, but every time it’s come up in passing, everyone’s immediately sung its praises. The narrator’s voice might be some of the most beautiful and affecting writing I’ve come across in recent memory. There’s a bleakness and minimalism to it in a similar vein to Cormac McCarthy, but where McCarthy uses it to find nihilism, Bulawayo finds unattainability. There’s a confused, disoriented wanting in We Need New Names‘ young woman unable to find home in either the country of her past or the country of her present.

Can You Explain It In Terms of Other Books We Read On This Blog?

House of Night‘s probably “closest”. If the coming-of-age parts were resolved with, like, the opposite of someone feeling special. And if Zoey never reconciled the gap between her different, imperfect homes. And without the vampires, obviously.

we need new names

The Book of the Dun Cow

What’s It About?

A fantasy about a world of animals facing a threat from a giant evil worm living underground. (Spoiler: one of the animals is Satan.)

What’s It Like?

This was the first book we read for the aforementioned office book club. I’ll be honest, this super wasn’t my cup of tea, but I enjoyed getting to branch out and read something I never would have otherwise (you know, outside of what I do for this blog). What was interesting is that this was book was overwhelmingly a Christian allegory, but no one in our book club is particularly religious, so we wound up having quite an intriguing discussion on how effective a story can be if its allegory doesn’t have anything to say about its source material. Some of my coworkers were frustrated because they couldn’t figure out if one character or the other was supposed to be Jesus, and I was frustrated because both characters were so uninteresting that I couldn’t figure out what the book even wanted to say about Jesus.

Although there was a basilisk that was definitely the antichrist, so we totally figured that one out.

Can You Explain It In Terms of Other Books We Read On This Blog?

Left Behind with animals. Wow, that was the easiest one of those I’ve ever had to do.

book of dun cow

A Time of Gifts

What’s It About?

The memoir of a man who decided to go on a walking tour from England to Constantinople. Across Europe. Coincidentally, right before World War II breaks out.

What’s It Like?

FULL OF SHENANIGANS. It turns out this book only contains his trip through Vienna, but it’s hard to say that’s a disappointment given how many utterly absurd tales this guy came into during just that time. Which makes sense, since he went on – you know – a walking tour from England to Constantinople. There’s lots and lots of lovingly crafted description of natural scenery and old buildings (neither of which are super my cup of tea), but the people he meets along the way all provide fascinating snippets of human life. And many of them are a hoot. And quietly poignant. Or unexpectedly salacious, ergo, a hoot.

Can You Explain It In Terms of Other Books We Read On This Blog?

You know how Allegiant tried to be all “This place is crazy! Wow, this place is crazier! Aw geez, this place is the crazierest! Comments on the human condition, amiright?” It’s like that, but it if Allegiant managed to find something new or interesting to say in all those places it kept trying to take us to.

time of gifts

999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors

What’s It About?

Ok, I’m playing it a little fast and loose with “reading”, but I have no problem with that. It’s a visual novel/puzzle game released for the Nintendo DS in 2009 (apparently there’s also an iOS version) about nine people who get kidnapped and wake up on a sinking ship where they have to solve a series of puzzles to navigate to an escape, while also trying to figure out what’s really going on.

What’s It Like?

The puzzles are all escape-the-room puzzles, which is a style I really like, where you’re confined to a room and have to solve a sequence of puzzles to unlock the door to get out. The puzzles largely feel fair, not relying on absurd answers to simple problems, although I have been disappointed with how easy many of them felt. As for the story… as much as I don’t want to rely on the “for a video game” qualifier, the prose is insanely overwritten. Simple information gets spoon-fed to you again and again and again, which doesn’t help the story’s already tremendous problem with narrative pacing. The dialogue is more successful at striking a balance of tense and funny, but has the same shortcoming. For a group of people with nine hours to escape a sinking ship, they do a lot of standing around and talking.

The game also has six different endings, depending on decisions you make during the story. Much like the worst kind of choose-your-own-adventure novels, it’s impossible to tell which choices result in “good” endings or “bad” endings, however, so my first playthrough abruptly ended with the main character’s anticlimactic death and a screen telling me to start over. Exceptionally thankfully, any dialogue you’ve already seen before is skippable. What’s weird is that I’m not actually frustrated by this. I’m kind of intrigued by this tension between its mechanics as a graphic novel and as a video game, sort of like how Infinite Jest forces you to flip back and forth between the story and the footnotes to figure out what’s important, like a more mechanical reading between the lines. Of course, I gave up on Infinite Jest pretty quickly, so… we’ll see if 999 can do this well.

Can You Explain It In Terms of Other Books We Read On This Blog?

It’s a bunch of stock characters in a situation that doesn’t make any sense whatsoever, and they spend a lot of time talking about how it kind of makes sense but never actually does. So it’s like Divergent, except if you had to start over once Tris died.

999 nintendo ds

Master of None

What’s It About?

YES. I KNOW. I’M REALLY CHEATING NOW. I watched the first season of Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix show Master of None and I love it and I DON’T CARE IF THIS ISN’T WHAT I’M “READING”.

What’s It Like?

Perfect? Well, ok, I can concede that it’s not perfect. The first half of the season is pretty uneven and a lot of it feels pretty aimless and pointless. But eventually it opens up into a fantastic vignette of the turning point in someone’s life between exploring your potential and deciding on what you want to do with you life. The characters on the show are a bit older than me, but a lot of that really hit home.

Can You Explain It In Terms of Other Books We Read On This Blog?

What’s really weird is that I can’t. Between Fifty ShadesCrossfire, McGuire’s Maddox brother novels, House of Night, TwilightDivergent, etc, not one thing we’ve read for this blog has any characters who don’t know what they want to do with their life. They all arrive as totally committed mannequins devoid of indecision. I never realized how weird that was until now.

master of none

And Here’s What I’ve Been Listening To

Apparently NPR’s Austin 100 (a mix of 100 songs from bands at South by Southwest) is an annual thing now. Mass Gothic‘s “Every Night You’ve Got To Save Me” is my favorite discovery thus far!

And I just rediscovered Pity Sex. A band featured on NPR’s Austin 100 last year. Not, like, the concept.

Steven Page just released an amazing new album. Yes, the guy from Barenaked Ladies. Yes, I fucking loved Barenaked Ladies and I don’t even care. I will talk your ear off about how “One Week” was the worst thing to ever happen to them, but this post is already like 2000 words, and that’s not really relevant to how Steven Page is still putting out awesome music.

Weezer released a new album and it’s actually good. This is not a joke. I don’t know how this happened but it did and this is not a drill this actually happened.

In the genre of “women screaming over electric guitars” that I’ve been pretty into lately, there’s Dilly Dally.

Similarly (?), I just discovered BABYMETAL. It’s a crossover between J-pop and metal. I have no fucking idea why this works. I bet this would be an insanely fun concert to go to.

I’m seriously kicking myself for leaving Floating Points off of my favorite albums of 2015 post, because “Silhouettes (I, II, III)” is maybe the best fusion of electronic music and jazz I’ve ever heard.

For all two of you who read these very infrequent posts just to get some weirdo electronic music from me, here’s Matthew Dear.

I could listen to Regina Spektor‘s 11:11 until the end of time and never get tired of it. I also recently realized I could google the tab for “Rejazz” and learn how to play it. I also recently realized that jazz is really fucking hard.

There’s a new Kanye album out. Maybe you’ve heard.

What about you? Share anything you’re reading or music you’re playing in the comments!



  1. malcolmthecynic Reply

    I love these conversations. Just finished “Iron Chamber of Memory”, by John C. Wright. Considering the general readership of this blog I always need to preface this with “Yes, if you look up the author, you’ll hate him, so don’t bother”, but whatever you think of the guy FUCK is his fiction brilliant. I’m a big genre reader and “Iron Chamber of Memory” is genre fiction probably best classified as magical realism.

    Have any of you read Gene Wolfe (and if you haven’t, do so)? “Iron Chamber of Memory” was sort of like Wolfe’s “The Sorcerer’s House”, only better. The plot is bizarre and unique in the best possible way. The premise: A man and woman only remember that they’re in love when they are in a certain room together, the Rose Chamber of Sark Manor.

    And that’s REALLY all I can give you without ruining it. Read it. It’s brilliant.

    Also finished Stephen Lawhead’s “Avalon” recently, the conclusion to his Pendragon Cycle. It was…well-written. Whenever James, the new Arthur, spoke the book attained a sort of beauty and power that it never could really sustain. Its villains were weak, and its classic premise – King Arthur needs to return in Britain’s hour of greatest need – was wasted on a rather dull political battle, and its villains were weak.

    The book is saved due to the strength of Lawhead’s prose and his obvious enthusiasm for the subject. His heartfelt calls to bring the monarchy back to a time where it is worthy of King Arthur are stirring. Still, the book feels more like a missed opportunity than anything else (which I am attempting to capitalize on).

    Currently re-reading Tom Simon’s brilliant essay books “Writing Down the Dragon” and “Death Carries a Camcorder” in order to help me prepare my own novel. Simon is our greatest living essayist, and those two books are absolutely essential reading for anybody who wishes to write fantasy. That Simon is not more famous is one of our generation’s foremost crimes.

    As far as Netflix shows go, “Daredevil” continues to rock. The writing ranges from great to blech (though it never becomes truly TERRIBLE), but the material is elevated by an incredible cast and some of the best fight scenes ever filmed. Season 2, thanks mostly to Joe Bernthal’s electrifying portrayal of the Punisher, has what I consider the definitive discussion on the morality of vigilantes killing criminals.

    As a companion to that, I recently read Frank Miller’s masterpiece “Daredevil: Born Again”. The only comic (not graphic novel, which tends to try for a more literary feel) I’ve ever read that I felt was truly great, period, and not “great for a comic book”. Mazzuchelli’s art is breathtaking and Miller’s writing is powerful and dramatic, with detailed character arcs for a surprisingly large cast of characters. The intersecting resurrection/redemption stories of Matt Murdoch and Karen Page creates some of the most moving scenes in all of comics.

    And as far as visual novels go, the best ever, by FAR, is “To the Moon”. It is not only one of only three romances I can stomach in any media, it is one of the best stories I’ve ever read, period. If you’re not moved by the ending, you’re not human. It should be required playing/reading by anybody who is interested in telling stories in video games. A true masterpiece.

  2. Utsutsu Reply

    I’ve been reading a lot for school lately but I’m lucky enough to have a professor who only picks kick-ass books. I just finished Toni Morrison’s newest, “God Help the Child” and it was absolutely… can I use the word “orgasmic” on this blog in a metaphorical sense? It feels strange. (“This book made me come like a freight train” strange). ANYWAYS!! It’s the first book Morrison has written in a modern setting, and everything is so succinct and beautiful. It’s written in first person limited from varying perspectives, and she does it so well. It’s the sort of thing where the main character has one notion of a person, and when we get that person’s perspectives we see that they actually have a completely different character than originally explained (through another character’s eyes) and you see that they have these hidden motivations, but none of it is explicitly spelled out for you and it’s so refreshing. I definitely recommend it.

    Quick aside/question: What do you think about male writers who tackle female sexuality as a theme in their books? Have you read anything where it’s handled well? What about handled really badly (Haha whoops, forgot what blog I was on)?

    On the “handled well” spectrum, I recently read Chuck Palahniuk’s “Beautiful You.” The premise revolves around a basically asexual man who creates the ultimate sex toys for women, who become absolutely addicted. It turns out the guy hates women. I’m trying to figure out how to summarize the rest in a short and clear way, but it’s impossible. Palahniuk denies simplicity.

    I’m freaking out a bit because I just realized how similar “Beautiful You” and “FSoG” are. Girl trips in front of her boss and becomes enamored. Boss is a terrifying sexual sociopath. Boss subjects main character to increasingly uncomfortable sexual situations. Only make everything in FSoG well-written and about 100 times more squicky, edgy, daring and horrifying. Wrap it up with a pessimistic post-modern ending about immediate gratification and diminished attention span and being a slave to your baser instincts and yeah. That’s “Beautiful You.”

    Have you heard about “Jane Steele?” It’s a modern re-telling, and apparently it’s kick-ass. http://www.npr.org/2016/03/26/471343820/this-jane-is-eyres-steely-sister

    And last but not least:

    Best. Favorite. So good. I’m having panicky flashbacks over here re-living this. Once you play it, it never leaves you.

  3. Pingback: What People Are Saying: Iron Chamber of Memory – castaliahouse.com

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