I’m mixing new-to-me books with my re-reading project: I’m re-reading 34 or so of my favorite books to figure out why I love them so. I’ve challenged myself to write personal essays on each of the favorites I’m re-reading, though I’m not sharing those essays here. Because obviously, I miss school.
Here are the books I read in July:
Fight Club (1996) by Chuck Palahnuik
Fight Club is a dark comedy about a man lost in the emptiness of consumer culture coming alive again through underground fight clubs.
Fight Club was my favorite book when I was younger, and I have read it at least a dozen times (probably more), but I hadn’t picked it up for years. I loved it so much that I signed yearbooks with a quote from the book–which, now that I think about it, was kind of me being a jerk. I was really curious to see if I’d still love it as an adult–especially after not loving Palahnuik’s last few novels.
My favorite genre as a teenager was transgressive fiction, or fiction that focused on things that are typically taboo to talk about in our society. Fight Club and Palahnuik’s other works definitely fit that bill. Now, I care more about the story being told as a whole much more than transgressive pieces. I’d rather a book touch on things that need to be changed in society, but are often ignored, rather than transgressive acts just included for shock factor. Fight Club does both, and I’ve found that I’m still very interested in the statement that Fight Club makes on consumer culture, but I’m not quite as entertained by things like characters peeing in rich folk’s soup or splicing single porn frames into feature films.
I also found that the themes of masculinity pissed me off. The men trying to find their place in the world through violence and anarchy in this book are there, according to the narrator, as much because they were raised by women and don’t know how to be men (because they are without fathers or a war to fight) as they are there because of consumerism. Which, from a feminist perspective, means that the feelings of loss of these men are experiencing are really due to their loss of privilege in a world moving towards gender equality. So there’s that. I just have to keep in mind that one of Palahnuik’s gifts is getting you to really root for some really despicable and realistically flawed characters.
I found that, more than the subject matter and the characters, what I most love about Fight Club is the style in which it was written. I love that it plays with time. I love the minimalism. I love the pace. So I’d have to say that it’s safe to say that I still love the book, if not as much as I did before.
Slaughterhouse Five (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut
Slaughterhouse Five is a dark comedy about World War II veteran and alien abductee Billy Pilgrim, which mixes an account of the horrible firebombing of Dresden with Billy’s adventures in time and space.
Depending on what day you ask me, Slaughterhouse Five is my favorite book. It’s my favorite book for adults every day. So it’s no surprise that I chose to read it on my birthday.
I could go on and on about it, but I think what I like most is Vonnegut’s way of taking deep, controversial subjects, and making them seem like the answer is common sense. His writing is full of humor and his voice is so likable, that when he drops some big statements, they stick out. And it’s hard to argue. He’s a great moralist, but he’s not pushy about it.
And, obviously, I’m a big fan of authors playing with time. Non-linear timelines in plots is a big theme among my favorites.
*It would be nice if a single book of Vonnegut’s passed the Bechdel test, on a feminist note.
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) by Jules Verne
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is a science fiction novel about a scientist captured on a submarine with the mysterious Captain Nemo and their adventures under the sea all over the world.
I thought it would be fun to read this while we were on our lake vacation, and it was. It was fun to read (Captain Nemo is a GREAT character), but it dragged at parts. The imagination in the book is incredible: submarines were not yet invented at the time of writing, the details are really amazing, and I love the imagery, but I absolutely could not imagine a kid reading this. Maybe I’ll pick up an abridged version for Eliza.
The Cancer Journals (1980) by Audre Lorde
Part diary and part memoir, The Cancer Journals are a first-person account of Audre Lorde’s experience with breast cancer in the late ’70s from a black lesbian feminist perspective.
At the forefront of my mind as I read this book is how brave talking about breast cancer in 1980 was. It’s difficult to imagine now, with pink ribbons seen in checkout lanes, Race for the Cure fundraisers that draw thousands, and campaigns like my Megan Goes Bald for Breasts, but talking about breast cancer was at one point very taboo. I can imagine that this book could be very helpful to women diagnosed with breast cancer during this time, and could be helpful still, especially for women who do not want reconstruction post-mastectomy, which women can be pressured against doing.
The book personally meant so much to me because of the helpfulness of Lorde’s words on anxiety and fear, mortality and silence, on being true to one’s self. I can see myself returning to her words when I need to remember my own strength, and that is amazing.
I did disagree with some of Lorde’s perspective: I don’t have warm feelings towards alternative medicine, and she takes alternatives into serious consideration. But I must at the same time remember that the treatments at the time of her diagnosis were new and not yet tested throughly, and she was trying to choose the options with the lowest risk that felt authentic to her, which I can understand.
Oh, and of course I bawled while reading it pretty much constantly.
Here are the books I read in August:
A Game of Thrones (1996) by George R. R. Martin
A Game of Thrones is a fantasy epic centering on a struggle for power told from multiple points of view.
You can read my initial thoughts on loving this book in the post about the books I read July 2012 (you’ll also find one of my totally spot on fan theories there). This read through I enjoyed seeing foreshadowing after knowing what happens in later books, getting a deeper understanding of many characters that seemed insignificant at first introduction, and the interplay of power strategies. Different characters and houses have differing theories and opinions about power: for some power is about duty, for some passion, for some justice, for some religion, for some money, for some death, for some friendship (fans will have fun thinking about what concept fits the different characters). The interesting bits happen when a character looses the thing they think gives them power. Over time, each main character is put into this situation, and it forces them to adapt or die. I’ll have so much fun tracing this theme over the whole series after the last two books are released.
At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom (1990) by Amy Hempel (one of four volumes in The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel)
Amy Hempel is the master of short stories, and At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom is minimalist fiction perfection.
Hempel’s writing is truly beautiful and a must read for writers. “The Harvest” is one of the best American short stories. Period. Read it.
This is one of my favorites for my re-read project, and this time I paid attention to Hempel’s careful construction of sentences and perfectly chosen words. I also thought about how amazing simplicity is much harder than complex writing.
Girl, Interrupted (1993) by Susanna Kaysen
Girl, Interrupted is a memoir detailing Susanna Kaysen’s experiences in a mental hospital in the 1960s.
I love this book mostly because I identify with the narrator. I struggled with mental illness as a teenager, and even attempted suicide after a long period of deep depression. I struggle with anxiety still, but now reading this is like looking into a window of my past. I didn’t experience many of the things Kaysen did, but having her thoughts laid out on paper made me feel like I wasn’t alone. Hopefully it will give people who haven’t struggled with mental illness a deeper understanding and empathy for those who have as well.
This is another one of my favorite books, and this re-read I focused on Kaysen’s use of time to tell her story in a non-linear manner.