Cottage Reads 2018: Death, Dying and Jonathan Franzen

Every summer I set out an ambitious list of what I’m going to read (usually complete with suggestions from you folks). And then I find various benches, beaches and buses (such fun with alliteration!) and read the list. I then humble brag about how much I’ve read. I make new and more expansive lists for the fall. I revel.

Not this summer. This summer I read the bare minimum (that is – books for book club and those about death because of My Preoccupation) and sometimes not even that. I’d offer an excuse or explanation (I have been reading other things: for work, for family, for health) but it was just a summer of reading un-inspiration. Of starting a bunch of books that all asked too much of me – emotionally or in time or in concentration – and so each one was work, and in the summer I want my reading to be distraction. Anyway. All this as a set-up to say I read less than I usually do and this little (okay, from the length of this preamble, a lot) rueful dance is the consequence. You’ll forgive me.

Here, anyway, is the list:

The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen

When I first started my Masters I had proposed a thesis on The Corrections and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I still thank the laws of accident and happenstance that I took a Canadian literature course in my last semester before graduate school and was steered (thanks D.C.) in another, much improved, direction than my half-baked idea about the decline of the American family. (What a snooze compared to historical fiction on the founding of the nation, amiright?). But really, 20 year old Erin thought this book was sooooo great. 34 year old Erin? Not so much. In part because the book doesn’t age well. The anxiety it focuses on (the decline of the American family brought on by individualism and capitalism) feels woefully naive and gentle. IF ONLY our biggest concern about America was that folks were spending too much money. I will say I found the novel funnier this time around (maybe because I wasn’t reading it as though it was Serious Fiction?) and the sections on each member of the family rich and well drawn.

Rat Bohemia, Sarah Schulman

A portrait of the AIDS epidemic in New York in the 80s and 90s, Rat Bohemia offers a look at the mundane and exceptional that is grief, and particularly grief amid a community-in-epidemic. While I found much of the novel poignant in scenes, and pointed in political commentary, I didn’t believe the characters as characters-in-the-world. Different sections are narrated by different characters, but for me they all read as undifferentiated and unrealistic as actual humans in the world. That said, it was an intense and affecting read and well worth it (particularly as someone born in the 80s and raised in the bubble of rural Ontario, reading it was a confrontation with my own biases and assumptions about how and when and where the AIDS epidemic was/is felt).

Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer

Non fiction! The biography of Chris McCandless and his death in the Alaska wilderness (it’s not a spoiler if Krakauer tells you on the first page). More death! The book explores whether the reader/public ought to feel sympathy for Chris – who ventured alone and without supplies into the woods to live off the land – or whether we ought to damn him for arrogance and stupidity. It was an interesting read if only for the discussions it sparked between S. and me about whether Chris was a martyr or naive or admirable or a fool (or some combination of the above). Not having read many biographies I can’t speak to the form, but I will say I found it engrossing, well written (I’ve read Into Thin Air) and generally provocative. That said, Krakauer seems to have some kind of unacknowledged Man in Wilderness complex that does something weird with gender in the book – men are constantly probing the naked of nature, or penetrating the darkness (often with explicit similes to vaginas). There’s a long section detailing other adventurers who have been lost in the woods and all those described are young men. Made me wonder whether young women have ever ventured off into the woods, too… probably not. Women don’t like dirt, right?

I think I read one other, but I forget. If you know I read something else this summer let me know and I’ll write about it. Otherwise, we’re on to new fall things, so stay tuned.

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Filed under Book Club, Fiction, Non-fiction, Prize Winner

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