Now that we're doing this world travel adventure year, I've found some extra time for reading and writing. Here's a list of the books I've read over the past few months and whether or not I think they were worth the effort.
The Hypochondriacs: Nine Tormented Lives by Brian Dillon
This book got off to a slow start but ended up being a pretty interesting read. Dillon's definition of hypochondria is rather expansive and basically includes anyone who shapes their life around illness - whether the illness itself is real, perceived or a combination. The cases he covers range from Darwin to Warhol, with a wonderful chapter on diarist Alice James in the middle. If nothing else, Dillon covers the strange quirks we are all suffer from in varying levels in a way that is sensitive, accessible and that introduces the reader to a side of some of these famous characters that is new and fresh.
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
This book has been almost universally critically acclaimed, but readers have been less generous. I've never read anything by Sarah Waters before so, unlike many of her devoted, I wasn't really expecting anything. I mention this because a lot of the negative reviews are by people who were expecting something different based on her previous books.
I was expecting a ghost story and although it was kind of that, it was more or a Gothic, overbearing, psychologically oppressing book about being stuck in something and trying desperately to get out. It isn't a fast paced read and but for a few bits, there aren't any great heart pounding moments. What you get instead is something that is beautifully written; it is subtle and it maintains a quiet, perfect trickle as it moves (slowly) to its conclusion. The characters and settings are vivid and strange and it will be a hard book to forget.
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned: Stories by Wells Tower
I did not think I would like this book at all after reading the first story. It was ugly and it made me want to have a bath to wash off the testosterone that seeped out of every sentence. I didn't like any of the characters and didn't relate to anything they were doing or to anything they cared about. But I kept reading and I am so happy I did because there were some moments of genuinely brilliant writing in this slim volume - rare moments with a book where the little hairs stand up on your arm:
She was woozy and heart-swollen in the downtown, wandering wet streets that gleamed as you would have them gleam in the sweet summer film of your life.Swoon!
Tower's writing is simple, beautiful and completely unsentimental. The last story in the collection, which the book is named after, has one of the most shocking scenes of violence in anything I've read and yet by the end, I was left rooting for the character who was responsible as he holds his own family tight against the acts of other wicked men like him that are just waiting for their chance to do something horrible. There is a humanity to the characters - they are desperately flawed but he makes it evident that we are all a part of the same messed-up struggle. Seriously, if you only read one book this year, this should be it.
Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies by Donald Spoto
This book is well written and would be of interest to anyone interested in film history and Hitchcock in particular. The author, Spoto, has written a number of books on the legendary director and certainly knows his subject. The reason I take issue with the book is because of how it was marketed. Instead of being a fairly straightforward biography that focuses a little bit of extra attention on the relationship Hitchcock had with his leading ladies, the book has been presented as a salacious telling of how hard he was on them, how unfair and how this was a reflection of his life long problematic relationships with woman.
Although Hitchcock had his hang ups, there is nothing in the book that suggests he was anything but a director who liked some people (men and women) and disliked others (men and women); he was nice to the people he got on with, and could be a jerk to those he clashed with. If anything, Hitchcock didn't really appreciate actors or the attention and money they commanded. He thought of them as cattle and was occasionally vocal about it. He also had a slightly dirty sense of humour - something that occasionally made people feel uncomfortable.
The book is entertaining enough, but it's a fairly standard biography. If anyone is looking for an interesting revelation about sexual politics and Hitchcock, this is not the book for you.
What are you reading?
Images from We Heart It and Now Boarding.