Borne ceaselessly into the past

I was on a date with a woman and she said that she was going to see a musical that coming weekend. It was one I'd seen before and my first instinct was to respond, "Oh yes, I enjoyed that." But after I spoke I stopped and wondered. "Wait," I continued, "actually I am not sure if I can stand by my recommendation. I only saw it once and it was twenty years ago. I don't know if I can trust my 22-year-old self." I promised her that I would go home and check my diary and see if I'd left enough details to figure out how present me would feel about it.

My diary was annoyingly vague. I have no idea if I would like that same musical today. This irks me.

The things about us that change and the things that do not is something I think about a lot. In addition to my diary diary, I also kept a book journal from 2000-2002, which I found this last month while packing up for a move. Nothing like a move to get you weirdly nostalgic about basically everything. I sat down and flipped through it.

In a way, the me of twenty years ago is a totally different reader. I had just started reading fiction that wasn't 100 years old. I had no idea what I liked or what to look for and I read rather aimlessly, letting one book/author guide me to the next. I still felt more comfortable with old books, my notes on The Good Soldier and my readings for my Hardy seminar were some of the most effusive and confident. I read my way through John Irving and the one I liked least I now like best and vice versa.

In a way, I am very much the same. I am, to underline the point, keeping a book journal, a thing that no one actually did before they invented entire social media networks for it. I trudged with little pleasure through David Copperfield and was starting to understand that I didn't have to finish everything I started, didn't have to read things just because you were supposed to.

Going through that book journal actually addressed a long-held complaint of mine, that I was the only person who didn't have a study group in law school. (Or at least, the only one I knew of.) I ended up being a lone wolf for all three years, which is absolutely not how it usually works, and for a long time I have been confused about it, felt rather rejected, wondered what I missed. Then I saw my entry from 9/3/01, less than a month into my first semester, which reads in part, "This weekend, with my extra time, I read Hunchback of Notre Dame by Hugo." By the next entry on 9/14 I've finished 4 more books. Now I understand why I never found a study group.

The first time I realized that I could no longer trust the tastes of early 20's me was when a few years ago when I picked up The Secret History, the book I officially dubbed as my favorite when I was around 22. I hadn't read it in a long while and I was looking forward to getting back into it as a treat. And then. Well. It just wasn't a treat anymore. I don't think it's a bad book, but I wasn't feeling that pleasure I used to feel and it was impossible for me to read it and try to enjoy it while also trying to ignore that difference.

The conundrum is not to figure out why my tastes have changed. I understand there are many reasons. The conundrum is whether I have to go back and reevaluate things to determine if I still like them.

On that same date in that same conversation we talked about books and somehow weirdly ended up talking about another book I loved in my twenties, The Magus by John Fowles. I remember it as long and surprising and twisty and complex. And now I have no idea if I will read it and feel weirdly let down or if it will still delight me. And as it is 656 pages long, this is a pretty significant commitment to figure out this one thing. (Tangent: I read Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman in my 20's as well and definitely didn't get it and I know I re-read it in my 30's to see if I actually got it now but the problem is I don't remember if I got it the second time or not so I have a similar and yet weirdly different conundrum here.)

Right now The Magus is sitting in a box waiting for me to get enough shelves in the house that I can unpack my books. But even though I can't see it, it feels like it's taunting me somehow? I have thought about it far too much. As if reading it will somehow prove something to me about my younger self.

The truth is I don't even necessarily trust my reviews from 10 years ago, or even 5. I feel like I have changed so much. Certainly what I have been able to read and enjoy in the last three years feels deeply different than pre-pandemic times. I know that this is just a fluid thing. And whether or not I still enjoy The Magus, having it reminds me of who I was when I did love it. I do not have to constantly declare my allegiance to every book I have ever loved. And yet. I do still wonder.

It is April and I haven't talked about March books yet. March was moving so everything kind of went to hell. But I got through a whole lot of audiobooks. I also have some leftovers from February. So here is a hodge podge but let's save April because maybe I will actually write this newsletter again before the end of the month.

Big Swiss
A brilliantly original and funny novel about a sex ther…

This is a very buzzy book so you may well have heard about it. I was a little hesitant, Beagin hasn't clicked for me so far. But this was the book that finally brought us together. I adored it. So darkly hilarious. It is about a woman who is an absolute mess in a way that normally would drive me up the wall so I couldn't read it but here Beagin is doing something very smart with it and you should trust her.

I Have Some Questions for You
A successful film professor and podcaster, Bodie Kane i…

This is also a very buzzy book and I am deeply mad at it in the kind of way that I could write a very long newsletter all about how much I am mad at this book. But lucky for you I got it out of my system. If you want to know all about how mad I am, you can click through and look at my review. But I deeply disagree with everyone who loves this so much. Sorry not sorry.

Birnam Wood
Birnam Wood is on the move . . . Five years ago, Mira…

I remembered Catton winning lots of prizes for her very very long debut that I never read because it sounded long and hard to read. But this new one is so good that I am considering taking on the 700 or so pages of her last novel. This is a thriller of sorts, about a clash between environmental activists and a billionaire and that makes it sound so on the nose and annoying. But truly I couldn't put it down and in addition to being incredibly twisty and fast paced, it is also full of complex themes and social commentary that was not work at all but its own kind of joy.

A literary horror debut about a boy who transforms into…

I often hate it when horror stories start with a terrible tragic death that is meant to linger for the rest of the story. But while this book does start with a terrible tragic death, I could immediately tell it was different. This is a horror novel about grief that dives so deeply into actual grief that you realize how most horror has only sidestepped around it, never daring to look it in the eye. It is a story about a monster but it is also about how we all cope with the hardest things in life in different ways, how we become different people, how love changes as we change. I also love the actual monster in this story, he doesn't fit into any specific mold, and I love when horror surprises me. (And also must mention most of the characters in this novel are queer.)

Lone Women
Blue skies, empty land—and enough room to hide away a h…

Feels like I'm burying the lede to have a new Victor LaValle this far down the list. But this is basically a perfect novel and I almost feel like it does not need my help. (I have one plot point I take issue with. Otherwise perfect.)

Tell the Rest
Two estranged childhood friends find themselves on para…

I mostly skip books about conversion therapy but this one manages it really well. It doesn't overwhelm you with trauma, even though it indulges in many of the tropes you're used to. Yes a woman returns to her home town where her church caused her great harm and must confront her old unresolved feelings. But there is so much else! Mostly what made this work so well for me was that our protagonist is a basketball coach and we really get into the details of the team, their day to day lives, how she uses her work as a distraction from the rest of her life.

A Flaw in the Design
A professor’s life is turned upside down when he takes …

These days for the thrillers and crime novels I just desperately want something different. Give me something I haven't seen a thousand times already. This book is here to provide. Our protagonist is a middle-aged professor. Our potential villain is his teenaged nephew, orphaned suddenly, with only a few months before he turns 18 and a huge fortune he stands to inherit. An excellent slow burn where you start asking questions about the villain but then start wondering just how reliable your narrator is.

If you have made it this far, congratulations. I should also note that comments are now enabled on my Ghost! If you click through from your email to the actual post (and are logged in) you should see them at the bottom of this page. :)

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