‘Disorientation’ By Elaine Hsieh Chou


A funny, terrifying, and ultimately, honestly depressing book.

Ingrid Yang, the protagonist, is an unreliable narrator in her lack of self-awareness, which is part of the comedy and horror. She clearly hates her work as a PhD student working on the oeuvre of a Chinese-American poet that she really doesn’t care for and her bland fiancé is clearly a manipulative douche (Hong’s recent Minor Feelings identified his type, as the sort of middling white guy who has found that racism enables him to find an Asian partner who is much more attractive than he could otherwise ensnare). However, she only barely recognizes any of this.

The novel, which I feel is secretly a horror story, is about her understanding that her whole existence has been gaslit by white men.

It was inspired by a white poet named Michael Derrick Hudson submitting a poem under the name of an Asian woman: Yi-Fen Chou. Chou, in addition to being author’s name, is also the name of the Chinese-American poet in the novel, who turns out to be a white guy who actually indulged is ‘yellowface’ disguise to teach at her university for years.

The whole thing gets worse and worse, with her sinophilic (white) advisor having actually known and conspired in the deception, before turning into a demented Tucker Carlson-esque figure with his own MAGA style movement (DOFO – Defense of Freedom Organization) to protect the feelings of white people.

Chou (the author of this novel) stays true to the story’s movement in that it doesn’t have a happy ending. It’s not unhappy, but essentially, the bad guys win, which feels kind of unhappy.

The publishers also did this thing where you had to flip to book around, relative to the orientation of its cover, in order to read it. I get the metaphor (‘disorientation’) but really could have done without that. The book is good enough on its own.

Spellbound By Marcel: Duchamp, Love, And Art


For a relatively short book, ostensibly about a groundbreaking artist and his web of relationships, it is quite unfocused.

A good portion of the book is about an interesting and likely overlooked artist, Beatrice Woods, who was in love with Duchamp and was briefly the lover of his friend, Roche (who may also have been Duchamp’s lover; certainly, the book is clear that the two men were involved in threesomes together).

Not that there wasn’t some interesting stuff here, but Duchamp remains a cipher and barely a player in the book. Why not just right a biography of Ms. Woods? Maybe the publisher said they needed to include someone better known to make it sell.

‘The Second Shooter’ By Nick Mamatas


I can’t remember where I read about this novel. I think it was a Washington Post piece by one of their book reviewers, in a round-up piece. But I was inspired to put it on hold at the library and here we are.

Did I like it?

No.

Did I dislike it?

No.

Did I think it devolved towards the end into a poorly explained morass of occultism under a rationalistic veneer?

Yes.

The most interesting part was point of view character (the novel was written in third person limited) of Michael Karras, a writer of leftist and usually conspiratorial books for a small, left wing press. He had a bit of the air of a journalist about him and you are inclined to think of him as being a reasonably smart guy. And he was. But somewhere along the line, you are reminded that he’s also a conspiracy theorist kind of guy and you think back and wonder if you missed things because he’s far less reliable than you initially assume. Oh, and he kills himself at the end after taking an uzi from a guy in an invisibility cloak in hopes, one assumes, that by doing so, his semi-mystical status will make the world better, which, in the epilogue, doesn’t seem to have worked.

The Social Life Of Books: Reading Together In The Eighteenth-Century Home


As a scholarly work, it is more a series of thematic anecdotes than the explication of a sustained thesis, but it shows an admirable amount of archival research into the clues left behind by middle-class households in the 18th and early 19th century. It does a strong job of arguing that 18th century England (and this book is almost exclusively about England) was more literate than perhaps we give it credit for, though, as always, we should remember that the plural of anecdote is not data.

I enjoyed those glimpses into these lives and homes and learning about the way in which people read. Which also leads to the most interesting, if only cursorily examined, idea which she tosses out there in the chapter about novels: the rise of of the novel is directly linked to the decline of poetry as a subject of popular reading.

Much reading, she says, was done aloud. It was done by families in the evening, but also at social gatherings. And publications were designed for that purpose, which means not too long and easy to put down and pick up at a later time. If your neighbor came over and stayed while you read to your family, it wouldn’t do for him to hear just the middle of a dense novel, but something like poetry was perfect.

The novel, by its very nature, encouraged solitary reading and this led to the decline of certain shorter forms that were also strongly linked to oral traditions, i.e., poetry.

The Essential Debate On The Constitution


I put this book on hold on account of Bailyn’s presence as an editor, even after my disappointment in volume of his own writing. Of course, it’s not really about him (his preface is remarkable in its brevity and lack of information), but about reading these late eighteenth century American political writings.

It’s easy to say that, wow, look at how literate and intelligent this discourse was, why can’t we be like that, but I’m certain there were plenty of broadsheets being passed around calling the other side out for scatalogical fixations. And, who knows that a hundred years from now, the four years (thus far?) of Trump’s reign may be collected in volumes depicting the debates of the age as a discourse between Ross Douthat’s melancholy concern trolling and David Brooks’ hand wringing exercises?

The argument in favor of ratification are well known due to the canonization of the Federalist Papers, some of which, like Federalists 10 and 30, are collected here (to the editors’ credit, they try not to simply collect Federalists, but to find other documents in support of ratification).

The arguments against are probably less well known, or, at least, were less well known to me. The rightness of the ratificationist cause was taught as an uncomplicated truth in my schooling. The writings of ‘Brutus,’ whose identity is not known for certain, I believe, part of the so-called ‘Anti-Federalist Papers,’ are particularly interesting and well written. That said, arguments that a federal government would take away state independence feel overwrought when states feel so presently empowered to pass whatever racist and discriminatory laws that their White majorities might want.

What struck me most was how suddenly prescient the warnings about the Supreme Court feel now. They feel almost prophetic, especially when you think that they were written before Wilson and Marshall instituted judicial review. The opportunity for unsupervised and unaccountable judges was well recognized then. I will admit to a certain ambivalence. I find judicial elections unnerving, because its feels like justice is vulnerable to being warped to support re-election.

‘How To Pronounce Knife’ By Souvankham Thammavongsa


A lot of very good short stories. Some were weaker than others (the short story that gave the collection its title was not my favorite), but overall a good read.

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Jesus And John Wayne


John Wayne is an outsized figure in this book. Both the real John Wayne and the symbol. Whereas Bad Faith centered white evangelicalism’s turn to partisan politics in race, Du Mez centers it in gender and patriarchy and finds its origins much earlier in the twentieth century.

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American Scripture: Making The Declaration Of Independence


Described as a bit of a broadside against Garry Wills’ earlier book on the subject, rather than situate the Declaration within a pan-European intellectual environment, with special attention to the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment, Maier is more interested in a strictly American context. The state and local proclamations that preceded it, for example. She is not terribly interested in the philosophical background of it (though she is interested in the philosophical implications).

If I’m honest, I found Wills to be a better writer. This is partly because I wasn’t too interested in the straight revolutionary history that makes up the first third or so the book.

‘Illuminating History: A Retrospective Of Seven Decades’ By Bernard Bailyn


I fear I’ll need to buy one of Bailyn’s seminal books, because the two available from the local library system are not giving me a good view of his value as a historian, but are giving me a good view of his limitations as a writer. He’s not bad, but when I started reading him, I was in the mood for a great stylist.

This is really just a collection of essays on his work; some interesting, some dangerously paternalistic, and some quite touching.

My favorite part was the very end, his appendix, which isn’t an appendix, but a place to write brief biographies of two historians of early America who influenced him. Many historians are forgotten after death and I credit him for wanting to immortalize Morison and Handlin, just a little, is admirable.

‘Washington, D.C.’ By Gore Vidal


To my great joy, early in the book, a young man fantasizes that he is within the Barsoomian tales of Burroughs. Even more enjoyable, for me, at least, he name drops neither, just a character you’d only know from having read the books (or seen the movie).

This character grow into a sort of Vidal stand-in; an elite-born man who became a polemical political moralist, who also knew political Washington inside and outside.

Of course, the Washington of Washington, D.C. doesn’t exist anymore. Not in the least because you’ll rarely see Senators hanging around the city on weekends (they are back in the states they represent). But this book also realizes that. At one point, an aging, mostly moral, lion of the Senate muses that he almost lost re-election after being outspent and confesses some confusion over how television and radio ads changed things.

I gather he retroactively incorporated this into his ‘Narratives of Empire’ series, but it lakes the scope and sweep of the two I have read (Burr and Lincoln). It felt rather personal, not in the least because it covered a time when he was growing up in this older Washington.

That said, one can see in the aspiring politician Vidal’s critiques of Kennedy. In the leftist intellectual seduced by that rising star, Arthur Schlesinger (I don’t know what Vidal thought of him). But it’s not exact and more a nearby critique, than a direct one.

Lord help me, in many ways, it’s more Henry James than Gore Vidal, but the better for it. I had set aside my affections for him, but this reminded me that, actually, he’s a d—m fine novelist.