Reading List by Jennie for October through December, Part One
At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft
I’ve made it a habit over the past six years to try to read a “classic horror” novel around Halloween, starting with 2013’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and going up to last year’s The Fall of the House of Usher. Most of these books haven’t been remotely scary to me, though the ending of The Fall of the House of Usher made an impression, at least. (Dracula is my favorite of the bunch, but still not scary.) I have been meaning to dive into Lovecraft, though I’ve also been hesitant. All I really knew about him was that he was an inspiration for Stephen King, who I read a lot of as a teenager, and that he was an avowed racist. I find the latter fact off-putting, to put it mildly. I hoped that I could separate the author from the work in this case, and chose At the Mountains of Madness for 2019’s Halloween read.
The story is written in the form of a first-person narrative by a geologist named William Dyer, who recounts his tale in the hopes of preventing a planned expedition to Antarctica. His own previous expedition ended disastrously with the deaths of most of the party and the descent into madness of a graduate student named Danforth. Dyer describes the discovery of mountains in Antarctica far taller than any of the mountains in the known world. His colleagues venture ahead and wire back regarding the discovery of the remains of ancient life forms that seem unclassifiable as either plant or animal. This is all tremendously exciting to the group of scientists, of course. But after a storm, Dyer’s group at base camp is unable to contact the forward team, and so Dyer and Danforth set out to investigate. They find the whole team dead, some crudely autopsied, and most (but not all…dun dun dun!) of the alien forms buried in odd grave mounds. Eventually Dyer and Danforth find the ruins of an ancient city and encounter things that they find horrifying.
My problem was that I was never quite clear on why the discoveries that the party made were so upsetting. If anything, as scientists, I would think they’d be fascinated to find an unexplored civilization and evidence of life forms that were different from anything previously known. Sure, it’s not so fun when those long-dormant life forms reanimate and try to kill you, but other than that, the characters evince a level of existential dread that I couldn’t quite connect with. I felt like I *almost* got it – the horror of the “other”; the fact that they were tall tentacled creatures with the power to create slave-like “shoggoths” that they then controlled with their minds – sure, it’s…unsettling. But the apparent Lovecraftian tendency to overdramatize and overwrite dampened rather than enhanced the sense of horror for me. My grade for this was a C. At least I can say I tried his work.
In It to Win It by Kelly Jamieson
This is the second book in Jamieson’s new Wynn Hockey series, featuring a family where everyone either plays for, works for or owns a pro hockey team. I gave the first book a B. The second book pairs J.P., the brother of book one’s hero and Taylor, friend and neighbor of that book’s heroine. The two hook up after the first couple’s wedding rehearsal dinner, and are about to go for round two the night of the wedding, when J.P. gets into a fistfight with Taylor’s ex-boyfriend.
Taylor backs off but the two keep getting thrown together and eventually, when Taylor’s parents unexpectedly separate and have to sell the house Taylor still lives in, J.P. steps in to take care of Taylor’s beloved dog. One thing leads to another and the two become friends with benefits. Neither thinks they want more; Taylor is devastated by the break-up of her parents, and is questioning the permanency of romantic love. J.P. has some reason for avoiding entanglements that I’ve honestly already forgotten, because it felt so romance-hero rote. I think it had something to do with thinking he wasn’t good enough or that he had to be perfect and he didn’t deserve happiness. As may be clear, I didn’t have much patience for J.P.’s inevitable screwing up of a good thing because he was Afraid to Love. It would’ve been more interesting in my opinion to have Taylor be the one whose fears got in the way, but the rules of contemporary romance novels rarely allow for that.
I sort of get why – I used to thrill in the predictable pattern of h/h get close, hero rejects heroine because he’s too damaged to love, heroine wallows in sadness, and hero eventually comes crawling back, realizing how wrong he’s been. Even now, done well, I can enjoy the angst inherent in this scenario. IMO, it’s just not quite the same when the roles are reversed (I guess that answers the age old “which character do you identify with?” question). That said, I’ve read this scenario so, so, SO many times over the years. It needs to be well-done for me to care. There were some interesting elements to the story, but they mostly had to do with Taylor and her family, not J.P., so I couldn’t bring myself to angst along side her when she lost him. My grade for In It to Win It was a B-. I guess I’ll read the next book in the series, but I’m hoping for some fresh aspects to rouse my interest.
Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion by Jia Tolentino
Tolentino is a writer I’ve followed since her Jezebel.com days, so when I saw she had a collection of essays out, I snapped it up. The pieces in Trick Mirror range from a critique of the cult of self-optimization to an essay on the University of Virginia (Tolentino’s an alum) and college rape culture. She’s a strong writer, but some times ventures into too esoteric territory for me. When I was looking for examples of this point, I discovered that individual sentences or paragraphs were not so much the problem; it was that several of the essays are written in such a way that I felt distanced and ungrounded from the point the author was making. For instance: “…the representation of an activity will vary in some degree from the activity itself and therefore inevitably misrepresent it” is perhaps an obvious point rather than an overly opaque one. But the entire essay it’s taken from – “The I in the Internet” – reads like this. The effect feels mushy and unfocused to me, the style academic and inaccessible.
I much preferred the more personal pieces, like Tolentino’s essay on her brief stint as a reality tv participant when she was a teenager. She includes personal elements in most or all of her pieces, such as “Ecstasy”, which is about growing up in Houston, religion, megachurches, mixtapes, ecstatic experiences and drug-taking. Trick Mirror ended up being very much a mixed bag for me – I think because as much as I liked some of the essays I disliked the ones that I disliked more. My grade is a B- but I will still be looking forward to what Tolentino produces in the future.
Hello Stranger by Lisa Kleypas
This is the fourth book in the Ravenels series – the hero and heroine have appeared in previous books in the series, and have had rather predictably prickly interactions in those books. Ethan Ransom is a former police detective and general mysterious man about town (okay, he’s a spy) and Garrett Gibson (I found her alliterative name kind of annoying, especially since Ethan frequently uses her her full name in his thoughts about her) is England’s first and only female doctor. Early on, Ethan rescues Garrett from men intent on assaulting her, and she ends up taking self-defense lessons from him. Their mutual attraction blossoms from there, but there are both internal and external barriers to an HEA for the couple.
I noted that Janine featured Hello Stranger on a “what I’m reading” post last year and that the book was a DNF for her. One issue she had – Ethan’s apparent familiarity with the Kama Sutra – has been removed, as the author said she would do in future editions of the book after the issue of exoticizing Asian cultures was raised. (I noted one artifact left, seemingly by accident – Ethan references the “118 positions” he promised to show Garrett at one point.) Janine’s other issue was that Garrett’s apparent competence and ability to handle herself, as evidenced in previous books, is compromised here to make Ethan her savior and even more of a big strong manly man. That irritated me too, early on. In general Ethan is very much of the ridiculous historical hero I sometimes roll my eyes at. I call them “-est” heros – handsomest, manliest, richest, etc. (I did not think Ethan would at least fulfill that last one but of course he manages to somehow, improbably.) I prefer my heroes (and heroines) more grounded in reality, but I’ve come to accept that I may be in the minority there. Anyway, the early part of Hello Stranger was a bit of a rocky read, but eventually it started to work for me. (I have a weakness for one of the plot points, in which the hero is injured and the heroine has to care for him. Particularly in this book, with these characters, it allows the heroine’s strengths to shine and tamps down on the manly manness of the hero for a least a bit.) This wasn’t the strongest entry in the series, but I still gave it a low B.
Twilight Of Empire: The Tragedy At Mayerling And The End Of The Hapsburgs by Greg King And Penny Wilson
I had a vague knowledge of the events surrounding “the tragedy at Mayerling” – the 1889 murder-suicide of Crown Prince Rudolph of Austria and his mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera. When I realized that Rudolph’s mother was Empress Elisabeth (“Sisi”) – an eccentric figure I would really like to find a good biography of – I became more interested in the story. Rudolph was heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire when it was on its way out. With his death, his cousin Franz Ferdinand became the next in line to the throne, after Emperor Franz Josef I. We all know what happened to Franz Ferdinand 25 years later in Sarajevo, and the consequences it led to. I was curious about separating fact from hazy, romantic fiction in the deaths of Rudolph and Mary.
This was a pretty solid retelling, with some debunking of legends that have grown up around the incident and what seemed like solid theories about other aspects of the story. As I suspected, the “Romeo and Juliet/just can’t live without each other” patina hides a truth that is essentially simply sad and pathetic. Rudolph was 30, suffering from gonorrhea, drug and alcohol dependency and possibly mental illness. He was also, the authors posit, more concerned about how he’d gotten cornered in some pretty complex plots against his father the emperor than he was about Mary. She was 17, and I regret to say appears to have been dumb as a bag of hammers. She didn’t deserve to die for that, of course, though the book leans towards the belief that she went to her death willingly, at least (she *definitely* believed the Romeo and Juliet bullshit, even though Rudolph was seeing other women and more or less trying to dump her at the time of their deaths). The books includes interesting period detail about the court, the players, the Viennese attitude towards suicide (they thought it was totes romantic, both in the big and little R sense). Most of the players don’t come off particularly well – Rudolph’s hapless wife Stephanie is an exception, at least in part because everyone else was so damn hard on her and unfairly blamed her for her husband’s suicide.
It’s a bit hard for me to grade this book because in spite of it being interesting, I didn’t really like it. I think I believed that the deaths of Rudolph and Mary were far enough in the past that I wouldn’t be disturbed reading about them, but I did actually find the detailed descriptions of the lead-up to and aftermath of the incident upsetting. My grade for this is a B-.