Reading Round-Up — 14th September 2016

Another month, another slew of pretty good books to talk about. Actually an exceptional slew, now that I think about it.

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Sam Wiebe — Invisible Dead

I know there must be shelves and shelves of great contemporary detective novels out there, but I got burned out on the harmless paperback mysteries when I was a teenager and never went actively looking again. Then Sam Wiebe’s Invisible Dead started showing up everywhere on my internet. It’s contemporary detective fiction, set in Vancouver, and puts Vancouver’s structural problems (missing and murdered Indigenous women, a completely fucked real estate market, rampant substance abuse, organized crime in the form of bikers) at the forefront. Wiebe finds a way to take his protagonist through the ringer in a very modern way, but also without sacrificing the book’s connections to classic detective fiction. Its marginalized characters are treated with respect but are also humanly complicated; its antagonists are absolutely despicable in comprehensible ways. The book gets so much right that I’m willing to forgive an unsatisfying reveal of “who done it” and a romance that maybe takes up too much psychological space in the book. I enjoyed reading this thoroughly, but I have no idea how Wiebe will turn this into the first of a series (which the cover promises), since he seems to cover all of Vancouver’s woes in this one book. Looking forward to seeing him give it a shot, though.

 

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Jenny Offill — Dept. of Speculation

This is one of those books that lives and dies by its execution. Calling it a novel isn’t exactly right; the margins take up half the page, there are only sections (no paragraphs), and I’m fairly certain it’s purely autobiographical. But some of the observations are canny, the language works in its slightness, and the book really shines in her ability to sling vast stretches of time, space, and subject together into a thematically consistent whole. At heart, Dept. of Speculation is a short book about the transition from falling in love to how to live with someone for the rest of your life. It’s about the grind of long-term relationships and all the vicissitudes that come with it. This is not necessarily a subject I find compelling in and of itself, but the way she has written it makes it a great read. There are elements I wouldn’t be willing to tolerate if I thought it were purely fiction, like the way major characters and threads seem to vanish when one major life event occurs, or the fact that I always feel like I’m missing critical pieces to understanding what I’m reading, but it feels in line with how your relationship can blind you to what others (the readers, in this case) are thinking and feeling. A quick, enjoyable read.

 

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Alain de Botton — How to Think More about Sex

As if thinking about it more were possible. This little book is an essay on reconsidering why sex is so meaningful, and thus reframing how we look at it and approach it in our lives. It’s a great argument for why evolutionary psychology theories are so unsatisfying for the individual, and instead reframes our love of sex into personal meaningfulness, which is great for me. It reframes fetish as completely normal, addresses what might make pornography better or worse for the individual, and reverses the reward structure for infidelity (i.e. saying it’s remarkable that we’re not all having sex with other people and reinforcing it appropriately, rather than only punishing cheating). One of my favourite parts was this bit:

The entire internet is in a sense pornographic, a deliverer of constant excitement that we have no innate capacity to resist, a seducer that leads us down paths that for the most part do nothing to answer our real needs. Furthermore, the ready availability of pornography lessens our tolerance for the kind of boredom that grants our mind the space it needs to spawn good ideas—the creative sort of boredom we may luxuriate in during a bath or on a long train journey.

This one blurb could describe a number of my friends, who constantly battle with “wilfing” on the internet. I don’t agree with many of the conclusions in How to Think More about Sex, but I was laughing and enjoying the reading all throughout.

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