I’ve gotten quite a bit of reading done in the past few weeks. Unfortunately, none of it has been particularly good and very little of it has been for my prelims.
* Gangleader for a Day by Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh. The author is a sociologist who, as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, took on a long-term ethnographic study of the role of gangs at a Chicago housing project. I’ve had this book on my to-read list for a while because there are so few “popular” ethnographies. I was disappointed, then, that Gang Leader for a Day is not so much an ethnography as a self-aggrandizing memoir. Venkatesh focuses primarily on reiterating how “groundbreaking” and “dangerous” his research was, and although I can understand his not wanting to get bogged down in a literature review in a book aimed at a general audience, I think he grossly misrepresents himself and his research by failing to place his work within the discipline. He also completely ignores those outside the discipline who have done outstanding in-depth reporting on the inner-city poor (such as David Simon and Jonathan Kozol). I do give Venkatesh credit for trying to get beyond the common tropes of inner-city poverty and violence, but I’m disappointed that he mostly uses his experience to bolster his own reputation as a “rogue” sociologist rather than to contribute to a very necessary public discussion.
* Towelhead by Alicia Erian. Another highly buzzed, but ultimately disappointing read. The story centers on a 13-year-old Lebanese-American girl who comes into her sexuality in a broken, unstable world where adults are at best unreliable, and often dangerous. The author tries to frame the girl’s coming-of-age within a post-9/11 milieu, but the issue of her cultural identity and how that plays into her individual development feels tagged on. Indeed, the girl herself feels incidental to the story. We learn almost nothing about her, apart from her sexual experience and victimization. Nor does she change in any significant way throughout the story.
I’m ashamed to admit that despite how terrible the story was, I stayed up late into the night reading with a lurid curiosity, akin to being sucked into a crime-show marathon: fascination of the abomination. And much like those crime shows, much of the book was merely shock for shock’s value, testing the limits of public morality. My participation in that test left me with a strong desire for a shower.
* I’ve been on a Laura Lippman binge. In the past few weeks, I’ve read Butchers Hill, the third book in the Tess Monaghan series, and the stand-alone Life Sentences. I’m finding, however, that Lippman might be best read in small doses spaced well apart. Otherwise the redundancies and limitations of her work becomes much too apparent. Part of what I enjoy about Lippman’s books are the Baltimore setting and the local flavor, but Lippman seems to assume that she has to re-explain that local flavor in every book. The history of Columbia (the section of Maryland, not the country or district) is fascinating. Once. I’ve now read it three times. I know from a marketing perspective, Lippman is smart to write each book as if it were a stand alone. But from a reader’s perspective, I’m annoyed with repetitive asides that bog down the narrative.
Still, I'd recommend Life Sentences. The "mystery" at the center is contrived and the resolution is tacked on, but Lippman offers interesting observations on race, memory, and storytelling. Indeed, the book would have been much stronger if Lippman had left out the mystery---which served only as a cheap plot device---and focused solely on the fallout of the main character's memoir.
* Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn. One day I will learn not to trust the hype. Sharp Objects is yet another well-reviewed, popular novel that sublimates the story for the sake of quirk. The narrator---yet another “complex” female character who I find unbearably self-centered and pathologically idealized---returns to her small, southern home town, and the quirky people who populate it, to report on a possible serial killer who targets spunky, “complex” girls. In doing so, the narrator must confront her own damaged childhood and its lingering scars. Which she mostly accomplishes through binge drinking and destructive sex.
I’m very curious how we’ve come to this cultural moment in which being a “real” woman equates to being self-destructive. It’s almost as if, in attempting to rectify the 1940s/50s image of the “hysterical” woman, we’ve merely swapped stereotypes, so that being non-pathological is itself a pathology. Or is instead an example of the hegemony absorbing resistance: See, liberated women are weak, vulnerable, prone to self-destructive behavior and mental illness. But now it’s by their own choice!
I’ve also read various books and articles on colonialism, medical missionaries, and foreign development for my prelims, as well as a selection of colorful board books and Dr. Seuss stories. I will recommend, for children and adults, Bashful Bob and Doleful Dolinda by Margaret Atwood. Read it aloud for the full experience.
* City of Thieves by David Benioff. So far, it is living up to its hype.
* Voluntary Madness by Norah Vincent.
And re-reading On Writing Well by William Zinsser after realizing that my own writing is suffering from overexposure to bad prose.
* The Wish Maker by Ali Sethi.
* Where the Stress Falls by Susan Sontag.
* The Night of the Gun by David Carr.
* Beowulf, trans. by Seamus Heaney.
And maybe I'll pull one of Kozol's books off my shelf to remind myself that intelligent analysis and good writing are not mutually exclusive.