Summer of My Discontent

August 17, 2009 | 10 books mentioned 13 4 min read

I know it’s inauspicious to say this at the advent of our new site design, but I’m on a losing streak.  Sometimes I’m on a winning streak, and everything I read is delightful and I stay up late to finish one novel after another, and at the end of the month I feel sublime and like I am infinitesimally closer to my goal of reading everything.  But sometimes I read a novel that drags, and then another that drags, and then another, and before long I have spurned books in favor of internet television, Calvin and Hobbes, and puerile blogs.  It’s not that the novels are bad, necessarily; a bad novel is easy to shake.  It’s that they aren’t enjoyable.  They don’t make me feel happy, or pleasantly sad, or smarter.  Perhaps I ask too much.  And perhaps it’s unfair to blame the novels for what is in fact the ebb and flow of human enthusiasm and serotonin levels, but outside of the reading problem I feel quite chipper (or rather, no more curmudgeonly than usual).

I think it’s the books.  Here are the culprits, feel free to judge:

coverA Bend in the River: Technically this should get its own Modern Library Revue, but I’m not sure that I have enough to say.  After A House for Mr. Biswas, a picaresque delight which I read in my previous web-carnation as Widmerpool, I was unprepared for the more subtle charms of A Bend in the River.  It made me feel like I had taken a painkiller, laid down for a malarial nap in an unpleasant climate, and watched a revolution on TV.  Maybe I am just an unsubtle person, better suited to the theatrics of Mr. Biswas, because this novel seemed a touch slow to me.  It did impart a dull sense of dread, but dull only; the implications of what Naipaul was saying, the realities of the situation he described, did not feel real to me.  Maybe that was Naipaul’s intention.  More probably, I have a very limited frame of reference.  I did really like the last page.  So much, in fact, that it made me reconsider my feelings about all of the preceding pages.  Maybe I’ll read it again, when I’m feeling more charitable.

coverLondon Fields: As I have said before on this site, I really like the books by Martin Amis that I have read.  Nonetheless, I felt like he could have done with the aforementioned painkiller and nap, instead of whatever it was that he did when he was writing this novel.  (Uppers, maybe.)  To be fair (unfair?), I haven’t finished the book, but part of the reason that I haven’t finished it is that it’s kind of a chore.  It’s like going on an elaborate and fast-paced scavenger hunt arranged by someone whom you suspect dislikes you.  You don’t know what’s at the end, but you can’t be sure that it will be something nice, and it’s an awful lot of effort in the meantime.  When I wrote about The Rachel Papers, I mentioned Grass and Nabokov.  I feel them rattling around this novel too, except here they seem to have had a lovechild with Don Delillo’s Americana (another book I didn’t care for).  It’s exhausting, and I just want it to be over.

coverThe Golden Notebook: When I saw this in the book shop, I flung myself upon it, feeling like I had identified a massive, hitherto nameless gap in my education, a gap shaped like Doris Lessing.  I thought I was going to be enthralled and entertained.  Instead, I was depressed for rather a lot of days.  The experience is not one I would describe as entertaining in the way that lying down in a basket of kittens or reading The Stand is entertaining.  I found it powerful, but unpleasant.

I really admired what Lessing did in this novel.  Among other things, she did an uncanny job of creating a malaise that was actually infectious.  It oozed right off the page and into my own spirit.  I started dragging around, inventing emotional maladies, worrying about my life, and contemplating my uterus.  When I finished the novel the malaise lifted, and I felt I had been through a mild illness.  That’s impressive, but it wasn’t fun.  What is fun is to think that Doris Lessing, by writing this novel that I found tedious and sad-making, about a lady who I found tedious and sad-making, is actually one of many reasons that I am able to feel happy, as a lady!  How about that?

Additionally, The Golden Notebook did serve as a nice, I guess, illustration of something I have been mulling over lately.  Last month I noticed that there were a lot of articles about marriage on various news and “culture” websites.  First there were articles and books and annoying blog posts saying that marriage is boring and against nature, which lead to even more annoying personal pieces about allegedly successful marriages and how superb they are for everyone (either that, or Our Problems and How We Solved Them).  When I read things like this, I think, probably unkindly, “Hmm, love to hear from your spouse about all this” and “Shut up.”  But my point, other than that people should stop talking about their significant others on the internet, is that advocates of “romance” and drama (cf Christina NehringA Vindication of Love) should read The Golden Notebook, and get back to me on the advantages of hot passion.  As a matter of fact, advocates of marriage (their own marriages, mostly, and specifically I mean that smug fellow on Salon), could give it a read too.  Nowhere have hot passion and marriage alike (human relationships in general, actually, and the Communist Party) seemed so utterly defeating and sad as they do in The Golden Notebook.

coverThe Skating Rink:  Sigh.  I was so looking forward to this.  I even pre-ordered, and I never pre-order.  But it was lacklustre.  It lacked lustre, and heart, like a last-minute writing exercise from a promising MFA student.  Compared to the shocking experience of The Savage Detectives and 2666, this was very flat.  If I had read it in a magazine I would have liked it more, I think.  Being bound in boards makes everything so weighty.  So does pre-ordering.

Those are my companions in the rut, friends.  I had a couple things lined up for the rest of the month, but given the length of this losing streak, I’m not sure they are suitable.  First, The Black Book.  I like Pamuk, but I’m not sure he is the one to end a losing streak.  The man is married to melancholy.  Then a William Vollmann novel (my first), Europe Central.  But it looks heavy (like, heavy).  I’m going to the beach next week.  Will my location be incompatible with my reading material?  I’m sort of considering acquiring (preferably through theft) a copy of Twilight.  I read the first few chapters at a party, and it raised some thrilling questions.  What of the crude nationalistic symbolism of Bella’s pick-up truck?  Why is Edward, like, so mad at Bella when he doesn’t even know her?  Will my own accursed pallor be trendy this season, thanks to these sexy underaged people from Forks, Washington?  How much will I hate myself if I spend money on this book?

I’ll do anything to get out of this goddamned rut.

is a contributing editor at The Millions and the author of The Golden State. You can read more of her writing at


  1. Was in a similar rut recently, and All The King’s Men is doing a damned fine job of pulling me out of it at the moment. Highly recommended for first-time read or a revisit. Best, LB

  2. I’m in complete agreement with you with regards to V. S. Naipaul’s novels. It’s been many years now, but I think I read A Bend in the River first. I must have liked it enough to read A House for Mr. Biswas, which I love to this day. It’s full of heart and color, whereas Bend is more of a political treatise.

  3. I just dragged myself to the end of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which had looked like a good engrossing but not too serious summer read. Dreary! Actually, I haven’t really read anything this summer that struck me as extraordinary (well, except Mrs Dalloway). But I’m counting on Sarah Waters’ new one–I think any Sarah Waters novel is likely to end a reading slump.

  4. This must be some kind of pandemic, because I had a similar slump this summer as well. Three novels in a row, all award-winning. Slog slog slog. It really sort of darkened my summer. Toni Morrison got me out; I find that short novels by brilliant writers can do that: The Name of the World (Denis Johnson), The Maytrees (Annie Dillard). I just saw two books at my favorite bookstore that went on my list: Stick Out Your Tongue (Ma Jian) and The Crime and Mystery Stories of Chekhov (!). Sarah Waters is a terrific idea!

  5. Just opened my LibraryThing to see what I had read lately so that I could try to help…unfortunately many of the books I’ve read this summer are not particularly uplifting. However, here are a few that I loved very much (including many graphic novels): I Kill Giants, Scott Pilgrim, Castle (by Lennon), Britten and Brulightly, the Bookhunter (Shiga), Why are you Doing This? (Jason), The Driftless Area, and Tunneling to the Center of the Earth. I’m reading When You Reach Me, The Graveyard Book, and King Rat (Mieville). The first two of those in particular are lovely so far. Old favorites include Willful Creatures (Bender), Rant (Palahniuk), Blankets (Thompson), Remainder (McCarthy) and American Psycho.

    Long list, I know. Good luck getting out of your losing streak :)

  6. In a deep rut trying to read ‘ravens’….finally gave up and have moved on to “Come Sunday” which I’m unwilling to put down.

  7. Similarly, I go through phases where I not only want to read a good novel, but to feel erudite while reading. This would account for forays into Nabokov and Dostoevsky. But at the end, just like you said, I feel exhausted, disheartened, and even a bit paranoid that fellow grocery-store patrons and lawn-mowing neighbors harbored some deep sadism.

    I miss the love-affair—the curl-up-with-me happy feeling that makes me spend an entire day deliriously lost in a novel. And then the communal joy with others who’ve read it too: “Oh, wasn’t it gooood!” It’s like eating homemade birthday cake. Sometimes you know you probably should, but you can’t and don’t regret it.

    Here are a handful of my go-to’s for summer loving: anything by L.M. Montgomery, Fannie Flagg, Elizabeth Berg, or Rebecca Wells. My current summer read is by Marisa De Los Santos, which has been a great pleasure. And of course, I’m partial to my own: THE TIME IT SNOWED IN PUERTO RICO. If you’re off to the beach next week, I think that’d be a perfect match.

  8. Here are my humble suggestions for getting out of the “goddamn rut” while you are vacationing at the beach:

    Heartsick (Chelsea Cain) — A can’t put down novel about serial killer Gretchen Lowell and police detective Archie Sheridan. You’ll sleep with the lights on for weeks.

    Revenge of the Spellmans (Lisa Lutz) — The third installment in a very funny series about the Spellman family and their private investigation firm. Spellmania has landed private investigator Izzy Spellman in court-ordered therapy and back on the job with hysterical results. You’ll have a great appreciation for your own dysfunctional family after reading about the Spellmans.

    In the Bleak Midwinter (Julia Spencer-Fleming) — Reverand Claire Fergusson, Episcopal priest and former Air Force chopper pilot, doesn’t expect much excitement when she’s assigned to a small parish in upstate New York. Then Claire discovers a newborn baby abandoned on her doorstep. Soon she’s finding dead bodies and being shot at by a killer, as well as struggling against a growing (and unwelcome) attraction to police chief Russ Van Alstyne. The first installment in an excellent series.

    Lamb (Christopher Moore) — The funniest book I have read. Ever.


  9. My god! These are great suggestions! I should broadcast my ruts more often. Thank you all!

  10. In a selfish sort of way, I am glad that someone else is in a book rut this summer. Just got through “In the Kitchen” by Monica Ali, which I thought would never end. I have picked up Zeitoun and am hoping it will do the trick for me. There isn’t much of a summer left…

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