What I'm Reading: January 1-25, 2021

As I believe was evidenced by my latest Current Distractions post, things are taking a turn for the lazy around here. I do still have some intentions to post discussion items and stuff like that, but I'm taking a much more leisurely approach to the blog in 2021 than I did in 2020. I mean, the Two Hectobooks project really is over now.

I also decided that I'm not going to have another Christmas holiday where I'm furiously compiling short book reviews, some of which are all too short, some of which are not long enough. Instead, I'm going to be posting about the books I read every time I finish five of them, with a few exceptions. I'll still be posting informal, brief reviews of each individual Discworld novel, for example.

Here are five books that I read between January 1 and January 25, 2021, in the order that I completed them:

Before I Go to Sleep by S. J. Watson

360 pages

This was a selection for my book club, of my favourite variety: something I never would've picked up on my own. The premise is simple. A woman loses her short term memory every night when she goes to bed. She knows who she is, but has more or less access to her memories after childhood depending on the day. On the day the book begins, her husband explains all this to her, then leaves for work. Shortly after, she receives a call from a psychologist (or some such) explaining that she's been in his (the psych doctor's) care and that he'd like to meet up. 

Things just progress from there. This is a thriller, and as you might imagine there are twists and turns. The book is very readable (I had it finished in two or three days). It does suffer from the pain of a lot of epistolary fiction (eventually the main character begins keeping and reading daily diary entries), in that it can stretch credibility that she manages to read and write as much as she does daily.

The Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire

224 pages

When this graphic novel came out, I saw it around everywhere, and when books follow me around like that I always get very curious. This past Christmas I decided to pick it up from the library to add it to my stack of graphic novels that I was considering reading at the end of the year to swell my page count if necessary.

I'd hoped that this book was going to actually be about what it's like to be an underwater welder. I was wrong. It's more about fathers and sons and the cycle of poor communication (there is an introduction to the book that compares it to a Twilight Zone episode, which I guess might also be true). I hate it when this happens and I end up disliking a book because it just wasn't what I expected it to be, but I'm afraid that's the situation we're in here.

Besides the book not meeting my expectations, I also found it pretty ugly. I dunno if this is what Lemire's art always looks like, but the sketchy, homely style of comic art has never been one that agreed with me.

Whispering Rails by Gilbert A. Lathrop

after 91 pages

To be honest I'm cheating a bit with this one, because it's actually what we in the book reviewing biz call a "DNF," that is I didn't finish it. I stopped at that 91 page mark. This is about a young man who goes to college and then gets hired to work on the railroad that killed his father, to try to get to the bottom of thefts that are happening on the rail line. Lathrop is really, really keen on the railroad. He basically describes every single character as a good guy or a bad guy, though one hopes that it would turn out that at least a few of his young main character's snap judgements would turn out to be mistaken. 

This feels like the YA genre struggling to be born, which is interesting but not interesting enough to keep reading. If you're wondering how this ended up in my possession in the first place, it's one of the books that I inherited when my grandparents moved from their house over a decade ago now. This particular copy was published in the 1930s, and I believe it belonged to my grandfather. However, upon closer inspection, I don't know that he ever read it, why he had a book in English for that matter, and I just don't think I need to hang onto it, or read it.

Patient H.M. by Luke Dittrich

417 pages

I picked this up to be a companion piece with Before I Go to Sleep, being nonfiction about a man who had a real case of amnesia, named Henry Molaison. Dittrich also weaves in stories about his own family (his grandmother was a psychiatric patient for several years and his grandfather was the surgeon who originally lobotomized Henry and caused his memory loss), the scientists who studied Molaison over the years, and the history of "psychosurgery," which is basically surgical interventions that were intended to treat psychological ailments. Very often, these interventions were lobotomies.

Although some of this book ended up dragging a bit toward the end, it was mostly very interesting and enlightening. Lobotomies have become a sort of spectre in modern fiction about the mentally ill and it was fascinating to learn about their actual historical basis. Dittrich also does a good job with bringing his historical figures to life. And he has a lot of compassion for Henry, whose life essentially ended when he was 27 years old and went under the knife as a last resort treatment for his very severe epilepsy. 

I haven't done this sort of "paired" reading of a fiction and nonfiction book before, but I'm almost certain that I will do it more in the future; it's really interesting to see the factual basis and the fictional story that can come out of it.

Uzumaki: Spiral Into Horror, Vol. 1 by Ito Junji

205 pages

A horror manga full of great art and just extremely spooky images. It's about a girl and her boyfriend and the town they live in, which is haunted by malevolent spirals.

Pleased to report I haven't noticed myself being any more or less drawn to spirals since reading this. I did put the second volume on hold after finishing. Fingers crossed for more creepiness.

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