I’ve had the chance to do a bit of reading the last few days, and it’s been lovely.
I actually read this one over the course of several years, having picked it up, put it down, and later picked it up again. This didn’t matter too much – it’s collection of essays that stand alone, although linked thematically. Some of the material feels a little dated where it’s covering recent events (for a 2005 publication, the 2004 election). But it’s also an interesting retrospective, and some of the issues covered are as pertinent as ever.
McCarthy’s prose is beautiful, and the book is both a page turner and exceptionally well written. Once the initial rush had finished, though, I found myself troubled by something. I haven’t gone through the book in detail with a pen picking out passages, but something that I’m still pondering is how the past is remembered.
The first of those reflects the fact that throughout, the narrator is comparing a better, happier, remembered past, to a present where he (a sheriff) feels outgunned by violent people with less regard for the law and morality than criminals have ever had before. Which, possibly, is true. But I think it’s always good to be sceptical of pictures that are too rosy; in this case, was the past that beautiful? Keep in mind he’s invoking an era when violence may not have happened as often against middle class white people, but there were other kinds of (often officially sanctioned) violence against people on the margins of society. I won’t unpack that more here; but for a starting point, TNC’s blog does a lot of work looking at how the past that we remember so rosily (particularly in America) actually looked.
But overall the book is an excellent read; it’s gripping while you’re reading it and memorable while you finish it, like much of what McCarthy writes.
Sometimes in the middle of a book I’m enjoying I’ll find myself slowing down, and taking pauses in the reading. It’s not because it’s bad, it’s because I want to put off the moment when I finish the book, and can’t keep reading it anymore. That was definitely the case with The Marriage Plot. It’s beautiful writing and easy reading.
Something I particularly enjoyed, apart from the obvious strengths, was how well sketched some of the minor characters were. Eugenides covers a lot of ground; and in several cases he draws out characters that are only tangentially involved with the plot. He does a good job there of filling them in; not creating ’round’ characters, but still giving them life beyond the lines they’re there to deliver, so that when they speak it felt as a reader that real people were speaking, and not just convenient props.
Another aspect I found interesting is that throughout, Eugenides is implicitly (and in a few cases, explicitly) referencing Victorian novels that deal with marriage. But it didn’t feel too heavy handed; the structure of the novel doesn’t mirror one of his references, and he doesn’t lay it on too thickly. Which perhaps means that the end is a little — tiny — bit of a stretch, but it still felt much better than something too heavy-handed.
I picked up One World at a secondhand market because I wanted to read something by Singer. One World probably wasn’t a great choice.
It’s a little dated, in that it deals very much on the policy side of things with things that were current circa 2001. The philosophy, which was what I was reading it for, didn’t feel very groundbreaking at all. Singer’s arguments seemed well argued and reasonable, but not interesting in the sense of giving new information or ideas.
To be fair, though, this probably isn’t the best book as an introduction to Singer. It sets out very much to take a set of basic philosophical ideas, and explore their application in the real world, while arguing clearly (but accessibly). If you don’t find the ideas controversial or the policy aspects interesting, then the reading can be somewhat slow.
Peter Singer, though, comes across as articulate, intelligent and passionate about ethics. I’ll look forward to reading something else by him.