Do you ever feel guilty for not loving a book? I sometimes do, especially when I have several middling reading experiences in a row with books that don’t have obvious problems because that’s when I have good reason to suspect that the problem is me, rather than the book, and I feel bad that my mood kept me from giving a book a “fair” shake. That’s especially the case when I have warm feelings toward an author.
That’s what my reading in September was like. With a few exceptions, my reading failed to engage me. I even abandoned three books! But then I also read one of my most-anticipated books of the year and ended up absolutely loving it.
So, here we go.
The book of the month is Piranesi by Suzanna Clarke.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is one of my favorite books, and I’ve been longing for another novel from Clarke ever since I first read that masterpiece. This was every bit as wonderful as I hoped and left me with a lot to think about. I’m working on a standalone review to share those thoughts in more detail.
Two Pretty Good Books
The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson is the story of performance artists. Parents Caleb and Camille create and record various stunts/pranks out in the world, usually involving their children Annie and Buster (known Child A and Child B in writing about the Fangs’ work). But as Anne and Buster grow up, they aren’t so much on board, and they resent having been pulled into these stunts in the first place. This wasn’t nearly as good as Wilson’s more recent Nothing to See Here, but I liked seeing how these two young adults had to figure out how to get past what their parents did to them.
Beyond the Glass by Antonia White is the final book in the Clara Batchelor series. In it, Antonia White presents an unsettling depiction of what it feels like to suffer a serious mental illness. Clara seems to be moving on from her disastrous marriage and making what could be a fresh start when her mind loses grip on reality. White herself apparently spend time in a mental institution so I assume that what she describes is true to her own experience. Her total inability to get a handle on who and where she is and what is real is difficult to watch, and it is just as painful to see her family suffer from having to decide what to do. I liked, too, that White doesn’t present some clear explanation, whether stress or religion or a lurking brain defect. It is a thing that happens, like so many other tragedies in this series (and in life). I’ve really enjoyed these books and only wish there could have been more. I would have liked to have seen how Clara took her next steps into the world.
Four Mixed Experiences
The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer. I loved Version Control and Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen, so I decided to go back and check out Dexter Palmer’s debut. I’m sorry to say it was a disappointment. There’s a terrific story buried down in here, all about how love can turn into possession and how our visions for others’ happiness can be informed by our own desires as much as by what they want. And the steampunk-inspired fantasy world of the book is great.
But, wow, there’s just too much going on here. For the first several chapters, there’s a lot of throat-clearing about what the story will be, with its main character and primary narrator, Harold Winslow, sharing where he is and what is going on with him. Once he actually starts telling the story, it improves, but even then, there’s too much happening. I think that Palmer was trying to be stylistically innovative, but all that innovation ended up being a distraction. His later books do not suffer from this at all, which makes me think that, this being a debut, he was really trying to show his talent. And he has talent! It’s just harder to see it here than in his more coherent later books.
The Good Son by You-Jeong Jeong. This story of a South Korean man named Yu-Jin who wakes up one morning to find himself covered in blood and his mother knifed to death was really close to being a success. I really enjoyed how the story developed in this, with Yu-Jin discovering/remembering new bits of information, each of which leads the reader to change their views of him and what happened. However, once I’d caught on to what the author was doing, the unraveling got a little less interesting, at least until the final moments where it all comes to a head. It could be my short attention span at the moment, but I think it would have been better if it were a little shorter.
Luster by Raven Leilani. Edie is a twenty-something Black woman who starts dating an older white man with a wife and an adopted Black daughter and ends up getting enmeshed with the whole family. I liked that this is about a young, messy Black woman, when a lot of these narratives focus on white people (usually men). And her femininity and Blackness affect her experiences as a messy woman in ways that made intuitive sense to me. I also liked the messiness of the family. All the characters were had issues and none were particularly likable, but it was interesting to see how they bounced off each other. There’s also some humor that I appreciated.
The main issue I had with this was the writing. It does a thing that is common with a lot of literary writing these days — trying to be both poetic and informal and never quite landing on a single style. I saw a Goodreads review that said it’s both overwritten and underwritten at the same time, and that’s about how I felt about it. It felt written, and I prefer books where the voice feels natural (regardless of whether the style is florid or spare).
Queen of the Tambourine by Jane Gardam. This is another one that was so close to being a success and my problems with it are probably even more attributable to my mood than in the other cases. It’s an epistolary novel made up of letters by a middle-aged London woman named Eliza Peabody to her neighbor Joan who recently left her home and husband with no warning. Eliza is grappling to understand what it going on all around her, as her own husband leaves and she has various puzzling encounters with neighbors and strangers. The wanderings of Eliza’s mind were hard for me to keep up with, especially as she increasingly loses her grip on reality (an inadvertent theme in my books this month). My own mind was wandering too much to add Eliza’s muddled thinking on top.
Three Abandoned Books
Family Linen by Lee Smith. Since loving Fair and Tender Ladies a couple of years ago, I’ve been wanting to read more Lee Smith. (I read several of her books in college, but don’t remember which ones.) This starts out with a lot of promise, involving a family mystery and possible murder. But the element of the story got almost no attention after being introduced. Instead, each chapter introduces another member of this very large family. I usually don’t mind a large cast of characters, or a book without a lot of story, but this was too much for me, so I bailed at about the halfway point.
My Next Bride by Kay Boyle. I used to make a habit of picking up any green Viragos I found in used bookstores that looked at all appealing. This 1934 novel about a young American who gets wrapped up in a Parisian artists’ colony was one such acquisition. After reading about 80 pages, I decided to give up because the style was not working for me — it’s just scene after scene of people being eccentric with little actual explanation of who they are and what their relationships are. You have to read between the lines to glean any actual information and follow the story. That’s a clear stylistic choice, but it’s not one I generally enjoy, and it’s definitely not one I have the mental wherewithal to deal with right now.
Those Bones Are Not My Child by Toni Cade Bambara. I love the idea of this book about the Atlanta Child Murders from the perspective of a family with a missing son, and the writing is often remarkable. It’s disheartening to know how many of the concerns raised here, about the way the system treats Black families, for example, haven’t changed much since the events of the book in the early 1980s or since the book was published in 1999. Seeing what the family at the center of the book went through as they tried to get help finding their son was truly wrenching and it provides an important perspective on so many child endangerment stories.
But the book is more than 600 pages and after 250 pages, and it was getting to be a slog and I couldn’t bear the thought of trying to read 400 more. This is another case where I suspect part of the problem is my own attention span, but I also wonder if the story really needs 600-plus pages to be told well.
And as for October
The next book on my list is Marilynne Robinson’s new novel, Jack, which I’ve heard is just as good as (or better than) her other Gilead novels. Jack’s story is one I’ve wanted more detail about, so I’m really hoping that my brain doesn’t keep me from enjoying it. At least I’ll know some of the characters already!
After that, I’m hoping to join in with some Twitter friends who are reading Our Mutual Friend, which has been on my list as my next Dickens for approximately a million years. I have mixed success with Dickens, having loved two of his novels (Great Expectations and Bleak House) and not enjoyed two others (David Copperfield and Oliver Twist). Reading a big Victorian novel seems like a risky move, but maybe stepping further away from contemporary stories is the perfect solution. And I’ve always found Victorian novels extremely readable, more so than a lot of contemporary fiction.
After that, I have a couple of library books (I went inside the library for the first time since March this week!) and shelves and shelves of my own books. We’ll see. I hope for better reading.