The Ballad of Black Tom

Victor LaValle is a pretty terrific horror writer whose books take the real-life horrors of racism and add monsters. The 2016 novella The Ballad of Black Tom is the third of his books that I’ve read, and they’ve all been enjoyably intense and weird.

I understand that this book is inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, specifically “The Horror at Red Hook,” but I haven’t read enough Lovecraft (one story, years ago) to really appreciate the connection. I just appreciated that this book went all-in on the weird while maintaining its coherance.

Set in 1920s New York, the book opens with a street musician and hustler named Tommy Tester. After delivering an occultic book to a customer (ripping out the last page to keep her from using it), Tommy is invited to play his music for a wealthy white millionaire named Robert Suydam even though he’s not actually a very good musician. From there, it becomes clear that Robert is up to something, something involving forces beyond the world as we understand it, and he wants Tommy to get involved. Trying to uncover the plot is Detective Malone, who has seen enough to know that there’s more to the world than what is seen.

The book is both about fighting monsters and becoming a monster and the temptation to marshall one evil to fight another. I suppose that makes the book sound like a moralistic parable, but it doesn’t feel like that. Because it’s short, there’s not a lot of time to dwell on character motivations and crises of conscience. It just poses the problem: If monstrousness exists in many forms, who’s to say which one is the worst? And it does so with a satisfyingly creepy story, with some moments of truly gruesome horror.


Posted in Speculative Fiction | 8 Comments

The Emily Books

I read the L.M. Montgomery’s Anne books in college (having missed out on a lot of children’s classics as a kid). I enjoyed the first few books in the series, but Anne’s personality was a lot once she became an adults, so I eventually gave up on the series and L.M. Montgomery. But all the talk about the Emily books on the Netflix series Russian Doll — and especially about how dark Emily is — caught my attention.

I don’t know that Emily is a dark person, but she most definitely doesn’t have a sunny disposition. Throughout the series she moves between periods of ambitious determination and resigned fatalism. In the first book, Emily of New Moon, her father has just died, and she feels ready to die herself. Only gradually does she find a new reason to live as she discovers her gift of writing. The second book, Emily Climbs, is perhaps the most hopeful of the trio, as Emily starts to take her first steps into a career. In the final book, Emily’s Quest, she experiences serious setbacks in both her career and her personal life and is, for a time, unwilling to do much of anything about it. This is, I think, the darkest and most interesting book of the series.

One thing I found interesting about the series was how skillfully Montgomery showed Emily’s development as a writer. All three books includes excerpts of her letters and diaries, and the writing gets better and better as the books go on. I have to confess, I found Emily’s writing in the first book so over the top that I often ended up skimming. But Montgomery knew what she was doing, and in each book, her writing gets better and better, more confident and less full of unnecessary fluff.

Throughout the series, Emily’s relationships with friends, family, and potential beaus are important, but her relationship with her writing is just as important. It’s not that she’s single-mindedly devoted to her career, as many assume. She cares about people, but with caution. That caution, paradoxically, makes her vulnerable to people who figure out precisely how to approach her (I could go on and on about one person in particular), and it creates barriers separating her from others. She is a sharp observer who thinks a lot about everything and everyone, but she doesn’t always understand what she’s seeing. This makes the third book in particular a sometimes frustrating experience, but I kind of enjoyed the angst of it.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Classics | 12 Comments

We Ride Upon Sticks

I’m going to try to get back to regular reviewing again, instead of doing my time-consuming monthly posts, by once again writing about books as I finish but keeping it short. 

Several friends have been enjoying We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry, so I was already considering reading it when it showed up on the Tournament of Books shortlist. Its presence on the list made it a must read. And it is fun, although I maybe loved it a little less than others have.

Set at the beginning of the 1989-90 school year, the novel follows the triumphant season of a girls’ field hockey team at a Danvers, Massachusetts, high school. The secret to their success? Witchcraft. Specifically in the form of a spell cast in a notebook with Emilio Estevez on the cover.

Using first person plural point of view, the team tells how they won game after game, making deals with Emilio to do more and more subversive things, from leaving sardines in the teachers lounge, to flashing a teacher, and so on, making bigger and bolder choices as the season goes on. Each chapter focuses on a different team member, so we learn their histories and motivations. This is one of the book’s biggest strengths. Each team member is her own person, with her own problems and reasons for behaving as she does. And it’s never quite clear what power, if any Emilio, really has.

As it happens, I graduated the same year as these characters, which made the book’s period setting both extra amusing and sometimes extra distracting. With every pop cultural reference, I found myself thinking, “Wait, was this something I was into my senior year?” Early on, a lot of the references seemed more like they came from early high school or even middle school. I think it was sort of all the 80s mashed together, rather than 1989-specific. And even if it was all correct, the mental calculation kept pulling me out of the story. Totally my own fault, but a real thing that happened.

It did get me thinking about why the 80s setting was relevant, aside from the nostalgia factor. A lot of it had to do with attitudes about sex and sexuality. The 80s was a time of gender bending and female empowerment but also still pretty regressive. I don’t think the characters’ arcs would have been at all the same if the book were set much earlier or much later. There are, of course, always going to be ways for teenagers to rebel, so an author choosing to tell such a story could set it at any time, but these particular acts of rebellion, among both teenagers and adults, wouldn’t work quite so well at a different time. As it is, the attitudes among the students all felt about right to me.

Posted in Fiction | 4 Comments

December 2020 in Review

And so here were are at the end of another month in another year, a particularly strange month in a particularly strange year. I stayed in my own home for Christmas for the second year in a row. Last year, it was the cat’s coronavirus, and this year, it was the world’s coronavirus. I think I could do with a Christmas without any coronaviruses at all, thank you very much.

As strange as it was to celebrate Christmas at home alone (last year, I did go to a friend’s on the day), it also wasn’t bad. A lot of local restaurants did take-home meals for the holidays, so I took advantage of that option for Christmas (and Thanksgiving and New Year’s). Plus, I baked some cocoa and cinnamon kanelbullar (Swedish buns) that I learned to make in an online baking class.

By the way, if you’re looking for something fun and semi-social to do when stuck at home, I highly recommend online baking classes. I’ve taken a couple with the same teacher, who I initially found through AirBnB experiences. The only problem for me is that I end up eating all the baking myself, since I don’t have an office to take it to anymore! Freezing has kept me from eating everything at once, but I may have to make up little care packages for local friends if I do more of these.

My office closes between Christmas and New Year’s, so I’ve had lots of time to rest and read. I haven’t been in much of a TV- or movie-watching mood, and the internet is exasperating me more than usual these days, so I got lots of reading done. So much so that I surpassed my vague and non-binding goal of 100 books in a year for the first time since 2017. And most of my December reading was pretty solid! Not necessarily knock-my-socks-off amazing, but good. Diverting. And diverting is what I needed.

Deacon King Kong by James McBride (abandoned). So many people have loved this book, but I could tell pretty quickly that it wasn’t going to work for me. It’s the kind of book filled with quirky characters and preposterous situations that so many people seem to love but that I often have trouble getting into. I read about 20% and, while I wasn’t mad at it or actively hating it, I just wasn’t interested. And there are too many other books out there to spend time on a book I’m not interested in. But I can see why people like this!

The Twisted Ones by T Kingfisher. This is an enjoyably weird and creepy book about a woman who goes to clean out her dead grandmother’s home and finds … a lot. And it’s not just because her grandmother was a hoarder. There’s a whole other world in her yard. The narrator’s voice is kind of a lot, but her snarkiness probably cut some of the creepiness to make it feel bearable. I like horror that focuses on unease, and this definitely does that. The end felt a little hurried, but I’m also a lot less interested in the actual action portions of horror novels, so that’s maybe not such a bad thing.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid. Emira is a young Black woman babysitting the toddler daughter of a white social media influencer when she gets harassed by security at an upscale neighborhood grocery store. That, along with Emira’s new relationship with a white man, creates a whole lot of complications in her relationship with her employer, who has a complicated class and race history of her own to deal with. This is the kind of book with a lot to say, and it says it in an enjoyable way and without forcing readers to draw certain specific conclusions.

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel. I really enjoyed reading this. It didn’t make much of a lasting impression on me, but as I’ve gone back to look at other reviews, I recall how much I enjoyed it. And given how impatient I’ve been lately with big stories with interconnected character groupings and non-linear storylines, I’m impressed that Mandel managed to keep me interested. It shows her skill as a storyteller.

Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCulloch. In the early chapters, this is less about language, I think, and more about culture, but culture is communicated through language, especially on the internet, so it makes sense that the lines would be fuzzy. And some of the discussion about internet generations (which are less about age and more about when you went online) was an interesting way to look at online culture (and culture clashes). As the book goes on, McCulloch talks more about language and how internet-specific language, such as memes and emoji, have evolved. There’s a lot of information, presented in a clear and engaging way. Some of it wasn’t necessarily new, because I’ve seen these evolutions happen, but I liked having something explain the mechanics behind such shifts.

The Boys from Brazil by Ira Levin. Ira Levin is a terrific storyteller, and if you haven’t read A Kiss Before Dying, Rosemary’s Baby, or The Stepford Wives, you really should give them a try. This 1976 novel, about a Nazi hunter seeking to foil a plot by Josef Mengele (alive in Brazil at the time), is another good story (if you can stomach the premise). After an intense first chapter, the book took a while to get moving because there are a lot of characters in different locations pursuing seemingly disconnected leads. But once it comes together it’s a solid high-stakes thriller, with plenty of chills, as you’d expect from Levin.

Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick by Zora Neale Hurston. These are great stories that provide a window into Black life in the U.S. in the 1920s and 1930s. Some of the stories are really fun and a couple are rather poignant. I enjoyed almost all of them to some degree, although I wasn’t wild about the ones written in a faux-Biblical style. (There are three of these, and the gimmick wore off quickly.) I loved that these are fully Black stories, with very little interaction with the white world. In other words, they aren’t stories specifically about racism, although there are hints of it here and there. Instead, they are primarily about how Black people relate to each other (mostly how men relate to women). I think I’d read one of these stories before, and I saw a couple of them performed on stage last year. It’s great to have all of them together in one collection.

Benediction by Kent Haruf. Haruf’s writing is such a comfort, even when he’s writing about difficult subjects, as he is here. This is the final book in the Plainsong trilogy, but it can really stand alone as the characters are entirely new. I think Eventide will stand as my favorite in the trilogy, but there’s so much here to love. I can’t recommend Haruf highly enough. His gentleness toward his characters and his careful observations of the simple details of life make every bit of this community seem precious, even when the people are deeply flawed. There is so much grace in this book in particular as its people face death and betrayal and fear and anger. There’s no one quite as lovable as the McPheron brothers, but in some ways it was even more powerful to see such flawed characters search for ways to be kind in the difficult moments.

The Changeling by Victor Lavalle. Terrific horror novel about a father, Apollo, trying to protect his newborn son, even as his wife seems increasingly disconnected from the child. The story unfolds in a satisfying way, starting with general unease and weirdness, moving to actual horror, then continually building action as Apollo comes to understand what’s happening and tries to save himself and the people he loves. Maybe a little longer than it needs to be, and the action sequences toward the end were a little confusing (possibly a me problem, since I often find action scenes hard to follow). Overall, though, a great book.

Mary Lavelle by Kate O’Brien. I liked that this 1936 novel about a young Irish woman who goes to Spain to work as a governess before getting married opened me up to a time and place I hadn’t read much about. Apparently Irish governesses in 1930s Spain were a thing. Because the time and place were new to me, the politics sometimes went over my head, but it was nonetheless a solid read about the difficulties of knowing yourself and your desires during young adulthood.

The Resisters by Gish Jen. This novel is set in the near future, when technology and commerce have pretty much taken over society, pitting people into clearly divided classes of producers (who get all the privileges) and surplus (who barely have enough to get by). It focuses on a surplus family who try to live off the grid as much as possible until the daughter, Gwen, shows a remarkable talent for baseball. Like a lot of near-future dystopias, this book has some clever elements, but the characters’ choices and ideas seemed dictated less by their psychologies and more by the need to move the plot to a specific place. And the attempt to make a story about both baseball and resisting an evil empire doesn’t really work.

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell. Oof, this is a story. Vanessa is a young woman who, as a teenager at boarding school, was seduced by her teacher. She never allowed herself to see the situation for what it was, but now the teacher is being accused of assaulting other students, and Vanessa is having to look again at what happened. It’s an uncomfortable read, that moves back and forth between the adult and teenage Vanessa. But it very clearly shows how grooming can work to wreck victims’ perceptions and protect predators long after the abuse is over.

As for January, and indeed all of 2021, I’ll probably read some more TOB books as they become available from the library. I’m starting the new year with We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry, which looks like it could be fun. I’m pondering whether and how much I want to continue blogging about my reading here. I do like having a record of my thoughts, but the blogging conversation just isn’t what it used to be. (I’ve stopped reading blogs much myself, so I can’t blame anyone else for not reading and commenting here.) The monthly posts have been a nice compromise, but they’re a lot to put together. Maybe I’ll try one of those Twitter megathreads, or use Goodreads more, or trying posting thoughts on Instagram or Litsy. Could this be a reason to figure out Instagram stories finally? We shall see.

Posted in Uncategorized | 16 Comments

November in Review

I don’t know about you, but I feel like November 2020 was simultaneously the longest and shortest month of the year so far. It was short in that it can’t possibly be December already (much less late December now that I’m finally getting around to finish this post). But it was long in that the election feels like a million years ago and can’t we just get on with things already?

As I expected, my election officer duties were not particularly intense. In fact, it was a very slow day with not quite 450 voters at my precinct. I think they (quite sensibly) staffed the precincts with the same numbers as they would for a normal presidential election, but with so many voters voting early, it wasn’t necessary. So it made for a long, slow day, but it was interesting to learn so much about the process, and I’d do it again, for sure.

Like many people, I didn’t travel for Thanksgiving, but I never do, so it wasn’t a big deal. I do sometimes have family visit me, which didn’t happen this year, but there have been other years where it didn’t happen, so again, not a big deal. I did want to make the day special somehow, so, even though I like to cook, I decided to give myself a break and get a nice Thanksgiving meal from a local restaurant. A friend came over to share (with appropriate precautions in place), and it ended up being a nice day.

Not traveling on Christmas will be a little more difficult, especially since I missed family Christmas for the first time last year to take care of Natasha as she began her FIP treatment. But traditions are never set in stone, and sometimes a change is nice. I have decorated for the first time in years, and I’m enjoying turning on the lights on my little tree each evening.

As for reading, it’s been a month of pretty good books and a couple of really great ones. Mostly new books this month — the release of the TOB longlist moved a couple of eventually books into the why not now? category. However, I am very good at reading TOB books that don’t make it to the shortlist, so I don’t know why I bother. I suppose because the books look good! And, this year, it turns out I read six books from the shortlist, and abandoned another, which may be a record!

So here’s what I read in November, in order:

The Searcher by Tana French. This library hold came in the weekend before the election, and it was perfect. French’s books are reliably absorbing for me, and that was definitely the case with this book. It’s a little slower than some of her other books and maybe a little less gritty, or at least less obviously gritty. The darkness is buried in the bucolic setting and slowly gets unearthed over the course of the book.

The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi. Another book about darkness getting unearthed, this story begins with a death of a person who we gradually come to understand. Emezi embraces complexity in characters and their relationships while also telling a good story. I liked their debut, Freshwater, a lot, and I’m looking forward to seeing more.

Real Life by Brandon Taylor. Another book about complex relationships that the people inside them don’t necessarily understand. The main character, Wallace, is a Black gay scientist from a small town trying to navigate life at a university where no one is like him and no one quite gets who he is. He doesn’t always handle the situation well, but it’s clear that hardly anyone could.

How Much of These Hills is Gold by C. Pam Zhang. This was kind of a disappointment. I loved the idea of a novel about Chinese Americans in the Old West, as it’s a story not often told. But I felt like this book was representative of the trend in contemporary literary novels to eschew actual story-telling in favor of striking images, not necessarily in chronological order. There are striking images here, but there were leaps in character motivation that didn’t make sense to me, and I think some of the problem was the unnecessary time jumps and proliferation of flashbacks.

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste (abandoned). Another book with a story that I really wanted to read. But it also relies more on imagery and interesting prose than on storytelling. If it were shorter, or if I hadn’t picked it up immediately after How Much of These Hills is Gold, I might have finished it, but after 100 pages, I could tell that I would end up irritated with it if I continued, so I put it down.

Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann, translated from German by Ross Benjamin. I was really excited when I started this because I thought it would be a single story, told from beginning to end, and I was enjoying it a lot. Alas, after the first part, it became evident that this was a series of stories about one character, the tightrope artist and entertainer, Tyll. He’s an interesting character, and I liked the way some of the things that happened to him are never fully explained. Some of the individual stories are fun to read. But I wanted a book I could really sink into, and with the time jumps and changes in setting and central character from story to story, I never really could do that.

Red Pill by Hari Kunzru. Finally, a proper story, albeit a loopy one! Nerve-wracking in the best way. I loved the unease established in the beginning. The story flags a bit in the middle, but that makes sense given the main character’s state of mind. Some of the intellectual discussions went on a bit too long, but I think that’s intentional — we’re meant to roll our eyes at it. And Kunzru works out a neat little trick toward the end that casts a lot of what happened in the middle section in a different light. I’m not sure how this book would go over in a different time. Even a year or two from now, some of it may not quite work, so I’m glad I read it now. This will be in the TOB play-in round and I’m hoping for some good conversation about it.

Transcendent Kingdom Yaa Gyasi. I loved this. Homegoing is one of my favorite books in recent years, and this is really different but just as good. I could appreciate so much about the main character’s struggle to recognize what was both good and bad in her past. This seems smaller in scope than Homegoing but I think it’s just as ambitious because there’s so much to explore within the one family at the center of the book. And Gyasi lets the questions about faith and science, about addiction and sex, about immigration and identity, stay complicated.

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu. This novel, written in the form of a screenplay, tells the story of Willis Wu, a Generic Asian Man on a cop show who dreams of becoming Kung-Fu Guy. It won the National Book Award, and there’s a lot to enjoy about it, although the gimmick didn’t entirely work for me. I could never quite wrap my head around what was really going on. Is he an actor, or just acting a part in society, or both? I think the literal reality is not actually the point, though. It’s more about the conflicts between who we want to be, who we think we are, and who we’re expected to be and how those conflicts are especially potent for Asian Americans.

Factory Man by Beth Macy. I’ve been a fan of Beth Macy for a long time, as she was a reporter for the local daily newspaper where I grew up and lived for years after college. I even took a couple of writing classes that she taught. So I’ve been enjoying seeing her books so well, especially since there’s too little high-profile journalism about the communities she covers by people who spend years with them. I’ve been meaning to read her first book about a furniture factory owner’s efforts to keep jobs from going overseas ever since it came out in 2014, but it took me this long to get to it. It’s a great work of journalism, that delves into the soap opera that is the Bassett family, the difficulty of competing with Chinese manufacturers, and the importance of factory jobs in so many communities. Some of the story, especially early on, is hard to follow — lots of duplicate names in this family — and I suspect a lot of the landscape has changed since this book came out. But I think the discussions of the devastation that comes with factory closures and the lack of good supports for the community when closures happen is still relevant, perhaps even more so as we’re seeing the long-term effects of the feelings of disconnection and loss in blue-collar communities.

Posted in Uncategorized | 12 Comments

October 2020 in Review

I can’t quite believe we’re here at the end of October, just a few days away from the election we’ve been anticipating since November 9, 2016, and with no end to this pandemic in sight. I am cautiously optimistic about the election, but that’s mostly because my brain simply cannot handle the idea of a Trump victory. When I try to imagine it, my brain just refuses. Let’s hope my brain is right. At any rate, I’ll be working as an election officer on Tuesday, and I’m glad I’ll having something meaningful to do all day. This year, Virginia has no-excuse early voting for the first time (thanks to the once-unimaginable flipping of the state legislature last year), and last I heard, 40% of the voters at my precinct had voted, so it may not be a very busy day — or at least not so busy to be stressful. But we’ll see. I’m looking forward to that part of the day, but I can’t think beyond that.

I’ve also been fretting about the winter and possible increases in COVID cases. Most of my (still limited) activities away from home are still outside or in well-ventilated indoor spaces. What will cold weather do to those options? What about the holidays? We take it as it comes, I suppose, which goes against my planning nature.

Even with all that on my mind, books proved to be a useful distraction throughout October. Unlike in September, when I couldn’t concentrate on much of anything well enough to enjoy or appreciate it, I was able to really enjoy most of the October reading, even making my way through some Dickens!

Jack by Marilynne Robinson. The fourth Gilead novel is indeed a marvel. But I’d expect no less from one of America’s greatest living writers. Although not my favorite in the series (as some sections went on a little too long), this story about a man desperately in need of grace and love but finding himself unable to accept it was a moving addition to the Gilead collection.

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. As I noted in my review, reading a massive 19th-century novel seemed like a risk, given my low concentration levels, but it proved to be perfect for these times. The characters and their winding story held my interest, and the story overall made me very happy.

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh. What a joy to revisit Brosh’s stories. I laughed and laughed and am really looking forward to getting my hands on her new book.

Nothing Can Hurt You by Nicola Maye Goldberg. Interesting take on the “dead girl” thriller. It’s not so much as thriller as it is a meditation on what it’s like for women to be adjacent to or involved with acts of violence against women. Does it terrify them, beguile them, or leave them generally unfazed? And, in this case, the dead girl gets the last word, while she is still vibrant and alive.

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung. Chung’s story of her adoption by her white parents and her search for her Korean family is a thoughtful examination of family and culture and identity. She shows a lot of compassion for everyone involved while remaining honest about her own pain.

Summer by Ali Smith. None of the novels in the seasonal quartet have stirred me quite as much as Autumn did, but Summer may come the closest. Perhaps these books work best for me at times of high emotion. I do wish I’d reread the previous novels — I’ve forgotten enough of the previous novels that the connections between them were somewhat lost to me.

Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy. I’m kind of surprised that I haven’t heard more about this book. It’s set in a near future when many more animals have gone extinct, and a woman named Franny is following what is probably the last flock of Arctic terns as they migrate south. She joins a fishing vessel with a promise that tracking the birds will enable them to also find the few remaining fish in the sea. But she has secrets in her past that touch on her quest to follow the birds. It took me a while to get into this book. A lot of it is told in flashback, and it’s not even clear from the start what the nature of the mystery in Franny’s past is, but once I got interested, I really enjoyed it. There’s something in it about how life just keeps going on that got to me. I was especially struck by this passage toward the end:

I can’t move to pull on my clothes except that somehow I do, and I can’t stand on two feet except that somehow I do, and I can’t walk, there’s no way I can walk, except I do. I take step after step after step after step.

Let us all keep taking step after step after step, even when it seems we can’t.

Posted in Classics, Contemporary, Fiction, Graphic Novels / Comics | 4 Comments

Hyperbole and a Half

Ten years ago, it seemed like everyone on the internet was in love with the art and storytelling of Allie Brosh. I certainly was. Like so many others, I was a faithful reader of her blog, Hyperbole and a Halfwhere she wrote of growing up as a weird kid obsessed with cake, taking care of two very weird dogs, and managing a sometimes debilitating depression. Her stories combined seemingly crude drawings (she always looks rather like a googly-eyed worm with wire hanger appendages) and ridiculous but relatable scenarios (who hasn’t tried to figure out just what their oddball pets are thinking?) to create magic.

She published a collection of stories from the blog in 2013 to great acclaim, even outside the internet. And then she more or less disappeared from her blog, not updating it until this year, when she announced a new collection, Solutions and Other Problems. However, the library hold list for that book is long, so I figured I might as well read her first book, since I didn’t actually read it at the time, knowing that most of it had already appeared on her website. It is just as good as I remembered.

I read the entire collection in an evening, in the midst of a stressful week, and I don’t know when I’ve laughed so hard. I remembered her God of Cake story well, and I couldn’t possibly forget Simple Dog and Helper Dog, but it was fun to revisit them. I didn’t remember the goose getting into the house; although she had written about it on her blog, the story in the book is more elaborate, and the version in the book was unbearably funny. Now I’m looking forward to the new book even more.

Posted in Graphic Novels / Comics, Memoir | 7 Comments

Our Mutual Friend

After the blah reading month I had in October, picking up a pick Victorian novel like Our Mutual Friend seemed like a potentially terrible idea. If I didn’t have the attention span to read and enjoy short contemporary novels, how could I expect to get anything at all out of Dickens? Especially when I’ve had mixed success with Dickens.  (Loved Great Expectations and Bleak House, did not like David Copperfield or Oliver Twist.)

Except, here’s the thing: it was massive Victorian novels, and Great Expectations in particular that helped me make the transition from books for young people to books for adults. When I was in my teens and early 20s, a huge portion of my reading was massive Victorian novels. These were the books that taught me to be an adult reader. I’ve rarely found them a struggle, and I’ve almost always found them engaging, even when I didn’t love them. And friends who like Dickens more than I do had told me that, based on the Dickens I did like, Our Mutual Friend was a good choice for my next Dickens. So when a group of Twitter friends decided to read in October, I figured I might as well try. Friends, I gobbled that book down in a single long weekend and had a great time doing it.

Our Mutual Friend opens with a boatman and his daughter, Lizzie, finding a dead body in the water. The body is deemed to be that of John Harmon, newly arrived in London to claim a large inheritance from his recently deceased father. To get the inheritance, Harmon would have to Bella Wilfer, whose family aspires to wealth but has little extra money. With Harmon’s death and no marriage, Bella loses out on this chance for a fortune, and the estate goes to the next in line, the Boffins, the servants of the deceased.

The Boffins take to their new state with giddiness and generosity, taking in Bella, deciding to adopt a poor child, and hiring a one-legged street salesman named Wegg to teach Mr. Boffin to read (they don’t realize Wegg is barely literate themselves). They buy a new home and seem committed to enjoying themselves.

There’s also a teacher named Bradley Headstone, who is in love with Lizzie Hexam, the boatman’s daughter. And Jenny Wren, a doll maker who is friends with Lizzie. And some lawyers and social climbers and various and sundry other people who are connected to the central characters through a network of mutual friendship. (It was never clear to me who the titular mutual friend is supposed to be.)

Anyway, there are a lot of characters and a lot of story. So much that after I realized that my poor attention span of 2020 could wreck my reading of the book, I decided to make notes at the end of each chapter, indicating who met up with whom and what the key plot point seemed to be. That made a huge difference in my ability to keep up, and it kept me asking questions about what events are of the most significance and which direction the characters are going. Because the characters do evolve throughout the book, as their fortunes wax and wane.

This is a book where the desire for fortune is clearly a corrupting influence, yet where certain basic needs exist and are barely met for some characters. It’s relevant. Poverty creates desperation, but not necessarily criminality. Wealth breeds miserliness, but must it always? And want, of a fortune or a relationship or a hidden treasure (there is one!), can lead people to commit drastic acts. It’s the characters who find a way to let go of their expectations who are able to maintain some sense of morality.

That’s not to say that there’s no sense of justice in this novel. It’s not a book about how the poor should be happy in their poverty or anything like that. It’s more about how seeking to better one’s circumstances at the expense of others is never the right course. And the characters who actively look out for the needs of others are the ones most able to appreciate what they do have. Again, relevant.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 12 Comments


A new novel by Marilynne Robinson is always a cause for celebration, but the release of this novel is extra special because we finally get to learn more about Jack Boughton, son of Boughton, the Presbyterian minister who is close friends with John Ames, narrator of Gilead. Jack is also the brother of Glory, the main character of the second Gilead book, Home. In those novels, Jack is a source of great concern and frustration of the characters. He’s something of a black sheep who left home years ago, and his return to Gilead causes no small amount of consternation.

In Jack, we get to see something of Jack’s life outside Gilead. From the earlier novels, we know that he is married to a Black woman, and her family’s disapproval, together with the miscegenation laws of the time, has kept them apart. In this book, we get to see how they got together in the first place.

When Jack first meets Della, he’s just gotten out of prison and is wandering the streets of St. Louis. She’s a schoolteacher and obviously too good for him. But when she drops a bunch of papers in the streets and he scrambles to pick them up for her, they become forever entangled. (Yes, it’s a romantic comedy meet cute.) An all-night talk while walking around a sprawling cemetery seals their bond.

Of course, in the 1950s, a relationship between a white ex-con and thief and a Black schoolteacher would be pretty close to an impossible relationship, on a number of levels. The problem of their different races is always there, but, for Jack, the real problem is that he just cannot see his own goodness. He’s been mired in a life of petty theft and general dissolution for years, and as far as he’s concerned, that’s who he is. And his Calvinist background no doubt enters into it, as he’s clearly haunted by what he learned of predestination from his father.

Della doesn’t know the details of Jack’s background, but she also doesn’t seem overly concerned about it. She can see he’s struggling in the here and now, and she wants him to do better, but she also loves and accepts him as he is and seems to rest in the belief that he is a decent man at heart. Interestingly, she is the daughter of a Methodist minister, and Methodism offers more room for humanity’s response to God than the Boughton family’s Calvinism. This is a huge oversimplification, of course, but knowing Robinson’s interest in theology, the choice of denomination had to be a deliberate choice. She is a Calvinist herself, so I don’t think she’s meaning to make Calvinism out to be a bad thing, but she’s also probably fully aware of how Calvinist ideas can go wrong, as they seem to for Jack.

The book recounts their falling in love and trying to decide what to do about it. Although the external forces that will eventually push them apart are there, most of the conflict is internal, as Jack seeks to become the sort of man who deserves a woman like Della. And Della just loves the man that he is. As is typical with Robinson, it is a book about grace.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 5 Comments


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. (I haven’t read her  story collection, fearing that short stories won’t have the same immersive quality.) Piranesi is very different from her earlier novel, but it has that same quality of pulling readers into a whole other world, where the rules are different and strange. In this case, the world is a watery castle, occupied by a man called Piranesi (although that is not his name) and another man he calls The Other. Piranesi spends his days cataloging what’s in each room of the vast sprawling world and meeting periodically with The Other.

The experience  of reading Piranesi was so rich for me. Clarke creates a whole word, and our guide is an appealingly deliberate and careful sort of person that I both related to and cared about. He seems contented in his odd life, moving from room to room, keeping numbered journals, and always attentive to the tides that flood various rooms. But, as a reader watching from the outside, I could see reasons to be wary (and not just because it’s a strange world).

This rest of this post is potentially spoilery, but I will avoid specifics as best I can.

The book got me thinking about the worlds we create for ourselves, through the media we choose to consume, the people we choose to believe, and the ideas we choose to pursue. This is, of course, pertinent to our current moment, with so many people diving head-first into conspiracy theories in which Democrats and media elites are harvesting children’s blood to consume their life force.

Once on the inside of that world, it’s next to impossible for people to see a different reality. Things that seem bizarre to anyone else (such as that the entire media apparatus is covering up child trafficking with nary a leak) seem perfectly plausible. For Piranesi, it makes sense that the whole world is just two people and that one of those people somehow is able to access food and supplies that Piranesi cannot. Like Piranesi, believers in conspiracy theories obsessively catalog every clue about the world as they understand it and they don’t really take a step back to see that the story doesn’t make sense.

In Piranesi, a third person eventually arrives, someone The Other perceives as a threat. What is that third person going to reveal? Who will Piranesi listen to? And all of this is wrapped up in the fact that Piranesi is happy in his little world. He has no desire to see anything different. And, as readers, we can’t help but wonder what he would find if his world gets bigger. Is he safer in his strange house, moving along with the tides, just as we’re safer at home in a pandemic? 

I don’t necessarily think Clarke was intentionally writing a parable for these times, but maybe! It certainly functioned that way for me. Plus, it’s just a really good story. It feels at times like a horror story built on unease, which is my favorite kind of horror story — where something isn’t quite right but you can’t put your finger on it. And the world is different enough from our own that we cannot be sure what’s going on until the book reveals its secrets.

I loved it. It was worth the wait.

Posted in Speculative Fiction, Uncategorized | 11 Comments