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.

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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.

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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

Jack

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

Piranesi


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

September Reading in Review

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.

Posted in Classics, Contemporary, Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 10 Comments

August Reading in Review

It is amazing how much reading I can get done when there are no movies or live theatre to go to and no restaurants for safe dining out with friends or really anywhere much to go. It was even too hot for most of August to go out for walks, which I did almost daily in the spring.

I’ve started doing some text-banking for the Biden campaign, which feels good to do. But mostly I’ve filled my days with working, reading, crocheting, cooking, and watching TV/movies (mostly TV because movies are harder to focus on). I’ve watched almost all of the Project Runway that’s available on Hulu and all three seasons of Dark on Netflix (which is a totally bonkers show that became impossible to follow by the end). And I’ve just started The Good Wife, which is proving to be an ideal show for right now. It has a nice mix of continuing drama and single-episode plot that is fitting my mood and level of concentration right now.

As for reading, this month was pretty mixed. Some sub-par books by authors I normally love, a few books that were basically ok, a few that I liked a lot, and one that absolutely knocked my socks off.

  • The Lost Traveller and The Sugar House by Antonia White. These two books are semi-sequels to Frost in May, which I read several years ago. I say semi-sequel because Clara Batchelor, the main character, has essentially the same background as Nanda and the books are usually treated as part of a quartet. The Lost Traveller has Clara trying to figure out what direction her life should take, which is a serious struggle given her parents’ competing visions. Toward the end, she faces a sudden and shocking tragedy that leads her to make a decision that she might never have otherwise, and it’s painful to watch her grapple with the consequences of her actions. The Sugar House finds Clara with an acting troupe, until she decides to get married, but neither she nor her husband are really ready for what marriage and independence mean. The two novels together show a sensitive young woman trying to take steps toward maturity but finding disappointment at almost every turn. White has Clara making big mistakes while, at the same time, showing great growth. She captures so much of what young adulthood is like, although Clara’s specific challenges are not really the norm.
  • The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz. I wasn’t sure I wanted to read a book about a geeky teenage boy with girl troubles (that he no doubt blames the girls for) written by someone accused of sexual harassment. It just seemed like a formula for awfulness. But I did want to read all of the Tournament of Books winners before the Tournament of Champions this October, so I decided to at least try and get ready to abandon it if it was seriously annoying. I did enjoy Yunior as a narrator — having someone slightly on the outside tell the story of Oscar and his family kept it from feeling self-indulgent. I also liked the way Oscar’s geeky interests were woven into the story — they’re not just mentioned as a way to make Oscar seem like a person (ooh, he reads Tolkein and like the X Men), they’re treated as ways of seeing the world, as cultural touchstones that can illuminate what’s happening in real life. There was perhaps a little too much story here, and I never came to love it, but I’m not sorry to have read it.
  • The Lifted Veil by George Eliot. A supernatural novella that did not stick with me in the slightest. A man realizes he may be having psychic visions involving the woman his brother intends to marry, and it completely freaks him out. I’ve loved everything I read by Eliot, but this was an unusual kind of story for her, and maybe that’s just as well. It might have worked better as a short story, where it could pack a punch and be done, or a novel, where it could really dig deep into the characters’ psyches. But it was neither punchy enough or deep enough to make an impression on me.
  • Eventide by Kent Haruf. This was by far my favorite of the month. I already wrote a full review singing its praises, so I’ll just say here that Haruf’s writing is both spare and glorious, and the depictions of his characters so suffused with grace that I could spend hours upon hours in his world and with his people.

  • A Burning by Megha Majumdar. Jivan, a young Indian Muslim woman, is accused of being involved in a terrorist attack because of a few comments she made on Facebook. The are people who can testify on her behalf, but they’re caught up in their own personal dramas. Her former gym teacher, PT Sir, is climbing the political ladder. And Lovely, a transgender woman Jivan was tutoring, is trying to become an actress. The short chapters alternating among the three main characters kept me from ever getting fully immersed in this story because I kept having to reorient myself, but the ending did get to me.
  • To Play the Fool by Laurie R. King. The second Kate Martinelli novel finds Kate investigating the murder of an unidentified homeless man. As part of the investigation, she meets Brother Erasmus, a “holy fool” who spends time among both the homeless and the Berkeley’s theology students and may know something about the murder. From that point, the book becomes less about the murder investigation and more about figuring out Brother Erasmus, who speaks only in quotations. This is a fun one, and I’m glad I finally got around to the Martinelli series.
  • Rules for Vanishing by Kate Alice Marshall. A teenage girl named Sara and a group of friends go searching for Sara’s missing sister down a haunted pathway where so so so many weird things happen. There are monsters and ghosts and general creepiness, but the scary stuff in this book is how the path messes with the characters’ minds. It was a little too long and the character relationships felt too convoluted, and although I mostly liked this, I was really ready to be done by the time the end came.
  • Charity Girl by Georgette Heyer. I’ve only read a few Georgette Heyer novels, but they’ve all been nice pick-me-ups. This was perfectly fine, but, in the end, not a favorite. I loved the premise — a wealthy man (the Viscount Ashley Desford) offers to help a poor young woman whose family is treating her badly, and it turns out to be more complicated than he expected. It started out very well, but so much of the book mostly just involves Desford going from one place to another, looking for someone to help but never quite succeeding. The lead characters are not very interesting, and the romantic leads get so little actual time together that we never get to enjoy their chemistry. In fact, the romance seems almost thrown in. I knew, though, that this was not considered one of Heyer’s best, so it wasn’t a huge disappointment.

For September, I’ve just finished The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson, and I’m getting ready to start the final Clara Batchelor book, Beyond the Glass. I also have Dexter Palmer’s first novel, The Dream of Perpetual Motion, out from the library. And I’m very excited about Susanna Clarke’s new book, Piranesi, and Marilynne Robinson’s new Gilead novel, Jack.

I’d love to hear about your reading. Anything you’re excited about? What did you love or hate in August? Or have you read any of my August books?

Posted in Classics, Fiction, Mysteries/Crime | 12 Comments