Tuesday, January 31, 2017

January: Reading to Escape Politics!

I did a lot of reading in January--though escaping politics turned out to be a difficult (if not impossible) goal. Nonetheless, here is what used for distraction (sorry it's so long--perhaps I should go back to individual entries!).

Kate Burkholder: Three Novellas, by Linda Castillo
Among the Wicked, by Linda Castillo
Luckiest Girl Alive, by Jessica Knoll
The Trespasser, by Tana French
Out of Bounds, by Val McDermid

I'm not sure why mystery writers even produce novellas--there's not enough space to develop and resolve an intriguing mystery. Unless there's a really unusual twist or superlative writing, mystery novellas tend not to be very rewarding reading. Even given that, the Kate Burkholder novellas are better than Among the Wicked, in which Linda Castillo has totally jumped the shark with her ex-Amish police chief. Burkholder goes undercover in a fringe Amish community; poorly prepared and completely undisciplined, Kate nearly is killed. Just in case you want to read this book, I won't mention some of the other reasons this book is completely unbelievable, but suffice it to say I'm done with the Burkholder series.

Luckiest Girl Alive isn't really a mystery but it's marketed as being similar to Gone Girl or Girl on a Train so I wanted to put this review where fans of those books might be most likely to read it. There is simply no comparison--except that the word girl appears in the title and that titular character is less than likable. Here that character is Ani, a high-powered New Yorker who is preparing for her wedding while dealing with memories of a terrible experience more than a dozen years early when she was in boarding school. It's tragic that girls have such experiences, but concern about teenage girls is not enough to make this book worthwhile.

The Trespasser is a rather typical entry in French's Dublin Murder Squad series. It involves a detective (Antoinette Conway) with personal problems and a case involving numerous twists and turns--here the murder of a young woman. All the early evidence points to her date--but of course nothing can be that simple. I thought The Trespasser lacked some of the evocative writing that marked earlier entries in the series, but it was fairly effective as a diversion from politics.

Out of Bounds was definitely the best mystery of the month. Karen Pirie, mourning the death of her lover, takes on two cold cases (or historic cases as they are evidently called in Scotland), one of which is linked to a current case. If you like the procedural aspects of mysteries, there is interesting material here about DNA evidence and the ways in which cold cases are re-examined. Not a sparkler, but decent entertainment for mystery-lovers.

Swing Time, by Zadie Smith
Siracusa, by Delia Ephron
How to Set a Fire and Why, by Jesse Ball
The Girls, by Emma Cline
The Sellout, by Paul Beatty
The Angel of History, by Rabih Alameddine
A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Toles
Another Brooklyn, by Jacqueline Woodson
Orhan's Inheritance, by Aline Ohanesian
Zero K, by Don DeLillo

Swing Time tells the story of two biracial friends who grew up in public housing in London loving musicals and dancing. The more talented dancer of the two, Tracey, makes some bad decisions and doesn't manage to escape the low-income estates. The other, our nameless narrator (at least I can't remember her name), goes to college and becomes an assistant to a pop star who seems to be a combination of Oprah and Madonna (she starts a school for girls in Africa and adopts an African baby under suspicious circumstances). The book deals with a number of themes--racism, family relationships, childhood friendship, British politics (the narrator's mother is a feminist who becomes an MP), the inspiration of art, and the unintended consequences of charitable activities--all while spinning a story that carries the reader along. I don't think Swing Time is a great book, but it's a good one worth reading.

Siracusa, on the other hand, is not worth your time. It's the overly foreshadowed and thus predictable story of two couples vacationing together in Sicily. There seems to be no really good reason for them to be hanging out together--in fact, since one husband and the other wife were once lovers, there seem to be pretty good reasons for them not to; and the results are bad. All four main characters--and one couple's daughter Snow--are completely unsympathetic; given that there's no exploration of meaningful ideas either, the book is a complete waste of time.

How to Set a Fire and Why and The Girls have some similarities--both are about teenage girls whose families fall apart, leaving them to fend for themselves. The protagonist of How to Set a Fire has a rebellious voice (a la Holden Caulfield); she is fascinated with fire and hopes to join her school's arson club. Then an interested teacher who sees her potential helps her gain acceptance to a boarding school for exceptional kids; but the hope for a positive future is short-lived, as a conflict with her aunt's landlord ends up undermining her plans. I found it interesting that this compelling, disturbed female character was written by a male author--but it works, and I cared about Lucia. In contrast, despite the fact that The Girls was a "big book" in 2016, I really didn't care about its main character, Evie, who gets drawn into a Manson-like cult. We know from the frame in which the story of Evie's youth is set (an encounter with a friend's son prompts remembrance) that Evie is not one of the girls who were imprisoned, which removes any real suspense from the story. We may learn a lot about cults, but not enough to make this book recommendable.

The Sellout won the Man Booker prize, the first book by a U.S. author to do so. I can't help thinking that the Brits enjoyed giving the award to an absolutely scathing satirical novel about race in America. The main character is Bonbon Me, an African American farmer in Los Angeles who has a slave (a former child actor), resegregates his neighborhood and local school, likes to create Latin mottoes for his race, and torments a group of black intellectuals who meet in Dum Dum Doughnuts. The book is fast-paced (although you're never sure that it's actually going anywhere) and full of pop culture, literary, and political references. It's sometimes very funny and occasionally annoying when you realize Beatty's references aren't always accurate (maybe that doesn't matter in satire, but . . .). My son, who has lived in Japan for more than 5 years and studies Japanese literature was somewhat disturbed by inaccurate references to that nation; I got worked up over the way in which he presented the Supreme Court--not that he was criticizing the Court (see quote below for a pretty accurate critique of what happens at the Court) but that he did it in a way that inaccurately represented how it works (the defendant does not sit at the table with the attorneys!!). Despite the annoyances, I found The Sellout a worthwhile read but be warned--the language is rough and may offend some readers.

I've read three Rabih Alameddine novels and each is completely different from the others. The Angel of History is the story of Jacob, a gay Yemeni poet living in San Francisco. All of his friends died in the early years of the AIDS epidemic. Following that disaster, he was confined to a mental hospital for some time, but has been healthy for a decade when he feels himself starting to slip into mental illness again. As he waits to be seen at a hospital, he reflects on his early life--years in a whorehouse with his mother, followed by time in a Christian boarding school in Lebanon (sent there by his father)--as well as his turbulent relationship with his long-dead partner. This may sound rather normal for a plot--but Satan and Death are debating his fate and 14 Middle Eastern angels are watching over him. Yes, it's unusual--I'm in awe of Alameddine's creativity and skill. Recommended.

At the beginning of A Gentleman in Moscow, the Bolsheviks sentence Count Alexander Rostov to house arrest in a small attic room in the Metropol, a Moscow hotel in which he previously lived in a luxurious suite. His crime? Writing a poem the Bolsheviks disapproved of. He builds a life within the hotel, becoming the headwaiter in the hotel's fine dining restaurant, adopting the daughter of a young woman who disappears looking for her exiled husband, and constructing a family of those who work in the hotel. His adoptive daughter is a gifted musician, a fact that eventually calls for action. Although Rostov's life is shaped by larger political events, the book isn't really about those events--it's about one person's effort to give his life meaning in constrained circumstances. Recommended.

Anthropologist August is back in Brooklyn for her father's funeral. It's her first visit in many years and, when she sees an old friend, it prompts her to reflect on growing up in the borough in the 1970s. She, her brother, and her father lived in an apartment; her father, a member of the Nation of Islam, was strict about what the children could do and who they could hang out with. But eventually, August became part of a small group of four close friends and her memories of that friendship are the core of Another Brooklyn, which explores themes of friendship, memory, and family. Woodson's language is poetic and the book is short, though I felt like it didn't quite add up to as much as I thought it would. In other words, I'm torn about recommending it.

I found Orhan's Inheritance interesting because it's about a topic I know little about--the Armenian genocide. The book vacillates between the present, when 30-something Turk Orhan is trying to find the woman to whom his grandfather left their family home to so he can convince her to sign it over to him and World War I, when the atrocities against the Armenians occurred (these events also explain his grandfather's actions). The story set in World War I is grueling, but the contemporary story is equally important, since it deals with those who remember and those who choose to forget or deny. The writing is competent but not fabulous, but I'd still recommend the book because of the important content.

My son recently asked if I had read much Don DeLillo and I could only think of one of his books that I had read, so when Zero K was available on Overdrive, I downloaded it. It sounded fascinating, dealing with a son's response to his father and stepmother's decision to be cryogenically preserved at a remote and weird compound where the son has a series of bizarre experiences as a waits to bid first his stepmother and then his father good-bye. DeLillo waxes philosophical about death, life, and the varying ways in which people make decisions about them. But neither those musings nor the book held much meaning. Not recommended.

Dubliners, by James Joyce

I know I risk losing all credibility as a reader by saying that I disliked Dubliners, but . . . I disliked Dubliners. Joyce presents 15 stories or sketches about residents of Dublin at the turn of the 20th century. Maybe he captured this type of grubby existence first and I am just late to the party, but I feel like I have read this all before and don't gain anything new from Joyce's work. Sorry . . . but not recommended.

Young Adult
Me Being Me Is Exactly as Insane as You Being You, by Todd Hasak-Lowy

This YA novel (definitely for teenagers rather than good readers in elementary or early middle school) is the story of Darren Jacobs, a teenage boy whose parents are recently divorced, whose older brother is away at college (where he is not doing well), and whose social life goes from largely imagined to requiring juggling two girlfriends. The book is presented as a series of lists (text message exchanges between the Jacobs brothers, mothering strategies used by Darren's mom, manifestations of nervous excitement, facts about Rachel and Darren's relationship, etc.), a device that is engaging at first but becomes tedious as the book lumbers along for 600 pages!  If the book were half the length, I might be able to recommend it, but at this length . . . nope!

The Fame Lunches: On Wounded Icons, Money, Sex, the Brontes, and the Importance of Handbags, by Daphne Merkin
Still Foolin' 'Em, by Billy Crystal
Upstream, by Mary Oliver

The the essays in Daphne Merkin's collection vary from celebrity profiles to serious book reviews to commentaries on family dysfunction and pop culture. The book reviews are the best part of the book--although many of them seem to be more about proving Merkin's knowledge of the subject or author of the book being reviewed than critiquing the book. I found Merkin's personality annoying. She mocks Joyce Maynard for having spilled too much of her inner life but writes about her own family issues and sex. She refers to someone as having "Oriental" eyes. And she repeatedly mocks Midwesterners (I do not take kindly to such). In addition, she ends her essays with cutesy tag lines like the ones I wrote in high school and college. I won't be reading any more Merkin.

Still Foolin' 'Em is what you'd expect of Billy Crystal's reflections on life and aging: it's funny (but not uproarious) and reflects a deep love of his work and his family. I don't remember any particular wisdom (or jokes) from the book, but I enjoyed it.

Similarly, Upstream is what you'd expect from a book of essays by poet Mary Oliver--reflections on nature, on writing, on writers who inspired her. The nature essays provide a level of detail that is unexpected, however. For example, Oliver describes a spider in its web (including the process of eating a cricket) with astonishing particularity. She also includes a paean to Provincetown, where she lived for many years. And, of course, the language and writing are beautiful and, perhaps it goes without saying, poetic. Recommended, if only for the language.

Pick of the Litter:  Swing Time, by Zadie Smith

Favorite Passages:

And what is that great labor? Out-circling interest, sympathy, empathy, transference of focus from the self to all else; the merging of the lonely single self with the wondrous, never-lonely entirety. This is all. The rest is literature: words, words, words; example, metaphor, narrative, lyricism, sweetness, persuasion, the stress of rhetoric, the weight of catalog.

It is supposed that a writer writes what he knows about and knows well. It is not necessarily so. A writer’s subject may just as well, if not more likely, be what the writer longs for and dreams about, in an unquenchable dream, in lush detail and harsh honesty.

Mary Oliver, Upstream

The reason they don't permit cameras has nothing to do with maintaining decorum and dignity. It's to protect the country from seeing what's underneath Plymouth Rock. Because the Supreme Court is where the country takes out its dick and tits and decides who's going to get fucked and who's getting a taste of mother's milk. It's constitutional pornography in there, and what did Justice Potter once say about obscenity? I know it when I see it.

Paul Beatty, The Sellout

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

What is Novel Conversations reading?

Even though I'm a Novel Conversations dropout, I thought you might like to keep up with what the group is reading, so here's their slate for the next six months:
  • February 6: Her Fearful Symmetry—Audrey Niffenegger
  • March 6: Past Imperfect—Julian Fellows
  • April 3: Empty Mansions, the Life of Huguette Clark—Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell
  • May 1: Year of Wonders—Geraldine Brooks
  • June 5: Commonwealth—Ann Patchett
  • July 11: A Gentleman in Moscow—Amor Towles