The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman
I liked the idea of this book–a group of six childhood friends, one of them dies, the other five come back for the funeral–but I found the execution lacking. It seemed that various different balances were off–between past and present, for instance, or among the different characters. Two of them were drawn with more detail, which left the other three feeling like sketches, almost like afterthoughts (or, in their worst moment, like caricatures). And the notion that these enormously different people had stayed in touch into their 30’s somehow without telling each other the essential contours of their lives just didn’t ring true for me.
Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday
This book is unusual in a lot of ways, but the one that surprises me the most is that it is a concept book in many ways, but it is absolutely engaging on the level of scene and character. There has been a lot of talk about the novel’s themes and messages–what novelists can and can’t do, power dynamics between men and women, east and west, blurred lines between imagination and reality–but for me all that would have failed if Halliday had not written, first and foremost, an engaging story about a love affair, and a second engaging story about an Iraqi American navigating the early 2000’s and recalling earlier parts of his life. The Alice/Ezra section grabbed me in particular in the way it revealed information–never with exposition or even really any interiority, but through offhand remarks or subtle cues. All the more cerebral stuff is a bonus.
Calypso by David Sedaris
I always enjoy David Sedaris essays. This batch was by and large tamer, I think, than some of his work, but also more introspective. I don’t know about deeper, necessarily, but maybe darker? It returns repeatedly to both aging and death (of his sister Tiffany, by suicide, recently, and his mother, b y cancer, long ago). It has, as always, a brutal self-examination. I might have wondered, reading his earlier books, if the style would survive aging and maturation, and I think it has.
The Only Story by Julian Barnes
The utterly engaging love story of Paul (19) and Susan (50ish) — not at all in the cliché way. Because it’s retrospective–recalled, at times quite consciously, through an older lens–it also functions as a meditation on love. It shifts voices, first, sometimes, second, third person, without ever really being jarring. It’s sufficiently detailed and individual to feel like it’s about people, not some grand abstract idea. He’s such a good writer, both a keen observer of the way people actually react to things and a very effective user of words. He also controlled time really well–the book actually covers 40 or so years, but space is well allocated to what’s important. I could easily read this again.
Neon in Daylight by Hermione Hoby
This book got a bunch of pretty good high-profile reviews–and I can’t really understand why. There’s nothing really wrong with it, aside from minor complaints (characters who seem to exist when convenient, like Inez’s friend Dana (?)). She writes well. She builds some suspense. (Kate is friends with Inez, and also, unknowingly, dating Inez’s dad! Who’s going to figure it out, when, and how?) But it just isn’t really about anything. There’s no plot to speak of, and the characters are all kind of listless, without delivering any particular insights. Bizarre things happen, but they don’t ever seem to produce any illumination. I think a book could get away with all this if it displayed some self-awareness about it all, but I didn’t get that here. I guess it basically just seems like a decently executed book by someone who had nothing much to say.
The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer
I was a bit apprehensive that this book would be too overly about something — feminism — but for the most part I found it to be sufficiently personal, that is, about the characters, who were richly drawn and had believable motivations. It’s a bit diffuse — we get sojourns into the lives, ambitions, and pain of quite a number of characters — and I think it ends perhaps a bit too cutely — but on the whole I enjoyed it. It puts a little too much on the page to feel truly artistic or insightful, but Greer, Corey, Zee, and Faith Frank are memorable characters I’m glad to have met!
(Another note: there is something very dramatic that happens part way into the book that is not directly tied to the overarching theme, and that is really quite shocking — the book’s ability to catch me off guard like that is to its credit).
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
At the center of this book is Romy Hall, a stripper and single mom who gets sentenced to life in prison for killing a man who was stalking her–having had no decent defense put on at her trial. But there are a lot of voices around hers, about life both in and out of prison– in particular, Gordon Hauser, a young man who comes to teach English in the prison and struggles with boundaries, Doc, the crooked cop who also gets a life sentence for participating in a murder with one of the women in prison with Romy, and, yes, Kurt Kennedy, the stalker/murder victim. It’s really quite bleak, and although all the pieces do intersect, they don’t do so neatly (as is Kushner’s way). I was fully drawn in, and felt a sense of immersion in another world, despite its close relationship to my day-to-day work.