Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

My first thought–which turned out to be widely shared among early readers, and even perhaps the author–was that this was half As I Lay Dying (southern gothic road trip) and half Beloved (literal ghosts here to address racial injustice). Not surprisingly to anyone who knows me, I liked the road trip part and could honestly do without the ghosts. It’s just not to my taste. But the language is lovely and lyrical. The characters are vivid. I think she hit what she was heading for.

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

I didn’t realize this was going to be linked stories. There’s some irony to the fact that I didn’t really enjoy that. The pieces are linked tangentially through minor characters, geographically through their setting in Amgash, Illinois, and thematically (there’s a lot of sexual betrayal and indiscretion among the various kinds of pain explored in this book). But ultimately I want a novel to have a center of gravity and I couldn’t find one here. I felt like we were wandering rather than progressing. Which is a perfectly fine kind of book to write, but it’s not the kind I especially like to read.

Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson

The story of Dr. Preston Grind, Izzy, and the Infinite Family Project–10 families living together and co-parenting all their children. Entertaining enough as books go, but it didn’t dig much beyond the premise. It lacks the endearing black comedy of The Family Fang.

Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides

Most of these stories aren’t new. There are ten stories total. One or two I’d read before, and several have familiar characters (a doctor from Middlesex; boys from The Marriage Plot). None of them blew me away, although they were solid and enjoyable. I think Eugenides is at his best as a novelist, as none of these stories have the tightness, the economy that defines the very best of the form. Oddly, my favorite of the collection is (I think?) the oldest, from 1988 — “Capricious Gardens,” with the sort of classic set-up of an unlikely group of people arriving together in a house for the evening. Many of the others felt like they were snapshots, pieces of a larger world, which in some cases we know them to be, and in others, well, maybe they are and maybe they’re not. Who’s to say.

Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash

Reminded me of The Art of Fielding and The Goldfinch at the same time. (college sports; unhinged orphan). The narrator is a senior in college without any family or long-term plans or even goals past the current (final) wrestling season. He’s paranoid and unreliable–but I found myself worrying about him, if he’d be okay, even after I finished the book, so he must’ve done something right. It was also really quite suspenseful.

A House Among the Trees by Julia Glass

Richly drawn portrait of Tomasina, the assistant to famed children’s author/illustrator Mort Lear, who dies at the beginning of the book, and leaves Tommy his house–and responsibility for his estate. It resolves, present-plot-wise, around the bequest, or lack thereof, to a museum, but the real rich material is elsewhere, in the life of the actor who plays Mort in a movie, in Tommy’s childhood. I ultimately felt it had too many points of view; I’d have jettisoned the sad single museum curator. Maybe necessary for the plot to fully materialize, but a detriment to focus on the most compelling material.

Harlot’s Ghost by Norman Mailer

Mailer always writes with such authority that it’s hard to believe he wasn’t actually there in the room when these events occurred. There’s something very male about it. Set in the CIA in the late 50’s and early 60’s, along with a backdrop of the love story of Harry Hubbard and his distant cousin Kitteredge, who is married to his Godfather and sometimes boss. what could go wrong?

It’s an engrossing–and especially long–read. Perhaps too long, so that it started to feel that it lacked an overarching narrative and was instead a series of historical episodes loosely woven together. It ended rather abruptly–it seemed to be the death of JFK that brought things to a close, but he only became an important figure mid-way into the book.  I almost could have read it starting with the Cuba/Washington section, with a few flashbacks, that that would’ve been enough.

Mailer’s fictional versions of real historical characters are, as ever, fascinating.