Mischling by Affinity Konar
Holocaust/Auschwitz story about twins who are research subjects, and are separated–I never really bought the connection between the twins (not fair?), and though I was mostly with her during the part set in Auchwitz, there seemed too many coincidences in the part after they leave. A sweet madam in a whorehouse who happens to have the thing Pearl has been looking for all chapter? Stasha performing a vivisection and taking the baby? I just didn’t buy it. It was all a little too precious for me, too imagined and described. Is it on purpose? Something that can’t be told as it really was, with starker reality? Maybe. But it still didn’t do it for me.
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
My goodness. It’s so rare to find a memoir that’s so insightful, with such emotional narrative, that avoids the sentimental or the self-absorbed. A book on a hobby or some nature subject that’s so personal. (Sort of like McPhee, but more personal, more beautiful). A book that weaves together a literal narrative of arc and momentum with an emotional narrative that the writer must have realized only as the events drew to a close, and a historical narrative. I suppose she is a falconer, a poet, and a historian, so blending the three is the book she had to write. But who would’ve imagined the result would be so magical?
You Can’t Touch My Hair by Phoebe Robinson
I think she’s more in her element in live performance, and some of this material is covered in one of her podcasts–but there are some nuggets. The book is at its best when it gets serious and personal about race and gender, for instance when she describes the ridiculous things white male comics and directors have done and said to her and her own personal struggle to respond.
She clearly has the impulse to deflect everything with a joke. With any luck, she will hone the ability to make a joke without deflecting. To laugh about things and draw people in, but still stay with us.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
I liked the episodic nature of this–short segments of different characters, alternating continents and progressing through time. It clearly has its social message about race and slavery, but it always felt like humanity, not politics, was driving the book.
To me the most memorable chapters were the American ones, probably because they were more familiar so easier to picture. (But does that also say something about the richness of description?) The point–the devastation wrought by slavery in Africa and on Africans here–was well made, though I don’t think we needed to make the last generation a sociologist who explicitly links each stage of devastation to the next.
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
It’s always enjoyable to read a book that’s pretty easy to follow but also includes some really serious thought. This one is full of small scenes that feel true and familiar of friendship between little girls, but it also navigates time deftly, covering 33 years or so and zooming in just where she needs to. She creates the childhood and then recalls it later in life in ways that feel absolutely authentic.
There were moments where it veered toward the didactic–when dealing with Aimee the pop star’s attempted naive charitable work in Africa–but for the most part it stayed on the right side of the line. And it wasn’t superfluous. Thematically the novel was about female friendship but also about blackness. Not American blackness, or even British–in a sense that is human, not fundamentally political.
Moonglow by Michael Chabon
After Telegraph Avenue my expectations were low, and there were definitely moments where it had the kind of flat old-white-guy writing I get so tired of, but on the whole it was a return to form. A lesson that the personal almost always makes a better book than the sociological.
Not linear–with some real playing going on with memory and story. It’s the story of the grandfather’s life as told by his grandson, reconstructed from what the grandfather told him at the morphine-soaked end of his life, and I liked how it skipped around. I think its level of narrative self-awareness–mostly as intrusion of the grandson narrator, with a few scenes in the present–was the right amount, clearly just a frame but enough to cast the story with the kind of uncertainty about the nature of truth and memory that makes it something more than just a bunch of crazy stories.
It’s also, in a way, a book about Jewishness, but in such a different (more personal, less heady) way than the Safran Foer.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
I did this on audio, which I don’t think did it justice. It’s too easy to lose track of a non-linear narrative. Maybe it’s just the subject matter but I kept thinking of Faulkner. The prose and the characters are engaging, the subject obviously important, especially now–but in the end I think I just don’t care for fiction, especially historical fiction, that literalizes a figurative struggle. It’s ultimately the same beef I have with Toni Morrison (to whom I have heard him compared). So Oprah notwithstanding, it just isn’t my style, but that doesn’t diminish its accomplishment.