The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
Books that describe truly horrible and traumatic things, especially that happen to children, can be so challenging–to write and to read. (I think of A Little Life). And books that address major societal issues, like our history of racism, likewise. I think in both cases a book succeeds by being sufficiently personal, which this one is.
It centers around Elwood, who, after living a life that Whitehead describes as “industrious” as a child, is wrongly accused of a crime and sent to the Nickel Academy, a reform school where he meets Turner, forming the central relationship of the book. We get present-day snippets revealing the damage done interspersed occasionally with the detailed scenes from the past at the school. There’s also a little bit of a twist, although not too much of one. I was drawn in and stayed that way. It even had occasional notes of humor, which to me really make it stand out in its humanity. (I think of the Mexican boy who got transferred from the white group to the black group when he got too tan.)
Finally I should note that this was based on the real-life Dozier school, where a secret graveyard was discovered recently, in Florida. I don’t know enough details about Dozier to know how closely Whitehead hewed, but I do know from the acknowledgments that he drew on primary source material. The book never felt like it was showing off all the details the author had learned. (I’m looking at you, Ian.) It just felt true.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
This is a perfect example of the kind of book I’ve started lovingly calling “quiet books.” There is absolutely nothing flashy going on; the writing is gorgeously simple, unadorned but breathtakingly accurate. No gimmicks, not even much of a plot–but just heartbreaking. Julian Barnes writes sort of like this, at times.
This book is just a couple of years of the relationship between two people, from the end of high school through college, in Ireland, as they love each other, influence each other, hurt each other, sleep together, sleep with other people, and generally navigate their identifies in the move from a small town in Sligo to Dublin. Moment after moment, I found myself marveling at how precisely Rooney had described some feeling I knew but had never put words to. It’s hard to believe she’s only 28. All in the third person, managing a cast of supporting characters who appear when necessary but never feel overly convenient, shifting effortlessly between them — Connell and Marianne.
Heavy by Kiese Laymon
The first thing that comes to mind to describe this book is “messy.” Not in a bad way–it’s well written, and the narrative is organized–but the life it describes is messy.
It’s addressed to his mother, who we start to learn as the book goes on was physically abusive, but despite that, the tone is generally not angry. What’s so arresting is, I think, that the book is very focused on the experience of being a black boy growing up in the south, but the traumas it chronicles are both of and not of that fact. He faces struggles (physical and sexual abuse; hyper-critical and unreliable mother; eating disorder; gambling addiction) that are not inherently black problems the way that, say, being harassed by the police is, but they are also inseparable from his life as a black man.
The book is crammed with insight and self-awareness, a rare gem that’s able to describe in vivid language accessible to non-black, non-southern people a world that isn’t often easily seen by outsiders, even on the rare occasions when they are interested in looking. What an amazing feat of honesty and self-awareness. What unflinching descriptions of one’s own failings, demons, dark pits of life. I read his first novel (Long Division) years ago and wasn’t especially wowed by it–I think Laymon’s real best material is here, in his life. One can only conclude reading this that he is an unbelievably strong person.
Note: Laymon arrived at Vassar the same year I did. I never knew him, but I was an English major so knew lots of people who took his classes and he was beloved.
City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert
I would generally classify this as a not-too-deep, not-overly-literary, entertaining, historical (1940s), and at times slightly racy coming-of-age novel. The ingenue moves to New York City and discovers sex and the theatre scene; trouble ensues. And probably 2/3 of the book was just that.
But then. The entire thing is nominally written as a letter to someone named Angela, whose role is, throughout this first act, a mystery. At the end of this period, our heroine, Vivian, moves back home with her parents and tries to be “good”–briefly–and then, during World War II, finds herself back in New York. In a rather strangely paced second act, we get a kind of summary of the next few decades of Vivian’s life, and see her somehow transformed into a deeply empathetic person of substance.
It’s all reasonably interesting–and of course, we do eventually find out who Angela is–but it feels like a mismatch from the first part, not only because of the pacing, but also because it feels to me like it largely skips over the actual transformation. We see the careless girl and the kind, wise woman–and we get some idea of what started it, perhaps–but the real payoff would be in exploration of how A turned into B. As it is, there’s a bit of whiplash: from glitter and feathers to the unfathomable trauma of a war tragedy. And for me, the retrospective voice that pops up here and there doesn’t fix that.
Ps. A bit of the ostentatious research here…
The Overstory by Richard Powers
I resisted this book for a long time, even as it got popular, largely because the only reasonable answer to the question of what the book is about is “trees.” While there is, ultimately, a plot, what really ties it together is thematic — and it’s a capital-I Issue at that — something so difficult to execute successfully that I tend to avoid those types of books altogether. But I ended up enthralled.
It took a while–you have to get through eight separate segments with entirely different characters and settings, some of them multigenerational, and although ultimately each does somehow involve tees, they are not otherwise connected to each other–until they are, which starts to build its own kind of suspense. I truly don’t think any one character is dominant, and that may be part of the theme, too. They are a forest.
Powers is known for writing, loosely, about science, of course a major interest of mine. So many people do that with research that feels ostentatious, but here, it feels organic. His knowledge is woven into word choice and sentence structure, into unobtrusive bits of background. While the book is big and rambling and flowery and sometimes unfocused, it is also immensely readable and enjoyable.
Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan
A few unconnected thoughts: Why is Ian McEwan obsessed with false rape accusations? Why does he write so many clueless, un-self-aware, privileged straight white men whom he seems to hold in some level of contempt? (Self-hatred?) Why has he gone so far over from starting with people to starting with concepts, hypotheticals, constructed moral dilemmas? It’s almost like he’s becoming a science fiction writer, although not really writing about the future. And with this book, it’s an odd only-slightly-alternate universe. Most things are the same, but things just unfold a tiny bit differently. It has both ideas and feelings — but it’s unpleasantly dominated by the former. Being me, I think ultimately I would’ve found the book much more interesting without the android. It forces thoughts, instead of coaxing them from readers presented with a careful rendering of instantly recognizable human experience.
Don’t Skip Out on Me by Willy Vlautin
A sad, lonely story about Horace Hopper (half Irish, half Paiute) — abandoned by his father, then his mother, then his grandmother, to live and work on the aging Mr. and Mrs. Reese’s ranch in Nevada–until his early 20’s when he leaves all on his own for Tucson to become a boxer. And not just a boxer, but a Mexican boxer, known as Hector Hidalgo. It’s a quiet book, with clean, spare prose, full of loneliness, people on the run, and implicit and explicit questions of identity. (At one point Horace laments to Mr. Reese that he’s just a drunk Indian, and Mr. Reese gently points out that he’s also a drunk Irishman).
I wouldn’t say that nothing happens, but I would say it doesn’t really end up anywhere in particular. You just get the feeling of peering into one of millions of sad, quiet lives marked by disappointment and glimmers of real kindness. And there’s something a little off about Horace–something oddly childlike, especially when juxtaposed with the violence of his fights and his solitary life working in a tire shop and training. He reveres a self-help book he brought with him about becoming a champion almost the way people hold the Bible, and he trusts people easily when he has no real reason to. But I bought every sad minute of it.
Where the Dead Sit Talking by Brandon Hobson
I picked this up because Hobson was on a panel at the Tucson Festival of Books for National Book Award finalists with another writer I really wanted to see. On that panel he talked about sometimes being asked if he thought his book might be appropriate for younger readers–and I can totally see why.
Narrated by a teenager (well, technically, by an adult recalling his teenage experience, but with almost no adult filter at all), it really does have that young adult feel even where the subject matter gets perhaps too dark for that audience.
There is racial identity (the teen, Sequoyah, is Native American), gender identity (although it is pretty pale–he wears eyeliner and at one point tenderly holds a pair of stockings), violent impulses, and suicide–but it all just felt kind of stagnant to me. It was more portrait than story. Yes, his foster sister Rosemary dies at the end (as we learn on page 1), but the book never really explores why, or what that does to Sequoyah. He ostensibly narrates from adulthood, but we don’t see any real part of that to understand what this experience did to him.
I’m struck by a structural comparison to Milkman, where the literal fact of the end of the period being described is related in the opening–but, in my view, to much greater effect.
The prose itself is very strong. It’s straightforward and simple and sometimes surprisingly direct. But ultimately I like a novel with more movement. (Not necessarily lots of events happening, but discernible development).
The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling
This is a great example of a book that probably accomplished exactly what it set out to do–it just isn’t a goal that holds much interest for me personally. The premise: Daphne, whose husband is stuck in Turkey due to Islamophobic immigration practices, impulsively decides to take her 16-month-old daughter Honey and drive north to the barely-still-there far-nothern-California town of Altavista, where she has inherited the mobile home once occupied by her grandparents.
The vast majority of the text is consumed by long, frantic sentences describing everything she does to care for this baby (with her worries about money, her missing husband, and her semi-abandoned job). While I recognize that this is a voice that is grossly under-represented in literary fiction (perhaps because it’s nearly impossible for someone in that place to get any writing done, and then there’s the filtering done by the publishing world that still doesn’t take the experiences of women seriously). It just doesn’t interest me very much. It is a widely shared human experience, perhaps, but not one that stands any chance of being universal. A word cloud for this book would prominently feature “diaper” and “string cheese” and it’s just not an existence I wanted to inhabit.
That being said, I have to give her credit for capturing the experience of frantic anxiety (whatever the source) and the dread of ignoring something you know you have to face at some point; the psychology is intense.
My main issue on the craft level is to do with the only thing that happens that you could really call a plot: Daphne’s chance meeting with a very old woman named Alice who has driven a long distance to Altavista by herself on a kind of pilgrimage to a camp in Oregon where her long-dead husband once worked. She rescues Daphne from a breakdown/panic, and Daphne takes her where she’s going–but it all feels a little deux-ex-macchina to me. Oh, the book needs a plot? Let’s put a woman–one who happens to understand Daphne’s speaking Turkish on the phone, in this tiny, white town–improbably in her path. And launch them on a little road trip together. It’s a little convenient for my taste. It sort of reminds me of my first-ever attempt at novel-writing (I was about 13).
In the end I think she nailed the task of psychic portraiture but didn’t quite make it all the way to fully realized novel. This being her first, I’m generally optimistic that she could develop.
Side note: I learned while creating this post that a book titled Golden State (note the absence of definite article), by Ben Winters, was published in January (Kiesling’s book having come out in September). The Winters book seems to be most prevalently described as post-apocalyptic detective fiction (?) but is also set in a politically disturbed California. Lydia, if you’re reading this (ha), you win.
Less by Andrew Sean Greer
I knew going in that this was billed as a comedic novel–and indeed, I laughed out loud more than once. That’s no small feat; my sense of humor, especially in books, is quite particular. But I always like my laughter to come amid sadness and poignancy, and although the tone here stayed lighter and closer to satire than my usual preference, it packed a punch in, too, around love, and aging, and the shape of a life as seen from the middle as you start down the slope. (What do you end up with if you have a series of relationships rather than a life-long commitment? What is it, really, to be alone? To be wanted? Remembered? Accomplished?)
So we have Arthur Less, a writer whose success was never great but is now on the decline, cobbling together a trip around the world to avoid his ex’s wedding and his own 50th birthday–and we get wacky, slightly humiliating episodes piled on one another, interspersed with memory and reflection in a way that mostly worked. (In one scene, a conceited competitor tells him his problem is that he is a bad gay; in another, he recalls specific activities his father arranged for him as a boy, which he enjoyed, and still enjoyed in memory even after learning years later that his father had taken them directly from a book about how to take your sissy son and make him into more of a real man).
The episodes themselves are often rather farcical. It’s entertaining, but also sad. If I’m going to read a book about a struggling male writer in middle age, this blows the pants off Who Is Rich.
(Also flagging without discussing: meta-fiction (Less is revising a novel where a middle aged gay guy wanders around the city, taking it from a drama to more of a farce); sneaky late revelation that there is actually a narrator, not just floating omniscience).