Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson

downloadIt’s hard to write books that are genuinely funny, and even harder to do that in a way that is also sad and emotionally resonant. But that is what Wilson has done. One plot turn near the end was so delightful and unexpected that I laughed/gasped out loud when I read it. (Cf. Less).

The premise had the potential to really turn me off: a senator has two children from his first marriage who burst into flames if they get upset. Literally, in the world of this book, they catch fire. They are unharmed, but they burn up their clothing and whatever is around them. Lillian is asked to care for them over a summer because she was, for a year, the boarding-school roommate of the senator’s next wife, and the family wants to keep their condition quiet for political reasons. The “fire children,” as Lillian calls them–Roland and Bessie–are a bit odd, fire aside, but so are Lillian and Madison, the roommate/wife.

All of that is presented with a slightly snarky, ironic tone, and it’s entertaining–but at the same time it’s a brutal takedown of wealth and privilege, and an interrogation of the concept of love. Do we really need it? How does it relate to usefulness? Sacrifice? And what does it mean to truly want something? Not questions routinely associated with comedy–but there’s the genius. You’re thinking about all that without even realizing it was there.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Crawdads.pngI resisted reading this for a long time because I didn’t like the title; it felt just slightly too flowery, conspicuously written, advertising a kind of self-aware beauty that tends to turn me off. And the book’s flaw, really, is just that–the title phrase is repeated in places where it seems calculated to be resonant without actually accomplishing that (including the last line).

But that is my only serious complaint. There are points at which I had to agree to read this as not necessarily entirely realistic, but it really was captivating, in at least three distinct ways. First, there’s the survival story–a little girl abandoned, surviving, avoiding authorities who feel like threats. Then there’s the psychology of the girl-becoming-woman, trying to understand the feelings she has, love, sex, abandonment, and how all that relates to the natural world she’s so immersed in. And then there’s the whole third layer, the murder mystery (complete with trial) that is, cleverly, I think, introduced early on, even though it happens later, using dated chapters.

The book also manages to depict a sort of timeless existence in the natural world while also introducing elements–and problems–of modern civilization in a way that worked for me. We get a lot of things that are primal and eternal, but we also get glimpses of the mother’s separate life and psychiatric issues, the town’s deep racism and classism, and rape culture, among other things. Not to mention issues surrounding the justice system.

On the whole, at times this story of Miss Catherine Danielle Clark, or Kya, at times risked veering into the sentimental, and the way the novel chose to represent the speech of these southern people is maybe at times a bit too much (it’s nice to have the flavor but a lighter touch would do), none of that detracted much from an engrossing read.

The Body in Question by Jill Cement

downloadThis book is short and emotionally intense (as many of my favorites are–either that or epically sprawling). Two people, identified only by their numbers (at first), are on a sequestered jury for a murder trial (committed, incidentally, by one of a pair of twins, although which one actually did it is a primary question). He is an anatomy professor; she is a married photographer. It’s a jury of only six, with the others identified just by vaguely descriptive nicknames (cornrows; the church lady; the alternate).

The, after the verdict, there’s a whole second section of fallout in their real lives with names, and t’s dark and tense and deeply ironic, with exploration of life, death, and inhabiting a body. In fact the drama is so perfect that it verges on unbelievable, but by that point I’m not sure true realism is what I want; it’s satisfying like this.

Bonus points for accurate legal trappings.

The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo

downloadA lot of people have compared this to a Jonathan Franzen novel, which I think is usually intended as a compliment. I totally see it–they share the sense that they fully understand the complete psychology of all of their characters, which to me is both arrogant and a sign that the characters are insufficiently complex. Do they really think that people can be figured out like that? They also both write about characters’ less sterling moments, even from within their own points of view, with an unappealing air of contempt. Maybe a character is illustrating something, but she isn’t really living it.

Some of these characters border on cartoonish, and the plot is too engineered, too tidy. What we have is Marilyn and David, a couple universally seen as golden (although of course we ultimately learn about each one’s isolated demon), and their four adult daughters, each with one major life issue–Wendy, the oldest whose rich husband, whom she actually really loved, died young; Violet, her Irish twin, obsessed with curating the apparently perfect life for her adorable family; Liza, ambitious and successful with a depressed boyfriend who plays video games in sweatpants; and Grace, who has moved away and pretends to the whole family that she got into, and is attending, law school. No character is significantly more complex than that.

And then, a new person appears in their orbit (I’ll leave you with at least some mystery), and methodically, one by one, disrupts each person’s equilibrium in exactly the way they happen to need awakening. It covers 40 years and jumps around among everyone’s point of view, sometimes quite quickly. I think it’s almost impossible to build deep psychological or emotional resonance like that.

Inland by Tea Obreht

downloadThis was certainly unexpected as a follow-up to The Tiger’s Wife. Set largely in the Arizona Territory in the 19th century, it has two alternating storylines that we imagine throughout surely somehow must intersect, although it takes a long time to learn how. One is Nora, a frontierswoman in the midst of a crisis that unfolds over approximately 24 hours, and the other is Lurie, whom we follow as an outlaw from about age 6, who joins a group of cameleers (yes, camels, in the western US, and this is all based on meticulous historical research), and addresses all of his sections to his camel, Burke.

The two stories share some things, most prominently the existence of (or perhaps just characters’ belief in) the dead remaining among us, in one way or another. It was a slow read, and it took some work. It was incredibly dense and intricate, especially the Nora sections where we slowly learn a lot of very important things about her situation that are not apparent from the outset, especially because the narration stays tightly tethered to her thoughts.

What struck me most was how fully committed Obreht was to the setting–the language, the details, the, for lack of a better word, rules of that world are so fully developed, it’s hard to imagine how she created something so immersive from a vantage point like today.

 

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

imagesI really couldn’t put this down, which is saying a lot in a book that’s essentially a domestic drama. I was fascinated by the structure–it covers nearly a whole lifetime but without feeling rushed or diffuse. There is a definite telling, a consistent narrator who filters as he recalls, and a lightly drawn occasion for telling. The narrator dips in and out of timeframes as needed to tell his story, and it is never jarring or confusing.

The house ties it all together, something that resonates on multiple levels throughout the book. (What is home?) We have Danny Conroy and his sister, Maeve; their mother, Elna, who leaves when Danny is young; and Andrea, the cruel woman their father subsequently marries. Plus the unforgettable Fluffy (the nanny), and Sandy and Jocelyn, the cook and housekeeper.

The story is essentially of growing up, of the reasons for choosing a path in life, dwelling on past hurts and moving on, the inexplicable choices some people make, the ways we are doomed to repeat, or flee, the mistakes of our parents. And the way a house can contain all that.

 

With special thanks to Jonathan for getting me a delightfully inscribed and signed copy of this beauty.

Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

downloadTwo cops starting out in New York in the 70’s who then move to the same suburb–and what we get is the story of what happens over the next 30-40 years.

The wife in one family is mentally ill, and something bad happens, involving that and the other family, but despite all that, their children are inexorably drawn to each other.  That’s the gist–but there’s way too much going on for my taste. There’s immigration (the wife from one family and the husband from the other are from Ireland), mental illness, serious alcoholism, family struggles and abandonment, and way too many points of view, such that I just didn’t know where to focus. I would feel like it was going to be one person’s story, and then we’d never hear from her again.

Everything after the initial period when the cops’ kids are children is oddly rushed. It feels more like a summary than like dipping in deeply in moments that matter, perhaps partly because it’s all third person with no occasion for the telling. If the relationship between the two families’ kids is the thing, then why include so many other points of view?

The book gestures toward an interest in justice–police, crime lab, prosecution, early on a delving into the personal experiences of cops seeing difficult things–but it never digs in, so all that just feels like trappings. There’s nothing to unify it.

Don’t get me wrong–it was readable and entertaining. But it was good material with no focus, no structure or discipline, no new insights, and nothing gorgeous.