Liberation Day by George Saunders

Unmistakable Saunders. Strange and imaginative- several stories are in that favorite place of his where people are objects and objects are people, and the interactions tell us a lot about humanity. Whether it’s people pinned to a “speaking wall” to serve as instruments for rich people to use in performance, apparently having sold themselves into this condition, agreeing to have their memories wiped out of desperation, or props from amusement park rides who live in an underground village and are beaten to death for asking questions or, worse, for hearing anyone say anything inappropriate and not ratting them out, or winos (his word) kidnapped from under bridges, memories again wiped, to be used as extras in political stunts by activists- the move is a familiar one, and it remains largely effective.

It is a true collection in that we see the same themes reflected in interspersed stories set in our regular world. The tone may remain light, but we still get blame, totalitarianism, concern about people turning one another in, and people unwittingly serving as entertainment, all with a note of tenderness. Like everything he writes it’s weird and wonderful.

Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng

I was prepared to be underwhelmed, because I thought her last book was overrated, and this one probably is too, but it’s more mature at least. The emotional moves are perhaps less obvious, and I think it does a good job of addressing a contemporary social vibe while still feeling personal and specific.

It’s not really dystopia. It’s a plausible near future involving a fear-fueled semi-fascist anti-Chinese highly censored society, and the book is about a family resisting that. Not entirely on purpose. The mother, Margaret, has written a poem that is not itself overtly political, but was adopted by the resistance movement, so she was swept up into it.

Bird, her 12-year-old son, knows only that his mother left him and his father, and they treat her as if she did something horrible and has been banished from their lives. In the book, he goes to find what really happened. Meanwhile, the mother herself continues to struggle with her role–in the larger drama and in her family.

The book addresses the power of bearing witness and remembering, with the center of that effort being public libraries. It’s interesting, but I think she could’ve gotten more from it. The idea for the ending felt underdeveloped to me.

Now Is Not The Time to Panic by Kevin Wilson

Wilson has strayed from his usual terrain of “the way the projects of parents screw up their kids.” Not that the parents in this book aren’t troubled, but they’re not the subject here. It’s teenage life – how important everything feels, the power of art, and culture’s panic response.

Our heroine is 16-year-old Frankie s who spends the summer with the strange boy who’s come to her small town for the summer with his mother, who is fleeing marital difficulties. Zeke is a comic book-type artist, and Frankie is a writer. Together, they make a poster- just messing around, really-and hang a bunch of them up, setting off a kind of satanic panic with some fairly dire consequences. No one ever knows it was them.

Enter the book’s second timeline, 20 years later, when a journalist has found Frankie. It’s interesting, and l wish we got a little more of the “fallout” narrative. To me. that’s where the payoff was. It was enjoyable, but I thought he could’ve gotten more from this.

Elizabeth finch by Julian Barnes

Not his best work. A failed actor/waiter takes an adult education class and becomes obsessed with his teacher. They keep in touch, and after she dies, she leaves him her books and papers, and he does a lot of research on the historical figure who seemed to enthrall her, Julian (huh) the apostate, the last pagan emperor. Unfortunately, the entire middle section of the book is the uninspired essay he writes about that. What a slog. The interesting bits were the personal moments, of which there were far too few to make a whole novel.

Winter by Ali Smith

I enjoyed this one, like I enjoyed the last one, despite the fact that it has an almost didactic politics. Why? Maybe it’s partly because it’s got a strangeness to it, and an off-beat humor, with absurdities and puns continuing to arise throughout. I haven’t read anything like this before. It’s not conventional.

It also explicitly acknowledges its sources (A Christmas Carol; Cymbeline) and it has a kind of human intelligence that imbues it, nailing something about human nature with a confidence and, again, strangeness you don’t find much. It’s a common enough premise–family members coming together for a holiday and having it out, with memory and secrets floating around. There’s a lot of history that seeps in, rather than being explained. The adult son Arthur (“Art,” source of much wordplay) has split up with his girlfriend Charlotte but doesn’t want to tell his mother, who has never met her anyway, so he hires a stranger (Lux) he met at a bus stop to impersonate her. The mother, Sophia, doesn’t really want them around, and made no effort to prepare for their arrival. She has been seeing a vision of a baby’s head following her around, and hearing it strike midnight over and over again, but none of that seems much to bother her. Lux and Arthur summon her older sister, Iris, from whom she has long been estranged, in reaction to the state they find her in. Iris was always an activist, and the dynamics we get from bringing her in are priceless.

It doesn’t feel contrived or constructed, the way novels with dinner table conversations about current political issues usually do. I’ll be curious to see how the last two in this quartet play out — they share themes and subjects (Brexit; unfairly forgotten women artists), but not characters.

Ghost Lover by Lisa Taddeo

I’m fairly sure I could have spotted each of these stories as a Lisa Taddeo — which is a huge credit to her. She writes about women thinking about men, almost exclusively, or when women are dealing with each other, it’s usually to do with men. This book, like the last [Animal was part of my pandemic reading that didn’t get reviewed], has a recurring theme of self-destruction, especially in the last few stories, but really throughout. She has a way of putting things that’s wholly original, and yet so spot on that it feels intimate, so familiar.

Her women share an obsessive need for male attention and that singular focus is perhaps magnified from real life, at least in the sense that in her world, it afflicts all women, not just some (or even most?) women. But it clearly makes a point about what our culture demands of women and how that affects us, through stories that are deeply personal, character-centered, and tragic because they feel so true.

Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson

Atkinson has always written two kinds of books — mysteries and more literary fare — but this one kind of straddles the types. It’s really plot-driven rather than character-based, and there is some mystery to it, but it’s not the neat package of a detective story with a clear hero, and it has a decidedly feminist bent.

We have Nelly Coker, the matriarch of an empire of London nightclubs in the 1920s (no husband needed) and her six grown kids, the crooked cops trying to ruin her, Gwendolyn Kelling, former war nurse turned librarian who’s come to London from York to look for her friend’s little sister — Freida Mergetroid and her friend Florence, who have run away from home to make their fortune on the London stage — and the upright DCI Frobisher, who’s sent to clean up the mess and corruption — and it’s all very entertaining, and at times poignant and dark, but it’s not interested in the depths of human nature. Which is fine — it doesn’t set out to be — but I ultimately prefer books that dig a little deeper.

Lessons by Ian McEwan

I had more or less written McEwan off after loving several of his earlier books, after a series of what felt to me like failures – books about issues or ideas, not people (climate change, for instance, or AI). Using fiction in a way I don’t appreciate. Things that would’ve been rejected if they weren’t written by someone already famous.

Now he’s back to the personal, with some rather grand questions about human nature and the scope and meaning of a life. (The interests of a writer later in life?) How we end up where we are and where we might have been. Mistakes-or are they? The impact of external events, global political. What is a life worth living?

We span pretty much the entire life of Roland Baines, (though mercifully not from birth or through to death), including his piano teacher’s initiation of a sexual relationship when he’s just 14, and his marriage to Alissa, who leaves him and their 7-month-old son to become Europe’s greatest novelist. It’s not always subtle (he actually talks about Schrodinger’s cat) and especially toward the end there are a few plot points that stretch what l might believe, but on the whole it’s tender and vulnerable and personal and engaging.

Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson

Readable enough, but a bit lacking in the sublety department. Clearly a book conceived to address the tensions between environmentalists and the people making a living- in this case, loggers. The water is being poisoned by the defoliants they use, so we get nosebleeds, miscarriages, and birth defects. Our heroine is, of course, an amateur midwife who keeps miscarrying herself but desperately wants a baby. The characters are vivid enough—-Rich Gunderson, the old logger and all around good guy, his young wife Colleen, her ex-lover the NativeAmerican water quality scientist (groan), her sister Enid with 6 kids and a hot-head husband, Eugene, their son Chub. It’s not that they’re flat characters. They have some substance- it’s just that they feel purpose-built.

Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart

Like Shuggie Bain, this is the story of a little boy (ok, this one is less little) who is gay, and in the thrall of his alcoholic mother, in the 90s in a very poor part of Glasgow. This one has a tighter plot, and – if this was possible – is darker. There’s a more explicit love story and more violence. The structure is propulsive, with two timelines, an earlier, faster one catches up with a later, slower one, and it picks up speed approaching a surprise (not a twist) and the book’s first and only moment of grim hope in the very last sentence. It’s intensely miserable – violence, alcoholism, selfishnesss and toxic masculinity reign-but it’s so, so engaging. Also worth noting in both books, the rendering of dialect, which really makes it come alive and is deftly done so as not to be distracting. Recommend- bring Kleenex.