Calypso by David Sedaris
I always enjoy David Sedaris essays. This batch was by and large tamer, I think, than some of his work, but also more introspective. I don’t know about deeper, necessarily, but maybe darker? It returns repeatedly to both aging and death (of his sister Tiffany, by suicide, recently, and his mother, b y cancer, long ago). It has, as always, a brutal self-examination. I might have wondered, reading his earlier books, if the style would survive aging and maturation, and I think it has.
The Only Story by Julian Barnes
The utterly engaging love story of Paul (19) and Susan (50ish) — not at all in the cliché way. Because it’s retrospective–recalled, at times quite consciously, through an older lens–it also functions as a meditation on love. It shifts voices, first, sometimes, second, third person, without ever really being jarring. It’s sufficiently detailed and individual to feel like it’s about people, not some grand abstract idea. He’s such a good writer, both a keen observer of the way people actually react to things and a very effective user of words. He also controlled time really well–the book actually covers 40 or so years, but space is well allocated to what’s important. I could easily read this again.
Neon in Daylight by Hermione Hoby
This book got a bunch of pretty good high-profile reviews–and I can’t really understand why. There’s nothing really wrong with it, aside from minor complaints (characters who seem to exist when convenient, like Inez’s friend Dana (?)). She writes well. She builds some suspense. (Kate is friends with Inez, and also, unknowingly, dating Inez’s dad! Who’s going to figure it out, when, and how?) But it just isn’t really about anything. There’s no plot to speak of, and the characters are all kind of listless, without delivering any particular insights. Bizarre things happen, but they don’t ever seem to produce any illumination. I think a book could get away with all this if it displayed some self-awareness about it all, but I didn’t get that here. I guess it basically just seems like a decently executed book by someone who had nothing much to say.
The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer
I was a bit apprehensive that this book would be too overly about something — feminism — but for the most part I found it to be sufficiently personal, that is, about the characters, who were richly drawn and had believable motivations. It’s a bit diffuse — we get sojourns into the lives, ambitions, and pain of quite a number of characters — and I think it ends perhaps a bit too cutely — but on the whole I enjoyed it. It puts a little too much on the page to feel truly artistic or insightful, but Greer, Corey, Zee, and Faith Frank are memorable characters I’m glad to have met!
(Another note: there is something very dramatic that happens part way into the book that is not directly tied to the overarching theme, and that is really quite shocking — the book’s ability to catch me off guard like that is to its credit).
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
At the center of this book is Romy Hall, a stripper and single mom who gets sentenced to life in prison for killing a man who was stalking her–having had no decent defense put on at her trial. But there are a lot of voices around hers, about life both in and out of prison– in particular, Gordon Hauser, a young man who comes to teach English in the prison and struggles with boundaries, Doc, the crooked cop who also gets a life sentence for participating in a murder with one of the women in prison with Romy, and, yes, Kurt Kennedy, the stalker/murder victim. It’s really quite bleak, and although all the pieces do intersect, they don’t do so neatly (as is Kushner’s way). I was fully drawn in, and felt a sense of immersion in another world, despite its close relationship to my day-to-day work.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
This is a beautifully written book about a marriage and the people in it (Celestial and Roy) and what happens when justice goes wrong — Roy is wrongly accused of rape and sent to prison. What can Celestial reasonably be expected to do? For how long? The book doesn’t take sides–it left me feeling that both parties were right, even though their wishes were in conflict–a true testament to psychological storytelling. And of course there is an element of commentary on race, but the book doesn’t dwell on it, and successfully avoids any sort of didactic tone. A great read.
The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantú
I liked this–a memoir or relationship to the border, partly about working in the Border Patrol, partly about family history, and partly about friendship with an undocumented family, and how all these things fit together. The writing is smooth, reflective, and sensitive. It’s told largely in isolated moments, with only a hint of an overarching narrative, but that seems to work. It avoids being overly political–no easy feat, on this topic.