Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

So, time travel. What’s fun about a good time travel story is how intricate it has to be. Seeds are planted throughout, and if it’s done well, you don’t realize it until the end. (This happens a little bit in Harry Potter, with the time turner.) This book certainly has that pleasure. It also has the pleasure of making no attempt to explain itself. (How does time travel work? Who cares?) It exists in an entirely recognizable future that doesn’t bother to try to add all kinds of futuristic things. It stays mostly focused on the human, without too much detail about what’s different then. (And really, isn’t the point, when you bring time travel into it, that humans are humans whenever they live?)

Interesting choice that one of the storylines is taken from her last book, The Glass Hotel. I’m not sure what that’s doing here, or at least what Morella is doing here (Vincent makes enough sense, I suppose). And then we get a character whose third novel, about a pandemic, is her first success, and she markets it during a real pandemic (where have we seen that before?) Overall it was enjoyable, but I got the feeling that it was more a talented writer kind of messing around than any aspiration to be a masterwork.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Sometimes I really enjoy a big, meaty, old-fashioned novel that begins with how our hero came into being and over along with an intricate plot that falls perfectly into place. Add beautiful language and real human insight. Add incredible richness of character.

Of course, I have an affinity for stories about twins, which this very much is. Shiva and Marion — born to a white doctor and Indian nun/nurse living in Ethiopia, raised by two Indian doctors on the grounds of a hospital in Ethiopia affectionately known as “Missing.” Politics are a vivid backdrop but also an important part of the plot. There are some perhaps unlikely but not completely implausible coincidences. I’ve heard complaints about the detailed descriptions of surgeries (I understand the author is a surgeon), but I never felt it was too much, at least not for me. It was just very vivid. I’ll remember these characters for a long time.

Nothing fancy here. Nothing terribly innovative. Nothing mind-blowing. Just a good solid novel. (Kind of like The Heart’s Invisible Furies, among my recent reads, although less comic, certainly).

You Have a Friend In 10A by Maggie Shipstead

The cover of this book really grabbed me. I know, I know. But hey, I like it, what can I say? I’m generally more of a fan of novels than short stories, but this is the second story collection I’ve read and really enjoyed recently. Maybe the winds are changing.

I kept thinking, as I read, that the book could be subtitled “A Zoology of Terrible Men.” Not uniformly, and not in an obvious or gimmicky way. But so many of the stories have as one major pole a man just being incredibly shitty in one way or another. And it’s engaging, because it’s in both expected and unexpected ways, in a multitude of contexts, with varying effects.

I also picked up some echoes of Great Circle — especially in the two that involved actresses. That was sort of interesting. There’s the one about a writer reflecting on his MFA workshop on the occasion of the publication of his first book, and I wanted to groan and hate it, but it was such a perfect mix of satire and insight (and it turned out to be more meta than it seemed at first) that I had to grudgingly admire it. Even though, in a book full of terrible men, that narrator might have been the worst.

I did some thinking (and talking with my friend and former terrain.org colleague Lisa) about story collections and what makes them work as collections rather than just being a pile of stories. These were written and collected over a huge span of time, and I’m undecided on whether it really hung together. I think so–I think there’s a sensibility that runs through the whole thing, and each one is distinct enough that it doesn’t feel like there’s a cohesive whole with a few odd stories out. They’re just each sui generis. But whatever the state of the entire collection, I was certainly engaged and entertained, and read it quickly and happily.

Elsewhere by Alexis Schaitkin

Sometimes I read a novel and I think, gosh, this would’ve made a great short story. I had that reaction here, although I’m not sure it would work. I felt, reading this, like the author had an idea she wanted to explore, and she was creating a story in which to do that, rather than being driven by characters, and that rarely works for me. There’s a folk tale vibe going on, which can sometimes work with non-specific time passing in big chunks, but I felt the time wasn’t well controlled, nor the level of specificity. The semi-alternate world wasn’t fully realized. I just couldn’t quite tell what I was reading.

For instance: there are certain rules here. Much more of a collective consciousness. Women all have their hair in a braid, with a silver hair pin in it that they use to draw blood from men’s shoulders during sex. But… where does that land? The town seems to have an economy, but not really? There are stores, and there is money, but do people get paid? They get supplies delivered by a single person who brings deliveries from “elsewhere,” but do they pay him? A few times, it’s mentioned that these people all weave baskets that then get sold, but so occasionally that it feels tacked on, like she decided to add it and found three or four places to mention it but it wasn’t really part of the world as imagined. They have photography, and a dentist, and they seem to to have electricity, but no telephones or cars or computers? It’s not that you couldn’t have an alternate world, but this one seems to be unsure whether it’s trying to explain itself or not.

And then there’s the central conceit — some mothers just disappear or, in the language of the book, they “go.” And then the left-behind husband and children, and the town, have a ritual about it. Sure, there’s commentary going on here, but it feels like it’s not fully formed as a literalization of whatever she’s getting at. It feels like it’s an early phase of the idea of a story where something like that happens.

Granted, I struggle with books where the central theme is motherhood, because that’s just not my thing. But you can write a book about that that still works as a book even if you’re not all in on the topic (Rachel Yoder did, and Claire Vaye Watkins did). This one just seemed like it wasn’t sure of itself. Alas.

Post-Traumatic by Chantal V. Johnson

Sometimes I read or watch something that is painful, and maybe at times I even find it a little tiresome — because it is so freaking accurate. (These parts of the book about whale anatomy are almost as tedious as being on a whaling ship for months or years!) I had a bit of that with this book. Being close inside the psychology of a woman who views every interaction as either a quest to impress someone or a threat to her safety (while simultaneously being very analytical) is kind of exhausting. But I imagine that’s the point.

The raw psychology here is undeniable. This is how her mind works, and she more or less knows why. It’s not just being a Black woman. It’s coming from a background of sexual abuse and unstable family dynamics, too, and moving in a world outside of and beyond that. If something tripped me up, it was in the moments where Vivian was justifying something to herself (and the reader) that wasn’t really justifiable. It felt clumsy. I’m not sure how one could better do that — convey a person internally attempting to justify her own questionable behavior, but not terribly convincingly — but there must be a way. Perhaps uber-close third person narration isn’t the best way to do that. Perhaps it needs to come from observation, not just straight interiority. I don’t pretend to know. I just know that reading it, those lines (and there were several of them) took me out of the dream.

On the whole though, impressive and unsettling and, I think, important.

Mercy Street by Jennifer Haigh

This was enjoyable to read, and I had high hopes for a novel getting in deep on abortion—through clinic employees and protesters, not patients. Our heroine is Claudia, who grew up in a poor New England town and after a failed starter marriage and a few years as an assistant editor at a vapid women’s magazine is now the counselor for a Boston abortion clinic. The value of women is explicitly front and center — perhaps bordering on too explicitly, for my taste. But the characters are engaging, and the writing is good.

We then get the points of view of several men mixed in. Anthony, a young man recovering from a brain injury who takes comfort in going to daily mass where everyone else is old, has gotten sucked into what he thinks is a friendship online with “Excelsior11,” who sends him on missions to photograph women going into the clinic where Claudia works. Excelsior 11 is Victor, whose viewpoint we also get — an old white guy obsessed with preparing for an apocalypse, who is very upset that white women are having abortions because the white race needs to be preserved. To him, Anthony is not a friend, just a lieutenant. And then we get Tim (Timmy) Flynn, Claudia’s weed dealer, who also sells to Anthony (who knew Tim’s sister when they were in school, in an odd relationship we hear a little about). Poor Anthony considers Tim to be his best friend, although that’s not reciprocated. These storylines intersect, but generally obliquely. I certainly didn’t want them to all end up in the same place and have it out, but I did think they might hang together just a little bit more than they ultimately did.

I have two complaints. First: in a book that talks so explicitly about the role and value of women, especially as mothers (or not), do we really need our heroine to get accidentally pregnant and wrestle with that? Adding that element, to me, pushed this a little too close to cliche territory. Second: Victor’s point of view. It is detailed, and there is explicit explanation of what he thinks and believes and why, but it is crystal clear that the writer thinks it is inexcusable and contemptible. And it is—but I am really coming to believe that if you cannot summon true empathy for a character, such that you can really imagine feeling what they feel, you should not give him his own point of view. It can be done with characters who do and say and believe entirely inexcusable things, albeit rarely. But it hasn’t been done here.

The Story of my Teeth by Valeria Luiselli

All along, this felt like whatI might call comic Mexica metafiction — the first-person account of Gustavo Sanchez Sanchez, better now as Highway, an obsessive collector of things who becomes an auctioneer, situated among history, art, and philosophy, and decidedly revisionist, at least as to the autobiography. As it winds down, it takes on new layers, including the account of the man whom Highway engaged to actually do the writing of the preceding autobiography, illuminating where the story strayed from reality.

It goes on to include a chronology of historical events (of Mexico, art, literature, philosophy, and others) that are mentioned anywhere the preceding narratives, which, it turns out (the author explains in an afterward) was written by the translator, and accepted by the author as part of the English version of the book. It also turns out the book has a fascinating story of origin — produced as a serial to be read out loud to factory workers in the tradition of the tobacco readers in Cuba (familiar to some of us thanks to Rachel Kushner), and shaped by their feedback as the story developed. I can’t say I’ve ever read anything like it.

Bonus points for how hard it made me laugh when one of the characters kept calling Highway “Turnpike.”

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg

So much of contemporary fiction is about families at the core. This one takes it head on on the cover. What is a family? The novel contains just about every variation, and seems to conclude that they all count, including the ones thrown together by life, in addition to those born and chosen. It’s centered around a tragedy–an explosion in a house the night before a wedding that kills everyone except the mother of the bride–but the chorus of voices telling the story gives us history of, say, the lesbian couple that owns a motel that has some significance to the story, including the best friend one of them had long before they met, and the parents and siblings of the otherwise largely peripheral would-be groom.

There are men in the book, but, in a way that’s unusual for a book written by a man, it centers almost exclusively on relationships between women, in a way that feels authentic. It probes at blame and forgiveness (self-blame most of all) and carries a deep empathy for all of the characters–even those who have done bad things. And while it may occasionally veer toward a pat or overly sentimental observation from the narrator, that’s a price I’ll pay for this kind of warm humanity.

I will remember the two motels — the Betsy in the east and the Moonstone in the west. Plus of course bonus points for a character who goes to Vassar.

Catch-Up

The stress of this pandemic has shown up in different ways for all of us. Despite having more time, it seems like we were all able to do fewer things. One of the things I let go was posting my quick takes on each book I finished. I’ve recently resumed that practice. But between December 2020 and May 2022, I did read a lot of books. They were (with the ones I especially liked in bold):

  • [2020]
  • Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reed
  • The Searcher by Tana French
  • The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donaghue
  • Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell
  • [2021]
  • Luster by Raven Leilani
  • Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethaway
  • Never Mind by Edward St. Aubyn
  • Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld
  • The Push by Ashley Audrain
  • Little Constructions by Anna Burns
  • Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker
  • Memorial by Bryan Washington
  • The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
  • Creatures by Chrissy Van Meter
  • Bad News by Edward St. Aubyn
  • Some Hope by Edward St. Aubyn
  • Infinite Country by Patricia Engel
  • The Scholar by Dermal McTiernan
  • Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • The End of Men by Christina Sweeney-Baird
  • This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell
  • Instructions for a Heat Wave by Maggie O’Farrell
  • First Person Singular by Haruki Murakami
  • Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford
  • The Five Wounds by Kristen Valdez Quade
  • The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Behcdel
  • Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead
  • Animal by Lisa Taddeo
  • Autumn by Ali Smith
  • Double Blind by Edward St. Aubyn
  • The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
  • The Recent East by Thomas Grattan
  • Beautiful World, Where Are You? By Sally Rooney
  • The Heather Blazing by Colm Tóibín
  • Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder
  • Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead
  • Bewilderment by Richard Powers
  • I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins
  • The Butterfly Lampshade by Aimee Bender
  • True Story by Kate Reed Petty
  • Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
  • The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles
  • Days of Aferkete by Asali Solomon
  • O Beautiful by Jung Yun
  • These Precious Days by Ann Patchett
  • Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerer
  • My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
  • The Sentence by Louise Erdrich
  • [2022]
  • Foregone by Russell Banks
  • Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
  • A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millett
  • You Never Get it Back by Cara Blue Adams
  • Honor by Thirty Umrigar
  • Joan is Okay by Weike Wang
  • Devil House by John Darnielle
  • To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara
  • Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason
  • The Book of Otto and Loan by Paul Griner
  • Five Tuesdays in Winter by Lily King
  • Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

Going retrospective about this gives me the option of picking out the ones I really liked, that I still remember.

Standouts: The Heart’s Invisible Furies, , Great Circle, Animal, The Recent East, My Sister the Serial Killer, Detransition, Baby, Honor, To Paradise, Sorrow and Bliss

The Candy House by Jennifer Egan

This is explicitly connected to A Visit From the Goon Squad, which I remember vaguely (I was in law school, what can ya do). I wonder if she was working on this all along, despite writing a traditional novel, Manhattan Beach, in between? It’s almost like two completely different writers. For this one, I feel like I need a chart to keep track of how all the characters are connected. Last time I made one of those was for The Tsar of Love and Techno.

It’s very much a novel about an issue, an idea, a sociocultural moment (social media and the attendant voluntary surrender of privacy). It’s not personal in the traditional way of being deeply felt by particular characters. Rather, there’s a wide web of characters, and we only get each one briefly (which of course is the nature of the issue she’s examining, as well as the format she’s using) but the snippets are so richly imagined that I feel invested, at least in most of them, and the mosaic produces a kind of lived, felt humanity I don’t see in, say, Eggers.

A book like this is never going to completely win my heart. But It was enjoyable to read, once I started to see what she was doing, and certainly an amazing technical feat.