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.

Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah

This was very different from most of what I read (by design). Set in East Africa in the early(ish) 20th century, it has a fable quality to it (minimal interiority; characters known by first names; structure of episodes; etc.) That’s certainly consistent with this story being a pretty literal interpretation of an episode from the Koran, complete with names and specific plot points. As part of that, it doesn’t feel especially personal. It’s cultural and societal and political, things I don’t often like in fiction, but maybe because it was historical when written, or maybe because it addresses an area I’m mostly ignorant about, it didn’t bother me the way it often does.

It contains vivid descriptions of landscapes, and of injury and illness, that are succinct and precise. And perhaps in a sign of the fact that the book is actually modern (published in 1994), it ends what seems to be mid-stream on the primary story, without a resolution of the action concerning the individuals we’ve gotten to know. It deals with a form of slavery, and with a young person’s gradually understanding that he has been enslaved (encapsulated by a fellow’s repeated reminder that “he ain’t your uncle”). But the forces at play — German colonization, prior encroachment of Arab and Indian people, fragmentation, trade, survival, language—are complex, and it’s not easily reducible. Because the central character, Yusuf, only comes to understand the earlier parts of the narrative as he grows up, there are certainly things that I as a reader didn’t realize as I first encountered them. Another read is in order. 

Writers and Lovers by Lily King

I’m honestly not sure what to make of this. First–I couldn’t put it down. I was captivated. But then, I also had the sense I sometimes get that most of what it was doing was describing–extremely accurately–a painful experience. Here, it’s one that I clearly recognize, not because I’ve really endured it myself, but because it’s adjacent to certain parts of my life. Paths I’ve peered down. People I know well.

Casey, the narrator, is in her early 30s. She’s very literary, has a degree in creative writing, and is living in Cambridge trying to finish her first novel while being in debt, bereaved, and single, and working as a waitress at a high-end restaurant while writing for a few hours every morning. Those are my friends and classmates — and I’m the one she, perhaps a little derisively, brings up who bailed and went to law school. Plus, the setting is familiar, with mentions of a number of actual businesses in Harvard Square, Porter Square, Central Square, Inman Square, where I’ve spent some time.

She’s also struggling with the recent death of her mother, and her reckoning with who she’d been while alive, as well as her history with her father, who turned out to be a real creep. Add to that other ways in which she confronts her own mortality. She has palpable anxiety. She’s just holding on. There are just a whole lot of layers, mostly beautifully drawn.

Yet? Is there a yet? Maybe it’s just a knee-jerk resistance to writing about writers. Maybe it’s that, for all the strands, it ends up feeling a little too neat. So much so that I actually wonder whether it’s even intended, in its ending, to be realist, or whether we’ve somehow veered into the fantasy life of the narrator.

It’s not especially original, but it is just so searingly accurate in describing something familiar, and so complex, with so many carefully imagined (or recalled?) angles and details surfacing throughout, that that doesn’t matter. Originality is probably overrated. These aren’t complaints. I loved it. I read it fast. Maybe I’ll read it again.

And anyway, I was sold before I started, because dear Liz had tipped me off to a little love letter to Faulkner that arises in the text. (Which was weird, because that also happened in the Sigrid Nunez book I just finished.)

What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez

It feels like Nunez is essentially riffing here. There is a narrator, and there is a front story, but a lot of the book is consumed with her repeating stories others have told, primarily on the theme of death and the meaning of life (super light-weight). The stories echo against each other and against the front story (which, while perhaps not central, feel necessary to hold the book together as a novel, and is in fact interesting and propulsive).

It seems to be going for commentary on the universal, as none of the characters have names (just “my friend” and “my ex” and “the woman”). It has no explicit connection to The Friend, but it has very much the same voice. This isn’t a book for those who want, in their fiction, only to experience things and not to talk about them at all. As is often the case with books about writers, the reflection is often quite explicit. But it still comes through story, and it’s still enjoyable to read and, improbably, rather funny at times.

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

A group of graduate students are cruel to one another in an astonishing variety of ways over the course of a weekend. This book’s greatest weaknesses is that that’s really what happens, in the pages, in the scenes. Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that—it’s centered on intimate and nuanced explorations of the intersections of race, class, sexuality, gender, and culture, and some moments are pretty uncomfortable to read because the criticism is so spot-on (with the anger and resigned sadness that go with it).

All of that is incredibly valuable and belongs in the literary conversation, far more than it is (although I think there’s been progress in that realm, in terms of what sorts of books are getting attention and recognition). But as a novel? I’m not sure this quite gets me there. Taylor depicts prolonged arguments where two people are just touchy, reactive jerks to each other, for pages and pages. We can see behind that to some degree, to the pain and trauma that leads them to act that way, but that makes it emotionally astute, not narratively successful. I came away with the feeling that I had seen a situation, a person, a culture depicted quite vividly and astutely, that I had seen a piercingly accurate recreation of an all-to-common and damaging dynamic, but not that I had read a story.

This is Taylor’s first novel. I hope he takes these considerable skills and insights with him and journeys into deeper adventures of plot and structure.

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

The primary emotion in this book for me was sadness. There’s no great single tragic event–it’s just a detailed, nuanced picture of a situation that is entirely common (working-class family; domestic violence; alcoholism; a gay kid), and things happen more or less the way you might imagine, if you thought to imagine such things.

It’s one of those books where the prose just stays out of the way of the characters. They are sometimes odd but utterly believable, and memorable. There’s no description, no exposition–if we’re told what someone looks like, it’s because the character is noticing it. The whole thing feels incredibly intimate, and its scope is in some ways very small–a handful of people, an unremarkable existence–but also enormous, because it exposes so the whole worlds and universes contained in what seems ordinary. Full of pain though it is, the book never descends into despair, and though it shows us some of the worst of people, it also shows some of the best.

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

I had high hopes, not just because of the National Book Award nomination but because the premise has a lot of potential — but like so many contemporary novels, it was so dominated by the “issues” it addresses that it truly lacked in character, and for me, that’s fatal.

There’s a sense I get when the author is describing a character’s flaws, or inaccurate self-perception, or delusions, or shame, that the author thinks he fully understands it, and it’s relatively simple, but the character doesn’t see it. And that kind of contempt-for-character is very off-putting for me.

Here, we have a modern well-off white family renting a vacation house, and the house’s owners show up, explaining there is some kind of unknown but potentially apocalyptic emergency unfolding in the city. There’s no TV, internet, or cell service, and it unfolds from there. But it uses a bizarre omniscient narration style, jumping from person to person even within a chapter or scene and telling us what characters are thinking and why, with a level of judgment that just doesn’t work for me. Sure, tell us what each person is experiencing, but we don’t need all the commentary. And we don’t need the speeches about race, gender roles, parenting, and human nature. This book is a sledgehammer when I’d prefer a bird gently landing, watching, wondering.

The Boy in the Field by Margot Livesey

It doesn’t feel fair to say I didn’t like this much. There are a lot of good things about it, and the general area–adolescents coining to terms in different ways with violence and betrayal–is ever-fruitful. It even has whodunit aspect, which can really propel an otherwise-dragging literary novel. The characters are (mostly) vivid and the prose is strong. And yet.

I think my real problem is that each of the three siblings portrayed here was to confined to whatever particular thing was troubling him or her, and their manifestations were overly convenient. Zoe is doing love and intimacy, so she both discovers her parents’ affair and gets involved a romance with an inconvenient subject. Matthew is doing violence, so he obsessively hunts for the perpetrator of a crime, is haunted by memories of a friend’s abusive father, and studies fencing. And Duncan, the youngest, both adopts a dog from an owner who may or may not be coming back and searches out his birth mother.

It starts with an incident with the three of them together, and ends with a huge costume ball where almost every character shows up and things get much more resolved than they should. Then it goes even farther and gives us an 8-years-later epilogue that ties everything up even more neatly. And–horror of horrors–it has a character who gets obsessed with a particular philosopher and makes proclamations about what he would’ve said about the various situations. (Usually when writers do this is Schopenhauer. This time it’s Spinoza.)

Interesting ideas, I guess, but far too neatly constructed for my taste.

A Burning by Megha Majumdar

Well, this book was devastating. It’s not terribly long, but it’s dense. You’re instantly thrown into the midst of the lives of three characters whose lives intersect, but only glancingly. I couldn’t put it down, even as the horrors piled up. It also pulls off a plot point that turns heavily on facebook without a hitch—something a lot of writers seem to struggle with.

It’s also rare to have a novel so squarely addressing social problems without ever feeling like that was how it came to be–because it’s so personal, so specific, so eminently plausible, which makes it all the more horrifying. And somehow, it’s also funny. And beautifully written. It’s rare to have this kind of fully baked self-assuredness in a debut.