Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon
Yohan, a Korean war refugee, moves to a coastal down in Brazil. . . and then, nothing happens. For the rest of the book. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (although lately I’ve preferred books with more drama) — it’s quiet, and meditative, and when you learn things about the characters, it’s quiet and often without fanfare. Mostly, we don’t learn all that much about them, although we do eventually learn a bit about what everyone has lost. It’s rare to read a book with such a light touch. I read somewhere that the first draft was more than 500 pages (this final version is only about 200). I’m really curious about what was cut. The critical consensus has been that the spareness of it is a virtue, but at times I was a little frustrated by it.
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
My first thought–which turned out to be widely shared among early readers, and even perhaps the author–was that this was half As I Lay Dying (southern gothic road trip) and half Beloved (literal ghosts here to address racial injustice). Not surprisingly to anyone who knows me, I liked the road trip part and could honestly do without the ghosts. It’s just not to my taste. But the language is lovely and lyrical. The characters are vivid. I think she hit what she was heading for.
Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
I didn’t realize this was going to be linked stories. There’s some irony to the fact that I didn’t really enjoy that. The pieces are linked tangentially through minor characters, geographically through their setting in Amgash, Illinois, and thematically (there’s a lot of sexual betrayal and indiscretion among the various kinds of pain explored in this book). But ultimately I want a novel to have a center of gravity and I couldn’t find one here. I felt like we were wandering rather than progressing. Which is a perfectly fine kind of book to write, but it’s not the kind I especially like to read.
Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson
The story of Dr. Preston Grind, Izzy, and the Infinite Family Project–10 families living together and co-parenting all their children. Entertaining enough as books go, but it didn’t dig much beyond the premise. It lacks the endearing black comedy of The Family Fang.
Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides
Most of these stories aren’t new. There are ten stories total. One or two I’d read before, and several have familiar characters (a doctor from Middlesex; boys from The Marriage Plot). None of them blew me away, although they were solid and enjoyable. I think Eugenides is at his best as a novelist, as none of these stories have the tightness, the economy that defines the very best of the form. Oddly, my favorite of the collection is (I think?) the oldest, from 1988 — “Capricious Gardens,” with the sort of classic set-up of an unlikely group of people arriving together in a house for the evening. Many of the others felt like they were snapshots, pieces of a larger world, which in some cases we know them to be, and in others, well, maybe they are and maybe they’re not. Who’s to say.
Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash
Reminded me of The Art of Fielding and The Goldfinch at the same time. (college sports; unhinged orphan). The narrator is a senior in college without any family or long-term plans or even goals past the current (final) wrestling season. He’s paranoid and unreliable–but I found myself worrying about him, if he’d be okay, even after I finished the book, so he must’ve done something right. It was also really quite suspenseful.
A House Among the Trees by Julia Glass
Richly drawn portrait of Tomasina, the assistant to famed children’s author/illustrator Mort Lear, who dies at the beginning of the book, and leaves Tommy his house–and responsibility for his estate. It resolves, present-plot-wise, around the bequest, or lack thereof, to a museum, but the real rich material is elsewhere, in the life of the actor who plays Mort in a movie, in Tommy’s childhood. I ultimately felt it had too many points of view; I’d have jettisoned the sad single museum curator. Maybe necessary for the plot to fully materialize, but a detriment to focus on the most compelling material.