Upstate by James Wood
Alan–a divorced and now re-partnered father of two adult daughters–goes with the younger daughter, Helen, to visit the older one, Vanessa, whose newish boyfriend has summoned them out of concern. (Vanessa, it seems, is depressed.) The craft is technically well executed, as one would expect from a critic who wrote a book called How Fiction Works, and the emotional truths often quite resonant–Alan navigates a business proposal from Helen and the as-yet-undisclosed knowledge that Vanessa’s boyfriend is in fact on the way out. It’s a book of talk, not a book of action.
My complaints, such as they are, are to do with things being at times a little too explicit or on the nose. Vanessa is a philosophy professor, which allows for a (to me unwelcome) aside with some of Woods’ thoughts on thoughts. And then there are the evangelical Christian next-door neighbors, conveniently placed to bring up another favorite Wood topic. And when Alan needs a bit of a jolt–oh, good, a car accident. None of that is wrong, per se; it’s just perhaps a bit wanting in imagination.
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
So incredibly engaging–yes, it’s a book about the AIDS epidemic, but it’s so personal. It’s truly a story about Yale, and perhaps even more, about Fiona, and what this major historical (if ongoing) event did to them. It was obviously meticulously researched, but I never felt like he’d put details in there just because she knew them. I never detected an off note in the whole 400 pages, never a word choice that tripped me up. There were a lot of characters, but she made it easy to keep clear on who was who. The necessary questions were answered with minimal fuss (where are Yale’s parents?) and the whole thing maintains an engaging plot, both within and across storylines. I trust her–she knows things.
One other thing about this book–she’s talked some in interviews about the choice to give over a decent part of the book to the experience of a straight white woman wrapped up in all this. Sure, one could criticize that–but I see it as a good use of the Shreve principle — after the Faulkner character, a northerner whose experience of Mississippi lets a reader understand in a way he couldn’t if he had no guide whose experience is perhaps more familiar. It takes real talent for a writer to capture both the inside and semi-outside perspectives of a culture at the same time, in the same book.
The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman
I liked the idea of this book–a group of six childhood friends, one of them dies, the other five come back for the funeral–but I found the execution lacking. It seemed that various different balances were off–between past and present, for instance, or among the different characters. Two of them were drawn with more detail, which left the other three feeling like sketches, almost like afterthoughts (or, in their worst moment, like caricatures). And the notion that these enormously different people had stayed in touch into their 30’s somehow without telling each other the essential contours of their lives just didn’t ring true for me.
Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday
This book is unusual in a lot of ways, but the one that surprises me the most is that it is a concept book in many ways, but it is absolutely engaging on the level of scene and character. There has been a lot of talk about the novel’s themes and messages–what novelists can and can’t do, power dynamics between men and women, east and west, blurred lines between imagination and reality–but for me all that would have failed if Halliday had not written, first and foremost, an engaging story about a love affair, and a second engaging story about an Iraqi American navigating the early 2000’s and recalling earlier parts of his life. The Alice/Ezra section grabbed me in particular in the way it revealed information–never with exposition or even really any interiority, but through offhand remarks or subtle cues. All the more cerebral stuff is a bonus.
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.