Who Is Rich by Matthew Klam

Rich–an early-40’s illustrator/cartoonist, married with two kids and never enough money–returns to a yearly arts conference in a Provincetown-like setting where he teaches. And sleeps with a woman who is a zillionaire. (And falls in love with her?) Well-worn ground–tepid self-flagellation, self-pity stuff. It’s to some degree satirical–at least I hope so–and that’s a mode that rarely works for me, especially when it’s ambiguous (or ambivalent?) Klam is a skilled writer, but I’m not sure he actually had much to say.

The Ensemble by Aja Gabel

A pleasant, enjoyable novel about a string quartet, centering on the musicians’ relationships over the course of their lives/careers, looking at love, art, family, sacrifice–nothing earth-shattering, but it held my attention. It also managed to pull off feeling like all four members were equally central characters–no small feat. If I have complaints, they are occasional over-writing and some degree of predictability. (And do I feel unsatisfied by the novel’s careful refusal to pick a hero? That’s clearly the point–but I’m not sure.)

The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon

Will, an ex-evangelical college student, andPhoebe, with whom he falls in love–Phoebe drawn into Jejah, a cult that is vaguely connected to North Korea. I had two problems with the book. The first one–which may not be totally fair–is that the jacket copy says, “When the group bombs several buildings in the name of faith, killing five people, Phoebe disappears.” But that happens on page 170, our of only 210. What seems like it should be the set-up for the book (the author of the jacket copy certainly thought so) is actually its climax. The run-up is long, the part that seems more interesting very compressed. The second problem is that I just never believed it. I think if you’re going to write something kind of sensational, you need either to include enough detail to make it eminently real and plausible, or to write with an unwavering authority. Kwon does neither. Moments of drama are glossed over so smoothly you could miss them, motivations are incomplete or insufficient, and the facts just don’t seem tethered to the reality of what would happen in this situation. Oh well.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

I have to say, this was delightful. It chronicles decades of the life of Count Alexander Rostov, under house arrest in the Metropol Hotel–but somehow, barely leaving the building, it’s full of adventure. Adventure arrives–people enter from the world–but largely, he makes it himself.

The book is old-fashioned–it is in possession of a third-person narrator prone to making observations about general truths, for instance–but in a way that feels comfortable, not stodgy. It plays explicitly with the tropes of Russian literature, invoking Chekhov and Tolstoy repeatedly. It is long, and concerns itself wit human experience not defined by time or place. And it simply tells stories.

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

This is the story (is story the word?) of Nathaniel and his sister Rachel, abandoned by their parents in London at the end of World War II, as teenagers. The first half narrates this era in Nathaniel’s experience, with the two men who are looking after them, known to the siblings as The Moth and The Darter.

In the second half, Nathaniel in his 20’s reconstructs what actually happened during that time. His mother, it turns out, was a spy. But none of this is narrated in very straightforward ways. There aren’t many actual scenes. Rather, there are impressions. Layers of experience. It’s a book that settles upon you like mist, rather than raindrops falling on your face.

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.