The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
I did this on audio, which I don’t think did it justice. It’s too easy to lose track of a non-linear narrative. Maybe it’s just the subject matter but I kept thinking of Faulkner. The prose and the characters are engaging, the subject obviously important, especially now–but in the end I think I just don’t care for fiction, especially historical fiction, that literalizes a figurative struggle. It’s ultimately the same beef I have with Toni Morrison (to whom I have heard him compared). So Oprah notwithstanding, it just isn’t my style, but that doesn’t diminish its accomplishment.
The First Bad Man by Miranda July
First of all–weird. So, so weird. That’s not inherently bad, and there’s something intriguing about articulating the moments of strangeness we all have. But I like it better as a short story. The weird, slightly crazy, lonely middle aged woman who develops an obsession with some sexual/romantic angle–it’s like Claire Messud‘s The Woman Upstairs in that way–I didn’t much like that one either. I have to be clear–it’s not that I don’t like books by or about women. It’s this particular brand of it.
The Trespasser by Tana French
Sometimes I just want a good well written murder mystery that has skillful prose and some actually developed characters. There’s certainly a whodunnit here, but there’s also a decent amount of exploration of feminism, individualism, and family tragedy. Antoinette Conway, the lead detective, is really an interesting character for me — her almost lust for independence, her toughness, her actually needing help at at certain point — and Aislinn, the victim she’s trying to figure out, might be a bit much, but for crime fiction I think it works. It has to be unlikely enough to make a whole novel out of, anyway.
Plus, Irish slang. Now I just want to go around talking about a young ‘un, a bit on the side, someone doing a runner. Lots of fun.
The Mothers by Britt Bennett
Shockingly, this book seems to be about all the ways women can be (and not be) mothers–abortion, suicide, or infertility, infidelity, occupying the position of elder, going against what would otherwise be your principles to help your child. It’s hard to believe that such a concept-heavy book complete with a Greek chorus of mothers in the church can actually read like an authentic exploration of a friendship and a love triangle (Aubery, Luke, Nadia Turner). But it does–it is character driven despite all the concept. Thinking about why that is will surely take time. And I won’t say it’s all about gender. But women surely do this a higher percentage of the time than men do.
My Brilliant Friend by Eleana Ferrante
Time passes quickly, often not even really defined by specific moments, but through the succession of short chapters, of what you could almost call summary, in simple language, a very vivid picture of a person, a neighborhood, a whole culture–which is fascinating because it’s translated, and comes out of a culture surely much more familiar with this way of life than I am. The book is contemporary but it feels old fashioned–not in a bad way. It’s a kind of novel nobody is writing much anymore, at least not in English.
Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer
This was one of those books with nothing wrong with it that I just didn’t like very much. It’s written well, it has a plot and a structure, but it just all feels too thinky. It’s about something other than the people in it (in this case, Judaism). I can’t help but believe that the ideas came first, and the characters were created to convey them. He set out to write a book about Judiaism (which really means male Judaism) and so he did, but the characters mostly feel like absurdly clever props. No one lives like that day to day. It has to be constructed, described in a way that incorporates revision. There are so many perfectly clever one-liners coming out of people’s mouths or, for that matter, articulated inside their heads, that it’s kind of exhausting to read.
Plus the long, drawn-out dying dog scene, of course. Can’t write a book without that these days.
The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Maharjan
Well that’s a bold undertaking. To write about terrorism from perspectives that include the terrorists, and even at times, makes them a little sympathetic, at the same time showing some victims who have qualities that aren’t sympathetic. It seems to have an over-arching point that’s right there in the title, that these small bombs are real and painful and worth discussing–but manages to do that while still feeling authentically character-driven and organic. I suppose that in itself is radical, the idea that every single person has authentic feelings and motivations and parents and embarrassments, even the ones who do terrible things on purpose. It’s not radical in my experience; a good chunk of my career is centered around doing exactly that. But it is radical in fiction. It’s a book about terrorism without a villain.
It also contains some gorgeous (at times overly gorgeous?) prose.