So far this month I buried a friend, held a baby, was reminded of winter, got my father to eat at a vegetarian restaurant for what I suspect was the first time in his life, attended a tennis tournament, and read the following books…
The Enlightened Army by David Toscana – An embittered teacher sets out with a handful of halfwits to reconquer Texas for Mexico. Less Quixotical satire and more slap-sticky depictions of the developmentally disabled, this felt like a misstep from a talented novelist, but it also seems reasonably possible it would resonate more for another reader.
The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim – Four women escape from banal existence to an idyllic foreign locale, find love, in what I gather is the ur-text for this enormously popular sub-genre. The premise is shlocky as hell but Arnim is a good writer, there are some funny lines, and the whole thing is so deliberate in its absurdity that you’d have to be an utter ass not to forgive the melodrama.
The Evening Wolves by Joan Chase – The episodic reflections of two girls seeking to escape the pull of their mercurial father/the potent danger of men. Joan Chase is an almost excessively talented writer, and this is an ambitious book in both structure and language, but it didn’t quite come together for me. The competing complexities ended up feeling awkward and inharmonious, less than the sum of its parts. Still, I admire the attempt, as well at the raw talent, and I’ll pick something up by Chase again soon.
A Long Way from Home by Peter Carey – A haus frau, her husband, and a quiz show winner enter a competition to drive around Australia, discovering an unknown country and their own hidden secrets. I didn’t love it; the premise itself is a little too much of an elevator pitch, and it sprawls out in a lot of different directions. Another book by a talented writer that I didn’t actually like very much.
Popular Hits of the Showa Era by Ryu Murakami – A band of failed adolescents engage in a bloody feud with a pack of shallow middle-age women, with both sides finding meaning in escalating acts of savagery. So many books have explored this sort of territory, murder as a reaction against modernity, that it seems almost to be a noir sub-genre, but rarely can I recall an entry this strong. Murakami is genuinely funny, a distinction few of his competitors can claim, and although his characters are utterly awful they’re also sympathetic enough that you feel complicit in their crimes. Strong recommendation, if the subject matter doesn’t immediately put you off.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee – The story of several generations of Koreans struggling to survive immigration to Japan. It’s….OK. It’s readable and the subject matter is interesting, but the prose is workmanlike at best, with every character speaking in the same too-clear voice, and themes and motivations being clarified by a sort of oppressively obvious narrator.
Prater Violet by Christopher Isherwood – A novelist pens a shlocky period piece with an Austrian refugee in the days before the Anschluss. Sweeter than the normal ‘writer sells his soul to Hollywood’ story, it was also funnier and generally more thoughtful, a sweet, optimistic depiction of the genuine capacity for creation to lead to hope. Regarding writing as being primarily a form of mental self-hygiene which keeps me daily adrift, I admit I was probably particularly charmed by the moral, but I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying it. My first Christopher Isherwood but not my last.
The Strangers in the House by Simenon – A reclusive lawyer is forced back into the hurly burly of existence when a murder takes place in his house. Simenon is really, really good, and this is fabulous, at once a genuinely compelling noir and a serious take on the common impulse to retreat in contempt before the banal idiocy of human contact. Loved it, strong rec.
The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahmi – A wife reveals her secrets to her comatose, war-wounded husband, in this sincere if somewhat didactic lament for the circumstances of Afghani woman. I thought it lacked the pulse that the best of these sorts of confessional novels tend to have, and the heroine was too nakedly an archetype, but the structure was interesting and some of the fantastical/esoteric bits worked better.
Gork, the Teenage Dragon by Gabe Hudson – Sometimes I wonder if my determination to read every book I start is less a life hack to get me to explore literary corners I’d otherwise ignore and more an exercise in intellectual masochism. Anyway, I read this.
Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates – A faintly gauzed re-telling of that time Ted Kennedy ran his car off the Chappaquiddick ferry, killing a woman he met at a cocktail party. I never read anything about Joyce Carol Oates, and I feel like we’re all supposed to have an opinion about her, but I can’t remember what it is. Anyway, apart from the rather sordid premise, this is excellent, the heroine deftly and grimly sketched, the language taught, its evocation of a certain yuppie east coast set done fabulously, even in a very slender volume. I hope my opinion of Oates maintains the common wisdom, because I liked this quite a bit and will grab another of hers directly.
True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey – A false autobiography of Australia’s most famous freedom fighter/bank robber, told in a breakneck vernacular. Carey can write, and the idiom he works out here is accomplished, but it kind of lost my interest in the back half. Which is weird because the back half is where most of the shooting takes place. Anyway it’s not bad, it just didn’t block me out of my shoes.
A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood – A day in the life of an aging academic, struggling with the death of his longtime lover and his own mortality. Fabulous—a beautiful commentary on love, loss, modernity, California, universities, youth, aging, death, basically everything. Every line is clever, Isherwood creates vivid characters in a handful of sentences, his meditations on existence lyrical and profound. Strong rec.