The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed

I read very little ultra-contemporary fiction, but this was a gift. I started with some trepidation, but a personal connection to the Cardiff Jewish community (part of my extended family ended up in Wales in the 1880s) kept me going, and it proved rewarding. Mohamed’s reconstruction of the inner life of the protagonist, Mattan, on trial for murder in 1950s Cardiff, is quite good. She uses some particular stylistic devices (having to do with grammar)… some readers may find it distracting, and numerous times I had to resist the temptation to check whether she was being consistent in the usage (like in the movies when a villain sometimes has a “cockney” accent and sometimes doesn’t, you know that feeling?). in the end I decided to just trust the author an immerse myself in the novel, and I read the last 150 pages in one sitting (yes I am tired this morning). A difficult novel to read, for a variety of reasons, but definitely rewarding, and deservedly on many prize and “best of 2021” lists.

Here is a nice blog review that I don’t disagree with.

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Sea of Tranquility, Emily St. John Mandel

Got this last week, and immediately devoured it in two nights. Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St. John Mandel is a clever, minimal sci-fi novel. it leverages the same characters as The Glass Hotel (I was glad I had read that before). In the end, though, the novel is slight (and indeed, some pages just have a single short paragraph… supposed to be somewhat poetic, but just felt like she was under a deadline to deliver and her agent said fuck it your readers don’t really care. But at the end, the reader does care. The craft and amazingly careful composition that went into Station Eleven are absent here, and instead w get an absorbing but very slight novel with quite limited engagement of a major and important sci-fi theme. If you are going to do sci-fi, don’t do it lazily like this, or like that similar novel The Anomaly (the French one about the rupture). Sci-fi isn’t like deciding to have your character visit Rome so you can have a few paragraphs as backdrop… Just because you (the author) thinks that sci-fi should be written as if the sci-fi was just an incidental external trigger for character development, the reader does not.

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No Longer Human, by Osamu Dazai

Somehow I stumbled across a reference to No Longer Human, by Osamu Dazai so I ordered it from the library. Interesting novel from 1948 Japan. The narrator has lost interest in humans, but still must make his way through the world… dissolute, his family gradually cuts ties… handsome, he finds women ready to enable his self-destructive alcoholism. Think Nicholas Cage Leaving Las Vegas but more picturesque and self-reflective? But at the end of the day, not that different. The real life author commits suicide. At the end of the day, we (the reader) don’t take away much more than “some of our fellow humans sure do go through this burden of life in depressive self-absorption made worse by their acute consciousness of how different they are… and their inability to change.”

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“Annunciation” by Lauren Groff in The New Yorker

Not exactly sure why, but “Annunciation” by Lauren Groff in the February 2022 The New Yorker may be currently up there as my most-appreciated short story in a couple years. The story is ultra-real, but the reader is simultaneously aware that it is a kind of fairy-tale. (That Griselda lives in the main house, with her mastiff, is both ultra-real and ultra-metaphor.) Only three things happen: the narrator leaves home to go to San Francisco after college graduation, she moves to Palo Alto to live in a backyard cottage, and she works in an office setting. Within those events, though, a whole world is constructed, of feeling and interior life. The rush of backwards-looking assessment at the end I found breathtaking (and for me echoed Hemingway’s sudden looking back at the end of A Moveable Feast). The people at Mookse have some nice commentary.

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A couple of The New Yorker short stories (Cynthia Ozick and Tessa Hadley)

I have been catching up on reading short stories in The New Yorker, one of my favorite past-times. Cynthia Ozick’s story, “The Biographer’s Hat,” is a Broolyn-esque Singer-esque story about lonely lives in the urban penumbra. An interesting window into the 1950s, also.

Tessa Hadley’s story, “After the Funeral,” continues with her characteristic (for me) brief pivots of point of view (like Godard’s device, I suppose, in film in the 1960s). This is a rich, complex family dynamic story, and I bet about a third of all people in wealthy (non-village) countries would recognize the dynamic for themselves or someone they know. I am sure family systems therapists have whole books on the “case.”

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The Genome Odyssey, by Euan Angus Ashley

If you are interested in a nice book-length but very readable anecdotal explainer of where we humans are in 2022 in terms of applying genomics to medicine, this is the book for you. Ashley effectively communicates the amazing advances in scientific understanding and, more importantly, technology. These have enabled quite inexpensive individual genome sequencing and consequently detection of dozens, if not hundreds, of relevant mutations in the genome’s of a small percentage of people (but with almost 8 billion humans, a small percentage is a lot of people!) that might be life-threatening, and that appear to be likely to be treatable in the very near future.

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Enchanted Night, by Stephen Millhauser

A short, lyrical novel, about an enchanted night. My kids remember him as the clever narrator of his The New Yorker story, “The Maker of Miniatures.” This is, likewise, a miniature, full of feeling for the warm summer nights of the East Coast. Reading it makes you want to set your alarm for 3am and go for a long walk in that undiscovered country.

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Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

I had read this decades ago, and largely forgotten how interesting the narrator’s voice is, and how refreshing is the style. Worth a re-read if it has been awhile.

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Several recent excellent The New Yorker stories

The New Yorker seems back to form, after what seemed like (to me) a string of stories I was not that keen on. I really liked “The Ukraine” by Artem Chapeye (it just gives a feeling of warmth and love, despite being about death) and “Wood Sorrel House” by Zach Williams (one of those stories of the uncanny, slightly Grimm-like). But OMFG the story by Camille Bordas, “One Sun Only” was pure amazing incredible perfect short story, both in acknowledgment of the form, and in the content. Beautiful style and voice. Normally I dislike stories featuring children (too easy, and Zach Williams story in that sense is a bit ‘too easy’). But this one is insightful and honest.

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The year’s best science fiction, 2018, edited by Gardner Dozois

I am a big fan of science fiction short story anthologies. But this edition, The year’s best science fiction, 2018, edited by Gardner Dozois, proved disappointing. I did not read all of the stories (almost 670 pages), but started with earlier ones and authors I recognized. I jumped first to Robert Reed, a sci-fi author I really enjoy, but his story was quite disappointing and seemed a bit incoherent. Nancy Kress and Maureen McHugh delivered good solid stories, but . A style I enjoy (think leGuin) was nicely replicated in a story “The Road to the Sea,” by Lavie Tidhar. I liked a story by R.S. Benedict, “My English Name” about identity transformation. “An Evening with Severyn Grimes,” by Rich Larson was a somewhat entertaining action cyber-thriller… Same for “Vanguard 2.0” by Carter Scholz, which took a small idea an captured it nicely, but I prefer Maureen McHugh’s insistence that small characters do not have to be paired with billionaires and emperors to make a story interesting. Just let the small character be a small character. Michael Swanwick and Linda Nagata do that, in “Starlight Express” and “The Martian Obelisk,” respectively, though the overwhelming emotions that leads to the final acts (in each story) are not well-developed, in my opinion. Naomi Kritzer did a better job in “Waiting out the end of the world in Patty’s Place cafe.” “Night Passage” by Alistair Reynolds was a nice story about living with a decision that was not really yours to make; living as a survivor, I guess.

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When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut

When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut starts as the best Wikipedia entry you ever read, circling and linking, and as a reader you are compelled to just keep going. Then abruptly the pace slows, because the science is getting more entangled and quirky, just as the lives of those involved seem to defy linear narrative. By the end, the reader finds that everything, facts, emotions, biography, science, gets all mashed up. A book that probably rewards several close readings. If you imagined Borges being paid to write non-fiction for The New Yorker with John McPhee as his editor-colleague, this is definitely right up that alley.

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Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss is a very short novel, heartbreaking to read. Beautiful prose, with narrator a young high school student Silvie who has joined her parents and some university students as they “recreate” living as the ancient Britons might have (think 2000 BC, Stonehenge-y times). The most frightening passage comes about two-thirds through, as the dark clouds gather. one of the university girls [yes, I use that word deliberately in this context] remarks: “I just think a lot it’s boys playing in the woods. Your dad and Jim, have you noticed, they’re not much interested in the foraging and cooking, they just want to kill things and talk about fighting, why would I take it seriously?” Silvie’s thought, clearly establishing her short lifetime of experience, is: “Because they are in charge…” It is a scary book.

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Hell In A Very Small Place by Bernard Fall

Hell In A Very Small Place by Bernard Fall is an account of the battle of Battle of Dien Bien Phu which if you want to read a metaphor for Ukraine in 2022, with all the attendant military, diplomatic, and political complexities, well, here it is. Including possibilities of nuclear weapons and escalation. The account is exhaustive: the kind of book you skim and read selective chapters or sections, rather than straight through.

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The Glass Hotel, by Emily St. John Mandel

The Glass Hotel, by Emily St. John Mandel was quite a disappointment after Station Eleven (which I realize I read almost two years ago). She is an excellent writer, but the whole novel my mind kept saying, “ok, ok, enough setup, when is the actual novel going to start…” And it never did. Characters were introduced, put through their paces in the context of the Madoff ponzi scheme, and then, well, that was it. There really was no denouement and the small mystery that may have been very important as was constantly hinted at throughout the novel turned out to not be very important.

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Short story: Arthur Krystal, What’s the Deal, Hummingbird?

The short story by Arthur Krystal, What’s the Deal, Hummingbird?, in The New Yorker, is a huge advance over the 1920s stream of consciousness modernist innovations, for the 2022 audience of people like me. it is perfectly done. Short. Resonant. Just the right ending. It might seem self-indulgent. But that’s what a self is, after all.

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The Hundred Wells of Salaga by Ayesha Harruna Attah

The Hundred Wells of Salaga, by Ayesha Harruna Attah, is a short novel of two young women in Ghana during the pre-colonial era, as slave-raiders and Europeans jockey for power with traditional chiefs and their kingdoms confronting new weapons and forms of social organisation. A bit too sexually explicit for younger readers (and probably that includes Ghanian secondary school?). I didn’t find anything super special about the novel. It is definitely a challenge to get the interior voice of young women in 1890 with low literacy (one of the women is a princess of a small zone, and is literate in Arabic)… what we have here is not Baba of Karo.

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After the Apocalypse by Maureen McHugh

I’ll confess sensitive and carefully written character studies of people stuck in near-future zombie dystopias is not really my genre, but McHugh is masterful at it. After the Apocalypse by Maureen McHugh. “Special Economics,” about production organization in a near-future (or alt-reality) China, just plausible enough, would be a good teaching short story. “Useless Thing,” is also a very sadly au courant short story about how ordinary people will likely handle social disruption.

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Oaxaca Journal by Oliver Sacks

Unless you happen to be traveling to Oaxaca, I would avoid this light and self-indulgent book, Oaxaca Journal, by Oliver Sacks. Not much here other than travel diary with sketch portrayals of companions and very amateurish anthropological observations.

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“Once Removed” by Alexander MacLeod in The New Yorker, Feb 7 2022

Since lately I and a few other members of my very extended family have taken an interest in our ancestors’ hejira from Kaunas to Cardiff (or thereabouts), this story resonated. “Once Removed” by Alexander MacLeod in The New Yorker, Feb 7 2022 is about relations, life, the past, our identity, what is unsaid. Very nice rendering of the complex sentiment.

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The Friends of Eddie Coyle, by George Higgins

I read The Friends of Eddie Coyle, by George Higgins, for my neighborhood book club. Tremendous fun, although the white male default perspective is often alarming, and you can see why someone might decide they were just going to read Walter Moseley, Chester Himes, or Tana French if they wanted to read this genre. Higgins crafts the hardboiled crime novel by using a distinctive style, mostly dialogue, eschewing all help for the reader, who is presumed to know all the context for what they are reading. As a very avid reader of course one can really enjoy that. Empirically, I wonder if someone who was not fully accultured to American popular culture and history of the 1960s-70s would enjoy reading the novel, or whether it would require frequent, “Wait what is this?”

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