I want to write a lot more about this short novel, but for here I’ll just say I loved it, and appreciated all the word play. I mentioned in our book group discussion, that for me, one of the neat things about this book was to take a perspective: What if the author made everything up? Because the reader assumes throughout “Oh it must be kind of autobiographical.” But what if instead a really talented writer sat down to write a novel about “What would it be like to have been a teenager with a friend like Silsby?” Pure brilliance.
Our book club is reading these. The writing is fine. The ideas are less to my liking. Let me just say that reading them during a pandemic when your are socially distant, and where you and by nature quite introverted, it isn’t really… er… appreciated when some gregarious rich guy from the 19th century points out that your life is probably just a complete waste because you don’t have a lot of close intimate friends and that when you die people’s first thoughts might be, “Gee, I was looking forward to tennis guess though I really should go to the funeral. Probably everyone else will be there so at least I’ll chat with so-and-so.” And the other stories pretty darn depressing too.
War Year by Joe Haldeman, published in 1972, is a tremendous short little novel loosely based, apparently, on Haldeman’s year in Vietnam. I got it from the library, and oddly it seems to have been classified in the Juvenile Literature section. It is far from juvenile, except that the main character is about 20, as so many other draftees were. The reality (boredom punctuated by horrific violence) of war is presented in 120 pages of clear, direct prose, with the blinders of a 20 year old from Oklahoma unvarnished. The treatment of minor African’-American and Vietnamese characters is truly a window into what was “acceptable discourse” in 1972 by the white majority. It is a novel that has to be run through to the end, without peeking. The end is really gut-wrenching. One page is all Haldeman needs. Here is a nice interview with Haldeman.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?Can I tell you instead of the best book I ever gave? My mother used to talk about the first grown-up book she read, at the age of 7. She remembered where she was when she finished it (at the end of the dining room table), what day it was (a Tuesday), and where her own mother was as she finally closed the book (outside, in the kitchen). It was called “Hetty Gray,” by Rosa Mulholland, and, some years after the internet made such things possible, I took a notion and sourced a copy in a shop in New Zealand. So one morning, deep into her 80s, my mother received a small parcel from the other side of the world that contained a book she had read at the age of 7, with no note or indication of the source. After she read it again, she told me, she remembered all the first half, but not the second.
Enjoyed the very short “Night Swim” by Anne Enright in The New Yorker. I listened to her reading the story, so I may have missed something, but it seemed a nice illustration of Hemingway’s omission approach…. the story is so true, that she doesn’t need to say much about the story that explained the before, you “know” what happened… Here is the link to Mookse.
And here is Beth Jeans Houghton “Night Swimmer”
And a great The New Yorker story about another night swim Lionel Shrivers “Kilifi Creek”: http://mookseandgripes.com/reviews/2013/11/18/lionel-shriver-kilifi-creek/
Reading some earlier novellas from the mid-1990s. Joe Haldeman’s “For White Hill” was a nice piece of “end of life” melancholy… when you are practically immortal but space is really big, it means there are still chances it will all be over, and how do you come to terms with that. A gathering of artists is the setting, and the story focuses on two of them.
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan is a nicely written adventure novel of ideas about how to understand the history of slavery, the human stain, through examining the lives of particular people involved in the peculiar institution. Some horrific descriptions, and then a nice tour through the mid 1800s…. A great novel for a young adult interested in history. A little bit of magical realism, but not much: the cover art actually suggests more than is there. Here is a nice review from The New Yorker. The prose is fine. Not as impressively original as Hilary Mantel but the consistency in maintaining the style Edugyan adopted is quite good.
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue is a fine “American” novel in that it is: (1) set in New York around the time of financial collapse, (2) the theme is basically about characters finding meaning in a consumerist culture without being terribly well-equipped either intellectually or artistically, and (3) the authorial or narrative stance is one of presenting the characters with empathy and good prose, but not aiming for much more.If you like that kind of novel this is for you.
I guess I am contrasting this kind of typical “American” novel with a variety of other kinds that I tend to prefer:
- Carefully crafted tragedy (Chinua Achebe, Elechi Amadi)
- Impressing with technique (Muriel Spark, Alan Garner)
- Theme is a “significant idea” (I think of good sci-fi this way)
- Fully immersive in character and language with interesting social structures (Rohan Mistry’s A Fine Balance, Vikram Seth A Suitable Boy, Tommy Orange, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Beppe Fenoglio, Jane Austen, Ursula LeGuin)
- Pure entertainment (the “world building” that sci-fi fanfasy readers like, and I am partial to intellectual time-travel novels)
- “Educational” (good historical fiction)
- The sharp sudden twist, reveal, insight (classic of the short story)
Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear is billed as a “space opera” and indeed it seems written with adaptation to Netflix in mind. Hard to explain otherwise the gratuitous “sexy space pirate” character (yes, that is what she is called in the novel, more than once to remind us… I was surprised when author didn’t have a character say, “Sort of like old Earth star Kristen Stewart with a short haircut who I saw once on the ‘vidartifact'” etc. I mean, they read novels in space 50,000 years from now but they don’t watch reruns of The Office? I get it, I’m a big reader too so a writer wants her heroes to also be readers… but….
Anyway, the novel is fine for beach or airplane or night reading. The writing could have benefited from good editing… several times I found myself saying, “Oh, didn’t I read that exact same exposition about 20 pages ago?” And the political economy and “who am I” sections are very lengthy and tedious and possibly only interesting if you are 16… which may be the intended audience. And Arlo Guthrie fans.
Semiosis by Sue Burke is a decent sci-fi novel of ideas: Earth colonists land on an Earth-like planet where there is little animal life but some plants have evolved sentience and have domesticated some animals….Writing is clear, story moves along well. The need for “adventure” and “conflict” generates some story lines that feel artificial. But easy enough to skim those parts…. Burke nicely captures just how quickly a small group of humans (and also another alien group) loses technology and has to go back to basic farming and subsistence.
The blurb on this novel by Tom Sweterlitsch, The Gone World, “Inception meets True Detective” says it all. You can almost feel the writing hurrying to meet some Netflix deadline for an original series. It’s a mess. Lots of great visuals, though the writing is only serviceable. But a good team of screenwriters can make it fairly reasonable as an 8 episode series. I’d certainly offer to help. There were so many places where it could have been improved. (I liked one Goodreads reviewer: “But there were just too many flaws:
~How did she never run into herself?” She jumps to alternate time lines a bunch of times and meets all kinds of characters from her other time lines but never even googles herself?
This book Down the Bright Way appeared in 1990. Reed’s Greatship series is one of my favorites, but I was disappointed in this book (which is not a Greatship story). The writing almost seems juvenile, rather than his more mature writing that privileges complexity of emotions, and characters grappling with gradual wisdom and empathy.
“How many genders are there?” Mr. Witt asked before turning and staring deadpan at the camera. Some people laughed and walked away. Most, knowing the camera was rolling, engaged.“As many as you want?” a recent Ph.D. student responded, a little confused to be confronted with this question.
So I really wonder what his reaction would be if you replied to Will Witt:
“Well, here in the U.S. most people take on one of two gender identities, but as you surely know there are small minorities that share gender identities that have historically been subject to violence, and have been marginalized and discriminated against. It is a blessing that our society is increasingly open rather than intolerant regarding these gender identities. Also, I am sure Will you know that many other societies around the world also have minority gendered subgroups that sometimes are quite different from ours. Will, you may also know that what you probably proudly label “the western tradition” is filled with prominent people who were uncomfortable with extreme binary gender representations and were comfortable with fluidity. Lastly, Will, as you know, for almost 150 years one of the mainstream gender identities of the U.S. was deemed, by members of the other gender identity, as being unworthy of the basic right that was supposedly one of the founding principles of the country, the right to vote. So when you ask your question, Will, maybe you should seek some truth, rather than a mocking laugh?”
First of my Christmas sci-fi books to be finished was Excession, by Iain Banks. Enjoyable but unlike others I found the exchanges between ship-minds to not be very interesting. They seem modeled entirely on message board banter of computer programmers. What is so interesting about that? Several plot lines seemed to never be tied up, several characters really had little to contribute. The Affront paradox never really gets resolved: can an author pose a major philosophical problem like that and then just pretend that it goes away? So the novel raises lots of interesting questions and has many great scenes and some good characters and complications. But for sci-fi fans only, I suppose.
I posted this on Twitter and though I would have as coherent paragraph. A quick response to Rep. Sensenbrenner (R,WI) oped.
Sensenbrenner purports to explain why he voted against the articles of impeachment. I wanted to carefully review his argument. He starts by saying that Kenneth Starr, independent counsel in Clinton case, conducted a very lengthy and nonpartisan investigation. Sensebrenner does not mention the Mueller report, nor applaud Mueller’s circumspection in leaving to Congress to determine whether there were impeachable offenses. He says “grand jury perjury was an impeachable offense” in Clinton case, but does not say whether he thinks secretly soliciting aid from a foreign government in investigating a rival is also, in his view, an impeachable offense. He then goes into several irrelevant paragraphs. (1) Many Democrats said they wanted to impeach Trump. OK… maybe they said that because President Trump pre-election repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of President Obama saying he was not born in the U.S.? So that is just rhetoric. Irrelevant para (2) – he says Trump “robbed of due process”…. pretty clear to any citizen that Pres. Trump remains perfectly free to go to court if his “rights” were violated. This is a “broad and flimsy” charge (see next…) Irrelevant para (3) – in his view articles are broad and flimsy, esp. article II because Democrats failed to let a court decide executive privilege… just like Sensebrenner rushed to declare “due process” violations before a court decided? Irrelevant para (4) “none of the articles allege that the president committed a crime.” Sensenbrenner could but does not tell us whether he thinks the primary charge of secretly soliciting aid from a foreign government in investigating a rival and using his office to further that aim is an impeachable offense against the oath of office Irrelevant para (5) Back at the ‘Democrats are bad.” And everyone should just wait until next Nov election.
So basically, he says nothing about the actual charges. Sorry, Republicans, you will have to do better than that. Please address the evidence directly.
One of the comments: “J’en ai les larmes qui coulent, je pense à mes parents, notamment à mon tendre et cher papa, toute mon enfance se résume dans ses chansons.”
“Jean Gesner Henry (May 10, 1925 – January 29, 1998), popularly known as Coupé Cloué, was a Haïtian singer, guitarist, and bandleader. He was known for defining a style of Haïtian compas music he called kompa mamba, and for the sometimes bawdy innuendo used in his songs. During his career, he was one of Haïti’s most prominent musicians, and found much success in West Africa as well.”
A very intellectual meta short story about the nature of stories. Some Borges, some Tolstoy, some Rayuela. I read it with intellectual interest, but at the end there was (for me) no emotional resonance. So what does one do with that? The very lyrical ending was wonderful. Fraia is a writer of talent and the translation by Zoe Perry seems excellent, Worth re-reading, esp. in light of LeClezio’s Nobel address The Forest of Paradoxes. See more at Mookse blog.
Elnathan John, Born on a Tuesday. I wrote this on Twitter, which seems enough: Finished Elnathan John’s novel Born on a Tuesday yesterday. Very powerful, great straightforward prose, keen insights. A tiny bit derivative of Allah n’est pas obligé but let’s call it sampling… Really worth reading. Guardian review here.
John LeCarre, A Legacy of Spies. Opened well, gripped me, until started to get maudlin and unintelligible towards the end. When the great “love of your life” is someone you only meet once, and pass an “enchanted” night with her, you know you are in the hands of some British dude-guy whose idea of men and women and their relationships was shaped by some Anglican cleric who was never in a relationship.
F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, Babylon Revisited. A couple of drunks from Charlie’s past ruin his plan to take back his daughter. I’m happy for the daughter, who will grow up idolizing “Dads” and hating “Aunt,” and thus be able to write interesting short stories when she majors in English at Barnard. That isn’t fair to “Scottie” but there it is.
A&P by John Updike. I had read this before, several times. But it captures something essential about white middle American life in the mid 1960s….
Very long. For the first 300 pages I was really enjoying it. My kind of novel: some science fiction (AI surveilled society), some time travel (to ancient times), some style (I had just finished Chandler, and as first Harkaway channeled some of that), lots of wordplay, and very intellectual. But… it went on and on, and after awhile I was jumping chunks of 3-4 pages, nope, nope, nope…. So where Jorge Luis Borges could have crafted the same story into 40 pages, Gnomon is about 670. I don’t regret spending a couple weeks on it. But you might.