The Books of February

Slade House — David Mitchell (2015)

Fans of Mitchell’s recent work will enjoy the lit­tle bumps against his Bone Clocks. I won’t spoil it by telling you how it ends but you’ll enjoy the fris­son of recog­ni­tion. Once every nine years a house appears in Slade Alley and one spe­cial per­son is allowed to enter. Except that entry might not be the best thing to hap­pen to you. Mitchel writes a tight book in four parts. Each part stand­ing alone as a nice­ly creepy short sto­ry and the whole mak­ing a part of the uni­verse estab­lished in the The Bone Clocks. Worthwhile for fans of Mitchell and the milder forms of horror.


Swing Time — Zadie Smith (2016)

We start with an unnamed nar­ra­tor (why that choice? and why did­n’t I notice), her self-educating moth­er and lov­ing if unam­bi­tious father. The arc of the book fol­lows the nar­ra­tor’s child­hood friend­ship with Tracey, root­ed in a love of dance and old musi­cals, through the end of the girls’ friend­ship in high school. Though they go their sep­a­rate ways there is a link between the two girls that con­tin­ues to influ­ence their lives. After col­lege our unnamed nar­ra­tor begins to work for a pop mega-star as a PA. She los­es much of her own life — sub­sumed by the require­ment that she ded­i­cate all her time and ener­gy to par­tic­i­pat­ing in the star’s life. Eventually com­ing to dis­cov­er that she has no life of her own. That rev­e­la­tion — that she has no life of her own and that she has thus not man­aged the dif­fi­cult work of matur­ing from a twenty-something free spir­it. (Was she ever real­ly free?) into the sort of direct­ed thirty-three year old that her edu­ca­tion and intel­li­gence sug­gest that she could have been. She los­es her job at thirty-three and must begin again at the stage most of us reach three or four years out of col­lege when our first jobs give way to a career.
This a book that has gar­nered mixed reviews. I did­n’t find the scene switch­ing (loca­tion and time) to be dif­fi­cult to fol­low. Smith’s writ­ing is quite clear enough to make her leaps per­fect­ly obvi­ous. And in gen­er­al I liked the writ­ing. I do wish that Smith had either come down hard­er on the ques­tion of west­ern “med­dling,” espe­cial­ly by the famous but igno­rant, in poor­er regions of the world or that she has stuck to the theme of dance and had actu­al­ly done some­thing with the title musi­cal. Swing Time.
I also thing that the book did­n’t need all that wrap­ping up. I was will­ing to let the sto­ry wind down to the denoue­ment of the nar­ra­tor being set adrift to find her­self at a late age. Rather than see­ing the mess unwinding.
Anyway — did I like the book? Yes. Did I like that char­ac­ters — sev­er­al of them no. Did I like the writ­ing — yes. So go read it and don’t be a wee­nie because the nar­ra­tor (hero­ine) isn’t a full per­son — she’s not meant to be.

A Thousand Splendid Suns — Khaled Hosseini (2007)

I liked A Thousand Splendid Suns but it was a ter­ri­ble strug­gle to deal with at moments. It is at its core the sto­ry of two women (Miriam and Laila) — a gen­er­a­tion apart — who have to deal with life shit­ting on them. And the shit is awful. There are some tru­ly awful human beings here. Not the trag­i­cal­ly flawed ones like Jalil (Miriam’s father) but the hus­band Rasheed is despi­ca­ble. Anyway — it’s a heart stop­ping book. You keep think­ing that things must work out, or that they can’t get worse and yet in a war-torn Kabul things can always get worse. Insights into the Afghan soul per­haps, but the things described are so uni­ver­sal that you nev­er feel left out or alien­at­ed. And you’ll cheer like mad when kar­ma and Rasheed final­ly run into one anoth­er head on, even if it is at great cost to all the oth­er char­ac­ters in the book.


The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper — Phaedra Patrick (2016)

Light weight, not too fill­ing, not even well writ­ten but if you liked Backman’s Ove and sim­i­lar grumpy old men then you may like Arthur Pepper and his predica­ment. The premise — the find­ing of a mys­te­ri­ous charm bracelet that belonged to his late wife is promis­ing and yet, the charms and their sto­ries don’t add up and the con­trivances of how Arthur man­ages to find out about most of the charms are far too “con­ve­nient.” None the less Arthur is kind of endear­ing and so you read on.


A Gentleman in Moscow — Amor Towles (2016)

The sto­ry of what hap­pens to an aris­to­crat, Count Alexander Rostov, who returns (you might think unwise­ly) to Russia after the rev­o­lu­tion and finds him­self not up against a wall offered a final cig­a­rette but, because of piece of rev­o­lu­tion­ary poet­ry that he wrote, turned into a Former Person and sen­tenced to house arrest in the famous Metropol hotel. Spanning more than 30 years of the Count’s life and fea­tur­ing two young ladies who inter­sect with and utter­ly alter his life, this is an engag­ing book with inter­est­ing char­ac­ters and a lot of per­son­al action on a large his­toric back­ground. Perfect beach book.


Daring Greatly — Brené Brown (2012)

Self help book by a researcher who is best known for her work on shame. I’ve read her before and things here stain that odd­ly mushy feel­ing. There’s real­ly noth­ing here that you haven’t heard and seen a dozen times. Though I did find her explic­it­ly call­ing out of the set of gen­der expec­ta­tions that men car­ry around to be a refresh­ing change from the usu­al focus only on wom­en’s expe­ri­ence of gen­der roles. I’m just not sure I buy that val­ue she places on vul­ner­a­ble. Bravery I get and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty in rela­tion­ships I get but vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty to the whole world. No — I think not. That’s how you get tak­en advan­tage of. Basically you can sum up the con­tri­bu­tion of this book as “be brave even when you’re scared.
Anyway — much of a much­ness with her oth­er books and oth­ers in the genre. I’m sor­ry I both­ered with it.

Caraval — Stephanie Garber (2017)

The pro­tag­o­nist sees col­ors to go with her emo­tions. Which gives you a pret­ty good idea of how the writ­ing is going to go. There is a fairy tale begin­ning — evil father, lov­ing sis­ters and a dia­bol­i­cal regime of con­trol and pun­ish­ment. Sisters Scarlett and Donatella must some­how escape their ter­ri­ble sit­u­a­tion. (It would­n’t be a fairy tale oth­er­wise) The girls run away (or are kid­napped it sort of depends on who you’re talk­ing to at the moment) to Caraval, a 5‑night fan­ta­sy game with an impres­sive prize at the end. It’s all a bit The Night Circus with­out the great and imag­i­na­tive writ­ing. The end works well and the twist isn’t one that I saw com­ing but once revealed it all made per­fect sense. Really if the habit of explain­ing every sin­gle one of Scarlett’s emo­tion­al respons­es (com­plete with col­or) had­n’t got­ten in the so often way I might be rec­om­mend­ing this book much more high­ly. Also the dress­es — way too much time is spent describ­ing a round of fan­ta­sy dress­es that all sound exact­ly the same except for the colors.

Bad Feminist — Roxane Gray (2014)

The star­ring essay on nature of priv­i­lege car­ries a reminder that lack of/possession of priv­i­lege must not be used as means of silenc­ing oth­ers voic­es. A reminder that we need giv­en the hot and heavy rhetoric in the cur­rent cli­mate of resistance.
The essays on real­i­ty TV and a hand­ful of books that I haven’t read aren’t inter­est­ing. None of them makes me want to expe­ri­ence what­ev­er (TV or book) she’s talk­ing about. If cri­tique does­n’t intrigue with its insights then what is the point?
Several of her essays reflect on the need to be care­ful and pre­cise with lan­guage. Not in a pris­sy way. She’d be all for being pre­cise­ly hor­ri­ble if that was your inten­tion. As long as you are match­ing lan­guage to inten­tion it’s all good. There is some­thing to be said for an atti­tude that removes the “nice” and puts the empha­sis on con­ci­sion and inten­tion­al­i­ty. Be true, even if your truth is harsh or unpopular.
I also liked her on trig­ger warn­ings. She points out that they are in the end, point­less because the world isn’t safe, but there are places where the illu­sion of safe­ty is nec­es­sary and trig­ger warn­ings have their place in them. The argu­ment is lit­tle more nuanced that just this but it basi­cal­ly comes down to you can keep your trig­ger warn­ings in your safe spaces to pro­mote a sense of safe­ty (illu­so­ry) but don’t expect me to cre­ate safe spaces in my spaces. My spaces aren’t safe. Never will be, so don’t come here if you need an illu­sion of safety.
Isn’t that just the rub — so much safe­ty vs dan­ger. and where is the dan­ger? One won­ders. Is it nec­es­sary to use some­one else’s def­i­n­i­tion of dan­ger? Interesting ques­tion. Is it like that vol­ume of Best American Essays that I did­n’t like where the edi­tor’s main cri­te­ri­on was risk. Risk as defined by whom was the first ques­tion I want­ed to ask. Risk as the main cri­te­ri­on for judg­ing the val­ue of work seems shal­low. I think that the same applies to dan­ger­ous ideas. If the only thing that your work has going for it is dan­ger, then what have you actu­al­ly got?
(No this para­graph length aside does­n’t belong in a book review — but hey they’re my reviews for my pur­pos­es so it stays.)
Anyway — there are a cou­ple of good essays here and a whole lot of bor­ing pop-culture gush­ing. Read it or don’t. It’s not that impor­tant of a book. (Sigh — I was hop­ing that it might be.)