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.)