84 Charing Cross Road- Helene Hanff 5/5
This is an incredibly charming book and was even a literary sensation that I didn’t really ever know about. More about that in the follow up. The set up is that Helene Hanff, a television screenwriter with a love of nonfiction, especially British diaries, writes letters to a British book shop asking for various books. As she gets her books, as she writes her thanks, and as the book shop returns her correspondence, a relationship develops especially between her and the booksalesman, Frank. There is literally no drama here, no foul play, no salaciousness, and no weirdness. The entire book is a charming set of letters back and forth between two friends. There are a lot of small touching moments throughout where various actors in the whole situation come on stage, have a moment and disappear. Some twenty years and several lives are captured in this correspondence, and the results is a series of touching moments. This book is an interesting look into the world of pre-internet and really pre-phone order transatlantic commerce. There’s something bizarre about a world where you can find just about any book you want, something that wasn’t always there ahead of this time period, but you have to physically locate that book or have someone physically locate it for you. A book I read earlier in the year involved a book seller brought into a house to have his wares looked over and that too had a similar effect, but the idea of wanting a book, asking for it, waiting for it, and having it randomly show up on your doorstep maybe two years later just doesn’t exist in my world. The necessary relationship building in this book is also an interesting change from my sense of the norm.
Q’s Legacy – Helen Hanff 4/5
Where 84 Charing Cross Road is the actual book itself, this follow up some 15-20 years later is more of a “What was 84 Charing Cross Road?” This account focuses on the rise of a literary flashpoint, the development of the desire for the books in the first book, the filming of a movie of the book, and finally the play developed out of it that failed miserably. This book is much more fleshed version of the story and it has a lot of the charms of the first book, but it doesn’t capture any of the spontaneous wonderment of that book. That book’s joy came from authentic spaces and were as random and real feeling as the letters themselves. This book is very good too and funny and fun, but by its very nature, it’s more curated and collected than whimsical. This book is very interesting because it catalogues minor fame in the 1970s in a way that is not readily apparent. It also has the necessary hindsight of a thing years removed from it. It still has some incredibly touching moments where fans of the book write in and profess their love for the book and even look for ways to connect with Helene Hanff after the fact. And Hanff here reveals a lot more of herself than her letters ever did, but in a much more measured way. Through and through these two books work really well together but their individual effect shift from one text to the next.
Between Them – Richard Ford 3/5
This book is two short memoir pieces about Richard Ford’s parents. He purposely keeps them separate as narratives and as people, and the title in part refers to the ways in which his existence as their son placed him between the two of them, physically, emotionally, and inter-personally. The book starts with the narrative about his father, a quiet, uncomplicated man whose life was mostly modest and moderately lived, with bouts of rage, sadness, and touching feelings. Richard Ford speaks of his father in small ways of a man who never really had much until he was beginning to become too old to really appreciate it. His father died in his mid-fifties when Richard Ford was still in high school. This narrative was written fairly recently.
The other half of the book is about his mother and was written close to her death in the early 1980s. He had a much longer, more developed relationship with his mother that not only lasted much longer, but also covered a lot more of their respective lives. She outlived his father by twenty years or so and because of the relatively isolated life she led before meeting his father, Richard Ford always played a large and loving role in her life (so long as this trustworthy narrative is to be trusted) and in an afterward he wrote recently he explains how his presence in their lives and his happening to become a writer makes for the only way they happen to be able to remembered. He himself doesn’t have any children and so this book is their record. It’s a small and kind of precious book.
The Dig – Cynan Jones 2/5
I am not one hundred percent sure what to tell you about this one. It’s about small rural life in Wales in a probably contemporary setting. The novel itself is not about much. A “badger baiter” lives in the aftermath of the death of his wife, has dogs, kills badgers, and lives a simplistic life.
That’s pretty much the whole novel. Sometimes the novel is very well written and sometimes it floats along as if it’s not a novel at all and more of an accounting. It’s the kind of novel where I find it hard to becomes invested whatsoever in what’s going on. And because of this I kind of rush through it and maybe don’t spend the time necessary to appreciate it much. Maybe that’s my loss, or maybe not. It’s strange to me though to read this on the same day I reread As I Lay Dying which covers a lot of the same ground and how that novel leaves such strong impressions on me and this one leaves almost none. I am maybe being tough on the novel itself or maybe I am simply understanding that this kind of thing just isn’t for me.
Nobody Move – Denis Johnson 2/5
This is written in a weird kind of prose style where the actions flows very quickly, and then there are more pensive and meandering moments and time passes quickly and slowly as the novel seems to decide it should. This could work, but it doesn’t and it’s ultimately uneven.
Not only that, but the characters’ misogyny, homophobia, racism, and various other things, including their cruel violent natures and mostly hammy and cliched dialog distracts from the story. It’s a pretty convoluted story and even if it’s a play on these kinds of stories, it also just does the thing it’s playing on, and again doesn’t work. But throughout, the writing is sometimes quite good.
So in the novel, we start with a glee club competition where one member who apparently owes some money gets put into a Cadillac in order to be muscled and then chaos happens, then in another quick scene another character who is getting drunk in a movie theater and is apparently dealing with a divorce and a felony conviction is meeting with her ex-husband. These two meet connect and the result is a huge set of plans of intermingling and plotting and culminating in all the storylines coming together at the end.
It is a huge departure from a lot of other Denis Johnson stuff I have read. It’s not super interesting and feels less good than it should or has any business being. Given that he’s a talented writer and wrote better books after this one, I was pretty disappointed after I finished this. I will likely barely remember reading it in a year’s time.
What We Lose – Zinzi Clemmons 2/5 –
There’s a scene in the Kubrick version of Lolita where Humbert Humbert goes and sees Lolita living with her young husband, pregnant, no longer enchanting. The scene is weird, and definitely more effective in the book, because the actress playing Lolita looks and acts differently from when she was 13, but it feels completely put upon and false, not because of intention but because of bad acting.
This book often has the feeling of someone punching out of their weight-class when it comes to experiences that come with age, not with thinking about them a lot. The relationship and sex writing in this novel feel false and played-at and anachronistic and falsely wise. It’s a problem that a lot of young writers have, using provocative language instead of humility, and the result is of someone acting like they discovered the world, when we’ve all been living in it this whole time. And when it’s done without awareness, without humility, without humor, it’s bland.
That said, the rest of the novel, especially the understanding of one’s family and race and place in the world doesn’t feel false, because it’s an earned and knowing sense. The result, then, is a really uneven reading experience that doesn’t disrupt the notion of what is a novel, but disrupts the notion that this is a novel, and I am not sure it’s done on purpose. I have a sense that this book is a launching of a new voice into the literary world, but when all the blurbs are from the same people who are in the acknowledgements page, I can’t always trust it.
Nobody Knows My Name – James Baldwin 5/5 –
I recently watched “I am Not Your Negro” and I always forget to read James Baldwin. I have read about half of what he’s written, and mostly that’s been his nonfiction. His fiction is incredibly strong, but sometimes asks a whole lot from you that requires time and patience, and I don’t always have those, and don’t want to give it short shrift. His nonfiction is so succinct and pithy in contrast. This collection was apparently collected from about six years of writing and you can feel that span pass, not necessarily in a growth of thought, but in the diverse array of topics and subjects. He spends a lot of time talking about returning to the US after years in France, about the North versus the South, about his time in France, and writing about various other authors such as Faulkner, Norman Mailer, Richard Wright, and Ingmar Bergman. His conversation with Bergman is among the best because Bergman’s consciousness is so self-centered and so out of context for race relations in America that they end up talking about the nature of art in really interesting ways. Mailer is less impressive, of course. What strikes me here is what strikes me always about the general push of Baldwin’s nonfiction, that there’s nothing outside of the specific details that don’t still apply today. And so the over all effect is a kind of earned wisdom, gravity, and sadness at the fact that his analysis is so strong, but so little has changed. His essay on Faulkner and his essay about 5th Ave in Harlem are so dead on in thinking about prevailing questions about white liberalism and race/poverty that they should be required reading. His tone and demeanor are so earnest and clearly correct that the effect of reading Baldwin as a well-meaning white person is that of taking one’s medicine.