Started Early, Took the Dog – 4/5 Stars
Not the best of the bunch, but a good one to end on. Kate Atkinson feels like she’s setting herself up to write the best writing of her career. This is a good novel, and it’s still better than the first of the series. For those of you who know about these books, they are “mysteries” in the sense that a mystery happens, and as happens with the others, Jackson Brodie, her detective kind of mostly accidentally stumbles onto them. He has more reason to be there for this one than the previous one. Also, they all have dogs, and you’re going to feel the best about the dog and dog’s fate in this one more than any other. For one, Jackson just gets to be a good dude about it all. Two, the dog takes the place of any kind of love interest. There’s no new relationship, no bad relationship, no budding relationship…just him and the dog.
The other thing about this novel is that her writing of dementia is so sympathetic and good. It’s tied up with caustic and toxic masculinity in the movie and acting industry and the woman at the center of it is so sweet and so fragile. There’s also a really interesting focus on how the cultural touchstones, even when distorted, shape our sense of reality, she can’t help but back to them, even when they’re bad. I feel like there’s been a LOT of armchair psychology takes on older people making problematic statements about how “if it’s in the brain” it’s your fault. One of my favorite sayings is “Brains make thoughts like butts make poops” — and whether it’s dementia or alcohol, shit slips out. Anyway.
When Things of the spirit come first – 3/5 Stars
This is a collection of early stories by Simone du Beauvoir. I only recently found out she wrote fiction, mostly knowing her as a nonfiction and essay writer. These stories were mostly published int he 1930s and remind me a lot of the Jean Rhys novels I read earlier this year. These are about young women trying to figure out their way in the world having no clear path no clear access and no clear script for how society is going to treat them or allow them to contribute. It predates the kinds of novels of the 1950s and 1960s and while Simone du Beauvoir was able to carve out her own space, she didn’t exactly provide a clear model of how to do it. Instead, she’s exceptional and still had to rely on the world famous paramour in her life.
These stories are good though. I was most interested in the final story which is about trying to understand the main character (it’s important to say that pretty all the characters seem like stand-ins for different parts of the author’s life)’s faith and her interaction with her faith from childhood. Also, there’s more precocious kind of stories, not the exactly writing, but the stories of precocious girls. Anyway, I did really like this, but I am looking forward to her more substantial works.
July’s People – 3/5 Stars
So apparently this book is pretty controversial. I mean that makes a LOT of sense, but I didn’t know that going in. I just found this at a free book store and went from there. So Nadine Gordimer won the 1990ish Nobel Prize. She is from South Africa. So that does in fact seem weird to me that given South Africa’s place in the history of the 20th century, the first person to win a Nobel Prize is a white woman of English descent. Similarly JM Coetzee is the second winner from South Africa is also white. Doris Lessing is a third writer from a similar (but distinct) background who is also white. Mia Couto is another writer who is a white writer from a former European colony in Africa. So when one of these writers writes a novel where violence happens to a white person at the hands of Black person and now that country has a coalition government or predominately black government, it might possibly rub people the wrong way. Nadine Gordimer’s book does not quite do that. Her white characters, now on the run from the newly formed Black government in a kind “what if” story about if oppression turns into an uprising, are in danger. I think a reading of this novel should suggest that Gordimer is suggesting that the violent oppression of 100+ years might result in various reprisals and the “goodness” of the white people will be called into question. But the novel is subtle, and so that message does hide in nuance. So it’s challenging. But also, I think the novel is mostly just ok.
Morality Play – 3/5 Stars
I read a Barry Unsworth novel in grad school. I mostly liked it, and felt impressed with myself for finishing it. It’s 800 pages and mostly takes place on a slave ship and then ends up with a de facto mixed colony in the gulf coast of America.
This is different. In this novel, a wayward priest in the 14th century finds himself dealing with a young dead kid in a small town in England. The death is mysterious and as he runs aground with a theater troupe, the most obvious step is to stage a play in which the particulars of the death are performed with the likely murderer in the crowd.
It should, and that’s ok. This is an interesting novel and it’s well written. I definitely liked it, but felt like after reading an 800 page novel of his 10 years ago I wanted more, but I guess after writing that 800 page novel 25 years ago, he wanted a break. Regardless, this is a worthy read, but it’s short and I wanted either more or less, hard to tell. The end result is that while I enjoyed it, I won’t remember much of the actual detail of it other than to say….yeah, right, I read that. So I put it a little free library, that seemed like the best place for it, and I won’t ever read anything by Barry Unsworth again, I bet.
The Grass is Singing – 4/5 Stars
A good work to go alongside July’s People, and should be read in that order because this is just a better novel. The writing is stronger, the themes are more clear, and the politics are more central. In addition, the story is more coherent. In this novel, aged spinster Mary (30) marries a farmer in the backcountry of Rhodesia. Together they work the farm, well he works it and she complains a lot, and both connect over their shared hatred of Blacks and their infatuation with Cecil Rhodes. We start the novel off knowing that Mary will be murdered and the house servant Moses, a younger Black man, will confess to the crime. The crime will be read by the neighbors as sort of inevitable based on the circumstances on the farm. This will come to mean the “familiarity” between Moses and Mary. But what the reader knows and the neighbors don’t is that while Mary is fascinating sexually by Moses, she’s an unrepentant racist who sees him as inferior and less than human. This isn’t a story of forbidden love by any means so much as unexplored lust on Mary’s part and growing derision on Moses’s. So when the event happens, while the visual outside evidence suggest a relationship with blurred lines, instead it’s one of deep resentment.
This is Lessing’s first novel and sort of sets a lot of the tone of her next several, especially The Golden Notebook and Martha Quest. With Martha Quest she explored similar ideas of being out in the country, but without the horrific debasing racism and with The Golden Notebook, she will better explore the tumultuous marriages that come from unloving circumstances.