Less – 3/5 Stars
This is the novel that won the Pulitzer Prize this year, and I do like it. But it’s almost like Andrew Sean Greer tricked or taunted the Pulitizer Committee into giving him the prize since this is a novel about a slightly failed or at least merely moderately successful writer putzing around while others around him remind him of his own mediocrity or middlingness but doing things like winning the Pulitzer Prize. The novel begins with Less, the eponymous protagonist, being told his newest novel will not be published by his longtime publishing house. The novel is rejected at of whole cloth based on its relatively worn-thin plot…a middle-aged gay man plodding around San Fransisco worrying about his past and future. Someone later tells him that no one feels sad for middle-aged white American men any more.
So the novel itself is not simply a retelling of this same story. Less is not really a hero and he’s not an anti-hero either. He’s relatively kind and nice, and he’s smart and doesn’t treat people badly. His issue is that no matter he does in life he is merely there, doing it. And so all the various things that happen to him he either feels undeserving of them or is actually undeserving of them. He even convinces himself that his recently translated novel has been redone and upgraded by the Italian translator, how else would he put up for a prize?
This is a light-hearted novel, and given the other two books nominated is the least impressionable and least challenging of the three, but I am not convinced it’s prize-worthy.
Persepolis Vol 2: 4/5 Stars
I realized I never got around to reading the second Persepolis novel years after reading the first. So when I saw this in the Little Free Library, I was actually kind of shocked by how unfamiliar it felt, from the blue cover, as opposed to the more familiar red one of volume one, and from flipping through and finding that Marjane is certainly older.
No longer a young child, Marjane has been shipped off to an Austrian Catholic boarding school where he must contend with being a foreigner, a language and culture and religion foreigner, and with the oppressive rules and structures of the school. Her year in the school is tough dealing with these differences, and her friendships are challenging because of how different she feels from the others in the school. She even gets annoyed with how some of her friends turn all Goth to make themselves more different, while she can’t help but be anything except different.
From this school, she returns to Iran, in time to go to more school and be caught up in the middle of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. There, even among the chaos of wartime, she meets her future husband whose familiarity is boon. Amid her home country, she’s better able to understand herself compared to how she felt in the Austrian school.
This is the naturally occurring sequel to an already good book and I completes a version of what we know from Satrapi.
Native Guard – 4/5 Stars
Another good Little Free Library find, this more recent collection from Tretheway explores the intermingling of history and memory in her poems. Tretheway is the former Poet Laureate of the United States, and takes as her subjects in this poem: The Civil War, Jim Crow South, Southern Identity, the death of her mother, her own mixed-race birth, and various other topics. Spread along three different sections, this collection has a satisfying continuity that not every poetry collection shares. We begin dealing with the recent death of Tretheway’s mother and the various ways in which the poems she’s included process and try to understand this event. From here, there’s a jump backward to several poems about Mississippi’s past and the Civil War. These poems seem to leap from the present day to far past of conflict that created the culture, the landscape, and the reality of the would-be 1960s site of Tretheway’s own birth. The poems take on a variety of different themes and subjects, and the title poem of the collection is contained here–a series of diary entries of an all Black Union-linked regiment that Tretheway’s speaker is a different poem points out is not memorialized alongside the Confederate soldiers, quietly undercutting the false justification of historical preservation. The final section goes back to Jim Crow Mississippi to show the conditions of her parents’ meeting and her own birth, that same kind of conflicted mixing of cultures that led to her own life.
The poems in this short collection are beautiful and I’ve always loved Tretheway’s work, but they’re also so brilliant and intelligent as well.
Detroit – 3/5 Stars
This play was a finalist for the Pulitzer a few years back and it reads like a kind of blue-collar American version of “The God of Carnage”. It’s not exactly this, but has some similar impressions. The play takes place in the backyard and front yard or shares yards of a set of neighbors in the “first ring” of suburbs outside of some American city. The title of the play is Detroit, but an author’s note suggests that Detroit is only one of many possible places this could take place. It’s definitely not a city like New York, but could be a Boston or Philadelphia or other large cities where the borders between city and county can easily feel blurred.
The story situates too couples…a slightly older more established couple and their new neighbors. The husband of the new neighbors is working on a website of some sort, which is revealed to be a cover story for being out of work. And as the couples become slightly more and more entwined in each others’ lives the hidden frailties and lies that create the ideal version of our external selves begin to fracture and fall away. And like the best of stories, the resulting vulnerabilities are hardly damning and intense, but are more sad and raw. The play is fine, but it’s not groundbreaking in any real sense, and like most plays, could be very good performed.
Number the Stars – 3/5 Stars
These days you have to wonder what happens when someone writes a Holocaust novel for kids. We honestly are living in a time in which people on the Right side of politics are not only beginning to espouse further and further Right policies and tactics that mirror a lot of lead up to various authoritarian regimes (I am not someone who actually thinks Nazism is very much possible in America, but the kind of PR-based fascism-lite of some factions is possible). I recall the ad campaign for Wolfenstein 2 that came out recently where they make a joke about punching Nazis (something that’s a real part of the game) and people on the Right actually basically said “Hey! I resemble that remark!”
Anyway, so I wonder about books like this that don’t just the narrative along the perspective of someone fighting Nazis (here a young girl in Denmark) and how it would play today.
I think this novel is fine, but feels kind of unremarkable in a lot of ways. Even other of Lowry novel shine where this one doesn’t and think it’s just a product of here’s a 30 year old book for kids from a time when there was a significantly smaller market for such.
The Word “Desire” 3/5 Stars
I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed this book, though I thought some of the stories to be very good. I think there’s something almost purposely alienating or impersonal about a lot of the stories here, and it feels like a very intelligent collection, and not that different from the Helen Dewitt book Some Trick I recently reviewed.
These are smart, erudite stories, and feel spiritually connected to someone like Borges and others like him, where there’s a lot of brain power going through them, but a questionable amount of humanity.
That’s ok by me, but that doesn’t lead me to always enjoy them so much.
I am reminded a lot of the opening section of Roberto Bolano’s 2666, The Part about the Scholars, where four literary scholars sort of traipse around the world looking for clues about a reclusive author that brought them all together. While there’s a lot of intelligent and interesting conversation that happens and an erudite explanation of especially European arts, there’s a kind of emotional detachment that blocks a full human connection to the work. So like I said, it’s interesting for me, less engaging.
Here’s a selection:
“My passion for Egypt was sparked at the opera. Until the night of The Magic Flute my dreams were so savorless they seemed to belong to another. But the palms, the Sphinx smiling like the Mona Lisa beneath the moon, had me bouncing up and down yapping: “Wow! Wow!” My mistress was already famous and so I was not scolded, nor were we sent away. Instead we had inspired a brief but flattering fashion among the Incroyables: now every woman of taste was carrying a little black dog to the opera. I was distressed by this proliferation of look-alikes, for having been the only black pup in the litter, I had until then thought of myself as exceptional. The night of The Magic Flute I dreamed astonishing dreams; they fulfilled all my expectations as to what dreaming could be. After that vivid night I knew that though I looked like any number of little dogs, I, Heaven help me, did not imagine as they imagined. And this to my pride and consternation, for I was exceedingly lonely and in the company of my peers bored to tears when—as happened every afternoon—I was forced to share the better part of the day with ladies of quality and their witless pets—each one a basket case, and this is not only because they were carried from place to place in baskets but because of the milk soup passing for conversation among them. And there were terrible times when during a brief encounter in the streets of Paris I risked being eaten alive by dogs so vicious and gigantic it was my conviction they belonged to another species. How often I wished for a spiked collar or, better still, an ivory tower! “