The Faster I Walk….. 3/5 Stars
I picked this one up because it was short and in the new books section of the library and I like little Scandinavian books, and this one was an odd and curious little gem of a book. The story here is about a woman living with a man and sort of trying to figure out who she is in the world. She’s closed off emotionally, she reads a lot, she thinks about death a lot, and she makes little plans and little days and focuses her energies on those.
It’s one of those books that makes me feel like some places in the rest of the world have a completely different take on what literature, writing, fiction, and creating novels is. It reminds me a lot of the novellas of Cesar Aira, and to some degree someone like Patrick Modiano in the ways in which a character’s whole essence is being captured not in huge dramatic novels full of energy and life, but instead in small moments in distinct voices. It’s like a camera being focused not on the world itself in which action happens and we make meaning from it, but in a tightly focused steadycam where we can only see the world through that tightly focused lens. It’s not a perfect novel, and it’s not even one that I found exciting by the end, but it is a relatively realized novel, distinct in it’s voice and approach.
Some Trick 3/5 Stars
Sometimes I find it difficult to read books by authors who I have a pre-conceived notion of. And this is one of those authors I will always have difficulty with. It’s not so much that I will struggle with the actual work, although I might, it’s more so that one book of theirs so hit me right where it mattered that there’s no going back and there’s at best diminishing returns. So while I choose to review this book, it’s important to say first that the novel The Last Samurai (which has nothing and everything to do with the movie and famous trope) is one of the best and my most favorite books of all time. I might not even ever read it again because I hold it in such perfect sentimental regard that it doesn’t seem worth it. That book is a pitch perfect 500 pages and bounces between a mom escaping the US and living in London trying to raise her absolutely genius son without a father and relies on her own limited abilities and her love and shared affection for Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai to stand in for the lack of a father figure…and then the son’s own eventual quest to look for his father. It’s so good.
This collection of stories is also good in its own ways, but it’s also lacking in the kind of heart and brilliance of what feels very much like a beautifully contained stroke of virtuosic genius.
There are some very good stories in this collection and then there are several completely forgettable or outright frustratingly annoying stories. If you were going to read this…pick a page count of say 15 and read every story longer than that and skip every one shorter than that.
Generations 2/5 Stars
There’s nothing really wrong with this book. The art is sometimes very good and beautiful, especially the way in which the artist draws trees. I found people’s faces to be oddly clouded in ways that I didn’t find completely explicable. I don’t find the United States to be particularly progressive, definitely not, but is Italy so far behind that this coming out story is a kind of forefront of art? My question comes from the fact if that is the main thrust of this novel, then it feels oddly and immediately dated. And if there’s more to it than that, then I feel this novel is be boring or kind of empty of anything particularly meaningful. So for me, it’s either a story being told so often and by so many, I am not sure what this adds. If the coming out that is part of this novel is merely part of the process of telling the novel, then I don’t find this book to be very compelling.
So what I am left with is a question of: is this a political kind of text that is fifteen years too late or is it a kind of cliched novel?
Regardless, I wasn’t left with much. Perhaps this kind of book is a necessary book in Italy, where stories of coming out, toxic masculinity, religious intolerance ramping up or overly represented or something else and this book is lost in translation in some way.
Anyway, this book is about a young college student who comes back to his hometown after a bad breakup with an older man. His family is mixed, with his mother dead, his father estranged, and a blend of cousins, aunts, and grandmas populating the too small house. His private pain is a source of tension alongside the kind of unceremonious way he left behind his life before needing them again.
Fight No More – 4/5
I sometimes forget just how many books I’ve read by Lydia Millet. I think it’s three now, but I place in similar spaces of my brain as Rachel Cusk, Dana Spiotta, Deborah Levy, and maybe a few other writers whose books take on the whole world, but allow so little seepage and light from the world beyond the very careful choices of the narrative. This books claims to be stories, but I call bullshit, because is pretty much a novel. It’s not a novel in the sense that the different threads do not all link up, but the stories are so carefully connected by linked characters and narrative ideas that it’s not particularly useful to separate them. If “A Visit from the Goon Squad” is a novel, then so is this.
Anyway, this book is about buying houses. And man does it involve a crazy set of fucked up characters, bizarre moments, and a very distinct and fetching narrative voice. I don’t always recommend books to my girlfriend because she’s pretty particularly in her tastes (dry, bitchy British writers), but this is one I immediately suggested because the writing is crisp and generally funny, and unlike a lot of story collections, I was with the book on every single page.
The Ravishing of Lol Stein – 4/5 Stars
A) Marguerite Duras has a cat that looks just like my cat.
B) I liked this novel a lot, and many people did not.
Lol (Lola) Stein is not a particularly good person. She, living in Morocco as a youth, fell in love with a man. They got engaged, and then he broke off the engagement in order to pursue an older woman. This breakage created a rift in the soul of Lola Stein and so she leaves her town, marries, has children, and when her husband is reposted back in her hometown, that rift reopens, and this novel happens. In the present day parts of this novel Lol Stein becomes involved with the narrator of this novel and sort of attempts to replay and recast her own previous pain in way that allows her to exact the same kinds of pain she experienced on others. This comes with many complications and because this lover is the narrator of this novel and not the other way around we experience these choices of a space of pain and detachment that wouldn’t otherwise characterize the events of the novel.
This novel is not about good people and so it could be one of those experiences in which the events and feelings and motivations of the characters drive a wedge between the reader and the narrative, so be warned. But if you’re willing and able to move past these kinds of character expectations, there’s a very good novel within this space of discomfort.
Writing – 3/5
This is the kind of book that on its own is a relative weak set of narrative and impressionistic essays, but were you to be taking a class in Duras, would be a really interesting set of insights into her process. The opening essay is about all the ways in which a writer is, and I imagine plenty of it wrings true, but it’s not structured as a guide or even a “my story” kind of piece, but almost a matter of fact kind of insight into the being of writing.
The other essays in the collection are more or less interesting and forgettable in equal measures, except for the essay of the concept of purity, which was more insightful and had something more interesting to say.
But like I say, it’s a matter of interest here. I am curious about Duras for a lot of reasons, in part because she’s a real and significant presence in 20th century French writing and in part because it would not be unreasonable to be dubious of her as well (for reference I am extremely dubious about several French writers, so it’s balanced).
The Killing Ground – 4/5 Stars
So this is the fifth novel of a series of five novels that tell the story of a tract of land in West Virginia starting at the very germ of the idea of settling in the New World during the English Revolution, through the naming and taming of the land in the 18th century, to the decades prior to the Civil War, to the Coal and labor rebellions of the early 20th century, and now to the late 1970s and early 1980s.
These novels were not written in order and need not be read in order (I still have read the 3rd novel, which was written second) this final section, like the others stands in for a broader chunk of history as a whole, but is still contained within relatively small scopes of time. Here, we have the writer Hannah (standing in very clearly for Mary Lee Settle) author of the other novels of the Beaulah Quintet coming home to finish her fourth volume, while we watch the events of the fifth take place. Hannah is returning to her small town in West Virginia decades after the death of her brother Johnny, who died young but as someone tells her “had a lot of mileage on him.” We see her as a 60 year old woman who has had the adventures of her life, and is maybe not trying to settle down per se, but is down with the main thrust. And thus is the rest of her town.
The novel then jumps back to the days surrounding her brother’s death and then forward again to the interregnum.
This is novel reminds me a lot of “Sophie’s Choice” which if you haven’t read (even if you’re seen the movie) I suggest you go out and get today and start reading. This novel plays upon the concept of authorship, the degrees to which an individual author and character are responsible for the creation of a novel, and that story can grown beyond the scope originally intended.
Charley Bland – 4/5
I didn’t know going in that this was a companion piece to The Killing Ground, but it is and while neither is dependent on the other, they make for a comfortable and complimentary reading experience.
In The Killing Ground the main action of the novel or the main narrative takes place in 1978 as Hannah comes home. In that time, a local Lothario named Charlie Bland dies in his 70s, and the town kind of mourns with a wistful and admiring set of feelings.
There’s reference from Hannah of the time Charlie seduced her.
In this novel, and note the name change, we have a version of that story, but one that doesn’t 100% sync up with the other novel. We have an unnamed narrator returning home at 35, recently widowed and out of sorts, and realizes that though she doesn’t want to marry the local Lothario Charley Bland, she might find some use for him yet. While it’s named for him and is ostensibly the story of his affair with the narrator, this is still very much her story. Calling it after him is more about showing the ways in which, given his stance and presence in the town, the narrator is still in control and we understand through her narrative the other side of the story. Also, Charley Bland is a real mama’s boy in this one, and his strange and possessive relationship with his mother (especially given that he’s 45) colors this story and creates the only external tension in the story.