Rubyfruit Jungle – 4/5 Stars
So I didn’t know much going into this novel except that it’s seen as an early and fairly beloved novel about growing up gay as a woman. So in MY mind, that meant some stolen glimpses at girls, some little caresses, and other subtle moments that read pretty clearly through a contemporary gaze. Turns out this book was published in 1970 or so and is SUPER GAY. What is super gay? Well, I guess I don’t know how to answer that at all except to say that this book is unafraid to be blunt and open about its subject Molly and her experiences. I was, ok a nice little bildungsroman….oh my she’s making money so her friends can see a boy’s “weird” circumcised penis…maybe I shouldn’t read this at work.
But really this book is really funny, really charming, and really focuses, not in its narrative (which is kind of meandering) but in its audience. This is not a book written for straight audiences to help them come to terms with the humanity of someone not straight. And that’s a really specifically appealing feature of this book. Whether you like Molly or not, and I do — loud, arrogant, hilarious, brash etc — she’s not trying to hold anyone’s hands. Well, she’s definitely trying to hold some people’s hands, but not yours, the reader’s. Instead the book is a pure narrative in the sense that it’s written in an authentic voice, telling an authentic voice, and refusing to do so on anyone else’s terms.
The Anubis Gates – 4/5 Stars
This book comes to me from a search I recall doing years and years ago trying to make sense of “steampunk” literature. I don’t think I agree that this book is steampunk at all, having a better sense of it now, but I do think it’s a very entertaining book. Tim Powers is an interesting writer. He’s written about twelve novel and all of them sound insane and wonderful and bonkers, and I want to read and then watch the tv show based on every one of them. I hope he’s game, because he’s the unfortunate recipient of what I think is a really raw deal–having his book On Stranger Tides optioned, and then sold to become a throwaway Pirates of the Caribbean movie.
Sigh. This book is about time travel through rips in the “river of time” both a metaphor and a basic understanding of how time functions in this novel. Brendan Doyle, a scholar of British Romantic poetry, is enlisted to deliver opening remarks for a “conference” on Coleridge, but what ends up happening is a rich billionaire who has recently stumbled upon time travel through these gaps int he time continuum, is raising funds for some unknown purpose, but sending a bunch of culture snobs to see Coleridge deliver a speech in a tavern in 1810. You can guess of course that Doyle get stuck there.
The novel goes from there and turns into a very crazy set of adventures that is well-plotted, full of gratifying surprises, and is about nerdy book culture in some funny ways.
The Third Hotel – 3/5 Stars
I like this novel in various ways and found it limited in others. My experience overall was positive, and given that I had previously not liked another of this author’s novels, I was surprised.
This novel takes place amid a film conference in Havana, Cuba. The protagonist, Clare, is visiting Cuba for a film conference where her husband would have delivered a paper on a Cuban horror film director, had he not recently died being struck while walking.
And so the novel is about Clare’s time in Cuba, her reflections on her marriage and her husband’s death, and on the nature of horror films in general, among many other topics. Very little happens in this novel in terms of plot, but there’s an eerie atmosphere throughout the whole of it, and the journey through the streets of Havana, in reflection to the recent months of the marriage provide a backdrop to this novel that I would describe as haunted, in the expanded definition of that word.
I am not married, but Clare and the author are. But I have been in many short term relationships and find myself in a long-term relationship (significantly longer than the marriage of this novel) for some years now. My own experience is also, not haunted, but curious, given I really did think I wouldn’t ever find myself here, while both desiring and fending off potential other versions of my life. And I think that awkward, curious, and scary realization about myself allowed me to connect in part to this character’s journey.
I wasn’t always a fan of what I was reading, and the novel does a lot of things that in the abstract I am not a fan of, but I do think that this was interesting.
Gun Love – 2/5 Stars
I can tell you right off that I did not particularly enjoy this novel, but it’s not one that grated me in much of any way, including negative. It left little to no impression on me whatsoever. So that’s hard to write about. Instead, what this novel made me think about is that it was recently nominated for the National Book Award (longlist), and so I have to consider it a little in this light.
I hate the title and I hate the reference to this being a book about a girl growing up in the time of “gun fanaticism” or whatever exactly it said on the cover. Here’s the thing, every one who has ever lived in the United States has grown up in the world of gun fanaticism. It’s absolutely bred into our culture. But it’s obviously a hot topic right now. I would hope that Jennifer Clement did not choose to market her novel this way and maybe didn’t even choose the title. But if you make your book “about” gun, “titled” about guns, and so forth, then every single time you mention guns in your book I will analyze that usage and decide its values. It’s unfortunate, but I generally do not trust new fiction, and so this aspect of this novel left me wanting.
Otherwise, it’s a fairly generic Florida gothic novel that spends a lot of time with foster care, living in cars, drugs, and guns.
Basic Black with Pearls – 3/5 Stars
I wanted to love this novel, and in some ways I do, but it darts around in so many different ways at times, while I respected it and found it really fascinating, that didn’t always translate to enjoyment in reading.
How could I describe this one? I would say this is like a Flann O’Brien narrated by Martha from The Americans, with a splash of Kafka and a few others.
So this is a novel about the interiority of a woman in a decades long affair with a maybe? spy from The Agency, who constantly shields his identity and his motives in order to be near her or around her.
Who doesn’t have some kind of curious desire regarding illicit affairs? Maybe I don’t anymore, but I find myself more settled in a pretty good partner than I ever would have thought before. But were I a Canadian housewife in the 1960s with kids and a nonsense marriage, yes! absolutely! But this novel is also very much interested in the reversals and, let’s call it, expurgation of the form of spy fiction set alongside and overlaid domestic life, so that the mysteries and illusions we all hold inside ourselves becomes the subject. So many good novels and films are about someone (mostly men) who it turns out are needed to save the world from international espionage. Our narrator just wants to fuck one.
Foreign Affairs – 3/5 Stars
I think it’s fair to call this a forgotten gem. I tried to read this a few years ago, but I was too close to my experiences with (dropping out of) grad school for comfort, so I put it aside. But this novel came out in 1984 and won the Pulitzer and was nominated for the National Book Award, and alongside a few other novels by this writer, was held in high regard, but sort of faded in reputation.
And partially I get it, because this is a very 1980s novel in a lot of ways, and read similarly to Ann Patchett and Annie Tyler. But I think the book is charming and well-written, and is incredibly sharp in a lot of ways, while a little dated in others.
So it’s an academic novel, but doesn’t take place on a college campus, but within a college English department, with two members Vinnie, a 55 year old children’s literature scholar who finds herself stewing in annoyance having been singled out in The Atlantic as representative of “waste” in educational funds by a fellow professor trying to sell his own book (very 1980s indeed! —- ooooh, pre-culture wars!) and Fred Turner, a recent PhD and 18th century Neoclassical British lit scholar working on a book, failing at a marriage, and bedding a British television star. The two colleagues (from the same English department) are both in London ostensibly working on their research, but mostly floundering in various ways. Both find themselves embroiled in semi-salacious affairs (with different people) and their various crossing paths allow them to reflect on their respective careers, ages, sexes, and sex. The book is witty and sharp, charming and droll, and reads like a significantly less acerbic American Iris Murdoch novel.
The Power – 4/5 Stars
I was a little leery of this one going in because the blurbs, while positive, suggested that maybe this novel would be kind of boring, run of the mill, or a little too on the nose. But instead, I found the book initially very clever, and in the long run entertaining and thought provoking, and very satisfying.
There are a few moments that might be a little overclever, but it’s perfectly forgivable as the actual novel is incredibly rich and well-wrought throughout.
This novel is a novel within a novel. It takes place within a world in which women have been in power for thousands of years. The story then is a novel is being given to “Naomi” by a male author reaching out for a kind of patronage. Naomi finds the conceit of this novel charming, a world in which men are in power, but slowly lose it a violent uprising by women, now imbued with powerful electric powers. Naomi comments on the novel at the beginning and the end, in rich ironic ways.
The plot of the story within the story is that uprising. The world is ours but recently some teenager girls have developed a tissue in their shoulders that allows them to conduct and control electrical charges, both in controlled and automatic ways. This power is part of the genetic code, so all future girls will have it, and they can give this power to older women. This discovery, over the course of eight years, completely changes the power dynamics of the world, as women now are imbued with this inherent physical advantage over men.
I thought this novel was really very good and entertaining and insightful. It’s kind of a perfect book group book. It’s well-plotted and provides a template for interesting conversations.
W or A Childhood Memory – 4/5 Stars
This is a novel and an autobiography intertwined in alternating chapters. The novel functions something like an Italo Calvino novel, where a mysterious narrative in a cosmopolitan but slightly ethereal European setting unfolds. The autobiography is an often stark, by the numbers, listing, and fact-filled memoir of growing up in France with an ambiguously Jewish (whose Jewishness frantically must become less ambiguous) background leading up to WWII and the Nazi Occupation of France.
The writing is simultaneously beautiful and stark. The resulting book, which is only 160 pages or so, is an interesting juxtaposition of the narrative we yearn for the narrative we’re forced to tell because of the nature of the world. I think a lot about what it must be like to live in a world in which the underlying fabric of society drastically and dramatically changes out from under oneself. Because as an American, only 36, no matter what has actually happened in my life, very little has actually changed about my life from 1981 until now. While the two major “events” the rise of the internet and 9/11 clearly have effects and change a lot, it’s not the radical upheaval of someone whose country is occupied by a foreign power or where a country that once was isn’t or a country that wasn’t, suddenly is. This novel speaks to the kind of yearning for stability and the reality of change that tends to define life.