This post comes to you from the stack of books I decided I would read at school while my students read, and then donate them after.
They Came Like Swallows – 4/5 Stars
This short novel from 1937 is about a family in Illinois in 1914-1918 or so amid the First World War, and then the outbreak of the Spanish Flu. This is story is told in a third person narration, but closely aligned to the perspective of first the youngest brother, Bunny, then the older brother, Robert, and finally the father. These tight perspectives help to illustrate the basic ignorance of the world of the youngest boy, the growing world limited by the ego of the adolescent boy, and finally the myopia of grief and obligation of a middle-aged father.
This novel is spare and stark in its narration, absolutely real and honest throughout, and ultimately fairly and utterly devastating in narrating the common tragedies of small lives.
William Maxwell is an interesting figure in American literature. He lived for a little more than 90 years and published sparingly (six novel and a few collections of stories) across a 60 year career. He was well-respected as a writer and a teacher and his novels share some interesting qualities.
I have previously read So Long, See You Tomorrow, which he published in the early 1980s and it won a dozen or so awards that year. It’s a good novel, but it’s not this one, which is very real and sweet and sad in a way that only someone still processing a tragic childhood and writing about it in stark terms can do.
Where the Dead Sit Talking – 3/5 Stars
This novel is also nominate for the National Book Award, appearing on the longlist. It should probably stay on the longlist because I found the book to be perfectly fine, but relatively unexceptional. The book reminded me a lot of other recently nominated and lauded books. The two the came most assuredly to mind are Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones and Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, both of which won major awards, and both of which are about young teenagers of color having to fend for themselves amid very challenging circumstances. And that’s what we have here too. Unlike those two novels, this novel feels blandly unremarkable. There’s very little that stands out in the language especially, but in the circumstances as well.
In fact, I was quite shocked to learn that this wasn’t a first novel, because it reads like one in a lot of ways. The subject feels like it is probably semi-autobiographical and if that’s not true it feels that way. The language and tone are adequate to the task but don’t raise the situation in any way beyond the touching and heartbreaking circumstances. What it lacks plenty of other novels on the National Book Awards longlist absolutely have. This book is not as interesting as Heads of the Colored People or as strong and effecting as American Marriage or as inventive and crushing as There, There. So I think ultimately it will fade from consciousness.
A Perfect Hoax – 3/5 Stars
I don’t know much about Italo Svevo, but I found this little book at Baltimore’s The Book Thing. I recognized the author as the author of Zeno’s Conscience or Confessions of Zeno, which seems like a very interesting and seminal work, but otherwise don’t know much about him or his career.
This book is about a writer in the last stages of his career dealing with his having written a very successful and popular book early on and then not producing much else after. This doesn’t reflect Svevo’s own bibliography directly, but I imagine he shares some feelings regardless.
This writer though spends his time flitting around and meeting with friends and acquaintances while entertaining and placating his feelings by inventing small fables or parables about birds. While the parables do have some resonance to the text, what feels more important are how the writer-character thinks about them as he writes them. It’s an interesting little book and makes me more interesting in reading his famous novel, but it’s otherwise a small thing. Here’s one the parables though:
A generous man, regularly and for many years, had given breadcrumbs every day to some little birds, convinced that in their hearts they loved him for it. The fellow was blind, otherwise he would have realised that the birds thought him an idiot from whom, for years, they had been able to steal the bread without his managing to catch even one of them.
A Lucky Man – 4/5 Stars
This is another book that has been nominated for the National Book Award on the longlist. I think there’s compelling reason to put this one on the shortlist as well, but maybe not to win. If I had to, I would say: An American Marriage, There,There, Heads of the Colored People, The Friend, and Lucky Man. But I have three more yet to read.
Anyway, every one of these stories is good. There’s a really distinct voice here, and while it is a first collection, it feels more competent and confident than this in some key ways. First, the writing is longer, slower, and more thoughtful than a lot of first fictions. Also, the author is somewhat older. Lastly, these stories do not feel like auditions for a novel deal the way that a lot of fiction can.
The only downside is that as these represent several years worth of writing and the voice is so consistent, as a collection, a few too many of the stories cover some of the same ground and at times it’s hard to distinguish between them. It’s not to say that they are the same or that they blend or worse blur together, but this is a book that does not lend itself well to reading one after another. If I were to do this again, I think mixing this with a novel or several novels to break up the voice and spend more time with each individual story would help to alleviate this issue.
HP Lovecraft’s Book of the Supernatural – 4/5 Stars
I am kind of a sucker for this type of thing. This is a collection of stories that HP Lovecraft discusses in an essay of his highlighting the history of horror, supernatural, and weird stories up until his lifetime. So this is a collection based on the specific recommendations and reviews from that essay. It also contains excerpts from the essay to introduce each of the stories.
The good parts of these is that most of the stories are good. Also, this was a new audiobook and it was mostly read by Bronson Pinchot, who is such a good reader, and Stephen Crossley, who is also very good.
The bad parts of this is that of course there are no writers of color at all and very few women. Also, his essay sounds actually quite bad, and he’s a real effing twerp about it, using criticisms about style and language to cover for the fact that he doesn’t really have much to say about the work themselves other than somewhat interesting assessments.
This collection has 20 stories, or more so 19 plus the novella “The Turning of the Screw” by Henry James, which is an amazing book, and one that is worth the cover price of this…which was free to me since I got it on Overdrive.
The Mezzanine – 4/5 Stars
Wolf Solent – 5/5 Stars
I forget the specifics of how I came across this book and this author, but I am glad I did. Maybe he’s more well known in the UK, or maybe not since he did live and publish in the US for several years. Regardless, this is an oddly situated and oddly placed book. It was published in 1929 and is a long kind book about a 34 year old man who returns to his family’s hometown in order to work as a ghost writer/researcher for a local gentry member writing a kind of local history/autobiography of the area. It’s clear from the beginning that the novel’s tone is going to be both darkly comic, but also oddly sentimental. It turns out that there’s some shared history between John Cowper Powys and his protagonist, Wolf Solent, and now writing in his 60s, he’s looking back with a kind of embarrassed affection for his younger self. That’s not to say the novel overly sentimental or that he lets himself too much off the hook. Wolf Solent is a serious man, not really much a good man, and not the tragic hero of his own downfall. Instead, he’s a well-rendered flawed man who’s not too terrible, but doesn’t feel like he’s too great either. Instead, he’s that combination of self-serving and self-critical, without too down on his character, and only kind of comically bemoaning his life.
His life is this: he’s got no real skills other than a general intelligence and a penchant and some talent for writing, but he doesn’t seem to be any kind of genius. Like a lot of literary characters, he’s too hung up on his own personal philosophy which he call his “mythology”. He “falls in love” with a local hot teenage girl who seems down and because he wants to sleep with her, he marries her; and of course, immediately falls in love with another girl, less hot, way smarter and more compatible. What’s a man to do?! Bemoan, bemoan, bemoan. He spends the rest of the novel both trying to figure out what his life is and who he should spend his life with.