The Bus on Thursday – 4/5 Stars
This was an audiobook and I hadn’t heard of it before I looked a little into and downloaded it from Overdrive. Also, had this not been Australian I might not have listened to it, and had I read the back I wouldn’t either. I also almost turned it off early on because of a kind of off-key line that I didn’t like. But something clicked in my experience at some point and I ended up really liking it.
The premise here is a 30ish year old Australian woman, formerly a teacher, finds herself reeling from a breakup with her long term boyfriend, who tells her he doesn’t want children. In the weeks that follow this conversation, she finds a lump and gets diagnosed and treated for breast cancer. The book itself functions kind of as a blog.
But let me tell you, our protagonist is pissed about everything, in the most engaging and delightful ways. So she ends up going into a self-destructive spiral that you might often find in post-break up novels, but add to that a “heroic” battle with cancer, for which she refuses to see as either heroic or a battle, but instead a thing that fucking sucks. So the novel is written in these beautifully and often hilariously unhinged rants while narrated her unchecked and unmoored behavior. The plot takes us to the middle of the Australian nowhere as she accepts a job teaching in a regional school after the recent and mysterious disappearance of the previous beloved teacher. The novel goes from there becoming more and more intense as we go.
Here in Berlin – 3/5 Stars
For what this book is, it’s very good. That said, there’s not enough of it and it’s not shaped and crafted in as meaningful a way as I think would have better suited it. Some of the books similar to this one that I have found very good or very interesting have also struggled with the question of how to narrate the experience and inner lives of Nazis and Communist officials without dehumanizing them or humanizing them too much. There’s a increasing tradition of books that seek to do this. Some have fallen on kinds of self-written apologia that shuts out an earnest and objective reader experience (I am thinking of Jonathan Littel’s The Kindly Ones) ala Humbert Humbert in Lolita, and some have looked for sympathetic experiences within monstrous regimes (I am thinking of William Vollmann’s Europe Central as well as other books about Shostokovich) and others have turned the world they’re describing into an object of curiosity or parody (Laurent Binet’s HhHH or the recent Death of Stalin film).
And so this book also struggles with the same considerations. The addendum here is that Cristina Garcia brings Cuban experiences to bear on the set of narratives. The result is a very interesting (slightly uneven) exploration of historical voices that have been left out in part because of uncomfortable proximity and in part because of shame.
The Slave Dancer – 4/5 Stars
The Slave Dancer is one of those novels that every 8th grade reading teacher in America had on their shelves or book carousel when I was a kid, and in part it’s because it’s an oddly situated book (a good book mind you) that was one of the few early examples of YA fiction before that became pretty much what the publishing industry is. It shares that same kind of awkwardness with Lois Duncan novels like Killing Mr. Griffin (whose books have been hilariously and embarrassingly updated to add cellphones and search engine in awkward parts) and Paul Zindel’s The Pigman.
The book is a novel written almost in the form of a pirate adventure story a lot like Kidnapped and Treasure Island, and a lot of the same conventions that exist in those novels exist here: being pressed into service, the utter detached parenting of pre-industrial age America, the Romance of the sea, the treatment of law-abiding officials/law-enforcing officials as villains, and plenty of other sea-going tropes.
Oh but the whole book is about slavery. And this turn is pretty stark. Paula Fox is no accidental or unwitting writer; this feels purposeful, to challenge conventional notions and flip them for us. She is the author of some absolutely masterful books for adult that truly call into question liberality when faced with racial inequalities and the same sorts of questions happen here. There’s no dancing around the savagery of the slave trade, and her book presents the same kinds of wishy-washy defenses of slavery still trucked around, and has a child understand their bankrupt nature. It’s a little out of date but the writing is good. I have no clue exactly who this book is for however.
His Favorites – 2/5 Stars
I won’t tell you what this book reminds me of, because I think it could be compared to a recent internet darling whose actual literary qualities are suspect. But I imagine this book would or could be popular among a lot of book groups because it deals with a very fraught and scary subject manner and discusses the trauma of sexual violence (especially predatory sexual violence perpetrated on teens by adults) in ways that give no uncertainty about their impact.
My issue though is that the book doesn’t really understand what it wants to do with itself. And what I really think happened here (if I choose to be generous in estimating it) is that halfway through there was a need to pivot dramatically about the subject matter and try to salvage the material. Because other than a few places of stitching, the beginning and “premise” of the book as we’re meant to understand it, becomes entirely unraveled by where the book takes us by the end. So to me the book seems to be two completely books, each half written, stitched together, and the result does not work.
There’s something forgotten in a lot of discussions about fiction that stories are products of singular author’s mind, and so there would be a tendency to say…well, that’s just the story as it occurred to the author, which if that’s true, then this book doesn’t make sense or is not very good. Instead, I think there’s more of an editing job being worked here.
Anyway, the premise is that a young teen is moved out of her small town to a boarding school. At the boarding school she becomes the target of a raffish English teacher who seduces her, abuses her, and subjects her to horrible and hideous sexual and physical violence. We are being told this story at a far distance and revisit elements of its aftermath at various times in the narrator’s life.
We Think the World of You – 2/5 Stars
I also don’t think this book works for me either. I thought I was going to like it more because I did enjoy the two memoirs of Ackerley’s that I read: My Dog Tulip and Hindoo Holiday, both of which are odd and very funny, and definitely very odd.
But this book is too much for me and ultimately I felt both let down and bored by it. For one thing, there’s some unfortunate misogyny running through the central character that I felt was too present for me to overlook. I also am not convinced from my reading of the memoirs that this is an accident or a product of the time. So for me the book was a little too typical, misogynistic and kind of cruel, but none of this was couched in the kind of situation or writing where I experienced anything other than those negative traits. This is in opposition of say, reading about a character who is not a good person, but gives me something to work with in how that character is presented that opens me up to anything.
God Bless You Mr. Rosewater – 3/5 Stars
I am now down to two Kurt Vonnegut books I’ve never read, and I kind of have the impression that whether I finish those or not in my lifetime, my Kurt Vonnegut days are behind me or become a product of nostalgia-laced reading. Revisiting his works I read when I was young would likely still be good, but I bet his remaining novels would not yield a whole lot of newness for me. Maybe I am wrong because the two I have remaining are spaced apart by about 25 years, so maybe I will end up seeing something valuable in their difference of time.
For me, at this stage, this book read a lot like a machine churning out Kurt Vonnegut books by rote and seeing what the difference of a few variable changes could yield.
Home – 5/5 Stars
Marilynne Robinson somehow writes incredibly beautifully, emotionally complex, literary straightforward novels that are so exhausting and difficult to work through. This book is a follow up to Gilead, her first book in 30 years after her initial first book Housekeeping, a masterpiece in its own right. Gilead is told through a series of letters/diary entries from Ames, a minister, to his son, born late in Ames’s life and who will likely lose his father at a young age. The letters are an attempt to make sense of the May-December marriage of the boy’s mother to Ames, the sense of the world from an older man’s perspective, and a narration of faith.
Two side characters from Gilead, Ames’s minister friend Boughton, and his wayward son Jack (in his early 40s) become the focus of this sequel.
In Home, Jack Boughton has returned to Iowa after a several of misfortune and poor choices, recently sober, and looking for a place to rest and recoup his life. At this home, his father, now elderly and infirm, welcomes Jack back with open arms and reserved judgment (as in unspoken and attempted to not feel). The novel though mostly work through the third-person focus of Jack’s baby sister Glory, never married (but got close once), who still lives at home and cares for her older father now their mother is dead.
The story then functions in part as a kind of redemption and reconciliation narrative, but it’s also about two siblings becomes close friends well into their adulthood. It’s often funny, very smart, and incredibly beautifully written. Like Gilead, it’s an unbelievably thoughtful novel. But it can be draining at times.
Charming Billy – 4/5 Stars
This book won the National Book Award when I was in high school, not that I specifically remember it doing so, but it did. And this book, like a few other books from the 90s feel quintessentially 90s American fiction to me. Those books would include The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields or The Shipping News by Annie Proulx. I like all three of these books, but they do feel “of a time.”
This book starts with a funeral dinner at a cheap bar in the New York area where Billy, a repentant drunk has finally died. The sense of this being the inevitable conclusion and the sense of sadness and relief is palpable in the opening scene. In addition, though, there’s an exploration of the kinds of early stories the group shares that they now understand led to path their friend and family member found himself in. It’s not a situation exploring blame, so much as choices being made in specific sets of odds.
The book then goes back and explores the different stories of Billy’s life, but also the lives of those at the dinner and fills the gaps of those stories. The entire story is being told through the eyes of the daughter of one of Billy’s best friends, and as the story finally catches us up to the time of Billy’s death we move past his death into the future.
This book involves a lot of drinking, a lot of Catholicism, and a lot of American Irish ethnic identity — like I said, the 90s.