Brass – 3/5 Stars
So on the one hand this book falls a little into the generic kind of circa 1990s second generation immigrant American novel that was big for a good while. I recently read Charming Billy by Alice McDermott, which does this very thing. And then on the other hand, this book is a solidly written novel. Or rather, it is a novel, but it a challenging kind of narrative. For one, the story is good and interesting, but also a little typical and banal, if that’s possible to be both. Or maybe it’s banal and typical, but successful in putting the tropes into action. This is about a mother and daughter — the daughter half-Albanian, the mother….something– and the form of the novel is a first person narrative told from the mother’s perspective when she was 19/20, working at a local dive, getting impregnated by an Albanian cook who promises to leave his wife for her and her life as she’s slowly folded into the local Albanian immigrant community in the Northeast. The second part of the narrative is the daughter’s story, now 18 (about the age of the mother) telling you the story of applying to college, dealing with her mother, having an absent father, and trying to figure out your next steps. And by the way, this entire section is told in second person, so it’s a rough ride or could be depending on how you deal with that as a narrative device.
Lethal White – 4/5 Stars
I eat these up. I love the Robert Galbraith mysteries, and love them more than I think I probably should. I think they’re a great mystery series, have compelling mysteries, are incredibly rich in terms of writing, and should be way worse than they are. They make me excited for whatever else JK Rowling might otherwise come up with in her life, and are a perfect venue for her talents, especially since every Harry Potter is a mystery novel too.
This one is also a very good take on the zeitgeist of toxic masculinity and metoo, at least the zeitgeist of talking about these things in active terms. The difference between this book and others I’ve recently read (not counting nonfiction analysis of these topics, but novels “about” them) is JK Rowling is just more talented than those other writers, and because her politics are a little more conservative that activist Left circles, the presentation is subtle and nuanced in ways political conversations can’t always be. So she never puts her finger right on the issue, so the book doesn’t feel topical at all. Instead, the book feels like it’s part of a larger world.
The Friend – 4/5 Stars
This book is the book that I probably think should win the National Book Award, though I don’t think it will since the committee has a penchant for “darlings” even when their books aren’t as good as others.
What this book feels like is a beautiful blend of the Joe Allston Wallace Stegner novels, Grace Paley short stories, and the Gilead trilogy by Marilynne Robinson. So what this book starts as is an open letter to a dead friend. This friend was a well known novelist who had a kind of mostly ok smarminess toward women, a long battle with depression, and somewhat conservative views on the direction of the world. The letter-writer, a longterm friend and one-time lover, is dealing with the grief of his recent suicide and trying to figure out how to move beyond the death of her closest friend. She finds coldness from his (third) wife whose anger and jealousy are muted, but still present, and she spends a lot of time trying to figure out what the legacy of a life of the mind is and reconciling the person she knew and the books he left behind.
In addition, the book is also about the narrator being left a Great Dane by the dead friend. This dog becomes a kind of representation of the friend in the world.
This book is beautiful and brilliant and erudite and thoughtful.
Black Powder War – 3/5
This is the third book in the Temeraire book series which asks the pertinent historical question of: What if the Napoleonic War? But with dragons?
I think every one of my reviews could more or less be the same. I like this series and think it’s pretty good. It’s a blend of Anne McCaffrey and Patrick O’Brien, and it’s handled very well. It’s plot-heavy, so there’s less to talk about than in other novels.
One thing that I thought a lot about is the nature of being a soldier in wartime and being, by definition, expendable. These days soldiers are less expendable, but not because they represent a human cost that anybody outside of abstraction and loved ones cares about, but because of the monetary cost of training. Foucault already talked about how soldiers were once bred for or selected for, but in modern warfare, they’re broken down and trained. Anyway, there’s a scene in War and Peace where one of the nobility we see in the beginning is commanding a regiment at Austerlitz. His orders have been lost, so he can’t move his men, who are getting absolutely eviscerated by cannonfire. In this novel, Novik uses dragons and their crew, upon whom the dragon imprint, as a kind of stand in for the cost of actually valuable resources in war.
And Still I Rise – 5/5
It’s hard to have much to say about this collection of poems, except that it’s beautiful. This was an audiobook, and like all Maya Angelou audiobooks, she reads it. And like everything she reads, it’s brilliant and wonderful. What I am reminded most of is how much girls I’ve taught love this title poem. It’s the perfect balance of fragility, confidence, cockiness, burgeoning sexuality, and sassiness. It’s funny and sweet to watch them connect with the ideas and feel inspired by the risque nature of it.
Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now – 4/5
Like the above this book is read by Maya Angelou. This is a collection of short essays, some autobiographical some not. The list of various topics wanders around and the resulting collection is not necessarily one that has a clear sense of cohesion, but instead is myriad and a little random. The essays that are not autobiographical tend to be something in the line of ruminations or musings, depending on the tone, and have a kind of topicalness but also poetic license to think through the ideas and consider them more. This book is again probably best as an audiobook.
The Cost of Living – 4/5
Deborah Levy is a British writer who’s twice been short-listed for the Booker prize and like Sarah Waters or Ali Smith will likely never win. All the three writers share a kind of internal consistency with their writing that if one of their novels didn’t win, there’s not a compelling reason for any of the novels to win. That said, I like all three writers and think their novels are quite good.
Deborah Levy’s novel are likely the most polarizing and think this is because of some of her particularities as a writer. For one, though her novels do have plots, they are icebergian in their nature. Also, more so than her sentences, her plots turn on a dime, the way that writers will sometimes rely on punctuation and intonation to turn individual sentences down alleys that are unexpected.
This is a memoir, or more so a series of memoir like writings on topics personal to Levy’s life. It’s interesting and affecting and entirely dependent on the same kinds of aspects that her novels have.
How to Be a Good Creature – 2/5
I honestly could not wait to get this book over with. It’s not that it’s bad, and in a lot of places it was perfectly good. And I had the same issues with it that I did with her earlier book Soul of an Octopus. As sweet and fascinating and interesting as the books are, they are so decidedly boring I could barely get myself interested. And this one was only 140 pages or something like that, and I was listening to the audiobook and I could still barely care. And I love animals.
I also felt that while this is a memoir, the most interesting questions were not really answered. She’s talking about her dog in one moment, and then drops that her super conservative parents kicked her out of their lives in the next, and then is talking about a turtle int he next. The turtle seemed like the much less important topic, regardless of what her career has been based on.
Pedagogy of the Oppressed – 5/5
None of us is really worth of Paulo Freire. This is book is such a righteous distillation of the fundamental problems with capitalism and presents itself as guideposts to a more engaged life. But it’s exhausting to think about how this book would have to radically transform your own life in order to live up to the standards it sets. In addition to all that, this was the 50th anniversary edition, which included a lot of additional material–interviews and a long introduction and conclusion. This book is for people on the Left looking to live a life more consistent with the ethics and values the Left supposedly works toward. It’s a book that presents this life in such direct and simple (even when couched in complex language) that it feels so undeniable. It’s an uncomfortable book, because I barely know anyone who could possibly live their life to these standards (and of course, there’s a penchant for people on the Left to talk in such moral absolutes without truly and fairly acknowledging their own shortcomings).
But most importantly, while this is a book for teachers, it should be a book for everyone who cares about equality and justice in society, because it lays the terms out so succinctly. This book goes perfectly with writers like James Baldwin, bell hooks, and Angela Davis for not just being a gift and access point to complex ideas, but being a clear bridge into them.
The Italian Girl – 3/5
This novel is about my 15th or so Iris Murdoch novels, and if you’ve read any of hers, you’ve read about 1 of 4 different kinds of novels she writes. Her early novels and a few later ones tend to be about a kind of runaway person in a moral and emotional spiral actively pursuing chaos in their lives and looking for an anchor point. These novels include Under the Net, A Severed Head, and is perfected in The Sea, The Sea. Other of her novels are gothic romances in which love is an Ideal through which sacrifice and thought and chaos leads to a sense peace, so The Unicorn etc. Other are much broader novels usually involving a kind of ironic “enchanter” character who holds sway over a small group of people who interact in their own ways–A Message to the Planet, The Good Apprentice, and The Philosopher’s Pupil. And in others, there’s a devil who punishes those around him–The Black Prince and A Fair and Honourable Defeat.
So this one has parts of these, but is something else. And it feel like it’s written by Muriel Spark or Barbara Pym more than Iris Murdoch. It’s about a righteous man who’s moral imperative is put into practice. It’s an odd duck and has interesting, if limited returns.
The Ruin – 2/5
I thought this book was bad. And it made me more mad and more appreciative in its own ways. For one, stop telling me I will like a book because it will remind me of Tana French. Tana French reminds me of Tana French, and that’s it. She’s one of a handful of absolutely brilliant crime writers whose books transcend a sometimes shaky and trope-filled genre. Megan Abbot, Jo Nesbo, Gillian Flynn, Sara Gran, Kate Atkinson, JK Rowling, and Attica Locke all do this and they all do it in their specific ways.
This book is simply Irish. And about crime. And was boring and frustrating.