The Woman Upstairs – 2/5 Stars
I found this book because of a list listing “Famous angry women in books” or something. And it’s true that the lead character and narrator of this book is very angry. I was hoping she’d be angrier and less articulate about her anger in this book.
What’s this book about? It’s about a woman in her early 40s who was an artist who is also an elementary school teacher. She becomes friends with the mom of one her students. The mom is an Italian artist married to a Lebanese philosopher both in the US because of a fellowship at a Boston university. As this friendship develops, our lead become friends, and then develops a kind of mild obsession/needy relationship with each of the family members independently.
So this book is more or less just fine, and at times, especially talking about art and literature, quite good. Messud knows her stuff, but the fiction part of all of this is not very good.
The biggest issue is that the book can’t let the audience do any work whatsoever. How do I know how mad the narrator is, she tells us, over and over again. She can’t simply be mad and show angry without constantly telling us about it. Also, she invents this whole concept of the “Woman Upstairs” a kind of sexless image of a middle age woman who’s moving into a state of nonbeing culturally. Again, perfectly fine and interesting concept (definitely not a new one) repeated over and over and over, and every single she brought up past the first time, I was annoyed and bored by it being pointed out.
Family Matters – 3/5 Stars
I haven’t read A Fine Balance, but it’s one of those book that came out at a time I was just becoming interested in reading books, and so I remember it having a moment. And a lot of people I know really do love it. I haven’t read that one, and now I am of mixed opinion on whether I will or not.
This one is less well-known, and maybe deservedly. Often this book is very well written and interesting and thoughtful. But I found it to be incredibly meh and boring throughout. It’s an interesting achievement really to be a book that is so mundane and banal that it leaves almost no impression on me whatsoever.
The Library Book – 4/5 Stars
In a way, if you’ve read any Susan Orlean book, you’ve read them all. She’s incredibly consistent with her writing and her approach to these mostly micro-history, part biography, part investigative journalism books. She finds a really interesting story, provides tons of context and history on not only the specific topic and subject, but the broader history, and then has her own small, but specific involvement. It’s how The Orchid Thief works; it’s how Rin Tin Tin works, and it’s how this book works. And they’re all very good.
In this book we begin with the details of the 1986 Los Angeles central library fire. The book talks about the damage, the ways in which the fire functioned within the building as if by design, and the volunteer effort to bring the library back to snuff, and the crime and investigation.
In addition, the book talks about the history of libraries in general, books and fire, and then the history of the Los Angeles city library system.
I have to imagine if you can love or like Susan Orlean’s approach and tone (her writing has some character to it) this book will work for you, especially if you’re on this site.
The Blank Wall – 3/5 Stars
This is an ok, kind of noirish book about a mom and wife in WWII dealing with the homefront while her husband is away and her teenage daughter finds herself caught up in some trouble with an older man. There’s plenty to like in this book, and some things that could have been really interesting to see.
For one, this book starts with the conceit of a wife writing banal daily letters to her husband fighting overseas. She becomes increasingly more and more detached from the writing, but keeps up with it to give her husband something to read.
In the foreground, her daughter has been communicating with a man in his mid-30s. This communication is not explicit, but gives off the impression of impropriety. This
Harbor Me – 3/5 Stars
So if you’ve read Woodson’s other novels, she goes back and forth a little between adult books and YA/Middle Grades. Also her books are often in verse. This is a YAish book and not written in verse, but still has some of the same sensibilities.
This book is about a group late elementary school students who each experience emotional turmoil in their lives and are placed into a kind of group class setting that also doubles as a kind of group therapy. The novel is broken into different voices of the kids and a good part of it is written without teachers in the room.
So I liked the book just fine and I thought that kids’ voices were engaging and sweet in a lot of ways, and while the book is very sympathetic in its portrayal of students, it’s an odd thing at times.
For one, it comes across as a book written by someone who doesn’t work in education. Education, from my experience in a variety of different schools, is entirely about resources. Many school systems need more money to address all the issues that students face, but I think the concept of “underfunded” schools is not as simple as it’s often portrayed. A school system with a history of segregation and high poverty are dealing with a lot more trauma and inequality than a system in a suburb created by white flight in the 1970s. Both may get the same amount of money, but if you have less trauma or inequality to address (both of which create barriers for student success) than the system with less trauma will likely be successful. Anyway, this book is fine and interesting, but has the same issue of maybe not entirely knowing what it wants.
The Summer before the Dark – 4/5 stars
In this novel, we once again have a woman realizing that her marriage does not contain the level of satisfaction that she thinks it should have. Kate is in increasing middle age and over the course of a few months, she begins to lose faith in her marriage specifically and eventually has an affair with a younger man. After this she ends up spending a long period of time (within the novel’s context) with a young woman also on the cusp of marriage.
So what this novel is and does, structurally, is where the focus should lie. While there are “events” and a plot here, the novel mainly centers on 5-6 long vignettes that capture chunks of the final moment of this part of Kate’s life. The narration flits around the globe as Kate goes from Africa to Brazil to London in various sections.
Ultimately what really works about this novel is the shifting consciousness of the kind of character Lessing is well-known for writing, the disaffected wife.
So here we have a woman who is entirely capable of a broad-minded life, facing down middle age, and realizing in various capacities how small her life has been.
But at the same time, when she lands with Maureen at the end, it’s clear that her long life in marriage is a revered kind of experience.
Ways of Disappearing – 3/5 Stars
So I read two novels this weekend by Idra Novey, both short and both somewhat dealing with Americans in foreign spaces. I could say that in part some of each blended together, and that’s not really a bad thing. In fact, there’s a kind of authorial consistency within both novels, and the second I read (was the first actually, but the author’s second) greatly improved upon the first.
This first novel is about a Brazilian novelists meeting with her American translator. The translator functions as the protagonist, but the relationship between them is in the forefront. This relationship is one of access and power, so for example, to the translator, the novelist is of utmost important because she’s generating the art that needs to be translated for American readers. She’s the content producer, while the translator is more of a craftsperson. But the novel also challenges this notion because as an American, the translator might also feel that providing a translation of a work that allows not only the 3rd largest country in the world to read one’s work, but also expands that to an even larger market worldwide makes her in a position of power. This is even further complicated by the translator’s sense of her work being more than simply providing access, but actually creating meaning in the work in a lot of ways.
I think about translator’s and their work a lot. It’s an interesting idea to work through. In some cases, as with Anne Goldstein and Elena Ferrante, the power dynamic is clearly in Ferrante’s seat, but in others’–say the translation of Ovid or Dante–it becomes more complicated. Even the recent work by Domenico Starnone translated into English by Jhumpa Lahiri, it becomes more complicated because Lahiri is more well known to American audiences but is not well known as a translator.
Those Who Knew – 4/5
This novel is much more realized than the previous, and at times sits on a razor thin margin of error, and I think never falls into potential traps. So the margins: 1) it’s very risky to mention authors your book is partially emulating because that draws uncomfortable comparisons, 2) it’s risky to allow or to court attention for your novel’s “timeliness”.
So this book takes place on an island country/port city years after a major political and violent upheaval in a country. We are now a decade on in the lifespan of this movement, and there’s a rising conflict between the next generation of politicians who helped spearhead the revolution and the kinds of politicians they are expected to be. This creates a blurred set of boundaries between their political value and their personal lives.
So this book mostly recalls to me the definitions of oppressive versus nonoppressive forms of government as outlined by Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, specifically that any government that refuses to spread responsibility for control over many hands is inherently oppressive. This is in part because of the necessary force required to exercise that power, and also because of the kind of psi of that pressure (metaphorically speaking). So of course, be wary of any politician who claims to be the one force that can correctly and safely control the fate of a country, but also be wary of groups who move into power who refuse defer to the greater good and ideology that led them to power, as opposed to their specific being.
So thinking of the recent American elections, the totalized effect of taking the House is great and meaningful, in part, because no one person controls all that new power. From that struggle will come compromise and conciliation.
So anyway, this book is “timely” in the sense that speaks some truth about political conditions, but it’s myopic and naive to see this as an “American” lesson. The book’s timeliness is that showing a clear understanding of political conditions that have been true in the world for at least 60 years, but obviously much longer.
The second interesting thing here is that Novey directly references Kundera and Saramago, both of whom are writers I was thinking of as I was reading. This is dicey, but it works. In part, both Kundera and Saramago know a thing or two about surviving authoritarian regimes, so they’re great reference points. Both Kundera especially champions literature facing down “existential” threats to democracy, because, like, he’s been there man, and because both authors are joyful in their writing, even while describing truly horrendous things.
White Fragility – 3/5
I think this book is just fine. But it’s also JUST fine. It’s a well-argued, well-researched treatise on how white fragility functions and some things to do about it in ourselves (white people) and in others (white people).
I have a few issues with it however, and my critiques are small in nature (in that they don’t take away from the main thrust of the whole text, but that I do think weaken the argument or create gaps).
So the book is about the concept of white fragility, argued here as the in-born defensive white people have about race and issues of racism, especially their own. Diangelo goes point by point to name and provide a framework for understanding this. And then works to, not dismantle it, but to provide tools for readers to begin disentanglement on their own.
So some issues: while consequences are generally small, there are some actual real-world consequences to being called racist or more specifically having one’s racism called out for white people, and that is that you could lose your job or be made a pariah. And while the recent examples we’ve seen of white people white peopling like crazy, those examples of someone calling the police on a Black person for existing or going off on a racist tirade, etc tend to be much more liminal, the consequences are real and swift. So I think it becomes more of a challenge of how to get white people who are not engaging in virulent and public hatespeech to see themselves in those actions, but more so, how to be willing to risk safety and security to open discuss the smaller, microaggressions we’re guilty of. If admitting to racism was going to cost me my job, I would absolutely fight tooth and nail to deny it, and I think anyone would. If the goal were to correct action, make amends, and move on, then I would be able to work through that process too.
The dual effect of this kind of bifurcated understanding of racism is that you’re either not racism, therefore innocent/good, or you’re racist, and therefore bad/guilty, and you should be fired. But the middle ground is where all the work needs to happen, and it is not clear how that would happen.
I also think this book does not do a good enough job of showing examples of non-virulent racism in action. She does provide some examples, but these still feel egregious or at least cringeworthy. I think a better understanding of passive feelings and orientations (ie a better look at implicit bias) would be more useful. So while I think this book can be part of a conversation (or part of a syllabus) it’s quite limited in nature. I think all the books she references might be better reading than where she lands. I think also Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele should be the first step because it does a good job of providing a framework for readers both trying to understand how stereotypes work, how they create harm, and how they also work in both directions.
Call them by their True Names – 4/5
I go back and forth on Rebecca Solnit’s books. Her biggest issue is also her biggest strength. She’s quite good at getting right to the point of things, and really articulating a more or less progressive (actually more radical) Left worldview and set of beliefs, but it often means that her writing is a distillation of conventional thinking, from a particular perspective.
But the thing that I most appreciate about this book (and a few others of hers along the years) is that she is a much better thinker and writer than the vast majority of political writers (whether that’s someone doing a kind of reaction journalism or even activists) because she automatically embeds a historical context into her writing. So by the end of an essay here, you know a little of the history of a topic, a synopsis of the responses to it, and a good sense of where to go from it.
I look forward to finding her work on the recent mid-term elections because I was pretty grossed out by cynics who refused to see good in what happened. I don’t know if people have been watching Lord of the Rings on repeat or something, but we won’t be able to take a sword to the heart of all the issues in the world and fell them. Instead, there’s always going to be good peicemeal work done that has resonance through different parts of other conversations. I think people forget that writing history is meaning-making and sometimes those meanings are not clear for awhile. She’s both a great progressive writer in terms of knowing and thinking the right things, but her situation of what to do with the information as it comes it down is stellar.