Act of God – 3/5 Stars
This is a funny and odd little book by a writer I don’t really know, but as I did a little research into has been writing and publishing for a while. This book is told from an ever-shifting third person limited perspective following different women who are responding to a crisis they all share. Kat and her twin sister Edith are older twins living in the rent-controlled apartment that belonged to their late mother. Their mother was a famous sex columnist/pioneer, and they have been collecting her different papers to either give to the Library of Congress or publish, depending on which twin has their way. And this is where it gets weird: they open a closet in the apartment to find a phosphorescent fungus growing there. As they freak out from this, they complain to the building’s owner and we shift to her next. We find out that she is an aging actress who never quite hit it big and has now possibly ruined her future prospects by becoming the face of a pharmaceutical ad campaign. She is also dealing with the discovery of an 18 year old Russian au pair/cum squatter living in her closet. All of this happens in the wake of finding the fungus, which forces the (New York) City to condemn the house, and things continue to spiral from there.
I thought this book was perfectly and charmingly odd, and compelling and very funny. It was an audiobook, which allowed me to be more patient with it, and over all I enjoyed it.
The Grownup 3/5 Stars
I feel like a lot of you have read this, and it turns out I have too but I forgot for the longest time that I had, and then it clicked with me. We open this story with about 15 reminders from the publisher that this is by the writer of Gone Girl, and hopefully she writes some more, because anymore single stories published this way is going to annoy me.
Anyway, we open up with our protagonist describing turning from a hand-job specialist to a kind of medium. She got sick of the one, plus mentions carpal tunnel, and transitioned to the other in the same storefront more focusing of scamming women, then satisfying men.
The story then focuses in on a singular client who comes in, a woman in her forties who seems mousy and weak-willed who is worried that her stepson has an evil streak to him and intends to hurt her. She is coming to the protagonist because she believes that he is being acted upon by an evil presence in the new house they’ve recently moved into, a mansion that previously belonged to a possibly devilish man who hurt his own family.
So the story then goes from there to our protagonist investigating the house (and of course being a scam artist the whole time). The mystery for the reader becomes less of what is happening, but more so is there an element of the supernatural at play in this story or not, and to what degree does it affect our protagonist and the ways in which we interact with the story.
The Vacationers – 2/5 Stars
I both did and didn’t like this book much. I read the next novel that Emma Straub wrote a few years back, Modern Lovers, and thought it was fine or just ok, and maybe should have realized that going back in time wasn’t going to fix my issues with that book. This book FEELS like a first novel, and it apparently is not one.
So the book follows a family/mixed family vacation to Mallorca, a Mediterranean island off the coast of Spain, that they choose because the south of France is too touristy. Our characters here involve the central family — a husband who has recently been fired by his magazine for sleeping with a 23 year old research assistant, his aggrieved wife, their 18 year old daughter who is about to ship off to Brown, their 28 year old son, and his girlfriend/pre-fiance who is in her early 40s.
There are other characters involved here, mainly a gay couple who are waiting to hear back about possible adoption.
So, here’s the issue with this book for me. The writing is perfectly adequate to the task of writing about the complicated vacation, one that the recent job loss and cheating does not disrupt because its already been paid for.
But who is this book for? It has the problem of failing to recognize that most people don’t live in Manhattan, and don’t go to Brown, and don’t work in the publishing industry, and don’t get to snobbishly choose Mallorca instead of the French Riviera. And it does all this without a sense of self to either say, eff it and go all in with it or to have some self-awareness at all. And it does it all in very stereotypical plotting and writing that doesn’t really do much.
The Accident/A Day’s News – 3/5 Stars
Another novel by the (Eastern) German novelist Christa Wolf, whose novel, The Search for Christa T, I read and reviewed earlier in the year. This novel is about a woman who is awaiting news of her brother’s recent surgery, and hoping to hear that things have gone well. She spends the day musing and thinking and feeling and emoting, curiously pondering different ideas, language tricks, and all the other kinds of things that might completely occupy your mind on a day like that.
A complication arises however when, while watching the news, she learns about the recent nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, and this event begins to interact with, invade, and attack the sense of importance she’s placed on her brother’s health. Her thoughts and emotions become increasingly more entangled and complicated as she processes these different important events/series of events.
This book is written almost entirely in a stream of conscious/free associative way. This is of course understandable given the complex feelings the narrator is feeling throughout the novel and makes it a very specific kind of book, which is thankfully short enough to handle the pressure of a narrative like this.
Wigs on the Green – 3/5 Stars
And so like the Chernobyl novel above, this book ends up being a book I’ve been interested in reading for awhile and has unintended connections to cultural/political news these days. This book was written and published in 1935 by Nancy Mitford, of the famous Mitford family — Debo, Jessica, etc — who among all the various parts of that family included two sisters who married and liaised with high ranking Fascist and ultimately Nazi officials in England and Germany. You recall this of course from Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.
So this novel lampoons the social scene of the early 1930s in England leading up to the rise of Fascism in Europe, and the potential takeover of England from the inside by the British Fascist movement. I only kind of knew this going into the novel, but it’s a lot more on the nose about it than I realized it was going to be. It’s a screwball comedy that mocks the over-serious and officious nonsense of Fascists, in a similar way that Ninotchka does for Communists. But man, for all the ways in which they are lampooned here, it’s just odd to see how far off they seemed to realize the danger was before there was danger. So this is NOT The Great Dictator in that sense. And well, maybe a screwball comedy is one of the far end ways I can think about our own Nazi problem without getting too terribly depressed.
The book’s plot, however, strains and strains, and was forgettable in a lot of ways.
And Now You Can Go – 2/5
This is the first novel by the writer/publisher Vendela Vida, who is also famous for being married to Dave Eggers. On some ways this is an interesting novel, and much of the writing is solid. But this might also be the most first novel to ever first novel (especially in the kind way of post-MFA fiction first novels tend to go).
This novel fails in a kind of spectacular way in my mind. So the bulk of the novel is a grad student in literature, who is feeling kind of mixed about her own talent, and her own confidence in taking the stipend to attend the university, is also dealing with the complications of being a 21 year old in grad school, of being on one’s own post college in which the various kinds of supports and structures that allows for are gone, of dealing with a new and probably fatally flawed relationship and still being too deeply affected by a long term relationship whose emotional and financial wages are still being paid. Like I said, it’s a first novel of a certain ilk.
But here’s where it stretches beyond belief. There’s a whole frame event which is listed as an “assault” on the cover of the book that shadows over the whole book. And this is not to say that the event is not an assault and that it would not be traumatic, but the assault that is described (not sexual by the way) is so particular and specific of an event and the protagonist tells us how big and important it is, but spends no time whatsoever unpacking the peculiar nature of it, that it feels completely boring and tacked on given how much we’re told it’s important to the book and how little it seems to be important to the book.
Victory over Japan – 4/5 Stars
On the one hand, this is one of the most 1980s (or more so that is at least as old as the 1980s) book I have read in a long time. What this means in part is that there’s a kind of too casual racism for the sake of putting words in characters’ mouths to feel super comfortable these days. But also, it’s a very good collection of short stories, which hangs together as a whole book in an effective way. It’s not a collection of stories forming a novel like Olive Kitteridge or similar books, but there’s a clear set of leitmotifs and themes that almost pervade the stories that strengthen them. It’s more like Shiloh by Bobbie Ann Mason in this way.
So like I said, it’s a good collection. One of the things that makes it solid is that the voice feels timeless in a way. Certain of the stories could be set in the 1940s, 1950s, or 1960s (and are!) and almost clearly work as contemporary reflections rather than stories set in any kind of past. They can’t be though because there’s more awareness of sex and sexuality than in a lot of those stories, and there’s an openness to talk about things from that era shut out of a lot of stories from those eras. Oh, and plus Ellen Gilchrist likes to curse in her books.
Alexander’s Bridge – 4/5 Stars
I have read a half dozen or so Willa Cather novels, and this one is not like a whole lot of the others that I have read, save one. This is, in my estimation, along with My Mortal Enemy, the most “Wharton-esque” of her writing, clearly an influence. This is her first novel and came out in 1911 and is very straightforward in a lot of ways. Bartley Alexander is an American engineer who visiting England to finalize plans he’s created for a Canadian bridge. He leaves his wife in the US, and when he arrives in England (and it’s discussed how he’s spent significant amounts of time in England during his career) he runs into an old flame of his. They talk and share a spark, and she invites him to dinner, and things kind of resume between them, an affair of the heart, but not really one of the flesh. Thus rises a sense of disorder and tension in Alexander as he tries to figure out who he is, and what he wants, and what his options are.
This disorder in his social and personal lives spills over in dramatic ways into this professional life.
This is an odd little book of moral clarity and writing clarity.
The Two of Them – 4/5 Stars
This is a short novel by the writer Joanna Russ, whose short nonfiction “How to Suppress Women’s Writing” I read and reviewed last year. I also read one of her other novels, which along with this one, has been more recently reprinted. She’s most famous for the above essay, and also the novel The Female Man, which I haven’t read.
This is a book about Irene, or Irenee as she goes by. She’s the product of a 1950s childhood and sensibility. In her adulthood, she becomes involved with a space travel/time travel organization that observes other worlds. Through involvement with this group she becomes involved with a controlling and ultimately abusive man. The group is focused observing a society that seems based on a broadly defined Middle Eastern culture, and on first observations Irenee discovers what she sees as a controlling patriarchy and decides to “rescue” a girl named Zubaidah. In doing so, this sparks a conflict between her and the man she’s involved with and she becomes more and more increasingly aware of the limitations and patriarchal control of her own (our own) society and the organization. This leads to violent conflict.
Like the Marge Piercy novel “Woman on the Edge of Time” this novel splits its time and energy between multiple worlds, and uses science fiction conventions to shed light on our own world and potential liberation.