False Bingo 3/5
This is a solid, weird, sometimes scary, sometimes cutting short story collection. I didn’t really like Jemc’s other novel that I read, but I generally liked these stories. The collection begins with a really funny and weird meetup in a coffeeshop that’s punchy and wry. We get some stories about seemingly haunted houses, about weird relationships. Many of the stories are quite short, but some of the longer ones really put something down that is interesting to stick around with. Two come to mind. One is a second person story about meeting up with the “Board Game” couple. And I warn you, you might be the board game couple. This is a couple that wants to hang out and play; they want to show off their weird eclectic taste in games and alcohol, to have a array of different showy foods for you to try, and there’s always a constant pressure to comment on and react to their being. Sometimes this couples come off in a way that suggest they’re masking something significant in their relationship, like fractures or cheating, and they might only want to meet up in groups. Or, they might be trying to be swingers? Anyway, as the story goes, you realize that you’re also a kind of couple, the drifting away kind. Self-quarantine/social distancing really tells you the real answer though.
Another strong story involves the narrator taking a DUI rap for her alcoholic brother who would be on his third or so DUI were he the one to get caught. The narrator finds herself faking her way through AA, taking on the shame and guilt that comes with trying to get her record expunged (especially for something she didn’t do), and catching a lot of grief from her family — her brother acting like she had been the one driving and her mother for enabling her brother.
The Suitcase – 3/5 Stars
This is a short nonfictional, biographical piece written by a Soviet expat in the US. The premise of the whole book is that when he was planning on leaving the USSR he was allowed to bring three suitcases. Because this deeply broke down his entire existence in such clear terms, he realizes that he couldn’t possibly make any real choices about what would fit in three suitcases, so he focuses instead on a single suitcase of the necessary items to get him to his destination. The result is almost entirely clothes. The focus of the rest of the book then is a series of biographical stories about each of the different articles of clothing, what significance they currently and ultimately hold on his life.
It was a more interesting book conceptually than in execution when it really comes down to it. And of course, you have to imagine thinking about what would be in your own suitcases. I was watching an episode of Atlanta recently and in it, the main group of guys end up getting their suitcases and clothes destroyed in a fit of revenge, and it made me think about what sentimental (if any) value I hold toward my clothes, or if they’re simply a set of choices and options I spent money on. I don’t have that many, but like everyone, I’ve spent a lot of time in my clothes and do associate them with parts and times of my life. This set of connections might not make for an interesting book, but would have a lot of different feelings and levels of importance to me.
Separate Hours – 3/5 Stars
This is the seventh or so novel from Jonathan Baumbach, notable father of Noah Baumbach of A Marriage Story, and even more so as the dad from Noah Baumbach’s film The Squid and the Whale. I only mention these movies as they relate to the context under which Noah Baumbach was raised. The back of this novel notes that Jonathan Baumbach has four children and three ex-wives and there’s the most tepid blurb I might have ever read in a book, something like “This is Jonathan Baumbach’s most accessible novel and should win him a wide readership.” Riveting!
Anyway, this novel is a series of different chapter cataloging and charting the break up of a marriage. Two psychologists, each meeting patients in their shared basement at different times, are experiencing a falling out. We start the whole novel out with a comment that the husband “likes middles” and not the mythos of beginnings and endings. So we’re being treated then to a lot of the middle. This is obviously counter to the two Noah Baumbach movies, which are about endings.
The novel is postmodern (by the back of the book’s own terms) in execution. We get chapters narrated by each doctor, by a third person narrator, as a case study, and even as a side by side set of interviews published in two parallel columns on the same page. It’s an interesting, if very anemic novel.
Souls and Bodies – 3/5 Stars
This is a strange novel for 1980 by the British writer David Lodge, most famous for his three campus novels called The Campus Trilogy. I call this novel strange because although it takes place in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s and written at the tail end of the 1970s, it’s gaze and sensibility feel decidedly older than it it. I felt very similarly to the Jonathan Coe novel The Rotters Club which was written in the 2000s, about the 1970s and 80s and felt like it was from the 1940s.
Anyway, this novel is about Catholics in England starting in the 1950s and taking us through the post-Vatican II era of Catholicism. Because of Catholicism’s weird history in the UK, this novel has that feel of outsiderness, as if we are constantly reminded by the dominating culture of England that all this struggle and strife many of the characters put themselves through in this book, there’s always an out — just become not Catholic. And this is especially true in this book given that the bulk of the Catholic characters we find in this book are relatively well-off. So the class-issues of Catholics in say Ireland, or parts of the Americas, or in various African countries don’t enter into it here. The book itself is structured chronologically and follow a group of Catholic college students into their various adulthoods and look at the ways faith plays in their lives, and then how the changing structures of the Church (as an institution) also change. How for example does birth control, divorce, and other similar modernities enter into their consciousness.
Fatelessness – 4/5 Stars
This is a very good, small, intimate and deeply sad Holocaust novel from the Hungarian Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertesz from 1974. What makes this novel stand out in a lot of ways is how it looks at trauma through a lens of not only the traumatic effects of the Holocaust on the teenage boy who is the narrator, but how this trauma informs his ability to connect emotionally to his experiences, the suffering around him, and the role this plays in his life. In addition, there’s a lot of discussion on how language of trauma and the language of warfare also affect his ability to connect to his world. In the novel, then, the fact that he is a Hungarian Jew living in a caught between state between Russia on the East and Germany on the West means that he’s not even experiencing trauma in his own language and when he looks to make sense of it, he has multiple languages and cultural ideologies swimming in his head all at once. So the tragedy of the book is on one hand the violence of the Holocaust on the bodies of he and other victims and survivors, but also the assault on culture, language, and emotion.
The Golden Apples – 3/5 Stars
My final collection of Eudora Welty stories from her collected stories. This edition was published in the 1960s/1970s won a bunch of prizes and housed four collections.
This one is her third, but the last I read. It’s longer than the others, but contains fewer stories. The stories here function together in an interconnected way not so much to tell overarching story but more to map out the cultural and societal history of a small town. So you often a minor character of one story popping into the next as a lead. They are mostly, but not all, in third person which adds to the kind of connectedness from an anthropological sense. It makes me think about other connected series of stories like Faulkner’s The Unvanquished which do tell a moving forward and cohesive story of the Sartoris family leading up to the present from the Civil War (and was one of the first book I was shaking scared and excited to read in a college class because of my fear and admiration of Faulkner) and his other collection Go Down, Moses which tells disconnected narratives in service of themes and ideas about family.
Perhaps this is more like a Winesburg, Ohio deal then where the whole is pretty good, but none of the pieces themselves stand out particularly.