Here’s a whole bunch of kind of (Sorry) short reviews for short books! Pandemic reading!!!
The Woman in Black – 3/5 Stars
I still think it remains a little silly that this movie had Daniel Radcliffe in it. He was too fresh off of Harry Potter and hadn’t yet made his real transition into adult movies. I think his show “The Young Doctor’s Notebook” was a more successful vehicle for him as it placed him in a transitional role.
Anyway, I mention all that because in this short novel, we meet a young lawyer being sent to a country village to be a representative for an older client’s funeral. When he arrives, he finds out that the town is alive and well, but that any mention of the old woman or the estate shuts people right up. If that sounds familiar, when this whole story, however effective, is entirely trope driven. He goes to the funeral, and is the only mourner besides a mysterious woman in black who looks like she’s wasting away from some sort of disease. When he tells someone about it they shut up or change the subject. Well it goes from there.
I don’t know man. This book is fine, but it doesn’t do much beyond what you expect it to, and while it has some shocks to it, it’s nothing any more than any other ghost story.
Gimpel the Fool – 4/5 Stars
An Early short story collection by the Nobel Prize laureate who published in Yiddish. I’d read several of his fables and stories as a kid and loved them and he’s always sort of been in the back of mind to read as an adult. This collection involves mostly characters in the early 1900s before WWI (which is referenced in a few stories) and are concurrent with Singer’s childhood. Gimpel is a fool but is not dumb, he’s simply someone who is easily taken advantage of. He does not think this is the worse fate in the world and in a moment late in the story, he makes it clear that he believes that the person takes advantage risks losing their soul as a consequence of their action, while the fool remains neutral, and in his case, reaps the benefits of patience and kindness. In another story, a widower meets a young girl (14 or so) who seems by accounts to be possessed by the spirit of his dead wife, and so he marries her. What is interesting about this story is that through the supernatural element of the relationship, we work through some of the issues associated with remarrying and attempting to recreate experiences and how they becomes simulacra in their own ways (so many people have tried to simply replace one love for another, and this is always a failure), as well as the role of second wives in the lives of children. Another story involves an older man facing his waning days trying to live by the ethics of Spinoza, which of course doesn’t pay well, and when he’s too old for WWI he finds a late love. And in another story we meet the daughter of a dying rabbi married off to will his congregation out who he sees in her new husband all signs of the devil.
The stories are remarkable in a lot of ways and have an in-born oldness to them that reminds me of other similar writers like Stephen Zweig, Joseph Roth, and Isaac Babel, despite Singer not publishing these until the 1950s.
No Orchids for Miss Blandish – 2/5 Stars
This novel is about a group of various criminals working together and against each other first to swipe a highly publicized diamond necklace being given by a millionaire to his heiress daughter at a formal ball. It turns into a kidnapping and ransom plot when the original scheme goes awry.
This is avowedly dumb (but also pretty good) British crime novel that my scant research suggests it might have been written as a kind of bet or dare to compete with James M Cain. And well I guess it does. The opening of it was so silly that I almost stopped reading it. It’s British, but takes place in the US (unless I missed that it was localized for some reason) and it reads like the Nordic character from Stephen Crane’s “The Blue Hotel” who has arrived in the American West looking for the cowboy adventures he’s read about. The gangsters here are quite silly. They talk not even like the characters from old noir films of the 1930s, but almost like the characters from “Angels with Filthy Souls” from Home Alone. It’s parodic both by design and by accident, and constantly dips into the farcical.
Time and Tide – 3/5 Stars
A small book written by the essayist and novelist Frank Conroy. I am not from New England and didn’t grow up in any kind of public intellectual sense, so Frank Conroy does not have any kind of reputation or presence in my life other than being referenced in David Foster Wallace’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” as having written a commissioned essay for a cruise line, which makes DFW feel some kind of way. This book has a similar vibe, but is still quite good because it ends actually being about something, more or less. The book is called “A Walk through Nantucket” which I only really know through the tv show “Wings” and different versions of it in New England writers’ stories — and of course from Moby Dick. Frank Conroy seems to have been one of those people who came to the island initially as a vacationer turned town bum — ie a college student who shows up for the whole summer and ends up working a job instead of lounging around. This gives him the kind of lifelong goal of becoming a year-rounder. In a way he feels like he’s made his mark having owned a bar for a long time, and also he knows he can’t ever make it. The book is a kind of touristy book, but also indicates that there’s a Nantucket almost none of can ever know because it’s either long-gone, or kept private from outsiders. He talks about the various kinds of gentrification that’s happened to the island, how the charm masks the eclecticism, as well as the various hateful ideologies that hides behind the faces (not especially hateful, but not immune from it either). What it seems to come down to is that as the fishing trade waned and the tourist trade waxed, not everyone was on-board with how this would change the face of the island.
I had a funny moment in understand about who Conroy is (think: a significantly less prolific John Updike) when he says at one point “My then current wife said to me…”.
Nature Poem – 4/5 Stars
This is a newer poetry book by Queer Native poet Tommy Pico (elements of which he names and emerge from the poems here). It’s really good and sad and affective throughout. I would highly suggest the audiobook (available on Hoopla or cheap from Audible) as Pico narrates this book, and his added cadence and flow to the poems are a real boon to the book.
The book takes on the persona of Teebs, a young Queer Native poet (hmmm) who in the title poem is struggling to make sense of the concept of a nature poem, ala Mary Oliver or Wendell Berry I guess, and so the various elements of dislocated oppression, global warming and anti-nature elements of modern life. The poems themselves are confessional, not in a confessional poets kind of way, but in that they are not impersonal or outside observations on reality or ideas or themes or things, but interactions between the poet and the speaker and those different ideas and elements. So each poem dives into these subjects and finds ways to talk about them earnestly, humorously (often), honestly, and with insightful level of candor.
A Kind of Loving – 3/5 Stars
One of those Angry Young Man books from 1960. It’s a solid novel even if I pick on it a little because it’s so much like Alan Silitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, it’s almost a parody of them. So we meet our narrator Vic Browne who is about 20 and working as a draftsman and a shop helper on the side. He’s neither super curious about the world, nor is he particularly awful or anything. He has a crush on a girl in the typing pool and asks her out. They go out, they have a nice time, and he’s caught in a kind of endless loop or whether or not he likes her. Luckily it’s not one of those “Is she actually ugly or?” gross setups but is just a matter of trying to sort out his feelings and clearly not having the words or wherewithal to do so. And like these books do, he gets her pregnant and decides to marry her. The book is one of these kinds of books that is ALMOST a critique of patriarchy in that if Vic were to get what he wanted — a way to adequately speak of and understand sexuality, the flexibility for both he and whatever women are in his life to life more freely, reproductive choices supported politically, medically, and culturally, and economic freedom for women — then everyone would be a lot happier. But instead, like a lot of men do, he sees this as an attack on his personal freedom and revolts against the only person close enough to do so, Ingrid.
Inside Stories – 2/5 Stars
An Audible Original that jumps right on the pandemic express train for content. We get a couple of stories that are old tropes in the new reality. Gangsters using Zoom and NextDoor to commit crimes. New relationships forced into quarantine, old ones too.
It’s fine. It’s perfectly fine, but doesn’t really say or do much other than play around in this current time. The issue I actually have with it, without getting into the feelings of “maybe we could wait on this one” given the amount of death that has and will continue to happen is that of culling the mundane. I don’t believe there’s anything in this writing that hasn’t been joked about in every Zoom meeting or on Twitter or anything else.
The Dark Web – 2/5 Stars
More of a podcast than an audiobook, this ten part series into the Dark Web and various criminal networks that surround it produced by Channel 4. The ten part series covers topics such as: the creation of the Dark Web, Drug trade on the Dark Web, political fight involving the Dark Web, Child pornography, guns, hacking, positive uses of the Dark Web, and internet anonymity over all online.
I found the infomative side of this podcast to be more or less well-researched and I think I have a much better understanding of the history and current basics. I also think I have a better grip on Bitcoin and block-chain and Bitcoin mining as a result as well.
Once it gets into the “discussing” things, it shows itself to be completely anemic, simplistic, moralizing, and fakely (or worse, earnest) hand-wringing about much more complex topics. For example, this is a very pro-law and order look at the Dark Web. It takes a priori that crime is bad and that criminals need to be caught, but without spending very much time investigating the nature of the crimes being discussed. In addition, it doesn’t spend enough time on the ways in which when someone does get in trouble with these crimes, the disproportionate consequences heaped on them because of how rare people getting caught is. There’s actually a person who’s argument boils down to “But they’re stealing! And stealing is stealing!” in a way that is at best reductive. I am not talking about the child pornography side of things because the morality and criminality there are inextricable, but in various other cases, I think the path is murkier than the show lets on.
In the section on illegal guns, I find that the “dangers of the Dark Web”. In profiling the story of a German teenage who obtained a gun and committed a mass shooting, what I found was less about how truly dangerous the Dark Web is (it’s still dangerous obviously) and more about how successful anti-gun laws are in Germany. It takes the teen more than a year of planning and work to get a single gun, two clips, a loader, and the ammunition. For example in the US, I could get those today (barring whatever waiting period I need) legally, and who knows illegally, but I bet not that hard. So maybe my broken system makes this look better than it is.
Latin History for Morons – 2/5 Stars
In which John Leguizamo laments the oppressive ignorance of Americans about the diversity and appeal and truly remarkable history of Latin people by being snarkily racist and homophobic. Hrm. I don’t care what he says about white people, we deserve it, but MAN does he feel super comfortable jumping into stereotypical accents of all kinds of identities who does not possess with their own history of problematic oppression and erasure. And worse! He’s not even that funny!
Anyway, I will boil his reading list down a little (very reductively) to: Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the US and Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America for a lot of the essentials. I think after that you need to go people by people and country by country to expand outward.
The Scarlet Plague – 3/5 Stars
In which Jack London predicts a plague that wipes out humanity in 2012 from the position of 1912. So not only has Jack London written a plague book, he did it before the Spanish Flu looked like it could kill everyone. It didn’t, and neither will COVID 19, but there’s some interesting parallels. Anyway, we find ourselves with a group of plague survivors, characterized most notably by the children of survivors who have no contact or remaining sense of the world before, and an old man who was once a professor of literature (and therefore not a lot of help with getting the world online — at one point he says, umm I can describe steam power to you, but I can’t tell you how to do it, which, same) at Berkeley. The novella is mostly the story of the plague, which really sounds horrifying and completely impossible — it basically works like a fast-acting airborne poison that kills within minutes and turns everyone bright red. It’s not great, but it’s compelling and a bit of a spectacle.
Kwaidan – 2/5 Stars
I know there’s a movie based on these stories, and like a lot of people I saw the movie, was freaked out, and sought out the original material. And what do you know, it’s written by an Anglo-Irish writer of Greek heritage who became obsessed with Japanese culture. The stories are fine and are “being translated” and edited by Hearn as he recounts various folk tales and historical stories.
It has a real white guy who got a little too into Japanese culture. As an American, I’ve met a lot of these guys. But it doesn’t have the kind of academic expertise you might be looking for. It’s public domain, and that’s part of the reason I think it’s so widely known, but I also now have to wonder about the film version. I haven’t seen it in ages, and I am curious about the ways in which it might sort of talk back to the original book.
Poirot Investigates – 3/5
The earliest collection Poirot stories first published in the 1923 or so. These are almost all (and maybe all) narrated by Hastings as Poirot’s partner and friend and in this way come across as a foil to the Sherlock Holmes stories with Watson as narrator. And Poirot and Holmes being very different from one another is something that remains steadfastly apparent here. What also interests about this collection, at least as a curiosity, is that there’s still one more collection of Holmes stories to be published after this one comes out. I’ve said in other reviews that I am not the world’s biggest Poirot fan, but I do like how consistent a character he is, and he remains as much here. I do like his arrogance, and especially how his build and stature often make him almost invisible to criminals. I think also here we get what I find is true in a lot of Poirot stories, that these could have been novels with the right care and given how short the novels are, I am not always sure why they were not novels. For example, in the first story I read from this about an Egyptian tomb (getting of course an early example of Christie’s later obsession with archaeology) they find the time to travel to Egypt as part of unraveling a mystery in a story that’s only 15 pages long.
And unlike a lot of the novels or stories, these mostly take place pre-retirement for Poirot.
Inadvertent – 4/5 Stars
An interview with Karl Ove Knausgard from 2017 that has been put into book form, and for me, another great audiobook read by Eduardo Ballerini. So the purpose of the interview is to ask the inane question “Why I write” and you can tell immediately that Karl Ove finds it to be a little inane, and worse, hard to talk about. So a big chunk of the early interview is him riffing a little about what writing is and what are some of the reasons why people write and why those don’t always make for satisfying answers. If I were asked why I read, there’s both a sense of things I can’t put into words about my feelings about reading and why I find it so important, and also things that seem trite or counter-intuitive or weirdly possessive about reading.
The interview gets clicking more so later as he starts telling stories, telling the history of some of the things he’s read, and about his early attempts at writing, which were mostly failures. Once he gets going the interview is really interesting. I’d have to say that anyone either interested in Knausgard but not willing to commit to one of his long novels or who is suspect of him, should read his Seasons books or this interviewv because they really do show a lot of what you’re getting into. This book also has a young teenage Knausgard trying to read Ulysses translated into Norwegian and struggling, and I was just watching “My Brilliant Friend” and the friends in that book are also trying to and mostly failing to read Ulysses translated into Italian, which I thought was funny.
This Land is their Land – 3/5 Stars
A series of short essays written around the 2008 financial crisis and presidential election (many of which were clearly written before Obama received the nomination itself). This books seems to work in a lot of ways as a companion piece to Nickel and Dimed in less memoir fashion and in less deep dives than that book takes, but while also giving some thinking about a wider variety of issues, almost all economic, and worse, looking at this book from 2020, where nothing much has changed, and many things have gotten worse. One thing that occurs to me in reading this book is how much her discussion of the opportunities to change our financial system amid the 2008 crisis mirrors the ways in which we’re talking about changing our financial system amid our 2020 double (triple) crisis of having a recession amid a pandemic amid the worst president in the history of the US amid a presidential election.
Dr. Doolittle – 2/5 Stars
And I have to say: this book is way more racist than I even imagined. I was expecting some of their times regular racism of the 1920s. There’s racist caricatures in Orwell of all novelists, and even attempts to bring out a compassion understanding like in EM Forster’s A Passage to India, there’s a failure to avoid the damaging portrayals of stereotype.
So in reading this book, which was given as a free download from Hoopla amid Covid-19, with the now common forward about “Well this book is racist but history and well, good luck!”, I kept waiting for it to come. Obviously when Dr Doolittle goes to Africa, I know it’s going to be bad. And it is! In the chapter called “The Black Prince” the Doctor must find a way to take a very dark-skinned prince and turn him white. That’s it! He really really wants to be white, and Dr Doolittle agrees that being white is awesome, and even like a parrot is like, yeah let’s turn that —- white! Yep, a bird says racial slurs in this book!
Texts from Jane Eyre – 3/5 Stars
Not just texts from Jane Eyre it turns out, but text conversations from dozens of literary characters. Usually it’s funny, and it’s a snack (not a meal) of a book that exhorts a slight chuckle from time to time. It’s very clever throughout without a doubt, and Ortberg is definitely a funny and conscientious reader, but it’s by it’s very nature a little funny limited book that would likely just be a Twitter account these days.
A Small Place – 4/5 Stars
I feel like I’ve read versions of this book several times before (and as far as I recall enjoyed them all) where a writer associated with a specific place in the world writes a cultural history or a book that tells you what it’s like be part of a cultural that outsiders also try to define. I am thinking of books by Kwame Nkrumah or Vijay Prashad or VS Naipaul or Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o among others who unwittingly (and sometimes wittingly) become the spokesperson for a specific place in the world. For Jamaica Kincaid, in this book, that place is Antigua. And what follows is a really wonderful breakdown of her sense of Antigua as a writer, as a person from Antigua, as a woman in Antgiua, especially watching the British first colonize and then abandon the nation.
Tom Sawyer Detective – 2/5 Stars
I guess I didn’t realize there’s more Tom Sawyer books out there. There’s this one, and one other “Tom Sawyer Abroad” which comes after this. This book takes place not long after the end of The Adventures of Huck Finn and is also told by Huck. Tom is told by his aunt Polly that he’s being sent to Arkansas to live for a time with aunt Sally who wants to see him. He pretends to not want to go as a kind of reverse psychology to make sure that Polly (who falls for it) really does see him. He’s actually very excited to go, and he takes Huck along. When they arrive they become quick friends with a man who they find out is involved in a diamond heist. This diamond heist leads to a murder, a trial which Tom (as in the boy Tom) presides as a lawyer (So maybe call this one “Tom Sawyer Lawyer”?), and the case is solved. Mark Twain tells us in the intro that case was plagiarized of a real world Swedish case.
What’s really interesting about this story is how dumb and useless it is as a story. I think I will likely find the same to be true about the next one when I get ahold of it. It’s almost like Mark Twain is uncomfortable with the actual achievements of his previous book, such as they are, and maybe even the success, and he felt like he had to cheapen it with further writing. There’s less said in this book than that one by far, and Huck almost does not seem himself in this at all.