Providence: 2/5 Stars
The newer novel by Caroline Kepnes of YOU fame. It’s…well, it’s not great. There’s so many of the same pieces that made You a good, if goofily rehashed novel, are there, but serving this story they just don’t work as well. The plot here is that a young boy is kidnapped by a former substitute teacher. While he’s missing his best friend grows into her adolescence and loses touch with that connection, but she’s haunted by images of his eyes, his presence, and this leads her into developing an artistic voice. The boy comes to four years later, having been in a coma the whole time, and having been the subject of experiments. When he’s reunited with old friends and old enemies, he becomes quickly overwhelmed and as his feelings subsume him, one of the girls at the party dies suddenly of a heart attack. Only John, our boy, seems to understand that some power that was unlock during his captivity, has killed her. He runs away to a life of isolation.
In the new present of the novel, we add a third narrator (to that of the boy and the girl), an aging police on the hunt for a mysterious figure who may or may not be killing people in wholly unknown ways.
So the novel takes place along the paths of the boy, now a grown man living on the fringes of society, the girl, a successful emerging artist trying to piece her life together, and our detective. So the other thing to know about this novel is that it ties itself closely to HP Lovecraft tales in its pursuit of the narrative. Like I said, I don’t think it’s great and given that I really don’t like HP Lovecraft….
What I will say is that there IS something immediately readable about Kepnes’s prose that makes her novels really readable.
The Flight from the Enchanter: 4/5 Stars
An early Iris Murdoch novel. Iris Murdoch novels are all unique in some ways, and in other almost derivative of themselves. Well, that’s not fair. More so, there’s themes and motifs she likes to explore and forms in which she likes to explore those themes. So it’s more like a set of variations on a theme you might find in music. Two dominant forms her novels take: a social network is established and described; it’s set upon by a trickster figure who seeks to destroy, manipulate, or control this network through trickery. The second form is similar to the first, but instead, an alluring enchanter figure (could be a philosopher, an artist, a musician, etc) does much the same but to different ends. All these novels are also inhabited by an exploration of mid-century sexuality and breaking mores. In most of her novels at least character is identified as “a Jew”, to mixed purpose. So this novel is her first foray into the enchanter form (after her other her novel Under the Net‘s trickster). You can feel the novel, and the novelist feeling itself out in ways that are interesting and complex. And for me, the rule of thumb is that the more complex Murdoch attempts to make both the novel and the social network, the better the results. When her novel dives into a single complex relationship or a single family (Henry and Cato or The Red and the Green) I tend to find them less good. This one’s emerging ideas work as an early attempt by a novelist I am pretty well familiar with and I imagine as a solid novel to start with if you’re interested in Murdoch.
High Crime Area: 2/5 Stars
A sometimes ok to pretty collection of short stories by Joyce Carol Oates. On the one hand, I think there’s a couple of long stories that are pretty good over all. The opening story involves an orderly at a retirement home (that happens to house an older nun who has just died) is an interesting exploration about the assumptions of forgiveness and redemption, especially in relationship to how the assumption of faith functions. It works and it’s a good start to the collection.
The other story that I think works really well involves an older woman–a college professor recently widowed–first seeking out drugs and human connection from a wastrel niece only to be burned. She recalls working in prisons and remembers a fleeting but seemingly intense connection with a former student she met there. So she seeks him out.
A story that almost works and has an HP Lovecraft level of cosmic mystery involves a graduate student looking for her brother, a seminary student whose fallen out of favor with his studies in Trenton NJ. It’s good story that turns into absolute parody as Oates very inadvisably has several of the characters speaking in horrifying parodies of AAVE to the point where I almost stopped reading. To quote my wife reading poorly written dialect “She knows they’re speaking English, right”
That one made me not care much about the other stories.
A town! novel by the English mid-century writer Elizabeth Gaskell. My ! indicates that kind of novel we see in both English and American literature where the small town is the main character and while there’s a series of doings throughout, there’s no central character or plot we’re focused on. This is opposed to something a Jane Austen novel (or say Little Women) where there’s a clear set of characters and plot we’re working on.
In fact, so little happens in this town, and the humor is not wry or dry enough to be as charming as it could be, that a lot of the drama that happens in the novel feels fabricated (for example an early death) or artificially inflated. The writing is good, and there’s plenty of little moments to enjoy (such as a character scandalized by reading Dickens) but it’s not as fun or charming as other books from about the same time.
The Real Sherlock: No Rating
An Audible original podcast (as opposed to a novella or play or etc) that delves into the history and life of Arthur Conan Doyle.
Ultimately this is a (I presumably think) true accounting of his life without getting into too much detail. It skims his later life and doesn’t mention fairies at all. But it does offer up some good timelines and interviews about his life.
The most interesting parts of this are the reveal that there are recordings and film of Doyle talking and giving interviews. I knew he was Scottish, but I didn’t imagine him being Scottish (does that make sense?) so hearing him talking in a pronounced regional dialect is pretty amazing! It also brings up the idea that while I know how so many contemporary writers sound (I know Stephen King, Salman Rushdie, Christopher Hitchens, and Ann Patchett’s voice very well), the idea of hearing older authors is a weird novelty absent from my sense of them.
Agent 355: No Rating
A not very good novella about a Revolutionary War spy. My biggest issue with this story is that there’s no real attempt to make sense of why the counter-cultural ideas coming from the head of this narrator are happening. We’re supposed to take it on faith and move on, and I wasn’t super convinced by it. It feels more like an outline of a full novel than a successful individual piece of writing.