This post with multiple reviews represents a clearing of the cache of backlogged Audible audiobooks (mostly quite short) that I am trying to work my way through. My audiobook TBR is significantly longer than my paper book TBR, which is almost always less than 10 at a time.
Can Your Ever Forgive Me? – 4/5
Despite the party line from English teachers about plagiarism and fraud and academic honesty, I do love a good con artist. And literary con artists have always had a pretty compelling place in my reading history. This memoir (and I haven’t seen the movie, so I can’t comment on that) begins with Lee Israel telling some more lies, or rather placing her narrative within the world of lies that she created. It takes a little time before you realize what she is telling you and the letters you’re reading are not part of reality but part of fraudulent world she created as a forger. The memoir is short and she doesn’t waste time doing much beyond setting the scene of failing book sale (she was a biographer) and living in squalor and trying to make it. She’s not really asking for pity, but instead demonstrating the straits that her life had become as she realized it was possible for her to begin to duplicate and steal archived letters and even fabricate new letters.
One of my favorite moments comes when she discusses William Faulkner’s letters and how easy they were to create, which makes me laugh because I have read various of his letters (fakes? who knows) and her characterization of them is so spot on–typed, no nonsense and even childish diction, asking for money, and signed at the bottom.
So for being all fake, her capturing of the literary or literati world of mid-20th century America feels so warm and hilarious that I was pretty captured by the narrative.
The Myth of Sisyphus – 4/5 Stars
This might have been a terrible audiobook to listen to (especially while driving, given Camus’s biopgraphy). But that’s not to say it’s not a good audiobook. It’s read by Eduardo Ballerini, who is absolutely the voice of Karl Ove Knausgard to me (even thought Knausgard speaks perfectly fine English), and the quality is excellent. Instead, it’s one of those books where I needed to be seeing the text at times. And partly because there’s a few intricate rendering of ideas that didn’t quite match up meaningfully in my head, and I know I will need to reread at some point. But it’s how I read it and here we are.
When the book is philosophizing (and this is what I mean above with the intricately rendered ideas) I am less clear what I think about it, because I didn’t really take the time to think through it. I also am not sure if I agree with the approach of suicide in existentialist ways that Camus approaches it because it feels like he’s taking a much more abstract and ambiguous set of psychological and emotional sensations and trying to render them in logical language that I don’t think mirrors the sensations themselves. It feels empty in those moments.
But the accounting of literature, the travel essays and the making sense of Algeria are all wonderful, so I find the collection to more than a cohesive text (which it’s not really) but a showcase of Camus’s language, which I generally really like.
Good Bye to All – 4/5 Stars
This is Robert Graves’s early memoir. If you had asked me before I read it, based on what I knew about it, I would have called it his war memoir, and it is that, but it’s also a lot more. Partly this is because, as he explains at times, he began writing the early sections of this work while he was stationed in France and Turkey, which covers his early family history and his time in English public schools (most notably Charterhouse, where Prince Charles goes in The Crown [and I guess in real life too]), but he says he felt guilty or unsuited. So the would be novel of English boy school life turned into a memoir of his life up to about 30 or so. And we’re all the better for it. His stark portrayal of the cruelty of boys in the school (as well as the casual depiction of latent, active, and situational homosexual, homoerotic, and homosocial bonds in the school has a kind of historical record sense to it) helps to dispell plenty of the idyllic depictions of early 20th century English culture (and I would say supports something like Lord of the Flies).
As he moves from the school to the war, his begins to lose, or finishes losing his sense of England being home. Through his friendship (and infatuation of other poets and writers—Siegfried Sassoon and TE Lawrence notably), he begins to realize that the unchecked cultural forces of the life he grew up in will not work for him, and will kill him (especially the war). So he works to survive, rather than to prove himself in war.
When he returns to “the world” he doesn’t end up spending much time in England except to attend college and take a begrudging English lit degree. He finds himself in Ireland in 1919 (a fraught posting), and eventually lands in Egypt as a professor where the memoir ends with him quitting because of the laughably poor quality of the instruction.
Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick – 4/5 Stars
A “new” collection of short fiction by Zora Neale Huurston (although many of these–“The Eatonville Anthology” and “Spunk” for example–have been around for a long time) published in the last year. There’s a new introduction that helps guide through this collection, which explains some of the background of the stories, and asks you to consider them as part of the development of a writer.
All the stories have the very recognizable Zora Neale Hurston charm and voice to them, so there’s a comfort and familiarity there. What’s most interesting to me, as someone who’s read Their Eyes Were Watching God about a dozen times, Mules and Men once, and the new book Barracoon as well, is how much of the stories are set ups for what we get in these books. Specifically, there’s a lot of story that happens in Eatonville, that does not appear in Their Eyes Were Watching God, but also that book developed early ideas and changed things around. So they’re not exactly connected to that book in time (ala Yoknapatawpha) but are variations and sketches. The two stories I mention above remain the best in the collection, especially “The Eatonville Anthology” which tells tiny sketches of stories through the town in some really wonderful ways.
Flashman- 3/5 Stars
A book recommended by a friend, and famous of course and appearing on many many lists, and that I really just couldn’t get into. Partly satire, definitely parody, and partly historical fiction (almost like Bernard Cornwell or Patrick O”Brian — and definitely CS Forester), this book takes on the character of Flashman, the school boy rival of Tom Brown (from the 1857) who is kicked out for getting drunk. That’s where we pick the story up with Flashman getting kicked out of school and coming home and sleeping with his stepmother. That sets the tone. The novel is posed (and apparently based on the Tom Brown character as well as a real historical figure by the same name) as recovered diaries from the now 90 year old Flashman living in the 20th century near the end of his life. Flashman is a competent but cowardly soldier and officer, he’s liar, a rake, a roustabout, a rapist (by his own admission), and a lot of other things. It’s an adventure novel and a picaresque story, and well, I just didn’t really enjoy it. It’s quite funny at times, and really inventive, and well-researched, but so are the historical fictions he’s playing around with that I like a lot better.
The Sirens of Titan – 3/5 Stars
Another book that’s been on my TBR for a long time (in theory all Vonnegut got put on my TBR the second I read Slaughter House Five 25 years ago) and this has ended up being the last one for me. I thought I had been saving it, but two of the final three books left from his catalog have thudded for me (I also didn’t like God Bless You Mr Rosewater, but I loved Galapagos).
So this one also involves space and time travel, far regions of space, alien languages, Mars, and Tralfamador. It also has that thing that Vonnegut loves to do and sometimes I love it too and sometimes I don’t. Here I didn’t. Anyway, that thing is that sometimes when he writes a novel, his novel is basically about a story he wants to tell, and not so much about the story itself. This is most successful in Timequake, a book about a book he didn’t end up writing. There’s elements of it here, and what I thought was saving, I think ended up putting off. Perhaps when I reread this in another 25 years, it will work better for me then.
Harriet Tubman – 4/5 Stars
A great narrative history (kind of a historical novel, but not quite) about Harriet Tubman. Given that this is written for young readers and that it was from the 1950s, I think Ann Petry (who is an absolutely wonderful writer anyway) effectively straddles the balance of giving readers some of the harsh truths about Harriet Tubman’s life while also looking for ways to elicit feelings of hope as well. The publication of this book in the decade before the Civil Rights Act, and 100 hundred years after the 1850s, when the bulk of the book takes place, also creates a sense of long arc views of history, while also capturing the inherent sadness and tragedy of the American treatment of Black people for the past 400 years.
The book never lets you forget the harshness of slavery, and even does the Barbara Tuchman historical approach of showing plenty of people who knew the correct answer to the moral question and chose anyway, as well as demonstrating contemporary arguments. The book especially highlights the cruelty and sinister nature of the Fugitive Slave Act. Lastly, one of the things that’s really good here, is that while it’s almost entirely positive about Harriet Tubman, it does show her in some complexity related to her marriage, and the important lengths she knew she would need to go to secure freedom for herself and others.