Nervous Conditions – 4/5
This is one of those books that has been around for awhile, was highly lauded when it came out, and made the rounds in a few college courses and high school English departments. It was even given to me as a possible book to teach my first year of teaching for tenth graders. I promptly declined because I was brand new and didn’t have time to read something and create material for it. And I will be honest, I don’t like teaching full class texts at all because I almost never teach honors classes and students just don’t read these books and well, it’s a whole thing.
So, the book itself begins with a young girl in Rhodesia, and that opening line sets us up for a lot of what happens in the novel. She doesn’t know her brother very well, and his death allows her to go to school, now that he won’t be using that money. So the horribleness of the death opens up this possibility for her that was locked off beforehand, so there’s this very child-like moral bargain being struck quite early as a consequence. The book then ends up working like a lot of bildungsroman, where a good amount of the energy of the narrative is spent building the world of the school, the town, and the close world around her, while the plot is a more almost naturalistic set of events that occur as a consequence of that initial choice to attend school. The language, the character building, and the various inhabitants of this novel work together to make sense of the slowly emerging world around the narrator. As she becomes more aware, so do we.
Instead of a Letter – 4/5
Like a lot of memoirs, this one is written with the kind of sense that it will be the only memoir necessary to tell this life. So the relatively large spans of time that pass while chapters break and new ones begin are explained away in this way. Diana Athill was born at the end of WWI, came of age in the 20s and 30s, fell in love with her brother’s tutor and followed him to Oxford engaged. As the 30s wears on, and their life together clearly starts diverging Athill realizes that what felt like the clear shape of her life was going to change. There’s a line that had me in stitches at the beginning of one chapter: “When Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, I realized what a fool I had been.”
And that’s the tone throughout. Athill is so sharp and so funny throughout, while also having a clear insight into the myths she and her fiance wove around themselves as young people, and then how to make sense of his leaving her, but also without it being a tragedy (but also without it being given a rosy haze). Instead, she’s so clear-eyed about everything and she realizes (writing at 45) that life has events and you weather them.
One of the best early moments also comes when she’s explaining why she didn’t become a Communist at university, something that plenty of everyone else in educated England seemed to do–because they had too many meetings.
House Made of Dawn – 4/5 Stars
The 1969 Pulitzer Fiction winner by Scott Momoday, this book tells the story of Abel, a Pueblo Indian man who returns from fighting in WWII to find out that he’s not particularly wanted in this world he sacrificed for, and isn’t very well equipped for that life anyway. He gets drunk one night and ends up killing a man and is sent to prison. In the second half of the novel, he begins to find some peace and a path in life through the prison ministry and other spiritual pursuits.
The novel is not exactly a redemption story so much as a story about alienation. While Abel figures some things out, it’s never quite clear why he’s left so ill-equipped in the world and the emptiness he faces, which is both a rational response to an irrational world, but also completely discernible by readers. So the novel is an exploration of this alienation and the lie at the center (which is never explicitly centered) is that the United States is a place (the world is a place) in which humanity and human spirit is a sacrificial quality but not a place of healing. The US can export its mythos, but offers nothing in return for those fighting (if you’re most people, but especially Native).
The Captain and the Enemy – 3/5 Stars
This is Graham Greene’s final novel, and it’s kind of a spy (or spy adjacent) novel but it’s mostly about modern emptiness. It’s cosmopolitan and international, as some of his novels are, and has a little flavor of Patricia Highsmith to it, and while it’s structured as a kind of mystery, it’s not a Mystery or a thriller at all.
We meet our narrator Victor when he’s at school. A friend of his father shows up, and this “Captain” tells him he’s won him in a backgammon game and is taking him from school. Motherless, and with his real father gone from his life in most ways (he’s the enemy but also the “Devil” in the novel), Victor goes with the Captain. What he finds out is that he’s to live a little bit of a libertine life, but mostly will be a surrogate son for Liza, former lover of The Devil and friend of the Captain. This arrangement is not quite a mother-son arrangement, especially as Victor has no real sense of parents anyway, and so this weird relationship among the three of them persists. So there’s a waywardness throughout, and this involves staying in and out of hotels, being minor scammers and scamps, and throughout it all there’s a lot of information we might guess at, but that Victor doesn’t know, and so we don’t know. We follow this all into Victor’s late 20s when things slowly start making more sense.
The Hobbit – 5/5
It’s really been a long time since I’ve read the Hobbit, probably high school. I’ve read it a few times now, and have seen the Orson Bean cartoon about 1000 times, and only the first of the Peter Jackson movies.
What stands out to me in this rereading is that while there was no business in making three 3-hour movies, the book is richer and more full than I initially recalled. That Smaug is dealt with and there remains another 75 pages is clear enough that the book has more to it than I remembered.
This is probably the best of it. That the slaying of the dragon (both literal and metaphorical dragons I imagine) only solves one of the problems. That it creates a power vacuum, and that former allies, quickly find themselves competing for the same resources is a healthy reminder of how war and common enemies works.
The book is more tragic in this way that I had recalled it, especially given the large amount of death it includes, and how…not exactly betrayal, but something cousined with it can explain a lot of our interactions.
It’s interesting how much more fully formed both Gollum and Gandalf becomes by the Lord of the Rings, both feeling still mostly unformed here, but how fully Bilbo is in this one. His actions in Lord of the Rings are both more clear, and more earned as a consequence of how much character development he goes through here.
The Regulators – 2/5 Stars
This is the second to last Stephen King novel I have left in completing his catalog, and I am glad I have one more because this one is pretty sour. On the one hand it’s decidedly dark throughout, which isn’t a bad thing as most of his books are pretty dark, but there’s also significantly less characterization and world-building and context to bolster the novel. So it’s not just dark, but it’s grim and cynical. It’s also pretty gimmicky, as the book is a kind of companion piece to Desperation, a novel I mostly remember, but not in enough detail to catch the references.
We begin in a small town when a van rolls up and starts firing shotgun blasts into a crowd killing a handful of people. This scene of violence dominates the first third of the novel and it’s how we’re introduced to the whole cast as we slowly begin to make sense of what’s happening. As more violence occurs, the writing is mostly in the action, so pacing is fast, and characterization is light. More vans and more violence. This seems like ok, what’s going on, but then we’re shown a commercial for a futuristic tv show where robot vans are cops, and wait….als MASK I guess.
So now it’s clear something more is happening, and it can’t just be haunted vans.
Anyway, I won’t tell you anything else other than to say I found this one particularly weak over all.
The Catherine Wheel – 3/5 Stars
A short novel by Jean Stafford that is less full than her first novel Boston Adventure and less impactful than The Mountain Lion, a near perfect novel, but still rich in many ways. The novel is the story of Catherine and her cousin, both raised together in the same town and are the same age by a well-meaning but overbearing family. As they grow up and grow apart a little their different attitudes and perspectives on life cause them a regular series of comings and goings while their personal lives remain intermeshed. The title comes from a kind of dual symbols — the literal Catherine wheel, the torture device used to kill St Catherine as well as the firework named for looking similar. And Catherine has decided that this dual nature is a way to look at her. She’s split between Catholic and secular orientations to the world. She’s also split between being “traditional” and forging her own path (especially in the constant comparison with her cousin — whom she really does love). So the double meaning between a literal torture device (with heavy Catholic implication) and a firework (inflamed, beautiful, celebratory, temporary) mark her own outlook.
The book is quite quirky (and not too quirky for its own good) but there’s not enough book here to fully render the life we’re watching. So while Boston Adventure is 100 pages too long, this one is 50 pages too short. The Mountain Lion is more successful because there’s a real precision happening in it, but also that balance is there.
The Ascent of Rum Doodle – 3/5 Stars
Bill Bryson tells us repeatedly through his introduction to this book that we should prepare ourselves for the funniest book we’ve never read. It’s a book that appear on two different 1000 Best of All Time listed I use for reading recommendations, and it’s hard to find. It’s a parody of an adventure novel or travel writing about the ascent of the world’s tallest mountain “Rum Doodle”. The group is people by a series of ridiculous characters, all named ridiculous things, and a ridiculous number of things happen. It is a a funny book, but it’s also an entirely too silly for me book (and it’s literally funny than another book I happen to be reading right now and other books reviewed in this very review). So while Bill Bryson loves it death, I will have to trust him on that one because I found it curious, but also not as hilarious as I had hoped. He really jazzed me up for it though.
The Dragons of Eden – 4/5 Stars
I know this book is beloved, as is Carl Sagan in general, and when the book is clicking it’s really good. I found this to be one of the clearest primers on evolution, both its past and present (with a clear hint of a future) that I’ve read, and felt myself confirmed in my sense of it, as well as better equipped to talk about it. One of the things Carl Sagan does here that’s really good, is carefully explain some of the language and terminology used in discussing evolution, really tries to explain how badly humans are at imagining giant periods of time passing without our eyes observing it, and how limited a lot of our imagination is in a lot of ways. He’s also really good at showing the most important thing about evolution, that it’s a numbers game. There’s both an accidental and willful ignorance about how evolution works in the broadest sense. There’s the misuse of the phrase “survival of the fittest” and humans, especially Americans and especially men, act like this is a personal credo or personal choice. But Sagan demonstrates in one go how random and impersonal this process usually is. In one example, he discusses moth evolution by highlighting the example of a white moth selected for, that can hide among the white birch trees in a given area, and then over time as that environment changes and those same birch trees are covered in soot and darkened, how this process shifts to select for black moths. No one moth made a choice, but generations passed in which trait was selected for.
So all that’s great. There’s a truly terrible chapter where he tries to solve “abortion” by limited the debate to definitions of humanity as a compromise, and he walks right into the “reasonableness” trap set by anti-choice arguers. There’s nothing served by this chapter, it’s greatly outdated, and he oversteps his expertise in weighing on topic not being debated on the merits of science.
A Bullet in the Ballet – 3/5 Stars
There’s something in the water in England in the 1920s and 1930s where so many people wanted to get into the mystery writing game. There’s a weird little mystery by AA Milne, by TH White, by Miles Franklin. This pair is not famous first, but the weirdness of this little book is of a type. Ultimately I didn’t like this one that much because it was too silly for me. A book both trying to be silly and parodic and using silly names usually doesn’t work for me, and even when the actual crime is rendered in realistically well-done ways. It’s not a go for me.
Anyway, in a very self aware narration, the book begins by telling us that we’re in a murder mystery and lets get right down to it. We are taken to the scene at a travelling Russian ballet where the lead actor playing Petroushka is shot through the head, on stage, in full costume. I don’t know much about specific ballets, but I looked this one up and he’s a clown and also I think a marionette, and that’s how he’s described. If you google 1930s ballet you can find creepy pictures from this show and others (as well as youtube videos of dancing that looks oddly bad — again, not an expert — especially compared to the very good stage dancing of musicals). Anyway, he’s dead, he has a goofy made up name, and so since we’re in London, the flying squad is brought in and the tall debonair police detective Adam Quill takes over.
So the novel goes on and on, silly thing happens, silly thing resolves etc. It’s farcical and goofy, and not super my thing. I am interested in another of their books that is not a fake mystery novel, so I will let you know.
Skellig – 3/5 Stars
Correct me if I am wrong, but is this one of those British books that people in the UK and Ireland know well, but isn’t all that well-known outside? Anyway, the book itself I think is mostly solid. The narration is so sparse and there’s a really fetching ambiguity to a lot of the details, including about the main character (or title character) and there’s some really funny tone moments.
The book involves a young boy moving into a new house and while searching the grounds he finds a hole in the shed and on entering it meets a curious, not-quite-human man living there. The man is very old, seems to be hiding something significant about him, seems dangerous but not creepy, and is surly. What he most wants is some aspirin and Chinese food. As the novel progresses, we get little clues throughout that the man is not human, and seems, if all clues are correct to be an angel, or at least a mythical creature (owl man?) that might explain where angel myths come from. The story mostly circulates the friendship of the boy and Skellig, but also with his friend and neighbor, Mina.
The novel also apparently led to an absolutely bonkers looking movie with Tim Roth and some fake wings.