The Sense of an Ending – 4/5 Stars
This is a reread from a few years ago, and in the reread I like it a lot better now than I did then. I do think the plot goes a little off the rails but the narration, the narrator, the character development are all alive and rich, and so beautifully and painfully rendered. There’s a lot of emotional tenderness, sadness, pain, anger, and spirit here.
Our narrator is a man in his late fifties or early 60s looking back on his teenage years. He and a group of friends talked about girls, music, books, philosophy, life, and school, like plenty do. There was both healthy and unhealthy competition among them, and of course, the star of the group, who stood out for his sheer brain power, Adrian, was the envy-leader of the group. Our narrator though had more modest prospects, and was quite risk-adverse. He begins dating a girl his age when he’s in college, and like a lot of idiot boys (which includes me) his primary focus was finding out his prospects for having sex with her and when that might happen. This leads to frustration and annoyance, and on her end some anger and resentment. A weekend home with her family leads him to believe that he’s being strung along until something better comes along, and whether this is true or not, he says as much to her, they break up, and then they have sex, which both thrills and angers him all at once.
Years later, he begins to piece together that the situation was a lot more complicated then he understood at the time, and he’s trying to figure out if he has it in him to revisit the pain. It’s a short book so I won’t mention more because the book lightly hands you as much as it wants you to have and to know at any given moment.
We Always Treat Women too Well – 3/5 Stars
I am also saying this: “We Always Treat Women Too Well.” Well, no I am not, and neither is Raymond Queneau really. This is a book written by a French writer in the style of a kind of British crime novel from the 1930s. This kind of novel is already a direct ripoff of American crime novels, and includes examples like James Hadley Chase’s No Orchids for Miss Blandish. Anyway, this book takes place in Dublin during the Irish Revolution, and involves a group of revolutionaries holed up in a post office, only to realize there’s a leftover middle aged woman still in the restroom when everyone else fled. The book pretends to be this Irish novel, translated by a fake French man, and authored by a young Irish woman. The book then is purposely garish and violent and sexually violent and sensationalist. There’s a lot of purposeful overtly, overly Irish tropes and habits and some goofy language plays. The book is weird and interesting, but not all that fun or exciting to read.
A Mercy – 4/5 Stars
This is a book I’ve reread a few times, but not sense it came out really. It came out one semester of grad school, and then I wrote about it for that class, but I’ve only recently revisited it. In a few recent books I’ve read that explore this period of US history (the late 17th century in the United States), one of the prevailing themes is that there’s a lot of eyewitness writing about, but too often the audience for the writing is not as intimate as it could be. This book takes on that question of what was in the hearts and brains men and women in the United States (and yes, I know I keep calling it that, and you know what I mean with it). The story itself involves a relationship among a white farmer, his wife, a Black slave, and a white indentured servant. The relationships and lines of connections among them are intertwined in near maddening ways and the tension, the power struggles, the emotions, the pain and loss, and then tightening and loosening of them play out in really complex ways. For me, this is actually one of Toni Morrison’s most complex novels because she very rarely moves above an almost entirely impressionistic viewpoint.
I, Autohouse – 3/5 Stars
A book that’s narrated by an AI house program. Got it. But it’s about baseball. Ok. This Audible original is narrated by an AI in a house where a college baseball coach and his wife live as they’re sorting through a kind of undistinguished end to the coach’s career. It’s the future, as you can, see and baseball had waned in American consciousness for years before this coach found ways to bring it back and to show what is wonderful about it. This new feeling was almost immediately assaulted by the advent of numerous “quality of life” upgrades like auto-coaches, retina-scanning cheating, and other technologies that threatened to sap the life out of the sport. And this is in spite of the good changes that baseball was going through, including crossing gender lines.
The story involves the son-in-law of the coach taking over the program and possibly turning it disgraceful by further mechanizing it. I am not entirely sure why we get this unconnected title or exactly where our AI fits in, but the use of sci fi tropes to look at the ways in which data-driven baseball has stripped some of the life from the sport while also helping it to stay vital, that tension, is an interesting, if slightly goofy exploration.
American Santa – 2/5 Stars
A short story in which two Chinese women who recall an act of charity and goodwill from their childhood work to seek aid and money to care for one of the women’s grandmother in a time of need. The two women had a kind of rivalry, but when they were young an American man working for a charitable organization brought gifts and money to their small home. This American Santa left a huge impression on them, and when they are in need again, they try to find him online (now decades later) to see if he might help again. The bulk of the story involves online interactions, something I generally enjoy when done well, and it’s done well here. The writing is interesting and delicate and painful at times, and there’s a surprising amount of character depth, given the relatively short length here.
One More Hour – 2/5 Stars
A collection of war writings by Vonnegut that range from nonfictions speeches and essays about war, especially the Iraq/Afghanistan Wars of the early 2000s, and then otherwise unpublished short stories from the 1950s and 1960s, usually about WWII. Anyone who has read various of Vonnegut’s novels is already aware of how being a soldier was probably the biggest, influential part of his life (especially that of his writing life). He says in one speech from a different collection that being in Dresden during the firebombing was one of the most fortunate things in his life. He doesn’t just mean surviving, because you get the impression he would have been more or less ok with dying in it, but in being there as a witness because through that trauma he shaped his brain in such a way to truly understand the depravity that humans are capable of, and how wasteful the US could be of their just mission in the war. He also mentions in several places that WWII was the last, and maybe only just war that the US has been involved with. And that the US wasted that cachet almost immediately.
In this collection, that shaping and fury and importance are still present in his writing. But as his son tells us in the opening essay, the mind isn’t all there anymore. And that’s ok. There’s a loving and generous spirit in both Kurt Vonnegut and in his writing, but the writing in this collection is often generous of heart, and lacking in sense and cohesion. The essay by Mark Vonnegut is probably the best part of the book because it provides clear insight into the man and father of Kurt Vonnegut, while the writing is either the last vestiges, or unpublished work that could have stayed that way.
My Therapist My Lover – 3/5 Stars
The biggest strength in this short Audible piece seems to be the directness and honesty that is informing the intimate language, the openness of the subject matter, and the self-interrogation of the narrator. The biggest weakness is that the narrator is not actually all that interested in fully exploring the truth of the story, so much as laying the blame for the situation elsewhere. This would be a perfectly fine thing to do, but the subject is spoken of in such serious and earnest terms, with zero irony and not as much self-awareness as the story seems to think. And so the final product here is a piece of fiction that’s being argued like a blogpost, without thinking through what fiction should both allow and demand of the narrator. There’s a bad person and a good person, a victim and an abuser, and while there’s a few lines given to looking at what’s murky or complicated, it lands so far away from that complication in the final part that it belies that complication. The ending ends up being pat and trite as a consequence, and what had been a frank discussion about the complexities of abusive relationships, makes sure we know exactly what we’re supposed to think. And again, there’s a lot of opening for self-awareness (in both the narrator and the narrative) that doesn’t get explored, that’s not just lacking, it’s missing.
Orphans of the Sky – 4/5 Stars
A lot more fun than I thought it was going to be, this Robert Heinlein book is compared in a lot of reviews as a cross between _______ and ________. And, well, everyone else is all wrong: it’s a cross between Wall-E and the Giver. The book begins with a young scientist aboard a spaceship. The ship is divided by level between the humans and the “muties” where the higher one goes, the more mutie it becomes. We are quickly made aware for that those on the ship, the ship is all of existence. This means to us not on the ship, that the ship is clearly some kind of long-range or colonial ship gone awry, sent away from Earth and for some reason stranded. But for those on the ship, the whole of their existence is not only the ship in terms of physical space, but in terms of epistemology. There’s no outside of the the ship, because the very concept of outside itself does not exist. Our scientist, the kind of human aristocracy on the ship, is sent on a mission and is captured by Muties, there, he begins to realize there is more to the world, and begins to prepare to visit this “rest of the universe”.
Inventive and weird, and like all Heinlein, it breaks away from a conceit driven narrative by adding plenty of additional weirdness that’s not an inherent part of the conceit. Based on earlier novellas, but expanded and revised, it has the quality of both oddly rich and not enough.
Notes on Grief – 5/5 Stars
I don’t know if you lost anyone in the last year, but grief, as it always does, permeated the world in unusually potent ways. This happened in a few ways. If you’re American, you probably felt a lot of background grief as hundreds of thousands of people around you disappeared and died while you were at home and being told directly by the government and a lot of other people that it wasn’t happening at all. If you lost someone directly from Covid then you experienced in a much more direct way. If you lost someone but not from Covid that grief took on a different form. There’s a scene in the show The Leftovers (and it was probably in the book too) where one character talks about how different her grief was because it happened the day before the big event, not because of it and basically a lot of people acted like it didn’t happen at all.
This short diary is about Chimamanda Adichie losing her father not from Covid last fall. The grief and anger she feels is raw and powerful in this book. In addition, we learn a lot about how it feels to learn more about someone’s inner life in their last months and only find out about it after they’re gone, the way Adiche did finding out about the personal and political battles her father fought in the last few months of his life.