The Hummingbird’s Gift – 4/5 Stars
Mostly a published long essay, but still a compelling story about hummingbirds in general, but specifically those hummingbirds that become abandoned, injured, lost, or otherwise in need of human care to be rehabilitated and brought up to health enough to be part of natural life again. In this book, we find out that hummingbirds exist upon a series of contrasts. They are quite small, but fierce fighters. In the descriptions of the fighting from this book, two birds locked together, I was reminded of the fighting descriptions in novels about dragons. Like dragons, hummingbirds can fly backwards and forwards, almost indefinitely. This comes from a figure out pattern of the wings flapping. An interesting was of look at all birds of course is that where mammals are generally meat sacks filled with liquid — yes, blood, but also marrow, acids, etc — birds are meat sacks filled with air, especially the flying ones and especially the small one. Sy Montgomery describes hummingbirds as being light as a ray of sun, barely making an impression in her hand, language that she borrows from other cultures’ words for the bird.
So the story here is about the rehabilitation of the birds. They almost never survive injury and abandonment for numerous reasons. For one reason, they need to be feed every 20 minutes or so, without fail. This requires weeks long preparation for full day committments to mashing up fruit flies and turning them into a thin paste to syringe into the birds’ mouths. If you’ve ever had to feed kittens by hand, imagine the same about 40 times a day or so.
Stitches – 3/5 Stars
I feel like when Anne Lamott is writing about writing (or writing her novels) she’s really on. When she’s writing about more vague or abstract topics, the material and writing is still good, but it wanders and meanders, and worse, covers and recovers the same ground over and over. If you’ve read any Anne Lamott, you’ve read this one already. The only real difference is additional reference to contemporary events, some with insight, and some less so.
Poetic Justice – 3/5 Stars
A kind of bizarre mystery novel (and I guess mystery series) where 90% of the book is focused college campuses in the late 1960s (and this book is from 1970s, so those feelings here are mixed), inter-collegiate politics, and poetry. There is a mystery, there is a death, but if you didn’t know much about the book, didn’t read the back or the logline on the front and if you had my 1978 Avon book cover, you would make it probably 120 or so pages before realizing where we were headed. So before the murder (or death), we’re mostly looking at a kind of Alison Lurie or Anne Tyler book, but with a slightly goofy tone to it. It’s goofy because the naming convention in the book is a little slapstick. But we meet our protagonist Kate Fansler, a poetry expert who happens to love, but is not expert in, the poetry of WH Auden. She’s been wrangled to head up a dissertation defense on Auden, and is happy to do so because of her love and because she finds the scholarship to be well done. She also finds herself on the committee with a Chinese history professor, and other non-experts, which leads her to begin question ing some of the various structural changes happening at the school. These amount to the grad school (and I am using CUNY as the model for this book) is at odds with the wider school structure and being asked to take in undergrads. So the book is also about those kinds of sweeping changes happening in colleges at the time. It’s a kind of goofy and very specific take on the social issues mystery ala Maj Slowall and Per Wahloo.
Insurrecto – 4/5
We follow a filmmaker and a translator around contemporary Philippines as they discuss history, scout locations, and navigate the complications of a both foreign and familiar land. Throughout we are treated reactions to the modern complexity and sometimes horrors/near horrors and a post-colonial space, while also reading about the filming of a movie. The movie part of the book is about a 1901 uprising against US soldiers that leads to the slaughter you can imagine. Like so many events in the 20th century, the horrorshow technology allowed for a massive quick amount of death unheard of before. The book plays around with narrative structure, dialog, and constant reference.
“There will be unapologetic uses of generic types, actors with duplicating roles. Anachronisms, false starts, scarlet clues, a noirish insistence on the pathetic pursuit of human truths will pervade its miserable (quite thin) plot, and while the mystery will seem unsolved, to some it will provide the satisfaction of unrelieved despair.”
“I would like to make a movie in which the spectator understands that she is in a work of someone else’s construction, and yet as she watches, she is devising her own translations for the movie in which she in fact exists.”
“At times, she feels discomfort over matters she knows nothing about, and Magsalin hears rising up in her that quaver that readers have, as if the artist should be holding her hand as she is walked through the story. But she rides the wave, she checks herself. A reader does not need to know everything”
The Grass Dancer – 4/5 Stars
Sometimes you read a novel in which it feels like the author is pressed with a clear sense of urgency, that if they can’t get all their story into this one novel, there may never be another opportunity to ever speak about these things again. I think this is one of the two main types of first novels — the other is the rehashed autobiography — both can be successful or not. This book has that sense of urgency to tell the story of a huge cast of characters over the course a hundred or more years of a family, of a town, and of a people. The effect of novels like these usually also mean you need to read them to really get a sense of them. Explaining the plot doesn’t quite get at it. This is a storytelling novel, meaning that there’s a large impulse to tell stories and to infuse those stories with poetry. It’s not always about what the stories contain, but the telling itself.
“A permanent dull ache spread from my belly to my chest. I thought I could feel pinpricks of loneliness in the pads of my fingers, taste it in the back of my mouth. Clara Miller must have been lonely too, longing to be touched. One day as she sat before her metal tub filled to the rim with sweet corn, she reached behind her head and unpinned her silver hair. It tumbled down her back like creamy lace cloak. She hiked her skirts to her knees and I could see she had removed her stockings. Her legs were heavy and milk white, solid as columns. She hiked her skirts higher, until they bunched in her lap.
When I kissed the back of her neck she quivered, like the dying peasant I’d shot and killed a week before. Her silver hair smelled like smoke. Clara and I tangled together like the bale of wire resting beside the unrepaired chicken coop. We were shameless, falling to the ground, wading into the creek, making our way to her bed.”
Hangover Square –
The Silence of the Girls – 4/5
Why did I think this was a book about a sexual assault scandal in a private school in the 1950s or so? I am not kidding, I truly thought that’s what this book was when I bought it. Anyway, it’s ACTUALLY a book about the women of Troy during the Trojan war with Athens, written in a similar vein to the Mary Renault myth books, where psychological reality and not true myth explains things. Our main narrator is not from the city of Troy, but from the land of Troy. Her husband is killed by the Greek army and she is given to Achilles as a wife and in her new life, she feels the obvious terror and fear of her new situation, but also the strong survival instincts to keep herself not only alive, but to try to make a new life from this new situation. Among other things it’s a psychological reckoning with the wages of war from ancient times. It’s a reminder that in the same ways in which the Iliad teaches us about cultural values and human condition, there’s a missing component to the telling of these stories.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil – 5/5
A true crime masterpiece that clearly helped to usher in the kind of renaissance in both true crime and memoir from the 90s-now. Like a lot of those kinds of books, there’s some liberties taken here to create a more cohesive story out of an overload of information, events, and characters. It’s similar to the process of how movie adaptations turns a long complicated novel into a more tight two hour movie not just by slicing, but by stitching things together as they see fit.
The central motif of the book is that Savannah is intentionally isolated from the rest of country, and this leads to a kind of sui generis culture, a historical separatism, a kookiness, and other elements that make it “different”. And of course, if you’re from the South, you might recognize much of the same nonsense from you own hometown or local big city. That doesn’t mean it’s not compelling.
The story centers on a series of different characters — a local kook who might very well poison the whole town, a trans woman who performs a hugely successful drag show, a local drunk who runs any number of informal businesses, the author/protagonist, a Northern writer falling in love with all of it, and Jim Williams, a local rich man who defies the notions of “old money” and “new money” who among his quirks includes flying a Nazi flag to purposely disrupt filming of a movie (or also maybe because of Nazis), his affair, relationship, and murder/self defense killing of Danny Hansford. The book is compelling throughout, worth not thinking too much about the datedness of it all (it’s not as bad as it could be?), and solid writing and characterization throughout.
Goodbye Columbus – 4/5 Stars
It’s been a long time since I first read this book. It’s a collection of short stories, and it won the National Book Award, and not only is it Philip Roth’s first book (he was about 25 or so), it’s also the only short stories I know of that he ever published. It’s hard not to think about the young Nathan Zuckerman from The Ghost Writer producing these stories.
The novella “Goodbye Columbus” pulls its title from an Ohio St graduation song. The story involves a summer affair that has the seeds of something more significant, but the kinds of social and personal limitations placed on such things. Neil Klugman sees a pretty girl at the pool, hands her a towel, tries to meet her eye, but fails. He gets her number anyway and calls her up and asks her out. They go out, they have both a connection and a repulsion to each other, and his very non-patrician Jewishness clashes with her upper crust Jewishness. But they start something up. He meets her family, with mixed results, he starts hanging out all summer, and they become enmeshed in that summer way. At the same time, we also get a weird digression about his job at the public library. A young Black boy keeps coming into the library wanting to look at art books, and well, we’re treated to some bad dialect, and questionable characterization. Anyway, speaking of, Neil of course messes things up. Like a lot of young men, when something is going well, he has to step in and do something mean and impulsive, demanding she get a diaphragm. Well, summer ends, and they go off in their different direction, and the distance adds complication, adds contrast, and when Brenda’s mom finds the diaphragm in her bedroom at home, everything starts unravelling.
It’s a compelling, somewhat self-deprecatory look at youth, and like most Philip Roth writing, at it’s worse, is still very well-rendered.
The other stories in the collection are a little more mixed. A few a truly great like “The Conversion of the Jews”, a young boy hates the imperious attitude of his rabbit and finds a way to extort a pro-Jesus sentiment in a public venue, and “Defender of the Faith” where a European theater veteran is in charge of new recruits likely to be sent to the Pacific. Jews in his regiment start taking advantage of his Jewishness in order to get out of various hardships. The other stories are more forgettable than bad.