Labyrinth – 3/5 stars
Don’t be fooled by the weird claim on the cover of this book that it’s similar to The Da Vinci Code. It’s not except that this book came out in a time where people were very much trying to capitalize on the success of that novel. The result was some very bad copycats from a novel I love, for how exceedingly silly and dumb it is.
I don’t think this novel is among my favorite but it’s so very different from that. More so, it’s a like a combination of the plot, story beats, and tone of The Name of the Rose, and the dual timeline of Possession or even an Assassin’s Creed game. Alice is working on an archeological dig near Carcassonne, when she finds two skeletons in a kind of embrace, along with an artifact. As you can guess, we’re going to spend some time exploring Alice’s story and her connection to the past, as well as learn that story as well. It’s a book that I think has good writing, and a good premise, and still just lost me somewhere in the middle.
Deadeye Dick – 4/5
This novel involves Rudy Waltz, who, when he was a boy, shoots a gun out of his window and accidentally kills a pregnant woman. His father is deemed responsible for this crime but of course Rudy blames himself, as does the sheriff. He’s only saved from a savage beating by the police when the husband of the woman killed is horrified by his treatment. But the novel isn’t just about this event, but about how this event shapes Rudy’s life. His life, though, is something else. His father was an early-adopter of pro-Nazi views and a personal friend of Adolf Hitler. In addition, Rudy is privy to the destruction of a small town in America by way of neutron bomb.
A small little Kurt Vonnegut novel that traces the impact of violence in the grand way through a sense of American character and history, and then in the small way of a single person committing a very real, but accidental crime that kills a woman across town.
This book looks at the difference between fatalism and a sense of eventualism. My definitions here involve the difference between something that HAD to happen versus dealing with a change in one’s life expectations after something happens.
And like a lot of Vonnegut novels, this one is also the forms of violence that we commit or have to endure or have to endure the existence of.
My copy of this novel begins with a longish introduction by the author (it’s not that long, but the novel is quite short and the introduction takes up a fair amount of that) that discusses basing this novel on a meeting between the author and a woman she met one time who was imprisoned. This becomes even more consequential later when the author herself is imprisoned as a political prisoner by the Sadat regime.
The novel explores the story of how the woman, Firdaus, has come to be in prison. She was married young to an old man, she escaped and worked in sex work and found herself being held by violence by a pimp, and what follows is a series of different but similar circumstances until she reaches a breaking point and stabs a man who threatens her. When he dies, she is imprisoned and sentenced to death. This breaking point, as you can imagine, is not taken into consideration for how and why she was in the situation she was in.
It’s a powerful novel, and like all novels about injustice, grueling and harrowing.
A Red Death – 4/5 Stars
The second of the Easy Rawlins books, and taking place a few years after Devil in a Blue Dress, this book begins a sick woman being kicked out of her apartment four months in arrears for rent. Easy is the janitor and handyman in the building. He’s also secretly the owner of the building and is paying a property manager to take care of the business. This property manager convinces him not to interfere with the eviction. He doesn’t, and he lives to regret it. The next day, the woman apparently dies by suicide.
So you’re asking, why is Easy Rawlins the janitor? Well he bought the building with dirty money he got from his previous job, set up a dummy corporation to pay for it, and works as the janitor as a front. It turns out that IRS might have figured this out as well, as he’s visited by an agent and threatened for tax evasion. On his way to maybe murder this agent, Easy is stopped by an FBI agent who also knows he’s under suspicion who offers him a job spying on a possible Communist radical (it’s the 1940s) in exchange for a deal on the tax. This sets off the rest of the plot, and also a conflict with that IRS agent.
The book is very good and solid throughout. The mystery is inventive and satisfying, and for all the terror that threat of violence has in mysteries, the threat of the federal government really screwing you over is near visceral here.
A Touch of Jen – 3/5 Stars
A 2021 novel that begins in a slightly confusing space and then once it get going ends in an even more confusing (though more so cryptic and fractured space). Remy is obsessed with his former restaurant coworker Jen. She’s super hot, she’s mean in the right ways, and more importantly, he thinks he had a chance with her when they worked together, and now many months after she stopped working at the restaurant, he thinks he might be able to pull it off after all. He and his girlfriend Alicia (and yes, one complicating factor is that he has a girlfriend) are going to be joining Jen and mutuals on a trip to the Hamptons. Remy has told Alicia a lot of how he feels about Jen and Alicia feels her own kind of way and is also attracted by Jen, so the weekend, fraught as it sounds, is also peppered with some fascinating possibility.
The weekend comes, and so too do all the weird little possibilities. I won’t say more, except that the book goes into some strange and often interesting directions. Some of those directions I think are really good, and I especially enjoy the tone of the novel throughout, and some of the directions are less successful. I think the book is very appealingly written throughout.
The Confusions of Young Master Torless – 4/5 Stars
In this short first novel by Austrian writer Robert Musil, we meet the young Torless who has gone away to boarding schools. There, while thinking through the intellectual questions that guide his developing brain, he becomes a willing (though wiltingly so) participant in the torturous bullying of a fellow classmate. He has some thoughts and feelings about this!
This book predates Musil’s other most famous work, The Man Without Qualities, by about 30 years, and for me occupies that strange little position of taking place during and written during the dying of the Austrian Empire before the war. Some other books do this as well, and I have really enjoyed those too, specifically Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity and Joseph Roth’s The Radetsky March, which take on the death of empire much more head on. This book though, more interestingly, does not know the fate of the empire, and yet still manages to interrogate the cultural assumptions of superiority through the institution of the school.
The Human Comedy 2/5
Insert “I can think of at least two things wrong with that title.gif”.
Well really one thing. A nitpick for Goodreads: please don’t call things historical fiction just because the novel is older.
Anyway! This is an incredibly saccharine novel about WWII that takes place in a small town in California during the war (and published during the war). We have three brothers and a sister — Homer has just gotten a job as a telegram delivery boy, defying at 14 the rule that they only hire 16 years or older, his brother Ulysses is a cut up in school, and Bess is pretty (that’s her character, pretty). Marcus is off to war. And you can imagine, spoilers!, that because Homer’s job is mostly to deliver the news that soldiers have died to their families, well, that doesn’t bode too well for Marcus. I am being glib, but this book is so syrupy that I refuse to take it seriously. I also read it the same weekend as The Naked and the Dead published just a few years after and feel like Mailer was a lot more right about things than Saroyan. This book has been on my conscious for 30 years though for the weirdest reason: it’s a clue in the Sega Genesis version of Jeopardy I had as a kid. Anyway, this is bad almost satirically bad Steinbeck.
Myra Breckinridge – 3/5
It’s funny because this book seems exactly the book that Gore Vidal would write. And he did! I am specifically thinking about how his first novel Williwaw seems so simple and quaint in some ways, but has at its center a very dark act of violence that is covered up simply as an act of self-preservation.
Anyway, this book should come with a host of trigger warnings, but most specifically because of some very casual rape and sexual violence (and treated pretty glibly) in the service of revenge and pettiness. The book also needs to be given some space in terms of gender politics, not because it’s too old or too sacred to put through a 2021 lens, but because it’s raw and wild in some ways, and I would say that allowing some of that to stay, not unexamined, but not reduced makes this book much more interesting. It does lack for interestingness that’s for sure.
Myra is working in a kind of film school as a substitute teaching things like empathy to her students. She’s living the husband of her recently deceased dead husband Myron (hmmmmmmmmmmmm) and ostensibly the plot involves Myron’s uncle trying to determine if the two were ever married for the sake of the will. But don’t let us confuse that situation for a plot, because the book itself is structured more as a series of monologues and almost diaries mostly by Myra, but also by the uncle, as each tries to make sense of the situation, discuss their worldviews (about life, politics, gender, sexuality, violence, identity etc).
The Crystal World – 3/5 Stars