The Refugees – 4/5 Stars
This short fiction collection from Viet Thanh Nguyen follows up his debut novel The Sympathizer but is not that much like that novel. Both books are good, but like a lot of follow up fiction collections after a successful first novel, these represent a longer writing period as a newish writer is working to become establish. Among other reasons why this collection might be different and why it’s also successful is that Nguyen is a newly published writer, but is in his 40s so the writing is in general accomplished and mature.
The stories range in scope but often circulate among one or more character, usually of Vietnamese origin living abroad in the US. That tracks with the title of the book but the stories themselves are a variety of stories that come from such experiences. The stories often take up a narrative voice of one of the characters and circulate around the various experiences of these immigrants and their children.
The Great Glorious Goddamn of it All – 2/5 Stars
For whatever reason, as soon as I bought this from Audible for like two dollars, I immediately regretted it. I bought it because I like Josh Ritter’s music for the most part, but had avoided his two novels because I just don’t generally have much faith in crossover artists. I do like poet’s who write novels, but that’s not the same thing as a singer/songwriter or musician writing a novel. I read Bobby Hall’s book Supermarket, and it was better than I thought it would be, but not actually good. I also am interested in Leonard Cohen’s novels, but also have not read those. I even love Nick Cave and have seen movies he’s written and enjoyed those, but have not yet decided to read one of his novels.
And this book did not do much to help me along that path. The novel takes place in a woodcutting town about 100 years ago. The book is posed as a kind of American tall-tale, which is not really something that actually appeals much to me, and the repeated use of silly affected language turned me off almost instantly. If the title of the book rubs you in a weird way, well, imagine a whole (thankfully short) novel written that way. Or don’t.
Summerwater – 4/5
I read Sarah Moss’s novel Ghost Wall a few years back and really enjoyed it. This is another short novel that begins around a vacation park/lake in late summer in Scotland. We open with a brief description of the rain and surrounding water before getting into the first narrative chapter about a woman in her 40s going for an early morning run. She runs often and among other things this is a break from her two children and her husband. She is well-aware of the potential danger of a solo run in a strange area with no phone or no one around, but she needs the break. As she runs, she slowly convinces herself to strip to her sports bra and shed the wet shirt. As she thinks about the difference she playfully thinks about taking more clothes off, but doesn’t.
After this story we get another short weather and landscape narration before moving onto the next character, in this case a middle-aged man drinking tea who happens to see the woman running. This pattern persists as we slowly take up the stories of many of the people who happen to be at the lake at this time of year. This includes teenagers and moms and dads and single people and even members of a group of Romanian vacationers, who we slowly learn are creating issues by loud partying.
The novel is heading somewhere, we can tell, but where is hidden for the bulk. The writing is very good and slow and contemplative, but the subtle narrative force is compellingly taking us somewhere.