Seven days ago I posted what turns out to have been only part one of my In Brief & Year-End Rush [click here], a recounting of the frenzied fit of reading I do as December elides into January. Since then, I have moved from one house/pet-sitting location to another and completed five more of the stack of library books through which I’m working, determined to discipline myself into a single-digit pile when it comes to Library TBR stack, because, honestly, the pressure of having twenty-plus books with return dates signed out is too much for me.
Please note, again, I am not a reviewer, I am an appreciative reader. I love books. I worship really great books. I fall hard for books by which I am moved. I also read a lot of book blogs, a lot of book reviews (I worry about that, worry that I am a pretender, as Rose in Gypsy accuses her daughter, Louise, “…reads book reviews like they were books,” but I digress) and I follow a lot of literary types on Twitter. Thus, I often read things because of the enthusiasms of others. I am often, in those cases, left saying to myself, “WHAT THE HELL? I DO NOT LIKE THIS BOOK!” In order to avoid any of YOU having that feeling, in my considerations of books, I try to include a bit about WHY I do or do not like it — meaning, a bit about me, so that if you decide to read or not read on my recommendation, you’ve some background from whence that recommend (or dismiss) came. Okay then, here we are, going:
Goodnight, Mr. Wodehouse: A Novel, Faith Sullivan, Hardcover, 456 pages, October, 2015, Milkweed Editions I wish I knew how this novel came to my attention, but, alas, it is nowhere entered on my To Be Read/Heard About Where? list on which I track such things. Ms. Sullivan authored four previous novels, none of which I have read, and been described as specializing in Minnesota-small-town characters. In this novel, heroine, Nell Stillman, develops a near medicinal-dependency relationship with the works of P.G.Wodehouse, to which she turns and on which she relies to comfort her through the vicissitudes and vigors of a long life. It is not spoiler to reveal she loses to many different kinds of death many loved (and not so loved) ones along the way, nor is it spoiler to say I had expected more about Wodehouse’s work, and more a Wodehouse tone, but, instead, this is a mostly (for me) melancholy work; it begins with Nell’s obituary, after which, how can it hope to be other than elegiac? The writing is skilled, flows gracefully, and the characters are easily known, rather like those who peopled television shows in which Andy Griffith starred – and I have been known to binge on Matlock re-runs, so, that is not a complaint, but, they are not Wodehouse-ian, so be sure you know what you’re getting into if you decide to pick this up.
A REUNION OF GHOSTS, Judith Claire Mitchell, Hardcover, 400 pages, March 2015, HarperCollins I read about this a number of places (none of which I recall, and, alas, again, not on my TBR list) and it seemed it would be just the sort of thing I’d enjoy, and, too, Kirkus had included it as Top Fiction 2015, so, there you have it. Allow me to offer the publisher’s precis:
In the waning days of 1999, the last of the Alters—three damaged but wisecracking sisters who share an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side—decide it’s time to close the circle of the family curse by taking their own lives. But first, Lady, Vee, and Delph must explain the origins of that curse and how it has manifested throughout the preceding generations. Unspooling threads of history, personal memory, and family lore, they weave a mesmerizing account that stretches back a century to their great-grandfather, a brilliant scientist whose professional triumph became the terrible legacy that defines them. A suicide note crafted by three bright, funny women, A Reunion of Ghosts is the final chapter of a saga lifetimes in the making—one that is inexorably intertwined with the story of the twentieth century itself.
From the ancestral suicide chart hanging in the three sisters’ apartment to their sick (in the very best way) witted love of punning to their unsentimental embrace of suicide, this is a quite lovely book — which, I know, seems an odd way to describe its rather dark-sounding goings on, but, the prose is delicious, there is story — so much compelling and interesting story — and it hasn’t any of that self-conscious “I’ve a literary MFA” tone that infuses so many novels nowadays; it’s a well-written read, and nowadays, there is hardly higher praise than that. And the pathological attachments of the trio to family, to family history, and to a superstition of primogenital tragedy reminds me of my own dysfunctional, nutcase collection of a family.
A WILD SWAN: AND OTHER TALES, by Michael Cunningham, Illustrations by Yuko Shimizu, Hardcover, 144 pages, November 2015, Farrar,Straus and Giroux I love Michael Cunningham in the way I love Stephen Sondheim; both are icons of my youth, idols and artists I consider my people, who have created the sort of work and wonders I always imagined I would, those treasures from the collective consciousness of the generation of creators and gay men to which I belong. It seems only fair to tell you that. That said, this slim volume is not unlike Act Two of Mr. Sondheim’s Into The Woods, in which is asked the question; “What happens after Happily Ever After?” Despite its smallishness of pagery, A Wild Swan boasts hugeness of heart and imagination. (It also boasts gloriously evocative illustrations by Yuko Shimizu, worth the price of the book all by themselves.) Like Sondheim, Mr. Cunningham de- and re-constructs the mythology within (and without) the fairy tales, re-examining the pretty-patinas we’ve layered over the grotesqueries and horrors of the original tellings, and finding a truthiness more suited to the current Zeitgeist, all in short-story lengths. A particular favorite of mine, his re-shaping of Hansel and Gretel in which they are — well, I won’t tell you, except to say, years ago I was contracted to write a children’s play version of this tale and I submitted what I thought a brilliant take in which the tables were turned and H&G were modern tween-horrors who terrified the lady who built her house of candy. Needless to say, my version was never performed — but, there we have what I referred to in my opening sentence, that collective consciousness I like to (delude myself into thinking) believe I share with the Misters Cunningham and Sondheim. Listen, I’m entitled to my fairy tales, too.
BEATLEBONE, by Kevin Barry, Hardcover, 299 pages, November 2015, Doubleday Many of my sources went on and on about this one using words like “exhilarating” and “profound” and “literary experiment” and “extraordinary”. Well, okay. I found it annoying. Sorry. Honestly, when I have to read reviews to determine what went on in a book — then the book is too cutesy, artsy, experimental, self-indulgent, purposely convoluted. Again, sorry. I just found it too much of a too muchness early on, and then, somewhere along page 200, the author inserts himself into the introspective, mid-life crisis of a tale. I don’t for one moment have any issue at all with the idea that one’s childhood is forever after the stuff of one’s neuroses, the mountains one must climb again and again – I, too am in the dead-parent-at-a-young-age, surviving-parent-less-than-ideal-meantal-health club — trust me, I get it. We all get it. It’s gotten. Gotten so hard I get it like get every gotten morning while my got gets gotten, going rotten inside me, forgotten about the gets (and the gits who got me before I could get my own) begotten by all the others and — do you get where this is going or where it has gotten? Of course you don’t — because that sort of get got gottening is the sort of rottening monotonous-ing prose “styling” foist upon us and Emporer’s New Clothes-like heralded by reviewers afraid to say, “WHAT THE FUCK?” Work it out with an analyst or in your journal but let’s not publish it and call it a book, okay? I’m being mean, sorry, but, on the other hand, who’s going to make it this far into the paragraph? GET my point? GOTTEN!
OUTLINE, by Rachel Cusk, Hardcover, 256 pages, January 2015, Farrar, Straus and Giroux This was on the New York Times 10 Best list and touted by the genius I follow on Twitter (he does not, needless to say, follow me), Daniel Mendelsohn. Beautiful writing. Nothing happens. I am exhausted by books in which nothing happens except masturbatory display of metaphor and technique. TELL ME A STORY, DAMMIT. However, the New York Times called it “lethally intelligent” while Cusk, herself, has said she finds fiction “fake and embarrassing” and plotting and character creation “utterly ridiculous.” I suppose this is the answer. Maybe, stop writing novels? Then you’d need not be embarrassed, faking it, as it were, and bothered by the utterly ridiculous requirements of your art, turning out this sort of soporific, self-indulgent twaddle that — once again — fools the literati into drooling, “Oh, how marvelous and new!” Well, wait, there wouldn’t be that exclamation point, would there, because the literati are all too jaded and faux-sophisticated for that sort of excitement. Jeesh, give me a break.
Hmmm … my curmudgeon is coming out. Apologies. Tamir Rice, my heart is breaking for him and his family and this world in which life is so cheap and genocide is an accepted-law-enforcement practice. I’ve read twelve books in December and made 112 dozen cookies and been to the chiropractor three times and gained ten pounds and cleaned up many piles of dog-doo-doo and slept in multiple beds not my own (and none of that for fun) and realized that I am in the bottom 20% of median-income and had to deal with the bodycast of family expectations and prejudices and need to come up with $600 for Mom-reasons real fast and my car is falling apart — literally, the bottom seems to be falling out — and has been keyed — the driver’s side is like a grid of scratchmarks — and I’m having very strange dreams about a fellow and woman, both long out of my life, but who seem determined to torture me in my dreams.
So, grouchy. So, here I am, leaving you alone, going.