I have the stomach flu. I’ve been meaning to write up these separate posts for days, but have instead been subsisting on ginger ale and popsicles and general grumpiness. Cue some commentary about a fitting end to 2016.
I did read two novels over the holidays. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am and Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale. I have a lot to say about both, but I’m too queasy to muster much, so here’s the abbreviated version for both: don’t bother. Continue reading
Here’s the thing. When you’re feeling feelings the best approach is to repress, ignore, and eat. It is not to confront these feelings by way of literary engagement. Right? Right. So what was I thinking in reading Ian McEwan’s new novel, Nutshell? The book is narrated by a fetus. A fucking fetus. Continue reading
I am a Dave Eggers completist. I think because I really, really loved A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius I keep reading everything he writes hoping to recapture the joy of that first read (why did I love AHWOSG so much? Probably because it was the first thing I’d read like it. A like every first encounter aren’t we all always trying to get back to recapture that moment of intoxicating newness?).
But with Heroes of the Frontier the fierce loyalty of fresh love has faded to embarrassment to be (seen as) still attached to the overly confident novel, unaware of its lackluster performance and reliant on the coattails of previous success. But I want to love Eggers, and so I read for kernels to warrant continued affection: Eggers writes good comedy. Josie, a former-dentist, has quasi-kidnapped her children and taken them into the wilds of Alaska so that she can find meaning. Some funny scenes ensue. Some smart writing.
But given the sole source of conflict in the novel is Josie’s uncertainty about whether her life has, or could have, or ever had, meaning (and whether children might be what we all pin our hopes on for meaning, but find never live up to those expectations), Eggers has a challenge in maintaining interest. There’s only so much hand wringing, soul searching while drinking wine and staring at the stars that one reader can tolerate. (Especially when it’s a reprieve, almost entirely, of the hand wringing of Your Fathers, Where Are They?) Which is to say the psychological conflict and drama doesn’t have enough complexity or resonance to do much but bore. Loathe as I am to suggest that short stories might have any merit at all, I have to say I think this 300 page beast of different campsites and highway driving could be suitably pared down to a couple of nights in a tent and the same realization: we make meaning in what we do and who we do it with, and it’s never going to come from money or things or external validation (alas).
The book hits shelves later in July. If you, like me, can’t resist Eggers (like you can’t resist Atwood), you know you’ll read it anyway, so go, read it, and let me know if I’ve gotten it all wrong. If you can resist the siren call, then go see the movie for A Hologram for the King and let that be your Eggers fix. Plus Tom Hanks. And let me know whether the movie is any good.
Want other Eggers reviews? See Zeitoun, the Circle, earlier novels predate the blog.
The summer of 2008 was a magical book summer for me (stay tuned for my next post on ‘what I’m reading this summer and what you should read’). I read a series of incredible novels, in some cases staying up all night to finish them. Such was the case with Annie Barrow’s first novel, The Gurnsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (a title that belies the brilliance of the story and makes it difficult to recommend to others because of the constant fumbling about for the proper order of words). I devoured it; I cried in earnest at the ending; I recommended it to others.
So imagine my delight in seeing Annie Barrow’s has a new novel: The Truth According to Us. I signed up for an Advance Review Copy and put aside other books on my to-read list to read it. I filled the bath, poured my wine. Veritably rubbing my hands with excitement. I anticipated an immersive world full of rich characters and affecting themes. I hoped for the terrific realist American fiction focused on small town life that one finds in Songs in Ordinary Times or Empire Falls or anything by my beloved favourite, Anne Tyler.
Instead I got an interminably dull plot, with unbelievable, unsympathetic, uncomplicated characters, set in the necessarily arid and characteristically tired moment of Depression era, midwestern America. If I had only one word to describe this novel it would be “dust.” The supposed point of conflict centers around a high-class woman, Layla, who is sent to Macedonia, the outpost of the midwest, to write the chronicle of the town. Layla boards with the once-wealthy-now-rocked-by-scandal-and-poverty Romeyn family and finds herself “embroiled” (I use quotes as embroiled suggests some level of urgency or intrigue, which are decidedly lacking from this plot) in their history. There’s some attempt to raise questions about truth-telling and historiography. The gist? History (capital H) is shaped by those telling it.
This book was the first time in recent memory I’ve properly considered a) throwing a book at a wall b) buying an e-reader (this 400+ tomb -dustdustdust- was my unfortunate and only travel companion on a cross-country trip – I even considered buying a magazine to save myself the horror of being stuck with this thing on the plane).
So what went wrong? You might be expecting some grand theory on the fate of second books (as my click-bait title suggested). Instead I pose this: The Gurnsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was co-authored. A collaboration between Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer. It was brilliant. This second, solo effort? Not so much.
Here’s hoping for better luck with my summer reading list. Which brings me to: what do you want me to read this summer? I promise to read the first three suggestions, and consider all others. (note: I put this call out last summer and read all that was recommended!)