Firmly within belief

Cover of Beyond Belief with title written vertically in blue and John Koethe horizontally in black.

Beyond Belief: Poems by John Koethe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

John Koethe is a retired professor philosopher as well as an established poet. Beyond Belief: Poems, his 2022 collection, is a set of philosophical poetic musings. These abstract and slippery poems are mostly about time, aging, and the sum of a life. While many were thought-provoking at times, there was little that was vivid or particularly moving in them. As much as I enjoyed some of his thoughts, they are told from something of a detached remove, and the feelings evoked were rarely sustained throughout the long, meandering poems. They came across almost like brief but rambling essays.

That said, there was a warmth and introspection that I did enjoy in this collection. Reading it felt like sitting before a fire with a wise older friend and listening to him impart some of what he’s learned as he reflects on his years on earth.

Poems of the car wash

At the Car Wash by Arthur Russell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Arthur Russell‘s At the Car Wash, recent winner of the Rattle chapbook prize, is an extraordinary chapbook of poems centered around the author’s experiences working at his father’s car wash in the melting pot of Brooklyn back before the current wave of gentrification. Russell lived in both of the areas I did growing up, and his vivid poems bring to life the gritty, rough world of the borough at that time. But their true focus is the author’s complicated relationships with his parents, particularly his hard-hearted businessman of a father.

In form, the poems range from portraits of the people who worked at the car wash, like “Checkout Man” to broader conceptual pieces about the poet’s life’s choices, like “Burning Garbage.” The most powerful poem in the collection is “How to Replace a Toilet,” a grand summing up of the author’s upbringing and work in his dad’s business, with all the mixed feelings it entailed. Told as a how-to guide, it begins: “First, have a father, one who owns a car wash / where he employs poor Black men / preferably those who’ve come north in the Great Migration, / but any poor Black man will do / as long as they have historical disadvantages / that have translated into self-destructive behavior…”

I found this short collection touching, unsettling, and thought-provoking, and read through the entire chapbook in one sitting. Highly recommended. You can purchase it here.

A patchwork creation

Cover of Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson, with the letters XXX in foreground.

Frankissstein: A Love Story by Jeanette Winterson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In Frankissstein: A Love Story, Jeanette Winterson plays in various ways on Mary Shelly‘s seminal work Frankenstein. Part of it follows Shelly as she conceives of the idea for the book. This alternates with a contemporary section in which a transgender doctor, Ry, falls in love with an AI maverick not so subtly named Victor Stein.

I’ve been a fan of past works by Winterson, particularly Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, but this book had none of that magic. Winterson throws out all the usual ideas that Shelly kicked off more than 200 years ago about what humans create and why. We still haven’t answered these questions adequately, which is why they have such lasting interest, but Winterson doesn’t advance anything in this book. About the only interesting idea is Stein’s fascination with Ry’s partial transformation of their body and his view that this is a new stage for humanity, where we can alter our bodies to our perceived gender. But like all the other ideas in the book, Winterson does little beyond raising it.

That might be okay if the writing weren’t so inconsistent. In one paragraph, the tense shifted back and forth, but I couldn’t tell if Winterson was trying to disorient the reader or just being sloppy. The cardboard characters tend to speak as if they’re giving each other TED talks, and in times of emotional tension, slip into an overwrought dramatic style that borders on the comical, almost like the actors in a old Carol Burnett skit. Winterson doesn’t use quotation marks, either, which can make it difficult to tell at times what’s dialogue and what’s just the narrator commenting on things.

After all the retellings of how Shelly created her novel and the infinite plays on the novel itself, Winterson uses both to ride the contemporary AI zeitgeist, but adds little that we haven’t read and heard about it over the past few years. There have been countless more thoughtful and entertaining movies, TV shows, and books about AI (Machines like Me, Klara and the Sun, Her, Ex Machina, etc.). If you haven’t already, read the wonderful Shelly novel, which has a thousand times more heart and thought put into it. This feels like it was patched together like Frankenstein’s monster–and maybe that was Winterson’s meta-intent, come to think of it, but it makes for an unsatisfying read.

A Minor Work from Gaskell

Cover of Cousin Phillis showing a young Victorian woman working by a window

Cousin Phillis by Elizabeth Gaskell

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Cousin Phillis is a late novella by Elizabeth Gaskell in which a young man, Paul Manning, recounts meeting his cousin and her family and becoming involved in their rural farm life.

Like Cranford, Cousin Phillis depicts the effects of industrialization, and also like that novel, involves a coming railway line. Paul is a clerk for an engineer building a branch line from Eltham to Hornby. Paul’s mother has a second cousin in a nearby village who is married to a minister with a thriving farm, and his father encourages Paul to introduce himself to the family. Paul finds Cousin Phillis to be tall, beautiful, and very well-read, but while Paul is clearly stricken by her and Paul’s father encourages him to court her, Paul wants a wife who is not smarter or taller than he. After some time, Mr. Holdsworth, Paul’s worldly managing engineer, becomes ill and goes to the farm to recover, where he and Phillis fall for each other.

Gaskell is one of my favorite authors, but although this is a late work, it feels more like a minor effort. The Wikipedia entry, if it is to be believed, says that a fifth and sixth part were planned, so Gaskell may have intended to write a fuller, more interesting novel, but most of what happens here is predictable and foreshadowed from the start. As it stands, it’s a simple, straightforward, and somewhat ridiculous story to the modern eye. For example, Phillis’s father, a very perceptive minister in most regards, seems to have no clue about what is going on in his daughter’s head even though Paul sees it quite clearly. And a major plot point hinges on a life-threatening “brain fever,” whatever that is.

As always, Gaskell tells a vivid story and writes with thoughtful empathy–no author of her time was better at understanding their characters, in my opinion. Some of the characters, like the perceptive maid Betty, are wonderfully drawn. But while Cousin Phillis is an enjoyable read, Gaskell’s horror stories are more fun, and Wives and Daughters and North and South have much more complexity and insight. This slight novel isn’t a great introduction to what this wonderful author is capable of.

Typically wonderful Wodehouse nonsense

Cover of Sam in the Suburbs depicting a young man waving to a woman
First edition (UK), Methuen Publishing Ltd

Sam in the Suburbs by P.G. Wodehouse

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

P.G. Wodehouse is best known for his Jeeves and Blandings series, but once you get past some of his very early novels, almost anything you might pick up by him is a fun read. Sam in the Suburbs, also published as Sam the Sudden, is a solid, silly romp that stands apart from these more famous series.

The story involves the young Sam Shotter. His uncle, who is disappointed with Sam’s careless work, sends him to England to work for his potential business associate, the publisher Lord Tilbury. Not wanting to cross the ocean from New York with Lord Tilbury, who he considers a bore, Sam joins his old pal Hash Todhunter, who is a cook on a tramp steamer. Sam carries around a photo of a woman that he took from the wall of a remote fishing shack in Canada. He has fallen in love with her, he tells Hash, although the photo had been torn out of a magazine without her name attached. When they arrive in England, Hash “borrows” Sam’s money to bet on a dog race, leaving Sam destitute but determined to find the love of his life. The ensuing plot, which entails many absurd coincidences and a run-in with some ridiculous criminals, is typically wonderful Wodehouse nonsense.

Sam is a hilarious character, and I wish he’d appeared in other books. He’s somewhat similar to Bertie Wooster of the Jeeves stories, although Sam is more arrogant and self-confident.

When I’m feeling down or stressed out, I find no better cure than reading Wodehouse’s absurd exploits of the rich and ridiculous in England in the early twentieth century. While it’s true that I and my family wouldn’t have been welcomed in this society, I still somehow find these comic farces, which come across as gentle satires, a comfort. I wouldn’t rank this among Wodehouse’s best works, but it’s a solid entertainment with some hilarious scenes.

Artificial Adam

Cover of Ian McEwans' Machines Like Me showing the bust of an artificial looking man.

Machines like Me by Ian McEwan

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Since I recently finished Kazuo Ishiguro‘s Klara and the Sun and found it disappointing, I figured why not jump right into Ian McEwan‘s Machines like Me, another literary novel about artificial people? McEwan’s effort received more mixed reviews than Ishiguro’s, so I wasn’t expecting much, but I was pleasantly surprised.

Charlie, drifting through life in his early thirties, has in interest in robots and AI. So when the first artificial people come up for sale, he blows his inheritance to buy one. He really wants to buy an Eve, but gets an Adam instead because there are no Eves available. Charlie wants to win over Miranda, his upstairs neighbor who is ten years younger than him, and figures he can do so by involving her in this project. She seems game, and they split the task of answering the questions that create Adam’s character. Charlie doesn’t know Miranda very well and has no idea how she has answered the questions, so it’s never clear which traits come from whom, or whether Adam is just developing these characteristics on his own–kind of like a child, which is part of the point.

McEwan is at his best when he creates insoluble problems for his characters, and you know there’s going to be trouble when the first thing Charlie notices is his how well-built and well-endowed Adam is. For anyone who’s read any science fiction or seen any movies (i.e., everyone), it’ll be no surprise that Adam doesn’t develop as Charlie would expect or wish, and the entanglements that ensue between the three main characters are deliciously twisted. For those of you who’ve never read an Ian McEwan book, if there’s a dark place to go, he will go there.

Miranda is also harboring a secret, which Adam hints at from the start, as he has instant access to the vast reservoir of information on the internet. This creates further moral quandaries, and the complications keep multiplying from there.

McEwan is playing with a lot of themes in this book. It takes place in an alternate 1980s, in which Alan Turing did not die in 1952 after being prosecuted for homosexual acts, but rather served his time and became a national hero as he spurred the development of artificial intelligence. There’s a lot of exposition about politics and historical events that doesn’t seem all that necessary, but it also serves to disorient you when events such as the Falklands War turn out very differently. Aside from a clumsy red herring at the end of the book, I didn’t mind it, and some was fun to imagine, like the Beatles getting back together and releasing another album. McEwan seems to be playing with the ideas of fatalism, destiny, and chance in creating this alternate history. The story is all being told, the narrator hints, from a remove of many years, but what has happened since the end of the narrative is never explained. Given its gloomy tone, we can guess that future iterations of AI were more destructive than this first wave proved to be. Perhaps it was always meant to turn out that way, no matter what we did.

The characters in the novel are vividly drawn, and Adam still haunts me. He was created to be an adult but never given a childhood, an idea that the book plays with in its parallels with Mark, a young boy Miranda wants to adopt.

McEwan often gets you thinking about ideas, but he can write a great yarn with subtle, unexpected twists–a character responding in a way you’d never anticipate, for instance–although sometimes I wish he would slow down to polish his novels more. This felt like it could be a masterpiece on the level of Atonement, but it was just shy of the level of detail and thoughtfulness that would have brought it there. One thing I did appreciate was that amidst the bleakness there was genuine humor. The scene where Miranda introduces Charlie and Adam to her dad is priceless, and there’s a slapstick scene near the end that cleverly helps you swallow the bitterness of what’s taking place.

A disappointing work by a literary master

Cover of Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, showing an illustration of a hand with a sun in it.

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

I was really looking forward to reading Klara and the Sun after all the accolades it’s gotten. I thought Kazuo Ishiguro‘s The Remains of the Day was a masterpiece and was excited to read a thoughtful, emotional science-fiction novel from him. Instead, I found a competent but fairly cliched story that, to my surprise, wasn’t particularly insightful or even very involving.

The novel adopts common outsider tropes from children’s literature and adult works like Jerzy Kosiński‘s Being There. In this case, an “artificial friend” for 14-year old Josie doesn’t quite understand our world, thus providing a gateway to insights into humanity and our society. Unfortunately, this book doesn’t seem to have anything deeper to say beyond the cliched “people are bad” and “we’re destroying the world” themes that are so common in contemporary literature and popular culture these days. There is an interesting hint of a brilliantly dark plot possibility (skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want a hint of a spoiler): Josie’s mom has a plan for Klara that would have made a much more interesting novel had Ishiguro put in the effort to play it out. Instead, the book veers into a facile, childish story of faith involving the sun.

In reading this, I was reminded me of The Giving Tree, a children’s book about another selfless entity that seems to really touch people but that I never appreciated. Perhaps if you liked that, you’ll find this touching and meaningful. I was left unsatisfied. Because of the constraints of telling the story from Klara’s point of view–a technique that I didn’t always find convincing–you never get a true sense of what anyone is thinking and feeling, except perhaps Josie’s mom. With all the time Klara spent with Josie, you’d think we’d have more insight into her thoughts and personality, but she seemed every bit as one-dimensional as Klara to me. Many in the story have secrets, and these are revealed in a carefully paced way calculated, as in a YA novel, to keep the story moving.

In the end, I wish this great writer had thought through the conflicts and contradictions of the world he was creating, dug deeper into the characters and played out all the implications rather than just falling into a simple, cliched story. Philip K. Dick‘s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which the movie Blade Runner was loosely based on, comes to mind as a book with similar themes that may not have been as well written, but was certainly more thoughtful and involving–and that was published more than 55 years ago.

A week of creepy wonders

Cover of Valerie and her week of wonders, with an illustration of a body in old-fashioned clothing without a head

Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders by Vítězslav Nezval

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders is an unsettling fairy tale, mixing the dark, creepy elements of Gothic novels like The Monk with dream-like surrealism. It was written by Czechoslovakian author Vítězslav Nezval in 1935, and is probably best known as the basis for the 1970 Czech New Wave film directed by Jaromil Jireš. I loved the dreamy, atmospheric film and so came to the novel to read the source material.

The tone of the film came right from the book. Valerie, at the onset of her first period at the age of 17, becomes involved in a heady mix of vampires, magic, and social mores that she barely understands. The bizarre, twisted story, where no one is as they seem, is an allegory for her awakening sexuality and the confusing world of adulthood. A stranger who professes his love for Valerie may or may not be her twin brother; an evil magician with a polecat’s face, who might be her father, is trying to steal her vitality; her grandmother is planning to sacrifice Valerie in a plot to restore her youth. There’s a secret crypt in the house, a burning at the stake, a pill that turns her into a pillar of smoke, and so on.

This all isn’t supposed to make sense so much as give you the feeling of alluring menace that the adult world holds for Valerie, and I think it succeeds on that level. It reminded me of Angela Carter‘s The Bloody Chamber and other adult tales, which she and Neil Jordan adapted into the wonderful film The Company of Wolves. To the modern sensibility, the mystery around menarche and sexuality seems quaint, and the suggestions of incest are uncomfortable. On the whole, though, if you keep in mind that this was written almost 90 years ago, this wildly imaginative novel was remarkable in many ways.

An unusual proposal

Book cover of Our Souls at Night shows the front of a house at night with the porch light on.

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Our Souls at Night begins with Addie Moore paying a visit to her neighbor Louis and making an unusual proposal to him. Both around 70 and widowed, they’ve lived their whole lives in Holt, a fictional small Colorado town, and know a lot of the same people, but were never very close with each other. Still, Addie thinks Louis is a decent guy and asks if he’d like to start sleeping with her, literally–not having sex, but staying together for the companionship. From there, this compact novel sketches their growing relationship and the reactions of those around them, both friends and family. When Addie’s grandson arrives to stay with her, they form a sort of sweet makeshift family along with the elderly woman who lives in the house between them. But of course, this can’t last forever.

Kent Haruf was a Colorado author who died in 2014, and Our Souls at Night was his last novel. It’s written in a sparse style, with little description and much explained through dialogue. As a result, it moves along fairly quickly but gives you little access to its characters’ internal lives beyond what they choose to tell each other. The interactions between Addie and her son near the end of the novel, for example, as he turns the screws on her relationship with Louis are a somewhat frustrating puzzle. His attitude struck me as very flat and sitcom-y, with Addie’s thoughts on raising such a selfish, narrow-minded person left unexplored. Louis’s thoughts about it are glossed over as well. It functions mostly as a plot device to throw an obstacle in the way of their relationship, but little more.

In the end, this was an enjoyable but somewhat slight read. The novel has little of the depth of say, Sinclair Lewis‘s best depictions of small-town life in America. This was the first book I’ve read by Haruf, and I suspect that if you’re already a fan of his, it has enough charm that you’ll love it. I’m curious to try Plainsong, his most popular novel. This may not be the best of his books to start with.

A ripping yarn from Dickens

Victorian drawing of the cluttered old curiosity shop.

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I like to settle down with a novel by Charles Dickens every couple of years. I find his sprawling, fantastic tales a comfort, particularly when life is unsettled. His villains are awful, his heroes virtuous, and his complicated plots fun to unravel. You also get a vivid sense of life at another time, however cartoonish he can sometimes make it.

The Old Curiosity Shop has largely been forgotten now, but it was hugely popular when it was first published in Dickens’ weekly serial, Master Humphrey’s Clock, from 1840 to 1841. The book begins with a first person narrator describing how he meets a lost girl, Nell Trent, as he walks the streets at night. He brings her back to the old curiosity shop in which she, an orphan, lives with her doting but daffy grandfather. For two more chapters, he learns more about this curious couple before abruptly saying, “And now that I have carried this history so far in my own character and introduced these personages to the reader, I shall for the convenience of the narrative detach myself from its further course, and leave those who have prominent and necessary parts in it to speak and act for themselves.”

From here on, the novel is told in the third person, floating freely between different characters. The primary story concerns Nell and her grandfather’s flight from London through areas that vary from darkly industrial to pastoral. Christopher Nubbles (“Kit”), who is Nell’s loyal servant, has his own troubles back in London as he worries over Nell’s fate. Both their hardships are orchestrated by the maliciously evil Daniel Quip, who is a somewhat painful caricature to the modern eye. The most interesting character in the book is probably Dick Swiveller, a friend of Nell’s older brother, who undergoes a transformation over the course of the novel to become an unlikely hero.

Along the way, there are numerous minor characters, such as Quilp’s grovelling attorney and his hard-hearted sister, along with their servant, who plays a key role in unraveling their nefarious plans. Nell and her grandfather run into a diverse cast that includes industrial workers, puppeteers, professional gamblers, the owner of a wax museum, and a compassionate schoolmaster who tries to rescue them.

This is a fairly early Dickens book that lacks some of the depth of his later novels, but he interweaves the numerous story lines deftly and keeps the plots chugging along like a network of well-oiled trains. The underside of capitalism and industrialization are vividly exposed, as is the maltreatment of children in England at the time.

The novel tends to be a little too sentimental, even for my romantic tastes, with Nell and Kit laughably innocent and virtuous and Quilp stunningly malicious, to the extent that he regularly beats the figurehead of an old ship he’s salvaged with a poker because he thinks it looks like Kit. While I wouldn’t say this is one of Dicken’s best novels, it’s fast and easy to read and, ultimately, a fun and satisfying yarn.