Monthly Archives: August 2022

Making sense of a strange world

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Piranesi is the kind of book I usually love. The main character lives in a world that makes no sense, a world of endless halls and statues, with tides coming in from different directions and the only reference to a broader world in the artwork itself. The best way to describe the book would be as a cross between Flowers for Algernon and The Woman in the Dunes.

Clearly, something is very off here. The mystery of what this world is keeps you reading and, without giving any spoilers, the explanation is a fascinating and clever idea. But while Susanna Clarke has crafted an original fictional world, I was disappointed with the frankly silly action and resolution. It causes this thoughtful book to feel more like a straightforward genre work, which it’s really not. Maybe if this hadn’t fallen into some genre conventions, it wouldn’t have found the audience it has, so I can’t fault them for making what might have been a wise practical choice. Still, I would have enjoyed the book a lot more had the action resolved in a way that was more consistent with the tone that Clarke had established. It also felt a bit bloated overall, as if an excellent novella had been given some extra padding.

That said, the ending was quite sweet. This was one of those novels that can get you looking at the world in a new way, and I expect many, particularly young adult readers, would absolutely love it.

I’m thinking of what the heck just happened

Cover of I'm thinking of ending things

I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

I’m Thinking of Ending Things is one of those books that plays with your perception of reality and keeps you unsettled throughout, and Iain Reid does a brilliant job. In one sense, it’s a meditation on the themes of memory, perception, and our sense of reality, as well as on loneliness and our need for others. But the setup is so brilliant, and Reid’s writing so crisp and efficient, it reads like a taut thriller.

The book starts with the the title, the thought of an unnamed narrator who admits to herself as she’s traveling with her boyfriend, Jake, to meet his parents for the first time that their relationship isn’t going to last. The brief first chapter ends with the thought, “Maybe I should have known how it was going to end for us. Maybe the end was written right from the beginning.” Like much of the long conversation in the car on the way to his family’s remote farmhouse, this is a hint to what’s actually going on in the book.

There’s a conversation later on that, to me, seems key to understanding what Reid is trying to do. Jake is talking about why examples are used in philosophy, “how most understanding and truth combines certainty and rational deduction, but also abstraction.” He explains, “We don’t just understand or recognize significance and validity through experience. We accept, reject, and discern through symbols. These are as important to our understanding of life, our understanding of existence and what has value, what’s worthwhile, as math and science.” This is both an argument for the importance of fiction and a description of his approach as a novelist.

Although I found the end somewhat simple and disappointing, I enjoyed this book immensely. Interspersed throughout the narrative is a conversation between two unnamed people about something horrible that has happened. Without revealing spoilers, what actually happened isn’t absolutely clear by the end. In fact, what the very narrative you’ve been reading is isn’t certain either. There’s a pat explanation provided, but it’s not fully satisfying. On the other hand, that’s all in keeping with Reid’s musings on thoughts, memories, and reality.

All in all, this was a fun and very thought-provoking read. Note that Charlie Kaufman made a movie version of the novel. The first two-thirds of it is wonderful, brilliantly capturing the tension and ideas of the book. Unfortunately, the approach Kaufman takes in the third act is farcical, and it completely falls apart. To be fair, the last act is probably unfilmable, and he did take a creative approach, but it’s pretty terrible–one of the worst endings spoiling a great movie that I’ve ever seen.

A life without choice

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Seven Years Concealed is the first book I’ve read about slavery that was written by someone who actually was a slave. While fiction like Kindred definitely packs a wallop, I found it particularly unsettling to read a firsthand account of slavery that I knew was true. Harriet Jacobs, who wrote as Linda Brent to protect herself and others, tells her story in a direct, matter-of-fact manner that’s disarming. It’s as if you’re sitting in the room with her and listening to her harrowing recollections.

Harriet was never beaten, but her horrific stories belie the outrageous myth of the well-treated slave that some people still bring up. While she may have been physically better off than the plantation slaves, once she falls into the hands of a doctor who lusts for her, the psychological pressure on this poor, powerless young woman becomes stifling. Although she is his property, Harriet will do anything to elude the doctor’s lechery and the revenge of his jealous wife, including seven years in a cramped, oppressive hiding place that leaves her permanently impaired.

After she escaped, Harriet Jacobs became involved in the abolitionist movement, and in her narrative she deftly uses her experiences and observations to highlight political and societal issues beyond the experience of slavery, including the hypocrisy of many Northerners and the evils of the Fugitive Slave Act, which required Northern states to capture and return escaped slaves. Hers is a perspective into U.S. history that everyone should read.

Half a farce

Cover of Our Country Friend by Gary Shteyngart showing a car driving on a country road toward a giant wine glass

Our Country Friends by Gary Shteyngart

My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

I’d been looking forward to reading Our Country Friends for a while. I’d heard a fascinating interview with Gary Shteyngart and read all the great reviews about this, one of the first novels about the pandemic. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to my expectations.

Alexander Senderovsky, a writer originally from Russia, has established a “colony” in the Hudson Valley, with a main house and a series of bungalows, although he can barely afford to maintain them. As the pandemic begins, he invites friends and colleagues to come out to the estate to ride out what they assume will be a short wave before returning to life in New York City. This novel could have gone two ways from here: It could have been a serious novel addressing the societal ills that led us, despite being the best prepared country in the world to deal with a pandemic, to respond so poorly that we lost more people per capita to the virus than almost any other developed country. Or it could have been a satire, a country farce about wealthy, out of touch elites on the order of a P.G. Wodehouse novel. It tries to be both, but neither is fully successful.

On the serious side, most of the characters in the novel are either immigrants and/or minorities, and the novel touches on their difficult experiences fitting into American society. The anger and hatred of many Americans toward people they see as different is a constant threat in the novel. Money, fame, and the effects of our media environment are also touched upon. But none of these things are addressed in a particularly thoughtful or satisfying way. The fact that the novel was set up as a farce tends to undercut any serious intent. Characters are there to make sure that certain points are to be made and that the mechanisms of the plot are served, moved around like pieces on a board and not particularly believable as people. Although we get glimpses into their backgrounds, these serve more as superficial markers for what kind of people we’re supposed to see them as than aspects of fleshed-out characters that seem real. One of the characters is even named Dee Cameron (get it? as in The Decameron).

Some of the plot mechanisms also seemed more suited for a farce. For example, two characters test out an app created by another that makes people fall in love when they take a photo together. That absurd event powers much of the action. People hook up and change partners, and spend much of their time consuming costly food and drink and expounding on things with more authority than knowledge. They do absolutely horrible things to each other with little consequence. But despite some wicked authorial comments about people’s foibles, none of it came across as really funny to me.

The biggest problem I had reading this, though, was an extended sequence in which one character moved around in their memories, drastically bogging down the last act for pages. It read very clumsily, like a TV show trying to fill some time with a cheesy dream sequence.

All that said, the book does move along fairly quickly, and you want to know what happens at the end even if you don’t particularly care about any of the characters all that much. Shteyngart also throws out so many ideas about the current state of our society, it does get you thinking about them. But in the end, the biggest thing I thought about was how this could have been a much better book if it wasn’t such a confused fusion of forms.