Category Archives: Book reviews

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.

An apology imagined

Book cover for The Apology by Eve Ensler with the back of an envelope in the background

The Apology by Eve Ensler

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

In The Apology, Eve Ensler imagines the apology that never came from her father for all the physical and psychological abuse he subjected her to. He recounts how he began to sexually abuse her when she was five, and from there proceeded to beat her, humiliate her, and whittle away at her confidence in every way he could think of.

Ensler’s inventive approach is to imagine her father, after 31 years floating and spinning in an empty void, a kind of purgatory, reviewing what he did to her to her and trying to explain it. This approach enables Ensler to work intellectually through what he did and to fantasize that he comes to regret it. It’s a brave book, but it’s a difficult, brutal read, and I’m not sure what a third party gets out of this other than to really, really hate this guy.

As a reading experience, The Apology leaves you with more anger than insight. While Ensler hints at how she built herself back up to become successful, the conceit of the narrative doesn’t allow her to depict it with any detail. I’m not sure that we get any true insights into why her father did what he did. All she can do is guess at what he might have thought and said had he been forced to face his actions. Unexplored is what in the world the mother was thinking and doing through all this. Surely she recognized what her husband was doing. And her older brothers: how did they process all this? The father’s actions did not happen in a void. These family complexities would have been fascinating, albeit probably even more disturbing, to explore more fully.

As is stands, the book is raw and unsettling, and makes for harrowing reading. But as cathartic and necessary this apology must have been for Ensler to write, in the end it is her own reckoning with his abuse, not his. This extremely personal book is surely essential reading for fans of Ensler, but it’s a very tough read.

On knowing and not knowing

Cover of The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel showing a large hotel reflected in water

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I try to avoid reading about the plot of a novel in advance, as I like to encounter books on their terms. Admittedly, if I had known how central a Ponzi scheme modeled on Bernie Madoff’s was to The Glass Hotel, I might never have started it. But as in Station Eleven, another excellent book by Emily St. John Mandel, the plot here isn’t so much the point as the means to gain insight into what makes people tick. And as in that earlier novel. Mandel does a marvelous job.

Using an omniscient point of view, Mandel hops masterfully between characters with a sureness that calls to mind Jennifer Egan‘s A Visit from the Goon Squad but with less self-conscious showiness. Mandel uses broad brush strokes to skillfully paint characters and scenes and keep the plot moving steadily. Like a Charles Dickens novel, vividly-drawn characters come in and out of the story, reappearing in unexpected ways. But Mandel’s understanding of people and empathy for her characters is more akin to Dickens’ contemporary, the great Elizabeth Gaskell.

The fairly short length and breezy writing style of The Glass Hotel mask a challenging complexity. Mandel doesn’t hit you over the head with a straightforward, central message. Rather, she lays out the thoughts and behaviors of her characters, depicting the consequences without being judgmental. Many of the characters are unable to come to terms with either their own actions or what is happening to them. At one point, in explaining what he did, one says “It’s possible to both know and not know something.” The statement makes no sense to others, yet seems to be the overarching theme of the novel.

This isn’t to say that it’s not clear what’s right or wrong. The question is, how can people who essentially see themselves as good people nevertheless do such bad things? And how do they live with themselves afterwards? This seems a particularly cogent question for our times.

If there’s one fault I would cite with this book, it’s that, without giving too much away, the guilt that people feel for their actions are repeatedly manifested with a mechanism that I thought came across as too facile for this rich and thoughtful a novel. There are many other themes at play here, though: our trust and dependence on others, the corruptive force of money and, much as in Station Eleven, finding meaning in life.

Without revealing any spoilers, I’m still digesting some things about the book, particularly why it’s structured like it is and the meaning of the scenes that brackets the novel. Likewise, the glass hotel on a remote Canadian peninsula, which is central to many of the characters’ stories, isn’t a neat metaphor as you might expect. It represents different things to different characters: a temporary escape, an investment opportunity, a safe place from a hostile world. I’m still thinking about all this, which is what a great novel is supposed to do.

Sometimes gorgeous

Book cover for On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is written as a letter from Little Dog to his mother. The author, Ocean Vuong, is a celebrated poet, and his first novel is a fragmentary narrative that centers around Little Dog, now in his late twenties, coming to terms with who he is and how he was raised. The story hops around in time and space, sampling artfully from Little Dog’s memories as well as the lore passed down to him through his mother and grandmother.

The broader story underlying this narrative is an essential one. It’s about the human costs of inequity, about human hardship, trauma, and survival. Vuong looks unflinchingly at American society, including its racism, bullying, and widespread drug addiction. That said, despite much excellent writing, it somehow didn’t quite work for me as a novel. The disjointed nature of the narrative comes naturally in the context of someone writing a long letter about his memories. But Vuong announces both the novel’s aggressive rawness and forcefully digressive style early on as it diverts into a fairly detailed sequence about men eating a live monkey’s brain. The scene struck me as unnecessarily graphic at first. I came to understand that this vividness is part of the point. However, I felt that the novel missed out on a human element in its relentless pursuit of the ugly in order to make an almost academic conclusion about finding beauty in life’s experiences.

Vuong often dances around thoughts and characters rather than delving into them. There are many philosophical-sounding statements, but I thought a good number of them more vague than insightful. Just flipping through the pages for one right now, I find, “They say nothing lasts forever but they’re just scared it will last longer than they can love it.” I wish Vuong had given us a better sense of the characters so that we could understand more through them and not have things summed up for us in these forced statements. I never really did get a sense, for example, of who Little Dog’s love interest was as a person; he seemed more of a movie type. That may have been intentional, to make him come across as a standoffish, remote person despite their intimacy, but I felt there was just a gap there.

At the end of part two, about two-thirds of the way through the book, Vuong breaks the prose apart and spools together many of the scenes and ideas at work into a powerful 8-page sequence in poetic form. While you might argue that this reflects his storytelling style in the novel as a whole, it made me wish that the rest of the novel had been told in a similar manner. By trying to wedge these instincts into the structure of a novel, however disjointed it is, Vuong missed out on conveying some of the life that I think he was trying to represent. The pacing and character development were slightly labored, and I kept feeling the book was stalling. I think it would have worked beautifully if it was more even experimental. Given the platform Vuong has from his poetry, perhaps he could have gotten away with this.

All in all, although I couldn’t really recommend this novel, I’d certainly be interested in future prose by Vuong–and I definitely intend to read more of his poetry.

These stories are out there

Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cosmicomics is an immensely creative set of short stories by Italo Calvino. Although they’re not all fantastic, they’re all at least interesting and fun to read and think about.

Each story starts with some kind of scientific concept statement (e.g., the sun taking two hundred million years to make a complete rotation around the galaxy). The story then involves the narrator, Qfwfq, recounting an experience with the concept (e.g., trying to place signs so that others would know they were there). That example is from “A Sign in Space,” one of the standouts in the collection. “The Aquatic Uncle,” “The Dinosaurs,” and “The Light-Years” were my other favorites. These showed a wicked sense of humor and felt human and accessible. Some of the others were dry and a bit too plodding and cerebral for my tastes.

Calvino is certainly a unique writer. Whereas the surrealists examined the unconscious mind, these stories are fabulist; they’re just all over the place and will go anywhere. No doubt they’re very creative, but they can be jarring to read and inconsistent.

I absolutely loved Calvino’s novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. I wouldn’t say these stories quite rise to that level, but they’re worth a read if you like experimental, somewhat challenging fiction.

A thoughtful novel about aging

Visitors book cover with woman alone at dresser

Visitors by Anita Brookner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dorothea seems an unlikely focus for a novel. Widowed fifteen years, she putters along from day to day, content–or so she’s convinced herself–to avoid any interactions beyond those prescribed by societal convention. The plot is simple and straightforward: when she’s asked by a relative of her late husband to host a young guest in her house for a family wedding, she agrees, and his very presence prompts her to reassess her daily existence.

Visitors is a pensive novel about family, aging, and expectation. Fireworks never ensue. Rather, Anita Brookner brings you along the slow gyrations of Thea’s every thought. We all know someone like Thea, I expect, and Brookner takes you inside her head with precision and delicacy.

The writing here is excellent, a descendant of the thoughtful, observant work of Virginia Woolf and Henry James. I found it doing just what a novel is supposed to do; it prompts you to think about your own life choices and challenge your own assumptions. It’s a beautiful novel about a somewhat sad life.

Such privileged boys

Such Fine Boys: A Novel by Patrick Modiano

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Nobel price winner Patrick Modiano‘s Such Fine Boys: A Novel is essentially a series of sad reminiscences about privileged boys at a boarding school outside Paris and what became of them when they grew up. It’s dripping with melancholy, holding out little hope for these lonely, lost men. Modiano seems more concerned with mood than anything else and skims past these people and their experiences without much insight or involvement. I found myself feeling little sympathy for their plights or their lack of judgment.

The writing itself, at least in this translation, seemed stilted and labored. This approach has been used by other French authors, such as Albert Camus and Alain Robbe-Grillet, to great effect. With this material, however, the awkward detachment simply made the reading experience uninvolving. There was neither a central crisis nor a weighty intellectual idea to grip my attention and interest. Time passes, stuff happens–there’s no real insight in that. Maybe if you grew up in France in the 60’s and wanted to feel nostalgic, this would be a great book for you. Or if you were more familiar than I with the social and political turbulence of 60’s France; that’s mostly an ignored background here, unless that was the point–it’s hard to tell, the way it was written.

Some of these characters appear in other Modiano novels, including a young girl named Little Jewel who made for the most interesting vignette. I might try one of those in the future, but while I thought this was an okay read, I wouldn’t recommend it to the uninitiated.

A convoluted yarn

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Manhattan Beach is the second book I’ve read by Jennifer Egan, after A Visit from the Goon Squad. Having grown up in Manhattan Beach (the one in Brooklyn, not L.A.), I was curious about a novel named after it, but this has little to nothing to do with the actual location aside from a key early scene there.

At heart, this novel reads like a thriller or action story, and I was interested to find out what would happen, but for this kind of book it gets bogged down in an awful lot of descriptive detail. In its favor, it’s a very well researched book. The descriptions of the Brooklyn Naval Yard and learning to become a diver were remarkably vivid. Unfortunately, Egan doesn’t let you forget how much research she did, ever, and I often felt like I was reading a research report rather than a novel.

The characters seem to be created for the purposes of the story, too, and often struck me as unconvincing. Anna, the lead, is naturally a very sympathetic character because of her circumstances, but she acts in ways that sometimes seemed contrived to move the plot along. Other characters are straight from the stock collection: a mobster who’s really not that bad, a very misunderstood father, a Black man who harasses and intimidates a character but then saves his life, etc.

Egan writes some scenes beautifully–I wanted to mark my page to come back to them–but there are others that are just as notable for their wordy obtuseness. Ultimately, I found myself with the same reaction as I had for Egan’s Goon Squad book: impressed with the accomplishment, but not really liking it very much in the end.

Bertie and Jeeves in their first novel

First edition cover of The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I’m down or stressed, I often turn to P.G. Wodehouse‘s absurd tales of the idle rich for an escape from real life. The Inimitable Jeeves is the first “novel” with Jeeves. I put novel in quotes because this is really more of a series of short stories strung together than a proper novel. The contents were originally published separately as eleven short stories, some of which were split to form the book. The plot is clearly less sophisticated than some of his later comic novels. Still, it’s plenty of fun to breeze along and read about Bertie’s wasted life, as his Aunt Agatha properly calls it. He and his friends from the leisure class get themselves into trouble and are rescued time and again by the clever schemes of Bertie’s valet Jeeves. Most of the stories involve Bertie’s hopeless friend Bingo Little and his ever-changing infatuations with various women. If you want to check your worries at the door and read about utterly ridiculous people doing silly things, this is a great diversion.

The first Jeeves book

Plain text cover for My Man Jeeves

My Man Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

My Man Jeeves is the first P.G. Wodehouse book with Bertie Wooster or his valet Jeeves in the title. Only half of these eight stories, however, feature Jeeves and Wooster. The other half are about Reggie Pepper, an early prototype for Bertie. Two of the Pepper stories were actually later rewritten as Jeeves stories.

It’s fascinating to read these stories together. The Pepper stories are very similar to the Jeeves ones, except without Jeeves there to come up with solutions. The addition of Jeeves makes the stories much more entertaining–he’s an iconic character.

These are all fun to read, though, even if too many are simply about idle young men panicking over losing the streams of money from their rich relatives. Overall, they read like somewhat earlier, undeveloped versions of Wodehouse’s later work. They’re a nice, quick diversion with some funny zingers, but not yet showing the comic brilliance of Wodehouse’s later work.