books read in April

I’ve been busy with “latest big project” (I think I’m about halfway done with a first draft), so maybe I’m not devoting as much time to reading as I typically would. There was a time in my life when I wanted to average reading one book a week — and I achieved it — but I now consider that unhealthy and a little disrespectful to the authors and the works. So I savor the books I’m reading rather than race through them (mostly).

These are the books I read in April of 2021:

Jewfish by Andrew Fuhrman – I had never heard of this book or author, but a friend sent me an old clipping of a review this man wrote of Philip Roth’s alternative history work The Plot Against America, and when I looked him up online, I found he had several novels to his name, so I immediately bought this one. The title can be read on several levels. There is a grouper that was once called “jewfish,” and that reference features briefly in the novel, but the protagonist happens to be a Jewish man who is a professional fisherman in south Florida, trying to keep his business running without compromising his values. There is a lot of backstory about his family and the changes in the small-scale fishing industry. This is deeply and broadly imagined with credible characters in credible situations. It has not so much a happy ending as a sufficient ending. It was a worthy read.

Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth – It’s purely coincidence that the Roth connection to the prior book happened when it did. I picked this up (my second reading) because I thought it could relate to how I am trying to develop “latest big project.” Roth’s novel is a first-person, novel-length monologue with a whole lot more going on than the ostensible, naughty subject matter. As with all of Roth’s work, I get the sense that everything, every word and bit of punctuation, is exactly right. I think he developed the style he would use for much of the rest of his career in this novel, most closely in Sabbath’s Theater.

Miss Jane by Brad Watson – This one didn’t work for me. I picked it up at the used bookstore because it sounded interesting, though I’d not heard of the author before. It is based on some apparently true history in his family about a person born without certain body parts to identify gender. This malformed plumbing is not, however, life threatening, and the child grows into young adulthood, eventually identifying as a woman. It’s set on a farm and in a small town in Mississippi a century ago, and there is the usual bleakness typical of such settings in fiction. Everyone around her is unhappy. Everyone around her dies. But she seems unaffected by all of it. Maybe that’s the point. Still, I found the writing chaotic. At times the narrator has a folksy tone, using phrasing that must have been slang of the time and place, yet in other passages the voice was clinical and abstracted. I thought it could have used a good editing. It was long listed for the National Book Award.

Upstate by Ben Tanzer – Full confession: I’ve been listening to Tanzer’s This Podcast Will Change Your Life for a while. Even so, I had known/known of Ben for years through a mutual friend, and I’d read one of his collections of essays about writing and running before: 99 Problems. Upstate is a collection of short stories linked by recurring characters/events and a common location (a small, depressed town in upstate New York). Most of the stories are spare like Raymond Carver would write; some are surreal. The characters are all too relatable. As I read this I thought of some parts of Richard Russo’s and Willy Vlautin’s novels. (Not to be confused with Upstate by James Wood, which I’d also read recently.)

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