Archive for the ‘Reviews and Responses’ category

short story collections

August 15, 2019

There’s something about reading short story collections that just doesn’t work for me.

I’m currently halfway through Denis Johnson’s collection Jesus’ Son, and I’m not enjoying it. Johnson is pretty much known for this particular work, and it received praise from high quarters. I acknowledge that I’m probably missing something, that my poor mind isn’t catching some nuance or insight, and that’s fine. Everyone has their interests, and his subject/style apparently isn’t for me.

But I wonder if I tried one of his novels I might feel differently. Sure, the characters in his short stories are mostly “low lifes,” living on the edge of society and not making very bright decisions (though I don’t have trouble with those same kinds of characters in Willy Vlautin’s novels), but it’s hard (for me) to build up any kind of interest or investment in these characters before the story is finished and it’s on to the next one. And I think that’s due to the short story-nature of the collection. Any one of the stories, read in isolation, might stand better for me, but grouped as they are, something happens or doesn’t happen.

Sitting abandoned on my reading shelf is a collection of Raymond Carver short stories. I could only get about halfway through it before I had to set it aside. (Johnson’s characters are a lot like Carver’s.) And before that I had to set aside a collection of Grace Paley’s short stories. And at my cabin I have a collection of Dorothy Parker’s works that I haven’t been able to soldier my way through.

There seems to be a pattern here.

latest recovery read

April 3, 2019

I mentioned recently that I was working my way through To the Lighthouse because I had re-read Mrs. Dalloway last year and really enjoyed it. But I knew I needed to put a little distance betwixt my Woolf readings, so I waited this long to pick her up again. (I did, however, buy a nice reading copy of Orlando over the weekend.) Her stream-of-consciousness, Modernist sentences took some effort, and I often had to re-read a given sentence, either because I didn’t understand who was talking/what was being said or because I just wanted to savor it again. So it was slow going, getting to that lighthouse.

When I finished it, I grabbed a novel called The Book of Joe, by Jonathan Tropper. The jacket blurb mentioned something about a troubled relationship between the protagonist and his father (plus the obvious Old Testament reference), so I was interested. It turned out to have less to do with that (the father dies pretty early in the story) and more to do with the protagonist becoming less of a dick.

It was a quick read, not demanding and not making any deep literary or philosophical allusions (that I spotted anyway), and when I was done I wanted to read something with a little more substance.

So I picked up Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf. I’d read at least two of his other novels years ago in a book discussion group I was in. (I miss those guys!) Our Souls at Night is a short book, and the copy I have is a small book, so even the “few” 179 pages are misleading since the physical page is undersized enuf that each page contains fewer words than a regular book would. I finished it in two days.

Haruf is perhaps as far from Woolf as a writer can get. I think he would make Hemingway seem verbose (if I were ever going to read a Hemingway novel again to compare, which I won’t). His sentences are spare. His descriptions are minimal. He comes directly to his points without a lot of verbiage or scene setting. He assumes that a lot of the story corollary is going to happen inside the reader’s head, so he doesn’t throw a lot of stuff at you.

Yet even so, his characters are believable and easily visible (though in my mind I did not picture the two main characters as Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, as they were cast in the movie made of the novel).

All of Haruf’s half dozen novels (I intend to read them all) are set in a fictional town called Holt, Colorado, on the Front Range. It’s a good setting for such spare writing since it is a spare country. He makes reference in each of his novels to characters who appear in his other novels, even touching on those plots. I’m fine with that (Elizabeth Strout does this sometimes, too), but what happens in Chapter 34 of Our Souls at Night is something I’ve never seen another writer do.

I won’t tell you what this is since the novel is such a short read. You could indulge yourself if interested, no?


January 21, 2019

I have more books than time, which is a pretty good problem to have, I think. It’s a rare week for me that I don’t find myself at least once in a bookstore. Most commonly Half Price Books, near-ish to my home or the one farther away that tends to have the mix of books that better interest me.* Prospero’s, which I’ve written about here before. Rainy Day, our sole independent bookstore in Kansas City (general, not genre specific because there are a few of those as well). In a pinch, even the Barnes & Noble at the mall. Of course, any trip by air (say to Disneyworld) requires at least one new book and a back up, which is a perfect excuse to head out to add to the pile.

So my to-be-read pile generally accumulates faster than I can diminish it. As I write this, here is what I have — not necessarily in the order I will read them — in my TBR pile:

  • The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury
  • Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron
  • The Day That Went Missing by Richard Beard – I won this in an online contest I had forgotten I’d even entered.
  • The Round House by Louise Erdrich
  • The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ by Joseph Conrad
  • The Risk Pool by Richard Russo
  • Northline by Willie Vlautin
  • Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner (read once before)
  • Living to Tell the Tale by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I also have The Collected Stories of Grace Paley that I got about halfway through and set aside. I mean to return to it. Someday. Maybe. Same with Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver. Everyone moons about his short stories, but it just doesn’t happen for me. Out at the cabin I have The Complete Dorothy Parker, which I’ve been picking at.

I’ll certainly add to the pile in the days and weeks ahead, and I’ll supplement with books borrowed from the (socialist) public library.

There are more, of course. My house is filled with books, and nearly every room has some. Most of these I’ve not read, and so I may pick up one or two eventually. Others I dip into, such as the many books of Iris Murdoch lit crit on the sagging shelf in my writing room.

Right now I’m reading A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham, whom I’ve gushed about here before. This was in the TBR, waiting for the right moment (partly just being long enuf since the last Cunningham novel I read) and it came recently. I just finished the novel Remember Me Like This by Bret Anthony Johnston. The writing in it is precise and correct, the images only occasionally seeming forced, but it felt lifeless. Soulless. More like an exercise in fiction than story telling. I needed a “rescue read” after I finished it, which is why I picked Cunningham from the pile.


*My neighbor works for Half Price Books, and I asked him once if they shuffle titles between stores to get the right blend for their neighborhoods. He said they did not and that for the most part, the store presents whatever the people in the neighborhood bring to it for trade or cash. So I guess I live in the wrong neighborhood.

the books of 2018

January 3, 2019

When my children were little, I would very publicly “give up” something for a whole year. It was mostly a way to show them that they could control their appetites, but it was also a challenge to myself. One year I gave up pizza, which was grievous to them since that meant fewer deliveries to the door. (Don’t worry, they got all the pizza they wanted.) One year it was chocolate, which is harder to do than you might think since it is an ingredient in so many things. One year I gave up beer, which led to a slightly embarrassing misunderstanding. My daughter, who is always paying attention, wrote in a school assignment about her dad being “off” beer, and her teacher then wrote encouragingly in the margin about the happiness of “recovery.”

And one year I vowed to read an average of one book a week. Some might take longer than a week, some less time, but the goal was, on average, one a week. I managed to do it — reading 61 books that year — but it was an obsessive chore. I was literally racing through the last pages of a book at around 11:00 p.m. on New Year’s Eve to get one more to add to my count. My next vow: never make that vow again.

I’ve begun seeing posts in blogs I visit about the books read in 2018. Like this one. I remember writing a post once that listed the highlights of the books I had read one year, but I don’t think I’ve ever given a comprehensive list. So at the risk of further embarrassing misunderstandings (or some prosecuting attorney someday presenting this list and saying “This explains everything, Your Honor!”) here are the books I read in 2018:

  • How to Look at a Painting by Francoise Barbe-Gall – Nonfiction from the library. I thought it might help with the development of a story I still haven’t begun.
  • The Storied Life of A.J. Firky by Gabrielle Zevin – I see this book everywhere, but I didn’t see what the fuss is about. Set more or less in a bookstore, and in this case books and reading really do have an important role in the story.
  • Everyman by Philip Roth – My second time through. Roth was well into his “angry old man” subject by this novel. I thought it might give me some insight for a character of mine who is not angry but is old.
  • The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine – I never wanted this (long) novel to end. A kind of retelling of the Arabian Nights with lots of contemporary international doings as well as a fractious father/son relationship.
  • Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls – I grabbed this one because it is pretty much the same story as the movie The Shape of Water, though it predates that movie by decades. Some have called this the best novel ever written. It had its points, but no such high praise from me.
  • Fishbowl by Bradley Somer – It looked interesting at the used bookstore. Pretty much the series of things happening/culminating simultaneously in a high-rise apartment building during the time it takes a goldfish to fall from an upper floor to the pavement far below. I won’t tell you whether or not the goldfish survives.
  • F. A Novel by Daniel Kehlmann – Three related stories that discuss art, obligation, and, of course, fatherhood. Picked almost randomly from the shelves at my local library.
  • Kate Vaiden by Reynolds Price – Old-school fiction by a master that I haven’t read enuf. Also from the library, so I was evidently feeling virtuous at the time.
  • The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick – Another one I see everywhere, and it had its charms, but the premise just got too incredible to accept as the story progressed.
  • H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald – Another rare work of nonfiction for me. Everyone praised this, and I can see why, but it never grabbed me.
  • House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday – Long on my list of must-be-read books, but I found it confusing and maybe a little dated even. Checked off the list, but I don’t think I’ll ever return to it.
  • Dangling Man by Saul Bellow – Another one from my list of must-be-read (and from the library) that was underwhelming in the end. I think my Bellow period ended some years ago.
  • Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf – My second time through with this one, and I really enjoyed it. Woolf can be challenging, but there is so much treasure here.
  • Stray City by Chelsey Johnson – I actually wrote about this here.
  • Dirty Kids by Chris Urquhart – More library nonfiction, about a subculture of modern vagabonds and how they cope. Some are gypsy-types, some are druggies, some are larking college kids, some are flat-out homeless people. And they’re all dirty.
  • I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson – A he said/he said young adult novel about two brothers, but it didn’t resonate for me. Not sure how I got this one wrong. It’s actually about a twin brother and sister and a he said/she said telling of the tale.
  • Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin – My introduction to “grit lit” and a place I plan to spend a lot of time in. In a way, it’s Huckleberry Finn for the modern age. I intend to read all of Vlautin’s work. This was also made into a very good movie.
  • The Red and the Green by Iris Murdoch – My second visit with this as I march through the entire Murdoch canon once again. Her story of the Irish rebellion, with characters who typically think and talk too much.
  • The Stories of Breece by D’J Pancake – Further explorations into grit lit. His surname actually was Pancake, but the D’J part was the result of a typo in The Atlantic, and he liked it so much he adopted it.
  • Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan – I have a weak spot in my heart for stories set in bookstores, but most disappoint me because the bookstore part is usually only a launching point for stories going on elsewhere that often don’t have a lot to do with books. This one wasn’t that bad, but I was still disappointed.
  • The Hours by Michael Cunningham – Excellent! Wonderful! Superlatives galore! First read Mrs. Dalloway, then read this immediately after, then see the movie made of this. No wonder he won the Pulitzer for it!
  • Hero by Perry Moore – Another young-adult novel, this time about some truly odd superheroes, one of whom is a teen who is also gay and having trouble with that. Obvious in many ways.
  • Talking to Ourselves by Andres Neuman – I kept seeing this sitting forlornly at the used bookstore so I finally bought it. A father and son story about a road trip in a big rig. It builds and builds. And then it delivers.
  • Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg – I grabbed it as something to read on an airplane and found myself hooked. It was shortlisted for the Pulitzer, and I can see why, but the premise got too hard for me to sustain.
  • A Stone Boat by Andrew Solomon – Solomon is noted for his writing and speaking about clinical depression, but this book is his one foray into fiction. Privileged people also have troubled lives and deep loves, but should he ever write more fiction, I doubt I’ll pick it up. (Note: I walked three miles in Brooklyn to get to the bookstore where I bought this and then three miles back to my daughter’s house.)
  • Don’t Skip Out on Me by Willy Vlautin – More by the master of grit lit. About a young boxer who should have just stayed where he was thriving. Heartbreaking, even for those of us with black and shriveled hearts.
  • Desert Boys by Chris McCormick – Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and McCormick gives the stories of three boyhood friends who do the same. Well done, but I’m not sure I’d read it again.
  • The Days of Anna Madrigal by Armistead Maupin – The life and loves of an early MTF transgender person, culminating at Burning Man (where I imagine at lot of those Dirty Kids were). Not my thing but well regarded.
  • Less by Andrew Sean Greer – Last year’s Pulitzer winner. I was not impressed until it all started adding up near the end. A good, short read.
  • The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George – I should have read the title more literally. There is little bookshop and even less Paris in this novel. It seems mostly someone’s idea of how undying love ought to be enacted in a kind of road trip by a cloyingly decent man.
  • Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko – My third time through. First was for a book group years ago. Second so I could write my son’s term paper for him. (“I’m so busy, Dad!”) And this time for me, as antidote to House Made of Dawn. Well done and worth a fourth visit.
  • Suddenly, A Knock on the Door by Etgar Keret – A collection of short stories, many absolutely absurd, by an Israeli writer. It was part of my semi-ongoing effort to broaden my reading horizons, but this was tough going for me, and I don’t think I’ll read anything else by him.
  • Where the Marshland Came to Flower by Peter Anderson – Short stories set in and evoking different parts of Chicago. I’d read his novel Wheatyard a couple of years ago and liked it. This too.
  • The Green Pen by Eloy Moreno – Not at all what I was expecting, and I mean that in a good way. An office worker is missing his green pen and sets out to learn who took it. Lives are destroyed, secrets are revealed, and penance is made. Not available in print in English, so I read this on my wife’s tablet. (Still much prefer paper and ink.)
  • Triptych on Sea and Land by Alvaro Mutis – I’ve been reading and re-reading Mutis for years. This was my third time through this final novella in his series about his modern-day Quixote character Maqroll the Gaviero. Probably not for everyone, but certainly for me!
  • Summerland by Michael Chabon – Delightful! Supposedly a young-adult novel, but it delivered for me. A cross between American Gods and Field of Dreams. Give it to any curious and clever young person (after you’ve finished it yourself).
  • The Last Child by John Hart – Another airport bookstore grab for a long plane ride. A thriller, which isn’t my thing, but it was gripping, with a good (and grisly) payoff.
  • By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham – Doings in the New York art world by a good man who succumbs to temptation. Every word is golden.
  • The Time of the Angels by Iris Murdoch – Next in my Murdoch march. About an Anglican priest without a church (or faith), his daughter, her cousin, and various people trying to make sense of their lives. Definitely not the best place to start with Murdoch.
  • As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner – My fourth time reading this and my attempt to prove to myself that I can finish a Faulkner novel. (Absalom, Absalom still resides unfinished on my shelf.) I find something new in this novel every time. The movie by James Franco is well regarded and I thought a good adaptation of an impossible-to-film story.
  • Darke by Rick Gekoski – Another used bookstore find that I thought was about a recluse. It kind of peters out, but I was amazed by the parallels between this and Murdoch’s novel The Time of the Angels. So much that I’m certain Gekoski had read that novel first.
  • Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner – I only picked up this short novel because she won the Booker Prize for it. I’m glad I did. Slow to start, with some characters I had difficulty finding empathy for, this did not disappoint by the end, and I’m glad I read it.
  • The Red Pony by John Steinbeck – I read this in 7th grade, and it stayed with me so much that I had to come back to it decades later. Your template Steinbeck stuff, and probably more suited to a curious and clever 7th grader.
  • Castle by J. Robert Lennon – Another thriller (I was interested in the recluse aspect) that kept getting more and more incredible until I just wanted to be done with it.
  • The Dream Life by Bo Huston – Striving to be a male Lolita about a man who abducts a boy who soon outgrows his abductor. I didn’t feel sorry for any of the characters.
  • The Motel Life by Willy Vlautin – Again with the grit lit. This time about two brothers who just don’t get a break (mostly because they make really stupid choices). This was made into a movie, but I haven’t seen it (yet).
  • Burning Down George Orwell’s House by Andrew Ervin – Yes, George Orwell’s house does figure in the story, but the burning reference is so oblique that I think the title was just a gimmick to lure in readers. Too many colorful Scottish characters and a resolution that is just too “appropriate.” Also, a werewolf.
  • Death in Venice by Thomas Mann – I read this because it was referenced several times in The Dream Life. Mann can be turgid reading, but it was a short novel. Checked off the list. (Also, virtuously borrowed from the public library.)
  • Empire Falls by Richard Russo – A new love. Russo writes credible characters in credible messes, and he creates some lovely sentences as he does so. A huge tonal shift at the end, and some subplot resolutions that were maybe too pat, but what a ride! I intend to read more of Russo. Also, the HBO miniseries made from the novel was faithful and well done and packed with acting royalty, but if I’d seen it first, I probably wouldn’t have felt compelled to pick up the novel.
  • The Blue Ice by Hammond Innes – I recently wrote about this here.
  • The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer – Highly praised and award winning with a fresh voice, this novel is about a young schizophrenic and his attempts to deal with the death of his brother (whom he may have killed). Probably the best of its kind, but not a subject I find an interest in reading more of.

I’ll leave it to you to do a body count. I don’t care to know.

Right now I’m reading a nonfiction work called The Return by Hisham Matar about an Libyan exile who returns to learn what became of his father. (I don’t know yet.) It was a gift under the tree in 2018 and will be the first completed book on my list for 2019.

delicious ambiguity

October 26, 2018

“Nothing is better than love,” says Dr. James Darke in the novel Darke by Rick Gekoski.

I picked this up at the used book store last weekend because the synopsis on the flap appealed to my curmudgeonly, misanthropic soul, the book being about a curmudgeonly, misanthropic soul. Due to a series of unfortunate life events, the protagonist has essentially walled himself into his London house, seeing no one, having his groceries and such delivered, and even sealing the mail slot in his front door so he won’t receive any missives. It’s over the top, of course, but it’s nicely done, and it’s a first-person narration so you can’t be sure just how much is true.

But on to that quote.

On face value it seems true and honorable, even if spoken by a curmudgeon. Love is the greatest thing. Yet if you think of the sentence as an equation, with two components, A (nothing) and B (love), you can reach a different conclusion. “A is better than B.” Love may be dandy, but Nothing is better.

The sentence is ambiguous; we live in the ambiguity!

I can tell you from the context of the statement that curmudgeonly Darke does mean that having nothing in his life is better than having love in his life. (“Nothing” being no personal entanglements or dealings with others. As close as he has come, so far, is the limited dealings with the workman who sealed the letter slot on his door and a char woman of foreign extraction who comes once a week and upsets his equilibrium. He pretends to be partly deaf with both of them to limit interaction even more, but the char sees through this early on.)

I’m only a third of the way through the novel, and I suspect that the equation in that statement will be reversed by the end, but in the meantime I’m enjoying the writing and the character.

Curiously, so far this novel bears a strong resemblance to Iris Murdoch’s novel The Time of the Angels. It too has a man who has removed himself from society, seeing no one and throwing away all of the mail he gets. As well, he has an adult daughter and a housekeeper who is foreign and who has developed a relationship with him. I don’t know yet how far Darke will hold to this course, but I hope not too far since the Murdoch novel does not end well.

recovery reading

September 24, 2018

Have you ever heard of a “recovery reading” or a “recovery writer”? I know I read about this somewhere, but I’m turning up no references. The idea is that after you’ve read something that wasn’t very good (for whatever reason, and there could be many where “good” is relative), you read something that you know is very good (again) as a way to “recover” from your “bad” reading experience.

Say, for example, you like to read Westerns but for some reason you picked up To The Lighthouse and all you can think about is getting back to Westerns you enjoy. The Westerns become your recovery reading; your favorite author is your recovery writer. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with To the Lighthouse, you concede, but it’s just not your thing, and you feel that you want to get back to where you once belonged.

That’s where I am now. I recently read the novel The Last Child by John Hart. I knew nothing more about it than what was blurbed on the back cover, and I picked it up at the used bookstore as something to read on the airplane coming back from Seattle last week. It turned out to be a police procedural thriller, filled with red herrings, tense cliffhanger chapters, and leading to a clever shaggy dog resolution. (Plus there were some well written images and word usages.) I don’t read in that genre, but it certainly seemed to deliver the goods. I was literally telling myself that I would read “just one more chapter” each night as I lay in bed, well past lights out. I did an eighty-page sprint to the end Sunday morning because I had to know how it all resolved. (It turned on an unreliable witness.) And while I don’t regret reading it, I don’t suppose I’ll read any more from this writer.

And now I’m turning to my recovery reading. I’ve started By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham. I had read his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Hours, by fortunate coincidence not long after I had (re)read Mrs Dalloway, and the book connected with me. I was impressed with the three narratives and how they blended so well. And I reveled in the human nature insights Cunningham salted throughout. Not long after that I had listened to his re-told fairy tales The Wild Swan on a drive to/from my little Ozark cabin. After that I knew I would be reading Micheal Cunningham often.

I don’t mean to assert that Cunningham is a better writer than Hart. That would be like saying a baseball player is a better athlete than a football player (or whether a cat or a dog is a better companion). I only say that when I’ve ventured outside of my familiar (and am better for it), I am glad I have something to return to that works for me.

Do you have a recovery writer? (or any strong feelings on the dog/cat thing?)

Some books I liked in 2017

January 3, 2018

I am not a book critic. I don’t think I’m actually a very discerning reader. (How else can I explain that I’ve read a certain novel* more than 30 times and still find something new in it each reading?) But sometimes books stay with me and compel me to read more by the author.

Here are the books I read in 2017 that stayed with me:

Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski – I wrote about it here.

The Angel of History by Rabih Alameddine – I first read his acclaimed novel An Unnecessary Woman in 2016 and found I wanted to read more of his fiction. I have another of his novels on order at my local indie bookstore.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien – This novel is as much about story telling as it is about the men of the Vietnam War. I’d actually read quite a bit of O’Brien before coming to this novel, and I was surprised I had missed it for so long.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr – I wrote about it here

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout – I was introduced to Strout by a comment from Teri Carter some time ago. I’ve since read every piece of fiction by Strout, and I expect to keep reading her words as they come out.

Of course I read plenty of other novels and nonfiction in 2017 including other works by Strout, and my re-readings of Iris Murdoch and Alvaro Mutis. Oddly missing throughout the year was anything by Philip Roth. I’m sure 2018 will correct that.




*The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth