Posted in Book Reviews, Books, Uncategorized

When In Doubt, Read More Books

So exactly one month ago, I moaned extensively about how all art lately has been making me sad. (Read it here if you can stand it.) Since then I’ve been taking my favorite cure–reading fiction. I asked for a bunch of books for Christmas, and I’ve been burning through them, reading every night. And I’m pleased to say, they’ve made me feel a whole bunch better.

So here’s what I’ve finished since January 2, 2018:

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

I’ve loved this book since I was a teenager. I read it years before the movie came out. That first time, all I really engaged was the story inside the story, Westley and Buttercup. I read it again as a grad student and was all about the postmodern narrative and how the fantasy story reflects the story of Goldman the writer as a character–much equating of Buttercup and the starlet in the pool. Now as a middle-aged writer myself facing all those same doubts, that’s the story I see. And it’s still great. I wish he’d never bothered with all the Buttercup’s Baby stuff, but that’s not up to me. It’s an evolving story, and it’s completely his.

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

It is precisely what it reads on the cover–a very readable retelling of the high points of Norse mythology from the guy who wrote Stardust and American Gods (and many many other awesome written things). These ancient stories are told with intelligence and a whimsically twisted humor that should feel very familiar to anybody steeped in contemporary pop, goth, and geek culture. But while the tone feels current, the scale of the stories is still epic; it’s not hipster-lite mythology. I’m no scholar of the great sagas, but I would bet he gets the details right–that’s certainly the way it feels. Because these are myths, the characters are archetypes, but they’re all very specific and well-drawn–I rarely found myself referring to the glossary of names at the back; I usually remembered everyone once they were mentioned. I can’t say I particularly identified with them or felt any great emotional connection to them, but I enjoyed their tales very much. I read the whole book in a weekend. I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in Norse culture, especially young readers. Yeah, there’s some crazy, perverted stuff that goes on, but it’s all told in a matter-of-fact, humorous style that should keep any interested middle-schooler from being scarred for life.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

This one was so wrenching, I actually put it down halfway through, meaning to take a break from it, but I couldn’t. I ended up reading the second half straight through and ended up a soggy, emotional wreck–and a huge Jesmyn Ward fan. The best, truest, most heart-wrenching, most horrifying ghost story I’ve ever read. Deserving of all its awards, including last year’s National Book Award for best fiction book. But I was afraid I would have to spend the next month reading nothing stronger than Winnie the Pooh stories just to recover.

Leia, Princess of Alderaan by Claudia Gray

This was the first YA book I’ve read in a long time, and it’s a good one. Gray’s version of Leia at 16 is strong, smart, and winning while being both a realistic teenager and true to the character I know and love from the movies. And I was surprised by how exciting the plot was–this is no standard feisty princess tale; it’s a tense and well-paced Star Wars adventure. I would recommend it to young adults new to Leia’s story but also to older fans like me who have loved her since A New Hope.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

This is the easiest, most purely pleasurable reading experience I’ve had in quite a while, and I read a lot. The shorthand synopsis is that it’s a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, and it very much is. If you’re familiar with Austen’s famous novel, one of the pleasures of this book is seeing all the clever, twisty ways Sittenfeld has worked all the sparkling facets of the original into this new version. But even readers who have never touched eyes to Austen and wouldn’t on a bet will enjoy this story. Witty without ever being mean, hilarious without ever being stupid, and romantic without ever being schmaltzy, this is the modern woman’s romance for readers who loathe “chick lit.”

So that was my January. Right now I’m reading back and forth between The Briar King by Greg Keyes and Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff–two great tastes that so far taste great together. And I also proofread an extremely fab anthology as part of my editing gig that I look forward to telling you all about when it releases. In the meantime, go to the bookstore. It really, really helps.

Advertisements
Posted in Book Reviews, Other People's Awesome, Uncategorized

A Review of Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings by Stephen O’Connor

In this meticulously researched and exquisitely deconstructed narrative, novelist and historian Stephen O’Connor views the life and work of the great American architect of personal liberty through the prism of his relationship with Sally Hemings, a woman he considered his rightful possession. This paradox strikes at the heart of our national identity, and while he doesn’t make it make sense, O’Connor does manage to define it in a way that seems plausible, empathetic, and almost but not quite complete.

The author fractures his story into a spectrum of different tales intertwined. A third person limited telling of the facts as we know them from the point of view of an intelligently-imagined Jefferson and a first person confession of identity and shame from Hemings are familiar devices of historical fiction done well. But what about the Jefferson who’s sitting in a contemporary movie theater with Dolly and James Madison, being driven mad by a lushly romantic biopic of his life and love for Sally? Or the Jefferson-like prisoner being tortured by a furious black female guard? Or the New York Jefferson on the subway pining for the Sally who’s ignoring him across the way? Or, strangest of all, the nameless narrator exploring a weird hellscape that seems to be the inside of a colossal Jefferson–the haunted house of the great man’s reputation? He finds another Jefferson and another Hemings here, two survivors of some unnamed apocalypse, clinging and traveling together.

I love this stuff–my favorite work in grad school was on the fractured narratives of writers like A.S. Byatt and Thomas Pynchon, and I’d rank this novel with the best of that style. It gets at a truth of Jefferson and, less successfully, of Hemings that no straightforward telling could.

But is it enough? As a work of literary art, I found this book really satisfying. As a story about people, not so much. O’Connor doesn’t solve the puzzle of Jefferson; that he can’t is kind of the point. But he does a great job of finding all the pieces.

Posted in Book Reviews, Books, Other People's Awesome

Review of News of the World by Paulette Jilles

News of the World is one of those short novels written by a poet where every image and syllable is rife with meaning and symbolic import. Set in Texas in the 1870s, it’s the story of 72-year-old Captain Jefferson Kidd, an old soldier and former owner of a printing press who makes his living reading newspapers aloud in public, and how he transports a ten-year-old white girl who has spent the past four years as a captive of the Kiowa more than seven hundred miles to her surviving white relatives. (If you’re thinking The Searchers, quit—this is more of a late-in-life Paul Newman role with a well-crafted political point of view that’s all the way 2016.) Incidents ensue that all feel true to life, and the conclusion satisfies. But as much as I love westerns and liberal politics and stories about old men and the power of words, I can’t say I loved this. I liked it okay; I admire Jilles’ research and craftsmanship; I agree with all her points. But the story just didn’t move me.

I suspect Jilles’ is a cracking fine poet. There is much here about things being biscuit-colored and the emotional states of rivers. The character of Kidd is a work of art all by himself, specific and original and full of interesting, relatable depths. His biography, delivered in dribs and drabs of memory and flashback, was my favorite part of the book by miles. But this particular journey and the child for whom he takes it just didn’t interest me all that much. In her author’s note, Jilles’ cites a non-fiction book about the psychology of non-Native-American children taken captive by tribes in the Old West, and I don’t doubt that she read it cover to cover, along with plenty of solid primary sources on the Kiowa language, period clothing, the roads in Texas at the time, and late-19th-century printing. And Texas politics—I’m sure there were even more artful parallels drawn between the violent and clueless white folks she creates for her story and the real ones we know today than I recognized, but I don’t have the strength, will, or energy to try to pull them out. All of this stuff is interesting, but the story feels too thin and tenuous to support its weight. I didn’t have any problem finishing the book, but I just couldn’t care about it much; it never engaged my heart. Ultimately it felt more like an essay or a non-fiction article than a novel.

I’m glad I read it, and I will read more from this writer. But I can’t imagine myself ever reading this one again.