Starting the year off slowly, with just six books finished this month. (My goal for the year is 66 books, so I’m just a little ahead of schedule.)
Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout is a sequel to Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Olive Kitteridge. I’ve heard from many people that they like this book even more than the original, and I think I do too. When I read the first book, although I admired the writing, I really didn’t like the character of Olive. Maybe she’s grown on me by this time, but now I like her bluntness. She definitely doesn’t pull punches. It’s also interesting to watch Olive advance into old age over the course of the book, absorbing the punches that time delivers. In the first book time also passed, but the endpoint didn’t seem quite so near, even though Olive’s husband does die in that book. While I’m not quite as old as Olive yet, it is sobering to read about her difficulties, and it was a bit depressing. On the other hand, it was great to see Olive react so negatively to a woman who had a Trump sticker on her car (although Strout doesn’t use Trump’s name).
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood was my book club’s pick for January, although I had been determined not to read it. I read The Handmaid’s Tale some time ago and enjoyed it well enough, but I didn’t feel the need to spend time on the sequel. (Also, I didn’t see any of the TV series.) What more was there to say on the subject? And I was right that I don’t think this book takes us much further than the original did. For one thing, the writing isn’t particularly strong—lots of clichés—and the organization is peculiar. I also never get a clear picture of Aunt Lydia’s motivation. She puts herself at great risk to undermine Gilead, and yet she was complicit in its creation and the oppression of a generation of women, apparently to save herself. I’m not saying I didn’t like it, but it didn’t exceed my low expectations.
The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe was first published in 1987 and apparently I bought a hardcover copy shortly thereafter (full price, $19.95, at Rizzoli, whose Chicago store I visited when in town once or twice a year). It’s been on my bookshelf, unread, ever since (moving several times, including back and forth across the Pacific Ocean), probably because of its daunting length. Since then, though, I had the pleasure of meeting Wolfe a few times and got a couple of books signed by him (but not this one). Anyway, I was inspired to finally read this one because while reading Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve recently I learned about the original Bonfire of the Vanities perpetrated by Savanarola in Florence in 1497 in which various sinful objects were burned. So, now that I’ve read the book, I realize that it is satire, or at least it reads as satire when viewed from the perspective of 2020. The Master of the Universe, Sherman McCoy, a bond trader on Wall Street, is a cartoon character, and surely seemed that way even in the ‘80s when the book was written. The question is whether he learns anything from his ordeal. He says he does, but one wonders. The whole thing feels like a cartoon, come to think of it, with no one—the press, the lawyers, the bankers, the gold-diggers, the activists—coming away unscathed in their portrayals. It’s one of the densest books I’ve read, in the sense of getting deeply—very deeply—into the thoughts of many characters. If Wolfe had focused only on the plot, which is excellent, it would have been half the length.
Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan isn’t a novel for everyone. It is set in Singapore, and I think it helps to have some familiarity with that country to really grasp what’s happening in the book (although maybe the movie would work better). The book deals with an American woman who is in a relationship with a Singaporean in New York, where they are both academics. He invites her to join him in Singapore for summer vacation, but he doesn’t tell her that he’s from a very wealthy and powerful family. Even when she arrives and starts experiencing the absurd extravagance of the lifestyle of his family and friends, she doesn’t fully understand that she’s basically now on another planet and there’s no way the natives will ever accept her. Having lived in Singapore for almost ten years, I’m very familiar with the landscape Kwan is describing here, although I had no dealings with the people he’s describing. I lived and worked on planet earth, I’m happy to say. In the end, I found the book to be kind of silly—a farcical soap opera of the rich and powerful—but I actually did enjoy it in the end. Kwan is a very good storyteller. I gather there are several sequels, and right now I don’t feel compelled to read on, but that may change.
Death in Spring by Mercé Rodorero is beautiful, but nearly impenetrable. Rodorero was a Catalan writer and I picked this book up in Barcelona last month in order to get a taste of the literary culture. Given that the cover included a blurb from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I knew to expect some magical realism, but the story goes far beyond that into a world that is difficult to comprehend. I take it that on some level the novel is anti-authoritarian allegory, but in that case some of its elements are difficult for me to comprehend. The stepmother with the deformed arm who marries her step-son? Their child born with the same deformity? The burial of villagers in trees in the forest? And what’s with all the butterflies? And the river that flows under the village? Perhaps someone has spent time parsing it all in a PhD dissertation, but I’m not sure I want to make the effort to discover all the book’s meaning. I’m glad I read it, though, and it adds something to my Barcelona trip.
Private by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro is the first in a series, part of the Patterson franchise, but I’m reasonably confident I won’t read beyond this first book and I doubt that another Patterson will darken my door. I guess some people like these action-filled books filled with stock characters, clichés, and trite plots, but not me. Here, the hero is Jack Morgan (Seriously? Did they work really hard to choose such a bland name?), impossibly handsome, ex-military who has some kind of suppressed memory from action he saw in Afghanistan, and he runs a fancy private investigation firm called Private. Oh, and he’s extremely wealthy, partly because of dirty money he inherited from his father (who died in prison), and partly because he’s good at the investigations game. Like other books of the genre, there are several plot lines that have little to do with each other, except that Jack Morgan is chasing down several different sets of bad guys. There are several women in the story too, and Jack has slept with most of them, of course, except for the unattractive ones.
Well, I appreciate the bluntness, glad to see we agreed on most of that. Wolfe’s book, is considered for the time it was published, is more significant that your review concedes. Like Salinger’s Catcher, it exposed things that no one was admitting at the time. It is an interesting literary conundrum when an important book for its era loses some of its punch in hindsight. Doesn’t merit the ‘classic’ label or staying power that other books do.
I know I’ve recommended the Chechnya book to you before, would like to hear your take if it turns up in your pile for real. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra. Truly a brilliant book, under the radar. I’m waiting for the next Marra.
Also with all your travels you would enjoy Buried by Wasser, a journalist who lived in China, married a Chinese woman, and they moved to Egypt in the fall after the Arab Spring. He is an excellent writer, his characters are unique and charming, his insights quiet and powerful.
I’m here in Florida for my annual writing retreat, working on a novel with a murder in the first chapter, that seems to be what the agents and editors want these days, as distant as that is from most people’s reality. But still looking for a publisher for last year’s manuscript, ONE LAST MYSTERY, about an aging curmudgeon who tries to avoid the nursing home by writing a journal about his WWII nurse in Paris. Written before all my favorite authors published books about old people, how ironic.