Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Book reviews, January-June 2017

I debated on whether to make this post. This blog was something I enjoyed for several years. I still love the idea of it. I just have little time for it anymore. I still find myself thinking "hey, I should blog that", but mostly just end up posting it to Facebook (O tempora, o mores). These book lists seem to be the last gasp of what feels increasingly like a private game with the universe. 

This time I'll keep it simple. Here, in no particular order, are the books I read these last 6 months. I loved a few, loathed others (your mileage may vary).

The Drunken Botanist- Amy Stewart
Stewart's exploration of the botannical underpinnings of various alcoholic mixers and elixirs is excellent applied science geekery, at least in concept. Stewart offers a sometimes-insightful look at the connections between the science, history, and alchemy of cocktail ingredients without getting too deep in the weeds in any sphere. Although the descriptions seem to wane in exuberance as the book wears on (and wear on it does...), it's still a worthwhile read. I only wish she’s spent more time on the actual botany.

Wolf Hall - Hillary Mantel
The writing in this work of Tudor-era historical fiction seems like it's better than it needed to be. I don't usually love this genre, but the literature-grade dialogue and interplay between Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell is handled deftly and with great deference to its historical superstructure. I admit, I got this on audiobook because I desperately needed something for a long ride, and it was the only thing I could find in a five-minute search of my library's website. That being said, I ended up enjoying it far more than I thought I would.

The Old Ace in the Hole - Annie Proulx
Proulx continues to prove herself a master of place and character. This novel of a wayward son scouting pig farm locations and his interactions with small town characters is less epic in scope and timeline than many of her works. It feels to some degree like an elongated story from one of her Wyoming stories collections. It's a tribute to her writing that a novel in which nothing really much happens, set in a place I don't really care about, was so engaging. It was especially poignant as an illustration of the mindset and psychic landscape of midwest rural America, given current political atmospheres.

Dead Wake - Eric Larson
I keep hoping that Larson will produce another book as entertaining as Devil in the White City, but either his style or the subjects he selects invariably fall short. Dead Wake delves into the time and events surrounding the sinking of the Lusitania, a catalyst for the leadup to American involvement in WWI. For such a turbulent era, and such a momentous event, Larson's book feels more like a shallow summary. Larson does an adequate job of giving a sense of both the zeitgeist through minor characters and details, especially in terms of the German Uboats, but it never feels like he delves deep enough into anything to really provide its flavor. It was readable, but a bit bland given the incredible depth of story and drama the real event surrounded.

Absalom, Absalom - William Faulkner
With the exception of As I Lay Dying, Faulkner's work all blend and bleeds at the edges to me. This is, however, not a bad thing, and takes nothing from his work. I just have a hard time commenting on one work without connecting it to everything else. Absalom's allegory of the decay and dissolution of the antebellum south through a near-mythological southern family line is every bit as masterful as The Sound and the Fury (with which it shares a protagonist). The novel manages to encapsulate Faulkner's love/hate relationship with the south without being too on-the-nose in its symbolism. The subtle use of unreliable narrators and stories told from multiple viewpoints, unraveling as the novel goes on, is a nice counterpoint to the near-apocalyptic imagery throughout. I would go so far as to argue that this is a better book for high school English classes than Sound.

A Model World (and Other Stories)– Michael Chabon
Even in this earlier work, Chabon’s flair for dense, kinetic writing is present. None of these short pieces really stands out as a game-changing story in and of itself, but they offer a sampling of things to come. The latter section of coming of age stories cuts to the bone of family dynamics and disruption.  I had to go back and read a synopsis to remember the narratives, but there were several images and sentences that stuck with me. It felt like a literary sketch book rather than solid stories, but one filled with such captivating work that it was nonetheless a satisfying read.

Choke - Pahluniak
The best thing I can say about this novel of sexual addiction and subculture is that it was the least disappointing of the Pahluniak novels I read this year. I wasn’t particularly impressed by the writing, the story, or the shock value. There is some deft satire on selling image to the gullible, some of Pahluniak’s dark humor shines through in places, and there are some poignant themes of rebuilding. Overall it feels like there’s a good story that just didn’t come into focus. 

Blue at the Mizzen – Patrick O’Brian
Last year I read almost all (19!) of O’Brian’s acclaimed Aubrey/Maturin cycle of novels. Blue at the Mizzen is the last, other than an unfinished 21st novel, of these stories of 1800’s naval life and spy intrigue. The book is lighter on action, which was a little disappointing (as a big knock-down finale would have served the series well). Given that the author didn’t intend this to be the final novel, or to die before continuing the series, this is fairly excusable. Jack Aubrey finally gets his admiralship, Steven Maturin ties of up some loose ends of a multi-novel story arc of South American revolution, and the lives of the characters generally are left on an uplifting note. It continued to be a blend of Jane Austin-esque romance, Joseph Conrad-esque spy intrigue, and straight-up naval battles.

It Can’t Happen Here – Sinclair Lewis
Yes, I read this along with half the other horrified people in the country this year. Lewis’ story of the growth and eventual downfall of an American fascist government is chilling in the minutia, but fairly heavy-handed in the broader narrative. If we weren’t so busy dealing with a real Buzz Windrip of our own, this book may have been more enjoyable. As it is, it felt more like a redundant reminder than a forewarning. At some point Lewis abandons all subtly and realism in his depiction of the regime’s excesses, which takes away from the underlying strength of the message and devolves into something less relatable and more comical. Real evil is in the conglomeration of minor betrayals.

The Great Leader – Jim Harrison
Harrison is an immensely talented author, but in a very bifurcated way. His more austere, epic works (Legends of the Fall, The River Swimmer, etc) seem almost the work of a different writer than his grittier, excess-of-human-nature stories. The Great Leader is the story of a down-and-out, past his prime detective struggling with banal minutia of divorce, retirement, and drinking/other vices. He cannot let a case go after retirement (the ur-motif of countless police thrillers), and the novel recounts his dogged but wayward pursuit of a cult leader. Everyone in the novel is a collection of human failures, colliding unavoidably in a morass of collected human failure. It’s a tribute to Harrison that what could have been a formulaic thriller instead is elevated by his understated literary prowess. Foremost is his skill at undressing the pretense and romanticism of human experience to lay bare our base natures in a way that creates fully fleshed, imminently fallible characters.

Gilead – Marilynne Robinson
I really wanted to like Gilead’s exploration of the clash between harsh realities of segregation, failure, and family ties with quiet theological reflection of a small town minister. But the telling of the stories through the minister’s staid and reserved tone is like making a copy of a vibrant painting with muted watercolors. Robinson’s world is full of intriguing characters, from a radical abolitionist preacher to ne’er do well prodigal sons, but the filtering of their stories through the human equivalent of Nyquil makes their realities unnecessarily gentle. I’m sure there are some deeper reflections on gentleness and submission in faith in the face of the horrors of the world, but the latter never feels fully fleshed, and the former dominates the conversation.

Damned/Doomed – Chuck Pahluniak
The first two books of this unfinished trilogy about the adventures of a deceased teenage girl in a capricious hellscape afterlife left me completely unconcerned as to whether there will ever be a concluding chapter. Pahluniak abandons all subtlty and craft and just piles on poorly written excess after excess. Even his usual dark humor and satire is completely fumbling and unformed. The first novel was passable, but disappointing. The retconning second novel was so poorly executed it managed to retroactively damage the first.  Even the cover art on Doomed seems like they got an intern to sketch something in pencil right before publication.  

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
Ok, so yes, this was another “book to accompany the devolution of the American Democracy” read. That being said, Atwood’s story surprised me with its subtlty and the chilling effect of its small touches. This is not the over-the-top insanity of Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, it’s a novel of claustrophobic horrors and intimate betrayals, slowly revealed. Atwood’s account of a post-apocalyptic future in which fertile women are enslaved to the wealthy as brood mares is equally a commentary on fascism as it is a feminist exploration of control. It could have done either and be satisfying, and could have simply been a sci fi pulp piece and been a good enough premise to be worthwhile. Its strength is not in having a wild premise, but in crafting a world very like our own, just shifted in jarring ways that create a dissonance rather than a shock. What really drew me in was not just the wealth of undertones the story hints at, but Atwood’s skill at revealing the horrors and injustice with a surgeon’s scalpel rather than a blunt mallet. I’ve only ever read her “The Year of the Flood”, which was not entirely enjoyable,  so I had no expectations for Handmaid. I enjoyed the story, but also her style on this novel. As with other works I really liked this year, it felt like it took a moderate premise and elevated it to literature-grade storytelling. Even if the storyline hadn’t been so poignant to the current war on women’s health, this is a strong piece on its own merits.

Norse Mythology – Neil Gaiman
As blasphemy as this may be to my general sensibilities about the lingering importance of reading actual books in a digital world, part of me has the sneaking suspicion that the absolute best way to experience Gaiman’s work is through an audiobook in which he is the narrator. Gaiman’s writing is good, at times great, but his greatest strength is as a teller of stories. He has a voice and storytelling ability that seem to transcend whatever literary limitations his writing may have.  I don’t even think of him as an author so much as a storyteller who works a lot in novel form. Norse Mythology is the sum and substance of that fundamental character. Norse mythos in general derive from an oral tradition of character-focused stories. It’s not surprising that they have been a great influence to Gaiman (See: American Gods, etc.), but that his style would be such a great match for retelling these myths. Gaiman doesn’t completely reinterpret the classical Eddas as much as he adds flavor, fleshes out characters, and weaves connections. It doesn’t end up being my favorite of his works, but it was a very enjoyable listen. Like all good storytellers, Gaiman takes a universally shared set of stories, and then tells them through his own voice and imagination.

South of the Border, West of the Sun - Murakami
My appreciation of Murakami continues to grow the more of his works I read (at some point I’ll get around to the long-delayed 1Q84). I still feel like I’m missing some of the subtext and tone that doesn’t transcend the strong Japanese themes of his characters’ worlds. But his ability to meld messy, honest human emotion and relationships with hints of Ishiguro-esque unreliable narration and magical realism make his reads challenging and rewarding. South is another story of star crossed love, but serves mostly as a reflection on our ties to our pasts, and the tangible affects them have on us. The protagonist’s vacillation between the reality of his family and business and the (maybe) ghost of a former love, and the past she represents, is handled exceptionally well. Some authors are masters of subtle cuts, some of devastating reveals. Murakami somehow manages to combine both in an organic, human way. I’m sure there are deeper reflections on post-war Japanese society and transition here that I’m missing, but the story is satisfying enough to keep me from being too concerned.

The Revenant – Michael Punke
Oddly, Punke’s period revenge thriller is unintentionally the third fur trappers/voyageurs related novel I’ve been reading this year (still trying to clear some space to properly enjoy Proulx’s Barkskins). The writing is short of literary, but the story of a fur trapper fighting for survival and revenge after being left for dead in the wake of a grizzly mauling is a page turner. Punke’s writing is just sort of…there, but decent enough not to distract from the pace and telling of the story. I found out afterwards that the story is based to some extent on an actual historical person, which reduced Punke a bit in my estimation, but simultaneously increased my interest in the story. I have not yet seen the movie.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan
Flanagan is a new author for me, and I’m excited to have become acquainted with his works. Narrow Road is the story of an Australian’s experience as a POW in WWII Japan, and the impact of his notoriety later in life, but includes so many other times and perspectives that it’s hard to really summarize it well. While the WWII POW motif has been over-, and poorly, done as of late in a series of fairly schmaltzy-but-popular works (looking at you, Unbroken), Narrow Road’s focus is far broader and more literary (I know I keep using “literary” as if it was some sort of litmus test of measurable value. I recognize it’s just a subjective thing. When I use it, what I’m trying to get at is a work that focuses as strongly on the crafting of the language and style as it does on the story.) Flanagan’s army surgeon moves through beautiful set pieces in a story that reflects on the infirmity of character, and the discrepancies between the images the world assigns us and our internal realities. It reminded me a lot, without being at all derivative, of Ondaatje’s The English Patient as being a strong character study walking through robustly rendered landscapes of war.

Afterword - Abandoned Books
I try not to abandon books, but as I have gotten older, and the endless afternoons of youth have dwindled to stolen reading moments at night, etc, I have less patience for books I don’t enjoy. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy came highly recommended, but I couldn’t get through it. It felt like a poorly executed memoir that wasn’t particularly relevant to the broader social forces it was touted as “explaining”. I also decided to finally sit down and read a collection of Arthurian Romance, but just couldn’t get through it. I appreciate the style and form and its historical significance, but in the end it was mostly knights getting into random fights with other knights for unapparent reasons and lengthy hyperbole on the knightly character of knightly characters.