In this new post-vaccination world, my days are filling up and speeding up. This is a good thing. We can see friends! We can go to museums! We can make, good heavens, plans! Of course, emergence from the pandemic brings its own special anxieties. And what that means, and why it’s relevant to this book journal, is that I continue to inhale books (thank you, anxiety), but I have less time to write about them.
So, before I forget everything I’ve read recently, here are comments on novels I’ve yet to fully clarify my own thoughts about, and that I may or may not get around to writing about.
Deacon King Kong, by James McBride. I loved this book. Loved loved loved. In Deacon King Kong, McBride has created a fully-populated world (a fictional Brooklyn housing project in 1969), and he has written a story that is both absurd and painfully real, simultaneously hilarious and enraging and touching. The enormous cast of characters is anchored by the eponymous Deacon, also known as Sportcoat: “a wiry, laughing brown-skinned man who had coughed, wheezed, hacked, guffawed, and drank his way through the Cause Houses for a good part of his seventy-one years… a peaceful man beloved by all.” The plot is precipitated when Sportcoat shoots a notorious teenage drug dealer, setting in motion a long chain of dominoes that draws in neighbors, church leaders, mobsters, and cops. This novel is fabulous at every level—a page-turner of a plot, characters I’d love to meet in real life, prose that is sometimes shocking in the aptness of its imagery, depth of meaning and seriousness, and just pure entertainment.
Enjoyable, more or less
His Only Wife, by Peace Adzo Medie. This is a debut novel by Ghanaian author who, by day, is a scholar and researcher. (In the same year her novel was released, 2020, Medie also published a book with Oxford University Press called Global Norms and Local Action: The Campaigns to End Violence against Women in Africa.) The story of His Only Wife centers on Afi, a young woman in a small town, making a bare living as a seamstress, dependent on her less-than-kind uncle. Her life takes a turn when the wealthiest local family offers her marriage to their son, Elikem, a successful businessman in Accra. But this is not a romance novel. Elikem lives with a woman his family considers unsuitable, and marriage to Afi is his family’s tactic to weaken that relationship. For Afi, though, marriage might be a rope to a better life, and she barely hesitates. Once in Accra, Afi navigates the tensions between traditional and modern, switching old for new definitions of happiness. While it felt like Medie is still writing with training wheels (parts of the novel felt clumsy), I enjoyed it quite a bit anyway, particularly for its glimpse into a world so different from my own, as well as for Medie’s refusal to make Afi’s choices simple.
Interior Chinatown, by Charles Yu. This book got lots of buzz last year, and it’s clever and entertaining. Written in the form of a screenplay, Interior Chinatown is the story of a Chinese-American man trying to make a living in Hollywood, banging his head against the reality that Asian actors in America have had limited options. If they are really really really successful, maybe they can aspire to be the nameless “Kung Fu Man” in action movies. Or the mysterious madame in an Asian brothel. (Is anything changing? Maybe. While one movie won’t change the world, the next Marvel movie will star an Asian superhero.) But while I enjoyed Interior Chinatown quite a bit, it didn’t quite make it onto my “loved” list. In the end, it felt a little one-note.
Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner. Before last year, I’d never read Stegner. Last year, I read Angle of Repose, for which he won the Pulitzer in 1971. This year, I read Crossing to Safety, which he wrote in 1987, toward the end of his career, and which is also considered one of his finest novels. In Crossing to Safety, Stegner traces the friendship between two couples over the course of several decades. As the novel begins, in 1937, at the height of the Depression, Larry and Sally Morgan move to Madison, Wisconsin, where Larry has taken a temporary position as an instructor in creative writing. There, they meet Sid and Charity Lang. Sid is also an instructor in the English department; Charity comes from wealth. The two couples quickly become close, with their friendship ebbing and flowing through the years, tested by differences in means and differences in ambitions. It is a lovely novel, doing full justice to complex feelings and conflicted loyalties, but I have not fallen in love with Wallace Stegner. He leaves me a little cold, although I cannot explain why. So while I am very glad to have read both Crossing and Angle, I don’t feel compelled to read more Stegner.
The Nest, by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. This is a straight-up family drama about four grown siblings who are expecting their share of a family inheritance, held in trust. Suddenly, that inheritance disappears; their mother has used a legal loophole to spend nearly all the money to bail out the least responsible of the siblings when, high on cocaine, he crashes his car and disables a young woman for life. His siblings, of course, were counting on that money—to prop up their own teetering fortunes, to hide their own misdeeds, to fund their own dreams—and the money’s disappearance wreaks havoc with their plans. I liked this book. The plot was nicely tangled, the characters were well-drawn, and the ethical conundrums were real. Although I wouldn’t call The Nest a must-read, if this is how Sweeney writes, and if I ever start flying again, she’ll be in my mental category of good airplane authors.
Days of Distraction, by Alexandra Chang. This debut novel is a coming-of-age story. The narrator is a 20-something Chinese-American woman living in the Bay area, working in a dead-end job writing stories for a tech site. When her long-time (white) boyfriend gets into graduate school at Cornell, she quits her job and moves with him. Their cross-country drive from San Francisco, her unemployed and aimless life in Ithaca, and a visit to her father in China combine to create a crisis of identity for her, as she becomes ever more acutely aware of how she is carelessly stereotyped, as both female and Chinese, even as she feels less and less authentically Chinese. It’s a perfectly nice novel, which I found worth reading for the fresh perspective on what it’s like to be a 20-something Chinese-American woman in today’s world, but beyond that, it wasn’t deeply interesting. I’m guessing I’d have found more to like if I were thirty years younger.
Impressive, but not necessarily enjoyable
No One Is Talking About This, by Patricia Lockwood. Reviews, which I clearly did not read carefully enough, suggested that this book was funny. It is. But it is also a really tough book, with grief and helplessness at its center. It is also a tough book stylistically: Lockwood writes in staccato paragraphs, each one capturing an independent thought, often written in poetic language, some of which is gorgeous, but some of which is opaque. The first time I read the book through (yes, I read it twice), I did not enjoy it. It felt long, slow to progress, difficult to follow, and horribly sad. But it nagged at me. So I picked it up again. The second time it still felt long and oh so sad, and the first half of the book (sharp and satiric) didn’t mesh with the second half (dripping with emotion), but I ended up falling in love with Lockwood’s writing. The ways she captures thought and feeling, as well as the bizarre world-unto-itself we call the Internet, is extraordinary. So I will read whatever she writes next.
Homeland Elegies, by Ayad Akhtar. The reviews get one thing right: This is a brilliant book, interesting and complex, with a memorable point of view. But for me, it wore its brilliance too obviously. Although Homeland Elegies is fiction (mainly—it flirts with autobiography), Akhtar reminds me of public intellectuals like Adam Gopnik or Jill Lepore: People who know more than I could ever hope to know and who have brains full of sophisticated, well-informed opinions about a head-smacking breadth of subjects. Sometimes I find this kind of erudition inspiring; in this case, I found it intimidating and, well, just not especially enjoyable. But if one of my book groups chose to read Homeland Elegies, I wouldn’t be opposed to reading it again. Akhtar has a lot to say about what it is like to be Muslim in America, much of which is provocative, and the book merits more thought than I had the patience for while reading it.
Home and Jack, by Marilynne Robinson. These are novels number two and four, respectively, of the four novels Robinson has written centered on the Iowa town of Gilead. The first, Gilead, I adored. The third, Lila, I also liked very much. But these two felt more challenging. What interests Robinson is her characters’ internal lives, and what characterizes Robinson’s writing is that she takes her time in exploring inner lives. I mean, really takes her time. But what felt beautifully contemplative in Gilead and Lila—slowing the world, creating space to savor subtleties and excavate meaning—felt more tortured in Home and Jack. To me, both novels felt too long and too slow, with even trivial details put under the microscope to be poked and examined in far too much detail. In short, both felt like novellas that were padded into novel-length, and in both cases, I felt bored before reaching their ends.
Nope, nope, nope
The Midnight Library, by Matthew Haig. Reviews bubbled over with enthusiasm, but I found this novel about second (and third and fourth) chances to be trite, obvious, and pedantic. Its style made me wonder if it were actually written for a young adult audience, and five seconds of Googling told me that I wasn’t the only reader who responded this way. On Goodreads, this question prompted a long chain of debate: Yes, it’s really YA. No, the themes (suicide) and the protagonist (30-something) are for adults. My favorite response, though, with which I entirely agreed, was this: “This is not suitable for teens because they deserve better literature than this predictable guff.”
kaddish.com, by Nathan Englander. This is an odd comic novel about a Jewish man who splits Talmudic hairs to justify paying an on-line service to say the daily Kaddish (the Jewish prayer of mourning) for his father. He comes to regret this decision and ends up in Jerusalem, trying to find the actual people behind the service. I didn’t like it. As a non-observant Jew, I didn’t find it funny, and I can’t imagine finding it funny as an observant Jew either. And if it’s only non-Jews who would find this funny, well, that’s a whole other issue.