There is a certain kind of book that makes me crazed. Well, exaggeration, of course. But which irks me. The chatty, wise first person narrator. Constantly pausing the drama to give me observations on LIFE. “I do like bean burritos,” I said, and the whole morning distilled, the sun through the window, the breeze, the smell of old tortillas, and I thought to myself, what am “I” but an idea of myself, and what is liking but a small emotion of comfort, and what are beans but something sprouted full and ripe from the good earth, and as for burritos, well, the good people who taught us how to eat them also gave us their way of life, their dreams, the omniscience of their communal desires. Which is all well and good, of course, except that presented with a burrito I want to eat it and not to contemplate it, because they are no good cold. When a first person novel decides to talk to me directly and offer me opinions, memories, snippets of poetry, wry puns, along with that sonorous rhythm of rhetoric that makes any sentence sound like a platitude, I feel as though I am being shoved slowly flat against a wall. Here is a book that is desperate to convince me about its existence, the value of its prose. These are the books that are obsessed with telling you what their protagonists think, hour after hour, in the middle of every kind of moment – staring at a woman whose husband has died and being reflected backward into perfectly composed memories about the husband – walking into a bedroom and remembering walking into another bedroom and perhaps then remembering that walking into that older bedroom triggered another memory of walking into yet another bedroom at some other time, and all of it ripe with pondering, lyrical if possible, in which the character, who is speaking on behalf of the author, runs on and on about what life means and what the struggle of day-to-day comes from and what it leads to, crests and troughs of empathy and understanding and metaphorical dazzlement. The sort of sentence that makes the reader pause in epiphany, fingertip on lip, and close the book for a moment, blazing with enlightenment. Oh yes, it’s just that way. A certain amount of this kind of claptrap is understandable and palatable and occasionally I am actually struck by a sentence to the point that I have to stop and think about it. But it is usually a turn of phrase or a moment of drama that strikes me. Not someone’s opinion. Especially not the five hundredth opinion of the reading session, stuffed into every paragraph and cluttering every action. There is a dreadful need of so many writers to explain their characters or, worse, to have the characters explain themselves.
Year of the Dog by Shelby Hearon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is my introduction to Shelby Hearon; the book was very readable, clear, and moved forward nicely, the story of a woman who must reinvent her emotional life after a divorce. The most interesting part of the book is that she chooses to train a companion dog for a year, leaving home and her job in a pharmacy to do so. Along the way there is the story of a reunion between an orphan and his birth parents, some comic scenes with the protagonist’s parents, and other encounters that are interesting. But the drama rarely risks anything dangerous or hard and is not very well drawn in emotional terms. I can see the budding romance but cannot feel much of it. The most puzzling lack, however, is the dog of the title. I wish Hearon had leaned into this part of her story more. The passages about the dog, the owner/borrower’s distanced relationship with her, and the need to raise the dog exactly as required for the service life she will lead, all these are some of the best writing in the book, and certainly the freshest, but this side of the book is also hard to feel. I want to say this aspect of the book should have been much larger but that is me rewriting someone else’s novel again. Despite my quibbles, this was a good read and I would like to encounter more of her work. She has some very impressive credentials as a writer.
For the pure pleasure of reading prose this book is at the top tier; the writing is strung through with paragraphs that are glorious, evocative of landscape, making me feel as if I am walking through a country that I actually know only barely. It would be tempting to say that the landscape overwhelms the book, but my own brief experience of Wyoming was much like that. The geography dominates everything. The countryside insists on itself in every possible way, and you live in a feeling of space that is incomparable; all this Henderson depicts in minute splendor. The novel succeeds in spite of its story but does not quite abandon story in the way that some books manage to do when they focus on language. I have changed my rating several times while typing this. I suppose it is hard to understand a character who can simply walk away from her mother, yet remain prone to reveries about her, and never make the least effort to find her again. There is the irony of the fact that Augusta’s own daughter leaves her in the same fashion. The characters are so very articulate in their spare way. The dialog in general feels composed and organized in a way that does not evoke their voices, though there are some beautiful and understated scenes throughout. The story has a monotone quality. It makes very risky choices about coincidence. The story drifts away at the ending; I’ve read so much about Gussy and still don’t know who she is; she feels like a part of the landscape, scoured by all that wind and weather. These may well all be positives, in fact. It’s a book I will have to think about for a while. But I wish the drama were a bit stronger.
Now that I have all my time more or less to myself, reading has become a reward rather than a duty. Now when I read it is an act without obligation. I find that I am kinder to fiction, more willing to meet a piece on its own terms. There is always the running critique in my head, not articulate, just a thread of response, liking this and disliking that, drawn forward by the motion of the sentences, then moreso as the drama beguiles. Reading is so many experiences. Reading fiction is what I am really talking about here. When a story becomes compelling, what has happened? I am inside a certain book at a moment. I have opened it with that bit of trepidation. Will the writer know what to do? Will I understand it? What kind of prose will I find? I can read in service to the use of language, the placement of words, their sound and form and beat. If the writing is very strong it hits unexpected notes and that’s what keeps me sitting at the book. It might be the slightest sort of moment as long as its sentences are well-arranged. If the piece manages engagement with a story, with a sense of person, and this goes well, I want to hold onto the reading, to continue as long as I can. If the story is one that touches my boundaries, shares something like what I know (or want to know) then I am suspended inside the writing. I think of this as the most pleasurable experience of all, and engagement of the whole. My emotions are exercised. When I read for the intellect it is a cooler experience. Some writing ignores drama in favor of thought and weight. I enjoy these books more than I used to but nevertheless find it easy to put them down. I might respect the book without liking it very much. Yet the reading is still a comfort. I am improving myself by the act.
Noble Norfleet by Reynolds Price
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I have read at least a dozen books by Reynolds Price, including the first two novels that were so incandescently drawn, A Long and Happy Life and A Generous Man. I will review one of those later, maybe, to counteract my review of this book. Coming from late in his career, this book is memorable for the unconstrained nature of the plot, the sheer strangeness of it, and the sense that the book is sometimes meandering and sometimes babbling. He survived cancer to write some important novels beyond his heyday. This one is simply off-key in most ways, from the sexual content to the sad vision of race and gender it presents. Not indicative of what Price could do when he was working with all his focus.
A Princess of Roumania by Paul Park
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I enjoyed the beginning of this book, the modeling of the world, the writing, and the structure; I enjoyed so many parts of the book at that point that I wondered why I did not enjoy the book itself more. The problem with so much of literature is that what works in one book gets repeated so many times in other books that it all wears out. This book feels so much like the introduction to a series that it fails for that very reason, in my view. It is like one long preface. The world of Miranda and the world of the baroness are very separate. Their refusal to come together until the very end of the book weakens the narrative immensely; at the beginning we understand it to be important to Miranda to reach Roumania and for an entire novel she wanders in the same forest having one incident after another. I would not even call what happens to her adventure. The chapters of the book that take place in Roumania are much more active but the refusal of the two separate settings to merge makes everything that actually happens among the baroness and her set to feel like a preamble. The story never feels as though it actually begins. Miranda has the kind of quality one expects from young golden-daughter characters, but also has a blankness that leaves the core of the book wanting. She goes through the motions of being stalwart, surviving against all odds, and this feels very tired. Maybe it’s my reading that’s at fault here, but there’s nothing that happens in this book that feels crucial – and I know when I think about what did happen there were some very crucial moments – but they don’t have the right feeling, they are disconnected. I have the sense that most of this book could be eliminated, at least the Miranda chapters, and she could get to Roumania quickly and get the real story started. A very bad beginning for me, and too much like the world of the Pullman novels – which had their own problems. I suppose I am simply grumpy these days.
Well, the book clocks in at 1500 pages and begins with an epigram that says, “The secret of being a bore is to say everything.” If you choose to read a book that’s this big, you should give way to the fact that it expands on everything, lolls about, repeats itself, and eventually includes to do lists and ballot counts from a district of Bengal and bouquets of rhyming couplets. This book expects to have its say and does. I have read fantasy written at this length that suffered from a similar pattern that, for me, this book falls into: the pool of characters broadens to the point that the reader flinches at the mention of every new name because, well, they all have a story. The moment of meeting a new figure in the story introduces increasing levels of fatigue. Characters are reduced to mannerisms for the most part, with significant exceptions like Maan, who lives big and charms everyone and rages with emotion; he is a big, messy, complicated person. Lata, who is the female character occupying the foreground, is equally weighty but so eminently sensible; she falls in love in a sensible but passionate way, emerges from her unsuitable love without more pain than is reasonable, and sees that this is a kind of love that she would prefer to do without. The messy passion of Kabir is less helpful and happy than the steady affection of Hanesh. I took up this novel after seeing the mini-series, which actually does the book justice in most ways. The stories Seth is telling are not so complex that they require the room he allows them so that the book condenses quite well. But the novel in all its breadth is quite worth the time, if you are a fan of enormous thick books. It attempts to be a look at the whole of life as it was lived in this imaginary city over the course of a year or so, to tell the story of its neighborhoods, religious conflicts, politics, government, court decisions, social upheaval, shoemaking, business in general, everything – and it does in fact do this with impressive thoroughness. But the stories go on so long and undergo so many permutations that in the end they no longer feel shaped, and at the end of the book one wonders why it doesn’t in fact go on forever. Because one has long since given up on any notion that it will end.
O Beulah Land by Mary Lee Settle
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is the first-written book of Settle’s quintet about American identity and I think it is an impressive piece of writing in many ways, especially in the authority with which it creates the world. It is easy to forget what that notion of a more savage time entails. The world of colonial Virginia in the 18th century was made up of so much violence, the struggle of the law to maintain its authority, and the almost impossible effort of people to make a daily life composed of some comfort and love and family. The fact that this all happens in land that is being wrested away from its original occupants is endemic to the drama. This book at its best makes all those trials felt and the struggles of people to make a new life are moving. She is also adept at weaving the ideas that concern her – the origin of the ideals of liberty and their collision with the reality of slavery, the theft of land from the people of the First Nations, the retributions exacted by all of this. She has an economy of style that is admirable and a beauty of diction when writing of landscape. The novel suffers, in my view, from its scope: it covers periods of specific drama spaced out over forty or fifty years, and its cast of characters is large. Settle does a brave job of handling all this, but the result is that many of the people drawn here appear childlike and distant, and there are no good examples of people drawn in their complexity. Her novel Prisons, which is the first installment of this series, was written much later and is a better novel than this one, I think; she focuses the book on one character and makes him fully concrete, limiting the world to what he could utter about it in his own voice. But O Beulah Land is nevertheless a lovely novel. A modern reader would want a fuller depiction of the people who were slaves, less dialect spelling, and more of an examination of race. At least this reader did. The enslaved are mostly faceless and utilitarian. The First Nations characters are largely the same. But in fact so are the settlers with only a few exceptions. This is a book of ambition but in the end the ambition is not achieved, but there is some greatness in the attempt.
The thing about saying you think a race war is coming or this group or that group wants to start a race war is the sheer ignorance of people not knowing there has been a race war in this country for four hundred years already and if you are not white you already know it and have been fighting it all your life because you don’t find any other choice. The comfortable white folks like me talking about a race war are admitting to a blindness that should be impossible to comprehend except that for us it is just everyday. We long ago learned not to see the effect of our ideas of our superiority on our own minds. We can stare at a lynched body and see justice and hold a community picnic at its feet. We can watch a white policeman kneel on the neck of a black man and see a thug being brought to discipline by the rule of law. For us justice is us. Along with anyone we can co-opt to act like us, to believe us, to join us. Justice is whatever we need it to be in order to maintain a system in which we are always the cream that rises to the top. The great peace we imagine we are about to interrupt in order to fight a war among the races is a peace only we were ever meant to enjoy. What we are really seeing is that finally, after all these centuries, we white people are losing the race war and we are going to have to kill a lot of folks in order to turn the tide. Only we are not so sure we can win even then. Because the tide has already turned. Because remember that blindness. We still have it. We still can’t see the real world. So many enemies out there now. Turns out there are just too many. Somebody has been whispering in our ear about us and we are confused about what’s true and what’s not. Crazy what kind of savior you can believe in when you can’t really believe anything you see or hear or read or what you learned in books or school or what your preacher tells you. Just crazy.
Prisons by Mary Lee Settle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This was a good companion read to Morrison’s A Mercy, from the same era of history, on the opposite side of the ocean, and with a different form of narrative. The voice of John Church tells the story, moving back and forth in time from childhood to his days in the parliamentarian army during the English civil war. Settle’s writing is sure-handed and exact, and shares with Morrison the economy of its approach. The story is not drowned in historical detail but rather shapes itself precisely as if it were the memory of Church, sometimes focused on moments that expand into a tactile tapestry and other times pulling back to look at passages of time, avoiding the monotony of the army experience, for instance, when, as he says, most of the service was waiting and next-most was marching. But the book is not one in which a reader loses himself to a sense of the other world; the reading here is colder than that, though the story itself is very deeply felt. My sense of the other characters in the book was in general that they were objects that the writer picked up and put down; useful but not rich. The character of John’s aunt, who is also the mother of his illegitimate child, and of Thankful Perkins, his best friend, were the most complex of the portraits. But this is not psychological fiction. This is something equally rich but less engaging to the emotions. The background is full of vivid still-life depictions of characters seen for a moment, then gone. There is a satisfying and somewhat sardonic motif of a woman who is cooking a goose at the same time that she betrays John and Thankful from their hiding place; they eat the cooked goose when they are imprisoned; and later their own goose is cooked when they are shot as traitors by Cromwell. Settle looks on this novel as an examination of the origins of American ideas of freedom, liberty, and conscience, and it is satisfying as that. An eerie counterpoint to the week before the inauguration of Joe Biden. The voice of the novel is spiced with archaisms, but not overly so; the dialog made me giggle a bit, but it’s superior to that in her book O Beulah Land, which I am reading now. She is a really distinctive and powerful writer who knows her business.