Monday, August 10, 2020

June - July Reads

Behindlings by Nicola Barker
A Start in Life by Anita Brookner
Out of the Woods by Chris Offutt
The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale
Taking Sides edited by Cindy Milstein
You Must Remember This by Joyce Carol Oates
Accidents in the Home by Tessa Hadley
Undue Influence by Anita Brookner
An American Story by Christoper Priest
Serena by Ron Rash
The Fighter by Michael Farris Smith
Country Dark by Chris Offutt
Fay by Larry Brown

Some of these books took me ages to read thanks to stress, depression, and work. I felt like I was reading Behindlings for three months. It's a long book, around 600 pages, but the problem is that it's for sure Barker's worst. Barker purposefully keeps as much as possible obscure so the reader flails about in search of plot, character, backstory. Which would normally be fine but the zaniness of the events described that characterizes her other books is absent. It's just kind of stuff happening and I did not quite understand the whys and the so what. Oh well.

Another book that took me forever was You Must Remember This but this wasn't Oates' fault. No, the novel was fucking great: violent, depressing, bleak, grotesque. It's also really long and doesn't have too much of a plot, while simultaneously a million things happen. I was describing to a work colleague that "it's got everything!": atomic panic, boxing matches, incest, violence, poverty, infidelity, a car chase, mob shenanigans. Reminded quite a bit of Brookner's A Start in Life actually, in that the protagonists of both novels never quite gets her life going thanks to her shitty parents and family.

I spent a week with Fay and my slowness reading this was because I was savouring it. Probably the best non-2020 novel I'm going to read this year. Slow and steady and focused on minute quotidian details but with the skeleton of the usual Southern crime novel. The novel is almost 500 pages long but the plot itself could probably be executed in 200 pages. The pleasure lies in Brown's attention to the smallest details, the beer they drink, the sticky weather, the food they eat, the cigarettes they obsessively smoke. I adored living in the world he built. Can't wait to read more and more Larry Brown.

An American Story was Not Good. I wish Priest had just written a nonfiction book instead of this. Too much of the novel is the narrator explaining 9/11 in exhaustive detail and asking questions the audience doesn't have the knowledge to answer. The narrator's relationship with the various women in his life makes me feel like the women have no life beyond the narrator, which is certainly not the intent (considering the generous backstory given to one woman). I did like the structure of the novel; it's not quite parallel stories (present and past) but back and forth, ever tightening towards the climax of the novel, which is stupendously enervating, by the way. Priest's previous novels have been so slippery, with the nature of reality itself being up for grabs, but here, all the speculative stuff feels like Greg Egan explaining math to me and it has less bearing on the story than I think the novel would like it to have. Priest's narrator dismisses conspiracy theories with disdain, but the novel is just an excuse to wallow in them. There's the veneer of respectability thanks to the publishing house, Priest's reputation, and his very prose, which has a coolness, the semblance of rationality. But none of these can disguise the insistence that 9/11 was a conspiracy on a vast scale. All in all, a disappointing read. A failure as a novel, but an interesting list of 9/11 facts.

Out of the Woods was terrific and had one of the best single lines I've ever: “He understood that the planet was a skin of grass that covered acres of bones."

The rest of the fiction I read were good to great. I didn't love Undue Influence and thought for most of the book that I didn't like it, but then the ending came and I turned around slightly on it. Still not great.

Serena was pretty good. Any novel that opens with a knife fight and a guy holding his slippery intestines is a good novel. I think it was a bit too long but I was surprised by how high the body count was. The eponymous Serena is functionally a serial killer. Much to my amusement.
Accidents in the Home was typical fantastic Hadley. Felt more like short stories that had been retrofitted to a novel, but I'm not complaining. 

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