Four-Star Fiction Read in 2022: Winter Discontent
How is everyone doing? Is it winter where you are? And does winter mean snow and icy temperatures? And is that cool with you, or not so much. I know that Nicole feels energized and ready to get back at 'er in January (picture the "I'm so happy and not at all jealous" meme also HI NICOLE) and Suzanne loves the snow (HI SUZANNE). I like to have enough snow that things look white and pretty but not so much that it makes driving dangerous and we have to shovel a lot because I worry about Matt's heart and my back. I used to love cross-country skiing, and we did buy skis when we first moved here, but then we had a baby really quickly and somehow never managed to get back to it, which makes me very sad.
My mental health is not awesome at the moment, but compared to last year it is better, so I am focusing on the positive. Last year I pretty much only left the house for work and the rest of the time sat in my reading chair staring out the window and hardly reading. This year I've had to pull back on some things but I'm getting out with Lucy and doing yoga most days. I still haven't managed to put away the last few Christmas decorations that we kept out for our New Year's 2.0 party that we had on January 14, but Matt is away this week and I spent the weekend dealing with a stoned dog, so I am forgiving myself for that.
It's helping that the kids are doing great at the moment. Eve hardly FaceTimed at all last week, and when she did she was bubbling over with funny anecdotes about her housemates and the Arts and Science social they went to even thought it went until TEN O'CLOCK on a TUESDAY NIGHT (Eve does not share my love of the late bedtime), and the really neat elective she's taking called Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n Roll (it's about addiction). Angus headed back to school last weekend and first spent Alumni Weekend at his old college with friends and had a great time.
Matt is in San Jose, but first went to Tijuana and his Uber broke down and four of them had to walk the last kilometer to the factory and locals kept asking if they were missionaries. Today it's been snowing barely perceptibly and yet it keeps accumulating, we have a snowfall warning and getting to work tomorrow might be interesting. There's an app called TouchPlow where you can hire a person with a plow to come do your driveway, which I did use once when Matt and Eve were away and Angus and I needed to get to work and driver's ed in the morning through a truly apocalyptic amount of snow. I prefer not to use it, though, so I'm hoping if I shovel before I go to bed I can ram my SUV with snow tires out of the driveway and down the street in the morning and then take care of the rest of it when I get home. I'll let you know how it turns out.
The Penultimate Post! It's always good if I can actually get these done by the end of January.
To Be Sung Underwater by Tom McNeal: Synopsis from Goodreads: Judith Whitman always believed in the kind of love that "picks you up in Akron and sets you down in Rio." Long ago, she once experienced that love. Willy Blunt was a carpenter with a dry wit and a steadfast sense of honor. Marrying him seemed like a natural thing to promise. But Willy Blunt was not a person you could pick up in Nebraska and transport to Stanford. When Judith left home, she didn't look back. Twenty years later, Judith's marriage is hazy with secrets. In her hand is what may be the phone number for the man who believed she meant it when she said she loved him. If she called, what would he say? 'To be Sung Underwater' is the epic love story of a woman trying to remember, and the man who could not even begin to forget.
-”’He seemed to be waiting for her to say more, but what she’d said felt not only incomplete but disloyal, a kind of useless pandering to her audience, so she didn’t say anything more. After a few seconds Willy said, ‘You know, for a while there we kept horses for the boys, and we had a mare that had broken down. Couldn’t ride it, except maybe to walk it around the corral. You could feed it and brush it and water it was all. Sometimes I’ve thought that’s what most marriages get to. A horse you still care a little bit about but cannot any longer ride.’”
|I read this because I read another book by the same author, a children's/young adult book that was breathtakingly original and completely different from this - it always amazes me when an author has this kind of range.|
This book is about so many different kinds of love and a few different kinds of coming of age. It is so perceptive about human nature and the different ways we are wounded and self-wounding. The complex relationships between parents and children, between spouses, between lovers and friends, all dissected kindly but unrelentingly. What kind of responsibility do we bear to people who love us? Is everyone responsible for his or her own choices? It made me want to move to Nebraska, or maybe just rent a storage locker.
No One is Talking About This by Patricia C. Lockwood: Synopsis from Goodreads: A book that asks: Is there life after the internet? As this urgent, genre-defying book opens, a woman who has recently been elevated to prominence for her social media posts travels around the world to meet her adoring fans. She is overwhelmed by navigating the new language and etiquette of what she terms "the portal," where she grapples with an unshakable conviction that a vast chorus of voices is now dictating her thoughts. When existential threats—from climate change and economic precariousness to the rise of an unnamed dictator and an epidemic of loneliness—begin to loom, she posts her way deeper into the portal's void. An avalanche of images, details, and references accumulate to form a landscape that is post-sense, post-irony, post-everything. "Are we in hell?" the people of the portal ask themselves. "Are we all just going to keep doing this until we die?"Suddenly, two texts from her mother pierce the fray: "Something has gone wrong," and "How soon can you get here?" As real life and its stakes collide with the increasingly absurd antics of the portal, the woman confronts a world that seems to contain both an abundance of proof that there is goodness, empathy, and justice in the universe, and a deluge of evidence to the contrary. Fragmentary and omniscient, incisive and sincere, No One Is Talking About This is at once a love letter to the endless scroll and a profound, modern meditation on love, language, and human connection from a singular voice in American literature.
|I requested this weeks before I got it, and then couldn't remember what it was supposed to be about. The big ring on the front made me think it might be science fiction. Then for the first bit I wasn't sure if I was on board with it. It seemed like an almost-too-cute listing of memes and internet in-jokes. Then I was pulled in as I was reminded how much fun this kind of this is if you're in on the joke - the washing of her legs because of the furor about some people not specifically washing their legs in the shower, the slightly different spellings of words like 'bitch' that inexplicably make them funnier (Eve once said "so then they basically said 'no, beetch' and I laughed so hard I almost choked. I am easily amused.) Then a family event occurs that changes the focus of the narrator's life, and everything becomes very real and immediate. The second half is heartwrenching and beautiful. The acknowledgements reveal that the book is largely autobiographical, which makes it even more poignant. The book is written in short aphoristic sections, which always makes me wonder - is it easier to write like this, without having to work up connective tissue between pithy anecdotes? Or is it harder, because it makes things actions and personalities seem more remote and inaccessible? I can't decide, but it's an interesting style, and when it works it seems to work really well. I will be looking for more of Lockwood's writing.|
|This is the kind of book that I didn't know I needed desperately until I was reading it. It reminded me a bit of How the Penguins Saved Veronica. The writing wasn't show-offy, there were no 'big twists' - everything is telegraphed from a mile away, which is fine because this isn't meant to be a thriller, but a bittersweet, charming story about connections of various sorts, the indignities and victories of getting older, and the ways in which the universe can be a giant dick and then also astonishingly kind. I've heard that the reader who voices Marcellus in the audio book is wonderful, but I can only listen to audiobooks on long drives - I found his voice just as strong and compelling in type. |
Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle: Synopsis from Goodreads: Welcome to Trace Italian, a game of strategy and survival! You may now make your first move. Isolated by a disfiguring injury since the age of 17, Sean Phillips crafts imaginary worlds for strangers to play in. From his small apartment in Southern California, he orchestrates fantastic adventures where possibilities, both dark and bright, open in the boundaries between the real and the imagined. As the creator of Trace Italian - a text-based, roleplaying game played through the mail - Sean guides players from around the world through his intricately imagined terrain, which they navigate and explore, turn by turn, seeking sanctuary in a ravaged, savage future America. Lance and Carrie are high school students from Florida, explorers of the Trace. But when they take their play into the real world, disaster strikes, and Sean is called to account for it. In the process, he is pulled back through time, tunneling toward the moment of his own self-inflicted departure from the world in which most people live. Brilliantly constructed, Wolf in White Van unfolds in reverse until we arrive at both the beginning and the climax: the event that has shaped so much of Sean’s life. Beautifully written and unexpectedly moving, John Darnielle’s audacious and gripping debut novel is a marvel of storytelling brio and genuine literary delicacy.
-"So I stood in a state of partial focus, waiting. Looking for an opening, and then not looking, because I wanted to let my dad and his friend do what they felt like they had to do here. I did hope that at some point I'd be able to explain my recent theory that it isn't really possible to kill yourself, that everybody goes on forever in multiple dimensions, which was less a theory than an attempt to do exactly what Ray'd been doing since he started talking: to draw some lesson from a place where no lessons were."
I am pretty sure I read this because I found it in a list of "Horror Books You've Never Heard Of" or something like that. I had, in fact, never heard of it, but I feel it is a mischaracterization to call it horror, and if I'd read it at another time I might have been bitter and felt misled. All of the 'horrific' events have already taken place, and the story largely features the thoughts of a disfigured man who spends a lot of time alone. The thing was, I really loved his thoughts. There was no fast-paced plot, or ghosts, or supernatural villains, just a suffocating sense of melancholy dread, except also sometimes shimmering moments of achingly beautiful human connection. I sort of wanted some areas filled out, and I sort of loved the way they were left as traces and trails. I was happy following the meandering threads of Seans' life, edging backwards to the inevitable formative act of his life. It wasn't the book I expected, and I understand why it didn't work for some people, but it was the perfect book for last October for me.
Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily R. Austin: Synopsis from Goodreads: Gilda, a twenty-something lesbian, cannot stop ruminating about death. Desperate for relief from her panicky mind and alienated from her repressive family, she responds to a flyer for free therapy at a local Catholic church, and finds herself being greeted by Father Jeff, who assumes she’s there for a job interview. Too embarrassed to correct him, Gilda is abruptly hired to replace the recently deceased receptionist Grace. In between trying to memorize the lines to Catholic mass, hiding the fact that she has a new girlfriend, and erecting a dirty dish tower in her crumbling apartment, Gilda strikes up an email correspondence with Grace’s old friend. She can’t bear to ignore the kindly old woman, who has been trying to reach her friend through the church inbox, but she also can’t bring herself to break the bad news. Desperate, she begins impersonating Grace via email. But when the police discover suspicious circumstances surrounding Grace’s death, Gilda may have to finally reveal the truth of her mortifying existence.
I really enjoyed reading this, although upon further reflection I have a couple of quibbles, especially about the ending. But four stars just means 'I really liked it' after all, and I did. I'm from a family that deals with all manner of trials with twisted humour, and I am always here for a book that does the same. Gilda is lost and despairing, endures a string of daily humiliations and ends up in a ridiculous situation - if you can't identify with that on any level, we're probably not going to be great friends (which is okay, the world needs people who don't make idiots of themselves on the regular too). I bought a copy for Eve, because I liked the book and also because of the super cute cover (we aim for honesty on this here blog), and she liked it too.
When You Read This by Mary Adkins: Synopsis from Goodreads: For fans of Maria Semple and Rainbow Rowell, a comedy-drama for the digital age: an epistolary debut novel about the ties that bind and break our hearts. For four years, Iris Massey worked side by side with PR maven Smith Simonyi, helping clients perfect their brands. But Iris has died, taken by terminal illness at only thirty-three. Adrift without his friend and colleague, Smith is surprised to discover that in her last six months, Iris created a blog filled with sharp and often funny musings on the end of a life not quite fulfilled. She also made one final request: for Smith to get her posts published as a book. With the help of his charmingly eager, if overbearingly forthright, new intern Carl, Smith tackles the task of fulfilling Iris’s last wish. Before he can do so, though, he must get the approval of Iris’ big sister Jade, an haute cuisine chef who’s been knocked sideways by her loss. Each carrying their own baggage, Smith and Jade end up on a collision course with their own unresolved pasts and with each other. Told in a series of e-mails, blog posts, online therapy submissions, text messages, legal correspondence, home-rental bookings, and other snippets of our virtual lives, When You Read This is a deft, captivating romantic comedy—funny, tragic, surprising, and bittersweet—that candidly reveals how we find new beginnings after loss.
-"And what about the moment we forget? They are there, too, needles in our haystack-selves, a part of us even though we may never find them again and wouldn't know where to look. They prick us every now and then so we know they're there."I loved reading this, and then I tried to buy a couple of copies to give away for Christmas and it seems to have sunk in the publishing world without much of a splash, which makes me sad, although I know that's just how it goes sometimes. It ties in painfully with the theme of wondering what is left when we die, especially if the end comes far too soon. This is my second modern epistolary novel of the year, this one including a blog, and although the format doesn't always succeed, this one hit it out of the park - everyone had a very distinct voice, the void left by Iris's absence is obvious, as well as the way discovering her blog brings several grieving people together.
We Spread by Iain Reid: Synopsis from Goodreads: A new work of philosophical suspense. Penny, an artist, has lived in the same apartment for decades, surrounded by the artifacts and keepsakes of her long life. She is resigned to the mundane rituals of old age, until things start to slip. Before her longtime partner passed away years earlier, provisions were made, unbeknownst to her, for a room in a unique long-term care residence, where Penny finds herself after one too many “incidents.” Initially, surrounded by peers, conversing, eating, sleeping, looking out at the beautiful woods that surround the house, all is well. She even begins to paint again. But as the days start to blur together, Penny—with a growing sense of unrest and distrust—starts to lose her grip on the passage of time and on her place in the world. Is she succumbing to the subtly destructive effects of aging, or is she an unknowing participant in something more unsettling? At once compassionate and uncanny, told in spare, hypnotic prose, Iain Reid’s genre-defying third novel explores questions of conformity, art, productivity, relationships, and what, ultimately, it means to grow old.
-"I've never wanted to avoid darkness in my own work, my own darkness. But revealing my own shadows is not enough in itself. What I want, what I've always wanted, is for another person to feel relief from their darkness when they look at my work."This prompts a bit of a callback to when I said speculative fiction is sometimes the best at describing the human experience - some people shelved this as a horror book. Is it a description of encroaching dementia, and a treatise on the interconnectedness of humanity, or are all these aging people being held captive by a crazed horticulturist? Beautiful writing, and a palpable sense of disquiet.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones: Synopsis from Goodreads: Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive, and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But as they settle into the routine of their life together, they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit. Though fiercely independent, Celestial finds herself bereft and unmoored, taking comfort in Andre, her childhood friend, and best man at their wedding. As Roy’s time in prison passes, she is unable to hold on to the love that has been her center. After five years, Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned, and he returns to Atlanta ready to resume their life together. This stirring love story is a profoundly insightful look into the hearts and minds of three people who are at once bound and separated by forces beyond their control. An American Marriage is a masterpiece of storytelling, an intimate look deep into the souls of people who must reckon with the past while moving forward—with hope and pain—into the future.
This is a book that was on my radar for ages before I finally read it. It packs quite a punch, and manages to be a searingly topical commentary and also just a pretty riveting story that really goes deeply into the details of some very complicated relationships.
If An Egyptian Cannot Speak English by Noor Naga: Synopsis from Goodreads: In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, an Egyptian American woman and a man from the village of Shobrakheit meet at a café in Cairo. He was a photographer of the revolution, but now finds himself unemployed and addicted to cocaine, living in a rooftop shack. She is a nostalgic daughter of immigrants “returning” to a country she’s never been to before, teaching English and living in a light-filled flat with balconies on all sides. They fall in love and he moves in. But soon their desire—for one another, for the selves they want to become through the other—takes a violent turn that neither of them expected. A dark romance exposing the gaps in American identity politics, especially when exported overseas, If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English is at once ravishing and wry, scathing and tender. Told in alternating perspectives, Noor Naga’s experimental debut examines the ethics of fetishizing the homeland and punishing the beloved . . . and vice versa. In our globalized twenty-first-century world, what are the new faces (and races) of empire? When the revolution fails, how long can someone survive the disappointment? Who suffers and, more crucially, who gets to tell about it?
Another from the Giller Prize short list. For the first little bit, I was unsure about what was going on and what the questions at the head of each chapter were supposed to mean. Then I worried that I only thought the book was good because I felt like I was too dumb to comprehend for a while. I'm still uncertain about a few things, but there were moments of writing that affected me deeply, and I did feel like Naga drove home the dissonance in the relationship between two people from strikingly different worlds, and the way she kind of comes at it obliquely reinforces that. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to sympathize with some of the shockingly misogynistic notions of the boy from Shobrakheit, given his background ("the more fucking a girl has done, they shyer she pretends to be" ?? we could all see from the peach-plump wetness of her lips how the skin of her other, lower lips would look"??? EW) But then the American woman is very much a flawed character also ("He showed me the mosque on Abd El-Khalik Tharwat, where he slept when he had nowhere to go, and his body bears scars in places that should not have seen sharpness. So, fine, it’s been rough. But even so. The boy can’t boil water or heat bread on the eye of the stove. Leaves the milk out of the fridge. Tries to cut an apple in the night and I wake up to blood spattered on the kitchen floor, seeds everywhere. There is all the evidence of a past tended by a woman’s hands - he’s at least as spoiled as he is damaged, I mean".), so I should be careful not to confuse the author with the narrator. I think it was one of those reading experiences almost like reading in a second language, when if you just keep going suddenly it all starts to hang together, which is kind of cool.
Thanks for the list of great fiction. I really liked "The Vanishing Half" - one of my top books read in 2022.
I've read several of those books and will put several more on my list. I really liked Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead but I read it a while ago so I can't quite remember all about it. You know how it goes.
It is winter here, for sure, and we are getting a polar vortex this weekend. BUT we haven't had a lot of snow - March and April are our snowiest months - so it's just mostly cold and icy.
Beth would like to see some snow. Five snowy days at Blackwater wasn't enough for her.
I hope your shovel/SUV tactic works like a dream!
The Round House is one of my favorite books. Which is awful, because of the content, but I just think it's masterful writing.
I enjoyed The Vanishing Half, but I think I fell in love with a couple of the secondary characters and kept wishing we got more about them than about the sisters. But it was a very intriguing premise.
In the end, I thought The Vanishing Half raised lots of issues, but would have had to have been four times as long as it was to really deal with the issues in a way that satisfied me. But the individual sentences in that book were amazing.
I've noted three of these books (the twin one, the octopus one, and the mistaken identity email one) that I think I'll like and I shared them with Mini who has to choose a book to read for pleasure for her English class. Thanks for the recommendations. Many parts of this post made me chuckle. Good luck with the rest of winter.