The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida (Karunatilaka)

Maybe I just don’t know enough about Sri Lanka and its politics, but I couldn’t get into this one. Say what you want about magic realism – and I can see some of Rushdie’s influence; Garcia Marquez? No – I see it as another kind of world building. Karunatilaka seemed to make up the rules of this world as he needed them (you can only have three whispers). It also felt like he was juggling too many plot lines.

I heard a saying once about writing plays – that you should never put a clock on stage because then people will be watching it. The same rule should probably apply to fiction. The countdown is on from the beginning and still the novel lapses into the theatrics of a movie where the bomb wires are cut at the last second. The suspense just wasn’t there for me.

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Death Without Company (Johnson)

When the Sheriff calls the case complicated, how does the writer imagine the reader feels? At that point, I gave up trying to really track the details of the case and just read for what Johnson is quite good at – character and setting. He wisely introduces a new character here as, like so many other mystery writers, he seems to have boxed himself in somewhat geographically speaking. So I will pause before I move on to the third one, Kindness Goes Unpunished, but that one will be the tipping point. I liked the first. This one? Not so much.

White Nights (Cleeves)

This was great in terms of atmosphere and setting, but the plot construction was lacking. After showing us so much on stage, much seems to happen and be discovered off stage. I don’t like it when mystery writers get coy at their convenience. It’s a kind of artificial suspense. I may try Raven Black if I come across it, but I likely won’t seek it out.

Bewilderment (Powers)

I admire Dave Eggers for a variety of reasons, but I generally feel like his books are sketches of ideas rather than fully realized books. It’s as if having had the idea, he just writes it out quickly and sends it out quickly. Now that I think of it, aside from some early works like Zeitoun and What is the What, have you ever been tempted to re-read any of his works? Have you even thought about them much once you finished?

At times, I thought Powers was treading awfully close to that territory with Bewilderment. He invents a technology and a backstory, and those pieces largely work. But why the second child? Why the possibility of the affair? Why so many planets? Why the easy shots at a former president soon to be candidate? All of those pieces just seemed to be nodded at and therefore distractions from this powerful story of a father and son. When the story focuses there, Powers is at its best, and this may have been the best parent-child relationship I’ve read since Room. There is tremendous power in the best parts of this book; I just wish Powers had spent more time with them.

The Cold Dish (Johnson)

I think I may have found my new mystery series! The books are set in Wyoming, so it feels like I’m travelling. There are stock characters and moments here, but Johnson revives them with his originality and humor. He does especially well when it comes to presenting a deliberately limited knowledge of the local Cheyenne community. I understand the NetFlix series is good. I’ll read a few more of the books and then get into it.

The Dead Are Everywhere Telling Us Things (Dougherty)

When I was thinking over this outstanding collection, William Carlos Williams’ line, “No ideas but in things” came to mind. Dougherty works at the ground level here, the details of everyday life, at home, in his neighborhood, at work, and in life. Though his style here might be different – Dougherty fills up the pages in new ways here (just flip through a copy; you’ll see what I mean) – the poems here remain grounded in everyday observations and from these observations, powerful and hopeful ideas emerge. We take care of each other, we eat, we watch the rain. The title poem, an epic of its own kind, is a masterpiece that deserves its own book.

Dougherty regularly references jazz in his work and I think I enjoy his poems the same way I enjoy jazz. I don’t really know how it works. I don’t really get how all of the pieces come together. But they – the Dougherty’s poetry and jazz – seem to open up a new language in me. I cherish them both.

The Passenger (McCarthy)

This very much reads like a novel in sections. There are the obvious sections. There is one story about the brother and one – in italics – about the sister. But there is also the story of the mysterious plane crash. And there’s the story about the father’s work on the bombs that were dropped on Japan. And there’s the part about physics. And about New Orleans. And the brother’s interactions with various friends. It does not hang together too well. There are wonderful sections, particularly when it comes to the unpunctuated dialogue, a McCarthy trademark. And McCarthy can still write a sentence that can make your heart go absolutely still. And, of course, just as Murakami has his talking cats, McCarthy has his dogs. But together, what does it all add up to? I kept thinking about the title, about what McCarthy might be suggesting about the difference between between being a driver in life and a passenger, but that’s a half-formed thought. This also may be a half-completed story. There’s a companion book coming out soon and maybe that will pull this all together. The scenes with the sister are somewhat surreal at first, but stay with them. The Kid character will grow on you and when he crosses over (all sorts of puns intended), things start to make more sense.

Why Learn History [When It’s Already on Your Phone] (Wineburg)

This is not the first book to sound the alarm that we’re not really teaching history well. And this is not a complaint that a certain percentage of certain kinds of students can’t place the Civil War in the right century. This book seeks to clarify what it means to teach history and why, despite the presence of our phones, it is urgently necessary. I also think that the chapter “Committing Zinns” should be required reading for anyone who thinks they’re doing something rebellious and right by using A People’s History.

Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman’s Search for Justice in Indian Country (Murdoch)

There are so many stories here, including the search for justice mentioned in the title. But there is the story of reservations and how they came to be, how they are managed, funded, and policed. There is the story of capitalism, the economics of an oil boom. There is the story of what the discovery of oil does to the land. There is the story of the foster care system. There is the story of the opioid crisis. There is Murdoch’s story. That’s a lot of stories to manage.

Murdoch tries and does well in some sections. But there are so many strands and digressions, so much background (all of it relevant) that it is hard for Murdoch to sustain any narrative momentum. The book just veers in so many directions. I wonder if it would have been more successful as a series of articles. One kind of justice is found – sort of – but as with the narrative, so many strands are neglected. Murdoch attempts to frame the story mostly in close-ups. Maybe some efforts at stepping back would have been useful.

Faces in the Crowd (Luiselli)

I can’t say with much confidence that I can articulate what Luiselli is up to here. There are multiple narratives going here – past, present, historical, fictional, overlapping, etc., and I could only manage to tease out a few of the ideas that she’s exploring – translation, memory, storytelling, etc.. Still, it’s engaging to see an author finding her feet. I found her most recent fiction – Lost Children Archive – much more accessible and coherent, and you can see sparks of what makes the latter book so great in this earlier work.