The Story of the Night (Toibin)

I have to ration certain authors, and Toibin is one of them. I don’t remember how I stumbled on The Master, but ever since, I’ve loved every single one of his books. I pull one of his books off the shelf when I need a sure thing, and once again, he came through. The thing is, I am not sure how he does it. There are no verbal pyrotechnics here. Just sentence upon sentence of seemingly straightforward sentences that, put together, tell (in this case), a half-Argentinian man living in Argentina throughout the Falklands War, the privatization of the oil industry, and the introduction of AIDS into the international vocabulary. I know that sounds like a lot (and I’ve left out things like the death of someone’s mother and a character’s passive decision to become part of a corrupt arrangement), but it really sneaks up on you and builds up to a well-earned emotional climax.

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Drama (Telgemeier)

The top 10 list of 2016’s most challenged books came out, and I immediately seized on it as a reading list. The first one I found at home was this graphic novel which I found delightful. I’m a big theatre geek. The scene when Callie steps into her favorite book reminds me of what graphic novels can accomplish in ways that ordinary ones can’t. I think Telgemeier captures the awkward adolescent dating scene and language quite well. As for the gay characters and the kiss, they are presented in a manner that aligns with the book.

As for those who object to it (and the other 7 books on the list that are challenged because of issues related to sex and gender), get the (*&$ over it. These are good books. These are stories that need to be told; in fact, they are long overdue. Children need them. Don’t be afraid. They aren’t contagious. Read them and learn. Or don’t. Just don’t get in anyone else’s way.

Juliet in August (Warren)

There is a lot to admire here. This novel reminds me of one long Robert Altman tracking shot. The whole book takes place over a very short period of time in a small, Western town. Warren is incredibly adept at giving weight to the small moments of the lives of regular people just trying to find their way through not only their present, but also their past and future  – all of this under the scrutiny of everyone knowing everyone else because of the size of the town. Warren gets inside the skin of a wide range of characters – teens, men, women – quite well. It’s definitely a slice-of-life story, so my instinct to try to draw something larger from it had to be stifled. I do know this. I look forward to finding her newer novel.

Warren’s site

Humboldt’s Gift (Bellow)

The thing is, I like Saul Bellow. I od’d on him when I first encountered his work as a U of C student 25 or so years ago. I don’t want to re-read Henderson, the Rain King because I’ve turned one moment of that book into a profound experience in my life and I’m little worried that I don’t quite have the details right.

I am no slave to plot. I don’t need things to be linear. But as much as there’s a lot of great writing here, there’s no, well, story, certainly not enough of one to sustain 472 pages. A few things happen. Some of these things are less credible than others. Some things have happened in the past. But the book is mostly an excuse for Bellow to do some philosophical posturing by putting words in the mouth of Humboldt and Charlie (as well as a few others). These are not human beings; they are mouthpieces, male mouthpieces at that as Charlie, despite his age and appearance, spends a great deal of time with Renata, who comes off as quite the catch.

There are some human qualities to Charlie’s interactions with Humboldt’s wife as well as with his own brother. As a one-time Chicagoan, I enjoyed the look at the city, But again, there was not enough here to make this much more than one I had to push myself through for the sake of an upcoming book club meeting.

A Lost King (DeCapite)

My code word for all classical music that’s too modern for me is Bartok. My baseline for all prose that seems just too arch and self-conscious to be honest is Sinclair Lewis. For a time, I couldn’t find my way into this novel. It seemed like both DeCapite and his protagonist were showing off. But once I began to read for longer stretches, I think I found the heart of the characters and understood how the language suited DeCapite’s purpose. Paul Christopher, that protagonist, is just a little bit awed by life as he tries to make his transition into adulthood. And he cloaks his uncertainties, as many of us do, behind a dramatic and perhaps, now that I think of it, romantic personae. I was satisfied enough by the end that I want to read another book of his. And apparently his son, Mike, is a pretty good writer too.

Invisible Cities (Calvino)

I was in a bookstore and was struck by a title – If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler – and I opened it. The first line is something like, “You are probably in a bookstore right now.” I laughed. Out loud. And I bought the book.

It was a revelation. It was my first experience with meta-fiction, long before I even had any idea what that term meant. I loved it.

I’ve since read a few other Calvino titles. He, like Saramago, takes a certain kind of concentration. Invisible Cities is another delight. Esoteric and layered, it is a series of reports from Marco Polo to Kublai Khan about cities Polo has encountered in his journeys through Khan’s empire. Maybe.

Or is it a kind of Arabian Nights tale, in which Polo is making up these reports to present to a ruler who fears the slow destruction of his empire, in a language of gestures and words so insufficient that the two men spend a great deal of time in silence. Maybe.

Or is it a criticism and / or a celebration of the dichotomous nature of cities, of which, like and despite words, we can only ever gain a temporary understanding?

I’m not sure; I’m glad it’s a book club choice. I’ll be eager to hear what others offer.

Known and Strange Things (Cole)

Teju Cole is, I think, as close to a Renaissance man as I know. The range of allusions in this large collection of short essays is staggering. Naturally, the range of topics is equally wide, focusing (pun intended) on photography. If you know his novel Open City, it will not surprise you to learn that the essays are lyrical, non-linear, observational and insightful. They are, in far too many cases, too short. I know that at least some were lifted from elsewhere. I wish that he’d chosen fewer to include and expanded those that made the cut. The pieces on photography were challenging for me since I don’t really speak that language, and he is only able to include a few of the images in the book itself. I enjoyed the sense of humor that sneaks into a few of these pieces, and I liked traveling with Cole to the places he visits. He is a master at using words to make pictures.