Last month I wrote a little something about the books that had been essential, life-affirming, thought-provoking or somehow became lodged in my head or forced tears from my eyes. Affecting in one way or another. Because my reading hysteria has continued, despite my intention to calm down, I’ve completed a number of, once again, affecting books. (You can keep track of all my reading right along with me.)
What I am finding, overall, is that most books live somewhere in the middle of a scale, whether that scale is 1 to 5 or 1 to 10 (and I hate these kinds of arbitrary ratings). There are concepts or ideas that excite the brain, but the book is otherwise undercooked. There are passages that inflame the passions, making the heart beat faster and breathing shallow – or making tears literally explode from the eyes, or that animate the brain, starting processes of analysis or self-reflection. But even then, these are only passages in books that don’t stand up as a whole against the scrutiny required to call something great.
That said, I know that ‘great’ is entirely subjective. I can’t outright define what makes a “great book”. It is even subjective for one person on two different days. I found (as I often do) that I am a much harsher, less patient critic when I am tired and cranky, so for example, I was not at all interested in how Jonas Karlsson‘s book The Room turned out when I hit the halfway point just before going to sleep one February evening. Sleeping on it, though, I came back, finished the book and found some interesting concepts and connections. It was both annoying and intriguing at the same time. Mostly felt tedious except when the question is raised as to whether there can be a different reality for every person. Can one person see something that no one else sees, and be left undisturbed to experience it that way, even if it is a sign of mental illness? The questions underscore bigger mysteries about the nature of reality and the ways we work best as individuals, illustrating what it’s like for the many who stumble through a world that looks different to them than to the majority. How do we make allowances for that in a world that operates like an assembly line, dependent on sameness, not questioning and uniformity in thinking and action? Nevertheless, as realistic as the depiction of the deluded, mentally ill, belligerent main character/narrator can be, the arrogant clinging to unfounded and unreasonable theories, self-confidence and sense of superiority reminds me so much of someone I used to know that it became hard to read. Which in a way is the mark of a good book (or at least a vital character)… but not a great one.
I also enjoy small coincidences – where one book randomly happens to mention something I did not expect, and that topic or place is mentioned – completely randomly – in the next book or in a film I watch the same day. For example, I read Leila Aboulela‘s book, The Translator, which was about a Sudanese woman. I didn’t know it was set in dear, beloved Scotland until I started reading. And to my delight (because it doesn’t take much), the very next book I read, Ryszard Kapuściński‘s The Shadow of the Sun, also had a whole passage that involved some young Glaswegians traveling around in West Africa. I expected the book to be about Kapuściński’s travels all over the African continent; I didn’t necessarily expect to be greeted by some young, naive Scots as well. Both engaging books – neither ‘great’.
Derek B. Miller‘s Norwegian by Night was a surprise – but still not ‘great’. I appreciated the details – the Oslo I know, up close, and references to little things like RV 23 and E18 make me think of my interminable slogs between Oslo and home in the Swedish woods. It feels close to home, and that can be comforting.
But the book itself feels too cramped, trying to stuff too much into one single novel: I mean, Holocaust, Judaism, American Jews and their identity and discrimination, Norwegians’ ignorance about Jews and Judaism, Korean War, Vietnam conflict, possible dementia, death, Kosovo, Serbia and the KLA, immigration issues in Norway, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Norwegian-Swedish cross-border issues, and a bunch of other stuff I am not even fitting into my few-sentence appraisal. I appreciated the effort, but it tried too hard. Don’t get me wrong – all of these topics are right up my alley, and in that way I loved reading this book. It was immensely enjoyable for all its flaws. Just much too ambitious in throwing too many ingredients into one dish.
Another interesting but much too overly ambitious book was Dexter Palmer‘s just slightly too-long Version Control. It offers unique perspectives on alternate realities/versions, online dating, big data and the way change and lack of communication, especially in relationships, can defy all our best intentions and promises. (No one, after all, goes into a relationship, full of hope and love, thinking they will fade into lesser and less vocal self-advocates or that they will stop interacting or showing those everyday moments of care that made them fall in love in the first place.) Sadly, for all its deft handling of some of these key emotional undercurrents – of the versions and version control of our emotional selves through the course of a relationship and through life – the book undermines itself with too wide a scope and too much … superfluity. With a tighter structure, this could be at least 100 pages shorter and, in my humble opinion, a much better book.
What I did find great, though, were the following:
- The End of Days – Jenny Erpenbeck (I wish I knew how to explain why I love Erpenbeck’s style so much. This was quite different, but no less engrossing, than her novel, Go, Went, Gone, which was one of my favorites last year.)
- We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families – Philip Gourevitch (Haunting, disturbing… how do things like the devastating Rwandan genocide happen? And how does a country move forward afterwards?)
- An Unnecessary Woman – Rabih Alameddine (“Memory chooses to preserve what desire cannot hope to sustain.” Perhaps I loved this so much because I could relate to it in such a visceral way. I feel like I express myself, or at least think, like the antisocial loner old lady who is the center and narrator of this book. Her observations, her sentiments on books, obsession with Pessoa, her observations on translation and the imperfection of the art of translation. Perhaps it is also this connection to Lebanon, which I have been trying to dig into since I was in my early 20s, as much as possible. Everything one reads and hears about Lebanon has been so long tinged by the theme of its long civil war and general unrest that it is hard to find something more general, something that features the war only as a backdrop to life. Regular life continues as the war drags on for an entire generation. I felt something similar in watching the recent TV show Derry Girls, which shows life going on for a regular family with the Troubles in Northern Ireland only as a backdrop. A constant backdrop, but not the main story being told. This might not be for everyone, but I loved it.)
- So You Want to Talk About Race – Ijeoma Oluo (I actually read this in January, but had written about my January reading – stupidly – before January actually ended – and this was a phenomenal book and absolutely must be included.)
Honorable mentions (almost great or noteworthy for particular reasons):
- The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration – Isabel Wilkerson
- My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante (I resisted reading this for a long time, more stubbornly the more I heard about its supposed merits. While I can’t rave at the level that would make me call this a ‘great’ book, I nevertheless found the precision with which the elusive Ferrante has depicted the fickle, painful, precarious back-and-forth-teeter-totter nature of female friendships.)
- LoveStar – Andri Snær Magnason (I appreciated the satirical take on our tech-saturated present and future – and the implication that everything can and probably will go haywire – very Black Mirror-esque. Who are we once we are completely defined by technology and incompetent without it? How do we define life and identity when you can erase your child’s existence and replace him/her with the spare copies you’ve made? Does life and experience matter when you have the opportunity to rewind and start again? What are the ethical considerations and consequences? And even more tellingly for today, when we are actively encouraged to quantify everything about ourselves and our existence – what does capturing every single thing do/mean? What happens when capturing absolutely everything becomes more of a prison than a choice – erasing the chance to make mistakes and learn from them? Andri Snær poses all these questions in an eminently readable and fascinating book, conceptually. It does not always flow as a work of fiction, as it seems to be distracted by throwing as many of these ethical and existential questions up for consideration. Always on the razor-edge of absurdity until you realize it’s so close to reality that it’s truly frightening.)
- A Replacement Life – Boris Fishman (I could say much more about this novel, but what sticks with me in these times, fraught with fake news and denial of hard facts, is the theme of fact checking: ““Oh, I just hear you every day,” he said. “‘Mr. Maloney, is your bar made of pine or aspen? Can you call the manufacturer?’” “Yeah, I guess it sounds strange from the side.” “Mr. Maloney’s gone his whole life without knowing is it pine or aspen. When has anyone asked him what that bar’s made of?” “What’s your point?” “Does it really matter?” he said. “I guess,” she said, putting down her phone. “But think about it. Maloney’s is in New Jersey. Let’s say they don’t have aspens in New Jersey. I mean, they do—I checked. But let’s say. Somebody happens to know that, they see that wrong, they say, What else is wrong? They lose trust. You can’t give a reader a reason to lose trust.”” Well before now I had thought often of how a hapless error in an otherwise well-researched work can erode the reader’s confidence. Thinking back to my master’s studies, I remember being assigned a rather lengthy book, The System, which chronicled the early Clinton-era attempts to push through universal healthcare in America – and the massive failure that ended up being. Ultimately it seemed quite detailed, but somewhere deep within the book, the writers referred to Congressman Fred Grandy as having been a star in the TV show Gilligan’s Island, which he wasn’t. He was a star in the show The Love Boat. Getting this, such a basic and easily checked pop culture reference, wrong, made me doubt everything I had already read.)
- The Plot Against America, A Novel – Philip Roth (Definitely one for these confusing, absurd, frightening times in Trump’s moving-toward-fascism America)
- Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders (I have no doubt that this was a labor of love, of toil, and as evidence of what can only be termed an original, ambitious and laborious creation, this qualifies. But as a pleasurable read? Not really.)
- The Lesser Bohemians – Eimear McBride (I am someone who fights the urge to give up on books because I feel committed once I start, but it was all I could do not to stop reading this shit. I hated it. As you can see above, I usually find something – some angle – in every work that I can relate to, can cite, can appreciate. But this? Fuck no.)