Welcome Home – 4/5 Stars
If you haven’t yet, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Lucia Berlin’s collected/selected stories “A Manual for Cleaning Ladies” that came out in 2015. This collection of stories is so good and does a thing that I am always amazed by, transcends the recommendations of readers I don’t trust. It was a hot thing for a little while and this is often a dangerous proposition for readers because I don’t really believe a lot of certain journalists and professional writers and their taste in reading. More specifically I often find the professional book recommending figures to be promotional and not very critical. But I digress. This collection is very good and Lucia Berlin’s writing is so engaging and real. She’s almost like an American Alice Munro, but more worldly (in her writing).
That is all the say this unfinished memoir is also very good and interesting, but I think requires the context of the stories to really anchor it for a reader. Having the biographical context added to the richness of the stories (and this memoir is rich in a way, but relatively lightweight in terms of content) is a real treasure.
This is about 60 or so pages of a memoir with a few dozen photographs (one of the two real stars of this book) and more importantly a handful of her letters. Lucia Berlin was born in 1936 and went to a state school and worked her way into the various literary scenes of the 1960s. She did this while travelling the world, having a handful of husbands, being famously alcoholic and then sober, and having children. She’s about 12 years older than my mother, and carved out a lot of space for women like my mother to live their lives. The letters are charming and interesting, and there’s an absolutely and accidentally hilarious telegram that I quoted in the post.
I am not sure this book works on its in own, but in complement to the rest of her writing, it’s great.
The Uncommon Reader – 4/5 Stars
Speaking of great books. Not GREAT BOOKS, but books that are great, and about GREAT BOOKS, this should be an automatic TBR for a lot of readers here. This is a novella written in a very detached, wry style about Queen Elizabeth. Out on a walk with her corgis, she happens upon a mobile lending library. Feeling awkward in the presence of this vehicle and in the presence of a kitchen worker who corrects a fact of hers, she decides it would be polite and prudent to borrow a book. She chooses an Ivy Compton-Burnett novel (who if you haven’t read any, is a kind of early AS Byatt — brilliant and dry as a bone). Not much of a reader (more someone who learns of the world through official briefs) the queen devours the book and heartily returns next week. It goes from there, and the queen voracious appetite for reading (first the pleasant and the charming and then the literary and dense). Because of the assertiveness of the kitchen worker (an autodidact reader) she decides to adopt him as a kind of amanuensis who helps her select her books. Because he is gay, he keep choosing “gay books” for her and so her development continues as a reader.
The novella is a kind of Matilda type story of someone (this time very late in life) becoming more and more aware of the world through literature, which opens up her life to cultural and moral and emotional depths she never knew existed for her. And the impatience, cravenness, and jealous ignorance of nonreaders attempt to thwart her constantly.
Sylvia – 3/5 Stars
This is a kind of memoir and kind of autobiographical novel. And the difference between this distinction is small and mostly occurs through methodology. The method for this being a memoir involves inserting or interpolating small sections of Leonard Michaels’s diary entries from this time in his life. And what makes this more of an autobiographical novel is the level of license almost certainly being taken with how memory functions, the dialogue, and the perspective, which is a little more open than a memoir would be.
This book is the story of a young marriage between a brilliant undergrad and an intelligent but listless grad student cum dropout cum writer cum professor. And because Leonard Michaels’s own professional life, writer life, and personal life are a testament to his outliving this tale, the characterization within the novel leans so heavily toward him. But this is also a novel in which sides are not so clearly drawn. I appreciate that however difficult this marriage, this time of the two leads’ lives are, this is a novel written generally in sympathy. There’s a part of a later book I will be reviewing where someone eulogizing their dead husband says something to the effect of: you all knew us, we fought a lot, we were loud and angry, but there was mutual love and affection.
Michaels falls in with, falls in love with, and then marries Sylvia, who is difficult to live with in her own right. They fight, they have sex, they act young, and they have wild and interesting friends. And I thank my lucky stars I am not them and did not live their lives because it seems really really hard, smelled like liquor and cigarettes and had a lot of pain.
Nox – 5/5 Stars
See if your library has this one, because you couldn’t possibly buy it, and maybe shouldn’t either. I found this on the shelf at the library looking up a different of Anne Carson’s books and it’s not boring to look at. It’s a box that, when opened up, contained a large foldout book all in one continuous kind of glossy printout. It unfolds like a book, but is not bound and holds together the opposite as you would expect. Anyway, you look at it and the opening page is a cut out of a piece of ancient Greek writing. This writing will become revealed, but initially not. Each page looks like a high-dollar scan or photostat of a diary pieced together, written, or pasted of Anne Carson’s various reactions to her brother’s death. At first I thought it might be a little gimmicky, but because we are getting a fabrication or mock up of an original as opposed to a new creation, it’s more earnest and real than I had thought it might be. It’s initially broken into two distinct parts. I: word by word translations of the Greek writing, with each words given over to an OED sized section of explanation of the potential meanings of the word. This variability of translation provides an initial clue into understanding how oblique the project of making sense of an older brother’s death alongside the impossible task of making sense of an older brother who disappeared from your life into the wilds of Scandinavia and almost never checked in. So you have languages, oceans, emotions, and worlds all standing in the way. The second part of the beginning II: fragmented reactions and thoughts.
In addition to all this are clips of letters, envelopes, photos, transcripts of conversations and phone calls, all leading up to the material of diaries, euologies, and other details. It seems like all the artifacts are real and they are pasted in with the translation of the poem, which ends up being a poem about the death of brothers by Catullus. It’s a very touching and interesting book that I think defies definition, and certainly translation.
See What Can Be Done – 2/5 Stars
An absolute hodgepodge of a collection of essays, reviews, and commentary that covers some 35 years of writing. It ultimately does not come together in any specific or meaningful way but there’s still plenty of good contained within.
The best thing that can be said about any collection of essays is depth and consistency. There is consistency in this writing, but by the very nature of the publications these were initially published in, I can’t say there’s a lot of depth. The second best thing you could say about a collection is that is causes you to read or reread books and tells you about books you don’t know about. I do get that from this collection. There’s a few books I don’t know about that Moore reviews, but there’s also a lot that I do, not because I AM SO WELL READ, but because a lot of them are kinds of literary touchstones of the last 30 years: two different Margaret Atwood novels, for example.
What this collection is good for is tracing a kind of middle-brow cultural taste over the last 35 years. There’s review of Atwood, The Wire, Janet Malcolm, notes on Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Kenneth Starr, all that.
The best moment comes when the second to last essay is a short note about Clinton’s loss in 2016. So as I turned the page to be reminded of Trump…instead I get a completely innocuous essay on Stephen Stills. Relief.
I like Moore’s short stories a lot, and well, that’s a shame because this collection is boring and kind of unexceptional throughout.
Jacob’s Hands – 2/5 Stars
Speaking of boring and unexceptional, this book is pretty boring and unexceptional. For the most part I would have to say that this was destined to fail for a number of reasons. For one, two writers working together, especially two writers who I otherwise like and respect their work, are unlikely to find the kind of synthesis and partnership needed for a great book to come about. How often is a pair of authors, especially a pair of individually renowned authors, likely to come together to make something meaningful. Even in music, how many “supergroups” are any good? Two, fables in fiction generally do not work for me. Animal Farm is fine, but it’s also a book that works best when you’re like 13. Three, both of these authors are British writers, who spent significant parts of their lives in America, writing about America, as if they were American. And they simply aren’t. And so the result is that book is like warmed over Steinbeck, and about half of Steinbeck is warmed over Steinbeck, so that’s not a winning combination.
It’s a story about a man who has a healing power and uses it to save the love of his life. He also uses it to save a friend. Now saved, those two hook up, and he still loves both of them. The writing is ok at best, but for all the reasons above, it simply is a weak story.
Diary of a Hounslow Girl – 3/5 Stars
This is another kind of radioplay type writing, similar to Christmas Eve 1914, that I got free with my Audible subscription. This is sort of a one-person play, written and performed by Ambreen Razia, a British actor. The performance is spectacular and the writing is pretty good. This is about a young Muslim teenager from a council flats who we meet in a rush to pack for some kind of trip. She is clearly harried and upset and frantic to find the right combination of things to take with her. We go back to the beginning and find out that she’s fallen in love with a boy named Aaron, who seems to love her, and this affection turns into something more serious. Leading up to her sister’s wedding day, we watch as she falls for Aaron, opens herself up to him, probably get pregnant, and then watch him disappear, only to have to turn back to her family for support. Written as a series of diary entries, letters to her family, monologues to Aaron, and a few other types of writing, this works really well as a radioplay because Razia’s voice comes through perfectly, as she is the one who performs it.