New York Stories – 4/5 Stars
I read Elizabeth Hardwick’s collected essays earlier this year. I also read her novel Sleepless Nights last year. This is a collection of stories that encompasses about 45-50 years worth of short stories edited and selected by Darryl Pinckney, another novelist and critic who also famously worked with and was friends with Hardwick.
I read these stories in a variety of orders, and since they are not part of an intentional collection this blending and mixing up of the stories led to a relatively satisfying reading experience. Because I have read her essays, which I believe are mostly brilliant, and her novel, I have a pretty decent sense of Hardwick as a literary stylist, and as a thinker. This collection functions in some strange ways because I think the stories at the very beginning of the collection, representing her early career in the 1940s and 1950s are much more interesting, good, and entertaining. I liked Sleepless Nights, but it has a kind of impressionistic and collective and oral historical style to it, and so also do the later stories in this collection. As the writing becomes more complex, the stories become less good. That’s not to say that they aren’t good, but that the writing is more clear direct and interesting early on. And in the earliest of the stories Hardwick wasn’t exactly an ingenue — she was in her early 30s and had been around the literary scene for quite a while, so it’s not a kind of inspired precociousness, so much as a earnest connection. The later stories are clearly written by someone whose career shaped up to be mostly centered on nonfiction, and not fiction, and I wonder how that affected her writing.
The stories often concern relationships, and especially reading, and there’s some really fantastic interactions, and like with her essays, an implied reading list.
We Live in Water – 3/5 Stars
I almost immediately turned off this audiobook once it got going. I have a slightly antagonistic relationship with Jess Walter, whom I have never read before and whom I don’t know anything about personally. But he’s one of those guys, especially in the mid-aughts, who sort of just appeared as a writer in the world and was recommended to me by a very specific sub-set of people in my life. These people, I will call: MFA bros. These are the kind of guys who are totally definitely feminists (but don’t read women) and are SO feminist that they consider it offensive to automatically recommend women. None of this has anything to do with Walter, but his name was always on their lists — along with Ben Marcus, George Saunders, Sam Lypsite, etc etc etc. In addition, my wife tells a story of being stuck in an airport and having $20 to her name and needing a book to read and ending up picking Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins instead of another book she wanted and always regretting it.
Anyway, I almost turned this off because a character in the opening story discusses reading Chuck Palahniuk and it made me want to get back around reading him: spoiler alert – I did.
But I stuck with it, and it turned into a relatively good experience. Some of the very short stories in this collection are a little bit throwaway, and the longer ones are pretty good. The opening story is about an alcoholic homeless father saving up to buy the final Harry Potter book for his son who is in foster care — and somehow it’s not very sentimental. The title story is a very good reckoning on the relationship between irresponsible fathers and their sons. And there’s also a good essay at the end about growing up in Spokane WA, something of which I know absolutely nothing about.
Two Books by Chuck Palahniuk
Survivor – 3/5 Stars
I almost read this book 20 years ago when it first came out. It was one of those books that seemed to appear out of nowhere right after Fight Club (the movie) hit the national consciousness. So my timeline might very well be off by a matter of months. It always seemed to me that Chuck Palahniuk had a bevy of older novels just read to go after the success of the movie because we went from one successful novel to like five almost immediately.
Anyway, this novel is told from the cockpit of a plane about to crash and we’re told by the narrator that he’s planning on a suicide by crashing the plane and leaving his life story on the black box, which is apparently orange. If you go into this one not reading the back of the book, it’s hard to follow where we go next, but it becomes clear that the narrator is fascinated by and obsessed with suicide. It needs to be clear from here on out that this book is never not about suicide, so be mindful of that and a very big trigger warning, because part of the novel is the narrator also encouraging others to commit suicide. This comes from his growing up in a religious suicide cult. Unlike Heaven’s Gate or the Jonestown members, this wasn’t a singular act, but instead a central ethos in how cult members were to grow up and then seed the world. The cult would then send out a signal to all the various members, who were meant to kill themselves. So rather than a singular big event, there’s a constant stream of members dying once they learn of the signal.
The book is that narrator missed the signal, was confronted by and received social services, and is now trying to figure out whether he can survive. He is still deeply afflicted with the programming from the cult. He is not a good person, and often is anti-sympathetic, but he’s interesting.
Snuff – 3/5 Stars
So I am going to imagine this one won’t be for everyone. And it works way better as an audiobook than one you’re sitting there reading. There’s a lot of books I have read about sex and violence and queerness and some that even have alarming titles and alarming covers, but I can’t imagine a book I would like to be less caught reading in say a Panera than this one. It’s often goofy and bad and weird, but I didn’t hate this one.
So this is several interweaving narrators (I think I recall four specifically — three first person and one third person) telling the story of a world record attempt. The world record? The most sex acts committed by a single actress in a porn movie. The goal here is 601 and the actress is likely to get it. The implication we learn very early on is that everybody but her seems to think this movie will kill her and this death will lead to a launching pad for multiple careers including the men involved, the producers, the writers, etc.
So the entire novel takes places in the waiting area for the various men who will be involved in the film. They are standing around, naked, fluffing themselves, talking, taking viagra and other drugs, all discussing how they ended up here and what they want from it. There’s a somewhat washed out tv actor who was exposed for doing an early gay porn film when he was 19 trying to “recapture” his heterosexual appeal, there’s a 19 year old who idolizes the porn actress in his adolescent, there’s lots of others.
The novel itself is replete with tons, and I mean tons, of great porn puns — mostly related to famous films and literary texts. It’s also a book I don’t think I am going to spend a lot of time dealing with the ethics and politics of, but there’s definitely some discussion going on here.
Elementals – 3/5 Stars
This is a kind of mishmash of stories collected and published in the late 1990s by English writer AS Byatt. Like a collection I reviewed earlier in the year, The Matisse Stories, this one also comes across as a kind of variations on a theme or more specifically meditations on art. This one is less focused than that one was, and the results are more mixed. There are six stories here and one of them greatly outshines the others.
The opening story, “Crocodile Tears” is about a woman who has recently left her life in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s death. She seeks out something to bring out some kind of emotional experience, whether this is subtle, intense, positive, negative or anything to bring out some life in her. She goes to a small village and while there, she becomes acquainted a man who has less recently also lost his wife. Farther along in the process, this man becomes a kind of guide for her, even though she doesn’t particularly want him to, expect him to, or ask him to, and the result is odd and painful mixture of mournfulness and attempts at connection. I am reminded of experiences in my own life, not of losing someone, but of being outside of someone who has recently lost someone and looking for ways to connect with with them and find ways to “snap” them out of something that I didn’t understand.
The rest of the stories involves some stories about art and artists, some variations on fairy tales, and a variety of other shorter and less impactful stories too.
As with The Matisse Stories and Ragnorak, rather than being deeply impressed with these stories, I liked them just fine, but am really interested in the longer Byatt works. I find her a little intimidating not for her complexity, which she is complex, but with her intensity and length of her writing.
Goodbye Mr. Chips – 2/5 Stars
This is an old and well-loved story about an older teacher throughout his career at a private boys’ school (a second rate one, we’re told) in England from about 1870 through 1928 or so. The story follows Mr. Chips backward and forward and sideways in his story, being told from a perspective of his old age, back to his first years (where he’s pretty cruel to the students, but hilarious!) through his resistance to changing and updating his teaching. He retires, he’s asked back to help during the war, and ultimately he dies.
So while this story is actually pretty effective, it’s also sentimental nonsense. I am a teacher and have been for awhile. Of course you love your students, and of course they mean the world to you in a lot of ways, but it’s always important to remember that teaching is a job and a profession. So when I say that Mr. Chips absolutely should have retired when he was asked to and also changed his teaching to update his style and knowledge he should have. He also sounds pretty awful in a lot of ways too.
I have a weird affection for a lot of books and movies about teachers, and obviously teaching is a profession that has only really begun to figure itself out in the last 40 years. There’s always been great teachers (a lot of teaching is intuitive) and there’s always been terrible teachers (it attracts frauds and opportunists) and it’s rare for books to capture what it means to be a teacher, when many many cultural representations of teachers are of bad ones. So there’s a solid movie version of this and it captures the sentimentality correctly, but it’s also funny because the actor playing the old Mr. Chips, is just the young Mr. Chips (Robert Donat), and it’s pretty funny.
Lyra’s Oxford – NO RATING
This is a little book and so I figured I wouldn’t do a whole with the review, and especially I wouldn’t hold it particularly accountable to the tenets of being a whole book. This is a final little short story to either bridge the gap between Lyra’s story in His Dark Materials and any future stories, or it’s a kind of coda on the whole of her story. Pullman tells us in the beginning we shouldn’t try to spend too much time trying to place it.
But Lyra is living back at Oxford and she’s back in school, and she starts to notice the birds and animals living in the area acting strangely. This strangeness culminates in attacking the detached daemon of a witch, who has traveled to Lyra to ask for help. Her witch has been afflicted with a disease that kills off the human and leaves the daemon behind. It also introduces a new character, Dr. Makepeace, who if he shows up in future books, I will be interested in.
It’s a slight story, and it would rather bittersweet to close off on such a small story if Pullman hadn’t opened up a new trilogy recently.