According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, traveled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and the booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.
The amount of times I thought ‘this would have been more interesting with a female protagonist’ was more than ten. The amount of times I wondered if Paul Auster has any kind of editing team or editor is even higher. Seriously mate, if you need fifteen-plus item lists to get to almost 900 pages, consider aiming a bit lower in page number.
Oh, and definitely change that ending.
What did I like about this story about a young Jewish boy growing up in fifties – sixties – seventies’ USA? Well, it’s one big ‘What if’ story. Every chapter starts with a new Ferguson, but some of them die, some of them grow up to be sterile, some have parents that divorce, some get into accidents. And Paul Auster shows the impact of all these internal and external factors on a human life.
But besides that, he shares a visual description of every woman in the boy’s life, and of every sexual encounter and masturbation session. And then there’s the lists.
If I’d be more aggressive about this time wasted, I’d create an abbreviated version of this book; instead I just want more ‘What if’-stories that won’t repeatedly tell me about a boy’s first erection.
4 3 2 1, Paul Auster, Faber & Faber 2017
I understand why this is quite award-friendly. I also understand why it didn’t win a lot. With these vague comments out of the way, let’s get to the story.
Lee Israel is an author that writes biographies not a lot of people – and definitely not her agent – care about. Instead of trying to find a job that will make her enough money to take care of her bills and sick cat, Israel digs in and tries to continue with making money from her writing. She’s complimented on completely disappearing behind the person’s voice she writes a biography about so that’s what she does: disappear. With her research and writing skills, she starts a very profitable business of embezzling letters from dead celebrities. With her lack of people skills and restraint … let’s just go with ‘it doesn’t end well for many people involved’.
The entire movie looks and feels a bit grubby, stubborn and unwilling to get out of the rut Lee Israel put it in. Israel herself isn’t a likeable character, but she isn’t exactly unlikable either. That’s probably largely due to neither Melissa McCarthy and the writing worrying about showing her ugliness. This is a sad creature, and her friend/fellow criminal isn’t much better off. Maybe you don’t completely root for them, but the ending will leave you tender.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? Fox Searchlight Pictures 2018
Even in Los Angeles, where is no shortage of remarkable hairdos, Harry Peak attracted attention.
You had me at libraries, you from time to time lost me about the focus on not just the Los Angeles Public Library (so okay, it’s one of the main plots), but especially the background of the possible culprit and fluffy descriptions of ever person involved in any way. I would rather have seen book covers, if Susan Orlean felt like she needed to add some visuals.
But still: there is so much love for books and libraries and librarians that you almost feel yourself slip into that world that is more than only centered on books. Libraries are miniature societies, and Orlean shows it well.
So, if you’re about books, architecture, and American history through librarians – this is the book of your dreams. If just any of these categories do it for you: consider it as a bit of an encyclopedia; read a few chapters from time to time. That way, you’ll always have some time left to visit your own library.
The library book, Susan Orlean, Simon & Schuster 2018
My story begins on a sweltering August night, in a place I will never set eyes upon.
Adoption isn’t an easy subject, but the historical story line of Before We Were Yours shows at the very least how it definitely shouldn’t be handled.
There are two story tellers in this novel about an “orphanage” that basically stole children from poor people and sold them to rich families. One is the girl and her siblings that go through it, the other connected to her through different generations. This element sometimes makes it a little bit Lifetime-ish, although her motivations for discovering more are at first more political than personal. ie the sob story starts later into the story.
Weaved in between these two is a romance that isn’t quite necessary, but not horribly done either. I feel like the subject is what elevates this novel from being just another one of the paperbacks your gran reads and pushes upon you because it’s “so exciting”. It’s an easy, accessible read, but the horror of the “orphanage” and the reality on which its based, is what gives the story its pull.
Before We Were Yours, Lisa Wingate, Penguin Random House LLC 2017
Marsh is not swamp.
Subconsciously I picked out two books about protagonists who are – by their surroundings – viewed as dangerously different. This one plays out in the (recent) past, but both Kya and Evan suffer from living in a small town.
Kya’s family is very, very poor, living in the marshes (or on the edge of it) and there’s not enough happiness around for anyone. Her family members leave her, and she falls back onto her familiar surroundings instead of the judgmental villagers.
This goes on for years, and might have gone on longer – Kya turning into something of a Tarzan, except with gulls and other birds – if a murder mystery wasn’t added to the equation. And what happens when disaster strikes? People look at the stranger.
This isn’t as greasy and damp as Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, but Owens does create a colourful, sometimes feverish world in which every human is a misfit – except for Kya. Yes, there could be more background about certain things, and the murder mystery is tied up not completely satisfying, but it’s a book with a feeling. And quite a few ornithology lessons.
Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens, G.P. Putnam’s Sons 2018
There was an Indian head, the head of an Indian, the drawing of the head of a headdressed, long-haired Indian depicted, drawn by an unknown artist in 1939, broadcast until the late 1970s to American TVs everywhere after all the shows ran out.
Disclaimer: even more () than usual; I don’t want my ignorance about other’s people culture to show too badly.
I feel like I can share how I’m discerning a certain kind of mood, element in books written by different contemporary Native (north) American authors. It’s not just in the style they use (non-chronological without clear pointers of time, multiple character points of view), also the subject. Life as a native in North America doesn’t seem to be very good a lot of the time.
After doing a bit of research on this story, it turns out that the conscious stream of thoughts around the same things, connecting every character in passing, was on purpose. There’s a focus on oral tradition with (some) Native people and this book should feel like that. Which changes things a bit.
With that, you get not just a people’s history, but the huge amount of weariness, pain and discomfort that comes with it. Plenty of minorities stories are slowly shared and heard more often, but what about the people that were first on the North American continent? So yes, maybe there’s a recurring element, but maybe that’s because that’s just something essential that has to be shared before anything else can.
There There, Tommy Orange, Penguin Random House 2018
Mr. Dunworthy opened the door to the library and his spectacles promptly steamed up.
It might just be my age, but some books just feel like they were written a while ago (like up to twenty years while ago, not two-hundred years ago), and somehow they feel different. Maybe more about the story than about the production, or maybe it’s just the terrible covers. I’m done with this get-off-my-lawn-moment. I wasn’t wrong about Doomsday Book, though.
Because it was published in 1992, but plays in 2054 and the fourteenth century because yes, time travel! This was a recommendation related to time travel, and even though the place of recommendation is a bit dodgy sometimes, I’m so glad I read this. As mentioned before, it feels different, comfortable on a certain level. It was also just written in such a way that you have to keep on reading. There are hints scattered throughout, but you won’t know what went wrong to the historian sent back in time and getting ill while people in the present are getting sick as well!
The world-building creates accessible visuals (and again, that feeling of reading this during lunch break at high school), the characters know their place and the use of ‘special’ words is just enough to not get annoying.
There’s two more books in these series (of course it’s a series), but for now my time travel needs are satisfied. One warning: the visuals aren’t always attractive. As I said: sickness and illness.
Doomsday Book, Connie Willis, Bantam Books 1992
I was running along the Upper Blandford Road this morning, watching the little islands emerge from the morning mist, when I came upon a fisherman stacking lobster traps by his shed.
Truth again turns out to be stranger than fiction in this story that might make you repeatedly check if it really isn’t a dramatised/fictionalised version of events. That also means that pretty much everything I will put down here could be considered as spoilers, but at the same time you could look up the author and possibly learn the entire story without ever opening the book. Hm.
During a big part of her childhood, Pauline, her mother and her brother are on the run. She’s told why in her early twenties, but that doesn’t exactly put a halt to the running. There’s two large twists (do you call it twists when it happens in real life?) in this story, and Dakin writes with the right amount of insecurity (is it me, is this really happening?) to – as a reader – keep doubting things as well, even when rationale starts popping up.
This way it continues to feel like a slightly laughable and surreal story, instead of paint-by-numbers memoir of someone growing up in seventies Canada. The Mounties don’t even show up until the end.
So, you could read this one for several reasons. If you like memoirs, if you like truth-is-stranger-than-fiction, if you like a detective element without any detectives involved, if you want a slice of life view of seventies Canada.
Run, Hide, Repeat: A Memoir of a Fugitive Childhood, Pauline Dakin, Viking 2017
Pere Don Callahan had once been the Catholic Priest of a town – ‘Salem’s Lot had been its name – that no longer existed on any map.
I did it, I finished it – all seven of them. I’ve changed sides and am one of Those that Read Them now (applicably for many other book (series) of course). I’m done, and I feel slightly run over.
I don’t often review series, especially following books, because I feel like you won’t start a series if it’s only the third (etc.) installment that interests you, nor that it’s easy to discuss plot lines without spoiling those still starting. But it’s been five minutes since I’ve finished the last book and I need to get things off my lower ribs (it’s always my lower ribs over my chest).
For a large part of the last novel, I felt impatience and frustration. Because honestly, how much more world-building is necessary, how many pus-filled pimples on villains need to be described. I was still a bit uneasy about the meta twist of things (Stephen King getting involved), and basically felt almost as tired as Ronald to just get to that damn tower.
I’m glad I stuck with it. No novel is supposed to be stale, and even though you could view some decisions as made for shock value, you might realise that the ending motivates all those decisions made. And what an ending.
So this isn’t really a review for a series, it’s for the ending(s) of one.
The Dark Tower, Stephen King, Hodder & Stoughton 2004
The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.
Watching the series Underground, The Knick and than reading this book, gives you a triangle of black American history. If you’re not a complete dunce, you can recognise that these three are slavery-related, because that’s a large part of black American history. And as I often ask myself with books about ugly subjects; why should you read it? Don’t we know already?
This time the underground railroad to the saver surroundings up north is really an underground railroad, but that doesn’t make an escape easier. Main character Cora is followed through different states and escapes, and even when it looks safe, it doesn’t mean it is. Sometimes the violence against black people is written down so detached, it’s easy to believe all the slavery-wasn’t-horrible stories some people still try to taut. Only for this author to proof them wrong, again and again. This book isn’t just about the violence, it’s about the impact on human lives.
The railroad gives it a slightly fantastical shade, but an escape is an escape, whatever way used. Sometimes the author veers off a little in style, rails to a dead end, but Cora’s story needs to be seen through.
And if people know already, even about South Carolina, even about the mass sterilisations, maybe they can just pass this story on for those that don’t.
The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead, Doubleday 2016