Let me begin again.
Golly gosh, how to explain this? It’s a memoir, it’s a fever dream, it’s an obituary – maybe? And did I like all of it, any of it, only the parts that I read at night? It was, in a way, beautiful, though. A kind of experience hard to put into words.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is one of those titles that seem to be singing around in ‘Serious Reader’ circles for a while. It’s not loud enough to feel like it’s been hyped, nor is a celebrity book club attached, but there is the vibe of “Haven’t you read it yet?” around it. To me, anyway.
Ocean Vuong wrote poetry before, and it shows in his descriptions, his look on life, how it feels like he weighed every word before putting it down. It’s in juxtaposition with the subjects he writes down: the suffering of his grandmother and mother, the lack of family, being an immigrant child, being the only different one while growing up. All of it feels absolutely anchor-less.
Can you have an opinion about something that runs through your mind like sand through your hands? I’m sure you can, but I’m just going to stick with ‘an experience’ and a weird feeling of honour that Vuong allowed you in.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong, Penguin Random House 2019
On our wedding day I was forty-six, she was eighteen.
Don’t judge a book by its title. Or maybe don’t expect to know what is going to happen by a book’s title. I thought Lincoln – like the American president. I thought Bardo – a kind of Buddhist limbo, add those and you get something eerie, cool, spooky about mourning, the afterlife and discussing religion.
Instead I got a collection of (fictional) citations and quotations about Abraham Lincoln, his dead son and a lot of people I’ve never heard of before.
It took some time to adjust.
Both Lincolns are very little part of this story. It is about the Bardo and how people of all walks of life experience it while avoiding the reality of having died. As mentioned before – this doesn’t happen in continuous prose, you seem to be paging through an encyclopedia of Americans that have died in the time before Abraham Lincoln. Why? Because some of them look out for Willie Lincoln, and are impressed that Abraham continues to visit his son and mourn him.
So it’s not a story about the American president, it’s a little bit about mourning, it’s a too little bit about what the Bardo is, how it works and what it looks like, and the rest of it is – I guess – about the skills of one George Saunders in bringing a lot of character sheets together and passing them off as novel.
2020 isn’t a great year for books, just yet.
Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders, Bloomsbury 2017
“Would you mind if I measured your extremities?”
Never thought that I’d be disgruntled by a happy ever after, but here we are.
The nice things about this story: a love for fountain pens, writing, language and for the majority of the time a very grounded few of oneself of the protagonist. It starts out as a fun, coming-of-age story with a weird quirk. No, I don’t give a toss about golf, but thankfully the protagonist recognises that and doesn’t bother the reader too long with descriptions of the game. One of the side-characters is completely annoying and would never get the function he has in real life with such behaviour, but soit. Fiction.
The albatross of the story is Adam. His teacher takes his measurements and – by calculating them through a random study by annoying side-character – discovers that he is a golf talent. Golf success follows, even though Adam doesn’t care about the game at all. The money doesn’t hurt though, and that’s largely his motivation for making the decisions he makes.
At first Adam is baffled by all of it, but he all too soon and smoothly takes it all in, and from that part on – there’s just not much to the story. He gets everything he wants, life moves in the direction he wants, his love story finishes the way he wants to … it’s all quite dull.
And this is just partially coming from a place of jealousy.
Albatross, Terry Fallis, McClelland & Stewart 2019
Toby Fleishman awoke one morning inside the city he’d lived in all his adult life and which was suddenly somehow now crawling with women who wanted him.
Good gravy, there is a lot going on here. One of those stories that pulls the rug under your feet and even while it happens, you are a bit disbelieving of the fact. I don’t even know if I liked this.
I am still thinking about it, though. About the people involved, and how important it is to have the right angle on any subject.
Which Fleishman is in trouble? Toby Fleishman is the main character – at least for a very long time. He’s divorcing his wife Rachel, and the narrator follows him in every part of his life (neatly compartmentalised): at work, as a father, as a(n almost) single man. It’s that last part that could well get on your nerves quite fast: Toby describes in detail how he feels like a kid in the candy store; the candy here being women of every shape, size and age.
But is this a story about a man’s middle life crisis, or a lament for the softer kind of man that chose children over endless riches and career promotions, and who managed to end up with a woman that did the complete opposite?
You can’t say too much about Fleishman is in Trouble without showing too much of the story, nor do I exactly know how to put its appeal into words. Maybe it’s disaster-tourism: maybe the unpleasant surprise of bad judgement.
Fleishman is in Trouble, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Penguin Random House 2019
Great fun, a film about child abuse in the catholic church! And it’s based on true facts, yay! It’s a crude introduction to a subject one doesn’t enjoy thinking about, which was precisely the problem in this real life case: too many people shoving it under the carpet.
Even the Boston Globe, the newspaper that unearths the story and publishes it, isn’t free from blame. The catholic church is a powerful monolith, Boston is a catholic filled city, churches are everywhere. To stick to the theme: Goliath was easily found, but was David even going to show up?
Spotlight isn’t a quick, bright film, it shows how (research) journalism and a newspaper work(/used to work) and how much time such a thing takes. As a retired journalist it was bittersweet to watch, for those that don’t have that connection it might be a look behind the curtains of what so many people already view as history.
I watched it in two parts, you could even watch it in four if your life is so serialised. Either way, it’s a story worth remembering or discovering. Both for the subject and the process.
Spotlight, Anonymous Content 2015
Mahindan was flat on his back when the screaming began, one arm right-angled over his eyes.
This isn’t a particularly uplifting story. Reading is escapism, isn’t it? Unless you never have any media-intake that won’t be the case with this novel. The subject is a three-step ladder of contemporary news: racism in politics, war zones and (boat) refugees.
These three angles are showcased through the points of view of different people: a refugee, the people helping them, and those that need to make sure that no refugee brings danger into the country (Canada, in this case). It’s easy to view the latter as the villains of this piece: they start out with a negative angle and won’t be swayed. But in today’s society it would be naive to act like that negative angle hasn’t landed on fertile land, and what does that say about us?
The same can be said from the ‘good’ immigrants that lament these refugees for not doing immigration “the right way”. We all need thoughts to comfort us, so who’s to blame for acting upon them?
Of course, nothing happening in this novel will make you think: yes, let’s deny every refugee asylum, yay! but it very much shows the booby-trapped labyrinth immigration and asylum (laws) have become. With an all too human face to it, on all sides.
The Boat People, Sharon Bala, McClelland & Stewart 2018
How much better would this movie have been with a female main character, and are there are well-known singers that have covered The Beatles?
Of course, it’s considerate that they didn’t make the entire cast of this film about one guy bringing The Beatles music to the masses white. The Beatles were white, after all. All this playing out in England, with a large immigrant population – why not have the protagonist be of Indian descent? Is it sad that we have to applaud this happening? Yeah.
Anyway, the plot. After a strange occurrence is Jack the only one that recognises The Beatles and their impact on music and pop culture. Having struggled as an artist before, he decides on bringing their music into the world again, working hard to remember all those lyrics. And getting incredibly famous on the way because wow – what music!
Along the way there are some Life Lessons and sometimes you wonder why Jack makes the decisions he does, but in a world where every other movie is a sequel or a reboot, it’s a slight fresh breath of air in the theatre. Or on any streaming service it will soon hit, no doubt.
Yesterday, Working Title 2019
Maia woke with his cousin’s cold fingers digging into his shoulder.
I hate to copy someone’s review but yes: if you’re about court stories, intrigue and politics in a fantasy setting, this one will do you real good. No need to call it Game of Thrones but with goblins: there’s not enough mass slaughter and incest for that. It (looks to be) is a stand alone as well, which doesn’t happen to often in fantasy either. And how often do goblins get their chance in the sun?
Well, in this book not all the time either. These are elvish countries after all, and freshly made emperor Maia is …not like the usual people in charge. He’s far from prepared for his new role, and there’s little people eager to help him out.
That’s where politics and intrigue come in. Sometimes there’s so many names and roles that it’s best just to cling to the story line, but it never turns into a list of characters. The glances at the world throughout make you long for more; another main story line about ordinary life in this steam punk-ish world would have been welcome.
All in all, it’s a solid, traditional built and written fantasy with some freshness coming from the steam punk elements (could have been more, but that’s world-building-loving me) and goblins in the spotlight.
The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison, Tor 2014
On that day in 1914, a young girl banged on the door of the Hôpital de la Miséricorde in Montreal.
Boy, does this author love her metaphors like a dog likes a bone. Don’t use them as a drinking game, you will end up in the hospital. Even though it’s becoming quite noticeable after a while, I have to admit that they add to the fairy-tale like feeling this story already has. The development and rise of orphans in Great Depression North America, involving clowns and mobsters, maybe they deserve a metaphor every other sentence.
Main characters are Pierrot and Rose and share the chapters whenever they are together or apart. They’ve got very different views on life and what they want from it; making the fairy-tale like feeling disappear before it can give a (happy) end.
Besides that, there’s the surroundings this plays out in. Montreal with its alive snow, New York with the buildings full of possibilities and risks. It’s all written very visually, which neatly distracts from the small plot holes or just hiccups it provides. This story is pretty and enticing; everything else is subordinate to it.
The Lonely Hearts Hotel, Heather O’Neill, Riverhead Books 2018
Marianne answers the door when Connell rings the bell.
I should have known that an impatient wait would only lead to disappointment, but I guess such repetitious mistakes make you human. This novel got plenty of accolades, but the summary didn’t particularly appeal me. After one review – one I didn’t even recognise the previous summaries read in – I changed my mind. Blow me away, Rooney.
There was no blowing away, only dragging down and wrestling through (negative) emotions. These two people, the main characters Connell and Marianne, are just …incomplete(?) and manage to simultaneously make it worse and better in the other. So much low self-esteem, depression, (mental) self-harm and words that should be said to improve things, but never are.
I finished this an hour ago and still feel that kind of daze of finishing a story that doesn’t let you come up for air. Of course, no story has to be completely happy, or even have happy moments, but every other word is doubted and dissected. The story involves only a few months, making me wish for these poor people involved for it to be decades because surely everyone deserves to have a mental breather.
And underneath all of it, I couldn’t find anything the author wanted to do with this story. Share suffering? Show us that there is no such thing as normal people? Or that no matter what kind of train wreck, people just can’t look away?
Normal People, Sally Rooney, Alfred A. Knopf 2018