Lockdown Reading Part 2 – Summer & Fall 2020

Forever…

Author: Judy Blume 

Published: 1975 

Country: United States 

Genre: Young Adult Fiction/Coming-of-Age 

First Sentence: “Sybil Davison has a genius I.Q. and has been laid by at least six different guys.” 

Review: I’d been interested in picking up this novel for a long time, and for two reasons. Firstly, I love coming-of-age stories. And secondly, I love to celebrate banned books. The longstanding controversy surrounding this book attracted me straight away. As you can tell from both the front cover and the first sentence, Forever… is about teenage sex. I liked that it was focused on a singular theme, and the brevity of this novel reflects this. It’s short, packed with dialogue, and thoroughly minimalist in its prose. I can see why some readers wouldn’t like this, but I really liked the sharpness of this approach. To me, it suits the narrative, which covers a brief period of Katherine’s life as defined by a specific theme. That is- her first sexual experiences. It was interesting to me to see sex take center stage; in books concerned with other themes, YA books or otherwise, sex is usually present but resigned to the background. The sex in Forever… isn’t written to titillate. It’s not here to supplement something else, to reflect something bigger, to act as a metaphor. It’s not written to spice up the drama or provide filler. No. Here, the sex is important. The sex isn’t reduced to the act itself- it’s everything that comes with being sexually active and how this affects Katherine. There’s nothing flashy, shocking, or strange about this story. I liked the mundanity of this novel, whose everyday characters and events are designed to have a wide-ranging appeal. This felt like a story that has happened countless times across suburban America, a kind of “every-story” in which readers will recognize their own life experiences. I feel like everyone knows a version of this story- be it the concerned yet well-meaning parents, the curious younger sibling, the late-night phone calls, the mood swings, the angst at graduating high school, or the douchebag summer camp counselor tryna get his leg over.

The Truants

Author: Kate Weinberg 

Published: 2019 

Country: United Kingdom 

Genre: Mystery Fiction/Coming-of-Age 

First Sentence: “It’s hard to say who I fell in love with first.” 

Review: One thing I’m committed to doing more of is keeping up with the latest book releases that are making some noise within the industry. I saw The Truants being discussed by bloggers online and was instantly attracted to the premise. The cover was also quite enticing; striking yellow leaves frame three mysterious figures standing by a parked car in the woods, none of them looking at each other. It implies a secret. The book is set in the University of East Anglia in Norwich, where our protagonist Jess hopes to escape the banality of her life back home. She latches on to two people she meets at university- a journalist and a professor- whom she perceives as being extraordinary people living extraordinary lives. The novel then builds into a slow-burning and ambiguous love-triangle-come-murder-mystery. However, while I liked the premise of this book, I hated the execution. My biggest issue with it was that it kept telling me that these two characters (the journalist and the professor) were interesting, mysterious, and exceptional without showing me that they were. There’s a shallowness to them that reflects the book as a whole, which presents itself in a very literary style but doesn’t actually have anything to say. Unlike Forever…, none of the characters in The Truants felt believable. Their dynamics, problems, and conversations didn’t feel remotely authentic. Most British first-year students live a pretty sloth-like existence. And while it might be hard to fashion a narrative around ordering pizza and watching Netflix in your pajamas, you have to retain at least some fidelity to the truth or you’re just writing straight-up fantasy. Jess is about as charismatic as a polystyrene box, and her chosen heroes Lorna and Alec are unlikable and pretentious. I didn’t buy into the idea that Lorna was this brilliant, maverick teacher that captivated everyone she met. The book seemed desperate for me to think that. Sure, we all have teachers we like or find inspiring, but the way this character effortlessly enraptures those around her like some kinda rockstar felt unnatural and contrived to me.

Siracusa

Author: Delia Ephron 

Published: 2016 

Country: United States 

Genre: Thriller/Travel Fiction/Literary Fiction/Mystery Fiction 

First Sentence: “I have a snapshot of me standing on Finn’s shoulders when I was twenty-nine, a trick we’d perfected.” 

Review: I feel like this book and Forever… are good examples of doing well what The Truants didn’t; Forever… for its realistic and engaging characters, and Siracusa for blending the thriller genre and the literary fiction genre in a way that feels authentic to each. I think that American writers do subtlety so much better. They’re masters of omission; rendering powerful what’s left unsaid. In my experience the American literary voice is a lot less pretentious and a lot more naturalistic. Siracusa exemplifies this tradition in the skilled way with which it teases you information. This is especially true for the first two thirds of the novel, where the picture is always left incomplete but gives you just enough to keep you engaged. There’s a particularly good instance of foreshadowing near the beginning, disguised as an inconsequential, trivial line of dialogue. By the final third, the book is in full thriller mode. This transition is important, because a mystery has to be paid off, and the tone changes quite naturally from the teasing build-up to an active crisis grounded in the present. It can be tough to pull off and some books end up being too mysterious all the way through, never delivering a satisfying conclusion. In short, this book is about two middle class American couples going on vacation together in Italy, and the various jealousies, secrets, feuds, and infidelities that ensue. I bought the book because of a statement on the front cover that it read like a cross between Big Little Lies and The Affair. I was not disappointed, and the main way Siracusa evokes those titles is in its alternating perspectives. There are four points of view (whose versions of events subtly differ): Lizzie, Michael, Finn, and Taylor. It’s been noted that the characters aren’t the most likable bunch, but that’s never mattered to me. I only care about whether they are interesting. It might be alienating if they were cartoonishly evil, but that’s not the case. If anything, they come across as quite humanly flawed and realistic. I liked Lizzie the best, and she is easily the most sympathetic character. She loves her husband, Michael, and is generally quite good-natured and well-intentioned. Michael, though not exactly a nice person, is nonetheless interesting. I always enjoyed his chapters, even though I hate what he does. My least favorite character was Finn- partially because I get the feeling you’re meant to read him as being better than Michael, and I kinda see them as being equally shitty people. He’s also a lot less compelling and nuanced than Michael, being your average self-centered Republican dirtbag, and I hated the way he kept trying to make a pass at Lizzie. As for Taylor, I was actually somewhat sympathetic to her, despite her obvious flaws. She’s extremely uptight and overprotective of her daughter Snow, but I feel like ultimately, she’s a good person. She can certainly do better than goddam Finn. I’d wager a lot of readers probably hated her the most though, because the character readers react most angrily to doesn’t necessarily end up being the most objectively worst in the given story. Sometimes it’s simply the most annoying, and Taylor’s flaws as an imperfect mother and a high-strung wife are probably more relatable to the average person. I loved the interplay between these four perspectives and the way Ephron made each voice feel unique. My only criticism of this novel is that the ending was somewhat weak. I wanted more reaction and fallout from the crisis- particularly in regards to Snow- but everything seemed to get wrapped up too hastily in my opinion.

Quicksand

Author: Jun’ichirō Tanizaki 

Published: Serialized 1928-1930 

Country: Japan 

Genre: Literary Fiction/Erotic Thriller 

First Sentence: “Do forgive me for bothering you again, but I simply had to see you today- I want you to hear my side of the story, from beginning to end.” 

Review: This was certainly an intriguing and unusual narrative. It’s got everything from suicide pacts to abortion and unreliable narrators to four-way bisexual love-affairs. Now that’s a lot for a novel written in the 1920s. It’s also an example of the flexibility of the term “erotic fiction”. You might think that anything labelled as such is written purely to sexually arouse the reader, like 50 Shades of Grey or what have you. But Quicksand is definitely not that. It’s more of a psychological thriller with a sexual flavor to it. There’s little to no actual sex in the book. It’s more about sexual dynamics than anything else. It’s about jealousy, desire, and obsession. The protagonist, Sonoko, is a bored housewife trapped in a sexless marriage with a timid lawyer in Osaka. She begins a lesbian affair with an enigmatic woman she meets at an art class, Mitsuko, who is as beautiful as she is cunning. Pretty soon she discovers that Mitsuko has a secret, on-and-off-again fiancé, Watanuki, who is sexually impotent and extremely feminine. While Sonoko suspects that Mitsuko is deceiving them both, she is also aware that at this point she will continue to love Mitsuko regardless. That’s what the title Quicksand is referring to: Sonoko’s powerlessness to resist her. Mitsuko has this magnetic sexuality that enslaves the other principal characters in the novel. They don’t just love her; they’re obsessed with her- even when they realize she takes what she wants from them in pursuit of her own selfish desires. The title of the novel in Japanese is Manji, which refers to a left-facing Buddhist swastika. This represents the four main characters; Mitsuko and the three people that all ultimately fall under her spell (Sonoko, Sonoko’s husband Kotaro, and Watanuki). I got through this book fairly quickly, liking it but not loving it. However, once I finished it and reflected on the whole thing, I felt orders of magnitude more appreciation for it. The book has one of the best endings I have ever read, and really made me admire the story as a whole.

The Overstory

Author: Richard Powers 

Published: 2018 

Country: United States 

Genre: Environmental Fiction/Literary Fiction 

First Sentence: “First there was nothing. Then there was everything.” 

Review: The word “epic” is thrown about a lot, but in regards to Richard Powers’ The Overstory its use is entirely warranted. I can’t think of a word more appropriate for describing this novel, when taking into account its many point-of-view characters, its sweeping multi-generational narrative, and its larger-than-life ideas, than “epic”. This is the goddam Iliad of ecological fiction. It’s ambitious, powerful, and unlike anything else I’ve ever read. It’s also an example of why, from a purely commercial perspective, having a killer book cover is so important. I was browsing the bookstore in Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport back in March when this novel caught my eye. The cover is absolutely beautiful, and sitting on the shelf it seemed to pull all the attention away from the other books around it. It depicts a lone traveler in a stunning redwood forest, which could indicate the smallness of humanity against the immensity of nature, or perhaps a person reconnecting with the natural world. In retrospect the cover really does capture the sheer majesty of trees, a sentiment that’s reflected throughout the novel. At the time it made me think of the Oregon Trail and the pioneers of the Old West. That, in conjunction with the vague and slightly misleading blurb, made me think that this was- in part at least- a 19th century historical novel. But even though the blurb says that the story covers “antebellum New York” to the present day, it’s almost exclusively the latter. The first few pages cover some backstory that begins in the 19th century, but the rest of the book roughly takes place from the 1950s to the present. While I did ultimately love this book, I’m kinda glad that I didn’t know what I was getting into, because if I knew how scientific this was I think I would have been put off. I tend to go with character-driven fiction with very human themes and very human problems. High-concept stuff can leave me a little cold. But even though I agree with many readers that the trees overshadow the people in this novel, I still feel like the characters are complex and interesting, and the book as a whole isn’t lacking in heart. The novel is structured like a tree, divided into the following sections: Roots, Trunk, Crown, and Seeds. Roots, appropriately enough, introduces each of the nine protagonists in standalone short stories that don’t overlap. Trunk sees them come together through a shared connection with trees, and Crown sees them scatter, branching away from one another into their own independent lives again- though they are profoundly affected by their time together. Seeds is the shortest section, an epilogue that indicates the future. I loved this story. I could actually envisage Roots working on its own as a short story collection connected by a common theme of trees and nothing more. Each character’s story was self-contained and satisfying. Similarly, I could see Trunk, Crown, and Seeds existing perfectly fine without Roots. Trunk is really where the book begins as a novel, and the stuff in Roots could be worked in piecemeal throughout the way backstories usually are, or indeed it could be dispensed with altogether. That’s not to say I don’t like the book as is of course. I love it in fact. My favorite characters were Nick, Mimi, Dorothy, Ray, and Olivia, but they are all well-written. I also think I read this at the right time, given my growing sympathy for and interest in movements such as Extinction Rebellion here in the U.K, and climate activists such as Greta Thunberg worldwide.

Invisible Cities

Author: Italo Calvino 

Published: 1972 

Country: Italy 

Genre: Literary Fiction/Travel Fiction/Magical Realism 

First Sentence: “Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions, but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening to the young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger or explorer of his.” 

Review: This is a difficult book to label. The most accurate term I can think of is “fictional travelogue”. That at least gives you an idea of the way the book is presented and how it reads. But in practice Invisible Cities is more like a philosophical essay arranged in the form of a travelogue. On the surface it’s a fictionalized account of Marco Polo describing his travels to Kublai Khan. I wouldn’t call this a plot. It’s more of a framing device that contextualizes a series of meditative sketches. In that sense the book feels more like a piece of creative non-fiction. Despite the framing device of the Khan’s conversation with Marco Polo, this isn’t a work of historical fiction. Between these connecting passages, which are written in the third person and read like a conventional work of fiction, the meat of the book consists of descriptions of fictional cities, each about a page or two long, written from the first-person perspective of Marco Polo. Even though he addresses Kublai Khan in these little snapshots (which might as well be blog posts, or Tripadvisor reviews), the connection to the framing device ends there. Not only are the cities he describes not real, they are completely illogical. Their superficial details are drawn from various time periods and realms of pure fantasy; juxtapositions of zeppelins, skyscrapers, water nymphs, Pagan temples, and other surreal imagery you wouldn’t expect from a 13th century setting. There’s a city that builds a mirror image of itself underground in which they preserve their dead doing whatever it was they did in life, a city built on stilts above a forest whose inhabitants avoid all contact with the ground, a “spider-web city” of ropes and catwalks suspended between two steep mountains that will one day collapse, a city whose layout reflects the constellations, a city that’s everywhere and nowhere at once, and so on. You get the idea. The point I think, is that beneath the dreamlike surface, each account expresses something universal about the way we perceive cities, about the meaning of place, and what our cities say about human nature. This was a very intriguing book with a lot going on, and as such is probably better suited to a deeper study than a quick, one-time read. Some passages really stuck with me, but I also got a sense that a lot of stuff was going over my head. 

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