Reviews of books by Rachel Lebowitz, Kiley Reid, Geoff Dyer and Charles Yu
The Year of No Summer
by Rachel Lebowitz
I finished this book the same day that the news was full of reports of 70+ people dying in Kentucky from “once in a century” tornados. These events could easily have been folded into the fragmented analysis/narrative of Rachel Lebowitz’s excellent book, which mediates on multiple disasters, some sourced from the natural world (notably a massive 1815 volcanic eruption), some from man (notably WWI).
Does it all hold together? At the end of the book, the narrator concludes that it must, but she doesn’t know how: “My hands are too small for God.” Earlier she stated: “If there is wisdom, it is nothing I know. It’s all just birds and storms and hauntings. We look behind and scoff, as if those ahead aren’t doing the same.”
The narrator is too humble. She is surely wise, and this book contains much wisdom, but it is the wisdom of the poetic, the juxtaposition and accumulation of disparate facts, details and stories. Does it all hold together? Yes, but it is not easily summarized. It cannot be reduced to a branding slogan. And many mercies for that.
The book this book most reminded me of was Joseph Brodsky’s Watermark. I think it was something about the approach to the material, how the conclusions are not overly explained. This is not a naïve text; the reader must work and sometimes plough though, carry on. Is the book “hauntingly meaningful in today’s climate crisis,” as the back marketing blurb suggests? Sure, okay. Today’s tornados and 2021’s floods, fires and droughts provide much to mediate on.
Can we surround it all and hold it together? Our hands are too small for God, but our minds, our hearts, can engage. Ms. Lebowitz shows how.
Such a Fun Age
by Kiley Reid
Funny story. I read this book on my Kindle for my neighborhood book club, and I thought the author was White. So my first comment was, “It seems awkward that a White woman would attempt this story.” My colleagues asked if I hadn’t looked at the author photo. No, what photo? Not on my Kindle.
Ah, I thought suddenly, so it’s not a book by a White author attempting to … what? … address their racist guilt? No, it’s a calling out of the racist BS well-meaning but seriously misdirected White (North) Americans perpetuate daily. Well, at least now the conversation could proceed on a firmer fact-based foundation.
What did I think of the book? It speeds along well worn dramatic alleyways. It is rife with contemporary situations, technologies, and anxieties. None of the characters are terribly pleasant. The protagonist come across as unnaturally naïve (thank goodness for her sharper-knife-in-the-drawer friends). The climax seemed predictable and, to me, unsatisfying.
There were long sequences of characters talking to each other, group scenes, that frustrated me as I read the book because—how is this advancing the plot? But in retrospect, the scenes with the protagonist and her friends are the ones I remember best and most fondly. They revealed the characters, their joie de vivre, their tenacity. I remember this as a book about friendship and about being true to yourself, standing up for your friends, getting what you deserve.
For the White characters, serious life-altering reflection required.
by Geoff Dyer
I knew Geoff Dyer had an interest in jazz, because I’d read his selected non-fiction, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition (2011), but I only recently became aware of But Beautiful (1991). I listened to it as an audiobook, thinking that there would be jazz and then exposition, but it wasn’t that kind of book. (I obviously didn’t research it well enough before I downloaded it!)
But Beautiful is fictional stories about jazz greats, each getting a section, many sections overlapping in part. I am calling it fiction, but it is fact-based. It could be creative non-fiction, if it were more journalistic. I see Wikipedia calls it “the first of Dyer’s so-called ‘genre-defying’ works.” I dunno. I wouldn’t call this book genre-defying, though in retrospect one can see its continuity with Dyer’s obsessions and later approaches to fiction/fact blending.
As an audio book, the prevalent tone was sadness. There is perpetual tragedy in the lives of these men—and those around them—as well as a purity of artistic commitment and accomplishment that seems almost quaint now. When was the last time any artist had anxiety about selling out? What gets celebrated more now, the art, or the business models that create blockbusters?
But Beautiful, the book whispers. Yes, there is crap crap crap crap. But there is also beauty. This book surprised me and reminded me.
by Charles Yu
Won't give away any plot points. What has remained at the forefront of my mind throughout this book, is the lack of a grounding in place for the action. Seems strange to say, because every action happens somewhere, but the book seems to question what do we mean by place?
There is both the real, material world, and the imagined, projected, socialized projection of so-called meaning onto place. Chinatown is both a real place and an imagined, constructed reality. The action in the book seems to be both part of a grounded real-world continuum and also happen within a TV script world.
There's a "through the looking glass" quality, which leaves lots of room for interpretation and contemplation. Who gets to control the definitions—internally and externally—is obviously key.
The author profoundly links the real-world legal exclusions and controls on Chinese people in the USA, beginning in the 1800s and through the 20th century, with the ongoing internal/external exclusions and controls on the imaginative presentation and lived experience of Chinese-related people in Western societies.
Perhaps of interest: In the notes at the end of the book, the author praises Erving Goffman's 1956 book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Wikipedia tells me Goffman was a Canadian-born sociologist, social psychologist, and writer, considered by some "the most influential American sociologist of the twentieth century." He was previously unknown to me, which seems strange, but there it is. Another line of inquiry opens.