Tag: book review

Book Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward


Sing Unburied Sing

A year and a half ago I read Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner and found within it one of my favorite passages of all time:

Quentin had grown up with that; the mere names were interchangeable and almost myriad. His childhood was full of them; his very body was an empty hall echoing with sonorous defeated names; he was not a being, an entity, he was a commonwealth. He was a barracks filled with stubborn back-looking ghosts still recovering, even forty-three years afterward, from the fever which had cured the disease, waking from the fever without even knowing that it had been the fever itself which they had fought against and not the sickness, looking with stubborn recalcitrance backward beyond the fever and into the disease with actual regret, weak from the fever yet free of the disease and not even aware that the freedom was that of impotence.

The passage is about a young man growing up in the Reconstruction South where everybody was still obsessed with their “lost cause” and the lengths they went to in an effort to retain their right to own other people. The “back-looking ghosts” are an amazing image for that desire to return over and over again to a battle that was already fought and rightfully lost, and that Quentin is literally constructed as a place to hold these ghosts in the logic of the sentence is something that has stuck with me and will continue to do so. It changed the way I think about ghost stories, the Civil War, the American South, the passage of time, and race. I guess I have been looking for a story that would strike me as much as this one part of a paragraph did.


Lincoln in the Bardo in Galway


On my first day of walking around Galway I stopped into a local bookstore, as was inevitable. There I found a book I had been meaning to pick up but had no time to read as I was finishing my Masters Thesis and then moving back to CT. Now, though, I would have plenty of time to read George Saunders’ first novel. The author, known for both is short stories and his non-fiction essays (most notably this fantastic piece about Donald Trump) delved into the longer-fiction end of the pool with Lincoln in the Bardo, a novel told through a combination of dialogue (kind of) and historical accounts (a mix of real and made-up sources) about the time directly preceding and following little Willie Lincoln’s death. The boy’s spirit (or something) pops into being at the beginning of the novel and the rest of the book concerns the other spirits’ quest to help him transition onto the next place while his father, the unpopular President only 1 year into the Civil War, lingers around the cemetery and, following real events, holding the body of his young boy in his arms. That is the majority of the story that happens in this book, but Saunders accomplishes much more in the course of the novel.


The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

“What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint.”

Oh, what a lovely little book this is. For the first 100 or so pages (almost half of the novel’s thickness), it reads like a dry accounting of the happenings at an old English house in the years between the two World Wars as told in memory by an aging butler as he drives around the pleasant English countryside. If the rest of the book had kept the same stakes and low-key nature of the first part I’d be happy to have read it, given how much I enjoyed the setting and the character of Stevens. But it doesn’t, of course. Mixed in with those memories are musings about the proper way to be a butler and what kind of a man the best butlers serve. Stevens defines himself almost entirely in relation to Mr. Darlington, the man whose house he keeps. Initially, Stevens is proud to be Mr. Darlington’s butler, as Darlington works tirelessly towards keeping relations between Britain and Germany intact. It’s an admirable cause, but things don’t go quite as planned.

Stevens isn’t just riding around the country for no good reason. One of the best things about this book is that, through the conversation he has with us, the readers, we learn almost everything there is to learn about him. He rarely comments on emotional or interpersonal happenings, just as any well-trained butler would avoid doing. What he doesn’t say, however, says a lot. Outside of the actions of Mr. Darlington, there’s a co-worker that provides some push-back to Stevens’ strictly business nature, Miss Kenton. She’s a bit younger than he and is the only real mirror by which we can see how one event or another makes him feel. There may also be a romance there, though Stevens would never admit to such a sordid possibility. In fact, it’s hard to tell if he would even recognize the potential romance that may blossom between them. He is consistently dignified, to the point that the end of his journey is a call on the former Miss Kenton to see if her marriage issues would maybe result in her wanting to rejoin him at Darlington Hall.

The book adapts his quiet, thoughtful nature. It meanders as he travels down the country lanes whose hedges mask the surrounding landscape much like how Stevens masked his own feelings in the service of another. The second half of the book builds doubts and makes us question if Stevens is really being as forthcoming as he seems to be. The book pulls all of its strands together in a lovely closing 20 pages which at once conclude it definitively and lets us in on the delicate and precise motions going on behind the scenes to get everything on display working like a well-served meal at an old British house.

Tenth of December by George Saunders

I sometimes feel like short stories are the truest form of storytelling. You get thrown into a situation and have to both get your bearings and get the story going. It’s like the storytelling Thunderdome. So when a guy devotes the majority of his efforts to short stories (a market both flooded and limited in moneymaking potential as far as writing goes), I tend to take notice. In an intro to one of his shorts collections, Stephen King lamented at the loss of eyeballs, or, more accurately, places where eyeballs might find short stories. Magazines are dying and have forsaken all but a few pages worth of shorts, and the internet has not fostered writers as we might have imagined it would. Still, Saunders soldiers on. His fourth collection, Tenth of December came out in January and the ten stories contained therein are some of the best writing I’ve read this year. Simple storytelling meets real characters with real dialogue in just-outside-of-real situations. A combination destined for greatness when a master of the form is guiding us.

Saunders writes what could be classified as science-fiction short stories, though most critics prefer terms like “satirical futurism” or “speculative humor”. That’s a bunch of stuffiness as far as I can tell. Stories about drugs that inspire chivalric romance in lowly janitors at a themed restaurant or conspicuous consumption taken to such extremes as to include hanging third-world girls out on the lawn as status symbols is pure sci-fi to me. Which is great. Embrace the genre, George. Tell ’em how it really is (or will be). Perhaps the best story in the collection is one in which inmates are given the option of becoming human guinea pigs for drugs which can increase vocabulary and cause the subject to fall deeply in love with somebody they’ve just met. Of course these tests must be repeated and contorted for scientific accuracy, so there’s as much suffering as there is love to be had. “Escape from Spiderhead” is a masterpiece of emotional, comical, tragic sci-fi writing.

Only about half of the shorts here are sci-fi, though, and all of them are pretty simply told. We’re almost always directly inside the heads of the characters and we follow them on their little digressions, their flights of fancy and not-s0-fancy. Since there are ten stories and most have multiple perspectives, Saunders had to create at least fifteen unique individuals for us to inhabit for a few pages at a time. He does so with ease, effortlessly evoking a young girl’s dreams of a special man who might save her from her boring life, or two mothers who live on opposite sides of the tracks and have very different priorities and prejudices. The bookend stories are both mundane in nature, each only one scene, one bit of action, and yet, in the five perspectives Saunders writes from, we get such a wide range of thoughts, feelings, and language. If short stories are a writer’s Thunderdome, Saunders is our time’s Tina Turner.

If on a winter’s night a traveler – Italo Calvino

“You have with you the book you were reading in the cafe, which you are eager to continue, so that you can then hand it on to her, to communicate again with her through the channel dug by others’ words, which, as they are uttered by an alien voice, by the voice of that silent nobody made of ink and typographical spacing, can become yours and hers, a language, a code between the two of you, a means to exchange signals and recognize each other.”

I could start this blog post with a cleverly meta reference to Italo Calvino’s book If on a winter’s night a traveler. Firstly, it’d have to start in the second person because that’s how about half of the book is told. It’s kind of a marvel that such a strange storytelling device works outside of Choose Your Own Adventure books. There’s a reason why most books are written in the first and third person, and that reason is because it’s super tough to write in the second without sounding weird all the time. But Calvino manages it because he’s amazing. Moving swiftly on, I’d then have to start the review of the book but it wouldn’t be the review, it’d be a description of you reading the review, and your thoughts about the review as you read it. And then it’d end abruptly and we’d go back to the second person portion of the show for a while while we introduce another Blog Reader of the opposite sex to move the plot forward. I’d go back to the review part again but this time it would be a review for something else entirely, maybe the new Iron Man movie or whatever. And you’d get invested in that review, hanging on my every word, hoping to find out just what I thought of Tony Stark’s latest adventure. And then it’d stop and we’d have a new mystery on our hands. Why am I only writing the beginning of the reviews, and who is this other Reader?

Luckily for you and me, I’m not doing that. Just that paragraph up there was hard enough to write, and I’m sure somebody else has already taken that tack when it comes to talking about this astounding novel. Instead, I’m just going to tell you why the book is amazing. And to go in a completely opposite direction I’m going to do it in a bulleted list format.

  • As mentioned above, about half the book is written in the second person. It’s a way to make “you” a character in the story, which is really cool. It’s also a way to make you connect with the ideas Calvino presents throughout about what literature means to us, the readers. Who has the final say on what a book means. Is the author at all important? Would a computer generated novel that exactly mimics an author be an atrocity to art? Do references and stolen scenes detract or add to our appreciation of a work? How do we form our likes and our dislikes, and how do we pick which book to read next when there are innumerable options? All these questions and more are brought up throughout the novel and Calvino wisely answers few of them, preferring instead to let us come to our own conclusions. If every you’ve been captivated by a novel, this is one that you must read because it makes you question yourself and discovery why reading means so much to you.
  • The other half of the book is ten opening chapters of ten wildly different fictional books. This was the perfect thing for me to read at the perfect time. I hadn’t read anything truly spectacular for a long time, at least the beginning of the year, and I had picked up the troubling habit of starting and stopping several books at a time. Nothing was grabbing my interest. Here comes Italo Calvino (an author I already knew I liked thanks to the Top-50-worthy Cosmicomics) with a book seemingly tailor made for my predicament. I couldn’t read past those tantalizing opening pages by design. And what opening pages they were! Almost every one was interesting in one way or another. The first, a spy caper gone provincial (?) was fascinating in Calvino’s ability to evoke a mood and sense of place. Other highlights include the paranoid musings of a professor who thinks any phone ringing is for him (he might be right) and a sad man who might be taking part in a jailbreak plot or might just be recording scientific observations. Each section has its own style and voice and genre, an idea which delighted me in Cloud Atlas (a book for which this is a clear predecessor and influence) and continued to do so here. It was the remedy for what ailed me and I loved it.
  • The love story between the Reader and the Other Reader is a really nice throughline for a sometimes confusing plot. Always there’s “you” and her and “your” desire for her drives everything “you” do in the book. Even when things get crazy it’s always clear why this is happening. There’s a mystery (why can you only read the openings of books and why are the titles and covers all screwy?) which is fun but even that is a part of the love story because it’s what brings the two characters together.
  • Italo Calvino is a hilarious guy. There are quite a few laugh-out-loud moments and the ever increasing strangeness of the plot is funny in its own way. But more than just being funny for funny’s sake, the humor is used to undercut some of the self-serious ideas Calvino ponders/causes us to ponder. The best example of this comes during the main plot portion of the book which, at this point, takes the form of a diary by a popular mystery writer. He has dreams of being literary and invents a literary writer who has dreams of being popular. He wonders what would happen if he wrote a literary book while the other writer wrote a populist book. Would people be able to tell the difference? Would the wrong person get credit for the wrong book? Would they end up writing the same book, word for word? Would it even matter? It’s a delightfully existentialist musing portion of the book which is unlike any other part of the book. But really, no part of the book is like any other part. That’s the genius.

Alright, four’s enough. In case you haven’t guessed it, I really love this book. It vaulted instantly into my top 5 of all time. I must read others by Calvino. He’s everything I want in a writer. Also, how is there not a movie version of this yet. And I’m not talking a straight adaptation with books taking the focus. It’s pretty easy to imagine a movie about movies like this is a book about books. Movie genres are easy to differentiate, maybe even more so than books. You probably couldn’t fit all ten openings into one movie but you could do 6 or so with the rest being the story of an avid movie watcher. Get on that, Hollywood.