Sunday, January 1, 2017

Book Reviews December 2016

Ongoingness: The End of a Diary by Sarah Manguso.  This is a short nonfiction book about Manguso’s daily writing in her diary, and how she didn’t feel like something had happened in her life until she had a chance to write about it.  It’s not uninteresting, but I couldn’t help but feel that the real subject is not writing in a diary but suffering from OCD, and how she became a slave to its compulsions.  She ends up not sharing any of the diary in the book, and writes well about her decision not to do so.  To me the book got interesting when she has a son at an older age and his arrival and presence interrupts her diary writing, and she no longer has the need to write obsessively.  What she writes about having a newborn I found very compelling.  And it is a quick and interesting read overall – just not always about what it is seemingly about, if you know what I mean.

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante.  I’m not sure I really have anything new to say about this, the fourth and final book of her Neapolitan novels.  I stand by what I’ve written about the first three:  they are interesting and odd and I’m still surprised they were such a popular hit.  I found them all rather Proustian in that Ferrante goes over the same ground repeatedly with nuanced variation.  I enjoyed seeing the lives of Elena and Lila unfold, and I also appreciated an extensive look at female friendship – which is the main topic of the book.  However, it is an odd friendship, to be sure, and not one I’d call typical.  They don’t confide, but play off of one another, subconsciously, often mean-spiritedly, and fascinatingly.  Each one would not have been who she was without the other, but that is not necessarily a good thing.  I’m glad I read them.

Escape Clause by John Sandford.  This is the ninth Virgil Flowers book and just as fun to read as all the others.  This one was a little different in that for once, everything goes wrong for Virgil.  He arrives just as the perpetrator successfully leaves, he doesn’t get messages in time, he does a lot of waiting for nothing that happens until he leaves.  It was a fun change from the other books, and just as entertainingly written.  Two tigers get stolen from the Minnesota zoo and Virgil is assigned to try to find them before disaster ensues.  Disaster ensues.

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner.  This novel I read and loved in graduate school years ago, but hadn’t revisited since then.  I began it with a bit of trepidation, as I’m always wary of being disappointed by novels that I used to love.  And it was still quite delightful, although I must admit to now not quite understanding the ending.  It was written in the 1920’s and is about a woman, Laura, a typical spinster of the times, who when her beloved father dies is shunted off to live with her married brother and his family in London, without anyone ever asking her what she would like to do.  Ever dutiful, Laura lives there for years, an aunt to her nieces and nephew, and the kind of woman whose needs always go second to everyone else’s.  But Lolly, as she is called by her family, has an epiphany one day while buying branches at a small shop.  The shopkeeper tells her they are from his family property in the Chilterns, and Lolly immediately buys a guide book to the Chilterns and decides she will move to a village called Great Mop.  Her family is loath to “let” her leave, but she stands her ground, and ends up in Great Mop as a lodger (her brother has lost most of her large inheritance on the stock exchange as it turns out).  It is at this point that the novel becomes a little fanciful and symbolic.  Her nephew Titus comes to visit and decides to move to Great Mop too, and Lolly is so afraid of being drawn back into secondary family life that she makes a deal with the devil and becomes a witch.  It’s fun and wonderfully written; the symbolism which was so clear to me when I read it in my late twenties is a little more slippery for me now, but that didn’t take away my enjoyment of the book.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman.  This is one of the funniest novels I’ve read in a long time.  I had heard it had been number one in Sweden for a very long time, so got it on my kindle and it did not disappoint.  Backman does an excellent job with Ove’s voice.  Ove is a very exacting man who does not put up with fools gladly.  He’s logical and expects everyone else to accede to his logic.  He’s the kind of guy who has driven a saab his entire life, and can understand if you are a Volvo guy, but will not talk to you if you buy a BMW or something French.  When the book begins, Ove’s beloved wife, Sonja, has died, and Ove doesn’t see how he can carry on without her.  He continues on with his daily routines and finds himself making ties with his new (and old) neighbors in ways that he wouldn’t have thought possible.  Along the way he gets adopted by a “Cat Annoyance”.  It is all very moving and hilarious and well done.  I highly recommend it.

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