Five Short Reviews

I’ve been struggling to find words to write about books I’ve read recently, for a variety of reasons. It has turned into a very busy summer teaching, preparing to teach, and writing my own (non-fiction) book, and the result has been that I just want to retreat into whatever book I’m reading in the little downtime I get. I am still reading and want to say something about these books, so I’ve decided to clear out some of my backlog with five short reviews of fewer than 100 words each. Some of these are deserving of more, but this is about catching up and I liked each of these books, so brevity should not be taken as an indictment.

The Company She Kept — Archer Mayer

Joe Gunther is a Vermont detective of the old type. Gunther’s depth comes because the novels have charted the lives of him and his team for three decades. In this 2015 installment, Gunther’s team is brought on to solve the murder of Susan Raffner, a state senator found hanging from a cliff, “DYKE” carved into her chest. The deceased is a confidant of Gail Zigman, the governor and Joe’s ex-girlfriend. This is a lesser novel in the series, being much more interested in debates about sexuality than in the team and building to an anti-climactic reveal. Adequate, but unspectacular.

Assassin’s Quest — Robin Hobb

The culmination to the trilogy that began with Assassin’s Apprentice. King Regal has abandoned much of Buck kingdom to the raiders and withdrawn inland to his mother’s home, surrounding himself with sycophants and violent criminals. Fitz, who most believe dead, must set off into the mountains to find Valiant—the rightful king—before it is too late. Hobb sticks the landing for this set of novels, carrying through a fantasy series driven by emotional stakes and putting Fitz through the emotional ringer by forcing him to give up his youthful fantasies in the process of becoming an adult.

Nazi Literature in the Americas — Roberto Bolaño

Nazis and Nazi-sympathizers come in all shapes, and not all wear a sign of their affiliation. This idiosyncratic books is a fictional encyclopedia of Nazi authors in the Western Hemisphere from the early twentieth century through first quarter (or so) of the twenty-first. The format does not lend itself to plot and many of the characters are presented in a flat, clinical manner, but their stories are nevertheless told with a degree of dark, dry humor. The horror, by contrast, comes from their normalcy. Probably not the Bolaño book to start with, but I’m looking forward to reading another.

The Vegetarian — Han Kang

Yeong-hye is normal enough before a singular act of defiance, the decision to become a vegetarian, changes everything. Told in three acts through the eyes of Yeong-hye’s husband, brother-in-law, and sister, The Vegetarian is about one woman’s attempt to reclaim her body by controlling what goes into it. The three external narrators give this book a surreal and horrifying aspect since everyone else sees her as an insensate lunatic to correct or exploit, but utterly irrational, while, in return, she is totally removed from the ways in which her choice—and it is her choice—has consequences for her family.

Visitations — Jenny Erpenbeck

Lingering at a property on Brandenburg Lake near Berlin, this novel is woven from the lives of the inhabitants that lived there in the twentieth century, even if fleetingly. Between each episode, the gardener trims and maintains. Erpenbeck’s ethereal prose, even in translation, gives the sense that the characters are ghosts brought back to share their experiences. Each episode is linked by the connection to this place, and I found them variously affecting on their own right, with the story of a young Jewish girl hiding from the Nazis particularly powerful.

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Since resolving to do this, I have also finished reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods and am now taking a second crack at Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a book that I gave up on once before.

January 2015 Reading Recap

January was a v. busy month for me, so I only read three books and didn’t post here as often as I would have liked. That is just how it goes, though.

The Black Book, Orhan Pamuk
Galip is a lawyer in Istanbul and is married to his cousin Ruya, who is the younger famous newspaper columnist Celal. One day when Galip returns home from the office, Ruya has disappeared, and so has Celal. There are dozens of people hunting for Celal and Galip joins the pursuit, but not for the columnist, but because he believes that Ruya may be there with him. What follows is a labyrinthine tale that, in chapters, alternates between Galip’s hunt and Celal’s columns that are somehow linked to the steps that Galip took to find Celal. Eventually, Galip decides that he must become Celal and think like him if he is going to ever find his wife.

The Black Book is the sixth book (fourth novel) of Pamuk’s I’ve read. It is a convoluted and dense read and Pamuk plays with format and style. The story feels like it is constructed of a number of frayed and loose ends right up until the end when Pamuk ties it neatly together, giving the reader resolution, if not the ending that might be hoped for. This is not the Pamuk novel I would recommend starting with, but I came away with a strange sense of fondness toward it, particularly in this regard: Pamuk creates three distinct characters that orbit the central plot of the story, but you only ever meet one, Galip. The other two exist, but exist off-stage. Further, I felt sadness because Galip loves Ruya very deeply, but the presentation makes it impossible to tell is Ruya reciprocates, and there is the haunting feeling that she does not. Whether that is true, we will never know. This is the sort of narration and craft I love Pamuk for, and I look forward to reading The Museum of Innocence next among his novels.

Paradise City, Archer Mayor
A thoroughly indulgent read on my part, Paradise City is a relatively recent (2012) installment in Mayor’s “Joe Gunthor” series of detective procedurals set in Vermont and New England. The books are fast-paced and engaging, and I feel a connection with them because Mayor evokes that part of the world, i.e. areas within several hours’ drive from the epicenter of Brattleboro, Vermont. The core characters, the dour, fair, human lead agent (former detective, now special agent with an agency called the VBI) Joe Gunthor and his two long-time colleagues Sammie Martens and Willy Kunkle, a couple with a child. Sammi is hard-nosed and capable, Willy is a one-armed, PTSD-survivor, former-alcoholic and wildly unorthodox cop. Along with other regular cast members, they are on the case.

The plot of Paradise City is that there is a human trafficking operation and stolen jewelry fencing operation going on somewhere in Western Massachusetts, which brings events in Boston and events in Brattleboro into a collision course. That is not really the reason to read the story, though. The series has a long-standing cast that has aged and progressed as time has moved on. The specific procedural element is just the trapping for a more human and humane story about these characters who the reader (if you’ve been reading them long enough) come to care for and enjoy spending time with. Paradise City was satisfactory along those lines, but not nearly my favorite. For new readers, I would recommend starting either at the start of the series or with Fruits of the Poisonous Tree or, my favorite, The Dark Root. Mayor introduces all the characters anew so that it is possible to follow along, but since I enjoy the characters more than the stories themselves, usually, it is better to see them in their younger years.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things, Pat Rothfuss
Set in the same world as Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles, Slow Regard tells a brief (to the extent epic fantasy authors can be brief) story about one of the side characters in the main series, Auri. The author’s note at the beginning says that this might not be the story you want. It doesn’t advance the main plot, doesn’t have dialogue, and doesn’t have much besides the daily life of a woman of indeterminate age whose experiences with magic have given her great insight into the nature of the world, but also broken her a little bit inside. There is a haunting beauty in this story and I was reminded of Gaimon’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane in that it is not a traditional story, but a powerful one nonetheless. In particular, I appreciated the presentation of Auri has immensely capable and insightful, but also in a constant battle with anxiety as a way of keeping the world at its rights. I like Rothfuss’ writing and while I eagerly await the third book in The Kingkiller Chronicles, I will also read whatever it is he wants to give me while he gets the book right, as it were. It is best to do things the right way and in the proper time, as Auri would put it.


If I get my way, which is unlikely, February will be a more successful month of reading. I am currently in the middle of Christopher Priest’s Inverted World, a 1974 science fiction novel about a city on tracks that moves around the world in order to stay close to “the optimum,” and am enjoying it a lot. After that will probably be Atiq Rahimi’s A Curse on Dostoevsky.