Early drafts of my story-reviews often start out very personal. A moment or two related to grief and family, which I first bend around a review of the book, then work to find a balance.
I’ve been writing these sorts of reviews since 2014 and as time goes on I like to check back to see how I handled finding this balance. I recently looked at my review and marginalia for Bae Suah’s novel, “Recitation,” translated by Deborah Smith. Continue reading
Halfway through the year, wanted to post about two books I enjoyed.
“Why Art?” by Eleanor Davis, from Fantagraphics, shifts from basic questions of what is art, who does art, how do people make and experience art, into an exploration of the title-question, modulating between factual statements and surreal tangent-anecdotes. When a plot emerges, we’re suddenly in a disaster adventure tale with a climax that would, in another writer’s hands, come off as an insipid platitude. Instead, told via spare text and casually intense black-and-white line-art; with terrific moments of tension and humor; statements about gender, equality, and humanity; Davis delivers complex, convincing answers to the book’s central questions.
In an entirely different book, I had a reading experience I don’t know if I’d recommend, but I have to discuss. One side of me is reluctant to say why it turned into a bad experience. Another side is eager to see if other people had the same experience. But having said even this much I’ve affected the reading experience for anyone who decides to pick it up. Anyway, the book is “Fatale,” by Jean-Patrick Manchette, from NYRB, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Focused on a female assassin who targets the rich in a small port town, it’s one of the darkest, most unfliching crime novels I’ve ever read, and reminded me of Patricia Highsmith, who does not mess around when it comes to depicting violence in society, especially against women. But there’s a hidden explosive in the book that detonated, for me, with the very last line. It was so baffling I said, “No!” loudly and put the book down hard. Which is to say, I highly recommend it, if you like crime novels, and would love to hear if the last line bothered you, too.
More soon! Please drop me recommendations of things to read in the comments, if you feel moved. I’m always looking for new books to try.
I recently shared the above photo of a tall stack of small books on Twitter. I enjoyed most of them and think my tastes lately have been running toward the sort of things writers do in a short book versus a long book.
There’s no use in trying to define short book or long book. Yes, there’s its size and page count but that hardly defines it as a book. Reading defines books. In terms of heft and the realities of production costs and potential film rights, in the U.S. so much of the market (we’re told) depends on the 300-page book that anyone who writes fiction is forced to grapple mentally with the meaning of this demanding animal for at least a little while as some kind of arbitrary standard.
The 300-page book’s magical powers are a mystery. If every writer could write one, they would, we are told. Meaning it’s foolish to take it lightly.
Every reader knows what their favorite big-name fantasy, romance, literary fiction, and crime authors will do in a 300-pager. The respective expectations are set. There are infinite possibilities within these templates and I enjoy them. Even if they’re an extra hundred or two hundred pages long, you still know you’re reading a 300-page book when you open it, and if you cross the 600-page mark, no worries. It’s still written in that enjoyable 300-page book prose and the extra 300 pages are probably good for the endurance.
Still, the absurd mystery of why 300-page-books are revered is bound up in money, but only for about 1 out of 10,000 novels. For my money, I can’t get away from liking the shorter books. Most of the very good long books usually could’ve been whittled down to 200 pages and really done something special. Or been pared down drastically into one good essay that cracked a fascist regime in half. Or a poem that led soldiers worldwide to abandon their posts. But these are not lucrative goals.
“Little books” are doing fine, of course, in terms of appearing often on Twitter and in blog posts. I hope their authors are, too. Here’s another photo of a few more.