Semi-Regular Reading Notes

Here, for what it’s worth, are brief remarks on novels and short story collections I’ve read so far in 2016: 

Margaret Atwood, The Heart Goes Last (Doubleday, 2015). Atwood’s concept is brilliant: a dystopic novel about a for-profit prison in post-collapse America. But none of the characters finally engage the reader.

Elizabeth Day, Home Fires (Bloomsbury, 2013). Although this novel often has that “been there, done that” quality about it—how many more novels of dysfunctional middle-class families do we need?—there are some interesting moments. The main character Caroline is appealing, and her grief over her dead soldier son resonates. Yet the novel concludes on a melodramatic and too-obvious note, as Caroline collapses in London at the Cenotaph, the famous national war memorial. The writer aims for bold drama here—and badly misfires. The conclusion as a whole seems rushed and predictable, and the reader comes away feeling cheated.

Kent Haruf, Plainsong (Vintage, 1999). Haruf’s prose is like High Plains poetry and his characters vibrate with emotional depth.

Kent Haruf, Eventide (Vintage, 2004). The sequel to Plainsong, this novel features the same clear sparse prose that marks all of Haruf’s writing.

Kent Haruf, Where You Once Belonged (Vintage, 2000). Not as fully developed as Plainsong but still gripping for its well-wrought characters and deeply American despair.

Kent Haruf, Our Souls at Night (Knopf, 2015). Haruf’s fans may find the author’s spare style even too barebones for them in this, his last novel. But the story of an elderly man and woman who overcome their loneliness in each other’s company is touching, sweet, and sad, and Haruf’s tone is so gentle and perfect that other writers, even very good ones, seem heavy-handed in comparison.

Kent Haruf, Benediction (Vintage, 2013). In the scale of human emotions that measures mournfulness and hope, this story definitely tends toward the former. Perhaps too much?

Bill Henderson, ed., Pushcart Prize XL: Best of the Small Presses (Pushcart Press, 2016). Surprisingly uneven, considering these are the “best of the best.”

Milan Kundera, Identity (Harper Perennial, 1997). A self-involved, over-educated French couple end up pretty much where they started: self-involved and unaware of what really matters.

Kelly Link, Get in Trouble: Stories (Random House, 2015). Enough with superheroes and demon lovers already.

William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow (Vintage, 1980. Maxwell’s writing is so economical that the reader can sometimes miss the significance of an event. His transitions in point of view and time frame are seamless, and his story about the causes and consequences of a murder—and the narrator’s guilt about his response to the son of the murderer–is told with such care and reticence that the emotional punch becomes even greater than if broader, gaudier brush strokes were used. Masterful.

William Maxwell, They Came Like Swallows (Vintage [1937] 1997). A moving story of a family devastated by loss, delivered in Maxwell’s spare and clean style. Notable is the emphasis on masculine dependency on a strong woman in a middle class family. Published first in 1937, which makes its contemporary theme all the more remarkable.

William Maxwell, All the Days and Nights: The Collected Stories (Vintage, 1995). Fascinating to see the evolution of Maxwell in short form from the 1930s to the ‘90s. But as elegant and precise as Maxwell’s prose, its inward looking nature gives pause. Maxwell called his collected stories “a Natural history of home,” but isn’t “home” embedded in a wider net of relations that also include politics and economics and society? The fiction writer isn’t a sociologist, but it is surprising and a little disappointing to read these fine stories and never really have a clear sense of this embeddedness, this “there-ness” in the flow of time.

Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood (Vintage International, 2000). Though Murakami’s collection of short stories, After the Quake (Vintage International, 2003) is quite fine, Norwegian Wood is disappointing. Its chief merit is its textured description of Japanese culture in the 1960s. Beyond that, its characters are not compelling, and the narrative often lags. Murakami’s lofty reputation precedes him, and in this instance, it is undeserved.

Helen Phillips, The Beautiful Bureaucrat (Henry Holt, 2015). It’s difficult to understand how this novel got published; the author’s attempt at Kafkaesque weirdness feels flat and uncertain.

Annie Proulx, The Shipping News (Scribner, 1994). I’d never read this classic before, but it is worth reading and re-reading. Thanks to my wife for suggesting it.

Annie Proulx, Postcards (Scribner, 1994). After Shipping News, Postcards seems lumbering and a bit showy, and I finally didn’t finish it.

Joy Williams, The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories (Knopf, 2015). These stories carry a punch that may be missed on first reading. Williams is masterful at creating a sense of reality just on the edge of unreality. The wry prose is stripped to its essentials—and more powerful for it.