By Dennis Abrams
It seems like I’ve read a lot of books this year (most of which were research for my soon to be published YA Guide to Shakespeare, which is coming from Pentian in early 2016), but here are a few that were decidedly non-Shakespearean.
First up: Two I didn’t like.
Jonathan Franzen’s Purity: Honestly, it’s not so much that I didn’t like it, I just couldn’t get myself interested enough in it to finish it. When the most interesting part of the book is not the main character and her problems but the love triangle between the journalist, her author/husband, and her editor/soon to be lover, something has, I think, gone wrong. I’ll try it again…sometime.
Hanna Yanagihara’s A Little Life: The writing was, for the most part, so good that I couldn’t put it down. But the time I was done with it, I wished I had. And I kind of felt like I needed a bath.
My two objections: By the end, it’s clear that the book is really not much more than a highly literary soap opera. It tells the story of four men who become friends in college and (for the most part) remain so throughout their lives – think Mary McCarthy’s The Group. But here’s where the soap opera comes in: not only do all four become successful in their fields (art, architecture, acting, law), they become successful to the point of near absurdity (awards, fortunes made, international acclaim), all living in Architecture Digest worthy abodes, etc. It’s just too much.
And then there’s the “main” character of the four – Jude. SPOILER ALERT: As the book progresses, in a kind of sadistic version of the dance of the seven veils, readers slowly learn the extent to which Jude had been abused and damaged. And while I understand the horrors of abuse, he’s not just abused…he’s ABUSED. Raped by a succession of monks, he’s taken away from the monastery and pimped out on a continuing basis by another monk until he makes his escape and sells his body to travel cross country (nearly dying in the process) until he falls under the care of a “doctor” who then imprisons him in his basement dungeon and continues the abuse, and THEN, when Jude “escapes,” from him, that same doctor runs him over in a field nearly killing him…and on and on…Even Jude’s first “relationship” ends in abuse when his boyfriend pushes him and his wheelchair down a flight of stairs. And on and on it seems, while still somehow managing to become one of the top attorneys in the country.
Even Little Nell didn’t go through so much. In the movie All About Eve, Thelma Ritter’s character Birdie, after hearing Eve’s fictional tale of woe, caustically remarks, “Everything but the bloodhounds snapping at her rear end.” In my take, Yanagihara included the blood hounds. And then some. (I also suspect that if a male author had done to his book’s heroine what Yanagihara did to hers, he’d be accused of being misogynistic if not worse. But that’s something else again.)
And now…the two I loved:
Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life. I reviewed this for PP shortly after I read it and now, six months later, it stands out as the best novel I’ve read this year by a long shot. A love story, a story of the American dream in the 21st century, a story of the immigrant experience unlike any you’ve ever read, all pulled together by the most hypnotic and seductive voice I’ve come across in a long time. Everybody I’ve pushed the book on has loved it – I wouldn’t hesitate to call it a masterpiece.
Ta-Neihisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. The story of race in America today. If you want to understand Ferguson, Black Lives Matter, Baltimore and everything else going on along the great American racial divide, this is the book. Essential, to say the least.
Finally, I have to acknowledge that Edward Nawotka’s top selection, Fifteen Dogs, is truly excellent. I finished reading it last week, loved it way more than I thought I would, and have sung its praises to any number of friends since. Think Animal Farm, but far less didactic and infinitely more complex. Plus…it’s about dogs. You’ll love it.
Of course, there’s also Patti Smith’s mysteriously beautiful M Train and Adam Johnson’s award-winning short story collection Fortune Smiles and…and…and…