Swing Time by Zadie Smith :: Zadie Smith is one of my favorite authors so I’m a little ashamed it took me this long to read her latest. It isn’t my favorite work of hers (that still belongs to White Teeth and the nostalgia I have for the first time I read it), but it is competent and reflects the level of humanity I’ve come to expect from Smith. I struggled a bit through the Aimee sections (with the exception of a drunken bar scene) as they could’ve been more succinct and still gotten the point across, though Smith structures her sentences so beautifully that I almost didn’t mind. I also found the passivity of our main character (unnamed as she has been defined by those around her and is just embarking on her own self-discovery at the end) grating, but this girl/woman exists in the world and therefore her characterization is very real and I can appreciate how Smith brought her to life. In other words, the writing is as gorgeous as expected and the characters are real, so real that I quite thoroughly disliked more than one of them, which is really what I want when reading fiction such as this. You can also tell how Smith thinks about and cares about dance: the pages dedicated to the craft and the visual elements of such dancing are some of the most thoroughly rendered; they pop off the page.
Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein :: I love the overall idea of this essay collection and much of the way it is delivered. It’s funny, a little tongue-in-cheek, and relatable to how I grew up, even in the 90s before pink and all-things-girly princess became all the rage. Or, maybe they were the rage then and I just didn’t know it. Some of the assumptions and toy selections are only relevant to the upper middle class, which makes this a bit of a miss for many girls affected by society’s aisles of pink and femininity and p(r)etty expectations. The American Girl doll essay is a prime example of this. The question should not be whether or not their less-terrible traits make them worth the exaggerated price tag in comparison to other dolls; it should be what about the American Girl franchise makes them better than the pink and frilly and princess alternatives. The answer is their stories, and the books, believe it or not, come at a much less hefty price tag and can even be found for free at the library. She somewhat addresses this answer, but only to solidify why the dolls might be worth the price tag rather than saying hey, maybe we don’t need the overpriced dolls because the books are the point anyway. In other words, some (more than I’d like) of these essays touched the more simple answers but didn’t quite push as far as they needed to push to really get to the heart of things. A ton of research went into this collection, though, and it does show. There are places where the writing, the arguments, the research, and the questions all align. It’s more hit-and-miss than I’d like, but it’s a good primer for raising a girl in American consumerist society.
The Girls by Emma Cline :: It took me a while to read this one – partly because I wanted the chatter about it to die down – and now it is a struggle for me to rate. On the one hand, it reads fast and the plot is interesting enough to get through some of the slower sections; on the other, there are paragraphs that add so little to the actual story that they can be skimmed and the plot stays relevant because we already know the reality it is based upon. Cline can set a great scene, which seems to be both the good and the bad. Some of the scenes are so thoughtfully rendered that it makes the glaring ineffectiveness of others more apparent. This is one of those where I could see someone going in with all of the hype and absolutely hating it; but, without the hype, it is a good read, especially if you already know about Manson and his girls.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr :: I should really count this as two books since this one, at 530-odd pages, is truly a beast. It is also one of the few books I’ve read this year that has lived up to the hype it garnered when it first hit the market (and then went on to win numerous prizes). The shifting timeframes and characters seems to have caused some reviewers pains, but for me it makes the most sense to intertwine their stories as children and not-quite-children. I appreciate the shortness of the chapters as well as the mix of flowing descriptive prose and staccato active prose. In employing both types of prose, the author achieved the sense of urgency that war demands and still managed to imbue his characters and their surroundings with life. The one issue I take with the chapters-as-scenes is the chapter involving the rape of the male protagonist’s sister. Sexual violence as a very real day-to-day threat and occurrence should be included in art, but only when it is both done well and serves a purpose to the character. This scene does not do that; its purpose is *slight spoiler* misdirection/suspense (did he take the diamond and this is why bad things are now happening to his family?) and to reintroduce the character herself as she has been background (still important, but only in passing mention by Werner) since the first 150 pages. It is a narrative choice that, unfortunately, serves as a misstep in an otherwise gorgeous work.
Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney :: I want to love this book, mostly because it speaks to some themes I have written about and/or am writing about. Part of this read, then, I meant to do out of research. That said, I couldn’t make myself love or really even like it. It is a slog, which is even more of a disappointment because its title character is based off of a real woman – a pioneer in the advertising world. The biggest issue I have, I think, comes from an early scene in the book wherein Lillian Boxfish tells her boss she wants a raise, he says no, and she tells us that she isn’t content to think that things change on their own so she must change them. And then: she never does. Seriously, this scene is never revisited and her talk of changing things is also largely absent or placed as backdrop. There’s no doubt she’s a formidable presence in her youth and then in her old age, in a guileless ready-for-death kind of way, but her middle years are entirely boring (complete with bouts of depression, a suicide attempt (I promise that’s not a spoiler), and a divorce). There’s some lesson here, in both timeframe and never being able to have it all, but it’s nothing new. I wouldn’t take any issue with such a character or realistic premise if that early scene didn’t set us up for something more. The other thing that I don’t like is the repetition of random run-ins with strangers that did nothing more than show us how she charms people – over and over and over. After the first run-in and the fortieth time she’s mentioned that people find her funny, we get it (obviously, that was hyperbole, but she does tell us that people found her funny repeatedly, no less than once a chapter). The writing itself is more than adequate, often poetic as fits with the character’s voice (even the repetitive phrasing when it comes to her son, while grating, is on-point for the elderly woman), but it couldn’t make up for the slog of a plot for me.
beasts of no nation by Uzodinma Iweala :: This book had me from the first sentence. If you don’t like the writing style of the first and second sentences – a continuous present tense that heightens the action, gives the character an age-appropriate voice, and speaks to what we are to assume is a dialectical translation of the character’s language – then you will not like this book. It does take a few paragraphs to really get into the feel for it, but, once you do, it doesn’t distract from the story. The other thing about the style, which many readers do not understand, is how difficult it is to maintain that sort of dialectical voice throughout a novel without a misstep (just check Goodreads for the people who tried to imitate it in order to harp on it and failed wildly, missing the tense change and rearranging words like that accomplished the same thing; one even chose to write liking as likeing as if that were what the author had done). Anyway, I can understand why it would be a difficult read if you couldn’t get past the style; the topic itself is harrowing. For me, these two things together strengthened the overall narrative (which, yes, while brutal and violent and graphic, is also honest and necessary). For others, it may very well be too much and will put them off the book entirely.
Pull Me Under by Kelly Luce :: I’m lukewarm about this novel and that disappoints me. The writing is beautiful and Luce sets the location (from the literal locale to the customs, traditions, and scarring realities) so well that it is hard for me not to want to love it. Where the story falls short for me, though, is in the protagonist and how the plot moves so far ahead of her own thought processes that it becomes redundant. The big reveals are not big reveals because they are obvious to the reader; this leaves Rio’s discovery and the scenes containing these discoveries (and their resulting outbursts) flat. It also means that there are some arcs that are not fully explored by the character but are insinuated (the final unhappiness that caused of her mother’s death, for example). The first half of this book is wonderful even though you are pretty sure how things are going to play out; the second half is a slog and I found myself skimming because I already knew what was being said (I even went back to reread every time I felt myself skimming because I wanted to be certain I didn’t miss anything; nothing changed in my doing so). In other words, read this one for the setting and the overall theme, but don’t expect to get too much nuance or surprise from the plot or the character (after the first half).
One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul :: The personal nature of this collection is both its greatest strength and its weakness. This weakness is a nit-picky thing: a repetition of facts and knowledge occurs more often than it should in a well-curated, well-edited collection. Whether this is from being too close to the narrative or from putting separately written essays together without adapting them to read as whole, I cannot be 100% certain, but either way it became grating. That said, the essays on their own are wonderful – I especially loved “Aus-piss-ee-ous,” “Mute,” and “Hunting Season.” Koul’s wit infuses every page and her takes are nearly as bawdy as they are insightful. Her collection has been compared to both Mindy Kaling and Roxane Gay (both of whose works I’ve loved) and I can see how that might be – funny, astute, serious, blunt, feminist – though I didn’t find this collection as well-curated as either (mainly because of the weakness I mentioned earlier). I liked this collection a lot, but I didn’t love it.
– M. Ray Hall