What to do when you write about books and the reading life, you have lots of good books to choose from, and yet you find yourself without much inspired to say about them? I find myself in this predicament, whether from the ongoing pandemic, the lure of summertime, the dumpster fire state of the world, or “d. All of the Above.”
But I have read some good things lately so in lieu of Deep-and-Important-Thoughts I’ll share some micro-reviews:
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
This year I re-read Circe and loved it all over again and in new ways. So I decided to read Miller’s first novel, told from the perspective of Patroclus, Achilles’ bestie who’s death in the Trojan War famously brings Achilles out of his pout, leading to the Greeks winning the war. Miller makes subtext text in this novel, with Patroclus and Achilles being lovers and beloveds from an early age. And while I didn’t adore this one as much as Circe, I really liked it. Wheelhouse = Retellings of myths and fairy tales, bonus points for feminism, anti-racism, and/or realistic depictions of trauma and darkness.
Hungry: Eating, Road-Tripping, and Risking it all with the Greatest Chef in the World by Jeff Gordinier
One one hand, this book focuses on René Redzepi—”the greatest chef in the world”—and his tireless quest to push the art of food further, harder, richer, simpler, deeper, weirder, purer. It’s a portrait of an artist who’s canvas is cooking and who finds himself on the other side of youth and success and asking, “Is that all there is?” But Gordinier also writes his own mid-life memoir, narrating the new lease on life excited by his time in Redzepi’s entourage. Gordinier writes with delicious sensitivity, knowing when to employ direct description and when to hit metaphors toward the fences. Wheelhouse = Food memoirs.
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
This novel was one of those big, buzzy books that I finally got around to reading. It had twists and turns I did not expect, plus the unique premise of combining two mythological figures—a Jewish golem, Chava, and a Jinni, Ahmed—both arriving in New York near the turn of 20th century. Chava and Ahmed differ in myriad ways—she is days old when arriving in the US, he has lived for hundreds of years; she lives among European Jewish immigrants and citizens, he lives primarily with Syrian Christians—but at heart they are both immigrants. I appreciated Wecker’s way of telling of an immigrant story through the device of these two magical people. Wheelhouse = Fantasy/magic books grounded or with a toe into the real world.
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, plus Slade House
The Bone Clocks did something to me, something not entirely pleasant but I also don’t read merely to be entertained, distracted, or told pretty fairy tales. These descriptors matter because The Bone Clocks sells itself as one of those books where magic exists in the real world, mostly out of sight, but occasionally touching and changing the lives of normal people living without any knowledge of a war between supernatural people. But then it toys with the reader, spending masses of time with characters living their lives, giving us great stretches of pages filled with no magic whatsoever. I will say no more for fear of spoilers other than that The Bone Clocks broke my heart and put me in an intellectual crouch, questioning my love for stories of the fantastic.
Slade House exists in the same universe as The Bone Clocks but primarily tells a deliciously icky horror story. Some of it doesn’t entirely make sense but I got my enjoyment’s worth out of this slim novel on a scorching summer weekend. You do not need to read The Bone Clocks to understand Slade House so if it sounds like your jam, I say, have at it!
The Bone Clocks wheelhouse = lots and none, which I suppose says a lot:
- Fantasy/magic books grounded or with a toe into the real world.
- Near future dystopias, utopias, or post-apocalypse fiction.
- Speculative fiction and Magical Realism,
bonus points if by a woman or Person of Color
- Significant jumps in time, often from different characters’ perspectives.
- Literature that is aware of literature—in dialogue with other works, drawing attention to itself as literature, etc.
- Interesting, but not-gimicky playing with literary form.
- Complicated friendships,
particularly among or including women.
- Stories about grief and trauma that come at the subject slant.
- Stories that explore ideas.
Anything you’ve been reading that you want to shout out?