Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer

Mike’s review

“Wending” is a word that came as a direct result of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I bet.

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Short stories, motherfuckers. No plot summary needed!

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Reading this alone on a bench in the Marina #whitemaleprivelege

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Tough read. Started so strong, but lost me over and over again.

That end tho.

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How late it was, how late by James Kelman

Mike’s review

I capitalize prepositions in titles even, so to have to lower case all this one hurts me so deeply, but that’s how it is on the book so I’m going to honor it.

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I am so scared of the Scottish dialect.

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But it was the style, not the dialect–guess I only have aural problems with non-American English–that was problematic. Stream of conscious where sentences don’t necessarily end with periods, paragraphs don’t necessarily mean ends of sentences and worst of all for how I read: no page breaks!

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This guy spends a lot of time thinking about taking naps and it’s somehow at least decently compelling. Enough that I didn’t give up, not so much that I read quickly. In short bursts, like two pages at a time, this was a very good book. To do more than that proved difficult. Weird.

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So, plot summary: A Scotsman who isn’t exactly a great person, but isn’t really all that bad and flirts with alcoholism goes blind one day when he’s roughed up by the police. The book follows him in his initial realizations and maybe the first week or so thereafter. Not much really happens exactly, he mostly thinks about going blind and what it means, his life, spends some time at doctors and with the police trying to figure out what to do. That’s about it.

All Over Creation by Ruth Ozeki

Mike’s review

There was a time when the intersection of politics and literature would have been enough for me but not anymore. I wasn’t compelled through this even though a fair amount actually happens. Yummy didn’t feel especially fleshed out and I don’t know why. Would I like “My Year Of Meats” now like I did then? Who knows because I don’t have the desire nor ambition to re-read it.

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Let’s try a brief plot. Yummy (she must have a real name and I don’t remember where this one comes from) comes back to her Idaho (?) home when she finds out about her parents’ poor health. She ran away around high school time. She’s grown up now and has three (?) kids. Her return coincides with a van of activists coming to the farm because they think her dad is a pretty radical dude based on his take against GMOs. A teacher who she was intimate with in high school is somehow a PR guy for a GMO seed company…(?) and there’s a bunch of rehashed feelings there. Intimate, by the way, is the right word. She doesn’t (until later) consider it to have been anything illicit or predatory. There are demonstrations and forgiveness and stuff. That’s a lot to have remembered and there’s probably even more I forgot. Told you a lot happened in this book.

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When Yummy finally uses the word “rapist”…damn. That was a powerful moment. I think this might be part of why I wasn’t compelled. She didn’t seem to want to confront/deal with her tragedies, just let them keep happening to her. Which, ironically, is partially why finally using “rapist” was so strong a moment.

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Still damn near cried at the end though because father/mother stuff gets me (for some reason–hi mom and dad! yeah right.)

Lincoln In The Bardo by George Saunders

Mike’s review

I glaze through experimental shit, feeling I don’t need to re-read if I don’t fully understand. That the impression has been left in my mind somewhere and the words have affected their cause.

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The word “novel is far-fetched here. Maybe a poem? Though not exactly that either.

I think we’re looking at spoilers from here out for a plot summary. Willie Lincoln dies. He goes to the In-Between/Purgatory/The Bardo. There are other souls there with him. Abraham Lincoln comes to visit Willie. The other souls want Willie to move onto the next phase of his (non?)existence. They try to occupy Lincoln’s body to get him to tell Willie to move on. Willie knows what’s up though, knows what’s going on the whole time. He was just bummed about being dead. We also learn bits and pieces about a lot of tangential characters and go in-depth-ish with a few more main ones.

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Once Willie tells everyone they’re dead, and they all start to move on, it’s very pretty. But I wish we’d heard from the Reverend and saw what he was thinking, how he overcame his fear of judgement. Knowing that I skip over stuff when it’s experimental I even went back to make sure I didn’t miss out. Seems like a missed opportunity for a character to grow. He was scared to face his fate and then suddenly he was moved on.

The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Mike’s review

I remember seeing Diaz on Colbert Report like 10 years ago. That was so badass. An author on a talk show? Unprecedented! I didn’t know about Dick Cavet then. Still, unprecedented at the time. And now, still. I wanted to read this book so badly. Oakland Public Library didn’t have a copy though, so when I was poor and couldn’t afford books, I didn’t read it. It was always the dream to find a copy at Salvation Army, but it never popped up. Which felt surprising and made me covet the book more. So, there may be some unrealistic expectations coming out here. I expected the Loch Ness Monster of literary fiction.

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I feel like the superfluous swears–“[His love] had the density of a dwarf-mothingfucking-star […]”–is part of what won this such critical acclaim–“It’s so real, ya know.”–but I find it distracting and incongruous. Intelligent people swear, but a lot of this feels shoehorned.

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Dominican story that narrows itself into being “about” Oscar, as opposed to normal path of a story about Oscar that reveals a greater Dominican truth. Which means it covers too much and kinda isn’t really about anything. Hews too close to a history book for me. Again, this is probably part of why it received such critical acclaim. That’s the closest I’m coming to a plot summary, too, because there isn’t much of a plot really.

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“this was before the whitekids [sic] started their invasion, when you could walk the entire length of Upper Manhattan and see not a single yoga mat.” The use of an item/possession from white culture reminds me of “used to be you’d walk down North Street and not see a single taco.” The flip of gentrification vs whatever it’s called when people of color move in (is there a term for that?)

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Dashes to not reveal words: place names, people’s names, here bits of dialogue. Seems especially prevalent, though not exclusive to, Latino writing. I’ve seen it the most in nouns, like “he walked down K—- Street.” Here Diaz uses it (infrequently) for bits of dialogue though, too. I feel like Crime and Punishment does this. But I associate it mostly with Latino writing. Am I racist? And what’s the point? VV, any input here?

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

Mike’s review

The way small life changes are vigorously tracked (“Tracing of movements was the whole of the process.”), calling Milwaukee’s Best “The Beast.” Small town Midwest life nailed. Taco John’s and Potato Ole’s.

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Months later plot summary: A video store clerk (set in the time where video stores are even starting to go out of business in small towns) starts to notice that someone is splicing in disturbing (though not quite violent, more just weird and cult-ish) home videos into the store’s rentals. There doesn’t seem to be a particular pattern to what is selected or what is spliced in. He doesn’t really want to, but feels compelled to figure out what’s going on. And there’s more, but not much more I’m realizing now. There’s a fair amount of backstory regarding the person who splices. Mostly this is a mood piece, but it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like there’s a plot here, but I don’t know that there is. It’s kinda like what I remember True Detective season 1 to have been like. But I could be wrong about that.

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Page 18: first person reference to narrator. Jarring and out of place, but I have a feeling it’s not the last.

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No idea what’s going on as Part Four starts, but so compelled to read. And then it keeps going and you come to understand and feel weirdly gross and awful and yuck.

A Separation by Katie Kitamura

Mike’s review

In fairness: I’m starting to read this in SFO for first adult vacation (non-extensive road trip variety), to Hawaii.

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Author photos are always so serious, kinda pretentious. Think I need to be real earnest in one (I’m guilty of this too). Naked and vulnerable once, too.

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Our need to isolate, but also be embraced. How we think it’s only one or the other, but is both, always pulling in competition and sometimes we let one win and we depress because we want to be free to be contained.

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Plot summary: A married man and woman are separated. They have not told anyone. The woman receives a phone call from her husband’s mother, saying the man has gone missing. The mother asks the woman to find the man and for some reason the woman goes to Greece (?) to look for the man. Supposedly to then finalize the divorce or something. The reasoning is tenuous. And then the woman just hangs out in Greece for a really long time. This would have been a really good novella where the woman debates whether or not she should go and then decides not to; the reader would get all the juicy philosophizing about relationship and obligation to former families, but we wouldn’t have to sit and do nothing on a weird non-vacation for so long.

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Accidental solo vacation…coincidence?

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“[Every romance requires a backdrop and an audience], even–or perhaps especially–the genuine ones, romance is not something that a couple can be expected to conjure by themselves, you and another, the two of you together, not just once but again and again, [love in general is fortified by its context, nourished by the gaze of others].” Holy shit, this may be right.

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This benefitted greatly from being read on vacation. Otherwise it would have taken me two months to finish. Beginning had tones of epiphany-like beats and then just slow drudge.