Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu — New Review, Bookclub Too

Cover: bookshop.org

Interior Chinatown is unlike anything else I’ve read. The book is written as if it were a TV show, with exterior and interior shots and dialogue laid out in script format, but it’s also about a TV show and the lines between what’s ‘real’ in the universe of the book versus what’s only acting are never terribly clear. Charles Yu writes in the second person, which was much more palatable than the second person narrative in The Raven Tower.

Even if Older Brother were not actually a real person, he would still be the most important character in some yet-to-be-conceived story of Chinatown. Would still be real in everyone’s minds and hearts, the mythical Asian American Man, the ideal mix of assimilated and authentic.

Interior Chinatown, Charles Yu

Despite the confusion about what was happening, Interior Chinatown managed to maintain interest. The reflections on living as an Asian-American weren’t subject to the same uncertainly as the action of the plot; the descriptions of living in the SRO above the Golden Palace restaurant (or the film set of the restaurant…) were particularly memorable.

Your whole life you’ve wanted to be Kung Fu Guy, to be something you are not, and here is this person who is whatever she is at all times.

Interior Chinatown, Charles Yu

The romance was sweet, though the rapid jumps in timeline meant it didn’t have as deep an emotional impact as it might otherwise have done. The biggest problem with Interior Chinatown was that it set the scene at one pace but then sped through the rest of the story so much faster that it felt disjointed.

It was a surprise to find Interior Chinatown listed as a comedy; the comedic tone didn’t come through, though that may be because Charles Yu was parodying a specifically American experience. The section which was supposed to be a children’s show was particularly surreal, so that may have been funny to people who found comedy in Geek Love.

Overall, Interior Chinatown probably merits a second read at some point in the future.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh — Reread Review

Cover: bookshop.org

But I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognised apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city.

Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh

Like Moab is My Washpot, Brideshead Revisited seemed wonderfully romantic to me when I read it at 23, having bought it because a boy I liked was reading it. Over ten years later, I remembered the relationship between Charles and Julia, but had forgotten that they were both married to other people, and that they don’t even get a happy ending. While I’d like to think this second reading was more objective, the truth is that it’s probably just as subjective, but in a different way.

While I found all the characters in Brideshead Revisited interesting, none of them struck me as particularly true to life. The whole book has the dreamy, unreal tone of a Neverland — where the characters never grow up, or at least where Charles’ perspective of them and his worldview never really changes. He’s always looking back on history through a particular lens, and the story ends where it began, so that each scene has the same kind of feeling.

”But my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all.”
”Can’t I?”
”I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.”
”Oh, yes, I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.”
”But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea.”
”But I do. That’s how I believe.”

Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh

Even with very little understanding of Catholicism, I found the theological discussions interesting. Like everything else, there’s a lot that goes unspoken, and I probably missed a great deal of context which would’ve helped me understand what the characters were struggling with. On the other hand, Charles is also an outsider to the Marchmains’ religion, and to some extent their social class, so maybe feeling a distance from it all is the intended effect.

Although I didn’t love the romance, or the characters, this time around, I still appreciated the prose, and found plot interesting, if rather sad.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki — New Review

Cover: bookshop.org

A Tale for the Time Being was a birthday or Christmas present many years, and at least one address, ago. It was chosen for me, not something I picked up myself, and so I had no expectations. The blurb gave very little away, but the book was shortlisted for the Man Book Prize, and I always try to read the books people give me (…eventually).

When I actually started reading, A Tale for the Time Being didn’t captivate me immediately. Nao’s schoolgirl philosophical ramblings weren’t particularly charming and it was hard to get a grip on where the story was going. It wasn’t until Ruth decided to try reading Nao’s diary ‘in real time’ (one of Nao’s entries for each of Ruth’s days) that I started to get interested, though the plot was still murky.

The post office was like the village well. People lingered there, and it was where you went if you needed information.

A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki

The structure, going back and forth between Nao’s story and Ruth researching Nao’s story, worked surprisingly well, and I liked the conceit of Ruth’s footnotes explaining Nao’s specifically Japanese references. I did find the Appendices a bit troublesome, because I think I missed the instruction to go read some of them, but they also weren’t that engaging to read, even though the information was relevant.

Like The Gallows Pole, A Tale for the Time Being ended up being much darker than I anticipated, though I found Ruth Ozeki’s descriptions more visceral and thus more disturbing. It wasn’t an easy read, and the uncertain line between reality and fiction added its own sense of confusion, which made the magical elements less delightful than they might have been.

After the temple, Dad would walk me to school and we’d talk about stuff. I don’t remember exactly what, and it didn’t matter: the important thing was that we were being polite and not saying all the things that were making us unhappy, which was the only way we knew how to love each other.

A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki

This is the second book I’ve reviewed to heavily feature meditation techniques; the sections of A Tale for the Time Being that Nao spent in her grandmother’s temple were what I most enjoyed reading. (And I did appreciate that Ruth also tried sitting zazen but kept falling asleep.)

A Tale for the Time Being was an interesting book, and I think I’ll keep hold of it for at least a little while, but I don’t know if it’s a book I’d want to return to often.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers — New Review, Bookclub Too

Cover: bookshop.org

I didn’t go looking for a second book club, but a Discord community I’m in started one up, and The Gallows Pole looked interesting enough to be worth manipulating my timetable a little to be able to fit it in. From the blurb, it sounded like a fast-paced historical crime novel which might suit my tastes for all things heist. The Gallows Pole wasn’t like that at all, but I still had a very good time with it and I’m glad B2 introduced me to it, as I probably wouldn’t have picked it up otherwise.

King David Hartley is the man’s name, said Jack Bentley. And if you don’t know it then you can’t run the woods like you say you do because everyone knows Bell Hole belongs to the Hartleys, and the moor above it and the sheep and the cows that graze them moors and the Hartleys own the sky above it too, and the kestrel and the hawk that hunt there and the hares that box there, and the clouds and the moon and the sun and everything that passes overhead.

The Gallows Pole, Benjamin Myers

Some of the things that happen in The Gallows Pole are extremely nasty (seriously, check out the content warnings before you read if you are at all squeamish!), but Benjamin Myers’ prose is always rhythmic and enthralling. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what kept drawing me in, but The Gallows Pole was written not quite like anything else I’ve read before. Deighton’s final scene is the perfect example of the juxtaposition of beautiful and horrible. Granted, it might be more difficult for readers with vivid visual imaginations or who feel the pain a character feels to get lost in the play of words next to each other, but for those of us who don’t, it really works.

Benjamin Myers makes unsympathetic characters sympathetic. Despite David Hartley’s violence, arrogance, homophobia, the reader wants to spend more time with him. Whether its the sections told from his perspective or the third-person narrative, he maintains and rewards that interest. Even lesser characters with serious flaws are still given their fair share of story. Actually sympathetic characters (like Grace) are rarely in the foreground, but Benjamin Myers uses them to good effect to keep The Gallows Pole from becoming an entirely bleak narrative.

Without you I’m certain this valley will fall fallow. The coining will die off and the men will lose their will to fight because no man will go back to the loom after having the taste of gold on his tongue.

The Gallows Pole, Benjamin Myers

It’s not surprising that The Gallows Pole won a literary award. This is a book with definite themes, of class struggle, social mobility, history. If I were going to write an essay, I’d probably begin with something about inevitability and the enduring of myth. I also appreciated the structure, how the end mirrored the beginning.

The Gallows Pole was beautifully written and cleverly constructed, but those content warnings I mention would make me hesitate to recommend it to anyone who might not know what they were getting into.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Go-Between by L P Hartley — Reread Review

I first encountered The Go-Between on a list of great first lines given to my English class as writing prompts. From then on, I always kept it vaguely on my massive list of books I wanted to read some day, despite having no real idea what it was about or even what kind of book it was. (Interestingly, I made no such resolution about The Trial or 1984, nor can I even remember what the other books might have been.) I didn’t actually get around to reading The Go-Between until years later, which is probably for the best, as I don’t think I’d have understood it.

When I finally did read it, it was because I was on holiday in Norfolk and wanted to read something set in the surrounding area. The Go-Between certainly delivered on a sense of place and time, both during that read and this. There’s a slight metafictional flair in Leo looking back on his memories, which I always enjoy. It was interesting that Leo’s obsession with the soaring mercury matched so well with my own increasing temperatures as I suffered through a nasty febrile cold. Just one of the many ways that books seem to be reflecting my own life back at me this year!

What did we talk about that has left me with an impression of wings and flashes, as of air displaced by the flight of a bird? Of swooping and soaring, of a faint iridescence subdued to the enfolding brightness of the day?

The Go-Between, L P Hartley

Though the story wasn’t as compelling this time around, the prose is beautiful. The Go-Between is the kind of book that I think Rebecca would like because she appreciates a really stunning sentence. That’s not really something that I read for, but I do my best to notice them when I stumble across them.

Leo and the rest of the characters are very well-drawn, to the point that Leo is uncomfortably embarrassing at times. L P Hartley does a very good job of conveying adult characters through the perspective of a child who doesn’t really understand them, which is quite a tricky feat of writing.

I mounted the black scaffold, which was almost too hot to touch, and looked down into the mirror which had been shattered by the farmer’s dive. How flawless it was now; a darker picture of the sky.

The Go-Between, L P Hartley

The first time I finished The Go-Between, I was eager to read it again, feeling that there were many more layers which would offer up their secrets now that I knew the whole story. This time, I don’t feel quite that same drive — perhaps because I didn’t get as much additional understanding out of it as I had hoped. Still, I’ll keep it on my shelf. It’ll be interesting to revisit it again and see what I make of it a third time.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid — Reread Review

Annie John was exactly the kind of book I was looking for when I signed up to take a module on Caribbean fiction. It’s not hard to see what called to me about a character growing up on a Caribbean island, all while studying a British curriculum. That experience of reciting ‘I wondered lonely as a cloud’ but never having seen a daffodil was something I could definitely relate to. It’s not an experience many of my friends have had, so even seeing it reflected in fiction was exciting to me, both in my twenties and now.

The piano teacher, a shrivelled-up old spinster from Lancashire, England, soon asked me not to come back, since I seemed unable to resist eating from the bowl of plums she had placed on the piano purely for decoration.

Annie John, Jamaica Kincaid

You could say that not very much happens in Annie John, but I was never bored. It felt like a different kind of coming-of-age story, one that reminded me of Spinning Straw into Gold. (Reading Annie John through the lens of pubescent transformation would almost certainly be interesting!) I found Annie’s desperation for change particularly effective, in this post-lockdown world and yet, for all that, I didn’t feel her emotions as strongly as I have in some other books. Maybe the very similarities between parts of our lives made the differences seem much more divisive.

My father could hardly get a few words out of his mouth before she was a jellyfish of laughter.

Annie John, Jamaica Kincaid

I’m finding these books I first read at university quite difficult to review. There’s a sense, I think, that I still don’t fully understand them because they have so many different layers. I want to keep coming back to them with more experience, more literary awareness, and that makes me feel as though I can’t comprehensively review them. Like Song of Solomon, Annie John will definitely go back on the shelf to be reread as my older and wiser future self.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison — Reread Review

One of my university modules was on Toni Morrison, so I read quite a few of her novels over the course of a single semester, which has meant that — apart from Beloved, which I read first — they’ve kind of blurred into an amorphous mass in my memory. I wanted to revisit them, more slowly, so that I’d have a more distinct understanding of which book was which. With Song of Solomon, all I really remembered was that it had something to do with flying and that I liked it better than some of the others.

What stood out to me the most about Song of Solomon was how complete it felt — it’s hard to know how to break it down into characters and plot and setting for a review. Even though I couldn’t pinpoint the structure of the story, it flowed naturally from one thing to another, even the events that might feel weird in another novel.

And Guitar, the one sane and constant person he knew had flipped, had ripped open and was spilling blood and foolishness instead of conversation.

Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison

The characters are particularly strong, to the extent that I’m surprised I didn’t remember more about them. Milkman and Pilate are the primary focus, but Guitar and Corinthians and Macon are all interesting in their own way. Guitar’s subplot with the Seven Days is compelling by itself, let alone when it weaves into the main narrative.

Milkman fished for another cigarette and watched dawn eclipse the electric light over the sink.

Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison’s language isn’t difficult — it fits that adage that good prose should be transparent, letting you see the action without getting in your way. There weren’t any lines that stood out to me as particularly beautiful, but perhaps I was just too swept away in experiencing the story as it came.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfield — Reread Review

As an adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, I knew going in that I was going to enjoy the story of Eligible. All the traditional elements are there: overbearing and hysterical Mrs Bennet, dry Mr Bennet, obliging Jane and giggling Lydia. So the real question for this review, then, is whether or not I liked the modernisation. And, actually, I’m not entirely sure that I did.

Some bits were clever! Instead of walking to Netherfield when Jane is ill, Liz has no car and so runs to the nearest hospital when Jane is taken in — which, of course, still has the same result of Caroline and Darcy looking at her as if she has two heads and a muddy petticoat. But other elements were modernised in ways I didn’t really understand. I won’t spoil it, but the conclusion to Mary Bennet’s plot line was particularly head-scratching.

‘I don’t suppose that any of you can appreciate the terror a man might feel being so outnumbered,’ Mr Bennet said. ‘I often weep, and there are only six of you.’

Eligible, Curtis Sittenfield

I can’t honestly say I liked the characters, either. Liz is a journalist, rather than a lover of literature, and I’m not sure she picks up a book from one end of Eligible to the next. Instead, she is noted as a gossip who asks people startling questions about themselves. It’s more modern, but it also makes me like her less. Although I enjoyed seeing what the updates were, and Liz’s relationship with her mother, I didn’t get a lot else out of this book.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley — Reread Review

I first read A Thousand Acres as part of an English Literature module on American Literature. If I remember correctly, it was the only book on the course that I could remotely stand, but before rereading it, I had absolutely forgotten quite how dark it gets! I’ve never seen or read King Lear, on which at least the premise of A Thousand Acres is based, so I can’t speak to whether the original play takes the same kind of twist.

On this reread, it took me some time to get into the story. I was reading an old university copy, littered with my notes from the time, and it was hard not to think analytically about everything that was happening. I did, eventually, get caught up in the plot and, as I mentioned, was taken aback by the twist. Once I got past wanting to analyse everything, the prose was compelling, drawing me quickly through the plot as it developed.

On the other hand, perhaps she hadn’t mistaken anything at all, and had simply spoken as a woman rather than as a daughter. That was something, I realized, that Rose and I were pretty careful never to do.

A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley

The characters and their relationships are definitely the best part of A Thousand Acres. We’re given a great sense of what it is to be Ginny, to have lived in the kind of farming community that Jane Smiley captures on the page. Almost everyone ends up hurting Ginny in some way, and I felt for her every time. The story isn’t a happy one, but I didn’t really need it to be. It felt realistic and every new twist felt earned.

The fact is that the same sequence of days can arrange themselves into a number of different stories.

A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley

The setting, as well as Ginny’s relationship to her father, reminded me of Salt Creek. There’s just something fascinating to me about that combination of overpowering nature, a challenging rural life and a frightening patriarchal figure. I think, if you enjoyed Salt Creek as much as I did, you should definitely give A Thousand Acres a go.

I can definitely see why I kept hold of A Thousand Acres through at least five moves! I’ve added Jane Smiley to my list of authors to investigate as I’m curious to see what else she might have written.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt — Reread Review

I picked up The Secret History mostly because I’d heard of it. I had some idea that Rebecca had enjoyed it, though I don’t recall us every talking about it beyond that. I wanted to reread it because I didn’t really remember what I made of it. Which hasn’t worked out so well, because having finished it for a second time, I’m still not sure what I make of it.

Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw’, that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature?

The Secret History, Donna Tartt

It’s got a great ‘first’ line, especially for someone like me who reads entirely too much writing about writing and values character development over just about everything else. (It’s actually the first line past the prologue, but we’ll count it!) Overall, Donna Tartt’s writing is compelling. I always wanted to read more, and only very briefly found my interest waning (around the funeral) before it picked up again.

A November stillness was settling like a deadly oxymoron on the April landscape.

The Secret History, Donna Tartt

As often happens, I found myself wondering what genre to put The Secret History in. It’s about a crime, certainly, but it’s not a ‘whodunnit’. The first half of the story is, I suppose, a ‘whydunnit’, but even that doesn’t accurately capture the second half of the novel. I described it to Caroline as either a ‘dark spin on a coming of age story’, which feels more or less right to me. The characters certainly leave behind the innocence of childhood in a pretty significant way. They’re coming to cynicism, and responsibility. From what I know of Atonement, I’d describe that in a similar way.

So there is character development, even if it’s mostly that the cast go from people I don’t much care for to people I definitely dislike. That’s fine, I don’t need to Richard and Henry and the rest of the students in this kind of story. I find them interesting, I want Donna Tartt to tell me more and more about them, even if I wouldn’t want to break bread with any of them!

I believe that having a great diversity of teachers is harmful and confusing for a young mind, in the same way I believe that it is better to know one book intimately than a hundred superficially.

The Secret History, Donna Tartt

There isn’t much else for me to say about The Secret History. It’s a well-written book. It’s even a good book, one that I enjoyed reading more than once. But perhaps it’s not my kind of book in the way that some others are.

Rating: 3 out of 5.