I somehow never had to read this book in junior high, high school, or college, so I don’t know if I would have disliked it as much as Tom Perrotta (who wrote the foreword to the edition I read) did when he first read it. Perrotta talks about how he “found the book strange and difficult, bordering on oppressive,” and how it “just seemed so foreign—so cold and forbidding and buttoned-up and so remote, as if it had been written not just in another century but on another planet.” When Perrotta re-read the book as an adult, though, he was surprised to find that he really liked it, and that he saw it in a totally different light: as a “coming-out story,” a book that “wants us to know that happiness isn’t possible if you’re living a lie.” Perrotta’s foreword definitely made the book feel more approachable to me, moreso than Robert Milder’s much more academic introduction to the edition I read—which was interesting too, but more in this vein: “Ultimately, the meaning of the book resides in its title and irreducible symbol, the scarlet A itself, which stands for nothing so much as Ambiguous (the literary text) and Ambivalent (the author’s relationship to it).”

You probably know the story of The Scarlet Letter already: it takes place in the 1640s in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where the Puritans have settled. They’re a dour bunch, “a people amongst whom religion and law were almost identical, and in whose character both were so thoroughly interfused, that the mildest and the severest acts of public discipline were alike made venerable and awful.” (As Perrotta notes, this is “a historical novel, its setting as distant from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s time as Hawthorne’s is from ours today.”) Anyway: Hester Prynne, who was sent to Massachusetts ahead of her husband (who hasn’t been heard from in a few years and is presumed dead) has had a child, which means she committed adultery, and as punishment she has to wear the letter A, embroidered from red thread, for the rest of her life; she also has to spend three hours standing on a high platform in the public square, on her first day wearing the A, while everyone looks on. Everyone wants her to reveal who the father of the child is, so that he can be punished too, but she refuses to say.

Hester moves to a cottage that’s a little ways away from everyone else, and raises her daughter (whose name is Pearl), and supports herself by needlework, and does good deeds, and won’t tell anyone who Pearl’s father is—even when the man who was her husband turns up and asks. (She won’t tell, but he says he’ll figure it out, which he does; he also makes her promise not to tell anyone who he is, and uses this anonymity to exact revenge on Hester’s erstwhile lover while acting as his “medical adviser.”) Meanwhile, Hester feels guilty for not having told Pearl’s father who his physician really is, and resolves to tell him, which leads to probably my favorite part of the book, in which the two of them talk in the forest and there, in the middle of the wilderness, get a sense of possibility, a feeling that there might be another way for them to live. (There’s a sense of possibility in Pearl, too, who is described as “like a creature that had nothing in common with a bygone and buried generation, nor owned herself akin to it. It was as if she had been made afresh, out of new elements, and must perforce be permitted to live her own life, and be a law unto herself, without her eccentricities being reckoned to her for a crime.”)

I probably liked this book more now than I would have if I’d read it when I was younger, though I could have done without most of the introductory section where the narrator talks about working in a customs house (as Hawthorne did); the conceit is that the narrator finds the scarlet letter itself, and a bundle of papers containing Hester’s story, in a disused attic room. I did enjoy the part about moonlight, though, and how it transforms “the little domestic scenery of the well-known apartment” so that “the floor of our familiar room has become a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other.”

I think I bought this book my senior year of college and started reading it for a class I ended up dropping: I opened the book to find that I’d underlined/taken notes in the margins up to page 29, at which point I found a ticket stub for a student ticket to the ballet ($10!) from Friday, January 30, 2004. I’m glad I kept this book for all those years, and glad I finally read it: it’s beautiful and sad, haunted, haunting.

The book opens with an unnamed narrator (who is German, we later learn) talking about meeting a somewhat older man by chance in the train station in Antwerp in 1967, and continuing to run into that man, Jacques Austerlitz, in the late 1960s. We later find that the narrator and Austerlitz fell out of touch, then reconnected decades later, in 1996. When the narrator meets Austerlitz, he learns that he’s a scholar, an expert in “architectural history”; the narrator and Austerlitz talk for hours, and Austerlitz regales him with the history of forts and fortifications in Europe, after which the narrator sees an article in the newspaper that mentions Breendonk and decides to go visit. (It is not coincidental that when the narrator first meets Austerlitz, he finds himself looking at the people in the vast, high-ceilinged waiting room at the train station and comparing them to the animals he’s just seen at the zoo, somehow struck by the fancy that the people in the waiting room “were the last members of a diminutive race which had perished or had been expelled from its homeland, and that because they alone survived they wore the same sorrowful expression as the creatures in the zoo.”)

As the book proceeds, we learn about Austerlitz’s origins, the details of which he learned only late in life. He grew up in Wales, we learn, and learned his true name at the age of fifteen—he had been raised by a minister and that minister’s wife and had grown up with the Welsh name they’d given him. But as a young adult he never tried to find out where he came from; he tells the narrator about his avoidance of all things that might be related to his past, to the history of the Holocaust. But all that avoidance and repression takes a toll: after having had a number of breakdowns, Austerlitz finally accepts that his Jewish parents must have sent him to England so he would be safe, and determines to go to Prague to learn what he can about his early life and his family.

The text is interspersed with black and white photos (a staircase with a wrought-iron railing, the glass roof of a train station, butterflies in a display case, billiards balls on a table); the photos add to the book’s concern with history and memory and time and its passing. Fairly early in the book, after his visit to Breendonk, we get this, from the narrator: “I think how little we can hold in mind, how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed on.” Austerlitz’s belated determination to unearth his own hidden/forgotten/repressed family history, and the photos he takes of all the places he travels, both serve as a kind of rejoinder to that, an exploration of what we can remember.

I love the long sentences of this book (there’s one about the workings of Theresienstadt that is more than seven pages long, no joke, and is an emotional wallop for both the reader and Austerlitz) and the descriptions of places, like this, when the narrator talks about seeing Austerlitz in Liège: “The sun was just breaking once again through the inky blue wall of cloud heralding a storm, and the factory buildings and yards, the long rows of terraced housing for the laborers, the brick walls, the slate roofs, and the windowpanes shone as if a fire were glowing within them.”

In her introduction to the edition that I read, Anne Perry captures the appeal of the setting of this book, which takes place in the cavernous Palais Garnier, aka the home of the Paris Opera at the time the novel was written: “There are rooms beyond rooms, passages under and over other passages, and endless shifting walls and hidden pivots and trapdoors, cellars beneath the cellars.” And in this labyrinthine setting, there is a ghost. Or, at least, people say there is a ghost, though the novel’s narrator assures us in the prologue that what people called a ghost was really a man: “he existed in flesh and blood, although he assumed the complete appearance of a real phantom.” The ghost, anyway, is a troublemaker: he’s the reason the departing managers have left, and the new managers are bothered by the stipulation that one of the opera boxes be left empty for him, not to mention his request for a monthly allowance. (The managers and their attempts to ignore/avoid/figure out the ghost provide a fairly humorous subplot.)

And then there’s Christine, a singer at the opera who performs at the gala for the departing managers, showing the world that her voice has “a radiance hitherto unsuspected.” Turns out she’s been getting secret music lessons in her dressing room from an unseen figure, a voice she hears through the walls. Is it the Angel of Music her father told her about when she was a little kid? Raoul—who was Christine’s friend in childhood, though they come from different social classes—thinks not, and finds himself jealous that Christine is being pursued by someone else/possibly taken advantage of by some trickster. Meanwhile, a worker at the opera is found dead behind the scenes early in the book, and one of the questions of the plot is how many more deaths in the opera house there will be. (The answer: not zero.)

The edition I read comes with a rather dense academic essay at the end that made me wonder why the editors included it: it features lots of references to Julia Kristeva and the idea of abjection and sentences I needed to read multiple times to even kind of understand. Which isn’t to say it was necessarily a bad essay, just that it felt weird in an edition for a general audience. It did have the result of making me wish I’d read this in English class at some point in high school or college: reading it as an adult for fun I was mostly focused on plot and setting, but I’m sure it would be interesting to hear a good teacher talk about this book in relation to themes like class, Orientalism, et cetera, and in relation to other Gothic novels.

Highlights: I love this description of Christine taking Raoul up above the stage, and wanted more prose like this: “And she would drag him up above the clouds, in the magnificent disorder of the grid, where she loved to make him giddy by running in front of him along the frail bridges, among the thousands of ropes fastened to the pulleys, the windlasses, the rollers, in the midst of a regular forest of yards and masts.” Also great: the description of the opera roof, and “the huge tanks, full of stagnant water, where, in the hot weather, the little boys of the ballet, a score or so, learn to swim and dive.”

Like Animals makes me think of the Marina and the Diamonds song called “Savages”, though the vibe of Eve Lemieux’s book is more gritty and raw than the song. Like Animals tells us the story of Philomena, or Philly, in short dated chapters, which aren’t in chronological order: we start in 2019, jump to 2016, jump to 2008, jump to 2012, and so on, skipping from moment to moment in Philly’s story of loss and heartbreak and artistic growth. We see her with her best friend, Tania, and with her parents (who are divorced) and with various guys. Most of the novel takes place when Philly is in her twenties and adrift, and most of it takes place in Montreal, but there are moments that happen earlier/later/elsewhere—and interspersed with Philly’s own story we get fragments of a story she’s working on, a dark fairy tale she’s writing and illustrating. You can tell there is going to be drama from the very beginning: “I’m the lead martyr in the cautionary tale of my own invention,” Philly thinks, on page two, when she’s meant to be having a nice birthday celebration with her partner and her closest friends. Things only get more intense as the book proceeds. Philly knows she can be difficult and knows she shouldn’t get so obsessed with guys; she sees the way her mother has gone from one bad guy to the next to the next for most of her life and knows she shouldn’t do the same (her dad isn’t one of the bad guys, though; he’s great, and the parts of the book about him are some of the most moving). The back cover says this book is “inspired by people who haven’t learned to love gently,” and while it isn’t always a pleasant read, I think that’s a testament to Lemieux’s writing and how her words put you right there with Philly.

Early in this book, our narrator (Happy Doll, an ex-cop turned private investigator/security specialist) notes that he’s “become an armchair Buddhist,” which relates to the book’s title (which relates to the wheel of dharma). Happy thinks about karma and dharma and samsara, and co-exists with the ants in his sink rather than killing them, but (because he’s a man of contradictions and this, like the first book featuring him, is very noir) he also does a remarkably bad job of breaking free from things like violence and vengeance as the story proceeds.

When the book opens, in January 2020, he’s on his way to his office for an appointment with a woman named Mary who has contacted him to say she wants “help locating her mother”. Mary, who’s in her twenties, says her mom is homeless (and has been for about five years) and hasn’t been in touch for the last few months. Mary says her mom is a junkie, up in Olympia, and then comes the kicker: she mentions that her mom was Happy’s “girlfriend for a little while”, more than a decade ago, before she left Los Angeles. This woman, Ines, was someone Happy loved deeply, though she was in a bad place in terms of drug use and mental health at the time. And so, despite advice from a cop friend who notes that “things with junkies never turn out good,” Happy takes the job and heads up to Olympia to find Ines.

From there, well: to say that things go wrong would be a massive understatement. And while I saw some plot events coming from miles away, I was still totally caught up in the narrative, reading quickly and staying up way past my bedtime one night to finish this book. This book has fewer sweet moments with Happy’s dog, George, than the last one—though there are still a few great passages/phrases, like when Happy talks about coming home and George being super-excited to see him and then says this: “and then he attacked one of his toys, pretending to kill it as a way to work through his good feelings.” And there are fewer descriptions of lush LA scenery, though there are a few, and we get some vivid descriptions of other places (including Cannon Beach, in Oregon, and Joshua Tree) as compensation. This book feels even bleaker than the first Happy Doll book, which I wasn’t necessarily expecting, and I’m curious about whether this series will continue and where it will go from here, if so. “I simply had to burn this whole thing down so that someday I could start again,” Happy thinks to himself at one point, and there is definitely a scorched-earth recklessness to this book that feels quite dark. Which isn’t to say I didn’t like this one—I liked it a lot—but I think the next book I read is going to be something lighter/happier.

A Man Named Doll by Jonathan Ames

November 26th, 2022

Noir isn’t generally my genre, but my husband read this and loved it and I’m glad I read it too. The narrator is an ex-cop private investigator who finds himself trying to solve a crime that hits close to home while he’s also high on prescription painkillers and pot; in doing so he makes a number of questionable decisions and gets himself into a whole lot of trouble. The body count in this book was way higher than in the cozier mysteries I usually go for, but I felt the violence was balanced by the narrator’s quirks (he is very devoted to his dog, George, and writes about George in a way I found totally charming) and by the descriptive passages about LA and its surroundings that are scattered throughout.

Here’s what the narrator has to say about George, early in the book: “I think of him as my dear friend whom I happen to live with. In that way, we’re like two old-fashioned closeted bachelors who cohabitate and don’t think the rest of the world knows we’re lovers.” (16) And here’s one of those LA passages: “I looked out over the city. The wind was blowing right, and with all the rain lately you could see clear through to the port of Los Angeles, thirty miles away. You could see the cranes and the tanker ships and the ocean, which was glinting like a strip of silver” (82).

Also, I loved this description of someone’s apartment: “it was frozen in time in the ’80s, with a white leather couch, glass tables, mirrors, the color red, the color black, sculptures of Greek torsos” (147).

In her introduction to the English translation of this book, Patti Smith writes that The Divorce “outlines the process for those wishing to comprehend or to experience the expansive possibilities of a single moment” (viii). That is a perfect description of this book, though it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting when I first picked it up. Our narrator is a recently-divorced man who has decided to spend some time in Buenos Aires in December: a Southern Hemisphere summer seems better than a Northern Hemisphere winter and an awkward Christmas with his daughter (who’s in kindergarten) and his ex-wife. He has some acquaintances in Buenos Aires; late in the book we learn that he “had lectured on Borges in Providence” and that the Buenos Aires neighborhood where he’s staying is “the place where Borges had spent his childhood and discovered literature” (84). “The games that Borges had played with space-time in his work were secondary to his art of storytelling; his presence hovered over the neighborhood where I had come to stay” (ibid.). This all seems significant to the narrative of The Divorce itself, which delves into a series of often-surreal connections and backstories and characters that relate, however tangentially, to a chance reunion the narrator witnesses at the outdoor tables of a café.

There are a whole lot of great sentences and images and moments in this short book. I like how the narrator says this: “In the absence of significant others, I had the liberating sensation of being absent from myself” (4). And I like how he describes the weather and the setting: “the lengthy evenings, and the leaves on the trees, whose high branches met over the streets, and the air washed clean by daily showers” (ibid.) There is a moment where moths take the shape of a building; there is a moment where a man lights a candle to see the shadows another man casts as he gesticulates to himself; there is a childhood memory to do with a village’s “roster for taking Krishna out on Sundays” from the shrine (and this is not a statue of Krishna, but somehow actually Krishna); there is a mysterious Manual that lets a fourteen-year-old-girl run a company by following its instructions; there is a moment where a woman buys a plastic Christmas tree by feel, in a store during a blackout. I especially loved the last section, with its story of a mysterious woman and a romance cut short.

Companion Piece by Ali Smith

October 19th, 2022

Companion Piece begins and ends with “hello”, or some variation thereof, and that word, one we use all the time without necessarily thinking about the different ways we use it, comes up a lot in the book, most explicitly in a great section toward the end of the book about its possible etymologies and uses and connotations: “We say it to someone we’ve just met, it’s a friendly and informal ritual gesture of greeting whether it’s someone we know or someone we’ve never met before” and “It can mean someone’s surprised, or attracted, or caught off guard by something or someone, as in, hello, what’s this/who’s this?” and “It can be a polite demand for attention; imagine you’re standing in a shop and the person you want to serve you has gone through the back, say, so you shout it. It can also suggest there might be nobody there at all. For instance, you’ve fallen down a well and are stuck at the bottom of it looking helplessly up at the small circle of light that’s the rest of the world and you’re shouting it in the desperation and hope that somebody will hear” (pp 170-171).

That “hello”, that little word, little gesture, is a moment of connection or potential connection between people, and that’s a big part of what this book, which is set in England in 2021, in the midst of continued pandemic isolation for some and a partial return to normal for others, is interested in/about. At the start of the book we’re alone with the narrator, Sand, or Sandy, and her dad’s dog; she gets an unexpected phone call (which, of course, starts with a “hello”) from someone she went to school with. They weren’t friends, but this woman, Martina, has had a strange experience and somehow, after all the years in which they hadn’t seen each other or spoken, has thought to call Sandy to talk about it, to puzzle it through. The experience involves words—a disembodied voice Martina heard one day while she was confined in a room at the airport with a very old and very beautiful lock (she works at a museum and was bringing it back from a traveling show) that said a phrase Martina can’t make any sense of. Martina had gone to Sandy when they were at school when she couldn’t make sense of words: Sandy remembers talking through an e.e. cummings poem with her, after refusing to let Martina just copy her essay about it. And Sandy works with words: she’s an artist who paints the texts of poems, the words all layered on top of one another, and early in the book she says this: “all my life I’d loved language, it was my main character, me its eternal loyal sidekick” (pp 4-5).

At the moment when Martina calls, Sandy is blue and isolated: her dad’s in the hospital; she’s worried about getting covid and him getting it as well. The unexpected call from Martina ends up bringing Sandy into contact with Martina’s family, too, in a sometimes farcical subplot that has plenty of moments of annoyance, but also some moments of sweetness and connection. And then there’s a whole other subplot to do with the lock and the words Martina heard and a “vision” of (p 107) or imagining of or visitation by that lock’s centuries-ago maker, a girl living through a different plague.

I love Ali Smith’s work, in general, and this book is no exception. I love the wordplay and the lyricism and the heart of it. I love sentences like this: “I was thinking of the turn in an ordinary stairwell in a library and how the window above it let light fall on it” (p 49). Or this: “if words are alive to us then meaning’s alive, and if grammar’s alive then the connection in it, rather than the divisions in us, will be energizing everything, one way or another” (p 95).

The protagonist of Meet Us By the Roaring Sea lives in Queens in the not-too-distant future: far enough from now that a building built in the early 2000s is described as old, but not so far from now as to be unrecognizable. The protagonist works in AI and technology has advanced—people’s consumption patterns are monitored to generate a personal “carbon score” for everyone, and electronic payments happen via iris scans rather than through cell phones—but people are still grappling with the biases and ethics of technology and algorithms and data collection/data use. Meanwhile, the protagonist is translating a manuscript written in Tamil in the late 1990s, a work described as “a collective memoir, not fully fact or fiction, about a group of female medical students.” The narrative jumps between the future and the past, the protagonist and the manuscript. At work, the protagonist is training a new AI that feels different from past projects; at home, she throws herself into the translation because she needs something to do: we learn early in the book of her “mother’s sudden death, two months ago.” The protagonist notices this, about people she talks to at a “protest about data surveillance”: “They all had experienced a loss that they were still trying to shape in to something else.” Of course this applies to her, too, and to her childhood friend Sal, who is back in the neighborhood after a long time away. These plot strands intersect with another about the protagonist’s cousin Ros, who recently moved in with her. Ros is working on a new drug that’s being developed to treat Alzheimer’s, but that might have other uses as well; this plotline also includes a veteran who goes by Cheeze, who ends up living with the protagonist and Ros for a time. In the manuscript, the medical students are treating refugees—there is mention of “the Island” and “civil war” and because the text is in Tamil you know it’s Sri Lanka. The younger students, under the guidance of three older girls, are being tutored in “radical compassion.” The manuscript observes that the girls are “learning two different systems of knowledge, one structured by a clinical understanding of the body and the other ancient, known before knowing.” But it isn’t clear how to achieve radical compassion, or what exactly it might lead to, for the students in the manuscript or for the protagonist.

I like the way Kumarasamy writes, and there were aspects of this book I liked a lot—the protagonist and the manuscript, the protagonist and the AI, the protagonist and Sal. And I see where the pieces of the plot with Ros and Cheeze connect to ideas of memory and trauma and compassion. But I also felt like I wanted the book to have a tighter focus than it did.

Spellmaker by Charlie N. Holmberg

September 19th, 2022

I’m glad I read this right after Spellbreaker because, as previously mentioned, I really wanted to know how things would work out … but alas, I didn’t like this book as much as I liked that one. For me, the balance of magic and intrigue and romance in the first one was just right; this one’s a little heavier on the romance for a lot of the book, and I was just not that into the direction it took. (To say it in a non-spoilery way: I liked the sass and flirtation of the first book much more than I liked the questions and doubts that figured more heavily in this one.) Plotwise: this book picks up shortly after the previous one ends, and in the first chapter our heroine Elsie finds herself “under arrest for the practice of unregistered spellbreaking.” As you might guess, she isn’t sentenced to death or life imprisonment, as that wouldn’t leave us with much of a book—but her arrest has major consequences for her relationship with Bacchus, the aspector from Barbados who played such a big role in the last book. Meanwhile, the villain who was revealed at the end of the last book continues to be a threat, and figuring out how to deal with that threat takes up a lot of Elsie and Bacchus’s time. We also get to meet a few new characters, my favorite of whom is the registered spellbreaker who’s sent to train Elsie after she gets out of jail: watching her dynamic with all the other characters is fun, and a magical fight scene near the end of the book is strengthened, I think, by having two spellbreakers and two aspectors (magicians) fighting on the same side.

(That said: I have issues with the way the villainy in this book ends up going, for reasons that people on Goodreads have already articulated better than I could, as in the three following reviews by others: review 1, review 2, review 3)