Tag Archives: Alan Hollinghurst

Book review Monday: eight short book reviews

It’s been a while since I’ve written any book reviews here; this isn’t because I’ve stopped reading, but more because I’ve allowed myself to slip into indolence with my blogging. It’s much easier to read a book and move on to the next than to have to recall that book’s details and ruminate on its meaning. Ruminating can be so exhausting. But it seems a waste to read so many books and then not even share my opinions on them with anyone. So, as a sort of stopgap measure, here, in no particular order, are eight very brief reviews of some of the books I’ve read over the past few months. Since I read some of these in January, which was eons ago, I’ve forgotten some of the details, hence my brevity. But hopefully these short reviews will get to the heart of the matter.

  1. Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, Anne Lamott: A slim little book in which Lamott documents her son’s first year of life, in sometimes excruciating and often funny detail. Lamott was a thirty-five year-old single woman when she gave birth to her son Sam and was by turns apprehensive, terrified, enraged, enthralled, exhausted, and overwhelmed by the experience. While the book chronicles some of the minutiae of raising an infant, Lamott also gets philosophical about life, late 1980s politics, gender, motherhood, religion, mortality, and family. While Lamott’s flights of fancy about God and angry tirades against George Bush (the first George Bush, at that) can border on the hackneyed and the dated, respectively, there’s a lot of universal stuff in here about the experience of being part of a family, and the difficulties involved with being a human grappling with unanswerable questions. operating instructions
  2. The Stranger’s Child, Alan Hollinghurst: After reading (and loving) The Line of Beauty, I just had to get me some more Hollinghurst. Unfortunately, The Stranger’s Child was a disappointment. Following several intertwined stories spanning several generations, and somewhat centered around the characters’ connections to a young poet named Cecil Valance who died in WWI, The Stranger’s Child is a meditation on the unreliability of memory and the subjectivity of the past. Hollinghurst’s writing is, as always, spectacular. But fantastic writing is not enough to save this book, I’m sorry to say. The plot was complex and “layered,” yes, but needlessly so. The time-shifting, often done without explication or table-setting, was jarring and exhausting. The characters, many of whom had the same or similar voice and interests, became muddled together. By the middle of it, I began skimming, and I never skim. Well, almost never. I enjoyed the unreliable narrator Paul Bryant, and I think I get the point Hollinghurst was trying to make with all of this, which is that ALL narrators are unreliable, and memory is a tricky thing, and the past is not a monolith, and whatever, but could he not have done it with a more streamlined and plot-driven vehicle? I just kept waiting for something to happen, and nothing ever did.
  3. The UnAmericans: Stories, Molly Antopol: I read a glowing review of this book on NPR and since I love sinking my teeth into a good collection of short stories, I thought I’d give this one a whirl. Unfortunately, I came away a bit disappointed by The UnAmericans. My basic problem with the collection was not with the writing, which, sentence to sentence, was excellent. I found Antopol’s stories inconsistent in terms of character development and relatability, which meant that, while reading several of the stories, I found myself bored and disengaged, despite the marvelous descriptions of setting. There is a lot of good work in this collection. Some of the stories, like “My Grandmother Tells Me This Story,” about Eastern European Jewish refugees during World War II, are gripping and vivid. Others, though, like “Duck and Cover,” about communists in Southern California during the McCarthy area, left me cold. All of the stories feature Jewish protagonists, many of whom are struggling with questions of identity – religious, national, familial, or otherwise. These are broad questions and provide fertile ground for interesting storytelling, and sometimes, Antopol nails it. But the stories varied too widely for me to wholeheartedly recommend this book.
  4. Dear Life: Stories, Alice Munro: It’s hard to say much bad about Alice Munro. Part of her gift as a storyteller is her ability to take seemingly mundane situations in less-than-fascinating settings (often, rural, mid-20th century Ontario) and create compelling, emotionally rich stories. One of the most interesting things about this collection is Munro’s inclusion of four final works that “are not quite stories,” but are essays that are “autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact.” These four semi-fictional works form a mini-memoir at the end of the collection of stories and give a window into Munro’s own upbringing and early family life. dear life
  5. Flowers in the Attic, V.C. Andrews: Somehow, despite being born in the early 1980s, I totally missed reading the 1979 classic Flowers in the Attic. I was aware of it, of course, but by the time I fully grasped that it was a “young adult” book with sexy bits in it, I was too old and world-weary to bother reading it. Then, I read this piece by Tara Ariano, one of my editors at Previously.TV, about what the book meant to her as a kid, and I decided to read it, for the first time, as an adult. As everyone in the world who has read FITA will tell you, it’s terribly written, outrageously cheesy, laughably unrealistic, and completely weird on every level. But the weirdness is kind of what works about the book. It’s so creepily bizarre that you can kind of get past the terrible writing and just enjoy the craziness. This book certainly isn’t going to win any literary accolades, but it is going to last, because it’s just the kind of macabre, taboo love story that teens (and, okay, adults) eat up. If you want to give your brain a rest and be weirded out at the same time, give FITA a go.
  6. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman: My husband’s youngest brother gave me this book for Christmas this year. I had never read any Gaiman before, but as soon as I got into the story, I understood why people enjoy his writing. This story is small, and quick, but it sticks with you. Told from the perspective of a man revisiting the English village where he grew up, it’s a reflection on magic, family, and the fluid interplay between childhood safety and danger. I loved Gaiman’s simple, evocative writing and the sense of magic and promise in this story. ocean at the end of the lane
  7. The People in the Trees, Hanya Yanagihara: The People in the Trees is an interesting and disturbing read. It tells the story of (the fictional) Dr. Norton Perina, a Nobel Prize winning immunologist who was arrested in 1995 for sexually abusing one of his 43 adopted children. Told from the perspective of Perina himself, as well as his trusted confidante and defender, Ronald Kubodera, the story traces Perina’s early life and career as a scientist before getting into the meat of the story, Perina’s journey in 1950 to the (fictional) Micronesian country of U’ivu, where he discovered, on one of its islands, people who had seemingly found the answer to eternal life. Perina’s subsequent handling of his discovery and his ensuing notoriety form a large part of the story, but it’s not until Perina begins to adopt children from U’ivu that things get decidedly twisted. The New York Times review can be found here.
  8. The Valley of Amazement, Amy Tan. I’m a huge, lifelong Amy Tan fan. The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God’s Wife, and The Hundred Secret Senses are among my absolute favorites, but I’ll read anything she writes. Her latest effort, The Valley of Amazement, while an impressive work of historical fiction, didn’t move me the way that some of her earlier books have. As always, Tan is an expert at capturing complicated mother-daughter relationships. But in The Valley of Amazement, the story wanders so much from the central relationships, and contains so many twists and turns (not all of which are particularly interesting) that I found myself bored and wishing it were more streamlined.

These eight aren’t the only books I’ve read over the last three months, but they’re the ones I felt like writing about, maybe because, in one way or another, they stuck with me (even the ones I didn’t care for). Have you read any of these? What did you think?


Book review Tuesday: The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst

I recently finished Alan Hollinghurt’s The Line of Beauty, winner of the 2004 Man Booker Prize for fiction.  It is an excellent and intimidating book: excellent in that it’s exquisitely plotted and crafted, intimidating for the very same reasons.  One of the reviewers on the back cover (Publishers Weekly) raved that it is “almost perfectly written” and “has the air of a classic.”  I must agree — which is why reading this novel is simultaneously satisfying and torturous.  Hollinghurst’s “almost perfect” prose is gorgeous, but it has a way of sapping all of my self-esteem about my own writing.  His sentences make mine seem wilted and puerile in comparison. I mean, how can he write so well?  Dammit, Hollinghurst!

I was recommended this book by one of Al’s friends from work, Jason.  I was in Kramerbooks in DC, picking up way too many books to bring with me to South Africa, when I ran into Jason and we started talking about books we love.  He suddenly said, “Oh my God, you have to read this book, it’s beautiful.”  He then took me by the arm and led me over to a shelf, plucked down The Line of Beauty, put it in my hands, and said, “You’re buying this.”

First, some background.  The book takes place between 1983 and 1986, mostly in London, at the height of Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as Prime Minister.  The main character, Nick Guest, is a young Oxford graduate who is working on a graduate thesis on Henry James and is renting a room from the Feddens, a conservative political family.  Gerald Fedden, the father, is a conservative Member of Parliament; Nick was friends with Gerald’s son, Toby, at Oxford, which is how Nick came to be living with them.  Nick is more than just a renter, though – he fancies himself a part of the family and becomes intimately involved in the family’s workings and secrets.  The book is about Nick’s fascination with the Feddens and their wealth and erudition, as well as his exploration of his own sexuality (he’s gay) and the complicated relationships he forms with several men, including a young Lebanese scion of a grocery store fortune.  Soon enough, excess — drugs, sex, wealth — begin to corrupt, and the consequences are devastating for everyone.

In Kramerbooks, I flipped open the book to skim through it, as I usually do when considering whether or not to buy a book. I opened randomly to page 104, a scene in which Nick and his new boyfriend, Leo, are having an argument about where they can be alone together, but also, on a larger level, whether their relationship is going to work out at all.  They had just come from visiting Leo’s ex-boyfriend, Pete.

All of Leo’s effusiveness with Pete and then with Sophie had ebbed away, and left just the two of them, in this horrible noise and crush.  Nick glanced at him with a tight smile; at which Leo stretched his neck with a moody, uninvolved air.  ‘Well,’ said Nick finally, ‘where do you want to go?’

‘I don’t know, boyfriend,’ Leo said.

Nick laughed ruefully, and something kept him back from a further lie. ‘A caff?’ he said. ‘Indian? A sandwich?’ — which was the most he could imagine managing.

‘Well, I need something,’ said Leo, in his tone of flat goading irony, looking at him sharply. ‘And it isn’t a sandwich.’

Nick didn’t take a risk on what this might mean. ‘Ah…’ he said. Leo turned his head and scowled at a stall of cloudy green and brown glassware, which was taking its place in their crisis, and seemed to gleam with hints of a settled domestic life.  Leo said,

‘At least with old Pete we had his place, but where are me and you ever going to go?’

Could this be his only objection, the only obstacle…? ‘I know, we’re homeless,’ Nick said.

‘Homeless love,’ said Leo, shrugging and then cautiously nodding, as if weighing up a title for a song.

Isn’t that delicious? I absolutely love the line about the glassware “taking its place in their crisis.” Hollinghurst is very gifted at picking up shifts in mood between characters and exploiting dialogue, scenery, and internal thought processes of the characters to subtly bring them out.  I suppose there’s a lesson in here somehow about how I can learn from Hollinghurst’s prose to improve my own, but all I can do is goggle at it.  Oh, well. Some books are like that.

I recommend this novel on several levels, but don’t read it if you want to feel uplifted.  Without giving much away, I’ll say that things don’t end perfectly for anyone in this novel.  But the uncertainty of how things will turn out for these characters is part of what makes the book compelling.

[Oh, and one final note: they made it into a BBC series starring Dan Stevens (Matthew Crowley from Downton Abbey) as Nick! I must buy this immediately.]