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Archive by tag: ReidReturn
Oct 24, 2020

How is America faring after four years of Donald Trump? Which way will voters turn? US authors including Richard Powers, Ocean Vuong and Kiley Reid share their hopes and fears

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Jul 20, 2020
by Reid B.: I want to go on record as being a David Mitchell fan. I believe that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Black Swan Green, and Cloud Atlas are all brilliant books. So, when I was offered an advance copy of Utopia Avenue, I was thrilled and couldn't wait to read it. What a disappointment awaited me.

The basic plot is a bit of a cliche: we follow a rock band from their inception in the gleaming eye of a manager, who brings together four seemingly disparate talents into a group which, inevitably, becomes very successful. Herein lies the first problem I had with this novel: this process is, I'm sure, very moving and fascinating to someone directly involved, but to the reader it is all rather dull. How many different ways can you describe the bass player putting down a funky beat, the lead guitarist ripping off an amazing riff, and so on? Not many, I guarantee you.

The era involved is the late 60s, and the scene is rock in both Great Britain and the United States, so naturally famous names show up. Oddly, though, none of them are truly vibrant characters in this story, so their inclusion seems more like name-dropping than anything else. True, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, and Jerry Garcia have a few meaningful lines, but others, including John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, and a whole host of others, are merely there to preserve a bit of verisimilitude, but add nothing, which is a shame.

Still, Mitchell is a very talented writer and he has created extremely likeable characters here, so I was willing to go along with the novel to a point (though I was thinking it overlong and in need of editing). There are also a couple of subplots involving, respectively, homosexuality and psychosis (don't worry, these are not spoilers) that have some passing interest, though the supernatural involvement with the insanity plot seems a bit out of place here; still, not truly objectionable (and a neat tie-in to a previous Mitchell novel). So far, so good.

But let me not mince words. I hated the ending. Hated, hated, hated it. Have I made myself clear? Loathed. Detested. Abhorred. Despised. Abominated. Until the ending, I was willing to go along and think of this as a perfectly acceptable three-star read, which to me is a book worth your time, but not worth going out of your way to read. The fact that I could hate the ending as much as I do and still give this two stars is a testament to Mitchell's raw skill. How unfortunate that he chose an emotionally manipulative ending that does not match in any way with the arc of the story he established to that point. Oh, I am aware that he can do whatever he wishes with his characters, and he is welcome to do so, but as a reader I have every right to object, and I do. Give this a miss.

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Jun 20, 2020
Two black households, not alike in dignity, in fair Louisiana, where we lay our scene: the Metoyers, “high yellow” Catholics, propertied Creoles with a good-looking son; and the Mathises, darker-skinned, poor, Baptist churchgoers with an equally good-looking daughter. In the newly restored Cane River, directed by Horace B. Jenkins and first released in 1982, boy meets girl and they fall in love, but not without the intrusion of history.
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Jan 18, 2020
by Reid (Seattle): As with the first book, Olive Kitteridge, this is the story of a singular woman living her brief life on the coast of Maine, creating wreckage with her acerbic tongue and caustic judgments. She is deeply broken, our Olive, and not very likeable, and yet we love her and wish for her to succeed. This is the tightrope Elizabeth Strout has walked yet again in this second volume. How is it that such an unpleasant person can elicit such sympathy from us? I suspect the answer is the resonance we feel in response to her brokenness, how it chimes with our own. Though she is far more unskillful in her dealings with those around her than most of us, we have all had our moments of being the Olive in the room, the one who blurts out the ugly truth or the intolerant judgement, then wonders why we have become the pariahs.

It is rather odd to call this a novel (as it was the first book), because this really is a book of short stories interconnected by a single character, who sometimes is front and center, and other times barely even mentioned. Yet it becomes the story of a single life, much like a paint-by-numbers picture becomes comprehensible with the addition of each subsequent color, different shadings and hues of Olive become more evident with each passing chapter.

I particularly like her relationship to Jack Kennison, a person in whom she has met her match and who loves her despite herself, as did her late husband, Henry. But I also deeply appreciate Strout's expansion on Olive's connection to her son, Christopher, with whom she has both a deep bond and troubling animosity. She wishes to be loved by him, but seems incapable of being lovable with him. It is terribly heartbreaking, but also feels truthful and genuine.

A few quick notes: first of all, though this novel would stand alone, reading the first will give this one greater depth and meaning. Second, if you have not watched the adaptation of Olive Kitteridge with Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins (with Bill Murray as Jack Kennison), please do. They embody the characters so thoroughly and so well, it is difficult to imagine anyone else in those roles.

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Jan 15, 2020
by Reid (Seattle): I am not surprised to see that this strange and wondrous novel has generated a wide range of opinions, that it is found by some to be opaque or even pointless. As with Obreht's previous novel, The Tiger's Wife, there is a bit of magical realism to this book, whiffs of Gabriel García Márquez and Cormac McCarthy, particularly the latter in this novel of the American West. This is a fever dream of a book and it's no wonder that not everyone cozies up to it.

But for my money this is an expertly realized, fascinating read, an invocation of a time and place that resonates deeply, all the more so for its tinge of unreality. All of the characters are caught in a nightmare not (entirely) of their own making and are simply making the best they can of their hard lots in the hardscrabble year of 1893.

There are two parallel plots here, the first that of Lurie, an orphaned child who takes up with rough characters and runs as far as he can with them before encountering a train of camels, brought over from Asia by the United States army in the hope that they can do a better job of transporting goods across the American deserts than horses can. This is factual—I have read elsewhere about this effort, which actually seems pretty sensible (but didn't work out all that well). Lurie ingratiates himself with the camel herders and tries as best he can to hang on to the fragile thread of his life. The other plot line involves Nora, a strong, independent woman of the Arizona desert, trying to stay upright in a world that seems to be doing everything it can to destroy her and her family, especially the drought that is turning her farm and the surrounding community to ash and dust. Everything about their lives speaks of dissolution and decay, though Nora does everything she can to keep herself and her three boys afloat. Her husband has been gone for days, out negotiating for the water they so desperately need, and the situation has become dire.

Thirst is the thematic core of these stories. Lurie gathers water everywhere he goes in a canteen previously owned by his adoptive brother, and it whets but never slakes his thirst to know what is coming and what has been. Nora is perpetually dry, sacrificing what little water she has to her children and, eventually, the dressing of wounds.

But no description of plot or theme can scratch the surface of the beauty of this book, which is carried in the expansive prose Obreht employs. While The Tiger's Wife bore the signs of a first-time author, with its too-careful elucidation and somewhat stilted language, in Inland she has come into a mastery of her craft and never sets a foot wrong in climbing this particularly challenging terrain. This is not a perfect book (often motives are obscure and some of the action seems unlikely, even for the hallucinatory reality it lives in), but it is excellent. One must be willing to surrender, though, to the wonderful strangeness of the world evoked here, and this is not always easy. The reward is worth the effort and I strongly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys the authors I listed in the first paragraph. While not as accomplished as either of those masters, Téa Obreht is clearly a talent to watch and read.

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