María Gainza’s “Optic Nerve” is a pleasant piece of what I now know to be termed “autofiction,” which is to say that it’s “fiction” based on the author’s life. It’s a nice way to while a way a few short hours, especially if you enjoy art history (or to be honest, art gossip). “Optic Nerve” is readable, inoffensive, largely forgettable, like most trivia-based works of its kind. There’s nothing to hate here, but there’s also not much to really love: the book remains on surface level with itself and its reader.
There are interesting and complex “characters” here, but the narrator is too self involved to get to know them, or too busy keeping herself at opaque for us to see them well. They are marks on the paper, nothing more, nothing less. You know nothing more about them, the artists or the narrator than you did at the book’s start. It’s a little disappointing, since it’s clear that Gainza knows how to write and is well aware of the dangers of judging an artist by the anecdotes we know of their lives.
I read this as part of the Tournament of Books 2020, where it’s up against Caleb Crain’s “Overthrow” in the 5th round of the tournament.
Ocean Vuong’s “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is more of a memoir in poetry than it is a novel. Even as you read it it’s clear that this book is so autobiographical that practically only the language use in it is fiction. It’s a sharp, painful and beautiful memoir, and I’m glad that it exists, but it’s just not a novel, so it’s impossible to judge as one. The characterization is brilliant, but it’s clear that these characters are very real, and their complex relationships and behaviours are recorded from life. There’s no plot except the protagonist’s life, Vuong’s life. The writing is wonderful, although it’s not an easy read. It’s poetry from start to finish, and it expects the reader to work for their reading.
There are more and more “fictionalized non-fiction” books that are being published as fiction, and some of them are excellent. It’s just makes the task of judging them against “fiction fiction” much harder.
So a recommended read (it does require a strong stomach. There are some very disturbing images and scenes that appear again and again in the narrative), but one that also calls into question the definition of fiction.
I read this as part of the Tournament of Books 2020, where it’s up against “Nothing to See Here” in round four of the contest. It’s so hard to compare these two books, even though they both deal with childhood trauma, loss and being impoverished outsiders in a world that values wealth and conformity. “Nothing to See Here” is entirely a work of fiction, while “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is so very clearly not. Vuong’s work is more culturally significant, but I enjoyed “Nothing to See Here” so much more, and it’s such a risky and clever piece. I wouldn’t argue with anyone picking “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” as the winner of this round, but my pick is Kevin Wilson’s “Nothing to See Here”.
Kevin Wilson’s “Nothing to See Here” is a sharp, fresh, unputdownable gem of a novel. A heartwarming story about finding your tribe and embracing your weirdness in a world that’s all about conformity. Larger than life gorgeous characters that aren’t caricatures, a page-turning plot that still leaves them room to breath and grow, and an interesting take on family, love, opportunity and class.
Plus, it’s a funny, fun and original read.
I highly recommend it, and I definitely will reread this book again.
I read “Nothing to See Here” as part of the 2020 Tournament of Books, where it’s up against “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” in round 4 of the competition.
It feels like a waste of time to write a review of Sally Rooney’s “Normal People“. It’s a boring novel with the basic “Ross and Rachel” love story plot, but with zero charm or meaning added. The characters are unlovely. They are surrounded by a cast of unlikable caricatures. The whole thing is immersed in lengthy paragraphs of descriptions of people opening wine bottles and making tea.
Was there potential for a story here about breaking the cycle of abuse, about finding redemption with the help of other people? Yes. All of it was squandered in the most infuriating way possible.
I read this as part of the Tournament of Books 2020 contest and it was an utter waste of time. It’s up against the fascinating and brilliant “Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen” which is head and shoulders above it.
A very surprising book. I was expecting a grotesque horror story, and I got nothing of the sort.
In “Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen” Dexter Palmer takes a historical event and greatly expounds upon it to create a clever and subtle work of fiction which is at times breathtaking in its endeavours. This is a bildungsroman, it’s a tale of mastery and apprenticeship, it’s a love story, and most of all its a story about truth, fiction, and the complexity and variety of what lies between the two, and what defines them. The 18th century was the Age of Enlightenment, yet, Palmer says, look how dark and fragile that enlightenment was, and look and tremble at how dark and fragile our current age is. For the tale of Mary Toft in the 18th century is also the tale of flat-earthers, anti-vaccers, “Fake News” current West civilization, and it’s also the same tale of women who’s voices aren’t heard, who are abused, ignored, deemed “cow-like” and only good enough for breeding, who cry in pain in a room full of doctors that not once ask her how she’s feeling.
So why 4 stars and not 5? Because there’s a tremendously cruel and grotesque bit in the London part of the novel that I understand why Palmer brought in, yet I still wish he hadn’t. After a line or two I skipped the part, and my reading wasn’t spoiled for it. So: 1. Once the bull shows up in the arena, skip to the end of the chapter. 2. If I could skip the horror and not miss a bit, then Palmer could have done without it.
A very interesting, clever and subtle tale, worth reading and contemplating upon.
I read this novel as part of the 2020 Tournament of Books, which is fortunate, because otherwise I wouldn’t have even heard about it. It’s going up against Sally Rooney’s “Normal People”.
Valeria Luiselli’s “Lost Children Archive” could have been a great novel. All the ingredients are there. And I mean ALL of the ingredients are there. There’s a solid and enticing plot. There are potentially interesting an unique characters. There’s an obviously intelligent and accomplished author behind the scenes. There’s a hauntingly beautiful (and at times chilling) setting.
And it all falls flat.
Like an artist that doesn’t know when to stop painting, or a baker that doesn’t know when to stop embellishing, or a designer that has to add “just one more frill”, “Lost Children Archive” is extremely overworked. The result is at times barely readable, and at all times airless, stodgy, bloated. There are too many references layered onto a plot that would have been excellent if it had only been given a chance to flow freely. The characters, potentially excellent, become so iconic they are no longer relatable, realistic, living human beings.
This is such a tremendous shame, because all the ingredients are there, and with a little bit of tweaking and pruning this could have been a powerful novel about migrant children, families falling apart, genocide, memory, loss. As it is, it’s reads like an overly worked “New Yorker” piece – so cerebral it’s lost all its heart and momentum.
I read this as part of the Tournament of Books 2020contest, where it’s up against the phenomenal “Girl, Woman, Other,” and I will be stunned if Evaristo’s book will not trounce it. Read this only for the potential.
After reading Bernadine Evaristo’s “Girl, Woman, Other“, I have to say that Atwood’s “The Testaments” better be a flawless novel to justify giving it the joint Booker prize with this masterpiece.
“Girl, Woman, Other” is a perfect gem. She manages to pull off one of the most daring tightrope acts in modern literature:
- Create a unique narrative in a unique narrative voice that oftentimes flows into poetry, yet still remains very readable.
- Give voice to those who are rarely, if ever, heard, yet not turn them into iconic stand-ins, but let them be individuals. And oh what an ensemble of glorious individuals they are.
- Render a plot that is packed full of fascinating, realistic action, and yet that is non-linear, tying disparate characters from widely varying backgrounds and generations in a web of past-present-future reality. A plot that brings the historic and iconic with the present and personal, the petty with the epic, and brings them all together under the title of “life”.
- Bring slices of everyday London, the UK, Africa and the US to life in a way that makes each character grounded in their background and yet also universally relatable. A school is this particular school, but it’s also all high-schools everywhere.
- Talk about the darkest parts of the human experience, the worst deeds, the worst mindsets, and yet retain a measure of hope, empathy, understanding for those who experienced the worst and those that inflicted it.
“Girl, Woman, Other” is an absolute must read book, and I’m thankful that I “had” to read it as part of the2020 Tournament of Books challenge.
Writing a satire that is also “good high fiction” (i.e. not trite, full of one dimensional characters, in a world lacking verisimilitude) verges on the impossible, partially because of the demands of the genre.
Maurice Carlos Ruffin comes damn close to achieving the impossible in “We Cast a Shadow“. The nameless main character, a black father obsessed with demelanating his son in an extremely racist “post-racial” American South, is a stand-in for desperate black parents tormented by the responsibility of raising a child in a world so hostile to them. Yet he’s also a fully realized character, in inadvertent “monster” created out of good intentions, love, trauma, despair, and an attempt to navigate that which can’t be navigated. If you don’t understand his fears, acknowledge your privilege and read the news. If you think demelanization isn’t a thing, listen to Tan France speak up against it.
The plot is where “We Cast a Shadow” shows its rough edges. Most of it is excellent, some of it gets carried away in the need to find literary legitimacy by pulling in references. There’s a noticeable amount of literary callback in the writing as well. Some of it is called for, some of it just pulls you out of the narrative. “We Cast a Shadow” lacks the polish and flow of “The Sellout” (and it’s not nearly as funny), which is why I think it got less attention from the public and the press. It’s still an accomplished, good book, well worth the read.
Unlike “The Sellout”, in “We Cast a Shadow” Ruffin doesn’t set a clownish character in motion in a contemporary setting. His is a dystopian near future, one that may very well be realized. For the sake of the Nigels and Pennys of the world, let’s hope it doesn’t.
I read “We Cast a Shadow” as part of the Tournament of Books 2020, where it’s in the play-in round against “Golden State” and “Oval“, two other 2019 dystopian novels. While “We Cast a Shadow” is the least speculative of the three, it’s my opinion that it’s the best.
Dystopias are rarely boring. Dystopias rarely make you think, “meh”, when the characters meet the horrors of their world. Dystopias rarely lack plot, drive, an every calling telos. The world of dystopia may be hedonistic but the characters rarely are: after all, what’s the point of creating that kind of world if your character are too nihilistic, hedonistic and selfish to care what is going on around them?
Elvia Wilk’s “Oval” manages to be all that: a boring, bland, myopic, pointless dystopia full of nihilistic and selfish characters that don the mantle of social awareness and environmentalism as nothing more than a status symbol. I hesitate to call “Oval” a speculative novel, since so little speculation happens in it. Corporations are going to be ever more powerful at the expense of governments? That’s a known truth in 2020. The housing crisis is a thing worldwide? No kidding. Economic disparity, young people despairing from the political system, partying your way to the end – it’s not just that there’s nothing new here, it’s also that Wilk didn’t even try to dress it differently, give it an interesting or thought provoking spin. After reading “Oval” to the end I felt like I felt after watching “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace”: was this all that it’s for?
I don’t like feeling cheated as a reader, and “Oval” wears the mantle of a high brow novel while providing less satisfaction, interest and down to earth character moments than works like Corey Doctorow’s wonderful “Radicalized”. Go read that instead.
I read “Oval” as part of the 2020 Tournament of Books, where it’s up in the play-in round against “Golden State” and “We Cast a Shadow”.
In a dystopian California, obsessed about the truth and capturing every moment of reality, a detective in the lie-detecting “Speculative Service” encounters an accidental death that may be more than it seems. Ben H. Winters’ “Golden State” is a clever mirror of “1984”, built for our cynical and surveillance heavy world, and it has a lot to say about truth, fiction, human relationships, guilt and objectivity. There’s something very “Caves of Steel” about it, and yet Winters’s characters are actual characters, and not robots-in-flesh as in Asimov’s work. This isn’t just a novel of ideas, but also a novel of people, of Lazlo dealing with pain, guilt, ambition.
A clever speculative novel that is worth reading even if speculative novels aren’t your thing.
I read this as part of the 2020 Tournament of Books Play-In round, where it’s up against “Oval” and “We Cast a Shadow”.