Book Reviews: Lincoln in the Bardo, Chemistry, Anything is Possible, The Animators, Misfortune of Marion Palm

By | October 31, 2017

Is there anything more subjective than the literary novel? At least with movies and TV shows, there’s some broad criteria I might use to determine what’s good and what isn’t, but with literary novels (vastly different in prose, styling, plot–or lack of, and personality) it might really just boil down to your own personal connection with the subject matter or telling…

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders…One of the most critically beloved books of the year, but for every person that loves this novel set in a graveyard, narrated by ghosts, and somewhat about the mourning of Abraham Lincoln’s son (wow, what relevance!), there will likely be three readers who find the period-appropriate prose and dialogue patience-testing, and the novel’s overuse of blank space (some pages have barely a full paragraph on them) gimmicky. Even though I normally read books rather than listen to audio versions, the best way to experience “Bardo” is the star-packed audiobook with dozens of character actors bringing their all to the roles. Grade: B-

Chemistry by Weike Wang…Another critically beloved book that uses sparse prose and an unconventional plot style, as the narrator–a never-named Chinese doctorate student who has a meltdown doing tedious lab work–peppers in science facts all throughout. Are the endless scientific anecdotes (which sometimes feels like the narrator is putting distance between her and us) a sly critique of Asperger-y millennials? The narrator’s way of guarding her real emotions? Or just filler material in what’s already a very short, almost-novella length book? Your answer to that question—as well as how you feel about the frustratingly passive main character and the book’s anti-climactic ending—will largely determine how much you love this or don’t, but I will say it grows on you days after you’ve finished it. Another month of pondering it, and I might be convinced this truly is a masterpiece. Grade: A-

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout…This is more of a short story collection about loosely-connected characters inhabiting the same small-town orbit, and so your enjoyment will largely depend on which story you’re reading. One story about a creepy, surveillance-heavy big shot trying to rape or violate attractive artists will look even more relevant post-Weinstein, but others don’t have the same impact. Still, these are characters you’re rooting for—I especially liked a scarred Vietnam vet clumsily grasping for happiness—and you’re hoping they can find happiness, even if Strout denies some of them. Grade: B+

The Misfortune of Marion Palm by Emily Culliton…It turns out Marion Palm has been embezzling money from her children’s posh private school in Brooklyn, and rather than face an arrest, disappears into a…poor, unglamorous, majority-Russian section of Brooklyn. The novel is a sly allegory of how different sections of NYC barely know the other exists but it feels almost too hard on some of its characters, like the home-design crazed father Marion leaves behind or the two girls Marion barely thinks about after abandoning. Plus, the book isn’t really a builder, as with any book where characters are essentially in limbo (either waiting to be arrested or waiting for someone to return) there’s some pacing problems as things keep going, like layering in richly-drawn flashbacks at points where most stories would be moving forward or narrowing their focus. Beautifully written, finely observed, and funny—its depiction of panicked private school administrators is hilarious—but ultimately more good than great. Grade: B+

The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker…Terrific. Whitaker’s tale of two Southern female animators meeting at a stuffy liberal arts college before finding monster success with a hit animated movie based off their rural upbringing shines with great insight into being rural at a college of city elites, female friendships, professional jealousies, and two characters you actually want to spend a few hundred pages with (though the book takes place over decades, and has an indie-epic feel). By the end, I felt I’d read one of the best books of 2017. Grade: A

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