Summer reading mini-review dump

I’ve gotten so far behind in my leisure-reading reviews that I’m unlikely to catch up. But I did want to log, very briefly, my impressions of some of the books I’ve enjoyed since July. So here we go, in no particular order:

Sofia Samatar, Tender (short story collection): At once deeply felt and formally daring, Samatar’s Tender is one of the best short fiction collections I’ve read in years, not to mention a deft example of consciously scholarly fiction. Formally and thematically, Tender celebrates the beauty of the archive, and does it without the preciousness, smugness, or self-absorption of other scholar-writers (I’m currently reading Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose for the first time, and while the erudition is the same, the difference in execution is striking. Sorry, Eco). I hope to devote a full blog entry to Samatar soon. In the meantime, please go read her.

Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House (novella): How did it take me this long to read this book? Jackson writes perfect prose: clear, precise, yet with a flawless intuition of exactly when and where to introduce the darkness of abstraction. And the book’s chilling affect bears no relation to its plot (which yields few answers, anyway): even though I knew the ending going in, I still couldn’t sleep after reading it.

Anita Brookner, Hotel du Lac (novel): A sharp, strangely compelling example of a genre I’ve come to think of as “mid-century philosophical women’s fiction.” Brookner, like Doris Lessing, fillets the hearts of her female characters to show how the claustrophobia of mid-century bourgeois life can, under the right conditions, create a depth of perception indistinguishable from certain styles of philosophical thought. Brookner knows this, and her book’s climax is literally an argument about Nietzsche. I’m into it. 

Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend (novel): Ferrante feels like the socially-conscious descendent of Brookner, in that while she, too, slices daily life into abstractions via rigorous metaphor, her characters come from every rung of the social ladder, and the precariousness of their shifting positions has real consequences for their lives. But Ferrante’s lead is not the ruthless anatomist of ideas (as she would be in Brookner or Lessing), but that woman’s friend, who doesn’t share her brilliance and so can’t quite understand her motivations.

Sarah Perry, The Essex Serpent (novel): Set in the Edwardian era, The Essex Serpent’s entire plot is a mcguffin, but it doesn’t matter because her characters are cozy and endearing, and flawed enough so that neither quality cloys. Moreover, their interwoven stories refuse the narrative trajectories towards which the book’s ancestor and muse—the George Eliot-style social novel—seems trying to drive them. I read this in summer, but I think it would be a good snow-day read.

That’s it for now, at least for the books I felt were enjoyable enough to bother writing about. I’m probably forgetting a few, which I may go back and add later. In the meantime, I’m off to see if I can finish The Name of the Rose, whose endless recitation of fourteenth-century arguments over absolute poverty better damn well matter to its murder plot.