For many years, I avoided reading fiction. The world is vast and there is so much to know that I just couldn’t justify reading a novel. In addition, there are so many talented journalists-turned-author that it’s easy to find nonfiction on almost any subject that grabs and holds your attention—history, current events, politics, real people, you name it. Historical fiction was the next best thing. As long as I was learning something new, I was marginally okay with reading a novel. Many of my friends, however, prefer fiction and over time, they’ve convinced me to read more of it.
It’s been almost a year since I started writing regularly. So besides being able to discuss novels with friends, fiction now has a secondary appeal. I want to contemplate the ways in which authors of any genre choose to express themselves. Some of the best prose that I’ve read in the last year came from novels written by John Steinbeck, James Baldwin, and Elizabeth Wetmore. Keep this in mind as you read the following reviews of books I’ve read (or listened to) in 2021 but haven’t yet blogged about. I have deep respect for all of these authors who have pulled off the near-impossible feat of writing a bestselling book. What I find lacking might well be the perfect escape for someone else.
The Great Believers
In this work of period fiction, the author of The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai, skillfully jumps between two storylines, one taking place in Chicago during the 1980s, the other in Paris in 2015. Much of this book was acutely nostalgic for me. The main character from the Chicago narrative went to the University of Michigan, then moved to Chicago in the early 80s, just as I did. He’s gay and the story portrays the horrors of that period when so many gay men were contracting AIDS and dying and when those with the power to do something about it seemed not to care much. I remember talking to and worrying about my gay friends at the time. We were young, optimistic, enterprising, and upset about society’s general indifference to the growing AIDS crisis, just like Makkai’s fictional characters.
I can’t speak for the experience of a gay man living through that devastation but from my perspective, Makkai, who was a baby at the time, recreated a convincing account of what it was like. She intertwines this aspect of the 1980s plot with the intriguing backstory of an eccentric octogenarian who lived in Paris in the 1920s. Back then, the endearing dowager was both muse and friend to a number of famous painters. I’m keenly interested in that part of Parisian history and again, I thought Makkai did a fantastic job of making all of these secondary details largely plausible.
I found the narrative that unfolds in the summer of 2015 to be the weakest part of the book—especially the last half. This modern-day storyline features an extraordinarily strained mother-daughter relationship and certain aspects of their estrangement didn’t ring true to me. Oddly, you’d expect this portion of the story to have the most authenticity since buried animosity between a parent and child is a common theme in both fiction and real life.
Makkai spins this plot a bit differently than what one customarily encounters. Usually, the parent is the unreasonable actor that slowly bends to the needs of the child. In this case, the opposite takes place, with the mother having many admirable qualities and the daughter behaving uncharacteristically intolerant well into adulthood. Again, there was a small parallel to my own life since I spent 5 weeks in France in the summer of 2015 and I’m the mother of two daughters. Hence, I wanted to like this storyline as much as the other one, but it fell a bit flat.
Overall, The Great Believers is a very good read that accurately reflects some exceptional, yet often overlooked, periods of history.
The Hate U Give
I listened to the audio version of The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, after my teenage daughter recommended it. I really enjoyed the narrator, Bahni Turpin, who did a wonderful job interpreting the voices and personalities of so many characters.
The story is an important one as it revolves around the wrongful death of an African-American teen at the hands of a white cop. The perspective is also refreshing, told by a teenage girl, Star, who was accompanying the male victim on the night he was murdered.
I liked the characters and the story was by and large compelling. No particular detail felt unreasonable. At times, however, the plot dragged and I eventually increased the narration speed which helped with the pace.
In the end, I felt the book was a little too pollyannaish. Everything wrapped up far too smoothly. Star, still a child, after having witnessed the violent deaths of two close friends, maintains her carefree attitude and continues her stereotypical teenage existence, relatively unscathed. Other characters, despite daunting setbacks, optimistically move forward with their lives.
Overall, I’d say that Angie Thomas’ writing is solid but lacks depth. This book falls into the Young Adult category and that’s exactly where I think it will be most appreciated.
Unlike the other books mentioned in this post, There There, by Tommy Orange, is a novel that covers an aspect of American life that was completely new to me. Orange grew up in Oakland, CA. His mother is white and his father is Native American. One of Orange’s goals in writing the book was to dispel stereotypes about what it means to be Native. In particular, he wanted to paint a modern portrait that today’s media completely overlooks—that of the”Urban Indian”. In his prologue, he writes.
Urban Indians feel at home walking in the shadow of a downtown building. We came to know the downtown Oakland skyline better than we did any sacred mountain range… We know the sound of the freeway better than we do rivers, the howl of distant trains better than wolf howls, we know the smell of gas and freshly wet concrete and burned rubber better than we do the smell of cedar or sage or even fry bread… We ride buses, trains, and cars across, over, and under concrete plains. Being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere.Tommy Orange, There There
There There doesn’t only present a new American experience for the reader to ponder. The manner in which the story unfolds is unconventional and worthy of consideration simply for its craft. The novel looks at the lives of 12 characters all heading to a Pow Wow at the Oakland Coliseum. Much like Wetmore’s Valentine (my favorite book of 2020), each chapter features a different character and stands on its own as a short story. As the novel progresses, tension mounts as the day of the Pow Wow draws closer. Orange has skillfully set the stage for chance encounters between many of his disparate characters once they eventually enter the massive coliseum. Throughout the last third of the book, I was eager to find out who might run into who else and what the consequences of doing so would be. A gamut of potential scenes, ranging from disastrous to joyful, were waiting to be revealed.
I appreciated this book on multiple levels. It gave me insight into an unfamiliar segment of American culture. The story is suspenseful without suspending plausibility. And, I admire Orange’s method of piecing together many experiences to construct a bigger picture. This is Orange’s first novel. At times I thought the writing lacked fine-tuning, but the book certainly merits the acclaim that it’s received.
Are there any novels that you’ve found particularly enlightening? Maybe something that taught you a lot about a time period, a profession, or subculture. Or, maybe there’s an author whose prose just blows you away. Please leave us your favorites in a comment.