In recent months, my schedule has normalized and I have returned to reading literary fiction, but I have yet to find a work that really pleases me. Admittedly, I have ridiculously high standards and do not give the author much latitude. Lately I have only read a few pages, a chapter or two – mere shards of books – before setting them aside.
It is both a blessing and a curse, to have two college degrees in literature and writing, and decades of reading great literature, but when I do find an exemplary book, I am ecstatic. Until then, I shall at least share my thoughts on the books I have rejected and offer alternatives by the same authors:
THE MINISTRY OF UTMOST HAPPINESS by Arundhati Roy. In 1970 Arundhati Roy deservedly won the Man Booker prize for The God of Small things, set in her native India. It remains one of my favorite books, full of rich, lyrical passages and human drama of the lives of two small children. In the meantime, Roy focused on her activism and wrote nonfiction. In 2017 she published The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. This time the protagonist is a hermaphrodite living as an outcast and Roy challenges us to love him/her. As much as I care for those ostracized from community, I could not connect to this book or character and was off-put by Roy’s periodic stray from high English to informal jargon.
MOONGLOW: A NOVEL by Michel Chabon. In his 2016 book, Chabon was inspired to share the stories his grandfather told upon his death bed. A mixture of memoir and fiction, Moonglow is a sophisticated work of art; witty, clever, with great command of language and dialogue. And yet . . . I could not quite find the heart of the book, not in the way that I connected with his 2012 novel, Telegraph Avenue. In this earlier work there was again a commanding use of words, but a more insistent energy, and he was able to pull me into the world of vinyl records; of jazz, blues and funk; and the lives of the two black owners of Brokeland Records.
ABIDE WITH ME by Elizabeth Strout. Elizabeth Strout is a skilled writer, with the ability to find the heart and humanity of ordinary people. She won the Pulitzer Prize for her 2008 literary novel, Olive Kitteridge, and was able to make me fall in love with her brusque, difficult protagonist. Unfortunately, she did not accomplish the same with her 2006 novel, Abide With Me. Set in New England, the book follows the travails of a small town minister struggling with the death of his wife and the rearing of two small children. Unfortunately, I could not find one character to like – not the passive minister, the brittle housekeeper, the cheating parishioner, etc.
DAYS WITHOUT END by Sebastian Barry. Long a fan of Irish playwright, novelist and poet Sebastian Barry, I am enamored with the lilt of his words on the page, the soft brogue of his characters. His 2016 book Days Without End follows an Irish emigrant escaping the famine of his homeland to find the horrors of the Civil War in America. I was jarred by Barry’s attempt to capture the western jargon, missed the poetic rhythm of his 2011 book, On Canaan’s Side, still among my favorites. In this earlier novel, he tells a story that is both epic and romantic, following the heartbreaking life of another Irish emigrant, Lily Bere, and her amazing ability to love and to forgive.
— Jonnie Martin