20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Author, Book review, Fiction, Head of Zeus, literary fiction, Publisher, Thomas H. Cook

‘The Crime of Julian Wells’ by Thomas H. Cook

Fiction – paperback; Head of Zeus; 292 pages; 2012.

The Crime of Julian Wells by American writer Thomas H. Cook is an intriguing and unusual detective story, but this is not a crime novel — at least not in the traditional sense.

What’s even more unusual is that the two main characters in the book are dead and the only way we learn anything about them is filtered through the eyes of a kindly narrator, Philip Anders.

Philip is a literary critic, and his best friend, Julian Wells, was a successful non-fiction writer whose books focused on the darkest crimes of the 20th century. But now Julian is dead, his body having been found in a small boat drifting on a lake in New York, and Philip wants answers.

A life in books

To prepare a eulogy, he begins to reread all of Philip’s books, which include stories about massacres, torturers and serial killers, but the more he reads, the more he becomes convinced that maybe Philip has committed a crime, too, and this would partly explain why he’s obsessed with the darker side of life.

And this gets him thinking about a young Argentinian woman the pair met in Buenos Aires when they were young men travelling the world. Her name was Marisol and she worked for the American Consulate as an English-speaking guide. Later, she had been “disappeared” and Julian had developed an unhealthy obsession about finding out what happened to her. Now Philip wonders if his friend might have played a part in her death.

This unease worsens when Philip goes to Paris to sort through Julian’s effects and discovers a series of photographs, mainly of Marisol, that look like they have been taken by surveillance cameras. In a bid to find out more, Philip embarks on an investigative journey that takes in Oradour, London, Budapest, Čachtice, Rostov (in Russia) and, finally, a return to Buenos Aires.

And the more he travels, the more he discovers…

Gothic undertones

There’s a decidedly gothic feel to this story, which plunges the reader into a world of horrific, and often famous, crimes from the past in “exotic” places such as Hungary and Russia and Slovakia and what was once Nazi-occupied France. Its often gruesome accounts of tortures and massacres are counterbalanced with the narrator’s memories of the past, his love for his friend and his own desire to find out the truth.

There are recurring themes, about friendship, deception and betrayal; good and evil;  spies, double agents and surveillance; politics and fighting for causes you believe in; and what it means to “make a difference”.

I loved its dark undertones and philosophical wandering, the way it plays with perceptions and makes you think you have the solution all figured out but then reveals a satisfying ending, the kind that makes you reassess your own assumptions.

This is a clever book, one that defies description — it’s part spy novel, part crime, part road trip, part suspense, perhaps even a touch of Dracula-like horror.  But, above all, as a novel that is essentially about humankind’s ongoing inhumanity to one another, The Crime of Julian Wells is a very humane and compassionate story.

This is my 7h book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I purchased it from a charity book sale last September for $3 knowing absolutely nothing about the book nor the author.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting, Sigrid Nunez, USA, Virago

‘The Friend’ by Sigrid Nunez

Fiction – Kindle edition; Virago; 224 pages; 2019.

This is the third book by Sigrid Nunez that I have read this year. She was a new discovery for me back in January, when I fell in love with her wonderful novel The Last of her Kind, but I’m fairly certain that if I had read The Friend first I probably wouldn’t have bothered reading anything else by her.

Not that this is a bad book. I enjoyed it. But its rambling nature, its lack of plot and structure, tested my patience at a time when I had little patience to test.

I know it pre-dated What Are You Going Through, but it felt very much like a companion piece to that novel — and maybe that’s why it didn’t really work for me: I simply read them too close together.

A canine inheritance

The Friend is about an unnamed middle-aged woman who inherits a dog after her best friend, a male creative writing professor, dies and leaves his great Dane to her. The inheritance, like his death (a suicide), is unexpected. Despite their close friendship for more than 30 years, the idea that the woman would look after his dog if he died has never been discussed: she finds out the (not particularly welcome) news when his third wife invites her for a coffee.

The dog, Apollo, is beautiful, docile and loyal, but he’s huge and he takes up so much room in her Manhattan apartment he has to sleep on her bed. And yet, for all the inconvenience and stress of living together in such a confined space, the pair of them get along well. He teaches her patience. She begins to fall in love with him.

But his presence in the building is forbidden by her landlord who has banned pets. There is a very real possibility that she will lose her much loved rent-controlled apartment if she does not find another home for Apollo.

That sense of jeopardy is what holds the entire narrative together — will she keep the dog and be turfed out into the street, or will she find a way to get rid of him?

Recurring themes

This, however, is a thin premise for a plot; most of the novel reads like a series of essays (the book is comprised of 12 parts) that focus on recurring themes. These include, among others, suicide and its aftermath; platonic friendship, sexual relationships and marriage; grief and bereavement; academic life; creative writing, writing as a profession and literature; dogs as companions and dogs in literature.

These forays or diversions read like long passages of stream-of-consciousness or eloquent diary entries — and there’s a hint of meta-fiction throughout (is the narrator, for instance, really Nunez in disguise). They’re brim-full of insights and there’s an emphasis on detail, and despite some heavy subject matter — this is, after all, a book about suicide and its aftermath — there’s a seam of humour running throughout the narrative, a slight poking of fun at the ridiculous concept of a small woman looking after a gigantic dog.

I should also point out that it’s all written in the second person; the “you” is the dead friend, but by the last chapter the “you” has become the dog. Make of that what you will.

The Friend is an intriguing concept for a book. But for all its humanity and its intelligence and its look at an “outsider” — an unmarried woman finding true companionship with a dog  — I found the story didn’t really hold my interest. Perhaps that’s because it’s the kind of book you really need to be in the mood for.

Don’t let my review put you off though. Annabel liked it more than me — and so did Eric.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Sigrid Nunez, USA, Virago

‘What Are You Going Through’ by Sigrid Nunez

Fiction – paperback; Virago; 210 pages; 2020.

Sigrid Nunez’s latest novel What Are You Going Through is a beguiling story that doesn’t really fit into a box. The blurb writers have tried to paint it as a tale about two friends, one of whom asks the other to be there when she chooses to die euthanasia style, but it is so much more complex and convoluted than that.

This is a story about stories — the stories we hear, the stories we write, the stories we tell ourselves. (“This is the saddest story I have ever heard,” the opening line from Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, is a constant refrain.)

It’s about truth and fiction, confronting our fears, searching for hope to sustain us and caring for others. Most importantly, it’s about life and death, and asks pertinent questions about what makes a good life — and what makes a good death.

Helping a friend out

What Are You Going Through is told through the eyes of an unnamed narrator, a middle-aged writer who has never been married or had children. She has an ex-partner who is a professor and well-known author, and when the book opens she (secretly) attends a talk he is delivering “based on a long article he had written for a magazine” about humankind’s death wish.

It was all over, he said again. No more the faith and consolation that had sustained generations and generations, the knowledge that, though our own individual time on earth must end, what we loved and what had meaning for us would go on, the world of which we had been a part would endure — that time had ended, he said. Our world and our civilization would not endure, he said. We must live and die in this new knowledge.

This, essentially, is a foreshadowing of a predicament the narrator finds herself in when she agrees to be with her terminally ill friend at the end of her life. The end, however, won’t be from natural causes. Her friend has decided that she will take a lethal tablet at a time of her choosing because she’s seeking peace, not the pain and agony of a death from cancer.

The narrator agrees to help because “I knew that, in her place, I would have hoped to be able to do exactly what she now wanted to do. And I would have needed someone to help me.”

A book of two halves

What Are You Going Through is a book of two halves. In the first, Nunez takes her time to build up the idea that all people really want out of life is to be noticed, to be seen, for others to understand what they are going through. And in the second, she recounts what happens when the narrator and her friend rent an Airbnb for a short holiday in which they will go exploring, eat out and generally relax before one of them will take a lethal drug to end it all.

There’s a lot to like about this book: the finger-on-the-pulse commentary about modern living and the craziness of our lives in general, the easy-going narrative style, the humour and the cool, calm intelligent voice of the narrator.

The meandering anecdotal style threw me at first, but once I warmed to it I loved not knowing what to expect next. That’s because much of what the narrator tells us is observational, a bit like a personal diary in which she recalls scenes she’s glimpsed, people she’s met and conversations she’s overheard.

On more than one occasion I was reminded of Helen Garner’s wonderful Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume 1, 1978-1987. (As an aside, Nunez and Garner seem to have similar writing styles and observational skills, the ability to create a whole scene or feeling from the briefest of detail. And it hasn’t escaped my attention that Garner’s novel The Spare Room is also about a friend dying from cancer.)

Despite the heavy subject matter, I rather enjoyed What Are You Going Through. Having read Nunez’s brilliant 2006 novel The Last of Her Kind earlier this year, I had high expectations. I wasn’t disappointed.

I read this for Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Bookish Becks.

Author, Book review, Don DeLillo, dystopian, Fiction, New York, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘The Silence’ by Don DeLillo

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 128 pages; 2020. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Much fuss has been made of the fact that Don DeLillo wrote The Silence shortly before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. The insinuation is that his novella is somehow prescient, that he peered into the abyss and predicted a global crisis.

In the media release that came with my review copy, DeLillo says: “I began writing the novel in 2018, long before the current pandemic. I started with a vision of empty streets in Manhattan. The idea of the silence grew from sentence to sentence, from one chapter to the next.”

But this novella, which is about what happens one fateful day when everything digital ceases to work and the world comes grinding to a halt, bears little resemblance to a public health emergency. Instead, this is a dystopian glimpse of a world where all our forms of communication — the internet, phones and TV — simply stop working.

While this is an interesting idea, it’s not properly fleshed out. DeLillo is only just warming up, he’s barely hit his stride, and suddenly the book ends. The story is flimsy, almost as if the author has sketched out a rough idea but not bothered to fill in the details. It feels like a creative writing exercise — “tell us what would happen if you were in a plane and the digital systems failed” — and doesn’t pack much of a punch.

The opening — a married couple flying business class between Paris and New York in 2022— holds much promise. They’re homeward bound and have a date with another married couple to watch the Super Bowl on TV when they get back. But things go awry in the air. The seatbelt warning light comes on. The turbulence becomes unbearable. The plane, it seems, is about to crash.

The story then cuts to Manhattan, where another married couple, accompanied by a friend, are settling down to watch the football match on TV. The opening kick-off is one commercial away, but then the screen goes blank. Drink is consumed to kill the time. Bizarre conversations take place. It’s all a little odd.

Eventually, their friends who were on the plane turn up at their door. No one seems to grasp the seriousness of, well, anything. This couple, who are pretty much unscathed, may as well have blamed a traffic jam for their late arrival.

The whole story is preposterous. Yes, DeLillo might be one of the greatest American novelists of our time, but The Silence is a disappointment. One word springs to mind and that is tosh.

I read this for Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Bookish Becks.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Joyce Carol Oates, literary fiction, Macmillan, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Black Water’ by Joyce Carol Oates

Fiction – hardcover; MacMillan; 156 pages; 1992.

I first heard about Joyce Carol Oates’ novella Black Water via Cathy’s recent 6 Degrees of Separation post.

This slim book is based on the infamous 1969 Chappaquiddick incident in which Senator Ted Kennedy’s car crashed into the water, killing his 28-year-old passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, who was trapped inside.

Oates transposes this real-life tragedy to a different time (the early 1990s) and place (Grayling Island, Maine), and tells it from the point of view of the female victim.

A fateful meeting

When 26-year-old Kelly Kelleher meets The Senator at a Fourth of July party she is immediately enamoured by him, not least because she wrote her thesis on him and his three campaigns for the Senate. She harbours a dream to work on his presidential campaign.

The much older politician (he’s in his 50s), who has been separated from his wife for 30 years, is immediately struck by the young blonde woman with the green eyes, and the pair hit it off, so much so that they exchange a secret kiss and then go for a long drive.

It’s during this drive, in a race to get to the last ferry that evening, that the Senator’s rented Toyota leaves the road, crashes through a barricade and ends upside-down in the brackish water. The Senator manages to escape, but Kelly is trapped inside, unable to get out because her legs are pinned by twisted metal.

In her shock not knowing at first where she was, what tight-clamped place this was, what darkness, not knowing what had happened because it had happened so abruptly like a scene blurred with speed glimpsed from a rushing window and there was blood in her eyes, her eyes were wide open staring and sightless, her head pounding violently where the bone was cracked, she knew the bone was cracked believing that it would be through this fissure the black water would poor to extinguish her life unless she could find a way to escape unless he will be back to help me of course.

The narrative is largely comprised of Kelly’s thoughts as she realises she is trapped and that The Senator is not coming back to rescue her. As she dies, her thoughts are a jumble of memories, mainly recent ones, as she recalls events at the party, snippets of conversation, the unexpected (but delicious) kiss she receives and the attention The Senator lavishes on her.

The chapters are short, sometimes just a page long, and the prose style alternates between long, breathless sentences, and short, choppy ones, reflecting Kelly’s changing moods – from excitement to disbelief to fear and panic.

It’s an easy book to read, even if the contents are occasionally heartbreaking, for here is a happy carefree young woman who has had her life cut abruptly short by a man drunk behind the wheel — and the man has now fled the scene.

Unfortunately, Black Water, which was first published in 1992, is currently out of print. I purchased mine secondhand online via Abebooks.

I read this for Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Bookish Becks.