I felt quite a sense of reading accomplishment when I finished page 661 of “Skippy Dies” by Paul Murray. It’s the longest of the novels on this year’s American Library Association’s Notable Books list.
I’ve ranted elsewhere about the unnecessary length of some of the books on this year’s list. I’m still evaluating this one, both overall and in terms of its length…I can’t seem to come to a final sense of it.
It’s a novel set in a contemporary Irish boys boarding school. The novel begins when a student named Skippy indeed dies during a doughnut-eating contest. It backs up to place Skippy in that critical event, and then does a little follow-up afterward.
Here’s the blurb for “Skippy Dies” from the Notable Books list website, “Filled with warmth and humor, this coming-of-age novel set in a Dublin boys school is a sprawling homage to adolescence, string theory, donuts, and unrequited love.” That makes this sound like fun reading, but while it had some hilarious scenes, overall this is a sad sad story. It’s full of young people who can’t figure out how to be true to themselves AND connected to others. I’m wondering now if I took it all too seriously.
In brief–Skippy falls in love with a girl who’s in love with a violent boy who takes advantage of her sexually in return for providing her with drugs. Skippy’s part of the swim team, but hates the team even though he’s always enjoyed swimming. One of the priests at the school is fighting his own crush on Skippy. Spoiler alert–the swim coach takes sexual advantage of him. His mother is seriously ill and his father isn’t coping well. The girl ends up acting as if she likes Skippy to deflect her parents’ concern about her involvement with the other boy, He uses his phone to make a sexually graphic video of her that he sends to several students. In Skippy’s upset over her, he takes an overdose of the unprescribed drugs his swim coach provided him. And then, he’s off to the donut shop.
I didn’t sense enough warmth and humor to overcome the tragedy in all of that.
I’m not saying it isn’t a good book. It is. But please don’t dive into this without realizing that at its core is a sense of emotional and physical danger. The ways in which people try to band together to address the danger is one source of hope here.
In conclusion, I’m thinking about to whom I’ll recommend this. I can think of a few reading friends who are fairly cynical and will find the school’s principal a perfect example of what’s not right in education. They might also enjoy the forays into the places where scientific thought seems to border magic realism. I would love the chance to have some conversation with others who’ve read this, so that I can develop a more firm opinion of “Skippy Dies.”
It made an excellent companion to “The Tiger” by John Vaillant, my most recent Notable, also nonfiction. “The Tiger” happens in far eastern Siberia, and as I wrote previously, captures the entire geography and history of that particular region within the story of one tiger.
Frazier, one the other hand, is all over Siberia. And it’s an awfully long way across. This book describes several trips he makes into Siberia, the largest by far a trek with two guides along the route of the Trans-Siberian highway.
I hadn’t read Frazier before, though many of my reading friends recommend him highly. I expected that the book would be as much about him as about Siberia, which was fine. I appreciated his often self-deprecating humor, and his ability to recognize when he was inserting just a little too much of himself. I also enjoyed his “birdwalks” of distraction into details or stories about the places he was visiting. Just when I lost track myself of why we were going down a particular narrative path, he would once again connect his story to the place at hand. It seemed effortless, but is a mark of a strong writer.
Frazier refers to a kind of “Russia fever” that he caught, a condition that kept him from ever feeling quite finished with the country. Even after the primary journey of the book, a months-long journey across Siberia, he has to go back.
A question I usually ask myself when I finish a book is–what image will I keep from this? And in Frazier’s case, it’s his description of the smell of places, especially Russian airports and restrooms. I think this explains part of his popularity–he plumbs the depth of his travel experience, and employs every sense.
The key to my enjoyment of “Travels in Siberia” was to relax and enjoy the telling, and not be in a hurry to get to a destination. I did enjoy the reading, but I never felt that luscious compulsion to return to this, the compulsion that I always hope to sense when I crack open a new book.
I’ll certainly recommend this to people who enjoy travel books, who have a particular interest in Siberia, or who enjoy stories of cross-cultural experiences.
I continue to read my way through this year’s Notable Books List from the American Library Association.
Last night I finished “The Ten Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet” by David Mitchell. And I was sad to reach the last page. What an intriguing novel.
The story begins in 1799, on the island of Dejima, just off of Nagasaki, Japan. The island is where the Dutch are allowed, and just about the only place where they are allowed, to run the Dutch India Company. The closed-in society of just a few Europeans, their Japanese translators, and other officials, is the context for intense relationships. Many of the scenes happen aboard ship, another closed-in space. Must of the action happens in the first few years, but then Mitchell fast-forward to the end of Jacob’s life, back in Europe.
Jacob is an honest man, which doesn’t serve his career well. He falls in love with a fascinating woman, a midwife with a burned face. He secretly proposes to her, not realizing that the messenger he’s chosen is in love with her too. She’s kidnapped away. He endures. He becomes renowned for his courage when he stands firm in an observation tower while a British ship’s cannons attack Nijima.
David Mitchell crafts this very powerfully–I’ve been trying to think of how to describe this. The plot is one thing, but the machinations of the people, the ways that they must operate when communication can’t be direct, create all kinds of confusion and bewilderment. The cultures collide in countless ways. Into the mix come the distance from home, and fierce hopes for success.
Following up on my complaints about long books, I should note that I didn’t sense any sagging in the middle of this book’s 479 pages. It holds up well.
I salute David Mitchell for his ability to write such varied stories. I’d forgotten that he wrote “Black Swan Green,” a lovely Notable Book from 2007, a book about a contemporary British boy. HIs “Cloud Atlas” was also “notabled” in 2005. Really, his books are quintessential Notables. They are one-of-a-kind stories, with almost nothing predictable, and with plenty that deeply resonates and resolves.
I’ll recommend this to people who love literary fiction, who are interested in history or in Asia, and to readers who yearn for something uniquely good.
I was sick last weekend. In fact on Saturday for most of the day I was too sick to read. But on Sunday I got to do one of my favorite things–start and finish a book in one day. “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” by Barbara Demick is included in the nonfiction portion of this year’s Notable Books List from the American Library Association. Full of people’s stories, it reads quickly.
“Nothing to Envy” chronicles the journey of several North Korean people who defected out of the country, all of them from the area around Chongjin, a northern industrial city. Demick uses them as examples of the many ways in which life is difficult in North Korea.
Their stories typically begin with a life that while difficult is predictable and seems safe. As the Communist world changed in the late 1980’s, the aid that the North Korean government received from other governments also changed or stopped completely. Eventually, factories didn’t function. People had no work. They had no way to receive food. There was no food. The descriptions of people’s resourcefulness in finding something to eat on the one hand, and the agony of starving on the other, will stay with me from this book.
I’ve had many conversations with people about why we read “difficult” books. I’d describe this as “difficult” even though most of the stories are remarkably hopeful. I’d say that for those of us who have grown up in the United States in the midst of peace and (at least relative) prosperity, we need to be aware of how different life can be. I’ll recommend this to readers who want to know about the world and to those who look for the stories behind what we see on the news. There’s also an appeal to the stories of people who have suffered and prevailed, and that is the power behind “Nothing to Envy.”
I also recently finished a title from the fiction portion of the list, “Nashville Chrome” by Rick Bass. This novel is based on the life of The Browns, a family musical group from the late 1950s and 1960s. Maxine, Jim Ed, and Bonnie Brown grew up in hardscrabble Arkansas, their father a lumber miller. That life was a hard one, with accidents in the mill amputating fingers, hands, and worse. Their father functioned with just one leg.
But the children had a remarkable gift for singing the kinds of tight harmonies that some country songs are known for. People could not believe how they could sing. Chet Atkins took up producing their records, and he made the most of their distinctive sound. Eventually, though their gift remained, their audience waned, and they broke up their singing group.
Bass tells this story in bits and pieces, moving through times and places. Bass often waxes into poetic prose about their sound, their surroundings, the sense of the people. But largely he works through Maxine, the oldest. He frames it with many scenes of an elderly Maxine, still grasping for success, still believing in a comeback.
I tend to prefer a nonfiction book that straightforwardly tells about people, over biographical fiction. I feel the same way about biopic movies–just give me a documentary, please. But in this case, Bass does a great job with the material. While he bases the novel clearly on these people’s lives, he adds so much, goes so deeply into their hearts and minds, shapes their stories into one coherent piece, that he creates a whole new thing.
I’ll recommend this to people who are interested in music, to those who are patient through ample description, and to those who can stand to see a good thing come to an end.
This month I was the subject of “Q & A” in the L Magazine.
I’m feeling sheepish that I spent so much time commenting on the length of books…it strikes me as bordering on shallow to be so concerned about how long a book is.
But…of the 12 fiction titles on this year’s American Library Association Notable Books List, 7 are more than 400 pages long, and 3 of those top 600 pages. This reminds me of the quote often attributed to Mark Twain but probably more likely from Pascal, along the lines of “I’m sorry that this letter is so long. I didn’t have time to write a short letter.” As a reader, I suspect that authors of such long novels could have created better books by taking the time to pull out more of what is not essential. In both “The Lonely Polygamist” by Brady Udall and and “Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen, I sensed the story sagging in the middle. Both books have great scenes and lovely characters but too much, too much, too much.
I don’t wish to be a shallow reader, or a shallow reviewer. I am willing to read (and I hope sometimes love) a long book that needs to be a long book, and that has the narrative structure to support its length. But life is short, and I will be most happy to read a book that is only as long as it needs to be.