Thursday, January 9, 2014

Three Short Books, Three Mini-Reviews

I'm doing some catching-up from holiday reading, and while I was reading The Goldfinch and (just finished) The Luminaries, I took on some shorter, lighter reads as well. Here are a few thoughts on three novels I finished in the last few weeks:

1. You Are One of Them, by Elliott Holt— I had a strange reaction to this novel. It's a fascinating premise — two American girls in the early 1980s write letters to Yuri Andropov, one gets to go to Moscow to meet him and becomes famous, then she dies in a plane crash a few years later, and the other girls tries to find out what really happened. I loved this book while I was reading it — especially the middle-section of the novel taking place in the mid-1990s when the second girl travels to Moscow to try to find out what happened to her friend. Perhaps she's actually still alive? But this short novel felt way too short and, frankly, a bit slight. I wanted much more of it! And the "big reveal" is revealed in a conversation, which seemed like a missed narrative opportunity. Many readers have loved this novel — it even found it's way on to a few Best of 2013 lists. I liked it well-enough, I just wish there were more to it.

2. Death of the Black-Haired Girl, by Robert Stone — I first read, and fell under the thrall of, Robert Stone in college. His novel Damascus Gate blew me away, and since then I've read most of what this guy's published. This, his latest novel, is about a college student named Maud at a high-falutin New England liberal arts college. Maud is having an affair with her literature professor, and when Maud dies tragically (not a spoiler; see the title), the consequences are far-reaching. Her ex-NYPD-policeman, ex-drunk father struggles to come to terms. Her ex-nun counselor Jo struggles to makes sense (and of her strange past, as well). And her lover Brookman struggles to put his family and career pieces back together. Many reviewers have said the subject of this novel felt "beneath" a supposed master of American letters, like Stone. I didn't care about that. But, as opposed to Holt's novel above, there was too much in this novel that felt superfluous, which is strange for a fewer-than-300-page story. Still, if you can abide the digressions, it's a quick read, with mostly fascinating characters.

3. Dear American Airlines, by Jonathan Miles — Given how much I loved Miles' second novel Want Not, I had to try his 2008 debut, about a 54-year-old dude named Bennie Ford who is stuck at O'Hare on his way to his daughter's lesbian wedding in California, and pens a long complaint letter to the airline, in which he digresses into his sad, but true, life story. Poor Bennie is so disillusioned, but his self-deprecation makes for a read that makes you laugh as often as it makes you want to strangle him. One of the highlights is an anecdote about his lover Stella having dumping him, and he returns to their shared apartment blitzed out of his gourd, only to find he's locked out. And he realizes, even in his drunken stupor that he can't stand in an alley in New Orleans and yell "Stella" to a second floor window, because what a cliché. Miles is at his best in the present and cracking jokes — when he has Bennie complaining about particular aspects of air travel: comparing O'Hare to purgatory (just perfect!), complaining about the "O'Chairs" that are purposefully designed to make people uncomfortable, and suggesting a Vegas-roulette type system for determining whether planes get to fly. All that's great that's good. The bad is that Bennie includes parts of the Polish novel he's translating (a failed poet, he now makes a living as a translator) in his letter, and these sections just don't quite fit with the rest of Bennie's letter. I mean, I get the point — there are parallels between the character in the novel and Bennie. But these parts were really dull and hard to follow — and didn't add much to the story. Still, I'd definitely recommend this if you, too, loved Want Not. 


  1. I felt somewhat the same way about You Are One of Them -- I loved the premise, and enjoyed reading the book, but by the end, started to feel like it was missing something (or I was missing something in it, perhaps).

    1. Maybe there's a sequel in the offing - we know she goes back to Moscow, and I want know what happens then!

  2. haven't read these, but loved the mini reviews.

  3. I can probably miss the first two books, but I definitely want to read Dear American Airlines now. Want Not was one of my favorite books of 2013, and I need to read more of Miles' work!

  4. I think I might try Dear American Airlines on audio. The others sound intriguing, even though they didn't quit work for you. I haven't read any of these authors yet!