A Year of Reading, Part III: Lesser Fiction

Ah, the joys of fiction! It makes for a never-ending parade of Other People’s Lives which, sometimes, at least, makes our own seem normal by comparison. I’ll go in ascending order, meaning that these first eight reads were not the brightest stars in my reading sky last year:

Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

Published 1922

Kindle, 372 pages

File under: Books I’d Like to Throw Against a Wall

Let’s just say that not all classics hold up over time. I spent some time with Sinclair Lewis the year before, struggling through Main Street and eventually deciding it was worth the read. Not so with Babbitt. The word that kept coming to mind for me about this book was cynical. Lewis, a devout socialist, created a character whose political and social beliefs were antithetical to his own, and then dedicated himself to demonstrating that this character had absolutely no redeeming values. He behaves badly at every turn of the page – and regrettably, there are a lot of pages. Babbitt is nothing more a cardboard cut-out making this a very tedious read. Not recommended.

White Noise by Don DeLillo

Published 1985

Audiobook narrated by Michael Prichard

12 hours 49 minutes; 310 pages

File under: Someone Please Strangle that Narrator

DeLillo’s name kept cropping up so I thought I should check him out. White Noise seems to be regarded as his magnum opus and won the National Book Award so it seemed like a good place to start. Except that, for me, it wasn’t. First and worst of all was my decision to listen to the audiobook version, which features a narrator who sounds very much like he is trying to sell used cars. Distracting, to say the least. I never really warmed to the story, which I guess is a commentary on the emptiness of “modern” (this was the 80’s) life and the ominous cloud (literally in this case) hanging over us all representing a bleak if not apocalyptic future. Still, this is an author with a massive following, so perhaps the fault is mine. I will try again with him – Underworld and The Silence look like good options.

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

Published 2020

Audiobook, narrated by Angus King, 17 hours 30 minutes; 448 pages

File under: And You Thought YOUR Mother was Crazy

This debut novel chronicling a boy’s conflicted childhood in gritty working-class Glasgow, was awarded the 2020 Booker Prize. It was a tribulation to read, which I suppose is a testament to the author’s gimlet-eyed gift. He is unerring in his precision of maintaining Shuggie’s point of view – children have no choice but to accept all and judge nothing – of his hard knock circumstances and his mother’s addiction to alcohol and self-absorption. Stuart insists the book is not autobiographical, although he did lose his mother to addiction when he was sixteen. I would rather tear my fingernails out than read it again because it made me very, very sad.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Published 1995

Audiobook narrated by John Lee, 24 hours 24 minutes; 603 pages

File under: What’s a Little Crushing Poverty Among Friends?

I want to like India. I want to want to visit there. But every book I have read about it (Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers comes to mind) makes it seem like the most unmanageable place on earth. The social hierarchy, the corruption, the endless swell of humanity all conspire to vanquish the simplest spark of hope. This novel, shortlisted for the 1996 Booker Prize, shows as sobering a side of the country as any other, but weaves the tiniest thread of optimism through the narrative. The book’s title comes from a conversation on a train in which one character says to another “You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair.” A cast of disparate characters come together in the era of Indira Gandhi’s imposed 1975 “Emergency” via their multitude of unfortunate circumstances. Despite grief, hardship and terrible luck, they ultimately manage to forge a sense of meaning and community. I didn’t love it, but you might.

Our Country Friends: A Novel by Gary Shteyngart

Published 2021

Kindle, 319 pages

File under: Sorry, You Aren’t Chekov

While the rest of us were locked down and holed up obsessively washing down our groceries, Shteyngart, celebrated for his previous works Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story must have looked out his window and thought “Hey, we’re all stuck here like we’re on the stage of a Chekhov play. Maybe I’ll write one.” Shteyngart is a smart, able satirist and deftly mingles his pandemic era 21st century start-up millionaire, coddled actor, bored housewife and befuddled, cuckolded landowner with the Chekov playbook (yes, there is a gun). The book was roundly applauded by cancel culture hungry elites who adored Shteyngart’s asides voting the political incorrects off the island – or at least out of the compound. For me, it felt like a money grab while he waited for the world to resume turning on its axis. He’s a better educated version of David Sedaris, the same ilk of too clever by half, but he’s no match for Chekhov.

The Tragedy of the Korosko by Arthur Conan Doyle

Published 1898

Paperback, 128 pages

File under: Walk Like an Egyptian

A friend gave me this book, insisting I would like it. It sat and sat and sat in my bookcase – I’d read a little bit of Arthur Conan Doyle and hadn’t loved it. Eventually she asked me how I’d like the book and I had to confess it was gathering dust on the shelf. “I’ll read it this week!, I promised. And surprisingly – I liked it!

The setting is 1895 Egypt, which at that point is rather firmly under British rule and there is considerable evaluation in the book regarding the appropriateness of this arrangement or lack thereof. A party of ten unwitting passengers are heading up the Nile on a stern-wheeler called the Korosko, bound for a pleasure trip. One moment they are anticipating a picnic; the next moment they are attacked by Dervishes and taken prisoner, told they must convert instantly to Islam or die. It is a brief, suspenseful and thought-provoking read. Too bad I left it on the shelf so long!

More fiction next week. In the meantime:

About polloplayer

Empty nester searching for meaning of life through the occasional chicken epiphany.
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5 Responses to A Year of Reading, Part III: Lesser Fiction

  1. Jessica says:

    Have you read Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts? Your comment about India made me think of it.

  2. citymama says:

    ordering Shuggie Bain. 😩😁 i can’t help it.

  3. dizzyguy says:

    Stay away from the Babble that is Babbitt

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