The Mercy Room (alternatively titled Love Without Resistance) by Gilles Rozier; 2 stars (out of 5)
So there’s some nice language here and for me it’s an interesting story of questionable morality. I like what it does on that level. But we don’t get behind any of the character motivation and so while kind of interesting and with potential, I don’t really feel like it works quite well enough. But it’s a quick, easy, and thoughtful read, so I like it for that.
The issue of gender is unfortunately more of a party trick than a genuine, thought-provoking issue being tackled. In the beginning of the book I felt that Rozier seemed to be trying to write a woman main character but was doing it poorly, so so poorly, because the character felt so male but the author kept throwing things in that were supposed to make a reader think the character was female. I think, though, that his point is supposed to be that the main character is male, and the spouse (gender also unspecified, but assumed to be male) is female. Leading to the shock, I guess, of the relationship between the unnamed male main character and Herman. (Why else make it theoretically ambiguous?) So he wasn’t writing a woman badly after all. Except that there are so many things that make it so unlikely that the character is male. In the end then probably, Rozier wasn’t writing a woman poorly, he was writing the “trick” poorly. It’s just not well done or believable, and would have been far stronger a book and a story without the vagueness, which there really is no reason for. (For an example of writing a genderless narrator actually well, see Jeanette Winterson’s gorgeous Written on the Body. Not this book.)
There is something lovely in this book, but it’s not the “genderless” narrator aspect, at all. It’s the living through war (specifically the Holocaust and so add in issues of Anti-Semitism and discrimination, plus German vs Yiddish language) and every day morality in that situation, and maybe how you deceive yourself into thinking that your morality exists or is excusable.
Two or Three Things I Know For Sure by Dorothy Allison; 5 stars (out of 5)
Wow. So I don’t like everything Dorothy Allison has ever done, but when I do like it, holy f**k I love it. This is beautiful and raw and real and honest and tearing and still beautiful. It’s an incredible statement and I cried and soared all the way through it.
“Two or three things I know for sure, and one of them is what it means to have no loved version of your life but the one you make.”
“Two or three things I know for sure and one of them is that telling the story all the way through is an act of love.”
See that? I’m not always an asshole when I review books. That’s 2 books in a row I’m giving 5 stars!
Still behind. But read in January:
Objects in Mirror are Closer Than They Appear by Kate Carroll de Gutes; 5 stars (out of 5)
I hesitate to give 5 stars because that’s just not something I usually do, but I can’t think of anything wrong with this book. (Ok, I’m not excited about the title. There.) Nothing that fell flat, not one essay that didn’t live up to the rest, no mistakes, nothing missing. Not even a typo. And it’s not like there just “wasn’t something missing”; it’s also full. These essays are so well done. The language, the content, the lyricism, the overarching story. This book is fantastic. I wouldn’t change a thing about it. (Even the title, which I don’t love, is right for the book.)
I could pull a quote or two from each essay, minimum, so instead will just note that “Can You Hear Me In That Closet You’re In” is probably my favorite essay, although it’s hard to say for sure since all of them are so good. It was like I was at a poetry reading, reading this book – after every essay I made that appreciative sigh, because each of these essays does just exactly what it needs to do, and flawlessly.
Misery by Stephen King; 4.5 stars (out of 5)
This might need to be 5 stars. This was my first ever Stephen King, way back at the beginning of 7th grade in 1988 or so. Reading it now I can easily see why he hooked me right away and has had me ever since. The man can write. This is classic King writing and pacing, with no (virtually no?) missteps along the way.
It starts out right in the middle of the action (not the same heart thumping action as he starts Firestarter but still, you’re right in it from the get-go) and it just revs up from there. The writing is pretty flawless and the story is a plausible reality of terror. It’s completely realistic in a weird way, probably because of his excellent character development (which is thinner in this book, actually; and that in turn is ironic since the entire book is more or less 2 characters).
There is a lot in this book about Paul’s feeling as he writes, how he knows he’s in the zone by “falling into the hole in the paper” and I really wonder if this is Stephen King’s own experience. He writes so much, as Paul, about the writing and the pain of writing and the feeling of the writing, and it could easily be all fiction, or it could be at least some of how he actually feels about writing, or experiences his own writing. Not that it matters, but I’m curious.
To me, this is one of his strongest books. I prefer stories without supernatural elements in it, and he delivers a doozy with this one. He carries metaphors of caged animals/Africa, pylons/tide, and the hole in the paper through the entire book to great effect. The writing is crisp and tight, the story is creepy and feels right. Very strong effort. Lots of references to writing and process, and to how things would turn out in a book but this is reality. My only “meh” moment is his description of mental illness (depression versus psychosis) and I’m not sure he gets that right, but also how he didn’t need to say that Paul knew about it; he could have just said ‘Paul read somewhere that’ or ‘Paul thought’ or whatever, and then it doesn’t matter if he gets it right about mental illness. But that’s such a minor peeve. I’m also not sure that he needed to go quite as far as he did, with [redacted for spoiler]. I don’t think it’s implausible or out of place, but I’m not sure he had to go that far in service of the story. I’m getting softer as I get older and while I’m pretty sure the young me read that gleefully, it was harder this time around. If it’s too far it’s not by much, so it might just be me, needing a bit less gore as I age. I can’t think of anything else to complain about. Such a good book.
“The cellar windows, as if reflecting Annie’s paranoia (and there was nothing strange about that, he thought; didn’t all houses come, after awhile, to reflect the personalities of their inhabitants?)…”
Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley; 3.25 stars (out of 5)
I think this is my first noir. I really liked what Mosley did with the characters and making race so front and center. I liked the writing and the structure and the way he wrapped it up and set it up for the series to continue. I wasn’t as interested or excited about the plot, which seemed a little convoluted and flat – why were were looking for this woman and do I care about what she was hiding? I wanted a little more to make me care about that and it held me back from liking this book more because I didn’t. But everything else is so good, I mean so clean and deeply correct, that it more than carries it, and I mostly didn’t care that I didn’t care. I actually had to keep reminding myself that I didn’t care about the story because I was taken away by the characters and the setting. (I liked this book a lot for not caring about the plot.) So good characters, good writing, and I’d be really surprised if I didn’t like the other books in the series with other stories that I’ll probably care more about.
“His grip was strong but slithery, like a snake coiling around my hand.”
“They figure that you did something because that’s just the way cops think, and you telling them that you’re innocent just proves to them that you have something to hide. But that wasn’t the game that we were playing that day. They knew my name and they didn’t need to scare me with any holding tank; they didn’t need to take my fingerprints. I didn’t know why they had me, but I did know that it didn’t matter as long as they thought they were right.”
“That was why so many Jews back then understood the American Negro; in Europe the Jew had been a Negro for more than a thousand years.”
“But I was worried about that fingerprint.
I knew that I hadn’t touched the knife but I didn’t know what the police were up to. If they really wanted to catch who did the killing then they’d be fair and check my prints against the knife’s and let me go. But maybe they needed a culprit. Maybe they just wanted to close the books because their record hadn’t been so good over the year. You never could tell when it came to the cops and a colored neighborhood.”