As usual when I do my 20 Books of Summer challenge, I have lots of plans to post shorter reviews more often and keep up with my progress.
And as usual, I get so stuck in to my reading, and then get so far behind in my reviews that I end up barely writing anything on my blog for the whole summer!
So, with 2 weeks to go until this summer challenge is officially over, I’m delighted to say that I am currently reading book 20 (yay!) but not so delighted to say that I have only reviewed 5 of them (boo!).
Five reviews over almost two and a half months is very poor indeed, and in a desperate attempt to catch up I am going to do some round up posts over the next couple of weeks so I at least have a mini-review on record of each book I’ve read.
So, here are four of the 20 that I read earlier in the summer.
Don’t Skip Out on Me by Willy Vlautin
The first thing that should be said about Don’t Skip Out on Me by Willy Vlautin is that it made me cry. Proper, ugly, hard crying. In Gatwick Airport. If planning to read this book, don’t read it in public and bring tissues.
That aside, this is a beautifully written meditation on loneliness and self-worth, telling the story of 21 year old ranch hand Horace Hopper who dreams of making his name as a professional boxer. To do so, he must leave behind the Reese’s – an older couple on whose farm he works and who love him like a son. Vlautin writes in clean, plain prose in a style that reminded me of Kent Haruf, and as such, gifts the lives of these ordinary characters a beauty and a perception that is universal. This is a wonderful story about the search to find out where you belong and it has one of the most perfectly written endings that I have come across in recent years.
And you will cry….
Read on: Book
20 Books of Summer: 6/20
No 565 The Search by Geoff Dyer
The Search is a little puzzle of a book, with echoes of Kafka, Auster and Calvino , which begins like a hard-boiled noir but ends up as something completely different.
Walker, a ‘tracker’ who is not long out of prison, gate crashes a fancy party where he meets an attractive woman. She employs Walker to trace her fugitive ex-husband on the premise that she needs him to sign some business papers. With no better offers on the table, Walker agrees and so begins a journey into the unknown, both for Walker and the reader, as reality seems to slip further and further out of reach.
His trip starts in the recognisable San Francisco, but as the tracking continues, the towns and cities become more surreal and confusing. In one, the street map doesn’t correspond to the streets, in another there are just rooms upon rooms in one giant building. In Despond, Walker becomes, you guessed it, despondent and feels like he can’t go on but continues to use public transport, eat in diners and stay in crummy hotels in pursuit of his quarry who is always just a little out of sight.
The Search is a holy grail story, which also acts as a mediation on narrative, the act of reading itself. It’s questioning of illusion and reality could be wearing, but Dyer keeps it short and keeps the plot exciting and is smart enough to keep the book tantalisingly open-ended. I have a couple more of Dyer’s books in the 746 and this has definitely piqued my interest in his work.
Read on: iBooks
Number Read: 182
Number Remaining: 564
20 Books of Summer: 7/20
Seeing Red by Lina Meruane, translated by Megan McDowell
Seeing Red is a novel that I admired rather than enjoyed. It has received great critical acclaim, but at times it left me cold. It’s a visceral, semi-autobiographical story of a young woman plunged into blindness and the fall-out that this has upon her closest relationships.
The protagonist is called Lina and she too is a Chilean writer who has moved to New York to pursue her academic career. As the book opens, a long-anticipated and feared haemorrhage in Lina’s eyes occurs as she leans over to grab her insulin pen at a party in a friend’s house. Blood floods her vision in both eyes and she and the reader are plunged into a world of darkness where she is now not only blind, but reliant on her partner and her family.
The loss of self-determination and the feeling of being child-like again drive Lina to become wilful, selfish and angry. She does not want to feel like a burden but at the same time, wants her family and in particular, her partner to sacrifice their lives to keep hers on track.
I read this as part of my 2018 Novels in Translation Challenge and translator Megan McDowell has done an excellent job of capturing the blistering horror of Lina’s situation. Like The Search, there are no easy answers to be found here and the lack of resolution is one of the strengths of the novel.
Read on: Book
20 Books of Summer: 8/20
No 564 Inside the Dream Palace by Sheryl Tippins
My fascination with the Chelsea Hotel started when I heard the eponymous Leonard Cohen ode to his brief relationship with Janis Joplin in said establishment. In my mind it was a phenomenon of the 60s – housing Dylan, Patti Smith and of course, Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, it’s golden era ending with her murder in its rooms.
Sheryl Tippins’ thorough, if somewhat academic book, takes the Chelsea right back to its beginnings. It was built in the 1800s as an idealist’s utopia, created by architect Philip Hubert, who thought that Americans might be cured of their competitiveness if they lived together in a self-sufficient artistic community, a cultural co-operative if you will. By 1905 it had become a hotel and by 1939 was a kind of half-way house for artists who could pawn canvases for rent and get away with all sorts of behaviour that would have resulted in arrest in any other less-forgiving establishment.
The list of artists who lived at the Chelsea over the years is impressive – Stravinsky, Arthur Miller, Edie Sedgwick, Peggy Guggenheim, Bob Dylan, Jackson Pollock – but the Chelsea soon became famous for the deaths that occurred there rather than the lives lived. Dylan Thomas and Brendan Behan started their final drinking sessions at the Chelsea. There were countless suicides. Valerie Solanas came to the Chelsea to shoot an agent who had spurned her, before heading to the Factory and shooting Andy Warhol instead. The low point was, of course, Spungen’s murder by which time the Chelsea was home to drug dealers and pornographers with a few artists still hanging on.
Tippins does well to show how a century of American culture can be explored through the history of this one building, but her writing can at times be dry and repetitive. Too much of her research seems to come from other books – if you’ve read Timebends by Arthur Miller, or Just Kids by Patti Smith – much of their sections will not be new to you. It’s also a shame that there are so few recollections from people who actually lived there – Rebecca Miller grew up in the Chelsea and Ethan Hawke moved there after his divorce from Uma Thurman, so some personal insight would have given added interest.
That said, Inside the Dream Palace is a fascinating read in terms of its exploration of over 100 years of American artistic live, and like the Chateau Marmont in LA, shows how a building can become an iconic symbol for freedom of cultural expression.
Read on: iBooks
Number Read: 183
Number Remaining: 563
20 Books of Summer: 9/20
Look out for more round-up reviews this week and next – how is everyone else doing on the challenge?
Did you know we’ve been trending on Twitter? Thanks to Emma at Damp Pebbles for pointing out that rather brilliant fact!
Do let me know about your progress in the comments, now that the end is in sight!
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I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!