Reading Round-Up: 1st June 2016

Hey, everybody! There are plenty of books in the world, and not all of them need or deserve a lengthy review. So in the spirit of my illustrious colleague‘s New Music Mondays series, I’m going to collect together reviews of a few older books that I’ve recently read, all in one post.

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Raymond Chandler — Playback

This is a lousy book by Chandler’s standards. I’m a big fan of Raymond Chandler, and this, his last published novel before his death, is by far the worst thing I’ve read from him. Some books fail because the author experiments, pushes limits, or tries something new. This book fails because it’s skeletal, a caricature of his earlier works, and relatively charmless. Worst of all, Chandler decides to pair off his hero Marlowe with an unremarkable ex from a different book entirely, and it ends up being jarring and having nothing to do with the story. Marlowe has been entangled with a number of interesting women, all of whom could have been a great foil, so it’s really a shame (not to mention completely shoehorned in here). Go read The Big Sleep instead. Or The High Window. Or The Long Goodbye. Or basically any of his other writing. They’re mostly fantastic.

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Geoff Dyer — The Search

This was one of two finds in the featured section at The Harvard Bookstore, chosen with little knowledge of the author and based solely on the back-of-book synopsis. It starts as a well-written, character driven faux-detective story; a man meets a woman at a party, she hires him to find her ex-husband, and there’s some great scenes between them. Around the halfway point, the book spirals into Calvino or Eco territory, completely unravelling the detective story and instead becoming episodic, hallucinatory tales of purgatory in fictional America. It’s a short and interesting read, but I can’t help but thinking the bait and switch squanders a good start and pits the reader against the back half. Felt like wasted potential to me, but there’s definitely an audience for this sort of postmodern deconstruction of the novel.

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Michael Cunningham — Specimen Days

This is the other spur-of-the-moment choice from Harvard Bookstore. More three vaguely connected novellas than a novel per seSpecimen Days tells stories from three centuries (Victorian, contemporary, and post-apocalyptic) of New York City. Character names reappear but their actual characters don’t seem to overlap; finding any sort of thematic unity or reason for these stories to be interconnected is challenging. Still, each novella is pretty good in its own right, and Cunningham almost gleefully adds a Tales from the Crypt-style ending to each. Ultimately the bigger meaning of the book eluded me, but I had an OK time reading it.

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Ursula K. Le Guin — The Dispossessed

My favourite of these four. The premise is classic science fiction: anarchists leave a capitalist planet and start their own colony; two hundred years later, an anarchist returns to the capitalist planet and their philosophies clash anew. It’s pretty ham-handed, to be sure, and not nearly as strong as, say, Le Guin’s The Word for World Is Forest. Still, Le Guin has a knack for embedding the reader in great worlds and characters with timeless struggles. She is also adept at presenting both sides of the argument, pro’s and con’s to each philosophy, even if she’s clearly painting one in a more favourable light. Not a super satisfying ending, but a lot to enjoy along the way.

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