Lightest month all year, what with writing one book and, editing another, the Dickens Challenge, taxes, and moving, as well as getting ready for six months in Asia. Anyway, here we are:
Trouble Comes Back, Keith Snyder, 4 stars: Another contemporary California mystery that’s primarily an excuse for brilliant, frequently hilarious dialogue and characters who grab your heart when you least expect it. This time out, Jason Keltner and his friends try to protect a rock star’s daughter. This is part of my project of re-reading all of Snyder’s books as I try to answer the following questions: Why didn’t he sell a million copies? Why aren’t there ten more? Why isn’t he rich and famous? Why doesn’t some smart publisher reissue all six? What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?
Peony in Love, Lisa See, 5 stars: This is the book of the month, the book of most of the last few months: completely original, often startling, beautiful, lyrical, terrifying, and tough as nails — all in the same book. Set in historical China, this is a story not so much of love as obsession, about oppression, and about literature — the power of the written word to change (and possibly even destroy) lives. Anyone who has read and loved Cao Xueqing’s “A Dream of Red Mansions” (“The Story of the Stone” in David Hawkes’ superior translation) should IMMEDIATELY read “Peony in Love.” Everybody should read “Peony in Love.”
Pyres, Derek Nikitas, 2 stars: I know, I know, it’s up for all sorts of awards and it’s got some bravura writing in it, but I felt the same way about it I felt about Natsuko Kirino’s “Grotesque” a few months back. I wanted to shout, “Give me some air.” And I couldn’t actually like anybody in the book. I pitied a few of them, but that wasn’t enough.
Asleep, Banana Yoshimoto, 4.5 stars: Three long short stories about women who have trouble sleeping, and it’s perfect: perfectly structured, pitch-perfect, perfectly wonderful. If you haven’t read Yoshimoto, I’d start with “Kitchen,” which I’m rereading right now, and go on from there. This one is particularly magical. Yoshimoto hasn’t written anything in years, which worries me since she’s still a young woman.
Zugzwang, Ronan Bennett, 3.5 stars: One in a bunch of books, both fiction and nonfiction, I’ve read lately about chess, which I don’t play. But I love the idea of the game, in sort of the same way I like cosmology: I’m willing to admit that the fragments of it I can grasp are riveting. This is a mystery set in St. Petersburg at the time the Russian Revolution was fomenting. At its center is a Jewish psychoanalyst (this is a period of particularly virulent anti-Semitism), a classical violinist, and a chess prodigy who doesn’t understand anything about life off the chessboard. Lots of good writing and some lively characters, but one too many plot twists for me. This is a complaint I seem to have more often as I get older. Could it — gasp — be me?