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Book(s) Review: Five Novels I Read On Vacation

Shakespeare and Company bookshop
Photo by Alexandre Duret-Lutz.

Last week my family vacationed near Fallen Leaf Lake. During that time, I astounded myself by plowing through five novels. Here are quick ‘n’ dirty reviews of the five books, in chronological order…

Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov

Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov wrote my favorite book — yes, the one he’s famous for — but until last week I had never read any of his other works. My boyfriend bought three of them for my birthday in June, which I saved to read on this vacation. Incidentally, I only packed Laughter in the Dark, because I severely underestimated how quickly I would read it. Lolita took me ages to finish — it’s such a beautifully dense and detailed book — so I expected this one to be the same. Happily, Laughter in the Dark is much breezier.

The focus on an age-gap relationship makes the story evoke Lolita, but the resemblance is curiously inverted. First the male protagonist treats his paramour manipulatively, but quickly his disingenuous-ingénue mistress overtakes his abilities with the help of a former lover, flipping the power imbalance. Laughter in the Dark is rollicking good fun, assuming you’re tolerant of sordid shenanigans.

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master's Son, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction

Adam Johnson recounts brutality and corruption in North Korea — who woulda thunk, right? — with an odd, generous spoonful of magical realism. The book is reminiscent of absurd action-movie capers, especially the second half, which comprises events after the main character ends up in a prison camp. (It was inevitable — goddam North Korea.) Surprisingly, Johnson’s eccentric treatment works.

The New York Times has a good plot preview, though I disagree with Christopher Beha’s charge that Johnson addresses his subject matter too lightly. Alas, someone always insists on taking excellent satire at face value. Wyatt Mason’s New Yorker review seemed more astute when I skimmed it.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Sea Dreams
Sea Dreams by Renee.

What can I say about The Old Man and the Sea that hasn’t already been noted? I’ll refrain from trying. Suffice it to say that Hemingway deserves his reputation.

“Fish […] I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends.”

Sharpe’s Escape by Bernard Cornwell

Bernard Cornwell’s series of novels about English soldier extraordinaire Richard Sharpe is set during the Napoleonic Wars. Sharpe’s Escape is just as excellent as the rest of them — well-researched, exciting, even thrilling! My only complaint is the lack of multifaceted female characters, but I’ve learned to put up with that. Any lady reader who likes books by male authors must resign herself to this deficit. Anyway, I stayed up until 4am finishing Sharpe’s Escape, which is a certain type of recommendation.

Bernard Cornwell (back) acting in And Then They Were None
Bernard Cornwell (center) acting in a theatrical production of Agatha Christie’s And Then They Were None, bizarrely. Photo by SarahSierszyn [sic].

Gallows Thief by Bernard Cornwell

We had no internet at the house by the lake, but Gallows Thief was already downloaded on my phone, so after finishing Sharpe’s Escape I jumped right into Cornwell’s story of a Regency-era investigator who strives to save a man from being hanged. See also: my comments regarding the enjoyability of Sharpe’s Escape.

That’s it! I hope your summer reading is going well too.

Young girl reading a book, Central Circulating Library at College and St. George Streets, Toronto, Ontario / Une jeune fille lit un livre. Bibliothèque centrale de prêt à l'intersection des rues College et Saint-George, Toronto (Ontario)
Photo via Library and Archives Canada.

Typical Writerly Ennui

Edit: Martin Weigert already said everything I was trying to say in his recent article “Write less while saying more”.

Illustration for Green Mansions by Keith Henderson circa 1930; via Thomas Shahan.
Illustration for Green Mansions by Keith Henderson circa 1930; via Thomas Shahan.
merman illustration
Merperson by Viola Renate.

Yesterday I wrote a blog post just for the sake of writing something. Now I feel weird about it. The itch to type and hit “Publish” was present and strong, but I didn’t have any intellectual substance to offer the world. (By which I mean you, my few and treasured readers.) If only I had the self-control to refrain from distributing useless thoughts. Even better would be the ability to conjure up worthwhile sentences at any time, on demand.

I used to think a good writer could make any subject interesting whenever they were called upon to do so. Now that idea seems naive — no person can competently tackle every topic, especially without doing research or interviews. You can’t just spout off and have it be instantly fascinating. Maybe there are rare savants who possess this ability, but I suspect it’s uncommon.

"Anita" - Keith Henderson Illustration for The Purple Land c.1930
Anita by Keith Henderson, for The Purple Land circa 1930; via Thomas Shahan.

I just finished reading The Old Man and the Sea and I resent Hemingway for being such a superb prose stylist. He constructs his statements very simply — never afraid to reuse a noun or a verb if he deems it right — and the result is highly impactful. I get the sense that Hemingway didn’t produce material just for the sake of expression. Maybe he grew out of the tendency, or disciplined it away. Maybe I can too?

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