Mini Reviews: Barbara Pym, Jess Walter, Cristina Henriquez

My reading has been far outpacing my blog writing lately.  I feel like maybe I’m in a blogging funk.  The past couple of weeks I either want to spend my evenings (after the kiddo goes to bed) reading, zoning out with television, or sleeping.  I hope to find my blogging vigor again soon!  I’m pretty sure it’s a phase.

But before I get too far behind, I thought I’d play catch-up with a few mini-reviews.

18899436I adore Barbara Pym.  I’m slowly making my way through all of her books.  A Few Green Leaves is my eighth Pym novel, leaving five more works to go.  Published in 1980, it was her last completed novel.  Not quite as sharp in focus as some of her earlier works, it still contains many elements of Pym-ish goodness:  British small village life, clueless but well-meaning and unfailingly polite characters, romantic misunderstandings.  Our heroine is Emma, an unmarried anthropologist in her 30’s, coming to the village to get some peace and quiet to work on her notes.  We also meet the rector Tom, who lives in the too-large rectory with his sister Daphne.  Daphne swooped in to help Tom after his wife died some years ago, and is now chafing at her life in the village, dreaming of moving to Greece, where she vacations annually.  Pym portrays traditional gender roles in a changing time with subtle skill –  men are usually oblivious and self-centered and women are ambivalent about their unappreciated efforts.  Country doctors, elderly spinsters, people behaving incredibly politely to one another while thinking something else entirely… the rambling cast of characters circle around one another throughout the novel, and nothing much happens but the stuff of life  – conversations, garden walks, “hunger lunches,” a few halfhearted romantic assignations.

A Few Green Leaves was delightful.  It’s not my favorite Pym ever, but it’s a worthwhile, most enjoyable read.  If you’ve never read Pym before, I wouldn’t recommend that you start with this one; I’d pick Excellent Women or Jane and Prudence.  Still, if you’ve read a Pym or two and you’d like to continue, feel safe that this one will provide you hours of intelligent, amusing, entertainment.

51crAY8ox2L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_I don’t even know how to begin to describe The Zero by Jess Walter.  The jacket blurbs mention satire many times, and Kafka and Heller are referenced twice.  Jess Walter is another of my very favorite authors, and he has a terrific gift not only for scathingly funny black humor, but he also portrays his characters with a genuine compassion and humanity – even when they’re not “nice”  people.  This is a book about 9/11, published in 2006, with a reverent eye on the tragedy and an irreverent one on America’s response.  Brian Remy is a New York City cop who was among the first on the scene of the Twin Towers falling.  He now is experiencing alarming gaps in his memory, waking up in the middle of scenes and acts that he has no idea how he got into.  No one seems to want to hear about his problem, or they think he’s being funny when he tries to tell them about it.  So the reader is pulled along into this bizarre mystery/political satire, trying to piece together just what the heck Brian’s gotten himself into.  A shady secret government organization chasing paper scraps that flew out of the towers?  Infiltrating a terrorist cell?  His own son is pretending Brian died in the towers, and Brian’s just desperately trying to stay one step ahead of the other person living his life.  It was trippy, weird, dark, funny, sad, smart, and a page-turner.  Jess Walter does it again!  Seriously, this guy can do anything.

51pATEiEJnL._SX337_BO1,204,203,200_Last, but not least, my book group book for April was The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez.  It made for an excellent discussion last weekend.  Told from multiple points of view, this book highlights Latin American immigrants from various countries all living in one apartment complex in Delaware.  The main characters are the Riveras, a husband and wife and their teenager daughter,  Maribel.  Maribel sustained a traumatic brain injury in an accident in Mexico, and the Riveras are told that special education in America is the best hope of recovery for their daughter.  So Arturo gets a work visa for a mushroom farm, and the Riveras pack up everything they own.  The realities of living in a country where you don’t know the language, have no transportation, and face bigoted individuals is humanely portrayed by Henriquez.  She puts a human face on Latinx immigration in America. Others in the apartment complex have their own stories, from a Panamanian-American teenage boy named Mayor who falls in love with Maribel, to a Guatemalan man named Gustavo who’s working two jobs to send money to Mexico for his children’s education.  These strangers become like family to one another.  I empathized with them, and greatly appreciated Henriquez’s message.  These are voices we need to hear more of in America, now more then ever.  However,  there was something about the novel that didn’t work for me as much as I would have liked.  I felt like it was a bit heavy-handed at times, and Mayor’s actions towards a mentally compromised Maribel were problematic for me.  I cried, so obviously I was emotionally invested, but I couldn’t give it more than three stars.  Still, I would recommend it for book groups because it offers a lot to discuss, and I think it’s a book that deserves to be widely read on the strength of its message alone.  Plus, it’s a quick read.

Have you read, or do you plan to read, any of these books or authors?  Have you ever been in a blogging funk?  Have you ever read a book that you felt almost guilty for not liking better?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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29 thoughts on “Mini Reviews: Barbara Pym, Jess Walter, Cristina Henriquez

  1. I loved my first Barbara Pym (Quartet in Autumn), which I read earlier this year. I picked up a cheap secondhand copy of Some Tame Gazelle recently, so I might read that one next, though I’ve heard Excellent Women is her best.

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  2. My blogging is also being outpaced by my reading lately. But at least it means we’re getting lots of good reading done!
    I still haven’t read a book by Barbara Pym. I’ve heard so much about her books that I always keep my eye out at book sales and used book stores, but I think she’s one of a few British authors I’ve had on my radar whose books don’t seem to be plentiful around here. Our library has just one, but it’s Excellent Women, so it sounds like they made a good call!

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  3. I think blogging funks are part of blogging. Just roll with it until you feel like writing again. I gave up on both The Book of Unknown Americans and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I feel like I should have liked both, but I just didn’t. I guess that’s part of reading… 🙂 Now I will go and check out Jess Walter. I think I would like The Zero.

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    1. Thanks, TJ! I’m rolling with it. 🙂

      I may have given up on Book of Unknown Americans if it wasn’t a book group read. Yeah, it kind of sucks when you feel guilty for giving up on books with good messages/own voices, etc. But then again, both of the books you mentioned have gained wide audiences and many people love them! To each her own!

      I hope you enjoy The Zero. It’s quirky.

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  4. I always smile when I visit your blog and see the Jess Walter Beautiful Ruins book in your header – I loved that one but as of yet, haven’t read anything else by him. I’ll put Zero on my tbr.

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  5. All these books and authors are new to me but I liked the sound of them especially The Book of Unknown Americans. I would like to read that. Great review. I hope the blogging slump goes away soon. At least you are still reading though 🙂

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  6. As always, lovely review! The Book of Unknown Americans is the only book on this list which I was planning on reading, but I haven’t read any of these books before. I wish you luck on reading the complete works of Barbara Pym! I love the concept of reading an author’s entire works. Thanks for the pro tips on where to start!

    Ah, blogging slump. That’s hard! I find that mini reviews help. Often I get in a blogging slump because I’m behind on my reviews. Writing smaller reviews and not holding myself to the same standard typically helps alleviate the pain of being behind. I also like writing non-review posts to help with that. Features and the like. Just some ideas!

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  7. I’m in a blogging funk too, I think. My reading is far, far quicker than my blogging, so I know how you feel.
    I need to pick up another Pam some day. I like her too.

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  8. Don’t sweat it Laila! I am MONTHS behind on my book reviews lol It happens to the best of us.

    I’m bummed The Book of Unknown Americans didn’t completely work for you. I’ve had that book recommended to me a few times… It’s nice to hear that it makes for a good book club selection! Maybe I will throw it out there for my book club 🙂

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    1. Thank you, Amanda! I want my blog to be fun and not a source of stress, so I’m cutting myself some slack. It’s not like anyone is grading my performance or putting a time limit on me!

      yeah, I felt bummed at myself for not LOVING it like I’d hoped. I still think it’s got a lot to recommend, though.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I get into a blogging funk when it seems like no one is stopping by. I don’t really care about stats, but when regulars suddenly stop showing up, I wonder if I’m doing something horribly wrong, or if something big is happening in the person’s life, and I wish I knew what it was so I could be supportive. I would be annoyed that the 9/11 book referenced how much the story is like other authors’ so many times.

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    1. Interesting. Yes, if regulars stopped showing up I’d be bummed too – if I registered that! Ha ha. I guess I’d assume they’d gotten busy or something.

      I think authors don’t really have control over the blurbs on their books, but I could be wrong. I included that part just to situate the work in that kind of context, to give people an idea of its wheelhouse.

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  10. We’re on the same page with Pym. She’s great. And I suspect we’re going to be on the same page with Jess Walter; I took your suggestion and borrowed Beautiful Ruins from the library and read the first 100 pages in a single session. (It got sidelined afterwards because I have three books which I have to finish in May, but I’m okay with that, because I will happily reread if necessary – although I don’t think I’m going to forget those characters anytime soon!)

    As for Book of Unknown Americans, I felt nonplussed through most of it, but, then, I didn’t just cry, but was out-and-out weeping (you know why), so I had to go back and reread some large chunks to try to decipher how she’d gotten so under my skin (without my really noticing) and I ended up being more impressed than I thought I was going to be. But I do relate, sometimes I really want to love a book and we end up going separate ways. Then again, if they were all amazing, the really amazing ones wouldn’t stand out so much!

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