Unreviewed Books – 2021

So… it’s nearing the end of the year (how?!), and there’s quite a few books I never got around to properly reviewing for various reasons. I have today off, so I thought I’d just go through some of them and give short reviews for each:

Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki

Three Summers (1946) was the Greek novel my reading buddy Blaz and I chose for our “Reading the World” challenge. It follows the lives of three sisters—Maria, Infanta, and Katarina—coming of age in Greece between the wars. Maria is boy crazy, Infanta is horse crazy, and Katarina wants to see the world. 😉 The novel is beautifully written, even creatively, with changing first/third person perspective and questionable reliability of the narrator. My main problem with it is that the author builds up a lot of plotlines and characters, then it sort of fizzles out towards the end. That didn’t work well for this family drama IMO, and I felt a bit shortchanged by the ending.

Chess Story by Stefan Zweig

Another NYRB classic! I got this on ebook from my library, and I wish I had bought it instead. Chess Story (1943) starts out as a comedic tale of some passengers on a ship trying to put an arrogant chess master in his place. When one of the passengers turns out to be a serious contender against the champion, the story takes a dark twist when we find out why this man is so insanely good at chess. It’s been a while since I read a book which touched me so deeply and yet maintains a strong charm from start to ending. I want to find more books by Zweig, and I would already like to reread this novella as well. In three words: funny, tragic, and tantalizing.

The Palace of the Peacock by Wilson Harris

I struggle to find a way to describe this novel, our choice for Guyana. Broadly speaking, The Palace of the Peacock (1960) is about a rather sinister man called Donne leading a group of men on a trip down the river searching for a changing target (at first a woman—or place?—named Mariella, and then “the folk”). However, Harris uses a fluid timeline and set of events to such an extent that the only way to describe it is “dream-like.” You don’t know exactly when things are happening or even if characters are alive or just ghosts. The closest thing I could compare it to is Virginia Woolf’s The Waves—in the sense of feeling anchorless (no pun intended)—but at the same time, it’s very different from The Waves, too. I really struggled in the first 2/3 or so, but towards the end there was some beautiful Christian symbolism that won me over, and the ending was spectacular. I still don’t know exactly what Harris was trying to say—let alone whether he meant for the Christian symbolism to be so impactful—but it was a unique reading experience and a book I may very well read again in the future. Not sure if I can recommend it to everyone, though; as with Woolf, you really have to read it more like poetry than prose. Lastly, I’ll just mention that there’s a Heart of Darkness connection, so as soon as I reread HoD, I’m going to try to see if I can compare the two.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

My brother Nigel and I were stoked to read The Secret History (1992), which is the “cult classic,” if you will, of the dark academia movement. It’s also a murder mystery told in reverse—from the beginning, we know who was killed and whodunnit. The story covers the events and relationships leading up to the event, centered around an eccentric group of students who study Greek at a college in scenic Vermont. For me, it started out well enough—I loved the descriptions of the college—but the more it went on, the less I could stand it. My favorite character was Bunny, for all his faults (and they were many), and the rest of the characters disgusted and bored me beyond tolerance. The plot and prose, likewise, failed to check any boxes for me, and the book is mostly devoid of the kind of introspection and moral examination you might get from, say, Crime and Punishment. Once Bunny was out of the picture, it was really hard for me to read… I actually gave up at 83%, in sight of the ending, too (it’s 559 pages!). I am glad I made an attempt, but I have to say this was one of the worst books I’ve ever read (sorry, Nigel :/ ). A lot of my Goodreads friends liked it as well, so don’t take my word for it—give it a try, if you like!

Seeing Red by Lina Meruane

Seeing Red (2012) is a novel from Chile, and that’s about the best thing I can say about it. 😆 The story is interesting enough—it follows a young woman who goes partially blind and has to adjust to her a new lifestyle. There is also commentary on her identity as a Chilean in America and as a Chilean in Chile, neither of which seems to bring her peace. These would all have been fascinating topics by another author, but Meruane’s novel (partly autobiographical) is relentlessly negative. The main character seems to despise everybody and everything, except her boyfriend whom she just about worships. Between horrifying medical descriptions and gratuitously gross sex descriptions, I was in danger of seeing red myself… The ending was the cherry on top of a very disturbing sundae.

Panorama by Dušan Šarotar

Panorama (2016) is a Slovenian book about history, immigrants, time, and much more. It’s more autofiction than novel—Šarotar writes of his travels in different places in Europe, the people he meets along the way, and the places (and weather) that leave an impression upon him. Like W. G. Sebald, he supplements his writing with black-and-white photographs which help elaborate his narrative but also shed other angles on what he is telling the reader. (A bittersweet anecdote about some students, for example, is juxtaposed with a photo of the students smiling as if carefree.) The passing of time, the personal impact of historical events, and the ambiguity of relationships are some of the major themes. This book begs for a slower paced reading, a pace which (as Blaz observed) seems to purposefully reject the kind of fast-paced media we consume today. I really enjoyed the author’s commentary on technology and social media. This is a book you have to be in the right mood to read–and it is very slow— but it holds some real gems of scenes for those who will take the time.

Ninety-Five Theses by Martin Luther

This was an impromptu readalong with a Discord friend. In spite of an in-depth Christian education, I hadn’t actually read the 95 Theses (1517) before, so we pulled up a copy online and went down the list… Rather than being a manifesto or creed, the Theses are really just a critique of the Catholic Church’s system of indulgences—specifically, money paid to the church by people wish to ease or remove their relatives’ sufferings in Purgatory. As such, it’s not an anti-Catholic document per se, and Luther is largely careful to not call out the Pope himself (towards the end of the Theses, he frames his critiques as a hypothetical third party!). The indulgences Luther was criticizing reminded me and my friend of prosperity gospel messaging. Other than it, it definitely seemed like a document specific to the situation, and not something you’d use to get a full picture of Luther’s beliefs. I will say, it made me appreciate the Reformation a bit more, having this new insight on some of the problems the Church had. Based on the 95 Theses, I did not get the sense that Luther wanted to abolish the established Church (at least at the time) but to correct its flaws. However, it does have his signature fiery personality, and there were one or two phrases that left me shaking my head…