"Fight No More: Stories" by Lydia Millet (W.W. Norton & Company, 2019)

Not a short story lover.  But there are some that tell a longer story episodically.  Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout is like this.  The chapters stand alone.

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I dove into Fight No More with the advice from a reviewer that this book of short stories (finalist for the Pulitzer Prize) was episodes in a longer story.  It was, sort of.  The writing is excellent.  I could see the characters and their situations.  But they did not engage me.  All the stories are dark, and all the characters have pain and suffering in their past lives: The Holocaust, familial rape, drugs/alcohol, internet porn.  Naturally this leads to pain and suffering in their present lives, though you do hope that Lexie and Jem escape.  Not likely.

If you like the short story genre, this book will be a good read.  For me, it was a good bedtime read because most stories are short.  Plots are not “resolved”, but neither is life.  These are well made YouTube videos: on and off.  Millet is a prolific writer and I’ll try one of her novels for comparison.  
 

“Reconstruction: A Concise History” by Allen C. Guelzo (Oxford University Press, 2018)

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“The twelve years that are the conventional designation of the Reconstruction period, from 1865 to 1877, teem with associations and developments that seem regrettable, if not simply baleful.”

Massive tomes have been written about the history of the Reconstruction.  Guelzo pockets it into 130 pages, if you choose to ignore the supplements.  It’s a wonder that the U.S. survived as a nation.  Guelzo’s narrative is concise, but not snappy—it’s a bit of a tough read because so much is crammed onto every page.  

The best predictor of the future is the past.  So, we read history, understanding it is one person’s interpretation of the past.  So much of what we see today flows from those 12 years of chaos.  Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s Vice President proved to be the antithesis of Lincoln.  He was a Southerner from Tennessee.  His direct actions overrode Congress’s attempts to set up an orderly transition from war to productive peace.  Instead, former Confederate officers stepped into positions of power and eventually drove out the “Carpetbaggers” from the North.  Johnson was impeached in March 1877, but the measure did not pass.  In November, Ulysses S. Grant was elected, a flawed man with no political experience.

The Supreme Court took advantage of weak executive and legislative leadership, carving new powers for itself.  They became the arbiter of efforts to bring North and South together, more often driving them further apart.  In 1883, the overturned Sumner’s Civil Rights Bill, a deed not rectified until Lyndon Johnson’s presidency.

Though southern blacks were almost immediately elected to new legislative bodies in the South, they proved unable to formulate and negotiate favorable legislation.  They were too poorly educated and underfunded.  No charismatic leader arose from among them who could have led a more effective effort.  Slavery proved no training ground for politics.

Guelzo, in the end, endorsed the theory that the U.S. would have fared much better if the rebellious states had been held and managed by the victorious North until arrangements were made for the integration of the former slaves and the infrastructure rebuilt.  Instead, we proved true to our American need to “get it done” and left the South in shambles for both freed people and whites.

I was enlightened by Reconstruction.  It deserves a second read, but not for a while…


 

"Transit" by Rachel Cusk (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016)

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How do you categorize a novel in which the protagonist mostly listens and observes the actions of others, not judgmentally, almost like a psychiatrist who has no control except her ability to stay or leave?

Transit episodically tells the tales of people who surround Faye, the protagonist, a writer.  The book opens with a spam email from an astrologer informing her that an important transit of the planets will save her from the feeling insignificant.

 "What the planets offer, she said, is nothing less than the chance to regain faith in the grandeur of the human: how much more dignity and honour, how much kindness and responsibility and respect, would we bring to our dealings with one another if we believed that each and every one of us had a cosmic importance?"

Faye purchases the chart, then proceeds to act insignificantly throughout the book.  Her encounters with her realtor, who helps her purchase a flat in London, her remodeler, her abusive neighbors below, her former lover, her fellow writers, her children, her cousin—all of whom seem to have some cosmic importance, reveal Faye’s Zelig-like ability to avoid confrontation, much less make an impression.  Her role is to allow them to reveal their stories, one chapter apiece.  

Transit is short and crisply written.  I enjoyed it and recommend it.