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Review: ‘Very Recent History’ by Choire Sicha

very recent history by choire sichaSo, this book. It’s a doozy that made me think and feel a lot… not all of it positive.

Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City by Choire Sicha really is nonfiction that reads like a novel, a detailed look at life in a large East Coast city (quite obviously New York City) through the money, sex, politics and people that make up the city. There are two threads to the story — a broad, almost anthropological look at the big themes of the city and a narrative about a small group of friends centered around John, a gay reporter for a weekly newspaper.

In the first half of the book — the half of the book I really liked — the narrative balances more to the big picture. The all-knowing voice that is analyzing the culture of the city reads a lot like an alien (or a really skilled anthropologist like Jane Goodall or Paul Farmer or Margaret Mead) sat down and decided to apply their scholarly mindset to chronicling a very particular moment in time in a very particular place in the not very distant past. I loved the way Sicha went at this concept full bore, pulling back our ideas of work and money and relationships to their most basic terms:

Almost everything in the City was capital. The offices were made to make money; the buildings were to make money; inside the buildings and the offices people were employed to make things that made money. And then around these pillars were services: restaurants, bars, shops, cobblers, dressmakers, all to serve the people who were employed making money. So: almost everything. Everything except love, probably. People in the City didn’t often make explicit matches of their children for the transfer of money or goods. But the arrangements of love had an old-fashioned lag to them, in which capital was attached. For instance, people talked about “marrying well,” which meant that someone was marrying someone rich. … There was also a custom of gift-giving at the time of the actual legal ceremony of marriage. When contracted, the parties would join in accepting gifts or, even more boldly, in dictating which gifts would be accepted.

Obviously, there’s a political slant in the way these descriptions are written. In being matter of fact, Sicha is able to point out the hypocrisy or absurdity of some of these (really, our) customs and arrangements and the powerful people who continue to support them. It’s just brilliantly executed and so very funny (and frustrating) to read.

In the second half of the book — the half that left me mostly bored — the balance of the narratives shifts more to John and his circle of friends, the “characters” of the story. Unfortunately, they weren’t very interesting characters to follow around for that much time. They’re all (if my memory serves) gay men in their late 20s or early 30s working jobs they didn’t like (or not working at all), spending nights and weekends staying out too late at various bars. I couldn’t keep them organized as I read, and their similarities made for a narrative without much variety. I wish that Sicha would have chosen a different bunch to follow — maybe John’s coworkers instead of his friends — to make this narrative feel as layered as the more anthropological thread of the story. The city is big and broad and interesting… these characters were not.

So in the end I feel torn about this book — there were parts I really liked, but I’m not sure if those parts were outbalanced by the parts that I really didn’t like. While Very Recent History was a biting look at sex, money and power in a big city, but I just couldn’t generate enough sustained interest for the characters who inhabited this place to enjoy the book as much in the end as I did in the beginning.

Other Tour Stops: Write Meg |  Broken Teepee | Dreaming in Books | Man of La Book |  Doing Dewey | guiltless reading | The Year in Books | A Bookish Affair (Aug. 22) | Bonjour, Cass! (Aug. 26) | Bibliophilia, Please! (Aug. 28) | 50 Books Project (Aug. 29) |

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  • Meg August 20, 2013, 8:35 am

    Our reactions were pretty similar, though I think you enjoyed it a hair more than I did. I appreciated what Sicha was going for, but the book left me feeling listless and confused. It was hard to shake the sense that it was “too cool” for me, and I fancy myself a savvy reader! Still, there were parts that were funny and enjoyable . . . especially in the beginning, as you mention.

    • Kim August 20, 2013, 8:47 am

      Yes, I remember reading your review about when I was finishing the book and agreeing with a lot of what you said. I really loved the beginning of this book — I marked a ton of passages that I thought were smart and funny and astute in their critique down of contemporary NYC (contemporary America, really). But the back half fell apart — I guess I did feel a little out-of-touch with what was happening and how the characters were reacting to it.

  • Katie @ Doing Dewey August 20, 2013, 9:00 am

    Wow, I agree with basically everything you said about this one! I also liked the first part of the book better because it had less narrative and the narrative had far too many similar characters for me to keep track of. I thought the anthropological bits were really funny and often spot on, but I agreed with you that they were a bit political and that bothered me. I think this was mostly because I felt like the author was trying to be sneaky about inserting his political views into the story.

    • Kim August 22, 2013, 8:36 pm

      I didn’t really feel like it was sneaky, just really dry humor, although given that it’s a book and you can’t make any judgement based on facial expression or tone that’s totally without any basis 🙂

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) August 20, 2013, 9:37 am

    Hm, I’m not sure if the second half of the book would save the first half of it for me.

    • Kim August 22, 2013, 8:36 pm

      I don’t know if it did for me either…

  • Nikki Steele August 20, 2013, 1:05 pm

    Would the first half be able to stand on its own? So you could just read that and put it down content?

    • Kim August 22, 2013, 8:37 pm

      You know, I think it probably could. There’s not really a big ending to read for, and there’s a pretty clear break in the middle to stop at.

  • Charlie August 23, 2013, 10:50 am

    I recently learned of this author so I’m interested from that perspective, and the writing style is nice, but if the second part is so different I’m wondering if finding another of his books would be better.

    • Kim August 26, 2013, 9:04 pm

      I think this may be his first book, but don’t quote me on that one for sure. I’d love to read more from him though — his writing is wonderful even if parts of this book didn’t work for me.

  • Jennifer August 25, 2013, 12:01 am

    I’ve been hearing mostly mixed reviews on this book. Still, it interests me because the premise seems pretty unique. I’m always curious about books that take a unique approach which is what this book seems to do.

    • Kim August 26, 2013, 9:04 pm

      That’s what appealed to me about the book too, and what made me keep at it even when parts were frustrating.

  • Heather J @ TLC Book Tours August 25, 2013, 11:36 am

    Darn, I’m sorry to see that the second half of the book didn’t work for you, but I’m happy that you did enjoy the first half.

    Thanks for being on the tour.

  • Aloi (guiltlessreading) August 31, 2013, 12:28 pm

    This one just didn’t work out for me. I agree that the first half was better than the second!

    • Kim September 8, 2013, 11:25 am

      I’ave read a few similar reactions. It was a cool effort, but didn’t quite gel.