Petropolis tries very hard to be dark and satirical and paint a picture of America and Russia that is both brutal and touching. It partly succeeds, in...morePetropolis tries very hard to be dark and satirical and paint a picture of America and Russia that is both brutal and touching. It partly succeeds, in that there were many moments in the book that I thought perfectly conveyed the grimness of living in impoverished post-Soviet Russia, and the grimness of living as an outsider in the "land of opportunity" when you have no status and are reliant on the strings-attached charity of those who always have more money and power than you. Russia and America can both be grim places for anyone who is "Other" (as the main character, an overweight black Jewish girl from Siberia is in both countries). But Petropolis is not really a tragedy -- Sasha's life is sometimes depressing and sometimes funny, and Ulinich pokes fun at the foibles of her country of birth and her adopted country. She gets the details so right sometimes, and there are moments of real poignancy. But the humor falls flat, the satire is neither biting nor clever enough to make this book really stand out as a literary masterpiece to me. So in the end, it's a decent story about a Russian immigrant and her journey from Siberia to Arizona to Chicago to New York, and her relations with her family and friends (a cast as eclectic and mixed as she is).
I guess my ambivalence about this book is reflected in the three stars. It was good, the writing was occasionally stand-out in its literary detail and especially in the characters and their appearances and the thoughts running through Sasha's head... and yet somewhere it just fell flat for me. The ending seemed wrapped up a little too neatly, I never fully engaged with the main character, and the satire didn't quite connect with me. I suspect a Russian immigrant, someone who shares both the author and the main character's background, would get a lot of the nuances (and humor) that I missed. Added to that is the fact that this was an unusual selection for me, not the sort of book I usually read to begin with, and it wasn't quite compelling enough to make me say, "Yeah, I want to read more like this." Did I enjoy it enough to finish it? Yes. Am I likely to seek out other books by this author, or books with similar themes? No, not really.(less)
Wow. This book is heavy. Literally and figuratively. I doubt Mark Danielewski's sanity as much as I doubt the sanity of the people in his book.
This is...moreWow. This book is heavy. Literally and figuratively. I doubt Mark Danielewski's sanity as much as I doubt the sanity of the people in his book.
This is not a book you can read like a conventional novel. The physical design of the book is as much a part of it as the text. Danielewski pulls out every trick, with special typesetting, empty pages, colored fonts, foreign text with and without translations, hundreds of footnotes, appendices, photographs, and other printing tricks that make this a book that couldn't possibly be rendered as an audiobook, and I doubt it will ever work as an ebook, even on a full-color display like an iPad.
There is a story in House of Leaves, though the story isn't the book. Basically, you've got this scary house that rearranges itself and has internal corridors and staircases that extend forever. You have a photojournalist who moves into the house with his family, discovers its strange properties, and creates a documentary about it which becomes famous. You have an old man living alone in Los Angeles who writes a book about this famous documentary about this weird house. And you have a young tattoo artist with a history of drugs and mental problems who discovers the old man's book after he dies and footnotes it himself and gets it published... except that the House doesn't actually exist, the documentary doesn't exist, and the tattoo artist is losing his grip on reality, so who knows WHAT actually exists in this book, and what we're actually reading?
There are bits that are damn creepy. It's hard to scare me with a book. Blood and gore won't do it. House of Leaves will make you not want to be alone in a big house at night. (For a similar experience, open up your web browser some dark night when you're all alone in an empty house and click through The Dionaea House. Pleasant dreams!)
The whole thing is very postmodern. Besides the printing tricks, House of Leaves is full of postmodern academic jargon, with tangents that will make you at times feel like you're reading a horror novel and at times like you're reading a PhD dissertation packed with deranged nonsense.
It took me a long time to finish this because it's so dense and so non-linear, and at times, so annoying. It's a rewarding experience, and it's definitely something very, very different. It almost rated 5 stars because it's really quite a literary feat and the amount of meticulous work Danielewski put into creating it is literally mind-boggling. But I didn't quite enjoy the effort enough to make it worth 5 stars, and once you get past the author's OCD literary stunts, there isn't a lot of story underneath.
He writes multiple storylines woven through the main part of the text -- there is the "documentary," and the book about the documentary, and the ongoing saga of the guy who found the book about the documentary spilling across the footnotes. He writes academic articles. He writes poetry. He writes a series of letters from a crazy woman to her son, an entire postscripted story in itself. It's hard to believe this was all the product of one writer, putting it all together for one work. But there's just no way to describe what reading this is like. Pick it up, flip through it, try reading the first hundred pages or so. If you find it tedious or incomprehensible, stop, because you won't enjoy the rest. It's an incredible work, but it's seriously not going to appeal to everyone.
Okay, now I am bumping it back up to 5 stars. (I'm so indecisive!) It definitely is one of those 1001 books you should read before you die. It sticks with me. So, haunted house story that is an exercise in stunt-writing, or a postmodernist literary masterpiece? 4.5 stars, rounded up or down depending on my mood.(less)
This was an entertaining but trashy read, written back when Japan, Inc. was going to take over the world (a prediction that now seems quite ridiculous...moreThis was an entertaining but trashy read, written back when Japan, Inc. was going to take over the world (a prediction that now seems quite ridiculous, in retrospect). Although the book (as usual) was better than the movie, it was flawed in the same way: the Japanese are depicted as a supremely competent but monolithic hivemind, all samurai businessmen in public, kinky perverts in private, and of course, completely alien and unlike "normal" (i.e., American) people.(less)
In the 80s, everything Japanese was cooler, and there were lots of books about American expats "finding themselves" by going to Asia and learning Asia...moreIn the 80s, everything Japanese was cooler, and there were lots of books about American expats "finding themselves" by going to Asia and learning Asian martial arts and Asian philosophy and basically being more Asian than the Asians. So this is about an American expat who hangs around with other expats even though he's "gone native" in Japan. It's got a decent pace and better-than-average writing, but the story was self-indulgent (like the main character), and an ending that left me thinking that the entire book was pretty pointless.(less)
Nick Reding has a nice literary style, which I appreciate in a non-fiction book as it makes for less dry reading. That's one of the redeeming qualitie...moreNick Reding has a nice literary style, which I appreciate in a non-fiction book as it makes for less dry reading. That's one of the redeeming qualities of this book, which was interesting but frankly didn't really bring that much insight to the table. Okay, meth is bad, we all know that. And drug addiction is horrible, drug cartels are evil and dangerous, and poverty tends to breed despair and thus drug use. These are all well-known facts and true of every addictive drug and every drug "epidemic." But color me skeptical when I'm told that this generation's drug is yet another incarnation of the WORST DRUG EVER IN THE HISTORY OF MANKIND!
Reding goes into the history of meth and traces the rise of meth as a small town drug that is symbolic of the woes of Middle America by tying it to one town in particular: Oelwein, Iowa. He takes a sample of individual real-life characters -- the optimistic but beleaguered mayor, the pragmatic and cynical prosecutor, the alcoholic doctor, and of course, various dealers and addicts -- to personalize the effects of meth on this town. The stories are interesting but nothing we haven't heard before. Likewise, the rise of the Mexican Mafia is just a reprise of the Colombian cocaine cartels in the 80s. Once again, ham-handed legislation tainted by lobbyist influence managed only to strengthen the hold that organized crime has on the trade.
The connection to globalization and poverty is there, but I think it's a weaker part of Reding's narrative, particularly when he veers into agribusiness consolidation. This represents a whole host of problems afflicting the American heartland, and meth is just one piece of it, more a side effect than a root cause.
I found the book interesting and Reding's storytelling quite adequate, but it seemed like there was quite a bit of filler to pad it out to a full-length book. The Oelwein sections themselves were only part of the book.
This isn't a bad book or even a particularly flawed one, and certainly it increases understanding of the specifics of the drug methamphetamine. But I didn't find it to be ground-breaking, nor wholly convincing in its thesis that meth is the worst!drug!ever! and that the loss of American farming and blue collar jobs is responsible for the problem.(less)
I've seen Cloud Atlas called everything from Buddhist science fiction to a brilliant matryoshka doll of a novel to a gimmicky stunt by an author tryin...moreI've seen Cloud Atlas called everything from Buddhist science fiction to a brilliant matryoshka doll of a novel to a gimmicky stunt by an author trying to be more clever than he is. Given that it contains six stories within its pages, each of them wildly different and tied together only by the self-referential conceit of a single reincarnative thread running through them, it lends itself to being interpreted any way the reader likes. Did you like the stories? Then it's a great novel. Did you kind of like them, or like some but not others? Then it's an overrated stunt. Hate them? The author's a wanky smartypants. Find them brilliant and sublime? Then you agree with the Man Booker committee that put this on its 2004 short list, and Peter Boxall's committee who put it on the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.
I am not sure I'd say Cloud Atlas is a book everyone must read before they die, but you should read it — count me among those who loved it.
First of all, David Mitchell is a great story-teller. I know, that's so low-brow, valuing a book for its stories rather than weighty things like Theme and Metaphor and stylistic flourishes. Though there is a fair bit of all that too.
Looked at one way, Cloud Atlas is an anthology of six stories, spanning centuries and genres. The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing is the journal of a 19th century American notary who finds himself on an unasked-for adventure sailing to New Zealand and back to San Francisco by way of Polynesia and Hawaii. Letters from Zedelghem are from a caddish prodigal musician, telling about his misadventures in Belgium seeking a sugar daddy and a musical mentor as he composes his own great work. Half-Lives — the First Luisa Rey Mystery is a noir thriller set in 1970s California, starring plucky investigative reporter Luisa Rey, trying to uncover a conspiracy around a new nuclear power plant. The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish is another eponymous story about a conniving vanity publisher who finds a bestseller on his hands, which leads him only into trouble. The Orison of Sonmi~451 is a science fiction story about a fabricated person who becomes a revolutionary in a corporate-dystopian futuristic Korea. And finally, at the book's center, is the far future post-apocalyptic tale Shoosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After.
And then, once you've worked your way through those tales, you work your way back out. Each story is a story within another story. And there are hints of each main character being a reincarnation of the next, if you care to read that into the meta-narrative, or you can just enjoy the cleverness of Zachry worshiping Sonmi, who watches an old movie about Timothy Cavendish, who reads a manuscript about Luisa Rey, who reads old letters from Robert Frobisher in Zedelghem, who finds the missing half-volume of Adam Ewing's Pacific journal. Clever or too-too-clever and precious? You decide. Taken individually, each story was a real page turner, though none were particularly original in themselves, and Mitchell shows his gifts in writing each one in an appropriate and very different style. But yeah, I liked the cleverness and the conceit of wrapping them inside each other. The whole is better than the sum of its parts. So this was definitely a great read for me, and since I also enjoyed Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, I'd say he's got the stuff.(less)
This book starts prosaically enough, with a young married couple whose marriage seems to be crumbling through neglect. And their cat has gone missing....moreThis book starts prosaically enough, with a young married couple whose marriage seems to be crumbling through neglect. And their cat has gone missing.
It turns into a long, strange journey involving astral prostitutes, mystic revelations at the bottom of a well, Japanese war crimes in Manchuria, and an evil politician capable of psychic defilement. Toru Okada's quest to find his wife Kumiko brings him into contact with all sorts of interesting characters and bizarre encounters, and not all of them make sense. This book was a head-trip, falling into the category of "magical realism" where things happen that aren't quite possible (and it's not always clear that they're real) and yet the entire story purportedly takes place in the real world.
It's an interesting trip, and I was largely satisfied with the resolution. However, I felt like Murakami threw too many strange elements into this story for no other reason than to ramp up the weirdness, and there were a lot of threads left dangling. You can forget about a sequel -- Murakami doesn't do sequels -- so you're left to come to your own conclusions about the significance of unexplained events and the odd characters whose fates are left unresolved.
Recommended if you're up for something a little different, but Murakami is an acquired taste.(less)
Tony Hillerman used to be one of my favorite authors, but he did that thing a lot of authors do with long-running series: said he was done writing Lea...moreTony Hillerman used to be one of my favorite authors, but he did that thing a lot of authors do with long-running series: said he was done writing Leaphorn/Chee mysteries, but then kept writing them. After the stinker that was The Sinister Pig, I was almost afraid to read Skeleton Man, since it's the next to last book Hillerman wrote before he died, and I'd rather remember Hillerman in his glory days, when Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee were still fresh and sharp and coming at their Navajo ways from two different viewpoints: Leaphorn the veteran, the pragmatic realist who has no patience for superstitions, and Chee the rookie, the traditional Navajo who wants to be a cop and a medicine man.
Skeleton Man was better than The Sinister Pig, but it brought nothing new to the series or the characters. I mean, it also does what all long-running detective series do and start to become as much about the characters' personal lives as whatever case they are working on this book. Chee is now engaged to Bernadette Manuelito, who was first introduced several books ago as a love interest for Chee, who has been notoriously unlucky in love since he first appeared way back in the early books to share the spotlight with Leaphorn. But that's about all this book is: an update on Bernie and Chee.
The actual plot involves a plane crash fifty years ago that left a suitcase full of diamonds handcuffed to a dead man's wrist at the bottom of a canyon in the reservation. Now, fifty years later, someone wants those diamonds, and the dead man's daughter wants his arm so she can use DNA testing to prove he was her father. We get a repeat of the previous book in that basically you've got a rich villain sending a hired thug to do his dirty work, so it's another white dude showing up to cause trouble.
The entire story is framed as Joe Leaphorn ("the legendary Leaphorn" as he is referred to umpteen times) telling the story to his old fart buddies around coffee - this is the pretext to even get him involved in the book at all. There is a little bit of interaction with some Hopi Indians (hence the double-meaning of the title; there is a very loose connection to a Hopi myth), and the climax is resolved by an act of nature.
This is really just a short story that Hillerman padded out to (barely) novel length.
I can only recommend Skeleton Man for true Hillerman fans who just want to finish the series. There won't be any more Chee/Leaphorn novels, after all. But the earlier books in the series are well worth reading; start with The Blessing Way.(less)
I just can't pass up a superhero novel. Few rise above mediocre, but they're like space operas, I am always looking for the one that shines above the...moreI just can't pass up a superhero novel. Few rise above mediocre, but they're like space operas, I am always looking for the one that shines above the rest.
Nobody Gets the Girl is better than average. The worldbuilding and the plotting was excellent. James Maxey creates an internally consistent world packed with all the usual superhero tropes — the supergenius super-technologist who is a one-man Illuminati, his supergenius nemesis, giant baby dolls trashing cities, superheroes and supervillains with creative but familiar powers, power-ups that turn the merely formidable into world-shaking, time travel and alternate universes, and of course, clever twists.
The main character, Richard Rogers, wakes up one day to find his life is literally gone. His house is occupied by strangers. His wife is gone. Nobody can see or hear him. Finding out how this happened and the "rules" of his new existence is just the first part of the book. Richard becomes a minion of "Dr. Know," who has two beautiful daughters, all of them working to bring about world peace and an end to poverty, starvation, and disease.
How likely is that, really?
It turns out that the Knowbokovs are, to put it mildly, a dysfunctional family, and Richard, a snarky Everyman sort of protagonist, gets whipped back and forth by one revelation after another.
He also gets to nail both of the hot sexy superbabes despite being a mostly passive dork whose "power" is that the rest of the world doesn't know he exists. One cannot help suspecting a bit of authorial self-insertion.
I enjoyed the book quite a lot. Any superhero story requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief, but this one manages to make everything fit logically together if you just accept the first big credibility gap. It's a "believable" superhero world with a story that escalates to a true world-saving adventure.
The only flaw that keeps it from being a nearly perfect superhero book is that the writing was so bland as to be almost sterile at times. Imagine someone narrating a thrilling story to you with a flat stare and a monotone; grammatically perfect, but devoid of affect. James Maxey uses straight dialog to carry many of his scenes; the dialog is fine, and while I applaud any writer (especially a superhero writer) who avoids overly-emotive descriptions, Maxey went a little too far in the other direction, sometimes requiring the reader to guess whether someone is speaking angrily, sarcastically, or sadly, and what their state of mind is. Likewise, no scene was lacking in clarity, but I actually found myself wishing for more adjectives and some sentences that weren't simply plain narrative style.
The author's notes at the end of the book say that he wrote the first draft in about a month and a half. It was obviously polished prior to publication, but the fast pace and high-concept plot with relatively sparse prose can be explained by the fact that it was, for practical purposes, a NaNoWriMo novel. But given all that, not bad.(less)
I don't know what book list or recommendation caused me to pick this up, but it goes into my "Not sorry I read it, but not interested in any more from...moreI don't know what book list or recommendation caused me to pick this up, but it goes into my "Not sorry I read it, but not interested in any more from this author" box. It's a French bestseller translated into English, and I think the translator did a fine job in preserving the pretentiously precious prose of the original. (I'm assuming, since I can't read the original French, but it feels very French.) This book is beautiful and poetic in places, but mostly it's pretentious and silly masquerading as profound. I felt like I was watching a French film reading it.
So basically there are two main characters: Paloma, a super-bright twelve-year-old girl from a super-rich family who, like most super-bright twelve-year-olds in rich families, thinks her parents and older sister are a waste of space and only she sees through the hypocrisy of society and the pointlessness of existence. So she's decided she's going to burn down her apartment and commit suicide before her thirteenth birthday.
Then there is Renee, the concierge of the extremely expensive Paris apartment building where Paloma's family and a bunch of other rich people live. Renee is a dumpy old widow from a rural peasant family who's been the concierge at this building, being ignored by its snooty, elite residents for 27 years, all the while hiding that she is also a closeted genius who spends all her time reading Kant and Tolstoy.
And... that's the first half of the book. Paloma writes "profound thoughts" in her diary and Renee muses on how oblivious and prejudiced her rich apartment dwellers are and how much it annoys her that she occasionally has to interact with them and pretend to be stupid so they'll continue to ignore her. This is a book that is mostly made up of inner monologues, with tons of name-checks of famous writers and philosophers so you'll know that Paloma and Renee are both really smart and really well-read. Sometimes their entries/thoughts really are quite profound, but usually they just come off as self-conscious snobs who might be smarter than the people around them but really aren't much nicer. There are bits of humor I enjoyed, but mostly I appreciated the very short chapters. This is a good book to keep in the bathroom for "seat time," ya know what I mean? The chapters do fly past since mostly they're just day-to-day incidents in the lives of Renee and Paloma.
Eventually something resembling a story appears out of the misty swirl of phenomenology and Tolstoy references. A new resident moves in, a wealthy Japanese man, and he's smart and perceptive and immediately sees through both Paloma and Renee's disguises. So finally there is some real human interaction and genuine friendship going on. But still, not much story. The ending is exactly the sort of bittersweet/tragic denouement that seems prescribed for such highbrow French literary bestsellers. Never fear, Burberry would not subject you to anything as pedestrian as an apartment fire, a suicide, or a sex scene, any of which would have livened the book up considerably.
Despite thinking the characters were not nearly as likeable as the author wanted us to think they were, and finding the story mostly boring and pretentious, I give this book three stars rather than the two I'd probably give a genre novel that let me down this much because it was different, interesting because I haven't read a lot of books about France, and the characters were, while annoying, mostly believable (except Kakuro Ozu, the rich, privileged dude with the heart of gold who's just too good to be true), and I thought the author conveyed her message fine. And I appreciated her use of language. Probably this would be a more pleasurable book to read in French. But it would still be one of those artsy books everyone coos over at book clubs and no one is going to remember twenty years from now.(less)
Someone, somewhere coined a phrase which I shall now steal, without remembering where I picked it up and thus being unable to give proper credit: this...moreSomeone, somewhere coined a phrase which I shall now steal, without remembering where I picked it up and thus being unable to give proper credit: this is a novel about the "Unbearable Dudeliness of Being." Philip Roth is a Very Serious Author which is why he can get away with writing novels that linger over descriptive details like "her tongue glazed with his come" and win a Pen/Faulkner Award, while a lesser writer would be relegated to the porn-masquerading-as-plot bins with John Norman and Laurell K. Hamilton.
Okay, I am being a little unfair. The Human Stain is certainly not porn masquerading as plot. It's got some fine (lengthy, long-winded, self-indulgent, look-at-me-I-am-a-Very-Serious-Author-with-Very-Serious-Things-to-say-about-the-human-condition) writing, and Roth digs deep, very deeply, into the lives and heads of each character in the book. Ironically, the one character who remains mostly unknown to us is Nathan Zuckerman, the (fictional) author and third person narrator whom Roth uses as an authorial device to tell the story of Coleman Silk, a classics professor at a small, prestigious little liberal arts college in the Northeast. Coleman has a secret that he has been hiding his entire life, and it is revealed only at the end of his life, after a brief, disastrous affair with Faunia Farley, an uneducated janitor who works at his college. Zuckerman, who had a great big man-crush on Coleman, becomes determined to write his story after he dies, and so he does: The Human Stain. It's meta, get it? By the end, it's not clear how much of what is written about Coleman Silk's childhood or the inner monologue inside Faunia Farley's head when she is by herself is meant to be omniscient narrator Roth writing about his characters, or third-person narrator Nathan Zuckerman writing about "real" people and attributing thoughts and actions and dialog to them after they are dead.
The Human Stain takes place in 1998, during the impeachment trial of President Clinton, which has nothing to do with the plot but affords Roth the opportunity to include discussions of Presidential blow jobs and a completely irrelevant conversation overheard by Coleman Silk which goes on for four pages about why Monica Lewinsky should have taken it up the ass. I was both impressed by Roth's ability to write this in a way that made it seem to just flow with the rest of the story, like a perfectly natural conversation dropped into the ongoing events to make it topical, and appalled at the complete irrelevancy of a four page overheard dialog about anal sex having nothing to do with the story. Well, I'm sure professors of literature who are Philip Roth fans would tell me it had everything to do with the story and I just didn't appreciate the hidden meaning. Nah, I got the hidden meaning - Roth likes to write about sex, specifically, about older men doing younger women in various orifices. You may write long, lovely, literary passages, Mr. Roth, but you're still a perv.
Now to be fair (I'm trying, really!), the sex scenes are actually pretty sparse and brief. Most of the book is about Coleman Silk and how he spent his entire life "passing" as a white man, how unjust accusations of racism triggered the end of his academic career (mostly by his own doing, as it is implied that the entire false construct he has built up, having never even told his own wife and children that he's black, collapses in his mind when he is accused of being a racist), and how he takes up with a younger woman who's hardened, world-weary, has an abusive psycho Vietnam Vet ex-husband and two dead children in an urn under her bed, and something about a hot younger professor in his department who hates Coleman Silk but also wants him to do her, probably in the ass. No, really, Mr. Roth, you're a perv.
There are a lot of things Roth is commenting on here: race, class, sex, academia, false consciences, inner selves and layers of being that we keep hidden from others, the intersection of desire and loathing, self-loathing and self-denial... ah, to hell with it, I'm sure lots of American Lit grad students write fine papers about all the highbrow themes in this novel. It's psychologically deep and artfully written, but you can still feel the gravitational pull of Roth's dudeliocentric ego exerting itself on every page.
I turned from the shore, once I was safely there, to look back and see if he was going to follow me into the woods after all and to do me in before I ever got my chance to enter Coleman Silk's boyhood house and, like Steena Palsson before me, to sit with his East Orange family as the white guest at Sunday dinner. Just facing him, I could feel the terror of the auger -- even with him already seated back on his bucket: the icy white of the lake encircling a tiny spot that was a man, the only human marker in all of nature, like the X of an illiterate's signature on a sheet of paper. There it was, if not the whole story, the whole picture. Only rarely, at the end of our century, does life offer up a vision as pure and peaceful as this one: a solitary man on a bucket, fishing through eighteen inches of ice in a lake that's constantly turning over its water atop an arcadian mountain in America.
There are a lot of passages like that. The dialog is similarly precise, detailed, and expansive. There were parts of this book where Roth almost had me: "Damn, dude can write!" And then there'd be another dudely disquisition on the dudeliness of being (a whole chapter on Faunia's ex-husband Les Farley trying to cope with his PTSD and raging hatred for Asians, but really, anyone who isn't him, and also himself) which in itself was also interesting but Roth can hardly go a whole chapter without mentioning someone's dick being sucked. Just remember, semen is totally the stuff of Pen/Faulkner Awards if it's written by a dude as dudely as Philip Roth.
My enjoyment of this book would only merit 2 stars (I've certainly rated books 2 stars that I enjoyed no more than this one) but given writing like the aforementioned passage, which I cannot help admiring, I'm bumping my rating up to 3 stars. Literary authors can write nice, I just find so few who combine writing talent with storytelling of the kind I like. Also, I'd rather not feel like I am witnessing the author masturbating.(less)
“Ree Dolly stood at the break of day on her cold front steps and smelled coming flurries and saw meat. Meat hung from trees across the creek. Carcasses hung pale of flesh with fatty gleam from low limbs of saplings in the side yards. Three halt haggard houses formed a kneeling rank on the far creekside and each had two or more skinned torsos dangling by rope from sagged limbs, venison left to the weather for two nights and three days so the early blossoming of decay might round the flavor, sweeten that meat to the bone.”
This is why I read more literary fiction now. It's why I have made such a turnabout from my not-long-ago days of sneering at litfic as pretty words spewed out by MFAs at the expense of plot and characterization. Oh, I still love my genre books, and there are plenty of litfic writers who leave me slow-clapping unmoved (I'm looking at you, Philip Roth and David Foster Wallace and John Banville), but Winter's Bone is a novel that is as accessible as anything on the YA shelves, and it's about a sixteen-year-old girl and full of drama and adventure (and some sex), but it's not YA because it's got some stylized writing that might force the YA-junkie's brain to stretch ever so slightly, and there are no vampires or zombies or dystopian governments, and a hot boy is not the heroine's reward at the end of the novel.
Winter's Bone is set in the modern-day Ozarks, a place where Daniel Woodrell (who has a MFA) grew up and still lives. Not the pretty Ozark towns and tourist resorts, but the back backwoods, a violent, insular, dirt-poor place, where the people are hard, poor, and proud, and most of the region's GDP comes from meth.
Ree Dolly is a sixteen-year-old girl who carries her entire family on her shoulders. She has two younger brothers and a mother who's permanently checked out, mentally.
Ree's grand hope was that these boys would not be dead to wonder by age twelve, dulled to life, empty of kindness, boiling with mean. So many Dolly kids were that way, ruined before they had chin hair, groomed to live outside square law and abide by the remorseless blood-soaked commandments that governed lives led outside square law. There were two hundred Dollys, plus Lockrums, Boshells, Tankerslys, and Langans, who were basically Dollys by marriage, living within thirty miles of this valley. Some lived square lives, many did not, but even the square-living Dollys were Dollys at heart and might be helpful kin in a pinch. The rough Dollys were plenty peppery and hard-boiled toward one another, but were unleashed hell on enemies, scornful of town law and town ways, clinging to their own. Sometimes when Ree fed Sonny and Harold oatmeal suppers they would cry, sit there spooning down oatmeal but crying for meat, eating all there was while crying for all there could be, become wailing little cyclones of want and need, and she would fear for them.
Her father is a meth cook who's in and out of their lives. When he goes missing before a court date, the sheriff's deputy tells Ree that her father put up their house as his bond, and if he doesn't show, they'll be kicked out.
Ree nearly fell but would not let it happen in front of the law. She heard thunder clapping between her ears and Beelzebub scratchin' a fiddle. The boys and her and Mom would be dogs in the fields without this house. They would be dogs in the fields with Beelzebub scratchin' out tunes and the boys'd have a hard hard shove toward unrelenting meanness and the roasting shed and she'd be stuck alongside them 'til steel doors clanged shut and the flames rose. She'd never get away from her family as planned, off to the U.S. Army, where you got to travel with a gun and they made everybody help keep things clean. She'd never have only her own concerns to tote. She'd never have her own concerns.
This is an amazing story about a tough, brave girl in a very hard environment. Most of the men are doing criminal deeds in the back woods, most girls wind up married on account of pregnancy, like Ree's best friend Gail, and as trapped as the men with no way out.
He said, "You think you get it, but you don't. I mean, you oughta try it your own self sometime. Get drunk one night and wind up married to somebody you don't hardly know."
"I know her real good."
"Yes'm, girl, you oughta go'n get yourself good'n drunk one night and have you a kid. I mean it."
"No thanks. I already got two. Not countin' Mom."
Floyd's arc of piss slackened and slackened until he shook the last drops loose.
"Nobody here wants to be awful," he said. He hopped a little as he zipped up. "It's just nobody here knows all the rules yet, and that makes a rocky time."
Everyone in this book is already on that hard, bleak road: some, like Ree and her brothers, you think could still get off that road; others, like Ree's terrifying uncle Teardrop, whose face was melted by a meth explosion and who's usually high on crank, have just enough humanity left to make them Greek tragedies.
Ree sees her future looming before her, and the future of her brothers, and Woodrell doesn't give you any promises that they are going to be any different. He paints a harsh, vivid picture of stark woods, iron-faced women, trigger-happy men, blood-feuds, and honor killings, all in a place that could be America a hundred years ago except for the meth.
Ree's quest to save her house by finding out what happened to her father means crossing the extended, violent Dolly clan that doesn't like anybody asking questions, least of all girls. Even knowing what she is up against, Ree doesn't quit. She is going to make them give her what she needs or kill her, one or the other.
"You was warned. You was warned nice'n you wouldn't listen — why didn't you listen?"
"I can't listen. I can't just listen."
She moved her head slowly, wobbling as she aimed her good eye, and saw that there were others in the barn. Shapes milling by the open double door, wearing man hats, smoking, watching in silence. One of the man hats stepped near. Megan squatted, patted Ree's face, and said, "Whatever are we to do about you, baby girl? Huh?"
"Kill me, I guess."
"That idea has been said already. Got'ny other ones?"
"Help me. Ain't nobody said that idea yet, have they?"
I loved this book because the astringent prose is Faulkneresque, while the story, the characters, the real raw messy human hearts bleeding on the page, are superior in every way to what so many readers of less challenging fiction (i.e. YA) say they want but settle for from Magical Boyfriend books.
I actually saw the movie before I read the book, which means it was harder for me to judge the plot twists in the book when I already knew what was going to happen. I will say that the movie is fantastic, a real piece of art, and it's also one of the most faithful adaptations of a book I've seen. Scene for scene and line for line, almost everything in the movie is straight from the book.
“I said shut up once already, with my mouth.”
Brrr. Woodrell has a brilliant way of conveying in a few words that these are people with whom you do not fuck.
Comparisons between Winter's Bone and The Hunger Games (which, despite my snark, I did also like) are inevitable. Jennifer Lawrence starred in both movies, for one, and did quite a marvelous job in both roles. But the parallels between Ree Dolly and Katniss Everdeen are pretty obvious: two girls living in oppressive backwoods squalor, forced to hunt squirrels to feed their younger siblings, trying to take care of a family with a mother who's mentally checked out and a father who's gone... it's amazing more people don't accuse Suzanne Collins of ripping off Daniel Woodrell than Koushun Takami. The life-and-death struggles of the Dolly clan are every bit as bleak and violent as those of District 12, except, you know, real.
In terms of style and heart, though, Winter's Bone is much closer to True Grit, another favorite of mine. Ree is a little older and a lot more worldly than Maddie Ross, but Ree is more like Maddie, self-possessed and unswervable, than the passive pushed-and-prodded-into-action protagonist of The Hunger Games. Winter's Bone is a more grown-up tale than either of these other two books, though; it's got not just blood, but shit and piss and puke, not gratuitous but in all the places where human beings are messier than they can hope to be on film. It's ugly and beautiful and equally raw in both aspects, from the beatings Ree takes to the brief blink-and-you'll-miss-it lesbian subtext, to the ending, which, like the lesbian thread, is one of the few things elided in the movie. Violence and vengeance is like gravity; Ree might escape it, she might not, but not all those around her will.
I read this book (after paying cash money for it) because I thought it was something like a feminist parody of Lord of the Flies with maybe a little B...moreI read this book (after paying cash money for it) because I thought it was something like a feminist parody of Lord of the Flies with maybe a little Battle Royale thrown in. Alas, even though Libba Bray unsubtly references her influences, this is not so much a parody as an anvilicious satire that really wants to be a touching, empowering straight-to-video release from the Disney Channel.
“I’ve been thinking about that book about the boys who crash on the island,” Mary Lou said to Adina one afternoon as they rested on their elbows taking bites from the same papaya.
“Lord of the Flies. What about it?”
“You know how you said it wasn’t a true measure of humanity because there were no girls and you wondered how it would be different if there had been girls?”
Mary Lou wiped fruit juice from her mouth with the back of her hand. “Maybe girls need an island to find themselves. Maybe they need a place where no one’s watching them so they can be who they really are.”
Adina gazed out at the expanse of unknowable ocean. “Maybe.”
There was something about the island that made the girls forget who they had been. All those rules and shalt nots. They were no longer waiting for some arbitrary grade. They were no longer performing. Waiting. Hoping.
They were becoming.
I so want to pat this book on its head for being so, so precious. Beauty Queens tries really, really hard to be laugh-out-loud funny while delivering earnest messages about Feminism and Being Yourself and Tolerating Diversity and Trusting Your Instincts and it screams from every page: "Look at how wittily I make a serious point by spoofing pop culture and turning stereotypes on their heads and subverting your expectations!" Except the funny wears very thin quickly, and then Libba Bray's earnest grrrl power messages just keep thudding into the sand, one plummeting anvil after another.
The author kills off 36 of the 50 Miss Teen Dream beauty pageant contestants on page 1, so she only has to deal with 14 protagonists. But it's not like they actually remember or care about any of the dead people, even though the rest of the book is all about bonding and sisterhood and Friends4Ever After Overcoming Differences. A few of the girls had enough personality for me to remember them, though most were notable for their unique distinguishing feature, like Miss Rhode Island, who is a transgendered former boy band member, or Miss California, an Indian-American who capitalizes on her "model minority child of immigrants" shtick even though she's a purebred valley girl at heart, or Miss New Hampshire, the mouthy Jewish girl who is the overt voice of feminist indignation, a wannabe journalist who of course joined the pageant to write an expose and trash it. Likewise there is a lesbian from a "trailer trash" background, a deaf bisexual, an African-American girl whose major defining characteristic is... being black, and no, Libba Bray, just because you deliberately point out that she's a token in a very self-aware and critical way does not make her tokenism less glaring. It's like the author sat down with a list of check-boxes to tick off, and while her heart is certainly in the right place, I just got weary of it. "Oh, here's the chapter about why it's hypocritical and wrong to condemn female sexuality. And here's the chapter about why the Sassy Black Friend and the Best Gay Friend are demeaning stereotypes. And here's the chapter about No Means No."
There wasn't a single message in the book that I disagreed with. Bravo if it actually dislodges some harmful notions from the teen girls who read it. (And boys, though let's face it, how many of those will read this book?)
And I won't say it wasn't entertaining or funny. There was some funny. Libba Bray is good at banter.
Mary Lou raised her hand and waited to be recognized. “I need to tell y’all something. There is somebody else on the island. A guy named Tane Ngata.”
“What?” Miss Montana said. “Have you been hitting the plant juice?”
“Listen! I didn’t know how to tell you this. He’s an eco-warrior and an ornithologist.”
Brittani gasped. “Ohmigosh. You’re into the freaky stuff, aren’t you?”
“An ornithologist is a bird-watcher,” Mary Lou explained.
Brittani recoiled. “That’s just sick.”
“If there is a guy on the island, why didn’t you tell us before?” Adina asked.
“I don’t know! Because I was scared. And then I wanted something that was all mine. And I just … I don’t know.” Mary Lou told them everything — about her nights with Tane, how special he was, about his theory that The Corporation had a secret compound on the island.
“Are you sure you didn’t just imagine it?” Nicole asked. “I mean, I’ve read about people getting kind of island-crazy after a while.”
“He’s real, I swear! We had awesome almost-sex,” Mary Lou insisted.
Petra put a hand on her shoulder. “Sweetie, sometimes I like to think that Heathcliff is waiting for me at Thrushcross Grange in tight breeches and leather boots. Doesn’t make it true.”
“Weren’t you wearing a purity ring when we got here? Aren’t you supposed to be saving yourself?” Shanti asked.
“Yeah,” Mary Lou answered. “And then I thought, for what? You save leftovers. My sex is not a leftover, and it is not a Christmas present.”
“See, now I don’t know whether to be all ‘Yay!’ because you’re empowered or sad because you’re having delusional almost-sex with an imaginary boyfriend,” Adina said.
The plot becomes more and more ridiculous, involving hot pirate boys who are escapees from a reality TV show, arms smuggling, engineering an invasion of a small third-world country (cue lots of thinly-veiled Bush jokes), a secret base inside a volcano, giant snakes, a bunch of teenage girls who take out a small private army of soldiers armed with AK-47s by swinging from trees and spraying them in the face with hair conditioner, and then it just gets really silly.
If you can set your suspension of disbelief to 11 and just accept this for the feminist-friendly absurdist comedy it is, Beauty Queens is an amusing light read with such an endless onslaught of jokes (including outtakes, footnotes, cut scenes, voice-overs, Beauty Queen Fact Sheets, and so on) that a few of them will probably provoke at least a chuckle. And it wouldn't be a bad thing to foist on your teen daughter, since it's packed with girl-power messages disguised as savvy humor and parody. Like I said, I have no complaints about the author's intent.
But, it's a one-note farce stretched to book-length with a plot that is not even remotely serious. I give it 2.5 stars: +1 star for being occasionally funny, +1 star for having its heart in the right place, -1 star for trying too hard, and -1 star for being all heart and no brain.(less)
This is a good ol' Southern mystery that really isn't that much of a mystery, since we know who the culprits are (and aren't) nearly as soon as they a...moreThis is a good ol' Southern mystery that really isn't that much of a mystery, since we know who the culprits are (and aren't) nearly as soon as they are introduced. However, there are some twists and revelations along the way. What this story is really about, though, is not a whodunnit, but the two characters who are inextricably and unwillingly tied to events that happened in both the present day and nearly 30 years ago.
The first of our protagonists, Larry Ott, gets shot in chapter one. From there we go back in time to find out how poor Larry grew up as a poor white boy in Mississippi - not so much poor economically (though his family isn't exactly well to do, despite owning land) but poor socially. Larry is the perpetual outsider, the nerdy kid reading Stephen King horror novels while everyone else is playing sports, the boy who's a constant disappointment to his hard-drinking father, the boy who wants to be popular, or just to have some friends, but he's always on the outside, pressing his nose against the glass. His childhood is a catalog of disappointments and humiliations, culminating in a disastrous first date which turns into even more of a disaster when his date never comes home. From then on, "Scary Larry" is assumed to be an unconvicted rapist/murderer. No body was ever found and they were never able to arrest him, but that doesn't stop the entire town from assuming that someday, he will be. Because of his mother, who is in declining health, Larry can't leave, and so he spends the rest of his days in quiet purgatory for a crime he didn't commit.
In contrast to Larry, Silas "32" Jones grew up truly poor, a black boy from Chicago dragged to Mississippi by his mother at a young age. Although they barely have the clothes on their backs, Silas is a handsome, popular, athletic kid, and when he gets older, he enjoys the success and popularity that Larry can only dream of.
There is a secret between them - that for a little while, as children, they were friends. Now, years later, "Scary Larry" is still a pariah, Silas has returned to the town also, now as its constable, and another girl has disappeared. And then someone shoots Larry.
The unwinding of this story is a human drama that will make you feel terribly sorry for both Larry and Silas, two men who've been damned by their own guilt and inescapable pasts. The narrative is plain but evocative, putting you firmly in Mississippi today and in the early 80s... it's not the Mississippi of all those old movies or the pre-Civil Rights era, but it's still backwoods Mississippi, where White and Black can now kinda sorta be on friendly terms, but if you get too close, bad things can still happen. Where even though people pretend times have changed, an awful lot really hasn't. And nothing has ever changed for poor Larry.
This was a pretty impressive book. I teetered between 4 and 5 stars, so I'm copping out and giving it 4.5. Not quite rich or deep enough to carry 5 stars all the way to the end, but the writing and the characterization definitely makes it a worthy read, and one that would make me inclined to check out more work by this author. Highly recommended for anyone who likes a bit of crime drama with woeful, believable characters, and for fans of Southern fiction.(less)
"Merricat," said Constance, "would you like some tea?" "Oh no, Constance, you'll poison me!"
This singsong rhyme with which the villagers taunt sister...more
"Merricat," said Constance, "would you like some tea?" "Oh no, Constance, you'll poison me!"
This singsong rhyme with which the villagers taunt sisters Mary Katherine ("Merricat") and Constance invokes every creepy witch-taunting movie you've ever seen. Mary Katherine and Constance Blackwood live with their wheelchair-bound Uncle Julian in their once-grand family home. The Blackwoods have always been wealthy and apparently somewhat ostracized by the local townspeople because of it, but when almost the entire Blackwood clan is wiped out by arsenic poisoning, the survivors become outcasts, hated and shunned. It turns out that Constance was tried for the crime but acquitted; now she hides in her home, unable to face the accusing eyes and jeers of the outside world.
The story is narrated from the viewpoint of Mary Katherine, whose life is full of strange rituals and talking to her cat, Jonas. It soon becomes evident that Merricat is a little... unusual. Disturbed. One might even say, out of her freaking mind. She is fascinated with poisonous herbs, she fantasizes about living on the moon, and she wants most of all to live with her sister Constance and never see anyone else. She creates magic words, buries things in the yard, and uses other spell-like rituals to "protect" the house and her sister, and since Merricat is the one telling the story, it's not immediately clear whether she's really crazy or not.
The story unfolds slowly until you have a pretty good idea of what really happened before it is revealed, but the brooding, sinister tone of this short novel is creepy and dark and gothic, and by the end, it's not clear who the real villains are: the person who murdered an entire family, the greedy cousin who shows up looking for the supposed fortune hidden in the house, or the envious, grudging, small-minded villagers who feign concern and hospitality while mocking and slandering the Blackwood girls behind their backs (and often enough to their faces).
We Have Always Lived in the Castle isn't your typical horror story; all the deaths have already happened before the book begins, and if you are looking for elements of the supernatural, you will have to look hard. This is what you might call an American psychological thriller, where the horror is what is very subtly revealed about Merricat and Constance and the Blackwood family, and the nature of ordinary people in ordinary small towns. 4.5 stars because Shirley Jackson's non-endings tend to leave me unsatisfied, and the plot is skeletal, a boneyard for the characters to dance in, but if you like spooky yet mundane, chilling but non-gory murder mysteries/thrillers, then this is a savory bit of creepiliciousness.(less)