Even though I was pretty grumpy about reading Gone Girl for book club a few years ago, I ended up being glad I'd read it just because people bring itEven though I was pretty grumpy about reading Gone Girl for book club a few years ago, I ended up being glad I'd read it just because people bring it up as a conversation topic a lot. The Girl on the Train seems to be blowing up in a similar way, so I decided to read it too. (Sidebar conversation: What's up with all these popular books about adult women that have "Girl" in their title? It grates on me in the same way as the "The ____'s Daughter," "The ____'s Wife" trend.)
Rachel, the titular "girl" on the train, is an interesting take on the unreliable narrator - she's an alcoholic who sometimes drinks to the point of blacking out, so her unreliability comes from holes in her memory and not any specific intent to omit details or deceive. She's had a rough past few years and is just likable and pitiable enough to be a sympathetic character to the reader, but she frequently makes hasty, poor decisions that make it hard to be too fully on her side - there's always the possibility that Rachel may have been responsible in some way she can't remember for the Bad Thing that is central to the plot of this book.
As with most thrillers, this is the sort of book where it's best to go into it knowing as little as possible about the plot, so all I'll say is that Rachel witnesses something through a window while riding the train, and has a memory of having blacked out in a time and place that put her very close to where the central Bad Thing happened. She spends most of the book playing amateur detective, trying to figure out both whodunit and what happened while she blacked out.
This is a gripping book - the writing isn't perfect and Rachel makes so many poor decisions that she can be infuriating, but I still stayed up late a few nights wanting to read just a little bit more. The author does a good job of keeping you guessing, and I didn't see the ending coming, though I do think the actual climactic scene felt really hasty and awkward. It's far from a perfect book but I can see why it's getting the same kind of buzz that Gone Girl did, and I think of the two The Girl on the Train is the stronger book....more
I read something that promised that The Knockoff would be the big beach read of 2015, a retelling of All About Eve set in the world of The Devil WearsI read something that promised that The Knockoff would be the big beach read of 2015, a retelling of All About Eve set in the world of The Devil Wears Prada. It sounded interesting enough, and I needed a palate cleanser, so I read it over the space of a few hours one night and the next morning.
In The Knockoff, 42-year-old cancer survivor Imogen Tate returns to her job as editor-in-chief of renowned fashion magazine Glossy after six months of sick leave to find that her former assistant Eve has convinced the company to replace the paper magazine with a website and app. Everyone Imogen worked with has been fired and replaced with 20-something techies willing to work around the clock for minimal pay. Eve refers to Imogen as a "dinosaur" and clearly wants to drive her out as well, but she needs access to all of Imogen's contacts in the fashion world first, so she settles for being publicly and privately cruel to Imogen while forcing Imogen to take her along to meetings with key designers and photographers. Eve is obsessed with technology and start-up culture and uses Imogen's technology ineptitude to humiliate and exclude her.
I was initially unimpressed with The Knockoff, for several reasons. The characters' speech is stilted and unnatural, mostly because this dialogue-heavy novel seems afraid to use contractions. I kept getting distracted from the story itself by thinking about how unconvincing the voices were.
On top of this, the premise of the book is hard to swallow. We are led to believe that Imogen is an extremely smart, put-together 42-year-old who is so confused and unaware about technology that she can barely access her own email and unironically talks about "the Twitter." Her level of discomfort with technology was pretty consistent with what I've seen from some (but certainly not all) of the people age 60+ I have worked with over the years, but I found it completely unconvincing that a 42-year-old editor-in-chief of what is apparently one of the world's most respected fashion magazines would be so completely clueless about technology.
Eve is also completely unrelatable. We're supposed to believe that she was charming and wonderful as Imogen's assistant and then somehow turned into a sociopathic robot after going away to business school for a couple of years. The story would have had more power for me if it really was just about the disconnect between the techy new guard and the face-to-face, people-focused old guard, without adding in the layer of the maniacally cruel boss figure.
In spite of all these things, though, The Knockoff won me over. Imogen's character develops as the story goes on, and I enjoyed getting to see her reinvent herself and her career. The story is fast-paced, and even though I guessed a lot of the twists before they were revealed, I wanted to keep reading to find out how everything would come together. In that sense, it's an excellent book for the beach or a plane. It could have been a lot better, but I still enjoyed reading it and would recommend it to anyone looking for something lightweight and engaging....more
A Long Way Gone is a hard book to critique because it's an important story to tell, but it could have been told a lot better than it was. It's the memA Long Way Gone is a hard book to critique because it's an important story to tell, but it could have been told a lot better than it was. It's the memoir of a young teenager who was forcibly recruited to join the army in Sierra Leone; it was published more than a decade after the events described, but I think the author was still too close to the events to be able to tell the story in all the detail it needed. For this book to resonate with and affect the reader, it needed a lot of details and some sense of the author's emotions, but what should have been the most poignant parts of the book - the time he actually spent as a soldier - were hazy, like he still wasn't ready to tell the whole story or open up fully about what had happened during that time. Other parts of the book, especially the time he spent in a reformatory camp after leaving the army, were told in much more detail - in contrast, it really felt like Beah was unable or unwilling to describe his time as a soldier.
It also doesn't help that the book is written at a pretty low reading level. It's not advertised as being a book written for children, and the subject matter is obviously very dark, but just in terms of reading comprehension I would guess the reading level for this book is probably late elementary. This means that the book is a fast read, but again, the reader just can't connect very deeply; it feels like everything is being told too simplistically.
The book is also frustrating in that it ends before the story is over. Beah mentions at various points that he ended up in the US with an adoptive mother, but he ends the story while he's still trying to get out of Africa. He's made it out of Sierra Leone and into Guinea, but still seems to have many hurdles before him if he's ever going to make it to the US. I really don't know whether he left off so abruptly because he plans to publish a second memoir that picks up where this one ends, or if somehow he really felt that this was the best place to end things, but it feels abrupt and unfinished.
There has been a lot of controversy about the accuracy of Beah's story - not about whether it happened at all, but there have been arguments that his timeline is off and that he spent only a couple of months, not a couple of years, as a soldier. Honestly, the parts about him being a soldier were so hazy that I'm not sure if it matters if his timeline is off - this is still a tale worth telling, and I just wish he'd been able to do a better job of telling it well. Maybe someday he'll publish another memoir when he's had more time to come to terms with what happened to him and be able to allow himself to go into more detail about his experiences....more
This is an awful lot of book for such a very thin storyline. Written and set in the late 1800s, Là-Bas focuses on the writer Durtal, an atheist who adThis is an awful lot of book for such a very thin storyline. Written and set in the late 1800s, Là-Bas focuses on the writer Durtal, an atheist who admires but finds himself unable to believe in Catholicism. Durtal is writing a book about Gilles de Rais, a friend of Joan of Arc who who later became a Satanist and sodomized and murdered children. Over many dinners and conversations with his friends Des Hermies and Carhaix, Durtal comes to believe that what his book is lacking is something to relate his 15th-century history to the present day - namely, Durtal feels he needs to learn about contemporary Satanism.
Much of the book is taken up with academic discussions about religion and philosophy. Even the presumably scandalizing sections about de Rais's excesses are told with a historian's narration, and they are brief and rare - so while there are some unsettling passages in the book, the overall feeling manages to be tedious. Even the famous description of the Black Mass toward the end of the book is interrupted before it can become too uncomfortable - Durtal flees partway through.
Overall, I was surprised at how the book managed to have a mostly Catholic feel to it in spite of being about an atheist researching a Satanist. Even the priest who conducts the Black Mass clearly believes deeply in Catholicism and has only turned to Satanism out of anger that the world has been waiting too long for the Second Coming. It was no surprise, then, to learn that Huysmans himself struggled with his disbelief and returned to Catholicism just a few years after writing Là-Bas.
This is very much a novel of ideas, and many of the ideas are interesting, but it's very long for the slim amount of ground it actually covers. I appreciate what Huysmans was doing in this novel, but it felt like a slog to get through....more
I think I switched my rating between three stars and four stars half a dozen times before settling on three - Night Film does a lot of things right, bI think I switched my rating between three stars and four stars half a dozen times before settling on three - Night Film does a lot of things right, but it still didn't quite work for me.
At the center of the book is a highly successful cult filmmaker, Stanislas Cordova, whose output was from the beginning dark and horrifying, and later became so unsettling that his films were no longer commercially available and had to be watched at covert screenings in tunnels and under bridges. He has a following of obsessed fans who believe his movies expose you to the darkest corners of experience so that you can learn to live without fear. He is a total recluse and hasn't been seen or released a new movie in years.
The book opens with the apparent suicide of his 24-year-old daughter Ashley, a former piano prodigy. Her death causes journalist Scott McGrath to reopen old files on Cordova - files that resulted in him becoming totally disgraced as a journalist after publicly accusing Cordova of engaging in sinister activities in real life, not just on the screen. Scott, along with two twenty-something sidekicks he meets in the course of his investigations, becomes convinced that the whole Cordova family is involved in something truly dark, maybe even paranormal.
The book is frequently interspersed with text-heavy images of web pages, magazine articles, and items from Scott's case files, so that you alternate between hearing Scott's perspective and looking at the media he's looking at. There is also an app, Night Film Decoder, that allows you to access additional content like audio, video, movie posters, and journal entries at specific points in the book. A lot of the additional content in the app is throwaway, but a few of them do really serve to heighten the creepy feeling of learning more and more about Cordova's world.
The narrative is compelling, and I found myself staying up late several nights in a row to read just a few more chapters - but the writing is not actually very good, the characters are two-dimensional, and I just couldn't suspend my disbelief quite enough to accept some of the book's premises (especially the way Pessl seemed to want Cordova to be both a cult filmmaker whose films are so horrific that most people can't bear to watch them and a highly successful, household-name director who earned a Best Director Academy Award).
I had heard from a lot of other people that the ending of the book was a big disappointment, and when Pessl kept mentioning how Cordova's films consistently end in a way that leaves the entire story open to multiple interpretations, I was pretty sure this meant that Night Film was going to end without any resolution - and indeed, the book falls flat when it stops abruptly, but in a way that felt more like giving up than like leaving the reader with anything to wrestle with. It wasn't a cliffhanger kind of situation where I felt angry at the author for leaving me to decide what happened next; it felt more like the author wasn't sure where else to go with the story and decided to cut it off in hopes of seeming "mysterious."
Overall I feel like Night Film does some really interesting things, but it's a lot of surface without the depth it promises. It's not nearly as creepy or as smart as it sets out to be, though I liked the premise enough that I was able to forgive some of that just because I wanted to see where the story would go next. It's an interesting book, but not one I'd specifically recommend to anyone because I think the execution could have been so much better than it was....more
I really enjoyed this book, which is actually two stories - the titular "Kitchen," at around 100 pages, followed by "Moonlight Shadow" at just over 40I really enjoyed this book, which is actually two stories - the titular "Kitchen," at around 100 pages, followed by "Moonlight Shadow" at just over 40.
Both stories have similar characteristics - the main character in each is a young woman who suffered a deep loss; each woman is befriended by a stranger who helps her begin to recover; each story has a male character who dresses as a woman; food and eating are important elements in both; and both are told in a very dreamlike tone.
I particularly enjoyed "Kitchen," about a young woman who finds herself alone in the world after her grandmother dies. She tells her tale in a very matter-of-fact way, even as unusual situations arise - she's lost the last family member she had, and nothing else can surprise her or get a strong reaction out of her. She begins to realize that she finds solace in the kitchen more than anywhere else, so she teaches herself to cook, and while traveling with her new job as assistant to a chef she begins to recognize what is still important to her in her life. There are a lot of really lovely descriptions of preparing and eating food.
"Moonlight Shadow" is also about a young woman who loses someone very close to her, but it's a much more magical take on making your way through the early stages of grief. The narrator takes up running as a way to get out of her head for a while, and during one early-morning run she meets a strange, fascinating woman on a bridge. They don't exchange any contact information, but the woman is somehow able to track her down again and promises to help her experience a ghostly phenomenon. It's still a lovely story but the magical elements kept it from feeling as powerful as "Kitchen."...more
I am embarrassed to admit that this is the first Truman Capote I've read, though I definitely intend to read more now.
The book I read is, I think, theI am embarrassed to admit that this is the first Truman Capote I've read, though I definitely intend to read more now.
The book I read is, I think, the most standard presentation of "Breakfast at Tiffany's": The novella followed by three other, much shorter stories. My rating is for the entire book, though I think "Breakfast at Tiffany's" as a standalone story deserves five stars.
"Breakfast at Tiffany's," the story, is about a woman making a living in the man's world of 1940s New York City by encouraging men to become infatuated with her; she goes out to dinner at the fanciest restaurants and comes home with gifts of money or jewelry, and may take the men home with her too if she pleases. Her ditzy, flighty persona is revealed to be finely crafted, and as we get to know her better we see how carefully she calculates her risks in order to live ever more comfortably.
The other three stories ran the gamut. "House of Flowers" was the low point for me; it's set in Haiti and is probably just a product of its time, but gave me an uncomfortable feeling of exoticism. It's an odd reversal of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" - both start with a young woman from the sticks who moves to a big city and finds success by being attractive to men, but where Holly is clever and self-aware, Ottilie seems to have the mental capacity of a child and relies on magic to help guide her decisions.
"A Diamond Guitar" was a solid story about friendship and betrayal, set in a prison. An old convict with a life sentence finds his life shaken up by a new, young convict with a flashy guitar.
"A Christmas Memory" was far and away my favorite of the short stories; it is, I understand, at least partially autobiographical for Truman Capote and has a much more real-world feel than any of the other stories in this collection. It's about a young boy whose best friend is his elderly but childlike cousin and the ways they entertain themselves in spite of being very poor in rural America of the 1930s....more