The reviews of this book are hilarious. Half of them appear to be taking this book at face value, and the other half seem to be trying to come across as if they are op-eds for The New Yorker. MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION is a polarizing book, and whether you'll like it depends on how you feel about reading depressing books with unlikable characters. If you want escapism and "soft" and "gentle" reads and joy, this book is going to go down about as well as, well, a dose of infermiterol.
MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION is set in pre-9/11/2001 New York. The heroine is young, thin, beautiful, privileged, independently wealthy - and clinically depressed. She engages in a number of toxic behaviors, dating a user, befriending another woman who has an eating disorder and with whom she engages a highly co-dependent relationship, and spending all of her free time in bed or on her couch, watching old movies while taking drugs to "hibernate" and escape the uncomfortable intensity of her own emotions.
The narrator is jaded, selfish, and emotionally dulled. The portrayal of depression here is actually quite well done. People who have never experienced depression seem to think that it makes you cry and whine all the time (and, perhaps most unforgivably, willfully self-indulgent and done with agency), but for many people, there's a numbness and a feeling of hopelessness and despair: "What's the point?" you might ask, if nothing brings you joy and contentment, and you don't have the energy to do anything but sleep and eat and exist. When you're depressed, living isn't about enjoying the small things; it's about trying to muster up the energy to do the small things when you barely have the energy to get out of bed. Even though the heroine comes off as privileged, she is unable to enjoy any of the luxuries she has; the only solace she has in life is the escapism that comes from "dreamless" sleep. So what does she do? She engages a quack psychiatrist to feed her pill habit.
The psychiatrist is probably one of the most unlikable characters in the book (although the boyfriend, Trevor, is awful, too - having sex with your drugged-out unconscious ex? Yeah, buddy, that's rape). Dr. Tuttle is a crazy cat lady who has sessions in her nightgown and gives away free pill samples like they're fun-sized candy bars and it's Halloween. Some of the NYT-wannabe set were talking about this book being an existential satire, only I'm not sure what, exactly, MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION is trying to parody. Is Moshfegh trying to go the MODEST PROPOSAL route in the vein of Johnathan Swift, suggesting that if #FirstWorldProblems sufferers want to use intoxication the way the population of Brave New World did with soma to escape from reality, then why not physically escape from reality by drugging yourself out and going into a coma-like hibernation state? The ending kind of suggests that, as if life itself is a dream and death is the awakening.
I found this book amusing and bemusing in equal parts. For most of it, I took the book at face value, as a depiction of depression that transcends class and circumstance. The heroine has a life that many would kill for - minus her dead parents - and has every opportunity in the world at her manicured fingertips, but because of her psychological state, it still isn't enough. That, I appreciated, because it's true that people can be depressed no matter how "happy" their life seems, and while depression is totally worse for people who don't have the resources or the safety net that a caring group of family and friends affords, that doesn't mean that being privileged means that you feel any less helpless.
It becomes harder to take this book at face value with the introduction of the walking malpractice suit that is Dr. Tuttle, the enabling solution she finds with avant-garde artist, Ping Xi, and the pill cocktails she takes on a daily basis that seem as though they should be causing some kind of physical harm or side-effects, especially since she mixes them with caffeine and alcohol. The human body is resilient, but not that resilient. I also disliked the ending, as I'm sure many of the people who rated this book so low did, as it feels like suicidal ideation. Here we have this character who describes their self-damaging behaviors as "saving herself," and when she witnesses death being committed with agency, she describes it as being awake; as if death was the solution to her problems all along.
MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION isn't a bad book, and both the accolades and the criticisms are well-deserved, for various reasons. I fall in the middle here, because while I liked the book and found it interesting enough to continue, I didn't really like the end goal and I'm not sure what exactly the author was trying to accomplish with her message (if anything? maybe it was just a character study or an exercise in trolling the audience, and Ottessa Moshfegh is leaning back against the giant pile of money she got as an advance for this book and laughing at us all).
If you're depressed, you should probably avoid this book, as it will be triggering. It also deals with eating disorders, pharmacological abuse, suicide, addiction, and death. I'd read more from this author, but I wouldn't reread MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION. It's a pretty miserable experience, even if it has some sharply cutting observation on the foibles and hypocrisies of humankind.
People, especially conservatives I have noticed, like to make fun of content warnings. They like to say that it's yet another facet on the crystal of over-sensitive, over-entitled "millennial privilege." (Right, because we're the generation that needs to choose between iPhones and health insurance. So privileged.) Speaking as someone who has, historically, gotten panic attacks, let me tell you that for people who do experience anxiety from "triggers," it isn't something that's made up. Your blood pressure plummets, your heart rate picks up, you feel nauseous. It can feel like you're going to faint and have a heart attack at the same time. I no longer get panic attacks, but reading this book was so physically uncomfortable that, for a moment, I remembered with stark clarity what having them was like and how much I used to dread them.
This is because A LITTLE LIFE is the most wretched, depressing book that I have ever read. That is saying something, considering that I have some pretty strong contenders on my "just-tear-my-heart-out-why-dont-you" shelf on Goodreads, which features books such as OUTLANDER, for its gruesome torture and rape scenes, KINDRED for its grim portrayal of slavery in the South, THE BOOK OF YOU for its portrayal of stalking and abuse, and the previous winner of the title for "most depressing book of all time," THE LAST INNOCENT HOUR, an extremely visceral WWII-era book about an American woman who finds out that her husband is a Nazi and experiences severe emotional, physical, and sexual abuse over the course of the novel. I am someone who rarely takes offense to books, and reads bodice-rippers from the 1970s for fun. My tolerance for problematic content is very high.
This is actually my second time attempting to read A LITTLE LIFE. The first time, I received a copy of it as an ARC but ended up DNF-ing it around 80% in and writing a 2-star review for it on Goodreads. It was upsetting me too much to finish, and I actually felt myself becoming physically nauseated from reading about the subject matter. There's a reason most of the reviews are either ultra-positive or ultra-negative, and I think that rating really stems from your mindset on depressing books. At the time, my mindset was, "This book made me feel like crap afterwards, ergo I did not enjoy it," so the two-star rating was an accurate representation of my feelings at the time. This time around, I was more aware of what I was in for, and was able to steel myself going in. The four-star rating I am giving this book this time around is to acknowledge the beauty of the writing, the compelling portraits of the characters inside, and the very on-point portrayals of anxiety and body dysmorphia.
A LITTLE LIFE is about four boys named Willem, Malcolm, Jude, and JB. They are all talented and brimming with potential when we first meet them while they are in college. Willem is an actor, Malcolm is an architect, Jude is talented with numbers and logic and law, and JB is an artist. Willem and Jude forge the closest relationship that ends up growing over the course of the novel, but the four of them retain a closeness that is reminiscent of the cult-like bond of the college-age kids in Donna Tartt's THE SECRET HISTORY, especially since the bonds between them are largely defined by secrecy. Specifically, one secret: the history of their friend, Jude, and his secret past.
Jude is essentially the main character of this book. Everything - the events, the characters, their narrations - all revolve around him. He is the best-looking of the bunch but also the most reticent. He is in chronic pain from a childhood accident he refuses to divulge, incredibly private, and has very low self-esteem and poor body image. As the story unfurls, we learn that he was the victim of truly horrific child sexual abuse and physical abuse, and has been able to recover from these events psychologically. To compensate for his physical and mental pain, he self-harms - something that his doctor basically enables by refusing to take action or force him to get help - and at several points in the novel, his self-harm intensifies to such a degree that he is hospitalized.
Willem, his friend and, later, his boyfriend, and Harold, his adoptive father, and Andy, the enabling doctor, are his closest confidantes, but even with them, he has walls that he refuses to lower. Bits and pieces of Jude's story come out, either in his own narrative arcs, or in reluctant admissions that are basically given under duress. He is a truly flawed and pitiable character, and to make it worse, it never stops. His past is bad enough - God, how I ached for him - but his future offers no respite, either. One by one, those in his life leave him - or at least, he perceives them as leaving him - either by choice or reluctantly, and Jude allows his life to spiral out of control. Being in his head is a truly terrible place, because he is so vulnerable and negative and damaged. I can't help but feel that this book takes a highly ableist view of disability, much in the same way that ME BEFORE YOU did. Jude is portrayed as being a fraction of a person, someone who is broken and beyond help.
Even though I enjoyed both this book (ultimately) and ME BEFORE YOU, I can understand the criticisms of both books. Both books portray disability as being an obstacle that cannot be overcome and in both cases, disability is weighed against able bodies as being the desired norm, and any action that cannot be matched against one who is able bodied is considered a depressing short-coming. With the other books on my depressing book shelf, they had some sort of redeeming value or message, but A LITTLE LIFE is so bleak. What is the message, then? That some people are beyond redemption and should be allowed to rot away on their own terms, like a piece of forgotten bread? That was the message I got here, from Jude, and his pointless struggles, and how all effort to live and carry on only resulted in more pain - like he was being punished for trying to live his life as best he could.
I have never done this before, but with A LITTLE LIFE, I slipped a little piece of paper inside the book before donating it that listed out all of the content warnings. I know some people get angry about these and consider them spoilers, but I couldn't bear the thought of someone going in cold and feeling that same icy feeling of dread that I did while reading this the first time. The content warnings in this book run the gamut from child sexual abuse to domestic violence to medical gore to grievous self-harm to anxiety and post-traumatic stress flashbacks and substance abuse, and just about everything else. I hope the next person who gets this book is able to enjoy A LITTLE LIFE for the think-piece that it is, but I would not, in all honesty, recommend this to anyone with an anxiety disorder or a history of abuse, as I think the flashbacks and the content would just be way too much.
P.S. You don't have to use content warnings, and aren't obligated to be responsible for others, but please respect the people who need/want them. Anxiety is not a joke, and it is very unkind to make fun of people who experience it. Consider this my PSA for the day.
When it comes to books, I'm like Anakin Skywalker in Attack of the Clones. I was raised and schooled to read literary books, but then I met Padme Amidala in the form of romance novels and turned my back on everything that I was taught was good. The difference between us is, Anakin lost his arm but I lost my credibility with snobs who use my love of the dark side to try and invalidate my opinion on anything they consider to have merit.
THE SECRET HISTORY is the quintessential snob book, in my opinion. It's a bloated mess of self-importance, and reading it is like being water-boarded by a thesaurus. It features a cast of snobby, pretentious characters, and our hero, Richard, wants to be just like them. It's kind of like Mean Girls meets Heathers, in a way, if the characters were like, "On Wednesdays we translate Greek mythology" and had Bacchanalian orgies instead of suicide pacts. I'm sure all the lit snobs just died a little inside at that comparison, but hey, if the gladiator sandal fits.
While the pastoral college initially seems idealistic, utopian even, all that changes when Richard meets Henry, Charles, Camila, Francis, and Bunny, and a chance encounter to prove his worth ends up catching the interest of their mentor, the reclusive and elitist Classics teacher, Julian, and bringing him into their exclusive fold. At first, he's the odd one out, looking in wistfully at these cool kids who seem like a fashion spread for Miu Miu, jealous of the secrets they're keeping from him, and all the times they spend hanging out without him. But then a murder happens, and then another murder happens, and he realizes soon that ignorance is bliss.
As far as lit-fic goes, this is pretty trashy, which is maybe why I liked it so much. 500+ pages of rich white assholes doing each other dirty? Nothing gets my trashy heart a-fluttering like some quality drama. I liked her other book, THE GOLDFINCH, a bit better, because I feel like the stakes felt a little higher in that book, and it was more reminiscent of actual classic literature, a modern GREAT EXPECTATIONS or DAVID COPPERFIELD, if you will. THE SECRET HISTORY was trying to be a Greek tragedy, I think, but it didn't really work all that well, except to thumb its nose at hubris and remind you that murdering your friends and family members often brings a visit from the Furies.
If you're reading this because it's a "mystery" you're going to be disappointed, because this is the slowest damn mystery I've ever read. Sherlock Holmes encased in carbonite would be faster. Given the dense way it's written and the important expositional dialogue that happens on each page, skimming this book is next to impossible, too. It's slow going. I'd say this is more of a character study than an actual mystery, although there is mystery and murder, as well as numerous other things that are apt to get your maiden aunts in a tizzy, like incest, drug use, suicide, and self-harm.
THE SECRET HISTORY caused a big trend of literary trash involving kids doing each other dirty, which I appreciate because that is one of my favorite tropes and I felt obligated to return to the book that started it all off so I could pay proper homage to it. I did like it, and thought the writing was lovely (albeit slightly torturous), but it went on for about 100 pages more than it should have in my opinion, and the ending - like the Greek tragedies - is rather demoralizing. Caveat lector.
I wonder about Goodreads users sometimes. People will pile on to heap praises about one book in particular while utterly ignoring brilliant contributions to the literary canon like this. I almost didn't read this book because it was such a wild card - and I am so glad I did not do that. In many ways, FRUIT OF THE DRUNKEN TREE explores similar themes to other women-centered works of literary fiction like GIRLS BURN BRIGHTER or HOMEGOING. The book is set in Colombia in the early 1990s, when the cocaine lord Pablo Escobar held most of the political and economic power, and the wealth disparity led many low income individuals to support and encourage the gruesome violence of the guerillas.
There are two narrators. Chula, who along with her mother and older sister, is a member of the middle class in Colombia. By our standards, they don't have much, but when people across the city are living in shacks without electricity or running water, they seem very wealthy. The other narrator is Petrona, who is their maid. She lives in one of those shacks, called invasions, and is working to support her family in the absence of a real provider.
FRUIT OF THE DRUNKEN TREE, which is another name for the Angel's Trumpet flower, navigates the rocky political landscape of a country ruled by criminals, in a time of great inequality and political upheaval. The author brings up many great points about morality, and how it is easy to claim the high ground when you aren't starving. The people in Petrona's region, and many like it, were failed by the government, so men like Escobar who flashed cash and supplied jobs to boys and young men as runners and para-military, could seem like saviors, even if what they were doing was terrible in the big picture, because of the way he indirectly helped to bolster their economy. Chula's family, on the other hand, can afford to think big picture, and her mother was in favor of the liberal politician and reformist, Luis Carlos Galán, who wanted to end the corruption and drug running.
I really loved this story and thought that the author did a great job giving voice to Chula and Petrona. Both of them were very different girls, from different walks of life, and the author was very careful not to be preachy, or take sides. When Colombia is mentioned in fiction, it's generally portrayed as some grandiose, Scarface-esque locale that features glamorized portrayals of crime. This book, on the other hand, is influenced by the author's childhood memories of growing up in Bogotá during this time and seeing these kidnappings, rebellions, bombings, murders, and criminality firsthand. The focus on the relationship of these girls in the face of adversity was reminiscent of GIRLS BURN BRIGHTER, but this wasn't quite as gruesomely awful as GIRLS BURN BRIGHTER, and in my opinion, has a much happier ending, even if it isn't exactly a gleaming pot of sunshine.
Ingrid Rojas Contreras is clearly an author to watch. I can't wait to see what she puts out next.
Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!
Curtis Sittenfeld is one of those hit-or-miss authors for me, where I really like some of her books, but I wouldn't call her a favorite author because she's let me down too many times. Cases in point: while PREP and THE MAN OF MY DREAMS are among my favorite books, AMERICAN WIFE and SISTERLAND were both crushing disappointments that I could hardly stand to get through.
With that in mind, I approached YOU THINK IT, I'LL SAY IT with hopeful caution. "Please don't let me down again," I thought.
YOU THINK IT, I'LL SAY IT consists of ten very different stories that look at women as if they were specimens in a Petri dish. Have you ever looked at a Petri dish? They can be pretty disgusting, as fascinating as they are, and you might not like what you see in them, even if you can't quite bring yourself to look away. Such it is with the women in these short stories.
Gender Studies: ☆☆☆
Initially, I gave this four stars, but I think I was being over-generous. It's a weird story about a gender studies professor who think she's lost her driver's license, so she calls up her cab driver (who revealed himself to be a Trump supporter during their drive) and asks him to look for it. He pretends he's found it but says he'll only give it back if she buys him a drink (red flag). They end up hitting it off and having a sexual encounter of sorts, but it quickly sours. Deeper meaning ensues.
I liked this one initially because it shows how people are rarely as black and white as we think they are, but the more I thought about it, the more I disliked how the woman was portrayed as being at least partially in the wrong. That dude was a manipulative creep. F him, and his skeevy tactics.
The World Has Many Butterflies: ☆☆½
Probably my least favorite in the collection, although any story that involves cheating is going to earn my side-eye. This story is about two married friends of the opposite sex who like to play this game where they casually sh*t-talk mutual acquaintances. The woman in the relationship builds what they have up as being something more, and it turns into a meditation on extramarital affairs.
I thought this one was too unlikely, and the heroine was too unlikable and immature. The most interesting thing about this short story is the title (and if you're interested, this is the story from which the collection itself draws its title; it's the name of the sh*t-talking game the couple plays).
Vox Clamantis in Deserto: ☆☆½
Another story I didn't really like all that much upon further reflection. Probably because it feels like a washed-out, shorter version of PREP. Set in Dartmouth, it's about a student who becomes weirdly fixated on one of her classmates and her boyfriend. It's got the class anxiety and slumming around of PREP, but without the character depth, and I couldn't really get into it, even though I'd have liked to.
Bad Latch: ☆☆☆
Another weak story, Bad Latch is about mothers one-upping one another, and addresses the bias that natural breast-feeding and natural birthing are better, as well as the ugly side of motherhood that involves fear, anxiety, and the desire to conform to societal expectations. I didn't really like this one much better than the previous two, but I'm rounding up a bit because the topics that it mentions are so relevant and because all too often, motherhood is written about as the be-all, end-all of womanhood.
Plausible Deniability: ☆☆☆½
This story is also about cheating. It is about two brothers - one of them is married, one of them is unmarried. The married brother confides to his unmarried brother a desire to cheat on his wife, and is always venting about her. His unmarried brother is unsympathetic and urges him not to cheat. But the married brother doesn't know that his unmarried brother and his own wife are writing to one another.
I thought this was an interesting story, and it does subtly bring up the difference between physical and emotional cheating, and how both are equally damaging to a relationship.
A Regular Couple: ☆☆☆☆½
I think A Regular Couple is the story I related to most out of this collection. Two couples end up meeting at this resort, and it turns out the wives knew each other in high school. One of them was the stereotypical pretty "mean girl," and the other was an awkward loser. Now, in middle-age, the tables have flipped, and the mean girl is kind of washed out and unsuccessful and the awkward one is a rich and successful lawyer. However, the meeting brings back all of the awkward girl's social neuroses.
I recently had my ten-year reunion so I found this story interesting, because it's amazing how some people can stay the same while still changing so much. The awkward girl couldn't let go of her high school resentment and expects that the mean girl feels the same. It ends up being much more interesting than the typical "nerd's revenge" fantasy that I was expecting, and I liked that.
Off the Record: ☆☆☆☆
This was another story that I enjoyed a lot. A single mom journalist with a newborn baby is interviewing a vivacious young starlet whose career is on the rise. An ordinary interview quickly becomes juicy and potentially devastating for the starlet, and the journalist is desperately trying to jot everything down while keeping the starlet placated enough that she won't remember that she's "on the record," even as she's fielding calls from her nanny claiming that her baby is at death's door.
This is one of those "devil's choice" scenarios, where the journalist is essentially forced to choose between her baby and a potentially career-pivoting moment. The tension was really well done, and I liked the twisted ending. These darker, more unhappy stories really appeal to me for some reason (what does that say about me?); Sittenfeld is really good at writing unlikable characters.
The Prairie Wife: ☆☆☆☆½
After A Regular Couple, this was my second-favorite story. This is about a woman who likes to spite-watch a YouTube influencer, while damning her as a hypocrite and fantasizing about ruining her career. At first, you think it might be jealous but then you found out it's because the influencer has branded herself as a farm-to-table, 1950s ideal of an evangelical rustic Stepford Wife, when the woman in question knows firsthand that the influencer is a lesbian because they hooked up when they were young. The ending to this story was great, and was much more positive than I expected.
Volunteers Are Shining Stars: ☆☆☆☆
This story has an almost Patricia Highsmith vibe to it. The heroine of this book volunteers at a shelter for low-income women and their children. She also has OCD, of which she is in denial about, and while her compulsions may be obvious from the get-go, her obsessions are somewhat sinister - especially when they cause her to fixate on one of the other volunteers: could she be a sociopath?
Another short story that mentions Trump? Nooooo. This story has a male protagonist. Trump's "win" has made him question one of his own wins, when he was elected student council president in high school. He ends up reconnecting with the woman he "beat," seeking her out to apologize.
Much to his dismay, it ends up going badly. She gives him a royal dressing down while calling him out on his privilege, and he has literally no good response to anything she says, apart from that old fall-back about her not being ladylike or attractive. It ends up being a pretty grim portrayal of how men view women - especially successful, dominant women - and how privilege can be blinding.
For the most part, I liked this collection. There were no truly awful stories in it, and I liked that Sittenfeld actually took on some pretty challenging and controversial topics. She writes grit and grunge well, and I think it's neat that you can like her characters even as they make you cringe.
That said, it's a somewhat mixed array of stories and I think it's a mistake to put the strongest stories in the middle, where they will be forgotten, leading with the weakest stories in the bunch, and then sandwiching the whole affair with two Trump-related tales that are kind of downers. The arrangement could have been much better, to showcase the strongest stories, leaving the weakest towards the end.
Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!
With social media being full of Bad Men Saying Stupid and Hurtful Shit, you're probably asking yourself why I'd read a book like this, which basically exemplifies female objectification at its worst, running the gamut of topics such as sex trafficking, sexual abuse and assault, forced marriage, colorism, mutilation, and other grim facets stemming from gender inequality.
Well, because these issues are real issues - and with some people doing their damnedest to silence the victims or others sweeping this unpleasantness under the carpet for being too unsavory, I think it's really important that these stories get heard. Because it's easier to ignore statistics than it is to ignore a visceral reaction.
GIRLS BURN BRIGHTER is a work of fiction, but I imagine that it matches the stories of girls in India who are struggling to overcome racism, sexism, classism, and poverty. Poornima and Savitha are two Indian girls who end up becoming friends. Both of them are poor, although Savitha is poorer, but they are united in their strength and their anger.
Over the course of the book, many, many, many terrible things happen to these to girls. They end up separated, and bad quickly turns to worse. I actually posted a status update expressing my bewilderment at the awfulness of their situations, asking if it could get darker than it was - and yes, it did. I think the last book I read that disturbed me so much was Yaa Gyasi's HOMEGOING.
What I loved about this book was the beautiful writing and the slow burn of the girls' anger. Fire and burning is a leitmotif in this novel, which you might guess from the title: sexual awakening, rage, actual fire (or physical sensations approximating it), and fear. Poornima and Savitha are constantly burning, and it is this flame that keeps them going even when everything seems lost, in their goal to find one another and escape their horrible situations, no matter what it takes.
Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is probably best known for her short but powerful essay, WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS. The essay is based off one of her TED talks and despite being short, really packs a punch in the feminist feels. She had a second essay, slightly less popular, called DEAR IJEAWELE, which I have also read. While not as popular or as powerful as WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS, it still has that personal, poignant element that made her first essay so popular. Adichie was clearly an author To Watch. That's why I was so excited when my book club voted to read one of her full-length novels, AMERICANAH. I'd wanted to pick up one of her works of fiction but didn't know where to start. My book club did me the favor of making the choice for me.
AMERICANAH is a very different beast from her other two works. WE SHOULD and DEAR are both essays written by Adichie herself, and she is a very likable woman who talks a lot of sense and makes very good arguments. In AMERICANAH, both of the main characters, Ifemelu and Obinze, are complicated, flawed, and not always easy to like. The plot is a bit difficult to explain, but if I were to summarize, I'd say it is about two young Nigerian lovers who break up and then try to make something of themselves in the West, only to find out that much of what they'd heard about both the UK and England is spin. Some things are better, others are worse, and when the two of them return to Nigeria, their Western experience has made them different, and colored their view of Nigeria in an irrevocable way, making them both feel like outsiders. Neither has forgotten the other, and their unique experiences bind them together when they finally reunite.
I liked Ifemelu a lot more than Obinze. I don't like cheaters and it bothered me how Obinze treated his wife, Kosi (although I didn't particularly like her, either). I feel like these two characters were meant to be criticisms of Nigerian cultural and gender stereotypes, particularly Obinze's entitlement and Kosi's hypocrisy, made more significant by the fact that Obinze is able to somewhat overcome cultural expectations and norms by the end but Kosi is unable or unwilling to. Ifemelu was amazing. She's the type of character that you either want to be friends with or can see yourself in, or both. I loved her blog, because it reminded me of Justina Ireland and Phoebe Robinson's writing (particularly the parts about racism, colorism, and the politics of black hair).
Ifemelu made so many great points about privilege, racism, colorism, white guilt, cultural stereotypes, and dog-whistling. There were so many things that made me think hard, and even made me feel uncomfortable, because it forced me to examine some unfortunate terms or phrases that I've employed in the past. That's a good thing, though. It's important to read books that make you feel uncomfortable and force you to reexamine how you interact with others, in my opinion, particularly since so many people are reluctant to discuss "race" or ethnicity, and even think the very act of doing so is racist in and of itself(!). I kind of wondered if Ifemelu's feelings of hypocrisy about writing controversial, inciting pieces and then giving "safe" workshops and talks was a reflection of the author's own experiences; I also thought it was interesting how she (Ifemelu) said that the workshops had different people, people who probably hadn't read her blog and would never consider doing so.
I feel the book weakens a little towards the end. I was not 100% on board with Obinzie and Ifemelu's reunion, since like I said before, I didn't really like Obinze and didn't consider him fully worthy of Ifemelu (although he tried at the end - quite hard, for him). I do think that their similar experiences made it that each of them was the only person capable of understanding the other, since being black and foreign in America/the UK made them an outsider to the people in those countries and having those cultural, "western" experiences made them outsiders to their own people when they returned home. It's the double-edged sword of the expatriate; you're always the outsider looking in. I've heard this sentiment expressed by my own friends who have lived abroad and it was bittersweet, seeing it here, in two desperately lonely people who only wanted solace and understanding.
If you enjoyed Yaa Gyosi's HOMEGOING, I think you will enjoy this book as well. This book isn't as nearly as dark as HOMEGOING, but it does confront many of the same uncomfortable topics, and it does so as written by a person of color, which I find that I actually prefer, as historically speaking, many of the books about Africa I've read that were written by white people are utter misery porn, in which the tortured main character is rescued by their own personal white savior who spirits them away to the magical paradise of the West. Blech, no thank you. This book felt honest, in that it portrayed both Africa and America as having their own unique problems, and confronted a lot of negative stereotypes and truths about both white and black people. If you can stand to read books that aren't comfortable, books that will make you think hard about stereotypes, books that will make you examine yourself, I recommend AMERICANAH. I can't wait to read Adichie's other books.
After reading Amy Harmon's FROM SAND AND ASH, I found myself still thinking melancholically about WWII. Reading something super cheery or fantastical felt kind of disrespectful while in this mood, so I decided to delve into the bottomless black hole that is my Kindle for another book on the subject.
THE KOMMANDANT'S MISTRESS has been on my wishlist for a while. It's listed as a suggested read for people who also liked Margot Abbott's THE LAST INNOCENT HOUR, a book that dug its talons into my soul and absolutely shredded me. Reading THE LAST INNOCENT HOUR not only put me in a book slump, it left me feeling emotionally drained and haunted. There are scenes in that book I can't get out of my head. I'm sometimes skeptical about those AI-generated suggestions, but reading the synopsis of THE KOMMANDANT'S MISTRESS seemed like it was probably about right. However, the mixed reviews intimidated me a bit, and I only ended up buying this book just last week when it appeared on sale for a much more friendly $0.99. At that price, I'll read anything.
THE KOMMANDANT'S MISTRESS is definitely the perfect read for THE LAST INNOCENT HOUR. Both books take a rather dark view of the war, with nuanced views of flawed characters who don't always do the right thing. THE LAST INNOCENT HOUR was about Nazi officers and an American-German woman who felt torn, caught between the American desire at the time to remain uninvolved in the conflict and her closeness with a family friend who has become a soldier, and the stark knowledge that something about the German soldiers' ideas and actions isn't quite right.
THE KOMMANDANT'S MISTRESS takes place on the other side of the table, in one of the camps. It is told in three distinct parts. The first part is narrated by the titular commander himself. The second part is narrated by his mistress. Interestingly, the third part is told in a "neutral" tone, as though in a history textbook. The narrative style has an additional quirk in the first two parts: it's a nonlinear timeline, and there aren't paragraph breaks between these jumps. Instead, there will be a description or dialogue tag that triggers the characters' memory of an earlier or later even that is related to what is going on and the new scene will be described until another jump takes place.
I can see why the reviews for this book are so mixed and there are several things to keep in mind before reading or purchasing this book, I think.
1. The book will be difficult for non-native speakers or people who have reading disabilities. The nonlinear storytelling is very confusing, since it often happens mid-paragraph. Being someone who speaks a second language, I can tell you that when you only really understand the technical parts of a language, the "inference" parts can be what get you. The language in this book is not particularly difficult but what the author does with it within the parameters of the story is. Caveat lector.
2. The content is very dark. Most of the worst things happen off-screen, but you still know what's happening. Murder, racism, anti-semitism, violence, rape, abortion, torture, abuse - this book runs the gamut of things that people will find unpalatable. It's necessary, to tell the story in a way that feels honest (concentration camps were awful places), but it's still hard to read.
3. The Nazi characters are portrayed as nuanced and sometimes even sympathetic characters. I mean, this feels like a given since the first part of the book is narrated by the Kommandant. He's obviously not going to think of himself as a bad guy (at least not at first). He really believes himself to be a hero, and thinks that taking one of his prisoners as his mistress is his due for rescuing her from the gas chambers. A transformation happens towards the end, where he seems to really understand what he's done and truly be haunted by it, but until that point, his actions are pretty disgusting to read. Even so, he is a well-rounded character, and I have seen people complaining that Nazis should only be portrayed as bad people - not as heroic-type characters and not as love interests. While I understand what they mean, I disagree. History has nuance. Nazis are bad people, but within the framework of history, not all of them were objectively bad people who realized that they were doing wrong (bar any high-ranking officers in the know who did, obviously). To write such characters as blanket bad guys with cartoonish villainy reads to me like propaganda. I felt like the author did a really good job portraying the terrible actions of the Nazis while showing that they were real people.
4. The ending is kind of confusing and nebulous. It was obvious to me what happened to "Rachel." But at the same time, the Kommandant's ending was much less clear. When did he actually die? When he and Rachel meet again, is he a figment of her imagination? Or did they both escape their dark fates the first time, only to meet again in tragedy once more? I don't want to say more because spoilers, but if you read this book and then get to the last part, you'll see what I mean.
I really enjoyed this book a lot. It was dark, with sympathetic and interesting characters, and seemed very well-researched. I ached for poor Rachel, and how everyone around her was always trying to use her. Her incompetent and foolish parents, the abuse she suffered at the hands of her fellow Jews in the camps for her "favoritism," and her constant encounters of the Kommandant really made me feel so bad for her. The Kommandant is also an interesting character, and seeing his sharp fall from grace isn't quite as satisfying as it should be, since by the end he seems such a broken man.
If you enjoy morally grey books that will make you think, you will enjoy this book (and probably THE LAST INNOCENT HOUR) a lot, too. I've read a lot of WWII fiction that takes a romantic, safe look at the war, with black and white portrayals of morality. This feels much more realistic, even if that realism ultimately makes it more painful. Excellent book.
When I looked at my friends' reviews for THE PARTICULAR SADNESS OF LEMON CAKE, I noticed that almost all of my friends who read it gave it negative reviews. After reading this book for myself, all I have to say is that this book proved to me that you can't always trust your friends. (Sorry, friends!) Reading is such a highly subjective experience, and what works for you doesn't always work for someone else (and vice-versa).
After reading the summary, I will admit to rolling my eyes a little. "Oh goody," I thought, "an all-white retelling of LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE." Of course, my skepticism didn't stop me from wanting to read it anyway. Like LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE, TPSOLC is about emotions and food, and how they influence the characters around them. Unlike LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE, the main character, Rose, is a passive individual in the experience. She doesn't cook the food and transfer her emotions to others; she receives those feelings. There also isn't much in the way of romance, so it lakes the passion of LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE.
But did I think it was a bad book? No. Absolutely not.
When Rose eats a piece of food, she can immediately tell how the person was feeling when they cooked or prepared it; where the food was from; and whether it was organic or processed. Can you imagine how bad your coffee would taste if the barista who prepared it was in a bad mood and you tasted her frustration and annoyance? As you can imagine, this often results in highly unpleasant experiences and she avoids eating her own family's cooking after she tastes her mother's unhappiness in a piece of lemon cake and, later, the guilt she's feeling about an extramarital affair in a piece of roasted meat from dinner. The only safe food is processed food, because that's food that's made by cold, unfeeling machines, and therefore doesn't result in any unwanted feelings.
Rose also has a brother named Joseph who appears to be on the Autism spectrum, and a good part of the book is about her tempestuous relationship with him. He's her mother's favorite - a fact that she doesn't even try to hide- and that gets to Rose, especially since Joseph appears largely indifferent to his mother's affection. He also is largely indifferent to Rose, ignoring her, shunning her, or sometimes even being outright mean to her. It isn't until later that Rose finds out that he has a special ability of his own, which he has been using to withdraw further and further from the world.
I really enjoyed TPSOLC. I think one of the biggest issues that people had with it is that it's largely character driven and not a lot of stuff happens. Luckily for me, I enjoy character-driven novels (assuming I like the characters) and am fascinated by people living out their daily lives (I'm really nosy). The family dynamic was incredibly well done and I really liked how Rose's ability was blended in. It was similar enough to LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE that I kind of felt nostalgic for LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE and wanted to read it again, but it wasn't similar enough that I felt like I was reading an outright copy, either. TPSOLC really provides an interesting perspective on where food is coming from and how it's prepared and distributed. Also, the sensory descriptions are amazing. There's a scene close to the end that's probably my favorite part in the story, where Rose does a "food tasting" of a quiche, and man, I have never wanted a quiche as bad as I did then.
If you enjoy stories of magic-realism and character driven stories that make you work for it a little, I think you'll like THE PARTICULAR SADNESS OF LEMON CAKE. It was weird, but charmingly so, and a very gentle, pleasant story that was surprisingly deep and moving. I really liked it!
Here's the thing: the concept is great. Frank owns a record store in the 1980s, when records are beginning to be replaced by CDs. He holds fast to his beloved records, falls in love, and his favorite music becomes the soundtrack to his pursuit of the forbidden woman, interspersed with the memories of the music from his childhood, with his tempestuous, eccentric mother.
I think Rachel Joyce wanted to write the next HIGH FIDELITY, but she doesn't have the charm or the wit of Nick Hornby. Instead, she writes what I call "hand-holding fiction." Maggie Stiefvater does this, too. The prose is lovely but often overly precious, and everything is explained to you in great detail, as if the author doesn't trust the readers enough to let them figure it out for themselves. We must always be told what a character is feeling, and why, instead of being allowed to infer that ourselves.
It's. So. Freaking. Annoying.
Another thing that really galled me about this book is the manic pixie dreamgirl element. Frank is lost, adrift, and it's the entrance of a tortured, quirkygirl that grounds him and gives him meaning. I hate the manic pixie dreamgirl trope, because in such stories the heroine becomes a means to an end: a reward to the male character for dutifully completing his character arc. As if that weren't enough, they're both pretentious AF. Frank gives her "music lessons" where he mansplains to her for hours about what musicians are good and what the records mean (kindly eff off, Frank), and Ilse is flighty and mysterious and utterly flat, apart from having a fancy accent and fancy clothes.
If you ever wondered what the little shits in John Green novels would be like in middle age, pick up this book and satisfy your curiosity, because these characters are totally the little shits in John Green novels all grown up and in the midst of a mid-life crisis.
You would have thought that I'd have learned my lesson after reading THE BRONZE HORSEMAN, but no - apparently this is the year of emotionally wresting Russian love stories. One of the more "heated" debates in my romance group is whether a romance, by definition, must have a happy ending. Most of the people in my group say yes; but I'm a pessimist, and I say no. With ANNA KARENINA, however, I can actually see the merit in reclassifying it as a "love story" and not a romance, because what occurs between these characters is less a romantic interlude than an intrigue of tempestuous thoughts, emotions, and chaos.
Basically, Anna is married to this old dude named Alexei, and ends up having an affair with a much younger man named Vronsky. Her husband finds out and the result is a major fustercluck, where the decision to get a divorce and the matter of custody both become heated debates. Anna selfishly continues to pursue her relationship with Vronsky, and ultimately ends up pushing him away, because Vronsky is just as selfish and doesn't really appear to see people as people so much as abstract concepts that loosely orbit his own desires and sense of self. Juxtaposed against this is the relationship between Stepan and Dolly; Stepan has affairs as well, but because he is a man, his wife must deal. IT IS CRAY.
Like Dickens, Tolstoy's writing still feels very modern because even though the particulars have changed, human nature mostly remains the same. I have a friend who is Russian and she explained some of the concepts of the Russian psyche that Tolstoy was writing about: namely, intense pride and the need to always be right (or at least, to not concede an argument). She also said that this edition is a really good translation, so if you're one of those people who - like me - always wonders whether the translator did their homework, this one apparently did.
Despite that, I couldn't really get into this book. It was way too long and I skimmed the last 100 pages because I'd had enough of these families and their drama. It's also intensely depressing. That last scene with Anna, and the fact that she changed her mind, cut deep. In many ways, ANNA KARENINA reminds me of MADAME BOVARY and THE AWAKENING, in the sense that the wayward woman is punished for wanting more and daring to dream beyond what society allows her. But said woman is also so selfish that the reader has trouble investing in her emotionally. I could appreciate the writing and the characterizations and even the story, but I felt I was missing a lot because I didn't have context for the culture and the history. That's the benefit of learning these types of books in schools; you are literally saturated in context and then, later, tested on your understanding of it. Reading these books independently means being able to enjoy them at my leisure, but then, conversely, also means that I run the risk of missing crucial points or having things go over my head.
I'm glad I read ANNA KARENINA but I don't think that this book is for me. Some classics just aren't "fun" and to me, this is one of them. So, since I rate purely on enjoyment and NOT literary merit, I'm going to give ANNA KARENINA a 2. It wasn't awful and got me through some lengthy jags spent in waiting rooms and bus seats, but it wasn't particularly enjoyable and the ending harshed my mellow.
I'm working my way through an omnibus edition of Maugham's work, and man, he can write. I'm torn between the impulse to swim leisurely through his prose or just gleefully cannonball into it. Unlike some writers of this time, Maugham is not particularly flowery, but he has an interesting way of presenting ideas and constructing sentences that makes you want to read over them several times, just to appreciate their ideas and form.
MOON AND SIXPENCE, which could just as easily be called "Portrait of the Artist as a Douche," is based loosely off the life of the artist, Paul Gauguin. I tried to pronounce his name several times, ineffectively, ranging from gewgaw, to Google, to gaijin. As it turns out, the way it's actually pronounced makes him sound like a creature from a Japanese monster movie (it rhymes with "Rodan"), which is only the first way this book surprised me.
Strickland seems like he has the ideal of the moderately successful life: a wife, children, a good job with steady pay. But he is discontent, and one day, coldly decides to leave his wife and job and go to Paris, living in squalor. Why? So he can paint. The confusion of his family, neighbors, and the narrator himself is palpable. To paint? Not because of madness, or because of another woman - but just... for art? For art's sake, and not for fame?
The narrator follows Strickland, as he wrecks yet another marriage, paints more art, and eventually goes to Tahiti, where he finds the climate agreeable and even obtains one of the locals as a "wife." The whole time he is cruel and scornful, dismissive of others' feelings, wants, or desires, and even his own comfort. Everything must be sacrificed for art. Ultimately, I'd say this is a tragedy, because that vision ends up consuming Strickland; he pours his entire being into his art, and like many artists, it isn't until he's dead that his work becomes first a curiosity and then something far more powerful.
A lot of my friends did not enjoy this book and I can certainly see why. Strickland is a jerk, and so is the narrator. There's a casually dismissive attitude towards the things that people generally consider worthy in a human being: compassion, empathy, loyalty, family, kindness, charity, etc. Art here is portrayed as something wholly selfish, and the message here seems to be that it is somehow okay; that an artist is allowed to be an egotist, because self-absorption is necessary for introspection. I don't like that message, so I can see why some people might write off MOON AND SIXPENCE as too dark and grim and irritating. However, I found myself fascinated by these terrible characters.
I enjoyed this book a lot. I've read Maugham before and really liked his work, so this isn't really surprising. His other book was more of a comedy of manners, though; it was nothing like this. I'm really looking forward to working my way through his repertoire and seeing how his stories vary, while enjoying his beautiful writing and compelling, yet flawed characters.
He lies in the room surrounded by pale maps. He is without Katharine. His hunger wishes to burn down all social rules, all courtesy.
Her life with others no longer interests him. He wants only her stalking beauty, her theatre of expressions. He wants the minute and secret reflections between them, the depth of field minimal, their foreignness intimate like two pages of a closed book (155).
I've had this book for about five years. My mom gave it to me. Sometimes she gives me books because she thinks I should read them, and other times she gives me books because she thinks I should try to read them. THE ENGLISH PATIENT falls into the latter category. If you asked me to describe this book in one word, I think I'd chose "overwrought." Sometimes the writing is beautiful (see quote above), but other times (many times) it's purple to the point of nonsensical, for example describing a peen as a "seahorse."
The plot is kind of strange. It's about four people - a nurse, a bomb defuser, a thief, and a burned patient - all living in this abandoned villa post-WWII. That sounds like it should be interesting, but in the first third of the book, the characters drift without purpose, swimming through the heavy-handed prose like sluggish fish. The story doesn't really get interesting until the last two thirds of the story, where the eponymous English patient finally tells his story of espionage and doomed romance.
Not really my thing. There are better WII stories out there.
I've mostly gotten into romance novels and nonfiction lately, so I don't read as much literary fiction as I used to - which is a damn shame, but it is what it is. That is what book clubs are for! To force you to read those Important Novels that you know you should read for cultural reasons, but feel more like work than pleasure every time you try to slog through the pages.
When my book club picked THE SYMPATHIZER for our August read, I was excited because this book won the Pulitzer Prize and it's about a time period I don't know much about (Vietnam War). I took U.S. History, like other students, but I seem to recall the curriculum ending during the 1950s...probably to skip all that "controversial" stuff like hippies, the Civil Rights era and the Vietnam War. Maybe that's changed since I was in school, but back in the day, I remember that our textbooks halted in the 1980s
Anyway, this book. It's difficult to summarize because it goes all over the place, plot-wise, but basically it's about this Vietnamese guy who's also half-French. After the fall of Saigon, he's sent to the America to report back to his fellow Vietnamese agents while also living with a group of refugees. While here, however, he gets immersed in U.S. culture, and encounters many hypocrisies and cruel double-standards in both cultures, which he comments on with dry, darkly amused wit that wouldn't be out of place in Joseph Heller's CATCH-22.
How to describe the writing? I have a pretty big vocabulary, but I learned several new words in this book, like glabrous, errata, froideur, and temerate (I kept a list because I wanted to look them up so I could use them myself later - I already managed to work glabrous in somewhere, which I feel very proud of). This is a dude who thinks nothing of using chiaroscuro and palimpsest in the same paragraph (and those were two of the words that I already knew, because I am a huge nerd).
ALSO HELLO YOU SEEM TO BE MISSING SOME QUOTATION MARKS.
I swear, this guy, Jose Saramago, and Cormac McCarthy are all running around somewhere cackling gleefully while swinging around a giant sack of unused quotation marks and cheers-ing themselves for their artistry with the frustrated tears of their readers.
How to describe the story? It's a weird war story that's too dark to be funny but too funny to be dark, so it sits in some weird limbo of you reading this and feeling increasingly awkward and uncomfortable, like you're not sure whether to laugh or run screaming into the night. Highlights include necrophiliac reverse-tentacle hentai (read: he has sex with a dead squid); a pickled two headed baby in a jar; and an ass-hat director who's making an exploitative film about Vietnam.
Did I like this book? Eh. It was really difficult to read. I liked parts of it, and it has many quotable passages, but overall it felt too much like work and I felt the tone was really imbalanced. Also, the lack of quotation marks make it really difficult to follow who is talking, especially since sometimes there will be multiple dialogues going on within a single paragraph. I was glad to get a new, fresh perspective on a war I didn't know much about, but overall was left feeling pretty disappointed.
HOMEGOING is an amazing book, but it is not a light read. If you go into this book expecting a light read, you will be very unhappy. HOMEGOING is the history of a Ghanian family spanning the centuries, beginning in the 18th century and ending in the 20th. It begins with two half-sisters, one sold into slavery and the other married to a slaver. Each of their descendants gets a chapter, and the format of the story alternates from one sister's descendant to the other, with each individual character getting their own story that is self-encapsulating but still manages to add to the overall tapestry of the family history as a whole.
I loved the unique format of this book, how it was a family history that grew and became steadily more complex, following the characters along their respective journeys. There were so many heart-in-mouth moments in this book that it gave me relief to know that no matter how bad things got in the story (bad, bad, terrible, awful, bad), the main character of each mini-story had to survive, if only because the character in every other chapter after theirs would be their descendant. That knowledge made reading this easier, once I figured that out.
Why? Because this book doesn't sugar-coat. Gyasi writes about slavery and injustice in excruciating detail and doesn't hold back when it comes to the infuriating cruelty that people inflicted on their fellow human-beings. Some of the contents broached in this book are rape, sexism, racism, shadism, substance abuse, child abuse, and violence. In many ways, it actually reminded me of another book, KINDRED by Octavia Butler, which is also about slavery. One of my book club members appreciated this book so much that she wanted to read more books on the subject, so I recommended KINDRED to her, because it shares the same themes, the same purpose: that even though we have come far, there is still injustice; but there is also hope, too, in the hands of our children.
THE ACCUSATION is amazing, and not because of the stories it contains. According to the afterword, it is a historical first: no other book criticizing North Korea has been published by a North Korean who still lives in North Korea. Apparently, his/her 750 page handwritten manuscript was smuggled out and published in South Korea. So keep that in mind, while reading.
Most of these stories have a unifying theme: they're often written by someone who is doing their best to fit into the Party, only to discover its flaws when someone they care about is impacted by the very rules that they have helped to keep in place.
My favorite story in this collection was Record of a Defection, which is a beautiful story about how far we go for our loved ones, and how far they go for us - often without speaking a single word.
I also really enjoyed Life of a Swift Steed, a story heavy with symbolism, about an old man with an elm tree in his yard. The tree is the symbol of his many years of hard work and toiling efforts for the Party he thought would save him, and ends up being a symbol of his disappointment and disillusionment instead. It's incredibly powerful and utterly tragic.
Other stories that I liked were City of Specters and So Near, Yet So Far.
Pandemonium, On Stage, and The Red Mushroom were also decent, but I didn't like them as much as some of the other stories in this collection, as they felt more confusing and difficult to follow, although Red Mushroom ends with a bang that really ends the collection in a relevant way.
If you don't know much about North Korea, or you really like short stories, or you're fascinated by politics and history, you should grab a copy of this when you can. The translator did an excellent job and the writing is utterly beautiful and movingly powerful. Make sure you check out the poem in the beginning and the afterword, too! They're both well-worth the read!
Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!
There are two kinds of literature in the world: the kinds that make sense & the kinds that don't. In recent years, the kind of literature that don't make sense have become popular, lining the shelves in hipster bookstores, as devoted hipster-lit aficionados have long arguments about "what the author really meant." (And don't tell me that Helen Oyeyemi isn't hipster-lit, because I was in a hipster bookstore recently, & she had an entire display all to herself.)
This is the second of Helen Oyeyemi's works that I read. The first was her novella, MR. FOX. I thought the prose was gorgeous but I couldn't for the life of me figure out what was going on in the story. Everything was so confusing! Maybe this makes me a literary pleb, but I do like my stories to be at least somewhat straightforward. Leaving things up to interpretation is all well and good, but there comes a point where you can be so vague that your reader is pretty much left behind in the dust - and that's what happened to me.
Helen Oyeyemi and I were forced together yet again when WHAT IS NOT YOURS IS NOT YOURS was chosen as our next book in my book club - yes, this is the same book club that forced me to read WHERE'D YOU GO BERNADETTE. That was a positive experiment, however, so I figured I'd read WHAT IS NOT YOURS with an open mind. After all, she was a semi-finalist in the Goodreads Choice Awards for best fiction - the public majority can't be wrong, can they? ...Can they?
WHAT IS NOT YOURS IS NOT YOURS suffers the problem that plagues virtually every short story collection that I have encountered: uneven quality. Some stories are definitely heaps better than others, and the bad ones make the whole suffer. Interestingly, she also does what Roxane Gay did in her collection, which made me like both collections less: randomly insert magic-realism into the storyline for funsies (or for hipster-lit cred, one of those two) even if it doesn't make sense to do so.
Books and Roses: ☆☆
A prime example of that old adage, "too much magic-realism spoils the broth." At its heart, Books and Roses contains two parallel love stories...but it isn't quite clear how they're tied (I know the main character & her key necklace are a part of it but I wasn't sure how). Maybe it's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment, which sucks, because I usually do my reading at the end of the evening, when my eyes are tired and I'm not at my intellectual best.
I will say that I loved the prose in this one, and it includes an LGBT love story (always good), but the overall story was like a pretty present left unwrapped. Yes, the wrapping paper and bow are lovely, but you didn't tie them together, you silly person, so it just feels unfinished and half-arsed.
"Sorry" Doesn't Sweeten Her Tea: ☆☆☆☆☆
Really more of a 4.5 rating, but I'm rounding up. YES. YES. This story was really, really good. Set in Iran, it's narrated by a man named Anton who works at a weight-loss clinic in Iran that uses valerian to knock people into a food-less coma for 3 days. He's in a relationship with a man named Noor who has two preteen daughters. Both the daughters are obsessed with this pop star, and are subsequently crushed when it's revealed that said pop star might actually be abusive when an interview goes viral about the prostitute he physically and mentally abused. Rather than being sympathetic or horrified, society turns around and blames the victim, which infuriates the girls, one of them especially, who becomes obsessed with the whole cases and seems determined to "punish" the pop star...by any means necessary.
This story is so creepy, and so good. I also feel like it's extremely relevant, because society does tend to blame the victim, and it is horrific, so that young girl's bewilderment at the internet comments on the viral video really hit me hard, because I feel the same way. How did we, as a society, as a whole, become so numb to the problems in our own society - especially in matters of social justice?
The only reason this doesn't get five stars is because of a random, half-arsed magic-realism subplot that was thrown in at the end. It felt like a very lazy way of ending the story, using magic to solve your problems. I was hoping for a more realistic resolution. Guess we can't have it all, though.
Is Your Blood as Red as This?: ☆☆
Creepy story involving puppets and - you guessed it - magic-realism. The concept, built around a puppet school and kids learning theater, was interesting, but the plot was so convoluted, I had a hard time following what was going on. To make it worse, the POV switches several times, too. Ugh.
Pros: more LGBT characters and a character from "Sorry" Doesn't, etc. makes a cameo in here. At first I thought this was coincidence, but no: characters from each of the short stories wander around into the other stories, which gives the overall book a more unifying feel. I thought this was very clever - Stephen King does this, too - and it made me wonder how many people didn't notice!
DROWNINGS is a straight-up fantasy tale. It's the only story like this in a collection and sticks out like a sore thumb. It also has an Angela Carter/Tanith Lee feel to it, but not in a good way - as much as I adore the work of those ladies, sometimes they get too weird. This story gets too weird.
More character cameos!
Presence is a weird story about this woman's relationships, and could have just as easily come from Roxane Gay's DIFFICULT WOMEN. I wanted to like this story, because I'm a sucker for character studies, especially when portrayed through the intimate portrait of one's relationships at home, but I couldn't completely get into Presence. I think it was about time travel, but I'm not 100% sure.
A Brief History of the Homely Wench Society: ☆☆☆☆☆
WINNER WINNER CHICKEN DINNER! SOLID 5 STARS!
That's right. This is the best story in the collection. It was amazing - cute, hopeful, beautiful, and just all around good. It's set in a prestigious college, where there is a "secret society" of all dudes called the Bettincourts. They were kind of sexist, so a group of women created the Homely Wench Society to prank them and ended up just sticking with it after the prank ended.
One of the daughters from the "Sorry" story is the main character in Brief History, and ends up becoming a member of the Homely Wench Society. She and her group come up with another prank to play on the all-boys' club, but it's actually...harmless and kind of sweet. The ending is super adorable. A Brief History would have been excellent as a full-length novel, and it made me think that maybe Oyeyemi should be writing awesome YA-lit with kick-ass female protagonists. Heck, I'd read 'em!
Dornicka and the St. Martin's Day Goose: ☆☆☆☆
I lied, Drownings isn't the only fantasy story. Dornicka is definitely a fairy tale - but it's not quite as fantastical or weird as Drownings; it's set in our world, instead. I actually really liked Dornica. Little Red Riding Hood is such a creepy story, and Oyeyemi ends up putting her own interesting spin on it, while also keeping true to the illogic of the brothers Grimm fairytales. Yes, this one is good.
Freddy Barandov Checks...In?: ☆
Nenia Campbell doesn't Get...It? Sorry, this story made zero sense and it was boring.
If a Book Is Locked There's Probably a Good Reason for That Don't You Think: ☆☆☆☆
I was afraid the collection was going to fizzle out, but it ends on a decent note with If a Book Is Locked. This story takes place in an office setting. The narrator, an LGBT character (yaass!), is as preoccupied as everyone else with the new hire, the glamorous and enigmatic Eva. She's also the only one who doesn't turn on her when it's revealed that Eva is the mistress to a married man.
This story also has unnecessary magic-realism in it, but I don't know, for some reason I liked it here. Diaries are magical. I'm a writer, and a reader, so I know how words can seem to transport you somewhere else. Magic-realism really works for meta-books about books, because the line between fiction and reality is pretty much just in the readers' minds. It felt apropos, rather than twee, here.
Also, I loved the last line in this story. Very well done.
So there you have it, my review for WHAT IS NOT YOURS IS NOT YOURS. I was honestly afraid that I wasn't going to like any stories in this collection at all, but ended up enjoying the stories a lot more than I thought I would - and even loving some of them, which was especially amazing!
One thing I especially liked was that each character has a different ethnic background and almost all of them are LGBT, people of color, or both. For those who seek that out in fiction, this collection is a must. I also liked how they wander around from story to story, so you get to check up on them and see how they're doing. I've never encountered an author who did that before and thought it was neat.
Seriously, though, Ms. Oyeyemi - get on that speeding YA train. We need more stories about bad-ass young women! ;)
Reviewing anticipated works like these is always difficult, especially if you're reviewing the book before it's been officially published. I'm not sure about others, but I always feel a tremendous amount of pressure - I want to give my honest opinion, but I also want to be as objective as possible and explain, more broadly, what the book is about and who the audience is.
I'd heard stellar things about Roxane Gay's BAD FEMINIST. It's been on my to-read list for ages. I was thrilled to be approved for an advance reader copy of her latest book, DIFFICULT WOMEN. Women are told from childhood not to be "difficult": to be soft-spoken, easy-going, and unassuming. The title, DIFFICULT WOMEN, made me think of Elizabeth Wurtzel's similarly titled book, BITCH: IN PRAISE OF DIFFICULT WOMEN. I anticipated stories of women, all kinds of women, who don't fit the stereotypical mold but are still women - living breathing women - with hopes, and stories, and dreams.
What I got...was not quite that.
Ordinarily with anthologies, I'll do a breakdown of each story, provide a summary and my thoughts, and then a rating. Since I'm a little burned out on anthologies, this anthology in particular, I'm not going to be as thorough (although if you're curious, check out my status updates for this book - I assigned each story a rating there). Plus, I think I'm going to be pushing the char limit as is.
DIFFICULT WOMEN is an odd collection, with stories ranging in length from a single page to almost thirty. Some of the stories are magic-realism, others uncomfortably realistic. It felt like the unifying theme of this book was that women are victims and men are the perpetrators. There was a whole lot of rape, abuse, and objectification in this book. A whole lot. It got really exhausting after a while, and maybe that was the point. I did wonder if DIFFICULT WOMEN was a bold middle finger to the people out there who blame the victim, especially when the victims are female, and call them "difficult" without caring to understand what caused them to be that way. If that is the case, then the author accomplished that goal...but to a desolate and rather miserable end.
I Will Follow You was my favorite story, and the one that I found the most emotionally engaging. It's about two sisters who suffered a horrible trauma when they were younger. Now that one of them is married the nature of their relationship is changing, but the closeness between them is undeniable. This story made me tear up, because it's so powerful, and just great all around.
Water, All Its Weight is a bizarre magic realism story about a girl who is followed by rain all the time, and how the water pushes her away from loved ones. I'm sure it's meant to symbolize something, but I wasn't sure what. The style of this one kind of reminded me of Laura Esquivel's work. I like Esquivel, so I liked this story, even if I didn't fully understand what it meant.
The Mark of Cain is about a woman who is married to a twin. He switches place with his twin sometimes for fun, little knowing that his wife is well aware of what he's doing and secretly prefers the twin. When her husband is playing musical beds, he trades places with his twin's girlfriend, who isn't aware of what is going on. This is the first of many a-hole husband cheating stories.
Difficult Women got me really excited because it's the titular story! I think the intent of this one is to humanize the derogatory stereotypes that are sometimes used to label women by providing them with a backstory that could conceivably explain their present state. I thought this one was decent, but the whole time I was aware of the irony that many of these backstories were stereotypes themselves.
Florida is split into several different narratives, and takes place in the town of Naples, Florida, and all the wealthy women who live there (as well as some of the not-so-wealthy ones). Using these narratives, the author makes some interesting statements about race and class.
La Negra Blanca is a story about a pole dancer who is half-black, half-white, and using her career to pay for her college education (which is also super cliche, but this is possibly because I've read way too many new adult books, and this is the go-to money making scheme in that genre). She has two men in her life: one of them is Latino and poor, the other one is rich and white. It is a brutally tragic and unfair story, and I think if I had to choose, this is the story that made me the angriest.
Baby Arm is a story I blanked out on. It wasn't very good. A weird romance.
North Country was another favorite, because it's a beautiful romance that also highlights many of the nuanced and subtle acts of racism people of color experience on a day to day basis. After the first story in this collection, I think I'd say this was my second favorite.
How was a weird story. Women with sh*tty lives, surrounded by sh*tty men. One of women is a lesbian, which was kind of nice (diversity!). I wished the relationship between them had been developed more. Based on what happened in the story, I expected more of an emotional connection between them.
Requiem for a Glass Heart was another story where I wasn't sure if it was supposed to be symbolic and I just wasn't understanding the symbolism. It felt like it was about a family that was just going through the motions, and living without passion. Okay.
In the Event of My Father's Death is another story that I blanked out on. I'm looking at my status update for it right now and apparently it had a twist ending, but I don't remember what it was.
Break All the Way Down is a story about grief and loss. I appreciated what it was trying to do, but didn't really care for the execution. Basically: woman cannot cope with the loss of her child.
Bad Priest is exactly what it sounds like. It's about a priest who is having sex with a much younger woman. They have an odd dynamic. There is a lot of sex. Sex is a recurring theme in this book, too, BTW. I wasn't expecting so much erotic content. Nearly every story in this collection gets graphic.
Open Marriage was one of the very short stories I alluded to in the beginning. This one, like Bad Priest, is also self-explanatory, but it feels snarkier than many of the stories before it.
Pat felt well-intentioned, but also came across as condescending. I liked the message of befriending people who aren't much to look at on the surface, but the reason given for this is kind of insulting. It isn't quite clear of the person who is giving this message is being condemned or not for it, either. The author is really good at writing with a "poker face." I really had trouble gauging her intent.
Best Features really reminded me of the book 13 WAYS OF LOOKING AT A FAT GIRL, a book I really enjoyed despite its dark and frequently uncomfortable content. It's a story about an overweight girl who feels like she has to sleep with men to get them to be with her...but she's also self-aware enough about it to feel a biting anger that made her interesting.
Bone Density is story of two academics who are married...and cheating on each other. Despite this, they still love each other (sort of) but the proverbial spark is fading. Odd.
I am a Knife is another magic realism story. I actually liked this one more before the magic realism element came into play. After that, it got weird. And kind of gory. o_0
The Sacrifice of Darkness is another magic realism story that doesn't even feel like it belongs in this collection. It's about a miner who pulls an "Icharus" one day, and flies so close to the sun that he puts it out of the sky. His legacy lives on through his son, who has to live with all the resentment of the people in his town. It also has a love story. I kind of liked this one, despite its strangeness.
Noble Things was my least favorite. It was boring. I skimmed it. Don't ask me about this one.
Strange Gods was probably the third-best story in the bunch. One of the flaws of this book is that many similar stories are placed in close proximity to each other - such as How and In the Event of My Father's Death - so that they end up running together. I did, however, like that the two most realistic and emotionally gripping stories were placed like bookends at the beginning and the end. Strange Gods is a story about rape, and how the effects of it can ripple throughout one's life.
Like I said before, I feel like this collection is supposed to embody the anger and helplessness that arise because of sexism and misogyny. It is a hopeless and heartbreaking book. I did wish that there were some uplifting or more complex stories in this book, however, like women who are working in careers mostly dominated by men, or women who are starting major or minor rebellions, or trans women, or women who don't wear makeup or don't feel the need to be pretty. I did like the attempt at intersectionality, and appreciated how many of these stories were about women of color specifically (with a few lesbian storylines thrown in), but I felt like this collection could have been so much more.
I'm not mad at DIFFICULT WOMEN and I do think it will stir up some interesting and important discussions, but it wasn't what I was expecting or hoping for.
Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the free copy!
One of my Goodreads friends recommended this book to me and I can't for the life of me remember who it was. But that recommendation lurked in the depths of my subconscious, and as the book started to get more and more positive attention from readers who were blown away, even going so far as to call it "life changing", I knew I was probably going to have to read it.
THE VEGETARIAN is one of those books that I'd call interesting but not necessarily good. It's divided into three parts and is about a woman in Korea named Yeong-hye who stops eating meat after having a horrific dream that disturbs her. But it's also more than that: it's about relationships, identity, and mental illness.
Part one is narrated by Yeong-hye's husband, Mr. Cheong: a cold and impassive man who married Yeong-hye because she was meek and docile, and because she could put good food on his plate. He is disturbed by the changes in his wife, and her spontaneous vegetarianism embarrasses him, especially when it causes him to lose face in front of colleagues, superiors, and family. Mr. Cheong even abuses his wife, raping her at one point, and assisting her family when they attempt to force-feed her meat and even sneak it into "medicine."
Part two is narrated by Yeong-hye's brother-in-law. He is an artist, one of those "sensitive" types. One day he is inspired by Yeong-hye to create a new project, borne out of a bizarre lust and fascination with her.
Part three is narrated by Yeong-hye's sister, In-hye, in the aftermath of everything. She is the only one who is really on Yeong-hye's side, but even she has her own selfish motives for doing what she does. This chapter gives us a bit more insight into the relationship between the two sisters and the circumstances that have made them into the people who they are today.
I saw one reviewer who said that this book was like three short books crammed into one volume, and ultimately I agree with that. If each chapter had been better developed, and less surreal and vague, it might have been easier to relate to all the characters. I also wish that we'd had more insight into Yeong-hye's dream, and that the ending had been less abrupt! I actually went back on my Kindle because I thought I'd skipped a page by accident! Nope! After all that, you chose to end on that note, Ms. Kang? I mean, I get it...and maybe that's the point: that real life doesn't always end on a certain note, and that's what makes it so real and terrifying. Just as dreams can be vague and nebulous, real life can end in the middle of a story line without being fully developed.
In some ways, THE VEGETARIAN reminded me of those proto-feminist novels from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Novels like THE AWAKENING, YELLOW WALLPAPER, and MADAME BOVARY. I call these books "prot-feminist" novels because they preceded the major feminist movements, and aren't empowering so much as disturbing and shocking. More of a plea for action than a call to it. The content and structure - rebellion, sexual exploration, descent into madness - are highly reminiscent of these novels, so I can see why reviewers are torn on whether this novel reflects an intimate portrait of a woman suffering from a debilitating mental illness, or the internalization of a woman's oppression. Could it be both? I don't see why not. It isn't as though these issues are mutually exclusive. Quite the opposite, if anything.
While I enjoy historical fiction, I prefer reading about time periods I know at least something about so reading doesn't turn into information overload, but I know next to nothing about King David, apart from the fact that he defeated Goliath. THE SECRET CHORD is a book about the life of King David, from valorous beginning to tragic end, told by Nathan the Prophet. I'm going to be honest with you here - if my book club hadn't chosen this as the pick of the month, I never would have bothered to finish THE SECRET CHORD. But hey, try new things, right? Maybe it'll work out.
Spoiler alert: it didn't work out. I really had to force myself to stick with this one, and ended up skimming pages towards the end because I just no longer cared about the story. If this hadn't been for book club, I wouldn't have finished - it would have been chucked into the donation bin and deleted from my GR shelves.
But alas. Fate had conspired to burden us with the other's enduring presence.
I put off writing this review because I wanted to think about why THE SECRET CHORD didn't work for me. It's a slow book. The beginning takes a while to gather steam, and the book doesn't reach momentum until about twenty or thirty pages in, only to fall flat at several points in the narrative. Part of the reason was Nathan. I don't really like stories where the "hero" or "heroine" is actually the passive mouthpiece for the voices of others. After a while, that just makes me feel like I'm being talked at. I understand that he is a prophet and a huge part of his life is making these important prophecies that will dictate the lives of others, but oh my gee, it was so boring to read about.
Ironically (considering what I just said in the previous paragraph about mouthpieces), one of the more interesting parts in the book is when Nathan is sent by King David to hear stories about him from lovers, family members and enemies. Why? Because it was interesting to see that darker side to King David. I glanced through the Wiki article before reading this, and King David was a pretty gnarly dude - he was bisexual, committed adultery, slaughtered his enemies, and killed people when it was convenient. Brooks doesn't skimp on the detail, either. Which surprised me and at the same time, didn't, because her other book - YEAR OF WONDERS - is about the plague, and I remember being really grossed out by some of the details in there, too, even though it was a much better story.
THE SECRET CHORD was not badly written, but it wasn't a good story either - at least not for me. The passivity of the hero combined with a very dull storytelling made this book feel ten times longer than it should have been. It's a shame, because the subject matter is quite fascinating and has all the makings of a sensationalist bodice ripper trussed in the garbs of literature - but it would appear that lack of entertainment value is a requisite for literary merit. Boo. Hiss.
P.S. What do you guys do when you dislike your book club's pick? Inquiring minds want to know. ;)
As a young woman, Grace Marks was arrested for the killing of her master, Mr. Kinnear, and his housekeeper-slash-mistress, Nancy Montgomery. Her "accomplice", Mr. McDermott, is already dead, and Grace is currently awaiting her fate in an asylum. Dr. Simon Jordan is a psychologist who is very interested in Grace because she claims to have no memory of the murder, or the events leading right up to it. Is she mentally ill? Innocent? Or a villain?
ALIAS GRACE is told from several POVs, which is a device I don't really like. Simon's POVs were odd, especially the sequences with his affairs and his dreams. My favorite POV was Grace as she's telling her story to Simon. I loved the parts about her childhood, and her close friendship with Mary Watney. As Grace tells her story, the suspense builds as the reader begins to wonder how this naive girl who overcame so much in her early life ended up getting sucked into cold-blooded murder.
It's no secret that Margaret Atwood is one of my favorite authors. Her writing is lush and beautiful, and even though it's dense, the story-telling is often just as good as if not better than the story itself. ALIAS GRACE is not my favorite of Atwood's work, but all the elements of why I love this author are present...just perhaps not in the best proportions. ALIAS GRACE suffers in the second act, when the narrative weakens and an odd hypnotism storyline rears its head. The last portion of the story is mostly epistolary, and this seemed designed more to hastily tie up loose ends.
ALIAS GRACE is an interesting book based on a true story, written by one of my favorite authors. It's certainly not a bad book, but it's not one I would want to recommend, and it's certainly not the first book that would come to mind if I were recommending Atwood to a newbie. But if you're interested in Canadian history and love Margaret Atwood, ALIAS is a must-read for you.