Nico Walker is currently serving time in prison for bank robbery; his debut novel Cherry is essentially his fictionalized autobiography, in which theNico Walker is currently serving time in prison for bank robbery; his debut novel Cherry is essentially his fictionalized autobiography, in which the unnamed narrator dispassionately recounts dropping out of college, enlisting in the army, shipping out to Iraq, serving as an army medic, returning home, and developing PTSD as well as an opioid addiction.
Cherry is a deeply uncomfortable book to read on just about every level. The war scenes and depictions of drug abuse are graphic, the language is relentlessly profane, the narrator's pervasive misogyny goes unchallenged. This is not a book about redemption or remorse or lessons learned or new beginnings; it's about waste and abuse and mutually destructive relationships and squandered potential. This narrator hits rock bottom so many times that 'rock bottom' loses all meaning, and as he isn't guided by any kind of recognizable moral compass you aren't even sure if you should be rooting for him in the first place. You're just kind of along for this ride that figuratively culminates in a train wreck.
Probably the most noteworthy thing about this book aside from the author's background is its unique narrative voice - Walker blends his disaffected staccato with an urgency that keeps you turning pages, devouring the horror and humor and unexpected moments of tenderness. This is the kind of book that you feel a bit guilty for loving but at the same time you can't deny that there's something special about it....more
Even after its National Book Award win I was hesitant to pick up The Friend, which I feared would be saccharine and emotionally manipulative, the twoEven after its National Book Award win I was hesitant to pick up The Friend, which I feared would be saccharine and emotionally manipulative, the two reasons I tend to avoid books about animals. Mercifully it was nothing of the sort, and it was in fact nothing at all like I was expecting, but I was utterly enchanted by it.
The Friend follows an unnamed narrator whose best friend has just committed suicide, and in the midst of processing her own grief she's entreated to look after her friend's dog, a massive Great Dane. Animals aren't allowed in her rent controlled Manhattan apartment, but she feels a certain loyalty to this dog which won't allow her to give him up. But the plot itself is never really the focus; this is instead a philosophical book that mainly uses its premise as backdrop for its thematic conceits, and admittedly I understand why that doesn't work for a lot of readers, and why The Friend has been a divisive read, but my god did I love it.
This book is filled with beautifully crafted sentences (more understated than lyrical) that meditate on certain questions about grief and loss and friendship and writing that plague the narrator. Unable to make sense of her friend's sudden death, she's encouraged by her therapist to write about it (does writing actually help us process grief - another question interrogated by the narrator throughout the novel), and the result is the book that the reader is holding. At times I had to keep reminding myself this wasn't a memoir; the verisimilitude of the narrative voice was eerie, she'd mention a certain article she once wrote and I'd think 'that sounds interesting, I'll have to look that up' before remembering this was all fictional. The integration of literary allusions, another element that I think may vex certain readers with its frequency, I thought was done in a wonderfully authentic way, and the various writers mentioned gave me a good sense of how this character interacted with the world.
I just thoroughly loved this, and though it brought me to tears at one point, it certainly isn't a 'weepy dog book,' so if that's what's been keeping you away from this one I'd highly encourage you to give it a try - provided that you don't mind your novels heavier on philosophy than plot. There's also an ingeniously executed twist(?) in the penultimate chapter that allows you to read the entire book in one of two ways, and ambiguous endings (when done well) are always my favorites. This book is smart and emotionally honest all at once, my favorite combination....more
For being so sparse, Waiting for Eden manages to pack a powerful punch. Ackerman meditates with surprising insight (aided by potent religious symbolisFor being so sparse, Waiting for Eden manages to pack a powerful punch. Ackerman meditates with surprising insight (aided by potent religious symbolism) on the very nature of life and the impossible decisions we have to make when our loved ones are suffering. This was succinct and chilling....more
This was tremendous fun from start to finish. Sure, certain elements could have withstood a bit more depth and detail, and it's destined to disappointThis was tremendous fun from start to finish. Sure, certain elements could have withstood a bit more depth and detail, and it's destined to disappoint anyone expecting a proper thriller, but for a quick and pacy character study it was extremely satisfying. Braithwaite toes the line between satire and realism so deftly that you manage to get properly invested in these sisters even as their actions shock and horrify....more
On the whole I was so impressed by The Maze at Windermere that I can't help but to forgive the moments where it failed to captivate me. Gregory BlakeOn the whole I was so impressed by The Maze at Windermere that I can't help but to forgive the moments where it failed to captivate me. Gregory Blake Smith has created something that's an absolute masterclass of storytelling - he weaves together seemingly unrelated plotlines (all centered in Newport Rhode Island) from 2011, 1896, 1863, 1778 and 1692 in ways both subtle and forthright, and the precision with which he manages this is feat is undeniable.
But the stories themselves from each timeline vary in the level of engagement they offer. To my surprise, I fell head over heels in love with the 2011 plot, which follows the strange friendship between a nearly retired tennis pro, Sandy, and an heiress with cerebral palsy. This unconventional socialite, Alice, has to be one of the most vivid characters I have ever read; I couldn't get her out of my head when I was reading this book and I still can't now that I've finished. I loved everything about their odd dynamic and tumultuous, melodramatic, tragic relationship. This motivations of a secondary character in this storyline also provides the book with one of its greatest sources of intrigue which goes on to feed into a positively spectacular ambiguous ending that I can't talk about without spoiling. But, it was perfection.
Unfortunately, all of the past timelines paled in comparison. 1896 follows a gay man who's attempting to marry into high society; 1863 follows a fictionalization of Henry James, an overt nod to the thematic parallels to Daisy Miller that litter the different narratives; 1778 follows a British officer during the American Revolution (I found him the most tiresome); and 1692 follows a newly orphaned Quaker girl. Each of these narratives had moments of searing brilliance, but at the same time, none of them was able to offer the same emotional draw as the present-day storyline.
That said, the structure of this book is nothing short of a delight for readers who enjoy riddles and puzzles and similar literary exercises. I'm almost definitely going to want to re-read this at some point after I've read Daisy Miller, because I feel like I've only barely scratched the surface. ...more
I think this was supposed to be droll and ironic but I honestly just found it obnoxious. From the fact that every paragraph ends in some kind of pithyI think this was supposed to be droll and ironic but I honestly just found it obnoxious. From the fact that every paragraph ends in some kind of pithy aphorism of the author's making, Tom McAllister clearly thinks he has something to say in this novel. Unfortunately that 'something' rarely amounted to anything more than "The idea of hiding underground for a few years until everything got better was appealing. That's why groundhogs looked so happy."
The central concept is a salient one and one that hits close to home - that you're never truly safe in a society with lax gun restrictions, and suffice to say that as an American living in 2018, gun control is something I feel extremely strongly about. But there is nothing worthwhile in this book that actively contributes to that conversation, this has nothing to offer aside from being topical. This reads as a 200-something page indictment of modern gun laws; no plot, no character development, no commentary that actually forces the reader to consider anything in a new light. No comedy that actually hits its mark, no hard-hitting moments to punctuate the tedium. I'm sure you all know by now that unlikable characters (unlikable female characters in particular) make for some of my all-time favorite protagonists, but it's like the character of Anna was constructed just to be as abhorrent as possible with no other goal in mind. I also found the constant commentary on womanhood to be incredibly disingenuous coming from a male author, when half of the statements rang false anyway. I'm just not sure why McAllister purports to have the authority to let us know that "Women can wound each other in ways men can never imagine."
Also, full disclosure here - I listened to the audiobook which is never my favorite format, and the narrator sounding like a telephone operator didn't help matters. But whatever the driving force behind my dislike was, I just found this to be a waste of time....more
I had trouble engaging with this book emotionally or intellectually, which isn't to say that it isn't intelligent or emotional, just that I personallyI had trouble engaging with this book emotionally or intellectually, which isn't to say that it isn't intelligent or emotional, just that I personally did not find it particularly accessible. There is a very real possibility that a lot of this just went over my head, I will admit that, but so much of this book just felt wanting; the relationship between the father and son seemed generic, the experimental narrative came across as underdeveloped, the speculative element and the characters' journeys felt dissonant. I have no doubt that this was an intensely personal project for Ball based on the novel's introduction, and I'm sure it will be feel intensely personal to a lot of readers, but something about it just didn't click for me....more
Nope, not for me I'm afraid. Asymmetry is more of an experiment than a novel, and an experiment that didn't warrant half as much tedium as what I founNope, not for me I'm afraid. Asymmetry is more of an experiment than a novel, and an experiment that didn't warrant half as much tedium as what I found myself subjected to. I 'got it' but I didn't find the payoff rewarding at all. There's a good argument to be made that the first two sections were badly written on purpose (once you figure out from the third section the thread that connects the two disparate stories) but if poorly executed structural innovation is all it takes for a book to be lauded as a masterpiece these days I think we need to raise that bar just a little bit higher....more
There are a lot of elements from Severance that we've all seen before - the global pandemic which brings an abrupt halt to civilization as we know it,There are a lot of elements from Severance that we've all seen before - the global pandemic which brings an abrupt halt to civilization as we know it, the few survivors trying to forge ahead in the absence of a structured society, the juxtaposition of before and after narratives. But the similarities to Station Eleven or Bird Box end there, because what Ling Ma does with Severance is fuse the post-apocalyptic survival genre with anti-capitalist satire, and it works almost startlingly well.
Both wry and meditative, Severance offers a positively haunting commentary on corporate greed and what that means for the individual, and that awful paradox of being trapped inside a system that you feel guilty having any part of. The fictional Shen Fever was pretty awful; rather than offering a quick death it would essentially turn people into zombies who performed rote tasks ad infinitum - it's heavy-handed but it works - but the most horrifying part of this novel was probably how much of the directionless millennial narrative resonated, and the amount of decisions these characters had to make at the detriment of their happiness just to survive, both before and after.
I did think the book's structure could have been more cohesive as a whole, and I felt like Ling Ma didn't really know what she wanted to do with the ending, but ultimately I loved this strong and unexpected debut. I can't wait to see what Ling Ma does next....more
The Third Hotel follows a newly widowed woman named Clare, trying to come to terms with the death of her husband and the illness of her father, whileThe Third Hotel follows a newly widowed woman named Clare, trying to come to terms with the death of her husband and the illness of her father, while attending a film festival in Cuba. One day in Havana she thinks she sees her husband standing outside a museum and she decides to follow him. Much surrealism and existential angst ensues.
I think my biggest issue with The Third Hotel was that I did not feel the slightest emotional connection to this story. I really don't need to feel an emotional pull to every single thing I read - I am happy for something to appeal to me on a more intellectual level if that's what the author is trying to achieve - but when a book is about something as intensely personal as grief, I want to feel... something? Sad or unsettled or moved in some way? Anything other than bored.
But this book's darkly sardonic and disaffected tone just left me cold, and didn't give me enough to chew on that I put it down feeling intellectually stimulated enough to compensate for the emotional hollowness. Laura van den Berg certainly has some interesting ideas, but unfortunately none of them are developed past their infancy. The ruminations on the role of the traveler and the tension between the internal and external selves in particular had the potential to be intriguing - and I also liked the commentary on horror films - but I'm sorry to say that for the most part this was just tedious and lacking in focus....more
Powerful but uneven. It's easy to see why There There has been one of 2018's most beloved books - it provides a much-needed look at the urban Native APowerful but uneven. It's easy to see why There There has been one of 2018's most beloved books - it provides a much-needed look at the urban Native American experience, which Orange takes pains to remind us is a rich and varied culture that has endured unspeakable violence and hardship, and which our contemporary American society is still ready to stereotype and dismiss. The sheer breadth of voices here speaks to Orange's vision with this novel, as do the flawlessly written prologue and interlude, which provide the reader with a brief but succinct idea of the cultural context in which Orange is writing.
But the tapestry of perspectives that Orange attempts to weave doesn't fully come together for me - I think there were a few too many POVs shoehorned in at the detriment of plot and character development. Keeping track of the threads between the characters became a bit of a chore - apparently a character needs only be mentioned once for them to have a significant role in the narrative that we should remember 75 pages down the line - and the ways in which some of their stories converged was beyond contrived. I would have been happier to read about ten different characters' disparate lives in a sort of thematically connected short story collection and been spared the awkward attempt to braid their lives together. For example, one character finds out that he has fathered not one but TWO children he hadn't known about, and these two individuals happen to be friends with one another... I'm happy for a novel to employ this sort of narrative device when fate is being used as a prominent theme, but in There There it just felt like unnecessary coincidence. And I unapologetically love a bit of melodrama, so the novel's conclusion didn't bother me for its theatricality as much as the fact that it felt like a rather hastily drawn attempt to tie up a bunch of narratives that hadn't organically run their course. Maybe that was the point, I don't know. But I think this should have been longer - its denouement could have used some more room to breathe.
Nonetheless, it's an impressive debut. Orange ruminates with a surprising amount of depth not only on Native identity, but also on themes like alcoholism, domestic violence, and sexual assault. It's a short book that packs a powerful punch and I'll definitely be interested in reading whatever Tommy Orange writes next. There There just felt like a rough draft of something that had the potential to be even more hard-hitting....more
The Overstory is undeniably brilliant, but it's also hard work, and I'm not convinced the payoff was worth the effort. I wanted to be able to say thatThe Overstory is undeniably brilliant, but it's also hard work, and I'm not convinced the payoff was worth the effort. I wanted to be able to say that I was so struck by Powers' genius that I was able to forgive the periods of abject tedium that characterized my reading experience, but that would be a lie. This is undoubtedly a fantastic book, but I don't think I was the right reader for it.
Here I have to echo a sentiment that I expressed in my review of Lab Girl by Hope Jahren: there are only so many loving descriptions of trees a person can take after a while. What I'm interested in when I read is conflict and human interest and interpersonal dynamics, and when none of that is at the forefront of a book, I'm inevitably going to struggle with it.
While Richard Powers did create a host of distinct characters in The Overstory - the first section of the novel is eight different short stories, one following each of the main characters through defining moments in their early lives - it soon becomes apparent that their stories aren't the ones that Powers is interested in telling. I had more than a few moments when I had to wonder why Powers chose to write this as a novel at all, when it would have arguably served its purpose just as well as a treatise on environmental activism.
Powers is a hell of a writer though, I'll give him that. I can't bear to go lower than 3 stars in my final rating because I can't deny the admiration I feel toward Powers' craft. On a sentence-by-sentence level, I lost track of the amount of times I paused and reread a particularly striking passage, and the amount of detail that Powers is able to pack into every page is incredibly impressive. And on a larger level, the thematic complexity that Powers is able to achieve with his anthropomorphic symbolism and thorough examination of disparate disciplines and philosophies is undeniable. When words like 'epic' and 'masterpiece' are being thrown around in conversation with this novel, it's not difficult to understand why.
But at the same time, I'm just not convinced that it was all necessary. I don't believe that this book is able to justify its length of 500 (very long) pages. It's punishingly dense and bloated; I found certain characters to be extraneous and a lot of the detail to be superfluous. But it's also punctuated by moments of such beauty that make it a worthwhile read, and I wouldn't be surprised at all if this wins the Man Booker, but on a personal level, I can't say this was my favorite reading experience I've ever had....more
This is the Man Booker title that I was the most trepidatious about picking up this year, not because I doubted its quality, but just because there isThis is the Man Booker title that I was the most trepidatious about picking up this year, not because I doubted its quality, but just because there is nothing about a nineteenth century Caribbean and North American-set historical fiction adventure tale that appeals to me. So with that said, I guess I did enjoy this more than I expected to... just not enough to really understand its inclusion on the Booker shortlist over more structurally innovative and intellectually stimulating titles.
This book's greatest asset ironically ended up being a detriment for me, and that was the fact that it's incredibly well-written. The thing that immediately struck me about this book was how incongruously poised its first person narration is. Though the character Washington does show a natural intelligence throughout the story, one does have to question where an uneducated boy born into slavery picked up vocabulary words like unconscionable, inviolate, incandescence, leadenly, and disconsolate (these are only a portion of the ones I highlighted which jumped out at me, and I wasn't even including dialogue from other characters). So while I would describe the prose as smart and pleasurable to read, and while I'd seek out more books by Edugyan in the future for this factor alone, I don't think it suited this particular book.
But my bigger problem with Washington Black is the way that the plot seemed to drive the characters throughout the narrative, and not the other way around. To describe this premise and execution as contrived is an understatement. As I was reading, I felt like I could constantly see Edugyan's hand manipulating these characters into the situations that they found themselves in, and this never ended up feeling like anything other than outlandish fiction. I have no problem with coincidences and fate being used by an author deliberately and thematically (see: The Heart's Invisible Furies), but it's a fine line to walk, and if this is what Edugyan was attempting, I'm afraid her efforts ended up seeming to me more like plot devices than divine intervention.
It's a pacey and readable book from beginning to end (especially the end - I loved the last few chapters quite a lot), but the narrative structure of 'character zips along from place to place, encountering quirky characters who quickly come and go' will never be my favorite formula, and though there's occasionally incisive commentary on the relationship between white abolitionists and freed slaves in the nineteenth century, none of it is really groundbreaking enough that I feel terribly enriched for having read this. I could have forgiven it a lot for being an entertaining story through and through, but despite the fact that I breezed through it in two days, it was a thoroughly lukewarm reading experience that I doubt will stay with me in any kind of significant way. ...more
I'm not sure if I'm going to manage the entire Man Booker longlist this year - stay tuned to find out - but I'm prioritizing the books that I'm the moI'm not sure if I'm going to manage the entire Man Booker longlist this year - stay tuned to find out - but I'm prioritizing the books that I'm the most excited about, as well as the books that I'm having the easiest time getting my hands on. The Mars Room fell into the latter category. But this is exactly what I love about literary prizes, because I never would have picked this book up ordinarily, and I ended up loving it.
The Mars Room is an incisive and unsentimental look at the US prison system, through the eyes of Romy, a young mother who finds herself at the beginning of two life sentences. Kushner then explores this narrative from numerous vantage points - the socioeconomic factors that lead to incarceration; the brutal realities of prison life; what it means on a psychological level to be confronted with a life sentence.
While I felt Kushner's political agenda in writing this book was clear, it was actually rendered much more subtly than I had been expecting, which I appreciated. Romy was a thoroughly convincing protagonist, and it never felt like she had an unrealistic understanding of the political structures at play in her own story; she simply relayed her own reality to the reader, and Kushner was able to expertly tie that into the larger context. I think I'd describe this book as first and foremost a novel about humanity. These characters have all done terrible things, and Kushner makes no effort to excuse or glorify or sensationalize any of it. But she still treats each of their stories with compassion, and is interested in the question of when a person stops being a victim (of abuse, of poverty, of systemic violence) and is able to be classified as a villain.
The interplay between the natural and the artificial is another element that I found intriguing, and I thought it came together beautifully in the novel's conclusion, but I did think the execution of this element could have been stronger on the whole. I guess this ties into my biggest criticism of this book, which is that Kushner isn't quite able to justify the chorus of voices in which her novel is narrated. Alongside Romy, we have chapters narrated by other inmates, by one of Romy's teachers who works in the prison, by the man who used to stalk Romy (which led to the altercation which landed her in prison). We also have excerpts from the diaries of Ted Kaczynski, more commonly known as the Unabomber, which is the element that eludes me the most when I think about how this novel is structured. I think this may have been an attempt to draw parallels to Kaczynski's self-imposed primitive lifestyle and the manufactured and inhumane law and order of the prison system, but Kushner seems to expect her reader to do most of the legwork with this comparison, scattering Kaczynski's diary entries throughout the narrative in a haphazard fashion. The perspective from an unrelated male inmate in a separate prison likewise struck me as superfluous, or else not integrated into the narrative in a way that ever justifies its inclusion.
But mostly I found this to be a very intelligent and quietly thought-provoking read, and though it isn't exactly a pretty book, I wouldn't describe it as gratuitous, either. Kushner elucidates harsh realities and it results in a dismal and disturbing narrative at times, but it's never without compassion for the individuals whose stories she's telling....more
You know those moments when you find an author you think you're going to like, but you chose the wrong book of theirs to start with? That's what happeYou know those moments when you find an author you think you're going to like, but you chose the wrong book of theirs to start with? That's what happened with Warlight. This was not a good book, but I don't think it's over between me and Ondaatje. More on that in a minute.
Warlight was almost unbearably boring. I'm sorry, I know that 'boring' is the kind of pedestrian critique that we try to stay away from while reviewing, but I'm not sure I've ever read a book that felt this utterly pointless. There's no conflict, no character development, no intrigue, no payoff. This book meandered through the narrator's recollections of his youth in post-war London, halting all too briefly on defining moments, claiming to imbue them with weight but never willing to properly examine them in any kind of broader context. The nonlinear chronology could have been used effectively, but it served only to create such a distance between present-day-Nathaniel and past-Nathaniel that the chapters about his childhood lacked any sort of spark or passion or urgency. The one question that Ondaatje never seems interested in answering is why the reader should care about any of it.
The one saving grace for me was the prose. Ondaatje's writing struck me as both elegant and effortless. There is no question that this book is well-written, and I found myself pausing at certain sentences, impressed by their construction and insight:
You return to that earlier time armed with the present, and no matter how dark that world was, you do not leave it unlit. You take your adult self with you. It is not to be a reliving, but a rewitnessing.
But despite these flickers of profundity in the sentence-by-sentence writing, there isn't a whole lot of emotional depth to this novel on the whole. For a novel purportedly about memory and perception and unearthing the truth, far too much remains unexhumed. The whole thing is bizarrely perfunctory and passionless, and there is no doubt in my mind that Warlight's inclusion on the Booker longlist is an homage to Ondaatje's illustrious career more than a reflection of the quality of this particular novel. But, again, I'm willing to read more Ondaatje in the future, as I refuse to believe this is the height of what he's capable of....more
Sabrina is only the second graphic novel I've read in my life (actually I'm realizing as I type this that the other is Fun Home which is actually a grSabrina is only the second graphic novel I've read in my life (actually I'm realizing as I type this that the other is Fun Home which is actually a graphic memoir, so, technically the first graphic novel I've read?), so between me being ridiculously out of my element and the fact that its inclusion on the Man Booker longlist caused quite the stir, I had no idea what to expect from this. And I'm writing my review without having settled on a star rating, so, we'll see what happens with that. I really, really enjoyed this, but I have a few too many nagging criticisms to say that I loved it.
Sabrina doesn't really follow its titular character, as she goes missing by the tenth page; instead it mostly follows Calvin who works for the U.S. Air Force, whose childhood friend Teddy comes to live with him. Teddy is Sabrina's boyfriend, and he's utterly broken up about her disappearance. We then follow an array of characters - Calvin, Teddy, Sabrina's sister - all trying to come to terms with their loss, all while being confronted with wild conspiracy theories about Sabrina's disappearance.
What this book excels at is creating an atmosphere thick with paranoia, in the most terrifying portrait of our modern society that I think I've ever seen in fiction. Littered throughout the background of Sabrina as contemporary set pieces are news articles and internet forums; there's talk of mass shootings, conspiracy theories, fake news. The characters are so inundated to this constant and aggressive stream of tragic news that infiltrates their lives, that the stark contrast of their simply drawn, blank expressions is recognizable and haunting. This probably got under my skin more than anything else I've read recently; this is not a comfortable book on any level.
What I didn't love about Sabrina was that there is just so much going on, and it doesn't all come together in a completely satisfying way. This is one of those books that builds and builds tension, but rather than culminating in a brilliant resolution it kind of just ends. After I put it down I wanted to give it 3 stars as I felt so dissatisfied with the ending, but upon some further reflection I do think this was so effective in achieving what it set out to do that I can't help but to commend it for that.
Now, onto the Booker situation, because we clearly can't end this review without touching on that. My feelings on this have run the gamut from 'graphic novels are a form of novel and therefore should be eligible' to 'how can you compare graphic novels with literary fiction when they're so substantively different and rely on fundamentally disparate storytelling conventions' and you know what, I still don't know where I stand on this. I understand both sides of the argument completely. At this very moment, I think I'm leaning toward the idea that graphic novels shouldn't be eligible - not as a gatekeeping, elitist thing, because I absolutely do think that the merit of graphic novels has been dismissed for far too long; I'm just not sure how you can judge something like this against something like The Overstory. Judging is always going to be inherently subjective, but it really is an apples and oranges situation. And with Sabrina, the only text is in the dialogue and glimpses of emails and articles; there's no prose outside that, which makes its inclusion on a literary award particularly perplexing. But, at any rate, I'm glad I took a chance on this one. Booker or no Booker, I see what the fuss is about....more
Man Booker 2018 WINNER! So well deserved; congrats, Anna Burns!
I loved Milkman, but it's so painfully niche I can't think of anyone I'd personally rMan Booker 2018 WINNER! So well deserved; congrats, Anna Burns!
I loved Milkman, but it's so painfully niche I can't think of anyone I'd personally recommend it to. Set in an unnamed city that's probably Belfast in the 1970s, Milkman follows an unnamed narrator who's believed by her community to be having an affair with a man known only as 'the milkman,' who isn't actually a milkman. Told in stream-of-consciousness prose and set against the backdrop of the Troubles, Milkman doesn't offer much of a plot, but it does provide a perceptive and intelligent look at a community under duress and constant surveillance.
It also starts with these stellar opening lines:
"The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died. He had been shot by one of the state hit squads and I did not care about the shooting of this man. Others did care though, and some were those who, in the parlance, ‘knew me to see but not to speak to’ and I was being talked about because there was a rumour started by them, or more likely by first brother-in-law, that I had been having an affair with this milkman and that I was eighteen and he was forty-one."
But this book is hard work, I will readily admit that. Though I loved the narrator's sharp observational commentary, even I found the narrative style painfully long-winded at times. Paragraphs go on for pages; chapters go on for hours; the kind of concentration it takes to really immerse yourself in this novel can be draining. This is not what anyone would describe as an easy read, and I think it's the kind of book that's going to fall under the category of 'I appreciated it but I didn't like it' for a lot of people.
This line of thought actually made me reflect on what it means to 'like' a book, because I wouldn't describe my reading experience as 'fun,' necessarily, but despite that, I found Milkman incredibly rewarding. Anna Burns deftly crafts a living, breathing community, and paints a portrait of the realities of living in a city torn apart by civil unrest. Rumors and false perceptions dog these characters, and our narrator in particular, who's considered an oddity, a 'beyond-the-pale,' due to the fact that she often reads while walking. In order to fit in in a society like this, every time you leave the house you have to bury a part of yourself, and Milkman incisively and comprehensively examines the toll that takes. I don't know if I've ever read another novel that so expertly evokes the kind of anxiety that comes from the inability to trust your neighbor or even your own family. Characters in this novel operate under a veil of formality that you as a reader want to peel back to reveal their genuine hopes and fears and aspirations, but of course all you're able to do is mutely watch them navigate social situations while unable to truly express themselves. This book can be infuriating because of that, but it's supposed to be. There's also an undeniably feminist undercurrent to the whole thing, as the narrator laments the difficulties unique to women during this time, though it remains a subtle element throughout.
Though it’s ultimately more of a psychological story than a historical one, drawing obvious parallels to any number of totalitarian regimes across history, Milkman does feel firmly rooted in its Northern Irish setting. This is a recognizably Irish novel, from its stream-of-consciousness prose to its pitch-black humor, and there's no question that that played a huge role in my ultimate enjoyment of it, so above all else I think I'd recommend this to anyone who loves Irish lit and Irish history, but who can tolerate a lack of plot and likes their novels a bit on the philosophical side.
Personally, I'll be thrilled if this is shortlisted for the Booker, but I also doubt that likelihood as it's not the kind of novel that's destined to reach a wide audience - not that the Booker necessarily prioritizes accessibility, but I would just find it unlikely if all five judges are in complete agreement about this one's merits enough to advance it. But who knows. This had already been on my radar before the longlist announcement, but I'm very happy that it pushed me to read it sooner than I otherwise would have.
EDIT on 10/15: I changed my mind. I think it's going to win!...more
This book was a weird and offbeat delight. My Year of Rest and Relaxation is exactly what its title advertises - our unnamed narrator decides that allThis book was a weird and offbeat delight. My Year of Rest and Relaxation is exactly what its title advertises - our unnamed narrator decides that all she wants out of life is to sleep for a year straight. But not just 8 hour a night sleep - she wants to pass an entire year mostly unconscious, which she attempts to achieve with the help of a cocktail of pharmaceuticals prescribed by the least qualified psychiatrist of all time who she happened to find in the yellow pages.
I'm having a hard time putting my finger on what it is I liked so much about this book, when the interesting thing about it is that it makes no effort whatsoever to be likable. The narrator is a selfish twenty-something with no sense of responsibility toward anything or anyone in her life. The circumstances of her life are probably difficult for most readers to relate to - she's rich, she's thin, she's pretty, she lives in the Upper East Side in an apartment paid for by her inheritance - and she neither needs nor wants our pity. But at the same time, this candid and frank style has its own kind of charm and dark humor (it reminded me a bit of The Idiot in tone), and I found the overall effect to be both intriguing and a bit unsettling.
And, as with all good unlikable protagonists, there's definitely more to our narrator than she wants us to see. Her (borderline?) abusive relationship with her now dead parents certainly plays into the fact that she holds everyone - including us, including herself - at an arm's length. She resists accessing her emotions to such an extent that at first you wonder if she might actually be heartless, but throughout the book you start to notice certain cracks in her carefully constructed facade. She tells the reader ad nauseum that she doesn't care about her friend Reva, but this statement is occasionally belied by her actions especially under the influence of drugs. It's an interesting look at repression as a coping mechanism, as well as the lengths we're willing to go to to avoid the things we don't want to face.
Ironically, while the narrator's goal is laid out plainly from the first page - she wants to sleep for a year - Moshfegh's agenda with this novel is much more opaque. I will gladly admit to thinking on more than one occasion "I don't get it, I don't get what Moghfegh is trying to achieve with this." Because this book is just what it says on the tin: it's about a girl taking a lot of drugs and sleeping for a year. But even through those moments of doubt, I was engrossed. Moshfegh's prose is effortlessly engaging, and her rather unconventional exploration of mental health and ennui just really struck a chord with me. And the final page is like an emotional gut-punch. Having read this, I have a very good idea of why Ottessa Moshfegh seems to be such a polarizing writer, but if the rest of her books are this intriguing, I'm officially hooked....more
Both concise and disturbing, The Incendiaries may lack the depth needed to tell its story convincingly, but there's something magnetic about it nonethBoth concise and disturbing, The Incendiaries may lack the depth needed to tell its story convincingly, but there's something magnetic about it nonetheless. In only 200 pages it follows Will and Phoebe who meet in college; Will has recently lost his faith in God and latches onto Phoebe as a replacement, while Phoebe blames herself for the recent death of her mother and finds herself drawn into an extremist cult.
The entire story is narrated from the perspective of Will, though chapters supposedly from the point of view of Phoebe and cult leader John Leal are also interspersed. But even through these chapters the reader remains in Will's head, as he imagines the thoughts and actions of these other two characters when their narratives diverge. Unpalatable as it is to read the thoughts of a female character through the eyes of a man, you have to trust that Kwon is employing this technique deliberately, as it does ultimately end up being a type of subversion. As Will attempts to fill in the gaps of Phoebe's story, certain limitations in his perspective become apparent, and his idealistic construction of Phoebe's character feels like a deliberate riff on similar narratives which use this device without the same awareness of it. This isn't handled seamlessly from start to finish, but I mostly appreciated what Kwon was trying to achieve with the perspective angle.
My biggest issue with this book was the way in which Phoebe and Will's characters are both distilled down to a single element (Will's loss of faith, Phoebe's guilt), and John Leal is such a nonentity that he really only exists as a plot device. Kwon is able to accomplish a surprising amount in her examination of grief and faith, but it's necessarily achieved at the expense of multifaceted characters. The writing itself is poetic and energized and I flew through this book, but for me it did fall a bit short of its potential emotional impact. But I think Kwon shows so much promise for a debut writer and I'm very curious to see what she does next....more
I want to make this clear for those of you who get recommendations off me: The Pisces is not my usual kind of book. Anything shelved as both fantasy aI want to make this clear for those of you who get recommendations off me: The Pisces is not my usual kind of book. Anything shelved as both fantasy and romance would ordinarily get an automatic pass from me. But this wonderful review from Hannah piqued my curiosity, so against my better judgment I decided to request it and leave it up to the Netgalley gods to see whether or not I'd read it. I was approved approximately 2 minutes later, so that was that.
Thankfully, The Pisces was pretty incredible, and it just reaffirmed my tendency to occasionally read outside my comfort zone. It's a sort of literary soft erotica story about a woman who falls in love with a merman, but I feel like that description sells it short. Broder's writing is smart and sharp, and her story goes a lot deeper than your average mermaid erotica (or maybe the mermaid erotica genre has hidden depths and I'm just over here showing off my ignorance for underestimating it).
Anyway, a lot of that is down to our protagonist, Lucy. Lucy is 38 years old, has been working on her PhD thesis on Sappho for years and has since become disillusioned with it, and her love life is a disaster. She's also kind of awful. She's not a particularly nice person, and it's hard to root for her - but I still want to, through everything. This is Lucy's journey to accept herself and reconcile her obsession with love with her fear of intimacy, and what could be more human than that? Also, because of Lucy's studies on Sappho, her narration is fused with allusions to Greek mythology and the classics, so I guess this book wasn't 100% outside of my wheelhouse.
And then there's the fantastical element. This was what I was worried about going in, but I ended up loving it. I feel like it's treated by the narrative with a certain amount of self-awareness toward its inherent absurdity, which makes it all the more endearing.
This is not going to be for everyone. Don't read this if you can't stomach graphic sex scenes, or if you don't enjoy reading about unlikable characters, or if you're looking for something with the same sort of whimsical fairytale feel as The Shape of Water. The Pisces is both grittier and funnier, sexier and somehow less romantic. It's both a fun read and an unexpectedly hard-hitting one, and with its absolutely stunning conclusion, I'll probably be thinking about it for days to come.
Thank you to Netgalley, Hogarth Press, and Melissa Broder for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review....more
The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, a historical novel set in 1780s London, follows Jonah Hancock, a merchant who finds himself in possession of a mermaid,The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, a historical novel set in 1780s London, follows Jonah Hancock, a merchant who finds himself in possession of a mermaid, and Angelica Neal, a courtesan whose protector has recently died. Their narratives intersect rather early on, and the novel mostly follows their relationship over a rather meandering 500 pages.
From the very first page, I wanted to love this book. I was struck instantly by Imogen Hermes Gowar's prose, which is some of the best I think I've ever read in a contemporary novel. It's poised, elegant, classical and lyrical all at once, with some of the most evocative setting descriptions I've ever read. Gowar brings the late 1700s to life in a way that I wouldn't dare to minimize as I go on to discuss this novel's flaws.
But I would be remiss not to mention that the pace and plotting were downright maddening. This is one of those books where nothing happens for 450 pages, and then everything happens in the last 50. It's uneven, and for me, it wasn't engaging enough to hold my attention throughout. Characters and their motivations also remained at arm's length, with a questionable third person omniscient point of view which gave absolutely no rhyme or reason for its head hopping, following not only Jonah and Angelica, but a handful of other characters whose narratives were never fully developed. One of these characters in particular was Polly, a black courtesan whose storyline had absolutely no depth or insight or closure or anything remotely satisfying to read.
Again, I don't want to downplay what an accomplishment Gowar's writing is. If your main draw to a novel is rich, gorgeous prose, then I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this. But if you're looking for tight plotting and compelling characters, I can't say that either of those is a real strength of this novel.
Thank you to Harper and Imogen Hermes Gowar for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review....more